Faith and fiction: ‘must believe’ vs. ‘make believe’?

One of the inspirations for PEN America 11: Make Believe was a conversation from the 2009 World Voices Festival moderated by Albert Mobilio of Bookforum and called “Faith and Fiction.” “If we think of fiction as ‘make believe’ and religion as ‘must believe,’” Albert asks, “how might novelists reconcile the ambiguities and uncertainties of their craft with an attempt to express or characterize religious faith?”

The question yields a number of interesting thoughts from panelists Benjamin Anastas, Nadeem Aslam, Brian Evenson, and Jan Kjærstad. Anastas says that while some novelists may be “heretics from belief,” a believer is “a heretic from reality.” Evenson says, echoing Kjærstad, that it’s his job, as a fiction writer, “to be profane, to disrupt or work against the sacred in some way.” All the panelists discuss, at length, the differences and similarities between literature and scripture.

You can read a part of the conversation here (for the whole thing, you need to buy the issue); you can also listen to it.

The conversation is preceded in the issue by a wonderful new short story by Evenson, which, though it doesn’t address religion, is very much concerned with fiction and belief (and which is available online). It’s a subject to which Evenson has given much thought, having been more or less forced out of Brigham Young University, the Mormon school where he was teaching, because of his fiction. Evenson was a practicing Mormon at the time, but what happened at BYU precipitated his later deparature from the church—and religious faith—entirely. (You can read all about what happened in this 2003 Believer essay by Ben Ehrenreich—and you should also check out Evenson’s novel The Open Curtain, begun while he was a believer and finished when he was not.)

There are three other pieces from the issue that both address religious belief and have been made available online: a story adapted from Sigrid Nunez’s novel Salvation City, forthcoming from Riverhead next year, entitled "Rapture Children”; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s brief remembrance of a Catholic priest named Father Chinedu; and an excerpt from Khaled al-Berry’s memoir, Life is More Beautiful Than Paradise, forthcoming in English later this year.

You might also check out Benjamin Anastas’s essay on this very subject for Bookforum; a long excerpt from Jan Kjærstad’s novel The Discoverer, newly available in English from Open Letter; Nadeem Aslam’s discussion of Islam in relation to his second novel, Maps for Lost Lovers; and a list of good books on doubt from Maud Newton, from which the image above, Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, was taken.

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