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.

The project grew out of the Lutheran Festival of Writing, sponsored by Luther College, Decorah,
Iowa. Its two festivals have attracted 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.

Walter Wangerin Jr.Walter Wangerin Jr.

Lutheran connection: ELCA pastor and son of a Lutheran pastor.

Genre: Fiction, poetry, plays, children's books.

Titles: More than 30 books, including his most recent Naomi and Her Daughters (Zondervan, 2010). The Book of the Dun Cow (HarperOne, 2003) won the National Book Award for science fiction in 1980.

Bio: He is a senior research professor at Valparaiso [Ind.] University.

When The Book of the Dun Cow was published, it was known that I was Christian. I think that didn't matter then because I was a pastor of an inner-city black congregation, and as far as prejudice went, it was an acceptable act to be working in an inner city. If I had come from a large suburban congregation, it wouldn't have been. I would have been astonished if anyone saw "Lutheran" in the book. For the first time I saw it was natural to see sacrifice for the sake of the people. That sense of sacrifice has continued. The whole issue of confession and repentance as a saving act I have found in my writing.

When somebody approaches the writing process as a faithful person, in a sense there is a clearer direction that comes with that sense of a human's sinfulness, a relation to a deity, an actual progress or narrative motion from one state of relationship to another. I watch secular writers make a motion from the beginning to the end of their narrative, which in some ways merely opens up the thesis with which they began: "they are all sad people." What happens in the book is a demonstration of sadness.

Jim BodeenJim Bodeen

Lutheran connection: Member, Central Lutheran Church, Yakima, Wash.

Genre: poetry.

Titles: Eight books, including This House: A Poem in Seven Books (Tsunami Press, 1999).

Bio: Bodeen is a retired high school teacher; founder of Blue Begonia Press; a frequent teacher at Holden Village, near Chelan, Wash.; and a companion of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church. Bodeen says his preferred position is "inside the theology and outside of the institution."

I don't have to have ultimate answers as either a poet or as a follower of Jesus. The poet is not the ultimate authority. The poet is a necessary ingredient in the relationship between God and man. Kind of like John the Baptist, the poet is not the light, but he reflects the light. He might be the wick or the wax in the candle. Necessary.

My friend Jody says the poet sat by the king like a jester because the king knew that the poet would tell him the truth. The poet had an honored place. Times have changed, but the job description remains the same: tell the truth.

Los poetes son los ebrios de dios — "poets are God's drunks." I'm comfortable with this because of the true nature of the intoxication, which is a synonym for inspiration, and it helps me understand that the world is going to see us as the drunks that we are.

Rene SteinkeRene Steinke

Lutheran connection: Daughter, niece and granddaughter of pastors; mother's relatives were church organists. Graduate of Valparaiso [Ind.] University. Associate member, Grace and St. Paul Lutheran Church, New York City.

Genre: Fiction.

Titles: Holy Skirts (Harper Perennial, 2005), a finalist for the National Book Award; The Fires (William Morrow, 2000).

Bio: Steinke teaches creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University, Madison, N.J., and at the New School in New York.

Growing up as a minister's daughter has a lot to do with my evolution as a writer because you meet so many people unlike yourself in a small congregation. That got me interested in people's internal lives. The thing that inspires me to write is to understand the characters.

Now I am writing about fundamental Christians from Texas. I am about as far away from that as it's possible to be and still be in the same faith. Fundamentalists are often satirized and stereotyped. I am trying to write about two characters in a way that shows their humanity, vulnerability and internal conflict.

Mark MustianMark Mustian

Lutheran connection: Lutheran by marriage; high school Sunday school teacher; member of St. Stephen Lutheran Church, Tallahassee, Fla.

Genre: Fiction.

Titles: The Gendarme (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, 2010).

Bio: A lawyer and a city commissioner, Mustian's writing career has its roots in an early midlife crisis and curiosity about his Armenian roots.

My heritage is Armenian way back, but I never knew much about it. After reading about the Turkish expulsion of the Armenians in 1915, I ended up writing my novel from the point of view of a gendarme (soldier)escorting people out of the country.

I wrote this because I wanted the story to be told and for people to know about this part of history. I was also fascinated by what happened to the faith of survivors because many could not reconcile a loving God with what had happened.

The other big question in the book, told from the [viewpoint] of a sort of perpetrator, is: is there redemption no matter what you've done? I was raised Baptist, and when I first came into the Lutheran church and was going over doctrine with the pastor, I said, "Let me get this straight. I can be a mass murderer, convert on my deathbed, and I'm saved?" The answer was yes. It was so hard to get around that. That is something the book explores.

Marilyn NelsonMarilyn Nelson

Lutheran connection: raised at First English Lutheran Church, Sacramento, Calif.; first full-time job was with Lutheran Campus Ministry; served on the hymn text committee for the Lutheran Book of Worship; taught at St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minn.

Genre: Poetry, young adult books.

Titles: Twelve books, most recently The Freedom Business: Including a Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa (Front Street Press; 2008) and Snook Alone (Candlewick, 2010).

Bio: Nelson is professor emerita of English at the University of Connecticut, Storrs; founder and director of Soul Mountain Retreat, a small writers' colony; and former poet laureate of Connecticut.

I read something years ago that said if you look at a poet's first book you will find the themes that will occupy her for the rest of her career. In my first book there was a section about roots and family background and a section about spirituality and spiritual questioning. I was writing about being black, about how to negotiate an African-American identity in the 20th century, and I was writing about being a woman and trying to negotiate that identity. And I was writing about being a human being in the universe and asking: What are we? What does it mean to be alive? What is required of us? I think those issues have remained my issues ever since.

I'm really interested in history. I like learning something as I write. I like teaching something through my work.

I am not much interested in writing about my own personal life, and I discover more and more that I am not much interested in reading about other people's personal lives. "I got up this morning and had rye toast with Cheez Whiz and thought about life" — I'm not interested. I don't want people to come away from my work knowing about Marilyn Nelson. I want them to know about something bigger, more important.

David OppegaardDavid Oppegaard

Lutheran connection: Graduate of St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minn.

Genre: Science fiction.

Titles: The Suicide Collectors (St. Martin's Press, 2008), a Bram Stoker Award nominee; Wormwood, Nevada (St. Martin's Press, 2009).

Bio: Oppegaard lives and writes in St. Paul, Minn.

The wonderful thing about science fiction is that it allows you to play in strange terrain and gives you space to flesh out one big idea — like, what if the majority of Earth's population decided, individually, to just give up the struggle of living and pass away?

When I started writing The Suicide Collectors, 9/11 was still a recent event and the world ending didn't seem to be such a farfetched idea, and I just wanted to come up with a fresh take on it.

My second novel, Wormwood, Nevada, fed off The Suicide Collectors' dark energy but ended up a wholly different beast, like a strange flower emerging from radioactive soil. Since the two books have come out, however, I've moved on from the end of the world and have started concentrating more on the darkness and light inside individual souls, and how these battles play out in the "real" world.

For someone with reclusive inclinations, I sure seem to be fascinated by people — the more messed up the better.

Philip BryantPhilip Bryant

Lutheran connection: Graduate of and now English professor at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, Minn. "I call myself a naturalized Lutheran, by marriage," he said. As a student at Gustavus, Bryant met a generation of Lutheran writers who influenced his poetry.

Genre: Poetry.

Titles: Stompin' at the Grand Terrace: A Jazz Memoir in Verse (Blueroad Press, 2009) and Sermon on a Perfect Spring Day (New Rivers Press, 1998).

In 1970, I heard author and poet Robert Bly read with the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer. Tranströmer would read in Swedish, quietly, and then Bly would do a loud English version, arms flailing, very demonstrative and dramatic. He reminded me of a Lutheran minister, imploring his flock to do better.

From their little perch in Madison, Minn., Robert and Carol Bly were a formidable force, a great example of what could be farmed and harvested in their own backyard, not provincially but by making the local and the foreign comfortable with each other.

When I read Bill Holm's Music of Failure (University Of Minnesota Press, 2010), I saw that he had a love/hate relationship with his culture, an ongoing debate. Immediately I knew that I had been arguing and debating with my own culture in similar ways. Holm's culture was Icelandic and rural while mine was Southern and had to do with slavery and the South coming to Chicago. There were many messages that I should reject that [culture], grow up and transform myself into something else. Reading Holm made me sensitive to that: you are where you came from. That clicked with me.

Lutherans don't like conflict, and Bly and those guys would come in and want to blow up the place, at least rhetorically. Carol and Robert would affirm their culture at the same time they were taking it to task. It's not comfortable literature. It wants to engage you, argue with you, speak frankly and clearly with you, and bring in a lot of things from the outside that have an effect on it. That's why they are important writers.

Deb LundDeb Lund

Lutheran connection: Member and musician of Trinity Lutheran Church, Freeland, Wash.

Genre: Children's literature.

Titles: Four books, most recently Dinosailors (Harcourt Children's Books, 2003) and All Aboard the DinoTrain (Sandpiper, 2009).

Bio: A musician, teacher and school librarian, Lund landed her first book contract after a friend asked her to write prayers for children that used inclusive language and focused on grace.

I write rollicking, rhyming, rowdy books about a group of dinosaurs who head off on different adventures. Along the way, the characters learn a lot about themselves and their dreams — which has a lot to do with listening for God's voice and following where you have been called. The whole concept of grace is so important to me. Especially writing for children, no matter what happens in the story you always end with hope, which to me is another form of grace.

Jill Alexander EssbaumJill Alexander Essbaum

Lutheran connection: member, First English Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas.

Genre: Poetry.

Titles: Heaven (A Middlebury College/Bread Loaf Book, 2000), Harlot (No Tell Books, 2007), Devastation (Cooper Dillon Books, 2009).

Bio: "Jill Alexander Essbaum is devout and edgy and represents Lutheranism in a different light," said Paul Shepherd, director of the Lutheran Writers Project, which is sponsoring her 2011 book tour to ELCA colleges and churches in nine states. She teaches in the low-residence master of fine arts program at the Palm Desert Campus of the University of California, Riverside. She also mows lawns.

I am a poet and I am a Christian and I am a Lutheran. The older I get, the more Lutheran I discover that I am. A lot of my thought is infused with basic Lutheran theology, which is grace above all things, and reason.

I also feel a kinship with [Martin] Luther, though lately when I tell this to people they back away! Luther knew what it meant to be chased by the devil. I know what it is like to be haunted by things that only prayer and writing and really railing can solve. Death, sex and religion are things I can't let go, that haunt me. I write about religion a lot and about sex and I've found that — and usually secular people fight me on this — church folk are way more comfortable talking about sex than the secular folk are talking about Jesus.

Todd Boss?Todd Boss

Lutheran connection: Raised at First Lutheran Church in Eau Claire, Wis.; graduate of St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minn.; currently church shopping.

Genre: Poetry.

Title: Yellowrocket (W.W. Norton, 2010).

Bio: The self-appointed poet laureate of Nina's Cafe in St. Paul, Minn., Boss is also the co-founder of Motionpoems, a film project that turns poems into animated shorts.

All my people are Lutheran. I have been very heavily influenced by the creeds, the music, the people and everything I heard ... whether I want to be or not. I'll always be paddling with that undercurrent.

I think of my poems as prayers. A lot of things are happening in a good poem that reaches you, touches you. I remember so often as a kid sitting in church and being moved. Feeling it under your skin, in the back of your neck, when your heart skips or quickens or something itches in the bottom of your feet, I know I've been moved. I've been touched. That is what I try to do in poems.

To a lot of writers, God is kind of the third rail — you don't say God! But I like to think of God as a creative character, as an artist. A lot of poems in Yellowrocket treat God as an artist and raise questions about his creator nature. At Nina's Café, God is not taboo but part of the dialogue.

Emily Rapp?Emily Rapp

Lutheran connections: Pastor's daughter; graduate of St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minn.; former youth intern at the Lutheran World Federation; former board member, ELCA Division for Global Mission.

Genres: Memoir and fiction.

Titles: Poster Child: A Memoir (Bloomsbury, 2007).

Bio: Rapp teaches at the Santa Fe [N.M] University of Art and Design. She is writing a memoir about her son Roan, recently diagnosed with Tay-Sachs disease.

My book about my son is a love story. Like all great love stories, it is ultimately a story of loss. That has become clear to me this year, but I was always very aware that bad things happened to people, that things didn't turn out the way you expected. This has made me look again in more wrenching ways. There is no right path, no right way to be or think or act, only what you are given and how you manage it.

Writing about suffering is not therapeutic, it's cathartic. The end goal of therapy is emotional regulation or happiness, equilibrium. The goal of catharsis is not the same. Art comes from catharsis, which means to strip away or burn out. Art wrenched out of something that has happened to you is painful, like a crucible. ... A person writing a memoir is like a person on fire, not a person sitting in a chair talking about their feelings.


Jack Labusch

Jack Labusch

Posted at 4:31 am (U.S. Eastern) 10/11/2011

Nice article, Ann. An occasional reader of a big-city book review, I noticed a while back there was something like a Lutheran literature.

Just a few thoughts. A writer had his work fawned over. He remarked: "Writing is easy. The thinking beforehand is hard."

Martin Luther's ephemeral writings (granted, they're non-fiction) retain power after a half-millenium. Not sure if some of his lesser selected works are available.

Anyone with half an itch for it ought to recite his own verse at a nearby open-mike poetry night. The experience can be bracing. My own verse flopped. The experience may teach you something about the limits of language

Note: Jack Labusch edited this post at 1:57 pm on 10/11/2011.

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