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John Wilson

Festival of Faith & Writing 2012

A carnival of voices.

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Many faces, many images, many fragments of lecture and conversation crowd my mind. The poet Scott Cairns was reading from a book in progress. One poem described a monk in a cave on Mount Athos, lying prostrate on the rock floor. The breeze riffled the pages of his Bible. In a kettle on a bed of coals, greens were simmering, until the kettle boiled dry.

Why should this poem keep rising to the surface? I have never been drawn to monasticism. Yet by some alchemy—not least, by Scott's voice, unique, as every human voice is unique—I am drawn into the scene again and again, as if I were standing just behind the poet, at the entrance to the cave, looking over his shoulder at the monk. Not in the same form but in some way, with the same intensity of conviction, I should divest myself of whatever needs to be cast away.

Calvin College's every-other-year Festival of Faith & Writing—the 2012 edition began last Thursday and ended Saturday night—is a carnival of disparate voices, a time out of time from which one returns to everyday routines, re-charged. A conference that features, on its first day, a plenary address by Jonathan Safran Foer and concludes with a plenary address by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a model of the ungraspable multifaceted Real we inhabit. Like all models, it is highly selective, stylized. (Lots of voices, we can be grateful—hectoring, insidious, terminally narcissistic—simply are not represented here.) But even so, this tiny simulacrum mimics the effects of the whole.

On Saturday morning, I presided over a panel of three poets: Aaron Belz, Susanna Childress, and Brett Foster. All three write from the perspective of Christian faith. They aren't far apart in age. Yet to translate a poem from the Belzian idiom to the dialect of Susanna Childress would be far more difficult than translating one of Aaron's poems from English to Urdu, or one of Susanna's into Chinese. Nor would it be any easier to convert a Childress poem into Brett Foster's tongue, or Foster into Belz.

Are we then—as some savants like to claim—all speaking mutually unintelligible languages, every person an isolato, merely deceiving ourselves when we suppose we are understanding one another beyond the most primitive concord? No. There's a bedrock we can all refer to: the floor of the cave, the words of Scripture, the law written in our hearts. And then we must listen to one another.

Listening doesn't entail uncritical acceptance. Sometimes after a little listening, an early exit is the best response. There were sessions I skipped because I didn't want to exit early or squirm through to the end. But one of the recurring delights of the Festival of Faith & Writing over the years is the discovery of new voices. When I asked my wife, Wendy, what sessions she'd attended were the most memorable, the first one she mentioned was a talk by the novelist Leila Aboulela (whose work I don't know), entitled "Making Sense of Allah's Will."

I'm thankful once again to the writers who spoke, to Calvin College, to the planning committee, to all who helped fund the Festival and all who worked to make it run so smoothly. I'm thankful to Shelly LaMahieu Dunn, the director of the Festival, who will soon start to work on FFW 2014. What a joy it was to see old friends, to meet writers I'd known only via email, to hear so many sentences that are still jostling in my head "like clothes in a dryer," as Foer said. Thanks to you all.

John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.

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