Canadians join literary luminaries

Published May 1, 1998

CANADIANS JOY KOGAWA and Bruce Cockburn joined literary luminaries Elie Wiesel, John Updike, Katherine Paterson, Jon Hassler and David James Duncan in headlining The Festival of Faith and Writing, April 2-4 at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

“You don’t know what you have in you until you sit down to write it.” – John Updike

Over a hundred authors, publishers, editors and musicians met with 1,300 registrants in concerts, round table discussions, readings, interviews and workshops. In public evening lectures Elie Wiesel and John Updike each drew audiences of well over 2,000 people.

The festival seeks writers who “take us places we’ve not been before,” explained conference organizer Dale Brown. “Much Christian literature leaves us where we are. We’re somewhere in between the easy-answer Christian literature and the writing that pays no mind to the role of faith in one’s life.” The Calvin College professor continued, “We’re interested in writers who show respect for and understanding of a faith tradition. Some of them may in fact have left that tradition, but they’re still reacting to it, they’re aware of it and they’re respectful of it.”

Elie Wiesel certainly wrestles with his faith. At the age of 15, he was imprisoned by the Nazis in Birkenau with his father, mother and three sisters. He survived Birkenau and Auschwitz, but his parents and younger sister did not. In the mid-50s he wrote Night, the story of a teenage boy racked by guilt for having survived the camps and torn apart from a God who allowed so many to die.

“The writer is a witness. We give testimony. This is what happened. We were there. Even what is lost in history can be found in memory.”

[photo by Sue Careless]

Writer Elie Wiesel signs an autograph for an admirer at the Festival of & and Writing. photo by Sue Careless

Of the European Holocaust, Mr. Wiesel said, “What struck my people, struck mankind. In 1945 we were paradoxically optimistic. We wrongly thought the world had learned a lesson: that children cannot starve, that wars are grotesque. Fifty years later children still starve and wars continue. If not received, why give testimony?”

Author of more than 40 books and winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace, Mr. Wiesel believes, “The most terrifying story in the Bible is Cain killing Abel. Why? Brothers can be enemies. Whoever kills, kills his brother.”

Mr. Wiesel, 69, relishes the thought-provoking questions in the Bible. “My tradition allows me to ask questions. God is there to be argued with. It is God’s prerogative not to answer or perhaps I don’t understand his language.”

Mr. Wiesel admires writers in the prophetic tradition. “Prophets never took the side of power and wealth but of the poor, the sick, the disposed” and “were present to people who had no one.”

“Only write books nobody else, but you, can write” – Elie Wiesel

If Mr. Wiesel gives voice to those caught in the furnace of the Holocaust, John Updike gives dignity to the sufferings of those in midlife, middle class America. Winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, Mr. Updike, 66, is best known for Rabbit, Run in 1960 and its subsequent series. He has written over 50 volumes of poetry, novels and essays, his most recent novels being, In the Beauty of the Lilies and Towards the End of Time.

Margaret Drabble notes that “Updike’s characteristic preoccupations are with the erotic, with the pain and striving implicit in human relationships and with the sacred (at times explicitly religious) in daily life.”

“Without that (religious dimension) it’s just an exercise in survival until you’re dead,” Mr. Updike said. “Religion has just kept cropping up in my fiction, as it has in my life. I continue to torment the issue.”

[photo by Sue Careless]

Composer Bruce Cockburn conducting a song-writing workshop. photo by Sue Careless

Born a Lutheran and now Episcopalian, Mr. Updike believes, “We who hold on to some kind of faith do so only with great struggle. I’m not out of the struggle, but I cannot resign myself to a universe where my life is meaningless, in which there is no real goodness.”

Mr. Updike read from Pigeon Feathers, a short story that employs “the often debunked argument from design” for God. He also read from his essay,”On being a self forever” from his recent collection, Self-consciousness:

“In the light, we disown Him, embarrassedly; in the dark, He is our only guarantor, our only shield against death … The sensation of silence cannot be helped: a loud and evident God would be a bully, an insecure tyrant, an all-crushing datum instead of, as He is, a bottomless encouragement to our faltering and frightened being. His answers come in the long run, as the large facts of our lives, strung on that thread running through all things. Religion includes, as its enemies say, fatalism, an acceptance and consecration of what is.”
“A lot of us were raised to see the truth with the varnish over it, “composer Bruce Cockburn told the festival. “The process of growing as an artist involves digging deeper, getting down to the essence of life. You need myth and formal worship as a way of interfacing with the bigger universe but in the meantime, in the day to day, you have to look to the hard truth that’s central to yourself, that you carry with you.”
“God needs you to tell the truth. God doesn’t need you to put cosmetics on it.” – Bruce Cockburn

Mr. Cockburn gave both a concert and a songwriting workshop. He, too, has been prolific – 23 albums in 30 years. Unlike most composers, he starts with the lyrics; “the music is an afterthought. You put an idea down and let it hang around for a while. You have to be careful not to outthink yourself in the early stages. If you intellectualize too much, you block the process.”

When Mr. Cockburn first publicly acknowledged being a Christian, he “tried to be a fundamentalist. It didn’t really take, partly because my experience was totally different. A few years later my marriage exploded. It’s not something you blame God for, either way. Your life is your life (yet) in some deep way, everything comes from God. It looks fragmented, so you shouldn’t go around saying God makes everything better. He may completely mess it up, for a good reason.”

This year’s festival, the fourth since 1991, included new genres of songwriting, children’s literature and playwriting. The 2000 AD conference, which will accommodate 2,000 registrants, is hoping to attract Chaim Potok, Seamus Heaney, Toni Morrison, Kathleen Norris and P.D. James. Sue Careless is a Toronto freelance writer who attended the Festival of Faith and Writing Conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


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