It all began with a simple sentence at the top of the page – “I saw a red wagon rolling down a hill.”
As a ninth-grader in Lincolnton, Ga., Tony Cartledge was asked to spin a yarn beginning with that sentence. Years later he's still at it.
Not the story of the red wagon. Cartledge, now 56, no longer remembers those details. But it's the process of sitting down and composing a tale that Cartledge still relishes.
Recently, the Baptist minister, divinity school professor and former editor of the Baptist State Convention's Biblical Recorder, published a collection of vignettes – “Telling Stories: Tall Tales and Deep Truths” (Smith & Helwys). The slim volume consists mostly of allegories and illustrations for the many church sermons he gave as pastor of Woodhaven Baptist Church in Apex during the 1990s.
Cartledge writes about an older churchgoing couple who drive a gold Buick but know their way around a table saw. He writes of a rural woman from Georgia who had the gift of removing warts. And, demonstrating a passion for fantasy fiction, he writes of elves and dwarves and a young eagle named Tepherim.
“At some point I decided I wanted to build more of the sermon out of a story,” Cartledge said. “I would have a text in mind and write a short story illustrating the text. Those were the most popular sermons I did. People really seemed to like it, especially the young people. I would pull out a stool and sit beside the pulpit and tell a story.”
To some extent, all ministers tell stories, but Cartledge does so explicitly. Early in his career he started submitting commentaries on Sunday school lessons to religious publishing houses. In 1998, he was tapped to edit the Biblical Recorder, the official news journal of the Baptist State Convention. His humorous column, “Intrigued,” told of life's everyday joys and struggles – the effort to lose weight or the difficulty of getting church terminology such as “Christlike” past the computer spell checker.
A handsome, broad-shouldered man who played football in high school, Cartledge was reared in a small Georgia town where his father worked in a cotton mill. His was a fairly typical Southern Baptist childhood of Sunday church and youth group gatherings. He found his second home at the University of Georgia's Baptist Student Union and soon became known as a “preacher boy.” After graduating, he quickly found a church that took him on as its pastor.
Detours in life
But Cartledge's life, like that of many writers, took unexpected detours that led him to write. The first came in 1982 when his marriage broke up soon after he graduated from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Since conservative Baptist churches frown on divorced pastors as unfit for the pulpit, he was forced to reconsider his life's calling. He opted for graduate school at Duke University, where he earned a doctorate from the department of religion.
The second detour came in 1994 when his 7-year-old daughter, Bethany, was killed in a car crash with a drunken driver. Cartledge and his current wife, Jan, found the courage to write about that experience in a book, “A Whole New World: Life After Bethany.” It told of their determination not to become professional victims, perpetually stuck in a place of anger and grief, but “overcomers” who are able to get on with their lives while cherishing the memory of the girl who taught them to look ahead.
More recently, Cartledge has faced another turn. Concerned that the Baptist State Convention was becoming increasingly conservative and might soon limit his editorial independence, Cartledge quit his post last year. He is now associate professor of Old Testament at Campbell University's divinity school, but he hasn't given up on writing. He is contributing editor of Baptists Today, a magazine from the moderate camp of Baptist life, and he blogs three times a week at www.tonycartledge.com.
“He's an unusual product of Baptist life,” said Roger Nix, the executive director of the Raleigh Baptist Association. “He spans the gamut of preacher, pastor, professor and writer, and excels in whatever he participates in.”
On a recent Monday, Cartledge posted an entry on his blog titled “blackberry cathedral,” in which he talked about communing with God on Sunday morning in an open field at the edge of his Apex subdivision.
“As I bent and twisted and occasionally knelt to get at the ripe berries, I was accompanied only by bejeweled June bugs and Japanese beetles, along with an assortment of spiders and other small critters,” he wrote. “A mixed choir of birds sang the anthem as I reflected on God's good gift of wild blackberries and offered a prayer of thanks.”
Cartledge still attends church – a small congregation led by his wife, called Homestar Fellowship. The church, which meets at 5 p.m. Sunday evenings in downtown Raleigh, affiliates with the Baptist State Convention but takes a decidedly nontraditional approach to worship. It consists of 10 to 30 people sitting in a circle and talking or doing something creative, such as artwork. Earlier this month, Cartledge brought his blackberry cobbler.
But for Cartledge, it's writing that he loves most.
“My idea of a really fun day is a quiet place and a good subject and time to write,” he said. He doesn't know what the future holds, but he's pretty sure that whatever detours it brings, he'll be writing about them.
“One way or the other,” he said, “whatever I do, I'll be telling stories.”