The Winding Road to “Faith and Imagination”

I’m going to interweave about four stories here. Let me begin with one of which I’m not terribly proud. I went on the job market the fall of 1999. It was a shockingly good year in my field, with a number of great jobs listed, and I was in a surprisingly strong position, with a couple publications in prominent venues and the professional training of a strong, outcome-oriented PhD program. I had several interviews at the conference of the Modern Language Association, where departments used to hold them in prehistoric days. One of my firsts interviews was with the University of Iowa, early in the morning on the first full day of the convention. I was nervous, though I felt the interview went pretty well. The department chair told me that they’d be interviewing throughout the day and into the next morning. At 2pm the following day, he said, they would call the three people selected to fly out to campus. “Be waiting by the phone,” he instructed me. (No Zoom interviews back then; no cell phones, either.)

I was in my hotel room the next day at 2pm, dutifully waiting. The phone never rang. I’d had other interviews since and had more scheduled, so I went back to preparing. But I felt a little deflated. It was the first clear rejection. But then, on my way to another interview that evening, I stepped into a crowded elevator with none other than the department chair who had given me the instruction to wait by the phone. I looked at him, smiled, looked away, and got off on the floor of my interview. He exited the elevator with me. I think he thought he was doing me a favor as he proceeded to tell me why I had not been selected for a “flyback,” what parts of my interview could have been better, etc. As he spoke, I began getting angry – still a character flaw, but a more exaggerated one when I was younger. Perhaps he didn’t intend it this way, or perhaps this is what female colleagues have complained about forever in certain kinds of male academics, but I found him intensely, loathsomely condescending. He knew virtually nothing about me and had no business lecturing me on my prospects and flaws as a candidate. I waited until he finished and then, trying to keep my cool, replied that I thought he and his colleagues had done the right thing. “The fact is,” I told him, “I have several other interviews scheduled and one institution in particular has already indicated its interest in hiring me. I have that job ranked ahead of yours. It looks like I wouldn’t have gone to Iowa anyway, so you and your colleagues made a wise decision.” I then thanked him and walked away. I learned later from my advisor, whom he proceeded to call, that he’d been outraged. As it turns out, his department awarded its job to a grad student from the University of Indiana named Lori Branch. Meanwhile, I got close to a couple other jobs but ended up accepting an offer from BYU, which I’d had in mind (but had not named) when I effectively told the presumptuous department chair where he could shove it.

Second tale. Fast forward a year or two: 2001, 2002, something like that. My department had invited Richard Lanham, an emeritus professor from UCLA, to give a lecture on campus. UCLA was my PhD institution and my professors there were still my primary mentors (though I had never met Lanham, our guest). A senior colleague tasked with helping organize the event asked if I would give the prayer before the lecture. His rationale, he explained, was that it would be nice to involve former UCLA students. It was a perfectly benign request, but I discerned something sinister in it: Sure, let the UCLA PhDs sacrifice themselves on the altar of BYU’s non-academic custom in an ethnographic display of primitive hospitality: “Dear guest, we who are familiar with your land of origin welcome you to this peculiar place. You will rehearse for us the learning of the world, but first, we will bestow on you the language of prayer.”

I don’t remember my exact reply to my colleague, but it was some version of Bartleby’s “I would prefer not to.” I wanted no part of this campus ritual – no part, really, of the peculiarity of BYU. I liked my job and was grateful for it; I liked the students and library and resources to support scholarship; I liked my department and college and colleagues. But I was ill at ease with BYU’s religiosity. Although I was a lifelong member of the Church, and although I nourished a spiritual life, religion for me in those days was mostly a private affair. And aspects of the campus’s religious culture traumatized me.

Especially EFY [i]. I recall a day in the summer of 2001 when I was in my office on the main floor of the JFSB. I was trying to write and was having difficulty concentrating when I suddenly realized why: a couple hundred EFYers packed into a lecture hall a few steps from my office were belting out a primary song about popcorn and apricot trees. “Spring had brought me such a nice surprise”: Uh, no. I suddenly had the uncanny, unhappy image of my UCLA mentors showing up at my office. How in the world would I explain what was happening down the hallway? By what pyrotechnical wizardry could I possibly divert our collective attention back to intellectual subjects we held in common? How would they ever again take me seriously?

Let me add that I now love our customary prayers before formal lectures. I even love youth groups descending on campus in the heat of summer. Or, to qualify that assertion, no, I don’t love hordes of hormonally imbalanced satyrs and banshees invading the Wilkinson Center every July. But I take it as a sign of health that our campus “belongs” to the Church’s version of the “public.” It’s so different from the ivory tower problem that characterizes even most public universities, and that breeds the resentments adding fuel to the nation’s educational crises. And about BYU’s custom of offering prayers: These days, I love telling the story of a guest we invited to campus a few years ago – someone who made a key university administrator nervous because of this person’s outspokenness on sensitive issues – and what this person said to me as we were leaving campus after a visit that had gone swimmingly. “You know my favorite part about the past two days? It was the prayer that student offered before my lecture.” And then there was another guest a couple years later, a scholar in high demand, who, as we were about to meet a group of faculty for dinner, commented that they had been moved to hear their name “invoked before the Almighty.”

But back to my mindset of 2001, 2002: A long time ago; so much water under the bridge. Last fall, however, if only for a moment, I found myself reliving flashes of these old associations when I read these words in an email: “search engine optimization.” (This is my third story.) The email was sent to me by someone at BYU Publishing. She thought the draft title of my talk was nice enough – kind of artsy. But, she informed me, simpler titles were better for search engine optimization. Also, could I please add subtitles? Short, straightforward ones? Subtitles really help with SEO.

In late September, I had received an email informing me that someone had tried calling my BYU office phone: a “Matthew Richardson.” Next day, same message. I didn’t bother returning the call; the only Matthew Richardson I knew of was the person who’d been a BYU administrator before being called as mission president and exiled to winters in Minnesota. But on the third day, “Matthew Richardson” called yet again and this time left a voicemail. Turns out it was Keith Vorkink, BYU’s Advancement Vice-President and Richardson’s successor. Could I please return his call? I did and he issued an invitation to give the university devotional on December 1. I asked him how the university even knew I existed. He laughed and said something about “suggestions” and “lists” and “processes.”

I had about six weeks to prepare the talk. I decided on my topic, wrote it up, revised it, then revised it again. Then again. Sometime before Thanksgiving, I had to submit it to the people who prepare the talk for print and cue it up on teleprompters. It wasn’t until I received the follow-up email about search engine optimization that I found myself reliving the anxieties of my past. For I would be tethered to this talk for the rest of my career. Search engine optimization: Any scholar who ever googled my name to get my email address would find this talk listed prominently right beneath my faculty webpage. (Hey you, secular humanist from Distinguished University! Matthew Wickman wants to know: Are you “thriving spiritually”?) I grew a little queasy at the thought and tried to imagine ways of breaking the system. I momentarily considered changing the title of my talk to something like “Ludic Virtuality among the Speculative Realists. Translated from French.”

But no. I went the other direction: simplified title; straightforward subtitles; a devotional: “a short worship service” “of, related to, or characterized by devotion” as “an act of prayer.” [ii] It’s what the university wanted, it was in keeping with campus tradition, and it’s who I am. Who I had become. Less a secular humanist than a Christian humanist; someone who cares about the latest trends in theory but is moved more deeply by scholarly work across fields that expressly articulates some kind of relation to God. (“The Cross is always avant-garde”: a favorite line from a favorite poet, R. S. Thomas. [iii])

So, while I love many activities and initiatives sponsored by our Humanities Center – the fellowships, workshops, research groups, symposia, colloquia, formal conversations, lectures, collaborations, and more – I hold a special place in my heart for the Faith and Imagination lecture series. In it we invite scholars to meet with us whose work touches in some compelling, thoughtful, or surprising way on matters of religion, spirituality, and faith. The series was born in the fall of 2016, but it was inspired – and this is my fourth and last story – by a conference held at BYU the previous fall, 2015. The organizers, Jesse Crisler and Dan Muhlestein (editors of Literature and Belief, sponsor of the conference), invited none other than Lori Branch of the University of Iowa to deliver a keynote address. She confessed how wonderful it was to be at BYU, where people can be open about their faith. (Fifteen years earlier, I’d fantasized about how great it must be to work at the University of Iowa, where people could hide it.) She then made a case for the value – intellectual, moral, and ontological – of religion in human experience and as a facet of our work as scholars of the humanities. During her talk, she issued something of a call to action: “What is needed is to manifest and also a bit to manifesto postsecular studies as a coming of age of the religious turn,” a rhetorical and conceptual gambit that can “fertilize all manner of new scholarship on religion in every facet of humanistic inquiry….” [iv] I found the talk insightful and affecting; it was so smart, so open to others and to God, so unafraid to be and profess, even to bear witness. Lori and I had a couple lengthy conversations at the conference and became fast friends. I had been trying already to make a place for my faith in my academic work, but now I saw a little more clearly what that could be and mean. I was changed.

The Humanities Center launches a podcast this week titled “Faith and Imagination,” after its lecture series. Our first guest? Lori Branch, naturally.


This post was written by Matthew Wickman, Founding Director of the BYU Humanities Center

[i] A massive youth camp – actually a series of week-long camps – held at BYU every summer.


[iii] Untitled poem in Thomas, Collected Later Poems, 1988-2000 (Tarset, Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books, 2004), 53.

[iv] Branch, “Beauty and Belief: Postsecular Approaches to Literature and the Humanities,” Literature and Belief 36:1-2 (2016): 1-20 (6).

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