Julie here, and it is my privilege and pleasure to welcome back one of my favorite authors and friends, Cathy Gohlke for another challenging and thought-provoking post that could very well change how you write ... and how you live. Without further ado, I give you my good friend, Cathy.
I was ten years old when my mother tucked Charles Sheldon’s bestselling novel into my Easter basket, along with Barbie clothes, jellybeans and a chocolate bunny. The jellybeans and chocolate bunny disappeared by sundown. The Barbie clothes faded, as did my passion for them. But, after my Bible, I’ve read that novel more times than any other book. Like my Bible, that novel changed my life. And it was all because of the question that formed the novel’s premise.
Sheldon’s 1897 bestselling classic, In His Steps, first coined and made popular the question we’ve seen plastered on billboards, woven in bookmarks, and worn on colorful stretchy bracelets—“What would Jesus do?”
In the novel, the Rev. Henry Maxwell’s faith walk is challenged by an impoverished, dying man. Regretful and repentant, Rev. Maxwell determines to ask himself before each future action, What would Jesus do—what would He really do?—and act upon the answer—no matter the consequences. He challenges his congregation to join him in this quest, for one year.
Those accepting the challenge find that their lives are turned inside out and upside down as they alternately suffer and celebrate the consequences of their actions. Some lose the love and support of family and friends in the process. Some gain friends and purposes they’d never imagined. They begin to look at life and their own gifts from new perspectives. Ultimately, each one is transformed as they follow in Christ’s steps, living intentionally, and sacrificially as they understand He lived.
One powerful, mind-bending, mind-stretching question shaped a novel and transformed its characters in their most vulnerable places. And the power of that one question has changed the lives of countless readers.
All of that is to say that I’m star struck with the power of questions—as long as they are powerful, as long as they’re questions that open and stretch our minds.
What if we, as Christian writers, posed that question in our work? What if, before each project, we asked, What would Jesus do—what would He write—right here, right now? What has He prepared and gifted me to write? How would He portray this scene, this chapter, this conflict? What is the point He’d want to make? How would He make it live and breathe?
Jesus told stories to convey deep truths. He crafted tales and parables of farmers and fishermen, housewives, employers, knotty family relationships—all characters with relationships and occupations just like the real people He addressed. He showed characters using the same props His hearers used each day—lamps, oil, banquets, weddings, mustard seeds, yeast, dough. He showed them frightened or confused, in conflict with themselves and others—losing a coin, losing a pearl, their wheat fields riddled with tares, their children ungrateful. And he showed them in resolution—finding a coin, bundling wheat and burning tares after harvest, wayward children stumbling home while overjoyed parents go out to meet them.
Behind each of those stories is a question:
*What does a father do when his ungrateful child takes his inheritance and runs?
*Do we really need to remain diligent? Can’t we just wing it and ask for help later if we’re not prepared? Isn’t it the duty of good people to help me?
*What’s faith? What good is it? How much do I need? Does it remain the same, or if I exercise it, will it grow?
*Isn’t it enough to be tolerant? Do I have to be holy? What’s the difference and what difference does it make?
Oh—the power of a well phrased question! It can set us off and running.
Think about the stories you’ve read or the stories you’ve written. What questions do they pose? I’d venture to say that the deepest questions posed are things the author has asked or struggled with at some time in some form. At least that’s true for me.
My first novel, William Henry is a Fine Name, is an Underground Railroad story. Robert, the main character, struggles with issues of slavery—caught in the middle between an abolitionist father and a mother born and bred in a slave holding family. Robert’s question, ultimately, is “Where do I stand on the issue of slavery? Do I help slaves escape or do nothing?” In trying to untangle that web he asks, “Does God hate slavery—or is He for it?” That sounds mighty like What would Jesus do? to me.
In I Have Seen Him in the Watchfires, Robert is frustrated that he can’t join the Union Army before turning eighteen. He’s frustrated that he can’t control his family—his mother deserted him to return to her childhood home in the south; his father is off drawing maps for the Union Army; the cousin he loves is caught behind enemy lines. Ultimately, Robert asks, Can I surrender control? Is surrender to God defeat, or is it victory? I don’t know the answers to my life; I need God. What’s the right thing to do? Those questions embody the question, What would Jesus do in this situation?
In Promise Me This, Michael struggles to carry out the promise he made to Owen while aboard Titanic, to help Owen’s family in New Jersey and bring his sister, Annie to America. Years, finances, hard feelings and war all stand in his way and convolute his journey, but Michael can’t let go of the promise he made to the man who blessed him with life, a home, a family, a purpose—a future. He asks, repeatedly, as he traverses the rocky terrain of his life, “What would Owen do in this situation?”
In Promise Me This, Owen is a portrait of Christ. Once again, the main character essentially asks, What would Jesus do?
My newest novel, Band of Sisters, was born of a desire to end modern-day slavery and most of all to ask, what can I do to help in a need so desperate? Despite all my research, I couldn’t answer that—not until I opened Charles Sheldon’s novel, In His Steps, and read again the all-important question: What would Jesus do?
What would Jesus do about human trafficking? What did He do while here on earth that would give me clues?
As I contemplated those questions and Jesus’ actions and the principles by which He lived, I wrote my characters’ responses. New possibilities for the fight against modern-day slavery opened in my mind—ways to help in the real world that I’d never considered. Those led to connections with individuals and organizations—one spring boarding to another—most of which I’d never heard or known.
You can see some of those on the resource page http://authorcathygohlke.com/resources/ on my website—a hotline for help; organizations offering help and hope for healing to victims; others who prosecute predators; art and media forms, including novels and nonfiction books, that raise awareness of modern-day slavery. The list continues to grow, showing we can all do something, no matter our circumstances.
Before I knew it things were happening not only in my story, but in the lives of others who’ve read Band of Sisters, and other books by other authors written to raise awareness of human trafficking and to enlist warriors of every kind—including pen warriors—in the fight for abolition.
One reviewer (Christian Fiction Addiction) wrote, “Band of Sisters is a powerfully moving story, one that proved to be even more than I expected. I picked up the book expecting to be entertained - and I was. I picked up the book expecting to encounter a well-written read - and I did. But I did not pick up the book expecting my faith to be so challenged, to feel so moved to ask myself what Jesus would do, how I should respond in the face of social injustices, in the face of need. This book is not simply a poignant story, but a call to band together as Christians to confront the evil in this world, one person at a time.”
Little steps—but what a journey! I cried for joy when I read that review. The reader got—she really got it! And it began with a question posed by an author over one hundred years ago.
Try it—with your story. Ask, what would Jesus do? What would He have me write? What story has He prepared me (through experience, environment, passionate interest) to tell? How would He tell this story? How would He respond to the fundamental question of the story? The answers will knock your socks off.
And then leave it all with Him. See where He takes it. Be amazed.
Leave a comment for a chance to win Cathy's latest release, Band of Sisters. Be sure to leave your e-mail address in a spam-free manner such as susieseeker(at)seekerville(dot)com.
Cathy Gohlke is the two-time Christy Award-winning author of the critically acclaimed novels Promise Me This, William Henry is a Fine Name and I Have Seen Him in the Watchfires, which also won the Carol Award and was listed by Library Journal as one of the Best Books of 2008.
Band of Sisters released September, 2012 from Tyndale House Publishers.
When not traipsing the hills and dales of historic sites, Cathy, her husband, and their English Springer Spaniel, Reilly, make their home on the banks of the Laurel Run in Elkton, Maryland. Visit her website at www.cathygohlke.com.