Halfway through my final year of graduate school, my faculty advisor called me into his office. “Chosen the three writers you’re going to concentrate on for your comprehensive exams yet?” he asked.
“Steinbeck, Twain, and Flannery O’Connor,” I said.
He was quiet. “That’s it?” he said.
He shrugged. “Well…O’Connor’s okay, I guess. But Twain and Steinbeck—I’m not even sure what I’d ask you about them. Why don’t you choose someone with more depth? Someone whose work represents a philosophical thought system of some kind, someone with ideas? How about Faulkner, or D. H. Lawrence, or even Hemingway? We could have some fun with those.”
I had nothing against Faulkner and Lawrence and Hemingway. As an undergraduate, I had often said that Hemingway was my favorite writer. And like any other graduate student, I greatly enjoyed the late-night bull sessions arguing about the “philosophical thought systems” of writers.
The truth was, I hadn’t asked myself why I’d chosen the three that I had—they had simply appealed to me. So I was surprised that the answer was quick in coming. “Because I’ve chosen storytellers,” I said, “writers who excel at crafting strong plots peopled with memorable characters. That’s the kind of fiction I want to write myself.”
And it was. And is. I love language, and I love to play with it, but I don’t want to write stories that are primarily just language play, like Faulkner or Updike at their most self-indulgent. (Both of those writers, at their best, can be excellent storytellers.) I don’t want to write stories that are essentially just an apologetic for some philosophical system, such as Lawrence with Freudianism or George Bernard Shaw with socialism or Upton Sinclair with social reform. I want to create worlds of people and events that readers enter into as completely as they would inhabit a new planet, and remain there until the story is over.
But you’re a Christian writer, some might point out. Aren’t you essentially doing the same thing with your faith as Shaw did with socialism?
I hope not. It’s not my intention to make my stories an apologetic for the Christian faith.
There’s a place for that, but it’s not the kind of writing that appeals to me.
That means, of course, that some things I write will have no overt Christian content. If I’m to be honest in my writing (and shouldn’t we as Christian writers be, above all, honest?), I don’t see a way around that. If a story is a type of conversation with a reader, and if those conversations follow the pattern of all of my other conversations, then all will (or should) reflect my values and my beliefs, but not all mention Christ, and not all are for the purpose of spreading the gospel. Some are far more mundane, more whimsical, more focused on the temporal.
It also means that some of my writings, far from being an apologetic, will express my struggles and failures in my faith, as well as my doubts.
But above all, it means that I’m participating with God in the creative act. It could be argued that God’s creation itself is a poor apologetic for faith in him! When one looks at the history of mankind, and at society all around us, it doesn’t seem to be working as he must have planned it. Until, of course, one realizes that in this case the exception proves the rule.
Like God, I’m creating a world populated by self-willed beings who consistently sneak out from under my control. Like God, I have a strongly held value system that I would like my own characters (or at least the protagonists) to adhere to—but I’ve chosen not to force them to, and they seem to delight in slipping their collars and racing out into the street to chase cars. Like God, I expect to ultimately redeem my creation, but in the meantime, its inhabitants cause me and themselves a world of grief.
Like God, I’m a storyteller—not a pedant.
Dave Lambert is a novelist, an editor, and a musician. An all-around Renaissance Man . . .