Posts tagged "Christian Wiman"

The Preacher Addresses the Seminarians – Christian Wiman

Good news! Yesterday saw the release of Christian Wiman’s new book of poetry, Once in the West. While my copy is still in mail, I couldn’t resist sharing the opening portion of what Dwight Garner in the NY Times has already called a “major performance” and “near-masterpiece”, one that Wiman was kind enough to preview for us when he was here in 2013, “The Preacher Addresses the Seminarians”. It’s biting and uncomfortable but also extremely funny, a veritable catalog of churchy tropes, both inane and indicting. Given its tone, the ending, which you’ll have to buy the book to read, may surprise you.


9780374227012_p0_v2_s260x420I tell you it’s a bitch existence some Sundays
and it’s no good pretending you don’t have to pretend,

don’t have to hitch up those gluefutured nags Hope and Help
and whip the sorry chariot of yourself

toward whatever Hell your Heaven is on days like these.
I tell you it takes some hunger heaven itself won’t slake

to be so twitchingly intent on the pretty organist’s pedaling,
so lizardly alert to the curvelessness of her choir robe.

Here it comes, brothers and sisters, the confession of sins,
hominy hominy, dipstick doxology, one more churchcurdled hymn

we don’t so much sing as haunt: grounded altos, gear-grinding tenors,
three score and ten gently bewildered men lip-synching along.

You’re up, Pastor. Bring on the unthunder. Some trickle-piss tangent
to reality. Some bit of the Gospel grueling out of you.

I tell you sometimes mercy means nothing
but release from this homiletic hologram, a little fleshstep

sideways, as it were, setting passion on autopilot (as if it weren’t!)
to gaze out in peace at your peaceless parishioners:

boozeglazes and facelifts, bad mortgages, bored marriages,
making a kind of masonry in faces at once specific and generic,

and here and there that rapt famished look that leaps
from person to person, year to year, like a holy flu.


Anyone interested in Wiman would do well to read Matthew Sitman’s excellent new essay for The Deep Dish, “Finding the Words for Faith”, in which he dubs CW “America’s most important Christian writer.”

What Is Not Working for Christian Wiman

MAGIC-IN-THE-MOONLIGHT-posterWe are about six weeks away from the publication of Christian Wiman’s new collection of poetry, Once in the West, and what better way to prepare than with quick quote from that gift that keeps on giving, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer:

If God is a salve applied to unbearable psychic wounds, or a dream figure conjured out of memory and mortal terror, or an escape from a life that has become either too appalling or too banal to bear, then I have to admit: it is not working for me. Just when I think I’ve finally found some balance between active devotion and honest modern consciousness, all my old anxieties come pressuring up through the seams of me, and I am as volatile and paralyzed as ever…

Be careful. Be certain that your expressions of regret about your inability to rest in God do not have a tinge of self-satisfaction, even self-exaltation to them, that your complaints about your anxieties are not merely a manifestation of your dependence on them. There is nothing more difficult to outgrow than anxieties that have become useful to us, whether as explanations for a life that never quite finds its true force or direction, or as fuel for ambition, or as a kind of reflexive secular religion that, paradoxically, unites us with others in a shared sense of complete isolation: you feel at home in the world only by never feeling at home in the world. (pg 9-10)

Another Week Ends: Evil Without, Fitness Within, Gilbert and Sullivan, Jesus and “My Wife”, Relentless Popes, Concessive Friends, Bad TV Fans and Worse Tinder Dates

Another Week Ends: Evil Without, Fitness Within, Gilbert and Sullivan, Jesus and “My Wife”, Relentless Popes, Concessive Friends, Bad TV Fans and Worse Tinder Dates

1. Sarah Palin this week let loose another of the brand of comments she’s known for – offensive or courageous or whatever, depending on your politics. The exact line was something along the lines of, “If I were in charge they would know that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.” It would be a mistake to blame Palin too much; it’s hard to win primaries as a moderate these days, right or left. The more sobering news comes from the world of Stats: reporting on Palin’s comments, The Dish noted the following:

[The best recent research] reveals that vast swathes of American Christianity are…

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Legalistic Makeup and the Yawning Gap in Religious Experience

Legalistic Makeup and the Yawning Gap in Religious Experience

File this one under required reading. David Brooks’ column in The NY Times this week “Alone, Yet Not Alone” mines a very rich vein: the discrepancy between how religious faith is presented and how it is experienced in America (and the world) today, particularly in terms of the role doubt plays. The man appears to be on something of a hot streak, quoting Augustine and Heschel in equal measure, and dropping what could be a career-making (hopefully not -wrecking) endorsement of singer-songwriter Audrey Assad. The intro goes like this:

When secular or mostly secular people are asked by researchers to give…

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What Usually Goes Under the Name Ambition

A quick thought from poet and author Christian Wiman, via his essay “God’s Truth in Life”, originally published in Image Journal, and collected in My Bright Abyss:

“I once believed in some notion of a pure ambition, which I defined as an ambition for the work rather than for oneself, but I’m not sure I believe in that anymore. If a poet’s ambition were truly for the work and nothing else, he would write under a pseudonym, which would not only preserve that pure space of making but free him from the distractions of trying to forge a name for himself in the world. No, all ambition has the reek of disease about it, the relentless smell of the self–except for that terrible, blissful feeling at the heart of creation itself, when all thought of your name is obliterated and all you want is the poem, to be the means wherein something of reality, perhaps even something of eternity, realizes itself. That is noble ambition. But all that comes after–the need for approval, publication, self-promotion–isn’t this what usually goes under the name of “ambition”? The effort is to make ourselves more real to ourselves, to feel that we have selves, though the deepest moments of creation tell us that, in some fundamental way, we don’t. (Souls are what those moments reveal, which are both inside and outside, both us and other.) So long as your ambition is to stamp your existence upon existence, your nature on nature, then your ambition is corrupt and you are pursuing a ghost.”


Mondays with Mandelstam: “Rough Draft” (1937)

Mondays with Mandelstam: “Rough Draft” (1937)

Here, in the final installment of “Mandelstam”, we end roughly where we began, with the poem echoed by Christian Wiman in his outstanding book “My Bright Abyss”. Wiman was my gateway into Mandelstam and his translation has proved to be both thoughtful and moving. This poem also serves as a excellent summary of Mandelstam and his quest to find light amid the darkness.

“Rough Draft” (1937)

Provisionally, then, and secretive,
I speak a truth whose time is not:

It lives in love and the pain of love,
In sweat, and the sky’s playful vacancy.

A whisper, then, a purgatorial prayer,
A testament of one man,…

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Mondays with Mandelstam: Tristia (1918)

Mondays with Mandelstam: Tristia (1918)

There is, I know, a science of separation
In night’s disheveled elegies, stifled laments,
The clockwork oxen jaws, the tense anticipation
As the city’s vigil nears its sun and end.
I honor the natural ritual of the rooster’s cry,
The moment when, red-eyed from weeping, sleepless
Once again, someone hoists the journey’s burden,
And to weep and to sing become the same quicksilver verb.

But who can prophesy in the word good-bye
The abyss of loss into which we fall;
Or what, when the dawn fires burn in the Acropolis,
The rooster’s rusty clamor means for us;
Or why, when some new life floods the cut sky,
And the barn-warm oxen slowly…

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Mondays with Mandelstam: Prayer (1931)

Help me, Lord, this night my life to save.

Hold me, Lord, your servant, your slave.

Hear me, O Lord, alive in Petersburg, my grave.


Spiritual Warfare 2.0: How Prayer is Not a Video Game

Spiritual Warfare 2.0: How Prayer is Not a Video Game

Anthropologist and author T. M. Luhrmann has written a guest column for The New York Times this week called “Addicted to Prayer.” Luhrmann, who has spent time studying the American evangelical community and written a book on “the evangelical relationship with God”, discusses the benefits of any kind of prayer (including secular meditation) on health. She also, however, distinguishes the idea of spiritual warfare from other forms of prayer, and warns that any practice too “imaginative” can actually be detrimental. Luhrmann describes her wariness like this:

I was most struck by the dangers of prayer when people got deeply involved with…

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Mondays with Mandelstam: “Cathedral, Empty”

The not-so-subtle -suggestions have been beckoning it for some time. With Wiman’s translation as a guide, this is the beginning of a descent into the “soul-demanding” work of Osip Mandelstam, an early 20th century Russian poet.

David-Stephenson-Vaults_01“Cathedral, Empty” (1910)

When light, failing,

Through stained glass,

The long grass
At the feet of Christ,

I crawl diabolical
To the foot of the cross

To sip the infinite

From destroyed

An air of thriving

Like a lone cypress

Holding on
To some airless

Annihilating height.

Reanimating the Word: Mockingbird Interviews Christian Wiman

Reanimating the Word: Mockingbird Interviews Christian Wiman

Last month, Mockingbird co-sponsored a talk with poet Christian Wiman, whose Ambition and Survival, My Bright Abyss, and Every Riven Thing have quickly become Mbird favorites. We also had the great pleasure of interviewing him – transcript below:

MB: Thornton Wilder said that “the revival in religion will be a rhetorical problem – new persuasive words for defaced or degraded ones.” And you reference the need for a “new poetics of faith” in your new book – could you expand on that?

CW: I’m of two minds about that. There’s another quote in that book from a Polish poet, Anna Kamienska, who…

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Another Week Ends: New Atheism and the Church, Jonah Lehrer on Redemption, Empathy with Batman, Wiman’s Incarnational Faith, End-of-School-Year Mothers, Billy Joel, and Eurovision

Another Week Ends: New Atheism and the Church, Jonah Lehrer on Redemption, Empathy with Batman, Wiman’s Incarnational Faith, End-of-School-Year Mothers, Billy Joel, and Eurovision

1. First off, Larry Taunton at The Atlantic has spent the last few years working through the whole “New Atheist” thing from the perspective of traditional Christianity, in particular listening (!) expansively to many committed, thought-through atheists. A nice round-up of his observations appeared this past week, with lots of food for thought, ht EB:

Slowly, a composite sketch of American college-aged atheists began to emerge and it would challenge all that we thought we knew about this demographic. Here is what we learned:

They had attended church

Most of our participants had not chosen their worldview from ideologically neutral positions at all, but in reaction to…

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Jurgen Moltmann on the Crucifixion of All Religion

Jurgen Moltmann on the Crucifixion of All Religion

Perhaps you were as comforted as I was to come across a rather lengthy quote from Jurgen Moltmann’s opus The Crucified God in the “Varieties of Quiet” chapter of Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss. We may not haven’t referenced it in far too long, but The Crucified God happens to be a Mockingbird stand-by, and that oversight ends this morning. The incredibly stirring passage Wiman chooses comes from pages 37-39 of the book, in which Moltmann deals with “The Resistance of the Cross Against its Interpretations”. A slightly expanded version, too relevant not to reproduce, reads as follows:

The modern criticism…

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And I Was Alive (With a Shard of Glass in the Gut): A Week with Christian Wiman

And I Was Alive (With a Shard of Glass in the Gut): A Week with Christian Wiman

What a rare and inspiring privilege it was to be with poet and author Christian Wiman last week. I for one am still reeling–don’t know how it could have possibly been any richer. Thankfully, like his poetry in Every Riven Thing and his prose in My Bright Abyss, the talks he gave here in Charlottesville defy distillation. They require real attention–and while one might expect as much from an artist of his caliber and quality, still, the anticipation of poetic brilliance doesn’t make it any less arresting when you actually experience it.

Which is not to imply that a portion of…

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From a Window – Christian Wiman

In honor of the beginning of “Wiman Week” here in Charlottesville, here is a doozie from Every Riven Thing, originally published in The Atlantic:

the-tree-of-life_3Incurable and unbelieving
in any truth but the truth of grieving,

I saw a tree inside a tree
rise kaleidoscopically

as if the leaves had livelier ghosts.
I pressed my face as close

to the pane as I could get
to watch that fitful, fluent spirit

that seemed a single being undefined
or countless beings of one mind

haul its strange cohesion
beyond the limits of my vision

over the house heavenwards.
Of course I knew those leaves were birds.

Of course that old tree stood
exactly as it had and would

(but why should it seem fuller now?)
and though a man’s mind might endow

even a tree with some excess
of life to which a man seems witness,

that life is not the life of men.
And that is where the joy came in.

To listen to Christian doing an astounding reading of an astounding poem, go here.