The Engel Scale represents a continuum or “model of the spiritual decision-making process.” Developed by Dr James Engel, director of the Billy Graham graduate program in communications at the Wheaton College Graduate School, the chart depicts the stages one goes through in moving from a general awareness of a Supreme Being (-8), to grasping the implications of the Gospel (-5), to repentance and faith in Christ (-1), to an actively growing disciple (+3) and beyond.
I first encountered the chart in John Wimber’s Power Evangelism, and it’s stuck with me as a useful tool for understanding evangelism and discipleship. We must move people along the continuum, so to speak. But what does the Engel Scale have to do with Christian art?
The Bible teaches that salvation is both an event and a process. As such, everyone’s always in a different place spiritually. Being effective witnesses / ministers means learning to ratchet our approach to the listener’s level. Hammering away at John 3:16 can be frustrating if our “target audience” is not past Genesis 1:1. Making this even more fun is the fact that, amidst the varied cultures, traditions, and personalities, God is constantly at work stirring hearts, bringing conviction, and orchestrating events. Recognizing where people are at — and where God’s at with those people — is integral to effective evangelism and discipleship.
When I think of Christian art (be it films, music, or literature), I think of it as existing on a similar continuum. Not only are Christian artists, at various stages of growth or ministry, sprinkled along the spectrum, their work (intentionally or unintentionally) connects with people differently. And this is a good thing. After all, somebody’s gotta go after the -8’s.
One of my issues with the current definitions and strictures of Christian art (especially as it relates to Christian fiction), is that large sections of this “artistic spectrum” are forced outside the camp. Whether it’s because of specific theology, semantics, cultural conservatism or a flat-out commercial hijacking, only the art that falls within certain parameters is deemed Christian. But perhaps the greater tragedy is that by narrowing the boundaries of the genre — which is what the Christian label forces us to do — we inadvertently diminish or overlook important expressions of Christian witness and ministry in the world.
I’ve been involved with small groups, leading them and training leaders, for over 20 years. A dilemma arose once when a small group under my watch decided to hold their Bible studies in a local pub. I thought it was a novel idea! Until it was discovered that some individuals, as one is wont to do at a pub, enjoyed an occasional brew. Church officials immediately canned the group and an edict announced: No barroom Bible studies and absolutely no beer at small groups. Oh pah!
Martin Luther once said: “It is better to think of church in the ale-house than to think of the ale-house in church.” But nowadays, thinking of the Church anywhere near an ale-house is liable to get you the boot. If someone’s gonna get saved, they’ll have to come to our house. Oh for the days when, like our Lord, the Christian was accused of being “a glutton and a drunkard” (Matt. 11:19); when stories and parables were unfolded before peasants and prostitutes, all under the watchful, disapproving eye of the religious gatekeepers.
The terms Christian art / fiction / music, indicate a retreat from the ale-house. We have our own thang now — something that reflects our values, our beliefs, our distinctives. The problem is, the people who need it must come to our place (see Christian bookstore) to get it. Where is the fiction that will reach the -8’s? Alas, it ain’t Christian and it can’t be found in our stores.
For the record: I have no problem with fiction that’s explicitly Christian, religiously conservative, aimed at church-goers, and unapologetically evangelistic. This type of fiction should exist! Why? Because there are people along the spectrum who need it. But when only that type of fiction is defined as Christian, I believe something is terribly wrong. As it stands now, Christian art has become the practice of speaking to the choir.
To me, the one defining factor of Christian art is the author — are they a genuine believer? We have reason to question the Christian artist whose work is incessantly dark, overly graphic, intentionally erotic, or lacks any representation of biblical theme or virtue. If one is really saved, their work (and life) should stand up under questioning. However, many of those who are asking the questions also hold the purse strings and are, therefore, free to make the rules.
In the end, I’m a Christian and I write fiction. That fiction will fall at various points along the spectrum — from overtly biblical to not so much. So is it Christian? Hmm. You got me.