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On The Problem Of The Writer’s Craft In Protestant Christianity

Oh dear, that title sounds like a thesis, doesn’t it? The issue came into my head the other day when I received the quarterly ‘new titles’ email from Grove Books. They featured a booklet called ‘Telling Ourselves In Ink: Creative Writing in the Church‘ by Corin Child. Just to come across it associated in my mind with critical comments I’ve heard in some church circles directed at people who enjoy writing.

This is personal for me. I enjoy writing. I don’t think I’m great, but I think I have something to offer. Some people have been kind in telling me how my writing has helped them. On my first sabbatical (not the one I recently finished), I spent a week on a creative writing course at the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, run by the Association of Christian Writers. During that course, one tutor said, “Don’t be afraid to describe yourself as a writer.” I found that liberating. Others, who don’t appreciate my love of writing, don’t. “Why are you wasting time with that?”

So when I saw the Grove book, I mentioned it on the email discussion list of Subway Writers, to which I belong. I don’t feel I should be in their company half the time, most of them are professionals. The book title made me wonder whether they feel understood in their churches. One person emailed about the terrific support she receives. In reply to another member, I wrote a longer screed which set out some of my thoughts and feelings on the subject. This person observed that because ‘the word’, the Bible, has been central in Protestant churches, other uses of words, especially creative ones, can be seen as superfluous or dangerous. Most of the rest of this post is a lightly edited version of what I said there. I’d be interested in your comments.

Yes, [name], I think this is often a particular problem for Protestants. Catholicism and Orthodoxy know the long history of Christian involvement with the arts, and (at least in the visual arena) celebrate it, even depend on it. I heard it argued not so long ago that there are proportionally more Catholics involved in the film industry than Protestants.

Protestants, as you say, focus historically on ‘the word’, and this has the effect of devaluing other words. I’m not about to have a downer on the primacy of Scripture – far from it, as an evangelical! – but I suppose it got taken to extremes in churches that would only sing Scripture, and not other hymns. Hence the Scottish Paraphrases of the Psalms.

The evangelical emphasis on evangelism (especially since the split with liberals over the ‘social gospel’ a hundred years ago) meant that anything not concentrating on evangelism was inferior – especially something as indirect as writing and novels, with the ‘show, don’t tell’ principle. You have to tell, they would say! (And does that explain the ‘preachy’ nature of some written evangelical work? I can think of perfectly good sketches by Christian drama companies that spoke for themselves, only to be ruined by the ‘explanation’ tacked on the end.)

Not only that, the evangelical suspicion of the imagination has a lot to answer for: it seems to pick the word ‘imagination’ out of a concordance and noticing its association with another word, ‘vain’, in Scripture, has led to an erroneous assumption that all imagination is bad. No wonder historians such as David Bebbington see evangelicalism as a creation of the rationalist Enlightenment. That suspicion of imagination has been underlined in recent years by its association with questionable New Age visualisation techniques. So not only is it vain, it’s also demonic!

Add in a particular concern with historicism, and novelists in particular might be marginalised. Evangelicals have a right and proper concern for historical truth. If the story of Jesus is not true, then (as Paul says about the Resurrection) our hope is in vain. Yet as we know, the Bible is a collation of many different types of literature. Fiction can be used to show (not tell, again!) a message – something surely Jesus himself knew in the creation of his parables. Therefore, does it matter if some scholars argue that the books of Job and Jonah are inspired fiction? I think not – and, I think in doing so, they add to the legitimacy of the novelist’s art.

But I also suspect this is a problem for some liberal Christians. While they have been welcoming of things that are not overtly in-your-face-and-down-your-throat Christian, their commendable emphasis on social action means that if you’re not getting your hands dirty serving the poor, you must be wasting your time.

It is reasons like these that made me wonder what reception some of you pros get in your churches. I must say, it was heartening to read of [name]’s positive experiences.

Sabbatical, Day 5

Having finished my summaries of The Starfish And The Spider yesterday, I spent much of this morning dividing them into natural sections. It turned out that meant eight. I uploaded the first one, and to my surprise got a comment from none other than the Tall Skinny Kiwi himself, Andrew Jones. Many will know Andrew as the doyen of Christian blogging and an engaging, irenic voice in the missional world. He is a scholar and a gent to take the trouble to pass by this obscure backwater blog and leave a comment. I’m sure he doesn’t see it that way, but I felt honoured.

By the way, numbers two to eight in the Starfish series will appear over the next week, one a day, scheduled to appear at 9:00 am each day.

There’s not much reading I can do to prepare for my week at Cliff College next week. Over the years, I’ve read several titles on the reading list for the unit and am going along for stimulation and edification. The weather forecast remains a concern, especially with heavy snow still predicted for the Peak District on Sunday, when I am due to travel. Conditions have eased around here now, but major roads in this region and others on the way that I would be using still look ominous. The M1 for a start. Since I’m auditing this course at Cliff courtesy of a kind anonymous bursary, I have it in mind to ask if I can switch to another course if I can’t make next week. Right now it doesn’t look promising, but there speaks one with the spiritual gift of pessimism.

I have, however, been gathering material ready for my trip later in the month to Trinity College, Bristol, where I shall be spending a week with Anglican ordinands and other students looking at personality type and ministry. Down from the shelf has come ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You‘ (no, not by Alan Partridge) by Malcolm Goldsmith and Martin Wharton. The subtitle is, ‘Exploring Personality Type and Temperament’. It’s based on the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, which is being used on the course. I’m armed with the knowledge that I’m INTP.

I also dug out a birthday present from about three years ago. My sister, who is an Occupational Therapist at a hospice, had been on an Enneagram course with the hospice chaplain. She bought me Richard Rohr‘s book ‘The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective‘. Once I knew I wanted to explore this theme during a sabbatical, it seemed right to put it aside until then.

While hunting for something else, I found the Grove booklet ‘Personality and Renewal‘ by William Kay. I’m flicking through that.

The something else was another Grove booklet I’ve been trying to find ever since we moved here three and a half years ago. Something always goes missing. It’s ‘Personality and the Practice of Ministry‘ by Leslie Francis and Mandy Robbins. Based not on Myers Briggs, Enneagram or anything else, Francis and Robbins use Hans Eysenck‘s personality test based on extraversion, neuroticism and psychoticism. I ended up paying to download the e-book version in PDF format, which seemed less wasteful, in the vain hope my original hard copy might turn up one day.

Meanwhile, I found an online version of Eysenck’s test, and here are my results. They tell you a lot about why I want to explore the relationship between personality type and the practice of ministry, because on the surface I just don’t fit the typical stereotypes and expectations:

Eysenck’s Test Results
Extraversion (27%) low which suggests you are very reclusive, quiet, unassertive, and private.
Neuroticism (77%) high which suggests you are very worrying, insecure, emotional, and anxious.
Psychoticism (33%) moderately low which suggests you are, at times, overly kind natured, trusting, and helpful at the expense of your own individual development (martyr complex).

Take Eysenck Personality Test (similar to EPQ-R)
personality tests by similarminds.com

One other good thing today. The post is returning to normal here (shame about the refuse collections). That meant the arrival of Mike Frost and Alan Hirsch‘s new book ‘ReJesus: A Wild Messiah for a Missional Church‘. I put it on pre-order with Amazon the moment I knew about it. Today is a good day. Except for the fact that I paid £10.44 and it’s now £8.53.