Of Confidence, Mediocrity, and CBA

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In The First Five Pages Noah Lukeman describes a common daunting feeling new writers get at the great wealth of books that have come before them. He quotes Shakespeare and says it can often be a case of “art tongue-tied by authority.” No doubt a young Shakespeare also struggled with self-doubt and amateurism like all of us. It’s comforting to think that even in our struggle, there’s no struggle except what is common to all of us, even the bard.

But in our pursuit of humility, I think sometimes we Christian writers can be especially prone to feelings of inadequacy, preferring to err on the side of moderation, decorum, and all things “nice.” It seems preferable to risking brazenness and amateurism in insisting our first drafts are inspired brilliance, outshining the light of Lewis on his holiest day. Though I’ve met my share of those misguided individuals at writers conferences, I’ve also met my share of the self-flagellating newbies.

But in his excellent advice to burgeoning scribes, Mr. Lukeman mentions confidence as the first step in staying out of the rejection pile. I bring it up, not only because it seems right to speak of the need for balance between unchecked ego and worm-eating, but also because of the difficulty Christian artists face determining who we are writing for.

At first glance, it seems an easy answer. “Well, God, of course.” But in the market, Christian books are our comparisons. In CBA, we write for CBA and compete against each other. Current “critical issue” campaigns aside, publishers don’t typically promote each others’ books. I’m just the idealist to say they should, but no business would last very long if it started that policy. I bristle at the fact, but too many of those kind of idealists and the entire system would be ruined.

No. Instead, we rely on a self-perpetuated inbreeding that’s encouraged in CBA. Of course, the major reason for it is the necessity of an accepted standard. The danger here, of course, is that high quality can easily take a backseat to this orthodoxy, and rather than allowing divergent views and the free exchange of ideas, we often opt for safety and opinion-coddling. I’ve been accused on this blog of being extremist, alarmist, immature, anti-church, insular, inflammatory, and revisionist. I was even told that I could not be a Christian and eat dinner with Marilyn Manson (okay, not in so many words, but still). Maybe I do need to find a “real” church that doesn’t teach compromised values of engaging culture and living in the gutter with the lost. Maybe I should just accept my pedestal in Christendom and look down on others from my protective bubble. Maybe I should realize the superiority of my grasp on Biblical teaching and theology and demand more people believe like me or be stricken from the shelves of Family Christian for all eternity.

But maybe instead of accepting these views as common wisdom and above reproach, we don’t narrow our audience/market assumptions. Maybe we’re not just after the Christian demographic. Maybe we do start asking how we can reach all of America, rather than simply our own neighbors. Maybe we stop ignoring the larger world. Maybe some of us need to consider if we aren’t compromising our calling to speak only to the current CBA audience.

And confidence to do all this, yes, is a necessity, but not confidence in one’s own abilities. As the writers of tomorrow, all of us committed to CBA are concerned with building it up past its current adolescence, to take on the larger world with the confident power of unashamed “bitter truth,” to take it to more, different, unreached people. We can’t afford to be timid, to be merely concerned with measuring up to our nearest counterparts within CBA. We all bear some of the burden for changing the perception of mediocrity in our industry. Most of you who read here often certainly don’t need me to point that out. But simply, we must be more aware of our own culture and the interests of the larger world if we want to reach them with the undiluted message of Christ.

We need an awareness of ALL of bookdom, even as we’re going after our very small segment of it. It can be tongue-tying considering the “authority” of the cultural intelligensia, and the behemoths of Random House and Doubleday. But that’s all the more reason to seek the true source of creativity and prepare our minds, hearts, and talents to take on the giants and answer the objections with sound, confident Truth.

And all God’s people said…

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4 thoughts on “Of Confidence, Mediocrity, and CBA”

  1. Here’s a phrase that stood out for me: “committed to CBA.” It would be interesting to explore that idea. What does that commitment entail — and more importantly, what is it actually a commitment to? When it comes to fiction, I don’t feel committed to CBA at all. The idea of what it might become is intriguing, but you have to ask yourself WHY should it change? Wouldn’t it be better to work outside of that admittedly narrow vision? On the one hand, it’s great to see that people within the CBA want to broaden it, but that isn’t the CBA of today or five years from now, is it? What it boils down to is, why would a person who is not (a) employed within the CBA, or (b) already established as an author within it, be committed to it? As an outlet for Christian nonfiction, I can see it; but for fiction I’m not so sure. (I’m not saying I can’t be convinced, but I’d like to have some reasons.) What do you think?

  2. Well, first off, I think you’re right to draw a distinction between fiction and non. There are just some expository works that only fit in CBA. And I am mostly concerned with fiction. Creativity, imagination, and space for mystery are all things we’re aching for in the Christian community. These need to find a place in CBA without the typical mediations given to those few who fling around heresy charges over a few curse words. Fiction writers would do well to commit to CBA if they feel led to reach some of these pseudoChristians who have snuck in the back door. Influencing and deepening their understanding of faith is an excellent way to better reach the larger world. The Prez at Focus is fond of saying “If you don’t preach to the choir, sometimes they won’t sing.” Now I think that can easily become a cop-out, but it’s hard to argue with in principle. Maybe there are a few fiction writers (Ted Dekker comes to mind) who will be called to share with Christians in order to convict them and challenge them to go reach their world. We might not be satisfied with the quality level in these books for many years, and it will take many years of fiction writers punching their fists at that wall for it to start to give. But change will come and a few will find ways to create that positive controversy. Lisa Samson is already starting to do this too.

  3. I identify with the tension between confidence and humility you describe. I tend to err on the side of confidence with the occasional, “Why in the world did I think I could do this?” thrown in to spice things up. I don’t think anyone (publisher, editor, reader) is drawn to an author who emits a this-is-probably-horrible-but-please-read-it-anyway vibe. But, as you said, the I’m-God’s-gift-to-literature attitude is no more appealing.
    Whether we target CBA or ABA, we should strive to be like David, who played skillfully on his harp, but let God determine his concert schedule. I’m guessing he had loads of confidence in his flaming harp skills. And yet God called him a man after His own heart.
    Christians should be producing the highest quality of art out there. But our driving force will never be the same as the world’s. If it is, we cease to matter.

  4. i can’t find where you said “rigidity of orthodoxy” but i knew it was there…or did i just lapse into a dream, no matter.
    i think it is more of a rigormortis of orthodoxy. the church has frozen hands and fingers clutching her *&$% tradition and sadly, christian publishing isn’t doing much better. i’m speaking strictly from a nf position here, but there is merely a flake, the merest sliver, of literature in christian nf. a hint, a glimmer. that’s all. very tragic that the Great Creator who inspires “us” is being primmed, polished, and made proper.

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