Faith and Culture Lecture Series April 2010

Riggs Library
April 13, 2010

It’s my pleasure to welcome you this afternoon to Riggs Library—to this place originally devoted to scholarship and the search for truth—for a literary conversation on “Disappointed Belief: Literature, God and the New Atheism.” We’re especially pleased to welcome to Georgetown both James Wood—who fellow literary critic, Cynthia Ozick, called “not just our best young critic…but our best critic,”—as well a frequent visitor with us, author Paul Elie.

These are authors who have both demonstrated how faith and religion can affect, influence, and impact artistic creation…

…and authors who have striven, in the words of the late John Paul II in his Letter to Artists, to “search for new epiphanies of beauty,”…

It’s also very fitting that we hold this conversation today—the birthday of poet and playwright, Samuel Beckett. The well known, although controversial, drama critic, John Simon, has written about what he considers Beckett’s “misotheism,” or hatred of God. It’s this same ill will toward God that motivates the protagonist in James Wood’s first novel, The Book Against God, which deals with themes of literature and faith.

In the work, the main character Tom labors on a secret refutation of religion, which is also a muted rebellion against his father, a contented vicar in the north of England. But the novel’s theological questions and riddles are not merely academic—for, as The New Yorker noted in 2005, “they are refractions of Tom’s personal relationships.” As such, they provide comment on universal human conditions. This should not be surprising, for faith and literature have always been two of the most important and illuminative prisms through which we have examined our human condition.

Yet, as James argues in his introduction to The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief, in the mid-19th century, the “distinctions between literary belief and religious belief” began to blur. He suggests that the steady decline of faith has much to do with the growing power of the novel, as it has developed over the past two centuries.

This viewpoint provides the starting point for our discussion today on literature, God, and atheism…and I can think of few other people better able to engage in this examination than our two guests.

Born in the north of England himself—in the great cathedral city of Durham—
James Wood grew up in an evangelical Anglican family—to which he credits his religious preoccupations. He was educated at Cambridge, and he would serve as chief literary critic at The Guardian from 1992 to 1995. He later worked as senior editor of the New Republic from 1995 to 2007.

He has been a staff writer and book critic at The New Yorker since 2007, and his reviews regularly appear in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and The London Review of Books. James also teaches at Harvard, where he is Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism.

He has written four books, including the bestseller, How Fiction Works. And in 2008, he won the “National Magazine Award” for his criticisms in The New Yorker.

The perfect partner to James Wood in our literary conversation this afternoon is a frequent guest on the Hilltop—and someone who has also devoted himself to themes of faith and literature—Paul Elie

Paul was with us two years ago, when he gave a lecture on “Catholic Culture in a Critical Age,” 45 years after a lecture by Flannery O’Connor that helped mark the 175th Anniversary of Georgetown. He also joined us in February of 2009 when he engaged in a literary conversation with author Ron Hansen about Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Catholic Imagination…in March when he discussed the resurrection of the ordinary with Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, Marilynne Robinson…and in November when he examined the theology of the desert with Richard Rodriquez.

During his visits with us, Paul has discussed his first book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own. The title is taken from a Flannery O’Connor short story, and the work focuses on the most influential U.S. Catholic literary figures of the 20th century: Dorothy Day; Thomas Merton; Flannery O’Connor; and Walker Percy. For three decades, the four corresponded…grappled with the demands of faith and art…and shaped the American perception of Catholicism, and the Catholic Imagination, through their writing. The Boston Globe called it, “An ode to faith, and the art of the book as a tool of that faith.”

Paul’s book seems the natural outcome for someone who—like James Wood—examines ideas of faith and art. He received his BA from Fordham University, where he studied theology and philosophy…English and art. And as he investigated how faith and culture are interrelated, he began to examine the lives and works of Day, Merton, O’Connor, and Percy. After receiving his MFA from Columbia, he became an editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Paul’s writing has also appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, and elsewhere.

James’ and Paul’s works both speak to the influence of faith on culture…to the enduring questions that are addressed by art and literature…and, perhaps most important, to the power of both faith—and books.

It’s now my privilege to introduce to you the participants in today’s conversation