The IFWC, originally known as the Indianapolis Christian Writers Conference, brings together writers of faith to help them develop in their craft and find opportunities for publishing. The director, Liz Boltz Ranfeld, is an Anderson English professor, an essayist, and the mother of two young children.
One responsibility Ranfeld hadn’t expected was answering to outrage over the closing keynote speaker, renowned poet Li-Young Lee. In the following conversation, I attempt to explore what happened, why, and what people of faith can learn.
Tania Runyan: What happened at the closing address?
Liz Boltz Ranfeld: For the first part of the keynote address, things were fine. However, when Li-Young started reading “The Undressing,” the audience became uncomfortable.
I got a text that people were walking out. Of our small crowd, seven people ended up leaving. We received a handful of emails from people who said that because of the poem, they don’t believe they can return to next year’s event, despite enjoying everything else about the conference. I have since received evaluations describing his work as “pornography,” “smut,” “vulgarity” and “antithetical to Christianity.”
TR: What made people uncomfortable with the poem?
LBR: I think there were a few things. First, a lot of people weren’t expecting to hear explicitly sexual content at the conference. That’s just not been a part of the event’s history or ethos.
Second, the sexual content was quite violent. Those who were taken aback may not have been able to focus on the fact that the violence was being described with derision and self-criticism.
And third, I think our audience was troubled by the fact that Lee introduced the poem as being about Sophia, the feminine aspect of God. There were a lot of people in that room who felt squeamish because sexual language was used to talk about God—especially a feminine aspect of God.
TR: What place does potentially “controversial” or “offensive” art have in the faith conversation?
LBR: There are times when we have to protect ourselves from art because we’re not all ready for the same things at the same time. But offense isn’t hurt. It isn’t pain. Examining why something offends us can lead to a lot of personal growth, because often offense is one of our most unexplored reactions.
Unexamined offense causes us to shut down and plug our ears. Maybe we need to practice putting ourselves in situations where we are troubled by what we’re hearing. Then we can learn to deal with those feelings.
Obviously here are times when we need to make a stand and let it be known that we can’t approve of or condone what someone is saying. I don’t ever want to take that away from anyone. But there are also times when offense can challenge and reward us.
I know I have grown more in my faith from participating in difficult conversations that have offended me than I have from really pleasant, encouraging conversations that don’t have any conflict.
TR: Where is the line between offensiveness and blasphemy?
LBR: I’m skeptical that someone could accidentally blaspheme. Blasphemy must be intentional.
The problem is that when you’re sitting in a room listening to poetry that might be on that cusp between offensive and blasphemous, you don’t know the poet’s intent. How could you? Gauging intent is difficult enough when you’re trying to understand the people you know and love. It’s even more difficult when it’s a stranger!
LBR: For me, the poem was not blasphemous, but that’s because I believe the intent of the poem was in line with my values and beliefs about God. Specifically, I believe we often want to use the divine for our own selfish purposes, and sometimes that selfishness makes us downright vile and violent toward God.
God, in the meantime, is unfazed by our selfishness and our violence, and continues to offer wisdom and beauty in response to our audacity.
TR: Do Christians get offended too often, then?
LBR: I don’t want to make the case that we shouldn’t be offended by things. I hate those memes on Facebook that say, “Good morning, America! What are we offended about today?” It’s important not to be dismissive of people’s sincerely held beliefs.
Being offended by something is not the same thing as throwing a fit or being a crybaby. In fact, as far as I know, no one’s reaction at our conference was inappropriate. No one yelled at us, threatened us, or called us names. They simply left the auditorium, and I respect that.
I try to put myself in a similar situation. What really offends me? Well, I’m really troubled by humor that is at the expense of fat people. If someone was on a stage making fat jokes at a faith-based conference—something I feel would be completely inappropriate—I might even walk out.
I think what’s important to me is understanding why I’m offended. Is it because the person was saying truly offensive things? What if they were saying things in order to make a point that I ultimately agree with? What if they were just unaware of how hurtful their words could be?
Then, what is the most useful way for me to respond? Leaving could be effective for my own mental health. Staying could be effective if I want to engage people in conversation later about why I considered it a problem.
Obviously, Li-Young Lee didn’t get on the stage and make fat jokes, but maybe the way I feel about that kind of humor is the way people in our audience felt about what he was reading. They just couldn’t abide it.
TR: How do you reconcile your views about taking offense with being a conference director, and a Christian conference director at that?
LBR: I’m never going to be an “anything goes” sort of conference director, where anyone can just say anything they want. I do want to be somewhat hands-off, though, and let people hear things they might be uncomfortable with.
I feel terrible that people were so uncomfortable, but I also feel terrible that someone found mold on their breakfast Danish that morning!
I don’t regret bringing Li-Young Lee to campus. Many people loved him and his talk and his reading. Many people absolutely did not. I hope that either way, people grew from the experience and know more about writing, literature, and faith than they did before.
Tania Runyan is the author of the poetry collections Second Sky (Cascade Poiema Series), A Thousand Vessels, Simple Weight, and Delicious Air, which was awarded Book of the Year by the Conference on Christianity and Literature in 2007. Her book How to Read a Poem, an instructional guide based on Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry,” was recently released by T.S. Poetry Press. Her poems have appeared in many publications, including Poetry, Image, Books & Culture, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, The Christian Century, Atlanta Review, Indiana Review, and the anthology In a Fine Frenzy: Poets Respond to Shakespeare. Tania was awarded an NEA Literature Fellowship in 2011.