A Reading Life (prt 14): Own your Writing

two books on wood plank

By Joe LaGuardia

A Reading Life is a blog series focused on the literature that has shaped my life and call to ministry. Find the introduction here.

I got more copies of my book A Whispering Call to sell around town. I haven’t been in possession of the final draft in a while, so, upon receipt, I started to read it.

There is something about reading your work months after you wrote it that makes you pause–there is a great deal of self-doubt, and you wonder whether the final copy is any good.

I read the first page of the introduction, and I was stuck. The transition from the first two paragraphs to the third was awkward. I read it again, and I tried to get into where my head was months ago: What was I thinking when I segued from one paragraph to the other?

A long time ago, someone told me it was hard for her to follow my sermons. I lost her, she said, when I was transitioning from one subject to the next. She said that my transitions left people behind or confused. Although I dealt with that issue over time (it was a valid critique), it seems that some of my writing still carries that burden.

But I am also a big believer that a new paragraph begins a new topic. That’s what I learned in grade school, at least. Its not my fault that our digital, short-form world breaks everything into paragraphs after only a few sentences just because readers lose interest if a paragraph is too long. (I learned this the hard way as a syndicated columnist–paragraphs are only two or three sentences long not because of the topic, but because of how it appears on the page; the internet is no different.)

I decided that my writing was just fine, and it hit me: I have to own my writing. I have to take responsibility for my idiosyncrasies and trust in the work.

Ernest Hemingway inspired me in this. I am currently reading A Farewell to Arms, and its been a while since I’ve read Hemingway. His writing is unique–its short, brisk, and choppy. At times he is repetitive. He doesn’t fill in all the gaps, and his dialogue communicates basic information.

On the back of the book’s dustcover, it boasts that Hemingway “did more to change the style of English prose than any other writer in the twentieth century.” He was, of course, a Pultizer winner for The Old Man and the Sea.

I wonder if Hemingway doubted his writing. I wonder if he thought, “I hope people don’t think I write like a fifth-grader.” But fans of his work will quickly note that, as concise as he may be, he communicates an entire vista within just a short economy of words. He is amazing, and I like to think that he was unapologetic for his unique writing style. He owned his writing.

My reflections on writing conjured the works of other off-beat authors. Annie Dillard comes to mind–she is downright difficult to read, but oh! how she makes for majestic reading!

The first time I picked up Frank McCourt, with his long run-on sentences and lack of quotation marks, it was almost the last time I picked it up–not because it wasn’t good, but because I couldn’t put it down!

Preachers also tend to have their own style–the good ones, at least. The late Fred Craddock is probably the most famous idiosyncratic preacher. When he preached you forget that he was preaching, and by the time he finished (and he finishes whenever he wants), you think you’ve had a conversation with a best friend.

Brett Younger, pastor of Plymouth Church in Brooklyn (and one of my old professors), is also unique. He weaves together comedy and tragedy and sacred text in ways that few can emulate.

Then there is Joel Osteen. I don’t care what you think of his theology, but the man is an amazing storyteller. Whenever I listen to him on XM radio, I feel better, like all is well with the world.

So take ownership of your writing. No one is going to express what you need to say for you, and your silence may disenfranchise the world. It may need another point of light in the darkness, so shine brightly for others to see. Don’t mimic voices of others, come up with your own. Take responsibility for your writing. As long as you follow the basics in grammar, you should be fine–and empowered to keep on keeping on.

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A Reading Life (prt 11): The Bible, from a different point of view

By Joe LaGuardia

A Reading Life is a blog series focused on the literature that has shaped my life and call to ministry. Find the introduction here.  

I attended a pastor’s Bible study recently and did not learn anything new.  If you are going to bring pastors together, then have something new up your sleeve: a new insight into reading the text, an esoteric resource that garners a cutting-edge interpretation of scripture, a new twist on an old tale.  But don’t spout lessons we have likely taught for years in Sunday school.

One of the greatest compliments I get as a preacher is not that a sermon was interesting or exciting, but that something new was learned.  “I never heard that before,” or “I’ve never read the passage like that,” is music to my ears.  It is impossible to hit a sermon out of the park every Sunday morning, but not to have at least one thing unique to each sermon–a new reading, an insight that is not cliché, a way to enliven the imagination.

I came into seminary with a formidable religion degree from college.  Classes were basic, therefore, and getting at something new was difficult.  But when I got into a New Testament course with a professor by the name of Dr. Carson, I got hooked on his methodology of reading the text.  I’ve never read the Bible that way!

Dr. Carson was from Union Theological Seminary and Southern Seminary, so he was able to bring a reading from two very different points-of-view.  As a way of protest, he threw out many tried and true historical-critical interpretations of scripture because of faulty foundations of reading, and relied on the purity of reading a text for what it says and how it is said, not from a translation.

Dr. Carson emphasized socio-rhetorical criticism, which was new to me.  Socio-rhetorical criticism explores how authors write what they write, why they write, how they write, and what they exclude.  The critic reads the Bible, noting that the order, shape, and context of the original language says something about the intent of the writing.

Rhetoric is the “art of persuasion,” and it asks questions of persuasion in the text.  Socio-historical criticism looks at the world of the text and how culture shapes literature, speech, and language.  It is a fairly recent criticism, only some forty years old.

This was a life-giving methodology for me.  I spent a great deal of time with Dr. Carson after that first course, and his recommendations went to the top of my reading list.  He recommended Vernon Robbins’ The Texture of Texts; socio-historical criticism by the likes of Bruce Malina, Jerome Neyrey, and others from the “the Context Group”; and a pithy book, Hermeneutics and the Rhetorical Tradition, by Columbia University professor Kathy Eden.

Since I love words and writing, a focus on the function and dynamics of rhetoric opened a new world of joy and wonder.  It added depth to the biblical story, and it provided applications that made sense and applied to real life.  It brought Jesus to life, too, and painted a picture in both testaments that sit squarely in a mysterious culture foreign — and yet similar — to our own.

As a Baptist, I like how that type of reading pushed against the powers of interpretation and the privileges of the academy.  It exposed assumptions of historical biblical criticism and up-ended mistaken interpretations–often perpetuated by those in power and the academic establishment–that failed to take the ancient world seriously.  It also has a global leaning, allowing other voices to shape how the text–and the persuasion and arguments therein–apply to a variety of cultures in our own day and age.

I am deeply indebted to Dr. Carson because he opened a new window of biblical exploration, and that interpretation plays heavily on my preaching and teaching.  If you ever visit my church there’s a good chance that you may not always agree with the content, but you will learn something new.

 

A Reading Life (pt 9): Manuscript Melancholy

By Joe LaGuardia

By the time I graduated college and entered seminary, I burned out on biblical academia.  The start of the my three-year Masters of Divinity program was the next step towards ministry, but I was not interested in the work or for working in ministry in general.  Its not that I abandoned my call; I just needed a break.

When placement officers at seminary asked what church I wanted to serve, I declined.  Instead, I went to work for Chik-Fil-A for that first year.  When classes assigned books, I read them through for routine rather than for sport.  When a professor assigned an essay, I wrote blindly.  My heart was not in it, not entirely.

I enjoyed my seminary years, don’t get me wrong–its just that I hit a season of melancholy in which the religious studies exhausted me.  I felt that I lived in a bubble, and I couldn’t find my way out.

Over the summer, when my wife and I traveled back to Florida to visit family, I expressed these feelings to Kristina’s grandmother.  Her grandmother (whom we called Granny) was a Bible-believing Baptist prayer warrior whose love for the Lord was matched only by her love for the church.  She played piano for many years at the First Baptist Church of Tequesta, Florida, and served as volunteer secretary for many years more.  She was a Renaissance woman of sorts who read everything from church history and church architecture to theology and mysticism.

Granny was a mentor to Kristina and, later, to me, when it came to intercessory prayer–she was, unlike many Baptists I had met, “Spirit-filled,” meaning that she regularly attended charismatic services around town.  It made her special and her wisdom contagious.

When I told her of my malaise, she knew what I needed.  She took my hand and asked me to take her to the bookstore.  We went, and she dragged me over to the religion section.  I was not very pleased–the only religious books you find at those places are the pop culture books that focus more on self-help than biblical insight.

She scanned the shelves and found what she was looking for: Henri Nouwen’s The Way of the Heart.  I was not familiar with Nouwen’s books aside from one on discipleship I read in college (Creative Teaching).  She handed me a copy and told me to read it.  She wasn’t recommending it, she was telling me to do it.  She purchased it and sent me on my way.

When I read The Way of the Heart, I found myself in a place that I hadn’t been before–Nouwen’s writings on the early church fathers and the importance of silence and solitude in the spiritual life, as well as his acute insights as to the role that suffering and servanthood plays in ministry, were among the most profound insights I had read.

Nouwen spoke of crises of faith as places of wilderness where we face our demons and rely fully on the Holy Spirit for survival.  He spoke of the Christian life as a series of conversions rather than one single conversion experience, allowing me to see that I was being converted (yet again) in the reading of this little, 70-some-odd page book.

I found a book that spoke directly to my soul: It did not provide cliché answers to hardship, and it informed readers that we must find Christ with unyielding faith–not with the head, but with the heart.  My prayer life caught fire.

From Nouwen: Jesus’ invitation to lay down my life for others has always meant more to me than physical martyrdom. I have always heard those words as an invitation to make my own struggles, my doubts, my hopes, my fears, my joys and my pains and my moments of ecstasy available to others as a source of consolation and healing.”

After that book, I picked up The Gennessee Diary and Wounded Healer, both Nouwen classics.  I read both of those books three times each over the years, and I taught a small-group book study on The Way of the Heart twice in eight years while working at Trinity Baptist Church.  My copy was so worn down, I had to purchase a new one.

Granny’s investment in me — and her ability to give me the book I needed most — guided my ministry, brought me back to Christ, and re-aligned my heart.  It gave me purpose and clarity of calling, and focused my attention on the field in which I eventually gained a doctorate.  It gave birth to this blog nearly fifteen years ago!

Of all the books that have shaped my life, The Way of the Heart came the closest to the Bible in saving my life– Nouwen helped me meet Jesus in a new way and convicted me to commit my entire life to prayer and Spirit-filled living in all I do, just as Granny had lived.