Prophetic Writing, Stories, and Teachable Hearts
You want to be a missionary?You got that missionary zeal?Let a stranger change your lifeHow's that make you feel?You want to be a writerBut you don't know how or whenFind a quiet placeUse a humble penYou want to talk, talk, talk about itAll night squawk aboutThe ocean and the atmosphereWell, I've been away for a long timeAnd it looks like a mess around here
—Paul Simon, "Hurricane Eye"
I love prophetic writing. By "prophetic" I mean the writer stands on the fringes of society, critiquing it and calling listeners to repent and return to a place of belonging. I personally owe a great debt of gratitude to prophetic writers like Barbara Kingsolver, Wendell Berry, and Shane Claiborne, for helping me find my place as an organic farmer. I'd love to see others benefit similarly, but the problem with prophetic writing is that most people reject it straight away. Someone with a hole inside (some kind of hunger or brokenness) will find nourishment and hospitality in the words of a prophet, but to anyone presuming himself whole and satisfied, or just having the wrong shape of hole, a prophet will appear preachy or self-righteous.
This is why I no longer haphazardly recommend Wendell Berry's essays. He's my favorite writer, and his direct influence on me has been stronger than any other. But when I first discovered him I sought him out because I was on a journey and felt he might be the next step. I had the stance of a seeker: eager, unguarded, and open. Had I read The Unsettling of America a year earlier instead (in class, say) I'd have rejected his audacious no-holds-barred critique of industrial society, dismissed him as a bitter, self-righteous curmudgeon, and never read him again. My heart hardened, I'd have ended up in a worse place than where I started. So, as much as I want more buddies to bond with over the spiritual benefits of farming or the hellishness of industrialism, I'm careful about Wendell Berry recommendations.
Prophetic writing has its place (as nourishment for the hungry), but it can't open a closed mind. It certainly can't convert the masses. A story, on the other hand, can gently burrow into the hardest of hearts.
Stories are one of the most universal and fundamental components of human culture. And stories work only insomuch as the listener's disbelief can be suspended. A good story coaxes people into dropping their hearts' defenses, and rewards them for doing so. So it presents an opportunity to teach.
It's no surprise, then, that Jesus taught through stories, and that virtually every religion uses stories. Stories soften our hearts and make us teachable.
Consider Star Wars: I know many conservative Christians who'd scoff at the possibility that their own faith could be bettered with concepts from Eastern spirituality. But take some such concepts, call them "the Force" and put them in an awesome story, and suddenly they're a wellspring of sermon illustrations.
Anyway, the upshot of all this is that I want to write a fantasy epic. I love fantasy epics (e.g. Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Battlestar Galactica), but they frustrate me in their unwillingness to fully embrace Christlike (especially anarcho-pacifist) values. Plenty of stories include hints here and there: Batman and Aang never kill anyone, Luke refuses to fight the Emperor, the Ring of Power must be destroyed and not wielded, and so on. And almost every epic story includes heavy doses of self-sacrificial love. But these nuggets of Christlikeness exist in the context of acceptable, unquestioned violence. Luke Skywalker opens himself to death aboard the second Death Star for the chance to save his father's soul, but how many redeemable minions does he kill along the way? If real-life stories of passive resistance or martyrdom can be compelling (and I believe they are), why can't they work in a fantasy world? I'm convinced it can be done.
But, I don't want to cram my epically bounteous wisdom down the throats of my readers. If my message is anarcho-pacifism, then I must use anarcho-pacifist (read: non-coercive) means to convey it. How can I speak in a gentle, disarming manner? And more importantly, how can I safeguard against the inevitable failings of my own wisdom, freeing readers to dodge my mistakes and find a clearer version of the truth than my own?
After much thought and discussion on the subject (thanks Steve and Jeff especially), here are a few keys I've discovered so far:
The truth flourishes in freedom. If I try to control what my reader thinks, the truth will suffer - even when I'm right. If I let go, accept the limits of my influence, and leave room for the reader to draw her own conclusions, that will create a hospitable environment for truth.
It helps to ask this question: What is my goal? How do I want to change the reader? If I want to indoctrinate her, then I'll do well to spoon-feed her my answers. But if on the other hand I want her to become smarter or wiser, then I can give her some tools and direction but must ultimately let her find her own answers. Do I want the reader to approach the truth, or do I just want her to agree with me, right or wrong? (Hopefully I'll ask myself the same questions when I have kids.)
Don't judge. Here's something Anne Lamott executes masterfully in her memoir Traveling Mercies. She goes on and on about the bad stuff she's done: drug abuse, binge drinking, abortion, etc. - and never calls them bad. Never excuses them either. Where other authors might trip over themselves to insist that yes, they know this stuff is bad, don't freak out (or no, it's not that bad, get over it), she doesn't judge herself at all. Neither guarded nor drowning in self-conscious meekness, she can speak clearly and to the point, unhindered.
My favorite movie WALL-E is another example. While it conveys a clear message about what it means to be alive, the film never stoops to belittle the fat, weak humans who have come so far from the essence of humanity. Rather than a finger wagging in disapproval ("Shame on you, fatty!"), it is a finger curled to beckon, calling viewers back to the good stuff - dancing and farming, for instance - because the good stuff is worth it. The viewer can keep his guard down because he never comes under attack.
Tell an awesome story. Apparently there was a disagreement between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien on this point. Lewis wrote the Narnia stories as allegory, while Tolkien disliked the blunt allegory and felt that if he wrote the best novel he could, wisdom and truth would follow naturally. For my part, I think Tolkien had the right idea, because while the wisdom presented in Narnia fails exactly where Lewis fails, the wisdom in Lord of the Rings can more freely transcend the failings of the author.
And more pragmatically: If the story is to be a vessel for some message, then it must be awesome to keep the reader's guard down (disbelief suspended) long enough to relay said message. There is no compromise between story and message. The strength of the message is limited by the strength of the story, so whenever the story suffers for the sake of message, the message suffers too. Thus, all the components of a great yarn (humor, beauty, pathos, excitement, style, cohesion, etc.) further the writer's cause.
Have a clear purpose. In my first few creative writing classes in college, most of my pieces, while funny or imaginative, ultimately fell flat. Some did so because they aimed for nothing beyond laughs, and others because they pursued themes I hadn't thought much about and didn't care much about. But in the fall of 2009, when I had my "conversion experience", my writing improved drastically. With a new sense of direction, my work livened up, becoming funnier, more relatable, and more relevant all at once.
Besides, I don't think it's possible to create a world without your worldview slipping out. A tale bearing no opinions is a tale never told. Better to convey a message thoughtfully and deliberately than accidentally.
No matter what you write, someone will reject it. There is no ultimate story that will disarm anyone and everyone. And that's okay. Let go, breathe, forgive them and forgive yourself.
Overall, I feel the goal is thoughtful balance. With thoughtful balance, a bard can serve the same end as a prophet, calling listeners to return to their rightful place, their true identity, and a community of belonging.
When it's not too hotNot too coldNot too meekNot too boldWhen it's just right and you have sunlightThen we're homeFinally home
—Paul Simon, "Hurricane Eye"
My thought process here is very much in-progress. I hope to revisit this topic in the future as I mull it over further. In the meantime, reader, I'd love to hear your answers to some questions: What stories changed you, and how did they manage it? What stories did you reject for being too preachy or heavy-handed?