A brief update to “The Curious Difficulty of Numinous Fiction”
A friend (who serves as a missionary in Latvia) shared this comment via my wife’s Facebook page (I, myself, still a Zuckerberg denier):
“Here are a couple thoughts in reaction: 1) Maybe one reason American Protestants (I think really it is more of an “evangelical” problem than a protestant one) don’t write better fiction is that there is insufficient market for it. I mean, why does LifeWay sell Thomas Kinkade prints and not better art? 2) Here I am just thinking out loud; this is just an idea for conversation/controversy. You ask: ‘Why is it that those who take the Bible most literally and believe Reformed doctrine most fully write fiction most dreadfully?’ Maybe that is the problem? Evangelicals (again, I think it is more of an evangelical problem than a Protestant one) have a need to read too much literally and insufficiently value symbol, indirection, “telling the truth slant” (to borrow a phrase from Emily Dickinson). And perhaps Reformed doctrine thinks everything can be systemetized into neat boxes, or sees too much in black and white, instead of shades of gray in which real life is lived. I would suggest that neither of those two ways of thinking are helpful for good fiction. By the way, it seems to me that John Updike, John Irving, and Frederick Buechner should figure in the discussion.”
“a priest’s mumblings”—no matter how much they appreciate us Catholics, they really are Prots, down at the root. https://t.co/mrFWmsLS8F
— Joseph Bottum (@JosephBottum) April 30, 2015
These two comments bark up the same tree, or at least toward the same corner of the woods.
In the first instance, I did tend to conflate “Protestant” with “evangelical” in the first post. These are often-overlapping but separate categories (to the extent to which “evangelical” is a meaningful category). The larger Protestant world (whose denizens hold to vastly varying degrees of religious devotion) really doesn’t have the paucity of fiction-writers that evangelicals do. Moreover, to oversimplify American evangelicalism, there are two predominant strains: the emotionally devout but theologically vacuous (which makes up much of popular evangelical culture and its cadre of less-than-stellar art), and the theologically and emotionally serious (which tends to appreciate art but shy away from creating it for fear of leading people astray).
This, I think is what my friend was critiquing–our theological piety limits artistic vision, whether by fear of showing any darkness or fear of getting God wrong. I don’t have a real answer to that (especially since my post was an extended question on the matter) beyond noting that art & doctrine can be in dialogue, but that the deliberate striving for certainty which undercuts truth in art is a great asset to its application in doctrine. Art moves us, but how it works depends as much on the receiver as the transmitter. Doctrine, on the other hand, is the (incomplete and imperfect, to be sure) outworking of our desire to grow together in the likeness of the Son. We should of course, be moved by God’s own revelation in Scripture (which encompasses many genres) to model His use of language in our own. He gives us the ability to creatively work across disciplines without summoning any of His beloved yet finite creatures to omnicompetence. We ought not try to shoehorn everyone into one mode of expression; some things need to be told slant, others directly, and even that depends on circumstance and hearers.
As to my non-mentioning of Updike, Irving, and Buechner, I can only chalk that up to my non-reading of Updike, Irving, and Buechner. I can plead, for the moment, “so many books, so little time.” Still, I did find Gerald McDermott’s analysis of Updike interesting, and I have read some of Buechner’s theology, which frustrated me for the same reasons his fiction might hit home. I’ll add some to the to-read pile.
In the second, my own evangelical Protestantism (how’s that for more conflation) necessarily shows in what I write and say. To Bottum’s critique, I am a “Prot” at the root. Though I have good friends (and many favorite authors) among the Roman faithful, deep disagreements with Catholic doctrine (none of which are unique to me) keep me on the outside looking in. I do admire many Catholics, and my melancholy-choleric self secretly envies their structured, hierarchical church management.
This is where the two comments converge. The things that make me a Protestant (sola fide, sola gratia, sola scriptura, solus Christus) generally circumvent the more mystical vision of life and godliness found in Catholicism. Both of us have a propensity to (as I’ve said before) believe our particular theology more than we believe the Bible. God, in His mercy, can bring glory to Himself through and in spite of our failing. If we take all the truth of God and “tell it slant”, we do readers and hearers a great evil. If we try to make God lie down in a Procrustean bed of our own making, we’re not honoring him either. The best theology works to make the bed fit God, not the other way around, and the best fiction always reminds us to be mindful of our own flaws.