Monday, July 11, 2011

A Writer Whom Both Atheists and Believers Can Love

Today is the birthday of Frederick Buechner, who is one of those rare spiritual writers who can write works of deep and piercing insight without alienating members of groups who are usually at loggerheads.  He's a Presbyterian minister and theologian, and yet, atheists love his works, as do conservative Christians as do left-wing Christians.  Do Muslims, Hindus, and others love his work?  I don't know.  But I admire his accomplishment in appealing to so many different kinds of readers without alienating other readers.  How many writers have done that?  In theology, only writers like Henri Nouwen come to mind.

Since this is my creativity blog, not my theology blog, I'll try to keep from straying too far into the realms of theology.  If you say, "Drat!  I was hoping for a good theological discussion this morning," you can go to this post on my theology blog.  Later today, you can go to the Living Lutheran website to see if I'm anywhere close to my goal of writing in a Buechneresque way--I wrote the blog post that will be one of the featured pieces for today.

I am intrigued by Buechner's success in writing fiction that's infused with a Christian sensibility but can be enjoyed by everyone.  How many people can pull that off?  How many writers are brave enough to try?  Most of the fiction writers who come to mind are significantly older, like Reynolds Price.  Marilynne Robinson's Gilead and Home also qualify.

In terms of being a writer whom both atheists and believers can love, I'd argue that the most important writers are in the realm of poetry.  Maybe it's because I'm a poet and more in tune with that world, but I'd argue it's the poets who are taking the risks that come from exploring theological topics.

When I first started thinking of myself as a serious writer, back in the early 90's, all the wisdom out there advised writers to avoid talking about God at all.  If you had to write about spiritual matters, far better to adopt some sort of universal language, to avoid using the term "God."  Read Julia Cameron's books from the early and mid 90's.  She talks about "the universe" rewarding creativity and risk.  I always wondered if she really thought in those terms or if she thought in more traditional God language but had to universalize that language to avoid offense.

Was it Kathleen Norris who changed the writerly landscape with her book The Cloister Walk?  Maybe.  I'll leave that question to up and coming literary scholars, although if I was a Ph.D. student these days, I'd consider that topic.

I first started diligent work trying to get my poems published in 1998, and I avoided sending out any poems that had any hint of religious themes, images, or tinges.  But as I reflect back, it's those very poems that have achieved the most lasting impact.  I wrote more about that subject back in May in this post.

Today is also the birthday of E. B. White, another writer of astonishing accomplishment.  Most of us know him either for Charlotte's Web or The Elements of Style.

I want to be that kind of writer, the writer who can write works beloved by small children and grammar taskmasters and taskmistresses alike.  I want my spirituality infused work to be so alluring and appealing that even hardened atheists cannot resist.

Those goals aren't easy, but they seem worthy of a life's work to me.

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