Last semester, the writer Bret Lott visited my crew of undergraduate creative writers at a small, private, religious university in the South. He fielded questions—“What’s your writing process like? How do you get ideas for stories? Do your characters haunt your dreams?”—and then I let loose the question I most wanted them to hear answered: “How do you feel about the term ‘Christian writer?’”
Bret had recently published an essay collection, Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian
(recently reviewed in Ruminate by Melanie Springer Mock
so this was, admittedly, a leading question. I felt I knew what he would say. And he didn’t fail, arguing articulately that the word “Christian” should not be an adjective but rather a noun. Not a modifier but the person.
“This weakens the word,” he’d said. “Plus, would a Christian plumber do something different to my pipes than a non-Christian one?” he asked rhetorically.
I made a corny joke about turning water into wine and scanned the room, hoping these young writers registered Bret’s argument, processed it, let it settle into their brains and push against any voices that insisted their music or literature must always and only come from Lifeway.
Many of these students were serious about their writing and serious about their religion. But far too often they seemed to believe that poetry had to perfectly rhyme and short stories had to end with miraculous and tidy conversion. Far too often they felt their belief restricted, rather than informed, their art.
I hoped someone with Bret’s staggering literary record and faith might have both the stature and insight to convince them that art must be honest and messy, that their faith ought to be a seamless piece of them rather than a censor that simply controls their language.
I knew, after spending five years at the institution with many of the students working through similar issues, that their discomfort with this kind of messiness—colorful language, random violence, un-mended brokenness—came in part because they wanted their work to be a tool for evangelism. A sort of literary tract. Every story turning a Saul into a Paul, every ending a road to Damascus.
There’s a lot to discuss when sorting out the space between art and evangelism, and Bret does much of this work in his collection. One approach I took in class to break open students’ narratives was to follow some advice from one of Bret’s colleagues at College of Charleston, the short-story writer Anthony Varallo. Anthony, in an effort to keep his students from writing predictable stories, has them ask this of their drafts: What would Flannery do? Pondering what Flannery O’Connor would do to an early draft of a story could be a party game. The couple meets on the bridge in the end? O’Connor might have a car swerve and send the woman flying into the air to see all of the town spreading out below her. The family returns home for dinner? She might have a serial killer in the house cooking broccoli and reading Dante.
This exercise not only subverts expected narrative arcs, but it also opens up the tillable terrain of the human experience: otherwise good characters do very bad things; bad characters can exhibit grace. The writers must let their characters inhabit a world as dirty and dangerous as our own.
I suppose another equally effective party game to illustrate this principle would be to ask, “What would an Old Testament writer do?” In so doing, the students just might notice that the God of the Bible doesn’t only appear in pristine churches and Kumbaya-esque denouements, but in murderous and adulterous men and women.
Just as Flannery’s flawed characters sometimes offer grace, the mighty David calls a hit on a man to cover up a secret.
What’s more, as we learn to let our stories live and breathe in a complicated world, we also learn more about the Divine. This is, after all, the world he inhabits, the same one into which he enfleshed himself.
We gain very little by propping up stories to stand in for dogma. Art is meant to create an experience, not simply communicate a message. Often this experience is as much for the writer as the reader. By making more honest work and examining icky motives and weary worries, we might just understand something about ourselves and our Maker. We might just find a bush burning around that unexpected turn in the plot. Or at least what’s left after the fire.
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