I just started reading J.R.R. Tolkien: Myth, Morality and Religion by Richard Purtill. Originally published in 1983, reprinted in 2003, this is not a new book, but it's new to me. The book posits that Lord of the Rings is perfectly congruent with Tolkien's Roman Catholicism. The author's exegesis is thoughtful and detailed, and the 2003 Forward by Joseph Pearce makes it clear that this is a mainstay for anybody interested in the religious underpinnings of LOR. It looks like apt reading material for Advent.
The first chapter resonated with something I heard on NPR not long ago about a brand new book: Anne Rice's Angel Time. She was interviewed on Weekend Edition, and it was a good interview, a pleasure to the ear.
After her famously dark and erotic vampire novels, Rice returned to her Catholicism and wrote Christ the Lord, Out of Egypt—astonishing her fans and her foes alike. Evidently she's been staying the course, with another Christ book and now Angel Time. On NPR she lamented the portrayal of angels in many books and movies as "downright aggravating. You know, because the effort is always to make the angel human, to make the angel flawed—wants to stay on earth, doesn't want to go back to heaven, falls in love, that type of thing. And I always thought it was a failure of imagination." She has an excellent point. Similar failures of literary imagination include Milton's Paradise Lost, in which Satan is far more interesting that the angels of light.
Instances where imagination did not fail include LOR. Purtill makes some fascinating remarks in this regard, For one thing, Sauron is as abhorrent as he should be, thanks in part to Tolkien emphasizing the ugly effects Sauron has on people we care about. For another thing, the numinous is made believable. (*Numinous* [from the Classical Latin /numen/] is an English adjective describing the power or presence of a divinity.—Wikipedia.) Purtill comments:
"The problem for the creator of literary myth in the modern age, when the objects of primary religious belief have so often been scoffed at, is to create gods and heroes who can be taken seriously. . . . To do this the author must take them seriously. . . . an attitude of 'we can't really take this seriously, but let's pretend', is fatal to secondary belief. [Secondary belief means the reader takes something as true in the context of the fictional world.] That is precisely what makes so many modern fantasies ultimately unsatisfactory: we cannot take them seriously because their authors do not. And it seems to be the case that those who have a real primary belief in persons or things that they believe to be real and numinous, as Tolkien and C. S. Lewis did, have the best chance of producing stories in which fictional numinous persons or objects can command secondary belief.
"This is not surprising when we reflect that the artist must draw on his or her experience. Those with an experience of really having been in love can write convincing stories of love; those who really believe in a real God and revere real saints can write convincingly of gods and heroes. In many modern writers, the instinct for reverence, for awe, seems dead—or at least weak from disuse."
So the convincingly numinous is a rare quality in modern literature. Tolkien succeeded. Arguably, this is why it was Tolkien who, as pointed out in Pearce's Forward to Purtill's book, emerged as "Greatest writer of the twentieth century" in 1997 surveys in the United Kingdom, an outcome that appalled many critics and other literati. It's not only LOR's imagined world with its wonders and terrors, sympathetic characters, and epic story arc. It's the book's convincing depiction of numinousness, and heroism: faced with equally convincing evil, characters make brave, bitter choices and take hard paths which they follow to the end.
Here is my eccentric and incomplete list of other modern SFF books that succeed in showing the numinous. Or not.
Lucifer's Crown by Lillian Stewart Carl (Five Star 2003.) Unless you're allergic to romance or to fictional depictions of saints, holy places, and the Divine, read this book!
Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold (2001 and 2003.) Whoever wrote the Chalion Wikipedia entry had this to say: "The Curse of Chalion is noted for its focus on religion and metaphysics. This is not only a novel about self-sacrifice and redemption, but also a piece of speculative theological fiction which closely examines the relationship between free will, fate, and divine intervention."
The Shack by William P. Young (Windblown Media 2008.) This is most definitely Christian literature. His theology is enlightened Evangelical. His depiction of the Trinity is amazing.
C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia does succeed in showing the holy, even though it's way too allegorical for my tastes. LOR isn't allegory, but it might be called parable, as that term is understood by scholars of the Bible as literature. A parable is a story about secular people, places and things that makes listeners or readers reflect on religious truth without telling them what to think. Allegory busily supplies the reader with the appropriate conclusions. Parable does not.
My own novel Hurricane Moon (Pyr 2007) has touches of the numinous. At least that is what the author intended: on one level I intentionally made the story a parable of how revelation works in the universe as it is known to science. (I based it on Paul Tillich's Systematic Theology.)
Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy in my opinion aspires to the anti-numinous as well as the anti-heroic, and succeeds on both counts.
LaHaye and Jenkins' Left Behind? Dunno, it's somewhere in my to-read pile on the bookshelf. By all accounts its happenings are more doctrinal than numinous.
As for Anne Rice's Angel Time, I haven't read it yet and the reviews on Amazon are all over the map, but I respect the level of imagination she aspires to with this one.