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Why Evangelicals Can’t Write

August 16th, 2006
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I had to come in from the boondocks to pick up some supplies, and was able to make a quick stop at the local wi-fi spot…long enough to find this little gem.

Volume 18, Issue 2: Liturgia

Why Evangelicals Can’t Write

Peter Leithart

Blame it on Marburg. 

The 1529
Colloquy at Marburg attempted to reconcile Lutherans and Zwinglians on
the doctrine of the real presence, and was nearly able to achieve its
aim. To Luther’s surprise, the Zwinglian party agreed with fourteen of
his fifteen propositions, and even conceded most of what was said in
the fifteenth article. Conciliation was in the air, and the fifteenth
article concluded with the peaceable statement that "Although we are
not at this present time agreed, as to whether the true Body and Blood
of Christ are bodily present in the bread and wine, nevertheless the
one party should show to the other Christian love as far as conscience
can permit."
Soon after
they returned home, however, Zwinglians were sniping at Lutherans,
Lutherans at Zwinglians, and Luther concluded that Zwingli’s agreement
at Marburg had been less than honest. At the Diet of Augsburg the
following year, the two parties drew up separate confessions of faith.
Marburg is
important not so much for what it achieved but as a symbol of what it
failed to achieve. It provides a symbolic marker not only for the
parting of the ways between Lutheran and Zwinglian, but also, for
Zwinglians, the final parting of the ways between symbol and reality.
J. P. Singh Uberoi claimed that "Spirit, word and sign had finally
parted company at Marburg in 1529. For centuries, Christian sacramental
theology had held symbol and reality together in an unsteady tension,
but that alliance was ruptured by the Zwinglian view of the real
presence. For Zwingli, "myth or ritual . . . was no longer literally
and symbolically real and true." In short, "Zwingli was the chief
architect of the new schism and . . . Europe and the world followed
Zwingli in the event."
For many
post-Marburg Protestants, literal truth is over here, while symbols
drift off in another direction. At best, they live in adjoining rooms;
at worst, in widely separated neighborhoods, and they definitely
inhabit different academic departments.
Here is a
thesis, which I offer in a gleeful fit of reductionism: Modern
Protestants can’t write because we have no sacramental theology.
Protestants will learn to write when we have reckoned with the tragic
results of Marburg, and have exorcised the ghost of Zwingli from our
poetics. Protestants need not give up our Protestantism to do this, as
there are abundant sacramental resources within our own tradition. But
contemporary Protestants do need to give up the instinctive
anti-sacramentalism that infects so much of Protestantism, especially
American Protestantism.
     Perhaps you’ll challenge the premise: Protestants
can write. Even if we limit ourselves to English and American
writers, the premise still has some problems. Look at all the great
Elizabethan poets and dramatists, the English Victorian poets, Dickens,
Austen, C. S. Lewis, and, among contemporaries, Larry Woiwode and John
Updike, Leif Enger and Marilynne Robinson.
I’ll stand
by my thesis. Assuming that the Elizabethan poets qualify as
Protestants (something many Anglicans would vehemently deny), they were
Protestants with Prayer Books. So were the Victorians and Lewis, whose
imagination, besides, was formed by medieval and Renaissance literature
as much as anything. The greatest American writers have been lapsed Calvinists touched with Transcedentalism. I’ll grant
you Woiwode, Enger, and Robinson, but wonder if anyone really wants to
claim Updike. And if you’ve not heard of Woiwode, Enger, or
Robinson—well, that makes my point, doesn’t it? And I stand by my
thesis that Marburg has something to do with all this, even though
Lutherans did not go on to great feats of fictional prowess, and two
Puritans, Bunyan and Defoe, pretty much invented the modern novel. We
are looking at the impact of ideas over centuries.
important modern writers are consciously and expressly Protestants,
writers who give lectures on subjects like "Protestant Faith and
Fiction"? Where is the modern Protestant writer worthy to loosen the
sandal of James Joyce, who, for all his obscenity, couldn’t shake
himself free of Athanasius and Aquinas? The question answers itself.
There are no Protestant Joyces. There are not even Protestant Walker
Percys or Flannery O’Connors.
So, let’s
stipulate the premise: modern Protestants can’t write. We are devotees
of the Word, people of the book. Yet we can’t write stories or poetry.
This is a scandal and a deep mystery.
But why is
that Zwingli’s fault? What hath sacramental theology to do with
writing? What hath Zwingli to do with Joyce? What is Dabney to Flannery
O’Connor? Much in every way.
illustrates as well as anyone the importance of sacramental theology to
Christian fiction. She was a deeply sacramental writer, and her stories
often turn on sacramental events. Extreme unction plays an important
role in "The Enduring Chill," and in "The Lame Shall Enter First" Rufus
Johnson eats a prophetic Eucharist when he chews and swallows pages of
a Bible.
are sometimes hard to recognize in O’Connor’s cartoonishly exaggerated
universe. Epiphanies of grace tear into her characters’ lives through
the goring horn of a bull, tractors crashing into trees, the bullet
from an escaped convict’s gun. The exaggeration and distortion is
deliberate. In one of her most often quoted statements, O’Connor spoke
of her need to shout and draw large figures for her blind-and-deaf
audience: "When you can assume that your audience holds the same
beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of
talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have
to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout,
and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures."
has been domesticated, and modern readers are incapable of seeing
within a shower of water what the New Testament says is there—a
blood-drenched cross, a corpse and a grave, a deluge that renews
creation, the drowning of Pharaoh, the bursting of a spiced tomb. If a
baptism is going to have the proper impact on modern readers, O’Connor
must make it a drowning, as she does in "The River."
But the
sacramentalism of O’Connor’s fiction is far more pervasive and profound
than the scattered references to actual or exaggerated
(quasi)sacraments might suggest. Sacramental theology shapes her
understanding of reality, as well as her conception of her task and
vocation as a writer.
exist in O’Connor’s universe; more importantly, the universe itself is
sacramental, a world in which the most mundane, petty violence can
become a means of grace, a world in which particular things, while
remaining entirely themselves, confront human beings with the reality
of God.
recognized that a sacramental sense of reality was dependent on a
strong doctrine of creation, and she frequently complained about the
implicit Manicheanism of both modern Catholics and Protestants. In its
Christianized form, this ancient Persian dualism teaches that the
material world is inherently evil, the creation of some Demiurge rather
than the Father of Jesus. The goal of the virtuous life is, for the
Manicheans, to escape the material world, releasing the light-substance
of the soul from the putrid corruptions of matter. Christianity by
contrast insists that the creation is good, a manifestation of God’s
glory, and that the material reality can be rightly known only if it is
seen as such.
believed the artist’s duty is to see and depict the world in a way that
opened it up to the ultimate source of this reality, and believed that
she was following the teaching of the arch anti-Manichean church
father, Augustine:
St. Augustine
wrote that the things of the world pour forth from God in a double way:
intellectually into the minds of the angels and physically into the
world of things. To the person who believes this—as the western world
did up until a few centuries ago—this physical sensible world is good
because it proceeds from a divine source. . . . [The aim of the artist
is] to render the highest possible justice to the visible universe. . .
. The artist penetrates the concrete world in order to find at its
depths the image of its source, the image of ultimate reality.
In contrast
to this Christian affirmation of the cosmos, O’Connor saw Manichean
impulses behind the modern denigration of material reality, and
believed this made fiction writing almost impossible: "The Manicheans
separated spirit and matter. To them all material things were evil.
They sought pure spirit and tried to approach the infinite directly
without any mediation of matter. This is also pretty much the modern
spirit, and for the sensibility infected with it, fiction is hard if
not impossible to write because fiction is so much an incarnational
creation is always the medium by which God comes to us, O’Connor argued
that Catholic writers must not attempt to bypass creation on their way
to transcendence, but rather must expect to find the "presence of grace
as it appears in nature." This world is the site of God’s action, and
therefore the writer’s faith ought not "become detached from his
dramatic sense and from his vision of what-is." Manicheanism separates
"nature and grace as much as possible" and in doing so reduces "his
conception of the supernatural to pious clichés and has become able to
recognize nature in literature in only two forms, the sentimental and
the obscene."
once expressed her desire to write stories that would sound "like the
Old Testament would sound if it were being written today." Her sense of
what that meant was indebted to the Jesuit scholar William F. Lynch,
who argued in his Christ and Apollo that "The opposition here is between Christ,
Who stands for reality in all its definiteness, and Apollo, who stands
for the indefinite, the romantic, the endless. It is again the
opposition between the Hebraic imagination, always concrete, and the
agnostic imagination, which is dream-like."
the infinite "directly without the mediation of matter"—it describes
the "modern spirit" perhaps, but equally and perhaps better it
describes the spirit of Zwingli, the Zwinglian spirit that Luther could
not recognize as his own. Insofar as Protestantism is infected with
various strains of the Manichean virus, to that extent modern
evangelicals are incapable of discerning the theophanies that surround
us on every hand.
     Hence: contemporary Protestants can’t write.  Blame it on Marburg.
If the
writer must be open to the manifestation of God in "what-is," she must
begin with the senses. Following Aquinas, O’Connor writes, "The
beginning of human knowledge is through the senses, and the fiction
writer begins where human perception begins. He appeals through the
senses, and you cannot appeal to the senses with abstractions." Yet,
"Most people who think they want to write stories are not willing to
start there. They want to write about problems, not people; or about
abstract issues, not concrete situations."
     O’Connor particularly emphasized that the writer must learn to
see the world rightly. She insists that the writer must learn to
"stare" at reality, and even to stare "stupidly." Right-seeing is
difficult; sight is a moral sense. As fallen human beings, we are apt
to see only what we want to see, so we must have our eyes open if we
are going to see "what-is" for what it is. Far from making fiction
impossible, O’Connor believed, Christian faith enabled the writer to
see reality in ways that the unbeliever cannot. Christian writers can
see the twisted world as twisted. In an address on "The Fiction Writer
and His Country," she wrote:
My own
feeling is that writers who see by the light of their Christian faith
will have, in these times, the sharpest eyes for the grotesque, for the
perverse, and for the unacceptable. In some cases, these writers may be
unconsciously infected with the Manichaean spirit of the times and
suffer the much discussed disjunction between sensibility and belief,
but I think that more often the reason for this attention to the
perverse is the difference between their beliefs and the beliefs of
their audience. Redemption is meaningless unless there is case for it
in the actual life we live, and for the last few centuries there has
been operating in our culture the secular belief that there is no such
In another
address, "The Church and the Fiction Writer," she emphasizes the
necessity of clear-sightedness: "For the writer of fiction everything
has its testing point in the eye, an organ which eventually involves
the whole personality and as much of the world as can be got into it.
Msgr. [Romano] Guardini has written that the roots of the eye are in
the heart."
Because of
her emphasis on the visual, she was critical of the widespread opinion
that Catholic writers should be edifying, insisting that the vocation
of a writer is to see what-is, not to conform what-is to
what-should-be: "What Mr. Wylie [a critic of Catholic writers] contends
is that the Catholic writer, because he believes in certain defined
mysteries, cannot, by the nature of things, see straight; and this
connection, in effect, is not very different from that made by
Catholics who declare that whatever the Catholic writer can see, there are certain things that he should not see
straight or otherwise." Catholic readers who want their writers to
preach do not recognize the legitimacy of the writer’s calling.
A Catholic
writer who wants to get to mystery cannot bypass the evil and pain and
suffering of the world, because that is to bypass the cross. Rather,
"If the Catholic writer hopes to reveal mysteries, he will have to do
it by describing truthfully what he sees from where he is." Exploring
the "Grotesque in Southern Fiction," she speaks of the prophetic vision
of the novelist, which is a matter of "seeing near things with their
extensions of meaning and thus of seeing far things close up."
realism is essential to understanding how she uses symbols. Her stories
are strewn with symbols, but she knows that the symbol is pointless if
it is not first itself, if we don’t first recognize the sign’s hard contours
and edges. Commenting on one of her own stories, she wrote, "If you
want to say that the wooden leg is a symbol, you can say that. But it
is a wooden leg first, and as a wooden leg it is absolutely necessary
to the story. It has its place in the literal level of the story, but
it operates in depth as well as on the surface. It increases in every
direction, and this is essentially the way a story escapes being
short." Elsewhere, she responded to critics who read symbolic meaning
into the black hat worn by the Misfit in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"
by saying that countrymen in Georgia often wore black hats.
     For O’Connor, even when symbols occur, they don’t do what Protestants expect symbols to do.  They don’t signify.  They
act. In one of her letters, she describes a conversation on the
Eucharist in which Mary McCarthy "said when she was a child and
received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the
`most portable’ person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a
symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a
very shaky voice, `Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.’" Symbols
in her fictional world have all the punch of a Catholic sacrament—not
merely a sign of an absent something, but an action of God, an action
of grace. In the same letter, she wrote "I realize now that this is all
I will ever be able to say about [the Eucharist], outside of a story,
except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life
is expendable."
     Symbols separated from reality and reduced, as they are in much Protestant theology, to "mere signs," cannot
do anything, whether in reality or in fiction. They exist as
sheer ornament, or, at best, as pointers to some something in some real
realm of reality that can do something. But if this is so, then the moment of grace,
whether in fiction or reality, never enters this world, into the realm
of what-is. Without a sacramental theology, and specifically a theology
of sacramental action, Protestant writers cannot do justice to this world or show that this world is the theater of God’s redeeming action.
     Hence: Protestants can’t write.  Blame it on Marburg.
It is
already clear that O’Connor’s sacramental sensibilities are close to
the heart of her calling as a writer of fiction. In this, she was
deeply influenced by the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain.
O’Connor said that she "cut my aesthetic teeth" on Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism, and her emphasis on the artistic demand to
see is a theme of Maritain’s work.
brilliance of the form, no matter how purely intelligible it may be in
itself, is seized in the sensible and through the sensible, and not
separately from it. The intuition of artistic beauty thus stands at the
opposite extreme from the abstraction of scientific truth. For with the
former it is through the very apprehension of the sense that the light
of being penetrates the intelligence.
debt to Maritain is especially evident in her conception of an artist’s
obligation to his art. Maritain recognized the truth in Oscar Wilde’s
quip that "The fact of a man being a poisoner is nothing against his
prose." For Maritain, the purpose of art is not found in any good
effect it might have on the viewer or reader, nor even in the conscious
and overt pursuit of beauty. Invoking the Aristotelian distinction of
"doing" (praxis) and "making"
(poiesis), he argues that
artistic production belongs in the latter category, and is concerned
with, in Rowan Williams’s summary, "the production of some specific,
determinate outcome, some product, in the material world." Art is making, not
fundamentally copying or self-expression, and, given this, "virtuous
making aims not at the good of humanity but at the good of what is
As an act
of intellect rather than will, art is not a romantic overflow of deep
feeling, nor does it aim at edification, a perversion of art that was
one of Maritain’s regular whipping boys. Art is beautiful when it
"engages the will by its own integrity and inner coherence," but even
beauty cannot be the aim of the artist if it is "sought as something in
itself, independent of what this work demands." The good of art does not lie in the
object’s conformity to some pre-existing idea or standard, but to the
"idea" that emerges, always already incarnate, within the very process
of making. Art’s good is internal to artistic creation. If the artist
aims to evoke delight, it must be a delight evoked by the character of
the product. Art produces objects, things, and there is deep wisdom in
Robert Farrar Capon’s comment that it is good and wholesome to delight
in things because God delights in things—otherwise, He wouldn’t have
made so many of them.
Maritain, O’Connor was hostile to "edifying" fiction and art, which she
treated with even more scorn than she did obscene art and fiction.
Again, this is rooted in her essentially sacramental aesthetics. If
fiction aims to edify, Aesop’s parables will do. There is no need for
character, or for the difficult discipline of staring stupidly at the
world until it yields its secret depths. Choose a grasshopper to
represent frivolity, an ant to stand for industry, and the story writes
O’Connor, a writer is first of all responsible to produce a written
work that has integrity and a form of its own, whatever effect it might
have on the reader. She recognized that the church was not in the same
business as the writer, and might have to warn her members away from
certain works. But that was the church’s business, and the Catholic
writer is grateful, because this frees the writer to "limit himself to
the demands of art."
Yet, when
Wilde has been given his due, there is more to say. After all, the most
complete artistic delight, the beauty that most deeply arrests, is a
response of the whole person, and persons are, among other things,
moral beings. Precisely because art is an activity of intelligence
rather than will, Maritain argues, it responds to what is real, it is
ordered to being, and it makes claims about reality. He does not mean
to endorse realism, another of his whipping boys. Rather, the artist
attempts to discern and render overlooked patterns and connections
within the world of experience, and thus, Williams explains, art "in
one sense `dispossesses’ us of our habitual perception and restores to
reality a dimension that necessarily escapes our conceptuality and our
control. It makes the world strange." Since the world is strange, the artist who estranges it for us is conforming to "what-is."
The artist’s
insight into the hidden coherence of things is not merely "perceptual,"
but has moral and metaphysical dimensions. For Maritain, this means
discernment and rendering of transcendence, a sensitivity to those
places where the finite is "wounded" by the sharp intrusions of the
infinite (it’s no accident that Williams spends a chapter of his book
on O’Connor).
poisoner or the pederast may write like an angel, but his metaphysical
and moral "ineptitude . . . can easily spill over into other
ineptitudes." Tone deaf to transcendence, he may finally be deaf to the
music that guides the creative process. Williams gives the example of a
self-centered artist whose exploitative character leads him to misshape
his materials for the sake of self-expression: On Maritain’s terms,
that moral flaw quite directly produces bad art, art that is not aimed
at the good of the artistic product. It is a flaw common among earnest
Christian artists, intent on using art for evangelism. In any case, one
cannot escape making the moral judgment of "whether a world laid before
us by an artist is desirable for the kind of creatures we know ourselves to
."  Evaluation of art cannot dispense with the question "Is this piece of work congruent with what we know human beings are?"
agreed. Fiction does not aim at edification. It aims to produce a work
that obeys the demands imposed by the work, by the medium of the art
itself. Yet, it does aim at truth, at a fictional representation of
what-is. For a Catholic writer like O’Connor, what-is has to do with
the incarnation and the redemption of the world through Jesus, and the
fiction writer stares stupidly at the world that Jesus entered and
redeemed until the world, without ceasing for a moment to be the world,
opens transcendent horizons.
Blame it on
Marburg. More precisely: Blame it on Zwingli. A Zwinglian poetics
leaves us with three choices: Either a flat mimetic realism that gives
literary expression to "the real" without attempting to penetrate
beyond the surface; or a flat didacticism that ignores the real in its
haste to get to the point; or an allegorism that forges arbitrary links
between the real and the symbolic, and in the end swallows up the real
in its meaning. (Mr. By-Ends, Mr. Worldly-Wiseman, Faithful, and
Hopeful are mere symbols, silhouettes of characters rather than
characters.) Although, to give Bunyan his due, he was here following a
typical (and very Catholic) medieval pattern in literature, while
adding the astounding innovation of homely and realistic dialog.
Nevertheless, the cardboard charactizations strike us the way they do
for a reason.
In a
Zwinglian poetics, things cannot be both themselves and
also—simultaneously, without ceasing to be what they are, for the very
reason they are what they are—something else. Zwinglian will not permit
something to be both real and symbolic, to be both wholly itself and
yet, because of what it is, to disclose something more than itself.
Zwinglian poetics does not permit Southern customs to be Southern
customs and yet, precisely because they are Southern customs, to be
haunted by Christ.
The renewal
of literature, like the renewal of the world, begins in worship. The
renewal of literature, like the renewal of the world, begins from the
pulpit, to be sure. But the pulpit will renew literature only when it
is nestled where it should be nestled, between the font and the table.

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  1. August 16th, 2006 at 22:37 | #1

    Well, at least one protestant evangelical can write. Peter Leithart could also be speaking of too many who name themselves “Lutheran” but have departed from Lutheranism’s sacramental theology.

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