“Great works of art pass through us like storm winds, flinging open the doors of perception, pressing upon the architecture of our beliefs with their transforming powers …” – George Steiner
One of life’s great little mysteries, if not ironies, remains the unpredictability of what children will grow up to do for their life’s work. I have been amused, if not dismayed at times, that somewhere along the way I chose the life of letters as both my fervent love and means of support. How could a dreamy, distracted kid from a little farm town in Montana end up teaching literature? After all, my mind was anywhere but inside the classroom: playing with yo-yos, riding unicycles, configuring bull horns on the hood of my gigantic old 70s Ford LTD sedan—just to be ridiculous.
Though not very focused in my school lessons, I loved a good story. For this I claim nothing unusual: All people, in some way, need and cherish stories—finding purpose, explanation, and identity in mimesis (the representation of reality in art and literature). Throughout childhood, I read all sorts of boy-and-dog books, captivated by the precarious survival of a dog and his young master in the harsh, unforgiving wild. These stories were viscerally present when my father took me hunting in the colossal mountains of northwest Montana, walking for miles in the falling snow, assisted only by the moonlight and the strength of ochre horses, plodding along rhythmically, and gazing at God’s grandeur.
In stories, the imaginative and sentimental had their effect. I fell in love with E. B. White’s bildungsroman, The Trumpet of the Swan, enthralled with the adventures of Louis, the trumpeter swan without a voice. I remember the delight in reading about Louis traveling all the way to Montana, near my hometown, on his journey of initiation and discovery.
Though my childhood reading must have generated some interest in the content of my English courses, the process was gradual. Early in high school, when called upon to recite a poem in front of the class, I delivered a puerile mocking of Robert Burns’s “A Red, Red Rose,” having little patience for poetry while starving myself each week for the wrestling team, failing to see the monastic if not poetic effects of cutting weight. But more than likely, lines of poetry were simply seeds of beauty that were yet to be cultivated in me, needing a mixture of time and contemplation, and perhaps the water of theology to bring them to bloom.
In college, I was indelibly impacted by great works of theology and philosophy. The poetic rhythm and spiritual yearning of Augustine’s Confessions moved me most. Eventually, I came to believe that metaphysical truth is most aptly expressed in narrative. After all, fables, parables, fiction, and poetry transmit truth imaginatively and artfully—granting illuminating glimpses into the fullness of being, the mysterious and expansive nature of existence, of all that is, happens to be, and will be—that reality beyond the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s limited view that “the world is everything that is the case.”
Poetry and fiction, then, have occupied the greatest part of my teaching, research, and authorial work. The distilled truth of poetry and mimetic power of story provide an aesthetics of faith, life, and hope. From the cosmic abstractions of metaphysical poetry, to the simple tales told between a father and his son in the jagged peaks of the Big Sky state—I trust, in part, on the saving power of narrative, hoping for salvation on the way to certain death, that undiscovered region where the Montana novelist Norman Maclean so eloquently surmises,
Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the earth’s great flood and runs over the rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words. And some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.