As this blog post appears, I will have just gotten back from a week at Snow Wolf Lodge near Pagosa Springs, Colorado, teaching about the place of literature and literary study in the Christian world view and the Christian life for Summit Ministries. Literature? In most treatments of the Christian world view the subject of literature never even comes up. If I am successful in this post, you will realize that this omission is a serious problem.
Christians believe that the only way we can know God is that He has revealed Himself. He has done so in nature, for “the heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth His handiwork” (Ps. 19:1). He has done so in history, by calling into existence the nation of Israel, redeeming it from slavery in Egypt in the Exodus, and preserving it as a nation. Supremely He has done so by sending His Son into the world. The miraculous birth, sinless life, authoritative teaching, atoning death, and glorious resurrection of Christ show us who God is more profoundly and more clearly than anything else.
There yet remains a problem. Nature is fallen. As such it still shows us God’s power and His intelligence, but it no longer reflects His majesty perfectly. History by itself contains no rubrics to point out the core redemptive history of Israel as being special or significant. Christ is no longer with us in the flesh. Therefore, nature, history, and Christ need to be presented to us in a way that reports, points to, and interprets their revelatory significance reliably and authoritatively. The provision for this need is a book, the Bible. It is the lens that brings the rest of revelation into focus, the Rosetta Stone that interprets it for us and renders it intelligible. Our access to revelation therefore depends on our ability to read in such a way that we can receive the ancient message, let it speak to us for what it is, and humbly and obediently hear in the Text the Voice of the Spirit who inspired it.
So faithful reading is required if we are profitably to receive God’s revelation and know Him. “How do we do that?” becomes a critical question. Part of the answer is to realize that the Bible is made out of literature. It is not (mostly) systematic theology. It has some (Romans, Ephesians), but it is mostly history, poetry, prophecy, parable. The theological message is fleshed out most basically on the skeleton of a Story—the story of our creation, fall, redemption, and restoration through Christ. So if you don’t know how poetry works, if you don’t know how stories work, you will be handicapped in receiving God’s revelation of Himself. You will be handicapped in knowing Him, enjoying His salvation, and following His will for your life.
In other words, Theology is the Queen of the Sciences, and Philology is her Handmaid. I said Philology, not Philosophy. Philosophy is a Handmaid too, but Philology is the Head of the Handmaid staff. Note the difference in spelling. Philology is the love (phileo) of words (logoi), the loving study of language and literature. Any version of the Christian world view that leaves literature out of account leaves its disciples hamstrung in trying to understand anything else it wants to teach them. I spent a week on this with my Summit students, and we were just getting started.
I’ve written a whole book on this topic: Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd ed. (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012). To order it, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/.
I’ve been asked to put together a brochure that would briefly explain who I am and what I have to offer as a speaker as well as a writer. A couple of weeks ago I blogged here about the three great movements of God I see as desperately needed today: Renaissance, Reformation, and Revival. That was as good a summary of what I am about as anything I could offer. So, based on it, here is some material for that brochure:
Renaissance: The restoration of the life of the mind;
Reformation: The restoration of sound doctrine;
Revival: The restoration of vital Christian spirituality.
Donald T. Williams, PhD
Pastor, Professor, Writer, Speaker, Apologist
“Renaissance—a restoration of the life of the mind; Reformation—a restoration of sound doctrine; Revival—a restoration of vital Christian spirituality. These are the three great movements of God we desperately need in our generation. And our great mistake is to believe that you can have the last one without the first two.” — Donald T. Williams
Donald T. Williams, PhD, is one of the foremost apologists and Christian thinkers you may not have heard of. What makes him unique? He is a border dweller, camped out on the border between fields of theology and literature, the border between pastoral ministry and serious scholarship, and the border between this world, Narnia, and Middle Earth.
Pastor, professor, and poet, theologian, apologist, and cultural critic, Williams is R. A. Forrest Scholar at Toccoa Falls College in the hills of NE Georgia. He also serves as Scholar in Residence for Summit Ministries and has served as a pastoral trainer for rural pastors in places like Uganda, Kenya, and India for Church Planting International. He is the president of the International Society of Christian Apologetics. Williams is the author of nine books, including Mere Humanity: G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and Jr. R. R. Tolkien on the Human Condition (Nashville: Broadman, 2006), Inklings of Reality: Essays Toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012), 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 (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012). His articles appear frequently in popular magazines such as Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity and Christian Research Journal as well as various scholarly journals. He is also one of the featured “talking heads” in the popular recent apologetics video “Mining for God” (www.miningforgod.com).
Williams speaks frequently for churches, colleges, Christian schools, home school groups, campus ministries, and other ministries. Popular topics include “The Theology of Tolkien’s Middle Earth,” “Why We Lost the Culture War, and How to Make a Comeback,” “Worldviews in Literature,” “The Problem of Evil,” “True Truth: Why We Need to Remember Francis Schaeffer,” and “The Validity of Lewis’s ‘Trilemma.’” His preaching is expository, in the tradition of men like D. Marty Lloyd-Jones.
*To book Dr. Williams for your church, school, or group, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.*
I have the honor to serve this year as president of the International Society of Christian Apologetics (ISCA). Our annual meeting is going to be very accessible to many in the Southeast, at Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, NC, Fri-Sat., April 10-11. The theme is “Inerrancy and Evangelical Identity.” How essential is a full view of biblical authority to who we are as Evangelicals? It is a doctrine that is under renewed assault, even from within what purports to be Evangelicalism.
We are going to have a stellar line-up of plenary speakers to address such an important topic.
First we have as a one-two punch two giants from the Southern Baptist Convention, Richard Land and Paige Patterson, who will talk about the struggle for inerrancy in that denomination and what we can learn from it for the struggles ongoing in other Evangelical churches and organizations. Nobody has had more personal experience with such things than these two. Land will talk about the history of the struggle for inerrancy in the SBC, and Patterson will focus on the practical lessons to be learned from it. This will be balanced by rising star Sarah Geis, Doug Groothuis’s protégé at Denver Seminary, who will speak on making the case for inerrancy, not so much to the church as to the world. Their titles are as follows:
Paige Patterson, “The Consequences of Revolution: The Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention: A Case Study” (To learn more about Paige Patterson, go to http://www.paigepatterson.info/. )
Then I will do a presidential address on “Discerning the Times: Why We Lost the Culture War and How to Make a Comeback,” in which I will address the related area of how subjectivist hermeneutics undermines biblical authority and our ability to apply it to the world around us.
I think this is a great opportunity that many of us should take advantage of. Registration is available at
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).
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.
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.”
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.”
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).
From June 6-17, 2014, I traveled to Bhawanipatna, Kalahandi, Odisha, India, for Church Planting International. I was there to teach a seminar on Hermeneutics to thirty evangelists and church-planting pastors associated with Reformed Gospel Fellowship of India. I arrived in Bhuhaneshwar, the regional capital, on Saturday evening, June 7. Sunday, June 8, I preached to a house church in Bhubaneshwar and then traveled thirteen hours by train to Bhawanipatna, where the seminar began Monday morning. I taught six hours a day Monday through Saturday in a very intensive course. Then on Sunday, June 15, we concluded with a joint worship service with the local house church and the thirty students, where I preached on the Lucan Great Commission. Then began the long trek home: thirteen hours by train, and then three planes and four airports over two days to get back to Atlanta on the 17th.
Kalahandi is the western portion of the Indian state of Odisha. It is a place where the Gospel has not penetrated very deeply, and the few Christians there have been known to experience persecution at the hands of militant Hindus. Reformed Gospel Fellowship is led by Rev. Kartik Pal (M.Div.), who teaches at the Protestant seminary in Bhubaneshwar and travels to Kalahandi when school is not in session for evangelism. My students were former students of his and others he has recruited to do evangelism and plant churches across that region. Most of them have a good high-school education but lack formal training in theology and ministry. They can’t go to Bible School, so I take a little Bible School to them.
As they are gathering small flocks of believers and starting house churches with them and thus finding themselves in the role of pastors as well as Evangelists, they are finding the need for more training particularly critical. So I addressed Hermeneutics (how soundly to interpret the Scriptures) from the standpoint of how it practically relates to Theology (how we understand the Scriptures’ teaching) and Homiletics (the craft of sermon construction). My experience doing this kind of work with rural pastors in Africa tells me that with men like this who are on the front lines of spiritual warfare, a little sound teaching goes a long way. They know their need and they are ready and eager to take what you give them and “put it on the ground.”
So we talked about some basic principles of Hermeneutics. We saw the importance of context—immediate context, canonical context, linguistic context, historical context, etc. Context is from two Latin words meaning “with” (con) and “text” (textus). So context is what comes “with” the text, or what the text comes with. Every text comes with the words that are before and after it (immediate context), with a position in the canon of Scripture (canonical context), with a historical setting and an original audience (historical context), with a particular language with its grammar, etc. (linguistic context).To the extent that we ignore these things we are not reading the text as it was written to be read. To the extent that we read in the light of them, we can recover the original meaning, the meaning the text would have had for the audience to whom it was actually written. Everything flows from that. Any personal meaning or contemporary application we derive from the text must be compatible with its original meaning, or it has to be rejected as spurious.
Then we moved on to principles such as the Analogia Fidei (Analogy of Faith): No passage of Scripture should ever be interpreted in such a way as to make it contradict another passage of Scripture. We saw that there is safety in numbers: No doctrine should ever be based on only one text, but rather on the themes that resonate throughout the biblical text. And I hit two critical motifs that are often neglected in academic discussions of Hermeneutics. First is Paul’s teaching on the practicality of Scripture: All of it is profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, etc. (1 Tim. 3:16); the goal of our teaching it is love, not fruitless discussion (1 Tim. 1:5-6); therefore, any interpretation that is merely speculative or ends only in wrangling about words (1 Tim. 6:4) is by that very fact to be rejected as, at least, incomplete. We know there is something wrong with it! Second, I stressed the Christocentric nature of the biblical text: Christ is the key to all. As Martin Luther said, “The whole Scripture is about Christ only, everywhere.” The Old Testament prepares for His coming and predicts it; the New Testament narrates it and explains and applies it. Therefore we must always ask, “How does this passage teach us to love Jesus, to trust him, to glorify his Name, to proclaim his Gospel, to advance his Kingdom, to edify his Church, or to please him by doing his Will?” If you can consistently answer those questions for your people in your teaching and exemplify those answers in your life, I told the men, you will be a good reader and teacher of Scripture and a good servant of our Lord Jesus Christ.
All of this was supported by many examples of texts to which these principles apply, texts often supplied by the students themselves in their questions. Then we shifted more into workshop mode, with the students themselves constructing potential sermon outlines out of Ephesians guided by my Socratic questions: What would you choose as your preaching portion? Why? Maybe you should ignore the verse divisions and pick a portion that starts with a capital letter and ends with a period! OK, what is the main idea of this passage? What points would you derive in support of it? What applications would you make of it? And, bottom line, how do the principles of interpretation we’ve been learning enable the Text itself to give you the answers to these questions? Pay attention to the process, I stressed. I am not here to give you answers so much as to give you a process, a methodology that can let you find answers yourself after I am gone, with confidence that you can question the text yourself and know when it is answering you and when you are just reading your own ideas into it instead. (Yes, I know what you’re thinking: There are a lot of American preachers who could use this kind of instruction!)
My heartfelt thanks to those who gave and those who prayed to make this trip possible. Rev. Kartik and the men in the class particularly asked me to thank you for them. They want you to know that they are anxious to get home and start applying what they have learned. May God grant them to do so, for the glory of his exalted Son. Amen.
Donald T. Williams, PhD
Check out Dr. Williams’ books in the Lantern Hollow E-Store!