No Theological Axe

AS I HAVE LONG since discovered, the world is full of people-many of them, I regret to say, book reviewers- who, if they hear that a minister has written a novel, feel that they know, even without reading it, what sort of a novel it must be. It must be essentially a sermon with illustrations in the form of character and dialogue, and, as such, its view of life must be one-sided, simplistic, naive, with everything subordinated to the one central business of scoring some kind of homiletical bull's-eye. I protest that, in my case anyway, this simply is not so. Since my ordination, as well as before, novels, for me, start-as Robert Frost said his poems did-with a lump in the throat. I don't start with some theological axe to grind, but with a deep, wordless feeling for some aspect of my own experience that has moved me. Then, out of the shadows, a handful of characters starts to emerge, then various possible relationships between them, then a setting maybe, and lastly, out of those relationships, the semblance at least of a plot. Like any other serious novelist, I try to be as true as I can to life as I have known it. I write not as a propagandist but as an artist.

On the other hand-and here is where I feel I must be so careful-since my ordination I have written consciously as a Christian, as an evangelist, or apologist, even. That does not mean that I preach in my novels, which would make for neither good novels nor good preaching. On the contrary, I lean over backwards not to. I choose as my characters (or out of my dreams do they choose me?) men and women whose feet are as much of clay as mine are because they are the only people I can begin to understand. As a novelist no less than as a teacher, I try not to stack the deck unduly but always let doubt and darkness have their say along with faith and hope, not just because it is good apologetics-woe to him who tries to make it look simple and easy-but because to do it any other way would be to be less than true to the elements of doubt and darkness that exist in myself no less than in others. I am a Christian novelist in the same sense that somebody from Boston or Chicago is an American novelist. I must be as true to my experience as a Christian as black writers to their experience as blacks or women writers to their experience as women. It is no more complicated, no more sinister than that. As to The Final Beast, the part of the Christian experience that I particularly tried to make real was the one I found so conspicuously absent in most of the books I searched through for readings to assign my Exeter classes, and that was the experience of salvation as grace, as the now-and-thenness and here-and-thereness of the New Being.

-Originally published in Now and Then