Literary Fiction as Spiritual Journey: Introduction

(Transcribed from the November 2003 Image Conference)

I consider myself among all men most blessed, because though my father was a pastor he pursued a Master’s degree in English literature and consequently left piles of books around my home. I learned as a kid surrounded by these tomes that I loved to read, and I loved to read people who had ideas. One of the great shocks of getting into broadcasting was to learn that publishers would send me review copies of any book I wanted for free. So this is among my many blessings.

Because I am a broadcaster, in addition to reading these books (my essential policy on my show is that I will not interview an author unless I’ve read their book), I get to talk to the people who write these books, discussing with them what I have concluded are the core issues and central ideas of their book. But also, I’m often able to get in conversations about their own journey, because I almost always find that in serious writing the work is a manifestation of the heart and mind of the person behind that work. The greatest joy they can experience is to feel like someone has at least connected with that work and wants to talk about it, because it’s the stuff that matters to them.

I have developed my own belief that it is a sign of disrespect to not read and engage the work of a writer with the same intensity with which they wrote it.. The other day David Guterson was on the show. He’s best known for Snow Falling on Cedars. He’s an agnostic who spent five years of his life writing Our Lady of the Woods. I figure if somebody has spent five years of their life working on something that I’m going to get 36 minutes to talk to them about, it would be nice for me to acknowledge that their work is not in vain, that somebody wants to connect to it.

As a prolific reader, I’ve discovered the truth of some maxims not original to me, but confirmed by my experience. One of them is “in every fat book is a thin book trying to get out. “ I’ve also learned that “the reason so few good books are written is that so few people who can write know anything,” which is a great burden for a writer who’s been given the gift of communication but absolutely hasn’t figured out what they think.

I’m also captivated in my work by the Samuel Johnson quote, “Your manuscript is both good and original, but the part that is good is not original and the part that is original is not good.” I spend a good deal of my time interacting with material of varying degrees of quality but I have, fortunately, arrived at a place where I pretty much only do the books that I want to do with rare exception. So I don’t run into these quite so much.

I also understand that the challenge of the writer today, and I think Jonathan Franzen captured this well when he said, “The novelist has more and more to say to readers who have less and less time to read.” And he said, “Where to find the energy to engage a culture in crisis when the crisis consists in the impossibility of engaging the culture.” So any cultural engager who is a writer or a communicator has the challenge of finding a way to connect, particularly to an American culture that is accustomed to fast food and fast everything, when our problems aren’t of a simple nature nor are their solutions.

What I want to do today is to simply observe some of what I’ve learned by engaging writers, some of what I’ve observed, some of how I’ve come to understand what I’m observing, and then a word of exhortation to readers and writers that grows out of my own faith commitment.

And my observation would start with the simple notion that serious writing reflects spiritual journey, that when you’re reading someone who is a thinking person you’re usually getting a slice of where they are in their journey. I was a child of the ¢â‚¬Ëœ60s who came to a faith commitment just before college and went to the Bay Area, San Francisco, where Haight/Ashbury was giving birth to a cultural revolution. I was a new believer sitting at Fillmore West listening to Jefferson Airplane with people smoking grass on both sides of me, and asking, before the bracelet was popular, “What would Jesus do?”

I knew instinctively that Jesus called me into this culture, and I knew by observation that I was part of an American church that was very uncomfortable with that kind of engagement. I also saw, particularly through film and music of the day, that the locus of spiritual conversation was moving outside of the academic arena, outside of the religious arena, and into the popular culture. You remember songs like “Jesus is Just All Right,” or “My Sweet Lord,” or “I’ve Got a Friend in Jesus,” “Spirit in the Sky,” Joni Mitchell, “We’re two billion year old carbon, we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.” We were hearing all of these themes of spiritual journey working their way into the popular culture.

Today, in the 21st century, if you want to get in a conversation about issues of spiritual journey, it’s more likely to happen after seeing a movie like Mystic River, or reading a good book, or listening to the latest CD of Sting, than it is to happen after attending a religious service, because seekers are not tending to go to religious services. Which brings me to literary fiction issue is in the context of a broader shift of conversation about spiritual ideas into the popular culture. (Continued tomorrow).

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