Ask your neighbors for an off-the-cuff reaction to the words "Christian literature" and you're likely to hear them stumble through a list of belittling adjectives. Despite the swelling ranks of able Christian writers, the reaction demonstrates that we—heirs to the tradition of Chaucer, Milton, and Donne; successors to Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Chekov; the literary descendants of G.K. Chesterton and Dorothy Sayers, and of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and of Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy—are now viewed as an inconsequential presence in the world of literature. We have, volitionally, banished ourselves to the "inspiration" section at the back of Barnes & Noble. And by doing so, we may have abandoned our neighbors and left literature in the hands of writers who'd leave them hopeless.

All the names just mentioned were, of course, great writers because of their Christian faith, not in spite of it. They appreciated the inherent goodness of God's creation; they knew the pervasive consequences of mankind's Fall; they relished the hope of Christ's resurrection, and anticipated the day of His cosmic-wide redemption. They combined talent with an irresistible urge to tell stories, and then—armed with this gripping a worldview—they made sense of a seemingly pointless world. Their books and poems provided eternal significance to the mundane; they held out hope while never flinching from the cold, hard truth of life in a sin-afflicted world. As a result, their works are appreciated today across the entire breadth of our literary culture.

Beowulf, for example, after 1,300 years, is still required reading on college campuses, and still deemed essential to the education of well-rounded students. Writer and teacher Donald Williams, in his essay "Christian Poetics, Past and Present," explains how the poet wrestled with the tension between his Christian faith and Teutonic heritage. He made this grand synthesis, Williams says, "in which the heroic ideal was enlisted in a cosmic war of good and evil." Williams also reminds us that Dante, in the Divine Comedy, "created concrete images that allegorically incarnated Christian doctrines..." And that Chaucer gave us a "humane and sympathetic portrait of God's plenty."

Transforming the Detective Story

Dorothy Sayers' work is more recent, and much more accessible. Between 1923 and 1935 Sayers wrote 11 Peter Wimsey detective stories. A savvy and gifted believer, Sayers elevated the genre. She took the lightly regarded "detective novel" and transformed it, employing who-done-it plots and a recurring cast of characters to illustrate the conflict between sin and Christian virtue, and to show readers how, at least from man's perspective, evil might be restrained but never ended.

Sayers wrote the most popular sort of fiction. Believers and non-believers anticipated each new installment, and her stories today, some 70 years after they were written, are still available at Barnes & Noble. And they still depict, as author Joyce Brown, puts it, "… the horror and irrevocability of evil and the power of virtue, which relentlessly battles against it."

Perceiving Life Through the Central Christian Mystery

Twenty years later Flannery O'Connor, with the wit she was known for, addressed the tension that confronts contemporary Christian writers. There was an assumption, O'Connor noted, that Christians should write for only one reason: "… to prove the truth of the Faith." When pressured to tame her "grotesque" characters and to sanitize her Southern, gothic fiction, O'Connor balked. She'd seen the sentimental drift in Christian writing; it was, she said, "… a distortion that overemphasized innocence." And innocence, when exaggerated in a fallen world, not only mocked the true state of man and society, but the price that was paid for their redemption.