Today I read Kim Cooper's book In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, an essay on the the Neutral Milk Hotel album, which I posted about last month. It's a good book, part of Continuum's intermittently terrific 33 1/3 series, and one bit struck me. The second song on the record begins with lead singer Jeff Magnum crying, "I love you, Jesus Christ," and I was a little surprised to learn in Cooper's Book that Magnum meant this entirely in earnest, not merely from a musical character's point of view, and certainly not ironically. One listener is described as having been initially "repelled" by the lyric, and it occurred to me how much of what I consider the best contemporary art, music, and literature is essentially secular, and that religion, in the public sphere, has largely become the provence of authoritarians and political opportunists.
I am not without my own eccentric spiritual awareness, and I am acutely preoccupied with the big questions about human existence. But, institutionally speaking, I'm an agnostic. That said, I am not repelled by earnest expressions of religious faith. I am repelled by the all too common and extraordinarily shrill hypocritical ones--the kinds I was alluding to in the previous paragraph. Mangum's lyric moves me, though, and I started wondering if I could think of any good religious fiction.
Well, Flannery O'Connor. She's the main one. (Her faith is kind of a deal-breaker for some people, but it deeply endears her to me.) Has anyone read Marilynne Robinson's Gilead? I suspect I would like it, having loved Housekeeping, but haven't gotten to it yet. Dostoyevsky, of course. And Rhian likes Ron Hansen's Mariette in Ecstasy. Most others I've tried seem soppish to me--Updike's In The Beauty Of The Lilies is the one that springs most immediately to mind. (I don't dislike Updike, but he bugs me more often than he amazes me. I like Of The Farm and all the Bech stories quite a lot...and his book reviews and other nonfiction. The rest...eh. One of these days I'll post about why Roth is way better at bad men than Updike is, but not today.)