WHY EVANGELICALS CAN’T WRITE,
And How Flannery O’Connor Can Help Us Learn Better
Donald T. Williams, PhD
A version of this essay appeared as “Writers Cramped: Three Things Evangelical Authors Can Learn from Flannery O’Connor,” Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity 20:7 (Sept., 2007): 15-18. A fuller version appears in Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd ed., revised & expanded (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012).
There is a certain irony in the fact that I, an Evangelical, am now offering to you words I wrote down about why Evangelicals can’t write. Whether I am the exception that proves the rule, Posterity will have to judge (if the publishing industry ever offers it the opportunity). At the very least, the ironic presence of this essay on your screen is an opportunity for exegesis. It suggests that my title is not to be taken literally. Evangelicals obviously do write, and publish, reams upon reams of prose. What they have not tended to write is anything recognized as having literary value by the literary world.
What makes this failure remarkable is that our Protestant forebears include a numer of people who did: Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, John Donne, George Herbert, John Milton, and John Bunyan, to mention just a few. Equally remarkable is that near-contemporary conservative Christians–sometimes quite evangelical and even evangelistic, though not “Evangelicals”–have often done so. G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Dorothy L. Sayers, T. S. Eliot, Graham Greene, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, Madeline L’Engle, and Annie Dillard are all recognized as important literary figures even by people who do not share their Christian commitment. Where is the American Evangelical who can make such a claim?
The people I have mentioned who are both great writers and great Christians are all from liturgical churches: Roman Catholic, Anglican/Episcopal, Orthodox. (Dillard, who started out as a Presbyterian, has recently converted to Catholicism.) The closest thing Evangelicalism has to a name that could rank with these is probably Walter Wangerin, Jr., who is not really a “mainstream” Evangelical but a Lutheran–again, from a liturgical tradition. Try to think of a Baptist (of any stripe), a Free or Wesleyan Methodist or a Nazarene, a conservative Presbyterian (OPC or PCA), a Plymouth Brother, a member of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, a Pentecostal, or a member of an independent Bible church who belongs in that company. While there may be one reading these words right now who is destined to join them, and to whom this rhetorical gambit is being grossly unfair, our experience up to now has been such that the mind is simply unable to suspend its disbelief and imagine any such thing. Instead, we get “Left Behind.” In more ways than one.
Why? Is there anything we can do about it? Is there anything we can do about it without compromising our commitment to our Evangelical distinctives? What are those Evangelical distinctives anyway?
These are the questions I will try to wrestle with–I won’t promise to answer–in this two-part essay. I do not want to overstate the case. No doubt someone could point out minor figures who are, or who have the potential to be, exceptions to the generalization which is my premise. I should be glad to hear of them, but as we are talking about general trends, they hardly overturn that premise. The liturgical churches foster a lot of schlock and kitsch of their own; but they are also communities that are capable of fostering and nurturing great writers and great writing. So far, we Evangelicals have not. In fact, one could make a case that we positively discourage “literary” writing as being of questionable spiritual value. I am just crazy enough to want to change that state of affairs.
Too often people like Thomas Howard or Sheldon Vanauken have migrated Romeward (or, like Franky Schaeffer, at one point, to Byzantium), partly because their commitment to serious art could find no home in Evangelicalism. Some of them would deny that this was the major reason, but we would be naïve to think that it was not a factor. I want to say forthrightly that I do not see such migrations as a viable solution. For myself, I would define an Evangelical as a person committed to Nicene and Chalcedonian orthodoxy, to a high view of the authority of Scripture, to the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone, and to the necessity of personal faith in Christ (and therefore the importance for most people of a personal conversion experience, as long as we do not stereotype it) for salvation. If we must really give up any of that in order to learn to nurture serious artists and writers, then Evangelicals are prepared to let art and literature perish from the earth! But I cannot believe that the God who begot the incarnate Logos and whose Spirit inspired the Gospels desires, much less requires, any such thing. So let us find another way, and ask, “What can we learn from these great Christian writers that we, as Evangelicals, can apply in our own discipling communities?”
Let me attempt a beginning to an answer by examining one useful example: Flannery O’Connor. What she can teach us will be our topic next week.
Donald T. Willliams (BA, Taylor University, M.Div., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, PhD, University of Georgia) is R. A. Forrest Scholar at Toccoa Falls College in the Hills of N.E. Georgia. His books include Mere Humanity: G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien on the Human Condition (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006), Stars through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2011), Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd ed., revised & expanded (Lantern Hollow, 2012), and Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lantern Hollow, 2012).
Order Stars through the Clouds ($15.00), Inklings of Reality ($15.00) or Reflections from Plato’s Cave ($15.00) at https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/.