Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Utility and Creativity in a Theology of Christian Writing

Our development of a theology of Christian writing so far favors a theological basis for non-fiction as we have emphasized writing to be the communication of something that is meaningful (that is, in line with that meaning God designed) so that the significance, value, and purpose of what we are writing about is accurate and understandable. These traits are absolutely essential when we write, as we do in non-fiction, to inform, instruct, correct, or rebuke, which aligns with the four-fold profitability of scripture Paul identifies in 2 Tim 3:16. This implies that the Bible was not written for entertainment but for serious perusal (cf Psalm 1:1, 2); as such, it serves as an exemplary, holy precedent that the Christian writer of non-fiction may follow.

When we ponder the writing that goes into fiction, we find it differs in that we look for creativity, story, and artistic craftsmanship. But when it comes to non-fiction, these features are in the background. Instead, we look for profundity, clarity, and cogency (as Westminster Theological Seminary professor John Frame did in his students’ papers). Craftsmanship is not absent by any means, but it is not as aesthetically marked as it is in fiction. It is comparable to the difference between the artisanry of a mason and a sculptor. One emphasizes functionality, the other style, beauty, and taste.

There are, however, commonalities between fiction and non-fiction. Regardless of which is penned, by virtue of the nature of writing, it reflects in some way or another a style, vocabulary, and linguistic craftsmanship that is peculiar to the author’s writing and thereby places his ‘stamp’ on it. As with all writing, the weaving of words into a meaningful and accurate non-fictional discourse does not have to be stilted but can be colorful and artful. Paul’s zeal in defending his character and qualifications to underscore his apostleship in Second Corinthians comes through with passionate, even poetic, language: 

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us.  We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair;  persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed --- always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus' sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So then death is working in us, but life in you. 2 Cor 4:7-12 

When non-fiction is uppermost in the development of a theology of Christian writing, we tend to restrict our idea of writing to a utilitarian function – that is, unless the writing can exposit the meaning of something which in some way is useful for the reader, then we have not written as we ought. Consequently, if our theology restricts the significance, purpose, and value of writing itself to say something that must benefit the reader in some fashion or other (as in line with the four-fold profitability of scripture), we have not merely placed a premium on non-fiction, we have placed any other type of writing outside the bounds of our theology and therefore outside of any legitimate, God glorifying use of it.

To do so would be bad news for Christian writers who write fiction. But the divinely created and, therefore, inherent trait of writing to convey meaning does not by definition restrict its own meaning to serviceable uses alone. It is very questionable if one should assume that fiction does not possess the potential for such a use. Consider John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress or even the Bible’s own Apocalypse. In both examples, the use of fictional (even fantastical) imagery and the narrative woven around that imagery serves to teach eternal truths about God, the human condition, and its redemptive resolution. That resolution is utilitarian in the sense that it benefits the reader who has eyes to see and ears to hear.

Assuming, for argument’s sake, that fiction has no utilitarian value, our theological framework would have to expand to include it if we, as Christians, are to pursue fiction as a legitimate, even divinely approved, work. It should be noted that work as a description of what one is doing when writing fiction places fiction in a category that is shared by other legitimate labors such as agriculture, medicine, astronomy, aquaculture, engineering sciences, et. al.; that is, it is a vehicle to execute the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:28. This point will be inspected and added to our theology in a forthcoming article. It will stress what made such labor possible, which is the creative purpose of God (a) to bring into existence the cosmos, (b) to place within that creation one made in his own image, (c) that the image-bearer reflect the creativity of God, (d) that the image-bearer pursue a cultural purpose – he is to be an artisan that develops the potential of the creation God placed him in. Thus it will also explore the implications of writing (fiction in particular) as a cultural endeavor.

But to shift our thinking somewhat, we should note that there are remarkable parallels between God and his creative activity and the divine image-bearer who, as a writer of fiction, analogously creates a story-world. This parallel is possible because of the nature of speech, which provides another tenet for a theology of Christian writing: Because human speech is patterned after and analogous to divine speech, and because there is an intrinsic power in divine speech that brings into being that which does not exist (Genesis 1), so there is an intrinsic power in human speech that is capable of imaginatively bringing into being a story-world. 

Human speech does not create ex nihilo for the same reason the inventor does not invent something from nothing. Just as the artisan builds something from what already is, the fiction writer builds an imaginative cosmos (story-world) that is rooted in the actual cosmos. As such, he becomes the sovereign behind the story-world and oversees the events that take place within it. Hence, we may include in our theology that the Christian fiction writer expresses his image-bearing by imitating the role of the Creator in his sovereignty and providence over the story he creates.

The following is from an article (Reflecting God’s Creation-Work in Our Writing), which explores the parallelism between God’s creativity and ours as an image-bearer who writes fiction. 

'The writer conceives of many possibilities as he contemplates the makings of his story - the world, the characters, the events and the interaction of all three with each other. He chooses some among the multitude of possibilities and abandons others. Our creating is merely analogical to God’s and as such, there is an incomparable difference between God’s creating and ours. God did not have to think about the possibilities in the sense of discovering them – they were always present in his mind. But we have to think of them, conjure them, so to speak, based on what we know and experience. These possible ideas are borrowed and temporal; God’s ideas are original and eternal. But regardless of the difference between our creating and God’s, there are still similarities, and the ideas behind the stories are just a part of it.

'The writer, in a manner, brings into existence a world wherein his story unfolds. Obviously, by existence I do not mean in actuality. But we do bring about a world with which the reader of the story resonates. One might say that, in a certain way, the writer brings into actual existence an imaginary world. That sounds contradictory, but it really is not. I, along with millions of other readers, have found myself in the midst of such an imaginary world because the story itself has drawn me into it; through my imagination, I enter that world, and the events and characters take on a sense of reality. I can see it in my minds eye so vividly, that it feels real, it feels like I’m right there, observing and sensing what the imaginary characters themselves see and feel.

'In God’s creation-work, the world was brought into existence by his powerful word. In our story-creation, the same thing happens, analogically. Our words create a fantasy existence which the reader experiences through his imagination.

'God’s word is powerful, bringing about a handiwork that declares his glory. It is breathtaking. It is profound. God’s creative word places us physically within that handiwork, making us an integral part of it. We interact with it. Our story telling should mimic the divine word; it should produce a tale of fine artisanship, so powerful in the telling (and reading) of it, that the reader is drawn into it and experiences it.

'As Christians, the world we create through our words should glorify God. This is done not only by transmitting unveiled biblical truth (there is no other kind of truth), but doing such in an imaginary world whose intricate parts are woven together through superb literary craftsmanship.

'God created all-powerfully producing a magnificent creation marked by precision, order, and design. For God, this was effortless, the mere speaking of it into existence. We want to create an imaginary world that similarly exhibits precision, order, and design, but unlike God’s effortless speech, the creation of such a world takes exacting labor on our part. The writer must throw every ounce of care he has into constructing phrases, sentences, paragraphs that knit seamlessly a believable world. This does not mean flowery or witty. It means realism. The world must be imaginatively real, as vivid as the one the reader walks into when he opens the front door and steps out. It takes careful development of character and voice, of events and their interrelation to other events and characters. It cannot be shoddy, superficial, wooden, hackneyed, or stereotypical.


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