By John Wilson
Contrary to the propaganda that paints Christians as a dour, humorless lot (which, alas, like all effective propaganda, has at least a grain of truth), there's a long tradition that understands the Christian vision as essentially comic. All the confusion will be miraculously straightened out, everything that's been lost will be found, everything broken mended—and all this on a cosmic scale. And there will be a wedding, of course, as is fitting for the resolution of a grand comedy. (The details are spelled out in Revelation.)
Such was the vision informing Baylor University's 2005 Art & Soul conference, which began last Thursday and ended on Saturday night. Under the heading "Divine Comedies: Humor, Harmony, and Redemption," the conference—a biennial event organized by Baylor's Institute of Faith and Learning—cast its net wide. The plenary speakers included the critic Christopher Ricks, recently elected as professor of poetry at Oxford University (who spoke on Bob Dylan); Jeremy Begbie, the virtuoso of theology and the arts (on the dangers of sentimentality, particularly in worship); Phyllis Tickle, the dean of religious publishing (on her experience compiling a modern breviary, The Divine Hours); novelist Leif Enger, author of Peace Like a River (who quoted from some marvelous letters he's received from a self-described "old bat" he met on a book tour); Lauren Winner, whose book on chastity, Real Sex, has just been published (she traced affinities between writing and prayer); and novelist Kaye Gibbons (who gave a sardonic personal account of the Writing Life and read from the just-completed sequel to her best-known novel, Ellen Foster, to be published soon).
In addition to the plenary events, there were wide-ranging concurrent sessions on subjects as various as humor in the Bible (in a paper given by Wheaton College's Leland Ryken) and "The 7 Deadly Cinemas: What Hollywood's Golden Age Comedians Can Teach Us About Vice and Virtue" (by Kurt Luchs). And there were readings by writers in various genres, performances, workshops: an embarrassment of riches. In connection with the festival, the Baylor Journal of Theatre and Performance conducted a playwriting contest, the winner of which was Jeanne Murray Walker for her play The Queen's Two Bodies.
When I arrived for the conference late Wednesday afternoon, Baylor and Waco more generally were buzzing about the victory of the Lady Bears the night before in the NCAA women's basketball championship game. On the campus, there were signs of continuing growth, not least a massive science complex that had been completed since my last visit to Baylor for Art & Soul two years ago.
There were no visible signs of the long-running conflict that was most obviously expressed in the opposition to President Robert Sloan. But clearly, with the search for his successor underway, a good deal of maneuvering is going on behind the scenes. We may hope that whatever the outcome of that search, the union of faith and learning so robustly exemplified by Art & Soul will continue to be honored—and that all who contest to shape the future of the university will remember that it's a comedy we're playing in.
John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture.
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Books & Culture Corner and Books & Culture's Book of the Week, from Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture: A Christian Review, appears regularly on Tuesdays at Christianity Today. Earlier editions include:
Unbelievable | Religion is really, really bad for you. (April 05, 2005)
This Land Is Whose Land? | An impassioned plea on behalf of the "caribou people" in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the land they have inhabited for nearly 20,000 years. (March 22, 2005)
All in Her Head | How a chronic pain sufferer found a little bit of strength in a lot of weakness. (March 15, 2005)
My Likeness, My Brother | A powerful autobiographical work from a prizewinning creator of comics in France. (March 08, 2005)
Looking for Yogi | The 2005 Spring Training preview. (March 01, 2005)
Gut Check | Blink makes the case for intuitive judgment. (Feb. 22, 2005)
Wayfaring Strangers | Set in Mexico, Anita Desai's latest novel is a compact but multilayered tale of pilgrimage. (Feb. 01, 2005)
What Do You Mean, 'Moral' Fiction? | John Gardner, Martin Amis, and the ethics of the novel. (Jan. 25, 2005)
Taking the T.U.L.I.P. Out of the Garden | Relating Calvinism to "the complexities of contemporary life." (Jan. 18, 2005)
Booking Ahead | The conclusion of our seasonal roundup—and, at last, truly, this time we mean it, The Worst Book of the Year (Jan. 18, 2005)
From the Big Bang to my Office | More books to note from 2004. (Jan. 11, 2005)
The Top Ten Books of 2004 | And a warning about the risks of reading. (Dec. 28, 2004)
Modern, All Too Modern | Tom Wolfe's new novel, largely reviewed as a satiric report on the sexual mores of today's college students, is fundamentally about the nature of the human will. (Dec. 14, 2004)
Unfashionably Good | A savory collections of essays by Alan Jacobs. (Dec. 07, 2004)