In September, I’ll begin my ninth year of teaching in Calvin College’s English department. And I want to begin by telling you that I am so grateful for that. I’m grateful for the tough-minded and tenderhearted people whom I work alongside, grateful for the sincere and thoughtful students whom I teach—and also learn from—and grateful for you, and for all those who shaped this good place long before I came to it. 

Indeed, thank you for everything you’ve done to transform and to preserve this college, for everything you’ve contributed to it and championed about it. And thank you, too, for the kind invitation to speak here today. 

I don’t just thank you based on these years as a member of Calvin’s English faculty, however. September will also mark, for me, 19 years since I arrived here, already sure of my English major. Of course, I had no inkling that I would find myself studying Shakespeare in London with MaryAnn Walters or working to put on the Festival of Faith and Writing alongside Dale Brown or editing Dialogue, the college’s literary and arts journal. Nor did I have any inkling when I began my PhD at Boston University that I would be back in the Fine Arts Center’s classrooms so soon—but this time standing up, and with the chalkboard at my back.

Sometimes it still surprises me, but I am so grateful for this, too: that my livelihood is, as the title of this speech would have it, making words live in a contemporary world.

Now, there are plenty of reasons a person might be downcast about such a vocation. You don’t have to look far to find books and articles whose titles begin with “the death of…” and end with either “English” or “literature.” A few of these titles also include a polite question mark, it’s true, as in “The Death of Literature?”, but most don’t.

Resuscitating ourselves

Nonetheless, the truth is that we don’t need to resuscitate the English language, and we don’t need to resuscitate literature. Nor do we need to make words live in a contemporary world; we need to make the contemporary world alive to words. We need to resuscitate ourselves. And each other.

We need to revive old ways of taking in stories, of reading without distractions, of lending our full attention, our whole imagination, and at least a portion of our hearts to fictional worlds. The fiction worthy of such attention is already there. It’s there in the old tomes—in The Canterbury Tales and The Thousand and One Nights—and it’s there in the current scene—in Gilead and The Goldfinch.

Why, though, some of you might be asking. Why do we need to reinvigorate the way we read fiction? Come now: I do know you weren’t all English majors. But that doesn’t excuse you, I’m afraid. I’m going to insist that the call to lively, attentive reading is a summons not just to English majors of faith. It’s a call to people of faith. Period. Because reading fiction is one of the best chances we have to practice compassion.

Let me tell you a story (this one is true):

One night, when I was newly in college and my brother Luke was in middle school, I stopped home for dinner. Things went just as I had remembered them: My dad came home with minutes to spare, my brother slid into his seat beside me, and my mom delivered a mighty tangle of spaghetti to our kitchen table, and then she sat, and said grace. So nothing seemed out of the ordinary until my mom began praying. Specifically, she began praying for a man named Irwin Chance, and she asked God’s mercy for him so earnestly, so eloquently that my dad, my brother, and I began to feel terrible. Because, to our shame, none of us could call Irwin Chance to mind—a fact we realized as, guiltily, we each opened our eyes in turn. Luke mouthed “Irwin?” and I shrugged. My dad and I traded quizzical winces. 

And my mom kept going, turning from Irwin Chance to his brother Everett. We could not picture him either. But then it happened: After less than a sentence on Everett’s behalf, my mom abruptly started to cackle. For only then did she realize that she had been praying, at great and inspiring length, for first one, then another, character in David James Duncan’s novel The Brothers K.

Worth spending charity on

I should add here, in all fairness, that my mom usually keeps a solid hold on reality and that The Brothers K is that kind of book. 

And I’ll defend her even further by telling you that a similar phenomenon—called the willing suspension of disbelief—often takes place when we read fiction. That is, when we read a novel, we wave off our skepticism in order to enter into its world. And, for as long as we read, we let that fictional world’s invented reality displace reality itself.

The need for suspension of disbelief is more obvious, of course, in some genres than others. Consider fantasy literature. It serenely flouts the most basic principles of physics. Its geography is unsound, its zoo of characters impossible. And so on.

We also suspend disbelief, though, when we read “realistic” fiction—a point that I have demonstrated to students, for the past several years, by telling them about my mom’s once praying for one of the utterly plausible but ultimately imaginary Brothers K. 

However—and here’s the point—my mom did not just find Irwin plausible or vivid. She found him worth spending charity on. Because she read without distractions, because she turned her full attention, her whole imagination, and at least a portion of her heart to his fictional world, my mom recognized and took the chance to practice compassion.

And compassion is a harder virtue to cultivate than we might think. After all, compassion is not niceness. It is not helpfulness. Compassion, rather, means pushing our own story, our own reality to one side so that we can concentrate on another person’s story, on his or her reality.

A writer I admire, David Foster Wallace, talks about how hard it is for us to push our own reality aside and to enact compassion. He calls what stands in our way a “default setting”—our tendency to believe, each of us, that we are, and I quote, “the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence […] and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.”

We know better, of course—and the more pointedly if we are Christians. For as Christians, we know that the universe has no center but God. And we know that the people we live alongside are, no less than ourselves, forged in the image of God. C.S. Lewis reminds us of this. He writes: “there are no ordinary people. [None of us has ever] met a mere mortal.” Usually, though, the way we know all this remains theoretical—and hard to apply when our pride is stung, for example, or when we’re in a hurry.

Practicing compassion

But fiction, when we are alive to it—when we read with uncompromised attention and unrationed charity—helps us to know better than to think ourselves “the absolute center of the universe”—and not just in theory. In practice. This is not to say that we cannot practice compassion in our “real” lives. We can, and we should.

In our “real” lives, though, we do not get, as a matter of course, to overhear the secrets of those we happen to cross paths with. Yes, we hear what the people around us say, but so much of what any of us says is pleasantry, and so much of it is self-protecting. Even among friends. It takes, for instance, a great deal for any of us to admit that we’ve wronged someone we love; it takes a great deal for any of us to name our doubts, our regrets, our insecurities; it even takes a great deal for any of us to answer the question “How are you?” with the word “Lonely” or the word “Angry.”

In fiction, on the other hand, we often hear both what a character says to the routine inquiry “How are you?” (“Fine—and you?”) and we overhear the other, truer answer, be it “Lonely” or “Angry” or what have you.

A novel, a short story: These let us overhear an imaginary character’s self-doubt or embarrassed hope, making him or her transparent to us and inviting us to suspend our disbelief, to put off our real stories in deference to their fictional ones. Thus, to read well—because reading well is, in part, a matter of getting ourselves out of the way (momentarily, at least)—presses us toward compassion.

That said, practicing compassion on fictional characters, as an end in itself, is meaningless. Reading short stories should be just that: practice, practice for reading the stories of the real people nearer you than Scout Finch or Huck Finn. Or Irwin Chance.

And, admittedly, sometimes our reading fails. Sometimes—and in the real world more often than not—we will not be able to figure out what lies behind the pat answer “Fine.” But not knowing that, not overhearing the secrets of those around us is not the problem. The problem is glibly believing that we ourselves are the only ones with secrets, with regrets, with worries, with futures, with pasts. With stories.

Reading books is one stay against that glib belief. Indeed, reading fiction—when we do so with attention and imagination, when we do so in a way that suspends disbelief—is one way to suspend that glib belief that we, each of us, is “the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.” So that being alive to words can mean, put simply, being alive to the people in your reach and letting them be alive to you. Each of these people, after all, is made in the image of God and at least some of them, if not all of them, have been placed near you by your—and their—Provident Creator.

Recognizing the Creator

Which brings me to my other main claim: Not only does being alive to the words that make up stories mean, at best, being more alive—more charitable, more vulnerable, more discerning—when you encounter real people and their stories. Being alive to words—and especially to words concerned with beauty—also means being quicker to recognize the Creator, quicker to wonderment and to praise.

Now, I’m going to turn here from talking about fiction to talking about poetry, with apologies to drama and memoir and so on. It’s not, obviously, that poems never tell stories or that the words of novels never tend toward beauty. It’s not that drama and memoir strike me as unimportant. It’s that, in a 20-minute speech, some simplifications are necessary.

Maybe it’s also necessary, though, when it comes to poetry, to include a bit of a sales pitch—because as surely as I know you weren’t all English majors, I know that even a good many avid readers balk when it comes to reading poetry. There’s some legitimate reasons for that. For instance, some of the poems that appear in the most prominent places work harder to be clever than to be true—and that alienates readers. But those aren’t the poems I’d ask you to concentrate on.

I’d ask you to concentrate on poems that make you see commonplace things—laundry flapping on a clothesline or the iridescence on a slice of sandwich meat or a blackbird—with sudden amazement and without distraction.

Because the contemporary world is thick with distractions. You know that already, and I’m not going to pretend to have enough expertise in the social sciences to add to your knowledge by detailing the way distraction chips away at our efficiency, at our civility, at our thinking.

Instead, I want to say this: To live among so, too many distractions—it lessens our awe. It makes us slower to remember that we do not just bustle about in the contemporary world. We don’t. On the contrary, our lives unfold in creation, and we should relish that. For, as my pastor, Jack Roeda, was saying this past Sunday: The Creator didn’t set the world in motion, then retire. The creation is ongoing, and our awe at it shouldn’t lag behind.

Granted, awe is impossible to force. But poetic language at least sets the table for it. Indeed, paying attention to poetry can equip us to notice the world full of “praiseful things,” as the poet Christian Wiman calls them—and, in his poem, by the way, it’s weeds that inspire wonderment.

Let me read you a poem (another by Christian Wiman. He wrote it shortly after his diagnosis with an incurable, unpredictable cancer. In it, a flock of birds takes off from a tree.)

“From A Window”
by Christian Wiman

Incurable and unbelieving
in any truth but the truth of grieving,

I saw a tree inside a tree
rise kaleidoscopically

as if the leaves had livelier ghosts.
I pressed my face as close

to the pane as I could get
to watch that fitful, fluent spirit

that seemed a single being undefined
or countless beings of one mind

haul its strange cohesion
beyond the limits of my vision

over the house heavenwards.
Of course I knew those leaves were birds.

Of course that old tree stood
exactly as it had and would

(but why should it seem fuller now?)
and though a man’s mind might endow

even a tree with some excess
of life to which a man seems witness,

that life is not the life of men.
And that is where the joy came in.

I love this poem because it tries to be skeptical of its own amazement: It announces that “of course that old tree stood / exactly as it had and would,” and it acknowledges that mistaking the birds’ sudden flight for the tree’s coming to life is something “a man’s mind […] endow[s]” on the scene rather than the most accurate rendition of what happens. 

But, in the end, the poem also fails to be skeptical. It insists that even if it is a man’s imagination that animates this tree that birds shake themselves loose of, “that life is not the life of men.” Exactly. That life—not the life of men—is the undying creativity of an immortal God, a creativity we mortals take part in, at our best, because we are made in His image.

We cannot take part in the unfolding of creation, however, when we don’t pay attention to it, when distraction gets the better of us. I know it’s gotten the better of me. I know that I have walked past trees from which a host of birds suddenly and synchronously erupted without noticing and without a single word of praise.

So the joy didn’t come in. At least not until this poem concentrated my attention on the praiseful thing it singles out. Which is one of the most important things that a true poem can do.

Still, “From a Window” hangs words on just one praiseful thing among many worth our wonderment—something that I think the Psalmist, that old poet, reminds us. 

Listen to the beginning of Psalm 19, past the first familiar sentence: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.”

Notice what David does here: He defines creation as a poem without words, then he writes a poem with words about it. Now, he doesn’t do that, of course, because creation’s wordless poem is insufficient to warrant awe; he does it because we aren’t constant enough to attend to the wordless poem without some lyric to wake us.

Listening to the voice of creation

In short, then: We need poetic language to revive our reverence for all that poetic language can only approximate. We need poetic language for its insistence that we listen to the voice of creation.

And the words are there already, alive. We need only to make ourselves alive to them, to resuscitate ourselves as readers. Each semester, such revival is my livelihood, to invite and sometimes to hound students to read words in a way that redoubles their awe, that loosens their tongues for praise. To invite and sometimes to hound students to read stories in a way that gives them practice at compassion.

I told you, to begin with, that I am grateful for this work, but I am particularly grateful for the Providence that led me to do such work at Calvin College. Twice—first as a student, then as a professor. After all, at Calvin College, we believe that good books are just footnotes to the Good Book. We believe that our lives’ stories and songs have an Author and a Finisher. Thank you for letting me share something of mine.