Monday, August 07, 2006

Calvin seminar: Further thoughts on Christian writing

Nathan Bierma, one of my fellow participants in the Calvin seminar on writing as Christian proclamation, has posted some notes from the second week of our seminar. One of the topics that came up was Alan Jacobs's notion of a hermeneutic of love rather than a hermeneutic of suspicion. We discussed the challenges of approaching texts with which we disagree or find distasteful for one reason or another, whether they be too polemical or too simplistic or too conservative or too liberal or whatever. What might it look like to offer a "charitable reading" of such texts? More significantly, for Christian writers and bloggers, what is "charitable writing"?

Andy Crouch offered the concept of journalist (and any writer) as servant, in which the writer serves the subject matter (including sources and interviewees), as well as the reader and the truth. An example of this might be Crouch's Books & Culture essay "Omit Unnecessary Words" comparing the Jerry B. Jenkins Christian Writers Guild with the Calvin Festival of Faith & Writing. While it would have been easy for Crouch to do a hatchet job on Jenkins, what emerges is a charitable portrait of Jenkins's intent and work with hopeful writers. While it's clear by the end of the article that the Calvin Festival is a far more thoughtful environment for Christian literature, Crouch has served his readers well by treating his subjects with dignity and respect.

Not that this means that Christian writing must degenerate into nicey-nice lovefest puff pieces. We also debated (somewhat vigorously at times) the role and place of Christian satire and sarcasm. Is there room for such styles and genres when thinking of writing as Christian proclamation? While we didn't arrive at any settled conclusion, several of us felt that there is a difference between satire and sarcasm, that sarcasm tends to be destructive while satire can be intended for redemptive and constructive purposes. The etymology of "sarcasm" derives from the Greek word sarx for flesh, specifically a verb form used in classical Greek literature to describe wild dogs tearing out flesh. Christians must wield sarcasm carefully, lest we tear out the flesh of our brothers and sisters!

Also, context is critical for satire to work well - certain genres, like the political cartoon, have established expectations for critiquing the status quo, and particular publications, like The Onion, and The Wittenburg Door have carefully cultivated brand identities where their readers expect and anticipate satire as commentary and critique. However, what works in The Door is not likely to fly in Christianity Today, as that is not its historic identity. Satire probably works best as a form of protest literature, speaking truth to power and critiquing institutions that are not receptive to ordinary dialogue. In that regard it stands in continuity with the biblical prophetic tradition. But satire/sarcasm probably should not be the default setting for Christian writing that is intended to provide pastoral care or priestly ministration.

Of course, some of us are by nature more sarcastic than others, and some readers appreciate sarcasm more receptively. But overall I'm not convinced that Christian witness is very winsome or effective when it is snarky. Jesus could be very biting in his attacks on religious hypocrisy, but he was not so toward the poor and the needy. From my location as a book editor, I think satire/sarcasm tends to work better in brief op-ed columns, articles, blogs and perhaps even sermons than it does in most book-length formats. Or, if used in a book, it can be more effective if used sparingly and selectively. Otherwise it can become wearisome.

We also discussed such topics as fiction, film and the internet, and I will have to save some thoughts for other posts. I'll just conclude my overall reflections with the theme that emerged for me over the course of the seminar: incarnation. Christian writing is incarnational, and the best kinds of Christian writing provide a holistic, embodied window into the human (and spiritual) experience. Regardless of genre, whether memoir or fiction or creative nonfiction or essay, incarnational writing takes abstract concepts and embodies them in words and print, illuminating true beauty and life. I often exhort my authors to "show, don't just tell," and this is a critique that I need to heed myself, since I tend to explain and tell rather than describe and show. As followers of the Word made flesh, Christian writers likewise are called to be incarnational through fully-orbed wordsmithing that demonstrates the power and appeal of the Christian story.


Anonymous said...

I think the insights of the Calvin seminar that you highlight are fantastic. I grew up on the "Simpsons" and even "Married With Children." Cynicism and sarcastic humor are great, and in the case of the Homer, Bart and the rest, the tool of cynicism is a great way to laugh at our selves.

But I have gotten tired of every TV show, book and movie jumping on the cynicism bandwagon for success. It seems like now it is ok to be a dead-beat dad or a divorcee. The Clevers may be long gone from the screen or literature, but maybe it is time to come back to Zach and the gang and start calling each other 'googers' or lighten up the entertainment - be it print or screen.

In reading a Christian book on marriage, recently published, I found the cynical tone to not benefit the reader. Theirs was a message of hope, but they did so in the degradation of others. The language was cynical rhetoric rather than constructive advice. It was hard to take seriously. What was worse, it was overtly Evangelical Christian Sub-culture, i.e. they wrote flowery Christian lingo amidst darker, sarcastic phrases. It made the book rather unintelligent. It was waaaay to conservative for me, but I think that the authors would have been more successful and I would have retained a great deal more if they had gone to the Calvin seminar.

On that note, I appreciate your style of writing - at least on your blog. It is informative, helpful and critiques where necessary. You are always generous and respectful, which makes any criticism you may have much more authoritative. Thanks.

(sorry for the long comment).

Mark Goodyear said...

Good thoughts, Al. I think sarcasm/satire is just incredibly difficult to pull off in a longer format--whether Christian or secular.

The best example I can think of is Twain's Huck Finn. And that book doesn't fully reveal its satire until the end, which many readers despise.

Another good example is Monty Python's Holy Grail. Now I love this movie, but it just doesn't work well to watch it from beginning to end. It is better in small doses.

Harmon and Holman say a satiric novel has many defining elements, but one of them is a sense of hopelessness. At the end of Huck Finn, Jim escapes only to discover that he was free all along. At the end of Holy Grail (not a novel, I know), the knights arrive at the same french castle they encountered in the beginning.

All of that to say, I think a longer work can adopt a satiric tone occasionally without alienating the reader. Moments of snarkiness are fun. But too much spoils the message.