One way for a novelist to portray religion, writes Francis Spufford, is to set a story in a small community where faith is an important part of life and to focus on representing religion “as a human, social activity.” Drawing on English literature, Spufford cites as examples the work of Anthony Trollope in the 19th century and Barbara Pym in the 20th, two authors who portray social life largely or partially centered around a church. But today’s version of the “village-life novel” is unable to address religion in this sort of way:
[A]lthough people go on writing this kind of story of religious life all over the planet, there hasn’t been a lot of Trollope or of Pym produced locally, lately; not in Western Europe, not in England. And I think our position in a culture where the religious tide has gone a very long way out, by global standards—leaving us on these secular mudflats, surrounded by curious shells and rusty bicycles—shows us something that may not be apparent in other places, which is that the apparently descriptive, merely curious village-life novel of faith did in fact quietly depend on a metaphysical commitment. It was (is) built on a shared assumption between writer and reader that a disposition of life around religion makes sense. Makes, in fact, such basic sense that the sense it makes can be left offstage and the author can concentrate on all the secondary human consequences of that sense, ramifying all over the place in lovely narrative patterns.
But when that underlying assumption is removed, the village life of Christians stops being just another intelligibly village panorama and becomes mysterious. It dwindles into anthropology, to be explained as it goes; it becomes exotic, science-fictional, a zoo for the bizarre; it becomes a mode of story, often, whose point is to criticize, to indicate a confinement from which the characters could—should—break free. . . .
While lamenting this loss, Spufford argues in favor of those literary treatments of religion “that can speak communicatively of faith to readers beyond the bounds of experienced familiarity with it, and beyond the bounds of conscious assent to it.”