Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Divine Authorship: Reflections for Novelists from "Mere Christianity"

Photo by JulesInKY,
In my post last week I mentioned that one of the most significant events of my spiritual retreat was reading C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity. It was the last major work of his I hadn't yet read, so I was very pleased to find it in the monastery library. As usual, Lewis' perceptive insights, personable style, and profound implications made Mere Christianity very much a life-changing read. Venturing into this book is a little like a conversion experience in itself--whether you're already a Christian or not.
During the "dramatic arc" of my retreat, I strongly heard God calling me to a complete surrender of my will to His own, and a renewed faith in the reality of His love. There were many, many passages in Mere Christianity which guided me through that week's journey--too many to write about in one blog post. Instead, I would like to share one particular passage which, while not directly related to the main "drama" of my retreat, still affected me deeply--thanks to my experience as an aspiring novelist.

In the chapter "Time and Beyond Time," Lewis attempts to explain in layman's terms the mind-boggling mystery of God's life in eternity:

Almost certainly God is not in Time. His life does not consist of moments following one another. If a million people are praying to Him at ten-thirty tonight, He need not listen to them all in that one little snippet which we call ten-thirty. Ten-thirty--and every other moment from the beginning of the world--is always the Present for Him. If you like to put it that way, He has all eternity in which to listen to the split second of prayer put up by a pilot as his plane crashes in flames.

That is difficult, I know. Let me try to give something, not the same, but a bit like it. Suppose I am writing a novel. I write "Mary laid down her work; next moment came a knock at the door!" For Mary who has to live in the imaginary time of my story there is no interval between putting down the work and hearing the knock. But I, who am Mary's maker, do not live in that imaginary time at all. Between writing the first half of that sentence and the second, I might sit down for three hours and think steadily about Mary. I could think about Mary as if she were the only character in the book and for as long as I pleased, and the hours I spent in doing so would not appear in Mary's time (the time inside the story) at all.

Instantly, when I read this paragraph, I could relate to Lewis' analogy. In working on my own novel over the past several months, there have been countless times when I've left a scene, or even a sentence, suspended while I picked up my journal and did some brainstorming. It's such an everyday experience for an author (or reader) that the profundity of it never struck me before. While I was still marveling over this, a new insight unfolded in my mind, related to my specific relationship with the characters in my story.

I have known my full plot for a long time. I have lovingly crafted my protagonist's journey, aware of both the entire arc of his character development, and experiencing individual events through his eyes as I write out the story. Any event--the trials my character has already experienced, in his "timeline," and the ones he has yet to undergo--can become the present to me, whenever and however long I desire.

The result of this mock-eternal viewpoint is that I know my protagonist fully, and I am extremely fond of him. So I was a little mortified when, after giving the several first chapters of my novel to family and friends, several commented how much they disliked the main character. (He's a cocky, irresponsible hothead of a medieval Scottish prince--I will leave the rest to your imagination.) I admitted that, at the beginning of the story, the protagonist was supposed to be a jerk. So I should not have been surprised at the negative reaction. And yet I still felt defensive of my character. I wanted to exclaim to my readers, "You have to wait and see how he turns out before you decide if you like him!"

Lewis' comments on eternity shone new light on my novel-writing experience. After reading the above passage of Mere Christianity, I realized more clearly how my early readers and I could have two completely different attitudes towards the protagonist. My readers, in a certain sense, share the timeline of the novel's characters. They cannot see (until the end) the full arc and meaning of the events, much less foretell the development of individual characters. They disliked my protagonist, quite naturally, because most of what they saw of him in the early chapters was dislikeable.

I, on the other hand, knew my character not only for his actions at any given moment, but also for who he would be by the end of the story--who I was crafting him to be. Thus I could love him (though not necessarily approve of him) even in the midst of his rash, prideful, and downright dumb mistakes. In fact, I found myself especially close to him in the fury of his darkest and most anguished moments.

All this to say, I realized that God probably sees me--and all of us--in something of the same way a novelist sees his characters. The comparison is only a shadowy hint of the reality, but it is worth reflecting on nonetheless. God loves each of us infinitely and intimately, not for our weaknesses and failures in Time, but for the splendid vision He conceives of each of us at every moment in the Eternal Now. If we thought of this more often, how would it change our approach to life's challenges and trials? And how would it alter our treatment of the people we encounter every day--fellow characters, who are, together with us, being crafted by the Holy Spirit--all towards that astonishing and unimaginable moment, when we will step out of the book of His Story (history) and into Reality--the full life of the Trinity.

C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity reminds us of our true place in the spiritual world. I know I could stand to think about it a lot more often. If you have not read this classic work, I urge you to acquire a copy as soon as possible. Like a mountain climb, it's a self-revealing journey--and the view from the summit is beyond breathtaking.