Why Are Catholics Great Writers and Baptists Are Not?

For a while now I’ve been toying with a question. Maybe a year or so at the most. I’ve had an answer in mind but I still keep asking the question anyway.

Why is it that Catholics are the best writers? And some of my favorites?

Flannery O’Connor. J.R.R. Tolkein. Thomas Merton. Dorothy Sayers. G.K. Chesterton.

And what about those who are far more similar to them than the people I’ve surrounded myself with? You know like the Anglicans.

Shakepseare. C.S. Lewis. Jane Austen.

And one of my favorites these days is Eugene Peterson, who has learned a great deal from those of Rome. Heck, I would have never picked up Merton if not for him.

My first and simplest answer is that they have a sacramental (read: sacred) view of words. Words are precious and full of beauty. They stand by themselves full of value, devoid of their use. But this is not how we evangelicals primarily think of words. We only use them – whoring them out. They have a function. Like machines. Maybe this is why I can think no writer, who is Baptist – outside of Bunyan – who is lauded as a ‘great writer’ by those outside of the evangelical subculture.

What do you think? Can you think of great writers who are Baptists? Who am I missing?

What have you read that could help me think about this some more?

Is it relevant that all of them are Paedobaptists?

19 thoughts on “Why Are Catholics Great Writers and Baptists Are Not?

  1. Phil and Jennifer March 29, 2011 / 2:15 pm

    Paedobaptism is at the heart of every significant contribution in life. (wink, wink)

  2. Steven March 29, 2011 / 2:42 pm

    Matthew,I very much appreciate your blogging, but I think you're falling for the hype on this one. The divine is not between some generic "catholic" Church (which oddly includes magisterial Protestants) versus the more modern "Baptist", but rather the older divide of nature and grace. Modern evangelicalism looks a lot more like medieval Romanism in this regard than many would care to admit. The classic Protestant position admits that nature is already a reflection of the divine and possesses its own integrity. This is also why it is no surprise to find great works of techne among even the non-believers and pagans (see for instance, the sons of Cain in Gen. 4:20-22).It isn't obvious how the "good writers" you mention are uniquely influenced by their "catholic" or "paedobaptist" theology. O'Connor loves the pentecostals in her works, and the most common "sacramental" occurrence is sermonic by way of speech, even prophetic critique.Lewis is an all-time great, atop my list of heroes, but he's as much Barfield as he is Hooker. Merton is Catholic, but deeply fascinated by Eastern and non-Christian thought. We could add more modern day "catholic"-feeling writers, who are nothing of the sort. Borges, Ecco, or even Cormac McCarthy. I see folks mining these guys for "sacramental" mystique all of the time, but I doubt they'd actually like what they got from a conversation with any of them. And let's not throw Bunyan out the window simply due to familiarity. He was really a Baptist. Like for real. Yet he was also pretty much the #1 best seller until Harry Potter (which is an interesting conversation itself). The fact of the matter is that good writing is a product of anthropology. It's nature in all of its good divine-reflecting glory. There are too many great writers from Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and even atheist backgrounds for us to miss this point, and again, it isn't always so easy to tell when they are drawing inspiration from or reacting against their backgrounds. To pick the best for "our team" after the fact is just poor manners."Worldview," "sacramental," and "catholic" are all tired and need to be put to bed.sincerely,Steven, the former Southern Baptist turned "medium-to-high church" Presbyterian/Reformed

  3. Matthew B. Redmond March 29, 2011 / 3:05 pm

    Steven, I don't usually respond when someone insinuates I am showing poor manners and calls the terms I used to frame a genuine question 'tired.' But at the risk of losing you as a reader, I will. Thanks for reading.

  4. Steven March 29, 2011 / 3:18 pm

    Matthew,I hope I didn't offend. I apologize, if so. Those aren't insinuations against you, Matthew Redmond, but rather this whole conversation and the intellectual "tools" being put to use. To be honest, I've read this post before, coming from other writers and other perspectives. Sometimes it is simply that one has to be Roman Catholic to write. Other times it is just "high church." Interestingly, I've read Roman Catholic rejections of this assumption. Thomas (Lutheran), Arturo (Roman Catholic), and I (Reformed) voiced disdain for it two years ago (http://wedgewords.wordpress.com/2008/10/20/calvin-is-good-for-literature/). So it is not personal, but it is still quite necessary.By the way, might I have permission to reprint your post on *The Horse and His Boy* on a private church newsletter?peace

  5. Matthew B. Redmond March 29, 2011 / 3:29 pm

    Steven,Here is where I think you might be misunderstanding me. I would reject that assumption also. My question is very different. I am asking a question critical of myself and my church culture, "Why aren't we writing well?"The fact that others are asking it and seeing some of the same things points to some legitimacy in the asking. I do not know the answer fully. I have not read your post about Calvin being good for Literature but I am sure I would agree on that point. Marilynne Robinson is anecdotal for it.But to call those words 'tired' is not even helpful. Indeed, it may be poor manners. It simply re-frames the discussion to your liking. Those are helpful words used by many. And of course you can use my post.

  6. Steven March 29, 2011 / 3:41 pm

    Matthew,I don't want to keep this up for too long, but the reason I call them tired is that they no longer actually mean anything specific and concrete. They are emotive terms which evade clear conversation in favor of persuasion by other means. "Sacramental" is a good case in point. Who wouldn't want to be sacramental? But what does that word mean? Does it mean a sign and seal of God's particular grace through the vehicle of the covenant of grace or the Church? Is that how you were using it when you said that Catholics and Anglicans have a sacramental view of words? Or did you just mean artistic, mystic, contemplative, etc? That's not a snarky question at all. It is very important. In my experience, "sacramental" has become an adjective used to modify or amplify "creation." Creation is good, but awfully normal, and the sacraments come to make it beautiful and ultimately meaningful. But that carries several implications with it (again, nature/grace) that are not being made explicit. And though it goes without saying, I asked your permission about the post because I think you are a great writer. peace

  7. Matthew B. Redmond March 29, 2011 / 3:51 pm

    You may be right right about 'sacramental' but I use it as analogous to the way one would feel about a sacrament. Something sacred. Not a precise understanding but understandable.And I rarely tire of words, they are too ummm, sacred for me. (wink)And thanks for the compliment.

  8. Dave K March 29, 2011 / 3:53 pm

    Interesting question, although it is hard to tell if it is a fair one. It is all quite anecdotal as you say.Perhaps part of the answer is that there have just been so few Baptists in history compared to Catholics and Anglicans, especially in England. Add in the pull of the established church and you have plenty of socio-historical reasons to explain the difference (if indeed there is one).The only possible theological reason I can think of is that Baptists are, by virtue of the credo-baptist (not Protestant) theology, people who force the visible church to fit the invisible one. That could make them more inclined to separate from "the world".Just a thought.Dave(Paedobaptist)

  9. Matthew B. Redmond March 29, 2011 / 3:56 pm

    Dave,Your point about numbers is worth thinking about. Good thoughts.

  10. Howard March 29, 2011 / 4:09 pm

    I think it has more to do with thinking about how faith and this life converge than just about anything else. Most sermons in the medium-high church traditions are engaged with thinking about how the Bible is geared to have us live out the faith on this side of death (most say borrow life from that side and live in light of it in this side). Whereas, most sermons in the baptistic tradition are about how to get to heaven or what to do now that you are a Christian (mostly rule-oriented around engaging the will without engaging the heart, mind, and imagination) or making sure people tell others about how to get to heaven. What do you think?

  11. showcarsrob March 29, 2011 / 6:39 pm

    how about….to be a roman catholic believer you need more imagination than a protestant who generally deal in truth,facts, bible readers….

  12. Dan March 29, 2011 / 7:30 pm

    Three things.1. We know that religious foundation is not a prerequisite to great writing. Writers such as Salinger and Steinbeck incorporated capital-T Truth in their stories without direct religious intent or background. But, yeah, there seem to be a lot more great Catholic writers than great Baptist writers. I'd pin at least some reason for this on the following two points.2. The Catholic religion has deep and historic ties to the classical education which celebrated, taught, and encouraged great art and literature. Many of the writers that you mentioned are a result of that catholic-based classical education system. The Baptist religion does not have that same educational lineage and, it doesn't seem to have a strong organizational intellectual-curiosity today. However, I may be missing recent movements within the organization, and to be fair, the Catholics seem to have backed away from their educational roots as well recently. 3. The Catholics may also have an advantage in the arts and literature because their centralize-scripture-interpretation structure lends itself to meditation on the "Who" of God rather than the modern protestant focus on the "What" of God's actions. To me, big-T truth revealed in great literature is always parallel with the "WHO" of God. (See Cormac McCarthy for instance). If, like me, you believe that great literature = revelation of genuine Truth, there there would be a significant advantage for those who've been raised with a greater focus on the sovereignty of God rather than a focus on an individuals interactions with the actions of God.

  13. Matthew B. Redmond March 29, 2011 / 7:37 pm

    Dan,Great points. And I would agree wholeheartedly with your first point as I read many non-believers and love their writing.

  14. UriandMelinda March 30, 2011 / 6:42 pm

    Another point to add to this fine discussion is a form of informal distinction about the use of the term sacrament. As Jim Jordan has observed, theologians use sacraments (sacramental) in two different ways. One refers to something sacred, poetic, beautiful. The other refers to ritual. I assume Matt used it in the first sense.

  15. Matthew B. Redmond April 2, 2011 / 6:36 pm

    Great point about Berry, who is an excellent writer. But if he is a Baptist, he is atypical. Certainly outside of the mainstream of evangelical popular culture. It does make me wonder. Thank you.

  16. Matt Blick April 2, 2011 / 9:00 pm

    Why are most of the best guitarists raging hedonists? Come to think of it why are most of the greatest artists in any field not Christians and why are the most godly artists not great artists? If you have any answers for that I'd be happy to hear 'em. Sometimes I have this dark and depressing thought that it's because art isn't important to God. For the record I'd like to be godly AND a great artist.

  17. kristen April 2, 2011 / 9:29 pm

    I have also read that Wendell Berry is a baptist, but he only has two choices in his local community (baptist and methodist), he was raised baptist, and he is not going to drive to go to church somewhere else. He votes predominately for democrats which is so strange for his generation in the SBC that emphasizes he's his own deep and interesting figure not necessarily a product of baptist culture.

  18. JMSauer April 5, 2011 / 5:26 am

    As far as good baptist writers go, I think the apostle Paul was pretty good. Just kidding, but I think that Catholics are good writers because they value their own experiences and thoughts higher than the words of scripture. Their theological ideas are based more on personal experience rather than exegesis of God's word. I know this is an overgeneralization, but after reading "Orthodoxy" by Chesterton I felt like he really believed that his opinions count. Also I would say that as far as the theological belief / writing ability correlation goes, atheists have by far the best writers because their own opinions is all they have to refer to. I would say that Hemingway and Twain would win that award. Both great writers though. Also Buddhism has had some great literary talent.

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