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Finding Faith in Fiction  


Rachel Mann

Rachel Mann is Archdeacon of Salford and Bolton in Manchester Diocese. She is an award-winning poet and the author of fourteen books, including the novel, The Gospel of Eve. She is Visiting Teaching Fellow in Creative Writing and English at Manchester Metropolitan University.

<strong>Finding Faith in Fiction</strong>

Fiction is littered with clergy and religious types. They’re found sitting in Jane Austen’s fine drawing rooms, sucking up to the great and the good, as well as falling in and out of love; they are held up for their moral failings in Chaucer and their love of power in Trollope. We are used to seeing those in holy orders as murder suspects and as amateur sleuths in Golden Era Detective Fiction. Sometimes, even, they preach and minister to their flocks, dwelling – as parsons should – among the good, the bad, the sick and all those in need of redemption. Clearly novelists find inspiration in the characters and settings thrown up by the Church. How often, as preachers do we find inspiration for our work in the world of fiction and novels?

This matters to me. As they say, I have ‘skin in the game’: I am both a novelist, a priest, and a literary critic. I believe that novels, as rich fictitious narratives, present the most wonderful opportunity for any preacher to tell the old story of God in fresh ways. We should never forget that we are people of News – of Good News – and the very concept of the novel finds its root in ‘the new’. Fiction offers lively and fresh resources to speak the Word of God and for the Word of God to speak in us.

So, I hope I am not alone in finding rich and rewarding preaching resources in novels. Their huge scope and canvas for storytelling means they hold unique capacity to unpick and interrogate the deepest human themes – failure, hope, our longing for meaning and sense, and, well, our capacity for plain-old human weakness, among many other things. Here, then, are just some of the ways that novels have enriched and helped me reimagine my craft as a preacher. I hope they encourage you to delve deep and play.


‘Channelling the Voice of Leonard Clement’

Preachers should read novels not least because there are simply so many fictional preachers worth attending to. Here are just some: Theodore Venables in Dorothy L.Sayers’ The Nine Tailors, the motley and power-hungry crew found in Trollope’s Barsetshire tales and Leonard Clement in Agatha Christie’s The Murder at the Vicarage. His urgent, extempore sermon calling for repentance (and for the murderer to ‘out’ himself!) near the climax of the novel is – in terms of the quiet, unassuming Anglicanism of the novel’s ‘world’ – quite a thing. I often return to it as a ‘note to self’ to remember that sometimes I really should dare to speak with fearless passion about the stuff that matters, because that is what the Gospel requires. As preachers, we can be too considered.

Equally, novels matter because they offer us – as preachers and pastors – cautionary tales. In Mansfield Park, the shallow and self-aggrandising Henry Crawford presents a picture of precisely the sort of self-important preacher we should avoid: ‘I never listened to a distinguished preacher in my life without a sort of envy. But then, I must have a London audience. I could not preach but to the educated, to those who were capable of estimating my composition.’ For a profound contrast, read Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke. Its cleric, the ancient Canon Avril, is a quiet and startling moral presence who shapes much of the novel. His attempt to persuade a criminal away from his sin in the closing act is a reminder not only that some of the best sermons are preached from outside of the pulpit but they also are grounded in a deep understanding of one’s own failings.


‘Love is holy because it is like grace – the worthiness of its object is never really what matters…’

The value of novels for the preacher goes far beyond fine exemplars and notorious offenders. The sheer depth and scale of the novel permits a richness of study in human being that no other form can match. I have space to comment on just two examples: Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner That Held Them. What I love about Gilead – essentially a novel written as a letter from a dying pastor to his seven-year-old son – is how it becomes an extended prayer and meditation; it is an exploration of the modes of humility and what is left when we seem to have failed. Ames, the dying pastor, takes us to our own precarious grasp on goodness and our need for grace. Not only does he remind us that ‘love is holy because it is like grace – the worthiness of its object is never really what matters,’ but that ‘memory can make a thing seem to have been much more than it was.’ Time and space for reflection make for good preaching. Gilead is one of the greatest sermons ever preached. It is a deep dive into the soul itself.

In contrast, Townsend Warner’s The Corner That Held Them is a novel of scope – it explores the lives of enclosed nuns in East Anglia in the century after the catastrophe of the Black Death – yet its genius lies in its details. It takes little lives and pours transcendent light on them and finds wonder and absurdity. It is one of the greatest studies in the petty politics of small communities I know. Yet, this is no satire. Since Townsend Warner writes about an enclosed order of nuns across such a period of upheaval, we see how redemption and perdition are worked out in real time. Characters whom we disliked in early chapters become beloved as the narrative unfolds; others lose their charm. This book is essential reading for anyone who preaches regularly among a settled congregation. It is also an invitation to hold a more potent light to our own lives and, in doing so, find a greater generosity for ourselves and others than we often permit.


‘Literature adds to reality …’

Many years ago, I surprised a fellow writer – an atheist with an interest in religion – when I said that I approached sermon writing as creative writing. She couldn’t quite accept that I might treat constructing a sermon as something akin to writing a short story or poem; that I might draw on the techniques and skills of a novelist or fiction writer. When we talked through her response, it became clear that she imagined that writing sermons was essentially expository and descriptive; that, for her, preaching simply unpacks what is found in the Bible and that it does not in essence require imagination and creativity.

There may well be a range of responses to my writer friend’s assessment of the merits of expository sermons and preaching. I certainly think she underestimates the possibilities of such an approach. Nonetheless, the conversation reminded me that we are called to deploy a range of gifts if our preaching is to matter and speak. Not least among them is our human capacity for fiction and imagination. In short, we can treat the stories in Scripture as leaping off points for creativity.

I know that such an approach can be scary, but I don’t think we should discount it. In the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, one commended technique is ‘imaginative contemplation’. This invites us to imagine ourselves into biblical stories and see what God is saying. Such imagination is revealing and, when done prayerfully, can lead to new insight and dynamic preaching. There are novels which take the biblical narratives as their leaping off points: Colm Toibin’s The Book of Mary or Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation. Such writing is not seeking to be devotion, but is a spark, when set alongside the Gospels, for a bolder vision of preaching’s possibilities.

In Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen says a novel may be ‘work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.’ I adore the Bible and remain in awe of Jesus’s creativity and genius for inviting his audience into imaginative space, but I remain convinced that we have nothing to fear from other kinds of literature.

When we draw closer to Christ we draw closer to reality. We become more truly ourselves. I do not think that should be a grim and grinding work. Escapism and imagination are part of God’s endowment to our species. As C.S. Lewis says, ‘Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.’ At the risk of irritating some of my readers, I should like to give the final word to Jane Austen: ‘The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.’


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