Category Archives: Meditations

Of Confidence, Mediocrity, and CBA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And all God’s people said…

Only the Haters Seem Alive

Highlight of my day today was the morning devotional with Paul McCusker, VP of Resource Development at Focus, of which I’m a tiny cog. He is Episcopalian by choice, if you can believe that, and seems to be pretty proud of the fact (I’m just kidding of course). I think mostly he flaunts his liturgical credentials so he can quote from Macabees and wish people a happy Epiphany and stuff. But that’s just my jaded Evangelicalism talking.

But this morning, Paul talked about the traditional story of Christ’s birth, pointing out a few new things I hadn’t thought of before. You know, when Mary was visited by Gabriel and complimented and told she would bear the promised messiah, she was barely old enough to drink, or drive her own donkey. Imagine sitting there being told you’re going to have a baby by God. What are you most likely thinking? I mean, after all the fear and disbelief and pinching yourself, you’d probably come to think, “Wow. I must be something. I’m not going to have to worry about a thing anymore.” Right? Not in a million years would you be thinking, “Gee, I hope this means God is going to allow the governor to force us to travel a hundred miles to have this baby in a dirty stable among strange shepherds and a couple goats.”

And beyond that, this one birth predicates the slaughter of thousands of Jewish children, basically all the ones that Herod could find. Talk about a Merry Christmas. We don’t really sing about that around the egg nog bowl. In some way, I think it makes a weird sort of sense that the holidays are so often tinged with a bit of melancholy. The light of the world came in, but the darkness came in too. It even seemed to increase. While that little coda at the end of The Passion of the Christ with Satan being placed in the pit is a nice thought, it didn’t really happen, did it? It might have been a symbolic victory Jesus won, but it’s not all honky dory. We’re still getting darker and darker here. And what’s weirder, we seem to have a pretty dark God. Who among us is closer to understanding this principle of heaven: “To those who have, more will be given. To those who have not, even what they have shall be taken away.” What kind of mixed-up God are we talking about here?

In this sick and twisted world where many, if not most have already given up, we Christian writers have a difficult task. We can’t afford to be afraid to be seen in a dirty stable. We have to accept the darkness that comes in with the light—that’s right, accept it. I’ll come back to that. Walker Percy—another Christian artist who preferred his faith with a strong orthodoxy—has a quote I like. He said, “My next novel shall be mainly given to ass-kicking for Jesus’ sake.” He asked, “Why does man feel so sad in the twentieth century? [And] how does the Christian novelist set about writing, having cast his lot with a discredited Christendom and having inherited a defunct vocabulary?” As the article in Marrs Hill Review #20 asks, “How do you tell the story of redemption when nearly everybody lost interest a long time ago?”

Percy believed American Christians had become passionless, and “terminally nice.” The America I see certainly bears this out. It often seems in this world that the haters are the only ones truly alive. But it does no good to hate. For a time, I hated modern American Christendon. In my weaker moments, I revert back to it. But when I see that the God who was willing to prove His love in such demeaning ways, loves even the ones who don’t understand him, the ones who can’t accept that ineffable mystery, I feel inspired that I can accept them too, unselfishly, and unqualified. It isn’t only the “lost” who are lost.

And the last thing I want to say tonight is that I don’t think it’s possible to extract the mystery from the knowing, the doubt from the faith. Everything is interwoven in this mixed-up God universe. It’s dirty and chaotic, and somehow more majestic because of it. It’s a mystery how we can express love and hate at the same time, but it’s no less true that one without the other may not be possible. Maybe love is given greater life by the implicit loathing of the selfish part that’s retained, the resulting struggle against that, and the ultimate realization that neither is inescapable. Reciprocal and opposed, but neither can exist in a vacuum. I don’t know, I’m just thinking out loud. Maybe we have to have both, have to be both, in order to speak effectively to the truths of this created disorder. Can we accept the chaos as part of the whole?

Revolution: Year-end Rabble-rousin’

relevantgirl says, “It’s time for a revolution, but it must begin in our hearts first.” Absolutely. Let’s start. (And no, you aren’t the only one who didn’t “get it” with that book.)

I’d agree that I’m a little confused by those like Warren who claim there’s some great revival going on. If anything, it looks like the same convulsive surges of “Son-sumerism”—like those on the trade floor at the annual CBA conventions—we’ve always seen. And the most disturbing thing to my idealistic, anti-establishment sensibilities is how the sweeping evidences of this so-called revival are so intimately wedded to savvy marketing. Though we do have to keep in mind that there is a cause and effect at work, and it is reciprocal. The great machine is fueled by public demand—and not often the other way around.

And another thing I’ve been meaning to point out is that there’s obviously a problem of semantics here. Revolution is the term I’ve chosen for the resurgence in Christian writing of high literary quality. Revival, reformation, and awakening—even “reformission”—are often used interchangeably, and are not what I’m calling for in Christian writing. I actually think that happens on an individual basis as people realize their need for God. Revival necessitates a state of darkness to awaken from, which is definitely one of the fundamental assumptions of this Christian Writing Revolution. Yet I’m wanting to go beyond revival in the culture, to revival in Christian writers.

One thing the Times article alluded to was that big, warehouse churches are growing—some frighteningly fast, like Osteen’s from the sound of it. Christianity is big business, and I guess, pretty much always has been. The stuff we’re fed, that Christians are the underdogs, never given equal airtime, the only ones maligned and discriminated against in a politically correct culture, makes us think differently. But if there’s one thing that was proven to me this year, it’s that Christians command respect for their sheer numbers. Oh yes, the nondenominational churches are growing. And still the quality of our books is not improving. We’ve got more and more Christians, but less and less commanding artistry.

But maybe another important fact to remember is that revolution is fueled by widespread malcontent. If there isn’t a groundswell of unhappiness, there can’t be no revolution. And I just find it interesting that so many of these insipid popular books, which shall be forgotten, are based on the idea that God wants us to be happy, content, and constantly entertained with sanitized, unchallenging genre fiction and water-down platitudes. I guess I see value in complaining about this. And as part of my year in review, I do see constructive work being done to dismantle the assumptions of the unsuspecting public, challenges to their narrow mindsets, stretching influences like Annie Dillard, Madeline L’Engle, Brett Lott, and Greg Wolfe and the folks that comprise the Literary Christian site. But the fact that Mel Gibson located his Catholic roots, while wonderful, doesn’t equate revival to me. A lot of people, including me, wanted to see what the hype was about with that inflamatory movie. I saw it. (I have no need to ever see it again.) Book marketers have found greater sales through the warehouse booksellers like WalMart, but this doesn’t equal revival either.

I thought it was an interesting point in the article that Christian books make up 11% of the overall market. That’s not nearly as high a percentage as the Christians in America, as census data indicates. Eleven percent accounts for a couple billion dollars, so it’s no slouch, but really, the number is irrelevant. Since when is market share any measurement for Christians? (I seem to remember a verse in 3rd Hezekiah about that…)

Actually, there is a verse about the love of money, about money corrupting, about giving all you have to follow Him. There are parables about stewardship and the proper use of resources, about rejecting what the world values for the things of true value. And I think one of those things of true value conspicuously absent in CBA (like the malls at Christmastime) is the real stuff, the redemptive beauty, the Truth we’re not seeing on the bookshelves drawn with artistic merit and great literary quality. Yet, lo and behold, there are others out here who feel the same way. Professors, editors, writers, philosophers. Christmas-celebrators and old fashioned rabble-rousers. God bless us, Everyone!

This will be my last post until Christmas. We’re traveling tomorrow to California to visit all the family–some 30 very excited people waiting to see Ellie–for a week. But before I flicker out, I’d like to hear from a few of you what you’re wishing for for Christmas this year.

For myself, I’d like to see Bret Lott make the bestseller list…

A couple things…

I love the quote on the Christian Realists’ Website: “Piety kills the creative mind.” – Flannery O’Connor Now that’s one to meditate on.

And since I’ve been meaning to include it or a while now, I’ll just post it here in case any of you missed it. The New York Times’ article on Faith-based Publishing.

Gotta run. If you’re wanting to discuss this Christian Writing Revolution, read the article and come back prepared to talk about it tomorrow.

Have a great night, everyone.

Holy God, Lowly God

The majority of America is Christian and yet Christians in America are largely uninvolved in their world. Why?

Some have even come to resemble Pharisees more than the Good Samaritan. Some don’t see a problem with it. I’ve even heard recent comments by well-known Christians that the Pharisees weren’t so bad, we’ve just vilified them, and they were really a pretty good lot overall, not deserving of being so maligned and misunderstood.

It’s true, Jesus didn’t say all of them were vipers. Yet it’s a dangerous group to belong to. When you put personal holiness before obedience to the Great Commission, you’re treading some familiar and dangerous ground. A report from cultural analysis company, The Barna Group, shows people’s faith doesn’t make as much of as difference as might be expected–especially among born again Christians. While Evangelicals’ faith is most clearly evident in their behavior, overall, Christians are not living their faith.

”Jesus taught that Christians would be recognizable by their distinctive behavior – specifically, by the way they love others and how their lives reflect their spiritual values and beliefs (i.e., the “fruit” of their transformation). Based on a national survey that related people’s faith and 19 lifestyle activities that might be expected to be affected by faith views, the results of the survey caused George Barna, the Directing Leader of The Barna Group, to note that many Christians are hard-pressed to convert their beliefs into action. ‘The ultimate aim of belief in Jesus is not simply to possess divergent theological ideas but to become a transformed person. These statistics highlight the fact that millions of people who rely on Jesus Christ for their eternal destiny have problems translating their religious beliefs into action beyond Sunday mornings.’”

Apparently, it isn’t just an isolated problem. And it isn’t just how you interpret the data or which denomination you happen to be in. While there are significant differences among those who hold a more orthodox view and those who are simply “washed in the blood” at a Campus Crusade rally, one of the difficulties we might point out is an inaccurate view of God. Many of us have a warped or incomplete view of who God is. It could be argued that none of us can “know God” because we can’t begin to understand all the paradoxical facets and mystery He encompasses. But there are some things we can know, some things he has given us from the secret places. It’s these things that we should strive after to understand in all their complex beauty. It’s these things I’m hoping we can discuss and continue to challenge each other.

Don Miller, in his book, Blue Like Jazz, talks about setting up a booth on the Reed college campus in Oregon, known for its extreme liberal, atheistic humanism, and offering “confessions.” Only he isn’t taking, he’s giving. He tells of the spiritual release and blessing he received by giving out apologies for the atrocities done in Jesus’ name throughout the ages. He’s taken it upon himself to transform the perception of Jesus in the culture. That’s a revolutionary act: using the truth as a weapon of love against those who have been causing damage in their wrong-headedness. We need more people willing to repair the damage caused by self-proclaimed Christians who promote “dogmatic, backwards, anti-intellectual, bigoted, racist, sexist, and simplistic notions.”

And rather than focusing on the distance we have to go, sometimes it’s good to focus on the great opportunities we have to share the gift we enjoy this season. It’s an honor and a privilege we truly can’t deserve. That we lost men are still of inestimable value in His eyes, considered by Him as worth His sacrifices and attempts at reconciliation, is cause for celebration.

On Friday, trying to finish a quick entry about enjoying the true reason for Christmas, I said God considered us worthy of His love and concern. That comment sparked some debate. My point wasn’t to say we deserve anything God offers us, but that He considers us worth the sacrifice of His Son. Relevantgirl said it wonderfully in her comment and I agree. There’s a problem with disrespect in the church today. I fear I may have allowed some of that to seep into my thinking if I could make such a statement and not hear the inaccuracy in it. In my effort to point to the purpose of Christmas, I ended up suggesting that God has no problem accepting us in our evil and fallen state. I didn’t intend that. The fact is, God has a problem with evil. If He didn’t we wouldn’t need to celebrate Christmas. God is holy, and in His holiness, He requires holiness. That unattainable for us without His assistance. Yet Christmas is the time when God came down to repair the separation man had devised in His fallen state.

And still, I maintain that it is a profound mystery that God would be humble. The notion that God’s name could not be uttered for fear of sullying it, that it should be only written in code and with different ink and a different pen, thereby resisting the temptation to think of Him as less high than He truly is, was a grandiose notion that did damage by keeping the original scribes from realizing the love with which God created them. They couldn’t fathom a God who sought relationship with them. The damage that follows from such thinking is a works-based, law-bound, grace-less faith, wrapped up in empty ritual and self-flagellating practices that have nothing to do with the freedom and true humility Jesus came to bring. It’s good to remember that the legalistic notions the original religious leaders perpetrated were what Jesus came to destroy.

While it’s true a low view of God can keep us from appropriate reverence, too “high” a view of God, or maybe I should say “emphasizing God’s holiness over his love,” causes distance, removal, separation, and suffering from the very one who created us for oneness with Him. If God could not stoop to us in His great mercy, grace, and love we could never hope to find anything but suffering and torment. At its worst, this mindset binds Christians in a “woe-is-me” mentality and prevents the exercising of our talents, cutting off the beauty and Truth His followers are instructed to share.

I’m no theologian, and I don’t give these views with any recommendation that you make them yours. But I think the answer comes in seeking both God’s grace and His holiness, His love and His law. I have spent nights “delighting” in God’s law, analyzing it, turning it over in the light like a finely carved diamond, letting it reflect the ineffable beauty of His orderly creation. But if I stayed there, I’d only be half revolutionized.

He is holy, and yet check out what else: Isaiah 57:15. “For this is what the high and lofty one says—he who lives forever, whose name is holy: ‘I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble and to revive the heart of the contrite.”

He is above us, but He is not removed and He is not distant. He does consider you worth His concern and love. When Jesus came as a man, he knelt and washed his disciples feet to teach them how to be true leaders. When Peter protested—“No. You will never wash my feet,” Jesus said, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” Think of that. Unless you accept the humility of God and follow His example of servant leadership, you can’t be called a follower of Christ.

“Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart and you will find rest for your souls,” Matt. 11:29.

“God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble,” 1 Peter 5.

Of course, we must not forget that we are lowly created to understand only in part: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law,” Deuteronomy 29:29.

My point here is that holding too high a view of God’s holiness does damage when elevated above His grace and love. I relate it to the fundamental balance between the order in the universe and the “deep order” observable in randomness. The seeming chaos within our orderly universe is not truly chaotic. While no one can predict how a cloud will form, if we could understand all the influences acting on that water vapor, we would see the “deep order.” That we cannot see the order does not mean it is disorderly. What truly expanded my mind to accept Christianity was grasping how intricate and complex the universe really is. I have greater respect for God’s magnificence when I consider the paradox of “chaos,” the complex randomness from which the deep order emerges, much more than I do from simply appreciating Newton’s laws alone. Linear structures and physical principles are great. But without an understanding of cyclical and fractal structures, I couldn’t appreciate nearly as much.

To me, this “deep order” in randomness reflects God’s grace and holiness. Holiness might be seen as the order we use to describe God’s nature. God is holy. Newton applied rules and laws to explain the universe’s properties. The universe is orderly. But without an understanding of the order beyond what those laws can account for, it is impossible to explain the deep order, just as holiness is insufficient to explain God’s humility. Newton’s universe is a high and lofty concept to try to appreciate. But if I think that God made His laws to provide a framework for appreciating the deeper mystery of His love and grace, I begin to see how truly deserving of praise He is. Even though I understand Newton’s physics, everything about the universe remains a mystery to me. Even though I understand God’s holiness, everything about Him remains a complete mystery as well. It’s only in realizing the divine paradox of a deeper order within the seeming randomness that my wonder at His nature is given life.

I’ve rambled on long enough. I guess I never really put all that into words before, but I like it. I hope it makes sense. If not, just leave a comment and I’ll try to explain. :) Thanks to Becky for her insightful and challenging comments. I appreciate you and your concern. I’ve been sharpened by you. And to Sally, your eloquent comments are a testament to your sharp mind. Thank you, both.