Give us a bit of background into Art and Soul and your part in it. When did it start? What's your vision for it?
In 1998, I was, with my colleague Michael Beaty, co-organizer of a nationwide conference at Baylor on Southern literature, “The Christ-Haunted South.” My one great contribution, if it can be called that, was to suggest that instead of just doing an academic conference where scholars came and presented their research on Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, we also include readings and talk with real Southern writers. We invited Will Campbell and Dennis Covington, two great heroes of mine, and Rick Barton and I also read and participated. There was an incredible synergy and the sessions were well attended by the university and Central Texas communities, So Michael and I proposed that Baylor do an annual program on religion and the arts where we’d bring together a community of writers, scholars, and readers. The Baylor administration was generous in their support, both in providing funding and in giving me a ton of release time to administrate what would become Art & Soul. It was much much much harder than teaching, but I was able to use my acquaintance with writers across the country to bring in a number of people who generously donated their time or took reduced appearance fees to get us off the ground because they agreed that we were doing something important.
Our first formal program was in the spring of 2000, and we got national attention because John Grisham was one of our major speakers. As you may know, he never does public appearances, except for signings at the few small independent bookstores in the South that supported him when he wasn’t famous. We sold out Waco Hall, the largest auditorium on the Baylor campus, we had to do a press conference before he went on, and when he walked onto the stage, it was like something out of Hard Day’s Night. When John came off the stage, he took me by the arm and told me, “Let’s go. Don’t stop for anything.” And I figured out quickly what he meant—and why he doesn’t do public appearances. I will never again be on someone’s security detail. But it was great, because here was this serious Baptist—and one of the world’s most popular writers—talking about how his faith and his fiction intermingled.
Over the years, we’ve had lots of terrific writers, artists, and musicians at Art & Soul—Annie Lamott, Kathleen Norris, Bruce Hornsby, Margaret Becker, Lee Smith, Robert Olen Butler, Bret Lott, Lauren Winner. We’ve had editors, and scholars, and lots of interested bystanders. The most important thing, though, was that we were fulfilling the aim I had at the outset, which was that we help create a community of people who take faith and art seriously. When we started, there was a very clear sense in most circles that you could be one thing or the other—a serious Christian (or Jew, or whatever) or a serious writer (or poet, or filmmaker, or whatever). So we’ve contributed to the conversation that you’re having at Faith in Fiction, and that Image magazine and its conferences and workshops promote, and, although they’re more geared to CBA writing and we to ABA, that the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College has done so successfully.
This year was the first year where I wasn’t involved as the planning and driving force. I tried to step down two years ago for health reasons—remember the depression I mentioned?—but circumstances didn’t permit at the time. Now we’ve gone to every other year, which I regret since with an every year schedule we can do a better job of building community. But one of the things I’ve learned is that when you stop away from something, you step away. Art & Soul 2005 was a great festival, and Baylor’s commitment to the program is a strong one. So mark your calendars for 2007, when we’ll welcome—well, lots of cool people, I’m sure.Describe the atmosphere at Baylor for us. Seems like an interesting place...this kind of waystation poised between the secular (like my college--Penn State) and the ordained (i.e. my wife's alma mater of Taylor.) It obviously allows for an event like Art and Soul. Does sustaining a Christian worldview ever raise tension on the campus?
I came to Baylor in 1989, when the university was in the midst of the Southern Baptist turf wars. Students were taping the lectures of their professors and sending them back to hometown preachers, and the fundamentalists had gone on record saying that of all the institutions in Baptist life they considered Baylor the crown jewel they most wanted to take over. I don’t have to tell you that if the fundamentalists had taken over Baylor it would have become the world’s largest Baptist Bible college—but not a thriving community of scholars and strivers where faithis valued and questions are welcome. So that’s the backdrop everyone has to remember when they think about Baylor: Within my Baylor lifetime there was serious danger that very religious people would take over the university and, for all intents and purposes, dismantle it.
So there’s always a tension between those who want the university to veer more toward the religious side, since that’s our historic identity and part of the vision plan we’ve embraced, and those who fear that religion will dilute the academic mission of the place. I have friends on both sides, and I’m pretty squarely in the middle. I value freedom and diversity in belief and, but think Baylor needs to be a Christian university to have anything distinctive to offer. The world doesn’t need another Princeton or Duke. It needs a great Protestant university.
That said, the tension always has to be negotiated. Students without a strong religious background often feel excluded in some ways at Baylor, and I fear that ardent evangelism often drives such people farther away from God, rather than closer. Yet everyone has a desire for the sacred, and God speaks through writing and creativity, which is what makes events like Art and Soul so valuable. One doesn’t need to witness about God when God is tangibly present.Leif Enger. Kaye Gibbons. Marilynne Robinson. What makes these writers' works so particularly appealing...both to Christians and, obviously, the secular world as a whole?
The Judeo/Christian stories in the Hebrew scriptures and the Christian testament are all our stories, whether you’re a person of faith or not, and themes of failure, grace, redemption, forgiveness, and rebirth are not only at the heart of our faith but at the heart of our beings. A great story will often feature these themes even if the writer has no conscious interest in faith. And since Enger, Robinson, Gibbons and others are persons who aren’t afraid to let faith be an integral element in their stories, it seems to be that much more powerful, that much more spirit-filled. Leif’s ability to write about miracles, for example, to make them visible and believable, makes Peace Like a River
a powerful and holy experience for me, not just a good read. I think a good novel by a writer of faith can be sacramental, can be like the thin places in Celtic spirituality where we are closer to the Divine.
My favorite comment from someone who read Free Bird
was a guy who told me that the book made him want to be a better person. That’s a nice definition of good art with a sacred dimension—it can change us and make us see the world in a new way, even if its primary intention is simply to tell us a story using those archetypal elements.Who are some guests you'd love to host at Art & Soul?
I’d love to have Anne Lamott, Bret Lott, and Dennis Covington back at Baylor. Of those who have not yet been to Art & Soul, I’d like to have my colleagues Donald Miller and Brian McLaren, even though their work is from CBA houses, since I think they tell great stories and they have a readership that is broader than those who only frequent CBA stores. I’d like to have filmmaker and comics writer Kevin Smith, although I’m sure if I were still in charge he’d get me in serious trouble. For that matter, I’d like to have Joss Whedon, who created Buffy
(Ed note: See, it's not just me! Dave
) and is now writing comics like the X-Men
, and Brian Michael Bendis, who is the son of an Orthodox rabbi and who, foul-mouthed and vulgar as he often is, is a great and often moving writer struggling toward some conclusions about spirit.
Of the “old guard,” I’d like to have Anne Tyler and John Irving and John Updike, who have written some of the best novels ever about Christianity. I’d like to have Michael Chabon and some other Jewish writers. As for musicians, I’d like to have Bono, of course, Patty Griffin, and Austin singer-songwriter Bob Schneider, who is struggling toward the sacred in many of his songs. And since we’re shooting for the moon, why not Bruce Springsteen? His songs on “The Rising” are among the holiest relics we’ll leave from these past few dark years. (Ed note: See, again, it's not just me! And if Art and Soul hosts Springsteen, I may have to actually move to Texas. Dave
)Give your opinion on the value, these days, of an upper-level English degree. Who should be pursuing the Ph.D.? How about the MFA?
If you want to teach at a university, you should get a PhD. If you want extra time with your writing, you should get an MFA. But you may still need a PhD when you’re done; while schools often consider the MFA a terminal degree, few schools have large enough creative writing programs that you teach nothing but creative writing. My first semester at Baylor as the new fiction writer I taught freshman comp and British lit as well as fiction writing. Whatever you do, though, please don’t plan on making a living as a writer. I’ve published four books and I’ve been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, but if I didn’t have a day job my children would be out begging in the streets.
::Go to Day 3 of our conversation with Greg Garrett