I’ve previously described myself as a Christian who doesn’t go to church. This may or may not be a permanent part of my life: not going to church. Sometimes I miss the sorts of sermons that are like the best classroom lessons I’ve experienced, or I miss the lift in spirit I have previously felt when I raise my ugly singing voice within a congregation.
Recently, I attended a writing conference at Wesleyan University in Connecticut where O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners was often invoked. It’s book I had somehow not yet read, and while I waited for the copy I’d ordered to arrive, I browsed the library collection at St. John’s University in New York and came across O’Connor’s “The Church and the Fiction Writer.” It’s an essay that interests me from the standpoint of being a Christian who writes stories which often contain curse words, sex, and people doing ugly things to one another. It’s subject matter that might be tricky if I was teaching somewhere such as my fictional Pison Nazarene University and it’s also subject matter that is tricky when I’m talking with my parents about my work. As some of you might know, parents often weigh in with their thoughts no matter how old you get. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I imagine O’Connor possibly responding in her essay to questions such as these:
- Why can’t you write a happy story? Why does there have to be cursing, violence, and sex?
- Why does there have to be so many shadows from your own life? Why can’t you just make everything up?
- Why do you have to write so much about the place you come from?
Here are some lines in bold I’ve plucked from O’Connor’s essay and a few of mine own thoughts which follow.
“The writer learns, perhaps more quickly than the reader, to be humble in the face of what-is.” Life works with my mind to give me ideas, people, and situations about which to write. I have those to choose from. I try to become the characters and report what happens in and out of minds. I try to point to spots in life that are interesting to me and so might tend to be interesting to some of you.
“A belief in fixed dogma cannot fix what goes on in life or blind the believer to it.” No matter your belief in God or no God, life is happening in front of you. Art such as O’Connor’s helps me to pay attention to life that I would have otherwise missed.
Perhaps partially in response to, “Why can’t you write about happy things?” O’Connor wrote this: An affirmative vision cannot be demanded of him (the writer) without limiting his freedom to observe what man has done with the things of God.
What would make a person fearful of reading fiction? It is when the individual’s faith is weak, not when it is strong, that he will be afraid of an honest fictional representation of life… O’Connor’s line evokes for me those who would never read Barack Obama or Bill O’Reilly. If they are one side, they can’t stand to hear the other.
O’Connor, Flannery. “The Church and the Fiction Writer.” Flannery O’Connor Collected Works. Comp. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1988. Print.
As a Christian writer, but not necessarily a writer of Christian fiction, I have no problem with writing about people who are not Christians, or about Christians who are less than perfect, and who therefore curse, have illicit sex, kill each other, and generally do ugly things. It’s an ugly world. Some of the stories in it are equally ugly.
But several other things also rule my fiction. For one thing, good wins. Even in the ugliest of my novellas, where of a half-dozen characters only one is still standing at the end, even when I write about murder and torture and sexual exploitation, good wins. Evil loses.
I don’t think there are any serious arguments to be made along the lines of “We are Christians, so we should only read about Christians, and we strive for perfection in the eyes of God, so we should only read about perfect Christians,” or “We read to bring us closer to God, not farther away.” These are analogous to the arguments that we must take our cars to Christian mechanics, go to the Christian-owned gym, and seek all our recreation within the church. In short, that we should live a life apart from the world.
We are called to serve the world around us, not to hide from it, and if my fiction is to have any meaning at all as a Christian outreach (to the extent that I attempt to make it such), then it will have to speak to the non-Christians. It will have to find them where they are, and address the problems they face in the world they live in.
As far as swearing in my stories goes, though, I do draw the line. You can read about a man breaking a girl’s knuckles with a hammer without having to do it yourself, but you cannot read swearing or blasphemy without speaking it yourself, and there are those who would find that to be crossing the line. I have no real problem reading it, but as long as there are those who do, I’m not going to write it, even in light of the fact that the majority of my fiction is not explicitly Christian in nature.
PS: I got to your blog via a link you posted on Twitter, and I have subscribed to the RSS feed.