...on a writer's faith:
An unbelieving teacher of mine once said: 'I am not a Christian — I hate Christianity, but when I read Flannery O’Connor, for the time that I am reading her, I believe.'
I'm not sure many people think of stories as a means of thinking. We think of stories as entertainment, and we think of them as expressing ideas and values. That is not what the person who will write takes them to be. The fictional process (says John Gardner in The Art of Fiction) is the writer's way of thinking, a special case of the symbolic process by means of which we do all our thinking. Though it's only an analogy, and in some ways misleading, we might say that the elements of fiction are to a writer what numbers are to a mathematician, the main difference being that we handle fictional elements more intuitively than even the subtlest mathematicians handle numbers.
Think how powerful stories are. As a man thinks, so is he, the Scriptures say...I understand how [Leopold] Bloom [in Ulysses] looks at the world from the inside out. If Joyce were alive to write another book in which Bloom figured, I feel as if I might almost be able to predict how Bloom would act—in the same way as I might be willing to predict how an intimate friend would act in a hypothetical situation. The communion we have in friendship breaks down the ego barriers in this way.
I am not sure, however, if we are able to empathize with Christ in the way we can with a merely mortal friend or even a fictional character. Chesterton, I think, said that all heresy begins in psychology, meaning that when we try to see the world from Christ's perspective we are far too inclined to see it through our own, and then validate our own perspective by virtue of this inadequate process. Saint Paul, on the other hand, can teach us much. He recommends that we identify with him as he identifies with Christ. That has always seemed to be part of the saint's own often noted egotism. And yet in this context we can see that Saint Paul was talking about the communion of the saints as a key to the Christian life—the way in which the friends of Christ fill out our imaginations of what it must be like to be Christ's friend.
I found my first vicar of belief when I found the whiskey priest in Graham Greene's novel The Power and the Glory. As I have said, the intellectual and emotional profile of those around me as I grew up, at least in their representations of what it was like to be a Christian, struck me as alien, impenetrable. When I came to Greene's whiskey priest I breathed a sigh of relief and found, at last, a saint with whom I can identify.