Editor’s note: We welcome Brazos Fellow Chris Norton to the blog for this reflection on the questions he’s been pursuing this year. Enjoy.
This Is All Going Somewhere, I Promise
I first visited Waco with a three-month-old puppy and far too many books to read in one weekend. A potential host family had invited me to come for a visit, and I had fun meeting them and playing with the five dogs they were already keeping.
But I had a secret mission. I’d been accepted as an incoming Brazos Fellow, but my faith was in shambles. I’m a fairly ambitious fiction writer, and several years of art-for-art’s-sake had left me shaken. My writing turned out to be something I had to repent of. I didn’t see God in it, and it seemed to divide me from myself.
Prayer had already become a way of seeking wholeness. Never mind that I found it nearly impossible to believe I was actually praying to anyone. I growled out the Creed every day precisely because I couldn’t believe it. I knew I had to establish my life on a spiritual tradition that possessed integrity, and I hoped that Brazos Fellows would help me do that. But first, I had to see how Paul and Paige would react if I told them what was actually going on.
So when we pulled up chairs in the Gutackers’ back yard that weekend, I laid it all out for them: I was staking my whole life on the 3% chance that anything Christians believed was true. They didn’t condemn me when they heard I was trying my damnedest to believe and couldn’t. And so I decided that Brazos Fellows was the right place for me to spend a year trying to understand how to make my whole life an expression of prayer.
I kept running into one particular snag. The stuff I’m able to bring to life in fiction usually doesn’t feel prayerful—by which I suppose I mean that it doesn’t feel reverent. It’s odd, often playful, and usually dark. To me, fiction is a kind of laboratory, a way of trying to understand. I push back on my own beliefs about God and other people. It’s a way of poking Jesus to see if he’s alive. It’s strange and disruptive.
Was this kind of storytelling inherently toxic? If so, I would probably have to leave fiction writing behind entirely, and I couldn’t imagine that kind of life. If not, how could it become prayer?
I suspect that every good story has disruptive elements. But some stories are more disorienting than others. I kept finding that the fiction that was important to me didn’t fit into the theologies of the arts that I kept hearing. Many Christians seemed to think that the challenges of modern and postmodern fiction were just ways of asserting that life didn’t mean anything. I kept being told that the job of a believing artist was to show the world the beauty of God.
And I don’t think that’s wrong, exactly. I experience this beauty in prayer. But I don’t think that writing, for me, will necessarily feel like serene contemplation, and I don’t think my finished product will, either. How does the relationship between prayer and writing allow for dissonance?
It seems that if my fiction can become an expression of prayer, it will be the kind of prayer that George Herbert describes in one of his poems:
Engine against the Almighty, sinners’ tower,
Reversed thunder, Christ’s-side-piercing spear.
To many of us, that doesn’t sound like faithfulness, but perhaps it can be.
I decided that, in my Brazos Fellows tutorial, I wanted to study the intersection of fiction writing and prayer. What could be said about our human encounters with holiness? What did it really mean to know God? And how then should I write?
My own experience with God was a clue that I could follow. If I could trace it back to some kind of bedrock, then I’d be able to build on it.
Fr. Jonathan Kanary agreed to help me think through these questions. We decided first to study the bizarre Near Eastern tour de force known as the book of Job.
Continue reading “Christ’s-Side-Piercing Spear: Contemplative Thoughts on Disruptive Fiction”