On the Necessity of Standards


On the Necessity of Standards

Yesterday, in a comment on my post regarding Christian writing, an anonymous commenter pointed out that there is large leeway for appreciation of literature and one need not brush aside what might well be truly entertaining and edifying work. Once again, I paraphrase, but I hope charitably, and there is much to recommend this statement. However, it is critical for the Christian to realize that we are not allowed this aesthetic distance or this removal from the arts and culture.

The case we were talking about concerned explicitly "Christian Fiction." Dylan offered two quotes that crown and summarize my ruminations of yesterday. But also provide a springboard into the discussion of standards necessary and proper to the realm of literature and the necessity for upholding those standards--strenuously if pressed.

from Dylan's Comments The relevant Merton sentence (it seems applicable to fiction as well) would be : "A Catholic poet should be an apostle by being first of all a poet, not try to be a poet by being first of all an apostle. For if he presents himself to people as a poet, he is going to be judged as a poet and if he is not a good one his apostolate will be ridiculed."

Not all that far from Oscar Wilde's dictum that there are no moral or immoral works of art, only good ones and bad ones, that is, artistic and inartistic.

The first of these quotes will be the basis of the remainder of this discussion because the second (which is a paraphrase, but does sound very much like one of the late 19th century decadents) must be regarded as erroneous. There are, of course, moral and immoral works of art. The writings of the Marquis de Sade, of Sacher-Masoch, and even of J.K. Huymans (I'm thinking here of Lá-Bas and Au Rebours) can be regarded as patently immoral in genesis, content, and consequence. There is little or nothing salutary in the works of the Marquis de Sade, although the writing itself is not bad--the impulse of the writing is immoral and the stimulation of prurient interest of a untoward sort distinctly immoral. Judged by criteria of impulse and likely result, one must conclude that a work can be immoral. So too, works can be moral. If the result of reading the Bible is a lifting of the hearts and minds to God, one must regard the work itself as a moral work. So I cast aside the first part of Wilde's assertion as the excess of his time. The second part, however, is also true. You can have very, very fine immoral works--works of profound aesthetic beauty that are corrupt at core--and these are tremendously dangerous. Nothing leaps directly to mind with this regard because most of the very fine writing I know is at least a mixed bag of things and often would come out on the side of moral work. But I do acknowledge the possibility. And you can have dreadful moral works. Indeed, the vast majority of what is trotted out for us as exemplary "moral" fiction is so aesthetically awful as to call into question the nobility of morality. One classic example of this are the works of Samuel Richardson. Even given that the novel as such was hardly a genre, beginning just to assume a form, Pamela was deemed such a wretched excess of a work that Henry Fielding was moved to write his magnificent parody Shamela.

That said, one must also acknowledge that profoundly moral works can be quite beautiful. And this is part of the point of holding up standards. I have no beef with people who choose to read Left Behind and even to recommend it to others. I suppose the work can support one's faith, and I have heard tell that it has even convinced some to return to the Church. These are good works. However, I am impelled to point out that this is not the work I want to exemplify Christianity in fiction (for my purposes from now on, I will refer to this genre as Christian Fiction, not meaning the contemporary genre of fiction written by Christians for other Christians, but fiction written by a Christian, not necessarily with the purpose of evangelization, but with a profound sense of the Christian view of the world--works exemplified by the writings of Walker Percy, Flannery O'Connor, and Evelyn Waugh.) One of the reasons I do not wish for this to happen is that people get the notion that Christians are incapable of producing anything worthy of our attention.

To see what I mean, look at Religious Art, Architecture, and Music from roughly 1300 to the present day. One hardly sees a vestige of the grandeur of Chartres in most modern Architecture. Where are the Raphaels, the Botticellis, the Carravagios? Our standards have declined, due in large part to the onslaught of modernism, but also tainted by relativism in recent times. "One mans dreck is another man's art." This, ultimate relativist statement is one that should not be allowed to taint the vocabulary of ideas we carry with us. There is room for legitimate disagreement about what constitutes art. But there are also standards, which when not met, exclude a work from serious consideration. One would hardly wish to compare Left Behind (which, as bad as the writing is is hardly the worst of its type) to Dorothy Sayers, much less to Shakespeare. If Left Behind had the quality of Dorothy Sayers in any of its myriad points, I would argue that it was at least first rank popular fiction, if not literature.

Another difficulty that has made discernment of quality very difficult is the phenomenon of fandom--of flocking together for the protection on one variety of writing or another against a perceived hostility from the outside world. An exhibition of this phenomenon occurred when the "Best Catholic Novel/Novelist" award recently went to Bud McFarlane. I don't wish to detract from Mr. MacFarlane's very valuable ministry, but his fiction is such to make Left Behind look like Jane Austen. From wooden writing, plot, and character, all meant to be pedagogical and evangelical in some sense, to ponderous length, Mr. MacFarlane's work leaves one aching for the days when one could look forward to Endo's next work. To award such an title to Mr. MacFarlane is simply a matter of fandom and not a matter of truly evaluating great Catholic Writing. While I have yet to read any of David Lodge, I am informed that he is a very fine writer. Ron Hansen, Jon Hassler, Muriel Spark, and Torgny Lindgren all leap to mind for contenders, and far better contenders for a "Best Catholic Novelist" award. Their works are highly literate, tightly written, and stirring. Most of them would probably not make inroads into "popular fiction," and that perhaps is what we should consider the award given to Mr. MacFarlane.

At some time in the future, I will take the time to carefully spell out just what my objections are to this writing that I find less than exemplary. But for the time being, I stand by my contention that it is necessary and salutary to evaluate even "Catholic" works, whatever they may be, by the rule one would bring to any work of literature. We do not glorify God, nor do we produce any reasonable argument or persuasion to God's way by committing literary crimes. Speaking as one who was finally led back to the Truth by the powerful words and works of Gerard Manley Hopkins and C.S. Lewis, had I first encountered works of the caliber of Left Behind I would have fled the scene immediately. One, quite unfairly, tends to associate the quality of such works with their inspiration, and from that one could only produce a picture of a God of profound and irredeemable Mediocrity. Fortunately there is sufficient evidence elsewhere that this is not the case, and it is the cause of current Catholic and Christian writers to show that the God we worship is ever a God of Glory, Beauty, and Power who is, in fact, beautiful beyond the most beautiful image we can muster, and worthy of all praise, thought, and love. If we write about a God who is anything less, we deprive others of their rightful heritage. This is not to say that all such work should be condemned, because it certainly has its purpose and its audience, but it also should not be extolled. When we write of Christian Fiction and literature, we should demand of it what we would demand of any other work of literature, coherence, beauty, power, interest, and intelligence. We must not abdicate our standards to relativist proposals. We need to support writers who write about the Christian experience and demand of them their very finest work. We owe this to the present world in disarray and to posterity that will come to treasure such works, as we treasure works of the past.

This returns us to Merton's quote above, "A Catholic poet should be an apostle by being first of all a poet, not try to be a poet by being first of all an apostle. For if he presents himself to people as a poet, he is going to be judged as a poet and if he is not a good one his apostolate will be ridiculed."

The only legitimate way to argue for the Catholic life, is to live it to the full and to allow it to infiltrate every part of our being. Then the exercise of our writing--our poems, essays, and novels--will ring out with an authentic Catholicity as well as a profound aesthetic beauty that will be all the more convincing for its appeal. Live your faith and inevitably you must write it because it becomes an inseparable part of you.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on January 9, 2003 8:45 AM.

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