Toward a Definition of Christian Literature

Sharing is nice

Chroniccandy Many of you have asked for it, but I’m still waiting on that “wilderness” speech from Wangerin. If I’m lucky, maybe I’ll get a book out of it, but in the meantime, let me share what I felt was the most powerful aspect (there are interesting correlations here to Eugene Peterson’s speech, “What Are Writers Good For?”): writers call words from the wilderness, ascribing meaning and definition to the world, just as God did in the beginning. There is a direct lineage from that first Word that spoke everything into existence and the first man who was told to name everything. The Word is God. Everything you create is a holy act.

Does that not influence your taste for candy books?

To continue from last time, I believe that as long as our books support separation from the world, we will have nothing like the sort of literature Flannery O’Connor believed in. There is no place for it currently in CBA. Donna Kehoe, director of the Christy awards, has shared the profound idea that the word “Christian” was never intended to be a modifier. And O’Connor believed this so much that she wrote fiction as an incarnational art, trying to provide a direct experience of intrusive grace.

Now I’m not calling for worshiping books or worshiping the holy act of writing them. But this idea of art incarnate, of word become flesh, is an important one. CBA resembles the great Christian culture that has severed the gospel from its intended function of redeption and made it vague and weak through a sanitized, unrealistic creation. Without the truth of the reality God saves us from, there is no glory. Ted Dekker has said that without using the black brush, the white doesn’t stand out as starkly. Cut out the raw and ugly, and grace and redemption are tamed, manageable, moldable into whatever unobtrusive shape we please.

The symbols and metaphors of our stories are not mere clay to be molded—we are the clay. We are molded by the words as we struggle to pin them down, and we’ve forgotten this in our self-first mentality. Authors are merely the turnstile for the wondrous truths passing through. Why are the experiences of our classic literature no longer available? We need to recast an artistic vision that’s compatible with the urgings in scripture to “do all to the glory of God.” Rather than dismissing the instruction, we need books that make it their duty to call us back to it. I believe this is the only way to create “words of art” that become vessels of grace and mercy.

Of course, many disagree. I don’t think we need to make books any longer or shorter, smarter or dumber, commercial or literary. There’s a middle ground I’m pushing for. This middle ground is in pushing for books that respond to the paradoxes of humanity and the world, the books I feel CBA has forgotten by separating from those things.

Too many of our books teach separation. It’s time to reconnect.

In our arts, our churches, our entire philosophy as Christains “in the world but not of it,” we need revolution. There are too few places in modern culture Christians haven’t pulled away. Raised to be separatists—“set apart”—we’ve followed this to other conclusions. We now accept the functions of spirit as separate from the physical. We accept people taking the gospel out of the world. We even do it ourselves. We don’t think of reality as symbols of something greater. Symbols are separate from reality. These divisions reduce our efforts, try to extract the paradoxes, tame the mysteries, and make authentic experiences of grace less available. As Walter Wangerin said, good writers call meaning from the void, create something tangible out of the wilderness. But if the tangible world is too fallen, too evil, too scary for Christians, we can’t see the beauty God created us to enjoy, let alone create something beautiful in response to it.

This spirit of division has permeated more aspects of our faith than we know. The expression of our faith is seen in all parts of our lives, so this is a very real, very destructive problem. The main divisions I’m seeing do the most damage to our books:

  • The artificial division between spiritual and physical.
  • The artificial divison between Christian culture and North American culture.
  • The artificial division between sacred and secular.
  • The artificial division between entertainment and edification.

This last one is where I’ve spent the most time on this blog. I carry the quote before me, “Those who make a distinction between entertainment and education don’t know the first thing about either.” Entertainment educates. Education edifies. Edification inspires and that experience, when seen through a Christian lens, can be worship.

So what entertainment is worshipful? Can I praise God by reading People magazine? Reading about Nick and Jessica should be fine, right?

I’ll let someone else make that case. For us, I think we need to seek unity of those two goals.

These divisions become judgments, rules defining our popular Christian aesthetic. For all the lip service paid to the power of story and the “master storyteller’s” use of it in teaching truth, there is still very little of it actually being used. Truth is reality, but Christian books prefer to create their own reality. Why do we divide entertainment from teaching if Jesus didn’t? His stories were both, just as by nature, all stories are both. There is no perfect balance of entertainment to instruction in a story since it is always, all of it, both. It may be lesser degrees of both at any given time, but they always go together in quality writing. In fact, that’s my definition of quality writing. Making instruction entertaining.

There’s one division I do think is a holy sanction. It’s buried in this post, if you were paying attention…

Sharing is nice

12 thoughts on “Toward a Definition of Christian Literature”

  1. Mick wrote: “CBA resembles the great Christian culture that has severed the gospel from its intended function of redemption and made it vague and weak through a sanitized, unrealistic creation. Without the truth of the reality God saves us from, there is no glory. Cut out the raw and ugly, and grace and redemption are tamed, manageable, moldable into whatever unobtrusive shape we please.”
    Suzan: Beautifully said, Mick. I am concerned about the current state of (American) Christianity in general, and how our artistic endeavors are a reflection of this. Can the “CBA culture” attempt changes while the church remains static? Should the changes begin in hearts and minds standing in the pulpit, so that congregations are filled with REAL TRUTH each week? Wouldn’t that inspire us to write and read stories filled with “True Truth?” Of course individuals should never abdicate personal responsibility for their spiritual walk, but many blow with the prevailing wind of what their pastor is preaching, or the new, hot teaching in their church. Deep theological bible study is not so entertaining, and too time consuming to most. Too many hard truths to think about, and it takes too much time to ponder the mysterious things. It’s not fashionable to teach the hard truths of God anymore. And somehow the depraved heart and sin have become hard truths in a lot of churches. (Which leaves me scratching my head and mumbling, “Don’t talk about sin? Then why do we need redemption? Or a Savior?”)
    The cynic in me thinks that perhaps the time has passed for beautifully written novels that entertain AND educate AND edify AND inspire, like some of the classics written from a Christian worldview.
    Has our current culture (Christian and non) moved into, and planted themselves firmly in, an era where entertainment gratification is their first, or indeed their only choice?
    Will someone (CAN someone) ever write another “Les Miserables,” or “Crime and Punishment?” Would anyone read it?
    Are we so politically-Christianly correct that all we care about is offending? Have the blinders been so firmly placed that we can’t remove them, or indeed don’t want to? Have we lost the desire and/or the ability to dig deep, ponder, and envision mysterious, profound truths on the page?
    Sorry if all this sounds cynical, but I come from a long line of cynical, opinionated people.
    What keeps coming to mind is that line from LOTR, “The time of the Elves have passed.”

  2. Forgot this LOTR quote: “It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end… because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing… this shadow. Even darkness must pass.”-SAM, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

  3. Mick: “Everything you create is a holy act.”
    Y’know, that terrifies me–worse than that but I can’t think of a word sufficient enough to describe the feeling. Perhaps the best explanation is this sentence in Hebrews: It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
    Or in Philippinas: continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.
    How frightening it is for me to call out to this God who spins the universe and knows how many hairs are on my head. After all I’ve done and said and for all that I continue to do and say, all that ugliness, and yet he scoops me in his arms and I breathe His air and He is content to trust me again.
    I wouldn’t even trust me, how can He?
    I have nothing to offer Him but a bunch of broken pieces of a life I tried to command. I can offer Him my mistakes. The drunken nights, the sexual impurities, the revenge-seeking days, the depression laden nights. I can give him the hate and pride in my heart. What kind of offerings are these? Yet, he takes them and wraps them in His glory and dips them in His grace. He breathes His breath into them and then they are new. And good.
    My brain can’t do it. Can’t process this kind of mercy. All I can do is write it down and hand it to Him. He makes it new.

  4. You quoted: “the word “Christian” was never intended to be a modifier.”
    Amen.
    Powerful post, one that I will read several times. Something inside me jumps up and down. My fingers flutter at the keyboard, ready to write.
    The biggest question with which I have struggled regarding CBA: are we just hiding again in our own little world?
    Are we?
    Like you, I question these dichotomies. We like our categories. It makes things easier. I can listen to that. It’s Christian music by a Christian band played on a Christian radio station that touts that it is “safe for the whole family.” Nevermind that the theology in said song undermines ancient creeds.
    In truth, our Christianity looks more like Plato’s world. That’s the spiritual. This, well, this is just physical entrappings. Escape the cave!
    It looks more like Enlightenment categories, where they carefully set “church music” and “secular music” in different camps.

  5. Do you really, really mean that… that there’s no place for literature like O’Connor’s in CBA?
    If so, then CBA is missing out on a real niche market… there are those of us who love art and disturbance and thoughts that catch our breath… and, we are the ones who love to read and buy books, too.

  6. Someone can and will write another Les Miserables and/or Crime and Punishment, but they won’t be published because they exceed the norm for word count. And publsihers have told us NO ONE wants to read a long book in our world today.
    Suzan’s frustrations are palpable and real. There are a lot of people who are comfortable and satisfied with whatever they hear from their local pulpit, or worse what the television dictates to them, and with whatever the current best-selling non-fiction Christian book recites.
    As a writer who believes any writer who is dedicated to improving their craft and is writing from a Christian worldview should have a voice in Christian fiction, it seems the key word is going to have to be the overused and much simplified one of “balance”.
    Solomon said, “There is nothing new under the sun.” That includes everything. Uniqueness is required to express solid, unchanging truths, but Truth does not change. Nor does sin–there aren’t “new” sins. Only the same old ones spawned from pride, greed, lust, younameit. However, the scope of Truth and the magnitude of sin envelop every human soul, reluctant unbelievers and devoted believers alike.
    As a writer who is a Christian, I feel like within the human condition there is the opportunity for great stories that need to be told in diverse ways.
    I am learning the hard way that restricted subjectivity and perceived reader preferences, which I’m not so sure are accurate, are the bane for certain Christian writers (yes, moi!).
    Once again I conclude I must write the stories the Spirit gives to me, and pray that God will use them to make a difference in His world.

  7. A few thoughts:
    1. Someone should take away Ted Dekker’s black brush. Most of the world is not so black and white. Too often, Dekker’s villains are beyond vile and border on caricatures of evil (his Roth Braun character in Obsessed, for instance). How that helps us Christians navigate the nuances of good and evil is beyond me. This compulsion to draw ridiculously stark lines between good and evil doesn’t help our fiction at all. I suspect the greatest step we authors could make toward genuine Christian lit would be to make our good and evil more complex.
    2. Mick, I think you’re making too much of the divisions you mention. I’m not reading contemporary works by Christian authors that suffer from these divisions to the extent you discuss. The entertainment/education division may have some validity, though. Most of the Christian fiction I read winds up being heavier on the entertainment than the education, no matter how the authors attempts balance. Sadly, when the education comes, it’s usually trumpeted so loudly it might as well just be printed in boldface. We need to get better at delivering our message without beating our audience over the head with it.
    3. “In the world, but not of it”–we love the chant, but we fundamentally don’t believe it. Shift gears into the art world. Any artist will tell you that drawing the human form is the hardest thing to do. Our brains are wired to automatically critique what is human and what is not–a higher standard is called for. So the artists who draw the best representations of people learn the human body through figure studies. Yes, drawing naked bodies. But in the Scriptures, we’re told we should not expose the nakedness of others. Now a divide forms. If we say we must redeem the arts, too, then Christians should be the best figure artists out there. That necessitates looking at naked people. That also necessitates that we have nude models to use for our art. If I ask how many of us would gladly allow our college-aged Christian daughter or son to pose naked for a figure studies class, how many hands would I get? See, we can talk, talk, talk about this, but no one wants to actually go through it, standing firm amid the ramifications. We simply don’t know what “in the world, but not of it” means in our Western culture. And no one, artist, author, philosopher, theologian, or preacher, can tell us. Nor do we find anyone so bold as to live on the center line within that divide. Those who try wind up rejected by those on either side of the divide–and that’s everyone when you get right down to it.

  8. “I suspect the greatest step we authors could make toward genuine Christian lit would be to make our good and evil more complex.” Excellent point because when any of us are confronted with our own particular brand of temptation–just how easy is it to turn from it? Depending on our circumstances, it can be very complex in spite of knowing that Christ has provided a way out. It’s far easier to say the other guy should do this or that.
    “We need to get better at delivering our message without beating our audience over the head with it.” Valid point. I think it requires the author to be true to the story/characters. Sometimes the trumpeter is necessary, but many times subtlety works better.
    As far as art goes, don’t know that the analogy works for me simply because some of what is considered the best art in this world does not portray human figures accurately.
    There’s a fine line between extending grace and being an enabler for sinfulness. I wish it could be more distinct at times.
    One thing I see as absolute is when genuine conversion comes, change accompanies it. It may not come quickly, but true conversion produces a love for Jesus and with that comes a desire to obey Him. Yes, we struggle, fall, fail, succeed, triumph, backslide, crawl back, and multiple other experiences, but when Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey my commandments.” ya gotta believe He meant it. How that plays out exactly in our lives is food or fodder for Christian novels.

  9. “Dan, what if my daughters just wear really tight clothes?”
    Ah, Mick, that most certainly would cause problems, too. You and I both know that godly women only wear formless, long-sleeved, oxford-cloth blouses, denim skirts down to the ankle, and a pair of white Keds.
    And guys, watch that hair down past the shoulders. No earrings, either.
    But seriously…
    The issue I raised has its counterparts in writing. How low can we write our lowest characters without dragging ourselves down with them? Many people believe that artists (including writers) exist to interpret the world to other people. If that’s true, then no topic should be off limits to the artist.
    But what of the Christian artist? For that matter, what of any profession Christians enter? Many professions will run into problems with the letter of the law. Can I be a Christian prizefighter? Should a male Christian be an OB/GYN? What has freedom in Christ actually bought us, and how does that translate into how we work?
    It seems to me that any literature we Christians write today will, by necessity, dwell in the divide. Unfortunately, I suspect that books written from the divide will not sell in Christian circles because I don’t think we have enough of a handle on being “in the world, but not of it” to be satisfied with what living at the divide can tell us.

  10. Mick, *you* wrote: “There is a direct lineage from that first Word that spoke everything into existence and the first man who was told to name everything. The Word is God. Everything you create is a holy act.” What is wrong with wanting to be filled with the Word, the Holy Spirit? It may sound too supernatural, too simplistic. It’s also a command. We can discuss to our heart’s content, but that’s the bottom line: be filled with the source of all creativity.

  11. Mick, as always your post has been informative and inspiring, and it also makes me question my own writing and whether or not I am worshiping.
    I really don’t think that God wants us to ignore that which is evil in the world. For some reason, it brings to mind that passage about putting on the armor of God. Why put on armor if we’re just going to ignore the battle? There is a power in naming evil for what it is. It shouldn’t be something that we’re afraid to face, or to explore (kinda like scouting enemy territory). I think that Christian writers especially should show evil for what it is. I think the seperatism is just a fantasy, anyway, since so many Christians have dealt with evil like child molestors, murderers, rapists, etc. I think that the censorship tactics ruthlessly utilized by the CBA are wrong. The Bible itself is painfully real, having instances of mass murders of small children, torture, pre- and extra-marital sex, etc. Why does the CBA always gloss over stuff?
    And… what’s wrong with a guy being an OB/GYN?

Discuss...