Faith in fiction

MARY CULLEN

The publication of a murder mystery novel by the professor of Catholic Studies at Roehampton University was the background to a discussion on Catholic writing at the University of Glasgow in June.

The Good Priest is Professor Tina Beattie’s first book of fiction.  Its central character, Father John, is a parish priest haunted by his past who and falls in love with a man and struggles with celbacy.  A stranger appears in his confessional.  Is he a ghost, or is he the cardinal who abused John many years before?  What is his connection with a series of horrific murders?  And why do the police think a member of the clergy might be involved?  Father John finds himself at the centre of a drama which unfolds over Lent, as he wrestles with questions of faith and doubt, good and evil, and the possibility of redemption for the most horrendous of crimes.

David Jasper, Professor Emeritus of Literature and Theology at Glasgow University, and now Canon Theologian at the city’s St Mary’s Cathedral, opened the conversation with a reflection on why the novel is a good vehicle for exploring issues of faith.  Theology is not flexible enough, he argued, to embrace the contradictions of fallen traditions.  It is a boring, second order language.  The literary form is better able to address the complexities of life, including those of the religious life.  Novels stretch our imagination and engage our emotions, and we care about their characters.  Like parables, they give us an opportunity to look at ourselves, and open up the mysteries that lie behind the stories they tell.

Literature is full of contradictions which we don’t admit to in church.  What is a good priest?  Is he the one who recognises his shortcomings and is wise enough to be a good human being despite it all?  In asking questions like these, literature can challenge the ecclesiology of our rule bound highly imperfect church, which is ‘terrified of sex’.  Following the Scottish Episcopal Church’s decision to permit same sex marriage, he said, it is not allowed to ‘talk theology’ to other Anglican traditions.

He recalled Milan Kundera’s description of the art of the novel as an echo of God’s laughter: ‘man thinks, God laughs’.  Losing the certainty of truth means we become human.  There is no absolute sin and there is always forgiveness: all may be visited by God and redeemed.

Tina Beattie acknowledged that theology could be boring but she wanted to ask the ‘God’ questions – the huge fundamental questions which theology addresses.  She had written stories since her teenage years and is an avid reader of detective novels.  So she decided to ask the God questions through the medium of fiction.

Intellect alone, she said, is not enough to address the big questions.  Christianity is incarnational; it tells us how the story of God plays out in ordinary lives.  Her fictional characters have their origins in real people, but they take on a life of their own and develop their own stories, which in turn illuminate issues many people face.  The loneliness of the priest; the corruption of the church; the mystery of grace and redemption.

Award winning broadcaster Mark Dowd studied to be a Dominican at Oxford before choosing a career in journalism.  He wrote his autobiography Queer and Catholic: A life of contradiction because, he said, he was tired of Catholic misery memoirs and wanted to be upbeat about his life as a gay man.  Falling in love with another schoolboy as a teenager was his first experience of sacred love.  The church’s language about homosexuality is in total contradiction to his experience.  He told his story, he said, out of love for the church.

In his book he places Cardinal Ratzinger’s 1986 statement ‘On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons’ alongside his own experience of living with a long term partner.

Homosexualitatis Problema, to give it its full Latin name, informed me that I was “intrinsically disordered” on account of my same sex attraction and that my living with Michael amounted to grave sin.  It was a teaching so utterly at odds with the grace and gift of this man’s life to me that I took all of ten seconds to dwell on it and place it to one side’.

He detects a huge hunger for grace in the popularity of film and television dramas which feature priests, from Jimmy McGovern’s Priest, to the television series Broken and Fleabag.  Why do the priests have to choose between their vocation and intimacy with another human being?  The same question faces Father John in The Good Priest and it is his ordinariness and his loneliness which Mark finds compelling.

Mark challenged the belief that celibate priests are in some way better than married priests.  Celibacy has value in our sex obsessed culture, he said, but it is a charism, a gift of the Spirit, not something we can legislate about.  He observed that to fail in chastity is treated as a scandal in a way that to fail in poverty or obedience is not.

Confession is a central theme of the novel, unmasking the inner world of its characters.  For Julie Clague of the University’s Theology and Religious Studies Department, who moderated the discussion, it brought a sacramental dimension to the book.  The church of sinners and everyday heroes is also the sacrament of Christ, a conduit for healing.

The discussion took up questions from the audience.  Is The Good Priest about the workings of grace?  Mark observed that the loneliness of father John brought moments of grace and led him to make room for the homeless.  Are there people in the world so evil that grace cannot break in?  Tina said that this makes the question of redemptive endings interesting.

David Jasper observed that these are questions we can explore through fiction, at one remove from life, which do not invalidate the need for a theology of grace.  But the moment theology makes claims that are non-negotiable, it is in danger of invalidation.  Stories of redemption, crafted by fiction, help us recognise moments of redemption in our uncrafted, messy lives.  In the end, the story counts and theology is carried along with it.

In Graham Greene’s novel Monsignor Quixote, the polarity between different theologies is reflected in the power of the word.  The dogmatic Fr Herrera regards the opening of St John’s Gospel (‘In the beginning was the Word…’) with suspicion, while Monsignor Quixote continues to say it silently at the end of Mass, despite its removal from the liturgy.  Fr Herrera much prefers the gospel of Matthew, which Monsignor Quixote regards as the gospel of fear with its ‘fifteen references to hell’.  Fr Herrera’s theology is cut and dried, full of certainties and orthodoxies; it has no room for the hiddenness and ambiguity that are revealed in the story of Monsignor Quixote’s life.

The Good Priest, by Tina Beattie, is published by Matador (2019).

Queer and Catholic: A life of contradiction, by Mark Dowd, is published by Darton, Longman and Todd (2017).

The Language of Liturgy: A ritual poetics, by David Jasper, is published by SCM Press (2018).

Mary Cullen is editor of Open House

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