The Truth of Fiction

May 03, 2015

The Impact of the Resurrection On Writing and Criticism

Anton Chekhov famously said that the purpose of fiction is to tell the truth. All literary theories depend on the definition of truth, on the construction of the all-encompassing system by which the words of the world ought to be measured. Pilate famously asked, “What is truth,” and in the answer is contained the nature of the world, of man, and of man’s moral duty in the world. Pilate asked his question to Christ, the man and God who shortly died, but in three days rose again according to the Scriptures. In this resurrection he accomplished the renewal of all creation, bending again a bent world back to the straight symmetry for which it was first created. In Christ God became man, bringing the infinite God into finite flesh, the ultimate union of the divine with the mundane, of the metaphysical with the physical, of the reality with the image. The man who was God, standing in a public place surrounded by men created in his image, after his likeness, was asked how he could say “I have come down from heaven.” In reply, he said, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” By membership with this Christ, by partaking through this concrete, physical sacrament of communion with his body, man partakes in the resurrection of Christ. The world is a sacrament, in which the physical and the metaphysical embrace, in which the creation is ennobled by the incarnation of its creator. Moreover, the salvation of the world rests not merely in some spiritualization, in some abstraction whereby the real becomes a cloud, but in Christ’s resurrection from the dead, in the rising of a physical body made still more physical. As Father Capon wrote, “One real thing is closer to God than all the diagrams in the world.”[1] Man was created a hungry being, and food is made a sacrament. If fiction is to be an true mirror, if it is to tell the truth about the world, it is nothing if not sacramental. Fiction points to the reality, not beyond the world, but wrapped up with the world. The Eucharist does not interpret Christ for us because it is alien from Christ, separated by flesh from a disembodied existence, but instead it presents Christ to us bodily. The bread is bread, and yet is Christ; in the wine we find both grape-skins and yeast, and yet the same blood which poured from the side of our Lord as he swallowed up death by death. In the same way fiction interprets the world it presents, not by divorcing itself from the world we touch and taste, nor by ignoring the metaphysical and moral significance of every concrete detail, but by presenting both intimately bound up with one another. Just as the physical world does, just as the bread and wine of the Eucharist do, just as Christ does. C. S. Lewis, in his essay on “Transposition,” makes this very point of another art form, the picture. “Pictures are part of the visible world themselves and represent it only by being part of it… If I had to name the relation I should call it not symbolical but sacramental.”[2] In imaginative literature, the spiritual and metaphysical becomes concrete, incarnate. In the last part of this essay, having already taken the term ‘transposition’—which “occurs whenever the higher reproduces itself in the lower”[3]—and applied it to the relationships between art and reality, between God and man, he turns to the resurrection. The relation of art to reality, he says, parallels the relation between present humanity and resurrected humanity. Reality itself can stand out under the giant sky, and see from one hazy horizon to the other. Although fiction is, in comparison, a telescoped view, it nevertheless partakes of the same reality, just as our present bodies partake of the same flesh with their resurrected counterparts. Fiction, as a necessary result of its close binding with the eternal and metaphysical—I can even say, the divine—is inherently moral. John Gardner, the late writer and critic, said that “art is essentially and primarily moral—that is, life-giving—moral in its process of creation and moral in what it says.”[4] The moral framework of the world does not exist independently of its relation with the divine, but rather in its relation with the divine. Gardner carries this definition to its logical conclusion: “If art destroys good, mistaking it for evil, then that art is false, an error; it requires denunciation.”[5] But there is another pitfall. The trap of evangelical art is that, while upholding “good” in the face of “evil,” it lies about the world by describing and defining good and evil incorrectly. It attempts to divorce morality from truth. Instead of making sense of the world through the sacramental union of the physical and the spiritual, of truth and morality, it abstracts its moral system from the concrete. Insofar as it makes this abstraction its creed, it is Gnostic, rather than incarnational. Morality is not something separate from the world in which it exists. Just as it is impossible to understand God without grasping the self (and vice-versa), it is likewise impossible for fiction to be moral without articulating the world truthfully. Peter Leithart, in is essay, “Why Evangelicals Can’t Write,” diagnoses the Gnostic fiction of evangelicalism as a sacramental error. “Modern Protestants,” he says, “can’t write because we have no sacramental theology.”[6] Flannery O’Connor, a model of sacramental writing, and an outspoken critic of the latent Gnosticism so characteristic of modern fiction, wrote that, “The Manicheans separated spirit and matter. To them all material things were evil. They sought pure spirit and tried to approach the infinite directly without any mediation of matter. This is also pretty much the modern spirit, and for the sensibility infected with it, fiction is hard if not impossible to write because fiction is so much an incarnational art.”[7] Instead, she says, it is the duty of the Christian artist to penetrate “the concrete world, in order to find at its depths the image of its source, the image of ultimate reality.”[8] The concrete marks of Manichean fiction are a sentimental piety that shirks truth in favor of nicety, and finds the morality of a work in surface details and content rather than in its likeness with the world we touch and know. Flannery O’Connor’s story, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” for example, the Gnostic could condemn as immoral; after all, evil triumphs over good (the Misfit shoots all the decent people), and good itself is noticeably absent (the central character, the granny, is self-righteous and corrupt until just before she is mercilessly shot). But as O’Connor herself wrote, the reader who submits to such a superficial analysis “has reduced his conception of the supernatural to pious cliché and has become able to recognize nature in literature in only two forms, the sentimental and the obscene.”[9] “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” is not a fairy tale; its characters do not live happily ever after following the final defeat of evil. The central issue is its truth: its characters are accurate, and good and evil are described truthfully. If the evil described is truly evil, then we that it is impossible for it to ultimately triumph over good, and it is this knowledge which allows us to interpret correctly a story, such as O’Connor’s, in which good seems to be beaten down on this temporal plane of sin and death. It is the first task of the critic, therefore, rather than taking the author’s descriptions of good and evil for granted, to ask whether they are true. It is only because of this truth in O’Connor’s story that we can find the grace hidden behind the hard reality. But, it might be objected, could not this be merely a Christianization of the same license to obscenity which so many secular writers have claimed and used to excess? No: we have seen two types of untruth in fiction, both born from the same stock, but expressing themselves in the twin vices of sentimentality and obscenity. On the one hand we find fiction (so often celebrated in the secular world) which attempts truth without morality, leaving only empty obscenity. On the other, we find evangelical fiction which has, in reaction, flung itself in the other direction, attempting to exposit a moral system without regard to truth. Both of these approaches, as we have seen, fail to give either an accurate or a moral account of the world. The obscene is condemned as thoroughly as the sentimental, for both are the fruit of a Gnostic (and therefore untruthful) description of the world. I began this essay by stating that the definition of truth is the defining mark of any literary theory. We have seen that this truth is only attainable by a sacramental view of the world brought out from the incarnation and resurrection. As N. T. Wright put it, “a proper grasp of the (surprising) future hope held out to us in Jesus Christ leads directly and, to many people, equally surprisingly, to a vision of the present hope that is the basis of all Christian mission.”[10] In the resurrection we find our hope in the renewal of the physical by the bringing together of the rift torn between the human and the divine through sin. Only through this hope in the bodily resurrection can fiction, as O’Connor said, find at the depths of the concrete world an image of ultimate reality.


[1] Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb, (New York: Modern Library, 2002), 21. [2] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses, (New York: HarperCollins, 1949), 102. [3] Ibid., 103. [4] John Gardner, On Moral Fiction, (New York: Basic Books, 1978), 15. [5] Ibid. [6] Peter Leithart, “Why Evangelicals Can’t Write,” Credenda Agenda, 18, no. 2, http://www.credenda.org/archive/issues/18-2liturgia.php (accessed April 15, 2015). [7] Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1961), 68. [8] Ibid., 157. [9] Ibid., 147. [10] N. T. Wright, Surprised By Hope, (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), 191.

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Michael Helvey

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