Should Christian stories evangelize?
When Stephen sent the email asking for contributions to this series, I had just finished reading Madeline L’Engle’s Walking on Water and was in the process of reading The Creative Call by Janet Elsheimer, which was largely influenced by L’Engle and by the secular work The Artist’s Way, and at the end of reading several of Eugene Peterson’s works (I’ve also read Francis Schaeffer’s Art and the Bible since then).
The whole concept of secular and sacred art, despite my growing up reading mostly Christian fiction, was foreign to me until college, when I entered the debate and began studying it for myself. The more I listened, the more I observed, the more I realized that there is, in fact (or, at least, has been) a strange disconnect between American Christianity and American culture (and therefore art) for some time.
Most of what I could say has already been covered quite eloquently, but a few other thoughts come to mind.
My immediate reaction to “Should Christian stories evangelize?” is a thousand times no.
To illustrate my understanding of evangelistic fiction, the question reminds me of a writing conference I was at in which a lovely older gentleman asked the workshop speaker, “So, a novel isn’t a sermon?” My friend and I stayed quiet while the speaker very graciously told him no and explained why, but I can’t help but thinking about how genuine the question was. It was a true shift in paradigm for him, and I don’t think he’s alone. So if we’re going to use the word “evangelize” in its exact definition, then no.
If the Holy Spirit wants to use a movie, or a novel, or a piece of music, or a dance, or a painting, to speak to an individual in a way only they would understand, he is perfectly capable and in his right to do so. In fact, that’s typically the way he seems to operate. (One of my favorite Scripture moments is when Jesus calls Nathaniel. That whole dialogue reads like an inside joke between them that no one else understands. Whatever Nathaniel needed to hear, Jesus gave him, but speculations abound as to what it was.1)
But there are two things at work here.
First, art is not evangelizing anybody if it is made in such a way that only another Christian would interact with it. That is not evangelism. That is edifying the body. But, as one of the other contributors put so well, it is not edification, either, if we’re creating alternate realities (especially in contemporary fiction) in which the work is creating some emotional outbursts but not actually feeding anyone or going only halfway with a subject, or a dozen other things that simply widen the chasm between real-world people and situations and this otherly, surreal place that implies a guru meditating above the cosmos and apart from earth and mere mortals.
Second, we’re confusing “theme” with “gospel presentation.” Scripture is abundant with theme: justice, revenge, love, kingship, sovereignty, redemption, human nature, the ethical treatment of the earth and animals, and so on. And it doesn’t always answer the questions. Job never knows why he suffered; the book of Jonah actually ends with a question; Paul’s answer to why not everyone is saved boils down to “trust God.” Many things happen in Judges that are put there, but neither celebrated nor directly condemned, and so on. This being said, of course a story can have a strong redemption theme; it can even have a very blatant retelling of Christ’s work on the cross and be splendid, but, to blatantly quote L’Engle, even the theme must “serve the work.”
For the glory of the Lord
I can’t say precisely what needs to change; I think that varies by the person.
Some are too ready to throw out all tradition, caution, and counsel in favor of “gritty” and “real” while others are too ready to shun anything that smells of licentiousness or bad theology. My experience is that this is a false dichotomy for the most part; most people live along a pendulum (or something more like a ball of knots) of things they consider acceptable or unacceptable–I call them glorious or grotesque–in fiction.
In answer to what should change, I can only say this, not because it isn’t being done, but because it needs reinforcing: We need to expand our definition of “evangelism opportunities” from creating ninety-thousand word tracts that might fall on fertile spiritual soil of an unknown number of unknown people. Our definition or “evangelism opportunities” must also include creating something of excellence, richness, and potency that will create the opportunity to speak the good news and live evangelistic lifestyles among the handful of real, flesh-and-blood people we come in contact with, and leave the rest to the Spirit himself, because not one of us has the power to resurrect dead human souls.
And, in conclusion, I would say as Paul did: “In whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” and for his glory (Colossians 3:17; I Corinthians 10:31).
This is a crucial issue for anyone who loves stories but loves Jesus more, and wants to glorify Jesus through our enjoyment of stories or our making of stories.
During October our new SpecFaith series explores this issue.
On Thursdays, reviewer Austin Gunderson and writer E. Stephen Burnett host the conversation with interactive articles. On Fridays and Tuesdays, guest writers such as novelists and publishers offer their responses to the question.
We invite you to give your own answers to the #StoryEvangelism conversation.
- John 1: 43-51. ↩