Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Christian Writer's Dilemma

The author of this week's guest post is John Ehrett, a long-time devotee of the written word who is currently majoring in International Politics and Policy at Patrick Henry College. His favorite books include Les Miserables, Atlas Shrugged, The Odyssey, and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. To read more of his writing on modern literature and culture, you can visit his personal blog, Literary Analysis.

Any Christian who wants to write realistically will eventually face one question: how do we deal with the dark stuff? It doesn’t take much to recognize that the world is a pretty grim, sordid place sometimes…is there a way Christians can address it honestly?

When it comes to Christians writing about the unsavory parts of life, there are a lot of different opinions. Some take a very conservative approach, censoring anything that even hints of sexuality, strong violence, or profanity (most Christian fantasy novels fall into this category). Others have a no-holds-barred approach to writing, incorporating dark content as part of a deeply redemptive story (Ted Dekker is particularly known for this). What’s a Christian writer to do?

The following is my view. I don’t profess to speak for all Christians, but simply offer the way I’ve sought to resolve this dilemma. The Bible doesn’t directly address this question, but it does so obliquely: “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak….When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.” 1 Corinthians 8:9, 12-13 (NIV). The appropriate question to ask is not “can I put this in my story?” but “will this be a stumbling block to someone?”

This raises two important issues: style and context. Although it’s subtle, there’s a difference between describing an act in clinical terms and describing it in gratuitous detail. In a film like The Passion of the Christ, the focus is not on the violent acts themselves: it is on the crucified Savior and His sacrifice for us. In many modern movies (particularly the works of Quentin Tarantino), violence is portrayed as a sort of exploitative art form, appealing to an individual’s basest instincts. The same principle holds true in writing. For the sake of authenticity, a realistic story about warfare may require the inclusion of some traditionally “problematic” material. This material, however, need not be described in pornographic detail. There may be a place for stark realism, but this is by no means a license to exploit.

This also raises the issue of context. What may be inappropriate in a particular work may be integral to another, depending on both the story and the audience. Most Christian fiction is written to edify existing believers, not win new converts. As a result, the writers of Christian fiction must keep this end of “edification” in mind when writing. This rules out including content that does not serve this end. For example, an individual looking for spiritual nourishment may be horrified by the description of a gangland shootout in a “Christian” work…though such a scene may be justified in a work targeting a secular audience.

In works written by Christians for secular audiences, a subtler apologetic tone is required. Far too much Christian fiction takes a ham-fisted approach to evangelism, which severely undermines its effectiveness in reaching the lost. Some of the finest literature of our time -- The Brothers Karamazov, Les Miserables, Moby-Dick, and The Road, among others -- deal with deeply spiritual material, yet never take a blindly didactic approach. Sometimes, as in the aforementioned works, there may be a place for merciless imagery as the most powerful foil of all to the saving Light of the Gospel.

That Light doesn’t always need to be communicated explicitly. It can come through an act of compassion, an undeserved sacrifice, or a whispered prayer in the midst of deep darkness. Flannery O’Connor was a master of this, communicating powerful themes of grace and hope against a backdrop of the macabre. In the end, the motivations of individual Christian writers are between themselves and God. Perhaps, however, considering the style and context will offer a reasonable solution to questions of content.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Stories to Tell

Today's guest post is written by Alison O'Leary, a junior Literature major at Patrick Henry College. I thought this post was a fitting inspiration to kick off our series of guest posts this year, on topics from story theory to excellent literature to writing's nuts and bolts. I hope this post inspires you to find and write the story only you can tell.
“Whenever you are fed up with life, start writing: ink is the great cure for all human ills, as I have found out long ago."– C. S. Lewis
My Dad called them “marshmallow books.” My Mom was always trying to get me to read biographies instead. So how did their daughter end up studying literature and desiring to write fiction for a living? I’m not sure…but I think God enjoys paradoxes.

I once heard someone tell me you know you’ve found your vocation when you would do it even if no one paid you. That’s how writing is for me. The stories in my brain are just itching to get onto paper. If I didn’t write them down, I’d probably go crazy.

This got me thinking…why do we like to write stories? What makes us want to sit down and start scratching out characters that are a bit, just a bit, like someone we know and plot lines that suddenly form holes without warning us in advance? I think it’s because we all have stories to tell, but we like to tell them in different ways.

My parents' lives have been full of one amazing adventure after another, yet neither of them write fiction. They would rather tell their stories face to face and read stories of people who really lived.
I also love telling stories. But I like to use characters to convey things I’ve experienced without having to be utterly personal about them. (I also like to write about things I’ve never done. Please do let me know if you happen to see a dragon one day; I should very much like to meet one.)

Maybe that’s why authors started writing fiction. They had problems, they saw problems, they were problems, and they wanted to fix problems. And maybe, just like me, they didn’t prefer to say, “And (insert name here) went and bludgeoned poor Lizaveta to death.” Okay, so Dostoevsky didn’t kill anyone, but he recognized the twisted sin nature in himself and others, the desire to have power over people. The best way he could capture what he was thinking was to write about a murderer-- a story which became Crime and Punishment.

In a similar way, I had a difficult time talking about some familial issues that rocked my world two years ago. I couldn’t write the pain I felt, but I could write about two brothers who had difficulty reconciling after one went away to war. So I did. Sure, I’ve never been deployed or had anyone close to me go away to fight, but I could imagine the hurt and pain they felt was similar to mine. And it helped my own heart recover.

 "I’ve been there,” characters tell us. Suddenly, we know we’re not alone because someone out there gets it. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be so drawn to fictional characters. They speak to us because, in their own made-up world, they wrestle with the same real issues of love, despair, anger, and joy. If we convey those universal emotions in a compelling story, we can hope someone will read our words and find hope. I make a point of reading one of my favorite books, The Outsiders, at least once every year and I think the author, S.E. Hinton, captures what I’m trying to say.
I could picture hundreds and hundreds of boys living on the wrong sides of cities, boys with black eyes who jumped at their own shadows. Hundreds of boys who maybe watched sunsets and looked at stars and ached for something better. I could see boys going down under street lights because they’re mean and tough and hated the world, and it was too late to tell them that there was still good in it, and they wouldn’t believe you if you did. It was too vast a problem to be just a personal thing.
It isn’t just a personal thing. People are aching all around the world. As writers, we have the opportunity to reach them and say, “I understand.” As Christians, we have a message of genuine hope.

But first we have to understand the problems. Sometimes there aren’t easy answers. Sometimes you get hurt and there’s no pat way to fix it. We can’t just slap a story around the Christian Gospel. Everyone can see what you’re trying to do and that’s poor craftsmanship.

Instead, find a story close to your heart. Something you want to say. Maybe everything doesn’t get neatly tied up in the end, but that’s all right. Our own story hasn’t been neatly tied up yet. Offer hope. Let people know you understand, but there’s more to this world than pain. For, as Tolkien would say, “Oft hope is born when all is forlorn.”

Author Bio: Ali was born not too long along and will probably die sometime... most likely by lightening. In her brief span of life, she hopes to write some stories that may or may not be good, make lots of friends, and "seize the adventure" that God has sent her.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Announcing: A Call to Pens 2011!

{Photo Credit: sxc.hu}

Pick up your pens, grab your laptops, sharpen your number two pencils and start your coffee grinders.
I'm very excited to announce the fourth annual Patrick Henry College "A Call to Pens" short story competition!

I hope this year's themes will inspire you to strive for literary excellence. The themes are:

The First Division
Theme: An Unexpected Adventure
Age group: 12-15
Word limit: 1,500

The Second Division
Theme: Redemption
Age group: 16-18
Word limit: 2,500

Contest deadline is February 1, 2012.
For more information, contest entry rules, entry forms, etc., please visit the PHC Call to Pens page.

About the blog: Like last year, this blog will continue to be a repository of information on the Christian writer's calling, literary excellence, good books on writing, and tips from the pros (PHC professors and some of our most exceptional student writers). I hope this blog will generate some discussion as we encourage each other in our writing endeavors.

A little about me: My name is Alicia Constant. I'm a junior Classical Liberal Arts Journalism major at Patrick Henry College, and I will be coordinating the contest this year. When I served as a judge last year, I enjoyed reading your works of fiction so much that I decided to get more involved this year.
I'm a journalist at heart-- which means that I mostly deal in non-fiction these days-- but I'm also a poet, a voracious reader, a puttering librarian, and a some-time scribbler. I believe that good stories, whether fiction or non-fiction, communicate truth by challenging and delighting the soul.

I hope this blog is not only your chance to hear from me but also to learn from the colleagues and mentors that have taught me many things about the literary craft. Please leave comments with your suggestions for topics you'd like to see on the blog.

Also, you can contact me at shortstory@phc.edu with any questions about the blog or the competition.

In Christ,

Alicia Constant
2011 Call to Pens Contest Coordinator

Friday, February 18, 2011

the craft and business of writing: essential tools for writing success

The Craft and Business of Writing: Essential Tools for Writing Success, by the Editors of Writer’s Digest books

I recently discovered a real “page-turner” I couldn’t put down—and unfortunately, couldn’t afford. Happily, my school library recently acquired it, and it’s sitting beside me now, as I type this. (And no, it’s not a novel.)

If you’re interested in writing as a career, or even in just publishing a few stories every now and then, this is a book you may definitely want to check out at your library or the nearest bookstore. I haven’t read it front to back, but the portions I have perused are chock-full of sound advice and practical, “here’s how to do it and here’s how not to do it” instruction. I especially appreciate how the editors work to spark your interest through questions, suggestions, and anecdotes, in addition to both positive and negative examples of whatever topic they are addressing. Overall, it gives a good understanding of both business aspects of writing and the building blocks of writing itself.  

Here’s just a bit of what this book offers (quoted from the back):

For more than eighty years, the Writer’s Market series has provided the timeless advice and detailed instruction writers have come to depend on to achieve their goals. The Craft & Business of Writing offers the best of that instruction from award-winning writers such as M.J. Rose, Lee K. Abbott, Alyce Miller, Fred Marchant, Jennifer Cruisie, Megan McCafferty, Gary Provost, Monica Wood, and Deborah Hopkinson.
            In this book, writers, agents, and editors offer their insights into every genre and facet of the publishing industry, so whether you write fiction, nonfiction, children’s books, or poetry—or a little of everything—this essential all-in-one reference includes everything you need to start and maintain your writing career.

To hone your craft and increase your skill as a writer, you’ll find solid advice on how to:
  • Craft intricate plots and nuanced characters
  • Improve the pace and veracity of your dialogue
  • Write in rhyme, or with appropriate meter

To successfully market yourself and sell your work, you’ll learn how to:
  • Find and work with an agent
  • Negotiate contracts and collaborate with editors
  • Test and submit article ideas

No matter what your skill level or area of creative interest, The Craft & Business of Writing is an invaluable addition to your reference library.

Interested? Check it out on Amazon and peruse a few chapters for free!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

a writer's resources - part 2

Today our guest blogger is Peter Forbes, an ’09 graduate of Patrick Henry College who is currently writing a novel based upon the movie Come What May. You can check out his blog here to read about his on-going experiences in film and novel-writing--which I would definitely recommend.   :-)

Name: Peter Forbes
Class: '09 Graduate
Hometown: Dinosaur, CO
Major/Degree: Literature
Favorite book: Hard to pick a favorite, but Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis would be worthy of this position.

What encouraged you to start writing fiction in the first place? Fiction got me out of writing "serious" stuff in school. Jot off a story for fun or sweat through an essay? It was an easy choice.

What technical books or resources (essays, articles, lectures, journals, etc.) have most enabled you to improve your writing skills?

Two excellent resources off the top of my head:

An essay called "On Three Ways of Writing for Children" from Of Other Worlds by C. S. Lewis. Lewis describes three (surprise!) kinds of children's literature. Lewis describes how a good children's story should be just as enjoyable to adults as to children. He also gives an interesting side note to the place of morals in a story, any story, and whether or not it is wise to start out with a moral in mind. Because I'm interested in writing children's fiction, this is an invaluable reference, and Lewis is a master.

The book Story Craft by John Erickson. Many homeschoolers know Erickson through his character Hank, from the Hank the Cowdog series. Erickson is also a Christian and a philosopher, and he offers some valuable advice on what an author should do for readers through fiction. Erickson is a contemporary author who writes for the general market. He has loads of insight, and this book distills much of it winsomely.

Which works of literature have most encouraged you, inspired you, and/or taught you how to write? (Please briefly describe 3-6 such books, individually, demonstrating how/why/what you learned from them and why you would recommend reading it.)

A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay--
A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay is a sci-fi/fantasy written in 1920, though it's really a story about a man's journey through many different philosophies. It's not a "Christian" book, but C. S. Lewis appreciated it so much that it was an influence on his own work. The main character, Maskull, must journey to find what is true. It's a bit of a dense read and must be evaluated critically, but definitely worthwhile. It showed me how to intertwine philosophy effectively into a fantasy.

Phantastes by George MacDonald--
George MacDonald's Phantastes is similar to Arcturus in many ways: it's a fantasy about a man who goes on a journey through strange lands, and C. S. Lewis cites it as a major factor in his own life (especially in his conversion to Christianity). Phantastes is filled to the brim with near dreams and images of other worlds, accompanied by themes that are universally true. George MacDonald is a prime example of an author who can take the things that seem "normal" and defamiliarize them so that they are fresh and new.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevesky--
Fyodor Dostoevesky left a profound impression on me with his Crime and Punishment. The story is riveting, and the psychology he explores in his main character is dead-on insightful. It's a powerful work of guilt, repentance, and redemption. Perhaps what I left the novel with most is the idea of a story structure that may be capable of reflecting more truth than almost any other kind of story structure. Mankind is guilty and must repent and be forgiven to be redeemed. I think there is a huge potential for stories written in the vein of Crime and Punishment.

Earthboy Jacobus by Doug TenNapel
Graphic novels (basically big comic books) are gaining traction and readership today, and because they marry the visual, visceral element of a film with the intimacy of a book, the kind of emotional impact they can have is hard to underestimate. Doug TenNapel is one of my favorite writers/artists in the genre, and his book Earthboy Jacobus is a great example of a graphic novel. It's a fantastical story about the life of a man with mysterious powers that parallels much of the Book of Jonah. TenNapel's Christian faith is evident in much of his work, and his creativity has inspired me to write graphic novels myself.

Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis--
"All joy . . . emphasizes our pilgrim status; always reminds, beckons, awakens desire. Our best havings are wantings." - C. S. Lewis

Till We Have Faces has marks of a man who longed for heaven intensely, and through his book, readers were given a taste of that longing for themselves. If I can do to that in my own work, I'll have achieved more than I could have hoped for.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

thoughts on story craft and hank the cowdog

"When I took this job as Head of Ranch Security, I knew that I was only flesh and blood, four legs, a tail, a couple of ears, a pretty nice kind of nose that the women really go for, two bushels of hair and another half-bushel of Mexican sandburs. You add that all up and you don't get Superman, just me, good old easy-going Hank who works hard, tries to do his job, and gets very little cooperation from anyone else around here." – The Original Adventures of Hank the Cowdog

“Only the Maker of galaxies would have thought to give mankind such a marvelous gift as a dog.” – John R. Erickson, Story Craft

One of the most helpful books on Christian writing I’ve ever read is Story Craft by John R. Erickson. Ever heard of the Hank the Cowdog series? Same author. Never heard of Hank? Now that’s a tragedy. You can learn more about Hank at the author’s website, and a little bit more about him right here.

The Hank books center on the adventures (or misadventures) of Hank and his buddy Drover, two dogs who live on a ranch with their (human) family and constantly get themselves into hilarious scrapes. Any one who has ever owned or loved a dog will cherish these books. They are funny, memorable, and “true to the essence of dog.” They are also very nourishing to the soul, and deeply Christian at their core – even though the salvation message is never mentioned, and Hank is certainly no preacher.

In Story Craft, Erickson describes his approach to writing, shares his thoughts on the vocation of writing (especially in relation to faith and contemporary culture), and offers practical advice to younger writers. He is very resistant toward pop culture—more specifically, toward its rejection of structure, moral order, and art as nourishment. Stories are to strengthen the soul as bread or water strengthens the body; they are not to poison the reader with despair, chaos, and emptiness. Story Craft reminds us that the best stories are ones that uphold the structure of a universe created by all-wise and all-wonderful God, a God who is the source of all that is good and pure and strong, and yes, a God who is the source of all beauty, joy and laughter. (Who else could have thought up a dog?)

As Dr. Gene Veith reminds us in the introduction to Story Craft, “The purpose of every vocation…is to love and serve our neighbors. […] A writer is supposed to love and serve his readers.” [xi] But Erickson is also resistant toward mediocre, didactic, “Christian” literature that confuses the role of storytelling with the role of preaching. Both might deal with the “structure of the universe” and ultimately point to the same conclusion, but they must travel separate routes:

But Hank never talks about Jesus, some might object, as if dogs were objects of salvation. Mr. Erickson’s vocation is not one of preaching. The Christianity in these stories is not on the surface. It is deeper down. The very structure and the craft of his storytelling: the nature, and human nature, and animal nature that he writes about; and the moral truths that even his dogs have to deal with are in accord with the reality that God created. Consequently, as he points out in this book, though his stories do not have a religious content, they have a religious effect. [xiii]

That isn’t to say that good stories can’t have religious content. But when it comes to storytelling, it is much more effective to show truth than to simply insert moral truths into the mouth of a talking head and leave it at that. A story that is “sentimental and dull, with characters who speak in soft tones and smile all the time,” is a bad story—even if it exhorts the audience “to think on the things that are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, virtuous, and worthy of praise.” [101] These things are the very “things” that make good stories so nourishing and worthwhile, and yet good storytelling requires an approach that is different from good preaching. Showing – not telling – is the key here. The Hank books set a good example:

[x] The animals, as in the time-honored fables that go back to Aesop, remind us of people, including ourselves. Hank’s constant temptation to eat the chickens illuminates our own temptations. Hank’s pride is completely counterbalanced by his shortcomings. When we laugh at Hank’s blustery ego, we are missing the point if we aren’t also laughing at ourselves…[1]

101. “Hank wants to be a good dog, but he’s involved in a constant struggle with his nature: a short attention span, food lust, and an exalted opinion of his role as Head of Ranch Security. He’s a sinner. Sometimes he rises to heroism but he doesn’t stay there long. That describes every dog I’ve known. It also has some very funny parallels with the human condition.”[2]

This is a topic we’ve touched on before, and it is important. But Story Craft covers plenty of other ground as well. If you find yourself in need of good solid advice on writing, consult Story Craft. I trust you have heard some of these rules before: Good writing is clear, not obscure; active, not passive; deals with the specific rather than the general. Moreover, good writers “learn by writing.” They revise and polish. They discipline themselves to perfect their craft. But they also have something to say, and this requires that “Before we write, we should live.”

If you want to write, you must have something to write about. And if you want to write about “life,” you must first experience it. It doesn’t do to hide in the attic, you know (my lifelong temptation) – how will you ever find material for stories? You have to go out there and get it. Keep your eyes open, wherever you are, and observe; get involved in life; interact with people; contemplate God’s creation; pursue knowledge; seek God’s face.

That ought to spark something!

Story Craft is a book I highly recommend. I have only touched on a few of its topics, but there’s much, much more that Erickson has to offer. The book is divided into three parts: 1) “One Writer’s Journey”; 2) “Faith, Culture, and the Craft of Writing”; and 3) “The Top Twenty: If I Were Teaching a Class on Writing.” Interested? Check out his website here. And if you have the time and opportunity, I’d definitely encourage you to buy or borrow a copy of Story Craft sometime. Definitely a worthwhile resource for a serious Christian writer.

[1] Gene Veith in the introduction to Story Craft: Reflections on Faith, Culture & Writing From the Author of Hank the Cowdog by John R. Erickson (Perryton: Maverick Books, Inc, 2009), x.
[2] Interview with John R. Erickson by Susan Olasky, World Magazine, December 2, 2006, pp. 26-7 (quoted in Story Craft).

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

a writer's resources

Hello again. :-) I’m glad to be back at PHC, back into the swing of things! I do apologize for missing last week’s post. In the bustle of extended travel and a late arrival on campus, it just didn’t happen. :-/

So far, we’ve discussed topics such as the Christian imagination, didacticism, writer’s block, etc. While we may touch again on some of these topics in the future, I think from now until the end of the contest we will focus more on highlighting helpful resources that are available to the Christian writer (indeed, any writer). One idea is to interview various creative writers from the PHC circle – students, alumni, possibly professors – and ascertain what resources best helped them nourish their creativity and hone their skill as writers. Interested? Please feel free to jump in and list your own favorite resources—the more, the merrier.

And now, our first interview!

Name: Mary Sue 
Class: Soph...no, Junior. I think.
Major/Degree: LITERATURE!!!!
Favorite book: Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers is usually in the top three. :D

What encouraged you to start writing fiction in the first place? 

    Books!! I love stories, and there are a lot of wonderful stories still waiting to be given a voice!  

What technical books or resources (essays, articles, lectures, journals, etc.) have most enabled you to improve your writing skills? 

    It would be an absolute betrayal if I didn't here mention the A Beka Language curriculum! I had the privilege of being homeschooled up through high school and my parents used straight A Beka for me. The rote memorization drove me batty sometimes, but I can now see how that has benefited me. Somehow, it sticks!! Knowing the ins and outs of grammar and composition before striking out on one's own as a writer helps the author to be versatile - to know what works and what doesn't.

        Second, there is the Institute for Excellence in Writing. For several years, my sister and I and a number of fellow homeschoolers watched and worked through Andrew Pudewa's writing course. Although one should be careful in using his writing forms for collegiate work, I found that his course really helped me develop a personal, individual style of writing. His teaching definitely taught me to vary my sentences!
    Thirdly, here at school my literature professor and advisor, Dr. Steven Hake, had us read several of his own essays in our Western Literature I course last year. His essays were really beneficial in teaching me about the ethos and logos of storywriting - the heart of the matter, so to speak.

Which works of literature have most encouraged you, inspired you, and/or taught you how to write?
    Ooooh, I like this question :). 

    Naturally, I begin with the Bible. From a strictly literary viewpoint the Bible has so many strengths. It combines the very best of fiction with an absolute reality for something I like to call "the luxury of absolutes." How amazing it is that the seeds and the truths and all that is beautiful in fiction, in poetry, in action, history, story, and CHARACTERS find their locus in the Bible! The solidity of such a foundation in what is grounded reality has given me something to write and to understand things from. For the longest time, I felt crippled when it came to experience in writing - what do I know of love and grief and strength and pain and courage and heartache? But in one of his essays Dr. Hake said something that really struck me. He said that our experience as writers is found at least partly in the Bible. As something we hold nearer and dearer to us than anything else, what more can one understand of love and sacrifice besides Christ's death and resurrection for us? Use that knowledge to draw from.

    Secondly: once upon a time - oh, about twelve years or so ago, a kindly librarian introduced me to Dorothy L. Sayers, the incomparable, the magnificent, the talented, the absolutely splendid Christian apologist and creator of my favorite aristocratic detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, and his detective novelist wife Harriet. I fell in love with Lord Peter. Sayers had crafted a character whose stories are full of layers of complexity. Sayers was an incredibly literate woman who regularly referenced classical literature and poetry; had snippets and whole passages in Latin, Greek, and French; and knew her classics, music, and history very well. Now, whenever I revisit her stories I always find something new - whether an illuminating passage from Donne that I just read or a phrase here or there in Latin that I can only just translate. Add to that incredible wit and taste and you might be able to get a sense of what kind of woman she was. Or you could just start reading :). 

       And as any other good homeschooler, I must acknowledge my debt to my beloved Tolkien. Under duress, I will admit that yes, perhaps to the uninitiated, his descriptive passages are a bit of a slog. But the world he created and the characters he populated it with are truly beautiful. Tolkien taught me the impact of the bittersweet and the importance of virtue and revering knowledge and history, as in the fading of the Dunedain, the passing of Beleriand and the West, the loss of Boromir and Denethor, and the fading of the Elves. However, all that is set against the backdrop of the unbelieving joy of toppling Sauron and I think it reflects life so beautifully; the frailty of man tempered with the victories of Christ and that ultimate sacrifice of His that ends in such joy for us. When I think of Tolkien the characteristic that comes to mind is Beauty - a real goddess, not just the Greek ideal, who finds beauty in both the sweet and the bitter. Maybe Grace is the better word. But this is the quality I really desire to attain in my stories - the half-wistful, half-hoping attitude that finds the beauty in, and accepts, every circumstance it finds itself in.

    But I'm beginning to ramble, so I'll just stop with this: Soli Deo Gloria!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

writing as an act of worship

Well, we’ve reached the (approximate) midpoint. In a couple months the judges will have made their final decisions, and the contest will come to a close – but before that happens, I want to give you a chance to have your own questions about writing (and its connection to Christianity) answered. Are there any topics or questions you would like us to explore on this blog during the remaining half of the competition? Post them in the comment section, and we’ll be happy to explore these issues further.

So far, we’ve covered a few larger themes on this blog: writing as a vocation, dealing with writer’s block, writing Christian fiction, and so on. Today’s topic is similar. A friend and fellow PHC student, Alicia Constant, explores writing as a specifically spiritual calling. While we’ve touched on this before, Alicia draws out new facets to consider, and I definitely think you’ll enjoy them. :-)

Alicia’s article, “Writing as an Act of Worship,” is the second post in a series on her blog, A Beautiful Ordinary.

Writing as an Act of Worship

By Alicia Constant

What is writing? In its strictest sense, writing expresses meaning through symbols that represent language. Writing is communication and creation, expression of ideas in some form more permanent than the spoken word.

Good writing, on the other hand, is much more difficult to define. Critics have haggled over definitions and opinions for centuries, probably since the dawn of written language. And, aside from the mechanical quality of the writing, what about the ideas behind it? Must good writing, by necessity, reflect the good, the true, and the beautiful? Or can masterfully crafted writing that communicates the antitheses of God’s truth still be considered “good”?

Either way, the ability to create with language is a reflection of God’s image. Though He could have created the world some other way, He chose to use language: “Let there be light.” (Genesis 1:3) God reveals Himself to us through His written word, which, aside from its perfect, divinely inspired nature, is also a work of intense literary beauty. As I was reading Job 38 this morning, I was struck by the powerful imagery of the language that God uses: the waters become “hard like stone” at His command, the seas “burst out from the womb” and are clothed with clouds and darkness. In his book God at Work, Dr. Gene Edward Veith describes our creative works as “an imitation of God’s work, a participation in God’s creation and His creativity…. these are what God does, and yet God gives them as tasks to human beings.” (God at Work, p. 62)

Our attempts to wield the written word are finite, and, of course, can never measure up to His perfection. We are created beings; thus, our ability to create is limited by both our lack of knowledge and our fallen nature. He has made everything, and without Him, nothing was made (John 1). Our most original creations are dim reflections of His artistry. Nevertheless, He gave us the ability to create for a purpose.
The main point I’m trying to communicate is this: Writing is a deeply spiritual calling. It’s not something to take lightly or treat selfishly. As writers, we should use the tool of language to create something beautiful.
Ultimately, our purpose returns to glorifying and worshiping the Divine Author, Jesus Christ. None of the glory we attain from our “works of literary excellence” should belong to us. Psalm 115:1 says, “Not to us, LORD, not to us, but to Your name be the glory, because of Your love and faithfulness.” What we write as Christians ultimately reflects on Christ. Our goal should be to know Him more, and as we grow in that knowledge, to help others see Him more clearly.

How can we accomplish this goal to the best of our ability? In other words, what makes writing good? I’ll leave you with this quote from C.S. Lewis: “There is but one good; that is God. Everything else is good when it looks to Him and bad when it turns from Him.”

Questions to consider:

a. How seriously do you take your calling as a writer? If you took it more seriously, what would that change, if anything?
b. What do you believe are the qualities of good writing?
c. How can you make your writing an act of worship to God?