August 22, 2012
How "The Singer" Was Born
Our good friend and beloved IVP author, Calvin Miller, died on August 19. The Singer, published in 1975, became his best-known work. Here, in its entirety, is the preface he wrote to the twenty-fifth-anniversary edition, in which he tells the story of the genesis of what Philip Yancey called "a groundbreaking book."
In the 1960s the rock culture savior made his appearance in New York. Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell opened on Broadway. Before long these musicals had entered common culture all across America. The tunes were memorable, and here and there the lyrics touched the New Testament account of Christ. Still, to me the Broadway Jesus seemed a pale imitation of the New Testament Christ. Someone, I thought, ought to write a creative account of the Christ of St. Matthew that St. Matthew would recognize. It was then that the chilling notion occurred to me: perhaps I was the one to do it.
It occurred to me that God might be giving me what Peter Marshall once called the tap on the shoulder. Yet the idea that I might do it was so grandiose that I pushed the matter to the back of my mind and left it there. I might never have attempted the writing of such a piece except that during those days I was going through some tough times spiritually. I had been trying to plant a new church in the suburbs of Omaha. The effort of making it all happen seemed futile at times. So few were actually attending the church that my stamina was spent. I often felt spiritually bankrupt. I was plagued by feelings of discouragement that sometimes bordered on depression. In my emotional neediness I turned to Christ each day for the supply of grace I needed just to survive.
In my hunger to find the nourishing of Christ, I found myself eagerly devouring the devotional classics. Teresa of Ávila, Thomas Merton and a score of other writers came to my rescue, and their counsel, coupled with that of Scripture, at last gave vigor to my feeble emotions. During those days the weak witness of the Broadway Jesus met the robust Christ of Thomas á Kempis at last. In the middle of my neediness I was rescued by the Singer.
I first met him one morning at 2:00 a.m. I awoke and hurried to my study. The energy of his arrival came in a poetic visitation. I sat down and wrote in longhand, "When he awoke, the song was there . . ." It was an odd autobiographical incident, for when I awoke the song had been there, but more than that, the Singer was there. My unsteady state of mind had summoned a Christ more real than the Lloyd-Webber Jesus. That superstar was too interested in the footlights of Broadway to offer me much help.
On alternate nights thereafter, I awoke, went to my study and continued to write. Gradually the story took shape as a tale of light breaking through a half-dozen midnights of my hungry spirituality.
On one of those postmidnight visitations as I returned to my bed, my wife awoke and asked me what I was doing.
"Writing a poem about Jesus," I replied.
"It must be a long one," she said.
"Yes, it may be 150 pages when I'm done," I said in the darkness.
"But you haven't been able to sell even a short poem anywhere in the country."
"I know. Do you think I could be going crazy?" I probed.
Used to my poetic insomnia, she replied, "No honey. People like you never go crazy; they just drive the rest of us there."
I received her rebuke in silence before she added, "Keep writing."
When the manuscript was done, I sent it to Jim Sire at InterVarsity Press. "It's good," he said, "but we want to think about it a couple of weeks before we give you an answer." So I waited until finally the letter came. They were going to do it. Jim Sire had done his Ph.D. on John Milton, and the fact that he liked it was joy immeasurable to me. "But," he cautioned, "We're going to print five thousand of these. They may not do well--in fact we may end up with four thousand of them on skids in our basement for the next ten years. Still, it's a good book and deserves to be in print."
And so it came to be.
A Romans 8:28 puzzle fell on me when Paul Little was killed in 1975. His untimely and much-lamented death put me on the convention program of the Christian Booksellers Association in Anaheim that summer. I did a monologue from The Singer--my new allegorical account of the life of Christ--and with that luncheon my world changed. Not only did booksellers encourage me, but many of them seemed to fall in love with The Singer. By the fall of that year the book was in its fourth printing, and across the succeeding years it has gone through dozens of others.
Following its early onrush of success, The Singer made a profound difference in my life. I was grateful that what others had told me concerning its impact could be true in my life as well. But then perhaps this is true of all worthy books. They create a community of servants, blessing the words that touch them and call them into newness.
The publication of The Singer lifted me to a new view of myself. I felt a call to take my writing more seriously than I once had. For some I suppose a single success like The Singer might be an enticement to arrogance. For me it was an overwhelming call to modesty. I know the pretense in ducking one's head at compliments and intoning, "God gave this to me." In my years of being a pastor, many folks had come to me with poems "God gave me." The poems were sometimes so bad I felt sure God wanted no connection with them. So I was reluctant to give God the credit for The Singer in case he didn't want it. But one thing has occupied my mind since the success of the piece: all of us are on earth to glorify God, and writing is in part my way to do it.
But if I benefited from The Singer, our church benefited even more from its publication. The church I was planting grew even more rapidly as people read the book and came to see what the author was really like. Over and over those who came to the church said they had read The Singer. In some cases the book had played a part in their conversion. Many readers came into the membership of our church. The Singer was in no way intended as a church growth tool, yet in a subtle way it served as gentle calling to this end.
In the year of the book's release InterVarsity Press became for me a window to a new vision of usefulness in the kingdom of God. So many wonderful people there affirmed me and helped me find a usable place as a writer. None more so than Jim Sire and Andy Le Peau, to whom I owe so much for their confidence and editing skills.
But Christ himself was the center of my soul in those needy days. The Singer is an "artsy" look at Jesus, but the art is probably not as important as the counsel of the Spirit. Still, what artist ever really knows the quality of his or her art? I have rarely sensed the excellence I want to believe the Holy Spirit sponsors. We have to depend on others to tell us whether our work has quality. Even so, we should not wait until we are sure of our art, or we will never use it to praise God at all.
If the book is less worthy than a better writer might have made it, it is nonetheless my attempt to affirm Christ, and while others may debate its merits, for me it still stands as my way to honor him.
When it was first released, some critics complimented it and some panned it. I felt good that The Singer was at least the subject of critical argument. Among all the reviews that blessed me in those early days, perhaps one from Canada revealed the best understanding of my need to offer the Savior my fledgling art. This reviewer wrote what has stood these past twenty-five years as my definition of the work.
"Calvin Miller," he said, "is himself the Troubadour singing a love song to his Lord." Whatever the merits of his critique, I would like his words to remain as the ultimate definition of The Singer.