Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Problem With Christian Publishing: Confession Vs. Literature

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. Considering that he was Beethoven, maybe he'd have 30 minutes.

Thankfully, he 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 primly righteous church ladies 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 virtuous paragons, 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 to glory in our mess 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 or any other great artists 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 or values. 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 easy fame. Unfortunately,  I see the Christian industrial complex capitalizing on human pain for profit rather than shepherding us into richer pastures. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Holy Cross Day

Today is Holy Cross Day in the churches that observe a liturgical calendar, and a good day to contemplate this poem of John Donne. Unfortunately, Donne did not make it easy for us to read by incorporating stanzas. Therefore, reading it in single-spaced type is just our cross to bear. (Sorry, I couldn't resist!)

by John Donne

Since Christ embraced the cross itself, dare I
His image, th' image of His cross, deny?
Would I have profit by the sacrifice,
And dare the chosen altar to despise?
It bore all other sins, but is it fit
That it should bear the sin of scorning it?
Who from the picture would avert his eye,
How would he fly his pains, who there did die?
From me no pulpit, nor misgrounded law,
Nor scandal taken, shall this cross withdraw,
It shall not, for it cannot ; for the loss
Of this cross were to me another cross.
Better were worse, for no affliction,
No cross is so extreme, as to have none.
Who can blot out the cross, with th' instrument
Of God dew'd on me in the Sacrament?
Who can deny me power, and liberty
To stretch mine arms, and mine own cross to be?
Swim, and at every stroke thou art thy cross ;
The mast and yard make one, where seas do toss ;
Look down, thou spiest out crosses in small things ;
Look up, thou seest birds raised on crossed wings ;
All the globe's frame, and spheres, is nothing else
But the meridians crossing parallels.
Material crosses then, good physic be,
But yet spiritual have chief dignity.
These for extracted chemic medicine serve,
And cure much better, and as well preserve.
Then are you your own physic, or need none,
When still'd or purged by tribulation ;
For when that cross ungrudged unto you sticks,
Then are you to yourself a crucifix.
As perchance carvers do not faces make,
But that away, which hid them there, do take ;
Let crosses, so, take what hid Christ in thee,
And be His image, or not His, but He.
But, as oft alchemists do coiners prove,
So may a self-despising get self-love ;
And then, as worst surfeits of best meats be,
So is pride, issued from humility,
For 'tis no child, but monster ; therefore cross
Your joy in crosses, else, 'tis double loss.
And cross thy senses, else both they and thou
Must perish soon, and to destruction bow.
For if the eye seek good objects, and will take
No cross from bad, we cannot 'scape a snake.
So with harsh, hard, sour, stinking ; cross the rest ;
Make them indifferent ; call, nothing best.
But most the eye needs crossing, that can roam,
And move ; to th' others th' objects must come home.
And cross thy heart ; for that in man alone
Pants downwards, and hath palpitation.
Cross those dejections, when it downward tends,
And when it to forbidden heights pretends.
And as the brain through bony walls doth vent
By sutures, which a cross's form present,
So when thy brain works, ere thou utter it,
Cross and correct concupiscence of wit.
Be covetous of crosses; let none fall ;
Cross no man else, but cross thyself in all.
Then doth the cross of Christ work faithfully
Within our hearts, when we love harmlessly
That cross's pictures much, and with more care
That cross's children, which our crosses are.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Peace Like A River?

Photo by unskilledjourneyman is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
Tropical Storm Hermine poured rain and knocked down tree limbs yesterday, but this morning brought bright sun and blessedly cool air.  Lured by the weather, I drove over to walk the wooded towpath that runs between a river and a canal near my home.

Most people go to run or bike. They wear their high tech athletic clothes and their earbuds. I go for the trees and the river. I go for the ferns in the dappled sunshade beneath a vault of river oaks and ancient pines with trunks too big to reach around. I go for the chorus of cicadas and for the Spanish moss waving a gray benediction over it all.

For the first mile, there are lots of other people sharing the trail, and I always wish for more privacy. But, at the start of the second mile where the trees grow thicker and the mothers with baby strollers turn back, I usually turn back, too...because the trail beyond is more private. No matter how many years pass since I was mugged, and no matter how safe this trail is, my heart beats faster if I'm alone and I hear the sound of pounding feet approaching from behind. Today, I walked on anyway and tried to pay more attention to the river than to the runners.

On the right side of the path, the canal flows unperturbed between its parallel banks. The outfitters that rent kayaks stay busy, and there are always crayon-colored boats on the water. On the left side of the path, the river is broad and shallow, dotted with rocky rapids and tiny wooded islands. Kayakers don't often brave the river along this stretch. Today, the whole area echoed with shotgun fire from two goose hunters who had occupied one of the little islands. They stood in their waders, surrounded by decoys, calling in their prey with artificial goose calls. Those stupid birds flew in perfect formation right into firing range. My husband is a hunter, and since there's plenty of game in my freezer, I can't feel sorry for the geese. I can't even condemn the hunters' deceit. The food chain is a dirty, bloody truth. The river is real.

When I was young, my family had a camp house deep in the woods on a bluff over another river. We spent many wonderful weekends there. I learned to impale earthworms on hooks and watched the outside sink run red as my dad cleaned the fish we caught before we fried them for supper. We shot turtles on the far bank for target practice. I remember wasps and skinned knees and the acrid smell of bug spray. In the summer, we turned on rattly metal fans and sweated until the salt crystallized on our skin. In the winter, we cut trees for firewood, and I slept under my great-uncle's WWII army blanket which sparked my dad's memories of food rations and blackout curtains. We found the arrowheads left by our Muskogee ancestors when they played their own role in the food chain. I picked up shards of broken Coke bottles around the garbage pit and made them into transparent lids for treasure holes in the ground. Life on the river was grimy, rich, and real. We called it peaceful, and it was, but it was a paradoxical peace laced with fish guts, war stories, the nightmare calls of screech owls, and broken glass.

We say we want peace, and we walk the river's bank to relieve the stress of our frantic lives, but I'm not sure we understand what we want. The river that crashes over rocks and half-submerged logs, navigates around scrubby islands, teems with the life and death struggles of fish and birds and frogs is actually not very peaceful. Still, it draws us more than the canal that serenely follows its man-made course down an unobstructed path, sporting its carnival kayaks. When the walkers on the path stop to take pictures or gaze for a while, they don't stare out over the canal. They meditate on the untamed, raucous river...and call it rejuvenating.

Maybe all of our baptisms should take place in actual rivers. My childhood tradition practiced believer's baptism which meant full immersion at an age to know what you were doing. While I'm not part of that tradition anymore, and I don't believe immersion is necessary, I still like the idea. In baptism, we act out death to an old life and rebirth in Christ. Like the food chain, death and birth are also bloody truths, and they're a lot closer to the wildness of the river than the civility of a canal or baptismal font. A new birth in Christ is not a one-time event. Baptism is only the first of many bloody births as we are continually renewed. Maybe we should acknowledge the grimness of what's to come by performing that initial sacrament out among the rocks while the water moccasins swim by and shotguns play the background music.

In the last post, I said the current theme of the blog was loss. I suppose I'm writing about the loss of an illusion. I always thought we knew what we meant when we sang, "I've got peace like a river." As it turns out, the unruffled tranquility I thought we were claiming is artificial. "I've got peace like a canal" is not going to be the next big worship song. Neither the sentiment nor the syllables work. River peace includes dangers, toils, and snares. I'm suspicious of all the websites, books, CDs, Bible verse memes, and whatever that promise an easy tranquility. They all seem to me to be an invitation to live on the canal, but we were made for more. I still believe that even when I don't see or feel Him, God is on the river, and somewhere there is an authentic repose at the end of all those bloody truths. Maybe the best we can do is to launch our kayaks on the rapids and pray for grace to navigate toward a different kind of peace.