(This is the text of my remarks at the Artists of Central Concert, Central Presbyterian Church, St. Louis, Mo., on Feb. 29, 2020.)
I’m one of those fortunate people who can tell you exactly when and where I became a Christian. It was Jan. 26, 1973, about 8:30 p.m. I was standing in a hallway of the basement of the main lecture building at Louisiana State University, when I prayed to receive Christ.
Many Christians don’t have those specifics. My wife, for example, was raised in a Christian home, and she can’t remember when she wasn’t a believer. She remembers her baptism in a local river, not the least because she saw a snake swim by.
Many writers of faith can tell you exactly when they felt called by God to write. Others can’t. I was a writer before I was a Christian. I wrote my first story, a mystery, when I was 10. I wrote James Bond satires at 14. At 15, I was rewriting fairy tales into contemporary settings. At 17, I was writing poetry – really bad poetry. In college, I wrote a one-act play for an exam in Chinese history. I majored in journalism, spending a lot of time writing for the campus newspaper. After college, I made my living by writing, especially corporate speechwriting. Writing has always been a part of my life and career.
In 2002, I was part of a short-term mission team to Eastern Europe, a three-person communications crew – a trip manager, a video guy, and me, the writer. Our job: interview and film missionaries to help publicize the overall mission effort in the area and create videos and articles that the missionaries could use with support-raising. It was a packed schedule, and it was immediately upended by an event in Erfurt, Germany – a school shooting where 13 people were killed.
We were diverted to Erfurt to help support a young pastor, who’d been ministering non-stop to the grieving for four days. What happened during the interview with him is a long story – but I can summarize it by saying that he, the video guy, and I were overwhelmed by the Holy Spirit. Even now it’s hard to describe the experience.
Five months later, I was flying to San Francisco for a conference. Reading while listening to one of the music programs, I heard a Greek tenor who sang in five languages. He sang one song in Italian, called “Red Moon.” I was clueless as to what he was singing about, but an image formed in my mind, of a priest dancing barefoot on a beach. When I reached downtown San Francisco, I found a bookstore and bought the CD.
That night in my head, I began imagining a story about that priest. Over time, he changed from Catholic to Anglican and then to a theology student. Italy changed to a university in Edinburgh. He was English but raised by a middle-class Scot veterinarian. He was a cyclist. And he fell in love with an American exchange student. His name was Michael Kent. His story would occupy my head for the next 18 years. Only this past week, while putting these thoughts together, did I realize that the inspiration for Michael came from that young pastor in Erfurt.
For three years, the story existed only in my head, getting longer and more elaborate. No one knew, including my wife. What finally moved it to the computer screen was something out of left field – Hurricane Katrina, and what it took to extricate my mother from New Orleans. I came out on the other side of that intense experience knowing I had to write the story down or I’d lose it.
I started writing, and I didn’t stop until more than 250,000 words later, something akin to the length of War and Peace. I split the manuscript into three pieces, and focused on the first part, writing and rewriting. I went to a writer’s conference, where an editor and an agent called my story “good.” The agent also said I needed to include werewolves, because they were hot at the moment with publishers. I assembled and mailed book proposals, minus the werewolves. The manuscript was rejected, many times, although a few rejections were encouraging.
In early 2010, a small specialty publisher said he’d heard about my manuscript and he’d like to read it. I said no; it wasn’t ready. He gently persisted for six months. I finally relented. Within days, he said he wanted to publish it. And I said no. Another six months passed before I agreed. We might call this “The Case of the Reluctant Author.”
Dancing Priest was born in December of 2011. This story of Michael Kent is about a young man who believes he understands his future as a priest, because it’s what he’s been called to do. Then he’s thrust, or shoved, into the center of dramatic, life-changing events, not unlike that pastor in Erfurt. That’s how I understood the story.
Then I heard from readers.
A pastor of a megachurch in Kentucky sent an email, telling me he’d ordered copies of Dancing Priest for his staff and his Elder Board. He called it “the best description of lifestyle evangelism” he’d ever seen. My first thought was, “What on earth is he talking about?” Until I’d read the book again and found it.
An executive with Microsoft sent a letter, saying that the book should be required reading for teenaged boys, because it described the nobility of behaving like men and fighting for good.
Two readers, both men who said they didn’t read fiction, told me they had to stop reading the book several times to control their tears.
A woman wrote that the book was so well-rendered that it could qualify as alternate history.
A sequel, A Light Shining, followed in December of 2012. A non-fiction book, Poetry at Work, came in 2013. Exhaustion from three books in three years, while holding down a full-time job, plus the final illness and death of my mother, meant that five years would pass before the third novel, Dancing King, was published. Dancing Prophet was published in 2018. The fifth and final story in the series, Dancing Prince, will be published in about three months.
The reactions speak to more than my Michael Kent stories. The reading of fiction has been declining for the past 30 to 40 years. There are reasons for that, but it’s a trend that impoverishes all of us. Speechwriting taught me that stories connect people to each other. I could spend weeks writing logical arguments and marshaling reams of evidence for a speech, and what the audience invariably remembered was the stories. And the jokes. If nothing else, that kept me humble.
But we’re constructed for stories. We’re built to be part of something bigger than ourselves, because God made us precisely to be a part of a bigger story. And when we read or hear a good story, something speaks to our hearts, and tells us that God is in control, He knows what He’s doing, and we’re a part of that.
Top photograph by Štefan Štefančík via Unsplash. Used with permission.