Christian Wiman, He Held Radical Light

9780374717810Christian Wiman is a gifted poet who formerly edited Poetry and now teaches religion and literature at Yale Divinity School. Over Labor Day Weekend, I read his new memoir, He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, The Faith of Art (2018). Entitled after A. R. Ammon’s poem of the same name, the subtitle provides a greater clue about its subject, which Wiman formulates as a question in the book: “Is the question ‘What does an authentic life in poetry look like?’ the same as asking ‘What does an authentic faith look like?'” (93).

I first became acquainted with Wiman when my friend, Sean, gifted me with a signed and dated copy of his earlier memoir, My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer (2013). I doubt that this work is “destined to become a spiritual classic,” as the publisher wagers, and I disagree with Ilya Kaminsky’s effusive endorsement: “In another day and age, this book would be called a revelation, a mysticism, a holy text.” Nevertheless, Wiman’s fierce honesty, searching faith, and—at times—luminous writing earn my respect.

When I gave a copy of My Bright Abyss to Joey, a former student, I could never have predicted that Wiman would become a resonant voice for him. “Friendship must be about something, even if it were only an enthusiasm for dominoes or white mice,” as C. S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves. “Those who have nothing can share nothing; those who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travellers.” I am grateful that Joey has come to share my professional and personal enthusiasm for literature. We travel in the same direction, even when our taste in writers are not always shared. Our friendship involves an exchange of literary riches. Just as I have encouraged some of Joey’s reading endeavors, he has encouraged mine, including some poems from Wiman’s Hammer is the Prayer, a volume that brings together three decades of work selected by the poet.

It is difficult to explain why one person befriends a writer and another does not. Temperament, aesthetic, enculturation, mimesis, and education all influence taste. While I recognize the merits of Wiman’s prose and poetry, I have not experienced “the rescuing effect” of his art because, it seems, I am not his target audience, which he identified in an interview:

I have no illusions about adding to sophisticated theological thinking. But I think there are a ton of people out there who are what you might call unbelieving believers, people whose consciousness is completely modern and yet who have this strong spiritual hunger in them. I would like to say something helpful to those people.

With an education in the great books of the Western canon, a vocation in classical Christian schooling, and an adherence to creedal Christianity, I am not an “unbelieving believer,” nor is my consciousness “completely modern.” In a review of My Bright Abyss, Reformed theologian Peter Leithart speaks to his ambivalent experience of reading Wiman, which consists of admiration and frustration “to the point of irritation.” He writes:

Wiman sets apophaticism alongside an insistence on God’s nearness to the world, which verges at times toward an identity between God and the world. It is not an entirely coherent position, but he has pre-inoculated himself to doctrinal correction. The best response is simply to point out his own inability to escape dogma: “God is with us not beyond us, in suffering” is, after all, a piece of dogma and a bold one at that (unless it’s sentiment, which it certainly is not for Wiman.)

Few books have left me feeling so (uncomfortably) professional in my theology. Nearly every page of this lovely book elicits both an enthusiastic “Yes” and an equally decided “No.”

I am ambivalent about Wiman’s ambivalence on matters of faith: on the one hand, it avoids hackneyed pieties and expresses honest doubt; on the other hand, it may inadvertently blunt pious devotion and enshrine doubt. A good example of this equivocation, which occurs repeatedly in his writing, can be found in He Held Radical Light: “What is it we want when we can’t stop wanting? I say God, but Jack Gilbert’s greed may be equally accurate, at least as long as God is an object of desire rather than its engine, end rather than means” (7-8). Wiman thinks both answers may be “equally accurate,” which may comfort the unbelieving believer but discomforts the believing believer, who can reasonably maintain that God is the only correct answer. Is Wiman accounting for different points of view, or betraying his own relativism? Does equivocation reveal defiant or timorous disbelief?

There is benefit to reading an author that leaves you deeply ambivalent because the tensions provokes a desire to clarify your thinking and feeling. For that reason, I am grateful to engage Wiman’s latest book. He Held Radical Light deserves attention for its central paradox, which can be regarded as a needful reproach to Percy Bysshe Shelley and all who believe that poets are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”: like a wide-eyed watchman, Christian Wiman is alert where others are drowsy to the element of overweening that sneaks into his guild and takes hold, resulting in the fancy that poetry saves; he fights this pretentious enemy, insisting that “poetry is not enough,” and yet everything must be given to crafting words that will not survive the poet or the reader. This understanding of the artist, which does not forfeit dedication or passion for humility, recognizes that the deepest hungers of the human being are satisfied outside of art, while art gives those hungers their force and vividness.

Here are salient passages that rattle around in my head, inspiring and vexing me:

I suspect there is no artist who does not cling to the belief that something essential of himself inheres in his art—and it was the first casualty of Christianity for me. People tend to think that Christians feel rescued from death, and perhaps some do (I don’t), but first there comes the purge. Nothing survives, I suddenly realized. Dante, Virgil, even sweet Shakespeare, whose lines will last as long as there are eyes to read them, will one day find that there are no eyes to read him. (6)

What is it we want when we can’t stop wanting? (7)

Poetry itself—like life, like love, like any spiritual hunger—thrives on longings that can never be fulfilled, and dies when the poet thinks they have been. And what is true for the poem is true for the poet: “No layoff from this condensery,” as Lorine Niedecker says, no respite from the calling that comes in the form of a question, no ultimate arrival at an answer that every arrangement of words is trying to be. Perhaps only bad poets become poets. The good ones, though they may wax vatic and oracular in public, and though they may have full-fledged masterpieces behind them, know full well that they can never quite claim the name. (9)

Reluctant writers, reluctant ministers, reluctant teachers—these are the ones whose lives and works can be examples. Nothing kills credibility like excessive enthusiasm. Nothing poisons truth so quickly as an assurance that one has found it. (10)

Susan Howe: Nietzsche says that for Heraclitus all contradictions run into harmony, even if they are invisible to the human eye. Lyric is transparent—as hard to see as black or glare ice. The paved roadway underneath our search for aesthetic truth. Poetry, false in the tricks of its music, draws harmony from necessity and random play. In this aggressive age of science, sound-colored secrets, unperceivable in themselves, can act as proof against our fear of emptiness. (25-26)

[T]he hunger that gives rise to art must be greater than what art can satisfy. The hunger must be other than what art can satisfy. The poem is means, not end. When art becomes the latter, it eventually acquires an autonomous hunger of its own, and “it does not wish you well.” (39)

That we might remembered: what an almost impossible thought that is. That there is a consciousness capacious enough, to recall each of us in our entireties just as we call our own fragile but all-meaningful moments. That our lives might be the Lord’s insight. (42)

What is it that we want when we can’t stop wanting? “Lord,” prays a character in Ilya Kaminsky’s Dancing in Odessa, “give us what you have already given.” (42)

The self that intones the poem is not the soul that received it. One needs to know the difference. (48)

The sense of mortality—our own, of course, but also that of those we most love—doesn’t only cast us backward. It also propels imagination forward. It makes us imagine heavens in which wounds are healed and losses restored, or helps us to ameliorate oblivions by imagining our atoms alive in other forms. But heaven too often turns out to be little more than projections of the precious self ad infinitum, and it is cold comfort to think of one’s smithereens blasted throughout some new forms of matter from which we—whatever it is that makes us, us—have vanished. (48-49)

[E]very writer fights the final silence in his own way. (62)

I don’t think it’s possible for believers to stand outside of the most powerful achievements of secular art and say “if only that artist could see what we can see,” as if their visions were greater than what the artist achieved in the work of art. No, if we have seen properly, then the identification has been too deep: we have participated in the revelation, however dark it has been. That’s not to say that some art isn’t harmful or even demonic. (64)

One of art’s functions is to give form to feelings that would otherwise remain inchoate and corrosive, to give us a means whereby we can inhabit our fears and pains rather than they us, to help us live with our losses rather than being permanently and helplessly haunted by them. I now teach at a divinity school, where many of my students are preparing for the ministry, and they all get a strong shot of Larkin because, as Rowan Williams says, “Preaching is cheap if it fails to meet human beings at their darkest points.” (64-65)

Jurgen Moltmann once wrote that all honest theology had to be conducted “within earshot of the dying Christ” . . . Hope is not hope until all ground for hope is lost, to paraphrase Marianne Moore . . . Resurrection is a fiction and a distraction to anyone who refuses to face the reality of death. But to really see this despair clearly—”it stands plain as a wardrobe”—is the first step to being out of it. (66)

I think it’s dangerous to think of art—or anything, actually—as a personally redemptive activity, at least in any ultimate sense. For one thing, it leads to overproduction: if it’s art that’s saving you, you damn sure better keep producing it, even if the well seems to have run dry. But that’s almost beside the point. The real issue, for anyone who suffers the silences of God and seeks real redemption, is that art is not enough. Those spots of time are not enough to hang a life on. At some point you need a universally redemptive activity. You need grace that has nothing to do with your own efforts, for at some point—whether because of disease or despair, exhaustion or loss—you will have no efforts left to make. (66-67)

It has been my own experience that the reason why there are no atheists in foxholes, so to speak, is not because of the roar of death and destruction that makes a person terrified, but because when one is truly confronted with one’s own end, everything goes icily quiet . . . You don’t turn to God in a crisis because you are afraid, at least not primarily. You turn to God because, for once, all that background chatter in your brain, all that pandemonium of blab, ceases, and you can hear—and what some of us hear in those instances is a still, small voice. (68-69)

I still believe in the visionary reach—and the very real risk—of certain kinds of art. I still believe there can be callings in which deliverance and destruction are raveled up in ways that, to an outside observer, might seem like madness. (“Whoever would save his life will lose it . . . “) Perhaps there is even some sense in which, for the genuine artist, there is no such thing as a resolved existential crisis . . . I do feel, though that there is some viable middle course between vision and will, some way of productively harnessing rather than either suffering or enslaving one’s spiritual turmoil. (75)

I don’t really believe in atheists. Nor in true believers, for that matter. One either lives toward God or not. The word God is of course an abyss, bright or dark depending on the day. But there is no middle ground, no cautious agnosticism in which to settle, no spiritual indifference that is not, even when accompanied by high refinement and exquisite intelligence, torpor. I know the necessity of religion. I know we need communal ritual and meaningful creeds. And yet I know, too, that all of this emerges from an intuition so original that, in some ultimate sense, to define is to defile. One either lives toward God or not. (83)

It has been my experience that faith, like art, is most available when I cease to seek it, cease even to to believe in it, perhaps, if by belief one means that busy attentiveness, that purposeful modern consciousness that knows its object. (85)

Meeting [Seamus Heaney] was a momentous event for me, though in a way it was impossible for me to meet the man, for I knew so much of his work not simply by heart, but by bone and nerve. The poems had become authorless inside me. . .  (87)

[J]ust as there are truths we can see only at a slant, there are truths the very authenticity of which depends upon their not being uttered. (89)

Unity and clarity are not necessarily coextensive. There can be a kind of clarity that is bewilderment, and there can be a kind of bewilderment that reorients one’s spirit. (90)

It may be true, as Mallarmé thought, that poetry’s duty is “to purify the language of the tribe,” but I think we have tended to hear in that statement an injunction of radical innovation rather than recovery, of creation rather than resuscitation. (91)

What might I have said? All you have to do, Seamus, is open your big Irish heart to Jesus. One more truth that dies with the utterance. No, the casual way that American Christians have of talking about God is not simply dispiriting, but is, for some sensibilities, actively destructive. There are times when silence is not only the highest, but the only possible, piety. (94)

A. R. Ammons: Nothing changed, and yet everything changed. (95)

To say there is no saving absolute is not to say that there is nothing that saves. (96)

But perhaps if one lives long enough, and fails fruitfully enough, then the existential tension between all the old antinomies—imagination and experience, art and life, God and Not—might, at moments, be eased. (96-97)

For a time I would say I was released from this hook by faith, a faith that did not originate in me, but came from elsewhere, or from so deep inside me that I could not claim it—a faith that, I should add, I cannot recover now. But I would also now say that it was ambition that released me from ambition. “The best way out is always through,” said Robert Frost, who himself wriggled on one long, sharp, and never-quite-nameable existential predicament. If I say that the hook is God, will only believers understand me? If I say the hook is the Void, will only atheists understand me? The hook is both God and Void, grace and pain. I am reasonably sure that most poets will know what I mean. (99-100)

God is present wherever genuine love is present, or perhaps more accurately, God, who is omnipresent but often experienced as absence, is made available through the expression of genuine love. The life of God and the life of humans are—for this one time and in this one way—one thing. This doesn’t mean that some form of shared human love is necessary for revelation. God comes to the loveless and the loneliest among us, as the whole histories of art and faith attest. But perhaps love is necessary for revelation to remain revelation. (100)

Much has been written about the effort of the lyric poem to stop time, to seize some tiny eternity with the music of a moment. And indeed, music is the operative word here. If reality is, as this entire book has been arguing, perceived truly when the truth of its elusiveness is part of that perception (“I only recognize her going”), and if poetry has any reach into ultimate reality at all, it is the abstract element of music in which that connection is most deeply felt. (106)

Now the world is not only too much with us, as Wordsworth said, distracting us from our true selves, but too little with us as well. (108)

Awe without an end ends in dread, for however much the mind is lit by the fires of that eternal elsewhere, we inevitably fall back into this singular being that, though it matters so much to us, matters not at all in the furnace of infinity. Hence the deepest “spiritual” feeling of our time: dread. If ninety-nine percent of all creatures that have existed are now extinct; if even the most apparently placid natural prospect is in reality a fevered scene of mechanical contest and immeasurable death (it was this that most disturbed some of the first readers of On the Origin of Species, that beauty itself became an abomination); if the depth and dimensions of reality are not simply inaccessible to an individual consciousness but inimical to it, then truth and death are but sneering synonyms, and our awe no more meaningful than a sneeze. (109-110)

Rowan Williams: It should be a rather exhilarating thought that the moment of creation is now—that if, by some unthinkable accident, God’s attention slipped, we wouldn’t be here. It means that within every circumstance, every object, every person, God’s action is going on, a sort of white heat at the centre of everything. It means that each one of us is already in a relationship with God before we’ve ever thought about it. It means that every object or person we encounter is in a relationship with God before they’re in a relationship of any kind with us. And if that doesn’t make us approach the world and other people with reverence and amazement, I don’t know what will. (110)

Everything in you must bow down. If not to God, then to the god-damned fact of existing at all, “the million-petaled flower of being here,” as some gracious angel, through the pen of Philip Larkin, once put it. The stage has enlarged, but the old tensions obtain, and the rescue we need is not from oblivion but from ourselves, “the torment of self-serving demands,” that keep creation in an unimaginable past, or keep consciousness in an imprisoning present. (111)

What have I been wanting all these years when I couldn’t stop wanting?  Form? Order? Yes, certainly those things, something to both speak and spare the turmoil of my own consciousness, something to protect and preserve me from the ramifying reality of impersonal space and matter long before I had science to confirm these things, and long before I had my own malevolent cells to ram that fact into my heart. But after all this, what I know is that poetry is not enough, and to make it an end rather than a means is not simply a hopeless enterprise but a very dangerous one. “Understand that there is a beast within you / that can drink till it is / sick, but cannot drink till it is satisfied.”

Yet it’s not that simple. For the paradox—the vital, fact at the heart of human existence—is that with art, as with every truly creative act in life, you must act as if the act itself were enough. There can be no beyond. You must spend everything on nothing, so to speak, if nothing is ever to stir for and in you. “If you don’t believe in poetry,” said Stevens, “you cannot write it.” He might have added (and perhaps, implicitly, he did): If you cannot believe in what poetry—in all of its forms, even the wordless ones—has revealed to you, you cannot survive it.

And of all those revelations, a certain “sacred weakness,” as Maritain calls it, is key. (Thank you for my losses is the prayer that a friend of mine—also a poet, also a patient—found herself bafflingly but joyfully praying recently.) To admit an insufficiency can be to acknowledge the existence of, if not yet to claim full faith in, a healing wholeness, in the way an imperfection can call forth a beauty whose true nature would never have been felt otherwise. Not the imperfections one chooses, like the missing stitch that certain master craftsmen weave into their rugs as an act of piety meant both to imply and appease the original Maker, but the ones forced upon us by necessity or genetics, our physics or our failing cells, which keep us hungering for, and open to, that ultimate order that we cannot in this life inhabit—except in the spots of time that nourish our souls, and haunt our selves, in equal measure. Our only savior is failure. (112-113)

NOTE: I want to thank Farrar, Straus, Giroux for sending me a courtesy review copy of Christian Wiman’s He Held Radical Light. 


There is only one choice


Book of Jonah. Illustrated by David Jones.

I delivered a message at our all-school retreat. Because our chapel theme is “choices,” I interpreted the Book of Jonah through that lens. This “whale of a story” is short enough that I recruited my colleagues to read all four chapters while I interspersed commentary between each one. The message began with a question and ended with an answer. My objective was to innumerate the choices made by the Hebrew prophet, giving the illusion that we have innumerable choices when there is really only one choice confronting us.

Leland Ryken’s Literary Introductions to the Books of the Bible helped me understand that Jonah, though classified with the Minor Prophets, is “not a book of prophecy.” It is about a prophet. He also helped me to appreciate its genre of satire. Jonah should be viewed as a ridiculous figure from beginning to end. “The fact that we laugh at Jonah (or least should laugh at him) does not minimize the utter seriousness of the book,” writes Roland M. Fyre. “For in recognizing that Jonah is ridiculous we can see the ridiculous aspect of all human pretensions, including our own.”

Speaking from notes rather than a manuscript, here are the main points I shared.

QUESTION: What choices do we have to make?

Jonah’s flight: Chapter 1

  • Jonah chooses to rise and flee from the presence of the Lord (1:3).
  • Jonah chooses to lay down and sleep during a “mighty tempest” at sea (1:4).
  • Jonah chooses to tell the sailors his story but tell it slant (1:9).
  • Jonah chooses to solve the problem of himself by encouraging the sailors to get rid of himself (1:12).

Jonah’s rescue: Chapter 2

  • Jonah chooses to pray to the Lord from the belly of the fish after being swallowed up (2:1), but he thanks God for rescuing him rather than asking God to rescue the threatened sailors. He does not choose to repent for abandoning his vocation.

Jonah’s sermon: Chapter 3

  • Jonah chooses to rise and go to Ninevah (3:3).
  • Jonah chooses to give an eight-word sermon — “Yet forty days, and Ninevah shall be overthrown!” (3:4).

Jonah’s complaint: Chapter 4

  • Jonah chooses exceeding displeasure and anger toward God because he relented from the promised disaster (4:1).
  • Jonah chooses to pray to God, begrudging the wideness of his mercy, and then asks God to take his life (4:2-3).
  • Jonah chooses to leave the city, and watch its fate (4:5).
  • Jonah chooses exceeding gladness when God comforts him with the shade of a plant (4:6).
  • Jonah chooses self-pity when God discomforts him with the withered plant, scorching wind, and burning sun (4:7-8).
  • Jonah chooses to remain angry with God when he confronts him with a question about the direction of his pity, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (4:10-11).

ANSWER: There is only one choice that each of us makes, day after day, hour after hour. We can formulate that choice in two ways. In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Father Mapple delivers a sermon on Jonah to the shipmates:

Shipmates, this book, containing only four chapters—four yarns—is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures. Yet what depths of the soul does Jonah’s deep sea-line sound! what a pregnant lesson to us is this prophet! What a noble thing is that canticle in the fish’s belly! How billow-like and boisterously grand! We feel the floods surging over us; we sound with him to the kelpy bottom of the waters; sea-weed and all the slime of the sea is about us! But what is this lesson that the book of Jonah teaches? Shipmates, it is a two-stranded lesson; a lesson to us all as sinful men, and a lesson to me as a pilot of the living God. As sinful men, it is a lesson to us all, because it is a story of the sin, hard-heartedness, suddenly awakened fears, the swift punishment, repentance, prayers, and finally the deliverance and joy of Jonah. As with all sinners among men, the sin of this son of Amittai was in his wilful disobedience of the command of God—never mind now what that command was, or how conveyed—which he found a hard command. But all the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do—remember that—and hence, he oftener commands us than endeavors to persuade. And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists. [emphasis mine]

Here is the first formulation of our only choice: Am I obeying God and disobeying myself?

Psalm 139 can be regarded as Jonah’s deferred answer since we are not given his reply to God’s question:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high; I cannot attain it.

Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you.

Here is the second formulation of our only choice: Am I facing God and fleeing from myself?

CONCLUSION: Since we are always already in relationship with God, whether believer, make-believer, or unbeliever, there is only one choice before us, presented over and over again because divine mercy patiently waits for us to choose rightly — and not once, twice, or thrice, but repeatedly until our character befits our vocation, until our desire befits our destiny.

American poetry is a tale of two cities

For those of us who love poetry, I recommend a new article by Dana Gioia, an award-winning poet and former chairman of the National Endowment for Arts, “The State of Poetry: Loud and Live” (Los Angeles Times). He begins:

AMERICAN POETRY IS thriving. American poetry is in decline. The poetry audience has never been bigger. The audience has dropped to historic lows. The mass media ignores poetry. The media has rediscovered it. There have never been so many opportunities for poets. American poets find fewer options each year. The university provides a vibrant environment for poets. Academic culture has become stagnant and remote. Literary bohemias have been destroyed by gentrification and rising real estate prices. New bohemias have emerged across the nation. All of these contradictory statements are true, and all of them are false, depending on your point of view. The state of American poetry is a tale of two cities.

Gioia examines poetry’s current audience (print versus performance), its new media presence, its following in elite culture and popular culture, its role in the university, and its promises and perils in the “new bohemia.” He concludes:

The situation of poetry is impossible to describe but easy to summarize. No one fully understands what is happening because poetry and its audience are changing too quickly in too many places. There is considerable continuity with the past. The traditional ways in which poetry has been written, read, and evaluated still have relevance, but those methods don’t always seem very useful in understanding new developments. Old theories (including postmodern ones) are incommensurate with the present realities. There is no emerging mainstream replacing a dying old order. There is no mainstream at all — only more alternatives. The best metaphor is not death but birth. The poetry scene isn’t a cemetery; it’s a crowded, noisy maternity ward.

So don’t panic. Poetry is not in danger, at least no more than usual. New forms of poetry don’t eliminate established forms, though they do influence and modify them. Culture is not binary but dialectical. A new generation of poets and readers drawn from every segment of society is expanding the art to meet new needs and seize new opportunities. Poetry now has as many categories as popular music. What plays at Harvard won’t get anyone on the dance floor in East Los Angeles, and that’s just fine. All styles are possible, all approaches open, and everyone is invited.

POST SCRIPT: In Gioia’s article, he mentions televised evocations of poetry. Naturally, I  hunted down the sources, which are now linked in his paragraph below in case you want to watch them. I really like the Volvo and Apple commercials featuring Walt Whitman.

If anyone doubts poetry’s new media presence, they should turn on the television. In recent years, poetry has become a code for sophistication. Sometimes entire poems are quoted. More often lines are quoted at critical junctures of the plot — sometimes with acknowledgment, sometimes without. Occasionally, a poem appears throughout an entire series as a thematic signal. Breaking Bad used Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.” The Mentalist employed William Blake’s “The Tyger.” Poetry is now even used in commercials. Volvo adapted Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road.” Apple iPad presented Robin Williams crooning the Good Gray Bard’s “O Me! O Life!

Curtis Fox, host of Poetry Off the Shelf, addressed commercial poetry on his podcast. He interviews Karen Karbiener, who teaches on the legacy of Walt Whitman at New York University. They explore how Whitman has been the subject of use in advertising agencies, including Levi’s commercial with a recording of Whitman reading “America” and Apple’s commercial mentioned above. Karbiener says Whitman would have welcomed the commercial exposure. I appreciated her explication of “O Me! O Life!”.

Every tennis match is a life in miniature

Those who know me well know that I am, for the most part, disinterested in sports. When quizzed about which sporting events I watch on TV, the answer often surprises the hearer: “The Grand Slam tournaments of tennis and the Olympics.” My love of tennis owes to personal history. I played the game five days a week in high school, earning a place on the varsity tennis team. Although I have retired the racket, I still find tennis enthralling. It is for this reason that I decided to watch a well-crafted new movie on the 1980 Wimbledon championship match between the famous rivals, “Borg vs. McEnroe (2018).

The movie opens with a very perceptive epigraph from Open, a book by American tennis player Andre Agassi:

It’s no accident, I think, that tennis uses the language of life. Advantage, service, fault, break, love, the basic elements of tennis are those of everyday existence, because every match is a life in miniature. Even the structure of tennis, the way the pieces fit inside one another like Russian nesting dolls, mimics the structure of our days. Points become games become sets become tournaments, and it’s all so tightly connected that any point can become the turning point. It reminds me of the way seconds become minutes become hours, and any hour can be our finest. Or darkest. It’s our choice.

Although it is not about tennis per se, Woody Allen’s movie “Match Point” (2005) features tennis in its title and lead character, who is a tennis instructor. Incidentally, this movie invokes Sophocles and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Watch the trailer.


Literary pleasure and profit

As a teacher, I am convinced that if my students do not experience the pleasure of literature, they will not stick around long enough to discern its profit. These two Ps guide all my teaching of literary works: pleasure and profit.

In my prolegomena to any future study of literature, I asked students this year to read Leland Ryken’s essay, “‘Words of Delight’: A Hedonistic Defense of Literature,” in the excellent volume he edited, The Christian Imagination. On the very first page of the essay, he reinforces that all great literature consists of pleasure and profit, an ancient view shared by pagan and biblical writers alike. The quoted material below from Horace, the writer of Ecclesiastes, and Robert Frost constitutes my lodestar for navigating literary waters:

The Roman author Horace bequeathed the famous formula utili et dulci (“useful and delightful”) to describe the two-fold function of literature, but he was actually popularizing a view that can be traced all the way back to the Bible. When the writer of Ecclesiastes states his philosophy of composition, he does so in terms of content and technique, teaching and delighting. Here is the passage (Eccles. 12:9-10, ESV):

Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care. The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth.

Through the centuries, the words wisdom and delight have commended themselves to writers as the most evocative way in which to express the duality of literature. Percy Shelley spoke of poetry as “a fountain forever overflowing with the waters of wisdom and delight” (A Defence of Poetry). Robert Frost claimed that a poem “begins in delight and ends in wisdom.”

QUESTION: What do you think literature is for?

Proper 16

From the Book of Common Prayer, Proper 16 is used on the Sunday closest to August 24th:

Grant, O merciful God, that your Church, being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples, to the glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Here are the constituent parts:

  • Address: Typical of most collects, this one addresses God the Father, which is how God the Son taught us to pray, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name” (Mt. 6:5-14). In Prayerbook of the Bible, Dietrich Bonhoeffer explains why Christians must become apprentices to the prayer of Christ: “[W]e can learn true prayer only from Jesus Christ, and that it is, therefore, the word of the Son of God, who lives with us human beings, to God the Father, who lives in eternity. Jesus Christ has brought before God every need, every joy, every thanksgiving, and every hope of humankind. In Jesus’ mouth the human word becomes God’s Word. When we pray along with the prayer of Christ, God’s Word becomes again a human word. Thus all prayers of the Bible are such prayers, which we pray together with Jesus Christ, prayers in which Christ includes us, and through which Christ brings us before the face of God. Otherwise there are no true prayers, for only in and with Jesus Christ can we truly pray” [emphasis mine].
  • Acknowledgement: The prayer explicitly acknowledges two attributes of God the Fathermercy and powerbut also implicitly acknowledges an attribute of the Trinity: indivisibility. Just as there is unity in the community of the Godhead, so too, there must be unity in the community of God’s people. And it is the Holy Spirit who gathers the Church together in unity (Eph. 4:1-3).
  • Petition: This collect asks God to grant that his Church “may show forth [his] power among all peoples.” Even though God resides in heaven, this is not a power from above, which is arrogant and coercive, but a power from below, which is humble and free, as modeled in the life and death of Jesus Christ. Andy Crouch, author of Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power, says: “If we see power as a gift from God, I think we will have deeper resources to understand how we can use whatever power we’ve been given in a fruitful way. We also become accountable for our power in a deeper way. In the book, I talk quite a bit about the ways we distort the gift of power, and all of them come down to substituting something or someone for God, and distancing ourselves from God and from true, fruitful relationships with God’s image-bearers, especially the most vulnerable. If we see power as negative (not a gift at all) or as neutral (something that doesn’t matter very much), we are missing our call to use our power for others’ flourishing.” We are all playing god, the question is whether it is the God of the Bible or an idol.
  • Aspiration: The Church does not ask to magnify divine power for its own sake but for the sake of a higher goal: the glory of God’s name. If God’s people show God’s power, which is in stark contrast to the abuses of power in this world, others will be drawn into his kingdom.
  • Pleading: Consistent with all collects, this one pleads for the petition to be fulfilled “through Jesus Christ our Lord.” A student asked a very perceptive question in class, “Is the pleading a confession of guilt?” I answered by way of analogy. Imagine a student who tried to print his essay the night before it was due but found the ink cartridge was empty. Since he knows that I do not accept late work, he could remedy the issue by printing the essay at school before class begins or asking a friend to do the favor. But if he failed to do this, he would arrive to class without the essay, afraid that all his work was in vain, pleading for my mercya tacit confession of his guilt. While I cannot say in the abstract whether the pleading in every collect involves guilt, Proper 16 seems to assume division within the Church, which is a failure to eagerly “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). The Church, we might say, functions like a telescope: when united, it magnifies an impressive image of divine power in the world; when divided, it magnifies a diminutive image. Structural division of the Church is the most obvious but maybe the least troublesome. Unity of belief and practice strike me as the most important, which is why the Church should be governed by this famous mottoIn necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas (“In necessary things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity”).

Scott Cairns, “And Why Theology?”: A commentary


Giant Mountains, Poland. Photograph by Tomasz Rojek, National Geographic Your Shot

As I take up the question “Why bother with theology?” in the opening days of my course on theology, my friend and former student, Joey Jekel, recommended that I consider Scott Cairn’s poem, “And Why Theology?”, in his volume, Idiot Psalms (2014). My commentary will be interspersed between the stanzas of the poem.

because the first must be first

The title of the poem asks an apologetic question about why any finite human being should undertake the study of an infinite God while the epigraph, quoted from the 20th century Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz’s poem “Treatise on Theology”, provides an historic answer: “Why theology? Because the first must be first. And first is a notion of truth.” The  first refers to God, who is what Aristotle calls the First Cause and St. John calls “the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Rev. 22:13). The first also refers to theology vis-à-vis other ways of knowing. In medieval Christendom, theology was regarded as “the Queen of the Sciences”a synthesis of all other liberal arts. This view about the primacy of theology has a biblical origin: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Prov. 1:7, ESV).  In secular modernity, theology is either relegated to a science on par with any other, or rejected altogether as a dubious science. Cairn’s poem tries to reclaim the supremacy of the theological enterprise.

And the first, if you don’t mind me saying, is both an uttered
notion of the truth and a provisional, even giddy apprehension 
of its reach. The dayfortunately, a winter’s dayis censed 
with wood smoke, and the wood smoke is remarkably, is richly
spiced with evergreen; you can almost taste the resin.

In the first stanza, the speaker asserts a paradoxical trait of theology: it is a sayable (“an uttered notion of the truth”) and unsayable (“a provisional, even giddy apprehension of its reach”) science. The Western Church has emphasized positive (or kataphatic) theology (God is knowable through the two books of Scripture and Nature), whereas the Eastern Church has emphasized negative (or apophatic) theology (God is unknowable). Both traditions are true. God is knowable, as theologians attest in their “uttered notion of the truth,” otherwise known as the creeds (Apostle’s Creed, Nicene Creed, Athanasian Creed). But God is also unknowable, as monks and mystics attest in their “giddy apprehension of its reach.” The word apprehension means the faculty of understanding through perception on a direct and immediate level, as opposed to ratiocination, which involves logical reasoning. When monks and mystics apprehend God, they are likely to be “giddy” because fathoming the unfathomable God induces vertiginous wonder.

The study of God, this poem suggests, happens on “a winter’s day,” which reminds us that we lack the clear-sightedness of a summer’s day. Wintery weather conceals more than it reveals. As we try to know God, we may experience a synesthesia of the spiritual senses, tasting what we smell (“the wood smoke is remarkably, is richly spiced with evergreen; you can almost taste the resin”). God, according to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, spreads the fragrance of Christ everywhere; He is the aroma of life diffused in a world undergoing decay and death, akin to the season of winter (2 Cor. 2:14-17).

Or, I can. Who knows what you’ll manage? The day itself 
is shrouded, wrapped, or tucked, say, within a veil of wood smoke
and low cloud, and decidedly gray, but lined as well with intermittent, 
slanted rays of startlingly brilliant, impossibly white light just here,
and over there, and they move a bit, shifting round as high weather
shoves the clouds about. 

The second stanza continues the imagery of a winter’s day, which by now seems comparable to knowing God, who is “shrouded, wrapped, or tucked, say, within a veil of wood smoke and low cloud, and decidedly gray, but lined as well with intermittent, slanted rays of startlingly brilliant, impossibly white light.” Using an ancient emblem, God is the sunthe source of light that can be glimpsed, on occasion, despite the obscuring clouds. Truth shines through mystery. In our present lot as slow pilgrims, we never see the fiery orb of the sun in all of its intensity and brilliance because our eyes would burn. Like Moses, we hide our face from the light of the burning bush (Ex. 3:1-6). Like Peter, James, and John on the Mount of Transfiguration, we fall on our faces when the voice speaks from the bright cloud that overshadows us (Mt. 17:1-13). Only a fool tries to make a tent for the transfigured Christ: we cannot house God in our systems of theology. He is always too grand for any shelter that we erect. All we can do, like John the Baptist, is “bear witness about the Light” (Jn. 1:8), ever mindful that this “startlingly brilliant, impossibly white light” is strained through clouds of unknowing.

Theology is a distinctly rare, a puzzling 
study, given that its practitioners are happiest when the terms
of their discovery fall well short of their projected point; this 
is where they likely glimpse their proof. Rare as well 
is the theologian’s primary stipulation that all that is explicable
is somewhat less than interesting. 

The third stanza is a digression, touching upon the odd features of theology. First, theology finds satisfaction in unsatisfactorily reaching its objective: knowing God. Failure in other sciences is success in theology. Second, theology circumscribes its explanatory power, keenly aware that any explanation of God cannot explain Him away since God is Wholly Other to us. The prophet Isaiah admonishes God’s chosen people, who were prone to domesticate God in their understanding: “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts'” (55:8-9). In short, the task of theology is insanely ambitious because it seeks to know Godwho constitutes what philosophers call “the really real”and embarrassingly modest because the cognitive equipment of fallen human beings can only reach, at best, the orbit of Reality. 

In any case, the day
keeps loping right along, and blurs into the night, which itself
will fairly likely press into another clouded day, et cetera.
The future isn’t written, isn’t fixed, and the proof of that is how
sure we areif modestlythat every moment matters.  

The fourth stanza returns to the winter’s day but focuses on the transition into night and the extended forecast. The night can be interpreted as what one mystic famously called la noche oscura del alma (“dark night of the soul”), where the light is absent, where God seems aloof or silent, where theologians stumble in the dark. The extended forecast assures us that there will never be a cloudless day in knowing God until our final union with Him, as St. Paul says: “We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us!” (1 Cor. 13:12, The Message).

Take this one, now. We stand before another day extending like
a scarf of cloud, or wood smoke, or incense reaching past what’s visible. 

And sure, you could as easily rush ahead, abandoning what lies in reach
in favor of what doesn’tbut you don’t, and we here at your side are pleased
to have you with us, supposing that we’ll make the way together. 

The final stanza of the poem carries the sentiment from the last line of the previous stanza. Because “every moment matters” in knowing God, we should be content to receive His self-disclosures to us in this moment rather than reach for tomorrow’s revelations with arms outstretched like Tantalus, grasping, in vain, for water and fruit that will never be ours. Theology is a task that we take up each and every hour in our pilgrimage. Theology is not knowing about God, for even demons have mastered that science (Mark 1:23-24, Jas. 2:19). Theology is knowing God through loving obedience (1 Jn. 5:2-4) and indemonstrable faith (Jn. 20:29), as Richard of Chichester’s prayer memorably says: “O most merciful redeemer, friend and brother, may I know thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, and follow thee more nearly, day by day.”

Proper 15

From the Book of Common Prayer, Proper 15 is used on the Sunday closest to August 17:

Almighty God, you have given your only Son to be for us a sacrifice for sin, and also an example of godly life: Give us grace to receive thankfully the fruits of this redeeming work, and to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

This collect is addressed to “Almighty God,” a title that emphasizes divine power, which manifested itself in the Incarnation when “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). The Incarnation is a self-gift of the Trinity, satisfying a twofold purpose. Jesus, the perfect God-man, was given as (1) “a sacrifice for sin” (Rom. 3:23-25Rom. 5:6-11), which achieved reconciliation between God and humanity, and as (2) “an example of godly life” (Eph. 5:1-2, 1 Pet. 2:211 Jn. 2:4-6), which enables Christlikeness among his disciples.

Upon this foundation, a twofold petition is made (1) “to receive thankfully the fruits of this redeeming work” and (2) “to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life.” Divine grace is the means by which this petition is fulfilled – not human willpower. I do not atone for myself, nor do I make myself holy. The challenge of the Christ-life is receptivity and obedience: receiving the work of Atonement and obeying the supreme exemplar of godliness. To receive from the Giver in the economy of grace, I must realize that nothing can be added to the Cross, as a famous Methodist hymn says in the refrain:

Jesus paid it all, all to Him I owe;
Sin had left a crimson stain,
He washed it white as snow.

To obey God, I must learn to disobey myself; “and it is in this disobeying [myself], wherein the hardness of obeying God consists,” as Father Mapple preaches in Herman Melville’s novel, Moby Dick. A long obedience in the same direction, as this collect points out, is step by step, sometimes one step forward and two steps back, but still forward-moving because of the push-and-pull dynamism of grace.

Proper 14

On occasion, I will reflect on the collects (or prayers) from the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) . For the Sunday closest to August 10, here is Proper 14.

Grant to us, Lord, we pray, the spirit to think and do always those things that are right, that we, who cannot exist without you, may by you be enabled to live according to your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The petition in this collect is for right-thinking and right-doing, which are coupled together, reinforcing their bidirectional influence: beliefs inform actions while actions inform beliefs. A motto of the liturgical Christian tradition is at work here: lex orandi, lex credendi (Latin: “the law of praying [is] the law of believing”). Orthodoxy (Greek: from ortho “right” + doxia “belief”) and orthopraxy (Greek: from orthos “right” + praxia “action”) constitute “a spirit” rather than a law or method, lest we become legalistic in our doctrine or moralistic in our practice.

We do not ask the Lord to think and do rightly for their own sake, as if correct intellectual assent and strict behavioral management were the business of a Christian. The purpose is to obey to God’s will (Jn. 14:15, 1 Jn. 5:3). It seems the subordinate clause (“who cannot exist without you”) links our existential dependence upon God to our ontological dependence: just as I cannot take another breath without God, so too, I cannot live well without God.

What is a Collect?

When I pray with my students in the classroom, we intone collects from the Book of Common Prayer. (BCP). Prior to becoming an Anglican, I was unfamiliar with this word. Here is a helpful definition by C. Frederick Barbee & Paul F. M. Zahl in The Collects of Thomas Cramner:

What is a Collect? The origin of the term collecta, while rather obscure, refers to the “gathering of the people together” as well as to “collecting up” of the petitions of individual members of the congregation into one prayer. This at first extemporaneous prayer would later be connected to the Epistle and Gospel appointed for the day. A Collect is a short prayer that asks “for one thing only” and is peculiar to the liturgies of the Western Churches, being unknown in the Churches of the East. It is also a literary form (an art comparable to the sonnet) usually, but not always, consisting of five parts:

  1. The Address: The invocation is to the Father. The exceptions to this rule are Advent III, Lent I, and St. Stephen’s Day, when the Son is addressed directly. Trinity Sunday also stands outside the maxim, since in that case there is no distinction of Persons.
  2. The Acknowledgement: This gives “the foundation of doctrine upon which our request is made.” It reflects some quality of God related to that which we shall be asking Him in the Petition: His power, His grace, His transcendence, His mercy. In a few cases, however, what is acknowledged is our weakness or frailty or sinfulness.
  3. The Petition: Here is the actual prayer concerning basic needs: cleansing, forgiveness, protection, guidance, comfort, holiness, love.
  4. The Aspiration: Not appearing in all Collects, this is introduced by the conjunction “that.” The petition is not an end in itself but claims a higher purpose in the aspiration.
  5. The Pleading: “. . . through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Christ is our only mediator and advocate. Through Jesus alone can we draw near to the Father. The pleading historically contained the doxological words “who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end.”