Wednesday, June 24, 2009

What a Pimp, a Murderer, and a Pregnant Teenager Taught Me about Christian Writing

This piece started life a few years ago as a keynote speech at a Christian writers' conference...


Sometimes you learn things in unlikely places. A friend once told me about an old man who was employed as a janitor in her college. This sweet, unassuming, grandfatherly man had a practice of whistling—loudly, constantly, and, as far as anyone can remember, tunelessly—when he was working in the women’s residence halls. It was his way of continuously announcing his presence to the women in the dorm. My friend relates that a girl a few doors down—one of those studious, driven types—was annoyed by the whistling of the old janitor—we’ll call him Mr. Jones. To her, it seemed he’d inevitably clean the hall at the precise moment when her concentration was most crucial. And, of course, Mr. Jones’ whistling was very effective, which had negative implications for her ability to focus. One day, she couldn’t stand it any longer. She stormed out into the hall where Mr. Jones was working. “Can you pulllllease stop that whistling? I’m trying to study, and your whistling is driving me crazy!” Or words to that effect. Well, what was poor Mr. Jones to do? He surely didn’t want to stand in the way of academic progress. So he stopped whistling.

Not too many days later, this same girl was exiting the showers, in what the Victorians would term a “state of nature.” Stepped into the hall and found herself face to face with Mr. Jones, who had been working very quietly, having learned that this was a hall where quiet was appreciated. There was a long, rather embarrassed pause. Then Mr. Jones, in a very meek voice, asked her, “You want I should whistle now?”

Sometimes we learn important things from the most unlikely people, don’t we? I just recently participated in a community theater production of Big River, the musical adaptation of Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and I was reminded again of the way the lowly runaway slave, Jim, teaches Huck, ragamuffin and scoundrel that he is, about friendship, loyalty, and trust. Or, to take an example currently looming large even in popular culture, Samwise Gamgee, the faithful manservant of Frodo Baggins, hobbit and reluctant Ring-bearer. Poor, simple Samwise knows no better than to stick by his master through the most grueling trials and harrowing dangers, even, for a brief time, carrying the dreaded One Ring when Frodo becomes incapacitated. And, in the end, Sam takes his place among the great in Middle-earth, because of his simple-minded loyalty and courage. Funny, isn’t it, how often in great literature it’s the weak who show the most strength, and the simple who show the most wisdom. I somehow think the apostle Paul wouldn’t be too surprised.

In fact, I know he wouldn’t, because Saul of Tarsus, student of Gamaliel, was the heir of a tradition chock-full of unlikely heroes. Including a few who weren’t too heroic, some of the time. Sometimes I wonder why God’s editor didn’t do a better job. I mean, after all, for a holy book, the Bible contains some pretty raunchy stuff. And I’m not just talking about the abundance of sexuality, sanctioned and otherwise; you’ve got violence, you’ve got madness, you’ve got lying, cheating, and stealing of just about every kind. You’ve got a father who sacrifices his own daughter to fulfill a vow to God, and a king whose son tries to kill him, after having sexual intercourse with each woman in the father’s harem. Sometimes, I think the Bible makes Greek mythology look tame. Maybe it’s because there are fewer special effects to distract you from the lewd, gruesome, and barbarous goings-on.

Take Abraham, for example. When we’re children, we learn of Abraham’s great faith, his willingness to liquidate his properties in Ur and take off for parts unknown, with his wife, livestock, and baggage, all on the say-so of a God whose name he doesn’t even know at the time. And that’s a good lesson to learn. After all, they don’t call him the father of the faithful for nothing. But then, a few years later, you learn about that disturbing business with Sarah down in Egypt, in Genesis 12, the same chapter where we’re told about God’s calling of him. You remember it: he knows Sarah’s looks are likely to attract Pharaoh’s roving eye, and he tells her to go along. “Tell him you’re my sister,” he says. And it works like a charm. Abram even gets rich off the deal. It works so well, in fact, that Abraham (this is after his name change, remember), pulls the same gambit in Canaan, with Abimelech. Lucky for Abimelech, God appears to him in a dream and tells him the score. Then we get the disquieting scenario of God’s chosen one being called on the carpet by a pagan king. Abimelech actually lectures Abraham on sexual ethics! Right before giving him sheep and goats and female slaves and a thousand shekels of silver. Oh, and Abraham prays for Abimelech so that the women of his court can be cured of the sterility God has inflicted upon them because of Abimelech’s unwittingly sinful intentions upon Sarah. If I’m Abraham, by this time, the wages of sin aren’t looking so bad. It’s starting to read like the screenplay for Indecent Proposal. Only without Woody Harrelson’s remorse.

So, I’m looking at all this, and I’m thinking: why is it that God has called this guy, who, from several angles, looks pretty much like an opportunistic rascal? I mean, I’ve heard of religious publishers getting complaint letters over books that had maybe one or two mild Anglo-Saxonisms in them. But this wife-swapping stuff is in the Bible, for crying out loud. And it’s not the bad guy who’s doing it; it’s the hero. And then it hits me: God chose Abraham as the protagonist of this story, not because Abraham was above reproach, but because God is. God is so holy, in fact, that even in his own book, he refuses to allow anything to be made to look better than it is. Humans—even the ones God has chosen for his favorites—are portrayed exactly as they are. Not, I hasten to add, as God would have them be, nor as he calls them to be, but as they are.

So, as a writer, I guess I want to try to be as honest with my characters as God is with his. I want to give them the freedom to be human: to mess up, to doubt, to cheat, to lust, to get scared, to be selfish, to say something stupid or even to hurt somebody. Because that’s what imperfect, fallen, well-intentioned-but-weak-willed people do. Those are the kind of people God redeems. A story—and I’m not just talking to novelists, here; this applies to writers of non-fiction and speakers also, because we’re all story-tellers, one way or another—a story does not honor God by failing to tell the truth about the human condition. In fact, I think such stories often obscure God. If there’s one thing nobody can stand, either people in the church or people outside it, it’s a phony. And when we start thinking our job as Christian writers and speakers is to put some kind of evangelically-correct spin on the uncomfortable truth about human nature, we perpetuate falsehood.

And, by the way… doesn’t it give you hope to see Abraham as something besides a superstar of faith? I mean, if God can take a guy who’s willing to swap his wife’s virtue for his own wellbeing, and make of him, not only a great nation that endures to this very day, but also the fount from which springs salvation for all humankind, then maybe—just maybe—he’s got something he can do with me.

Then there’s David. The Slayer of Goliath. The Sweet Singer of Israel. The Man after God’s Own Heart. What a head case. Sure, he started off extremely well. After killing Goliath and avoiding Saul’s depressive fits of violence, he rises swiftly in the estimation of the people and, most importantly, Michal, the daughter of Saul. And surely the story of the love between David and Jonathan is one of the most touching in the Bible; even the hatred of his father cannot induce Jonathan to abandon his friend. And even after that, as David, the Lord’s anointed, is dodging around the badlands of Judah like Robin Hood playing hide-and-seek with the Sheriff of Nottingham, David shows immense class by refusing to lift his hand against the king.

But, as so often happens, prosperity proves more dangerous than adversity. The man who was faithful in the face of Goliath the trained killer, faithful even in the desert while running for his life from the king he served, betrays his fatal flaw once he is at ease in the royal court of Jerusalem. He’s taking the night air on the roof of the palace, and he looks down the hill, into the back yard where Uriah keeps his hot tub, and he sees Bathsheba. And you know what happens next.

Of course, it’s not the first time David has gained a wife by the death of another man. Remember Nabal, back in 1 Samuel 25? That’s during the time when David was simultaneously the Lord’s anointed and Saul’s Public Enemy Number One, while David was running a little freelance protection operation in the country around Carmel. Nabal figures he’s doing pretty well by himself, thank you very much, and declines the invoice David presents at sheep-shearing time. David and his men strap on their hardware, but Abigail, Nabal’s wife—who happens to be very beautiful and very intelligent—intercepts David and successfully pleads for her husband’s life. In fact, this is maybe the first place where we find out about David’s eye for the ladies. Ten days later, Nabal is dead from supernatural causes and Abigail is David’s wife.

And then there’s the bride price David pays for Michal, Saul’s younger daughter: two hundred Philistine foreskins. He was only required to obtain a hundred, you know. One shudders to think.

So, here’s this beautiful woman, bathing in the moonlight, and there’s just one problem. David sends a servant to find out about her. “Umm, your Majesty? She’s Uriah’s wife. You remember Uriah…one of your mighty men, one of the inner circle?” Doesn’t matter. The youngest son of Jesse the sheep rancher wants what he wants, when he wants it, and tonight he wants Bathsheba. And eventually, Uriah’s murder begins to look like a better alternative than either giving up Bathsheba or facing the music.

Enter Nathan the prophet. And, you know, I somehow envision Nathan’s visit not looking much like a pastoral call from the fellowship committee. I’m guessing Nathan, like most of the prophets, presented a fairly colorful and not necessarily polite silhouette. I mean, can you imagine Jeremiah as an after-dinner speaker at the Rotary Club? And, as a novelist, I love what Nathan does. He has several options open to him, it seems to me. He can flail David with citations from the Decalogue. He can denounce David’s sin at the top of his voice, he can go out onto the parapet of the palace and shout “Adultery! Murder!” until everybody in Jerusalem knows what’s happened. Or he can perform one of those dramatic object lessons the prophets were so fond of—shatter jars, or go around town with an animal’s yoke on his shoulders, or dip his beard in pitch, or something like that. But he doesn’t do any of those. Instead, he tells David a story. A story about a poor man, a beloved lamb, and a greedy neighbor. And David was held fast by his own imagination. Indeed, by the time Nathan finishes his narrative, David is red-faced with indignation at the gross injustice done to the poor man by the selfish neighbor. "As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die!" Nathan then delivers the coup-de-grĂ¢ce: "You are the man." And God's white-hot blade plunges cleanly through the armor of David's self-importance to the core of his guilty heart. Nathan already knew what Shakespeare's Hamlet would verbalize two-and-a-half millennia later. To paraphrase: "The story's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king."

And that makes me think that maybe, sometimes, the most important thing you can do for somebody is to tell a really good, really challenging, really true story. A story that’s maybe a little too hot to handle. You want somebody to change, tell them a story. You want to speak a word for justice? Tell a story. You want to expose sin in all its ugliness? Tell a story. Now, remember, I’m not just talking to novelists, here. It doesn’t matter what you write, or if maybe you’re speaking at a retreat—at some level, you’re telling a story. And I believe we’ve all got to think very seriously about how we handle the stories God entrusts to us. Stories are sacred. Stories are more basic to humanity than fire. Stories tell us who we are, and maybe more important, they tell us who we ought to be. Perhaps part of the reason for the power of story is that when we listen, our capacity to hear is changed. We are pulled outside ourselves and our petty concerns and our carefully constructed defenses and compelled to interact directly with the heart-changing truth of the tale. We suspend judgment except as it applies to the justness of the story. We are instructed without realizing it. And at the end of the story, what happens? A guilty king sobs his repentance for adultery and base treachery to a loyal servant. Paltry things such as thrones and armies can never hope to prevail against the potent authority of a story that is well and truly told. Why do you think, in countries being taken over by despots or fanatics, that the writers are the first ones to be banished or executed? The fanatics and despots know what David learned: nothing—not even tanks or tear gas—is more powerful than a good story.

One of the most striking things about the story of David and Bathsheba is the way it gets enshrined in one of the most unexpected of all places: the genealogy of Christ. I ask you, where was God’s editor when Matthew wrote his gospel? Why didn’t the Holy Spirit say to Matthew, “Ix-nay on the Athsheba-bay.” Surely you’ve all noticed that little peculiarity in Matthew’s list, right? Though it’s dominated by the fathers, a handful of women are mentioned, and there’s a common thread connecting them. It starts in Matthew 1:3, with these words: “Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar…” Sound familiar? The story of Judah and Tamar? Oh, yeah… isn’t she the one who was married to Judah’s son, and her husband died and left her childless, and Judah deprived her of the levirate duties of his other sons, so she dressed up like a hooker and seduced her father-in-law? Yeah, that’s the one, I think. What in the world is she doing in the lineage of Jesus? And why in the world would Matthew be at such pains to point it out to us? But he doesn’t stop there, does he? Who’s the next mother who’s mentioned? Yeah, verse 5: “Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab.” Rahab…where have we heard that name before? The Madam of Jericho, right? Or, as my preacher’s son used to call her, “Rahab the Harlot Lady.” And then in the same verse, we read about Obed, the son of Boaz and Ruth, the Moabite woman. Who, it turns out, was the great-grandmother of King David. So, a little non-Israelite blood running in the veins of the royal house of Judah, right? And, of course, it says in verse six, “…David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife.” Doesn’t even say her name! Why are you reminding us of this, Matthew? Then, everything is back to the male side of the house until we get all the way down to verse 16, where it says, “…and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.”

Ah, yes. Those hints of scandal in the lineage of Christ, culminating in perhaps the greatest scandal of all: a young Jewish girl turns up pregnant well before wedlock. If it sounds shocking when phrased that way, it’s only because we know the other end of the story. But can you imagine being in Mary’s shoes, and trying to explain the situation to, say, your father? Not to mention that hurt and confused carpenter to whom you’re betrothed. “There was an angel, Daddy, and he said this baby was from God…” Right now, I’m thinking of two teenaged girls I love more than any other teenaged girls presently on the planet, and I’m trying to imagine how I’d react if either of them brought me such news. I’d be in agony, wanting to believe them, and at the same time unable to dare to allow myself to believe them.

Viewed from such an angle, this is hardly a respectable story, is it? What an irony, that the most magnificent story of all time, the story on whose outcome hangs the destiny of every human being who ever lived or ever will live, should have such an embarrassing, not to say scandalous, beginning. And that makes me wonder if God has the same view of scandal and respectability that I do. I want to be respectable. But when I read God’s story, I often think respectability is the last thing on his mind. Even the way he entered our world contained a hint of shame, a complete lack of majesty. An unwed mother? A stable? Shepherds in the recovery room? No, I’m afraid, if I’m honest with myself, that I have to admit that God’s story isn’t too respectable. And I remember hearing somebody say something about “a stumbling block to the Jews, and foolishness to the Greeks,” and I wonder why it is, at least in God’s story, that things are so seldom the way they seem at first glance.

And so, I guess I’m back where we started, learning things in the unlikeliest of places, from the most unlikely people. You have to let characters be who they are. You have to tell the story, even if it’s one nobody wants to hear. And you have to expect the unexpected, because things are so often different than they seem. And I say, praise God for that.