More Abundance in Life and Art

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Happy New Year, folks.

Over the three-and-a-half years I’ve been writing on this blog, I’ve realized a few things about Christian books and publishing. It’s been a good education. One of the things I’ve learned is that it’s far too easy to criticize the deficiencies and errors of our current system. I’ve made some honest, incisive critiques but I’ve also made generalizations and over-simplifications. I’ve pressed in, believing that progress and truthfulness would win out over my own shortcomings. But in confronting the challenge to contribute to the progress of our insular Christian book culture, I’ve found it difficult to accept the fact that here, morality not only usurps quality and reality, it is often a morality defined as caution, prudence, conservatism, reserve, and safety. It’s a negative morality; we become moral by what we avoid out of fear. Goodness is commonly seen as the opposite of sin, so writing the opposite of sin becomes the writer’s motivation. And the goal becomes to stay safe.

But Jesus did not come so that we might have safety more abundantly.

Imagine the life we’re missing because we’re so concerned with caution. But of course, we can’t imagine it because we lack the imagination and the artists to show us how. And this is the clanging gong I’ve sounded here over and over, yes, sometimes with the love for my target undermined by the forcefulness of passion. Other times, the love for Christians, Christian books, and the larger purpose has simply been left implicit—and subsequently missed. Completely understandable, but no less frustrating. And sometimes my appreciation for the good work being done in CBA has spilled out at the expense of the more well-reasoned point being made. Those times have been rare—self-preservation as a hard-nosed book doctor may be to blame there, you understand.

But I’ve reminded myself that being prudent should not mean proceeding with caution; it must mean having practical wisdom, using judgment, practicing discernment. Exercising wise judgment certainly requires caution. Yet at times it also requires risk.

Because the larger truth of this situation is that the tragic effect of limiting our acceptance of the bald realities before us in the Christian book market derails its progress. Every equivocation to caution and safety further limits the truth. It’s seen as dangerous, so rather than consider the aesthetic quality and purpose of criticism, we dismiss it as mean, negative, or presumptive and miss the value.

Are we unable to look at ourselves honestly? If so, I might argue that this distortion of "morality" has already happened. The falsification has become the norm. But you see? This is what happens to good books too.

Again and again great books have their art destroyed, denounced as immoral (given the definition of “moral” above), and are overlooked, while the mawkish, the simplified, the aesthetically meretricious is extolled because its message is regarded as edifying and safe. And thus are many led astray. These readers will acquire a taste not for what is good and real, but what is bad and false. Their ability to appreciate the genuineness and integrity of a truthful message is replaced with deadened senses, preferring the more common, familiar, and simple.

What service is it to our faith—to grace!—to turn potentially mature human beings into less? What claim can we make to serve Truth if we acquiesce or encourage distortions and falsifications of it?

I’m not saying this to make anyone upset. I’m also not saying this is what has happened in our culture. I think these are questions we must all deal with on a personal level. I’m merely pointing out that if you struggle with these questions as I do, it isn’t for nothing. Listen to them. Seek out answers. They may not be where you expect them, but I guarantee wherever you end up finding them, God will be there.

(Much of the strength and substance of this argument comes from an essay
published over forty years ago by a British Dominican priest in the
mid-twentieth century, and reprinted a while back by Image Journal The same one paraphrased here. His
points are about the Christian culture in general, but there’s clearly significant application to modern Christian books.)

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8 thoughts on “More Abundance in Life and Art”

  1. The way I look at it, as artists who love Jesus, our first onus is to Him first. Perhaps the most difficult thing to do is create the piece He is calling us to, despite the possibilities of criticism from others. Isn’t that what Jesus did in His relationship to the Father? Listened and watched to see and understand what the Father had Him do, and then do it to the utmost?
    Jesus was revered by many, but loathed too. His art is the deepest: the revolution of hearts in a dark humanity.
    I may rile by my writing, but if I’m bent toward Jesus’ voice, His will resonate. And He will give me the grace to love those who may criticize. With His outlandish, concilitory, humble love.
    I’m reminded of the courtroom scene in To Kill a Mockingbird. Everyone has left after Tom Robinson is declared guilty. All remaining is the crowd of folks in the balcony. Silently they rise. Scout, Atticus’ daughter, remains on the ground. The preacher tells her to stand, that her father is passing by.
    I cried the last time I watched that scene because I realized I’d been living for the applause from lower level of the courtroom. Longing for praise there. But the most significant praise we receive outside of the Well Done Good and Faithful Servant will be from those who hurt, who are oppressed, in whose lives we’ve made a difference by God’s grace.
    I want to write for His applause, yes. But I also want to lift my eyes to the balcony and live for the praise that is most humanly significant.

  2. I don’t have the words to eloquently comment or add to what you and Mary have said, but I appreciate both of your thoughts. I particularly like the title of your post, Mick, “More Abundance . . .” Isn’t that what Jesus calls us to – abundant life? I think of abundance as meaning both full and free, and yet so often we settle. For mediocrity, for comfort, for “safety” . . . for less. How foolish we can be!

  3. I really want to understand what you’re saying here, Mick, but I know I’m missing it. Perhaps this is coming from those works you’ve attempted to champion at pub board meetings being greeted with thumbs down reactions because of the stories seeming too risky, or too risqué, or too gritty, or too . . . too. I don’t know.
    I do know I’ve read recent CBA novels about drug addicts, meth labs, gambling addictions, sociopathic killers, murderers, adultery, and almost all other kinds of sin. Not all of them have resolved “happily ever after” or even presented a clear gospel message, although generally speaking in most all of them you could discover the difference between good and evil even if it wasn’t laid out in bread crumbs. On the other hand, I’ve read a few of the safer, more formulaic novels, too—and even some of them leave out a clear gospel message.
    Mary makes a good point—and you’ve made it before, too—but in this realm of Christianity, we must be true to our Savior. He, unlike us, sees all audiences and wants to minister to individuals on a personal level. That allows each of us who’ve been called to write (fiction) an avenue and an inroad to the hearts of those readers He has in mind for us. We might be surprised at who those people are or even the methods involved in reaching them.
    Unlike you, I do not think artists are responsible for showing people how to live but rather to reveal portions of life to those living it based on their own experiences, desires, and/or dreams. Caution is only wise when it’s motivated by the Holy Spirit and not propagated by fear. The Holy Spirit knows who can handle risk and who is incapable of sustaining it. There are writers for all God’s children. Let’s hope there are publishers who realize we are not all at the same level in our tastes or in our walk of faith.

  4. If you look at things Jesus said and did in light of the times and culture he was living in, he could’ve been labeled many things, but “safe” would never be among them.
    He continually challenged the status quo, and ate away at the pervasive fear of man that continues to plague the church and the world at large to this day. It’s not so much a Christian vs. secular issue as it is a human issue.
    Are we willing to lay aside our fear of man and step into the very things we’re called to? Are we willing to take a risk, if it means choosing anointing over respectability? It applies to our writing, yes, but it applies on a much broader scale as well.
    When your toes are hanging off the ledge, do you look or do you lean?

  5. Another Amen, Maddy.
    Milk, when I read your post I wasn’t thinking about the current books published. We have grown richly with diverse themes and subgenres, but what I take from your post resonates with a fear I have about CBA down the road. This year I have been disheartened to hear multicultural authors leaving CBA and new authors not including CBA as a potential place to publish. Christian authors. What sticks/stinks is I understand their reasons and I don’t see that problem going away in the future, which is a shame because we are all God’s children.

  6. I had this really strange experience the other evening. Kev, my husband, went to Blockbuster with “romantic comedy” probably droning in his ears. It just seemed like a safe request, and I am a pansy to the most annoying degree when it comes to movies.
    So Kev does this great job, comes home with Ben Stiller’s The Heartbreak Kid. Unfortunately, largely a porno in its comedy.
    And so I’m sitting there, feeling ashamed to be watching and a little guilty about the fact that I’d rather be someplace else, and I even prayed about the situation.
    So in trying to talk to God about the stress of the imperfect (violins playing), about the question of any redeeming value, the following popped into mind: “I love them.”
    And I almost cried. THAT was too radical for my morally sensitive processing.
    So it’s this whole unpackaging of “How did I get here?” and I think it’s a really fair question. Because you know, you read the Bible and it’s like “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect” and you think things like “Jesus would SO not be watching this porno comedy right now” rather than “He loves them.” It’s the book of James, it’s all the dead animals of the OT, it’s the stench of what I’ve done that put Him on the cross in the first place. Oh, to take those things back! Oh, to be perfect!
    And so it’s a fear, right, but it’s validated Biblically, I think. Which is why His interruptions into my perfectionism (“My grace is sufficient for you” in the midst of inexplicably screwed up Jen-head) are ultra confusing. Which is it, Lord? Perfect or not?
    And there’s the answer, right? Because a question couldn’t look much more ridiculous. I question everything, every R movie, my beloved epidurals (I just had a baby), whatever. But I have this sinking suspicion that He already paid the bill on these things, and that I’m not going to be much holier (as mad as that makes me) at 95 than I am today. And that maybe, giving a little more grace to a tremendously hurting world is the benefit I receive from this holy finale of redemption.

  7. Well, Mick, I agree, a lot of Christian writing can be lite and trite. We want to move on and we’re held back.
    You say that morality usurps quality and reality.
    I don’t think so. Quality and morality are the same, to me.
    But I don’t think you’re saying they aren’t. You’re saying you want to deal with its opposite in real life.
    And we can.
    I think we just have to balance good storytelling with obedience to the ultimate Author. He wrote, “whatsoever things are lovely…pure…virtue…praise…think on these things.” Philippians 4:?
    I don’t think that says we can never deal with the nitty-gritty of life and help people there. Or never deal with issues that aren’t only pure and lovely.
    There are many heavy themes that can and should be explored, yes, cautiously–in ways that don’t immerse the reader in filth for entertainment’s sake. Or even for redemption’s sake.
    I don’t think the end justifies the means.
    And again, of course, I’m not saying you’re advocating fictional immersion in things God makes plain He hates.
    I’m just submitting the thought because people like to push the envelope and sometimes go to excess.
    But we are responsible for not leading others astray by cultivating their (our) baser instincts. Even though the open minds may seem unscathed, things have a way of sinking down into the spirit, numbing it, graying it–and perhaps grieving the Holy Spirit who dwells there.
    Things may even tempt someone later in unexpected ways.
    I suspect all those things are what some houses avoid out of fear–the real fear of damaging someone, leading them into temptation to further explore what may have become attractive to them through too-edgy stories.
    Not all edgy stories–just those that don’t balance the issues with the commands of God.
    For me, He deserves the glory. I’m sure you agree, Mick.
    What we need to strive for is balance.
    Mary said it beautifully, much better than I–my goal is ultimately writing for the applause that matters most–from the balcony.

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