Faith, Art, and Staying Out of Pigeonholes

My daughter gave me her copy of Madeline L’Engle’s Walking On Water a few years ago. Knowing that I was deep in the process of writing my novel, she thought I’d enjoy L’Engle’s profound reflections on faith and art. I was grateful for the gift and excited to read it (A Wrinkle in Time has long held a solid place at the table of my favorite books as a child), but for some reason, I set it on the book-laden desk in my bedroom and forgot all about it.

lengle booktable

Fast-forward to the present: After the painstaking work of writing and even MORE painstaking work of querying my manuscript, I finally received an offer of publication for my book. (Side note for those waiting for that magic acceptance email: A Wrinkle in Time was rejected TWENTY-SIX TIMES before being accepted for publication! So never, ever give up!) At the same time, I finished reading my latest “devotional” (I usually have one spiritual, non-fiction reading going, along with at least two fictions) and was searching my book table for a new one. I spotted Walking on Water, opened it up, began to read the first chapter, and felt God settle next to me for a chat. This was the perfect book for the moment—since finishing my novel, I’d been struggling with my role as a writer who is a Christian but doesn’t write “Christian” books. What did that say about me? Was I not using the gifts God had given me in the “right” way? What choice did I have but to write the way I write? While I respect Jeannette Oake and her ilk and am grateful for the gift she shares so joyfully with her public, I can neither enjoy her books personally, nor can I write books like hers. They’re just not my style. My joy of future publication became mired in uncertainty–what if I disappointed those who believed in me and expected something I didn’t have to give—in truth, didn’t want to give?

L’Engle’s book is about a Christian writer who doesn’t write “Christian” fiction. Her novels’ themes are often threaded with spiritual truths and are grace-filled, but she freely and happily admits that she never, ever set out to be a Christian-fiction-writer, saying:

“But I am a writer. That’s enough of a definition. (I infinitely prefer to say that I’m a Christian than to mention any denomination, for such pigeonholing is fragmenting, in religion as in art.) So, I am a Christian. I am a writer . . . Because I am a struggling human being, trying to make sense of the meaningless of much of life in this century and daily searching  for revelatory truth in Scripture, it’s highly unlikely that I’ll ever want to write novels of pessimism or porno, no matter how realistic my work. But I don’t want to be shut in, labelled, the key turned, so that I am not able to grow and develop, as a Christian, as a writer. I want that freedom which is a large part of the Christian promise, and I don’t want any kind of label to diminish that freedom. It is sad and ironic to have to admit that it does.”

madeline (2)

She is what I want to be, what I want my work to reflect: A Christian who happens to write fiction. She is bold in her reminders that the Bible is full of things that a genre Christian-fiction-writer wouldn’t touch, like rape, incest, erotic poetry, and then reminds us that God is the author of imagination, and the job of a writer is to explore and share the life we’ve been given–every beautiful, messy, painful, horrible, wonderful bit of it. Our love for God and desire to please him in our work is what makes a Christian writer different. We shouldn’t flinch in writing about the ugly, but we shouldn’t stay there or glorify it, either. We look for the grace and the hope, as we should when experiencing troubles in real life.

Even more darling in the reading was the discovery that my daughter had annotated the book as she’d read it, filling it with notes cheering on science, smiley-face-“haha” giggles in the margins, and sweet notes of encouragement to me  (“Your book does this, too, Mom!” “Just like your character, George!”).

 

Balm of Gilead to my soul, given to me exactly when I needed it the most. As we say in Kenya, Mungu ni mwema.

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