Crime novels as Christian witness

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

A very interesting discussion ensued after the New York Times Book Review published an article by Paul Elie called “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” The article prompted me to recall the days, 40-plus years ago, when a good many distinguished writers were confessing Christians and wrote books and poetry with Christian themes. Many of us preachers still have recourse to such writers on a regular basis. The names are familiar: T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Graham Greene,  Reynolds Price, even John Updike. Mr. Elie questions whether there is anyone writing today, except Marilynne Robinson, who qualifies.

Several people wrote in to offer other names. There were two that particularly interested me. The first was from the editor of The Paris Review, who said that “the religious impulse is hard to miss” in the work of the late lamented David Foster Wallace, and gives several convincing illustrations.

The second letter was even more interesting.  A woman from Queens wrote that Mr. Elie had missed a major genre–crime fiction. As a primary illustration, she cites the novels of James Lee Burke, which feature the corporate crime-fighter Dave Robichaux, whom she describes as a “highly conflicted former alcoholic and regular churchgoer.” As examples of other crime writers, she lists Dennis Lehane, Henning Mankell, Michael Connolly and “any number of others.”

To that I would add the name of one of my favorites, Richard Price, who writes police procedurals. Christian faith plays a significant role in his 1998 Freedomland, perhaps because the detective is African-American, but Price has such a feel for the deep theme of unconditional grace that I was very surprised to learn that he is Jewish. This impulse is much less obvious in Clockers (1992) and Lush Life (2008), but it’s there. (And in addition, they are terrific books. No one writes better dialogue, no one has a better sense of the streets.)

And finally–how could Cormac McCarthy not qualify? (Elie mentions him only to dismiss him.)  For what it’s worth, I am a passionate fan of McCarthy. His suffused sense of Christianity and biblical themes is most obvious in No Country for Old Men and The Road, his most recent novels. Sunset Limited, which was presented on television recently with Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson, also has a strong current of Christianity. Not so with Blood Meridian, his masterpiece; however, in its portrait of unalloyed, unredeemed evil, one can also discern something about the power of Sin and Death that makes that book, also, a rich lode for the seeker after the truth about this world so far fallen from its Creator.

The original article by Paul Elie can be read here:         

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