A Review of Christian Wiman’s He Held Radical Light
The poet Seamus Heaney paused in the middle of dinner and leaned over to make a confession to Christian Wiman, who was, at the time, the editor of Poetry magazine. Knowing Wiman to be a Christian not only in name, Heaney admitted that he “felt caught between the old forms of faith that he had grown up with in Northern Ireland and some new dispensation that had not yet emerged. That was trying to emerge.” (88-9)
Wiman still wonders at his response to the confession:
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)
And so silence is what he offered the poet.
I grew up in the tension that Wiman talks about here. As a Methodist child I remember a lay witness mission where penal substitutionary atonement and the Sinner’s Prayer were wielded like hammers on the nails of our hardened hearts…as if this were the only language necessary to get us to the desired end. And how often since have I been in services and programs where I begged for other words, ANY other words, to get at the hunger and desire I felt in my soul! Begged because I also knew, from Methodist preachers newly minted by 70s-era seminaries and the neo-Hippies of the Jesus Movement that there was so much more to feel and say.
Christian Wiman has crafted a testimony to that hunger in his exquisite new book, He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, The Faith of Art. The title comes from a poem by A.R. Ammons, whom Wiman heard at a “disastrous reading” when Wiman was “a virgin of poetry readings” and an undergrad at Washington & Lee. In that reading, Ammons labored for a scant ten minutes before stating to the audience, “You can’t possibly be enjoying this,” and returned to his seat. After some cajoling he returned to the podium only to give up again some minutes later. “‘Enough,’ he muttered finally, and thudded his colossal body down beside his wife like the death of faith itself.” (6)
But this episode at the beginning of Wiman’s book is not really the death of faith at all but the beginning of a lively engagement with poets like Mary Oliver and Mary Karr, A.E. Stallings and C.K. Williams, most of whom find their faith in fleeting moments. “Glimmerings,” Heaney calls them, and they “are what the soul’s composed of” (89). And far from lamenting that these artists aren’t singing a full-throated rendition of a pale Chris Tomlin song, Wiman celebrates their obscure journeys and graspings after deeper encounter. He quotes Abraham Heschel’s definition to bolster this spiritual expedition. Faith is, Heschel said, “primarily faithfulness to a time when we had faith.” (34)
Wiman’s book is many things: a dialogue with poets and poems, a meditation on art and its ends, a survivor’s guide to mortality and death. (Wiman has lived with life-threatening cancer in recent years.) But his thoughts on calling and vocation are most appealing to me at this stage in my life. Thirty years after my ordination, the stories and quotes I have often used to share my ‘call story’ have ossified into markers pointing back to a time when I thought following God was about a clarity and surety I didn’t have. Annie Dillard’s weasel, in her story “Living Like a Weasel,” going for the eagle’s jugular and locking into that fixed point of life was (and is) thrilling.
But Wiman celebrates the caution and provisionality of speaking about things like love and truth and God. And he recognizes that, however much we would yield to a call, there is a danger in claiming it too fiercely:
It’s almost the definition of a calling that there is strong inner resistance to it. The resistance is not practical—how will I make money, can I live with the straitened circumstances, etc.—but existential: Can I navigate this strong current, and can I remain myself within it? 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. “The impeded stream is the one that sings.” (Wendall Berry) (10)
Not everyone will get this. Part of us will always go marching with the flaming zealot whose single-minded devotion makes an easy Guideposts devotional. But for some the way of the artist will sing more deeply than an earnest praise band. “What I know is that poetry is not enough,” Wiman says, “Yet it’s not that simple. For the paradox—the vital, fatal 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 is enough.” (112)
If that fidelity to art’s long journey toward, if not to, God appeals to you, this book will soothe your soul. Even as it will definitely quicken your hunger.