The Common Good
May-June 1998

Echoes of the Big Song

by Rosemarie C. Sultan | May-June 1998

Fiction and the search for God.

What does Sandra Cisneros have to say about faith? How might Andre Dubus speak of it? And Raymond Carver? Where does he stand?

To find out, read Celestial Omnibus: Short Fiction on Faith. In this sweeping, complicated anthology, the conflicts, desires, and obstacles to faith are effectively explored. While reading you pause to look around your reading room, as if someone has taken out all the air, and you’re left staring straight into the wide-open face of the sky.

Twenty-five stories are collected in A Celestial Omnibus—culled from Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, Buddhist, Native American, and Protestant writers. They are not treacly or preachy; rather, they sing with laughter and desire. Together, these stories, grouped under themes of "Mystery," "Doubt," "Evil," "The Supernatural," and "Reconciliation," make up a chorus of voices: They sing a big song.

In "Little Miracles, Kept Promises," by Sandra Cisneros, notes pinned to saints’ statues sing with the pleas of the needy: San Antonio de Padua is asked, "Can you help me find a man who isn’t a pain in the nalgas? There aren’t any in Texas, I swear." In "A Father’s Story," Andre Dubus portrays a father who betrays his God to save the daughter he loves.

Flannery O’Connor’s "Good Country People" gives us a traveling Bible salesman who seduces a ghastly young woman with a wooden leg. But does he repent? Or marry her? No. He merrily tucks the prized wooden leg into his Bible suitcase—which contains no Bibles at all—and scoots into the burnt Southern hills. He leaves O’Connor’s beastly young woman stranded, clutching only her sanctimonious faith while the man disappears before her very eyes.

And in "Cathedral," Raymond Carver probes the mystery of how faith can arise in peculiar circumstances: His protagonist berates his blind dinner guest until the two of them draw a cathedral on the back of a shopping bag; both men hover over the slow-moving pen until the roof seems to lift off the house, and frees the man from the smallness of his life. Ah, the reader sighs. How faith can arise, strange and unbidden, making a cool, eerie noise in our lives.

Each of these stories stands poised at the strange precipice between the inner life of faith and the human world of stumblings and failings, of laughter and grief.

MORE READINGS like this are available in two new volumes of essays. Of Fiction and Faith: Twelve American Writers Talk About Their Vision and Work, by W. Dale Brown, offers personal interviews with a dozen contemporary writers on their careers and their religious faith. Of special note in this collection is the great, roaming ramble by Garrison Keillor on fundamentalism. Growing up a Plymouth Brethren, quips Keillor, was "like growing up with six toes, you’d just as soon keep your shoes on." Yet he is quick to point out that his early immersion in stories from the Bible gave him his ear for language—and his sense that life is rarely easy.

Communion: Contemporary Writers Reveal the Bible in Their Lives

collects short, pithy reflections by writers Jayne Anne Phillips and James Carroll, among others. Carroll’s piece, "Ezekiel," dramatizes the struggle between a father and a son: The father looks on mute and enraged as his son speaks out against the Vietnam War during his ordination to the priesthood. War protest would not usually be a problem, except this father is a Lieutenant General in the U.S. Air Force, and this son is being ordained at the Air Force chapel in front of hundreds of generals, few of whom shake his hand afterward, so strongly have his words scorched their particular piece of earth.

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the desolate young prince is asked by King Claudius how he feels. Hamlet replies, jauntily, "I eat the air, promise-crammed." Sometimes, stories about religion can seem air-filled, as if one’s encounter with God is so light, light, bright. Or, they seem promise-crammed, as if they’ll be bursting with answers to life’s most pressing questions: Why did my child die? Where has my love for my husband gone? How will I turn my face away from the loneliness that I feel? Yet stories or essays that are too light, or that offer too easy answers, disappoint.

The richness—the real, meaty reward—of good fiction is precisely this: It offers neither easy solace nor eternal light. These anthologies offer a clear vision of humanity in all its lights and shadows. Murky; strong; light; dark.

Why read what these writers have to say about faith? To go to the big place. The place where writers break open the earth, and hand you a piece of red-hot ground.

Read these works. Go ahead. Sing the big song. Perhaps you’ll hear yourself.

ROSEMARIE C. SULTAN is a free-lance writer of reviews and fiction who lives outside of Boston.

A Celestial Omnibus: Short Fiction on Faith. Edited by J.P. Maney and Tom Hazuka. Beacon Press, 1997.

Communion: Contemporary Writers Reveal the Bible in Their Lives. Edited by David Rosenberg. Anchor Books, 1996.

Of Fiction and Faith: Twelve American Writers Talk About Their Vision and Work. W. Dale Brown. William B. Eerdmans Co., 1997.

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