Volume 46 - Issue 2

Stories that Gleam like Lightning: The Outrageous Idea of Christian Fiction

By Hans Madueme and Robert Erle Barham


We live our faith “in a condition of doubt and uncertainty,” writes Charles Taylor. Even, it seems, literary artists. In this article we argue that much contemporary fiction conforms to Taylor’s concept of secularity. We consider the relative absence of stories that dramatize spiritual realities consistent with Scripture, and we note a tendency to qualify robust Christian perspectives by means of historical context. We then propose an unapologetically Christian fiction, one that offers fictional worlds harmonious with a biblical picture of reality and that resists conformity to secularity’s spiritual ambivalence. Such Christian storytelling has the potential to transform the imagination and remind us that this world is a theater bursting with God’s glory.

Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920), the Dutch pastor, prime minister, and theologian who founded the Free University of Amsterdam, established two newspapers, and penned countless works across multiple fields, was converted through reading a novel. Charlotte Yonge’s British bestseller, The Heir of Redclyffe, came out in 1853; after reading it, Kuyper “started going to church again and looked forward to taking the Lord’s Supper. Small wonder that he came to rank Redclyffe ‘next to the Bible in its meaning for my life.’”1 Kuyper is just one of the many people for whom “imaginative literature … played a crucial role in their coming to salvation in Christ,” to use Leland Ryken’s expression.2 Such experiences suggest that along with fiction’s ability to entertain and delight, it has the capacity to shape one’s understanding of the world.

In light of this capacity, the present article examines contemporary fiction to consider some of the ways that Christianity manifests itself in twenty-first century literature. Using Charles Taylor’s and James K. A. Smith’s work on secularity, we identify the predominance of secular features in contemporary fiction, as well as a tendency to qualify robust Christian perspectives by means of historical context, making them part of an unrecoverable past.3 Finally, we describe an unapologetically Christian fiction, one that offers fictional worlds harmonious with a biblical picture of reality and that resists strict conformity to secularity’s spiritual ambivalence. This potentially provocative call for Christian fiction has implications for writers, readers, and teachers of literature.

1. Christian Faith in Mainstream Fiction

To what extent does Christian faith manifest in contemporary mainstream fiction?4 Paul Elie’s 2012 New York Times essay “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” is a prominent, recent answer to this question, and Elie prompted a wide-ranging discussion about Christian belief in fiction.5 He wrote that “if any patch of our culture can be said to be post-Christian, it is literature,” and he ended the essay by hoping for a writer “who can dramatize belief the way it feels in your experience.”6 Reactions to Elie’s essay included one letter to the New York Times that noted the beautiful-if-fictitious and increasingly irrelevant stories of the Christian religion.7 Another letter said with terse irony, “Thank God” fiction writers with Christian convictions are on the way out.8 Whether or not one agrees with Elie’s assessment, what this discussion reveals is the centrality of belief to assessments of Christianity’s relationship to fiction: determining whether contemporary literature is “post-Christian” means focusing on fictional perspectives where concerns about plausibility and credulity play out in the theater of a character’s viewpoint. Quoting Flannery O’Connor, Elie suggests that fiction accommodating a faith perspective is about making “belief believable.”9

Elie’s characterization of religious belief in fiction, responses to his essay, and much of the fiction that the debate appeals to, all seem to confirm Charles Taylor’s concept of secularity profiled in A Secular Age and helpfully explicated in James K. A. Smith’s How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. As Taylor argues and Smith emphasizes, the contemporary world is an age of contested belief “where religious belief is no longer axiomatic”; it is now possible to imagine not believing in God.10 With the removal of the obstacles to unbelief, and a modern conception of autonomous selfhood, a “secular” age features an “explosion of different options (‘third ways’) for belief and meaning.”11 As a result, the feel of belief is often characterized by a distinct kind of ambivalence—what Taylor calls “cross-pressure,” which is “the simultaneous pressure of various spiritual options; or the feeling of being caught between an echo of transcendence and the drive toward immanentization” (that is, seeking meaning and significance within a naturalistic—or, immanent—universe).12 As Taylor puts it, we are “on the one hand drawn towards unbelief, while on the other, feeling the solicitations of the spiritual—be they in nature, in art, in some contact with religious faith, or in a sense of God which may break through the membrane.”13 Thus, faith and doubt are commingled in a cross-pressured era.

For a recent example of literary fiction that demonstrates cross-pressure, take Perfume River, the 2016 novel by Pulitzer Prize-winner Robert Olen Butler. Here, religion is present in the way that Taylor and Smith describe. One character struggles with his mortality and wonders about death and what happens after; he frames confident rejection of an afterlife as a “faith in nothingness,” while another character has an abstract rendition of Catholic eschatology and unconfessed venial sins that she believes must be accounted for after death.14 When it comes to religion, then, Perfume River exhibits the kind of belief described by Taylor. Religion is invoked as a possible means of addressing mortality and transcendence; its invocation is provisional, even as characters entertain skepticism and longing. Cross-pressured fiction like Perfume River is common in the contemporary literary landscape.15

1.1. “Believable Belief” in a Cross-Pressured Era

In such a cross-pressured literary landscape featuring stories like Perfume River, Elie’s question whether there is contemporary fiction that expresses Christian belief should be answered with a definitive, “Yes.” Nevertheless, it is cross-pressured belief, characterized by commingled faith and doubt.16 If we think of a writer training his or her attention on the feel of faith in the present day, it makes sense that cross-pressured perspectives would predominate—even in fiction by writers who adhere to a Christian viewpoint. A cross-pressured secular era clarifies the challenge for Christian writers who nevertheless write mainstream fiction for contemporary audiences but remain committed to—among other things—a full-orbed, biblically supernatural view of life.17 As Piers Paul Read puts it, “Catholics do believe that God responds to prayers, that he intervenes in our lives, that there are miracles … [including] little miracles in our everyday life. Unless they are to write exclusively for fellow believers, the Catholic author must now offer his readers an alternative explanation for what he might see as an act of God.”18

One example of contemporary authors who depict cross-pressured Christian belief is Daniel Taylor. As a number of responders to Elie’s essay observed, a fuller treatment of faith in contemporary fiction would consider genre fiction, and Taylor offers just that with his two detective novels, Death Comes for the Deconstructionist and Do We Not Bleed? In the disillusioned character of Jon Mote, the protagonist of both novels, Taylor creatively depicts the conventional world-weary detective. Mote investigates mysteries accompanied by his developmentally-disabled sister Judy who has suffered terribly alongside Jon, but whose love and kindness attend his depression and maladjustment.

These two novels focus on Mote’s vision of the world as he reckons with a tragic past including the death of his parents and trauma from an abusive uncle, suicidal thoughts prompted by voices in his head, and his sister’s abiding faith in Christ—all of which produce a cross-pressured outlook. Jon regularly engages with Judy’s faith and his own religious past, but his despair and inability to believe in anything yield an equivocal perspective. As a result, when a suicidal Jon enters a church and experiences an exorcism at the end of Death Comes for the Deconstructionist, he later describes it obliquely, confirming Piers Paul Read’s observation that novelists need to give readers an alternate account for such a miraculous occurrence. Jon describes the event as follows: “I don’t pretend to know what happened.… I’m sure any self-respecting psychotherapist could give an extended opinion. But I’ve no interest in analyzing it. I’ve been down that road. All I know is I went in feeling dark and came out feeling lighter. I felt a kind of melting in me—but I can’t say exactly what it was.”19 Based on Mote’s disillusioned attitude—even as he is paired with his believing sister Judy—his version of this event conforms to the cross-pressured paradigm: it is a willing suspension of belief that leaves open the possibility of the supernatural. While Judy is a moving representation of Christian faith with whom a reader may identify, Jon’s cross-pressured perspective is the primary vantage point of the novel and governs the portrayal of events in the story.

1.2. Qualified Christian Visions

Regardless of how one might explain the presence of cross-pressured secularity in fiction (for instance, attributing it to the influence of secularity on authors of faith or as a way to accommodate secular audiences), believable belief alone—cross-pressured or not—does not rule out other ways of identifying an authentically Christian perspective. Surely there are other criteria for recognizing how Christian faith can manifest in modern stories.

The stress on belief in discussions of Christianity’s relationship to contemporary fiction overlooks a key aspect of fiction: fiction involves not merely inhabiting characters’ perspectives but also their fictional worlds. This cosmological focus offers another way of addressing how the Christian faith shows up in contemporary literature. Of course, the mere fact that a fictional world portrays reality more robustly than a naturalistic perspective does not automatically imply compatibility with orthodox Christianity. As John McClure has shown, based on what he terms “postsecular fiction”—including the works of Don DeLillo, Louise Erdrich, Toni Morrison, Michael Ondaatje, Thomas Pynchon, and Leslie Marmon Silko—there is a tendency in contemporary fiction toward a coherent position, namely its opposition to orthodox religion, even as it features supernatural elements. As McClure puts it, “Gods appear, but not God. Other realms become visible but either partially and fleetingly or in bizarre superabundance. Miracles and visitations suggest that the laws of nature may be contingent but without providing any clearly coded alternatives.”20 This fiction may be “shot through with mysterious agents and energies,” and yet it serves a “religiosity with secular, progressive values and projects.”21

There are nonetheless contemporary stories that afford an imaginative experience of thicker cosmologies consonant with Scripture and not merely the presence of believable believers. One twenty-first century novel that gives a moving Christian vision is Marilynne Robinson’s 2005 Pulitzer Prize winner Gilead.22 In his essay, Paul Elie calls the Reverend John Ames—the protagonist in Gilead—“the most emphatically Christian character in contemporary American fiction.”23 Written in Robinson’s wonderful prose, Gilead is an extraordinary novel, which, as Elie notes, foregrounds Ames’s deeply pious view of life and not just his occasional discrete thoughts about religion.24

Nevertheless, contemporary novels like Gilead that robustly picture a life harmonious with Christian belief are often contextualized in such a way as to qualify the perspective. These novels are situated in the past, which sometimes has the effect of marginalizing the Christian vision as an artefact from a bygone era. For example, Gilead gives John Ames’s understanding of everyday life through a commitment to Christianity and the lens of earnest piety. But Gilead circumscribes Ames’s religious perspective, for the novel is “set in the past, concerned with a clergyman, presenting belief as a family matter, animated by social crisis.”25 Gilead is framed as John Ames’s autobiographical reflection, and the novel’s retrospective and valedictory character can temper the novel’s picture of the world.26 As Robert Alter notes, Gilead is “a book in which a spiritually serious person is trying to take stock of his life,” but the novel’s setting and form can limit the assumed relevance of John Ames’s outlook—as if such a Christian perspective is moving but nevertheless possible only in an earlier era.27 Douglas Walrath describes this aspect of the novel as follows: “[John Ames] and Gilead are already relics from another time. Gilead is clearly a world that was. It is not a world that others can join—though Ames’s experience may inspire others to find faith in their own Gilead.”28 Based on its retrospective quality, Gilead resembles other contemporary literary fiction with a Christian view of the world, but set in the past.29

Another example is Eugene Vodolazkin’s novel Laurus, which tells the story of a fifteenth-century Russian saint.30 The medieval elements—plagues, medical remedies that include physical and spiritual components, holy fools, gritty realities of medieval life—are all delightfully depicted, and the novel makes Laurus’s theocentric life and vision of the world compelling. But the archaic elements of an alien past make his perspective exotic. Similarly, in Samantha Harvey’s recent novel, The Western Wind,31 the protagonist priest John Reve and his fellow villagers reckon with the death of a community member in medieval England, and Harvey offers a gripping first-person perspective with Reve’s description of God, time, “airborn spirits,” and the church. But again, this vision of reality that includes spiritual elements is far removed from the world of the reader.32 Such historical visions offer persuasive pictures of the Christian worldview.33 Nevertheless, historical contextualization can temper the immediacy of the Christian outlook. Even as characters move within a thicker universe, redolent of supernatural realities, there can be an implicit message that the perspectives on display are mere timepieces, unsustainable in the twenty-first century because our world is so different.

To summarize our sketch of contemporary fiction, while mainstream fiction includes examples of compelling Christian belief, these are often characterized by “cross-pressure,” Charles Taylor’s term for the feeling of tension between a sense of transcendence and a naturalistic outlook. Furthermore, the fiction that has a more cosmologically oriented and biblically consonant perspective is often qualified by its historical setting, which can suggest obsolescence. In light of this literary landscape, one can imagine Christian fiction developing thicker, more robust, biblically informed worlds, which are unqualified, representative of the present, and unconstrained by the strictures of cross-pressured secularity. What follows is our sketch of this kind of fiction.

2. An Outrageous Idea for Christian Fiction

The best stories have the singular ability to transport us from the confines of our immediate perspectives and represent other worlds. The different genres of fiction, ranging from contemporary realist to historical to sci-fi, all have the potential to render the glory of God through the fine colors of human storytelling despite prevailing plausibility structures. Yet such storytelling possibilities highlight a curious incongruity: the moniker “Christian” denotes a provincial literary subgenre with negative connotations.34 The list of grievances against so-called “Christian” fiction is long.35 For example, in her discussion of the twelve-volume Christian fiction series Left Behind by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, as well as the authors’ follow-up collaboration The Jesus Chronicles, Magdalena Mączyńska recognizes two premises in particular that undergird mainstream Christian novels: “the unproblematic factuality of the Bible and the representational neutrality of novelistic realism.”36 This tendency to simplify in both directions—with regard to Scripture and with regard to fiction—epitomizes the shortcomings of much “Christian” fiction.37

Though biblically informed fiction that is unskillfully handled can produce regrettable results, to its credit the traditionally labeled “Christian” subgenre attempts to convey two aspects of Scripture that are unfortunately neglected in a secular era: (1) we inhabit a universe that includes the supernatural, and (2) faith includes the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Heb 11:1). A Christian fiction that accepts these two aspects of biblical reality, and yet also avoids the pitfalls that Mączyńska and others describe based on naive conceptions of Scripture and fiction, could contribute vitally to the contemporary literary scene. While such fiction will not be persuasive to everyone, it is a legitimate expression of a Christian perspective largely unaddressed in contemporary literature, and its scarcity suggests creative possibilities for Christian fiction writers.

As Taylor and Smith argue, the conditions of modernity affect everyone, so the cross-pressured representation of faith is an apt literary feature that speaks to our age. But it should not be the whole story. As with the passage alluded to in our title—an encounter outside of Christ’s empty tomb with two angels whose clothes “gleamed like lightning” (Luke 24:4 NIV)—Scripture invites an acceptance of supernatural realities that impinge on mortal life, from dreams and visions to angelic encounters, all of which suggest a world saturated with mystery and wonder. Since fiction entails a kind of world-building, the Christian fiction we envision represents worlds that engage with this mystery and wonder without the strictures of a naturalistic perspective and the associated spiritual ambivalence. To put it another way, if cross-pressured fiction depicts the feel of faith in an era dominated by naturalistic plausibility structures, the outrageous fiction that we are advocating depicts the feel of life revealed in Scripture, including those aspects of life often neglected in contemporary fiction.

We do not mean to suggest that contemporary fiction written by avowed non-Christians does not, at times, convey scriptural principles; it often does.38 Nevertheless, the correspondence we envisage differs from cross-pressured fiction, which despite its strengths still tends to accommodate a this-worldly naturalistic sensibility. In addition, cross-pressured fiction often emphasizes brokenness and the consequences of the fall. To use the terms of Frederick Buechner’s literary meditation on the gospel in Telling the Truth, the fiction we describe here features the logic of tragedy, but comedy and fairy tale, as well. Certainly, such fiction can address doubt, skepticism, and struggle—indeed, these elements are often necessary for compelling stories.39 Nevertheless, the Christian fiction we describe need not be weighted in favor of cross-pressured ambivalence. Since literature can help us “grasp the essential nature of reality,” as Leland Ryken puts it, we propose fiction with a thicker view of reality, one in which cross-pressure is not the final horizon of the narrative frame.40

This kind of fiction would dramatize biblical realities, not systematically in a paint-by-numbers way, but rather transmuted according to artistic vision and literary form. The content of such fiction may include dreams and visions, transcendent moments, supernatural encounters, or the everyday goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Whatever the case, consistent with Scripture and the ways in which particular ecclesial traditions interpret Scripture, these stories will imply a universe charged with the glory of God. Even though Harold Bush focuses on the miracles in Peace Like a River and Mariette in Ecstasy, he describes how the seemingly mundane natural world can nonetheless suggest biblical supernaturalism:

Mariette shares with Peace a powerful expectation of discovering the presence of God in everyday nature, one that may remind readers of the Transcendentalists. Both novels prepare us through lovely natural description for the further uncovering of the divine in the details of both stories. This imagery, often recited at the beginning of chapters in Whitmanesque catalogues of the simple images surrounding the convent, such as insects, birds, flowers, or trees, encourages the reader to expect even more beneath the surface of things.41

Such descriptions would be essential to the kind of fiction that we are calling for given Scripture’s picture of the world, exemplified by Psalm 19:1–2 (NIV):

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.42

Our conception of Christian fiction is not tied to any particular hermeneutical approach to the Bible as such. We are assuming a broadly orthodox understanding of the Bible and the world it depicts. In fact, we are assuming that the author is a Christian of some kind (e.g., Lutheran, Baptist, Anglican, Presbyterian, or Pentecostal) and that he or she will craft a story that renders the world as understood through his or her tradition believable—“believable” in the most compelling way that modern fiction can muster. Put another way, each orthodox tradition conceives of the world in a distinctive way, a way that assumes a wide range of realities expressed in Scripture—including the triune God, quotidian holiness, supernatural entities, the fallenness of the world, the glory of Christ’s atonement, justification, the forgiveness of sins, the challenges of living in a secular world, the temptations of the devil, and a thousand other things. The dilemma is that readers and authors live in an era that challenges the reality assumed and depicted by their respective traditions. A very good Christian novel—in the sense we’re calling for—will likely appeal to a wide range of Christian readers precisely because we share so much about the way we see the world, despite differences of tradition.

Certainly there are texts that incline in the direction we envision. For example, while Gilead’s setting and form qualify John Ames’s perspective, Robinson gives a remarkable and moving picture of the blessedness of life, a kind of quotidian holiness commensurate with Scripture.43 Moreover, as Robert Alter shows, John Ames’s very manner of expression reflects a biblical vision of the world with his syntactical patterns, a style that is “not merely a constellation of aesthetic properties but is the vehicle of a particular vision of reality.”44 In addition, the exorcism scene in Death Comes for the Deconstructionist, while equivocally characterized by Jon Mote, nevertheless acknowledges supernatural entities at work in this world. This feature does not make it a compelling story; other elements do. But even while observing the cross-pressured dynamic and the feel of faith in a secular world, Death Comes for the Deconstructionist draws attention to the limits of mere physical existence in a way that resonates with the Christian Scriptures. The kind of fiction we are describing here would do this too—and then some.

Other examples are Brett Lott’s Jewel, Lee Smith’s Saving Grace, Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River, and Bo Giertz’s The Hammer of God, because each of these engages more fully with a biblical frame of reference, imaginatively embracing and expressing it—as with Jewel’s relationship with her daughter Brenda Kay, which is shaped by prophecy and tragedy in Jewel; Florida Grace Shepherd’s path to redemption, punctuated by her prescient visions and the dramatic exploits of her evangelist father in Saving Grace; Reuben Land’s adventure with his younger sister Swede and father Jeremiah in Peace Like a River, with its miracles and astonishing vision of heaven; and Giertz’s Hammer of God, translated from the original Swedish, a theological novel narrated like a mystery thriller and disclosing the power of God’s grace through the lens of Lutheran spirituality.45 Our list is idiosyncratic, and none of these is a perfect example, but as we see it, this form of fiction would resist qualifying its picture of the world and accommodating a strictly naturalistic outlook that can undermine a distinctly biblical vision. Examples here are limited because we have only caught glimpses of this type of fiction within contemporary literature, which they never completely exemplify. While there may be other writers currently creating this type of fiction, such stories are relatively scarce, and we hope that this article might play a small role in prompting more fiction in this mode.

Although contemporary realist fiction would be the most obvious candidate for this form of storytelling, our notion of Christian fiction can deploy other genres of fiction in service of this aim, building spiritually fertile worlds with the brick and mortar of historical, crime, science fiction, or any other literary genre. That holds true for fiction in the mode of the “fantastic” because the best of such stories capture truths of the human condition, thereby offering parched readers a well of contemporary relevance that never runs dry.46 Our proposal, then, does not rule out stories that are contextualized in otherworldly settings. After all, there is no such thing as context-less fiction; all fiction is contextualized, from contemporary realist to historical fiction. Stories that draw on realist or non-realist themes are legitimate instances of the kind of Christian fiction we are advocating, as long as they unambiguously infuse the fictional narrative with a view of life as it is revealed in Scripture (as interpreted by tradition), and suggest, to some extent, that the perspective is existentially and even metaphysically plausible in the twenty-first century.47 This dynamic, we claim, could animate writers of such fiction who will likely be at the margins of mainstream fiction (though there are happy exceptions). Ideally, Christian novelists who write in this mode should be free to write stories drawing on all that they know and have experienced while walking with the living God.48

Consider the example of C. S. Lewis. As Thomas Shippey notes, Lewis knew and loved ancient texts, and he worked this love into the architecture of his fiction, using an older view of the universe to critique the modern perspective.49 Lewis’s fictional worlds with their biblical congruity and literary heft are unusual in a contemporary literary landscape that often tends toward cross-pressure. These elements contribute to his remarkable and persistent popularity across various audiences, but especially among Christian readers. As is the case with Lewis’s fiction, a story’s engagement with transcendence cultivates verisimilitude for those who ascribe to such reality.

Are we back to the unfortunate stereotype of Christian novels excoriated by the criticism mentioned above? Not at all. Yes, we need spiritual stories that are self-consciously Christian, but those stories should be told well, beautifully, artfully.50 To be sure, God may strike straight blows with crooked sticks. The gospel can shine resplendent despite the safe, clichéd tropes of religious bestsellers, but that speaks to the enduring power of the gospel, and of God, rather than to the value of mediocre fiction.51

Some might worry that we are arguing for gospel tracts in the language of fiction. On the contrary. Rather, we agree with Micah Mattix:

Each genre has different goals and capacities. The evangelistic sermon is for making direct Scriptural, emotional, and logical appeals to follow Christ. The philosophical essay is for defining and examining the nuances of virtue, vice, and metaphysical truth. Gospel tracts are for providing a short expression of the Gospel for someone you do not know. If you use one of these forms for a goal to which it is not suited, you are in trouble.… Yet, strangely, we as Christians often demand that so-called “Christian” fiction or poetry be as unambiguous as a Gospel tract. The result is a novel or a poem that is not a very good novel or poem.52

The fear that Christians will turn fiction into evangelism seems unwarranted when it comes to the type of stories we are describing. While evangelistic tracts make for bad novels, there is nothing wrong with fiction whose aim is to harness Scripture more fully for its literary artistry, possibly drawing readers closer to the living God and the world of Scripture. If potential readers are estranged from our Father in heaven, why not expose them to stories imbued with divine presence? For readers who are already Christians, such fiction could invigorate their faith amidst a secular age.

From Walker Percy to Frederick Buechner, many Christian authors of literary fiction have said that art should not be so programmatic or doctrinaire as to set out to see the world Christianly, as if the whole project is about trying to convert or console.53 Instead, art should tell the truth. But would Christian fiction as we conceive of it here be less than truthful, or worse, telling a lie? Would it fall short of bearing witness to truth as we know it in the real world, truth as we experience it as limping sinner-saints? This worry over truthfulness is understandable, but it risks assuming a reductive notion of truth. After all, Christian novelists are able to convey more than the narrow, myopic truth of post-Christian secularity. One might even argue that the “orientation to truth is essentially a religious act. It implies an act of faith in the truth and of constancy in devotion to it.”54 Christian novelists are poised to address some of the most important truths there are—about the triune God, supernatural reality, and divine things—and they can probe these themes unapologetically, with biblical fidelity, and in deep, rich, and imaginative ways.

Another fear regarding this potential direction for contemporary fiction is that “Christian” fiction in any guise is simply promoting an ideological perspective. While we agree that a heavy ideological hand is fatal to good fiction, there are nuanced, more subtle ways of storytelling that should alleviate these concerns. Besides, we would argue that all fiction ultimately has an agenda, and rather than propositions, syllogisms, or scientific proofs, fiction uses the narrative and figurative arts at its disposal. Great fiction has a more subversive agenda that does not always appeal to our obvious capacities. As Joseph Conrad describes the artist: “His appeal is less loud, more profound, less distinct, more stirring—and sooner forgotten. Yet its effect endures forever.”55

We are not limiting what it means to write fiction well, to tell stories that are pleasing to the Lord. In fact, much contemporary fiction written by non-Christians depicts realities and experiences consistent with those depicted in Scripture, even if those same authors self-consciously reject the triune God. Fiction comes in all shapes and sizes, in different modes and for different audiences. There is more than one way to write good fiction. The same principle applies to readers—Christians are free to read and enjoy many different kinds of books, from bestsellers to classics.56 Lest we be misunderstood, then, we emphatically reject binding readers to a literary elitism or to the dubious idea that Christian writers must only write “Christian” fiction. Part of the beauty of literature is that it can do many things. We can have perceptive stories that portray the ambiguities of life under the sun, and evangelical niche fiction written by evangelicals for evangelicals—indeed, let a thousand stories bloom, the more the merrier!

Even so, our proposal argues on behalf of a particular kind of storytelling that is conspicuously underrepresented in our cultural moment. Despite the challenge of secular readership, fictional visions of the world these days are often unfortunately circumscribed—even if excellently rendered. Modern fiction tends to emphasize the human drama through the lenses of creation and the fall. Such themes of finitude and fallenness are eminently Christian, and Scripture includes representations of God’s seeming absence. And yet, there is more to holy writ than the book of Ecclesiastes! Christian fiction, we claim, should also plumb the depths of redemption and consummation. Isn’t there a place for a more theocentric, spiritual, supernatural fictional reality, one that corresponds to those aspects of Scripture? Must we always go to earlier eras to find it? The outrageous idea suggested by our title is that some Christian writers should write fiction that draws on everything they know—from experience and from divine revelation.57 As Chad Walsh remarks, “Christian faith is no substitute for talent, for genius. But if a writer has that, the new eyes can aid him in seeing more, understanding more, saying more.”58

Admittedly, the invitation to this kind of fiction can only be accepted by writers, and we are speaking here primarily to critics and readers. Still, our readership also includes teachers at institutions with emerging writers. In an attempt to encourage this direction for fiction as an ideal to which some Christian writers should aspire, we began hosting an undergraduate writing contest at Covenant College that called for precisely these types of stories. The results have been encouraging, and the winner gives a public reading at an awards ceremony each year. After the ceremony, the contest entries are made available in our college library in a bound edition for the enjoyment of the campus community. Our experiment suggests a rich potential for this kind of fiction. In the contemporary literary scene, which is circumscribed in the ways suggested above, this model offers the prospect that such fiction will find readers.59

This experiment also points to the pedagogical implications of our proposal. For example, the contemporary literary scene can encourage students to think in binary ways, such that anything ostensibly “Christian” is somehow subpar or fundamentally flawed; instead, we can encourage our students to reconsider such perceptions and recognize the dominant conventions of current fiction. Additionally, it is sometimes objected that “Christian” fiction is a flawed self-descriptor: that is, people do not ordinarily talk about “Christian” carpentry or “Christian” painting; such modifiers are misguided. However, we think that literature is closer to philosophy, say, than to carpentry; hence, Christian philosophy and Christian fiction make sense in a way that Christian carpentry does not. We suspect that has something to do with the noetic effects of sin; as Emil Brunner, Abraham Kuyper, and others argue, the more a discipline engages with areas of the human person or God, the greater the potential conflict with Christian faith.60

Granted, an undergraduate fiction prize is one thing, but in the broader world of literature we should not underestimate the challenges facing an explicitly Christian mode of storytelling. In many respects, living in an age of cross-pressure militates against the kind of fiction we are commending. Mainstream publishers can be ideologically opposed to publishing “Christian” fiction, which places an unfair or even impossible burden on aspiring writers. As Viet Thanh Nguyen points out, “The decisions that publishers and editors make determine what readers see when they go to the bookstore or look for work online. It is hardly a surprise that the worldviews of publishers and editors influence their literary taste and judgment; those worldviews are influenced by privileges, assumptions, and prejudices that are often invisible to those who hold or benefit from them.”61 While we have no ready answers to this complex situation, perhaps Christian scholars should create new avenues of publication taking on all the attendant responsibilities, including marketing. Perhaps writers from religious institutions could form a publishing group, seeking funding from their institutions and other interested donors to pursue such initiatives. The point is that if options are limited in our present culture, then maybe we should create new publishing cultures to enable the writing of fresh stories that gleam like lightning.62

As to the actual process of composition, our description of this type of fiction is not meant as a set of prescriptive rules. On the contrary, we intend this proposal to liberate. Evidence suggests that writers are more constrained than they realize, and we have tried to highlight thematic content possibilities that are excluded by prevailing conventions. To put it another way, these are possibilities of content, not the means of assigning value to stories; our proposal is an invitation for writers to draw on all of Scripture for their creative visions. Christian faith encourages a view of literature as God-given, composed by image-bearers who create stories as part of their image-bearingness and who will write according to their particular vocations. A writer will create as he or she sees fit, in the way that he or she can. Nevertheless, the artistic vision of believers committed to Christianity need not be limited by what the contemporary literary scene displays. Faith can set you free.

3. Conclusion

For the record, we recognize God’s pervasive goodness and the importance of listening to voices outside of the church to learn from them, prompted by God’s common grace.63 Books of all kinds beautifully depict aspects of life and offer salutary fictional experiences. In God’s providence, such experiences can come from the most unusual places.64

The literary trends we have traced invite speculation about the extent to which we are all shaped by a secular social imaginary, one that constrains artistic and readerly sensibilities.65 It is even possible that we are so influenced by secularity that we lack the capacity to be stirred by fiction with a distinctly biblical view of reality. However, these trends also suggest opportunities for contemporary fiction. Although it is presently underrepresented, one can imagine contemporary fiction that offers a fuller picture of the world resonant with Scripture. Recognizing that everyone—believers and unbelievers alike—can feel the pull toward faith and doubt, we suggest the possibility of Christian writers not merely reflecting this ambivalence, but creating fictional worlds that see beyond the conditions of modernity. Novelists from the majority world who are less impacted by Western secularity will likely be the leading lights in this mode of Christian fiction.

Admittedly, “Poetry is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will,” as Percy Shelley famously put it.66 But could we not encourage people committed to Scripture’s revealed picture of the world—which is characterized by mystery, wonder, and God’s glory—to see the world that way by means of their art? Not every Christian novelist will have that calling, and some will disagree with the kind of Christian fiction we are defending. As long as a few Christian scholars and novelists find our argument persuasive, that is more than enough. Ultimately, this “outrageous” idea for fiction encourages an imaginative apprehension of the world portrayed in Scripture and mediated through the specific ecclesial traditions of believers, which includes a God who is real, who is good, and who is holy.

As many Christian traditions remind us, the liberal arts can help to deepen our engagement with and understanding of Scripture. John Calvin said as much: “Indeed, men who have either quaffed or even tasted the liberal arts penetrate with their aid far more deeply into the secrets of the divine wisdom.”67 Ours is a prompt to consider this kind of fiction: stories that open up windows into the world as it really is, a world of angels and demons, a world of good and evil, a world of heaven and hell, a world charged with the grandeur of God, like shining from shook foil,68 a world without end.69

[1] James D. Bratt, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), 39.

[2] Leland Ryken, “Calvinism and Literature,” in Calvin and Culture: Exploring a Worldview, ed. David W. Hall and Marvin Padgett (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010), 98. For ways in which literature is instructive for the church specifically in an American context, see Stanley Hauerwas and Ralph Wood, “How the Church Became Invisible: A Christian Reading of American Literary Tradition,” Religion & Literature 38 (2006): 61–93.

[3] “Secular” is a complicated term with multiple meanings. We use Taylor’s conception of “a secular age” (“secularity (3)”), which is “an age of contested belief, where religious belief is no longer axiomatic. It’s possible to imagine not believing in God.” This definition is from James K. A. Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 142. For recent discussions of secularity and contemporary literature, see the articles in Christianity & Literature 69.1 (2020).

[4] While “mainstream” and “literary” are distinct terms (one suggesting readership and the other artistic quality), we use both of them below in order to contrast fiction intended for a broader contemporary audience with the “Christian” fiction subcategory; occasionally, these two terms are used with only slightly different inflection.

[5] The journal Christianity & Literature was among the responders to Elie’s ideas, devoting an entire issue to the essay in the summer of 2014. See Christianity & Literature 63.4 (2014).

[6] Paul Elie, “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?,” New York Times Book Review, 23 December 2012, 15.

[7] Jim Lange, letter to the editor, New York Times Book Review, 13 January 2013, 6.

[8] Andy Davis, letter to the editor, New York Times Book Review, 13 January 2013, 6.

[9] Paul Elie, “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?,” 14.

[10] Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular, 142.

[11] Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular, 12.

[12] Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular, 140–41.

[13] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 360.

[14] Robert Olen Butler, Perfume River (New York: Grove Atlantic, 2016), 95.

[15] Other examples of mainstream writers whose work features belief in the cross-pressured mode are Jamie Quatro and Chigozie Obioma. For example, Quatro’s short story “Belief,” a 2018 Pushcart Prize winner published in Tin House, exemplifies the cross-pressured dynamic that Charles Taylor describes: the story is divided into a treatment of the narrator’s days of belief and unbelief. “Some mornings I wake up a Christian”; “Some mornings I wake up an atheist,” as the narrator puts it. See “Belief,” Tin House 17 (Spring 2016): 33–36. Set in contemporary Nigeria, Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2019) is told by the main character’s chi, a spirit in the pre-Christian Igbo worldview, but the novel also has Catholic characters, as well as Jamike, a repentant convert to Christianity. These examples represent the kind of cross-pressured belief found in contemporary fiction.

[16] Taylor characterizes cross-pressured faith like this: “We live in a condition where we cannot help but be aware that there are a number of different construals, views which intelligent, reasonably undeluded people, of good will, can and do disagree on. We cannot help looking over our shoulder from time to time, looking sideways, living our faith also in a condition of doubt and uncertainty.” Taylor, A Secular Age, 11.

[17] Theologians sometimes worry that the designation “supernatural” is implicitly dualistic, deistic, or just outright unbiblical (e.g., recent Roman Catholic debate has been shaped by Henri de Lubac, The Mystery of the Supernatural [New York: Crossroad, 1998]). Those are fair concerns. However, the term “supernatural” as we use it signals the dimensions of biblical reality touching on God’s miraculous presence and activity—but in no way do we exclude or minimize God’s immanence and ordinary providence. For discussion, see Robert Larmer, The Legitimacy of Miracle (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2014), and C. John Collins, The God of Miracles: An Exegetical Examination of God’s Action in the World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2000).

[18] Piers Paul Read, “What the Novelist Knows,” First Things 267 (November 2016): 38.

[19] Daniel Taylor, Death Comes for the Deconstructionist (Eugene, OR: Slant, 2014), 192.

[20] John A. McClure, Partial Faiths: Postsecular Fiction in the Age of Pynchon and Morrison (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007), 4.

[21] McClure, Partial Faiths, 2, 3.

[22] Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (New York: Picador, 2004).

[23] Elie, “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?,” 14.

[24] For Robinson’s debt to the prose style of the King James Bible, see Robert Alter’s Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 162–70.

[25] Elie, “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?,” 14.

[26] Alex Engebretson says that subjectivity is one of the essential elements of Gilead. See Understanding Marilynne Robinson (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2017), 28.

[27] Alter, Pen of Iron, 163.

[28] Douglas Alan Walrath, Displacing the Divine: The Minister in the Mirror of American Fiction (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 289.

[29] In her essay “Who Was Oberlin?” Robinson says that the fictional town of Gilead is modeled on Tabor, Iowa, which she argues is connected to a misapprehended yet profoundly influential past (see Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books [New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012], 180–81). Although we stress Gilead’s retrospective quality, Alex Engebretson argues that “Gilead’s presentation of religion is best considered within the frame of U.S. cultural and political history after 9/11. That is, Gilead can be read as a response to anxieties surrounding the nation’s religious-secular divide.” Understanding Marilynne Robinson, 36. While we agree with Engebretson’s assessment that Gilead has connections to “contemporary and political history” (as with the novel’s treatment of race, for example), Ames’s Christian faith is nevertheless represented as an artefact from an earlier era.

[30] Eugene Vodolazkin, Laurus (London: Oneworld, 2015).

[31] Samantha Harvey, The Western Wind (New York: Grove, 2018).

[32] These works may be contrasted with, for example, Bruce Holsinger’s medieval mysteries A Burnable Book (New York: William Morrow, 2014) and The Invention of Fire (New York: William Morrow, 2015), which give rich cultural and political details from fourteenth-century England but with a more modern, skeptical depiction of religion.

[33] Here and elsewhere in this article, we use the language of “worldview.” Aficionados of James K. A. Smith’s work might fault us for holding dodgy, post-Enlightenment sensibilities. Although we are pursuing a different project from Smith, it bears noting that his helpful defense of pre-cognitive desires and Taylor’s social imaginaries “doesn’t require rejecting worldview-talk, only situating it in relation to Christian practices” (Desiring the Kingdom [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009], 11). See also his “Two Cheers for Worldview: A Response to Elmer John Thiessen,” Journal of Education & Christian Belief 14 (2010): 55–58. In one sense, our argument draws attention to the rich possibilities for situating—indeed enriching—the worldview of readers in relation to the “practices” of robust Christian fiction.

[34] For a sympathetic approach to Christian fiction and the story of American evangelicalism told through the creation, publication, content, and reception of five popular Christian novels—Janette Oke’s Love Comes Softly (1979), Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness (1986), Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’s Left Behind (1995), Beverly Lewis’s The Shunning (1998), and William Paul Young’s The Shack (2008)—see Daniel Silliman’s book Reading Evangelicals: How Christian Fiction Shaped a Culture and a Faith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2021).

[35] The grievances are longstanding, as well. As Clyde Kilby put it decades ago, “the people who spend the most time with the Bible are in large numbers the foes of art and the sworn foes of imagination.… Christians often turn out to have an unenviable corner on the unimaginative and the commonplace.” See Clyde Kilby, “The Aesthetic Poverty of Evangelicalism,” in The Christian Imagination: The Practice of Faith in Literature and Writing, ed. Leland Ryken (Colorado Springs, CO: Waterbrook, 2002), 277–78.

[36] Magdalena Mączyńska, The Gospel According to the Novelist: Religious Scripture and Contemporary Fiction (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), 108.

[37] Mączyńska’s point about the way Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’s work simplifies the Bible into “colloquial prose” highlights another incongruity regarding “Christian fiction”: the radical separation of so-called religious fiction from mainstream authors at the height of their craft (see Mączyńska, Gospel According to the Novelist, 108). Such authors generate the kind of literary fiction devoured by book lovers and critics; their words sing and they sting. Their stories typically explore the ordinary, broken lives of protagonists, characters wading through a fallen world with glimpses of redemption, conveyed with arresting prose. In our judgment, the best literary fiction is not limited to the usual suspects (for example, the Pulitzer and Man Booker Prize) but also includes so-called genre fiction—the kind of fiction recognized by the Hugo, the Edgar, the Ned Kelly awards, and the like.

[38] On fiction as secular parables, see William Tate, “Karl Barth’s Secular Parables,” Journal for the Sociological Integration of Religion and Society 2 (2012): 23–29.

[39] As Cliff Foreman notes, traditionally conceived Christian fiction often “gives us goodness without the complications of our human fallenness and pain.” Cliff Foreman, “A Meditation on Boring Stories” (unpublished manuscript), n.p.

[40] Leland Ryken, Windows to the World: Literature in Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985), 22. On this point, we openly admit to a commitment to the primacy of Scripture when appraising literary worlds. See Leland Ryken, “Calvinism and Literature,” in Calvin and Culture: Exploring a Worldview, ed. David W. Hall and Marvin Padgett (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010), 95–113, esp. 108–11.

[41] Harold K. Bush, “Miracles and the Postsecular: Some ‘Unscientific’ Thoughts on Peace Like a River and Mariette in Ecstasy,” Christianity & Literature 69 (2020): 119.

[42] To use a term from Charles Taylor’s work, we are calling for fiction that features “enchanted” worlds, but enchanted in a biblically informed way. Describing the pre-modern world in Western society, Taylor defines enchantment as follows: “People lived in an ‘enchanted’ world. This is perhaps not the best expression; it seems to evoke light and fairies. But I am invoking here its negation, Weber’s expression ‘disenchantment’ as a description of our modern condition. This term has achieved such wide currency in our discussion of these matters, that I’m going to use its antonym to describe a crucial feature of the pre-modern condition. The enchanted world in this sense is the world of spirits, demons, and moral forces which our ancestors lived in.” See Taylor, A Secular Age, 25–26. For discussions of secular “enchantment,” see Simon During’s Modern Enchantments: The Cultural Power of Secular Magic (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004) and Michael Saler’s As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012). Others have challenged the disenchantment narrative; for example, see Joseph A. Josephson-Storm, The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017).

[43] The following memory from John Ames is representative: “There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me. The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running…. It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth. I don’t know why I thought of that now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash” (Robinson, Gilead, 27–28).

[44] Robert Alter, Pen of Iron, 4.

[45] Although Bo Giertz’s The Hammer of God was first published in 1941 and, thus, is more dated than the other three titles, we include it because the revised English edition came out in 2005—and because many modern readers remain unaware of this classic Christian novel.

[46] J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy are classic examples in this vein. See the insightful remarks in Thomas A. Shippey, J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000).

[47] Here, we should note that there are obvious differences in historical expressions of Christianity. Nevertheless, continuity between these expressions is central to our proposal: manifestations of the faith across time are committed to truths expressed in Scripture, which can be explored imaginatively in contemporary fiction. Our argument is that Christian fiction need not be circumscribed by our historical moment—shaped yes; but not absolutely determined—and it will have continuity with past expressions of the faith even as it engages with the present.

[48] Flannery O’Connor’s conception of realism is helpful here: “All novelists are fundamentally seekers and describers of the real, but the realism of each novelist will depend on his view of the ultimate reaches of reality.” See Flannery O’Connor, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000), 40–41.

[49] See Thomas A. Shippey, “The Ransom Trilogy,” The Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis, ed. Robert MacSwain and Michael Ward (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 239–40. For Lewis’s rationale, see “On the Reading of Old Books,” in God in the Dock, reprint ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 217–25.

[50] On the aesthetic question, see Franky Schaeffer, Addicted to Mediocrity: Twentieth Century Christians and the Arts (Westchester, NY: Crossway, 1981); Frank Gaebelein, “The Aesthetic Problem: Some Evangelical Answers,” Christianity Today 9.11 (26 February 1965): 3–6; Frank Gaebelein, The Christian, the Arts, and Truth: Regaining the Vision of Greatness (Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1985).

[51] As O’Connor notes, “We have plenty of examples in this world of poor things being used for good purposes. God can make any indifferent thing, as well as evil itself, an instrument for good; but I submit that to do this is the business of God and not of any human being.” Flannery O’Connor, “Catholic Novelists and Their Readers,” in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000), 174.

[52] Micah Mattix, “On Christian Literature,” Comment, 3 December 2010, (our emphasis).

[53] See Barbara King, “Walker Percy Prevails,” in Conversations with Walker Percy, eds. Lewis A. Lawson and Victor A. Kramer (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1985), 89, and Nancy Tischler, Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Fiction: From C. S. Lewis to Left Behind (Santa Barbara: Greenwood, 2009), xviii.

[54] D. S. Savage, The Withered Branch: Six Studies in the Modern Novel (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1950), 14.

[55] Joseph Conrad, Preface to The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ (New York: Amereon, 1978), 7. These well-known remarks were originally published in 1897. Thanks to KJ Gilchrist for bringing this book to our attention.

[56] On this point, see Alan Jacobs, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[57] Here, we echo Alvin Plantinga who said, “Christian philosophers should display more autonomy: they have their own fish to fry, their own projects to pursue, (or their own axes to grind, as some might prefer to put it).” Alvin Plantinga, “Augustinian Christian Philosophy,” Monist 75 (1992): 291. Our essay draws part of its inspiration from Plantinga’s seminal work in Reformed epistemology. Pride of place goes to his “Advice to Christian Philosophers,” Faith and Philosophy 1 (1984): 253–71, based on his 1984 inaugural address as the John A. O’Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. In addition, the “outrageous” descriptor of our title alludes to George Marsden’s The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

[58] Chad Walsh, “The Advantages of the Christian Faith for a Writer,” in The Christian Imagination: The Practice of Faith in Literature and Writing, ed. Leland Ryken (Colorado Springs, CO: Waterbrook, 2002), 173.

[59] On this question of readership, evidence suggests there is an enormous appetite for faith-based fiction of any kind. Ask Francine Rivers! As Nancy Tischler remarks, “The real wonder of contemporary Christian writing is the sheer mass of it. Clearly the world is hungry for conversations about ultimate reality—even if the stories are encumbered by mundane descriptions of food and clothing” (Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Fiction, xix).

[60] See Stephen K. Moroney, The Noetic Effects of Sin: A Historical and Contemporary Exploration of How Sin Affects Our Thinking (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2000).

[61] Viet Thanh Nguyen, “Introduction,” Ploughshares 45 (2019): 9.

[62] Along these general lines, see Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008). We thank Jill Baumgaertner for pressing this point in correspondence.

[63] For discussion, see Richard Mouw, He Shines in All That’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000).

[64] We are reminded here of a passage from Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane (New York: William Morrow, 2013), 57–58, which features the following glimpse of shalom: “I have dreamed of that song, of the strange words to that simple rhyme-song, and on several occasions I have understood what she was saying, in my dreams. In those dreams I spoke that language too, the first language, and I had dominion over the nature of all that was real. In my dream, it was the tongue of what is, and anything spoken in it becomes real, because nothing said in that language can be a lie. It is the most basic building brick of everything. In my dreams I have used that language to heal the sick and to fly; once I dreamed I kept a perfect little bed-and-breakfast by the seaside, and to everyone who came to stay with me I would say, in that tongue, ‘Be whole.’ and they would become whole, not be broken people, not any longer, because I had spoken the language of shaping.”

[65] Regarding the term “social imaginary,” which is “the way ordinary people ‘imagine’ their social surroundings,” as Charles Taylor puts it, and the term’s implications, see Taylor, A Secular Age, 171–72, and Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular, 143.

[66] Percy Bysshe Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume D: The Romantic Period, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, 8th ed. (New York: Norton, 2006), 846.

[67] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 1.5.2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, Library of Christian Classics (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1960). John McNeill’s editorial gloss on this quote is helpful: “To Calvin, liberal studies were an aid to comprehension of the divine wisdom conveyed in the Scriptures” (p. 53 n. 6).

[68] The lines “the grandeur of God” and “like shining from shook foil” are from Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “God’s Grandeur.”

[69] We are grateful for helpful discussion with participants at the “Illuminating Darkness: Literature in an Age of Unbelief” conference at Colorado Christian University and at the “Revenants: Christ, Time, and the Twenty-First Century” conference at Lee University, both sponsored in 2019 by the Conference on Christianity & Literature, where early versions of the paper were presented. Our thanks, too, to Jill Baumgaertner, Jack Beckman, Bill Davis, Luke Ferretter, Cliff Foreman, KJ Gilchrist, Joshua Hill, Jennifer Holberg, John Holberg, Sarah Huffines, Travis Hutchinson, Gwen Macallister, Rebecca Miller, Luke Mills, Jason Ney, Joshua Privett, Jamie Quatro, Jonathan Sircy, John Sykes, Bill Tate, and several anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments on earlier drafts.

Hans Madueme and Robert Erle Barham

Hans Madueme is associate professor of theological studies at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia.

Robert Erle Barham is associate professor of English at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia.

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