A Tale of Two Philips (or, What is Spiritual Writing, Part 2)

You have to wonder if Philip Zaleski regrets asking Philip Yancey to write the introduction to The Best Spiritual Writing 2012. I can only assume that Philip Z. knew enough about Philip Y. to trust him to write the introduction. But after reading the two Philips’ stunningly different takes on what constitutes spiritual writing, I’m baffled by how they both ended up in the same book. Perhaps Zaleski is more magnanimous than I, more able to consider alternate viewpoints in a calm and scholarly manner. I am not so magnanimous. In fact, by the time I read the first sentence in Yancey’s introduction, I was in full-on rant and balk mode.

Yancey’s View
So as not to make you wait for your own chance to balk (or to argue with me),  let me present Yancey’s point of view first.

Here’s the first line of the Introduction:

If I had to choose the most important challenge for those who write about spiritual matters, it would be finding the proper balance between art and propaganda.” (xvii)

What? (Are you seething yet? Is it just me?)

Yancey clarifies that he’s using “propaganda” in “the original sense of the word as coined by a pope who formed the Sacred Congregation de Propaganada Fide in the seventeenth century in order to spread the faith” (xviii). My issue with Yancey is that he assumes that all “spiritual writers” or “writers of faith” are writing to spread the faith, to convert readers, to put forth answers. As a spiritual writer myself, I don’t do any of these things. Yes, I want readers to “consider a viewpoint I hold to be true,” as Yancey later writes, but this is not the same as trying to “spread the faith.” I’m not trying to convert anyone.

Here’s where I start to foam at the mouth:

Like a bipolar magnet, the writer of faith feels the tug of opposing forces: a desire to communicate what gives life meaning counteracted by an artistic inclination toward self-expression and form that any “message” may interrupt. The result: a constant, dichotomous pull toward both propaganda and art. (xix)

And this:

Somewhere in this magnetic field between art and propaganda the spiritual writer must work. One force tempts us to lower artistic standards and proclaim a message we truly believe while another tempts us to tone down or alter the message for the sake of aesthetics. (xix)

I have never felt this temptation or the tug of these opposing forces. In fact, I don’t think that form and content are opposing forces.

Is Yancey confusing spiritual writing with something else, perhaps religious writing? This is not simply a matter of semantics or splitting hairs. He’s assuming that all writers of spiritual pieces have a clear theology and are presenting answers rather than asking questions. To his credit, Yancey does hold that good spiritual writing should be just as artful as any other good writing. But his assertion that “Writers of faith are tempted to omit details of struggle and realism that do not fit neatly into the propaganda message” just doesn’t ring true for all writers of faith. It’s not true for me and it doesn’t seem to be  true for the spiritual writers that I like to read.

Zaleski’s View
I resonate much more strongly with Zaleski’s view of what constitutes spiritual writing. As I noted in my comment on the last post, Zaleski borrows a term from the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar: la théologie à genoux, which can be translated as theology on one’s knees, or kneeling theology. Zaleski explains that 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.” Zaleski says that the spiritual artist or writer “needs to practice l’art à genoux, or kneeling art” (ix-x).

I like this idea of conferring the writing process with a sense of the sacred. I think that writers of all kinds, whether they consider themselves “spiritual” or not, could benefit from adopting this posture. I think of writing as listening to and giving form to the words and stories that want to come through us, whether from the muse, the divine, God, the universe, or some other power or energy that is beyond us.

Here are a few other quotes from  Zaleski to give you the flavor of just how much he differs from Yancey:

It may be that spiritual art, at the peak of aspiration and execution, contains in it something not of the artist’s making, something not of this world. When the artist creates at a supernal level, he or she may be participating in what Louis Massignon, adapting the terminology of the Islamic mystic al-Hallaj, termed the “virgin point'”of contact between God and and the human being, where mystical exchange takes place.(x-xi)

* * *

…the spiritual artist (and thus the spiritual writer) does well to place himself or herself before God, at the beginning and end of the work, and ponder the following set of questions, a variation on the celebrated title of Gauguin’s most celebrated canvas:
“Who am I? Why do I work? What will I give to the world?”
In these three small questions, it seems to me, may be found the seeds of  l’art à genoux. (xvi)

I could go on, but I want to know what you think. Do you consider Y and Z to be as much at odds as I think they they are? Do you resonate with one view over another? Are you foaming at the mouth from any of this?

[Sarah and I have decided to institute “Poetry Fridays” during this four-week discussion of BSW. Tomorrow Sarah will be here with a post about Billy Collins’ poem “Gold.”]

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One Response to A Tale of Two Philips (or, What is Spiritual Writing, Part 2)

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

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