In this series, I’ve been making a case for excellence in Christian art and literature (you can read parts one, two, and three here.) Now I’d like to consider the question: What does excellence look like in Christian writing?
Excellence includes the quality of the writing: elegance, beauty, effectivenss, clarity, fittingness in the way that we present things. Dana Gioia writes in his must-read essay The Catholic Writer Today that “All writers must master the craft of literature, the possiblities of language, the examples of tradition, and then match that learning with the personal drive for perfection and innovation.”
One element of excellence that is often overlooked is honesty. Too many Christians only want to tell the happy stories and focus on the joyful aspects of Christianity – to get to the Resurrection without the Cross, as it were.
A Christian author could be false, not through bad intentions, but by writing platitudes, or producing a story that does not reflect the world that we live in, oversimplifying, putting things in black and white that really are more complex than that, making stories wrap up too neatly.
To tell the truth, as writers, we have to be willing to look at darkness, and pain, and difficulty. We have to be willing to look at sin. The Gospel is a redemption story. It is a story of God sending His only-begotten Son on a rescue mission to save us. We were in rebellion, and His Son was crucified for us; died a horrible, tortured death for us, and rose again for our salvation. It’s a rescue story, but we must recognize our need to be rescued in order to appreciate the rescue.
We live in a fallen world and we see the evidence of that all around us. Indeed that is one of the most profound arguments for the truth of the Christian story, because we have an explanation of why the world is both beautiful and broken; how we can have moments of joy and experiences of tragedy. No other worldview can satisfactorily account for both of those elements. We can, in the Fall and in the Incarnation.
If we want to present the Gospel in a meaningful way, we need to acknowledge the brokenness of the world. If all we present is the happy ending, without the brokenness that needed the happy ending, we’ve got nothing of value to say to the world.
If we want to tell the story of rescue and redemption, we need to tell stories that show our need for rescue, show our need for redemption, and in a world of hurting people, we need to be able to show that redemption is for everyone. That there is no place so low, no state of weakness too profound, no state of lostness so deep that God cannot find us and rescue us. We can’t really show that if we just stand on the outside and say Happy Jesus Things. We have to be willing to go into the darkness and meet people there and say, our God is a crucified God. He is risen, and bears the marks of the nails in his hands and feet.
I think Christians are sometimes afraid to be honest about pain, because it feels like doub, and they think that doubt is a bad thing. But honest doubt is a different thing than self-seeking, self-serving skepticism that doesn’t want to believe because it’s more convenient. Doubt is part of the human condition, and I’m always deeply comforted by the fact that the disciples had been hanging around Jesus for three years and still said, Lord, increase our faith. If they already had perfect faith, they wouldn’t have needed to ask him to increase it. Or then you have the wonderful prayer of the man whose son is suffering from fits. He says, Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief. And Jesus heals his son.
These are all things that are in Scripture as positive ways to move forward in the faith. Doubt is not the problem. When we acknowledge pain and doubt, it can feel like weakness, as if we’re not strong in our faith. But God is not defined by our strength of faith. Paradoxically, we need to be able to tell God that we’re struggling, and acknowledge our weakness, doubt, and pain. Pain hurts. Knowing that God will bring good out of it doesn’t make it hurt less. It makes it hurt differently, perhaps, but it doesn’t make it hurt less.
Everyone who’s suffered knows this; the question is whether we’re going to be honest about it in our storytelling, in our witness. If a poet or a storyteller tells the truth about the experience of pain, his witness is credible when he speaks about joy. When there are Christians who can speak honestly about suffering in their art, it provides the necessary context for other Christians to speak about hope and love.
This is the paradox about speaking about pain, suffering, loss, fear, and anger, in Christian fiction. If we avoid it, we undercut our own ability to share the truth with people, and if we are honest, we increase our credibility and we increase people’s confidence when we do speak about joy and love and the peace that passes all understanding.
Let me show you two examples.
The first is a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins. A devout Catholic, he suffered from illness and from depression throughout his life. He wrote some very joyful and some extraordinarily dark poems called the Terrible Sonnets. Even while he’s voicing suffering, despair, and frustration, he’s always turning to God. There’s a raw honesty in his poetry that is tremendously refreshing. Hopkins’ poetry was really instrumental in my own coming to faith, and certainly in my growth as a Christian. Hopkins tells it like it is; I could believe him.
Thou Art Indeed Just, Lord
Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end?
Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lust
Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,
Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes
Now, leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them; birds build – but not I build; no, but strain,
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.
This poem is a lament. He’s not able to get any of his poems finished, and he has no problem telling the Lord that he’s frustrated. He isn’t trying to fake a contentment that he isn’t feeling. This poem does not end with comfort. It ends with his plea: “Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.”
The second poem I want to share with you is by a contemporary writer, the Anglican poet Malcolm Guite. He has a marvelous book called Sounding the Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Church Year, from which this poem comes.
Even in the darkness where I sit
And huddle in the midst of misery
I can remember freedom, but forget
That every lock must answer to a key,
That each dark clasp, sharp and intricate,
Must find a counter-clasp and meet its guard,
Particular, exact, and intimate,
The clutch and catch that meshes with its ward,
I cry out for the key I threw away
That turned and overturned with certain touch
And with the lovely lifting of a latch
Opened my darkness to the light of day.
O come again, come quickly, set me free
Cut to the quick to fit, the master key.
“O Clavis” means “O Key.” Here we see the experience of depression articulated in a way that fits into the Christian experience, showing us that this is not something to be afraid of, but something to lift up to God. It is a witness to the healing work of Christ.
Some writers will venture into darkness, telling stories and writing poems that can be very bleak. Now it’s not the whole story, but you can’t tell the whole story in every individual piece of writing. People read different things at different times. It’s the overall picture that really matters. So I would encourage us to think about excellence in writing as a matter of seeking to tell the truth in whatever way you as an author have been called to do. As fellow Christians, we should support and encourage writers, and validate their voices as important parts of conveying the Gospel through the arts.
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.