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Words Made Flesh and Fresh: Review Article

Danny E. Olinger

Words Made Fresh, by Larry Woiwode. Wheaton: Crossway, 2011, 191 pages, $24.99.

Larry Woiwode wouldn’t remember me from our brief meeting twenty years ago. Then a ruling elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Woiwode was a commissioner to the Fifty-ninth General Assembly being held at Geneva College and had accepted an invitation to teach the adult Sunday School class at Grace OPC, Sewickley. After the service, I was among those with Woiwode invited to Charlie and Ginger Dennison’s house for lunch. I sat quietly as Charlie, Woiwode’s friend and my pastor, questioned him about his comments in the class regarding John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Charlie loved Bunyan’s heavenly-mindedness. Woiwode, while appreciative of Bunyan’s message and vocabulary, and urging the reading of the book, preferred literature more connected to the earth.

My recollection is spotty because my purpose that day was very exact. Charlie wanted me there to hear Larry Woiwode’s voice; if possible, to hear him read from one of his books. The secret to reading Woiwode, Charlie contended, was to catch his cadence. Get the rhythm of the sentences, and the struggle Woiwode intends with his fiction comes into clearer focus.

Reading Woiwode’s essays in Words Made Fresh brought that day back to my mind. Charlie was right in emphasizing the lyrical character of Woiwode’s writings. Every sentence counts, and not just for content. The ordering of the words, the sound, even the punctuation, the late comma being his favorite mark, all have their perfect place in his writing. Alter one clause, lift one sentence, ignore the rhythms that flow from reading the words, and violence is done to the oral effect of the entire work.

But, I wish now that I had paid closer attention to the two friends’ debate over place. Words Made Fresh reveals the intimate connection that exists for Woiwode between words and geography, or better, words flowing from place. Woiwode argues in these essays that place is the foundation of fiction.

Never straying far from these central tenets, the ten essays are divided between penetrating looks at literary figures (Wendell Berry, John Gardner, John Updike, and William Shakespeare) and at cultural attitudes towards guns, home schooling, and media. Woiwode explains that the title has a two-fold purpose. It deliberately reflects the incarnation “because it was with the incarnation that writers outside the scope of the Hebrew and Greek texts began to understand how a metaphor of words could contain the lineaments and inner workings of a human being” (13). The title also indicates that each essay has been revisited and modernized, so as to be made fresh.

Essays on Culture

The book’s opening essay, “Guns and Peace,” first appeared in Esquire in 1975. The original audience is important because Woiwode’s opening sentence—“Once in the worst of a Wisconsin winter I shot a deer, my only one, while my wife and daughter watched”—accomplishes two purposes at once. It reminds the eastern literary elite that Woiwode is a stylist of the first order. But, at the same time, it confronts their prejudice that life only takes place inside their isolated world. Woiwode recalls his love of guns as a boy, and his use of them in hunting and recreation as an adult. However, the keynote of the piece is not guns, but rather death. Death haunts him. His conscience insists that he was the one that deserved being shot and not the crippled deer. And yet, holding the .22 rifle he realizes he is the deer’s vision of approaching death, and it makes him recoil. He confesses that he lives alone in New York City because of his brutish behavior, his wife and daughter separated from him and living in Chicago. In this existence, he no longer has a romantic attachment to guns, only an emptiness as the sun goes down on his life.

In the afterword to the essay added specifically for this volume, Woiwode reflects, “What I deserved led me to understand the full and free payment of my just deserts.” He continues, “In this incarnation I own firearms, mainly for predators, especially rabid ones, and I do not cling to them as I cling to the faith that reunited my wife and me and caused our internal lives and the lives of our children to blossom and prosper in peace” (22). Woiwode emphasizes the impact of the gospel upon his life in his making fresh the title. For Esquire, it was “Guns.” Now, it is “Guns and Peace.”

In “Deconstructing God,” Woiwode confronts the cultural bias that exists against those who prefer to home school their children. He examines Warren Nord’s 1995 book Religion and American Education and agrees with Nord that education in America became secularized primarily through the liberalizing of American religion. Liberals placed confidence in human reason to determine what is right and what is wrong. This led to the displacement of Christianity in education, not religious neutrality in education. Nord observes, “For public education to be neutral, for it to minimize the extent to which it actively discourages religion, it must take religion seriously as part of the curriculum” (129).

Woiwode admits that while it may be choking on a gnat to criticize Nord’s treatment of the history that lead to the federal monopoly on public education, he regrets Nord does not comment upon “the auspicious moment that forestalled, anyway for fifty years, government autocratic hegemony” (131). That moment was the February 1926 United States Senate and House hearings on a proposed Department of Education, where among those testifying was J. Gresham Machen. In his testimony, Machen argued that the proposed goal of uniformity in education was not only misguided, but also would be destructive to the country. Standardization, said Machen, is a good thing in making Ford automobiles. It is a bad thing for the education of human beings. And, to accomplish this standardization would require federal aid, and federal aid always comes with strings attached.

Despite these misgivings, Machen’s greater concern was the philosophy that the children of the state must be educated for the benefit of the state. Looking at pre-World War II Europe, Machen argued that this principle of education could be found in its highest development in Germany and in its most disastrous form in Soviet Russia. When pressed at the hearings if he knew of any federal interference with the operation of any private or church school, Machen responded that his concern was not his own institution but the principle of religious liberty in education.

Some eight plus decades after Machen’s testimony and three decades after Jimmy Carter finally established a Department of Education, Woiwode contends that Machen has proven prophetic. The standardized United States educational system is an abject failure and has forced parents to look for alternatives in teaching their children. Woiwode writes, “What profession has the highest percentage of children in private schools? Public school teachers. Dire indicators suggest that nearly half of all high school graduates are illiterate. This, as surely as public education’s hostility to religion, has encouraged the home-school movement” (137).

The last essay on culture, “Dylan to CNN,” finds Woiwode fondly remembering Bob Dylan’s role as minstrel in the early sixties versus the tone-deafness of the modern media. Woiwode argues that Dylan not only gave voice to what everyone was thinking, but also he was Shakespeare-like in never underestimating the basic intelligence of his audience.

Woiwode suggests that when Dylan stopped talking openly about Jesus Christ, it didn’t mean that he had turned away from faith in Christ. Not knowing Dylan’s heart, who could argue with Woiwode what Dylan’s motives were? But Woiwode continues to press the issue in a way that suggests confusion over the gospel and the doctrine of the church. He writes:

I’m not his apologist (think, though, of the license and backsliding we tolerate in ourselves) but I suspect he found the liberty of serving his Savior in his art rather than always assuming a churchy confession. This may be a loss to those who found faith through him, but his end is the celebration of God in the discipline and art of song and the good news that true art can bring. (146)

Vocation is one thing, confession is another. But, vocation can never be a substitute for confession. It is not that Bob Dylan needs to talk about Jesus before playing a song. Rather, it is that Mr. Zimmerman (Dylan’s birth name) needs to confess Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord before the church and live in keeping with that confession as a member of the church. Individualism justified in the name of art is not biblical. Rather, as Calvin rightly argues in Book IV of his Institutes, perseverance in the faith is connected with the church.

Essays on Literature

“In Views of Wendell Berry,” Woiwode finds a fellow author driven by the same impulses that push Woiwode’s own writing—faith and land. Woiwode writes, “If I had to distill the import of his thought, I might put it like this: All land is gift, and all of it is good, if we only had the sensibilities to see that” (41). Woiwode admits Berry comes close to pantheism in his seeing God everywhere present in nature, but Berry’s toil with the sin-cursed ground and his acknowledgment of a creator-creature distinction keeps him from worshipping nature.

Despite his heartfelt appreciation for Berry, the fact that Woiwode has two essays, “AmLit” and “Gardner’s Memorial in Real Time” on John Gardner is a tip-off that Gardner might be his literary twin. Gardner had lavished on Woiwode his highest praise in classifying Woiwode as a serious author who had written one of the great novels of the seventies, Beyond the Bedroom Wall. Woiwode in turn exalted Gardner as a writer who had an exact sense of time, Gardner’s Mickelsson’s Ghosts being the supreme example. When Gardner died in a motorcycle accident in 1981, Woiwode was asked to take Gardner’s place as the director of the creative writing program at the State University of New York-Binghamton, but his connection with Gardner was more than replacing his friend. Woiwode believes that Gardner, having been raised Presbyterian, possessed an awareness of the religious dimensions of writing and was not afraid to call out those he found fraudulent. The piercing directness of Gardner’s opinions, says Woiwode, “have the effect of a salutary, mind-clearing antidote” (56).

In “AmLit,” Woiwode affirms Gardner’s working premise that in the mid-1970’s American writers fell into five main groups. The five groups are (1) religious liberals and liberal agnostics (often indistinguishable); (2) orthodox or troubled-orthodox Christians; (3) Christians who have lost their faith and cannot stand it; (4) diabolists; and (5) heretics. Woiwode takes great interest in Gardner’s listing within the first (religious liberals) and last camps (heretics). The liberals, both the good writers like Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud, and the bad writers like E. L. Doctorow, share a common fault. They do not believe in art. They believe in using art to promote thought about important issues, and that is why, according to Gardner, this school produces no great writers.

Woiwode takes even greater interest in Gardner’s placing John Updike in the heretic category. Gardner writes, “Updike’s message, again and again, is a twisted version of the message of his church, neo-orthodox Presbyterianism: Christ has saved me; nothing is wrong; so come to bed with me” (57–58). Gardner personally had little interest as an adult in orthodox Presbyterianism, but professionally he lacked patience with Updike’s twisting of its historic Protestant message.

That Woiwode would be interested in Gardner’s opinion of Updike is no surprise, given Woiwode’s complex relationship with Updike, the multi-Pulitzer Prize winning author. First, there is the personal connection, as the two men were united by the same editor at the New Yorker in the sixties and seventies, William Maxwell. Woiwode further admires Updike as the most gifted of stylists, a professional among professionals. But, there is a moral discomfort for Woiwode that comes in reading Updike, something that nags at him. In the longest essay in the book, “Updike’s Sheltered Self,” Woiwode gives expression to this mix of appreciation and frustration regarding Updike, even admitting that the phrase “yes, but” appears too often. However, to make sure that his reader doesn’t miss the point, Woiwode adds, “as I reassess a contemporary whose work I admire above most others, the diligent auditor will note that nearly all the buts relate to the same point: Updike’s professed Christianity measured against the content of his work” (86).

Woiwode traces Updike’s open adherence to Christianity in his literature to Olinger Stories, a collection of short stories in which Updike exchanges the name “Olinger” for Shillington, his hometown near Reading, Pennsylvania. The significance is the sense of place that the local family name from Shillington lyrically conveys, “O linger!”[1] Two stories in particular, “Pigeon Feathers” and “Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, A Dying Cat, A Traded Car,” are personal reflections upon homeplace and faith. The Centaur and On the Farm continue Updike’s faith emphasis as he concretely traces the tearing of the fabric of American culture that comes from a loss of Christian consciousness found in previous generations.

The transition for Updike from the faith expressed in his early fiction to his ruffling feathers in unpleasant ways, says Woiwode, came in Couples, the book that landed Updike on the cover of TIME magazine. Woiwode guesses that this is Updike’s evaluation of suburban Christianity in the late sixties. It’s awful. He writes, “With Couples, the philosophy of Playboy moved into the hearts of heartland America. The people there became swingers along Hefner’s lines, Piets and Foxys, numbed” (105).

But, Woiwode also sees Couples as the transitional point for Updike in surrendering to the liberalism that he disdained in his earlier works, most pointedly in “Pigeon Feathers” where the liberal Lutheran pastor is abhorred by the adolescent. He writes:

What Couples conveys is the paradox of neoorthodoxy, and perhaps this was Updike’s burden of illumination: its “kind” character can lead to destruction. All Christian doctrine comes down to this: love your neighbor, period. Going to bed with her may stem from a love-limned motive but it’s not great for her husband, one suspects—or for the children or both families, as the disruptions in Couples convey. (101)

Woiwode agrees with John Gardner that this change in Updike’s fiction is no small thing, for writing has moral implications. It has an effect on how people act. Couples promotes wife-swapping, even if Updike found the coupling unsound. It is not until Updike’s In the Beauty of the Lilies that he regains “the visceral engagement and potential reach, even grandeur of The Centaur, Pigeon Feathers, and Of the Farm, and portions of the Rabbit quartet” (106).

The Updike book, however, that captures Woiwode’s interest the most is Self-Consciousness, Updike’s semi-autobiographical book of essays. Two of the essays, “A Soft Spring Night in Shillington” and “Getting the Words Out,” says Woiwode, “are perhaps the best examples we have of what it was like to come of age in America in the last half of the last century” (108). Undoubtedly both essays strike a true chord with Woiwode because the former deals with place and the latter deals with words.

In “A Soft Spring Night in Shillington,” Updike finds himself as a middle-aged man walking the streets of his hometown while waiting for his lost luggage to arrive from the Lehigh Valley airport. As he walks, the rain gently falls from the sky, and it speaks to Updike of God’s grace. As if walking unnoticed beside Updike, so in tune is he with what Updike is writing, Woiwode observes, “On this night of grace, then, in Updike’s life, he walks down a street to his old neighborhood, to the house where he was born, the locus of his consciousness” (109).

Woiwode understands the story then as the key to Updike: Shillington is home, and home is where identity is cultivated.

This is the best American essay on the prerogatives of place and its relationship to identity that I know. And since the identity examined is of a prominent writer, a definition of the prerogative of place in its relationship to writing is established, and I don’t think a more eloquent examination of their relationship exists in twentieth-century American literature. (109)

“Getting the Words Out” is Updike’s explanation of how he writes. He recalls his youthful stammer and difficulty in saying what he wanted to say. Woiwode locates the stammer as the source of Updike’s precision with language, the never ending desire to get every word properly placed. Woiwode recalls Maxwell describing Updike as an Olympian when it came to examining page proofs, so passionate was he in refining the language of his writing.

Woiwode concludes with an essay on William Shakespeare, or WS as Woiwode refers to him with a wink throughout. Woiwode builds the case that Shakespeare still stands at the summit of writers in English because he was an unparalleled wordsmith who wrote with a Christian sensibility that is transcendent. Woiwode writes:

In his native isolation and affinity for the actual, the original, the primitive, he is the best linguistic guide to the English language, and we step nearer to who he was by his words and their rhythms and the multitude of characters he fitted together as messengers of his many permutations. Through his characters, in a further way, he speaks to us as an integrated bearer of ultimate Good News. Above all, he placed the impress of Christ, whose outlines are love and mercy and reconciliation, into more universally appealing characters than any other writer in the history of the Western world. (175)

Homeplace, Heaven or Hell

Woiwode combines his beliefs on literature, culture, and faith in the representative essay of the volume, “Homeplace, Heaven or Hell? On the Order of Existence.” In this essay, first delivered in 1983 as a lecture at the Conference on Christianity and Literature at Northwestern College, Orange City, Iowa, Woiwode stresses once more the significance of place. He states, “The definition of home or homeplace, and the implication of the locale we call home, is the matter I’m after. Is that home a haven? Is it a miniature heaven, a picture of heaven? Or is it hell?” (27).

The writer who draws from his or her familiarity with a particular place might be scornfully labeled a regionalist today, but historically such a writer had been called a poet. The ability to describe a place in exacting detail, narrowing the focus within a given environment, creates a better opportunity for the reader to enter into that world.

But Woiwode also talks about the importance of another world. He writes,

I don’t serve myself or the academy per se, though I do teach, nor the place or populace of North Dakota. I serve God, through the person of Jesus as portrayed in the Bible. That should send a legion scurrying off in alarm or setting this aside in embarrassment—perhaps with the wish that I were a plain old regionalist and not a religionist.” (27)

Endnote

[1] Yes, I am related, my ancestors arriving from Germany and first settling around Reading in Berks County. Thankfully, in his foreword to Olinger Stories, Updike provided the standard response for a generation of Olingers when questioned how properly to say the family name: “the name Olinger (pronounced with a long O, a hard g, and the emphasis on the first syllable).” John Updike, Olinger Stories (New York: Vintage Books, 1964), v.

Danny E. Olinger is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as the General Secretary of the Committee on Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Ordained Servant Online, May, 2012.

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