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 But ‘forgotten’ here is only a comparative term, meaning: fall out of fashion, be used up, seen through, superseded, judged too superficial – or, for that matter, too ponderous, too serious – for a later age.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.