Category Archives: Literature

Jayber Crow on Silence in Worship

Jayber on those beautiful moments of silence when the congregation stills itself before the living God:

“I liked the naturally occurring silences—the one, for instance, just before the service began and the other, the briefest imaginable, just after the last amen. Occasionally a preacher would come who had a little bias toward silence, and then my attendance would become purposeful. At a certain point in the service the preacher would ask that we ‘observe a moment of silence.’ You could hear a little rustle as the people settled down into that deliberate cessation. And then the quiet that was almost the quiet of the empty church would come over us and unite us as we were not united even in singing, and the little sounds (maybe a bird’s song) from the world outside would come in to us, and we would completely hear it.But always too soon the preacher would become abashed (after all, he was being paid to talk) and start a prayer, and the beautiful moment would end. I would think again how I would like for us all just to go there from time to time and sit in silence. Maybe I am a Quaker of sorts, but I am told that the Quakers sometimes speak at their meetings. I would have preferred no talk, no noise at all.

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Jayber Crow on Prayers and Hymns

I love this passage on the hymns of the faith. This paragraph, particularly what Jayber says about “Abide with Me,” wrenched my heart when I read it, and its hold on my mind brought me back to this book to type up these thoughts of Jayber (whose conduct, honestly, I found to be a little strange) to post them here. If you’re not blessed to know these songs, to have experienced the moving power of a congregation singing them, may this passage be a prod to that pleasure. Enjoy:

“What I liked least about the service itself was the prayers; what I liked far better was the singing. Not all of the hymns could move me. I never liked “Onward, Christian Soldiers” or “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Jesus’ military career has never compelled my belief. I liked the sound of the people singing together, whatever they sang, but some of the hymns reached into me all the way to the bone: “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” “Rock of Ages,” “Amazing Grace,” “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” I loved the different voices all singing one song, the various tones and qualities, the passing lifts of feeling, rising up and going out forever. Old Man Profet, who was a different man on Sunday, used to draw the notes at the ends of verses and refrains so he could listen to himself, and in fact it sounded pretty. And when the congregation would be singing “We shall see the King some-day (some-day),” Sam May, who often protracted Saturday night a little too far into Sunday morning, would sing, “I shall see the King some-day (Sam May).”I thought that some of the hymns bespoke the true religion of the place. The people didn’t really want to be saints of self-deprivation and hatred of the world. They knew that the world would sooner or later deprive them of all it had given them, but they still liked it. What they came together for was to acknowledge, just by coming, their losses and failures and sorrows, their need for comfort, their faith always needing to be greater, their wish (in spite of all words and acts to the contrary) to love one another and to forgive and be forgiven, their need for one another’s help and company and divine gifts, their hope (and experience) of love surpassing death, their gratitude. I loved to hear them sing “The Unclouded Day” and “Sweet By and By”:

We shall sing on that beautiful shore
The melodious songs of the blest . . .

And in times of sorrow when they sang “Abide with Me,” I could not raise my head.”

This last line about “Abide with Me” has deep resonance in the novel, for Jayber has walked through the valley of the shadow of death with people he loves, as those people lost loved ones who could never be replaced. So the line draws its beauty from the lyrics of the hymn and the pain Jayber has shared with these people. The weight of those who sing the faith bows his head in worship.

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Jayber Crow on “Weathering” Sermons

Can God bring good out of bad preaching? Here’s Jayber:

“In general, I weathered even the worst sermons pretty well. They had the great virtue of causing my mind to wander. Some of the best things I have ever thought of I have thought of during bad sermons. Or I would look out the windows. In winter, when the windows were closed, the church seemed to admit the light strictly on its own terms, as if uneasy about the frank sunshine of this benighted world. In summer, when the sashes were raised, I watched with a great, eager pleasure the town and the fields beyond, the clouds, the trees, the movements of the air—but then the sermons would seem more improbable. I have always loved a window, especially an open one.”

Notice how he speaks of “weathering” sermons, then talks a lot about the weather. Are there symbolic connections in this paragraph between bad preaching and winter and darkness? Are there connections between the word of God going forth to give life and summer? Is Jayber seeing a connection between better sermons being harder to believe? Is this a symbolic reference to a window at the end? Is good preaching a window on the world? What do you think?

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Interview with Bryan Litfin on His First Novel, The Sword

Bryan Litfin is Professor of Theology at Moody Bible Insitute. His book Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction, is what you would expect from a patristics scholar, but now he has also written a novel, The Sword, which is the first volume in “The Chiveis Trilogy.”

The book is set in a future time when the Bible has been lost, only to be rediscovered. I think it captures the kind of society the gospel encountered as it spread through the Roman world.

I got The Sword at ETS, and after our Christmas company left town I indulged myself on it. I could not put it down, and I commend it to you. As I told Bryan when I wrote to ask him if I could interview him here, the book made me love my sweet wife more, made me more grateful to have the whole Bible, and helped me feel more deeply the sheer wonder of life in this world. I commend it to you.

Thanks to Bryan for agreeing to do this interview! I hope it spurs you to pick up The Sword. My questions are in bold, followed by Bryan’s answers.

Was The Sword your first foray into fiction or was it preceded by other published short stories or books?

In 2007 I published a popular-academic book on the ancient church called Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction (Brazos).  After that came out, I got bitten by the fiction bug and decided to try my hand at it. The Sword is my first fictional work and is the first volume in a trilogy.

What have been the most significant works of fiction that shaped your approach to writing?

I’m not sure it was fictional works that primarily shaped my writing. Rather, I read many, many books on “how to write fiction” and those played a larger role. However, there are certainly some novels that influenced my thinking. The Lord of the Rings was inspirational. In Christian fiction, I point to the works of Stephen Lawhead, particularly Byzantium. Two other novels that influenced me, and which remind me of The Sword in some ways, are Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose, and Walter Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz.

The book reminds me in some ways of Quo Vadis. Was that novel significant in your thinking?

No, but I have been told by others I should read this and I’d like to.

How did you approach the writing of fiction? I’ve seen references to the research you did on writing fiction. Was there something that was most helpful in your work? Did you read “how to” books or just great fiction itself?

My approach to fiction was to (a) admit I’m a total novice, (b) go research and become knowledgeable,  and (c) start writing. I went to the public library and read everything they had on the craft of fiction. I also bought some “how-to” books and they were very helpful. In particular I was struck by some of the plot techniques for developing the archetypal hero in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  Another insightful book was Ron Benrey, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing Christian Fiction.

Yet I have to say, I learned more about writing fiction from my excellent editor, Erin Healy, than from any particular book.  She and I worked through the manuscript with a fine-toothed comb.  Along the way I was like a disciple sitting at the feet of a master. The quality of Erin’s own books prove she knows writing. The Sword greatly benefitted from her expertise.

I saw a video clip where you said teaching was your “day job.” Did you work on the novel through the “meat” of the day or only on the margins?

My approach has been to take the time afforded by the academic schedule to write my novels.  During the semester, my main writing day is Thursday, when I do not have classes.  I also write intensively over Christmas break, spring break, and summertime. When things get intense I also snatch time at night or on the weekends. The process of writing The Sword took more than three years from the day I woke up with the idea to the day it came out from Crossway.  Sometimes I would write a few chapters and then set it aside.  For example I wrote chapters 1-4, then I did not come back to it for several weeks.  It bothered me the whole time that I had left Ana with a bag over her head.  I was relieved to get it off her in chapter 5.

Was writing this book significantly different than the academic writing you’ve done?

Yes!  I have found fiction to be a very different kind of writing. Of course, the process of putting words together and then re-reading them to choose better words or make it smoother is the same. But the content of the words is so much different than academic writing!  I am not trying to argue a thesis in fiction.  I am trying to entertain, and to elucidate the human condition before God along the way.  I had to learn all sorts of things that academic publishing does not teach you:  like how to do attributions (“he said”), or when to “show” and when to “tell,” or how to stay in a character’s point of view, or how to arrange scenes for maximum effect.  It has been a steep learning curve but I’m well along it now, I think.

The other main difference is the creativity that is required. The content of academic writing is there for you already. You just have to lay out the evidence from your research. But in fiction, you are dependent on ideas hitting you. Sometimes you have to daydream for an hour before you write anything down. You have to visualize it, see it in your mind. For me this was greatly aided by traveling around in Europe with my students or on trips of my own. I could “see” the landscape of Chiveis. I had walked the same trails that my characters were walking.

I’m curious as to what influenced the decision to do a trilogy as opposed to a stand alone volume – was it simply too long a story for one book?

I pitched the book as a potential trilogy but Crossway did not sign onto that right away. They only contracted The Sword at the outset. However, once it was written, we could all see that the ending begged for more. And that is probably the number one thing my readers tell me: “You left me hanging, I can’t wait until the next one!” Well, The Gift comes out this April, and my editor Erin says it is even better than The Sword.

I think you are right that it was too long a story for one book.  I always conceived of this as a hero’s tale, a quest, an epic. The trick is to make each novel stand on its own as a complete work, and yet to write an over-arching story that encompasses all three.  I am in the process right now of concluding that metanarrative. All I can say is, Teofil and Anastasia have one incredible adventure – and the things they encounter in The Sword are just the tip of the iceberg.

Do you have the plot for the other two books fully mapped out, or is there a general destination with things developing along the way?

Over time I have learned what my personal approach to writing is.  I outline extensively. I write a scene by scene account of what I think is going to happen.  I take notes on what the main theological through-line is. I delineate themes I want to weave into the story.  I discipline myself not to start writing until I know where things are headed. This keeps me from writing myself into plot dead-ends.  However, I maintain flexibility with that outline.  Sometimes the characters get “talking to each other” as my fingers are flying over the keyboard, and I run with it. Sometimes a scene takes a different turn on me.  Sometimes I type a line and then realize, “There. That’s it. That is how the scene must conclude,” even though I had other ideas. So it is a balance between mapping it out and letting the Muses take over.

Do you have other fiction and/or academic writing planned after the trilogy?

During the time I have been writing fiction I have not stopped my scholarly publishing. After the conclusion of the Chiveis Trilogy I hope to write a church history book and some more articles and chapters in academic works. But I have enjoyed fiction too much to stop doing it, if the Lord gives me further opportunities. My instinct is to go with historical fiction, set in the ancient church period since that is my academic specialty.

————

Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions, Bryan!

Those who want more on The Chiveis Trilogy should check out the website, where there are videos and forums.

Enjoy the adventure!

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On Re-Reading Homer’s Iliad

Homer’s noble high-born lords
Think mainly of themselves,
Lasting words and shining swords,
Through flesh and soul they delve.

Yet the highest truths we have
He does not seem to know:
For sinful guilt he gives no salve;
No peace with God does show.

Reading him, one must ask why
There’s good in his wide world,
In lust and shame his gods still lie,
Their vain desires unfurled.

Not even Zeus, in all his pride,
From destiny is free,
Decreed fate he can’t outstride
To govern what will be.

No hope in Priam’s city now
Across the wine-dark sea,
Nor can the black ships show somehow
A way of life to thee.

Tragic ruin, futile rage,
The melody he sings,
A song now sung from age to age,
Still the high beauty rings.

For though he lacked the highest truth
This world his blind eyes saw,
And what he saw his tongue unloosed,
Thrilling the heart with awe.

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Stephen P. Lawhead’s Byzantium

I bought Byzantium, a novel by Stephen R. Lawhead, when Justin Taylor blogged on it. I love to read fiction, but when I do, good plots tend to dominate my free time and steal some hours when I should be sleeping. Being robbed of shut-eye, however, pays me back with more vacuum capacity for sucking the marrow out of life. Reading great literature is as stretching and strengthening as it is taxing and exhausting. Often I need a little extra push to plunge back into this fiction vortex, the push that pulls me away from something I “should” be reading and forces me to read something I’ve been wanting to jump into.

In this case, the push came from Andrew Peterson, who made an offhand remark in a book review that he had named his first-born son after the main character in Lawhead’s Byzantium. That’s a pretty strong shove!

So I commend to you this novel: set in the middle ages, about the journey of an Irish monk (a man not unlike Saint Patrick), who is a scribe involved in the production of a famous manuscript, is made the slave of Vikings, stands before the Emperor in Constantinople, is enslaved by wicked Saracens only to be befriended by noble Muslims, and through these many adventures sees a Beowulf like figure, King of Skania, converted to Christianity.

Need some more motivation? The Irish Monks practice believer’s baptism by immersion!

This is a fascinating trip to another time and place, combining history and fiction. Lawhead explains:

As for Aidan mac Cainnech, he is a fictitious amalgamation of several Irish saints who were active at the time. No one person did all the things my Aidan did in the book, but the events described in Byzantium were based on the kinds of actual adventures pilgrim saints of Aidan’s day endured.

In another Q&A, Lawhead writes:

Many of the events mentioned in the book – the political upheaval, the intrigue within the Islam court, and others – are genuine. I wanted to make the book as historical as possible without sacrificing the story – after all, it is not a history textbook, but a novel. With me, story wins every time.

Byzantium is a story that waters seeds of hope, fertilizes soils of perseverance, and puts the sun’s life giving rays to unfolding leaves of virtue. Go ahead, travel from Ireland to Arabia through Byzantium and back at the end of the 9th Century. Cross the seas on Viking ships and the deserts on Arabian horses. Tread the paths of an Irish Monk on a journey through the death of vanity to the resurrection of faith.

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