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/.

Preaching to the Choir: We need more of it!

“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.

books bookshelfFor 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.

albion_celtic_cross_420wPerhaps 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.

What We Need: The Challenge of the “Little Books”

Get ready!  This post has absolutely nothing to do with Valentines Day!  And it’s proud of it.

“What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects–with their Christianity latent.”

–C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock

It seems very easy to forget that as Christians we now live in a very different world from the one we have been told by the church to expect.  The fact is that we now live in a post-Christian West.  As writers and as readers, that changes things; we need to be producing Lewis’s “little books” in the way he suggests.

There was a time when Christianity was so ubiquitous in western culture that it was relatively easy thing to write a “good” “Christian” book.  The author’s audience was virtually guaranteed, and there was a strong baseline of understanding to build upon.  Most people–even those who were profoundly unChristian–had an idea of what Christianity was and many of them even agreed that it was right (they just chose to live in defiance of it).  It has been a very long time since that was the case, though many in the American church have continued on, blissfully unaware of a change that happened in their grandparents’ time.

As authors, engaging the cultural norm from its own perspective is one thing.  In fact, it’s the easy thing to do, when everyone already agrees that you’re right and that saying certain things are, by cultural default, “good” and “profound” before they even pick up your book.  That is not a luxury Christians have any more as authors in the West.  Now, Christianity is just one more product on the philosophical shelf.  In fact, it now faces an uphill battle, since increasingly people are being taught early that “faith” in general is optional (or even silly) and Christianity in particular is a waste of time at best.  As authors, Christians can’t presume to have any more privileges with a larger audience.

That means many things for our writing, but I’ll mention three points today.

First, our writing must speak naturally of our faith and show that it simply makes sense when applied to life and reality.  This is what Lewis meant when he said that the Christianity in the “little books” should be “latent.”  That doesn’t mean “hidden”, it simply means that the Christian thought must be inherent to them, not the particular point of them.  It’s the difference between reading Peretti (I’m thinking This Present Darkness in particular) and Tolkien.  Tolkien’s story is just as inherently Christian as Peretti’s, but it is something that flows through Tolkien’s thought from the ground up.  It doesn’t need to be advertised or proven to the reader.  As such, people absorb it without even thinking about it, and it changes the way they think about the world around them.

Second, our writing must be uniquely Christian.  While we should engage the world and reach out to it, we can’t spend our time following it around like lost puppies, seeking inclusion and approval.  It isn’t good enough to take whatever the world did five years ago or that our secular professors taught us in college and put a Christian “spin” on it.  What we write must be consistent, powerful, and original creative thought based upon a genuine Biblical worldview.  If not, then we’ve accomplished nothing of lasting importance, from a spiritual standpoint.

Finally, it must be good writing.  It has been said that, “If it’s Christian, it ought to be better.”  It’s all well and good to say it, but we must go beyond slogans and make it a reality.  The days are long past where we could just write something that someone labeled “Christian” and expect that the culture will think it automatically profound.  That means taking our craft seriously and intentionally studying the masters of it, whoever they are, wherever they are.  It means actually holding each other to a higher standard (in love of course), and pushing each other to become better.  That must be true of Christians as individuals (what I expect of myself) and as a subculture (what we expect of each other and present to the world as representative of us).

Do you want to make a difference in this world?  Then start on your own “little book”–or blog, youtube channel, website, animation, documentary, movie, etc.  Whatever form your ideas may take or whatever forum they may flow through, begin it with these three points in mind.  You never know what “little book” will touch the world in a big way.

Next Week–Preaching to the Choir…..

A Question of Palates: The Christian as Author Part VII

Color Palette Clip ArtA comment I made last week sparked a thought that I believe might be worth pursuing a little further on its own.  I don’t know if this is the point I’ve been meandering toward since July or not! I’ve noticed a significant similarity between Christians as authors and their secular counterparts.  I think it might also explain some of the cognitive dissonance some of my readers have been experiencing with the idea of a writer who is uniquely Christian without also being stereotypical or evangelistic.

While I do think that this can be pressed too far, in short, as authors we all essentially construct our narratives from the palates of our accumulated life experience.  The difference is that a Christian author has, in theory, a unique set of impressive colors on his/her palate that come from a unique worldview.  These are, for a serious believer, their prime colors, and in theory form the basis for understanding everything else on their palate.  Therefore, it is almost inevitable that they will show through in their finished product in some way.

Put simply, imagination rarely (perhaps never) exists entirely on it own.  This is especially true of an imagination expansive enough to construct entirely new worlds.  Each author is a mix of distinctive life experiences and reading, and these experiences–first hand (in the case of the former) or vicariously (in the case of the latter)–form the “stuff” of their creative primordial soup.  In the case of J. R. R. Tolkien, for instance, it was the massive amount of European myth, legend, and language he had absorbed.  For C. S. Lewis, it was a much broader collection of mythology and lore from many different traditions.  Pieces of J. K. Rowling’s life are evident throughout the Potter series, from something as simple as a Ford Anglia to something as profound as her statements on truth and love. In each case, ideas combined with the catalyst of each person’s imaginative personality to create worlds, characters, and stories that were at the same time derivative and completely original.  The very same can be said of any author, and students of that author can usually tell you what his/her particular influences are.

So, in that sense, there isn’t a drastic difference in method from Christians to non-Christians.  Christians aren’t given one fictional “rubric” (I hate that word…) while non-Christians work from another.  The singular “stuff” from which a Christian begins will affect the result of their work, if they truly believe it strongly enough to give it a prominent place on their palates, but, to a notable extent, all authors start from the same place–themselves.

That said, I also think that we as a society have a tendency to arbitrarily partition off that part of ourselves, and to pretend that we should prevent certain influences from showing through in our finished product.  Secular authors specifically avoid certain “religious” themes because they are expected to do so, even if those themes are a part of their larger experience.  Christians who are concerned with their secular reception will often self-segregate; they will either only paint in certain colors that they know only a certain audience will appreciate or they will intentionally shut themselves off from that portion of their experience that they, in theory, believe gives meaning and color to the rest.

And that, I find, both unfair and counterproductive.  As Christians, we should seek to express ourselves using our whole palate–take up all  of the colors we’ve been granted by our experience.

Does that make us unique?  Certainly.  But I don’t think we have any business being ashamed of that fact.

Next Week:  A break from the series–Defending Lewis on the Fall of Susan Pevensie….

Other Posts in the Christian as Author Series

  1. The Cesspool Of Christian Fiction
  2. What?  Me Christian?
  3. A Holistic Approach
  4. “Good Fiction” or “Good Christian Fiction?”
  5. Of Christian Authors and Christian Pizza Makers
  6. What does it look like?
  7. Tolkien and the Rebellion of Melkor
  8. Marketing or Pigeonholing?
  9. C. S. Lewis and the Basis of Narnia

https://lanternhollow.files.wordpress.com/2011/02/newrule5.gif?w=239&h=27&h=27

An old mansion lies forgotten, tucked away in the North Georgia mountains.  Within are portals to other places and times.

When fourteen-year-old Megan O’Reily is sent to live with her inscrutable “uncle” Warner at Waverly Hall for an entire year, she stumbles upon a world devastated by plague and kept under the brutal control of an maniacal dictator. When she cannot return to earth, Meg is forced to make some difficult decisions. Who and what she encounters on her journey will mark her forever and may lead to the freedom of an entire race.

Available from AmazonKindle, and Smashwords right now.

“With captivating detail, in-depth characters, and an intense, magical plot, Melton’s first book in the Waverly Hall series packs a serious punch! …keeps you enthralled until the end, waiting impatiently for the next book.”

~M.B. Weston, radio host and author of the Elysian Chronicles

“Brian Melton’s book is based on one of the most gripping fantasy concepts I’ve encountered in the last several years. Combine the mystery of Lewis’s Wood Between the Worlds with the allure of your grandfather’s attic and the aura of a grand old country mansion, add some characters as compelling as the setting, stir in cleverly disguised (and sometimes not disguised at all!) allusions to the canon of Western literature – oh! and the actual adventure hasn’t even started yet. You can’t wait until it does.”

~Donald T. Williams, author of Stars Through the Clouds and Mere Humanity

The Christian as Author Exemplified: C. S. Lewis and the Basis of the Chronicles of Narnia

“And then Aslan came bounding in…”

Today, I would like to take a brief look at a particular method used by C. S. Lewis.  Many people still look at The Chronicles of Narnia and presume that Lewis is simply making a strong allegory for Christianity and the story of Christ.  This seems especially obvious in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, where Aslan allows himself to be sacrificed on the Stone Table in Edmund’s place, and, in doing so, saves Narnia.  In reality, there is much more to Narnia than that, and if we understand Lewis’s approach, it can open new doors to us as authors.

By “allegory” most of us mean that a tale is symbolic–it takes another story (usually of a spiritual sort) and tells it in another context by using specific characters, events, and trends in the story to represent specific characters, events, and trends from somewhere else.  Allegories are often used in a surreptitious attempt to get ideas a hearing in a context where they would normally be denied.  The general idea, though, is that the author of an allegory teaches us deeper meaning by using substitutes that disarm our prejudices and presuppositions.

Unfortunately, while allegories are fine taken in moderation, the modern Christian mind tends think no more deeply.  That is one reason why our literary productivity is so scant and our reading so narrow.   We generally use this one very specific method applied to this one very specific set of stories, and we repeat ourselves over and over and over.  Many of us then measure how “Christian” a piece of fiction is based on nothing more than how closely it conforms to that specific method and result.  It is, therefore, no wonder many people get tired of Christian literature quickly–we’re saying the same thing in essentially the same way and have been for decades now, if not centuries.

That The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe appears allegorical on the face of it is therefore convenient.  Many Christians read it (the first in the published set) and it passes muster for their shelf based upon the presumption that it is an allegory and, therefore, Christian.  I wonder:  How popular it would have been had the Magician’s Nephew come first, where the “allegories” aren’t so “obvious”?  By the time we get to The Silver Chair, for example, we’re having to dig pretty deeply for allegorical interpretations.[1]

In reality, Narnia is speculative in nature, rather than allegorical.  Lewis is taking what he knows of Christ and religion, and he is setting up a “what if?” scenario:  What if a world like Narnia really existed?  What might God’s interactions with that place look like?  In the words of Lewis himself:

If Aslan represented the immaterial Deity, he would be an allegorical figure. In reality however he is an invention giving an imaginary answer to the question, “What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?” This is not allegory at all. So in Perelandra. This also works out a supposition . . . Allegory and such supposals differ because they mix the real and the unreal in different ways.[2]

Herein lies, I think, one of the key differences between the Christians who write poor-to-average fiction, and those that do it really well.  The best of Christians as authors are not limited to allegory, but neither do they simply ignore their worldview and the very rich, historic/philosophical context that it gives them.  They (and we) should use that context as a palate, pulling from its brilliant and varied colors to paint intricate, engaging, and beautiful tapestries.  The result can be exhilarating, inspiring, or even frightening, but done well they can teach us important truths without ever dipping to allegory or sacrificing the good of the story.

After all, God saw fit to put very few limits on our imaginations.  We need not artificially add any ourselves!

Next Week:  A significant similarity between authors of Christian and non-Christian extraction….

[1] Many fall down when looking for allegory, but few return to the sunlit lands!  🙂

[2] The “Thinklings” have a good, short discussion of this topic too, and from it I copy/pasted the quote, rather than having to type it all in myself!  http://thinklings.org/posts/why-narnia-is-not-allegory

Other Posts in the Christian as Author Series

  1. The Cesspool Of Christian Fiction
  2. What?  Me Christian?
  3. A Holistic Approach
  4. “Good Fiction” or “Good Christian Fiction?”
  5. Of Christian Authors and Christian Pizza Makers
  6. What does it look like?
  7. Tolkien and the Rebellion of Melkor
  8. Marketing or Pigeonholing?