by John Wilson

Bookish Pilgrims Gather at Calvin College

A report on the 2008 Festival of Faith & Writing.

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On the way home from Grand Rapids this last Sunday, skirting Lake Michigan along the Blue Star and Red Arrow highways, not forgetting to stop at the Swedish bakery in Harbert, Wendy and I listened to a glorious CD, Llibre Vermell de Montserrat: A fourteenth–century Pilgrimage, a project of the indefatigable Jordi Savall, originally recorded in 1979. A monastery founded in 1027 at Montserrat in Catalonia, where the Virgin Mary was greatly venerated, became a site of pilgrimage. As the copyist of the manuscript from which this music is taken tells us, "the pilgrims, while holding night vigil in the Church of the Blessed Virgin in Montserrat, sometimes desire to sing and dance, even wanting to do so in the Church Square." The manuscript was stored for centuries in the monastery's library and survived a fire in 1811—so we can listen to the pilgrims' music today, in a world wildly different and yet not so different from 14th-century Catalonia.

I wondered what those medieval Christians might make of the roughly 2,000 pilgrims (Wendy and I among them) who gathered for the Festival of Faith & Writing, which takes place at Calvin College every other year. Many of them are devoted to St. Wendell—indeed, there were two sessions in his honor, one on "Wendell Berry and the Life of the Church," the other on "Wendell Berry and the Life of the Academy," both midwifed by Jason Peters, who teaches at Augustana College and is the editor of Wendell Berry: Life and Work. Alas, I wasn't able to attend either session, but I heard good reports. (I'm not a Berryite myself—more a skeptical admirer. On the trip to and from Calvin, Wendy and I were also listening to a Berry novel, A Place on Earth, in an excellent audio version.)

The biggest treat for me was hearing Michael Chabon in person for the first time, as the plenary speaker Thursday night—he read an essay from his splendid collection Maps and Legends, just out from McSweeney's—and in an interview the following morning conducted by Don Hettinga of Calvin's English Department. Chabon's novel The Yiddish Policemen's Union, scheduled to be adapted as a Coen Brothers' film, suggested that his firsthand acquaintance with Christians of the Calvin College variety is extremely limited. Perhaps this visit, however brief, helpfully complicated his impressions. And maybe not.

To single out a handful of sessions from an embarrassment of riches seems rather arbitrary, but I must also mention Dan Taylor's interview with Edward P. Jones, author most recently of All Aunt Hagar's Children, and the conversation about memoir–writing between Haven Kimmel and Carlos Eire. The two plenary addresses in addition to Chabon's—Yann Martel on Friday, and Katherine Paterson on Saturday—were also worth attending. Martel's international bestseller Life of Pi isn't my cup of tea—I tried it when it came out and didn't get far—but it was interesting to get a better sense of what he's about, and he's a man of considerable charm, not insulated from the ordinary goings–on of the festival as keynote speakers often choose to be. Paterson's Wiersma Memorial Lecture, "Stories of Beauty," overlapped to some extent with a plenary talk she gave at the festival a few years ago, but there were some wonderful bits, including an excerpt from her 2006 book Bread and Roses, Too, based on the 1912 millworkers' strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. A novel for young readers, it's clearly for grownups as well, and Wendy and I resolved to get a copy immediately.

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.

John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.

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