A group of Christian writers were recently trying to define the term, “Christian novel.” I suggested it might mean any novel written by a Christian who takes his or her faith seriously. I went on to suggest we could define almost anything else in the same way. A cup of coffee, for example, if made by a Christian who was striving to “work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men,” would therefore be a “Christian cup of coffee.” (Colossians 3:23) One of the authors replied, “But Athol, isn’t there a distinction between the inherent quality of the coffee (which can’t possibly be Christian or non-Christian in and of itself) and the way in which it’s made or consumed, which would mean that the action is what is truly Christian or not?”
It’s an interesting question.
I agree there is a distinction between a cup of coffee’s “inherent quality” and “the way in which it’s made or consumed.” But while some might see that as a point of difference between a cup of coffee and a work of art, I think it applies in exactly the same way to both.
There’s an old joke: A scientist insists we have progressed to the point where science could create Adam and Eve. God takes him up on it, and the two of them agree to a competition to see which of them can whip up a man and woman fastest. At the starting gun, the man looks around and says, “Wait a minute, I need some soil and a rib,” and God replies, “Create your own.”
The point is that everything we do is a rearrangement of God’s original creation. We take beans and water and “create” a beverage. We take ink and paper and “create” a book. In both cases the raw materials required all come from God, and that includes our creative instinct.
Jesus, as “the craftsman at God’s side” has imbued everything created with a certain “Jesus-ness” that cannot be denied. This is what theologians call “common grace,” which is described in the apostle Paul’s statement, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities-his eternal power and divine nature-have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” (Rom 1:20)
Surely “what has been made” includes both coffee beans and water. So by Paul’s estimation a cup of coffee can indeed speak of God’s eternal power and divine nature, and isn’t that the most that we can ask from any novel?
But while the cup of coffee and the book can be looked at simply as objects reflecting the quality of God, with faith added in they can also be looked at as attempts to honor God through emulation. The primary difference between those two ways of looking is not a matter of the content of the cup or page, rather, it is in the mindset of the person doing the “creating”. Which is just a different way of saying again that I believe everything a Christian does or makes is (or should be), a Christ-like or “Christian” thing by definition.
There’s another way to think about this, and at first it may seem to contradict everything I just said, but it really doesn’t. If we say with Paul that all created things have an “inherent quality” of “Jesus-ness” by virtue of being a reflection of their creator, then we cannot really create a “Christian” cup of coffee after all, and neither can we create a “Christian” novel. The most we can do is keep things “Christian,” by defending them from the profanity of mediocrity. So in a very literal way, we do not really create “Christian” things (because we have no soil or ribs). Instead, we rescue things from the corruption of a fallen world. We can see this in perhaps the most common Greek word translated as “obey” in the New Testament, tereo, which literally means to guard, detain or withhold. (Strong’s) So for Christians, striving for excellence in everything we do can be a loving act of obedience to God, and who are we to say our Father values a great story more highly than a perfect cup of French Roast?