Quote of the Week:

"He is no fool, who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose." (Jim Elliot)

Drop me a line if you want to be notified of new posts to SiTG:

My site was nominated for Best Parenting Blog!
My site was nominated for Hottest Daddy Blogger!

This is a Flickr badge showing public photos from Woodlief. Make your own badge here.

The Best of Sand:

The Blog
Greatest Hits
DVD Reviews
Faith and Life
Judo Chops
The Literate Life
News by Osmosis
The Problem with Libertarians
Snapshots of Life
The Sermons

Creative Commons License
All work on this site and its subdirectories is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Search the Site:

Me Out There:

Free Christmas
Don't Suffer the Little Children
Boys to Men
A Father's Dream
WORLD webzine posts

Not Non-Fiction
The Grace I Know
Coming Apart
My Christmas Story

The Craft:

CCM Magazine
Charis Connection
Faith in Fiction
Grassroots Music

Favorite Journals:

Atlantic Monthly
Doorknobs & Bodypaint
Image Journal
Infuze Magazine
Missouri Review
New Pantagruel
Southern Review

Blogs I Dig:

Education & Edification:

Arts & Letters Daily
Bill of Rights Institute
Junk Science
U.S. Constitution


Home School Legal Defense
Institute for Justice
Local Pregnancy Crisis
Mission Aviation
Prison Ministries
Russian Seminary
Unmet Needs


Cox & Forkum

Donors Hall of Fame

Susanna Cornett
Joe Drbohlav
Anthony Farella
Amanda Frazier
Michael Heaney
Don Howard
Laurence Simon
The Timekeeper
Rob Long
Paul Seyferth

My Amazon.com Wish List

Add to Technorati Favorites

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Correspondence with the Easter Bunny

Caleb's note to the Easter Bunny:

"Dear Ester Bunea,
This is all I want
A bascket for my bike and a little wite rabbit.

The Easter Bunny's reply (as channeled by the Wife):

Dear Caleb,
Thank you for the note. I don't carry the bunnies with me because they eat all the candy. I will put in a good word for you with your parents.
He is risen!

I'm not sure which of my sweethearts is cuter.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0) comments

Friday, April 6, 2007

Good Friday

And so they led him up the hill, and they nailed him to a cross, and they watched him bleed and die.

From Frederick Buechner's Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABC's of Faith:

"What was brought to completion by such a life and such a death only he can know now, wherever he is, if he is anywhere. The Christ of it is beyond our imagining. All we can know is the flesh and blood of it, the Jesus of it. In that sense, what was completed was at the very least a hope to live by, a mystery to hide our faces before, a shame to haunt us, a dream of holiness to help make bearable our night.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0) comments

Christian Fiction, Part III: Bad Writing Is Evil

After I discovered Leif Enger's Peace Like a River, I breathlessly recommended it to my friends. I could barely disguise my disappointment when some said it was "too slow," or "hard to get into." I love them all the same, but I couldn't help but view them as slightly handicapped, like someone who is colorblind, or can't taste anything sweet. That doesn't state it strongly enough; imagine someone who can't see sunsets, or hear music. You'd love this friend nonetheless, but between the two of you there would forever be a gulf, an inability to share something lovely. This is what comes to mind when I learn that a Christian friend's literary tastes run to the spiritual equivalent of Who Moved My Cheese?.

There is a sweet side to this reality; when I discover that someone I know was also moved by James Agee's A Death in the Family, or thinks Frederick Buechner is a modern-day prophet, I can't help but feel a closer bond with him. There's an almost subversive quality to it, though we aren't subverting anyone, except perhaps by slipping a lovely book to a promising recruit and whispering "Here, read this." And when the recruit shyly returns it a month later, and confesses that it was a little slow, we love him nonetheless; we just stop pointing out the sunsets to him.

I think there's something running deeper here, however, than individual tastes, or communities of shared affinity. Cliché-ridden, unimaginative prose is not only less lovely than good writing, it is less true. Consider the cliché, which Dictionary.com defines as:

"a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse."

Now, we all use clichés in everyday speech, because they save time. Those common phrases are right there in the front of our brains (and see how the cliché, and the practice of reading poorly, can perpetuate itself?). In a conversation, especially where there's work to be done, one doesn't have time to compose melodic prose. So one resorts to ready-made phrases. Clichés are very helpful in that regard. But keep in mind what we sacrifice by using the cliché. In effect, we trust the listener to substitute his own experience in order to understand ours. If you tell me:

I'm feeling under the weather today.

I don't really know how you feel; instead I think back on my own experiences of feeling bad, and transfer them to you. To be sure, the cliché is based on a commonality of human experience, but it is by necessity a common denominator. That's fine for conversation where approximation of truth is sufficient to the work at hand, but when it dominates conversations that are supposed to be about connection, and discernment of truth (and if writing is not supposed to be about these things, then we may as well burn all our books straightaway) then it destroys the very purpose of those conversations.

The cliché moves us away from the truth, the precise truth of an individual human being in a particular moment in history, and instead substitutes the thin gruel of simple words uttered so many times before that neither the speaker nor the listener has to think much about them at all. The cliché is not only less than truth, its very blandness and unoriginality paints the colorful world a uniform gray.

The spectacle, then, of Christian writers layering cliché after cliché into their prose is especially disheartening, because they claim to espouse a worldview founded on truth and miracles. Neither are gray, are they? Wander over to the fiction section the next time you're in a "Christian Lifestyle" store (and don't even get me started on all the ways that conceptualization is an absolute abomination), or to the "faith" section the next time you're in an actual bookstore, and randomly select a book. Open it to a random page, and count the number of clichés, the sheer weight of "trite, stereotyped expression." And let's be clear, the cliché is not the extent of the problem, the root cause of bad writing; it is a symptom of the lazy, unoriginal, irreverent treatment of creation that underlies such writing.

And if this rote treatment is the extent of our storytelling, why not do the reader a favor, and just summarize?

Beth was heartbroken and questioning her walk with Jesus, but then brooding Glenn came along, and together they rediscovered their faith, all while fighting off the godless land developers who wanted to ruin their bucolic town.

What's that, dear reader? You want more to the story? Just fill in the blanks. You've heard all the phrases I was going to use anyway, and you know exactly how the story is going to end — which is probably half the reason you picked up the book in the first place. So just stare at the wall, and tell yourself the story.

Think of the paper we'd save.

To relate stories in drab, unoriginal language, then, is to deny truth. The world is filled with exquisite joy and pain, and if a writer (or reader) can't lift himself out of commonplace phrasings to tell the stories of this joy and pain, then he ought to busy himself with some other endeavor, because the alternative is to lie (or to entertain the lie) about creation, and about the author of that creation. This is what we are engaged in, those of us who make a steady diet of sugarless gum — a perpetual lie, because bad writing is always lying. This is why I say that a steady practice of bad writing (and bad reading) is a sin. It's not going to the movies for a couple of hours of release, it is a continual dwelling in a fantasy space. I don't think that comports with the calling of a thinking Christian, do you?

posted by Woodlief | link | (6) comments

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Christian Fiction, Part II: The Bubblegum Diet

What is Christian fiction? Does Doris Betts's story, "Serpents and Doves" count? In it a dying, guilt-ridden man has a feverish conversation with the Devil that brings him to realize the salvation that has eluded him. Then there's Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory, wherein a priest is executed for refusing to renounce his faith. Leif Enger's Peace Like a River is infused with grace, and its noblest character is a through-and-through Christian. Do any of these count as Christian fiction?

I suspect not. There's cursing in them, for one thing. Greene's book depicts sex in a prison cell. Plus his priest fathered a child. Each book has an edge to it, and perhaps that's the best demarcation. Christian fiction seems to be a safe harbor for people who want no cursing, or sex, or difficult theological quandaries. It's a place where the bad people are clearly bad, where the troubled find Jesus, the wicked get their comeuppance, and children have the wisdom of angels. It's escapist literature, and as such it's part of a long tradition. It's the literary equivalent of bubble gum, only it's sugarless, for those who care about the state of their spiritual teeth.

There's nothing wrong with sugarless gum; the difficulty arises when one makes a steady diet of it. If one believes that reading is an important part of the thinking life, then what one reads is no trivial matter. I know some people — intelligent, well-meaning people — who believe that the end is reading itself. They're happy that their adult children read, but when you delve into what their children are reading, it's a bubble-gum banquet. The purpose of a literate life is not the steady gazing at lines of words all strung together in tight rows and bundles, but the engagement of the mind with ideas and events and struggles greater than oneself. It's the interaction with ideas such that one's life is richer, and more meaningful, so that one is better equipped to be a force in the world.

One gets none of that from bubble gum. And how sad is it, really, to elect for a bubble gum diet, and then to make it sugarless? If we are to let our minds stagnate, then at the very least, mightn't we have a little fun doing so? Think about it: to be given these great gifts of prosperity, peace, and literacy, such that we have at our fingertips the brilliant thinking and composition of noble and ignoble souls alike, and then to read none of it. Doesn't that seem awfully close to sin? And if it is, why not sin boldly? Read some Stephen King, for crying out loud. At least you can tell his characters apart.

That's right, I'm suggesting that bad reading — and bad writing — is a sin. I'll even go so far as to posit that there is a special library in hell, lined with Danielle Steele and Robert Ludlum books, where the damned are consigned to copy the books' wretched dialogue over and over on endless spools of dry scratchy paper, with demons waiting nearby to lop off fingers whenever someone puts his punctuation on the outside of the quotation mark.

Keep in mind that I'm not speaking to people who's intellectual capacity limits their ability to comprehend a Wendell Berry or Dorothy Sayers, a Chaim Potok or Flannery O'Connor. Those blessed souls stopped reading after I used the phrase "theological quandaries," in the second paragraph. No, I'm talking to you, and to me, and most importantly, to each of us who is a parent (but more on that later). We have the capacity to read wonderful books, but we've trained our palate to crave bubble gum. Then we lie to ourselves, and say that because it's sugarless, we are being good stewards of our minds. But sugarless gum produces a rot of a different sort, in the form of an absence of nourishment.

But enough for now. Next post I'll dig a little deeper into why I think bad writing (and therefore bad reading) is a sin. And as your payoff for enduring my insufferable snootiness on this topic, I'll direct you to some lists of wonderful books that wrestle with things that ought to matter to the thinking Christian.

posted by Woodlief | link | (10) comments

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

On Christian Fiction, Part I: Bad Readers Make Bad Writers

There's a debate in Christian writing circles arising out of the perceived difficulty of getting publishers under the Christian Booksellers Association (CBA) umbrella to carry more "literary" work. The underlying conflict between literary and mass-market fiction has existed in one form or another long before the CBA took root, of course. The first time a caveman etched a picture of his battle with the woolly mammoth, there was probably a scratcher of intricate berry-gathering vignettes waiting to denounce his work as sentimental and derivative.

The CBA question is especially interesting (to me, at least), because it incorporates not only questions of good art, but of purposeful art, which is itself a separate and tangled thicket. Does art with a high-minded purpose run the risk of being contrived and insincere? Should the purpose of the Christian artist be anything other than to tell the truth, i.e., to be a good artist — and if not, what's the purpose of an association dedicated to the selling of "Christian" books?

Whenever the debate is joined, it threatens to surface a more delicate matter, regarding what Christians choose to consume with their minds. Since free markets consist of sellers in service to willing buyers, our concern about what publishers print is really, in one dimension at least, a concern with what our friends choose to read. Tastes are cultivated, of course, and so we can quibble over what parents and schools teach (or more likely, fail to teach), but those dissatisfied (disheartened? disgusted?) by current CBA offerings are really dissatisfied with readers. As long as scores of readers get pleasure out of a book that can be written in a month, there will be authors turning out a book a month.

One runs the risk, in making this observation, of appearing to be one of those pedantic, precious little creative types who is convinced that the world has rejected his art because the masses have neither sense nor discernment. But some things are true even if Allan Bloom said so.

There's much more to be said here (and I promise not to afflict you with all of it), but I'll take it up in the next post.

posted by Woodlief | link | (3) comments

Monday, April 2, 2007

Renaissance Radical

Something that has always bothered me about the theological enterprise is an undercurrent of arrogance, the notion that we possess so clear a discernment that we can build mental boxes to contain the wild God of the ages. I once heard a sermon where the pastor quoted a brilliant theologian, who was commending Jesus for drawing the right conclusion in a particular lesson. It put me in mind of the politician who declared in the midst of a speech, "As the good Lord said, and I think he was right . . ."

Recalling that the first theologian was the Devil himself, it seems a slippery enterprise at best. It isn't surprising that the great reformations — Josiah having the Torah read to the people, Christ slapping down the Pharisees, Martin Luther suggesting the Pope get re-acquainted with the Bible — center on returning to what God has said, not what man has to say about what God said. (The aggrieved pedant often interposes a secondary discussion here, regarding the extent to which the Scriptures themselves are simply man's interpretations of what God has said, and the best reply is that he educate himself through more than the books that speak to his preconceived bias on the topic.)

All the foregoing came to mind yesterday as I read this from Sir Walter Raleigh's History of the World:

"Man, to cover his ignorance in the least things, who cannot give a true reason for the grass under his feet . . . that hath so short a time in the world as he no sooner begins to learn than to die; that hath in his memory but borrowed knowledge, in his understanding nothing truly; that is ignorant of the essence of his own soul, and which the wisest of the naturalists (if Aristotle be he) could never so much as define but by the action and effect, telling us what it works (which all men know as well as he) but not what it is, which neither he nor any else doth know, save God that created it . . . Man, I say, that is but an idiot in the next cause of his own life and in the cause of all actions of his life, will notwithstanding examine the art of God in creating the world . . ."

Or, as the good Lord said to Job (and I think he was right), "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?"

As might be expected, they lopped off Raleigh's head, their anger no doubt heightened by verses like this:

"Tell faith, it's fled the city;
Tell how the country erreth;
Tell, manhood shakes off pity;
Tell, virtue least preferreth;
And if they do reply,
Spare not to give the lie.

I don't know about you, but I always delight in discovering a critic from ages past. It makes one feel as if one is part of a sacred tradition, or has perhaps been admitted to a secret society because someone forgot to check one's references. And it shouldn't worry us, that so many meet gruesome ends, because mostly that doesn't happen any more, unless one lives in the Middle East. Or Africa. Or Pakistan. I guess there's also China, Cuba, Venezuela (soon), Russia, and Europe, if the Muslim demographic invasion continues . . .

Ah, well. Perhaps we misanthropes can simply hope for Raleigh's pluck on the executioner's block. He thumbed the blade and declared, "This is that that will cure all sorrows." And then, when the executioner dallied too long before the blow, Raleigh chided him: "Strike, man!" We'll know we've turned the corner in our universities, when this Renaissance radical replaces the thuggish Che Guevara on chic t-shirts. But to judge from Raleigh's poetry, academia was little better in his day, it seems:

"Tell arts, they have no soundness,
But vary by esteeming;
Tell schools, they want profoundness,
And stand too much on seeming
If arts and schools reply
Give arts and schools the lie."


posted by Woodlief | link | (0)