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Will Willimon: The incarnational quality of fiction

The theologian and bishop has written a novel he calls an “affectionate but truthful” rendering of the mundane and the majestic in church life.

January 29, 2013

After writing dozens of books, the Rev. Dr. Will Willimon decided to try his hand at a new genre: fiction.

A lover of novels, Willimon said that works of fiction are uniquely capable of expressing truth.

“I think that fiction gets at truth in very special ways,” he said. “There’s a complexity that fiction deals with that one can’t deal with in more prosaic writing.”

“Incorporation” tells the story of Hope Church, a large church in the Midwest run by a “senior managing pastor” named Simon Lupino and a staff that includes young idealists as well as nasty backbiters. The book follows the staff and members of the church through the arc of the Easter season into ordinary time. They are funny, self-righteous, ridiculous and (at least at times) struggling to do the work of God.

Willimon is professor of the practice of Christian ministry at Duke Divinity School and former dean of Duke University Chapel. He served as bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church from 2004 to 2012. He teaches and lectures widely.

Willimon spoke with Faith & Leadership about fiction writing and life in the church. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: You have written many books, but this is your first novel. What is it about?

“Incorporation” is about Hope Church, which is somewhere in the Midwest, a large, aging suburban church and its inhabitants. It’s about a church staff that is busy doing divine work, but you wouldn’t know it from their contentious staff meetings and their backbiting, and the envy that goes on.

It’s about clergy called to do the work of God but finding that work challenging in different ways. It’s about laypersons who have a greater sense of God’s grace and God’s action than the clergy who are supposed to be leading them.

It’s about a young man called to the ministry, wide-eyed and naive, coming into all of this mélange of human in the divine that is Hope Church.

Ultimately, it’s about the triumph of the grace of God that these people are caught in. They’re not only caught in the mundane, utterly flat, domestic business of the church, but they’re also caught by God, who refuses to let them go, and who shows up at odd moments, and often seems absent from the divine work they are doing.

I hope it’s an affectionate but truthful look at the church from the inside out.

Q: Why write a novel? How does this book fit into the work that you’ve done as a leader of the church?

I wanted to try to do something related to the church that would catch some of the complexity, the ambiguity, the texture of life within the church that I thought a lot of writing about the church, including mine, didn’t get at.

I also have been on a personal campaign over the years to read through American fiction about the church. It turns out there is a huge amount of that fiction.

Douglas Alan Walrath wrote a book called “Displacing the Divine: The Minister in the Mirror of American Fiction.” It includes “The Scarlet Letter,” “Moby-Dick,” “Elmer Gantry” -- he identified close to 100 novels since the beginning of American writing.

Q: What are your favorites?

I recommend Flannery O’Connor. I keep a collection of her short stories by my bedside, and I read one much as one would take medication on occasion, and invariably I will read Flannery O’Connor and then I will put aside her story and say, “Wow, I really am a liar. I’d forgotten how fundamentally deceitful I am about who I am.” And she’s wonderful.

Graham Greene’s “The End of the Affair” is, I think, a powerful statement about the sort of God that we have in Jesus Christ, even though Jesus Christ never actually shows up in the novel.

My novel, I think, is very dependent upon Joanna Trollope, the contemporary English writer. She’s written a number of novels that involve the church, but her novel “The Choir” is just a beautiful novel of the sordidness of the church. I’ve never gotten that out of my mind.

Q: Can you say things in fiction that you couldn’t as a bishop or a pastor?

I think you can be more truthful. And the truth rendered by fiction is usually a much more textured, rounder truth than the truth available in straight discourse and analytical, philosophical writing.

We are, as Luther said, simul justus et peccator. In the church, we believe we are being redeemed. We have been -- we are being -- redeemed, but not yet. We are not there yet.

And in fiction, you can capture that same quality.

It’s no surprise that some of our greatest novelists -- Flannery O’Connor, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene -- were Catholics. There is a sacramental quality of fiction, an incarnational quality of fiction, whereby the earthy people, utterly human people, have been in some mysterious way embraced by the divine and become themselves sort of sacramental. We see God through the most mundane and quotidian of devices.

I know a couple of people have said of my novel that it starts slowly, it seems to start very slowly, and it’s just reporting on Easter at this church.

Well, to me, that’s part of it. How can something like Easter, the celebration of the resurrection, the most stupendous sort of miraculous moment in the faith, be slow, and be quotidian, and feel kind of flat?

Well, hey, you’d have to be in a church to know how we can do that.

And there’s a way that the church, in its mundane quality, in its habitual quality, has an awareness that we’re right on the edge of this extravagant mystery, this amazing earthshaking event, and the church becomes even more quotidian and habitual, because we couldn’t handle the mystery without habituating it.

Q: Containing or domesticating it?

Yes, domesticating. I note that here in the middle of this grand flourish of trumpets and lilies and celebration of the resurrection, the minister gets up and starts talking about a bake sale and says, “There will be a discussion of this subject next Wednesday, and we hope you will come.”

I love that about the church -- I both love that about the church and I get so frustrated with it, but I think that’s sort of part of being in an incarnational faith. I don’t think Christianity is a spiritual, transcendent phenomenon.

I think it’s because of God and Jesus Christ that it’s an utterly earthy, mundane phenomenon. Someone looking at us thinks, “Well, there’s nothing divine about that,” and you’d have to know the incarnation, you’d have to know sacraments. Eating and drinking is as spiritual as we get.

Q: In the book, you render that very lovingly, although as you say, there’s frustration as well.

One of the central characters is a clergyman who has been in the ministry about 30 years. I’ve been almost surprised when a number of people have said, “He’s just awful. He’s a scoundrel. There doesn’t seem to be much God present in any of it.”

And I say, “Oh, but just think, he’s kept at it 30 years; he’s been very faithful in doing what he does.” I feel like my heart is with him -- and maybe because I’m a clergyman who’s been at it 30 years.

Flannery O’Connor was criticized that none of her characters seemed very likeable, and a number of them seemed downright disgusting and disreputable and violent.

O’Connor said, “But isn’t that just amazing that God would choose these people, that God would go to such lengths to love us?”

Q: When you and Stanley Hauerwas wrote “Resident Aliens,” my understanding is that part of the purpose was to communicate to a general audience. Is your fiction writing also aimed at a broader audience?

I would love that. It is interesting to me that when somebody named Mark in the first century said, “I want to present Jesus Christ to you,” Mark invents a literary device unknown in the history of the world.

And there was something about Jesus Christ that you couldn’t talk about through straight writing -- you had to go narrative. So he puts Jesus as one on this perpetual journey.

Well, I think -- so I’m saying, this sounds presumptuous, but ...

Q: I was going to ask -- is this the gospel according to Will Willimon?

I’m not comparing myself with Mark. But it sort of is the gospel as Will Willimon has experienced it and seen it.

But I would love for that to be for a wider audience. I regret if there are those that pick up the book and say, “You know, the church really is disgusting, and it is a mess, and clergy are so deceitful.”

In a way, it is kind of dirty-laundry airing on the part of a church insider. But at the same time, I’m hoping it’s a demonstration of the workings of divine grace on people who seem unlikely subjects of divine grace, this beautiful phenomenon called the body of Christ.

The book opens with the Scripture verse of Paul saying, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” I continue to be astounded by that statement. Paul makes that statement to a bitterly divided, contentious, misunderstanding, difficult, ragtag group of early Christians.

And after he hammers them for a number of chapters telling them in his letter how disgusting they are, he just says, “Now you are the body of Christ.” You’re the only fleshly, corporeal form Christ has in the world.

Q: Do you hope the readers are mostly church people and clergy? Or do you hope that it would bring people to the church?

I hope it would bring people to the church in a certain way. I hope someone would read it and say, “Wow, this is fairly honest. This is a sober, truthful view of humanity in a certain context, and that’s impressive.”

I think if someone reads this and says, “Look, I’m not the best person in the world, but boy, some of these people are just horrible -- and they’re clergy? They’re Christians? Wow. Well then, there really is hope for me,” that would be fine.

Q: There’s a lot of wit and humor in the book.

I wrote a pretty hard-hitting book on being bishop, and [then] I said, “I want to write a book that has what everybody’s talking about in the hallway after the meeting. I want to put that in a book, and let the world see it and think about it.”

The incongruity between our high calling and our grubby actuality -- that’s the stuff of humor.

Q: How does your desire to communicate through books of various kinds fit into your role as a leader?

I was criticized as a bishop for reading too many leadership books and management books, but I said, “I’m in a job that I’ve had no training for and have very few gifts for; I’ve got to read this.”

But one of the leadership books says a leader -- leadership is the attempt to influence people through words. As a preacher, I perked up and said, “Oh, that’s what I do every week.”

I think, to me, we live in a word-centered world. We live in a world where when God wanted to create the world, what does God do? God said, “Light,” and there was.

I’m also an inveterate storyteller. I probably do too much of that in sermons. Forgive me; I’m from South Carolina. I do think stories tend to be more truthful than abstract, philosophical speculation.

I say the truth, as I see it, demands a good story, and that only a story can sort of lift the luggage, which is the truth, which is Jesus Christ.

The church really believes that God has graciously told us everything we need to know for our salvation. Trouble is, God told us everything in Scripture, and so you open it up and say, “OK, great, God’s laid it all out on the table. Here it is. This is the full revelation … Wow, this is really hard to understand.”

Jesus never answers a question. You ask Jesus, “What is God like?” and Jesus says, “You want me to define what God is like? Well, a man had these two sons, and one of the sons said, ‘Dad, drop dead; put the will into effect -- I’m out of here,’ and he blows everything on booze and bad women, and he comes home in rags. And the father said, ‘Harold, you wanted a good time -- I’m going to show you a good time. Get in to that party. Get a load of that blonde.’ Any other questions about God?”

Well, when you’ve got a savior who works like that, I think the most natural thing in the world is for Christian communicators to write a novel.