“There Is Continual Joy in Plotting”
A conversation with Diane Glancy and Daniel Taylor about faith, writing, community, solitude, and the unfathomable ways of God.
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John: God works in mysterious ways. I’ve been thinking a lot about one of the characters in Dan’s Jon Mote series: Jon’s “cognitively disabled older sister, Judy,” as Dan described her earlier in our conversation. It may be significant that she is one of the most memorable Christian characters in contemporary fiction (and my personal favorite), though there would be sharply differing understandings of what we should infer from this. She makes me think of Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot and Tolstoy’s story “The Three Hermits” but also of several people I’ve known in what we call “real life,” whose palpable goodness seems to be a gift from God to the rest of us. And also of Raymond Nogar’s indispensable book The Lord of the Absurd.
Daniel: I’m happy of course that you like Judy. (I do too, and I don’t think she appeared often enough in Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees, which I’m trying to correct in #4). But it seems like your text was broken off. Is there a question lurking somewhere?
John: Ha! My fault. It was intended as a prompt more than a question. In both your work and Diane’s work, I find a combination of robust faith with a forthright recognition of all that we don’t grasp—also a connoisseurship of the absurd. Whereas many Christians try to paper over or bluster over all the slippages and fissures, as if in fear that otherwise faith would crumble, you and Diane, each in your own way, live in those tensions and bear witness accordingly (not failing to recognize the humor in our condition as well).
Daniel: My faith and my writing reside in liminal places—and do so without much anxiety—because I find that is so often where faith resides in the Bible, in church history, among my historical kindred spirits, and, of course, within my own life. When I say I live “at the edge,” I don’t so much mean between belief and unbelief, though there is some of that. It’s more the edge or line between certainty and mystery, between heart and mind, between knowing and intuiting or imagining, between resting and risking, between all sorts of things which are, for me, more complementary than combatants.
I use as an epigraph to my third novel, Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees, a line from the poet Karl Shapiro: “I am an atheist who says his prayers.” I invert that for myself, saying I am a believer who has an inner atheist, one who keeps asking unsettling questions (and so the title of my book of quasi-apologetics—The Skeptical Believer: Telling Stories to Your Inner Atheist).
My defense of this stance is an appeal to realism—maybe even sanctified realism. This is how I find the human experience. I don’t believe God wishes me to pretend to know more than I actually do. He assures me that he has revealed enough of himself that I can find him, and I believe I have. In all my writing, I am simply testifying to that, hoping that someone will find it encouraging. The great story of the human experience is a Mystery, but it is knowable enough to find a Meaning (or more than one). Which I think is what most art is looking for.
Diane: I’m amazed how often, when I’m writing serious issues, I find myself chuckling about one of the peculiar or particular incidents. Re: Island of the Innocent, a Consideration of the Book of Job—what could be less merry? Maybe it was because I put a flamingo in his yard and picked up a name, Coots Ranch Road, when I was driving up highway 287 toward Amarillo and saw the sign, which I copied down, and when I was writing about Job’s daughters who were killed in the windstorm at their brother’s house (which breaks the heart of Job and his wife)— Behold, Job’s children lived down Coots Ranch Road. I wanted to contemporize the story of Job. I kept thinking, I’m going too far, but I kept going nonetheless.
There was something merry in writing about Job, between the lines of the stuffy part where his friends are arguing with him about suffering (how can we hold back?—Job 4:2). There is the uncovering of fundamental questions. Can faith and reason co-exist? Can humor and suffering? Yes, they could. Yes, they can. I called Job’s ranch a hacienda and gave Job’s wife an Araucana hen laying her blue eggs in the shrubbery and clucking while Job’s wife hides between the chifforobe and the wall of her room when she can’t handle what has happened. That is not funny. (Nor is Balaam with his leg caught between his donkey and the wall of the cliff as he tries to move the beast forward to run into an angel he can’t see.)
Who can read, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” without smiling? Job has just taken three chapters to cover his accomplishments. Now God takes four. They are at it—like God and Satan in the beginning chapter. It brings to mind “my dog is bigger than your dog.” My kingdom is broader than your kingdom. Meanwhile the Bible spells out the miserable news. We are doomed without an intercessor. How much human beings have struggled against that proclamation. “I can do it myself ” exists in us all. Job 8:11—“Can the rush grow up without the mire?” Can we know anything without resistance to our will? How much do we learn when stuck in the mud? That’s not funny either. There is so much sorrow. It is crushing sometimes. Yet by faith we get up and continue, leaving muddy footprints in our wake.
John: Amen. Diane and Dan, thanks much for this conversation.