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Words Made Flesh

Calvin College's 2006 Festival of Faith & Writing.

Last week, some 2,000 pilgrims converged at Calvin College for the every-other-year gathering known as the Festival of Faith & Writing. By Saturday night, when Walter Wangerin (who is fighting what looks like terminal cancer but whose passion for the word—and the Word—is undiminished) concluded his exhortation to writers—Tell the truth! Give voice to the voiceless!—and then pronounced a heartfelt benediction, all of those travelers had enjoyed a three-day literary feast, with more courses than a medieval banquet.

You couldn't take it all in, of course, and plenty of regulars come as much for the talk with fellow readers and writers as for the official program. But many of the sessions were full to bursting, and the lineup of keynoters drew big crowds. On Thursday night, alas, I had to miss Alice McDermott (I was at Eyekons—the gallery opened recently by Phil Schaafsma to create a space for Christian art—to hear the artist Makoto Fujimura talk about some of his work), but I heard good reports from others who caught her lecture (including my wife Wendy), and I intend to order the recording of it.

I won't be ordering a copy of Salman Rushdie's talk from Friday night. For the first five minutes or so, he was witty, but he rambled for the rest of the hour, showing only flashes of brilliance, above all in an exuberant riff on the depiction of himself in an Islamist film where he figured as the villain. His conclusion sounded very much like Richard Rorty; as Susan Van Zanten Gallagher observed in a summing up of the festival, who would have guessed that at heart Rushdie is an American liberal democrat? Lautreamont must have been rolling over in his grave. Rushdie gave a better impression Saturday morning in a conversation onstage with Daniel Taylor, but I doubt that many converts to atheism were made.

For me the highlight of the sessions I attended—and one of the most powerful lectures I've heard in a long time—was Marilynne Robinson's plenary address Saturday morning. Though most of my friends (and Wendy too) loved Gilead, Robinson's fiction is not my cup of tea, nor do I share her affinity for John Calvin (appropriately highlighted in a characteristically witty and graceful introduction by James Vanden Bosch of Calvin's English department). But she is a writer of great integrity and single-minded intensity, going her own way, and her talk at Calvin was spellbinding. I won't foolishly try to summarize it—keep an eye out; it's sure to show up in print before too long, and in the meantime, you can order the audio version—but one splendid theme was the deadly condescension of so much discourse in American culture today, the assumption that the lowest common denominator is all most people want or indeed are capable of managing. (Others at the conference also raved about Robinson's conversation with Andy Crouch, which I had to miss for a very fine reading by the poet and memoirist Mary Karr, she of The Liar's Club and Cherry.)

The festival itself, as Andy Crouch's Books & Cultureessay reflecting on the 2004 version made clear, is an antidote to such condescension. Bravo to Calvin College; to Shelley LaMahieu Dunn, who directed the festival—this was her first time around, and a great success it was—and her right hand, Kristin Cocco; to Susan Felch of the English department and other faculty on the festival committee; to the student volunteers, who were exceptionally helpful and patient; and to all who played a part in this event. That said, it's time to start looking ahead to 2008.

Related Elsewhere:

More about the Festival of Faith and Writing is available from their website.

Books & Culture Corner and Books & Culture's Book of the Week, from Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture: A Christian Review (want a free trial issue?), appears regularly on Tuesdays at Christianity Today. Earlier editions include:

Betrayed Again | The Gospel of Judas Roadshow. (April 18, 2006)
American Theocrat | Richard John Neuhaus, Catholic political ambitions, and the evangelical pawns. (April 11, 2006)
Was George Washington a Christian? | A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. (April 4, 2006)
The Mystery of the Numbers | B&C's annual baseball preview, 2006 edition. (March 21, 2006)
Passionately Ambivalent | Christians in the art world. (Feb. 14, 2006)
Worship—What We've Learned | A report from the Calvin Symposium. (Jan. 31, 2006)
Making—and Breaking—Vows | A compelling memoir from the son of a priest and a former nun. (Jan. 17, 2006)
Coming to a Bookstore Near You | Marsden and Hart, Noll and Stout, and more (Jan. 10, 2006)
Ring Out the Old Year | Some highly subjective awards for 2005. (Jan. 4, 2006)
Not Just Looking | Books for the eye. (Dec. 27, 2005)
The Top Ten Books of 2005 | A charming bedside miscellany, a new novel by P. D. James, and much more. (Dec. 20, 2005)
How to Survive a Bookalanche | Some more keepers from 2005. (Dec. 13, 2005)

For book lovers, our 2005 CT book awards are available online, along with our book awards for 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001, 2000, 1999, 1998, and 1997, as well as our Books of the Twentieth Century. For other coverage or reviews, see our Books archive and the weekly Books & Culture Corner.

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