Jan 21, 2004
Festival of Faith & Writing
When the 2004 Festival of Faith & Writing at Calvin College takes place April 22-24 some 1,700 registrants from across the country will gather to hear over 100 speakers.
What brings them to Grand Rapids?
Festival director and professor of English Dale Brown says part of the appeal lies in Calvin's willingness to bring together readers and writers not necesarily interested in easy answers. He points to author Thomas Lynch as an illustration of what Calvin's philosophy for the Festival is and has been since the event began in 1990.
Lynch lives in Milford, Michigan, near Detroit, and there he has been a funeral director since 1974. His writing has been praised for its insights into death and what the living can learn from the dead. In one of his essays he says simply: "The meaning of life is connected, inextricably, to the meaning of death." He calls mourning a romance in reverse, adding that "if you love, you grieve and there are no exceptions."
In addition his work is infused with faith. His Catholicism, he says, remains a basic reference point. He has, in fact, described himself as a devoutly lapsed Catholic because he has so many questions. "But," he adds, "the questions wouldn't even form unless I'd been given this language of Catholicism, which is an advantage."
Lynch's willingness to struggle with life's big questions, from a wellsping of faith, says Brown, makes him a perfect fit for the Festival.
"We're interested," Brown says, "in writers who show respect for and understanding of a faith tradition. Some of the writers 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."
In Lynch, Calvin has that in spades. But it also has a prolific and well-reviewed author who began publishing poetry in the 1980s and since has seen his work appear in The New Yorker, Harper's, The Paris Review, The New York Times and The Irish Times. He is the author of three collections of poetry - "Skating with Heather Grace," "Grimalkin & Other Poems" and "Still Life in Milford" - as well as two collections of essays - "The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade" and "Bodies in Motion and at Rest: On Metaphor and Mortality."
It's important, say Festival organizers, to aim high in bringing writers to campus, to seek not just writers writing from a wellsping of faith, but to find those writers who also are doing excellent work.
That perspective, says Brown, makes the Festival a breath of fresh air for many attendees. He believes it's one of the reasons the Festival has grown so big since its humble beginnings in 1990 when it drew 120 registrants to hear 11 speakers.
"Much of what is called Christian literature," says Brown, "leaves us where we are. Our goal for writers we bring to the Festival is to find people who do not do that."
The 2004 version of Festival - slated for April 22-24 - is being called "Something Old, Something New" and Calvin plans to marry venerable traditions to some energizing innovations. "We're going to keep doing the things we know that work well," says Brown, "but then, each time, we also try some new things."
Festival 2004 will feature its familiar book signings, poetry readings, and musical and dramatic performances. Publishers will be on hand, as always, displaying their wares. And as customary, the 2004 Festival's top-billed authors - Frederick Buechner, Joyce Carol Oates, Katherine Paterson, Bret Lott, Barbara Brown Taylor, Doug Coupland and Leif Enger - will speak at large plenary sessions.
Both Buechner and Paterson are making return appearances to the Calvin campus. Buechner began writing full time in 1967 and since has published more than 30 books of fiction and non-fiction. Among his honors are a Pulitzer Prize nomination and a National Book Award nomination. Paterson is the author of numerous picture books and novels for children and young adults, two of which have won the prestigious Newbery Medal.
Joyce Carol Oates is one of the most prolific contemporary American writers, having published more than 70 books with two nominations for the Nobel Prize in Literature, a Guggenheim Fellowship and a National Book Award. Barbara Brown Taylor was an Episcopal priest named by Baylor University as among the 12 most effective preachers in the English language and now is a professor at Piedmont College and author of a variety of books on faith and religion. Douglas Coupland first worked as a sculptor and journalist and in 1988 expanded an article for Vancouver Magazine into his debut novel, Generation X, which is credited with defining a generation.
A new feature at the Festival this year will be a storytelling track - three storytellers will spin their yarns on three consecutive days. A writing contest, sponsored by Paraclete Press, is another addition to the schedule. The Paraclete Fiction Contest will publish one novel with Christian themes by an author as yet unpublished by a major house. The winner, who will also receive $2,000 in advance royalties, will be announced at the Festival. Festival organizers are already enjoying the rewards of one Festival innovation, online registration, which has been enthusiastically received by Festival constituents. About 75% of 2004 registrants to date have registered online. And people whose work prevents them from attending all three days of the festival will be able to purchase tickets for the weekend and evening plenary sessions.