August 17, 1999
"The State of the Arts" and Public Religion, Part I
-- Martin E. Marty
Public religion, we cannot repeat often enough, is not the same thing as "religion and politics." Public religion has to do with faith and spirituality in the academy, the forum, in media and the marketplace, in the conference hall and the gallery. With that in mind, we welcome a symposium on "The State of the Arts" in the tenth anniversary edition of IMAGE: A JOURNAL OF THE ARTS AND RELIGION (800-875-2997).
The state of poetry? Scott Cairns of the University of Missouri: "In the span of relatively few years,...we have witnessed a great increase--poets of faith have grown in accomplishment, writing better poems, AND already accomplished poets have discovered a path to faith, and have found themselves inclined to attend to such matters in their poetry." He does not name names after his upbeat survey; ten years ago, "the list was tidy enough to keep stored on the tip of the tongue." Now, "the list is huge, and the list is growing." We wish he had named a few.
Fiction? A.G. Harmon, a fellow at Catholic University, ends: "So don't listen to the rumors that fiction informed by faith is dying. I think it was Browning who said, 'You must survive a thing e'er you pronounce it dead.'" Harmon finds fiction alive and reasonably well. He does name names: Muriel Spark, John Updike, Wendell Berry, William Kennedy, Jon Hassler, Shusaku Endo, Frederick Buechner, Chaim Potok, Larry Woiwode, and many others, some of them established, are among the names. But dozens of them comers.
Nonfiction? Harold Fickett, cofounder of IMAGE and prolific author, is less upbeat. He mentions new "spiritual" writers such as Anne Lamott, Kathleen Norris, Patricia Hampl, and Richard Rodriguez along with other established names such as Annie Dillard, Frederick Buechner, Reynolds Price, and the late Henri Nouwen. But "there has been little change for the better in religious non-fiction." He faults publishers for looking too often for the sensational, the scandalous, the outrageous. He guesses that fewer than a dozen editors at big houses determine what religious nonfiction the public gets to read. "The culture of critique," he writes, "does not want to admit a culture of affirmation to its sales venues, and it's naive to think this will ever change." We'll continue this "state of the arts" roundup in a day or three.