Evangelicals have retreated, refusing to read or listen to anything that engages the world or involves serious thought. They read their own literalist tracts and live circumscribed lives. Christian bookstores carry only their own pious tomes that hardly qualify as great literature. Christian art refuses to engage with the world and has thereby become largely irrelevant, except to those seeking to affirm their own beliefs in a pious, non-challenging way.
It isn't much better for the small group of serious Christian literary writers. Indeed, at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Atlanta last week, out of over 300 panels (with some on such topics as "Deviant Fictions by Women," "Queer Poetry/Queer Myth," and "Native American Literature in the Classroom,") two panels were dedicated to Christian literature, and one only by way of Flannery O'Connor. The panel, "Fact and Mystery: The Legacy of Flannery O'Connor," was made up of a publisher of a literary journal of arts and religion and three of its writers. What I learned from this panel was that the Christian writer "writes out of moments of his own doubt."
So, the literary writer who is Christian is to express "doubt." Gee, thanks for letting us do that. We wouldn't want to offend non-Christians. We wouldn’t dare take a stand on the big questions.
The published literature reflects this axiom. Literary Christian writing today portrays the tedium of small domestic dramas. The writers and publishers of these journals are as quivering as the tenured professors who dutifully put "race, class, and gender" on their syllabi, and are afraid to mention the Trinity in class discussions.
Do the atheists express doubt? No, they have all kinds of faith in themselves--from the smug authors of atheistic apologetics to the narcissistic authors who see into "nothing," from Sartre to Jonathan Franzen.
The leftist literary writer has no qualms about promoting his politics through his fiction and poetry, as well as in his commentary. About a quarter of the contributors to the Huffington Post are creative writers--novelists, screen writers, poets, etc. In fact, they get directly involved in politics and use their cachet as writers through "Litpac," a political action committee of writers who made phone calls to voters during the 2006 elections. A luminary is Stephen Elliott, author of autobiographical sadomasochistic fiction, teacher at creative writing workshops, and a featured performer in the "Sex Workers Tour" that visited campuses across the country this year. While the non-Christian writer is rewarded for promoting sadomasochism, and blazes forward in the political arena, the Christian writer congratulates himself for expressing doubt.
Did Dante express doubt? Did Flannery O'Connor? The artist who expresses doubt is at one and the same time a coward and a tyrant. He is a coward, obviously, because he is afraid to express his faith, to go out on a limb, to be vulnerable to being wrong or attacked for his views. The doubter, the equivocator, is above criticism, and above engagement.
Writers who are Christian should not be afraid to present their ideas to a mainstream audience. The staying power of Flannery O'Connor even among nonbelievers is a testament. As they say in dancing: Lead strong even if you lead wrong. There can be no dance without a lead. There can be no memorable art from a position of doubt or neutrality.
The Christian writers of mystery plays during the Middle Ages displayed great ribald humor, of themselves and of Biblical characters. There is the great tradition of satire in the vein of Evelyn Waugh. And none of the nice pastel pious literature of today presents the horrors of hell the way Dante and Milton do. Or humor that cuts the way Flannery O'Connor's or Walker Percy's did.
What works of atheists, Buddhists, Muslims or Wiccans parallel the greatness of the literature that expands on the themes of the Bible?
It's time to engage and fight the enemy.
This is not a call for forceful conversion but an assertion that we have the right to express facts about the great Christian heritage of our art and values and the imperative to continue in that tradition as artists and writers. The alternative is an atheistic world that is scientifically sophisticated, but ugly and loveless. The works produced lately—the piles of garbage that pass as "installation art," the literature that glorifies pain and promiscuity—testify to the world atheism is ushering in.
Let's take up Milton's call in Areopagitica. We demand our rights to free speech in our intellectual centers, especially those we founded. We make up 80% of the population in this country, but in the classroom we're presented as responsible for the ills of the world and ordered to present only other religious traditions in a respectful way.
We need Christian writers who will engage with the world and write for the world.
Yes, one of the reasons for my attending this conference was to find a publisher for my novel manuscript, "Dancing with Derrida," that tackles the atheistic world that has brought us abortion, feminism, pornography, political correctness, and objectifying sex. But I am told that no "Christian" publisher will touch it. And most mainstream publishers seem to want novels that promote politically correct themes, nihilistic views of dysfunctionalism, chick lit fluff, or timid little tomes that present "doubt."
Even many conservatives have written off the arts. They believe that English departments are not very influential or important. They have turned their attention to political science departments. The conservative publishers have done the same, churning out political books every month, but no works of fiction or poetry. We need to support and promote our art. Art's effect ripples out. It promotes and sustains our culture.
Flannery O'Connor, one of the most respected writers of the twentieth century, by Christians and non-Christians alike, expressed her Christian convictions through parables. She was not afraid to say through the words of an escaped convict called the Misfit, "If [Christ] did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can—by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him." Yes, these are the two choices available, as the believer sees it. The atheist escaped convict says this right before he murders an old woman. We know what choice he made.
Sadly, O'Connor, with her dark, violent, and funny parables, would have a hard time getting published today. As a culture we are all the poorer for not promoting Christian writers who challenge our pieties.
When I was teaching at an open admissions college, many of my students were returning students. I had one middle-aged woman, a skeptic, who told me after we had discussed The Inferno that she was going to give a copy to her brother who had been thrown in jail that weekend. Dante's work, describing certain sinners spending eternity submerged in excrement (though not expressed in such polite terms by Dante), had an effect on at least one person and it was going to the jailhouse where it and other Christian works are badly needed.