What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? – Matthew 16:26
Joseph Bottum argues in his article “The Novel as Protestant Art” in Books & Culture: A Christian Review that the novel is and has always been an art form that is quintessentially Protestant. The genre of the novel never existed before the Protestant Reformation because prior to it, Christian salvation, according to Bottum, had never been understood as an individual responsibility. Instead, the church – its teachings, sacraments, indulgences and penances – acted as the agent of salvation. Only after the Five Solas of the Reformation (by scripture alone, by faith alone, by grace alone, in Christ alone, and glory to God alone) could a writer pen a character’s conversion to Christ on an island all alone solely by reading the Bible, thus fulfilling all of the Five Solas. This scene occurred in what many consider to be the first English novel, Robinson Crusoe:
[When] we reach the central moment of the novel, Robinson Crusoe finally reads the Bible he has brought from the wrecked ship, and – without a church community or a teacher to aid him, sheerly from the power of the divine text itself on an individual conscience – he writes, “I threw down the Book, and with my Heart as well as my Hands lifted up to Heaven, in a kind of Extasy of Joy, I cry’d aloud, Jesus, thou Son of David, Jesus, thou exalted Prince and Saviour, give me Repentance!”
Like no other art form, the novel presents the greatest in-depth study of the psyche and the consciousness – in other words, the soul – ever. No previous genre delved so deeply into such self-awareness or focused so entirely on the soul on its journey of salvation. Unified narrative elements, such as plot, character and theme achieve this. And the novel as a genre reaches its height of unified soul-searching in the Victorian Era. Consider Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, a social problem novel that values individual reformation – a change of heart – above economic and political reform. Such an approach defines her book as inescapably Protesant. Bottum comments:
However powerfully our society controls us, it is an epiphenomenon created by the metaphysical drama of the soul. However completely our culture shapes us, it is, on the cosmic scale, only the prismatic spray tossed up by individuals acting out their individual salvation plays. Where, except in the reformation of many separate selves, could we find a solid basis for change in their society and culture?…. Only the soul has true metaphysical weight and consequence, and the novel is the story of a soul’s journey.
Novels imply the existence of an all-powerful Creator-God guiding the destinies of the characters in his stories. And the destination of every true soul-searcher is God-likeness – sanctification. The heroine learns lessons, swallows her pride (or prejudice), comes out the other end wiser, older, maturer, a better person – more sanctified. None of this would be possible without an ordered, meaningful universe where individual lives themselves contain meaning, just waiting to be discovered. Bottum says, “The journey of the self is the deepest, truest thing in the universe, and the individual soul’s salvation is the great metaphysical drama played out on the world’s stage.”
In university, I was devastated to hear the novel (Pride and Prejudice given as an the penultimate example) more or less written off as a symbol of the bourgeoisie, functioning to reinforce class division. So I am somewhat pleased to read Bottum’s take; I agree that considering the religious beliefs of a writer should come before whatever social analysis (Marxist, feminist, postcolonialist, etc) but are often never given the time of day because Marxism etc. hold religion to be merely a function of class. However, Bottum is Catholic, and I get the sense that his article is critical of the novel’s Protestant stranglehold. He says he wishes he could go back and “start over, pretending the march of modernity and the parallel histories of the novel and the self hadn’t happened.” What do you think? Do you perceive the novel as the journey of the soul? Leave your thoughts below.