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.
W. Dale Brown argues in his introduction to Conversations with American Writers that there is a misconception that a good story involves pain. He quotes a letter to Walker Percy which questions whether a Catholic can write a good novel because novels are about sinners. Walter Wangerin, quoted in Brown’s earlier book of interviews, argues that every story has a sinner and that in well-told sermon anecdotes, the preacher is the sinner.
This is an interesting perspective which raises a big question: if storytelling is a God-given thing that can be used for good, how can it rely on sin? One possible answer (which I mentioned in the last post) is that stories are not necessarily about sin, but they are about problems, something that creates conflict. Even in a sinless world, humans would be finite, not knowing everything and having to grow in various ways. At minimum, that would create comedic stories where humans laughed at themselves when they realized their misconceptions (Lewis creates some very entertaining stories from this concept in The Great Divorce). Even granting that work did not become toil until after sin (Genesis 3:17-19), humans would not have superhuman strength, so some things would still require effort. That would create space for stories about physical trials, although perhaps without the stark darkness of wilderness survival stories.
Another important point is that some of the best stories involve tension, which would arguably exist even in a sinless world. Theologians routinely talk about how the Bible describes doctrines that seem initially to contradict each other, but which work in balance. Paul’s emphasis on grace seems at odds with James’ emphasis on works, but in fact they go together. It’s a question of ideas balancing each other out in the proper context (which is hard for humans to see much of the time, because we are not omniscient).
Storytellers who understand this kind of tension can create stories with compelling themes. For example, Matthew Dickerson argues in his essay for Songs from the Silent Passage that Walter Wangerin has repeatedly written about “one who must pass through utter devastation, loss, and brokenness before being able, finally, to taste God’s grace and goodness.” Of course, many of these characters do sin in their struggles to justify themselves and avoid seeing their need for grace. However, the struggle of not knowing how to accept grace may not be sin as much as ignorance, and Tricia Lott Williford argues in This Book is For You that ignorance itself is not a sin.
Many other classics deal with theologian concepts which seem to contradict each other, but must be held in tandem. Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy tells the life story of Michelangelo, framing it as the artist trying to balance a high view of humans as God’s creation with a recognition of humanity’s fallen nature. Stone describes Michelangelo’s early mentors who introduced him to the philosophy of humanism, and how that led to Michelangelo depicting beautiful human bodies to show the divine design within man. As Michelangelo says to himself in the novel, “God did not create us to abandon us!” Philosophers have noted how humanism ultimately moved to the idea of human as supreme and not needing God. Makoto Fujimura argues that the implied philosophy in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel painting “paved the way to Oscar Wilde and Friedrich Nietzsche.” This may well be the logical extent of humanist thought. Arguably though, at least for at least for Michelangelo, the point was to emphasize that humanity is fearfully and wonderfully made. One could argue that Michelangelo didn’t balance the “sin vs. divine design” conflict well enough, but that takes us back to the idea that these ideas must be balanced, which is never easy.
Another example, closer to Wangerin’s work, is the unlikely saint stories of Frederick Buechner. Buechner described himself as fascinated by saints, but not in the way that most people understand saints. Most people think of saints as the spiritual equivalent of eagle scouts, but Buechner concluded that sainthood is something bestowed on a person, a trait where everyone who touches the saint’s life comes away better. These saints are not always clean-living – Godric, like Wangerin’s Saint Julian, follows a man trying to outrun his own darkness. The Leo Bebb stories follow an ex-con who runs a “religious instruction” which is actually a diploma mill. Despite these characters’ flaws, they serve as peculiar channels for grace. The line between depravity and sainthood proves to be very ambiguous, partly due to humans’ complex natures and partly due to God’s interesting habit of bestowing grace on those who seem the least deserving.
This idea that religious concepts have to be held in balance can be difficult for many evangelicals, due to the high interest in a certain kind of apologetics. Many popular apologetics books, from Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ or Alisa Childers’ Another Gospel?, give the impression that all the big religious questions can be answered easily. Paradox? No such thing in Christianity. Nuance? Who needs it? Five minutes with the latest apologetics book or pamphlet or podcast, and all our concerns will be answered definitively.
Of course, the best apologists admit this is a false impression. Honest Christian philosophers will say that while there are answers to the problem of evil, at least this side of eternity there is no definitive answer to it. Alec Hill, president emeritus of InterVarsity, notes in Living in Bonus Time that the Bible doesn’t give one single answer to the problem of evil. It gives several answers that address different aspects of the problem of evil. Recently, apologists have shifted toward storytelling techniques that recognize nuance, paradox and the human need for wonder. Joshua Chatraw’s Telling a Better Story is a good example of this newer trend.
Still, the popular impression many evangelicals have gotten from apologetics is that all religious questions can be answered easily, that paradox and balance aren’t necessary. Much less has been said about human limitations, or about the fact that the Bible doesn’t just give answers, it provides answers that speak to our desire for good stories. This not only misses what apologetics is capable of and how interesting religious studies can be, it also makes it hard to nourish creative abilities. Learning to live with nuance, paradox and a healthy understanding of one’s limits is important to developing a good storytelling craft. Goodness and foolishness, sin and grace, tragedy and victory, and a dose of mystery – these are all concepts that a good artist appreciates, balances and lives with. The fact many evangelicals feel they need to downplay or ignore half these concepts and the whole idea of balance makes it hard to cultivate really creative evangelicals.