In the last ten years, I’ve had the privilege of being asked to speak in a hundred different places all around the US, Europe, and Asia. I’ve spoken in small groups and large conferences, coast-to-coast radio programs and local podcasts. I’ve advocated for artists of faith of all kinds—dancers, writers, filmmakers, actors, poets, musicians, painters, graphic artists. I’ve had the privilege of meeting many extremely talented and good-hearted and sometimes influential people, who share my passion for the arts and for artists of faith. And I’ve spoken on arts theology and practices, on leading and nurturing artist groups, on beauty and the nature of art, and on this very sacred thing that we artists do—express our faith through the creativity and inspiration that God gave us. It has been extremely gratifying to share encouragement and hope to many thousands of artists, face-to-face and through the readership of the book.
So yeah, I’m blessed.
Now in all that time, I don’t believe I’ve ever told the tale of how Imagine That got published. So here—on the ten year anniversary—I thought I would share this God story with you now.
In 2005, my senior pastor challenged me to grow the arts ministries at our church and to develop a theology of the arts as the basis for these ministries. And I got really excited about that, because this has been one of my great passions. And then I started to realize that I actually didn’t have one. I didn’t have a well-conceived and Biblically-based theology of the arts. Certainly there were strong opinions I had, and things I had picked up along the way. But I didn’t have anything well-founded. And I realized that—without a biblical understanding of the arts—this would all devolve into an exercise of style over substance.
So I asked other worship pastor friends I knew if they had a theology of the arts. And they didn’t. I asked Christian artists if they had a theology of the arts. Nope. I even asked theologians and others who teach in seminaries, and they didn’t know. I was awash in ignorance about this whole thing. How does our faith and our art converge? How does God interact with me as an artist? How am I to act in the world with my art?
So I began reading what few books were out there at the time. Deep, thoughtful books by theologians like Hans Rookmaaker and Francis Schaeffer and Jeremy Begbie, writers like Madeleine L’Engle and Gregory Wolfe, and practitioners like Rory Noland. I’m indebted to these authors for molding my thinking and my heart. As I read, I took notes. Lots of them. Not just about the theological insights I was discovering, but also highly personal reflections, based on my life and ministry and artistic experiences. Over a few years time, the notes became articles, and the articles became blog posts, and eventually the blog posts became a manuscript that I would share with the different arts teams at my church—worship teams, drama team, tech teams, dancers and visual artists and the like.
And here’s where it gets interesting.
At the same time I was forming these thoughts, I was going through some counseling. There were some things I needed to sort out about myself—family of origin issues and other interpersonal issues, the kinds of things that start to surface when you get to your forties, that, if you are serious about growing in Christ, you just can’t ignore any more.
One day, my counselor suggested that I was extremely averse to criticism. In fact, he told me, I was a master at what he coined, “criticism management.” I suspect that this is something common with all artists. I mean, who wants to get criticized? But I was a leader of artists, and I needed to model that which I teach. So I knew it was something I needed to walk into. My counselor asked me a question: “Manuel, where can you put yourself in a situation where you are completely open and vulnerable to criticism?” Gulp.
Well, the only thing I could think of in that moment was this manuscript I was sharing with the people in my church. I had thought about sending it to a publisher about a hundred times, but I was afraid of the rejection. I was afraid of being told I wasn’t good enough to be a published author. And I would rather not try than be told I couldn’t be one.
Well, that was enough for my counselor. He told me to submit my manuscript. He said, “Put it out there for all the world to reject, and then see what happens. Because what will happen in reality is nothing. The world won’t end. And you won’t be any better or worse off than before. But you won’t realize that unless you risk this.”
So that’s what I did. I sent my manuscript to the Writer’s Edge, which is a book evaluation service that works with potential authors and established Christian publishing companies.* They are pretty specific, so if they don’t like your manuscript, they’ll provide you with a report telling you why.
A long month went by, and I received an email from Writer’s Edge. It took me a day before I mustered up the courage to read it. To my surprise, they liked the manuscript and would be providing a review in their next monthly report to their list of publishers. A month later, the report went out. A month after that, I received four inquiries from different Christian Publishers. Three of them wanted the rights to my manuscript. I chose the one with the most well-established reputation. And in 2009, the book was published.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
But there is more to the story. A few weeks ago, I was speaking at a local Songwriting Workshop, and someone approached me. She recognized me and introduced herself as the wife of the counselor that had helped me a dozen years ago. During our conversation, I told her my obtuse story of how Imagine That was birthed, and how her husband lit the match that started it all.
Sensing an opportunity, she shared with me that her husband was in a season of discouragement. “Could you sign a book for him?,” she explained. “It would mean a lot.”
Of course, it was a privilege to respond to her request. And as I thanked him in the scrawled pages of that copy, it occurred to me that I have many people to thank for getting this first book out there. From those who encouraged and mentored me, to those authors who inspired and taught me, to those who bought the book, to those whom I have had the privilege of sharing the sacred creative process.
Thank you all for the last ten years. I am blessed indeed.
[*Note: For first-time aspiring Christian writers, I recommend the Writer’s Edge as an option. I’ve found it to be a reputable manuscript evaluation service with ties in the traditional book industry. For a non-refundable $99 fee, Writer’s Edge can offer you the exposure that you could not get any other way, and the critique of connected industry professionals. Photo Credit: Photo by Csabi Elter on Unsplash.]