Book Review: Zero at the Bone: Fifty Entries Against Despair by Christian Wiman

[1] Christian Wiman grew up in an evangelical church in Texas, living a dark childhood with “my father vanishing, my mother wracked with rage and faith, my siblings sinking into drugs.”

[2] Now a professor teaching religion and literature at Yale Divinity School, he is the author, editor or translator of thirteen books of poetry and prose, including two memoirs, and is a winner of the Ambassador Book Award and a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist.

[3] As an adult, Wiman has lived for almost 20 years with a rare and brutal cancer. In this new book, Zero at the Bone: Fifty Entries Against Despair, Wiman lays bare his own wrestling with despair, God and faith.“I have found faith to be not a comfort but a provocation to a life I never seem to live up to, an eruption of joy that evaporates the instant I recognize it as such, an agony of absence that assaults me like a psychic wound.” (15) He seeks a language, a form, for the mystery of living a faithful life moving in and out of despair, belief and unbelief, encompassing the void that one never quite fills.

[4] Zero at the Bone draws from poetry, literature, film, theology and scripture.  Its form is that of a commonplace book of jottings, musings, quotations, poems (his and others), critique, and memoir.  Though this sounds disjointed, the book is not.  It is, however, a mixed experience for the reader.  For those who do not have some experience with theology, philosophy and literary criticism, there will be parts of the book you’ll want to skim. The beauty of the book’s form, however, is that it lends itself to just that. It is not a sustained argument, but rather a set of impressionistic expressions that invite you to pick and choose the portions that speak to you at any given time. The power and poignancy of the book is not diminished by such an approach. Readers who are not academics need not avoid this volume – it will touch the hearts of those who open it.

[5] Perhaps the best way to illustrate the book’s form is to offer below some snippets/examples in a form that replicates Wiman’s own.

[6] Wiman addresses deep grief and despair, but the work is not limited to suffering brought on by obvious major tragedies. A poem by Lucille Clifton (p29) illustrates:


i have gathered my losses

into a spray of pain;

my parents, my brother

my husband, my innocence

all clustered together

durable as daisies.

now i add you,

little love, little


who walked unannounced

into my life

and almost blossomed there.


[7] As Wiman points out, the loss could be anything — a friendship, a potential romance, a dog ….  He discusses both the particularity and universality of suffering.  There is a particularity in our personal suffering in which we can immerse ourselves, erasing others. But in this pain, we may also experience a universality that awakens us to the pain of others.  (29)

[8] We may feel, as did Nietzsche, that “Our personal and profoundest suffering is incomprehensible and inaccessible to almost everyone,” but Wiman believes we are not as atomized as that. (279)  Everyone has had a bullet in them. Everyone has experienced the hope and loss of Clifton’s little flower that didn’t blossom. “The whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together.(St. Paul)” (280).

[9] There is pain in each other to which we are “called to witness and perhaps ease.”(41)

[10] For the grief in our selves, he quotes Simone Weil, “The soul has to go on loving in the emptiness, or at least go on wanting to love.” (280)

[11] Wiman turns to God and the cross.  We know a suffering God, present with us in our pain. “I know in my bones there is no escape from necessity, and know in my bones that God’s love reaches into and redeems every atom that I am.  I believe the right response to reality is to bow down, and I believe the right response to reality is to scream. Life is necessity, and love is grace.” (278)  George Herbert expressed this poetically when he was newly, happily married and simultaneously dying of tuberculosis:

I will complain, yet praise;

I will bewail, approve:

And all my sour-sweet days

I will lament and love. (11)


[12] I close with an image from the Zohar, “Real tears are a prayer beyond words.” (284)




Nancy Arnison

Nancy Arnison is a lawyer, theologian and nonprofit executive and serves as the Book Review Editor for the Journal of Lutheran Ethics.