Know Your Place: Writing as Identity

The following is an adapted version of the closing sermon from the "Poetics of Place" Mennonite Poets Retreat, held in June 2018.

"I want Jesus to walk with me; I want Jesus to walk with me;
all along my pilgrim journey, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me." —African American spiritual

Now, we've arrived. Over this weekend we have talked about place in terms of location, place in terms of life stage and situation, and now we are thinking about our place in relation to the task of writing and creativity in general.

I think it's true that none of us gathered here would claim writing as our only identity, or maybe even our primary identity. We're all teachers and ministers and publishers and parents and students and all sorts of other things. So, what "place" does writing have in our lives? What place should it have? Maybe those questions are especially complicated if we are people of faith—because we also have to ask what God thinks about the place of writing in one's life.

I am a good seminary grad, so when I have a question about what God thinks about something, my first thought is to turn to the Bible. Strangely, for as much as I have studied and explored the intersection of theology and writing, I have never come across someone offering a systematic look at the ways that writing is referenced in the Bible.

So I'm going to do that, in a very concise way. Writing is not mentioned in the Bible much, but it is in there. In fact, God directly tells people to write several times. Many of the different references to writing I found also correspond to the different types of writing/literature in the Bible. Compiling this list also made me think about how the various types of writing I have done fit into these categories. You might also think about how your writing does (or does not) fit into these biblical categories.

Writing as teaching/passing down (Torah, Wisdom Literature)

The Torah (Old Testament books of law) calls the Israelites to recite God's laws to their children, bind them on their hands, and write them on their doorposts. Writing is a way to recall God's presence and God's desires, which may be a positive or negative thing for the people. At the end of Deuteronomy, God tells Moses, "Now therefore write this song, and teach it to the Israelites; put it in their mouths, in order that this song may be a witness for me against the Israelites" (Deuteronomy 31:19).[1]

Writing is also a way to preserve God's current activity for posterity. The Psalmist says, "Let this be recorded for a generation to come, so that a people yet unborn may praise the Lord" (Psalm 102:18).

This kind of writing makes me think of the Sunday school curriculum work I have done, hoping to craft stories and questions that will cause children to learn to God's ways and give God praise.

Writing as conveying messages from God (Prophets)

Several of the prophets are commanded by God to write down their revelations. For example, Jeremiah reports God telling him, "Write in a book all the words that I have spoken to you. For the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will restore the fortunes of my people . . ." (Jeremiah 30:2–3). Habakkuk reports, "Then the Lord answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it" (Habakkuk 2:2). Often for the prophets, writing God's words required both insight and courage. They were controversial—not what people wanted to hear.

I think some blog posts or even social media updates I have done fit into this category, when I've expressed a certain political or theological view, conveying what I felt God was wanting me to say at a particular moment in the life of the world.

Writing as giving voice to suffering (Job)

In the Old Testament book of Job, one of the longsuffering main character's most poignant laments is his longing for a written witness: "O that my words were written down! O that they were inscribed in a book! O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock forever!" (Job 19:23-24). Writing has a way of giving legitimacy to our pain, crafting it into something coherent, or at least able to be shared with others.

For this type of writing I think of work I did on the history of Mennonite women, often taking stories of frustration and giving them a place of meaning, perhaps, in a bigger unfolding story of progress and dedication.

Writing as ordering, communicating, convincing (Gospels)

The gospel writer Luke says this about his project: "I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed" (Luke 1:3-4). John also makes his intentions clear: "But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name" (John 20:31). The gospel writers are not pretending to be objective. They have an agenda—proclaiming good news.

For this type of written I think of sermons I have given, which seem best when I am clear about my agenda and starting place, inviting others into what I believe God has revealed to me.

Writing as bringing joy and hope (Epistles)

The New Testament letters were a lifeline for early Christians and display a valuing for the venture of writing, in the past and present. In Romans we read, "For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope" (Romans 15:4). The author of 1 John says, "We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete" (1 John 1:4). I love the idea that writing can bring joy, and that this idea is in the Bible!

I think here of a current project I'm working on with a colleague, exploring both the despair and hope in the world we encounter in our work with young adults in difficult life situations. I know that the act of writing has helped me be more encouraged and hopeful, and I anticipate it giving some kind of hope and delight to others as well, if and when they read it.

Writing as showing the truth you see (Revelation)

The command to write is even present at the very end of the Bible. The author of Revelation reports, "And the one who was seated on the throne said, 'See, I am making all things new.' Also he said, 'Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true'" (Revelation 21:5).

Revelation is full of rather fanciful imagery. For a modern-day equivalent, I think of good poetry and fiction, something that can change and challenge your ideas by engaging your imagination.

All of these biblical references seem to me like arguments for the "place" of writing in the life of a faithful person. Perhaps this list can be helpful for those of us who sometimes have struggled to see writing as a faithful choice, for a career or for a spare time activity. To me, all of these passages affirm that writing is valuable, and even called for by God.

I'd like to also offer some additional, supplemental thoughts about writing that seem important, maybe especially for Mennonites. These comes from two more contemporary authors, neither of whom are Mennonite, but who offer rich sources for reflection among us.

Writing as taking responsibility for beauty (Dorothee Soelle)

In the 1990s, Soelle wrote a work on the interplay of mysticism and resistance and the necessity of both in a faithful life. It contains this compelling idea: "…we are all guardians of joy and responsible for making life's beauty visible and audible. . . . There are times in life when we are so badly beaten down that no tongues are left to sing praise; however, it is imperative that we take responsibility all other times for the joy of life, which at the same time means responsibility for beauty."[2]

Soelle here is not even talking about writing necessarily. But to me this quote describes the task of a poet. I don't think I've ever seen the words "responsibility" and "beauty" next to each other. I find that kind of helpful. Maybe as a Mennonite writer I need to feel some sense of duty, so it helps to think that beauty demands something of me, that I have some kind of responsibility to fulfill—and writing can be my way to take responsibility for the beauty that is present to me.

But of course, seeing writing as a duty (even a beautiful one) has its problems. Writing can become a drudgery, a difficult task, almost a cross to bear.

Writing as a trickster, not a martyr (Elizabeth Gilbert)

In her recent book on creativity, Elizabeth Gilbert (author of the popular Eat, Pray, Love) addresses the idea of writing as a burden or hardship. She discusses the myth that suffering makes your writing better, using language that has strong resonance for an Anabaptist reader:

But in order to let go of the addiction to creative suffering, you must reject the way of the martyr and embrace the way of the trickster. . . .

Martyr energy is dark, solemn, macho, hierarchal, fundamentalist, austere, unforgiving, and profoundly rigid.

Trickster energy is light, sly, transgender, transgressive, animist, seditious, primal, and endlessly shape-shifting. . . .

Martyr says: "The system is rigged against all that is good and sacred."

Trickster says: "There is no system, everything is good, and nothing is sacred."[3]

Now, Gilbert is obviously not familiar with Julia Spicher Kasdorf's articulation of "martyr" as originally meaning simply testifying, or bearing witness, and Kasdorf's helpful concept of "writing like a martyr."[4] But Gilbert is drawing here on the idea people have of a writer (or any creative person) slaving away, doing something that is so hard and that they can't help not do.

I admit that I sometimes fall into that trap or kind of admire it when I see it in others. Sometimes it is tempting to view the calling to write as some kind of hardship, and to think that to be faithful I have to live in a kind of constant struggle with my commitment to my creativity and the other parts of my life. This kind of martyr mentality can creep into not just writing but life in general. As a Christian minister, sometimes it is easy to feel like the weight of the world is on my shoulders and even to kind of revel in that. Plus, I am trying to follow Jesus as my example—the ultimate martyr, right?

I'm reminded of an idea that I heard Drew Hart refer to recently. (Hart is the author of a great recent book on how the church views racism.)[5] Hart talked about how some slave narratives describe Jesus as a trickster figure. These black slaves describe visions of Jesu as white, like bright shining white. But he's also really short. And he engages the slaves as friend, savior, liberator. And this tiny trickster Jesus runs around challenging and destabilizing everything about the system of slavery, as someone who presumably could benefit from that system, if he wanted to.

My way of being in the world as a writer involves witnessing to beauty but also calling out injustice. This can be exhausting work. I find the idea of acting like a trickster rather than a martyr very liberating. I love the idea of imagining Jesus not (or not only) as the suffering, martyred one, but as the trickster who outsmarts the devil and beats death, who engages the world not just weeping but laughing. He does this in a way that does not minimize pain or ignore the tragedies going on around us, but in a way that witnesses to them and subverts them, and somehow, against all odds, keeps a sense of playfulness as part of his identity.

That's the kind of Christian I want to be. That's the kind of writer I want to be.

That's the kind of Jesus I want to walk with me.

[1] All biblical references are from the New Revised Standard Version.

[2] Dorothee Soelle, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 189.

[3] Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear (New York: Riverhead Books, 2015), 221–22.

[4] See Julia Spicher Kasdorf, The Body and the Book: Writing from a Mennonite Life (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009), especially pp. 186–87.

[5] Hart's book is Trouble I've Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2016). For more on the trickster Jesus, see Paul Harvey, Moses, Jesus, and the Trickster in the Evangelical South (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2012)

About the Author

Anita Hooley Yoder

Anita Hooley Yoder works as a campus minister at a small Catholic college near Cleveland, Ohio. She has written in many genres, including Sunday school curriculum and a book on the history of Mennonite women's organizations (Circles of Sisterhood), and is currently working on a "poetry devotional." She is a fan of good books, good food, and bad Cleveland sports teams.