Essays on Faith and Fiction
Ron Hansen
HarperCollins, 288 pages, $25

Once upon a time, evangelicals were suspicious of fiction. Novels encouraged lust and violence, corrupted young women, and wasted the time that believers were supposed to be redeeming. Too much novel-reading produced adolescent rebellion, prostitution, homosexuality, and (according to one 18th-century Bishop of London) earthquakes.

Evangelicals seem to have gotten over these misgivings. Most are as immersed in stories as the rest of the culture. We may (possibly) avoid bodice-rippers and Hannibal Lecter, but we consume John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Mary Higgins Clark, Jan Karon, and George Lucas without visible guilt. The only people who still feel obligated to defend storytelling as a viable Christian activity seem to be the storytellers themselves.

When he wrote the essays in A Stay Against Confusion, Catholic novelist Ron Hansen had published four novels, but only the last two dealt directly with matters of faith. In A Stay Against Confusion, Hansen sets out to vindicate himself. These essays reveal Hansen as a devout believer, a well-informed lay theologian, a perceptive critic, and a gifted storyteller who apparently feels a deep ambivalence about his "secular" works.

In the book's introductory essay, "Writing as Sacrament," Hansen explains that his first novel, Desperadoes, didn't really reflect his religious experience. It was just a "boys-will-be-boys adventure full of hijinks and humor and bloodshed." But his second western, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, illustrated "a Christian perspective on sin and redemption and forgiveness."

Unfortunately, readers didn't seem to pick up its Christian themes. This bothered Hansen considerably: "I was frustrated that my fiction did not more fully communicate a belief in Jesus as Lord that was so important, indeed central, to my life."

So Hansen changed topics. His next two novels, Mariette in Ecstasy (a 17-year-old postulant receives the stigmata) and Atticus (a father goes in search of a prodigal son) became more explicitly "religious." According to "Writing as Sacrament," Mariette is the portrait of "a faith that gives an intellectual assent to Catholic orthodoxy, but doesn't forget that the origin of religious feeling is the graced revelation of the Holy Being to us in nature, in the flesh, and in all our faculties." And Atticus is "a parable of God's continuing quest for an intimate relationship with us."

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Sacramental Writing

Is Ron Hansen happy now (or as happy as it's possible for a writer to be)? Not particularly. The story of his career as Christian writer seems to follow a clear upward path, from lighthearted Western to religious parable. But his defense of the writer's vocation contradicts this personal narrative. His essays on the art of fiction repeat, again and again, that fiction can clearly demonstrate faith without being explicitly "Christian" to do so. The Christian writer detects rules and patterns that govern the apparent shapelessness of the world; the Christian writer shows that chaos isn't really chaotic, but rather is part of a larger, divine plan.

Fiction, Hansen writes, "holds up to the light, fathoms, simplifies, and refines those existential truths that, without such interpretation, seem all too secret, partial, and exclusive." Good writing, even if it doesn't deal explicitly with religious truth, is a "sacrament" because it makes the invisible grace of God visible by placing it in the real world.

Hansen's general principles are given flesh in his critical essays "Babette's Feast" and "Leo Tolstoy's 'Master and Man.'" Both stories clearly qualify as "sacramental" writing. Babette's Feast isn't a "religious movie," but in Hansen's capable hands it demonstrates "the Christian recognition of God's graciousness for which thanksgiving is offered in our eucharistic celebrations." And Tolstoy's short, apparently secular story "Master and Man" is shown to be a powerful illustration of the gospel message. (A Stay Against Confusion would be a stronger book if the essays were all related to Hansen's main preoccupation; of the 14 short pieces in the book, only six treat the subject of faith and storytelling. The rest cover a miscellany of topics ranging from John Gardner to the murders of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador.)

Having made his point (writers don't have to make explicit reference to Christian theology in order to fulfill their vocations), Hansen goes further. He writes, with the air of a man who's getting ready to climb out onto a very thin limb, "In fact, there may be no obligation for a Christian writer or artist to overtly treat Christian themes."

Apparently uncomfortable even with this qualified statement, Hansen keeps explaining what he means by Christian fiction: "Faith-inspired fiction has a fondness for humanity" and "is ever aware that we are on holy ground." Faith-inspired fiction "squarely faces the imponderables of life," is "instinctive rather than conformist, intuitive rather than calculated; it features vital characters rather than comforting types, offers freedom and anomaly rather than foregone conclusions, invites thoughtfulness not through rational argument, but through asking the right questions."

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This doesn't make the issue much clearer for the reader, and it doesn't seem to work for Hansen either. He finally declares, "I hesitate to say more, for fiction is far better experienced than interpreted. And so it is with sacraments. To fully understand a symbol is to kill it."

In the end, the essays in A Stay Against Confusion don't answer the questions Hansen raises. If a Christian writes a Western full of hijinks, humor, and bloodshed, is he fulfilling his vocation as a Christian writer? What if the Western includes themes of sin and redemption? What if the themes are there but no one recognizes them? Should we all be writing religious parables instead?

Hansen's fiction ("far better experienced than interpreted") gives a more satisfying answer to these questions. Atticus is most certainly a Christian novel with strong allegorical elements (a father, a garden, a son who was dead and then alive).

But Hansen's most recent novel, written after the essays in A Stay Against Confusion, doesn't carry on this high vein of parable. Hitler's Niece is neither hijinks nor religious allegory. The novel tells the story of Hitler's alleged affair with his niece, whom he finally murders when she is 23. But Hitler's Niece is only partially about the historical monster Hitler. It is also about the sheer ugliness of evil—its banality, its self-absorption, and its weakness. Hansen's novel never tempts us to worship or esteem sin. Unlike the antiheroes of Fight Club or Any Given Sunday, the evildoer of Hitler's Niece is ultimately pathetic:

. … a screeching, hysterical, stooped, and prematurely senile old man. … whose skin was sallow, whose hair had turned suddenly grey, whose hands trembled, who stank, who shuddered. … The front of his brown uniform jacket was stained with soup and mustard. Spittle was often on his lips and he drooled or whistled through his false teeth when he talked. Imaginary armies ignored his commands; treachery was everywhere; his dearest friends had failed and undermined him.

Like Atticus, Hitler's Niece is the work of a Christian writer faithfully fulfilling his vocation—in this case, accurately chronicling judgment rather than grace. But here Hansen shows that he has moved back away from the religious parable, toward the kind of fiction he seemed to be struggling to describe in A Stay Against Confusion. Perhaps the essays helped him discover a new way of setting his faith at the center of his stories. And now that the essays have been published, perhaps Hansen can get back to work on his next novel. There are plenty of essayists in the world, but a good storyteller is a rare commodity.

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Susan Wise Bauer is author of Through the Darkness Hide Thee and The Revolt.

Related Elsewhere:

Ron Hansen's A Stay Against Confusion, Mariette in Ecstasy, Atticus, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and Desperados are available at Amazon.com.

A collection of Hansen's short stories, Nebraska: Stories, is also available at Amazon.com along with a few sample pages.

The Nebraska Center for Writers has an online compilation of what critics have said about Hansen's works, including A Stay Against Confusion.

Susan Wise Bauer's Though the Darkness Hide Thee and The Revolt are available at Christianbook.com.

Last year, she wrote in Christianity Today that Christian fiction "isn't what it used to be."

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