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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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)