Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Why I Like Catholic Authors

The following is one of a series of re-posts of lost blogs. However, this very topic has once again raised its head in discussion around our house. If we're doing our jobs well in instructing the next generation, I hope to see serious reformed artists developing soon.

I’ve discovered that I am enamored with twentieth century Catholic authors. The common thread I see in their works is a palpable sense of sin, guilt, grace, and redemption. One does not often find such themes in “Protestant” authors because of several factors.

Who are the serious Protestant authors? Surely not the pulp fiction of contemporary evangelical mass media—enter stock characters, state conflict, convert main character after almost succumbing to tragedy, life is good. This falls more into the category of propaganda instead of literature. Are there serious writers who reflect their Protestant beliefs through their literary art? Frederick Buechner comes to mind, but then he always seems more Catholic in his sensibilities than Presbyterian.

Catholic authors tend to weave symbols and ideas through the narrative. Blue skies in Flannery O’Connor usually mean that the grace of heaven is about to be revealed and someone is going to die. Outward deformities reflect stunted or distorted souls in her works, and when she says the sun sinks like a giant host, one cannot look at a red sunset or the Eucharist the same way again. Like the little girl who has the crucifix imprinted on her cheek by an enthusiastic hug from a nun, one cannot leave these works without being marked, challenged, and changed.

I think one difference between Catholic and Protestant authors is that these Catholics don’t wear their faith on their sleeve. It’s not a polite tale to be told, but rather a grid through which to understand all of the world. A sacramental view of the world is highly apparent in the works of G.K. Chesterton in which characters are captivated by the elements of God’s creation that surround them. They look for the sacredness of things and discover remarkable designs, motifs, and patterns.

Where are the reformed novelists in our age—wordsmiths who can craft a compelling tale that doesn’t preach but that assumes the elements of the faith as part of the warp and woof of the narrative? If we are concerned about all of life and the application of worldview in the arts, why are we so stunted in the area of quality literature? The ironic thing is that these elements that make Catholic writing unique are the very areas where a vibrant reformed faith should excel. A total world and life view should include the understanding of symbols, signs, and ideas, of artistic and literary concepts, the works of the past (even the pagan ones) that can color and shade, and the application of the faith in all the areas of artistic production. Perhaps J.K. Rowling is closer to the mark than is usually given credit.

Maybe we’re just too disconnected from the Catholic literary tradition of the past or maybe we fail to see the biblical and theological connection, as well as value, in works such as Chaucer and Austen, Scott and Buchan, Donne and Shakespeare.

Obviously I do have theologically differences with Catholic authors, but I’m fascinated by their themes of sin and redemption and in the hope of recovering and appropriating this literary richness. Art and beauty is never a replacement for the Word, but I do believe that all beauty is God's beauty and reveals the character of God.

3 comments:

CSUF Rock Star said...

I heartily agree! Definitely love Flannery O'Connor.

One thing I am struggling with (in a good sense) and figuring out in my own worldview is the application of a biblical worldview to music. Music, especially instrumental music, is a much more abstract art than literature or poetry. What would your take on that be? Should absolute (as opposed to programmatic) music which is informed by a biblical worldview sound different than music that is not? I'd love to hear your opinion.

AJ Harbison
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The Matrix Has You

Steve said...

Greg,

As a teacher and founder of a home school classical co-op (using Gileskirk tapes, of course) with a decidely Reformed foundation, and an aspiring (work in progress) novelist, I deeply appreciate your observations on the drivel that passes for good contemporary literature in Protestant circles.

We have read Flannery O'Connor, Chesterton, and other Catholic writers, too, and in our discussions about their works we invariably hear criticism from uncomfortable Protestants precisely because these books entail such rich imagery.

Let us hope that the Wilburs and Grants of the world will rise up and lead us Protestants in taking captive all areas of life for Christ, even contemporary literature.

Blessings,

--Steve Crampton

Greg said...

AJ:

An excellent question! Give me time to adequately answer your question, and I'll turn that into a future blog.

Steve:

Thank you for your comment and for valuing the teaching of great literature from a Reformed perspective. May God bless your writing!

Greg