Imagine you are at the summer Olympics, watching the 100 meter sprint competition. BANG goes the starter’s pistol and they’re off, all incredibly fast, but one runner is clearly first across the finish line. Now imagine that one runner is not the winner. Imagine if the winner were selected instead based on how hard the athletes had to train to get there, or which one overcame the most life challenges to get there. Imagine if we all decided to give the gold medal to the runner with the most fans in the stadium, or based on the opinion of a few of the most popular people in the crowd.
As strange as each of these scenarios might seem, I have heard Christian novelists seriously suggest almost exact parallels in discussions about excellence and beauty in fiction.
Contrary to popular opinion, the beauty and excellence of a novel are not determined by popular opinion. Nor are beauty and excellence determined by how hard one works on a novel, or by the number of obstacles one has to overcome to finish a novel, or by what we love to read, or what a million other readers love to read, or what Oprah loves to read.
If the winner of a 100 meter sprint were judged on the basis I described, athletic excellence would become irrelevant. Similarly, if a novel were judged based on how we feel about it or how well it sells, beauty and excellence would become nothing more than synonyms for desire or popularity.
If beauty and excellence exist in the arts at all, then there must be some objective basis on which we can unequivocally state that a particular novel is excellent or mediocre, beautiful or bad.
This suggestion commonly invokes outraged responses. For example, one often hears, "But so-and-so thinks it’s beautiful!" Or else, "But a million people bought it!" But these two arguments spring from the circular, self-referencing, illogical proposition that some people think a novel is beautiful, therefore beauty is whatever some people think it is.
Others will protest, “Not all novels can be literary!” But “beautiful” is not a synonym for “classical” or “high brow”. Every genre can be beautiful and excellent in its own way, therefore writing merely for entertainment is no excuse for mediocrity.
Finally, one hears what I call the “best defense is a good offense” objection: "Who are you to decide what's excellent and beautiful?" But this is a red herring. What’s really being asked is, “If beauty and excellence are objective facts, then how are they defined? (And if you can’t offer a definition, then you must be wrong.)”
What if the shoe were on the other foot? What if we demand a definition of beauty from these people instead? Faced with our demand, perhaps they will turn to Merriam Webster:
"Beauty. Noun. 1: the quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit. Loveliness."
But this is nothing more than that same circular, self-referencing proposition again. This is beauty as a thing that's relative to me . . . my senses, my pleasure. What’s beautiful for me may not seem beautiful for you, but don’t tell me it isn’t beautiful. I should have the right to decide what’s excellent and beautiful for me. This is beauty as a relative concept, a thoroughly postmodern definition.
Now, some questions. If beauty is truly defined as a thing that’s relative to me, my senses, my pleasure, does it mean beauty changes whenever I change my opinion? Does it mean a thing is beautiful if anyone on earth believes it’s beautiful, even—for example—someone who’s clinically insane? And does it mean beauty remains true even if the thing that I consider beautiful causes pain to others?
By this definition an erotic novel about sex with children would be considered beautiful and excellent, for example, since it gives pleasure to some people. But if we are sane, we will realize child pornography is never beautiful even if it gives some readers pleasure. And in realizing that, we will also understand we have effectively decided beauty and excellence are rightly measured by a standard beyond mere human pleasure or opinion. We have added a moral dimension to the definition. We have insisted that beauty and excellence must be good, and in so doing, we have placed them alongside love, justice, holiness, and all the other earthly manifestations of God's glory in the list of "every good and perfect gift", which we are told "is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows [or like human opinions]."
The higher things like love, justice, holiness, excellence, and beauty can only be rightly understood in reference to something which is constant, just as the 100 meter sprint can only be properly judged on the basis of uncompromising meters and seconds. Therefore, love is what God is. Justice is what God requires. Holiness is how God is. Beauty and excellence are how God appears. In other words, God Himself is the constant against which these higher things are measured.
It could not be otherwise. Think of how distorted these higher things become when we try to define them in terms of our own opinions or our pleasures. Think of what human law has done to how we think of justice. Think of what dysfunctional churches do to how we think of holiness. Think of what our culture does to our idea of love. Think of what pride and the profit motive have done to beauty and excellence in the arts and letters.
Beauty and excellence are how God appears.
It's much more comfortable to define beauty and excellence in terms of what we like, or feel, or want, or in terms of what we're capable of producing. Otherwise we must examine our true motives for writing in the first place. Otherwise we have to do the pride-destroying work it takes to strain toward excellence and beauty in our work. Otherwise we have to compare our work to something unchanging, eternal, and glorious, and that is worst of all, because if God Himself is the ultimate standard for beauty and excellence (and He is), then nothing we could write can possibly compare.
But don’t misunderstand. This doesn’t mean excellent and beautiful writing is impossible. The Bible speaks of beautiful tents, beautiful cities, and beautiful clothes, after all. We only need to understand the basis on which God has called them beautiful.
A man named Samuel once tried to pick a king based on his idea of what a king should be, but God told him to pick a shepherd boy instead, because, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
In exactly the same way, and contrary to popular opinion, the beauty and excellence of a novel are not determined by popular opinion. If any novel is beautiful or excellent, it is so because of the author’s heart—the motivation—not because of outward appearances.
Does this mean that anyone who loves God can write a novel and it will be beautiful and excellent? Does it mean that even mediocre novels are still beautiful and excellent in God’s eyes if the author writes them with the proper spiritual attitude?
The answer in both cases is no, of course not.
God doesn’t give the same gifts to everyone. Only writers with God-given talent can produce novels of beauty and excellence. No matter how much someone may want to see his name on a published novel, or how hard one works, no amount of love for God will overcome a lack of talent.
And it is impossible for mediocrity to arise from a proper spiritual attitude, because such an attitude means we will be completely willing to work within the gifts God has given, submitting to His plan, and we will use what He has given to the utmost, and then whatever our area of giftedness, we will always, always, always produce beautiful and excellent results within it.
We can know we’re working in our area of giftedness if the work sometimes fills us with a joy very like the way one feels in love, because the talents we receive are given out of heavenly love.
We can know we’re working in our area of giftedness if the results we accomplish sometimes seem as if they are beyond our own ability. As the Bible promises, if we will obey God, He will give in a “good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over" kind of way. As David famously said, "My cup runs over." Where God gives talent, He gives generously, even more than we ourselves suspect is possible.
If we accept our talents for what they are, not trying to turn them into something else for the sake of fickle pride, not settling for less than we what were born to create, then what we make of them in life will always be excellent and beautiful. But this is impossible if we insist on defining beauty and excellence as less than what they truly are, for they are nothing less than a reflection of the Lord on earth.
Athol Dickson's novels transcend description with a literary style that blends magical realism, suspense, and a strong sense of spirituality. Critics have favorably compared his work to such diverse authors as Octavia Butler (Publisher's Weekly) and Flannery O'Connor (The New York Times). One of his novels is an Audie Award winner and three have won Christy Awards including his most recent novel, Lost Mission. His next story, The Opposite Of Art, is about pride, passion, and death as a spiritual pursuit. Look for it in September, 2011. Athol lives with his wife in southern California. Visit his website at www.AtholDickson.com.