In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1962, John Steinbeck said that, “Literature is as old as speech. It grew out of human need for it, and it has not changed except to become more needed.” Steinbeck’s approach to literature had always been to expose the unknown truth—the labor camps of the migrant workers during the dust bowl in The Grapes of Wrath, the gritty reality and simple joys of the workers in Cannery Row. He was in a prime position to tell his audience that “The ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement.”
Perhaps that is why I feel such responsibility for all the stories told in the English language. I feel deeply responsible. It’s not as if I have a name or a place in history; I have been given the gift of anonymity. I am a nobody. I can quietly write, uninhibited and unafraid. I don’t have people hurling opposite opinions at me, telling me stop generating words. But I feel urgently the need to speak to the topics of my faith and of stories and how they converge. And so I feel responsible for the stories other people generate, for the songs other people sing, and for the movies other people make and watch. I feel as though I must “do something”.
I don’t spend much time on social media anymore. Due to the sort of yo-yo style of communication, it is full of half-truths from ALL fronts. It’s unhealthy and unattractive, like second-hand smoke. I sat in an outdoor Starbucks patio with a friend recently; a man at a nearby table decided to smoke his e-cig very unpolitely. It was a windy day and he shared all of his vanilla smoke with us. Social media feels a lot like that; like nobody is thinking. I don’t feel like I’m “doing something” there; I feel as though I am shouting on an empty prairie, no matter how many comments my remarks may generate.
A story factory—or a corporation that makes stories and entertainment for a living—is going to feed on popular conscience. They always have. Steinbeck was speaking of popular conscience; of keeping it alive and of correcting it. We need middle ground between the prairie full of thoughtless conversations and story-factories–which is why we need smaller voices who have no large corporation to lose. We need people telling stories who aren’t going to speak to everyone else’s conscience OR merely rant. Is that also, dangerous? Well, yes. People think that what I believe is dangerous and subversive, backward and strange. I admit it; it is. Which is exactly why I need to speak.
Stories are powerful. They are how we communicate our deepest beliefs and longings. Stories say what we can’t say outright and penetrate more deeply than the essay or the speech. They can reveal deep-seated truths. Stories scare me; yet, here I am. I’m writing them. It is the scariest thing I can do with my day. That is why, even without completely understanding it, we shield children from some kinds of stories. They don’t need some ideas bonking around their heads at young ages. They shouldn’t have to grapple with the cares that adults have foisted on the world. But I don’t let some ideas have too much platform in MY head, either. I know what I can and cannot handle well. At some point, I can start tempting God with what I put inside my mind.
The modern young intellectual feels much like I do, I think: responsible and desirous to DO something. But “doing something” may often not feel like you’re doing anything at all. My version of “doing something” is going to be different from yours. Here’s what I’m doing:
- Writing plays that I have to really, really work to get produced.
- Talking to believers and unbelievers about Jesus, as little or much as I can.
- Going to work every day and doing my best—even if that means I’m not talking about Jesus OR stories OR even doing what I like.
These things feel woefully unrelated to anything like “doing something”. But I’m not really big enough or smart enough to know what I can really do; but my God is. In His infinite wisdom, He put me where I am, and He gives me these chances to write and speak. I think speaking to people who want to have thoughtful conversations is “doing something”; I also think that refraining from speaking can be “doing something.”
Before we speak, we should collect our thoughts in clean little glass jars so we can look at them awhile, and then share them only where they will be most helpful, meantime asking for wisdom to do so.
John Steinbeck had a lot of good things to say that day, but at the end of his speech, I have to part ways with him. He said, “I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man, has no dedication nor any membership in literature.” He held to the belief that man, if his efforts were noble enough and his will strong enough, could perfect himself. He went on to say, in his closing line of the same speech that “St. John the apostle may well be paraphrased: In the end is the Word, and the Word is Man—and the Word is with Men.” Steinbeck believed that with the atom bomb, man had wrested the power of God away from God. He believed that the written word could save the world.
Me, too. But not my words. I think God’s words are going to do it.
I believe that only God can go about the business of perfecting man, and no amount of word-smithing on our part can do it. But I do not deny that we need the words; that we need the truth, and that we need to keep striving forward toward that same perfection, a shining goal toward which we long, even if we cannot attain it just yet. “Passion” being a word I object to, I nevertheless do agree that we must “passionately believe in the perfectibility of man.” If we don’t, we won’t try. If we don’t, we don’t believe that God will, someday, fix this mess of ours and that we need to be prepared for it.
Until then, I am doing a number of what seem like very small things. But if they are in obedience to my God, then they are very big things indeed.