My Bright Abyss, by Christian Wiman

I finished Wiman’s My Bright Abyss out walking today. The day was sometimes grey and cold winter, sometimes sunlight, sometimes darkness of snow. The book was good.

Wiman is a Christian in a broad and mainstream way–Undenominational and with all the fastidious quirks-du jour white people like. He’s influenced by process thought, it seems to me, and definitely Moltmann and wherever the assertion Christ is Contingency comes from (excuse my ignorance, or rather laziness not looking it up, though I’d guess that there’s more process thought). But he’s also more: he’s influenced by poetry, ancient and modern, by the spiritual classics of Christianity, and by the Bible, a book which is not at all obvious to him–an accomplished reader. And he’s influenced by what seems to me genuine faith. Faith in search of authentic expression is what I’d put in the subtitle. I found his book more enjoyable than irritating, and serious far more than it is silly.

Wiman struggled through a Bright Abyss of bone cancer and it awoke in him again the faith of his youth in Bible belt Texas. The book is about those years struggling between life and death and a coming to terms with life and death which involved struggling between belief and unbelief. I gather he does not struggle the latter struggle as much at this point, but is not particularly triumphant about being over it–and it may be he’s not over it, that that’s his brand of Christianity: a mutable, contingent sort he has come to accept immutably.

What’s refreshing about Wiman, though it can exasperate some, I realize, is that he refuses what he perceives as traditional expression. He doesn’t want to sound like an American Christian of the early 21st Century who has derived feeling and expression from the 20th. So he throws off much in order to remake. It is a peculiarly American approach, it seems to me, rather free and easy with things more stably and legitimately permanent in traditional orthodox parlance. He finds in poetry genuine feeling, and it is from the language of poetry more than the language of theology, but obviously borrowing from the language of theology, and perhaps more precisely of past devotion, that he sets for himself the struggle of articulating his belief. He approaches it not as something he wants to proclaim, but as something he has to admit, and because he has to admit it, wants to hedge his bets, and nuance his statements and still be mostly unambiguous. It is a curious and for me unusual approach. I find it refreshing because while I don’t agree on his giving up on traditional articulations (creeds, formulations, doctrinal statements), I do agree that contemporary American expression of belief leaves a lot to be desired; there is a certain sense of contamination by association when one takes those words into one’s mouth. One doesn’t want to profane one’s religion by putting it the way so many preachers across this land do. One doesn’t want to demean Scripture by saying of it what so many glib pretenders to religion do from sea to shining sea.

So I like Wiman for that. The book is also often moving. If you try it, it will be unlike other books you try to set it beside. It is like a spiritual classic (though I do not say this is one) in that it stands alone for what it is: there can be no two of this.

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