What Being a “Christian Writer” Doesn’t Mean

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The phrase has become slippery.

“Christian writer.”

What does it mean?

For some the phrase plays like a favorite old song, an evocation of the glory days of Greene, Waugh, Percy, O’Connor, et alia. Days long gone and sorely missed.

For others “Christian writer” may spell an oxymoron, or at least refer to the kind of writer one would not like to meet at a Manhattan cocktail party.

And for still others the phrase increasingly tends to serve as a signal that some exceptionally maudlin fiction is quivering like a bad cheese on the horizon.

But even looking at the thing dispassionately, it’s not exactly clear what is being described when one uses the phrase “Christian writer.” Does it refer to:

a) someone who writes stories set in a Christian environment featuring (mainly) Christian characters?

b) someone interested in giving his or her audience what Flannery O’Connor called “instant uplift”?

c) a writer whose religious affiliation happens to be Christian?

Of the above options, I would argue that only “c” is a good answer to the question of what “Christian writer” means. A Christian writer need not write stories set in a Christian environment featuring (mainly) Christian characters (O’Connor almost never did, Waugh didn’t for the first half of his career, Greene only sometimes–and with dubious theology, Percy wrote some Catholic characters but rarely put them in a Catholic environment).

And a Christian writer should not be interested in “instant uplift.” Our remit is not to conjure warm, comfortable feelings but to tell the truth in a beautiful (not necessarily “pretty”) way.

But I think we can say something more about what it means to be a Christian writer. A Christian writer is a writer who sees the world from the point of view of Christian theology and, whether or not Christians or Christian things ever appear in his or her work, endeavors to tell the truth about the human condition from the point of view of that theology.

Such a broad charge can take a Christian writer into some strange and unsettling territory, territory held largely by the devil, as O’Connor warned. If the Christian writer is going to write stories about the times we live in, then he had better gird his loins and get ready to depict the devil’s territory in a convincing way. (In light of that fact, this admonition by Barbara Nicolosi, “Why Good People Do Media Wrong,” is worth reflecting upon. Allow me also to recommend my essay, which includes some input from Barbara Nicolosi, “What Are The Limits to Depictions of Sin in the Arts?”)

But the Christian writer is certainly not obliged to take on the modern world mano a mano. In Kristin Lavransdatter Sigrid Undset took us to medieval (Catholic) Scandinavia. Tolkien took us to Middle Earth. Shusaku Endo took us to 17th-century Japan.

In fact, the choice of setting and characters–whether they are Christian or not, contemporary or not, realistic or fantastic–is not the most important choice for the Catholic writer.

The most important choice is the commitment to excellence in the writer’s craft. That is what really makes a Christian writer a Christian writer. It’s a noble ambition to want to want to change the world for Christ. But the Christian writer accomplishes this aim by endeavoring to create a masterful work of art. Such works change the world for Christ by bringing something true and beautiful into being and calling us onward toward the Source of Truth and Beauty.

Daniel McInerny is the author of the blackly comic thriller High Concepts: A Hollywood Nightmare and, for children, the humorous Kingdom of Patria series. His most recent work is the third book in the Patria series, a Christmas novella, The Chronicles of Oliver Stoop, Squire Second Class: The Quest for Clodnus’s Collectibles.

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Daniel McInerny holds a PhD in philosophy and taught for many years at several universities in the United States. He is the author of the blackly comic thriller High Concepts: A Hollywood Nightmare and, for children, the humorous Kingdom of Patria series. His most recent work is the third book in the Patria series, a Christmas novella, The Chronicles of Oliver Stoop, Squire Second Class: The Quest for Clodnus's Collectibles. He blogs on the craft of storytelling at danielmcinerny.com.

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