If it's difficult to speak with nuance or clarity when it comes to the place faith occupies in contemporary culture, it's not for a lack of exposure – unless you're stuffed deep into a particular kind of echo chamber, it's a difficult thing to avoid. The same goes for people of faith, of any type. They exist and don't seem to be going anywhere fast.
That said, our lives tend to be hopscotched through with newsbytes and Twitter feuds and politicians who aren't entirely reluctant to generate a very useful polarization. This can muddle our judgement somewhat, and encourage us at times to paint things with a broader brush than might be helpful. Making things more difficult, the ongoing mélange of scandal, appropriation, terrorism and culture war has the pointed effect of publicly obscuring the still, small voice that lies at the core of most people of faith's experiences of, well, faith. And if we don't understand each other – what drives us, scares us, what we long for – finding a productive, civic expression of pluralism is going to remain just out of reach. But, thankfully, literature may be able to help us if politics and think pieces find themselves at a loss.
Yes, literature has the ability (and often the duty) to engage with broad social issues, but where it stands alone is in how it facilitates a connection between the reader and the intimate spaces of a book's characters. Once you reach those depths in someone, once you've gotten a long look at even a fictional person, it becomes harder to dismiss them. Even if they're not the type of person you'd give the time of day in real life. This is how novels (along with contemporary TV series) are able to pull off getting so close to antiheroes: when we spend enough time with someone, we can't see them as caricatures of bad behaviour or a refutable ideology so much as people with histories, insecurities and, at times, understandable motivations behind actions we'd find atrocious. It's an exercise in empathy, as well as in recognizing the dignity of people we may otherwise find threatening or dangerous. And all of us, on all sides of debates involving faith, could always use more empathy.
If you're looking to get an overview of contemporary literature engaging with religious themes, though, it can be hard to know where to start: it comes in as many shapes as the people and traditions they reflect. You have polarizing entries (the novels of Bud MacFarlane Jr. and Canadian writer Michael O'Brien come to mind) that prove popular within a special demographic and, for all their issues, serve a purpose in their communities. On the other side of the spectrum, novels such as Yann Martel's Life of Pi or William P. Young’s The Shack sidestep controversial issues by softening the distinctions between faiths or denominations altogether. You also have celebrated writers like Marilynne Robinson that weave threads of faith and doubt into their works so subtly that the unsuspecting reader might finish the novel unaware, if profoundly moved. Then there are the Da Vinci Codes subverting particular traditions, as well as highbrow fare like Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale that pose questions, timely and agonizing, about our common future.
Although the second season of Hulu's adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale has officially gone past Atwood's written material, there's a scene that's worth noting – it also happened to surprise me quite deeply. The protagonist, Offred, begins the season running away from a system that's reduced her to an object, a system that's appropriated the symbols and language of the Old Testament to create a fundamentalist, pseudo-Christian, totalitarian nightmare. Hiding from her pursuers in the former offices of the Boston Globe, the paper famous for unearthing patterns of child abuse involving clergymen, she pieces together a makeshift shrine for victims of the regime and mouths a prayer: “God, by whose mercy the faithful departed have found rest, please send your holy angel to watch over this place. Through Christ our Lord, amen.” A less-competent story might have brushed over the regime's religious-based violence or, throwing the baby out with the bathwater, laid blame at the feet of religion itself. Instead, Handmaid paints a picture of complicity and humanity, of revenge and humility, of how inescapable the spiritual impulse can be even among people who have been attacked by those claiming to act in its name.
This paradox points to faith as, in its various forms, an unshakable part of our being human. What sets great religious literature apart is its refusal, on principle, to soften the blows or to avoid the questions that come right along with it. There are controversies and differences that won't disappear, and learning to sit with them, to refuse tidy answers, is a way of honestly approaching things as they are. This is reflected in the diversity of books mentioned above, and part of the takeaway here is that literature engaging with religion isn’t a shapeless monolith: it's all a living, breathing way of wrestling with oneself, ourselves, and the legacy left by our collective pursuit of the divine.
Convivium's mission is strikingly similar: seeking to remind ourselves of things that don't change, affirming the diversity among people of faith and posing the hard questions that form part of said legacy, especially here in Canada. And as art can be a powerful way of checking the pulse, as it were, of our cultural and public life, it’s worth looking at one Canadian writer in particular who very much embodies a number of these concerns in his work and life: Robertson Davies.