The power of poetry: Christian Wiman fuels his writing with renewed faith

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46-year-old Christian Wiman returned to his roots and reclaimed Christianity through poetry when confronted with a rare cancer diagnosis. Publicity photo. 46-year-old Christian Wiman returned to his roots and reclaimed Christianity through poetry when confronted with a rare cancer diagnosis. Publicity photo.

Christian Wiman is the celebrated author of three books of poetry whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, and The New York Times Book Review. He is also the editor of Poetry magazine—a position he will relinquish in June to join the faculty of the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School—but gained attention nearly six years ago for reclaiming his Christian faith in an essay for the American Scholar.

Last month, Wiman followed up on that controversial revelation with a book of prose called My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer. On Wednesday, May 15, at 7pm, he will be on hand for “And I Was Alive: Faith in a Faithless Time,” a lecture and Q&A in the Christ Church Sanctuary. C-VILLE talked with him by phone about what a contemporary faith looks like, or as he told me, “one that’s responsible to science and to art and to all these other experiences we have that seem to negate faith as it’s been traditionally defined.”

 

C-VILLE Weekly: Do you give many talks like the one you’ll be doing here, and if so, what value do you see in it?

Christian Wiman: “Yeah, it’s become more important recently to have that direct contact with audiences. Writing is such a solitary business and so much of what I’ve been writing about recently—in the prose at least —is about the ways in which faith is both a solitary and communal experience, and it’s been important for me to have that communal experience attached to my work. These issues of faith demand to be shared. You can’t just have a solitary experience of faith.”

 In your 2007 essay “Gazing into the Abyss,” you made a very public profession of a return to Christianity. How was that received by your peers?

“I think artists are generally people of faith, even if they don’t define their faith as conforming to Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, but I find it rare or to the point of nonexistence that a real writer would ever be an atheist. It seems to me that there is always some element of faith that’s being expressed in their work. They may not believe in a certain god, but they have faith in something beyond themselves and their work. And so I haven’t found any negative reaction among artists.”

In that essay, you wrote: “Poetry is how religious feeling has survived in me.” Is it easier to rectify faith with a higher form of art like poetry than, say, rock and roll?

“You know, I wish I could be a rock and roll singer. I don’t really know what that would be like. I suspect that it’s different in the life that it leads to—it’s so public and there are so many temptations—but it’s probably not as different in the actual creative moments. I’m sure that great songwriters have the same experience as great poets. What they feel when they are actually creating is in touch with something that is completely outside themselves.”

With your return to faith, are you a different type of believer than you would have been earlier in life?

“That’s hard for me to say because the only other type of belief I know is the fundamentalist kind that I grew up with. For years, I would’ve said I wasn’t a believer but then I wouldn’t have said I didn’t believe in God. It seemed so obvious to me that the art I was reading and making led to something called God. At some point, I needed to formalize the faith to give it a language and that’s what Christianity has enabled me to do. I do think what I experience now is completely different from anything I would have been led to 10 or 15 years ago.”

Like you, I was raised in a really religious household and at some point moved away from it. One reason is that it was difficult for me to reconcile my artistic tastes with my more traditional religious beliefs. Was that a strain for you as well?

“Yes, I frequently find art and orthodoxy at odds with each other. I think each actually has a lot to learn from the other. Art loses a lot when it gives up an orthodox understanding of God, but orthodoxy loses a hell of a lot when it gives up the insights of artists. There’s some meeting ground between the two but I do understand the tension.”

Is there a new generation of Christian that doesn’t feel the same tension between art and Christianity?

“Yeah, I think that’s very true and perceptive. I still find the strain between orthodoxy and art but I think there are a lot of Christians that are very open to art that is not necessarily Christian and are finding ways of incorporating that art into their spiritual lives.”

You’ll be giving your lecture in a university town. Are you finding that college-age adults are more open to faith than was the case 20 years ago?

“Definitely. I don’t know that there’s a return to Christianity per se. Liberal Protestantism seems to be dying, but there does seem to me to be an enormous contingent of people out there that are starving for some way of finding meaning in their lives.”

 

 An Evening with Christian Wiman May 15, Free, 7pm. Christ Episcopal Church, 310 N High St., (540) 832-3209.

 

 Do you have personal reflections on the intersection of art and faith? Tell us about it in the comments section below…

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