Monday, March 28, 2011

Writing about Getting the Holy Ghost

So I was editing a biography this weekend and arrived at the conversion scene. This brought up an issue perhaps we've touched on earlier in the blog, but we certainly haven't settled....

How Do You Describe God-Moments to Non-Christians?

For the writer trying to target a non-Christian audience, how do you explain those life-changing altar moments we A/P's understand--albeit usually in our own jargon?

Try this.... Describe someone receiving the Holy Ghost but don't use any of these terms:
+ laying on of hands
+ stammering lips
+ other tongues

Now obviously it's not that any of those terms are negative in any way, I just don't know readily a 2011 non-Christian audience could understand a sentence like:

"I walked up to the altar where the preacher laid hands on me. I got stammering lips and then started speaking in other tongues. The service turned into a shout-down and I was still talking in tongues an hour later as I was filled with the Holy Ghost."

I know what that means, but how much of my understanding is shaped by 32 years of hearing this language all the time? What about the outsider?

Age-Old Challenge
How do we speak about "joy unspeakable"? I realize from that very verse we are trying to do something even the Apostle didn't feel he could fully describe. But how do we try to relate an experience with God to people around us who are unfamiliar and possibly even reticent about Holy Ghost experiences?
Fire Shut up in My Bones
What does it feel like for a non-Christian to encounter God for the first time or be converted? Jeremiah used the analogy of "fire shut up in my bones" in an admittedly different context. But I believe that analogy is powerful in that it gives the reader a physical sensation to which he or she can relate. We need writing devices like analogies and metaphors to help the non-Christian relate to how it feels in that incredible moment when we encounter God.
  • But what would this analogy or metaphor be?
  • Even without a device like that, what should a simple first-person narrative about receiving the Holy Ghost for the first time sound like?
  • Am I the only one challenged by the task of relating this great experience in accessible 2011 language?
I understand that not all A/P writers targeting a non-Christian audience will face this issue. Not everything we write will necessarily wedge in an Acts 2:38 moment. Sometimes we'll just share a single aspect of our particular hope with the aim of building a bridge and opening a door. But even then, I hope that bridge and doorway will lead to a point where you will get to share an Acts 2:38 moment. And by then, I hope we'll have established if not a formula or answer, at least a body of writers who are committed to finding ways to relate this experience with the literary world at large.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Walter Mosley on Writing

Walter Mosley is best known as a writer of the Easy Rawlings detective series, but he's written in many other genres and about politics. Last Saturday (March 12, 2011), he visited the St. Louis County Library to discuss his latest title, When the Thrill is Gone, covering the latest adventures of private investigator Leonid McGill. Around 100 people attended.

Mosley can be brutally candid, but his tone is never harsh and it is leavened by a dry sense of humor. Some quotes, some thoughts, some insights:
  • With fiction you write what you mean to say. With non-fiction most authors bring an agenda to their subject.
  • On editing the N Word out of Huckleberry Finn: Better to not read a book than change their book.
  • For aspiring writers: "Write every day. It's about finding the writer inside of you. Write about the same thing every day."
  • "If you see what's in store for the protagonists after the end it's a good ending."
  • On Easy Rawlings: He was a tribute to my father and his generation. But that world of the 1950s Watts was one of certainty and predictability (such as they both were). America is no longer than country and the world is no longer that world, so Easy Rawlings stories were inappropriate to the times. That's why he created Leonid McGill.
  • He gives short readings so people will buy his books and not feel like they just heard it all.
  • On Leonid's son: "Twill is my favorite character that I ever wrote. Twill is certainly a sociopath . . . an unrepentant sociopath." Twill sees clearly because that is the world we live in.
  • He was asked the inevitable "Who were your favorite writer's growing up?" He said all other authors will lie answering this one. He did a delightful riff on how the author will notice the questioner is a black female, so the author will name black female authors through time, ending with Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. (Pause.) "In reality it's Nancy Drew" because the author was too old for Toni Morrison to affect him or her. He said if an 8 year-old read Toni Morrison "she'd kill herself or her mother."
  • He said he read Marvel comics growing up, mentioning the Fantastic Four before calling Spiderman the first black super-hero because Peter Parker could never make any money, everyone's afraid of him wherever he goes, he got his uncle killed, he saves the city but never gets any credit for it . . .
  • Most authors don't write about friendships between men. That's one thing he's attempting to do in the McGill series.
All-in-all, I left inspired and excited about writing. Whether or not you've read any of his books, don't miss a chance to hear him if he lands near you!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Naw Man, It Ain't Pretty

“As far as I could see, the Delta was a collage of earth tones—a vast tangle of waterways—a patchwork quilt of rice paddies, and jungle.”

- Tommy, the Saving of a U.S. Navy Seal

I took a class once, not much more palatable than taking a pill, catalogued as Review of Contemporary Christian Literature, featuring Faulkner, O'Connor, Joyce and others. I never could figure out what was "Christian" about any of those writers, in the Lifeway Christian Bookstore sense of the word, that is. Flannery O’Connor and her blatant pro-Catholic supremism, Flaky Faulkner and his Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi...what's up with that?

The professor would ask every day in my class, “Should Christian literature be ‘pretty?’ Should all the words, and story and characters be nice?” I finished reading Tommy, the saving of a Navy Seal over the last few weeks, savoring this first person memoir of the experiences of ayoung boy who one day becomes a Navy Seal. Loved it. Yet it should be titled, The Nine Lives of Tommy Bracken, due to the harrowing tales of narrow escapes riddled throughout the book.

Bracken lays it all out on the line, well, most of it, and bears out the life of a boy turned man who does indeed seem to have nine lives. He gives us all the details of his life, waiting until the final chapters to bring his conversion story to a brief yet powerful climax, ending one facet of his life to begin a new one, sans Seals work and party animal lifestyle.

Tommy is not some ethereal writer like Faulkner—he puts his feelings up front and in your face.Most of the book is not pretty. But it is indeed a Christian book, with the author’s intention of revealing his innermost desire to find meaning in his life. This is real writing, and I wish there were 100 more books just like it, written by folks baring their soul and life experiences to a world looking for answers.

In a recent interview with Sebastian Junger, who purposely sets himself up in war zones inAfghanistan and other locales, he remarked, “The Iowa Writer’s Workshop [of which O’Connor hails from] is not turning out guys who are going to Liberia. They stay in the U.S. and write short stories, which is cool, you know, but doesn’t interest me.”

In comparison, Tommy Bracken is not a writer by trade, but a missionary to China for the past 27 years, who spilled his guts in the writing of his first book. I wish that he had found a meaner editor to hone it down into a tight, concise story of his experience. Many times I wasn't sure why he was telling me about a particular anecdote, didn't quite get what it was tying to, but in all, it led to this: he had a tremendous zeal for life and the Seals, but was looking for something real in his life and found: Jesus.

Am I inspired? Yes. Is the book an example of pretty Christian writing where all the salty details are edited out? No. Would I recommend this book to anyone to read? Yes, I would like to give a copy of his book to everyone I know. Would I fling my copy of the book out the window like I did Faulkner’s Sanctuary after reading it? Absolutely not.

I hope and pray that Rev. Tommy Bracken’s memoir will inspire many more Apostolic writers to bring their story to life, leaving it raw, yet well edited, but not pretty…unsanitized. And do order your copy of Tommy, the Saving of a U.S. Navy Seal today at . It's long, fascinating, has a great ending, and is definitely notpretty. But it gives account of a lonely boy who becomes a successful Navy Seal, serving in theVietnam era, to serve his four years with outstanding effort and accomplishments. And he didn't get killed.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Appeal of the New Memoir

The voice of memoir offers its readers an occasion for personal identification so that a reader can find him or herself within the story of another and perhaps borrow the wisdom, healing or insight from similar life threads.
~Stephanie Smith

I like the immediacy of blogging and the peek it gives me into the worlds of so many people. I like to read blogs on certain topics, food blogs, for instance. But I also like those blogs that function as a journal for the world to read. Used to be, you locked your journal up because you didn't want you little sister to read it. Now you hit the "post" button and hope people on the far side of the world are on your subscription list.

Confession: I follow a lot of blogs. Checking my blog roll is a morning ritual, as is my cup of tea and my Bible reading. Most of the people whose blogs I read are not people I know personally. I discovered these bloggers because of googling shared mutual interests. I let these people speak into my life everyday, or at least as often as they post, often because of their honesty about where they are emotionally and spiritually. They help me understand that my struggles are not unique to my own experience, but neither are the victories, nor the blessings that God lavishes upon his children.

Is my interest in reading other people's journals and writing my own online blog an indication of my post-modern narcissism? Or can it be redeemed? Stephanie Smith takes on this very dilemma in "Memoirs: Self-Obsessed or Sacramental?"

Jesus promises in Acts 1:8 "But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth."

You might just be reaching "the uttermost part of the earth" in your next blogpost. How does God's work in your life figure in the sneak-peek you give the world with your latest pic and existential insight?