Reflections on My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman

Note: The book My Bright Abyss is by Christian Wiman. This was a session with a host, four speakers, and Christian Wiman as the respondent.

Matt Byers teaches creative writing at Lubbock Christian University
Nancy Durham is a senior VP at Lipscomb University and a psych prof.
Susan Pigham teaches at Hardin-Simmons University in the theology school
Jeremy Elliott teaches at Abilene Christian University
Darryl Tippens (host) is administration and the Distinguished Scholar of Faith and Learning at Abilene Christian University

my bright abyssPreliminary reflections:
Christian Wiman said of art that “if you talk about it too much, it gets leeched of its meaning.”

MB: challenging book from a variety of angles
shotgun blast on paper
a book that wants to discomfit us; make us aware of our prejudices, biases
We need to be aware of the universal spiritual condition that the book deals with
I am interested in knowing about the audience for this text.
p. 76 “Trust no theory … in which the author’s personal faith is not at risk.”

ND: created for me a holy space–wanted to be quiet and let it sink in
slow but persistent weaving together of starkly antagonistic states
p. 151 “most mature vision … death and life together” can’t see one without the other
p. 96 “annihilating silence within every sound”
The anticipation of death is easier than living with suffering.
I think that is worth writing again. The anticipation of death is easier than living with suffering.
p. 166 “blurs the emotion and clouds the mind”
Have always been fascinated by Julian of Norwich, who prayed for suffering.
p. 121 “Christ, though, is a shard of glass in your gut.”
p. 134 “meaning of the cross” = God in the midst of human suffering
As a psychologist, studied/studying social psych in the 80s, which came up with terror management. This is that our fear of death drives our actions. We accept culture and cultural expectations in order to create a semblance of control.
That we attempt to manage our terror shows that there are problems.

SP: part memoir, part poem, all mixed as belief in unknowing
Certainty about God undergirds theology since the Renaissance.
“We need to be shocked out of our propositional language about God.”
As a biblical scholar, God resists definition. God whispered to Elijah and blasted Job with a whirlwind.
God desires to be known but refuses to be tamed.
The moment we think we have grasped who he is, God dissipates.
We like certainty, but God and faith do not fit into tidy propositions.
Seek God in the midst of the ordinariness of life, when he seems most absent.
innocence = purest form of faith
Don’t revel in doubt, but faith in God requires risk.
Doubt without faith leads to skepticism.
“Art is better at theology than theology is.” –Christian Wiman
All language about God is metaphorical, but sometimes we forget that.
Poetry enables the language of paradox
Language about God can be transformative. We need new metaphors.
This is a book for those who wrestle with God in the dark of life.

JE: striking thing is that it does best “Good art makes the familiar strange.”
talks well about insufficiencies of approaches
teaching Jonah one time, student asked if I thought literal. I said the text didn’t say that. She left. She was like a single piece of spaghetti before it is cooked; it is stiff and fragile.
The idea that there can be no doubt is also stiff.
Can know nothing without innocence.
Agnosticism of modern academia is vacant.
try to find the thing that is, that shows faith
Art as revelation, seeking modes of transcendence.
Art is the moment of connection.

DT: something that resonates with others?

ND: p. 153 “If this consciousness … is gendered, clearly feminine… interior/ulterior kind of consciousness… In neglecting the voices of women… who feel that eruption in their very bodies, theology has silenced a powerful … side of God.”

CW: When I wrote that, my experience of God was through my mother and my grandmother.
My mother is a smart, educated woman.
My grandmother is not the same. She is innocent and theological.
I could see/feel her religious beliefs translated into her daily life.
To see them silenced would be tragic.
Accidental Theology, read as literature and theology…
the entire syllabus had women authors, most contemporary
Women’s voice is not being silenced any more in certain places.
Things have to be restated.

DT: paradox in presentation
NPR says about the work “author’s movements too swift… leaves the reader stumbling in pursuit”

MB: liked that you would write and correct yourself instantaneously, letting us follow growth process… many have fear of looking mistaken, but we can see your process.
Poets like to see where things go.

DT: When we write, we have lots of muddled thoughts. We are looking for distillation. Perhaps you are sharing the experience of working through the muddle.

CW: The audience, until late in the game, I was simply writing to stay alive. It never occurred to me that people would read it.
Late in the game, my sense of audience was the people I was meeting around the country who want to believe but can’t.
Early on, though, it was just for myself.

DT: to read lyric poetry, read it slowly, out loud… This book, too. Read in section. Don’t have to get it all to get gems.

ND: searingly truthful–getting at something I might cover over

SP: after reading 3x, still didn’t understand
but book about not being certain, so that was okay
not linear
more like a library of meditations

CW: first written first, last written last–everything else was mixed up

DT: epigraph or review for this book would be Jude 22 “Be merciful to those who doubt.”

CW: The difficulty is how to experience God in daily life without translating the experience of life as the experience of God.

DT: value of this book… mini-essay pages 6 and 7 on leaving behind childhood faith

boy surrounded by question marksQuestions:

Did you read the book linearly?
SP: after reading first time, read backwards to find themes
MB: smaller sections in the larger sections, each could be a daily meditation, I reviewed the troubling sections out of order.
JE: like the Bible. Read through to get the feel and then open and read randomly.
CW: Read nearly every book from the middle or the end. Books of poems I only start in the middle.
The first and last chapters don’t have themes.

When did you write the preface?
About a year after finished. It was already in production.

You see yourself as a poet, but are famous for your prose. Is that difficult?
Can’t complain, but it is weird.
Prose has always been important.
For a writer, one book hits and that is the book everyone knows. My Bright Abyss is that book for me. It is the one everyone knows. With this book I was trying to help myself and I was able to help others.
To make a work of art (I saw the whole book as a poem) and have it make a difference –wonderful!
Writers may feel a different work than the one everyone knows epitomizes their work.
I teach MDiv candidates how to use poetry in pastoral care.

Later he said that Every Riven Thing would probably be the book he thinks epitomizes his writing.

What are you working on now?
An anthology, mostly poetry, but with prose woven through it.

CW: I disagree with Bloom’s idea of every writer reacting against earlier writers.

Is there a place for this book in a college classroom?
MB: Yes. Use another book because it is on writing survival.
DT: great for a course on Job
SP: upper level class only, seminary would fit well
DT: We have students questioning at every level. Good book for that is Dan Taylor’s The Myth of Certainty. This is another one.

If you found yourself with the you who wrote the book, what would you say?
Maybe nothing. If I knew it would be read, I might look at it and write it differently.
To open up and read your own work is profoundly unpleasant. It has something to do with making art. Your most intense feelings are calcified there.

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