Book Review: My Bright Abyss

Contributor: Brenda Funk

Our first guest post is from Brenda Funk. Brenda writes from southern Manitoba, has a keen interest in subjects that challenge and produce growth in her spiritual journey, and has provided a reading recommendation for Prairie Thistle followers. Check it out!

Deciding which of my many favourite books to review was very difficult. Early on in this journey, we were privileged to take in ‘Viewpoints’ with Corey Herlevson at Steinbach Bible College, a book club in which we read one book a month, and met to discuss. Here I met many of the authors I love. We also were part of ‘Take and Read’ with Paul Doerksen at Canadian Mennonite University (the irony being he was formerly one of our youth group at a church we attended). Again, this was a book club where I was introduced to many transformative writers.

I decided to choose My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman to recommend to Prairie Thistle readers because it is a reflection on how a faith can change as we go through life, and indeed that it must, if we are honestly and truly wrestling with it. And though it can change radically, that does not mean faith becomes ‘less’.

Christian Wiman writes this book at a crucial and difficult time in his own life. He has been given a terminal cancer diagnosis, as he examines his life and searches for meaning. After many years of pursuing the intellectual life, he has neglected his faith, but the urgency of his situation makes him look hard at the faith he used to have, and to examine whether he can go back to it. He writes:

In fact, there is no way to “return to the faith of your childhood,” not really, unless you’ve just woken from a decades-long and absolutely literal coma. Faith is not some half-remembered country into which you come like a long-exiled king, dispensing the old wisdom, casting out the radical, insurrectionist aspects of yourself by which you’d been betrayed. No. Life is not an error, even when it is. That is to say, whatever faith you emerge with at the end of your life is going to be not simply affected by that life but intimately dependent upon it, for faith in God is, in the deepest sense, faith in life–which means that even the staunchest life of faith is a life of great change. It follows that if you believe at fifty what you believed at fifteen, then you have not lived–or have denied the reality of your life.

Christian Wiman

The above quote makes so much sense to me. If indeed your faith does not change as you go through life, is it faith at all? And yet, life happens to us all, and still I see people who seem to wear blinkers, whose faith does not seem to change one iota no matter what life throws at them. But the people who interest me are the ones whose faith does change, who become wise, who are not threatened by any doubts or questions, who are open to everything life brings in a way that makes them unsure of anything, and at the same time so sure that God is their rock even though they no longer know exactly what ‘truth’ is.

The author is deeply honest and sincere in this collection of essays, part memoir, part meditation. Reading it makes you realize that you are indeed not alone in your struggle to reconcile faith with life as it unfolds, and how to make sense of it all.

This is a book that must be read slowly, a bit at a time, in order to properly absorb what is written. Don’t read it in one sitting, or if you do, make sure to go back and re-read more slowly.

And of course, the ‘right’ book at the ‘right’ time in your life is important. You need to find one that is where you are right now, that resonates with your experience.

Because the author is a poet, it is so beautifully written and put together. Let me leave you with a few more quotes from the book to reflect on. Consider picking up a copy today!

“Sometimes God calls a person to unbelief in order that faith may take new forms.”

“It is easy enough to write and talk about God while remaining comfortable within the contemporary intellectual climate. Even people who would call themselves unbelievers often use the word gesturally, as a ready-made synonym for mystery. But if nature abhors a vacuum, Christ abhors a vagueness. If God is love, Christ is love for this one person, this one place, this one time-bound and time-ravaged self.”

“The spiritual efficacy of all encounters is determined by the amount of personal ego that is in play. If two people meet and disagree fiercely about theological matters but agree, silently or otherwise, that God’s love creates and sustains human love, and that whatever else may be said of God is subsidiary to this truth, then even out of what seems great friction there may emerge a peace that—though it may not end the dispute, though neither party may be “convinced” of the other’s position—nevertheless enters and nourishes one’s notion of, and relationship with, God. Without this radical openness, all arguments about God are not simply pointless but pernicious, for each person is in thrall to some lesser conception of ultimate truth and asserts not love but a lesson, not God but himself.”

“Behind every urge to interpret is unease, anxiety.”

“It is why every single expression of faith is provisional—because life carries us always forward to a place where the faith we’d fought so hard to articulate to ourselves must now be reformulated, and because faith in God is, finally, faith in change.”

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