by Miriam Adeney
While imported books sit on shelves, there’s a famine for hearing the word of the Lord in context.
In April, 1995, the Regent College program in book writing for Asia, Africa, and Latin America dedicated three fresh manuscripts: (1) biographies of early Nepali Christians, written in Nepali by a Nepali, Solon Karthak; (2) a solid modern classic on the Holy Spirit, written in English by an Indian, Kuruvilla Chandy; and (3) a book of music for God, the church, and the world, written in Portuguese by a Brazilian, Gui Kerr. In the Philippines and Brazil, books from the program are already off the press. More authors are at work in Swahili, Japanese, Spanish, Portuguese, Hungarian, and English.
Regent College began this small program in 1991. The goal: to enable mature Christians from the non-Western world to write significant, biblically rich, and culturally contextualized books in the languages their people read.
In many countries, Christian bookstores stock mostly imports and translations. The common excuse is that “publishers must contend with lack of local writing talent” (“India,” Operation Mobilization, 1993, p. 278).
That excuse is not defensible, however. Potential writers exist. Unfortunately, cultivating them is a labor intensive business. And risky, too, because in the end they may write something that does not quite fit our agency’s party line. It’s quicker and surer to import and translate known Western authors. But that’s not good long-term strategy. While imported books sit on shelves, there’s a famine for hearing the word of the Lord in context.
In the Regent College book writing program we focus on topics (central, Christian, contextualized), readers, organization of ideas, interesting style, research methods, publisher relations, local models of literature and journalism, and procedures and habits for regular writing. Our method follows the writing circle (below).
Each of these dimensions occurs on multiple levels. For example, each author has a prayer partner. They meet weekly—even over the phone—to focus prayer on one subject—the book. We also pray as a group. Finally, the program itself is circled by people who pray for it. One level reinforces another: personal prayer partner for each author; group prayer; program prayer supporters. Writing a book can be spiritual warfare. Certainly it is psychological stress. Prayer arms us.
A CENTRAL TOPIC
In choosing a topic, we ask: What do I know about? What will people buy and read? What is important for the kingdom of God? Many savvy writers ask the first two questions, but only significant writers ask the third. To shape more central topics, each writer explores these questions, aided by a detailed guide:
1. What are some of the strongest worries, hopes, and felt needs of non-Christians throughout our region?
2. What are the strengths of Christians throughout our region?
3. What are the weaknesses of Christians throughout our region?
4. How complete is our Christian media coverage for (a) commentaries; (b) Sunday school and group study guides; (c) local church histories, biographies, doctrinal, theological, and devotional works, ministry aids, personal ethics, family life, Christian reflection on broad social issues; (d) fiction, poetry, drama, musicales; (e) print to supplement radio, TV, video, live communications; (f) children’s materials?
5. In light of the above findings, what should I write my book on? What other topics are urgent? If we were to dream, what would be a reasonable five-year plan to meet the needs listed?
A CHRISTIAN TREATMENT
In covering a subject, it is not enough simply to follow our own interests and experiences. That produces surface writing. But can we achieve greater theological depth?
Solon Karthak wrote biographies of three Nepali Christian leaders. He is a gifted storyteller, and had done interview research, so the biographies flowed readily. But we wondered: Could he enrich these stories theologically? After all, our aim was to teach younger Nepali Christians about their heritage. Many readers would be recent converts. Some would benon-Christians, open tolearning about this aspect of Nepali history.
So we asked: In these three leaders’ teaching, what themes of Scripture were important? What did they pray about? What biblical role models were they like?
“Oh, their prayers are famous,” Solon exclaimed. “But I completely forgot about including those.”
As we thought about biblical role models, the motif of Barnabas began to run through one biography.
We even asked: What key theological themes did these leaders neglect, and is there any way to mention these so as to achieve greater balance?
Clearly, such didactic planning would be wrong for novels and some other books. Still, where paper is scarce, we want to be stewards of substantial writing, not frivolous trivia.
To sensitize writers to doctrinal balance and imbalance in their work, we work through an exercise on common Christian songs. This is an eye-opener. (See chart on page 473.)
A CONTEXTUAL TREATMENT
Whatever area of culture they tackle, authors find aspects to affirm and to critique. Each culture is made by people who are in the image of God. Each culture is made by people who are also sinners. So we affirm the sights and smells of a culture, the textures and tastes, the structures and the slang. We revel in this God-given treasure chest of symbols. At the same time, we confront the idols.
Thinking about their readers’ media use, authors try to envision how their book might be part of a larger communication activity. Could it be used in adult Sunday school classes? In home Bible studies? In Bible schools or seminaries? Should they serialize their material in a periodical? Could they discuss their book on a local radio talk show? The way the book is to be used will affect the way they write it.
Please describe your audience
- Urban, rural, middle-class, other
- Christian knowledge
- How many secular books read per year?
- How many Christian books read per year?
- What music listened too? How much weekly?
- How much TV watched weekly?
- How much radio listened to weekly?
- Besides books, what else does he or she read?
- Newspapers? How often?
- Adventure, romance books?
- Technical instruction, cookbooks, etc.?
- Comics? Fotonovellas?
- Magazines – what kind?
- In what ways does he or she get Christian teaching, besides books?
- Church teaching, study group teaching?
- Radio, TV?
- Camps, conferences, festivals?
- In the home?
- Christian school, theological seminary?
- What makes reading difficult?
- Cost of books?
- Tiredness and little time?
- Noise, crowding, poor light?
- Few books?
- Poor quality books? In what way "poor"?
- Readers are considered "antisocial?"
- Lack of a habit of reading?
- What encourages reading?
- Enrolling in a course?
- A study group, Sunday school class, etc?
- Witnessing to nonbelievers?
- Being assigned a Christian leadership responsibility?
- Personal life dilemma?
- Desire for entertainment, enrichment?
- Attractive book graphics? What kind?
- Interesting writing? What kind?
- How will these factors change in 10 years?
Organization of ideas
To some extent, the way we organize a chapter is culturally specific. Some Asians enjoy a nuanced, circular approach. French may feel at home with grand rhetorical statements, as may Arabs. Latin Americans may revel in longer sentences. Pithy aphorisms strung like jewels on a string please some Indians. Similarly, appropriate interactive exercises will differ from one place to another.
Using whatever style fits, we aim for clarity. We aim for focus. We wrestle to pin the beginning and the end of a chapter to a single referent—whatever literary patterns may be at work throughout the middle.
PROCEDURES AND HABITS FOR REGULAR WRITING
Many writers struggle with “writer’s block” from time to time. These strategies help us get over that hurdle:
1. Write while walking. Pace around the room, or take a walk outside. Think or speak the next sentences, and every so often stop and jot them down (or type them in).
2. Argue with someone who disagrees. Why are you writing this book? There must be some people who need it. If they don’t have this book, they may be seduced to a less productive or less godly view. Imagine someone who promotes that view from which you are trying to rescue your readers. Mentally argue with this opponent. Try to present a strong case.
Or argue with an unformed reader as to why he or she should pursue your perspective.
If possible, play both roles: your opponent’s and yours. Periodically jot down lively expressions, arguments, or examples, both from your side and the other one.
3. Write a key sentence for each major section of your chapter. Probably your chapter will have three to five major sections, so this would mean three to five sentences. If you’re completely bogged down in one chapter, do this for a completely fresh chapter in order to jump start your brain.
4. Cluster. Do a cluster (brain-storming) exercise on a couple of key words or images. Following a train of word associations helps to unearth fresh words and images to illustrate an idea.
5. Set an immediate deadline. Can you do three paragraphs in the next half hour? Or two paragraphs in the next 10 minutes?
6. Keep this in mind: The battle is the Lord’s. Be aware that specific people are praying for you as you write today. Switch from one strategy to another to keep fresh.
TRAINERS AND WRITERS
Some writers are full of examples, but ramble on and on. Others are organized and deadly dull. Some storytellers know little theology. In each case, we try to identify gifts and needs. Then we nurture the strengths, and help them battle their weaknesses.
When we invite applicants, we don’t ask for writers. They don’t even need to like writing. We ask for people who have a passion to communicate to their people, a mature Christian world view, credible character in their community, teach-ability, and perseverance. With hard work, following guidelines, such people can craft substantial contributions that an editor can polish, to the blessing of many.
A “scribe and prophet” team can produce good books, too. The “prophet” is a respected, gifted, oral communicator who does not have the patience to write. A journeyman writer—the “scribe”—can come alongside the prophet, record his sermons, interview him for his life story and his thoughts on the topic of the book, and interview others around him. We welcome such scribes in our program.
What is our success rate? Some books are in print, some are in press, some manuscripts are nearly done, and some may take 20 years. When I rated authors a few years ago, I came up with this tabulation: Two writers are naturals who produce steadily and effortlessly, at least one chapter a week. One has blossomed into a national columnist (although his book is standing still). Three have shown dramatic improvement. Five have shown some improvement, and are working on interesting books. Three have shown little improvement. Three did not continue, mostly for personal reasons. Several are training writers back home, including two who showed little improvement.
Not every editor can succeed as a trainer in this kind of program. The trainer must provide professional editorial skills, spiritual support of the writers, psychological encouragement, deep and continuous cultural contextualization, biblical and theological balance and depth, and a knowledge of non-Western Christian publishing.
In the end, the trainer must love the writers, love writing, love the kingdom, and love the King. No other investment will be big enough to cover the costs.
Copyright © 1996 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.