The Borderlands of Publishing: Writers Who Want to Let Both Their Faith and Their Creativity Run Free Are Finding a Home in the Christian Literary Underground

Article excerpt

KIMBERLY CULBERTSON KNEW God was real and present in the lives of the high school kids she taught in inner-city Chicago--real and present in the midst of equally real poverty, violence, addiction, and sexual activity. She began to write about her experiences with the young people she worked with and looked for writing communities and places to publish. Culbertson naturally turned first to Christian outlets, which she assumed would welcome the integration of faith in her writing.

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What wasn't welcome, she found, was the accurate portrayal of details in stories she wanted to tell.

"I learned the rules of Christian writing; No swearing," she told the audience at a panel on small presses and magazines at Calvin College's Festival of Faith and Writing last April. "No depiction of sexuality, even if it's 'in bounds.' No sin that goes unpunished." Culbertson was left in a quandary. As she put it, "Gangbangers do not say 'Fiddlesticks.'"

At the same time, she knew that writers who authentically explore and depict issues of faith can find that their work is a hard sell to many secular publishers, who seem befuddled by or dismissive of religious content or skeptical of storylines that dare speak of even small V redemption or revelation.

So in 2006 Culbertson and her husband, Ben, started Relief, a biannual literary journal that welcomes not-sanitized-for-your-protection prose and poetry--and Jesus too. The pay-off was definitely not financial--"We're broke and print-runs are sometimes funded from our wallets," said Culbertson. But she described the satisfaction that comes from a distinct sense of mission:" Relief doesn't publish only stories that couldn't be published elsewhere, but we rejoice and dance when we do. There have been pieces that we've received and known, 'This is why we exist, so that this story can get to readers."'

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RELIEF IS ONE of a handful of literary magazines and independent book publishers that have staked a claim in the publishing borderlands where grit and religious devotion, literary experimentation and spirituality, the quirky and the profound can meet and mingle.

These outlets seek out works that might not have mass-market appeal for reasons of style, genre, or content that isn't scrubbed "clean" enough for Christian retailers. The great Catholic fiction writer Flannery O'Connor noted that pious readers were "always demanding that the writer be less explicit in regard to natural matters or the concrete particulars of sin," and apparently the decades haven't diminished that pressure.

Creative writers who self-identify as Christian--the believers in the Word whose medium is words--tend to spend at least some of their time balancing on the head of a peculiar pin: Their vocation, hammered in from the first creative writing class or how-to book, is to show, not tell. The goal is to create works and worlds that embody meaning, rather than explain it; that show redemption or fall or sacrifice, not preach it. This incar-national approach isn't at odds with the faith: After all, Christians themselves are called to be the body of Christ--not, as sometimes implied, merely the brochure-with-audio-chip of Christ--showing the work and love of God on earth.

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But Christian faith does include an emphasis on being ready to give accounting "for the hope that is in you" (1 Peter 3:15). Sometimes this means the call to create can get tangled with an explicit mandate to proselytize or preach, or to make art conform to a narrow definition of "whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable" (Philippians 4:8)--even if to do so threatens the integrity of the work.

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The "Christian" label, then, can be a mixed blessing for a writer. …