Christian Wiman’s Abyss

Perhaps not unlike other readers, I picked up a copy of My Bright Abyss: Mediation of a Modern Believer because of the reputation of its author, Christian Wiman. Since 2003, he has been the editor of Poetry, a prestigious and influential monthly journal published by the Poetry Foundation. While he stepped down from that position in June 2013, he took up joint appointments to Yale Divinity School and the Yale Institute of Sacred Music this fall. So, naturally, I was intrigued when I learned that he had reportedly come to faith during a battle with a rare form of cancer several years ago, at the age of 39. It’s not often that one hears of such conversions among intellectuals or literati, not the least of which a poet, so I was curious.

While I subscribe to Poetry, and have for more than a decade, to date I had never actually read anything by Wiman that I remembered. It was really his role, his centrality, to modern poetry that seemed so unusually situated. This meant that I approached the book, not as an admirer might but as a Christian looking for a fellow traveler, an advocate, a psalmist able to render the gospel anew. This also meant that I wrestled with his choice of words on nearly every page and, ultimately, came away disappointed that the book felt so flaccid, so despondent, so utterly adrift from the consolations of faith.

It’s not that the book isn’t beautifully written in parts. It most certainly is, especially when Wiman writes concretely—about his illness and treatment, or falling in love with his wife, or even how they found themselves at a local church service shortly after his diagnosis (65). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the book is filled with some of the best poetry that has been written over the past 50 years. (My index of proper names can be found here.) There are 100 proper names mentioned or quoted in its 178 pages. That aspect alone gives the book the feel of a rich tapestry that is not entirely Wiman’s. One could say that the selections show the deft skill of Wiman the editor, not Wiman the writer.

The trouble comes from at least two sources. The first is Wiman’s own style. He recurs again and again to sentence phrasings that encompass opposites. In one place he says, “To name is to praise and to lose in one instant” (119); in another, he describes a word as “radiant with, and devoid of, meaning” (177). Similarly, he burdens individual words with significance: “What is this world that we are so at home with, this beauty by which we are so wounded, and into which God has so utterly gone? . . . Into which, rather than from which: in a grain of grammar, a world of hope” (146). I could readily find many more examples that delicately teeter on a conjunction or a preposition.

Sometimes Wiman’s language is so finely wrought that I am not even sure what he is trying to say. “One part of that truth, for even the most devout of us, is the void of godlessness—and, sometimes, mysteriously, the joy of that void” (61). “Revelation arises not merely out of nothingness but by means of it” (136). “Faith is the word ‘faith’ decaying into pure meaning” (139). Again, I could readily find other examples. When used sparingly, these choices seem poetic or nuanced, but after pages and pages of them, they begin to ring hollow and meaningless, tropes that wear down the reader by their empty ponderousness.

Nevertheless, Wiman explicitly valorizes these choices: “Apophatic language, language that seems to negate or undermine the very assertions that it is making, maybe be at this point not simply the only ‘proper’ means of addressing or invoking God, but the only efficacious one as well” (137). So even though Wiman would never affirm Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life (155), he is willing to other ways of addressing or invoking God. Surely, this will not do.

Wiman dutifully groans about the insufficiency of language to render aspects of spiritual experience. One thinks of T. S. Eliot’s famous words, “Words strain, / Crack and sometimes break, under the burden” (from “Burnt Norton”). Wiman goes further and expects his silences to speak for him: “Poets say that the better part of poetry is what is not said; mystics and other meditative savants say that the final fruition of prayer is silence” (127). By this point, one wonders why, if silence were all, anybody would bother to read further.

Even overlooking the occasional rhetorical excess, the reader cannot help but feel the burden of Wiman’s language, its weight and heft. His enterprise is so serious and laborious that it excludes almost all sense of lightness or play. After a while, it begins to feel morose, tepid, unsure; it also feels far removed from the delight and humor that make up a good deal of the English literary canon, from Chaucer to Fielding to Joyce—and indeed world literature, from Aristophanes to Calvino. It signals, I fear, that something has gone amiss for Wiman, that language has become its own totem, its own trap, rather than a prism refracting the light of God.

The second source of trouble is that is that it is nearly impossible to say what, if anything, Wiman really believes (123, 139, 177). Even though he tells us that he has “read so much theology in the past few years” (71), not a single modern-day heavyweight turns up in his pages. Not Bauckham, Beale, Bock, Carson, Dunn, Hart, Hauerwas, Swinburne, Waltke, Wenham, or Wright, to name but a few. We’re living in a veritable renaissance of Christian scholarship, but you’d never know it from reading Wiman. The closest we get is a passing mention of Karl Barth (103, 154) and a curious (because it’s so incongruous) endorsement of Jurgen Moltmann (133, 135). In Wiman’s hands, even St. Augustine becomes more of a late 20th-century seeker rather than an eminent Doctor of the Church (130-132).

Wiman does approvingly quote a few theologians on the mystical side of the Christian tradition, namely Meister Eckhart, Paul Tillich, and Thomas Merton. But it may be fairly said that those writers can be invoked to support anything but the most nebulous forms of spirituality. So it didn’t surprise me to read that, in his worst moments, Wiman feels that he is “simply wandering through a discount shopping mall of myth, trying to convince [himself] there’s something worth buying” (117). Maybe that’s because the goods on offer are so cheaply made.

English: Jesus Christ - detail from Deesis mos...
English: Jesus Christ – detail from Deesis mosaic, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This impression is further reinforced by the thorough-going tentativeness of Wiman’s alignment with the Christian faith. He claims to be a Christian (155), but he quotes the Bible directly only twice (John 14:2, 104; 1 Corinthians, 126). The gospels are mentioned a few times, as if they were one witness not four (76, 88). And Jesus is mentioned only a dozen times by name. In most cases, Wiman prefers the word Christ, which seems conveniently more abstract and far less daunting, than the person of Jesus. “Christ” in his hands is surely not King Jesus, or Jesus the Anointed—not a threat to the Jewish establishment or the Roman authorities—but rather the Christ of faith, the remnant of a bygone ideal (120-121).

The lack of any mention of biblical poetry, not to mention the vast corpus of hymnody in English, is as conspicuous as it is bewildering. But then again Wiman makes no mention of many other treasures of English and American poetry. The wideness of God’s mercy, in Wiman’s account, apparently does not admit William Langland, John Donne, John Milton, Charles Wesley, Isaac Watts, William Cowper, William Blake, Emily Dickinson, or W. H. Auden, again to name but a few. These towering literary figures are displaced by Wiman’s preference for 20th-century writers, who seem to do no better than he in discovering or unpacking spiritual truths.

That said, Wiman does show deep admiration for at least one orthodox writer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (47-49, 52-53), perhaps because of his wrestling with matters of conscience under an authoritarian state. While Wiman quotes favorably from The Cost of Discipleship, I couldn’t help but think that he overlooked something significant in it. In chapter 2, Bonhoeffer considers Matthew 19, where the rich young man engages Jesus in conversation about what he must do to be saved. His meaning is as clear as it is stern and unyielding:

[The young man] does not see the commandments except in relation to himself and his own problems and conflicts. He neglects the unmistakable command of God for the very interesting but purely human concern of his own moral difficulties. His mistake lies not so much in his awareness of those difficulties as in his attempt to play them off against the commandments of God. . . . Doubt and reflection take the place of spontaneous obedience. . . . Jesus is not interested in the young man’s problems; he is interested in the young man himself. He refuses to take those difficulties as seriously as the young man does. . . . Where moral difficulties are taken so seriously, where they torment and enslave a man, because they do not leave him open to the freeing activity of obedience, it is there that his total godlessness is revealed. All his difficulties are shown to be ungodly, frivolous, and the proof of sheer disobedience.

Wiman is the man. He choses to fawn over his own language of doubt rather than to respond to the call of Jesus. Poetry and language seem far more important than anything faith has to offer. He is bored by church services (123). He ridicules church teaching and anything that passes for dogma or doctrine (70, 89, 117, 123, 138), and he clearly doesn’t want to be identified with common believers. In short, he doesn’t want to give up his pride by being made a fool for Christ (1 Corinthians 4:10). He confesses this outright: “A preacher comes to see me, and we sit like stiff antagonists because the language either won’t come out of my mouth, or feels so foreign, so obviously a capitulation, so—I should just say it—embarrassing to me, that I basically do a little linguistic dance around Christianity, as if I were hedging my bets” (142, cf. 92, 132, and 164). Throughout the book, Wiman takes great pains to show that he’s different, often better, by being more subtle, more sophisticated, more nuanced than other Christians.

One can appreciate that there must be professional ramifications for Wiman in publicly identifying himself as a Christian, as inconvenient as that might be. His audience is that small cadre of people who describe themselves as “intellectuals and artists” (63, cf. 94) or “would-be believers, haunted unbelievers, determined secularists” (125). They want spirituality, but they don’t want “institutionalized religion.” While they want to stand apart from the judgment or narrowness that they associate with traditional forms, they are also quick to condemn a large body of believers as being ignorant or intolerant, true to stereotype in every shallow detail.

In the end, the distance from the person of Jesus—and from the authority and the beauty of the Bible—puts My Bright Abyss at cross purposes with the call that many of us feel. And it means that Wiman’s prolix mediations seem less compelling, less satisfying, and less enriched by the deep well of tradition and the web of community that most serious Christians claim as their own.

*       *       *

As I read My Bright Abyss, I was reminded of other books in recent memory that tackle the heart-rending topic of illness. I thought of Reynolds Price’s A Whole New Life: An Illness and a Healing and Letter to a Man in the Fire: Does God Exist and Does He Care, Richard John Neuhaus’s As I Lay Dying: Meditations Upon Returning, and Renee Bondi’s The Last Dance But Not the Last Song. Those books offer a vision of faith in the face of mortality and suffering with greater candor, less abstraction, and more urgency than Wiman’s abyss.

For conversion stories of other formidable literati, try Mary Karr’s Lit: A Memoir or Rosaria Butterfield’s Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert An English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith.

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