I've been reading a fascinating book: Feel: The Power of Listening to Your Heart by Matthew Elliot. I had the privilege of meeting Matthew in Nairobi, Kenya. He is the president of Oasis International Ltd., an international publisher and distributer of Christian books and Bibles. He has a particular desire to see quality, affordable, Christian literature available throughout Africa. We met again at the ICRS (International Christian Retail Show) in St. Louis. I always leave those events with scads of books. Matthew's book was the first on my list and in many ways may be the most influential book I've read in years. It deserves to be on the top of your lists too. It's message is a great one for all Christians, but is valuable for storytellers in particular.
Feel takes a comprehensive look at human emotions. As a fiction writer, I was intrigued: creating an emotional experience for our readers is our primary goal. Ask anyone why they liked a particular novel and the answer will always be because of the effect it had on their emotions. Love, hate, envy, joy, sorrow, anger, fury, or passion are the reasons we read. Conversely, if you've ever been tempted to skim ahead in a story, the emotional ride has likely been interrupted. The writing has slipped and the reader has disengaged.
As a Christian, Matthew Elliott's book takes a Biblical look at emotions, their functions and the current misconceptions. Although Elliott takes an intellectual look, his book is fresh and his approach involves his own story...and therefore it teases you in with an emotional tie: reading Feel and enjoying in and of itself is proof that Elliot is on to something!
We've all heard it: emotions can't be trusted. The Christian life is to be lived by faith based on truth (intellect) and not feelings. Fact, faith and feelings are presented (over and over again by well-meaning Christian leaders) as the engine, coal-car and caboose. After all, no rational human would base decisions on human emotion. Elliot points out the flaws in the common teaching. Not only is it unbiblical, it denies us a valuable tool that God has given us to assist in powering right decisions.
He uses the account of Solomon's decision to divide a baby in two as an example. The two women, each one claiming ownership of the baby reacted. By the clear emotional response of each woman, Solomon was informed of the right choice.
Our emotions teach us what is important to us. A parent worries over a child out past curfew. This happens naturally, along with rational thought, to assist us in finding our way through decisions with multiple complex alternatives. "Emotions tell us a lot, and they are so important in finding out the truth in life. Unfortunately, we are bound by a culture that tells us otherwise." (p 58)
"Separating thinking and judgments from emotion is like trying to ride a tandem bike with one rider. It is awkward, your balance is off, you tire easily, and you will not reach where you want to go. Add a second rider, learn to work together, and it becomes a well-oiled machine that accomplishes what it was made to do." (p 118)
Elliot points out that when God calls us to love our neighbors, he is calling us not only to act in a rational, benevolent manner, he is calling us to an emotional response. But how can God command an emotion? He's God, that's how. Sometimes we move in obedience without feeling. But often, obedience is followed by the actual feeling.
"We are conditioned to think that if we believe love, whether we really feel love does not really matter. We are taught that what matters is reason, theology, factual truth. But God has so much more for us than theology in a box. What we feel--our loves--reveals what we really believe and becomes the motivation for how we live." (p. 241)
It is laughable (actually not, perhaps a reason to cry, but that too is emotion expressed!) to imagine a wife who could be satisfied with a husband who claimed he loved his wife but was devoid of feeling for her. Elliot warns men not to try this at home.
Elliot points out that problems arise when we stuff our emotional responses and refuse to give them expression. Conversely, we are not to let our emotions (particularly negative ones) control us because we haven't exerted enough restraint.
"Our emotions, as they are informed by immersing ourselves in, studying, and loving the things of God, can lead the way in understanding and right living. This natural and powerful part of spirituality is not about lists or creeds or being a Calvinist or an Armenian. It is about really knowing and breathing and pursuing God with everything in us." (p 244)
John Piper tells us that sin is something we do when we seek satisfaction outside of Christ. Elliot explains that if we find that we have an emotional draw towards certain sinful behavior, it should prompt us to examine the "why". Have we substituted some shadow experience with true intimacy with the Almighty?
Matthew Elliot's voice isn't the only one speaking this truth, but he stands along side John Piper and Jonathan Edwards as one who has recognized the value of loving God with all your mind. And all your soul!
My advice to the writers on this loop: Read Feel. Tap into and value your emotions. Wasn't it Mark Twain that said, "No tears the writer, no tears the reader," ?
I can remember one day, sitting in my favorite writing chair. I was well into a project and had spent many wonderful hours with my protagonist who had been through many, many difficulties and pain on his pathway to faith. As I wrote the scene of his conversion, my heart swelled with emotion. Tears spilled down my cheeks. My wife happened by and looked at me with concern. "Are you all right?" she asked.
I sniffed. "Seth just came to Christ."
It sounds silly. Seth wasn't real. I'd made him up. But after spending many months getting Seth into lots of trouble, he had finally seen the light and because I'd formed an emotional bond with Seth, I experienced his story emotionally, something I need my readers to do if I'm going to succeed as a novelist.
Writers, if you don't find an easy emotional bond with your characters, neither will your readers. Teachers of the craft talk of making your protagonist sympathetic. What they mean is create a character that readers will care about.
Reread the last chapter of your work in process. Now judge it. Don't tell me if it had all the right elements. What did you FEEL?
If your analysis of a scene is only that it advanced the story, cut it or change it. If it doesn't make you love deeper, more angry, more fearful or even more outraged, you need to tap a deeper vein. Why? Because that's the way God made us. We are emotional beings. We read for an emotional response.
Thank you, Matthew Elliot. My own theology of emotions has been skewed and a bit off because of the current teaching in the Church about the mind being king. Your book is refreshing and has enlightened my mind on the subject. In my gut, I've always felt differently about this. And in this case, my gut has rightly informed my mind.