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Wichita’s World of Wonders

Well, that was something else. I got in last night from a long weekend in Wichita, Kansas, at the Eighth Day Institute‘s annual symposium. This is my second year, and once again, it was a terrific time. One of the small but intense pleasures I take in going to it is watching newcomers discover Eighth […]
Erin Doom, left, director of the Eighth Day Institute, and Kevin Brown (Photo by Rod Dreher)
Erin Doom, left, director of the Eighth Day Institute, and Kevin Brown (Photo by Rod Dreher)

Well, that was something else. I got in last night from a long weekend in Wichita, Kansas, at the Eighth Day Institute‘s annual symposium. This is my second year, and once again, it was a terrific time. One of the small but intense pleasures I take in going to it is watching newcomers discover Eighth Day Books, the bookstore that sponsors the event. It’s a wonderland, and a joy to watch others wandering around its stacks, eyes filled with wonder, looking for all the world as if they had just come through an enchanted wardrobe. If you missed The New York Times‘s profile of the store and its happy genius, Warren Farha, take a look. Excerpt:

Then he opened his bookstore, which he named Eighth Day after a term early Christians, like Augustine, used to refer metaphorically to the new order, timelessness or eternity.

“All I knew was the kind of books I wanted to be in it,” Mr. Farha said. “And I knew retail, because I had waited on people since I was 10 years old. But I started from scratch.”

… The basement is given over to a well-curated children’s section. His favorite books include “Gilead,” by Marilynne Robinson; “Jayber Crow,” by Wendell Berry, and the three-volume saga “Kristin Lavransdatter,” bySigrid Undset, a Norwegian who won the 1928 Nobel Prize for Literature.

“It’s like putting together my best constellation of books,” Mr. Farha said of his inventory. “I worry from time to time if the bookstore is just a collection of my tastes. I hope it’s bigger than that.”

Mr. Farha, who with his second wife had a third child, has no plans to retire. When he does, none of his three children will take over. They have no interest. “It’s O.K.,” he said. “They’re all beautiful kids, and I wouldn’t change a thing about them.”

I wondered if he considered the store a form of evangelism. “Is it a Christian mission?” I asked.

He thought for a while. Eventually, he decided.

“It’s not a mission,” he said. “I just think by definition, if you have books that articulate truth, that it’s going to be a de facto Christian mission, because I don’t think you can separate different truths from each other. They’re all connected.”

Indeed they are. I think I can speak for many other folks from outside of Wichita who come to the symposium when I say that the Christian community there, at which Eighth Day Books is the core, has something really extraordinary going on. You go to the Symposium and you meet young people from the area, and you hear them talking about this or that Christian thing they’re involved in locally — a community that they’re building — and you may well be filled with amazement and admiration. These folks — Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox — all know each other and like each other and help each other. It’s so … vital there.

Warren is Orthodox, as is Erin Doom, the Institute’s director, but the Eighth Day community is robustly ecumenical. Their idea is to bring together small-o orthodox Christians, in a C.S. Lewis “Mere Christianity” spirit. I probably met more Catholics and Protestants who move in the Eighth Day circles than I did Orthodox. I asked someone, can’t remember who, this weekend how they managed to achieve that kind of fellowship among people with strong theological convictions and commitments, often exclusive of the others’ beliefs. The person said it’s because they share a Christian love of each other, and a love for truth — and that requires tolerance. These folks make it seem effortless. They’re just so happy to have discovered each other, and to be in the presence of others who take the faith, the tradition, and ideas seriously, that fellowship follows.

I was at a party at The Ladder, the Christian speakeasy run by EDI, on Saturday night, after the symposium ended. Looking around the room, I imagined that if C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien — two men who, along with G.K. Chesterton, are probably the unofficial patron saints of this fellowship — were standing among us, they would heartily approve. You go to Wichita, you see what these folks are able to accomplish together, and you think, “I want to do that where I live.” That’s what I think, anyway — and I know for a fact that I’m not the only one.

See the guy on the right in the photo above? That’s Kevin Brown, a reader of this blog who lives in Cleveland. He read about the Eighth Day Institute on this blog, went to the About Us page of the EDI’s site, and wanted to come see for himself, so he could start something like it in his town. He was especially interested in the Hall of Men, a twice-monthly gathering at The Ladder in which guys

aren’t afraid to put on our theological boxing gloves to spar for a minute, and to take them off for a shared pint the next. If you haven’t seen a Catholic listen to the life story of John Wesley; if you haven’t watched a Protestant learn about Evagrius of Pontus; and if you haven’t seen Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant men sit around a table together and talk theology until midnight . . . then you need to come to the Hall of Men.

(EDI has recently launched a parallel monthly event for women, the Sisters of Sophia.)

Kevin liked what he saw, and hopes to get something like it going in Cleveland. Me, I’d love to do the same in St. Francisville, or at least Baton Rouge. This is a Benedict Option kind of thing: building small-o orthodox Christian community. It started in Wichita, but it shouldn’t stay only in Wichita.

There’s always something going on at the Institute, but the next big event is the Inklings Festival, set for mid-July. The great Ralph C. Wood is going to speak there. If you go, the biggest challenge you will have is leaving enough space in your luggage for all the books you will buy. I purchased three on the first night, and thought I was done … but I bought five more before it was all over. You see books at Eighth Day that you didn’t know you needed, but you have to have. I read most of On Human Being: A Spiritual Anthropology, a terrific little book by the late French Orthodox theologian Olivier Clément on the flights home last night, and marked it all up, because it’s deeply helpful to my Ben Op project. Alas, it’s not available on the Eighth Day Books website (but you should look at the site anyway; they do lots of mail order), but that’s the kind of discovery you make when you make a pilgrimage to the store and lose yourself in the stacks. I would be surprised if there’s any other bookstore in the country where you could discover a book like that sitting like a gemstone in a setting, ready for plucking. Happiest place in America, if you ask me.

Oh, and here’s Catholic theologian and Okie raconteur Bo Bonner, holding forth at The Ladder. Because it’s just not Wichita without the Bo Bonner Experience:

photo-1UPDATE: Erin Doom comments:

Thanks for joining us in Wichita, Rod. And thanks for your kind words about our humble endeavor. For all of those interested in starting a Hall of Men or a Sisters of Sophia, Eighth Day Institute is developing a Consortium for Cultural Renewal. One of its two primary objectives is to help other cities open local chapters. If you’re interested, visit Eighth Day Institute’s webpage and email me (Director Doom) so I can put your name on the list.

He e-mails to add:

People who weren’t able to make it to the event this past weekend can hear the lectures if they become members of the Institute, which they can do through the website.



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