I had a crisis in college. The closer I got to graduating with a degree in writing at a Christian college, the worse it got. The problem? Should I write for Christian publications or secular? One was safe, comfortable, but came with limits. The other was limitless and totally unsafe. At least, that’s how I saw it.
Until I read Walking on Water. One of the first barriers Madeleine L’Engel destroys is the concept that there is a barrier between Christians and the arts be they secular or “christian” markets. I hadn’t considered that all “art” by a Christian is christian art before this book.
Which is why I wanted to create a blog series about this book as I reread it. Andrea and I are in the process of creating… resources for Christian artists in blogs, classes, and a conference for Christians that breaks the same barriers down between Christian artists, their church community, and their work regardless of where it is shown.
For a long time, we’ve both felt like we had to stick to this formula of: get married, find a job, buy a house, and have kids. By “job” usually they mean the traditional 9-5 with benefits, vacation time, and all that jazz.
There’s just one problem… that’s not us. And we are sure that there are other creatives in the Christian community who also feel like this. So we are on an adventure to help others become independent and validated in their creative ventures.
So if you’re tired of “playing it safe” or hearing “that’s not how it’s done” with regards to work and art, please join us on this journey!
I’m giving myself permission. To write what is in my heart, to screw it up, to let my creative side be free to pursue the words in my heart. To me, creativity isn’t just a talent or a trade, it’s also a form of worship. God is creative. I am made in God’s image. When I create, I am connecting with God on a spiritual level.
“Slow Me down, Lord. Stay open to the voice of the Spirit. Listen to the silence.” – Page 3
Do you hate silent spaces? I do. My head likes to start prioritizing what needs to be done, what I should be doing, and who I should be. Andrea likes to remind of something our old pastor used to say, “don’t should yourself.”
So when the first couple pages of L’Engle’s book focus on silences and contemplation, I was reluctant to ponder it. I forgot about these pages when I first read them in college over a decade ago.
I struggle with time. Making time for devotions, passion projects I write between assignments, time for being a husband and a father. It’s a vicious cycle of “shoulds.”
“The Holy Spirit does not hesitate to use any method at hand to make a point to us reluctant creatures.” The Holy Spirit is definitely using this book to make that point to me.
“And as I listen to the silence, I learn that my feelings about art and my feelings about the Creator of the Universe are inseparable. To try to talk about art and about Christianity is for me one and the same thing, and it means attempting to share the meaning of my life, what gives it, for me, its tragedy and its glory.” – page 6
I often like to remind myself of this: the first job that God ever gave man was naming animals. Think about that for a second. God could’ve just pointed and said, “This, Adam, is a robin. And this is a platypus. His attributes amuse me and will confuse your future generations.” But He didn’t. He let Adam name the animals. That was a creative task. That’s a huge responsibility too. Imagine if he’d named the porcupine something that means, “soft squishy cute animal that loves being petted.”
L’Engle goes on to quote Leonard Bernstein. He says music is “cosmos in chaos.” L’Engle adds “all art is cosmos, cosmos found within chaos.” One thing as a writer I struggle with is allowing chaos and disorder. I often want my words to be perfect, but writing is messy. Life is messy. Art imitates are in that way.
Now, not all art is art. L’Engle likes to point out that some artists “look at the world around them and see chaos, and instead of discovering cosmos, they reproduce chaos… reproduction of chaos is neither art, nor is it Christian.” I think that means art needs to not just reiterate the mess, but find the gems in it. I could be wrong.
How can art not be art? Well, part of art requires discipline and obedience. “God is always calling us to do the impossible.” – page 9
Part of giving myself permission to be a creative being requires permission to do the impossible: to build worlds in my mind, give birth to characters, and write stories that might not be possible in our reality, but are still true to us.
I love the way L’Engle puts this next part:
“Sometimes I will sit on a sun-warmed rock to dry and think of Peter walking across the water to meet Jesus. As long as he didn’t remember that we human beings have forgotten how to walk on water, he was able to do it.”
I know so many authors who lament, “How did I ever get through that book?” when writing their second. They have to relearn walking on water all over again because each book is as different as a child birth. Similar, but so very different, if you ask their mother. If you’re stuck in a work and have that feeling, you’re not alone. It happens to every artist.
“If it can be verified, we don’t need faith.” – page 12
Faith requires saying yes. It means sacrifice, obedience, possibly even a few acts of what can only be described as madness to the outside viewer. But the results are without question. Andrea works completely from home. For a long time, not everyone around us understood. If work dried up, their response was “why doesn’t she get a part-time job?” And while, in truly desperate times, that can be true, for us it usually means we need to take more creative risks. We dust off old ideas we discarded think it was too far-fetched and we try them in faith. You’d be surprised how often we succeed when we do that.
“When a shoddy novel is published, the writer is rejecting the obedient response, taking the easy way out. But when the words mean even more than the writer knew they meant, then the writer has been listening. And sometimes when we listen, we are led into places we do not expect, adventures we do not always understand.” – page 13
I have read many books where the writer took the easy way out. Recently I read two books from one author, one that was daring and wonderful and one that I would definitely label shoddy or “safe.” I left the second unfinished.
This also reminds me of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, where it is said of Aslan, the “God” of that realm, “He is good, but not safe.”
There are stories in me that I am terrified of writing, characters who say and act in ways definitely foreign to me, whom I cringe to introduce to members of my family were they to meet them in reality. “Hey mom, I’d like you to meet this character, but don’t offer them any wine…” I shudder to think of her reaction.
I don’t always understand why I make the characters I do or why they misbehave, sometimes throwing the plot I’ve made into disarray. If they did act proper and obedient, I am certain of one thing: these would be boring stories. But there is an underlying foundation of all the stories I create, it is faith. Not that there is an obvious symbolism or a scripture verse to neatly wrap a bow at the end of the story. What I mean is that my faith binds each story with belief, in my abilities and the One who gave them to me.
“One doesn’t have to understand to be obedient.” – page 13
During a Q and A, L’Engle recounts someone saying, “I read A Wrinkle in Time when I was eight or nine. I didn’t understand it, but I knew what it was about.” Again, I come back to the idea of binding.
“When the artist is truly servant of the work, the work is better than the artist; Shakespeare knew how to listen to his work, and so he often wrote better than he could write.” page 14
Giving myself permission to create is liberating. It liberates me to be free to serve the work I am giving. It’s paradoxical, I suppose, to be liberated to serve. But that is how Jesus was. The King of Kings came in poverty, washed His followers feet as a servant, and died on a Cross. And we call his resurrection the greatest victory of all time. In obscurity he made history, and in small gestures he transformed the world.
Writing demands the same. Each word is obscure in and of itself, each sentence but a gesture. Put them together with patience, obedience, and faith, and you may wind up with something greater than your talent allows.