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In praise of story

Local author Gary Schmidt inaugurates national literature festival.
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/© laura cebulski

/© laura cebulski

Calvin College professor of English and celebrated local author Gary Schmidt kicked off the school’s biannual Festival of Faith and Writing with a passionate invocation for story on Thursday.

The Festival of Faith and Writing, held once every two years since 1990, gathers writers and literary voices from all faith-perspectives to participate in a conversation about words and their influence. This year’s line-up features acclaimed writers like Jonathan Safran Foer and Marilynne Robinson.

Schmidt, an unabashed disciple of narrative, has himself accumulated a lengthy laundry list of praise. Twice the recipient of the Newbery Honor and a finalist for last year’s National Book Award, Schmidt’s plenary session highlighted what he does best: storytelling.

True to the Festival’s faith-driven mission, Schmidt opened with a captivating retelling of the 2 Kings’ account of Naaman, the Old Testament’s General of Aram who falls from power after contracting leprosy. In his quest for healing, Naaman encounters the suggestions of three servants, the last of which, under the direction of the prophet Elisha, prescribes seven dips in the less-than-clean Jordan River.

Naaman left the river healed with a new faith. But the thrust of Schmidt’s was not the miracle of remedial river baths. Instead, he focused on what came next. Unsure of how to reconcile his new faith with his old lifestyle, Naaman asked Elisha, as Schmidt paraphrased, “How do I live?”

This question, posed humbly, is “where the writer dwells,” Schmidt averred. And story, he continued is about looking for the right questions. Because framed within an enticing narrative, the right questions “should quicken us by shaping our souls,” he said. They cause, among other things, reflection, meditation, and the occasional pause, noted one session attendee.

“Gary Schmidt urged us to, even though the fast-paced digital world pushes us to be constantly overbooked, fight for story, fight for the light that words bring to our lives,” said Calvin senior Bekah Williamson, a student of Schmidt’s and Festival Committee member.

The Naaman narrative was only one of the historical texts Schmidt reckoned with during the course of his session. He recalled Thomas More’s perspective on man’s responsibility to the divine: “To serve Him wittily, in the tangle of his mind.” Later, he referenced John Ruskin, who called writers and artists to love their means before their end: “You will never love art well, till you love what it mirrors better.”

But Schmidt closed with an endorsement of words and their necessity for writers, saying, “If you want to be a writer, you have to love words.” Words, he said, are the entry point to a world of complexity where stories are not just powerful, but essential. 


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Good coverage, Andrew. As usual, Calvin put on a great conference.