Brett Lott's Letters & Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian

I've been slowly posting the assignments I wrote as part of last year's Creativity and the Christian course. I highly recommend Brett Lott's fine volume and am excited to announce that he has generously agreed to be interviewed later this month! I'm excited and nervous. Watch this space! And in the meantime, read his excellent book.


Key Contributions

Bret Lott is a writer. He has achieved the commercial success that defines the dream a successful writing life, and he has the literary accolades to prove that he has not sold his artistic soul to achieve them. But Bret Lott is also a Christian who has thought deeply about the implications of his faith upon his writing life, and vice versa.

Bret refuses to separate his writing from his faith. There is a backbone of belief to his craft and the result is a joyful boldness. In the book's first essay, he reminds us of his belief in God's existence and intervention in our world, and the examples of it in Bret's life. This is in strong contrast to today's secular age, which "has become so primed to the self that there is no room to believe in anything else." But as Christians, the source of both reason and imagination has been met in Christ. The result of this truth in our lives is that there is nothing to stop us from being a witness through our art. We have been given a freedom to create art. In light of the supernatural intervention of the true God in our lives, what circumstances have we to fear?

This doctrine permeates all aspects of his craft. It clarifies and provides boundaries to his role as an artist and his relationship to both the church and the public square (chapter 2). It gives him courage to push hard in writing with precision, because "I have been made in the image of God, and not blurrily in his image, not almost in his image, not close enough in his image" (chapter 3). It gives context to his writings, rooted in the people around him (chapter 4) and it protects him from thinking too highly of himself (chapter 5).

In the end, writing can never be divorced from life. Bret explores this relationship in the second half of the book, an extended essay on his writing and the ordinary days surrounding the death of his father. Here is writing and here is life, together bearing fruit for all eternity.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Lott's thinking is saturated in the Bible yet also so obviously born out of his life as world class writer. This permeates the entire book, but the second essay stood out to me. It examines the relationship between the believing artist and surrounding society. Lott defines both a believer and an artist as being "blessed to be a blessing." He also recognizes that "we do not commit art in a vacuum but are a part of society," so we had best understand the moral order imposed on that society by God. In this order, the role of the artist is "a creator in a worship relationship to God." Satan usurps this order, convincing us "to divorce art from God." Lott quotes filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, who believed "that art lost its creative urge the moment it was separated from worship." The result is the desperate need to find meaning in yourself and your art, "an unmoored harmonic line, consumed with believing itself the melody."

This lie of Satan's has been broken by Christ's work on the cross. When our salvation is found in Him, our place in the moral order is restored and we can create "portraits of humanity that extend to all who have ears to hear and eyes to see the value of humanity for our having been created by God in his image." We now know we are, created to live lives "in service - in creation - to our creator God."

For Lott, these lives - people and their particulars - are the reasons we write. For him, his writing is all about the people involved in his stories. "People, in the dire straights we all of us have known and will know, carried with them their own ragged and sorrowful and mysterious worth." Lott expresses a real humility in the face of these people and their circumstances. They force him to get out of his writing's way and let their stories speak.

The book is a collection of essays, not a thesis. This is both a strength and a weakness.

Personal Application

Letters & Life taught me to have courage and to have humility. "For writing that will last, and that will mean something, and that will have pierced the heart and soul and mind not only of our readers but, more importantly, of ourself... precision is the most important element." This kind of writing takes courage - courage to trust what you are trying to feel enough to push past dead expressions and find new words, "precise words we don't yet know [that] will serve the purpose of showing us what we can't yet see." The life I am witnessing is a precise life. So don't let me trade it for vague stories that lack the courage of the particulars. I serve a precise God who has made precise people. May I listen and stare and have the courage to tell exactly what I see.

We also need humility. We need to get ourselves out of the way and minimize our own importance. It is "the dethroning of the writer, the constant and all-consuming bloody coup every story or poem or essay - every genuine work of art - must accomplish over its author in order truly to live and to breathe and to have something to say to us that will matter." Artists tackle the eternal. Much is at stake and as a result we tend to think highly of ourselves. But the eternal has "to be approached on one's knees... humbly, carefully, cautiously."

It is true that our words matter. Our writing, if it is done with precision, "is a manifestation of the eternal... a foray into the Holy of Holies." But Lott is quick to acknowledge that words have limitations. In the face of the complexities, frustrations, and tragedies of life "words can not capture what I want to capture." There is even a weariness: "I have lived too much with words." Words alone are not enough. We write because of the people around us. We write to process and to explain the events of our lives, to bear witness to the "people who went before us and the people who are still among us." They are what matter. We write in the context of life.

Questions for the Author

"If we look either to Christian publishing or to New York for our venue, for our outlet, for our income, as it were, from writing... then we have missed the point of creating in God's name entirely." This is encouraging, but then how do we plan with wisdom for the practical details of a career in writing?

"How many of us who claim to be artists or at least want to be called such - and be honest now, as God is our witness - have done so in one form or another, to excuse our being lazy, or forgetful, or just plain irresponsible?" How does Brett overcome this?

He talks about the "artistry by which [others have] lived their lives in service to... God." Schaeffer says that "no work of art is more important than the Christian's own life." What does this look like? How does this apply to his life?

How does he balance the value of art ("a manifestation of the eternal and far more important than than the artist can ever be") and the value of people?

How does he keep himself humble as an artist?

"I have lived too much with words." "I am so tired of words." I too have this frustration. How does he respond, especially when his career is in words? "So why, when words are so deceitful, so scheming as to speak truth and untruth in the very same instant, why is the work of putting them in the correct order my work?" How does he answer this dilemma?

"Words matter, yes. But they are deceitful. Acts. Acts are what matter." Is our faith a faith of words, acts, or both?

What role does his church play in the creation of his art? How does it disciple him? Does it help him insure that his stories align with the true story?