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Fear, Festering and Faith: The Artist’s Contract With Honesty

Apologies for tardiness. I confess to being deathly ill, but that doesn’t usually stop me. This week, I was trying to find something honest to say, and nothing wanted to come out. The notion of faith and fictional speculation didn’t […]
| Jan 7, 2011 | No comments |

Apologies for tardiness. I confess to being deathly ill, but that doesn’t usually stop me. This week, I was trying to find something honest to say, and nothing wanted to come out. The notion of faith and fictional speculation didn’t catch my heartstrings. Well, that could be a problem, given the outlet for which I’m writing. I clicked through discussions of late and found myself with no urge to spin off the fine variety of themes from this week—all more suited to the venue than anything flickering through my mind.

In desperation the other night, I asked for brainstorming assistance. My writing partner suggested I write about subtext. “No one talks about that,” he said, in a twist of beautiful irony.

If you don’t know what I mean, subtext is all the stuff happening in dialogue and action that the characters on the page aren’t willing to admit. Sometimes it arrives to us readers as blatantly obvious, and we spend the rest of the book waiting for them to mature enough to just deal, already, before this kills them or blows something up. You know.

There’s another cultivar, one I tend to find amazing when I encounter it, because I don’t mechanically understand it. Here’s what the professor in the writing manual says about it:

In the careful evocation of a subtext, the writer would learn, step by step, how to create an interior space, using details of location and objects that mirror a psychological condition…

An unthinkable thought is not one that hasn’t occurred to somebody, nor is it a thought that someone considers to be wrong. An unthinkable thought threatens a person’s entire existence and is therefore subversive and consequently can be thought of and has been thought of, but has been pushed out of the mind’s currency and subsumed into its margins where it festers.

~Charles Baxter, The Art of Subtext (Graywolf Press, 2007)

Festering is one of those things we just don’t admit to, because it’s just not Christian. Nonetheless, we all do it. We are all plagued by things that lurk around the edges of what we’ll admit to. Subversion is a dangerous thought, one to be marginalized. Subversion, in good Christian terms, ought always to be avoided.

Fascinating. Consider the subversiveness of the gospel: the complete overthrow of all human effort, of all self-reliance, of all self-worth. No wonder the entire world around us is built into locations and objects reflecting an interior space where the stark truth of Jesus Christ has been pushed out of the mind’s currency and subsumed into its margins, to fester.

The death of oneself is in some way an unthinkable thought, which is why art everywhere is moved to wrangle with death. That reality doesn’t qualify artists to be philosopher-kings as per some Platonist ideal, it just means we’re that class of people who are more open about our festering. We profess willingness to carve it out of the background for examination.

Unless we artists cease to be truth-tellers, at which point, we run into ESB’s very insightful question:

[W]hat happens if, in all your zeal to Fight the Good Fight and that’s it, you end up in Heaven and there’s nothing to fight? No poor people to feed, no heresy to condemn, nothing that makes you feel or act like a Warrior as an end to itself. All you’d have left to do is worship Christ in other ways, be it music or work, exploration, subcreation, learning and more. In such a place, when all our vestiges of self-as-“savior” are gone and there is only one Savior of us all, are you sure you would not be bored?

~E. Stephen Burnett

That, my friends, is the unspoken, fearful, festering subtext of an entire religious culture.

Are you sure you wouldn’t be bored?

The combination of these two points—avoidance and boredom—forms an interesting lens for looking at religious art. Of what are our worlds constructed, and what do their locations and objects say about that which we fear? Do we tell truth, or avoid it? What if the truth is that in our story, the real life one, feeling like a Warrior (capital W, people) is all we really want?

Do we read or sing praises for that feeling as an end in itself? To push away the daily festering?

Consider with me, for a moment, the subversiveness of daily life as worship. This unthinkable thought threatens our very existence as religious folk. It threatens to tear down our self-justifying internet wars of words. It threatens to tear down our sense of doctrine, in the sense that there’s always dross to sift. We’re human. Worship threatens everything we are when at our most comfortable.

At our most comfortable, we’re liars. We avoid and fester. We self-distract with warrior games. Artists do it all the time, same as everyone else. The only difference may be that we’ve formed a social contract in which we declare we will disavow that particular game. A social contract which transcends the bounds of religion, actually.

“The job of fiction is to find the truth inside the story’s web of lies, not to commit intellectual dishonesty in the hunt for the buck.”

~Stephen King, On Writing

We enter into that contract with ourselves, God and the world. The whole thing. It’s kind of like a marriage that way, but more like a quest, I guess. Anyone who takes on the public role of Having Something to Say About Society either does so in a position where they’re contracted to lie (we call that politics) or to tell the honest truth however they see it (we call that art). It’s probably no big wonder that arts grants are not the first priority of government.

With that public contract, we artists are just somewhat more liable for our avoidance and boredom. On the upside: subsume your deepest fears, longings or beliefs, and they will start to force their way back into the margins, demanding attention until your world is transformed.

Telling the truth doesn’t mean shutting down the imagination. It doesn’t mean avoiding possible subversion. It means plunging in. We are not here primarily to be a Warrior, though we may end up being one by accident, in the manner of great quests. (Remember the standard plot? The antagonist’s life goal is to be a hero, and the hero’s is to remain a quiet peasant boy. There’s a moral in there somewhere.) The thing we are seeking is the truth, and the process of creative expression is the quest by which we find it.

Here’s to the truth. Make sure you’re not bored with it.

Cathi-Lyn Dyck has been a published writer and poet since 2004, and a freelance editor since 2006. She can be found online at ScitaScienda.com.

C.L. Dyck is a freelance editor of award-winning Christian speculative fiction. She wrangles words on behalf of writers through Scienda Editorial.

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Keanan Brand

Awesome, insightful post.

It comes on the heals of my own internal dialogue last night/this morning, and a small conversation with God, mainly consisting of the question, “Why am I so angry?”

It’s the festering. Yup. It’s the stuff I don’t like to admit. The stuff that I fear or hate or can’t control.

Ironically, your post mirrors what God’s been working on me lately: spiritual house-cleaning, facing the things that lurk in the corners.

Maybe, once I’ve done that chore, my writing will be more honest — not just for the sake of a contract with the audience, but for my own clarity and creativity, as well.