Are we writers like dogs?

A church bulletin I received this week featured a friend’s article. I forwarded the bulletin on to my friend, who would not have otherwise known that they had published his article. He thanked me and seemed pleased, and I was glad to have encouraged him, if indeed it did.

In reply, I wrote him and said this: It may not work for others this way, but I usually feel more motivated and inspired to do more and better writing when I see that others use my material or benefit in some way from what I have written.

One suspects that the same is true for many writers. Most of them are not an Emily Dickinson who wrote and stuffed her poems in a drawer. As many motivations for writing abound as there are writers, probably. But few of them spurn the vaulted feedback (as praise and criticism are now lumped together in this unhappy technological term).

Few can, as Dickinson did, take rejection or, likely in her case, lack of comprehension of the quality of her work, and go on to write for posterity’ sake. Our modern virtual selves write for instant gratification, for the highest possible number of likes or psychological strokes. We are the family dog who needs the praise so soon after the good behavior to reinforce and reproduce it.

A question frequently bandied about, mostly from those who, it would seem, enjoy casting doubts upon the divine origin of the Bible, is whether or not the Old and New Testament writers knew they were writing Scripture. Besides the sheer foolishness of the question, they by the Spirit’s inspiration wrote to address a burning need of their time and likely never dreamed that their literary productions would find their way into the canon for the salvation and edification of millions. Not that they could not have been aware of inspiration or of a wider application of their writings for their time. Paul writing to Timothy may well have expected his son in the faith to share that letter with the Ephesians, and he may well have known that those truths would be welcomed in many a meeting of saints. The more pressing concern, however, was not to receive a letter in return mail from his young associate with praise for his fine expressions or fitness of concepts to the moment, much less to dream of being read by multitudes. The writing was utilitarian to the core.

Such lack of pretension will be our salvation as well, I suspect. Or mine, at least. Writers and poets, if the latter be judged worthy of separate classification, do well to stop asking the question of who is reading or approving in order to assume for a moment the mantle of Elijah. Rather than a call to bluster or a permission to ignore the sensibilities of the readers, this recommendation of prophetic stance seeks to remove the need for commendation or its procurement. Simply put, many will not like what we have to say, and we must be content with that. More, we must be content to be ignored, when our chosen modes of expression or emphases of thought do not find a place in categories of our time.

In this we must resist Elijah’s moment of weakness, even though we used him as the iconic prophet above, when he cried that no one liked him or his message. What most see as his greatest victory on Mount Carmel, he recognized as the critical challenge to the status quo and the blowback that would come from it. In spite of the wholesale elimination of the Baalistic religious school, the Jezebelian payment structure was still intact, other candidates, no doubt waiting in the wings, would soon step into the recently vacated positions, and, most disheartening of all, Israel still hobbled on its crutches in its commitment to the God who created and sustained them.

A change of stance from shill to prophet comes not from merely shifting weight from one foot to another, but through repentance and redemption. Yes, for us Christian writers. Every task of kingdom service, including ours, must be stripped of selfishness and self-promotion. In his book, The Cross of Jesus, Leon Morris sought to apply the benefits of the crucifixion to solve the issues of modern society. In a not wholly satisfying chapter on selfishness, he pointed out that the Cross is the answer to selfishness because it calls each disciple to take up his own instrument of death. Mortification of self becomes part and parcel of the Christian experience and of the writer’s as well. Personality is not erased, but self-interest is immolated on the altar. Paul still carried within himself the background, training, and history of Saul, but had been freed from the need for winning approval, from God or man, by his works.

Writers often use pseudonyms, pen names, to disguise their true identity. No information whatsoever remains of the reason behind Saul’s change of name, but the history of Scripture on name changes colors our view just here, that God gives new names to indicate a new nature. So perhaps we writers do not need pseudonyms, but regenenyms, my pitiable attempt at neologistic creation, to say that we need not a disguise, but a new character brought into existence through regeneration, a new nature behind our literary works, one in which selfishness no longer moves us, but in which the interests of others have superseded our own and or own needs have withered in consideration of the needs of our neighbor.

Blog stats are the new measure of importance, and I watch mine incessantly. Not so fine is the line between the desire to get out the message to the largest number of people possible, that noble fulfillment of the Grand Commission, and the projection of our name before a grateful world and brotherhood, who recognize finally that the grace of God works mightily in us. But we have whittled down that line to a hair’s breadth so that it’s crossing goes unnoticed. So we tell ourselves. But no difference is more greatly noted and so well documented as the dog who wags an enthusiastic tail and slobbers copiously on his master after being rewarded for good behavior and the cat who sits atop the refrigerator looking down at the providers of his well-being with cold disinterest.

We writers need not be one or the other. We must be neither. By the grace of God we are what we are, and in that gift lies neither glory before man nor merit before God. By it we serve, with all the same vagaries, demands, and rewards that accrue to all the other services which saints render to the Lord, rejoicing that through us God works for their good and that through our brothers and sisters he also works to provide us the myriad of needs that we lack.

J. Randal Matheny

Be pithy.

What do you think?