The Christian Writing Revolution: Challenging CBA

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I’m a firm believer in the power of Google. Want to know what’s on people’s minds? Just Google it.

Today I typed in “writing revolution” just to see what came up. First is a link to an April, 2003 press release where The National Commission on Writing calls for a dramatic increase of time and money to be paid to the teaching of writing in schools across the country, as part of a report“The Neglected R: The Need for a Writing Revolution.” Following that, Don Rothman, director of the Central California Writing Project at UC Santa Cruz, had outlined numerous ways to engage children in the process of learning to write in an opinion article for the Santa Cruz Sentinel. I was encouraged that both of these sources had something to say about the work of bringing up those new, articulate artists who will challenge the assumptions of a complacent nation in creative decline. All good things.

This reminded me of a piece in the Seattle Pacific University magazine, Response, from summer 2004 A Conversation With Dana Gioia, the Christian poet and chairman of the NEA (National Endowment of the Arts, not the Education Administration). In it he says, “There will be no one solution to the issue. The way that we will arrest, or reverse, the decline in reading in America is by attacking the problem at every level of our society…education, public activities and media coverage.”

And just because it serves our conversation, here’s a little more of that interview:

Q: It seems that religious art has become a sort of ghetto all its own, suffering from a loss of quality, integrity and relevance, and lacking the cultural prominence it once had. What needs to happen in order for that to change?

A: One of the most troubling legacies we face at the beginning of the 21st century is the separation between religion and art that occurred during the 20th century. Art became an almost entirely secular enterprise, and worship became increasingly separated from contemporary forms of art. This schism impoverished both art and worship. In art, it left us, by the end of the 20th century, with a shallow nihilism and cynical elitism that typified many artistic communities. In religion, it gave us a legacy of bad architecture, sentimental art and often-inappropriate music.

As a writer, I particularly lament the separation between the religious and the aesthetic. Many of my favorite modern novelists belong to the minority of Catholic authors — writers like Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, James Joyce, Muriel Spark, Anthony Burgess and J.R.R. Tolkien. These writers all created from the highest literary standards, but with the most profound spiritual aspirations. American literature is full of enormous spiritual hungers that are yet to be well satisfied. I deeply admire modern Christian poets like T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden. For writers of faith, reconciling the artistic and the spiritual is the great work of the new century.

Did you get that? The great work of the new century will be reconciling the artistic and the spiritual, i.e. bringing God back to art. Sounds like a revolution taking shape, doesn’t it?

So how will it come about? How will we divert enough resources to rebuild the connections? And can the CBA be a force of change in that establishment? Our culture needs the CBA to expand their offerings to restore some of that great tradition with new, challenging writers. No question. But will it happen?

I think most of us would answer a resounding, “Yes!” And to be fair, most CBA bookstores, distributors, and executives that make up CBA already believe they’re serving in such a capacity. But to be truthful, we know they aren’t, at least not in the face of fundamentalist opposition. We’ve suffered from the absence of books that embrace controversy, that do not compromise on horror and pain to illuminate joy and grace. We’ve all read books with the edges filed down, the darkness made gray, and pat answers prepackaged as “gripping redemption stories.” This is not the food that will fill a starving world. There are some inroads being made and new writers finding cracks in the walls that once kept them out, and this is encouraging and laudable. We need to recognize them and encourage them in the face of the opposition they’re undoubtedly facing.

But what will destroy the wall? What else but an army of bold, equipped workmen, prepared to take on the rejection, the finger-pointing, the tongue-wagging, the rumors of all sorts of evil?

Some have suggested that we need writers to come in from the ABA to CBA, to establish their message in the outside world and then come into the Christian world and blow the doors off. I don’t think that’s a solution. Maybe an example exists (and there are exceptions to everything), but the Christian community who keeps out truthful writing doesn’t typically accept things from “the evil world” no matter how Christian the person claims to be. The whispered dismissals are, “Well, how Christian could he really be…?” That author is labeled. “Compromised.”

No, if the revolution will take hold in CBA, it will have to come from inside, from writers who are committed to changing it slowly, one book at a time. The climate is so ripe for a writer of conviction to challenge the old assumptions and compromises that characterize the CBA. Some say Ted Dekker is a good example of someone doing this. History will tell, I suppose.

Alternative Christian publishing is another possibility. There could be a breakout author to come up through Brook Street or some of the other independent publishers. It could be a self-published writer who catches the attention of a less “straight and narrow” publisher who agrees to take the book on. Or maybe a web ring of like-minded individuals who keeps pounding away at the drum of change until a handful of progressive, established publishers simply can’t ignore the rumbling any longer. That idea has a certain appeal, don’t you think?

This is definitely a place we could look for some contemporary examples. Anyone have any?

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4 thoughts on “The Christian Writing Revolution: Challenging CBA”

  1. Sue Dorman posted a link to your blog over on the Christian Realists list (who seem to have some complementary interests). You can find us here: http://x-real.firinn.org/
    I’ve just finished the first rough draft of my first novel for NaNoWriMo 2004, a frothy little space opera pulp-piece that I called _The Sky Pirate_. In it, Providence is as real as in our world and faith is a given for a significant percentage of the populace.
    Captain Cooper Flynn was orphaned as a young man and spent some unhappy years in an Abbey that was apparently more able to sour him on Religion than interest him in Faith. As a renegade Captain in Her Majesty’s Navy (a misnomer due to the rise of the airships), he realizes the practical need for a ship’s chaplain and “borrows” a Cleric who is more than he appears, a man of strength, wisdom, and a past shrouded in mystery. The idea is to demonstrate the issues of doubt and faith without preaching them. There is a high value placed on sheer entertainment value as well as subtle truth.
    It is too soon to tell if there is anything here worth pursuing, but what you write about is near and dear to my heart, and (with a nod to Randy Stonehill), I would love to see some “angry young men” rise up and embody a fresh, new approach to the integration of God and art.

  2. Mick,
    I think you might need to look for a good church in your area. Either that or a different set of friends. When you make such sweeping statements as “…the Christian community who keeps out truthful writing doesn’t typically accept things from ‘the evil world’ no matter how Christian the person claims to be,” you are not describing anyone I know. I feel sad that your involvement in a group of believers has left you so devoid of truth tellers. Please don’t assume that your experience is a reflection of all churchdom. I assure you, there are Christian communities who welcome truthful writing, who don’t reject a person because of their past involvement in non-Christian organizations or professions.
    Perhaps you are speaking specifically about CBA publishing houses. Is that really “the Christian community”? Maybe I’m being too sensitive about this, but it seems that Christians, and Evangelicals in particular, are getting bloodied and a lot of the punches are being thrown from within.
    Sure, let’s not pretend we who believe in redemption through the atoning work of Jesus Christ have it all together when it comes to all things religious, let alone artistic, social, politicial, personal, etc. We don’t … and we might not even agree that we don’t. Hahah.
    But neither is Christ’s Church doing all things bad. Maybe it’s not so wrong to think carefully before crossing some long-standing lines–and to cross them with care. Or not at all.
    For goodness sake, I’d be happy if CBA would first concentrate on producing well-crafted stories. How bad is it going to be if we don’t improve our quality? Not only will we have hackneyed plots , but the characters will be liberated to limit their vocabulary to four-letter words. Boy, those will be books I can hardly wait to read! (A little sarcasm in that last line–not meant to be biting. Heh heh)

  3. Becky, that statement’s very long subject was,
    “The *particular* group of Christians who keep out truthful writing”
    NOT the Christians who understand grace, and certainly not all Christians.
    And I call myself an editor! I’m sorry.

  4. Mick,
    As I said, I think I’m overly sensitive to the issue–seems I’m reading a lot of “Christians are…” statements lately (none flattering), and I think, who ARE these people?
    Anyway, I appreciate the clarification. (And I’m sure you’re an excellent editor!)

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