Comment asked me to respond briefly to Prof. Mattix’s thoughtful essay of last week, “On Christian Literature.”
It gives me the opportunity to present a few thoughts on the complex problem of how followers of Jesus might best learn from and critically judge so much skilled art, literature, and culture that is chronologically pre-Christian, or aware of the Christian faith, or pseudo-Christian, or professedly godless.
Whatever creaturely exists or goes on under the sun in God’s world is, I believe, open to treatment by artist, story-teller, song-writer, and performer. So it is proper for people writing literature to treat sin as well as good deeds rather than to pretend evil does not exist historically. The Bible itself is certainly graphic about how perverted we humans can act, and does not itself take Philippians 4:8 as a proscription against probing wrong.
All human creatures are afoot in God’s world. Because humans bear the special imprint of being structurally created to respond to the LORD God’s call to be God’s servants, to administer shalom in the world (Psalm 8, Micah 6:8), humans cannot help but couch their deeds as offerings—to the true God revealed in Jesus Christ, or to any of many ersatz gods or idols (Deuteronomy 30:11-20; cf. I Corinthians 10:7-33). So the redeeming Creator LORD God’s graciously provision of the hug of gravity, the blessing of DNA, the laws for communication, or the norms for reflection and intimacy are gifts everybody normally is bound by. The question is: do we humans respond thankfully with a worldwide vision of the Lord’s making all things new or wholesome, or do we humans act in some other spirit and committed or distracted outlook?
There was a time when humans were ignorant of the LORD God (Acts 17:22-31, especially verse 20), even though God was knowable in creation (Romans 1:18-32, particularly verses 19-20) and had revealed God self for a time particularly to the Jewish nation as a special folk (Psalm 147:12-20, especially verse 20; Romans 9-11).
Homer’s vigorous epic tales of Iliad and Odyssey (circa 800s B.C.) are engaging, sonorous, and racy poetic narrative, but they are ignorant of the biblical revelation of sin. *αμαρτια for the Homeric literature is the daring transgression of a limit by humans vying deceptively with gods, which when committed may hasten your end, but you will at least expire as a “never-at-a-loss” hero! This pagan heroic ethic is clean cut and favoured (to Plato’s chagrin, Republic, II-III, 377b11-392c8) because we are only mortal.
Dante’s Divina Commedia with Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso (circa 1300s A.D.) is carefully structured according to a vision of tormenting pa-back for violating God’s laws, a half-way habitation for “good” pagans like Virgil, but reserving heavenly bliss for those who have been sanctified holy. The spirit of the Divine Comedy is benign, human-friendly, honed to medieval ecclesiological contours, breathing a mixed dynamic of human achievement and God’s gracious help.
When one takes up the dramatic literature of Tennessee Williams (1911-1983), as I do in A Christian Critique of Art and Literature (Toronto: Tuppence Press, 1963/1995, 130-139), things become more complicated. The increasingly post-Christian nature of Western civilization since the so-called European “Renaissance” (c.1400-1500s A.D.) and “Enlightenment” (1700s A.D.) periods presents an amalgam of Christian reflective fragments and rejection of such a redemptive vision. And the secularized drive to “modern” culture can be rationalistic, pragmatistic, nihilistic, or a curious ironic agnostic zetetic spirit that is hard to pin down. Tennessee William’s theatre, as I understand it, explores as a whole the loss of tenderness in a God-forsaken world of survival of the fittest sexually potent, with all the ensuing tragedy of the impotent outcasts all around. The predominant spirit in his literature borders on a melodramatic, wistful old-fashioned neo-idealism turning sour.
That is, as I understand the Holy Scriptures: When humans meet creational ordinances God has set for us creatures, humans can be normatively busy, but are not therefore redemptively responsible. Followers of Jesus do not have a monopoly on sound action in God’s world.1 God-damning humanists may, I dare say, have a more mutually enriching married life than a born-again Christian pair whose intimacy is basically holy but anemic. But that does not make the atheist partners “Christian in a limited sense.”
Bertrand Russell’s superbly written essay on “Why I am not a Christian” (1927) is sparkling literary prose, but I would have trouble to say his writing “glorifies God.” I think Russell’s brilliant prose style betrays God’s gift. Albert Camus’s inexorably intense Le Malentendu (1944) has a blasphemous, non-transcendent point, but it is gripping theatre. How can these conundrums be?
Even humans who “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” do not become devils.2 Human enemies of God, so long as they breathe, still can be transformed into changed, saved persons. And both Σαρξ (like principalities of pride or the will-to-violent-power) and Holy Spirit wrestle within adopted children of God so long as we live, says the New Testament (Romans 7:14-25, Ephesians 6:12, James 4:1-10). So human saints continue to struggle with sinfulness, and the literary work of our hands remains mottled rather than singly pure.
Therefore the task to recognize and to write “Christian literature,” as I hear it, is the calling to test the spirit of the written piece (I John 3:1): is its dynamic redemptive? And does its word-embodied committed vision subtly disclose and make metaphorically palpable the LORD God’s ongoing offer of justifying mercy for repentant sinners in God’s historical world?3 “Spirit” and “committed vision” are deeper and more comprehensive matters for me than “theme,” “content,” or “function” of literature.
Professor Mattix and I are both after the same pearl, I think: praise God in writing, and do not pass the ammunition. But our working categories and terminology are not in sync. So it would take time and a few face-to-face meetings for us to land clearly on the same page. And in brief remarks, you cannot say everything needful.4
His wish to talk “value” and (spiritual?) “transcendence” seems to me to dilute or make vague the Biblical call to be obedient to the Lord Jesus Christ by loving your neighbour with your writing. Behind Professor Mattix’s conceptions of “some truth,” “relative truth content,” “partial revelations” and then the thought that “these values [of beauty, truth, justice, goodness] should be derived from the truth statements of Scripture,” I detect an approach that seems to me to assume “truth” is basically propositional, “beauty” is a penultimate step toward “the holy,”5 and “goodness” is a neutral transcendental quality not affected by one’s rooted faith vision.
A tendency to hold to a “natural theology” supplemented by a “supernatural, fully biblical theology” compromises, it seems to me, the radicality of the Biblical call humbly to follow the Rule of Jesus Christ from the get-go, and to admit to the deep pervasiveness of sin in the unregenerated human heart. Therefore, while I learn from the truncated and slanted contributions of pagan and disbelieving authors who cannot escape the LORD’s provident care and who do indeed often perceptively detect matters at large unnoticed by Jesus’ followers, and who then ably present their findings under God’s creational ordinance (of “allusivity”—my term) for literature, I cannot credit them as if they be testifying of the LORD God’s faithfulness (which they indeed may be manifesting, skewed).
It is misleading error, it seems to me, to say Beckett’s plays are “more Christian” than the Precious Moments kitsch of pseudo-“Christian romances.”6 The comparison is odious. Let’s compare Beckett’s oeuvre with the literary works of Dostoevsky, Flannery O’Connor, Alan Paton—then we can give students a taste of Christian literature that has a vision of God’s amazing, sin-plagued world and the promissory spirit of hope for redemption. And let’s encourage the younger generation to be conscious of and to immerse themselves in a long tradition of vital world literature which breathes an awareness of sin and proffers earnests of joy (cf. A Christian Critique of Art and Literature, 60,62), so that, as Abraham Kuyper once put it, prospective Christian writers of literature in our generation will not need “to be content with the act of shuffling around in the garden of somebody else, scissors in hand [to cut the other’s flowers]” but will learn to grow hardy plants in a garden with biblically rich soil. (Ibid., 8 n.4, 18 n.8).
1 But for the difference one’s faith standpoint does make on critical matters of daily life, cf. Ken Badley, Worldviews, The Challenge of Choice (Toronto: Irwin Publishing, 1996). This is a vivid illustrated textbook (including cartoons) appealing to a high school age readership. Also, one thing worth learning from writers like Roland Barthes is that “texts,” as well as “literature,” disclose a committed stance, a hidden vision underneath the advertising slogan, toys, or billboard. Cf. Mythologies, selected and translated from the French by Annette Lavers (Herts: Paladin), 1957/1973.
2 I do not call Picasso’s Guernica “Satanic,” as Prof. Mattix intimates.
3 Cf. my thoughts on “characteristics of Christian culture” in the chapter, “Modern art and the birth of a culture” in Rainbows for the fallen world (Toronto: Tuppence Press, 1980/2005, 182-201. Also, “The Import of Biblical Wisdom Literature for a conception of Artistic Truth,” forthcoming.
4 Cf. my juxtaposition of “Exorcism and giveaway goods rather than spoliatio Aegyptorum” (which latter alternative Prof. Mattix favours) in “Antiquity Transeumed and the Reformational Tradition,” In the Phrygian Mode, Neo-Calvinism, Antiquity and the Lamentations of Reformed Philosophy, ed. Robert Sweetman (Lanham: University Press of America, 2007), 254-259.
5 This sacramentalist aesthetics is well represented among Protestant thinkers by Gerardus van der Leeuw, Wegen en Grenzen (1955), translated by David E. Green as Sacred and Profane Beauty, The Holy in Art (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1963), and is developed by the Chicago school of thinkers around Nathan A. Scott, Jr., ed., The New Orpheus, Essays toward a Christian Poetic (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1964).
6 But cf. Betty Spackman’s compassionate evaluation of “Christian” involvement with kitsch in her fine book, A Profound Weakness: Christians and Kitsch (Carlisle: Piquant, 2005).