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Degrees of Separation
Has the Christian community created a class structure based on vocation? Loranne Brown, author and instructor of journalism, challenges the notion.


It's not unusual for some Christians to leap to the unfounded conclusion that select vocations are more valuable than others. Biblical scholars are worthy. Church leaders are laudable. Missionaries and evangelists are called to a vocation to spread the W ord.

Degrees of Separation

What about the rest of us? Only a very few of us are called to be ordained ministers, or to serve in foreign missions. What about the orthodontist, the business leader or the media executive? In this instance, I believe the Apostle Paul's words in I Corinthians 12: 5-7 "for the common good," which I understand to mean society at large—are key. Our evening news reports make it abundantly clear that society desperately needs ethical and influential CEOs, media gatekeepers with integrity, and artists with a conscience. But sadly, many promising actors, filmmakers, or corporate-minded Christians have been discouraged from pursuing such a calling based on an assumption that these professions are inherently less noble than those typically in the "full-time ministry" class.

Yet, even in so-called secular jobs, the exercise of skill and excellence is a form of worship, an opportunity to minister to others. Our Creator desires a relationship based on our worshipping Him in all spheres of our lives, not just when one cracks open the hymnal on Sunday. So, it logically follows that when our work—even if it's extracting the perfect stream of espresso—is performed out of a love for God, then He accepts it as a pleasing gift, a pure and holy act of worship.

For some of us, glorifying God and serving our neighbour means taking our talents into the marketplace and exercising them there even if no one knows we're Christian. As an instructor in the communications department at Trinity Western University, I constantly remind my writing students of this theme. You can't change the world by preaching to the choir; you must think beyond the Christian bookstore to the big-box bookstore downtown—where someone who needs to hear the Christian message might pick it up by accident.

Indeed, a correct theology of work indicates that Christian writers like myself need not feel second-class for producing literature that is not explicitly religious. "Even if we are not exploring overtly Christian themes," I tell my students, "our Christian worldview perspective can and does influence our audience in subtle and effective ways—emphasis on the subtle."

In fact, in remarks made to the governing board of the World Journalism Institute (May 22, 1998), Robert R. Drake suggests that, in order to redeem our culture, it's possible to speak the truth without mentioning God. There is value, he says, to our cultural tasks, "just because they are assigned to us by God … We experiment and we cultivate, we invent, and we compose not primarily because we can harness these things for evangelism, but because we have been made by God to be experimenters, cultivators, inventors, composers—because this is who we are as the image-bearers of God."

Rudy Wiebe—award-winning Canadian author, of a staunchly Mennonite background—read from his novel, Sweeter Than All the World, at TWU last spring. He selected a chapter dealing with the darkest side of war where, in the closing days of WWII, a group of hidden civilians is powerless to defend themselves against either the victorious or the defeated armies. The women's grim fate includes rape; the f-word is used at least twice, not gratuitously. After the reading, Wiebe was asked how he reconciles being a Christian writer with the difficult, even controversial material he writes about. As a fellow author, I found his answer affirming. "There are no taboo subjects for Christian writers." His thoughtful response spoke to the necessity that Christians not shrink from ministering to the deeply wounded members of our society, Christian and non-Christian alike. As theologian and philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff said in a 1982 convocation address at Wheaton College: "[The Church] is beginning to recognize that it has a liberating word to speak to that society and a healing hand to extend to it. It may not withhold that word and that hand."

If I'd set myself the task of writing a "Christian" novel, I would never have begun it. These are dangerous waters; there are no maps. Where are the shoals of taboo, the sandbars of censure? Wiebe's words notwithstanding, what issues are appropriate for Christian writers to address? I would have snagged on the deadfall of such "appropriateness" from the first cast, with the self-censor firmly in control of the rod.

Luckily, I didn't plan to write a novel with an ultimately redemptive, Christian theme. My intent was both humble and grandiose: to write the novel I've always wanted to read—if only to amuse myself. To explore themes that engaged my curiosity. To study the psychology of characters who express their own emotional truths, in their own language. Some of those truths are difficult ones—like the ways in which abuse may shape a person's character and sexuality long after the fact. Other truths are more hopeful: how damaged people might achieve wholeness through art, and love, and faith.

The writer is in service to that character's truth, not to any overt Christian message he or she wishes to impart.

Despite my reticence, however, my novel, The Handless Maiden, has strong Christian elements—more than I initially felt comfortable with, more than I thought might find acceptance with a secular publisher (Doubleday Canada). Such overt expression of faith was a surprise for me—it was almost unintentional. But it's in this sort of unplanned, organic necessity of character that a subtle Christian message might best be expressed: in the character's voice, speaking the character's truth. The writer is in service to that character's truth, not to any overt Christian message he or she wishes to impart.

In the exercise of any job, or art, or profession, one allows oneself to be used. As William Trevor, the Irish author recently short listed for the Man Booker Prize, says in a rare interview in The Globe and Mail, one "acquiesces."

Speaking of the titular character in his novel, The Story of Lucy Gault, "It is a sort of wonder," Trevor says, "a kind of marvel, that so much has happened to that woman and in the end she has created a kind of balance in her life, without meaning to … . It is a mystery to me how stuff gets onto paper, where there was nothing before." One acquiesces to inspiration—and I use the word in all its senses—accepting the possible divinity of its origin, the "spirit" at the very root of the word.

Of the many surprises my professional career has offered, none has shocked me more than those occasions when I've received affirmation that the spiritual element has registered with readers. In letters, during personal appearances, in telephone calls from strangers, I've been told time and again, "Your book made me want to be a better person," or, "I've thought about my faith in a way I haven't in years."

The most startling instance of this sort of response occurred during a book club appearance I made a few years ago.

"I must tell you … " one of the members started to confide to me, and to the group. Her young niece was staying with her while the girl's parents were away. The woman was reading The Handless Maiden. Was, in fact, right in the middle of a section dealing with anorexia—when her niece stepped into the powder room nearby and vomited.

Suddenly, under a spotlight of scrutiny, some of the girl's odd behaviour made sense. The woman confronted her niece when she came out of the powder room. And the girl said, "Save me, auntie. I have an eating disorder." The woman was immensely grateful for the synchronicity, certain it had happened "for a reason."

If the course of one life has been changed by my words, it is enough justification for a lifetime of scribbling.

The incident renewed my confidence that my work has enabled me to be an agent of God's purposes in a way that is, at least in this instance, beyond my own natural human abilities. If the course of one life has been changed by my words, it is enough justification for a lifetime of scribbling.

People tell me they are encouraged and motivated by my enthusiasm for what I do; teaching and mentoring other writers brings me great joy. Sitting down to my desk and preparing to work has always energized me with a buzz above and beyond the gallons of coffee I consume. When people ask how I managed to write The Handless Maiden while working (as I was then) full time as a legal secretary, in addition to paying some/any attention to my duties as wife and mother, I can only say that doing my most authentic work provides its own fuel. I feel as if I have come home to my true self since undertaking it; and that if my "real" life began at forty, the rest has been preparation for it.

Likewise, if we perform our cultural tasks and our secular jobs with excellence; if we acquiesce to the possibility of divine intent, then we are in the right place to respond when called to extend a healing hand, or to speak that liberating word. Our vocations will be harnessed in ways we can't predict. As Drake says, "There is value in a creation task, and if you take the creation task for the value it has in itself, that will ultimately come to serve the kingdom of God."

About the author

Born and educated in Ontario, Loranne Brown has been a resident of B.C. for the past decade. An award-winning writer of short fiction, her first novel (The Handless Maiden) was published by Doubleday Canada in 1998 to critical acclaim and has received award nominations at the provincial, national, and international levels, including the 1999 B.C. Book Award for Fiction, 1999 Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award, and the 2000 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

Barbara Pell, TWU's chair of the Department of English, affirms the redemptive theme in The Handless Maiden; "The novel affirms the centrality of Christ as the answer to life's tragedies in a very clear and convincing manner—certainly rare in a mainstream contemporary novel."

Past president of the Federation of BC Writers, Brown has been a keynote speaker at Surrey Writers' Conferences, was featured at the Vancouver International Writers Festival (VIWF). She is passionately committed to mentoring student writers.

Originally published in Trinity Western Magazine, Issue #5.
www.twu.ca

 

 
 
 
 

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