Monday, November 14, 2011

Prophetic Writing, Stories, and Teachable Hearts

You want to be a missionary?
You got that missionary zeal?
Let a stranger change your life
How's that make you feel?
You want to be a writer
But you don't know how or when
Find a quiet place
Use a humble pen

You want to talk, talk, talk about it
All night squawk about
The ocean and the atmosphere
Well, I've been away for a long time
And 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:

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 hot
Not too cold
Not too meek
Not too bold
When it's just right and you have sunlight
Then we're home
Finally 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?