Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Why Write?

Author's Note: On Friday, my Creative Writing students will be turning in their Statement of Purpose for the year. In solidarity with them, and to help me write the rubric, I am writing my own Statement of Purpose. Do enjoy!

Writing as a Spiritual Gift

Whatever St. Paul says, the church has persisted in idolizing some spiritual gifts. Intellectually, we acknowledge that all spiritual gifts, all talents, are necessary to the healthy functioning of the body of Christ, but publically, we latch on to certain gifts as the coolest in the Kingdom of God. In the early church, the cool gift was speaking in tongues; in evangelical America, spiritual encouragement. We pair up with fellow believers to mentor them; we group up with cell groups, grace groups, life groups, and Bible studies; we attend Sunday-morning coffee hour regularly, holding a doughnut and ready to affirm fellow believers that are struggling; we ask people, "How are you?" and wait for them to emote to us so that we can support them. 

Don't get me wrong: I'm not complaining. Far better that we support each other in the faith than tear each other down. Here's the problem, though: I am notoriously bad at encouragement. I've never mentored anyone in my life, or for that matter, been mentored. Almost no one emotes to me, which means there's rarely someone for me to encourage. Especially since my hope is to not only teach my students writing but also teach them about Christ, this failure to launch as an encouraging mentor can be discouraging. 

Last October, I shared my discouragement with a friend, someone who excels at encouragement. What she said stuck with me: Stop worrying about a gift you don't have. Work on the gifts you do have.

I later mentioned this advice to another friend. She, in turn, told me about her sister Laura, a writer. According to one of Laura's writing teachers, not writing when you can is a breach of social responsibility. Do you have good ideas? Yes? Then share them, so that other people can benefit from your thoughts.

This way of seeing writing stuck with me. For far too long, I've seen writing as a hobby, something to be indulged during the long hours of a snowy afternoon, practiced after dark when the whole house settles down. Yet after dark, I'm tired. I'm more likely to hop on Facebook, read up on the Mars One mission, scroll through Buzzfeed drooling over pictures of delicious desserts that I will never make. I've always known I was wasting time; I've never thought that I was wasting my spiritual gift. I may not be gifted in giving spiritual comfort, but dang it! I'd like to think, at least, that I'm gifted in writing. 

By this point in the 2014, many people are starting to give up on their New Year's resolutions. Yet just because New Year's resolutions don't work that well, doesn't mean that we should never make goals, that we should drift through life aimless, terrified of setting a goal lest we fail in our attempt to reach it. 

Here's mine: I want to write more this year, and all the years subsequently. 

For me, that mostly means writing non-fiction: more blog posts, more essays submitted to online publications (Relevant, Converge, Gospel-Centered Discipleship). Six years of writing literary analysis for my bachelor's degree, my master's degree, and my master's thesis means that non-fiction is far and away my strength. (And yes, non-fiction can be creative.) But just because we have a weakness doesn't mean we need to succumb to it. Therefore, I also want to write more poetry, more fiction; I especially want to try new things with poetry and fiction - more structured poetry, more frequent poetry; more fiction altogether. I want to stop worrying about the gift I do not have and focus on the one I do.

Writing in the Church

St Paul reminds the Corinthians in his first letter that the church does not function properly unless every gift is being used; stress any single gift too much, and you threaten its well-being. A car won't run correctly if we put on brand-new tires, snazzy hubcaps decked out with bling, and forget to change the oil. Why should we expect the church to run correctly if we polish one gift and neglect the others?

Right now, the church is excellent at forming relationships. What else do all those life groups, cell groups, or grace groups do besides build relationships between believers, providing them a space to come together weekly and share each other's spiritual and personal burdens? What else does the stress on mentoring do, but remind people that they need a confidante to help them get through hard times, and remind people that they need to care about others going through the hard times?

Unfortunately, what the church is not excellent at is reflection. Adam McHugh and Susan Cain, both of whom have written extensively about introversion, point out that almost nothing about church promotes deep reflection. The meet-and-greet at the beginning of the service, the doughnut-and-coffee hour, the Seven-Eleven songs that replace deep theological hymns and liturgies - all these favour emotion, not thought.

Here is where the gift of writing comes in: While believers who are good at dealing with emotion can do so, we who do not excel at dealing with emotion can trade in thought. We can, by our writing, draw our fellow believers back to issues we need to contemplate, back to reflection on our God and our relationship with Him. In many ways, the role of a writer in the church is similar to the role of a single in the church. We who are single are a symbol to our married peers, reminding them that human relationships are only for a time; the highest and best of all relationships will be with Christ in heaven. Likewise, we who write, we who reflect, are a symbol to those who do not, reminding them that life in Christ is not meant only to be experienced but to be thought about carefully.

Is it possible that to some extent, we writers even do the thinking for our brethren, a kind of heavenly division of labour? In St. Paul's words, some believers speak in tongues; some teach; some organize and direct; some show mercy; some pray. Could it be that some of us minister to the emotions; others, to the thought? That when our relationship-savvy brethren come to what we write and think about, they discover there something not germane to their own spiritual life?

Obviously, the question is a tricky one, all the more so because not having a particular spiritual gift does not excuse us from spiritual responsibilities (I may not have the spiritual gift of prayer, but I should still pray, for instance.) All the same, my hope as a writer is to supplement the church's focus on relationships with analysis and reflection, to remind my fellow believers that we love Christ not only with our heart but also with our mind.

Writing for Me

Still, these dreams are somewhat grandiose. Is it not presumptuous to think that I by my writing can change the church? Perhaps. I am, somewhat unexpectedly, reminded of the safety instructions delivered on an airplane right before take-off. "In event of cabin depressurization," they warn, "Put your own mask on before helping those around you." Only a foolish sense of heroics would violate these instructions: Try to help someone else with their mask first, and you may run out of air. You may endanger not only yourself, but also the person you were trying to save. 

I wonder whether it is only my foolish heroics that hopes my writing may draw the church back to reflection, supply the deep thought necessary for life in Christ to thrive. Perhaps the real reason for my writing is much simpler: When I am writing, I am reflecting. 

Remember those Buzzfeed articles I mentioned earlier, with all the beautiful dessert pictures? Scrolling through those is not conducive to deep reflection. Not even my newest intellectual hobby, reading the New York Times online every morning, really promotes reflection. Reading the articles may give me stuff to reflect on, but so long as I am reading what someone else wrote, I cannot be alone with my own thoughts. Not until I write, or at least until I sit and think, like Descartes in his window, can I reflect. 

Perhaps this is a selfish reason for writing, but it is nonetheless important: I want to write more so that I can reflect more, so that I am spending my mind and intellectual energy not on an endless array of food pictures on the Internet, but on things that matter. Like the scientists of the 1600s, I want to think God's thoughts after Him, and to do that, I need to think, and write.

Poet Dorothy Parker is said have to claimed, "I hate writing. I love having written." The same is true for me: Is writing hard? Absolutely. It's much, much easier to just read Buzzfeed articles. It's much easier to email a friend than to write a poem. I spent nearly two hours on this blog post alone, without editing. Yet the benefits from having written are endless: Having written means that I have reflected, that I have thought about the world I live in and the God who designed it - and that is a treasure worth all the work.

Monday, January 20, 2014

How Are You? Be Honest, This is for Posterity

When I lived in the Czech Republic, I was warned that Czechs answer the question, "How are you?" honestly. Don't use it as a greeting, people told me. Only use it if you *really* want to know how someone is doing. 

The same apparently goes for Russians, according to an article in the New York Times this morning. According to op-ed writer Alina Simone, Americans's pat answer - "Fine." - would never fly in Russia. In Russia people give you a rundown of their medical history, delivered in an appropriate tone of longsuffering. Americans, she writes, are shocked by such honesty.

I would add that Christians are equally shocked. Face it: We're as guilty of fineness as any other American. In fact, we've spiritualized fineness. The usual responses, "Fine," "Doing good," or "Okay," aren't enough for us. Asked how we are, we say, "Blessed" or "Better than I deserve."

True, "How are you?" is just a greeting and doesn't always need a detailed response. Yet leaning too heavily on this chipper call-and-response may keep us from recognizing real hurt as a normal part of a spiritually-healthy life.

Maybe Russians, Simone wonders, answer the question "How are you?" more honestly since "As a citizen of a Communist utopia, you were pretty much supposed to feel fine all the time". To describe your ailments in detail, then, is less about complaining, more about making a political statement. Or maybe, she writes, it's simply a spiritual reality for them, that (quoting Dostoevsky) "suffering [is] ever-present and unquenchable, everywhere and in everything".

Either way, the Russians' honesty has something to teach the church.

I wonder, does the church sometimes fall into the same error that the Soviets did? Do we expect believers, as citizens of the kingdom of heaven, to pretty much feel fine all the time? Isn't this what the expression, "Better than I deserve!" implies, that  whatever happens to us on this earth, we should be fine with it since by rights we should be in Hell?

Yes, we believers are supposed to rejoice in suffering. At the same time, rejoicing in suffering is not the same thing as pretending it doesn't happen, and our pat, slightly-too-cheery answers to "How are you?" are meant to gloss over suffering quickly, not rejoice in it.

Even the way we Christians respond to people who aren't fine implies that in the church, fineness is normal; grief and suffering, abnormal.

A perky colleague, told I was "Fine," to my surprise asked me what was wrong. I wasn't interested in having a heart-to-heart with a man I barely knew, so I brushed him off with a polite nothing and went on about my business. Yet his assumption that there was a problem, and his his insistence on knowing what it was, struck me as curious, even invasive. In fact, there was no problem; I was simply not brimming with delight that morning.

Several months later, I told a friend who greeted me that I was "Okay," and was pulled up short when she too asked me what the matter was. Again, I told her that there really was no problem; my mind was occupied with leaving work and stripping off stiff, uncomfortable work clothes.

Of course, my colleague and my student both meant very well. I am grateful that the people around me do care about my well-being. What I am concerned about, though, is that my less-than-stellar pat answer to the greeting, "How are you?" prompted two very different people to assume that there was something wrong with me. That assumption, I think, further illustrates that in the church, we are all pretty much supposed to be fine. Anything less than fineness is abnormal, a problem to be solved or at least prayed over.

By all means, pray over the problem. But let's not pretend that prayer will restore us to fineness.

The truth? Jesus wept, so surely we can weep. Jesus prayed before He went to the cross, but He also dreaded the cross, so surely we can experience dread too? Surely we can be discouraged, tired or upset? Surely we can simply be okay without people wondering what in the world is wrong with us?

The truth is, at least in this life we are made to experience a wide range of emotions. God designed us for joy, but he also designed us for grief, weariness, anger, frustration; he designed us to be distracted by problems, sunk in thought, mellow. Admitting this does not make us less spiritual. It makes us human.

Ultimately, Simone suggests that Americans take a page out of the Russian playbook: "Take a vacation from fineness," she suggests, listing off more realistic alternatives to "Fine": "So-so," "the usual," or "eh."

In other words, be honest. 

Good advice. We Christians would do well to heed it.

Credit to Coffee With Jesus, "Just Chill"

Monday, January 6, 2014

Book Picks (2013)

Part of the reason I enjoy social media is all the good book recommendations I discover. On a blog I follow, the writer has posted a long list of cheap, good books on Kindle. On Facebook, an old college friend has listed the books she most (and least!) enjoyed this year. For most of my life, I read books faster than I could find recommendations for new ones, so book recommendations are a goldmine for me.

It's time to return the favour. In this post I want to describe the two best books I read in 2013, one fiction and one non-fiction. I read a lot of good books, books that I enjoy during the reading and books from which I learn something. The truly good books, however, stick with me: I find myself talking about them weeks and months later, bringing them up again (and sometimes again and again) in conversations with friends; such books touch, and may even change, my life. What I want to do in this post is try to capture what I found so thought-provoking about each of these books. 

At the bottom of the post, I'll list a few honourable mentions from the last year

. Feel free to chime in in the comments, or via email: Per my confession, I love hearing what you are reading!

Science fiction is a genre, a grouping of similar books, in the same way that apples is a classification, a grouping of similar fruit. There are many different kinds of apples - some you like, some you don't. There are also many different kinds of science fiction - some don't work for you, some do. I cannot get invested in Isaac Asmiov's novels, nor am I interested by the pop science fiction with the bodice-ripper covers. Thankfully, The Sparrow is neither of those: it belongs to that rare class of novels: religious, contemplative science fiction. 

The Sparrow is about a doomed Jesuit mission to the planet Rakhat, the first that humanity makes contact with. Out of the perhaps eight people who leave Earth for Rakhat, only one returns. The mission is drawn to Rakhat when the planet's piercingly beautiful music is picked up by SETI equipment. Two Jesuit priests and several non-religious scientists, they go to Rakhat wanting not to colonize, not to exploit, but only, as the dust jacket notes, "to know and love God's other children". This, unfortunately, is not what happens. 

What touched me most deeply about The Sparrow was its gentle but unflinching honesty. At its heart the novel is a religious exploration of suffering, how the loving God of Jews and Christians can not only let suffering happen but lead us directly to it, as into a trap. The question of suffering is one of the thorniest in all our faith, and so the temptation is to hurry past it with easy platitudes.

The Sparrow does not do that. Its answer is longer, many-sided, cloaked in the complexities of narrative form; whether there is an answer at all I leave for you to decide. I, however, remember the graciousness with which the novel handles the question, acknowledging both the undeniable truth of God's care and also the equally undeniable truth of real suffering:

"There's an old Jewish story that says that in the beginning God was everything and everywhere, a totality. But to make Creation, God had to remove Himself from some part of the creation, so something besides Himself could exist. So He breathed in, and in the places where God withdrew, there creation exists." 
"So God just leaves?"
"No. He watches. He rejoices. He weeps. He observes the moral drama of human life and gives meaning to it by caring passionately about us, and remembering." 
"Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine: Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it." 
"But the sparrow still falls."

Sometimes we believers use God's care for the sparrow to gloss over real hurt by reminding the suffering soul that God is caring for them. Absolutely God cares for us. Yet His care doesn't, or at least it doesn't always, make us feel better; our suffering is real. This is The Sparrow's genius: In its narrative of suffering, the storyteller tells both sides of the story, the pain and trouble of real suffering, and the unending goodness and sovereignty of God. 

Besides this, The Sparrow is simply a well-written novel. Its characters are expertly drawn, with several rounded characters; there are rich descriptions of food, smells, and scenery. The plot is very tightly woven: Though some readers (not me) find it slow in the middle, nearly everything in the plot has a purpose; there are no loose threads. 

Cautions: Some graphic description towards the end. (There's a bit of a plot twist, which I won't spoil for you, but be aware that it's a dark twist.)

Best Non-Fiction: Salt Sugar Fat, by Michael Moss

Non-fiction is a newer pleasure for me. Unfortunately, Moss's book spoiled a great deal of lesser non-fiction. Salt Sugar Fat is a gem: thoroughly researched and descriptive, carefully organized, and most important of all, thoughtful and well balanced.

Salt Sugar Fat is about exactly what it says: the enormous quantities of added salt and sugar and fat which make processed food possible. Yet it's also about the way that food is marketed, with public attention diverted from the additives so that consumers can purchase more, and still more, of a particular product. Moss's point is not that readers should give up processed foods altogether. No, what Moss does is akin to what happens at the end of Wizard of Oz: Pulling back the curtain, he exposes and therefore weakens the magic of the food processing and marketing system.

When I was a child, I was fascinated when school related directly to my personal experience. I learned one day how the bones in the arm twist over each other when I turn my hand palm-up, and since then, I find it interesting to turn my hand palm-up, and then palm-down, and then palm-up again, thinking about how, underneath my skin, my arm bones keep crossing each other. I find Salt Sugar Fat memorable for exactly the same reason: Every one of us buys food from supermarket shelves, so the book is personal for every one of us. In some sense, it is about every one of us.

Take one example: Line extensions. Line extensions, Moss explains, are specialized versions of a particular product: cherry Coke or mint Oreos. When line extensions are available, people are not only more likely to purchase the specialty product, they're also more likely to purchase the original. Now, I see line extensions everywhere. I pick up candy-cane flavoured Hershey Kisses for a recipe I'm making, and I think about line extensions, about more money lining the pockets of Hershey executives.

Take another example: Cheese. In America, we add cheese to things: to a chicken dinner, to pasta, to a salad, even to dessert. In Paris they eat it plain, after dinner, in place of dessert. Turns out, there's a reason for why Americans eat cheese the way they do, and it has nothing to do with cheese tasting good. When Americans began to prefer low-fat to high-fat milk, the dairies had a lot of extra milk fat on their hands. They turned it into cheese, and then they had a lot of extra cheese on their hands. So they started a marketing campaign designed to get people to eat cheese. That's right: the American taste for cheese is manufactured. Savvy advertising, not the great taste of cheese, convinced us to eat as much cheese as we do. See how well Moss's book relates to real life? And are you still sure you need cheese in your salad, especially if you can't taste it among all the various vegetables?

You may still eat the same things when you finish Moss's book (I still like cheese, for instance), but you will think differently when you purchase them. Or you will eat them in different ways (I rarely add cheese to my salad anymore.) Salt Sugar Fat, in other words, will change how you think about food.

Cautions: None

Honourable Mentions: I would be up all night blogging if I described every single good book I read in the last year, and there's no way you would make it through the book-length post. I did want to list some of the books I enjoyed besides these, however:

  • Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, Rosaria Butterfield. An agnostic lesbian professor converts to Christianity. Describes how she came to accept the Christian faith, and also describes how believers can learn from the GLBT community.
  • Real Sex, Lauren Winner. A defense of chastity as a crucial part of faith for non-married believers. Based on what we learn about Christ from chastity, and a good alternative to the courtship drivel a la Josh Harris
  • Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton. Describes and defends the habits of thought and assumptions that make orthodoxy possible. Extraordinarily witty. 
  • Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg. Practical advice for how women can become more prominent and happier in the workplace.
What about you? What have you read in the last year? What will you read next year?