The Last of J. Mark Bertrand (here … for now)

Today we wrap up my conversation with J. Mark Bertrand. Let me know what you thought about “listening in” while we discussed worldview, and feel free to comment about Mark’s ideas as well. I’m curious to know if you agree with me that he’s not said anything controversial. 😉

Don’t forget—this conversation started in part because Mark’s book Rethinking Worldview released this week.

Picking up with the question I left yesterday:

RLM: I’d agree with you about Til We Have Faces, certainly—it’s high on my “favorites” list.

I’m curious about the set of ideas a Christian author writing from his Biblical worldview will work out through his fiction. You mentioned creation, the fall, redemption. How “theologically correct” must a Christian be when writing fiction?

JMB: I don’t have a particular list of ideas in mind. Anything and everything is fair game. One modern novel that seems very reminiscent of Til We Have Faces is Athol Dickson’s River Rising, but instead of re-imagining the story of Psyche, Dickson uses the biblical story of Moses. It’s deftly done, and fits the Southern slave-holding culture very well. By incorporating the story structure, the themes of deliverance and reconciliation follow naturally.

But a different author might have a very narrow vision, just one idea to work out. As an example, I wrote a story called “Strings,” which was published in The Ankeny Briefcase, about a guy who realizes one day that tiny filaments from out of the sky are controlling his limbs. He’s a puppet on strings, or at least he seems to be when the light is shining a certain way. Sometimes he feels the strings dragging him; sometimes he thinks he’s pulling them along. I was trying to explore the paradox of freedom and divine sovereignty by approaching it through this absurd scenario. The story wasn’t “redemptive” except in the broadest terms, but it worked out an idea I’d received from Scripture.

I don’t think God has ordained a story structure, any more than he has a pattern for making proper chairs, so I’m not sure “must” comes into it. The Christian faith is a rich resource for novelists, not a straightjacket. Because they are storytellers rather than teachers, they approach the material differently than a pastor would. And frankly, they don’t have to approach it at all. Not every Christian writer is trying to work out his faith on the page. Some are just making a living by entertaining people, and that’s good, honest work.

RLM: But if an author addresses, through type or image or in an overt manner, an idea about God or the way He works—such as you did in your story—how theologically correct do you believe he needs to be? For that matter, even in the story written to entertain, isn’t there still some measure of truth, at least about the world, that will be in the background? In your opinion, how theologically correct should we write our fiction?

JMB: I see what you’re getting at. Let me answer this two ways, as an editor and as an author. As you know, I’m a fiction editor for Relief Journal, which publishes literary fiction written from a Christian perspective. When I read for the journal, I’m looking first and foremost for compelling stories and virtuosity. I happen to be located in the Reformed quadrant of Christianity, convinced that the system of doctrine contained in the Three Forms of Unity and the Westminster Standards accurately reflects the teaching of Scripture. Any expression of faith that falls short of that is insufficient, in my mind. Nevertheless, I’m not selecting Calvinist stories for Relief, I’m choosing Christian stories, and we apply a broad, ecumenical standard.

Why? Two reasons. First, we recognize that there are differences within the Church and so any journal that reflects the Church will manifest similar diversity. If a story is well-written and manifests a Christian influence, we’d like to showcase it. Our goal is to provide a snapshot of the best Christian fiction. The second reason is, art isn’t rocket science. I don’t want to specify for writers in advance the theological content I’m looking for, because then I can’t be surprised by new insight. I can’t learn. As an editor, I give a platform to people with talent. Some of them I agree with more than others, but I think there’s value in what all of them have to say.

Now as an author, I apply a different standard. In graduate school, we had to take a two-semester course called Modern Thought, the idea being that an author needed a philosophical grounding, some kind of intellectual orientation. After I finished my MFA, I decided to go one better and attend seminary. Thanks to the kind people at Westminster in Dallas, I was able to sit in on a number of classes that opened up a theological world to me I had only guessed at previously. My motive was personal enrichment, but I also hoped that this knowledge would be an influence in my work.

So yes, I think it’s important to get the theology right. I don’t claim to have always done this — both my understanding and my talent are limited — but it’s a priority for me. More than that, I think the novelist has an opportunity through drama to capture not just a theological “correctness” but a theological profundity that leaves a deep impression on readers. I don’t think C. S. Lewis was right on some key doctrinal matters, but Til We Have Faces taught me something about the holiness of God and our position standing before him that I might never have grasped in a sermon or lecture. I would hate to miss out on what Lewis got right because an editor had scruples about what he got wrong, so I conduct myself accordingly.

Perhaps some closing thoughts tomorrow, but special thanks to Mark for his time, for sharing his thoughts about an oft referred to and oft misunderstood subject.

Published in: on October 17, 2007 at 10:11 am  Comments (8)  

8 Comments

  1. good stuff. Thanks, you two, for taking the time.

    I think I’ll go over to Amazon and order Rethinking Worldview: Learning to Think, Live, and Speak in This World right now. I read the first few pages through the “search this book” feature at Amazon, and I really liked them. Worldview sounds kind of like a school assignment and yet from the first few pages it is apparent that this book is not a dry textbook.

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  2. Thanks, Sally. That means a lot!

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  3. I’m planning on getting mine (ordering it if I need to) from my local CBA store. I want them to know some people do still want books. 😉

    Becky

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  4. But… Arghhh. I got all excited about the book, which I thought you said was coming out this week, and now Amazon tells me it won’t be out until December. What’s the real scoop?

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  5. Becky and Mark, thanks for allowing us to “listen in” to the wonderful conversation!! Wow! Good stuff! My husband is exploring Christian worldview with a group right now, and this has helped me to better understand the concept! I’ll have to look into the book as well!

    Thanks again!
    Kim

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  6. Great discussion! And I agree with Sally and Becky, I need to get that book.

    Wow. Two whole sentences and I didn’t even mess up.
    🙂

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  7. BTW, my conversation with Mark influenced my post at Spec Faith this week, and we have a little discussion going there about how much theology is necessary to include in a story. Feel free to join in or leave comments here if you have an opinion on the subject.

    Becky

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  8. Sally, I received the December notice from Amazon, too, but Crossway is currently sorting the issue out. The book hasn’t been delayed or anything — it’s just an Amazon glitch. Hopefully they can get it sorted out quickly!

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