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.