October 14, 2005

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Wellsprings of faith and fiction

Did you ever wonder why some folks are so afraid of religion? They’re often good people who cringe at the mention of worship, or media coverage of the pope and creationists, or anyone in between on the Christian faith spectrum. Other people of faith, Hindus, Buddhists, even Jews and Muslims, are usually not the targets of such scrutiny, although Muslims have been suspect in some quarters since 9/11.

Fear of offending ardent nonbelievers has led to overzealous purging of prayer or the mention of any religious subject in American public institutions. Even the words of the founding fathers concerning God will no doubt be examined in years to come. “In God we Trust” may be watered down to something like “In Gosh etc.” What a thought.

This sounds ridiculous, but the way things are going, ridiculous may become the standard. Ironically, those with the highest moral values are sometimes the ones who express distaste for religion. This occurred to me recently when reading the biography Eudora Welty by Suzanne Marrs.

Welty was a major Southern writer who lived during most of the last century in a small Mississippi town. She wrote masterful comic novels and short stories, which made clear moral statements about the equality of the races and the value of individual human life. It was a time and place when such sentiments were unpopular, if not dangerous.

She also took many photographs during the 1930s in her work as a Junior Publicity Agent for the WPA (Works Progress Administration). The subjects of her photographs, usually rural blacks or whites, were shown dressed up for church, relaxing on a day off, chopping cotton. All were depicted respectfully, with human dignity intact, the same quality so prevalent in Welty’s fiction.

The reality of human goodness, perseverance and spirit is always present in Welty’s stories, even when they poke fun at their characters. She is hopeful in a way that implies transcendence.

But, unlike Flannery O’Connor, an equally important contemporary Southern writer who was Catholic, Welty recoiled from the idea that religious ideas of human action or divine purpose lead to moral context in writing or are necessary for its creation in fiction. Marrs writes, “Certainly, religion was not a sustaining source of consolation or comfort for Eudora, though she knew it was for Flannery O’Connor.”

Once, Welty was apprehensive when she experienced complete darkness in a visit to Mammoth Cave. But, “suddenly, ‘a light was struck. And we stood in a prism.’ ” She thought this experience was “a metaphor for the act of writing,” Marrs writes.

“Without the act of human understanding—a double act through which we make sense to each other—experience is the worst kind of emptiness; it is obliteration, meaningless,” Welty said. “Before there is meaning, there has to occur some personal act of vision. And it is this that is continuously projected as the novelist writes and as … we read.”

We wonder why as sensitive and insightful a person as Welty could not understand what O’Connor knew: that it’s trust in a loving God that gives us the personal vision to make all experience truly meaningful.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)


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