“The world does not need more Christian literature. What it needs is more Christians writing good literature.”
–C. S. Lewis (Allegedly)
Anyone who knows me well (even remotely so) knows that I think the world of C. S. Lewis. Lewis was amazingly prescient, and many of the things that he predicted about general culture and the church in particular have come to pass. Lewis was also human, though, and his prediction was based on his circumstances. I came across this quote recently on-line, and while it sounds possibly like something Lewis might have said, I can’t put a finger on the exact location, and of course none of the posters bother to reference it. While the sentiment was certainly applicable once upon a time, I have to say that it is now dated. Christian literature is in need of a dual renaissance, of the “little books” we discussed last week and also within itself.
For some time now, I’ve listened to a generation or so of intelligent Christian academics echo Lewis’s call for more good writing that can reach the general culture and be judged as excellent by any reasonable standard. That is, of course, all well and exactly as it should be. It is absolutely necessary, especially in an increasingly hostile culture that needs to be engaged from the ground up, and to those who are called to do so, I say, “Charge ahead!.”
Unfortunately, I also find that the accompanying critique of literature aimed at the Christian sub-culture to often be reflexively dismissive and even demeaning. People glory in the fact that “I don’t write that to those people! You’ll never see anything of mine on that shelf!” It can (and sometimes does) quickly escalate into an unhealthy, mean-spirited “holier-than-thou” attitude, the very attitude they claim to critique in the sub-culture they try to stand apart from.
Let me be clear: There is a lot of slop out there that passes for Christian creative, historical, analytical, and scientific thought. But we should forcefully (and politely) critique it on the grounds of its sloppishness (Is that a word?), not because of the audience to whom it was written. The truth is that there is a need for literature of all kinds, including that which is written by Christians to Christians. In our haste to engage the larger culture, we shouldn’t over look an equally desperate need.
When Lewis was alive, there were many intelligent Christian authors who had been writing books to Christian audiences for centuries and many people were still equipped to understand them. That is one reason why the quote above is believable.* Unfortunately, things have changed in the generation since Lewis left us. Most of the classics of Christian literature are lost on people these days–due in large part to the failure of the Church to educate its members. They are no more stupid than the people who came before, but culture and language have changed to the point that they speak a different language. They need someone to translate and interpret.
Perhaps more importantly, while we shouldn’t be ashamed to stand on the shoulders of giants, we need to be producing more giants of our own. It is an excellent and worthy thing to reach out to the larger culture, but if we aren’t deepening our own understanding of the timeless truths of the Bible and Christianity and then disseminating it among ourselves, what do we have to offer in our “little books”? It isn’t far off from the dying churches who cling to their own dated cultural manifestations of the faith, singing songs from the 1920s with music played on instruments from the 1800s. While there is nothing wrong with that by definition, their failure to engage and grow is killing them, and they are increasingly ceasing to be any concern at all.
When we can be as reasonably sure of finding mostly “good literature” on the shelves of places like Christian bookstores as we are of finding it elsewhere, we’ll have taken a large step forward in the revival of western culture as a whole. It is only one step, but a positive one nonetheless.
There are some of us who are called to write the “little books”, but there are also some of us who are still called to write from within the Church to other believers. (Many will be called to do both.) To these latter, I say stand up and be proud of your calling. People outside the church–and some inside it–will have trouble identifying with you, but remember who your audience is and what you have to offer. Study the Bible and the giants of the past and bring them all home to struggling believers in the modern world.
Here is the real key though: Do it right and to the highest of standards!
Next Week–Arming Ourselves: Reading and What It Really Means
*Many of these books are still out there and are still excellent. In fact, they are enjoying something of a renaissance of themselves thanks to public domain and the internet. More average people have access to George MacDonald, G. K. Chesterton, the early church fathers, etc than have in years, and that is a good thing. We should encourage people to devour them.