f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Outside Fiction—Faith as Expressed in Other Art

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Monday, March 08, 2004

Outside Fiction—Faith as Expressed in Other Art

It’s instructive (and necessary for my sanity) to occasionally step back from fiction to look at the expression of faith in other art forms. I’ll mainly be staying with the literary arts* (non-fiction, autobiography, drama, poetry, etc.) because I think there are lessons we can learn from them and they are forms I feel comfortable commenting on. As well, consider this a kind of very slow education on some of the more popular or classic works of faith. Familiarity with a breadth of works (modern and classical) can only help us as we join the millennium-long conversation about what it means to believe in life’s great meaning.

Today we’re going to head back to Catholicism for a play called Agnes of God by former Nittany Lion John Pielmeier. Some of you may have seen the movie based on the play (starring Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft, and Meg Tilly). I haven’t, so this discussion will be limited to what was found in the script of the play itself.

Written around 1979 and first performed in 1980 in that theatric hot-bed of Louisville, Kentucky, this is a three-woman play set in a convent. A young nun, Agnes, is on trial after a newly-delivered infant was found in a wastebasket in her room, strangled with its own umbilical cord. Assigned to her case is a psychiatrist, Dr. Martha Livingstone, who interviews both Agnes and Mother Miriam Ruth, the Mother Superior of the convent.

Like Mariette in Ecstasy (and many other works of art that deal with visions or miracles, I’m finding), this is essentially an existential court case. Although literally it’s Agnes on trial, figuratively it’s the notion of faith or even God Himself who stands accused (usually of not existing.)

The prosecutor here is Dr. Livingstone, whose own sister chose to be a nun only to die in a convent from appendicitis when not allowed to be seen by a doctor.

The defender is Mother Miriam, a literal mother of two who also was married for twenty-three years. She is also, it turns out, Agnes’ aunt.

The defendant is Agnes. Kept at home by an abusive mother until she was seventeen, Agnes is sent straight into the convent and has never known the outside world. She is called an innocent who has little idea how the world works. She says she does not remember being pregnant, giving birth, or killing her baby. Her mental stability is questionable.

The play raises a number of hard topics, including again the notion of the miraculous. One slight variation on the them from Mariette in Ecstasy is the closer examination of what the ecstatic means to others around her. Here what Agnes comes to stand for to both Mother Miriam and the Doctor is has as much importance as anything in the play. Numerous questions go “unanswered” though I’m sure in productions of the play the actresses can steer an audience with their performances. It’s an odd play, in the end, because it seems like all three characters come off poorly. Maybe such was the state of theater in 1980, but I felt like each had made the worst possible choices for the worst possible reasons and thus suffered the worst possible consequences. It’s a laugh-riot, in other words.

I think the best thing one can learn from plays is the need/ability to deliver point-counterpoint on an argument. There are few plays that work with one person being obviously right and another person obviously wrong. Plays are about tension and conflict expressed through dialogue and so there needs to be strength in both characters and their arguments for this to work. Agnes of God is as good an example of this as any although my favorite (as I’ve mentioned before) continues to be Art by Yasmina Reza.

I think you can look at the power of dialogue in a play, but I warn against too many scenes in a novel that read that way. Plays live and die by their dialogue so EVERYTHING needs to be in there. Novels that begin freighting dialogue with thematic or symbolic import too often just get bogged down. Sure it’s always nice to throw a good monologue in every once in a while, but keep it to a minimum. I mean can you imagine this is a novel setting?

“And that’s when I realized that my religion, my Christ, is this. The mind. Everything I do not understand in this world is contained in these few cubic inches. Within this shell of skin and bone and blood I have the secret to absolutely everything. I look at a tree and I think, isn’t it wonderful that I have created something so gree. God isn’t out there. He’s in here. God is you. Or rather you are God. Mother Miriam couldn’t understand that, of course.
An actress on the stage manages to make that sound normal, proper within the context of the play itself. It’s harder to do it on the page, though from time to time you’ll want to. I just tend to find that trying to be profound within dialogue is a good way to sound pompous. (Or maybe it’s just whenever I try to say something profound in real like I end up sounding like an ass and thus don’t want to replicate such embarrassments in my fiction as well.) Just ponder whether those meditations for within the context of the narrative.


Thanks for stopping by. To those who’ve submitted writings, please know I’m in process of getting a lot more reading and commenting done this week. Hopefully I’ll be able to respond to many of you. Thanks for your patience. And tomorrow we’ll turn to the world of the essay with Andre Dubus.

(If you’re interested in other art forms, I know there has been a long, complicated, and impassioned history in expressing faith through the visual arts. Numerous books have been written on the subject and many metropolitan areas have artists groups devoted to such discussions. I have lots of information including web pages and some critical resources that may be of interest.)