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Filtering by Tag: Flannery O'Connor

The Shape of Humility

Jean Hoefling

I know well enough that very few people who are supposedly interested in writing are interested in writing well.
Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners

A few years ago, in the interest of honing a short story that I considered decent (which it turned out not to be, particularly), I attended the legendary Glen Workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico—that annual summer gathering at St. John’s College of Christian (or not) poets, painters, musicians, and budding screenplay and fiction writers. That year, prolific novelist Bret Lott facilitated the fiction workshop. Every morning before our class began the round of shock therapy euphemistically called “peer critique,” Professor Lott offered short, helpful lectures on writing while we all drank coffee and breathed in the signature Santa Fe scent of burnt brick and piñon that wafted through the open windows of our classroom. All his teaching was good, but these years later I don’t remember much of what the good professor said.  

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The Toil of the Porter

Aaron Guest

pexels-photoFour of the five years I spent selling myself to creative writing programs, I used this gem in my personal statement: I am overwhelmed by my bookshelf. Everything that’s been written in the canon of literature has said all there is to say. I do not purport to say anything new. It’s a wonder why they rejected me. Who wants a writer who thinks they have nothing new to say? Especially when that writer goes on to swing a metaphor as dull as a spoon: My aim as a writer is the toil of the porter… All I strive to do is haul my bookshelf up a floor.

However much it hurts to read that conjured bit of word magic, ten years removed, I wonder if it’s true. Do I have anything new to say?

Josh Ritter spoke candidly of a phenomenon I’ve been experiencing while at work on something that looks and smells like a novel in the same way a pickle resembles a cucumber. He called it feeding the monster, “a creature so voracious… it lives deep in the synaptic jungle, its tail twitching lazily, its slow-breathing bulk heaving sulfurous sighs as it waits. You have to feed the monster everything you come across, be it books, music or movies, your friends and enemies and any other shiny baubles you find strewn in your path.” The sanitized notion of this is probably “research”. That process of pouring through books and essays and poems and personal experiences for information that you can use to fashion a story. But how do I use that?

A writer I deeply admire once told me about a particular line in their story, “I stole that from Denis Johnson. Here’s a writing tip: steal anything you can.” My head must of cocked at a visibly affronted angle because it immediately was clarified. “Obviously don’t rip it off verbatim. But steal the hell out of everything you like.” I went back and compared the lines in the two stories. Unrecognizable unless you knew the other author, the story, their love of Denis Johnson, and, even then, had heard the confession itself.

Stealing the hell out of other works has occurred throughout history. It goes back as far as Genesis and the story of the Flood, where non-Jewish cultures already had their own flood stories. The late literary theory wizard Umberto Eco believed that all works were birthed from other works: “The reader has to fill the blanks in the text and to relay it to the intertextuality from which [the text] is born and in which [the text] merges.” Texts are going to arise from other texts and then speak on behalf of or point to those other texts. Springsteen certainly helped point many unlikely readers toward Flannery O’Connor’s writing in his famous song Nebraska.  

For this novel project I’ve cracked a small notebook and filled it’s pages with lines from novels and memoirs and essays I’ve been reading. Ritter claims to satiate the monster is crucial, “If you don’t give the monster what it wants, the damned S.O.B. will never give you anything in return. But if you do a good job feeding your monster, it’ll occasionally let you have a little inspiration.” And my notebook is annotated with sentences and words and phrases I hope to alter the time signature of and make dance to the tune of my own work.

But it’s a fine line to tread between plagiarism and creative license, isn’t it.

So am I stealing? Or simply bringing ideas up to the next floor?

More importantly: do I really have anything new to say?

Acts of Love

William Coleman

Giuseppe Crespi (1665–1747)
Giuseppe Crespi (1665–1747)

Womp, brio, alembic, the Albigensian Crusade. Each of these terms was lost on me recently as I tried to read. Each propelled me back to the surface of the page against my will, where I bobbed helplessly, far from reference, cursing my ignorance, the younger self that chose the appearance of intelligence over the disciplined work of reading. How many books did I pretend to read in high school, how many did I skim to glean the keys that might unlock a grade, or the impressed nod of a teacher? Close to thirty years later, I am still paying for those adolescent sins of omission. It was with a jolt, therefore, that the next day I heard my colleague Noah say the following in a faculty meeting at the high school where I work: "The desire to seem is the only thing that's lessened me in the presence of truth." He was recalling Camus, he told us. "Love is the opposite of seeming: in it, we reveal ourselves, not to seem, but to give." We'd been talking about our identity as a school. What was it, we wondered together, that defined our place? Words were offered and considered: service, rigor, hospitality, community. We discussed the term "classical school"— what did that mean, exactly? What about "Christian"?

Our headmaster and Latin teacher, a man who begins our every school day with a prayer that we may "learn to be more selfless and less selfish," praised our words thus far, and posited another: humility. Our math teacher said we teach discernment; she said we seek to see the human heart so we may see the need for redemption.

“The pyramid served one man," Noah said. "The power, the rule system, was vertical. All served the Pharaoh. But the Great Conversation occurs in a different space." We were sitting around the giant oak table in the parlor of the Victorian House that served as one-half of our campus (the other half being the house next door). "We look at each another: we talk, we share ideas. And behind us—"here, we became aware of the bookshelves lining every wall—"are ghosts, and they're speaking too." I recalled the days when Noah was a student in my class, seated at this very table—how much I learned from his deep reading in so many of the books that now were at our backs. "In this place, we may not end up agreeing, but we will end up seeing," he said.

It is difficult, even terrifying, to see and to be seen. It requires strength and faith to hazard an adventure into the unknown, to try to posit a wayward thought, to do the work required to speak with precision and authority, to trust that those who are looking back at you (fellow students, teachers; George Eliot,Flannery O'Connor) are themselves honest, fellow seekers. It's not easy, but its end is to end all seeming, which is to say it participates in the condition of love. They are gifts, these people, these ideas, these words we cannot yet understand. To look up alembic is an act of love.

A Displaced Person

Aaron Guest

(Wikipedia image)
(Wikipedia image)

Flannery O’Connor changed my life. Her work located me. Sought me out from the top corner of a near empty shelf of a quickly-going-bankrupt mass-market bookstore. I read one story and knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life in any and all words and places and ideas I could generate. I have never regretted it, even if the writing life has brought unsubtle revelations about who I really am and how far away I may be always from the person I see myself as.

My attention was drawn back to O’Connor after David Griffith’s article in The Paris Review about her “least anthologized” short story “The Displaced Person”. I urge you to read the piece, regardless of your political leanings. Then read the short story. Or vice versa. On display is the inherent power of fiction; how it can carry a “dark moral force without recourse to didacticism or sentimentality.”

The idea of displacement Griffith talks about in O’Connor’s story was reinforced just last week. Again from that high-on-a-shelf kind of unexpected angle: a trilogy of graphic novellas we picked up for the kids at the library. It’s called “Lost & Found” by Shaun Tan. These three short illustrated stories are immaculately drawn, layered with rewarding and minute details. There is an astounding force at work inside each frame.

The middle story in the collection, “The Lost Thing”, strikes at the heart of why I continue to feel displacement in my own life. How it continues to be a “question about belonging in the absence of any direct language”. The story illustrates the journey of a lost, voiceless creature and the narrator who tries to find a home for it somewhere in the city. After some missteps, a unique and unexpected home for the creature is uncovered. This placement of the creature, finally, reveals a startling idea: where a displaced thing ends up may in fact not be the place it actually belongs.

Exactly a year ago now my family and I intentionally displaced ourselves in hopes of finding a community to which we could belong. We had outgrown our home in a number of real ways and we couldn’t stay. We moved deeper into the midwest. A small town, still in Ohio. We have no business being here, outside of work. And yet here is where we are. Like the odd, eschewed characters of Tan’s story, we “are happy enough.” But still the irk of not belonging is persistent and indirect. It sweeps over us in quiet strokes on Sunday mornings, in silent nights on our unlit street.

Griffith points out that many of O’Connor’s stories deal with displaced persons. And how they are always subject to violence whether as the perpetrator—or, as “The Displaced Person” shows despite the faultless and hard-working Mr. Guizac—as the victim.

I know where I am. And here life is comfortable and cozy. I am happy enough, too. I do not openly wish for a change. After all, like O’Connor’s Astor says, “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.” But I know how a simple glint caught by the corner of the eye can violently change my life. So I merely hope I don’t become “too busy doing other things” to fail to notice. Because I am—and may always be—a lost thing.

Somewhere Between Tom Brokaw and The Misfit

Howard Schaap

Illustration by Chad Danger Lindsay I blame Tom Brokaw. Or someone, anyway, west of the Mississippi and east of the Rockies. This might qualify Walter Cronkite, too, who was no doubt the most powerful white man of my youth. The news itself, it might be said, was the direct descendent of Puritan plain style, the most complex stories broken down into a few short sentences delivered by stolid white men in serious, accentless tones with direct eye contact. And Midwestern English had a starring role.

Spellcheck doesn’t recognize the word “accentless.”

The idea itself is illogical, like water without wetness. Language by nature has an accent. The idea that Midwestern English is accentless is therefore obvious bunk. Still, for generations it was the language of the news. Generations after Brokaw and light years from Cronkite, the Midwest continues to suffer from their legacy, the idea of accentless language.

Or the Upper Midwest does—maybe the northern plains—I’m not sure where to locate it. Certainly west of Chicago. Chicagoans’ accents are crystalized, their identity sure. Though also south of the Coen’s Fargo. North, certainly, of Hannibal, Missouri. Mark Twain’s writing is among the surest of itself, rooted, but Twain is a Southern writer. Sure, the Midwest feels affinity for Twain, but primarily in a kind of envy, as wannabes.

As a writer, I spent years trying to neutralize my voice. First, I tried to leave the Midwestern accent—or non-accent—behind by trying to sound smarter: I spent years trying on the greater non-accent of academia. That is, I thought as a writer I was supposed to climb to some position high above the biases and stereotypes of accented English, so I tried to leave Midwest English, a supposedly accentless English, for Academic English, a really accentless English.

I know it doesn’t make any logical sense, that being smart means you know there is no objective point of view or accentless English, but that’s certainly not the impression academic writing gives off.

Something has also changed about Midwestern English. Its supposed clarity has become equated with simplicity or facelessness. In fact, I sometimes wonder if the era of Kronkite and Brokaw hasn’t left a vacuum, if it hasn’t left us with Southern accent envy. This would help to explain the way Duck Dynasty has colonized the Midwest and why I see a Confederate flag displayed in the window of a tiny town (population: 50) I commute through every day—in Minnesota.

So, I'm trying to return to the Midwestern accent again—or, more precisely, to the accent in this part of the Midwest, south of Fargo, west of Chicago, north of Hannibal—to hear it, to align myself specifically with it. What are the ins and outs of the English spoken in my backyard?  What has the language itself sheltered within its peculiar constructions and idioms?

But where do I turn for help?  To Southern writers, where else?  When Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit says about Jesus, “He thown everything off balance,” we know we’re in the middle of it, in the middle of a mind, in the middle of a place, in the middle of a theology. The best writers both align themselves with an accent, the diction of a place, and enable us as readers to get inside it, too. They both affirm it and hold it up to the light.

Which drives me to a second source: to the men at the downtown coffee shop, to the women at the supermarket deli, talking their Middlewestern talk, here in flyover country, the land of Tom Brokaw.

Quiet Grace

William Coleman

Photo by Richard Carl Pearson on Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Flannery O’Connor said her fiction was concerned with “the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil,” and that “violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace” and that “[a]ll human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.” So it can be nothing like news—though it is thrilling—to discover, as several of my high school students did in tandem during class discussions in September, that the color of bruising marks O'Connor's “Revelation,” the story of the essential humbling of a certain Mrs. Turpin.

As they led me to see, the acne borne by the young vessel of truth, Mary Grace, is “blue,” betraying the deepest of influence. Mary's coloring becomes the bruise above Mrs. Turpin’s eye (born of Mary Grace's thrown book) as slowly she is made ready for alteration, her suffering come to render her sensitive to the conditions of others.

Just before she's given the revelation of a divine ladder (a vision that appears within a field of blue-black sky), upon which Turpin sees her self-satisfied kind at the very end of a procession that's triumphantly led by the very “niggers” and “white trash” she’d labeled and categorized--just before that vision, she finds herself watching her husband drive the African-American farm workers home. For "five or six minutes," she stands in anxious stillness, watching the "tiny truck" ("it looked like a child's toy") make its slow way along a darkening road, a road lined on either side by lavender. Only when she is certain that all are safe can she move, "a monumental statue coming to life."

It felt like a revelation in itself to be led to follow this circle of painful coloring in the story. I love O’Connor's work. I know change can feel like breakage. I know resistance to change can feel as powerful as the force that can cleave the earth in two. But I know too that grace need not feel like imposition. Sometimes it falls as gently as a hand slipping silently into another’s.

It was Thursday morning. I was rushing to dump my half-drunk coffee into the travel mug; I was worried about papers I’d failed to grade the night before; I was worried about the car and about health insurance, which is to say that I was worried about money; and I was worried about being late. One of my former students was coming to speak that morning at convocation. I needed to greet her at the door; what kind of host would I be if I didn't? And I needed to think about my introduction. And I needed--

A hand. My wife’s. Without a word, without one sound, but with a smile, my beloved towed me through the kitchen, through the dining room, across the corner of the living room, through the French doors of the little library, across the rug her friend had given us, and stopped to stand beside me at the window set within the eastern wall. There I saw the crimson sky, spread upon the bare branches of the oak.

I arrived at school in plenty of time to talk to Alexis, who had already made her way to the converted garage that served as our convocation hall. She was not, in the least, put out that I had not been waiting for her on the front porch of our schoolhouse. She didn’t mind the time to herself, she said. Then she told me that she had decided to talk about mindfulness.

Her first year away at college had been difficult, she said to us that morning. Then one Sunday, she was talking to her brother on the phone.

“Are you enjoying your coffee?” he asked her.

“Of course!” she told him. “I have to caffeinate to power through the day.”

“No,” he said. “Are you enjoying your coffee?”

"It seemed the simplest thing," she told us. "Silly almost. Until I tried it." She looked up from her notes. "It is hard to sit for five minutes without an agenda,” she said. “But those are the moments when life can rush in."

Letters to Self

Jill Reid

Photo by Fred Guillory / CC BY 2.0 At some point each semester, I talk to my writing class about the importance of keeping a journal.So much of what writers produce must be attached to deadline or assignment.  Under these conditions, we check our tone, weigh risks, and write beneath the shadow of an imagined and rolling eye. Under that kind of constraint, it’s important to have a place where our voices can crack with the terror or silliness or strain of the immediate moment without the pressure of public presentation.   

So, I press fresh paperback journals into young hands and quote Flannery O’Connor famous words, “I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” I tell them to write without burden because keeping a journal will make a space for discovery that even the most exacting assignment might not produce.And while I fully believe the possibility of this sort of discovery is real and true, I almost forget to expect that sort of discovery for myself.  

In a letter to college freshman, Alfred Corn (now a famous poet), Flannery O’Connor addresses Corn’s concern for new and intense doubts about his Christian faith. As any reader of O’Connor would expect, her responses are profound and thoughtful. Assuring him that real faith must encounter real doubt, she reminds him that “doubt is an experience that belongs to faith.” Using her method of letter writing as a catalyst for a free-write, I direct students to “write a letter to your past self that suggests experiences of doubt and faith without using either of the words doubt or faith.” And when I go home and search my own shelves for an old journal, I am surprised to discover that I have been writing these kinds of letters to myself for a long time.   

For a fevered hour, I sit with my own journals, the stiff-spined and the scraggly paged, cheap composition books and mahogany moleskines. I read and reread and find that beyond the images and ideas I left for myself to develop into poems and papers, I have also been writing very personally to my own self. I stare a long time at four sentences that lament the doubt a past self felt about my capacity to “really” write, and I begin to remember, flanked by my own words, that the doubt I experience today in my writing life is nothing new. Suddenly, I wanted to hug the author who admitted this struggle, to high-five her, embracing “yesterday’s” voice with an abandon I would never direct at “today’s”. The experience of having my own past voice directly address my present one was like encountering an inheritance someone else had earned and carefully saved for the benefit of another generation. Yesterday’s voice admitted angst that today’s voice still understood. There was such relief in that mutual understanding.

A letter, in its nature of direct and intimate address, clasps my imagination in the same way my grandmother’s old hands cup the face of my daughter. There is something about a voice that belongs to a moment I intimately know; I can believe in that voice because I can believe in the reality of the moment from which it speaks. How shocking, for the writer, so used to falling in love with other voices, other stories, to find her own voice worth listening to.

Metaphysical poet, John Donne, writes that “More than kisses, letters mingle souls.” While the act of writing letters naturally lends itself to the passionate longing of lovers, I am moved by the letters that I have, even unknowingly, been writing to myself. I am breathless for notes scrabbled in margins and smudged blue into spidery paragraphs. How vital our own voices can become, shimmering in margins of shelved journals, waiting to reach across time and distance like a letter addressing us in a moment we most need to hear from a friend.

Aaron’s Forearm

Aaron Guest

12 Tattoos A year ago at this time, I was fresh from completing graduate school. Ink wasn’t drying on a diploma—that would come the following month—but was scored into the skin of my forearm. It was my first tattoo and it will not be my last and I will not tell you what it means.

O.E. Parker, in Flannery O’Connor’s story “Parker’s Back,” could not tell you exactly what the Christ-figure on his back meant to him. He couldn’t even see it, which was the reason his back had remained the only part of his skin without a tattoo. But like Parker, I felt that same sensation for desiring a tattoo. The one that finds you “turned so gently in a different direction that he did not know his destination had been changed.”

So, why a tattoo? Why, like Parker, experience the pain associated with it, even if it was “just enough to make it appear… to be worth doing”? As a kid, I thought tattoos to be the indulgences of people with other vices. They were on the arms of the addicts and alcoholics to whom our church ministered. People who would stand and curse at my father during the Sunday service with outstretched green arms. I saw them with the same coiled eyes of Parker’s wife Sarah Ruth, as the “vanity of vanities”, or the sin of sinners.

Lutheran minister Nadia Bolz-Weber, herself tattooed, flipped my perception of tattoos—“[h]uman bodies carry stories, and some people choose to carry those stories on the outside.” Grad school was ending and life was irrevocably headed in a new direction. Third child in tow now and a possible continental-sized move a-comin’. A longer road lay ahead, but I had been pivoted. So, I carry a story, now, on the outside of my body.

But why get a tattoo with a meaning I won’t share with those who ask? It’s not for not wanting too. You can use my son’s spy book to understand the symbols. But I can’t explain to anyone why the bread and wine doesn’t just taste like bread and wine.

Parker’s attempt to win the love of his wife, by getting a tattoo he believed she would find meaning in, ended with him being beaten to tears by Sarah Ruth and called an idolater. In a gesture of sacrament, I stretch out this wordless story as I write. Because, as O’Connor has said, “If it’s a symbol, then to hell with it.”

Living with the Fragments

Aubrey Allison

Daniel Barkley

“A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.”  ― Flannery O'Connor

There is a picture circulating on Facebook of a gray ceramic bowl that has been broken and repaired, its cracks filled with gold. Kintsukuroi. The caption reads: (n.) (v. phr.) “to repair with gold”; the art of repairing pottery with gold or silver lacquer and understanding that the piece is more beautiful for having been broken.

kintsukuroi

The sentiment resonates. We have all been wounded and broken, and we all can, at least most of the time, acknowledge some blessing. More than that, kintsukuroi marks an event in the history of an object. It tells a story. And the story ends in restoration.

But this feels too neat to me. It feels dishonest. There are wounds that can’t be painted smoothly over with gold. What about the fractured parts that will never be put back together, will never take the same shape again?

Over and over in a million different ways we learn the heaviness of the world, learn to navigate its depth and its jagged edges. It is an act of faith to live with the fragments, even the ones unrepaired by gold, even while there is no resolution, not yet.

---

Paintings above by Daniel Barkley: “Vincent B, Arms Crossed,” “Study for Golden Boy,” “Vincent, etude pour Golden Boy,” arranged in this sequence by the author.

 

Angry at Andalusia

J Mark Bertrand

Untitled All my pilgrimages are improvised en route –– last minute treks to hallowed sites I never expected to discover along the way. The pilgrimage to Milledgeville, conceived while passing through Georgia the instant I glimpsed the town’s name on a highway sign ––“That’s where Flannery O’Connor lived. We’ve got to go!”–– couldn’t be researched adequately during the twenty-minute detour owing to a weak cellular signal, but no matter. There would be a bronze statue, I figured, probably in the town square, and a bookstore in which to purchase yet another copy of the collected works. Would there be souvenirs, trinkets –– a Misfit t-shirt, peacock keychains, Made in China ball caps bearing the author’s image? I certainly hoped so. Kitsch is not my thing, but for O’Connor kitsch I will make an exception.

We arrived in the rain and had to scour the city for any sign of her. Up and down the stately streets, through downtown and across the glistening cobbles and genteel columned buildings of the university campus, we could discover no indication, however minor, that Flannery O’Connor had ever set foot in the place. No statue, no square, no cottage industry catering to literary tourists. What Milledgeville wants you to know is that it was once the state capitol. That it was once home to the state’s greatest author appears to be a matter of relative indifference.

Eventually we came across Andalusia, the O’Connor homestead, out on a highway across from a car dealership, its location pinpointed by several mismatched signs. By now it was past six and the front gate was locked, so we contented ourselves standing on the muddy drive, gazing down the curved path until it disappeared in the trees.

Ours was the sort of pilgrimage that might have pleased Flannery, I suppose. She might have made a story of it, with myself the object lesson. Still, I grew frustrated, resenting the town for not taking more decided measures to honor the great writer’s memory.

“If this is what she gets,” I told myself, “you can’t hold out much hope for yourself.”

In a parking lot a week later, still unsettled by the abortive pilgrimage, I sat with the engine running and listened to a recording of O’Connor reading her short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Her accent is divine, and the 1950s audience laughs in the right places, a comedy club crowd right up to the moment the story takes its turn, at which point an awkward silence descends. Police sirens echo in the background of the recording, and I felt annoyed (as Flannery herself must have at the time). Couldn’t they have been more considerate, these cops? Bank robbery or not, it was hardly worth spoiling a rare recording of the author’s voice.

My silly anger spilled over onto Milledgeville, which could also stand a lesson in consideration, then spread to encompass the whole state of Georgia past and present, then the nation. (“This country doesn’t honor its literary greats. Those sirens would never have sounded in France.”) Eventually I was mad at the world.

“Why are you so worked up?” I asked myself, but myself was not forthcoming. It had nothing to do with the sirens, anyway, or with the closed gate or the statue that isn’t in the town square. I suppose I was angry at history more than anything, the way the marks we leave –– regardless of how large they loom in the mind –– don’t make much of an impression on the actual world. They’re as easy to miss as a sign opposite a used car lot marking a muddy path down which, an hour earlier, you had no intention of traveling.

God's Not Dead

Bryan Bliss

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The trailer for God’s Not Dead appeared on my Facebook timeline between a Buzzfeed quiz about Friday Night Lights and a Bruce Springsteen video. I took the quiz (I’m Landry Clarke, so you know) and listened to The Promised Land, trying to convince – or maybe distract – myself away from this movie. Even before I saw the trailer, I could make a guess at the plot.

Instead of asking a person to explore the mystery of faith, films like God’s Not Dead lay a straight and flawless road, painted over with harsh blacks and impossible whites – colors designed to make us comfortable. More importantly, they encourage Christians to ignore the twisting and turning deer trails that sprout off this main road. Trails that lead one through the mud, the murk. Places to get lost.

Could anyone argue that Flannery O’Connor’s classic short story A Good Man is Hard to Find might better end with the Misfit accepting Christ? To have him wave the family off, a pleasant sunset falling behind him? For some, yes. But for those concerned with producing art and living a faith with integrity – that actually represents our place in a sometimes savage, sometimes beautiful world – these knotted paths are the birthplace of transformation. They don’t avoid risk. They force it upon you. It is that tension, that real moment of grace and redemption, which Christian art hopes to harness.

A writing mentor once told me the worst thing a story can be is about something. I would add that, even when we know the ending, a story should also hide the turns. God’s Not Dead, like so much of Christian art, chooses to do neither. It plays to its audience, giving another boost to the myth of the embattled Christian while reassuring them that everything is okay. Cathartic as that might be, it isn’t true. And if Christian art doesn’t have truth – if it becomes yet another escapist trope – then what’s the point?

The Word and words

Stephanie Smith

Editorial Assistant Stephanie S. Smith meditates on the relationship between the Incarnation, the Word made flesh, and the writer, the wordsmith. I often wonder why, out of all the ways to describe the miracle of God-made-Man, the writer of the gospel of John chose to call it “The Word.”

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” –John 1:1

He says it three times; he really doesn’t want you to miss this: This Jesus? He’s the Word. As a writer who lives and breathes words, this intrigues me.

If the Incarnation is composed of the Word given skin, of theology given a body, lungs, hands, sweat glands and elbows, what do my creative words translate into? If the Word became flesh and brought Life to the world, can my words, fragile and human as they are, become something more than ink on a page? Can they also bring life?

As writers, I believe that our words wield powerful weapons of influence, for better or for worse. And as Christians, I believe we are entrusted with language to point to redemption, by faithfully articulating the brokenness of our world and the wholeness of the gospel. The written word, as creatively communicated in story, poetry, and prose can help us to interpret our lives in light of the greater, eternal context.

Flannery O’Connor affirms this, “The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem is to find that location.” Good writing connects the regular details of our lives with eternal reality and puts them on the same plane.

The response of the Christian to the revelation of God should be that of Mary’s, who said to the angel Gabriel, “May it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:39).  Mary, who Scripture describes as a woman in God’s favor, invited the divine word to manifest itself in her very life, which was fulfilled literally in the Incarnation.  In the same way, we invite the Incarnation into our lives when we obey God’s Word.  We give our faith a face when we love the widow, feed the hungry, visit the sick.

Madeleine L’Engle, in Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, says our writing should reflect the response of Mary, “who, when the angel told her that she was to bear the Messiah, was obedient to the command.” L’Engle remarks, “I believe that each work of art, whether it is a work of great genius or something very small, comes to the artist and says, ‘Here I am.  Enflesh me.  Give birth to me.’”

In the creative process, the writer-artist responds to each idea like Mary to the angel’s revelation: Yes, manifest yourself in my very flesh, that I may nurture you, cultivate you to grow, and pour you into the world for men to see. The Christian writer uses language as a frame, clothing the abstractness of idea in the flesh of syllables, sentences and words, and then presenting it to the world as a bright and shining advent.

Stephanie S. Smith graduated from Moody Bible Institute with a degree in Communications and Women’s Ministry, which she now puts to work freelancing as a book publicist and writer through her business, (In)dialogue Communications, at www.stephaniessmith.com. After living in Chicago for four years, traveling to Amsterdam for a spell, and then moving back home to Baltimore to plan a wedding, she now lives with her husband in Upstate New York where they make novice attempts at home renovation in their 1930s bungalow. She is a member of the Young Professionals of the Southern Tier and blogs for Moody Publishers at www.insidepages.net.