Okay, after a rather spirited exchange of comments with Simon yesterday, I’ve owned up to the fact that my post Remain in Love was driven, in large measure, by my own defensiveness. As we say here in the south, “A hit dog hollers.” Not to say that I don’t stand by what I said, it’s a question of what motivated me to say it. Sure, Simon’s initial question got me to thinking about how so many Christians seem to embody a veiled or not-so-veiled hostility to things of this world; but in all honesty that was just an elaborate ploy to avoid the question itself: to paraphrase, “Why bother writing another book on Christian mysticism when there are already so many?” When Simon rather calmly pointed out to me that in my initial response I “protested too much,” … well, he was right.
So with all due respect to Simon and to anyone else who might be wondering the same thing, this morning I’ll try to refrain from deflecting the issue with a blustering argument about why I don’t like the question itself (!), and instead just attempt to answer it.
So do we really need another book on Christian mysticism? In all honesty, no we do not.
Type in “Christian mysticism” on Amazon.com and their database will return over 3800 titles. Granted, many of these are duplicate editions of the same work, and even more troubling, mixed in here will be all sorts of occult, gnostic, new age, and various other flavors of spirituality that are to a greater or lesser extent distortions of orthodox Christian mysticism (in other words, the kind of stuff that gives Christian mysticism a bad name among conservatives). But even if only 3% of the books served up by Amazon were worth reading, that’s still over one hundred explorations of my topic. If the average person were to read one nonfiction book a month (yes, I know, the average person doesn’t read at all, but bear with me here), it would take the better part of a decade to plow through these worthy tomes. So why should my new treatment of this admittedly not-very-mainstream subject be brought into the world, cutting down trees and taking up space on bookshelves all over the world, only to maybe someday get read by a few people, probably ten years or more from now?
Okay, I’m getting a bit over the top. But my point remains: we (i.e., the human family) do not need any more books on mysticism, Christian or otherwise. Thus, I can only be writing this book not to fill a need, but rather for more gratuitous reasons.
Something I don’t really talk about much here in this blog, but which is germane to today’s topic: as a writer, I don’t think of myself as an academic, or a theologian or a philosopher, or a journalist. Rather, I see myself as an artist. My wife is an amateur photographer (quite a good one, actually); and she and I are both having fun here in mid-life learning how to play musical instruments. Most people who visit our home are struck by how joyously chaotic it is: books lying everywhere, a beading project on this table, a stack of photographs on that; sheet music and downloaded Wikipedia entries and unanswered letters (not to mention the occasional credit card statement) adorning pretty much every flat surface. Yes, we are clutterholics — and most of the time, we tolerate it, not because it’s a point of pride but usually because we’re so engrossed in whatever creative pursuit has our attention at the moment, that we fail to notice much of anything else. The only other people I know who live so peacefully in such unnecessary disorder are computer programmers in their twenties — and other artists.
So I write about Christian mysticism with the sensibility of an artist. I bring to my writing no real desire to prove points and little to no expectation of changing the world (I’m pretty much thrilled if a book engenders one or two pieces of fan mail). Christian mysticism is like the bloom of a flower. Yes, it supports something very vital (the flower supports the plant’s reproduction, mysticism supports growth in grace and the love of God, what has traditionally been called “salvation”), but in itself, it seems to be more about beauty than anything else.
Yes. I love Christian mysticism because it’s beautiful. If salvation or justification or liberation are the hardy stems and grounding roots of the Christian “plant,” then mystical experience is its colorful blossom.
And so, back to the question of “why another book” on Christian mysticism. Well, why do so many plants produce multiple blossoms, when only one is needed to propagate the species? Why do artists and musicians keep on creating great works of art, when they’ve already produced one or two veritable masterpieces? Why do maple trees release thousands of fluttering seeds into the breezy sky, when perhaps only ten or twenty of them will ever take root and become mature trees in their own right?
Art, like natural reproduction, has an essentially gratuitous quality about it. Whatever practical function it has seems to be subsumed in a shock of beauty, beauty that is wholly unnecessary and often quite ephemeral. I believe that writing about the mystical experience can only be fully understood as an act of artistry. Hopefully there is a “practical” core — as I’ve said before, my hope is that at least one person will be brought closer to Christ as a result of reading my book. But my publisher will be printing thousands of copies, not just one. What about all those other books: if they won’t change peoples’ lives for the better, why bother? Of course, we don’t know that they won’t have positive impacts, wherever they land. But what I’m saying here is that even if my books only bring some transitory beauty and a whispered hint of grace into peoples’ lives, that alone is enough. That momentary glimpse of beauty, alone, is worth all my effort, all the efforts of my editors and printers and service workers and salespeople who will be involved in getting the books into peoples’ hands. And — this I say with fear and trembling — it will even be worth all the trees and other natural resources that will be harvested in order to create the books.
So no, we don’t need another book on Christian mysticism. But I will enjoy writing it — I already am enjoying it, even though it’s less than 20% completed — and I’m doing so as a conscious act of love and devotion to God. It is my prayer that others will enjoy reading it. And so, like all works of art, I commend it to the world, not to fulfill a need, but hopefully to foster beauty and joy.
Now, I haven’t addressed the other side of Simon’s question, which has to do with concerns that books about the experience of God could actually be a distraction from seeking the direct experience itself. This is an important question, and will deserve a post of its own in the near future.