Learning from the Masters, part II

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I’ve been thinking today about what I have to say to the person who’s looking for inspiration, encouragement from their struggles, understanding in their pain. I’ve got to become versed in human struggle to have lasting impact and value. That’s the scary truth. This course I’m on requires untold sacrifice. It’s a terrifying, yet ultimately wonderful thing. I believe the great human spirit in us all that strives for purpose and meaning requires an unblinking honesty from writers, and therefore a continual inward humility of the spirit. It’s striving for what Richard Foster calls “work as worship.”

So tonight, consider me like the little checkpoint troll on your journey toward that great writer you will eventually become, encouraging you with a wry smile and a stern glare: Do not design your current work as anything other than a search for goodness, beauty, and truth. This goes back to Stephen Lawhead’s instruction from last time, what he called the “High Quest.” And if you do not know how to effectively contrast the elements of your idea in a compelling way, find out through practice. As you work out your faith with fear and trembling, work out your books by asking, What is the most honest and worshipful way to portray this?

Okay, stay with me here. I’ll unpack that. There are those who won’t be able to handle the idea of writing something that isn’t meant to entertain the reader, just as there are those who can’t fathom writing anything that doesn’t lead to an altar call. But consider the following quote: “Those who make a distinction between education and entertainment don’t know the first thing about either.” Ultimately, the goal is neither entertainment, nor education, nor high art, self-expression, nor evangelism. The ultimate goal is connecting the reader with God. You might argue that that’s evangelism, but I don’t think so. Labeling it evangelism confuses things. If I say I’m writing to evangelize, that excuses writing veiled sermons. No. We have enough of those. Connecting the reader with God requires both the book and the writer to get out of the way of the Holy Spirit. That’s the real duty of the Christian writer. We can talk about our “high quest” and becoming better packagers of the message. But the underlying goal is to show the reader a vision of who God is. And it just so happens that one of the best ways for Christians to do this—and some think the best way—is to write about our own struggles with faith and life.

I happen to agree with this. Given our current culture, most people are willing to validate personal experience. Philip Yancey achieved wide popularity as the author of Disappointment with God, taking readers through tough questions about God and suffering.

Will writing be the thing that gives meaning to your life and makes you get up excited in the morning? The bottom line is, if God has given you the goal of writing, you must write and learn to do it well in order to be a proper steward of His call and His gifts. Anything you allow to keep you from executing that work is a stumbling block. Writing, for you, must become on par and equivalent with your “spiritual gift”: your books are your contribution to the search for truth, beauty, and love.

We’ve talked here a lot about the delicate balance between being in the world and not of it, being detached but involved. Expressing God’s love for your reader through your work must become a mode of evangelism, your job for the kingdom, and your daily expression of God’s love. In that way, you are a part of the Great Commission, exercising your talent for the kingdom. Does that mean you write veiled sermons? Gospel commericals? Christian propaganda? Or does it mean you learn to write effectively, discerning, educating, and sharing some tough love to the people in our market who most need to hear the wake up call you have to offer?

Remember: a sermon is prescriptive truth intended to teach in a pedantic way. A story is descriptive truth, intended to portray the truth of reality. Very different purposes. It might be true that veiled sermons sell and have been selling for many years, thanks to the unfortunate need some new Christians have to be affirmed in their assumptions about God making life wonderful (You might call it “seeker fiction.” It reduces things to the barest of essentials in order to formulate the message for as broad an audience as possible, which incidentally is a smart way to get popular and convince all your jealous friends you were nothing but a big sell-out all along.) But messages that last, and speak to more than just this particular segment of Christians, must go further.

As the kind of writer who seeks to connect readers with God, you’ll plant pieces of yourself into everything you write and you’ll forfeit what seems like all the better parts. Like Flannery O’Connor said, we will spend so many hours a day working and the rest of the day getting over it. We will always be pulled toward the real world and seek ways to connect our inner world with the outer. But in the end we’ll always be forced to give up and withdraw again, as Yancey says, “to climb inside the hermetically sealed spaceship that is our article, poem, novel, or essay” and “live on its artificial oxygen until we can tolerate it no longer, [only to] emerge gasping and choking to find that the real world has gone on without us.”

It’s not easy. But those among us who put their hand to the plow and don’t look back will bring in the harvest.

Is God asking you to forsake family and friends for the sake of gospel for this?

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11 thoughts on “Learning from the Masters, part II”

  1. Mick, you said, “As the kind of writer who seeks to connect readers with God, you’ll plant pieces of yourself into everything you write and you’ll forfeit what seems like all the better parts.” Would you clarify that?
    I love the Flannery O’Connor quote. As I love all the rest of this. I’ll read it when I wonder why I write. Thank you.

  2. Mick, I feel as if you were talking directly to me. Okay. And maybe a hundred other writers. As always, your thoughts hit very close to home.
    Thank you. :) You definitely keep reminding me, day in and day out, why I’m writing, what I believe God wants me to accomplish, and the knowledge that with His help, I can.

  3. Mick, you wrote: “As you work out your faith with fear and trembling, work out your books by asking, What is the most honest and worshipful way to portray this?”
    This is what I’ve been starting to ask myself. I don’t feel like I’m translating that very successfully into my writing, but I’m working on it.
    Linda

  4. You’re too cute to be a troll. ;)
    The little inner voice (the one with the adorable lisp) whispered, “Yes!” all the way through this post.
    Thank you, Mick.

  5. you ask:
    Is God asking you to forsake family and friends for the sake of gospel for this?
    yes. and more than that, i believe He is asking me to forsake favor, fame, and fortune. there’s alliteration for you!
    i often weep over the words He is bidding me write, and ask why me? (like all the great doubters of old). i wonder why can’t i just write some popular piece. something that will garner some measure of acclaim. but then, He persists, is that what you really want?
    and i know it isn’t. i was about to have a minor heffer when you kept evoking the e word. that is a four letter word my friend. i don’t e well. but i can write a bit of poetry. i can read that poety at open mics. i can pour my soul upon a page and let God do with it what He will.
    who knows. i surely don’t. but i’m glad you keep coming to the hard parts and not weasling around them.
    thank you for that.
    suz

  6. Mick:
    My friend, Katy Popa, directed me to your blog, and this was the first posting I read. It resonated within, and all I could do was say, “Yes!” again and again. I made a copy and will refer to it when I need a reminder of what I’m doing and why. And I’ll forever declare I do what I do to connect my reader with God. Our days on this earth are too short to spend our time on anything less.

  7. Yes, nearly all of this is quotable. Yes, yes, yes.
    “Is God asking you to forsake family and friends for the sake of gospel for this?”
    Yes.
    ahhhh… that hurt, but I feel better now.

  8. Katy,
    This is a stolen thought, actually, from Annie Dillard, in an article she wrote for NYT, Write Till You Drop:
    http://partners.nytimes.com/books/99/03/28/specials/dillard-drop.html
    Here’s its context (and I’d encourage you to read the entire article):
    “One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

  9. Ah yes. I had read Dillard’s article:
    “Push it. Examine all things intensely and relentlessly. Probe and search each object in a piece of art; do not leave it, do not course over it, as if it were understood, but instead follow it down until you see it in the mystery of its own specificity and strength.”
    And her quote from Michelangelo: “Draw, Antonio, draw, Antonio, draw and do not waste time.”
    Thanks for reminding me.

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