Karen Wright Marsh is the executive director and cofounder of Theological Horizons, a ministry that supports Christians and seekers in academia by providing a welcoming community for engaging faith, thought and life. She holds degrees in philosophy from Wheaton College and linguistics from the University of Virginia. Karen lives with her family in Charlottesville, Virginia. In 2014, Wright Marsh attended the Collegeville Institute regional writing workshop in Canton, Mississippi titled Mapping the Geography of Grace.
In this interview, Wright Marsh spoke with Stina Kielsmeier-Cook about her first book, Vintage Sinners and Saints: 25 Christians who Transformed my Faith, which was released in September 2017 (InterVarsity Press).
You grew up in the Protestant church, which is a tradition that doesn’t typically elevate notable Christians as “saints.” How has your understanding of sainthood and the role of saints evolved? And why should Christians, particularly Protestants, be interested in saints?
As a preacher’s kid in the Presbyterian church, if I ever used the moniker “saint” it was for biblical superstars like Saint Peter and Saint Paul and perhaps a few early church fathers, with Saint Augustine topping the list. Saint Francis of Assisi was a familiar figure from neighborhood gardens, of course, but his spiritual powers seemed to be limited to taming woodland creatures.
Still, we evangelical Protestants venerated some Christians over others. Our spiritual heroes were the evangelists who made the grand gesture, brave missionaries who travelled to “dark” places to fearlessly preach salvation, undaunted by perils, weird diseases, or hostile natives—and who often ended up dead. I was unnerved by the tales I heard in Vacation Bible School. What would I be called to sacrifice for God, I wondered?
As a philosophy major at an evangelical college, I was intrigued by contemplatives like Thérèse of Lisieux and Scholastica, fascinated by their cloistered lives, imagining ethereal Gregorian chants sung in a sunlit chapel, abundant alone time for reading in a private cell, suppers of artisanal bread. Perhaps I’d adopt sainthood as a lifestyle? But entering a convent was never more than a vague notion I’d picked up from the Sound of Music.
So here I am now—neither a missionary nor a full-time holy woman, short on heroic exploits and ecstatic revelations. Over the years, my label “saint” has broadened to include all kinds of people who’ve followed Christ with peculiar intensity. Saints, whether beatified by a Church or not, prove to be sinners, strugglers, and seekers, too.
It is in their humanity that I have come to love them.
Smiling Mother Teresa, serving the dying poor in Calcutta, felt for years that her desperate prayers were met by God’s silence. Martin Luther was an anxious wreck. And the eminent intellectual defender of the faith, C. S. Lewis, went through his teens and twenties convinced that Christianity was for idiots. Meeting them across the centuries, saints’ lives turn out to be just as messy as (and sometimes much messier than) mine.
Why care about the saints? When we move beyond seeing these people as inaccessible super-holy ones and encounter them as companions on a real-life pilgrimage, the saints are wise guides in the faith who have travelled this way before. Older brothers and sisters who urge us on, reassuring us with their own tales of travail and discovery.
In your book’s acknowledgments section, you mention “Vintage Lunches” at the University of Virginia. Tell me about these lunches and what prompted you to write this book.
I’ve become acquainted with the big family of saints in an unexpected way–thanks to the students who gather with me each Friday for homemade food and a conversation we call “Vintage Lunch.” About sixteen years ago, a young woman named Susannah came and asked me to lead a small group for her and some other undergrads. They were, they said, interested in learning more about Christian spirituality. Since I’m the executive director of Theological Horizons, a ministry centered at the Bonhoeffer House in Charlottesville, Susannah figured that I must have some special expertise!
I couldn’t assume a basic Scriptural literacy among Susannah’s friends and I knew that some hadn’t been raised in church, while others were shedding their Sunday School religion. I sensed that a straight up Bible study would put them off. So I invited the students for lunch at the Bonhoeffer House, a rambling old place where I live with with my husband, Charles Marsh, a University of Virginia professor, our family, and our dog Ginger.
Instead of studying the Bible, we began telling stories. We read classic texts, listening to the words of people who’d come before—those “vintage” witnesses who lived in other times, places, cultures, and contexts. We read mystics, scholastics, contemplatives, activists, and preachers, puzzling over the rich variety of Christian expressions. Since then, Vintage Lunches have become a Friday tradition.
At the university, as in the wider world, it’s tough to locate shared theological doctrine and commonly held truths—especially among young adults, and the many who identify as “spiritual but not religious.” So where doctrine and argument fail to reach us, we have the great gift of a cloud of witnesses—countless exemplars who lived deeply in response to Jesus.
I’ve discovered the unexpected genius of this approach. By telling it slant, slipping past the dogma, the lists of do’s and don’ts, and the well argued apologetics, storytelling has opened a welcoming way into the lived experience of faith. I took those hearthside conversations, our own personal stories and the saints’ stories, into the book, Vintage Saints and Sinners.
In your book’s forward, Lauren F. Winner says that “each of us is given two or three or four saints with whom to live in particular intimacy.” You wrote a book about 25 different saints, but I wonder if there are a handful that you turn to more than others? Do you have a patron saint?
I suppose that we publicly claimed Dietrich Bonhoeffer as our family’s patron saint when my husband and I fastened the bronze plaque onto our front door, declaring “Bonhoeffer House.” The deal was sealed with Charles’s biography, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. More than ever, I marvel at the resilience of Bonhoeffer’s spirit, even after all he went through in resistance to Hitler and with every reason to abandon hope. He chose to put himself in God’s hands and live “unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures and perplexities.” Even to death, Bonhoeffer deeply loved this beautiful world, his life, his friends. I want to live like that!
Julian of Norwich is my saint on those fearful days, when the world looks insurmountably bleak. Living in 14th century England, she survived the horrors of the black plague, news of assassinations and heretic burnings. It was a most unusual time to proclaim the boundless love and goodness of God, yet this is what Julian did. In a recounting of her mystical visions, Julian doesn’t sugarcoat suffering. She boldly asks God the question we all wonder about, “Why is there evil?” The Lord assures her of an “unpossible” way, of love’s triumph over sin’s killing power. Julian’s old phrase, “All shall be well, and all shall be well,” speaks to my shaken hope.
I often need a bold, prophetic voice to get me up and moving, so I turn to Fannie Lou Hamer. Mrs. Hamer answered Jesus’ call to work for civil rights in 1962 and carried everyone else along, renowned as “the lady who sings hymns.” It’s been said that she spoke of Jesus “casually, confidently, and constantly.” Out of that relationship she spoke the truth without fear. When I hesitate to wade into tough discussions or stand up for what’s right, I put on a recording of Fannie Lou Hamer singing, “This Little Light of Mine” and remember why her fellow activist, Annie Devine, asked, “Why not follow somebody like that? Why not just reach out with one hand and say, just take me along?”
What was the most surprising thing you learned in your research for this book? The most impactful for your own faith?
When I considered which 25 sinner-saints I’d include in the book, there were the obvious candidates, from Augustine and Francis and Clare of Assisi to the perennial Protestant favorites, Martin Luther and C.S. Lewis. Yet I wanted to tell other stories, too, of sisters and brothers beyond the European branch of the family. As I searched for those saints I’d missed, I discovered Amanda Berry Smith, a preacher born enslaved in America, Mary Paik Lee, a Korean immigrant to California, and Juana Ines de la Cruz, a nun in colonial Mexico—three women, sorely constrained by their circumstances, who knew their own God-giftedness and deep desires. Their faithfulness calls forward troubling questions about the harm done by poverty and social inequity. How many suffering saints have lived and died in complete obscurity?
Your book is divided into two sections: “Asking” and “Walking.” What is the significance of those two categories?
The words of Jeremiah 6:16 are threaded through the book: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.” Each of us is called to stand, look, ask, and walk in the good, ancient paths. At the same time, the arc of our spiritual lives reflect our varied personalities. Some of the figures in Vintage Saints and Sinners are people who tend to dwell in the questions. The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, the creative writer Flannery O’Connor, the contemplative Brother Lawrence, never stop asking. Others are oriented towards action. The civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer and that spiritual coach Ignatius, are all about walking. Of course, many of the figures in the book weren’t so neatly categorized, but I had to put them somewhere!
The figures in your book are complicated people. Most often, however, we idealize or elevate Christian “greats” so as to not include their dirty laundry. Why is it significant to know, for example, that A.W. Tozer was a terrible family man? Does this reality discredit the good he was able to do?
My beloved grandmother revered A.W. Tozer so I wanted to include him in the book, but as I read Lyle Dorsett’s biography of the man, I nearly cut him from the lineup. That moment came when I read his wife’s words a few years after his death. Newly remarried, Ada Tozer Odam said: “I have never been happier in my life. Aiden [Tozer] loved Jesus Christ, but Leonard Odam loves me.” Tozer’s failure to sustain his family truly pained me, as I saw him from the wife’s point of view. Keeping him in the book was an experiment of sorts. Could I write about a man I simply didn’t like? Whatever would my grandmother say? When is a saint not a saint? Of course we all know that each person is flawed, hence the “sinner” in Vintage Saints and Sinners. To fall short of the glory of God, this is our inescapable condition. To insist that some Christians remain atop their pedestals, holy and aloof, is risky business, for we’re sure to be disappointed sooner or later. By staying removed, we also miss out on meeting saints as brothers and sisters, as mentors who are much like we are, who can walk alongside us in our humanity. Having said all that, I’ll admit that I don’t read A.W. Tozer. But don’t we all love some relatives more than others?
Have you ever read a book that changed your life?
Kathleen Norris’s brief book The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and “Women’s Work” saved my sanity when my young children were scribbling on walls, eating chocolate covered espresso beans (long story) and tempting me toward despair. As adorable as they were, their needs were wildly constant. Pre-internet, so without the benefit of reassuring mommy blogs, I searched bookstore shelves with foggy notions of Benedictine spirituality. I suspected that someone out there could show me how all of this daily, rhythmic, repetitive labor, the requirements of my physical presence, was holy somehow. Then I discovered The Quotidian Mysteries, in which Norris holds up domestic rituals as acts of love, even as kinds of liturgy which, like prayer and worship, can transform us. Finally! I had a theological framework within which to see my life in that moment.