On Thursday at my talk for the Catholic Writers’ Conference, I’m opening with an illustration about the year I spent in Senegal, West Africa teaching ESL at Dakar Academy. In my spare time, I played in a band — a church worship team (I was Protestant at the time), playing keyboards for a group of college students from University of Dakar, most of whom spoke very little English. (They did, however, speak more English than I spoke French.)
On weekends everyone piled into an old yellow VW van and go on excursions around the area. One unforgettable visit was to Goree Island, and the Slave House built by the Dutch in 1776. Just a short ferry ride from Dakar, the little island fortress sits perched like a jewel in the clear blue waters of the Atlantic.
From a distance, it is a thing of beauty. Up close, it makes the stomach twist and tempers flare. When one of my musician friends tried to find an English interpreter to tell me about the place, the man took one look at my white face and spat on the ground. “She’s the reason this place was built. I’m certainly not going to entertain her.” It was disturbing, seeing the hate twist that man’s face. The place was beautiful with its pristine beaches and brightly painted buildings — but the spirit was as dark and desolate as the slave quarters hidden beneath. Hand-drawn signs lined the walls of the courtyard, scrawled by the descendents of those African natives who were led in chains through that “gate of no return.”
I recently had cause to contemplate this experience in connection with a book I’d recently picked up at the suggestion of a friend. I read the first few chapters and put it down again, appalled. That this was a talented writer was indisputable. That his editor had betrayed him was equally evident, at least to me.
When the complexities of the human experience are reduced to a simple lustful exchange, this is not beauty or truth. Certainly it is not authentically Catholic. How I wish the author had raised his sights just a bit higher!
All truly good writing is ordered toward the ultimate good, which is God. While a book need not reflect a distinctively Catholic world view to be truly good, a quest for transformation is essential. Goodness and beauty, along with truth, naturally elevate the human spirit. Wallowing in the muck of human frailty, without that redemptive trajectory, does the opposite.
Good writers are to truth what a good craftsman is to a gemstone: through dedicated labor imperfections are stripped away, until the full brilliance is illuminated from within. Not all stones are equally valuable — some are inherently flawed, and no amount of polishing can change that. Conversely, the value of an exquisite gem can be greatly diminished if it falls into the wrong hands. But put that flawless gem (or that flash of genuine inspiration) in the hands of an expert craftsman, and you have a prize of lasting value!
Of course, bookstores and libraries are full of religious books, many of which come and go in a season or two. Many genuinely awful books have religious themes; what they lack is holy passion. This is true of all religious endeavors. A few weeks ago, my husband and I attended the Catholic New Media Conference and had a chance to see the missions of San Antonio. The buildings have been restored — the original structures have all but disappeared. After the European missionaries turned the buildings over to the indigenous community, the missions deteriorated rapidly as the people returned to the old ways. The missionaries had worked hard to reach the people, but the fruit of their labors quickly withered on the vine.
Why was this? I wouldn’t presume to judge the hearts of the missionaries themselves. Jesus himself spoke of the seed that fell on fertile and fallow soil. Sadly, many “converts” flocked to the mission not out of deeply held religious convictions, but to escape their powerful enemies on one hand, and the diseases introduced by the European settlers on the other. While some did indeed embrace the new religion (and several of the missions continue to operate as parishes), for many the structured life of the mission represented not truth and beauty and goodness, but oppression and bondage.
For those of us who aspire to write a book that will withstand the test of time, there is a lesson here, I think. Technical excellence is important — but insufficient. The book must be illuminated from within with the fire of genuine revelation, and fulfill the longing for truth, beauty, and goodness that God has placed within the human heart. To settle for less is to labor in vain. The end result may be pretty — but it will never last.