Faith and Literature, a Vocational Intersection, Part 2

Jim bestIn October, 2014, I was invited to Luther College in Decorah, Iowa to participate in the festivities for Homecoming Weekend, and for the inauguration of their 10th President, Dr. Paula Carlson. It was such an honor to be there. I had the privilege of preaching for the morning chapel service, and then serving on a panel for a symposium that President Carlson had called dealing with the relationship of faith and literature, a particular interest in her own research and writing.  I shared the dais with three esteemed academic scholars, Dr. Jacqueline Bussie (Concordia College), Dr. Peter Hawkins (Yale University), and Dr. Robert Schultz (Roanoke College). Each of us were to give some remarks with respect to our vocation and the intersection of faith and literature. What follows is the completion of my remarks.

Some novels help us to get at the big questions, like “Who is God?” “Is there a God?” “What is the meaning of life?” I’m thankful for those books in modern literature. I think of Walker Percy and Iris Murdoch, to name a few. I love Percy’s novel, The Second Coming. The aging protagonist of the story sets up an experiment to try to prove God’s existence. I think it’s a pretty clever premise, and Percy has my admiration for coming up with it. The whole experiment goes awry, as you might expect; the main character ends up falling in love and what plays out is a most unlikely romance where we get a glimpse into true compassion and care. Isn’t that enough of a proof of God’s existence?

There are lots of great novels out there that through story help us to work out what it means to live faithfully. I could give you hundreds of examples, but let me tell you about just one.

I have a sister two years younger than me. We had a very different relationship with our father. Dad died three years ago; as he grew older, my sister seemed to me more and more to engage in ancestor worship, describing him as a loving, doting father, whose children were always at the center of his life, and for whom he always made time. I have much more mixed, even more negative memories of my dad. Shortly after he died and as I was trying to process some of this, I read Julian Barnes’s novel, The Sense of an Ending. In that story, Tony Webster, retired and living alone, tells a story of a pivotal event when he and a close circle of friends were undergraduate students. He tells the narrative with great confidence. In the second half of the book, a letter arrives which provides documentation that he has created an entirely different narrative from what actually happened.

Reading and reflecting on Barnes’s novel gave me a window into the tentative reliability of my own memory. The moment of grace came when I realized that my own memories are mostly likely a shadow of what really happened, and enabled me to embrace the positive along with the negative memories of my father.

I want to conclude by saying a few words about my vocation as a writer.  Pastors write. That’s what we do:  newsletters, correspondence, weekly bulletin blurbs, sermons; that’s what we do. Through the years, I have become fairly adept at stringing words together coherently.

My foray into writing fiction came almost accidentally. I had come through a very painful conflict situation in my parish in which I was at the center of some parish convulsions. We came out of it and began a very positive and fruitful time of ministry at that congregation. One of the things I learned was that my whole identity had gotten too wrapped up in my role as pastor. I needed to have something to engage my time, my energy, and my creativity apart from work and even apart from my family. About that time the Naples Daily News advertised a class that was being offered at the Naples Philharmonic Center the Arts. A novelist and former film critic for the New York Daily News was offering a class in short story writing. I took a couple of classes from Hollis Alpert. More importantly, he became an informal mentor, encouraging me to keep writing, and even encouraging me to work on something larger. My first novel was a way for me to practice that craft, and also to tell some truth about the church and life in the church as a pastor, and of the complexities of human relationships.

I continue to work on my fiction writing.  I also blog. As Christians — or, really, any people of faith — we have to be actively engaged in the world. We have to let our faith speak about what’s going on around us, about life and about how we act and react. My blog is one more way that I can do that.

Thank you for the opportunity to share with you a few reflections on important things.

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