Still No Novelists, No Poets, For Christ?

When people ask, “Why hasn’t the Re· formed community produced any writers?” they usually mean novelists and poets. That question has bemused and baffled us increasingly as works of fiction especially are published by the hundreds in the English language every year. Stolid temperament, provincialism, lack of refined culture, middle·class status, unbookish occupations, paucity of intellectuals in many disciplines—these and other hypotheses have been offered to explain why Manfred, De Vries, and the De Jongs are apparently the only eminent imaginative writers to rise from—and renounce—the Reformed Christian community.

But I think that we are misleading ourselves. For this question, like all Significant questions, is religious; that is, it involves our relationship to God in Christ our Savior. The unregenerate author represses the truth of God i.n unrighteousness (Romans 1:18) and sets up his own deity: art for art’s sake (the style justifies the content), the idolatry of the human heart—the innocence of the instincts (romanticism), the autonomy of the intellect (rationalism or existentialism), the deification of the senses (positivism or empiricism).

Few would argue that a novelist or poet has no philosophical belief, no faith, no object of worship; but perhaps some would contend that the writer’s heart·commitment does not appear in his works. And it is possible for a Christian to compose a non-Christian novel or poem, for the heart-commitment symbolically objectified in his work of art to be unintentionally presented. We educators do it inadvertently every day when we neglect to explicate Christianly, when we use secular, presumably neutral, approaches to determine the meaning of some aspect of God’s reality. Putting aside Biblical standards -which principles God reveals in specific Scripture texts, we educate by appealing not to Christ who is the Truth, apart from whom truth does not exist, but by positing such specious neo-Platonic absolutes as “excellence,” “objectivity,” and the “best contemporary scholarship.”

Thus the Christian writer may be seduced by the classical· humanist liberal-arts tradition to assume, sub-rationally, some standard of judgment other than Christ the Way, Truth, and Life in whom all things consist, and may, therefore write a book that denies by the implication of tone, theme, or plot (or by silence) that man is a sinner and must seek his salvation through repentance and faith in Jesus who alone can pardon sin.

But I have not yet found a poem or novel by a non-Christian that proved to be, in its heart-commitment or in the view of destiny suggested therein, Christian. In fact, I doubt that a non-Christian could write a Christian novel; for his unbelief, his anti-thetical attitude toward Christ would be detectable in the tone at least—that is, he would inevitably betray his repudiation of him “who is the Beginning, the Firstborn of the dead; [who] in all things... might have the preeminence, for it pleased the Father that in Him should all fulness dwell; and, having made peace through the blood of His cross, by Him to reconcile all things unto Himself” (Col. 1:18–20).

Alan Paton’s Too Late the Phalarope is sometimes called a Christian novel. Now we are not judging Mr. Paton’s Christianity or non-Christianity, but rather, the interpretation of life presented in the novel. Sin is not depicted in Too Late the Phalarope as necessitating reconciliation with God, as a concentration of rebellion that can be dissolved only by the blood of Christ. The protagonist, Pieter van Vlanderen, prays for grace to keep the law, but he does not pray in true sin-sorrow for the cleansing of Calvary. Rather, sin in this book is social derangement, hypocrisy, intolerance, hatred. The theme of the novel is this: “To punish and not to restore, that is the greatest of all offenses.” And, ironically, Pieter is the tragic hero, victimized by a society that tolerates the scandalously non-Christian “Immorality Act of 1927.” Ironically heroic because Pieter is saved (or vindicated in the structure of the novel) by his suffering, rather than by the redemption in Christ. That is, this work of fiction docs not declare the hope of restoration in Christ; and as Paton himself says: ‘“To punish and not to restore, that is the greatest of all offenses.”

On negative evidence in his novels, which include, notably, The Blood of the Lamb, Peter De Vries has been called a Calvinist. But a Calvinist is one who believes that the eternal Triune God is not only the predestinating Creator-Provider, but is also the merciful and covenant Cod who Sincerely offers salvation in Jesus Christ. Here again, however, we must examine the philosophy of life promulgated in the novel, rather than the heart-commitment of the author—that is, as prophets, priests, and kings of our God, we must call the works to judgment.

The main character, Don Wanderhope, sends n statement of his philosophy of life to his old almamater newspaper: “‘I believe that man must learn to live without those consolations called religious, which his own intelligence must by now have told him belong to the childhood of the race….Man has only his own two feet to stand on, his own human trinity to see him through: Reason, Courage, and Grace. And the first plus the second equals the third.’” After his daughter Carol dies of leukemia, Wanderhope hears her recite this confession of faith on a tape that she had recorded for him.

But in contrast with the clamorous anthropocentrism of its creed, The Blood of the Lamb ends with a vitiated homily on sympathy, consolation, friendship, pity—vitiated because these qualities are lifeless and withered when severed from the Vine, their Source, the life-giving Light of the World, Christ the Redeemer-King. Despite the weakly palliative humanism of the last page, the spiritual value-structure of the novel is still Hemingway’s nada-nihilism and pseudo-stoicism, barely disguised. Again, let me remind you that as Christian literary critics, our first concern is the religion, theology, or life-view embodied in the work (novel, poem, short story, play). And that view of life must be exposed and evaluated by the Christian exegete in the light of the inspired and infallible Word of God, the Bible, which contains all the essential principles of literary criticism, as well as of all life.

Literature is not sermonizing, we say; that is, as an art form it is metaphorical, symbolic, avoids explicit propositional statement. Yet, even poets want to communicate what they believe to be the meaning of life. Notice the interpretations of life by the following English poets as those philosophies are epitomized in verses from their poems:

Thomas Hardy—scientific determinism:

Crass Casuality obstructs the sun and rain… “Hap”

And he is risen? Well, be it so…And still the pensive lands complain…

–“A Drizzling Easter Morning”

Would that your Causer, ere knoll your knell For this riot of passion, might deign to tell

Why, since It made you Sound in the germ, It sent a worm

To madden Its handiwork, when It might well Not have assayed you.

– “On the Portrait of a Woman about To Be Hanged”

A. E. Housman -fatalism and, avowedly, atheism:

We for a certainty are not the first Have sat in taverns while the tempest hurled Their hopeful plans to emptiness, and cursed Whatever brute and blackguard made the world.

– “The Chestnut Casts His Flambeaux”

W. B. Yeats—Platonism, sensualism, artificism:

Being by Calvary’s turbulence unsatisfted, The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.

– “The Magi”

Consume my heart away; sick with desire And fastened to a dying animal It knows not what it is; and gather me Into the artifice of eternity.

– “Sailing to Byzantium”

D. H. Lawrence – instinctivism, romantic primitivism, animalism:

. ..And caresses me with his fingers that still smell grim Of rabbit’s fur! God, I am caught in a snare! I only know I let him finger there My pulse of life, and let him nose like a stoat Who sniffs with joy before he drinks the blood.

– “Love on the Farm”

W. H. Auden – humanitarianism, solipsism, lingualapotheosism:

Time … Worships language and forgives Everyone by whom it lives; Pardons cowardice, conceit, Lays its honors at their feet.

Follow, poet, follow right To the bottom of the night, With your unconstraining voice Still persuade us to rejoice

In the deserts of the heart Let the healing fountain start, In the prison of his days Teach the free man how to praise.

– “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”

Perhaps the reader will not be convinced of the justice of the prefatory identifying terms until he has studied a sizeable selection from the poems of each of these men. Moreover, he may assert that in offering this series of quotations, I have not suggested the specifically Biblical principles by which one makes distinctively Christian judgments.

From courses in contemporary literature, it has become evident that such specifically Biblical evaluation may require several class meetings to expose the central meaning of a poet’s works; but also through such attempts it has become clear that with any poet’s works it can be done. For God’s Word sheds light on all our paths, and our Savior has assured us that “when the Spirit of truth is come [as He has], He will guide [us] into all truth” (John 16:13) –italics mine. And in Christ “are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge hidden” (Col. 2:3). That is, know him, and treasure hunting becomes profitable.

What I wish especially to reveal by the poetry excerpts above is something general but indisputably foundational to Christian literary criticism and to the writing of Christian novels and poems—which was my intended subject, you recall-and that is the antithesis between Light and darkness, between Truth and the lie, between Christ and Satan. For the antithesis is not an abstraction that we Christians can avoid or naively straddle in our various vocations. It is God or mammon in every calling, in every cultural or human activity. Each man must choose in every aspect of his life whether he will serve Christ or antichrist; that is, he must always be Christianly epistemologically self-conscious about his methods and his conclusions. For “Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: and every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is the spirit of antichrist” (I John 4:2, 3).

But, you object, you are making special grace rather than common grace the basis of literary criticism, of writing novels and poetry of all of man’s activity. Well, is not Christ the King of creation? Are not his incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection the crux of history? Has He not restored creation, in principle, by His atonement—as well as redeeming his chosen people, his elect, his body, the church? And did not Paul say by the Holy Spirit: “For by Him all things were created…; all things were created by Him, and for Him: and He is before all things, and by Him all things consist [hold together]”? (Col. 1:16–17)

How do we Christian critics dare to assert a common-grace mutuality with the unregenerate as the basis for our literary evaluation, for our creative writing? Common grace saves no one; we cannot live or die by it. Without special grace in Christ we go to hell. Can we continue to rationalize the dichotomy that proclaims, “Yes, but look at all the great insights that we get from non-Christians.” “Great” insights based on an underlying repudiation of Christ? Yet some Christians seriously believe that we can learn profound truths from those who are antithetically related to Christ. But what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? And what communion hath light with darkness? “For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (I Cor. 3:11). Where there is no basis in Truth, no “profound” truths are possible.

Why is the truly Christian voice so muted in the field of literature? Have we no novelists and poets who can speak authentically to our times? Prof. Merle Meeter of Dordt College, Sioux Center, Ia., raises and seeks an answer to this question.

The more I study and teach Aeschylus, Sophocles, Homer, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Goethe, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Melville, Twain, Kafka, Camus, the less I see that is principally “great.” And if you, as Christian critic, look for the message, the core meaning, the real heart of their works, you will perforce agree. But, you protest, there is more to literature than the content; there is the style and the harmony of form and content.

Truly said, but no aspect of style is neutral; every word is an authorial choice, none comes by chance, each is an expression of the heart—Out of the heart are the issues of life (Prov. 4:23). And can you prove by Scripture that some hearts are neutral, neither Christian nor non-Christian, half-regenerated, perhaps? The tone, the theme, the plot, the characters, the setting, the symbols, the diction, the rhythm, the very alliterative pattern is a part of the presentation of a reality created by God or of a pseudo-reality, hypostatized—edified as idol—by rebellious, autonomous man.

I praise God that he has saved me from my sins in Jesus Christ; but even while rejoicing in that salvation, I taught literature superficially for more than six years. Stylistic proficiency so mesmerized me that I selected and presented literature from art-for-art’s-sake presuppositions that I did not even suspect I held at the time—although I could seldom give a conscience-satisfying answer to the question: “Why are we studying this piece?”

Since those years I have written some poetry myself, experimenting with several forms, such as the ballad, the rondeau, the sonnet, the ballade, the villanelle, the sestina, the triolet, the ode; and I am convinced that anyone of average intelligence who is willing to take the hours—or days—required, can write technically correct poems in a variety of these traditional forms. Now I demand more of a poem than formal excellence and niceties of diction and metaphor. You see, I am back to the meaning, what the poem says, what is its message. And I hope that I meet you there.

Most Christians who consider fiction or poetry as a career see mainly the work of unregenerate authors -because (as in other vocations) “Many are called and few are chosen” for the Kingdom from among the creative writers (God is no respecter of persons). Confronted by a multitude of spurious non-Christian norms for poetry and fiction, believers in the Redeemer get the impression that there is no room (or need) for him in imaginative literature. And soon conscientious Christian would-be writers become dubious: “Can I spend my life turning out works like these? How could I justify before God such writings as do not unmistakably, unashamedly, show that Christ is my Savior and King? After all, I can’t preach in literature, can I? Why, the publishers would roar their rejections in outrage or hilarity.”

Maybe so, but who judges finally, the publisher or the Judge of all the earth? And can’t one preach in literature? Did you read what De Vries said about a “human trinity”? I take Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex out of my briefcase. Consider this: ‘Thine is a fate that warns me -thine, thine, unhappy Oedipus—to call no earthly creature blest.” Now I pick out Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Elder Zossima addresses a woman thus: “Love is such a priceless treasure that you can redeem the whole world by it, and cleanse not only your own sins but the sins of others.” (Need I append Christian analyses?)

Everything is permitted, everything is publishable today—except one thing: Christ the Truth, the Way, the Life, and the offense of his Cross. But Marie Post for one is writing Christian poetry in our community; Gertrude Haan is writing Christian short stories—and both writers are composing their works with artistry, with clarity, with truth and, therefore, with the Truth.

Do we dare to strip away our layers of classical humanism, our imitative secularism, and the chameleon guise of neutrality that makes Christianity a ludicrous and feeble hypocrisy to the world? As we have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so let us walk in him (Col. 2:6).