Karl Petersen (MTS ‘87) teaches English at Kwantlen Polytechnic University and writes in his spare time. He has published two collections of poetry, Bellowing in the Common (Regent College Publishing, 1999) and Urban Fits (Destinee Media, 2010), and a novel, The Kingdom of What Is (Wipf and Stock, 2017). His current project is The Body: Confessions of a Preacher’s Kid, childhood memoirs. He was raised in rural Washington and now lives in Vancouver with his Canadian wife, two daughters, a dog, and several fish. View his website here.
I wrote my first poem when I was ten about an osprey I’d been watching over a mountain lake while fishing. I was a lousy fisherman, and the osprey made me forget completely about catching fish. That should have been as clear a call as any to drop my nets and become a disciple of the imagination.
During my time at Regent, I read thinkers like Richard Niebuhr and Leland Ryken, who spoke with affirming, convincing voices about the imagination. Ryken’s words were like a key to a long-locked door: “There is no valid reason for the perennial Christian preference of biography, history, and the newspaper to fiction and poetry.”
In both of my poetry collections, the gamut of life in God’s world was being served up as a sacrament to me—some of it mystifying, some of it subdued, and some shimmering with “light from shook foil” (GM Hopkins). My first book of poetry, Bellowing in the Common, dwells on the ordinary, often overlooked, corners of creation. My second, Urban Fits is mostly about my coming to terms with urban life and finding God, or his absence, in Vancouver’s many idiosyncrasies.
Today I’m conscious of passing on to my two young girls the importance of God’s creation and of our own creations as good in and of themselves and as ways we can apprehend God. The world I began to create with my girls in their bedtime stories became my first novel, The Kingdom of What Is, a story about a thirteen-year-old girl who discovers another realm in the midst of her despairing life. She finds that this new land, though very familiar to her, radiates with transfiguration and a call to become part of something much bigger than herself.
I felt like a boy in a candy store writing in the novel’s plot twists and characters, following along with them on their quest. My excitement, I think, is a natural impulse. The imagination frees us to explore the world in ways perhaps we haven’t since childhood. I felt I was getting by with something, loosing myself from the mooring of propositions I and others had constructed for me as the only reliable statements of truth. And why shouldn’t I? My Christian faith itself is a “narrative faith.” Jesus himself preferred story-telling as a way of truth-telling. I think I’m in good company.
As I wrote, I also began to recognize more deeply the importance of stories as part of our cultural fabric. I was writing something I hoped would be a service, a contribution, not only to my girls but to my community. I wanted my story to be public. Why write it otherwise? This added an extra dimension of responsibility to the endeavour.
In The Kingdom of What Is, I am giving a shape to my world and human life, as I believe all good fiction attempts to do. Most fiction writers recognize their stories as expressions, in one small way, of bigger narratives—faith narratives. As Tolkien put it, our stories are “sub-creations,” guided by the mythologies we hold to. Writing my novel as an epic fantasy allowed me to explore, without standing on a soap box, the larger themes of my Christian worldview in ways that other forms of fiction cannot.
When I finished the novel and read it back, surprises shimmered occasionally from between the lines as from shook foil. I realized then what I liked most about the novel was what I didn’t write.
I'm with Ryken. The fiction that made CS Lewis
and JRR Tolkien so widely received is just as valid as a theology textbook. The
imagination gives life to the otherwise dry bones of propositional thought.
Ryken, Leland. The Christian Imagination: The Practice of Faith in Literature and Writing. Colorado Springs: WaterBrook Press, 2002.