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?1
E. Stephen Burnett: Beyond excellent work into excellent leisure
Austin, thanks for that excellent overview of the oft-ignored doctrine of Christian vocation. It’s a reminder to many of us—that the Bible has a lot more to say about our topic than “evangelism is the most spiritual task you can do, so don’t waste any opportunity to do it.”
But in response to this overreach, many Christians may overcorrect into an equally blind spot. They assume the Bible has little to say about non-explicitly-religious work.
As you pointed out, Scripture gives plenty of commands about the goodness of all work. The book of Proverbs alone is sufficient to give general principles about God-exalting character and behavior in all areas of life. These include traits like honesty, justice-seeking, and the truth that excellence typically brings worthy recognition. For instance:
Do you see a man skillful in his work?
He will stand before kings;
he will not stand before obscure men.2
But that brings to mind a few more questions about the purpose of “whatever [Christians] do … for the Lord”3 even before we speak more of stories’ purpose.
1. We may speak of storytelling as ‘work,’ but what about our leisure time?
Readers may know that I try to push back against an impulse to speak more about “the fiction industry.” Alas, that has potentially created the impression among some that I would rather never talk about things like a story’s plot, dialogue, and originality.
Not at all! Instead I’m trying to get away from a kind of metal-and-wheels “usable tool” pragmatism. Surely anyone is subject to that—at least, I certainly am. This is the difference between hearing a concert while knowing good music and thus enjoying or critiquing it more, and listening to the concert primarily so you can think about how you’re going to make your own music someday. Before we prepare to use, let us be prepared to enjoy.
But good enjoying sounds so, well, lazy. And non-productive. And not very evangelistic.
I can’t help thinking of the satirical bumper sticker that says, “Jesus is coming / Look busy!”
We may have an image, and we may smile or laugh about it, but the image may still haunt us. It’s an image of Jesus bursting out of the clouds, victorious and ready to bring Heaven to Earth, only to find us not specifically waiting for Him. Instead we’re sleeping, showering, toilet-using, spouse-canoodling, or doing anything that is not an explicitly spiritual activity.
What if Jesus returns and finds us, say, not working but doing something restful such as enjoying a story? Would that be okay? What it be okay if the story had no explicit invitations to salvation?
We likely both agree that in that event, Jesus would not fault us for anything. Even if He caught one of His children sinning, that sin would be covered by His blood. A Christian resurrected out of sleep or any other leisure by the Second Coming/resurrection is no less “spiritual” than a Christian resurrected out of the very act of preaching at a pulpit.
2. Is it okay for Christians to take a “break” from explicit gospel work?
Austin, you mentioned another image Christians have, the image of a “full-time missionary.” But even this popular conception is flawed because no one in ministry actually does it full-time. One missionary couple supported by our church will spend years learning a language, and supporting their family while having more children and homeschooling them. How unspiritual! And on occasion they might check their email, read a novel, watch TV, or at least spend time sleeping. Even this isn’t full-time ministry by our subconscious standards.
These leisure activities, though small, can also glorify God. It depends on whether we do it “from faith,” defined according to Scripture. Whether we eat, drink, or anything, “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin”4—a short yet immense definition.
Even Jesus did not engage in “full-time ministry,” but would “withdraw to desolate places and pray”5 and visit friends such as Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in Bethany.
We still have Sabbath rest, times when we retreat, recharge, and fulfill human needs.
Yet that rest is part of our goal of evangelizing people, preparing us for an eternal Sabbath.
Evangelism is bigger than John 3:16
Now let’s return to the definition of evangelism. In chapter 1, I said that evangelism means “using words to communicate the good news of Jesus and the coming Kingdom.” This must include an introductory call to repent and believe in Jesus and be saved—perhaps a “John 3:16 call” made famous by Western evangelists and local church revivals. But is evangelism limited to this call? No. Evangelism must be nothing less than this call. But it’s much bigger.
For the Christian, “evangelism”—that is, “gospel-izing” the world—gets deeper, brighter, and more epic than, well, a mere piece of “evangelism” that’s a specific call to be saved.
Evangelism starts with “Repent and be saved.” By no means does evangelism end there.
As you pointed out, Austin, Jesus’s Great Commission command can best be phrased “As you are going, disciple people.” Shall we reduce “disciple” to the initial call to “repent and become a disciple?” Not at all. That’s just the start of discipleship, a lifetime mission.
Thus, should Christian stories evangelize? Our answers must start with, “It depends on …”
Then our answers must begin exploring the author’s maturity and goals, the audience’s needs, and especially the fact that a reader’s “discipling process” while enjoying a story—with or without explicit biblical images or themes—will almost always look very different.
For instance, we might return to a fact you and I mentioned earlier, the fact that neither of us have been “saved” according to some standard evangelical methods of “evangelism.” Some may prefer the standard “John 3:16” faith “pickup line.” But God works differently in different people’s lives, not only to build people’s faith before they are saved but after.
I’m curious: How did Jesus work in your own life to summon you to the Kingdom?
How does he work in stories, including fantastical stories by Christian and non-Christian makers that may not seem to be limited to the standard-issue “evangelism”? And how does that compare with the popular conception of “evangelism” in faith and Christian stories?
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.