Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Tithing in the temple

The Preacher at Mecca - M.F. Husain

Many Christians warn writers against being 'preachy'. But even though many of us have a vague idea of what it means to be preachy, few have any clear idea of what on earth the term means. We've all read writing that jarred us with its bombastic, thinly veiled message that we have to accept Jesus, but we have very little idea where that feeling comes from or what it is doing. But most of us want to know what it is, so we can avoid it.

In one sense, this is due to a lack of the author's skill. A lot of preachy writing finds its roots in the fact that that the author simply doesn't know how to communicate the gospel any better than they can communicate scenery or character. And though this certainly is an element, skill as a writer is still not a guaranteed cure for preachiness. There are writers who have serviceable technical skills, and still

The problem is, that Christians treat writing like tithing. They give certain portions of their work 'to the Lord' as it were, sometimes they write their whole book 'to the Lord' (and heaven help us if they do), and what comes out is something as dry and inedible as asbestos. The work ends up as either pure entertainment with some bible verses thrown in to appeal to Christians, or the sort of work that parents read to their children as a punishment.

We can't simply 'give our work to the Lord'. The result is moralism. We think that if we somehow throw in Bible verses or put in 'good lessons' that God will somehow be pleased with us. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our greatest righteousness is as filthy rags before the Living God. Do you think God is impressed because you shoved a Bible verse into your novel? Yea, even the devils throw Bible verses into their novels and tremble (i.e Twilight).

We should give glory to our Lord and Savior, and we do that by worshiping Him. All our work should be done to worship him, from our dialogue, to our conversations, to our characters--not just the 'God' portions of our novel. It should be an act of worship, not of forced tithe. J.R.R Tolkien and Jonathan Swift crafted Christ-honoring masterpieces, and they barely mentioned God at all. They wrote, like we should write, as an act of worship to the greatest Storyteller of them all.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Sacramental Writing.

Christ gave us the sacraments to establish His relationship with us two thousand years ago. So we, as pious saints, have been fighting about their nature ever since. The important thing, for now, is that the differing views of the sacraments has affected Christian writing. Since I don't have time to explore all the sacraments (or their number), I will focus on communion. There are four different views; each of with many caveats and intricacies. I am going to simplify, so feel free to correct me if I get anything wrong.

The first is the Catholic/Orthodox view of transubstantiation: the belief that the essence of the elements (the bread and the wine) literally becomes that of the body and the blood of Christ. So the Catholic writer also sees his writing, in a way, as something which is ordinary, but also something which can become utterly holy. You can see this in the works of Dante, Tolkien or Chesterton. They pay far more attention to intricate beauty than to announcing that they are Christian. Since the ordinary and mundane elements are transformed into the holy, there is no need for the Catholic author to put the holiness directly in writing. 

The second view is Sacramental Union (or consubstantiation), the view held by Lutherans and some Anglicans. The doctrine of Sacramental Union is profoundly relational, it centers around the presence of Christ near to the sacraments. It's not that the bread and wine are physically changed. They gain a new essence--that of Jesus Christ's. Writers from this group center around Christ's relationship with his people. C.S Lewis' sacramental theology was probably closest to that of Union, and so The Chronicles of Narnia center around Aslan's relationship with the children of Adam and Eve.

Next comes the Reformed view of the pneumatic presence, held by some Anglicans, Presbyterians who have read their confessions and a few Baptists. The Reformed Christian believes that the Sacrament actually affects the heart of the believer, and that he is renewed by the Holy Spirit. Writers who held to this view of the sacraments, such as John Bunyan and Jonathan Swift,  tend to write in allegory. Just as the sacraments are seen as an spiritual allegory (note: not just a symbol, but a real spiritual representative ), the Reformed often see their writing as an allegory.

And finally, we come to the doctrine of memorialism, the doctrine held by most of evangelical Christians today. Communion is merely a symbol to remind us of Christ's sacrifice until he comes, they say. It will be fine, they say. Most Christians who hold to this view crave to bring their Christian views into their writing, however, since they don't believe in a real presence, the only way to bring Christ into their work is to make it explicitly Christian. Thus was the genre of Christian Fiction born. Usually these books contain either a miracle or a conversion experience--at least. This is the doctrine of communion that brings us Frank Perreti, who is decent, and the Left Behind series, which is not. 

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Back to the grind.

Returning to Town - Homer Watson

It's odd... this blog was beginning to get an abandoned  feel. It almost lost its few readers. Between finals, health problems it sort of sunk to the back. I also started writing papers.. and more importantly... getting my papers graded... which caused me to despair at ever writing nonfiction. Anyhow, those are my excuses. Now back to the blog.

There's one major change I've been pondering. Previously the blog has been mostly venting unquestioned opinions... as most blogs are wont to do. The problem here is, though I am a highly opinionated person, I'm not necessarily the most educated or knowledgeable. I have a lot to learn, the more I learn, the more I have come to the conclusion that I'm an uneducated moron (or perhaps an educated moron... hard to tell the difference sometimes). Acting as if I know everything doesn't really help me to educate myself.

Of course the whole reason I'm writing this blog is the fact that I hope to educate people. There has to be a balance between stating ones own opinions and learning new ones right?  I don't know if I'm going to find it... but I'm going to try. Hope you all will stick around and join me. Have fun!

Friday, October 25, 2013

How Seculars view the Church

Many Figures On The Market Square In Front Of The Martinikirche, Braunschweig - Cornelis Springer

The Church has had an interesting role in modern fiction; sometimes it preys on the innocent, and acts like the center of intolerance and spiritual tyranny. At other times, it takes the role of mercy, in the form of kindly priests or wise ministers. Mostly, it is a force of spiritual light which does not illuminate, cast against a force of spiritual darkness that darkens just like the real thing.

What are we seeing here in literature? It's complicated. The Western world has always had an arduous relationship with Christianity.  It has loved Her, and it has tried to use Her for it's own ends. In a fit of boredom it forsook her, and sampled other things. But post-Christian thought failed,* and now the relationship between the two is choked. The west looks back at Christianity with a mix of admiration and horror, and literature reflects this. Authors sprinkle kindly ministers in between radical Knights Templar. Christianity is good, bad, sane and crazy--sometimes all at once.

This is not entirely secular bias. Christians have been good, bad, sane and crazy; and we shouldn't react to their confusion by setting the Church up as a utopia--secular readers will assume that the real Church is a dystopia. Churches really are large groups of sinful human beings, some of whom have accepted Christ, and some of whom have not. It's bound to get messy.

*  It only took two World Wars, a cold war and the rise of global Islam to show us that. Aren't we quick-witted?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Heart and Head writing.

The blow to the heart - Rene Magritte

Sometimes when writing, I encounter a sort of quandary--do I write from my heart or do I write from my head? Both have their benefits. When I am having a bad day there's no question about it. I will write from my heart; lest the day poison me. But why does it matter?

Mind based writing often lends itself to comedy or speculative fiction. If I am trying to write something light, I will write it from my head. My heart is much too melodramatic to make people laugh.  I will write humor, mysteries and novels with complex plots: I will need a sharp sense of wit and situation, but not always empathy. 

On the other end of the spectrum is heart based writing. The tear jerker and the deeply affecting short story spring, weeping, from the heart. My heart is a serious place, and the deeper my emotion, the more serious my tone.  My work will flip from heart rending sorrow to divine joy. Heart based writing digs deeply into the meaning of things, and mothers vivid descriptions. Or at least it will try.

Head based writing tends to describe the bare minimum. A head-based writer will notice the ocean, but a heart-based writer will gasp at the moonlight dancing on the water. A lot of this has to do with taste. Some of us are emotional people, and many more of us are...well... completely mental. My favorite writing is a hybrid which pulls on both the heartstrings and the head ones. It often has the best of both worlds.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Studliness, Arete and Writing.

Achill - Max Slevogt

I have an awesome Western Civ professor. I have heard him refer to Xerxes, King David, Sappho, Socrates and St. Perpetua as 'Studly'. I will not comment on his use of a term generally reserved for a male horse on female historical characters--I am too tactful for that sort of thing. Usually, when he refers to 'studliness' he refers to a concept of general toughness. Cruder internet folk might have called this concept 'badass', but the ancient Greeks, who were refined internet folk, called it arete. 

We have a notion of being the best you can. This stems from the Greek arete, the idea of achieving excellency in every way possible. Arete donated a very helpful idea to the culture-- it proposed that writing is neither simply self expression, nor is it just a record. Writing is an art--and the very roots of that word tie into arete. We have to develop our writing to an expertise--a dynamic skill that we improve with practice.

Often we take this for granted, but back in the day, the idea of pursuing something so fully spread like the Plague: hardening writing and thought as it went. Since then its power fluctuated; for example-- it died a little when Rome fell, and resurged in the Renaissance. Over the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries we've killed it yet again as we allowed our culture's trust in absolute truth to decay. The advent of electronics shortened our patience and nipped our willingness to work. We need to protect (or restore) excellence, and in doing so, become excellent ourselves.

So that's your history lesson for the day.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Writing and Prayer.

St. Onuphrius - Jusepe de Ribera

How does our prayer life, our relationship with God, affect our writing?  Too often our lives are compartmentalized. But what is the point of a prayer life that doesn't affect our life?

Few Christians would actually admit that they don't pay attention to God in their normal life. It has become popular to see the Christian life in holistic terms. We want see how their faith affects all of reality more and more. That's a good thing. It adds to our testimony. However, we still struggle with compartmentalized baggage.

Again and again, we put our prayers in the Prayer Box, and our writing in the Writing Box. To a certain extent this is right, prayer and writing can be different things. However, if we block God out of an area of our life, we steal from Him. We are His children, and He is loath to lose even one part of us. 

 So how do we let Him in? All relationships naturally affect our writing in some way, but the one we share with the indescribable Triune God has to rank the highest. The answer is simply to spend more time with God than anyone else. Then He will take precedence in your writing.

  Although it would be cool if God decided to split the sky and give us instantaneous, perfect writing, we will probably still have to learn the rules of grammar, style and character building. God didn't give us heads so we could make targets out of them.  Instead, prayer will make us more Godly writers. It will help us avoid worldliness in our writing-- and conversely--will help us avoid preachiness, which often comes from attempts to shove God into the story without relating to Him.

We can have the strongest prayer lives in the world, and still write stories that make William Shakespeare cover his ears and curse in his grave. Praying is not a magic token that we can exchange for anything we want. It is a conversation with God, who will do what is best for us despite our waspish complaints.

In the end, praying will give us satisfaction while we write. The Holy Spirit illuminates the dark portions of our hearts, the more we commune with Him, the more clearly we will see reality. Readers will pick up on that fulfillment. Think of Lewis, Bunyan or Chesterton, and what gave those authors the ability to affect so many with their work.