My town’s public library has a Religious Fiction section, over by the Mystery and Science Fiction shelves, and about the same size. I have no idea what is in it. I have looked, but that was not much help. Every book I glanced at was, more or less, terrible, but I suspect that the outcome would have been statistically similar in any other part of the library, controlling for publication date and so on.
John Henry Newman, in his discourses on “Literature” and “English Catholic Literature,” does not argue against religious fiction, not exactly, but he is suspicious, even though he himself was the author of a Catholic novel (Loss and Gain, 1848). He defends non-Catholic, and even anti-Catholic, literature. He defends their place in the Catholic university, and is not convinced that the Catholic university will have much of a role in creating something called “Catholic literature.”
Newman’s ecumenicism is a delight, although it has its limits – he does not hesitate to call Hobbes and Hume “evil” and a “disgrace” (“ECL,” 276), but he does not then say a Catholic should not read them or authors like them:
They [Milton and Gibbon] are great English authors, each breathing hatred to the Catholic Church in his own way, each a proud and rebellious creature of God, each gifted with incomparable gifts.
We must take things as they are, if we take them at all. (“ECL,” 268)
Newman’s keenest argument is that even if we would like to insulate ourselves from writers of dubious belief, it is too late. Our language is suffused with theirs. The English Catholic’s ordinary speech is already full of Shakespeare and Gibbon, the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. “English Literature will have ever been Protestant” (272, emphasis Newman’s) and “Man’s work will savour of man” (274). I will admit that I am almost always attracted to arguments against purity, that one must accept impurity as a fact of the world and act accordingly.
Does this sound familiar?
This is not a day for great writers, but for good writing, and a great deal of it. There never was a time when men wrote so much and so well, and that, without being of any great account themselves. (284)
Newman blames periodicals, not MFA programs. The complaint is perpetual. Was it ever true? Was it ever not true?
One last quotation, which tips Newman’s hand. He has to defend literature, classical, English, or otherwise. He loves it too much:
National Literature is, in a parallel way, the untutored movements of the reason, imagination, passions, and affections of the natural man, the leapings and the friskings, the plungings and the snortings, the sportings and the buffoonings, the clumsy play and the aimless toil, of the noble, lawless savage of God’s intellectual creation. (“ECL,” 275)
Now that sounds like fun. It is fun.