What You Do In High School (My First Job)
The Better Politics of Stories

Beyond Passable Writing


When I was 10 years old, at most, I was a card-carrying member of the Science Fiction Book Club.  Those days I seemed to read all the time, at least in this genre of fiction --- greats like Ray Bradbury, Robert Henlein, and Issac Asimov were a steady diet.  There was a floral pattern set of soft chairs in my mother's living room (still there but much faded now) in which I would recline, sometimes for as much as four or five hours at a stretch, ignoring calls for dinner, deep into other worlds, dreamily lazing my way through long afternoons.  When I finally put the books down --- because, finally, my mother could not be ignored, or bedtime was nigh, or a friend came calling --- I sometimes couldn't wrench myself from the imaginary world and into this world.  I didn't hear what people said to me sometimes.  Or I walked around for a half hour or so feeling profoundly alienated, voices sounding strange to me, muffled, and the houses and streets pale and mundane, a great let down after where I had been.  Sometime around then I happened to read Bradbury's Dandelion Wine, a tale of a twelve-year old boy's coming to life one summer, discovering the wonder of the world around him.  I was disappointed it was not science fiction, and yet reading it I knew I had stumbled on something grand.  And perhaps it was a part of my own coming alive.

After that, I don't remember reading fiction again, that is, merely for my own pleasure and not as an assignment, until I read a series of Christian novels by Bodie Thoene sometime after higher education.  They were entertaining and certainly passable writing, but looking back at them, I realize that they were not great literature.  I read them because I found them in a Christian bookstore, the same place I found much of the music I listened to at the time.  The message music and message books I trafficked in at the time seemed like sanitized versions of other popular novels.  Thoene's historical fiction reminded me of James Michener's heavily-researched historical fiction, for example.  I didn't really know good literature from bad literature.  But the books in the Christian bookstore seemed safe.  There were no sex scenes and not a trace of profanity.  Furthermore, they had neat resolutions --- perhaps a conversion, a reconciliation, or a new understanding of and reliance on God.  They were not bad, but they were not good enough, not nearly good enough.  So, with few exceptions, I stopped reading Christian lit and took up with better literature by pagans and Catholics and theologically suspect Christians, people like Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, Frederick Buechner, and J.R.R. Tolkien (who I read, enjoyed, and really didn't understand back in high school).  I can't settle for merely passable writing any longer when there are greats to be read, masters of storytelling, authors who capture the human story in their fiction.

I am reminded of this because of the excellent article by Donald T. Williams in the most recent Touchstone Magazine entitled Writers Cramped.  His question is where are the evangelical Christian writers who are of the caliber of T.S. Eliot, Graham Greene, C.S. Lewis, or Flannery O'Connor, just to name a few.  O'Connor provides the substance of his analysis of their absence, in her observation that "[t]he sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate human reality" and her conclusion that "[y]our beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing."  As Williams notes, when this distinction is not understood, "Christian fiction becomes mere religious propaganda."  O'Connor was nourished by a worldview which was orthodox and true and which informed all she wrote, by a church that recognized and appreciated her vocation as an artist, and by the sense of mystery that the sacramental focus of Catholicism provided and which carried forward into the mysteries that writers explore.

Williams concludes with a challenge for evangelicals to recover biblical emphases that nurture the arts and artists:

Our failure to encourage our people to apply doctrine to the realities of life; our failure to include in our theology the whole counsel of the God who called Bezalel and Oholiab and gifted them as artists; and our pragmatism, an uncritical reflection of American culture rather than a biblical mandate, with our mystery-impoverished worship tradition are all simple failure to be what we claim to be, faithful to Scripture.  They could be changed without threatening any of the doctrinal emphases that we think we have been right about.

Next time I visit my mother I may take along a copy of Dandelion Wine, sink my middle-aged body in that seemingly shrunken chair, and remember what it was like to be twelve, so I can better remember what it's like to be 49, to be human, to have a sense of wonder at life.  I'm done with passable writing; I want the best, I want the ones who can truly see.