A Holistic Approach: The Christian as Author Part III

[T]he only moral that is of any value is that which arises inevitably from the whole cast of the author’s mind.

C. S. Lewis, Of Other Worlds

“O! for a must of fire…” I just wish this was the way it really worked…..

In my past two posts, I have laid out the problems of a false dichotomy that seems to dominate much of what Christians write and read.  On the one hand we had the idea of “Christian” literature, written for Christians and read only by Christians.  On the other, we had (from my perspective) an even less tenable position–the author who just happens to maybe be a Christian, but he/she keeps that part of his/her life partitioned away in the shadows in the hopes that non-Christians will still approve of (and read) his/her books.

Rather than just knock down, I would like to start building up.  Today, I would like to provide the starts of an answer to the question of what it means to be both Christian and author together.  I don’t expect anyone to take this as the final word on the subject, but I hope it points us in the right direction.

As I mentioned last week, the answer is nothing new–in fact people have know it for years.  C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, George Macdonald, Dorothy Sayers, G. K. Chesterton are some of the more recent examples of people who knew how to get it right.

The key is breaking down the artificial walls that the modern intellect has erected onto our collective mindscape.  Lewis was spot on when he stated (above) that we must write from the “whole cast” of our minds.  For true Christians, that means understanding that since their faith is a foundational aspect of their lives, their writing must flow from it and through it.  The key is to develop a faith that is vibrant and mature enough that it becomes an asset to the writer, not a hindrance.  With time, writing as a Christian should be as natural as breathing.

This means first and foremost that there can be no artificial separation inside our consciousness, not if we are at all serious about our faith.  If we are ashamed of Him, He will be ashamed of us, and if we build an entire authorial career on that shame, the end result will amount to nothing.  Our Christianity reveals to us themes and Truths that were written into the Great Story from the very foundations of Creation.  These are ideas that are so far above mortal minds that we have difficulty even grasping them, let alone creating them ourselves.  Better, in some ways, is the fact that they resonate with our audience when used properly.  Many have felt them pulsing through the works of the authors listed above and they draw us in time and again.  They may not universally appeal to everyone,* but they very often elicit strong responses, one way or the other, in ways that mere human imagination does not.

What this most emphatically does not mean is that as a believer you will be given a list to stereotypes and cliches that you must include in your writing to qualify it as Christian.  It also does not mean that you must write only for certain audiences.  Christian authors, like Tolkien and Lewis, have not only transcended the Christian bookstore, they have literally created entire genres to which most later contributors–Christian and secular–are but footnotes.  In fact, limiting yourself to “safe” ideas and friendly audiences could easily be interpreted as denigrating our larger calling to be salt and light.

(“Salt and light.”  “In the world but not of the world.”  More on that in a future post.)

Finally, I would like to tie all of this together with an example.  I usually belabour the Inklings, and they are good cases in point, but I think a more modern author is just as instructive:  J. K. Rowling and Harry Potter.  Rowling based the entire series off of her understanding of her Christian faith.  Though she waited until the last book was published to explain herself, you can see the blending of both of my previous points in her work.  On the one hand, her faith permeates the books and teaches many valuable lessons (i.e. Harry’s rejection of postmodern relativism at the end of book one).  On the other hand, she created a new world so engaging that it has drawn in literally millions of people (not to mention billions of dollars).

Is she perfect?  No.  Is she on the level of Tolkien and Lewis?  Time will tell.  There are things that I wish she had done differently, but she has accomplished more to introduce some of the basic principles of Christianity to people than all other modern, stereotypical “Christian” authors put together.

Probably the best thing Christians can do to further their craft on the most fundamental of levels is to go back and read all these authors again with a fresh eye.  We can learn much from their style, their timing, and their imagination.  We can learn even more, perhaps, if we read them on a more basic, more philosophical level.

Next Week:  One more false dilemma to knock down:  “Christian” literature as opposed to “good” literature.


*In fact, some people will positively hate you out of principle.  Of course, since any life, well-lived, will tend to provoke that reaction in people.  If you must be hated, at least this way you know you’re doing something right.

16 thoughts on “A Holistic Approach: The Christian as Author Part III

  1. Some bibliography for those interested in traveling the path Brian has laid out:

    Sir Philip Sidney, THE DEFENSE OF POESY (often anthologized; the greatest statement on this topic ever written.).

    J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Faerie Stories.” Most easily found in ESSAYS PRESENTED TO CHARLES WILLIAMS, ed. C. S. Lewis. Pbk. edition Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966; or in THE TOLKIEN READER. NY: Ballantine, 1966.

    Flannery O’Connor, MYSTERY AND MANNERS. NY: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1957.

    Dorothy L. Sayers, THE MIND OF THE MAKER. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1941.

    Donald T. Williams, “A Larger World: C. S. Lewis on Christianity and Literature.” MYTHLORE 24:2 (Summer, 2004); reprinted as Appendix A of MERE HUMANITY: G. K. CHESTERTON, C. S. LEWIS, AND J. R. R. TOLKIEN ON THE HUMAN CONDITION. Nashville: Broadman, 2006.

  2. I do believe that it should be pointed out that, to my knowledge, Lewis, Tolkien, et al, never referred to themselves as ‘Christian’ authors, or their works as ‘Christian’ literature. This would have set up the same false separation that I discussed earlier (under the name noothergods – same person here). Brian is correct that the problem is not that Christians cannot write good fiction, or that to maintain their faith they must only write certain types of fiction. The problem is that we have increasingly separated ourselves from mainstream culture, one of the most important ways that we have done this is by labeling as ‘Christian’ those things that are intended for ‘Christian’ culture. The work of Lewis and Tolkien can stand alongside the work of Asimov, Herbert, and Heinlein as great works of cultural fiction because they did not separate themselves out as only for a select group of people.

    1. No they didn’t call themselves “Christian authors,” but by the above definition, they should objectively be considered so, and are some of the best examples of how to do it right.

  3. This was the first I have heard of J.K. Rowling using Christian truths to create the story of Harry Potter (in fact it makes me want to read the series for the umpteenth time in light of this). So many Christian churches have banned and condemned Rowling’s series, because they say it has brought too much attention to the Wiccan religion (although I tell them having done an outreach to Wiccan teenagers while at seminary, I have seen personally that the world of Harry Potter resembles witchcraft very little; and most Wiccans scoff at the idea that this resembles their religion). Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it! I thought it was interesting when I first heard it too, but after all is said and done, I think we can see that she was telling the truth when we look at Harry in the last book–sacrificing himself, willingly allowing himself to be killed to break Voldemort’s hold over everyone else. From what I remember, she said that she didn’t mention it earlier because she didn’t want people figuring out where the story was going.

      I’ve never seen the connection between fake latin phrases and witchcraft myself. Of course, I think there might be something to the charge that it makes the idea of witchcraft so interesting the the imagination that children might want to investigate the real thing. That’s why I’ve waited to start reading them to my own daughter. Kids need a chance to develop a good ability to distinguish between imagination and reality.

  4. Among many others, you can add “Christie”, “Julie”, and “A Man Called Peter” by Catherine Marshall to your list. Best sellers in their day. Actually, there are a whole list of earlier authors who felt completely comfortable in their Christianity and felt no need to hide it or apologize for it in their writing. This whole artificial dichomoty is , in MHOP, a result of the Church wholesale abandoning it’s faith to give in to and join the culture in very many ways. This has resulted in a generation of Christians who are insecure in their faith and who, in many ways, are unable to clearly distinguish Christianity from the culture. They know there is a difference but have not been taught distinctives as distinctives and all to often the distinctives of the faith have been taught apologetically if at all. This results in the insecurity of not knowing what their faith is or how to defend it. Every generation needs its “Mere Christianity” and this generation does not have one.

  5. In a different context (a lecture on the Passion in St. Luke’s Gospel) Tom Wright once said something that is quite applicable in this one. As a student, Wright was told by one of his professors that “Luke had no theology of the cross.” Wright’s response was that sure, if you’re looking for a few odd verses, a few prooftexts here and there, then Luke’s theology of the cross at first blush looks a bit thin. But if you step back and see the full sweep of Luke’s account, you see just how massive his theology of the cross really is.

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