Madeline L’Engle’s Walking on Water was the first book I ever read that explored the role of the Christian in the arts. For me, it was a game changer. Not only did it rearrange my thinking about what I felt called to, it affirmed and distilled many of my beliefs (and opinions) about the way Christians should approach their work—not just art, but any work.
After Walking on Water I discovered more and more books about the creative life—a much richer subject than all those how-to-write books I was reading. The former is a healthy and helpful exploration of a corner of God’s kingdom (the process of subcreation), about the great mystery of the creative act and its implications for a Christian—the why of art. The other sort of books, the How to Write a Novel in Five Easy Steps sort, may be helpful to a point, but spending too much time there is getting the cart before the horse. Why books are all about the horse; How books are about the cart. You can fill your brain with practical advice, but that’s akin to loading a horseless cart with cargo. You’ll just sit there. (Good grief, I’ve gone this far, so I might as well exhaust the metaphor.) Reading L’Engle’s book was like strapping a galloping Clydesdale to my little wagon. Along the way, many of those parcels of advice rattled loose, or I cast them off once I realized their lack of usefulness, but the horse? It’s still moving.
So what are some of those horse-before-the-cart books? The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard. “On Fairy Stories,” the essay by Tolkien. Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. Mystery and Manners, by Flannery O’Connor. Speak What We Feel, by Frederick Buechner, The Mind of the Maker, by Dorothy Sayers. To show that I’m not outright dismissing the more practical books on writing, I should mention two indispensable books—required reading around these parts: The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White, and On Writing Well, by William Zinsser. Stephen King’s On Writing is a good one, too, which straddles both approaches. (Look! Another horse-riding metaphor!)
I’ve just discovered a new and invaluable book on the subject of art and faith, one that I suspect will be around for a long time: Breath for the Bones: Art, Imagination, and Spirit, by Luci Shaw. Luci has been writing poetry and non-fiction for many years and is a member of the Chrysostom Society along with Walter Wangerin, Jr., Eugene Peterson, and the late Madeline L’Engle, among others. And a history that rich gives her voice in Breath for the Bones a gentle and loving authority. It’s clear that she’s thought long about God and art and good work, and she delivers those hard-earned thoughts in beautiful, well-wrought prose. It’s no exaggeration to say that I underlined more of this book than any other book I’ve read. I could go on about it, but I’ll let Luci speak for herself. Here are a few things I underlined:
“Despite this groping, creativity’s call is to find that way to tell, to show, to sing, to paint epiphany—at least to attempt what was seen in the third heaven or what is hoped for despite the darkening glass—even on this solid and unyielding earth.”
“There is no society on earth that does not attempt to decorate or embellish or enhance its dwelling places, its garments, its artifacts, its language, or the human body itself—either with graphic design or fabric or song or word or ritual. Maybe art and religion are aligned because religion also addresses the world in its attempt to seek and find, knock, and trust that God will open the door to truth, beauty, and the meaning of our living.”
“For Christians to shun, fear, or condemn the arts seems as anti-God as atheism. The creative imagination as expressed in the arts can glorify God and illuminate the human spirit with his truth.”
“Metaphor is imagination serving truth.”
“But rather than speaking in abstracts or talking in large, nebulous generalities, good writing needs to be—as we have seen it flooding the teachings of Scripture—tied to concrete images and details, what C. S. Lewis called ‘the tether and pang of the particular.’ It’s important to paint a picture, as Jesus did, that the reader can see or feel his or her way into.”
“Every time we tell a story or write a poem or compose an essay, we give chaos a way of reintegrating into order; we reverse entropy; pattern and meaning begin to overcome randomness and decay.”
“The Bible doesn’t teach theology systematically. It tells stories.”
“All my life I have been requesting the same thing—’a baptized imagination’ as C. S. Lewis called it, with a wide enough faith to see the numinous in the ordinary.”
“A tree can’t thrash its branches; it waits for the wind to move them. I can manufacture neither poems nor spiritual power, but my task is to be on the spot, watching, ready when the breeze picks up.”
There are many, many more, but I’ll stop there. Breath for the Bones contains chapter after chapter, line after line of beautiful, robust wisdom from the pen of a poet. Whether you’re a writer or not, you should read this book, for a few reasons. First, it’s is an essential call for Christians to consider the place and power of art in God’s Kingdom and in their own lives—which is a primary focus of the Rabbit Room. Second, it’s because I’m thrilled to announce that Luci Shaw is our keynote speaker for Hutchmoot 2014. We’ve been dying to make this announcement for months, and we’re deeply honored to have her.