By Jeffrey Overstreet
In the early days, they plotted how to kill each other.
That may sound like unseemly behavior for a group of celebrated Christian writers. But you can read all about the murderous conspiracies of the Chrysostom Society in their first collaborative literary effort: Carnage at Christhaven. It’s a serial murder mystery—satirical, smart, and subversive—each grisly chapter contributed by a different society member.
None of them, not even the writers themselves, were safe within those pages. (Even inspirational Christian writer and Society member Philip Yancey turns up dead.)
Whatever one thinks of this book, this enterprising fellowship of writers can’t be accused of taking themselves too seriously.
It began in 1986. Three writers—Richard Foster (A Celebration of Discipline), Calvin Miller (The Singer), and Karen Burton Mains (Open Heart, Open Home)—planted the seeds that would grow into a flourishing community.
The idea was this: Create a fellowship that would work together to help revitalize Christian writing, cultivating new works—some of them collaborative—characterized not only by a meaningful, moral vision but also by high standards of literary artistry and integrity.
The term “Christian writing” means different things to different people. It might remind some of us of a wide range of classic literature—Augustine’s Confessions, Dante’s Divine Comedy, G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories, T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.
But for many readers—perhaps most—the term calls to mind works of a different stripe: mediocre writing, simplistic and even didactic allegories, sentimental sermonizing, “preaching to the choir,” and worse…a religiosity tainted by false promises.
It describes something prescriptive instead of revelatory: advertisements for religion rather than invitations for the imagination.
The Chrysostom Society has aspired to cultivate works distinguished by artistic excellence and honesty about the human condition, not mere religiosity. Its method has been to restore such qualities through discipline, community, and collaboration.
Works of literature that illuminate through beauty and excellence are rare. They come from many hours of reading, reflection, and writing in solitude. Moreover, they emerge from a crucible of criticism. Think of The Inklings, the Oxford writers’ fellowship that gave J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and other writers a context in which to imagine, discuss, critique, revise, edit, and polish their work.
Aiming to cultivate just such a community, Foster, Miller, and Mains sent invitations to nine other writers who, while sharing Christian faith, came from diverse backgrounds and published work in a wide variety of genres. With the sponsorship of The Milton Center (then based at Friends University in Wichita, Kansas), the twelve assembled at Christ Haven Retreat Center, west of Colorado Springs, Colorado, in October 1986.
They included Harold Fickett, Emilie and William Griffin, Madeleine L’Engle, Stephen Lawhead, Luci Shaw, Robert Siegel, Walter Wangerin, Jr., and Philip Yancey; as well as two representatives from the Word publishing company, and Lynda Graybeal (Richard Foster’s assistant).
At that first meeting the group decided that a series of collaborative book projects would not only help revitalize the state of Christian writing but also fund the group’s gatherings.
Over the years these volumes have included Reality and the Vision, a collection of essays on great writers reissued later as The Classics We’ve Read, The Difference They’ve Made, and again in an expanded edition titled More Than Words; Stories of the Christian Year, edited by Eugene Peterson; Once Upon a Christmas; The Eternal Present; and A Syllable of Water. They have also published a series of single-author volumes called Going Deeper. For more information, visit the Books by the Society page.
The Society has also sought grants from publishers, foundations, and non-profit organizations.
In 1988, during their second assembly at New Harmony, Indiana, they were joined by John Leax, J. Keith Miller, Shirley Nelson, Virginia Stem Owens, Eugene Peterson, Gregory Wolfe, and others.
It was at this meeting that the group chose the name “The Chrysostom Society” in remembrance of St. John Chrysostom (Greek for ”golden-tongued”), a late fourth- and early fifth-century Church leader known for his erudite sermons and writing.
Since then, the Society has grown large, as has its collective readership. (Visit the Members page for a list of all current Chrysostom members.) It has gathered in a variety of locations, and recently they have found a home at Laity Lodge near Kerrville, Texas, a location beloved for its natural beauty, its distance from the busyness of big cities, and its tradition of cultivating Christian community.
This has resulted in some collaboration with The High Calling, a website of resources focused on educating readers “about work, life, and God.”
In addition, the Society has provided modest financial support for scholarships to Image journal’s Glen Workshop as well as to the journal itself. (Click on the Friends link from our home page to learn more about these organizations.)
The Society sometimes invites special guests—musicians like Phil Keaggy, Jeff Johnson, Over the Rhine, and Leigh Nash; visual artists like Ginger Geyer; and talented young writers—to visit their annual gatherings and enhance their experiences.
To be a Christian and a writer is not an easy vocation, especially in view of the changing nature of the publishing industry, and the distorted impression that the term “Christian publishing” can give to skeptical readers.
Today, the Chrysostom Society goes on gathering in order to encourage each other toward excellence, to explore new forms of collaboration, to discuss the challenges of publishing, and to season the world of the arts with thoughtful prose and inspiring poetry.
Madeleine L’Engle, the first departed member of the Society, might have inadvertently penned the community’s mission statement when, in her book Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, she wrote, “We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”