Christian Stories for Atheists

When I first read “Harry Potter,” I secretly waited for a letter from Hogwarts. Part of growing up was realizing the letter would never come. It’s like the young C.S. Lewis said, when confronted with the confrontation between poetic myth and hard rationalism: “Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless.”

My Christian friends sometimes argue with non-Christians or former Christians as if the church door is opened by catechesis or apologetics or theology. But there are many non-Christians who find Christianity compelling and who are drawn to its story. Many see its modes of thought and proposed ways of life as magical and mystical and lovely as any fairy tale. They find its arguments as consistent and sensible as any philosophy. But, however good the story, however much we might want it, if the letter isn’t coming, then the letter isn’t coming. The imaginary doesn’t become real, even if it’s nearly all we love.

I’ve marveled at the many non-Catholic professors who invest themselves deeply in Notre Dame’s mission as a Catholic institution. And as a zealous, young and naïve Catholic, I sometimes wondered how they could so earnestly fight for a mission driven by a faith they did not share. I wondered why they didn’t convert to a religion they found beautiful and inspiring. I wondered why an atheist would study theology, but I hadn’t realized that there’s an analogy to the Christian who would study “Harry Potter” or Homer.

Walker Percy calls the current state of the world “unprecedented,” the state in which the “‘normal’ denizen of the Western world … doesn’t know who he is, what he believes, or what he is doing.” Thus, Percy sees himself as a “diagnostic” novelist. He describes and diagnoses the state of man through his stories.

For Melinda Selmys, creating literature is spiritually productive. She comes to understand the Catholic God through her writing: “He loves me in a way that is similar to the way I love my characters: That is to say, he is interested in me. He wants to know how much butter I put on my pancakes and whether I prefer flannel or cotton sheets. … If he wasn’t interested in these things, they wouldn’t exist. Nothing exists except because God is paying attention to it. As an author, I’m terribly interested in the same kind of silly details about my characters — and if I wasn’t interested in those silly details, the silly details would never come into being.”

I wonder if, for Selmys, writing a novel as a Catholic is primarily about morality. I suspect not, if she writes for love of her characters and all their peculiarities. For Percy, “Art is making, morality is doing. Art is a virtue of the practical intellect, which is to say making something. … [I]f you write a novel with the goal of trying to make somebody do right, you’re writing a tract — which may be an admirable enterprise but it is not literature.” If Percy is right, then one is left wondering what to make of the Christian “good news”, the Gospel that comes to Christians in the form of a story. Neither Percy nor the Gospel writers aim for “moral fiction.” The aim is to create, and we are left wondering what is being created.

And we are left wondering why we keep reading the things we don’t believe to be true in the fullest sense. Perhaps it is simply to know something in a world where we barely know ourselves. Perhaps it is to escape the mundane awfulness of our everyday lives. Real-life characters are never as good as the stories we tell about them.

Or perhaps it is driven by a hope we’ll discover something that will change our lives. I wonder if, at some level, to live is to wait for the stories, the experiences, the letters that will open up the world for us, that will take us beyond the dreariness of the everyday and give us something to hope for that’s more than ephemeral fiction. We want to fall in love or fall back in love with life, even when, like Lewis, we’re sure that love doesn’t exist.

This column was published in The Observer on Thursday, February 18, 2016.

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