There was a time in Christianity when approval could be gotten for free, when repeating X orthodox arguments against y heretics would, no matter how pandering to existing consensus or intellectually unoriginal, garner adulation. I think back to poor Tigranes, the Armenian king who was facing attack from the Romans in the first century. A messenger warned him and was killed, so subsequent messengers brought only assurances, and they spent several weeks in a nice, Armenian echo chamber. All voices concurred and dissent punished by exile or death (back to the RC church now), and this singleness of mind, leading…
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.
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.”
We 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
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…
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…
“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.”
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,…
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…
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…
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.
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
An air of thriving
Like a lone cypress
To some airless
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…