The Cloak, the Books, and the Parchments

We have a guest blogger today, a man who would probably have been appalled at the very idea of appearing in a blog: my mentor and former pastor Dr. Alan Dan Orme, the founder of University Church in Athens, GA.  This passage is from his sermon “The Cloak, the Books, and the Parchments,” on 2 Tim. 4:13.  Paul asks Timothy,

When you come, bring the cloak I left at Troas with Carpus, and the books, especially the parchments.”

First a work of explanation:  “Common grace” is grace that God gives to all men, as opposed to “special” or “saving” grace, which only comes to those who put their faith in Christ.  Common grace is what allows even fallen and sinful human beings to do things that are positively good, including the goods of culture.  Here then is Dr. Orme’s commentary on Paul’s request.  And here is my question:  When is the last time you heard something like this from the pulpit?  And a second which is like unto it:  Is your answer not an index of how sick American Christianity has become?  Here’s the excerpt:

The house Dr. Orme rebuilt, the current meeting place of University Church
The house Dr. Orme rebuilt, the current meeting place of University Church

Even in the year of his death, Paul was intending on studying general literature which was the common heritage of human beings—of the people of the Lord and the people of the world, alike.

In principle, Paul here gives an example of a realm of human activity and civilization that was one step higher than the body and creaturely comforts: it is the realm of the mind. Paul wanted to exercise his mind and learn from that mass of literature that God had given to the world, not by inspiration, as he had the Scriptures, but by common grace.

This realm of thinking tends to justify a university education and the educated professions, but it also justifies your being interested in secular learning even over and above any help it might be as an aid to interpreting and applying the Bible. We do not know all the books Paul had in his library, but he quotes from poetry, drama, history, and fiction throughout his writings.

"The Books": This is Codex Alexandrinus, one of the earliest copies of the whole Bible.
“The Books”: This is Codex Alexandrinus, one of the earliest copies of the whole Bible.

In your lifetime pilgrimage, do not be afraid to expose yourself to the scrolls. It is God’s world, and all of these things belong to us who are his children. You don’t need to be like Jerome and his friend Rufinus, who copied out and studied the classics and then lied a little bit that they were too spiritual to read such stuff. You can admit it!

Love the English language. Frequently use the dictionary. Read some history. One of the wonderful gifts that God has given us by common grace is the gift of culture and civilization. Advance to the limit of your abilities in appreciation for fine music. Make Christ Lord over the realm of culture and the mind, and then with thanksgiving to the Lord of all creation, responsibly enjoy his gifts. Free yourself from the froth that is on television and feed yourself with something that will enhance your mind, your life, and your Christian walk.

Monet's "Water Lilies": Fine Art and Music . . .
Monet’s “Water Lilies”: Fine Art and Music . . .

But do this responsibly. This realm must be used according to God’s commandments, as must be the realm of the senses and the body. But it is always in subordination to the spiritual, and the eternal, and the welfare of your everlasting soul.

Dr. Alan Dan Orme, “The Cloak, the Books, and the Parchments,” 2 Tim. 4:13, 3/9/03

For more of Dr. Orme’s sermons (and some by regular blogger Donald T. Williams), go to http://www.theuniversitychurch.org.  To order Dr. Williams’s books, ($15.00 + shipping), go to  https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/.

The Cloak, the Books, and the Parchments

We have a guest blogger today, a man who would probably have been appalled at the very idea of appearing in a blog: my mentor and former pastor Dr. Alan Dan Orme, the founder of University Church in Athens, GA.  This passage is from his sermon “The Cloak, the Books, and the Parchments,” on 2 Tim. 4:13.  Paul asks Timothy,

When you come, bring the cloak I left at Troas with Carpus, and the books, especially the parchments.”

First a work of explanation:  “Common grace” is grace that God gives to all men, as opposed to “special” or “saving” grace, which only comes to those who put their faith in Christ.  Common grace is what allows even fallen and sinful human beings to do things that are positively good, including the goods of culture.  Here then is Dr. Orme’s commentary on Paul’s request.  And here is my question:  When is the last time you heard something like this from the pulpit?  And a second which is like unto it:  Is your answer not an index of how sick American Christianity has become?  Here’s the excerpt:

The house Dr. Orme rebuilt, the current meeting place of University Church
The house Dr. Orme rebuilt, the current meeting place of University Church

Even in the year of his death, Paul was intending on studying general literature which was the common heritage of human beings—of the people of the Lord and the people of the world, alike.

In principle, Paul here gives an example of a realm of human activity and civilization that was one step higher than the body and creaturely comforts: it is the realm of the mind. Paul wanted to exercise his mind and learn from that mass of literature that God had given to the world, not by inspiration, as he had the Scriptures, but by common grace.

This realm of thinking tends to justify a university education and the educated professions, but it also justifies your being interested in secular learning even over and above any help it might be as an aid to interpreting and applying the Bible. We do not know all the books Paul had in his library, but he quotes from poetry, drama, history, and fiction throughout his writings.

"The Books": This is Codex Alexandrinus, one of the earliest copies of the whole Bible.
“The Books”: This is Codex Alexandrinus, one of the earliest copies of the whole Bible.

In your lifetime pilgrimage, do not be afraid to expose yourself to the scrolls. It is God’s world, and all of these things belong to us who are his children. You don’t need to be like Jerome and his friend Rufinus, who copied out and studied the classics and then lied a little bit that they were too spiritual to read such stuff. You can admit it!

Love the English language. Frequently use the dictionary. Read some history. One of the wonderful gifts that God has given us by common grace is the gift of culture and civilization. Advance to the limit of your abilities in appreciation for fine music. Make Christ Lord over the realm of culture and the mind, and then with thanksgiving to the Lord of all creation, responsibly enjoy his gifts. Free yourself from the froth that is on television and feed yourself with something that will enhance your mind, your life, and your Christian walk.

Monet's "Water Lilies":  Fine Art and Music . . .
Monet’s “Water Lilies”: Fine Art and Music . . .

But do this responsibly. This realm must be used according to God’s commandments, as must be the realm of the senses and the body. But it is always in subordination to the spiritual, and the eternal, and the welfare of your everlasting soul.

Dr. Alan Dan Orme, “The Cloak, the Books, and the Parchments,” 2 Tim. 4:13, 3/9/03

For more of Dr. Orme’s sermons (and some by current blogger Donald T. Williams), go to http://www.theuniversitychurch.org.  To order Dr. Williams’s books, ($15.00 + shipping), go to  https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/.

WHY EVANGELICALS CAN’T WRITE, Part 2

WHY EVANGELICALS CAN’T WRITE,
And How Flannery O’Connor Can Help Us Learn Better

Part 2

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).

What can Evangelical writers learn from Christian writers from liturgical churches, who have done a much better job of pursuing excellence?  What can we learn from them without compromising our own Evangelical convictions?  Those were the questions I raised last week and will try to answer today by looking at Flannery O’Connor.

Miss Flannery
Miss Flannery

THE HILLBILLY THOMIST

Flannery O’Connor, the Georgia writer who died of disseminated lupus in 1964, was a self-styled “hillbilly Thomist” whose two novelettes and small collection of short stories have transcended the local-color cubbyhole into which they were first placed to shock, puzzle, intrigue, and delight a growing body of readers ever since. A devout and loyal Catholic who often had more sympathy with Protestant Fundamentalists than with others in her own tradition, she said that “I am no disbeliever in spiritual purpose and no vague believer. I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy. This means that for me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ and what I see in the world I see in its relation to that” (32). In most of her stories the central character, whether secular or religious, starts off smugly self-sufficient but is given an opportunity to become open to the grace of God which is usually not responded to very well. A master of irony, O’Connor often puts the most profound spiritual insight into the mouth of the character who is by conventional standards the farthest from the kingdom. There are no cheap conversions, but the cumulative effect of her stories for those who understand them is to break down the modern sense of enlightened self-sufficiency and prepare readers to accept their need for grace.

 
Although she often expressed a bemused impatience with the expectations of the average Catholic reader, O’Connor also found in the larger tradition of that church a community that nurtured and supported her artistic vision. She mentions at least three forms of such nurture she found there, only one of which is liable to be present in the typical Evangelical congregation.

Miss Flannery feeding her Peacocks.
Miss Flannery feeding her Peacocks.

A TRUE WORLDVIEW

First, she found a true world view, encapsulated in dogma, that constituted a lens that brings human nature and human significance into piercing clarity. “Dogma,” she said, “is an instrument for penetrating reality” (178). “It is one of the functions of the Church to transmit the prophetic vision that is good for all time, and when the novelist has this as a part of his own vision, he has a powerful extension of sight” (179-80). But it is not enough simply to have been taught the truth. 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” (91). 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” (163). Doctrine is a light to see human experience by, not simply a formula to be dressed up in a fictional disguise.

 
Some Evangelical congregations still do a good job of transmitting the biblical world view and the specifics of Christian doctrine, though too many of them have allowed the edges of that body of material to become inexcusably fuzzy. Perhaps we have not done so well at giving our adherents the confidence to take this body of doctrine and use it creatively as a tool to understand life and experience. But on this point at least we may with some credibility claim not to have been completely “left behind.”

Miss Flannery
Miss Flannery

A THEOLOGY OF ART

The second form of nurture O’Connor felt she had received from the Church was a definition of art that affirmed a spiritual purpose for the artist distinct from that of the propagandist. She quotes Thomas Aquinas as saying that art “is wholly concerned with the good of that which is made.” And she adds, “We are not content to stay within our limitations and make something that is simply a good in and by itself. Now we want to make something that will have some utilitarian value. Yet what is good in itself glorifies God because it reflects God” (171). This is a telling comment. That which reflects God may have an evangelistic effect. But if evangelism must be the primary purpose of everything we write, then a lot of God’s character will remain unreflected–which will, ironically, not help the cause of evangelism. Also, an emphasis on “the good of that which is made” puts theology on record as affirming the value—indeed, the necessity—of the hard work and craftsmanship required for good writing.

 
I have searched the current popular Evangelical systematic theologies–Grudem, Erickson, etc–in vain for a definition of art. For us, it does not seem to be a theological topos. O’Connor complained that too many Catholic writers were too utilitarian in their approach, but at least their theologians thought art a topic worthy of attention. Indeed, Catholic theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar has made it the organizing principle of his systematics, with series entitled The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics and Theo-Drama. So it is not surprising that, with no such emphasis coming from its leaders, the popular Evangelical subculture is even more addicted to pragmatism in its approach, as a brief trip through that oxymoronic commercial institution the “Christian Bookstore” will quickly show. Fiction can only be justified if it has an overt evangelistic purpose; works of visual art must have a scripture verse tacked under them. Perhaps when our theologians become concerned with the good of the thing made, some of our people will too. Until that happens we will continue to be “left behind.”

Miss Flannery's writing desk.
Miss Flannery’s writing desk.

THE SENSE OF MYSTERY

The third form of nourishment O’Connor acknowledged as a gift from the Church was a sense of mystery. Good fiction ultimately probes the mysteries of life: Why are we here? Why do we suffer? What is the good? “It is the business of fiction to embody mystery through manners” (124), O’Connor wrote. Therefore, “The type of mind that can understand good fiction is . . . the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery” (79). In Catholic worship with its sacramental focus, O’Connor found her sense of mystery nourished, and saw such nourishment as a key to the writer’s ability to “penetrate concrete reality”: “The more sacramental his theology, the more encouragement he will get from it to do just that” (163).

 
Does our Evangelical theology of the sacraments preclude us from nurturing our writers in this way? I think it would be shortsighted to answer that question in the affirmative. Metaphor and symbolism are central to the creative process for writers, and they are an important way that we evoke and assimilate mystery. One need not believe in transubstantiation to make the Lord’s Supper more central in worship, nor would a symbolic or metaphorical view of the sacrament render it irrelevant to the lives of artists. But we have too quickly and too often reacted to the abuses of the biblical sacrament in the Mass by relegating the Eucharist to a marginal role in our worship. This cannot be unrelated to the fact that we as a community are too much like the generation O’Connor described “that has been made to feel that the aim of learning is to eliminate mystery” (125). 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 let us 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 be better Christians as well as better writers. Until that happens we will continue to be “left behind.”

Miss Flannery's gravestone.
Miss Flannery’s gravestone.

CONCLUSION

O’Connor can help us make the case that it is not the distinctive emphases of Evangelical theology, but rather a lack of other emphases, equally biblical, that has kept us from being a community good at nurturing the arts. Our failure to encourage people to apply doctrine to the realities of life; our failure to include in our theology the whole counsel of the God who called Bezalel and Oholiab and gifted them as artists; our pragmatism, an uncritical reflection of American culture rather than a biblical mandate; and our mystery-impoverished worship tradition are all simple failures to be what we claim to be, faithful to Scripture. They could be changed without threatening any of the doctrinal emphases that as a movement we have been right about. Until that happens, we will continue to be “left behind.”

WORKS CITED

O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. NY: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1977.
______________________________________________________________________________

Donald T. Willliams (BA, Taylor Universtiy, 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).

InklingsofReality5c

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/.

WHY DOES THIS BLOG EXIST?

Hopefully you are reading this because you have found some value in the “While We’re Paused” blog.  What is that value exactly, and why is it here?  Not an easy question when you consider the diversity of topics and approaches we represent.  But there is an answer and I would like to explore it today.  It starts with the Lantern Hollow Press vision statement, which was refined at our meeting in January.  (Yes, there is a method to our madness!):

“The purpose of Lantern Hollow Press is to foster a renaissance of Christian culture through the publication of quality creative writing and art, and of work in the disciplines that support and help us appreciate them. We seek to become a go-to place for outstanding resources in these areas, especially for the home-school and classical Christian education movements.”

SchoolOfAthens

When we say “renaissance of Christian culture,” the word renaissance has a particular context apart from which our use of it cannot be fully understood.  As I look at the current scene, I see a church in desperate need of three great movements of God:

The Lantern Hollow Press vision statement has Hermione’s attention.

Renaissance:  A recovery of the life of the mind. An increasingly illiterate generation is harder to reach with a faith founded on the message of a Book; an increasingly illiterate church is incapable of experiencing full-orbed Christianity based on the whole counsel of God.  Electronic inundation keeps us perpetually distracted.  From a cultural (rather than a technical) standpoint, we may well be entering a new Dark Ages.  The original rebirth of learning and culture that we call the Renaissance of the Sixteenth Century started with a recovery of interest in reading classical literature in the original languages using grammatico-historical exegesis to recover its original message to its original audience.  God used that movement with its motto of ad fontes, “back to the sources,” to make the Reformation, the recovery of the pristine Gospel of the New Testament, possible.  If history repeats itself, a new Renaissance just might lead to a new . . .

LutherFamily
Martin Luther wishes Lantern Hollow Press had been available to spread his Reformation.

Reformation:  A recovery of sound doctrine.  When the new learning of the Renaissance, the ad fontes tradition, was applied to Scripture, the original documents were enabled to speak again with their own voice.  This led to a recovery of sound doctrine in five areas:  Sola Scriptura, Scripture alone is the only infallible and inerrant authority and final court of appeal; Sola Gratia, salvation is by grace, God’s unmerited favor, alone, apart from works; Sola Fide, salvation is received by the empty hands of faith alone; Solus Christus, Christ alone is the only Mediator between God and men; Soli Deo Gloria, God’s glory alone is the end of salvation and the purpose of all of life.  All these truths are in danger of being lost again.  We therefore need a new Renaissance leading to a new Reformation.   Otherwise, we gorge ourselves on spiritual junk food while the great truths of the faith slip through our fingers.  But if God would grant us Renaissance and Reformation again, they just might lead to . . .

spock leonard nimoy generation 1 star trek
Spock thinks the goals of Lantern Hollow Press are highly logical.

 Revival:  A recovery of vital spirituality. The great error of our generation is to believe that this recovery is possible apart from the first two. Biblically and historically, it is not.  Martin Luther recognized the debt the Reformation owed to the Renaissance:  “Whenever God wants to break forth truth anew out of His Word, he prepares the way by the rise of languages and letters, as if they were John the Baptists.”  And if Christianity is true, then only the faithful preaching of the pure Gospel of the New Testament can give us the genuine spirituality and real Christian lives that Revival is all about.  Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone! Without Renaissance and Reformation, all our zeal for Revival is vanity and striving after wind.  Do not stop praying and working for Revival.  But do start praying and working for the Renaissance and Reformation without which no true revival with lasting impact is possible. 

Reflections-Front Cover-2013-4-29
How does Lantern Hollow pursue this vision?

How do Lantern Hollow Press, its blog, “While We’re Paused,” is ezine, and its books fit into this vision?  Look for more on that topic next week!  In the meanwhile, continue to check out our blog, our ezine, and our store, with products that are already beginning to support these goals. If you believe in what we’re doing and like how we’re doing it, order our products, recommend them to home schoolers and Christian educators, and contact us for speakers. Help us get the word out!

Donald T. Williams, PhD

WHY EVANGELICALS CAN’T WRITE

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.

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 paper in your hand 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 number 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 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, 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.

THE HILLBILLY THOMIST

Flannery O’Connor, the Georgia writer who died of disseminated lupus in 1964, was a self-styled “hillbilly Thomist” whose two novelettes and small collection of short stories have transcended the local-color cubbyhole into which they were first placed to shock, puzzle, intrigue, and delight a growing body of readers ever since.  A devout and loyal Catholic who often had more sympathy with Protestant Fundamentalists than with others in her own tradition, she said that “I am no disbeliever in spiritual purpose and no vague believer.  I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy.  This means that for me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ and what I see in the world I see in its relation to that” (32).  In most of her stories the central character, whether secular or religious, starts off smugly self-sufficient but is given an opportunity to become open to the grace of God which is usually not responded to very well.  A master of irony, O’Connor often puts the most profound spiritual insight into the mouth of the character who is by conventional standards the farthest from the kingdom.  There are no cheap conversions, but the cumulative effect of her stories for those who understand them is to break down the modern sense of enlightened self-sufficiency and prepare readers to accept their need for grace.

Although she often expressed a bemused impatience with the expectations of the average Catholic reader, O’Connor also found in the larger tradition of that church a community that nurtured and supported her artistic vision.  She mentions at least three forms of such nurture she found there, only one of which is liable to be present in the typical Evangelical congregation.

A TRUE WORLDVIEW

First, she found a true world view, encapsulated in dogma, that constituted a lens that brings human nature and human significance into piercing clarity.  “Dogma,” she said, “is an instrument for penetrating reality” (178).  “It is one of the functions of the Church to transmit the prophetic vision that is good for all time, and when the novelist has this as a part of his own vision, he has a powerful extension of sight” (179-80).  But it is not enough simply to have been taught the truth.  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” (91).  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” (163).  Doctrine is a light to see human experience by, not simply a formula to be dressed up in a fictional disguise.

Some Evangelical congregations still do a good job of transmitting the biblical world view and the specifics of Christian doctrine, though too many of them have allowed the edges of that body of material to become inexcusably fuzzy.  Perhaps we have not done so well at giving our adherents the confidence to take this body of doctrine and use it creatively as a tool to understand life and experience.  But on this point at least we may with some credibility claim not to have been completely “left behind.”

A THEOLOGY OF ART

The second form of nurture O’Connor felt she had received from the Church was a definition of art that affirmed a spiritual purpose for the artist distinct from that of the propagandist.  She quotes Thomas Aquinas as saying that art “is wholly concerned with the good of that which is made.”  And she adds, “We are not content to stay within our limitations and make something that is simply a good in and by itself.  Now we want to make something that will have some utilitarian value.  Yet what is good in itself glorifies God because it reflects God” (171).  This is a telling comment.  That which reflects God may have an evangelistic effect.  But if evangelism must be the primary purpose of everything we write, then a lot of God’s character will remain unreflected–which will, ironically, not help the cause of evangelism.  Also, an emphasis on “the good of that which is made” puts theology on record as affirming the value—indeed, the necessity—of the hard work and craftsmanship required for good writing.

I have searched the current popular Evangelical systematic theologies–Grudem, Erickson, etc–in vain for a definition of art.  For us, it does not seem to be a theological topos.  O’Connor complained that too many Catholic writers were too utilitarian in their approach, but at least their theologians thought art a topic worthy of attention.  Indeed, Catholic theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar has made it the organizing principle of his systematics, with series entitled The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics and Theo-Drama.  So it is not surprising that, with no such emphasis coming from its leaders, the popular Evangelical subculture is even more addicted to pragmatism in its approach, as a brief trip through that oxymoronic commercial institution the “Christian Bookstore” will quickly show.  Fiction can only be justified if it has an overt evangelistic purpose; works of visual art must have a scripture verse tacked under them.  Perhaps when our theologians become concerned with the good of the thing made, some of our people will too.  Until that happens we will continue to be “left behind.”

THE SENSE OF MYSTERY

The third form of nourishment O’Connor acknowledged as a gift from the Church was a sense of mystery.  Good fiction ultimately probes the mysteries of life: Why are we here? Why do we suffer?  What is the good?  “It is the business of fiction to embody mystery through manners” (124), O’Connor wrote.  Therefore, “The type of mind that can understand good fiction is . . . the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery” (79).  In Catholic worship with its sacramental focus, O’Connor found her sense of mystery nourished, and saw such nourishment as a key to the writer’s ability to “penetrate concrete reality”:  “The more sacramental his theology, the more encouragement he will get from it to do just that” (163).

Does our Evangelical theology of the sacraments preclude us from nurturing our writers in this way?  I think it would be shortsighted to answer that question in the affirmative.  Metaphor and symbolism are central to the creative process for writers, and they are an important way that we evoke and assimilate mystery.   One need not believe in transubstantiation to make the Lord’s Supper more central in worship, nor would a symbolic or metaphorical view of the sacrament render it irrelevant to the lives of artists.  But we have too quickly and too often reacted to the abuses of the biblical sacrament in the Mass by relegating the Eucharist to a marginal role in our worship.  This cannot be unrelated to the fact that we as a community are too much like the generation O’Connor described “that has been made to feel that the aim of learning is to eliminate mystery” (125).  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 let us 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 be better Christians as well as better writers. Until that happens we will continue to be “left behind.”

CONCLUSION

O’Connor can help us make the case that it is not the distinctive emphases of Evangelical theology, but rather a lack of other emphases, equally biblical, that has kept us from being a community good at nurturing the arts.  Our failure to encourage people to apply doctrine to the realities of life; our failure to include in our theology the whole counsel of the God who called Bezalel and Oholiab and gifted them as artists; our pragmatism, an uncritical reflection of American culture rather than a biblical mandate; and our mystery-impoverished worship tradition are all simple failures to be what we claim to be, faithful to Scripture.  They could be changed without threatening any of the doctrinal emphases that as a movement we have been right about. Until that happens, we will continue to be “left behind.”

WORK CITED

O’Connor, Flannery.  Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose.  Ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald.  NY: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1977.

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Donald T. Williams (BA, Taylor University, M.Div., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, PhD, University of Georgia) is Professor of English and Director of the School of Arts and Sciences at Toccoa Falls College in the Hills of N.E. Georgia.  His most recent books include Mere Humanity: G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien on the Human Condition (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006), Credo: Meditations on the Nicene Creed (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2007), The Devil’s Dictionary of the Christian Faith (Chalice, 2008), Stars Through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2011), and Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lantern Hollow, 2012).

Order Stars through the Clouds ($15.00) or Reflections from Plato’s Cave ($15.00) at https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/.