A publication of Sacred Heart University
Civility, Civics and Church Vitality
In Praise of Not Knowing

Tolle, lege... (Take up, read...) David Adams Richards, the most important novelist of post-postmodern Catholicism

Over the span of almost two millennia, the creative works of Roman Catholic authors, poets, painters, musicians and other inspired artists have offered their distinctive perceptions of the world and of the human condition that have been as illuminating as they have been enthralling: consider the creations of Dante, Balzac, Mozart, Gaudi. However, today, amid the current scandals of institutional failure and moral negligence, many Catholics seem now to ignore or dismiss as inconsequential, even trivial, such gifts of the Catholic imagination—and there is perhaps justice in that. The Church and the laity must reckon honestly and vigorously on the abuse crisis as well as the concomitant declining population of observant Catholics, especially among the younger generation.

Yet, if the Church is to rebuild, it will do so in a (western) culture and with a population that has long since moved beyond any “post-Vatican II” identity and that is now superseding the “post-modern” ethos of the late 20th century with the post-postmodern ethos of the 21st century. As a result, the Church, and those committed to her recovery, should turn to agents of expression who not only give voice to but are also part of the new ethos, and so are independent of entrenched juridical assemblies or ineffectual intellectual insularity. This includes the poets, musicians, writers, painters and other artists within (to whatever degree) the Church who proceed from both mind and spirit in their work, who have absorbed as well as lived quotidian experiences of contemporary life and whose Catholic faith—howsoever distilled or conflicted—has inspired them to create significant art that contemplates and then interrogates the social and moral issues of post-postmodern culture, the failures and struggles of the post-postmodern Church and the place of theology—and religion, in general—in an increasingly complex and secularized culture. However, as post-postmodernists, they do so without the irony or cynicism or ambivalence of postmodern ideation, and one of the most authentic and most noteworthy voices of this post-postmodernism is the Catholic-Canadian novelist and essayist, David Adams Richards.

Richards may not be widely well known outside of Canada where he has been lauded with awards and testimonials (that lack of common familiarity with his writings suggests more about literary myopia in the U.S. than about the quality of Richards’ craft) but he should be. His novels, such as The Lost Highway, Mercy Among the Children and Evening Snow Will Bring Such Peace, chronicle with exacting but tender frankness the struggles and hardships of individuals striving to survive in secondary towns and hard-scrabble communities in the Canadian Maritimes, and while he situates his novels in such Canadian locations with names like Miramichi and Millbank, and populates his narratives with frequent allusions to “French” and “English” social groups and First Peoples nations like the Micmaq, Richards just as easily could be writing about forgotten mill villages in New England or rusted factory towns in much of the northern U.S. Those are towns and rural regions bereft of hope and suspicious of dreams, the result of the inherent injustice of the modern capitalist project and the social inequity it breeds, and Richards takes stock of those crumbing spaces of security or stability with an unflinching look. He discloses the ethical and moral desperation he espies everywhere: morally bankrupt institutions (lay and ecclesial); distressed and ineffective priests and hypocritical church goers; academic snobs whose arrogant naiveté is matched only by their moral weakness, and the covetous, unsympathetic working poor whose bodies and souls the relentless demons of want and futility have desiccated. Richards jettisons any pious notion of the Church and so omits from his novels any mythic characters of romantic piety. For Richards, the Church is profoundly human, not evil, just not sufficiently imaginative to respond to the needs of its contemporary congregations. Just so the remarks by Cardinal Walter Brandmuller this past summer, concerning the Amazon synod, when he underscored his critique of the gathering by insisting that the topics of discussion “have, at the most, marginally anything to do with the Gospels and the Church, … One asks oneself: what do ecology, economy and politics have to do with the mandate and mission of the Church?” Richards, of course, would argue that every aspect of the human condition, even economy, must somehow be part of the mandate and mission of the Church. Yet Richards also has in his sights the secular elite, politicians and civic leaders and academics who lean on their faith and the faithful only to promote their own, often ill-begotten and ill-conceived projects, and whose greed and power-lust have been sharpened by the concentrated borders of small towns.

Richards’ post-postmodernism is purgatorial but there is hope in that, just as Catholic teaching explains that purgatory is a circumstance of accountability and reflection but also hopefulness and redemption. The novels of David Adams Richards are not laden with postmodern burdens like ironic despair or vain despondency because for all the ethical missteps and errors of judgment and abandoned ideals of his characters—and people in general—Richards sustains a subtle anticipation that truth and goodness, howsoever rarified, will prevail, like Amy “the beautiful child” in The Lost Highway or the “unfathomable heart” of Percy in Mercy Among the Children. Richards truly cares and persuades the reader to care about his characters, even his grandly fallen ones, and such grasps at sympathy are a guide of hope, for both the characters and the reader. For what Richards wants most in his characters, what he hopes they most enfold within themselves—forgiveness, sympathy, compassion, understanding—he asks also of his readers as they journey with the people of inadequate coastal towns and shuttered inland villages over unforgiving and callous landscapes of the body and the soul. Humanity is a flawed and fallen creation, Richards concedes, distorted by its circumstance and at times not worthy of the natural riches bequeathed every day—the glorious hues of sunset, the gentles waves pulsing along a shoreline, the crisp air of autumn, the love of another human being—but, he insists, humanity is necessarily fallen, dependent on God’s grace, but more immediately upon the tender mercies of each other. The Lost Highway ends with the simple statement by a woman to another concerning her son, “Leave him be—leave him be—please realize that he is, after all, a human being.”[1] There is beauty in that.

[1] David Adams Richards, The Lost Highway (MacAdam/ Cage, 2007), 394

June-Ann Greeley is a medievalist and professor of Catholic studies, theology and religious studies at Sacred Heart University.


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