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The Inspirational Element–The Christian Imagination

Monday, February 4, 2008

I swear I didn’t plan to do this series to coincide with the Jane Austen series on PBS. But for the past two weeks, there have been elements of the stories/films that have lent themselves very well to the discussion of the Inspirational Element in fiction.

For those of you who saw Miss Austen Regrets this weekend, or who have read the review I posted yesterday, you are aware that there was quite a bit of discussion of the idea that Jane’s talent for writing was a gift given her by God. Though the movie shows her as having regrets over the proposals of marriage she turned down in her life—mostly because of outside forces making her feel she should have married to ensure financial security for her family—in the end, it has her coming to terms with her life, being content with the life she had because, as she told Cass, she chose freedom. Freedom to write, to put to use the gift God had given her. Did this mean she had to write Christian Fiction—that she must use her gift of writing to write Evangelical fiction? No, of course not. What it meant is that she was given the gift to use in the way God directed her, which in her case was writing Moral romances with just a touch of the Inspirational.

As Christians who write, we are each gifted differently and we are each called to write different types of stories—not just different genres, but with differing levels of Christian/Inspirational content in them. Look at an author like John Grisham. Though his books are gritty, for the most part, they fall under the category of Moral Fiction. His Christian faith has influenced all of his stories—and has begun to push from Moral into Christian Worldview in recent years. Does it mean that his first releases are “less worthy” than his more recent books because the recent stuff has a more obvious inspirational theme? Not at all. How many people who aren’t Christians who love Grisham’s early work will read his more inspirational novels and be influenced by them to find out more about God? Of course, that doesn’t mean that a Christian writer who starts out writing fiction without a spiritual thread must “graduate” to writing Inspirational or even Evangelical fiction. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 12, we are each given different gifts by God because not everyone is called to do the same kind of work, though we are all called to be part of the same body in Christ. Some are called to write Evangelical fiction, some are called to write Christian Worldview fiction, some are called to write Inspirational fiction, and some are called to write Moral fiction. And woe be it unto us to say that one is better or more valuable/spiritual than another. “But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” (1 Corinthians 12:24b–26, NIV*)

One of my guiding inspirations for this series is the book The Christian Imagination: The Practice of Faith in Literature and Writing, a compilation of essays on the inclusion of the Christian faith in literature which we used in my undergrad literary criticism class.

In the essay after which the book takes its title, author Janine Langan writes about the importance for us as Christians to use our imaginations. We are created in the IMAGE of God, therefore we have been given the capacity for IMAGING Him. Because He is creative, He has given us IMAGINATIONS through which to create. A couple of important points she makes in her essay are:

    “The imagination is not its own end, just as art is not for art’s sake. It is an instrument of encounter, at the service of life—one’s own and that of others.”

    “. . . we should help each other to notice beauty . . .”

    “Nothing reveals more forcefully one’s true view of God than the quality of one’s imaginings.”

She points out how our culture, by our dependence on TV, movies, magazines, etc., for entertainment has squelched our imaginations. “Whether it wishes to or not, modern information technology tempts us to disconnect the products of our imagination—words, sounds, image—from any objective truth, from any personal responsibility, from any shared project.” Langan believes it is the imagination which draws us toward God and gives us the hunger to know more about Him. Contemporary “imaging” through the mass media/entertainment “no longer hint at the hidden joy, beyond imagining, which this world prefaces. They provide only the pleasure they promise.”

As I read this, I was once again faced with the question of why I write “Christian” fiction. Then I came to a realization: What I write is not “Christian.” What I write is the fruit of my being a Christian. Or to put it in Langan’s words, I write “to reflect faithfully the face of the Beloved.”

In the next essay, “Beauty and the Creative Impulse,” Luci Shaw writes that the act of writing is “an act of Redemption.” It is “bringing order and beauty out of disorder and chaos.” I’d never thought of it this way, but it’s very true. During the times when my (internal) life has been most chaotic—when I dropped out of college at age 21 because of depression, when I was working full time and taking 9 undergraduate hours per semester—was when I was most prolific with my writing. Writing brought me out of my depression fifteen years ago. Writing helped me cope with the stress of the succession of jobs I had and hated when I lived in the D.C. area afterward. Writing gave me focus and clarity when I was trying to figure out where I was supposed to go next and through my move to Nashville in 1996. And writing now helps me work through spiritual issues I may not even realize I’m having until it comes out on the page.

In this same way, Shaw wrote, “if an image shows up, often uninvited, unexpected, I am called to stop everything and pay attention.” Like many other authors before me and many to follow behind me, I have files filled with loose scraps of paper upon which are written words, phrases, names, ideas for plot or conflict . . . A “phrase will come to me, calling out, ‘Write me!’ And I can’t help but obey.” Isn’t it nice to know we’re not the only ones who experience that? 🙂

Shaw included in her essay a quote from author/teacher Henri Nouwen:

    “Most students…feel that they must first have something to say before they can put it down on paper. For them writing is little more than recording a preexisting thought. But . . . writing is a process in which we discover what lives in us. The writing itself reveals what is alive.” (italics mine)

Through writing, we discover “what lives in us.” When we are indwelled by the Holy Spirit, what comes out on paper cannot help but be affected by “what lives in us.”

Finally, Shaw wrote, “To write is to embark on a journey whose final destination we do not know. . . . Writing is like giving away the few loaves and fishes one has, in trust that they will multiply in the giving.” It is to this point that I have pursued publication—so that the gift God has given me may be blessed and multiplied as it goes out into the world. I have had to overcome the thought that I was somehow odd or wrong for indulging in writing and learn that it is “a gift of pure grace.” That the creative process “links us with our Creator.”

Tomorrow, we’ll learn from MaryLu Tyndall about her experience with how her writing links her with the Creator.

*Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.

  1. Monday, February 4, 2008 3:29 pm

    I’m not a Jane Austen fan but I love this piece, and I can understand her choice for freedom to use the gifts God gave her.

    And woe be it unto us to say that one is better or more valuable/spiritual than another.

    You should teach a class on this one day. Beautiful!


  2. Monday, February 4, 2008 3:52 pm

    You know, I have done a lot of teaching on spiritual gifts, so this topic very naturally flows out of that one!


  3. Monday, February 4, 2008 3:54 pm

    In the words of St. Augustine, All truth is God’s truth. Whether we write about the truth of relationships, consequences, or the actions of the world around us, if it is true, it can be used to glorify God.

    I write Christian Fiction because it is a reflection of what is in my heart. It is where I am comfortable, and yet it stretches me at the same time. Through my characters, I affirm my faith, learn and relearn lessons about who God is and what He wants from His children, and hopefully shine a bit of light into the lives of those who read my work.

    Can’t wait to hear what Marylu has to say. I’m a big fan of hers.


  4. Monday, February 4, 2008 10:10 pm

    I totally agree with you on the broad definition of what “Christian writing” is. Jane Austen is not known for writing “Christian” books, yet she has conveyed many Christian values in her novels. The book you mentioned looks like worthy reading for every writer who’s a Christian (instead of saying “Christian Writer”). Thanks also for stopping by my blog. I’ll definitely visit yours often in the future.


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