Loads of Learned Lumber

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Christian Wiman, _My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer_

STILL MULLING OVER the unlikely congruencies between this and the novel I happened to be reading at the same time, A. M. Homes's May We Be Forgiven (see "Font Dissonance," July 8). Wiman's book predisposed me to see the religious dimension of Homes's novel: the title, of course, the phrase "a prayer, an incantation" that occurs at the book's opening and close, the bar mitzvah scene, the Yom Kippur scene with is alphabetic recitation of sins. Homes's novel predisposed me to see everything that was unsettling, even disturbing in Wiman's book, the shadow of anguish that falls over it, its awareness of our irreparability.

My Bright Abyss often put me in mind of Pascal's Pensées--a mosaic of mini-essays thematically grouped, the prose somehow combining lyricism and gravitas, the concerns predominantly "modern," i.e., belonging to a moment in which faith cannot take itself for granted, and has to become aware of itself.

It's a powerful and touching book; Wiman does not spend a lot of time on the cancer he's been fighting, or on his wife and daughters, but we get enough to see that he has been stretched tightly between great joy and great pain for some years now, and that every realization he comes to in the book has cost him something.

It's hard to say who the book is for, who its audience is. Something about the presentation suggests that Farrar Straus & Giroux figured it for the Spiritual But Not Religious crowd, but Wiman seems to acknowledge that church matters to him, and he is very specifically Christian in his theology.  He mentions an editor objecting that one of the chapters has "too much Christ" in it--too much for whom? For the SBNRs, I suspect.

On the other hand, the book hardly belongs in the company of the anodyne volumes found abundantly in Catholic or evangelical bookstores. If My Bright Abyss were placed next to a Joel Osteen book, the Osteen would shrivel to dry powder and scatter in the hot desert wind gusting from Wiman's pages.

In some ways the book is its own audience, an audience that includes doubters, hecklers, naysayers. "If I ever sound like a preacher in these passages, it's only because I have a hornet's nest of voluble and conflicting parishioners inside of me," Wiman writes. As Pascal seemed to be often talking to himself, in dialogue with himself, so Wiman characterizes his writing as "exhortations to myself, mostly." Mostly--not entirely.

Wiman returns more than once to the idea that "faith in God is, finally, faith in change." Can we say "yes" to an endless process of transformation that will eventually take away everything we hold precious, will even extend to our own personal extinction as a body? To revert to Homes's novel, Harry Silver has to find a way to commit himself to just such an unpredictable hurricane of events, has to roll with it as Job had to roll with it. Wiman too finds a way to say yes.

No comments: