Heard at Hutchmoot: A Series on Words From Our Weekend in Nashville
One of the sessions I attended at Hutchmoot was so overcrowded that they had to move it outside under the white tent on the church lawn. David and I were a little late, so we found a seat towards the back. This would turn out to be a mistake. We should have pushed up to the front amongst the seat-savers.
The morning was still damp, but the first heat of the day was beginning to crawl over the grounds. A neighbor was out mowing his lawn, droning back and forth across the compacted dirt, weeds, and grass that made up the yard. The church air conditioner cast forth its pompous song, unyielding to the speakers, the crowd, or anyone who might try to hear anything nearby.
The session was led by Andrew Peterson and Jonathan Rogers, and was called “Writing Close to the Earth.” The topic was broad, but it focused mainly on creating in the midst of Earth.
That is a terrible way to say it. Let me try some more and make it worse.
You know the phrase, “so heavenly-minded, he’s no earthly good”? As Christians we sometimes feel it necessary to lift our thoughts up above the earthly plane and relate on what we perceive as a more spiritual level. We want to boil a story down and sum it up in a spiritually pithy little line. We want a neatly-packaged lesson to apply.
However, this tendency causes us to miss the value in the everyday, “earthy” things.
(Like that lawn mower. And the church air conditioner, which is so loud that surely it should be cooling half of Nashville with its smug noise.)
Sometimes authors feel the need to sum up their meaning with a moral instead of letting the story speak. Jonathan likened this tendency to that moment in “The A-team” when Mr. T would show up and tell kids to stay in school and not do drugs.
If you go on GoodReads, he said, you will find that most of the quotations people set aside to remember are those “abstractions” — the summary statements that make a moral assertion. I am guilty of this habit. I have a Commonplace book where I keep quotes from things I’m reading. My most treasured quote from Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River is “Exile is a country of shifting borders, hard to quit yet hard to endure, no matter your wide shoulders, no matter your toughened heart.”
(Enger’s book is not an example of over-moralizing, though. It’s a story first and thoroughly. )
The Christian community welcomes with open arms books and movies that preach at us didactically. Want a neat little moral tied up with a bow and a Bible verse? Look no further than the Christian fiction section. The suffering Amish heroine will both give her heart to Jesus as well as fall in love with the handsome, brooding Christian widower by the end of the book. The reader will come away with a happy feeling that everything will be happy in the end…or something like that.
If we are looking for an escape — an unrealistic one — we can look no further than those books. Unfortunately life isn’t like that much of the time. Most of the time there are unfinished storylines with messy scenes of stumbling words and missed opportunities. At other times, there are flashes of beauty that can’t — and shouldn’t — be boiled down into a “moral of the story.” What then?
As the session moved along, Andrew read to us excerpts from a Chesterton essay (“The Riddle of the Ivy”). One of the session attendees fought a valiant battle with the air conditioner and finally got it to sit still and listen for a minute. The neighbor completed his mowing, and the early autumn morning was quiet for a moment.
The speakers began fielding questions. Suddenly, a hawk, tail feathers vibrant in the sun, descended from the sky and blazed into the trees behind them. A gasp erupted from the audience as we realized — that is what we miss when we over-moralize. Beauty that tells of a creator. Story that makes us see.
It takes focus, determination, and discipline to rise above the lawn mowers and air conditioners of the world and see the hawks. But oh, they are worth the effort.
Like Emily said, “…I don’t want my need for answers and connections to keep me from exploring story for the sake of the story and nothing more. Sometimes I write because I have something to say, and other times I write because I want to remember how to see.”