Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Looking Backward, Looking Inward: Scott Cairns and Kathleen Norris in Conversation

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Looking Backward, Looking Inward: Scott Cairns and Kathleen Norris in Conversation

Article excerpt

Moderator (M): I've been asked to introduce the session. I should say Kathleen Norris is a poet and a memoirist who's drawn upon the breadth and depth of the Christian tradition in such books as Cloister Walk and Amazing Grace and others. Those of us who've read her work appreciate the ways in which her explorations have enriched and deepened our own walks of faith. Scott Cairns is an English professor at the University of Missouri. A poet, memoirist, editor, not least of all a librettist.

SC: No, that is least of all.

M: OK, least of all, a librettist. Scott too explores the depths of the Christian faith through his writings and has prompted his readers to appreciate the ways in which the ancient faith nourishes and blesses us. Just to start off with a question: tell us a bit about how you got to the points you're at today. Scott was saying he grew up as a Baptist.

SC: Yeah, I was born into a Baptist family of a sort. [laughter]

KN: And I was from a Methodist family of a sort with a long tradition of Methodist pastors with my father being the one who became a musician instead. But still directed church choir.

SC: And the sort being--if I were to say General Association of Regular Baptist Churches, would that ring any bells for anybody? Yes? And now you feel great pity. And then when my brother and I went to college we started reading books. [laughter] Not long thereafter, we were invited not to come back to church. So we headed toward the Reformed church, eventually a Presbyterian church. And my brother still worships with that community, and I was on session for a couple different churches, one in Salt Lake City, one in Denton, Texas .... And then along the way, I, began feeling as if I actually wanted to have a prayer life, and that was the beginning of my reading my way to the East, as it were. First reading my way into the earlier tradition; you know, where I was raised, our tradition began around 1920, and evidently there were Christians long before that. [laughter] Some of whom had actually written amazing documents, a great help to those of us who want to look at those texts, and it was in that reading my way to the early church and then finding an affinity between what I found there and the Eastern church today that led me on.

KN: Yeah, and I grew up in this musical Methodist family. My mother had been raised Presbyterian in this little town in western South Dakota, and my dad was a pastor's son, a Methodist pastor's son, and in those days, it meant moving every two years. His father had been fired from a church in West Virginia for playing the banjo with a youth group because obviously the banjo was an instrument of Satan and that was not to be tolerated. So they headed west to South Dakota and he moved every two years around there, and so that's what I was born into. And I've always been very grateful because we had the music, we had the hymns, we had the Bible stories in Sunday school ... [I was] singing in my dad's church choirs all the way [from] age four up until sixteen or seventeen years old. I thought that we went to church to sing, and I didn't pay a lot of attention to the catechism. It kind of went in one ear and out the other, but again that foundation of Bible stories was there.

And then later on in high school, my parents joined a church that was very intellectual, which was stimulating to me at the time, but what I was really looking for was things like Evelyn Underhill's Mysticism and people who would not laugh when you said "religious experience." And so I had this kind of confused couple years in high school there with learning about theology but not really being grounded that much in faith and then when I went to college, I needed a college that wouldn't make me take any more math. And also, I had gone to a pretty strict prep school--it's Barack Obama's alma mater too, I'm proud to say--and it's a very good prep school but it wasn't until junior year that you were allowed to take an elective. …

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