"Grace can and does have a
"Grace is everywhere as an active orientation of all created reality toward God"
"Writing is a sacrament insofar as it provides graced
occasions of encounter between humanity and God"
--Ron Hansen, "Writing as Sacrament"
One can observe in Hansens novels a continuum of
the means of grace from the most implicit to the most explicit: grace is expressed:
in the inscape of the natural world,
in its defamiliarization of the readers
in the overlay of sacramental patterns,
in the haunting testimony of the church,
in the radical fusing of two worlds, the spiritual
and the natural.
Hansen on Fiction
Hansen begins with the assumption that the world truly represented
will reveal, at least at some level, its divine origins. He holds that one of
fictions great purposes is to highlight the significance of human existence: "Great
Art teaches us what Christ taught; there is something going on here that matters" (qtd
Nelson 14). This importance, which is ultimately God-originated, can only be understood in
a hermeneutical encounter between reader (or author) and the truth of what is there. He
stresses that "in the hard exercise of interpretation we must imitate and
make present again the graced interaction between the human and the divine" (Writing
as Sacrament" 24). To make something present implies that fiction can serve as a kind
of space where the human person can meet grace.
- It holds that the encounter is both mimetic: one fictionally
portrays characters who encounter grace; and also responsive: readers themselves may meet
the divine. And to do so, both writers and readers must, so to speak, get the world right.
In Writing as Sacrament," Hansen quotes Joseph Conrad and
John Gardner approvingly: Conrad because writings goal is "to render the
highest kind of justice to the visible universe" (qtd 4) and Gardner because, writing
offers "trustworthy but inexpressible models" (qtd 6). Both suggest a real
responsibility on the part of the fiction writer.
- Hansen believes that a "graced interaction" can be
found in moral models and well-crafted descriptions, both of which promise a fidelity to
In an earlier interview, he likewise stresses his agreement with the
basic thesis of Gardner: "[A]ll great fiction pretends that human beings have
the will power to do good or evil, that ideas have consequences and that existence
matters" (Verde 122).
- The fictional world is one where moral choices take on actual
meaning; they exist in a world that does not discount the possibility of virtue and vice,
that does not render those choices nonsense.
Hansen, thus, assumes readers who make judgments, who practice a
kind of self-examination, because readers not only look at something from anothers
perspective, but also self-reflexively compare themselves to a character. Writing offers a
kind of Ignatian exercise for readers, "another way of God speaking to your
own life circumstance" (Abood 20-21).
- Fictional and non-fictional models can have moral outcomes in the
right kind of readers because Hansens model is interactive; the reader is an active,
engaged respondent, one who may learn from, even imitate characters virtues. As
such, we read to see who we are, to know what our state is.
He implies the same about his use of well-crafted descriptions. If
something "matters," we lavish time, attention, and art on it. Hansen argues
that fiction has significance because writers take the time to make language lovely, and
thus, reflect the beauty of the created order. Early on in a 1988 interview, Hansen
described his style as "a painterly one," with emphasis on color, comparison,
and metaphor; one that must use "words that will somehow convince me of the
reality of the scene Im trying to render" (Verde 113).
- This suggests Conrads "highest kind of justice,"
a type of mimetic responsibility and valuing; as such, it implies the need to effectively
make a scene and place present to author and reader. We need beauty to truly picture
But to simply recognize that fiction treats the world as important,
even valuable, because it crafts its descriptions and posits moral actions is not
necessarily a sacramental model. After all, both at first glance are matters existing in a
purely natural conception of the universe. One does not have to believe in grace to be
moral and be moved by beautiful description. What makes this fictional encounter
sacramental is that Hansen assumes, like Rahner, that "grace is everywhere," and
as Rahner notes, "it is experienced, though usually not under that name" (285).
- Description and character and plot are reflective of who makes
that grace possible the order of Christ the Logos.
Hansen, for instance, compares writing to prayer because both
meditate on and practice "a peacefulness and joy in Creation" (Abood 12).
Writing learns to recognize the inscape of the world, which includes its presence in human
life, even human folly. Likewise, Hansen stresses the outdoors because the divine is
present: "By paying attention to what is going on all around, you develop a sense of
God walking among us"` (Sawyer 82). Divine grace is present even in the descriptions
- Hansens fiction, then, is founded at least in theory on a
strongly Christian (and perhaps more specifically Thomist) notion that grace infuses
nature, sometimes more subtly than others.
Hansen is deeply influenced by Gerard Manley Hopkins' aesthetic and
contemplative theory. Below is a summation of Hopkins' views.
inscape: "the 'individually
distinctive' inner structure or nature of a thing; hence, the essence of a natural object,
which, being perceived through the moment of illumination--an epiphany--reveals the unity
of all creation" (Harmon and Holman, 5th edition). Every object has an essence
that can be perceived; this essence points to God's design of it and the unified design of
instress: "the force, ultimately divine, that
creates the inscape of an object or an event and impresses that distinctive inner
structure of the object on the mind of the beholder, who can perceive it and embody it in
a work of art" (Harmon and Holman, 5th edition). God's instress reveals the inscape
of an object not only so that it may praise him, but also so that it may be embodied
in works of art, which are also acts of praise to God. In Hopkins' thinking, we do
not create the inscape of an object; God allows us to discover it via
Hopkins, in his "The Principle or Foundation," discusses
the spiritual practice of meditation and contemplation. He stressed the purpose and
role of creation: "He [God] meant the world to give him praise, reverence, and
service; to give him glory. [. . .] With praise, reverence, and service it should
shew him his own glory. [. . .] It is an altar and a victim on it lying in his sight: why
is it offered? To his praise, honour, and service: it is a sacrifice to his glory"
(228-229). These three words are important to Hopkins because they show how we are
in interact with God's expression of himself in the world:
- Praise, according to Hopkins, is an act of the mind by which
we understand the importance of what we apprehend. We recognize God's glory for what
- Reverence is an act of intuition and emotion, but more
important, it is a certain stance toward the world. We pay close and long
attention to the world in order to see what God has done there.
- Service implies an act of the will: we are called to respond
according to what we have seen--to teach others, to act differently, or to create works of
art that embody the inscape of God's world.
A Hansen Bibliography
The information above is a few years out of date.
Several of the sources I quoted from the original can now be found in Hansen's A
Stay Against Confusion.
Abood, Maureen. "God between the lines." U.S.
Catholic. 63 (June 1998): 78 pars. Online. WilsonSelect. 24 Oct. 1999.
Hansen, Ron. A Stay Against Confusion: Essays on Faith
and Fiction. NY: HarperCollins, 2001.
_____. Atticus. NY: HarperCollins, 1996.
_____. "Hearing the Cry of the Poor." Martyrs:
Contemporary Writers on Modern Lives of Faith. Ed. Susan Bergman. San Francisco:
HarperSanFrancisco, 1996. 33-55.
_____. Hitler's Niece. NY: HarperCollins, 1999.
_____. Isn't It Romantic? An Entertainment.. NY:
_____. Nebraska. NY: Atlantic Monthly P, 1989.
_____. Mariette in Ecstasy. NY: HarperCollins, 1991.
_____. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward
Robert Ford. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983.
_____. "Ron Hansen Responds" in Robert Detweiller. Uncivil
Rites: American Fiction, Religion, and the Public Sphere. U of Illnois P: Urbana, 1996.
_____. "The Pilgrim." A Tremor of Bliss:
Contemporary Writers on the Saints. Ed. Paul Elie. NY: HBC, 1994. 111-146.
_____. "Stigmata." Image 21 (1998): 60-66.
_____. "Writing as Sacrament." Image 5
(1994): 26 pars. 24 Oct. 1999.<http:// www. imagejournal.org/hansen.html>
_____. Preface. You don't know what Love is: Contemporary
American Stories. Comp. Ron Hansen. Ontario: Ontario Review P, 1987. ix.-xi.
_____. Introduction. "Master and Man" By Leo
Tolstoy. You've Got to Read This:Contemporary American Writers Introduce Stories that
Held them in Awe. Ed. Ron Hansen and Jim Shepherd. NY: HarperCollins, 1994. 514-516.
_____. "How can I find God? Another look." America
177 (Aug 30-Sept 6, 1997): 50 pars. Online. WilsonSelect. 22 October 1999.
Nelson, Shirley. "Stewards of the imagination: Ron
Hansen, Larry Woiwode, and Sue Miller." The Christian Century 112 (Jan 25,
1995): 42 pars. Online. WilsonSelect. 22 October 1999.
Rahner, Karl. Karl Rahner: Theologian of the Grand Search
for Meaning. Ed. Geoffrey B. Kelly. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992.
Sawyer, Scott. "Puzzling Out the Graced Occasions: An
Interview with Ron Hansen." Mars Hill Review 6 (1996): 132 pars. 3 Sept. 1999.
Verde, Allan. Face to Face: Interviews with Contemporary
Novelists. Houston: Rice UP, 1993.