Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The Danger of Success

It's been an incredible six months for me as a writer.
  • Bearing God's Name is on its 5th printing in under 6 months. (And while the average print size is only 1000 copies, the need for multiple printings clearly indicates that it has repeatedly exceeded the publisher's expectations.) 
  • It's received rave reviews and generated a spate of podcast interviews. 
  • This week InterVarsity Press offered me a second book contract. 
  • I've been invited to write for Cambridge University Press as well as Bloomsbury.
  • Two other essays and two book projects are in various stages of preparation for printing. 
Most importantly, I hear from grateful readers almost every day. It's been fun and really gratifying to see people respond so positively to my work. I'll be honest -- sales stats and accolades can be intoxicating! How do I stay grounded?

A couple of months ago I listened to an episode of the Disrupters podcast in which Esau McCaulley interviewed his doctoral advisor, N. T. Wright. One moment in their conversation grabbed my attention. Wright was speaking of a semester he spent in Jerusalem on Sabbatical in which he was working on his massive book Jesus and the Victory of God. He explains, "I was trying to write the introduction to the Jesus book . . . and I remember one day as I was saying my prayers, kneeling down at the prayer desk in my little room in Jerusalem and prayed 'Oh, dear Lord, am I really supposed to be doing one volume of introduction, and then a book about Jesus, and another volume about Paul?'" Although he does not regularly hear the audible voice of God, Wright received an unmistakable reply: "Well, yes, except it won't just be three."

I love this. Academics so rarely talk about the spiritual side of their work. I treasure this window into Tom Wright's prayer life as it relates to his writing. I have always seen writing as an act of worship, alongside teaching and mentoring and leading. On the front end, prayer fuels my brainstorming, proposing, and beginning. As I write, I pray all the more -- for clarity, insight, and clear communication. As the work is published, I pray that others will find benefit in it. When God answers these prayers and I begin to see fruit from it -- that is, when the work meets success -- it is essential that I continue to see it as an act of worship.

This weekend I re-read a classic: C. S. Lewis' The Great Divorce. It's helping me recalibrate my heart in the midst of these heady days. Lewis' warning comes by way of an imaginative story in which people from hell visit heaven and decide whether or not they want to stay. Many of the characters in his story are so committed to their illusions of a meaningful life that they literally choose to go back to hell rather than give them up to live in heaven.

Some refuse heaven because it would mean forgiving people who hurt them. Others are so preoccupied with themselves that they cannot imagine a world that does not revolve around them. One man is utterly horrified to learn that in the few years since his death his artistic genius has been wholly forgotten. He sets out to return to hell straightaway so that he can drum up more interest in his work.

How could someone who produced such great works of art or music or literature on earth be so sadly uninterested in heaven? I found the mentor's words a sober warning:
Ink and catgut and paint . . . are dangerous stimulants. Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from love of the thing he tells, to love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about him. For it doesn't stop at being interested in paint, you know. They sink lower--become interested in their own personalities and then in nothing but their own reputations. - C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, 81
Contrasting this, in Lewis' vision of heaven, people are utterly uninterested in themselves and instead deeply interested in others. They are so captivated by knowing Christ that they have let go of every accolade and ambition of their own.

The mentor tells of a fountain higher in the hills which "when you have drunk of it you forget forever all proprietorship in your own works. You enjoy them just as if they were someone else's: without pride and without modesty" (82). No one is distinguished. "The glory flows into everyone."

This thought gripped me. I was compelled to write Bearing God's Name because I believed with all my heart that the church at large needed to rediscover the value of the Old Testament and meet the God of Grace in its pages. But the success of this book presents the very real danger that I'd begin to enjoy the writing more than the reality to which it points, becoming fixated on sales and reviews and accolades to the extent that I lose sight of the message. If my "ownership" of this book will be lost in the the new creation, can I begin even now to let go of it? Can I view it without pride or modesty, but just as if it belongs to someone else? I must at least try.

The alternative is terrifying.