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The Incarnational Author

The Incarnation is more than just a theological proposition, it is a relational model. When the apostle John wrote, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14), he was not simply enunciating the divinity of Christ. He was describing the heartbeat of Christ’s mission — to “flesh out” God. But for the Christian artist and author, the Incarnation can be problematic.

Flannery O’Connor in The Habit of Being says this about Christian authors and the Incarnation:

One of the awful things about writing when you are a Christian is that for you the ultimate reality is the Incarnation, the present reality is the Incarnation, the whole reality is the Incarnation, and nobody believes in the Incarnation; that is, nobody in your audience. My audience are the people who think God is dead. At least these are the people I am conscious of writing for.

While being routinely hailed as one of the best Christian writers ever, O’Connor’s work nevertheless does not fit neatly inside the “Christian fiction” box. The quote above reveals why. Flannery O’Connor’s target audience was “people who think God is dead.” In fact, she assumes this is true about “your audience.”

Boy, was she wrong.

Nowadays, religious fiction is aimed at the “religious.” Which is why most Christian authors do not see the Incarnation as a problem — we are NOT writing for “people who think God is dead.” Jesus’ audience was hostile and unenlightened. Or as John put it, “He came to His own, but His own did not receive Him” (John 1:11). In fact, they crucified Him! Christian authors, on the other hand, aim for a less antagonistic audience.

But “fleshing God out” on the page is only one part of being an Incarnational author. Over the course of nine years, from 1955 until her death in 1964, Flannery O’Connor maintained regular correspondence with Betty Hester. According to the most recent Flannery O’Connor letters, Hester was an unremarkable woman who chain-smoked, never married or had children, lived with an aunt in a Midtown apartment, and rode the bus each day to work as a file clerk for a credit bureau in downtown Atlanta.

And, oh yes, Betty Hester was a lesbian.

The two women wrote each other nearly every week, discussing everything from Catholicism to current events in letters that have been called “the most personal” of O’Connor’s life. Yet their relationship was hardly without its risks. O’Connor was criticized for befriending Hester and according to the California Literary Review, was “accused of being a closet lesbian, a feminist, a racist, and, perhaps worst of all, a pre-Vatican II Catholic.”

Such is the risk of the Incarnational author.

In the course of their correspondence, Hester converted to Catholicism, asking O’Connor to be her sponsor. But her conversion didn’t last. Betty Hester later left the church, and in 1998, shot herself with a hollow-nose bullet through the left temple.

Incarnational living — or Incarnational writing, for that matter — demands being a friend of sinners. Flannery O’Connor’s relationship with Betty Hester, with all its paradox and complexity, may raise a few eyebrows. But it shows the author practiced what she preached. Flannery O’Connor “fleshed God out,” not only on the page, but in real life.

Yes, this is risky. And, like Ms. O’Connor, our efforts may be misunderstood, misinterpreted, and ultimately fail. Nevertheless, making God real to “people who think God is dead” is the essence of Incarnation and the heartbeat of Christian mission. Perhaps this should be the goal of our writing as well.

Jesus’ “target market” was hostile and antagonistic. So why do Christian writers aim for such an amiable audience? Could it be because we are not Incarnational authors?

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{ 12 comments… add one }
  • Niki Turner June 7, 2010, 7:56 AM

    I love it when someone else puts into words the things I’ve been thinking. Do you suppose it’s the writers who are writing to a Christian audience, or the publishers who publish for a Christian audience who are at the root of the problem?

    • Mike Duran June 7, 2010, 8:48 AM

      Great questions, Niki! Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting that Christians shouldn’t write FOR Christians, but that when we aim exclusively at Christians we are missing the heart of the Incarnation. Bottom line: I think the industry (including its consumers) has unintentionally drifted away from what was the central reason for Christ’s coming — to make Him known to the unsaved. Thanks for your comments!

  • Nicole June 7, 2010, 8:56 AM

    Always a two-edged sword. Look at the response to Jim Rubart’s free Kindle downloads to those who apparently couldn’t get the spiritual drift by his more than obvious description of the book. In a perfect world I’d shelve the “Christian” fiction on the shelves with the other fiction, but can you imagine the problem if someone like the readers who trashed Jim’s novel (Rooms) kept traipsing to the checkout counters demanding refunds because of some spiritual message in the stories? Good grief.

    My second novel is basically secular until two-thirds of the way through the story. But then . . . the Lord shows up. My design wasn’t to write just to Christians, and an unbelieving friend read it and liked the book, but her least favorite parts of course were the spiritual ones.

    It’s imperative we write what we’re supposed to write to please God. Trying to write for the world means leaving God out of the equation. Somehow the Lord can get spiritual books in the hands of unbelievers, but us? Not a chance.

  • Sylvie June 7, 2010, 9:01 AM

    This article also speaks to the need for writers to interact with their audience. From what I understand, O’Connor devoted a lot of time corresponding with her readers. Christian writers, especially, should “flesh out” the gospel by being being accessible to those who are touched by their work. Thanks for writing this.

  • Autumn June 7, 2010, 10:10 AM

    I really enjoyed this post. It is definitely food for thought.

  • Ane Mulligan June 7, 2010, 10:26 AM

    As always, you make us think, Mike. 🙂 Interestingly, Ron Benrey gave a keynote at the Blue Ridge conference in which he spoke about understanding the incarnation by looking at fiction. He’s graciously offered Novel Journey the keynote speech to post. So watch for it on June 18th & 19th. It’s called Let Novel-Writing Teach You Christianity … and Vice Versa

  • Jessica Thomas June 7, 2010, 11:27 AM

    The way I see it, a writer who is writing for a Christian audience is doing the service of supporting other Christians as they walk through life, which is an honorable task. I would say my target audience is non-Christians, however. The question is, how do I get my writing to them?

    If I sound too Christian, traditional publishers will likely pass me by. If I sound too un-Christian–yet say I am a Christian–I’m opening myself up to a different kind of ugliness.

    If my target audience is non-Christian, can I delve more into the dirt of life? Can I make an ex-convict really talk like an ex-convict rather than saying ‘sh–‘ instead (if even that)?

    I’m blue collar by birth. I can easily write and say things that reflect real life but would offend a Christian audience. However, non-Christian readers tend to take offense when the grit of life is sugar coated. Worse ,they just pass the book up as irrelevent to them. I’m currently stuck between these two worlds…not sure how I want to market my work.

    So, you make good points. Very relevent.

    • Mike Duran June 7, 2010, 12:16 PM

      Hi Jessica! This is exactly what makes Flannery O’Connor so important. While we often regard her as one of the finest Christian authors ever, her fiction does not fit in with the current market’s sensibilities. Her stories contain cursing, grotesqueness, and stark images. Which is what the Christian fiction censors don’t want. I think this quote by O’Connor, which I have in my sidebar, says it all: “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.” But it is precisely the “shouting” and the “large and startling figures” that the Christian consumer seems to eschew. Which ultimately means, in today’s market configuration, writing for “people who think God is dead” means publishing outside the Christian fiction industry. Sad. All that to say, I’m with you, “stuck between these two worlds.”

      • Guy Stewart June 8, 2010, 9:20 AM

        Which leaves me, also, between a rock and a hard place or “stuck between these two worlds”. My teen novel has language that teens use. I have heard — more times than I can count — Christian teens use language indistinguishable from their pagan peers. The world, she is a changin’. The question is: How do I write to reach the lost? Serving the Church, writing to edify believers…I’m not even positive that was one of the commissions Jesus left for us to do. I’m not SURE he had it in His Great Commission for us to serve the body of believers.

        PLEASE NOTE — I didn’t not say “HE DIDN’T”…I’m just not positive. Until then, I typically steer away from writing Christian spec fic (though I DO read and collect it, especially the “hard SF” variety) and continue to write to reach the lost, within the spec fic community as it is, w/o Christian mores. It’s where I am right now. I’ve had some success. I’m continuing to write to have MORE success. My dream is to get the Hugo or Nebula, to accept it, raise it over my head and say, “I could not have written a single word without Jesus Christ.” (This is, of course, directly stolen from the legend of 1950’s Olympic medalist weight lifter, Paul Anderson, whom I commented on at an earlier date here: http://mikeduran.com/?p=2779 )

  • A. J. Walker June 8, 2010, 11:05 AM

    A really excellent and thought provoking post once again Mike!

    But, I really think I agree with Nicole’s comment: We have to write the stories we have to write, let God take care of the rest.

    In my mind, my WIP YA will (prayerfully) find a solid home among (younger) Christian males; it is overtly and unashamedly Christian. My MC actually has long prayers with God on several occasions. The two (I know I need more:( beta readers actually enjoyed that. Would a non-believer? Maybe but probably not.

    I do find it interesting however that whole segments of the reading populace will swallow wizards, warlocks, vampires, dwarfs, werewolves, elfs, space aliens, the force, etc., but a character who has an active relationship with God is hard for them to accept (!?!).

    Makes you go “Hmmm….”

  • Nicole June 9, 2010, 10:19 AM

    Exactly, A. J. Mind boggling to say the least. Heaven forbid we give them a real God who wants to have a real r e l a t i o n s h i p with them and hold them accountable for good and evil. I think that’s what bothers them: that dark accountability thing.

    Write away, A. J. Sounds cool! I’ve got a grandson who’ll be waiting for your novels.

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