Fresh Caught Fish II: Top 10 Living Religious Novelists

Beauty Will Save the World needs a new title to reflect the contribution it makes to present debates. I suggest Beauty is Saving the World.

Beauty Will Save the World needs a new title to reflect the contribution it makes avant la lettre to recent debates. I suggest Beauty is Saving the World!

Paul Elie says all the great novelists are dead.  But he’s dead wrong!

I’ve recently discovered that Randy Boyagoda resurrected Elie’s argument in the latest issue of First Things here. He starts out by venting:

“I’m sick of Flannery O’Connor. I’m also sick of Walker Percy, G. K. Chesterton, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Dostoevsky. Actually, I’m sick of hearing about them from religiously minded readers. These tend to be the only authors that come up when I ask them what they read for literature.”

[Below: Noah Baumbach tackles nostalgia overload.]

Even though Boyagoda is tired of those consumed with nostalgia for a literary Golden age he ends up conceding their point by agreeing with Elie. He even takes Elie one step further by going into a quasi-sociological analysis that culminates with David Shields as the master-theorist of decline. In a nutshell, Boyagoda’s argument is built around these assumptions:

“As welcome as Elie’s effort was as a conversation starter, he failed to answer some important questions, even while he candidly admits to be wrestling with them as he works on a novel of his own: Primarily, what constitutes ‘belief’ or ‘faith’ in literary terms, and how are we to evaluate the representation aesthetically, morally,theologically? [Interestingly enough Boyagoda does not answer this question!]… Nevertheless, Elie’s main point holds. Despite various idiosyncratic and veiled representations of religious experience in recent American fiction—in the works of Robinson, and also, with more qualifications, in the works of Toni Morrison [I object, see below], Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, David Foster Wallace, and others—most great contemporary writers don’t bother to engage the wholeness of experience for the great majority of readers.”

I’ll spare you a summary of the Shields part of the argument, but you can explore it in the link to Boyagoda’s essay above, or you can take a look at what Shields has to say in Reality Hunger.

Why a Richard John Neuhaus scholar would take the part of Shields over George Steiner is beyond me. Neuhaus never grew tired of singing the praises of Steiner. The great literary critic decisively argued that not only literature, but all of human reality, is dependent upon a Christian sacramental imagination. Let’s hope Boyagoda will not forget passages such as this one from Neuhaus while completing his RJN biography:

“In Grammars of Creation, more than in his 1989 book Real Presences, Steiner acknowledges that his argument rests on inescapably Christian foundations. In fact, he has in the past sometimes written in a strongly anti-Christian vein, while the present book reflects the influence of, among others, Miri Rubin, whose Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture is credited in a footnote. Steiner asserts that, after the Platonisms and Gnosticisms of late antiquity, it is the doctrines of incarnation and transubstantiation that mark ‘the disciplining of Western syntax and conceptualization’ in philosophy and art. ‘Every heading met with in a study of ‘creation,’ every nuance of analytic and figural discourse,’ he says, derives from incarnation and transubstantiation, ‘concepts utterly alien to either Judaic or Hellenic perspectives—though they did, in a sense, arise from the collisions and commerce between both.'”

"It proposes that any coherent understanding of what language is and how language performs, that any coherent account of the capacity of human speech to communicate meaning and feeling is, in the final analysis, underwritten by the assumption of God's presence," says Steiner in Real Presences.

“Any coherent understanding of what language is and how language performs, that any coherent account of the capacity of human speech to communicate meaning and feeling is, in the final analysis, underwritten by the assumption of God’s presence,” says Steiner in Real Presences.

Yesterday we explored why Elie strategically exempted poetry from his argument here. The poets listed in that post are some of our most gifted writers. The novelists you’ll find below are of the same caliber. These writers have won countless awards writing fiction that will last long enough for later generations to envy our Golden Age of religious fiction.

I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that our generation of writers exceeds the Eliot-Auden and Percy-O’Connor generations. Novels are notoriously difficult to excerpt, so I’ll stick mostly publisher blurbs and a few sidebars to justify some of the choices that might strike you as unusual. At the bottom of this post there’s also a list of very honorable mentions. 

As usual, do follow the unique links provided below if you’d like to help me put some diapers on little Rosman butts. Please also consider donating directly through the link in the upper right hand corner of the homepage.

1- gilead
Twenty-four years after her first novel, Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson returns with Gilead, an intimate tale of three generations from the Civil War to the twentieth century: a story about fathers and sons and the spiritual battles that still rage at America’s heart. Writing in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful, spare, and spiritual prose allows “even the faithless reader to feel the possibility of transcendent order” (Slate). In the luminous and unforgettable voice of Congregationalist minister John Ames, Gilead reveals the human condition and the often unbearable beauty of an ordinary life.

2 - Mariette-in-Ecstasy
A novel about convent life at the turn of the century? Hardly the makings of a page-turner, yet Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy is a gripping, even life-changing book. For the Sisters of the Crucifixion, each day is a ceaseless round of work, study, and prayer–one hardly separate from the other. Their daily life is itself an act of devotion, caught by Hansen in a series of illuminated tableaux… Into this idyll comes Mariette–young, pretty, devout, but, as her father says, perhaps “too high-strung” for the convent. Prone to “trances, hallucinations, unnatural piety, great extremes of temperament, and, as he put it, ‘inner wrenchings,'” Mariette scalds her hands with hot water as penance, threads barbed wire underneath her breasts while she sleeps, and is convinced Jesus speaks to her. Her very glamour disturbs the gentle rhythm of the nuns’ lives. But when she begins bleeding from unexplained wounds in her hands, feet, and sides, the convent is thrown into an uproar. Is Mariette a saint? Or just a lying, hysterical girl? Where do we draw the line between madness and faith, mysticism and eroticism, the life of the spirit and that of the world?

3 - 427450-pilgrim-tinker-creek-later-printing-edition
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is the story of a dramatic year in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley. Annie Dillard sets out to see what she can see. What she sees are astonishing incidents of “beauty tangled in a rapture with violence.”

Her personal narrative highlights one year’s exploration on foot in the Virginia region through which Tinker Creek runs. In the summer, Dillard stalks muskrats in the creek and contemplates wave mechanics; in the fall, she watches a monarch butterfly migration and dreams of Arctic caribou. She tries to con a coot; she collects pond water and examines it under a microscope. She unties a snake skin, witnesses a flood, and plays King of the Meadow with a field of grasshoppers. The result is an exhilarating tale of nature and its seasons.

[This book is a hybrid: autobiography, fiction, theology, and biology. But if you’re so inclined there are other Dillard novels to choose from.]

4 - 9780880014977
Among the characters you’ll find in this collection of twelve stories by Tobias Wolff are a teenage boy who tells morbid lies about his home life, a timid professor who, in the first genuine outburst of her life, pours out her opinions in spite of a protesting audience, a prudish loner who gives an obnoxious hitchhiker a ride, and an elderly couple on a golden anniversary cruise who endure the offensive conviviality of the ship’s social director.

Fondly yet sharply drawn, Wolff’s characters in The Garden of the North American Martyrs stumble over each other in their baffled yet resolute search for the “right path.”

[Short stories are fiction, right?]

5 - jayber
Jayber Crow, born in Goforth, Kentucky, orphaned at age ten, began his search as a “pre-ministerial student” at Pigeonville College. There, freedom met with new burdens and a young man needed more than a mirror to find himself. But the beginning of that finding was a short conversation with “Old Grit,” his profound professor of New Testament Greek. “You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out—perhaps a little at a time.”
“And how long is that going to take?”
“I don’t know. As long as you live, perhaps.”
“That could be a long time.”
“I will tell you a further mystery,” he said. “It may take longer.

6-5181

In the backwoods of Mississippi, a land of honeysuckle and grapevine, Jewel and her husband, Leston, are truly blessed; they have five fine children. When Brenda Kay is born in 1943, Jewel gives thanks for a healthy baby, last-born and most welcome. Jewel is the story of how quickly a life can change; how, like lightning, an unforeseen event can set us on a course without reason or compass. In this story of a woman’s devotion to the child who is both her burden and God’s singular way of smiling on her, Bret Lott has created a mother-daughter relationship of matchless intensity and beauty, and one of the finest, most indomitable heroines in contemporary American fiction.

7-clark

By opening with a long epigraph from St. Augustine’s Confessions (in the original Latin, no less), Clark’s ambitious, atmospheric rumination on good, evil and the gray area in between announces intentions far loftier than those of the standard dime-store detective novels to which the book bears an intentional but superficial resemblance. Set in St. Paul, Minn., in the bleak winter of 1939, this high-brow thriller retains enough lowdown grit and grime to qualify as both a suspenseful read and a surprisingly touching character study. When two young “dime-a-dance” girls are murdered, tough-as-nails homicide cop Lieutenant Wesley Horner hones in on eccentric recluse and amateur photographer Herbert White as the prime suspect. Looking like a cross between Humpty Dumpty and Paul Bunyan, and equally obsessed with Hollywood starlet Veronica Galvin and the voluminous scrapbooks and journals he keeps in order to compensate for his (narratively convenient) memory loss, White takes the fall with sympathetic dignity: astute readers will have fingered the real culprit many pages earlier. The true mysteries in Mr. White’s Confession are psychological: Horner’s morally suspect relationship with teenage drifter Maggie is particularly fascinating. Having previously written a biography of James Beard (The Solace of Food), a cultural history of the Columbia River (River of the West) and a critically lauded first novel (In the Deep Midwinter), Clark here seesaws, most often successfully, between hard-boiled cliches and an earnest, self-conscious concern with the natures of memory and love.

8- house
A.G. Harmon’s A House All Stilled, won the Peter Taylor prize for fiction. Like the great Peter Taylor, Harmon is a Southern novelist whose prose is both precise and evocative, reflecting a deep relationship to the land and the mystery of familial relationships over several generations. But Harmon’s novel also has religious and symbolic resonances that Flannery O’Connor would recognize and salute. The novelist Doris Betts, who selected this novel for the Taylor Prize, adds yet another literary comparison: “Harmon’s style,” she writes, “has deft flicks of description and insight, similar to the way Graham Greene might toss out a selected metaphor then move on.” A House All Stilled is an auspicious debut for a major new talent in literary fiction.

[The greatest living writer you’ve never heard of. One of you should start a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for his second novel.]

9-jazz
Morrison, in her sixth novel Jazz, enters 1926 Harlem, a new black world then (“safe from fays [whites] and the things they think up”), and moves into a love story–with a love that could clear a space from the past, give a life or take one. At 50, Joe Trace–good-looking, faithful to wife Violet, also from Virginia poor-times–suddenly tripped into a passionate affair with Dorcas, 18: “one of those deep-down spooky loves that made him so sad and happy he shot her just to keep the feeling going.” Then Violet went to Dorcas’s funeral and cut her dead face. But before Joe met Dorcas, and before her death and before Violet, in her torn coat, scoured the neighborhood looking for reasons, looking for her own truer identity, images of the past burned within all three: Violet’s mother, tipped out of her chair by the men who took everything away, and her death in a well; for Joe, the hand of the “wild” woman, his mother, that never really found his. And all of the child Dorcas’s dolls burned up with her mother and her childhood. Truly, the new music of Harlem–from clicks and taps of pleasure to the thud of betrayed marching black veterans with their frozen faces–“had a complicated anger in it.” Were Joe and Violet substitutes for each other, for a need known and unmet? At the close, a new link is forged between them with another Dorcas. One of Morrison’s richest novels yet.

[What other Catholic novelists do you know that use purgatory as a leitmotif?]

10-coextzee
I‘m going to be a little coy and recommend you read my post here where I argue Coetzee is possibly our greatest Christian novelist. Elizabeth Costello is probably his best novel, although I still haven’t read the UK edition of The Childhood of Jesus. It comes out this September in the US.
===============
The first installments in this series are “A Fish Rots from the Head Down” and “Fresh Caught Fish: Top 10 Living Religious Poets.”

Just in case you think any (or all) of the above choices don’t qualify, here are twelve literary apostles I left off this list due to time constraints: David James Duncan, PIckney Benedict, Suzanne Wolfe, John L’Heureux, Mary Doria Russell, Hwee Hwee Tan, Larry Woiwode, Dan WakefieldDavid Lodge, Andre Dubus IIIElie Wiesel, and Gene Wolfe. In other words, (actually, in the words of Randy Boyagoda), “We are not, in the end, alone.”

In fact, there are so many companions for the road already that I wonder whether I’ll have enough time to read Elie’s novel when it comes out. My present list just keeps expanding and expanding so much that I’m tempted to give up:

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Coetzee on the Stillbirth of the Humanities Out of Theology

You dropped something.

You dropped something.

I suspect the endless essays about the rethinking, protecting, death, in other words, the “crisis,” of the humanities in The Chronicle of Higher Education (if only) have cleared more than one forest.

I’ve written about the religious uses of the “secular” academy elsewhere in my post about Warhol and Blau.  As you can tell from the post it’s not like I’m first in line to bust up the idols of the secular academy. On the other hand, the disappointing exchange surrounding yesterday’s post about (classical liberal) ideology in what passes for theology in America brought me back to Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello. (See: comment section)

I would like to highlight this novelistic account with the qualification that there is no reason to identify it with Coetzee’s own opinions, or to totally dismiss them as having no connection with them.

The argument presented by his character, Sr. Bridget Costello, in her lecture “The Humanities in Africa,” is that the humanities were a stillborn child of theology, even perhaps more so than futile academic projects such as the Death of God movement of a/theology. Without further ado, here’s a large chunk of her lecture:

‘Textual scholarship, I would want to say if I had more time, was the living breath of humane studies while humane studies were what we can properly call a movement in history, namely the humanist movement. But it did not take long for the living breath in textual scholarship to be snuffed out. The story of textual scholarship since then has been the story of one effort after another to resuscitate that life, in vain.

‘The text for the sake of which textual scholarship was invented was the Bible. Textual scholars saw themselves as servants in the recovery of the true message of the Bible, specifically the true teaching of Jesus. The

figure they employed to describe their work was the figure of rebirth or resurrection. The reader of the New Testament was to encounter face to face for the first time the risen, reborn Christ, Christus renascens, obscured no longer by a veil of scholastic gloss and commentary. It was with this goal in mind that scholars taught themselves first Greek, then Hebrew, then (later) other languages of the Near East. Textual scholarship meant, first, the recovery of the true text, then the true translation of that text; and true translation turned out to be inseparable from true interpretation, just as true interpretation turned out to be inseparable from true understanding of the cultural and historical matrix from which the text had emerged. That is how linguistic studies, literary studies (as studies in interpretation), cultural studies and historical studies–the studies that form the core of the so-called humanities–came to be bound up together.

‘Why, you may justly ask, call this constellation of studies devoted to the recovery of the true word of the Lord studia humanitatis? Asking this question will, it turns out, be much the same as asking, Why did the studia humanitatis come into flower only in the fifteenth century of our dispensation and not hundreds of years earlier?

‘The answer has much to do with historical accident: with the decline and eventual sack of Constantinople and the flight of Byzantine men of learning to Italy. (Observing your Dean’s fifteen-minute rule, I will pass over the living presence of Aristotle, Galen and other Greek philosophers in medieval Western Christendom, and the role of Arab Spain in transmitting their teachings.)

‘Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes. The gifts brought by the men from the East were not only grammars of the Greek language but texts by authors from Greek antiquity. The linguistic command that was intended to be applied to the Greek New Testament could be perfected only by immersing oneself in these seductive pre-Christian texts. In no time, as one might expect, the study of these texts, later to be called the classics, had become an end in itself.

‘More than that: the study of the texts of antiquity came to be justified not only on linguistic grounds but on philosophical grounds too. Jesus was sent to redeem mankind, the argument went. To redeem mankind from what? From an unredeemed state, of course. But what do we know of mankind in an unredeemed state? The only substantial record that covers all aspects of life is the record of antiquity. So to grasp the purpose behind the Incarnation–that is to say, to grasp the meaning of redemption–we must embark, through the classics, on studia humanitatis.

‘Thus, in the brief and crude account I give, did it come about that biblical scholarship and studies in Greek and Roman antiquity came to be coupled in a relationship never without antagonism, and thus did it come about that textual scholarship and its attendant disciplines came to fall under the rubric “the humanities”.

‘So much for history. So much for why you, diverse and ill-assorted as you may privately feel yourselves to be, find yourselves assembled this morning under a single roof as graduates-to-be in the humanities. Now, in the few minutes left to me, I am going to tell you why I do not belong among you and have no message of comfort to bring to you, despite the generosity of the gesture you have extended to me.

‘The message I bring is that you lost your way long ago, perhaps as long as five centuries ago. The handful of men among whom the movement originated of which you represent, I fear, the sad tail–those men were animated, at least at first, by the purpose of finding the True Word, by which they understood then, and I understand now, the redemptive word.
‘That word cannot be found in the classics, whether you understand the classics to mean Homer and Sophocles or whether you understand them to mean Homer and Shakespeare and Dostoevsky In a happier age than our own it was possible for people to bluff themselves into believing that the classics of antiquity offered a teaching and a way of life. In our own times we have settled, rather desperately, for the claim that the study of the classics in itself might offer a way of life, or if not a way of life then at least a way of earning a living which, if it cannot be proved to do any positive good, at least is on no side claimed to do any harm.

‘But the impulse behind the first generation of textual scholars cannot be diverted so easily from its proper goal. I am a daughter of the Catholic Church, not of the Reformed Church, but I applaud Martin Luther when he turns his back on Desiderius Erasmus, judging that his colleague, despite his immense gifts, has been seduced into branches of study that do not, by the standards of the ultimate, matter. The studia humanitatis have taken a long time to die, but now, at the end of the second millennium of our era, they are truly on their deathbed. All the more bitter should be that death, I would say, since it has been brought about by the monster enthroned by those very studies as first and animating principle of the universe: the monster of reason, mechanical reason. But that is another story for another day.’

Pentecost Vigil With Lay Ecclesial Movements In Saint Peter's Square

Coetzee Demolishes Greek Harmony With Christian Agony

I tried to find an example of the "Unitarian with an attitude" bumper sticker I once saw in Portland, OR. This is what the search turned up. True story.

I tried to find an example of the “UNITARIAN WITH ATTITUDE!” bumper sticker I once saw in Portland, OR. This is what the search turned up. True story.

The best religious novelist of our time isn’t, as far as I know, a Christian believer. J.M. Coetzee completed his doctoral dissertation upon another Christ-haunted writer Samuel Beckett. He also is clearly influenced by the philosophical and theological writings of the Catholic (other than Bruno Latour) most-discussed in the secular academe. Of course, I’m talking about René Girard, whose work I’ve alluded to elsewhere.

Coetzee did attend a Catholic high school, plus he has both Dutch and Polish ancestry. Poland was not always the Catholic stronghold it is nowadays–Poles can thank the Germans, Russians, and the Jesuits for that. Actually, during the 16th century Poland was home to not only nearly all the Jews expelled from the West, but also of the Radical Reformation (so perhaps Coetzee has radical Calvinist or Unitarian roots?). In fact, it’s the only place where the Jesuits were successful at combating the Reformation. As the old joke goes:

Q: What is similar about the Jesuit and Dominican Orders?

A: Well, they were both founded by Spaniards, St. Dominic for the Dominicans, and St. Ignatius of Loyola for the Jesuits.
They were also both founded to combat heresy: the Dominicans to fight the Albigensians, and the Jesuits to fight the Protestants.

Q: What is different about the Jesuit and Dominican Orders?
A: Well, have you met any Albigensians lately?

Mann saw through some of the intellectual fashions for Greece, but his not enough.

Mann saw through some of the intellectual fashions for Greece, but his Röntgen didn’t cover enough.

WHERE WAS I? In my mind J.M. Coetzee is the greatest Christian (why not Catholic?) novelist of our time, because his characters constantly mull over the significance and practices of Christianity. They make the Incarnation strange again by inviting the unsuspecting reader to look at it from new angles. But don’t let me be the judge; judge yourself.

Let’s start with a passage from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. I’m almost certain the passages you’ll read from Coetzee later are a polemic against this great German modernist writer. The Magic Mountain is a prime example of post-Christian attachment to an idealized Greece, even if some of the rough edges are briefly highlighted, instead of totally glossed over. The oneric section of the “Snow” chapter begins with the idealized beauty we usually associate with Greece:

“Youths were at work with horses, running hand on halter alongside their whinnying, head-tossing charges; pulling the refractory ones on a long rein, or else, seated bareback, striking the flanks of their mounts with naked heels, to drive them into the sea. The muscles of the riders’ backs played beneath the sunbronzed skin, and their voices were enchanting beyond words as they shouted to each other or to their steeds. A little bay ran deep into the coast line, mirroring the shore as does a mountain lake; about it girls were dancing. One of them sat with her back toward him, so that her neck, and the hair drawn to a knot above it smote him with loveliness. She sat with her feet in a depression of the rock, and played on a shepherd’s pipe, her eyes roving above the stops to her companions, as in long, wide garments, smiling, with outstretched arms, alone, or in pairs swaying gently toward each other, they moved in the paces of the dance. Behind the flute-player—she too was white-clad, and her back was long and slender, laterally rounded by the movement of her arms—other maidens were sitting, or standing entwined to watch the dance, and quietly talking. Beyond them still, young men were practising archery. Lovely and pleasant it was to see the older ones show the younger, curly-locked novices, how to span the bow and take aim; draw with them, and laughing support them staggering back from the push of the arrow as it leaped from the bow. Others were fishing, lying prone on a jut of rock, waggling one leg in the air, holding the line out over the water, approaching their heads in talk. Others sat straining forward to fling the bait far out. A ship, with mast and yards, lying high out of the tide, was being eased, shoved,and steadied into the sea. Children played and exulted among the breaking waves . . .”

The black book of Greek religion.

The black book of Greek religion.

Mann briefly spoils the lazy dream with the nightmare of homo necans we usually ignore:

“Scarcely daring to venture, but following an inner compulsion, he passed behind the statuary, and through the double row of columns beyond. The bronze door of the sanctuary stood open, and the poor soul’s knees all but gave way beneath him at the sight within. Two grey old women, witchlike, with hanging breasts and dugs of fingerlength, were busy there, between flaming braziers, most horribly. They were dismembering a child. In dreadful silence they tore it apart with their bare hands—Hans Castorp saw the bright hair blood-smeared—and cracked the tender bones between their jaws, their dreadful lips dripped blood. An icy coldness held him. He would have covered his eyes and fled, but could not.”

In the end Mann doesn’t let Castorp entirely forget the horror of the temple, yet he represses into an inarticulate muteness of a “silent recognition.”  With that the novelist still makes his character side with the myth of Greek balance and beauty even if he couches it in a decidedly Christian rhetoric of love:

“Death and love—no, I cannot make a poem of them, they don’t go together. Love stands opposed to death. It is love, not reason, that is stronger than death. Only love, not reason, gives sweet thoughts. And from love and sweetness alone can form come: form and civilization, friendly, enlightened, beautiful human intercourse—always in silent recognition of the bloodsacrifice. Ah, yes, it is well and truly dreamed. I have taken stock. I will remember. I will keep faith with death in my heart, yet well remember that faith with death and the dead is evil, is hostile to humankind, so soon as we give it power over thought and action. For the sake of goodness and love, man shall let death have no sovereignty over his thoughts. And with this—I awake. For I have dreamed it out to the end, I have come to my goal.”

Greece exposed!

Greece exposed!

I immediately thought of these passages passage from Mann when reading “The Humanities in Africa” chapter in Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello. Bridget, the sister of the title character, is a nun and she has the following to say about our (unhealthy) obsession with Greece:

“‘You miss my point, Elizabeth. Hellenism was an alternative. Poor as it may have been, Hellas was the one alternative to the Christian vision that humanism was able to offer. To Greek society–an utterly idealized picture of Greek society, but how were ordinary folk to know that?–they could point and say, Behold, that is how we should live–not in the hereafter but in the here and now! Hellas: half-naked men, their breasts gleaming with olive oil, sitting on the temple steps discoursing about the good and the true, while in the background lithe-limbed boys wrestle and a herd of goats contentedly grazes. Free minds in free bodies. More than an idealized picture: a dream, a delusion.”

Not a pretty picture by Greek standards. Coetzee even notes it might be blasphemous for the Orthodox.

Not a pretty picture by Greek standards. Coetzee even notes the Eastern Orthodox might consider it blasphemous.

Bridget continues, refuses a merely “silent recognition,” and takes poor Elizabeth behind another woodshed:

‘Do you think, Elizabeth, that the Greeks are utterly foreign to Zululand? I tell you again, if you will not listen to me, at least have the decency to listen to Joseph. Do you think that Joseph carves suffering Jesus because he does not know better, that if you took Joseph on a tour around the Louvre his eyes would be opened and he would set about carving, for the benefit of his people, naked women preening themselves, or men flexing their muscles? Are you aware that when Europeans first came in contact with the Zulus, educated Europeans, men from England with public-school educations behind them, they thought they had rediscovered the Greeks? They said so quite explicitly. They took out their sketch blocks and drew sketches in which Zulu warriors with their spears and their clubs and their shields are shown in exactly the same attitudes, with exactly the same physical proportions, as the Hectors and Achilles we see in nineteenth-century illustrations of the Iliad, except that their skins are dusky. Well-formed limbs, skimpy clothes, a proud bearing, formal manners, martial virtues–it was all here! Sparta in Africa: that is what they thought they had found. For decades those same ex-public schoolboys, with their romantic idea of Greek antiquity, administered Zululand on behalf of the Crown. They wanted Zululand to be Sparta. They wanted the Zulus to be Greeks. So to Joseph and his father and his grandfather the Greeks are not a remote foreign tribe at all. They were offered the Greeks, by their new rulers, as a model of the kind of people they ought to be and could be. They were offered the Greeks and they rejected them. Instead, they looked elsewhere in the Mediterranean world. They chose to be Christians, followers of the living Christ. Joseph has chosen Jesus as his model. Speak to him. He will tell you.’

How do post-colonial departments digest mysteries such as this one? One is reminded of the divisive rhetoric emerging from deep geographical divisions within the Anglican communion. These insights also square with Girard’s repeated claim that the victim is the only universal category everyone agrees to in our age. What’s more, the victim, as Nietzsche knew (and despised), is a Christian category first articulated by St. Paul and the Gospels. It would have never struck the Greeks to put something as ugly as that at the center of their world. Finally, Coetzee goes beyond scratching the surface with novels built around characters who are victimizers. He presses the issue of forgiveness in extremis, with characters who might be as despicable as Kermit Gosnell or George Zimmerman are to some, in novels such as Waiting for the Barbarians and Disgrace.

All in all, it’s because of sharp observations such as these, because of a novelistic intensity unmatched since Dostoevsky, that Coetzee is the most significant living writer of theological fiction.  This is also why I couldn’t wait until the American release of The Childhood of Jesus and bought myself the UK edition.

The cover of the Polish edition, because why not?

The cover of the Polish edition, because Coetzee might really bum out the kids if they’ve been raised on Disney.