By Barbara Falconer Newhall
Where do I belong – spiritually, philosophically, politically? As a writer? It’s not easy to pigeonhole me, and believe me I’ve tried.
I’m not a born-again evangelical, brimming with certitude. But I don’t belong in the ranks of those who believe that Jesus was just another nice guy either. I’m not an inward-looking meditator or mystic, but neither am I a peace and justice activist devoting all my waking hours to putting the world right. Politically, I’m not a neo-con, but neither am I a knee-jerk liberal (not any more anyway).
Where do I belong? None of the niches seem to fit. Where are my readers? Does anybody out there get me?
For a writer, nichelessness can be a problem. If I were a born-again Christian, I’d be a Christian Booksellers Association author with tons of hungry readers. Conservative Christian book publishers would be wooing me, and so would the many mainstream publishers who’ve gotten into the evangelical act in recent years.
If I were a Catholic, same thing. The Catholic market is big and focused. It has plenty of publishers and readers who would like my Catholic stuff. Similarly, if I were a progressive Christian with an activist bent, I could join forces with the people who write for places like Soujourners magazine. Come to think of it, a Buddhist would also be a great thing to be these days – lots of literate, thoughtful, book- and magazine-buying Buddhists are out there right now looking for something to read. Crystals? Numerology? Astrology? People read about those things. Too bad I can’t write about them.
The trouble is, I’m a hopelessly open-minded, wondering, seeking, yearning skeptic who, despite her doubts, senses that the Holy is at work in the lives of human beings of every sort – Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, true believers, doubters, students of religion, atheists, humanists, sensualists and ascetics. And to tell the truth, I like it where I sit. I like it that my horizons are so wide. I can see a lot from here. So, although it may be hard for some people to get me, maybe I don’t want to be gotten if the price is being niched.
But nichelessness can be lonely. Where is my writing community, I’ve often wondered. Who do I talk to when I want to mull things over? My writing groups have been wonderfully supportive of my writing, but often they have no feeling for what I am trying to write. One dear friend, brought up in an atheist family, is uncomfortable whenever I use the word God. A cultural anthropologist colleague has to struggle to think outside the science box to see religion as anything but a useful social glue. Another dear friend, this one a Buddhist, gets nervous if I mention Jesus.
But that’s over now. I’ve found my niche — and it’s filled with nicheless writers and artists. I found it last summer during the week I spent at the Glen Workshop in Santa Fe. A conference for writers, musicians and visual artists, the Glen Workshop describes itself as grounded in the Christian perspective but hospitable to spiritual wayfarers of every stripe.
That’s a word I’ve been looking for: wayfarers. It describes the company at the Glen nicely. Waiting in line at the book shop, I met a Christian writer from Texas who said that she was taking some time to explore Buddhism. At lunch I sat with a passionate Christian from Florida who couldn’t wait to read the book I’m working on; she wanted to know how Muslims, Hindus and Jews experienced the Holy so essential to life as she led it.
The atmosphere at the Glen Workshop can be traced back to its sponsor, the Seattle-based literary journal Image, which made it its mission twenty years ago to explore the intersection of art and faith. In an interview in the April 2, 2009, issue of Christian Century, Image editor Gregory Wolfe talks about nichelessness.
“Image deliberately transcends many of the niches in our society – niches where money and power tend to accumulate,” Wolfe tells his interviewer. “We’re neither the evangelical nor the Catholic journal of the arts. We’re neither neoconservative nor New Left. We don’t advocate realism over abstraction in painting or vice versa.”
Similarly, over the twenty years since its inception, Wolfe said, Image has tried to bring artists and writers who are comfortable with traditional Christian and Jewish faith together with folks who weren’t so sure, who were outsiders looking in, “who nonetheless seriously grappled with matters of faith.” In other words, for twenty years Image has been a home for the open-minded, the big-hearted, the nicheless.
As the Glen Workshop came to a close last summer, participants were asked to fill out the usual evaluation form. In the space allowed for comments, I couldn’t help myself, I effused. Apparently, the feeling was mutual, for when I opened the brochure for the 2009 conference, I saw my quote: “It was wonderful,” I exclaimed to all who would listen, “to be with so many people who get me.”
Hmmm. Maybe I’ve found my niche.
Update: Turns out that the interfaith website, Patheos.com, and its book publishing arm, Patheos Press, also fit my niche very nicely. Patheos is the publisher of my book, “Wrestling with God: Stories of Doubt and Faith.”
© 2009 Barbara Falconer Newhall