Faith in a Secular Age: A Prayer for Owen Meany

It’s time to encourage a new generation of readers to pick up this important novel.

It’s one of those books that can’t be read in bed because your unsuccessfully-stifled laughter will make it impossible for your spouse to sleep. 

John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany is 30 years old this year and it’s time to encourage a new generation of readers, and those who missed it the first time around, to pick up this important novel. 

This is a novel about faith. It opens with the line, “I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.” Thus begins an exploration of faith in modern secular culture, in particular, the way our culture radically separates matter and spirit.

Christians can easily adopt this separation when the supernatural is so disconnected from our real experience, that it becomes easily dismissed. We sometimes struggle to understand how we are to encounter the Holy Spirit in the pages of the Bible. As we sing our worship songs, we find it easier to focus on our feelings than on the spiritual recipient of our praise. Baptism can become more symbolic than sacramental. And our tithes, more like paying the gas bill than an offering of first fruits. These are the symptoms of the influence of modern secularism on the Western church. 

Can you relate? John Wheelwright (or Johnny) the novel’s narrator certainly can – he is like many who struggle with belief in the secular age.  

 
   

Owen Meany, his best friend, does not struggle with faith. For Owen the spiritual is inseparable from the material. Owen sees meaning in objects, as with a dressmaker’s dummy, a stuffed armadillo and a baseball card collection. Owen believes that God directs our lives – “on the subject of predestination, Owen Meany would accuse Calvin of bad faith.”  

Irving is careful to maintain a balance between belief and unbelief as he undercuts both. For instance, Owen’s certainty about God might be based on personal encounters with the divine, or it might stem from a psychological defence mechanism, passing onto God his responsibility for an accidental death. The effect is that neither the narrator nor the reader have any compulsion to choose belief or unbelief. This is the reality of faith in our culture – many feel no compulsion to decide.

Ultimately, it becomes clear that Johnny Wheelwright has decided. He is forced to accept the faith by a bona fide miracle. So he becomes a Christian, but the experience doesn’t transform his life – unlike his several spiritual mentors, he has an anemic faith. The reason is that although he believes in God, he can’t escape that radical separation of matter and spirit. Consequently, his God is very distant to him.

This, too, is our context, and this is also our danger. 
 
The Paradox of Proof

Through his exploration of faith from the outside, Irving, perhaps accidentally, illustrates the power of modern secularism to truncate Christian faith in two ways.  

The first is that, when it comes to religious belief, secularists think faith requires proof, but, paradoxically, with absolute proof comes the negation of faith. 

On some level, Irving understands this as he faithfully maintains the freedom necessary for faith. He counters all supernatural explanations of events with material ones – at least until he doesn’t. Johnny would likely have lived in the neutral zone between belief and unbelief indefinitely, except for the miracle. By providing certainty, Irving breaks the stalemate and forces the narrator to choose in favour of belief.  

But faith draws its vitality from the tensions arising from doubt, and not just around questions of belief, but more important questions of trust. The certainty provided by a miracle removes unbelief, but it doesn’t lead to trust. Trust requires a deeper relationship – a closer God. God in the secular context is anything but close, so the resulting faith lacks vitality.

Inadequate Incarnation 
The separation between spirit and matter creates a distant God, and it also creates a trivializes the spiritual. For a modern secularist, a relationship with the transcendent God is inconceivable, but with another person, it’s no problem. Irving’s solution to the distant God is to bring him nearer in the person of Owen Meany. To Johnny Wheelwright, Owen Meany is, in a sense, a manifestation of God’s presence. 

Owen’s words are in all-caps – suggestive of the red-letter Bible. In her reaction to Owen’s peculiar voice, Johnny’s grandmother links him to Jesus’ raising the dead.  She says:

“You’ve seen the mice caught in the mousetraps?” she asked me. “I mean caught – their little necks broken – I mean dead,” Grandmother said. “Well, that boy’s voice,” my grandmother told me, “that boy’s voice could bring those mice back to life.” 

The parallels between Owen and Jesus continue through the whole book, Owen’s iteration always far inferior.

Although it is one of the funniest episodes in the book, Owen Meany as the Little Lord Jesus in the Christmas Pageant is also one of the most significant. In it, Irving explicitly links the Incarnation of Jesus with Owen Meany. For the Christian, the key to a unified view of reality is the Incarnation. In the Incarnation, the Word became flesh. Irving understands the importance of the Incarnation; he just can’t believe in it – his worldview won’t let him. 

Whether he intended it or not, Irving’s novel shows us the importance of an incarnational faith by showing us the negative effects of the narrator’s secularized belief. A relationship with the living God is central to the Christian faith, but the novel shows the difficulty in long-distance relationships. The incarnation is the key to bridging the divide between physical and spiritual.

A fuller appreciation of the Incarnation can result in a richer spiritual life. Let me offer just one example: the effect of celebrating Communion incarnationally. As you eat and drink, think of Christ as present and active as he gives you the bread and the cup and with them the spiritual food of Grace and unity. Once we get our head wrapped around the transcendent presence in Communion, we can try to extend an incarnational understanding to every meal. Leftover lasagna becomes daily bread.

I like A Prayer for Owen Meany because it makes me laugh, but I love it because it challenges our understanding of reality. Owen Meany is a mere Christ figure; he’s no saviour, but he might at least help us to see that God is much closer than we sometimes think.  

Author

  • Trent teaches Humanities at Abbotsford Christian School in Abbotsford, B.C., and thinks a lot about the intersection of culture and faith.

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