The Worst List of All Time

I found something disturbing recently while looking for ways to promote The Opposite of Art. It’s a list over at GoodReads, called “The Worst Books of All Time.” In the top (bottom?) 50 titles or so, I found books like: To Kill a Mockingbird, Billy Budd, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, The Red Badge of Courage, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Forest Gump, Fahrenheit 451, Dune, Stranger in a Strange Land, and The Pearl. As a novelist and as a Christian, that list saddens me.

While discussing it with some fellow novelists, one said many books by Christians are poorly written. She then felt the need to qualify her statement by affirming that she thinks there are lots of well-written novels by Christians. Probably she didn't want to hurt anybody's feelings, and that's laudable, but it seems to me she had it right the first time.

It’s true many novels by Christians are poorly written. That's also true of many other kinds of novels. In fact it’s true of most novels of every kind, but its not a particular indictment of mediocre writers or the readers who enable them. Most people don't really care about excellence in architecture, sculpture, painting, or dance . . . or government, commerce, marriage, or anything else in life that ought to matter.

What interests me, is why. In our discussion about the “Worst Books” list, some of my author friends speculated that so many people dislike those novels because they were forced to read them in school and disliked them then. But these books truly are works of genius—most of them are, anyway—so why didn't we love them in the first place?

The answer has to do with what it means to live in a fallen world. As creatures made in the Creator's image, we were designed to use our gifts to their utmost, and to savor excellence in our neighbor's use of their gifts. It's impossible to imagine the words "good enough" being spoken in the Garden before the Fall. But we did fall, and one of the things we lost was our ability to throw ourselves into living with complete abandon. "Good is the enemy of great," as Jim Collins wrote (paraphrasing Voltaire). Thus, in settling for good enough, we have rampant mediocrity in the world.

Another thing we abandoned in the Fall was our ability to perceive the true extent of what we've lost. So when expediency and ego dilute the full potential of even our best writers and artists, the audience, being also lost, doesn't know enough to care. Therefore they applaud what little they can get, and their applause rewards mediocrity. This in turn inspires the production of more mediocrity, and the cycle builds more and more support for itself until mediocrity seems normal, or even (God forbid) good, and because that lie has become pervasive, the truth is difficult for even Christians to remember. Thus we have rampant mediocrity even in the church.

The faithful Christian's life will always include a sense of resisting mediocrity at every turn. It's a command and a duty. "Whatever you do, do it will all your heart, as if for the Lord and not for men." (Col 3:23) It's no coincidence that this command includes the same requirement for wholeheartedness as the Greatest Command of all, to "love the Lord your God with all your heart...."

How can we love the Lord with all our heart? By living every part of life with all our heart. By not settling. By always striving to improve. In other words, as with all of His commands, the Creator simply wants us to live (write, marry, work, etc.) as we were originally created to live...with complete abandonment to what we truly are, which will reveal itself in the constant exercise of excellence in all our gifts.

Don't believe the lie of "good enough." You're so much better than that. Strive for excellence in everything you do, including what you write and what you read.

Live with all your heart.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 8:51 AM  


Nicole said... January 19, 2011 at 10:55 AM  

It's an infinite pursuit, is it not?

You explained the problem related to the fallen nature. And then we must confront the inevitable conflict of the "levels" of excellence which it created. It's impossible for all of us to "gain" the same appreciation for excellence. Upbringing, exposure, education--all of these things contribute to what we ascertain as excellent. And how can we judge precisely what that "is" for another individual?

But you covered that with our individual response to seeking ever-increasing excellence--first by acknowledging it can only come from God and then learning He is the ultimate source of all we need and all we can attain.

Lynn Dean said... January 19, 2011 at 12:54 PM  

Have you been reading my email this week? I've had very similar discussions with writer friends.

In The Emperor's New Clothes, no one wanted to hurt feelings, but was it kind to applaud and pretend while the King was robbed of his glory?

Our King is worthy of the best we can give, and the world needs to hear truth that resonates.

Kay Day said... January 19, 2011 at 4:21 PM  

I'm curious as to the age of the person who compiled that list.
I read the book, "The Devil Wears Prada" and it was terrible. So many things bad about it that I won't even list them. But when I mention it to 20-something aged women they tell me they love it!
My goodness. They will not be my target audience if that is the case. I can't write stuff like that just because it's what people want.

I really struggle with the pursuit of excellence, to be honest. I've always been someone to whom things come relatively easy. I didn't have to apply myself very much to get decent grades. I could have worked harder and received excellent grades. But I settled for good enough.
I still have that tendency.
At the same time I'm a perfectionist and I think that I'm afraid that if I really strive for excellence that I will get caught up in it and become consumed by it.
I'm going to be thinking about this.
Thanks for the post.

Shaunie Friday--Up the Sunbeam said... January 20, 2011 at 8:18 PM  

I really love this Athol. There is a weird resistance to this mindset in the church, particularly as it relates to music ministry, but I suspect in any ministry that employs the arts and where people have an audience of some kind. The mantra, "it's not about you" has been spoken ad nauseum as an actual discouragement of the pursuit of excellence. Musicians who are true artists, who care about getting it right and producing something excellent for God's glory and for the edification of the people who hear it, are called divas and judged as arrogant and prideful. So they learn to squelch the artist within, to stay quiet and conform to the mediocrity that is mistaken for humility so everyone knows that THEY know, "it's not about me." As the mother of such an artist, my heart is broken over the hurt he has suffered at the hands of these people. Little by little they have finally convinced him that the only place for him to glorify God with the excellence he is capable of is outside the church. It is terribly sad to me, but I can't argue with him any longer. He's right.

Thank you for calling people to pursue excellence and to "live with all your heart!" Thank you for a post that bolsters my courage and tells me I'm not wrong and crazy and prideful to support my son in his pursuit of excellence. Thank you for reminding me that I need to pursue excellence even more in my own writing and photography and every area of my life!

I wrote some of my own thoughts about this subject recently here:

You inspire!!

Rachel Starr Thomson said... February 21, 2011 at 9:04 AM  

"The faithful Christian's life will always include a sense of resisting mediocrity at every turn. It's a command and a duty."


Well said, sir.

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