Michael D. O'Brien on the Role of Catholic Writer in Restoring Culture (Part 1)

Novelist Stresses Importance of Transmitting the Christian Message

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COMBERMERE, Ontario, SEPT. 23, 2003 (Zenit.org).- An artist who depends on daily Mass for sustenance while writing thinks that modern Catholic literature is stuck in a cultural ghetto.

To break out of that scenario, Michael D. O’Brien, a painter and author of the seven-volume series of novels, «Children of the Last Days,» hopes that Christian writers respond to the new evangelization by assuming their role in restoring culture.

O’Brien, whose latest novel, «A Cry of Stone,» has just been published by Ignatius, shared with ZENIT his experience as an artist trying to implicitly and explicitly spread the Gospel.

Part 2 of this interview will appear Wednesday.

Q: How does your Catholic faith influence your writing?

O’Brien: My Catholic faith is my life. Any artist, if he is to be faithful to how he perceives the world and to the nature of his creative gifts, cannot divorce the two. To create is to love. To love is to create.

This is true for all of us, regardless of our vocation, in whatever forms the human person seeks to give life; either in the private life of «Nazareth» — where most people live — or the public life of a more visible role in the shaping of society. Love cannot long survive without truth. Nor is truth really truth unless it is integrated with love.

During the 30 years I have been a painter and writer, I have noted a distinct pattern in myself: Whenever my prayer and sacramental life grow lax, the work suffers. It may continue to be clever and even dazzling to the eye, yet it becomes more and more shallow.

Here is the vine and the branches that Jesus speaks of with a certain urgency. If creators of Christian culture hope to produce work that will bear good fruit, we must draw our life from the true source — our living Savior. He is real. He is present. But all too often we reduce him to an abstraction, giving him intellectual assent, but not our hearts.

This dichotomy, so endemic to the modern age, has negative consequences. The solution is simple: Abandon yourself with full confidence to Jesus, live the totality of the Catholic faith without compromise, and he will do the rest.

Q: What makes a good Catholic novel?

O’Brien: It goes without saying that a good Catholic novel should be good craftsmanship, good writing skills. The creative person must always be engaged in the long labor of perfecting the tools of his art. Yet the work itself need not be explicitly evangelical in its themes and plots.

There is certainly a role to be played in the restoration of culture by implicitly Christian fiction, by which I mean a certain perceptual fidelity to reality. If a writer is faithful to truth and love, he can examine the full scope of human experience and illumine it for the reader. This need not be didactic fiction, which is usually unsuccessful as art.

On the other hand, there is a striking disequilibrium in contemporary culture between the explicit and implicit. In a healthy culture there is surely a place for well-crafted, gripping dramas that are overtly Catholic. Presently, there is a marked absence, or near absence, of such work in the mainstream of Western culture.

Q: Why is there a lack of such Catholic works?

O’Brien: In part, it is due to a deliberate ghettoization of authentic Catholic culture. It is also due to the dwindling number of gifted Catholics willing to undertake a very difficult vocation. I would say that lack of courage is a fundamental problem in mobilizing the new evangelization.

We must once again find our confidence in the power of the Gospel, and the grace that God has given the world by giving us the Catholic Church. We must move out into the world with love, with trust that Christ is within us as we penetrate the darkness.

Q: Are you referring primarily to overtly Catholic cultural material?

O’Brien: To both overt and implicit. However, I would add that our preoccupation with implicitness may be more a symptom of fear of «offending» nonbelievers in a pluralistic age.

The Holy Father is a sure guide in this, for he continuously speaks the truth with love, never violates the dignity of others in the way he says it, yet doesn’t hold back the content of what he wants to teach. As a result, he has shifted the balance of the world.

Q: How can literature be used to transmit the Christian message?

O’Brien: By restoring men and women to an understanding of their eternal value, and at the same time restoring in them a sense of wonder and consciousness of the splendor of existence. We are all involved in a great drama, the Great Story. Yet the nature of the new democratized cosmos fundamentally distorts how we understand the shape of reality.

The truth is, we live in a hierarchical creation that is involved in a vast and complex war that will last until the end of time. Born into this war zone, we are profound mysteries to ourselves, inherently glorious and potentially tragic. Yet by and large, modern culture has destroyed this sense of mystery.

Q: Has the sense of mystery been completely lost in our world?

O’Brien: I wouldn’t say lost, not lost irrevocably. In each generation it can be regained. It can be found within the wellsprings of the human heart and creative intuition.

But present literary culture is dominated by what one might call a «writer’s workshop» mentality, political correctness and colossal peer pressure, which has largely stripped out of modern fiction any real sense of the transcendent. As a result, Western consciousness increasingly perceives reality as horizontal and linear. Brilliant, but flat.

[Wednesday: How to reinvigorate the artist and the culture]

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