Why do Protestants struggle to write good literature? It’s a question I’ve asked myself recently. I was inspired to think this over in part by some of Terror House Magazine’s recent tweets on the dearth of quality Protestant literature that drew the ire of some, but in my mind merely confirmed what I had already noted as someone who was raised and remains a part of the faith.

It is hard to debate the fact that few of the great Western writers in history come from a Protestant background.

The problem perhaps goes all the way back to interpretation of a key principle upon which Protestantism is founded: sola scriptura. Whatever your view on the Reformation, within the theological debate (it was as much a political fight as it was about religion), Protestants believed that the Roman Catholic Church had strayed too far from the Bible and incorporated things that had nothing to do with Christianity. To rectify that, Protestants rejected many Catholic practices as part of their effort to “return to the source.” The Bible was to be the ultimate authority on theological and doctrinal issues.

The degree to which this “reform” occurred depended on whose strain of Protestantism was preferred. Martin Luther’s church maintained many aesthetic practices of Catholicism, including transubstantiation, whereas some Dutch pastors trained under John Calvin removed their church organs because there was no mention of that specific musical instrument in the Bible.

Following the English Reformation and the establishment of the Church of England, Puritans and others sought to “cleanse” church liturgy by removing any and all trace of what they regarded as pagan idolatry. This is seen in the bland type of Protestant church architecture compared to the ornate Catholic chapels; the emphasis is on theological truths, not the physical.

However, this reactionary attitude spread to areas of life outside of corporate worship. Because Protestants are concerned about maintaining theological purity, there is this innate need to sufficiently explain or demonstrate how what they do glorifies God and is honoring to God. How can you do that with a fictional story that has nothing to do with religion specifically? Incidentally, Luther argued in one of his many pamphlets that the works of those in clerical roles were no more “holy” than those of a baker or butcher if both were done for God’s glory. Somehow, Protestants failed to internalize this concept when it comes to art, particularly fiction.

That explains why Puritan literature, such as John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and John Milton’s Paradise Lost, were always explicitly Biblical, whether allegorically or literally. The one notable writer in that time period to go outside those bounds was Presbyterian Daniel Defoe. Like Robinson Crusoe, his novel Moll Flanders was a spiritual autobiography common among Protestant writers at that time, but it also dared to examine scandalous concepts such as incest and sexual immorality. Another respectable Protestant writer during the 19th Century was Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson.

However, another challenge is the evangelical strain of Protestantism that makes it difficult for such writers to create any sort of boundary or separation between their art and their faith. (I note the irony of writing this while in the process of editing a novella concerning a Puritan-like theocracy.)

The best example of this can be found in the relationship between 20th century English writers C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, who were Anglican and Catholic respectively. Through his Lord of the Rings books, Tolkien created a vast, epic mythology without any clear allegories or references to anything remotely Catholic. Yet Tolkien once described the series as “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.”

In contrast, C.S. Lewis’ literature always contained strong Biblical references; his first post-conversion novel was the Pilgrim’s Regress. His Space Trilogy is laden with Christian analogies. Like LOTR, the Chronicles of Narnia uses mythical creatures from European pagan myths, but the themes are overtly Christian.

As Rev. Dwight Longnecker noted in a 2008 essay for Crisis Magazine:

The difference between Narnia and Middle-earth points to the underlying difference between the imagination of Lewis the Protestant and Tolkien the Catholic. For the Protestant, truth is essentially dialectical. It consists of abstract propositions to be stated, argued, and affirmed or denied.

For the Catholic, Truth, while it may be argued dialectically, is essentially something not to be argued but experienced. The Truth is always linked with the mystery of the incarnation, and is therefore something to be encountered.

Many Protestants will argue, for instance, that God’s primary revelation is Sacred Scripture, while Catholics maintain that God’s primary revelation is Jesus Christ. That Lewis produced works that were profound, worthy, and beautiful, but less than fully incarnational, while Tolkien produced a masterpiece that incarnated the same truths in a complete, subtle, and mysterious way reflects the deeper theological differences that remained between the two men.

As a fellow member of the Inklings, an informal group of Oxford writers, Tolkien was privately critical of Lewis’ writing for that reason. It may confuse Protestants as to why such a devoutly religious man like Tolkien would oppose incorporating Christian theology so strongly into one’s literature, but that goes back to a common misunderstanding of art as a way to convey values, rather than regarding one’s religious values as a way to convey art. As a side, it is interesting to note that while Tolkien converted Lewis to Christianity—only to see him join the Church of England—Lewis’s encouragement of Tolkien to write the Lord of the Rings was regarded by his friend as an “unpayable debt” despite the fact that Lewis offered no ideas or concepts.

Some may point to great English and American writers as proof to the contrary of my overall argument, but it is important to understand the issue. A person living in a traditionally Protestant country can write good literature, but in many cases, the authors themselves are not Protestants or are even opposed to it. Shakespeare lived in a post-Reformation England, but anyone who reads his works understands he wrote within the context of a pre-Reformation English theater scene. Whatever people think of Charles Dickens’ writing, he belonged to no established church. Sherlock Holmes’ creator Arthur Conan Doyle was a spiritualist, Jack London of Call of the Wild was a social Darwinist and socialist. The great American author Mark Twain mocked Christianity; among his essays is a scathing critique of early American writer James Fenimore Cooper, a devout member of the Episcopal Church. Joseph Conrad was a Polish atheist who converted to Catholicism just prior to his death. Ernest Hemingway was buried a Catholic after a lifetime of atheism; the great pulp and horror writer H.P. Lovecraft was also an atheist. F. Scott Fitzgerald was raised Catholic but adopted atheism as an adult.

American author Howard Pyle was a respectable children’s writer, but he primarily retold English myths and legends such as King Arthur and Robin Hood set in prior times. One of the few solid historical fictional works from the 20th century told from a Protestant perspective was Captain Blood, a story written by Italian-Englishman Rafael Sabatini and set at the time of the Glorious Revolution.

Nevertheless, the perpetual fear of creating unintentionally subversive art has always constrained Protestants regarding the kind of stories they can tell. Ironically, they hold an unspoken viewpoint not supported by scripture when it comes to portrayals of immoral behavior or lifestyles. It’s an unspoken but commonly held view that to even acknowledge sinful acts, let alone show them in any way that is not overly condemned, is to endorse it. To portray it at all is regarded as opening people up to temptation, or it is considered “un-edifying.” This is even though the Bible itself describes—often in detail—the depraved conduct of not just the villains but the heroes as well.

For an example of this thinking, look at any Hallmark Channel film. They are merely secularized Protestant morality tales devoid of any moral complexity. The protagonists are all “nice” because “niceness” is considered a modern Christian virtue. Also, the dialogue is rarely authentic or genuine; it is wooden and preachy in the same vein as Ayn Rand in all her novels, save for We the Living.

However, one might wonder if the reason for the dearth of good Protestant literature is that the faith seems to place the logic and objectivity of industriousness above the subjectivity of artistic endeavors. A “good Protestant” is not known for their creativity, but their productivity.

Having said that, I don’t believe Protestants are incapable of writing good stories. Their problem is that they adhere to certain beliefs which often prevent them from exploring the human experience to the extent other faiths allow. This makes it incredibly difficult to realistically portray the moral complexities of life; as a result, they use literature as a vehicle rather than art.

Protestants know a good story when they see it; however, chances are the story was written by someone from a different background. Whatever the case, they need to reexamine their beliefs and make any necessary “reforms” if they wish to be as effective in the literary world as they have been elsewhere.