The Christian Writing Revolution: Moral artists

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‘”Right and wrong did not much interest him, but good and evil did. … Orwell remarked that [Graham] Greene seemed to share the idea, ”which has been floating around since Baudelaire, that there is something rather distinguĂ© in being damned.”’

What could possibly be distinguished about being damned?

This little speculation by Orwell forms the title for the cover story in this week’s New York Times Sunday Book Review on “Damned Old Graham Greene.” Seems Greene was a bit of a lech, which leaves those of us who would follow his writing example with a troubling age-old question. Does the creative’s personal life necessarily elevate or devalue the creation? Can someone be a wonderful artist and unregenerate?

Of course the answer is Yes, but you can’t even ask this question in most Evangelical churches, let alone suggest you consider art or writing to be empirically amoral in nature. I’ve heard some say they won’t read Lewis because he drank and smoked a pipe! But there are also those on the other side who think Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails is a genuine artist illuminating some of the most pertinent modern themes being discussed today. I am one of them.

But Graham Greene was like so many poignant artists who regularly committed deadly sins. What are we to do with them? This is a much bigger discussion than we have room for here, but I guess if we’re all sinners saved by grace, we should extend the net a bit wider to include dudes like Greene. God’s the judge, not us.

But equally important is the question: Can an artist be Christian and be a wonderful artist? T.S. Eliot became a Christian and lost much of the former power his words had. But then there’s Flannery O’Connor who apparently had no problem with it. Annie Dillard’s found a way to make it work. We tread a thin line as Christian writers, attempting to be relevant to the world’s evil, while holding up the truth of redemption. Yancey answers the question, “How do I keep from doubting and sinning when writing about doubt and sin?” with “How should I know?” (Writing as a Psychotic Act) There are also shades of this discussion over at the Image Journal forum where a reader has asked, “Should art do anything?” Should we be juding artist’s and their art’s value by the souls it saves?

Bringing it all together: as Christians our words must point to the deeper reality. Our art is our evangelism. But we also know that isn’t practically true or possible. True art must be clear of any hidden motive or message. Art is truth and truth IS amoral. Truth simply is.

The Christian writing revolution is calling for someone to solve this central impossibility. To have lasting impact, we must write what is true by being honest about the darkness and the light, while living in such a way that we understand the “struggles which are common to man.” The cardinal sin would be to let the clarity of our art be compromised by too much religion and inbred, Evangelical thinking.

And that’s yet another reason for strong community in this writing thing…

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3 thoughts on “The Christian Writing Revolution: Moral artists”

  1. There’s just one point on which I would demur: our art isn’t our evangelism — our evangelism is our evangelism. One of the hang-ups evangelicals have is that we can’t accept the idea of having our own art. So it has to be justified as something else, like evangelism or apologetics. In the same way that seeing musical entertainment as “ministry” leads Christian music into all sorts of false dilemmas, seeing Christian writing or sculpture or painting as another means by which we can do evangelism will have the same effect.
    I realize we don’t disagree on this, but just had to get in my two cents. :)

  2. I should have said this in my first comment, but I want to add something about Graham Greene, too. He certainly wouldn’t have won any holiness competitions, but his life informed his work as a novelist dealing with Christian (or more specifically, Catholic) themes. He knew what he was talking about. And I’m not sure Orwell is right about Greene’s interest in damnation. His characters don’t have a very well developed sense of God’s grace and forgiveness, but they are damned because their actions matter, not because being damned has panache.

  3. “True art must be clear of any hidden motive or message.”
    Maybe I’m misunderstanding what you mean by this statement, but don’t you think ALL art is informed by the motives (known and hidden) and worldview of the artist? I’m pretty sure I write with a pack of unidentified motives crouching in the shadows all the time.
    I don’t think of art as evangelism, but I do think it glorifies God in much the same way as the heavens declare his glory and the mountains and hills break forth into shouts of joy. Excellent art preaches truth through its excellence. No sermon required. I guess that’s what you meant by not compromising the art with “too much religion and inbred, Evangelical thinking.” If we spray paint “Jesus loves you” on a magnificent cliff face, we mar God’s subtle yet more powerful message.
    As for judging art based on the spiritual condition of the artist, I don’t see the point. Do we judge a flower based on the condition of the soil? On the contrary, if a flower blooms in the cracks of a city sidewalk, we marvel all the more at the power of beauty to prevail where it is least expected. God speaks when and where and how He pleases. I don’t want to be the one to tell Him He can’t use a particular tool.
    Good thoughts, Mick. Thanks for making me think.