What would a modern-day Beethoven do within the context of our Christian artistic culture? Instead of writing a body of musical masterpieces, he might write the story of how he became a famous performer - a revealing autobiography telling how his alcoholic father made him a musical prodigy by beating him for making mistakes, locking him in the cellar as punishment, and depriving him of sleep in order to practice more. If he were savvy, he'd write about all that suffering in graphic sensory detail. Readers would eat that stuff up. He’d write about the pain of falling in love several times with women who rejected him. He’d write of the devastation of living for years with the knowledge that he was losing his hearing. He'd write about his own alcohol dependency, his bipolar illness, and his suicidal thoughts. Always an optimist, he'd conclude with a justifying message of hope. The book would become a bestseller and then a movie. Beethoven would have his 15 minutes of fame.
Thankfully, Beethoven didn’t publish a tell-all. Instead, he used his experience as raw material for something greater than his personal story. He wrote a body of music that changed the entire trajectory of music history. Beethoven is why we have professional orchestras. Beethoven is partly why we have bigger, heavier pianos. Beethoven's shadow is why Schumann, Brahms, and Mahler as well as many others achieved a greater level of artistry than they might have. Every performance of Beethoven's work has been redeeming his pain and opening emotional gateways for countless performers and listeners for nearly 200 years.
I’d call that vindication.
I've been participating in a webinar for Christian writers which focuses heavily on how to work with publishers. It's a good webinar, but it has sparked my frustration about the whole world of Christian writing and publishing. Have you noticed that there are very few books being published by evangelical publishing houses that are in the tradition of C S Lewis, G K Chesterton, Madeleine L'Engle, or Frederick Buechner? There's no literature.
A great deal of the work being published (especially by women) is chatty, colloquially-styled confession aimed for a girlfriend audience. It's pleasant; it's encouraging, but it's not going to stand the test of time. Some of those writers confess entirely too much.
Confession is indeed good for the soul, but it’s a sign of maturity to be judicious about what and with whom you share. The benefits of confession still exist if your audience is small.
We have a fascination with human suffering - failures, difficulties, pain. Confessions sell. Publishers justify broadcasting a writer's pain with the message that God loves us and can redeem our painful or chaotic stories. That’s a worthy message, but the prevalence of this kind of writing is just so excessive. Considering that the publishing houses are profiting from it, maybe it’s even a little predatory. A writer I admire summed up this trend with one word: Vulnerability™. Writing is another one of the performance arts, and it is certainly an exercise in courage, but there is a difference in writing with authenticity which may require some degree of disclosure, and making disclosure the whole point. Discretion is still the better part of valor.
I wonder if, in our efforts to exchange the image of Christian women as Stepford wives for something more human, we have swung the pendulum all the way to the other extreme. Publishers encourage writers to keep blogs to build their platform, and the blogs by Christian women lean heavily towards branding themselves as that other extreme. Instead of Stepford wives, the fashionable image of the Christian woman is now a hot mess - messy house, kids run amok, marital stress, addiction, etc. It's downright cool these days to shout from the rooftop how messed up you are. It's justified as long as we exchange lots of virtual girlfriend hugs and append the message that God's grace is sufficient.
God's grace is indeed sufficient. Girlfriends are good. Telling personal stories is not bad, but some stories need to be seasoned for a long time before they're ready to be published to the world, if they ever are. Two or three years is not a long time. Mature perspective doesn't come that quickly. If you're patient enough to wait on that perspective, you've got a greater chance of turning your story into something approaching literature.
We don't remember the great Christian writers for their diary entries. We remember them for what they created out of the raw material of their experience, their thinking about their experience, and the intersection of these things with their faith. Perspective, creativity, and artistic craft can transform confession into something greater than the author’s limited, personal truth. (Tune in later for part two of this post where I explain that statement.) We are created in the image of the ultimate Creator, and I think that means we are called to live into the full limits of our artistic abilities instead of settling for the easy 15 minutes of fame. Unfortunately, I see the Christian industrial complex capitalizing on human pain for profit rather than shepherding us into richer pastures.