The head of my department at Focus—V.P. of “Global Resource Development”—likes to use the above saying when faced with the idea that we should write “subversive evangelical fiction.” “Well, I don’t know. Can a Christian baker bake Christian bread?” (Of course, now that they added “Global” to our department name, he’s lost a lot of credibility wearing around that Buzz Lightyear space suit.)
But the point is valid. An artist is an artist and what’s inside just comes out, and not of any methodical or systematic efforts to inject a message.
In More Than Words, author Stephen Lawhead talks about the reasons Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings. When Lawhead first discovered the books, he thought it was amazing that Tolkien hadn’t mentioned Jesus in a single paragraph of the entire thing. And yet the whole of the work essentially breathes the Christian message. That sent him on a journey: to discover how Tolkien had so expertly hidden the gospel in his books.
Ultimately, he made a shocking discovery. Tolkien hadn’t done it on purpose.
“I assumed,” Lawhead explains, “that when Christian writers wrote, they entered a process that went something like this: ‘Well,’ the writer says, ‘I have this burning message I must at all costs communicate to a lost and dying world. How shall I then write? I have it! Yes! I shall compose an engaging work of fiction which will subtly, yet ingeniously deliver my life-changing message to the fallen masses who shall read my masterpiece and turn as one to the Light of salvation.’
“I had had it drummed into my head,” Lawhead writes, “that when it came to the propagation of the gospel, virtually any medium of communication could, and should, become a tool.” What he found was something quite different.
Tolkien’s original intent was to write an entertaining story for his kids. “Tolkien worked at his art in a very exacting, methodical way, according to a philosophy of literature which he had developed—a philosophy his friend C. S. Lewis called the ‘Tolkienian Theory of Sub-Creation.”
This theory of writing is a mimicking of God’s creation, a sub-world reflecting His glory. “For Tolkien,” Lawhead writes, “the creation and exploration of fantasy worlds was a way of examining the image of the Maker as revealed in his creation and in his creatures. It was also a way of probing the nature of the fall, and tremendous grace and power manifest in the incarnation and redemption.”
Simple, unintentional redemptive art. Can it really work that way?
I think we have to concede that it can.
W. H. Auden believed there was no such thing as Christian art or secular art. Good art is universal: that which best demonstrates the truth about a particular aspect of life.
William Faulkner wrote, “The only stories worth a writer’s blood and sweat and tears are stories of the human heart in conflict with itself.”
According to Lawhead, the purpose is struggling to portray Goodness, Beauty, and Truth and to render it faithfully. “If our art tries to do anything else—such as preach or evangelize—it devalues itself and thus falls prey to the same fate awaiting other works whose creators have abandoned the Quest.” I’d have to agree. Your book may not be as strong as it could have been if what you’re trying to do is write veiled sermons. Some might like the book enough to buy a bunch of copies, but who will that person be? And will he still be reading you 20 years from now?
Okay. Did you want to see me come out of the booth? I’ll give it to you straight. T.S. Eliot wrote an essay called “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” It’s been over there in my sidebar of essential reading ever since I started this blog, and I’ll bet only about 2 of you have actually read the thing. But if you’re going to continue reading this free piece of my mind, you need to know that I consider it your duty to me—if you love me, as you should—to read this (Free guilt trips, tonight, too). If you let it do its work, it will change you. Go on a 2-day reading fast and absorb what he’s saying (Okay, you two. You know who you are). It will completely alter your understanding of why you’re writing and confront you with the fact of your responsibility to the very long, very real, writing tradition. As they say, we all stand on the backs of those who have gone before us, and each of us owes everything we are to that heritage.
What you will find is that you, personally, have a particular heritage. Eliot will send you out on a journey of self-discovery. Now admittedly, this is easier for some than others, but it’s my own prejudice that the greatest writers all possess the required “curious ego” to seek out such self-awareness. My own journey led me to the fact that I like writing that searches for answers—and never finds them. I’m a bona fide, unrepentant, freaky-deaky postmodern and I want a book to offer me solace to the inescapable tragedy of human suffering I see all around me, rather than pretending to be able to resolve that for me with some arbitrary nod to the all-knowing, all-loving creator of all this chaotic beauty. There isn’t a nice answer for me. There are horrors too great to imagine in this world and some characters you will come in contact with will tell you these evils don’t lessen with time. The best you can hope for is to block it out and force yourself to forget. I’m sorry, but I’m with Kafka on this one: my books need to be about the inescapable tragedy and beauty in chaos to be relevant. Truth, beauty, art, mystery, faith, love. I like authors and characters who are wretched with imperfections, tarnished by doubt, unfinished, inadequate, chaotic, crippled, and blinded—but for some reason, still striving. I want to ask them why. Why don’t you just quit? How can you possibly live this life? I’m drawn to them because I’m searching for someone who empathizes with me, who knows my own insecurities and failings—and doesn’t let what they lack stand it their way.
Put 100 writers in a room and ask them why they write. You’ll get 100 different answers. And it doesn’t matter if you’re talking to professionals, freelancers, beginners, or hobbyists. We all have different reasons and purposes for writing. But here’s my big thing: if we’re “called” to it—meaning, if we’re chosen by God to carry out a particular action with our personal gift—we’ve got a responsibility.
Many times, I’ll talk to new authors who are so driven by this urgent need to get their life message across, and I want to say, “Is this an experience God had you live through to change you? Did He give you this seed to have it grow in you? And is it fully developed? Or are you still searching for the right way to express it?” I think even I would have to answer that I’m still searching. So should I have any business getting so desperate to see it published? Put in 7 years of work on it, then see how eager you are to have the thing read by the world. I’m weary of beginners talking about career management and branding and royalty rates. We’re an industry obsessed with the easy formula to God’s great riches. And—plug your ears kids—we’re surrounded by Jabez-worshiping prostitutes. The prophets had some choice words for those folks.
To me, pain is the writer’s proper heritage, not this mythological consumerist lifestyle fashion, drawn from American fairy dust. The writers’ life is brutal, honest, and often, far from sweet. There are no rich literary stars basking in the spotlight, polishing their Pulitzers.
And unless you’re at least passably okay with that sacrifice, I’d say you’d be best to wait to publish.