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.
Several years ago, I was in a Christian college’s creative writing class where everyone had to write a novella on a topic of their choice. Since the choice was stated as “anything we wanted,” I started a sort of urban fantasy that put Greek mythology characters in a modern setting. The instructor initially seemed okay with this project, approved an outline I made for the story, then halfway through the course seemed to be uncomfortable with the fact I was a Christian writing a story with mythological characters. Since I had gotten the outline approved, I found this odd. In one meeting I pointed out I had described it as dark comedy, so readers would see the idea of gods and goddesses in our world wasn’t meant to be taken seriously.
“Well,” the instructor asked, “what if your book is in a bookstore one day, and a 12-year-old opens it?”
I didn’t answer her question – mainly because after several conversations that never went anywhere, I’d concluded that nothing I said would satisfy her. The obvious answer was that any book not designed for 12-year-olds (from WWII history to diet books) might present problems if they picked it up in a bookstore. The bigger issue, I realized, had to do with what a “Christian book” was supposed to be. This particular instructor was a published novelist specializing in cozy mystery and inspirational romance. She never spelled out her position on what Christians should write – several of my classmates noted afterward that if your novella was crime fiction, she had no problem fine with it being graphic and gory. However, in general the instructor seemed to think that Christian writing had to be kid-friendly… even if it wasn’t written for kids and that made the story simplistic.
Christians campaigning for more wholesome entertainment is nothing new. However, evangelicals in particular have a history of promoting “keep it clean” entertainment, making sure entertainment for kids is clean and critiquing needlessly violent entertainment. A lot of good has sprung from this, particularly shows like VeggieTales and Adventures in Odyssey which manage to be family-friendly while maintaining high quality standards. However, there has been much less discussion about writing stories for grown-ups, ones that deal with complex themes or theological questions. Academics certainly discuss art for grown-ups, but outside that circle the conversation tends to boil down to “is it G-rated?”
Jeffrey Overstreet describes the problem very well in A Screen Darkly when he describes one of his high school teachers taking a big risk by screening the movie Babette’s Feast at the school. As Overstreet put it, this being a Christian high school the mandate on movies was “keep it clean,” but anyone could complain about a movie offending them and get the teacher in trouble; teachers tended to live in fear of “the mothers reaching for their phones” (78) and went for dramatized Bible stories and other inoffensive fare.
One author whose life captured this conflict was the late Walter Wangerin, Jr. Wangerin wrote a wide variety of things – everything from children’s books to fantasy novels to spiritual memoirs – but was notable for his willingness to capture harsh spiritual trials even as his characters found redemption. Sara R. Danger noted how his children’s books took cues from the Grimm Brothers, taking his characters on dark journeys to vanquish evil. It’s worth noting that while Wangerin was always an acclaimed writer, he spent much of his career being under-read and underappreciated outside of a few Christian literary circles.
Much of this attitude stems from the fact that, as various scholars have pointed out, fear has become an an important component to how many evangelicals raise children. The Barna Group’s book You Lost Me puts this trait in the context of helicopter parenting, a wider American phenomenon. Cameron McAllister addresses it in Faith That Lasts, suggesting that one of the primary reasons he successfully transitioned from being a rebellious teenager back to Christianity was his parents’ willingness to let him fail, not overly shelter him at every turn. For many evangelicals, being frightened of everything “out there” has been the default position, which made over-sheltering seem logical.
Another key factor (which I’ve described in more detail in Pt. 2 of this series) is that evangelical culture has been profoundly shaped by the 1980s culture wars, itself a throwback to 1950s conservatism. Like the 1950s conservativism it was based on, the 1980s culture wars used fear language extensively to get conservatives involved in various causes. This language has continued, although with less angst, in many Christian publications that focus on family concerns or politics. One might say that many evangelicals have never gotten past 1980s culture warrior stances; the tone simply went from outright anger to passive aggression.
However, perhaps the clearest factor, is that evangelical culture hasn’t followed traditions that create stories for grownups and children which talk about the Bible’s harsher messages. Catholicism has a long tradition of talking about Christ as a suffering figure through the Stations of the Cross, passion plays and so forth. Anglicanism has a strong liturgical tradition that (as I noted in Pt. 3) faces the reality of human sin in a mature way. Evangelicalism occasionally makes little motions in those directions. Interesting little sub-cultures will pop up that try to capture harsh spiritual truths for a grown-up audience (the most overt example being the Christian metal movement), without every being really embraced by the mainstream. Some Christian entertainment industries will go through trends about “giving things an edge” for more relevancy (for example, thriller novels like Traitor’s Pawn that have all the Christian Fiction clichés, but with more cop talk and chase scenes). However, so far, none of these little motions have changed the core identity of evangelical entertainment in a meaningful way. The mainstream continues to be kiddie stuff only, the interesting work for grownups is still happening on the margins.
If this is going to change in the future, new conservation spaces must be developed. There must be discussions between evangelicals who only think about art in terms of its “kiddie value” and people who want to have in-depth conversations with other adults about art that challenged them. There need to be conversations that show making good is about more than a binary choice between safe and unsafe (especially since the Bible doesn’t seem that interested in “safe art” as many evangelicals understand the term). Art for kids and art for grownups both have uses, and need not be competitors in a market that only defines “Christian artist” as one thing with all-out war on everything else.