Making a Difference in Christian Entertainment
by Leonard G. Goss
Most of us have probably seen the movie, “The Sound of Music.” Do you remember how that movie starts? It begins way up in the heavens. At first, you are so high that you see nothing; you hear only the rush of wind. You are lost in the magnificence of God’s creation. Then from this loftiest and highest of vantage points, the camera begins to sweep quickly downward. The camera is moving very fast; you are traveling downward at a dizzying speed. Then you see some clouds—and you go through them.
There is a grand camera sweep that goes down farther and farther, from out of the heavens and onto the Earth, and suddenly you are on a mountain top when the camera focuses in on Maria Von Trapp, who, of course, begins singing her heart our. The hills are alive with the sound of music! She dances and leaps for joy in God’s creation. The camera has gone from all the way up in the heavens down to the top of the Austrian Alps, and then down to the individual, Maria.
Did you know that the Gospel of John does something of the same thing? The apostle John, who wrote that book, begins on a cosmic level—really, the highest level possible: He says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Then John begins a grand camera sweep of his own when he moves from the Creator down to the creation, for the Word was made flesh, and he dwelt among us. “We have seen his glory,” John says, “the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” In a way, you could say that the Word was made flesh through God’s pen, via the Incarnation. God was there first, with the first word. He spoke creation into existence. And this is the first demonstration we have that words are very powerful things. And words are very important things. Creation and salvation came through words.
Consider the power and significance of words. They have power and importance not only in the heavenlies. The camera is still sweeping downward, when the Gospel writer tells us, “There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John.” This was a different John—John the Baptist. He used words, too. He was a witness concerning the light. He cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’” Words. Words are the vehicles of God’s truth.
It’s amazing to think that the magnificence of God could be revealed through an individual personality like John the Baptist—or through Maria Von Trapp. It’s amazing to think that the magnificence of God could be revealed through the power of words. Let me ask you something: Could the words you write be powerful and significant? Can you write with passion, purity, and power? Can you really make a difference? Let me answer that question. I think the answer to that is Yes.
If you are interested in writing books for the Christian market or for any other market, you need to know something about the real business of writing and publishing. In many ways we are living in troubled times if we want to write and publish, especially if we want to do these things professionally and well. And you also need to know something about our call as writers and editors and publishers, and what we should be moved to do with our talents.
Here is the point: What you write can make a difference. The words you write and publish literally can transform our reader’s lives. Words are a divine gift. They are powerful tools in the hands of good writers and editors. And we have been given the gifts of books and writing, which allow us to share our hopes and dreams, as well as our disappointments and sorrows.
So the real business of Christian writing and publishing is not only selling books, as important as that the real business is promoting ideas and making a difference for Christ in our world. You and I are in the business of promoting the ideas of the Kingdom. And make no mistake, the business in which we’re engaged makes a difference in the unseen world as well as in the seen world.
But here is the problem: As Christians, we are supposed to be in the world. Who ever said we were to be of the world? (cf. John 17: 14-18)
Very few anymore are interested in publishing books of intrinsic excellence. If it is true that we write and print books in an era when the relevance of good books seems to be dying, the question is, are we as writers and editors and publishers ourselves responsible for the dying relevance of books? Have we lost our specific calling? Have we no longer any vision? Where is our discernment?
So, for these four reasons, and others I could mention, the future for writers and publishers may look bleak. Is all lost? Here is my answer: No, all is not lost. Not yet.
Thomas De Quincey taught that there are really only three categories of literature. The first category is one we all know about. It is literature that is irrelevant. This is the literature that is read today and discarded tomorrow. It is a sad thing to say, but most of the books one finds in a typical Christian bookstore would fall squarely into this category. These books are irrelevant in the sense that they do not provide a fresh understanding and a distinctively Christian examination of questions confronting people in their personal lives, their families, churches, communities, or in the wider culture. As such, they are read today and discarded and forgotten tomorrow. There is nothing unique or compelling about them. They are trivial, and they will not last.
Just look at most of the books you find in an average Christian bookstore. What is there to stimulate and to challenge us that right is better than wrong, that joy is better than grief, and that courage and faith are better than fear and doubt? How many books in a typical Christian bookstore are written by authors of fertile powers, with a full range of imagination? The answer is, there are very few. And the reason is that we do not develop and publish the best writers in or community, and we do not require the very best from the authors we do publish. The result is that most of the books we produce are in fact irrelevant. In the typical Christian bookstore, where would you turn to find an authentic novel of religious experience? You probably could not find one, certainly nothing like Henry Roth’s novel, Call It Sleep, a story of the Jewish experience. Where would you find a book on the struggle toward religious certainty?
In most stores, it would be hard to find a good book about this topic. You would certainly not find anything as good as T.S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday. Where would you find a brilliant allegorical novel on the basic sinful human condition and the need for spiritual renewal? You might try Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools, because you won’t find one in most Christian bookstores. Or again, on the human condition, do you know of a story that has come out of the Christian publishing community about real life as act after act of undeviating cruelty, which life sometimes is, and how one could cope with a life like that? Could you find such a novel in a typical Christian bookstore? No, but you can go to a secular store and read another brilliant account of the human condition in Richard Wright’s Black Boy.
What of all the Christian books on end times and the future? Can you think of even two or three of them that are even worth reading? But you can still read George Orwell’s 1984. 1984 is not about the totalitarian nightmare of the future alone. It’s about the lament of a dying man in a dying society. Orwell himself died in despair over the fate of freedom.
These are all books written by relentlessly equipped writers. How many relentlessly equipped writers have we published in the Christian community? If you wanted to recommend a novel that delves into doubt and darkness and the sinful human condition of despair, what novel would you recommend that could be found in a Christian bookstore that could even begin to compare with Herman Melville’s Moby Dick? Listen to part of the storm scene in chapter 48 of Moby Dick: “The rising sea forbade all attempts to bale out the boat. The oars were useless as propellers, performing now the office of life-preservers. So, cutting the lashing of the waterproof match-keg, after many failures Starbuck contrived to ignite the lamp in the lantern; then stretching it on a waif pole, handed it to Queequeq as the standard-bearer of this forlorn hope. There, then, he sat, holding up that imbecile candle in the heart of that almighty forlornness. There, then he sat, the sign and symbol of a man without faith, hopelessly holding up hope in the midst of despair . . . the intense concentration of self in the middle of such heartless immensity, my God! Who can tell it?”
Who can tell it? Not most writers I’ve ever known, Christian or otherwise. The man who wrote that was not writing about the Bible. The man who wrote that was not preaching to his reader or writing agenda-driven drivel. But the man who wrote that was looking into the landscape of the Bible, to bring out and to bring back the indomitable words in the Bible.
Great literature fills an abyss. It gives us a cosmic philosophy, a wholly new point of view. It stands beyond, behind, and within the passing flux of immediate things. True art invents truth better than a mere document can. Much of what we in publishing do is publish mere documents. There is truth at the heart of great literature. But most of what we do is trivial, and will not last. So, that’s literature that is irrelevant.
The second category of literature, according to Thomas De Quincey, is what he calls the literature of knowledge. The basic function of this type of literature is to teach. It is cognitive; it appeals to the mind. Think of textbooks in any field, and you will see examples of the literature of knowledge.
The third category of literature is literature to move people and to change them—this is the literature of power. These are the books that are radical in their times and do much to change the world in which the author lives. These books motivate. Think of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago as exemplars of the literature of power. There are hundreds of others you could think of, all the way from books that had a very negative influence on the culture, like Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, to books that have had a very positive influence, such as, in my case, Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live? Or C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity—two of my favorite books. If you want an absolutely sparkling example of the literature of power, read Paul’s New Testament letter to the Romans.
The really great fiction and nonfiction writing is literature of power. Books will remain with us because the best ones are books of power that motivate and move and change people, and change the world into which they come. Books live and endure and prevail. I heard of a woman in Atlanta who telephoned a library and asked a reference librarian “Can you please tell me where Scarlett O’Hara is buried?” The librarian explained that Scarlett O’Hara is a fictional character our of Margaret Mitchell’s story Gone With the Wind. The caller then said, “Never mind that. I want to know where she’s buried.” You see, for that person, Scarlett O’Hara was made alive in that novel—so alive that she was now dead! You see my point? Good books live, and they move people.
A book may be inert, but what happens in the mind of someone who reads a good book is electric. Emily Dickinson went on many travels in her lifetime, but she almost never left her home. She wrote. “There is no Frigate like a Book / To take us lands away / Nor any Coursers like a page / Of Prancing Poetry. / This Traverse may the poorest take / Without oppress of Toll– / How frugal is the Chariot / That bears the Human Soul.”
Let me ask you a question: Do you want to write books and articles and poetry and novels and drama and film scripts and Bible studies and devotionals, and gift books that bear the human soul? To use words that fly farther than arrows? Higher than wings? Are you interested in writing books and articles and stories that reveal the very heart and core of the story of God? That would be an immense challenge, wouldn’t it? Are you called to do it?
One day while serving his prison term on the Island of Patmos, the apostle John was in a state of spiritual exaltation. He said, “On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, which said, ‘Write in a book what you see, and send it to the seven churches . . . .’” (Rev. 1: 9ff) Talk about the original call to be a writer! And the Originator of that call was God’s Spirit.
Have you been commanded to write? If and when you are commanded, that command will come to you in a pure, unequivocal and unedited form. And when that happens, you should have no arguments, no reservations, no hesitations—you should be prepared to write. But remember that motivation alone is not enough. You need discipline. You need deep preparation, and much care and effort. You need a whole set of sharp tools and high-quality equipment to be effective in the work of writing. Attend writing retreats and conferences like this one. Perhaps get involved in a writing critique group. Find and use some of the better market books and magazines for writers. Learn library research techniques, and how to access online data bases. Learn how to get and preserve ideas. Learn what editors want and need and how to approach them. Get all the how-to advice you can. Above all, develop an instinctive grasp of grammar and syntax and words. If you don’t love words, don’t bother thinking about writing. If you aren’t fascinated by dictionaries and grammar books and style guides and histories of language, writing for you will be more work than you will ever want to do.
Writing is a challenge and a process, and it is hard work to develop diligence and skill. Writing is frustrating. It is like Jacob wrestling with the angel: All you can do is hold on for as long as you can until someone calls your name. In other words, until you find just the right word or line or expression. If you’re not interested in serious work and preparation, you aren’t serious about the writing art.
Don’t be lazy, like Huckleberry Finn was. Do you remember how Huck closed his story? He closed it with these words: “There ain’t nothing more to write about, and I am rotten glad of it, because if I’d a’knowed what a trouble it was to make a book I wouldn’t a’ tackled it, and ain’t a-going to no more.” Huck Finn might have been lazy, but Mark Twain was not lazy.
If you want the fruit, you have to climb the tree. Another way to put this is the way Shakespeare did in King Lear: “Nothing will come of nothing.” Or, better yet, as King David said, “Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy.” (Ps. 126: 5) You need to sow some tears to write in a way that bears the human soul.
What should you do when you’re ready to write? I’m going to move very quickly now so we can finish on time. I want to end by suggesting that you should be moved to do six things when you’re ready to write.
The first thing is to wait on God and depend on him. David wrote, “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; do not fret” (Ps. 37: 7). In her book The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life, Hannah Whitall Smith talks about “God’s shelf.” She talks about the Potter and the clay, and she says that there are times when the potter comes to an impasse with the clay he’s working on. So he just stops working on one. He places it on the shelf and begins working on something else. Then, after some period of time, the potter takes the clay back down and continues working on it. You may have to put your writing on the shelf. Wait until God wants you to go back to it. This is especially true if a manuscript or a piece of verse is giving you fits and there is no joy in it anymore. Put it on the shelf, and begin writing something else.
That’s the first thing—wait on God and depend on him.
The second thing is: Put on your armor and take a stand. Paul wrote, “Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not with flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm. Therefore put on the full armor of God.” (Eph. 6: 11-13)
Put on all the armor of God and take your stand in the battle. In his book Against the Night, Chuck Colson says he believes we face a crisis in Western culture, and that it presents the greatest threat since the barbarians invaded Rome. If Colson is even close to being right, we had better be prepared for spiritual battle. So put on your armor and take a stand.
The third thing is to keep our eyes on our Leader. During the battle, keep your eyes on the Leader. The writer of Hebrews in the New Testament told us to “fix our eyes on Jesus, and author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb. 12: 2)
How do you keep your eyes on the Leader? You know how to do it. Pray. At times you may have to withdraw into the wilderness, just as Jesus did. Maybe the place to begin all of our writing is on our knees. Read Scripture. In his own work, Jesus always referred to the Law and the Prophets. He knew the Scriptures, and he relied on them entirely. You cannot write books of intrinsic excellence and worth without a deep understanding of God’s revelation. Ask God to give you a vision for your writing. Have you ever thought of that? Where there is no vision, the people perish. (Prov. 28: 18) Know why you are writing and what you have been called to do. Those are three ways we can keep our eyes on our Leader.
The fourth thing is to pursue excellence. Remember Thomas De Quincey’s categories of literature and write material that has power. What you write needs to move people. Remember that your words actually and literally can be used to bring a message of truth and hope and light to the world. Why shouldn’t what we do be absolutely excellent—the best it can be? We have the world’s best message of hope, don’t we?
Shouldn’t that bring out the best writing in us? Pursue excellence.
The fifth thing is to uncover the truth wherever it may be found. If you are going to be an excellent writer, you need to be a wide reader. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. On occasion, this may include reading books that might go against the aesthetic and moral grain of our beliefs. But here’s what I want to say: If you want to enter the battle, you better expect to get bloodied. And if you think you have nothing to learn from secular literature, you are being foolish and arrogant. St. Augustine used the popular songs of his day to attack heretics. John Calvin did the same thing, putting Christian lyrics to popular melodies. The same can be said of Martin Luther in Germany. Before he became a Christian, St. Augustine read the books of the Platonists translated from Greek into Latin. After he because a Christian, he wrote, “From the Gentiles indeed I had come to know You; and I fixed my mind upon the gold which You willed that Your people should bring with them from Egypt: for it was Yours, wherever it was.” The point is, what matters is truth. And if the truth is being preached by secular writers, then so be it. The truth is one truth wherever it is found, and all truth is God’s truth. Take the knowledge you learn from secular literature, from the arts and the sciences, and test it against the yardstick of divine revelation.
Here is what John Calvin said of some of the secular writers that he read: “We cannot read them without great admiration. We marvel at them because we are compelled to recognize how pre-eminent they are. . . Those men whom Scripture calls ‘natural men’ were indeed sharp and penetrating in their investigations of interior things. Let us accordingly learn from their example how many gifts the Lord left to human nature. . . . If the Lord has willed that we be helped . . . let us use this assistance.” Uncover the truth wherever if may be found.
And here is the sixth thing: Proclaim freedom. In his home town synagogue, Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord in on me, because he has anointed me to preach the good news . . . . He has sent me to proclaim freedom.” (Luke 4: 18)
As writers and publishers we should live as free men and women—not as though our freedom was there to provide a screen for wrongdoing, but rather as free men and women who are slaves in God’s service, as St. Peter said (1 Peter 2: 16) Martin Luther put it this way: “A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to everyone.” Proclaiming freedom also means that you should write as a free person. John said, “If the son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8: 36) You don’t have to stick to any one form or kind of writing.
Be versatile. The Oxford mathematics professor named Charles Lutwidge Dodgson wrote mathematics textbooks. But he also put on another hat and took another name—Lewis Carroll—when he wrote about Alice’s adventures in Wonderland. Be free indeed. Proclaim freedom in your writing and for your writing.
Let me conclude by challenging you to do the very best in your writing. There is no room for less than that. To those of you interested in publishing your work with a Christian house, proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind. Remember what Luke said—that the Lord is sending you to release the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4: 18-19) Do it the best and truest way you know.
John McCrae’s great poem In Flanders Fields urges us to “Take up our quarrel with the foe. / To you from failing hands we throw / The torch, be yours to hold it high.”
Editor’s note: Leonard G. Goss worked in Christian publishing for thirty-five years, most recently as editorial director/senior acquisitions editor at B&H Publishing Group (formerly Broadman & Holman Publishers). Before that, he led editorial efforts at Crossway Books, Zondervan Publishing House/HarperCollins Publishers, and the Evangelical Book Club. He began his publishing career with John Wiley & Sons. Len is a native of San Diego and earned degrees from Phoenix College, Arizona State University, Canterbury College/University of Windsor, and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School/Trinity International University. With his wife Carolyn, he now operates GoodEditors.com (www.goodeditors.com), a boutique editorial service specializing in all things literary. They have homes in Mesa, Arizona, and Valparaiso, Indiana, and they have four beautiful granddaughters–Lia, Maddie, Sylvia and Shelby.
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