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Reading Is Worship 4: Craft-Idolatry

Before discussing industry changes, editors, and manuscript proposals, we must love God’s Story and great stories more than their craft. Otherwise we may be vulnerable to other story-related idolatries.
| Sep 13, 2012 | No comments | Series:

Lately his name has been in the news; you would recognize it, as a popular Christian leader. Once I pitched him on my novel project, and I don’t even want to recall my age then.

It was 1990-something. (Please, God, let it have been then, and not later than 2000.) I had learned this leader was speaking at a local church. I must have just finished a recent re-editing, and I felt more prepared than ever. Unlike all those Other Times that failed, This Was It. I had the most well-written, original, ground-breaking, God-blessed manuscript yet.

Did I include the entire manuscript in that manila folder? I doubt it; the folder couldn’t have held that much. Lord, I hope I didn’t needlessly slaughter that many of Your good trees.

I arrived early and made sure to sit behind this leader. Then I engaged in conversation. Gave a quick pitch. I tried not to imply what I had already begun to suspect: that my novel’s themes would be such a help the ministry’s cause.

And he listened — before not rudely, but briskly, tossing the package to a ministry aide.

Not only recently have I concluded what I should have known before. That was a long shot, and within hours of it I determined why it fall short. First, a Christian ministry is not in the fiction-publishing business. Second, I cannot imagine what kinds of quacks, weirdoes, gadflies, and slobbering faith-based fanboys (all those other people, you see) that Christian leaders encounter. You’re so cool, you helped my faith, would you let me help you because I know X issue that you’d teach about more effectively if you only listened to me, please, please?

Third, it’s not only the soaring experience of a speculative story, or the promotion of such stories, that evil human hearts can hijack and steer toward idolatry. One may neglect the destination to which great stories should fly, and focused only on the craft of writing.

Idol identified: ambitions to write the next Great Speculative Novel

Not long ago, a few other Speculative Faith writers and I began to wake up and realize something. I do not know who awakened first, to poke the other one. Nor did we have some deep brainstorming session, followed by note-taking and mission ratification. Instead this simply arrived: the fact that it’s very difficult to encourage mainly enjoying speculative stories “Christianly.” Rather, temptation presses us to recite mainly Writing Tips and Tricks: Here’s what publisher X is doing. Here’s what may be changing. Here’s a new agent who is open to these stories. Active voice, passive voice, point of view, proposals, queries.

All this may ultimately encourage one thing: Self. With all this, Self has greater opportunity to become, not the author of the next great American novel, but the author of the next great Chronicles of Zimb’warl’déem novels. So move over, Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Katniss Everdeen, and whoever was in those awful atheistic books with the talking polar bear!

(Click to see it spinning.)

Are your defenses on red alert? Mine too.

After all, earlier today I felt this impulse again, thanks to some news about one mainstream publisher that has chosen to — foolishly, perhaps! — remove all its publishing submission restraints for two weeks in October. (Talk about being confronted with crazed fanboys.)

Let me be blunt. Deep down, where others can’t see, this kind of impulse says this:

Other Christian speculative novels simply can’t go far because of (insert wise-sounding culturally savvy reason). I think I may have Cracked the Culture Code and could go where no Christian novelist has gone before. Now all I need is craft. More craft. Time to write and rewrite, deep point of view, make this subtler, make that clearer, sharpen dialogue, tighten action. …

It’s exhausting. And let me clear: I don’t believe this is evil. Authors need writing skills, discipline, craft, and professional, Christ-exalting teachers who impart their knowledge. The last thing we need is demonization of artistic skill. But the next-to-last thing we need is idolizing such skill — or idolizing ambition to write the next Zimb’warl’déem-ian novel.

Cure: Loving God’s Story and great stories more than their craft

At Speculative Faith, we stress Christlike reading first, craft-of-writing second. This is by design, likely because of what seems a glut of writing-and-industry-oriented material. Yet I realize it also may help combat what is otherwise a secret assumption: that we have been there, done that, mastered the reasons why we love Christian speculative stories, and now we only need to discuss how to write more of them and get them sold and become famous.

But I’m not convinced that’s in the past. I’m sure we still need to discuss why we love these stories, not because they’re a means of a pyramid scheme, but because we love them. And that love is based in the love of the true Epic Story, by the ultimate Speculative Novelist, whose truths and beauties are uniquely reflected in speculative stories.

That helps on days (or weeks, as has recently been true for me) when we can’t write. Or when we don’t want to read novels for what they can teach about Craft, but for delights.

For readers: what keeps you loving these stories, other than authorial ambitions?

For aspiring authors: if for the rest of your life you were unable to write, would you still love speculative stories for their unique delights?

E. Stephen Burnett is coauthor (with Ted Turnau and Jared Moore) of The Pop Culture Parent: Helping Kids Engage Their World for Christ, which will release in spring 2020 from New Growth Press. He also explores biblical truth and fantastic stories as editor in chief of Lorehaven Magazine and writer at Speculative Faith. He has also written for Christianity Today and Christ and Pop Culture. He and his wife, Lacy, live in the Austin area and serve as members of Southern Hills Baptist Church.

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Julius
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Julius

If I couldn’t write from now ’till ever… Yes, of course. I’m not sure that it’s ever been a hang up for me, where you get so involved in ambition that you lose track of loving the kind of thing you’re making in the first place.
 
But I think I’ve seen it before.

Morgan Busse
Member

Yes, sometimes we love craft more than story. Seen it, done it, and it doesn’t serve anyone but self. Not to say that craft is a bad thing, but stories have been passed down for centuries, long before there was deep POV, active voice, and no adverbs.
 
Stories live because they have heart. And like you pointed out, our heart first begins with God, and the story He has written in our lives. Then that heart is poured into our stories.
 
As a friend of mine told me, you can write smart, or you can write heart. One is safe, because the path is evident. The other is more risky, because it requires vulnerability and letting others see inside, with a chance to be hurt. But when we write heart first, I believe we will touch more lives with God’s heart.
 

Galadriel
Guest

I know I’m nowhere near publishing level yet, so that’s not one of my struggles.

Paul Lee
Member

For readers: what keeps you loving these stories, other than authorial ambitions?

I’ll take anything opportunity to escape from my own unworthiness and the painful drudgery of this world, and I’ll love the stories that go a step further by helping me to be less unworthy and to see life as less dreary when I inevitably must return.

For aspiring authors: if for the rest of your life you were unable to write, would you still love speculative stories for their unique delights?

I’m still not currently an aspiring novelist, but I don’t think it’s fair to overly condemn authors’ desire to write. I do understand the desire to create; there is pleasure in the creation of stories and story-worlds that is even greater than the pleasure of delighting in another creator’s story. The more I encounter epic stories and awesome story-worlds, the more I want to create myself.
Instead of aspiring to write novels, I’ve been playing with games and interactive media. I love the added element of simulation interactivity in computer games. I love designing interactive games; it’s a tremendous joy! I can’t see myself abandoning that desire, even though I know there’s practically no chance at all for me to ever make money or become “famous” by writing games. I’ve a written a few crappy text adventure/interactive fiction games that have been downloaded and played by fewer than 100 people (two of them may have barely been played by 10 people), but that is perfectly satisfying and fulfilling. I may try to make other kinds of games at some point, but if I never make anything other than badly-tested, text-only interactive fiction, I’ll be quite content.

Austin Gunderson
Member

For me, the title of this blog seemed a bit misleading.  I don’t think the form of idolatry currently being discussed is sparked so much by craft itself as it is by ambition – a potential aim of craft.  If I attempt to achieve personal fulfillment through the accrual of recognition, admiration, or success – even if I justify those goals by telling myself that some of my glory will rub off on God along the way – then I’m building my house upon the strand of the sea and will end up treading water.  But that’s a judgement of my end, not my means.  The means of writing – its craft – is but a tool, and tools are by nature amoral.

Speaking for myself, I take great pleasure in the craft of writing.  Perhaps it’s because I struggle to finish even a single sentence for each of the many hundreds which seem to gush forth from other writers’ keyboards, but, for me, writing is often an end in itself.  Does that make it idolatry?  I think not.  Idolatry is something which turns my eyes away from the living God, deluding me into exchanging the greatest pleasure of all for empty-calorie, bleached-flour imitations.  But I don’t worship writing; I write to worship.  Worship has no need to “accomplish” anything in this world: it’s a straightforward outpouring of respect and love and adoration.  The instant it becomes a means rather than an end, it ceases to be worship (not that that’s a bad thing: we all need to put bread on the table).

But yes – were I unable to ever write another word, I’d still be delighted by speculative fiction.  Of course, I’d probably burst asunder from extreme constipation of the subcreative gland, but it’d be an agony of delights.  I think, however, that no one who truly loves the craft of writing would answer any differently.  A far more telling question might be: “If you knew for a fact that you’d never get published, would you still write?”

Jessica Thomas
Guest

Hmmm.  It’s not that I disagree.  I just don’t know that I completely agree.
A painter’s craft matters as much as the final painting.  Without the craft, they can’t render beauty on a canvas. (I know I sure can’t.  No craft.  No gift, for that matter.)
Focusing on craft and structure helps us hone our analytical skills, and analytical skills are a valuable asset, transferable to so many other vocations.
And, linguistics is a fascinating study.  What is it about language that allows us to communicate…not just story, but emotion, experience, understanding?
Speaking of understanding, I may be misunderstanding your intended point.  If so, never mind me.

Teddi Deppner
Guest

Stephen, thanks for tackling a topic that is at times difficult to communicate. It’s a fine line between worship and idolatry, in the way that you’re describing in this series. It isn’t so much about what to do and what not to do… but why we do it.
 
And so when you speak of idolizing the craft, it’s easy to think you’re bashing a focus on improving our skills, when what you’re really saying is it is idolatry to place our hopes and trust in our mad writing skillz (or place our despair in a lack thereof). I gather from your article that the real problem is when we think, “If only I can master such-and-such technique and pick just the right story to resonate with today’s audience, and, and… then I will become the next Great Speculative Fiction Novelist and touch the world for Christ!”
 
In this example, we think our goal is to become “great” and that better skills and tricks will make our writing so. But the goal is wrong and the strategy for reaching it is, too.
 
Lately I’ve been realizing that my Senior Writing Partner (yes, that would be the Lord) already has a goal and a plan for how I’ll get there. So I would best spend my time drawing nearer to Him and listening closely to His direction… and then obediently, faithfully and diligently apply myself to doing what He says and trust His lead. Write what He leads me to write. Edit it how He leads me to edit it. Read the books on craft that He leads me to read, and apply what He shows me. Go to the conferences He indicates I should attend, and meet and talk with those He arranges for me to meet.
 
Like Jesus talked about in John chapters 8, 12 and 14, my goal is to speak what I hear the Father saying, and to let Him perform the works. The measure of my success won’t be in how many books I sell or whether the world judges my stories to be noteworthy. The measure of my success will be in whether I did the will of the Father.
 
But we resist this. We want success we can measure, success we can prove to others. How can we ever justify to others that we actually tuned into the Lord enough to write what He gave us to write? How can we be sure we heard Him well? We tend to want a measurement that can be scientifically observed. Number of books sold. Number of people saved. Number of people in the pews. Recognition by our peers or the critics. Our book made into a movie that becomes a blockbuster hit.
 
As for your question at the end… If I never wrote another thing, would I still enjoy speculative stories? Absolutely. Without question. And I’d have more time to enjoy them! Ha!

D. M. Dutcher
Member

Yes, I would. My problem for christian spec fic before was I never could find any decent ones. It was big when I was reading SF avidly during the 80s, but then Bethany House and Crossway books stopped publishing them, so I moved on. It was buying a Kindle that enabled me to reconnect to that genre, and I’ve read and enjoyed quite a few of them since then.

The only time I stopped reading entirely was when I noticed what I loved was starting to attack my beliefs. A lot of secular spec-fic seemed to constantly put religious believers in the villain role, or put worlds forth that seemed like utopia for a scientific class, and hell for everyone else. Meanwhile religious fiction was turning into “Amish romances for women” it seemed, and I wound up doing other things instead of reading as voraciously as I used to.

If I was unable to write, I’d still enjoy the genre. But that would be contingent really on others continuing to write and expanding the genre.  Christian fiction in general risks stagnation often due to the many unwritten rules and tropes it has.