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Self-Expression As Worship

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, my mom and I watched The Man Who Invented Christmas. It’s the mostly made-up origin story of how Charles Dickens (played by the delightful Dan Stevens) came to write A Christmas Carol. It was especially fun to see how his characters physically showed up when he learned their names. “Scrooge,” he finally says, after fumbling around with “Scratch” and “Scrounger,” and then suddenly an old, ornery man appears in his room who continues to follow him around for the rest of the movie, yelling at him.

In the film, Dickens gets the idea for the story by listening to a pompous, high-class citizen talk trash about the poor of London and how they should all be killed or sent to the workhouse. Dickens is not only offended, but indignant.

He sets off to write a story about the worst kind of man he knows. However, by the end of the story, he realizes that it’s at least partially about himself. There is a part of him that is mirrored in Scrooge: when he scoffs at his wife for asking him for a new candle, when he sends his parents away to live somewhere else. Deep inside of him, there’s a piece of old Scrooge. The act of writing the story sends him down a dark path to visit events of his past and to answer the question, “Can a person change?”

I loved seeing Dickens discover himself through writing. I’m sure many writers have experienced moments when their own work causes them to face their worst fears. If the pen is a sword, what do you do when it turns against you?

This is one of my favorite things about writing: the things you discover about yourself in the process.

There is much more to us than we realize. When we dip into that abyss of self and let our rational mind go, who knows what we will find? There are places in our cells, our nerve endings, that understand in ways our consciousness never will. We don’t know exactly what our liver does or how to tell it to clean our bodies, but our cells somehow communicate with each other behind our backs. What if they have stories and thoughts and ideas that come out when we open ourselves and begin a project?

And what if we find something dark down in there? Something like a Scrooge?

In a section titled “The Risks of Honest Writing” in the book The Art & Craft of the Short Story, Rick DeMarinis writes:

“One of the risks of fiction writing is the discoveries you might make….How can you maintain your moral invulnerability when the thing you’re writing is pointing the finger at you?…The choice is simple: Go with it, accept the implications of that line, or don’t write it—write instead something that agrees with your initial high-minded intention. This takes you off the hook; it certifies your virtue. But it’s a lie. It violates the direction your intuition told you the poem wanted to take. The line that was inevitable has been replaced by a line that is merely acceptable—but it’s a damn lie.”

I think as Christians, we often get scared of delving into the dark abyss where stories and art come from. But the irony is, that’s where God is, too. He’s down there in us.

I have encountered the assumption in the Christian church that self-expression is the enemy of divine inspiration, but I think that if we ourselves are the image of God, than we are God-expression. Anything we make that expresses our true selves, then, is also expressing and exposing God inside us.

So is it God-expression or self-expression? I say, what’s the difference? They are tied together in us, in the cross, in our very bones and cells and spirits and flesh. We cannot separate them, just as we cannot separate ourselves from Christ. We work with God, not for him. He invited us in. We were slaves, but now we are friends. I’m not sure what he was thinking, but he chose us and we can’t escape him.

If the pen is a sword, what do you do when it turns against you? Hetty White

Many artists talk about “getting out of the way” to let creativity flow from another place beyond us. I agree. I think we have to let everything go, all our intentions and motivations, and all our thoughts of saving the world—at least in the first draft of a work. But I don’t think we are getting rid of ourselves when we do this. I think we are actually finding our true selves. Jesus proclaims that “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” If we are hidden in Christ with God, then the only way to find ourselves is to let our idea of who we are go. Self-expression could be the ultimate act of worship: submitting to who God says we are instead of who we think we are.

I have a theory that this is the reason why many artists who are not believers unwittingly teach us the Gospel again and again in their stories. I believe they are good (and sometimes even better) at getting out of the way and listening to their intuition while searching for the truth, and along the way, they stumble on the story of Christ.

In the film, Dickens realizes the parts of himself that resemble Scrooge, but he also finds that he can change. It’s not too late. In short, the gospel showed up through his truthful storytelling. Not only did he write a good story that changed the world and Christmas as we know it; he changed himself.

Of course, the story portrayed by the film is mostly made up, and who knows if the real Dickens did any self-discovery while writing A Christmas Carol? Being the honest writer that he was, I wouldn’t be surprised if he did end up reflecting some on his own life. And now the reader, in turn, is also asked to see themselves in Scrooge. We are given the gift of a mirror that the author has crafted from his own blood, sweat, and tears. May we also have the grace to remember that Scrooge is not who we really are, but only a mask we put on, a protective wall against heartache and loss. And may we have the grace to realize that even for Scrooge, even for us, it’s never too late to change.

Artwork by Ronald Searle

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