Watchdog Religion

My friend Stephen Lawhead has made a career writing popular novels set in old Britain—novels taking up the Arthurian legends, Viking invasions, and Robin Hood mythology, among other settings. Look in the fantasy/science fiction section of just about any bookstore, and you will find half a dozen of Steve’s books.

I would describe Steve’s writing as “gently Christian.” I’m sure most of his readers have never noticed, but Christian faith is part of the landscape (fittingly, in Europe of these periods) and a mostly positive influence. There’s nothing doctrinaire, didactic or confrontational about the way Steve writes. The novels just make space and a fair climate for people of faith.

I don’t think Steve has ever encountered any resistance to his perspective among non-Christian editors. He has had problems with Christians. One of his publishers was deeply troubled that two of his characters had a traditional, non-church wedding—jumping over a sword, if I remember correctly, as a pledge of faith before they went to bed. The publisher wanted to put a warning sticker on the book, to protect tender consciences.

There’s a lot of such “watchdog” religion, careful to detect and warn against anything doctrinally or morally questionable. Maybe it’s justified, in some times and places. But certainly it is the enemy of people involved in the arts. They are constantly going into unfamiliar places, and probing the ambiguous spaces of the human heart. They must experiment. They have to embrace that which exists, rather than the ideal that ought to exist. To do this kind of experimental work, they can’t be watching over their own shoulders.

I don’t mean that artists live in their own universe, beyond judgment. Certainly they are subject to all kinds of criticism—doctrinal, moral and esthetic. I just mean that they have to be allowed the freedom to make mistakes.

The ultimate ground for that freedom is grace.  Tim Keller made this point when I interviewed him last year. He pointed to people who work in media or drama or finance, who have to put in years of apprenticeship before they can originate content. During those years they may be involved in work that is morally dubious, even while it is carried out with great skill. If they only have a “watchdog” faith, they will not last long enough to develop those skills themselves, and they will never be given the chance to originate.

Many promote freedom in the arts based on a no-fault ideology. If something is done for the sake of art it gets an automatic pass. I call that cheap grace. “There can be nothing to forgive, so we forgive it.” Real grace goes deeper: it allows that terrible things go on in the arts (as in all human endeavors) and yet loves the artists and their art all the more. Such love allows for all kinds of accountability, while opening up a space in which art can grow.

I think of Rembrandt’s late self-portraits. (See here for some samples.) The face is weary, knowing, skeptical of itself. The flashy young artist of the early portraits is gone forever. And yet: knowing what he knows, seeing what he sees, Rembrandt paints. He paints what he sees and knows, which is neither ideal nor uplifting, but which God loves. “You are the God who sees me,” as Hagar put it in Genesis 16:13. This seeing love sets the portraits ablaze.


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2 Responses to “Watchdog Religion”

  1. FollowerOfHim Says:


    I have many fond memories of long car trips with my mother reading Lawhead novels to the rest of the family back in the late 80s. I have a trivial question, which you as his friend can answer: is his name “LAW-head” or “La-WHEAD”? I always like the latter pronunciation (mostly to annoy my sisters, who favored the former), but I doubt I’m correct.


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