IN A MUCH-DEBATED 2013 ESSAY, “The Catholic Writer Today,” Dana Gioia noticed a paradox. Despite the fact that Catholics are the largest denomination in the United States by a wide margin, as he saw it, there was no distinctively Catholic presence, voice, or vision within the landscape of contemporary American literary art. Compared to the situation sixty years before, when Catholics like Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Ernest Hemingway, and Jack Kerouac were fixtures of American literary culture, he was struck by the lack of any new equivalent cohort.
For Gioia, Catholic fiction is marked not just by a common baptism, but by a common vision and themes. Catholic authors, he writes, “tend to see humanity struggling in a fallen world” and “combine a longing for grace and redemption with a deep sense of human imperfection and sin.” They tend to see nature as sacramental and suffering as potentially redemptive, and to acknowledge the legitimacy of a perspective outside of history—a vantage point from which a final judgment is intelligible. While often bawdy, violent, darkly comic, even rude, they refuse sentimentality, cynicism, and nihilism.
If we accept Gioia’s criteria for Catholic fiction, then it seems to me that the American Catholic literary scene is showing renewed signs of life. His lament was published one year before a young Catholic writer, Phil Klay, won the National Book Award for his debut collection of short stories, Redeployment, and just one year after another Catholic writer, Christopher Beha, published his debut novel, What Happened to Sophie Wilder.
In 2020, both men released complex novels that explore questions of freedom, the meaning and intelligibility of our choices, and the human need to make sense of a world that feels alien and hostile to our desire to find a sense of purpose and place within it. Both writers tap into the potential that Gioia identifies, for “Christian literature to depict the material world, the physical world of the senses, while also revealing behind it another invisible and eternal dimension.” And both are focused on aspects of original sin and the need for grace and redemption.
“What do you do with stories like this?” This is the question that Valencia Pulido—the privileged and sheltered daughter of a Columbian military officer—asks herself after hearing Alma, a poor woman in a remote, war-torn village, recall how, at thirteen, she was gang-raped by paramilitary men. Alma describes being spat upon and demeaned, how she bled, how she was forced to thank her rapists for “pleasing her,” and how her boyfriend blamed and beat her for what happened, only to then impregnate and abandon her.
Valencia’s question is one that readers of Phil Klay’s debut novel, Missionaries, are likely to ask themselves more than once. Klay explores the grim, visceral realities of America’s cross-pollinating wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Columbia; he is especially interested in how global webs of violence and domination transform his characters and their communities, and how we try to make sense of and heal our deepest wounds. Each of Klay’s characters is driven by a mission, and it is their faith in their missions—a faith that necessarily goes beyond all evidence because it is the key to interpreting any possible evidence—that shapes the narrative of their lives.
The novel is structured so that we get to know its main characters by way of staggered episodes from their lives, narrated in first person. But as the novel moves swiftly towards its climax, Klay switches to a more objective third-person perspective, bringing several plotlines into a single narrative.
First we meet Abelito, a young boy from a poor Catholic family who goes to a school run by American evangelical missionaries. In church he sees a suffering Christ above the altar; the priest tells him the cross is the true symbol of the love of God, who sacrificed his son for our redemption. While at school he learns of an American, evangelical God—a God of exchange, who crowns us with the certitude of salvation if only we make a simple act of faith—in his heart he remains faithful to “the terrifying, holy Christ of Cunaviche,” a wounded God, in agony over sin.
Abelito’s childhood is disrupted by political conflict, his family and community destroyed by political violence. Beaten almost to the point of death, Abelito is saved by a paramilitary soldier, who holds his broken body “the way the Virgin Mary must have held the corpse of Christ.” This merciful act occasions Abelito’s transformation into Abel, an obedient and skilled paraco who works for Jefferson, a power-hungry and cruel paramilitary leader who controls many poor towns in need of services that neither the government nor the FARC will provide. As one of Jefferson’s top men, he finds a sense of power, purpose, and belonging.
We also meet Lisette Marigny, an American journalist working in Kabul, Afghanistan. Her life is her career, which is unremarkable—she’s a measly wire reporter in a region no one cares about anymore. Lisette is lonely, frustrated, and cynically detached; any sense of purpose she once had has been beaten out of her by the discrepancy between the horrors she covers and apathy back home. Disillusioned, she ends up in Columbia trying to cover a war she knows nothing about, because she thinks it is the one place where America isn’t losing. Lisette’s mission in Columbia is to tell the stories of those who suffer from America’s imperial entanglements; it is also, not accidentally, her best chance to jumpstart her flagging career.
Next we meet Mason, a special forces medic trying to navigate the different terms and conditions of his two worlds: the conflict in Iraq, where he is continually deployed, and his brief, intermittent stretches of domestic life back in North Carolina. The vulnerability and weakness of the human body impresses Mason, and at times he is tempted to see it as a sign of the ultimate insignificance of human life. But he also sees the world as meaningless in comparison to our wounds. He believes we are called to make some sense of our suffering.
Mason is conflicted about his work. On the one hand, he will tell people that it’s honorable, that his killing abroad demonstrates that he is willing to make sacrifices for the good and that “the mission was worth it” because “the men we were hunting were truly evil.” But Mason also admits to himself that he loves the excitement of combat and death—it is thrilling, at times even erotic. Still, he has witnessed horrors that he cannot process; he is haunted by images of dead and mangled children. In the end, however, Mason’s faith endures. Yes, war is messy and ugly, but the mission is good, and his service makes him an honorable man.
Finally, we meet Juan Pablo, the most complex, vivid, and compelling of Klay’s characters. A politically conservative and patriotic Columbian military officer, his story unfolds as a series of shifting missions: first to God, then to country, then to fatherhood. Juan Pablo sends his daughter, Valencia, to the university of Nacional, even though it is well known for its left-wing intelligentsia. Juan Pablo tries to show her the truth about Che Guevara, “a fake Christ promising a fake salvation.” But Valencia ends up joining one of her leftist professors on a project in La Viaga. She longs “to spend time with the defeated and scorned.”
Juan Pablo is exasperated by his daughter’s religious impulses, which are familiar to him. As a boy, Juan Pablo believed wholeheartedly in “a terrible sense of the true meaning of the world,” a sense that “sin and pain were real, and mattered.” But as he grew older, Juan Pablo lost his faith in God. He became drawn to the monastic life of the soldier, where traditions, moral codes, and habits are ordered around the work of the violence. Juan Pablo sees this violence as purposeful: it creates order, safety, and opportunity. Such work became sacred to him. But the ugly realities of war eventually pierce this illusion, leaving Juan Pablo at last devoted to his daughter. If anything can redeem his life, it will be whatever contribution he can make to her flourishing. He longs to create a world for her that is safe, one that is so free from the chaos and terror that are his daily bread that she might one day be able to look upon what he had to do to create it with the sort of moral disgust that only the sheltered can afford.
Violence is an agent of change in Klay’s story, but so is grace. The differences in how characters respond are instructive. Take, for example, Luisa and Abel. Both are victims broken by brutal domination, but they take dramatically different paths of healing. After witnessing her father’s horrific murder at the hands of paracos, Luisa devotes her life to those in need around her, working to harness their pain for the sake of justice and reconciliation. Luisa prays Psalm 88 daily while kneeling before the bloody and wounded Christ in the very church that was a place of refuge and solace in Abel’s childhood. Her prayer—a lament over the darkness, suffering, and the terrors of God’s wrath—is no cheap grace, but it allows her to overcome her alienation from humanity. Abel, on the other hand, leaves Christ behind and embraces the very forms of violence that destroyed his own family and community. When Luisa eventually demands that he stop working for Jefferson, even if that means he must “die a good man and see Christ,” he dismisses her as an idealist. Abel wants to be a decent man, but he is unwilling to suffer for this end.
Many reviews of Klay’s novel have focused on what it reveals about the unjust economic and political order that drives globalized combat. But these systems, while undoubtedly corrupt, are symptoms of the deeper issues that interest Klay. His novel suggests that the human story will always take shape in response to our wounds. For each of Klay’s characters, as for us, trauma and the possibility of transcendence, suffering and redemption, are mysteriously and irrevocably intertwined.
While Missionaries offers a trenchant and timely critique of US military policy, it is also a profoundly spiritual novel, one that strikes at the very heart of human woundedness—what Saint Augustine called the “libido dominandi,” the lust for domination that characterizes our fallen state. Pope Francis once compared the church to a field hospital, whose mission is to bind the wounds of humanity with God’s grace. It seems to me that Klay is working through this metaphor in his novel. For while we may tell ourselves that we are fighting the good fight, and while we may be convinced that we can earn our own redemption or heal ourselves, the truth is far less self-congratulatory. And Klay ends his novel with a prayer for that truth, which is both hell and paradise.
Everyone loves a good redemption story. Or so a cynical New York editor tells a disgraced writer he has just unceremoniously fired near the end of Christopher Beha’s latest novel, The Index of Self-Destructive Acts. Whereas Klay explores the complicated mechanisms of external violence that shape our lives, Beha focuses on the destructive forces within us and all the ridiculous ways we manage to hurt ourselves. While the book’s title references a baseball statistic—the sum of all the errors a pitcher makes that are entirely in his control—his two main characters, both ambitious male writers whose careers are tethered to the analysis of baseball and politics, are veritable experts at getting in their own way, with tragic-comic results.
The story begins and ends with a philosophical question: What makes for a life, self or circumstance? It is a question about the nature and limits of free human agency. To what extent are we writing our own stories, given that our choices are made within circumstances we cannot control and do not fully comprehend? Two contrasting approaches to the question, and two ultimately unsatisfying answers, are embodied by the novel’s central characters, Sam Waxworth and Frank Doyle.
To complicate his question, Beha opens his novel with a nod to fate. Herman Nash, a street preacher in Manhattan, has proclaimed that the end of the world—“the Great Unveiling”—will occur on November 1 at 10 p.m. The year is 2009. Obama has just ascended to the presidency, and many American institutions are in decline; the great recession and the quagmire in Iraq loom large.
Sam, the archetypal young man from the provinces who comes to New York City to realize his ambitions, is a stat-head baseball nerd from Wisconsin who makes a living on his talent for predictions. He has successfully predicted enough winners in baseball and politics to earn the modicum of fame necessary to land a writing job at an established magazine.
Sam fancies himself a philosopher, and in his more reflective moments he sounds like a cross between Albert Camus and Nate Silver: aware of the human impulse to construct a grand narrative in a world that is alien and lacks any ultimate coherence, Sam carefully limits himself to what can be made intelligible within a quantitative and probabilistic framework. He rejects the search for an ultimate meaning or purpose because he thinks it impedes our ability to make reasonable choices. The idea that we can control the future is an illusion. The future, Sam argues, is “brought into being by chance, contingency, and unintended consequences”; therefore the best bet is to work out the odds that our own preferences can be satisfied in any given situation. In the end, successful human action boils down to knowing what one wants and being able to calculate the odds of getting it. Success comes down to a combination of talent, good fortune, and solid Bayesian technique.
Sam’s first big assignment at his new job is to write a profile of Frank Doyle, a disgraced newspaper columnist and political commentator who wrote a book of essays on baseball that had a formative place in Sam’s own unhappy childhood. While Sam’s writing career is ascendant, Frank has ruined his own by making a racist joke about President Obama on air, a mistake which cost him his job and his influence. While Sam is an atheist who rejects “dead traditions” and “wishful thinking,” Frank is a lapsed Irish Catholic who still values ritual, history, tradition, and the arts.
While Sam is interested in scientific prediction, Frank is interested in meaning and narrative. Frank wants to capture and account for “all the glorious particularities of life, the things that could not be captured on a spreadsheet, that could be understood only by telling stories about them.” As far as Frank is concerned, the statisticians could answer all questions that admit of objectivity and “we’d still be left with everything that matters.” Frank loathes the “numerarchy” that Sam represents; it has disenchanted and ruined what matters to him; it has drained the objects of his passions of their beauty, allure, and significance. For Frank, baseball is the sacred ritual at the heart of American life—statistical analysis of it a grotesque profanation.
Frank understands that, as a writer, he is primarily a spectator in life. He faces the same strange dilemma as the baseball fan who is suddenly projected onto the jumbotron during a game: one cannot observe and act simultaneously. If the fan looks into the camera to play his role, he will miss his brief moment of fame; but if he opts to witness his own triumph, the camera will quickly move on to someone else. Most fans, Frank notes, will try to escape the dilemma by splitting the difference between action and contemplation.
Frank longs for a way out of this dilemma, for a resolution between action and contemplation. He wishes for a “recording angel”—someone who can observe human events, including those of his own life, sub specie aeternitatis. For if there were a heavenly recorder, then Frank could be assured that someone would make sense of his life, that it would not be lost to memory but would always be an object of significance.
Sam also struggles to reconcile the competing demands of speculation and action, though in a different way. He wants to write a self-help book that demonstrates how Bayesian principles can help people make better choices. Yet he is unable to live according to the principles that have served him so well as a professional prognosticator. Although Sam married his college girlfriend and believes that this choice was correct from a decision theory standpoint as an instance of “a straightforward optimal stopping exercise,” he nevertheless finds himself erotically attracted to Margot, Frank’s daughter and spitting image, and this attraction is the beginning of his long and comical unraveling.
Bayesian decision theory can’t save Sam from his erotic predicament, because it does not touch his contradictory desires or his lack of self-knowledge—such troubles are all too human but cannot be solved by any possible technique. But Sam is not alone in his self-deception or his self-destructive impulses. It is unsurprising that when the “Great Unveiling” finally occurs, no one in Beha’s complex drama can make heads or tails of the way things have come to an end. The need for redemption is palpable.
If Beha’s novel explores two competing philosophical pictures of human freedom—Frank’s liberal humanism and Sam’s reductive naturalism—in the end the reader is left to wonder whether we need a third option, one that is adequate to the mystery of our nature. For it is in our choices that we experience the limits of our self-understanding and the pressures of our unchosen circumstances. We are forced to make our decisions within the liminal space between the generality of what we know and want and the particular demands of our circumstances. It is a shadowy realm, between the possible and actual, and it is here that human freedom becomes both real and burdensome. It is the place where we feel most deeply our helplessness—and our need for outside illumination or aid.
In the end, it seems that Frank points us to the possibility of a third way. For Frank recognizes that our actions are meaningless without others to interpret them; he affirms, with Wittgenstein, that the “sense of the world must lie outside the world.” Frank sees, in a way that Sam does not, the need for transcendence, because the contradictions of human life cannot be resolved from within it. To see and accept this truth is to catch a glimpse of what true freedom might be.
While Klay’s novel is more explicitly theological in its vision and Beha’s more philosophical, both deal with the reality of the woundedness of human nature, and both connect this woundedness to our struggle to make sense of our own lives and to attain even a modicum of self-knowledge. Each novel suggests that we cannot heal or fix ourselves, and that if our longed-for redemption ever comes, it will not be at our own hands, or of our own design.
Jennifer Frey is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina and fellow of the Institute for Human Ecology at the Catholic University of America. She has published widely on agency and ethics, writing for First Things, Fare Forward, Law and Liberty, The Point, and USA Today. She lives in Columbia, South Carolina, with her husband, six children, and six chickens.