I picture a different audience for this, my literary blog, than my theology blog. (Theology students, at least the ones at the library I work at, don’t read novels, except maybe Tolkien, to their great loss.) You, my imagined reader, are probably not a christian. In fact, you probably have a distaste for evangelicalism and for anyone who talks about the bible too much. There are good reasons for this. I am in sympathy with you. I have these two sides of me, that aren’t separate in my mind or soul, but are often separate socially – the literary world and the christian world.
But the two have to come together at the moment, because I’m writing a paper for the Newbigin Group (a theological discussion group) called ‘Beautiful Stories : writing novels for the kingdom’. In this paper, I have to use the framework for building for the kingdom laid out by Tom Wright in Surprised By Hope to talk about how my particular activity – writing – might be thought of as building for the kingdom.
Here’s a blurb on Wright’s book from the publisher:
Wright convincingly argues that what we believe about life after death directly affects what we believe about life before death. For if God intends to renew the whole creation—and if this has already begun in Jesus’s resurrection—the church cannot stop at “saving souls” but must anticipate the eventual renewal by working for God’s kingdom in the wider world, bringing healing and hope in the present life.
While you, my intelligent reader, might be most suspicious of Christians who believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus, Wright uses the resurrection as the basis of Christian hope and action for justice, beauty and evangelism in the world. (You probably like the first two and not the third.) For Wright (and for me) God’s action in the world is not confined to the saving of some individual souls, whisked off to ‘heaven’ after death. Instead, God is at work redeeming, renewing the whole creation, which one day will culminate in an intervention when everything is finally set right.
You might remember weeks ago me quoting Julian Barnes piece on the fate of all writers:
For writers, the process of being forgotten isn’t clear-cut. ‘Is it better for a writer to die before he is forgotten, or to be forgotten before he dies?’ But ‘forgotten’ here is only a comparative term, meaning: fall out of fashion, be used up, seen through, superseded, judged too superficial – or, for that matter, too ponderous, too serious – for a later age. But truly forgotten, now that’s much more interesting. First, you fall out of print, consigned to the recesses of the secondhand bookshop and dealer’s website. Then a brief revival, if you’re lucky, with a title or two reprinted; then another fall, and a period when a few graduate students, pushed for a thesis topic, will wearily turn your pages and wonder why you wrote so much. Eventually, the publishing houses forget, academic interest recedes, society changes, and humanity evolves a little further, as evolution carries out its purposeless purpose of rendering us all the equivalent of bacteria and amoebae. This is inevitable. And at some point – it must logically happen – a writer will have a last reader. I am not asking for sympathy; this aspect of a writer’s living and dying is a given. At some point between now and the six-billion-years-away death of the planet, every writer will have his or her last reader. (Nothing to be frightened of : 225)
Yet the incredible claim that Wright makes is that not all art will pass away. For him, God has given us tasks to do here and now that are part of his/her ultimate plans. Part of the task artists have is to depict the beauty of creation – while taking seriously its woundedness and looking forward to its redemption. The picture he offers is of Christ’s resurrected body, still with the nail wounds in his hands – and not as something incidental to Christ, but as the means by which he is identified.
Wright doesn’t know how God will use art (or anything else) in his/her renewed heavens and earth. We have to do our bit, without yet seeing the masterplan. When the time comes, it will fit into place somehow.
A wonderful, comforting idea. But I can’t help thinking of the practicalities. It’s okay for me, writing literary fiction with claims to seriousness and meaningfulness. What about the genre writer writing another crime novel? Does their novel get forgotten or remembered?
Are novels transformed and redeemed themselves? Do they become what they should have been? Does God take their potential and fulfill it? (What would a novel look like edited by God? If the Bible is the book we have from him/her, God seems less interested in perfection and tidiness than we might expect.)
And who reads them? What form do they take? I hope it’s not anything like Borges’ Library of Babel, where very possible book, every combination of letters has been written; that is a kind of hell.
If you want to hear my paper, you’re welcome to come listen at Vose Seminary, 20 Hayman Rd Bentley on Monday 29 June at 7:30pm. Alternatively, stick around and I will be posting it here and on An Anabaptist in Perth.
Chris Walker said:
This sounds like a challenging, stimulating and wonderful project. I will try to make it to hear you present your paper; but, if I can’t I’d like to get a copy.
PS Have you read Tim Keller’s, The Reason for God? It has some very stimulating thoughts on how things from this world — among them, suffering — take their place the next.
Chris Kape said:
For a somehow different perspective on Theology, and if you’re into really dark novels with adept psychological twists and full of the unexpected, you should definitely try my novel, “A Diary of Wasted Years.” It’s just published by Eloquent Books. Comes to grab you by the throat and certainly worth it. You are more than welcome to check it out and tell me what you think.
chris walker said:
I’ve been mulling over your post, and have a speculation: could it be that one of the important products of our labours in this world that we take into the next is our refined characters? An example: the novelist who toils away for years exercises great diligence, creativity, patience and perseverance — among other things. Surely these are a significant ‘good’ that endure into the next world?
Note: I’m not going down a pietistic, all-that-matters-is-us-and-our-souls line; what we create and the created non-human world are significant. Nevertheless, it seems that who we are, and who we are becoming, are important things we take from this life to the next.
PS: Excuse the theological musing on your literary site — but you did say your two selves were coalescing on this issue ;-).
Nathan Hobby said:
Thanks for your comments Chris. Feel free to be as theological as you like here. I still haven’t read Keller, but it sounds like a great book. (I did order it in for our library after we spoke last time.)
I think your new suggestion about transformation is definitely part of the importance of writing. But I do hope Wright is right and there’s the actual novels in the new creation as well.
english st said:
Hey Nathan, et al.
It is a really interesting topic. It all sounds so Methodist – saved by faith but moved to act and do! I’m on holidays for a week, so I’ve just borrowed ‘Suprised by Hope’.
It is a little off the mark, but the thought that came to my mind about art that never dies is the motivation behind why some art will not be lost in the here and now. Putin and Hitler have both had significant sums placed on their artwork this year. Why? Quality? From what I saw, no, not really. It is the having I think. I saw Simon and Garfunkle last night. They were pretty good. Alright, I had a ball. At one point, they sang the first song they ever wrote and recorded together at age 16. The song was nothing flash. It went for a minute, maybe, and was pure 60s pop. Simon said “You can pick it up down at the local record store for…$17,000.00” Why? The lengths that people go to have, not to use, just to have, but where will that get them? I justify my Playstation and guitars because I use them, but they won’t bring the kingdom to earth either…
BTW, I never saw anything in Jackson Pollock either.
I’ve had a run at writing fiction. Sadly, it all started to become a bit too autobiographical for me at the time, so I’ve put it aside for the time being!
What I am interested in now is the idea of Gnosticism and Christian discipleship. I studied a bit of Irenaeus (1st/2nd century theologian and Bishop of Lyons who wrote against the Gnostics of the time (also the first major theologian to proclaim salvation through faith alone and the Trinity). With a church struggling to come to terms with what it means to be a Christian in 2009 and the rise and rise of Gnosticism in Christianity and the wider community. The greatest art I can find is 1800 years old!
Phil Wood said:
I spent a bit of time today thinking about your post. It’s nearly thirty years ago since since I sat there weighing up competing B.A. offers. Theology or English Literature, that was the question. I chose theology but I’ve sometimes wondered what would have happened had I gone the other way. I can’t think of those ‘what if’s’ without bringing T.S.Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’ to mind.
At its shallowest I suppose the desire for a kind of artistic immortality is little more than a kind of creative mid-life crisis. I think that’s far too jaded, though. It says something about God the Creator/Artist – a potter at the wheel – that the flaws of the material do not eventually defeat the objectives of the craftsman. But, it’s also ‘part of the plan’ to gather up our creativity and bring it to fulfillment. Perhaps the most shocking biblical example is Cain (see Jacques Ellul, ‘The Meaning of the City’). The first scene in Genesis is a garden – Adam, Eve, God and a serpent; the second is a field – enter Abel stage right and Cain who would become the first murderer. God’s ‘mark’ is a sign, not of punishment but of mercy’ which Cain tragically cannot accept. The conclusion of this second scene sees Cain desperately planning his own security – building a city and founding a dynasty. The history of the city – Sodom, Babylon, Jerusalem – the city that murders its Prophets – is, in some ways the bloody legacy of Cain’s tragic insecurity. Then, there’s a shock – outlined in the final two chapters of Revelation. Instead of wiping out Cain’s creation and returning to the simplicity of a garden paradise God’s final word is the New Jerusalem, the Holy City. That’s a rather longwinded way of saying that what we make – our novels, poems, cities, music and art have a future.