Friday, August 22, 2008

The Problem with Catholic Writers

From the perspective of an ardent Catholic, and my favorite author, Flannery O'Connor. Now, in all honesty, O'Connor is specifically criticizing Catholic readers, but I think the same criticism could be levied against many Catholic writers (Tolkien and CS Lewis, I'm looking at you).

"Ideal Christianity doesn't exist, because anything the human being touches, even Christian truth, he deforms slightly in his own image...[The tendency of Catholic readers] is always toward the abstract and therefore toward allegory, thinness, and ultimately what they are looking for is apologetic fiction. The best of them think: make it look desirable because it is desirable. And the rest of them think: make it look desirable so I won't look like a fool for holding it."

-- The Habbit of Being: Letters. Edited by Sally Fitzgerald. New York, 1969. Pg 516.

I've always wondered what it is about the Lord of the Rings, or the Chronicles of Narnia, or even His Dark Materials, that I find off-putting. I think generally it is an aversion to fantasy. But when I read O'Connor's words, I realize there is another dimension to my distaste and it lies in the "thinness" and apologetic nature of the writing.

For instance, when Gandalf the Grey sacrifices himself in the first novel, it is a heart-stirring and tragic act of heroism and selflessness. And then what happens? He comes back as Gandalf the White, even better and with greater power!

Now what reasonable writer would do that? By bringing Gandalf back, Tolkien effectively removes all of the tragedy and beauty of his original sacrifice. The same can be said of the lion Aslan from the Chronicles of Narnia. Perhaps it's just a matter of personal taste, but I think both writers might have done better to drop the Jesus allegory all together so as to preserve the emotional impact of their sacrifices, even if they might have lost a few rabid Catholic readers along the way.

I believe as Flannery O'Connor believed, "The writer is only free when he can tell the reader to go jump in the lake."

Then again, perhaps that's what Tolkien and Lewis are telling me.


SuiginChou said...

Your best "having anything to do with religion" update in a long time. You cited good criticisms. They were criticisms voiced, of all people, by a Catholic himself. And I really like how you didn't dwell on the religion but rather used it to illustrate a writing point -- and shoe-on-the-other-foot used the writing point to illustrate the religious point -- in great balance.

And I agree with your point about ruining good tragedy for the sake of anything. In Gandalf's and Aslan's cases, religious allegory, perhaps; but in Pixar's latest case, certainly nothing more than "we're too chicken to make little children cry and earn the wrath of the PTA."

Jay said...

You know, I've meant to tell you, ever since your review of Wall-e, I have heard a few adults say, "I loved Wall-e, but my kids didn't like it as much." I think maybe you were right about it being a tough film for children!

Mike said...

Why'd you lump in his dark materials? Isn't that more of an anti catholic series?