Looking Into the Abyss, and Finding a Way Toward Hope

Review of My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman

My Bright Abyss, the spiritual memoir of Poetry magazine editor Christian Wiman, has received the highest praise from literary critics and many of Wiman’s fellow poets. Written after Wiman was diagnosed with incurable cancer, My Bright Abyss is, indeed, a new classic, but what is its spiritual perspective? How does it adhere to, or depart from, orthodox Christian belief?

First, if you’re looking for traditional language about God and theological categories, this isn’t the place to start. Wiman, in fact, starts his book by reaching out to people for whom traditional ways of talking about God have proved unsatisfactory, while acknowledging his own confusion about the divine. In the book’s preface, he writes:

There is an enormous contingent of thoughtful people in this country who, though they are frustrated with the language and forms of contemporary American religion, nevertheless feel that burn of being that drives us out of ourselves, that insistent, persistent gravity of the ghost called God. I wanted to try to speak to those people more directly. I wanted to write a book that might help someone who is at once as confused and certain about the source of life and consciousness as I am.

And so Wiman sets out to answer not only what he believes, but how he believes in what he believes, when it comes God.

When my life broke open seven years ago, I knew very well that I believed in something. Exactly what I believed, however, was considerably less clear. So I set out to answer that question, though I have come to realize that the real question—the real difficulty—is how, not what. (p. x, from the preface)

My Bright Abyss is at times beautifully profound and spiritually amiss, but it’s never less than eloquent or easy to put down. The book is “a mosaic, not a continuous argument or narrative” (preface) with a “fragmentary and episodic quality” that Wiman notes grows “more urgent” in its final chapters.

The poet’s upbringing includes incidents and language that will be familiar to evangelical readers: church attendance and a born-again experience. But Wiman struggles with the language of evangelical experience.

When I was young, twelve or so, I had an ‘experience’ one morning in church. I put the word in quotes because, though the culture in which I was raised possessed definite language to explain what happened to me (I was filled with the Holy Spirit, I was saved), I no longer find that language accurate or helpful when thinking about how God manifests himself—or herself, or Godself, or whatever hopeless reflexive pronoun you want to use—in reality and individual lives. (p. 4)

The young Wiman responds to the move of the Spirit in a quite untraditional way, turning away from the pastor’s open arms and fleeing the altar, running instead to the church’s basement. No matter, though. “No one was in doubt about what had happened to me, nor did it matter that I myself had no idea. I had been visited just as Jacob or Mary was visited. I had been called, claimed.” (p. 5)

Wiman goes on to dismiss the experience—“to rationalize it away”—and claim “it means nothing to me now” in one breath, then to admit that “there’s another option, of course: it was real.” (p. 6) Wiman wrestles with the implications of both possibilities. “If grace woke me to God’s presence in the world and in my heart, it also woke me to his absence,” Wiman writes. “I never truly felt the pain of unbelief until I began to believe.” (p. 12)

The book is, in Wiman’s words, a mosaic, written during a time when Wiman’s cancer “has waxed and waned.” (p. x) He rejects as “offensive” any form of “intellectualized understanding” of faith (p. 19) as he journeys through the ups and downs of his medical and spiritual condition.

Wiman takes a few easy shots at fundamentalism, but through much of the early part of his book he seems uninterested, if not hostile, toward any sort of received wisdom from the church. That concern extends to theology.

Hard-core theology, on the other hand, tends to leave me cold, even when—perhaps especially when—it convinces me. I honestly don’t know whether I am describing something essential about the way we know God or merely my own weakness of mind. (pp. 72-3)

It’s only in the latter portion of My Bright Abyss where Wiman, after wrestling with and fighting against any traditional language to describe God, relents somewhat and yields to the idea that he need not constantly strive to be unique in his expressions of faith.

I feel a strong need—an imperative, really—to believe something in common. Indeed, I feel that any belief I have that is not in some way shared is probably just the workings of my own ego, a common form of modern idolatry. (p. 127)

Yet Wiman doesn’t discount his own experience of the divine, striving instead to bridge his personal views with broadly established categories and ways of thinking about God.

Mystical experience needs some form of dogma in order not to dissipate into moments of spiritual intensity that are merely personal, and dogma needs regular infusions of unknowingness to keep from calcifying into the predictable, pontificating, and anti-intellectual services so common in mainstream American churches. (p. 138)

Wiman’s treatise may sounds like a shot against a systematic, Reformed understanding of God, but Wiman is no fan of liberal Protestantism.

I always feel that I am evading Christ, avoiding him, almost as if I am, with the old liberal Protestant reticence that masks a fundamental impotence, embarrassed by him. … In church much is made of Christ as a moral exemplar, but I find this not only problematic … but also just generally useless. It’s the Jeffersonian Christ, but you hardly need Christ to model the virtues that Jefferson had in mind. No, to be a Christian means to believe in the resurrected Christ. (p. 165)

Although Wiman will never be a religious conservative, he acknowledges the limits of theological liberalism. He’s trying to get at a spiritual essence that goes beyond words, even beyond experience, and in the book’s best moments, the author/poet is remarkably honest about his own limitations.

I didn’t always agree with Wiman’s perspective on God, but I appreciated how he achingly tries to get the reader to understand his passion for following Christ amidst human suffering. My Bright Abyss is so beautifully written, with enough touchpoints for my own faith experience, that it overcame my resistance. I look forward to re-reading this book over the years, even as I hold fast to Reformed theology.


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