PW: This is the third volume of Best Christian Writing. Where do you find the essays, and how do they qualify for the collection?
John Wilson: I'm never reading with the sole purpose of finding examples of good Christian writing. For years I've brought home a stack of magazines and books every night. There's a kind of surrealism to the juxtapositions in just one stack of books or one pile of magazines. Much of what passes by doesn't make a deep impression, but some things do. You never know where you are going to bump into a wonderful piece of writing, Christian or otherwise. Most of the pieces end up coming from explicitly Christian magazines and journals, but certainly not all.
"Best" is a genial fiction, of course. I'm looking for writing that stands out from the crowd. I want some strong narrative pieces and some that are unapologetically philosophical or theological. Some public and some private. Some preoccupied with our present moment, some taking us to another time, and drawn from more than one stream of the Christian tradition. A book like this should be like a feast, with main courses and side dishes you never expected to find on the same table.
PW: But one gets the sense that the dishes do complement one another.
JW: Yes, and each year when I look at the pieces I've ended up with, I find patterns that were never planned, essays that play off each other in wonderful ways. This year, for instance, Lionel Basney's posthumously published "Teacher" and Garret Keizer's "Why We Hate Teachers." Each taken by itself is very strong; together they are dynamite. Yet I wasn't even conscious of having two pieces on teaching until I looked back.
PW: "Christian" writing often calls to mind a more popular genre than is found in your collections. Is there a growing audience for more literary Christian writing as well?
JW: In comparison to the audience for Left Behind or The Purpose-Driven Life, the audience is small and will remain so. But it's not as tiny as some people pessimistically suppose. Over the last decade a number of new outlets for this kind of writing have emerged: Image, the Mars Hill Audio Journal, Books & Culture. And a lot of "conservative" Christians are reading Anne Lamott, laughing and crying at the same time. Christians who have the itch to think while they read (intellectuals, if you will) routinely pick up both The New Yorker and Christianity Today, McSweeney's and re:generation quarterly or The Weekly Standard along with First Things. Whereas—so it seems to me—you don't find so many people going the other way. And this accounts in part for the vast ignorance of things Christian routinely displayed by otherwise highly intelligent and educated people.
PW: Do you have any stories about "ones that got away"—pieces you wanted to include but couldn't?
JW: There is at least one every year. This year I really wanted to include a piece by Czeslaw Milosz that appeared in Harper's. But Milosz got a new agent not so long ago, some guy by the name of Andrew Wylie. . . . There have been a couple of times when a writer didn't want to appear in a book advertising itself as "Christian" writing, even though the piece in question was clearly Christian. That reluctance could have been a sign of pride (you could get teased mercilessly by your hip friends); it could also have been a sign of humility. And maybe it was a consequence of having accidentally stumbled into a typical Christian bookstore somewhere along the way.