212: Conversation With Dale Brown on Buechner and writing from the spirit

uilding faithful communities in this new century -– with so much changing all around our world — depends on people making spiritual connections.
    That’s people –- people like you and me –- taking the time to connect a friend with something helpful and inspiring that we’ve found in our daily lives. And, that’s what makes Dale Brown’s career so important. As a teacher –- a professor of English at Calvin College for many years –- he wanted to do more to encourage spiritual connections around the world. So, he threw enormous energy into building up what has become a nationally recognized Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin.
    Before he left Calvin in 2007, writers like Garrison Keillor, Annie Dillard and Frederick Buechner all made pilgrimages to Dale’s annual connection point in the Midwest.
    Dale became such an important connector around spirituality in literature that he began producing books based on his conversations with writers –- and specifically about his work with Buechner. We’ve already recommended his “Book of Buechner.” And, today, we’re adding a recommendation for Dale’s latest book, “Conversations with American Writers: The Doubt, the Faith, the In-Between.
    He’s now the founding director of the Founding Director of the Buechner Institute at King College, which he established in 2007.
    (Remember: We’ve got helpful links at the end of today’s story. Or, click on any book cover to jump to our Amazon store where we offer further reviews and you can purchase copies at Amazon’s regularly discounted rates. And, buying through our Web site helps to support our project.)
    In today’s Conversation With Dale Brown, we turn the tables at least 90 degrees. Normally, he is the interviewer, talking with writers. Today, we’ve invited Dale into a conversation about his many years in collecting –- and connecting -– with some of America’s great spiritual writers.

ere are highlights of our conversation:
    DAVID: Dale, first of all, let’s get this straight for our readers. You’re not the Dale Brown who writes the military thrillers.
    DALE: (laughs) No! I get asked that when I’m speaking. Sometimes, people even come up and ask me to sign one of the other Dale Miller’s books — and sometimes I go ahead and just sign it. (laughs again)
    DAVID: Explain what you’re doing now with the new Buechner center at King College.
    DALE: I’m now at King College, a small school in the Presbyterian tradition in the Appalachians right on the Virginia-Tennessee border in the mountains. It’s a very good place and we feel very comfortable here. We’re trying to build up this new institute, raise funds for it, develop programs, build up a series of speakers –- and I have a lot of freedom here to invite a whole range of people down to speak and teach and work at the center.
    I’ve got a great national advisory board. People like Kathleen Norris, Phil Gulley, Carrie Newcomer, Brian McLaren, Will Willimon, Phil Yancey, Barbara Brown Taylor.
    DAVID: And Buechner’s name is a key part of this. You’re one of the leading Buechner scholars –- certainly, you’ve done the most significant book on his life and works. But, more than that, there’s something about the spirit of his work that’s a guiding light there.
    DALE: Yes, his voice is not one that speaks shrilly about religious issues, but he has found a way to talk about faith without being shrilly sectarian on the one hand or secular on the other. It’s an interesting position between the worlds — and there are a lot of people who respond to that.

    DAVID: He’s got another great new book just out from Westminster John Knox Press. Somehow its release flew under the radar screens most places. I haven’t seen it on bookstore “new releases” tables, for instance, but it’s out there — and Buechner fans definitely are going to want it, called “Yellow Leaves.”
    DALE: That book has had an interesting publishing history. Harper’s has been pretty good in keeping his titles in print, but they didn’t choose to do this one. He has a very loyal but relatively small audience in terms of the way these publishing lists are considered these days. It may be the same 30,000 people who buy all of his books. I don’t know –- but it’s a very loyal audience of people who have followed him throughout his life.
    He turned 82 last week and it’s been hard for him these last few years to develop new things.
    DAVID: I’ve kept in touch with him from time to time, too, over the years -– and I know he’s started and stopped on a lot of projects. He told me he will start a book and then discover that really he’s rewriting a past book.
    DALE: Yes, there are just stacks and stacks of incomplete manuscripts. Wheaton College has his collection of papers –- and there are lots of starts and stops.
    DAVID: But what a career! He is one of the great, serious literary talents -– respected in prestigious places like the New York Times Review of Books –- who just fearlessly went out there and explored spiritual life and asked incredibly tough questions. I still find him one of the most reassuring writers out there about the power of faith to unite us, to unite all our stories. I think he’s an amazing writer and a model for serious writers like the people you’re featuring in your new book –- writers like Ron Hansen. I think Hansen’s most popular book at the moment probably is “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” because of the movie with Brad Pitt. But I think one could argue that, without a Frederick Buechner, it would be tougher for there to be a Ron Hansen.

    DALE: I like Ron a lot. He’s coming here to our center to do the Buechner lecture in 2010. I really like his new book, “Exiles,” on Gerard Manley Hopkins. It’s very powerful. He has incredible integrity as a writer. He only seeks a publishing deal for his books after he’s finished them. He doesn’t sign a contract until after the book is ready to send out there. He also doesn’t shy away from the label Catholic writer or Christian writer — he likes that idea. I think his books like “Atticus” or “Mariette in Ecstasy” are beneath the radar for a lot of readers. I hope a lot more people find their way to his books.
    DAVID: It’s perhaps a cliché to say, but he’s really a writer’s writer. When I’m asking other writers who they read -– I hear Hansen’s name.
    DALE: Yes. I’d call him a writer’s writer.
    DAVID: This is a good place to raise the central question of your new collection of interviews. You raise this in your introduction to the book and I think I’d summarize the question this way: Do novelists and poets preach? You argue that they do preach in powerful ways.
    But we’re talking here about two forms of reflection, really. At ReadTheSpirit, we talk about religion as a revelation to be accepted -– while spirituality is the other strand in the double helix of faith -– a quest to be pursued. And most great faiths involve both strands: Islam has the hajj as well as the Quran, for example.
    Reading your reflections on writers and faith, I think you’re saying: Pastors tend to want to preach the revelation –- while writers call us back to the spiritual quest -– to looking for that pilgrimage that runs through our daily lives. Does that make sense?
    DALE: Yes, I think it does. Those are not the same terms I use in talking about these issues, but yes this makes sense to me.
    I’m interested in writers who start with the statement: I don’t know. And who invite us to explore with them.
    DAVID: Yeah, we use a little different terminology, but we’re on the same track here, I think. And this is why within our online magazine -– and within your programs over the years and even in this new collection of interviews you’ve just published -– you’re as interested in statements about doubt and even rejection of faith as you are about religious affirmations.

    DALE: There’s a lot to be learned from all of these voices. What worries me about the Christian subculture is that there’s this narrowing of vision where people only talk to each other –- or read each other’s books –- and this can leave out even writers like Buechner.
    DAVID: I went on an evangelical reading binge this spring and read a whole lot of the new evangelical books. I liked a number of them and we’ve recommended them -– even featured interviews with the authors. But a lot of those books get into trouble when they try to talk about the larger world. It turns out that a lot of evangelical writers don’t know much about the world beyond their denominations.
    DALE: It is a problem. A lot of writers in the Christian subculture are terrible simplifiers. If you only read those writers, then you’re not left with much. That’s why I’m interested in writers who explore doubt.
    Years ago, I read a line that I think describes this: Writers who explore doubt “give us something more to be faithful with.”
    DAVID: I agree with you. And this is a tough time to be a preacher. You point that out in your book.
    DALE: It is a tough time for preaching. Preaching today even from a pulpit is very difficult. We just don’t have the patience anymore to sit and listen to someone preach at us like we once had.
    DAVID: I like this line from your introduction: “The word preach is an anachronism these days. Nobody wants to be preached at. Preachers who pound podiums, like parents who point fingers, have gotten bad press, and an artist who preaches is in suspicious company. Frederick Buechner says that ordination was a terrible career move.”
    But what you offer people in your book is an insight into how deeply these writers can invite us into their spiritual journeys. Here’s a passage from your interview with the novelist Ernest Gaines, who talks about his spiritual and literary connection with specific places in the South. I love this passage. Gaines says to you: “I was baptized as a Baptist, baptized in the same river that I write about, the same river where we’d fish and wash our clothes. We washed our souls in that same river.”
    I could feast on a handful of words like that all week.

    DALE: A sense of place is so powerful. This has been talked about in the work of southern writers particularly from Faulkner onward -– writing out of their sense of place. And, yet, there’s something transcendent about this experience, because readers discover their books in places all over the world and love them.
    What’s fascinating to me about Ernie Gaines work is that he moved to San Francisco when he was 12 or 13 years old and yet when he started writing books, he always goes back to the South. He always returns to this vivid sense of place.
    I understand some of that. I grew up in Anderson, Indiana, right up by Indianapolis. I remember that place and this culture of words I grew up in so vividly. The local Carnegie library was where I went every Saturday morning to pick up my next six books. I grew up in a fundamentalist church called the Church of Christ. So, for our family, it was very much a culture of words –- books, the Bible and the drama of the pulpit.
    DAVID: Sometimes, I worry about what kind of creativity we’ll experience in the future because there aren’t as many families that have these cultures of words and books and storytelling. I grew up in a family like that, and I know a lot of writers have that experience in their background. For so many young people now, it’s all images –- and I wonder sometimes if all we’ll wind up with in the future is an endless reinterpretation of Batman over and over again, because we’re mainly focused on images.
    That’s one reason I really enjoyed spending time with your new book. Talking about Ron Hansen, there’s this great almost Buechner-like passage when Hansen’s describing to you the start of a story. Here’s what he says:
    “Something happens to you and then something else happens and gradually these things accumulate, and then they somehow start to compact together and you realize they’re all part of the same thing. That’s how a story begins.”
    DALE: I like that, too. You’re right. It’s very much like Buechner.
    Buechner is a very private man and yet he writes all these memoirs -– he writes these memoirs that he invites you to look through as you might visit someone’s home and pick up a photograph album that you find on a table there. You start to turn the pages and then you start to recognize a picture. And you recognize that picture because actually it’s –- you.


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