The books of revelations: why are novelists turning back to religion?
There is a sense that, in recent years, novelists have formed part of a rearguard action in response to Richard Dawkins’s New Atheist consensus. Philip Maughan talks to Marilynne Robinson, Francis Spufford and Rowan Williams about God in literature.
Close to the end of White Noise, Don DeLillo’s 1984 novel about a professor of Hitler studies who will do just about anything to ease his fear of dying, an elderly nun reveals the secret truth about faith. “Do you think we are stupid?” she asks Jack Gladney, bleeding from the wrist at a Catholic hospital following a botched murder attempt. “We are here to take care of sick and injured,” the old nun explains in a halting German accent. “Only this. You would talk about heaven, you must find another place.”
All the crosses, devotional images of saints, angels and popes that line the walls of the ward exist merely as set dressing. “The devil, the angels, heaven and hell. If we did not pretend to believe these things, the world would collapse,” she says. “As belief shrinks from the world, people find it more necessary than ever that someone believe. Wild-eyed men in caves. Nuns in black. Monks who do not speak.”
“I don’t want to hear this,” Gladney moans. “This is terrible.”
“But true,” the nun says.
Perhaps this goes some way to explaining the unlikely popularity of religion in contemporary fiction. So far this year we have seen the strange sanctification of a thalidomide victim who died in childhood (Orla Nor Cleary in Nicola Barker’s dazzlingly manic In the Approaches), an avowedly atheist dentist lured to Israel by the leader of an underground sect (Joshua Ferris’s Man Booker-shortlisted To Rise Again at a Decent Hour), a high court judge, Fiona Maye, ruling on whether a hospital has the right to administer a life-saving blood transfusion to a teenage Jehovah’s Witness (Ian McEwan’s The Children Act) and, most recently, the voyage of a prim evangelical on a mission to outer space (Michel Faber’s Book of Strange New Things).
When you consider these alongside the large volume of books about Jesus published in the past few years – Colm Tóibín’s gory reimagining of the Gospels in The Testament of Mary, the enigmatic youth David from J M Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus, James Frey’s damaged Ben Zion in The Final Testament and Philip Pullman’s warring twins in The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ – you get a sense of bewildered fascination, of a sore that continues to itch.