7 Reasons Zwingli Might Not be the Reason Protestants Can’t Write


Poor guy didn’t know how much literature he was gonna ruin.

This last week Peter Leithart ruffled some feathers by claiming, in an admitted “gleeful fit of reductionism”, that Zwingli is the reason Protestants can’t write (poetry or fiction). You can read the two pieces here and here. What follows assumes knowledge of at least the first.

Now, once you read them, you see that he’s actually making a narrower, more specific claim. If Protestants take a certain view of the sacraments, the Real Presence, of the reality linking the sign and the signified in the Lord’s Supper, etc. that has an effect on the shape of your poetics, your literary abilities, your view of the way the world and literature connect up. People who take Zwingli’s memorialist view of the Supper with its thinner link can’t help but fall into bad writing because their options are limited, while Catholics with their thick views of the way that signs can do something are in a better position to cultivate the proper imagination, the proper poetics that leads to great literature.

There are many things to say, but before I say them, a few caveats are in order.

First, I actually love a bunch of Leithart’s work. I say this not as a total endorsement, but simply to set the context. I’m not a critic.

Second, I’m not a Zwinglian. I take Calvin’s view of the Lord’s Supper and of the Real Presence and so forth. I’m in a church that takes the Supper every week. With real wine (sorry, Mom).

That said, I have tended to find that reductionism of any sort, gleeful or not, is unhelpful.

In this case, I find Leithart’s thesis unhelpful because I think it clouds our ability to actually see the phenomenon before our eyes, which is the apparent inability of North American Evangelicals with of the last 100 years or so (which is basically who he’s talking about, having ruled out Anglicans and other large swathes of Protestants who have “sacraments” and a Prayer book) to write the sort of literature that’s broadly recognized as quality. It’s too clean of a “just-so” story that hinders us from addressing the varieties of conditions that play a role in such a complex phenomenon as cultural production.

It’s also unhelpful because instead of drawing people towards the liturgical practices and theological convictions Leithart wants, this is exactly the sort of piece that fuels what Gregory Thornbury’s dubbed the “Suicide Death-Cult” tendencies of self-flagellating, young, Evangelicals who are still in emotional recovery over the Carman tapes they liked in their youth. Or, for a certain sort, a quick dip across the Tiber to embrace their inner Dante.

Also, I’m really just dubious about the whole connection.

In what follows, what I’d like to do is simply re-complicate the account and briefly list a number of reasons Zwingli might not be the main cause for Protestants of a particular sort lacking literary capabilities. Some are other contributing factors and others are questions I have about Leithart’s account.

First, what of eschatology? It seems quite plausible to construct a narrative around shifting literary output and cultural engagement on the basis of the major shift in eschatology within Evangelicalism in the last hundred years. In other words, why not blame Darby and the Scofield Bible instead of Zwingli and Marburg? If you’re so busy trying to get people saved from a world that’s about to go up in flames after the rapture, what does producing subtle literature matter? Of course, I know Dispensationalists with lovely literary sensibilities over at BIOLA and so forth, but it seems a narrative of this sort could easily be written with some force.

Next, we might speak of one feature of Bebbington’s quadrilateral defining Evangelicals: conversionism. This contributes in two ways. First, building on the last point, if conversionism is at the heart of your religion, then there’s always a certain urgency of having better things to do with our time like save souls, than build culture. In which case, certain habits, sensibilities, etc. will be less likely to be promoted in our congregations. Second, it would contribute to a need to evangelize and edify in all that we do, quite explicitly. Think of God’s Not Dead, or the way Lecrae became suspect as a sellout in some circles once he hit broad-based appeal and didn’t make every song an explicit sermon. Though, this element doesn’t seem relegated to Protestants, since it’s a mentality that even the heroine of Leithart’s story, Flannery O’Connor, was pushing back against in her own sacramental, Roman Catholic context. Apparently, sacramentalism wasn’t as strong of a bulwark against moralism as all that.

Also, broadly following the Modernist/Fundamentalist fight, there’s the broader fundamentalist disengagement from culture for fear of its corrupting influences. Of course, that also limits exposure to the good sorts of cultural influences that you need to produce the proper literary sensibility for good writing. It’s not implausible to argue that we’re still feeling the effects of it. Indeed, Evangelicals still tend to do a lot of the silo, bubble culture thing with Christian music, literature, and so forth, which is even now affecting generations of young, possible future Evangelical Protestant writers.

We can also note here the prudery involved in almost all explicitly Evangelical endeavors. We created the websites with content ratings listing every “d” word and instances of “low cleavage”, in order to protect ourselves from the crudities of mass culture. And there’s some wisdom there, of course, but when you think about the constraints that general moralism can have on Evangelical artistry, you begin to see why some of it is stilted. This was one of the bits that Leithart was on to, but was rendered less plausible by tacking it onto the un-sacramental poetics.

Another possibility one could suggest is a tight focus on historical, propositional truth, facticity, and so forth, as well as the broader loss of narrative preaching. We’re recovering it now, but you could imagine that a church tradition caught up with the question “did it happen”—which is massively important—might lose sight of cultivating a broader sense for why it matters, reading for rhetorical shape, and so forth. I’m not at all sure about this one, but someone creative could probably make a go of this reading.

Of course, there’s the old Mark Noll stand-by of populism and anti-intellectualism having infected the Protestant-Evangelical mindset. That doesn’t tend to produce the sort of fruit in keeping with righteousness Leithart is looking for. Why not go there instead of long narrative about Zwingli’s long hands reaching out from Marburg to choke our literary talent?

Finally, and this is actually a big question for me: what of unbelievers? We can take this question in two ways. First, do unbelievers ever write great literature in the 20th Century? If so, what view of the Real Presence do they take? I’m being somewhat facetious, but I think the question raises the point that far too often we’re given to make these tight connections between doctrine and practice that are far messier out in the world. Second, from another direction, are there protestant sensibilities in unbelieving authors we’re not accounting for? I wonder how easy it would be to find great secular authors grew up in churches—churches with low liturgical and sacramental sensibilities—who might exhibit those tendencies in their own writing?

Of course, all of the foregoing presupposes that we should buy the basic premise that a certain sort of Protestant can’t or hasn’t written great literature. I’m not entirely sure that’s historically true, nor even true now, but I’m not much for going into the history of it here. My point, though, is that this thing is much more complicated that a clean story about the sacraments and we don’t do ourselves any favors by simplifying things to say otherwise.

Soli Deo Gloria

17 thoughts on “7 Reasons Zwingli Might Not be the Reason Protestants Can’t Write

  1. It seems though that you conceded (by silence) that “non-sacramental” Protestants have never produced great literature. Still, I know you’re not a lit-guy, so maybe that’s a piece for another writer. This is good though!

  2. I think this post supports and supplements Leithart’s thesis. For example, I am pretty sure that Leithart would interpret dispensational eschatology (Darby, Scofield) as an aggravated form of Zwinglian literalism and lack of sacramental imagination. And the same can be said for conversionism, with its reductionist view of the atonement and the gospel, and for cultural isolationism. It is worth noting that the original title of Leithart’s article, when it was first published in Credenda/Agenda, is, “Why Evangelicals Can’t Write” — which is a more accurate title because, as you note, his focus is not really on Protestants as a whole but “low church” evangelicals. And even where American evangelicalism has found cultural support, affluence, leisure (the basis of culture, according to Josef Pieper) in America, it has still not yielded anything significant of artistic quality. There’s a reason why all of the great Southern novelists were Catholic.

    Also, the second part of Leithart’s piece is the most important. It is there, by way of Flannery O’Connor, that Leithart explains what he means by “write.” It is a specific way of rendering the symbolic and real — and, yes, you note this. If someone accepts this as a reliable criteria for evaluating fiction, which is of course debatable, then it is hard to mount a credible defense on behalf of the evangelicalism that he is attacking.

  3. A few quick thoughts:
    – On the whole, Protestantism has a pretty good track record on literature. You have Melville, Dickens, Updike, Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Toni Morrison, and others. Not all of these were particularly devout, but they came from Protestant backgrounds.
    – Low-church evangelicalism, on the other hand, does not. As Kevin mentioned, this is primarily what Leithart had in mind. I own a lot of fiction, and looking at my shelf I don’t really see any evangelical authors…the closest are probably lapsed Puritans like Melville, who has a very complex attitude toward his background.
    – There is no Protestant equivalent to JRR Tolkien (CS Lewis was pretty close to Catholic, especially as he got older, and Narnia isn’t really that much like Middle-earth anyway). To be fair, though, there’s really no one like Tolkien from any background. Read the first chapter of The Silmarillion if you haven’t already.
    – Protestantism’s record on the visual arts is considerably weaker than literature and music. There are great Protestant painters, but I can’t think of that many (admittedly this subject is not my expertise). One thing that’s interesting is that even in secular movies, the best Christian characters tend to be either Catholics or black Protestant civil rights leaders. Also, Song of Bernadette is the only obviously pious movie I’ve ever seen that’s actually good. Then there are cathedrals and the like…

  4. For my money I’d commend Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace as the two great secular counterpoints in 20th century lit who challenge the counter-thesis, as their familiarity with the metaphysical tradition and the turn to the subject informed their subject matter and the form it took. Indeed, form mattered to them precisely because they saw that genuine transcendence is always situated in and through immanent, material reality. There’s a lot of overt theological reflection going on in both of them, serious engagement, not Jesus-juke profaPerhaps.I can’t really recommend DFW enough. After getting sober, he attempted the Catholic Rites of Adult Initiation twice. He was invited to a Buddhist retreat once and left because he said the food sucked- a very anti-Docetic approach, that. All that to say, I hear what you’re saying, Derek, but I think many of your points are traceable genealogically to Zwingli. Perhaps.

    P.S. Read DFW’s biography for a visceral illustration of how justification in Christ can truly impact a person’s sanity and even save their life. That was one of my biggest takeaways from that book.

    • What it’s really about isn’t just literature and painting and all (as important as those all are)- it’s about the dessication of the imagination. “Sight is a moral sense” is a premise Pynchon and Wallace both adhere to, even as non- or quasi-Christian thinkers.

      • And shucks, one more and I’ll quiet down for a while: William Gibson, author of Neuromancer et al. Vividly displays the dead end of secular materialism and the corresponding drive to transcend it by “escaping” embodiment all within a hyper-secular frame. Not very Lewis-ian or Tolkien-esque, but incredible stuff all the same!

    • I’d say Melville has a bit of this too. I don’t know precisely what Melville’s religious views were, except that he rejected his Puritan background and that rejection was something he continually struggled with. And this definitely comes across in Moby Dick.

      Most obvious is the choice of Ishmael and Ahab as character names. And then there’s the whale itself. Sometimes it symbolizes God as a horrible enemy we must reject, but also sometimes it represents the emptiness of a godless world. Really the whale represents pretty much everything at one point or another in the book. I’ve heard Moby Dick called a “medieval” work, and despite the huge differences in worldview and setting that’s accurate in some ways.

      • Yeah man, and I’d say it’s the indeterminacy of the whale (or rather its resistance to a 1:1 figurative representation) that elevates Moby-Dick into literature and not just a dude writing a book, if you get my meaning. Too many symbols in Protestant fiction are terrible Bunyan-derivative propaganda and little more. Melville’s The Confidence Man is solid too, and an interesting precursor to the identity politics of our present intellectual climate.

  5. For crying out loud, there’s a blasphemous Eucharist scene in M-D, one that seals a covenant with death! Left Behind has nothing to say to that. I know that was a cheap shot against a series no one in their right mind would mount a defense of, but still, it’s pretty representative.

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  8. “With real wine (sorry, Mom).”

    with regard to wine at communion there is only the options of wine or no wine; real don’t come into it 😉

  9. Pingback: Who says memorialism isn't "sacramental"? - Mere Orthodoxy | Christianity, Politics, and Culture
  10. In my humble opinion, perhaps the main weakness of “Christian” writing is literalism. It seems to me that there is a distrust of symbol, alkegoru, even parable?! This astonishes me because His model to us was storytelling, and its a brilliant approach. Jesus knew those looking for entertainment would still hear a deep message, and those seeking would find revelation. Symbols require thought, and its my belief that he was such a gentle man that He did not wish wish to harden people’s defenses against the Gospel by throwing out literal or cliched truth.

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