Monday, May 2, 2016

Book Review: Letters and Life

Bret Lott's Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian offers a valuable study of what it means to be an artist while being a Christian. After thoroughly enjoying his memoir, Before We Get Started, I was eager to seek out this other book of his on writing. I still haven't managed to take time to read his novel, Jewel, but it is definitely on my radar.

I appreciated many of Lott's observations about the Christian publishing world. I have stated before that I often am hesitant to pick up Christian fiction because so many times the message overshadows the story. But, I also agree with the things Lott plucked up the courage to articulate here. He writes, "Christian publishing ... is by and large uninterested in the supernatural, save in the bankability of the supernatural's ability to comfort the already convicted." At an awards ceremony for best Christian novels of the year, Lott charged the audience with these convicting words: "I fear we live in a day when we are feeding on Christian fiction as a child feeds on milk.... Unless we create fiction that does more than simply entertain the troops - unless we make room within the Christian writing industrial complex for writers to create worthy work - art - that in its craftsmanship and vision challenges the heart and soul and mind of our readers - then we will be nothing more than happy clowns juggling for one another." And, for me, that is often what Christian fiction feels like ... "clowns juggling for one another."

What a powerful gift to be able to write a story that stirs the reader to be better without hammering the attempt to proselytize. Lott quotes the gifted writer, Flannery O'Connor, who wrote: "Yet what is good in itself glorifies God because it reflects God. The artist has his hands full and does his duty if he attends to his art. He can safely leave evangelizing to the evangelists."

In thinking of the life of a writer who is also a Christian, Lott spends time pondering the craftsmen God ordained to create the tabernacle in the Old Testament. He declares we are "blessed to be a blessing." God places things in our lives in order to pass those blessings, that wisdom, the depth of insight on to our readers. Lott speaks of the importance of a wound in the life of an author. Thus, he points out John Gardner's powerful short story "Redemption" (a story I'd like to get my hands on) taken from the pain of his own wound after accidentally killing his younger brother.

He goes on to mention Francis Schaeffer's idea that "art in harmony with our creator God is art that must encompass the whole of man's experience, its depravity and triumph both." Sometimes that is messy. Not a sterilized experience recounted in words, but a real, heart-wrenching struggle that produces the fruit God works in our lives through such ordeals.

In reflecting on all the thought-provoking words of this book, I want to be a better writer than I am. I want my Christianity to so infuse my life and consciousness that the words I offer up, the words God places within me to share, might impact another life for His purposes. I recently watched this happen as Davey Blackburn, the Indianapolis minister who returned home to find his young wife murdered, wrote on his blog about the impact of Levi Lusko's words in his powerful book Through the Eyes of a Lion, a book I highly recommended in my review here. Lusko's words on running toward the roar gave Blackburn the strength he needed to walk back into his house and lie down on the very floor where he found his wife and push through the grief of that moment (talk about a wound!).

This book about writing stretches a writer in the same way. It causes the reader to press on into personal pain and woundedness, in order to reach for all that God desires from our words. Lott puts it this way: "As a writer you must always be striving for that which you cannot yet achieve and for that which you cannot yet know."

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