Tag Archives: Christian

How to be a child again this Christmas

Reading my Christmas post last year was enlightening. It's so sad! I apologize to anyone who read it. I sound like someone who desperately needs a new perspective.

This year, I found one. After 10 years in Colorado Springs and Christian publishing, the miracle happened and I was finally let go from WaterBrook a few months before my 5 year anniversary. Within weeks, our house sold, and we moved to Portland where I've been pursuing my fortunes as a consultant and freelance editor. And after being away for a few months now from that difficult town, which is also beautiful and fun and has many things we miss, especially our great friends, and the corporate traditional publishing world (which is valiant and filled with the most incredible and smartest people in the world), rather than loving the season for brief moments and savoring the fleeting reminders of childhood and love, I'm enjoying a far more sustained enjoyment, sharper and heightened.

But I don't think these are the biggest reasons.

No doubt it's much to do with this great book I was fortunate to help with recently. I'm also no longer the father of young children, which is both frightening and revelatory. This fact alone fills me to brimming with a wistful glee. I'll miss their younger selves someday. But now I'm too grateful not to be among the dozens of friends of mine with kids under 4, flinging their little socks into overnight bags and searching for two rested neurons to create a spark. With regular sleep this year, I don’t find it so hard not to say the evil thoughts I'm thinking; I’m not even thinking them to begin with. There isn't nearly so much that needs to be done, and the familiar struggle to appreciate the real reason for all the running around doesn't seem so hard. I'm hoping this also means I won't have to eat so much or excuse my lack of self-discipline. I may even get to write when we're back at my old house. 

This is crazy but the more I think about it, the more it seems to come down to regular sleep. With clearer thoughts, I no longer feel so old! There's a noticeably sharper sense of wonder to the songs and sermons, and I don’t miss the old electric blanket of food and wine to pull around me. My memories are returning–of beauty, love, hope–in my haze last year I feared I’d never recover them.

But I’m remembering. Being put back together. And what’s more, the girls' excitement seems all the greater. They're like little sprinklers of happiness. It’s their Christmas cheer that fills my cup this year. Christmas is for children and now I get to be one again! And maybe it is mostly because they aren’t quite so needy anymore. Who knew?

This year, I get to go back for a little while and remember it will all be okay. Somehow. All of it will be redeemed. The evil can not stand. With older kids I can see through the eyes I used to have again, the eyes that knew it was all right, that everything will be as it should be forever.

Is this how home is regained?

For all of you who have chaos at home right now, I know it doesn’t make sense when you can’t see it. I was there last year. There's too much that can cover it up. Such simple, ordinary things. Too much responsibility. But it will be put right again. Just know that it's not really up to you how things will go, and it’s so much better to accept your ignorant bliss. The frustrations hidden by a sovereign hand, the strings all under perfect control. The tremendous effort to pull off the celebrations can be forfeited. (And maybe it's when we don't that it starts to resemble anything but a celebration.)

Too often today, the ties of family, the significance of our being here at all, it can all go unnoticed. We turn blinded eyes to the very things that make seeing worthwhile. But don't be afraid of losing those children we were. Don't worry about stuffing in the trappings and wrappings to bring them back. They can't come back. And that's good. That's as it should be.

Instead, if we can let go those children, we can embrace the new ones better. When they're 5 and 6 and 7, you find these things in them you've been fighting to recover. It's as though it's the payback for your sacrifices–they do eventually bring back your joy at Christmas. And in their happiness is our escape. It's what Christmas is about, after all, a child bringing hope in the darkness to show us the way to wonder.

It felt so hard to see last year, like trying to guess if this gift was in one of the tightly wrapped boxes behind the tree. I wish I could have told myself last year to focus on giving instead–it may have been easier to find what I was looking for.

Of such as these is the very kingdom. And a child shall lead them…

So once again, come now little ones. Come into our broken-down world and re-member us. As we gather, put us back together, and may we see in your innocent eyes, those windows still so clean, the easy belief we used to know. For in your raised faces, bold and bright, we can see the great star shine through the dark.

Seeing Beauty, Part 4

I came upon a strange little connection last night while I
was playing piano that I never thought of before. Something of a synthesizing
metaphor that may help explain what learning to see beauty really requires. Or at least, what it's required for me.

Are these fleeting thoughts worth grabbing and exploring?

I was playing music, realizing that my old habit of
overusing the sustain pedal was in full swing and trying to resist it, but my
bad habit and the combo of my lack of practicing on this particular song made
it nearly impossible for me to help my foot just riding that pedal. I
remembered my guild judge assessment from elementary school writing something
about it, how I “tended to favor” the pedal a bit too much, and I’m unable to
excuse the fact that it’s been going on that long.

Can I face the truth of that, the deeper implications of
what it may reveal about me?

The point is, I had just made the realization that I’d held
God’s promptings at bay my whole life because of the clichés and deadening
effect of so many sincere, but manipulative Christians using unsubstantiated
“godtalk” (as Petersen so earth-shatteringly talks about–> here <–you owe it to yourself to read this. Often). 

Pastors, leaders, people who should
know better as the “pinnacle of God’s chosen,” are constantly falling and failing in the
morass of banal Christian-speak that extracts the sacred out and makes it
commonplace. I thought how unless the Holy Spirit breathes life into us and our
lives, our words will have no power. Besides that, we’ll have nothing
worthwhile to share. I have been this way too. And the difficulty of remaining open to God’s leading is
why it’s so common to lose the touch, lose the daily, hard searching that gives
us truth and beauty, goodness and love to explore and then share. I think this
is a very big part of the reason so much of Christian teaching is unhelpful.

Ask yourself why the phrase “God is good” so often sounds so
trite.

In music, you can’t pretend. There’s no covering up
sloppiness or undisciplined playing because it’s a fundamental lack of
knowledge due to a lack of regular practice. Plain and simple. It's just as true for writers. And in life, the
overwhelming problem for any believer who’s been in church a while is apathy,
the inescapable pandemic. Christians who pretend to have deep current
knowledge of God, many all the while cover up their lack of regular spiritual
practice behind Christianese, lingo, clichéd phrases, and the “God-talk” Eugene
Petersen has identified. Have you noticed? Basically, the world is overrun with walking-dead
Christians trying to hide their unbelief and dead faith. And as anyone who has
mastered a skill knows, you can’t cover a lack of practice.

But many of us probably know firsthand why someone would want to.

You also can’t cover for a lack of insight. So often I see
writing that’s uninspired. I see people with good ideas, passable talent, even
some good editing and shaping skills. But their work doesn’t reveal anything
exceptional. And that’s always because they aren’t focused on what really
matters. I know because I have been there. If you aren’t able to see what’s going on behind everyday reality,
none of your powers of translation will matter. You’ll have nothing of real
value to say.

What big questions are you asking and seeking out answers
to?

Writers have to see what others don’t see. That’s the first
skill to acquire. Knowing how to share it is secondary. And if you’re trying to
cover for a lack of regular practice, neglecting the work of pulling back the curtain to find
what’s really going on back there, it won’t go unnoticed. You can’t cover for
it. It might sound better than it would otherwise, but it’s still going to be
full of mistakes.  

What “mistakes” does it seem God allowed in your life?

It’s easier to ignore the leadings, the moments we get new
thoughts like this. It doesn’t mean anything, after all. Everyone gets them.
And it may take some real time to consider what of use might be there. But this is
the daily choice: will we seek first the kingdom, or will we not? Sometimes we
might not want the answer. We might not believe there is one, or maybe we think
simply accepting is better, and living with the unanswered questions. Is that more dignified? More holy?

At some point, I realized relationship requires communication. Maybe some can just accept. I have to talk (okay, shout). Then I have to listen. Often I'm not ready to. I'm not mature enough yet. I have to wonder if others feel the same. Are we afraid
we’ll get silence in return? If beauty is everywhere, can there be beauty in
the waiting too?

How can we commit to such a painful daily practice of
seeking out the answers, even in the most painful places?

Maybe a better question is, how can we not? It seems to me,
to see beauty, you may first need to be willing to look long and hard at the
opposite. And maybe sometimes to wait there in the uncomfortable spot. Maybe you'll have to yell a bit. But that's the deal. That's all part of it. And for real, seasoned writers, I really believe there's no other way to share the real stuff. Don’t hesitate to take me up on that challenge. Sure, there's real good in easy beauty too, no doubt. But it's not all that. And I guess I want to encourage you not to be afraid of it. You'll make it through if you're honest and don't move on too quickly. Try starting today.

  

Thank you to Ann, who helped to
inspire this thought.

On Quality and Excellence and What Does It Really Matter?

I think it’s about time for another of my old fashioned diatribes on high quality. It's been a while since I picked up the old saw, and I found this today on my local classical music station and couldn't wait to share it. 

 

Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) was a contemporary of Bach’s who has nearly disappeared for even classical music lovers and admirers of 17th century music. Yet in his day, Telemann was apparently more famous and respected that Bach ever was. And according to the several websites Google brought me, he was chosen as cantor of St. Thomas in Leipzig (a position Bach held as well) and out-produced Bach’s weekly cantata output 2-to-1. Bach’s music was considered overly artful, laborious and too complicated by then-modern culture and critics. It didn’t give enough space for “proper” reflection and respect for natural melody, whatever that meant to 17th century musical tastes.

 

So now those times are long gone and people grew different ears. I won’t even speculate how that happens (a journey for another day perhaps), but the lasting quality of Bach’s work compared to his simpler, less labored, and proficient contemporaries is unmatched. So why? Who knows Telemann, Graun, Hasse? Even Bach’s own idol Handel isn’t as recognized. And there are many reasons for this, but it’s not a matter of opinion that Bach’s music has remained because of its superiority in form, style, beauty, and originality. As one site puts it, “In some aspects, he has no equal, and in all aspects, his music is unique.” 

 

But so what? How does it help him now? He gets no bonus points, no enjoyment or benefit from posthumous praise. What if he had tried to be more productive and efficient, to churn them out more? Why didn’t he? Sure he still produced a major body of work, but he never enjoyed the fame his music would eventually produce. What’s his payoff for pursuing quality over quantity? A legacy? What could that matter to him while he was alive? Respect of people he’d never meet?

 

Why commit to excellence? Practice and sacrifice is hard! It’s takes too much time and energy, especially if the struggle isn’t practical or doesn’t produce a better life. Why push so hard for so little? After all, more people will experience it if you produce quick and disposable. You'll have more chance for fame, money and immediate benefit. Less lasting, but so what? Who wants to pay and wait for visionary/beauty/quality in our world anymore?

 

This great destruction going on throughout the world is of course, nothing new. Yet it does seem to be getting worse, doesn't it? Our food, our products, our cars, our writing, our music, our culture, our idols, pundits, and politicians—and inescapably our opinions, ideas, relationships, and every other form of “output”—each exhibit the short-sighted self-focused decisions we’re forced to accept today, dispensing with high quality in favor of necessarily-immediate results (we might call it the McDonald's Effect or Wal-Martization), even when those results are vastly inferior in quality. But why should we care if the food/work/product/image does its job? It won’t last anyway? Nothing lasts! Why should we waste time and effort when there’s no benefit but some uncertain effect in the far future?

 

Everyone must make the pragmatic choice to push for higher quality or not, which may not become Bach's choice to forfeit keeping up with his contemporaries, suffer to produce far less, and miss his chance for greater recognition and prosperity. Indeed, for novelists, the choice seems ludicrous. Produce slowly? Less? That can mean poverty. It can mean unfulfillment too when others get the contract for producing quickly and we're forced to survive doing what we’d rather not have to.

 

So why strive for high quality? Why care about developing good taste? What is a superior work or product really worth and why not appreciate the compromises that enable our hyperspeed world to exist? Why make our goal one of dogged faithful service to a higher cause and not production, fame, survival, or even a lasting legacy? Disposable life is important now; it's how we've come to survive. A return to quality is what's short-sighted and selfish.

 

And still, some people can’t stop pointing at the beauty for the thought of one person stopping long enough to look up at what he’s missed and be captured by the idea of something greater.

 

Refined art! It sits and languishes, waiting to be noticed. It says, “Here is your lost dignity! Here’s your roots! Here’s solidarity with the real humanity and strength you possess! Here is a sacrifice for a creator and creation we’ve forgotten.” Inspired work reminds us of the incredible value of life before conveyor belts and utilitarian necessity and mass production forced our souls into exile.

 

Art is the truth of life in a microcosm—an object, a work, a piece fashioned from creation!—a chance to wonder at the reminder that all is to the glory of God reflecting his holiness. All is for this. Commit to pursuing the height of your potential and you will find your purpose.

 

Give of your best. Sacrifice your chance to pander to the masses. Sacrifice your lesser life and you will find the greater.

 

Can we get off the conveyor? Do our lives really depend on it? And can you really influence those several others around you for this?

 

If we are made in the image of the creator, then every day is a choice to reflect that or to slowly die.

 

Do you agree? Do you think this is an important topic or not? Leave a comment; let’s discuss.

 

 

Incidentally, classical music is one of the arts the Obamas strongly support. Michelle Obama went way up in my book when I watched this, from a White House classical music workshop for middle and high school students she recently hosted (check out the kids at 33:45—why does that make me so happy?).

 

Crossing Over: Writing to the “Spiritually Interested”

"Spiritually interested" is the rather obtuse designation Cathy Grossman borrowed for her article in USA Today speaking about the audience of The Shack. The term comes from Wayne Jacobsen, one of the publishers of the book, attempting to define the larger market for Christian books that Christian publishing is not serving. Since one of my stated goals for this website is to bridge that gap, I think it might be instructive to discuss whether Christian publishing should appeal to more than Christians. After all, like faith without works, or a church that doesn't evangelize, the situation seems unnecessarily restrictive at best, at worst unbiblical.

 

So our question from last time was, How does one capture the tone, approach, and appeal in this blossoming category of books for the spiritually interested? Some primary distinctives are that these books:

 

  • Do not identify with the Christian subculture or the Christian product and media industries.
  • Focus on experiential faith over propositional truth: Not arguments or lessons, but immersion in a direct, story-driven experience.
  • Show supernatural experience not “evidence” (natural or biblical): The transcendence of God intervening in everyday life through “dispatches from the other side.”
  • Are mysterious over convincing, allowing an experience that’s open-ended, unexplained, and even inconclusive.
  • Are timely and timeless, revealing the here-and-now God unbound to traditionalism, and intimately involved in our uncertainty about the present and near-future.
  • Reveal love triumphing over law, in relationship-affirming and life-honoring freedom from formal religious dogma, judgment, or mediation.

Before hurrying on, we should talk more about that first bullet. Those looking for books outside the strict confines of popular Christianity generally don’t seem to spend much time looking in places the gatekeepers control, namely Christian bookstores. And though there are several exceptions, the obvious limiting factor in getting these books read is that they are not “Christian” enough for Evangelical Christian readers, and up until recently, were too spiritual for most NY houses.

 

But now you see, that’s changing. These books for the spiritually interested are not coersive, they don't pound principles, which is a major reason they fit better in the general market than the Christian subculture. They aren’t closed to including what doesn’t currently fit modern Christianity. These books are redemptive, but their redemption comes in the jouney, not the destination. The “take-away” is of becoming engaged in an exploration, not to fix something, convert skeptics, or even evoke a quatifiable change, but to enjoy a satisfying read. The Shack, while not high literature, provides an example of book-as-interpretive-experience that causes readers to explore. That exploration attracts many “recovering Christians,” but the transcendent experience is broader and more profound than simple affirmation. The Shack challenges stereotypes about God to present him as a generous, fun-loving, approachable mother/father, with a single agenda of bringing unconditional, sacrificial love into the world. In religion and in larger society, that's an easy reality to miss. And what I find so exciting about this example is that despite its initial rejection by CBA and ABA publishers, it's revealed a huge desire for discussion about this God who doesn't necessarily begin and end in our established categories.

 

So why did Christian or NY editors believe their houses shouldn't publish it? Several possibilities, but "too risky" and "not up to snuff" seem likely to this editor.

 

The Shack proves there's an audience of spiritually interested folks who are not being served either by the so-called Christian ghetto or the ivory towers.

 

Some take issue with the idea of designating books as Christian at all. One result of The Shack's success is that readers now recognize there's something more to God and maybe even this word "Christian" than they realized. Maybe David Sessions wasn't just being bombastic when he said that the divide between Christian and mainstream designations has been the single most damaging idea to Christianity in the modern world.

 

Of course, here are the sticky swamplands. If it's not Christian, how do we know it’s wholesome? Can we really let people be their own judges of that? Many rely on labels in today’s hyper-marketed culture, myself included. Where do we redraw the lines of this demographic? And I don't want to waste time arguing about the morality of blurring this line–hoping for a greater reach isn't a failure of faith. I don't question those who still feel called to be Christian writers, and never anything less. But the challenge remains. There's a big underserved audience out there. How are we going to reach them?

 

The good news is, reaching this spiritually interested audience isn't only possible, it's profitable. So next time we'll take a closer look at some comparative books and content characteristics that should reveal a bit more about how we define this emerging category.

Interview with Wayne Jacobsen, publisher of The Shack

For over a year now, people have been asking me what I think of The Shack. Mostly, I'm fascinated by how it's gotten people talking—believers and regular folks, liberals and conservatives, long-time Christians and the disenfranchised. And it hasn't even gone to mass market paperback yet. As a result of it all, The Shack is the little, unassuming book that continues to sit atop the bestseller lists and create controversy.

No denying it’s a fairly unusual book. Even with all its visibility, it’s difficult to call it a sensation. At first glance, most everything about it—from the book’s style, to its author, to the way in which it was published—looks as common as dirt. Yet its unusual success story belies the unusualness beneath the pages. I admit, I was predisposed to give the book my usual surface treatment and be done with it. But as I started reading, I realized I couldn’t dismiss it so easily. In fact, I had to finish it, not just to see what all the fuss was about, but to experience something I rarely get to—a transporting experience. I read with increasing excitement and emotion. The possibility of something momentous seemed to be opening up between the lines.

So once I finished, I decided I needed to know the truth about all the rumors and accusations I’d heard, so I contacted Wayne Jacobsen, the man William P. Young claims largely inspired the book. Wayne’s own book, So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore is a fictional speculation about what would happen if a disillusioned pastor began getting advice from a modern-day apostle who knew the true Jesus. It skewers much of the same religious baggage Young deliberately sought to unburden himself of in his book, and targets readers Jacobsen calls the “missing middle” who exist between the mainstream Christian book houses and North American publishing. That's significant background because I'm convinced this is one of the biggest and most under-served readerships worldwide: the group I call the "post-religious." How to reach this elusive audience is the subject of much study and debate, but The Shack provides what I think is the best case study to date. Beginning outside both ABA and CBA and succeeding, at the very least, it testifies to the hunger for something beyond the typical Christian fare.

YWG: I understand The Shack underwent fairly extensive revisions and rewriting. Can you talk about that?

Wayne: Yeah. Paul (Young), Brad (Cummings) and I worked for about 16 months bringing out the more dramatic elements, the essence of the story, and cutting back on some of the more theologically loaded or simply curious elements. Through the restructuring, we wanted to be as faithful to Paul’s original idea as possible. The natural result of putting the story first was that the book catches the interest of a spiritually hungry reading public. By allowing the books’ statements about God to be experienced organically as story rather than as propositional truths or systematic theology, The Shack has resonated with a diverse audience, building bridges between all sorts of people.

YWG: What did you see in the original manuscript of The Shack that made you feel you should commit to 16 months of work to it?

Wayne: We actually did a podcast with Paul on this where I talked about that very thing.

YWG: I’ll include the link : "A Visit to The Shack." Was it ever difficult to remain committed to it during that time, especially given your many involvements?

Wayne: It wasn’t a commitment at the outset, but I felt he had a great book here and Paul wasn’t motivated to do the rewrites we thought needed to be done. At one point the three of us and Bobby Downes of Downes Brothers Entertainment sat down to storyboard the movie and suggest changes in the book. Even with that, Paul wanted me to help. Eventually I felt a nudge from the Spirit to do so and rewrote a chapter to show him what I was talking about. Then I did another, and then Brad got involved and it started to grab him, so we kept going. At one point each of us had written a version of the chapter with Sophie in the cave, and we just put them all together and kept the stuff we agreed on. A lot of it was like that. Paul was so generous with his gift, and I was using Paul’s words and working to keep it his vision. I’d never done that as an editor—I’d always just been a writer—so the commitment was more something that evolved relationally.

YWG: How many people in Christian publishing—authors, agents, and editors—have contacted you about working with Windblown?

Wayne: Oh, more than I can count now. Christian publishing people want to do it. The Shack is hitting the middle ground, but transcending it—church people, Jewish people, the spiritually curious, etc.—all having the conversations as it relates to their spiritual interests. It doesn’t necessarily identify that middle ground because it’s more diverse than that. It’s the reality of Paul’s pain and how he deals with it. It’s more an experience not a theology thing. Jesus says, “My sheep know my voice and they won’t follow a stranger.” We don’t have to take on the mentality of gatekeepers. The push-back from the religious Taliban is that they’re making it about “them and us”–like there’s those who are in and those who are out. But that isn’t what Jesus came to do. Jesus came to serve, not to be served

YWG: One of the most exciting things about The Shack to me is that it provides hope to so many people who haven’t been served in the Christian mainstream for whatever reason. This “spiritually interested”  audience is not only receptive, but responding to the truth that God is loving and boldly relational. And the implications—of the message of the book, and the reception it's received—is that He’s forceful in breaking down the very walls the religious establishment wants to build in their preference for safe, non-confrontational literature. I think there’s much to be said about how Jesus used some parables that were offensive to the religious establishment he was denouncing.

Wayne: People are definitely trying to defame and marginalize the message. This argument about feminizing God, for instance. The book explains very clearly that God shows up as a black woman because that’s the image that puts Mack at ease. God could have shown up as whatever he wanted, but the people who say he can’t be a black woman don’t seem to accept that. There are also some people saying it’s promoting universalism, that all paths lead to God. Even though Jesus says very clearly and repeatedly that he’s the only way, the detractors want to insist that Paul really meant something else.

For too long there’s been a fear of offending the establishment. Publishing people don’t love the books they’re publishing. Our publishing The Shack was never about being commercial or pleasing people. It was meant to be honest and truthful, to find passionate readers who were looking for this. We want to do books that resonate with people’s hearts. It was never intended to be the full orthodoxy of the gospel, whatever we may have believed that to mean.

YWG: That's a really important point. When people talk about "biblical orthodoxy" what they're really talking about is a bunch of different historical traditions of interpretation of a bunch of theological concepts that really have very little to do with the uninterpreted Bible. The concept is deceptive and notoriously divisive in the ways it's applied. And I guess when you put words in God’s mouth and have him saying things that sound a little too out of the box…

Wayne: You get whacked! Yeah. People say they believe in things all the time, but they really don’t. Some Christians don’t believe in the Incarnation—the in-dwelling spirit of God in everyone who believes. And it isn’t that they don’t want to believe, they’ve just never experienced it. And I think it’s sad that so many can’t allow themselves to have that experience. But those who want to explore that and experience it shouldn’t be judged for it.

YWG: Well said. It seems to me a big difference between those who embrace The Shack and those who denounce it are divided between understanding faith as an intellectual construct based in the interpretation of theological concepts, and faith as an experience of these things–one is mental, the other physical. And certainly we need a balance there, but how can faith be experienced if the familiar barriers of judgment and condemnation are always there? Do you think this is why there are so many disillusioned Christians and “spiritually interested” folks not finding much in mainstream Christian publishing?

Wayne: I’m sure that’s part of it. There are many reasons. Publishing is slow, expensive, and risky. But it’s pretty difficult to keep true to the edge–of actually living out these theological concepts–while you’re worried about offending the mainstream.

YWG: Can you talk about the way forward for Windblown Media?

Wayne: We’re currently contracted with Hachette to do 4-6 books a year, fiction or non. And we don’t have to do any if we don’t want. That lasts 5 years and then we’ll see where we stand. But we’re not taking manuscripts (see specifics here) and we don’t have a staff. We’re beholden to no one but God. No employees. No sales quotas. No requirement to pay back anyone.

YWG: Wow. Pretty cool situation. Sounds like the way to change CBA.

Wayne: Well I don’t know about that, but we’re going to try to have fun.

YWG: Thanks, Wayne. And thanks for inviting so much challenging discussion through this book. I know I'm not alone in just being grateful for the opportunity to finally explore this stuff in a larger way.