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I still remember the opening session of the 2002 Festival of Faith & Writing. It featured the poet Stephen Dunn, who just the year before had won the Pulitzer Prize. 

That long ago April noontime came to mind again when I learned that Dunn died last week of Parkinson’s disease.  

Rita Dove, a one-time U.S. poet laureate, observed that Dunn was someone who “achieves that most difficult magic of the ordinary.” And that’s what I remember about him: he was unassuming and wry, charming and deeply thoughtful. That, and the poem that he shaped his talk around, which I share below. It’s a poem that in its utter ordinariness of topic navigates profoundly complicated territory indeed, including the twist of that wonderful final line. See if it doesn’t make you think about your own silently sung songs, your own reckoning with “what’s comic, what’s serious,” your own sense of the stories that have pull in your life. It’s a great poem, I think, one that has stayed with me over twenty years. So I share it, with gratitude, with you today.

At the Smithville Methodist Church
It was supposed to be Arts & Crafts for a week, 
but when she came home 
with the "Jesus Saves" button, we knew what art 
was up, what ancient craft.

She liked her little friends. She liked the songs 
they sang when they weren't 
twisting and folding paper into dolls. 
What could be so bad?

Jesus had been a good man, and putting faith 
in good men was what 
we had to do to stay this side of cynicism, 
that other sadness.

OK, we said, One week. But when she came home 
singing "Jesus loves me, 
the Bible tells me so," it was time to talk. 
Could we say Jesus

doesn't love you? Could I tell her the Bible 
is a great book certain people use 
to make you feel bad? We sent her back 
without a word.

It had been so long since we believed, so long 
since we needed Jesus 
as our nemesis and friend, that we thought he was 
sufficiently dead,

that our children would think of him like Lincoln 
or Thomas Jefferson. 
Soon it became clear to us: you can't teach disbelief 
to a child,

only wonderful stories, and we hadn't a story 
nearly as good. 
On parents' night there were the Arts & Crafts 
all spread out

like appetizers. Then we took our seats 
in the church 
and the children sang a song about the Ark, 
and Hallelujah

and one in which they had to jump up and down 
for Jesus. 
I can't remember ever feeling so uncertain 
about what's comic, what's serious.

Evolution is magical but devoid of heroes. 
You can't say to your child 
"Evolution loves you." The story stinks 
of extinction and nothing

exciting happens for centuries. I didn't have 
a wonderful story for my child 
and she was beaming. All the way home in the car 
she sang the songs,

occasionally standing up for Jesus. 
There was nothing to do 
but drive, ride it out, sing along 
in silence.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? 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 the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids, a city I've come to love. I count myself rich in friends and family. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I used to have a bumper sticker on my car that said: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” I don't have the car anymore, but the sentiment is still true.

9 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Thank you for reminding us of this remarkable poem. A great gift for the morning.

  • Jack Ridl says:

    Had an email from Stephen a bit ago. He wrote only “I have three more weeks.” Thank you for this loving tribute that has more of his biography than his biography.

    My wife Julie is a Navy brat. She understands.

  • Jodi M says:

    So honest and so beautiful. Thank you for this today.

  • William Harris says:

    That is a wonderful poem. Thanks for sharing it.

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    Jennifer, I’m reminded of G. K. Chesterton, who, (in the words of Jon Meacham) described himself as an “ordinary” man when it came to religion. . .”The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of today) free also to believe in them. He has always cared more for truth than for consistency. If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them” (Meacham, AMERICAN GOSPEL, pps 242, 243).
    Even the deist Thomas Jefferson, couldn’t get “Nature’s God” out of his psyche.
    What a sheepish concession by Mr. Dunn to “the exciting [that] happens for centuries.”
    Does anyone know what the world and life view now is of his daughter? Jesus has a way of insinuating Himself to people in 10,000 ways. Jesus. Say the Name. There is no shame.

  • Emily Style says:

    Ah, the everlasting work of story and song. Thank you for sharing this precious poem.

  • Noreen Vander Wal says:

    I, too, was at the Festival presentation of this poem read and discussed by Dunn. It left a real impact on me for many reasons. I used it for several years as a teaching tool to my senior English students. Sad to hear he struggled with Parkinson’s and has now passed.

  • Kathy says:

    I was baptized at six weeks in the RCA church my 94 year old mother still attends. I grew up with songs about Jesus with lots of motions. I sang, “For God so loved the world, he gave his only Son, who died on ‘Calvary Street’ . . . and, other songs with words I heard differently. For me, it was a magical time. I loved singing LOUDLY for Sunday School programs and waving at my parents and grandparents. All that music as a child led me to being a church musician in my Presbyterian Church for 50 years. I would love to find out whatever happened to Dunn’s little girl. Is she still singing? 🎵

  • Henry Baron says:

    So rich – it’s one that stays with us when we read and reread it slowly; so evocative.
    Thanks, Jennifer!

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