By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit.com
Norman Wirzba’s origin on a farm in the shadow of the Canadian Rockies explains a lot about his mission to transform our American image and understanding of God. He’s quite literally an outsider.
He has a mission as big as all outdoors: Changing popular American perspectives from which we envision God, often as a harsh judge or a stern father or perhaps in some evangelical-Pentecostal circles as a beloved best friend who wants us to be individually successful in all things. In contrast, Wirzba sees God from a different perspective than is preached in many American pulpits each Sunday. His work often gently subverts common religious assumptions—and then expands them into something much deeper and more far reaching. That’s certainly the case in Way of Love: Recovering the Heart of Christianity.
You may read that title and think: What? Another book about “God is love”? So what? But, if you actually read this book—you’ll be surprised at every turn.
Wirzba’s mission begins with his origin. Of course, that’s often the case with influential figures in American theology. Consider: Phyllis Tickle’s body of work only makes sense if readers know she was a teacher; Stanley Hauerwas’s theology is shaped by his father’s work as a bricklayer; Frederick Beuchner was marked by the tragedy of his father’s suicide—and Miroslav Volf by his origin in Croatia.
The same is true of Wirzba, who describes his early years in our interview: “I grew up in a North American Baptist family. That’s more like the Mennonites than what most Americans think of as Baptist. My family lived on a 400-acre farm in Alberta, Canada. We had livestock—a small cattle feed lot and chickens and pigs. We never had horses or sheep. We grew barley, oats, alfalfa and we used an irrigation system because we lived in an arid part of the country. It was a traditional family farm and it was a fabulous life.
“As I was growing up, I thought I was going to be a farmer or a rancher, but then I learned more about the economics of agriculture. It became clear to me that there were two pathways ahead if I wanted to farm. One was to become a very big cattle farmer and go into all the debt that comes with such an expansion. The other pathway was to do the kind of farming my grandfather did that requires a lot of personal care of your animals and fields.”
At the same time, Wirzba felt a vocational call to explore faith and scholarship. “That’s when I realized that there was a connection with that second form of farming, really my grandfather’s farming, and making that connection had a big impact on me in seeing the world as focusing on care and community.
“At first, I left agriculture behind me. But then I made another connection when I was teaching in Kentucky and I met Wendell Berry. He really changed the way I was thinking about the relationship between our agrarian traditions and theology and philosophy. Since that time, I’ve been working to keep agrarian traditions and voices alive in the world. I think and teach and write a lot about nature, creation and community life. And I do think that I have a distinct perspective because of where I grew up and then later my friendship with Wendell Berry.”
Has he given up farming completely? “I don’t live on a farm today. My schedule means I couldn’t possibly farm. But I do have a garden and an orchard. I like to make salsa, so I grow tomatoes and onions and peppers. We grow things that don’t require a lot of time maintaining the plants, like blueberries and raspberries.”
Wirzba thinks about his mission to transform Americans’ image of God much like a gardener thinks about tending a garden. He isn’t an angry reformer. He loves the Christian church, he says.
“If people read my new book, I hope they understand that Christianity is a lot more interesting than people make it out to be, these days,” he says. “When I say that—I’m thinking about my kids who are young adults who have friends who are not Christian. They’re puzzled about why anyone would even consider Christianity in the world today. After all, Christianity has gotten a lot of bad press—and a lot of that is justified after all the bad things people have said or done in the name of Christianity.
“Secondly, I hope readers will see that Christianity speaks to the very core of our lives. If Christianity is going to survive, then it has to be able to teach us how to love. Love is what life is all about—that’s my fundamental claim. When I structured this new book, I wanted to present Christianity as a school that teaches people how to love better. We want people to understand what love is, how complex it is, how easily love could become its opposite and what it truly means to live in the way of love.”
A school of love? If that sounds like a surprising way to describe the purpose of Christianity, then you’re sensing how Wirzba’s method as a teacher is to keep flipping his students’ concepts about faith on their head—then drawing them far deeper into these concepts they thought they understood.
One way he does this is by pointing to movies that his readers and students could view along with his books and lectures. Here are three films that play key roles in his new book, Way of Love. In our interview, Wirzba talks briefly about what he hopes readers and viewers might discover in these movies.
3 FILMS EXPANDING OUR VISION OF LOVE
BABETTE’S FEAST, 1987:
I struggled with my decision to use this film in the book because I know it’s already a favorite of so many Christians. I usually choose movies that people may have overlooked; they may not have considered ways that Christians can talk about them. But, this movie already is very popular. Still, I had to include Babette’s Feast because the text by Isak Dinesen is so beautiful. As she writes this story, she brings up so many key questions about the meaning of life, of community and of the possibility for transformation in ways that humans hope is possible, but may not have actually experienced. There are so many questions raised in Babette’s Feast, including the meaning of forgiveness in a community. I also like this movie, because it’s all about eating and food and hospitality. We see how people are surprised to discover that God’s creation is just stupendous—mind boggling.
Want to know more about the movie? Here is an in-depth look at the film by faith-and-film writer Edward McNulty.
AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, 2013:
When I first saw this film, I realized it was very powerful and then I went and got the script to read as well. It’s fabulous! This is a story that gets past the veneer of family life. Yes, the story and some of the characters are over the top. And, if you’re talking about the movie, you’ll find that some of these characters are more confused, angry and generally messed up than the people we know in our families. But stop and think about this: Most of us do have family members experiencing some of the troubles we see in this play and movie. Watching this and discussing it really opens up a way to consider how minor things in our families can develop into tremendous confusion and trouble over time. We need to understand that families can experience love, but families also have the potential to damage us, even at the same time we think we’re trying to be good to each other. I do hope people will watch this film and talk about it.
Want to know more about the movie? Here is an overview of the film by Edward McNulty.
AS IT IS IN HEAVEN, 2004:
This is the last film I write about in Way of Love. And, in this case, I’m sure most people haven’t heard of the movie or had a chance to see it. It’s a Swedish film that was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film but didn’t win. It tells the story of a famous conductor who has a heart attack and returns to his little hometown, where he gets involved with the local choir.
I like this movie, because it’s extremely difficult for us to talk about heaven. By its very nature, heaven exceeds our comprehension—it defies our imagination. When we try to imagine heaven, we’re talking about God’s love fully active in everything. Of course, we live in a world where that’s not the case. This is so difficult to portray that movies about heaven are rare—and most of them wind up being too sentimental. When I discovered this film, I was drawn to it right away. It shows how transformation can happen in the life of one person and then can grow through the whole community.
And I especially like the fact that this story unfolds in the context of song and singing. Music is one of the most important metaphors for what I’m talking about in this book. We tend to regard our relationships as a zero-sum game. If I do this, he does that. If I’m better, she’s worse. On and on. But music isn’t a zero-sum game in which one move diminishes another. In fact, when one note is sounded in music, then another note is added, we discover something we hadn’t even sensed before. We call that a chord. And, in this film, we get more than a story about voices coming together. We see people’s bodies coming together, too. And that helps us see that heaven is something that’s a harmonious coming together that doesn’t degrade or diminish anyone, but actually is the ultimate enhancement of life.
Want to know more about the movie? McNulty has not written about this film; here is Wikipedia’s overview.
If you’re still wavering on whether you want to start reading Wirzba’s books, here’s one more big nudge to teachers, preachers and media people looking for highly quotable writers. Wirzba turns one memorable phrase after another in his writing. On a personal note: As a religion writer for many decades, I have interviewed Frederick Beuchner several times throughout his long career and continue to marvel at his creative turns of phrase (here’s a 2-part interview Beuchner and I did some years ago). Now, with his own growing body of work, Wirzba is proving to be a highly quotable writer.
To close this interview with Wirzba, here are some gems from his new book:
The God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth introduces us to forms of love that turn customary ways of ordering life upside down and inside out, showing us that what people think about love is often far too narrow and far too small. …
Christians have it on good authority that faith without works is dead. What they sometimes forget is that faith without love is deadly, because the works performed without love frequently bring about needless suffering and pain. …
Creation is not a fluke effect of a random, meaningless process. Life is a miracle. It did not need to be. That it is is the daily reminder that everything depends on the hospitable, nurturing, liberating and empowering love of God. Which is to say, finally, that love is a miracle too. …
What love desires is intimacy and the flourishing of those it touches—that is what life as the drama of love teaches. In and through and for love, God creates a hospitable world and then invites each person to join in the welcome, nurture and celebration of everyone and everything. Life as love. I cannot imagine a more important vocation or a more worthy goal.
Finally, Chapter 5 of Wirzba’s new book is titled Creation Garden Style, a theme that Wirzba continues to develop in the next chapter, The Feast of Creation, and connects with much of his earlier writing and teaching about God as a gardener. If you’d like to read more on this particular perspective, here is a sermon that Wirzba preached on the theme.
Care to read more?
Wirzba recently launched his own website: NormanWirzba.com