Assistant Professor of English, Dordt College.
For other Foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
In his essay “The Impossibility of a Christian Literature” (The Church Herald, Dec. 22, 1967), Dr. Richard Jaarsma deprecates the pseudo-Christian, melodramatic novels that distort the realities God’s sin-cursed (because of man’s rebellion) but Christ-redeemed (although still only in principle) creation by purveying sensationalism and sentimentality. I share Dr. Jaarsma’s revulsion with such unnatural, unbiblical romanticism.
Stereotyped conversions and easy sanctification are not the true components of Christian literature—the Holy Spirit works through means, especially through the Inscripturated Word. Also, propriety and beauty as well as charity and truth are found in Christ and in Him alone. Certainly, Christian literature must “please and instruct” (as the pagan poet Horace suggested); but since the Christian must please God rather than man, his first concern as writer is to declare the truth about reality—which includes all human relationships and activities—as it consists in Christ. For in Him all things cohere, hold together, have their meaningful interrelationship (see Colossians 1:13-17). Pleasing God first in his literary composition is a goal, however, that may gain for the Christian artist the ridicule, even the virulent condemnation of men who wish to remain “free” from the authority of the Bible, God’s inerrant rule for every aspect of faith and practice (and that holds also for Christian authorship).
And literature must also instruct, that is, it must edify the reader Christianly: it must either build up the believer as a new creature in Christ, or it must point the non-Christian to the Savior-King as He is made known to man by the Holy Spirit in the Bible. This does not mean, of course, that Christian scholars and students should not study the “best” imaginative writings of non-Christian writers to reclaim from their God-denying (false) religious frameworks what must be corrected and presented in homage to the Triune Sovereign God in Christ our Ring. But because the fear of the Lord is the beginning, the principal part, of wisdom and only the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding, any instruction that is not founded; on the principal and practical teachings of God’s Word is foolishness.
The antithetical spirits of light and darkness, life and death, truth and the lie, Christ and Satan inform all education and literature. And God’s command is always that we discern (try, evaluate) the spirits to see whether they be of God. Our business, of course, is not to justify or condemn authors; God in His perfect wisdom will do that. We are called to discover, identify, and judge the organizing, the thematic, the vitalizingspirit of the literary work, without which a novel, poem, play is chaos.
Dr. Jaarsma disavows then theory that “literature should hammer home some sort of ‘message’ with the intent of persuading us to this or that point of view.” And he also challenges the view that “judges all literature by the standard of the significance of what the work says.” Now agreed that imaginative literature is significantly metaphorical presentation of meaning and not primarily didactically explicit statement; but, surely, literature—even poetry—also contains much that is expressed with creedal, denotative clarity and aphoristic precision. Metaphorical (or symbolical) “meaning” that cannot, finally, be put into words is in reality no meaning at all. And, concerning the second quotation, can it be denied that what the work “says” through its total metaphorical-propositional structure about God and His created order crowned by man is the measure of that work’s essential importance?
The core message, then, the interpretation of life, the view of destiny, the religious heart-commitment evinced in the literary work is, in fact, its central meaning, its major significance. And the extent of approximation to the truth (which is authorized and manifested in Christ, the Truth) is the crucial criterion of its literary—and ultimately all other—value. For Christ is the Lord of literature, just as He is also Lord of economics and ethics and biology and physics and basketball. He is the Lawgiver, and no value in this His creation can be dissociated from Him; no apostasy can finally negate His pronouncement that all things were and are created for His glory in the Triune God (see Hebrews 2:10 and Romans 11:36).
Dr. Jaarsma also prefers a presumed dichotomy between style and content that has led many, over the centuries, to champion an art-for-art’s-sake priority (in the name of classical liberal arts, the Thomistic natural light of reason, Christian humanism, and a distorted view of God’s general goodness as unrelated to Christ’s work of redemption), an approach that fragments the organic work of art, absolutizes some certain aesthetic feature, and destroys the incrafted coherence by avowing that there are “aspects of it which have little or nothing to do with the subject or ‘message.'”
But a work of art must be integral, unified, coherent to deserve the designation “art.” Certainly, then, no aspect of a literary production has “little or nothing to do with the subject or message”; such an unassimilated feature would inevitably bedisintegrating, would impair the aesthetic wholeness of the work. The imaginative (not creative; only God is creative) artist’s vision of life, his way-of-worship, his faith-commitment is indissolubly and interanimatingly compounded with his style and with the deliberately contrived literary structure that is the vehicle for his God-centered or man-centered interpretation of life.
In this vital unity, the self-consciously Christian critic can discover the ultimate focus of the author’s worship, the god (or God) to whom he commits his art and life—for all life is religion, not just Sunday worship in church or dinner-table devotions. And literature, too, is a fundamentally God-praising or God-rejecting human activity, one important manifestation of man’s (worship-full) life.
The secular writer always serves self (or a delusion of meaning, even of perfectibility, apart from the Savior’s blood) and the antichrist, whereas the Christian writer worships the Lord Christ in his literary productions. Yet Dr. Jaarsma says that the “works of a secular writer such as William Faulkner” are “infinitely more satisfying” than John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Now surely Bunyan did include much homiletical dialogue, but what of the local color, the variety of characters (humors), the unforgettable scenes of Vanity Fair, the Castle of the Giant Despair, the River of Death? Moreover, we should be reminded that the genre we now call the novel had not yet taken definitive literary form. Many scholars—both Christian and non-Christian—have lauded The Pilgrim’s Progress as the finest allegory in the English language. Also, a number of recent critics have (unfaddishly) indicted Faulkner’s grotesque syntax, bungling transitions in point of view, ostentatious and unidiomatic diction, tediously digressive plot development, and noisome preoccupation with sexual perversity and racial degeneration. (Nor, in my opinion, do the few kernels of stoical anthropocentrism sufficiently rejoice Faulkner’s long-suffering readers.)
Incontrovertibly, writing that is “concerned solely with proclaiming the salvation of man,” in Dr. Jaarsma’s pejorative sense of that definition for literature, is, I agree, not Christian literature at all. For such pseudo evangelical (the Gospel is the Good News for all life) and self-limiting productions often present “salvation” as moralism, humanitarian self-regeneration, purgation through man’s suffering, or instantaneous, ecstatic conversion. But salvation is actually, that is, Biblically, the whole grace-of-God process of the repentant sinner’s (prior) regeneration and redemption in the blood of Christ, as well as the consequent life-long, life-wide experience of sanctification by the Holy Spirit.
“A communication between the work of literature and the reader,” continues Dr. Jaarsma, “demolishes religious, cultural, and political lines [and, therefore, he concludes that] no literature can be said to be either Christian or nonchristian.” Certainly one should read: sympathetically (that is, understandingly), but not neutrally, blankly, unself-consciously, a-religiously—in fact, such reading is impossible. A man in the totality of his response is, always approving or disapproving of a work of literature according to the deity that he (awarely or unawarely) serves: hedonism, aestheticism, rationalism, empiricism, romanticism, naturalism, existentialism, nihilism, or the Christ as revealed to us in His Word.
Frustrated by the paucity of distinctively Christian literature, we all-feel inclined to refuse the struggle, to consign the determinative reality of the antithesis, the ever-present temporal warfare between the spirit of darkness and the Spirit of Light to some ethereal zone where we would be free to conduct our literary criticism and compose our imaginative works in fraternity with the world and according to presumedly neutral, objective, common standards. But, of course, God will not permit such compromise (see II Cor. 6:14-15). If one cannot speak of Christian literature, how can one speak of Christian philosophy, Christian hymns, Christian charity, Christian education, Christian witness, Christian ethics, Christian friendship?
Although the reader must empathize to understand the, meaning of a literary work, must attune to the writer’s mind, must experience the heart-issues of the characters (to some degree), that does not mean he divests himself of his armor of faith, of his Word- and Spirit-enlightened conscience, of his life-giving communion with Christ (for he who has not Christ has neither truth nor life). The Christian reader, then, is a self-conscious critic, illumined by the Holy Spirit through the Scriptures; he does not repudiate his God-honoring integrity for a vicarious debauch in literature that he speciously labels “amoral” because it is assumed to be sacrosanct under a humanistically devised quasi-aesthetic law.
For all laws are God’s laws; He is the Law-Maker and is above all laws. And no law can exclude Him Who is the Truth and the Source of law. Nor does the Christian reader approve the popular assumption that literature is neutral as it deals with the “raw data” of human experience, with the phenomena of “brute facts” and “objective realities.” But the Christian reader realizes that all facts have meaning only in their patterns (plots, in novels) of interpretation, in their faith frameworks, that all facts are interpreted facts and that there are no “objective realities,” only God-ordained, God-created, God-sustained realities.
“All men share their experiences,” says Dr. Jaarsma, and “A Christian can no more deny his essential humanity . . . than he can deny the fact that he has arms and legs.” Experiences, however, are only in one sense shared, for “All things work together for good to them that love God,” not to the reprobate who reject Him. But accepting (for this discussion) the common experiences of our “essential humanity” (a sadly typical liberal-humanist phrase), the life-and-death difference is the direction of a man’s religious heart-response to these “common” experiences: whether, in humble faith and sin-sorrow, he thanks God for them or denounces the Triune, Covenant God of Creation, Providence, and Redemption by living the self-deifying blasphemy that presumes to make its own laws and to control its own destiny.
That is, the antithesis between the Church (Christ’s body, His chosen) and the world (the unregenerate, for whose salvation the redeemed must testify and pray and serve) is a determinative reality in every cultural activity. These antagonistic principles (or spirits) are warring in all human endeavors—in every art, science, profession, area of life.
One more quotation and a brief comment on it: “Ultimately, it must be the individual Christian who once more focuses the insights of the writer through the glass of his own Christianity.” With this last observation of Dr. Jaarsma I can concur. That is, if the Christian reader’s “glass” is the perspective of God’s inerrant and authoritative Word, the Bible. (I must demur, however, if this quotation means that the Christian reader can somehow. sanctify the intention of a pagan author and, there by, make his work appear Christian despite its apostate root.)
Also, I am encouraged by reading that Dr. Jaarsma affirms the ability of the Christian reader to evaluate literature according to his Christ-centered commitment; for that excites me to hope, further, that Christ-believing teachers and writers may also come increasingly to realize and demonstrate that Christ’s comprehensive Lordship extends over the domain of imaginative literature. Grace Irwin, for one, has already written well-crafted Christian fiction. And Elisabeth Elliot’s No Graven Image also deserves our interest and evaluation.
May God’s Word be our principal guide as we advance in the development of distinctively Christian critique and imaginative literature, “Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that is exalted against the knowledge of God, and bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ. . . . That in the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven and things on earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (II Cor. 10:5 and Phil. 2:9-10).