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.
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.
The Bible Turns Out to be Kind of Interesting
What I found in Job was an account of spiritual encounter that was much richer than what I’d been working with. Meeting God was a confrontation. Here at last was a theology of encounter that I could sign on to.
I had read some accounts of spiritual experience that were not steeped in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Some of these were helpful to me. But they kept missing an aspect of encountering the divine that I could not ignore:
When I meet God in Christian worship, I find myself before a presence to which I must give account. If I were to accept some less demanding theology of encounter (and thus choose to ignore that presence), I would still be culpable. Holiness is that divine Good which makes particular demands of us.
“Unless a person is acquainted with trembling awe, reaching down to the very ground of his being, at the thought of God’s nature (not merely the awe he feels in the face of the ‘mysteries of existence’ and the deep things of the world), he will not be ready for the contemplation of Jesus Christ.”
It didn’t matter how I felt about this. It was disturbing to think that the ultimate Good might make particular demands—or be rooted in particular historical events. But I kept finding that the Presence called me to something higher. I was accountable to it, even if it was only in my head.
So I had to take this experience as the basis for my reflections, like it or not.
The Parables of Jesus Are Not Pleasant Stories of Agrarian Life, You Fool
Having been prepared, Jonathan and I decided to contemplate Jesus Christ—specifically, his stories. Many of these seem designed to disturb us and frustrate our understanding.
“The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces and assign him a place with the unbelievers.”
“Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.”
“Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces.”
“If anyone should come after me and does not hate his father and mother (etc.), and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. If anyone does not bear his own cross, he cannot be my disciple.”
Perhaps we are the ones who are broken to pieces when we fall on the living stone. These stories and sayings hurt us. It’s not even wrong that they make us feel outrage. Our very idea of Goodness is being frustrated. The Good is not to be identified with benevolence, or even with the ethical, but with holiness. Something greater is breaking in, and we must not let ourselves be left out of it.
In his intolerance for our usual standards of Goodness (and in other ways), Christ is the culmination of the Hebrew prophetic tradition. As Abraham Joshua Heschel writes in his essay “What Manner of Man is the Prophet?”:
“We and the prophet have no language in common. . . . Our standards are modest; our sense of injustice tolerable, timid; our moral indignation impermanent; yet human violence is interminable, unbearable, permanent. To us life is often serene; in the prophet’s eye the world reels in confusion. . . . Exhibiting little understanding of human weakness, he seems unable to extenuate the culpability of man.”
We must learn to be holy. That means being shaken out of our creaturely instinct that nothing is more important than our physical survival. In some of Christ’s most disturbing parables, as in the fiction of Flannery O’Connor, this shaking is not peaceful.
It is equally important to note that the existence of a Good beyond our creaturely well-being does not demote our bodies and minds or make them less valuable. Christ is hypostatically one with humanity, and God’s human suffering in the crucifixion dignifies our own.
But it’s not until the resurrection that we find out how to react to this challenging Presence in our midst.
We Might Try Doing What Jesus Said (Or, A Little Easter Dissonance)
All of the gospel accounts emphasize the shock and disorientation of encountering the empty tomb.
It is hope that rends apart our understanding. Hope itself disrupts the established order in this tired backwater where darkness reigns.
After a year spent trying desperately to believe, I experienced just a little of what this was like for Mary Magdalene and the other disciples. All at once, the most fundamental thing we knew is invalidated: Dead people don’t stay that way. Easter comes with the force of revelation.
This year, I was genuinely at a loss for what to do in response. So I asked, What does Jesus say to do?
Jesus says in the gospels that we will be his witnesses.
When I was growing up, I thought I knew what this meant. It meant to sell the program. In what we call evangelism today, the call to become participants in the sacramental life of Christ’s body has been replaced with a call to align one’s beliefs with those of the speaker.
This is a deficient understanding. And for many of us, it has to be left out of our vocation. I can’t even count the reasons a novelist cannot, will not, and should not be taken seriously if they view fiction as a way of getting individuals to say the sinner’s prayer.
So what do I do? What became apparent to me was that there were other ways of certifying the truth of the gospel that Christ is risen. I struggle obsessively to come to terms with the resurrection through fiction precisely because I have been changed by it. And the task of raising questions and issuing challenges can be an act of witness if it is undertaken in faith, as a prayerful attempt to understand.
In fact, I suspect that fiction driven by Christian hope must find some way to be disruptive. In spite of much devout hand-wringing over the state of the arts in the modern world, it seems to me that the past century has given us tools that are especially well-suited to the prophetic dimensions of Christian storytelling.
Pentecost Is Really a Call to Stillness, No Matter What Your Aunt Said
And yet. It is possible to write strange new words as a self-aggrandizing exercise in postmodern iconoclasm. That’s what got me into trouble in the first place. How do we know that what we’re creating is really a response to the resurrection—that we’re not simply deceiving ourselves?
We often don’t. But it helps to look at Jesus’ other command: to wait until the Spirit comes. The task of bearing witness requires us first to wait in receptive silence—constantly to return to see where Christ, in the Spirit, leads us.
And the disciples do not wait alone. This should be a reminder to us that they didn’t receive their task as individuals, and we don’t, either. Our vocation must be understood as just one aspect of the witness of the whole church. Christ did not give his command directly to me, personally. Rather, I am implicated in it by being enfolded into His Body.
This means that I, as a fiction writer, ought to find myself in the startling position of pondering each day how to pursue my calling in partnership with the whole Body. Most of the churches I’ve attended would rather have had a new recruit for the nursery. Does the world really need another tortured religious novelist?
But, as the apostle says, by the grace of God I am what I am. And I’m beginning to see why that’s a good thing.
The Spirit has always given Christians the language to witness to the Resurrection in the ways that are most needed—empowering the apostles to speak the Word in unknown tongues, Cyril and Methodius to create new alphabets, Flannery O’Connor to bring grace to the profoundly secular world of twentieth century fiction. I suspect that, as in O’Connor’s time, the witness that many of us are able to receive is one that begins in questioning. Perhaps in the rending-apart of the word, the way can be opened to the holy of holies.