As Christians, all of us likely have some message we are trying to actively communicate in our writing. And those of us who are not actively trying to communicate a message still can’t keep their worldview from slipping into their work. As Douglas Wilson writes in Wordsmithy, “The independence of art from worldview and worldview concerns is a myth. Every work of art is produced within a framework of worldview assumptions. […] It is not whether certain values will be propagated by art, but rather which values will be propagated.”
As Christian writers, hopefully our central concern is less on what values we should propagate, but more on how we should propagate them in our novels. We have all likely read that book where the author just preaches the morals through the characters rather than showing us them through their actions. We have all likely seen that story where the values are poorly presented in the book. We have all likely seen such examples of unsuccessful ways to communicate messages in a story. Most readers not already in agreement with the author will tend to reject such messages that are so blatantly preached through such works and will be turned off by it.
They reject it because the art was sacrificed for the message.
Stories Must be Artistic Before They’re Meaningful
Stories will most effectively communicate their message when they are first a beautiful form of art. By pursuing aesthetic perfection in our stories, we will be taking important steps toward more effectively communicating our message.
“Art forms add strength to the worldview which shows through, no matter what the worldview is or whether the worldview is true or false.” Francis Schaeffer, in his work, Art and the Bible correctly points out the power that forms of art hold in their ability to persuade. Like the old adage goes, “Give me control of the nation’s songs, and I care not who makes the laws.”
Even as songs, poems, and paintings are works of art, even so are stories likewise a form of art. As Annie Dillard wrote in Living by Fiction, “Aesthetic perfection in a work of fiction carries with it a certain felt tension of tone which not only awes the reader, so that he judges the work to be absolutely excellent, but also inspires him to consider it more deeply.”
As a form of art, although the message of the novel remains important, a story is first and foremost a work of art. In other words—it’s supposed to be a good story. And simply being a good story can be enough.
In an answer to the question of how a person can read literature to the glory of God, Leland Ryken in The Christian Imagination replies that it is, “By enjoying the beauty that human creativity has produced and recognizing God as the ultimate source of this beauty and creativity.” As a form of art then, stories must pursue a type of perfection in the grammar of the writing itself, in the depth of the characters, and in the intricacy of the plot.
When this has been done, a well-crafted story will more powerfully bring out the message contained in the story. The better the art, the more powerful the message becomes. As Schaeffer writes, “The effect of any proposition, whether true or false, can be heightened if it is expressed in poetry or in artistic prose rather than in bald, formulaic statement.”
How Does Art Communicate A Message?
In his blog post “How Stories do their Work on Us,” Jonathan Rogers writes, “Being mere mortals, we can’t really understand any of those things if they aren’t grounded in what we can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. You can talk about grace until you’re blue in the face, but you aren’t going to come up with a definition that improves on the parable of the Prodigal Son: a father, arms outstretched, welcoming a rebellious and wicked son back into his home.”
In order to communicate their message, stories do not need to be explicitly Christian. Although Christ’s parables bore powerful Christian messages in them, many did not have explicitly Christian characters in them. In Esther, we even see an entire book of the Bible that doesn’t mention God. And although Esther details real events which actually happened, it also forms an excellent story, told by the greatest story-teller of all: God Himself.
Even though Esther is not explicitly Christian, it remains still a very Christian book and still presents many truths for us to grasp. Art in stories therefore communicates the message by giving us examples of people who either hold to or reject the truth, and then goes on to show us the end of such course of action. We learn by example.
How to Craft Artistic Stories
So what does it mean then, to refine the perfection of the form of art which is your story? What makes a good story? There is no easy answer because there is no single right answer. Like the multiplicity of well-done paintings and the different forms they can take, stories can go many different, yet legitimate, ways. As Christian writers, we ought to be assured that, to some extent, the message of our story will take care of itself, since we cannot keep our worldview from infiltrating our story.
But although no easy answers can be given for what makes a good story, advice can still be given and received, like it is in any other form of art. Read recent articles by Kingdom Pen about how to make your character their own person or how to learn from your poor writing in order to get some of this advice. Through these articles, when we first understand that stories are another form of art, we can work to refine our understanding of and our skill in the craft of story-telling. And through that, we can pursue greater aesthetic perfection in our stories.
So where does the rubber meet the road and the theoretical meet the practical in this article? Compare The Lord of the Rings to your average modern Christian fantasy work today and you may be able to see the difference. Although modern Christian writers mean well, many focus more on the message of their novels than on the art form of it, and thus sacrifice the beauty of their story to the message being told.
While the message of our story is important, it is most effective when the story is first pursued as an art form. Don’t sacrifice the quality of your story for preaching your message. Relax, and let the message slip into your story. While there is nothing wrong with explicitly Christian stories, don’t be afraid to write an implicitly Christian novel. We can rest assured that we can still communicate specifically-Christian morals while writing in a less-explicit framework.
When we pursue our stories as a form of art, we will more effectively communicate our message. And as the beauty of the trees, waves, mountains, and stars all proclaim the glory of God, so our stories will express the truths and beauty that ultimately find themselves in the glory of the risen Messiah.