Breath for the Bones: The Wisdom of Luci Shaw

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Madeline L’Engle’s Walking on Water was the first book I ever read that explored the role of the Christian in the arts. For me, it was a game changer. Not only did it rearrange my thinking about what I felt called to, it affirmed and distilled many of my beliefs (and opinions) about the way Christians should approach their work—not just art, but any work.

After Walking on Water I discovered more and more books about the creative life—a much richer subject than all those how-to-write books I was reading. The former is a healthy and helpful exploration of a corner of God’s kingdom (the process of subcreation), about the great mystery of the creative act and its implications for a Christian—the why of art. The other sort of books, the How to Write a Novel in Five Easy Steps sort, may be helpful to a point, but spending too much time there is getting the cart before the horse. Why books are all about the horse; How books are about the cart. You can fill your brain with practical advice, but that’s akin to loading a horseless cart with cargo. You’ll just sit there. (Good grief, I’ve gone this far, so I might as well exhaust the metaphor.) Reading L’Engle’s book was like strapping a galloping Clydesdale to my little wagon. Along the way, many of those parcels of advice rattled loose, or I cast them off once I realized their lack of usefulness, but the horse? It’s still moving.

So what are some of those horse-before-the-cart books? The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard. “On Fairy Stories,” the essay by Tolkien. Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. Mystery and Manners, by Flannery O’Connor. Speak What We Feel, by Frederick Buechner, The Mind of the Maker, by Dorothy Sayers. To show that I’m not outright dismissing the more practical books on writing, I should mention two indispensable books—required reading around these parts: The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White, and On Writing Well, by William Zinsser. Stephen King’s On Writing is a good one, too, which straddles both approaches. (Look! Another horse-riding metaphor!)

I’ve just discovered a new and invaluable book on the subject of art and faith, one that I suspect will be around for a long time: Breath for the Bones: Art, Imagination, and Spirit, by Luci Shaw. Luci has been writing poetry and non-fiction for many years and is a member of the Chrysostom Society along with Walter Wangerin, Jr., Eugene Peterson, and the late Madeline L’Engle, among others. And a history that rich gives her voice in Breath for the Bones a gentle and loving authority. It’s clear that she’s thought long about God and art and good work, and she delivers those hard-earned thoughts in beautiful, well-wrought prose. It’s no exaggeration to say that I underlined more of this book than any other book I’ve read. I could go on about it, but I’ll let Luci speak for herself. Here are a few things I underlined:

“Despite this groping, creativity’s call is to find that way to tell, to show, to sing, to paint epiphany—at least to attempt what was seen in the third heaven or what is hoped for despite the darkening glass—even on this solid and unyielding earth.”

“There is no society on earth that does not attempt to decorate or embellish or enhance its dwelling places, its garments, its artifacts, its language, or the human body itself—either with graphic design or fabric or song or word or ritual. Maybe art and religion are aligned because religion also addresses the world in its attempt to seek and find, knock, and trust that God will open the door to truth, beauty, and the meaning of our living.”

“For Christians to shun, fear, or condemn the arts seems as anti-God as atheism. The creative imagination as expressed in the arts can glorify God and illuminate the human spirit with his truth.”

“Metaphor is imagination serving truth.”

“But rather than speaking in abstracts or talking in large, nebulous generalities, good writing needs to be—as we have seen it flooding the teachings of Scripture—tied to concrete images and details, what C. S. Lewis called ‘the tether and pang of the particular.’ It’s important to paint a picture, as Jesus did, that the reader can see or feel his or her way into.”

“Every time we tell a story or write a poem or compose an essay, we give chaos a way of reintegrating into order; we reverse entropy; pattern and meaning begin to overcome randomness and decay.”

“The Bible doesn’t teach theology systematically. It tells stories.”

“All my life I have been requesting the same thing—‘a baptized imagination’ as C. S. Lewis called it, with a wide enough faith to see the numinous in the ordinary.”

“A tree can’t thrash its branches; it waits for the wind to move them. I can manufacture neither poems nor spiritual power, but my task is to be on the spot, watching, ready when the breeze picks up.”

There are many, many more, but I’ll stop there. Breath for the Bones contains chapter after chapter, line after line of beautiful, robust wisdom from the pen of a poet. Whether you’re a writer or not, you should read this book, for a few reasons. First, it’s is an essential call for Christians to consider the place and power of art in God’s Kingdom and in their own lives—which is a primary focus of the Rabbit Room. Second, it’s because I’m thrilled to announce that Luci Shaw is our keynote speaker for Hutchmoot 2014. We’ve been dying to make this announcement for months, and we’re deeply honored to have her.

Profile photo of Andrew Peterson

As a singer-songwriter and recording artist, Andrew has released more than ten records over the past fifteen years. His music has earned him a reputation for writing songs that connect with his listeners in ways equally powerful, poetic, and intimate. He has also followed his gifts into the realm of publishing. His books include the four volumes of the award-winning Wingfeather Saga.


15 Comments

  1. Bailey

    So, if I could only purchase one of her books, which should it be? I’m torn between Breath to the Bones and Adventure of Ascent.

  2. BONNIE BUCKINGHAM

    I would purchase Breath for the Bones. I have a huge collection of her poetry. I have waited to meet her since missing her at a L’Abri conference in the 1990’s . She got sick. Praying she is well in October. Now I know why we were able to get tickets.

  3. Kim F

    Luci’s book ‘The Crime of Living Cautiously’ is the one of her books that I share the most. Life changing for me. But really, anything of hers is highly recommended.

  4. Kathleen Mahoney

    I’m in the same game as Hannah 🙂 I have not read any of her books, but boy am I excited to hear her!!

  5. BONNIE BUCKINGHAM

    “Friends for the Journey” is written about the friendship by the two: Luci Shaw and Madeleine L’Engle. Luci also did the eulogy at Madeleine’s funeral. Both had lost husbands about the same time . http://www.amazon.com/Friends-Journey-Luci-Shaw/dp/1573832413

    Then there are the poetry books. Pick up any. Go to her website.
    Mary’s Song and this one:

    Salutation

    Luke 1:39–45

    Framed in light,
    Mary sings through the doorway.
    Elizabeth’s six-month joy
    jumps, a palpable greeting,
    a hidden first encounter
    between son and Son.

    And my heart turns over
    when I meet Jesus
    in you.

    * * *

  6. Rob Collins

    I have never read Luci Shaw, but I’m excited to do so. Last year I hadn’t read Leif Enger before either, and what a treat “Peace Like a River” was for me. I’m looking forward to Hutchmoot 2014 and meeting Luci. Fun times ahead.

  7. Kimberlee Conway Ireton

    I loved Breath for the Bones, too, when I read it…oh dear, how many years ago? Thanks for reminding me of it. I shall have to reread it now.

    Also, most of those books about Writing a Novel in Five Easy Steps? My husband and I call them writing porn. They’re mostly a cheap thrill that makes you think you know how to write, when really all you know how to do is read about writing. I became a much better writer when I stopped reading those books and used the hours that I previously spent reading about writing to actually, well, write 🙂

  8. gllen

    i echo Rebecca – wholeheartedly!
    oh man! oh man!
    and a wee expletive of my own –
    Yipeeeeeeee!

  9. Lisa

    Wow, love those quotes! Definitely going to have to read that book….sounds like a perfect book to curl up with once the weather turns and winter starts tapping at the door. She sounds like a perfect fit for Hutchmoot, wish I could be there!

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