Faith and Scholarship Integration Essays
Bearden Coleman, Assistant Professor of English
How Then Should We Write?
Here are a couple of assumptions I learned from professional writers who you couldn’t find in the Christian bookstore.
“Beginning. Middle. End. Thrill me.” That’s what my writing mentor, Barry Hannah, wrote on the board in my first graduate fiction writing workshop. The assumption is that writers should thrill.
Another assumption I learned in graduate school is that the professional writer deliberately chooses each word on the page. A professional writer doesn’t write down the first word that comes to mind. A professional writer labors over his craft, not unlike a carpenter or blacksmith. A professional writer cares about his words, his grammar, his sentence structure. After all, words and punctuation are a writer’s only tools. I learned this assumption from National Book Award winner Tim O’Brien.
So what are the assumptions of professional Christian writers? Easy. Writers should thrill, and writers should labor over the craft because every word and every punctuation mark matters. Sound familiar?
To write clearly is hard enough, without adding in the mystery of the divine. The writer works in codes he hopes the reader will properly interpret. What he uses are symbols that he puts together to form a word. He must choose the correct word. Then he puts this correctly chosen word together with other correctly chosen words in the correctly chosen order. He adds punctuation on to that word group and forms a sentence. Then he puts this sentence together with other sentences in an order that best conveys his thought. When an idea is complete, he corrals those sentences into a paragraph. Then he begins again with new words and new sentences to form a new paragraph. And he wants to be careful to arrange these paragraphs in the proper order, the order that best leads a reader from one idea to another. This process is messy. There is no formula. And the likelihood is slim of the message reaching the reader intact the way the author intended it. To paraphrase from Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, the odds are stacked against the writer actually writing what he wants to say.
The writing process is difficult, even when writing something as banal as driving instructions. If you think I’m wrong, ask yourself how many times you have been lost following someone else’s written directions. Now, when the writer attempts to communicate his faith in God, the work becomes more difficult and more demanding according the task.
So I, the instructor, must hold my students at The King’s College to a high standard, for the sake of communicating a faith in Jesus Christ. I cannot let the students fall back on easy metaphors, clichés, and overused Christian-speak. I must challenge them to find individual ways of communicating their experiences. I must point them to the Psalms and Christ’s parables, both the greatest examples of communicating the faith through mystery and clarity, both thrilling to soul.