The Novel is a Christian Art Form

I came across the following in an interview titled “Faith Fired by Literature” hosted by

Krista Tippett (interviewer): What did he [Walker Percy] mean when he wrote, “There is a special kinship between the novel as an art form and Christianity as an ethos, Catholicism in particular?”

Paul Elie:  What he meant is that the novel as a form is distinguished from other forms in the broad sense,– like a play or an epic poem– in that it deals with narrative events in the lives of ordinary people.  There are exceptions to this, but in the main, if you looked at the history of the novel over two hundred fifty years, that would be true.  With the novel, the ordinary person comes on stage.

Well, theologically, the coming of Christ is the entry of God into the life of an ordinary person.  Jesus was just an ordinary man in first-century Palestine, walking the earth like the rest of us, having problems, encountering opposition, dying a violent death.  So in this sense, Christianity is seen as sanctifying and directing us to ordinary lives as the place where the divine is to be found , and so you can see the parallel between that and the novel, which looks for meaning in precisely the same place.

Amen.  I would, of course, take issue with the notion that this understanding is the property of Roman Catholicism in particular, and on two grounds.

First, if you’re any kind of Christian at all, you believe that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  This belief, affirmed from the earliest days of the ancient church and expressed one way or another in the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Definition of Chalcedon, is the common property of small-c-catholic Christianity — the whole of the Christian church.  It is one of our great grounds of unity, and far too little is made of it.

Second, recovering the doctrine of vocation — the belief that God calls the farmer to his field as surely as He calls the missionary to his — was one of the great victories of the Protestant Reformation.  In the west, the medieval church had largely lost this truth, and its recovery was one of the centerpieces of the Reformation, now sadly neglected in much of the church.  But it is our property nonetheless, and this dignifies all the “mundane” details of imaging God through dominion over the earth.  Our fulfillment as human beings is found there, being human as God called us to be, or it is not to be found at all.

So in the one case, the truth which makes the novel a peculiarly Christian form is common to all Christianity, and in the other the truth is represented most strongly not in the Roman, but in the old Protestant, tradition.

I say “old Protestant” tradition because the modern Protestant has lost it again.  We talk blithely of “full-time Christian work” as if that phrase meant something more than “sanctified living” — because to us it does.  We regularly follow this up with a pro forma qualification — “of course we’re all supposed to be ‘full-time Christians,'” we’ll say, “but you know what I mean.”

And we all do.  What an indictment!

“Full-time Christian work” means you leave off directly taking part in the dominion of the earth for talking to people about God.  It means imaging God with your mouth rather than your hands.  It means you’ve entered the Christian ‘chattering class.’

In its common usage then, the phrase “full-time Christian work” is the wheezing gasp of an ecclesiology that desperately needs to be put out of our misery.  In biblical ecclesiology, the Church is not just a club or a religious group among other religious groups.  It is nothing less than the new humanity — man-in-risen-Christ rather than man-in-fallen-Adam.  And everything that man-in-risen-Christ lawfully does is charged with meaning: it is the image of God in the world.

Hence the modern novel, the tale of ordinary people doing ordinary things — meaningfully.


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