“This man, I think, wanted to enchant the reader, to set in words certain amorphous and important sensations he had experienced….
“He wanted to transcribe his own inchoate experience. He wanted it to become art. He felt, as many of us do, that he had a right to that. Perhaps he wanted to feel his suffering had been worthwhile, was dignified, for he did write about suffering; perhaps he wanted to feel less alone, to feel his life had been redeemed, and its true worth, the value so absent from his daily experience yet so necessary to his heart, was now realized on paper, the dross burnt off and the gold revealed.
“No delight in language motivated his pen. The world’s physical details were so much debris. His few scenes puddled toward ellipses, seemed uninterested in achieving “moment”–they gestured hastily toward something never glimpsed on the page, although each chapter concluded with triumphant relief, as if to say, “So there. Now that’s established.” It made you want to flip the page over to see if there was something you were missing. Yet he meant to write fiction; fiction was what he attempted every night. This man seemed to want the transcendent transformation that novels can achieve. He didn’t know how to achieve it, though, and he wanted a shortcut. Like all of us, he was in a hurry….
“You may convey terror or longing or regret or exhilaration only by giving us the color of somebody’s hair and exactly what she ate for lunch, and red high heels, and an attache case’s handle stained darker by the oils of a human hand, and a skinny buck-toothed girl singing “Yes, We Have No Bananas” on a black-and-white TV, and olives, and three o’clock, and the Scotch-taped hem of a Bergdorf Goodman dress, and venetian blinds, and a woman’s eyes fixed for many minutes on a scarred tabletop, and a tin spoon ringing against the side of a mug. There are no shortcuts….
“When the conditions are right, live things creep up. The author does not need to airlift them in. No need to insert your own opinion here, something symbolic over there. The most potent meaning arises indigenously. It looks like earth, like mud, like a log. The more your eyes discern the particulars of the physical world and its inhabitants, the more meaningful your work becomes. This is the meaning that, when it’s laid dormant in the mind long enough, strikes with devouring force.”
adapted from Writing Past Dark, by Bonnie Friedman
“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
– T. S. Eliot
The life of faith is a rescue mission, I thought, listening to our pastor preach on the woman at the well in yesterday’s sermon.
He explained how she wasn’t necessarily promiscuous, since marriage was more a matter of survival in those days, and men could often die early. Her excitement in running to share with her neighbors isn’t likely to have come from being shamed by Jesus for having five husbands, but probably from having her pain and fear so clearly understood.
The living water Jesus really offered, I thought, is the recovery of our life.
As I sat in church yesterday furiously taking notes, it felt like one of those holy download moments where you just know you’re getting a peek through the curtain at the secret to life. I’ve had these a few times in life and they always seem to come at very inconvenient moments. This time, at least I wasn’t driving or in the middle of conversation. And these good, older Presbyterians would probably forgive me for being disrespectful and taking out my phone to capture the thought during the sermon.
I thought about the book I have to finish before I go on vacation next week, a book that’s all about recovering our lost self, the purer one undiminished by so much fear and pain. And I realized that’s the core idea that has made The Shackso successful as well. And really, One Thousand Gifts, and How We Love, and so many of my favorite memoirs, novels, and nonfiction guides too:
They’re all rescue missions about a person in search of a thing we’ve all lost along the way.
It was a revelatory moment! Are most books at their heart about this very thing? I wondered.
When I got home, I picked up another book, A Faith of Our Own by Jonathan Merritt. He begins by sharing a quote from Goethe’s Faust:
“That which you have received as heritage, now rediscover for yourself and thus you will make it your own.”
Okay. I think I got it, God. Paying attention now.
You know those times when you sense everything has been leading up to this moment? Yeah. It was one of those times. Jonathan wrote that this is the journey his faith has taken. I think, This is the journey I’ve taken as well….
And maybe it isn’t just with faith and with books. I start to realize I’ve also experienced this same sense of recovery with Sheri, my wife, falling in love and feeling known and somehow re-connected because of her. And it was like that with my first love, writing, too.
Could it be? In love, in faith, in art, in writing, in life the goal may not necessarily be to become ourselves more, but to recover ourselves more?
And in doing so, maybe we do become more ourselves. But in faith, in romance, and in writing–that is to say, the three most influential things in my life right now–the fire may be less in discovering what I never knew and much more in rediscovering what’s been lost.
It’s the resonance–a connection struck with something buried or forgotten–that draws, woos, and delights us. Something inside longs to reconnect with a spirit that is somehow not us but beyond us, some vestige of a place we’ve seen before–even lived in–but hardly remember in everyday life.
We’re seeking to recover that sense ofhome.
Don’t we all seek this same recovery of home, of unity with ourselves, with God? Like Nicodemus, we’re confused, frustrated by the difficulty: how does one return to the womb?
Jesus said we’re to become as little children again. Similarly, Julia Cameron’s world-famous training for artists and writers, The Artist’s Way, originally described the work as: “A Guide to Recovering the Creative Self.” And anyone in love knows the sensation is like something in you feels known, reunited with itself again.
Recovering is the real work of this journey.
There’s this great word: agency. It’s the capacity to exert power, and it’s used to express the amount of power someone has to help themselves. I believe a lack of agency is the biggest reason most people suffer, and the most misunderstood concept by those who have it. It’s easy to forget others don’t have much agency when we do. When we have it, we tend to think others around us do too. And we’re prone to judge and think they should just use their agency to improve their situation. But if it were that easy, simply exerting power, wouldn’t more people be doing it already?
Maybe higher purpose writers seek the recovery of agency because we’re acutely aware of this universal ambition to recover what’s been lost. Maybe we’ve felt that fear of losing what matters most to us. Maybe we fear we’ve even lost it. Certainly we know others have. And we’ve experienced the thrill of remembering and recovering personal agency from another writer who saw into our deepest heart and spoke hope, comfort, and we recovered our determination.
Accepting others instead of excluding them is the message of Jesus to everyone he encounters. Think of it. Who are you excluding?
Before you write today, close your eyes and imagine them being inspired to go on and write books to inspire others to recover their capacity to exert power over their situations, a power drawn from the Source of Love so great that He gives His power to anyone who asks.
Especially those who feel too lost to be recovered….
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 (update: it now has). 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 fairly commonplace. 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. Something momentous seemed to be hidden between the pages.
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 him to pursue publishing the book. Wayne is a writer whose own work has taken on what passes for Christianity in mainstream culture, targeting what Jacobsen calls the “missing middle” that exists between the mainstream Christian book houses and the general market.
That’s significant background because I’m convinced this is one of the biggest and most under-served readerships worldwide: the group some call the “post-religious,” spiritually-curious, but tired of the typical packaging of church programs and Christian culture. How to reach this elusive audience has been a subject I’ve studied and debated for years, but I believe the larger story around The Shack provides the best case study to date.
Coming from outside both Christian and general markets, it has succeeded in transcending the categories to define a hunger for God the typical Christian fare so often fails to fill.
—–In June 2008, I caught up with Wayne—–
Me: I understand The Shack went through some fairly extensive revisions and rewriting. Can you talk about that?
Wayne: Yeah. Paul (Young, writer), Brad (Cummings, Windblown Media), 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.
Me: 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.
Me: 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.
Me: 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
Me: 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 seems to be responding to the idea that God is even more loving and boldly relational than we tend to think, that He’s forceful in breaking down the very walls the religious establishment wants to build in their preference for safe, non-confrontational literature. Do you see a parallel here to how Jesus used 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.
Me: 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.
Me: 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.
Me: Thanks, Wayne. And thanks for inviting so much challenging discussion through this book. I know I’m not the only one who’s grateful for the opportunity to explore these ideas more.
Wayne: My pleasure, Mick. Thank you.
Note: Since first published in 2007, The Shack has garnered much acclaim and controversy and has gone on to become one of the bestselling books of all time. And despite being denounced as heresy, the movie releases March 3rd, 2017.
[Please feel free to leave a kind, intelligent comment–all others will be denied, like CNN at a Trump press conference.]
I read a new book recently and it changed me. It helped me realize something I hadn’t before.
Books often do that, of course, but not in a quite so fundamentally altering way. You know how when new information comes, there’s always that period of instability before you can even recognize what’s happened? And then comes an undetermined time of processing it before you can assimilate and actually use that new fact or element of knowledge from your newly expanded and solidified position?
Yeah, that happened recently. And I realized I don’t think about that enough. I’m guessing you probably don’t either, or at least not consciously, with intention to do something about it. I assume you already know we all face the requirement to assimilate new info, whether or not we always do it. After all, that’s sort of the whole point of this walking-around-upright-and-aspiring-to-social-respectability-for-doing-something-useful-with-these-opposable-thumbs gift of consciousness, isn’t it?
So, because integration is a hidden process, it’s underappreciated. But I think it’s one of the more important processes to explore for how vitally essential it is to our lives, our minds, our hearts, our strength and our souls.
Because my postulate is that to love God well in all those areas absolutely requires good integration (vs. bad or simply lacking).
So one of the takeaways of this book is that integration is really all about consistency. That is, you can’t be well integrated in life and able to use your newly gained knowledge, abilities and wisdom without consistently doing the work to integrate new knowledge, abilities and wisdom.
Right? I know–it’s neuron-stretching. But when you realize this, you see why with all this new information continually coming at you, and faster today than ever before, the sheer effort to synthesize it with your existing life is overwhelming. We resent, resist and actively fight against the onslaught every day. But how many of us realize this invisible duty to take it in and deal with the anxiety that causes? And isn’t it even fewer people who actually think of ways to pursue better integration of their expanding understanding, and then follow through on what that new awareness dictates?
Is this important? Do you agree? For years I’ve believed that what we need most are strong examples of people doing this and making the effort, so we can see the positive change and the new intentions and how they play out in someone’s life. If we could watch a “good integrator” working to apply his or her learning in their life and see what the results are, wouldn’t that be of priceless value in our info-choked lives?
I wonder what could be more needed–of course, such a personal story would be one of the hardest things to write, to say nothing of ensuring the picture was vulnerable and honest enough to appeal in today’s culture. Clearly, an exemplary integrator would have to struggle to be authentic and laid bare. She’d need to care little about the judgment that would follow when her experiment in allowing change by an invisible hand to grow her awareness was misunderstood, maligned and even denounced.
But that’d be the cost, and it’s ultimately why I’ve grown to love inspirational memoir. Because it’s instructive in the ways I need it to be most–to see it, feel it and experience it for myself. Who can’t identify with this deep need to live more “wholistically?” You don’t have to be a writer to know this training is among our primary needs for survival now, since we’ve become largely safe and comfortable in our modern world. The great danger we face as humans isn’t physical or even ultimately intellectual–it’s spiritual. It has always been thus; we just haven’t been so capable of focusing so much attention on it before.
Which is why we’ll rip apart at the seams if we don’t get clear on how to do this mental work real quick.
Anyone coming to this work of demonstrating healthy integration, i.e. spiritual growth, will pay a price. Family and friends will oppose your efforts, see them as variously selfish, self-immolating, demanding, unreasonable, or even unhinged. There’s no easy response to why you’d choose to pursue this. Many won’t see it as growing our ability to identify with Christ’s wounds, yet isn’t it ultimately just that? To see more of the real world and experience the only real way to break our prejudices and privileges, and finally feel what another feels?
The connections there aren’t immediately obvious, but that’s why I’m compelled to commend this book to you. What I aspire to with Higher Purpose Writers is exemplified in Ann Voskamp’s new memoir, The Broken Way. Her example has shown me we need more Christ-followers willing to follow, to leave comfort and seek to know what we tend to miss as disintegrated, disembodied members of the body. So manymembers of the body are being dismembered and must be reminded, that is, re-membered. So many are being distracted and so many haven’t been given “the easy setting” like us. And what we need is more people willing to show the struggle to suffer in solidarity with them, without judging or arguing with their politics, or believing falsehoods to sidestep our mandate from God.
Simply, we are to love our neighbors and enemies as ourselves. And we need to integrate this knowledge to get involved in saving lives.
This book is the reason I began feeling disintegrated and stopped posting several weeks ago. As with One Thousand Gifts, The Broken Way forced me to recognize it and do something about it. After writing about writing for over 20 years, one of my main takeaways is clear: writing can create an eddy to remove you from where the river of creative flow is taking you. Without attention to integrating your spiritual knowledge, it can prevent you from facing your deeper fears and producing more good work of a higher purpose.
The Broken Way revealed to me I hadn’t yet integrated my knowledge about God with my own living of life. And that’s the opposite of being truly helpful to anyone in the real world. Maybe it’s not uncommon and we all experience such disintegration every day. We all know it’s incredibly hard to do the work of waiting and gathering and then considering all the factors of an issue, let alone to integrate the new awareness that arises slowly without being distracted and derailed. We grow too complacent, disinterested and convinced it’s unproductive navel-gazing. Maybe we also grow too afraid of inspiring others to conjure white padded rooms for us as we slip into self-important delusional behavior. But we can’t allow our fears to win. We can’t give in to our doubts that acquiring a fairly complete picture of our true work in this world, and integrating it, is possible.
Our hearts and everyone we’ll ever meet must follow this process of being transformed by the renewing of our minds. And it feels to me today on the cusp of another election (God help us) and the dawning of a dark and dangerous day for the west, it’s time to own my disintegration and get living again.
So for the next few weeks (possibly months), amidst myriad other tasks, factors and worthy and unworthy colluding distractions, I plan to follow what promises to be an epic interior journey, one I’ve never really embarked on before.
It may be only my fellow God-haunted nerds and misfits who see it and feel this excitement, but oh, my fellow Inspired aspirants, it will be epic…
More certainly to come. Will you join me?
For the higher purpose,
P.S. Please do check out my friend Ann’s book. It’s sure to sell well anyway, but as my favorite of 2016, at the very least it’s helped to make the year far less disappointing on balance.