Often in person or in emails I will get a pretty heartfelt question from some pastors. They want to know if it’s kosher for them to write mainstream fiction and still do pastoral ministry in the local church.
“Can I be a pastor and still write fiction under my real name?”
I received one of these recently and the correspondence seemed helpful enough to share with some of you. He gave me permission to share its contents.
I changed the name of the pastor, of course, but I will say this is someone I have never met before and don’t know from school (unless, of course, they’re hiding behind a fake name):
I’m new to your site, and have been enjoying it. I want to ask for your thoughts on pen-names. I am a pastor who loves to write – fiction (sci-fi and fantasy) and non-fiction (Christian/Church direction and discipleship). I’m ready to begin publishing, but am debating whether to use my real name on everything or just on the non-fiction while using a pen-name for the fiction. It seems to me that a number of folks in either crowd would be turned off if they knew of the other side. Any input would be appreciated.
Pleasure to have you and I’m glad you’re enjoying things. Do you mind if I add you to my update list? It’s basically free stories, some news, and blog roundups every four months or so.
Pseudonyms are all about motivation. “Citizenfour” actually protected Snowden for a time. Kierkegaard wrote under seven pseudonyms primarily to experiment with different styles and voices, but also for protection. J.K. Rowling and Stephen King did it under Galbraith and Bauckham respectively in order to have freedom to write whatever they wanted and to change up their branding. Especially for Rowling, it was helpful because of how people don’t associate her name with crime novels.
Where are you pastoring?
I’m ordained, but I’m also writing fiction. So you could say that I understand this struggle immensely and there’s a long and a short answer. If you want the long answer — the philosophy and theology behind my decision — write me back and I’ll provide that.
The short answer is this: I was a coward. And cowardice is no reason to make any decision because that’s not the virtuous life of a man of God. Personally these days, I’m disgusted with the idea of Christian enterprise, so if you had a pen name at all, I would encourage you to write the Christian work under the pen name and offer it for free. The best Christian works in history didn’t cost a dime when they were initially published — or if they did, they had patronage from an interested businessman or an abbot.
As for your fiction, fear not — Lewis wrote some pretty raw stuff in his career, smoked like a chimney, and drank more whiskey than my grandpa and yet he still speaks into the lives of stodgy evangelicals even today.
Just tell the truth. Truth shall prevail.
I appreciated your thoughtful and direct reply to my question. The delay in getting back to you is due to a number of recent personal difficulties.
In reply to your first email:
Yes, please do add me to your update list.
I’m pastoring in [the South].
Yes, I am curious about the longer answer – your philosophy and theology behind your decision.
I agree that the commercialization of Christianity is disgusting. I am giving your suggestion some serious consideration. I wonder: how does free Christian work interplay with the idea that if a person pays for something then they appreciate it more – your thoughts
Good to hear. Sorry for the personal difficulties, whatever they may be.
I have added you.
Before I get into a more lengthy response, I’m going to ask for a simply binary reply to this email, a simply “yes” or “no” when you receive it. Upon rereading this thread, I think it helped me solidify some thoughts that would greatly benefit many other readers of mine. If I were to redact your name, take out any personal bit of info like your being a pastor in Florida, would you be okay with me turning our exchange into a blog post? “Yes” or “no” is fine.
Thanks for permission to share. As Chomsky said earlier this year, blogging personal correspondence is a weird form of exhibitionism and I do not make a habit of it. However, repurposing our conversation to help others on the same path does interest me greatly.
I’ll answer the last question first: is sex better when you pay for it? How about when you get the best deal possible? If this were true, we should all buy the cheapest whores possible and revel in our purchase. No, sex is better when it develops intimacy between a faithful husband and a faithful wife. Sex without meaning and value, we would say, is something that does not appreciate—literally it does not gain in value. The best things in life are free, right? Well the best books we have are all open source and before this, they were free at your local library. Matt Damon’s character in Good Will Hunting made fun of the frat boy who spent forty grand on an education that could have cost him a buck fifty in late fees at his local library. I would say the same of men who spend money on prostution or pornography when they could have married a good, beautiful, faithful virgin like me. So too of the books we write—information wants to be free, intimate, and faithful to the texts that begat them. Secrets are always exposed, it is light that makes everything visible, and Christian works should seek to be wholly unoriginal and profoundly derivative. I plan on penning a post on just that soon.
As for the longer answer behind why I chose to write fiction (even as a pastor) and why my writing seldom journeys into the pastoral, here goes:
The first piece—writing fiction though I be a pastor—comes from several places. It comes first from an understanding of how inductive learning works. As the manager said in the film The Prestige, we want to dress it up a bit, we want to be fooled. Few people—even in antiquity—had the stomach for prolonged rational discourse. This is why Christ couched much of his philosophy (I will not say poetry) in his parables. All stories are moral, and all of their tellers have an axe to grind, even if subconsciously—but the way you experience these morals are in the world of the story and not the world of literary criticism. Reading the story •is• the argument.
For Christians, Lewis called this “smuggling the Gospel,” but a great many other theologies are smuggled through stories every day. The same scalpel that ends one life saves another, it just depends on whether the thing it cuts is septic. So it was a strategic move as a thinker, but it was an aesthetic move as an emotional man: I enjoy a good yarn and wanted to write the stories no one else was writing. Eventually you get tired of having so few stories written by authors with whom you share headspace so I sought not to be the next Chesterton or Tolkien or Lewis or MacDonald, but rather the first American man of letters who took their foundation and built upon it. I had peers in college who wanted to be the next Lewis and write the next Narnia. That bored me. Bores me still.
What interested me were those few among them who also understood what the men above where trying to accomplish, what they contributed to the age in which they lived, and shared some vision with me on how to multiply tenfold the firstfruits of their crop. In short, I sought in college not to be the next Lewis or Tolkien, but rather the next Lancelot Schaubert who pulled from the theology and philosophy and methodology held by men like these.
With my strategy, theology and aesthetic in place, I then had to develop a set of first principles, of first platitudes. But having already pulled from these authors for my theology anesthetic and strategy, it was natural to look to them again for my guiding lights in fiction ethics as a Christian. For starters, I had Tolkien to teach me that the act of writing fiction is not creation but sub-creation which invites not the suspension of disbelief but actually a secondary faith in a secondary world (in his On Fairy Stories). He said this contra Samuel Taylor Coleridge, but Coleridge coined the phrase “the suspension of disbelief” in the exact same sentence of Biographia Literaria that he coined the term “poetic faith,” the grandfather of Tolkien’s secondary belief. In the next sentence, he tells us that while he focused on humanizing — incarnating — the supernatural and fantastic, Wordsworth’s job in Lyrical Ballads was to elevate the common to the level of the supernatural, the sacramental view of the world, what Chesterton meant when he said that “every stone and blade of grass is a hieroglyph to which we’ve lost the key.” My job, then, as a fiction author would be to be a little Christ, a little god, who made smaller derivative worlds out of the stuff God himself put in creation: memory, language, imagination, locations, moments of shared humanity, and the like. Well once I had decided that, this modern mania over originality reared its ugly head. And I returned to this compost of guiding lights and what did I find but this gem in Lewis:
“What are the key-words of modern criticism? Creative with its opposite derivative; spontaneity, with its opposite convention; freedom, contrasted with rules. Great authors are innovators, pioneers, explorers; bad authors bunch in schools and follow models. Or again, great authors are always ‘breaking fetters’ and ‘bursting bonds.’ They have personality, they ‘are themselves.’ I do not know whether we often think out the implication of such language into a consistent philosophy; but we certainly have a general picture of bad work flowing from conformity and discipleship and of good work bursting out from certain centers of explosive force — apparently self-originating force — which we call men of genius.
“…There is no doubt [in the New Testament] that this kind of proportion sum — A : B : : B : C — is quite freely used in the New Testament where A and B represent the First and Second Persons of the Trinity. Thus St. Paul has already told us earlier in the same epistle that we are ‘of Christ’ and Christ is ‘of God’ (2:23). Thus again in the Fourth Gospel, Our Lord Himself compares the relation of the Father to the Son with that of the Son to His flock in respect of knowledge (10:15) and of love (15:9).
“I suggest, therefore, that this picture of a hierarchical order in which we are encouraged — though, of course, only from certain points of view and in certain respects — to regard the Second Person Himself as a step, or a stage, or degree, is wholly in accord with the spirit of the New Testament. And if we ask how the stages are connected the answer always seems to be something like imitation, reflection, assimilation. Thus in Galatians 4:!9, Christ is to be ‘formed’ inside each believer — the verb here used (μορφθη) meaning to shape, to figure, or even to sketch…”
“…Now it may be that there is no absolute logical contradiction between the passages I have quoted and the assumptions of modern criticism : but I think there is so great a difference of temper that a man whose mind was at one with the mind of the New Testament would not, and indeed could not, fall into the language which most critics now adopt. In the New Testament the art of life itself is an art of imitation: can we, believing this, believe that literature, which must derive from real life, is to aim at being ‘creative,’ ‘original,’ and ‘spontaneous” ? ‘Originality’ in the New Testament is quite plainly the prerogative of God alone; even within the triune being of God it seems to be confined to the Father. The duty and happiness of every other being is placed in being derivative, in reflecting like a mirror.”
– “Christianity and Literature” in Christian Reflections by C.S. Lewis
There’s much I did not quote, but you get the gist: the aim for me is now to derive my work from God. In fact, Lewis went on to say later that:
“…it would have affinities with the primitive or Homeric theory in which the poet is the mere pensioner of the Muse. It would have the affinities with the Platonic doctrine of a transcendent Form partly imitable on earth; and remoter affinities with the Aristotelian doctrine of μιμησις and the Augustan doctrine about the imitation of Nature and the Ancients. It would be opposed to the theory of genius as, perhaps, generally understood; and above all it would be opposed to the idea that literature is self-expression.”
For me, this meant I must delve deeper and quicker into the classics, for I’m getting old and running out of time to study. I’m five volumes into the Harvard Classics and am working outside their canon more than I work within. These reform my mind and give me fodder for derivation.
But by your questions, I’m assuming you will have figured out in your own work the sticky part of these first principles. If I am creating worlds with the kind of characters and free will with which God created his own, then that means that there will be all kinds of characters with whom I disapprove and even judge for their ideologies, choices, and behavior. And I will have to know these things. But how much of it do I discipline, as the providential author of this world, and how much of it do I record unintruding? I won’t waste much time in pointing out the hypocrisy of Christian writers who write about rape and murder but refuse to let their characters use profanity, I’ll just skip straight to the issue of profanity.
I haven’t yet found the answer to this, but I do have some clues.
For one, I take comfort in Paul’s use of the s-word, a word worse than bastard in 1 Corinthians 15, David’s use of actual curses and imprecatory prayers, and Jesus’ mockery of Herod through the phrase “female fox.” I take comfort knowing that though these words are by no means frequent, holy men have used them occasionally towards a holy purpose: that of rebuking the hard-hearted. At the same time, I know that calling my brother a fool is as good as murdering him and most cusswords are used for just that: cutting someone down, albeit verbally.
For another, I take comfort in the fact that godly and respected writers like C.S. Lewis and Chesterton both used profanity at times in holy and unholy ways. I know from this both that I’ll screw up and that good people will generally see past the shortcomings of generally good men.
For a third, I know that many of these words are nonsensical terms wielded by the poor and uneducated to articulate the angst in their heart. So (a) they may be meaningless and (b) I am supposed to be in the business of conveying meaning through words.
But all of this still leaves me in the position of the bible college student who uses petty reasons to excuse himself into the basement for a tattoo touchup. I bore even myself with this reasoning.
The real answer I find in two places, both from Lewis again. The first is in his article “Four Letter Words” in Selected Literary Essays. Before I quote Lewis, I’d like to point out that he starts the article with a list of profanities from medieval Christian literature including Chaucer’s use of a hard “c,” the Host’s use of “balls,” others use of “ass-cheeks” “piss,” and “fart” which isn’t even a bad word in the strictest homeschooling environment these days. My, how words change:
“You must find passages—I have not yet found one myself—where four-letter words are used seriously, neither with belly-laughter nor snarls of hatred, in seriously erotic elegy or lyric; where they are used seriously, neither with belly-laughter nor snarls of hatred, in seriously erotic elegy or lyric; where they are used seductively or at least sympathetically. The nearest thing to such an instance comes from Old French… Reason, quite unabashed, says that her Father made these things de ses propres mains in Paradise and she is determined to speak of them senz mettre gloses. Here we admittedly have a four-letter word used seriously and with approval. But we notice two facts. First, such usage was not normal; that is why the Lover is shocked. And secondly, Jean de Meung in this passage is not writing love-poetry but philosophical poetry about love. He is indeed putting forward, or making Reason put forwards, exactly the case so often argued by the defenders of Lawrence. He is saying that these things ought not to be a subject either of shame or ridicule.
“The value which four-letter words have usually had in actual usage is well attested by two bits of evidence from a much later period. Our ancestors were sometimes shamelessly frank about the kind of pleasure they demanded from certain kinds of literature. As a result we find four-letter words condemned not on the ground that they are aphrodisiacs but precisely on the ground that they are not…
“Our knowledge will never cover all individual varieties of speech; but the evidence before me, though it cannot establish, suggests a probable generalization. It looks as if no nation, age, or class has commonly used four-letter words to ‘move desire.’ If that is so, those who thought Lawrence’s vocabulary — we are not discussing his over-all tendency — a grave moral danger were presumably mistaken. But still less does it appear that such words have been used for a reverential and (in the old sense) ‘enthusiastick’ treatment of sex. They are the vocabulary either of farce or of vituperation; either innocent, or loaded with the very opposite evil to which prudes suspect — with a gnostic or Swiftian contempt for the body. Lawrence’s usage is not to be reckoned a return to nature from some local or recent inhibition. It is, for good or ill, as artificial, as remote from the linguistic soil, as Euphuism or, a closer comparison, the most desperate parts of Lyrical Ballads. Here, as in them, the words may be earthy; this use of them is not. It is a rebellion against language. Lady Chatterly has made short work of a prosecution by the Crown. It still has to face more formidable judges. Nine of them, and all goddesses.”
That’s rebuke enough for me — reading it now makes me want to take down even more stories from my site. For when I think about the most rudimentary and worst writing I’ve created over the past few years, I realize that the worst of them had the most cusswords and the best of them used the least. Surely, there is an inverse spectrum for this as well — it is just as uninspiring to use “golly gee willakers” in the mouth of a Boston cop.
That said, it took reading a story about pirates to a ten-year-old to realize how fully I disapproved of my character’s language. It took asking the president of my alma mater (a Bible college) for me to realize that my fourth novel — a young adult novel — had (at the time) over 300 profanities in it. I removed any that were unnecessary to the story or to a one-line piece of humor. Only 7 remain and that still may be too many. The rest are achieved by inference: she cussed, he swore, and so on. I may have overreacted, but it’s the struggle that’s important.
As I said, the above rebuke is enough but one more, one more:
“We are familiar, no doubt, with the expression ‘Christian Art,’ by which people usually mean Art that represents Biblical or hagiological scenes, and there is, in this sense, a fair amount of ‘Christian Literature.’ But I question whether it has any literary qualities peculiar to itself. The rules for writing a good passion play or a good devotional lyric are simply the rules for writing tragedy or lyric in general : success in sacred literature depends on the same qualities of structure, suspense, variety, diction, and the like which secure success in secular literature. And if we enlarge the idea of Christian Literature to include not only literature on sacred themes but all that is written by Christians for Christians to read, then, I think, Christian Literature can exist only in the same sense in which Christian cookery might exist. It would be possible, and it might be edifying, to write a Christian cookery book. Such a book would exclude disheswhose preparation involves unnecessary human labour or animal suffering, and dishes excessively luxurious. That is to say, its choice of dishes would be Christian. But there could be nothing specifically Christian about the actual cooking of the dishes included. Boiling an egg is the same process whether you are a Christian or a Pagan. In the same way, literature written by Christians for Christians would have to avoid mendacity, cruelty, blasphemy, pornography, and the like, and it would aim at edification in so far as edification was proper to the kind of work in hand. But whatever it chose to do would have to be done by the means common to all literature, it could succeed or fail only by the same excellence and the same faults as all literature; and its literary success or failure would never be the same thing as its obedience or disobedience to Christian principles.”
– “Christianity and Literature” in Christian Reflections, Lewis
There’s more to quote, but I’m tired and need to finish up here tonight. Suffice to say, there are siginificant differences between a Christian and a Pagan – let alone a Pagan and a Nihilistic — author.
This leads us into the second idea: that I might ever do pastoral writing, the reasons are simple and three:
One, I am a layman who was ordained in the restoration church and though I attended Bible college and know a great deal more than the typical bafoon in the American pulpit, I know quite little of formal theology. This is the difference between one like Rachel Held Evans and I: I know I am now fit to write pop fiction but have not the background to write theology. She seems to write theology clueless that it sounds like pop fiction. She deserved Professor Witherington’s rebuke.
Two, I abhor the Christian enterprise. We have made not only made our house of prayer into a den of thieves. We have made our house of learning into a pit of pilferers, which is a considerable step lower. God damn us for ever aspiring to profit off of the spiritual direction of the lost, but God damn us to the lowest level of hell for extorting them by charging admission to the very tree of knowledge that got us here in the first place. It’s bad enough we used the tree to bring death to all humanity in the garden. Need we exploit it for personal gain as well? Be that as it may, the Christian enterprise is neither owned by Christians nor centered on Christian thought. Case study: Zondervan is owned by Harper Collins is owned by News Corp, a Fortune-500 company owned by shareholders on the New York Stock exchange. As I own shares of other companies, I know the effect of quarterly earnings reports upon the leadership of public corporations. It does not make it easy on me, the shareholder, to love the poor — my hell being paved with my private good intentions. How much more does it force the subsidiaries of such corporations to ignore the command to “keep your hearts away from the love of money?” I critique the industry from my own weakness only because they pretend it is a strength when I know it in myself to be sin, greed, covetousness.
Three, simply I am a coward. I fear like you that my readers will not like me and it is simply because I fear being a Christian in public. But now I have confidence in this because I know true Christians — true Jesus followers — are in the minority here in America and history tends to work in favor of the marginalized. So no I won’t write “Christian fiction,” which doesn’t exist but even if it did I wouldn’t write it. I will be a public Christian. I will write fiction.
I warned you it would be long ;D
Again, I thank you for your reply – it was cogent and passionate.
First, I feel that I must apologize for not giving proper (thorough) attention to your first response. My counter was neither precise nor formal. Please forgive me.
Second, I want to mention that I enjoyed reading your reply. Not just for the content, but for the presentation. It was a pleasure to read your response, and you should be proud of your ability to present your thoughts so well.
To the reply:
I should have been more specific in referring to the principles of value and opportunity cost in economic theory. No, the best things in life are not free. While you and I would agree that sex is not better when paid for, there is a host of people that would disagree. You and I agree that sex is best as a part of the intimacy that comes in marriage, but again there are many that would disagree (e.g. I doubt a person visits a prostitute for intimacy – no, it is for temporary physical pleasure). So, is sex better when you pay for it? Objectively, no. Subjectively, it depends on your paradigm. This distinction is important because it means that if we write a book to help others, the quickest way to convey value of the contents is to attach a value identifier to it. This is not to say that the information presented is valueless until we charge for it,but simply that when there is no cost to the recipient, they will often walk away with the impression that it is valueless. Hopefully they read it and discover the opposite to be true.
Damon’s character made a great point in the movie . . . you could learn all of the things for very little monetary cost as opposed to spending many thousands of dollars for the same education. He misses a couple of points though: at the end of the education, it is generally going to be the person who received the degree that gets the job (the payoff for the education); for either the student or the self-taught person, there is a significant time investment (a cost).
Generally speaking, the men who invest in pornography or prostitutes are not interested in a ‘good virgin.’ They want to get something physical, not share of themselves as part of a unit. Information may wish to be free, but if unknown then it will not be valued until some value identifier is attached to it (a price tag, reviews, word of mouth, etc.).
Aside from the sociological studies on this phenomenon, I have an anecdote to share: for classes that involve a study guide, long-term attendance is much higher when we charge the cost of the book to those who participate. Offering the class and book for free might get more immediate sign-ups, but when there is a cost (value) attached to the event/class/study then those who choose to get involved remain for the long term.
I agree that the role of the Christian writer is to emulate Christ in the creation and communication of fictional worlds and scenarios. It is refreshing to meet another who can learn from the greats without feeling the need to mirror them.
I appreciate your tempering the recognition of ‘foul’ language in Scripture with the fact that it was done to a purpose. My experience has been that most everyone who recognizes one of these points fails to consider or appreciate the other.
I agree with your comments and various quotes regarding ‘Christian fiction.’
Regarding your comments on Pastoral writing:
- Thank God that Professor Witherington spoke out.
- There is much to your second point. Below are some thoughts only – I am not taking a side on the issue, as I am still considering a number of factors.
a. Your critique seems to only consider spiritual direction of those who are not Christians. Do you feel the same way about Christian enterprise between Christians? Also, given the dearth of originality these days, would you criticize (on the same grounds) author that sells his work when something comparable can be found for free?
b. How does your approach incorporate 1 Corinthians 9:14?
c. Given the comingling of ‘sacred’ and secular publishers, why not just self-publish? Yes, at some level a non-Christian (perhaps even an anti-Christian) will profit, but I am unsure of how to avoid this altogether – unless we violate Scripture and hide ourselves away from the world. Also, I would point out that capitalism per se is not an evil (I believe), and in fact can be used as a vehicle to achieve much good. This does not justify the abuse of it or any violations of Scripture, of course.
- Again, I think that I did not clarify well enough . . . Yes, I am concerned about the ramifications from a general fiction-readership if it is well known that I also write pastoral non-fiction. I also am concerned (more concerned, in fact) about the ramifications of a self-proclaimed Christian audience discovering that I write sci-fi and fantasy. I’m not concerned about readers not liking me – rather, I fear that their prejudices will serve to impede my being able to provide for my own family. I am and will be a Christian publicly, and I intend to write fiction as well.
Perhaps the most compelling argument I have heard in favor of using my given name in ALL of my writing came from a friend and fellow pastor: “Yes, there may be some that reject what you have to write in one category because of their prejudices regarding other categories you write in. What of those who are intrigued when they find out about this variety? Could it be that knowing a Christian can write genuinely Pastoral non-fiction as well as compelling fiction might in fact minister to saved and unsaved alike?”
I welcome any response you may have.
You need not ever apologize to me for being yourself. God help us if every human grows up to be as obsessed with precision and formality as I.
Breath. Sunshine. Vision. Saving grace. Friendship. Courage. Oh yes, I absolutely maintain that the best things are free because they are first principles — things like beauty and love and honor. None of those can be bought. They simply are.
But to your argument:
Those people are entitled to their wrong opinions. I wouldn’t say it’s “best” as a part of intimacy in marriage, I would say that’s all it is or ever could be. Paul’s quite clear in Corinthians that sex is the covenantal part of marriage where souls mingle. Therefore every time someone has sex with another person, their identities commingle in insuperable ways. This isn’t something I merely believe, there are pagans I know whose testimonies back this up. My mentor was speaking with one who had slept with dozens of different girls.
He said to this player, “Well I guess they (women) are all the same when the light goes out, right?”
“Oh no,” the hustler said, “they’re all different. And sometimes when I’m quiet, I can still hear their voices in my head.”
So no, this is not simply a matter of agreement upon an opinion. This is fact. Ask any prostitute or girl in the slave trade how she feels about the diversity of partners. There’s a reason even murderers treat sex offenders the way they do in prison. Whether this kind of violent retribution is right or wrong isn’t a part of our purposes. What’s relevant is to note the evil association even criminals have when it comes to non-consensual, pluralistic sex.
That said, all of the women I’ve met caught up in a life of prostitution didn’t choose it, it chose them. Had they a say in the matter, yes I think they would have preferred marrying honorable men whose virginity remained intact. The pushback New York women give is not “I don’t want that,” but rather “that’s not realistic.” I talked to one today that sounded despairing for this very reason. I find it ironic because the man she was talking to — me — was a virgin when he married his wife… who was also a virgin. Practicality is not the measure of integrity, Emerson (or Thoreau?) taught us that—if we enjoy something in modern society, then at one time it was an impractical and inconvenient aspiration. I italicize it chose them regarding women ensured by pimps to give the kind of ominous feeling it deserves: sometimes that kind of life chose them through human trafficking, sometimes by way of the drug culture, sometimes through the desperation that arises from poverty, sometimes as a reaction to early instances of sexual abuse, sometimes because that’s what mom did and I don’t know any better — when we don’t know what to do, we do what we know how to do. I’ve met several in several cities and none have said, “When I was a little girl, I always knew I wanted to grow up and be a hooker.” If they did, it’s because the particular circumstances of their upbringing could warrant no other alternative.
And it’s the same for the men I know who have paid for prostitution and pornography. Almost none of them think it’s preferable and the ones that do simply have what Paul calls “a seared conscience.” John Mayer comes to mind — and it’s interesting how many women despise him for his womanizing habits and how few friends he has who are simply women. Make no mistake: all of those men and all of those women are seeking intimacy. The intimacy of a family who chooses to care for you rather than sell you for money. The intimacy of a partner who will love you in your worst moments. The intimacy of a being who knows you well enough to please your deepest desires. They seek God himself — it’s the God-shaped hole we preachers preach.
But that’s a specific issue: that sex is not better when paid for.
As for the objective/subjective part, I don’t recognize the distinction. If something is objectively true, then it’s true regardless as to whether its subjects rebel against it or obey it. The tree of knowledge was objectively true, but Eve sought a different paradigm. The ten commandments were objectively true, but the people poured a golden calf instead. Christ’s mission was objectively true, but Peter tried to break him out like a subordinate might break out his commanding officer were he a prisoner of war and in the process he denied his Christ. Gospel is true despite my changing moods. So if you acknowledge what I said about sex and money as truth, then it is true for all men at all times. If it isn’t true, then you and I need to seek out the totality of this truth, for that is what truth is: from the Old English treowth meaning “constant” as in “tree-like — deep-rooted and immovable.” And sex does not sell, desperation does. I say that as a copywriter with a decent tenure in marketing (you’re noticing my hypocrisies, I hope, and arming yourself to rebuke me — I assure you I deserve it).
You’re right, though — a value identifier is needed. This isn’t the time or the place to debate the merits of representational currency, but I will tell you that whatever its merits you’re missing three pieces in your economic theory as it pertains to art.
(1) Correct me if I’m wrong (I’m often wrong — that’s how I know I’ve learned something), but based on what I understand from the whole of your email you, like many Americans, seem to think that modern representational currency is still money backed by tangible assets such as gold. This went the way of the industrial revolution early on in the last century. America — and the rest of the modern world — adopted Ben Franklin’s “money is debt” model. Nowadays, your dollar represents the intangible debt of the entire American economy and the purchasing power of that dollar. So we don’t have the one-for-one kind of currency we once had — we are now two, rather than one, steps removed from the barter system.
(2) In the barter system, you could literally buy a farm for a song. You could still sing for your supper. Patrons existed in full force. Now this was an awful time if you were a farmer, a craftsman, anything like that. But if you created intellectual property? The Middle Ages were a heyday. (Or did you think the art and discovery of the alleged “renaissance” just sprung up out of nowhere?) Your book was valued as an intangible that built up society as a whole. We’ll get to this later.
(3) Which also means that a patron understood by sponsoring, say, a traveling band of troubadours, his renown expanded and therefore his honor raised above that of his neighboring Lords. Honor can get you brides with expensive dowries, deals with prominent houses, claims to higher thrones and fiefdoms, and better craftsman who would increase the overall value (weight, gloria) of your rule and reign. This is what Jesus means when he talks about being a King and us his disciples, patron and client. My mentor would say it’s our job to “make Jesus famous” and my peers from that college are pretty good at it, particularly guys like Tony.
All of that to say, when you want “value” to be traded for your work, you seem to be thinking like a naturalist when you say that the number one value of a work is economic. If you’ll indulge me another quote, this one comes from Makoto Fujimura’s Culture Care :
“In the early 19670s, Fred Danback came home from the Korean War to work at Anaconda Wire and Cable, a copper wire factory in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, thirty miles north of Manhattan. It was a booming enterprise. But he soon became troubled by what he saw at the factory. To restore beauty to the river he had grown up with, Danback became a whistleblower against his own company.
“In a PBS interview with Bill Moyers, Danback said, ‘I seen all kinds of oil and sulfuric acid, copper filings; my gosh, they were coming out of that company like it was going out of style.’ He said that shad fishermen started to lose ‘their business because there was oil in the water that would cause the fish to be contaminated with it, and the Fulton Market refused to take their weekly catch…. [Anaconda] and other businesses were polluting a river and hurting a second business, the shad fishermen. I didn’t think they had the right to do that. It used to really infuriate me. I became obsessed with fighting pollution….’
“Fred complained to the managers about his fisherman friends’ plight. Each time he did, it seemed, he got demoted. He ended up as a custodian. But Fred never gave up. He worked in that custodian role, literally pushing his broom into every room of the company. He also took copious notes and made maps of the company. What was intended as a punishment ended up as the best possible opportunity to spy on the company. He had all the keys!
“There were few pollution laws at the time. Fred and a few other pioneers of the environmental movement decided to sue Anaconda under an archaic law called the Refuse Act of 1899, which Fred found while cleaning the local library. In 1972, when the U.S. Attorney’s Office found a way to prosecute Anaconda, they used Fred’s maps and notes as evidence.
“‘The company was fined $200,000 under the Refuse Act of 1899, you know… Even today for a polluter to be fined $200,000 is a big event. Back in the early 1970s, it was a huge event. It was like a thunderclap,’ said Fred later. Today, three million striped bass go up and down the Hudson because Fred’s efforts led to changes in the laws of the land….
“….There’s not a day that I do not think of Fred Danback. As I used to jog on the promenade of the river, I thanked God for Fred’s sowing the initial seeds of sacrifice. As I follow the bluebirds’ nesting behavior at my farmland now, I think of his work to create cleaner rivers and air. But there’s more to the story.
“As the horrific news began to come out on the airliner attacks of September 11, 2001, the initial estimate was twelve to fifteen thousand. In the next few days, however, the numbers kept decreasing, eventually to 2,977—still unbearable, surely. I have a theory about why the initial estimate turned out to be so wrong.
“September 11 was the first day of school. There were eight thousand students around the World Trade Center towers. Parents had just dropped off their children — as did my wife with our three — when the sinister shadow of the first plane passed over them in the schoolyard. Few of these parents made it to work. Those who did came back down the steps right away, like many of our friends, ignoring the fatal direction to ‘stay where you are.’
“You may not see the connection yet with Fred Danback, but there is a direct link in my mind. Here it is: all of the schools around the towers were built since the late 1970s. Because Danback was willing to be demoted, the river became cleaner. Because the river became cleaner, the parks around the river became attractive. Because the parks were good, young couples becoming parents decided to stay in their small Battery Park apartments instead of escaping to suburbia. Because of the resulting tremendous increase in the student population starting in the late seventies, the city built all of those schools.
“I am convinced Fred Danback made a difference on 9/11. One person with the courage to be demoted, one person willing to sacrifice for the restoration of beauty, created a ripple effect in culture with immeasurable generative influence. The effects of his action cannot be measured but can only be told in how we live our lives— and so it is worth noting that the children of 9/11, including our three, grew up to be enormously resilient, creative, and community-minded.”
Fred lost money, but his generation of beauty saved six times the number of lives that died on 9/11 and changed an entire generation. I don’t think if it were me I’d trade any of that for any dollar amount. “Keep your hearts away from the love of money.” I think you underestimate what people value and how they pay forward the things they value — my cousin committed suicide this February, therefore I cannot possibly give back to her what she gave to me (and others) for free in her cut-short life. But I happily pass it on and share the brief light she offered the world.
As for education, if that’s the way it works in your state, then I’m impressed, because the general consensus around the country and especially here in New York City is that there are very few degrees left worth the economic cost. Here, people are hired far more often based on their experience. Based on what they gave the world, not what they’ve taken. The exception, of course, has nothing to do with money as shown in my piece Why I’m Proud of My Alma Mater for Getting Ranked Lowest Return on Investment. The time investment is far more interesting to me, but then again the value you’re ascribing is the liberation of those intransitive subjects — things that help you teach yourself and become a better person, not a better product. For it’s your mind we’re talking about when we talk about education and, as that blog post above^ shows, the purpose is to undo the ruin done by the fall. See also Lewis’ The Abolition of Man.
Now you’re getting into something interesting to me when you say, “Information may wish to be free, but if unknown then it will not be valued.” Really? I think authors like Cory Doctorow, Hugh Howey, and anyone who reads Tim Grahal’s work or uses Noistrade Books would disagree heartily with that statement. These are men that live off of tips as much as they live off of book purchases. Doctorow often says that the problem isn’t piracy these days, the problem is obscurity. The easiest way to fight obscurity is to trade emails for free books or to give away content and get email addresses (or some other information) that gets you in touch with your audience. There’s a value in the trade of information — spies have known this for centuries. And in word of mouth, you’re right. I think those are worth more than any price tag barrier you wish to create.
But I’m diverting. Let me address your prime objection, not these tertiary arguments ::
Am I saying you should never charge?
No. You should charge. You should make a living.
But here’s what I did. I said, “Theology doesn’t make much money. I need to learn a craft so that I can make a sustainable income. I know! I’ll pursue literature!”
Said bluntly like that, you can see why I naturally discourage anyone who wants to pursue this as a career. And I make a distinciton between career a vocation — that to which you were called. Granted, my income has doubled every year since I started — and I hope to continue the trend — but still it’s as hard as starting your own business. It’s worse — you’re starting your own patronage and client hood as an artist. As I said before, this country is not kind to its artists. Post on that to follow at some nebulous date in the future.
But I also know if you’re like me, nothing I say will deter you. This is good. You will need to save your strength and thicken your skin for rejection, poverty, and a lack of serious reception by both the literary and theological communities. But you will be strong if you’re like me and you persist. I’ve been at this for a decade now and am just now seeing momentum — heck I just now was able to do lunch with the literary agent I’ve wanted since I was 18 years old and I still haven’t sold a major work. I’ve finished five novels and a screenplay, I’ve started seven others, sold dozens of stories and articles and written hundreds of poems and songs. I have by no means arrived. But I do know how to brush off rejection, I’ve even come to expect it so that it’s a wonderful surprise when something sells. I’m used to people ignoring my work, even good friends. But the time will come when the momentum reaches a tipping point. And if it doesn’t, I’m happy to write novels in between shifts as a janitor or whatever becomes of me.
Before I give you some practical suggestions, I need to address your other questions.
Actually “mirroring” the greats is exactly what I would call it, but I know what you mean: I have no interest nor stake in cloning.
It’s not just that way with foul language. Few Christians — few people in general — think through the implications of their conclusions or how to argue the opposing side. In my opinion, I cannot know what I’m accepting fully until I also know what I’m rejecting fully. That’s why Nietzsche was one of the few true atheists (as David Bently Hart said in “Believe It or Not“). When I’m at my best, I try to do this with everything I think and do and choose.
Regarding your responses to point #2 ::
A. I feel doubly so in regard to enterprise between Christians. Let Christians have their tent making and sell things if they must, but to call it “Christian” gets us back to Lewis’ boiled egg analogy. And if it descends into usury, then may God judge us ever so severely for exploiting our brothers and sisters, let alone our fellow humans.
B. I’m sorry, I thought we were talking about selling Christian books as a product. If you meant missionary support, tithing, or patronage — I myself am patronized by several dozen people. I [at the time of writing this also made] the other half of his income off of contract work. I’m disinterested in getting rich off the Gospel. I counter your 1 Corinthians 9:14 with 1 Timothy 6:5
C. NOW WE’RE ONTO SOMETHING! I think you should seriously consider self-publishing. You would have to (1) pay for a cover (2) hire an editor and (3) either format the book yourself or hire someone BUT if you do it well and have an audience, Hugh Howey has shown that you can actually make more through a lower price point than if you published traditionally :: http://authorearnings.com
Regarding your responses to #3 ::
I think if the fiction world doesn’t care that Brandon Sanderson is a devout Mormon, that Jim Butcher grew up in a strict fundamentalist home and that, according to them, Orson Scott Card is a “violent bigot” — not my words — they won’t care if you’re who you say you are. An audience will find you. What you’re worried about is what I’m worried about, which is why I called myself the proper word: a coward. Paul said that he was not ashamed of the Gospel — neither am I anymore, though it took many years. People want you to recant all manner of things on the internet, but I’ve found that a non-response is just as powerful as engaging them on an intellectual level. Still working these things out myself (with a professional biblical counselor, mind you, I’m not the ripest pear in the peck), but I do believe it’s better to be who you are. If you’re worried about being a hypocrite or inconsistent, then repent. But I doubt it’s that. I’ve had this conversation with more Christians than you know and what they really fear is being “thrown out of the synagogue” as it were. Well don’t fear the religious establishment. Follow Jesus. I call you, as a pastor, to follow Jesus. And if he’s calling you into fiction, then you must do it.
Your potential pseudonym must come from some other source than this.
But you’re being honest, as you said — you feel their potential power to keep you from earning a living as a professional Christian, whatever that means. Well then if this is a legitimate fear, you must make a choice. So far, I’ve found it quite easy to bolster the work of church planters here in New York City and to do so on support having published works that are salty in nature. In my experience, the people who know you support you and your vision, not some specific act. If it’s the specific act they support (that sermon, this article), they were never going to stick around in the first place. They must support you, as a unique human being and minister of the gospel. If they don’t, you were never going to be around there long term anyways.
But I also realize that you’re worried about your family — this isn’t just you we’re talking about. So I’ll give two further pieces of advice. The first is you have a mandate from God to provide as best as you can. So do that and if you’re called to vocational ministry, then write your novels and put them in a trunk and make sure you have a creative trust in place through a last will and testament (see Neil Gaiman’s simple will if you don’t have one). And then let your grandchildren determine whether or not your work has merit. This is the safest route that still lets you creatively produce.
At the end of the day, however, it is God who provides, the Holy Spirit who sustains. Content yourself with being willing to work some dead-beat job as a good man in a bad world and nothing will be able to touch you. Some of my best writing was accomplished on night shift at the hospital. I may well return to that line of work some day if for nothing else for the story fodder and the ability to bind up the wounded.
However you will find, I think, that fantasy and scifi has its origins in Christianity. There’s also a forthcoming post I’m going to write defending Young Adult literature that will explain this, but it’s true. Lewis and Tolkien are the modern heroes, both Christians. So is J.K. Rowling (though she struggles a bit more than they). So was Dante. Shakespeare. Dickens. Tennyson. Coleridge. Spenser. The list goes on. Man up and write it and decide what to do with it later. You don’t need my permission. You need to do the work. Buy a copy of The War of Art, kick your resistance and your temptation to quit in the teeth, and write your novel. Then we can talk about whether you should bury or publish, self-publish or sell it through an agent, to a Christian house (whatever the hell that means) or to a secular publisher (again, I don’t understand the distinction).
You’re assuming at the end of the day that the audience that existed for C.S. Lewis in a time that was much more hostile to Christians does not exist today — the age that has bought ten times the number of C.S. Lewis books than were sold while he lived. You’re assuming that no one will like you and in so doing are exposing your need to be liked. I’m not judging you — I struggle with this more than any one as I’ve said multiple times in this thread — but that’s not a statement based on whether or not you will be accepted. You’re assuming also that audiences are as broad as they used to be rather than built around niche silos centered on the author. I have as devout readers a Jew, an Saudi Muslim, an Australian astrologist, an atheistic anarchist, a Kentucky-born millennial Christian, and a young British bisexual, and I could go on and on. All of them seem to care about my work as much as I care about them and all of them interact via email now and again. I would never have predicted that, less that some of them who are not Christians would end up supporting our church planting efforts in NYC, but there you have it. They resonate because we all share headspace. They respond because we are kindred spirits. That is enough.
But even if that did not exist, I would still write because I was made to write and I feel His pleasure when I do so. I highly doubt anything I write will last because it’s very rare for an author to have his works live on stronger after his death than they did after his life. I have come to terms with this. You should too.
In the end, if writing fantasy is something you expect to be doing in the New Heavens and New Earth, by all means do it now. I’m playing guitar at a show at Rockwood Stage 3 in The East Village this Sunday night. I won’t get paid a dime. I’m doing it under a pseudonym. But you can bet that I’ll have the time of my life.
Living well, in the end, is the best way to make sure you die well. So too with writing and pastoring the flock of God, hypocritical judgment be damned. Literally.