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Spring 2022 · Vol. 51 No. 1 · pp. 68–81 

The Artist as Witness to and Critic of Society

Rudy Wiebe

Introduction to Rudy Wiebe’s
“The Artist as Witness to and Critic of Society”

Vic Froese

Canadian writer, Rudy Wiebe was born in 1934 in the small town of Speedwell, Saskatchewan. His parents taught him Low German and took him to the Speedwell Mennonite Brethren Church. 1 Thirty years later he presented “The Artist as Witness to and Critic of Society” as an address at Pacific College in Fresno, California. He was at that time a professor of English at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana. He would return to Canada and eventually be honored with two Governor General’s Awards for Fiction (1973 and 1994) and made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2000. His first novel is said to have foreshadowed a wave of Mennonite literature in the following decades.

Before making a name for himself as an author, Wiebe was in Winnipeg, Manitoba, gainfully employed as chief editor of the Mennonite Brethren Herald, the official English-language periodical of the Canadian Mennonite Brethren (MB) Church. The magazine was launched under Wiebe’s editorial leadership in 1962, but he was encouraged to resign a year later due to the controversy generated by the publication of Peace Shall Destroy Many. A number of Herald readers had already registered discomfort with Wiebe’s critical editorial style before the novel’s publication. The release of the novel, which portrayed Mennonites as hypocritical and subject to all the foibles that afflicted non-Mennonites, was apparently just one straw too many. 2

“The Artist as Witness,” published unabridged in the new Journal of Church and Society, 3 can be read as Wiebe’s earliest apologia for that novel. Wiebe’s frustrated response to the uproar was in part, “Why should we Christians go about criticizing only the world; it does not pretend to be perfect. We claim to be following a perfect Lord; surely {69} we should be evaluating ourselves, not others.” He went on to explain, “The artist must have the guts to look at everything that man can do, in his best moments as well as in his worst. He cannot allow himself to be stared down by life.” Decades later Wiebe would be less convinced that life should not sometimes win the staring contest, though he affirmed most everything else he wrote in the piece. 4

We reprint Wiebe’s article because it puts on display the fiery passion of a thirty-year-old Rudy Wiebe, firm in his convictions and certain that spiritual and moral growth requires confronting the truth, no matter how ugly. The article will give readers insight into how he understood what the task of a Christian novelist was: not preaching in story form or teaching systematic theology but artistically portraying humanity’s need for God’s redeeming grace and the surprising channels through which it can come.


  1. Details about Wiebe’s life are scattered across multiple publications. A few of these are Wiebe’s “Tombstone Community,” Mennonite Life, October 1964, 150-53 and his Of This Earth: A Mennonite Boyhood in the Boreal Forest (Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2006). See also Hugh Cook and Rudy Wiebe, “A Conversation with Rudy Wiebe,” Image Journal, accessed August 19, 2022,; and “Rudy Wiebe,” Penguin Random House Canada, accessed August 19, 2022,
  2. For further details about the controversy and Wiebe’s response, see Paul Tiessen, “Re-Framing the Reaction to Peace Shall Destroy Many: Rudy Wiebe, Delbert Wiens, and the Mennonite Brethren,” The Mennonite Quarterly Review 90, no. 1 (January 2016): 73–102.
  3. Rudy Wiebe, “The Artist as Witness to and Critic of Society,” The Journal of Church and Society 1, no. 2 (Fall 1965): 45–57. An abridged version of the lecture was published in the March 1965 issue of Christian Living.
  4. Rudy Wiebe, “Living on the Iceberg: ‘The Artist as Critic and Witness’ 36 Years Later,” The Conrad Grebel Review 18, no. 2 (2000): 85–92.

The Artist as Witness to and Critic of Society*

Rudy Wiebe

When I first seriously considered what could best be said in forty-five minutes on the topic, “The Artist as Witness to and Critic of Society,” I found myself in a dilemma. If the artist is worth talking about in contradistinction to, let us say, the bricklayer, the farmer, the theologian, the housewife, it is because of what he has made: the work of art. Without it the artist is, ipso facto, nonexistent, for the essence of art is the shaping of something aesthetic—an imaginative creation. The title, however, gives an exclusive emphasis to the artist. We all know that, as rarely as we encounter works of art in real life, we even more rarely meet an artist! In any case, artists as people are usually no more interesting than a well-informed doctor or office worker or, if we would admit the worst, college professor. That artists as persons are extraordinary enough to be gawked at like zoo or Capitol Hill inhabitants is the not-so-harmless fiction of publicity seekers who have nothing more to recommend them than the Beatles: they know that there are people around who will gladly spend money to see someone who acts more ridiculous than anyone else has the nerve to act. Genuine artists, however, are often the most self-effacing of people. They are quite properly jealous of their time and privacy.

The title places the emphasis on the artist, but a moment’s consideration will remind us that the work of art, not the artist, is of prime importance. It is the Pietà not Michelangelo, the St. Matthew Passion not Bach, Paradise Lost not Milton, Oedipus Rex not Sophocles {71} that affect us still though their creators are all long dead. If you have reservations about this point and insist that the personality of the artist does have significance, I will agree, but only to the extent to which that artist’s personality is relevant to the particular work—not to the artist’s personality in general. An example will clarify: We have as conclusive evidence as it is possible to collect under the circumstances that Goethe was adulterer a dozen times over. This aspect of his character has, however, no bearing whatever on his artistic creation Faust because his immoral acts or even attitudes could never be discovered from the play. If the truth be said, one must conclude that Goethe was a very moral man indeed: he delivers Margaret’s seducer to the devil! St. Paul himself could have done no more.

The irrelevance of knowing anything whatever about the artist in evaluating the significance of a work of art is proven irrefutably by works like the Iliad, the Book of Job, Beowulf, and many other masterpieces which will live as long as man exists regardless of the fact that we have no idea who created them. Our very ignorance in this area has probably made them clearer as works of art because there is now no possibility that anyone can muddy them with pseudo-Freudian explanations of their author’s childhood experiences. Such explanations may have some value if we are discussing the process by which the artist made his work, but they have no bearing on the work itself. This is so, for a most significant reason.

Though the ideas and themes and pictures of the work of art arise out of the actions, thoughts, emotions, subconscious of the artist, as these ideas and pictures are shaped and molded in the pattern that is art, they acquire a life and character of their own, independent of and quite beyond the artist himself. Art is never static: it is alive; it gets through to you, sometimes by a pluck at your sleeve, sometimes by a blow over the head. Consequently, when the reader or listener or viewer encounters a work of art, it is no longer the odd, sometimes warped and seamy personality of the person who has shaped that work which confronts you, but the work of art itself, a separate entity, a force of personality which has never existed before that speaks to you where you, as an individual, sit. Small aspects the artist included in a most offhand way may affect you powerfully while what he thought were his major triumphs leave you relatively cold. That explains partly why two careful readers can argue about a poem for hours, hold quite opposing views, and both be essentially correct. As they are different personalities so the poem speaks to each on different levels and presents a different character to each. {72}

As individual interpretation of a person’s character may vary, so may individual interpretation of a piece of art vary; though we often seem to expect it, there is probably no such thing as one absolutely correct meaning to a work of art. A work of art is; it is simply too complex to paraphrase and explain fully, satisfactorily. Its meaning depends upon the interaction between the work and the beholder. This interaction may be very alive or almost nil, depending on such widely varying factors as the beholder’s knowledge of the conventions used in that art. A common criticism is made: modern painting, music, art are unintelligible; yet the people who say this do not make a single attempt to study their conventions. You cannot come to art as you come to a slab of roast beef.

Art’s effect on you depends a good deal upon your knowledge—or even on your digestion. Nevertheless, if it is a true work of art it will have the power to pull you around to see and hear things you have not experienced before; and among people of reasonably similar background and emotional outlook, affect them the same way. This power—sometimes very potent indeed, as we have all at some time felt it—will be of the work itself, not the artist who made it. We can return to great art again and again, and instead of its power over us waning, it will intensify. (Familiarity breeds contempt only if, to begin with, there is something essentially contemptible about the object known.) Art keeps on giving us more of itself even as it fascinates and holds us the more intensely. Of the greatest art we can truly say, as Enobarbus says of Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra:

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale

Her infinite variety. Other women cloy

The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry

Where most she satisfies; for vilest things

Become themselves in her. . . .

It was necessary that this introductory statement about the primacy of art and not the artist be made because it would seem that with modern America’s expanding population, i.e., need for more college teachers, i.e., need for more PhD subjects, so much is now written about every item even potentially artistic that the works themselves get lost in the scuffle (and I mean scuffle!). College professors have been known to place so much stress on reading instructions and prologues to introductions and prefaces to prologues, to say nothing of explanatory notes, critiques, afterwords, PMLA articles, etc., etc., that students have had no time to read that which was, ostensibly, the occasion for all the flurry. No commentary will ever be written that is worth reading once instead of reading King Lear twice. {73}

If you keep in mind throughout the rest of what I have to say, that the work of art is primary in our consideration, I have, I believe, resolved part of my original dilemma regarding the artist and his creation. It follows, of course, that if we are interested in a beautiful world, we will have some interest in its Creator; similarly, the beauty of a work of art will inevitably interest us in the individual who shaped it. After all, the work originates with him, rests on some historical orientations which affected him, and bears, in some complex way, at least some relationship to his personal experiences, hates, and likes. We can legitimately ask, then: what is the artist’s relationship to society, via his art? Does he have a criticizing or witnessing role to play through his art?

To simplify a complex topic, I will talk of only one artist: the novelist, though what I say could apply equally to painter, musician, etc. The novel is the youngest of the major art forms; it had to wait for the invention of the printing press and general literacy before it could arise. The novel is significant also because, it is perhaps the most socially oriented of all art forms. It uses words to achieve its effects, words in their usual form of social interchange, and not in the highly stylized forms that poetry may assume. The novel can present a wide-ranging picture—can, in fact, attempt to duplicate the complexity of actual society because it is not bound so rigidly by the retentive memory of the beholder, as drama is, for instance. The novel speaks to one person, alone, when he is good and ready for it to speak. It can be referred to again and again, its various parts studied at leisure, its ideas pondered and argued with. It does not depend upon a ‘once-for-all’ encounter or even on the vagaries of an intermediate personality like that of the actor. Of the verbal art forms, the novel is really the most amenable to presenting wide-ranging, profound social criticism. One of the reasons the novel developed so rapidly in nineteenth-century England and is today perhaps the most potent art form is partly due to this reason: beyond the pure diversion of telling a story, it can get people excited by criticizing them and by witnessing to them of the novelist’s particular world view.

The greatest English novelists of the last century—Dickens, Thackeray, Eliot, Hardy—were powerful social critics. Their wit, satire, invective set in the fictitious world of their novels made Victorian England aware, as it had never been, of the inhuman conditions of industrial towns and of the inequality of legal processes. If Wordsworth’s poetry first sounded the note of ‘man’s inhumanity to man,’ then these novelists made all England aware of it, for all England read their novels. But they were novelists first and foremost. Their works in which social consciousness outweighs artistic effort are now properly forgotten. The same will happen to the books high on readers’ lists today: Seven Days in {74} May, The Ugly American, Fail-Safe, Another Country, Atlas Shrugged, and others. Most of their authors have some skill as novelists, but criticism has overrun their artistic taste and the books lack completely an essential quality of art: the quality of lasting relevance.

“Lasting relevance” has nothing to do with the particular problem of a book; it has everything to do with how the problem is handled. Every story must have a situation, but we still read the Iliad although we are not at all concerned with capturing Troy. We go to see Hamlet though we couldn’t care less about the succession to the throne of Denmark. Just how much “lasting relevance” has to do with artistic survival is shown by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It was the most popular novel of its day and its influence during the 1850s and ’60s can hardly be overestimated. Scholars who should know believe it had as much to do with outlawing slavery as Abe Lincoln himself. Yet the problem of truly freeing the Negroes of the United States is with us as never before since 1860, and who reads Uncle Tom’s Cabin? Why has the character who once was a hero now become a word of derision, a traitor, when in principle the very same problem is still with us? Because the novel is in no sense of the word artistic; it does not handle the subject artistically, and so when the exact situations that justify it no longer exist, the book no longer exists, even though the problem remains. In other words, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is situational propaganda pure and simple; it is a little more interesting, but of no more lasting value, than a contemporary election speech. Children like it; it’s a good story, and I read it once, in grade school. Though not an openly emotional child, I remember very nearly crying at all the proper places. But I have never had a desire to read it again; once you know the story, there’s nothing left to it now that the exact historical situation has gone. It is superlative propaganda, and I mean that in a complimentary way. But it does not last like art.

Many Christians, however, believe that the Christian has a right to attempt a novel only if it is of this immediately propagandizing sort. That is, the novelist should use whatever skill he has in manipulating words and concocting plots to set up an unequivocal signpost pointing to the damnedness of the world without Christ and, as an ultimate feature, making the Gospel attractive to all who are so damned. In this way the Christian novelist would preach the Gospel to those who never enter a church or listen to a half-hour radio broadcast, much less attend an evangelistic campaign. This approach smacks of cherry-flavored medicine. When I was a child we had to swallow medicine in the full bloom of its gastronomical horror, but today my little boy clamors for his; it tastes just as good as Lifesavers. So the novelist: if he would really be a Christian and write novels he must somehow slip in the John 3:16 {75} formula while writing such an exciting (and yet most proper) story that only later will the unsuspecting reader comprehend the life-giving effect of what he has imbibed.

I say bah! Such thinking shows ignorance of both how the Gospel works and how the novel gains its effects.

In brief this is the theory behind the most sophisticated of Christian novels; nothing need be said about those which make no pretense at sophistication. In both cases the average church library will reveal the sad results. By innumerable ineptly specious repetitions of the ‘ye must be born again’ formula, the simple Gospel has become the idiotic Gospel. No person who respects his mental powers at all will sniff at such a presentation of Christianity.

To me this is a most lamentable state. For I consider myself a Christian; my faith in Jesus Christ is, I believe, the foundation stone of all my thought patterns, and when Christianity is maligned I am, willy-nilly, affected also. This situation has arisen, I believe, not because Christians have not taken their belief seriously, but because they have underestimated the problems of writing a novel. They have seen the novelist as a kind of offshoot storyteller variant of the preacher, a variant demanded by the present godless but fortunately literate age. But the novelist is never, and never can be, a devotional writer, a theologian, a philosopher, a preacher, simply because the novel can never be a devotional study, a theological or philosophical treatise, a sermon. Do you go to The Divine Comedy to get your theology clarified? Or even to Paradise Lost? No. You go to them because they say certain profound things about human beings, and if anyone insisted that because you admire The Inferno you should be converted to its cosmological system, you would quite properly consider that person absurd. Therefore, the more consciously and directly the novelist tries in his novel to preach a certain truth he holds to be valid, the less it will arise out of the stuff of the novel itself, the poorer the novel will be, and the less likely he is to convince anyone, even if he were supposed to convince them.

This truth became most clear to me last summer while reading Ayn Rand’s huge book, Atlas Shrugged. She is a competent novelist, but this is a poor piece of work because her propaganda tendencies push her into some artistically ludicrous situations. She is proving to us that the world needs ‘objectivism,’ the so-called modern ‘philosophy of reason’ which, as far as I can see, is little more than old-fashioned free-enterprise taken to its ultimate in anarchical selfishness. The idea is summed up in the vow all true believers in the book are made to swear: “I swear, by my life and my love of it—that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” The book is massive (1200 pages), {76} is quite learned and has some exciting situations, but is nevertheless logically self-contradictory. It preaches its godlessness so blatantly that one cannot take it seriously as a work of art. Not only Christians write sermons while imagining they are writing novels.

Besides sermonizing, the other major mistaken assumption about the Christian novel is that it must explicate and teach doctrine. This teaching is for the benefit of believing readers; certainly the Christian novel should not raise sticky questions in the reader’s minds. To be overly concerned with teaching his ideas of Christian doctrine will have an extremely limiting effect on the novelist. As all teachers know, to teach most effectively you must first of all avoid examples which do not best illustrate the point you are trying to make. Since the usual point of Christian thinking is that all the people of the world either are or are not Christian, the teaching novel can contain only the spiritual blacks and the spiritual whites, none of the bothersome chameleons which flit from one to the other or the annoying, absolute-wrecking greys, both of which keep popping up in real life. Another principle of teaching in Christian novels is that you must never raise too many more questions in listeners’ minds than you can answer; otherwise you will be undermining your status and reputation. Ergo—the teaching novel will rarely, if ever, raise the more profound questions that affect man because even the greatest art in the world does not give us the answers to them, and who around here imagines he can do better? Therefore, the teaching novel will usually confine itself to raising the small, complex questions and will avoid all the large simple ones.

There is, of course, a teaching element in all art. Literature is never amoral; it is either moral or immoral. Bad art is inevitably immoral. For all great art (trumpet concerto, Greek statue, Bolshoi ballet performance) has a profoundly moral purpose if in no other sense than that it purges us from pettiness, from smallness of mind and outlook. So it teaches to an extent. But it is not the novel’s duty, not even the Christian novel’s duty, to teach anything directly—whether it be theology or fundamentalism or peace or what. If the novelist tries to do so, he is doing something which the teacher could do better. The novelist is not a teacher any more than he is a preacher, and we do him the gravest disservice by expecting him to be one. The medium with which he works simply does not allow him to be those.

The question must then be faced: how can the novelist, and above all, the Christian novelist (I believe this is the most meaningful distinction at the moment—at least it is for me) be a critic of and a witness to society if the scope of the novel goes beyond teaching and preaching. Can he even be a critic and witness through his art? {77}

I say he will be both critic and witness if he does his job: if he writes the novel, pure and simple. Just as the Christian cabinetmaker makes a ‘Christian’ cupboard by making the best cupboard he knows how (and not by carving John 3:16 on the door), so the novelist, though his work is immeasurably more complex than carpentry, must put first things first. I go to the carpenter for a cupboard, and to the novelist for a novel. Only if the novel has artistic integrity will I even consider being roused to consider the ideas it contains as valid because a work of art is a whole, complete entity, not a collection of parts. The integrity of one component of that whole—its ideas—depends upon the integrity of the other components—imaginative power, structure, language, expression, breadth of conception, and more. You cannot sacrifice these latter elements to propagandist or pedagogical ideas, no matter how valid these may be in themselves. If you do, you are betraying your reader.

In the first place, then, the novelist can be critic of society and witness to it by letting the novel be a novel. The chief function of the novel as an art form (the only function some would insist) is that it provide aesthetic imaginative pleasure. I use the word pleasure here in its pristine and wider meaning, not the guffawing stupidity that goes for pleasure on today’s TV menu; pleasure which arises from exploring the widest range of the mind and the senses. At his best, the artist has explored these areas first and he takes the reader with him to enjoy the moment captured in his art for all time. The novelist is often, as Browning’s Fra Lippo Lippi says of the painter, ‘lending his mind out’ to help us see and experience what otherwise we would not imagine existed. Perhaps we have vague feelings about ourselves, our community, our college, our church. Let the artist live among us; let him lend us his eyes, sometimes they are the eyes of the seer—and we will be helped to see at least partially what he sees. No matter how delightful or how painful the look, it will nevertheless be a look of pleasure if it is truly artistic.

For the artist knows, and this is a fundamental principle of all art, that some of the most important things we as human beings must understand cannot be come by directly. They can be seen and shown only by the indirection of art: by metaphor, by symbol, if you like. That is why fiction is so important. Without particularly trying, while concentrating on the shaping of a story, of characters, of events, by means of artistic indirection the novel will inevitably teach, and that more profoundly and eloquently than either history or sermon. By means of metaphor and make-believe we can explore what Sir Philip Sidney called, “the divine consideration of what is, what may be, or what should be.”

How do we come to grips, for example, with such immense topics as life, the resurrection, love, the kingdom of God—God himself—except {78} by metaphor, that is, fiction? When God stops saying to man, “I am like—,” the common formula for a metaphor, He can only say, “I am that I am” or “I will be what I will be”—which is hardly an explanation if you don’t know something about him before that. When Paul tries to explain what ‘resurrection’ means he can only say:

But someone will ask “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” You foolish men! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body which is to be, but a bare kernel perhaps of wheat or some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen and to each kind of seed its own body . . . So it is with the resurrection of the dead.

This is simply metaphor—fiction, if you like, which explains that which is incomprehensible in any other form. Our Lord used this form of teaching almost exclusively; the parable is the simplest form of fiction.

A novel is extended fiction: in one sense it is nothing more than a long, drawn-out metaphor consistently and artistically worked out to its logical summation. This can most clearly be seen in allegory, like Animal Farm or Pilgrim’s Progress, but applies equally to novels as diverse as The Old Man and the Sea and Lord of the Flies, or any significant novel that could be mentioned. The novelist knows that the most important things he would say simply disappear if he attacks them head-on and blurts them out. They can only be said by indirection. And while they are being said in this way, the novelist will be criticizing, be witnessing, to the whole extent of which he is capable. Who knows, at that moment it may be more profound than a sermon.

It would be in place at this point to consider the semantics of the novelist’s art: how he uses words as propositions or as images. The problem many people get into while reading the Bible is that they understand the words used there only in their propositional, factual, sense (words as absolute entities which stand for absolute entities—like the logarithmic tables, multiplication tables, etc.) Similarly, while reading the novel, if we see words only as propositions, we will look upon the novel only as a lie. As if only facts were true! But, exciting as this consideration could be, one or two other facts remain to be said.

As I said before, the artist does not have to try to be a critic of or witness to society; he will be one if he tries to write the novel. For in the second place, to truly write the novel he will be considering and showing life as it is. All that is on earth, therefore, is the proper subject of the novel, and especially the novel written by a Christian. No object, no subject, no emotion, no idea that can occur to a man can be avoided by the novelist. Part of the Christian novelist’s problem in the past has been {79} that he has often enough discovered subjects screaming for attention, but upon checking his idea, found the subject taboo, and has tried to forget it. Never in the history of mankind has great art confined itself to the non-taboo list. The artist must have the guts to look at everything that man can do, in his best moments as well as in his worst. He cannot allow himself to be stared down by life.

Basic to art is, of course, selectivity, and the novelist cannot write down or present all he sees. As Hemingway has said, the novel is like an iceberg: ninety percent is labor and study and downright hard observation never seen by the reader. To reveal a polished ten percent is to write with authority and power. No, the novelist will not reveal all, but neither will he shy away from a subject just because it is a contemporary taboo. To quote Matthew Arnold, the artist must always “see life steadily and see it, whole.” He must avoid lopsidedness as much as possible. In so doing, he will embody in his work all the implicit criticism it is necessary for him to have. And it will be all the more powerful because it uses art’s indirection.

Thirdly, in order to write the novel the novelist will have to see man not only as he is, but as he may be. This is the novelist’s witness of his vision for man. Here lies the greatest problem of the novel. It is comparatively easy to march in a protest parade, to break shop windows, even to be thrown in jail for freedom; that is another matter. What can man become if he allows God to break into his life? The man we see in American literature is almost without exception clothed in the filthy rags of pettiness, selfishness, avarice, and other more popular gross evils. Yet we trumpet that for two hundred years we have been the greatest Christian nation the world has ever seen. If earth is truly the vestibule of heaven and most Americans are already at the door, should we not see a little more of God’s transforming grace already in the vestibule? Why are the greatest contemporary novels works of massive hopelessness: The Sun Also Rises; Studs Lonigan; U. S. A.; The Grapes of Wrath; Catcher in the Rye; to say nothing of Catch-22; On the Beach; and Another Country? Why are there so few books like The Martyred and The Spire written, books where faith blossoms out of antagonism, where faith blossoms over faithlessness to build a church tower on sand which stands though it has no rock foundations, where one man’s faith alone is the rock which supports the town?

To speak in terms of Lord of the Flies, why are there so many Jacks in our novels who gladly, happily, lead men to root about in their bestiality and superstition and so few Simons who will beard the beast in its lair and expose its deadness for what it is. Why? Because the artists of this, “God’s Country,” have all been busy preaching their sordid little {80} sermons and have lost the vision of what man, by God’s transforming grace, may be right now, here on earth. When you lose vision, or have never even had it, you have nothing to witness to directly, and certainly nothing to witness to indirectly for the indirect witness, more than anything else, grows out of the entire mind orientation, quite beyond any conscious volition. So we have few Scobies—Graham Greene’s hero in The Heart of the Matter who, though he is damned by the rules of the church, is obviously the only redeemed person in the book; we have few Stephen Kumalos, the Negro pastor in Cry, the Beloved Country; we have few protagonists like Mauriac’s in Vipers’ Tangle who turns from hatred to love so amazingly that his family does not believe him though he is on his deathbed. These imperfect human-but-somehow-transformed persons we rarely see; instead we see so often the pathetic figure of Rabbit in John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, forever running away, running, running, with no place to run from and nowhere to run to. No wonder that life under the bomb has become

. . . but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour on the stage

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

(Macbeth, V.)

And in all this the writer who sees himself as Christian is involved only with looking over his shoulder to make sure his novel plows a straight sermonic furrow, in making sure his art will offend no one, especially his fellow church members, in maintaining the convenient lie of the sacred, holy image of the church which, though none of us believe it perfect, it will of course never do to show its weaknesses to the godless world. Because we mean all, so sincerely, for the best. Who, if not the Christian, will face the church honestly? Must we go to the godless to tell us when we, the church, are sinning? Must we go to commercial hacks like James Michener to give us a realistic novel about Protestant missions in Hawaii? Why must we clamor about our smirched image? Who do we think we’ve fooled anyway?

When a novel or other work of art realistically shows the church in error, we should say, “Yes, it is true. As a matter of fact, we’re worse than that. But by God’s grace . . .” That’s what we should be saying. But we have not been saying it, and if one thing is true about art it is this: great art can never arise unless there is a certain community climate that will allow it to have its say. If it is continually tramped on, it will die stillborn, a shapeless fetus in the minds and hearts of its potential {81} conceivers. We cannot imagine the magnificent drama of the Greek or Elizabethan period without the societies which allowed, nay urged, this drama to develop. And if the Protestant church of North America, more, the Mennonite Church of North America, has been producing anemic pink in the name of art, it has itself partly to blame. For if the artist is not allowed to show man as he is, how can he ever show what man by God’s grace may become?

I find I cannot speak without some fervency on this subject because of widespread misconceptions of what the artist should do and the conventional role we assign to him. Why should we Christians go about criticizing only the world; it does not pretend to be perfect. We claim to be following a perfect Lord; surely we should be evaluating ourselves, not others.

Above all, we should not go to the artist and expect the conventional. We should not expect him only to confirm what is already known. The artist, if he is worth his fingernail parings, must be exploring new areas, saying new things, giving new perspectives, saying old things in new ways that jar us out of our stupor. The novel is not a systematic theology which explains commonly held doctrines; it is a work of art which can and should contain ideas no one else has broached before and no one, perhaps, will ever believe. This does not vitiate the value of prodding people into thinking these things are possible. The human mind is amazingly constituted—that once a new idea stretches it, it can never quite return to its original dimensions.

The finest response that can be made to a piece of work that hopes to be artistic is that people who come in contact with it take it seriously and, with all their faculties alert, ponder what it is trying to do or to be. When Christians as individuals and Christian schools and colleges begin doing this, then perhaps we will truly have Christian art that witnesses and criticizes. Certainly, the chances of this occurring will be much stronger, for this is the greatest encouragement that can be given the artist.

* Originally published in this unabridged version in The Journal of Church and Society, 1, no. 2 (Fall 1965): 45–57.

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