Several months ago, I was in a conversation with some book lovers and Inklings fans. We had wrapped up a discussion about Dorothy Sayers, when someone in the raised an interesting question:
“You know, we talk a lot about Anglicans like Sayers and C.S. Lewis who wrote great books, and about liberal Christians like Frederic Buechner who write great books. Could we think of any current evangelical writers who are writing good books?:
Everyone got quite for a moment, and then someone suggested a writer they liked, then paused and said, “actually, I think he’s become Catholic now.”
“Yeah, they tend to go that way,” a third person noted.
This captured an interested point I’ve noticed both in my experiences and in my studies of Christian art. Generally speaking, it’s easy to find cute inspirational art by evangelicals for evangelicals, sermons that preach to the choir. If you want something more literary, or just well-crafted, you have to look for artists involved in high church denominations.
As a writer interested in well-written fiction by Christians, I’ve been involved in several book groups in Colorado Springs. One of these groups is run through a local G.K. Chesterton society and most of its members are Catholic. The other is run through a nondenominational artist’ society that seems to attract Catholics, Anglicans, and a few like me who might be called dissatisfied evangelicals.
Five years ago, when I began looking for good Christian writers, I found articles about great Christian novelists tended to follow a pattern. First the articles would mention the Inklings, then classic writers like John Milton or Fyodor Dostoevsky. Then they would mention the same 3-4 contemporary authors: Frederick Buechner, Wendell Berry, Marilynne Robinson (and occasionally Walter Wangerin). After that, the conversation tended to center around artists who were Catholic (Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, Shusako Endo) or high church. This sampling gives you an idea what I’m talking about:
When I began seeking contemporary writers who’d written good analyses of Christian art, the best analyses came from outside the standard American evangelical (middle-class, suburban, White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) background. Steve Turner (an Englishman who studied under Francis Schaeffer) has written some of the best books in the last two decades about Christianity and art/pop culture. One of the best critiques of Christian Fiction comes from lectures by novelist Simon Morden, an English writer who’s Anglican, given at Greenbelt Art Festival. Paul McCusker, who has contributed greatly to evangelical culture through his work with Focus on the Family, converted to Catholicism in 2007. Makoto Fujimura (a Japanese-American Protestant, married to a Catholic American) is currently one of the best writers on Christianity and art. The big exception to this rule was Jeffrey Overstreet, author of From A Screen Darkly.
The big exception to this rule seems to be Presbyterians. Writer Frederick Buechner is an ordained Presbyterian minister (although Jeffrey Munroe suggests his theology owes a lot to Pentecostalism). Film scholar and filmmaker Paul Schrader, who wrote an excellent book on film and spirituality, comes from a fundamentalist Calvinist background, and currently describes himself as Presbyterian. Film director Scott Derrickson (best-known for directing Doctor Strange) figures largely in Overstreet’s book, and describes himself as a Presbyterian with an affinity for Catholic writers like Chesterton.
So, if you’re looking for contemporary Christians who make great art, you could broadly say they tend to be high church or Presbyterian. Over the next few blog posts, I’m going to present some thoughts on what may attract artists to high church denominations, in contrast to American evangelical culture. Some of this material intersects with an article series I wrote several years ago for The Odyssey Online, you can find that material here:
Because Presbyterianism seems to be the big exception in this discussion, I will present some thoughts here on why that may be the big expection.
The artists I’ve mentioned have cited different reasons they ended up being Presbyterians, but arguably a key reason they’ve stayed is Presbyterians tends to have strong intellectual subcultures. Jared Byas talk about this in Love Matters More, is early zeal for intellectualism and how Presbyterianism filled that desire. At one point, he refers to Presbyterianism as “the mecca (not to mix metaphors… or religions?) of ‘faith built on knowing’ stuff.”
Byas ultimately felt this led him to put too much trust in his intellect (a point which I’ve heard other people who grew up Presbyterian make). At its best though, Presbyterians are comfortable asking intellectual questions, appreciating nuance and complexity. This provides not just good training for theology, but also good training for discussing art.
Consequently, like the best strands of high church theology, Presbyterianism has a tradition that emphasizes learning, which enables them to create solid communities for artists. Other strains of American evangelicalism don’t have this advantage because they’ve struggled to produce deep thinkers. Harry Blamires talks about seeing this problem from a United Kingdom context in his 1963 book The Christian Mind, but the problem has been especially noticeable in the United States.
Various reasons have been given for evangelicals’ anti-intellectual strain. Thomas S. Kidd notes in his book America’s Religious History that fundamentalism, the religious movement that modern-day American evangelicalism was borne from, partly arose from evolution debates, which meant many fundamentalists and evangelicals have been suspicious of science as a subject. Many fundamentalists were also reacting against post-Enlightenment schools of German theology which downplayed Jesus’ divinity or the Gospels’ depictions of miracles (see Mark Strass on this). Consequently, many fundamentalists and evangelicals have been wary of seminaries. Several contributors to A History of Apologetics state that many Christians academics left universities during the 1960s, which made Christian philosophers like Richard Swinburne and Alvin Plantinga so vital: they came in at a dark time and proved that “Christian scholar” wasn’t a contradiction in terms.
Anti-intellectualism has had a variety of effects, affecting everything from C.S. Lewis scholarship to seminary attendance. At a wide level, it’s also made it hard for evangelicals to create church subcultures that value nuanced discussions and careful listening, factors which cultivate good artists. In that respect, it’s not surprising that Presbyterianism seems to attract the artists who don’t become Anglicans or Catholics.
Come back next week for the next installment of “Why Do High Churches Get All the Good Artists?”