Faith and Doubt make their conjoined appearances in a great swath of the world’s literature. Religious belief and the problem of evil are so common to novels—as they are common to human experience—that this could just as easily be a list of 3000 as a list of 3. But the manner in which these themes are addressed separates the best from the rest, and there are plenty of contemporary titles at the top. Here are 3 novels of faith and doubt for people who prefer questions to answers.
1. The Short Day Dying by Peter Hobbs
It’s been six years since I first read this, and it is still one of the first titles that comes to mind when fellow readers ask for a recommendation. It’s the story of a Methodist lay preacher and apprentice blacksmith in Cornwall, England, in 1870. In this grim mining town, Charles Wenmouth offers hope to his scattered and poverty-stricken congregation as death and doubt follow him on the preaching circuit. Written in style of a diary of that era, the narrator’s voice is authentic, moving and achingly beautiful.
2. The Bell by Iris Murdoch
Three narrators—a fearful wife, a young volunteer looking for a distraction, and a religious leader hiding his homosexuality—are thrown together when an Anglican abbey prepares to replace the bell that fell from their tower and was lost in the lake. Each naively believes the secluded environment will shelter them from their fears. Instead, they find they must decide whether to continue on with their doubts intact or give up faith altogether. This was the first Murdoch I read and is still a favorite; it has that quiet muscularity for which she is known, with deeply realized characters and a surprisingly suspenseful plot.
3. Lying Awake by Mark Salzman
Is religious belief biological? Is it pathological? Sister John of the Cross, a cloistered Carmelite nun living in modern-day LA, longs for a closer relationship with God and is thrilled when she begins to have intense, mystical experiences. But when it becomes clear that these are the result of a neurological condition, she must choose between physical health and her feeling of God’s presence. A shorter novel, it compassionately raises questions of personal and corporate faith.