Christian Writers

It is a commonplace that very little of the literature written in Europe and America prior to the eighteenth century, and not all that much afterwards, is fully intelligible without a knowledge of the Bible and of Christian thought. Christian writers sometimes worked in the mode of allegory, where characters and situations represented the teachings of the faith (Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress or C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia are examples); but the use of literature for overtly didactic purposes only begins to exhaust the interrelationship between Christianity and imaginative literature.

The Bible itself owes its influence in part to its literary power. St. Jerome’s translation of it into Latin (the Vulgate) was read all over Western Christendom for more than a millennium. Luther’s translation into German is regarded as the founding text of German prose writing, and its vocabulary and rhythms can still be seen even in unlikely places, like the plays of Bertolt Brecht. Similarly, the committee which made the authorized (King James) version in English is credited with an almost miraculous achievement for a committee.

The Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost, the great epic works by Dante and Milton, are theological explorations as well as poetic masterpieces. They actually attained a position comparable to the books of the Bible themselves; many Christians have believed that the story of the revolt of Lucifer, as presented by Milton, is an inspired prequel to the story of creation and the Fall of Man as given in Genesis 1 and 2.

Christian themes were by no means limited to works of high culture. Medieval mystery plays, written and acted by members of guilds (companies of craftsmen) presented Bible stories to a popular audience with rudimentary scenery and some buffoonery as well as piety. They weren’t Shakespeare, but they led to Shakespeare. On the continent, there was a comparable tradition of dramatic presentations of biblical stories on the Feast of Corpus Christi Day, and the Jesuits have a long tradition of participation in the theater.

Finally, Christians, beginning with St. Augustine, created a genre which has become important in modern literature: the “Confession” or spiritual autobiography. Making a “declaration of faith” was essential for church membership in early America, and the habit of self-analysis and cultivation of memory can be seen later in the Bildungsroman or novel of spiritual development.

Traditionally literature has at least the functions to delight and to instruct. Christian writers have attempted to do the second without failing to do the first.