Category: theology and literature

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.

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A beautiful monologue about what ‘Christianity feels like from the inside’: Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic

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A humanist friend bought this book for me, which was a kind thing of him to do, as it’s blessed me. I haven’t read much in the field, but it’s the finest apology for Christianity I’ve encountered.

There are so few contemporary Christian writers whose prose is beautiful, but this book is beautiful in places, and full of the kind of insight into human experience one hopes to find in the best literary fiction, and rarely encounters in Christian nonfiction.

All this said, I’m hard pressed to sum up Spufford’s argument. It’s less an argument than a beautiful monologue about what ‘Christianity feels like from the inside’ – about how, apparently, it makes emotional sense.

Spufford states early on that he is a fairly orthodox Christian, but he writes as someone who carries little theological baggage, and perhaps that’s why he’s refreshing. He describes his inner life and how it resonates with his faith. He actually manages to cover all the key areas of the faith in this account, from his limited but important experience of God, to the message of Jesus and the significance of church.

It’s not a book which will sit easily with evangelicals; he likes to use f-word, and he claims that hell is not something many Christians believe in. For me, I’m so glad to find this  account of a fragile but very real faith that takes seriously the prospect of being wrong, the spectre of atheism and the reality that we often hear nothing back when we pray, and spins from these threads a compelling account of ‘why, despite everything’ Christianity might still be true.

We are your lunatics, we surrender our lives to make your nonbelief possible: the nun in White Noise

It is a mixed blessing, how little I remember of novels; the fact I can return to Don DeLillo’s White Noise, which meant a lot to me ten years ago, and be surprised by things within it I had completely forgotten.

Published in 1985, it is proof that today’s anxious consumer world of surfaces, freeways, supermarkets, advertisements has been with us three decades. It feels like a novel of the internet age, even though computers are barely mentioned and there was no web. But this is why DeLillo is one of America’s greatest novelists.

Jack Gladney, professor of Hitler Studies, and his wife Babette are scared of death. The novel cuts between the domestic sphere and campus life, before a long middle chapter in which the whole town is evacuated due to a ‘toxic airborne event’. Without giving away the plot, in a climatic scene, Jack finds himself in hospital being tended by a nun-nurse. It is one of the few passages about religion in the novel; when he learns the nun is not a believer, he is curiously devastated, asking her if her dedication is a pretense. She responds:

“Our pretense is a dedication. Someone must appear to believe. Our lives are no less serious than if we professed real faith, real belief. As belief shrinks from the world, it is more necessary than ever that someone believe. Wild-eyed men in caves. Nuns in black. Monks who do not speak. We are left to believe. Fools, children. Those who have abandoned belief must still believe in us. They are sure they are right not to believe but they know belief must not fade completely. Hell is when no one believes. There must always be believers. Fools, idiots, those who hear voices, those who speak in tongues. We are your lunatics. We surrender our lives to make your nonbelief possible. You are sure that you are right but you don’t want everyone to think as you do. There is no truth without fools. We are your fools, your madwomen, rising at dawn to pray, lighting candles, asking statues for good health, long life.” (319)

It is a deeply insightful speech. The New Atheists may wish religion away; yet for the uncommitted majority, ambivalent toward religion, holding a vague belief in God, perhaps the dedication of the ‘lunatics’ is a vicarious faith. For us who are the lunatics, perhaps in moments of doubt we feel the same exasperated anger of the nurse. As I read this scene, I felt the same terror Jack feels, imagining a world without believers. White Noise, as well as being a very funny book, is a bleak vision of the horror of a godless world.

C.S. Lewis on the need for a Christian point of view

As one perpetually caught between literature and theology, C.S. Lewis’s words here make me pay attention:

We can make people (often) attend to the Christian point of view for half an hour or so; but the moment they have gone far away from our lecture or laid down our article, they are plunged back into a world where the opposite position is taken for granted. Every newspaper, film, novel and text book undermines our work. As long as that situation exists, widespread success is simply impossible. We must attack the enemy’s line of communication. What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects – with their Christianity latent. You can see this most easily if you look at it the other way round… It is not the books written in direct defence of Materialism that make the modern [person] a materialist; it is the materialistic assumptions in all the other books… The first step to the reconversion of this country is a series, produced by Christians, which can beat the Penguins and the Thinkers’ Library on their own ground.

– “Christian Apologetics” in Timeless At Heart, p. 18

(To my mind, Tom Wright says it better and closer to my way of thinking when he imagines – in “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative” –  ‘a novel which grips people with the structure of Christian thought, and with Christian motivation set deep into the heart and structure of the narrative, so that people would read that and resonate with it and realize that that story can be my story.’ For Wright, the purpose isn’t simply conversion or even apologetics, although that is part of it. The purpose is to embody and redeem all elements of life and infuse them with a background story of the kingdom. A sign and foretaste of Jesus’ reign. Lewis would probably agree. But I’m not sure Wright would call for the ‘reconversion’ of Britain – that horse has bolted, surely? Do we want to go back to Constantinianism? Not us Anabaptists, anyway.)

Yet I was genuinely struck by this passage. I picture Lewis as a sharp, kindly great-uncle, and he’s dispensing some pointed advice to me when I read his books. (For this analogy to work, he’s a great uncle I avoided until recently, because all the other great-nephews and nieces kept saying how great he was.) There’s a generation gap, but also genuine wisdom to be found.

For me, I am drawn to in-house Christian writing and thinking because I see too much of the church in the grip of fundamentalism and other unhealthy forms of Christianity.

Lewis writes here specifically about the need for more science books written by Christians, but I’m sure he’d urge me to persist with novels too. He is one of the few to be a respected voice in both.

On coming late to The Great Divorce

I’ve just finished C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce for the first time. It is a strange genre of writing, certainly not a novel in a conventional sense. Somewhat like Pilgrim’s Progress, it has a series of encounters with representative people in heaven, hell and in-between, whose responses to their situations have much to teach and warn us about our lives today.

Despite its disclaimer (‘a dream’), the book must surely horrify many evangelicals with its set-up of the afterlife. People’s fates are not fixed; they have the opportunity of visiting heaven and even staying. Their entry seems to depend upon their letting go of the sins which they have become attached to.

Lewis performs a deft twist at the end to exculpate himself and maintain his orthodoxy; the encounters we have read of are perhaps ‘only the mimicry of choices that had really been made long ago’ or perhaps ‘anticipations of a choice to be made at the end of all things’ (107). Better to say neither, advises George MacDonald (C.S. Lewis’s literary hero and his guide in heaven) – ‘do not ask of a vision in a dream more than a vision in a dream can give.’ MacDonald, warns him to be sure to ‘give no poor fool a pretext to think ye are claiming knowledge of what no mortal knows’ (108).

It is one of those rare books which inspire me to be a better person. Actually, perhaps it scares me to be better as much as inspires me – it is frightening to see parts of myself in all these people who are shutting out heaven and holding onto sin. The worst sin in The Great Divorce seems to be joylessness – those who shut out joy will shut out God. This is hard for a gloomy person like me to hear. It’s not the sin Jesus spent the most time on, but I see much truth in Lewis’s depiction of a series of people who will not embrace joy and truth because they are holding onto resentments of various kinds:

…it begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps criticising it. And yourself, in a dark hour, may will that mood, embrace it. Ye can repent and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticise the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine. (60)

Also frightening is Lewis’s depiction of a liberal bishop, who would rather return to the ambiguities of his theological reading group in the gloomy city (hell) than embrace the certainties of knowing God face to face. This is how he became what he is:

Having allowed oneself to drift, unresisting, unpraying, accepting every half-conscious solicitation from our desires, we reached a point where we no longer believed the Faith. Just in the same way, a jealous man, drifting and unresisting, reaches a point at which he believes lies about his best friend: a drunkard reaches a point at which (for the moment) he actually believes that another glass will do him no harm. (28)

There should be more books like this. The Shack probably belongs in the same genre, but unfortunately not in the same league.

Religion as a life sentence

I could never work out whether we were to view religion as a life-insurance policy or a life sentence. I can understand a wrathful God who’d just as soon dangle us all from a hook. And I can understand a tender, unprejudiced Jesus. But I could never quite feature the two of them living in the same house. You wind up walking on eggshells, never knowing which… is at home at the moment.
– Barbara Kingsolver The Poisonwood Bible

I’ve been listening to The Poisonwood Bible in the car. I didn’t read it when it came out; I was biased against it because it was a book club favourite. But two tapes in, I’m finding it an enthralling novel. A Southern Baptist family move to the Congo to live as missionaries there in the 1950s; Nathan Price, the father, is a harsh and stubborn man, not willing to learn from the Africans – or his wife, from whom this quote comes.

Jesus is tender sometimes, but is just as often harsh, especially with hypocrites. But still her quote resonates with me. Faith asks us to live out a particular way of life, at odds with the world. And we have do that without certainty. We shouldn’t think of salvation as ‘life insurance’ – yet often we do, and if it doesn’t pay out, then we have just been given a life sentence.

To Your Scattered Bodies Go

There were so many books I had to read I stopped reading. Then I had a craving like one craves junk food sometimes. I wanted to read science fiction. It was all I read from age 14-17, then I stopped almost completely. I imagined a recent book, I imagined discovering new voices in science fiction from the time I had left it. But instead, I ended up rifling through a markdown bin at a secondhand bookshop and picking out two 1970s paperbacks, the precise era I spent obsessively reading in my teens.

Philip Jose Farmer’s first volume of Riverworld – To Your Scattered Bodies Go – has been something to restore my interest in reading this week. I haven’t finished yet, but it is interesting to think of it theologically.

Everyone who has ever lived awakes with a resurrected body in a world dominated by a long river. The people are resurrected at their peak, with the bodies of young adults. Or most of them are; those who died as children are resurrected as children.

Everyone is naked and hairless. The hair starts growing and people begin covering themselves up, but before these things even happen, violence breaks out. There was just a brief window of time where we might have hoped for a peaceful society, or at least a better one than the one one people remembered on Earth. But that was not a possibility. There was not even the restraints of culture, family, the law. Some are been murdered hours after being resurrected. Fighting erupts over territory, sex and food. It’s made worse by the realisation that if one dies, one will wake up in a ‘refreshed’ body the next day. There is less reason to hold back.

The inhabitants don’t know why they are in this land, or how. They don’t even speculate much. The religious among them acknowledge that it is not the afterlife they believed in. But, of course, they are closer to the mark than the materialists who thought there was no survival beyond the grave. In the absence of any answers, the needs of the body and the rhythms of the day take over.

For readers who cannot or will not believe in God, our world, perhaps, is little different from this. Our existence is either inexplicable or explained fully by blind, natural processes. And yet few live like this is true, few face this in all its brutalness.

I taste the inexplicable world sometimes. It’s when I let the silence in, and the what ifs of my atheist friends. ‘What if’ we have been brought into consciousness without hope of explanation? ‘What if’ there is nothing after death? The atheists, if they are right, they will not get to gloat. They need to win the debate now, because that is all they have. (If they are right, it is all Christians have, too.)

The novel gives me new respect for the conventions of society.  The impossibility of not spoiling the fresh creation. The chaos in the absence of restraint. I think he has it right; he is not being too pessimistic about humanity.

On another matter, we live in Christian hope expecting that in the new creation, all will be explained, all will be made clear. (We are meant to know enough here and now to keep us going. But I don’t often feel like that. Not enough certainity, for one thing.) But just consider another ‘what if’ for a moment: ‘what if’ we are resurrected, but only to a state without any answers? Of course, that is not the biblical picture at all, although I wonder if  a God who works so subtly in this Earth will reveal everything all at once?

Perhaps the ‘what ifs’ are unproductive. Perhaps all the science fiction of the world should be burned. Or perhaps the ‘what ifs’ at least keep us humble.