“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” – John Muir
I drive Ellie to school and decide to silence the radio. Fund-drive season on the classical station and the news on NPR aren’t as valuable as 8 minutes of silence.
Monday comes full of details to sort and I go with my mug to look at the trees a moment and listen to the birds. The current batch of writers I’m editing and coaching are so patient. By Thursday there will be meetings and mentoring, critique sessions, and individual appointments. I head back in remembering the exercises for class, handouts, preparations to finish. Another few emails have arrived with more writers’ pages to review.
The work won’t stop piling up. The words just keep coming.
The coffee mug is empty again. Why do I go? Why do I do this to myself?
In just a few days, I head to Mount Hermon for the eighth time, although I can’t remember exactly how many times I’ve been now. I’ve had some incredible meetings, which usually makes up for the mind-and-body-numbing intensity of the week.
A time or two ago, Mona asked me to give a keynote to open the conference, based on one of these blog posts called “Writing for One Master” about committing to the Inspirer. It was good, but it wasn’t entertaining. I wish I’d told more stories and included some humor.
I forget about the audience. For an editor who’s always trying to get people to remember the audience, that’s pretty strange. Considering how much of my time is taken up with my selfish pursuits, it’s not that strange. As a quieter reader, most of my life has been about me, lost in the spiral of experience and trying to keep to myself and not miss out on anything.
There’s so much to do before I go, but the big idea needs capturing before I get too distracted. Spring has begun and the days are lengthening, so we’re getting out to enjoy it more. Over the weekend, Sheri and I talked about being older and that now we’re 44, we finally don’t want to be any older or any younger, which is freeing. We’re not old or young, rich or poor, dumb or smart. We’re pretty white, but we’re not totally ignorant about what that means, and we’re still Christians, but not exactly like we were. We’re trying to balance and it’s showing, so it’s easy to think we’re making progress. But being aware of self, we could forget the audience.
“Audience of One” is such a cliché, but it’s more. I try to post about Mister Rogers more than guns and abortion, but our beliefs are best expressed by loving actions and social media isn’t active. There’s input and output but it’s artificial and our lungs need the outside air. To be helpful but recognize our helplessness, saints who still sin, we have to live in response to the One Mastering Inspirer and not just pursue big ideas.
The audience, God and others, is waiting for a compelling story of someone who clearly sees there’s more to living than selfish pursuits. Expressing the good input you’ve received into positive, life-expanding relating, that’s the true work. And remembering that comes best not in reading or writing, but in doing.
I need the reminder.
I’m no one. I’m not a published author. I’m not famous or special, but I’ve stuck with this for many years and I love the people I’ve met. There are ekklesias, gatherings, in so many places every year around the country and this is just one I’m part of, by a large measure of grace. I can sound so Christian saying that, but it’s the truth. This church is a big reason I go.
I get thrown off balance by too much to read and think about. Reconnecting with the messiness of a writing community is a chance to break out of all I have to do to enjoy the work and words again.
As usual, it’ll be Palm Sunday over the time I’m there. We’ll gather and sing and listen to inspired words shared from many sources with one origin. And I’ll be reminded if I’m not too distracted how much I need that air to clean my lungs again and reattach my selfish senses to their best audience, which is not me.
“I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith…” Gal 2:20
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.]
Fellow Christian writers and artists, do you consider this a challenge?
“Christian art is a knock-off.”
Maybe? Maybe it depends on what we consider Christian art.
How do we define Christian art? Are the rules different than for regular art? Probably they are, and that’s fair since “Christian” should involve some specific differences about what’s artistic and what’s not.
So what does “Christian art” mean?
Is it art when it portrays some aspect of the glory of God? And are the qualities of the work less important, more important, or as important as the content, the message? Are the specific qualities merely the wrapping paper for the gift inside? Or is the packaging of the message the more important part?
Should “Christian art” mean what pleases God rather than what pleases man? Should it entertain or only be serious? Should it seek to convert its viewers by providing an alternative to unwholesome art? Should it be less interested in depicting the real world and more interested in what is pure, true, good, et cetera? Should it provide specific takeaways?
And does this really matter? After 4 decades in the Christian subculture, I can finally say I don’t have the faintest clue. I stopped being able to judge Christian art somewhere around age 30. I can probably make a pretty fair argument for both sides, from “everything has to literally spell out the gospel in order to be Christian art” to “only organically Christian art is truly a witness.”
But the recent “film debate” between Fifty Shades of Gray and the Christian alternative “Old Fashioned” revived some of the unanswerable questions.
Is that true? Is Old Fashioned art for Christians? And is it really incapable of reaching beyond that? Why? And who really knows?
And should we really spend time debating this?
Every Christian industry–film, music, books and all those giftable products–exists for Christians. The art they sell is for people who want a message and aren’t as interested (though they still are) in the wrapping. Should we debate whether the message of Christian art is getting seen by regular folk?
Or should we be making art?
My opinion? We should be making art. If the appeal of “50 Shades” proves anything, it’s that the wrapping of the message matters–a lot. Maybe more than the message, in many ways. (As Marshall McLuhan said back in 1964). So if you’re a Christian inclined to making beautiful art, you should probably spend more time working on making the package work, and not worrying so much whether the message is clear.
But my point is, whether Christian art is or isn’t largely miserable, useless and derivative, who cares? What if instead of debating we just got to work and focused more on making art than the distractions of others’ opinions?
Maybe that would be a more productive use of our gifts and time?
I’m reminding myself here. And now leaving to write.
It had already been announced and discussed and when I told my wife, she said what we all thought, “Isn’t she dead?”
Almost immediately there were suspicions about it all over the feeds. News and opinions went back and forth without much substance to go on. Was she being coerced or manipulated? Who had actually talked to her about it?
But behind the speculation, some of us sensed a monster lurking, a question we can’t quite answer: are we doing what’s right here?
This wasn’t just about what a beloved author really wanted. It was about what the Internet and media (social and otherwise) is doing to our world. Knowingly or not, Nelle Harper Lee has started a conversation again over the central issue her debut speaks to most presciently: the hopelessness in today’s world of doing what’s right.
Whether it’s the conversation about our country’s Internet and media addiction that none of us want to have, or the one about reparations and systemic injustice, there are winners and losers in this country. And we all have to face how deeply unfair so much of what we call “fair” is just not.
The story of a famously private author finally deciding to release another book is some of the best news fodder we Chatty Cathys could hope for. Think of the traffic being generated! But whatever else it’s about, the story is also a warning, a reckoning, that we could be killing a mockingbird here. If someone is lying or manipulating this living national treasure, they’ll most certainly be published, er, punished. Ahem.
For all our hopes of another novel, shouldn’t we be asking, Should we just leave her alone?
Then there’s the fact that this couldn’t be more fitting to the point of her novel: no question Bob Ewell and his kind of prejudice are evil and wrong, and so is the jury for believing him. But we all know there’s another monster on the loose that we’re not talking about, a deep evil, possibly the greatest of all–a bully with an insatiable hunger for more.
More news. More information. More of the juicy story. More amazing books. And even if you weren’t as excited as I was to hear about this new book, we’re all in danger of becoming sick-drunk with this thirst for more.
Maybe she realizes there are still many innocents who need protecting and maybe her novel can help. Or maybe she still sees herself as Boo Radley as she has said.
Are we taking advantage of her? Remember, even Atticus was ready to force Boo and his own son to face public “justice” for the murder of Bob Ewell, spinning it as positively as he could.
It took the hardened lawman, Heck Tate, to talk sense into him and show him his misplaced faith in people to do what’s right.
This news story and To Kill a Mockingbird have everything to do with how we view right and wrong and our responsibility to seek true justice. Make no mistake, the point here is just like in the novel–doing the right thing may be hopeless, but it’s still worth doing all you can. We must consider the consequences of our snap judgments, and remember that in our modern rush to consume information, we can so easily become ravenous “More Monsters.”
I believe deep down, we all know we’re a mix of great good and deep evil. And because of that evil, Boo Radley wouldn’t really be left alone. Not in the real world.
Wouldn’t we all kill a mockingbird if we had a chance to own her song? As good as he wanted to be, not even Atticus, for all his good intentions, could see that without help.
To be sure, Go Set a Watchman is a very promising title. Should it happen to be about coming to terms with our tendency to go after those who need our protection, it could inspire discussion again about the importance of limiting ourselves to preserve something good and pure in the world. Maybe it will be about respect and facing our prejudices and dealing with the misguided bullies in our hearts.
We can only hope. And maybe if Nelle’s new-old vision from a grown-up Scout Finch does ignite that vital conversation again, she’ll forgive us for needing the reminder?