Skip to content

Log Out




I resent the question, but that doesn’t mean it stops getting asked. Indeed, a cottage industry of books and essays feeds on the question, “Why should Christians read novels?” I want to live in a world where that makes about as much sense as asking why humans should breathe. Nevertheless, here we are.

To answer it, you end up instrumentalizing art. Novels becomes tools for some other noble end: Read fiction to be virtuous! Read novels to restore a lost morality! Read novels to learn something about God! The novel becomes ethics or theology by other means. (Sadly, talking this way about art is also a requirement of fundraising and grant applications.)

Even addressing the question is tantamount to forfeiture: as soon as you open your mouth, the forces of instrumental rationality have already won. You’ve adopted the polemical posture of argument. Despite the best of intentions, your justification plays by the logic of the op-ed rather than embodying fiction’s unique invitation to taste and see.

Maybe it’s easier to argue about fiction—to spend our time justifying fiction—than to make and read it. Constructing a case for why Christians should read novels is like going on a silent retreat to the local hermitage and posting incessantly about it on Instagram. Dwelling contemplatively is hard. The imagination is, for too many, a foreign country. Arguing about is easier than being. Perhaps this is true in the same way that it’s safer and more comfortable to talk about God than risk actual encounter.


A recent version of the query was posed by Sara Kyoungah White in Christianity Today. She comes at it from a particular angle: Which novels should people of faith be reading? White is rightly skeptical of the Christian tendency to recommend the so-called classics and great books as the only novels worth reading. (God bless Randy Boyagoda’s much-discussed 2013 polemic that boldly begins: “I’m sick of Flannery O’Connor.”) White detects a literary nostalgia in all this: Christians might feel more comfortable in the novels of the Regency and Victorian eras, when a world of Christian morality and belief was still the given gestalt. Perhaps, she suggests, we prefer the fiction of the past as an escape from our post-Christian present.

White celebrates the gifts of contemporary fiction as repaying the attention of religious readers. She argues that “novels of belief” are still being written, that we can find God in them if only we look carefully enough. Her essay is worth reading, and I’m grateful for any fellow champion of contemporary fiction, but in the end, it brings me back to my old skepticism. Do we really have to keep justifying fiction to those who aren’t naturally drawn to it?


All of which got me asking of myself, why do I read contemporary fiction? Is this a form of the question that might evade the devouring demands of instrumentalization?

My personal contemporary canon does not include many Christians or people of faith. (There are exceptions, of course: Jon Fosse and Sarah Stone, Phil Klay and Chigozie Obioma, for instance.) The novels that have shaped my imagination have not, largely, been “novels of belief,” but that doesn’t mean they are not intentionally spiritual worlds. In the fiction of Garth Greenwell, Idra Novey, Yxta Maya Murray, Julian Barnes, Sally Rooney, and Jeremy Cooper, I meet characters animated by longings that can only be described as transcendent. God or religion might never be a factor in these fictional worlds, but in such fiction I spend time alongside—or, rather, inside—characters who are profoundly human, conflicted, and complex, who refuse to be reduced to demographics or stereotypes. I would describe such novels as spiritual because they attest to the ways that we humans are more than meat. We have aspirations and hungers that are infinite. We experience evils that we somehow know should not be; indeed, we commit evil in ways inexplicable. And the longing for forgiveness is inscribed in the human heart.

Recently having reread Pensées, I would say these sorts of contemporary novelists glimpse human beings the same way Pascal did, with his Augustinian eye:

What a figment of the imagination human beings are! What a novelty, what monsters! Chaotic, contradictory, prodigious, judging everything, mindless worm of the earth, storehouse of truth, cesspool of uncertainty and error, glory and reject of the universe. Who will unravel this tangle?

Give me novels that nest in this tangle. Give me fiction that wrangles with the glorious monsters we are. And give me stories that revel in the rollercoaster ride of a sentence, in prose that is not merely the medium for a plot but beats with a poetic heart.

I’m not looking for God in contemporary fiction. I’m looking for humans, and it is my faith that compels the search. What makes such contemporary fiction spiritually significant is what I might describe as haunted humanism.


Take, for example, the remarkable body of work by Marie NDiaye, a celebrated novelist in her native France who deserves more attention here, and one who wouldn’t make it into our predictable “faith and fiction” canons.

While each of NDiaye’s novels is unique, there are enduring themes. She is acutely attuned to the dynamics of class, for instance. Almost every story involves characters who have climbed a social ladder, and their new place is always tenuous and fraught. They dangle like Jonathan Edwards’s infamous spider above the fire. But here, the angry god is class expectation and the politesse of social stratification. These characters live on edge, as if someone is always about to notice they are out of place and expose their secret. NDiaye’s novels often feel like oblique responses to creeping xenophobia in France.

Perhaps this is why NDiaye’s fiction often explores certain transgressions of borders. In My Heart Hemmed In, Nadia dares to leave behind her upbringing and ethnic heritage. In Vengeance Is Mine, Sharon and her husband dare to leave their home in Mauritania and immigrate to France. In That Time of Year, the transgression is temporal: Herman and his family dare to stay in the bucolic village after the first of September. They have “crossed over the border of summer.” NDiaye’s protagonists are always plagued by the dis-ease of being out of place. This is what Freud described as the Unheimlich, the not-at-home-ness of the uncanny.

The mood and tone of NDiaye’s novels re-create that same anxiety-infused ethos, that same sense of foreboding, bewilderment, and horror. Some inexplicable foreign presence, some ominous threat, always disrupts and hangs over characters. Some perplexing shame clasps their fragile, fearful hearts. My Heart Hemmed In, for instance, reads like a fever dream of creeping paranoia and fear. The prose is taut, clipped, like the shallow breathing of someone frightened and trying not to show it.

Intriguing, to me, is that NDiaye’s stories almost always involve some supernatural, paranormal aspect. In That Time of Year, visitors to the village seem to pass into a strange immortality, a ghostlike existence. It is surprising how easily Herman comes to accept this. In Ladavine, young Annika is accompanied (haunted) by the spectral presence of a black-eyed dog that seems to be her dead mother. She avoids coming face-to-face with the dog when her father walks her to school, “because if her father’s eyes met the dog’s, might he not recognize them, as if in spite of himself, and in spite of his little capacity for believing in such things?” In My Heart Hemmed In, the presence is described as demonic, something that will swell within Nadia until she is delivered of it. But just what it is remains incomprehensible: “A quick, black, glistening thing that left a faint trail of blood on the floor, all the way to the door.”

This is not quite magical realism but something akin: a haunted realism, we might say. A world that cannot be adequately explained or understood with the tools of naturalism. Which is to say: a lot like our world. A world where we are often mystified.

Not knowing seems to be NDiaye’s point. In her fiction, our epistemological
confidence is always rattled. In Vengeance Is Mine, it is said of Maître Susane’s father that “he didn’t like mysteries, he found strangeness personally humiliating.” This seems indicative of the modern condition: we hate not knowing, not being in the know. The novel’s last line voices a worry that reflects its own humility: “Could I be mistaken?”

It’s not so much that NDiaye’s narrators aren’t reliable; they are simply thrown into situations where they don’t know what the hell is going on. Much as we are. These novels provoke the question: Am I going crazy?

In My Heart Hemmed In, we inhabit this uncertainty through Nadia, who, over just a couple of days, sees her entire world dissolve into perplexity. Her beloved students now fear her; her neighbors recoil at the sight of her; her husband is violently attacked for no apparent reason; everyone wants her to leave. Her constant refrain is some form of I don’t know. “Why do I never know anything?” she croaks. If she finds a way to cope, it is because she learns to live with the unbelievable. The same is true for Maître Susane in Vengeance Is Mine: she finds something like peace when she learns to “enjoy suspending any reflex to reconcile what she knew with what she perceived.”

This wrestling with the mysterious seems entirely germane to a life of faith in our modern world, where we often struggle to reconcile our naturalistic habits of mind with the world we inhabit: hurting and haunted, yet not bereft of hope eternal.

NDiaye bears witness not only to the incursion of inexplicable evil but also to the equally gratuitous gifts of grace. In a stirring moment at the end of Vengeance Is Mine, a capitalized Mystery appears as an agent of good. Given her life, Maître Susane is no less bewildered by Love:

Rudy had kissed her on the lips.
Lila had pressed herself to her breast, whimpering with pleasure.
What hell are we emerging from? Me Susane had wondered, bewildered.
What battle?
And did we win?
Who are we, in this place, to each other?
Who is Lila to me?
A wound, a sign, a stroke of good fortune?
A Mystery?





Photo by Tom Hermans on Unsplash

Image depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.

+ Click here to make a donation.

+ Click here to subscribe to Image.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Related Editorial

In Praise of Boredom


James K.A. Smith

The Best of Rivals


James K.A. Smith

The Unfinished Cathedral


James K.A. Smith

Besides, Before, Beyond Beauty


James K.A. Smith

Receive ImageUpdate, our free weekly newsletter featuring the best from Image and the world of arts & faith

* indicates required