The following is part of a series on American evangelicals, considering why American Christian artists who produce high quality work tend to Catholic, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox or other high church denominations.
“You need to remember this. The cat sat on the mat. That’s not a story. But the cat sat on a dog’s mat. Now that’s a story.” – John le Carré
This quote captures one of the simplest lessons of writing a good story: stories are about problems. The problems don’t necessarily have to be big. Jan Karon talked in an interview with Dale Brown about her Mitford series being about everyday people, but capturing the “little drama” of everyday life, which done well is very compelling. The problems don’t have to be unsolvable – although Dale Brown points out much modern fiction seems to believe that. The fact that there are problems does not necessarily mean the story relies on sin either. Tricia Lott Williford points out in This Book is For You that ignorance is not necessarily a sin (unless it’s willful). Even in a sinless world, humans would not be all-knowing. That gap between what finite humans see and an all-knowing God sees can create a very interesting story (Lewis’ The Great Divorce is a great example of this). Regardless of whether the problem involves sin or how messy the problem is, it must be there for a story to take place.
Because stories are generally about humans or characters with human qualities, the best storytellers understand how fallen and foolish humans can be. Storytellers should also understand human goodness, but it’s hard to make goodness interesting in a story without some human fallibility in there. Matthew Dickerson has noted that C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books are unusual because Aslan is perfectly good yet thoroughly engaging. Read the Aslan scenes carefully and you’ll notice that Lewis usually builds the scenes around fallible characters meeting Aslan, being frightened or confused, and Aslan comforting them while confronting them. Sometime Aslan confronts them about their sins. Sometimes he just helps them to see what they’ve been missing. A Christian storyteller needs to not just understand hope and resurrection, but also humanity’s capacity for sin and foolishness.
What does all this have to do about high church Christianity versus evangelical Christianity? Quite a lot, actually. It’s been said many times that American evangelicals are very interested in salvation, but rarely talk about sin or penance. You’d be hard-pressed to find an evangelical church that has done a substantial sermon or Sunday school class on humanity’s sin nature in recent memory. Everyone wants to talk about freedom in Christ, less about the limits we experience in this life. Look at a sampling of books about suffering by evangelical publishers (This Too Shall Last, Hurting Yet Whole, or the aptly titled Depression, Anxiety and Other Things We Don’t Want to Talk About) and you’ll notice most of them are about people discovering that sin’s effects are hard to shrug off, wondering why their churches never taught them that, and ignoring flippant advice. Partly this problem is due to the fact that evangelical culture is essentially suburban, and sin’s not a nice, uplifting topic that suburbanites can idly chat about on their way home. Another key reason is evangelicalism has tended to downplay the fact God created humans’ physical bodies and said they were good; particularly in the 1990s premillennialism fad, evangelical teachers implied the point of being human is getting through life until we get beamed (or rather, raptured) up into our renewed heavenly bodies.
In contrast, high church denominations tend to be very aware of sin and human fallibility. Peter Hitchens talks in Rage Against God about returning to Anglicanism in his thirties and finding Thomas Cranmer’s emphasis on penitence to be an honest picture of the human condition, a reminder that humans beings are “miserable offenders” in the face of God’s perfect goodness. Lewis (who we often forget was a committed Anglican) captures the value of penance in many of his stories, which often follow characters who suffer on their way to finding God. Eustace becomes a dragon, and must have his dragon skin ripped off him. Shasta sees Aslan from afar at first, and spends a frightful night in the Calormene tombs before he can come to know Aslan. Mark Studdock has to be taken to task by one of his wife’s friends and then thrown in a cell before he admits how self-centered he has become. Lewis’ stories are uplifting, but deeply penitential. We can argue whether some high church traditions emphasize original sin too much and become legalistic. However, the point is high churches usually understand very well the darkness that humans are capable of, and aren’t afraid to preach it. This gives artists who attend high churches a good grounding in dramatic conflict, which leads to good storytelling.
Since evangelicalism lacks this sense of the physical, the sinful and the penitential, Christian Fiction novels (a particularly evangelical product) rarely describe struggles in compelling ways. Inspirational Christian fiction novels often feature at least one character with a blatant flaw – a prideful mother, a cruel authoritarian schoolteacher, etc. Generally these characters don’t have any solid motivation for their behavior, and no one in the story is as vile as they are. Once in a while, a book like The Key to Everything will come along that give the villain a backstory, and it feels deeply refreshing. The rest of the time, to borrow a phrase from film critic Mark Kermode, these characters “appear ex nihilo” with no detailed explanation for what made them.
Not only that, but generally these characters don’t admit their problems. Sometimes they are mentioned in the last chapter as having showed up years later and apologized, or as having become nicer without too much detail about what changed them. In other words, there’s never a clear sense of repentance. The characters fade into the background and disappear, or return having become all cuddly from something offstage. Even when Christian Fiction characters repent or seek forgiveness, it’s frequently handled in a way that’s not compelling or respectful (see Traitor’s Pawn). Sometimes it feels contrived and ridiculous, as in The Gryphon Heist where a reformed assassin more or less tricks someone into forgiving him. People switch from being hurt to being fully reconciled at the touch of a switch… which makes reconciliation look easy and therefore not dramatically interesting. Traditions that honestly look at humanity create space for good storytelling. Traditions that downplay sin or repentance have a very hard time telling good stories or creating interesting characters. Consequently, it’s not surprising that evangelical authors have struggled to write those kind of stories, which high church authors have excelled.