A church novel, a Harvard memorial and Peter Gomes
Two very different novels with authors connected by Harvard and Alabama shared space during a talk at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill Tuesday night.
Will Willimon is a retired United Methodist Church bishop who served most recently in Alabama, and before that was the dean of Duke Chapel. He’s back in Durham and teaching at Duke Divinity School.
Chapel Hill author Allegra Jordan grew up in Selma, Ala., serves on the board of the Southern Documentary Fund and is a graduate of Harvard Business School. The genesis of her new novel, “Harvard 1914” (Gold Gable Press) was a sermon she heard at Harvard in 1991 delivered by the late theologian Peter Gomes, who was a minister at the university’s Memorial Church. Gomes also spent time as a visiting professor at UNC Chapel Hill and Duke, and was friends with Willimon.
Willimon’s novel, “Incorporation” (Cascade Books) -- his first fiction after selling a million books on church, ministry and religion – is set in a large, liberal, Midwestern church.
In “Incorporation,” most of the characters have serious flaws, including clergy. There is conflict all around, between pastors and music ministers and congregants, and even a physical fight between unscrupulous staff. There’s death and gossip and plenty of humor. Willimon describes the novel as about the “underbelly of this institution filled with really human people.” It’s also about the grace of God, he said, as these same people are leading a church. Willimon said he enjoyed writing the novel, which is not based on anyone he knows.
Jordan called Willimon’s novel a laugh-out-loud book. Her novel is more serious, set on the undergraduate campus of Harvard in the turbulent beginning of World War I. A Boston blue-blood young woman, Helen, starts at Radcliffe and meets two young men who get her heart’s attention – at first, the British womanizer Riley and then, devotedly, the German Wils. Riley and Wils are cousins and within months share the battlefield – on opposite sides – in French trenches.
Anti-German hysteria in Boston is a key element of the story. In the novel – and in Harvard today – is a plaque with the names of Harvard alumni who fought and died in World War I. This is different than the prominent one with the American dead. This list is of alumni who were German. That’s what Gomes preached about in 1991, in a sermon called “The Courage to Remember.”
“Here is Peter Gomes telling us we don’t have to be stuck, and I came from somewhere stuck,” Jordan said. She thinks Selma, Ala., should have a statue for those who were hurt under Jim Crow. Jordan said the novel she is working on next is set in Alabama.
Willimon may or may not write another novel.
“When you’re a preacher, you’re always preparing the next sermon. I feel like Margaret Mitchell – I have one story,” Willimon said. He said that as a preacher, he gets so many opportunities to share his stories in the pulpit already.
Willimon said he enjoys – whether in “Incorporation” or in a sermon – to show, rather than to tell. Let me decide what the moral is, he said.
When Willimon was still a bishop and floated his novel to agents, one replied that his characters were disgusting – there weren’t any likeable ones.
“I said, ‘I work with these people – they’re the Church,’” Willimon said. “These are the people Jesus actually loves.”