Reality Check #6: Your Art Is Love

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There are certainly some interesting reasons we don’t see higher quality writing from Christian writers.

We tend to be fairly separate–exclusive in our lingo, churches, and bookstores. We say we’re meant to be set apart, and that makes us inbred. No wonder so many our of books seem to have snaggle teeth and play the banjo.

We tend to harbor the suspicion that we shouldn’t associate with “outsiders” or be taught by teachers without a Christian worldview, as though excellence were a spiritual virtue, as though truth were relative. We hold prejudices about science and learning in general, and we prefer our disciplines all relate to the spiritual aspect. We have a hard time accepting arts from those who don’t profess our beliefs.

We don’t push toward excellence with the same do-or-die dedication since deep inside we know God accepts us anyway. We are never alone in the universe with only this creation to show we existed, never alone without God to fall back on. We place too high a value on family and others over our “personal” achievements with the talents God’s bestowed and we care too little about the establishment of a great work. We are (rightly) not as irrationally driven to prove our own worth and purpose through our creations. Our higher value is love, not art.

But what are the costs of such a literalist view of this higher value? Does it make us accept less than perfection when it comes to expressing the divine force we represent? Why are Christians not achieving the greatest works of literature today? How many times do we have to hear that we have a direct line to the greatest inspiration available before it actually makes us not only more creative, but more efficient, less literally minded, and more committed to following through on our artistic impulses, in answer to all our high ideals? Isn’t worshiping through art reason enough to deny your self, your duties, your family, and your supposed responsibilities? If it isn’t, maybe you need to reevaluate your commitment.

Maybe it’s because of love that we should give ourselves more fully to the creative impulse. If we, as Christian artists, would simply learn to love through our art, we might realize our greatest task.

Dedication is the key, and yes, this commitment requires sacrifice. We all have to consider whether God would have us take time from our families to dedicate to our art. Should we choose teachers of excellence over Christian teachers of lesser pedigree? Should we pull away from more direct expressions of love like missions and church work to dedicate to more indirect practice that leaves a hole in the church’s outreach team?

These are difficult questions and ones we must answer according to our own consciences. Certainly there is no one right answer for everyone. Yes, some will choose wrong. The only appropriate answer is to prayerfully seek God’s instruction for your life in the people, personality, events, and talents he’s provided. We need diversity in our approaches to showing love. We need a spectrum of believers making different decisions with their lives. What we don’t need is more pat answers and assumptions about what God does and does not expect.

Don’t judge unless you’d like to be judged. Yet furthermore, don’t mislead unless you’d like to be misled. While I no longer say that all lightweight writing is misleading—I’ve seen people find God through it—there are many misleading things being written in CBA. And there’s no measuring how many fat Christian babies fed on this junk food have missed out on the more nutritious and glorious bounty by reading beneath them. Think of the eternal damage you will have wrought as a writer of Christian junk food. Packages of frosted dirt may contain some nutrition (“A fat-free food!”), but it doesn’t mean it’s healthy.

And lest you think I’m only talking about the theology of our books, remember you bear the original creativity of the gift-giver; his glory is now reflected in you. We who are able to invest all our talents and not simply bury them out of convenience, we must choose our more refined tools to encourage others to consider the world they’re inhabiting, and turn their minds toward the inspiration. We as God-worshipers, if we want to have an impact for the truth of the God we claim to serve, we must reveal such beauty through a full Christian vision. We must be willing to see what God wants to show us through the well-told metaphor of a story, or our children may believe it doesn’t matter. Does God care about our depth of insight, our striving toward superior creations? He does. Look around you. How can he not? Is anyone able to create anything that rivals even the smallest production of “mindless nature?”

To this God, a thousand years are like a day, and a day is like a thousand years. Does anything in your experience compare to that? Explore it, get to know that (if you like, I’ll lend you my screaming baby at 3 am), and then share it with us so that we might know him better too. I have to believe that’s worth it. That’s truly greater than anything we might otherwise write.

This isn’t a question of intelligence or preference. This is a question of being awake.

We can change the current realities one reader at a time, but we must do it together, aware of the responsibilities, the painful sacrifices, and the harsh judgment we will face at the hands of our own brothers and sisters. We must not let ourselves fall to the temptation of self-pity or equating our plight with that of Christ’s. We are but representatives, and poor ones, of the beauty we bear witness to.

Call forth the beauty from the void. Make the commitment and don’t look back. Our world can not wait.

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22 thoughts on “Reality Check #6: Your Art Is Love”

  1. Mick wrote:
    “Why are Christians not achieving the greatest works of literature today?”
    I’ve often pondered that question. Maybe the question that needs to be answered first is: How did Christians write some of the greatest works of literature in the past? What was different back then?
    Tolstory and Hugo had no CBA.
    Perhaps part of the problem lies within the type of teaching/preaching being passed off as truth in many American Christian Churches today. How many who claim to be Christians understand what it means/costs to truly follow Christ? Many people are willing only to scratch the surface, and it is evident in their writing. Deep thinking is out of style, and it is difficult to shut out all the voices of the TV, cell phone, DVD player, etc. to do some deep thinking, deep reading, and deep writing.

  2. True, Mary. I’m generalizing in a Barna-esque sort-of-way. Certainly not all of us misuse grace this way. Yet I’ll point out Ron Sider’s excellent book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, which argues that the problem is widespread in our ranks.
    Suzan, you’ve got it! Preach it, sister. What a satisfying crunch and shatter a hoisted television would make on the pavement below….

  3. mick, i think it all goes back to that originality thing. we have to make our unique sound. i know you say there is none, and we all sound alike, but i don’t agree. what’s the point of trying if every painting were the same? every poem, been done? what’s the point? i wouldn’t write again (that might excite some people) if i knew i could only do what has been done before the way it has been done. the thing that fires my jets is, i have a unique perspective, a warped way of viewing the world and God that only i can convey. my piece of the puzzle, if you will.
    the screaming baby at 3am. oh, how i don’t miss those days. don’t let momma’s feet hit the floor (just a suggestion).
    blessings.

  4. This reminds me of some time in the past when someone told me I needed to view everyone as Jesus viewed me.
    I hang around with “sinners” and I love them. Most Christians shun me because of the company I keep. Well…Jesus was shunned, too.
    White-washed tombs all look dirty and rotten on the inside whether they’re Pharisees or pew warmers and they tend to like each other’s company.
    Christian fiction was better in times gone by because something was at stake. There was risk involved. Right now, as I see it, there isn’t a lot of risk or risk-taking going on in the CBA.
    Jesus was not safe. He was radically different. I think we tend to lean toward that Bible school image of Jesus and we forget what He came here for.
    Good discussion, Mick.

  5. Well, Mick, I don’t know about all that. I think you’re tarring everyone with the same brush when you say:
    >>…We hold prejudices about science and learning in general, and we prefer our disciplines all relate to the spiritual aspect. We have a hard time accepting arts from those who don’t profess our beliefs.
    >>We don’t push toward excellence with the same do-or-die dedication since deep inside we know God accepts us anyway. << In the seventh grade, I won a county-wide award for my science project. In the eighth grade, I won the Current Science and Aviation (newspaper for science classes) award "for outstanding achievement in science" and it was in a public school. I don't usually mention that, but it's germane to this discussion and that's the only reason I did. Later, my right brain stood up, and I majored in art education! But I'm still analytical and come to conclusions only after careful consideration of many viewpoints. On the other hand, I've read the whole Bible and am often enrolled in a Bible study and believe the Great Commission is for today: Teaching them to do all things whatsoever I have taught you...to the end of the world.... Preach the Gospel, heal the sick, raise the dead, cast out devils....The gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.... Come behind in no gift waiting for the coming of the Lord.... Do the first works.... You have lost your first love.... I stand at the door and knock.... (that last, written to a church, the one we're probably in--Laodicea) I didn't believe that way in the quiet Presby church I was raised in, either. It came later. This "outstanding" science student sees science and the Word as true, re different areas. And, yes, our writing does not reflect all the truth, excellence or excitemen it could. Not that people don't strive for it now, as they understand the truth. (A fun book on that subject is _Surprised by the Power of the Spirit_ by Jack S. Deere, former Dallas Theological Seminary professor who writes about revisionist *church* history, among other things.) But in the meantime, Mick, as we strive for excellence for God, we are still to learn and teach all things whatsoever Christ taught the disciples until the end of the world. And sometimes, it may be God who places a story before quality writing--as we learn quality--and truth--along the way. Because it's not just that we know God will love us anyway. It's that we know God loves others anyway. And they may have an urgent need to read some treasures from still very earthen vessels. That's my take on it. : )

  6. Had to come back to comment further after what I heard in church today. I’ve got to turn this into a blog post.
    So, Mick Silva. I’ve never met you, but you were the first person I thought about after Pastor Doug read the story about the banquet. The one where the guy has this huge banquet fixed and he has already invited everyone, but when it comes time for the event, the people invited are making all kinds of excuses and they’re backing out. So he gets all the “yucky” people to come in. They’ve all been invited and there’s still room at the table so he sends his servant to the outskirts to gather more so that all the chairs are filled.
    Then it hits me. I’m thinking to myself…I wonder if this is one of the answers? I wonder if the banquet table was open and those who were first invited made excuses and declined and now maybe the seats are being filled by others who will soon enjoy the blessings?
    Maybe we’re at the point that the servant is out looking for people to fill the seats at the table.

  7. I’m going to say something that’s going to get me flamed to the max, but it’s got to be said.
    The one issue everyone overlooks in this incessant questioning of “passion” or “grittiness” or “where’s the great Christian literature?” is that 90% of the time, the person asking that is male.
    Almost every Christian writing blog helmed by a male tosses this out. Many times, that male is an editor, former editor, or someone who’s been in the biz for a long time.
    Female editors, authors, and critics are not asking this question as much. I don’t think it’s an issue of not caring about the grittiness, passion, or literature, it’s that men and women tend to read and write different books.
    The stats show that in Christian circles, fiction readership is even more female than in secular circles. Part of this reason is that women writers dominate Christian fiction. And those women writers write the kind of books that Christian women readers love. End of story. There’s no reason to get more passionate, literate, or gritty because the female readership out there is happy with the state of Christian fiction the way it is right now.
    It’s the men that aren’t happy with the current status quo. But then male readership of Christian fiction runs only about fifteen percent of the total readership pie. As a result, you’re talking a subset of a subset of a subset here (Christian male fiction readers), and that market’s lying fallow right now for want of numbers.
    If we truly want the things Mick calls for, then we need more male Christian writers writing those kinds of books. Once we get them, I think they’ll push the envelope a bit more. They’ll also appeal to all these males editors and such who are calling for grit and lit. They’ll also run the risk of writing “guy” books that may not appeal to women readers. Considering those marketing figures, though, that’s a brave (and lonely) direction. A few male writers are out there testing those waters, but they’re not household names for the reasons I’ve laid out.
    Until that time, though, this whole issue is getting nowhere. And the reason is strictly because we’re failing to see the male/female components in the argument.

  8. DLE, I’m a female agreeing with Mick and everyone else talking about these issues.
    I don’t think your argument holds water.
    I’ve used Beth Moore as a non-fiction parallel. If we had fiction as layered as her Bible studies, I (for one) wouldn’t be complaining (as much.) I’m hard pressed to find a Bible teacher who risks what Moore does. And look at the results.
    The other Bible studies I’ve done are milk compared to the meat Moore dishes out.
    And that’s what most CBA fiction is, milk. I think we need to grow up.

  9. When I write, I center my stories around characters with personal demons and troubled pasts. Maybe it’s a cathartic exercise, but I think it’s more than that: it comes from my desire to portray life’s struggles so that readers will find themselves and their own questions within the story’s framework. For me, this is a work of love–level of quality open to debate. Yesterday, though, I received two emails from readers of my novel “Expiration Date,” and both told me they had thrown the book away after getting to the halfway point, due to a character they believed had died. One reader said, “God would not let that happen. God is a just God.” (One admitted that she picked it up later and was blown away by the ending.) Hmmm. I wonder, are readers not only fictionally immature but also theologically immature? Have we, indeed, become a generation of ear-tickled, milk-fed believers? The practical side of this question: Can I survive in the CBA market long enough for readers to get used to meat, or will the milk continue to dominate the shelves?

  10. Well, might as well be hung for a sheep. I too agree with DLE, because I’m in exactly that boat. In other words, I’m a male writer, writing “nasty” CBA fiction, with a predominately male (saved or unsaved) reader in mind. And, miracle of miracles, my stuff is published through a CBA house. Was it an easy task? Nope. One editor even went so far as to tell me my writing was great, but the blue-haired old lady book-buyers wouldn’t like it. To which I sweetly said, “Screw ’em.” (in nicer terms, of course.)
    It’s the old chicken and egg scenario writ large: CBA men don’t read CBA fiction because it bores them stiff, and CBA publishers are reluctant to publish “guy stuff” because “guys don’t read CBA fiction.” Arrghh.
    But here’s hoping that some enterprising, forward-thinking editor (ahem, Mick?) will take the plunge, and open the floodgates wide. Failing that, I can always slip on a dress and pen a prairie romance…and we don’t want that, do we?

  11. The point about the male vs. female reader is a valid one for general purposes and book sales. However, this female isn’t satisfied with “status quo” nor is she impressed with pretentious literary tomes in the CBA. I’m the rare exception who has abandoned ABA material.
    I’ve read John Robinson’s three Joe Box mysteries and found them anything but “nasty” and very entertaining. I’m just now reading my first Eric Wilson novel, Dark to Mortal Eyes. Into it at page 142 I can tell you I will read another one. The CBA can support both authors easily.
    Some readers will be forever satisfied with “milk” novels, and those will and should be supplied to them. But not all. Some readers will always be offended when the edginess, etc. exceeds their comfort zone. So be it. Other readers want lofty language and lilting stories. Other readers want hardship, suffering, uneasy endings because those stories seem more “real” to them. There sure seems to be enough of us writers out here to provide the desired material for all of these readers. So what about the publishers?
    I would guess the majority of men don’t want to or have the time to “go shopping” for a good man’s book. My husband loves to read, but I’m the one who reads the books and hands them off to him if I think he’ll enjoy them. Give him action, mystery, intrigue, male protagonists–you know the drill. The last one I asked if he wanted to read took place near where he was born. Although for the most part he enjoyed it, he commented that the author seemed to be working too hard to impress. Interesting comment.
    Tastes are as varied as the posts on this blog. Don’t we ultimately get back to the same point? Write the stories God gives you to tell under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Don’t be lazy, don’t “use” your Christianity for anything but excellence, write with the passion of Jesus, and make sure it’s done to please Him above all else. Isn’t that what we’re to do? They’re His books, His stories. It’s He who determines what happens to them, and that’s not an easy place to come to–at least it isn’t for me. I’m sitting on almost 5 completed novels . . .

  12. A few thoughts…
    About the demographic: There is no question that the majority of CBA fiction readers are women. But let’s not be naïve about this—the Blue Hair Group is not some secret mafia with pub-board veto power. While based on a grain of truth, an invocation of the Blue Hairs little more than a lazy answer to a much more complex question. Readers like to read. That’s what they do. Much of the previous discussion in this group has been about the “discriminating” reader. Here’s my flamebait statement: There are a whole lot more discriminating women readers than men. You can argue with the gender truth of that presumption if you like, but you can’t argue with the math.
    About that “grit and lit.” What is this “grit”? Is it a dripping pan of oily black sludge pulled from under a ’67 Mustang Convertible? Blood spurting like a Mentos-and-Diet Coke fountain from a severed artery on the field of battle? Teeth and profanities spit onto the pavement in the back alley of a dimly lit bar? I don’t imagine this is what we’re talking about, especially since it’s paired with “lit,” which I will assume is a reference to “literary.” And if that’s what we’re talking about—“invoking the real” in our writing—it’s incredibly presumptuous (pompous?) to suggest that it’s up to men to pick up that gauntlet and save the literary day in the CBA. I heartily agree we need more male writers. But, please, let’s not make this about how men will usher in some new age of literary, or even “griterary” greatness.
    About that word “passion.” Just what is this incessant cry of the male editor all about, anyway? Is it a cry for more fistfights and car chases and swooning women? Or is it a cry for writing that speaks to the deeper truths of a man’s soul? When I speak of “passion” I’m not talking about romance (at least not in a “genre” sense), I’m talking about the difficult places—places where despair and hope fight for fingerholds on a cliff’s edge, where love confounds lust and lust confounds love, where the desire to be godly battles the desire to be God. These aren’t easy places to go, but, yeah. I want books that take me there. Books that open up those places in me. Give me a great male author who can do that and I’ll be thrilled to make that journey. But…give me a great female author who can do that and I’ll not only be thrilled to make the journey, I’ll bring along more than a little awe as well.
    The bottom line for me is simply this: I don’t care if your name is Kate or Kyle; I don’t care if you watch Desperate Housewives or Monday Night Football; I don’t care if you shave your legs or your back…just write great stories. I want to read them.

  13. Ironically, the first draft of my post mentioned John Robinson as someone appealing mostly to men, but I cut that section before I posted.

  14. DLE makes a very good point. Also interesting, the people who take offense at the call for higher quality tend to be female.
    Of course, anyone who’s been to a Christian writers conference knows there are 10 times as many women on both sides.

  15. Besides gender, I think you also need to consider generational differences and the impact hiring people from “outside” CBA has on these issues, because those affect both men and women.
    So I don’t think male/female is the sole smoking gun. But it plays a role.
    That said, just because we’re the “loudest” online doesn’t mean we actually have a correlative impact within our walls. Unless Mick is higher up the food chain than I.

  16. DLE’s observations ring true to me, also. I’ve been selectively reading CBA novels since the late 70s. It’s only been in the past two years that I’ve convinced my husband to try even ONE. I do preview them for him. Always. I admit it started with an ABA novel: Peace Like a River. After that one, he agreed to try Bad Ground and several others, and enjoyed them. Next on his list is River Rising. He’s becoming quite the discriminating reader of CBA fiction, and I think maybe he’s not the only one. A slow movement, but an important one.

  17. Generational, definitely, and even (gulp)denominational.
    Commitment seems to play a huge unspoken, undiscussed role as well. By that I mean to the Word, not “the words” in literature. (Col. 2:8) And by that I don’t in any way, shape, or form refer to legalism by any denomination or individual or the absence of grace toward either.
    A writer should have what they know to be a “call” on his/her life to write. In keeping with that call a writer is always trying to improve and hone his craft, write the stories God gives him in the most excellent and real way he can, and in those ways, the demands of all readers should eventually be met.
    It’s a given that the addition of years changes perceptions and perspectives and sometimes opinions and positions. Real growth (and devoted prayer) brings wisdom if a person is committed to hearing from the Lord and making needed changes in his/her life.

  18. I’d probably be higher up the food chain if I didn’t spend so much time asking these questions and making wild generalizations about the state of the industry.
    But that durn underachieving, Evangelical upbringing dogs my dreams…

  19. Mick–your last comment cracks me up. Long live “wild generalizations”. They’re good for generating comments.
    I think there’s some truth to the idea that some Christians (or maybe even most Christians at least some of the time) don’t strive for excellence because we already feel accepted by God. While it’s a provocative idea for a Christian to entertain, I’m not sure that pursuing personal success at the expense of other duties is a good idea even if it’s done in the name of “art”. I find that me ego is especially tied up in creative efforts so it is very difficult to say, with any truthfulness, that I’d be pursuing love rather than personal glory any more than if I focused (with all my might) on being the best insurance agent or pharmacist or whatever and achieved great success in that endeaveor but neglected my other duties.
    Suppose God had uniquely gifted me to make enormous sums of money through hedge fund buying but it required that I dedicate myself to this task in the form of working 90 plus hours a week. That’s what excellence required. Meanwhile, my health, relationships and just about everything else was going down the pot. Even if I gave away 90% of the money I earned to the poor, I’m not sure it would be what God would want for me. And just because this kind of work is not considered “art,” I don’t think it’s necessarily less valuable or loving. That’s probably not the best example but hopefully it illustrates my point.
    For me, excellence in our careers and work is important but it’s not all there is to life. King Solomon certainly achieved a lot, and in the end, he found it all pretty empty.
    I think excellence is doing what God wants us to do in the proportion he wants us to do it. Certainly, being a part of the church takes time and effort, but that’s part of every Christian’s calling. Family is also very important…and time-consuming. We ought not worship the “family,” but neither can we neglect it and please God. I know it’s cliche to say, but it’s also probably true that very few people on their deathbed wish they’d worked more during their life. (I suppose everyone kind of wishes they’d achieved more.) It’s really our relationships that count most of all.
    In some ways, I do think it can be more difficult for a Christian to achieve great professional success. Our values are different. That’s a good thing. We see the beauty of the world, but we also see that it is shot through with futility. We are torn in a lot of different directions. The bible says we are strangers and aliens on this planet, the “cultural mandate” notwithstanding. On the other hand, Christians, with God’s help, can avoid a lot of destructive habits that would limit our success. In this respect, the Christian may have an advantage over his unbelieving neighbor in terms of producing excellent work.
    I know that I’m guilty of painting with just as broad a brush as anyone else. There probably is room for a lot of improvement in the CBA. I just think that we can easily mistake personal ambition for excellence. It will always be tough for a Christian to not fall off one side of the horse or the other when it comes to living out our callings in a sane, balanced way.

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