While flying across the Atlantic, three Protestant editors recently shared their convictions on the current role of the religious press. The informal remarks of Dr. Kenneth L. Wilson, executive editor of Christian Herald; Dr. Sherwood E. Wirt, editor of Decision; and Editor Carl F. H. Henry ofCHRISTIANITY TODAYare reproduced below.
DR. HENRY: No age has been as preoccupied as ours with the importance of communication. We are aware of the great potential of words and ideas for human good or ill. What special responsibility in the closing decades of this century does this fact impose on the evangelical press as a vehicle for God’s Good News?
DR. WILSON: In many different respects the Church and the voices of the Church have been prodded and stimulated by advances elsewhere. We cannot afford to let ourselves be outread, outpublished while there is a mood for reading, and while that mood is being not only catered to but exploited by others who have ideas to sell.
DR. WIRT: I believe our special responsibility is to Truth. This is the golden age of lies. Men use words not as tools for reasoning but as weapons for throwing. The adjective no longer describes; it either fawns or vilifies. Justice Holmes and Joseph Stalin died assuring us truth was whatever men made it. More than at any time since the Canon was closed, evangelical writers need to be men who proclaim and defend the truth; who “paint the truth as they see it for the God of things as they are.”
DR. WILSON: But the truth must be presented with technical skill and, if I may use the word, imagination. Message is bedrock, of course. But communication requires a reader as well as a writer. I think that too often the evangelical press has, in its rightful zeal, neglected reader cultivation.
DR. HENRY: The fact that God’s Spirit is the divine Communicator of truths and life really heightens the necessity for our effective and artful relay of his message in the modern war of ideas. What does this imply for evangelical publishing—of books, magazines, Sunday school literature?
DR. WIRT: I read the Bible every day. Right now I’m in Joshua, Psalms, Ezekiel, and Matthew. I do not find these books dull; the styling is artful, the imagery superb. Then I read what someone says about the Bible and it is as dull as dishwater. Perhaps we should farm out our writers for special training in the use of vital language. Let them study Job one day, Alan Paton the next day, Dickens the next, Graham Greene the next.
DR. WILSON: Let’s take books. There is a tremendous revival in book reading and book buying. The New English Bible was on the best-seller lists. Through Gates of Splendor must have come close. Better or best-sellers are produced by a combination of circumstances, but one essential is that a book tap an interest sensed by a writer. Through Gates of Splendor, for example, caught up the missionary heroism which many people supposed had gone out decades ago. Sensing spiritual hungers and meeting them is our job.
DR. HENRY: Isn’t there somewhat of an awakening interest in serious evangelical theological writing? Fifteen years ago a work like Wilbur M. Smith’s Therefore Stand!, selling 50,000 copies, was a monumental exception. Now a symposium like Revelation and the Bible is in almost that many homes, and is appearing in British and German editions. The whole of Berkouwer’s Studies in Dogmatics is being translated from Dutch to English in 20 volumes. Some major New York houses are almost as open to first-rate conservative works as are evangelical publishing houses. The annual lists of choice evangelical books register noticeable gains in quality.
DR. WIRT: I think you are too sanguine. Through Gates of Splendor and Shadow of the Almighty were not just missionary hero rewrites; they were skillfully told, true, contemporary stories, loaded with talent. They were monumental exceptions, if you please, to the potboilers that fill the Sunday school papers. I agree the publishing houses are receptive. But the material we are offering them is pitiful. A man wrote me the other day, “God has given me a mighty pen!” I only wish he had! Even church publications now are slashing their fiction sections because the supply is so poor. There has not been an evangelical novel worthy of the name in decades.
DR. WILSON: Why not? Contemporary talent is not developed by the reprinting of Pilgrim’s Progress. Talent seldom appears full-blown. It must be nurtured, cultivated by publishers and by the Christian colleges. I think our schools have downgraded anything that might be construed as “popular,” that is to say, readable, in an attempt to promote what is “literary,” that is to say, opaque. The great books have been first of all readable. Where are future great books coming from?
DR. HENRY: Are not the publishers somewhat lax? The era of evangelical reprints seems largely to have outlived its usefulness. The time is now overdue for creative contemporary literature. Our cause would be set ahead by a major strategy meeting of evangelical publishers. A measure of comity need not stifle competition, but would eliminate some unnecessary duplication and chart special areas of interest and responsibility without jeopardizing trade secrets. The general paperback market has not as yet been effectively penetrated, and cooperative planning would be helpful. No systematic approach has been made to the textbook field. Too many publishers remain at the mercy of hit-and-miss inquiries and have not projected a comprehensive publications program. I would not of course minimize the indebtedness of the evangelical cause to our publishing houses, nor deny that some have made sacrificial investments in worthy works.
DR. WILSON: I would wish for a definition of “evangelical literature” broad enough to take in more than commentaries, theological treatises, and the like. Evangelicals have been lax at the point of social awareness and here is a ripe field for writing, especially fiction. Must we—and must publishers—be timid in our evangelicalism?
DR. HENRY: Why haven’t great novels come from evangelical sources in our era? Is it simply that the reading public demands smut? Or is it also that the evangelical remnant is so withdrawn from the mind-set of the day it artificially handles modern life, proposes solutions too hurriedly and therefore does not “speak” to our times?
DR. WILSON: Perhaps we have been too habitually concerned with the “moral” of the story. The story was simply the excuse for what we thought was really important. Then, to make sure everyone recognized the moral when they saw it, characters became caricatures. Not until we are willing to let our novels stand or fall on their own qualities as “story” will we have great novels.
DR. WIRT: This hurts. I am now writing a “Christian” novel and my aim is frankly to describe—principally through dialogue—a conversion. Call it a glorified tract if you will—it is as artistic as I can make it. What should I do—invert the plot to make it “realistic”?
DR. WILSON: Not at all! My point is simply that calling a book a “Christian novel” does not necessarily make it either. I am sure that Dr. Wirt’s will be both. One gets the impression that writers think Christian literature is either (1) a story about a “religious” subject—that is, a clergyman, a church, the chairman of the ladies aid, or (2) a story with a sermon or moral tacked on at the end after a suitable amount of window dressing of plot and interest. In a “Christian novel,” Christianity must be of the essence. Whether the characters are bad or good, wise or stupid, arrogant or gentle, the story must be of itself, by itself, the “message.”
DR. WIRT: The real problem is that in order to appear to be aware of the “changing social situation,” the Christian writer is being pressured to mix filth into his work. It is, in fact, almost mandatory today for a responsible work of art to include some lurid realism if it is to be considered seriously. Thus Alan Paton’s latest volume crosses the line into four-letter words.
DR. WILSON: It seems to me we could hope for at least three possibilities: (1) that we can develop writers so competent that no crutches are “mandatory”; (2) that evangelical readers can find moral strength even in the writings of nonevangelicals and possibly even the nonreligious; and (3) that Christian writers (and the Church itself) cultivate a boldness of faith that gives leadership in the changing social order and does not forever wage Johnny-come-lately, Johnny-come-safely crusades.
DR. WIRT: No doubt all these possibilities exist, but I doubt they will ever be fulfilled until we deliberately cultivate the gifts and talents of younger Christian writers by prizes, awards, scholarships, and fellowships, as well as courses, seminars, and summer workshops. It is one thing to dream about a garden, another to plant and cultivate it.
DR. HENRY: Let’s use a bit of historical imagination. What a remarkable treasure the first apostles would have discovered in the many resources already at our disposal: publishing houses, magazines, Church school literature, and so on. Would they not also have viewed the secular traffic in words—the world’s reading—as an opportune medium of witness. For evangelicals, the word business offers a channel for the ministry of the Word—and we who know the Word ought to be most proficient of all in marshalling words in the service of the true, the good, and the beautiful.
The Road Ahead: 1962
1961 IN RETROSPECT—Well, 1961 was different, anyway. It was the year of The Wall, and The Twist, and The Shelter, and the electric toothbrush.… There were new styles in almost everything: girls, politics, art, houses and hair dos.… Some little country was always telling some big country to go climb a tree. Cuba defied the United States, Albania defied the Soviet Union, Algeria defied France, Formosa threatened to invade China, and Katanga thumbed its nose at the whole United Nations.—JAMES RESTON, Washington correspondent, in The New York Times.
THE TWIST—It’s extraordinary how a thing like that can sweep the world. But rather that than the atom bomb.—HAROLD FIELDING, the theatrical impresario, quoted in the Sunday Telegraph, London.
THE WORLD’S LEGACY—The legacy bequeathed by 1961 still leaves us with problems and challenges, hopes and fears that have been with us … ever since the end of the Second World War.… It consists of an ever-accelerating armaments race; torment and political catastrophe in the Congo; the threat of a Communist take-over in … Laos and south Viet Nam; the weakened condition of the United Nations and the danger that the General Assembly may become a kind of Tower of Babel.… Here is a picture of a world that could suddenly be plunged, either by miscalculation or deliberate intent, into an almost unimaginably destructive atomic-hydrogen war—a war in which there could hardly be any victors, excepting possibly the ants, or the worms, or some other form of insect life.—Editorial, “Text for 1962,” in The Evening Star, Washington, D. C.
LUTHER’S APPLE TREE—Bold would be the prophet, in the midst of the world’s many crises, who would dare to say that 1962 will be a Happy New Year. It takes no grim catalog of catastrophe to make it plain that mankind travels alongside a fearful abyss.… For the leaders of the world, the burden of this danger must be ever present. For millions of others it is less oppressive only for the reason that they can do little about it. The healthiest philosophy they can have is that of Martin Luther who said that though he knew the world were to end tomorrow he would plant his apple tree today. It is a proper attitude to take into a year in which the world as man has known it for centuries indeed may end tomorrow.—Editorial, Washington Post.
ONE STEP TO DOOMSDAY—If one note can be said to have pervaded a meeting as varied as that of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, that note was fear bordering on despair. The optimists among the thousands of scientists here seemed to believe there is one more chance of avoiding doomsday. The pessimists think that chance is already past.—WILLIAM HINES, Staff Writer, Washington Evening Star, reporting on the Denver meeting of A.A.A.S.
DELUSION AND DECLINE—There is one whole set of delusions that has bedevilled American thinking for years.… Unless we can shake it right off, you, and your children, and the whole Western world are in for disappointments and shocks that no great society has ever known.…
Delusion 1 (held by British engineers): British engineers are the best in the world.
Delusion 2 (held by American engineers): American engineers are the best in the world.
Delusion 3 (held by some American non-scientists): The Soviet space flight did not take place.
Delusion 4 (held by non-scientists in the United States and Britain in 1945): The Communist world would be many years in catching up with the atomic-bomb discovery.
Delusion 5 (held by many Britons until the time of the Suez crisis): The sun will never set on the British Empire—Britain is invulnerable; its wealth, power and glory will never fade.
Delusion 6 (held by many who ought to know better): The coloured races are inferior in all ways to the white.
Delusion 7 (held until 1957 by most Americans and many Europeans): The U.S. is invulnerable.
I believe that Britain in the nineteenth century and the U.S. in the twentieth have let technology go to our heads. One after the other, we have become stupefied by a kind of technological conceit. In our case, it made us sleepy, self-indulgent, self-congratulatory for nearly a century—so much so that we have declined faster than we needed to.
So will the U.S. decline, unless you learn from our delusions. You can see where we went wrong—how we congratulated ourselves instead of discovering why, for a short space, we were on top of the world. If we had found the real reasons for our being there, we might have stayed there longer. It would have meant education, discipline, self-criticism. If the United States wants to stay there, it will mean the same for you.—C. P. SNOW, “The Great Delusions,” The Sunday Times magazine section, London.
FOR THE LONG PULL—If the American people refuse to be deceived, they will find plenty of grounds not, indeed, for the old happy confidence, but for a sober belief that, in the long run, the better cause will win. And I have found few if any Americans who doubt that theirs is the better cause. If that doubt creeps in, then the question of national morale will be really serious!—D. W. BROGAN, British historian, in The New York Times Magazine.
TO BE COUNTED—“Better Brave Than Slave!” This is Freedom’s true answer to all those who have been chanting “BETTER RED THAN DEAD”—or vice versa. These words … give us the courage, the manly gift, to stand up and be counted on the side of right, as God gives us to see the right.—WLLIAM I. NICHOLS, editor and publisher of This Week.
CHRIST’S MANDATE—Now is the Armageddon between faith in a Supreme Being and materialistic agnosticism.… Those of us of the Christian faiths will renew our courage and determination that moral victory can yet come to mankind.… The hunger for peace lies deep in the human heart, and we can hope and pray that the mandate of Christ will not be denied to mankind by the forces of evil.—Former President HERBERT HOOVER.
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