The Big Question: Do we still have a Catholic literary imagination?

Each month, The Central Minnesota Catholic features a big question the Church is facing. For those still trying to get in their summer reading, August’s question is: “Do we still have a Catholic literary imagination?”

Weighing in on this month’s topic is Tim Drake, executive director of Pacem in Terris Hermitage Retreat Center in Isanti. Drake is an award-winning writer, former journalist and author of seven books, including his most recent, a children’s illustrated book, “The Attic Saint.” He is a member of the Together as One Area Catholic Community in St. Cloud/Waite Park.

Also contributing are Ann Jonas, the general book buyer for the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph and St. John’s University in Collegeville; and Steve South who recently wrote his first novel, “The Queen of Steel and Fire,” which won the 2019 Minnesota Author Project award for young adult fiction, and will be published by Elk Lake Publishing in early 2021. He and his wife are parishioners at St. Mary’s Cathedral in St. Cloud.

Q First of all, when we say “Catholic literary imagination,” what does that mean?

Tim Drake

TIM: The Catholic literary imagination refers to the belief that, because God took on flesh and redeemed the world, every single aspect of God’s creation can be a channel and source of God’s grace. God is present in all of creation and all of humanity, and can be seen in the Church’s sacraments, devotions, saints, liturgies, practices and prayers. The Catholic literary imagination not only recognizes these signs but also conveys these truths through stories, just as Christ once did.

ANN: I would say it is an exploration or inclusion of the Catholic faith in the arts, especially literature and poetry. Surely, Catholicism doesn’t have to be the main theme of the literary piece but having Catholic characters is important.

STEVE: I think it can mean several different things. From having a story steeped in cultural Catholicism — such as a story involving priests or religious, or Catholic characters, to having themes that correspond to Catholic teachings. One of the things that can mark Catholic literature is sacramentality: the expression and presence of the transcendent in physical objects. St. John Henry Newman described literature as “a study of human nature.” So a Catholic literary imagination might tell a story about human nature in relation to divine nature.

Q Can this still be found in the contemporary literary scene? If so, who’s a writer that comes to mind as having one?

TIM: Yes, this can still be found, but I think it’s far more difficult to find than it was a generation or two ago. Among modern writers, Deacon Ron Hansen or Canadian Michael O’Brien write with a vivid Catholic imagination.

Ann Jonas

ANN: Yes, it can still be found, but certainly not to the extent that it was in the past, when Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor and Evelyn Waugh, among others, were writing novels. Alice McDermott and Louise Erdrich come to my mind as being contemporary Catholic writers of literary fiction. And, of course, if you want to go back just a short bit, Jon Hassler most certainly comes to my mind as a Catholic literary giant.

STEVE: Yes, I believe so. While the representation of cultural Catholicism in literature may not be nearly as prevalent as it once was, I believe that the existence of themes that correspond to Catholic teachings is still present in modern literature. One more recent writer that comes to mind as showing this sort of Catholic literary imagination is M.L. Stedman in her book “The Light Between Oceans.”

Q Do you have to be Catholic to have a Catholic literary imagination?

TIM: It certainly helps. Catholics believe that every aspect of creation has been redeemed by Christ. By being steeped in the mystery of Catholicism, it gives you eyes to see all of creation as a disguise for God. Non-Catholics would not necessarily look at creation in this way. However, I think of writer and filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan and his work, such as “The Sixth Sense” or “Wide Awake.” He’s not Catholic, but he attended Catholic schools growing up. Many of his films have what I would describe as a Catholic imagination.

ANN: I think it would be incredibly difficult to write about Catholic thought and/or practice without being familiar with Catholicism. The novels I’ve read that had a Catholic element certainly seemed very genuine in their Catholicity. Of course, that could be because they were written by excellent writers or researchers. But more likely the desire to write with a Catholic view is held primarily, if not exclusively, by Catholics.

Steve South

STEVE: I don’t think so, although it certainly helps. If you think of Catholic literature as stories that are steeped in cultural Catholicism, it can be hard to write those kinds of stories well without a solid Catholic background. However, the teachings of the Catholic Church are transcendent and beautiful and have universal appeal because of those qualities — as well as their inherent truth. That makes them appeal to writers and readers of all faiths, and even those of no faith at all. So, writers who aren’t Catholic can certainly have themes corresponding to Catholic teaching in their work.

Q Do you consider yourself a “Catholic” writer or a writer who happens to be Catholic? Is there a difference?

TIM: Yes, both/and. It’s kind of like asking if Christ was divine or human. Yes, both/and. I am both a writer, and I am Catholic. I was a writer long before I became Catholic. Having said that, my Catholicism certainly shapes my writing and how I view the world. I feel there’s no more important writing than writing about Christ and his Church. That doesn’t mean that everything I write is filled with Catholicism.

STEVE: I consider myself a Catholic writer. My Catholicism shapes my worldview, and this shapes my writing. If I want to write things that are transcendent, and that touch hearts and minds because of the deep truths that they communicate, I have to draw on my Catholic faith to do that. The way that Catholic teaching and my faith have shaped my thinking is too profound for me to consider myself to be a writer who happens to be Catholic.

Q Can contemporary literature enhance our understanding of faith?

TIM: Yes, contemporary literature can certainly enhance our understanding of faith, by allowing us to look at it through the eyes of others. There are as many practices of faith as there are individuals who have ever lived, and each one of us is called to sanctity. How we achieve that, or how God achieves that through us, is highly individual just as we are unrepeatable individuals.

Unfortunately, I’m afraid that much of contemporary literature may teach us about faith by way of exclusion. It is the negation, or the absence of faith, in much modern literature that may reveal to us the truths of faith, just as the presence of evil can, for some, lead them to recognize a force for good.

ANN: The novels I’ve read that had a Catholic quality to them didn’t necessarily enhance my understanding of faith but made the books more genuine and intimate because of the Catholic piece. Several of the books I’ve read in the last few years that had a strong faith component were not Catholic, but Christian in their framework. “Ordinary Grace” by William Kent Krueger and, more recently, “The Dearly Beloved” by Cara Wall are two novels that come to mind.

STEVE: Absolutely. Christianity is a religion that bridges the gaps between God and humanity. Catholicism is the greatest expression of the bridge-building nature of Christianity. Catholicism has the unique aspect of sacramentality to bridge the gaps between the divine and the daily life we all experience on earth. Literature is a way of even further bridging those gaps, by revealing how the transcendental reality of God influences and shapes our lives. It’s a way of piercing through the humdrum of everyday, and connecting with the deeper truths of the world that hide behind the mundane.

Q Why is it important to have a Catholic imagination? Why can’t we just use Scripture to tell stories?

TIM: Christ himself used stories, and so must we. We cannot always use Scripture to tell stories because there are many individuals who have never picked up Scripture, many who’ve never heard it or been exposed to it. A Catholic imagination can help us find ways to share scriptural, or faith-based stories, in a way no one has heard before. I think of Ron Hansen’s novel “Atticus.” It’s the prodigal son story re-told. Someone who has never read a word of Scripture could pick up that book, read it and be moved by the love of a father for his son.

ANN: Catholic literature can sustain and enhance our faith; it can be a great supplement to Scripture. A good Catholic novel can invite and remind us to contemplate God’s mysteries using characters that connect us to everyday life. I believe we learn best when we read different versions of the same story. Tales of redemption and forgiveness, told in a variety of ways, are important to read and reread to make a real impact. It is also good to have Catholic thought and practice represented in literature because it’s part of who we are.

In addition, part of the allure of good fiction is that it takes readers to new places and gives them perspectives from other cultures and people. Reading is a fabulous way to see through someone else’s eyes. Catholic fiction can be a powerful way to cultivate curiosity and interest in Catholicism in non-Catholic readers.

STEVE: While Scripture is as vibrant and relevant today as it was when it was written, using a literary imagination to connect it to more of the issues facing people in modern life can be a way to make Scripture feel even more relevant in modern times. Stories can be an incredibly interesting way to make people see that the Church’s teachings are so much more than just doctrine, and to help people to see the Church’s teachings as much more than dogma — which is something that too many people today see Catholic teachings as.

Q What are some of the challenges Catholic writers face today?

TIM: Along with the numbers of people who have left the Church or whom are no longer practicing their faith, there are far fewer readers willing to embrace stories that might be perceived as faith-based. The average Catholic book title sells approximately 4,000 copies.

However, the biggest challenge facing the Catholic writer today is the difficulty in finding faith-friendly publishers. One faith-based writer I know shared with me that one publisher wrote back to her telling her that their publishing company was not in the business of making Christians look good. Where there used to be hundreds of publishing companies, there are now about five large publishing companies. There are very few Catholic publishing companies left, and most of them do not publish fiction.

ANN: Not being an author, I can speak only from my bookstore perspective. My guess is that editors may not encourage — and may actually discourage — writers from including a Catholic element in their novels (unless they are editing for a religious publisher), with the thought that a Catholic novel won’t be of interest to enough readers. And in today’s world, when any book can get published (self-publishing is a common option), book buyers often choose to order the books on their shelves from mainstream publishers. As a result, many Catholic novels are never well-promoted or made known.

STEVE: To be blunt, one of the primary challenges is declining numbers of practicing Catholics. And even beyond that sad fact, a lack of a more distinct Catholic culture among those who remain in the Church. Catholicism in the U.S. used to be more of a distinct subculture, with more of a demand for all forms of Catholic media, including literature. As that demand has lessened, there is less of a market for Catholic literature, especially fiction. An additional challenge is the decreasing number of publishers who accept Catholic fiction submissions, and the even smaller number of publishers focused on Catholic fiction.

Q How can we nourish our Catholic imagination?

TIM: We nourish our Catholic imagination first and foremost by our participation in the Church and all of her sacraments. They are a means of conveying grace. This is how Christ and his Church feed and sustain us.

However, we can also nourish our Catholic imagination by exposure. Reading imaginative novels, poems or works of fiction that explore forgiveness, redemption, salvation, or watching movies that do the same, can help. All this contributes to creating a healthy Catholic imagination and seeing how God works in the world.

ANN: Compiling a reading list of good Catholic literary works and then diving into those books seems like a great way to nourish the Catholic imagination. Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, Evelyn Waugh, Alice McDermott, Ron Hansen, Jon Hassler, Walker

Percy, Tobias Wolff, J.F. Powers, Patricia Hampl and Sigrid Undset are all good authors whose books could be considered. Book clubs may want to be intentional in choosing Catholic authors; some good discussion may occur.

STEVE: Being open to seeing beauty in life. Spending time in nature and appreciating God’s creativity in the natural world. Shutting off distractions to focus on the deeper truths and beauty present beneath the dull veneer that life can sometimes take on in the modern world. To try to think about things from an eternal perspective, rather than a temporal one. To pray, of course, and to ask God to help develop your Catholic vision — not just your imagination, but to see the world through the lens of the relationship between humanity and divinity. I’ve found eucharistic adoration to be an especially helpful time to ask God to help me in that way. Reading a good deal helps, of course.

When I was struggling to determine what I believed, I read a lot of books on the faith, which really helped to ground me in Catholicism, and to give me the foundation for my Catholic imagination. Experiencing the beauty of art — especially Catholic art and church architecture — is a great help in this as well. Experiencing some of the great churches and cathedrals of the world is like experiencing the faith written in stone and glass. Even just touring some of the beautiful churches in rural Stearns County can really help nourish a Catholic imagination. Bishop Barron’s “Catholicism” is also a wonderful way to gain a deep appreciation for the beauty of the faith and to help develop your Catholic imagination.

Q Steve, you recently won an award for your book, “The Queen of Steel and Fire,” categorized as young adult fiction with Catholic themes. What inspired you to write it and why did you include the Catholic element?

“The Queen of Steel and Fire” is by Steve South

STEVE: I was inspired to write the book because at the time I started writing it, I didn’t see many epic fantasy novels with female protagonists. The outline of the story of an orphaned princess, fighting to hold her kingdom together amid a gathering war, came to me. The Catholic elements were not a conscious decision at first, but came naturally as the story developed. I had been a lapsed Catholic from my mid-teens through my early 20s, until my experiences in my first career as a police officer showed me the wisdom and truth of the Church’s teachings. The book is about someone who is a skeptic and struggles with religion and disbelief, until her experiences convince her of the reality of God. In that sense, the book is somewhat autobiographical for me. The contest I won was a secular writing contest, which I feel shows that a book with Catholic themes can still really resonate with a secular audience.

Q Tim, last year you released a children’s book titled “The Attic Saint.” What challenged you the most in writing and/or promoting this book?

“The Attic Saint” is by Tim Drake.

TIM: The greatest challenge for me with “The Attic Saint,” was finding a publisher. The story came together quickly and easily, but after being rejected by all the major Catholic publishers it sat for 15 years before I could find a publisher for it. That’s a long time for a writer to wait. Waiting doesn’t exactly pay the bills, which is why so many writers need to have other jobs. Gone are the days when writers are commissioned. Most writers need a vocation other than writing to support their avocation of writing.

Q Ann, do you see the Catholic imagination at play in any contemporary, popular works?

ANN: Alice McDermott and Louise Erdrich are two authors whom I’ve read whose writing seems to have been shaped by their Catholic upbringing. And they are strong, established writers who are adept at including Catholic themes and characters in their novels. I have not read Don DeLillo, Ron Hansen and Cormac McCarthy (yet), but I understand they are contemporary authors who are often considered Catholic writers. Up to now, I haven’t chosen a book to read based on whether it is a Catholic book. I look for books that have an interesting, unique storyline and good writing. If a novel contains elements of the Catholic faith, that means I will have a little more of a connection to that book. And I’ve read several very good novels that include struggles with personal faith, though not specifically the Catholic faith.

Click here for a list of recommended books

Question for reflection

What are you reading or have you read recently that inspires your Catholic literary imagination?

You are invited to submit your answer (150 words or less) to editor Joe Towalski at jtowalski@gw.stcdio. org. A sampling of answers will be published in a future edition of The Central Minnesota Catholic.


Author: The Central Minnesota Catholic

The Central Minnesota Catholic is the magazine for the Diocese of St. Cloud.

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