Toward a working definition of “Spiritual Writing”

Spiritual Writing, especially in the days of deconstructionism, must first be defined if we are going to have a conversation about it. There is something to the challenge of pinning down a fixed definition of any word, particularly a religious one, as much damage has been done in parsing out what is considered spiritual and what is not. If we begin with the basic definition that spirituality has to do with the immaterial, the human spirit, and anything religious, then all writing, when boiled down to its essence—creating and interpreting worlds out of the intangibility of words—is spiritual. (Do you think this might have something to do with why The Best Spiritual Writing isn’t included in the BA series?) Solely for the purposes of this book club—I’m hoping Jenna agrees—another definition for “spiritual writing” must be insisted upon.

I’d like to propose that as we discuss this anthology, when we refer to spiritual writing, we are speaking of writing — essays, stories and poems— that not only reaches out for the ineffable (again, that should be the bar for all good writing), but also fixes its claws into spirituality as the thread through, the thesis, the plot, the content—spirituality as the situation and the story.

As I graph each essay for its greatest —horizontal line for spiritual content and vertical line for successful craft—I am reminded of the essay entitled “Understanding Poetry” by J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D. quoted in the movie The Dead Poets Society. Mr. Keating eloquently claims that J. Evan Pritchard’s system for literary analysis is “excrement.” Poetry isn’t something that can be charted and analyzed, he says; it is something to be lived. Carpe Diem! Ah well, there goes my system. Analyze, critique or judge the selections in this anthology at your own risk, then. Decide on their greatness or not. Live them if possible.

Welcome to the online book club about the Best Spiritual Writing 2012! Let’s start the discussion below (click on “comments”) with the initial questions:  What do you believe the definition of spiritual writing is and how you would determine the best of it?

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3 Responses to Toward a working definition of “Spiritual Writing”

  1. What is spiritual writing? A good question indeed. Perhaps spiritual writing is akin to art or pornography: I know it when I see it. Is that taking the easy way out?

    I agree that all good writing reaches for the ineffable, so this isn’t a comprehensive definition for determining exactly what is and is not spiritual writing. In fact, this is one of my (many) complaints with Yancey’s introduction of the collection: Several times he conflates what good spiritual writers “must do” with what I believe all good writers must do. “We are probing the invisible, after all,” he writes. “How can those of us who believe describe our experiences in a way that communicates to the skeptical or uncommitted” (xvii)? I take his point, but isn’t this true whether we’re writing about something overtly (or subvertly) spiritual or about something else entirely? It’s the writer’s job to present her unique worldview, to draw the reader into the world on the page, to communicate an experience or feeling or *something* to people who may be skeptical or uncommitted in any number of ways? (I’ll have more to say about Yancey’s definition of spiritual writing in a follow-up post.)

    So far I think we’re in agreement, Sarah, but ‘m not sure that I agree that spirituality must be both the “the situation and the story,” though this has a nice ring to it, and does seem to be a succinct way to define this subgenre. But by this standard, would you consider “Frat House for Jesus” by Peter J. Boyer to be spiritual writing? Zaleski must have, since he includes it in the collection. But I don’t understand why. Spirituality (or religion) is certainly central to the situation and the story of that essay, but there’s nothing about this essay that feels like spiritual writing to me. It’s more of a report on a particular intersection of politics and religion. And honestly, I think it fails Zaleski’s own standard for spiritual writing, which he calls “l’art à genoux,” or “kneeling art,” a term which he says he commandeered from theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, who used the term “la théologie à genoux,” which can be translated as “theology on one’s knees,” or “kneeling theology.” By this, Zaleski explains, Balthasar meant “that theology must be informed by prayer,” and that above all, “theology must possess an active sense of the transcendent, a felt certainty that I exist in relation to something—or someone—purer, greater, nobler than myself, something that stands, in Plato’s famous formulation, as absolute beauty, truth, and goodness.” To me, there’s not much that’s reaching for the transcendent or ineffable in Boyer’s essay.

  2. Pingback: A Tale of Two Philips (or, What is Spiritual Writing, Part 2) | The Best American Reading Club

  3. Pingback: Spirituality, Place, and Labels | The Best American Reading Club

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