Nothing is quite like a "hidden jewel," the washboard-gravel-road place you come upon by happenstance. Inches within the front door: the light, the aroma, perhaps the gentle hum of hushed voices. They all create anticipation that this just might be one of those "finds," something far beyond advertisement or even hope.
In April the Tivoli Theatre in downtown Chattanooga, a hidden jewel in its own right, served as a small velvety box for a Hope Diamond. The enclosed jewel was "The Conference on Southern Literature," 22 years old and this year hosting Wendell Berry, Roy Blount Jr., Natasha Trethewey, Ernest Gaines, Elizabeth Spencer, Jill McCorkle, Ann Patchett, John Shelton Reed, Allan Gurganus, Andrew Hudgins, Clyde Edgerton, and many more who together have won nearly every significant award and fellowship-from Pulitzer to Guggenheim-that can be bestowed on a "person of letters."
All conference attendees sit together and follow the same itinerary. The famous writers are present, just like anyone else. The person sitting next to you might have been on the previous panel or received an award two years ago-or two hours ago. I almost got used to the fact that Wendell Berry was sitting across the aisle from me, and standing around telling jokes with his friends, and that he didn't mind my stepping into the circle and laughing along. Nonagenarian Elizabeth Spencer (of Light in the Piazza fame) offered her umbrella as we strolled arm-in-arm toward the front entrance during a rainstorm-this hours after the debut of the documentary Landscapes of the Heart: The Elizabeth Spencer Story.
Whether an award presentation, panel discussion, tribute, or onstage interview, the focus remains the same, writers reflecting upon and reading from their own works. So conversational was the setting that I was able to get multiple comments from authors regarding the question, "What is the relationship between the church and the world of contemporary 'letters'?" Wendell Berry said, "I didn't know there was a relationship." Andrew Hudgins, hearing my question, laughed aloud and called over friend and poet Rodney Jones, "Rodney, you need to hear this. . . . This guy wants to know what you think about Jesus."
But as time moved on, it became clear that Hudgins was interested in the question-and in the topic in general. In fact, with Flannery O'Conner still featuring prominently-quoted by multiple panelists and speakers-her own words seem still to fit the literary landscape at hand. She referred to the South as not so much "Christian" as "Christ-haunted."
One perhaps Christ-haunted, certainly poignant answer to my question about the relationship of church and literature came from Dorothy Allison, a victim of sexual abuse by her stepfather. She said, "Oh wow . . . it is a very broken relationship." I asked her, "Do you think Christians would do well to read good stories in order better to think about doctrine and life; in order better to appreciate and handle words?" She chimed, "Absolutely. After all, it was the word that became flesh."
The conference website (southernlitconference.org) provides plenty of information on this year's events and authors, and can easily function as a bibliography for interested readers.
-William Boyd is a pastor and writer
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