f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: 12/01/2003 - 01/01/2004

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Up Ahead in 2004

I don’t have my copy of God: Stories with me today, so I’m not able to offer my take on Louise Erdrich’s “Satan: Hijacker of a Planet,” but it’s an odd little tale that pushes toward magic realism, a genre we don’t often see in popular American fiction. Instead, I’ll take a paragraph or two to look to the future.

In 2004, I’ll be making a bigger acquisitions push to actually begin finding writers who want to publish the kind of fiction this journal discusses. Stones are going to be overturned, closets shaken out, and bushes beaten. I’m going to be at the Festival of Faith and Fiction in late April at Calvin College and hope to make some other appearances elsewhere, sometimes as observer and sometimes as participant.

In early 2004 (next week, I think), I’m going to begin a series paralleling this push for realistic fiction to the ongoing emergent church movement. They are not the same, but in some ways they grow out of a few shared ideals.

2004 will find us discussing more wonderful books of faith including Mark Salzman’s Lying Awake, hopefully something by Ron Hansen, my first reading of Frederick Buechner’s fiction, Michael O’Brien’s brick of a novel Father Elijah which lies waiting on my desk, and if the spirit catches me, Brothers Karamazov which I’ve always wanted to read. First up may actually be the hyper-popular DaVinci Code, Grisham’s Testament and the place of “popular” fiction in this discussion.

Also in 2004, I’m hoping to draft a few intrepid authors to chime in with their own impressions of this topic. If you’ve an essay that seems to fit and are all about the glory of seeing your work online without remuneration, feel free to contact me about an idea or two.

And on a personal note, I’ll be continuing my own writing hoping to improve on my two efforts in this vein so far.

So 2003 rumbles to a close and I’m left only to say Go with Providence in 2004. We’ll see you on Friday.

Monday, December 29, 2003

God: Stories--Andre Dubus Ritualistic Tangle With "A Father's Story"

If you want to talk about contemporary writers tackling, with eloquence and honesty, the thorny issues surrounding the life of faith you simply need to read Andre Dubus. And the sooner the better, to be quite frank. You need to read his essays in books like Broken Vessels and Meditations on a Movable Chair and you need to read his short stories, particularly ones like "A Father's Story" which is in this collection.

This is about the fourth time I've read this particular story and I've also been lucky enough to find a recording of Dubus reading it himself. It's not terribly long--18 pages in this collection--and yet I've never been able to read it start to finish without stopping at least once or twice in the middle to linger with some of the moments he provides. This is Dubus refined to almost his purest essence as a writer--there's his steadfast Catholic faith, his hearty and never quite-PC manhood, his wonder at womanhood, his incandescent eloquence on the power of the sacraments, his closeness to nature, his nor'eastern gruffness, and his indescribable graciousness all rolled into the voice of Luke Ripley.

I'm not even going to pretend to be unbiased or critically-minded in this entry. I love this story and I'm sure I'm blind to whatever faults lie within. I'm also prone, having read much of Dubus' non-fiction, to confuse Ripley with Dubus himself. That's a dangerous thing, but if there's ever a story that seems to hem closely to its author's life, this is one and I think many of Ripley's beliefs are things that were important to the author as well.

The story begins: My name is Luke Ripley, and here is what I call my life.... And we soon enter Ripley's life, both as seen from the outside and what he calls his real life, the one nobody talks about anymore, except Father Paul LeBoeuf..... This is the life of the mind, the life of faith. We get ten pages of Ripley's life, his accounting for the kind of man he is. And then we get the problem. I'm not even going to talk about the problem because I want you to read it yourself, but sufficed to say it has to do with one of Ripley's children and a choice he makes as a father. It is, as the title clearly states, "A Father's Story."

Here I'm going to just type out a bit of Dubus' prose and talk briefly about rituals. Ripley is talking about going to Mass daily even though he is a not a naturally spiritual man.

I can receive, though: the Eucharist, and also, at Mass and at other times, moments and even minutes of contemplation. But I cannot achieve contemplation, as some can; and so, having to face and forgive my own failures, I have learned from them both the necessity and the wonder of ritual. For ritual allows those who cannot will themselves out of the secular to perform the spiritual as dancing allows the tongue-tied man a ceremony of love.
And later, more on ritual...this time in the context of his failed marriage.

Twelve years later I believe ritual would have healed us more quickly than the repetitious talks we had, perhaps even kept us healed. Marriages have lost that, and I wish I had known then what I know now, and we had performed certain acts together every day, no matter how we felt, and perhaps then we could have subordinated feeling to action, for surely that is the essence of love.
This is a quick take on an incredibly complicated notion and, because I'm not Catholic and grew up with a healthy aversion to ritual, I vascillate on whether I think Dubus' is dead-on or off his rocker, but I like that he's challenging my views. Action is the essence of love (as dcTalk reminded us, "Love is a verb") and, though we may complain about the meaninglessness of ritual, too often we're too lazy to act out our love in new and thoughtful ways every day, even to those most important to us...be they God or our spouses. So ritual becomes our shorthanded way of daily sacrificing ourselves to them. It can't be our only expression of love, because rituals can certainly become dead, but I'm beginning to like his notion more and more.

This has little to do with writing fiction, I know. From that standpoint, I suppose I'll just point out how it is possible to tackle faith issues in fiction without resorting to putting them into the mouth of a pastor giving a sermon. These are simply thoughts of a man trying to understand his life, both the joys and mostly the sorrows. It's a fantastic story and I can't recommend Dubus any more highly. His Selected Stories is a desert-island book for me.

Friday, December 26, 2003

God: Stories--Mary Ward Brown and the Problem of Bad Christians

Mary Ward Brown's story in this collection was first published by Atlantic Monthly and thus was one that the editor knew well. She is one of the lesser known authors in the book, but that's not really here nor there in discussing her story.

"A New Life" is essentially the story of a young widow who becomes the focus of a group of Christians hoping to provide the answers to the grief she is, according to those who know her, unable to overcome. The story is set in the Bible belt where people talk about God like they talk about the weather, but even in this context these particular Christians are aggressive.

This, to me, is a fine example of the kind of story writing that can emerge from questions of faith and how we must try to live ours out in the midst of so many other lives. Brown's widow is a tangled mess of frozen grief and she shows just how patronizing, cruel, unmerciful, and aggressive Christians can sound when mouthing off about the will of God to someone who has just suffered loss. Brown isn't ignoring the will of God, but merely commenting on the appropriateness of EVER going down that path to those in grief. The words spoken are so trite and so useless, you just want to slap these people.

We paint the Pharisees very well in CBA Fiction. It's easy to create villains who obviously are using the pulpit as power or have learned to cower behind some ridiculous interpretation of the Bible. What Brown shows is that sometimes the bad guy is the one who, in trying to reveal Christ, simply drives a person further away. And that's not really about being a villain. That's about being a human making bad choices without consideration of God's call to mercy and kindness.

Christians can be the bad guys without being the villains. We can sin even after accepting the cleansing grace of Jesus. That sin, whether intentional or not, can hurt others. We are not perfect and we need to stop pretending so. Mary Ward Brown shows us Christians in black hats...and I don't think it's the end of the world.

--

Hope all your Chrismases were well. I have no idea what next week will bring, probably just more stories. I know the first week of January will start with a look at the emergent church movement and the parallels I see with the need to move beyond CBA Fiction.

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

God: Stories—Baldwin's God-less "Exodus"

Today we tangle with one of the more provocative writers of the 20th-century. James Baldwin, a key figure in the wake of the Harlem Renaissance, is as well known for his series of autobiographies (of which I’ve read Notes of a Native Son) as he is for his fiction. A quick search for a biographical sketch online uncovers the fact that at 14-years-old Baldwin was actually a preacher at the Fireside Pentecostal Baptist Church. Later he made a notable split from the church (partly because he was openly homosexual), but the themes and images of his upbringing are still an important part of his work.

Exodus from his Gospel-named novel Go Tell It On the Mountain is the story of Florence, a young black woman down south post-Civil-War who is raised in the shadow of her mother’s God.

Bathsheba, Florence’s mother, was a slave, born on a plantation and brought up bathed in the promise of deliverance.

For it had been the will of God that they should hear, and pass it, thereafter, one to another, the story of the Hebrew children, who had been held in bondage in the land of Egypt; and how the Lord had heard their groaning, and how His heart was moved; and how He bid them wait but a little season till He should send deliverance. She had known this story, or so it seemed from the day that she was born.
This is not a God who means much to Florence. She and her brother are children of Bathsheba’s old age and, as Baldwin writes:

Many of the stories her mother told her meant nothing to Florence, she knew them for that they were, tales told by an old black woman in a cabin in the evening to distract her children from their cold and hunger. But the story of this day she was never to forget….
The story Bathsheba tells is of the freeing of the slaves from the plantation and the moment that this delivered slave walked out through the plantations big gate never to return.

Florence needs her own deliverance. Her heart’s desire is to walk out the family’s cabin door, leaving behind the life of bitter poverty and utter lack of hope. What God is there, though, that promises that deliverance? Is it the same God of the Hebrew children and the Exodus? Is God even a part of this deliverance?

It’s a core question for any writing of faith. Christians worship one unchanging God, but we are only able to worship Him in part. We try, through our lives, to fathom the heights, depths, and grandeur but in the end it’s only the tip of the iceberg. In the end we often take comfort in worshipping and understanding Him in the way that makes the most sense. For some, we see a deliverer. Or a healer. Or a comforter. Or a king. It’s something writers need to define for their characters. They can’t worship in whole and so we need to know the part that they worship.

Or the part that makes no sense to them. Her mother’s faith means nothing to Florence. Her mother’s deliverance serves only to remind the daughter of her own claustrophobic life. And for her there is no biblical promise of relief. She sees on the need to take things into her own hands. Her exodus is simply one foot moving in front of the other, until she’s out the gate, delivered by her own will. No need for God at all.

Monday, December 22, 2003

God: Stories—Bausch's Design and the Shifting of Souls

Christmas falls this week and I’m headed back to the land of cheesesteaks, independence, and cranky sports fans for a week of familial warmth and gift-sharing. That said, there will be something to read today, tomorrow, and on Wednesday at least. In fact, all three of those entries will be discussions of stories from a collection called God: Stories. This is fictional short stories collected by editor C. Michael Curtis (Senior Editor at Atlantic Monthly) and they represent some of the major fiction names of our last century including Dubus, Updike, O’Connor, Roth, and more. Curtis himself is a monumental, if lesser known name in fiction, editing one of the most prestigious short fiction sections in America today. He’s also served as editor of a companion collection called Faith Stories.

This collection will serve as a touchstone after weeks where I haven’t made much progress in a longer work of spiritual fiction. Or a week where I’m simply reading a mystery or a book whose themes aren’t relevant for this web page. Short fiction makes for some of my favorite reading and I urge all of you to either seek this collection out or seek out longer collections by the individual authors herein.

The story to be discussed today is Design by Richard Bausch. Bausch is important enough to have had a number of his stories put into a collection by Modern Library, however, I admit to not having read him broadly. I’ve read his novel Violence and it would fit well in our previous discussions of bleak, moral novels who fail to even entertain the notion of a happy ending. You understand the meaning of violent language—the actual percussion of the words start beating at you—that child experts warn us about so frequently.

His story, however, is a much quieter tale. It is a story told from the 3rd-person limited perspective of a middle-aged Father Russell who finds much to concern him with his neighbor—elderly Baptist pastor Reverend Tarmigian. What distresses the father isn’t theological or anything to do with the two men’s assumably differing religious beliefs—instead Father Russell is worried that the Reverend is sick.

The story flits from their interactions over a course of days in the late autumn to Father Russell’s own discouraged thoughts. Russell is a bit of a brooder, a worrier who isn’t facing middle age well.

…the matter of greatest faith was, and had been for a very long time now, that every twist or turn of his body held a symptom; every change signified the onset of disease. It was all waiting to happen to him, and the anticipation of it sapped him, made him weak and sick at heart.
Coupled with that, Father Russell is doubting his calling. He’s suffering what can only be called a slight psychic breakdown and the ravaged face and body of his neighbor only seems to make things worse, especially since the old man doesn’t seem to acknowledge it in any way.

The story, in the end, seems a meditation on how we face up to the challenges of our faith. God is not mentioned in the story, but He is present in the Father’s guilty doubts and He is present in the Reverend’s quiet acquiescence. He is present because the talk here is of the mortal and the flesh and the tendency to not be able to lift our minds past that to the promise of what remains beyond.

Something was shifting in his soul, Bausch writes of his weary and embattled Father and I think we need to acknowledge the truth in that for all of us. God bless the disciple whose faith only deepens, whose love for God never flags in all the days of his or her life. The rest of us face some shifting in our souls and often it takes a Reverend Tarmigian to show us (not teach or instruct, just show) that small word from God.

Tomorrow we’ll look at how the God of Moses became the God of the slaves in James Baldwin’s Exodus.

Friday, December 19, 2003

Maybe It's Just the Eggnog Talking—In Support of Happy Endings

It’s Friday. We had an office party that netted me $10 at B&N, a good book, and a bottle of Christmas cheer. Tonight I get to go help the Salvation Army ring for pennies and nickels, quarters and bills. The Christmas spirit is hale and hearty here in Minnesota and it is no time for talking of sad endings, tragedy, or the bleakness of modern life. Today is the day to celebrate the flip side.

And what better way than by speaking of that grand, public domain, holiday classic—A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I don’t need, I assume, to speak of the plot. If you’re not familiar with it at this point, I have no idea what you’re doing at this web journal.

Anyway, Dickens takes us on a trip of melancholy, nostalgia, loneliness, miserliness, anger, desolation, and all sorts of emptiness only to deliver us on the other side with the ringing of the bells on a cold frosty morning.

Running to the window, he opened it, and put out his head. No fog, no mist; clear, bright, jovial, stirring, cold; cold, piping for the blood to dance to; Golden sunlight; Heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh, glorious. Glorious!

“What's to-day?" cried Scrooge, calling downward to a boy in Sunday clothes, who perhaps had loitered in to look about him.

“Eh?" returned the boy, with all his might of wonder.

“What's to-day, my fine fellow?" said Scrooge.

“To-day?" replied the boy. "Why, Christmas Day."

"It's Christmas Day!" said Scrooge to himself. "I haven't missed it. The Spirits have done it all in one night. They can do anything they like. Of course they can. Of course they can.
The key line in that last paragraph is—“They can do anything they like.” This is an author with a.) tremendous confidence and b.) a canny sense of humor. He’s basically just trotted our three ghosts (four if you count Marley) whirled his character through a time warp of tableaus from his past only to return him to his room dazed and completely changed. The Spirits had nothing to do with it. They can’t do a single thing. It’s Dickens himself who can do anything he likes—include trotting out one of the best-loved and quite improbable happy endings EVER. Christ arisen is tops—Scrooge reborn is a close second and certainly up there with Paul on the Road to Damascus.

Why does this absurd ending work so well? Why do so many others fail?

It all comes down to Scrooge. Ebeneezer is the thing that makes the story work. Not Cratchitt or his tow-headed-little-glob-of-marzipan-for-a-son-Tim (who incidentally has grown up to be a detective in a new novel called Mr. Timothy by Louis Bayard.) Not the Ghosts of Christmas’ Past, Present, and Future. It’s Scrooge.

Dickens treats Scrooge, his villain in many senses, with a compassion and sympathy we rarely offer. He takes the time to look past the outward sins to the wounded heart below. He shows a man in need of change—a hurting, prideful man who may not be able to change. He gives us all the elements of a tragedy before extending that final hand of hope and opportunity. And it’s all the more powerful for it being so desperately necessary.

So, even after three days of me saying we don’t need any more happy endings, please don’t take me to mean that they aren’t important. Well done, they point, just slightly, at the happy ending Jesus has extended to each of us. They make our souls shine and yearn for what still remains, promised but unfulfilled.

We just don’t want them to become passé. We don’t things to become so predictable or cliché that we snicker at them or forget the weight they truly can carry. Deal? Good. And, in the immortal words of Tiny Tim (read them slowly now, listen what the little crutch-laden boy is saying) God bless us, every one.

Thursday, December 18, 2003

In This One Case You WANT a Bad Ending!

So we’re talking about sin and dark fiction and things that go bump in the night and the notion that not every Christian novel need be a pair of fuzzy bunny slippers nor end with smiles and hugs all around. Today I want to talk about deceiving ourselves into thinking we’re writing about pain and grit and the anguish of an unresolved ache.

The Argument: “Not all of my characters turn Christian!”
Sure enough, tons of CBA Fiction have mean, nasty characters who refuse to listen the still, small voice calling to them. The problem is that they’re mean and nasty. They’re stock players we all recognize—Snively Whiplashes each one of them. Readers don’t invest anything into them except our loathing (which is a theological can o’ worms for another hour) and their not coming to Christ only adds to that. In fact, authors are in many ways the ones purposefully keeping these characters from enough depth or understandable motivation that salvation could even be possible. (This is another theological can o’ worms tied to the first.)

What we see much more rarely is a character in whom the reader invests themselves failing to come to Christ. Or even more dramatically, a positively portrayed character actively turn away from Jesus. That’s the true “bad ending”. That’s the one with the dramatic heft worth writing.

The Argument: “But This Beloved Character Dies!”
Okay, first, are they a Christian? Yes? Okay, well that means you’ve neutered your “tragedy” by at least half because death has no victory and the grave has no sting. You essentially created a bittersweet moment—half tragic, half full of the hope to come.

They aren’t a Christian? Well, now there’s perhaps the biggest tragedy of all—the life lost to Hell. The last time I’ve seen it in fiction?—I’ve never seen it in fiction, at least not to a character we care about.

The Argument: “But Lots of Bad Stuff Happens to Her Along the Way!”
Have you seen It’s a Wonderful Life? Quickly tell me if that’s a joyous and hopeful movie or a sad one. Unfair as it may seem, it’s only the very end that matters. You can write as nihilistic a book as you want and yet if the character ends up truly finding Jesus, the book has a happy ending. (see Crime and Punishment for a Russian example of this)

The Argument: “But General Market Books Have Happy Endings, Too!
Yes. Yes they do. Not all of them and certainly not so (pardon the pun) religiously. A little girl disappears in Frederick Busch’s Girls and there is little consolation for the family or the town. Nobody comes to the rescue of a tortured boy at school in Empire Falls and he makes them pay. The dead girl (no matter how much possession-body-sex she has) is still dead in The Lovely Bones. The young boy in Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time has gone two steps forward, two steps back in his dealing with autism. The truth brings little solace to the narrator of Dogs of Babel. I can continue if you wish.

To quote Annie and the girls (which is something I love to do) “It’s a hard knock life” out there. We have hope and joy. We are meant to share these things. We are meant to share in the sufferings of others, though, in order to bear their burdens. Sometimes those burdens, no matter how much we plead with God, are simply not lifted. That is pain and that is a bad ending and that is life. We can’t turn our face from it. We can’t pretend that in 375 pages all our lives will be made perfect. We need sometimes for there to be heartache when page 376 doesn’t come.

I hurt myself today, to see I still feel. I focus on the pain, the only that’s real.

All around gloomy guy Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails wrote that in his song, “Hurt”. He’s on the other extreme of us, the guy who could use a shot of hope, a snug pair of fuzzy bunny slippers. We have to realize that we can become just as desensitized as Reznor if all we do is feed ourselves pablum endings. We need the good and bad. The yin and yang. The perfect sunsets and crappy, terrible days.

We need, in case you haven’t figured it out yet, some folks to come to a bad end.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

You Can Ignore That Part of the Bible for the Moment—Why We Should Learn to Revel in Sin

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be!
Paul doesn’t beat around the bush to the smart alecks in Rome who hope they can have their cake and eat too by sinning more to inherit more Grace. His answer is unequivocal. And it’s one that, even the most devout of CBA novelists ignores just a little in their books.

We all want to talk about grace. We all want to talk about God’s saving power, but nobody’s figured out a way to do it usefully without backing up to address the question of what we need saving from. And so we create sinful characters who drink or chase money or leave their wife for that hottie in the coffee shop or gossip and slander or a thousand other Scarlet-A type weaknesses and failings.

Less often do we tackle the darker, more harrowing sins that plague me even this moment and probably you, too. The daily selfishness. The pettiness. The unmerciful heart. The hard-heartedness. The ungratefulness. The miserliness. The lack of discipline. Do you want me to continue?

Book shelves are full of rough-edged souls finding God and ridding themselves of the outward signs of their waywardness. The alcohol abuse stops or the debilitating gambling. They spend time in devotion to their wives. These are fine, noble, and important changes. One who claims God and still chooses to whore around probably missed a lesson somewhere.

As writers, though, it seems that we missed Jesus’ lesson (though He speaks it over and over) that these outward signs are simply the tip of the iceberg. It’s the inner change, the one that insists on the lion’s claw to shed our reptile skin, that’s the killer. Literally. It’s death for our habits and human nature. And basically it goes unmentioned in CBA Fiction.

Rich fields await here, I believe. What writers need to understand is that the little battles fought over selfishness in one man’s heart are, to God, as cataclysmic and important as the very heavenly clashes that threw one selfish angel to earth. We need to capture that importance (Screwtape Letters is a fairly good model) and transfer it to fiction. We need to realize that the salvific plotline isn’t the only worthwhile one. We need, in the end, to revel in the little sins.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Fiction’s Dark Side—Daring to Stare Into the Abyss

Christianity’s never had a real affinity for ole Freddy Nietzsche, though most of us haven’t spent much time with his writings. 19th-Century German philosopher and one of the godfather’s of existentialism, he said things like “God is dead” and generally didn’t truck much with the notion of there being any meaning to our lives. Dude was smart, though, and you have to give him credit for the following quote:

He who fights monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.
Cue creepy music.

The point and practice of this aphorism is not lost on Christians, though we are loathe to give its speaker due. In fact, evangelical American Christians are in many ways the corporeal embodiment of this warning. We do not write swear words in our fiction, lest we swear ourselves. We do not own up to the hardships of life, lest those hardships come down on us. We do not stare sin in the face, lest we sin.

(Actually, this is not quite a fair criticism. Good Christians don’t do these things lest others see us and emulate us. Always looking out so we don’t become a stumbling block.)

Anyway, my point, if any, is that there’s some merit in staring into the abyss. There’s merit in calling things by their true name, rather than pretending they don’t exist. There’s merit in eschewing the improbable happy endings on occasion. In fact, I look forward to the first big name writer who tries it.

It needs to be a big time writer or it needs to be a small name writer willing to commit professional suicide because there’s not much place for a trip down the downward spiral in this market. Readers would never stand for it, no matter how artistically important, no matter how morally correct. It’s a wee bit sad in a way.

Thankfully, others out there have taken their swings. They’ve stared into the abyss for us and the works they proffer forward are harrowing.

Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan is one of the finest modern examples. It’s a devastating portrayal of how the dominoes of one immoral choice can snowball.

Stephen King’s teleplay for Storm of the Century is a second, intriguing, but less successful example.

What’s more typical is something closer to Inspector Javert’s storyline in Hugo’s Les Miserables or a few of the subplots in the Pulitzer-winning Empire Falls from Richard Russo. In these books, as in countless others, small bits of story offer us all the tragedy and abyss-glimpsing we need. This is something we can do in CBA. This is something that will help the outside world take us more seriously. After all, when we pretend that tragedy doesn’t exist (or that it’s only temporary, a bit of pain before heaven) we play the part of the fool. For many, bleakness, emptiness, solitude, hopelessness, etc are tangible parts of their life. Simply ignoring such things or providing simple ways out…that’s condescension on our part. It’s callousness and comes from hearts devoid of empathy.

Difficult as it is to say, we need more darkness in CBA Fiction. If we dare.

Monday, December 15, 2003

The Ramifications of a Crowded Field

From the Christian E-tailing Newletter of Thursday Dec. 11:

Thomas Nelson announced yesterday the launch of its new fiction division, WestBow Press.
CBA fiction is a growth industry at the moment. It’s the most beautiful girl at the ball and everybody wants a spin. Publishers with little history in publishing CBA Fiction have jumped into the ring; established publishers are beefing up their lines; and publishers who dabble in fiction have reaffirmed their commitment. In short, it’s a good time to be a CBA novelist. With so many lists needing filled, this is definitely a seller’s market and if your idea is strong you can probably gain at least a few bids.

In general, I don’t think it’s all that spectacular a sign for Christian Fiction or those who take writing and faith seriously. To make a sports analogy, this is the same as baseball’s expansion to 30 teams a few years ago. At that time there were 28 teams, so while the addition of two teams doesn’t sound like much, this meant adding 50 new players to the major leagues. The problem was that you don’t add 50 new All-Stars, instead, the people who enter are minor leaguers simply in the right place at the right time.

Two years ago I was seeing CBA novels being published that probably never should have seen the light of day. Adding more publishers simply means more substandard stories being pushed in readers’ faces. If too many readers feel that too much of the writing is poor, this “boom” will end quickly.

Now, more than ever, it’s important to be writing at the highest quality. Bestselling numbers help, but quality and staying-power are rare qualities that help establish a publisher. The bandwagon is moving and lots of folks are jumping on. Do you want to be part of a trend or do you want to be one of the few who carry faith-filled fiction to places still unimagined?

Friday, December 12, 2003

Writing the Spirit—Approaching the Supernatural in Reverend Nash

Jordanna Nash sits in her car outside of a congregation member’s house. The disappearance of the wife of this family has just come to light and it’s a tragic end. Jordanna has come to the Nearings straight from an almost impossible meeting with the parents of a pregnant teenager. This is what being a pastor is.

Of course, Jordanna would go in. It was her job to comfort the bereaved. There was a service to plan. This was what the congregation paid her to do. Abby had told her once, years ago, that she couldn’t fathom having a job in which death difured so heavily. It was worse than being a doctor. At any time, any place, someone could die and you’d be brought in to tie it all up, to enter the room most people couldn’t wait to flee. Jordanna had tried to explain that it wasn’t like that, that it was an honor to be invited into people’s lives at their most significant junctures. A kind of irreducible, pure truth suffused though and action after abject loss. In the pas few years she had wondered if the meaning of her having lost the babies was to draw her closer to the grief of others. But now she looked across the soaked sidewalk. The flower beds were floating. She wondered how to will herself from here to there. She felt no call to go into the Nearings’ living room. Her need to stay in her car, to drive to her house, to sneak into her bed, seemed the true call.
This isn’t supernatural, not really. It’s just the narrative line of one woman’s thoughts. And yet the supernatural can’t be too far away, at least if we believe in a personal God who can access and respond to our very thoughts.

Look at what you see here. You have a woman about to go help a young family plan the funeral of their mother and wife. You have her almost reminding herself of the reason she should feel blessed by the opportunity and you have the concurrent need to flee that nests in all of our hearts, for the most part, when faced with the worst of circumstances.

This is the inner dialogue that fills our lives. What we don’t hear is God’s response. Often, in CBA Fiction, there is the still, small, italicized Voice that represents the prodding of the Holy Spirit. No such divine reassurance comes for Jordanna. Some would say she’s not in tune with the Spirit in her life. Others would recognize that, in their own lives, that still, small voice does not speak with such authority.

This is a small moment from the book, but nicely rendered. At the very least, it makes us question the reasons why we speak with God’s voice in our books. And do we truly? Are the words we put in the Spirit’s mouth His own, or are they our best wishes. This is a great mystery as, at the heart, we are all alone with God before the throne and alone with God in our thoughts.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

Why’d You Have to Go and Make Things So Complicated?—Boundary Pushing in Reverend Nash

All those who get the lame pop reference raise your hand. Yes, that’d be “punk” singer Avril Lavigne in all of her 16-or-so-year-old angst. She must not have gotten invited to prom. Anyway, getting on with today’s discussion.

It must be noted, explicitly, that The Passion of Reverend Nash is not a CBA novel. Since it’s published outside the CBA, it was held to zero of the rigorous unspoken rules we have for our fiction. And, quite happily, it seems to break ALL of them. What we need to ascertain is whether the fact that it is an utterly rich and moving piece of fiction is tied TO breaking the rules, happens DESPITE breaking the rules, or has no relation to these things at all.

Here are some of the “lines” it crosses, most often with nary a glance.

1. Swearing
People swear in this book. I haven’t taken the absurd and meaningless route of actually counting all such instances for your perusal like some family oriented film sites do, (as though families say, “Well that has four &$%’s and two !$#@’s, that’s one too many !$#@’s for young Junior to hear.”) but you should have a head’s up that there is language. In fact, Jordanna swears. Not often, but, and this is important, certainly for effect.

In one scene, Jordanna is probing wounds left by two lost pregnancies and a husband living across the ocean doing graduate work. Their marriage (which I’ll get to next) is not just on the rocks, it’s being pulled well-nigh into the midst of Scylla and Charybdis. The problem is, Jordanna is going through all this mental anguish while biking and, distracted, soon topples headlong over her handlebars. Picking herself up, she speaks three carefully chosen epithets—all at her estranged husband. The last stings like a smack in the face. “She swore loudly”—which is what we’d write in CBA—just wouldn’t have the impact.

2. Bad Marriages
People in CBA fiction have bad marriages. Often, through prayer and petition, those marriages are reclaimed. This is a wonderful and optimistic thing and I wish more real hurting couples would take the time to truly examine whether their commitment is salvageable.

The reality is that, even among Christians, divorce and dead marriages are an epidemic. So, what is fiction’s role in this situation? Are we to hold up the mirror or are we to try and offer a shining example of God’s restorative power? One is certainly noble, but does doing the other make the writer guilty of being complicit in the world?

3. Vices
Drinking and smoking come up. Neither are truly important in the context of the book (as far as I can remember). They’re just part of the everyday happenings of life.

4. Sex
There’s no sex scenes in the book, however a subplot revolves around a pregnant teenager, so sex is obviously in the background somewhere.

5. Life’s Hidden Calamities
One of Jordanna’s crushing wounds is her inability to conceive, carry to term, and deliver a healthy baby. This childlessness is monumental. It’s also a topic that’s finally seeing the light of day among the Christian community.

Less prevalent, however, is useful conversation on the topic of depression. One of the main tropes played out in the book is the place of faith in the face of grief and guilt—often twins contributing to depression.

6. Thorny Church Issues
First off, Jordanna is a woman. This is something that obviously won’t fly in a great number of churches and appall a wide number of readers. Second, her preaching and the way she runs her church is going to rub many the wrong way. (We’ll get into specifics tomorrow.) Last, but not least, Christ Arisen! is not the final answer, end hope of the book. It doesn’t shirk that point, but it is not THE point. Do we bother writing something other than Jesus crucified?

...

For the time, the market simply won’t put up with #1, #3, and #4. However, you can work #2, #5, and #6 into books. Those, to me, seem to be the meatier issues. Coarse language, having a drink, these are all cosmetic things that, unless they BECOME important to the book, can simply be worked around.

In answer the question posed in the second paragraph, I do feel the richness of the book is tied to pushing boundaries often ignored in CBA fiction. The good news is that many of these boundaries are ones CBA writers are allowed to push and redefine. We may not yet have the freedom to lance our audience with the sting of a curse but, too be frank, Basch is one of the few who takes that freedom seriously. Most simply write in their curses because it sounds “real”. To me that’s a weak reason. Offer me a good excuse and maybe we’ll even test the CBA boundaries on swearing, too.

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Hurricane Jordanna—Writing About Larger-Than-Life Characters

When faced with the problem of the larger-than-life personality, most novelists choose the wise route of placing that character just to the side of focus and allow a smaller, secondary narrator to act as witness for us. The thinking seems to be at least twofold. One, we need the “normal” viewpoint of a detached narrator to give us the perspective that makes the character actually seem larger-than-life. Big, by itself, isn’t big. Second, as in real life, too much of a larger-than-life character can be draining or overwhelming for most of us. We like them, but tolerate them best in small doses much like sherry or nutmeg or Robin Williams.

The prototypical example of an observant narrator seems to be Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, though Fitzgerald had some axes to grind and Nick ended up sitting more in a place of judgment rather than as just an unbiased observer.

Basch, nothing if not bold, chooses NOT to move Jordanna stage left the typical amount of steps. Instead, she unleashes this, as she’s described in the book, “dangerously tall” pastor at us like a force of nature. And it works. Why?

First, because she hedges her bets a little. About 40% of the chapters in the book are narrated by Jordanna’s cynical and agnostic sister, Abby. No passive observer, Abby’s view of her sister is a direct challenge, often to what we might think of Jordanna and certainly to what Jordanna thinks about herself. What we realize is the toll knowing someone so powerful often takes on those closest. We also realize that, despite Abby’s insinuations, Jordanna is not without self-awareness.

That’s Basch’s second coup. She manages to actually get underneath the hurricane to the human inside. Larger-than-life people can be found all throughout our world. Too often there’s a tendency to either set them on a pedestal or try to play king of the hill with them. Basch does her readers a great service by actually attempting to discover what machinations and holy gears makes Jordanna Nash run. The process is not easy and rife with contradictions, but it’s a worthy process.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk about the fact that Jordanna is a female pastor and a number of other thorny theological issues that this book confronts, some face on and some through the back door.

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Even Easier Than Making Your Characters Catholic!

So you want to write a novel that dives deep into the holy waters of faith? You want to tackle the hard questions that have stumped very smart men and women from timeinfinitum? You want to get back at the church that hurt you? You want to show God’s goodness as it can be manifested through two hours on a Sunday?

So what do you do?

You make your main protagonist/antagonist (depending on your mood) a man of the cloth. Or woman of the cloth, if your denomination allows for such things. You sign Bob Brenda up for seminary, saddle them with an M. Div. and a parish and then step back and let all havoc break loose because churches, like families, offer an astounding opportunity for dysfuctionality and a window through which we can see humans operating at their best and worst.

If you choose to go down this pastoral path, however, you face a certain number of obstacles.

First, it’s very obvious and very subject to cliché. Paint your priest a shade too black and he’s just another in a long line of jerks who hide behind a collar, wielding their faith as a club. A touch too white and you’ve got a pious pastor whose faith seems unreachable by most of us. Too questioning and you’re drowning in the somewhat self-pitying morass of a precious crisis of faith.

Two more recent novels that don’t have either of these problems are Leaving Ruin by Jeff Berryman and, as you might guess, The Passion of Reverend Nash.

Berryman avoids the problem by diving with full Joycian abandon into the stream-of-conscience of one Cyrus Manning, pastor of the First Church of Ruin somewhere in the wastelands of Texas. Almost every thought is available for our perusal as Manning suffers through a crisis of calling, which is an important distinction from a crisis of faith. Manning’s faith, at the core, is steady. His mistrust is his ability and desire to pastor. It’s a slight shift of focus that makes all the difference. The book is unflinchingly honest, and suffers only slightly from being a bit too dense at some points. If you’ve not seen it, however, I highly recommend it.

Basch takes a different tactic in her novel. Despite her trials, Jordanna doesn’t succumb to the almost inevitable crisis of faith. Instead, she gets to reexamine what her faith means in such times…and also how having a trust in Jesus makes her different from many around her who don’t believe—specifically her sister.

Their relationship and the realizations Jordanna makes about it are heartbreaking and written with perfect care. They never fail to treat Jordanna as a human first and a pastor second.

And that’s the crux of it, I suppose. If you’re writing about a pastor, you need to make that secondary to the fact that you’re writing about a human. That’s pretty Duh! advice but it’s also incredibly difficult. If we all could just write honest human characters there’d be a lot more To Kill a Mockingbird and a lot less…(fill in your own hated novel here.)

Monday, December 08, 2003

Book of the Week - The Passion of Reverend Nash

This week’s book for discussion, like Liars and Saints, is another 2003 general market release. The Passion of Reverend Nash, from Norton, is the second novel from author Rachel Basch. The book follows the trials of Jordanna Nash, pastor of a small Connecticut Congregational church during a month or two of suffering that might rival even Job. Indeed, the novel’s epigraph is taken from poor Job’s account—My lyre is turned to mourning, and my pipe to the voice of those who weep.” You will not be surprised to learn that this is a hard-hitting, emotion-packed book.

It also deals explicitly with THE big question—How can you have faith in the face of pain? How can you believe in a beneficent God in the midst of suffering?

It won’t ruin the book to say that Basch really doesn’t offer any specific answer. Like the debate from last week, she merely offers up the life, actions, and thoughts of her character, Jordanna, as one hypothetical response. Our job isn’t really to say whether Jordanna is right or not, but to examine how we might react in the same situations.

Frankly, this book drove me crazy for the first 200 pages. As the crescendo of disasters faced by Jordanna rises to its clamorous peak, you begin to feel the author’s hand pulling the strings. The novel faces the danger of becoming a string of contrivances. In just the last moment, though, it pulls out of its freefall, it turns on its dime, and it gives Jordanna room to face the bedlam her life has become. What comes next is challenging, provocative, and transfixing. It saved the novel for me, raising it in the meanwhile above petty melodrama to a worthwhile contribution in the debate over what Lewis called “the problem of pain.”

So that’s an overview of the book and my thoughts of it. Tomorrow we’ll look at the problem and possibilities of choosing a pastor/priest/reverend/preacher as a main character. If you'd like to read more about the book, here's one longer review for your browsing.

Friday, December 05, 2003

An Apology and a Clarification

A day later, I’m not at all happy with what I posted yesterday. It certainly wasn’t very generous and reeks of the same arrogance of which I accused a good number of writers. I’m not going to retract the post, though, because I do think there’s still some merit to the third paragraph.

This argument really isn’t about writing, though. Not to languish in overstatement, but this debate goes to the very core of faith and how we think about and act out our hope and trust in God.

There are those who follow the words of the carol and “Go tell it on the mountain.”

There are others whose lives of sacrifice speak louder than any words.

There are people so deeply, instantly, changed by the answer to their hearts’ yearning that they must share that moment, that turning point, in anticipation that others are seeking likewise.

There are some, however, for whom the search has been arduous and fitful. They don’t understand Epiphany—they only understand the search.

Because of fiction’s unique ability to offer a platform, I think it is easy to simply “shout our joy from the mountaintop”. Because of story’s urgent need for the compelling and dramatic, I think it is easy to want to focus on the moment of shattering change. We all want to write of Paul’s blinding on the Road to Damascus.

There are other stories out there, however. Stories of the search. Quiet stories that show God’s love rather than explain it.

They are not opposites—humble or arrogant. They are simply different forms of tackling the thorn problem about saying anything meaningful at all about this God we crave.

Thursday, December 04, 2003

Humble Writing

This I going to be short today, because my mind isn’t working so well and because it’s not a point I want to labor too greatly.

I believe CBA Authors’ intent to answer a hypothetical readers’ questions about God, or explain some aspect of God is the antithesis of the way a book should be written.

An author should be setting out with an unlearned lesson, an unproven theory, an unquiet heart. The search that yields the novel, that speaks through the characters’ mouths is the one that will reach the most hearts because it is done through a position of humility.

I don’t know this the author seems to say. Join me and let's see what we can find together.


Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Celebrating Some Lesser Known Christian Writers—J.R.R. Tolkein and C. S. Lewis

Salon.com today has a surprising lead story about Tolkien, C. S. Lewis and the effect Lewis’ conversion had on both of their writing. Salon, though it publishes Anne Lamott, isn’t known for their religion essays or any lasting affinity for the Christian faith, so this seems out-of-left-field…except for the obvious link to Tolkien and the upcoming Return of the King movie.

The essay intimates but doesn’t state outright that it was Lewis seeing anew through Christian eyes that provided the spark for the classic writing yet to come. The most interesting part relates a conversation held by the Inklings, their combined group of friends, on the eve of the publication of The Hobbit. Each grumbled in his Oxford don way about the sad state of contemporary fiction.

“Tollers,” Lewis said, “there is too little of what we really like in stories. I am afraid we shall have to try and write some ourselves.”

Where this quote comes from is unmentioned and, while charming, it sounds more than a bit apocryphal to me. However, it’s basically the same thing that’s being said here at this website and by many around the nation and the world. At least in part.

I don’t like most of what’s out there in Christian fiction.

I’ve heard it again and again. Well, now’s the time to write your own. Lewis and Tolkien spurred each other on to fantastic heights. And while it helps that both were extraordinarily well-read geniuses, that should stop none of us. Write and see what comes of it. Let’s at least make the effort.

As the article says in a different context, “In the struggle against evil, there is no shame in defeat—only in not fighting.” We are not fighting against evil, certainly, but we can’t be content with mute resignation.

Write. Write. Write. Alright?

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Apprenticeships Aren't Just for Barrel Makers or Blacksmiths Anymore

Are writers born or made?

Too often, in our world of spiritual gifts and God-given talents, we assume that writers are simply “born”. The answer is not so simple as that. Or shouldn’t be.

One of CBA Fiction’s primary weaknesses is a lack of adequate training and practice among its writers. With only a few journals publishing today, there is little apprenticeship in the short story form. English departments in many universities treat Creative Writing as an unseemly step-child. Mentoring relationships are few. Honest, helpful criticism from worthwhile literary reviews and critiques is virtually non-existent. And so the books, for the most part, don’t improve.

One group of people hoping to provide their own answer to this are the folks at Seattle Pacific University in conjunction with Image: a Journal of the Arts and Religion. Discussions are beginning for the creation of the an MFA program in Creative Writing at Seattle Pacific. The program would, according to an email announcement, be a first among Christian higher education institutions.

For those unfamiliar, an MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) is the highest degree attainable in a creative field. You can get them in sculpture, photography, or pretty much any medium. Often, such a degree (or a Ph.D.) is required to teach creative writing in a university.

One thing an MFA does not guarantee, however, is good writing. Instead, it provides the time, space, and structure needed by many writers working on projects. It also becomes a place of discussion and debate about Christian literature and its role as a spiritual discipline. What will emerge is yet to be seen.

For more information, visit Image here. There’s a survey you can take.

Monday, December 01, 2003

Maybe It's Just the Tryptophan Talking, but Man Am I Thankful...

It’s the week after Thanksgiving and in the spirit of far too many cloying newspaper articles I want to list a few things in Christian fiction for which I am grateful.

  • That the conversation is beginning to spread. I work at a devoted CBA publisher and people high up are very excited about what will come next.

  • That people outside the industry are beginning to take notice. The growing pains have been long and painful, but there is some high-quality work already being done within many CBA publishers. Ann Tatlock, Dale Cramer, Lisa Samson…the list is growing and people are offering praise, be it ever-so-grudging.

  • I’m always thankful for Andre Dubus, whose work in each rereading buzzes with such vitality.

  • I’m thankful that the conversation is reaching new formats. Graphic novels and comics are the next frontier. (See Craig Thompson's Blankets and Doug TenNapel's CreatureTech.) Film, beyond The Passion of Christ, must be around the corner. We need artists contributing on all fronts.


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