Ashlee Cowles

What does it mean to be a Christian writer, rather than a writer of “Christian books”? Would members of the Inklings have trouble publishing with a major house today, given current literary trends? Why has it been half a century since we’ve seen influential Christian storytellers capable of speaking to the wider culture to the degree that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien did?

These were a few of the questions that came up during the writers’ luncheon with Dr. Donald Williams this past Saturday. Dr. Williams spoke of the “three R’s” that have historically led to a renewal of Christianity in a given culture: renaissance, reformation, and revival. Artists and poets have a particular role to play in the work of renaissance, since they typically focus on preparing the culture by highlighting the grace of God in the broadest ways possible—through capturing the beauty of creation, or revealing the seeds of the Tao (Lewis’ term for the universal moral law that is evident in almost all cultures) in mythic stories, or by harnessing the transformational power of both reason and imagination.

Our conversation often came back to this tenuous relationship between reason and imagination, and how we need Christian writers who are capable of appealing to both, especially in our “age of sentiments” when television, movies, and novels may have a greater impact on shaping the culture than rational arguments ever could alone. This melding of reason and imagination is why someone like St. Anselm has much to teach us. When we hear the word “renaissance,” many of us likely think of the Italian Renaissance we learned about in school, but there was an even earlier renewal that Medievalist scholars often refer to as the “12th century renaissance”—a time of intellectual and artistic flourishing that thinkers such as St. Anselm helped usher in. Anselm’s two best known works are an example of how reason and imagination go hand in hand. In the Proslogium, Anselm lays out his rational argument for the existence of God, and in Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man) he explains why the Incarnation was necessary. Both works are incredibly philosophical, but in the latter text Anselm appeals to the imagination by explaining why the God-Man makes sense narratively speaking; Christ brings Scripture full circle the way all satisfying, well-crafted stories do:

For it was fitting that, just as death entered into the human race by man’s disobedience, so should life be restored by man’s obedience. And, that, just as the sin that was the cause of our damnation had its beginning from woman, so the author of our justice and salvation should be born from woman. And, that the devil conquered man through persuading him to taste from the tree, should be conquered by man through the passion he endured on the tree.

In other words, Anselm imaginatively explains why the Incarnation is the best possible Story.

To return to Dr. Williams’ “three R’s,” Anselm’s writing was part of a 12th century renaissance of Christian humanism, which occurred at a time of great reform in the Church (led by spiritual leaders such as Bernard of Clairvaux), culminating in a 13th century revival of Christian culture in multiple areas, as embodied by figures such as Thomas Aquinas (reason), Dante (imagination), and St. Francis of Assisi (charity in action).

If we are truly in need of another renaissance, what does this mean for Christian writers? The contemporary Church in America has given much attention to rational argument and apologetics, but the work of imagination must be more subtle. Our imaginations are inspired by symbol, allegory, and image—not by overt lessons and didactic preaching—and we need Christian writers who can speak to the imaginations of an audience beyond the pews. Such writers may find themselves in a frustrating “middle ground,” as their imaginative works may not be evangelical enough for Christian publishers, yet they may also not be “edgy” enough for major publishing houses looking for the next 50 Shades of Grey.

By the end of our conversation, the group consensus seemed to be that the solution to this “no man’s land” situation will come from where it often does: community. The Inklings also lived in an age when being an openly Christian writer had its challenges, and it’s doubtful that many of them would have published their works without the encouragement, feedback, and influence of friends. The writers’ luncheon certainly revealed that these in-between spaces and opportunities for creative connections are one way Christians living in a culture where the divorce between reason and imagination still runs deep are “longing for more.”