Most of my work as an English professor at a small, religiously conservative teaching college in the Midwest consists of the duties called for in a generalist: freshman composition, American literature surveys, and genre-specific classes for our majors and minors. Occasionally I run a Christianity and Literature course which, at a college like mine, draws majors from multiple disciplines.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from teaching this wide a variety of classes, it’s that students detest the out-of-nowhere literary save—the typical Deus ex machina plot resolution that sounds too good to be true. When an author makes a move that relies on the reader’s suspending disbelief to the point of saying, “Really, there’s no explanation, so let’s just accept it and move on,” students cry foul—and rightfully so. It’s literary fideism: faith in some unsubstantiated plot device without reason.
What do these fideistic plot twists look like? Characters A and B get into a difficult situation, despite their reasoned efforts to avoid such an entanglement. Character A mentions something impossible to Character B that could be done to extricate themselves from said situation, and the two mull it over, often with melancholy or angst, realizing there’s nothing to be done. Then, somehow, Character B does it, the world is saved (mostly), and the plot advances.
What makes for bad writing—or at least a shoddy excuse for plotting—also makes for bad thinking. In secular and religious literature alike, Character B’s ability to do the ostensibly impossible thing is unknown to him, and even after he does it, he wasn’t sure how he did it. In other words, he has inner, secret knowledge he didn’t know he had, and even after enacting the salvific role he doesn’t know why it worked. Such literary fideism has a nasty habit of fostering a kind of disciplinary pragmatism: who cares why a literary device works if it just does?
A couple prominent examples spring to mind from the secular fantasy world—where each of the twenty books in a series is a 900-page brick. In Stone of Tears (1995), the second installment of Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series, the hero Richard Rahl learns early on from a religious Sister he considers his enemy that the “Towers of Perdition” cannot be destroyed. Several hundred pages later, he destroys them. A different, book-smart character who knows prophecies asks Richard how he did it, to which Richard replies humorously that he hoped the book-guy would be able to tell him. The Towers are down; the plot advances; Richard is a hero. Even if in a subsequent book he learns he was getting unknown help at the time, he still does precisely what no one in history has been able to do, and he doesn’t know how or why, especially in the enacting. It’s the fideistic plot twist.
Ditto for Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind (2007), in which the highly intelligent orphan Kvothe cheats his way into the University that can teach him further “sympathy”—a take on “magic” manipulation that begins with a student’s learning how to hold a contradiction in his mind. Kvothe witnesses his first master Abenthy doing the impossible: calling the wind itself as a defense, but Abenthy does not reveal such a profound secret to his young apprentice. Later in the novel, Kvothe is facing his nemesis Ambrose and, in a moment of deep rage, manages to call the wind against him, which settles the matter. Asking a different master about the incident later, Kvothe learns that somehow he just knew the name of the wind inside himself and used it when he was ready. Having done that, Kvothe is ready for the next stage of his learning (cue book two). Fideistic might makes right.
Christian fiction is in no way immune to this literary disease. As Paul Elie has observed, we need “a tough-minded disinterested judgment” especially when evaluating a faithful book’s merits so we don’t lose our aesthetic “sense of discrimination.” Case in point: Thomas Costain’s The Silver Chalice.
A best-selling sword and sandal epic about the Judeo-Christian world immediately after the death of Christ, The Silver Chalice is a brick of a book itself and was made into a less successful film with Paul Newman, who famously apologized for his role in it. Published in 1952—several years before the cinematic peplum movement really hit its stride—critics lauded Costain for his painstaking historical research, even if his theology stepped into heresy-land, such as when he has St. Luke the Evangelist announce that Christ never exorcised demons but merely cured people of their mental illnesses. The modern theologically tuned reader need not worry: such stances were very much products of their times and are easily spotted and ignored as one enjoys the epic sweep, fast-paced action, and rich historical ornamentation Costain provides in Antioch, Jerusalem, and even Rome itself.
Beware, however, the fideistic plot twists, the most obvious of which involves a camel-singer—the dromedarian equivalent of a horse-whisperer.
Our hero Basil has decided to risk a long cross-desert journey in the hopes of saving his new wife’s inheritance, though he knows nothing about camels nor how to survive in such a desiccated environment. Chimham, a veteran camel-driver, agrees to accompany him but admits the flight is impossible: they’ll never get there in time, and he and his wife will lose everything they’ve worked for. They set out, and while Basil suffers a heat stroke, the camels get ornery and refuse to keep up the pace.
Facing their inevitable demise, the veteran camel-driver brings out the heretofore unheard-of concept: if only we had a camel-singer, a person whose singing voice the animals approve of, to the point that they will walk steadily, and even quickly, as long as that person continues his song. Basil is not a singer, however, so the point seems moot.
Stepping back from the story for a moment, even the idea of a camel-singer sounds ludicrous enough. One has to do some digging to see that Costain was, indeed, using a legitimate plot device—essential if we are to distinguish his historical fiction from fantasy.
The camel-singer’s role does seem to be culturally accepted in the Mideast. In Al Burhan al-Muayyad, a central religious commentary of the Sufis written in the 1100s (500s according to Qur’an dating), we find this line: “Don’t you see how when the child hears the singing he gets delighted and sleeps, and how the camels when the camel singer sings to them they walk and forget the pain of the burden?” The camel-singer here is used to back up a point about divinely inspired music and its ability to help beasts and humans persevere.
In more recent times, Iman Assiri, a poet from Bahrain, has a contemporary poem dedicated to the sixth-century Arabic poet Tarfa Bin Abd. One line of that poem reads: “And the blind camel singer would have been / Spreading his arms / Escorting me to the Gulf harbors.” Again, the camel-singer is assumed to be someone who can escort a stubborn animal—in this case, the speaker—to a destination.
Moving to America, there is a short story called “The Baby and the Camel” published in 1905 by Margherita Hamm that examines how a group of Egyptians and Coptic Christians were doing in New York. The character Meri, who knows something of camels, is speaking to a woman named New Moon, who is dismissive of them: “It is a great waste of lire for the camel-singer who comes Fridays with his lyre and chants gibberish to the beast,” and then “laughs scornfully.” Hamm is using the well-established position of the camel-singer to posit a conflict between the characters, which is resolved by the end of the story.
It’s reasonable that Costain would draw on this heritage and then “flesh out” the position of camel-singer as he did. Good historical fiction relies on such chains of evidence.
Where things go awry, however, is in the implementation. Against Basil’s protests, Chimham urges Basil to try singing anyway. He does, and the camels love it. Costain has Chimham make a perfunctory comment about the mediocre quality of Basil’s voice—“your voice is as thin as a reed”—which doesn’t matter much in a camel-singer. “The two riders were equally surprised by the result,” and Chimham’s hope against hope that Basil was “designed by nature to charm camels” comes gloriously true, even as Basil sings “for hours” while “his voice grew hoarse.” The two men do the impossible, thanks to something Basil didn’t know he could do, and neither of them knows why it works, or how; a ready-made camel-singer descends from Costain’s literary machinery to save the day. Christian fiction is just as susceptible as secular literature to the epistemological assault of “Why ask how.”
Good fiction needs the honed skills of an artist. Even if a secular definition of “mystery” means something that works when we don’t know why or how it does, the fideistic plot twist is still a too-convenient device that asks readers to take epistemological shortcuts. Secular literature isn’t off the hook for creating its own mysteries; refusing to seek understanding, or being complacent with unintelligibility, devolves into some brand of fideism, whether it be secular humanism, scientific materialism, efficient pragmatism, or what have you.
I’m not demanding that everything we know and how we know it be of first-order consciousness. If we do that, we provoke the ire of those like William Giraldi, whose New Republic article last June railed against the injustice of having everything in his books interpreted anagogically, now that he’d been deemed a “Catholic writer.”
At the same time, Catholics don’t define mystery by what’s missing. To quote particle physicist Stephen Barr, “belief in God is bound up with the idea that reality is completely rational and intelligible.” Patience, wonder, awe, and perseverance are called for in the unfolding of mystery, and that’s exactly what good literature is in the position to do as it guides us through a story.
It ought not, however, ask us to shortchange some of our deepest desires: to know how, and to understand why. If it does, it puts us at risk. In the name of whatever meretricious narrative, it allures us into mistaking magic or machinations for grace.