Pity the contemporary novelist of a religious bent! Theology, once known as ‘the Queen of the Sciences’, is now at best a minor royal. In the late 1990s, when I told friends that I was writing a contemporary Passion story set in a London parish, which became my novel, Easter, they struggled to conceal their dismay. When I added that the bulk of the narrative took place in religious or quasi-religious services, they largely gave up the struggle. You would have thought that I had been outlining an epic novel about the decline of the wool trade in the reign of King Stephen. Yet Easter became a surprise bestseller and even won a prize, showing that there’s still a hunger for fiction about faith.
From the semi-divine Gilgamesh and his search for immortality, through the Homeric tales of the complex – often compromised – relationships between humankind and the gods, to the ancient Judean attempt to create a mythology of monotheism, such fiction is the foundation of our literary culture.
Equally fundamental has been the link between the characters’ divine aspirations and carnal appetites. Having been attacked in some quarters for exploring the connection between spirituality and sexuality (specifically, homosexuality) in several novels, I am heartened to find it present in what is commonly described as the world’s first great work of literature. The relationship of Gilgamesh and his bosom companion, the hairy man, Enkidu, has the same erotic intensity as that of David and Jonathan in the Book of Samuel. Before they meet, Gilgamesh is told of Enkidu: ‘You will love him as a wife, you will dote on him.’ At that meeting, they engage in an epic wrestling bout that prefigures the sublimated passion of Gerald and Birkin in Women in Love. The depth of Gilgamesh’s grief at Enkidu’s death again recalls that of David for Jonathan:
‘My beloved friend is dead, he is dead.
My beloved brother is dead, I will mourn
as long as I breathe. I will sob for him
like a woman who has lost her only child.’
Losing Enkidu is what starts him on his sacred quest.
In the four thousand or so years since the earliest versions of Gilgamesh were recorded, religion, in its broadest sense, has been the dominant theme of world literature, ranging from the eschatological vision of Dante and paradisiacal vision of Milton to the devotional journey of Bunyan and spiritual agonising of Dostoevsky. In the twentieth century, notwithstanding the fervid Catholicism of Greene and Waugh and more temperate Anglicanism of Eliot and Auden, religious themes have arguably been most influential when embedded in the mythical worlds of Tolkien and C. S. Lewis and, even, through his reworking of Milton, in that of Philip Pullman.
Had I to choose the work of one religious novelist to take on a desert island (or, more realistically, on a spiritual retreat), it would be that of Fyodor Dostoevsky, whose mind was suffused with biblical imagery from earliest childhood and whose four years in a Siberian prison camp were relieved by his reading of the Gospels, the only book permitted to him. Even in translation, his prose lacks the elegance of his contemporaries, Tolstoy and Turgenev, which is unsurprising when his workload makes Dickens look like a slouch, but Crime and Punishment, which unites the Old Testament commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ and the New Testament emphasis on the individual conscience, and The Idiot, in which a contemporary Christ figure is plunged into a world unworthy of him, are undoubted masterpieces. Greatest of all is The Brothers Karamazov, which opposes the religious views of the monk, Alyosha (another Christ figure), and the sceptic, Ivan, and, as if to affirm that the Devil has all the best tunes, provides in Ivan’s parable of ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ an unparalleled critique of the Church for having abandoned the faith of its founder.
Nothing in our native fiction comes near to matching Dostoevsky’s intensity. In the great novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, religion was primarily represented through its professional exponents. From Sterne’s Parson Yorick, Fielding’s Parson Adams and Goldsmith’s Dr Primrose, through Eliot’s Rectors Casaubon and Cadwallader, to Trollope’s Reverend Harding and Bishop Proudie, the English novel abounded in portraits of clerical life. This of course reflected their prominence in society at large. When Jane Austen declared that ‘three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on’, it was inconceivable that she should not have a Mr Elton lurking in the background.
Although fictional explorations of religious life have fallen out of favour in recent years, the retelling of biblical stories has flourished
Such portraits were essentially comic, a tradition maintained in recent years by Barbara Pym, whose bittersweet novels focus on high Anglican churchgoers, especially the excellent women, who furnish the title of one of her finest novels, and also of Catherine Fox, who created a modern equivalent of Barchester in the Middle England diocese of Lindchester. The gulf between principle and practice is, as ever, a potent source of humour, and nowhere is that gulf more evident than in the Church.
Most modern depictions of clerics are, however, deeply serious, as befits a group who find themselves in frequent crisis: Anglicans racked by doctrinal disputes and an increasing sense of pointlessness and powerlessness, Catholics by the plethora of abuse scandals and the merciless demands of celibacy. As Graham Greene’s whisky priests have shown, a dog collar may not be an essential accessory for a spiritual crisis, but the stakes are that much higher when faith is at the heart of one’s professional life. So, Andrew O’Hagan’s Be Near Me, Jonathan Tulloch’s Give Us This Day and Patrick Gale’s A Perfectly Good Man paint compelling portraits of the spiritual and emotional travails of contemporary priests. Most powerful of all is Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, in which John Ames, a small-town congregationalist pastor, writes letters to the young son of his old age, recording his family’s troubled past and its relationship to the nation’s history, but, above all, addressing the vexed question of how to live by one’s faith.
Although fictional explorations of religious life have fallen out of favour in recent years, the retelling of biblical stories has flourished. Allan Massie’s David, Jenny Diski’s Only Human and Howard Jacobson’s The Very Model of A Man have powerfully retold Old Testament myths; C. K. Stead’s My Name was Judas and Niall Williams’s John have revisited the lives of two of the disciples; and Jose Saramago, Norman Mailer, Philip Pullman and Anne Rice have explored the life of Christ himself. Meanwhile, the American novelist, Ellen Gunderson Traylor has become the Jean Plaidy of biblical fiction with books about, inter alia, Abraham, Noah, Ruth, Joshua, Esther, Joseph, Judah, Samson, Mark and Mary Magdalene.
Some of the richest twentieth-century novels about faith emerged from the Jewish tradition. Joseph Roth’s Job is a matchless translation of a biblical story to a contemporary setting, in which Mendel Singer, a poor Galician schoolteacher, endures the trials of his Old Testament counterpart both in his homeland and after emigrating to New York. In a series of books, notably The Chosen and The Promise, Chaim Potok explored emotional and doctrinal conflicts within the American Chasidic community. Potok wrote as an insider (albeit one who claimed that his major literary influence was Brideshead Revisited). When I myself came to write about an English Chasidic community in The Enemy of the Good, I was dependent on the generosity of informants. While trusting that my portrait of their lives was an honest one, I was acutely aware that there were aspects of the novel to which they might object. On mentioning this, I was told not to worry since they’d never waste time reading a novel; the only books worth their attention were the Bible and its commentaries.
In The Enemy of the Good, I explored the conflict between individual conscience and scriptural tradition in the world’s three great Abrahamic faiths. It is a conflict that in recent years has moved to the forefront of the political arena, with the world increasingly polarised on religious lines. Yet even state-of-the-nation novelists respond with little more than cursory portraits of fanatical Islamists. Indeed, just as J. G. Ballard despaired in the 1960s of novelists who were content to write about marriage and adultery, seemingly oblivious to the technological changes taking place all around them, so I lament the lack of novelists willing to tackle the increasingly violent struggle between liberalism and fundamentalism, which stands, along with global warming and the depletion of natural resources, as one of the three great threats currently facing us.
Moreover, unlike the other two, it is a threat that is itself defined by literature. Whether it be the Jewish settlers on the West Bank, who claim that God gave Abraham ‘all the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession’, or the Islamist terrorists, who believe that the angelic dictation of the Qur’an justifies the murder of infidels – or for that matter the Baptists in America who hold that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah licenses them to picket the funerals of gay men – the issue is the same. Novelists who know how books are written, changed, translated, edited and distorted are in a unique position to counter this pernicious process. Their work can both contribute to and validate the pluralism that is the only defence against fundamentalism’s increasing stranglehold.
Over twenty-five years, I’ve written on a variety of subjects. Like my colleagues, I’d like to be regarded as a novelist for all seasons, but there can be no question that my dominant theme has been religion, which is central to five of my ten novels: The Celibate, which focuses on the spiritual and sexual struggle of a young ordinand; Easter, which explores the battle between liberalism and literalism within the Church of England; The Enemy of the Good, which extends that exploration into other faiths; Jubilate, which examines the nature of human and divine love and the existence of miracles during a pilgrimage to Lourdes; and The Breath of Night, which depicts a parish priest in the Philippines trying to live the truth of the Gospels during the Marcos tyranny.
There are many reasons for my choice of subject, but a primary one is that it is through their faith – or lack of it – that I feel best able to reach the hearts of my characters: their sense of themselves, their relationships, and the basis on which they make their life choices. Another is that it is a uniquely effective way to examine the wider world. While many novelists long to return to the nineteenth-century tradition of comprehensive social portraiture, in today’s fragmented Britain it is well-nigh impossible to do so without an overreliance on either coincidence or metaphor. In writing about the Church in Easter, I discovered an alternative. Nowhere else do such disparate classes and racial and social groups stand (and sit and kneel) side by side. My own fictitious parish of St Mary-in-the-Vale contains a diverse collection of people, from old established families to recent immigrants, from rich tycoons to council house tenants, and, by extension, from the Queen distributing Maundy money in Westminster Abbey to a vagrant seeking shelter in the porch.
It is through their faith – or lack of it – that I feel best able to reach the hearts of my characters: their sense of themselves, their relationships, and the basis on which they make their life choices
However irrelevant religion may appear to many people, it remains a potent force in our national life. Judeo-Christian tradition has shaped our political, legal and, to a large extent, domestic institutions. Cranmer’s prayer book has played a greater part in framing our language than any other single source, including Shakespeare. Even the most diehard secularist would find himself hard-pressed to expunge religious idioms from his speech. And, while its influence may have declined in western Europe, elsewhere religion dominates and dictates peoples’ lives. In the Philippines, the Church wields enormous political power and moral authority, and it’s only by exploring its faith that the true nature of the society can be revealed.
In my new novel I extend my exploration of faith back through history, charting the creation and evolution of one of the most potent of all Biblical myths, which still has a profound influence on contemporary attitudes: God’s vengeance on the wicked city of Sodom. At the opening of the novel, the Archangel Gabriel, who, according to tradition, carried out the destruction on God’s behalf, describes its consequences: ‘The ease with which I effect it – shattering the rock on which the sinful city stands with a single finger – is in inverse proportion to the devastation caused, the repercussions of which are still being felt by those trapped beneath the rubble.’ Over the ensuing centuries, the myth has provided the pretext for homophobia in Judaism and Christianity and, through its retelling in the Qur’an, Islam.
The novel opens in ancient Babylon, where a young Jewish scribe has been given the task of translating the stories of Abraham and Lot for King Nebuchadnezzar. He discovers an ancient scroll that presents a version of the story of Sodom, in which the Sodomites are not would-be rapists but devotees of a Canaanite cult. Then, as the narrative unfolds, he is forced to discard it in favour of the version that has become canonical. Subsequent episodes examine the myth’s effect in four momentous times and places: the Guild of Salters presents a pageant of Lot’s wife in medieval York; Botticelli paints panels of the story of Lot for a court in Savonarola’s Florence; a bereaved rector seeks out the ruins of Sodom on the shore of the Dead Sea in nineteenth-century Palestine; a closeted gay movie star plays Lot in a biblical epic at the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.
Goethe, in an axiom that I took as the epigraph for Jubilate (novelists, like everyone else, like to wrap themselves in great men’s clothing), declared that ‘the conflict of faith and scepticism remains the proper, the only, the deepest theme of the history of the world and mankind to which all others are subordinate’. Whether or not one agrees with his absolutism, it remains a rich and hugely rewarding seam of experience to explore.