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.
This post should be entitled “In Praise of Margaret M. Wagner,” since she created the design and typography of Robert Alter’s translations of the Bible for W. W. Norton, beginning with the very first, The Book of Genesis (1996). More than most readers may even be aware, her contribution, evident on every page, mediates Alter’s words, making each translation handsome, accessible, and eminently readable. Indeed, it may be the greatest compliment to the design that most readers see through it and never notice how it functions so clearly and effortlessly.
Fields Without Dreams: Defending the Agrarian Ideal is, without question, one of the finest works about the decline of the family farm, specifically the harsh realities of California agriculture during the 1980s (written from the perspective of the late 1990s). The profiles of the last holdout “yeoman” are compelling and full blooded. But what’s even more interesting is how, through the small details and the individual anecdotes, Hanson is able to diagnose the larger trends and social consequences of this decline.
I have read several books by N. T. Wright, and I consider myself an admirer of his work, both popular and academic. So I was naturally excited when I heard that he had compiled his translations from the “New Testament for Everyone Series” (published by Westminster John Knox Press) into a single volume, entitled The Kingdom New Testament. Here’s one volume in the series, for example: Mark for Everyone.
As I was reading Christian Wiman’s new book My Bright Abyss, I started jotting down the names of poets, theologians, and other writers that he mentioned. My list turned out to be quite extensive—98 names in a 178 page book.
Initially, I suspected that Wiman was drawing heavily, perhaps disproportionately, from contemporary or 20th-century poets. That turned out to be true in some respects, but he also draws from many other eclectic and unexpected sources. One can see from the list a kind of intellectual genealogy for Wiman’s Christian faith.
My stab at a name index can be found here: Wiman index. Feedback and corrections are welcome.
[revised version uploaded October 21, 2013]
In November 2009, after reading Alter’s translation of Psalms, I sent the following encouragement to a friend who was wrestling with serious questions of faith and doubt. In it, I quote from a footnote in Alter’s commentary on Psalm 34:
I’ve been thinking a lot about our conversation last Saturday. I just wanted to affirm that the questions you are asking are good ones: candid, defining, essential, humbling.
The struggle to believe, and finding a practice that honors those beliefs, is lifelong, one that is worked out in countless conversations with tradition (“the democracy of the dead,” according to one writer), family, community (which comes and goes), and Scripture.
I have been a unabashed fan of Robert Alter’s translations of the Bible, since his first, Genesis, appeared in 1996, and my admiration has deepened with each new installment. His most recent, Ancient Israel: The Former Prophets, is an expansion of his earlier project, The David Story (1999). Where the earlier book was limited to the life of King David found in 1 and 2 Samuel, the new collection also includes Joshua, Judges, and 1 and 2 Kings, capturing the grand sweep of the historical narratives, hence the title. At 880 pages, it is Alter’s most hefty, and perhaps most intimidating, translation and commentary to date.
Since I don’t know biblical Hebrew, I am not in a position to assess or critique the fidelity of Alter’s translations to the original texts. To be frank, it is not clear to me that James Wood, Michael Dirda, or John Updike are, either. That hasn’t stopped any of them from offering an assessment of Alter’s accomplishments. In that vein, I’d like to offer a few brief observations about the virtues I see in Alter’s work.
It is rare these days to encounter writer who’s ideas are as finely wrought as his style. I know of one such writer, who offers in four tight sentences this withering critique of modern-day “spirituality”:
Our ethics tends to be something of a continuous improvisation or bricolage: we assemble fragments of traditions we half remember, gather ethical maxims almost at random from the surrounding culture, attempt to find an inner equilibrium between tolerance and conviction, and so on, until we have knit together something like a code, suited to our needs, temperaments, capacities, and imaginations. We select the standards or values we find appealing from a larger market of moral options and then try to arrange them into some sort of tasteful harmony….
James Wood has established himself as one of the most influential critics in the English-speaking world. His first book, The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief (1999), included an account of his upbringing in a strongly evangelical family and his loss of faith in his teens, and skepticism toward religion in general and Christianity in particular is a recurring theme in the brilliant essay-reviews he contributes to The New Republic and elsewhere. It is no surprise, then, that his first novel contains a strident polemic against religious belief.
Indeed, at first glance, The Book Against God may offer little to recommend itself to Christian readers. It depicts no conversions and answers none of the profound and unsettling questions it poses. Yet it presents a compelling and powerful portrait of religious belief.