Jerry Earl Johnston: Progressive pilgrim takes a 'Short Trip to the Edge'

Published: Friday, Oct. 21 2011 4:13 p.m. MDT

Daniel in the Lions' Den

Paul Barker, Deseret News Archives

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I always enjoy the chance to write about the Greek Orthodox Church. Many feel the church has stayed closest to the original Christian faith.

And when I can link the piece to someone I admire, it's a double bonus.

Back in the mid-1980s, Scott Cairns was a budding poet at the University of Utah. He was a Christian who wrote in Christian "plain style," but the simplicity of his work was deceptive. Eighth-graders could read the words. But it took deep reflection to grasp how the poet used them.

While getting his degree here, Scott was always a popular draw at readings and conferences.

I became a big fan.

He inscribed a book of poems to me with the words: "Hope these poems continue to please through future readings. Hope the next book pleases more."

The next book did.

As did all the others that have followed.

Today, Scott Cairns has become one of the most respected Christian poets and writers in America.

And last week one of his latest efforts came across my desk. Published in 2007, "A Short Trip to the Edge" chronicles — in plain style and great depth — Scott's pilgrimages to Mount Athos in Greece, a holy place of Orthodox monks and monasteries that serves as a half-way house between earth and heaven. Scott Cairns, it seems, has converted to the Greek Orthodox faith. And it is no timid conversion, as his book reveals.

His writing about Mount Athos is elegant and personal. One can feel the holiness of the landscape and the shrines, and feel the sincerity of the poet as he describes them. But what I love most is the book gives sophisticated, well-educated souls "permission" (for want of a better word) to not only be religious, but to be profoundly and whole-heartedly spiritual. In short, I think it is the kind of book that will be showing up more and more on shelves. We need more of them. To paraphrase Emerson, it's a book filled with faith and experience that has been fired by thought. And thoughtful books about religion by thoughtful people will always be welcome.

For Cairns, the treks from monastery to monastery on Mount Athos were often trying — but not as trying, I'm guessing, as the journey he has made in the 25 years since Utah.

There was that dust-up he had with a Christian school, a place that decided his poetry was too "edgy" and so retracted its offer to make him the school's poet in residence.

There have been many debates, false starts and recalibrations.

He was a seeker years ago. He remains one today. While in Utah, Cairns dipped into several faiths. He said he felt the Unitarians were fine, even though they thought "believing in Jesus showed bad taste" and the chilly side of his boyhood Protestantism left him hungry for the white-hot fire of spiritual experience.

In time, he would find a home with the Greek Orthodox Church and all its smoky (Scott would say "oily") rituals and icons.

It's evident in "Short Trip to the Edge" that he has embraced the faith with his whole might, mind and strength.

The book, for me, represents a major step for 21st Century Christian writing. It is earnest, wise and warm.

I'm anxious to see where this Progressive Pilgrim with a degree from the U. will lead us next.

EMAIL: jerjohn@desnews.com

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