Outside of Quaker circles, I’m nervous about writing publicly about my faith. Sometimes I hesitate to post a notice on my FB page about my latest blog entry, and I’m selective about who I tell about this blog.
Fear is probably too strong a word for my waffling when it comes to writing about my faith, but I do worry about work being lumped in with writing that is prescriptive and dogmatic. I also don’t want to be perceived as unsophisticated or gullible.
Most of all, I struggle with finding the right language to describe my personal experience of God/Spirit/Presence in my life. Those words carry so much meaning for people; for many, they are weighted with tonnage of hurt, confusion, and persecution. And for me, as I grow in my faith, my understanding of such words changes as well.
Anne Lamott urges us to “not get bogged down on” the name we give to this mystery. In her latest book on prayer she suggests, “Nothing could matter less than what we call this force. I know some ironic believers who call God Howard, as in ‘Our Father, who art in Heaven, Howard be they name…’ Let’s just say prayer is communication from our hearts to the great mystery, or Goodness, or Howard; to the animating energy of love we are sometimes bold enough to believe in; to something unimaginably big, and not us… Or for convenience we could just say ‘God.’”
I’m not the only writer wrestling with how to write about faith. A recent post on Brevity Blog linked to Writing in the Age of Unbelief by David Griffith. He identifies as a Catholic writer and has observed that many writers shy away from such a label, perceiving it “as a kiss of death.”
I think of my writing as my work, my vocation, my ministry, and apparently Griffith does, too. His recent essay collection, A Good War is Hard to Find, “meditates on the photos of prison abuse at Abu Ghraib and the culture that made them possible.” He explains, “For me, writing essays is a means of understanding how my actions are in keeping or at odds with my faith, and how I can maintain faith in the face of tragedy and atrocity. For me, these are the questions of our day.”
Griffith wrote in response to Paul Elie’s recent New York Times Op-Ed, Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?. Elie, the author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, wrote of his concern about a decline in writing about faith compared to that by earlier fiction writers such as Flannery O’Connor.
“O’Connor called for fiction that dramatized ‘the central religious experience,’ which she characterized as a person’s encounter with ‘a supreme being recognized through faith.’ She wrote that kind of fiction herself, shaped by her understanding that in the modern age such an encounter often takes place outside of organized religion…These stories are not ‘about’ belief. But they suggest the ways that instances of belief can seize individual lives.”
Griffith’s essay also cited Gregory Wolfe’s article, “Whispers of Faith in a Postmodern World,” in the Wall Street Journal, which refutes Elie’s concern. “The myth of secularism triumphant in the arts is just that—a myth,” Wolfe writes, citing his experience as editor of Image Magazine, a journal that “publishes literature and art concerned with the faith traditions of the West.” Wolfe and his wife began Image Magazine 24 years ago believing that, “Christianity [I would counter all faith traditions] is grounded in a great tradition of story-telling that is immediate and concrete. But,” he admits, “we honestly didn't know if we could fill more than a few issues. Sometimes when you look, you find.” The magazine has featured “many believing writers,” including Annie Dillard, Elie Wiesel, and Marilynne Robinson.
Wolfe goes on that lists of such writers, however, don’t “get at a deeper matter. It has to do with the way that faith takes on different tones and dimensions depending on the culture surrounding it. Today the faith found in literature is more whispered than shouted. Perhaps a new Flannery O'Connor will rise, but meanwhile we might try listening more closely to the still, small voice that is all around us.”
David Griffith suggests that in this “age of unbelief,” literary nonfiction—personal essay and memoir —is the medium for discussing faith. I agree. This is what I read in search of wisdom. Lamott, Griffith, and Wolfe have given me a little more courage to write about my own faith. And that writing helps me stay in touch with that still, small voice (or for convenience, God) within.
What reading or writing helps you listen to the still, small voice within and around you?