The American Christian novelist faces a peculiar dilemma today. (I speak, of course, of a dilemma of the times and not of his own personal malaise, neuroses, failures, to which he is at least as subject as his good heathen colleagues, sometimes I think more so.) His dilemma is that though he professes a belief which he holds saves himself and the world and nourishes his art besides, it is also true that Christendom seems in some sense to have failed. Its vocabulary is worn out. This twin failure raises problems for a man who is a Christian and whose trade is with words. The old words of grace are worn smooth as poker chips and a certain devaluation has occurred, like a poker chip after it is cashed in. Even if one talks only of Christendom, leaving the heathens out of it, of Christendom where everybody is a believer, it almost seems that when everybody believes in God, it is as if everybody started the game with one poker chip, which is the same as starting with none.
The Christian novelist nowadays is like a man who has found a treasure hidden in the attic of an old house, but he is writing for people who have moved out to the suburbs and who are bloody sick of the old house and everything in it.
The Christian novelist is like a starving Confederate soldier who finds a hundred-dollar bill on the streets of Atlanta, only to discover that everyone is a millionaire and the grocers won’t take the money.
The Christian novelist is like a man who goes to a wild lonely place to discover the truth within himself and there after much ordeal and suffering meets an apostle who has the authority to tell him a great piece of news and so tells him the news with authority. He, the novelist, believes the news and runs back to the city to tell his countrymen, only to discover that the news has already been broadcast, that this news is in fact the weariest canned spot announcement on radio-1V, more commonplace than the Exxon commercial, that in fact he might just as well be shouting Exxon! Exxon! for all anyone pays any attention to him.
The Christian novelist is like a man who finds a treasure buried in a field and sells all he has to buy the field, only to discover that everyone else has the same treasure in his field and that in any case real estate values have gone so high that all field-owners have forgotten the treasure and plan to subdivide.
There is besides the devaluation of its vocabulary the egregious moral failure of Christendom. It is significant that the failure of Christendom in the United States has not occurred in the sector of theology or metaphysics, with which the existentialists and new theologians are also concerned and toward which Americans have always been indifferent, but rather in the sector of everyday morality, which has acutely concerned Americans since the Puritans. Americans take pride in doing right. It is not chauvinistic to suppose that perhaps they have done righter than any other great power in history. But in the one place, the place which hurts the most and where charity was most needed, they have not done right. White Americans have sinned against the Negro from the beginning and continue to do so, initially with cruelty and presently with an indifference which may be even more destructive. And it is the churches which, far from fighting the good fight against man’s native inhumanity to man, have sanctified and perpetuated this indifference.
To the eschatological novelist it even begins to look as if this single failing may be the tragic flaw in the noblest of political organisms. At least he conceives it as his duty to tell his countrymen how they can die of it, so that they will not.
What is the task of the Christian novelist who mirrors in himself the society he sees around him-who otherwise would not be a novelist-whose only difference from his countrymen is that he has the vocation to be a novelist? How does he set about writing, having cast his lot with a discredited Christendom and having inherited a defunct vocabulary?
He does the only thing he can do. Like Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, he calls on every ounce of cunning, craft, and guile he can muster from the darker regions of his soul. The fictional use of violence, shock, comedy, insult, the bizarre, are the everyday tools of his trade. How could it be otherwise? How can one possibly write of baptism as an event of immense significance when baptism is already accepted but accepted by and large as a minor tribal rite somewhat secondary in importance to taking the kids to see Santa at the department store? Flannery O’Connor conveyed baptism through its exaggeration, in one novel as a violent death by drowning. In answer to a question about why she created such bizarre characters, she replied that for the near-blind you have to draw very large, simple caricatures.
So too may it be useful to write a novel about the end of the world. Perhaps it is only through the conjuring up of catastrophe, the destruction of all Exxon signs, and the sprouting of vines in the church pews, that the novelist can make vicarious use of catastrophe in order that he and his reader may come to themselves. Whether or not the catastrophe actually befalls us, or is deserved – whether reconciliation and renewal may yet take place-is not for the novelist to say.