Talking with a co-worker the other day, I mused on the fact that it’s difficult to write a book which is both exclusively religious in perspective and yet inclusive to all readers. In my own reading experience, I’ve been fascinated by the “foreignness” of deeply religious books while simultaneously feeling drawn to their universal appeal. One denomination that has pulled this off admirably is Catholicism, so I want to take a moment to celebrate and to recommend some of the great Catholic novels.
5. The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy.
This one is somewhat of a mystery as far as Catholic novels go. Percy, a convert, was also deeply influenced by the existentialist tendencies of Kierkegaard. The result is a book about the Modern Man’s search for meaning, and a perilous tight rope routine of supernatural faith on one side, with existential despair on the other.
4. A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
This is one of my favorite science fiction novels, and unquestionably my favorite post-apocalyptic novel. In my opinion, Miller owes much to Gibbon’s Decline and Fall here—he clearly studied the history of Christianity in the Middle Ages as a hint of what a post-apocalyptic world would become as time progressed.
3. Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh.
I could quote this book all day: “O God, make me good, but not yet.” “No one is ever holy without suffering.” A culture of Catholicism pervades this book just as a search for peace does. And, for me, this novel features one of the most tender and tragic characters in 20th century fiction: Sebastian.
2. A Good Man is Hard to Find, by Flannery O’Connor.
So I cheated a bit with this one, since it’s a collection of short stories rather than a novel. But in the world of Catholic fiction O’Connor cannot be ignored. She searches for the epiphany in life—or, to put it in more Catholic terms, she is seeking for that moment when a person accepts Grace. It’s always a beautiful, complex moment surrounded by darkness.
1. The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene
This book oozes Catholicism. The book follows a Whiskey Priest (a bad priest by his own admission) in Mexico at a time when the Catholic Church has been forced to go underground. Is a bad priest better than no priest? Greene writes: “at the end there was only one thing that counted—to be a saint.”
A couple details stand out to me as I look over these books. First, none of these choices describes a pristine, simple, or ideal type of Catholicism. The beauty in these books stems largely from the ambiguities, sufferings, and unexpected occurrences in life. Second, four of my choices were written by converts. Do you think that means anything?
(Full disclosure: I’m not Catholic, though I did discuss this post with a Catholic co-worker. And forgive the painfully short treatment of each book…I’d love to write an individual post for each. Perhaps I will in the future.)