Monday, April 24, 2006
Christian Writerdom: A Top Ten
In light of the my three stated goals for going to the Festival of Faith & Writing I've written a top ten to summarize my findings and impressions.
10. Percentage of Males who Read Books
One-third. I learned this in James Schaap's seminar on Saturday morning. This statistic comes from the 2004 NEA study on reading in America. They also said that there are more writers than readers among the 18-24 demographic. Funny, huh? All those bloggers blogging their lives into a fanfare for future generations, but not reading? In better news: "A 1999 study showed that the average American child lives in a household with 2.9 televisions, 1.8 VCRs, 3.1 radios, 2.1 CD players, 1.4 video game players, and 1 computer."
9. New Media, New Directions
Some of the guys at Zondervan Press gave this seminar. They said the three "it" media right now are MySpace, Blogging, and Podcasting. Nothing brand new there but interesting nonetheless.
8. The Christian/Arts Powerbrokers
I met with John Witvliet and four other staffers at a board room at the Institute for Christian Worship (a tremendous outfit indeed). Among other things, I asked him who within the church in North America were the powerbrokers in the renewal of the arts. I listed for him the ones I'd identified to date:
- Regent College in Vancouver, BC
- Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, CA
- Calvin College/the Reformed Posse (Seerveld, Wolterstorff, ICW)
- Gordon College in Boston, MA
- St Andrews University in Scotland (the Trinitarians)
- the Emergent movement
- the Ecumenicals (Catholic, Orthodox, Evangelical dialogues, including Image journal)
- ARTS (a mainline denominational, somewhat liberal publication)
- CIVA (and at a lesser level CITA)
To these he added: Notre Dame, the National Association of Pastoral Musicians, Faith and Form (the journal for architecture and faith), Willow Creek Community Church, Wesley Theological Seminary, the Ethno-Doxoligists society, Martha Ann Kirk and Thomas Kane (two Catholics). I remembered also that Southern Theological Baptist Seminary in Louisville is about to add an MA and PhD program in aesthetics. Many other groups and institutions are doing artistic stuff, but these seem to be the primary landscape-shapers.
7. Imaginative Reading for Creative Preaching
Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. and a fellow out of Baylor seminary led a seminar with the above title. Their basic thesis: preachers should read poetry and literature. I said amen. Their argument was that reading such things would open up vast resources of vicarious experience for the preacher. We can only know so much from our own personal experience; and such experience, no matter how much we've traveled, is still narrow. Reading novels, biographies, histories, memoirs and such can help us empathize with a great range of personalities and backgrounds. It can help us in this way becomes wiser and more compassionate because it has helped us "feel" and "see" people's lives from the inside.
Reading like this is not a substitute for actual relationships. We still need to sit and listen and walk with our brethren. But our reading can enlarge our capacities to understand and love.
6. Donald Miller
I've yet to read Blue Like Jazz and I missed him the last time he came around to Austin, April of last year. But that boy is funny. Asked which scholars have helped him read the Christian faith well, he answered J. I. Packer and Eugene Peterson. I felt strangely relieved. I asked a question myself: Any dangers in our going too far into this artsy fartsy, story-glory direction? He said: "Read your systematic theology." Instantly we became best friends.
5. The Art of the Essay
"True art subsists as an object of contemplation." That's what one fellow said on this panel on the essay as literary form. He said it does so because the art was made out of contemplation and couldn't have become worthy of public experience if the artist had cut short his practice of that contemplation. Contemplation, he said, is a discipline that has to be cultivated and protected. You can't write if you don't have time.
Each of us as artists desperately needs time to listen and wait and attend to the slow but sure movements of creative generation inside you. Like prayer, listening and waiting are the only kind of work worth doing if the artist wishes to make good art. Listening and waiting are not luxuries of the artists, they are the sine qua non: that without which you simply cannot be an artist.
4. Christian Publishing: Boundaries & Horizons
"What's new in the current state of Christian Publishing?" I asked Jon Potts, Eerdman's editor-in-chief, at the above titled seminar. Six things stood out to me in his answer which was sprinkled with additions by two fellow editors.
1) Major houses can pay more money for books like A Purpose Driven Life and so can marginalize religious publishing houses.
2) The breadth of publishing in Christian Bookseller Association is as great as it's ever been.
3) The market today is more interested than ever in religious titles, ancient texts, world religions, and the arts. And it's less interested in denominationalism.
4) There's a greater sophistication and professionalization of Christian publishing.
5) Borders and Barnes & Noble will only buy CBA books through their religious buyer, not their fiction buyer.
6) There is a Christian market that wants only a certain kind of book. They don't want it too dark or profane or whatever. They want it "uplifting" and "clean" and "clearly understandable." And what can we the publishers do about that? That's a cultural problem. That's a market problem. That's the problem of churches and the pastors and leaders and lay persons that fill them.
3. Walter Wangerin: "A Voice in the Wilderness"
Wangerin, I found out, has cancer. I don't know what kind, but several friends at the conference thought this might be his last public speaking stint. They don't know how long he has to live. They cancelled his book signing session because his immune system is so weak. But he spoke powerfully on the last night of the festival about the calling of the artist to lift up his or her voice in the wilderness.
"We as writers," he bellowed, "name the nameless things in people's lives. You name things that people knew before but did not have a name for it." Sometimes you cry out in the wilderness, he said, and what you name is the reader, the reader who recognizes him- or herself for the first time. You are Alyosha or Macbeth or Alice falling down a dark rabbit hole. You are Blanche DuBois or Mr. Darcy, and you suddenly know the way forward, the way towards transformation. Whether you follow it or not is another thing.
But our job is to cry and to let the reader find himself wherever and however he may.
2. My Meeting with the Publishing Houses
I visited every major house in that main hall--Zondervan, NavPress, Eerdmans, IVP, Josey-Bass, the Baker Publishing Group--and asked them the same questions. One, how many art and faith books do you publish? I knew the answer in advance because I'd done the research already, but I wanted to see what they said. Not many. Fine. Two, is it because you don't get many submissions of this kind? Three, is it because you get only bad submissions? Or four, is it that there isn't much of a market for these kinds of books?
Looking at the shelf in my office at church I'd concluded that there were basically three kinds of books on art/faith: academic, single-topic, and popular/inspirational. Of the first you have Frank Burch Brown's Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste. Of the second you have Bill Dyrness' Visual Faith or Robert Johnson's Reel Spirituality: Theology & Film in Dialogue. Of the third you have Madeleine L'Engle's classic Walking on Water.
I felt, as a result, that I might have a chance to fill a niche. But I really couldn't know.
I lunched with the senior acquisitions editor at Baker and started off by saying, "I'm either smoking crack or I'm sitting on a goldmine." I was here to propose a mid-level integrative work that would address the question of art and what it meant to be an artist from six perspectives: biblical, theological, philosophical, spiritual, ecclesial and missional. I envisioned it as a kind of primer: introductory and holistic. By the end of my thirty minute, uninterrupted, all-rockets-ago spiel I was burning my last bits of passion. I'd said what I needed to say. At no point did I feel I'd crossed over into BS or hyperbole. Everything I'd said, I'd felt had come out of conviction, out of ten years of slogging through a long and tedious, and in many ways unspectacular, work of reflection and experimentation; many years of frustration; many years of wanting to give up; many years of feeling bored and disoriented and foolish.
He asked me a few questions. I answered them. Then he said, "Let me cut to the chase. We're interested. Let's go forward." And that was that. We talked over a number of related matters and parted ways. I couldn't believe what I'd heard. He'd said yes. He'd send me Baker's book proposal form and argue my case before the editors back at the ranch. That was it.
Baker is a publishing group with five or six houses, ranging from popular to academic lines. What line they would publish me through would be determined by my proposal. I won't pop any champagne bottles until I've written a contract. Yet good God I can't believe it happened so swiftly. There's a lot of hard work ahead, hours and months and perhaps years before it sees the light of day. But at least I get to begin somewhere.
1. Marilynne Robinson, Dame of all things Beautiful and Erudite
Speaking of the current generation of young people, she quipped: "They've been inaugurated into an era of declining expectations." She also asked, "Why do we assume so little of the our contemporary reader? Respect the reader. Assume he is smarter than you."
And finally, in reference to the mass and circus-like campaigns for literacy, she noted wrily, "Now literacy is pushed as some kind of unsavory medicine."
Alas and alas, what a strange and wonderful world we live in. Thank God for the writers who can help us make sense of things.