Thou hast conquered, O pale galilean, and the world has grown gray with Thy breath.” Thus concluded the poet Charles Swinburne about the wearisome effect of Christianity on culture at large.

I can speak comfortably only about the field of writing, and some conclude that it indeed has grown gray in recent years. Is Christian literature penetrating culture, or is the fissure separating Christian readers from the broader public yawning ever wider?

An underlying question haunts me as a Christian author: Why should anyone read anything religious? Hundreds of Christian books have crossed my desk in the last decade and, I must admit, after a time they can seem to look and sound alike. I have watched literary sparks flare up in the Jewish and Catholic subcultures, but why have evangelicals produced so few classics?

I have tried to analyze trends in the books I have seen in order to erect “Caution!” signs around the pitfalls of Christian writing. Below, I outline four criticisms of Christian writing, criticisms that I accept for myself, as a Christian author. I do not intend to point to specific negative examples, and therefore must paint “Christian writing” with a very broad brush. Will high standards of quality improve sales? Who knows? I am convinced, however, that we Christian authors must strive for higher literary standards for our works to be taken seriously in the world at large. A captive audience will read indiscriminately; a skeptical or even hostile audience must be lured.

Thought Without Art

Too often Christian writing performs a kind of literary decapitation: we render the head without the body, the thought without the art. We allow someone to speak to us with his or her brain only, while keeping concealed the background and context that produced those thoughts. For example, we will record Christian leaders’ thoughts about lifestyles without delving into how they spend their own money and free time. In our profiles of Christian leaders, we give little regard to the stages of development and processes that contributed to form their opinions.

Numerous examples in the secular world should teach us how a person’s head can be artfully connected to his body, and John McPhee is one of the best practitioners. McPhee resists the moniker of nonfiction—and why indeed should a category of writing be labeled by what it is not? Preferring “the literature of fact,” he has led the way in showing how fact can be written as good literature.

I think especially of McPhee’s book Encounters With the Archdruid, in which he sets conservationist David Brower against the forces that would destroy his beloved nature. Of the scores of articles and books I have read analyzing the clash between industrial growth and natural resource conservation, none comes close to McPhee’s artful presentation. He sets the stage by describing the adversaries.

Article continues below

Brower hardly resembles the stereotyped forest ranger or mountain hiker: he is balding and, except for a potbelly, seems frail, with pale legs like toothpicks protruding from his shorts. But he has led the fight for conservation, first with the Sierra Club and then with the John Muir Institute. (And, incidentally, he has climbed nearly every mountain in America over 14,000 feet.)

Floyd Dominy is Brower’s exact opposite: a tall, good-looking cowboy who wears a ten-gallon hat, smokes a fat cigar, and spins one yarn after another. Starting back in Dust Bowl days, Dominy devoted his life to building dams and eventually rose to the position of head of the Bureau of Land Management. He and Brower constantly lock horns, especially in courtrooms, as Brower seeks injunctions to halt Dominy’s latest dam project. Everything you would want to know about the complex growth/no growth decisions confronting civilization is contained in McPhee’s book, but embodied in an absorbing style. Entertaining personalities come to stand as archetypes for the philosophies they represent.

In one sequence, McPhee takes a rafting trip down the Colorado River with Brower and Dominy. There, in the surging rapids of the Colorado, between the gorges of the Grand Canyon, around a fire on the great river’s banks, we get to know the two men and observe the collision of two powerful movements in Western civilization. Perhaps McPhee does not include as many histrionic facts about the clash as other reporters and journalists might have done, but no one I have read captures the conflict more graphically. McPhee gives us the ideas behind each movement in an unforgettable narrative form.

George Plimpton accomplished the same result in a different arena with an article in Harper’s. He wished to feature Marianne Moore, a demure Catholic poet. But who today reads articles on poets, even if this poet is one of the greatest? In a stroke of great ingenuity, Plimpton succeeded by linking her with one of the worst poets, but most colorful characters, of our time. He set up a luncheon between Moore and Muhammad Ali, and simply recorded what happened.

What happened was that Muhammad Ali decided to honor Marianne Moore by letting her participate with him on a joint effort. His topic: a fight with Ernie Terrell. Plimpton describes the hilarious interaction of Ali and the utterly intimidated Moore. The two finally do produce a “poem.” Writes Plimpton, “While we waited, he told me that he was going to get the poem out over the Associated Press wire that afternoon. Mrs. Moore’s eyes widened. The irony of all those years struggling with Broom and all the other literary magazines, and now to be with a fighter who promised instant publication over a ticker. It did not help the flow of inspiration. She was doubtlessly intimidated by Ali’s presence, especially at his obvious concern that she, a distinguished poet, was having such a hard time holding up her side. In his mind speed of delivery was very much a qualification of a professional poet.”

Article continues below

In his indirect way, Plimpton exposes American culture and its values, and the role of art and entertainment in that culture. He achieves that in a holistic and incarnational manner. His treatment is memorable, but not shrill; in fact, he never draws the moral for his readers. The article itself is the message—the implication of that bizarre lunch being the only way to gain national exposure for Marianne Moore.

In contrast to McPhee and Plimpton, Christian authors tend to give only the ideas and thoughts, without tracing the personalities involved and the context of how those thoughts developed. Too often religious books are organized and written like sermons, with an outlined structure superimposed on the content.

Many successful evangelical authors are not authors at all; they are speakers who make their living by speaking at churches and conferences. One can hardly blame them for organizing their written material in the same way as their spoken material, and often it sells well. But speakers who write books in the same style defy the basic rules of communication. Writers cannot merely list facts and hope to penetrate readers’ brains. They must take readers on an emotional journey to hold their attention. People do not read the same way they listen, and a book-speech is effective only among an audience previously committed to agree with the material. It cannot reach out to a noncaptive audience such as a world skeptical of Christian ideas. That requires books created according to the rules of written communication.

An author cannot captivate an audience with his or her own personal magnetism as a speaker can. Authors must use such techniques as a gripping narrative style, well-placed anecdotes, suspense, and a structure that compels a reader to follow the train of thought. To a diverse audience, ideas come across best when they are embodied and live within a visual, imaginable context.

Article continues below

Of contemporary Christian writers working in the field of “nonfiction,” I know of no one who finds more consistent artistic success than Frederick Buechner. He tackles truly formidable tasks in his choice of material: retold Bible stories (Peculiar Treasures); jazzed-up theology (Wishful Thinking); sermons (Magnificent Defeat, The Hungering Dark); and even a fictionalized biography of a saint (Godric). In each of these genres Buechner applies his sharply honed novelist’s skills, and it is impossible to fault the books for didacticism or boredom.

In Telling The Truth, Buechner constructed a book around one thematic sentence: “The gospel is, in some ways, like a tragedy, a comedy and a fairy tale.” It covers old ground but, through wise use of images and allusions to literary sources as disparate as King Lear and The Wizard of Oz, Buechner makes the basic facts of the gospel glow as though he has just discovered the truth in a pottery jar in the Middle East.

Is it merely incidental that some of the most effective Christian apologists in this century—C. S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, George MacDonald, G. K. Chesterton—drank deeply at the well of fiction? There they learned the need to construct even their more theological works with the flair of a novelist.

Supernature Without Nature

G. K. Chesterton proposed a theory to explain the Dark Ages, that wasteland of painting, music, writing, and the other arts. Could they, he asked, be a necessary interlude after the Roman and Greek defilement and before the discovery of the true Romance? Nature had, in fact, been spoiled. “It was no good telling such people to have a natural religion full of stars and flowers. There was not even a flower or a star that had not been stained. They had to go into the desert, the monasteries, where they could find no flowers or even into the cavern where they could see no stars … Pan was nothing but panic. Venus was nothing but venereal vice.”

Gradually against this gray background beauty began to appear, something fresh and delicate. In Saint Francis of Assisi, the flowers and stars recovered their first innocence, fire and water were deemed worthy to be the brother and sister of a saint. The purge of paganism was complete at last, and Christians began to rediscover nature with a rush. The greatest blossoming of art in all of history, the Renaissance, immediately followed.

Article continues below

Several centuries later, however, the scientific revolution sent new shock waves through the church, from which we have not yet recovered. Nature and supernature split apart. The church abandoned nature to the physicists and geologists and biologists, retreating to the more limited purlieu of theological speculation. The scientists, in turn, abandoned the supernatural to the church and the paranormalists.

Too often today Christian writers tiptoe around God’s creation; it is simply “matter,” unworthy of the attention granted supernatural issue. (Similarly, says Jacques Ellul, science avoids questions of supernature to such an extent that it puts on blinders and severely restricts intellectual thought.) It is time for Christian writers to rediscover our natural environment and the characteristics of true humanity. By avoiding nature we divorce ourselves from the greatest images and carriers of supernature, and our writing loses its chief advantage, the ability to mimic creation. When Tolstoy describes spring, the wonder of tiny flowers poking up through the thawing tundra, he invests in it the same exuberance and significance that he gives to a description of Christian conversion. It too is an expression of God’s world. As a result, both passages stir up the feeling of longing in a sensitive reader. People live in the world of nature; we must first affirm that and plumb its meaning before leading them on to supernature.

Recently some fine authors have led the way in attempting to reveal nature as a carrier for supernature. Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was a landmark in that genre. Lewis Thomas applies the same approach but from a less explicitly religious viewpoint. Response to these two authors demonstrates the hunger in readers for a more holistic approach to the world. Nature and supernature are not two separate worlds; they are different expressions of the same reality, and effective writing must deal with both.

In a brief passage, Pablo Neruda shows what can be done with the subject of writing itself, the choice of words as carriers of expression: “You can say anything you want, yes sir, but it is the words that sing; they soar and descend. I bow to them, I love them, I cling to them, I run them down, I bite into them, I melt them down. I love words so much: the unexpected ones; the ones I wait for greedily are stalked until, suddenly, they drop. Vowels I love: they glitter like colored stones, they leap like silver fish. They are foam, thread, metal, dew. I run after certain words. They are so beautiful I want to fit them all into my poem. I catch them in mid-flight as they buzz past. I trap them, clean them, peel them. I set myself in front of a dish: they have a crystalline texture to me: vibrant, ivory, vegetable, oily, like fruit, like algae, like agate, like olive. And then I stir them, I shake them, I drink them, I gulp them down, I garnish them, I let them go. I leave them in my poem like stalactites, like slivers of polished wood, like coal, pickings from a shipwreck, gifts from the waves. Everything exists in the word.”

Article continues below

The concept of creation is, at heart, a Christian concept. That thought did not exist among the Greeks, who instead used the word techna, from which we derive our word “technological.” The great Greek poets and playwrights thought in terms of arranging or manufacturing their works; they had no model of divine creatio ex nihilo to mimic. It staggers me that we Christians so blithely forfeit our opportunity to explore that magnificently created world. We fly instead to a supernatural world so elevated from our fringe readers that they cannot possibly make the leap.

Conversely, when we discuss the realm of the supernatural, we must do so with unflinching realism. An article I read recently described a solemn vigil in which the author, standing before the Washington Monument, listened reverentially as someone read aloud the names of thousands of those killed by the Hiroshima bomb. He was participating in some anniversary sponsored by an antiwar group. He described a terrible dilemma: while doing his very best to concentrate on the horrible immolation of Hiroshima’s victims, his mind ineluctably dragged him back to the more immediate present: the pain of his aching feet. His weak arches could not bear this vigil. Similarly, why cannot we be honest about such spiritual acts as praying and truly portray the dilemma of unholy people performing holy acts while contemplating fallen arches, twitching eyelids, and wobbly knees?

In short, we need a more supernatural awareness of the natural world and a deeper natural sensitivity to the supernatural world. In our art the two must come together, and fuse.

Action Without Tension

Sometimes when I read Christian books, especially in the fields of fiction and biography, I have a suspicion that characters have been strangely lobotomized. It is as if an invasion of body snatchers has sucked out the humanity I know and replaced it with a sterilized imitation. Just as a lobotomy flattens out emotional peaks and valleys, Christian writers can tend to safely reduce life’s tensions and strains to a more acceptable level.

Article continues below

A biblical book such as Jeremiah or Hosea spends a full chapter describing, in graphic terms, Israel’s resemblance to a harlot who goes awhoring, sleeping with every nation that comes down the street. We tend to take those same thoughts and express them as “God is mad at us,” or “God is disappointed in Israel.” Tragically, we also miss the emotional force of forgiveness that follows such gross adultery. We lobotomize the relationship between God and ourselves, and ourselves and other people.

We express theological concepts without the emotion, the drama, or the tension. Old Testament Jews understood the full impact of words like atonement and forgiveness: they watched as the priest slid a knife across the spurting artery of a fear-stiffened lamb.

A perverse fear of overstatement keeps us confined to that flatland realm of “safe” emotions and tensions—a fear that seems incredible in light of the biblical model. Why is it that 300-page novelizations of biblical characters somehow seem more stereotyped than the 5-page description in the original source? As a beginning, we must turn to the masters of good writing and learn how tension and emotion can be expressed in print. Of modern authors, few excel James Dickey, John Updike, and William Faulkner in ability to take the most ordinary event, say, a dinner conversation, and render it in a captivating manner. As for drama, Dickey can sustain a climb up a hundred-foot cliff for 50 pages, keeping the reader’s heart pounding violently all the way. These skills can be acquired, but only through intense study and effort.

Far more difficult is the task of weaving morality into the fabric of the narrative. We Christian writers lapse in thinking of the world in terms of good or evil instead of the inseparable mixture of good and evil present in every person and nearly every action. Earlier times yearned for caricatured saints; they ascribed miracles when there were none. Our time scoffs at miracles and debunks saints. In order to communicate to a skeptical audience, Christian writers must temper their portrayal of good with a strong emphasis on realism.

Again, successful models abound. Consider Dostoevski, perhaps the greatest “interior” novelist, who displayed such profound insight into the human psyche. His Christ figure, the protagonist of The Idiot, appears as a strange, unpredictable epileptic prince. His goodness, though, is unquestioned, and The Idiot’s final scene presents perhaps the most moving depiction of grace in all of literature: the “idiot” prince compassionately embracing the man who has just killed his lover. In Crime and Punishment, Dostoevski presents the darkest side of human nature, but even there the deranged murderer softens in the glow of Sonya’s love. Somehow Dostoevski accomplishes both justice and forgiveness. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevski presents a truly good man, but counterbalances that character with two brothers. How is it that, a hundred years after Dostoevski, Christian literature has, by and large, fallen back into a heroes-and-villains mentality?

Article continues below

A few novelists manage a believable blending of good and evil. Interestingly, these all present a badly flawed protagonist, seemingly a sine qua non of modern literature. Consider the whiskey priest in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, Mauriac’s irascible curmudgeon in Viper’s Tangle, Bernanos’s frail saint in Diary of a Country Priest, and Buechner’s tragicomic evangelist in the Leo Bebb series.

Light Without Darkness

Reading religious books sometimes reminds me of traveling through a mile-long mountain tunnel. Inside the tunnel, headlights provide the crucial illumination; without them I would drift dangerously toward the tunnel walls. But as I near the tunnel exit, a bright spot of light appears that soon engulfs my headlights and makes them useless. When I emerge from the tunnel, a “check headlights” sign reminds me that I still have them on. In comparison to the light of day they are so faint that I have lost awareness of them.

Christian books are normally written from a perspective outside the tunnel. The author’s viewpoint is already so flooded with light that the author forgets the blank darkness inside the tunnel where many of his or her readers are journeying. We forget that, to someone in the middle of the mile-long tunnel, descriptions of blinding light can easily seem unreal.

When I pick up many Christian books, I get the same sensation as when I read the last page of a novel first. I know where it’s going before I start. We desperately need authors with the skill to portray evolving viewpoints and marks of progression along the spiritual journey as accurately and sensitively as they show the light outside the tunnel.

Article continues below

I think of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury or Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as examples of shifting points of view. Kesey tells his tale through the viewpoint of the mute Indian who, at the beginning, is thoroughly insane. As McMurphy weaves his liberating spell on 12 fellow inmates, however, the qualities of courage, hope, and self-confidence suddenly seep into that human prison. You can watch the Indian edge toward sanity as the book progresses; his own narrative begins to make more sense. Near the end of the book, Kesey slips in an unexpected hint that perhaps there is only one truly insane person in the entire asylum—McMurphy, the one who seemed defiantly sane. At last McMurphy is lobotomized and brought back to the ward strapped to a frame in a symbolic cruciform posture, and the captives (12) finally rebel. The movie version, of course, did not capture that subtlety; the medium cannot sustain it.

Kesey’s book succeeds because he writes as compellingly from the insane person’s point of view as from the sane person’s, just as Dostoevski in Karamazov argued the agnostic’s views as strenuously as the believer’s. Christian books should allow the reader to understand lack of faith as well as faith; if not, they will be read only by those predisposed to belief. The insanity must sound like insanity, not just glimmers of insanity as recalled by the sane. Doubt must sound like true doubt. In the middle of the tunnel, where one can barely fathom a headlight, pure daylight may blind.

These four criticisms of religious writing I accept for myself. Other Christian authors share my perceptions and are working hard to raise the standards of religious publishing.

Dorothy L. Sayers dedicated one of her books: “In the name of One who assuredly never bored one in the thirty-three years He passed through the world like a flame.” But we Christian authors must confess to having bored plenty of people. So far the evangelical reading public has been tolerant, buying millions of books of uneven quality each year. But a saturation point is inevitable. If Christian writing is not only to maintain interest in the forgiving Christian audience, but also to arouse interest in the skeptical world beyond the Christian subculture, then it must grow up.

If we need models of how to do it well, we need only look as far as the Bible. Only 10 percent of the Bible’s material, the Epistles, is presented in a thought-organized format. The rest contains rollicking love stories, drama, history, poetry, and parables. There humanity is presented as realistically as in any literature.

Article continues below

Why else do the paired books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles exist, if not to give a detailed context to the environment in which angry prophets were to deliver their messages? Can we imagine a more skillful weaving of nature and supernature than the great nature psalms, the theological high drama of Job, and the homespun parables of Jesus? What literary characters demonstrate a more subtle mixture of good and evil than David, or Jeremiah, or Jacob? And, from the despair of Ecclesiastes to the conversion narratives of Acts, is any wave-length on the spectrum of faith and doubt left unexpressed in the Bible?

C. S. Lewis once likened his role as a Christian writer to an adjective humbly striving to point others to the Noun of truth. For people to believe that Noun, we Christian writers must improve our adjectives.

Tim Stafford is a free-lance writer living in Santa Rosa, California. He is a distinguished contributor to several magazines. His latest book is Do You Sometimes Feel Like a Nobody? (Zondervan, 1980).

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.