Onward Christian writers

Morris West may have learnt his craft from Christian Brothers, but he knows better than to let his beliefs stand in the way of a good story.
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The Independent Culture
Morris West is a Christian. He is also a best-selling author, selling some 60 million copies of his 26 novels. The novels which have made his worldwide reputation - Children of the Sun, The Devil's Advocate and The Shoes of the Fisherman - are all about religion, all set in the world of Catholicism and the papacy. But call him a writer of "Christian fiction" and the multi-award winning octogenarian, born in Australia in 1916, demurs.

"I write out of my own identity," he says quietly. "I am a Christian. Good, bad or indifferent, that's my identity. Whatever I have written has been based on my own experience of the Church. But Christian fiction in terms of, how shall I say, creating a spurious benignity - no."

A tall, kindly man, who looks 20 years younger than his age, West has come to London from his home outside Sydney for the publication of his latest novel, Vanishing Point, a fast-paced psychological thriller about an incredibly successful but manic-depressive banker who decides to "vanish" and begin a new life somewhere else. Although the novel starts with a moral dilemma - as do all West's novels - religion is pretty much absent from it. Indeed, Christians might well avert their eyes from lesbian sex scenes and other prerequisites of the modern best-seller.

But then West remains one of those mainstream writers who doesn't let his beliefs get in the way of his stories - like Susan Howatch whose Starbridge novels combine an ecclesiastical setting with some of the requirements of the bonkbuster. Others are not so careful. "Spurious benignity" is the hallmark of a wave of fiction which has taken off in a big way in Bible-belt America over recent years. Judith Longman, editorial director at Hodder & Stoughton, referred in a recent article in Writers' News to this "Christian fiction" as "Mills and Boon for Christians, evangelical in style and reassuring in its plot ... providing a wholesome literary diet of traditional biblical values to the great expanse of the faithful in the mid-West and the South".

Christian fiction also has more vigorous offshoots than these "prairie romances". Fundamentalism is producing apocalyptic works which combine the Book of Revelations with Star Wars technology. Fundamentalist and Republican politician Pat Robertson's novel, The End of the Age, culminates in a celestial battle between St Michael and the Antichrist shooting it out with the help of satellite technology over the creation of a New Jerusalem.

Frank Peretti, probably the most successful Christian novelist, writes supernatural thrillers, like The Oath, which are stories of small-town America seen through the eyes of angels and demons who fight over the souls of ordinary folk. Best-sellers though many of them are, these novels generally have a Christian-only readership. In the past, there was a tradition that religious writers like Bunyan and CS Lewis reached wide readerships. The Silence and The Samurai by Shusaku Endo, a Japanese Catholic, have both been widely read among literary folk. Doorstop novels like Quo Vadis or Lew Wallace's Ben Hur have been runaway hits.

But these days the general reader would probably find the term Christian fiction a turn-off, correctly assuming it to refer to some happy-clappy fiction which, as Judith Longman points out, "would be too politically correct to be good literature or fun".

There is another sort. In the UK, Lion Publishing is almost alone in producing Christian fiction not for a ghetto readership but to compete with mainstream and genre fiction in ordinary bookshops. Thriller writer Thomas Locke, historical novelist J Francis Hudson and fantasy saga writer Stephen Lawhead all compete head-on with others in the same genres, although they do so while writing from a hopeful perspective and eschewing gratuitous sex, violence and swear words.

Locke, whose Aqaba Connection and To the Ends of the Earth have just been published, accepts the tag of Christian fiction writer, with reservations. "Christ did say pass on the message of salvation," he says. "If Christian fiction is only that message of evangelism, then no. But if it means carrying a moral message, then yes. Otherwise there's a danger we take the attitude of hopelessness built up by Dos Passos and Hemingway to an extreme."

J Francis Hudson writes powerful historical novels based around the Old Testament - her latest, Hadassah, tells the story of Esther. "I think it's unfortunate that Christian fiction is pigeonholed as pious fiction," she says. "I would like people to explore the Bible for themselves, but with my books it isn't a case of 'Read this and be converted'."

Debbie Wood, marketing manager for Lion, says: "There is a genre of Christian fiction in the States where the aims are very clear and where clear-cut answers are sought and found. Lion recognises that things aren't clear cut, so unresolved issues feature too. Rather than seek definitive answers we prefer to be more explorative."

One example of this approach is Something To Do With Love, a collection of stories by writers as diverse as Tim Winton, Graham Greene, William Trevor and Alice Thomas Ellis. There's nothing happy-clappy about this bunch. Editor of the collection, Ann Pilling, says: "As Flannery O'Connor points out, any writer who cares about spiritual values is likely to take a dark view of contemporary society. The sharper the light of faith, the more glaring the distortions a writer sees in life around him are likely to be."

Certainly that's the case with Morris West. "The Vatican, I think, regards me as a useful piece of loyal opposition," he says with a small smile. "I have argued and quarrelled with the Church and protested against her follies and injustice. However, I've never rejected the notion of fundamental belief. I am a believer."

Religious feeling is inextricably linked with West's writing since it was the Church that taught him to write. The Melbourne-born author's education was courtesy of the Christian Brothers Order, a teaching order in Sydney which lived in the world but maintained strict vows. "I joined when I was 17, in 1933, and left before taking final vows in 1939. During that period, writing was one of the few things I could do well." He laughs. "And one of the few things you could do with a celibate life in the community."

The clarity of West's prose helps put his novels an intelligent cut above most mainstream best-sellers. He learnt that clarity with the Brothers. "I had a classical education in which one learnt to write a classic prose. I was taught to speak in perfect periods. I would be asked, 'What do two and two make?' The correct answer would be, 'Two and two together make four. Two and two side by side indicate 22.' I'm translated into 27 languages because my books are translatable."

Sadly, Morris West is, by his own account, living on borrowed time because of a heart problem. "I'm in a state of precarious balance in which every day is a bonus," he says matter-of-factly. "However, since I have already had three brushes with Brother Death, I contemplate the outcome with a certain calm."

His illness has not, however, stopped him working on his next novel. "I've started work on a millennial novel on the Catholic Church - where will it go? how will all the things that are in question in the current stasis be resolved? What happens after the death of the present ailing Pope is a very large question. But I look at everything now under the light of eternity."

West doesn't know if he will live long enough to finish the novel. He intends to. God willing.

Morris West's 'Vanishing Point' is published by HarperCollins at pounds 15.99. Thomas Locke's 'To the Ends of the Earth', Lion, pounds 14.99; 'The Aqaba Exchange', Lion, pounds 4.99. J Francis Hudson's 'Hadassah', Lion, pounds 15.99