Sometimes I think of faith as a void and then I will immediately backtrack over my thoughts with what I have been told the answer is. I suppose that if faith is the size of a mustard seed, then it’s possible that it is so small that it’s imperceptible until it springs a bud.
In his essay, My Bright Abyss, Christian Wiman explains this mystery in his own life: “When I assented to the faith that was latent within me”. Tiny, latent, an empty space, however you put it, the fact is that it’s there. And does anyone really know how or when it arrives? Perhaps in its simplest form, it comes with a sudden wind, straight from the tree next door; it nestles into the good soil of you and sprouts a leaf.
But just as often it’s the void that’s visible before the seed, and that void, of course, is the merciful grace of God.
I assented to the faith that was latent within me when I was 19—it became clear to me that Christ was more than the wafer or the wine, or even the way that my mother used to sit on the couch early in the morning with her coffee and her face drawn closed in prayer.
At the time, I was an undergrad, and I walked into a room of 20 or so Christians. It was because of the void that I walked into that room and because of the void that I stayed. I learned how to pray and read the Bible and even sing, to praise God. Jesus became more than the wafer, the wine, or my mother.
And I learned how to be humble, and humility—of course—is very, very closely linked to faith. Whether we muster up that humility or God gives it to us is a whole other discussion and one of the things that reminds me again that at its core Christianity is mysterious, and that I love a mysterious God.
Some years ago I read The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. I laughed a lot, let the novel sufficiently blow my mind with the writing, and then stuck the hefty paperback on the second shelf of my bookcase where I can see it every morning as I work.
In grad school Franzen was all the talk, perhaps especially since he lived in NYC and would visit our department from time to time. We all had plenty of praise for him, but every once and a while someone would say they thought he was an incredible writer, but he tended to circle his navel and didn’t in the end have a whole lot to say. At the time I wasn’t sure what I thought.
Franzen said once—when asked who influenced him when he was a kid—that C. S. Lewis did, and he loved The Chronicles of Narnia, but before my Christian antennae got half way off my head he went on, of course that was before I found out the books were really about Christianity. This was interesting to me, that Jonathan Franzen thought art that reflects Christ should be somehow disqualified. That was the implication, anyway.
Of course, minus Christianity’s influence, we’d be lopping off a whole lot of good art, but what struck me more as a person of faith, is that if I were to disqualify Christ in my own writing I would indeed feel like I was circling my navel with words.
When I say this, I don’t mean that writing about a tree is wrong if I don’t reference, symbolically or otherwise, its creator, or that writing about a love affair or a mystery or family drama is wrong if I don’t end on a moral high note. When I say I would have nothing worth writing about, what I’m getting at is Psalm 42:7, that “deep calls to deep,” something that’s been true since way back whenever and that I like to translate quietly to myself as “truth calls to truth.”
In fiction as well as poetry, and obviously non-fiction, what we’re obligated to is truth. Character development, plot, imagery, must begin with a foundation of truth, and as with so many types of art, this can look entirely different from one work to another.
Jesus talked about gardens and fields and oil lamps and sometimes he explained what he meant but not always. If I lie down in my front yard and stare up at the branches of the 100-year-old oak tree, I can see the light through the leaves, something that Annie Dillard describes beautifully in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Annie Dillard understands natural revelation with her keen observations and understanding of science, but even if I’m not aware that a giant water beetle will sometimes eat a frog, I am able to describe the way a certain character handles the universal fear of death, or that a mother’s love for her son sometimes feels like a slow carving out of her insides.
“To whom much is given much is expected.” Many Christians take this to mean wealth, health, happiness, love, but I think it means revelation. If a 75 foot high, glowing Jesus shows up in your back yard and it’s for real, you sure as hell better tell people.
One of the things about God is that he’s invisible. But then everything else is so entirely visible; I know what a pond looks like in early sun, I know that baby’s movements come in jerks, like they know the beginning of a movement but not the end. It’s not always possible to describe these things fully, but with this faith that God has given me, I’ve come to understand that deep always calls to deep, and truth inevitably calls to more truth. These are my revelations and I write to pass them on.