Memory eternal: Editing out P.D. James the believer and the mystery of the human heart (and soul)

If asked to name the work of new fiction (in other words, as opposed to Jane Austen) that I have read in the past few decades that moved me the most, I would without hesitation say "The Children of Men" by P.D. James.

No, I have not seen the movie that is allegedly based on the book because friends who are fierce James fans warned me not to. Why? They said the team behind the movie ripped out the book's gripping Christian foundation, which I have heard referred to as a sci-fi take on the "Culture of Death"  theme in the work of Saint John Paul II.

Here is the last sentence of the book, in which an underground (and very fragile and flawed) circle of Christian believers fight to bring life back into a world that has mysteriously gone sterile: "It was with a thumb wet with his own tears and stained with her blood that he made on the child's forehead the sign of the cross."

Now, we are watching a similar editing process take place in some -- repeat some -- of the mainstream media obituaries for one of the most important English writers of the past half a century.

C.S. Lewis said the world didn't need more "Christian writers," it needed Christians who were willing to do the hard work of writing for everyone. That was P.D. James. The great Dorothy L. Sayers considered murder mysteries the perfect form of writing for Christians because they open with an act of undeniable evil (evil exists) and then someone goes into the world seeking concrete evidence of truth (truth exists) in order to produce justice (it is possible to do good in the real world). That's P.D. James, as well.

The Associated Press story about her death, at age 94, contains crucial clues to the faith that helped shape the work of this most excellent and popular writer, including an early reference comparing her -- in impact, not style -- with Sayers.

As a conservative peer in the House of Lords, James did have her critics:

They accused her of snobbery because she liked to write about middle-class murderers, preferably intelligent and well-educated, who agonize over right and wrong and spend time planning and justifying their crimes. ...
James was unapologetic. She said her interest was in what made people tick.
"The greatest mystery of all is the human heart," she said in a 1997 interview, "and that is the mystery with which all good novelists, I think, are concerned. I'm always interested in what makes people the sort of people they are."

And near the end there is this crucial piece of biography:

Queen Elizabeth II made her Baroness James of Holland Park in 1991, in recognition of her work as a governor of the BBC, a position she held from 1988 to 1993.
James was a member of the Church of England's Liturgical Commission and expressed doubts about the modernized Book of Common Prayer, the 16th- and 17th-century Anglican service book famous for the beauty of its language.
"Something vital is lost, surely, when 'Let not your heart be troubled' is translated as 'Do not be worried and upset,'" she said.

If you have read "The Children of Men" then you know that some of its most haunting passages concern the fading Church of England and its attempts to create new liturgies and even sacraments -- the baptizing of dolls, for example -- to remain relevant in a dying culture in which there is no new human life being born. Why not modernize things a bit and bless mass, organized acts of euthanasia for the elderly?

So what references to her faith made it into the online BBC tribute? Search for them, please. I can't find a single word.

And how about The New York Times, the other high power in elite global media? No clues. The presence of faith in her work must have remained a mystery there, too. The word "moral" does make a brief appearance.

Many critics and many of her peers have said that by virtue of the complexity of her plots, the psychological density of her characters and the moral context in which she viewed criminal violence, Ms. James even surpassed her classic models and elevated the literary status of the modern detective novel. She is often cited, in particular, for the cerebral depth and emotional sensibilities of Adam Dalgliesh, the introspective Scotland Yard detective and published poet who functions as the hero of virtually all of her novels.

On the other side of the pond, there were faith references in some of the tributes -- which seems fitting since she openly talked about the subject in some highly symbolic settings. The Daily Mail noted:

While Baroness James spoke of her lack of sentimentality in fiction, she enjoyed a strong connection to the Church and its values in reality. 
Speaking at St Paul's Cathedral in May last year, she told the congregation: 'Even our religious duties must come secondary to meeting the need of another human being. 
'When we see that need we should meet it and not have excuses.' 

Truth be told, there was at least one other major piece in the U.S. media that got it right.

At The Washington Post, a guest writer -- Steve Donoghue -- found the perfect note with which to end, writing in the Books section. Let's end with this, shall we?

Ms. James was a practicing Anglican who featured the Church of England in many of her novels, including “Death in Holy Orders” (2001).
In a 1980 interview with The Washington Post, she explained her affection for detective fiction in charged moral tones, noting, “They’re based on the fundamental belief that life is sacred and murder is unique and uncommon. . . . In a sense, detective novels are like 20th-century morality plays; the values are basic and unambiguous.”

In short, P.D. James was far too excellent to be labeled a mere "Christian writer."

But it is impossible to understand her work without taking her faith into account. Were some journalists afraid to admit that a mainstream writer this important was, gasp, a traditional Christian believer?

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