Re-Writing My Life
I'm a New Englander, with all of a New Englander's deep-seated reserve. I'm also painfully shy; the two things don't always go together, but in my case they do. And so, I never imagined that I'd write a memoir—much less write it twice. But, as it happened, I had a story that people seemed to think was worth telling—an account of how as a committed atheist, an English professor with no interest whatsoever in what I thought were silly superstitions, I had nonetheless come to Christian faith. I'd shared my story with a few people at church; I'd been invited to write a magazine article; a publisher saw the article and emailed me out of the blue to suggest that I write a book. Well! I'm still not entirely sure why I said yes, except that along with my New England reserve comes a New England desire to make myself useful; my story might do some good.
So, in 2008, just two years after I was baptized, I wrote what would in 2010 be published as the first version of Not God's Type.
I had arrived! (Or so I thought.) But very quickly, I discovered that the map of my journey contained a lot of blank spaces. I hadn't accounted for how it was that, as an antagonistic atheist, I had become willing to consider apologetics arguments. I'd focused on the rational part of my conversion and almost totally ignored the role of imagination and literature—although I came to realize later that this was at the heart of my conversion.
In some important ways I'd over-simplified my story, and I can hazard a guess as to why. My newfound faith required me to change not just my ideas but my actions and my attitudes. Conversion, far from being a one-shot deal that I was done with, involved the exquisitely painful working of grace into all the cracks and crannies of my soul. C. S. Lewis's The Voyage of the 'Dawn Treader' has long been my favorite of the Narnia Chronicles, but I came to sympathize even more with Eustace and his un-dragoning. It seems to me that even as I was writing about the remembered terror and disorientation of an atheist becoming a Christian, I was trying to control and manage the fearful re-orientation of myself as a Christian.
I might never have realized any of this—never interrogated myself in this way—except that in 2012 my journey took me into the Catholic Church. The Protestant publisher of the first version of NGT promptly handed back the rights; Ignatius Press then took it on, and gave me the chance to revise it. My intention had been to add a chapter or two, telling how I had become a Catholic, but I soon realized that I had a lot more revision to do, if I was to tell my story the way it needed to be told. What I had written in 2008 was true; what I could say about those same events five years later would be more true—if I could dig deeper, and question myself more rigorously.
One of the first things I discovered was that a scene can be factually accurate and still not ring true. For instance, the first version of Not God's Type contained a vignette describing my helping at Vacation Bible School. It was always my least favorite bit of the book, and when I re-read it I figured out why. It had a syrupy, Hallmark-card tone to it; I was trying to convince the reader—and indeed, to convince myself at the time—that this experience was joyful and profound. Well, it wasn't. The problem was that when I wrote the scene, I was trying to fit into a certain image of piety for my audience: Real Christians experience profound moments of joy serving among the little children!
But it was false. I like kids, but helping at vbs wasn't profound. It was usually okay, often boring, and sometimes absurd. For the record, putting Mentos in a bottle of Diet Coke is a lame way of illustrating the Resurrection. I still don't know what that was about. It was fun—I'll grant that—but even at the time, I choked on using it as a way to talk to the kids about Jesus. Just … no. Unfortunately, I didn't write that; instead, I wrote a sentimental and glowing scene about discovering joy in service. The facts were right, but the meaning was all wrong. So I cut the scene.
In the revised version, I do write about experiences of real joy; and those scenes work, I venture to say, because I'm painting a picture that evokes my actual response, not the response I thought I should have had.
In addition to the temptation to present myself in a shiny-positive light, there was also a perverse temptation to "show off" my humility by emphasizing my failures. The very same scenes that had been quite unpleasant to experience—such as losing my temper at a fencing tournament on the very first day after I'd decided to become a Christian—were relatively easy to write.