Silence, Poetry & the Salvation of Seamus Heaney

In the spirit of “telling it slant,” I offer my friend Alex Joyner’s review of poet Christian Wiman’s new book. I especially like this quote from Wiman: ” What might I have said? All you have to do, Seamus, is open your big Irish heart to Jesus. One more truth that dies with the utterance. No, the casual way that American Christians have of talking about God is not simply dispiriting, but is, for some sensibilities, actively destructive. There are times when silence is not only the highest, but the only possible, piety. (94)”


taylor-ann-wright-1136612-unsplash Photo by Taylor Ann Wright on Unsplash

 A Review of Christian Wiman’s He Held Radical Light

The poet Seamus Heaney paused in the middle of dinner and leaned over to make a confession to Christian Wiman, who was, at the time, the editor of Poetry magazine. Knowing Wiman to be a Christian not only in name, Heaney admitted that he “felt caught between the old forms of faith that he had grown up with in Northern Ireland and some new dispensation that had not yet emerged. That was trying to emerge.” (88-9)

Wiman still wonders at his response to the confession:

What might I have said? All you have to do, Seamus, is open your big Irish heart to Jesus. One more truth that dies with the utterance. No, the casual way that American Christians have of talking about God is not simply dispiriting, but is, for some sensibilities…

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That Attracting & Sustaining Divine Love: A Review of Evolving Humanity & Biblical Wisdom


Reviewed by Jeanne Torrence Finley

My review of Marie Noonan Sabin’s Evolving Humanity and Biblical Wisdom: Reading Scripture Through the Lens of Teilhard de Chardin [Liturgical Press Academic: 2018] is up on the Englewood Review of Books:

Teilhard de Chardin, paleontologist and Jesuit priest (1881-1955), wrote about evolutionary science, spirituality, and the expansion of human consciousness.  Although the Vatican suppressed his writings during his lifetime, today his vision continues to be appreciated by scientists, religious scholars, and spiritual seekers.  In Evolving Humanity and Biblical Wisdom Marie Noonan Sabin brings Teilhard’s vision into conversation with scripture texts related to wisdom. With an interdisciplinary background in literature and theology, Sabin uses her interpretative skills in intellectually challenging ways that will fascinate some readers with knowledge of academic biblical studies but may mystify those without such a background. Though prior knowledge of Teilhard’s complicated thought would increase appreciation of Sabin’s work, her clarity and conversational style could well inspire Teilhard beginners to delve deeper into his thought. Continue reading

Slow Reading

Reading for th Common Good

In college I took a non-credit speed reading course so I could read assignments faster. The idea was to move my hand or an index card down the center of the page to learn to avoid unnecessary eye movements to the left and right in order to take in larger chunks of print.  Either I didn’t understand the process, or it just didn’t work. The main benefit was the illusion that I had read Moby Dick and Don Quixote, when in fact my comprehension and retention were close to zero.  As a writer, I’ve learned to skim sources at a fast clip, but skimming is a finding technique that lodges little or nothing in the memory.  Now with the Internet and social media, I’m looking at more words than ever, but this “skill” is just a high tech version of speed reading and skimming.

Christopher Smith’s Reading for the Common Good:  How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish, has challenged me to slow down. Smith is the editor of the Englewood Review of Books and a member of the Englewood Christian Church community in urban Indianapolis.  When that congregation was faced with the temptation to move to the suburbs, it decided to stay put and work in its community.  To that end, it embarked on reading as a way to discern and prepare for action. It opened a bookstore and started its online and print review to encourage other congregations to read broadly in order to act faithfully.  The congregation became involved in actions that require learning– for example, economic development, alternative energy, caring for the marginalized. Smith explains, “Without learning, our action tends to be reaction . . . .”

In his chapter specifically on Slow Reading,  Smith puts it in the context of other “Slow” movements:  Slow Food, Slow Cities, Slow Money, Slow Parenting.  He says, “What these movements have in common is not just the means of acting slowly and attentively.  They also share a common end:  the cultivation of local community.”  Smith praises Isabel Hofmeyr’s Gandhi’s Printing Press:  Experiments in Slow Reading in which she describes how this practice transformed a South African community of expatriate Indians in the early twentieth century.  He also draws on the history of lectio divina, the monastic practice of slowly reading, meditating, praying, and reflecting on scripture, in order to underline the power of slow reading.  The final stage of this process is contemplation “in which we begin to imagine how the text is to be lived out within our everyday life.”

Smith invites congregations to read as an intentional, communal activity that is more transformative if it is done slowly–through reading for comprehension followed by conversation prompted by the questions that the text asks of readers.   The process also involves “reading the world” which means reading to understand the social, economic, historic, ecological, and political dynamics that affect the area in which the congregation works, whether that be local, national, or global. Smith says “reading in communion” helps churches discern God’s work in the world, provided the reading is wide in scope—not just scripture, but books on poverty, sociology, economics, and even fiction and poetry, both of which allow us to see the world and our relationships in fresh ways.

My interest in this book stems from two longings.  The first is that more congregations would see doing justice as part of their call to ministry in today’s complex and divided world.  This book presents a way to understand the motivations and practicalities of that call. The second longing is more personal–to get rid of any remnants of that speed reading course that still lead me to think I’ve learned something when, in truth, I haven’t.

What books have you read slowly lately?  What difference did it make?

A Further Journey: A Review of David Gregory’s How’s Your Faith? An Unlikely Spiritual Journey


“Not having a strong religious background freed me in a way,” writes journalist David Gregory, whose father was a cultural Jew and whose mother a non-practicing Irish Catholic.  “It gave me a chance to build my own faith identity.”  My interest in How’s Your Faith?  An Unlikely Spiritual Journey (Simon & Schuster, 2015) is in Gregory as a spiritual seeker.  How would a highly educated, well-known journalist –in his words—“build [his] own faith identity”?

Gregory traces the beginning of his spiritual yearning to age 11 when he was struggling with his mother’s alcoholism.  His parents were divorced, and he and his sister lived with their mother.  Through his childhood, he had endured her drinking, but her arrest for drunken driving when he was 15 led him to move in with his father, a Hollywood producer. Though his father offered him a safe haven, Gregory was angry at both parents—at his father for not removing sooner him from his mother’s home and at his mother for being an alcoholic.  Powerless in his own family, he poured his energy into becoming a journalist, and his career success crowded out any kind of faith quest until after his marriage.

Gregory had met his wife, Beth Wilkinson, when he was a reporter for NBC covering the trial of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and she was one of four main prosecutors for the Justice Department.  When they became parents, he wanted to raise their children in the Jewish faith.  Wilkinson, a Christian with firm roots in the United Methodist Church, agreed on the condition that they “have a deep commitment to belief, not just culture.”

When the challenge came of providing a Jewish upbringing for his children, Gregory approached the project of his spiritual journey much as he would a journalistic assignment.  He interviewed high-profile religious leaders such as Houston mega-church pastor Joel Osteen and Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York, as well as various rabbis. Gregory offers no real criteria for judging the theological depth and potential helpfulness of his interviewees.

His catalyst for real growth turned out not to be a high-profile person, but a biblical scholar and Orthodox Jew, Erica Brown, who served as both teacher and spiritual director.  She asked him, “What would you be if you lost it all?”  Her work with him prepared him for the day when he did lose it all.  When NBC pressured him to leave his position as moderator of Meet the Press, the network wouldn’t let him have a “farewell” show, which he very much wanted.  The news of NBC’s denial of his request came to him just before he and his wife boarded a plane to pick up their children at a camp in New Hampshire.

Gregory’s rise in TV journalism had seemed to be the result of his own planning and hard work, but the end of his highest achievement was totally out of his control. When he and Beth arrived at the camp, he realized that he couldn’t be in a better place to experience this “low moment” in his career. He writes, “Being so far from the Washington and New York media circus made it easier to start letting go.  My world was about to explode all over social media, but I was free to enjoy my more serene surroundings.”  Even as he faced public humiliation, he was able to claim his identity as a husband, father, and person of faith.

The title of Gregory’s memoir is a question that President George W. Bush had asked him on several occasions—“How’s your faith?”  Although at first he was a bit intimidated by it, he came to see the question as invitation for self-examination.   In the final chapter Gregory writes, “Even when I began delving into a religious life more seriously, I was cautious.  I actually believe that my success was an obstacle to my spiritual growth.  . . .  Something about falling made me feel more grounded in my faith.”  After leaving NBC, he recognized that this failure was an opportunity for learning and growth, and he took it.

He concludes, “What I have seen is that God is there when we pay attention to what is happening in our lives. . . . I believe God is working on me, helping me to stand in the flow of grace.  But I am not done, by any means.  The work doesn’t end.”

Gregory found something of the truth that Richard Rohr speaks about in Falling Upward:  A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.  The second half of life is a “further journey” into spiritual maturity.  It has little to do with chronological years and more to do with the willingness to let go of the self that we’ve worked hard to create in order to find our true selves.  Rohr says, “The supposed achievements of the first half of life have to fall apart and show themselves to be wanting in some way, or we will not move further.”[1] Gregory has begun that “further journey.”

[1] Richard Rohr, Falling Upward:  A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 2011) xix.

Shmoop on Huck Finn: Guest Blogger Jeanne Torrence Finley

Thanks to Alex Joyner for inviting me to be a guest blogger on Heartlands.


aaron-burden-236415-unsplash photo by Aaron Burden via Unsplash

My colleague Jeanne Torrence Finley has been writing about art and justice on her new blog Tell It Slant, (which you should definitely check out).  Today she joins my defense of Huck Finn by discovering an oddly-named defender of satire in literature:

When Alex wrote on February 18  (“In Praise of Uncomfortable Books:  Huck and Harper Revisited”) about the decision by the Duluth, Minnesota school district to remove Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird from required reading lists, I knew I couldn’t keep quiet.   As a writer and former English teacher, I don’t understand censorship of two of the most clearly anti-racists books in American literature.  Expanding the curricula of schools toward diversity is essential, but it doesn’t require banning books like Huckleberry Finn, which is all the more remarkable in its denunciation of racism because it was…

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