More accurately, I tagged along with my wife, who is a writer (you can see some of her work here) and an English and writing professor at Bethel College (Indiana), as well as with several students and a few other professors from Bethel (which also happens to be my alma mater).
This was my first time at the festival, but my wife has attended several times. It was, in a word, inspiring.
For three days we were immersed in a community comprised of Christians from all tribes and traditions of the faith and who are committed to thinking deeply about their faith and engaging the important issues of our day thoughtfully and creatively through their art.
I heard fantastic talks on things ranging from the intersection of discipleship and Christian faith with our stewardship of the land and environment, to the power of story and words in writing toward justice, to pop theology and cultural analysis, to writing spiritual memoir and the place of doubt in our faith, to perhaps the ultimate question: What is the good life and what does it look like to pursue it, or more specifically, the question asked by Yale theologian Miroslav Volf, What does flourishing life look like in light of Jesus Christ?
I felt at home in this community of writers, poets, pastors, and theologians, among others. It was like a little taste of heaven for three days.
I laughed. I cried. I was moved deeply. I was challenged to think deeper and better about my faith. I was reminded through a few of the sessions and readings how too often I'm oblivious to the suffering of others and how wrapped up in myself I tend to be. And I was inspired to stick with it. To keep writing. To keep probing. To keep wrestling. To keep thinking.
I (stupidly) only took notes the last day. Here are some of the thoughts from various presenters that impacted me:
Theologian Donna Bowman reminded us that everyone is a theologian and a critic. The trick is to be an informed and thoughtful one!
As thoughtful and informed theologians and critics, we can help bring a more informed perspective and help correct misguided and less charitable readings and interpretations. This is an important task, especially in our day of soundbites, slogans, and reductionist caricatures.
"The theologian must not only remain faithful to the past [i.e. received tradition], but also faithful to the moment [i.e. contextualization]." (Donna Bowman)Theologian Miroslav Volf presented a paper on "The Ends of Our Lives" in which he was probing into the question of what is the good life and how does one pursue such a life?
Volf critiqued the failed secular thesis that religion is outmoded and outdated and that society would increasingly become completely secularized, devoid of all religion, because God would simply be superfluous.
He then presented statistics showing how the world is actually growing more religious, not less. And he offered some suggestions for why that might be the case.
At the root of Volf's thesis is Augustine's famous opening line in his Confessions about the restlessness of our hearts until we find rest in God. Volf believes this is intrinsic to what it means to be human. And furthermore, this is the foundation of all the major world religions, whether they speak of God or not.
All religions, Volf said, have the idea the Transcendent and they stand or fall on how well they connect people to the Transcendent and what it means to live a good and meaningful life in light of the Transcendent.
Of course, the really interesting conversations begin when we start asking what is meant by "the Transcendent", for there is a diversity of views across the major world faiths, and Volf doesn't shy away from this reality.
Nevertheless, all the major world faiths are pointing beyond themselves to a higher and deeper reality that invites its adherents to think deeply about the meaning and purpose of life and to live a good life in service to something bigger than yourself.
"Chasing consumeristic highs, we rarely reflect on the character and purpose of our lives ... We seek to satisfy our desires without reflecting on what is desirable and why." (Miroslav Volf)Writer Anne Lamott was one of the keynote speakers at this year's festival. I've not yet read any of her books; yet being the key term. Because after hearing her speak for a plenary session and then later in an interview/conversation, I was mesmerized. She's brilliant, hilarious, and deeply compassionate.
Anne talked about a lot of things. She's clearly at home as a story teller. She writes, I learned, a lot about suffering. "We're Easter people [living] in a Good Friday world," she said.
Somehow her seemingly disparate meanderings as she talks weave themselves together into a tapestry that makes profound points and could just as easily leave you laughing or crying, but always thinking and always challenged to be more compassionate and loving toward others.
Anne has been writing every day for forty years. I got the impression it's the same time every day -- early first thing in the morning. She dispelled any notions that the writing life is sexy or romantic. It's painful, excruciating, hard work that requires you simply put your butt in the chair and keep at it. Day in and day out, month after month, year after year.
"The only way you can find artistic spiritual freedom in this world is through structure and discipline." (Anne Lamott)Richard Foster has become the spiritual formation guru of sorts for evangelicals who are discovering (many for the first time) the ancient spiritual disciplines and the classical writings of the great spiritual fathers and mothers of Christian faith.
Foster reminded us that we need to be free to be silent and to not speak or write. Indeed, the first task of writing, said Foster, is neither to write nor to read, but rather to listen. Listen for God's voice and his "wonderful, terrifying silence." Then be free to write and speak when the time is right.
"Get into a rhythm of the cosmic patience of God. Then what needs to be said will come in due time." (Richard Foster)Finally, writer Rachel Held Evans was another keynote speaker at this year's festival. Rachel is the type that you probably either love or hate. I love her. I read her blog regularly and, even if I happen to disagree with this or that point, I find a deep resonance with her critique of the conservative, politicized evangelical Right. So do a host of others.
Rachel, who like Anne Lamott, is also very funny, brilliant, and deeply compassionate, was vulnerable about her own insecurities as a writer, even now that she's famous. She also talked humbly about some of the hard lessons she's learned (and continues to learn) about rocking the proverbial boat. "Don't just rock the boat for the sake of rocking it," she said. Excellent advice.
She also touched on our motivations for writing and being artists. Do we hope to become famous? Do we think that when we get that book deal we'll finally be happy and all our dreams will come true?
They won't and we won't, she assured us. Another hard lesson born out of her own experience.
Instead, it turns out that the act of writing is it's own reward, regardless of and perhaps even in spite of, what good things may come your way upon publishing and becoming more publicly recognized.
"The scandal of the Gospel is not who it keeps out, but who it lets in." (Rachel Held Evans)If you're a reader, writer, and/or artist and you've never attended the Festival of Faith and Writing, do so! It convenes every two years on the beautiful campus of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI.