Songs from the Silent Passage

Reviewed By:

G. Connor Salter, Professional Writing alumnus from Taylor University, Upland, IN.

Title:

Songs from the Silent Passage: Essays on the Works of Walter Wangerin, Jr by the members of the Chrysostom Society


Authors:

Edited by Matthew Dickerson and Anne M. Doe Overstreet


Publisher:

Rabbit Room Press


Publication Date:

May 7, 2021


Format:

Paperback


Length:

184 pages


OVERVIEW


Walter Wangerin, Jr. (1944-2021) wrote many things. He released his first novel, a fantasy based on the Canterbury Tales titled Book of the Dun Cow, in 1978 and won considerable awards for it. Over the next forty-three years he wrote memoirs, poems, novels about Biblical figures, and gave many seminars about writing as a Christian. Here, friends and colleagues give their thoughts on his impressive body of work:

  • An introduction by John Wilson about Wangerin’s status as a writer
  • Eugene Peterson on his experience reading Book of the Dun Cow and how Wangerin informed his approach to being a pastor
  • James Calvin Shaap on Wangerin’s shorter works and how his preaching background informs those works
  • Diane Glancy on Wangerin’s novel Crying for a Vision as a novel about Native Americans
  • Matthew Dickerson on Wangerin works that explore unexpected grace
  • Luci Shaw on Wangerin’s memoir Letters from the Land of Cancer
  • Sara R. Danger on Wangerin’s works for children
  • An afterword by Philip Yancey about Wangerin’s career as a whole


While Wangerin achieved great reviews and a devoted fan base, he tended to get overlooked. Reading this book you can see some clear connections between his work and themes explored by more famous Christian novelists. Like Frederic Buechner, Wangerin wrote a complex novel about a complicated saint. Like Wendell Berry, he wrote beautifully about a rural, down-to-earth American Christianity. However, while Berry, Buechner (and Marilynne Robinson) routinely appear at the top of “great Christian novelists of the last 50 years” lists, Wangerin often goes unmentioned. To this reviewer’s knowledge, the only other book-length study on Wangerin is Shaping Our Lives with Words of Power (Greenleaf-Witcop Press, 1994) by Dianne R. Portfleet.


To some extent, the problem may be what has plagued Buechner’s career: the stereotype of being a minister who writes fiction. Buechner has admitted that since he’s an ordained Presbyterian minister, critics assume he is “somebody with a special axe to grind.” However, as Jeffrey Monroe notes, Buechner was ordained as an evangelist and ultimately saw himself as an apologist. This means while Buechner has preached sermons, he’s never pastored a church or written about how to do that. Wangerin was an ordained minister who preached, pastored a church and wrote extensively about his experiences leading an inner-city church. So, on paper, Wangerin sounds even more like the “minister writing fiction” stereotype than Buechner does, making it even easier to dismiss him. Wangerin seemed to recognize this – in an interview with W. Dale Brown published in Of Fiction and Faith, he observed that publishers narrowed his audience early on when they classified him as a religious writer.


Since Wangerin fit that odd space of “Christian writers who write better than you’d think,” this book serves as a great corrective. The contributors show his theology was always orthodox, yet his honesty when describing spiritual struggles. They also note his uncanny ability to describe things which may not seem proper – such as the darkness in his children’s books – but prove to be exactly what readers need.


Because Wangerin was a diverse writer, it’s hard to give the full scope of his talent. This book overcomes that problem with each contributor describing one element, then showing how it relates to others. Equally impressive, each contributor makes their ideas accessible. A book covering someone this prolific could easily be one of those ten-pound tomes that English Lit students try to carry without breaking their backpacks. Each chapter is fascinating, but compact. The fact most of these writers knew Wangerin personally through the Chrysostom Society adds warmth and honesty. This is especially true in the chapter about Letters from the Land of Cancer, looking at how Wangerin suffered yet learned while facing his mortality. Where Portfleet’s book was well-written but dense, this book is well-written and warm.


A great book on a valuable Christian storyteller.


ASSESSMENT


Rating (1 to 5 stars):


5 stars


Suggested Audience:


Readers interested in Walter Wangerin Jr.’s work, from a personal or an academic perspective.


Christian Impact:


The book touches on a variety of religious themes that have been important to Wangerin’s life (particularly as a pastor) and to his fiction.


Note:

Readers who enjoy these essays may enjoy Matthew Dickerson’s book Disciple Making in a Culture of Power, Comfort and Fear. To read ECLA’s review, go to:
https://eclalibraries.org/2020/10/23/disciple-making-in-a-culture-of-power-comfort-and-fear/

Songs from the Silent Passage: Essays on the Works of Walter Wangerin Jr.


Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Apologetics and the Power of Tension (Why Do High Churches Get All the Good Artists Pt 4) – G. Connor Salter - August 24, 2021

    […] can create stories with compelling themes. For example, Matthew Dickerson argues in his essay for Songs from the Silent Passage that Walter Wangerin has repeatedly written about “one who must pass through utter […]

  2. The Importance of “Thinginess” (Why Do High Churches Get All the Good Artists Pt 5) – G. Connor Salter - August 31, 2021

    […] when an artist has immersed themselves enough in the material to capture its particular essence. Walter Wangerin said when he taught writing, “I teach my students that writing requires paying attention. Be […]

  3. Must It Always Be Kid-Friendly? (Why Do High Churches Get All the Good Artists Pt 7) – G. Connor Salter - September 28, 2021

    […] for his willingness to capture harsh spiritual trials even as his characters found redemption. Sara R. Danger noted how his children’s books took cues from the Grimm Brothers, taking his characters on […]

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: