Category: death

Faith in the Shadow of Death: A Review of Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss

Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013) 

Christian Wiman is a poet with a rare cancer, currently in remission. He was brought up a Texan Baptist, lost his childhood faith, only to return to church and a new kind of faith in the midst of falling in love and being diagnosed with cancer in his late thirties.

It is the second great spiritual memoir I’ve read this year, and it reminded me a lot of the other – Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic. White men in their late forties who both write beautifully, and have a faith on the margins of doubt. Both memoirs are digressive and lack structure. Spufford’s is the more whimsical; Wyman’s is the more urgent and darker – but not even by that much.

My Bright Abyss is an extended meditation – illustrated with poetry – on believing in God when God so often feels absent. It is a far better book on doubt than any evangelical attempt I have encountered – probably because it is so honest, and so unconcerned to get to a particular answer. (Really, for Wiman and any unbeliever reading, it is a book about faith; but most believers will probably find it to be a book about doubt.)

It is an extremely quotable book; almost a collection of quotable insights. But this one is as good as any to give a taste of Wiman’s theme:

We feel ourselves alive in the anxiety of being alive. We feel God in the coming and going of God – or no, the coming and going of consciousness (God is constant). We are left with these fugitive instants of apprehension, in both senses of that word, which is one reason why poetry, which is designed not simply to arrest these instants but to integrate them into life, can be such a powerful aid to faith. (27)

He has not compelled me to return to poetry, although I believe he’s right, and the book itself stands as a testimony to the significance of poetry in making sense of life.

For Wiman, faith is something fragile:

To say that one must live in uncertainty doesn’t begin to get at the tenuous, precarious nature of faith. The minute you begin to speak with certitude about God, he is gone. (60)

At the centre of Wiman’s faith in this book is the moment Christ on the cross calls out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” It is a book which takes existence and death seriously, when so few books and so few people do. This is a man who has stared into the abyss and written beautifully about it.

More: Interview with Wiman here.

The Moment of Death

On Thursday I read a chapter out of a new Brazos book we’ve just bought at my library – Death and Afterlife: A Theological Introduction, by Terrence Nichols. The chapter was on Near Death Experiences. I think years ago I read a scathing dismissal of NDEs and filed them away as a combination of junk science, parapsychology and pop psychology. But Nichols is a believer in them as evidence for an afterlife. He claims there are common elements to NDEs across cultures and times in history, which is what one would have to show to counter the claim that NDEs are a psychological phenomenon depending on the dying person’s expectations of the afterlife. It sent shivers down my spine reading some of his descriptions. I want reassurance about an afterlife; I have this suspicion I shouldn’t be looking for it in NDEs but in the resurrection of Christ. (Nichols does this too; he spends chapters on more conventional Christian approaches to the afterlife, but I flicked straight to it.) He spoke of many people coming back from NDEs with a strong, lasting sense of peace and reassurance, and a desire to lead a more holy life. But I seem to remember Kerry Packer coming back the first time and saying there’s nothing.

I was reading another book about death, Death in the Victorian Family by Patricia Jalland, a fascinating cultural history, the sort of book I would quite like to write. Her opening chapter is on the way the strong evangelicalism of the 1860s shaped cultural expectations of death in Britain. A good death was testimony to the truth of the gospel, the believer radiating with joy and hope as they approached death and the glory of God. One prominent evangelical magazine featured in every issue the testimony of a believer’s good death. Jalland exposes the gap between these public accounts of death and the truth of the pain, agony and lack of transcendence revealed in personal letters and diaries from the same period. The embellished accounts made everyone else feel that death in their family should be like this too, leaving them privately devastated, but also needing to maintain the public face of a proper, good death. There was an obsession with the look on someone’s face as they died; they believed they could tell a person’s final destination by their countenance at the moment of death.