WESTERN CONFERENCE ON CHRISTIANITY AND LITERATURE
I'm in Seattle for a CCL meeting. This conference is entitled "Belief and Unbelief in Postmodern Literature." Here is a report on the second round of papers I attended.
Philemon Roh on Flannery O'Connor & Mary McCarthy
McCarthy & O'Connor met and famously disagreed on the Eucharist. O'Connor: “If it's a symbol, to hell with it.” Fundamental difference. In spite, or because of, the presence of doubt, McCarthy becomes O'Connor's figure of a believer. The Misfit understands belief more than the Grandmother. Belief is upheld by strong unbelief throughout O'Connor's fiction. True belief is not just in religious practices; it is in the recognition of sin and the need for redemption.
McCarthy uses unstable metafiction as she renounces faith. Her apostasy comes from her inability to perform. Horrified by outward pretense. She is like Hazel Motes in O'Connor's fiction. Yet tries to keep outward goodness. Stages a public renunciation of her faith—then becomes popular. Attention-seeking changes to real loss of faith. Goes through a farce of re-conversion. This performance restores order.
Hazel Motes wants to live apart from the necessity of redemption. He is an active disbeliever, but still a seeker. Outward performance vs. inward horror (like McCarthy). Doubts the object of belief, but not belief itself. Wants to be converted to nothing, instead of to evil.
Family history is a haunting reminder of belief. Active disbelief leads him into ministry. McCarthy's heritage has a plurality of religious belief.
Visible practices function as claustrophobic enclosures. Caught in a coffin, or a convent.
Education introduced a conflict, esp. history.
Veiled behind metafiction, McCarthy reveals she still believes deeply. She and Hazel possess a conception of true faith. Hazel's repudiation of God was an admission of God's mystery. Mary's multiple repudiations are testifying to God's mystery. Rebellion against the form of religion manipulated by the masses. Moves from a top-down, doctrinal religion, to a bottom-up, mystical belief. A belief in meaninglessness. Establishing a Church without Christ.
David Dickinson on “Atheistic Sermons in Fiction”
Trollope said that the language of sermons should not be demeaned by being included in novels—but sermons are included in many works of fiction. Fictional preachers in Iris Murdock, A.S. Byatt, and John Updike do preach and/or imagine atheistic sermons. These are not in the new atheistic camp, but within atheological genre. They are rooted in (a)theology. Deus absconditus, apophatic, born out of a struggle with faith.
The Time of the Angels by Iris Murdock. Nietzschean in mood. Says theology is an attempt to tame the feral. Without God, goodness is impossible. The character's view parody Murdock's own; they are her views gone wrong. Murdock welcome the “demythologization” of religion. She argued that an unselfish religious life is only possible without belief in God.
Four novels by A.S. Byatt. 3 [potentially] atheistic preachers. Preaching is mere words. Prayer to an absentee God. Almost meaningful, but in the end, a game with language. God has now gone away.
A Month of Sundays by John Updike. A journal of written sermons.
Fiction bears supernatural power; readers have to take a leap of faith to unleash its secular magic. Fiction is the new religion. Rushdie says both need narrative; fiction hosts quarrels among many languages, while religion seeks to privilege one language. Fiction is thus dialogic. But religion is not as univocal as Rushdie assume. It uses poetic and metaphoric language. None of these atheistic preachers actually preach atheistic-sermons. They host multiple theologies. Apophatic, incarnational death-of-god, and philosophical (a)theology. Relate to contemporary readers. God is always more than what He is said to be. Belief and unbelief is less choosing between stances, then tracing a trajectory and finding one's place.
Thomas Cooksey on Freud & Johnson & St. Germain
Freud: Religion is a shift from private fantasy to public delusion. Grow up, he thought. Psychoanalysis is not metaphysics. Two contemporary plays take up psychoanalysis: Hysteria by Terry Johnson and Freud's Last Session by Mark St. Germain.
In Hysteria, Freud meets Dali. Surrealist. Both plays foreground Moses and Monotheism and Jokes and their Relation to the Subconscious. Both draw on the joke as unintended discovery, and on the role of the third person in the tendentious joke. Freud's lack of humour is significant. Surprising discoveries. Both open the possibility of God in jokes, fear, and silence.
Excellent reading of one joke as metonym for the whole play. A dying atheist, who is an insurance agent, calls the local pastor to his deathbed. They argue all night. In the morning, the pastor leaves, and the insurance agent dies. He's still an atheist, but the pastor is full insured.
Freud is the dying atheist; Lewis is fully insured.