On the State of Christian Literature in 1948 ... and Today

In 1948, a group of young Calvinists from Calvin College came together to compose a "challenge to the church," in which a number of essays were written on a variety of topics. The essays presuppose a Calvinist audience as well as the superiority of traditional Calvinism to other branches of Christianity. But these youth were prescient in their ability to see the direction of the church. My literary interests led me to their essay on the state of literature among Christians. This is their best essay in my opinion, and I have selected the best portions to quote here. We should be even more concerned now than they were then. This is a challenge the church needs to hear again and again.

The present state of Christian literature is poor. . . . There is a general acceptance [among Christians in America] of the line of thought which was current in Victorian times, that the only fit subject for literature is the 'Pollyanna' story. Only the rosy ideal is held to be Christian, and realism is of the devil -- despite the example of the Bible, a thoroughly realistic book. Accordingly, we are being bombarded with small, insignificant, poorly written novelettes which have insecure religious and literary foundations. These productions violate most of the rules of good literature: they use the pointed moral to a sickening degree; they are unrealistic; they give a very false impression of life. The writers refuse, either through fear or ignorance, to depict life as it is, indicating an avoidance of the facts of existence on their part. . . .

Is such stuff necessary? Is Pollyanna the only possible Christian character? . . . We need not worry about realism. A Christian writer, if he is living a Christian life, and thinking as a Christian, will write Christian literature. But he will not, if he writes literature, substitute a stilted, idealistic, and pedantic view of life for the realistic, surging thing that life is. Our Christian doctors deal with disease as it is, not disease as it might be if Adam had not fallen. They do not write learned articles on typhoid as it affects angels. Our Christian farmers wrest their living from a real earth, and do not expend their talent in cultivating the weedless soil of the Garden of Eden. And so Christian writers, if they write literature, must deal with life as it is, with its sin and shoddiness. . . . We live when Hiroshima has been bombed, and 'Christian' novels still deal with the problem of smoking.

We live in an age when pagan ideals of sex are being flaunted from movie houses, on the radio, and in women's magazines. Our only answer has been to produce novels in which the author deals with the problem of sex by emulating the ostrich. Characters in 'Christian' novels live in a world as strange as that of radio's soap operas; a world where the characters never wear lipstick; where sex life is lived in periodic fits of absent-mindedness, and consists at most of holding hands; where an unconvincing 'conversion' eliminates all problems; where all realistic portrayal of people is avoided; where conflicts of loyalties, where sin in its worst forms -- pride, hatred, power-lust, disregard for fellowman, do not exist and are never examined; a world which should turn the stomach of any real [Christian].

(The Youth and Calvinism Group. Youth Speaks on Calvinism: A Challenge to the Church. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1948.)

Comments

GoobyNelly said…
Ha! Have you been hunting around the library in your spare time? Cool what sort of things you can find. This was certainly worthy of sharing.
My sister-in-law, Saara, just listened to me read it out loud. She proclaimed: "Wow, people from Calvin that actually think! Those were the days. . . " :-) She's earned the right to say that (even if only jokingly), since she just graduated from Calvin a month ago w/ a nursing degree, which means that she'll be making more money than both of us put together.
joshua said…
the same could certainly be said for Christian approaches to literature and music. Although, the likes of Sufjan have helped with the later a bit.
Light said…
This is why Tolkien's work was so great. He didn't set out to write great Christian fiction - he just wanted to tell a good story. Yet his faith permeated every word he wrote.

If you want to read good literature, you'll seldom find it in a Christian bookstore. Most of it is just pap.