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In Defense of Common Art: Why Fiction Matters in Catholic Culture

November 5, 2020


[This piece appeared in the inaugural issue of the Word on Fire Institute’s quarterly journal, Evangelization and Culture, the theme of which was Creativity and Christian imagination. Evangelization and Culture is available to all members of the Institute. We share it here for the sheer pleasure of this excellent read. – Ed]

If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?

—John 3:12

In order to sustain a culture and a society worth having, Catholics need to engage more deeply with the best of literature—not only of the past, but also of the present; not only within our own tradition, but also outside of it. Literature matters, especially in a Church and world with so many urgent needs demanding our attention. It matters because the shared capacity to ponder and revisit detailed stories, ideas, and themes, which is required to enjoy and produce literature, is also a necessary precondition for human relationships, for other sorts of advanced study, even for liturgy and for personal prayer. If we lose this capacity, we will have lost in one move both the struggle to preserve culture and much of what makes that struggle worthwhile.

Now that I have framed a challenge, I want to explore an opportunity—namely, how the reading and writing of fiction have implications for evangelization that go beyond what we might imagine. Good things pursued for their own sakes can, very often, make us better humans. When we are better humans, we have a better chance of spreading and sharing those good things we perceive or embody, since “the good is diffusive of itself.” Evangelization changes or deepens faith—both the faith of the evangelizer and of the evangelized—and faith is not merely an accessory to life; it permeates life and transforms the way we perceive any given moment. What we believe informs how we see; how we see influences what we see; what we see drives what we do and how we live; and—coming full circle—how we choose to live becomes a decisive factor in what we will continue to believe.

Fiction is concerned with the terms at the midpoint of this loop (I picture it as a waterwheel): how we see, what we see, and mediating between the two, how we communicate what we see. Influence pours into our minds from a floodtide of sources and voices: family and friends; films and television; work and church cultures; print, digital, and social media. Written fiction is only one of these sources, and its reach is at once less immediate and less simplistic; it requires more from us, and it gives only in proportion to what attention we pay it. Yet fiction deserves more space than most of us, either in the Catholic world or in contemporary culture, make for it.

Fiction is a “common art,” as opposed to a sacred or a devotional one. Sacred and devotional arts (Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony, church architecture, countless paintings and sculptures and mosaics) take a preeminent place in the liturgy and prayer life of the Church. They concern themselves mainly with our highest perceptions and impulses, compressing the rest of life to a perspective point of near invisibility. This is right and good and entirely as it should be; this makes them suitable for use in the liturgy. Otherwise, the sacred and devotional arts could not achieve the elevation and escape velocity that allows them to transcend the quotidian and become a fitting accompaniment to worship.

But a profound response to sacred or devotional art—a sense that one has glimpsed heaven—can leave us feeling disoriented as we stagger back into the glare of the midday sun and the noise of the city street wondering: What now? Fiction has the unique capacity to respond to that question.

Fiction’s beauty is a function of its fidelity to concrete, lived experience. This fidelity is indispensable to the believability of all kinds of narratives, not only fictional ones. St. John Henry Newman correctly notes that a “sinless Literature of sinful man”[1] that makes edification its singular goal is impossible—and, even if it were possible, would be too discouraging to edify anyone. Dana Gioia, a Catholic poet, sums this up trenchantly: “Many Christian readers want inspiring books written by exemplary individuals who depict virtuous characters overcoming life’s obstacles to arrive at happy endings. These readers should avoid most Catholic literature.”[2] Instead, a robust, realist Catholic literature—one that mirrors people and things as they are, one that tells human stories in a humanly believable, compelling, and entertaining way—has the potential to nourish a culture that can also tell the great story of the Gospel in a humanly believable, compelling, engaging, and convincing way.

Someone, after all, must do the storytelling, for we cannot believe what we have not heard. And many, many people have encountered the central narrative of Christianity without truly hearing it. There may be many reasons for this—hardness of heart, cultural and educational forces—that are beyond our personal influence to change. What lies with us to change is our own skill and conviction as narrators of the story. Almost anyone who has tried to share the Gospel narrative, in a spirit of great haste to communicate the Good News, has likely had the experience of missing something essential about how stories are told, how they must be told, in order to invite belief.

There may not be that much difference between the narrative techniques that invite secondary belief in the reader of fiction and those that invite primary belief in the hearer of the evangelium. In choosing to take on human nature in Christ, God ennobled all individual human narratives as well as the whole of history. Walker Percy develops this idea:

The fact that novels are narratives about events which happen to people in the course of time is given a unique weight in an ethos that is informed by the belief that awards an absolute importance to an Event which happened to a Person in historic time. In a very real way, one can say that the Incarnation not only brought salvation to mankind but gave birth to the novel.

The Judeo-Christian tradition is about pilgrims who have something wrong with them and have embarked on a search to find a way out. This is also what novels are about.

In a word, it is my conviction that the incarnational and sacramental dimensions of Catholic Christianity are the greatest natural assets of a novelist.[3]

Percy’s view as expressed in this passage goes beyond those of Franҫois Mauriac or Flannery O’Connor, fiction writers who made impassioned and well-reasoned cases that Catholicism and creativity need not oppose one another.[4] Percy’s claim, and mine, is a still stronger one: not only need they not be contradictory, Catholicism and creativity are natural allies. The greatest natural assets of the novelist are also those of the apologist. Yet apologists in their formal work tend to steer wide of the incarnational and sacramental, engaging only with arguments, not with persons.

There often can be a deep charity at the root of this tendency. An error is an intellectual enemy that can be fought; a person must not be conceived of as an enemy but as a potential friend, a fellow human, deserving of respect whether we can think together or not; and since the art of civil disagreement has fallen to a low point in our time, many are reluctant to disagree with an interlocutor at all. And apologists are often dealing with errors in philosophy, where precision is important and metaphor involves risk of misunderstanding. The best apologists, though, move beyond this. They draw forth a positive response because they treat their audiences not as straw men, not as a sequence of bad arguments that must be dismantled, but as individual persons who have either consciously or unwittingly embraced those arguments for reasons stretching deep into their own relational, cultural, and generational histories.

In other words, they are able to settle a divergent dilemma (and false dichotomy)—shall I tell the truth to this person, or shall I instead show love?—by turning it into a “convergent dilemma”[5]: How can I exercise empathy while also sharing what I have seen and heard? They recognize that people often embrace philosophical and theological error for perceptual and even emotional reasons, and so they are not afraid of engaging perception and emotion in pursuit of truth.

This is the opposite of reducing truth to subjectivity; this is the ability to honor differing subjective impressions without losing sight of the ultimately objective character of truth. The reading of fiction can be a profound help toward cultivating this ability.

Becoming attentive, patient readers of fiction also tends to develop our skill as readers and interpreters of both personal and cultural histories. The act of narrative interpretation, of “reading” history and reality as clues to the knowledge of God’s deeply mysterious will, is embedded and explicitly practiced in Scripture. Thus, a certain capacity in narrative interpretation is also an implicit prerequisite for a robust personal faith. In a way, salvation history starts all over again in each soul and must run the full course of its narrative arc in each human life. Becoming close readers of experience may help us to see this arc’s development—that is, to see God’s presence and saving work, especially where it may not be obvious, where we may now be blind to it.

In short, an engagement with the best in fiction offers us a path toward attaining an intellectual habit that many serious readers and serious Catholics desire—namely, an understanding of human character, of motive, and of the kinds of narrative arc that are inherently pleasing and displeasing to the human mind and heart. This kind of understanding, rooted in empathy, is useful not only for following subtleties of plot and character, but also for engaging with people’s individual reasons for believing or not believing. It also offers concrete help toward the project of presenting higher truths in a compelling way. Empathy is, if not a necessary precondition for evangelization, at least a preparatory factor toward it. In short, similar empathetic and attentive skills come into play when practicing good evangelization and when reading or writing good fiction.

Good fiction presumes the presence of the reader’s best self in the act of reading. As prizewinning author George Saunders puts it, good fiction “imagine[s] you generously.”[6] It trusts your intelligence; it honors your perceptions, even when it sets out to confound some of them. It takes for granted your compassion, your willingness to extend intellectual charity to the lives and motives of the characters, and in this act it invites you to generate and receive understandings that you did not previously possess. Fiction that does not at least try to do these things quickly ends up lying on the shelf or night table, half finished, for reasons you can only vaguely articulate to yourself (“It moved too slowly,” “I didn’t like the protagonist,” “I don’t know . . . I just couldn’t get into it”).

Saunders draws the consequences for the fiction writer amusingly, yet with a hint of peril: underestimate your reader, and “the reader cries foul, and . . . she throws down the book and wanders away to get on to Facebook, or rob a store.”[7]

When evangelizing, the stakes are obviously higher than when writing fiction, but the same features of human nature are relevant to both. Fail to imagine your listener generously, underestimate his or her intelligence, natural virtue, or human aspiration, and he or she will quickly tune you out. Facile faith-based fiction and brusque apologetics can sometimes share a common fault of technique—namely, a lack of intellectual charity, a neglect to imagine the potential audience generously enough. Authentic engagement with literature can help us overcome this fault of imagination. Literary art enables us to comprehend new depths and breadths of human experience, and this vicarious experience better fits us to communicate across borders of generation, class, culture, and belief.

When we make ourselves believable about earthly things, we may also become persuasive about heavenly things. Of course, any conversion of the heart is absolutely the work of the Holy Spirit and not of our linguistic art which, no matter how competent and polished, is only an instrument in the hand of God. The art of apologetics and the art of fiction are, and should remain, distinct enterprises with distinct processes and fruits. But on the natural level, there is no reason the two arts cannot be practiced by some of the same writers, as they should certainly be appreciated by many of the same readers.



[1] John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 158.

[2] Dana Gioia, “The Catholic Writer Today,” Santa Clara Magazine, June 21, 2014,

[3] Walker Percy, Signposts in a Strange Land, ed. Patrick Samway (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991), 366.

[4] See Francois Mauriac, God and Mammon, trans. Raymond N. Mackenzie (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003) and Flannery O’Connor, “Novelist and Believer,” in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1957).

[5] See E.F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 97-99.

[6] George Saunders, “What Writers Really Do When They Write,” The Guardian, March 4, 2017,

[7] Saunders, “What Writers Really Do When They Write.”