Monday, October 1, 2007

Evangelicals can't write fiction?

For Chris and Mom--who want to know what I'm musing about...

English Professor Donald T. Williams is troubled by the lack of bono fide evangelicals recognized as serious fiction writers. He rightly points out that famous modern Christian authors G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, T. S. Eliot, Graham Greene, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, Walker Percy, and Flannery O’Connor, are from liturgical, not evangelical, traditions. According to him, this literary poverty within evangelicalism results from:
Our failure to encourage our 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; and our pragmatism, an uncritical reflection of American culture rather than a biblical mandate, with our mystery-impoverished worship tradition are all simple failures to be what we claim to be, faithful to Scripture.
He urges evangelical churches to cultivate writers in the same way the Roman Catholic Church nurtured Flannery O’Connor––by providing a comprehensive worldview to its members, encourage fiction writing as a vocational calling, and provide a sense of mystery in its theology. I have no disagreement with Prof. Williams’ call for evangelicals to teach worldview, encourage writing as a vocational calling, and even emphasize our “abasement before a transcendent deity.”

But I disagree with his diagnosis of the problem. I’m unconvinced that evangelicalism is deficit in notable fiction writers. And, even if it is, I am unconvinced the deficit results primarily from a failure to encourage fiction writing as a vocation and a lack of artistic imagination that needs to be enhanced through worldview instruction and theological “mystery.”

First, I question the assertion that there are no recognized fiction writers who are evangelical. The fact that none come to mind could result from the fact that evangelical writers operate under a veil of anonymity. Identifying their religious commitments may jeopardize their chance to get signed by major publishers. Publishing companies are no less political or secular than any other business, and evangelicals are the bane, not the darling, of mainstream America. “Evangelical” connotes the secularist’s bogymen: television evangelists, the Scopes Trial, Jerry Fallwell, and the Christian Coalition. Christians from liturgical traditions are innocuous by comparison.

In the same vein, the literary elites who decide what fiction is “good” (mostly academics and journalists) also dislike evangelicals, providing yet another reason for evangelical writers to keep quiet about their religious commitments.

Still another reason we may not be able to identify evangelical fiction writers is because they haven’t matured yet. Think about it. The evangelism movement grew in the second half of the 20th century. Most literary figures are recognized in their old age, not in their youth. Indeed, five of the eight recognized liturgical Christian writers on Prof. William’s list died before 1965, explaining why we know of them. Contrasting those older, liturgical authors to an alleged present dearth of Evangelical writers hardly seems accurate.

Second, even if there are no recognized evangelical fiction authors, I question placing a lot of blame for it on evangelical churches not encouraging fiction as a vocational calling. Again, I hold cultural elites more responsible for marginalizing evangelical writers than churches for discouraging the profession. In fact, cultural elites probably depress some evangelical writers before the writers even submit their first manuscripts to publishers. The colleges and universities that train writers and essentially provide them with a salary to write full-time are very hostile to evangelicals. Rejected by their professors and excluded from the mentoring or resources necessary to pursue fiction writing, evangelical writers have little choice but to give it up, especially if they wish to marry and provide for a family. At best, they are left exercising their talent as a "Hidden Art" for the benefit of family and close friends.

Finally, I resist Prof. Williams’ implied assertion that evangelical Christians shirk fiction-craft because they lack artistic imagination; his account does not explain why evangelical Christians excel in other artistic pursuits such as music, and why they write good prose in abundance. Evangelicals must avoid fiction writing for some reason other than lack of artistic talent.

I propose that the evangelical aversion to writing fiction––if it exists at all––may be the result of a faith that values truth over the ambiguity of myth and the appeal of beauty. I use the term “myth” not to denote lie or falsehood but to denote fiction as the only way to express certain trainscendent truth intelligibly. For the evangelical, Creation-Fall-Redemption is best understood by reading the Scriptures, not stories that allude to it. For the evangelical, the hope of the Gospel is in its validity, not in its beauty, though it be beautiful. For the evangelical, writing about The Story is more fulfilling than writing stories that hint around about it. After all, even an atheist, upon accurate observation of the creational order and human nature, can produce fiction alive with truth. Thus, it is not surprising that the evangelical would trade quality fiction for deft prose about the God who loved her and saved her from death.


ornery's wife of Miller Manor said...

Wow. That was so well said! Are you going to send it to Prof. Williams? :-)

Christine said...

I appreciated the scope and depth of your comments, lots of stuff I'd never thought of previously. Indeed, judging evangelicals by the quality of their fiction is like saying an Olympic swimmer is not valid because he doesn't high dive! What category does John Bunyan fit in, for his (fictional) Pilgrim's Progress was the sole companion to the Bible in many a home! When I think of the great minds who've written explaining the glorious Gospel, men like Luther, Calvin, John Owen, Spurgeon, J. Edwards, O. Chambers, M.Lloyd-Jones, F. Schaeffer, and currently J. Piper, they did (do) not have inclination to take precious time out to write fiction! Saying they should write fiction would be like telling Michaelangelo he should have illustrated children's books instead of carving the David! But perhaps none of those names fit in the category of evangelical and Janette Oke and Tim LaHaye types are the only sort that qualify as true evangelical fiction, which certainly is inferior to Lewis and Tolkien. Thanks for giving lucid words to your thoughts!