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The Darkling Precipice

As long as I have been in the field of English, the humanities have been in “crisis.”  (I’m not going to rehash that whole history here: google “crisis in the humanities,” and you get over 11 million hits).  But even a cursory reading of the history of the academy will show that it has basically always been thus.  Generation after generation has struggled to articulate the value of the liberal arts, has grappled with justifying the study of anything other than the purely practical.  And, of course, I don’t see that changing any time soon.  

I actually think faith-based colleges have a better shot than other institutions at answering the question—why the liberal arts—not only because they have a richer sense of vocation (so that a calling to any academic discipline, for example, is a holy calling), but also because of the theological perspective they hold about the nature of the world.  For me, C.S. Lewis in his marvelous “Learning in War-Time” (written during WW2) makes that point beautifully:

The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life.” Life has never been normal.

In other words, the fundamental brokenness of the world is no impediment to discovering beauty.  The danger of life on a precipice does not negate, for Lewis, the search for wisdom.  And Lewis rejects the notion that the only valuable work lies on the battlefield. We are perpetually, as Matthew Arnold, observed on a “darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/Where ignorant armies clash by night.”  And yet. 

And yet. 

I must admit here that this was not to have been my topic this week.  I had been walking around mulling several subjects for this week’s blog when I was asked, as I often am, what I recommended for reading this summer.  As an English professor, that’s a pretty standard question for me.  But when I am asked, I feel somewhat of the same burden as when students ask “should I major in English.”  Ultimately, the question is not “what shall we read,” but “why.”

I’d like to provide an illustration, rather than an answer.  One of the reasons I think we have a “crisis” in the humanities is because we have so little exposure to literature, especially poetry, in our culture.  We’ve convinced ourselves that unlike our grandparents (mine knew lines and lines and lines of poetry) that it is somehow not relevant—too difficult, too esoteric.

So, I want to offer you a favorite poem of mine.  By Christian Wiman, the poem features a title word taken from a good Old Norse word meaning torn asunder, ripped apart.  Terribly broken. Wiman’s poem is a work of technical brilliance (notice how he plays with the same phrase over and again, reinventing it each time) and deep spiritual insight.  I believe it gives the reader, in the words of Henry Zylstra, “more to be Christian with.”  Most importantly, it reminds me that, though we travel on the edge of a precipice, we do not travel alone.  In the words of Dame Julian, “all shall be well.”


“Every Riven Thing”

by Christian Wiman

            (you can hear Wiman read his poem here)

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.


From the book Every Riven Thing by Christian Wiman. Copyright © 2010 by Christian Wiman. 

Jennifer L. Holberg

I am professor and chair of the Calvin University English department, where I have taught a range of courses in literature and composition since 1998. An Army brat, I have come to love my adopted hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m also the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture. My book, Nourishing Narratives: The Power of Story to Shape Our Faith, was published in July 2023 by Intervarsity Press.

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