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.
It’s been said so many times it’s almost passé, but evangelical entertainment isn’t known for deep treatments of spiritual problems. There are plenty of Christian Fiction novels and inspirational Christian films that try to be topical by talking about prominent religious questions (abortion, scientism, etc.) but it’s rare to find an author who handles these ideas in a compelling way. Instead, you get generic discussions based on clichés, and everything gets wrapped up in a tidy way. Doubt and fear wilt in the face of quick inspirational answers.
In contrast to that, there’s a reasonably strong undercurrent of literature by high church Christians that explores “the dark religious quest” or “dark night of the soul stories.” These aren’t just stories about spiritual struggle, but are frequently stories about “the negative way,” finding God through unexpected paths and byways. In these stories, characters have weaknesses, yet many times they find God inside their trials. Fyodor Dostoevsky and Flannery O’Connor (whose works have been compared in interesting ways) wrote compelling stories about twisted people trying to determine their spiritual beliefs. Graham Green’s novels, particularly The End of the Affair and The Power and the Glory, are filled with contradictory characters who may not be trying to find God but who discover God was seeking them all the same. Shūsako Endō’s book Silence takes a story about apostates in 17th-century Japan and makes it into a story about finding faith, and the means to carry on, in the last situation one expects to find it.
More recent examples would include Catholic writers like William Peter Blatty. Blatty described his most famous novel, The Exorcist, as “a detective story with supernatural overtones,” built around the idea that if one finds out that demons exist, logically that means God must exist as well. From that perspective, the novel is a mystery (why is this girl behaving this way?) with her family as detectives trying to present solutions (Prescription medication? Hypnosis? Trauma therapy?) that don’t involve anything supernatural. They quickly run out of natural causes, which leads them to what Sherlock Holmes might call “the only thing left, however improbable”: a supernatural cause. Blatty explored similar questions about doubt and faith in his film The Ninth Configuration, another great story with its share of deliberately disconcerting material. The movie combines black comedy similar to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with Vietnam-era disillusion, a bizarre landscape which turns out to be great fodder for theological discussions (if life is so strange and dark, where can God possibly be in the middle of all this?).
Although Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings doesn’t have the overt religious discussions that define Greene or Endo’s work, one could describe his work as fitting that movement. Lord of the Rings presents us with someone who in a typical fantasy story or medieval epic would take a journey leading to treasure or conquest. Instead, Frodo finds that his quest will be all about carrying a burden to have it destroyed, with no guarantees he will succeed or come back. It’s the story of a savior, but Frodo is a suffering savior. He must take on a burden and carry it, suffering physically and mentally as he goes into the heart of darkness where it can be destroyed. Like Christ, after his successful journey Frodo has a wounded hand that reminds him of his trials.
Although a few evangelical authors have explored dark night of the soul narratives in little ways. Bryan Davis’ recent novel Let the Ghosts Speak took a ghost story that could have been cliché and produced a surprisingly complex tragedy about grief and guilt. Shawn Smucker’s These Nameless Things takes plot devices from Dante’s Inferno to tell a raw, compelling story about the gates of hell being locked from the inside. However, these are exceptions to the rule – it’s significant that Davis’ book was published by a small independent Christian publisher rather than a larger mainstream house like Tyndale or Revell.
By and large, evangelicals haven’t built a tradition that explores the negative side of the spiritual life. As a result, evangelical entertainment struggles to explore spiritual ambiguity, the realities of doubt. Finding room for those kind of stories is key to producing better art in general, as well as a cultivating a balanced view of spirituality.