The notable Christian thinker Peter Leithhart has written an essay entitled Why Evangelicals Can’t Write on the difficulty evangelicals seem to have in writing good fiction. It all comes down, according to Leithart, to the colloquy at Marburg where Zwingli rejected Luther’s affirmation of the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament. Leithart, who is Reformed and not Lutheran, sees Zwingli’s split between reality and meaning as having huge consequences for the Protestant imagination. You need to read the whole essay, but here is an excerpt:
Blame it on Marburg. More precisely: Blame it on Zwingli. A Zwinglian poetics leaves us with three choices: Either a flat mimetic realism that gives literary expression to “the real” without attempting to penetrate beyond the surface; or a flat didacticism that ignores the real in its haste to get to the point; or an allegorism that forges arbitrary links between the real and the symbolic, and in the end swallows up the real in its meaning. (Mr. By-Ends, Mr. Worldly-Wiseman, Faithful, and Hopeful are mere symbols, silhouettes of characters rather than characters.) Although, to give Bunyan his due, he was here following a typical (and very Catholic) medieval pattern in literature, while adding the astounding innovation of homely and realistic dialog. Nevertheless, the cardboard charactizations strike us the way they do for a reason.
In a Zwinglian poetics, things cannot be both themselves and also—simultaneously, without ceasing to be what they are, for the very reason they are what they are—something else. Zwinglian will not permit something to be both real and symbolic, to be both wholly itself and yet, because of what it is, to disclose something more than itself. Zwinglian poetics does not permit Southern customs to be Southern customs and yet, precisely because they are Southern customs, to be haunted by Christ.
The renewal of literature, like the renewal of the world, begins in worship. The renewal of literature, like the renewal of the world, begins from the pulpit, to be sure. But the pulpit will renew literature only when it is nestled where it should be nestled, between the font and the table.
Leithhart contrasts this split of the imagination with Roman Catholic and Anglican authors who do have a sense of the sacramental.
A Zwinglian could counter, OK, so where are all of the great writers on the other side of Marburg, the Lutheran authors? Well, we would have to go to Germany and, especially, Scandinavia, where I suspect there are some good ones. Bo Giertz. Hans Christian Andersen? Most of us English speakers are oblivious to authors in different languages. Our own Lars Walker, who is a good novelist himself, might alert us to some. In English, Walter Wangerin is a fine writer, and his work has far more of the tangible universe than many other contemporary Christian authors from other traditions.
HT: Scott Stiegemeyer, who offers some of his own insights on the subject.