What Does It Mean to Be a Christian Writer?

JANUARY 2007: REVIEW

by Anna J. Cook

Growing up in Holland, Michigan, I have been privileged to attend numerous events at the biennial Festival of Faith & Writing hosted by Calvin College. As a teenager passionately in love with books and writing, the Festival gave me an early, treasured opportunity to spend long weekends in the company of literary people. My experience at the Festival encouraged me to consider artistic creation as a sacred process, an invitation to explore beyond the limits of what is known, in the shadowy realm of inspiration. It also brought me in touch with many thoughtful artists who were not afraid to ask challenging questions about the nature of religious belief and practice.

Part of the many-faceted conversation that makes up the Festival is now available to a wider audience through a new anthology: Shouts and Whispers: Twenty-One Writers Speak about Their Faith and Their Writing (2006), edited by Jennifer Holberg, associate professor of English at Calvin College (and a contributing editor to Perspectives). All of the authors featured in the book have been speakers at the Festival, and most contributions originally took the form of talks, interviews, or readings during Festival events. Shouts and WhispersIt is Holberg’s intention that the book “celebrate what is important about [the Festival]: the significant discussions around the intersections of literature and faith that occur there” (xxi). As is the nature of the Festival (and also of an anthology),Shouts and Whispers comes to few conclusions about what it means to be a Christian and a writer. The only assumption made (to use Holberg’s choice of words) is that faith and human creativity do intersect, and that those intersections are worthy of contemplation.

Some contributors see their faith as a well-spring of inspiration, from which their creativity flows. Jan Karon, for example, observes, “There isn’t any way I can’t write about Christianity in my books because by it, I see everything else” (122). For these authors, Christianity is an inseparable part of their identity, and thus also of their writing. Others see the relationship between their religious and creative lives as more of a struggle or negotiation. Barbara Taylor Bradford, in her essay, “Way Beyond Belief: The Call to Behold,” writes about how she moved away from the pastorate and into a career teaching literature, “at least partly because the language of belief had become too contentious for me” (9). Each author has, in her or his own way, come to terms with how their religious and writing lives interact, and in this volume they do their best to explain or explore a portion of that story for our consideration.

I especially appreciated the reflections of Madeleine L’Engle and Katharine Paterson, both of whom have spent a considerable portion of their careers writing children’s literature. Their eloquence on the subject of religion and literature is, I suspect, due in large part to the number of challenges they have faced by hostile Christians who expect books to give children clear answers to what Madeleine L’Engle calls “the cosmic questions” (214). Katharine Paterson acknowledges that “people of faith must seek against all odds to wring meaning out of what would be easier…to dismiss as meaninglessness” (244), yet goes on to argue that “one of my great frustrations as a writer of stories for children is the adults who are afraid to entrust meaning-making to the young” (251). Madeleine L’Engle, similarly, recalls how “in the church…my minister friends answered my questions. My questions did not have answers–and their answers threw me off” (219). At the same time, she describes the process of writing and publishing A Wrinkle In Time as “an affirmation of my theology” (221). In their essays, these women tease out some of the complicated artistic and moral issues at stake when we endeavor, as Paterson writes, to be “meaning-maker[s] in a world gone mad” (242), and I am grateful that they do not fall back on simplistic solutions.

One of my favorite aspects of the Festival of Faith & Writing has been the presence of non-Christian speakers, whose perspectives complicate and deepen the discussion. I was surprised and disappointed by the absence of these voices in Shouts and Whispers. One of the problematic aspects of this anthology is the casual use of broad religious words like “faith” to refer specifically to Christian faith, and occasionally even to a particular way of being Christian. The all-Christian nature of the anthology gives some of the contributors permission to use this sloppy linguistic categorization, and the presence of non-Christian voices might have called their assumptions implicitly into question. While each author in an anthology should be encouraged to express his or her own point of view, I would have appreciated a more direct acknowledgment by Holberg, in her introduction, of the Christian identity of all the contributors, and the limitations this imposes on the book as a whole.

Similarly disappointing was the tone some writers took as they delineated what, in their minds, counted as “Christian,” as opposed to “secular,” art, situating themselves as marginalized artists in a modern world that, in their view, ignores and denigrates Christian spiritual convictions. For example, Brett Lott claims that we live in an “age in which God isn’t just dead, but nonexistent,” and divides the literary world in two: “Christian publishing,” and its “evil twin, New York” (51-52). Silas House writes of his own experience: “It’s easy to be a [Christian] hero in today’s culture because we have so many opportunities to speak up–mostly because a lot of people feel free to bash Christianity” (153). As someone who has spent a great deal of time in both Christian and artistic subcultures, I do not find such us-and-them generalizations helpful–or even accurate. I will readily admit that certain kinds of Christian expression are not readily accepted in the artistic or academic communities. However, it has been my experience that, although they may not profess a particular religious creed, writers and other creative individuals have a profound sense of the sacred. It seems irresponsible at best to create a false dichotomy between “Christian” and “non- Christian” art as it conveys a much more simplistic understanding of Christianity and creativity than I have come to expect from my time at the Festival.

Despite these reservations, I believe anyone interested in reflecting on the way Christianity intersects with the creative process will find much food for thought in this book. Indeed, even by pushing me to articulate what I felt was missing from its pages, Shouts and Whispers prompted me to think actively about what it means to take my writing seriously as a spiritual endeavor that reaches beyond the everyday toward greater meaning. My own answers may be different from many of the answers in this anthology, but I was enriched by them nonetheless.

Anna J. Cook is a graduate of Hope College, with a degree in Women’s Studies and History, and currently works as a bookseller at Barnes & Noble in Holland, Michigan.