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A Feature Review of
Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, on Being a Christian
Hardback: Crossway, 2013
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Reviewed by Katherine Willis Pershey
A few months ago, I swore off writing book reviews after a monumentally awkward encounter with an author whose book I had reviewed. In defense of this Author Who Shall Not Be Named, I walked right into it. I strongly encourage writers to refrain from cheerfully approaching authors whose books they have reviewed. Learn from my mistakes.
My disavowal of book reviewing didn’t take, obviously. I had already committed to reviewing a new title for a print publication, so I had to shake off my abject mortification and put on my big girl pants. Thankfully, I loved the book and didn’t have many negative criticisms to weave in to my otherwise glowing assessment. It was such a pleasant experience I decided I would revise my prohibition against book reviews. I simply wouldn’t review books I didn’t wholeheartedly love, thus saving me from future mortification and preserving the egos of authors whose books about which I could not, in good conscience, gush.
All of this is to say that when Chris Smith, the wise and winsome editor of The Englewood Review of Books, sent out a call for reviews that included Bret Lott’s Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, on Being a Christian, I hastily called dibs on the book on account of my supreme confidence that I would love it.
I hadn’t read any of Lott’s dozen or so books when I slipped into the back row for the last ten minutes of his talk at the Festival of Faith and Writing. I was only vaguely aware of Jewel, his 1999 novel that was transfigured into an instant best-seller by the fairy godmother of literary success, Oprah. I found myself instantly charmed by the man at the podium, who rambled rather endearingly about the importance of precision in writing. Those ten minutes left me wanting more, and trusting that the more would be equally as endearing.
Dear reader, I did not love this book. (If only I hadn’t promised the good Mr. Smith a proper evaluation of it.)
Lott commences the first essay with a written recitation of the Apostles’ Creed, a refreshingly orthodox move in a culture that tends to prefer novelty. Though I am part of a decidedly non-creedal tradition, I’ve grown to appreciate the historical creeds of the Church, and the way they offer a common scaffolding for a faith tradition that is wonderfully diverse. But Lott’s subsequent reflection on being a Christian was startlingly narrow. He is preoccupied with a very specific understanding of God – namely, that God is supernatural. I can affirm this profession, perhaps, though it isn’t exactly the word I would use. He illustrates this point with three stories that were, quite frankly, a bit banal.
As it turns out, Lott really does mean to imply that our God – “the only true God” – has some convenient magic tricks up his sleeve. For instance, Lott tells the story of a church mission trip to Moldova to support a Vacation Bible School program. Lott and his fellow missionaries fail to pack sufficient supplies of gum and t-shirts, but lo and behold, they experience a pair of miracles. Every kid gets gum and his or her very own t-shirt to tie-dye.
My gut reaction to stories like this is to roll my eyes. Lott has an answer to my cynicism; he equates his own passing desire to find a rational explanation as the work of Satan. It just seems like this kind of “proof” for God’s existence and participation in the world loses its flavor more quickly than a stick of bubble gum. It feels good for a moment, when you are the one enjoying a felicitous intervention by a detail-oriented deity. But it falls apart awfully fast, and I don’t just mean when there isn’t sufficient gum after all. In the name of research – am I an outlier in finding this book to be theologically superficial? – I read a handful of reviews, including Michael Robbins review from the Chicago Tribune. Robbins writes, “If you believe that God intervenes materially in your personal stash of chewing gum, I’d think it might occur to you to at least wonder why he does not also intervene to save, for instance, tens of thousands of children from a tsunami.” Yes. That.
There is more to Letters and Life than this one theological point. Yet Lott uses it as an intentional challenge to the reader. A test, really. If one equivocates when asked that point blank question at the close of the first chapter, “Do you believe in a supernatural God?” – well, this book isn’t for you.
There is wisdom here. There is delight, too, particularly for those who revere Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Carver. Carver looms large in the last chapter, which is really more of a novella-length memoir. It is a beautiful, if meandering, rumination on the death of Lott’s father, interwoven with meditations on Carver’s influence on Lott’s life and work. (The connection between his father and his favorite father figure is poignant when it eventually becomes clear.)
Bret Lott claims that the most critical lesson he learned from Carver’s work was to “get out of the way.” Perhaps even more than my theological quibbling with Lott is my sense that in these essays, he failed to get out of the way. Yes, nonfiction is different than fiction. It may well be that the narrator of a nonfiction collection cannot be “the last one heard from in this pile of words [he] was arranging,” yet time and again, the writer that had been so endearing in person was overwhelming on the page. “And I am here,” he writes, “however preposterously stupid or sadly self-serving, writing this; trying to find with each word when night is night enough; trying to write, and to be writing.”
Katherine Willis Pershey is an Associate Minister of the First Congregational Church in Western Springs, Illinois. In addition to writing a personal blog, she is a contributor to the Christian Century, The Art of Simple, and A Deeper Family. Her first book, Any Day a Beautiful Change: A Story of Faith and Family, was published by Chalice Press in 2012.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com