‘Whatever is true …’
Books | The Apostle Paul’s guidance to the Christian storyteller
by John R. Erickson
Posted 11/17/18, 02:06 pm
In 2009, Maverick Books published John R. Erickson’s Story Craft: Reflections of Faith, Culture and Writing from the Author of Hank of the Cowdog. With permission from the publisher, we’re posting in our Saturday Series a chapter each month through January. Here’s a chapter titled “The Christian Writer,” which starts with a quotation from Philip Ryken’s Art for God’s Sake: “Christian art is redemptive, and this is its highest purpose.” —Marvin Olasky
The Christian Writer
Let us return to St. Paul’s “Great Commission” to artists and writers: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things … and put [them] into practice” (Philippians 4:8 NIV).
Yes, that covers it pretty well. “Although this verse has wider implications for the whole Christian life,” notes Philip Graham Ryken, “at the very least it outlines a set of ethical and aesthetic norms for the artist and for art.” When a story resolves the conflict and drama of the plot, we want the reader to think on the things that are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, virtuous, and worthy of praise.
But we should notice that the qualities listed by St. Paul are the finished products of a Christian life. He speaks as a man who has already been redeemed, and in his role as preacher, he is saying, “This is where you want to be at the end of your spiritual journey.”
Preachers can tell us that, but storytellers must show it. You can’t begin a story with the ending. You can’t start a story with the finished product. You can’t reach a resolution without tension and conflict. To put it into Christian terms, you can’t have redemption without the Fall, or resurrection without the crucifixion. It’s bad theology and it’s worse storytelling, because it departs from the basic template of story structure: a story begins, moves, and resolves.
If we view St. Paul’s life as a three-act screenplay, his letter to the Philippians would fall near the end of Act Three. To get the rest of his story, we must go back to Act One. There, we see a very gifted, literate, articulate Hellenized Jew named Saul. In Act Two, we find him watching as Stephen is stoned to death, and using his talents to “breathe out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1).
Then he is blinded on the road to Damascus and hears the voice of Christ: “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” (Acts 9:4) His life is changed and resolves into Act Three, where he offers sound advice in a letter to the Philippian church.
A lot of Christian writers (me included) don’t like Act Two because that’s where we find an emphasis on fallen man and all the nastiness of the broken human soul: cruelty, adultery, and violence, the temptations, bad choices, and stupid mistakes. We know where we want to be and where we feel most comfortable (Act Three), and we’re prone to rush through the second act, covering our ears and holding our noses.
There, safe on the other side, we tell the audience to think on the things that are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, virtuous, and worthy of praise. And it doesn’t work. We get a story that is sentimental and dull, with characters who speak in soft tones and smile all the time.
We get a “good Christian story” that isn’t a good story.
Dr. Thom Parham, an associate professor of theater, film and television at Azusa Pacific University, and a Christian, has written a blistering critique of movies made by Christian filmmakers. He lists fifteen films made between 1995 and 2004 and says, “Overall, these films are unwatchable. There are only a handful of good scenes among them. None had success with critics or at the box office. … Most films that successfully incorporate religious themes are made by nonreligious people.”
Christian filmmakers, he says, are so intent on their message, they ignore storytelling and production values. Further, they “tend to see the world the way they want it to be. Ignoring life’s complexities, they paint a simplistic, unrealistic portrait of the world. … As long as people of faith are more concerned with messages than metaphors, they are doomed to make bad films.”
Independent filmmaker Isaac Botkin agrees. “With few exceptions, films made by Christians are a frustrating mixture of ideological conformity and poor production quality.”
When novelists and screenwriters stop telling stories and “go to preachin’,” Christian literature shrinks down to one book, and we surrender our national culture to people who don’t read it. We need both preachers and storytellers, but not in the same time and place. If we have any hope of influencing popular culture, our stories must compete in a secular marketplace and win, and that means we have to master story craft and produce better stories than the competition.
That won’t be an easy assignment. In the environment of modern popular culture—or “postmodern,” as some observers have described it—Christian writers operate at a disadvantage. We don’t feel comfortable in Act Two, yet Act Two is where popular culture lives and thrives.
That’s where we find all the noise and action: loud parties, cheap sex, hard drinking, gruesome murders, bombs exploding, politicians cheating on their wives, athletes who fail as role models, television preachers who fleece their followers and bed their secretaries, and Hollywood stars who are proud to announce that they’ve produced babies out of wedlock.
Popular culture loves Act Two! It’s a fool’s paradise, populated by adolescents of all ages, who are dedicated to their own pleasure and believe they will never die. This is the sphere of life that yields the gaudiest movies with retina-blasting special effects, the soapiest soap operas, and the most riveting hours of evening news, “all designed to bypass the mind and appeal directly to the senses and emotions.” And, unfortunately, this is where authors these days can make the most money writing books and screenplays.
But secular writers have story-structural problems of their own. If Christian storytellers are hobbled by a tendency to look past Act Two, non-Christian writers have trouble getting out of Act Two. Their stories can’t find true resolution or redemption. The chords begun in Act One and Act Two never resolve, and Act Three becomes a hollow celebration of “our humanness.”
Lonesome Dove and The Thorn Birds might serve as examples. Both were lavish, entertaining, and successful TV dramas that ended with the death of a main character, Gus McCall in Lonesome Dove and Father Ralph in The Thorn Birds. Death brought down the curtain, but the stories never resolved. They merely stopped.
Of the two problems (our stories lack tension and drama, their stories can’t find redemption), ours may be the easier to remedy, because our Book gives us plenty of material that deals with Act Two, if we will take notice. The Act Two material begins in the third chapter of Genesis and goes through the entire Old Testament and into the New.
We have mentioned the dramatic story of the Apostle Paul, but we find an even better example in the life of Christ. Every year at Easter, we relive the historical drama of an innocent man who was set up by politicians, betrayed by a friend, tried in a kangaroo court, abandoned by his comrades, tortured, mocked, and murdered in front of his own mother.
His last words, “It is finished” (John 19:30) seem to be a statement of total humiliation and defeat, yet the whole point of the story is that it resolves in victory. “Christ is risen, alleluia!” That is the message at the end of the Easter service when the organ blasts out the postlude and the congregation places flowers on the bare wooden cross at the front of the church.
If Christian writers have become squeamish about Act Two, we need to look closer at our own roots. Our message begins with the wonder of life in the garden, but then moves to betrayal and murder. The liturgy of the Easter season is not for sissies, as Mel Gibson made abundantly clear in his movie The Passion of the Christ.
But how do we show the fallen world without becoming a part of it? How do we deal with explicit sex and violence, and language that is brutal, vulgar, and blasphemous?
Some Christian writers would argue that art, even Christian art, must describe “reality as it is,” warts and all. But I wonder, what is so “real” about violent language and explicit sex? The fact is, most of what we call literature did not swim in those waters, and most of the great storytellers who ever lived never dreamed of taking the kind of liberties that modern writers seem to think is their birthright. We could fill an entire book with the names of authors who didn’t.
Until a few decades ago, writers worked within the constraints of public taste as defined by the Judeo-Christian tradition. Even more radical (to modern ears), writers considered themselves part of the community that created those constraints. Did it limit their freedom of expression? Of course it did, but every craft imposes limits. Plumbers aren’t allowed to run sewer lines uphill. Roofers can’t invent new ways of laying down shingles. Diamond cutters are not free to express their whims in the shape of a gem.
In most professions, freedom is limited by some concept of public good and that seems to be a missing element in a lot of modern writing. Does the open display of sex and violence improve the average citizen? If our books and movies teach first-graders to speak the language of thugs and half-wits (the ever-quotable C.S. Lewis called them “trousered apes”), will the community be better for it?
Centuries of Christian tradition say no. Popular culture doesn’t seem to care or even ask the question.
Today’s college students might be surprised that families of my generation used to attend movies on a regular basis, two or three times a week, and objectionable content was simply not an issue. Granted, some of those movies were sappy and sentimental, but others would have to rank among the best ever made. One-Eyed Jacks, On the Waterfront, High Noon, Casablanca, The African Queen, Singing in the Rain, Gone With the Wind, The Miracle Worker, and the Wallace Beery/Jackie Cooper version of Treasure Island come to mind.
I own all of those movies on VCR or DVD and have watched them many times. I study them and never fail to learn something every time I view them. I had watched Casablanca three or four times before it occurred to me that Rick and Ilsa were carrying on a sexual affair. Their romance was handled with such a light touch that you could see it as sexual or not, and it didn’t affect the story either way.
In Treasure Island Jim Hawkins befriends the pirate Long John Silver. As the story progresses, we begin to understand that Silver is a bad man. In a casual manner, he mentions that he murdered thirteen of his comrades in their sleep, using a hammer as his weapon. Silver reveals himself as a fallen man, but he does it without uttering a single expletive, and we don’t have to watch him bludgeon all thirteen of his victims. The screenwriter was kind enough to leave something to the imagination.
But what about a movie such as Schindler’s List? It was a very ambitious film that attempted to capture the magnitude of the Nazi atrocities during World War II. It included scenes of appalling violence—and I don’t want to watch it again. The inclusion of graphic violence diminished the aesthetic value of the film and detracted from the story. The subject overwhelmed Stephen Spielberg’s attempts to describe it in a framed work of art. In my view, Schindler’s List might have succeeded as a documentary but not as a story.
Some subjects simply cannot be approached in a direct manner. If we wish to view an eclipse of the sun, we must use indirect methods, either watching it through a shadow box or protecting our eyes with smoked glass (the kind welders use). Otherwise, the brilliance of the sun will cause permanent damage to the eye. When God appeared to Moses in the burning bush, “Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.”
Perhaps the same principle applies to the kind of unfathomable evil that engulfed Nazi Germany. If we try to describe the horror in a direct manner, our stories fall apart under the stress.
A story is not the same as a documentary. Nor does it give us the kind of experience we would get from a security camera at the local museum: a stream of unedited facts. A story can’t tell us everything about a subject, and the artistry comes in what we don’t show.
One of the best movies I’ve seen on the Holocaust was a quiet little film made by Hallmark, Miss Rose White. It showed the impact of the Holocaust on one Jewish family living in Brooklyn. It had no war scenes, no blood, no brutal language, yet it was very effective in conveying the emotional impact of an unspeakable tragedy on the lives of five people—not through documentary scenes of brutality, but through great storytelling and great acting. That is artistry.
When I hear novelists and filmmakers declare that they’re only describing the “world as it is,” I keep wondering, “Are they doing this for me or for themselves?” As a viewer and consumer of cultural products, I can’t escape the feeling that the vivid depiction of violence, sex, and brutality deadens part of my soul. It cheapens me and it cheapens the artist because, as Gene Edward Veith has pointed out, obscenity is more than a moral failure; it is an artistic failure as well.
And that includes the use of brutal language. What is the magic in gutter language? It has only been in the last thirty years that novelists and screenwriters have turned the F-word into an all-purpose noun, verb, adjective, and adverb. How did Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Shakespeare manage to record the human drama without it? How did poor mortals express their feelings of extreme anger and joy?
They did it with skill and imagination. They did it with language that was rich in texture, tone, and nuance.
There is no great magic in that word or any other expletive. In fact, their use is a symptom of intellectual sloth. Any writer who depends upon one expletive (or even three) to express the full range of human emotions is no better than a composer who uses one finger to peck out a tiresome little melody on the piano.
Could the makers of The Godfather and The Shawshank Redemption, both excellent films, have told their stories without scatological language? Of course they could have! There is not one crime or emotion in those movies that hasn’t been recorded in the Old Testament, The Iliad, The Brothers Karamazov, or Shakespeare’s plays—without language that was corrosive, degrading, or offensive.
Such language serves the writer, not the audience. It’s an adolescent indulgence that allows rebellious scribblers to stick a thumb into the eye of Christian (or Jewish or even Muslim) propriety.
My personal view is that Christian writers can show the complexity of human experience without abusive language, explicit violence, or Peeping-Tom sex. I don’t accept that “reality” must be bloody, bawdy, or blasphemous, lurid, lewd, rude, shocking, or ugly. Those qualities might describe a slice of reality, but hardly all of it. My library shelves are crammed with books by authors who walked through the second act of the human drama with their eyes wide open. They saw man in his fallen state but didn’t wallow in it.
How much of the fallen world do we have to show? Marvin Olasky has suggested this interpretation of Philippians 4:8: “We should meditate on God’s excellencies and praise Him—and we should think about those even more lovingly in juxtaposition to the sin around us. In short, the heavens show the glory of God, the streets display the sinfulness of man, and we learn from both.”
We must show enough of the fallen world to establish tension and conflict in our characters, enough to make redemption more than an abstract idea, and enough to create stories that are honest and beautiful. We can achieve that by viewing human experience through a Christian worldview, though we may have to build our own infrastructure (publishing companies, websites, film companies, and distributors) to get our stories to the people who need them.
Francis Schaeffer, Nancy Pearcey, Gene Edward Veith Jr., Marvin Olasky, C.S. Lewis, Josh McDowell, and others have told us that the Christian worldview offers a broad, comprehensive, coherent vision of human experience on this earth: where we came from, why we’re here, and what we’re supposed to be doing. The Christian worldview reveals “truth about the whole of reality” (Pearcey) and offers a sensibility “that is so vast and comprehensive that it embraces the intellect and the heart, accounting for both objective truth and subjective experience” (Veith).
Surely this gives us an advantage in seeking the truth that expresses itself in beauty. Secular humanism can’t explain where beauty comes from or why observers from fifteen different nations, all speaking different languages, can gaze at the same flower and perceive that it’s beautiful.
The Christian worldview offers a simple explanation: Beauty is one of the Creator’s gifts to mankind, and we are hard-wired to recognize it. “Christians, unlike the secular culture, have a basis for affirming the personal and the beautiful—a personal God who created structures of beauty in the very texture of the universe. Christians, therefore, ought to cultivate what is aesthetically worthy” (Veith).
We see the beauty of creation as it appears in shapes, forms, colors, relationships, and, yes, even in humor. Secular materialistic art sees only the random movement of electrons with man at the center—man who has appetites but no hope, purpose, or meaning. Uppercase Artists might argue that they’re describing some kind of objective truth, but what they’re seeing isn’t objective at all.
They are seeing what their limited worldview allows them to see. Blindfolded, they’re feeling the elephant’s tail and calling it an elephant.
In How Should We Then Live? Schaeffer talks about the British/French Concorde airliner. It was designed by engineers in the sixties, a time when “intellectualized art” was rebelling against order, form, structure, and traditional notions of beauty, yet many observers described the design of the Concorde as beautiful, even a work of art.
When asked about this, Sir Archibald Russel, the British designer, replied, “When one designs an airplane, he must stay as close as possible to the laws of nature. … It so happens that our ideas of beauty are those of nature. Every shape and curve of the Concorde is arranged so it will conform with the natural flow as conditioned by the laws of nature.”
If an Uppercase Artist designed an airplane, he would make it ugly and dysfunctional. He would design it to crash, not to fly, because crashing would satisfy his death-wish for the human race. But engineers, following mathematics and common sense, created a device that not only would fly, but also captured the beauty inherent within the laws of physics—the same beauty that was described by Einstein, Bohm, Feynman, and Dirac.
What Sir Archibald called the “laws of nature,” we would call God’s design, and it would not be stretching things to say that the aesthetic qualities we recognize in the Concorde bear a strong resemblance to those mentioned by St. Paul in Philippians 4:8, confirming that “aesthetic principles, no less than scientific principles, are grounded in the created order and are a manifestation of God’s design.”
The qualities Paul listed in the text from Philippians 4 (true, honest, just, pure, lovely, virtuous, and worthy of praise) are not exclusively Christian concepts, for they arise from God and are available to all of humanity via creation in the image of God. In Paul’s day, they were understood by speakers of Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Aramaic; by Greeks, Romans, Jews, Africans, Asians, Egyptians, and Southern Europeans. Today, those words have been translated into more than two thousand languages. They are universal concepts and can be understood by Christians and non-Christians alike.
Ultimately, Christian authors should measure their work against a set of aesthetic principles that apply to all writing. We don’t have a separate Christian category for Beauty, just as we don’t have a Christian Law of Gravity. When we aspire only to “Christian art,” we run the risk of aiming too low and limiting our audience. Our audience should be the same one Paul was going after: the world. And it can be, if our art seeks the beauty that is so apparent in God’s creation.
Writers sell their wares in a marketplace of ideas and entertainment, and it’s a huge market. We compete for consumer dollars and for bookstore shelf space against the best authors who ever lived—not just the best writers of the present day, not just the writers who call themselves Christians, but also Hemingway, Dickens, Tolstoy, Dante, Shakespeare, St. Augustine, and the unknown author of The Epic of Gilgamesh, written five thousand years ago in what is now Iraq.
We are even competing against St. Paul himself. Among his other gifts, Paul was an extremely successful writer whose books, the Pauline Epistles, have remained bestsellers for almost two thousand years.
The spiritual nourishment that arises from beautiful art is universal in its appeal. Though it might begin as “Christian art,” it has the potential of reverberating far beyond the confines of a church sanctuary. If that work is noble, true, right, just, pure, excellent, beautiful, and praiseworthy, it will be perceived as such in Chinese as well as in English, on Time’s Square as well as in the First Baptist Church in my hometown.
The human spirit responds to beauty because God designed us to find nourishment in beauty. The goal of Christian writing should be to discover the beauty expressed in symmetry, structure, and coherence, and then to do a professional job of describing it in stories that are shaped by the most influential book ever written.
If we describe it well, non-Christian readers will see that it’s beautiful. At some point, maybe they’ll ask where it came from … and we can tell them.
From Story Craft: Reflections of Faith, Culture and Writing from the Author of Hank of the Cowdog by John R. Erickson. © 2009. Published by Maverick Books. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
John R. Erickson
John provides commentary and short fiction to WORLD. His Hank the Cowdog series for children has sold more than 8.5 million copies worldwide, and in addition to publishing 74 books, his work has appeared in news outlets such as The Dallas Morning News. John and his wife, Kris, reside near Perryton, Texas.