The Importance of Excellence in Christian Art and Literature (Part 2)
In the first post in this series, I suggested that we consider writing as a way to honor God as Creator. Now let’s consider the way in which we can use literature to present the Gospel. How can we use storytelling, poetry, drama to help people to know Christ?
These two purposes intersect with each other. Let’s consider a passage from an essay by C.S. Lewis called “Sometimes Fairy Stories Say Best What’s to Be Said.” It’s most notable because it has the passage in it about getting past watchful dragons, but I want to pick up with an earlier passage in that essay that sometimes people skip over:
The sixteenth century when everyone was saying poets (by which they meant all imaginative writers) ought ‘to please and instruct’, Tasso made a valuable distinction. He said that the poet, as poet was concerned solely with pleasing. But then every poet was also a man and a citizen; in that capacity he ought to, and would wish to, make his work edifying as well as pleasing. Now I do not want to stick very close to the renaissance ideas of ‘pleasing’ and ‘instructing’. Before I could accept either term it might need so much redefining that what was left of it at the end would not be worth retaining. All I want to use is the distinction between the author as author and the author as man, citizen, or Christian. What this comes to for me is that there are usually two reasons for writing an imaginative work, which may be called Author’s reason and the Man’s. If only one of these is present, then, so far as I am concerned, the book will not be written. If the first is lacking, it can’t; if the second is lacking, it shouldn’t.
Lewis reflects here on two different urges in the writer. The author as author, who has a story, has an impulse or an image that fills him with the desire to write. He has a story to tell. Lewis goes on to say that what he calls the Man’s point of view or the Christian’s point of view requires considering whether the Author’s story is worth doing. Is it trivial and frivolous, perhaps unedifying? Is it good, not just in the literary but in all senses good?
Now I want to go back to that key line: “If only one of these is present, either the Author’s or the Man’s perspective, then so far as I’m concerned, the book will not be written. If the first, that is, the Author’s reason, is lacking, then it can’t. But if the second is lacking, then it shouldn’t.” Lewis is arguing that if you have a great story as Author, but as Man you realize you do not have a good reason to write it, then as a Christian you should not spend your time doing it; you shouldn’t write that book. I think most Christians have no problem with that.
Lewis’s other point, though, is that the Man might have a good idea – a truth about Christianity, a good moral message – but if there’s no imaginative depth to it, no Author’s reason to write, then he says the book can’t be written. There is simply no story there.
Now, unfortunately, I think Lewis was not quite right. Those books actually can be written, and unfortunately there’re far too many of them in Christian fiction sections of bookstores and being self-published and sold on the Internet. They’re just really bad books.
These are the books that have a good Christian reason, but no good Author’s reason. They have a moral; they have Bible verses and exhortations to know Christ; and they’re just not very good stories. Unfortunately, these are possible to write. I would argue very strongly that these kinds of stories that have good intentions, but not good craftsmanship, should not see the light of day. They should be first drafts, test runs, the way that a serious writer learns his or her craft. To foist on the public a book (or poem, or story) that has only the Man’s reason and none of the Author’s reason for existing is not giving glory to God.
I know already that by saying that, I’ve probably upset a few readers. So let me unpack that a little bit.
Storytelling is more complex than many people think. Christians can get a little bit too hung up on the end result: for instance, thinking, “This is a badly written story with flat characters and a boring plot, but it does have a Gospel message in it. At least if someone reads this, they’ll be exposed to the Gospel.” First of all, how can you expect your reader to even finish your book, if it’s not a really engaging story? The ordinary reader has total liberty to put down a badly written story and never pick it up again. But let’s say this person is putting up with you.
If you shove a Bible verse or a message or a moral into a story that’s not particularly well done, you create a disconnect between content and presentation. The God whom we are trying to tell people about is the God of all Creation, who made everything, including galaxies, the phenomenal complexity of the human body, sunsets, and people falling in love. If we point to the awesomeness of God in a lackluster way, there’s a disconnect between our message and the way that we’re presenting it.
People notice this. It’s the same as if you’d know a person. Take, as an example, someone who professes to be a Christian, who has a foul temper, is very proud, is perhaps very greedy and envious and acts like a real jerk. Perhaps he acts like a self-righteous jerk, which is worse than being a garden-variety jerk. We can even give credit for good intentions. Maybe this is someone who is genuinely trying to repent, but it’s a work in progress and right now he is not doing so well. Now let’s say that this person spouts Bible verses left and right. It’s not going to be a great witness to Christianity if this person acts like a total jerk to you and then says, “Jesus loves you!” In fact, it will probably have the opposite effect. Why would anyone want to be like this person?
The way that something is presented will have an impact on the credibility of the message. If we want our presentation of the beauty and awesomeness of God to be credible, we ought to present it in a way that’s consonant with the truth that we’re trying to convey.
We can see that most powerfully if we skip back a couple hundred years and look at the cultural productions of Christian artists in the Middle Ages through the Renaissance. Look at cathedrals or any church from the seventeenth century or before. Beautiful architecture, stained glass, illuminated manuscripts. Look at the carvings on pews. Listen to the music of Bach or Handel. Listen to the hymns of St Thomas Aquinas. This is true excellence, and it is a witness to God who is the source of all beauty. This is not to say that there is no good Christian art after the Renaissance (there certainly is) but after the Enlightenment and the Reformation, it becomes less and less consistently good.
We have lost the cultural expectation of a consistently good Christian body of art: beautiful, challenging, and engaging art, literature, song, drama that is accessible for all Christians, not just high-culture ones, but also the ordinary person in the pew. With that loss has come a great loss of opportunity for witness. A return to excellence in Christian art will help us regain a powerful form of witness for Christ.
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 (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.