On Christian Wiman’s “My Bright Abyss”

by Matthew Sitman

By now, Dish readers probably know something about Christian Wiman – we’ve featured his work, especially incisive passages from his sterling essays, many times over the last few months. This week his new book, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, was released, a book many of us anxiously have awaited for some time. The basics of his story are, by now, well-known: a brilliant young poet who, since 2003, has edited Poetry magazine, he was diagnosed with an extraordinarily rare, incurable form of cancer, and My Bright Abyss reflects on his Christian faith in the face of extreme suffering and death.

My copy arrived Tuesday afternoon and I finished reading it late Thursday night around 3am, carried through its final pages on the basis of pure exhilaration. It is no exaggeration to say that I’ve waited my entire adult life to read a book like this. It is impossible to summarize or even categorize. Though personal, it is not really a memoir – there only is the barest narrative arc to it. (In this sense, the term “meditation” truly was apt.) The book is written aphoristically, filled with short, dense examinations of God, love, Christ, suffering, poetry, and more. In terms of organization and structure, it most reminds me of Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace, a book Wiman frequently references. It also is astonishingly learned – the range of Wiman’s reading, the abundance of literary and theological references, is remarkable. I will have to read it many more times to fully absorb its import.

As such, reviewers likely are to be baffled by it. Dwight Garner’s NYT piece particularly seems to miss the mark. My jaw dropped when I read this line from his review: “…there are many moments in ‘My Bright Abyss’ where he preaches as broadly — and, to my ears, as gratingly — as Joel Osteen.” I can say, without hesitation, that there is not a figure more different from Osteen in the firmament of American Christianity than Wiman. Again and again in the book, you can feel Wiman pushing up against the limits of language when trying to grapple with God; indeed, this constitutes one of his great themes. A paradoxical statement from Wiman, or an aphoristic declaration, surely has no real connection to one of Osteen’s gauzy, sentimental one-liners. It makes me think Garner just did not read the book carefully, or felt some strange need to concoct objections to Wiman’s efforts. Garner simply has no feel for what Wiman is trying to do.

Such a suspicion is borne out when Garner asserts the following:

[Wiman] writes things like the following, about himself and his wife: “Last night we wondered whether people who do not have the love of God in them — or who have it but do not acknowledge it, or reject it — whether such people could fully feel human love.”

This strikes me as smug and aggressive nonsense, of the sort that made Richard Dawkins declare, “I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world.”

Of course, Wiman is not “smug and aggressive” in the least, and it is impossible to read Wiman’s book and believe he is not, desperately, trying to understand the world. Wiman is ruminating on a passage from Hans Urs von Balthasar, the great 20th century theologian, not making a bald assertion. And he immediately says, right after the lines Garner quotes, that “I have a complicated reaction to this.” Meaning, a complicated reaction to the very sentiment Garner reads so simplistically. Indeed, the entire section that Garner lifts this one sentence from is a puzzled, complex meditation on how human love relates to divine love. Wiman writes this about himself and the woman who would become his wife:

I don’t think the human love preceded the divine love, exactly; as I have already said, I never experienced a conversion so much as a faith that had long been latent within me. But it was human love that reawakened divine love.

This seems to me a significant addendum to what so bothers Garner, a hesitation about cause and effect, and – as the rest of the section makes clear – an acknowledgment he and his wife’s shared religious search added intensity and force to the love that exists between them.

If I were to suggest why, whether believer or not, you should read My Bright Abyss, it would be because Wiman asks the most difficult questions I can imagine about life and death with unflinching honesty. As he admits above, it is not a simplistic “conversion” account. You do not finish the book with a sense of closure, that you can put your anxieties and uncertainties aside for pat answers. Wiman makes the skeptic confront uncomfortable possibilities – he asks the doubter to doubt even his doubt. And he makes the believer realize how much of what passes for faith is idolatrous nonsense, evasions and wishful unthinking.

In short, Wiman’s book is the beginning of a conversation we very much need to have, and he clears away so much of the accumulated ridiculousness that has grown-up around discussions of religion in this country. He clarifies the questions we should be asking more than he offers “solutions.” Please read this book – for now, I only can urge that you approach this elegant, difficult testimony to what faith – always mingled with doubt, and always seeking to connect with lived experience – can mean in the modern world with honesty and an open heart. It truly is an essential book for our times.

For more, see Casey Cep’s very smart review in TNR here, and check out some brilliant selections from the book here.