Christian Wiman: resurrection is empty without the cross
The interview covers a number of important topics. He discusses the problem of poetry’s conflicted relationship with modern society, the “reek” of overambition, and his own complicated relationship with Christianity. In one of his answers, he states: “I do think a life in poetry is a calling, but for a long time I was unwilling to admit that the call might come from God.” But the most profound response comes in his discussion of art and sentimentality. Rench’s question is in bold, followed by Wiman’s response.
In this response, Wiman identifies the absence of a theologia crucis as the basis for modern American Christianity’s rampant sentimentalism. Beyond the saccharine lyrics of CCM and the books by people like Bruce Wilkinson, we might expand sentimentalism to include, for example, the prosperity gospel found on TBN and the comfortable, bourgeois character of American evangelicalism in general. All of these things are manifestations of a resurrection “without a clear, cold sense of the cross.” As a result, they are “empty.”
In the chapter on poetry and religion you start off by saying, “Art is like Christianity in this way: at its greatest, it can give you access to the deepest suffering you imagine.” Would you say this is why art resists sentimentalism?
Well, the adjective is important there: greatest. I was trying to point out how the highest moments of art can at once enact our deepest sufferings and provide a peace that is equal to them, and how this is similar to (though lesser than) what I understand to be the deepest truth of Christianity. The peace does not eliminate the sorrow or the tragedy: great art acknowledges intractable human suffering, and Christianity's promise of resurrection is empty without a clear, cold sense of the cross.
So yes, art does resist sentimentality, as does, at its best, Christianity.
That said, there are all kinds of art, and all kinds of Christianity, that include sentimentality—and are not necessarily vitiated because of that. I love many novels, poems, and pieces of music that have obvious sentimental moments or characters in them, and it seems to me that the daily life of a Christian can’t be lived with the kind of austerity I’m describing above. Some people, those inclined to severity and sternness, actually need more sentimentality in their lives, and others who are over-inclined to frivolity and vapid cheerfulness need to be dropped more often into the depths of their beliefs. Art is a good means for achieving both of these.
I’ll close by offering one of his more explicitly “religious” poems (for lack of a better description), “Every Riven Thing”:
Every Riven Thing
God goes, belonging to every riven thing He’s made
Sing his being simply by being
The thing it is:
Stone and tree and sky,
Man who sees and sings and wonders why
God goes. Belonging, to every riven thing He’s made,
Means a storm of peace.
Think of the atoms inside the stone.
Think of the man who sits alone
Trying to will himself into the stillness where
God goes belonging. To every riven thing He’s made
There is given one shade
Shaped exactly to the thing itself:
Under the tree a darker tree;
Under the man the only man to see
God goes belonging to every riven thing. He’s made
The things that bring Him near,
Made the mind that makes Him go.
A part of what man knows,
Apart from what man knows,
God goes belonging to every riven thing He’s made.