Blessed to be a blessing
Novelist Bret Lott on using his God-given talents in his vocation, writing about forgiveness, and "setting God in the midst of these stories"
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Bret Lott is a critically acclaimed, bestselling novelist, who was recently appointed the editor of the prestigious literary journal The Southern Review. He is also an evangelical Christian who writes openly about his faith.
The author of half a dozen novels, several volumes of short stories, and a memoir, Mr. Lott is a Southern Baptist. Widely respected in literary circles, he found a mass audience in 1999 when Oprah Winfrey chose his novel Jewel, about a woman and her Down syndrome daughter, for her book club. (See WORLD, March 13, 1999.) That pro-life novel was one of the most popular of Oprah's selections, selling some 2.5 million copies.
Mr. Lott here speaks with WORLD about his latest novel, A Song I Knew by Heart, and his vocation as a Christian writer.
WORLD: Christian writers often complain that they are not taken seriously-by secular publishers, critics, and general readers-because of their Christianity. Some try to tone down or to veil expressions of faith. In this novel, though, you don't seem to hold anything back. You write about conversion, baptism, prayer, blessings, grace, and there is hardly a page without some reference by Naomi, narrating her story, to God and her relationship to Him. And yet, you are published by secular publishers, critically acclaimed, and have a wide general readership. How have you managed this?
BL: I think this has come about through recognizing that the more I talk about Christ, the more I am able to talk about Christ.
My early books were not obviously Christ centered, but pointed toward my vision of art as being redemptive, of writing as being an act of faith in view of a God who loves us and who died for us. My books have never been existentialist downers, but have arrived at a place wherein loss has been accommodated; the question for all of my characters, at the ends of their books, has been, Given what I have lived through, the sorrow and triumph both, how do I now live?
As I have grown up, both as a writer and as a man of God, I have come to see that boldness in simply setting God in the midst of these stories has allowed me the boldness to set God in the midst of these stories.
God blesses us when we go boldly to the throne of Grace, and though certainly I could count good reviews and a wide readership as blessings, I think the true blessing in simply letting characters have a real relationship with Christ is that God and His love for us-His forgiveness-is being seen and felt by readers who, in this present culture, don't know the joy of forgiveness, and the redeeming quality of love.
WORLD: A Song I Knew by Heart is a remarkable retelling of the book of Ruth, in contemporary terms. Do you find that your readers pick up on the biblical origins of your plot, or is biblical illiteracy so rampant that they miss the connection? What was it about the biblical story that made you want to write about a modern "Naomi," "Ruth," and "Beau(az)"?
BL: By and large, people have recognized the origin of the story, though it's interesting that a couple of reviewers in the print media haven't-those folks to whom so many readers look for advice about which books to read, it turns out, might very well be the least Bible-literate.
But it was and is my hope that one needn't have read the book of Ruth to enjoy the story. I don't want a reader to feel it necessary to have that background, as it were, in the Bible to appreciate a story about a love of this depth and magnitude, although every time I have spoken somewhere about A Song I Knew by Heart the subject has always been the fact of this being a retelling-a reseeing-of a story it takes 15 minutes to read in the Bible.
I wanted to write this story for many years, because it is a story about a relationship that is, in our present culture, something of an ugly thing: The joke, of course, is always about the enmity caused by the in-laws. But one of the truly beautiful and deepest love relationships in the Bible is that between in-laws, between mother-in-law Naomi and daughter-in-law Ruth.
My novels are always, finally, about family, but blood relationships and marriage relationships. What I found most mysterious and moving about this relationship is that it is based on a relation that is simply in law, not blood, and yet it is one of the most eternally moving moments in the Bible.
Most people who don't know much about the Bible think that buried somewhere in there is a passage about a man and a woman pledging to each other that "where you go, I will go, where you lodge, I will lodge, your people shall be my people, your God shall be my God" because they've heard it so many times at weddings. But the fact is, this is Ruth's testimony of love to Naomi, and testimony to one of the most enduring stories of the Bible.
WORLD: There are differences, of course, between your characters and those of the Bible. Your Naomi is struggling with the burden of sin and her inability to accept forgiveness. You treat that sin with both realism and delicacy. Some Christian readers object to being exposed to any kind of "negative elements," while some Christian writers believe they should write with no holds barred when it comes to depictions of sin, putting in their characters' bad language and blow-by-blow descriptions of their sex lives. How do you navigate these issues as a writer?
BL: I don't think I've ever been a writer who has held back on depicting the fact of sin in the lives of my characters, because it has never seemed to me that sin holds back. Sin is devastating, by design, and so any gauzy fade-outs or euphemistic voice-overs have never been of any interest to me.
Describing sin in and of itself ought not to be anything that titillates or draws attention to itself outside the context of the scene. Period. Navigating those waters-trying to write about temptation and sin without writing it in a way that tempts the reader beyond the context of the character in the story-is a balancing act that calls for the writer-me-to understand why one of my characters sins in the first place, and then to write that scene as an observer instead of a participant.
I do that, as best as I am able, with the assistance of a knowledge of the effects of sin, because I am a sinner myself. I walk that tightwire, again, as best I can, fully recognizing that sin is devastating, but can at times be tempting, because I have been tempted in my life, and know the effects of sin as well.
WORLD: In your novel, there is a wonderful and deeply moving epiphany in a nursing home, where an adult son is holding the hand of his elderly father, who has been paralyzed by a stroke. This becomes a catalyst for Naomi, who realizes that "to live was to receive love, and to give it away." That is a great line and a great theme that you make real throughout the whole novel. It is an expression of Luther's doctrine of vocation, which says that the purpose of our lives is to love and serve our neighbors, and, in turn, to be loved and served by God through our neighbors.
BL: A couple of years ago my wife Melanie and I went through a missions series at our church in which the motto, if you could call it that, was "We are blessed to be a blessing." If one believes that receiving blessings is what our relationship to God is about, then one is only a consumerist. It seemed to me that Naomi, who has been blessed with the gift of a love that finds as its centerpoint forgiveness, and who has hoarded that gift of love rather than given it away, was in effect dying of consumption-dying of keeping the gift of love. If we want to know love, we can't merely accept it. We have to give it away.
WORLD: How do you see being a novelist as a Christian vocation, that is, as your calling from God?
BL: There's this wonderful word you read again and again in the Bible: talent. We grow up reading it in the Bible and thinking of it as a slab of gold or something like that. But then we have also grown up hearing the word uttered everywhere around us as well, but being used as some sort of innate gift from elsewhere that magically shows up.
Of course the fact of these two words being the same speaks to their fact in our lives: We are given the gifts we are given-the talents-and so must spend them as we would the gold spoken of in the Bible. Hoarding them-there's that word again-doesn't allow God's love for us to be witnessed, doesn't allow others to see His fact in our lives. God has called me to do this, and I respond with my willingness to do this.
WORLD: Flannery O'Connor is a great Southern writer who writes about her faith. Her writing is violent and scathing, as well as being bitingly humorous and full of grace. Your writing, though, is kinder and gentler.
BL: I wish I had Flannery O'Connor's humor and bite and faith! She's my literary hero, because she pulled no punches whatsoever, and her stories, no matter how violent, always, always, always pointed toward Grace, the redemption available to we confused sinners who are convinced we don't need it.
But you're right-my fiction is kinder and gentler. I think this is because I don't see my role as a writer to be banging my readers over the head with a skillet-they get that from the present culture every waking minute of every day. My job is to let them look into the lives of people who have gone overlooked in all the hoopla-hoopla of this present world, and see the depth of love and sorrow and commitment and love these people have for each other and for God.
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