Conducted by Wyman Richardson and Tyler Jones / May 4, 2000
Beeson Divinity School of Samford University / Birmingham, Alabama
Christians are often criticized for being seriously behind in the arts. Do you agree with this criticism?
I agree that they are behind in the sense that being “behind” means they haven’t caught up with where the world is in terms of art appreciation or even art definition. I think Christians just generally – especially if they are very active Christians – tend to indulge in a worship style and a life and world view that doesn’t really touch the arts. They’d be far less likely to pick up a book, a serious novel, a Pulitzer Prize winner, in the church than they would to pick up, say, something like Left Behind. I think that would be a lot more likely. So I think they are behind.
Also, I think that because evangelical Christians often get very busy within a congregation, they kind of shallow out. Os Guinness says the chances of meeting an educated person are 68% better on the sidewalks of the city than inside the evangelical churches of the city. This means that evangelical Christians are dumbing down faster than the culture is dumbing down as a whole, and that’s a kind of sad thing.
I think you can see practical evidence of this when you walk into a Christian bookstore. Oftentimes, way back behind where the Christian T-shirts are and the new popular recordings and that sort of thing, you do maybe come to a bookshelf. But it will often have very few really great titles, titles that show evidence of scholarship and/or the arts.
Is it possible that Christians are actually producing more quality work than they are given credit for, but that the culture is not willing to concede this fact?
I do think that is very, very true. I think secular culture and religious culture pass like ships in the night. I’m always aware that the people who are heroes to us in the evangelical community are generally unknown in the world at large. When Jesus is on the cover of Newsweek, as He was recently, people at Newsweek or Time will always go first to the famous divinity schools, Harvard or Yale, or they will go to old-line denominational churches which look like cathedrals and traditional churches. These are the people who usually get picked up for interviews. I think rarely ever do they go to Dallas Seminary or to a Southern Baptist seminary, though the bulk, and certainly the most vital part, of American Christianity is evangelical. I just think the secular media does not pick up and keep in touch with that fact.
I became aware of this, to some degree, when Ronald Reagan was President and they dedicated the new renovations to the Statue of Liberty and Sandi Patty sang “The Star Spangled Banner.” At that time she was well known by every evangelical Christian in America. But Peter Jennings on hearing her sing said, “Who is that?” And they told him and he said, “Sandi Patty? Sandi Patty? Does anybody know Sandi Patty?” Nobody in the news room knew Sandi Patty, and at that time she was very, very popular in Christian culture.
So, I would say that the secular media is way out of touch with the institutions, the schools, the heroes and the scholars, such few as we may have in evangelicalism.
What do think of the current state of much Christian writing?
Well, I’m probably a poor one to ask because I do think there is a very small number of great Christian writers, and those are the ones, I believe, who will probably be remembered historically. The Christian publishing scenario is only one-tenth the size of the secular machine, and I’m confident that, book for book, it must work the same way in the secular media, for the 350 million books of Danielle Steele, there’d be a few Toni Morrison books or a few John Updike books on the other end, the Pulitzer Prize end, of the secular scale.
I think the same thing’s true in Christian writing. I believe that there are probably ten or fifteen outstanding Christian writers only. The other thousands and thousands are writing stuff that is not informed. They are writing out of shallow experience and very little scholarship and very little reading and study experience. They are producing their own books and contributing to a mass pool of ignorance. I think we’re out of touch here.
So, I have no idea how to clear that up. I don’t know if there is a way to do it. But I do not think that much Christian writing today is very worthy. I think every writer picks an audience. I think there are very few intelligent readers in the Christian scene. So, it doesn’t require a very large staff of intelligent writers to feed their minds, unfortunately.
Who do you like?
The top Christian writers, in my judgment, would be members of the Chrysostom Society, which is an attempt that Richard Foster and I started some years ago to include, as far as we could, the best Christian writers. A few of them did not join the group that we considered great writers. One that did not join was Frederick Buechner. I’m sure we asked Henri Nouwen at that time and he did not. But, Madeline L’Engle did, Richard Foster, Eugene Peterson, Philip Yancey, Walt Wangerin, Luci Shaw, Greg Wolfe, myself. That’s about it I think. There’s more, but those are the ones whose product is pretty continually in the marketplace to some degree.
C.S. Lewis once said that we do not need more Christian authors, but we do need more authors who are Christian. What do you think of this distinction that Lewis makes?
I think that he’s right about that. Flannery O’Connor, a Catholic Christian writer, said it this way: “Great writers write about the whole world at once.” I think that’s what Lewis is saying. He’s saying that the use of the word “Christian writer” implies that there are some people who live within the subculture and write about the subculture. There are few Christian writers, like himself, I think, who live within secular culture and hold to a Christian world view. And those kind of people wrote about the whole world at once but always saw it through the filter of their own faith. I think that’s what he’s saying.
I think most Christian writers, I have no idea if it’s 90 or 95% of them that I read, are writing within the context of a very narrow system, usually a local church or a denomination or some para-church organization, and their values are shaped by that organization before they ever pick up their pen or their pencil or sit down at the computer keyboard to write. So, they’ve already precluded a vast amount of possible learning. There’s not much chance that Christian writers who write within a denomination, live within it, serve within it and don’t read much outside of it are ever going to integrate the great values of art and literature that occur on a wider basis outside the Christian market.
Do you think it’s safe for them to try if they are within the confines of, let’s say, a church setting?
No, I don’t think it’s very safe. I think that’s why some of them don’t do it more. I think that, most of the time, if they tried to integrate at all they’d be branded as “liberal” or they would lose this radical constituency that buys their books. That’s why, in some sense, people like Madeline L’Engle or Richard Foster probably sell better in Barnes and Noble stores than they do in Christian bookstores. Because I think that essentially that’s the best hope of finding people who have integrated both worlds and still maintain a Christian world view.
Along those same lines, there are guys like Walker Percy and John Updike, who are Christian writers, who will often use profanity and sexuality in their works. Do you think that Christian authors need to make these concessions to become popular?
I don’t think they have to make that concession to be popular though I cannot really prove that. I can only say that popular writers like John Grisham, who is not in the same camp as John Updike, writes fairly cleanly. There’s not near the amount of sex and profanity in a Grisham novel that you would find in some of the more popular works.
I think the classic example of this would be Ernest Hemingway, who was a contemporary of Fitzgerald and people like that who continually used profanity and sex. D.H. Lawrence was doing this as well. On the other hand, here is the highly moral fiction of Ernest Hemingway who is probably the best loved author of the twentieth century. So, I don’t think you have to do it. I think people just buy into it, and they do it often to reflect a kind of realism about the culture or the character who dominate their novels.
I would say this. When a person gets too squeamish about it, they’re probably more squeamish about it than God is. As much as I don’t like to hear profanity, particularly God’s name taken in vain, for instance, I have a feeling that not everybody who does that is necessarily a non-contributor or should be cast aside. I don’t think that’s true. Flannery O’Connor said that the key – and she used some profanity when it fit the character – the key is to make sure that the author, the writer doesn’t glorify it in some way out of proportion to its importance in the description of a particular character. I think she’s right about that. I think the key to writing good fiction is to write it realistically. Once in a while, I suppose it would include that.
One of the things that I have found a little safe in the minimal fiction I have done is to do period pieces, a period when profanity was not very popular. My novel that I recently wrote occurred 70 years ago when profanity, at least among church people, and, indeed, throughout the culture, would not have been nearly so frequent.
I can remember when Clark Gable first used the word “damn” or when President Truman used the world “hell” in a speech, how odd that seemed to the American public and how far we’ve gone in this more Bruce Willis age of ours.
Are there steps that can be taken to promote a more healthy and substantial movement of Christians in the arts?
This is a question that some of us never cease asking. I think that probably the missing integer here is for Christians to realize that the arts in their purest or impurest form and the Bible are trying to do the same thing. They are both trying to arrive at a picture of reality and God’s impact on reality. I think it is truer in the Old Testament than in the New Testament. Phil Yancey says in his book on the Bible that he prefers reading the Old Testament because the Old Testament will often give you the moral and immoral sides of the same character and leave you to draw the conclusions. It’s a highly inductive book in some ways. We get David’s affair. We get his repentance. We get his beautiful psalms and hymns and poetry, and we have to make the decision. There is no de facto decision made about David of Jezebel or Moses, the bigamist Moses, or the polygamist Solomon. Often those facts come at us and we do the interpreting.
I think that, in the arts, there is the cry to try to understand who we are. Artists try to paint it. In one particular age, let’s talk about High Renaissance, they painted it in terms of the idealism of a lost Greek culture. In our day and age, it becomes a lot more abstract. Artists argue with color, with form or without form. The art form in the chapel here at Beeson is kind of post-Renaissance, but, in a way, probably not like painters paint today. It’s been an interesting thing to see this chapel and ask, “Why does this building look so much like Michelangelo could have done it? Is it really the way an artist would paint today? What if Andrew Wyeth – he didn’t do murals or walls necessarily – but, if he had been asked to paint that, or if Muro had been asked to, or even Dali a few years ago, how would they have done that differently? And I think I’m always kind of looking for that in art now. I love Renaissance art, but I wouldn’t plaster it against the best art, at least the representational art of our own time and say that it was necessarily better. It was different.
So, I think it’s that part where the church doesn’t quite dig and it doesn’t quite understand. It likes representation. The Sunday School Jesus does better on the walls of the evangelical church than someone who has a new representation of Christ somehow.
There again, just as we were talking about earlier with authors, is it safer for Christian artists, painters, to not branch out and try new representations of Christian themes?
I think they’d find more acceptance than they think they would. Take this picture. It’s a watercolor. It’s highly surreal. I think a lot more could be done like that. We just haven’t tried. I’ve never had anybody come in and say, “Well, that turns me off.”
Well, if we try not to do things similar to “the secular realm,” why is that for every secular band you have a Christian counterpart and why wouldn’t it be equated then with the art scene, with visual arts?
Well, that’s a great question. For one thing, Evangelicals are particularly devoted to music as a form of worship. I don’t think they have that same devotion to art. There was a time in church history when architecture played a bigger part in how people felt about God – architecture, glasswork, sculpture and painting. I don’t think that’s true anymore. The average auditorium I go to, the Bill Hybel’s kind of auditorium, is carpet and chairs and almost devoid of symbols. He doesn’t even have a cross, and when questioned by Peter Jennings about why he didn’t have a cross he said that it turned people off, just a simple cross. So, I have a feeling that that’s part of it. If you don’t put up a symbol you don’t ever have to fight about it and you can remain more loosely interpretive than if you do. But, I think the real weakness of evangelicalism is that there are no symbols. And there is nothing, except the cross, that we could all agree on.
I think that in this book (Into the Depths of God), like my other books on the inward life, I have a lot of statements by devotional mystics throughout the ages, none of which are Baptist, ever. These were people who went beyond the symbols into their walk with God, but who at least started there. I think Evangelicals just don’t have that going.
Do you think that the widespread popularity of books like prophecy novels is overall helpful or harmful to the goal of having Christian literature become more influential in the wider culture?
I think that the worst thing that happens with widespread, popular Christianity is that the naiveté is assessed by thinkers, by secular thinkers, and simply just rejected. I think that, after a while, they don’t see it anymore, and, of course, I think that hurts us in a secular culture. Now, that isn’t necessarily an anathema. The fact is that anybody who believes in Jesus would not find Peter Jennings a good bridge partner. I just don’t think it would happen. But I do think that things like prophecy novels, if they appear naive to other Christians, would probably appear so to humanists at Harvard or Yale.
And I wouldn’t mind, if those books really had about them a heavy ball of scholarship, if these people got together and said, “Let us study. Let us have a conclave of the best minds who have read the great books, who are Greek or Hebrew lexicographers, who understand, great scholars, and let us talk about these things and then we’ll write novels about them.” But I don’t feel that. I feel as if I’m being met by the shibboleths of popular theology. “Jesus is coming again. The church is going to be raptured. There’s 3.5 years of good tribulation and 3.5 years of bad tribulation.” We all know the schemes. The dispensations of time – we all know all those things. They’ve gone on and on and on. They never were right. At least it seems to me they never were right. When the Millerites went up on the mountain to wait or the Fifth Monarchists in England went up in 1656 to wait for Jesus to return when Charles II took the throne of England or whatever it is. They were always wrong, wrong, wrong. So, when they said to me last October, “Fill your bathtubs up, it’s Y2K time,” I’m just not interested. I didn’t even fill my car up with gas the night before
Do you think there’s almost something pornographic in throwing out popular theology that’s not thought out for the titillation of the masses? Do you agree with that?
That’s a great description of it. I’m sure some of the authors wouldn’t agree! But, I do kind of think that. I used the same kind of thinking when I first reacted to “Jesus Christ Superstar.” And I sometimes have the same kind of reaction when I get Jesus from the secular end and He doesn’t look like the Jesus from the Bible end. Which Jesus do I take then? But, I talked about what I call “theological obscenity.” There’s a kind of thing you do that takes the clothes off God. It makes God appear ugly or naked and shameful. I think I experienced that in “Jesus Christ Superstar” to some degree, especially in the movie when Judas rises from the dead and Jesus doesn’t, for instance. That is theological obscenity, as far as I’m concerned.
You know what’s the worst part about books like that? They give people a little God and cement Him in so that they never go looking for the one that really exists. I think that’s one of the bad things about popular theology. We give people the little God.
I think that’s one of the bad things about Experiencing God. I think it’s a great beginning point, but for most people in the church it’s the final point. There’s no other step. So we give people this little book, they take the course, the experience God and it’s over. They can go back and play softball for the church or whatever they do. And I think that’s one of the real bad parts.