The Pagans Who Will Save Christian Publishing

I was reminded recently of one of my favorite anecdotes from Russell Moore. It’s about the day that Dr. Carl F.H. Henry told him that the next great Christian leaders were probably pagans right now:

Several of us were lamenting the miserable shape of the church, about so much doctrinal vacuity, vapid preaching, non-existent discipleship. We asked Dr. Henry if he saw any hope in the coming generation of evangelicals.

And I will never forget his reply.

“Why, you speak as though Christianity were genetic,” he said. “Of course, there is hope for the next generation of evangelicals. But the leaders of the next generation might not be coming from the current evangelical establishment. They are probably still pagans.”

“Who knew that Saul of Tarsus was to be the great apostle to the Gentiles?” he asked us. “Who knew that God would raise up a C.S. Lewis, a Charles Colson? They were unbelievers who, once saved by the grace of God, were mighty warriors for the faith.”

The next Jonathan Edwards might be the man driving in front of you with the Darwin Fish bumper decal. The next Charles Wesley might be a misogynist, profanity-spewing hip-hop artist right now. The next Billy Graham might be passed out drunk in a fraternity house right now. The next Charles Spurgeon might be making posters for a Gay Pride March right now. The next Mother Teresa might be managing an abortion clinic right now.

Thinking about this encouraging story, I realized that this could easily be applied to the world of Christian publishing. Not long ago I wrote about the current shape of things in the world of Christian books. My diagnosis was grim, but I held out hope for better things in the decades to come, especially if evangelicals consciously cultivate a better and more robust theology of the arts. As I’ve thought about Christian publishing since writing that post, I think I understand part of what will happen in the renewal of Christian writing:

It will happen primarily becuase of people who aren’t even Christians right now.

I really believe this. I believe that a theologically sturdy, artistically compelling, and genuinely meaningful new Christian imagination will be shaped most significantly by those who come to the faith from the outside. The important Christian novelists and poets and essayists of a post-Benedict Option church will be men and women who spent years in opposition to it. Perhaps the next Graham Greene is organizing campus protests of conservatives right now. Maybe the heir to Marilynne Robinson is, this moment, #StandingWithPlannedParenthood.

Why do I think this? Three reasons.

First, evangelicalism as a gospel-heralding, embodied church reality is much stronger than evangelicalism as an insular, Christ-against-culture ideology. The fact is that one of the reasons Christian writing is the condition that it’s in right now is that the specter of a poorly-read, culturally timid fundamentalism still haunts much of the evangelical imagination. As I’ve said before, there are too many Christians who believe “family-friendly” means Christian and order their aesthetic intake accordingly. I’m becoming convinced that the next generation of great Christian writers is going to have to be one that is far more well-versed in great art than most of Christian subculture.

Second, I think the future of truly great Christian writing will not necessarily be marketed as such. The niche markets of “faith-based” books, music, and movies is one that by its nature resists truly great art. If your goal is to target a demographic with content that is easy to sell, why would you care if your content reads more like a boilerplate Hallmark movie novelization than like “The Remains of the Day”?

It’s important to note that we’ve already seen this dynamic do utter destruction to the Christian music industry. The pretenses of music and literature designed by marketers rather than artists cannot survive the collapse of retail giants like Family Christian Stores. It’s not going to matter who sells what anymore. What’s going to matter is what’s on the page. We are going to find echoes of Eden where we don’t necessarily expect to find them.

Finally, the next generation of great writers will be writers who have passed from death to life and know it. There’s just something about people who have been converted to Christ from outright unbelief. Those who have been forgiven much, love much. The voices most able to communicate creation, fall, and redemption will not be those for whom Christ is an identity politic. It will be those who love Jesus because he first loved them. I’m reminded of how C.S. Lewis noticed how rare it is to hear of someone’s being converted from atheism to “demythologized,” liberal Christianity: “I think that when unbelievers come in at all, they come in a good deal further.”

The future of Christian writing is bright, even if right now it may be shrouded in darkness. That should come as no surprise to those of us who know how the Light works.

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My Top Books of 2015

Here some of my favorite reads from 2015

Here some of my favorite reads from 2015. Note that not every book here was actually released in 2015, but all are books that I read this year. There’s no ranking, so the order is more or less arbitrary.

The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene.endaffair

I discovered this book and Graham Greene courtesy of a fine essay by Matthew Schmitz. I bought two of Greene’s novels immediately at the local used bookstore, and devoured The End of the Affair quickly. This wasn’t an easy novel to read, nor was it immediately satisfying in the conventional ways that we often want from novels. But Greene’s portrait of an adulterous relationship, and the torment that comes to those who suppress the righteous protests of their conscience, is a haunting and moving story, and one that ends ultimately in the recognition that God is the source of true love.

41BfG5+LceL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Road to Character, by David Brooks

David Brooks is one of my favorite columnists, so when I heard that he was writing a book about becoming a moral person, I figured this was going to be a must-read. Brooks is not just a talented wordsmith; he’s a fluid and provocative thinker who isn’t afraid to follow his instincts and his cultural analysis to inconvenient (yet honest) conclusions. The Road to the Character shines brightest when Brooks directs his attention towards cultural attitudes that have eroded individual quests  for moral formation. As a Christian, I resonated with many of Brooks’s points, though the book isn’t written from a distinctly Christian standpoint and thus lacks the theological roots that we need to really become more like Christ. Still, as a (somewhat) religiously neutral commentary on society and morality, The Road to Character is a fascinating and enlightening read.

Onward, by Russell Mooremoore

I work for Russell Moore, so you may be tempted to dismiss this entry as sheer schlepping. But that would be a mistake, because Onward is genuinely one of the most compelling Christian books I’ve read in years. Moore’s great gift is articulating a completely Christian civic engagement, one that looks like Christ not only in its voting record but also in its prioritization of the kingdom. I’ll put it simply: This is a book that must be read by any Christian who cares about living as a gospel witness in their culture.

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr18143977

This WWII-era novel about a young boy thrust into the violence and evil of Hitler’s Youth and a blind girl struggling to survive the occupation of Paris is a gripping, beautifully written tale. Doerr skillfully weaves the vulnerability and hope of childhood with the brutal wages of war, and the result is a book that you won’t put down. An upcoming movie adaptation means you should read this book as soon as possible, for I can practically guarantee that Doerr’s prose is deeper and more satisfying than any screenplay could capture.

The Stories We Tell, by Mike Cosper

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If you’re an average American, there’s a good chance that you enjoy a good movie and an interesting TV show. But if you’re also a Christian, you probably want to know how and why stores like film and TV fit into God’s good gift of creation and culture. That’s where Mike Cosper’s book The Stories We Tell can help you. Mike’s book is a helpful and eminently practical primer on why cultural mediums like film and TV appeal to us on a human level, in light of our being created by a story-telling God. If you need a reason to check out this book, I’ll tell you that one of the chapters is titled, “Honey Boo Boo and the Weight of Glory.” Enough said.

51-IOj-3u+L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_How Dante Can Save Your Lifeby Rod Dreher

Ever wonder if reading a nearly 800 year old poem could actually save your life? Well, that’s exactly what happened to columnist Rod Dreher. Dreher’s book not only tells the story of how reading Dante’s epic Divine Comedy helped him reorient his life at a time of crisis; it also serves as a kind of summary of why Dante’s poem is so powerful and revelatory. This book is especially for you if you delight in stories of how fiction and narrative can move the soul in unexpected, and Godward, ways. Highly recommended.

 

Leave a comment and let me know what your favorite books of the year are!