Out of Silence, A Poem: Christian Wiman Reads “Every Riven Thing”
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Photo by Pete/Flickr, cc by 2.0
Christian Wiman went almost three years, he says, without writing a poem. For most of us, this may seem inconsequential. For the editor of Poetry magazine and a man who has lived a poet’s life, this is a dramatic act — a shift in perspective brought on by an incurable cancer, hospitalization and surgeries and a bone marrow transplant.
Then, as a series of “dramatic things” happened to him, he broke his years of silence on the page with this poem revolving around “a kind of an Old Testament word meaning broken, sundered, torn apart.” The word? Riven.
In the audio at the top of this article, Christian Wiman explains a bit more about the poem and its shape. And, more importantly, he recites this powerful poem for all of us to hear and to share with others:
God goes, belonging to every riven thing he’s made
sing his being simply by being
the thing it is:
stone and tree and sky,
man who sees and sings and wonders why
God goes. Belonging, to every riven thing he’s made,
means a storm of peace.
Think of the atoms inside the stone.
Think of the man who sits alone
trying to will himself into a stillness where
God goes belonging. To every riven thing he’s made
there is given one shade
shaped exactly to the thing itself:
under the tree a darker tree;
under the man the only man to see
God goes belonging to every riven thing. He’s made
the things that bring him near,
made the mind that makes him go.
A part of what man knows,
apart from what man knows,
God goes belonging to every riven thing he’s made.
To hear more of Christian Wiman and his perspectives on poetry, writing, love, and death, listen to the On Being show “Remembering God.” It’s a powerful hour of radio.
A Better Title for Our Show with Poet Christian Wiman?
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
It took several months, but I was finally able to make the case that Christian Wiman was a voice we needed to put on the air after seeing the strong response to his conversation with Bill Moyers on PBS. He was good; he also seemed nervous, and I wondered if that didn’t have to do with being on television being asked questions by one of America’s best interviewers.
And that’s where the beauty of radio comes in. Rather than setting up a face-to-face interview, we set up an ISDN line — an extremely high-quality telephone line that captures the intimate aspects of a person’s voice — with Krista in a studio in St. Paul, Minnesota and Wiman in a studio in Chicago, Illinois. Methinks you’ll hear a somewhat different Christian Wiman that will add to the sum of your life.
That said, I’m not too wild about the title of this show though: "Remembering God." It doesn’t do the interview justice or capture what’s relatable for many listeners out there: being raised in a faith rooted in family and culture, losing that devotion and belief in a greater Being, and returning to some type of belief that perhaps is more mature but less intense.
If you get a chance, take a listen and tell me what you might have titled it. There’s no doubt we will rebroadcast this show, and I’d be more than glad to shepherd your suggestions so we can make way for a better title!
From Outside Faith and Within, Being Religious Is Being Transformed
by Krista Tippett, host
Recently I spoke to a class of college students — by way of Skype — in southern Minnesota. We talked about how religion is portrayed through news media. As often in my experience, this was a critical discussion about the narrow and often inflammatory way religion comes up, and usually in the context of politics.
I asked them if they felt at all represented in media portrayals, or how they might. One young man in the back of the classroom said, “I don’t think there is any real expression of what it means to be religious now. It’s different.”
He’s right. I think about this all the time. There has been a dramatic break with ways of being spiritual and religious that held, in the West, for many generations.
Before I created this radio show, I spent two years interviewing people across the Christian Church — from Armenian Orthodox to Nazarene Holiness — who had in some way been involved in the ecumenical movement that surged after World War II and through the 1960s. Sitting with them, probing their memories, I relived the absolute shock and thrill of first encounters between Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. This felt unprecedented, impossible, and utterly liberating. It’s not just that faith looked new; the whole world looked full of possibility and kinship that had not been there before.
Rigid, rule-bound ways of being religious — of being identified not merely by the same denomination but perhaps the very same church or synagogue your parents and grandparents attended before you — have transformed in a handful of generations.
Strong religious identities survive and thrive. But more than ever before, even in their most conservative iterations, they are chosen. And alongside them is a world of flux and questioning — a new phenomenon of people who have been raised with more questions than answers, more choices than givens. They are not abandoning religion, though, or revealing it as something primitive that modernity has outgrown (as intellectuals since the Enlightenment have predicted they would). They are rediscovering and reinventing it.
I did not realize, before I spoke with Christian Wiman, how provocatively and profoundly he has become a poetic witness and voice for this change. He grew up in a West Texas world soaked in a particular charismatic Christianity. When he left that world behind, its religious core ceased to make sense.
For many people who were never religious or who leave the religion of their childhoods behind, it’s the experience of having children of their own that brings an urgency to the question of what they believe. For Christian Wiman, it was the experience of love — of falling deeply in love with the woman who would become his wife. Because he is a poet, perhaps, he became wonderfully articulate about the power of love to make life more vivid, to make us reach for the best in ourselves, to feel we have touched transcendence and to want to rise to that experience. And then, hard on the heels of that, he was diagnosed with a mysterious blood cancer that could kill him in 30 days or 30 years.
Christian Wiman believes that a whole new religious language is being created. It will include traditional religious insights and language, but will also reach beyond them — or better approximate the animating essence of them. He even imagines “that God calls some people to unbelief in order that faith can take new forms.”
From outside faith and within it, Christian Wiman has pondered this question: “How does one remember God, reach for God, realize God in the midst of one’s life if one is constantly being overwhelmed by that life?” You don’t need to be diagnosed with cancer these days to share in that question.
This conversation, "Remembering God," about what he has learned about faith, and how he is living his questions, is rich with humility, challenge, and an infectious courage.
A Tight Focus on the Spiritual Side of Transitioning
The documentary Rites of Passage by Jeff Roy follows a 42-year-old practicing Muslim and Indian transgender to Bangkok for gender reassignment surgery and puts her Islamic faith and ethnic identity at the center of the journey.
by Emily Frost, guest contributor
When Jeff Roy first met Maya Jafer in Los Angeles, he had prepared a long list of questions. But he barely got in one; Jafer had finally found someone with whom she could share her story.
Ms. Jafer, a 42-year-old transgender woman and a practicing Muslim from India, spent the next hours detailing a cultural and religious background that never accepted her and describes a personal journey full of upheaval. Mr. Roy, who had never made a film, decided Jafer’s story needed to be told.
Rites of Passage is all about the journey. The metaphor is central to the documentary. Before the film begins, Ms. Jafer has been on an internal voyage during two years of hormonal and psychological therapy. In the opening scene, she is moving again.
Without any explanation, the viewer is thrust into an airport in Thailand, the only place where she can afford gender reassignment surgery. The harsh lighting and close-up shots make it feel as though we, too, have been on the impossibly long flight from Los Angeles. The director favors immediacy and honesty above all else, shooting with a cinéma vérité style.
Ms. Jafer rarely needs prodding to open up. She views the camera as a chance to share wry and self-deprecating commentary. As she and a friend of the director’s, whom she just met, taxi to a nighttime shopping area, she discusses a sexual massage. There’s lightness in how she addresses this stranger as she tells him “she hasn’t had sex in two years,” but, after the surgery, men will be all over her. She’s basking in the liberation of her decision. There’s no turning back.
The film benefits from its tight focus on Ms. Jafer. These opening confessions hook the viewer. And lest the audience think the trip will be all light-hearted quips and high jinx, Mr. Roy cuts to the heart of the matter, inserting a climatic scene early in the film.
Riding in a taxi through congested streets, Ms. Jafer speaks directly to the camera: “I have no one to talk to at all,” she cries, “all I have is God.” This may be the most intense period of her life, a turbulent mix of dread and anticipation. Though Mr. Roy is filming, he’s beyond her reach. Jafer is alone.
Here’s where Mr. Roy’s film strikes out on an independent path. Other American documentaries have focused on the enormity of transitioning from male to female or vice versa. They delve deep into the physical and social side of the transition. But what about the spiritual side? The tendency is to think of transgender or transsexual people as progressive and, by extension, secular. But Mr. Roy puts religion and ethnic identity at the heart of Ms. Jafer’s journey.
In the taxi, she begins to pray. The prayer has a soothing power, but Ms. Jafer’s trembling voice bespeaks the fear and anxiety washing over her.
Prayer and her faith are the only connections she still shares with her Indian and ultra-orthodox Muslim family. Her father is devout, and was also abusive. As a child she was awoken early in the morning, beaten, and ordered to pray. “How would you find love for God in that way?” she asks, sweeping tears from her face, trying to preserve her black eyeliner and mascara. It took Ms. Jafer many years to create her own relationship with God, separate from what she knew as a child. Here, again, the director lets the camera roll, and the uninterrupted scenes of Ms. Jafer struggling to regain composure don’t seem out of place with the “along for the ride” quality of the film.
Early on, the film establishes the stakes are high. “If it were not for God and spirituality, I would not be alive today,” Ms. Jafer says, pressing the palm of her hand to her forehead, her yellow headscarf slipping slightly. There was a time when she realized her choice was transitioning or suicide.
God plays a huge part in her decision to live — and to transition. Ms. Jafer pushes aside the temptation to curse God for giving her the wrong physical body. As the taxi pushes forward, she works through her distress, the camera tight on her face, knotted with tension.
The film is intentionally short. Mr. Roy trimmed the fat so moments like those in the taxi stand out, but it’s hard not to wish to see more of Ms. Jafer getting from point A to point B in Bangkok. In a later scene, she sits with a group of Thai men, sipping her first ever glass of wine and eating a bowl of long, steamy noodles. How did she get there and who are these men? They barely seem to know each other.
Back at the hotel, the film shows Ms. Jafer dancing in the dark, losing herself to trance music. She drapes herself across the couch, rises, and spins around her long, black wavy hair. Mr. Roy illustrates her moment of release — a respite from her direct confessional approach to the camera.
After the wine and the dancing, the film moves back to reality. Ms. Jafer, brow furrowed, consults graphic anatomical photos as a Thai doctor describes how the surgery works. The filmmaker’s choice not to interview doctors or nurses helps capture Ms. Jafer’s disorientation, as does his quick and choppy editing style.
Mr. Roy stays in raw mode in the next montage. Ms. Jafer has her photo taken and is shown nude from the waist up, her new breasts exposed. Her red toenail polish is removed, her genitals are shaved, and her playfulness is gone. She’s wearing a blue hospital shower cap and murmuring prayers, prone on a gurney and quietly weeping.
The film closes as it began, with movement — and with the audience thrown into the middle of things. It feels like a suspense movie. Kudos to Jeff Roy for transforming what could have been a very talky documentary into a film full of action. In the final shots, the camera angle is low, the world seen through Ms. Jafer’s eyes — the neon lights glaring down, the anonymous Thai nurses moving efficiently — and then the doors of the operating room swing shut.
"Rites of Passage" screens at the Palm Beach International Film Festival on April 15 and at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival on April 21 and 26. The full version, “Mohammed to Maya,” will connect with Jafer after the operation and will premiere in Mumbai at the Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival from May 23–27. A special preview screening of “Mohammed to Maya” will be held on May 1st at Metropolitan Community Church in Los Angeles, with a question and answer session with Jeff Roy and Maya Jafer.
Emily Frost is a radio reporter and online journalist. She is an Annenberg Fellow at USC’s Annenberg Graduate School for Journalism and an executive producer and host at Annenberg Radio News.
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the On Being Blog. Submit your entry through ourFirst Person Outreach page.
Confessions on Life, Death and God (video)
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
This PostSecret video is imbued with a lot of light-hearted moments, but there are two people who tell stories that touched me deeply. Those are the takeaways that I’ll sit with and remember in the most unexpected moments. What are those two for you?
Bill Moyers Interview with Christian Wiman on Poetry, Love, Faith, and Cancer
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
For several months, we’d been batting around the idea of interviewing Christian Wiman. We knew of his poetry and had read Every Riven Thing, his latest book of poems. And I was incredibly interested in his successful approach to reviving Poetry magazine as its editor.
But, it wasn’t until I was watching Bill Moyers’ interview with Wiman one Friday night though — and the ensuing response online — that I pushed him to the top of our list. Gratefully, he accepted our invitation and our host Krista Tippett took him even deeper into his ideas about religion and God, death and the ineptitude of poetic language romanticizing it, and how poetry can become a “false idol.”
We’ll release our show with Christian Wiman, "Remembering God," on this Thursday, April 12th — first on podcast and then on public radio stations throughout the week. Until then, watch this marvelous interview.
I found in the woods in Maryland a wildflower, the bloodroot flower. It blooms very early in the spring, around the time of Lent and Easter, depending on when Easter falls. The reason why it’s called the bloodroot is because the root itself, if you press it, you break it, you’ll get a red dye that can be used as a dye. But the bloom itself only lasts a day. But it comes out of the sepulcher of the earth. And what it leaves is these heart-shaped leaves. And that is a microcosm of resurrection for me.
I have a wild imagination. You know, I mean, I’ve described the stakes in my vegetable garden in the wintertime as crosses on which bodies are draped, you know. I don’t mean that in a gory sense. The geese in the sky remind me of the crosses that pilgrims have carved into ancient Christian sites. I think there are signs of the cross all over creation. How do you account for that? Well, clearly, we’ve forgotten, we’ve forgotten paradise, we forget God. And that’s why I think we have scripture to remind us.
—Vigen Guroian, from his interview with Krista Tippett in On Being's "Restoring the Senses: Gardening and an Orthodox Easter"
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
You know, at one time I worked for the World Council of Churches and we were based in London. I came from Africa. There was someone from Taiwan. There was someone from Malaysia, someone from the States, and then someone from Latin America, and he introduced me to Latin American liberation theology. And I came to visit for the first time in the United States and here encountered black theology. So all of that was a very significant part of what helped to open my eyes. Mercifully, there isn’t anything like the so-called self-made person.
I mean, they are people who helped to form me. And then discovering that the Bible could be such dynamite. I subsequently used to say if these white people had intended keeping us under they shouldn’t have given us the Bible. Because, whoa, I mean, it’s almost as if it is written specifically just for your situation. I mean, the many parts of it that were so germane, so utterly to the point for us…
When you discover that apartheid sought to mislead people into believing that what gave value to human beings was a biological irrelevance, really, skin color or ethnicity, and you saw how the scriptures say it is because we are created in the image of God, that each one of us is a God-carrier. No matter what our circumstances may be, no matter how awful, no matter how deprived you could be, it doesn’t take away from you this intrinsic worth. One saw just how significant it was.
Theodicy Defined: The Power of God and the Problem of Evil
by Susan Leem, associate producer
Tethered between stone and sky. (photo: Enrico Marongiu/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
This week’s show has a theological term in its title that sounds obscure, even impenetrable: "Monsters We Love: TV’s Pop Culture Theodicy." Depending on your view of an omnipotent God, it could be both. ”Theodicy” attempts to answer ancient questions like, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” and “If God is good, why does evil exist?”
The television shows mentioned in “Monsters We Love” are filled with “amoral zombies” and “loving vampires” and “righteous serial killers," as Krista Tippett puts it. At the core of this theodicy is the question of what makes "good" people different from characters we can register instantly as "evil."
The Greek philosopher Epicurus came up with his own twist on the problem of evil, the “Epicurean Paradox”:
“Is God willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence, then, evil.”
Merriam-Webster describes theodicy as a “defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil.” And on the free will of human beings, one explanation of free will theodicy suggests that God values good choices from humans only if we have the free will to make them. This leaves the possibility for a misuse of free will, and evil choices. For St. Augustine, evil results from the failure of humans to exercise moral responsibility, not God.
What is it about watching the moral failing of others that draws millions of viewers to these TV shows? Maybe it has nothing to do with their final choices or even their failings. For me, it’s empathy for seeing someone else struggle between choices of good and evil in situations where it’s not clear to me how free their will actually is.
Centenarian Woman Thanks God and Deputies Who Defied Court Order to Evict
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
"I knew that they know what they were doing. God don’t let them do wrong."
Here’s one of those feel-good stories that makes you smile for human decency and feel a little bit sad knowing that this act of kindness may be an exception. On Tuesday, WSB Channel 2 in Atlanta reported that Vinia Hall, a 103-year-old woman, and her 83-year-old daughter were about to be evicted from her home when deputies of the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office and hired movers defied a court order to evict the two from their foreclosed home in northwest Atlanta.
For the purposes of this project, take note of the strong expressions of faith in God “making it right” and citations of the Bible, by Ms. Hall and also by a neighbor and community activist too.