The following column appeared in this newspaper on June 26, 1997 – 25 years plus one month ago. It was the first Faith column I wrote, and it centered on a speech by Philip Yancey. A quarter of a century later, Yancey has written many outstanding Christian books, and other creative people have taken his message to heart. I was hoping to hear him speak again in person at a CS Lewis conference in Oxford, England this week, but I’m content to see him live online at home. Since 1997 I have written 474 more of these columns. Here is the first:
Somewhere in a storage shed in the backyard of the Texas Panhandle are the notes I made one morning in June 1979 in St. Paul, Minn.
I was so impressed by the young speaker that day that I need not search my notes to recall the admonition he gave to a group of young Christian writers.
“Christians usually settle for less than the best,” was the crux of Philip Yancey’s remarks.
Yancey, who has already written a few bestsellers, must have taken pains not to offend some of the genuine people in his audience without glossing over his criticism.
He left the whitewash in the bucket.
Writers, musicians, painters—anyone trying to do something creative to advance the gospel of Jesus Christ—all too often produce mediocre work and knowingly or unknowingly pass it off as excellent work.
Christian artists, Yancey claimed, do not attract the attention of people in mainstream culture because the quality of their work does not compare to the efforts made by talented people whose motivation is far less divine.
What if the innovation and “coolness” of The Beatles didn’t come from an admittedly fabulous foursome who nonetheless roamed about their private lives, but from a gang of boys whose aim was to glorify their creator?
What if a novelist with a Christian worldview put words together as convincingly as Hemingway did?
In fact, popular culture in past centuries has been more blessed with divine influence than our own.
I know from my college art history class that the subject matter of many master painters throughout the centuries has been biblical. Art experts praise the Sistine Chapel for Michelangelo’s powerful brushstrokes, while Christians admire it for its depiction of the Last Judgment.
Much great music has also been inspired by Christian muses. How else do you get a piece called The Hallelujah Chorus?
So what happened? Yancey said modern Christians are usually content with good intentions. So what if a short story is predictable and has stereotypical characters? If these characters quote Scripture, isn’t that all that matters?
So what if a praise sounds almost like “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and repeats “I love Jesus” 14 times? Isn’t it the thought that counts?
Well, yes, and people worshiping in simplicity can be a pure, admirable act. It’s the creators of the lyrics and the melodies and the artwork and the paragraphs that Yancey had a quick kick for.
Since 1979, Christian creativity has made great strides in quantity and perhaps in quality. Customers can browse a variety of musical styles and book themes at a Christian bookstore. Sometimes they even find gold.
But even assuming artists do better, how much of that does she preach to the choir? One of Yancey’s coups 18 years ago was getting a story published in Reader’s Digest. This is a small example of Christian influence in US culture and not the other way around.
Bob Briner used his 1993 book Roaring Lambs to tell Christians that they can’t spend all their time lounging around in their own bookstores when there’s a whole culture out there drifting away from the basis to which they belong believe.
Briner urged church members to focus less on choir rehearsals or usher training and more on adding the salt of the Christian message to the cultural stew.
“Sure, there is much in this world that is alarming,” Briner wrote, “but I believe there is a better way to do something about it than just preach about it. The best way to stop the spread of evil is to replace it with something good.”
And according to Yancey, artists must instill in our culture not only a good message, but a message presented in creative ways that entice the public to take notice.
People who are indebted to God should promote films that can rival Jurassic Park’s attention. They should put up TV shows that are celebrated like NYPD Blue. Someone should pick up where CS Lewis left off, wrote Briner, and make the New York Times bestseller list, not just the Christian Booksellers Association.
Yancey caught my attention that morning in Minnesota in part because he didn’t look like the typical Christian evangelist of the day. He wasn’t much older than me and had bushy, hippie-like hair.
But he has a place in my storage shed because he didn’t repeat phrases I’ve heard preachers say a hundred times. He was intellectual in that he spoke about poetry, philosophy, and art. He was sensitive in that he talked about beauty.
And he didn’t think that Christians of all people should produce drivel.
Mike Haynes taught journalism at Amarillo College from 1991 to 2016 and has been writing for the Faith Department since 1997. He can be reached at [email protected]. Visit www.haynescolumn.blogspot.com for more recent columns.