Last night, my church hosted a book launch party for the release of Surprised by Paradox. It was equal parts wonderful and horrifying. The wonderful was, of course, to have a room full of people I know and love show such warmth for me and such enthusiasm for the book. “Who said a prophet isn’t accepted in her hometown?” I quipped as I stood to talk and my friend, Wendy, whistled from the second row. The horrifying was being the center of that kind and genuine attention. I’m not trying to be falsely humble here. It’s just plain awkward to gather a group of people to celebrate your work. When do the lawyers and emergency room doctors and stay-at-home moms and Home Depot clerks get to throw parties for their jobs well done?
Some people are saving lives. I’m just writing books.
This is the second post in a blog series I’m calling, “The Perils of Publishing — and why you should write anyways,” a series I began in response to author Michelle DeRusha’s blog post, “Why I’m Quitting Book Writing.” For all her love for and commitment to writing, DeRusha has concluded that the industry of book publishing is a place she can’t thrive.
I’ve sometimes wondered the same.
But as I already said in the introduction to this series, I feel called, not just to write, but to write books. That seems to make it imperative to me to find ways of making this work work—hence the idea for this blog series. I asked you to come along for a conversation about the perils of the publishing culture, and I promised that I’d draw in John Owen’s 1658 Of Temptation, published by Crossway as a larger collection entitled Overcoming Sin & Temptation: Three Classic Works by John Owen (2006).
Today, I’m posting some quotes and reflections from the preface where John Owen begins by addressing the Christian Reader: “If you are in any measure awake in these days wherein we live . . . I suppose you will not inquire any further after other reasons of the publishing of the ensuing warnings and directions.” Owen seems to think that many of his readers will immediately see the need for some systematic teaching about temptation. He describes his cultural moment as one where “a spirit of error, giddiness, and delusion goes forth with such strength and efficacy”; where “there are such divisions, strifes, emulations, attended with such evil surmises, wrath and revenge, found among brethren”; where temptation is constantly leading to “partial and total apostasy, in the decay of love, the overthrow of faith . . . [and the decline in] personal holiness and zeal for the interest of Christ.” Given the conditions of our times, writes Owen, we’re going to have to talk about temptation. (Are we sure he’s not talking about his 2019 Twitter feed?)
Similarly, given the conditions of our times, especially in the world of Christian publishing, we’re going to have to talk about temptation. To bandy about words like platform, brand, and tribe, some of us will immediately see the inherent temptations in those words. The temptations of self-preoccupation and self-promotion. The temptations of vanity and ego, of jealousy and competition. The temptation to build our own personal fiefdom, rather than the kingdom of God. These are not unlike the temptations that Jesus himself faced when confronted by the devil in the wilderness. Jesus was tempted to take right things, good things, by very wrong means.
Many of you confirmed in your comments to the first blog post of this series what is good about writing. You write for the joy of expressing truth and connecting with readers who are grateful when you’ve named something for them. You write to find out what you think and to think more coherently. As you write, you find solidarity with your fellow human beings. You write because it makes it feel more like you. You write, and sometimes you get glimpses that it makes a difference, that someone lives with more hope, more faith, more self-understanding, more empathy than before. You write because those words feel timeless, even immutable in a way that you aren’t.
These are some of the many joys of writing, but you also named many of the griefs.
You feel grief that you have to rely on the publishing gatekeepers to get your words in the world. You write but are underpaid. You write in the margins of your day, which feels too limited and constrained an exercise of your creative energies. You feel the burden of responsibility for the stories you tell and the people they involve. You hate the pressure of building a platform and finding followers. You wonder if your words matter in a world glutted with the “shrill cacophony of public opinion.”
Some of these griefs might easily dissuade us from writing or might easily tempt us to do the very good work of publishing by very wrong means.
What advice does John Owen offer? It’s simple but worth remembering.
Count yourself vulnerable to temptation.
“But now, reader, if you are among them who takes no notice of these things or cares not for them—who has no sense of the efficacy and dangers of temptations in your own walking and professions . . . I desire you to know that I write not for you.” In other words, as it relates to our discussion here about Christian publishing, if you think yourself safe from the perils of anxiety, greed, self-protection, and vanity of this work, you are the most vulnerable to falling on the own sword of your own words.
To exercise your proper sobriety in this work judged by likes and retweets, advances and book sales, count yourself unreliable, rather than steadfast. Know that the problem isn’t with other bloggers, other writers, other authors, other speakers. It’s with you. It’s with me. Look to confess daily to God the sins that you know and the sins that you don’t. “Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults. Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me,” (Ps. 19:12, 13). Then, get yourself in a community of people who will love you, even whistle at you from the second row, but know you well enough to know that you’re not all that. In that broken, beautiful church community, sign up to serve in the children’s ministry. Take a meal to a new mom. Visit someone who is sick. Do something generous with your left hand that your right hand wouldn’t even take notice of. Practice some invisibility in your local church community so that when it comes time to publish your words for an audience, you’re a bit weaned from the thrill of being noticed, listened to, even admired.
Count yourself vulnerable to temptation. As you do, practice the glorious both/and of writing. Count this work good—and count on needing the help of God for doing it. Because though we may be unreliable, he is not. As Owen reminds, we have a “faithful and merciful High Priest, who both suffered and was tempted and is on that account touched with the feeling of our infirmities.”
What spiritual practices do you engage that help you to “count yourself vulnerable to temptation”?