August 25, 2015

Writers to Read: Nine Names That Belong on Your Bookshelf

As Christian poets and writers, most of us have literary favorites who influenced our view of Christianity, the church, the world, and writing. Professor-pastor-writer Douglas Wilson discusses his favorites in his new book Writers to Read: Nine Names That Belong on Your Bookshelf, published by Crossway, who kindly sent me a copy to review.

In the Introduction, Wilson says, “A writer needs friends who simply benefit from knowing him, which is another way of saying that good writers need good readers.” Those of us who have been published know just how much we need good readers, but I’m especially taken with the idea that people I don’t know might benefit from having read my works! That thought might take us away from fretting about sales and reviews to a closer look at what we hope to accomplish in our Christian writing lives.

One of the things G.K. Chesterton accomplished was a prolific career that's already spanned generations of readers. However, Wilson began the first chapter with him because, chronologically, he comes first among these nine writers: G.K. Chesterton, H.L. Mencken, P.G. Wodehouse, T.S. Eliot, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Robert Capon, Marilyn Robinson, and Nathan Wilson.

In the opening chapter, the author quotes Chesterton, who wisely wrote: “There must always be a rich moral soil for any great aesthetic growth. The principle of art for art’s sake is a very good principle if it means that there is a vital distinction between the earth and the tree that has its roots in the earth, but it is a very bad principle if it means that the tree could grow just as well with its roots in the air.”

Having edited or critiqued many poems and manuscripts by other poets and writers, I see Chesterton’s statement as key to being authentic, down-to-earth, and well-grounded in reality rather than uprooted in a topsy-turvy effort to be heavenly.

The next chapter introduces us to H.L. Mencken, who “writes in such a way as to make anything an object of fascination. Whether it is soles of shoes that are like slabs of oak, or his own matronly figure, or hired girls built like airplane carriers…, Mencken is consistently, thoroughly interesting. Many Christians, under the influence of pietism, have come to believe that love, action, and gratitude must always be expressed in such smarmy ways as to ensure its thundering dullness. But in the hands of a gifted writer, the most astonishing connections can be made between this and that.”

As Wilson goes on to say:

“Christians can learn from Mencken in two ways. The first is by watching what he writes on any subject and imitating it. Those who want to be creative originals from scratch seldom are, and those who slavishly follow the recipe have a different problem, just as debilitating. Those who look carefully at the masters to learn and imitate soon find their own distinctive voice with their own contributions.

“The second way to learn is by reading and applying his observations about writers, writing, words, and so on.”

The third author under discussion is known for his Jeeves books – P.G. Wodehouse, whom Wilson describes as “a black-belt metaphor ninja” and one “whose comic metaphors can still teach us how all metaphors work, how the thing is done.” As Wilson puts it, “We need Wodehouse for a number of reasons, but one stands out. The besetting sin of many cranky, conservative Christian types is their inability to make any good point whatever without sounding shrill.”

Humor certainly smooths those sharp edges, enabling us to say what we want to say without sounding overly pious or judgmental. But, whether we’re apt to be humorous, metaphoric, or what, Wilson offers this sound advice: “If our words are weapons – and they are – then we need to train ourselves in the use of them.” Amen!

Since Wilson sensibly decided to discuss each of nine writers in their order of birth, T.S. Eliot – one of my first loves in poetry – comes fourth. If you’ve read his works too, you know the truth of Wilson’s assessment, “His poems are allusion-soaked, so much so that it is very hard to follow unless you are as well educated as he was…,” which I wasn’t! Since I often miss his connections, I’m relieved to hear that even a literary guru such as Wilson has similar issues. And that reminds me to reassure you that, if you didn’t have a clue about Prufrock in high school, try it again, and you’ll probably love it as I now do.

I was also interested to hear more about T.S. Eliot’s religious background, which began as a Unitarian in the U.S. However, when he later became an Englishman, Eliot was drawn to the Church of England. As Wilson says:

“Doctrinal differences aside, Eliot shares something in common with all Christian poets who deal with the permanent things, with the great issues. To be a Christian poet is to be shaped by the central Christian story, which is a story of death and resurrection.” And so, “Before his conversion, in The Wasteland and The Hollow Men Eliot did not see much hope, which is all to the good because without Christ, there is no hope. It is Christ or nothing.”

In the next highly interesting discussion, Wilson talks about the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, pointing out, “…if you put a work of fiction into the wrong category, a lot of confusion can result and, in this case, has” as the ever-popular Lord of the Rings is not allegory.” In fact, Tolkien himself said:

“I dislike Allegory – the conscious and intentional allegory – yet any attempt to explain the purport of the myth or fairy tale must use allegorical language.”

What Wilson realized is that “questions about art and technology are…closely related to the issue of magic. Some Christians have been troubled by the wizardry, but the whole point of magic is the manipulation of matter in order to acquire power, which is what an ordinary magician does…. But the world of The Lord of the Rings is the very reverse of this – the good guys there represent a photo negative of magic. The ring of power is the ultimate symbol of magic in the traditional sense, and the whole point of the book is to destroy it, resisting all temptations to use it.” Those of us who haven’t read the book or seen the movie will be glad to know that.

In the Narnia tales, C.S. Lewis takes a different tact as he seeks something Wilson called “numinous” before quoting Lewis in this passage from In The Weight of Glory:

“We want something else which can hardly be put into words – to be united with the beauty we see to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it…. We cannot mingle with the splendors we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.”

Yes! Until then, writing poetry gives a glimpse of this, especially when a line or musical phrase comes as a gift, like grace or God’s forgiveness. Similarly, reading the Bible and reading the inspired works of authors such as those Wilson chose for this book, not only inform our faith, but also our writing lives in Christ.

©2015, Mary Sayler, poet-author of 27 traditionally published books in all genres, aims to encourage other Christian Poets & Writers through blogs, writing resources, critiques, and e-books such as the Christian Writer’s Guide and Christian Poet's Guide to Writing Poetry..

Writers to Read: Nine Names That Belong on Your Bookshelf, paperback

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