Last week, March 30-April 1, Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, held its Festival of Faith & Writing, an every-other-year event that draws participants from throughout North America and occasionally further afield.
Faith and writing. Faith and writing? Something about that conjunction sounds odd. We are used to thinking of the writer as "the Guardian of Deviant Truths," in Chaim Potok's resonant phrase. The writer, we've been told—the artist generically, in fact—questions everything, pledges allegiance to nothing except his or her art. The writer is "subversive," to use the favorite word of assistant professors in the humanities.
And faith? That's for people who don't question—or rather those who repress their questions. Faith is a security blanket for people who can't bring themselves to face the truth, or the music. They congregate in the suburbs, where they go to church and play golf, and when artists like David Byrne fly over them (artists would never actually set foot in the suburbs, you understand), they say to themselves or a nearby interviewer, "I'd rather die than live there!"
So how does a "Festival of Faith & Writing" work? It begins with the inconvenient fact that, like it or not, there are quite a few writers, painters, musicians, and so on who believe in the God of the Bible. It brings some of them together with others who aspire to art or study it or teach it or all three.
Last week the keynoters were Potok, Anne Lamott, and Maya Angelou. The films of Paul Schrader were shown throughout the three days of the festival, and Schrader himself was on hand to talk about his work and to be interviewed by the Pulitzer Prize-winning polymath, Garry Wills. There were far too many other fine writers in attendance to name them all, but among them were Robert Alter (who talked about his translations from the Hebrew Bible), poet Scott Cairns, comic novelist Clyde Edgerton, poet Donald Hall, children's book author and illustrator Bijou Le Tord (who was signing her gorgeous new book on Matisse), James McBride (author of the beautiful and moving memoir, The Color of Water), illustrator Barry Moser, and Walter Wangerin (whose novel about the life of Saint Paul is coming this summer). The poet John Leax led a memorial for his friend and fellow poet Lionel Basney, who died last summer. On Thursday and Friday nights there were concerts.
Mingling with the presenters were over a thousand registrants, not to mention students and faculty from Calvin and—for the big events—people from town. Workshops, readings, and panels on the state of publishing: all were well attended. Conference director Dale Brown of the Calvin English department is already making plans for 2002. Oscar Hijuelos will be there, Lord willing; Jan Karon, too.
From such a many-sided happening, no definitive "conclusions" emerge. This much, though, can be safely said: There is no necessary disjunction between faith and writing.
John Wilson is Editor of Books & Culture and Editor at Large for Christianity Today.
Calvin College's page on the Festival of Faith and Writing offers quite a bit of information—and unlike a lot of other conference-related pages, it actually tells you the conference is over and won't be back until 2002.
See Wilson's earlier dispatch from the Calvin Symposium on Worship and the Arts, "Cease-Fire in the Worship Wars" (Feb. 8, 2000)
Copyright © 2000 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.