Skip to main content

Festival Offers Ode to Literature

April 17, 2024
Christian Wiman addresses an audience at the Calvin Festival of Faith & Writing.
Christian Wiman addresses an audience at the Calvin Festival of Faith & Writing.
Photo: Honglei Yang

More than 2,200 people from across North America and beyond came to Calvin University recently to attend the 2024 Festival of Faith and Writing, which, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, had been essentially on hold as an in-person event for six years. (A modified online version of the festival took place in 2022.)

Now able to meet again in person, participants had opportunities to mingle and build relationships as well as share – for three days Apr. 11-13 – in the joy of poetry, the transformative power of fiction, the insights of memoir and autobiography, and the crucial role journalism plays in chronicling the issues and trends of our time. 

Weaving through all of the plenary sessions and scores of workshops presented by award-winning authors and other experts in their fields was the sustaining significance that faith plays in the process of creating stories and works of art that touch the hearts and minds of people around the world.

Music, podcasts, blogs, and conversations between festival presenters were also part of the festival, which kicked off at noon on Thursday, Apr. 11, in the Van Noord Arena on the Calvin campus.

Standing at the podium in the arena, festival cochair Jennifer Holberg offered a wide smile and raised her arms in welcome to all who had come.

“Welcome! We are finally here! It’s time to celebrate the intersection of religious faith and culture and to inspire, especially through writing, a deeper empowerment for the common good,” Holberg said to cheers and applause. 

The event, almost 35 years old, has grown over the years and, said Holberg, “takes a lot of work. Indeed, we’ve long said that the festival is the work of many hands, and we count yours in that number.”

The Calvin Gospel Choir took the stage next and performed a few numbers. Then the first plenary speaker, Mitali Perkins, an author of children’s books and other works, focused participants on the necessity of writing stories.

“Doing this is a way to bring our world out of chaos, to bring flourishing to our neighbors in this conflicted world,” said Perkins, who served as Calvin University’s inaugural Distinguished Writer in Residence for 2023.

As they build their stories word by word, writers seek, said Perkins, “to bring truth where there is falsehood, knowing there will be times of rejection – and yet [they] keep going in the face of opposition.” 

The opening session ended with a live podcast by Rebecca Sheir, the host, writer, and producer of Circle Round, a popular family-folktales podcast that airs on WBUR, a National Public Radio station in Boston.

A Refuge in Poetry

Earlier, on Thursday morning in the Calvin Seminary Auditorium, poet and novelist Kaveh Akbar told an overflow audience that ancient words of poems ran through his mind a few years ago during the months while he sobered up from alcohol. 

Broken and suffering, the writer, who had grown up in Tehran, Iran, found relief and healing in such poems as “The Hymn to Inanna” by Enheduanna. This is a rich and complex poem of fury, destruction, and a sacred restoration.

In part, it reads: “The day is auspicious, the priestess is clothed in beautiful robes, in womanly beauty, as if in the light of the rising moon.The gods have appeared in their rightful places, at the end of the day. . . .”

Akbar also spoke of learning to pray from the Quran with his family as he was growing up in Tehran. And having learned those Muslim prayers, spoken in Arabic, helped him, he said, as he groped and prayed his way forward in recovery.

“I was white-knuckling it, but poetry was a place to put myself for hours and not worry about killing myself,” he said. He would read ancient Sufi poems, he added, and feel a psychological peace flood through him and comfort him.

“Poetry can split me from myself. I’m drawn to poems that embrace mystery and point to the infinite,” said Akbar, who is also the author of the new novel Martyr! “Poetry has the potential to help us embrace the world that we seek,” he said.

The Asbury Revival

Ruth Graham described herself as a fairly staid Presbyterian who lives in Dallas, Tex., from which she works as a religion writer for the New York Times. When she learned of a so-called outpouring of the Holy Spirit occurring in the chapel of a small Christian college in rural Kentucky, she was intrigued, she told a group attending her presentation at the festival.

“Last February [in 2023] a few students stayed behind at a normal chapel service and started singing and praying, and it spread from there,” she said in her session titled “Reporting on Politics and Mystery in American Religion.” 

After convincing her editor to send her there to check it out, Graham headed for Wilmore, the small town in which Asbury University – and what was becoming a full-scale revival – was located, she said.

She spent several days there, talking to many people, especially younger folks who came from far and wide to participate in the unusual event. What she came away with, she said, was a story that left her with a strong sense that something unworldly was happening there – and yet, as a journalist, she also took away questions about this sudden outpouring of religious faith.

In this, she told the audience, you can see the role of the secular religion journalist – reporting on a mysterious event, sensing the reality of what was occurring, and yet wondering exactly what was real.

“I talked with people there who told me that they had had a spiritual experience that had changed their life,” she said. “What I saw there passed the boundaries of normal experience.”

Where does politics come into this? She said that many people spoke to her of the pandemic and how they had been set apart from others and had hungered for connection. Yet also involved were pastors and preachers and other church leaders who counted themselves as strong supporters of former U.S. president Donald Trump.

“You could see the conservative influence of Trump in this outpouring,” she said. “You could see a shift in the pattern of religious power in this country. . . . There is this growing belief that the U.S. is on the edge of a new revival, where spirituality and politics are bound up together.”

Faith and Doubt in an Editor’s Heart

In a presentation near the end of the festival, Kathy Pories offered a quiet, confident, and informative look at editors, who are frequently at work behind the scenes helping to guide and, when necessary, to change a book, often at the behest of the author, into a story that can delve into depths that we all face – and often need the help of a good story to help us to navigate.

At the start of her presentation, the senior editor at Algonquin Books spoke both of faith and doubt, which often play key roles in the significant, behind-the-scenes work that she does.

“I have plenty of moments of doubt when I am editing a book, asking if this scene or that character works,” she said. “There is always a back and forth with the author, but as we revise again and again I have faith in the enterprise.”

Pories has worked with such authors as Jill McCorkle, Oscar Hokeah, Hillary Jordan, Silas House, Daniel Wallace, Lee Smith, Robert Olmstead, and Jean Thompson.

Reflecting a bit on the topic of faith in her work, Pories said she is attracted to an author's unique voice, the way one uses language in a style that is special to oneself and can be engaging to readers.

“A convincing voice and true conflict are important, and I believe that is what many readers want and [what] will help them to have faith in the book,” she said.

She described the reader and writer as “on a journey together. Having faith in a book is important. I love to help bring a book into the world so that everyone can buy them and we can all have faith that they won’t be banned.”

All of the Light We Eventually Saw

The crowd in the Van Noord Arena listened intently as novelist Anthony Doerr opened the festival’s final plenary session by showing many quotes from a range of authors on two big screens on either side of him.

The quotes were from literary passages using similes and metaphors to mirror and hint at various connections between characters in books and the wider world.

As he spoke, he especially used images and similes in the short story “The New Dress” by Virginia Woolf. In this story, Mabel attends a party in a new dress but feels very uncomfortable and thinks of herself as a fly. Part of the story reads: “She saw herself like that – she was a fly, but the others were dragonflies, butterflies, beautiful insects, dancing, fluttering, skimming, while she alone dragged herself up out of the saucer” – imagining herself as a fly emerging from a saucer on one of the party tables.

For a time, it seemed as if the audience struggled a bit to keep up with Doerr’s talk on similes, and at one point he acknowledged that it might get a little technical.

But as he wrapped up the presentation, he tied together the crucial points he was making.

“Literature can be a tool of interconnection,” said the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the Light We Cannot See (2014) and the more recent novel Cloud Cuckoo Land (2022), which has also won several prizes. “If used well, literature has the potential of saving the world.”

Using similes, such as comparing oneself to a fly in a saucer, can connect something specific, such as feeling out of place at a party, to universal truths – perhaps the alienation many of us feel.

But how can this change the world?

“Literature can shake us into unpredictable places,” said Doerr. “Writers can lead readers, through the use of transformational symbols, into meaning. They can plunge us into the cellars of our memory. . . .

“Literature can help us to see that everything is hitched to everything else in the universe. . . . It can help us realize that every strata of life is interconnected and magnificent. . . .

“Literature is a powerful source to tighten our circle of compassion. . . . We are in this life together for better or worse. Even so, the more we are able to see the connections between everything, the better off we will be.”

When he finished, the audience – full of people who care deeply about how writing links us to the mysteries of faith – erupted in lengthy applause, appreciating the speaker’s ode to the power of writing and its ability to bring change in the world.