At the risk of creating a real conflict, I will venture to say something controversial. I prefer Yoknapatawpha County to either Narnia or Middle Earth.
Now, if your anger has subsided and your blood pressure is back down, I will continue. I think that both Lewis and Tolkien were brilliant in their conceptions of their imaginary worlds and in their craft at peopling and plotting the stories within those realms. I want all my children and students to read, enjoy, study, and hopefully even emulate those two blessings of God, Lewis and Tolkien, from the British Isles. Their works will stand. They have recaptured the heroic tradition. They have proven that Christians can write literature, as if that point wasn’t settled long ago.
Still, when it comes to that aspect of literary pursuit technically termed “druthers,” I had druther read the more realistic, usually American, most often situated in the rural south kind of writing. I can breathe the Kentucky air of Jesse Stuart and can feel at home in Port William with that other Kentuckian Wendell Berry. Caroline Gordon wrote some of the best novels, in my opinion, in the twentieth century. In particular, I am thinking of None Shall Look Back and Green Centuries. Flannery O’Connor’s short life left us with the best short stories of the century and two challenging novels and a series of essays that are foundational to understanding literature and the South. Harper Lee’s one contribution, To Kill A Mockingbird, is achingly powerful. Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men is ignored only at someone’s literary and political peril. And space does not permit me to venture into Warren’s fellow Agrarian, Fugitive Poet, New Critic friends and colleagues.
Then there is William Faulkner. If he had done nothing else, he would be great for all the literary critics that he has given jobs and missions to. But he created a vast world of literature within the small world of Yoknapatawpha County. It was there, with that amazing assortment of McCaslin’s, Sartoris’s, Compson’s, and Snopeses that I began many years ago to fathom the blessings of the South, so often hidden by humidity, defeat, provincialism, poverty, and violence.
All of this brings me around to Bret Lott. I don’t think Bret Lott identifies himself as a Southern author. His own roots and background link him to the South both in the past (his grandparents were from Mississippi) and in the present (he lives in South Carolina), and he has often staged his stories in the South. But he, like many Americans, has moved from place to place. Consider, the man has lived in both California and Massachusetts. That ain’t the South.
Nor has Bret Lott created a town, a county, a succession of families, bloodlines, histories, and most important of all, grandfathers haunting and blessing their progeny.
Bret Lott slipped into my reading life just a few years back. I regret that we became acquainted so late. He and I are about the same age. Nick, my son, tells me that we look alike, except that Lott is much bigger. I’ll say. He has written some 14 or so novels, quite a few short stories, an autobiography, and now at least two fine books on the writer’s experience.
To my near total surprise when I began reading Lott, I discovered that he is a Christian. Two things should be noted. He is not a Christian writer of the sort who whips out stories of Amish looking folks falling in love while sitting in a carriage on the way to a little white rural church. Nor is the writer who we discover is on the church rolls somewhere and who shows up with some regularity to worship service, nods in agreement to the sermon, keeps a Bible on his writing desk, and yet pursues stories evidencing little or nothing of the faith.
My first Bret Lott read was Ancient Highway. A fourth of the way through the story, I thought it was okay. Halfway, I thought is was fairly good. About three-fourths of the way, I was stunned. I was convinced then (about 3 years ago) that the book was outstanding in the way the story unfolded. And, even though the message was overtly Christian with a “come to Jesus” experience at the end, it was redemptive with strong Christian undertones and some overt Christian details.
I was convinced by reading Ancient Highway that Bret Lott knew something about how to write, not Christian fiction, but fiction as a Christian. (By the way, I am not opposed to Christian fiction as I am referring to it.)
My next Lott book was A Song I Knew By Heart, which is a retelling of the Book of Ruth set in modern times (and largely in the South). This caused a Bret Lott reading frenzy. I found myself picking up used Lott books off of Internet sources and learning bits and pieces about the writer himself.
This leads to his latest book and one just before it. Crossway Books recently published Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian. The title alone would have hooked me even if I had not already been predisposed toward the author. Any questions about Lott’s faith are answered in the opening essay, where he writes, “My name is Bret Lott, and I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth….” He then continues with quoting the rest of the Apostle’s Creed.
Lott is a Christ-centered, Bible-believing, born-again, follower of the Lamb. He affirms the supernatural, the Christian experience, and stands up for the faith. Along with that, he teaches writing in a secular university and writes for an audience that is probably not dominated by evangelicals. He is, therefore, addressing those questions many of us face regarding how we are to reach beyond the Christian ghetto and connect with the public square.
Lott notes and quotes from some key sources for Christian artists. I am referring here to Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners, Francis Schaeffer’s Art and the Bible, and the works of G. K. Chesterton.
Just for a sample of some of the ways that Lott challenges our thinking, consider this:
“Satan’s entry into the world God created and his first creation—his first, last, and only attempt at creating a work of art—is the lie all of us have found so attractive and have embraced since before we were cognizant beings….Satan’s attempt at art, an abject failure because, finally and gloriously, of the work of pure and perfect and whole art—Christ on the cross—was the destruction of the beautiful relationship between our creator God and us his created beings; it was to get us to believe God to be a liar and to get ourselves to believe in ourselves.”
That sample, and there is much more to the whole paragraph, is astounding in its implications. As the old saying goes, the Devil has no songs, and he has no art, poetry, plays, statues, novels, or even limericks. His one work of art, his one creative fiction, didn’t comport with reality and it blame near ruined art, along with every thing else in the universe. Then there is the cross of Christ as the “pure and perfect and whole art.” The cross artistically reunited creature with Creator and recommissioned the creature to a proper artistic calling. Here is the Van Tilian antithesis, the Kuyperian call to impact the world of art, the Rookmaaker lead-in to explicating the Gospel in art, and Dostoevsky struggle for the heart of man.
The second half of Letters and Life is a lengthy essay about a time in Lott’s life. It is centered around the death of his father, but through a series of flashbacks and asides, he weaves in many of the events and developments in his life. In this essay, we see the writer at work. We see that the creator of fiction lives in a world of upheavals, joys, sadness, and a world connected to family.
I will only mention Lott’s other book on writing. It is titled Before We Get Started: A Practical Memoir of the Writer’s Life. I read this book sometime last year and loved it. I look forward to reading both these works on writing a second time and finding copies of the remaining Lott books I have yet to read.