I returned yesterday from the biannual Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was everything I expected it to be, and nothing like what I expected it to be. I did much less “schmoozing” and making connections (with book sales in mind) than I expected. I did much more sitting, listening, and taking in the wisdom of other writers’ words. That listening led to new insights, new ideas, and much inspiration, which is probably what I needed much more than book marketing opportunities.
I will likely write some over the coming weeks about specific ponderings sparked by Festival speakers. For today, as I weed through a few hundred e-mails, catch up on laundry, and recover from four nights of not enough sleep interspersed with four days of nonstop activity, I will simply share some especially memorable words from a few of my favorite Festival speakers.
Poet Aaron Belz approached the podium looking serious and erudite; I expected highbrow literary poetry. Then he began to read. And his poems were among the most absurd, funny, bizarre works I’ve ever encountered. I especially appreciated this poem, because of my interest in bone physiology:
The One About the Ectoplasm and the Osteoblast
Some ectoplasm sits next to an osteoblast
at a bar. The ectoplasm asks the osteoblast,
“Why do you form bones?” And the osteoblast
responds, “Why are you the outer relatively
rigid granule-free layer of the cytoplasm usually
held to be a gel reversibly convertible to a sol?”
And the ectoplasm is like, “Wow, that is such
an awkward question.” And so the osteoblast
goes, “Seriously, why are you? I form bones
for the same reason.” The bartender, an osteoclast,
asks them what they want to drink. The ectoplasm
asks him what he recommends that’s on draft,
and he says the Dead Guy Ale, it’s a fresh keg.
They both break into fits of laughter. “Oh my gosh!”
says the osteoblast, “Dead Guy is a German-style
Maibock that’s deep honey in color with a malty
aroma, rich hearty flavor and a well balanced finish.
Now does that sound like the kind of beer we drink?”
Novelist Marilynne Robinson gave a rambling, wise talk on the absurdity of living in a culture of fear even though we are the healthiest, most prosperous people in human history. She also questioned the prevalent idea that religious faith is under attack in American culture. A few of her gems are below. I was furiously scribbling notes and may not have gotten every word just right. But I’m confident that the quotes listed below honor the spirit of what Robinson said, even if I got a word wrong here and there.
- For many Americans, “the claiming of a religious identity has become more important than abiding in what that identity implies.”
- “People are gracious toward religious expression that is gracious to them.”
- “It is terrible to approach the world as a place antagonistic to what we value and believe.
- “We are huddled in psycho-emotional bomb shelters despite having very little to fear.”
- The prevailing notion of patriotism implies that “real patriots hate most of the people in their country.”
- Our culture of fear has allowed us to justify pre-emptive violence, such as “Stand Your Ground” and “shall carry” gun laws. Essentially, we are encouraged to ask ourselves, “Which image of God has gotten on your nerves enough that you need to carry a gun?”
Young adult novelist Gary Schmidt gave a wonderful opening plenary talk on the important role that writers play in culture by using story to ask questions, rather than offering answers. This philosophy of the writer’s role, of course, drives my work in reproductive ethics. It is always encouraging to hear one’s own passions come forth so eloquently from another’s mouth.
- “Stories are not about having the right answers, but asking the right questions.”
- “Stories that provide easy answers are often lies.”
I heard so many, many more wise words, from Shane Claiborne, Margot Starbuck, Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, Amy Julia Becker, Jennifer Grant, Jana Riess, Paula Huston, and more. And shared many meals and conversations with the inspiring, prolific, brave women writers with whom I have been privileged to work, especially through the Redbud Writers Guild.