Why Evangelicals Don’t Write Great Literature

Where are the C.S. Lewis’s, the J.R.R. Tolkien’s, the Flannery O’Connors of our day? Why aren’t Evangelicals producing writers like this? What’s missing in our Evangelical church culture that fails to produce writers like that? A fantastic article appeared recently in Touchstone magazine by Donald T. Williams that wrestles this important question and offers some answers.

After some reflection of my own, I offer here 4 suggested reasons why great literary works are such a black hole in Evangelical achievement.

1. Unexposed

Students are less and less being exposed to great literary works in high school, and then they aren’t being exposed to them in college either. The days are nearly gone when students received a well-rounded liberal arts education. A student entering into university today is entering into an educational system where studies are now very narrow, with a focus on preparing for a specialized task in the workplace. Students are being shortchanged when they graduate, for they remain unexposed to the greatest literary works the world has produced. And they are the worse for it. And so is the world they enter.

(Camile Paglia helpfully chronicles the history (I’ve distilled her salient points here) of how the relationship between religion and fine arts has been deteriorating since the Reformation to the point where it now has almost no perceivable relationship at all. Thankfully, there is a discernable renaissance of Christians in the art scene, but the literary still awaits us.)

2. Unimaginative

Is it overstating the case to say that most of our imaginative powers in the West are either largely stunted by our disengagement of our minds though an overindulgence in on-screen entertainment, or where imagination still exists, it gets consumed primarily on improving technology? Good content (stories, plots) is getting hard to come by these days. It’s just the same old thing, only not as good as the last time. Christians are merely children of their culture in this regard. Camile Paglia states it well:

“…would anyone seriously argue that the fine arts or even popular culture is enjoying a period of high originality and creativity? American genius currently resides in technology and design. The younger generation, with its mastery of video games and its facility for ever-evolving gadgetry like video cell phones and iPods, has massively shifted to the Web for information and entertainment.”

The result: a perpetual stream of arguably inferior and even silly Christian novels that are superficial, predictable, and as a result, boring. If they aren’t embarrassing for being such transparently plain religious propaganda, then they tend to fail to be realistic in their presentation of life. David Williams shows how Flannery O’Connor understood this point well:

“O’Connor understood that good writers do not simply parrot these insights; they must take this doctrinal understanding and apply it to the concrete realities of human life. “Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing.”

When we do not understand this distinction, Christian fiction becomes mere religious propaganda. “The sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate concrete reality.” Doctrine is a light to see human experience by, not a formula to be dressed up in a fictional disguise.”

Christians need to recover the creativity that resides in them as a reflection of the image of God, and train their minds to think imaginatively again. The best way to do this is to read the works of imaginative minds.

3. Ungrounded

Evangelicals are ungrounded in transcendent theology and a sense of mystery. What does the average Christian feast on week after week in the average worship service? A pitiful meal of pragmatic, topical, self-help, how-to, motivational speeches, and shallow-if-nonexistent exposition of the Scriptures. Theology is avoided at all cost. But Christians are starving for something substantial – nourishment that will satisfy their soul’s deepest longings for a taste of the depths of the Holy One. Williams states it well:

“Good fiction ultimately probes the mysteries of life: Why are we here? Why do we suffer? What is the Good?

Our services, like our fiction, are justified by their efficiency in achieving pragmatic goals. Our sermons are full of practical, easy steps to spiritual victory, a better marriage, or financial success; our music is designed to express comfortable emotions; everything is aimed at maximizing the body count at the altar call.

Some of these goals are worth pursuing, but perhaps if abasement before a transcendent deity, felt as such, were one of them, we would produce better Christians and better writers.”

Theology deepens us as believers. It stretches us in the same ways needed for writing significant literary expressions, and provides for us the needed foundational underpinnings for our lives and creative work. Christians today aren’t taught to think deeply about God or redemption, so they are condemned to drown in the superficial. It’s all they get fed by their pastors, so it’s all they can give back out. Our literary failures are just one small evidence of the theological shallowness of our churches. Christians need to learn doctrine and how solid theology relates to real life. In other words, Christians need to be educated, and taught how deep truth is necessary for their lives.

4. Unencouraged

Evangelicals just don’t nurture good writers and good writing, as Williams points out. Why? “We often positively discourage “literary” writing as being of questionable spiritual value.” There’s no wonder why passion for good literary and artistic expression in the church is nearly non-existent. I find it difficult to believe that there are so few gifted for this work as there are doing it in the church. These people need to be encouraged to use their gifts, talents, and passions for God-glorifying art and literature. The church needs to recognize these gifts and talents as good and reflective of the image of God, and should therefore be used for His glory.

Evangelicals need to learn how to nurture and support literary and artistic vision, one that is free from the pressure to be a propagandist. As Thomas Aquinas said, we need to recover the belief in “the good of that which is made,” and a belief that that quality is, in itself, glorifying to God. Furthermore, we need not demand that what Christians write can only be justified if it fulfills pragmatic or explicitly evangelistic ends in order for it to be considered good. Again, this is a theological issue.

Conclusion:

The reasons for the Evangelical dearth of literary achievement are systemic to Evangelicalism’s culture, both theologically and philosophcally. Thankfully, we are beginning to realize it and do something about it. There are encouraging signs of movements of Christians seeking to rise above the challenges, the stereotypes, the book formulas, and the problems that”Christian” literature has embodied for so long. I, for one, am hopeful for the future of Christian authors that are on the horizon. May their tribe increase! (Check out The Master’s Artist blog for a peek at some encouraging developments in this regard).

(Hat Tip for the Touchstone article: Think Christian)

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13 Responses to Why Evangelicals Don’t Write Great Literature

  1. Min. Les says:

    Your article is very insightful, and I think it addresses a crucial problem facing the church today. Historically, I believe Christianity has been notoriously negliegent in terms of sensitivity in various areas including the matter you are presenting. Lack of sensitivity should readily be seen as a impediment to excellence in the field of literature and, for example, history (which I propose more Christians become acqainted with to perhaps become – better writers). Furthermore, I believe the main reason we’re confronted with issues concerning deficiencies in ministry is partly the result of the battle of those in the church seeking knowledge, versus those who seek an opiatic experience. Neither side is seemingly satisfied with the amount of knowledge or joy they have found in church, and eventually may become frustrated. Possible solution? I believe we must endeavor to find balance in our lives which would help us to overcome frustration, our fear of learning new info, and our hesitancy to praise God for what has been already achieved! I thank you for your time.

  2. Scott W. Kay says:

    Min. Les,

    Thanks for the comments. I think you are on target in suggesting that we have many “impediments to excellence” in the church, especially in art and literature: lack of balance in the head vs. heart struggle, lack of sensitivity, lack of historical perspective, etc. May the Lord deliver us from our satisfaction with less-than-excellence!

  3. bphearts says:

    Thanks – great post.

    I, personally, find your 4th point very timely for myself. I would go beyond “unencouraged” to “openly discouraged.”

    I fear that if Lewis or Tolkien (and how about Madeline E’lengle?)were newly published today – they would be denounced as deviltry or some other well-intentioned yet undereducated reason. Not only because of a tendency to just say – oh no! magic! – but also for the lack of ability to read into nuance and symbolism (due to not being taught HOW to think but WHAT to think) – people have been told “Tolkien represents such and such. . .” What if there was no one to tell people this any longer? Would even those of our faith miss the importance of something such as Aslan’s sacrificing himself?

    I know that personally, coming from a fairly conservative church, I plan to write my YA fantasy under a pen name. In it I’ve studied (for myself) the separation of faith through the thinking versus feeling as stand alone ideas. But, as a fantasy, I know there are aspects of this imaginary world that would be more than frowned on instead of examined.

    Thanks for your interesting post. I hope it provokes thought.

  4. Scott W. Kay says:

    bphearts,

    Thanks for the comments. It grieves me to hear that you are being openly discouraged from using your gifts creatively. Don’t be discouraged, despite those who don’t “get it.” I hope it only serves to make you more determined to glorify God in this way. May God bless your gifts.

  5. […] September 2, 2007 Posted by elrambo in Uncategorized. trackback Check out this guy Scott W. Kay on some factors that may be preventing evangelical Christians from producing great literature, including lack of […]

  6. wilsonknut says:

    Great post. You touch on some issues I have thought about for some time. I think American culture in general, as David Williams and Camile Paglia seem to suggest, wants things to be easy. As a society we want to be spoon fed everything- education, entertainment, politics, and religion. I think the contemporary service today is a good example. I think it’s great that people who normally wouldn’t go to church are going, but how intellectually stimulating is it? How much do we really think about the teachings or what it means to be a Christian? The music sounds like contemporary radio and the preacher doesn’t talk too long. It’s easy church.

    I graduated with a BA in English lit, and one of the best classes I took was a survey of the Old Testament. We went into the historical context of the writings, the different authors, the changes over time, et cetera. Ever since that course, I wish I could find a preacher who gave sermons like the professor in that class (who was a Methodist minister).

    I feel that most preachers water down the theology. They simplify in order to reach as many people as possible, but lose the deeper meanings and intellectual value. It’s like a newspaper that makes sure every article is written on a fifth-grade reading level in order to appeal to the working class masses. In most cases, I’m sure the preacher is only doing what the church expects. If he or she were preach a tough series of sermons prompting thought and asking hard questions, he or she may be out of a job.

    In order to have some great contemporary Christian literature, we have to foster thinking, intellectual Christians.

  7. titus2woman says:

    Great, great post! I myself am lacking in my own education in these ways~I can see it! Unexposed to good literature was a biggie for me, and we’re trying to change that with our own children. LOVED THIS! (((((HUGS))))) sandi

  8. Scott W. Kay says:

    Derrick,

    LOL! Yeah, I saw that article last week or so. I’m sure that’s the universal cure! HA!

  9. Derrick says:

    After reading that article I have to ask if Lewis “merely” smoked 60 cigarettes between pipes? If so, how many pipes per day? Talk about a froggy throated limey! Geez!

  10. Scott W. Kay says:

    Derrick,

    My thoughts exactly. The quantities consumed by Lewis blew me away. I had no idea!

  11. […] trecut, precum în articolul mai vechi din Touchstone, urmat de o serie de comentarii pe bloguri ca cel al lui Scott W. Kay, păstor […]

  12. Abby says:

    Hi!

    I just wanted to ask what you think about writing fiction as a Christian which does not mention, allegorize or portray God. I have gotten lots out of secular writing, and I really enjoy it, but when it comes to my own writing, I am not sure how to approach the situation. Without God in my worldview, the world makes no sense. But do you believe that Christian writers always need to have God in there work?
    Thanks!

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