“A serious writer from the city investigates heaven.”
Ambitious writer; impossible subject
A writer needs curiosity and ambition. Without ambition, writing doesn’t happen. Without curiosity, what gets written is something we’ve read before.
Becoming a writer was no accident for me. I received both traits, curiosity and ambition. You learn that you need to work long hours to succeed. But you work punishing hours not to fail. I found success early on, writing commercially. I was well paid. I was well-regarded. Only, curiosity and ambition didn’t stop.
If God created people, then he created them to know who God is.
Before long, I moved beyond commercial writing. I was drawn to a subject that makes fools out of people. The subject was faith. More specifically, faith in a tangible God. Many believe God is knowable. They follow the idea of creation with logic. If God created people, then he created them to know who God is.
Examining God with an urban mind
I wanted to understand how faith affected people. I wanted to learn what the dedicated really believed, and why. What did people hope to gain from a belief in God? Were they fooling themselves, or was there a sense, however irrational, of eternity in their lives? Did faith make anyone happier, better, freer?
… I was choosing a topic with a lot of baggage.
I was choosing a topic with a lot of baggage. As a long time urban person, the subject of faith was awkward. For one, I was choosing a topic with a lot of baggage. Urban people are skeptical of writers who write about faith; fears of a Trojan horse, of boring morality. Then, there was the rational attitude that we urban people all lived by. Faith was irrational.
If I couldn’t find a rational angle on faith, I’d give up. No matter how out-there a thing is, if it has any merit, there’s a rational impact. The impact itself doesn’t need to be factual. It only needs to be felt. In this way, I could avoid unanswerable questions which are, of course, unanswerable. I was interested in the triumphs and disappointments of believing. You could write about that.
Marble on a Table
I began to write seriously when I was accepted into a top MFA program. In 1999, I graduated from The New School. Then, I started writing a novel on the faith question. The theme was not, is faith real. But, how is it real? In what way?
The theme was not, is faith real. But, how is it real? In what way?
This novel took a long time to write. The goal was to watch two very different people, cultural rivals even, connect deeply. Each of us regards our personal views as reasonable. Sometimes, major life events can challenge our usual certainty. In this novel, I wanted a believer and a non-believer to find their identities worn down. Was it possible for them to switch places, for a moment?
Marble on a Table is my debut novel. Rasmus is a New Yorker facing urban burnout. Alli is a Christian newly moved to New York. The novel centers on their unlikely friendship, and attraction. Both Rasmus and Alli are devout in their views, Rasmus about New York, Alli about God. They find that they’re the worst thing that could happen to each other. They’re in a love that they’re not sure they can survive.
My unique background in cultural identity
Marble on a Table is realistic fiction. The novel depicts the ways in which believers and non-believers live. The story aims to weigh both sides evenly. As a writer, I believe I have a grasp of how atheists/agnostics differ from believers, and how they’re similar.
No one is writing authoritatively about both sides. It takes a rare kind of experience. Following is a list of credentials to show how I’ve been prepared:
» Big city media career
For 20 years, I worked in America’s cultural capitals: New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
I began writing professionally as an advertising copywriter. Fortunately, I was hired by the best firms. Working for shapers of consumer culture, I learned the methods of getting attention. I discovered the ways of creative taste. I gained a heightened work ethic. In these glamour cities, I saw up close how the cultural elite live and think. I learned to cultivate a sense of rightness using experience and intuition.
» Master’s degree in writing
Many stay in commercial art. It’s a safe paycheck. To express an original idea takes a dedication to fine art. To get to that next level takes training. I’d learned from the best in commercial art. I wanted to learn from the best in fine art. Fortunately, I was accepted into the inaugural class of a new MFA program.
My instructors were popular, accomplished novelists. They were the top 1% of writers nationally. I listened to their approaches. I studied their feedback on my writing. For two years, I sat on the inside of New York publishing.
» Leaving New York
I’d been living in New York for 10 years. Like anyone else, I enjoyed the prestige of the city. However, my subject was perhaps the one thing not found in New York in abundance. Faith. If I was to learn about it, I’d have to go find it.
Pre-millennial Portland, Oregon was a quiet place. It was more of a town than the city it is now. There was a chance to meet people uninterested in culture and the media. There was a chance to meet people with faith. These people didn’t consider their cultural importance. They had families and regular jobs.
» Studying the subject
Faith has a relational component. You talk with people about what they believe. It also has a book. As a writer, I knew the stories from the Bible with literary value. Now, I felt responsible for its entire system of thought. Fortunately, an international Bible organization had a chapter in my town.
The Bible curriculum was in-depth and serious, like a college course. I ended up studying weekly for five years. From Genesis, to the books of Moses, to the letters of Paul, to John, I learned what it all meant (in the Protestant tradition).
» Attending services
Church attendance was a step beyond. For a growing number of people, church is a touchy, even stigmatizing subject. To skeptics, it’s an indoctrination center. Also, a waste of a good brunch hour.
If I was going to learn anything beyond a book, I would have to go. Since my first uncomfortable visit to church, I’ve attended in both major cities and small towns. I’ve heard hundreds of sermons. Or, as they’re called today, messages. To write a book featuring a Christian main character, I had to know where one goes on a Sunday. I started going, then I continued. Which leads to a final “credential.”
» Acknowledging God
At a point during my research into faith, I accepted that there is a God. It wasn’t a political statement. The process felt like a connecting of dots. I had exposed myself to information that many avoid. Persuasive facts to support God seemed to exist. I wasn’t the only one who saw a deity in the details of life.
Botanists, physicists, and surgeons are known to arrive at the conclusion, God created life. They see a complex world that’s designed too purposefully. They accept what they see. In the end, a belief in God didn’t wipe my brain. It didn’t take away my identity. It led to some certainty, then even tougher questions.
What I learned in 10 years
The art game is a tough one. At one point, I could no longer work a prestigious day job and also write literary fiction—especially an ambitious novel that had a heavy research aspect and a host of plausibility issues. My income bracket changed. My social circle, as well. I was studying a faith subject that many urbanites ran from. I found myself out-of-sync with a few city friends.
In actuality, I’d gained a lot. First off, I’d escaped the urban job security syndrome known as “golden handcuffs.” In the offices of commercial media, many dream of pursuing fine art. I’d chosen fine writing and had gotten good at it. I’d written a worthy novel. I could now work on presenting it to the world.
My investigation into faith, and into the faithful, also got interesting. What I studied surprised me. The thing that skeptics feel is absent from faith is, of course, facts. I saw more than I expected to. Not hard facts. Like staring into the sun to learn more about it, staring down the faith issue will leave you dizzy. The facts I noticed came from where faith shone. A few that I uncovered:
1. A vast majority of people believe
According to a 2016 Gallup poll, 89% of Americans say they believe in God. This stat should surprise the media onlooker. Faith is viewed as a liability in increasing measure. However, when the issue is viewed in a personal way, most people accept that there is a God.
2. There is a practical reason to believe
Our society is regarded as the most advanced in history. It is believed that technology and education have enlightened modern people. The human race is rapidly evolving. Life is getting better and better.
This utopian view is at odds with one fact, the rising rate of suicide in America:
- Suicide has increased 24% from 1999 to 2014, according to the CDC
- US suicide rates have risen to a 30-year high, increasing in nearly every age group
- Suicide has become the 2nd leading cause of death among US teenagers
A trend can have many causes. And yet, the common denominator in suicide is hopelessness. There is evidence to support faith being a grounding force in a competitive, materialistic society.
3. Rising opposition to faith coincides with social ills
American judicial courts are removing a symbolic faith presence from public life. In turn, the number of people who claim a belief in orthodox views is declining. Coincidentally, negative social trends are on the rise.
- Heroin use has tripled from 2007 to 2014
- 41 million Americans (1 in 8) take at least one anti-depressant per day
- The American divorce rate has risen 40 percent since the 1980s
American life is increasingly stress-filled. It may explain this statistic:
- U.S. life expectancy declines for first time since 1993
A first-world society shouldn’t see a decrease in life expectancy. In many of these cases, “researchers are puzzled.” Not everyone. Those who see a correlation between spiritual health and physical health have predicted these results.
Presidents, witnesses … and me
What conclusion had I really come to in a 10-year period. By researching faith as a subject for writing, I came out acknowledging God. Historically, it’s hardly a daring move. Every American president has done the same. In a swearing-in of any kind, like a court witness, standard practice is to put a hand on a Bible.
I came out acknowledging God. Historically, it’s hardly a daring move.
Even in this tiny declaration, there’s friction. It’s a political statement to talk about God in any way. If you look at a flower and think, God, you’re seen as arguing with someone. It doesn’t have to be true. To many, the bigness of life suggests a creator, that’s all. If there is a God, God is above human politics.
How people connect over this topic, I saw, made it even more interesting.
The modern experience
I began to see, old definitions of belief that we grew up with were outdated, even getting in the way. There isn’t an “I believe” bucket and a “I reject” bucket. America is moving beyond those. I recounted my personal experience, how much time I had invested in thinking about spiritual things. It was about time.
A place where people lack discretionary time is where I’m from, a busy city.
Over 80% of Americans live in urban areas today, up from a decade ago. For economic and social reasons, people are relying on city life to further their goals. Technology jobs have also attracted people to limited geographic areas.
It’s a busy life. The modern experience is centered on the here-and-now, almost exclusively. From Pew Research:
Only about half of the residents in the Seattle (52%) and San Francisco (48%) metropolitan areas identify as (religious), as well as roughly six-in-ten or fewer of those living in Boston (57%) and New York (59%).
You see it yourself living in cities. People have important things to talk about, big jobs. Acknowledging an unseen creator isn’t on one’s list. It’s not a statement against an establishment but simply a way of living. Urbanites don’t necessarily see themselves as atheists. They’re modern people in today’s world.
… what if faith is a technology from ages past that is being overlooked …
How does this trend impact our culture? The here-and-now is obviously where we live, how we achieve. Only, what if faith is a technology from ages past that is being overlooked, to the detriment of modern society? What are we losing?
A writer’s subject
Most today will admit, God exists. (Even when a society discourages a certain faith, people believe it anyway.) There’s a sense of certainty to think God is real, but it doesn’t change much by itself. The real question is, does God help us, or are we left to figure things out for ourselves? Circumstances alone don’t say.
We can’t leave God alone. We can’t grasp God. It’s a rich subject. Even when a person is certain that there are clear answers about God, those answers aren’t easy to live out. Everyone, believer and unbeliever alike, struggles with taking faith seriously. It’s the rock that gets pushed up the hill, to roll down again.
We can’t leave God alone. We can’t grasp God. It’s a rich subject.
In the world of literary writing, some writers go to great lengths to pretend, they don’t have a subject they write about. It’s impossible not to have one, especially today. Readers want to know how you’re going to entertain them. An ambitious writer hopes to make the fun meaningful. A writer claims a subject to express something previously unstated, something new to think about.
A shared pursuit
In the news cycle, we hear about technology, consumerism, and politics 24/7. We need something new. Our approach to faith, whatever it is, is a personal story, human interest. It’s about why we’re here. Everyone thinks about that.
It’s about why we’re here. Everyone thinks about that.
We’re aware that, in these modern times, religion has become unattractive. It has a reputation for being no more than a bad habit. Religion is acknowledged as something that humans are drawn to. It’s a draw that should be resisted, we’re cautioned. It’s evidence of the worst of us, possibly the only bad thing.
Religion can bring out the worst of us. Also, the best in us. There are many viewpoints. Like love, faith is a basic drive that we feel compelled to explore, even when faced with unpredictable consequences. It’s maddening. It’s sublime. As with love, it’s something we’re quite possibly meant to go through together.
Craig Simpson is author of Marble on a Table, a debut novel. He also runs The Writing Thing Group, a blogging network, as well as teaches communication at college and to individuals.
Find out more about the novel Marble on a Table.
Read the short story “Touchback.”