Christian Wiman: resurrection is empty without the cross

Books & Culture has an interview with poet and essayist Christian Wiman conducted by Aaron Rench. Wiman is the editor of Poetry magazine, which gives him a place of central importance in the life of American poetry today. He has a collection of essays out entitled, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet, which I recommend. You can read one of them, “The Limit,” here. He also has a number of poems available online.

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 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.

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.”

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.


Anonymous said…
What a beautiful poem! It's comforting to know there are artists who still stake enough honest thought and faith to create art like that.
dw said…
Christian Wiman is an excellent poet, an important figure in contemporary poetry, and an even better guy.

Lambie said…
Great insight.

I do wonder, however, if you've actually read much of Bruce Wilkinson, or if you just use his name as shorthand for what you disapprove of. One of the problems with naming specific fellow Christians in a broadly dismissive way (as Christian bloggers frequently do) is that it sometimes displays the blogger's superficial knowledge of the targeted person's body of work. For example, Wilkinson has written and preached a great deal about the centrality of the Cross, and his total life work is hardly a theology of resurrection empty of the cross. If all you've read is his little book that happened to become popular, and not read the stuff that represents his deeper thinking but didn't sell so well, you may be being a little hasty to toss him so easily into the sentimentalism category.

That's a good reminder, but Bruce Wilkinson fits the sentimental category perfectly, I would argue. Let's take the four books with which I am familiar:

1. The Prayer of Jabez.
2. Set Apart: Discovering Personal Victory through Holiness.
3. Secrets of the Vine: Breaking Through to Abundance.
4. The Dream Giver.

Now, I'll grant that "Secrets of the Vine" is better than the others, but these works are all framed in the context of victory, abundance, prosperity, and fulfillment. Even when he speaks about holiness or giving or prayer, there remains an underlying gospel of prosperity: I will get God's blessings if I live the right way. "The Dream Giver" is especially bad, one of the worst books I've ever seen. It's all about realizing your Big Dream, defeating the Giants in your way, and learning from God as your Coach to help realize Victory. There is very little difference between Wilkinson's works and your typical self-help trash, and that means there is finally almost no difference between Wilkinson's "God" and the psyche or self or inner light or whatever of the secular self-help works.

Wilkinson is not the worst of such Christian writers. There are certainly many others whom I willing to criticize before him. But there is no excuse. His stuff appeals to our culture's desire for riches and success, and he does so in the name of Jesus. This is most definitely a resurrection without a cross.

Talking about the cross and self-giving is not enough. If one's theology remains a theology of success and prosperity, any amount of cross-talk is futile. It may be even more pernicious, because it make the prosperity-talk seem more morally superior and pious. I would suggest reading Bonhoeffer next to Wilkinson and seeing if the difference is only a matter of degree, or (as I think) a matter of kind. There is, I believe, a qualitative distinction between a true theologia crucis and Wilkinson's works.