Posted by: Mark Nielsen | September 2, 2009

O’Connor, John Irving and the Creative Christian Symbol

As readers of Marking Time probably already know, I could go on far too long about my own creative process and how it has informed my faith (and vice versa). But I won’t, at least not today.

Instead I will go on far too long about an old favorite, and a moderately recent one, both working in the area of fiction. These two are Flannery O’Connor and John Irving.

Regarding O’Connor, my most recent encounter was a reading the other day of the short story The Artificial Nigger. Sorry, but that’s the title, even though Flan was condemning racism, not condoning it… maybe you have to read it to understand (though it’s not ultimately a story about race, either). However, even in the 1950s,  it did take guts for her to title it like that for a national (i.e. non-Southern) audience.

Basically it’s a story about betrayal and forgiveness between a grandfather and grandson, and the ugly things all people are capable of doing to each other. Without spoiling the plot, let’s just say that she brings a symbolic “crucifixion” into a modern context, and that a close reading of the story absolutely blew me away, with the Holy Spirit burning the main point into my dull brain.

Which is the purpose of all good storytelling, I think — Christian or otherwise. Not directly to teach, so much as to model something, to mirror us back to ourselves, or as a symbolic window through which to glimpse naked reality and the God who is there. A neurologist, philosopher or linguist would say that all language and symbols –even visual or mathematical ones– are at their most fundamental level representing or based upon something else: a proposed or actual shared reality. So the work of a poet, a filmmaker, a painter, even in some small way an engineer designing a bridge, is to reduce reality to a manageable representation that can be understood by many people, through a specific means. Hopefully the creator or team of creators do this with good, selfless intentions… though there is no guarantee of this last point.

But now I’ve lost you, perhaps. Something always gets lost in the “translation”, doesn’t it? So enough of this complicated post-modern deconstructionist claptrap. Besides, many others have already made these same points about Flannery O’Connor anyway. So… on to John Irving.

I realized in reading a small article last week, where Irving’s name was mostly mentioned in passing, that whether or not he is a churchgoing Christian, John’s basic ethics are and always have been rooted in an essentially Christian worldview (though always with that tough-to-swallow existentialist twist). So even though he’s never gone on record in interviews or memoirs about his theology– and even though he’s been often critical of organized religion– I take it on faith that he believes in (and yet struggles with) God, and the ethics and purpose of Jesus. Thus, similar to what that old politician once said of porn, I can’t precisely define the nature of John’s faith, but I know it when I see it.

As a self-proclaimed “comic novelist”, he’s basically an absurdist, most of whom have been agnostics or atheists for generations now. But if Irving isn’t actually certain, for example, about the divinity of Jesus, it seems at least that he wants to believe: that throughout all of his novels, he has not been able to walk away from God, the idea of a messiah, or the basic view that humankind is depraved and apparently in need of saving.

Yet John’s books, and the movies that have been made from several of them (World According to Garp, Hotel New Hampshire, A Prayer for Owen Meany [made as Simon Birch ], and Cider House Rules), have never offered easy or traditional answers to the Big Questions. Therefore he is probably the first truly post-modernist novelist that I read as a young man.

On the other hand, I intuitively recognized something about Irving from day one (which for me was Garp, prior to the film’s release and also prior to my Christian “conversion”): John listens to something godly within himself and his past experience, perhaps even a bit mystically, and thus is always writing plots and characters which expose or explore what it means to be a person of conscience (or not, in quite intentional acts of denial or inhumanity). His characters are always acting before a seemingly silent, but nevertheless huge and ever-present, behind-the-scenes God.

Irving also cites among his influences and favorite authors such Christian or religiously-oriented writers as Frederick Buechner (Irving’s teacher and chaplain in high school), magical realist and innovator Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, Robertson Davies, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and especially Graham Greene, the renowned Roman Catholic seeker. I think Irving, like Greene, strives to discover those hard, deep truths that only come from a constant tenacity to keep up the search for them (in God’s litter-strewn backyard, in the dark, and despite being such a wounded sinner with bad eyesight and a drinking problem, if I may badly paraphrase Greene’s theology).  John has been a wrestler or wrestling coach since his teens, and like the biblical Jacob, he’s wrestled a few angels in that time as well.

As symbols of the actions of God upon our lives, Irving often uses “accidents”, tragedies, personal sacrifices, and not-so-random coincidences in his plotlines. A car accident at a key moment. A rape. A betrayal at some critical juncture in two characters’ lives. A so-called “chance” meeting. The blinding of a man (a father, a martyr) when he acts ethically and unselfishly.

Irving does this not in a hamhanded, Deus-ex-machina, “here’s God’s judgment or blessing” sort of way. Just with an assured implication that there is an outside hand at work in the characters’ lives (and presumably in the author’s and readers’ own lives). But that doesn’t remove the free will or responsibility that humans bear within their lives and their choices. Irving’s is a “keep your eye on the ball” sort of theology, in which a rotten action yields rotten fruit.

The same might be seen in his personal life, for what it’s worth. Take for example Simon Birch, a movie somewhat disowned by John for evading or watering down the “miraculous” elements of his original Owen Meany character. Why would Irving remove his name from the project, and yet still say publicly that he LIKED the movie, if not because of sensing the intellectual and moral dishonesty inherent in un-deifying his main character and original plot (from which the movie strays significantly)?

Thus Irving didn’t want to condone the loss of such basic, even orthodox, theology as what Owen Meany says at one point in the book:

“If you don’t believe in Easter, don’t kid yourself–don’t call yourself a Christian.”

In other words: the resurrection was either singularly true, or else it wasn’t, and one shouldn’t go halfway in their acceptance or denial about a miracle and what it is supposed to accomplish. Meanwhile, for his part, I think John Irving knows the importance for every person to choose belief in God for themselves. Not to be led by the nose toward hypocritical acceptance of a shallow, official, church-sponsored version of  a Jesus who does not guide one’s daily choices, but to discover and accept a truer Jesus and his message and example — especially the Jesus who calls us to account, and to a life of radical love.

Here’s a good reviewer/blogger, who discusses the religious or theological aspects of Owen Meany more directly.

And with this, I gotta be done for the day. Whether I’ve made my point, and followed a truth that I was aiming at, will have to be for others to decide.



  1. This is a really thoughtful post you’ve written! I like the stuff you included about Irving’s writing influences – definitely adds some food for thought when I read his new novel next month. Since you were talking about that, I thought I’d ask if you’ve ever used Infloox? It’s like a wiki/search engine thing that shows *literary* influences of mostly authors and also other famous people. When I checked just now they had some other lit influences listed for Irving, but not the ones you mentioned (Garcia-Marquez, Davies etc). You should add those to that page 🙂 Btw there’s also a video interview floating around, of Irving talking in detail about the new novel. Have you seen it??

  2. Thanks Carrie,

    Hadn’t heard of infloox, but will check it out. Same for the interview, esp if it’s YouTubable (izzat a word? It is NOW!).
    Except I’m pissed. Now I got to read another book?! 🙂

    Hop here back again soon.

  3. Hey Mark,

    I think you are being far too kind to Irving, giving him credit for having a fully developed theological conscience. I’d sum him up in 3 words. Bitter Ex-Catholic. You’ve probably know one or two. A nun cracked them with a ruler when they were in grade school and they go through the rest of their life holding a grudge. In all sincerity I’d take an atheist over them any day.

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