I’m curious about your thoughts on any of these definitions, and/or why Christians keep having the “should Christian fiction evangelize” discussion, and/or the spiritual/social pressures of “evangelism opportunities.”1
First of all, excellent breakdown. When tackling a subject this rife with potentially-uncomfortable implications, it’s crucial that we thoroughly define our terms.
Sensing scant quibble-fuel in your first two definitions, my attention is immediately drawn to the words “fiction” and “evangelize,” for it’s at their confluence that friction is most frequently generated in the Christian community. While many Christians see evangelism as antithetical to the spirit of good storytelling, many others point out that since all fiction inevitably contains thematic messaging, Christian fiction should make an effort to deliberately leverage that quality for the glory of God.
Broadly speaking, I think the source of the confusion typically surrounding this topic can be traced to the failure of evangelicalism to articulate a coherent doctrine of vocation. I think it’s this failure more than anything else that hobbles Christian achievement in the arts.
Let me give an example of what I mean. Say you have a pastor and an auto mechanic. The mechanic loves God and wants to glorify Him, but has always nursed the sneaking suspicion that he isn’t living up to his potential, that he’s been compromised somehow.
He listens to his pastor exhort him to fulfill the Great Commission, and goes away disquieted.
He can’t witness to his customers the way the pastor witnesses to his congregants; such behavior would impede his work and drive away business.
He tries to contribute to spiritual ministry in other capacities — volunteering for mentoring, showing up early or late to help with VBS, taking time off for short-term missions.
But always in the back of his mind there’s this understanding that full-time ministry is more spiritual, more eternally valuable, more pleasing to God than what he spends the majority of his life doing. And yet the work is necessary to pay the bills, so over the years the mechanic becomes calloused to this apparent discrepancy. “It’s just secular work,” he tells himself. “It’s a necessary evil. Maybe if I’m successful enough at it, I’ll be able to retire early and start really serving God.”
And so the quality of the mechanic’s work gradually begins to deteriorate. There’s no spiritual value in replacing transmissions, after all, so what’s the harm in cutting corners and taking it easy when no one’s looking over his shoulder? He’s just doing what he must to get by, all while feeling vaguely guilty that he’s not a pastor or full-time missionary.
Obviously, this is a problem. So what’s the knee-jerk evangelical solution? Why, it’s for him to view his place of work as a mission-field, of course! After all, an auto mechanic has opportunities to talk to people who’d never even think of entering a church. Who’s this guy to say that God hasn’t put him under the hood for such a time as this?
Of course, after a while the mechanic figures out that that’s generally bunk. He can’t very well turn his shop into some “Carburetors for Christ” shtick, and yet he can’t help craving more than a second-class citizenship in the Kingdom of God.
And now evangelicalism’s fresh out of answers.
The ministering storyteller
At this point, many readers, fed up with my trite and overlong parable, are no doubt shouting at their computer screens something to the effect of, “He doesn’t need to evangelize in order to glorify God, silly!” Oh really?
So now let’s pretend the mechanic is an author. Did anything about your opinion just change? If so, this bears further examination.
Let’s return to the mechanic for a moment. If it’s not apparent by now that the man’s mental bifurcation of reality into separate “sacred” and “secular” realms is deeply mistaken, consider this: he, and those like him, pay the pastor’s salary. Without his “secular” job, without his revenue-generation, there can be no pastor, no church, no “sacred” anything. He makes it possible.
That alone should indicate to us that the secular-spiritual dichotomy is false. Far from being peripheral — some kind of mammon-enamored layman whose inadequacies God tolerates — the mechanic is essential to the functioning of that spiritual apparatus whose “legitimacy” he envies. And that’s just in reference to how he relates to the “official” church! We haven’t even touched upon the ways in which he’s enriching the lives of his neighbors by combating the forces of entropy. And yet in his heart he despises his occupation. He doesn’t perform his duties out of faith that they, apart from their use to evangelism, matter to God.
That’s a tragedy.
And it’s unbiblical. What does the Scripture say?
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.2
Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.3
Whatever you do. This is not an admonition to apostles. This is a command that applies to all of life, even to those mundane and “unspiritual” activities that evangelicals tend to think of as distractions from the “real” work that most pleases God. It is not God’s design that we should feel forever guilty for spending the majority of our lives as non-mouth members of the Body of Christ!
On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.4
The Christian life is far more than some giant pyramid scheme that exists solely to expand. The gospel, far from being a mere sales pitch, is a whole-life transformation. Even the Great Commission itself is most accurately translated not as “Go and make disciples,” but rather, “As you are going, disciple people.” Jesus isn’t commanding us to abandon our “secular” occupations, but to approach them in a transformed manner — in light of His lordship and our status as princes and princesses in His already-and-not-yet kingdom. He is glorified when we plunge into life with the burning desire to do what it is we do in beautiful and excellent ways, as though we’re standing in His presence and presenting Him with the works of our hands and minds. Because we kinda are.
There’s a pervasive notion out there that full-time evangelists deserve preeminent status in Christendom, and that they somehow know better than the rest of us how to make use of our various talents. But as C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity:
The clergy are those particular people within the whole Church who have been specially trained and set aside to look after what concerns us as creatures who are going to live for ever: and we are asking them to do a quite different job for which they have not been trained. The job is really on us, on the laymen. The application of Christian principles, say, to trade unionism or education, must come from Christian trade unionists and Christian schoolmasters: just as Christian literature comes from Christian novelists and dramatists — not from the bench of bishops getting together and trying to write plays and novels in their spare time.
The lack of storytelling insight possessed by full-time evangelists is so obvious to Lewis that he uses it as a humorous anecdote to illustrate a larger point. Bishops writing novels? LoL!
So it falls to storytellers to tell excellent stories. But this begs the question: what comprises beautiful and excellent fiction? What will be the result if we write fiction with God’s pleasure in mind? And it’s at this point that we can very suddenly find ourselves right back at square one.
At its onset, the gospel’s transmitted through words. And, like you said, Stephen, we tend to look at written fiction, comprised as it is of words, and have a difficult time parsing its highest purpose from that of the persuasive work of the evangelist. Automobile repair is easier to isolate, because it so little resembles “full-time Christian ministry.” But writing? Writing exists in the realm of ideas. It has the capacity to shift psychological stasis and alter human behavior — to reshape our view of the world. With this in mind, should Christian fiction really “make the most of every opportunity” to proclaim Christian doctrine and normalize Christian practice?
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.