Pragmatism: One Way Evangelicals Fail to Value Poetry and Fictional Literature

I’ve noted previously (here and here) that Evangelicals are generally poorly adept to both appreciating and producing good art, be it literary, musical, performing, or what have you. There are many reasons why this is true, of which I am only beginning to scratch the surface in my own thinking. This is a new frontier of discovery for me, and much of my motivation for exploring the “why’s” is to try to figure out the reasons why I have been guilty of such neglect of these things in my own life.

Yet, I have awakened to art and literature, and I am convinced of it’s value. But it’s value is not so much pragmatic as it is aesthetic. Christians usually don’t give much consideration to the value of aesthetics, precisely because it isn’t pragmatic. We are children of our culture in this regard. It has to be useful – utilitarian – to be truly good. And literature has to be propositional – evangelistic, apologetic, polemic, etc. – in order to be considered useful and therefore good.

But God built beauty into creation – beauty that isn’t necessarily useful, only aesthetic: varieties of colors, flavors, shapes, sizes, etc. Then God called the things He made with those primarily aesthetic qualities “very good” (Gen. 1). But Christians don’t really think beautiful or imaginative things are good if they don’t possess a perceivably utilitarian means to an end.

This may be why when Christians sit down to write fiction or poetry, they feel bound to write something that isn’t too subtle in it’s expressions of Christian doctrines. It appears that Christians feel compelled to write things that are explicit expressions of Christianity, else it wouldn’t pass muster for being good, or pleasing to God. To simply portray real-life reality and weave a biblical worldview into the undercurrent of the story (or song) without being explicitly Christian seems to somehow be a betrayal of Christ to many.

This should not be so. We need to learn to overcome our bondage to pragmatism (The church growth culture isn’t helping in this regard is it? It seems that churches are the worst about being thoroughly pragmatic in their thinking and methodology. In fact, many church leaders only serve to deepen our bondage to pragmatism.). We need to recapture our appreciation for beauty and aesthetics. We need to realize that to do so is thoroughly theological and biblical and Christian.

So, one of the ways Evangelicals fail to value things like art and poetry and fiction, is because we are too pragmatic and utilitarian in our thinking, and we are not well-taught or well-practiced at the task of ENJOYING beauty where we find it. That failure, in turn, leads to a failure to MAKE beautiful art and write interesting and enriching books and poems.

So, to help us along in our thinking and in being set free from our suffocating utilitarianism in our artistic expressions, I offer here some quotes from another blogger on this very subject. These comments helped me see this problem in my own thinking, and put me on the path toward a proper perspective. Abraham Piper (son of John) crystalizes these important issues when he writes:

“One of the less obvious ways that our artistic utilitarianism shows itself is the impulse to reduce art to propositions about art. This is the only way that many people know how to interact with art—or at least the only way they trust. If we can say what a story means, for instance, and we’ve summed up this meaning in a statement about truth that we agree with, then we think it’s a good story—good art. And if a story resists summary or does not distill into a statement we believe, then we have no use for it—it’s bad art.”

He quotes Flannery O’Connor as saying: “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in a story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate.”

Piper continues, “Fiction and poetry provide authors a unique way to glorify Christ that more overtly intellectual genres, like theology, simply can’t. These genres that aim directly for the heart and soul—rather than aiming at the heart through the mind—do not argue for belief, they show what it looks like and make you feel it.”

Ah, that is what is precisely more difficult for us, I think. It’s easier to give a defense of our Christian beliefs in forthright statements. It’s much harder for us to show what it looks like in a real-life (even though fictionalized) setting without a bunch of propositions. It is much more utilitarian to spread of our beliefs by making statements. It is much more experiential and aesthetic to tell it in a story without preaching.

I must confess that this is more true of me than I would like it to be, since I am a preacher, but knowing it helps me see a way out toward more aesthetic means of communicating great and small truths. I’m not as creative as I’d like to be, but I think I’m beginning to see ways to change that in my own life, ministry and writing. At least I hope so. I’m starting to realize that I’ve got a lot to overcome in my own thinking and a lot to learn about the creative process, especially since I live and move in a church culture that isn’t conducive to either task.

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3 Responses to Pragmatism: One Way Evangelicals Fail to Value Poetry and Fictional Literature

  1. Gordan says:

    I appreciate the thoughtful post, there, brother. I agree with your thoughts here, and in the previous post about why we don’t write great literature. I think there is a latent gnosticism in there somewhere, so that we’ve been trained to think a thing is bad unless it consciously teaches us something on an intellectual level. The way to change that is to start writing it, Scott! 🙂

  2. Christian says:

    You’ve touched upon this subject in your other article on the lack of good evangelical fiction (I am not as positive as you – I might have titled it “Why Do Evangelicals Write Such Bad Fiction”). But what do you mean by evangelical?

    See, I think the problem is that we might be too specific with our definitions. There is some great writing out there (not necessarily fiction) by people like Ann Lamott, Annie Dillard and Frederick Buecchner. They may not fall into the ‘official’ evangelical camp but their writing reflects the Good News.

    But maybe there are some evangelical writers out there that are putting out good prose that is not blatantly nor specifically evangelical in nature. Perhaps we have Christians who are writing on the sly, knowing that an evangelical label will deplete their readership, perhaps placing them in a genre in which they will not be accepted.

    That’s what I would do, anyway. 😉

  3. Scott W. Kay says:

    Christian,

    You make really good points that I’ve though about myself. (Yeah, I probably should have used that title! HA! That makes the point well.).

    Granted, evangelical is a broad term, and I really am using it that way. I don’t expect good Christian literature to flow from only those who are conservative theologically like I am. You mention several authors who would not fall into my particular corner of the theological spectrum, but I am really thankful that they are writing and in such a way to reflect the Gospel. I just wish that evangelicals could produce stuff that is at least as good as Catholic writers such as Tolkien, Flannery O’Connor, etc. (whose works I love!)

    I suspect that your last point is probably true with more writers than we would like to think, and I can’t really blame them for it. In fact, if they can write good literature with a biblically-oriented worldview, then I don’t find it necessary at all that they be required to identify themselves as a Christian writer as such.

    I simply think Christians should be the best at what they set their hands or minds to, no matter what that is: art, literature, plumbing, carpentry, stock trading. None of those vocations demands an explicit announcement of one’s faith in order to do them in a way that is thoroughly pleasing to God. Only that we do them well. That is what I pray will happen with Christians and literature, art, music, and the performing arts. That Christians be really good at what they do, that they do it as unto the Lord – as a gift to God and the rest of us too. I think that would go a long way to fixing the deplorable state of things in the genres commonly called “Christian fiction” or “Christian music.”

    That’s my hope!

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