YA fiction blog series: narrative, imagination, and Many Waters

Today, I'm starting a new blog series about YA fiction. I am asking my guest bloggers to write about one book that serves as an example of YA literature that they aren’t embarrassed to read. What makes a good YA book more than just “maudlin teen drama.” What draws us to YA as adults and what can the YA genre offer as a narrative structure that other genres cannot? I will kick off the series today with a rumination on narrative, imagination, and Madeleine L'Engle's Many Waters. ManyWaters1

Story is essential to the human experience. We cannot help but write the stories of our lives, and we do this to make sense out of who we are, where we came from, and who we will be.

But story has become less important in our culture. Postmodern art is often about the lack of grand narrative and lack of universal truth. And while this isn’t all bad, sometimes after I read certain types of adult fiction, I am left with a sense of the unending hopelessness of our cultural belief in fractured narratives.

The YA fiction I enjoy reading gives me a different sense: a sense of the redemption, hopefulness, and meaning in the stories our imaginations can create. YA fiction is often the last connection we have to fairy tales. Where some adult fiction can leave fantasy and fairy tale behind in favor of more “serious topics,” YA still allows itself the indulgence. For me, this indulgence in fantasy, imagination, and stories that are akin to fairy tales of old, is actually in line with more "serious topics" than many adult novels.

Though our culture shies away from platitudes and we grow into understandings that bring needed nuance, we still have a deep need for the moral order that existed for us when we were children. Fairy tales and fantasy stories are important for our children and for us, not to give a place to escape, but to give meaning to the reality we are living, to help express the chaos and confusion of life in ordered narrative forms, forms where there is always hope for the good, even when it doesn’t always seem to be the case in real life.

Around the time that C.S. Lewis was becoming more convinced of the truth of God, Lewis and Tolkien were discussing myths. At the time, Lewis believed that myths were beautiful and powerful, but ultimately, “lies and therefore worthless.”[i] Tolkien protested. Far from being lies, myths and fairy tales express truth in ways that would otherwise be extremely difficult to articulate. Because we were all created by God, our myths and fairy tales “reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God.”[ii] Those ancient debunked myths and legends are actually “God expressing Himself through the mind of poets, using the images of their ‘mythopoeia’ to reveal fragments of his His eternal truth.”[iii] This relationship with Tolkien and their conversations about myth and fairy tales led C.S. Lewis to belief not only in God but in Christ Himself.

Madeleine L’Engle, who was deeply influenced by the stories and philosophies of Tolkien, Lewis, and George MacDonald, wrote so many good books. But one of my favorites of L’Engle’s YA fiction is Many Waters.

Although this book is one in the Time Quartet/Quintet that begins with her more popular A Wrinkle in Time, it is also a departure from the other members of the series: it’s a retelling of the Biblical story of the Flood.

I was drawn into Many Waters when I encountered Yalith, the daughter of Noah. Though Yalith is still a child in many ways, she is not naïve. She has clear eyes as she watches her family and friends sinking deeper into the darkness that the sons of God, the Nephilim, have brought into creation. She refuses the advances of that darkness and in return, she’s given a place with the angels.

L’Engle’s retelling of the Biblical story is full of magical creatures and the presence of angels, something that’s heretical to many Christians. As indicated by the reaction of some to the recent movie, Noah, Christians are often afraid and angry when their beloved stories are retold. But I think that’s one beautiful part of Biblical stories. The narratives are so rich that they invite (as with midrash) interpretation and re-imagining.

For me, Many Waters encompasses many of the things I love about YA: it has a strong and imaginative narrative and it adds nuance and magic to a story so it can be approached with new eyes. L'Engle's novel opened up my eyes to the very imaginative possibilities inherent in Biblical stories that I've read so often. In Many Waters, L’Engle was taking on what Tolkien would call the “one true myth:” the stories of God’s work in our world.

Please return next week when another writer will take on YA fiction. 

[i] Joseph Pearce. Tolkien: Man and Myth (p 57) [ii] Pearce, p 58. [iii] Pearce, p 59.

My own review: M. Gungor's The Crowd, the Critic, and the Muse

In his book The Crowd, the Critic and the Muse: A book for creators, Michael Gungor (of the self-described "liturgical post-rock" band Gungor) had me at snark.  In the first chapter, he describes the way many artists connect their work to whatever they call their muse.  He recalls how some singers in Christian circles attribute a particular performance to their muse saying, "Thanks, but it wasn't me, it was God." Gungor's snark replies, "Oh in that case, God was a little flat on that second verse."

Now, the book isn't all snark, but I do appreciate Gungor's irreverence and his critique of the limitations of fundamentalist Christianity (and fundamentalist thought of any kind) on the artist. Fundamentalism restricts artistic expression while faith coupled with doubt can actually give wings to the imagination. Without doubt he says, belief calcifies into rigid fundamentalism.  Without doubt, there are no questions; and without questions, there is no imagination.

The basic premise of the book is that an artist must decide which voice he/she will listen to: the crowd, the critic or the muse.  For Gungor, all of us have creative and artistic power because creativity is the ordering of the potential already found within creation whether that be the making of a computer or the composing of a symphony.

Some of the passages that resonated with me most were the ones about the dangers of creating exclusively for the critic. Sometimes the loudest voice is the critic.  And often this is an imagined critic whose voice is so powerful because it resonates with the voices of our deepest fears, those voices speaking from inside of us, telling us that we are not good enough...it is untrustworthy...but the critic doesn't care about your work in the same way you do.

This quote echoes something my mom has often said, "Christiana, no one cares as much about that as you do (except for me, because I'm your mother). So get over it."

While Gungor's book can be a bit meandering at times, I thoroughly enjoyed the way he combines engaging personal stories with musings and philosophising about the value of art and creativity, the importance of what Madeleine L'Engle would call 'obedience' to the work and most beautifully his own struggles with doubt.*

A great read for the creator in all of us.

PS If you haven't heard Gungor's album Ghosts upon the earth, it is well worth a listen.

*Gungor doesn't actually quote L'Engle...but I will take any opportunity to do so...I love her.

Bad religion

When I was in high school, in an act of theatric piety, I destroyed all of my "secular" CDs. I understand my teenage self and what I was thinking.  I felt at the time that "Christian music" was holier than anything else and I hoped to guard my heart from anything "unsavory" in non-Christian music that might infiltrate my spirit.

Guarding our hearts is truly necessary but my views on music and art and how they intersect with faith and Christianity are very different today.

When I first read Madeleine L'Engle's Walking on Water, her words were a revelation to me and changed the way I thought about making art as a Christian.  She said that

"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 think this idea, that "bad art is bad religion" is the reason that so many of us, Christian or not, are turned off by much that is marketed as "Christian art" whether it be music, writing or the visual arts. Certainly the idea of "good" or "bad" art is hazy and subjective. But the truth is, much of the "Christian art" we encounter simply doesn't ring true.

I heard a conference speaker talk about approaching and critiquing film as a Christian.  When asked what made a film "Christian" by his estimation (and here he was speaking not specifically about films marketed as Christian but what L'Engle claims is all "true art" in general) the speaker said that a film was Christian when it either told the truth about what life is or showed what life could be.**  By his estimation, true art shows the dirty, ugly, lovely parts of life with a robust honesty.  True art also expresses a longing, reaching beyond itself for meaning and otherness.  L'Engle says this a different way, that "all art is...cosmos found within chaos."***

Maybe this is why "Christian art" often feels false.  In many instances, it seeks to gloss over the pain and struggle of life, painting a pretty picture of a neat and lovely God or of tidy, sweet Christians who never doubt or feel angry or question the darker parts of life. Certainly we behold many beautiful parts of life and creation.  But the whole narrative has twists and turns and dark endings, sad beginnings and hopeful climaxes.

I've had many moments when I've tried to conform my writing to some Christian ideal, spotting it with didacticisms rather than approaching and digesting the reality of the world and God.  And I'm quite sure my writing was the worse for it.

That's not to say that Christians can't make good art as Christians.  On the contrary, many Christian artists are makers of worshipful art in all its forms. And I hope to be one of them.****

I wrote in a recent post about L'Engle's view that an artist should be open and "obedient" to the work she is engaged in.  As artists who are Christians, this obedience enables us to be more open to the spirit of our God and his guidance, giving us a longing to tell the truth, to show what is outside ourselves. All kinds of writing can reveal truth about the world and about who God is in the world.

I think of art as a lens through which to look at the world.  Hopefully this lens gives the reader, the listener, or the watcher a picture with new arrays of color, a new focus on the way of our world, or on the truly mysterious ways of our God.

Do you agree with L'Engle that "bad art is bad religion?"

* L'Engle's Walking on Water, pg 5.
** this is very paraphrased from a speaker at the Calvin College "Festival of Faith and Writing."
***L'Engle's Walking on Water, pg 8.
****added to the original post.

Committing small acts of art

Recently, a newly formed artist's collective/group (we're not sure yet exactly what we are) that I'm involved in had a discussion about art in the life of a Christian.  When we began discussing our personal goals for our art, I shared a goal of mine that has remained unmet for many years (something common among many kinds of artists, I'm told): Publication.

But, as I told the group, I've recently accepted that publication might not be my highest goal.  I've taken up writing music again in the past year and I've found great satisfaction in sharing that music with my small church group and community.  I still have grandiose and mostly unrealistic desires of future success but I'm trying to remain focused on creating for the church, being open to something beyond didactic or formulaic writing, hoping to be a vessel for art that shows the truth and beauty of God.

I have many artist friends who, while some having had commercial success, are committing seemingly small acts of art in their homes and communities.

I am so moved by their visual art, their music, their poetry and essays.  There are streams of light and color that are released into the world of my mind's eye when I encounter such true art.

And so I wonder.

Is there something just as significant in works of art that are only seen by a few if any at all?

I was very moved by just such an act of art done by a neighbor, a visual artist who spent hours taking apart his small store-bought sketchbook, dyeing it with tea and reassembling it into a beautiful aged-looking book of his card-sized sketches and drawings.

No one but his wife and the rest of us have seen such a book.

And yet, there is something important in that creation.

Madeleine L'Engle speaks about this act of art in her book Walking on Water.  For L'Engle, the true artist must be willing to be one thing primarily:

Obedient.

For L'Engle, the artist becomes a birth-giver, a vessel for the work of God or the work of God in the world.  And here L'Engle's picture of obedience is like Mary, the mother of Jesus in her obedience to the Spirit of God, who asked her to be his bearer of the Messiah.

When the "work of art...says, "'Here I am. Enflesh me. Give birth to me.' And the artist either says, 'My soul doth magnify the Lord.' and willingly becomes the bearer of the work, or refuses."

L'Engle says the artist should be "obedient to the work...whether it is a work of great genius or something very small."**

And so in these seemingly small acts of creation, obedience is a worthier goal.  For if obedience is our job, the rest is up to God.

If we have publication, adulation and awards in our future, God help us through it.

And if smallness is His goal then maybe His are the only eyes and ears we need to worry about.

*The painting at the top was done by my grandmother, who took up painting in her sixties.  Though never sold or seen by an audience, her works of art are priceless to her family

**quotes from Madeleine L'Engle's Walking on Water, 2001, Waterbrook Press, pg 9-10.