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.

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?Chris Tomlin

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.

Posted by Keith Miller

Keith Miller is an Assistant Solicitor General in the Federalism Unit of the Arizona Attorney General's Office. He is married and has four children. You can follow him on Twitter.

  • Keith,

    Not to be too trite I hope, but your piece does neglect Marilynne Robinson and Wendell Berry… who, I get it, are just a minority. But all the same – I think I disagree with your last source and its conclusions and, on some level, yours. Both Berry and Robinson are widely acclaimed authors… Robinson holds maybe the most prestigious creative writing job in the United States currently is even a Pulitzer prize winner (I don’t think Berry has yet, which is a tragedy) and I don’t think their books and the issues and questions they pose are “subversive and socially corrosive.” In point of fact, Gilead is perhaps the most redemptive work of fiction I’ve read by any living author. And Berry’s writing is almost entirely all about social repair and restoration of true community. All of that to say, I think it is a bit of a reach to say that Orthodox Christianity is batting a .000 and to say that we can’t bat higher or be recognized by the literary world.

    I think it does reveal that Orthodox Christianity does need to step out of the box a bit as far as level of thought – it has become easy to settle on answers that are “easy” (for lack of a better term). I discussed this with Jake on his piece a couple days ago that the church at large has become so far separated from the academy. I think we need a renewal of Christian thought and “intellectualism” to address those subversive and socially corrosive questions (which I agree, are the tendency… one has to look no further than Cormac McCarthy [or even George RR Martin] to see that this has become the norm). I don’t think the world is solely looking for those issues, but rather looking for a deep, meaningful, well-thought out examination of those questions. I think Dreher’s success with the The Little Way of Ruthie Lemming is another fair example of this search.

    Anyways – in summation, I agree that Orthodox Christianity is certainly in the extreme minority in the literary world right now. But I disagree that it is not possible to change that even soon – but it is going to require a little more depth than the kitsch that does tend to be the norm in Christian art.

    • Keith Miller

      Ryan, Thanks for reading and the thoughtful pushback. You’re right that Robinson and Berry are well-respected, but I’m not sure they are orthodox. For example, they both support same-sex marriage and are exasperated that any Christian could be so backwards as to defend the traditional definition.

      That said, I think it is fair to call their literary output more positive than subversive on most dimensions. But even Berry’s quasi-Amish romanticism is fueled by anti-corporate and anti-war questioning of the sort that Trilling called forbidden.

      • Luke W

        Keith – Robinson and Berry aren’t Evangelical, but they’re within the framework of Orthodox Christianity. Your article made the distinction between Orthodox writers like O’Connor (who’ve produced some excellent literature) and Evangelical writers (who’ve produced mostly shallow kitsch). But the reasons why Evangelicals have yet to offer one literary luminary is worth exploring. The comparison to successful Christian writers of other traditions is an excellent place to start. What does Robinson bring that Peretti doesn’t?

        • Erin Risch Zoutendam

          Agreed. We would all do well not to conflate “orthodox Christianity” with “evangelical.” I find a discomfiting double standard at work here as well. For example, C.S. Lewis believed in Purgatory, and there are many hints that he believed people of other faiths could be saved (I’m thinking of passages from Abolition of Man and The Last Battle), but evangelicals gladly accept him as one of their own and quietly brush those things under the rug. To outlaw Robinson and Berry because they support same-sex marriage seems a bit arbitrary.

          • CT

            There is no “outlawing”, but supporting same-sex marriage is hardly an orthodox or traditional Christian view. As to C.S. Lewis, Purgatory is one of those grey areas biblically-speaking. The assertion that he believed those from other faiths could be saved is debatable. However, there is no question on where the Bible stands on homosexual marriage.

          • I bet both Robinson and Berry would say that there is debating where the bible stands on homosexual marriage.

          • CT

            I am sure they would. But they would be wrong. There are many things not addressed in the Bible in modern culture. But this is not one of those things. The Bible presents a consistent message in both the OT and NT on this subject. It always puzzles me when self-identified Christians try to argue otherwise. There are many world religions out there. If someone wants one to fit with their worldview, there are plenty to choose from. An atheist is more consistent than someone who tries to morph their faith’s beliefs to fit with their own and/or the times.

          • I think you misunderstand how belief works. My point wasn’t to fight about homosexuality, but to point out that there is disagreement about what is and is not orthodox belief. In matters like this, people we claim as good authors do not necessarily always have the right beliefs.

          • CT

            There may be disagreement, but orthodox belief as far as the Christian tradition simply does not support homosexuality. That would be considered an unorthodox belief if you take the meaning of orthodox as it is defined in the dictionary. I am aware how belief works, I was simply responding to your comment and in no way meant to argue. The goal is always discussion.

            I agree that good authors do not always have the right beliefs nor live moral lives for that matter. Charles Dickens had a mistress for most of his life, but I still like David Copperfield nonetheless.

          • I was too snarky. I am sorry. But my point about belief is that everyone has beliefs that are wrong and everyone has actions in their life that are contrary to their beliefs.

            In my mind, orthodox Christians are someone that can affirm the apostle’s creed and/or the nicene creed. And while I agree with you that historically acceptance of gay marriage is outside of the realm of traditional Christianity. I do not think think it negates people’s actual Christian beliefs.

            What I am trying to say is that people can still be Christian and have orthodox beliefs, while also holding on to some other beliefs that are not orthodox. (The easy example is American slave holder’s belief in slavery, while being orthodox Christians).

            Making acceptance of gay marriage more important than agreement with the Apostle’s creed and Nicene Creed is putting the small things as more important than the great.

            After all at this point we are talking about literature from Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Evangelical authors. If you are going to have that conversation, then you need to go back to the beliefs that are actually the same between them.

          • CT

            I think it is important to clarify that people can have some orthodox beliefs (the key word being some) and some unorthodox beliefs.
            I wonder if it the acceptance or more specifically the support of gay marriage does negate a person’s Christian beliefs or at the very least is in direct conflict with it. After all, if I go around preaching that adultery is okay and it makes no difference to the Christian faith if everyone engages in it, have I not left the tenents of Christianity? It becomes more of a faith of my own making and not that of Christianity.
            It is not that homosexuality is the only sin discussed in the Bible and I am not attemtpting to single it out. But when we begin to state that the acceptance of any sin as identified by Christ as being a “small thing” and not relevant to being a Christ follower, major issues arise. Being a Christ-follower is more than just accepting Christ’s forgiveness and punching one’s ticket to heaven so to speak (or agreeing with a Creed). I am in agreement with Dallas Willard that this sole focus by Western Christianity has led to many problems within the Church.
            Christ called us to be disciples of Christ. This means that we follow His words and teachings because we believe that He has the key to how to live the best kind of life. If we do not believe that, why follow Him? What is the point? If He does not have all the answers, then choose a different religion or faith. It would be sheer folly to follow Christ if you did not believe He had all of the answers.
            As you stated, beliefs matter. What we believe matters. We act on what we really believe. Sometimes this is not in line with what we state we believe. But our actions always reflect our beliefs. By execusing a sin or condoning/supporting it as it relates to the Christian faith, you are essentially saying that Jesus does not have all of the answers and that He was wrong somehow. You have decided that you will tweak His words a bit to fit your own beliefs. When that happens, you have simply created a new religion. And if you believe yourself to be wiser than the Deity you claim to worship, why in the world would you worship such a Diety?

          • CT

            Good discussion, by the way. It is nice when you can discuss controversial topics without it getting ugly :).

          • My discomfort with this point is that historically we find it easier to point to people that had real sin and see how God used them. But we want perfection from people that are around us.

            That is not to say that I want a pastor that is in an open affair.

            But I do think the central part of Christianity does need to be grace. We can be gracious to Dickens knowing that he had a mistress, but also wrote great books. AW Tower had some great books but was a horrible father. EM Bounds had several of his kids leave the faith particularly because of how bad a father he was. That is sin.

            I am not trying to exempt the importance of following and beliefs. I am just trying to suggest that I am not sure we are always choosing the right things to be important.

            I know it is overly cliche, but having known some very devout people that were also gay, I always wonder about why we take that sin as important while ignoring business people that extort from the poor. Or church ladies that stab you in the back with gossip, or parents that ignore or mistreat their children (for the sake of the ministry). All are sin, but none of it keeps us from Grace.

          • CT

            No, nothing exempts us from God’s grace and perfection is not the goal. But holiness is. There is a distinct difference. I would also not define grace as acknowledging someone’s talent, even if their morals or actions were wrong. That is simply intellectual honesty.

            When I strive for holiness, I am seeking to be like Christ and follow His teachings. Will I mess up? Of course. But I am growing towards something Good.

            I am the meanest woman in the Church or I am being a dishonest employer, yet I claim Jesus, one has to question that person’s faith journey. Especially if they have been that way for 20 years. The same is true for those who are gay and claim Jesus (I want to be careful to distinguish between those who are gay, yet choose to follow God’s word and abstain versus those openly engaged in the lifestyle. I am referring to the latter here). One has to question if there has really been a transformation in all of those cases. The lives of the above examples certainly do not reflect the teachings of Christ and are not consistent with being His disciple. This can be difficult when know people personally in these situations. But Truth is experiential, it is absolute (God’s truth, that is).

            I will once again echo Dallas Willard and say that being a Christ-follower is more than just forgiveness of sins. It is about being a disciple of Christ. If you have not read Willard, I highly recommend his writings.

          • CT

            Oh stink..that should have been “if” I am the meanest woman in the Church.

            How important one little word is!

          • CT

            Sheesh..that should be “This is can be difficult when we know people personally in these situations. Truth is NOT experiential, it is absolute.”

            Multi-tasking does not always work out well.

          • I really don’t disagree with much of what you say. It just makes me uncomfortable because I happens to think that owning and abusing people (through slavery) is a pretty serious sin. But many people that owned slaves were orthodox Christians. I don’t really expect a response because I don’t have an answer either.

            Just makes me uncomfortable.

          • CT

            It is a very serious sin. Some no doubt justified it to themselves because they treated their slaves well. They neglected to look deeper into why the institution of slavery was evil in and of itself Biblically speaking (and morally as well). They simply accepted it as part of their culture in their ignorance. Now those who were cruel and claimed Jesus are a different. Once again, one has to question whether true transformation had taken please.

            That being said, it was the Evangelicals who were the abolitionists. Most of the orthodox traditions thought they were “radical” and “too religious.” Without the Evangelical wing of Christianity, it is highly doubtful if slavery would have been abolished both in the UK and eventually the U.S.

          • Luke W

            In this discussion, the term “orthodox” has been used to differentiate non-Evangelical Christians, i.e. O’Connor as Catholic, Lewis as Anglican. Within that broader category, we’re then looking at the Evangelical sub-set of Christianity. So no “outlawing” – just asking why Christianity as a whole has produced some exceptional literature and the Evangelical sub-set has not.

        • Brendan

          Luke, you raise a very important distinction. Orthodox Christianity and Evangelical Christianity are most definitely not the same thing — I’m mulling over as to why Evangelicals “have yet to offer one literary luminary.” Good point.

          That said, does an author have to be an Orthodox Christian to write Orthodox Christian fiction? The art can sometimes outshine the artist (indeed, this should be the artist’s hope) and I think that in this way, yes, Robinson and Berry produce Orthodox writings while not being Orthodox themselves.

      • I can’t argue with you there, Keith. But I think you might be trying to throw the baby out with the bathwater here a bit. Views on homosexuality notwithstanding, Robinson is still an avid proponent of Calvin (she prefers his French name, Cauvin, in her collection of essays: Death of Adam… which is an excellent read by the way). And sure Berry might be anti-corporate & anti-war, but the feeling I get from reading him is that the overall tone of his novels are trying to approach the matter from a redemptive angle instead of destructive. The point is that while they may hold some unorthodox views (which I think applies to everyone, hence the phrase “Reform and keep Reforming”), they are still Christian authors in the broader sense (which O’Connor was Catholic so there’s that…).

        I agree with Luke that I think it isn’t a matter of throwing our hands up in defeat or just being resigned to being a lower tier of author, but rather that we need to consider our writing more carefully and tackle harder questions with careful, well-thought out arguments – both in the social, political sphere and artistic sphere. Both of which have had severe losses since the time of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s authors. Kitsch has become easy – Peretti can stock a shelf at any Lifeway, Family Christian Bookstore, or Mardel. But it isn’t entirely honest or helpful for the rest of the world. We need a resurgence of Christian thought to think through this things rather than running from them or just producing kitsch – and I think honestly, it comes through bringing the academy and the church closer together again.

  • ChrisM

    In the 1960’s, previously recognized authors of good literature were already weeded out from the curriculum in my high school and college literature classes. My mother’s cherished volume of Longfellow’s poems was considered kitsch. The disgusting trash that passed as “good literature” was all hopeless and depressing, every author the teachers explored and praised was godless and perverse. This factor was a big influence in our choosing to educate our children at home. We desired both the exposure to wholesome and godly word artists for our children as well as to keep the yucky stuff at bay during their formative years. You read Kafka and figure, “Why live?” As Christian parents, we thought we owed our children better.

    Wondering why there is no great (great in whose eyes?) evangelical literature is like wondering why there is no “great” Christian art work or film offering. Just being Christian (God glorifying, Biblical, thinking on things that are good, etc.) immediately disqualifies every offering immediately in our godless age. Anything good, wholesome or positively inspiring couldn’t possibly be great, by definition. Frank Peretti’s The Prophet and This Present Darkness certainly fall short of the genius of C.S. Lewis, but he does a fine job of bringing home the reality of the biblical supernatural spiritual forces of evil and darkness with his carefully woven plots and well developed characters.

    I agree with your conclusion but found it much too short!

  • I do not read a lot of regular Christian fiction. But i do read, and those Christians that I know that read a lot of do not confine themselves to Christian fiction sections at the local Christian book store.

    So I am not really following you with your Randy Boyagoda quote. Are you suggesting that Christians that read and are influenced by his standard list of Christian authors are only influenced by those authors? Or that they only read those authors? That is how I read that. But that does not seem to fit those that i know that are serious Christians and read.

    They read widely, Christian, non-Christian, etc.

    I do think there is a JPM problem in Christian art (Jesus Per Minute). So if you want to be marketed to Christians then you need to be a bit Kitschy. Otherwise you won’t be picked up at Christian book stores (think of the warning labels on Donald Miller or others that used to be on book in Lifeway).

    So if you are not going to write kitsch, then you have to write for the secular world. It is likely that only once you are established you can write books that are not kitsch, but also not evangelical fiction.

    I would suggest that one that follow that path is Susan Howatch. She has decades of writing literary fiction before coming to a renewal of faith and starting to write more Christian themes that are in her Church of England series.

    Or Andrew Klavan. He is not a great literary author. But he wrote real mystery fiction and screen plays in the secular world before his recent spate of Christian influenced thrillers. They are not great (especially the young adult books) but they are more than just evangelical propaganda.

    I think that many great Christian authors that are doing something great will come at later points in life than the standards literary star. I think of the work of Eugene Peterson (his memoir the Pastor or his recent quintet of theology books) or Brennan Manning. Neither started really writing until they were in their late 40s or early 50s.

    One last thought, I think that the identified problem of not enough good Christian modern literature is an issue for a pretty small group. I read about 180 books a year. But I am still just getting into some of that list (I am 40 this year). I just finished reading Chesterton’s St Francis of Assisi (only my fourth Chesterton book). I am mostly through my first Flannery O’Conner. I read my first Marilynne Robinson earlier this year.

  • David

    I’m optimistic that N.D. Wilson might fill that role should he decide to venture into modern fiction. His additions to non-fiction and children’s fiction have been excellent.

  • Luke W

    I know a few people in Christian publishing. Here’s what I’ve heard:

    From an author with a well-known Christian publishing house – “At one point in my story, the protagonist ran a red light. The publisher asked me to remove this because the character was a Christian. They also marked passages where they wanted me to insert a moment for the character to stop and pray.”

    From a New York Times best-selling author – “Because my publisher also publishes Amish romance titles, they limit subject matter in my books that could offend those readers. Even though my book isn’t for that audience, those readers will boycott a publisher if they see that publisher’s name on a book they find questionable.”

    Here’s what a publisher told me when I asked him point-blank about the low quality of Christian fiction.

    “We know that if someone wants good fiction, they don’t go to Lifeway to find it.”

    The problem in Evangelical literature is not because we’re unwilling to ask “socially corrosive” questions. I think it’s because the average Evangelical reader doesn’t want to ponder any questions at all. We want stories that affirm our convictions and build our confidence in pre-determined answers. So that’s what the publishers give us.

    • Just ran across another article that is saying similar things in another way. A good Christian crime fiction author is leaving his Christian publishing house because they have no idea how to market it. (Loved the title of the article)

      • Luke W

        Good article. I hadn’t heard of that writer, but the story is familiar. But I don’t think it’s a publishing problem, or even a lack of talent (as that article demonstrates). Random House can publish a variety of books in hopes that each finds a large enough audience. Bethany House has only one audience: Evangelicals. So they cater to that singular demographic. The fact that the quality of literature is low say more about us the consumers than about the publishers.

        • I think it is more complicated than that. As you originally said above, how many people that you know that are artists put up with people saying they could not write a person going through a red light. I think there is probably a number of authors that are self-selecting themselves out of the Evangelical world because of issues like that.

          So yes, readers need to take responsibility to read good books (and buy them). But the very market encourages good authors to go where they are not restricted.

          By the way, my Jesus Per Minute quip below is real. My wife’s cousin is the lead signer for a well known Christian band. And he said they have a number of complaints that their second album did not say the name of Jesus as often as the first. Complainers suggested they must be selling out for marketing purposes.

          • Although it may be that publishers are being overly hard on writers for fear that Christian bookstores will not carry a book. That is basically what came out of the Rachel Held Evans vagina-gate. It wasn’t that Thomas Nelson was opposed to her using the word as much as they wanted her book to be sold. And in their experience complaints from bookstores would spread and whole chains would refuse to carry a book based on a couple of complaints.

          • Luke W

            I think if C.S. Lewis’ “The Great Divorce” was published in today’s Christian publishing climate, it would be received like “The Shack.”

          • probably. And we would all be worse off for it.

          • Luke W

            I think we’re on the same page here. The complaints of the overly sensitive Evangelical market creates weird restrictions for writers and musicians. The publishers and bookstores have to respond to the sensibilities of their customers if they want to sell product. The publisher didn’t ask my friend to remove the traffic light scene because they personally had a problem with it — they knew they’d get complaints from readers.

            I suspect the root of the problem lies somewhere within the Evangelical culture itself. The frightening issue is the main point of the original article. There may be reasons why a talented Evangelical writer doesn’t publish through a Christian publisher, but there hasn’t been an Evangelical writer producing great literature through ANY publishing channel. Is there a deficiency in our sub-culture that goes beyond a preference for poor, predictable stories, to being unable to produce good writers at all?

            There are successful writers who grew up Evangelical but no longer identify as such. But the lack of examples of a great author who remains in the Evangelical camp – that is very troubling to me. And worth talking about.

            BTW – I’m a freelance music guy in Nashville – I do a lot of work for Christian music publishers, so I all too familiar with the bizarre mindset surrounding Christian music. I probably know the band you’re talking about! But again, it’s all driven by the Evangelical consumer and what gets his underpants in a twist.)

          • I agree, I think we mostly agree. But I want to push back about one small issue. I think it is a very small subset of the evangelical market. You wouldn’t complain about a lack of Jesus per minute. I would not complain about a lack of jesus per minute. I think 99.99% of evangelicals would not. And probably 1 in 10000 would not complain about a book character going through a red light.

            But owners of bookstores, publishers, writers and musicians live in fear of that one in 10,000 person.

            I think want is wrong with the evangelical world, is also partially what is right about it. .Evangelicals value empowerment and activism. But we don’t often submit ourselves to the wisdom of the church that says ‘that may not be worth fighting about’

          • Luke W

            I agree. Christian publishers are very sensitive to, as one writer friend called them, the “Old Lady Brigade.” Not the average Evangelical, but closer to the average Family Christian Bookstore customer. The rest of us go to Barnes and Noble.

            Consumer issues aside, there’s still the issue of our failure to create great literature. I wonder if there are structural impediments within the Evangelical culture (something more specific than anti-intellectualism but possibly related) that keep us from producing our share of great writers.

  • Frank J

    J.K. Rowling? OK, I realize that’s not exactly what you’re after here, but if we want to talk about definitive Christian fiction of the 21st century it seems a little disingenuous not to mention the most popular fiction series of this century and its blatantly Christian message. She’s not remotely evangelical, but there’s not much in the Harry Potter themes that also isn’t orthodox.

  • CT

    This is a thought-provoking theme. I read zero current literature, Christian or otherwise. I greatly prefer reading the classics and discovering authors and authoresses who have been forgotton by time.

    I hope that more Christian writers will emerge who will write quality literature. But right now they seem to be mostly bad imitations of equally bad current literature.

  • Erin Risch Zoutendam

    I’m struggling with the logic of this post. The quotation from Trilling says that modern literature “asks us if we are content with our marriages, with our family lives, with our professional lives, with our friends.” It is Miller, however, who calls this specific pursuit “subversive and socially corrosive.” I agree that this pursuit /can/ be undertaken in such a way, but I find it an unsupported leap of logic to argue that this pursuit must /always/ be undertaken with such an intent. Miller suggests that these specific questions are tendentious and destructive by their very nature.

    As a self-identified former evangelical, I would argue that it is in fact distinctly evangelical to ask those very questions (i.e., are we satisfied with the conventional understanding of a successful marriage, life, career, etc.?). Aren’t those questions at the heart of our pursuit of holier, more intentional lives? We are certainly going to arrive at different answers than Gide, et al, but we must still ask those questions, yes?

    As a side note, should we ask Christians to stop reading and studying literature that wrestles with these questions (Proust, Gide, Kafka, Yeats, pre-conversion Eliot)? If it’s un-Christian to ask these questions, surely it’s un-Christian to spend time contemplating them as well.

    • Keith Miller

      Allow me to quote Matt’s new book:

      “Our questions… come from somewhere and take us somewhere. The slant our perspectives in particular directions and make some answers more plausible than others. While we might like to exonerate ourselves from the burden of responsibility for them, in the long exploration into the world around us, there are no neutral questions.”

      The question is whom should we choose to teach us, for the very framing of the question colors the plausibility of the answers that we seek.

  • Philip Zoutendam

    I certainly don’t mean this to be unkind, but I fear it can only sound that way. If an article begins by admiring the aesthetic achievements of Evangelical music, I’m already inclined against the author’s aesthetic judgments. It seems to me that, before a fruitful discussion about literature specifically could happen, we’d need to take a step back and discuss in general what makes good art.

    Nevertheless, I’ll offer this thought about Christianity and modern literature as well. If Evangelical Christians dismiss all of modern literature because it asks difficult questions–I object to the author’s assumption that “every question that is forbidden in polite society” is “corrosive”–the result will only be further alienation from the world. And I do not mean “the world” in the sense of “the secular,” but the world in the sense of “reality.”

    There is immense suffering, loneliness, doubt, and confusion in the world. That is undeniably true. Evangelical Christians, at least in their art, seem somehow unable even to acknowledge this, but rather demand that everything be happy and positive, or at least happily and positively resolved. Those aesthetic parameters will never allow for compelling art–literature, music, whatever–because they do not comprehend reality. To accept them as a position of moral strength, which seems to be what the author has counseled, is shocking.

    I belief that every Bible still includes the book of Job. That alone should refute the argument made here.

    • Keith Miller

      Have your read Matt’s book on questioning? He articulates a robust Evangelical position that underlines the importance of questioning well, but also denies that all questions are good. Would you acknowledge that there are some questions which are truly unfaithful and unfruitful?

      I’m also eager to think more about what makes good art. Do you really believe that good art must not have happy and positive resolution? As Christians, we believe that reality has such a precisely that kind of resolution. Must art be worse than reality?

      • I don’t think that is what Philip is saying. Good art does not have to be negative, but neither does Christian art have to be happy.

        At least for literature, if there is never any conflict in a story, then it is pretty hard to have a story. Something has to go on. And that reflects Christian life.

  • Robert F

    In the twentieth century the arts positioned themselves to take the place of religion in the West. Literary artists, along with the others, came to be seen as visionary and prophetic, offering new understandings and perspectives about core subjects like the meaning of life and the purpose of existence. The kind of edginess and subversion that literary writers cultivate is really just a byproduct of having to follow in the wake of an artistic tradition that has been hijacked by the spirit of Rimbaud, a spirit that makes writers aspire not only to be makers of verse or prose but makers of new worlds that can only rise when the real world that our Creator made is first razed. How could a Christian possibly aspire to write with such ambitions and still be a Christian? We already have a religion; we’re not in the business of creating either new religions or new worlds.

    • Luke W

      Would you say the “new worlds” created by Tolkien and Lewis “razed the real world that our Creator made?”

    • Keith Miller


      I’m glad you picked up on this theme from Seigel’s piece. Could you recommend further reading that touches on this idea?

  • In poetry, we’ve currently got Amy Newman, Christian Wiman, Franz Wright, Richard Chess, Andrew Hudgins, Larry Woiwode, Paul Mariani, Wendell Berry and, hopefully, even Geoffrey Hill.

    In novels, we’ve got Elizabeth Dewberry, Stephen L. Carter, Denise Giardina, Mark Helprin, Ron Hansen, Annie Dillard, Marilynne Robinson, Wendell Berry and Frederick Buechner. Did I say Mark Helprin?

    In nonfiction, we’ve got Anthony Esolen, Gregory Wolfe, Peter J. Leithart, Alan Jacobs, Roger Scruton, Marilynne Robinson and Alvin Plantinga.

    All are Christian, with various levels of orthodoxy. None are Evangelical. All are contributing to highly commendable and, at times arguably great, works of literature. Almost none are actually read by evangelicals.

    What bothers me isn’t so much that the American Evangelical tradition can’t produce any literature worth reading as the fact that they seem completely and utterly clueless as to the excellent literature being written by Christian artists right now. Sure, Mark Helprin or Christian Wiman don’t publish through Christian booksellers. But neither would Lewis or Eliot have, even if given the opportunity.

    • Erin Risch Zoutendam

      (I love Mark Helprin; he’s my favorite living writer and absolutely under-read. But I thought he was Jewish, not Christian. I’m happy to be corrected if I’m wrong.)

    • Just as an aside because I really like the names you listed off – add Maurice Manning to your list of poets. The guy is one of the Kentuckians and probably due to take up Berry’s reigns once he has passed away. Check out Bucolics for a very good list of poems.

    • Thanks. I added some of these to my reading list.

    • John Barach

      You say, “None are evangelical,” but that may depend on how you define “evangelical.”

      Larry Woiwode, as far as I know, is a member of a church in the Presbyterian Church in America. During the time he wrote most of his later books, he was a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

      Peter Leithart is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America, though currently serving as President of Trinity House in Birmingham, Alabama (, which is overseen by a church in the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches — a name that suggests that these churches see themselves as evangelical.

      Bret Lott hasn’t been mentioned, but he is also an evangelical.

      Moving outside the evangelical world, let me mention Gene Wolfe, who is a conservative Roman Catholic writer, regarded by many as one of the greatest living science fiction writers. (For an interview, see

      Speaking of Roman Catholic science fiction/fantasy authors, you could add Tim Powers ( often seems to me that his close friend James Blaylock has some Christian background/inclination, especially in, for instance, his novel All the Bells on Earth.

    • Keith Miller

      Thank you for this wonderful list, Mr. Purves. I too have added to my “To read” pile.

  • Luke W

    I wonder if the Evangelical culture has a limited ability to create great literature for the same reasons the porn industry cannot make great movies. Both must restrict their stories so they qualify for their particular label: every story must adhere to the same worldview and arrive at the same conclusion without any pretense of subtlety. For Evangelical literature, all conflict is rooted in a failure to trust/submit/repent to God. So the resolution to every story is not just predictable — like porn, the resolution to every story is the SAME.

    Both porn and Evangelical lit. are focused on eliciting one specific response through their work. Whatever his artistic ambitions, the Evangelical author is ultimately driving his audience to one unavoidable, simplistic conclusion: the one-size-fits-all solution to every problem is simply “Jesus.” For porn, the simple solution is always sex. In both cases, the final resolution is the flawless, perfect answer for the characters. Neither will depict real sex or real faith – mystery and doubt could leave the audience unsure about the solution proposed. The only regret a character might show is not giving in to the solution sooner.

    Porn has never produced Oscar winner and an Evangelical author hasn’t won a Pulitzer. Great art embraces the whole truth of the human condition, offers believable characters without air-brushing flaws that might make the audience uncomfortable, and allows for mystery and ambiguity that lets readers to draw different conclusions and debate the underlying meaning.

    • Rebecca LuElla Miller

      I’m not sure it’s fair to say there isn’t any quality Evangelical literature simply because the literary world hasn’t acknowledged it. I suggest you take a look at Patrick W. Carr’s A Cast of Stones and the newly released sequel, The Hero’s Lot. Also check out Merlin’s Blade by Robert Treskillard. There are others.

      Luke, your suggestion that art in film doesn’t “air-brush flaws” is not a realistic picture, I don’t think. They air-brush just as much as anyone else does, but in a way that tells the kind of story they want told. Christians do the same thing. But we air-brush in a countercultural way–without the kind of ambiguity the culture embraces, with hope in the face of hardship. See Kay Marshall Strom’s books set in India, for instance. There’s no air-brushing the reality of what those people suffered, but there is hope.


      • Luke W

        I believe I’ve met Patrick Carr – nice guy and like you said, a good writer. I haven’t read the other authors you mentioned, but this discussion is about the lack of Evangelical writers recognized as literary giants. I don’t think Patrick would claim his books are on the same level as C.S. Lewis. But Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, J.R.R. Tolkien and others have been acclaimed by the literary world so there is not a bias against Christian writers. But none of those examples are Evangelical Christians. As a community, Evangelicalism has yet to produce a single author of that status.

        As far as air-brushed characters, I’m thinking mainly of protagonists. You wouldn’t find the hero of your typical Christian fiction that curses when they stub their toe, smokes crack cocaine or even worse, supports gay marriage:) A writer acquaintance of mine was asked by her Christian publisher to remove a kitchen scene from her story because the protagonist cooked with wine. They said they would get complaints from their readers. Whether it was a case of a few hyper-sensitive readers or an overly cautious publisher, the character was, in my opinion, air-brushed. Would such a thing happen outside of an Evangelical publisher?

      • Darryl Hart

        Keith, what if it turns out that modernist literature is more like Ecclesiastes (which sure does question most of what we perceive about the world) than it is like hopeful expressions? If Christians are producing for other Christians, a hopeful or meaningful narrative makes sense. But if you’re writing for everyone? Then again, Solomon was writing for God’s people and he sure pushed the envelope. Could it be that Christians don’t deal well with the dark side of life (which is odd given the crucifixion standing at the center of history)?

  • William Thornton

    The message thread here should tell you why – because evangelicals don’t seem to be all that interested in reading fiction. Even most of the debate here isn’t about fiction, but about orthodoxy, theology, and Scripture relevancy. I’ve written two novels in the modern tradition that are both evangelical – “Brilliant Disguises” (for .99 cents) and “The Uncanny Valley.” ($5.99) They are both available from Both well-reviewed, but is there any demand? They are available on every e-book platform. Go get one (or both) and read it. Think of how cheap that is. If you like it, tell people. There has to be an audience for such things to succeed.

  • Brendan

    Just in case you missed it, here’s a great response. (And I recommend you take a look at the magazine *Image* and its founder, Gregory Wolfe, for more orthodox fiction authors. It’s fantastic).

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