21 October 2013

Guest Post: "How Shall We Then Write?"

How Should We Then Write?
Guest Post by J. Aleksandr Wootton

We can make people (often) attend to the Christian point of view for half an hour or so; but the moment they have gone away from our lecture or laid down our article, they are plunged back into a world where the opposite position is taken for granted.
As long as that situation exists, widespread success is simply impossible.

We must attack the enemy's line of communication. What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects – with their Christianity 'latent'.”

C.S. Lewis, Christian Apologetics (essay collected in God in the Dock)

In college I had an ethics professor who taught that the foremost task of religious persons is to relate that religion to every aspect of their lives.

Imagine someone's life captured in a series of Venn diagrams: Each circle would represent a different activity or worldview: “work,” “political outlook,” “gym,” “book club,” and so on.

Because the diagrams are made at different points over the course of this person's life, the labels on the circles and their relative positions and degree of overlap vary from diagram to diagram. When arranged chronologically, the circle labeled “religion” first appears on the periphery and barely touches any other circle.

However, as we move forward in time through the diagrams, the “religion” circle moves (we hope!) gradually towards the middle, and as it moves, it also grows to encompass every other circle. As time gets on, religion should come to centrally dominate this person's life and expand to its furthest edges, eventually providing the context that informs and explains everything else about them.

Including what and how they write.

In 2 Peter 3, the writer asks us to consider, in light of the revealed truth of God's Word, what sort of people we ought to be. Francis Schaeffer famously paraphrased the question as How Should We Then Live?

I propose to consider a much smaller piece of that question: How should we then write?

1. With Subtlety

From the opening quote it should be apparent that I do NOT believe that Christians should only write Christian books [i.e. books about Christianity; books meant primarily for Christian audiences]. Just the opposite.

Later in that same essay Lewis asks us to imagine how startling and potentially life-changing it would be to read a physics or biology textbook which inferred, in its conclusions and suppositions, that Hinduism were true.

It is not the books written in direct defense of Materialism that make the modern man a materialist,” he writes. “It is the materialist assumptions in all the other books.”
Although these remarks were a digression from the main argument of the Christian Apologetics address delivered in 1945, Lewis would soon follow his own advice with The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, published in 1950.

Lewis famously wrote that George MacDonald's fairytales had “baptized his imagination” as a child, laying the foundation for his lifelong love of mythology and for his eventual acceptance of J.R.R. Tolkien's argument that Christianity is the True Myth. In The Chronicles of Narnia Lewis successfully replicated that experience for perhaps thousands of children around the world.

The Narnian allegories are an excellent example of a Christian fairytale. They are subtle enough that even atheists don't worry much about “exposing” children to them, delightful enough to engage those children, and deep enough that readers who return to them later in life glean theological insight during nostalgic enjoyment of great stories well-told.

2. With Discernment

I also do not contend that Christian writing must be saccharine or “squeaky-clean.” I oppose – and, as a reader, do not enjoy – gratuitous violence, sexuality, and crude language in all fiction; quite apart from any moral objection, they make for poor storytelling.

But those who argue from Philippians 4:8 that such things “have no place” in Christian art rely on a simplistic reading of that verse and on ignorance of biblical context. In the original Hebrew, the Old Testament does not shy away from recording earthy “taboo” language when those words appropriately describe the situation. The Prophets unblushingly use near-pornographic hyperbole to call out the idolatry of God's people.

(It's not until later translations that scribes apparently begin to feel a misguided need to protect God's reputation or people by watering down His Word.)

Concerning these things we are called to be both wise and innocent, not delicate and willfully ignorant.

As writers, we must exercise discernment in our portrayals of sin and evil and the moral confusion of fallen people.

As readers, we must exercise discernment regarding the media we consume and recommend, regardless of the author's religious claims.

The Church has received considerable spiritual nourishment from certain pagan authors (Plato is an obvious example). Meanwhile, some Christians are presented with significant stumbling blocks by certain popular Christian authors I could name.

There is no simple, clear, hard-and-fast rule for this. Neither is there no rule at all. “All things are permissible,” Paul writes, “but not all things are profitable.”

Writers and readers should be guided by what is profitable, rather than by what is permissible.

3. With Excellence

Quid frugiferens est? What is profitable?

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn declared in his Nobel lecture that

The convincingness of a true work of art is completely irrefutable and forces even an opposing heart to surrender.”

He argues that although Relativism has cast considerable doubt on direct claims to Truth and Goodness, Beauty, through art, retains the power to transcend cultural barriers and awaken and provoke humanity towards universal community. Art transmits truth capable of bypassing our cynical intellects to penetrate our spirits directly.

(I urge you to read the full lecture, it's absolutely beautiful.)

We Christian novelists must aspire to literary masters like Solzhenitsyn and Lewis and their peers; anything less is a disservice to our gift, craft, and heritage, not to mention our readers.

(Aspire, by the way, does not mean idly wish for or daydream about; it means to “seek ambitiously”, literally to pursue someone so closely that you “breath upon” them or “pant after” them. As a deer in the wilderness aspires for flowing streams, so my soul aspires for God.)

After twenty years as a committed Communist activist, Douglas Hyde became uneasy about the disconnect between ideology and action manifest in the Soviet Union. In March 1948, he resigned his position as editor of the London Daily Worker, renounced the Communist Party, and converted to Catholicism.

He later wrote Dedication and Leadership, an analysis of the Communist Party's methods and effectiveness in spreading its message, intending that their tactics be put to use for worthier causes – specifically, Christian evangelism. One of the primary tactics he identifies is the mantra that Communists should strive to be the best at their jobs.

In any profession,” Hyde writes, “you will be respected if you are good at your job – not because you are good at talking about your beliefs. It may be quite irrational, but the fact is that, if you are recognized as being outstanding on one thing, you will be listened to on all sorts of subjects in no way related to it... and so, if you are going to be really effective [for your cause] in your place of work, you must set out to be the best man at your job.”

I suppose there is no need for me to repeat any of the Bible's various exhortations to Christian excellence; they are favorite passages for “Christians in the workplace” sermons. But perhaps the why of it tends to slip from our memories?

Conclusion: True Art

We should not try to boost generic “Christian involvement” in media and the arts, as if any quality of Christian-themed art will have a positive impact on anybody.

We should not suppress boredom or distaste from a misplaced sense of loyalty (although it might be appropriate to do so for other reasons).

We should not support or recommend poor and unworthy art simply because the artists happen to be Christian. It is good they are Christian, but that doesn't automatically make them good artists. All art is craft, and any craft must be learned and practiced and developed.

Tolkien observed, in his Andrew Lang lecture On Fairy-Stories, “We make in our measure and in our derivative mode because we are made: not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”

When God looks at what He makes, He says “it is very good.”

In our measure and in our derivative mode, we should be able to say that too.

Only then are we truly imaging our Maker in what we have made.

Only that kind of art does what Solzhenitsyn describes – uses Beauty to communicate Truth Immutable, Morality Universal, and Spirituality Irresistible.

True art, then, must be our ambition and our creed. In aspiring after creative excellence as we relate the Christian faith to our writing, we reveal the refracted Light of the world.

Sehnsucht-forged, our art shall “pierce like swords or burn like cold iron.”

Our works will become islands of joy.

Writing as J. Aleksandr Wootton, Jason M. Smith is the author of the Fayborn novels Her Unwelcome Inheritance, The Eighth Square, and A First or Final Mischief (forthcoming), as well as a poetry collection, Forgetting, due out next month. He can be contacted at

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