|There is a painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art by a 15th century Flemish artist known only as the Master of the View of Saint Gudule. The painting, dully named “Young Man Holding a Book,” is of a devout—and somewhat underfed—man standing before a magnificent Baroque cathedral, the selfsame Church of Saint Gudule in Brussels. The young man holds a Book of Hours, and he holds it a little bit flauntingly, because this book is unique: it was made in the shape of a heart.
As you stand in the gallery and watch the rather vexed procession of museum-goers drag their feet and their hysterically bored children from one room to another you can almost unfailingly spot, by the way they pause before this painting, the book-lovers in the crowd. They are the people who have suddenly made an intimate connection with a figure from beyond their known worlds. This young man must have gone everywhere with his heart-shaped book, possibly even carrying it in his breast pocket, and the viewer thinks with the warmth of recognition about the battered copy of Wodehouse in her purse, or the collected stories of Poe in his coat.
Reading has always been a devotional act, and for that reason books are central to Western religious expression. The cherished Books of Hours added to the madrigals and creeds of communal worship the element of private, introspective prayer. Reading is inherently monastic and by its nature prompts the soul-searching and truth-questing that religions, in their noble phases, press as duties upon their adherents.
In his turbulent yet rhetorically crystalline Confessions, Saint Augustine says this of his spiritual mentor, Saint Ambrose:
When he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart explored the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still…. We would sit there quietly, for no one had the heart to disturb him when he was so engrossed in study.
There is hardly a more loving and respectful character description in all the book. And indeed, when it at last took place, Augustine’s was a bookworm’s conversion, reached not in the church but in the cloistered quarters of his reading room.
“In the beginning was the Word,” and it was God’s gift, in the Book of Genesis, of the communicable word that distinguished humans from beasts. It is entirely reasonable to expect Christianity to preserve a deep reverence for language, and to expect Christian writers—language’s artisans and guardian elders—to extend that reverence to the creation of their books.
Here is a mighty religion that for two millennia has summoned the deep-down urges of human devotion to produce monks, nuns, stylites, fanatics, self-sacrificing Crusaders, self-sacrificing political activists, and most of all, most importantly of all, a treasure trove of wonderful and committed artists. If passion is the intangible quality of great literature, great literature should be a reliable product of Christianity—literature that we in the confraternity of readers, regardless of our other allegiances, would unstintingly celebrate and carry with us in our breast pockets.
But instead, in this era of Chicken Soup for the Soul, we have had a redefinition of books known as Christian Inspiration. The books under this heading, swallowing more and more space in our bookstores’ religion sections and selling more and more copies by the day, represent the paradigm of current Christian writing, and almost assuredly its future. In this paradigm extreme reductive simplicity has been promulgated at the expense of complexity and artfulness; the molding of sentences and the cultivation of an individual style have been abandoned for a kind of facile bantering that differs only to the degree that it’s dumbed down; rigorous scholarship has become an anachronism; serious study—of texts, of history, of the Bible, of the natural world, of ageless paradoxes of existence, even of the self—has been stinted for self-absorbed autobiography and self-satisfied declarations of faith; and passion has been replaced with cheerful congeniality.
With the inevitable exception of a very few, decidedly old-fashioned, holdouts, Christian writers have given up on literature—or else have bartered it away to meet the guidelines of a briskly profitable cottage industry.
The Confessions may be the ur-text of non-scriptural Christian writing, and its influence is, at least superficially, detectable in many of today’s releases, especially because it dovetails with the increasingly popular trend of memoir writing. In the start of her autobiographical 1994 bestseller, Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott establishes her credentials, as it were, for writing about faith: she recounts her confused childhood in the care of an irresponsible father, her decline into drug and alcohol addiction, her numerous dead-end relationships, and finally her midnight conversion while high and drunk and bleeding from an abortion she had undergone the week before. Her persona from here on, and the theme of her essays, is that of a struggling sinner who finds therapeutic comfort in prayer and the community of her church.
Lamott, then, is the clearest link between current Christian Inspiration and the contemporary memoir, for which abuse, addiction, and even such low-frequency discontents as angst and resentment are adequately marketable subjects. Both genres apply the formula of confession followed by redemption, and recent secular works like A Million Little Pieces by the disgraced James Frey, and The Discomfort Zone by the disgraced Jonathan Franzen, are best understood as pale reflections of a once great Augustinian tradition that includes such writers as John Bunyan, Cardinal Newman, and C.S. Lewis.
Lamott fits curiously between these two genres, and we are a little bit surprised in reading Traveling Mercies to find that it’s not really about Christianity at all; indeed, Thich Nath Hanh and the Dalai Lama are called upon for spiritual guidance nearly as often as Jesus is. This of course is not a criticism: it’s not the faith of the writer that’s held in judgment, but the books. We might look with optimism to essays in the spirit of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, or perhaps something else mining the rich ecumenical vein of Transcendentalism.
Disillusionment comes quickly. Instead of exploring the expansive id of the natural world, Traveling Mercies is smotheringly locked in Lamott’s ego. Essay after redundant essay add up to a catalogue of personal trauma and personal therapy. Lamott ushers in a varied cast of characters—her friends, family, and lovers—but it is immediately apparent that these people are irrelevant in themselves (no matter how ecstatically Lamott protests her love for them) and serve merely to soothe or aggravate her dysfunctions. The egotist is never tackier than in discussing death, and the most painful thing in this book is the way that Lamott writes of the death of her best friend as though the tragedy were principally hers, yet another setback for which she should be pitied. In the steep solipsism of Traveling Mercies even God is a member of the two-dimensional supporting cast.
It’s especially jarring to realize that Lamott is aware of her narcissism. At one point she calls herself “skittishly self-obsessive,” and at another, a little more obscurely, she refers to her “emotional drag queeny self” (I take it that she’s calling herself a primadonna). These are vices for her friends to overlook, but not her readers, and Lamott’s incapacity to make a distinction between the two is a problem at the heart of the decline of Christian writing. It has come to the point that the message matters above all—the simple presence of the formulaic confession and redemption—and the reader is expected to ignore the artistic failings in the delivery of the message, perhaps by way of Christian charity. Once this bar is lowered, Lamott becomes free to indulge in her narcissism, and consequently reading Traveling Mercies resembles nothing so much as being stuck beside a stranger who won’t stop showing you pictures of her baby. Instead of an Augustinian excavation of the self we get a blinkered infatuation with it.
One of the adjuncts of egotism is condescension, which creeps like wood rot at the edges of Lamott’s prose until her work is entirely corrupted by it. Certainly Traveling Mercies has its share of condescension (black, handicapped, and elderly people are all indistinguishably fawned over, and we get the impression that if Lamott met a person who was all three she would adopt him as a pet) and her unbearable, baby-talking writing instruction book Bird by Bird is riddled with it. And now, in the absence of any policing critical apparatus, she’s published Grace (Eventually).
First it must be noted that this flimsy book is about 100 pages of text inflated to 250 by the use of shrunken leaves, expanded type, and enlarged spacing. Even so, Lamott resorts to repeating stories and jokes that she used in Traveling Mercies. But the extent of her artistic decay is revealed in a sentence like the following, the conclusion of an essay about a minor ski accident:
I glided and fell and got back up and skied little by little, the very best I could, all the way down the mountain.
Here we see that Lamott has ceased to write for adults. Quite apart from the triteness of the metaphor involved (a kind of winter sports variant on “Hang in there, Kitty”), the intensifiers “very” and “all the way” are the deliberate additions used to talk down to infants—presumably this was a “great big” mountain.
Lamott has received press for her liberalism and her outspoken support for a woman’s right to have an abortion, both uncommon stances in the evangelical world. She herself has complained that she is frequently shunned in the Christian community for her politics and her use of profanity. But whatever her importance may be as a voice for the religious left, all the extracurricular attention has distracted Lamott from the far more important responsibility of trying to write well, and her books fail on any level other than self-promotion.
Ravi Zacharias and Anne Lamott would appear on the surface to be polar opposites. While Lamott’s prose assumes a breezy, anecdotal vernacular, Zacharias writes with the studied, purposeful pedantry of a man with multiple degrees. Traveling Mercies is akin to spiritual self-help and espouses a vague, catchall New Age theology; Zacharias’s most well-known book, Jesus Among Other Gods, is a work of hard-line apologetics that abominates the culture of religious relativism—“the tragedy of a beguiling sentiment we call tolerance”—and loosey-goosey ecumenics, calling them “treacherous.” In all likelihood these two would hate each other.
But it’s ultimately their similarities that define the writers, as well as the prevailing atmosphere in which they work, which subverts artistry and (in the case of Zacharias) intellectual honesty to the rote requirement of declaring redemption through faith.
Accordingly, although he’s writing a book that purports to objectively argue that Jesus is the lone true God, Zacharias begins Jesus Among Other Gods with his own confessional, saying, “Probably the most wrenching words I ever heard my father say to me were ‘You will never make anything of your life!’” and disclosing, although without specifics, that he came to Christianity after a failed suicide attempt. (It’s notable how much blame, and how little genuine introspection, fills these confessions. At one point in Grace (Eventually) Lamott seems to blame an eating binge on George W. Bush.) The autobiographical background is of course irrelevant to the empirical argument, so we sense that Zacharias uses it as a kind of code to alert the partisans. Because we are in the presence of an ally in faith we ought merely to nod along through the subsequent reasoning, no matter how shoddy and reductive it turns out to be.
Zacharias is at once ingratiating to Christians—he invokes a standard condescending repertoire of “parables” to illustrate Christian superiority, from cartoon strips to Larry King episodes to a cloying “the best Christmas of my life” anecdote—and snide to everyone else. When at one point he lords it over a mother and father who have rested their hope in a faith healer in a last desperate attempt to save their child from cancer, his snideness becomes simply disgusting. With an arrogance that’s particularly strange in light of his belief in the faith healing in the New Testament, Zacharias pharisaically notes, “the human capacity to believe the bizarre, especially in the face of dire need, really is limitless.” He asks the parents to contact him if their child heals and then seems to think he’s proven a point because they never do.
Gloating over the death of a child is about the closest Zacharias comes to actual argument; the other evidence he marshals looks like the following:
Possibly the most astounding affirmation of the virgin birth comes from one religion that for centuries has attempted to stand against the Christian gospel, Islam. Even the Koran, written six hundred years after Jesus, affirmed His virgin birth. This would serve Islam no self-glorifying purpose.
That sound you hear is of thirty-five freshmen in a Comparative Religion 101 class anxiously raising their hands to object. Islam is built on Christianity and holds Jesus in veneration as a great prophet, and so it in fact does serve Islam a self-glorifying purpose to affirm Jesus’s supernatural stature. But apart from that, it is plainly fatuous to try to prove a miracle with the testimony of a holy book whose veracity you deny. When Zacharias goes on to “refute” Islam by unfavorably contrasting Muhammad with Jesus (“Muhammad’s marriage to eleven wives has been a fascinating subject for Muslim scholars to explain,” he writes, relying again on snideness to mask the absence of any real argument), his points are undermined by his own title, Jesus Among Other Gods! To their respective believers, Jesus is the Son of God and Muhammad is a prophet: the comparison—and a full chapter of Zacharias’s book—is utterly meaningless (the same glitch invalidates all the arguments against Buddhism as well).
It seems inconceivable that Zacharias, his editors, and his legion of readers would not see all this. Edward Gibbon, himself no slouch on Christian history, wrote that the “conscience may slumber in a mixed and middle state between self-illusion and voluntary fraud.” In this middle state a system of mutual accommodation appears to have been established, in which Zacharias tells his readers what they like to hear, and they in turn applaud his methods. Zacharias’s pious conclusions are acceptable; therefore his scholastic turpitude and his laundry list of tautologies—indeed, his whole callow agenda of pitting deities in a pissing match—and his contemptuous, egotistical air are blithely ignored as somehow beside the point.
In Zacharias’s writing we see how the abandonment of intellectual accountability further corrodes Christian literature. And the truth-seeker, looking for honest, learned debate and finding only tendentious choir-preaching and scornful laziness, turns away confounded and appalled.
Informally speaking, the required reading list for writers of Christian Inspiration is anything but rigorous. To qualify as a knowing contributor to the genre, qualified to dispense life lessons, you need to read Pascal’s Pensées (or some Sparknotes version of it), a redaction of the writing of Søren Kierkegaard, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers From Prison, Malcolm Muggeridge’s Jesus Rediscovered, and most importantly a handful of books by C.S. Lewis, including Mere Christianity and Surprised by Joy. All of these books—save, in my opinion, the Kierkegaard—are readable and worthwhile, and all can be dispatched over the course of a few weeks. If you are particularly studious, you will also read some Jean-Paul Sartre and Bertrand Russell in order to corner the nonbelieving populace, and you will read the Bible. (I don’t think I overstate matters to say that an intimate knowledge of the Bible is less essential to many Christian writers than is a familiarity with the canon of C.S. Lewis. The Bible, arcane, allusive, and contradictory, is rarely deeply investigated in Christian Inspiration, and sometimes left nearly unmentioned. It seems to be enough to know its plot.)
Of course, no one need pass a literature test to write a book, but the thinness of the background and the mechanical repetitiveness of the citations attest to a genre that is either oblivious or indifferent to its history. Two thousand years of testimonial and scholastic Christian literature goes largely ignored in these books. (As does, it hardly needs saying, an even longer history of Jewish writing.) We can posit that Christian Inspiration’s shunning of its redoubtable past is in part due to the Protestant’s vestigial (and completely unthinking) distaste for the fruits of the Catholic Church, but whatever the explanation, such short-rootedness abets the tenor of adolescent egotism and self-satisfied shallowness that saturates the pages, and begets a kind of complacent incuriosity toward learning in its audience (including, we shall see, the aspiring writers). These authors endlessly quote Malcolm Muggeridge in books that the irascible Muggeridge would have despised. (Only the great Marilynne Robinson writes anything comparable to the caustic jeremiads in Jesus Rediscovered.) In the last letter he wrote before he was murdered, Dietrich Bonhoeffer asked his parents to send him a copy of Plutarch’s Lives. All Christian writers proudly trot out Bonhoeffer as a salutary role model, but none have even so much as considered reading Plutarch.
This general atmosphere of complacency proves to be the bugbear for one writer who seems genuinely talented, Philip Yancey. If we have devoted any time to reading Christian writers, Yancey offers an almost instantaneous feeling of relief. In books such as What’s So Amazing About Grace? and The Jesus I Never Knew we find ourselves in the presence of a spacious, searching mind that is sensitively aware of—and therefore humbled by—the vastness of experience and the depth of the mystery of faith. In his most recent book, hamfistedly titled Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference?, Yancey says, “I write about prayer as a pilgrim, not as an expert,” and describes his methodology as “strolling about.” The ranging nature of his pilgrimages shows in his omnivorous reading, which separates him from his peers. Instead of nothing but sycophantic lowest-common-denominator references to inspiring sports figures and the Sunday funnies, Yancey can aptly invoke Henry Adams, Thornton Wilder, Barbara Tuchman, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. (Being Jewish, I confess a certain gratitude for Yancey’s level, respectful mentions of Judaism; most Christian writers pour treacly patronization all over God’s special little people, as though we were a race of autistic children.) It is certainly worth adding that he has a light, at times even nimble, prose touch and is capable of memorable phrasing through understatement.
But Yancey is doomed by his genre, which insists that he drag himself to the center of his books and explicitly avow his faith. In The Jesus I Never Knew Yancey feels compelled to dramatize his pilgrimage by beginning his ruminations with mawkish and disingenuous lines like, “As I thumb once more through my Christmas cards, I realize…,” as though he were writing and thumbing through the cards at the same time. Uncomfortable in the spotlight (to the extent that he does not allow his photograph on his book covers), Yancey resorts constantly to pedestrian, woolgathering revelations such as “I feel sad as I read Tolstoy’s religious writings” and “I sometimes ask myself if I would have wanted to join the Twelve. No matter.” “By harboring lust, I limit my own intimacy with God,” Yancey tells us, but then, in the jejune fashion typical of so much in the current gelded Augustinian tradition, he gives up none of the goods about his lust.
Yancey’s pilgrimages are therefore predestined to lead nowhere beyond polite platitudes. Moreover, The Jesus I Never Knew sheds light on an editorial paradigm—in this case at Zondervan publishing house—that places no particular regard on quality. This book, in its umpteenth printing, is marred by misspellings and punctuation errors; Yancey lauds the message of the Beatitudes shortly after an epigraph of smarmy piety from, of all people, Napoleon Bonaparte; and he is allowed to make the outlandish claim that Tolstoy wrote “bright, sunny novels.” The solecisms are frequent enough to make it clear that an agreeable (and agreed upon) sentiment has become more important than words.
The boring conformity of Yancey’s books is doubly dispiriting in view of his native inquisitiveness. We can easily imagine him combining the tireless autodidacticism of a Garry Wills (whose thorny individuality makes his religious books, though minor in scale, well worth reading) with an even keener prose sensibility. If only he wrote in a field that championed intensive study, and not one in which it is permissible to paste a paragraph from C.S. Lewis on every tenth page. If only self-promoting declarations of faith and cozy middle-class anecdotes didn’t have to be porkbarreled onto every meditation on Christ. If only he wrote in a genre steeped in its ancient heritage and in the debt of its bygone masters, instead of one defined and epitomized by Joel Osteen, Rick Warren, and Max Lucado.
We all know these books, the commercial dynamos, the pricey hardbacks that sit flashily front-listed in bookstores for the better part of a year—we know them and out of some instinct for self-preservation we try to convince ourselves that they aren’t actually real. Often the books themselves help us in our denial. When Joel Osteen puts his photograph on the cover of his book Your Best Life Now and he looks exactly like Anthony Robbins, we can shrug his writing off as the run-of-the-mill hucksterism that will always be around so long as there are easily manipulated people in the world. And we can try to do the same for the other books whose titles smack so obviously of pyramid schemes and snake-oil medicine: Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life, Chuck Colson’s The Good Life, Og Mandino’s Secrets for Success and Happiness, and the niche-targeted self-help of Joyce Meyers, John Eldredge, and T.D. Jakes. We want so much to believe that these things aren’t really books.
But they are books, written by people who, whether we like it or not, have arrogated the role of Christianity’s guardians of language and assumed all the responsibilities therein. Every genre has its writers who exploit the forum of book publishing for immediate gain, who care nothing about the art of writing and therefore squander a grand literary inheritance and leave their succeeding generation deep in the hole; but Christian Inspiration is so thoroughly dominated by such books—the film term Christploitation applies to them—that it’s impossible to long deny their influence, much less their existence.
The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association informs us that 9 percent of Christian Inspiration’s authors comprise 80 percent of its units sold, and Max Lucado, who has published well over fifty books (many of them are categorized as children’s or gift books) and been translated into over twenty languages, resides snugly in the upper percentile. His adult-oriented books tend to isolate chapters or episodes from Scripture, from which Lucado can spool out a series of affirming life lessons—Traveling Light, for instance, is about Psalm 23, and it would not be hard to guess that his most recent book Facing Your Giants is about David and Goliath. Lucado is a minister, and each chapter has the prescribed structure of a sermon in miniature.
Historically, sermons translate very nicely to the page, but Christian Inspiration has consigned its history to a quaint, dusty reference room in purgatory. Traveling Light begins this way:
I’ve never been one to travel light.
I’ve tried. Believe me, I’ve tried. But ever since I stuck three fingers in the air and took the Boy Scout pledge to be prepared I’ve been determined to be exactly that—prepared.
…Prepared to parachute behind enemy lines or enter a cricket tournament. And if, perchance, the Dalai Lama might be on my flight and invite me to dine in Tibet, I carry snowshoes.
This is all nonsense, of course, so it’s futile to point out what’s known by every stoned skateboarder, that the Dalai Lama has been in exile from Tibet for nearly fifty years. With Lucado we arrive at a place where written English is literally irrelevant. The form, beauty, and now even the meaning of the sentences are subordinate to their ability to broadcast a cutesy and congenial tone. His advertisers euphemistically call this a “warm and easy to understand writing style,” but the word “style” falsely connotes some amount of applied craftsmanship. Lucado’s sentences, like these from Cure for the Common Life, are billboard blurbs:
“But Max,” someone objects, “my work is simply that—work! It pays my bills, but numbs my soul.” (You’re only a few pages from help.)
The condescension implicit in the above excerpt (no one actually talks like Lucado’s hypothetical objector) hints at the abysmal depths explored in what he calls parables. Their resemblance to the parables of the Gospels is nonexistent: most are golf jokes and adorable domestic dramas; but his historical object lessons reveal an uglier truth. When, in his book about the Passion, He Chose the Nails, we read a bit of morally instructive Civil War trivia, we turn to the bibliography to find that Lucado does not actually know anything about the Civil War but took for his source Paul Harvey’s the Rest of the Story. These bibliographies, listing things like illustrated Bible references, Quote, Unquote, and websites of dubious provenance, would make a high school English teacher, trying to teach his students the virtue of research, resign in despair.
But they also exemplify the way that extreme reduction can cross a line into outright mendacity. In He Chose the Nails Lucado states that it was the belief of the “French philosopher Voltaire” that “the Bible and Christianity would pass within a hundred years.” Two messages are couched in the citation, the first being that the Lucado has read seriously into Voltaire, and the second that the good Christian reader ought never do so. The first is nothing but a lie—Lucado reads Paul Harvey and quote compendiums, not Voltaire. The second is the pernicious byproduct of lying, the implication that people should actually read less, that learning is bad for you, that complacent, godfearing ignorance is the proper path to prosperity.
The sense of duplicity intensifies as Lucado goes shoveling life-affirming verses from the Bible into his prose, presenting a cheery, airbrushed portrait of the Good Book that is scarcely encountered in firsthand reading. This practice finds a parallel in the inundation of refashionings of the Bible—The Maximized Living Bible, The John C. Maxwell Leadership Bible, Becoming: the Devotional Bible for Women, etc—marketed to appeal to different demographics. Many of these Bibles are rendered in something that’s meant as slang, with predictably embarrassing results: “Now there’s no dispute—you respect God, big time,” Rob Lacey has an angel tell Abraham in The Word on the Street. But even the less transparently obsequious versions are predicated on the goal of effacing the Bible’s strangeness and complexity. The Max Lucado Devotional Bible (the hubris in appending all these proper names to Bible titles seems to bother no one) uses the New Century Version, whose stated aim is to modernize all the figures of speech, archaic meanings, and references to ancient customs. That a completely different, far more boring, book emerges in this bowdlerized version goes without saying. But it does seem rather convenient that the people pushing the credo of Biblical inerrancy feel so free to make the Bible say whatever they want.
The pandering reductiveness that serves as the guiding principle to both Lucado’s books and these Bibles seems to have two explanations. The first is that such books are accessible to a wider audience and therefore better able to spread the Gospel and comfort the needy. This is at least understandable, but is still completely wrong—intentionally dumbing down is arrogant and degrading (as would be intentionally obscuring) and in the long run cheapens and discounts the medium in which the message is spread.
I cannot help but find the second rationale more likely. In 2004 the Bible took in over $400 million in its various versions. Christian book sales as a whole amassed over $2 billion. With every publication, Lucado puts his name on a series of accessories—study guides (in addition to the study guides that pad out the original books), journals, mugs, and magnets, items that, like i-pod skins and car decals, serve no recognizable purpose except the generation of profit. Like Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, and the now forgotten author of that ridiculous canard, The Prayer of Jabez, Max Lucado has been pleased to put his name on all these products. So when we discover a chapter in Cure for the Common Life titled “Don’t Consult Your Greed,” the irony is so noxious it brings tears to the eyes.
Though it often seems immortal (due to the incredible durability of its material), the written language is an artificial medium, whose value is wholly dictated by the work of the writers who deal in it. The potentials of words can be harnessed to glorious, earthshaking effect—or they can be ignored and left to molder in unused libraries. One way to judge a movement’s contribution to writing is by the books of the generation it begets, and although itself an immature trend, the habits and, perhaps more to the point, the vices of contemporary Christian Inspiration are already showing a deep imprint in the work of younger Christian writers.
The most popular of which is presently Donald Miller, who entered the bestseller list in 2003 with Blue Like Jazz, a collection of occasional pieces about the challenge of fusing religious faith with a hip, progressive, Oregonian worldview—“the problem with Christian belief,” Miller writes, “is that it is not a fashionable thing.” Blue Like Jazz hews to the same failsafe (and exceedingly fashionable) formula of gentle self-flagellation leading to redemption and is distinguished only by Miller’s labored mimicry of Jack Kerouac’s scatting, periodic sentences—and by the winning charm and effervescence that comes from his youth (like Philip Yancey, Miller seems to be a sincerely nice person).
But more revealing than this accommodating bestseller is his first book, originally titled Prayer and the Art of Volkswagon Maintenance and republished in the wake of his fame as Through Painted Deserts. Like so many young writers enamored of Kerouac and Robert M. Pirsig, Miller wrote a road-trip story, the ultimate vehicle of the modern truth-seeker:
There is a solace in night travel that is absent in daylight. Daylight is broad and exposing; gas stations, factories, and forests are all brought to life under the sun. Night covers them. It is as though a cloth has been draped over the day, pouring them into our memories for meditation and reflection…. And it feels, tonight, as if there is much to think about, there is much we have been given and much we have left behind…. And there is a feeling that time itself has been curtained by darkness.
This is only juvenilia, veering toward dewy cliché and somewhat in awe of its own voice, but the point is that it’s gifted juvenilia. We can see in the single short passage the signs of a writer who’s intrigued by the lyrical possibilities of a sentence, who’s paying careful attention to where he puts his commas and to the effect they have, who’s starting to open his eyes to the subtle power of figurative language, who’s searching the observable world for new ways to articulate felt truths. The excerpt reveals a young writer thrillingly animated by the belief that prose can be beautiful and profound, if only you can get it right.
Miller’s most recent book is called To Own a Dragon. And here is the sort of stuff we find in it:
I am not going to tell you it was easy. There were times I would have rather lived on my own, played music as loud as I wanted, come home drunk, whatever. But playing your music as loud as you want and coming home drunk aren’t real life. Real life, it turns out, is diapers and lawnmowers, decks that need painting, a wife that needs to be listened to, kids that need to be taught right from wrong, a checkbook, an oil change, a sunset behind a mountain, laughter at a kitchen table, too much wine, a chipped tooth, a screaming child. The lessons I learned in the four years I spent with Josh and Terri will stay with me forever.
Who knows where to start with this slapdash drivel? The clueless sexism in equating a wife to an unpainted deck? The unwitting and obviously unedited sequence—too much wine, chipped tooth, screaming child—that should get Josh and Terri a housecall from social services? The unbelievable laziness of that “whatever”? The disgraceful last line?
Miller can thank his mentors, because this is the output of a writer who no longer cares about writing. Only the chipper, ingratiating tone and the agreeable sentiment count. It’s the triumph of patter over poetry. It took less than six years for Miller to turn his back on literature. He’ll go far.
We live by the grace of, among other things, the honor code. We have laws, of course, but laws are merely preventative. Teachers who make for themselves a seventy hour work week, many of those hours unpaid, are not motivated by performance evaluations. Doctors who sacrifice their personal time to study texts and learn techniques aren’t driven by the fear of malpractice suits. Great teachers and doctors—anyone great in any field—are responding to an acquired sense of duty. They feel a responsibility that extends to their students or patients, to their colleagues, to their role models to whom they first fell into debt, to the coming generation to whom they’ll pay that debt back, and perhaps most of all to the sanctity of the work itself, so that its standing isn’t tarnished in the world’s eye.
The same goes for writers. Literature is too intrinsically resistant to coercion to permit a Hippocrates to engrave the duties that surround it, but nevertheless a kind of oath is implicitly sworn whenever a writer sets to work. Writers have editors and (bless their hearts) critics, but, especially once money enters the picture, a sense of honor born from a love of literature is the only sturdy firewall to the temptations of laziness and complacency, of cheating and corner-cutting.
But somehow it’s happened that corner-cutting, whitewashing, flattening, and dissembling have become the defining hallmarks of the main body of today’s Christian Inspiration books. That the trend is self-defeating—who ever imagined that either man or God is served by cheating?—has not apparently gainsaid the fact that it’s lucrative.
Fortunately there are other kinds of Christian writing that may offer salvage from the shipwreck. There is John Dominic Crossan, in whose biographies the character of Jesus seems virtually reborn in all His power and mystery. There are the intelligent and accessible primers of Elaine Pagels. There is the almost inhumanly comprehensive, but invitingly lucid, exegesis of the late Reverend Raymond E. Brown. If these writers serve as models, there is hope for Christian literature yet.
A hope that daily diminishes as the great modern works and the classics of religious writing are engulfed in a rising tide of books that seem more and more to be birthed by an industry, not by thoughtful, hardworking humans. “In the beginning was the Word,” and then at some point words ceased to matter. Humankind’s greatest monuments are literary; so great is the art that it is believed to be the means through which God safeguarded His commandments—and then at some point literature ceased to matter. When these shabby books have been devoured by time and expunged from all human memory, what legacy will they have left behind? For the direction of Christian writing, and for book-lovers of all stripes, they foretell a barren future.
Sam Sacks has written books reviews for Pittsburgh Pulp, The Tucson Weekly, The New York Press, The Las Vegas Weekly, Columbia Journal of American Studies, freezerbox.com, and thefanzine.com. He lives in New York City.