By David Beilstein
CULTURAL impoverishment in America has many another effects. One of those effects enters the world of art and literature. Cinema too. Having been addicted to reading since childhood, I am often struck by the world of literature. And I find much modern literature to be beneath my curiosity. Since my desire is screenwriting all forms of writing are important to me – and storytelling and its vagaries consumes my thinking and imagination.
It has been a long time since I have enjoyed the perspectives of a female author. If I could be even more honest I would admit I do not read female authors. I do have memories of skimming through Joyce Carol Oates’ prose when younger and entrenched in prizefighting. But woman authors, strangely, never gripped my attention.
This may sound impossibly sexist – for that I apologise. But an interesting woman has entered my life of late. She was Flannery O’Connor – the Roman Catholic prose stylist. Since I am an Old School Presbyterian the contours and dogmas of my faith are the center of my personhood. And within my personhood is my eye – and my eye is what I use to see the good and the bad and the ugly of human nature within a dramatic context.
And yet evangelical Christianity has spoken little of any sense toward art. It is true Holy Scripture reaches into the common space the Christian saint occupies – but it is equally true an aspect of faithfully executing vocational norms within that secular space requires harnessing the principals and rules that space involves.
This is why I have voiced concern and dread about so-called Christian movies and literature. I do not know what that term means but figure in my own mind it has something to do with using art for apologetical resources. And it is here Ms Flannery O’Connor – passed on since 1964 – becomes a great voice in the face of what I can only perceive to be irrational conceptions of the writer’s aesthetic mission.
In The Church And The Fiction Writer, Flannery O’Connor writes,
It is generally supposed, and not least by Catholics, that the Catholic who writes fiction is out to use fiction to prove the truth of his faith or, at the least, to prove the existence of the supernatural. He maybe. No one can be sure of his motives except as they suggest themselves in his finished work, but when the finished work suggests that pertinent actions have been fraudulently manipulated or overlooked or smothered, whatever purposes the writer started out with have already been defeated. What the fiction writer will discover, if he discovers anything at all, is that he himself cannot move or mold reality in the interests of abstract truth. The writer learns, perhaps more quickly than the reader, to be humble in the face of what is. What is is all he has to do with; the concrete is his medium; and he will realise eventually that fiction can transcend its limitations only by staying within them.
Of course, my belief of the Church differs from Roman Catholic dogma. This does not prevent me from seeing that Ms O’Connor echoes my sentiments. My issue with Christian movies or literature when used for evangelistic purposes is – it ceases to do the heavy lifting it must do. In essence what is, ‘is’. This ongoing reality is the writer of Christian faith’s main ingredient for composition. And that is exactly what is wrong with Christian attempts to baptise literature in dogmatic didacticism.
It is equally true that the writer who claims Christian faith has a responsibility to perceive the disturbances of this penultimate world as in fact disturbances – as unnatural to our destiny as Imago Dei creatures and foreign to our humanity. But those disturbances must be illustrated – they must be depicted. If not the writer who claims Christian faith abandons one of the principal articles of obedience to Christ the Son of the Living God. He abandons truth.
Ms O’Connor continues,
If the writer uses his eyes in the real security of his faith, he will be obliged to use them honestly and his sense of mystery and his acceptance of it will be increased. To look at the worst will be for him no more than an act of trust in God … A belief in fixed dogma cannot fix what goes on in life or blind the believer to it. It will, of course, add to the writer’s observation a dimension that many cannot, in conscience, acknowledge; but as long as what they can acknowledge is present in the work, they cannot claim that any freedom has been denied the artist. A dimension taken away is one thing; a dimension added is another, and what the Catholic writer and reader will have to remember is that the reality of the added dimension will be judged in a work of fiction by the truthfulness and wholeness of the literal level of the natural events presented.
It is because the writer who is a Christian occupies faith by the grace of the true God of this world and before all worlds that the author’s religious dogma is true objectively. Thus the author’s perception of the world should (and must) be that much more accurate. And yet evangelical attempts to create alternative “Christian” literature (and movies) in didactic form necessarily imprisons the writer into manipulating reality thus creating a world an audience cannot acknowledge – a world sentimental and thus untrue.
And an acknowledgement of universal machinations of life and its vagaries – it’s sweeping slices of glory and disturbance and human depravity in an penultimate sphere – is the work good art must do.