Avoiding Sludge

One of the reasons why I love certain books is because of how they’re written—because the author knows how to write in a pleasing way, whether that way happens to tend towards the witty or the poetic or something else.

Content is certainly important. A beautifully-written book that’s communicating something bad, or that isn’t communicating much of anything, is like a gorgeously decorated cupcake that’s made of sawdust. But a book with a good message that is written in a flat, boring way, or a stilted, clichéd way is like eating food that, while nourishing, is tasteless sludge. I may eat it for the sake of the vitamins and minerals, but I’m unlikely to enjoy the process.

Enjoyment is important.

So is something else….

John Piper has a very bold quote:

“The other reason I say that imagination is a Christian duty is that when a person speaks or writes or sings or paints about breathtaking truth in a boring way, it is probably a sin.”

Whoa. That’s strong!

He goes on to say why:

“The supremacy of God in the life of the mind is not honored when God and his amazing world are observed truly, analyzed duly, and communicated boringly.”

And what’s the solution?

“Imagination is the key to killing boredom. We must imagine ways to say truth for what it really is. And it is not boring. God’s world – all of it – rings with wonders. The imagination calls up new words, new images, new analogies, new metaphors, new illustrations, new connections to say old, glorious truth. Imagination is the faculty of the mind that God has given us to make the communication of his beauty beautiful.”

So, good writing is not desirably simply because it’s aesthetically pleasing for the reader, but because it’s honouring to the Lord, and because talking about amazing truths in boring ways goes against the very heart of what we’re trying to say.

I know that people are talented in different ways, and I certainly wouldn’t say that your average Christian is sinning if the way in which he communicates truth is often, unintentionally, far short of spectacular. Not everyone is brilliant with words, although it’s still a good area for all of us to aim to get a little more skilled in. But for those who are amateur or professional communicators (speakers, writers, or whatever), it is vital to strive to communicate in memorable ways.

So what does that sort of communication look like? What coat might it wear?

Let me give some examples of truth well told.

N D Wilson (In an interview with Martin Olansky at Patrick Henry College. I’m quoting from memory, but I think I’ve got it right. No doubt he will forgive me if I haven’t.)

What he said: “Stories are catechisms with flesh on.”

What he could have said: “Stories teach important truths.”

C S Lewis 

What he said: “Failures are finger posts on the road to achievement.”

What he could have said: “Success follows failure.”

G K Chesterton

What he said: “The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.”

What he could have said: “God’s complicated messages are better than man’s simple answers.”

Elisabeth Elliot

What she said: “Think of the self that God has given as an acorn. It is a marvelous little thing, a perfect shape, perfectly designed for its purpose, perfectly functional. Think of the grand glory of an oak tree. God’s intention when He made the acorn was the oak tree. His intention for us is ‘… the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.’ Many deaths must go into our reaching that measure, many letting-goes. When you look at the oak tree, you don’t feel that the ‘loss’ of the acorn is a very great loss. The more you perceive God’s purpose in your life, the less terrible the losses seem.”

What she could have said: “In order to grow spiritually, we must die to self.”

Not only are all of these quotes pleasing to read, but they bring home their truths powerfully, in memorable ways, and in ways that can aid our understanding. All of them are to be preferred to my trite “translations”.

Good writing is an art, that’s for sure. It’s an art I’m trying to become more skilled at, but which I certainly have not mastered.

However, I don’t need to have mastered the art to be able to appreciate the skill of those who can wield words well, and neither do you. And reading good writing will not only help attune our literary taste buds to what’s sludge and what’s not, but the goodness might just spill over into our own writing too.

(Tiny note: of course, good writing is also important in fiction and in non-Christian writing, but these weren’t my primary focus here.)

Of Lovely Things (3)

I hadn’t realised how long it’s been since I’ve written a “loveliness” post!

Lovely things–good things, beautiful things–have kept on happening, of course. Some of them I recognise. Others I take for granted but need to try to see and to give thanks for. I’m not naturally a thankful person, remember? These lists can help spur gratitude. And they’re rather fun! (And not overly taxing on a brain that is working rather a lot these days on coursework of various shapes and sizes.)

So here are some of things, big and little, that have graced my days in one way or another….

Here’s a mammoth-sized one: an amazing answer to prayer.

You know the times when you’re in a hard situation and there seems to be no evident way out? When you can’t think of any good solution that seems likely but you wish for one so much? (Because we’re not God and how can we with our tiny minds see the unexpected things of the future?) And suddenly a wonderful opportunity appears–seemingly out of nowhere but really from the mind and heart of God.

It happened for me in a big way with a situation about two years ago, and then with something else recently.

And it’s a wonderful, incredible thing. “Lovely” is too tame a word for these startling, oh-so-needed graces, but since that’s my label for posts like this, we’ll go with it.

(Moving on to other things….)

A friend who is a beautiful example of rejoicing with them that rejoice. Thank you, Kay!

Sunshine in the midst of rain, rain, rain. (How can there be so much of it up there?)

Hilarious, tear-inducing laughter with friends.

Cuddles with Baby E before reading stories to Bets and her siblings. Two year old on my lap, sucking her thumb and twisting a curl on the back of her head while we read Big Sister, Little Sister. Little Doll four year old nearby. Then Boy2 on one side and Bets on the other (and Boy1 came in part way and I think enjoyed it too-sshhh!) while we join Nate the Great in figuring out just who it was that wrote the mysterious note about someone’s owl. Then when the house is quiet, getting to chat with Bets’ parents.

A tiny vase with snowdrops gathered by my mother.

Refreshing sleep.

Brighter mornings and evenings.

My father’s laughter.

Hugs with two of my brothers. One of them bigger than me now (did I really carry him around once?). The other, the only one left who can still sit on my lap and not crush me!

Little, daisy-like blessings and big, exploding firework-like ones.

Loveliness indeed!

The Father’s Tale: A Novel

“On the first Sunday of Advent in the previous year, a man named Alexander Graham said a prayer that was to have unforeseen consequences.”

So begins chapter 1 of Michael O’Brien’s novel The Father’s Tale. The prayer was “Do whatever you want with me” and it was answered in the form of a journey more awful and more amazing than Alex could possibly have expected, and, in fact, had he known all that the answer to his prayer would entail, I would hazard a guess that he would not have prayed it.

While trying to avoid giving too many secrets of the plot away, let me tell you a little about this incredible novel.

It is, I confess, a rather large book. Okay, it’s really large. When I bought it, I didn’t realise just how big it was, and so I got rather a surprise when it arrived. At over one thousand pages long, it no doubt gives me a few new muscles every time I pick it up. But if you love to read, then don’t let the size put you off—a long book, if it’s a good book, just means that you get to enjoy the goodness for longer. So, really, the huge size of the book is a huge plus. What a delight to know that night after night of wonderful bedtime reading awaits you!

O’Brien describes his book as “a modern retelling of the parables of The Good Shepherd and The Prodigal Son”. It’s about a father who goes in search of his missing son and who sacrifices greatly during his journey.

It’s a book about fatherhood—a motif which is woven into the book not only in the main storyline of Alexander Graham and his son but through various subplots.

It’s a book about love. It’s a picture of what happens when the casket Lewis describes is forced open:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”

And it’s a book about one man’s spiritual journey as he slowly, painfully, draws nearer to God.

O’Brien writes beautifully. He conveys deep emotion without sentimentality or triteness. I was quickly drawn in to like and care about this most unlikely of heroes—a reclusive, widowed bookseller in his forties. And I cried more than I’ve ever cried over a novel.

Rather like The Lord of the Rings and Lewis’ space trilogy, this book portrays evil vividly as well as portraying good. If, like me, you are a squeamish reader, be warned that a couple of brief, brutal scenes take place, as well as a torture scene (I skipped over most of the latter).

O’Brien is a Roman Catholic, and therefore what he portrays as Christianity in The Father’s Tale is predominantly Roman Catholic. Obviously, there are issues that I would sharply differ on.  But there is much to enjoy and much to be moved by as well as food for thought in The Father’s Tale. And, after all, all that is good and true and beautiful has its ultimate source in our Lord, whether it’s written by a Roman Catholic or an atheist or a reformed evangelical or anyone else.

And there is so much that is good and true and beautiful in The Father’s Tale. What a picture of a hard journey changing the one who reluctantly takes it. It makes me think of Frodo’s painful journey and transformation in The Lord of the Rings.

The Father’s Tale is not a lightweight book, literally or metaphorically.

But it’s a wonderfully good one.