The Pagans Who Will Save Christian Publishing

I was reminded recently of one of my favorite anecdotes from Russell Moore. It’s about the day that Dr. Carl F.H. Henry told him that the next great Christian leaders were probably pagans right now:

Several of us were lamenting the miserable shape of the church, about so much doctrinal vacuity, vapid preaching, non-existent discipleship. We asked Dr. Henry if he saw any hope in the coming generation of evangelicals.

And I will never forget his reply.

“Why, you speak as though Christianity were genetic,” he said. “Of course, there is hope for the next generation of evangelicals. But the leaders of the next generation might not be coming from the current evangelical establishment. They are probably still pagans.”

“Who knew that Saul of Tarsus was to be the great apostle to the Gentiles?” he asked us. “Who knew that God would raise up a C.S. Lewis, a Charles Colson? They were unbelievers who, once saved by the grace of God, were mighty warriors for the faith.”

The next Jonathan Edwards might be the man driving in front of you with the Darwin Fish bumper decal. The next Charles Wesley might be a misogynist, profanity-spewing hip-hop artist right now. The next Billy Graham might be passed out drunk in a fraternity house right now. The next Charles Spurgeon might be making posters for a Gay Pride March right now. The next Mother Teresa might be managing an abortion clinic right now.

Thinking about this encouraging story, I realized that this could easily be applied to the world of Christian publishing. Not long ago I wrote about the current shape of things in the world of Christian books. My diagnosis was grim, but I held out hope for better things in the decades to come, especially if evangelicals consciously cultivate a better and more robust theology of the arts. As I’ve thought about Christian publishing since writing that post, I think I understand part of what will happen in the renewal of Christian writing:

It will happen primarily becuase of people who aren’t even Christians right now.

I really believe this. I believe that a theologically sturdy, artistically compelling, and genuinely meaningful new Christian imagination will be shaped most significantly by those who come to the faith from the outside. The important Christian novelists and poets and essayists of a post-Benedict Option church will be men and women who spent years in opposition to it. Perhaps the next Graham Greene is organizing campus protests of conservatives right now. Maybe the heir to Marilynne Robinson is, this moment, #StandingWithPlannedParenthood.

Why do I think this? Three reasons.

First, evangelicalism as a gospel-heralding, embodied church reality is much stronger than evangelicalism as an insular, Christ-against-culture ideology. The fact is that one of the reasons Christian writing is the condition that it’s in right now is that the specter of a poorly-read, culturally timid fundamentalism still haunts much of the evangelical imagination. As I’ve said before, there are too many Christians who believe “family-friendly” means Christian and order their aesthetic intake accordingly. I’m becoming convinced that the next generation of great Christian writers is going to have to be one that is far more well-versed in great art than most of Christian subculture.

Second, I think the future of truly great Christian writing will not necessarily be marketed as such. The niche markets of “faith-based” books, music, and movies is one that by its nature resists truly great art. If your goal is to target a demographic with content that is easy to sell, why would you care if your content reads more like a boilerplate Hallmark movie novelization than like “The Remains of the Day”?

It’s important to note that we’ve already seen this dynamic do utter destruction to the Christian music industry. The pretenses of music and literature designed by marketers rather than artists cannot survive the collapse of retail giants like Family Christian Stores. It’s not going to matter who sells what anymore. What’s going to matter is what’s on the page. We are going to find echoes of Eden where we don’t necessarily expect to find them.

Finally, the next generation of great writers will be writers who have passed from death to life and know it. There’s just something about people who have been converted to Christ from outright unbelief. Those who have been forgiven much, love much. The voices most able to communicate creation, fall, and redemption will not be those for whom Christ is an identity politic. It will be those who love Jesus because he first loved them. I’m reminded of how C.S. Lewis noticed how rare it is to hear of someone’s being converted from atheism to “demythologized,” liberal Christianity: “I think that when unbelievers come in at all, they come in a good deal further.”

The future of Christian writing is bright, even if right now it may be shrouded in darkness. That should come as no surprise to those of us who know how the Light works.