A literary journalist and publicist since 2003, Dee Stewart's writings have appeared in Precious Times, Romantic Times Magazines, Spirit Led Woman and on The Master's Artist Blog. Her work focuses on fiction, popular culture, media and their relationship to people who live according to a Christian worldview. Dee Stewart is the owner of DeeGospel PR, a Christian entertainment PR boutique located in Atlanta, GA where she lives. Visit her Christian Fiction Blog, which turned 5 years old in July at http://christianfiction.blogspot.com, keep up with her current projects at http://www.deestewart.com, talk to in real-time on Twitter at @deegospel.
The Human Heart in Conflict with Itself
A conversation with award-winning author Richard Doster
Richard Doster is the editor of byFaith magazine. He’s been published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is winner of the 2006 and 2008 Evangelical Press Association’s Award of Excellence, and was a Christy Award finalist for best first novel. His work concentrates on Southern fiction: exploring the history, religion, family relationships, sense of community and place, and social tensions that characterize his home region.
In honor of Rev. Doctor Martin Luther, King, Jr.’s birthday, I wanted to chat with Richard about his second novel, Crossing the Lines (David C. Cook).
Doster takes the reader beyond racial stereotypes and reveals the extraordinary nobility of those willing to fight and sacrifice so all Americans can enjoy equality and justice.
Richard, let’s talk. Social retrospective. What should a reader observe about our current society from Crossing the Lines?
Two things come to mind quickly: First, we’ve come a long way. For example, I live in an Atlanta suburb; when I walk my dog every morning, I pass the homes of two or three African American neighbors. We wave and smile and greet one another warmly. Fifty years ago nobody in the South would have believed that would be possible.
Last Sunday, when I was in church, I sat next to June, an African American woman. As I looked around the small congregation I noticed that—I don’t know—maybe 15 percent of the congregation was nonwhite. Fifty years ago nobody in the South—no matter how progressive they were—would have believed that was possible.
When someone reads Crossing the Lines, when they get a feel for where we were just forty or fifty years ago, I think they’ll come away from the book encouraged at how far we’ve come as a society, especially in the South.
But (and this is second) we’ve got some distance to travel. Just several months ago, shortly after President Obama’s inauguration, attorney general Eric Holder said the United States is “a nation of cowards” when it comes to race relations. “Though . . . there remain many unresolved racial issues,” Holder said, “. . . we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about things racial . . . we have to have the guts to talk about race issues instead of avoiding them.”
I hope this book will encourage black and white readers to talk with one another.
Personal challenge. How will the book challenge readers?
You know, both my novels, even though they’re probably viewed as “historical,” aren’t primarily about what happened in history. They’re about what happens to us. They’re about what happens when people find themselves facing inevitable change. They examine how people—creatures with emotions, convictions, and attitudes—respond when they’re confronted with new and uncomfortable ideas. They describe how we change—slowly and uncomfortably—when those ideas seem to have merit. Both books are about how we react when the comfortable status quo is pulled out from under us.
The history in Crossing the Lines is accurate, but the story is, as Faulkner once said, about “the human heart in conflict with itself.”
History lesson. Why did you choose the civil rights era?
This was a time when the country was fundamentally changed—when we saw righteousness confront evil—and righteousness won. It was a time when the courage of humble, anonymous, and powerless people overcame the self-interest of entrenched power. And it was the era when our understanding of justice was challenged and redefined.
In the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln talked about a “new birth of freedom.” In many respects the civil rights era was, for people of every color, exactly that.
Why is Christian fiction relevant?
Ah! You’ve asked a question that is, in this particular cultural moment, a hard one . . . at least for me. There are, I think, two kinds of “Christian fiction.” If we go back a couple of generations, to the time of Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Dorothy Sayers, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tokien (to name just a few), we find men and women who were considered great writers because of their Christian faith, not in spite of it.
They appreciated the inherent goodness of God’s creation; they knew the pervasive consequences of mankind’s fall; they relished the hope of Christ’s resurrection, and anticipated the day of His cosmic-wide redemption. They combined talent with an irresistible urge to tell stories, and then—armed with this gripping worldview—they made sense of a seemingly pointless world. Their books and poems provided eternal significance to the mundane; they held out hope while never flinching from the cold, hard truth of life in a sin-filled world. As a result, their works are appreciated today across the entire breadth of our literary culture.
Today’s Christian fiction edifies and inspires a particular target audience—Christians. And that’s important. Just as we need composers to create hymns, the church needs writers—novelists and theologians alike—to build up the body, to enhance our worship, to delight us with stories that exemplify the truths of the Christians faith.
Still, I wonder if we’ve left literature in the hands of those who have no hope to offer. I wonder if our nonbelieving neighbors need stories to help them make sense of the world; if they need books, poems, and short stories that probe life’s mystery, that offer hope without flinching from the fall’s consequences, that don’t mock our true state or the price that was paid for our redemption. If they do, we’re the only the ones who can provide them.
Comfort food. What good eating can we receive from Crossing the Lines?
I call Crossing the Lines a novel that’s about civil rights and Southern culture. And I think it’s that blend that gives the book its unique flavor. Readers will get a taste of the South’s contradictions; they’ll see that in the same era, generally speaking, when Faulkner was crafting timeless works of fiction, Martin Luther King was pleading for racial reconciliation.
During the days when Sam Phillips was producing the music of B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf Burnett, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley, black students were being jailed for ordering coffee at the Woolworth’s lunch counter. As Flannery O’Connor penned short stories, Georgia governor Marvin Griffin was vowing to stop the 1956 Sugar Bowl to prevent Georgia Tech from playing a Pittsburgh team that fielded one “Negro” player.
Readers will get a taste of an era when Southerners were creating the very best of the world’s culture—and the worst. And the fact is we’d have never had the one without the other.
We now realize that:
It is because of our once segregated society that we now know the thoughts and theology of Martin Luther King, Jr.
It was a long history of racial oppression that gave birth to the blues.
Without a history of racial strife, we’re never enriched by the “Christ-haunted” and guilt-inspired fiction of so many great Southern writers.
The worst of Southern culture spawned the best. This is the paradox that sends Jack Hall down a career path he never envisioned.
Come back next month for part two of this great interview. Visit Richard at www.richarddoster.com.