“There is more…”

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Anyone familiar with L.A. Story, that Steve Martin film from the mid 90s, will recognize this quote, from Hamlet.

"There is more in heaven and earth…than is dreamt of in your philosophy."

Back in college, this struck me as a good bit of trivia to remember. In those mind-bending, soul-stretching days, I thought a lot about life and where mine specifically was going. I nursed fantasies of directing movies and writing brilliant screenplays, transforming Hollywood, and basically expanding my influence. For God, of course. But like love or personal character, influence can’t be manufactured. To have influence you must first be influenced. So the thing to remember, it seems, is choose your influences wisely. And attending film school the year L.A. Story released, I started looking for my own magic freeway sign to show me what I felt I needed.

Fact is, each of us is responsible for our influences. Not much of a new thought, but the rub for me is that ultimately, you can’t help but be influenced by many things—more things than anyone can ever know. Concepts, philosophies, cultural histories, experiences far removed from our own. For instance, consider the ways of perceiving you carry, passed down to you by Greek philosophy. Disastrous assumptions about the world go by us every day, unexamined, and among them, this one from ancient Greek philosophy that the world can be escaped by whatever convenient means we prefer.

If escape from the world is what you want, you’ll find Christian fiction to serve your purpose. But if it isn’t? Is there also Christian fiction that provides escape from the illusion that we can escape the world? With so much escapist literature competing for attention, this kind of Christian fiction is becoming an increasingly difficult thing to write. There’s also TV, video games, and surfing the Internet for free blogs to fill our need for input. Will our books conform? Can Christian books fight for incarnational truth?

Who will resist the enormous pressure to revise the intense suffering of our world which grace came to destroy?

“A [Christian] writer who wants to get to mystery cannot bypass the evil and pain and suffering of the world, because that is to bypass the cross.” –Flannery O’Connor

Here’s what’s hard to get at in writing to the best of our abilities: we can’t aim to bypass the truth of a fallen world. A singular, powerful idea emerges from the best books—incarnate—in the very process of writing with our eyes wide open: we must grapple with this thing called reality, and when we do, we can come out more alive as a result.

Here’s a little philosophy I want us to ponder today–and next time, we’ll link it up with the heirarchy of our geyser analogy (On High Quality-12/7/06).

  1. If: the best writing mimics God’s redemption of reality (in nature),
  2. And if: reality is how we experience God’s redemption,
  3. Then: the best writing is that which depicts the most accurate picture of reality.

If we accept this, some questions follow:

  • As writers, are we attempting to mimic the original creative force or the struggle of creation with evil?
  • If God allows natural consequences rather than intervening, should our stories portray the natural world as any different?
  • If we show nature as less-than fallen in our books, are we negating God’s process in redeeming it?
  • If we are not accurate in portraying this process, are we writing at our best?

Nature is fallen. Not all of it portrays God. Yet the "groans" of creation do display the work of God in the way they’re continually redeemed. If the fallen natural world is what we have to work with as writers, does ignoring the influence of evil–either for our books or in our lives–end up undermining God’s deep redemption? I can’t deny the fear that I’ll get this wrong and end up writing poorer for it. The big question, it seems, is: If I don’t study how God’s creation struggles here and now, am I going to naturally write reduced? I think we’re forced to look at this struggle to portray it accurately and not look away or try to deny it. And frankly, I don’t understand why evil is necessary for grace (as it was for Jesus in inviting Judas to his table, or similar such things), but do I have to? To write well, I don’t think it matters if we know why the presence of evil precedes the knowledge of grace. What matters is what happens if we ban it from our books.

I’m content to say "I don’t know" the why here, and leave that part to God. He gave us the Word, the Logos (the Logic) to hammer out the natural laws, and the whys remain his. But there are some things we must grapple with; we must wrestle within the tenets of our faith. These are the questions I’m wrestling with–ponder them at your leisure. I’ve been pondering a while so I have some answers, for me. But you need to find yours, too.

Think of Hamlet. I think Shakespeare, like O’Connor, understood that nature is both sinful and holy, sacred and profane, but that it all would be ultimately redeemed, in the end. It didn’t mean their stories always showed this full redemption, but in my philosophy, we can’t extract good from evil here on earth. We must commit to writing creation interacting with both, so that no one misses the greater point.

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14 thoughts on ““There is more…””

  1. I’m coming out of lurkdom long enough to say bless you, Mick, for raising these points. Your thoughts today remind me of the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem about the earth’s being stained with man’s marks but also charged with God’s glory. So true.

  2. I’m learning that what my normal, everyday influences have been are not what everyone else’s have been. Seems like common sense, but I don’t think some people realize that when I say I’m Christian I grew up playing with Ouija boards and talking to spirits. I say I’m Christian and they seem to stereotype me as a dress wearing, cinnamon roll baking, doormat of a woman.
    So I see a clear, defining line and a lot of stereotypes within our world of Christianity.
    I understand that the Bible is the truth, I am not disputing that, I need to say that up front.
    The line that I’m speaking of shows two diffent kinds of people, those who have experienced evil and those who have only heard about evil. There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground.
    Those of us who have experienced real evil seem to be the ones who cry out for more “truth” more “reality” and different kinds stories, stories that “push the envelope.” Those who have only read about evil seem to want what I call the “fluff.”
    I can’t read fluff stories because they’re not real to me and vice versa.
    I think grace has a different meaning to me than it does to someone on the other side of the line. Not saying that one is better–not at all. Just totally different. Like the difference between Paul and John.
    I have no idea if this fits into what you were discussing, but it is my take on it. I don’t have to like fluff to know that God has a purpose for it, likewise, if you can’t read my stories because they make you cringe, it doesn’t disqualify it as something God is using.
    What I don’t understand is why some people think it is a bad idea for me to write about what is real to me?

  3. This post is encouraging today. You see, I’m working on a tough novel. A character that shuts everything up inside. Somedays it’s hard to deal with her emotions. I’d much rather move on to my next novel, which will also deal with some hard issues, but in a much lighter fashion. I want the jokes and the bantering. The current novel, more like Oliver Twist. But I need to write it.

  4. Sorry about the late edits here. Just trying to get my “groaning” right…
    Michelle, your comment about the writer divide is often true. Yet many writers who have faced tremendous evil aren’t willing to accept its influence in their books either. The anger at having been so violated by that evil creates a powerful resistance to facing it naked in a story once again.
    I find hope in the idea that following the desert confrontation, Jesus still willingly went to the cross. Similarly, none of us can escape the influence of evil in this life. And this is why we need compassion for writers who choose to avoid evil, realizing all of us abused, violated writers must confront our suffering many times over for God to have his way with it, in our books as in our lives.

  5. C. S. Lewis has much to say on literary criticism. I’ve always liked this quote and I remind myself of it from to time to stay honest with myself about why I like to write fiction:
    “A great deal (not all) of our literature was made to be read lightly, for entertainment. If we do not read it, in a sense, ‘for fun’ and with our feet on the fender, we are not using it as it was meant to be used, and all our criticism of it will be pure illusion. For you cannot judge any artifact except by using it as it was intended. It is no good judging a butter-knife by seeing whether it will saw logs. Much bad criticism, indeed, results from the efforts of critics to get a work-time result out of something that never aimed at producing more than pleasure.”
    I love the equation that “if the best writing mimics God’s redemption of reality, and that if reality is how we experience God’s redemption, then the best writing is that which depicts the most accurate picture of reality.”
    But I am of the mind that story is still all about artistic expression and not didactic articulation. I mean, I don’t approach storytelling by seeing how well I can imbue it with Truth. I write primarily to entertain, and any truth conveyed is incidental.
    I think our kids, when they say, “read me a story,” are asking us to take them to an imaginary place for a bit of fun. There is definitely a truth-telling message to Green Eggs and Ham, but it’s not the message kids love, it’s the story. We like to be taken away in story. It’s enjoyable. I think it’s why we dream at night. Not to make sense of our lives (my dreams make no sense at all) but because our imaginations like to be piqued, massaged. Not every dream is a nightmare. Not every story must confront or expose evil.
    I know I have taken away much from reading fiction. I know the underlying truths in The Kite Runner and Life or Pi and Lisa Samson’s Straight Up will stay with me, but my reason for reading those books was for enjoyment, not escape — I wasn’t chased there — and I think I write for the same reason.
    I’m optimistic that as I grow as a writer, I will find that I have learned to depict reality in richer ways. But I think that will happen as I strive to tell a story better, not proclaim truth or — portray evil — more clearly.

  6. Great counterpoint, Susan! Yes, entertainment is the primary goal of fiction. And trying to educate never works. Yet implicit in entertainment is the fact that we’re learning, always absorbing philosophies unaware. We must realize this and live aware of the philosophies we’re promoting.
    Practically, I should have mentioned that this work of examining is done before and after the writing, and not during. Much is done in examining our worldview before we set words to paper, and then in the edit stage where the question becomes, “Is the entertainment value reduced if we make this element more representative of the way good and evil play out in reality?”

  7. Susan, your analogy to dream is exactly what I’m talking about. My dreams make sense and they usually help me sort something out in life–and for the most part, the ones I remember are nightmares. I cannot recall a single dream I’ve ever remembered that didn’t have evil in it.

  8. Really good stuff.
    To Michelle, your experiences with evil have made you able to see to the depths of it, better able to minister to those who have been unable to find or see the light of Jesus and until they hear or read of your experiences might not even want to consider that light. Your purpose is real, essential in the Kingdom of God. You’re a glorious survivor.
    Those who haven’t visited the dark places personally mostly fear them, even in Christ. I have friends who can’t read Peretti and other authors who capture the darker side.
    As you acknowledged, fluff has its place, but you need to know and accept that the one who reads and prefers fluff is no less a sinner than you and I have been, their sins no rosier than the crimson stain.
    I think there is a “message” in all stories, light or dark, deep or giddy. And sometimes the message supercedes the story and lingers when the particular plot, scene, and characters have long been closed away.

  9. First of all, I like your post, and the comments so far are also great. Now, at the risk of meandering away from your intentions, I’m going to zero in on one thing you wrote: “If God allows natural consequences rather than intervening, should our stories portray the natural world as any different?”
    I just finished drafting tomorrow’s post for Master’s Artist. If you read it you’ll understand why the wording of this statement doesn’t satisfy me. To say that God doesn’t (always) intervene could be taken to imply that He is therefore not present or has no design or purpose in certain events. On the contrary, I think the best story is one that can go into the darkest places and still whisper “Emmanuel.” God is with us–sometimes as an army of angels appearing to shepherds, sometimes in simple, almost imperceptible impressions, sometimes inherent in the fabric of all He has made, i.e. the “natural world.” It obeys Him, whether we see His hand intervening or not. He is everywhere, the aroma of life or death–unseen but as unmistakable as bread fresh out of the oven. He makes men hungry.
    The influence of evil is real, but never outside the constraints of Almighty God. The realest reality is God in every place, coming to His beloved as she lies squirming in her own blood, and commanding, “Live!”
    He does according to His will in the armies of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth, and no one can stay His hand. When we can know that we know this is true while looking evil straight in the eye, we can write about anything without fear.

  10. Jeanne wrote: “He does according to His will in the armies of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth, and no one can stay His hand. When we can know that we know this is true while looking evil straight in the eye, we can write about anything without fear.”
    Jeanne,
    So beautiful and oh so true. Thanks for that.

  11. Amen, Jeanne. I want God himself to be my biggest influence, the one who changes me and my writing and my world.
    “Because the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.” Yeah, I’m on a Gerard Manley Hopkins kick today.

  12. Mick, Your use of the word “extraction” reminded me of the Scripture the Lord placed on my heart when I began writing in earnest. It’s a “thus says the Lord” from Jeremiah 15:19.
    “If you extract the precious from the worthless, you will become my spokesman.”
    Even the darkest, most realistic of subjects can be handled by the Christian novelist in such a way, I believe, as to extract grace, hope, and truth.
    I’d rather extract than escape any day!
    Blessings to you!

  13. I’m lost. “If God doesn’t intervene,” why write Christian fiction at all?
    Sorry, “Christmas” as we know it has me too distracted to digest this, I guess. I’m halfway out the door to shop right now. But if you mean “when God doesn’t intervene,” that can make some good conflicts. But I think that in this world, God often uses angels and the Holy Spirit and intervenes a lot more than we will ever know–in this world. And I like writing that reflects that.
    Just saw “The Nativity” last night, by the way. It’s darling. Although I was amused when a hawk appeared along with Gabriel, I’m not sure why. (Hmm. Doves and hawks. *Michael* is the warring angel, though.) See the movie! Hollywood is watching the box office.
    Okay, out the door!

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