On Christian Literature

We often demand that so-called "Christian" fiction or poetry be as unambiguous as a Gospel tract. The result is a novel or a poem that is not a very good novel or poem.

December 3 rd 2010

Because I am a professor of English and a Christian, people often ask me to recommend a Christian novelist or poet. Mostly, I am happy to oblige, but sometimes these requests make me uneasy. This is because what people often seek is not so much a work by a Christian novelist or poet but a Christian novel or a Christian poem. While Christian novelists or poets are real enough—though not always very plentiful—it is somewhat more problematic to speak of Christian, as opposed to pagan, literature. This is because, as I hope to show, all literature is Christian in a limited sense. Instead of asking whether a novel or poem is "Christian" or not, it would be more helpful to speak of all literature in terms of value.

"Literature" is a beleaguered term. Our culture prefers the egalitarian term "text" to refer to what used to be called "literature" because it evacuates the spiritual—or immaterial—element of the original term. There is no difference, post-structuralist theorists would have us believe, between an email and Hamlet's soliloquies, but this, of course, is wrong. A text is a grouping of linguistic signs that express some state of affairs, actual, speculative, or imaginative. A work of literature is a text, but in addition to signifying imaginative states of affairs, the signs in such a work are also symbolic—they point to some ethical, moral, or theological reality. This might be the presence of suffering, the beauty of love, the goodness of virtue, the evil of vice, or any number of realities of human existence, but in order for a work to be a work of literature, it must gesture toward these sorts of things. Furthermore, works of literature are also works that possess an element of craft, ambiguity, and if not originality, at least some element of formal variation or difference.

The term "literature," therefore, is a qualitative term, and in this sense, it differs from the term "culture." Cultural artifacts, such as texts, express certain contextually determined ideas or values. Some of these ideas or values are good; some are not. While works of literature certainly express culture specific ideas or values, part of what makes them works of literature, and not merely cultural artifacts, is that they transcend their respective cultural contexts. Cultural artifacts tell us about a culture. Works of literature tell us about a culture and about human beings.

Accordingly, not all that is said to be literature actually is literature. Not all stories are works of literature. For example, contemporary fiction that merely shocks is not literature. Guillaume Apollinaire's erotic stories are not literature. Much cadavre exquis and "new-materialist" poetry is not literature. Based upon our culture's erroneous definition of literature in terms of novelty alone, works that exhibit some formal innovation or treat taboo subjects are wrongly passed off to the public as works of literature, and part of the role of the Christian critic is to call our culture to task for such errors.

For most people, Christian literature differs from pagan literature to the extent that the former contains Christian themes and the latter, pagan ones. In other words, the Christian work draws from the grand narrative of Scripture while the pagan work draws from pagan sources.

Yet, this is where things become problematic. Take Samuel Beckett's famous play Waiting for Godot. In terms of its symbolic meaning and in terms of its craft, it is a far more Christian work than either so-called "Christian" romances or "Christian" morality novels. While Beckett was an atheist, in Waiting for Godot we have a very accurate picture of life without God, and, therefore, of the consequences of the fall.

The two main characters, Estragon and Vladimir, wait for Godot, who will tell them what to do. In other words, Godot will provide their respective lives with purpose and meaning. He never arrives, however, and life is experienced by both characters as loss—it is meaningless and absurd. At the end of the play, Estragon and Vladimir all but admit this:

Estragon: Didi.
Vladimir: Yes.
Estragon: I can't go on like this.
Vladimir: That's what you think.
Estragon: If we parted? That might be better for us.
Vladimir: We'll hang ourselves to-morrow. (Pause.) Unless Godot comes.
Estragon: And if he comes?
Vladimir: We'll be saved. (Vladimir takes off his hat (Lucky's), peers inside it, feels about it, shakes it, knocks on the crown, puts it on again.)
Estragon: Well? Shall we go?
Vladimir: Pull on your trousers.
Estragon: What?
Vladimir: Pull on your trousers.
Estragon: You want me to pull off my trousers?
Vladimir: Pull ON your trousers.
Estragon: (realizing his trousers are down). True.
Vladimir: Well? Shall we go?
Estragon: Yes, let's go. (They don't move.) (109)

For Beckett, the two ways of escaping the meaninglessness of life are apocalypse (Godot coming) or suicide. A third way would be to stop waiting for Godot and find meaning in each other, as Estragon and Vladimir try to do. The fact that Estragon and Vladimir are often cruel towards one another demonstrates that, for Beckett, such a solution is rare. Overall, Beckett's rather dark play provides a very telling picture of the meaninglessness of life in the absence of telos.

By contrast, Christian romances are often watered-down versions of a Danielle Steel novel. In these, a woman—usually a recent divorcee in her early forties—is unexpectedly struck by love when she meets a handsome, but equally troubled thirty-something. The two struggle to put past demons to rest. Yet, with the help of some good pastoral advice, they overcome that which separates them and finally give themselves to each other (though behind closed doors) in a climactic moment of conjugal passion.

While the presentation of forgiveness and healing available in Christ are elements that often separate such romances from Beckett's play, the treatment of love as a spontaneous, overpowering feeling is perhaps more secular than Christian. Furthermore, the emphasis on a passionate, horizontal relationship between two people often supplants the perpendicular one between God and man as the source of all meaning and joy, despite hedging remarks to contrary.

While markedly different from the Christian romance, the Christian morality novel has its own shortcomings. In these, we often get the story of a happy family—a mother, father, three children, a van, and a dog—who love Jesus and suffer through a mild, albeit difficult trial, say, an unsaved Grandmother suffering with cancer or a close friend struggling with drug addiction. In the end, the Grandmother is saved or the friend checks into rehab, all to God's glory, of course. There is no profanity, no unseemly situations. Overall, such novels are very wholesome.

Yet, they are also overly simplistic. No doubt, Scripture tells us to meditate on what is pure, holy, and good, but it does not tell us to ignore the darkness of the world in which we live. Ecclesiastes does not ignore it. Isaiah does not ignore it. Paul does not ignore it. Rather the Bible confronts our sinfulness head on. Works that give us a more accurate picture of our darkness are more Christian than works that ignore it. After all, if people do not think that they live in darkness, how can they possibly look for or enjoy the light?

If we turn to the area of nuance, ambiguity, and craft, here too, Beckett's Godot is a much more Christian work than so-called "Christian" romances or morality novels because it respects the genre in which it was written (even if it simultaneously bends it) and because it shows elements of craft, ambiguity, and originality. Each genre has different goals and capacities. The evangelistic sermon is for making direct Scriptural, emotional, and logical appeals to follow Christ. The philosophical essay is for defining and examining the nuances of virtue, vice, and metaphysical truth. Gospel tracts are for providing a short expression of the Gospel for someone you do not know. If you use one of these forms for a goal to which it is not suited, you are in trouble. An evangelistic sermon that is as detailed and analytical as a philosophical essay is not a good evangelistic sermon. A philosophical essay written in the form of an evangelistic sermon is not a philosophical essay.

Yet, strangely, we as Christians often demand that so-called "Christian" fiction or poetry be as unambiguous as a Gospel tract. The result is a novel or a poem that is not a very good novel or poem. This is like putting up with a poor architect, who cannot build anything either beautiful or functional, but slaps a Bible verse over the front door. The Christian novelist who crafts his or her novels poorly does a disservice to God to the extent that such works imply that God is uninterested in beauty, nuance, and detail. In doing so, they present an incorrect, and, one could even say, an idolatrous image of God.

Thus, Waiting for Godot is more Christian than many so-called Christian romances or morality novels, both in terms of its symbolic significance and in terms of its craft. Of course, the comparison between Beckett's Godot and what I have called Christian romance and morality novels is an unfair comparison, because neither the romance nor the morality novel is a work of literature according to the qualitative definition of the term given at the outset of this essay. However, this does not negate the fact that Godot has elements of Christian truth and craft that point to a creator God no matter how much Beckett would want it otherwise.

Beckett's Godot is not an anomaly. Almost all of the "classics" and numerous contemporary works express something about the human position with respect to pain, suffering, love, virtue and vice, and the like, but thinking in terms of Christian and pagan literature tends to cut Christians off from the blessings of God's general revelation in pagan works.

In De Doctrina Christiana, Augustine argues that God's command to the Israelites to take the gold of Eygpt as they left for the Promised Land shows that it is right for Christians to take all that is good in culture and use it for God's glory. He writes:

In the same way all the teachings of the pagans contain not only simulated and superstitious imaginings and grave burdens of unnecessary labor, which each one of us leaving the society of pagans under the leadership of Christ ought to abominate and avoid, but also liberal disciplines more suited to the uses of truth, and some most useful precepts concerning morals. Even some truths concerning the worship of one God are discovered among them. These are, as it were, their gold and silver, which they did not institute themselves but dug up from certain mines of divine Providence, which is everywhere infused, and perversely and injuriously abused in the worship of demons. (2.40)

Making the same point earlier in the treatise, Augustine states that "every good and true Christian should understand that wherever he may find truth, it is his Lord's" (2.18). If Augustine is correct that all truth is God's truth, then it follows that all truths about the human condition in literature and all craft are God's truths and God's craft. Every work of literature—that is, every work that expresses some truth about what it means to be human with craft, ambiguity, and originality—is Christian in this very limited sense.

Such a view is dangerous according to some Christian philosophers and theologians. For example, discussing (often prophetically and with great wisdom and nuance) the Christian's role in art and literature in his excellent A Christian Critique of Art and Literature, Calvin Seerveld warns against just such a use of Augustine. For Seerveld, Augustine's analogy always leads to the "[f]usion of the christian [sic.] faith with good ideas and products not native to the gospel of Jesus Christ." "A willingly synthesizing Christianity," Seerveld continues, "cannot help but become synthetic Christianity, adulterated, showing an irenic, me-too spirit towards pagan or secular interests, a spirit of composed if sometimes mystical Diesseitigkeit (a being riveted to the this side of the world) which compromises the response Revelation asks." Furthermore, Christians espousing this Augustinian approach to the arts and literature, Seerveld argues, can become satisfied with "a common grace culture" and ignore the call to create works of art and literature themselves.

While Seerveld is absolutely right that taking the gold of Egypt can lead to culture usurping the Gospel or to Christians becoming satisfied with that gold, it does not necessarily lead to either of these. Simply because an activity can be abused, or lead to a deadly imbalance down the road, does not make that activity wrong.

Furthermore, it is important to remember that the gold in Augustine's analogy refers to aspects of God's general revelation found in the works of pagans—aspects such as beauty, truth, and justice—not the false idols of Egypt. No doubt, incorporating idol worship with Christianity is syncretism, but acknowledging the truths of general revelation in those works, as Paul did in Acts 17, is not. In fact, it is exactly the opposite. It is reclaiming for Christ the things that rightfully belong to His people. This is the distinction between the gold of Egypt (which the Egyptians accumulated at the hands of Joseph and, later, at the expense of the enslaved Israelites) and Egypt itself in the analogy. The gold of Egypt—beauty, truth and goodness—are not things that are foreign to the Gospel, but partial revelations of that Gospel, visible for all men to see, who nevertheless refuse to see it.

Nor is it clear how one could possibly avoid such an approach when attempting a faithful and careful engagement with culture. Indeed, Seerveld himself seems to practice it despite his dismissal of this approach when he states, for example, that the Gospel "has the power to set radically right what sin has misdirected and unbelievers are prostituting, however honourably," or when he comments on Hawthorne's treatment of hypocrisy or the craft of Marc Chagall's A Praying Rabbi.

In addition to his critique of Augustine, Seerveld also argues for a distinctly Christian art and Christian literature, and, thus, would no doubt view with a skeptical eye my statement regarding the limited sense in which all literature is Christian. In A Christian Critique, Seerveld is preoccupied with calling Christians to create art and not give this domain of life over to non-Christians, and on this score, we agree wholeheartedly. It is essential that Christians create works of art and works of literature. However, in making this call, Seerveld defines art and literature somewhat differently that I do above. While I use the term literature in its qualitative sense, Seerveld has two related definitions of art and literature. On the one hand, he defines art as "the symbolical objectification of certain meaning aspects of a thing, subject to the law of allusivity" (36). This is his ontological definition of art. While it is not exactly clear what Seerveld means by "certain meaning aspects of a thing," it seems to refer to both right and wrong meanings, right and wrong signification, as well as meanings that are neither ethical, moral, nor theological and, therefore, neutral. The ones with the "right" meanings are Christian (or perhaps pre-Christian), and the ones with the "wrong" meanings are pagan, or anti-Christian. Thus, Picasso's Minotauromachia, which, according to Seerveld expresses the idea that "the bestial vitality of sex runs this life," is a work of art for Seerveld, and it is a Satanic one (59).

On the other hand, art has a functional definition, as well, which, according to Seerveld, is to worship God. "Art," Seerveld writes, "is a symbolically significant expression of what drives a human heart, with what vision the artist views the world, how that artist adores whom" (21). Thus, only art that expresses or leads to the worship of the one, true God is good art in this second sense. Accordingly, Picasso's Minotauromachia is doubly damned—both in terms of its content and in terms of its function.

While I am hesitant to write too boldly on problems Seerveld has clearly thought about much longer than I have, I do think Seerveld's definition of art is somewhat problematic. First, his ontological definition of art in terms of meaning making and ambiguity seems to leave out what I take to be the essentially qualitative nature of works of art and literature. As I noted above, what makes literature literature is the transcendence of such works above the culture in which they were produced, and that transcendence is directly related to the relative truth content of such works with respect to what it means to be human. For Seerveld, however, it seems, it is possible to have art with no truth content, or art that is created from entirely the wrong "slant." In this sense, I think Seerveld is too quick to follow the egalitarian leveling that has taken place within modern criticism between "culture" and "art." While Seerveld later calls the critic (and rightly so) to exercise his proper role of judgment with respect to the aesthetic value (which, of course, is determined by the content) of works of art and literature, it seems to me his ontological definition of art leaves the critic with less, not more, ground on which to make such judgments.

Second, Seerveld is right that art should be an act of worship of the one, true God. Indeed, all aspects of the Christian's life should be done to God's glory. Yet, such a statement also obscures the fact that all work or craft glorifies God whether those doing such work want it to or not. This does not mean, of course, that God accepts their creation as an act of worship. Rather, they are judged for "suppressing the truth in unrighteousness." However, God is indeed sovereign over all of creation, and human beings cannot escape the image of God within them, no matter how perverted it has become.

Indeed, Seerveld's definition too often leads to a dichotomy in which the value of—or the image of God in the work of—non-Christian art is too quickly dismissed. For example, regarding Seerveld's comments on Picasso's etching, while Picasso does indeed present the idea that "the bestial vitality of sex runs this life," is this not how many people in the modern world view sex, and doesn't the brutality shown in the etching itself express, perhaps even against Picasso's intentions, that such a view of sex is indeed a brutal perversion of what sex should be? Indeed, while Seerveld is right that we would be gravely mistaken to take the etching's half-truth as expressing the complete truth regarding sex or to ignore the anti-Christian worldview of the artist, doesn't Scripture also call us to recognize and give glory to God for all His work in creation? Ignoring the fact that He is the source of all good, truth, craft, and beauty could also be said to be an expression of the spirit of the anti-Christ. If they are works of literature, they express truths about who we are and exemplify an element of craft and nuance, and, in this sense, they reflect—whether the writer wants them to or not—the truth and craft of God Himself. Clearly we need to follow Seerveld's example in evaluating the dangers of pagan art with nuance and precision, but we also need to recognize God's common grace where it is present.

Thus, when I argue that all works of literature are Christian in a "limited" sense, I am not arguing that we should begin applying the tag "Christian" to all such works. Rather, I am arguing quite the opposite. We do not refer to "Christian" biology, "Christian" architecture, or "Christian" truth, because to do so would make the Christian God a subcategory of, rather than the source of, biology, architecture, and truth. So, too, I think, the term "Christian" literature obscures the fact that God is the source of all truth and craft.

This does not mean that there is no significant difference between non-Christian and Christian writers and artists. I tend to agree with Seerveld that the best work in the art and literature should indeed be done by Christians because of the fuller revelation they possess regarding what it means to be a human being in God's image, even though I recognize that, at present, this is sadly not the case.

What it does mean, however, is that because we are all created in God's image, and, therefore, all possess the same basic notions of love, good, and evil, and a longing for transcendence, as well as the same capacity for creation, we can expect to find value in works written by both Christians and non-Christians.

Furthermore, encouraging readers to think of literature less in terms of "Christian" and "non-Christian" and more in terms of value actually encourages, not discourages, the sort of critical engagement for which Professor Seerveld argues. These values should be derived from the truth statements of Scripture, which Christians accept on faith as God's revelation, and, therefore, as the solidest foundation on which to make aesthetic, ethical, and moral judgments. Readers should be encouraged to engage works of literature, asking themselves whether a work reflects some aspect of the Bible's grand narrative or whether it reflects the nuance, complexity, and depth of our Creator. If so, read it and glorify God that what may be known about Him is, indeed, manifest in them (Romans 1:19).


Micah Mattix is Assistant Professor in Literature at Houston Baptist University and the review editor of The City, a journal of Christian thought from Houston Baptist University. His essays and reviews have appeared in First Things, America, Touchstone, Books & Culture, and Octopus Magazine, among others. His book, Frank O'Hara and the Poetics of Saying 'I', will be co-published by Rowman and Littlefield and Fairleigh Dickinson University Press in early 2011.