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A Good Day of Writing?

Friday, April 19th, 2013

Very few writers like to be asked how “it’s going.” The question usually comes from well-meaning friends or family, and it is innocent enough. The person who asks it is showing interest (which writers like) and support (which writers need). And they very likely be would satisfied with an answer along the lines of, “Great, thanks.”

Nevertheless, questions about how the chapter/article/dissertation/blog post/conference paper is coming along sets us to wondering how to measure our progress. There’s the problem. Writing isn’t like hanging drywall or improving your golf swing or invading a country. There aren’t always (or usually) definable steps in the process by which the writer may measure his progress. If a deadline lies crouched around the corner or if, by some misfortune, the writer is trying to make a living by writing, then he probably asks himself constantly, Am I getting anywhere? The rest of the time, it’d just be nice to turn off the lamp at the end of the day able to say, “Look what I accomplished!”

So what does it mean to have a good day of writing? How do we know if we’re getting somewhere? Here’s a list:

Sometimes a good day of writing involves brainstorming, mind-mapping, outlining, or otherwise organizing your thoughts. Draft an outline. Jot down notes on a napkin. Think and doodle. You may not compose sentences or paragraphs. But this is real work.

Sometimes a good day of writing involves getting some of these thoughts on a piece of paper. There’s time later to worry about what order the words ought to go in. If you start with a blank white page and end the day with something—anything—on it, that’s a victory.

Sometimes a good day of writing results in clearly articulating a single important concept or thought. It’s not glamorous, but the most important part of writing is often finally being able to say what you mean. Maybe it’s the thesis you’ve been struggling to formulate, the payoff you’ve failed to make tangible, or the crucial connection you’ve been unable to articulate. If you finally pin one of these down, even if you walk away with only one good sentence, it’s a good day.

Sometimes a good day of writing is spent cleaning your desk. Or washing the car. Or mowing the lawn. Almost without fail, I do my best writing in my head while I’m doing something else. Then there follows a mad dash somewhere—to find a notebook or computer—to capture the words before they escape. The point is, sometimes a good day of writing doesn’t involve any “writing.”

Sometimes a good day of writing includes reading good writing that helps you find your voice. There are days when I feel like I have plenty to say, but by the time I try to put words to paper, they feel stilted and unnatural. Often the solution is to just keep writing; you can revise tomorrow. Other times the solution is to read someone who helps you speak naturally. True confession: when I sing along with “More Than a Feeling,” I feel like a rockstar. When I read Flannery O’Connor, I feel like a writer. Sometimes Sister Flannery (and others) give me the boost I need to speak for myself.

Finally, sometimes a good day of writing results in quantifiable forward progress: you type actual words—words that you like and may well keep—into your document and save them. These are good days. For me, these days usually follow several days like the ones described above: days spent doodling, turning out bad prose like beef through a meat grinder, slowly—slowly—pulling together clear, finely-tuned sentences here and there. Then there’s a rush of productivity when things finally fall into place, and I might compose several pages at a sitting.

Those are the days I like best, of course. But I’m learning to consider the other days good days of writing. That way when someone asks me how it’s going, I can say, “Great, thanks.”

Can You Imagine?

Thursday, July 28th, 2011

This article that I wrote for just came out this week. For those of you reading along in The Christian Imagination, some of the ideas might seem familiar. It’s sort of a mini-manifesto for me, on the importance of the imagination in theological education, etc.

* * *

Faith is an act of the imagination. And a healthy, vibrant imagination is crucial to the Christian life.

You will likely disagree with these statements if you associate the imagination with delusion, fancy, and/or make believe. Christian belief is quite concerned with facts. After all, we follow the One whose name is Truth, so we must be committed completely and unwaveringly to the truth, not led astray by fantasy and illusion. I couldn’t agree more. The trustworthiness of the Christian message is grounded in historical fact—the very real event of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. The whole of Christianity hangs on whether or not there truly was a first Easter morning. “If Christ has not been raised,” Paul explained, “… we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:17-19). Fortunately, we have solid historical reasons to trust the testimony of the Gospel writers that Jesus was indeed raised from the dead. That means our faith is reasonable, grounded firmly in fact and reality.

The reasonableness of our faith has been a major preoccupation for many Christians, especially in America, for the last few generations. Apologists and theologians have worked hard to amass scientific and historical evidence that supports Christian claims to truth. We’ve developed complex and compelling arguments in defense of the faith. This research is geared to provide intellectual support for Christian belief. And it is important work. Unfortunately, this vigilant war for the truth can have—and has had—collateral damage. Christians dedicated to shoring up the intellect often do not think too highly of the imagination. If we let the imagination run wild, they fear, we risk sacrificing the truth.

But imagination is not the opposite of reality or the enemy of truth. In fact, we do ourselves an enormous disservice when we ignore the imagination (whether intentionally or accidentally) and only develop the intellect. For the intellect is only half the equation. Imagination is the partner of the intellect. One is not more important than the other; they do different things. But because we have neglected the imagination, it deserves our special attention.

You can read the rest here.

Evangelical Imagination (The Christian Imagination #2)

Tuesday, July 19th, 2011

Now that things are back to normal (more or less) in our house, I’m returning to The Christian Imagination. As with the previous essay, what follows is part summary, part review, and part reflection.

Clyde Kilby’s essay, “Christian Imagination,” has given me quite a lot to think about. One reason I like it, I suppose, is because he says something here I’ve been trying to articulate myself for some time. Kilby argues (in 1981!) that the main problem evangelicals have is not intellectual ineptitude but a failure of the imagination. I agree. A decade ago I would have argued that Christians need to be better educated in theology and history if we hope to address the problems of our age. I would rephrase that claim now–we need the sort of theological education that engages and expands the imagination. Kilby’s essay helped me realize what bothers me about the writing of the so-called “New Reformed” folk (besides their bravado). I agree, on the whole, with the theological positions taken in books like this one, but they leave me cold. They deliver the facts, but they fail to engage the imagination. And because they fail to engage the imagination, I find it difficult to apply the theology in the books to my daily Christian life.

For Kilby, the imagination is crucial for Christian practice. Here’s how he puts it:

Pastors [and I would add, theologians] seem beset with the conviction that statement is the only correct way. I am starkly admonished, for instance, to love, as though I had not already beaten myself a thousand times with this cudgel. What I need instead is the opening of some little door through which I can enter, some little path through the tangle of my own selfishness, some glimpse of a person who practiced love last week. But what is the use of repeating to me, as though my soul were blind, what my conscience and the Holy Spirit habitually tell me?

I think this puts the matter perfectly. Evangelical theologians often talk as if the movement has an intellectual problem, so they try to stimulate the intellect. I’m convinced that evangelicals have an imagination problem, so we should be trying to stimulate the imagination.

I’m using the term “imagination” fairly loosely. I don’t mean, strictly speaking, that evangelicals need better art or music or literature. By “imagination” I mean the capacity to visualize and inhabit a world we can’t perceive with our senses. Being a citizen of the Kingdom of God takes imagination. Of course, I think better art and music and literature will be part of the solution. Bad art is no servant of the truth. Kilby explains:

As evangelicals we wish never to misrepresent God and salvation. Yet some of us have developed an ear as big as a barn door in our practice of pitching the coin on the counter and listening not only to its Christian ring but expecting also the tinkle of our own favorite evangelical language. The cliche deadens whatever it touches, however good or great. It is the call to indifference, to the slavery of the commonplace, to nonthought and nonfeeling.

But the lessons of this essay have application far beyond the making of art. It can apply to all sorts of writing (my medium), and it has set me to thinking about what it will take for the writing of theology to fully engage and enrich the imagination.

Bob Dylan and the Christian Imagination

Friday, June 24th, 2011

My apologies for the long stretch between posts. I’m catching up in my projects, so I hope to be more faithful in the near future.

Between now and the next post on The Christian Imagination, I wanted to offer this quotation for your consideration. It highlights one of the challenges Christians face in the production of the arts. We are confident we have answers to peoples’ most pressing questions. But the way we communicate these answers can make us–and, worse, the profound truth we proclaim–sound trite. At some level it’s comforting to know that this tendency afflicts even the most innovative and creative of artists. Here’s what Bob Dylan biographer Sean Wilentz has to say about Dylan’s Christian albums in the late 1970s (following his conversion to Christianity):

It was no wonder that many of Dylan’s fans…felt betrayed…. Not only had a secular Jew committed the ultimate apostasy [by becoming a Christian]; a poet of quicksilver ambiguity was now expounding absolute doctrine that came wholly received from others. The author of “My Back Pages,” who sang of becoming his own enemy “in the instant that I preach,” had become a preacher. All of Dylan’s old questions–“How many years can a mountain exist?” “Should I leave them by your gate?” “How does it feel?”–now had simple answers, and every answer was the same. [W]ith a few outstanding exceptions, Dylan’s songs came to have two predictable themes: warning the unrepentant of imminent apocalypse and the Second Coming; and affirming his personal redemption and gratitude to the Lord.

Unfortunately, Wilentz doesn’t talk too much about the way Dylan more subtly communicated his Christian perspective in his later music. Even so, this is a good warning. I’m curious what y’all think about it.

What is Culture? (The Christian Imagination #1)

Monday, June 6th, 2011

Not long ago, I found a copy of the first edition (1981) of this book in our church’s library. (At the time the book was written, the editor, Leland Ryken, was a member of the church.) This book came out the year I was born. It’s interesting to me–and a little disheartening–to discover that in my lifetime the state of things has not changed considerably. I wonder if the editor and contributors would be disappointed to know the issues are as relevant today as they were 30 years ago.

Regardless, I’m hoping to blog my way through the book. I know myself well enough to know that I won’t discuss every chapter (if I read every chapter). There are nearly 40, and I suspect I’ll lose interest–or run out of meaning commentary–well before then. Besides being interested in the subject matter, I have another reason for reading. I’ve agreed to write an article for an online CTI publication on “Christians and Creativity.” So this is research, too.

Let’s start at the beginning.

C.S. Lewis, “Christianity and Culture”

Lewis’s essay talks about the relative value of culture for the Christian. He doesn’t specify, but I get the sense he’s talking about high culture–classical literature, theater, visual art, etc. Asking whether low culture has any value for Christians would be like asking if eyeballs have any value for Christians. Without culture, we can’t make sentences or make dinner or cover our naked bodies. In his book Culture Making, Andy Crouch talks at length about this sort of culture, the more mundane things of life that we might not think of as “culture.” Omelets and interstate highways, he points out, are cultural artifacts.

This essay didn’t answer my questions, but it does raise an important issue. There are lots of Christians–including me–who feel we ought to do a better job “engaging culture.” What do we mean by that exactly? Do we mean we should be participating in high culture–literature, film, music, architecture and such things–or in the more mundane aspects of culture (like omelets and highways)? I suspect that we are looking for a way to influence the broader culture, suffusing it with Christian values, or proving that there is (or should be) something qualitatively different about the stuff Christians make and the way Christians think. By  “culture,” I suspect we mean those parts of human creativity that can communicate a Christian worldview.

This lines up with how Lewis uses the term “culture” in this essay. He concludes that “culture” is a “storehouse of the best sub-Christian values,” a record of “man’s striving for those ends which, though not the true end of man (the fruition of God), have nevertheless some degree of similarity to it.” In other words, culture tells us what’s important to people–the values a society is striving to live up to. When folks say Christians should be “engaging culture,” I take them to mean that we should be involved in this conversation about what values are important in our society. Or something along those lines.

If we understand culture in this way, though, we will necessarily value some aspects of culture over others. I love food, and I happen to think that cooking is a form of art. But is there any way to communicate a uniquely Christian worldview in the kitchen? Is there such thing as a Christian omelet? Or what about infrastructure–is there a specifically Christian way to design and build roads or shopping centers? I don’t think there is. But I could be wrong.

But if “engaging culture” doesn’t include this sort of activity, maybe our (and Lewis’s) definition of culture is too narrow, too exclusive. Surely different people will feel compelled to participate in different cultural arenas–from the more sophisticated to the more mundane. It would be a shame to fight among ourselves about which of these arenas constitutes a higher calling. Even so, I think it’s important that we know what we mean by “culture” before–or at least as–we try to engage it.

I’m about to work myself into a corner. So I’m going to stop and solicit your input. Any thoughts?