Friday, July 24, 2009

Relevance in Writing

I started 4 books last night. One I skimmed/read, two I tossed after the first page and a half or so, and one I tossed after checking out the year of publication and book jacket. Why? Well, it didn’t feel “relevant” to me, which is just another way of saying it didn’t interest me.

A Dirty Word
Relevance has become a controversial word in religious circles, but putting the religious issue on hold, I bring it up for two reasons.

#1 – Within the relevance discussion, someone (I can’t remember whom) said that excellence is always relevant.

#2 - In its strictest sense, the word simply refers to the ability to connect with or relate to something/someone.

From that, let’s make this jump….
How does literature arrive in the canon?
Typically the craftsmanship is excellent, and it involves an important/timeless subject/theme. (I’m referencing an English textbook by Sylvan Barnet and Hugo Bedau.)

Could we then argue that great literature is always relevant because it has both excellence and subject matter that is timeless, i.e. something readers will always relate to?

Apostolic Relevance
Kent’s post made me once again consider how we should present our faith as we continue in our ongoing experiment to write the great Apostolic novel. I’m convinced two fundamentals will be:
1) writing with excellence, and
2) presenting important enough subject matter that will stand the test of time.

I don’t know about you, but I think Apostolics can fit the bill. What do you think?

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Writing Class: 2 Moments

In June, I attended a weekend writing workshop/class of nine students of varying ages and nationalities, some from the Midwest, at least one from each coach, working with an MFA/published novelist instructor. The class discussed the topic of “Writing Beyond Realism”; specifically, how do you believably welcome moments of the supernatural into your realistic (presumed literary) fiction. (Think the ghost of Hamlet’s father, which sets the entire plot into motion; no one shelves it under “horror” or “fantasy.”)

I learned loads on many fronts, but there were 2 moments that stood out to me:

One of the questions we were supposed to answer as we introduced ourselves at the beginning, was “Do you believe in good & evil?” Most of the class did. When it was my turn, I said I did, also adding I believed in heaven & hell. I left it at that, but wasn’t going to pass over a chance to share the sources of good and evil when asked like that. The very next person said she also believed in good & evil, but was not specifically religious. Somehow, my adding heaven & hell had troubled her.

The other moment was a throwaway line from our wonderful MFA/novelist instructor, who might’ve been 26. One of the students read a short piece that included 2 American tourists unable to find a hotel room in Germany, so ending up with a woman who sometimes rented rooms. After all of us commented on the piece, he said (paraphrase), “No room at the inn—does that still resonate with Christianity?” Several students seemed unsure and a couple said no. He thought it still did and warned us to be careful of creating parallels with classic (my word) stories, as it misled the reader if we didn’t intend for those parallels to exist.

Neither of these moments were profound, but I found both telling of our times. After all, there are millions of narratives floating on the internet (and in the bookstores and theatres and . . .) today; if we aren’t willing to keep Christianity alive through (written) word and deed, who will? It’s part of the challenge we’ve got to take on when we agree to follow our calling to write (and read and teach).

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Appendix A: McDermott, 50 Books

  • National Book Award Winner Alice McDermott has a new short story “I Am Awake” on Catholic-weekly Commonweal (which is completely free on the web during July)
  • Check out the speaker list (Eugene Peterson, Brady Udall, Barbara Nicolosi, Stephen Carter) on the premier Christian conference on faith in writing (novels, screenplays, short stories) today, Calvin College’s The Festival of Faith and Writing. Then make plans to attend April 15-17, 2010. You won’t regret it.
Newsweek tackled books this month, with multiple interesting articles, including:
  • 50 Books for our times--“The fact is, no one needs another best-of list telling you how great The Great Gatsby is. What we do need, in a world with precious little time to read (and think), is to know which books—new or old, fiction or nonfiction—open a window on the times we live in, whether they deal directly with the issues of today or simply help us see ourselves in new and surprising ways.”

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Secular Allusions, Biblical Conclusions

For the first time in a long time, I've been able to read something other than material for school. That is not to say that I didn't enjoy my readings for the Master of Hispanic Studies program I've nearly finished, but it feels nice to have control of my literary choices again.

Back to the Classics
With my newfound freedom, I decided to take it back a couple of centuries and plunged into a novel written by a man more well-known for his plays, Oscar Wilde: The Picture of Dorian Gray. Reading of 19th century English aristocracy amuses me. The only way I can describe my fascination with it is that I love to disdain it. It was a time when languid, misogynistic "gentlemen" existed while women were seen as mere accessories. They had all the time in the world on their hands. A pack of indulged, cynical, world-weary, apathetic, erudite and usually quite decadent and unabashedly hedonistic young men engulfed in ennui populate the pages. Romanticism and Realism clashed. Orientalism ran rampant. As Paris was all the rage, pretentious French phrases were thrown about with abandon and the love of French literature was the height of culture. In this milieu, I discovered Dorian Gray.

The Word and Literature
God's Word is sacred, holy, and Truth. But the Bible has also left an indelible mark on Western secular literature. It never ceases to amaze me how much my Biblical formation is almost necessary to grasp the depth of motifs, symbols and allusions in literature that I've read for English as well as Spanish studies. The emergence of a post-Christian society has, to me, been no more obvious than in the fact that many of my colleagues, even in the heart of the Bible belt, lack awareness of Biblical basics and thus, the ability to see its significance in literature.

But back to Dorian Gray. While reading the novel, I did a bit of research on the author. Oscar Wilde in many ways lived along the same lines as some of the characters who populated his novel. Lord Henry Wotton, I feel, is an extension of his well-known wit and professed preoccupation with pleasure-seeking. The eponymous character is seduced by Lord Henry's words and lives the hedonist philosophy to the extreme. I won't give away the plot, but even as godless and condescending a character as Lord Henry quotes a scripture he heard in a "little crowd of shabby-looking people listening to some vulgar street preacher" which not only drives Dorian to his final act, but in sum, serves as what I feel is the theme of the entire novel—"What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?"

Literature as Parable
A friend of mine once said something that really made me think—"All truth is God's truth." If something is true, or demonstrates Truth, whether it comes from the Bible or elsewhere, it belongs to Him. He is Truth. I see Dorian Gray as a 19th century parable that shows the futility of living for oneself at the expense of others and the hypocrisy in maintaining appearances at the expense of all else. It is an exploration in novel form of the answer to that convicting question Jesus asked of the disciples in the gospels.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Let Freedom Ring!!

So, I didn't realize that when I agreed to be blogger for week one this would pretty much guarantee the 4th of July for me every year!! Yippieeee!! I love Independence Day!! For this post, I go to The Great Book for inspiration (the word free and its derivatives occur a bizillion times in the Bible, I have limited the citations below to the Gospels, but I encourage you to also go to or other such site and do a keyword search on "free" in the Psalms or Romans--yowser! God is good!!):

A (Strange?) Bible Study in Freedom

Why do we have the Holy Spirit?
"'The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.'"
-Jesus, reading from Isaiah 61:1-2 in Luke 4:18-19

"As you go, preach this message: 'The kingdom of heaven is near.' Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give."
-Jesus to the disciples, Matthew 10:7-8

Do you make use of the Holy Spirit in your life? How do you accomplish the things Jesus is calling us to?

What can someone be freed from?
"He said to her, 'Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.'"
-Jesus to the woman with the issue of blood, Mark 5:34

Other examples include Mary being freed from her cultural limitations, Zacharias being freed from an inability to worship, Martha instructed to be free of maintaining appearances through service, Prodigal Son is free to return, Woman at the well is freed of the secrets she struggled to keep, Jesus is free to grieve, Peter in the last chapter of John is freed of comparing results of his ministry to the results of others, Paul receives a vision freeing him from his need to judge according to the law...the list goes on and on!

What do you need to be free from? Or for all you grammarians: From what do you need to be freed?

What will it take to free you?
"To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, 'If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.'"
-Jesus, John 8:31-36

What are some of the lies that are keeping you bound? What teaching of Jesus counteracts them?

I hope you have an AWESOME 4th of July!! As for me and my house, I plan on rocking out to the Newsboys, "I Am Free."