I am a Southerner. Lost Causes don’t bother me. We are used to them.
In the short run, I am not very optimistic for our society or for the church. We as a society are trying to maintain our democracy while dismantling its foundation–the self evident truth that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. This project is doomed to failure. Nevertheless, having repudiated the only foundation on which a successful democracy has ever been erected, we presume to teach the rest of the world how to “do” democracy. This is sheer idiocy.
Meanwhile, the conservative church’s only response is senselessly to berate the society for departing from a foundation it no longer remembers ever having had, rather than doing the only sensible thing to address the situation: re-evangelizing it from scratch and teaching it the biblical world view again. At the same time, I see our theological birthright, the hard gains of an Evangelical movement that clawed its way up out of Fundamentalist anti-intellectualism, being squandered for a mess of Post-Modern epistemological pottage, soft nihilism masquerading as humility about truth. Look, if there is no resurrection then Christ is not raised; and if there are no valid metanarratives, then Christianity is not true. The Evangelical movement is exactly where the mainline Protestant denominations were a century ago, losing its message to the Spirit of the Age so slowly and subtly that it doesn’t realize what is happening. Only now, the friends of Truth, remembering how ugly things turned during the old Fundamentalist days, no longer have any stomach for the fight. Oh, yes, the future is bleak indeed.
Fortunately, both History and Theology save me from despair. History tells me that things have looked this bad before, or worse–right after the fall of Rome, at the height of Medieval papal corruption before the Reformation, and at the height of the Endarkenment of the Eighteenth Century before the First Great Awakening came seemingly out of nowhere. And Theology tells me that God is sovereign and doesn’t need favorable cultural situations to accomplish his purpose or preserve His remnant or even initiate a new Reformation leading to a new Awakening. So, thank God, I don’t need optimism. In fact, the need to find optimism based on a Pollyanish view of circumstances through rose colored glasses–which a lot of Christians seem to think it their duty to concoct–is the most pessimistic and depressing thing I know of.
We have no hope in this world. Good! That means we’ve got the Enemy just where we want him. Lift up your heads, for our redemption draweth nigh!
For more writing by Dr. Williams, go to the Lantern Hollow Store and order his books, 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. (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012), and Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012). Order ($15.00 each) at https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/.
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).
“Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the Head, even Christ” (Eph. 4:15, NASB).
Before being a good Christian writer, one first has to be a good Christian. If every Christian is required to speak the truth in love, would Christian writers–those who do the most powerful “speaking”–not have a special obligation to nurture the character that makes this possible? To ask the question is to answer it.
“Speaking the truth in love” is a phrase we have come to parrot all too comfortably. If we truly understood it, we would realize that the Apostle’s exhortation in Eph. 4:15 impales the contemporary church on the horns of a dilemma designed to make its dependence on its own strength and wisdom self-destruct. When we are thus impaled, we have the opportunity to discover how little we understand of either truth or love.
The truth in a fallen world is often harsh and always hostile to human pride. When human beings–even redeemed ones–try in their own wisdom to combine that truth with love, their natural tendency is to blunt the edges and soften the blows of this terrible two-edged Sword. Thus is born theological liberalism and political correctness. But eschewing those betrayals of truth, some of us run the opposite way only to find ourselves not with Christ’s flock but with the cruel Pharisees. Thus is born legalism and self righteousness. In neither case does either truth or love really come through.
History is replete with illustrative examples. They begin at least as early as Job’s friends, with their ham-fisted application to Job’s situation of a very sound theology of the holiness and transcendence of God. Jehovah was not impressed with the theological correctness of their defense of His character because they had not spoken what was right about his servant, Job. I think Martin Luther was right to condemn Muentzer and the Peasant’s Revolt. In fact, early in the controversy he had balanced and sensible things to say to both sides which, if they had been heeded, might have done much good. But the harshness of his attack “Against the Murderous and Plundering Bands of Peasants,” urging the magistrates to “stab, kill, and strangle” as they would a mad dog those who participated, did seem to exceed the bounds of Christian charity. Even allowing for the pejorative debating style of the times, it has left an unfortunate spot on the reputation of that shining hero of the Faith ever since.
We, the American Fundamentalist Movement and its heirs, have provided more than our fair share of such examples. Carl MacIntyre and Bob Jones may have had a point when they argued in the ’50’s that Billy Graham was taking insufficient care to see that his converts ended up in churches that stood without compromise for the Gospel he preached. But instead of a loving critique of a brother, they launched a savage attack on an enemy. The cause of a balanced and biblical approach to ecclesiastical separation and theological integrity has still not recovered from the bad taste that episode left in our collective mouths. Or think of the glib pronouncements that were flying around a decade or two ago that AIDS was God’s judgment on homosexuals. Of course, in a sense, it is; the claim was not simply false. God’s universe is so structured that violations of its moral programming tend to have negative consequences. But what did such pronouncements say to the family of the young lady who got HIV from her dentist? It would seem that Job’s friends are still alive and well.
Perhaps the most instructive recent example is Jerry Falwell’s infamous attribution of the infamous Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to God’s judgment on America’s tolerance of homosexuality, pornography, and abortion. As a factual statement, it may not have been so far wrong as many would like to assume. Frustration with America’s decadence and its use of its media to disseminate what is perceived as moral filth is one of the explicit motivations that lie behind Islamic terrorism. Islamic fundamentalists believe that our iniquity, like that of the Amorites, is full, and that therefore our destruction by Islam, like that of the Amorites by Israel in the Old Testament, is justified. Had Falwell asked us to consider whether we might have given Islamic extremists more than a little excuse for holding this arrogant error, he might have performed a useful service. Instead, all that most people heard was anger, indignation, arrogance, and self righteousness. The apparent absence of compassion in his finger-pointing tone not only hindered and obscured, it buried and even twisted the grains of truth that really were there in his pronouncement.
The problem is not simply an insufficient grasp of either contemporary fact or biblical content (though no doubt there are many who do inadequate homework in both areas). The problem is much deeper. It is our failure to understand that truth is more than factual correctness; it is a Person, the eternal Logos, whose perspectives on those facts are essential to any truth that is whole and wholesome. And love is more than just being nice; it is a willingness to die for one’s enemies that flows, like truth itself, from only one place: that same Person.
As the descendants of the Fundamentalist Movement, Evangelicals continue to wrestle with the legacy of its failures, sometimes distancing ourselves from it to the point that we forget what we owe to it. If only we could avoid its vices without losing its virtues! I’ve tried to summarize the history of our own struggles in the following sonnet:
THE RISE AND FALL OF PROTESTANT FUNDAMENTALISM
“Christ’s Virgin Birth, his Deity, his Cross,
His Word, his Resurrection, his Return:
Could these be given up without the loss
Of Christian faith itself?” was the concern
Of those first known as “Fundamentalist.”
If their descendants’ words have proved uncouth
As if the mind had closed up like a fist,
At least they started caring for the Truth.
It’s one of mankind’s greatest tragedies
Beyond the power of the tongue to tell,
This hardening of mental arteries
Within a movement that began so well.
What they forgot should be like hand in glove:
Truth is not Truth unless we speak in love.
Truth without love is truth distorted; it is ultimately deceptive. And love without truth is love perverted; it is ultimately destructive. This is so even when the truth is factually correct and the love emotionally sincere. Thus are vitiated all merely human attempts either to speak or to serve. Nevertheless, healing speech and true action become possible even for sinful human beings like us when–and only when–we are actively indwelt by the One who is both Logos and Love. Then, speaking the truth in love, we may indeed grow up in all aspects unto Him who is the head, even Christ.
A minister in the Evangelical Free Church of America, Donald T. Williams is a graduate of Taylor University (BA,, 1973), Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (M.Div., 1976) and the University of Georgia (PhD, 1985). He currently serves as R. A. Forrest Scholar and Professor of English at Toccoa Falls College in the hills of NE Georgia.
Check out Dr. Williams’ books at https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/! Stars Through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2011), Reflections on Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lantern Hollow, 2012), and Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd ed. (Lantern Hollow, 2012). Each is $15.00 + shipping.