Craig Barnes: The Writer and the Whirlwind

seminary photoDespair is always at hand and it is the demon most difficult to exorcise.

Words haunt you from the basement of your soul. Angels or demons make their way into the souls of your readers, carried by your words.

In the encounter with Job, God took Job’s preoccupation with Why and replaced it with WHO.

God refuses to be accountable to us. God is determined NOT to give us hope. Hope comes from the turn in the plot, because we have dropped the question Why — because our hearts are so full of WHO.

So said Craig Barnes, president of Princeton Theological Seminary at the opening worship for the Frederick Buechner writing workshop at Princeton Theological Seminary. He used two texts (Job 38: 1-7 and Psalm 119: 105-112) for his sermon entitled “The Writer and the Whirlwind.” Several at this workshop asked for my notes, so here they are, as much of what Barnes said as I could write down. (Corrections welcome). Barnes’ audience was 250 plus writers (some clergy, some lay people) from around the country. 

CRAIG BARNES: 

Job has two chapters of narrative followed by 35 chapters of lament. When it is your life that is interrupted, the chapters are long. Grief, hurt, anger returns.

Words were used by the . . . .

Messenger: disaster

Friends: judgment

Elijah: anger at bad theology

Job: wanting to prove his integrity, Job asks “why?”, complains he does not deserve this fate, he is devoted to a capricious God who makes no sense.

When YOU write, yours are not the first words people encounter.

People are hurt by words, people are inspired by words.

Angels or demons make their way into the souls of your readers, carried on the backs of your words.

As children, we learned that “Sticks and stones don’t break my bones.” What a crock.

Words haunt you from the basement of your soul.

Writers know the power of words.

Ps: 119: words have power to lead us to hope and to salvation.

Your word is a lamp for my feet,  a light on my path.

But even God’s words have a modest intention: lamp to feet, light to path — he gives us just enough to take the next step. Mary at the Annunciation — it was Grace that she did not know the future. Job did not have much light.

Job lost everything, including his former vision of God. But he is not in despair — he refuses to curse God and live (despite the encouragement of his wife!)

Despair is always at hand and it is the demon most difficult to exorcise.

 There is a “designer despair” shown by Tarantino, Manson, Jerry Springer, and the models for J Crew who seem to show “all the cool people are sad.” Versus the old-time Sears catalog with a model that smiled, selling jeans.

Message to teens: “there is no such thing as a bad idea” is one of the worst ideas. Despair is a bad idea.

Someone who knows how to write needs to interject words of hope and light that can take on despair!

In the desert, the Hebrews could not go back. They had to move forward to the Promised Land, but they needed a new vision of God.

Where is your own Promised Land? Do you have wrong numbers, wrong expectations, walls crumbling or at least leaking? What God most wants to give you — and your reader — is God!

God talks. God does not answer “why.” God says ‘remember who you are, remember who I am.”

In the encounter with Job, God took Job’s preoccupation with Why and replaced it with WHO.

So much of what people need in 35 chapters of WHY is, they need a better question. Job drops the Why. Explanations, justifications of integrity, don’t matter. Salvation — especially from despair — requires a new vision of God.

But the human side of it is that you have to struggle through it to be authentic. The story curve, is down, then up. After two chapters of telling how Job got there, the rest of the book is the recovery plan, a reoriented life and  anew vision of God is the turning point.

God refuses to be accountable to us. God is determined NOT to give us hope. Hope comes from the turn in the plot, because we have dropped the question Why — because our hearts are so full of WHO.

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