Monday, July 28, 2014

Swallowing the Sea

Last semester I read Swallowing the Sea by Lee Upton, and it challenged me to think about the importance of being multi-genre in my work as a writer. I write nonfiction, with some slight variation in the style and content, depending whether I am writing for a journalistic setting, or working on a personal narrative, or this blog where I can do whatever the heck I want. But nonfiction is my genre. The occasional sloppy poem in my journal, while worth writing for my own sake, is not for public consumption, and is not meant to be.

As I read Upton’s book and thought about genre, and about my own work, the conclusion I came to is that theology is, in fact, my other genre.

Theology is a specific kind of creative act. One of my favorite seminary professors, J. Kameron Carter, used jazz as the primary metaphor for the work of theology in my introductory courses with him, and this has helped me rethink what precisely we do when we do theology. (Odd, isn’t it, that his work on this subject isn’t included in more conversations about “theology and the arts”? I have theories about that, but that is a topic for another day.)

Words about God are written within certain confines and limitations; there are certain traditions that shape the way in which we speak about the Divine. Theological traditions, but also linguistic, grammatical, epistemological, and so on. All genres have their own confines, their own limits which the artist presses up against, choosing whether and when and how to cross over, or when the work is best served by working within those confines. Variations and improvisations.

In my Creative Nonfiction (CNF) workshops at Queens we might, for example, talk about the dangers of using “we” language, while pointing out the one time in The White Album where Joan Didion does so. It’s the exception that proves the rule. I of course am terrible about this, and have had to learn to restrain my tendency toward “we” language in my CNF. I only recently figured out why I struggle with this more than others seem to: in theology and philosophy I am always trying to speak beyond myself, to interrogate the human condition, our -- not just mine, but our -- relationship to divinity, the nature of the world and humanity’s place in it, and what it all adds up to in the end. Not just, “Why am I here?” but “Why are we here?” The “we” language that, in CNF, assumes too much of the reader, that projects the author’s thoughts and inclinations and experiences onto someone else who may or may not share them, is precisely the language that drives many theological questions. When you’re trying to talk about what it means to be human, some “we” language is bound to slip in. Theology, after all, is the work of the church. It is work that takes place in and for communities (or ought to). It is work that is very concerned with “we,” the people, God’s people.

Yet my CNF training has helped me discern when I am using “we” in a useful, true way, and when I am merely projecting my own struggles onto everyone else. This does not mean I do not still draw on my experience of the world when I do theology (or that I don’t sometimes get the “we” wrong); rather it means that I work very hard to be precise about who and what I mean, what I can and cannot say, what all of that means, for us.

Theology and CNF share one thing, at least: both require precision in one’s use of language.