By Russell Shaw, OSV contributing editor
The decline of religious faith occurring in Western Europe has been a favorite subject of theologians and social scientists for years. Nearly all speak of what the University of Chicago's Jean Bethke Elshtain calls the "signs of cultural slackness and exhaustion" now visible there. But for concrete depictions of those signs, we must turn to novelists, film-makers, and journalists.
In this connection it's helpful to take a look — not a terribly long one, mind you — at the new John le Carre thriller, "A Most Wanted Man" (Scribner, $28). This isn't an analysis of the loss of faith but a fundamentally blasé portrait of it.
Despite the praise heaped on the book by some reviewers, "A Most Wanted Man" isn't in the same league with le Carre cold war tales like "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold" and "The Looking Glass War." As an experienced fiction writer, the author knows how to keep readers turning pages, but his new novel features forgettable characters and a story line shaped by arbitrary decisions rather than the exigencies of human nature under stress.
Still, the book does provide — unintentionally, no doubt — a chilling picture of post-Christian Europe spiritually on the skids. It does this in two quite different ways.
The more obvious way concerns characters and plot. In this bleak tale of counter-intelligence agents in Germany wrestling clumsily with suspected terrorists and one another, the only people with religious faith are the Muslims.
With one exception, none of the rest appears to know or care anything about religion. The exception is a minor character who remarks that her family is Catholic — and whose personal experience of Catholicism is seemingly having been abused as a teenager by an uncle who was a priest. (In case you had any doubt on the matter, the abuse scandal will remain a stock element of the picture of the Church as presented in popular fiction and journalism for years to come.)
The story line of "A Most Wanted Man" is jaded, cynical, and without hope. As in his early novels, le Carre exploits moral equivalency in order to make the point that 'our' side is as bad as — and arguably worse than — "theirs." The villain of the piece, naturally, is the CIA. Who else in a book by an anti-American European?
But it's in the deeper realms of moral substance that the novel fails most seriously.
Shortly before reading the new le Carre, I read Joseph Conrad's 1911 novel "Under Western Eyes," an early classic of the spy novel genre. The stories have similar situations: mysterious young man arrives in foreign city — Geneva in the Conrad book, Hamburg in le Carre's — and stirs suspicions that end in tragedy.
But there the likeness ends. Conrad, a fatalist, nevertheless brought to his writing — perhaps from his Polish background — a vision of good and evil that invests his tale with moral weight. In the moral vacuum of le Carre's novel, cheap ironies attempt unsuccessfully to substitute for moral substance.
Conrad's story turns on the workings of guilt. Le Carre's people have much to feel guilty about but lack the capacity to feel it. As a picture of Europe, the message is that what remains after the fabric of a culture unravels is a residue of adolescent moral callowness.
Certainly one still finds in Europe strong communities of faith inhabited by Christians of great decency and commitment. But the decline of faith there is real, and John le Carre unwittingly has given us an alarming picture of it.