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In the afternoon of his 39th birthday, less than a year after his wedding day, poet Christian Wiman was diagnosed with an incurable cancer of the blood. Wiman, who announced Wednesday that he will step down in June as editor of Poetry magazine, the oldest and most esteemed poetry monthly in the world, had long ago drifted away from the Southern Baptist beliefs of his upbringing. But the shock of staring death in the face gradually revived a faith that had gone dormant (a story he first told publicly in a 2007 article for The American Scholar).
Wiman's new book of essays, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), took shape in the wake of his diagnosis, when he believed death could be fast approaching. These writings come from someone who is less a cautious theologian than a pilgrim crying out from the depths. They divulge the God-ward hopes (and doubts) of an artist still piecing together a spiritual puzzle. San Francisco-based lawyer and author Josh Jeter corresponded with Wiman about his new book, his precarious health, and the ongoing challenge of belief in God.
How did you arrive at your Christian faith?
I was raised in West Texas as a Southern Baptist, in a culture and family so saturated with religion that it never occurred to me there was any alternative until I left. Then it all just evaporated in the blast of modernism and secularism to which I was exposed in college. Or, it didn't evaporate, exactly, because I never would have called myself an atheist. But religious feeling went underground in me for a couple of decades, to be released occasionally in ways I never really understood or completely credited—in poems, mostly.
Then about 10 years ago I fell into despair. There is no other way to say it, really, nor do those words do anything but hint at the abyss. Whether it was cause or effect, I went through a writing drought unlike anything I had ever known—three years of it. In the midst of ...