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Robinson, Rushdie and Wangerin
updated November 2, 2005

The lineup of keynote speakers is taking shape for the 2006 Festival of Faith & Writing at Calvin College, to be held April 20-22, 2006.

Among those slated to speak are Marilynne Robinson, Salman Rushdie and Walter Wangerin Jr. They join a long list of past notable keynoters at the Festival, including John Updike, Maya Angelou, Chaim Potok and Joyce Carol Oates.

Robinson wrote in 1981 the Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel Housekeeping, now regarded by many critics as an American classic. Almost a quarter of a century later she wrote her second novel, Gilead, which did win a Pulitzer Prize (the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction). Said USA TOday: "Gilead is written in the form of a letter the Rev. John Ames, in failing health, is writing to his 6-year-old son in 1956. It deals with the minister's life and the lives of his father and grandfather, both of them preachers. One is a pacifist, the other is a gun-toting abolitionist."

Wangerin is the well-known author of over 30 books of fiction and nonfiction, including the award-winning Book of the Dun Cow (National Book Award), The Book of God, Preparing for Jesus and Saint Julian.

Yet perhaps the most visible of the 2006 keynote speakers will be Rushdie. Also an award-winning author, Rushdie, 58, will be the first keynoter whose faith background is Islam (and also the first to have been the subject of a fatwa!).

His name became a household word in the late 1980s when he published "The Satanic Verses," inspired in part by the life of Muhammad. Many Muslims considered it to contain blasphemous references, and soon it began to be banned, first in India, then South Africa, followed by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and a host of others.

Then on Valentine's Day 1989 Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran, issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, calling for the death of Rushdie. Khomeini called the book "blasphemous against Islam" and condemned Rushdie for the crime of "apostasy" - attempting to abandon the Islamic faith.

That sent Rushdie, a native of India, into years of hiding, but in 1998 the fatwa was lifted, and in the ensuing seven years Rushdie's life has returned to some sort of normalcy.

In fact he has just published his latest novel, "Shalimar the Clown," to good reviews (the book imagines what is inside the minds of jihadists).

In a recent interview with Rushdie about the new book, TIME Magazine called him one of the world's greatest living writers.

DunnCalvin's Shelly LeMahieu Dunn (right) is the new director of the Festival of Faith & Writing (taking over for longtime director and professor of English Dale Brown).

She says that Rushdie will add an interesting perspective to the Festival.

"In Salman Rushdie we will host a writer who grew up in a religious tradition different from ours," she says, "and yet his personal perspective on the dangers of and reasons behind extremism, not only in Islam but in other religions as well, is something that people of faith should hear."

Indeed, in a recent op-ed piece in the Washington Post, Rushdie, who lived in Britain during much of his time in exile, addressed this summer's British suicide bombers and suggested where things were going wrong and where corrections needed to be made.

"The deeper alienations that lead to terrorism may have their roots in these young men's objections to events in Iraq or elsewhere," he wrote, "but the closed communities of some traditional Western Muslims are places in which young men's alienations can easily deepen. What is needed is a move beyond tradition -- nothing less than a reform movement to bring the core concepts of Islam into the modern age, a Muslim Reformation to combat not only the jihadist ideologues but also the dusty, stifling seminaries of the traditionalists, throwing open the windows to let in much-needed fresh air."

"Rushdie reminds us that violence can be religiously motivated," says LeMahieu Dunn. "This is certainly an issue that people of faith cannot and should not ignore."

Calvin professor of English Susan Felch adds that issues of belief and disbelief saturate Rushdie's writing.

"These come," she says, "both from the geography of his childhood - he was raised in the Indian Muslim community - and from his own encounters with faith as an adult. In particular, he struggles with the question of whether religion - faith in its institutional guise - can ever be as humane as belief - faith in its personal guise."

The 2006 Festival of Faith & Writing will bring together more than 50 writers and some 2,000 conference participants from around the continent who gather for three days to soak in the Festival's wealth of keynote addresses, seminars, workshops and more.

In addition to Robinson, Rushdie and Wangerin, the 2006 Festival will feature many other notable writers, including fiction and non-fiction writers, journalists and songwriters as well as a variety of representatives from the publishing world.

Says LeMahieu Dunn: "The Festival of Faith and Writing began as an exploration of the communities made and served by religious writing. Over the years, it has become a community itself - a gathering of authors, publishers, readers and academics who come together for three days of conversation and celebration."