by Gene Fant
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is among my favorite novels, precisely because I have a personal connection with its story. I had read it several times in my education, but when I landed my first high school teaching position right after graduate school, I had to teach it to eleventh graders, so I opened it afresh to prepare. I read it at my new home, a rented guest cottage on a multi-millionaire Polish duke’s estate in Virginia. It was a waterfront estate that was once a part of the property of George Washington’s ancestors. The river was a branch of the Chesapeake Bay, and on late summer evenings, I could stand on the pier and watch the parties of the wealthy underway up the shore. There were even flickering green lights at the ends of many of the piers, just like those in the harbor between the Eggs in Gatsby. At some point in my reading, I realized that I was Nick Carraway, the rather penniless observer of the wealthy. I had a view but no standing. I learned their ways, but I knew that I would unlikely have the resources actually to participate as a full-fledged member of that society. I grew to adore the novel precisely because I felt as though I were a character in it.
This personal connection to narrative is foundational to what I think should be a powerful consideration in how Christian authors approach their work. Most writers are compelled overwhelmingly to tell not just any story but, in many cases, a thinly veiled version of their story. I know that I draw heavily on my own experiences as I write: people I have known, things I have done, stories I have heard, and so forth. I know that I must drive my parents crazy as they recognize these things in my writing, even as they wonder if some of the harsher parts of the narratives are really about me. I wrote a story about suicide once that included some very personal stories from my own experience that influenced the protagonist, even though I have never personally struggled with that issue. I have, however, had several friends who have, so the protagonist is really a mixture of my life and theirs.
I grew up in churches that valued personal testimony. I seem to remember that Wednesday evening prayer meetings were especially prone to include testimonies as a part of the services. Someone would stand up and give thanks to God for rescuing him from alcohol or drugs or some other ill, and the congregation would say “amen” to God’s power in that event.
Sometimes the occasion was that of a conversion experience (often at the end of a Sunday service). Sometimes the occasion was that of the miraculous (often right before the offering or the special music). Sometimes the occasion was that of a personal failure that had been rectified (almost always on Wednesday night prayer meetings). I heard stories of drug abuse, alcoholism, whore-mongering (I had no idea what it was, but it sounded utterly disgraceful), and prodigality. Prime-time television had nothing on our congregation, at least in my sheltered eyes.
As anyone who has been a part of these services knows, however, there is a tendency for testimonies to turn from being stories about God to stories about the self. That the word “I” becomes sprinkled into the narrative to the exclusion of “He” marks a dramatic shift in what the point of the story actually is. Appropriate testimonies tend to move from “I” and “me” to “God” and “He.”
This, however, reflects the purpose of the writer’s mission: finding ways to communicate God’s glory. The purpose of a genuine testimony is that of declaring praise to God for His role in one’s life. The focus is supposed to be on God, rather than on the sinner or the struggler or the storyteller. Good testimonies, indeed the most powerful ones, are those that directly reflect God’s redemptive, grace-filled power rather than the obscuring egocentrism of the person. Ironically, I sense that the tearful testimonies that made me feel the most awkward were likely the ones that conveyed the strongest sense of God’s goodness and a personal sense of humility before God.
For Christian writers, the lessons taught by the ancients are instructive, as they sought to tap into the power of the old stories. For Christians, the glorification of God provides access to a power that is dynamic indeed. The Restoration Narrative provides a framework that can help to guide our storytelling in ways that are faithful to God’s own Story. Our stories do not have to be explicitly “Christian” (which tends to mean “preachy”) in order to be Christian; we can convey the truth as understood in the light of God’s wisdom through poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction in ways that are sweet to the palate of our audiences.
Gene C. Fant Jr. (PhD, University of Southern Mississippi) serves as provost at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, Florida. A prolific writer, he holds earned degrees in Renaissance literature, biblical studies, English, anthropology, and education. He and his wife, Lisa, have twin children, Ethan and Emily.
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