Possibilities and Pitfalls…

writing faithOne of the main reasons Christians want to write is to share something of their faith journey or personal testimony. That is, indeed, a very good reason, but writing about such things in an interesting and skillful way is just as challenging (if not more so) than writing about any other topic.

Our spiritual beliefs, being intensely personal, are often what we want to write about most of all. The problem faced by all writers (and especially those concerned with religion), however, is how to take a deeply subjective experience or belief, and represent it so that the reader may share in that experience, or understand that belief. Even if we are quite sure of our own beliefs, we cannot assume the reader will see things quite as we do.

In short, our religious and spiritual convictions can either help or hinder our writing. Without a basic sense of reverence for the world, the ability to wonder at the mystery of our own existence, or a love for truth, goodness, beauty and other spiritual values, no writer will be able to produce anything of substance or lasting appeal.

On the other hand, it is easy to become complacent, resting content in our beliefs, and so for our writing to become formulaic, simplistic, or detached from reality. In fiction writing, this complacency leads to what Flannery O’Connor calls the “sorry religious novel”. She writes:

The sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate concrete reality. He will think that the eyes of the church or of the Bible or of his particular theology have already done the seeing for him, and that his business is to rearrange this essential vision into satisfying patterns, getting himself as little dirty in the process as possible.

Whether we’re writing a story based on our own experience, or a work of fiction dealing with some kind of religious character or event, we must be careful to avoid this sort of “sorry religious writing”. To make the most of the possibilities, and to help steer clear of the pitfalls, try to remember the following:

  1. Good religious writing doesn’t merely preach or simply affirm what we already know (or think we know); rather, it should allow the reader to imaginatively enter into an experience from which he or she can learn.
  2. Good religious writing shouldn’t simply present a certain set of beliefs as the pat answer to all of life’s troubles; instead it should help readers to view their troubles or a particular article of faith in a new light, or to wrestle with questions they might never have thought to ask.
  3. As with all creative writing, the concrete and specific details – i.e. things we can see, hear, taste, smell and touch – are far more powerful than an abstract summary of what happened. E.g.Instead of saying your character ‘felt filled with the awesome love of God’, you might try to explain what that felt like, with reference to bodily sensations, the aching eyeballs that swelled with tears, the sense of lightheadedness, or the details you noticed around you or in others that you had previously overlooked etc.
  4. We too readily think of the spiritual in sharp contrast to the physical, forgetting that we are creatures of flesh and blood. If our ‘life in the flesh’ is not influenced by our spirituality, then it must be a fairly shallow spirituality, and not worth writing about.
  5. Read, obviously. Seek out some notable authors whose religiously inspired stories are highly regarded. I’ve mentioned Flannery O’Connor; other names that spring to mind are G.K Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engel, Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, Walter Wangerin, Orson Scott Card, and Marrilyn Robinson.
  6. Pray. Meditate, contemplate and reflect on your faith. Study the scriptures and read clasic works of theology to help inform and shape your understanding of the spiritual life. Often, the best Christian writers (like those listed above) have written extensively on how faith and theology intersect with their art – allow what they have learned to inform your thinking and writing.

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