Here is a recent article from Touchstone Magazine that I’ve seen rewritten under various titles for most of my Christian life. It starts out like this:
The modern Christians who are important writers are all from liturgical churches: Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox. The closest thing Evangelicalism has to a name that could rank with these is probably Walter Wangerin, Jr., who is not really a mainstream Evangelical but a Lutheran—again, from a liturgical tradition.
Try to think of a conservative Baptist, a Free or Wesleyan Methodist or a Nazarene, a conservative Presbyterian, a Plymouth Brother, a member of the Evangelical Free Church or the Christian and Missionary Alliance, a Pentecostal, or a member of an independent Bible church who belongs in that company. (Some have mentioned writers who used to be in those churches—but the phrase “used to” in the observation is telling.)
The liturgical churches foster a lot of schlock and kitsch of their own, but they also nurture great writers and great writing. So far, we Evangelicals have not. In fact, we often positively discourage “literary” writing as being of questionable spiritual value.
This is something of a mantra in Christian academic circles, and I typically encounter this lament at least once every six months: where are the evangelicals, and why does their art suck? The kindly professors probably wouldn’t state it quite so baldly, being nice, proper academics, but the evangelicals would comprehend the question better because they don’t understand big words, so we’ll let the crudeness slide.
I've read these sentiments, and others like them, so frequently that they’ve become cliches. There's only one problem: they’re not true. They bear little relationship to reality.
Look, I love Flannery O'Connor as much as anyone. Kate will attest that I lobbied long and hard to name our first-born daughter Flannery in honor of Ms. O’Connor. She and the other High Church literary cherubim and seraphim – Graham Greene, Walker Percy, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien – have enriched my life tremendously. But Percy, the most contemporary of those writers, has been dead for fifteen years, and O'Connor, Greene, Lewis and Tolkien were writing fifty or more years ago. And you know what? In the intervening half century, evangelicals have actually produced some worthwhile work. Two of the most celebrated Christian novelists working today, Marilynne Robinson and Leif Enger, are writing from a decidedly evangelical perspective. Enger's Peace Like a River was named the 2002 Book of the Year in the L.A. Times, and was lauded in almost every review. Robinson's latest novel Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005. This does not suck. And when you add in contemporaries such as Frederick Buechner, Annie Dillard, John Updike, and Anne Lamott, who really don't fit into either the High Church or the Evangelical categories, it seems fairly clear to me that non-liturgical, non-High Church Christians have as much of an impact on literature as their High Church contemporaries, and maybe more. And the odds are even more lopsided in the popular music world, where it is evangelicals like U2 and Sufjan Stevens who have arguably released some of the best and most popular albums created from a Christian worldview. In other words, the argument in Touchstone was valid thirty years ago. It doesn’t apply now, and it hasn't been true for a long time.
I will confess that part of it is that I don’t understand the categories. Why is it, for instance, that “liturgical” and “evangelical” are presented as mutually exclusive terms in the Touchstone article? In my church we incorporate elements of the liturgy and fixed-hour prayer into both our public and private worship, but theologically we would align ourselves along evangelical lines.
I also don’t know what to make of the many stereotypes found in the article – that evangelical art is often little more than religious propaganda, for instance. Sure, there is no lack of horrendous schlock out there. Just walk into the Christian Family Bookstore of your choice and peruse the puppy and kitty posters with Bible verses, or the rack of Precious Moments figurines. But the world the author describes is simply not the world I encounter. My church is heavily skewed, nay, infested, with artists – painters, poets, photographers, musicians, writers, standup comics, graphic designers. I would guess that artists make up 40 to 50 percent of the adult population, and many of these folks make their full-time living through art. They are not making “Christian” art or religious propaganda; they’re creating art, and they’re out there in the marketplace competing with everybody else. What I don’t know is how typical or atypical my church is. I don’t have any way to gauge how this compares with the evangelical world as a whole. So do me a favor. I’d love to hear from those of you in other evangelical churches, and find out how the arts are viewed in your church. Are they valued in and of themselves? Or are they viewed as “witnessing” tools? And for those of us in my church, I’d love to hear your thoughts on what you think the variables are within our church that seem to lead to a high view of the arts. Thanks.