Writing, Faith, and a Backyard Jesus

Sometimes I think of faith as a void and then I will immediately backtrack over my thoughts with what I have been told the answer is. I suppose that if faith is the size of a mustard seed, then it’s possible that it is so small that it’s imperceptible until it springs a bud. If I’m right, and there is indeed a void, then the acknowledgement of that void could very well be faith itself.

In his wonderful essay, My Bright Abyss, Christian Wiman carefully explains this mystery in his own life: “When I assented to the faith that was latent within me”. Tiny, latent, an empty space, however you put it, the fact is that it’s there. And does anyone really know how or when it arrives? Perhaps in its simplest form, it comes with a sudden wind, straight from the tree next door; it nestles into the good soil of you and sprouts a leaf.

But just as often it’s the void that is visible before the seed, and that void, of course is the merciful grace of God.

I assented to the faith that was latent within me sometime after I reached the age of 19—I can only approximate the date, as it was a process that happened within a 3 year span of time—it became clear to me that Christ was more than the wafer or the wine, or even the way that my mother used to sit on the couch early in the morning with her coffee and her face drawn closed in prayer.

And once I assented, Jesus Christ most certainly began to crystalize, even to my untrained eyes.  There were 20 or so awkward Christian undergrads who met every Thursday night in Hendricks Chapel at Syracuse University. The first time I met them they were lip-synching to some Christian pop song on a CD player in the corner of the room. It was because of the void that I walked into that room and because of the void that I got to know them. The love came later and that part was easy because by then I understood that Jesus was more than the wafer, the wine, my mother, or Christian pop songs.

My time at Syracuse is when I learned how to pray and read the Bible and even sing, to actually praise God. And even though my jokes sometimes bounced back awkward and misunderstood, and I wasn’t inclined to listen to Casting Crowns, I began to understand that not only was I no better than these new friends of mine, I was also, quite honestly, less than them. Syracuse is where I learned how to be humble, and humility—of course—is very, very closely linked to faith. Whether we muster up that humility or God gives it to us is a whole other discussion and one of the things that reminds me again that at its core Christianity is mysterious, and that I love a mysterious God.

A few years ago I read THE CORRECTIONS by Jonathan Franzen. I laughed a lot, let the novel sufficiently blow my mind with the writing, and then stuck the hefty paper back on the second shelf of my bookcase where I can see it every morning as I work.

In grad school, Franzen was all the talk, perhaps especially since he lived in NYC and bothered to visit our department from time to time. We all had plenty of praise to throw his way but every once and a while someone would speak up and say that he was an incredible writer, but it seemed like he just kept circling his navel and didn’t in the end have a whole lot to say. At the time I wasn’t sure what I thought.

I listened to Franzen say once—when someone asked him who influenced him when he was a kid—that C. S. Lewis did and that he loved The Chronicles of Narnia, and before my Christian antennae got half way off my head he went on, of course that was before I learned that the books were really about Christianity. This was interesting to me, that Jonathan Franzen thought art that reflects Christ should be somehow disqualified. At least that was the implication.

Never mind the absurdity of what he was insinuating (that we would be loping off a rather large chunk of history and we’d likely be back at square one if we disqualify art that has been influenced by Christianity), what struck me as a person of faith is that if I were to disqualify Christ in my own writing I would indeed feel like I was circling my navel with words.

When I say this I most definitely do not mean that writing about a tree is wrong if I don’t reference, symbolically or otherwise, its creator, or that writing about a love affair or a mystery or family drama is wrong if I don’t end on a moral high note. When I say that I would have nothing worth writing about, what I’m getting at is Psalm 42:7, that “deep calls to deep,” the statement that has been true since way back whenever and that I like to translate quietly to myself as “truth calls to truth.”

In fiction as well as poetry, and obviously non-fiction, what we are obligated to is truth. Character development, plot, imagery, even in genres such as fantasy and science fiction, must begin with a foundation of truth, and as with so many things in literature, this can look entirely different from one piece of writing to another.

Jesus talked about gardens and fields and oil lamps and sometimes he explained what he meant but not always. If I lie down in my front yard and stare up at the branches of the 100-year-old oak tree, I can see the light through the leaves, something that Annie Dillard describes beautifully in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Annie Dillard understands natural revelation with her keen observations and understanding of science, but even if I’m not aware that a giant water beetle will sometimes eat a frog, I can just as well describe the way a certain character handles the universal fear of death, or that a mother’s love for her son can sometimes feels like a slow carving out of her insides.

Luke 12:28 states, “To whom much is given much is expected.” Many Christians take this to mean financial wealth, health, happiness, love, but I think it means revelation. If a 75 foot high, glowing Jesus shows up in your back yard and it’s for real, you sure as hell better tell people.

One of the things about God is that he’s invisible. But then everything else is so entirely visible; I know what a pond looks like in early sun, I know that baby’s movements come in jerks, like they know the beginning of a movement but not the end. There is a thing that is in me that is like a finger touching my inside. I’m not wholly sure where it’s from or even where it goes to, just that it is. It’s not always possible to describe these things fully, but with this faith that God has given me, I’ve come to understand that deep always calls to deep, and truth inevitably calls to more truth. These are my revelations and I plan to pass them on.