You Raise Me Up: The Religious Artist and Secular Art

“When I said that the devil was a better writer than Mlle. Sagan, I meant to indicate that the devil’s moral sense coincides at all points with his dramatic sense.”
~Flannery O'Connor

A religious writer, any writer really, can’t write with discordant senses. A moral sense that is non-existent, or that sticks out of the text to beat the reader over the head is jarring, as is a moral that builds a sense of wonder in a cynical tale.

I haven't got much to say about Satan, but whatever be the merits of the slandered Mademoiselle, O'Connor has a point with her claim that moral sense and dramatic sense must coincide in order to make good art. Masha has a point in reiterating it. It's an interesting challenge in modern American culture, where whatever we believe, we're taught to evangelize it as hard as we can—and if the old tactics of knocking on doors and annoying random strangers in public places are out, mockery and exclusion and trolling on social media are in. Not to mention writing books that allow us to expound upon the particular theme that motivates us, sometimes on purpose to spread it among the unsuspecting masses.

I don't, however, think that a disconnect between the moral and dramatic senses is specifically a religious problem—I've seen too much of it from people with political agendas. Also, as I once pointed out,
"almost all of my favorite authors are religious. Mormons Card and Hale are joined by the Catholic G.K. Chesterton and J.R.R. Tolkien, the Anglicans C.S. Lewis, Jane Austen and Robert Jordan, and the Scottish Episcopalian J.K. Rowling."
Add to that the Presbyterian L.M. Montgomery and the Christian preacher and mystic George MacDonald. If I have a favorite author who isn't or wasn't religious, I don't recall it, although sometimes they're on the odd side—Louisa May Alcott, for instance, was a Transcendentalist. There are several reasons behind the overwhelming presence of religious authors among my favorites: most people are religious, most Western art for many centuries was sacred in theme if not purpose, and I gravitate toward art with strong themes of hope. I'll even put up with some preachiness if the content isn't too thin.

This blogalectic has already covered the problem of agenda-driven fiction, however, and while the alignment of the moral and dramatic senses is surely a better answer than anything I came up with, it's less new to the conversation than this:
“The Catholic fiction writer has very little high-powered "Catholic" fiction to influence him…But at some point reading them reaches the place of diminishing returns and you get more benefit reading someone like Hemingway, where there is apparently a hunger for Catholic completeness in life, or Joyce who can’t get rid of it no matter what he does. It may be a matter of recognizing the Holy Ghost in fiction by the way he chooses to conceal himself.”
~Flannery O'Connor
This comment, made in a letter to Father J.H. McCown, names the "high-powered 'Catholic' fiction" as works by Bloy, Bernanos, Mauriac, and Greene. Of the four, I'm familiar only with Greene, whose fiction I'm nearly as fearful of picking up as O'Connor's. Life is short, and early encounters with Steinbeck soured me on the idea of dumping hours and emotions into the reading of more tragedy than necessary.

For that matter, I've yet to read Joyce. Many years ago I read one Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and actually enjoyed it overall, though I wound up skimming a lot of Pilar's terrible stories and lifting my innocent young homeschooled eyebrows at all the sex and vulgarity. What O'Connor means by the sort of reverse effect she describes, I cannot quite say, but part of me understands it—though perhaps I've learned it less from Hemingway and more from, say, H.P. Lovecraft.

Of course, of the authors I listed as favorites, only two are Catholic. And while devout Anglicans like Lewis and Austen are close enough to be nearly indistinguishable, there's a fair bit of difference between the Catholic theology and worldview and the Mormon one—or the Transcendentalist. Similarities, certainly, but differences enough to help broaden the reader's understanding.

It's a truism not often contested that an artist cannot make good art unless he's willing to study the best works, regardless of whether he agrees with the philosophies thereof. Less often explained is how an artist reared in a world where every true-seeming thought is an object to be sold to everyone else—by bumper sticker, if nothing else will do—is supposed to align his ideals with his storytelling savvy. Too many people write with moral fervor the stories that seem to argue their perspective, flattening dissenters into villainy. I doubt very much this is what O'Connor meant by the union of moral and dramatic senses.

In pursuit of that union, perhaps nothing—with the possible exception of empathy—is more important than the artist's having both moral and dramatic senses shaped wisely by the great forces. Independent thought is not enough, and is something of a myth, anyway. If you get your morals from pop culture, your art will suffer. If you get them from some random little sect or cult, likewise. If you get your sense of drama from bad novels or movies, the best you'll likely ever be able to write are bad novels and movies.

The greatest enemies to my own moral and dramatic senses are, respectively, a) certain instincts picked up from extreme homeschoolers and legalistic churches (though I credit lifelong immersion in Christianity as a strength overall) and b) having read so many badly written novels as a teenager.

Supposedly, knowing one's enemy is the first step in conquering. I put some hope in that. It's hard to say whether I'll ever write better than the devil or Mademoiselle Sagan, but hopefully I'll do all right if I keep learning from those who have me bested by far.


  1. I'm wildly shocked to hear that Jordan was Anglican. His ideology seems decidedly...zen, pantheistic.

    George MacDonald was mystic but he was also a Minister in the Congregational church, with a calvinist background he rebelled against. :-)

    1. Jordan was an Anglican, but he was also a Freemason and his books are based more on the latter system of thought. :)

      OK, I definitely should have said "Christian mystic" or something like that for George MacDonald. I just couldn't remember which denomination he was part of, and didn't bother Googling. :P Shame on me. I'll fix it.

  2. Thank you, you've given me quite a bit to think about.

    I do understand what Ms. O'Connor is saying, but how to apply that to my own writing? I know I ache to use the talents God gave me in order to give him glory, but I don't want to be moralistic. That does him a terrible injustice.

    So is honesty best? If I write from my own experiences as a sheltered, lifelong Catholic, that makes my scope rather limited.

    Perhaps writing with a combination of empathy and sincerity?

    By the way, do yo have a relative named Katie? You are only the second person I've encountered with such a distinguished surname. The other wrote an excellent book review in the Saint Austin Review.

    1. I have at least two relatives named Katie, and suspect the one you mention is my husband's cousin. :)

      Ah, that "how to apply" is what we'd all like to know, isn't it?

      If I write from my own experiences as a sheltered, lifelong Catholic, that makes my scope rather limited.

      Yes, and I'm not a big fan of the truism "Write what you know." I've heard "Write what you love" and prefer that; we learn about what we care about.

      You're on the right path with empathy and sincerity, I think--they're two of a writer's best tools, if not his very best. Beyond that, what about looking directly to the greats, the ones whose work inspires you? There's a huge difference even between Lewis and Tolkien in the level at which religion plays in their respective works, but I can always ask "What would ____ do with this scene, with this character?" and consider whether it fits what you're trying for... I'm preaching at myself here; these are things I've yet to learn to do well.

      P.S. Your blog is beautiful.

    2. Thank you for saying so!

      I think Regina Doman does a good job of depicting the world of drug addiction and crime in her fairy tale series, for example. And though I don't think she has any experience with that personally, as human beings, we all encounter sin and (regrettably) know enough of its nature to _imagine_.

      I think that's where empathy helps as well. I may not have ever dabbled with drugs or know what it's like to, but I can put myself in the place of the antagonist who has, and am under no delusions that I am in any way a better person because of my avoidance of that particular sin.

      To be sincere about our own shortcomings and to try to empathize with the antagonist/sinner/what have you (i.e., "There but for the grace of God go I")--perhaps that's a start.

      Looking to the literary giants is something I do without even think, do we risk sounding artificial? Finding your own voice, and all that.

    3. Great points! I do think empathy, drawing from our related experiences, and sincerity about our own shortcomings are important when it comes to writing fiction. Very much so, especially in enabling us to understand the motivations of our characters. E.g., I'm not an extrovert--how could I ever write one if it weren't for empathy and sincerity? Writing a different kind of sin from the ones I'm used to works along the same lines.

      Also, I hadn't thought about risking artificiality in looking to the giants, but you're right. I guess I was thinking less about voice and style and more about studying the ways they included religion in their works. And I mean they, plural--the way I phrased it sounded like an encouragement to fixate on one, which I didn't mean. While I might become artificial if I studied and emulated only Lewis, I can find my own voice by studying Lewis, Austen, Tolkien, Jordan, Rowling, Doman if you will (I've yet to read her, but intend to eventually), and letting their combined influence guide me. Hopefully that makes sense...

    4. Yep, it does. Good advice, thank you!

  3. Christie ~ I think you can write from your own experiences - limited as they may be - and also write with a wide scope, so long as you respect those experiences for what they are. Your experiences and your reactions to them are human experiences, and because of that, they're universal. You're role is to call forth the riches of your daily life, to mine them for the beauty in them and offer that to the world. At least, that's how I see it.
    I agree with Jenna, that you should write what you love, but I also believe that you can't love what you don't know (at least in some sense of knowing)..Anyway, just my thoughts.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts. I think I know what you mean about human experiences being universal. And yes, it's hard to really love something without _knowing_ it (otherwise, you're just loving what you _think_ it is, right?).

      Wow, so much to think about!

    2. Masha, I think that's an important point--that human experiences are in some way universal. Also, I think you're right that loving and knowledge go hand in hand, as it were.

  4. Thanks..I was thinking about Rilke's advice "if you think your daily life is poor, don't blame it, blame yourself for not being poet enough to call forth it's riches.." but that is a bit harsh sounding, so I just tried to bring out the richness of daily life, the shared aspect of it, no matter how simple..the whole thing really worth looking into, not as a condemnation "you aren't good enough" but as encouragement "how can you draw out the beauty in this?" Because no matter how devoted we are to the ideal, none of us can escape the daily things..and we shouldn't.. Can you tell I've got a lot of time online today? :)

    1. I think that's good advice from Rilke and you. c:

    2. I do agree that there is beauty and profundity in the everyday, and that it is a poverty not to be able to appreciate it.


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