Rowan Williams on Writing

Anyone who has read Grace and Necessity, or On Christian Theology, or Tokens of Trust will know that Rowan Williams is one of the most creative and mature writers of our time; and in this recent talk, he offered some reflections on the craft:

‘I started out as a theologian thinking that it would be fairly straight forward to write large books about Christian doctrine. I’d spent quite a few years reading them as a student and, you know, it looked fairly straight forward. You started at page one and you went on until you stopped and in some cases, as with the work of the great Karl Barth, it was a very long time between the beginning and the end. And somewhere along the line, I suppose, I wouldn’t say I lost my nerve as that’s not it, but I began to realise some of the dangers of writing large books about Christian doctrine is in the risk of supposing that when you have done it you might think that you’ve done it. My doctoral research was on Vladimir Losky, the great 20th century Russian émigré theologian who lived in Paris, and Losky was somebody who instilled in his readers and his students a very strong conviction that you needed to be restrained in what you aimed to say about God. There was always going to be more that you could be saying and you needed to be very keenly and very acutely aware of that “more”, and if that meant that you said less, well, good. And as the years went by, I found myself, yes, writing a fair bit about theology but never really being able to go very much beyond writing relatively short essays on the subject because of this – I hope its a – godly fear of rabbiting on too much with the fantasy of thinking you’ve got it wrapped up.

… the action of writing is an action of discovery. The very look of a word, sometimes, when you have got it down, will tell you something about what you can and can’t do. The very look of a line will tell you what you can and can’t do and of course that other act which is reading what you have written out loud will tell you something about what you can and can’t do …

With poetry obviously you don’t write a poem just to flex the muscles. You write it because something is asking to be said and that doesn’t happen in quite the same way when you are writing prose but I have found writing some theological essays and lectures and short books that there may be at some early stage a very strong sense that there is one thing here, which I have got to get over somehow or got to get in somewhere. When I used to take sermon classes in the days gone by for theological students, having listened to some apprentice sermons, I’d say, “Perhaps what you need to do is ask yourself: what would you say in a burning house? What would you say if you had forty-five seconds? What do you absolutely have to say about this text or this subject or this festival? Start there and work around it, rather than starting by saying: I’ve got to fill up twelve minutes. And you just keep pouring and mixing and the sludge slowly stirs around but start with “Is there one thing” and sometimes – not always – but sometimes when I’m writing an essay or a lecture there may be one thing like that which I feel I need to say, so yes there is an element of compulsion there’.

Full post here.

5 comments

  1. Where’s the image from? He looks almost casual except for his super-powers ring.

    Seriously, thanks for this – having just been doing a lot of work on RW, I must say that this interview helps in understanding something of his method.

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  2. I just discovered Rowan Williams as a sermoniser recently and am, as a practising non-Christian, bewitched by his thought, which reaches out to me without asking me to subscribe to any dogmas. The man is a treasure like another Archbishop, Desmond Tutu.

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  3. Jason,
    thanks for this awesome post. I must say, and with exuberance, that it’s REFRESHING to see someone saying something constructive and positive about Abp. Williams. He is truly, as you intoned, one of the profound thinkers of our time. I’m only glad some of us see this now, and can appreciate his presence as well as his written work.
    thanks again,

    Dan

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  4. Well, am no Christian, just a pagan bloke (LOL) in rural India & I am enamored of RW’s writeup…thanks for sharing & wud like to post this one in my blog, if that’s fine with you…by the way, u r in my blogroll

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