Cover Story

Get real

Master of reality fiction, acclaimed author Larry Woiwode has found Christ, but can he find an audience?

Issue: "Larry Woiwode: By the book," July 4, 1998

and Gene Edward Veith - Nominated for the National Book Award and the National Book Critic's Circle Award. Winner of the William Faulkner Foundation Award and the notable book award from the American Library Association. Guggenheim Fellow, writer-in-residence at major universities, and regular contributor to The New Yorker. That doesn't sound like the resumé for a conservative evangelical, an Orthodox Presbyterian elder, a pro-life activist, and a Republican running for the North Dakota state legislature. But novelist Larry Woiwode is all of those things. He is also a champion of family values who is sometimes criticized for writing too realistically about sex. Once part of the New York literary scene, he is now a farmer. He leads Bible studies but criticizes C.S. Lewis. He is not, shall we say, a typical Christian writer. Mr. Woiwode (pronounced WHY-wood-ee) was born in 1941, the fifth generation in a family of North Dakota farmers. His father was a school administrator who took his family to several small towns in North Dakota and Illinois. Mr. Woiwode attended the University of Illinois for four and a half years, but kept changing majors. Without receiving a degree he set off for the big city, moving to New York to pursue an acting career. After only six months, he had a story accepted by The New Yorker, and he had broken into the New York literary community. In 1969, Mr. Woiwode's first novel (see p. 20) received rave reviews. In the mid-1970s he gained prizes, acclaim, and all the marks of literary success. He gave readings and workshops at major universities. Out of the world's sight, however, Mr. Woiwode was beginning to read the Bible in earnest. His artistic success was accompanied by personal miseries. "The Lord first convinced me I had to be faithful to him," he told WORLD, "and then, when I waffled about that, brought me low, first through a kind of breakdown and then by the death of my father, who died a few months after Beyond the Bedroom Wall [his second novel] was published." "In the last few months of work on it," Mr. Woiwode said, "I was convinced no one would publish such a loose and baggy monster, to paraphrase Henry James, and finished it solely for my father to have. Because my mother died when I was nine, my father's death had a crushing impact, yet was the vehicle used to call both me and my wife to committed faith and also bring about a reconciliation in our marriage." Mr. Woiwode grew up a Catholic and wandered as a young adult, but everything changed: "At one point I was in a hospital and a pastor my wife had met came and read Psalms to me. He was Reformed, a pastor in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and it was his explanation of Calvin's five points that drew the entire Bible into solid focus for me. For many years I had been reading it on my own, as I did during the drafting of Beyond the Bedroom Wall, and couldn't reconcile what seemed to me some of its inconsistencies until I understood, through this pastor, what it meant to be dead in sin. From that point all the rest fell into place, and I've been a Reformed Christian since." Despite his newfound theology, Mr. Woiwode still considers his first two works to be Christian novels. He describes What I'm Going to Do, I Think, which deals with a tragic marriage, as Christ-haunted. "My first novel opens with an epigraph from Blake addressed 'To God,' then moves into a quote from The Inferno," he says. "This was a conscious declaration and the novel ends with the statement, 'The wages of sin, dear, is death.' How could I have been more explicit?" His second novel pays attention to Catholicism, but Mr. Woiwode now sees the book in Reformed terms: "Beyond the Bedroom Wall is a Christian novel of the covenant," he says in retrospect, "of four generations of a family resting on God's grace or rebelling against it." The different members of this family "all imagine they are in the covenant," he says. "Many are; some aren't. Some are violently and articulately outside it." Nevertheless, he says, "I certainly pray my later works are different from my earlier ones. I hope I've matured and learned better and more precise ways to express myself and my faith through my characters-better and fuller ways to include, both metaphorically and overtly, the centrality to me of the love of Christ lived out in this all-hating world." Before long, Mr. Woiwode and his wife Carole-whom he describes as his muse, "the one determined to hold me to the Word of God"-decided that New York was not the best place to raise their four children (Newlyn, Joseph, Ruth, and Laurel). In 1978, they moved back to North Dakota, where they took up his family's ways. They now farm 160 acres, growing organic food and raising registered quarterhorses. As his work became more and more religious and after he left the New York scene, Mr. Woiwode received less attention from the critics. Though he sometimes still publishes in The New Yorker and other respected literary journals, he now also receives respectful rejections explaining that a piece is too religious. His later books, including his informal Bible commentary, Acts, have gone rapidly out of print, making them sometimes hard to find. Nor has he caught on with Christian readers. Some are unused to dealing with a sophisticated, artistic literary style. But many are also squeamish about Mr. Woiwode's no-holds-barred realism, which-though never pornographic-does not look away from sex, ugliness, and profanity. "I measure every sentence against my faith and the way God has revealed himself," he told WORLD. Yet he says that does not mean Christians should step away from harsh issues or even explicit references if necessary. If the Bible uses strong words, so should believers. "If sin isn't mentioned or depicted, there's no need for redemption," he says. "How can the majesty of God's mighty arm be defined in a saccharin romance? Real sin is the curse we wrestle with every day. "I know that every Christian writer must be aware, sentence by sentence, of whether what he or she is depicting is there to purposely cause a brother or sister to stumble. If not, then it could be that the self-appointed gatekeepers of what is proper are the ones causing brothers and sisters to stumble by fencing them from actuality." Mr. Woiwode argues that evangelicals tend to be too prudish about sexuality. "The Puritans, he says, "generally were not. I think it rather has something to do with evangelical Victorianism, which has nothing to do with biblical Christianity. These were the people determined to clothe, for instance, the native tribes of Africa, perhaps even more so than they were determined to bring them the gospel of peace. In our postmodern era (to be relevant) I think it's a sin that parents and the church will not discuss sexual matters, when they allow covenant youth to see it performed in TV movies and in soap operas on TV." Depicting his characters in their innermost imaginings and being "willing to listen to and record their worst fears and desires," he says, is "also known as confession of sin, an act Christians are called to perform." Mr. Woiwode is a harsh critic of the effects of television, and he and his wife do not allow one in their house. "I know godly Christian men and women who would not think of attending an R-rated movie but will let their children sit for hours in front of a television screen, absorbing the gore that comes to seem to them commonplace. R-rated movies almost always deal with sin and the sin doesn't always go unjudged." The reason Mr. Woiwode includes in his fiction language and events that make Christian readers cringe-including a case of incest-is his commitment to uncompromising realism. He thus rejects the literary genre of fantasy, which also sets him against the prevailing evangelical taste. And he commits another evangelical faux pas by criticizing C.S. Lewis and other writers of science fiction and fantasy. "I'm trying to represent people in their full dimensionality," Mr. Woiwode told WORLD, "rather than depict the cardboard cutouts you'll read in C.S. Lewis." Mr. Woiwode argues that the Bible has history and parable but no escapism: "C.S. Lewis tried to do what Tolkien, who was a kind of Shakespeare, did so well, and became a kind of totem, with his one-dimensional characters stuffed with the wonderful ideas in his essays." The problem is not with Mr. Lewis's ideas, but his fiction: "I like a lot of C.S. Lewis's essays, and appreciate Screwtape Letters, but he has not written one fictional work of lasting literary merit. His characters are cardboard people clothed in his ideas. His ideas are marvelous, but reading him is, for me, about the same as watching TV, which I seldom do." His quest for realism has led him into writing nonfiction. His memoirs, titled So He Says, will be coming out in February, and he is working on a biography of Harold Schafer, the man who gave the world Snowy bleach and Mr. Bubble bubble bath. Mr. Woiwode praises him as "a multi-millionaire who gave all his money away." He has also thrown himself into his church, and is an elder at Bethel Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Carson, N.D., where he leads Bible studies and has served on the denomination's Committee on Christian Education. He also founded, with his local church a study center called the Beth-El Institute, whose purpose is to apply Scripture to every area of learning and culture. The institute published the Bias Report, which he edited, and offered classes "in which a daily attempt was made to allow the glory and truth of God to shine through and overtake each subject." Mr. Woiwode's quest for realism has recently entered another phase: He is getting involved in politics. A longtime member of North Dakota Right to Life who has been active in the local Republican Party, Mr. Woiwode has been drafted by his party to run for state representative. Already elected poet laureate of the state-he also publishes poetry-his main campaign issue is farm policy. He is pushing a variety of schemes to save family farms, while avoiding the usual liberal panaceas. "Farmers are in the state they're in because of federally controlled programs and prices," he says, "and our state's farmers, or so I believe, need to break from that." Mr. Woiwode describes his political beliefs as "a sort of populism. This seems to me healthy. As a legislator one should be representing what the people, not the federal bureaucrats, want-as long as what they want is not ungodly, of course. If you start telling them what's best for them, then you're no better than a Communist dictator or plutocracy or some present condescending bureaucrats in our own government." But Mr. Woiwode's main calling is surely as a writer. "Fiction, for me, is a textured and dimensional application of the Word of God, of living it out in actual life." He exemplifies the possibilities and the difficulties of Christians engaging the non-Christian culture, risking rejection by both. His mission as a writer may be adventurous, but with God's grace it is by no means fruitless. And he remains hopeful: "I write for The New Yorker because I hope to pull it in an increasingly Calvinist direction."

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