John Wilson is a smart guy and a good writer, always a good combo.  He heads up Books & Culture and he has the good sense to tap into Calvin profs now and then as authors for that publication.  He also is a regular at the Festival of Faith & Writing.  I’ve been waiting to see what he would say about this year’s event and today I found his piece on the Christianity Today Web site.  It is typically compelling and worth a read.

I did appreciate this paragraph a great deal:

There are very few events resembling this festival, where readers and writers—mostly Christian—can gather to hear speakers whose faith deeply informs their work and others who represent different faith traditions or no faith at all but who are willing to join the conversation. Three cheers to Calvin College and the supporters of the festival from Grand Rapids and elsewhere; to Shelly LeMahieu Dunn, director of the festival, the festival committee from Calvin’s English Department, and the attentive student helpers; to the speakers; and to the community of pilgrims, many of them repeaters, who make this a memorable occasion.

As I said, check out the link above to read his whole reflection.

~posted by Phil de Haan, director of communications and marketing


Now that the Festival of Faith & Writing at Calvin College is fading into the rearview mirror, it seems like an appropriate time to ruminate a little on what the weekend was like, how this first blog experiment went and what others are saying about the 2008 FFW. 

First, this blog.  When we dove into this project last week we weren’t 100 percent sure where it would take us.  The blog was an attempt by our communciations and marketing team to cover the festival in a slightly different way than normal:  through the combined forces of many of our team members and via the vehicle of WordPress.  I think we did well in some areas and in other places we would likely make some tweaks.  But overall I think the folks in C&M did an extraordinary job and this was one experiment I would love to replicate in 2010.

Second, the festival itself.  In a word, extraordinary.  For three days the Calvin campus had a vibe that was hard to miss.  There were almost 2,000 visitors to our campus, folks who by Saturday no longer felt like strangers.  The festival welcomed them with open arms and enveloped them in a swirl of books, writers, readers, faith, doubt, energy, enthusiasm and more.  It was, as always, an amazing three days.

Finally, the blogosphere.  What a cool thing to do Google blog searches in the days since the festival began and to see the wide variety of people who were here and to read their take on the every-other-year event.  Herewith a few of my favorite posts:

Feel free to add your own links in the comments!  Until 2010, I remain …

Phil de Haan, director of communications and marketing, Calvin College

I’ve enjoyed Cathleen Falsani’s religion column in the Chicago Sun Times for a few years now.  So I was looking forward to her coming to the 2008 Festival of Faith & Writing at Calvin College.  I wasn’t so thrilled when I saw she was slated to speak at 8:30 am on Saturday morning.  Yikes.  What a timeslot! 

However, coffee in hand, I slipped into the Willow room at the Prince Center this morning to hear Falsani’s talk on a field guide to grace, essentially a collection of stories about her encounters with grace.

What I liked most about Falsani’s talk is that she didn’t talk, she read.  In fact she read from two chapters of her book for about 30 of the 45 minutes she spoke.  Maybe it was the time of day, but her decision to read from her work really hit the spot.  She began her presentation quoting Frederick Buechner who once noted that all moments are key moments and that life itself is grace.  Her first chapter read recounted an experience she once had with writer’s block, what she calls “the skunks,” and how an unexpected walk in the rain washed away the stink.  Her second chapter told the tale of a trip to Africa, a room steward named Grace, a sullen tour guide, encounters with elephants and ultimately finding God’s grace.

Along the way Falsani dropped references to Friends, the Odd Couple, Bull Durham and 50 Cent.  And she mentioned her next book, tentatively titled The Dude Abides and featuring the Coen brothers, makers of such movies as Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Oh Brother Where Art Thou, Fargo and The Big Lebowski (who wanted simply to get his rug back and be called Dude).

She also provided food for thought, breakfast fare to go with the coffee as it were.  Of grace she said simply:  “Grace is the only thing I’m really sure is true.”  She compared it to buying a new car and then “you start seeing it everywhere.”  And, she said, grace is what stands Christianity apart from every other theological religious tradition.

As the Dude might say that grace really tied the room together.

~posted by Phil de Haan, director of communications and marketing

I remember shopping in a bookstore in Moscow several years back and picking up an English-language book called Twelve Stories of Russia, A Novel: I Guess. I couldn’t help but buy the book because nothing can be more interesting to an American living in Russia than a book written by an American living in Russia (you just know there will be a lot of self-indulgent complaining that after a long, dark winter will feel really good). I brought the book home where my friend Christina (also an American living in Russia) caught a glimpse of the title.

“Ha!” she said disdainfully. “That author sounds like a typical, totally bored American guy.”

When I read the book I found out she was right. The novel’s (or rather, memoir’s) protagonist was a directionless dud. His grimly hilarious stories about living in Russia were entertaining, but you could tell that this guy had absolutely no respect for himself, no motivation to do something with his life, and most of all, no ability to care about anything or anyone. (And this is a mildly sympathetic portrait!) He moved to Moscow because he had nothing better to do with his life and teaching English to good-looking Russian women sounded like a good career move.

This guy had a serious case of what Kathleen Norris calls acedia.

So do I.

The word “acedia” is exactly the right word to describe that which plagues my generation (those currently in their 20s and early 30s). Though archaic and arcane, it’s the word we desperately need to combat this thing–for without a name for the syndrome, we can’t talk about it; and if we can’t talk about it, we’re probably not very aware of it; and without full awareness of this horrible thing we’re experiencing, we languor in it. We might know that something is there, that something that is terribly wrong, but we can’t quite say what it is.

Acedia is spiritual sloth. And this isn’t the sloth that sends us to our couches to grow love handles. It’s that which makes us distracted, restless, unable to commit to anything, unable to care about anything. It can make us angry for seemingly no good reason at all. According to Norris, it can even fill us with hatred. In the fourth century context in which it was originally said to be one of the “eight patterns of evil thought” by the monk Evagrius Ponticus, acedia was a demon that possessed a monk and robbed him of his ability to pray.

Today acedia can arise from the constant barrage of news about rigged elections here and plane crashes there. With everything coming at us, how can we care about anything specifically? We’re too numb to care. Millions of people killed in the Congo? Oh. What ridiculous thing has Britney done this time? Acedia can come from our busyness, though I’m not sure whether it is caused by or causes busyness. It definitely arises from the degree to which we are stressed and overburdened.

So what now? That’s what I wanted to know. How can I NOT be an “acediac” for the rest of my life? I’m not sure Norris directly answered that question in her talk. She did say this: make prayers out of the ordinary things you do in your life, for Christ can burst through the ordinary as surely as burst from the tomb.

I might be able to care about that.

~posted by Allison

No, this isn’t an indictment directed at the other bloggers on this site. They’re doing a wonderful job with their posts on Festival sessions. Actually, I’m just repeating what Zondervan acquisitions editor Angela Scheff and writer Shauna Niequist said in a packed 8:30 a.m. Saturday morning session. What they said at the very beginning of the session really got me: even if it is a blog post that needs to get out very quickly, it still needs editing. My writing is getting out to a very public place where people can read and scrutinize it. It doesn’t only need to have a spell check run through it, it also needs to be re-read for style and grammar issues.

I would add one thing to this: posts by bloggers everywhere should be re-read and scrutinized not only for spelling and grammar and style issues, but also for general relevance and helpfulness. Does my post just add to all the noise in the blogosphere, or is it actually out there to help someone find a resource or understand something better?

It wasn’t first time I had viewed “Beauty of the Spirit,” the exhibition of paintings by artists and illustrator Kadir Nelson at the Center Art Gallery. I had gone to see the show soon after it opened. It was, however, the first time I had bought a book there and had it autographed by the illustrator, Kadir Nelson. And it was the first time I had seen the beautiful Dara Karadsheh, a kindergartner of my acquaintance, get her book autographed by Kadir Nelson. “Beauty of the Spirit,” composed of paintings from 5 of Nelson’s books, is a collaboration between the gallery and the Festival of Faith and Writing, where the Caldecott honor-winning artist was one of the featured speakers. It is a lovely show. I particularly liked tracing the figure of the little girl in the blue dress (from the book “Ellington Was Not a Street”) from painting to painting. The artist seemed a little tired, but still gracious, after all the autographing. Gallery guard Heather showed me the tally of visitors, which she was recording on a hand-held counter, was inching up toward 300. The gallery, tucked into the basement of Spoelhof Center, is one of the nicest places to be on the Calvin campus, whether it is showing art professor JoAnne Van Reuwyk’s fiber vessels or posters by Robert Rauschenberg or images of the Virgin Mary or alumni photographs or the multitudinous works, in many media, of Calvin art students. It’s also where the some of the best people regularly hang out. A lot of them were there, mixing with the new faces, lingering in conversations in corners and on benches . A really good night out of many good nights at the gallery.

The approach that Nigerian author and Jesuit priest Uwem Akpan takes to his short stories, of which I have read none, was revelatory. Susan Felch, a Calvin professor of English, told her own story about Akpan’s presence at the Festival of Faith and Writing: “About a year ago, I was thumbing through the New Yorker. I read the first paragraph, stopped thumbing and started reading. And after I finished the story, I sat in silence for a while and then rushed in to Shelly and said, “I have no idea who this person is, but we have to have him here.” (“Shelly” is Shelly LeMahieu Dunn, the festival director.)

Akpan makes very deliberate choices in his storytelling, which is somewhat surprising. My impression of fiction writing is that it is rightly grows from intuition rather than calculation. Akpan, however, makes very careful choices about his characters, his plots and his devices — such as deciding that the girl who witnesses his father murdering her mother with a machete can be no more than 10 years old. His reasons for these choices are very carefully considered, and this deliberation may slow his work by months or years. He gave this reasoning for his portrayal of the murderous father: “There is no story if the man always hated the woman and hated the children… .What would push him to the wall to make him do this?”

Akpan’s own motive seems to be that he cares so deeply. He wants to accurately represent his characters, while telling true stories life in Africa. Toward the end of his talk, he gave this reason for his intensive research: “I want to be sure I have not gone to another country and colonized the people.”

He talked about his experiences with street children in Kenya: “I realized that people were not seeing them anymore.” He talked about his approach to characterization: “My belief is that people are complex, to say the least.”

And when Professor Felch casked him why his work partook of none of his professed love of the biblical miraculous, he explained thus: “Christ came and suffered terribly and died. And it’s become very hard for people to accept this, that God would allow his Son to go through this… People suffer.” He also offered by way of elucidation Jesus’ saying to his would-be apostles, “‘Come and see.’ Once you have seen, if you can unsee–fine.

And as cognizant as he is of being a faithful witness to his readership, Akpan seems, above all to be holding his work up to the witness of heaven. At some point in his talk, I was struck by the thought that he went about his work as though he were celebrating a sacrament. Maybe for a Christian, that is the ultimate artistry.