28 January 2009

The novelist as a writer in spirituality and theology

Patrick Comerford


Professor Guy Martin once offered two courses at Harvard Divinity School on the writer as theologian.

The first course focussed on a few major literary artists and theologians who have confronted theological issues in their writing, and compared the role of creative expression with that of theological expression, and the truths of fiction with the truths of religion. The authors he considered included Tolstoy, Kierkegaard, Karl Barth, Flannery O’Connor and Toni Morrison.

Professor Martin’s second course focussed on the poetry, prose and plays of TS Eliot, examining the way he contributed to the relationship between religion and literature. As part of their final examination, the members of the class produced Eliot’s play, The Cocktail Party.

The traditional forms in which the arts meet theology have included music, painting, architecture and sculpture, and to an increasing degree in recent decades, film. Writers who have touched theology at its deeper levels have tended to be poets, while the key narrative mode for theology is autobiography.

But few theologians have earned a reputation as writers of popular fiction, and fewer writers of popular fiction have been acclaimed as theologians.

In America, the Church has provided settings and characters for writers such as Graham Greene. But some writers of fiction have been taken seriously as moral and pastoral theologians too. At the 1996 Glenstal Ecumenical Conference, the American theologian Dr Alexandra Brown used Ruby Turpin in Flannery O’Connor’s Revelation to stress the uniqueness of Christian morality.

Flannery O’Connor, the self-styled “hilly-billy Thomist,” believed that great literature deals with ultimate concerns that are essentially theological. When I was a student, my lecturer in moral theology in moral theology included Dostoevsky and Iris Murdoch on his reading list.

But what about popular fiction?

In Canada, Margaret Craven’s novel, I Heard the Owl Call My Name, has been long accepted as a sensitive and deeply spiritual work of pastoral theology.

On this side of the Atlantic, Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles in the 19h century and Joanna Trollope in recent decades have used church in-fighting and cathedral politics as backdrops and settings. But since John Bunyan published his Pilgrim’s Progress, few novelists have emerged as respected theologians and few theologians have been popular novelists, with the possible exception of CS Lewis.

However, a new generation includes serious theologians who have become serious novelists and popular novelists who are being taken seriously by theologians. Novelists being lauded by theologians include two best-selling English writers, Susan Howatch and Catherine Fox.

Susan Howatch and the Starbridge trilogies

The author Susan Howatch has won wide acclaim among theologians for her trilogies set in the Church of England. After experiencing a religious conversion, she came moved to Ireland with her daughter in 1976, and lived in Dalkey, Co Dublin, until 1980. These trilogies were written after she returned to England, where she has lived within sight of both Salisbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey.

After returning to England in 1980, Howatch found herself “rich, successful, and living exactly where I wanted to live,” but feeling a spiritual emptiness which she ascribed to “trying to hold my divided self together” and questioning her life and what she should do with it.

She had settled in Salisbury out of love for the beauty of the town, but found herself increasingly drawn to Salisbury Cathedral. According to Professor David Ford of Cambridge University, she developed her interest in the connections between theology and natural science through the influence of Dr John Polkinghorne, the Anglican priest and scientist who is the President of Queen’s College, Cambridge.

Eventually she began to study Anglican theology and spirituality in earnest. She experienced a spiritual epiphany, and concluded that she should continue to write novels, but to “set forth my discoveries in the light of faith, no matter how feeble and inadequate my beginner’s faith was.” This personal turning point culminated in her most successful and popular works, the Starbridge series, followed by the Saint Benet’s trilogy, examining the spiritual struggles of the Anglican clergy.

In the Starbridge series of two trilogies in six books, Susan Howatch displays an intimate knowledge of the Church of England, makes deft use of multiple narrators, and ably captures the spiritual dimension of the human endeavour.

These novels set out to describe the history of the Church of England through the 20th century. Each of the six books is self-contained, and each is narrated by a different character. However, the main protagonist of each book also appears in the other books, allowing the author to present the same incidents from different viewpoints.

The narrative in all six books centres around the fictional Diocese of Starbridge, which is supposedly in the west of England, and also features the Fordite monks, a fictional Anglican monastic order. The cathedral and church characters at Starbridge are based on the real-life Salisbury.

The first three novels – Glittering Images (1987), Glamorous Powers (1988) and Ultimate Prizes (1989) – begin in the 1930s and continue through World War II.

They draw on the theology and writings of Herbert Hensley Henson, Bishop of Durham; William Ralph Inge, Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University and later Dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London; Bishop George Bell, and his encounters with Dietrich Bonhoeffer; and Charles Raven, Master of Christ’s College and Regius Professor Divinity at Cambridge.

Glittering Images is narrated by the Revd Dr Charles Ashworth, a Cambridge theologian who undergoes something of a spiritual and nervous breakdown after being sent by the Archbishop of Canterbury to secretly investigate possible sexual transgressions in the household of the Bishop of Starbridge. Ashworth is helped to recovery, and to realise the source of his problems, by Father Jonathan Darrow, the widowed Abbot of Grantchester Abbey of the Fordite Monks.

This fictional monastic community of Anglican monks, which features throughout the novels, is a Benedictine-style order modelled on the Community of the Resurrection, founded by Bishop Charles Gore, editor of the Lux Mundi collection of essays. David Ford of Cambridge has not failed to notice, with humour that she has changed Gore’s name to Ford to provide a founder for the Fordite Fathers.

Glamorous Powers follows the story of Jonathan Darrow as he leaves the Fordite Order at the age of 60 to follow a powerful vision. He then must deal with his adult children’s problems, address the question of a new intimate relationship, and search for a new ministry. His particular crisis surrounds the use and misuse of his charismatic powers of healing, and his unsettling mystical visions, or “showings.”

Ultimate Prizes, which unfolds during World War II, is narrated by Neville Aysgarth, a young and ambitious Archdeacon of Starbridge from a working class background in the north of England. After being widowed and remarried, he too undergoes something of a breakdown but is rescued by Jonathan Darrow.

The second set of three novels – Scandalous Risks (1991), Mystical Paths (1992) and Absolute Truths (1995) – take place in the 1960s. In this trilogy, she draws on the writings and theology of Bishop John Robinson, the Cambridge theologian and author of Honest to God (1963); Christopher Bryant, an Anglican monk and spiritual director; and the great spiritual director, Reginald Somerset Ward.

Scandalous Risks follows Neville Aysgarth to Westminster Abbey when he becomes a canon, and back to Starbridge, where he becomes dean and Ashworth becomes bishop. The story is narrated by Venetia Flaxton, a young aristocrat who risks great scandal by beginning a relationship with the married Aysgarth, her father’s best friend.

Mystical Paths follows Nicholas Darrow, son of Jonathan, as he narrowly avoids going off the rails prior to his ordination while investigating the mysterious disappearance of Christian Aysgarth, eldest son of the Dean Aysgarth.

Absolute Truths comes full circle and is narrated by a much more elderly but still troubled Charles Ashworth, 31 years after we first encounter him in the first of the books.

The Saint Benet’s Trilogy

The third set of three novels – the Saint Benet’s Trilogy – is set in Saint Benet’s Church London in the 1980s and 1990s. There is a well-known church of the same name in Cambridge. Again, this trilogy illustrates the changes that took place in the Church of England in those years and brings back many of the characters in the Starbridge series. However, while the Church is still at the heart of the books, there is an increased emphasis on characters who are not members of the clergy. Like the six earlier books, each book in this trilogy is written in the first person by a different narrator.

A Question of Integrity (1997, The Wonder Worker in the US) picks up the story of Nicholas Darrow 15 years after the last of the Starbridge novels. Nick is now rector of a church in the City of London where he runs a centre for a ministry of healing and deliverance using his psychic powers, and Lewis Hall, his former spiritual director, now lives and works with Nick. Venetia reappears from the Starbridge series also and takes up with Lewis Hall.

Nick’s own life is greatly affected by events taking place at the centre, especially after meeting Alice Fletcher, an insecure new worker there, and he is forced to reassess his beliefs and commitments as a result. The danger for Nick is in the temptation to become a Wonder Worker. This is where he becomes a charismatic Christian healer who works in pursuit of his own fame and glory rather than God’s.

The High Flyer (2000) tells the story of a City lawyer, Carter Graham, who knows she “has it all.” Her outwardly successful life, complete with highly compensated career and suitable marriage, undergoes profound changes after harrowing events smacking of the occult begin to occur and reveal that things are not what they seem.

Finally, The Heartbreaker (2004) follows the life of Gavin Blake, a charismatic male prostitute specialising in powerful, influential male clients, who finds himself at the centre of a criminal empire and must fight to save his life. Meanwhile, both Carter Graham and Nick Darrow must deal with their own weaknesses in trying to help Gavin.

Academic life

Susan Howatch has been a close friend of David Ford at Cambridge. She used some of the profits from her novels to found a post in the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge University, devoted to linking the fields of science and religion and with the title of Starbridge Lecturer in Natural Science and Theology. The first holder of this post is the Revd Dr Fraser Watts, an Anglican priest, psychologist and theologian.

She has lectured in theology and natural sciences at Cambridge, she is a Fellow of King’s College London, and an Honorary Fellow of both the University of Wales at Lampeter and Sarum College in Salisbury. She now lives close to Westminster Abbey.

She has been compared with Anthony Trollope by Andrew Greeley in the Washington Post and in reviews in the Church of England Newspaper. She has been the subject of analytical profiles in the Church Times and has received serious reviews in journals such as Theology, the Anglican Theological Review, and Search. The Catholic Herald said Mystical Paths was profoundly theological.

Howatch’s standing in the world of theology was further affirmed when she was invited to edit and introduce Mowbray’s four-part Library of Anglican Spirituality, bringing the works of Austin Farrar, Somerset Ward, Dorothy Sayers and H.A. Williams to the attention of a new generation.

Catherine Fox’s trilogy

Catherine Fox lives in the Cathedral Close in Lichfield, where her husband, Canon Peter Wilcox, is the canon-chancellor of Lichfield Cathedral. She graduated in English literature from Durham University and then studied post-graduate theology, earning a PhD in church history from King’s College, London, with a thesis on women and early Quakerism. She has written short stories for the Mail on Sunday and the Church Times and writes a weekly column for the Church of England Newspaper. A collection of these columns has been published as Scenes from Vicarage Life (Monarch Books).

But Catherine Fox is also the author of three novels – Angels and Men (Penguin, 1995), The Benefits of Passion (Hamish Hamilton, 1997), and Love for the Lost (Penguin 2000) – in which she explores the themes of the spiritual and the physical with insight, humour, pathos and theological engagement.

Angels and Men, her debut novel, was published to critical acclaim in 1995. The heroine and narrator is Mara Johns. The name Mara means and is the name taken by Naomi in the biblical story of Ruth after the death of her husband effectively left her a beggar in a strange land. It may be a strange name to give a child, especially when her father is a priest, but it is an appropriate name for Mara at the time in her life dealt with in Angels and Men.

Mara is an English graduate who has moved to a theological college of a northern university, not named by Fox but presumably Durham from the descriptions. She is engaged in post-graduate research on women and religious fanaticism in the 17th century, and so we can see how she draws of many of her own personal experiences.

Angels and Men follows Mara through her college life, as she makes friends despite a desire to keep to herself, and earns her the nickname Princess. She has a turbulent background, having rejected the mild Anglicanism of her father for an extreme charismatic cult. She then rejects them, in turn, and is cut off from her twin sister Hester, who remains with the cult.

Angels and Men is simply but effectively structured, with each chapter bringing in a new revelation about Mara’s background and character, so that by the end we have a well-drawn study.

Her second novel, The Benefits of Passion, is set in Coverdale, an Anglican theological college in Durham. Although it is now ten years later, little has changed.

In this book, Annie Brown is an ordinand who is more interested in the novel she is secretly writing than in her theological studies.

At the same time, she is trying to sort out her ambivalent feelings for Will, a friend of one of the other ordinands, and towards her vocation.

Annie puts her real feelings into her novel, her characters act in ways she wants to act does not dares to, and her characters are drawn from the people around her.

In her third novel, Love for the Lost, Catherine Fox tells the story of Isobel Knox, who was a minor character in The Benefits of Passion, where she was an ordinand in the same year as Annie Brown. She is now a curate in a small Teeside parish in north-east England.

The narrative follows Isobel through her two years as a curate, as she learns a lot about herself and those around her. Content and confident in her new job, she enjoys her simple, single life, stifles her feelings and buries painful memories. Openness is too painful. Then her calm, yet fragile world faces two threats: Davy and Johnny. Davy is a young policeman who falls in love with Isobel despite her aloofness. But Isobel starts to fall for Johnny, a charming priest with a troubled marriage. Her heart begins to open reminding her of the past and the pain. The experiences of loss that have haunted her psyche since childhood manifest themselves physically when she discovers the washed-up body of a child on the beach. The body vanishes with the next wave – did she imagine it?

This third novel is an engaging story of faith, forgiveness, love and loss. The tone of this book is darker than Catherine Fox’s earlier novels, but she continues to combine humour and drama and in it she is both more dramatic and more theological in her style.

While researching and writing her novels, Catherine Fox closely consulted closely Tom Wright, who was then the Dean of Lichfield Cathedral. Despite their strong language and graphic sex, these novels wrestle with the deepest theological questions, including the existence of God, the nature of sin, religious obsessions and psychological health, call and vocation, self-sacrifice, passion, death and resurrection.

She makes an insider’s criticism of evangelical dogmatism and charismatic extremes, and is not afraid to tackle topical debates, such as the ordination of women and the Church’s attitude to sexuality.

When Angels and Men first appeared, Fox’s local paper produced stories about the vicar’s wife who wrote dirty books. Then in a double-page feature in the Church Times, she spoke frankly about her Baptist childhood and her growing feelings of marginalisation from mainstream evangelicalism with the rise of movements such as Reform, which opposes the ordination of women.

Margaret Craven and a priest’s death

The American writer Margaret Craven (1901-1980) was born in Montana and grew up in Sacramento, California. After graduating from Stanford, she worked for a time as a journalist and short-story writer. Her first book looked at about the plight of the Kwakiutl First Nations people of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. This experience led to her novel, I Heard the Owl Call My Name, first published in Canada in 1967.

This novel tells the story of Mark Brian, a young Anglican priest who learns about the meaning of life when he is sent to an aboriginal parish in British Columbia. The book was not published in the US until 1973, and soon reached No.1 on the New York Times bestseller list.

Mark Brian is sent to a Native Indian village called Kingcome in British Columbia, where the people speak the language Kwakwala. He is sent by his bishop, who knows that Mark is suffering from an unnamed, fatal disease which he does not know of because the man that sent him on his journey did not tell him … because he wanted Mark to live the rest of his life to the fullest and not to worry about the future he will never have.

Mark struggles to gain acceptance from the people in the village by stressing the unity between their beliefs and his. Meanwhile, the villagers teach him about living in harmony with nature and accepting his fate. Other themes in the book include the economic disadvantages and graft the village is facing, how the national government outlaws the village’s time-honoured festivals of potlatchs on the excuse that they promote larceny.

The village also owns a gigantic colourful mask, for which the villagers refused a museum offer of several thousand dollars on the basis that it was an insufficient offer. A white man manages to buy the mask for $50 by getting one of the Indians drunk, who then proceeds to write a bill of sale on the mask. In order to ingratiate himself to the village to gain access to the mask, the white man also starts dating an attractive young woman and promises to marry her.

When acquires the mask, he leaves the young Indian woman to fend for herself on the streets of Vancouver. She is taken in at a beer parlour, works as a prostitute, and dies of a heroin overdose.

When a policeman from the Mounties tells Mark of her tragic end, we reach a turning point in the book as Mark ponders the “depth of sadness,” the destitution of the village, and man’s greed and disrespect for women.

Ironically, he does not die from his illness but is killed when a landslide crushes his boat. But his death comes only after he has made an impact on the village and the villagers have had a profound impact on him too.

Above all else, I Heard the Owl Call My Name is about change, time, and the values human beings assign to them. The novel contrasts two cultures: the complex, extroverted white society that meets its needs by manipulating its surroundings, and the secretive, tradition-bound Native American society that lives in harmony with nature and accepts things as they are.

Re-educated by his experience among the Kwakiutl, Mark learns the relative value of time; the peace, happiness, and sense of accomplishment gained from suffering and struggling with others; and, although it is easily overlooked, the unity that exists between his Christian faith and the values of a “primitive” culture.

And this book also reminds me that as priests we often find that the people we are with are priests to us, presenting God in Christ to us, and presenting us in Christ to God.

Theology, spirituality and fiction

According to David Ford, “theology that doesn’t face up to the immense issues of truth and practice isn’t doing its duty. It should be a mind-stretching subject that relates to all current issues.”

It may be a healthy reflection on the state of theology in the Church of England that popular novelists such as Susan Howatch and Catherine Fox can work so comfortably and so critically within this field. Fiction helps construct our view of reality, and popular fiction can help the general reader to enter the reality of theological debates, church life, and contemporary thinking about spirituality.

Further reading:

The novels of Margaret Craven, Catherine Fox and Susan Howatch.
Patrick Comerford, ‘An Irishman’s Diary,’ The Irish Times, 19 April 1993.
Patrick Comerford, ‘Two novel ways of approaching God,’ The Irish Times, 25 March 1997.
D.T. Myers, “Forgiven Sinners: Susan Howatch’s Church Novels,” Anglican Theological Review, Winter 1998.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for seminar in the Year III B.Th. course, Spirituality for today, on Wednesday 28 January 2009.

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