Walter Wangerin, Jr's 40-plus books span just about every genre imaginable, and most of them hint at, if not tackle head on, the deeper realities of life: of faith, belief, hope beyond today. Perhaps his most famous work is The Book of the Dun Cow, a 1980 release that rocketed to the top of the literary stratosphere, winning that year’s National Book Award and New York Times Best Children’s Book of the Year. His most recent book is the newly released Everlasting Is the Past: A Memoir, published by accomplished singer/ songwriter Andrew Peterson’s Rabbit Room Press. In this latest work, Wangerin has penned a poignant and deeply personal perspective on life in all of its beautiful messiness — doubts and fears, struggles and trials, losses and disappointments — and the hope found in embracing the faithfulness of God through it all. Deftly chronicling his own crisis of faith as a young seminarian, his struggle to find a vocational fit amid a tempest of doubts, and the ultimate renewal of his spirit in an inner-city church called (quite literally) Grace, Wangerin gently, winsomely invites readers to view our own wounds and weaknesses in a fresh light: a light of mercy, meaning, and hope that our past need not define or shackle us. A passion for good books and compelling stories is not the only trait Wangerin shares with Gloria Gaither; he’s also a fellow Indianan, serving as Senior Research Professor at Valparaiso University, where he has been on the faculty since 1991. In a wide-ranging conversation, Gloria spoke with Wangerin about his life as an author, the rich experiences he so vividly recounts in his latest work, and the unique place he occupies at the intersection of faith and literature.
GLORIA: Walt, how have you been? I haven’t heard from you in forever, and it makes me sad.
WALT WANGERIN: I am … stable. The last time I went to the oncologist, it seemed that all levels were the same. I was about 160 pounds, and that time, I stayed. Every other time, I was losing weight. So the last report—good.
GLORIA: Stable, good. Well, it’s been a long time, and I was so excited to get your new book, Everlasting Is the Past. Can I tell you how excited I am that you published it with the Rabbit Room group?
WALT: I had met one of the singer/songwriters, and then several years back I was invited to speak at one of their seminars. I thought they were just wonderful! How they went about things, their youthful enthusiasm … their Christianity is not cloying at all. Anyway, I decided to help them.
GLORIA: Andrew Peterson has been a friend, and he has taught twice at our Songwriting Intensive that we do here in June, and he’s just one of my favorite people. It’s deep and broad content writing … and the other people in that group seem to be on that wavelength, so that’s a good thing.
WALT: I asked them what they usually pay an author, and they said two-thirds of a sale — they take one-third. Well, I told them, “OK, we’re going to reverse it. I’ll take the one-third; you’ll take the two-thirds.” Because they’ll use the money well.
GLORIA: Well, you’ve been a friend for a long time, speaking at Praise Gatherings — I can’t even remember how many times there — and at Family Fest, and you have written so many classics. And this issue is on great literature and God. I would have to place you as one of the very few what I would call Christian writers in the category of providing the culture with great literature, along with Madeleine L’Engle, and Colson probably, and Calvin Miller, who did the Trilogy series. You have The Book of the Dun Cow, The Book of Sorrows … my favorite, Ragman, and those huge epic books you wrote — The Book of God and Paul and Jesus. So it’s really an honor to put you in this magazine as one of our great literary figures.
WALT: Thank you.
GLORIA: First of all, I want to thank you, not only for a longtime friendship, but for a lifetime of deep and provocative writing.
And this new book … It’s a small memoir of sorts that almost chronicles your pilgrimage of faith and doubt.
GLORIA: Would you say that doubt, or at least questioning faith assumptions, has been a necessary part of your faith journey?
WALT: No doubt. You know, I’m very much a reader of the mystics, St. John of the Cross, especially … the anonymous writer of The Cloud of Unknowing…
GLORIA: Yes, I’m just re-reading them.
WALT: …and how they did doubt, too! And yet, carried on, not seeing God, not knowing God. But the carrying on made them alert until that warmth grew in their hearts. So many Christians are tasked to doubt … that’s a part of my book The Orphean Passages.
GLORIA: Right. This one brought up something that really rang a bell with me, which is that people in Christian leadership, whether they are pastors — I grew up in a pastor’s home, so I know that whole trauma — and people who pastor in other ways, through music or other ways, have no pastor to go to, usually, when they are in their deep cloud of unknowing. I have a feeling, knowing you as I did, that you probably went to great writers — is that true?
WALT: I did that afterward, after that change toward Christianity and ministry. What I went to before was classical music—that is, the Brahms symphonies, [Beethoven’s] Eroica, Bach cantatas … though, I mean, it was sort of like watching his faith through a very thick, bulletproof window. But those are the things that, at least, helped me.
GLORIA: That’s interesting, because … do you think that often our minds — and I’m saying this in the temporal sense of the word—that our minds get in the way? I think maybe bypassing your mind … do you think there’s something greater and that sometimes you have to get out of the obstacle of your own thought processes?
WALT: I think my experience wasn’t so much the mind. I think it was the deep, unanswered questions, so that the way in which God approached me again, finally, was actually through experience. That was very important, and for me, also, sort of the external symbol of the sheep. Although, that became important because I’d read such things as John 10 and the Old Testament.
I wouldn’t say the mind got in the way. My grades were excellent, and ultimately that didn’t take really severe work, so that didn’t get in the way. I really think it was perhaps, when I left the system and went to graduate school, this was the first time that these deep and unanswered questions revealed themselves.
In my looking around, one of the questions — sort of a question, but more of an instinctive recognition — is how limited I was. The things that I really believed were either limitless or else in the world of which limits were very far away, and I had a lot that I could do. So I don’t know that that’s a question … and I wouldn’t say that it got in the way — it consumed me.
GLORIA: The metaphor in your book about the sheep that you brought up … in spite of what you’re saying, it implies a laying down of your being in charge and coming to the place where you can experience God and let Him be in charge.
WALT: I would say it was at that point that I became peaceful with the questions. I wasn’t as conscious of this as it’s going to sound, but that mystery would answer the questions … way, way later, when I had come to Christ. But I didn’t think that way — I think it was mostly that I was free of having to ask the questions, and I was free of having to have the questions completely answered. In that freedom — of course, what I believe is coming to me all the time — but it was in that freedom that I realized the presence of Jesus.
GLORIA: You sound like Rilke and his “learn to love the questions, and maybe you can live yourself into answers.”
WALT: Very nice.
GLORIA: You know, many people today, especially young people, have a quarrel with the traditional church. How can Christians — real Christians and believers, who are, in my view, embedded in the culture, not embedded in ecclesiastica — how can they woo this young generation around the organizations that they have argument with to the heart of Jesus?
WALT: A friend of mine and I are building a book of epistles, back and forth, and I just wrote this … our theme, we call “re-imaging.” The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, which began, or the church was built in 1978, and I was a part of it then — from its inception, it loved the gospel. Social justice was derived from the gospel. “Let us be a church for all races,” they said. Then, “let us be a church large enough to scold the powers that may be.” Truth, as the modern prophets have urged, to power … and more and more. So what are we going to do? I suggest we re-re-image, which is to say, that which is of scripture is still valuable today, which is what I write.
Back to house churches, if need be. When we gather, let the cross be ever central. What about itinerant ministries? Have we talents? Singing, writing, speaking, varieties of service, gifts of healing? These are doorways to trust, and trust to friendship, and friendship is the doorway to the heart. Bold stuff. We should never force the gospel; it will find its own way. We should wait upon the physical, the spiritual, the existential question, and answer these with the gospel of our Lord. The Lord will make, for your answers, an entrance.
Missionary Nelson — this is true — learned the language of the Fulani people so well that he could tell jokes in it, and the people would laugh. He spent decades among them. He told me that he made but a few converts, but he was the gospel. We should find our Timothys. Remember Willa Cather’s portrayal of Bishop Jean Latour in Death Comes for the Archbishop? And Alyosha in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov… And surely George Herbert, the vicar as much as his poetry.
I really do believe that if there are leaders in these things, the young people will follow, especially because it will seem to them completely new! And yet it will be old, as Jesus and Paul.
GLORIA: I think you’re really on to something. I think about the time we made our churches look like Walmart … we assumed that people had been following, but Millennials are as unchurched as any foreign country. I think that we would do better with this generation if we were meeting in caves with writing on the walls and candles and torches. (Walt laughs) I think you’ve really hit something there — it is experiential and being OK with the mystery.
WALT: Yes, absolutely, yes. We live the gospel, even if we cannot fully understand the gospel.
GLORIA: I think we have become so preoccupied with trying to prove our point, rather than … the word that popped out to me in your writing is friendship. Rather than someone standing in a pulpit telling us all what to think, we have a generation that would rather just sit in a circle and have a conversation. Your book took me through many of the stages of our friendship, when you were in the inner city of Evansville and, of course, to Ragman, and to some of the actual sermons you got from the inner-city people who did not have education or theological training, but they are the ones that taught you faith.
WALT: Well, they certainly taught me the shape of it, and the activities of it. You reminded me, I think we should be prepared to do what we do living among the people, not from a distance. We should, as Jesus said, take no scrip, just our sandals, and so forth … to go among the poor as poor. There is a way of living in mutual poverty, and yet consistently being yourself. I never played at being a black pastor; I used all that I was—my intellect, my storytelling, my visitations and so forth. It is out of that sort of life that justice comes — real justice.
GLORIA: Well, is that so different, in the inner city or in poor areas, as in any other areas, any other neighborhood, any other setting?
GLORIA: You know, we travel the world, and we live on Hanna Street still, one mile from where Bill was born and grew up. I’ve lived there 52 years now, with him, and four more in the area, while I was in college. So we’re pretty embedded there, and we’ve lived in this same house. So I think what we say on stage does not matter; it’s what we say in the neighborhood that matters.
I know our children have been involved in home churches. One is in an academic community, and the kids just came to him and said, “We can’t do church, but we know you know God, and would you talk to us about Him?” And even those of us who attend an organized church … often, it is a Bible study, or a group of neighborhood girls, or a men’s fellowship that really get together as they do at our Family Resource Center. On Tuesday morning, these 50 guys come together, pray for each other, sing their heads off, share their needs, and go on to work.
WALT: Let me give you another example. When I was at Grace, when we would take our choir on tour and so forth, we didn’t have money to support it. So I went to the church where I did my vicarage, which was rich, and I would ask them to help support us. We had a neighborhood ministry to the poor called the Mission of Grace, so I went for help for that. But, they always said, “What will these people do with ‘our money’?” And so I always had the image of Redeemer [Church] giving a 20-dollar bill, but holding on to an end of it and controlling how that money would be used in the churches that needed it.
GLORIA: Yeah, and that’s unfortunate, isn’t it? Because our giving in a home church … one of the things that I’ve observed from our kids was that their giving was so organic, and it usually came out of a prayer request. One of the persons worked at a university, a secular university, and they said, “This girl came to college with a full scholarship, but she found that her scholarships, as of the second semester, did not cover her books. She’s in the sciences, so that’s almost a thousand dollars, and so she’s going back home because that is the moon for her family.” So they were asking, “Could we pray for this girl?” Then somebody in the circle said, “Do we really need to pray about this? I’ll give 100 dollars. Is there anybody else who can help buy her books?” Then they said, “Take this to school, and tell this girl that Jesus bought her books.”
WALT: They were both prayer for her and the answer to prayer for her.
GLORIA: I keep coming back to the word, Walt — embedded. I think these times are calling us, as Christians, and I don’t care whether—we’re musicians and writers, you’re an author and an endowed chair — we all have positioning titles. But I think our calling is to be embedded in the culture, and really, what you ended up doing in the inner city, or where you are now — you’re embedded in that culture. So you be, you be, you be Christ every morning when you get up. And you know what? It isn’t glamorous, and it doesn’t ever get glamorous.
WALT: Good. Glamour is a good word.
GLORIA: It’s just regular; it’s so regular you don’t notice it, but isn’t that what the disciples asked us to do and what they did?
WALT: When we pastored Grace, and that was all the way from 1974 till the late ’90s, we got a very poor pay, for all kinds of reasons. But [my wife] Thanne was frugal. She also used every possibility to get what she could get for free … hand-me-downs. Do you know that wax paper on the inside of cereal boxes does a great job of wrapping sandwiches for school?
GLORIA: (laughs) I know all about cereal boxes, because I used to work at Kellogg’s. I remember my mother peeling the foil from gum wrappers to make Christmas decorations that we cut out of cardboard.
GLORIA: I think that is the beauty of this particular book, especially coming from you, who has all kinds of accolades and credentials. And I have a feeling right now, struggling with long-term cancer as you have, and yet you have stayed embedded in your world. You’ve written when you can, you’ve spoken when you could …
WALT: I think the faithful really don’t know the depth of their faith until they are in a severe crisis, and yet discover that they’re not afraid. Oh, they can kick against the goads, and they can hurt and groan and be angry at the hurt. But at the same time, they discover that in spite of all of that, they’re not afraid to die. I do believe that some of the best witnesses that a faithful person can make is when he or she is before death. And whether or not people actually see the beauty of that faith and the peace of it, nevertheless, it too is a witness before the world — and maybe one of the best witnesses that we have.
I came upon that while I was I in the first years of cancer and had been told it was at the level of 3B, which is only a wink away from 4, which is the highest level of danger. We were told to set our affairs in order, and Thanne still lives with my sudden death, and so forth and so on. Nevertheless, I was astonished to find out that I was not afraid, and although I didn’t need to speak about the fearlessness, it nevertheless was a witness.
GLORIA: Exactly. Coming back to great literature, haven’t so many pieces of great writing come out of pain? And almost all of the desert fathers and desert mothers — Teresa of Ávila, John of the Cross, The Cloud of Unknowing’s anonymous author…
GLORIA: …Dostoyevsky. I guess because we, as human beings, have to get to the place where we are not in charge … to realize that it’s OK that we’re not in charge.
GLORIA: Otherwise, we’re such power freaks! (laughs)
WALT: My vision of heaven does not have paradise. It does not necessarily have “We’re gonna meet all our beloveds.” It has one thing, and that is that we will be with Jesus, whatever that means. That the Jesus who called forth Lazarus by saying his name, the Jesus who knows the name of every sheep in the flock, the same Jesus who resurrected Mary Magdalene after His resurrection.
GLORIA: … by calling her name.
WALT: Yes … Mary. My image is that if I die and am in nothingness, if I’m aware of nothingness or not, Jesus will call my name and I will be, whatever that means. I will be with Jesus; that’s what I’m sure of. The rest, to me, is a mystery.