Sitting Beneath the Michigan Tree: Back at the Festival of Faith & Writing

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Kwame Alexander opening the Festival of Faith & Writing

Kwame Alexander, Newberry Award-winning author of The Crossover, looked out across the sea of 2,000 introverts and defied every tenet of writerly reserve. “Say ‘yes,’” he said. Say ‘yes’ to the opportunity, the challenge, even to the indignities of selling your work. There is power in your words.

Kwame has a bus now with a living room and seven flat-screen TVs. His name is scrawled across the side. He got his break taking a hay bale and 100 copies of his book to a farmer’s market in Reston, Virginia. Now he’s traveling the country on a 30-day tour.

His confidence and energy was enough to make even the most reluctant writer stand up and cheer, which we did. Speaking as the opening keynote of the 2018 Festival of Faith and Writing, Alexander said, “I have faith in my writing.”

I needed that.

This is my sixth visit to the FFW. The biennial gathering of authors, publishers, readers, and others never fails to inspire. Even before Kwame took the stage at the Van Noord Arena at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I was primed.

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 The Michigan Tree & Me

I was recalling the 2008 session when I first heard Mary Karr talk about the spiritual advisor who asked her, “What would you write if you weren’t afraid?” I walked out of the session, sat under a nearby tree, asked myself the same question, and God spoke. It was the Renaissance of my writing life.

I remembered Gene Luen Yang in 2010 who turned me on to graphic novels like his American Born Chinese, and briefly made me believe I could draw. The poets Mary Szybist and Kimberly Johnson whose shared session in 2014 made me a daily reader of poetry. Franz Wright, Marilynne Robinson, Scott Cairns, Krista Tippett—I met them all here.

So yesterday, I soaked in the vibe, ready to hear God again in these varied artists. I attended a session on editing and learned that the double space after periods is dead. I got to talk with The Atlantic’s Emma Green about reporting from the Holy Land. Jonathan Merritt taught me how to be a blogger, (reminding me of how much he influenced the form of Heartlands). And I cringed at the world of publicity that a panel of writers and publicists opened up.

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Downtown Grand Rapids

I also sat under the tree again—the Michigan Tree as I call it. A scrubby spruce in front of Calvin Seminary. I remembered what I had heard God say, so clearly, before—Be free, tell the truth, don’t do it alone, seek the peace of Szybist. And transgressing propriety, I asked for something more.

The tree is a reliable means of grace and did not disappoint yesterday either. “Travel light,” I heard. “Be less than you think you have to be,” I heard. “Embrace,” I heard.

There is power in words. And beauty. And life.

And God.

God, love, God, love: The Winn Collier Interview Concludes (3 of 3)

winn-mountain-lumber_largeIn previous segments of this interview with Winn Collier we talked small towns, small churches, and his use of letters to tell the story of Granby Presbyterian Church, the fictional congregation at the heart of Collier’s new book.  Love Big. Be Well.:Letters to a Small-Town Church is a big-hearted, hopeful book that celebrates what Christian community can be.  My review of the book is accessible through the title link above.

In this segment we talk about the book, the recent Texas church shooting, and the rhythm of writing:

I was reminded of [Marilynne Robinson’s] Gilead as I read your book.  When your preacher, Jonas, starts talking of the virtues of blessing, it reminded me of the story in Gilead of trying to baptize the cats and just the importance of blessing.  They’re both very human stories and a very human vision of what life in a community of faith is all about. 

How do you connect that to how God works in the world? I’m thinking about Karl Barth who said, “You can’t speak about God by talking about man in a loud voice,” but in a sense, you are kind of pointing that direction through human relationships.

51zxriXcF5L._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_Again I go back to Incarnation.  In the world I grew up in there was a grand separation between God and the rest of the world. The culture and the creation and all these things really, they were just functional they had nothing to do with God’s revelation to us. I was overwhelmed and saved by sacramental theology and so I reject that.  But I am aware that it’s possible, if you never name God, then our human mind really can forget God.

Jonas, in Love Big. Be Well., talks about how his job as a pastor is to stand within the community Sunday after Sunday and point to God and to speak the words of God and to speak the word love and speak ‘God, love, God, love’ into the world.  And that’s how I see it. I think that’s fundamentally my job.

I think that’s what a small church, or every church, should do—to stand in the middle of this community, to be enmeshed within it, just as Jesus was, not separate from it, not trying to draw these huge dividing lines, but to say, “We are here.  We are immersed.  It is messy.  It’s wheat and tares.  We’re going to be here.  We’re going to claim the love and presence of God in the world.”

That’s a destabilizing factor because I think God is a disruptive reality.  If the church forgets its mission to be the presence of God and not just a vague idea of God as we define it but the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ…If we don’t speak that presence into the world then we are abandoning our identity and our calling and ultimately, we are abandoning the possibility for the depth of healing and redemption that God is inviting us to bring into the world.

So it definitely is not just, in a loud voice, saying all our ideas.  But it’s also not divorced in any way.  It is manifest through or built through friendships and dinners and work and all the things that make up human existence because that’s how God has chosen to reveal himself.

imagesWe’re talking in the week after the shooting in Texas in a small church. I was doing some writing this morning to the churches here on the Shore about church security and  struggling with what that means and trying to come to terms with what it means to be vulnerable, which is part of our call as a community.  Do you have any reflections in light of that event about what small churches mean?

I’ll tell you one thing I love: I love the way the community of Sutherland Springs, even ones who were not part of that church on a Sunday rhythm, seemed to see that church as very much part of who they were and their identity together.  I think that’s potent.

My hunch is that in Granby (the fictional town of the book), Jonas would have had a couple people who really wanted to make sure the next Sunday they had their fire arms to use.  I think Jonas would have resisted that with everything within him simply because we are peculiar people who are here to proclaim God.   And to proclaim God means to lay down your life and it’s very hard to simultaneously say you’re going to lay down your life and at the first trouble pick up a weapon.

“To proclaim God means to lay down your life and it’s very hard to simultaneously say you’re going to lay down your life and at the first trouble pick up a weapon.”

At the same time, I think Jonas is kind of befuddled about some of these things.  He’s not a consistent pacifist but in his heart he is. So, I think he would struggle with that like all of us are in knowing where is wisdom and where is the prophetic voice. But at the same time, I think he would just keep bringing it back to Jesus and what does it mean to be a people of Jesus and trust it in the long work.

That’s well put because I think the struggle I’ve had this week is allowing the gunman and the incident to determine the field on which we play and the kind of things we talk about and it’s so easy to do because it seems like an easy fix to just say, “Well, if we just had a good guy with a gun at the door, it wouldn’t happen.”

Yeah, and this is for every Christian and every church, but if we can hold on to the fact that we are resurrection people and that death is our enemy but is not our final enemy, then there actually are things worse than dying.  If we can release that stranglehold on our heart then it opens up a lot of possibilities.  As long as our self-protection is the ultimate god to us and God will never be God then we are ultimately going to make grave errors.

Well how are you finding ways to keep writing a part of your life these days? This is me being curious about how you fit it all in.

aaron-burden-90144I have a weekly rhythm and Monday is set aside as my creative day so anything like writing, sometimes other things, but that’s my day. Most of this book I actually wrote on sabbatical two and a half years ago.  I wasn’t planning to finish it but I just knew I wanted to write every day and have that as one of my main practices and it ended up happening.

I’m actually working on a biography now and I’m finding it much more difficult because the kind of research that has to happen is of a different level.  I am actually in this precise moment feeling more anxiety about that because that’s basically the time I have.  The rest of my time is given to church and family. So, every once in a while, if there’s a week here or there where I don’t have to preach or other things are less pressing I’ll slip in some extra time but I am definitely wondering how this is going to work.

I know that struggle when you’re trying to be precise about some things, like you’d have to do with a research-oriented book, coming back to it after you’ve gone away from it for a while.  It’s so much uploading of information again just to get to the point where you can write again.

Yeah that’s right!

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photo by Peter Feghali via Unsplash

Anything else about the book that you would particularly like folks to know?

I would be really pleased if people read this book and felt more hopeful.  Because I feel like we’re in a time that’s devoid of hope.

Winn Collier is the pastor of All Souls Church in Charlottesville.  You can access his blog at winncollier.com.

The Lure of Small Towns: The Heartlands Interview with Winn Collier – (1 of 3)

winn-mountain-lumber_largeWinn Collier’s new book, Love Big. Be Well: Letters to a Small-Town Church, is a generous celebration of the potential of church.  In my review I noted that it is a gentle, human love story between a pastor and his congregation told in the form of letters written to the church over the course of his tenure.  Winn is not only an author but the pastor of All Souls Church in Charlottesville, Virginia.  In the course of this interview we talked about the book, the realities of small church ministry, the writing life, and even church security in the wake of the Texas church shooting.

Winn: So, you were telling me about your blog.

Alex: Yeah, I started it after the election last year, thinking that the theme I wanted to work on was: Why don’t I understand the place where I live anymore?  It has developed into an exploration of the Great Divide that we’re in and also rural life and rural ministry.  So it’s not only that I appreciate you having a new book, but that it’s written to a small town church.  It feels like it’s right in the wheelhouse for this blog.

Well, hopefully it resonates somewhere with some folks.

What has the response been like so far?

It’s definitely been far different from any of my other books, but I feel like that’s such a low bar. Definitely getting more responses, more curiosity about it, more notes, people saying kind things about it and stuff. So, in that sense it feels like its connecting with certain people,

I’m definitely hearing more from some different groups, saying, “Hey I think we’d actually like to read this and talk about it.”  And from lots of different angles—like one pastor wants to give it to his Elder Board because he struggled trying to explain some things of where he’s coming from, he feels like the book gives a language for them.

Another pastor wants his church to read it because he feels like it will start some conversations that might open up some possibilities for them. And then there’s a group of retired Presbyterian pastors that meet cordially and they want to read it and me to come talk with them about it. So, in that sense, the narrative form of it maybe has allowed some possibilities that maybe other forms might not.  So I’m thankful for all that.

This isn’t your first foray into letter writing as a literary form though is it?  Wasn’t your first book in a similar style?

41DSa3mfXpL._SX333_BO1,204,203,200_No, it was my second book [Let God: The Transforming Wisdom of François Fenelon] and it was letters that François Fenelon wrote to friends that I reworked.

This book obviously is also [written as series of letters], but a good friend of mine, who lives in Colorado, and I write letters to each other on our blogs.  So that’s connected with a whole other sort of group of readers which has been kind of interesting.  It does seem like something about me keeps coming back to that.  There’s something about that that resonates with me.

Is it the second person voice?

I think it’s the relational component, that it’s been written to a particular person or persons. The way I enjoy letters, is it kind of gets to the point and there’s something about the particularity, like you’re writing to particular people.  It’s so steeped in friendship and there’s something about the form that’s so counter to the realities that we live right now.  Nobody writes letters anymore.

Yeah.

I do wonder: How is that changing us?  How does it change us that most of our communication now happens in email blasts?  There’s a lot of good about that—I can communicate with our church in a rapid fashion and its very nice for the budget, doesn’t require the manpower, office staff, stamps and  envelopes and even the time—but also I wonder if we’ve grappled at all with what we’ve lost because it’s not our world anymore and I don’t know what to do with that.

Right. It’s not just the texture of the paper but the texture of the communication too.

Yeah, that’s right.

So why a small town?

41q15SgR88L._AC_US218_A couple different reasons.  It wasn’t a conscious choice.  Partly what’s important for me to say is that this book didn’t come with a message.  The fiction wasn’t just a tangential device I chose because I thought it would be the most effective way to get out the message I wanted to get out.  It was a story, and it was one that was going to be told in letters and we would see where that would go, not because it was going to be a pastor writing to his church, (which is different than Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead which was a pastor writing to his son, telling his own story).

This is really different and it forced me to think about: there’s lots of things a pastor actually wouldn’t say in a letter to his entire church community.  I had to think long and hard about what kinds of stories he could tell that he would feel he had permission to tell, all these sorts of things.

So the fact that it is a small town was just the way the story came to me.

Then the question would be: Why did the story come to me that way?  There’s something inside me that’s resisting the storyline that’s often getting played out which is overtly or covertly signaling that large and urban is better…that the center of power definitely is moving to the urban centers.  Sometimes I wonder if the [last presidential] election is a reaction to that…kind of a last grasping.  A ‘no!’

51zxriXcF5L._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_But it’s inevitable.  It’s happening and it’s a train that’s left the station.  But it’s not the whole story.  There is something in small towns that I find myself drawn to because there are still vestiges of a kind of humanity possible there that I don’t want to completely lose.

I also don’t want to in any way idealize it.  There is also another kind of humanity that happens in urban places that’s a new expression and I’m not discounting that in any way.  I’m also not saying that small rural towns are always these humanizing places because sometimes they’re just desolate. I totally get that.

But there is something that’s at least possible in those spaces that no longer feels possible in larger urban areas.

The second reason would be that I spent the last 5 to 6 years immersed in Wendell Berry’s fiction, so it seems obvious that my brain would probably naturally go to some place like that.

Winn’s blog is at winncollier.com.  The second segment of this interview, How to Make Your Church Inefficient, can be found here.

Keeping the Midwest Weird: My interview with Mark Athitakis continues – part 2

i-m-priscilla-165377In my last interview blog post with the writer Mark Athitakis, “Why we we’ve got to get Willa out of the cornfield”, we talked about the plural landscape of the Midwest, something he covered in his new book, The New Midwest: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and Rust Belt.  Today we talk about seeing the world for what it is, the state of religious literary fiction, and “keeping the Midwest weird.”

I like how you bring out, in the chapter on bad places, how Jane Smiley and Gillian Flynn are looking at the landscape and, kind of, flipping the old bottle on its head, and saying, “Yeah, it’s kind of ugly out here.  There are some really ugly places.”

Or, it can be. Those Gillian Flynn books are fascinating to me, because I think she writes in a very gritty way about how rough those places are and how much those regions kind of took it in the teeth, especially during the great recession.  But her characters have this very strong urge to defend the Missouri Bootheel.  It’s like, “Don’t tell me what my place is.  This is where I grew up.  This is my home.  Don’t mock it.  Don’t make fun of it.  Don’t call us dumb hicks, or southerners, or hillbillies, or that sort of thing.”  She doesn’t get credit for this because I think she’s treated more as just a thriller author.  But she captures that sense of loving an unlovable place better than a lot of other writers out there.

 

Let me ask you about your religious literature section.  You talk about Marilynne Robinson, and then, at one point, you talk about how she’s kind of left alone “as the standard bearer of the religious literary novel, prompting some critics…to wonder whether it might be revived again.” (32) I guess the implication there is that it doesn’t look like there’s a whole lot of hope for that.

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Marilynne Robinson at the 2012 Festival of Faith & Writing, Calvin College – photo by Christian Scott Heinen Bell

I was thinking more explicitly about Paul Elie, who wrote a book, I think coming on ten years ago now, about the great heyday of Catholic writers, talking about Flannery O’Connor and Thomas Merton.  There was kind of this period where so much of what we’re talking about in terms of social issues and issues of identity could be filtered through what Catholic writers were doing and we don’t have an explicit religious literary culture like that anymore.  In terms of Marilynne Robinson, there’s room for one, and we’ve picked her.  If you’ve got to pick one, I think she is a remarkable thinker about religion.  What struck me as funny in going through how she’s been approached critically, though, was that so much–and I’ll cop to being guilty to this as well, I wrote a review of Home for the Sun Times that kind of played into this–is that so much of what people publicly admire about Marilynne Robinson is her writing.  She is an exquisite maker of sentences, and she obviously writes with a real sensitivity about people and their struggle.  And she wrote beautifully about Iowa.  James Woods celebrated that when he re-elevated her, reviewing Gilead in 2004 in The New York Times Book Review.

But all this kind of comes at the expense of the tough stuff that’s in these books.  I mean, it’s talking about interracial relationships and how this estranged families.  It’s about church burnings.  It’s about the role that Iowa had played during the Civil War.  And prostitution.  There’s a lot of dark stuff going on in Marilynne Robinson’s novels that gets very soft-pedaled in public discussions that we have about them.  So, there’s still this reflex of trying to implant this: “Well, it’s an Iowan, she’s writing about religion, so these must be very soft, church-y books.”  But you know, they’re not really.

Lila, the last one in the trilogy, is about a young girl who is orphaned, left to live among prostitutes, left to fend for herself in the wilderness, and eventually becomes part of this church community.  But so much about that book is about skepticism of religion.  How can I trust this faith that you are telling me about, this religion that you are telling me about, when everything I’ve known in my entire life has existed to degrade me?

Then you go from that to read reviews that talk about: “Nobody writes better about Midwestern values than Marilynne Robinson.”  Wait, what?  That’s not exactly where she’s coming from.

So, of course, I come out of a different region.  And the literature that has formed me has been more Southern Gothic literature—Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers and people like that.  When you talk about “keeping the Midwest weird,” do you see any connections between the kind of things that people like, maybe, Thomas Disch are doing? Is that a similar way of trying to shock us into seeing something different about the region?

One point I tried to make in that particular chapter is that the Midwest, as much as any other place, has sparked experimental writing of its own.  Obviously, the Iowa Writers Workshop is there.  You have writers like Robert Cooper, who is one of the experimentalists who wrote a lot about the Midwestern region, writers like William H. Gass, who writes in this beautifully elegant, smart metaphors, but also this very angry, infuriated tone.

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Mark Athitakis

Really what I was trying to get at there is this idea, again, that there’s not one particular specific kind of Midwestern writing, but that there was maybe a little bit more risk-taking amongst writers in the region than it’s perhaps given credit for.  And also, someone like Leon Forrest, a longtime Chicagoan, who I write about in the last chapter, was a pioneering African-American experimental writer coming out of the, roughly, second half of the 20th century. Toni Morrison, who is treated now so much as practically a statue of contemporary American fiction, was a great experimentalist earlier in her career, and she was Leon Forrest’s editor.  So, my goal there was to point out that there’s a through line of writers who, contrary to popular belief, were taking real chances and risks with language.