Monday, August 21, 2006

Why Protestants Can't Write

See this article Why Evangelicals Can't Write from the Protestant journal Credenda Agenda:
[M]odern Protestants can't write. We are devotees of the Word, people of the book. Yet we can't write stories or poetry. This is a scandal and a deep mystery.
Even the very few counter-examples, like William Shakespeare and C.S. Lewis aren't convincing: Lewis was an Anglo-Catholic and Shakespeare was at least highly sympathetic to Catholicism.
Here is a thesis, which I offer in a gleeful fit of reductionism: Modern Protestants can't write because we have no sacramental theology. Protestants will learn to write when we have reckoned with the tragic results of Marburg, and have exorcised the ghost of Zwingli from our poetics. Protestants need not give up our Protestantism to do this, as there are abundant sacramental resources within our own tradition. But contemporary Protestants do need to give up the instinctive anti-sacramentalism that infects so much of Protestantism, especially American Protestantism.
Sacramental theology has universal significance beyond just the Sacraments of the Church. Signs or symbols that effect what they signify are everwhere.

Much of Protestant and secular thinking separates reality and symbol; reality is seen as having no symbolic value, while symbols are arbitrary. We have realism in writing, but it simply portrays meaningless, brutal events. Or we have allegorical writing, which fails to portray realistic people, but are just symbols of say, good vs. evil. It is no accident that the greatest of Hollywood films are overwhelmingly either written or directed by Catholics; these films are neither documentaries nor are they cartoonish depictions of cardboard cut-out characters, but are of realistic characters who symbolize a deeper, spiritual, reality.

Sacramental theology is not just found in Catholicism, but also in the Eastern Churches, and not just in Christendom; a type of sacramentalism can be found elsewhere, too. Perhaps this is found universally because it is true.

Another problem is the very common view that the world is inherently evil, and that only spirit is good. Certainly this view is often seen among Evangelicals, but can be found in Modern art, with a primal 'creativity' triumphing over the representation of nature. But the traditional view is that the world was created very good, and that signs of God's grace can be found in nature. So good sacramental art can both be realistic and simultaneously symbolic.

Catholic theology insists that we come to God through our material senses. The article continues:
If the writer must be open to the manifestation of God in "what-is," she must begin with the senses. Following Aquinas, [Flannery] O'Connor writes, "The beginning of human knowledge is through the senses, and the fiction writer begins where human perception begins. He appeals through the senses, and you cannot appeal to the senses with abstractions." Yet, "Most people who think they want to write stories are not willing to start there. They want to write about problems, not people; or about abstract issues, not concrete situations."
A symbol in Catholic art, first of all must be concrete in itself, and not disjointed from creation, and the symbol must not just signify, but also act: it must be an action of God's grace.

This is what we get when we ignore sacramentalism:
A Zwinglian poetics leaves us with three choices: Either a flat mimetic realism that gives literary expression to "the real" without attempting to penetrate beyond the surface; or a flat didacticism that ignores the real in its haste to get to the point; or an allegorism that forges arbitrary links between the real and the symbolic, and in the end swallows up the real in its meaning....

In a Zwinglian poetics, things cannot be both themselves and also—simultaneously, without ceasing to be what they are, for the very reason they are what they are—something else. Zwinglian will not permit something to be both real and symbolic, to be both wholly itself and yet, because of what it is, to disclose something more than itself. Zwinglian poetics does not permit Southern customs to be Southern customs and yet, precisely because they are Southern customs, to be haunted by Christ.
This article also goes into depth answering the question "What is art?" which is certainly a central component of the renewal of culture.


  1. Thanks for this...I spent about 10 minutes reading this over and trying to respond to it, but it just kept me thinking I'll just keep thinking about it. Thanks.

  2. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a really good Catholic theory of the arts. This article references Art and Scholasticism by Jacques Maritain, which is an interesting attempt at developing a theory of art following Thomas Aquinas. I've only read the first part of it, and it is really good, but I've heard that it eventually has problems.

    It is far easier seeing what non-Catholic art isn't, and a lack of sacramentality and incarnation seems to be critical.

    I'm working on it. I think this is an important topic.