In Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Tyler’s “Saint Maybe,” protagonist Ian Bedloe experiences crippling guilt after unintentionally contributing to his brother’s and his brother’s wife’s deaths. Unable to go on, Ian finds himself spiritually led one night to a storefront congregation, The Church of the Second Chance. His newfound religion offers Ian faith, community and the promise of redemption, but the minister also issues a call to repentance that permanently changes his life: Raise your brother’s children.

Years later, after he sacrifices college, his girlfriend and his young adulthood to provide a secure and happy upbringing for the kids, Ian finds himself on the defensive. In an ironic passage, his skeptical niece Agatha points out the unlikelihood of several Biblical miracles and derides his religion’s unsophisticated adherents. She ultimately rejects the faith that not only gave Ian hope when he couldn’t go on, but that also kept her from becoming a ward of the state. Her myopic arguments, however logical, can’t grasp the big picture, or miracle, of spiritual transformation.

Good fiction, unlike online scrolling, is accredited with developing empathy and transmitting important life lessons to the reader without the potential damage of first-hand experience. In other words, you learn the cost of meddling from Jane Austen’s Emma without actually messing up your own friends’ lives. Or you pick up on the hazards of overestimating your genius from George Eliot’s Casaubon without wasting your life on an irrelevant “masterpiece.”

Good stories can also help navigate the road of religious devotion’s twists and turns. They offer insight into the sometimes perplexing experience of worshiping alongside fellow congregants who (spoiler alert) fall short of their religious ideals. These texts can explore the tension of coexisting with the world at large, embracing what’s good while discarding what’s not. And finally, spiritually perceptive storytellers often describe the fruits of religion in experience like Ian’s, replete with tangible fruits that offer compelling reasons to override skepticism.

Faith communities replete with sinners, saints and the irritating

Religiously literate authors recognize you can’t have communal devotion without fallible religious people, some admirable and some not. Look no further than Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” for extremes on both ends. Mrs. Reed, Jane’s aunt and guardian, justifies cruelty with warped moralizing, then turns Jane over to an even more impressive religious hypocrite, Mr. Brocklehurst. His dreadful Lowood (as in low point) school mistreats the girls under the guise of scripture and sermons. Yet even in that institution, Jane encounters Helen Burns, one of the great Christ-figure archetypes of literature, and Miss Temple, the aptly named teacher who helps Jane grow morally and intellectually.

If, as the saying goes, the church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints, then the Mrs. Reeds and Mr. Brocklehursts should come as no surprise. But let them drive you away from faith and you’ll also miss out on the Helen Burns and Miss Temples. Even more importantly, you’ll miss out on the humility of realizing that you, too, hover somewhere between sinner and saint, prone to lapses and wrongdoing.

While authors like Bronte, and also Charles Dickens, offer up extremes of Christlike saints and duplicitous sinners, most churchgoers end up dealing with fellow congregants who disappoint in less drastic ways: thoughtless comments, hurtful snubs, annoying personalities. Author Barbara Pym, often referred to as the 20th-century Jane Austen for her wit and style, creates a relatable primer in dealing faithfully with fellow congregants who disappoint, but not so harshly.

In Pym’s classic “Excellent Women,” churchgoing heroine Mildred Lathbury serves alongside those in her Anglican parish who decorate the chapel for Easter, run charity sales and show up in the pews for every service. Among these excellent women, however, is Sister Blatt, who takes pride in pointing out others’ failings, and Allegra Gray, an attention-grabbing newcomer whose disparaging comments sting. And then there’s just the innocently annoying, such as the minister, Father Mallory, who means well, but whose sermons sometimes border on irritating and who quotes poetry out of context in attempts at consolation.

How then, does an excellent woman deal with the foibles and imperfections that constant interactions with spiritual congregations provide? After all, disappointment with religious communities hurts deeper than being let down by secular groups because the ideals run much higher, according to research by Loren Marks and David Dollahite on families of children with special needs.

A healthy sense of humor and humble awareness of her own failings seems to help Mildred put things in perspective and forgive others’ deficiencies. She recognizes her own lapses when “thinking spitefully,” indulging in gossip, or even when serving resentfully. While helping her neighbor one late night, Mildred finds herself overcome by “the fussy spinster in me, the Martha (who) who could not comfortably sit and make conversation when she knew that yesterday’s unwashed dishes were still in the sink.”

Instead of joyfully serving, Mildred ruminates: “Martha’s back must have ached too, I thought, grimly, noticing that the plate rack needed scrubbing and the tea-cloths boiling.”

Self-awareness that we ourselves don’t live perfectly cultivates forgiveness for others who fall short. And fall short they will. If it’s not Mr. Collins of “Pride and Prejudice” and his insufferable spiritual pretensions, then it might be one of the co-religionists along John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” path who weaken your faith: Pliable, Formulist, Talkative, Hypocrisy and Mr. By-ends using religion for social profit. Maybe, at times, you’re humble enough to recognize yourself in one of them.

The bad examples are, however, outnumbered and overpowered by other religious characters in “Pilgrim’s Progress”: Great-heart, Help, Charity, Piety, Faithful and Hopeful. The Shining Ones clothe pilgrims in new garments, then guard them on their way to the Celestial City — a destination unreachable without fellow believers.

Keeping the faith while interacting with the world

Before spiritual pilgrims can make it to the Celestial City, all must travel through Vanity Fair, according to Bunyan, which sells everything good and bad the world has to offer. Christian and Faithful, mocked for their clothing and speech and condemned for not buying Vanity’s wares, find themselves beaten, put in a cage and tried before Lord Hate-Good.

“If the world hates you, remember that it hated me first,” Jesus told his disciples. Yet he regularly mingled with outsiders, offering an example of balance that his fallible followers can have difficulty emulating. Dive into the world too eagerly and you risk moral compromise and self-deception, but isolate yourself from the world too thoroughly and you risk moral arrogance and ignorance.

Perhaps no other author explores these tensions better than American novelist and rabbi Chaim Potok, whose Jewish protagonists struggle with religion’s emphasis on faith over artistic and intellectual yearnings. While a more simplistic author would have his heroes flee into the welcoming arms of secularism, Potok recognizes the costs involved: loss of meaning, loss of faith community and loss of a deeper relationship with the Master of the Universe.

In “The Chosen,” Danny Saunders, a brilliant Hasidic rabbi’s son, secretly reads secular books and yearns to become a psychologist. He befriends Reuven Malter, well adapted to modernity and the son of a scholar. Predictably, Danny gravitates to the good the world offers and, by novel’s end, shaves his beard and earlocks as he goes off to Columbia, though still promising his father he’ll remain a tzaddiq, or righteous person.

Less predictably, however, Reuven gravitates to the meaningful life he sees in Danny’s religious community. By novel’s end, he decides to become a rabbi. Also less predictably, Asher Lev, Potok’s brilliant artist of “My Name is Asher Lev” who gets exiled for a shocking art exhibit, returns to his faith community in the sequel. The art world that once embraced a religious rebel has now chewed him up, and Asher works through reconciliation as his wife and children find belonging and stability in the synagogue.

The tension in navigating faith and the outside world exists in less demanding religions, too, as our excellent Mildred Lathbury could tell you. When a sophisticated couple, the Napiers, moves into the flat next to hers, they rock her world with their casual flirtations, patronizing commentary on Mildred’s churchgoing and invitations to mingle with intellectuals at the Learned Society.

She reacts kindly (while battling with occasional spiteful thoughts), but also gently pushes back when the skeptical barbs go too far, especially those of her cynical friend conjecturing about the real motives of believers who have “got it all pat and just recite it like parrots.” Still, Mildred admirably ventures out of her comfort zone, attends a Learned Society lecture and realizes that “my lack of higher education made it impossible for me to concentrate on anything more difficult than a fairly straightforward sermon.”

These interactions with the world not only help Mildred grow, but also help her better appreciate “the worthy but uninteresting people” in her own circle. After a dinner with the Napiers and their friends involving innuendo and veiled humor, Mildred encounters “a group of lads” at her parish, “laughing and talking in their rough voices ... so good and simple with their uncomplicated lives.” The Napiers grow, too, as they come to appreciate, at the conclusion of “Excellent Women,” that Mildred indeed leads a “full life, with clergymen and jumble sales and church services and good works.”

Spiritual experiences vs. skepticism

At this point, you may be wondering why anyone would seek out religiously sympathetic authors and their themes. Sacrifice valuable time to interact and serve alongside people you didn’t choose for friends? Undergo the tension that comes when engaging with the world while staying true to the demands of faith? Maybe life has exposed you to icky religion in the form of a Mr. Brocklehurst, someone distorting otherwise good principles into rotten fruit you’d rather not taste. Or perhaps your literary inclinations gravitate to the postmodern in which any hint of religiosity is summarily dismissed as absurd and you just can’t bring yourself to believe in what seems implausible.

Spiritually discerning writers acknowledge these complexities. Rather than dismiss them, they offer up the big picture of spiritual transformation and point out the trade-offs involved in throwing the baby of religious commitment out with the bathwater of doubt. They don’t ignore the hard questions, but weigh them against the tender mercies, spiritual experiences and fruits of a religious path.

Let’s return to Anne Tyler’s reluctant “Saint Maybe,” Ian Bedloe, an intelligent young man not inclined to spiritual devotion until it lifts a burden he can no longer carry. While his niece’s points about the implausibility of Noah’s ark carry some weight for him, Ian also has the fruits of his conversion to consider. After being spiritually led to The Church of the Second Chance, he providentially meets a master carpenter willing to apprentice him (hmm — who could that allude to?), then somehow rises to the formidable task of raising his brother’s children to well-adjusted adulthood. His story concludes with a clear conscience and inner peace he couldn’t find on his own.

Rational reasons to believe exist, including myriad academic studies correlating better physical, mental and emotional health with religious observance. A recent Atlantic article by a self-described agnostic, entitled “The True Cost of the Churchgoing Bust,” bemoaned the resulting loss of connection to the divine, loss of meaningful identity, loss of transcendent ritual, loss of service and volunteerism, and loss of life satisfaction and sense of community no other organization can replace. Instead, we enjoy a surplus of individualism, loneliness and a digital life “disembodied, asynchronous, shallow and solitary.”

Religious philosophers and apologists, ancient and modern, also offer logical analyses that, while not quelling all doubt, offer compelling arguments for faith. Belief is not bereft of reason. But ultimately, as the great Russian authors illustrate, believers must prioritize the transcendent over the rational. In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov,” Ivan, the coldly analytical brother, goes up against his deeply religious brother Alyosha on the problem of evil. No answers can fully satisfy Ivan’s questions about the suffering of the innocent, even the idea that free will and Christ’s refusal to coerce humanity means there will be suffering.

137
Comments

Ivan might come out the victor intellectually, though some argue he doesn’t, yet as his life plays out, reliance on reason alone reaps bad fruit: pride, rejection of conventional morality and crippling despair. Alyosha’s simple faith, by contrast, results in charitable works, forgiveness and a love of humanity that gives hope to others. In other words, the big picture of faith, particularly well depicted in Dostoevsky’s and Leo Tolstoy’s work, transcends reasons for doubt, just as Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection transcend his detractors’ constant arguments and nitpicking during his ministry.

Dostoevsky belonged, according to atheist-turned-Christian writer Malcolm Muggeridge, to “the small, sublime band of fellow humans to whom one may turn and say in the deepest humility: ‘I agree.’” Also included in Muggeridge’s band is mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal, who, in his “Pensees,” explains that the God of the Bible calls himself hidden because only those who “seek him with all their heart” will find him.

While this shallow overview leaves out too many other religiously insightful authors — Sigrid Unsett, Flannery O’Connor, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis, to name a few — it hopefully makes a modest case for seeking out good stories in the quest for spiritual truth. If the shallowness of social media, YouTube and TikTok can rob a generation of attention span and faith, then a return to great stories, “the ones that really mattered,” in the words of Tolkien, might help us all to regain both.

Betsy VanDenBerghe has written for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Public Square Magazine, First Things, RealClearPolitics and National Review.

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.