Tag Archives: writing and the spirit

Joan of Arcadia

Zoe took a trip with her mom and left me alone for five days. Every one of those evenings, my entertainment was Joan of Arcadia, a television drama that aired for two seasons about a dozen years ago. The premise is: at least once each episode, God appears to Joan in the person of a stranger and gives her an assignment such as join the school orchestra, keep your eyes open, clean out the garage. Usually Joan argues, almost always she misunderstands the purpose of whatever God proposes, and always by the end of the episode, the happenings caused by the assignment deliver an important message, a new way of understanding herself or the world.

I can’t recall ever being so fascinated by a television series. What captivates me is that we not only, along with Joan, learn about the world and ourselves; we also come away with new perspectives about God.

I just bought a DVD set of the two seasons to give to a friend, because it seems to me that when smart, generally open-minded and imaginative people can’t grasp why I or anyone with a modicum of common sense would believe in God, the problem is often that they won’t allow their imaginations to roam. It’s as if using one’s imagination to speculate about God is not only heretical but perhaps illegal, and surely cause for a stay in a rehab center like the one where Joan spends the summer between her junior and senior years.

I have often been asked, and occasionally have wondered on my own, why I’m writing this story instead of that one when that one would be more likely to make serious money. I think next time anyone poses the question, I will suggest they watch Joan of Arcadia. Because I see the show’s premise as a metaphor for the way artists are guided by something beyond their comprehension, often assisted by random people they meet or happenings they observe, or by wisdom or questions that arise out of their daily experiences.

I have decided to create a Perelandra College class around Joan of Arcadia as an elective in the Writing and the Spirit MA program. I’ll probably teach the class because it will give me an excuse to watch the series again and again. The thoughtful stuff it offers make it worth many viewings.

 

 

A Unique and Most Valuable Degree

About a dozen years ago, several of us founded a small online college. As I’m not patient enough to write the whole story here, I’ll only give the plot points.

Perelandra College got licensed by the state of CA to offer degrees and subsequently approved by a national accreditor. After a few years, for financial reasons, we gave up the accreditation, without which the license wasn’t worth all the work and money it required, so we also gave that up. Which left us as simply a provider of knowledge and encouragement.

We innocently believed that enough people just wanted to learn the writer’s craft to keep us afloat and perhaps help us bank enough to once again get licensed and accredited. But a cottage industry had arisen, offering to teach would-be writers the necessary craft and marketing skills, and all of this online. By now we’re competing with a legion of providers from blatant hucksters to the tolerably legit, among them Stanford University and James Patterson, most if not all of them far more capable of marketing than we are.

The obvious next step is to write off the school as a flop and move on. But since one of my tragic flaws is persistence, I’m not willing to give up. Another solution is to find an angle. I chose to follow the example of W.C. Field on his deathbed when somebody caught him reading a Bible and asked if he’d been converted, and he replied, “I’m looking for a loophole.”

Our first step in founding a college was to apply for status as a tax-exempt corporation. One of our partners knew an attorney with expertise in processing such applications for churches. So, we became a tax-exempt religious corporation. Which I recently learned can also exempt us from the cumbersome and expensive task of licensure, as long as “the instruction is limited to the principles of that religious organization.”

The ruling principle of Perelandra College holds that if artists diligently seek the source of inspiration with an active, humble, and open heart and mind, they will find what they need to make their work not only entertaining but true and of genuinely valuable. We view the source of inspiration in Christian terms, as the Holy Spirit.

When I first began teaching college creative writing, many of my classes were for beginners. Early on, I realized that most of the students might never, after finishing the class, write another story. So, I wondered, except for the sake of the few who were serious about learning the craft, what good was the class anyway? And soon I recognized that my goal was to teach creative problem solving — the use of both reason and intuition, both sides of the brain if you will, in the attempt to find the best answers to artistic problems. And I began to see that this skill is helpful, if not critical, in contending with the perplexing daily lives of most anybody. Which is why I believe the degree program, a Master of Arts in Writing and the Spirit — which I will soon propose to our board of governors — could also be called the Master of Arts in How to Live.

I imagine our board will approve and soon the primary goal of every class will be to find and apply inspiration, the highest form of creativity.

We currently offer certificate programs. But degrees are more valuable than certificates, and rightly so. Certificates are limited to skills. Degrees are meant to also offer a context in which the skills are applied, a holistic and rounded education.

James Patterson can’t (yet) offer a degree. Stanford University can, for about ten times the money we ask. And neither of them, or any of the others providers I know, has the nerve to claim they can help people get inspired, like we claim.

For a preview of what the Perelandra College degree program will offer, read Writing and the Spirit, free as an ebook until June 1.

Angels?

An anecdote about the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke tells of his being invited by his friend the psychologist Karl Jung to undertake psychotherapy. Rilke declines the offer, saying “I’m afraid if my demons go, my angels will go with them.”

In legend and literature are a host of characters who have bartered with the devil and traded their souls for creative powers.

William Blake, especially in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” portrays the angelic and the demonic as equally powerful and necessary. A Christian reading Blake may wish he could ask the poet, “Hey, which side are you on?”

Blake might explain that he roamed like a foreign correspondent through the spirit world, in the midst of a heavenly battleground, surrounded by firefights and war cries, reporting on what he saw and heard. He may have simply felt called to write what he witnessed and leave judgment to his readers.

Suppose a spirit gives us strange words, wild combinations of words, lines rich with meanings we have never consciously meant, and suppose they make us feel wicked, cruel or severely deranged, in a fearful way.

Just because inspiration strikes doesn’t mean we’re obliged to accept it. Perhaps Hitler was inspired to massacre people, Eric Rudolph to bomb abortion clinics.

Artists are called to partner with the spirit, not to be any spirit’s pawns.