Back during the halcyon days of the Bush administration (ha!), I read a piece in Touchstone which bemoaned the dearth of Evangelical modern literature. Evangelical professor David T. Williams surveyed the fiction produced by his tradition over the past century and found a great deal of “schlock and kitsch” but nothing “recognized as having literary value by the literary world.” Williams noted Christian authors from other traditions finding success, specifically Flannery O’Connor, and attributed this lack to several hallmarks of Evangelical doctrine and practice:
Our failure to encourage our people to apply doctrine to the realities of life; our failure to include in our theology the whole counsel of the God who called Bezalel and Oholiab and gifted them as artists; and our pragmatism, an uncritical reflection of American culture rather than a biblical mandate, with our mystery-impoverished worship tradition are all simple failures to be what we claim to be, faithful to Scripture.
I chafed mostly because I believe that, despite the prevailing stereotype, Evangelical aesthetics are well formed. For example, the musical tradition of Evangelicalism, from Watts and Wesley to Tomlin and Getty easily excels that of other streams of the Christian tradition. Why wouldn’t there be Evangelical writers producing creative works of fiction as well?
But while the piece stuck in my craw, I struggled to formulate a reply. After all, I couldn’t name a current Evangelical literary star either. Finally, this month, two articles combined to explain this phenomenon.
First, in First Things, Randy Boyagoda penned a piece with the following provocative beginning:
I’m sick of Flannery O’Connor. I’m also sick of Walker Percy, G. K. Chesterton, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Dostoevsky. Actually, I’m sick of hearing about them from religiously minded readers. These tend to be the only authors that come up when I ask them what they read for literature.
These writers brilliantly and movingly attest to literature’s place in modern life, as godless modernity’s last best crucible for sustaining an appreciation of human life’s value and purpose that corresponds to our inherent longing for the good, the true, and the beautiful. But what else do they have in common? They’re all dead.
Boyagoda admits that every strain of Orthodox Christianity is batting .000 when it comes to producing a living literary giant. (Paul Elie made much the same point in the New York Times last year.)
Perhaps then, the failure of an Evangelical darling to emerge shouldn’t be so much of a surprise. Maybe the problem lies in the institution of modern literature itself. That’s Lee Seigel position, articulated within an interesting historical argument for why we shouldn’t freak out about the decline of the English literature major.
The college teaching of literature is a relatively recent phenomenon. Literature did not even become part of the university curriculum until the end of the 19th century. Before that, what came to be called the humanities consisted of learning Greek and Latin, while the Bible was studied in church as the necessary other half of a full education. No one ever thought of teaching novels, stories, poems or plays in a formal course of study. They were part of the leisure of everyday life.
With the waning of religious authority, the humanities were born as a means of taking up the slack…
The teaching of literature came into its own early in the 20th century, with the formation of literature departments. For years, these consisted mostly of philologists who examined etymology and the history of a text. It was only after World War II that the study of literature as a type of wisdom, relevant to actual, contemporary life, put down widespread institutional roots.
But what came next really caught my attention:
More than 50 years ago, the critic and professor Lionel Trilling expressed his frustration with presenting imaginative writing in the classroom in an essay titled “On the Teaching of Modern Literature.” It was published in 1961, a time when majoring in English was in its heyday.
Trilling observed that the modernist literature he had on his syllabus—Eliot, Yeats, Lawrence, Proust, Kafka, Mann, Gide—”asks every question that is forbidden in polite society. It asks us if we are content with our marriages, with our family lives, with our professional lives, with our friends.”
Trilling’s diagnosis rings true to me. Modern literature as defined by the academic establishment is about asking subversive and socially corrosive questions. How could Christians properly engage in this pursuit? Questioning can be good (there’s this great new book on the topic), but asking questions that have a slant towards the destruction of the good is not okay.
That’s why I hope Professor Williams is not holding his breath for an Evangelical author’s work to be recognized by the literary world any time soon. Even the best Christian fiction, in as much as it does not ask forbidden questions, is likely to be discounted as mere kitsch.