Christianity and Literature, Vol. 56, No. 3 (Spring 2007), 484-85.
Let me extend my thanks to you, Professor Webb, for your most generous words, and to all of you of the Conference instrumental for giving me this award. Any literary award prompts some guilt in me, since to have lived since the age of twenty-two as a published writer, with the lenient hours and craftsmanly pleasures the vocation bestows, is surely reward enough. The productivity that Mr. Webb mentions, although somewhat intimidating, not to say suffocating, in its accumulated fruits over these five decades, was for me a less than onerous daily duty to earn my privileges as a self-employed, and virtually unsupervised, worker in one of the last cottage industries, one wherein impulsive marks on blank paper are gradually turned into print and snugly bound pages.
My connection with Christianity is unremarkable. Raised in the pious precincts of Berks County, fifty miles northwest of here, in a small town where the season of our Savior's birth was openly celebrated with civic lights and Town Hall ceremonies, in a school system where Bible passages and the Lord's Prayer began each day, and the son, furthermore, of a Presbyterian minister's son who obligingly, with marriage to my mother, became a Lutheran deacon and Sunday-school teacher, I accepted churchgoing as part of a respectable and orderly life, and even in college and youthful periods of city residence never quite forsook the habit. I felt lost and lonely without it. As I aged, much of my life took on the aspect of answered prayers, and not to acknowledge, to the object of these prayers, my gratitude would have struck, to my sense of things, a wicked imbalance. In my twenties and early thirties, especially, I sought to firm up my supernatural inklings by reading theology and professedly Christian authors, of which there were a significant number in the '50s.
I never, however, presumed to think of myself as a Christian apologist— the difficulties and embarrassments of faith in a disbelieving age are all there, in my fiction and poetry, as part of reality. I believed that realism even in its darkest aspect formed a homage to the God of creation, and a gesture of trust in him. My work, as I fallibly understand it, concerns itself with issues of religion and belief from the first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, which houses an extended religious debate and a latter-day version of the stoning of St. Stephen, to the most recent, Terrorist, which underlines the lethal dangers of any absolute supernatural faith—it makes us ruthless and disregardful of this life and this world. This world is the one we see and experience, the one we should treasure and praise. I do not think of myself as a witness to faith but a witness to life. Even in those many works of mine in which religion plays no overt role, mundane events are considered, I like to think, religiously, as worthy of reverence and detailed evocation. Much in our lifetimes dazzles and puzzles; much invites us to doubt and despair; yet a world in which no better is imagined, and the motions of our spirits are not at all valorized, would be one without not only any religion but without any art.
My kind commender mentions "The Deacon," a short and perhaps small story about the humble, marginal position of churches in our contemporary landscape. That dogged deacon was, in a way, my father; and also the many, including clergy, who, against the modern grain, borrow light and lightness from ancient lamps, who suffer from a Sabbath compulsion, and take comfort in the periodic company of like-minded others, who—to quote from "The Deacon"—"share the pride of this ancient thing that will not quite die.''