On The Problem Of The Writer’s Craft In Protestant Christianity

Oh dear, that title sounds like a thesis, doesn’t it? The issue came into my head the other day when I received the quarterly ‘new titles’ email from Grove Books. They featured a booklet called ‘Telling Ourselves In Ink: Creative Writing in the Church‘ by Corin Child. Just to come across it associated in my mind with critical comments I’ve heard in some church circles directed at people who enjoy writing.

This is personal for me. I enjoy writing. I don’t think I’m great, but I think I have something to offer. Some people have been kind in telling me how my writing has helped them. On my first sabbatical (not the one I recently finished), I spent a week on a creative writing course at the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, run by the Association of Christian Writers. During that course, one tutor said, “Don’t be afraid to describe yourself as a writer.” I found that liberating. Others, who don’t appreciate my love of writing, don’t. “Why are you wasting time with that?”

So when I saw the Grove book, I mentioned it on the email discussion list of Subway Writers, to which I belong. I don’t feel I should be in their company half the time, most of them are professionals. The book title made me wonder whether they feel understood in their churches. One person emailed about the terrific support she receives. In reply to another member, I wrote a longer screed which set out some of my thoughts and feelings on the subject. This person observed that because ‘the word’, the Bible, has been central in Protestant churches, other uses of words, especially creative ones, can be seen as superfluous or dangerous. Most of the rest of this post is a lightly edited version of what I said there. I’d be interested in your comments.

Yes, [name], I think this is often a particular problem for Protestants. Catholicism and Orthodoxy know the long history of Christian involvement with the arts, and (at least in the visual arena) celebrate it, even depend on it. I heard it argued not so long ago that there are proportionally more Catholics involved in the film industry than Protestants.

Protestants, as you say, focus historically on ‘the word’, and this has the effect of devaluing other words. I’m not about to have a downer on the primacy of Scripture – far from it, as an evangelical! – but I suppose it got taken to extremes in churches that would only sing Scripture, and not other hymns. Hence the Scottish Paraphrases of the Psalms.

The evangelical emphasis on evangelism (especially since the split with liberals over the ‘social gospel’ a hundred years ago) meant that anything not concentrating on evangelism was inferior – especially something as indirect as writing and novels, with the ‘show, don’t tell’ principle. You have to tell, they would say! (And does that explain the ‘preachy’ nature of some written evangelical work? I can think of perfectly good sketches by Christian drama companies that spoke for themselves, only to be ruined by the ‘explanation’ tacked on the end.)

Not only that, the evangelical suspicion of the imagination has a lot to answer for: it seems to pick the word ‘imagination’ out of a concordance and noticing its association with another word, ‘vain’, in Scripture, has led to an erroneous assumption that all imagination is bad. No wonder historians such as David Bebbington see evangelicalism as a creation of the rationalist Enlightenment. That suspicion of imagination has been underlined in recent years by its association with questionable New Age visualisation techniques. So not only is it vain, it’s also demonic!

Add in a particular concern with historicism, and novelists in particular might be marginalised. Evangelicals have a right and proper concern for historical truth. If the story of Jesus is not true, then (as Paul says about the Resurrection) our hope is in vain. Yet as we know, the Bible is a collation of many different types of literature. Fiction can be used to show (not tell, again!) a message – something surely Jesus himself knew in the creation of his parables. Therefore, does it matter if some scholars argue that the books of Job and Jonah are inspired fiction? I think not – and, I think in doing so, they add to the legitimacy of the novelist’s art.

But I also suspect this is a problem for some liberal Christians. While they have been welcoming of things that are not overtly in-your-face-and-down-your-throat Christian, their commendable emphasis on social action means that if you’re not getting your hands dirty serving the poor, you must be wasting your time.

It is reasons like these that made me wonder what reception some of you pros get in your churches. I must say, it was heartening to read of [name]’s positive experiences.


  1. Great post Dave. Although I do get superb support from my church, I’ve certainly come across the attitudes you highlight elsewhere. I’ve even been told that the visualisation techniques I use in my creative writing classes are demonic. And just last week I received a rejection for a series of children’s books by a leading protestant publishing house that shall remain unnamed, because they were ‘too creative’ and did not ‘stick close enough to the Biblical text’. If you just want a children’s book that is a word for word biblical account, then why not just extract from the Bible?


  2. Dave, I think you’ve summed it up very well. I come from a Protestant evangelical tradition and it wasn’t that we were discouraged from doing anything creative, it was just that it wasn’t seen as particularly relevant.


  3. I appreciate your feelings here, but I think the problem is broader than Protestantism or Evangelicals.

    The arts are viewed as somewhat dodgy by many people in our society. As Kurt Vonnegut said, if you want to get back at your parents, become an artist.

    Liberal or conservative there is a general suspicion that those creating things are not getting things done. Religious impulses can deepen that suspicion, I suppose, but I would not point to Protestantism as a cause of it.

    I do see the challenge of “religious” artists. They are put in a creative box. There are just some things a good Christian writer would not write about, for instance.

    But that is another post, perhaps.


    1. John,

      Thank you for widening the discussion. My starting point for the reflections above was the person on the email list who made the observation about the place of ‘the word’ in Protestant churches, but I’m sure you’re right. One initial thought: would any of this concern to ‘get things done’ come out of the Protestant Work Ethic in our societies (if it existed, of course)?


      1. PS John, there are the beginnings of a discussion about your last point here, on my friend Fiona’s blog (i.e., Fiona whose is the first comment above).


  4. Regarding the work ethic, protestant or otherwise, I’ve just read a quote by Jules Renard: ‘Writing is the only profession where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money.’

    Well I don’t agree with that. As a writer, partner, mother, daugther (and taxpayer!) I’m forever having to justify my low earnings. There’s a sense that you can’t be a ‘proper’ writer until you’ve been paid. Now every ‘real’ writer knows there’s writing that pays (usually stuff you have to do rather than you want to do) writing that doesn’t and speculative writing that you hope might one day lead to a commission. All is writing. But try telling that non-writers!


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