Out of My Mind: Just Another Barbarian at the Gate

I was thinking about Annie Dillard the other day. Dillard, who is one of my favorite authors, seems to have gone underground, like Bob Dylan after his motorcycle accident. On her website, which she published as a kind of defensive courtesy to scholars after someone else bought her domain name and used it to post dirty pictures, she writes: “I’m sorry. I’ve never promoted myself or my books, but I used to give two public readings a year. Now I can no longer travel, can’t meet with strangers, can’t sign books but will sign labels with SASE, can’t write by request, and can’t answer letters. I’ve got to read and concentrate. Why? Beats me.”

 During the 1980’s it was common for evangelical writers to quote from Dillard’s Pullitzer prize winning Pligrim at Tinker Creek. I suppose that’s why I will quote her in my next book. Since I started writing seriously in the mid 1980’s, it has always been my ambition to quote Annie Dillard. And to be quoted like her. But every decade seems to have its distinctive voice. In the 90’s it was Kathleen Norris, author of Dakota and A Cloister Walk. At the turn of the century the new voices were Anne Lamott who wrote Traveling Mercies and Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz.  Their books have all been far more successful than mine. As a Christian, I know that I should be high minded about this. I try to rejoice with those who rejoice. But I always end up feeling jealous.

Still, I have not given up all hope. There is a general trajectory toward entropy in all artistic progression which suggests that my day will eventually come. Imagine a professor displaying a series of slides to an art history class. I mean real slides not PowerPoint slides. The kind we used to beam from massive humming projectors in the center of a darkened room that smelled of burnt dust. First there are grainy images from classical Greece, perfect in form and symmetry. Then the mechanical imitations of the Roman period, precise but lacking the imagination of the Greeks. This is followed by the primitive stick figure mosaics of the catacombs.

 I find this trajectory of artistic entropy encouraging. Perhaps it is only a matter of time until evangelical writers begin quoting me.

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John Koessler

John Koessler serves as professor and chair of the pastoral studies department at Moody Bible Institute. His most recent book is The Radical Pursuit of Rest published by InterVarsity Press.

3 thoughts on “Out of My Mind: Just Another Barbarian at the Gate”

  1. I love Kathleen Norris, have read everything she’s published and especially liked The Cloister Walk. I think what I love about her writing is that you almost feel as though you’re there with her. I feel that way about what I’ve read (I’m about halfway through) of your book A Stranger in the House of God. I feel like I’m there with you. I’ve never read Annie Dillard but will look into her books. I’m going with my oldest daughter and family to a cabin in northern Colorado in a few weeks and need to download a few books onto my kindle to read. Do you recommend anything in particular?

    1. Roni,

      Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is Dillard’s classic. If you are going to be in a cabin, it would be a great fit. I really loved her memoir An American Childhood. In many ways it was the model for my book A Stranger in the House of God. Also Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters. Almost anything by her is worth reading.

  2. I’ve been quoting you since I left Moody. My favorite:

    “Guys, when you give sermon illustrations don’t make them about yourself. You’re not that interesting.”

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