The Common Good
December 2005

Participating in the Divine

by Dale W. Brown | December 2005

Ron Hansen talks about stories, faith, and being a 'Christian writer.'

Participating in the Divine

Ron Hansen is all over the lot. He writes novels, of course, and essays, screenplays, short stories, children’s books, and reviews. He teaches at California’s Santa Clara University. He makes speeches. His readers are often surprised that the same Ron Hansen who wrote Mariette in Ecstasy in 1991 also wrote, in 1983, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. He ranges from the controversial story Hitler’s Niece in 1999 to the light comedy Isn’t It Romantic? in 2003. His 1996 novel Atticus is a masterpiece of one sort; Nebraska is a masterpiece of another.

The key word from phase to phase in Hansen’s career seems to be “surprise.” He likes to experiment with different genres, various kinds of stories, and narrative styles. Such eclecticism makes him difficult to categorize, and he probably takes considerable pleasure in the dilemma critics face when they approach his many offerings.

In A Stay Against Confusion: Essays on Faith and Fiction, a collection of writings published in 2001, Hansen speaks complexly of the attempt to write from a position of faith. A practicing Catholic, Hansen believes that “faith-inspired fiction squarely faces the imponderables of life.” To be truthful, he says, religious fiction must include irreligion. Like any artist worth the trouble, Hansen deals in the fearfulness and joy of day-to-day life, but his eyes seem always to be focused on how we encounter God in the mundane. He writes of miracle without much regard for markets or literary fashion. And it has worked.

Hansen spoke of his books, his thoughts about the publishing industry, and his feelings about faith and the church.

Dale Brown: It seems that your love for story connected early on to your parents’ conversion to Catholicism.

Ron Hansen: My mother converted to Catholicism when she was a girl in an orphanage run by Dominican nuns. My father converted at age 20 in order to marry her. They were both dedicated to their faith and infused the family with a joy in church-going. It was in church as a little boy that I first noticed I was hearing the same stories over and over again and noted too how the grown-ups paid such rapt attention to those stories.

Brown: And the Mass is a kind of narrative.

Hansen: Right. Liturgy as drama. That’s one of the things I wrote about in A Stay Against Confusion. One of the things that’s interesting about the old Catholic churches was the stunning visual material that was chock-a-block in them. There were narratives all over the place, in the paintings, statues, Stations of the Cross, and the rest. And the liturgy seemed to be a theater combining a synagogue service that Jesus would have grown up with and a re-enactment of the Last Supper. Mass increased my reverence for narrative. Story wasn’t just revered or sanctified; it was understood that it was an element that ought to be incorporated fully into your life.

Brown: Some writers claim that too much alignment with the church is bad for their professional lives. Frederick Buechner says that “ordination is a terrible career move for a writer.” You seem to argue the opposite. Why?

Hansen: It could partly be the times, I suppose. A religious writer in these supposedly post-Christian days is an exotic, an exemplar of a contrarian strategy, and in some ways such writers may be interesting because of their heterodoxy. While there are probably some people who don’t read my books simply because they’re so overtly concerned with religious matters, I probably wasn’t going to snag those readers anyway. I realize that there’s branding and pigeonholing that goes on, and that’s a shame.

Brown: So the assumption is that a believer writes a book, and we already know what that book will be about?

Hansen: Right. The prejudice is that the book will be a stagey, out-of-touch, doctrinaire tool for proselytizing. I wonder how true that assumption is? People of faith may in fact have more freedom to write about a sinful world than others do simply because they accept the fact of their imperfections and, confident in the love and forgiveness of God, have made a thorough and honest inventory of their faults and misdeeds. A faith that has settled into a person is not restrictive but liberating. It’s the new converts, the neophytes, who sometimes go too far in condemning others or insisting on perfect orthodoxy. People who grow up with a religious faith and are settled into it realize that there’s more openness and pliability and solace in it than it might appear to those on the outside looking in.

Brown: You talk about writing as prayer, writing that produces spiritual growth. This is a vision of the profession that we may be losing now.

Hansen: In his book Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius of Loyola formulates a way of meditating on gospel passages in which he asks the exercitant to visualize a fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee, for instance, and apply all your senses to it, to hear the waves splashing, smell the fish in their nets, taste the water, everything. In finding that place, making it real for yourself, the sayings and wonders of Christ will have far greater impact. And though you begin with scripture, the meditation ought to expand beyond it to include your own problems and questions, all the humdrum details of your life. The gospel stories become personal for you, become places you can return to for consolation or advice. The same thing happens in fiction. You begin with some subject or situation that you have a need to explore, and gradually the joys or sorrows that you’re having in life start entering into the fiction, and you solve problems for yourself through your characters. Writing—or reading, for that matter—is a way of having God speak to you through a familiar language.

Brown: So how does a novelist write about miracles? Shelby Foote and Walker Percy used to debate whether believers could write novels at all. “No practicing Catholic could write a good novel,” Foote said. Novels are based in this world and feature questions, not answers. No miracles allowed. John Gardner was another who was nervous about any sense of the doctrinaire. You refer to books that “sermonize.” So how do you manage this line between the secular and the sacred?

Hansen: I think it’s odd that folks like Foote talk about religious belief as a hindrance, but they don’t talk about political belief or other advocacies. Some people are doctrinaire about feminism or vegetarianism, and it doesn’t come up as objectionable. It’s only when you start talking about faith that people get edgy.

Brown: Are the challenges any different for a Catholic writer like yourself, Jon Hassler, or Tim Gautreaux, compared to Protestant writers such as Fred Buechner, John Updike, or Doris Betts?

Hansen: A lot of friends of mine who grew up in fundamentalist traditions feel that they have to leave their faith before they can write. In some ways they felt shackled by their religious backgrounds. I never felt that. Updike and Buechner and Betts come from a mainstream Protestantism that hasn’t seemed to cramp them. A good many of my writer friends find their faith to be a great resource, but the lapsed Catholic, the lapsed Baptist, the cultural but non-religious Jew are probably the majority at universities and on the book scene.

Brown: The Reformed tradition speaks about literature that moves one not simply to meditation but to action. Do you see those views as necessarily opposed?

Hansen: No, I don’t. I think the fact that these feelings we have are given an external manifestation, or a sign, means that our faith has to be shown naturally in our activities in the world. And as the epistle of James points out, faith without works is nothing.

Brown: There’s a long strain of American writers—from Emily Dickinson, who says “We believe and disbelieve a hundred times an hour,” to Melville, who “could neither believe nor be comfortable in his unbelief,” according to his friend Hawthorne. Do you resonate with this strain?

Hansen: Periodically. About once a week, I find myself thinking, “What if I’m mistaken about all of this?” But, as A Streetcar Named Desire has it, “Sometimes—there’s God—so quickly!”

Brown: Does that find its way into the writing?

Hansen: The doubt doesn’t, no. I think I write out of faith because writing for me is a form of prayer. And I don’t feel there is much profit in skepticism and doubt. To be skeptical and mistrusting is the easiest thing in the world. But so much negativity is hard on you. You can wear yourself out in going through an investigation of your faith all the time. And I’ve had enough positive experiences, near-miraculous experiences, that I know something’s up. I don’t have to figure out the God question anew. The religion I was given solves a lot of the questions for me. If there are theological gaps to my understanding, I’m not going to worry about them; I would be kidding myself if I thought I got it right and Thomas Aquinas or Paul Tillich or Karl Rahner didn’t.

Brown: You have a gift of faith?

Hansen: It seems like a lot of people are trying to get A-B-C-D-E-F-G, the full sequence, and I’m content with the jot and tittle of A, C, and G. All the mysteries don’t have to be solved for me.

Brown: “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief” is the best we can do.

Hansen: Yes, exactly. There’s a poem by John Berryman—one of his “Eleven Addresses to the Lord.” He records something like a wise man saying that even to say God exists is in some way untrue. We’re too limited in our intelligence and God is so much bigger than our imaginations. You read memoirs of people who flail about for years trying to figure out whether God exists. Reason just gets in the way.

Brown: But some floundering finds its way into your books?

Hansen: Yes, I have to record longing, lostness, and the rest.

Brown: Can literature promote virtue?

Hansen: Certainly. Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s fiction is wonderful for showing how in the worst, most awful sorts of situations you can still have integrity and dignity.

Brown: How present is that in your mind as you write a book like Atticus?

Hansen: Very present. I want to create characters that are larger than life, but larger in the sense of their souls. And sometimes that soul is decadent and corrupted and sometimes that soul is really pure—something you would want to imitate. So the Crayolas can get pretty bright sometimes, but what you’re trying to do is highlight those moments of decision where people actually make the right choice and perfect themselves, or make the wrong move and bring themselves woe.

Brown: Where does taste come into this debate?

Hansen: There’s a kind of fiction—the kind that, unfortunately, some Christian bookstores prefer—which is evangelization and testimony. “This is how my life was saved, where I found Jesus as my Lord and Savior.” But that’s not how Jesus himself would have told the story.

Brown: How about being a “Christian writer”?

Hansen: I appreciate that label. I’m proud of it. The gospels insist we ought to be.

Brown: “Catholic novelist” is all right?

Hansen: Yes. It is more like saying “Nebraska novelist” in some ways, because that’s part of my unshakeable identity. It doesn’t really categorize the fiction as much as it does the author.

Brown: Style and craft matter to you?

Hansen: Yes, I spend a lot of time revising, editing, and carefully poring over stuff. If there’s a sentence I consider really nice, then I have the courage to go on. And if everything is humdrum, I think, “What’s the point of this?”

Brown: Do you think God cares about dangling modifiers?

Hansen: I hope not. Or split infinitives, either.

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