The Importance of Excellence in Christian Art and Literature (Part 1)
The very fact that I could title an essay in this way sums up the problem that I intend to address here. Who would argue with the importance of excellence in engineering, or medicine? We wouldn’t want bridges and skyscrapers built by people who believed that good intentions are sufficient. We wouldn’t want our doctors and nurses to skip their lengthy training on the theory that their love for their patients combined with natural enthusiasm will bring about satisfactory results. However, the road to the hell of bad novels, bad music, bad movies, bad poetry by Christians is paved with good intentions.
It’s not good enough to love the Lord Jesus and write bad fiction in his name. Or rather, sure – write bad fiction as a beginner, but don’t consider it “good enough”; rather, write bad fiction in the effort of learning to do better, to write more effectively, more powerfully, so that in the end, your Christian vision is embued in a work of real quality.
To begin with, there are some common misconceptions for Christians when they think about writing something. I’ll start with this one: the idea that if you’re going to write something, as a Christian, it is somehow different from writing in general. (I will argue that this is not so. More troublesomely, there’s the idea that if we are to write as Christians, it doesn’t matter if our quality of writing is particularly good—that mediocre work is good, if it presents the Gospel, if it has a good moral message, if it promotes biblical values, and so on. This is a very common idea, and it’s completely wrong. This series will explain why I think these attitudes about writing are wrong and offer some ideas on what I think we ought to do about it.
We must do better than we have done in recent decades; we must strive for excellence, and encourage excellence, in the writing of fiction (and poetry, and drama, and screenplays…) by Christians.
Let me start with a fairly basic question: what is the purpose of Christian fiction? There are a couple of different purposes we could consider. One is to educate people about Jesus and encourage Christians. We might also add the purpose of warning or educating about things we ought not to do.
Another purpose, and one that I think is predominant, is that Christian fiction should draw people to Christ: literature as a way to share the Good News of God in Christ, through some presentation of the Gospel in the story. So far so good.
Another good, but I think often overlooked, purpose for writing, is to give joy and pleasure to the reader. Why not? This is the Kingdom of Heaven we’re talking about. Rejoicing in art and beauty and storytelling is, and ought to be, a purpose in itself, in Christian writing, but one that I think is underappreciated. We see here some of the effects of secular utilitarianism. Too often Christians, well, what is the story good for? Is it presenting the Gospel? Is it doing something? This is just utilitarianism. Why not enjoy something beautiful for itself? If you go outside and look at the flowers and the birds and clouds in the sky, it seems fairly evident that God as Creator has made lots of things that are simply beautiful, but not useful in any particular way. What good is a bluebird? What use is a sunflower? No use whatsoever, but beautiful and part of God’s creation.
This leads me to what I think is the most important purpose for Christian fiction, the one that subsumes all the others, and that is to give glory to God in everything that we do, and that would include writing. To give glory to God in writing is to express the image of God in ourselves. God is the ultimate Creator, of all that is, seen and unseen. He made everything. And He made us in His own image. We are made in the image of the Creator, and so we have an urge to create and a desire to create that is part of the stamp of God upon us, the part of the image of God in our very self. When we create, writing stories and poetry and do art, we are honoring God by expressing our reflection of Him and His nature in ourselves.
Thus, in order to honor God, we need to do good work. God does not do shoddy work and call it good enough. We are not God, so we are not able to create as He creates, but we can certainly honor Him with the intention of aiming towards excellence.
You can read Part 2 of the series here.
Dr. Holly Ordway is the chair of the Department of Apologetics and director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and the author of the memoir Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Finds Faith (revised and expanded second ed. forthcoming 2014, Ignatius Press). Her work focuses on imaginative and literary apologetics, with special attention to C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.