In my previous article, I looked at some of the reasons why writing for Lutherans is such a daunting task and introduced my first, last and most important rule of writing for Lutherans: Be Lutheran.
In this second article in a three-part series, we’ll explore my second-and-almost-as-important rule of writing for Lutherans: Tell the truth.
Both of these rules, if you haven’t yet guessed, come directly from the name of The Lutheran Witness magazine.
A Lutheran witness
What does it mean to be a witness?
Being an effective witness means, first, that you must see clearly what is happening around you. Secondly, it means that you must relate clearly to others the truth about what you have seen. A witness does not embellish the truth, or revise the truth, or conveniently leave out all the unpleasant bits and pieces of the truth. A faithful witness simply observes, then tells, the truth.
For this reason, The Lutheran Witness is perhaps the perfect name for an LCMS publication; this is exactly what its writers and editors do every day: They carefully observe the world around them, diligently search the Scriptures and strive to share the truth — the whole truth, and nothing but the truth — with their readers.
It is not easy, by the way, to tell the whole truth about both God and the world He created.
Wrestling with the Angel
Telling the truth about God is the hardest and most important truth-telling any writer will ever do. It means standing at the foot of the cross (never, ever losing sight of Christ!) and grappling with Scripture on its own terms. It means taking God fully at His Word even when that Word isn’t popular or doesn’t make sense or even seems downright bizarre to our human minds.
Think about the story of Jephthah’s daughter (who offers herself as a sacrifice to fulfill her father’s foolish oath to God), or Christ’s parable of the shrewd manager (wherein Jesus commends a crook who selfishly and systematically cheats his master), or the entire book of Job. Think of Jacob, who physically wrestles with God all night and — amazingly — prevails (Gen. 32:28). How much easier would it be to interpret Scripture if we could simply ignore the parts that don’t fit neatly into a coherent theological framework? How many Christian writers can you think of who have taken the lazy way round when things got hard and fell back on Sunday school answers, rehashing safe dogmas?
But this approach will never fully satisfy when you’re writing for the saints of God. Astute readers can sense almost immediately whether or not you, like Jacob, have actually wrestled with the Angel of the Lord in your writing.
One thing I’ve always admired about Martin Luther — who was perhaps one of the greatest masters of honest theological writing ever — is his take on the Epistle of James. In a 1522 preface, he writes:
In a word St. John’s Gospel and his first epistle, St. Paul’s epistles, especially Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, and St. Peter’s first epistle are the books that show you Christ and teach you all that is necessary and salvatory for you to know, even if you were never to see or hear any other book or doctrine. Therefore St. James’ epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it. (LW 35:362)
“An epistle of straw.” Those are the honest words of a brutally honest man. Luther doesn’t get why the church fathers chose to include James, his least favorite epistle, in the New Testament canon, and he shares his scruples openly. Yet even as he explains in the most Lutheran way possible why he dislikes the book — there’s little, if any, mention of the Gospel in it — he still acknowledges its place in the Scriptures and sets out faithfully to glean what he can from it. In doing so, he models a faithful honesty about the things of God that we may all strive to emulate in our writing.
Writing in the dust
Although telling the truth about God is the hardest and most important kind of truth-telling, Lutherans in particular tend to have an easier time with this than they do with another kind of truth-telling: telling the truth about the world. We would much rather “keep our eyes on things above” and away from anything that has to do with “the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh.”
Christian writers are often accused of being hypocrites, and this is why. We too often fail to tell the whole truth about our human nature (we’re a beautiful, anxious mess) or the truth about the world (it’s uglier and more glorious than we can imagine).
Yet as difficult as it may be, our readers need us to be just as honest, wise and candid about “real life” as we are about matters divine. If they catch us telling lies and half truths about realities they can plainly see with their own eyes, how will they ever be convinced of what we tell them about the one, true, invisible God?
They need the whole truth from us, about creation, human nature, lived experience — the lot. Those who read our words should be pricked with pangs of familiarity, murmuring to themselves, “Yes, that’s it exactly. That’s just how it is.”
If we do our job well, they will be able to see themselves and the world they know, even (perhaps especially) the bits they don’t want to own, staring back at them from the page as from a mirror.
“I am that,” they will sigh in joy or horror (or maybe both together). “That is me.”
In His parables, Jesus grounds heavenly truths in everyday realities: a woman cleaning her house, a farmer sowing his seeds, guests attending a wedding. These are earthly — and sometimes even earthy — analogies. They are peopled not primarily with angels but with human beings, frail creatures made of dust and breath. Yet these dusty stories drove the heavenly truth of His message home. Those who heard them recognized the truth about themselves in His Word, and it devastated them.
Like Adam, like Jacob, like all those who sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to his stories, we too are dust, and to dust we shall return. We are all, every mother’s son and daughter of us — every reader, every writer — dust.
Those who write truth about the world write always in the dust.
Tell it like it is
Telling the truth about God is hard. Telling the truth about the world is also hard. Telling the truth about both together is the hardest of all. Yet this is what Lutheran readers ultimately need, want and should be able to expect from Lutheran writers.
Don’t hold back. Look to Jesus. Look all around you.
Then tell it like it is.
A brief word about fiction
In my exhortation to writers always to tell the truth, I hope that no one will think that I am disparaging fiction. I love fiction. What’s more, I have noticed on more than one occasion that those who write fiction often tell the truth about God and man better than those who write nonfiction. Think of Chaucer and Dostoevsky, Austen and Tolkien. Not one of these master writers wrote nonfiction if they could help it, yet each of them was, in his or her own way, superbly adept at bringing truth to light. Judging by their success, I would posit that it can be very liberating to step away from the tyranny of the factual into the realm of pure fiction. I highly recommend it.