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“So hopefully I’ve written about faith in a way that should speak to nonbelievers.”

The title above is a quote from the Mary Karr post Matthew did last year, and there is a discussion going on in the Footnotes post comments about her.

So what does it mean to write about faith in a way that speaks to nonbelievers? I haven’t read her work, but that quote caused a set of filters to go off in my head.  I am suspicious. She seems to be good discussion fodder right now so maybe she deserves her own post.


  1. Betty Duffy says:

    Some conversations on just this subject, from my old book club.

  2. Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says:


    Thanks for putting up a post about Mary Karr — a great idea, if I do say so myself.

    As Churchill might say, it’s been a long day and I’m very tired. But here are some thoughts to continue the discussion:

    In Lit, Karr describes her conversion in the context of her slow climb out of alcoholism. She doesn’t address what I’d call typical apologetical controversies: She may well be interested in philosophical or historical reasons to prefer Catholicism above other options, but in Lit, she pretty much sticks to describing her personal impressions.

    According to the account she gives in that book, she acknowledged her alcoholism, went to a group for help, and was turned off by the group’s insistence that every alcoholic must learn to rely on a higher power (and even pray to It) rather than trust in one’s own willpower to resist drink. Even when she resisted praying, though, the sense of genuine mutual concern among the members of the group (which cut across socioeconomic lines) impressed and attracted her. After a few too many disasters, Karr finally started praying daily to a higher power, though she didn’t believe in It; she just knew she needed a psychological prop to prevent relapse. And once she started praying, her life did indeed improve. Gradually, the habit of prayer led her to believe in the existence of the Higher Power on Whom she had learned to rely, and Who seemed to be looking out for her.

    But she still shunned organized religion — until her gradeschool-aged son asked her about the possibility of finding a religion. For his sake, she visited various worship services, but found them either too narrow-minded or too vapidly this-worldly. But the Catholic Mass impressed her. She thought the liturgy was dignified, and appreciated the focus on the Eucharist (and the priest’s no-nonsense, workmanlike approach to his task). She was pleasantly surprised by Catholics, too, finding them (us!?!?) to be a genuine community, not unlike the alcoholism group that had introduced her to prayer. She found that many Catholic teachings were not ridiculous, and even made some sense. (Though she does describe her self as ‘cafeteria’.) Eventually her son wanted to be baptized. The pastor suggested she be baptized, too. She agreed to prepare, and Tobias Wolff, whom she’d known as a (student? colleague?) and friend, served as her sponsor, satisfactorily answering enough of her misgivings that she did join the Church along with her son.

    Based on my reading of Lit, Karr’s strongest motives for becoming Catholic (aside from the impetus of her son’s desire for baptism) seem to be: belief in God, a strong sense of the power of prayer (especially in maintaining the pray-er’s psychological health, and in occasional happy coincidences that seem to answer particular prayers), an attraction to the communion of saints, and an appreciation for the Mass. Admiration for Jesus, acknowledgement that the growth and survival of Christianity is remarkable, and desire for eternal life, also factored in, but I got the sense that they were later and probably lesser motives.

    In describing these motives, Karr seems interested in showing that conversion was the right decision for her specifically. But in the process, she shares enough of: 1) her own wide-ranging experiences and tough-minded personality, 2) her own positive reasons for converting, and 3) insights that answered some of her objections, that the atheistic or agnostic reader cannot dismiss her conversion lightly. And that in-dismiss-ability may perhaps be juuuust enough to nag at the skeptic’s mind.

    Sorry to ramble. Hope that’s all more accurate than not.

  3. Cubeland Mystic says:

    Now I wish that I had stuck with my original post. It was a little more direct than what I wrote. I remember listening to that PBS Matthew linked to in his post last spring and immediately eliminating her work as a category of interest. Addicts are liars and recovering addicts are recovering liars. Fr. Corapi’s stories over the years became embellished, and once I realized it my antennae immediately went up. The last couple of years I had trouble listening to him whenever he came on the radio. I turned him off.

    One thing I did consider doing while I was listening was buying her books for a teen who was graduating that week from high school. His mother is a sneaky liar and a dry drunk if not a wet active one, and the dad is a major avoider. I guess another term is enabler, and he has his tendencies to drift into fiction too. At least now I have heard the teens call her on her BS in the last couple times they were all together. I thought maybe the books might help sort some things out and give clues to the type of environment from which the kid was emerging. Then I thought someone who “speaks to nonbelievers” is probably not going to convey a message of hope that is going to help the kid purge demons.

    I realize that I am commenting in total ignorance about her work. It may be great and very edifying. But I doubt it. Her PBS interview caused antennae to come out. The other thing that bothers me is she seems to be in tight with the contemporary lit crowd. I found them to be vampires when I was in college, and still have that impression today. They thrive off of dissecting self validating tragedy, and the key to a good story for them is that the author does not offer any hope at the end. So you get carnage and a dollop of hopelessness. Having said that I think about stories that I would write and they are tragic too, but I believe that I would focus on hope. I hope that is not too hypocritical.

    Excluding LOTR, I’ve read about 20 novels in the last perhaps 3 years and there was no consensual or non-consensual sodomizing in any of them. There may have been one scene that implied it. There is enough violation in our real lives why add to it.

    • Your caution against trusting addicts — and the specific example of Fr Corapi — are well taken. More than once I did suspect Karr was embellishing an episode (such as when she described finding her mother blithely doing a crossword puzzle as her neglected house caved in around her). But whereas Corapi’s story was rather self-aggrandizing both in describing the height of his successes and the depth of his depravity, Karr’s telling of her story strikes me as humble and de-glamorizing.

      Your broad-strokes assessment of contemporary literature is the same as mine. But I emphatically do not think it applies to Karr, at least not in her most recent published work. She describes literature in general, and poetry in particular, as potential channels of hope, and says that an attraction to the beauty in words helped draw her into communion with other people and with God.

      Karr’s essay ‘Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer’ sums up most of what I was banging on about in my comment from last night (though — warning — it contains bad wordage). I don’t know if it answers your suspicion that ‘someone who “speaks to nonbelievers” is probably not going to convey a message of hope that is going to help [a kid from a dysfunctional family] purge demons‘. But I do think it shows that she is trying to convey a message of hope. I’ll go further: She articulates (whether she actually believes it or not — you decide!) a diagnosis of contemporary literature’s dead-end nihilism that is very close to your own. From ‘Facing Altars’:

      […] I started following [the advice of poet Thomas Lux] by mouthing rote thank-you’s to the air, and, right off, I discovered something. There was an entire aspect to my life that I had been blind to—the small, good things that came in abundance. A religious friend once told me of his own faith, “I’ve memorized the bad news.” Suddenly, the world view to which I’d clung so desperately as realistic—we die, worms eat us, there is no God—was not so much realistic as the focal expression of my own grief-sodden inwardness. Like Hawthorne’s reverend in “The Minister’s Black Veil,” I could only interpret the world through some form of grief or self-absorbed fear.

      Not too long after this talk with Lux (in a time of crisis—the end of my marriage), someone gave me the prayer from St. Francis of Assisi. It’s one of those rote prayers that cradle-Catholics can resent having drilled into them, but I started saying it with my five-year-old son every night[…]. Even for the blithely godless, these wishes are pretty easy to choke down. I mean, it’s not hard to believe that, if you can become an instrument for love and pardon rather than wallowing in self-pity, then your life will improve. The only parts of the prayer I initially bridled against were the phrase “O Divine Master” and the last two lines about eternal life, which I thought were horseshit. Something of it bored into my thick head, though, for reciting it began to enact some powerful calm in me.


      Prayer has yielded comfort and direction—all well and good. But imagine my horror when I began to have experiences of joy. For me, joy arrives in the body (where else would it find us?), yet doesn’t originate there. Nature never drew me into joy as it does others, but my fellow creatures as the crown of creation often spark joy in me […]. Inherent in joy is always a sense of joining with others (and/or God). The spirit I breathe in at such times (inspiration) always moves through others.

      But nothing can maim a poet’s practice like joy. As Henri de Montherlant says, “Happiness writes white.” What poet—in this century or any other—has founded her work on happiness? We can all drum up a few happy poems here and there, but from Symbolism and the High Moderns forward, poetry has often spread the virus of morbidity. It’s been shared comfort for the dispossessed. […] Poetry in the recent past hasn’t allowed us much joy.

      My own efforts to lighten my otherwise dour opus seem watered down. […] [T]he poems about Christ salted through the book spend way more time on crucifixion than resurrection. […] My new aesthetic struggle is to accommodate joy as part of my literary enterprise, but I still tend to be a gloomy and serotonin-challenged bitch.


      Rewind to last winter: my spiritual wasteland, when I received a request from Poetry to write about my faith. It was the third such request I’d gotten in a little more than a week, and it came from an editor I “owed” in some ways. How many times did Peter deny knowing Christ? I know, I know, my skeptical reader. It’s only my naive, magical thinking that makes such a simple request (times three) seem like a tap on the shoulder from the Almighty, but for one whose experience of joy has come in middle age on the rent and tattered wings of disbelief, it suffices. Having devoted the first half of my life to the dark, I feel obliged to revere any pinpoint of light now. And writing this essay did fling open windows in me so the sun shone down again. I hit my knees, and felt God’s sturdy presence, and knew it wasn’t God who’d vanished in the first place.

      Make of that what you will.

  4. This is creepy stuff, and you know it.

    I haven’t read any novels in the last three years that I can remember, except less than half of The Man Without Qualities (which I do intend to finish when I have time) and I recently re-read This Is Not A Story. Reference to neither book is supposed to be an oblique message to anyone, assuming anyone else is reading this, which could be the case since one of the poems went missing.

    In future, can you please not mention my name, which I can’t work out, or don’t have the energy to work out, how to change.

  5. Jonathan Potter says:

    I haven’t read Lit yet. I really liked Sinners Welcome, including the essay Angelico quotes here. I tried reading Liar’s Club and never got very grabbed by it; let it drop about halfway through. I’m sympathetic to what your antennae are warning you about, Mystic, but on the other hand (or the other antenna) there’s a Catholic ghetto mentality that sends me scurrying away, too. One way I conceptualized to myself what I was trying to achieve with House of Words was that I wanted to make doubters believe and believers doubt. I see Karr working on that borderline somewhat, too.

    • Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says:

      ‘[…] I wanted to make doubters believe and believers doubt.’

      Mr Potter,

      The author of a forthcoming review of House of Words (an Internet acquaintance of yours and a personal frenemy of mine) thought you were, intentionally or not, channeling Ratzinger. Your comment here seems to confirm it. The reviewer was going to quote from the following passage of the future pope’s Introduction to Christianity, pp. 46-47, but space constraints compelled him to cut it:

      No one can lay God and his Kingdom on the table before another man; even the believer cannot do it for himself. But however strongly unbelief may feel justified thereby, it cannot forget the eerie feeling induced by the words ‘Yet perhaps it is true.’ That ‘perhaps’ is the unavoidable temptation it cannot elude, the temptation in which it, too, in the very act of rejection, has to experience the unrejectability of belief. In other words, both the believer and the unbeliever share, each in his own way, doubt and belief, if they do not hide from themselves and from the truth of their being. Neither can quite escape either doubt or belief; for the one, faith is present against doubt; for the other, through doubt and in the form of doubt. It is the basic pattern of man’s destiny only to be allowed to find the finality of his existence in this unceasing rivalry between doubt and belief, temptation and certainty. Perhaps in precisely this way doubt, which saves both sides from being shut up in their own worlds, could become the avenue of communication.

      The reviewer also thought many of your poems — and especially your ‘Psalm’ (p. 6) — expressed kindred sentiments to Karr’s ‘Disgraceland’. Again, space constraints forced him to cut the comparison. Interesting to note, though.

      • Jonathan Potter says:

        Wow, thanks Angelico. (Any frenemy of yours is a frenemy of mine.) I’m heartened to find out I’ve got Ratzinger in my corner on this. Might have to be a Lenten reading project.

    • Cubeland Mystic says:

      Potter and Angelico.

      I did admit bigotry and bias above about Karr. It is true. I avoid Catholic theology because I fear I will find the weak point. I will expose the scam that everyone goes along with and pretends is not a weak point. The group collectively ignores it. I can’t. I am not wired to ignore. That is why I live in a cave in the desert. It doesn’t mean there is no God, just that man’s conception of God is wrong. The rules of engagement are wrong. Knowing my flaw, I live by the rules as they are presented by the Church, and don’t go poking around under the hood too much.

      I avoid works like Karr’s because I fear they are going give me a ride Into hell, kick me out of the car, and leave me there. I have doubts about these types of public conversions. Do you know what the source of this or any other conversion? Was it genuine? Is faith simply the methadone until one can get on their feet and function without drugs or any specific ideology? In the mean time, while they are exploring their faith-a-done, they leave little landmines laying around in their work. They cause doubt and fear. They do their damage and leave you no hope. It is not specifically her, this would apply to anyone. I just wish she didn’t mention her conversion. Frankly this is why I am having trouble reading Percy. I am actually very apprehensive about it. I am afraid that he will add to my doubts and leave me with nothing. How is that for a confession?

      On the other hand to be fair, I am a big believer in “art begins in a wound.” I read her stuff provided by Angelico and it was nice. It was hopeful. I liked the poem. Regarding the ghetto, I am down with you on that.

      • Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says:


        Thank you very much for laying that all out. Your predicament is unfortunate but understandable — mostly.

        One chunk particularly catches my attention. Partly, it makes sense to me; partly, it doesn’t:

        I have doubts about these types of public conversions. Do you know what the source of this or any other conversion? Was it genuine? Is faith simply the methadone until one can get on their feet and function without drugs or any specific ideology? In the mean time, while they are exploring their faith-a-done, they leave little landmines laying around in their work. They cause doubt and fear. They do their damage and leave you no hope. It is not specifically her, this would apply to anyone.

        ‘It is not specifically her, this would apply to anyone’ — Surely that’s true, not only of any public convert, or any convert generally, but of any Christian. No one becomes a Christian at conception, or at birth, but only at some point after being born. And even a person who was baptized as an infant and raised a Christian must effectively ‘convert’ sometime after attaining reason, and continually afterward. Such a ‘cradle’ Christian need seldom be fully conscious that that’s what he’s doing, I think — he could coast without much thought through Sunday school and Confirmation and thousands of homilies, recitations of the Creed, and ‘amens’ — but his daily choices will amount to little acts of assent to, or dissent from, the baptismal promises. All adult Christians are, in a practical sense, converts. And so your questions ‘Do you know what the source of this or any other conversion? Was it genuine?’ apply to all adult Christians — not just Karr, but the rest of us. Why did you revert to the Faith? Why did I? Or Ms Finnigan? What was the source of Percy’s, Potter’s, Finnegan’s, or Webb’s conversion to Rome? (Webb converted as an adult, right?) What is it that not only stops Lickona from apostatizing, but keeps goading him along the Via Dolorosa? What has made Expat, JOB, and — yes — Tolkien serious about the Faith? Or John and Teresa? Or Peter and Paul? How do we know the source(s) of any of these people’s decisions to assent to Christianity? And how do we know they were genuine? (To begin to answer all those questions, I’d probably put the living and the dead in different categories, and sub-divide the category of the dead into ‘canonized’ and ‘non-canonized’. But no time for that right now.)

        I think I see the problem you describe, Mystic; I just don’t see that being a convert from atheism or agnosticism or another religion makes a Christian who publicly explores his faith (or, as it may prove to be, ‘faith-a-done’) any more dangerous than a ‘cradle’ Christian who does likewise. Thoughts?

      • Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says:

        Psalm 118, 8-9 strikes me as relevant to this problem. So, to end the night and begin Lent:

        It is better to take refuge in the LORD
        than to put confidence in man.

        It is better to take refuge in the LORD
        than to put confidence in princes.

        • Cubeland Mystic says:


          Thank you. I do get your point. Let me see if I can flesh this out a bit. At some point in her interview it got into her own her own story. I may be wrong, it has been almost a year, but she is a drinker from a family of drinkers. So I suspect at some point the story is going to be about her and her monkey. And then are we going to explore the eventual collision of secular feminism, single momhood (I recall divorced no?), and all the reactions her secular friends had and the eventual ostracization by some or all of her old friends, and of course what it meant to the precious “career”.

          Some or all of this may have happened, or even none of it. The fact is I listened, we dragged out the personal woundedness in the interview and its relationship to her work. I believe she made the witty justificatory minimization of the faith in her work by proclaiming something like “I guess I needed the money.” That is a rough paraphrase from memory. It was sort of a oblation to the old crowd, “Hey I am only a couple drinks behind maybe we’ll meet up in the next valley.”

          I know this is cynical and a fabrication of my own, and somewhat unfair to her. But the truth of it is that my mind went there. For me it goes there with a lot of modern artists because its more about them, and less about transcendence. That is my point.

          What absolutely loved that she wrote was this:

          “Having devoted the first half of my life to the dark, I feel obliged to revere any pinpoint of light now. And writing this essay did fling open windows in me so the sun shone down again. I hit my knees, and felt God’s sturdy presence, and knew it wasn’t God who’d vanished in the first place.”

          But I am not interested in her personal life, and the interview put me off. I think I have a real point here, and it is not just me being me.

          What I really want is you guys to convince me to finish Love in the Ruins and the Moviegoer. Convince me that he is not going to leave me in a bourbon soaked, hypocrisy filled, adulterous hell. Please.

          • Jonathan Potter says:

            I sorta grok where you’re coming from. Would I be correct in paraphrasing you as worrying over that these splashy converts are too into a hipster narcissistic thing that really isn’t genuine faith but only a phony masquerade that will ultimately leave them and us vacant and evacuated? I’m pretty sure our man WP won’t leave you in the lurch when all’s said and done — not in the way you fear Ms. Karr might — although there may be some dicey moments along the way. You might do well to leave off the novels for now and start with the nonfiction and/or the interviews: Message in the Bottle, Lost in the Cosmos, Signposts in a Strange Land, Conversations with Walker Percy, More Conversations with Walker Percy. Take your pick. I personally think the essays in The Message in the Bottle might be to your taste. Particularly the title piece and “Notes for a Novel About the End of the World.” Try those two essays, at least, and get back to us.

            Also, from a Korrektiv standpoint, at least in my opinion, Kierkegaard is the real patron saint. He might ultimately be more to your taste, even though he lacks the Catholic credentials. Try a dose of Fear and Trembling, Training in Christianity, The Sickness Unto Death, or Concluding Unscientific Postscript — and call us in the morning.

            • Cubeland Mystic says:

              Thanks JP

              I am more worried about this
              “ultimately leave them and us vacant and evacuated”

              Not worried about this at all (don’t care)

              “splashy converts are too into a hipster narcissistic thing that really isn’t genuine faith but only a phony masquerade”

              In these cases I suspect the latter, but am more concerned about the former. Not that I am weak, but it does hurt when that occurs. It does not take not take much for me. I had a lot of trouble with Power and the Glory. I have a lot of trouble with Flannery O.

              I have brutality in my own writing, because it is historical and happened to people. That is real. It takes real research, and you have to study what man did to man. You have to go there, and put yourself there. You also have to understand the real fear that can be imposed on you to understand what those people must have felt. If you get fear, it makes it all the harder. For that season of writing you live in hell with your characters. You ask all kinds of questions of the good Lord about how He let this happen. It is painful because you have some level of empathy with them. You understand fear and how works on you. But it is not your story. You are only a conveyer of that reality. Some artists make light of death and pain even when they are trying to be serious about it. It is the arbitrariness. It hurts to read it. I don’t want to gore any sacred cows around here, but then if we agree all the time there is not real growth. Maybe I have to suck it up and re-read, or finish reading these people.

              I am open to change at this point in my life.

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