Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Can Evangelicals Write Good Literature?

Donald T. William's article "Writers Cramped," argues, among other things, that the writing of good Christian literature requires a liturgical sensibility. With only one possible exception, Williams argues, all great modern Christian literature has been written by non-evangelicals. The only possible exception he cites is Walter Wangerin, a Lutheran. And even here, he points out, you have someone from a liturgical tradition.

I don't think, however, that Wangerin is even in the same class as Flannery O'Connor or Graham Greene, which leaves us with no protestants at all except C. S. Lewis, who was also from another liturgical tradition: Anglicanism.

Williams seems concerned primarily with fiction, of course, although he includes writers noted at least as much for their nonfiction prose: Chesterton and Lewis being primary among them. Although some of Chesterton's fiction could lay a claim to greatness (particularly The Man Who Was Thursday), I'm not sure Lewis's fiction could quite equal the others on William's list. Lewis traded primarily in allegory, the closest thing in fiction to non-fiction. And, in fact, much of what Lewis said in his fiction could have been said better in the form of the essay.

Williams may indeed be right that there are no modern evangelicals who can claim literary greatness. I suspect he is. But I have a protestant to throw into the mix--one who does not come from a liturgical tradition, although it would be flirting with credulity to call him an evangelical.

Wendell Berry.

Berry's book Jayber Crowe, for example, would, I think, have to be classed as a work of Christian fiction. And, as a writer of Christian fiction, I don't see how you could exclude him from a list of Christian writers. I suppose someone might object that he is not a very orthodox Christian. I am willing to concede that point, at leas for purposes of argument. He is, officially, a Baptist, and attends, occasionally I am told, a moderate (or liberal, depending on who gets to label it) Baptist Church. He is, however, a member in good standing of a Christian denomination, and much of his writing deals in Christian themes (his environmental writing is certainly solidly planted in Genesis, for example).

The argument that he would have to be excluded would basically have to boil down to saying that, while he may be a Christian, he is not a very good one. Well, let' say that is true. Graham Greene could not be called a good Catholic, could he? Yet he would make anyone's list of great modern Christian writers. In fact, someone, somewhere, has asked the question, "Why is the best Catholic literature written by the worst Catholics?"

No. I will stand with Berry here as something of a counter-example to William's thesis that all great Christian writers come from liturgical religious traditions, although I do think his thesis is, generally speaking, a very good one.


David Charlton said...


As I began to read your post, Wendell's name immediately sprang to mind, so I think you are right in what you say.

I would add, however, that the image of Wendell as someone who attends church only occasionally is not correct. Many people believe, quite erroneously, that Wendell never or only rarely attends church. Actually, you will find Wendell in his church about every Sunday, with the exception being, I guess, when he is out of town.

I certainly would not claim to speak for Wendell, but I think he has his struggles with the institutional church (don't we all) but that does not keep him from attending.

Also, I can't let pass the characterization of his church as "moderate (or liberal, depending on who gets to label)." I'm not saying you are using those words in a pejorative way, although many do, but that usage of the words does strike me as though the words "moderate" or "liberal" are theological four letter words. The church Wendell attends does ordain women as deacons (as does mine, I might add) and has some affiliations with groups that are considered, for lack of a better term "moderate." I don't think, though, that most of the people at that church really think of themselves in terms of such labels and are actually very typical of many Americans - a mix of viewpoints and actually falling somewhere in that vast middle ground.

Martin Cothran said...


Thanks for the correctives. You certainly know this better than me. And by the way, I was not using the "moderate to liberal" designation pejoratively. I was actually trying to be as charitable as I could, and trying to use terms most people would recognize--however ill-fitting they may be.

And I think you identified the key theme in his relation to the church: "anti-institutional". I have a theory about this. I think his experience at Millersburg Military Academy was formative in his thinking about institutions. I was talking with him one day and he described a scene at Millersburg that was right out of Jayber Crowe--when Jayber was looking out of the window in the library at the orphanage--and he didn't even realize it. I realized then that his experience at Millersburg was essentially what Jayber Crowe experienced at the orphanage. Just as it set Jayber against institutions, so Millersburg seems to have done the same for Wendell.

At least, that is my theory.

And it is interesting what you say about his church attendance. I was told by someone that he spends a lot of Sundays walking on his farm meditating on more Sabbath poems, and that's what I was basing my comments on. But you are far closer to the situation than I am.

Thanks for the post.

Anonymous said...

Martin, I always enjoy your take on the culture, particularly arts and religion. I would like to add another perspective in the context of the interesting observation that the best writers are the worst Catholics. If by "good" Catholic we mean one who attends Mass weekly, receives the Sacraments, says a daily Rosary and acts in love and charity, there surely is a lot to be said for that. But a "good" Catholic, and perhaps more typical, is one who struggles daily with profound sin, yet ultimately places one’s sad state of affairs at the foot of the Cross, however grudgingly, bitterly, and hesitantly.

A pertinent example is author Graham Greene, whose life, in the vein of St. Paul’s lamentation, was one long “want to do” rather than “ought to do.” But his "ought to do" never died.

In his monumental work, Power and the Glory, Greene juxtaposes his “whiskey Priest” against the “good” Priest.

In spite (or better, because of) his temptations with booze, women, and bitterness toward his “flock,” the Whiskey Priest steadfastly, though grudgingly and with displeasure, continues administering the Sacraments as he runs from the Communists in Mexico. He is ultimately shot against the wall and martyred, his faith and trust in God intact as he marched toward his own Calvery. The Priest ‘Jose’, on the other hand, was the “good,” respectable Priest appointed by the Communists, married, sleeping in satin sheets, sitting and smoking peaceably in his government approved court yard at night, hearing his good wife . . . . “Jose, Jose come to bed. . . .Jose, come to bed!” Who is the "good" and "bad" Catholic here?

And of course one of the reasons we believe that the best writers are the worst Catholics is because we better identify with their struggles than their triumphs. We now see something similar in the journal of Blessed Theresa of Calcutta . . . but that’s another post altogether.

Your friend, Michael Janocik

David Charlton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Martin Cothran said...


The context was that I was trying to concede that Wendell might not be considered "evangelical" although he belongs to a mainline protest church. If you have another term that means "non-evangelical" Baptist, I'm open to it.

That is he devout I have no question, but I was trying to make a distinction between what is commonly known as "evangelical" and those of more old-line protestant persuasion.

And the CJ article you referred to is exactly where I got the characterization of his church attendance. I guess I should know better than to rely on the CJ for such things--me more than anybody. I repent in dust and ashes.

And I have read the "Burden of the Gospels," which, for those who haven't read it, is in "The Way of Ignorance." In fact, don't you think that essay has a lot to do with the themes in "Jayber Crowe"?

David Charlton said...


I would agree that Wendell would not fall under the usual definition of evangelical, although most of the people in that congregation could be considered as such, and would probably think of themselves as so. But it's not a mainline Protestant church, as no Baptist church would be considered as mainline. Mainline churches would be Presbyterian, United Methodist, Disciples of Christ - and others - but I wouldn't consider any branches of Baptist as mainline, with the possible exception being American Baptists. And, you would find very few Baptists who would consider any branches of Baptist to be mainline.

Baptist are far too diverse, as the very definition of Baptist would describe, to fall under any one label anyway. One of the few remaining blessings of being Baptist - which people like Al Mohler are trying to stamp out, in my opinion - is that we are not only free to have our own opinion and to be different, but we are encouraged to (although, again, people like Al Mohler are trying to end that as well).

As for the CJ article - a lot of people got their characterization of Wendell from that piece. Which proves, of course, that one cannot believe everything in the CJ, present company excluded of course.

I do agree with you about the similar themes in Jayber Crow and the Burden of the Gospels.

Anonymous said...

As a fan of Wendell Berry's works and as an evangelical, I find these comments very interesting. Perhaps someone could delve more deeply into why the non-liturgical base of christian experience seems to stunt creativity. Does it go back to the lack of widespread classical language exposure among modern evangelicals, at that fertile age at which creative capacity is most readily nourished?

Whatever the next generations produce, I doubt there'll ever be another writer quite like Flannery O'Connor when it comes to a special type of artistic insight, so rich in christian imagery.

I do disagree with Mr. Charlton's oversimplistic characterization of Al Mohler. While Mohler as a theologian is definitely determined to re-introduce the historic reformed orthodoxy among the ranks of modern evangelicals, as a social critic he regularly encourages thinking outside the usual shibboleth-filled boxes.

David Charlton said...

To the Nicholasville Conservative:
I don't think my comment about Al Mohler is at all oversimplistic. Dr. Mohler is part of the movement that has narrowed the Southern Baptist Convention far beyond its historic roots. His personal theology is certainly his own choice, but the way the transition (takeover?) at Southern Seminary was handled greatly damaged many lives, and that is no small matter.

Anonymous said...

I would say the SBC has moved closer to its historic roots; a fickle position on biblical inerrancy is not part of the SBC's historic roots. Instead, that position typified a gradual move away from the histric roots during the mid-20th century.