A crisis of faith -or a crisis of doubt?

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A Pure Clear Light By Madeleine St. John Carroll & Graf 233 pp., $22

After 200 years of philosophical and scientific assault on the claims of spiritual truth, you can't blame the faithful for getting a little excited about the advent of religious publishing. At the book industry trade show in Chicago last month, USA Today distributed its list of the top 150 bestsellers; 20 dealt with religion or spirituality.

The latest installment of Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins's apocalyptic "Left Behind" series ascended into the "Harry Potter" realm with pre-sales of 1.3 million. Publishers Weekly reports that religion is now the second-largest category in the book industry.

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But in the Elysian fields of "literary fiction," religion is still as hard to spot as a snowball in hell. We might get a minister or rabbi now and then (usually a lapsed one), but otherwise, God's name usually appears only to be taken in vain. In sophisticated literary circles, ambiguity, despair, and ennui continue to hold the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.

Indeed, characters who have lost their faith have become such a clich that it's something of a shock to run across Flora Beaufort in "A Pure Clear Light." You see, the protagonist in Madeleine St. John's latest witty novel is losing her doubt, instead. And that's causing all kinds of problems.

Flora's husband, Simon, is a successful television director who wants nothing to do with all that hocus pocus. "Honestly," Simon says with exasperation to his wife, "the Pope and the Days of Obligation and plastic Virgin Marys with the light bulbs inside them and all the rest of it - no way. Not in my house." Flora laughs along with her husband, but then she stops: "That's not the whole story."

" 'Be an Anglican,' he reiterated. It was the lesser of two evils. In fact, it was hardly evil at all; it was probably completely harmless."

She lets the issue slide for a year. After all, domestic bliss is bad for church attendance. What more could a busy, happily married mother of three need? Flora isn't entirely sure, but she's vaguely troubled by the desire for some greater meaning than her pleasant life can provide.

"Flora was thinking about the vast existential difference - it was, wasn't it? - between being right, and having, as the French say, right, or right-ness: raison: reason. There, rightness, or even righteousness, was reasonableness; and wrongness was therefore the consequence - or was it the condition? - of a logical error, a mistake."

While Flora quietly pursues a faith that makes sense - a sense of God's presence that moves beyond superstition - her husband quietly pursues an all-consuming affair with a chilly, though beautiful accountant.

St. John draws out the irony of these parallel pursuits with her signature wit. Flora knows in her heart that something deeper must lie beyond; Simon, meanwhile, catches the sulfuric scent of something else deep lying beyond.

But it would be a mistake to think of this as a religious novel. It's something more rare. It's a novel in which the threads of grace and guilt are laced through the fabric of busy, modern lives the way they are for most people. This is smart, incisive analysis of moral confusion in a world where autonomy is considered the primary value. Without a touch of moralism, St. John has dared to move beyond the common portrayal of middle-class dissatisfaction to a dynamic exploration of the forces that move us ahead or backward.

As in her other novels, "A Pure Clear Light" presents a symphony of perfectly pitched dialogue. Like a good confessor, she just lets these characters talk, hoping patiently for flashes of self-knowledge, maybe even revelation. Hallelujah.

*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to charlesr@csps.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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