SHARE
Suzanne M. Wolfe wrote “Unveiling.” | Facebook.

She is a lover of art, a divorcee, a bleeding heart, a sojourner in Rome. He is an Italian, a kindred spirit, a lover of ancient art and aged wine. They fall in love — with each other and with the timeless beauty of the ancient city that brought them together.

This is a novel pub­lished by a Christian press, and one that richly depicts a story of redemption and hope.

Unfor­tu­nately, you’ve heard it before.

It is also the bare outline of “Unveiling,” a reissue of Suzanne M. Wolfe’s first novel, pub­lished under the same title thirteen years ago by Par­a­clete Press, an ecu­menical Christian pub­lishing house founded by members of the Bene­dictine order. It is the sort of art most trou­bling to me as a Christian and an aspiring artist: the deflated artwork whose lofty goals of Christian uplift are not sus­tained by its lit­erary merit. “Unveiling” is a deeply felt novel, but not an impressive or even con­vincing one. Its trite plot, its flat char­ac­ter­i­zation, and its over­wrought prose prompts that sad con­so­lation, for both reader and writer, that its “heart is in the right place.”

The novel follows Dr. Rachel Piers, recently divorced and worn thin by her career as a prominent art his­torian and restorer, to a cathedral in Rome where she restores a long-revered and blackened triptych — and her soul. The paper-thin plot flutters around a hot-stuff museum director who wants to steal the trea­sured object of worship for a big nasty museum. But mostly, the story is about the restoring of Rachel’s heart, through art, through love, to the stir­rings (we don’t want to get ahead of our­selves here) of faith. Like Rome itself, “Unveiling” is a “tableau of faith renewed, reaf­firmed, reen­acted again and again, ad infinitum,” Wolfe writes.

Blessedly, the tableau of Wolfe’s work is much broader than her fiction: Wolfe has pub­lished one other novel since the original “Unveiling,” but she has spent much of her career in posi­tions that support the nar­rative art that she loves: she teaches at Seattle Pacific Uni­versity. She co-writes books with her husband, Greg, on prayer. She’s an Anglophile; she studied in Oxford (she’s the co-founder of the C.S. Lewis Society) and is drafting a trilogy of novels set in Eliz­a­bethan London.

But Image journal, founded in 1989 with her husband, Greg, is the Wolfe mas­terwork. As a small mag­azine of “Art, Faith, Mystery” it pub­lishes some of the greatest names writing today: Annie Dillard, Philip Levine, Dana Gioia, Mar­i­lynne Robinson, Richard Wilbur, Joy Williams, Christian Wiman, John Updike, and — joy and youthful genius spring eternal — Sufjan Stevens.

How does an outfit like little Seattle-based Image, far from the New York pub­lishing pow­er­houses, hook big fish like that? Because the Wolfes under­stand how faith-based art works, as their mission statement claims: “the great art that has emerged from these faith tra­di­tions is dra­matic, not didactic — incar­na­tional, not abstract.”

Wolfe, then, is the picture of a pow­erful pro­moter of art, and the best kind: the art that inspires faith — in itself, in humanity, and at its height, in the divine.

But all this only makes “Unveiling” more dis­tressing: Wolfe writes with motherly and writerly love about her pro­tag­onist, who over­comes rape, mis­car­riage, divorce, abortion to redis­cover love with Donati, her fellow art his­torian. Through her descriptive prose, Wolfe intends that her readers fall in love with Rome, as well. A res­ur­rection story, in full color. Who could resist it?

Well, anyone who believes Rachel’s med­i­ta­tions are out of char­acter for an as-yet agnostic, or for anyone outside Wolfe’s ser­mo­nizing reflec­tions. Too fre­quently, Wolfe’s novel re-enacts the perennial fall of overtly Christian lit­er­ature; it slips into didac­ticism in pre­cisely the way the journal she co-founded tries to avoid.

Unless, of course, the rar­efied ground of “Christian novel” jus­tifies Rachel’s rise to the spir­itual soapbox. On this inter­pre­tation of Christian art, readers are for­bidden to turn a deaf (or critical) ear to the rum­blings of a human turn toward the divine. Art be damned; a few extra adjec­tives can be chalked up to enthu­siasm. A tin ear for speech never stopped the Spirit. And let’s be honest: Rap­turous reawak­enings of faith are refreshing. They’re some­thing you don’t see anymore in the “lit­er­ature” of these gray and latter days.

I wish I could be so pious in my book-browsing. But I’m a fallen woman and a par­ticular one, and I can’t see past my own artistic stan­dards. The test for Christian art, for me, is the way the writer’s Chris­tianity relates to its artistry, and it appears in the mission state­ments of the two pub­lishers, Image and Par­a­clete. As a “pub­lisher of essential Christian wisdom,” Par­a­clete takes seri­ously the work of its namesake, none other than the Holy Ghost himself, since its name means “advocate” or “coun­selor.”

Par­a­clete, an ecu­men­tical monastic com­munity of around 300 members, pub­lishes books like “Be Still and Listen: Expe­rience the Presence of God in your Life,” “Catholic Wisdom for a Mother’s Heart,” and “Horses Speak of God.” Vis­itors to their website can self-seg­regate by clicking tabs for “Catholic resources” and “Protestant resources.”

Paraclete’s work is devo­tional, and the devo­tional nature of Wolfe’s work bleeds through, as well: “This was the grace the triptych bestowed, the sig­nif­i­cance of the com­passion in the face of the Mother as she held her Son, that somehow, mys­te­ri­ously, she was not merely a passive observer but a par­tic­ipant in the drama of sal­vation, a drama Adrianna [the triptych’s artist] not only shared but passed on, like a gift, to the viewer,” Wolfe’s Rachel exhorts in a par­tic­u­larly min­is­terly mood.

The mature Christian faith of the author is on full display here. I respect it. But when it poses as art, it over­shadows its subject, and that is a trans­gression that, to me, borders on sin.

Yet Wolfe’s res­ur­rection and restoration nar­rative is pow­erful enough to con­vince the ven­erable Annie Dillard: “Unveiling,” she blurbed, “Probes the myriad layers of meaning in art, the human soul, and ulti­mately the world itself.”

Listen to what Dillard writes, not what she blurbs. For art, read Annie. Follow Henry James or Ernest Hem­ingway or, hell, Livy himself, to Rome. For the same good you’d get from “Unveiling,” just grab your devo­tional.

 

  • This has been an ongoing dis­cussion in several circles in which I run, par­tic­u­larly friends and acquain­tances of mine who are recov­ering “evan­gel­icals,” and it is wholly true that this prin­ciple applies to all art forms, not only lit­er­ature. Music, espe­cially, in my mind.

    The Con­tem­porary Christian Music industry has mostly shriveled up and died because the powers that be demanded preaching to the choir rather than addressing real life issues, crooning “praise” and “glory” rather than writing mean­ingful lyrics that res­onate with people’s expe­ri­ences, and offering empty words of hope rather than asking deeper, soul-stirring ques­tions. Every­thing has to be happy and uplifting in Christian music since what I like to call “The Praise Craze” took over in the early 2000’s, and it gen­uinely destroyed every good thing the Christian music business had going for it.

    Let’s also apply that to comedy. Anyone remember “The 1/2 Hour News Hour,” Joel Surnow’s dis­as­trous attempt at doing a version of The Daily Show for con­ser­v­a­tives? It was inten­tionally an attempt to make jokes at the left’s expense while pushing a right-wing agenda. Now, one can argue — cor­rectly — that it suf­fered from being a comedy show on Fox News, that it didn’t adhere to the well-estab­lished and proven for­matics of The Daily Show or SNL’s Weekend Update, and that it relied too much on big-name celebrity seg­ments (like Rush Lim­baugh as “America’s Pres­ident” and Ann Coulter as his VP, or Dennis Miller’s “The Buck Starts Here” bits) as opposed to the meat-and-potatoes fake newscast that it was orig­i­nally sup­posed to be… which ended up being for­get­table seg­ments hosted by no-name faces that you couldn’t pick out of a police lineup of bad come­dians. But the under­lying problem behind ALL of that was that it was trying to be a par­tisan comedy show rather than letting the comedy flow from current events no matter WHAT political affil­i­a­tions were involved.

    Basi­cally what it boils down to is this: you cannot create true art for the sake of pushing a message. True art comes from a love of artistry and a passion for the subject. Put the artistry and passion first, and the message will follow nat­u­rally.