Inspiration 101

“Oh Captain my captain!”

I watched Dead Poet’s Society a few days ago for the second time, and it was even better than I remembered. Robin Williams was gold as Mr. Keating, and I didn’t fully appreciate before what a stellar supporting cast he had (Ethan Hawke? Josh Charles? well, I had no idea who these people were when I watched it in high school). The story builds up to a tragedy, but it is not without humor and triumph. It is innocent, but not naïve; philosophical, but accessible; wise, but not preachy.

It made me wonder about the stories that inspire us. What springboards something from unremarkable to unforgettable? I thought it was one of those hazy, hard-to-define things but I wanted to pinpoint a few key elements. You could say some stories just have it, a mysterious, magical X factor, but crafting a good tale isn’t like waving a wand. So I thought through my favorite books and films and came away with some common themes.

A hero who overcomes what we cannot

The stories that take a step beyond the plane of reality give themselves the liberty to create a larger-than-life protagonist: someone who can fight the battles and lead the charges that ordinary people can only dream of. They stand against seemingly insurmountable odds, and they sometimes stand alone (or at least vastly outnumbered). Basically, every superhero movie or fantasy novel where good defeats evil in a glorious spectacle.

They are the characters we will never be, but they move us with their valor and nobility. We may not have their abilities, but we can aspire to live with the same spirit.

A hero who overcomes a relatable weakness

I think there’s a large class of people that we’d look down on in the streets, but we’d love if we found them between the pages of a book.

While we’d all like to be crushing villains and taking names, most of us are fighting smaller, invisible battles each day. We’re frail, breakable, and often barely holding things together. When we don’t know someone’s heart, it’s easy to judge by appearance. That’s the wonderful thing about stories—they teach us what is often hidden behind facades in real life. They make us cheer for the poor, geeky outcast who, let’s be honest, not many of us would have befriended in real life. They make us fall in love with a man who few would probably tolerate the company of (yes, you, Mr. Darcy).

Awkwardness. Fear of what people think. Anger over irrational issues. Relationship problems. When we find characters beating the challenges we face ourselves, it inspires us to keep fighting too.

A vision of the future that is better than today’s reality

Hope and hopelessness, the two opposite ends of the spectrum, are both capable of instigating reckless actions. Our society is familiar with the latter. Desperate men with nothing to lose can do an extraordinary amount of damage.

But hope can lead to reckless living too—in a good way. Paul was utterly sold out for Christ because he believed in the deepest part of him that his present suffering could not compare to the glories to come. In fiction, this may be best seen in fantasy or sci-fi. Heroes who refuse to live under a shadow of evil or fear, who will give their all for the sake of a brighter future.

Hope can make humanity rise above a bleak reality.

Style

Style without substance is meaningless. But substance without style can range from boring to terrible. Style binds good substance together and makes it shine.

There are stories with all the “right” elements jammed in but executed poorly. Not going to name names, but we all know the ones that had so much potential in character or premise—and they flopped.

And there are some stories that are made great by their stylistic choices. If The Book Thief were narrated by anyone else, it would not be as brilliant. Probably still a decent story, but not stunning or truly set apart. Every single human being has many ordinary stories they can tell. Only a few become classics, and while it’s most often what you have to say, how you say it can also set the literary world spinning.

So…lights! Pens! Action! What inspires you? That, to me, is one of the great purposes of art and storytelling. We don’t create fiction in a vacuum: we create to reflect reality and inspire people to live more boldly and compassionately.

Carpe diem!

The Insatiable Search for Story

Epic film trailers have been exploding onto the Internet all year, from Jurassic Park to Avengers to Star Wars. I am as stoked as the next gullible fan, prepared to throw my money at these shameless, endless franchises, unless Rotten Tomatoes convinces me otherwise. It got me to thinking—we keep trying to tell bigger tales of wild future concepts, mind-bending thrillers, and edgy what-if scenarios. Why are we constantly seeking more?

Of course, there is the constant criticism of our digital, attention deficit generation. Without explosions, firefights, or eye-popping visuals, you can’t hold an audience in 2015—and sadly, that line of thought turns the art of storytelling into a soulless machine. The same goes for literature (or what passes for literature), as lengthy prose is tossed in favor of quick action. We are the generation of instant gratification.

But we are still story lovers. In an era of fads and viral trends, good stories manage to cut through the noise and endure. Writers continue to find ways to spin up new and better tales, and readers continue to hunt for the next best thing. Though inundated with flashy, sensory material, we learn to strip away the packaging and find the heartbeat. Why are our souls seared with a hunger for story?

We crave closure.

A common complaint I see in book reviews are about loose ends. “The author never explained…” or “But what happened to…?” We love a good resolution. Often, that means a cheerful ending, but not always; there are the tragedies that resolve more beautifully than a trite happily ever after. Perhaps the death of a character was made of the stuff of legends—honorable, symbolic, and sacrificial. It was meaningful, or it achieved a greater end that justified the loss. In essence, it brought closure to the story, or at least one chapter of a greater tale.

Our imperfect world rarely offers the luxury of closure, even in great lives. I recently read Unbroken, the remarkable biography of Louie Zamperini. But even in his stunning story arc, there are numerous “loose ends:” men who met senseless deaths in the war and redemption that did not reach full-circle for all. As much as I loved his tale, I wished a different conclusion for some of the characters.

Closure is not the norm for true stories, yet we long for it, and have made it an integral part of storytelling.

We are made in the image of a Creator.

To tell a story is to create. Based on our knowledge, experiences, and observations, we weave elements together to produce something new. In one way, stories are the seed of countless creations, the motivation to action. A single dream grows into a new technology. A single tragedy sparks a revolution.

God is the first Creator, and the first Storyteller. When we look at the course of human history, fraught as it is with strife and sorrow, we see the nature of creating and imagining shine through different cultures and continents, embedded in our humanity. We simply can’t stop making things and telling stories as we find beauty beyond the brokenness.

We are finite, seeking the infinite.

No manmade story can capture all the emotions and complexities of life. We applaud works of literature when they excel in one area—Lord of the Rings for its sweeping imagination, Anna Karenina for its human insight, Sherlock Holmes for its clever wit—but we can’t form an intelligent worldview based on a singular human narrative.

All inspiration and stories are imaging God’s intricate creation and immeasurable story that extends beyond time. We can’t capture the infinite in the finite, the eternal in the temporal. But we can, and we will, keep telling stories to kingdom come because there are always unexplored angles, unanswered questions, and a universe still waiting in the wings for its final resolution.

Young, Reckless and Nonconformist – Religious Thoughts on “Blue Like Jazz”

BluelikejazzI finally read Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz, a few years behind its explosion onto the Christian book scene. I’m not very good at writing book reviews because I tend to get long-winded and dig a hole into one idea, but I felt compelled to share some thoughts. (For excellent and witty book insights, I recommend my friend Veronica!)

Miller is something of a controversial writer in Christian circles, often associated with the emergent church, but I believe he doesn’t consider himself party to that movement. His emphasis on feelings and experiences tend in that direction, though he holds to the depravity of man and the need for salvation. He speaks to an increasingly polarized culture and subcultures of Christianity, and for that I applaud the naked honesty and vulnerability in his writing, which inevitably garners critique from various groups. (And it has—I’ve skimmed the Goodreads reviews.) Needless to say, Blue Like Jazz comes with a host of strengths and weaknesses. I will say up front, though, that I don’t plan to rehash some of the widespread critiques I’ve already seen from many in the conservative, Reformed corner: he’s all about emotion, lacks a high view of Scripture, fuzzy on atonement, and on. I agree with a large part of the criticisms (not all), but at the same time, he’s writing more of a memoir, not a theological treatise. So I want to try to look at it as such.

What I Liked

He’s a good storyteller—humorous, compelling, honestly irreverent (which is sometimes refreshing, sometimes inappropriate), and surprisingly shrewd. Some reviews accuse the book of being nothing more than a meandering diary, but he manages to make that form engaging enough. I particularly liked his stories of living in Portland and attending Reed; it struck close to home for me, and he relates his tales in an up close, personal way, as if you were chatting over coffee in a hipster café.

Dying for something is easy because it is associated with glory. Living for something is the hard thing. Living for something extends beyond fashion, glory, or recognition. We live for what we believe.

He’s honest and real—in a way that can be scary and bold, as he gives a voice to universal but rarely spoken doubts, struggles, and desires. I do think he almost elevates the importance of self-expression and authenticity above objective Truth, but then again, the entire book is a product of his self-expression.

They are lonely. I’m not talking about lonely for a lover or a friend. I mean lonely in the universal sense, lonely inside the understanding that we are tiny people on a tiny little earth suspended in an endless void that echoes past stars and stars of stars. 

He has a sharp gaze into the human soul—I can’t quite compare him to C.S. Lewis, but I found some gems in the book that were reminiscent of Lewis’ insight. The unique edge Miller brings comes from the very different culture he grew up in, and how the severe rift between postmodern thought and conservative Christianity shaped his perspective. Having lived and breathed in both sorts of communities, his observations and struggles resonate with me (and I would guess, with many in our generation).

Somehow I had come to believe that because a person is in need, they are candidates for sympathy, not just charity. It was not that I wanted to buy her groceries, the government was already doing that. I wanted to buy her dignity. And yet, by judging her, I was the one taking her dignity away. 

The Self-Addiction Cycle

Early in the book, Miller expresses his belief in human depravity, and he describes coming to the realization in a personal way.

“Do I want social justice for the oppressed, or do I just want to be known as a socially active person? I spend 95 percent of my time thinking about myself anyway. I don’t have to watch the evening news to see that the world is bad, I only have to look at myself. I am not browbeating myself here; I am only saying that true change, true life-giving, God-honoring change would have to start with the individual. I was the very problem I had been protesting. I wanted to make a sign that read “I AM THE PROBLEM!”

He goes on to speak of our helpless, natural self-addiction many times over. He says, “The most difficult lie I have ever contended with is this: life is a story about me.” I couldn’t help but find it somewhat ironic that the overall theme of the book radiates with an intense focus on self. He repeatedly writes about his opinions and views almost as if they were a law unto himself—his dissatisfaction with relationships, with churches, etc. It made me wonder, “So how did the Gospel rescue him from self-absorption?” He speaks of the inestimable value of love and sacrifice, and how he found beautiful examples of that in the world outside the church. Perhaps this is where our theology comes into play, because I don’t see how one can truly begin to overcome the depth of depravity apart from bringing the full Gospel to bear—Christ’s substitutionary atonement for sin, and His righteousness alone credited to those who believe. I get the sense Miller has a strong grasp of the Gospel’s core, yet his book blurs a lot of lines. It leads me to ask: If he believes in the fullness and centrality of the Gospel, wouldn’t his writing display it?

In short, he shows a keen sensitivity to our innate self-obsession and he speaks of the need to grow in Christlikeness. I can’t help but think of John 3:30 – “He must increase, but I must decrease.” As the outcome of Miller’s conclusions, I half-expected and half-hoped his memoir would naturally grow in speaking more of the glories of Christ and the Gospel and less of himself. Not because “that’s what you’re supposed to do in a Christian book” but because “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20).” He believes that wonder is the best worship of God, yet what aspects of God command his awe, and where is his authority for the character of God? I’m sure he can give an answer, and I wish he had in the book.

The Division of Head and Heart

Miller brings a flavor of mysticism to his view of God, denying the need or ability to rationalize the spiritual. His story is an interesting case study of many drawn to postmodern, emergent breeds of thought—young, highly intellectual and educated people who seek to divorce intellect from spirituality. It’s an odd but strangely trendy phenomenon in our culture today.

While many flying the flag of Christianity over the centuries have sought to make faith viable by shutting down science, compromising to science, co-existing in supposed contradiction yet peace with science, etc., biblical faith never needs or seeks to do that. The Truth is able to appeal to the heart, mind, and soul and withstand the test of being embraced by our entire being, without turning a blind eye or fleeing from tough questions. False religions are the ones that latch onto one part of our faculties alone with an iron grip (e.g. science-as-religion that speaks to the intellect exclusively; spirituality that speaks to the heart and emotions exclusively).

And yet, we are sinners, imperfect in all our ways, and none of us achieve that right tension of loving the Lord with all our heart, soul, strength and mind. Miller falls into the “heart and soul” camp more than the “mind,” but those on the opposite end of the spectrum can surely learn from his basking in the “pure and furious” love of God and compassion for the lost and needy. These things can be lost in a narrow focus on doctrine. At the same time, I think Miller’s love for and faith in the Gospel comes with the undeniable influence of postmodern thought, which favors experientialism over doctrinal conviction. But doctrine is not simply for intellect’s sake, and deep theology and knowledge of truth is the firmest foundation and fuel for abiding love. Love for the sake of love is meaningless in the end and will not hold up in the face of our sin and brokenness. I think Miller would agree with that.

In closing, I’d echo his own well-spoken belief:

“I don’t think any church has ever been relevant to culture, to the human struggle, unless it believed in Jesus and the power of His gospel.” – Blue Like Jazz

The Real in the Surreal

“But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” – C.S. Lewis

surreal

I’m not sure how one defines growing up, but from an unschooled eye, I see it in the small, insignificant things—trading in sneakers for the next size, dismissing mom as the personal chauffeur to sports games and parties—and I always see it in retrospect. The quiet evolution in interests, tastes, personality. The sometimes subtle, sometimes sudden, shedding of youthful naiveté. Childhood shifts into adulthood in a slow whirlwind of changing landscapes, foreign city lights blurred by rainfall, abandoned bookshelves and silent studios. A world marked simultaneously by noise and loneliness.

We leave behind the children’s stories and fairy tales. There are broken hearts strewn across our streets and suburbs, stomped over by a world in a rush to the subway and office, never pausing for a second glance. Sometimes, those are our hearts. Sometimes, we are the ones trampling them underfoot. Finally, we see—victims and oppressors all—happily-ever-after are for the idiots. We read survival guides for life and watch shows about messy people with frayed relationships and aimless days because it’s like looking in a mirror and laughing. Life doesn’t make cynics out of all of us, but we are hard-pressed to find the same lively spark of wonder and hope in the eyes of the aging.

Perhaps there is another shift from adulthood into old age, when we return to the past tales. When we grow weary of the world and the next new thing, and find there is really nothing new under the sun. That psychology, technology, governments, wars, treaties, prisons, corporations and social movements will never fix our brokenness. When we come to the end of ourselves and stand on the brink of our last heartbeats, perhaps the light will break into the crevasses and we will find that ancient wisdom speaks with new authority.

Perhaps we will pick up the old fairy tales, and we will see them like never before—not with scoffing condescension or childlike wonder. The scales will fall off our eyes and we will see the truth in the myth, the real in the surreal, and discover a magic that all the world cannot suppress—

—sunlight piercing the morning dew—

—fierce, untamable love —

—glory beyond the frailness of words—

Are these not the truest tales of all?

The Bibliophile’s Crime

I was 15% of the way through this book (I’m reading on a Kindle, hence the % instead of the page number), and for a 1,000 page tome, that meant over 100 pages. If I shelved it for now, I’d forget the plot and be forced to start from the beginning. Or I could trudge on and keep reading and hope that I’d fall in love in the next, oh, 900 pages. I hopped onto Goodreads and read raving reviews for encouragement.

But I decided to drop it. Goodbye, The Way of Kings.

Yes, this is The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson, the epic opening to a ten-book fantasy series. (I’m ready – throw your tomatoes with abandon.) Maybe my expectations were too high. Everyone says this book keeps them up at night. It had rather the opposite effect on me. Maybe I’m not a real, true-blooded fantasy fan. Or at least, one who has “gotten with the times,” and moved on from the black and white, good vs. evil fantasy archetypes of Tolkien and Lewis’ day. To boil it down, I simply didn’t love it. Nothing about the book—prose, plot, characters, setting—sunk its talons in and really shook my world or stirred my soul. And I didn’t want to read 900 more pages to see if anything would.

But it got me thinking about The Bibliophile’s Crime (self-created term; apologies for the melodrama). Dropping a book midway through. Should you? Shouldn’t you? We all have a method for making the decision, whether it’s based on haphazard feelings, a stubbornness to finish any and every book opened, or some unspoken criteria. I tried to formalize mine, and though it is by no means definitive or comprehensive, perhaps it will provide some ideas to chew on.

First of all, not every book should be read. Some are plainly a waste of time, some are terrible literature, and some are worse – downright disturbing or twisted for the sake of glorifying darkness. The tough part comes when a book seems to boast some value, but you’re having trouble getting into it. I’ve stuck through a number of novels like that. Some, like Pride and Prejudice and To Kill a Mockingbird, grew into my all-time favorites. Others, I disliked even more by the end. So, to keep reading or not, that is the question … and I have 4 of them that I use informally to evaluate.

  1. Why are you reading it? We read for different purposes. Sometimes, it’s purely for enjoyment, and sometimes, it’s educational. I’m much more willing to drop a book I’m reading for fun on the sole basis of entertainment value. I mean, if the value I’m looking for most isn’t there, then why keep going? But if I’m reading to learn, I’m much more reluctant to give up. And educational isn’t just for school, and it’s not learning sapped of all enjoyment. I read theology to learn more of God, or classics to learn more of enduring stories, or certain authors to study their prose. If I’m getting something out of it, I’ll keep going.
  2. What do others say about it? This is always subjective, and you’ll hear things from every end of the spectrum. It takes time and scrutiny to cut through the noise. I dig through reviews looking mainly for a common thread of what the real, redeeming value of the book is. What is the work most known and praised for? (e.g., “the vivid portrait of human nature” or “omg the guy is way hawt”) If I also find it a worthy characteristic, I’ll give it a few more chances. On the flip side, I look at what it’s criticized for, and weigh that in my consideration too.
  3. Is it bearable? If I really can’t stand it, I quit. Reading should not be torture.
  4. How long is it? This may seem superficial, but time is a precious commodity. If I can breeze through it in the same amount of time that it’d take to evaluate whether or not to read it, I may as well just read it. But if it’s going to take weeks on end (not to mention endless sequels, which are all the rage now), I’d consider more carefully. Every book is an investment of time, a use of stewardship, so make sure it’s worth it.

[pc]

Between Mercy and Justice

Mercy and justice are not opposites, but they often find themselves at odds, particularly in the justice system. The tension between the two, between gracious love and rigid law, is a core conflict in so many stories. Recently, I’ve developed a penchant for legal dramas (by which, I mean Suits and The Good Wife) and I can’t help but notice this theme replaying itself. Suits has a spectacular ensemble cast, and I’ve grown to love each of the characters: their quirks, wit, heroics and vulnerabilities. I cheer when they win, when they beat their enemies, when they have their moments of glory. I ache when they ache. (And yes, I realize I may be overly emotionally invested.) But let’s be honest – all of my favorite characters are basically crooks. By the law, they deserve to be thrown into prison.

Good storytellers know how to play on our sympathies. Call it manipulative, but you have to admit, it takes skill to do. A well-executed emotional appeal strikes our heartstrings harder than impartial justice. Storytellers know that. The justice system knows that: attorneys would not be so bent on picking impartial jurors if most people could not be swayed by compassion, personal experiences, or anything other than cold, hard facts. We find ourselves rooting for “good” protagonists even if they aren’t completely by the book, even if they’re rule-breakers, because of something redeeming in their motives or heart. We empathize because we’ve been in their shoes, or simply because we understand their dilemma as fellow humans. We’re not robots, we don’t see the world in binary, and there’s no algorithm to our emotions.

But there you find the tension. The other day, I was watching an episode of The Good Wife where Alicia defends a middle-aged Indian woman facing deportation. She entered the U.S. illegally 27 years ago, but built her entire life in the States: two children, a job, and a home. In desperation, she tells Alicia, “I have nothing in India.” Her situation and her plea tugged at my feelings. I was totally rooting for Alicia to kick the opposing counsel’s behind on the case and save the poor woman. But as the other side put it, the truth is, she entered the country illegally. In the eyes of the law, she should be deported. It is mercy that cries for an alternative. So, what’s the right thing to do? The courts weren’t created for charity, and if every case like that was granted an exception, all sorts of chaos would break out. And yet … I felt compassion, and out of pity, I wanted an exception for her case. (I promise, I haven’t forgotten this is all fiction. I just get this way about stories.)

Where is the perfect meeting place of mercy and justice? Where is the sweet spot? Sorry. I don’t know. Sometimes, the two seem to be in direct opposition to one another, and we can all empathize with both sides at different times, depending on our natural bent and personal experiences. The only good answer I have isn’t my own: the cross of Christ is the only place I see the two come together in perfect, agonizing union. A picture of perfect justice and a picture of perfect love. The fair and full punishment for the wickedness of sin, and a love so unfathomable it embraces the worst of us unconditionally. It is something we cannot hope to emulate as broken sinners in a broken world, with our imperfect love and laws.

Personally, I love stories that deal with the tension well. Not in a cookie-cutter approach, where everything gets simplified and squared away. We are messy and complicated, tarnished by sin. Yet at the same time, we see a reflection of the image of God, the Imago Dei, imprinted on our souls – a God who is holy and just, yet also compassionate and slow to anger. One day, He will set all things right.

[pc]

Where’s the Silver Bullet?

I think we are all secretly in search of the silver bullet. The cure-all, magical solution that makes us masters of our field, victors over our habitual struggles, at the snap of our fingers. We laugh at the idea publicly, but we still can’t resist those articles – “Do this 1 thing and transform…” or “The foolproof 3 step process to…” Oh, how those deceptively small numbers win us over. Unfortunately, nothing truly rewarding has a quick and easy fix, just hiding in a corner we haven’t searched yet. The same goes for writing. Hard work, sweat, and discipline lie at the core of the craft. Unpopular traits for lazy humans.

I considered the things that helped me grow most as a writer, and the two standouts are both lifelong disciplines. Sure, you can run a thorough grammar and spellcheck on your work, or attend a class or conference, or listen to a talk by a successful author. All of these can help. But the two unparalleled “teachers” I find the most value in and draw the most inspiration from are:

  • Life experiences. I don’t go out into the world in search of thrills, but living in a God-made world, loving and clashing with other beautifully complicated people, adventure inevitably knocks on the door. We see more of the world and more of our own human nature the longer we live and the more we experience triumphs and trials. Five years ago, I read enough books and heard enough stories that I could write heartbreak convincingly enough. (“Oh, your heart literally hurts and food has no taste and you are certain you will wither and die.”) Today, I can write it better. I haven’t compared the technicalities and descriptions from a previous and current work, but life experiences arm us with an arsenal of literary weaponry to come out firing. Five years ago, I could bluff onto the page. Now, I can bleed onto the page.
  • Books. Reading inspired me to write, and books teach me how. Read widely, and see what separates the bad from the good, and the good from the great. Just as we live more nobly when we surround ourselves with good company, we write more splendidly when we soak our minds in good books. In school, we all complain that we don’t truly understand the abstract material until someone walks us through a concrete example. Learning the rules of writing and classroom technicalities alone will never accomplish what the simple act of picking up a book can.

Speaking of examples, I think of Khaled Hosseini as one case study. He wrote The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and And the Mountains Echoed. He’s a doctor, not an English major, but he published three stellar novels. I love his work, and I think he’s a talented writer for a few simple reasons – he has a natural killer prose, his life experiences give him the ammunition for rich cultural tales, and he loves stories.

So don’t chase the silver bullet. Just live and read, then go and write.

[photo cred]