I have the distinct pleasure to introduce you to Josiah Lewis, author of The Sketchbook of Scarlet. I’ve read and reviewed the novel for The End in Mind and there will be a link to the review at the end of the article.
Lewis was kind enough to write a guest post for me as a companion piece to my review. I’ll step back and let his words have the stage.
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Story and gospel: a fact-worshipper comes to peace with making up stories
I grew up in wonderful home and church, both filled with people who cared a lot about literature, and this context shaped the way I view stories. Even though I didn’t start writing in earnest until I was 14, I already had lots of ideas about what good literature and good fiction is. When I started writing, three big questions quickly began to gnaw at me. Sometimes they came from inside of me, sometimes from outside, but I worried about them persistently for the following five years, until my junior year of college, and they still echo in my mind.
The first question: Is writing fictional stories worthwhile?
Many of the people I most respect from my childhood were deeply in love with Christian truth and Christian intellectualism. They basked in books, but rarely in fictional books. Devotional, doctrinal, and biographical literature were their meat and potatoes. Fiction was dessert, and when they recommended such delicacies it was typically based upon its high intellectually nutritional value. That is to say, the Christian message was what caught their attention and earned their praise.
At the same time I was listening to fictional stories read aloud by my parents, and reading others for myself, from the classic science fiction works of Jules Verne, to the children’s fantasies of C. S. Lewis, to the children’s mystery series, The Accidental Detectives. These stories were beautiful, and not just because of their themes.
For example, I cannot at this moment tell you what I think is the theme of Journey to the Center of the Earth. But I can tell you about the loneliness of being lost in the caves, about the dark, and the facets of stone stretching off into eternity. I know what it is to hear the hope in the darkness, the voices of friends brought to my desperate, isolated ears by some trick of wave transmission. I have forgotten even the characters and the names of the characters, but I learned something experientially about humanity, relationships, and how we are isolated, immersed, smothered, and yet somehow connected by the physical world around us – something that until this moment I never tried to put words to. And what would the words have meant to me, less than 10 years old? What value do they add to me now? The story was sufficient to communicate that truth, not as a message, but as an experience.
In spite of my love for and experience of the value of stories, in my high school years I often measured the objective value of the written word by the correctness, clarity, and quantity of propositional truth it conveyed.
I feel guilty when I watch the scene at the beginning of The Dead Poet’s Society, the one where Robin William’s character has his students read from the introduction of their book of poetry. Poetry can be assessed on two axes, the author argues, perfection (I would say quality) and importance (I would say message), and the greatness (I would say goodness) can be calculated as the area. At this my analytical mind leaps for joy.
Oh boy¸ graphs and quantitative assessment! Appreciation of multiple axes of goodness! Hurray!
The guilt comes when Williams’ character has his students rip out the page because it’s a pack of terrible lies. Oh.
A confession: Sometimes I believe that if I do a good enough job believing the truth it will make me a good person. Propositional truth* is great for people who idolize having the right answers, because if you express yourself in logical propositions it’s easier to assess your rightness. So writing stories for the sake of story was dangerous – I wasn’t taking any steps towards proving how great I was by writing them.
By the end of high school I had done a lot of writing, and I often asked my question in an extended form: Is it worth writing fiction, since so many people have done it better than I ever could?
I wrestled with this question all through, and it still bothers me sometimes. Why should I bother doing something when I cannot imagine being better than the masters? Why should I add to the pool of poorly-written books? Why should my stories be worth reading? Is my writing good enough? Am I good enough?
The answer to these questions is “no.” My writing is not good enough. My grasp of the truth and my percentage of right answers is not good enough. I am not good enough. I will never find in myself or in the people, structures, and opportunities around me what I am looking for, what I need. I will never be a monolithic, invincible soul, able, alone and unaided, to define or find and fulfill my purpose.
Why is this surprising to me? After all, I believe God made me to be in relationship with him, to experience his greatness – his glory – and that the breach in that relationship cannot be filled with anything else. But still I try and so, it seems, does everyone else.
The good news about Jesus is the answer to my question “is it worth writing fiction?” My falling short of glory is forgiven. God loves me. I am set free not only to do my best but to risk failure. And as I am reconciled to God I am reconciled to my purpose, to who I am. I am a person made in the image of God. One of the things this entails is creativity.
Creative power is frightening. What we make is never as big or as good, as beautiful or as true as what God makes. But He wants us to make things anyway. By submitting ourselves to his rule and working out creativity in his kingdom we are reconnected to his grand master creativity. Our work begins to align with true and good purposes. While I use my discernment, intellect, emotions, and wise friends to make decisions about what and how to write and how to share it, I am not a slave to those things and people. Our creativity is good because God made it that way, not because I have a certain number of readers, have finished a certain number of books, or have communicated a certain number of godly themes. I do not serve popularity, productivity, or doctrine, I serve Christ.**
The second question I asked was: Should I put God in my stories?
My answer to the question, Is it worth writing fiction? lays a foundation for answering the question, Should God be in stories? Our creative work does not have to explicitly name God to be good – no more than Jesus, as a carpenter, had to make exclusively religious symbols or religious-themed art to do good creative work that perfectly pleased his Father.
I could just move on and let you wrestle with that; instead I will make sure I upset everyone. It is not bad or worse for stories to mention God explicitly. Example: Till We Have Faces. Bonus Example: Ruth. But neither is it necessarily bad or worse to not mention God explicitly. Example: The Lord of the Rings. Bonus example: Esther.
There are different kinds of stories, trying to be different things and wrestle with different ideas. In some it wouldn’t make sense to mention God. In others it wouldn’t make sense not to.
There’s a lot to discuss here. I am painfully aware of complex cultural and creative issues surrounding the question of how my relationship with God affects my writing. It is difficult for me to refrain from inserting another post here on this topic. To do so, however, would be dishonest. I do not have peace over this question because I have answered it. I have peace over this question because I know that all my wrong answers are forgiven. Believing the good news about Jesus does not keep me from deep struggles over what I should write today and questions about exactly how flawed my writing is. But it does set me free to struggle. God saves people before they are good enough, calls them children before they bear the family likeness, and changes them not by threats but by love. My identity is no longer at stake when I write – but the stakes are higher than I could have imagined. What I write reflects either well or poorly on the One who made the universe and dreamed up the first, best story. And I am discovering that He is better by far than my work would ever suggest. So I have both complete safety and inexorable motivation to try to make excellent decisions about what to write.
The third question I asked myself was: Will I ever be rich and famous?
Yes, I really asked this, and still do sometimes. It was actually the number-one question I had about writing when I finished the manuscript for The Sketchbook of Scarlet my junior year of college. I knew of only one way to be a successful author of a fantasy book, and that was to get famous and rich. But the fame and fortune a Christian should desire are for his Father in heaven – “Hallowed be your name, your kingdom come on earth.” For ourselves we should desire what we need – “Give us this day our daily bread.”
How does one go about repenting of wanting the world’s stuff instead of what Christ wants? For me, repentance has happened as God teaches me that He gets to define success in writing, not the world and not me. I found peace knowing that if all I ever got to do was share my writing with a few friends, I could still trust God as I wrote. More recently I’ve been learning that even if no one else ever read my work, it would still be worthwhile, because of what I have learned about myself, people, and God through writing.
These benefits are an additional proof and confirmation of what we should already know: Creative work, including writing fiction, is worthwhile. Yes, Christian authors must pursue it with ever-repenting hearts. Yes, we must take care not to neglect other callings God has on us – these two caveats are true of every single thing God calls us to do.
Now, there’s another blog post waiting to be written. It is a study in particular things we can see that are good about writing fantasy stories. It will be full of quotes from C. S. Lewis, Tolkien, George MacDonald, G. K. Chesterton, and others. It is a worthy topic. But I chose to discuss coming to peace with writing fiction because of the Gospel first because, while my apologetic for my writing may involve intellectual arguments about what fiction is and does, and examples of the good God works through it, ultimately I believe fiction in its various forms is worth doing because God made us to be creative, and Jesus Christ is reconnecting us (along with our feeble attempts at righteousness) to the glory of his creative plan, his great story. God doesn’t have to submit the creative mandate to me for my review. But in his infinite kindness and gentleness He does show us lots of his reasoning. He is that good. And that is the point.
“I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?” ~C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces
*Also logic and science. Is it any surprise I’m a physicist?
**Christ gets to say if a particular expression of popularity, productivity, and doctrine are or are not good things to focus on in a particular creative work.
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To read my review of Lewis’ article, please visit: http://theendinmind.net/?p=44497