When Theology and Poetry Collide: An Interview with Christian Wiman

As a poet and memoirist, Christian Wiman writes of grace and oblivion, outrage and acceptance, illness and grace again. Born in West Texas, he was editor of Poetry magazine for a decade before coming to Yale Divinity School in 2013 as a Senior Lecturer in Religion and Literature at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. He is the author of the books of poetry Once in the West: Poems (FSG, 2014) and Every Riven Thing (FSG, 2010) and the memoir My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (FSG, 2013).

Reflections: This semester, you are team-teaching a course called “Poetry for Ministry.” Are worship and preaching more receptive to poetic language and image today?

Christian Wiman: Yes, this is a new course that I designed with Maggi Dawn, the dean of Marquand Chapel. She has a lot of experience with actual parish ministry, plus she’s a great lover of poetry, so it’s been ideal from my perspective.

The people I tend to encounter – students at YDS and elsewhere, ministers and scholars around the country – certainly seem to be open to the link between poetry and preaching. I recently did a retreat with Eugene Peterson and he basically said that you couldn’t preach effectively without an understanding of poetry and metaphorical thought, since so much of the Bible is after all in poetry. The trick is to know one’s audience, and in my experience ministers are usually very adept at this.

Reflections: It seems we’re in a time when the very word religion looks unappealing to many people. If we are in a post-denominational, even post-doctrinal period, should poetry take on a bigger role in the spiritual life? Can poetry (past and present) to do the work of theology?

Wiman: I think of poetry as closer to a primary spiritual experience rather than a secondary one. Religion is solidly secondary. It’s what one does with an experience of otherness, of God. Theology is part of religion. I consider myself religious, and I seem to be obsessed with theology, so clearly poetry is not an exhaustive spiritual resource for me. I’m all for collisions of disciplines – it’s one thing I particularly love about being at the ISM – but there is a reason why they are disciplines.

Perhaps what I am saying is that poetry can do theological work within an individual consciousness,but I don’t think it can do that work institutionally or culturally.

Reflections: You’ve said we can know God only indirectly and by metaphor. Yet on the American scene, much about Christian faith gets wrapped in the rhetoric of certitude. Given our utilitarian streak and iconoclastic Protestant heritage, many remain ambivalent or wary about beauty in the life of faith. Can poetry disarm (or reform) our twitchy, politicized religious culture?

Wiman: Nope. I don’t think poetry works en masse like that (see above). Also, the religious and political currents at work in American culture are larger and more intractable than a dollop of art can correct.

Reflections: Is Christian poetry moving in a certain direction these days? Can it be characterized? Does it reflect the preoccupations of our time?

Wiman: I don’t think there’s any such thing as “Christian poetry.” Or if there is, we should all be mercilessly stamping it out.

Reflections: Who are you reading these days?

Wiman: Probably the most interesting book I’ve read lately (and the most salient, given what we have discussed above) is Tomas Halik’s Patience With God. Halik, a Catholic priest who was an adviser to Vaclav Havel, argues that what looks to be a diminishment of faith in Western culture might actually be seen as a strength; that the encroachment of intellectual atheism might be a useful corrective and example; that any belief that creates distance from fellow humans is ultimately satanic. Maybe “satanic” is my word.

I have also been greatly instructed by the work of the Italian Catholic theologian and philosopher, Gianni Vattimo. For some of the same reasons.

As for poets, I recently read straight through the Collected Poems of Jack Gilbert, the first half of which is stark and beautiful and probably permanent work. Also some translations of the Russian poet Elena Shvarts done by Sasha Dugdale, which I highly recommend.

Reflections: Is being at Yale Divinity School altering your own thinking and writing about belief?

Wiman: I certainly hope so. I’m around people whose work and lives I admire a great deal – students and faculty – and I find many of my ideas and assumptions challenged daily. This seems to me a very healthy thing to have at this point in my life.