Writing can mean many things to many different people.
For me, writing is a means of expression—as an introvert, I struggle to voice my opinions aloud and often leave things unsaid in conversations. Writing is a means of discovering what I believe. A lot of times, I’ll have opinions about something, but once I write about it, I’ll come to a better and clearer understanding of what I think about a topic.
Writing, for me, is also a means of worship.
What exactly do I mean by saying “writing is an act of worship”? Worship doesn’t just mean singing a hymn or a contemporary praise song on a Sunday morning. Webster’s American Dictionary defines the act of worship (verb) as “To adore; to pay divine honors to; to reverence with supreme respect and veneration.”
In other words, my writing is a way of giving back to God. Writing is my way of imitating Jesus, who is described as “the author and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:2, NASB), and God the Father, who is often described as the “Creator” (Ecclesiastes 12: 1, Psalm 33:1, et al.).
On the other hand, I don’t mean that every story I write is intended to be preachy. As a chaplain’s kid, I grew up hearing plenty of sermons. I know what they sound like, but I’m not here to write them. I believe they have their place in the world, just not in stories, at least not in the sense that the story itself becomes a grand metaphor for how to live your life. Writing stories so that they’re super preachy can not only isolate a large portion of one’s audience, but it can also mean the writer is inserting their own meaning where it doesn’t necessarily belong.
Admittedly, it’s really hard to write a story—or even a blog post—without being preachy. Maybe one day I’ll get it down right.
Disclaimer: I realize that not all readers share my belief system. This post is not an attempt to bash you over the head with a brick or a copy of Les Mis. Rather, I will be talking about my beliefs as a Christian and how they influence my writing. I will mention some Scripture passages as a means of reference for those interested. This post will be rather unlike my usual ones. It’s part-confession, part-rant, and part-desire.
One summer, I participated as a volunteer for our local Vacation Bible School (VBS), a week-long day summer camp for kids. It’s kinda like Sunday school but with more food, games, and music. During one of the morning lessons, the speaker talked about the story where Jesus meets the woman at the well (see John 4).
In this story, Jesus (a Jew) is speaking with a woman (a Samaritan). In those days, Jews and Samaritans didn’t associate because of cultural and religious reasons any more than men associated with women who weren’t in their family. They talked about the promised Savior, and Jesus told her facts about herself that He couldn’t have naturally known, like how she had five husbands before. Their conversation helped solidify her belief in Him as the Savior, the Messiah.
The takeaway for the kids at VBS, however, was that Jesus loves you even when you feel alone. There was no mention of cultural differences, which the kids could grasp as we were Americans living in in Germany. There was no mention of the woman having had five husbands (who picked this passage anyway?), even though I’m certain a lot of the kids had parents who had been divorced and remarried. I could go on, but I’ll stop there.
While I realize you can only fit so much into a lesson fit for kids ages five to twelve, I don’t believe in watering down Scripture either. I’m not saying VBS is a bad program; I support the education it provides for kids and the respite for their parents. But we can do better.
To treat the Bible like a G-rated book is to do a great disservice and encourage censorship. Historical tours in Europe talk about death and the plague and beheadings (not that I’m saying they should, just that they do). In London, I’ve seen parents take their kids to see plays like Julius Caesar and Les Miserables—plays with lots of death, mind you—because of the cultural experience.
In many ways, fiction gives writers the opportunity to talk about tough topics. I’d like to see more Christian writers tackle tough issues through fiction rather than nonfiction. In his essay “Christian Apologetics”, C. S. Lewis wrote something similar:
“We can make people (often) attend to the Christian point of view for half an hour or so; but the moment they have gone away from our lecture or laid down our article, they are plunged back into a world where the opposite position is taken for granted. […] What we [Christians] want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects — with their Christianity latent.”
Like Lewis, when I write stories, they are not overtly Christian fiction, at least not in the sense that my story is part-narrative, part-devotional. I prefer the more subtle approach with good themes and realistic, well-developed characters.
When I write a story, I don’t believe in watering down truths so they sound nice and safe. Stories aren’t safe—they bite. While the most blood a physical book may draw might just be a papercut, books tend to impact readers on an intellectual and/or emotional level. For example, I wanted to throw March, Book 3 up against the wall because of the way it portrayed the horrific ways people treat each other. A Monster Calls made me ugly cry—I don’t usually cry while reading, but that day I was already having a bad bout of depression (I don’t recommend reading books you know will make you suffer more, by the way). While nonfiction tends to connect with the head, fiction connects with the heart.
As a Christian, I’ve written a fantasy series with multiculturalism and refugees. I’ve written a contemporary novel featuring mental health struggles and con artists. I’d like to write more stories that don’t shy away from topics like sex (believe it or not, I’m not against it; but that is a lengthy topic for another time), or I’d like to write stories that address gender stereotyping (my dad’s the emotional one, and my mom’s the logical one; I like to call them Kirk and Spock).
Now you might be wondering: That’s all good, but what do subtle themes and blatant truths have to do with writing as a way of giving back to God? What does it have to do with worship?
I may not be a pastor, but storytelling is a part of my ministry, the way I connect with people. Many of my stories contain themes that reflect my beliefs about God and people. The act of writing itself, for me, is also a sort of meditation, a way for me examine myself and the world. Writing is one of the ways I like to honor God.
Similarly, every morning—or afternoon depending on my shift—when I bike to work, I pray. I know that sounds super spiritual, but if I’m completely honest, I’m not very good at it. I’ll be halfway through praying for my family, friends, and co-workers, and I’ll get distracted by crossing the street or the sound of traffic or birdsong. It’s not that I have a short attention span either—I can focus on one project for hours on end and get in the zone—but I struggle talking with God.
Every time I write a story, I wish I could say every piece of writing is dedicated to God. But sometimes I get caught up in the story or the blog post. I get distracted by myself. Every day, I’m learning to readjust my focus. Every day, I’m learning that this world isn’t about me. As I learn what my writing is really for, I remember the words that one of my MBA professors used to quote—
“Three bricklayers are asked: ‘What are you doing?’ The first says, ‘I am laying bricks.’ The second says, ‘I am building a church.’ And the third says, ‘I am building the house of God.’ The first bricklayer has a job. The second has a career. The third has a calling.”
—Angela Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance
Even when I don’t know what kind of day job I want next or even where I want to live, I know that I am called to write. I am meant to create stories as a way of thanking my God. I am called to worship.
Let’s chat! What does writing mean to you? What does your calling look like? How much truth goes into your stories, and what are some ways you write without being preachy?
Literary references: American Dictionary of the English Language (First edition reprint, 1828); the Holy Bible; Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables; William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar; C. S. Lewis’ God in the Dock; John Lewis’ March, Book 3; Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls; and Angela Duckworth’s Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance