'God Stuff': Rhidian Brook on Faith in Fiction
'The imagination that allows a reader to believe in the world of a novel is the same imagination exercised in the believing (or not) of the divine.'
As he presents his latest novel The Killing of Butterfly Joe, author Rhidian Brook considers the changing relationship between literature and religious ideology and asks the question: when it comes to discussing issues of personal belief, has fiction lost its faith?
A few years back, a publisher asked me what I was writing. I told them it was a novel based on my experiences selling butterflies in glass cases in America and they seemed curious; but when I mentioned that my main character was an American who believed in God but who had little time for religion, they hesitated. Is it going to be a religious book? ‘No. Not really,’ I said. ‘My character is just reacting to the religiosity of his culture whilst holding on to a faith. And that gets him into trouble.’ The conversation moved on to other things but it left me unsettled. The unspoken implication was ‘we don’t do God.’ This prejudice was not new in my experience. Ten years before, after writing two novels - The Testimony of Taliesin Jones and Jesus and the Adman - that were explicit explorations of the God question, a journalist suggested that I would be a more successful novelist if I stayed away from religion. ‘People just aren’t interested in the ‘God stuff.’ Perhaps they were right. My third novel – The Aftermath – didn’t explore faith in the same way (although I would argue that forgiveness, justice, reconciliation are all faith concerns) and it sold far more than the previous works.
It wasn’t always like this. Many of my favourite novels – Brothers Karamazov, The Outsider, Strait is the Gate, The Power and the Glory, War and Peace, bring issues of doubt and belief dramatically to life in characters such as Pierre, Mersault and Alysoha. Of course, back then (the 19th and early 20th centuries) there was no fear of, or literary shame in, addressing what are sometimes called the First Order questions - does life have meaning, is there life after death, is evil a reality, is there a God? But that’s changed. In part because the culture has reached a rough consensus that these questions have been settled (by science, psychology and philosophy) and that answer to all of them is ‘no.’ Instead, authors look to the nature of the self, to identity, the search for personal freedom rather than to any interaction with a divine intelligence. Redemption, if it exists, is something a person has to find for themselves, without the help of outside agency. The mysterious is not to be trusted. Reality is what can be seen and measured. This life may be a wonder, but it is a random and pointless one and there is no One to thank for it.
Of course, there are writers today who aren’t afraid to go ‘there’. The latest Booker winner Lincoln In The Bardo is a wonderfully imaginative riff on grief, death, the afterlife, and the interaction of a spirit world with this one. But reading it reminded me how rare such subject matter is. It is interesting that George Saunders sets his tale 150 years ago, at a time when characters (albeit dead ones) might more plausibly discuss such things. But usually when faith or religion is depicted in fiction, it is extreme and negative: the overbearing religious parent (Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit); the abusive religious leader (The Poisonwood Bible), the dystopian theocracy (A Handmaids Tale). It is rare to find faith depicted as a good, as a creative, attractive thing; rarer still to see it portrayed as the everyday ‘reality’ that it actually is for millions of people (albeit millions who don’t write or even read books).
Maybe it is a category error to think of the ‘God stuff’ as being simply about religious things. Faith encompasses the whole of life – good and bad; joy and suffering; it connects with humanity’s ultimate concerns. It also needs imagination to have any meaning. Like fiction it can’t survive without metaphor, symbol or story. The imagination that allows a reader to believe in the world of a novel is the same imagination exercised in the believing (or not) of the divine. Faith without imagination becomes dry, legalistic, humourless. Fundamentalism is afraid of imagination because it is easier to follow rules and believe in certainties than in grace and life’s ambiguities; but the fundamentalists do not speak for the majority of people of faith that I have met. The eponymous hero of The Killing of Butterfly Joe has a simple faith but he shows Llew (the casually atheistic narrator of the novel) that it is possible to be brilliant, intelligent, engaged and funny whilst believing in a created order, the efficacy of prayer, the possibility of God. Reality is not just about what can be quantified. I think writers instinctively know this and indeed rely on it. As Shakespeare puts it: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, that are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ Ultimately, a novel (whether written by a person of faith or none) requires and tries to justify the assent of the reader, asking them to believe in its possibility and reality. And if a writer succeeds in doing that they have achieved a small miracle.