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A Pilgrim's Progress Part 2

(continued from previous article)

More explicitly than anywhere previously in her writings, Dillard identifies herself as a Christian and a churchgoer ("often I am the only person under sixty, and feel as though I am on an archaeological tour of Soviet Russia"). Her most luminous passages deal with the sacraments of baptism and Communion.

As always with Dillard's writing, single, vivid images endure long after the act of reading, somewhat like the afterimages that can burn themselves into the retina and persist even when eyes are closed. She watches a female golden moth attracted to a candle, an old trope given new life by her pen. The moth's wings "ignited like tissue paper," her antennae crackled, her legs disappeared. "And then this moth-essence, this spectacular skeleton, began to act as a wick. . . . She burned for two hours without changing, without bending or leaning-only glowing within . . . like a hollow saint."

We meet this striking image of redemptive pain again, as the plane falls like a moth from the sky and seven-year-old Julie Norwich's face burns off. And again, toward the end, as Dillard carries the bottle of Communion wine, "Christ with a cork," in her backpack. "Walking faster and faster, weightless, I feel the wine. It sheds light in slats through my rib cage, and fills the buttressed vaults of my ribs with light pooled and buoyant. I am moth; I am light." Since by its very nature fire gives off light as it burns, the death of a golden moth illuminates; so may the pain of a burned child (the name Julie Norwich is taken from the medieval saint Julian of Norwich); so may the pain of a writer transporting a bottle of wine in defiant faith against the silence of God. Like lightning, the flame of God transfigures even as it immolates.

Ten books now bear Annie Dillard's name. Besides the four already mentioned, these include two books of poetry, a book of narrative essays, an attempt at literary criticism (Living by Fiction, which Dillard now dismisses as "this horrible dull book that I never should have published"), a gem of a book (Encounters with Chinese Writers) that gives an account of meetings between Chinese and American scholars, and a sprawling, old-fashioned novel set in the Pacific Northwest, The Living. Dillard now admits she made some mistakes with the novel. "I've never before let anything go without knowing what its problems were," she says. "I should have put it in a drawer for five years, read it again, and then I would have seen it."

For any newcomer who wonders about the best way to encounter Annie Dillard's writings, there is now an easy answer. The Annie Dillard Reader, a handsome, hardback publication, brings together samplings chosen by the author herself. The most accessible of these, An American Childhood and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, are generously represented; Holy the Firm appears in its entirety, though the sequence of its sections has been rearranged; The Living is represented by a short story out of which it grew. There are also a few poems, old and new, one uncollected essay, and some essays from Teaching a Stone to Talk.

The diversity of her collected works shows that, as a writer, Annie Dillard is willing to try just about anything. Some forms succeed better than others, but all bear her marks: a piercing gaze, terrific sentences, the mystical intensity of a pilgrim, an incurably subjective point of view, the sense of writing as a calling. As her friend the novelist Anne Bernays put it, "Annie is impelled to walk on a very high wire without a net. That's what impels her to take risks."

I know only enough of God to want to worship him, by any means ready at hand," Dillard wrote in Holy the Firm. She never fails to identify herself openly as a Christian, although she confesses that epiphanous religious experiences occur less frequently now. A few years ago she took the very public step of converting to Roman Catholicism. As she explained to the New York Times, "What I like about the Catholics is that they have this sort of mussed-up human way. You go to the Episcopal church, and people are pretty much all alike. You go to a Catholic church, and there are people of all different colors and ages, and babies squalling. You're taking a stand with these people. You're saying: 'Here I am. One of the people who love God.' "

In adolescence she read Lewis, Chesterton, Williams, and other authors she calls "British rationalists," and these helped her through intellectual struggles. She read Charles Hodge's Systematic Theology aloud. She memorized long passages from the King James Version and wrote poems in deliberate imitation of its rhythms. Now, for spiritual nourishment, she is more likely to look toward Catholic mystics; theologically, she feels closest to Simone Weil's Waiting for God, and she calls Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel the greatest religious thinker of the century.

By combining stubborn doubt with an equally stubborn insistence on faith, Dillard serves as a bridge between the intelligentsia and conservative Chris-tians. Although she writes mainly for the agnostic, she sees one of her tasks as "trying to mediate a bit between Christians and humanists-especially between evangelical Christians and my colleagues in academia and the arts who think a Christian is a madman with a white sheet and a gun." She treats evangelicals and even fundamentalists with respect and kindness. While teaching at Hollins College in Virginia early in her career, she spent time reading to the blind at Shenandoah Bible College, where she learned "the good side" of fundamentalism.

Perhaps it is because she is traveling an uncharted zone between skeptics and believers that Dillard turns so often to nature as a text. Buckminster Fuller once said that we humans have a role in counteracting the universal tendency toward entropy: human beings put things together, which helps keep the universe from falling apart. After citing that principle in Living by Fiction, Dillard takes it a step further, pointing back to Hasidic concepts of "hallowing" creation by recognizing the "holy sparks" hidden within it. Both as an artist and as a scientific observer, she has led the way toward re-imagining a sacramental view of the world. Theologians analyze miracles and the supernatural; she renders the splendor of the ordinary.

"I have no problem with miracles," Dillard says; "I'm a long way from agnosticism, and no longer even remember how a lot of things that used to be problems for me were. But that isn't the question I struggle with. To me, the real question is, How in the world can we remember God? I like that part of the Bible that lists kings as good and bad. Suddenly there comes this one, King Josiah, who orders the temple to be cleaned up and inadvertently discovers the law. This happens after generations of rulers and after the Israelites followed God through the Exodus. Somehow they had forgotten the whole thing, every piece of it. A whole nation simply forgot God."

As a member of postmodern academia, Dillard realizes that, with its scientific world-view light years away from that of the Hasids, a whole civilization is in danger of forgetting God. Part of her appeal lies in the ability to enrich the faith of orthodox Christians while still seeming credible to the cultured despisers of religion. She examines the cells, the text of creation, and provides glimpses of the subtext. In John Updike's words, "The reader cannot but be excited by her descriptions of nature and her way of examining its details as if they composed a script of the spirit." For her, they do.

The problem, of course, is that nature gives off mixed signals. As a Christian, Dillard acknowledges the world as the Creator's work. But what joke is this Creator playing on us? A mother octopus laying a million eggs to produce one survivor, killer whales slashing through a pod of sea lions, the female praying mantis consuming the male as he, now headless, continues to mount her-what lesson can we draw from such a work?

As she was writing Pilgrim, Dillard lost a brother-in-law to leukemia. The tests came back the day before his wedding, and it took three years for him to die. Because of that, Dillard says, "I could not write this little cheerful nature book, nor could I write a new version of the argument from design. I had to write for people who are dying or grieving-that's everybody. The images of my sister and her husband were right there in the room as I wrote the book. How can I talk to my sister who didn't believe in God about God?"

Hence, her jubilant scenes are interspersed with, and sometimes overwhelmed by, scenes of violence. She gazes at a small, green frog floating on the surface of the water until suddenly it transmogrifies before her, its skull collapsing inward "like a kicked tent," its body "shrinking before my eyes like a deflating football." The villain, she sees, is a giant water beetle, which has punctured, poisoned, and sucked the insides out of the frog. Thoughts of Dillard's brother-in-law, wasting away from leukemia, are never far away.

As she wrote in Pilgrim: "In the Koran, Allah asks, 'The heaven and the earth and all in between, thinkest thou I made them in jest?' It's a good question." Like an unruly child, the natural world both reveals God and rebels against him; creation groans, to use the apostle Paul's term.

Dillard's approach is vaguely reminiscent of God's own approach in the Book of Job. To a suffering man burdened with urgent existential questions, God replied with a stunning and fierce lecture on the natural world. Consider the ostrich, he told Job, and the mountain goats giving birth, and the wild oxen and feral horses and soaring eagles; look at the behemoth and leviathan. Look at the text; what does it tell you? As for the subtext, that requires faith; you must have eyes to see, ears to hear. Not even God reduced the message of creation. He simply pointed to it, as if to an item in his rsum.

Just as nature reveals and obscures God, so does the church, and more and more Dillard writes directly about her community of faith. She told a recent gathering of Christian artists, "I feel I was set here on earth to describe church services, and there's something intrinsically hilarious about them. Often I have almost died in church in the effort to keep from laughing out loud. . . . What's so funny? The gap between what we're doing and what we're trying to do. The relationship between the incongruity of who we are and who we're trying to move with our prayers. It's a sort of dancing bear act." Her essay "An Expedition to the Pole" contains this lament:

I have been attending Catholic Mass for only a year. Before that, the handiest church was Congregational. . . . Week after week I was moved by the pitiableness of the bare linoleum-floored sacristy which no flowers could cheer or soften, by the terrible singing I so loved, by the fatigued Bible readings, the lagging emptiness and dilution of the liturgy, the horrifying vacuity of the sermon, and by the fog of dreary senselessness pervading the whole, which existed alongside, and probably caused, the wonder of the fact that we came; we returned; we showed up; week after week, we went through with it.

The Catholic church proved more innovative. On one occasion, parishioners partook in sacred Mass to the piano accompaniment of tunes from The Sound of Music. Dillard sighs, "I would rather, I think, undergo the famous dark night of the soul than encounter in church the hootenanny." She adds, "In two thousand years, we have not worked out the kinks. We positively glorify them. Week after week we witness the same miracle: that God is so mighty he can stifle his own laughter."

She lodges against the church not the tiresome complaint of so many modern writers-its irrelevance to our age-but rather the opposite: If Christianity is true, why on earth don't we act like it? "Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?"

Some Christians do not know quite what to make of Annie Dillard. Writing works of art, not theology, she uses obliqueness and indirection. "If I wanted to make a theological statement or a statement of what I think I would have hired a skywriter," she says. "Instead I knock myself out trying to do art-not that it is so good-but by its very nature it is not reducible. People will say, 'What do you think about this?' and I'll say, 'I don't know, here are 271 pages, you'll have to take them all.' "

Sren Kierkegaard described himself as a spy, an unholy man who observed other suspicious characters, all the while observing himself. The police, he said, make good use of cunning people who can nose anything out, follow a clue, and bring things to light. In one sense, every writer works in that manner of espionage, taking notes, observing particulars that others overlook, scouring the world for clues of meaning.

For a writer of faith, to labor in a secular culture vastly complicates the task. Writing books that appear only in Christian bookstores to be read only by church people requires little cunning; writing books of faith for a readership that has only vestigial organs of perception-that requires a particular kind of shrewdness.

Annie Dillard never denies her identity, but neither does she tell the whole story. She knows her audience, and herself. I thought of Kierkegaard's spy analogy not long ago when I picked up an article Dillard wrote for the Yale Review back in 1985. "Singing with the Fundamentalists" recalls the time she taught at a university in Bellingham, Washington. Early one morning she heard singing, and looked out her window to see a group of students gathered around a fountain.

I know who these singing students are: they are the fundamentalists. This campus has a lot of them. Mornings they sing on the Square; it is their only perceptible activity. What are they singing? Whatever it is, I want to join them, for I like to sing; whatever it is, I want to take my stand with them, for I am drawn to their very absurdity, their innocent indifference to what people think. My colleagues and students here, and my friends everywhere, dislike and fear Christian fundamentalists. You may never have met such people, but you've heard what they do: they pile up money, vote in blocs, and elect right-wing crazies; they censor books; they carry handguns; they fight fluoride in the drinking water and evolution in the schools; probably they would lynch people if they could get away with it. I'm not sure my friends are correct. I close my pen and join the singers on the Square.

In the remainder of the article, Dillard relates what she learned singing with the fundamentalists at quarter to nine every morning throughout the spring. She studies the magazines they read-Christianity Today, Campus Life, Eternity-and describes the students she gets to know. They are bright kids, not ignoramuses; they read the Bible, but also books of literary theory. Some support moderate Democrats; some support moderate Republicans.

In the course of the article, Dillard also reproduces the texts to the songs that are sung, including these:

Give praise to the king.

Singing alleluia-

He is the king of kings . . .


He is my peace

Who has broken down every wall . . .

Cast all your cares on him,

For he careth for you -oo -oo . . .


In my life, Lord,

Be glorified, be glorified, today.

Dillard tells us why she chooses to sing with the fundamentalists all spring: "They come pretty much for the same reasons I do: each has a private relationship with 'the Lord' and will put up with a lot of junk for it."

Even for a spy, it is quite a feat to work the text of eight different praise songs into an intellectual journal published by Yale University. "I just about fainted when they took it," Dillard told me later. "Actually," she went on to say, "I'm coming out of the closet more every year."

Copyright (c) 1995 Christianity Today, Inc./BOOKS & CULTURE Review


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