The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Living with words

Lutheran writers share how their work 'faces the world'

"In my walk in the secular world, the poets hate my God talk," said poet Jim Bodeen. "'Oh, there's Bodeen again and the God stuff,' they say."

Raised Lutheran in North Dakota and Seattle, connected to the Salvadoran Lutheran Church through the ELCA Companion Synod program, and a reader of theology, Bodeen writes poems that are filled with "God talk." He is a Lutheran writer: someone influenced by, and often wrestling with, the tradition that formed and still nurtures him.

Todd Boss thinks of his poems, which
Todd Boss thinks of his poems, which deal with growing up on a farm, marriage, parenting and more, as prayers. In between prayers, he may be found drinking coffee or organizing poetry readings at Nina's Cafe in St. Paul, Minn.

Walter Wangerin Jr. describes himself the other way around. "I am a writer who is a Lutheran," said the ELCA pastor whose first novel, The Book of the Dun Cow (HarperOne, 2003), won the National Book Award.

Instead of adhering to Lutheran principles, Wangerin's writing is informed by his view of the world. "We all have means for interpreting existence, and Lutherans have a very particular means," he said. "It's how we see that's Lutheran, not what we write."

Finding and connecting writers who see the world through Lutheran glasses is the goal of the Lutheran Writers Project, based at Roanoke College, Salem, Va.

Since 2007, the project has co-sponsored two Festivals of Lutheran Writing, attracting several dozen keynote writers and more than 400 participants. It has lifted up new and established Lutheran voices through symposia, a book tour and a website.

"We offer lots of ways to encourage conversation among people who write and who are interested in writing," said project director Paul Shepherd, author of More Like Running Away (Sarabande Books, 2005) and a member of St. Mark Lutheran Church, Charlottesville, Va. That includes an online newsletter, to which more than 800 people subscribe, he said.

Some of these writers are preacher's kids like Carol Gilbertson, professor emerita at Luther College, Decorah, Iowa; director of the Festival of Lutheran Writing; and author of the poetry chapbook From a Distance, Dancing (Finishing Line Press, 2011). "I was surrounded by biblical language, the proclamation of the gospel and well-chosen words. What I grew up comes out in my writing," she said.

Author Deb Lund and a dinosaur friend
Author Deb Lund and a dinosaur friend reminisce about the inspiration for Dinosailors, a children's book she wrote after sailing with the Shifty Sailors chantey singers.

Others attended or teach at Lutheran colleges, like poet Philip Bryant, a graduate and faculty member of Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, Minn. "Everybody associates Garrison Keillor nationally with the Lutheran thing, but I think Lutheran writing is deeper than that," he said. "And talk about point of view — that's only one slice." (In fact, Keillor claims to be Episcopalian.)

Many are laypeople. Poet Jill Alexander Essbaum gets funny looks when she tells people she's a Lutheran writer. "It wouldn't sound weird if we were Jewish or Catholic writers," she said. "Maybe it's because it is so specific. I mean, 'Presbyterian writers' sounds weird too."

Commenting on writing, Gilbertson said: "What [Martin] Luther calls 'the living word' in the 21st century takes seriously the challenges of the world, including doubt, heartache, pain and physical disease. It's writing that faces the world fully and completely."

In this article, we highlight 11 writers who are Lutheran — and who are facing the world fully and completely through their poetry, fiction and memoirs.

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Embracing diversity