When I was telling a friend who’s never been to the Festival of Faith and Writing about this year’s lineup, she replied, “What kind of conference is this?!”
After reflecting (and sleeping) for a few days, I have an answer: “Crowded, challenging, beautiful, funny, spiritual, sad, exhausting, diverse, overwhelming — and above all, awesome!”
There was so much good stuff this year, in fact, that I’ve decided to do a separate blog post later just on the discussion around journalism. Meanwhile, here are my other highlights:
- Zadie Smith gave a brilliant plenary lecture on the nature of creativity and the difference between product and art. “It’s possible to both be skeptical and to possess knowledge,” she said, adding, “The art of writing remains one of the key ways of stating our human capacity” and “Books are not just well-designed products; they’re experiences.”
- Nadia Bolz-Weber was just as hilarious and inspiring as I had hoped. Several lines from her lecture (sermon?) hit home with me and will influence how I write in the future: “I try to preach from my scars and not my wounds” and “The things we say in church are true, but rarely honest.” She also insisted she’s not really a writer, just “a talker with a laptop,” but I would beg to differ.
- Social media has transformed the FFW, both in terms of the sessions offered and the way people discuss them. Since I couldn’t possibly make it to everything I wanted to go to, I appreciated reading other people’s tweets to see what I missed. Social media was also a predominant topic of several sessions and factored into other ones. I was fascinated by Jaweed Kaleem‘s examples of how he uses Facebook and Twitter in his work as a reporter to identify stories to cover (he cited #MuslimApologies — example: “Sorry for trigonometry, aerodynamics and astronomy!”) and to ensure he’s being fair. And, Sarah Bessey made us all laugh when she said, “Nobody needs to talk to me about Snapchat — I’m too old for that crap.”
- Speaking of Islam, that was also a huge topic at this FFW, which I appreciated. I counted at least five Muslim speakers on the schedule, who discussed both their own faith and how it intersects with others. I was disheartened listening to Bob Smietana and Maria Ebrahimji describe their experiences covering hate crimes and other bigotry against Muslims in the U.S., but I was encouraged by how many people at Kaleem’s individual session sought to learn more about Islam and wanted to educate others about it, and by Dennis Covington‘s appeal for understanding as he recounted his time alongside Muslims — and secular European aid workers — in Syria helping those who’ve suffered horribly during the conflict in that country.
While I was chatting with Doug Kindschi, who introduced Kaleem, I found out that Grand Rapids now has five mosques. I’m glad my old church is making an effort to reach out to that community, and I hope other Christians do the same.
- I made a point of attending sessions by Tish Harrison Warren and the hilarious Preston Yancey because we all belong to the same denomination: the Anglican Church in North America. Considering the ACNA is only seven years old and still relatively small, it was remarkable to me to have that big a contingent. (I laughed a little when I got my FFW name tag saying “Reader,” since that’s a role I sometimes play at my church: reading Scripture out loud during the service.) I’m sorry I missed Laura Turner, who is not Anglican, but who wrote a great article about someone who is. I also have quite a few friends at my church who are Calvin grads, which isn’t surprising: I think the Reformed and Anglican traditions both appeal to intellectual-type Christians, of which I hope I am one.
- There’s something special about hearing writers read their own work aloud. Covington’s Southern accent perfectly matched his accounts of snake handling, and Joshua Max Feldman cracked me up with his reading of the encounter between Jonah and a Hasidic Jew on the subway in “The Book of Jonah.” I’d also listen to Chigozie Obioma read just about anything in his beautiful Nigerian accent.
- There’s also something special about print books as opposed to e-readers. No. 1, you can have authors sign them, as I did several times. And No. 2, you can see what other people are reading. I overheard a young woman tell Bessey that she likes to read “Jesus Feminist” on airplanes because it sparks discussions — which I think all good writing should do.