Christian WIMAN, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, pp. 182. $13.00 pb. ISBN 978-0374534370. Reviewed by Wilburn T. STANCIL, Rockhurst University, Kansas City, MO 64110.
The opening of a new academic building on my campus was personally traumatic. After two decades housed in the same office, my new— but much smaller—office required downsizing of my personal library. Thirty-five years of my intellectual life had to be culled. What to keep, what to discard? Some choices were obvious, some not so obvious. My Bright Abyss was an obvious keeper. In fact, it now shares a spot on my bookshelf next to other classics on the spiritual life.
Christian Wiman is a senior lecturer in religion and literature at Yale University’s Institute of Sacred Music. A poet by trade, Wiman describes his theology as an “accidental” theology, that is, theology “conducted by unexpected means” (http://ism.yale.e du/people/christian-wiman). In Wiman’s case, the “unexpected means” were his diagnosis of a rare form of incurable cancer. Over the years, the cancer has been in a cycle of remission and return, but, as Wiman notes, it casts a shadow over “every act and thought” (p. viii).
Wiman not only has a poet’s heart but a poet’s skill—the observant eye, the internalization of and reflection on experiences, and the skill to put those experiences into words. The book is primarily prose intermingled throughout with Wiman’s (and other’s) poetry. But Wiman’s prose is so exact, the word choice so precise, that one marvels at the form itself and can quickly be captivated by it, losing sight of the content.
Wiman was reared in West Texas, a land of pickup trucks and Southern Baptists. Awash in a culture of religious fundamentalism, he never met an unbeliever until his college days in Virginia. What followed were years of no faith, or, as Wiman came to describe it, a “mild abeyance of belief” that remained latent (p.12). The turning point was the great love he discovered in meeting his wife Danielle, followed by the diagnosis of cancer. Great love and great despair prompt responses. “But how could it be otherwise? It takes a real jolt to get us to change our jobs, our relationships, our daily coffee consumption, for goodness’ sake—or, if we are wired that way, to change our addiction to change. How much more urgency is needed, how much more primal fear, to startle the heart out of its ruts and ruins” (146).
For Wiman faith encompasses uncertainty, change, doubt, and sorrow. It emerges from the extremes of joy and grief, but always remains provisional. Faith is not so much a new life as the “old life newly seen” (108). Dogma has its place in Christianity—“the ropes, clips, and toe spikes whereby one descends into the abyss” (p. 117). But ultimately, only faith, not dogma, is adequate in face of the mystery that is God. “This is why art is so often better at theology than theology is” (130).
In writing this review, I was tempted to simply provide a florilegium of quotes. My Bright Abyss is that kind of book. Memorable sentences and paragraphs, lyrically written with poetic sensibilities. The life journey of a modern believer. Read it and mark it, yes. But more importantly, let Wiman’s journey provide strength and guidance for your own.