I was eighteen.
I had just graduated from high school with dreams of being a writer. I had always loved words, ever since reading A Little House in the Big Woods and the Narnia books. My best friends early in life had been Laura and Mary Ingalls, the March girls and the Pevensie kids, some babysitters named Kristy and Claudia and Stacey and a Receiver named Jonas. I loved good stories, stories that often seemed to be more true than the reality around me.
I loved story, but it was hard for me to think that it was a “good use of my time.” A good use of my “potential.” I had certain ideas of what a “Christian writer” was supposed to be. The books that I picked up at the Bible bookstore sometimes seemed more concerned with making sure ends were tied up, characters “converted.” They prided themselves on being “clean”–no swearing, no sex. They were beginning to seem farther and farther away from the world I lived in. And I wondered if that was what I wanted to write.
I was beginning to doubt that life was like these tidy, clean stories.
It was 2001. In June, I graduated from high school with a full-ride scholarship to an evangelical university and turned eighteen. Five days later, my father was diagnosed with stage IV brain cancer. In August, I would start college–not at the university I had planned to attend but a state school closer to home. And in September, the planes flew into the Twin Towers. In November, despite our fervent prayers, we buried my father.
I was living in an awkward place, between the comfortable, pat faith of my childhood and a faith that acknowledged doubts and questions.
And then came Madeleine L’Engle and her rambling, messy, beautiful book Walking on Water.
It set me free. From the beginning, L’Engle put it clear:
Christian art? Art is art; painting is painting; music is music; a story is a story. If it’s bad art, it’s bad religion, no matter how pious the subject. If it’s good art–and there the questions start coming, questions which it would be simpler to evade.
I underlined something on each page, it seemed like. L’Engle wove a theology of writing, of creating that had nothing to do with using “clean” language or describing a conversion. We create because God created first. We write to bring cosmos, life, order, out of chaos. The artist creates as a way of saying that the chaos are not the end of the story. The last word does not belong to planes flying into buildings or to cancer. It belongs to life.
There was so much freedom in her words. Listen to the work, ponder it in your heart like Mary did. Be faithful to the work, she said. But there is freedom to be imperfect.
Modern Mrs. Darcy, a fellow bibliophile elsewhere in the blogosphere, has been hosting a carnival about books that have changed our lives. I could probably list ten. The Little House books, where Ma Ingalls taught me what it was like to be resourceful. (A balloon out of a pig bladder, anyone?) The Narnia books, where I cried over Aslan and, at seven, thought I was a genius for realizing he was a symbol of Jesus. The stories of Flannery O’Connor, brilliant and witty and horrifying–but perfect, not a wasted word.
During college, Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz, which whispered to me a different way of being a Christian. A more honest and humble way than the talking heads on TV or the generals in the culture wars. In the past year, after graduating from seminary, The Hunger Games books–which reminded me that I do love books (just not books with the word “ontological” in them) and caused me to think about hunger, food, and justice in a way that I hadn’t in a long time.
But I am grateful for Madeleine, if I can call her that.
For writing a book so beautiful yet messy that it made me think I could write too. For letting me know that to create is to imitate God, to bring cosmos out of chaos. For telling me, yes, it is worth it to make art. That we write to tell the truth, to show life as it is. For reminding me that sitting at my desk writing stories is a protest against pain and injustice and wrong.
For inviting me to step out of the boat into the sea–and find the water firm beneath my feet.
I am always expanding my “to-read” list. What is the book that’s changed you? I’d love for you to share.