Why Protestants Can’t Write, I

Why Protestants Can’t Write, I January 28, 2016

Blame it on Marburg.

The 1529 Colloquy at Marburg attempted to reconcile Lutherans and Zwinglians on the doctrine of the real presence, and was nearly able to achieve its aim. To Luther’s surprise, the Zwinglian party agreed with fourteen of his fifteen propositions, and even conceded most of what was said in the fifteenth article. Conciliation was in the air, and the fifteenth article concluded with the peaceable statement that “Although we are not at this present time agreed, as to whether the true Body and Blood of Christ are bodily present in the bread and wine, nevertheless the one party should show to the other Christian love as far as conscience can permit.”

Soon after they returned home, however, Zwinglians were sniping at Lutherans, Lutherans at Zwinglians, and Luther concluded that Zwingli’s agreement at Marburg had been less than honest. At the Diet of Augsburg the following year, the two parties drew up separate confessions of faith.

Marburg is important not so much for what it achieved but as a symbol of what it failed to achieve. It provides a symbolic marker not only for the parting of the ways between Lutheran and Zwinglian, but also, for Zwinglians, the final parting of the ways between symbol and reality. J. P. Singh Uberoi claimed that “Spirit, word and sign had finally parted company at Marburg in 1529. For centuries, Christian sacramental theology had held symbol and reality together in an unsteady tension, but that alliance was ruptured by the Zwinglian view of the real presence. For Zwingli, “myth or ritual . . . was no longer literally and symbolically real and true.” In short, “Zwingli was the chief architect of the new schism and . . . Europe and the world followed Zwingli in the event.”

For many post-Marburg Protestants, literal truth is over here, while symbols drift off in another direction. At best, they live in adjoining rooms; at worst, in widely separated neighborhoods, and they definitely inhabit different academic departments.

Here is a thesis, which I offer in a gleeful fit of reductionism: Modern Protestants can’t write because we have no sacramental theology. Protestants will learn to write when we have reckoned with the tragic results of Marburg, and have exorcised the ghost of Zwingli from our poetics. Protestants need not give up our Protestantism to do this, as there are abundant sacramental resources within our own tradition. But contemporary Protestants do need to give up the instinctive anti-sacramentalism that infects so much of Protestantism, especially American Protestantism.

Perhaps you’ll challenge the premise: Protestants can write. Even if we limit ourselves to English and American writers, there is plenty of counter evidence. Look at all the great Elizabethan poets and dramatists, the English Victorian poets, Dickens, Austen, C. S. Lewis, and, among contemporaries, Larry Woiwode and John Updike, and Marilynne Robinson.

I’ll stand by my thesis. Assuming that the Elizabethan poets qualify as Protestants (something some Anglicans would question), they were Protestants with Prayer Books. So were the Victorians and Lewis, whose imagination, besides, was formed by medieval and Renaissance literature as much as anything. The greatest American writers have been lapsed Calvinists touched with Transcedentalism. I’ll grant you Woiwode and Robinson, but wonder if anyone really wants to claim Updike. And I stand by my thesis that Marburg has something to do with all this, even though Lutherans did not go on to great feats of fictional prowess, and two Puritans, Bunyan and Defoe, pretty much invented the modern novel. We are looking at the impact of ideas over centuries.

So, let’s stipulate the premise: modern Protestants can’t write. We are devotees of the Word, people of the book. Yet we can’t write stories or poetry. This is a scandal and a deep mystery.

But why is that Zwingli’s fault? What hath sacramental theology to do with writing? What hath Zwingli to do with Joyce? What is Dabney to Flannery O’Connor? Much in every way.

O’Connor illustrates as well as anyone the importance of sacramental theology to Christian fiction. She was a deeply sacramental writer, and her stories often turn on sacramental events. Extreme unction plays an important role in “The Enduring Chill,” and in “The Lame Shall Enter First” Rufus Johnson eats a prophetic Eucharist when he chews and swallows pages of a Bible.

Sacraments are sometimes hard to recognize in O’Connor’s cartoonishly exaggerated universe. Epiphanies of grace tear into her characters’ lives through the goring horn of a bull, tractors crashing into trees, the bullet from an escaped convict’s gun. The exaggeration and distortion is deliberate. In one of her most often quoted statements, O’Connor spoke of her need to shout and draw large figures for her blind-and-deaf audience: “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”

Baptism has been domesticated, and modern readers are incapable of seeing within a shower of water what the New Testament says is there—a blood-drenched cross, a corpse and a grave, a deluge that renews creation, the drowning of Pharaoh, the bursting of a spiced tomb. If a baptism is going to have the proper impact on modern readers, O’Connor must make it a drowning, as she does in “The River.”

But the sacramentalism of O’Connor’s fiction is far more pervasive and profound than the scattered references to actual or exaggerated (quasi)sacraments might suggest. Sacramental theology shapes her understanding of reality, as well as her conception of her task and vocation as a writer.

Sacraments exist in O’Connor’s universe; more importantly, the universe itself is sacramental, a world in which the most mundane, petty violence can become a means of grace, a world in which particular things, while remaining entirely themselves, confront human beings with the reality of God.

O’Connor recognized that a sacramental sense of reality was dependent on a strong doctrine of creation, and she frequently complained about the implicit Manicheanism of both modern Catholics and Protestants. In its Christianized form, this ancient Persian dualism teaches that the material world is inherently evil, the creation of some Demiurge rather than the Father of Jesus. The goal of the virtuous life is, for the Manicheans, to escape the material world, releasing the light-substance of the soul from the putrid corruptions of matter. Christianity by contrast insists that the creation is good, a manifestation of God’s glory, and that the material reality can be rightly known only if it is seen as such.

O’Connor believed the artist’s duty is to see and depict the world in a way that opened it up to the ultimate source of this reality, and believed that she was following the teaching of the arch anti-Manichean church father, Augustine:

“St. Augustine wrote that the things of the world pour forth from God in a double way: intellectually into the minds of the angels and physically into the world of things. To the person who believes this—as the western world did up until a few centuries ago—this physical sensible world is good because it proceeds from a divine source. . . . [The aim of the artist is] to render the highest possible justice to the visible universe. . . . The artist penetrates the concrete world in order to find at its depths the image of its source, the image of ultimate reality.”

In contrast to this Christian affirmation of the cosmos, O’Connor saw Manichean impulses behind the modern denigration of material reality, and believed this made fiction writing almost impossible: “The Manicheans separated spirit and matter. To them all material things were evil. They sought pure spirit and tried to approach the infinite directly without any mediation of matter. This is also pretty much the modern spirit, and for the sensibility infected with it, fiction is hard if not impossible to write because fiction is so much an incarnational art.”

Because creation is always the medium by which God comes to us, O’Connor argued that Catholic writers must not attempt to bypass creation on their way to transcendence, but rather must expect to find the “presence of grace as it appears in nature.” This world is the site of God’s action, and therefore the writer’s faith ought not “become detached from his dramatic sense and from his vision of what-is.” Manicheanism separates “nature and grace as much as possible” and in doing so reduces “his conception of the supernatural to pious clichés and has become able to recognize nature in literature in only two forms, the sentimental and the obscene.”

O’Connor once expressed her desire to write stories that would sound “like the Old Testament would sound if it were being written today.” Her sense of what that meant was indebted to the Jesuit scholar William F. Lynch, who argued in his Christ and Apollo that “The opposition here is between Christ, Who stands for reality in all its definiteness, and Apollo, who stands for the indefinite, the romantic, the endless. It is again the opposition between the Hebraic imagination, always concrete, and the agnostic imagination, which is dream-like.”

Approaching the infinite “directly without the mediation of matter”—it describes the “modern spirit” perhaps, but equally and perhaps better it describes the spirit of Zwingli, the Zwinglian spirit that Luther could not recognize as his own. Insofar as Protestantism is infected with various strains of the Manichean virus, to that extent modern evangelicals are incapable of discerning the theophanies that surround us on every hand.

Hence: contemporary Protestants can’t write. Blame it on Marburg.

This is the first part of an essay originally published in Credenda/Agenda. The essay has been slightly revised.

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