July 16, 2008
For Writer, Faith Isn’t Taboo: Ron Hansen is Upfront About His Beliefs
CHICAGO _ Best-selling novelist Ron Hansen stood in the nave of Chicago's St. Vincent de Paul Church on a spring afternoon under the towering stained-glass windows. Illuminated by the high sun in the western sky, the brightly colored glass told story after story _ about Jesus Christ, about prophets and saints, about miracles and revelations.
The Catholic faith is a story-telling religion, the writer said a short time later. "The mass itself is a kind of theater, dramatizing the life of Christ," he said.
Hansen was at St. Vincent de Paul to do a reading from his newly published novel "Exiles," which tells the intertwining stories of 19th century Jesuit priest-poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, five nuns who died in the 1875 wreck of the steamship Deutschland and the poem Hopkins wrote about them.
Two other Hansen works have also tackled religious subjects head-on _ "Mariette in Ecstasy" (1991), about an early 20th century American nun who may or may not be having visions, and "Atticus" (1996), a modern re-telling of the Prodigal Son story from the Gospels.
"Almost every writer I know has an interest in the transcendent," said Hansen, whose visit was sponsored by De Paul University's Catholic studies program. "They respect it or wish for it."
Nonetheless, he acknowledged that some readers _ and some fellow writers _ reject him out of hand because of his unfashionable stance of taking religious faith seriously.
Dale Brown, an expert on the intersection of faith and literature, said in a telephone interview that Hansen's willingness to write about God as a reality, rather than a metaphor or an illusion, "hurts him some."
Even so, Hansen "escapes to some degree because of his pedigree," said Brown, director of the Buechner Institute at King College in Bristol, Tenn., which is dedicated to exploring culture and religious belief. "He studied with (famed novelists) John Gardner and John Irving at the Iowa Writers Workshop."
In addition, Hansen initially established his reputation with novels that made no direct reference to faith, such as his 1983 book "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," which was made last year into a movie starring Brad Pitt.
"He's a little too religious for the irreligious," Brown said, "but too secular for the religious. You won't find him in Christian bookstores."
Hansen, who teaches literature and writing at Santa Clara University, said he tells his students: "If you want to succeed as a writer, find a gap and fill it." And he followed that strategy in his own career.
"Even though faith was vitally important to a lot of people, writers had taken on the idea that it was taboo," he said. Two decades ago, when Hansen was working on "Mariette," literary friends "were stunned that I was writing a book about a nun because nobody had written a book like that. At the same time, that made it fresh for people."
Hansen, who has master's degrees in spirituality and divinity, serves as a spiritual director of students and other writers and works as a campus minister at Santa Clara.
Last year, he was ordained a Catholic deacon, giving him the ability to officiate at baptisms, funerals and weddings.
So far, thanks to the demographics of a college community, he hasn't done any baptisms or funerals, but he has performed four weddings and given many homilies.
Writing, Hansen says, "is a ministry in the same way that teaching is a ministry. It's a way of having your own personal point of view there for others to examine. There's a sense of breaking down barriers that create loneliness. It's showing readers a different way of looking at the world, so they don't feel so marginalized."
Most characters in Hansen's novels are people on the edges of society, whether outlaws or nuns. "That's the artist's role _ to be an outsider, to be a spy, to learn valuable information and pass it on to someone else," he said.
There's a difference, though, in acting as a deacon and being a writer. "You have more responsibility to others when you preach," Hansen said, noting that he has to take into consideration the needs of his listeners as well as the teachings of the church.
"When you're writing," he said, "you're only responsible to your vision."
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