Essays on Faith and Fiction
Ron Hansen
HarperCollins, 288 pages, $25

Once upon a time, evangelicals were suspicious of fiction. Novels encouraged lust and violence, corrupted young women, and wasted the time that believers were supposed to be redeeming. Too much novel-reading produced adolescent rebellion, prostitution, homosexuality, and (according to one 18th-century Bishop of London) earthquakes.

Evangelicals seem to have gotten over these misgivings. Most are as immersed in stories as the rest of the culture. We may (possibly) avoid bodice-rippers and Hannibal Lecter, but we consume John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Mary Higgins Clark, Jan Karon, and George Lucas without visible guilt. The only people who still feel obligated to defend storytelling as a viable Christian activity seem to be the storytellers themselves.

When he wrote the essays in A Stay Against Confusion, Catholic novelist Ron Hansen had published four novels, but only the last two dealt directly with matters of faith. In A Stay Against Confusion, Hansen sets out to vindicate himself. These essays reveal Hansen as a devout believer, a well-informed lay theologian, a perceptive critic, and a gifted storyteller who apparently feels a deep ambivalence about his "secular" works.

In the book's introductory essay, "Writing as Sacrament," Hansen explains that his first novel, Desperadoes, didn't really reflect his religious experience. It was just a "boys-will-be-boys adventure full of hijinks and humor and bloodshed." But his second western, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, illustrated "a Christian perspective on sin and redemption and forgiveness."

Unfortunately, readers didn't seem to pick up its Christian themes. This ...

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