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By Christine Sunderland

I have been in a process of discernment, seeking God’s will. Discernment requires discipline, and as we enter the Lenten season, we discipline ourselves to know the will of God in our lives.

Discernment for a novelist lays the foundation for the novel-to-be. Discernment answers the questions, why and what: why should I write, and what should I write about. These answers will determine everything else.

I have found that when asking God these questions, the answers lie not in my own thinking, but deeper than my thoughts, like an underground river. I creep in the dark, blind, my hands reaching for something solid to hold on to, to build upon. To ensure the answers are from the right source, I immerse myself in the Psalms, reading the daily office. Phrases and rhythms begin to fill me, my heart and mind, and I am protected from the dark, as though under a cover of grace. Eventually, the blindness lessens, and I can see my way forward, as I listen and wait upon the Lord.

Stories and characters begin to populate my days. I take this as a yes, I should write, but which stories and characters. I consider themes that are prescient to our culture today, and consider how the characters and their stories will embody that theme. I read a great deal and clip articles from magazines and newspapers. As the pieces begin to fall into place, I sense I am on the right path.

I have decided to write about evolution, genetics, our beginnings and endings, the glories of creation, and the relationship between faith and science. How did I discern this?

This last year I read Yolanda Willis’ A Hidden Child in Greece: Rescue in the Holocaust (Authorhouse, 2017). Greek Jews, she and her family were hidden by Christians, moved from one location to another for four years. She was six and her brother two when the war first threatened Greece.

This last year I also reread Francis Collins’ The Language of God (Simon & Schuster, 2006), an account of his conversion from agnosticism to Christianity during his study of the human genome and its stunning “elegance.” He created a case for “Theistic Evolution,” claiming that evolution supports rather than denies the existence of a loving God. This led me to Erik Metaxas’ Miracles (Dutton, 2014) in which he considers Darwinian evolution, and the role of Intelligence in the creation of the world, in setting off that first Big Bang.

I have often marveled at the wonder of the natural world, the wonder of humanity, the wonder of consciousness, reflection, and choice.

Could I include in my next novel (working title, Angel Mountain) a scientist like Francis Collins and an eighty-four year old woman like Yolanda Willis? It wasn’t obvious to me how the two would connect (although it might be to some), until I tentatively created their backstories. The common thread between genetic mapping, evolution, and the Holocaust, I soon realized, was Hitler’s racial eugenics, a logical extension of Darwinian evolution. Before Hitler others had taken Darwin’s idea of natural selection and survival of the fittest to mean we should choose who lives and dies in order to create the perfect race. For at the root of eugenics is racial breeding and genocide, abortion and population control, and in 1938 Germany, the Aryan race was deemed to live, others to die, including the old, the infirm, the handicapped, and any non-Aryans. The Jewish people were the first group chosen. Others were on the list to be exterminated.

During the last year I have also had many dreams of Heaven, involving rainbow prisms of light, canoes paddling to shore, brilliant colors and music. Were these dreams to be a part of my story? I’ve often wanted to write about Heaven, just as C.S. Lewis did in The Great Divorce.

Behind our home in Northern California,  Mount Diablo connects Heaven and Earth. A hermit might live in a cave on the side of that mountain, an old man running from trauma and tragedy, toward something celestial. The mountain could reflect the natural world, and its peak could point to the stars and the universe. There could be an eclipse, solar or lunar.

I recalled a phrase, “The music of the spheres” or “The harmony of the spheres,” an idea put forth by Pythagoras and developed by Aristotle, theorizing that the universe is bound by ratios, perfect combinations of numbers, just as music is bound by ratios. Perhaps the hermit could hear the music of the spheres, see the colors of the rainbow, in all their mathematical perfection.

These ideas came to me as I read the Psalms and prayed for discernment. Evolution, the creation of the universe and mapping of the genome, the telescopic and the microscopic reflecting the elegance of harmony and ratio, seemed worth exploring.

I recently learned that there are rock tunnels on Mount Diablo, natural caverns for my hermit, and another piece of the story was confirmed.

Yesterday, Valentine’s Day merged with Ash Wednesday, wedding love and discipline, another fitting theme for my novel. Indeed, love will sing to my scientist, for love moves the stars and the heavens, as Dante wrote:

Yet, as a wheel moves smoothly, free from jars,
My will and my desire were turned by love,
The love that moves the sun and the other stars.[1]

My discernment, moved by love and protected by Psalms, will open my heart and mind to more answers. Only God knows where it will lead. And that’s the way it should be, world without end.

Discerning: First steps to writing your novel. @chrisunderland #acfwblog #amwriting Click To Tweet

[1] Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), The Divine Comedy, trs. Reynolds, Barbara, and Sayers, Dorothy L. (Penguin, 1960, 2004) 347.

Christine Sunderland has authored six award-winning novels: Pilgrimage, set in Italy, Offerings, set in France, Inheritance, set in England, Hana-lani, set in Hawaii, The Magdalene Mystery, set in Rome and Provence (all Oaktara), and The Fire Trail (eLectio), set at UC Berkeley. She serves as Managing Editor for the American Church Union ( Visit Christine at (website and blog).



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One Response to Discerning

  1. Bud Warder says:

    You have a wonderful way of taking into account all possibilities for a journey. In “Discerning” you first Question, then Discover, then Resolve, then Create. You’ll go on to create another very interesting literary work, that we’ll want to read.

    Those of us who are Engineers follow the same path: question, discover, resolve, and create. That is the fun in being an Engineer in the first place, the excitement of the challenge and journey. And we create wonderful works as well.

    Regarding mapping of the genome, I’ve recently started reading “Family Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy” by Bettinger. It’s a treasure.

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