Two novel ways of approaching God


AT Harvard Divinity School, Prof Guy Martin once offered two courses on the writer as theologian. The first course focused on a few major literary artists and theologians who have confronted theological issues in their writing, and compared the role of creative expression with that of theological expression, and the truths of fiction with the truths of religion. The authors under consideration included Tolstoy, Kirkegaard, Karl Barth, Flannery O'Connor and Toni Morrison.

Prof Martin's second course focused on the poetry and prose of T.S. Eliot, examining the way he contributed to the relationship between religion and literature. As part of their final examination, the members of the class produced Eliot's play, The Cocktail Party.

The traditional forms in which the arts meet theology have included music, painting, architecture and sculpture. Writers who have touched theology at its deeper levels have tended to be poets, while the key narrative mode for theology is autobiography. But few theologians have earned a reputation as popular writers.

In America, the church has provided settings and characters for writers such as Graham Greene. But some writers of fiction have been taken seriously as moral and pastoral theologians too. Last year, at the Glenstal Ecumenical Conference the American theologian Dr Alexandra Brown used Ruby Turpin in Flannery O'Connor's Revelation to stress the uniqueness of Christian morality. In Canada, Margaret Craven's novel, I Heard The Owl Call My Name, has become established as a sensitive and deeply spiritual work of pastoral theology.

On this side of the Atlantic, Anthony Trollope's Barchester Chronicles in the last century and Joanna Trollope in this century have used church in fighting and cathedral politics as backdrops and settings. But since John Bunyan published his Pilgrims Progress, few novelists have emerged as respected theologians and few theologians have been popular novelists.

However, a new generation includes serious theologians who have become serious novelists and popular novelists who are being taken seriously by theologians. Novelists being lauded by academic theologians includes two best selling English writers, Susan Howatch and Catherine Fox.

Susan Howatch has won wide acclaim among academic theologians for her two trilogies on the Church of England. The trilogies were written after she returned to England after a spell in Dalkey, Co Dublin; she has since lived within sight of both Salisbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. The first three novels - Glittering Images (1987), Glamorous Powers (1988) and Ultimate Prizes (1989) - drew on the theology and writings of Herbert Hensely Henson, Bishop of Durham; William Ralph Inge, Lady Margaret, Professor of Divinity at Cambridge and later Dean of St Paul's and Charles Raven, Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge.

In the second trilogy - Scandalous Risks (1991), Mystical Paths (1992) and Absolute Truths (1995) - she draws on the writings and thoughts of Bishop John Robinson, the Cambridge theologian and author of Honest To God (1963); Christopher Bryant, an Anglican monk and spiritual director; the Oxford theologian Austin Farrar; and the great spiritual director, Reginald Somerset Ward.

The popularity of her blockbusters has enabled her to endow the Starbridge Chair in Theology at Cambridge.

She has been compared by Andrew Greeley in the Washington Post and in reviews in the Church of En gland Newspaper to Anthony Trollope.

Meanwhile, she also became the subject of analytical profiles in the Church Times and received serious reviews in journals such as Theology. The Catholic Herald said Mystical Paths was profoundly theological. Howatch's respectability in the world of academic theology was reinforced when she was invited to edit and introduce Mowbray's four part Library Of Anglican Spirituality, bringing the works of Austin Farrar, Somerset Ward, Dorothy Sayers and H.A. Williams to the attention of a new generation.

CATHERINE Fox, meanwhile, has a doctorate in church history and is married to a vicar in Gateshead.

Like Howatch, she likes to write her novels in groups of three. Angels And Men was published in 1995 to critical acclaim and looks likely to become a best seller in Penguin this year. Her publisher, Hamish Hamilton, meanwhile have another success on their hands with her second novel, The Benefits Of Passion, due in paperback next year two of the main characters from Angels and Men reappear in this. In her third novel, she promises a central figure will be Isobel, a minor, character from The Benefits Of Passion.

A graduate in English literature from Durham, Catherine Fox switched to post graduate theology at King's College, London, doing a doctoral thesis on women and early Quakerism. Her experiences at Durham and her Ph.D. topic delivered obvious settings and character formation for both Angels And Men and Benefits Of Passion.

Mara Johns, the heroine of Angels And Men, is an English graduate who has moved to Durham for postgraduate research in church history, on women and religious fanaticism in the 17th century. In Benefits Of Passion, meanwhile, Annie Brown is a novelist training for ordination at Durham.

While writing, Fox has consulted closely with a leading dogmatic theologian, the Dean of Lichfield the Very Rev Tom Wright. Despite their strong language and graphic sex, her novels wrestle with the deepest theological questions, including the existence of God, the nature of sin, religious obsession and psychological health, call and vocation, self sacrifice, passion, death and resurrection. She makes an insider's criticism of evangelical dogmatism and charismatic extremes, and is not afraid to tackle topical debates such as the ordination of women and the church's attitude to homosexuality.

When Angels and Men first appeared, Fox's local paper produced stories about the vicar's wife who wrote dirty books. But more recently she has been the focus of a double page article in the Church Times, in which she spoke frankly abut her Baptist childhood, and her growing feelings of marginalisation from mainstream evangelicalism with the rise of movements such as Reform, which opposes the ordination of women.

It may be a healthy reflection on the state of theology and the maturity of the Church of England today that popular novelists such as Susan Howatch and Catherine Fox can work so critically and so comfortably within those cloisters. One wonders whether Irish Catholicism would allow the kind of probing the novel needs ...

WHEN I was a student, my lecturer in moral theology included Dostoevsky and Iris Murdoch on his reading list. Flannery O'Connor, the self styled chill billy Thomist", believed great literature deals with ultimate concerns which are essentially theological. But what about popular fiction? Fiction helps construct our view of reality, and popular fiction can help the general reader to enter the reality of theological debates and church life. It may not be long before Susan Howatch and Catherine Fox find they have become required reading in theological colleges.