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Fictional communities

From Mitford to Port William, two elegant writers show different sides of Scripture-grace and the valley of the shadow of death


Fictional communities
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Inspirational Fiction"-shelves at Barnes & Noble or Borders are full of Christian serial romances. In novels by Janette Oke, Tracie Peterson, Judith Pella, Michael Phillips, Brock and Bodie Thoene, Lori Wick, and dozens of others, the heroes are usually handsome, the heroines beautiful and religious, and the outcome foreordained. Many of these books use historical settings and rely on tragic times, exotic places, or wild adventure.

Scattered among the general fiction shelves are less predictable Christian novels by Marilynne Robinson, Athol Dickson, David James Duncan, Walker Percy, Leif Enger, and Anne Tyler. And at least two moderns who take their religion seriously, Jan Karon and Wendell Berry, have created richly imagined settings for their linked novels, including-like William Faulkner, with his famous Yoknapatawpha novels-maps of their terrain.

Karon's Mitford is a lovely village in North Carolina, Berry's Port William a rural town in Kentucky. Mitford and its rector echo a small 18th-century English village. Berry's Port William is rougher and cruder, full of farmers and poor folks, more akin to the towns of William Faulkner or Flannery O'Connor.

Both authors see our lives filled with everyday miracles. Both rely on well-developed characters who look and sound like real human beings. Each tracks the lives of a handful of characters in the imaginary worlds of Mitford or Port William. Berry compares telling a story to reaching into a granary of wheat and pulling out a handful: In each novel, he goes back for a new handful.

Karon usually has Father Timothy as her center of consciousness, though she allows us to enter other characters' minds from time to time, and uses their memories to explain motivation. Berry, by contrast, likes to develop a full portrait of one character at a time, using the others as context. He often takes an old person and circles back over a lifetime of memories, "like a hunting dog, keeps turning back and turning back, tracing out the way it has come."

Karon emphasizes the blessedness of small things-Esther's famous marmalade cake, local festivities, and a little yellow house and rose garden. Over the course of seven novels Father Tim falls in love, marries, and retires, and in the process saves several children from brutality, helps reformed criminals return to a respectable life, oversees the building of a home for the elderly, escapes the clutches of the local witch (an affluent member of his congregation), and lives through life-threatening bouts with diabetes.

Father Tim's church is comfortable and generally harmonious. He loves Scripture, does not fret about theological controversies, and even feels free to skip the recitation of the Nicene Creed. Absent from this blessed corner of the Church of England are the grand debates that are shattering his denomination.

Berry is not so comfortable in the Baptist church. Like his character Jayber Crow, he tends to sit on the edge of the back pew and argue with the ministers. Jayber, the Port William barber and erstwhile theological student, is uneasy about selective literal interpretation of Scripture, public prayers, and belief in the resurrection of the flesh while denying the beauty of the physical, natural life. Jayber loves the Gospels but has problems with Paul's epistles.

Berry's novels also touch on his quarrels with modern social and economic developments. He despises highways, tractors, and big business. He is a much tougher writer than Karon, much more challenging, much less orthodox, and much more of a poet. His taciturn people cannot speak their joys and sorrows except through their gestures and simple words. They offer an arm to an elderly man or touch the shoulder of a mourner. They use the language of the Bible, the only book most of them know.

Port William is a small town full of poorly educated, sweat-drenched rural folk, the remnant of a lost culture of small self-sufficient farms diminished by foreign wars, bypassed by the railroad, and abandoned by its young people. Friends and kin respect one another, observe one another's problems, and help out only when needed. They make no grand pronouncements about their benevolence, nor do they gossip about the evils they understand. These yeoman farmers know who they are and have a kind of simple dignity that leads them to respect a good worker and scorn a slacker.

In Mitford, old folks stay in their homes, move in with others, or have an idyllic final stay at Hope House, the lovely nursing home built with Miss Sadie's vast wealth. But in Port William, when Jayber Crow grows older and unnecessary, he moves to a cabin in the woods where some of his old friends continue to drop by for a haircut, a drink, and gossip. Old Jack, one of Berry's most heroic and tragic figures, has spent his life trying to labor on the land, at enmity with the internal combustion engine and time. Alienated from his only daughter and alone, he ends his days in a rocking chair, staring over the fields.

Time is no friend in Berry's small town and no enemy in Karon's. Her Mitford avoids the problems of the interstate and the big-box stores, retaining its whimsical charm. Some of the farm folk in Port William, though, settle for what Jayber calls the "local airport," an old hotel "where are gathered those about to depart into the heavens." In Karon's nice world good people eventually find one another, fall in love, and work out their common lives through grace. In Berry's world the lonely child searches for meaning through hard work, good friends and love, faces anguish and loss, and finally death.

Both are good writers. They have different goals and attract different readers. Many Karon readers enjoy a world without profanity or cruelty, a world in which rapists, murderers, thieves, or other brutes are caught, killed, or converted. They expect what Victorian audiences expected, that Good will prevail over Evil by page 450. This is not the story line we find in Scripture: Cain lived on after murdering Abel, though marked by the sin. And the best Man of all, Christ, died on the cross, after forbidding Peter to attack the soldiers. Paul found blessedness in the suffering; his idea of living happily ever after is a reference to Heaven.

Readers who prefer writers like Berry expect a level of discomfort. He will not preach his sermon so explicitly as some of the gentle writers. He will not cite his scriptural references nor sanitize his language, though he rarely uses explicit sexuality or profanity. Some of his central characters have affairs and never repent. Like Karon, Berry loves woodlands and hills, but his farms are full of mud and manure, weeds and thistles as well as flowers. Her animals are domesticated; his are hound dogs and mules-fellow workers.

Berry also places the church at the center of his community, but his pastors are pitiful young seminary students without wisdom or life experience. When non-churchgoing Jack Beechum dies, the funeral arranged by his condescending, pretentious daughter reveals the superficiality of her mourning. The casket is as lavish as the daughter's elegant car; the undertaker makes up the corpse and dresses him in a suit and tie that are flat wrong for this weather-beaten old man who lived in overalls most of his life. The young preacher who never knew Old Jack prays a long evangelistic prayer in an embarrassing effort to convert the mourners, whom he also does not know.

When Paul told the Philippians to try chewing some tough meat, he meant something deeper than the feel-good theology of a satisfied people. Rather than baby's milk, too many Christians settle for cotton candy or angel food cake, when they should be seeking to understand suffering and God's mercy. Karon portrays a gentle life full of grace. Berry shows us the valley of the shadow of death.

-Nancy Tischler, Professor Emerita of English at Pennsylvania State University, is the author of studies of Scripture and literature, including the forthcoming Thematic Guide to Biblical Literature

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