Though labeled as a memoir, Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer is not chronological jaunt through his life. Instead, as the subtitle indicates, it is a series of loosely connected meditations. He explores themes such as life, joy, faith, love, and Christ’s presence as well as death, suffering, disbelief, meaninglessness, and absence. My Bright Abyss is authentic, even as it articulates pain and struggle. The book moves easily between Wiman’s sharp and vivid prose and an assortment of poems, some of which are written by Wiman himself.
However, don’t expect to find anything approaching Christian orthodoxy in his writings. Wiman himself baulks at the designation. While he self-identifies as a Christian, he is uncomfortable with the majority of positive statements of belief that make up the Christian faith. Instead, My Bright Abyss paints a vivid picture of a man struggling to live in what philosopher Charles Taylor describes as a ‘secular age’ – an age in which both belief and unbelief are contested. According to Taylor, a secular age is not devoid of religion, but marked by the fragility of belief. Believing during such an age – being a ‘modern believer’ as Wiman puts it – is difficult. Experiences of love and suffering (particularly from his cancer) begin to develop cracks in Wiman’s atheistic worldview. This leads to immense internal turmoil as he struggles with the Christian upbringing he left behind. Wiman also struggles with the mixture of faith and doubt he subsequently feels. The light that shines through these cracks does not lead Wiman to a renewed Christian orthodoxy, but a battered and challenged belief in a God and Christ that would only occasionally be recognized by most confessing Christians. My Bright Abyss occupies a space between full-fledged Christian belief and skepticism. It is the space of a ‘modern believer.’
Wiman’s writing is strongest when he speaks of longing and absence, but it begins to falter as he tries to positively articulate what he believes. In many ways, one senses that he knows his pain and his deep desires more intimately than he knows Christ, which affects his ability to speak. He stretches language, but even he feels it ultimately fails to capture reality.
As one of my friends put it, Christian Wiman should be welcomed as a sojourner, as a pilgrim, but not as a teacher. This book offers a window into the struggle that many young, modern intellectuals have with classical Christian beliefs, even as they long for faith. My Bright Abyss should not be recommended as a book on Christian faith, but as a window into one man’s struggle of faith in the modern world.
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