Telling the Nasty Stuff

Browning 9mm PistolA friend who has been serving as a reviewer of new books for a major Christian magazine recently told me that she was thinking of giving up reviewing because the books get worse every year: sappier and less realistic and just plain boring. Her comment got me thinking about my Christian students’ struggles as writers and what struggling alongside them has taught me.

The stuff of most creative writing is story—the account of something that happened. That’s because, without something happening, there’s little to tell. Nonfiction works of all sorts and even the most lyrical of poems proceed via story, if only implied. Fiction, of course, is all about story.

Even the simplest of sentences tells a story: the subject has to do something. Often a lot of somethings, as there’s rarely only one verb—one instance of something happening, that is—in a given sentence. And in the more interesting sentences, subjects don’t just do something but interact with others—direct and indirect objects, subjects of dependent clauses and infinitive phrases—doing their own things.

The most successful stories, by their nature, involve rich, round characters. To create such characters, I tell my students, they must “tell the good about the bad and the bad about the good.” In novel workshop, though, my students invariably start out with flat characters whose believability is further hampered by their being in some way outside of society: outcasts incapable of interacting.

“No,” I tell them. “You have to make your characters interact, talk to one another, be in conflict. If you don’t, then nothing’ll happen. And if nothing happens, you won’t have a story.”

Still they resist, hold back, thinking that by leaving out crucial details—characters’ names or some conversation in which a key event occurs—they’re creating suspense that will make their readers want to read on and find out.

“But we won’t want to read on,” I tell them. “Suspense is created through building, not omitting. Yes, there are things you should omit. Chekhov said leave out anything that doesn’t drive story, that if there’s a gun on the mantelpiece at the beginning of your story, it has to be fired. But that’s just it. In the story of that gun being fired, the gun needs to have been on the mantelpiece—or under the sofa, loaded, where the toddlers are playing—in the first place.” All the stuff of the drama needs to be there, on the page, for the story to succeed.

With these tenets of storytelling in mind, I would like to consider the central story of much contemporary writing about faith: I once was lost, but now I’m found. It’s a story believers feel called to tell and need to tell—the very stuff of evangelism—but they often want to leave the first part out.

The story of the lostness, the sin-life that necessitated the salvation, is Every-Believer’s gun on the mantelpiece, but it poses some problems for the teller. Stories of sin often take us to material that might offend our believing audience, for one. Worse, to tell one’s sin-story convincingly—that is, concretely—is to become the sinner to one’s audience, particularly if the sin-story one tells is of sin engaged in after one became a Christian. Of course, none of us stops being a sinner after being saved, but we don’t want anyone to know about that.

This is perhaps why, though I’ve attended all sorts of churches in which the prayers of the faithful are publically identified and offered up, I have never once encountered among the litany of prayers for the sick and grieving, for job losses, for the birth of a child or the selling of a house any of the prayers I typically find myself praying. Prayers about my failures as a wife and a mother and as a friend and a colleague and a neighbor. Prayers of a desire to be led out of some specific temptation. Prayers expressing an explicit resistance to letting God’s will be done.

There are practical reasons for keeping one’s present and past sins secret, but there’s more to it than that, I think. As believers, we want to pretend that sin stops, that there’s a “before” to our Christian story that’s understood and doesn’t need to be explained—and shouldn’t be, if it involves any unsavory details or questionable language or doubt-riddled claims—and an “after” that is dazzlingly sin-free, more pure and clean than any on earth could bleach it.

The problem is, without telling the before—well and concretely—we can’t really convince anyone of the after. Or interest them in it.

Which leaves me with some questions for my fellow Christian writers out there to consider. What can and should Christian creative writers do about the nasty aspects of their faith stories? Avoid them? Tell them? Tell them vaguely? And what are the repercussions of each choice?

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Noli Me Tangere

This painting is entitled ‘Noli Me Tangere’ and was painted by the Russian artist Alexander Ivanov in 1835. It depicts the moment when Mary Magdelene recognises Jesus outside the empty tomb. The Latin inscription translated is ‘Do not touch me!’ Jesus forbids her strongly to lay her hands upon him, but why?

Is there some mysterious process in action going on here, as yet unfinished, whereby Jesus’ body is undergoing change from his former humanity back to his eternal divinity? I do not think that this is the case. I think the answer to understanding this portentous moment is instead to be discovered not in Jesus, but in the state of his beloved disciples at this time.

In the darkness of night the soldiers of the Sanhedrin, with weapons drawn, came to arrest Jesus. Judas’ kiss of betrayal sparked off a violent reaction in the followers of Jesus, encamped with him at the garden of Gethsemane. The grove of olives became suddenly a place of pandemonium, as soldiers took hold of Jesus, as Peter and the other disciples tried to prevent his arrest. Other followers of Jesus, in fear of their own lives, fled. So fearful was one young man’s response that he ran away naked, leaving his clothes in the hands of a surprised soldier.

Later on, during that fateful night of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and flogging, the disciple Peter, Jesus’ most outspoken defender, vehemently denied that he ever knew the Son of God and not once, but thrice, said to his accusers, “I do not know him!”.

The disciples, almost to a man, were scattered abroad. Afraid for their own lives, they hid themselves away, whilst their Lord was brutally being beaten, broken, and finally crucified on the Roman Cross. They were all terrified.

What then happened to them? Between the time when they dispersed so easily, running away like cowards, and the moment after the resurrection, they somehow became men and women victorious in their faith.

Afterwards, they were now profoundly prepared to stand up for Jesus in the face of violent opposition. No longer did they fear for their safety or even for their own lives.

The same adversaries who had only days before crucified Jesus were now persecuting his followers.

A momentous, phenomenal, and very personal transition occurred in their hearts, one which galvanised their faith in Christ. The metamorphosis was not in Jesus, but in the disciples. Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever.

Look again at the painting above. Why did Jesus forbid Mary to touch him? It is as Mathew Henry says in his commentary of the Bible. Mary was ready, on encountering the risen Christ, to express her joy by affectionately embracing him. The original Greek translation of the passage in the Gospel of John does not use the word ‘touch’ but instead uses a far more revealing word in the context of this meeting. It is not ‘touch’ but ‘cling’ that is forcefully employed here.

Jesus says to Mary ‘Do not cling to me.’ In other words, she must not be familiar with him as she was in former times. She is not to dote upon his bodily presence, but is now to be in spiritual communion with the risen, resurrected Christ.

Of course, at this time she cannot fully comprehend his meaning, for the Holy Spirit had not yet come.

Mary was trying to cling on to her former joy in her relationship with Jesus. But soon she was going to experience a far more profound and eternal joy.

As Christians we can look upon the cross and be grateful for God’s mercy and know that we can have true salvation and be reconciled with the Father because of the staggering sacrifice that Jesus made for us, by enduring the pain of crucifixion and taking upon himself the sins of the whole world.

We need to move on from the cross and ask ourselves what is the difference between Jesus the Man and Jesus Christ, resurrected? To live the ‘resurrected life,’ we must focus all our attention on the resurrected Jesus and let go of Jesus the man, just as Mary was bidden to do.

The disciples underwent an awesome life-changing alteration when they perceived the resurrected Christ. They came to know that Jesus was not just a godly teacher, not merely the Jewish Messiah, but rather that he was, incontrovertibly…God! A truth they had not understood before when they had walked and talked with him. At Pentecost, after Jesus had ascended to the Father, the disciples all received the Holy Spirit. Their transformation from mere disciples of a Rabbi to believers in the Son Of God was complete.

Everything they had been taught from the lips of Jesus suddenly became mind-blowingly, irrefutably real. All their fears vanished, their confidence in him was made new, and their spirits were fearless.

They had become, by the grace of God, Christians… little Christs. They had been given the responsibility of taking the message to the entire world: that Jesus Christ has risen, is our Lord and Saviour, and is seated beside the Father in Heaven. They were now profoundly ‘in Christ and He in them.’