Friday, July 5, 2024

Books as Doorways: Thoughts about Summer Reading

 

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

    People seem to read less and less every year. This trend saddens me because children, teens, and adults alike will miss the way books can expand thinking and perspective or increase the ability to empathize with others. They also miss an opportunity to cultivate character and faith.  

    When I was growing up, summers usually included an emphasis on book reading. Of course, my mother read to my sisters and me throughout the year. She even had a special fenced-in area built in the back of our yard that she called “the secret garden.” There, sitting on plastic chairs among birds singing, she would turn on an audiobook. I vividly remember sitting in one of those chairs, slightly unsteady on the bricks, listening to parts of the Artemis Fowl series.

    Summer, though, brought reading challenges and events at the library. As a child, this looked like attending story time in which an elderly librarian read us picture books or staged a play with puppets. Movies were also sometimes involved and plenty of charts to color in as we finished books. Later, my mother sent my sisters and me to the library for teenager-themed events such as making collages or a hobbit house. We often spent hot or stormy afternoons browsing shelves of books and leaving with armfuls of new stories.

    There’s always something about a stack or shelf of books that excites me. Some people only see books gathering dust. But me? I see doorways into new worlds waiting to be explored, adventures that take me out of day-to-day problems, new friends to make and old ones to visit, and different perspectives to learn and consider. Books entertain but also teach and give encouragement.

    During those summers, I learned about history, the world, and places that fill the imaginations of countless people. In the pages of The Witch of Blackbird Pond, I learned more about colonial America while books like The Nine Pound Hammer series introduced me to American folklore. Traveling for vacation was not an affordable option for my family in my tweens or teens, but I could “travel” to places like Sherwood Forest, Camelot, and Middle-earth. I could also visit Victorian England with Sherlock Holmes or join Sebastian and his cat, Presto, on a journey in The Marvelous Misadventures of Sebastian. Numerous adventures awaited me without having to leave home.

    The options for encountering new stories were endless. As a teenager, I eagerly discovered that my local library carried other titles from J. R. R. Tolkien. Roverandom was a delightful find, pulling me out of the setting of my everyday life to travel to the moon and sea with Rover and to meet a sand wizard. If I could go back, I would advise my teenage self to wait to read The Children of Hurin in the context of The Silmarillion instead of as a standalone story (since I would have found solace knowing that the reader is not supposed to like Turin). However, learning more about the history of Middle-earth was enjoyable. Tolkien’s writings always contained a sense of purpose and beauty mixed with sadness, which intrigued me. I never tired of exploring the world he made.  

    Some people may think that all of this proves that kids and teenagers merely need entertainment during the summer. The books my mother read to me and those I enjoyed on my own did keep me occupied. My reading skills were also sharpened, and I learned about other places, people, and cultures.

    Visiting the library and developing a love for reading, though, was much more than escapism and entertainment. In books, I encountered people who took part in quests that were greater than themselves. Characters sacrificed for those they loved and cultivated enduring friendships. These stories brought me joy and sorrow, and sometimes a combination of both. I believe God used this time to grow within me the longing to be a part of something greater, to know that my life, too, had meaning. The yearning increased the older I got, and I delved farther into books to try and discover the source of it all. Little did I know that the Lord was leading me to Himself, drawing me closer to the point when I would place faith in Him. For in Jesus, I found the fulfillment of my yearning. I might not travel to Mount Doom to destroy a powerful ring like Frodo and Samwise, but in Christ, I learned that my life has a purpose – one that is grander than any quest or mission in a story.

    Lessons and themes we glean from books as kids and the ones we learn now are worth the effort of walking into a bookstore or library. Some will question our choice to tuck ourselves away for a few moments each day to read a story. Others may say we are wasting our time. But those of us who know the True Story understand that the books we read can lead to great discoveries and opportunities for growth. Hope, courage, adventure, sacrificial love, and a longing for home can be found within the pages of books. We may even find that a story leads us straight to the Great Author Himself.    

Friday, May 31, 2024

My Adventures as a Writer – What I’ve Learned About Research

 

Image by Dariusz Sankowski from Pixabay

Although students often feel intimidated by research when writing papers and major projects, research can lead to interesting discoveries. This is true whether someone gathers information for a fiction novel or an article. The method of research will be different: One topic might require observing a sword fight or riding a horse, while the other involves searching through databases and flipping through books. Either way, the process can be an adventure.   

As a writer for a Christian website, I regularly engage in research on various topics including the Bible, Christian history, apologetic issues, and practical advice for everyday Christian living. Writing about a wide range of topics involves different research techniques at times, but I use a few basic skills to get me started. In this blog post, I am going to share some of the basics about researching and writing for Christian websites.

How do I know what I need to research?

Knowing what to research often depends on the website and editor you are writing for. I have written for Got Questions and currently write for a variety of sites on Salem Web Network, including Christianity.com. The editors typically assign specific article topics in the form of questions or allow me to pick from a list of topics. For these types of articles, the research required is already focused, although I still try to craft a main thesis for the article.

However, there are times when the assigned or chosen topic is not entirely clear. At this point, I usually do one of two things. I contact the editor I am working with to ask for clarification about the topic. Or I try to narrow down the topic myself, deciding on which angle I could take when writing the article.

An example of this was when I was assigned an article topic about why Christians say that everything happens for a reason. In doing preliminary research, I realized that the website I was writing for already had an article on this topic, which prompted me to send an email to the editor. She narrowed down the topic for me by saying she wanted an article that focused on how this common phrase, “everything happens for a reason,” is misleading and unhelpful when someone is grieving the loss of a loved one. A simple email for clarification helped me to narrow down my research topic.

Another important note is that freelance writers are usually required to pitch their articles. Freelancers need to keep in mind the purpose and scope of a website before pitching an article and engaging in research. To start, I recommend familiarizing yourself with the website and reading any guidelines about what the editors want and are expecting from writers.

Where do I find sources?

When writing about biblical and theological topics, I regularly use websites, books, and journal articles that I trust.

The main source I use is the Bible. Keeping a print Bible next to me on the table when I write is helpful, especially if I have specific verses in mind. Online Bible websites are also valuable sources for quickly copying and pasting verses into the article I’m writing, such as Bible Gateway and Bible Hub. Seeing multiple versions of Scripture is important as well since it helps me better understand the language of the passage.

Other sources I use to find information include:

  • Bible commentaries (both in print and online)
  • Online Greek and Hebrew concordances
  • Scholarly journals and databases (such as Galaxie)
  • Theology books
  • Church history books and encyclopedias
  • Christian websites

    Using these sources regularly enables me to find information quickly and efficiently when writing articles.

How do I know if a source is credible and appropriate for my project?

If I know the focus of my topic and have done preliminary research, then assessing the credibility and appropriateness of sources is easier. When thinking about credibility, we need to ask questions such as:

  • Who wrote this? Are they knowledgeable about this topic?
  • How old is this source? Is it outdated or current? Even if it is an older source, is the content still relevant?
  • Is this source presenting misleading information?

Evaluating the appropriateness of a source includes remembering the topic and thesis of an article as well as considering the audience and purpose for writing. If I am writing about a deep theological discussion, such as the debate about limited and unlimited atonement, then quoting popular devotional writers might not be appropriate for my article.

In contrast, if I am writing to encourage people who are grieving, then listing apologetic arguments about suffering from leading scholars is not the best option. My audience will not appreciate an academic approach to a personally difficult experience.

How do I incorporate sources into my writing?

I have found that many editors expect writers to synthesize the information they researched in their own words. If specific quotes are used, these are usually given attribution through a hyperlink.

Depending on the editor or website, though, there might be specific guidelines for citing sources. Some might prefer Chicago, AP, MLA, or an abbreviated form of a style. Christian websites and publications may require a knowledge of The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style, which is the standard style for the Christian publishing industry.  

If in doubt about citing a source, it is best to contact the editor and/or check any guidelines they provide.

Any resource recommendations?

I have found the following sources helpful when writing about biblical topics:

  • Basic Theology by Charles C. Ryrie – If you plan to write regularly about the Bible and theology, then I highly recommend this source. It is a helpful guide in understanding key doctrines in Scripture.
  • NET Bible – This is a wonderful source for delving into specific verses or passages. Not only can you read the Bible fully online, but you also have access to commentary, notes, and the original biblical languages. 
  • Oxford Concise Dictionary of the Christian Church by E. A. Livingstone – I suggest this source since it contains short, informative entries about theology and church history. It provides an overview of a topic and is a great starting place when doing preliminary research.
  • The Bible Knowledge Commentary edited by John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck – An indispensable source for researching specific verses and passages, as well as understanding context and background. The Old Testament and New Testament versions are always on a shelf near where I write.

Having a reliable set of books and websites is important for writers. The more readily available the resources are, the quicker you can begin your research on a topic. Although the search will likely lead to other sources, the journey is much easier with a list of websites or a stack of books.

And that is when the adventure begins – learning from research, crafting words, moving around parts, and editing a piece for publication.

Friday, February 23, 2024

Music and Story - The State of Modern Christian Art

 Image by Free Fun Art from Pixabay

    The past few posts have examined how music and story overlap. Songs influence writers, and the created works of authors have impacted music. Another area where music and story meet is in the discussion of modern Christian music and literature.

    People from mainstream and Christian circles criticize Christian art, including music and literary forms. For example, numerous forums exist online arguing that most contemporary Christian music is cheesy. Others claim that these musicians lack creativity and artful expression. As Emily Hughes wrote in an article for Musical Mum, “Most [Christian musicians] are repetitive and lack the depth and creativity that secular artists often display.”

    The same is true of modern Christian literature, especially Christian fiction. Many individuals insist that the fiction books created by Christians lack depth and insight or read like a sermon. They criticize writers who do not use profanity and lament that works of Christian art are too clean and unrelated to the experiences of modern people.

    While I acknowledge that lots of the critiques of Christian art often seek to provide constructive feedback and ideas for improvement, such as the article by Emily Hughes, a lot of these judgments fail to recognize that there are numerous examples of believers who are making beautiful, true, and good pieces of art. They might not be as popular or well-known as mainstream artists, but they do exist. Should we dismiss all Christian artists if there are a few bland musicians and writers? And should we think art has no purpose or worth if it is created by a Christian with the intent to “say something?”

    I argue, no. In fact, believers in Jesus are in the position to create the best and most beautiful work because they are redeemed and devoted to serving Christ. Who else is better suited to create art that is beautiful, true, and good than someone who knows the One who is the Truth and is most beautiful and good? Scripture also encourages us to think about what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy, which provides us with opportunities to create truly beautiful art (Philippians 4:8).  

    For artists who know Jesus, the task is not to erase any reference or mention to faith or truth, but to merge the virtues of beauty, truth, and goodness in unity. As Andrew Peterson wrote in Adorning the Dark, a proper approach to Christian art is not about avoiding an agenda in our art (many Christians do have an agenda when writing books or songs; they want to incorporate a truth or point to Christ), but to ensure that we do not neglect beauty (84-85). The place where artists can “go wrong is when we tilt the scales away from grace, or beauty, or excellence, as if truth were all that mattered” (86).

    More Christians need to focus on combining these virtues into their art. However, there are already numerous Christians who are creating excellent art. Andrew Peterson has created works that resonate with many people. His young adult fantasy series, The Wingfeather Saga, is popular among Christians and non-Christians because it tells a gripping story. He follows his advice of promoting truth, but also telling a story with excellence and beauty.

    Another author, Christine Cohen, a finalist for the 2020 Christie Award, has also succeeded in creating delightful stories that are compelling and well-written. One such story is a fantasy novel, The Winter King. Although she might not neatly fall into the Christian fiction or mainstream category, her works convey significant themes through well-written characters and plots. As the director of the MFA program for New Saint Andrews College, she sees craft and biblical truth as equally important in the work of an author. On the college’s blog, she is quoted as saying, “Technical proficiency must be paired with a firm commitment to Scripture as the authoritative and inerrant Word of God.”

    The same is true of music. There are a multitude of artists who are creating works of truth with emotional depth and creativity. Some of these songwriters and bands may not label themselves as “Christian artists,” but their music conveys biblical themes and truth. Others do place themselves under the genre of Christian music but are challenging what it looks like to make music as believers. They deal more openly with struggles and questions in life.

    The following playlist serves as a representation of these types of musicians. Each section highlights a specific theme, including emotional depth, creativity, desire for justice, authentic praise, honesty, and hope.      

    Of course, this does not mean that combining truth, beauty, and goodness is easy. At times, musicians and writers could be tempted to compromise one of the areas in favor of the others. I believe this is why Christians lean so much toward truth instead of keeping a balance of all three virtues. Often, biblical truth is what individuals forsake or neglect to appear relevant. We have all heard of Christian artists who “left the faith” or compromised biblical teachings. The temptation to appease the world is strong. For instance, I struggled to decide to include Page CXVI (named after the page number in C. S. Lewis's The Magician’s Nephew when Aslan sings Narnia into existence) on the playlist because of their current support of unbiblical theology. Since their early works focused on modernizing hymns for the younger generation, though, I decided to include them as an example of what believers can do when they work together to create art that glorifies God.

    We need more Christian artists who are committed to following Jesus and developing excellence in their craft. However, we should not overlook that there are already many who are doing just that. Critics will continue to bemoan the artistic work of believers, but a great deal of literature and music they are creating is beautiful, true, and good. For Christians know the Lord, the Author of everything beautiful, true, and good in the world. The more we grow closer to Him, the more we will create works of art that glorify Him.

Works Cited

Hughes, Emily. “Why Is Christian Music So Cheesy?” Musical Mum, 28 Sept. 2022, Why Is Christian Music So Cheesy? - Musical Mum.  

“NSA Announces Author Christine Cohen as Director of MFA.” New Saint Andrews College Blog, 29 Mar. 2023, https://nsa.edu/blog/nsa-announces-author-christine-cohen-as-director-of-mfa.

Peterson, Andrew. Adorning the Dark: Thoughts on Community, Calling, and the Mystery of Making. B&H Books, 2019.  

Resources for Further Study

  • On the Renovare Life with God Podcast, Nathan Foster interviewed Matthew Clark, who provided thoughtful insights about art and truth on the episode, “The Gift of Truth.”
  • Although I do not agree with all areas of R. C. Sproul’s theology, he does have an interesting series of lectures about Christianity and the arts called Recovering the Beauty of the Arts. I recommend the first in the series, “Aesthetics in Recent History,” which is free to view on Ligonier’s website.  

Books as Doorways: Thoughts about Summer Reading

  Image by  Tumisu  from  Pixabay      People seem to read less and less every year. This trend saddens me because children, teens, and adul...