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Who Was Walter Wangerin Jr?

From his award-winning fantasy novels to his reflections on being a pastor, Walter Wangerin, Jr. inspired and taught millions. Here is what you need to know about his life and legacy.

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Jul 12, 2022
Who Was Walter Wangerin Jr?

Walter Martin Wangerin Jr. (1944-2021) held a treasured place in many readers’ hearts. He started his career as a pastor, became an award-winning fantasy author, then a Christian memoirist. He also wrote children’s books, historical fiction, devotional books, and many other genres, all while teaching writing to university students.

Many remembered Wangerin as a bridge to writing that Christians had apparently neglected. Fans of his fantasy novels loved how he explored mythic storytelling, an important idea for Christian writers like the Inklings, and how Wangerin carried that tradition into the present day. Fans of his religious nonfiction talked about how Wangerin inspired them without giving them “spiritual bromides.”

Here is what you need to know about this prolific writer and pastor’s life.

10 Important Events in the Life of Walter Wangerin Jr.

1. On February 13, 1944, Walter Wangerin was born in Portland, Oregon. His father was a Lutheran minister at various churches, leading their family to move frequently.

2. In 1958, Wangerin entered Concordia Senior College in Fort Wayne, Indiana, a Lutheran boarding school for students planning to attend Concordia Seminary.

3. In 1968, Wangerin completed his M.A. in English literature from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

4. In 1976, Wangerin received his Master of Divinity from Concordia Seminary in Exile (later known as Christ Seminary-Seminex). Wangerin would write in Everlasting Is the Past about attending the “seminary in exile” that split from Concordia Seminary during a theological debate.

5. In 1977, Wangerin became the pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in Evansville, Indiana. Many of his later nonfiction writings detailed his experiences at the church.

6. In 1978, Wangerin published his first novel, The Book of the Dun Cow. Based on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the story follows a talking rooster who cares for a barnyard, which gets complicated when a demonic monster appears. The novel won acclaim and a National Book Award.

7. In 1985, Wangerin stepped down as pastor of Grace Lutheran Church to become a full-time writer.

8. In 1987, Wangerin joined the Chrysostom Society, an organization of published writers that “serves the Christian community by promoting the development of quality literature.”

9. In 1991, Wangerin became the writer-in-residence at Valparaiso University. He continued to work at the university in some capacity until his death, teaching many creative writing and literature classes.

10. In December 2005, Wangerin was diagnosed with cancer. He went through different stages of treatment for the rest of his life.

When Wangerin passed away on August 5, 2021, tributes poured in from Valparaiso University faculty and students, as well as Chrysostom Society colleagues like Philip Yancey.

10 Great Quotes by Walter Wangerin Jr.

1. “‘Fill the earth and subdue it,’ says the Lord. But subdue emphatically does not mean that humankind gets to do with creation whatever it wants to do: take charge, dominate, act as if it were the world’s taskmaster. It means to do best by God’s creation, to take care of it, to keep the earth as though people were farmers working for God.”—Acts of the Almighty

2. “And since they cannot see you for themselves, I do the next best thing: I tell them stories. I tell them a thousand stories, Lord. For the city is active, and you are acting in it, always; and activity’s a story. I tell them about you by telling them the story.”—Ragman and Other Cries of Faith

3. “In time my mind was changed. This is what changed it: that one needs to love those who suffer oppression in order to know the signs of oppression himself, and actually to feel the oppression as his own.”—Everlasting Is the Past

4. “What has the power to annihilate the grandeur of the Creator in an instant? Great malevolence? Monstrous wickedness? No. Petty irritations. Minor fits of self-righteousness. Mere faithlessness.”—Wounds Are Where Light Enters

5. “I did not, that autumn evening, record it in my diary, because I didn’t recognize it then, though it was true from that night on: I loved Thanne. In spite of all my plans and stratagems, the woman had called love out of me, and I loved her.”—As for Me and My House

6. “Whenever the journey to Easter begins, it must always begin right here: at the contemplation of my death, in the cold conviction that I shall die.”—Reliving the Passion

7. “The effect of a told story is not like the effect of the stories that individuals read silently in their minds. They remain isolated and separated from their communities. But a story told out loud becomes the congregation’s experience. The listeners dwell in it as though it were a house, and it becomes their real and personal experience when their senses are engaged.”—Storycraft

8. “It is through the Gospel narrative, as through a window or a template, that I see all things, that I relate to them and come to know them.”—Preparing for Jesus

9. “My stories, perhaps. But stories, you know, make cousins of us all. And more than laws or cities or governments, it is the story that creates and preserves deepest community. My stories then, I hope to make your stories before we are done and come to the ends of the journey.”—This Earthly Pilgrimage

10. “Trust and worthiness surround our lives. That which in the beginning granted us an infant peace is here yet again—when we have been returned to helplessness.”—Letters from the Land of Cancer

10 Things You Should Know about Walter Wangerin

1. He had enormous energy. From the mid-1980s until his cancer diagnosis, Wangerin published a new book roughly every other year, sometimes more. He later revised some of his earlier books out of concern he had written them too quickly, although even those books were praised when they first came out.

2. He struggled with being a “Christian writer.” Like Frederick Buechner, Wangerin was a minister who wrote books that often didn’t fit publishers’ preferred labels. In an interview with Dale Brown published in Faith and Fiction, Wangerin said publishers classified him early on as religious, which complicated things: “I scarcely realized in those early days what that had done to my career… they had narrowed my audience.”

3. He wrote a fantasy novel that won a science fiction award. Many have been confused that Wangerin’s Book of the Dun Cow won a National Book Award for Science Fiction. In fact, the Science Fiction Award was an additional award offered that year and included science fiction and fantasy nominees.

4. He wondered about his calling. While Wangerin attended a school for students planning to enter Concordia Seminary, he waited several years to go on to seminary, unsure whether to pursue being a pastor or a writer. He ultimately did both, and many students and colleagues observed later that his pastoral and writing vocations benefitted each other.

5. He learned by experience. Wangerin observes in several of his memoirs that while he had a seminary degree, he received his true religious education pastoring Grace Lutheran Church.

6. He believed children needed stories about danger. While Wangerin’s stories for children had hope and moral underpinnings, he wasn’t afraid to include some peril in them. Students like Sara R. Danger observed that they didn’t understand his point at first but realized Wangerin was talking about recognizing life’s brokenness while “speaking truth in love” and showing how blessings abound even in a dark world.

7. He pastored from a place of honesty. In Everlasting is the Past, Wangerin describes a crisis he went through when he left his early religious education and entered university. He ultimately found (or re-found) his own faith and discovered that his struggles allowed him to counsel fellow Christians going through times of doubt.

8. He believed in the importance of craft. In “The Five Covenants of a Christian Writer,” Wangerin encouraged writers to say, “I promise to know all I can about the art of fiction, to read its practitioners, to understand what gifted writers described as its nature and function.”

9. He was open about his flaws. One of the refreshing elements of Wangerin’s nonfiction was how often he talked about lessons he learned the hard way. As he observed talking to Brown, he learned from seeing pastors tell personal stories in church that “when you tell those stories, the sinner is yourself.” His willingness to admit his mistakes—from struggles to admit his prejudices when he began pastoring an African-American church to worries about whether he was a competent pastor—gave him a rare honesty.

10. His writing wasn’t always fashionable. While some writers have natural styles that fit the current publishing market, others struggle to adapt to trends. Philip Yancey mentions in his tribute to Wangerin that editors often found Wangerin’s writing too “heightened” and complex for the self-help market. Ultimately “Walt would listen to their advice, agonize for weeks, and finally decide to ignore it.” Wangerin’s choice affected some of his book sales but ensured that his books were unique to him.

10 Great Books by Walter Wangerin Jr.

Since Wangerin wrote over 40 books in diverse genres, it’s hard to say which are his best books. The following are the best books to start with, showing a range of his work throughout his life.

1. The Chauntecleer the Rooster trilogyWhile Wangerin’s story of talking animals fighting great foes is split into three books (The Book of the Dun Cow, The Book of Sorrows, and Peace at Last), they build on each other to tell one story, not unlike Lord of the Rings.

2. The Crying for a Vision. Based on Lakota legends that Wangerin heard firsthand, the story takes place in pre-European America where a young man, Moves Walking, has a problem. He won’t learn hunting, so his tribe dismisses him as not good for much. But when he challenges warrior Fire Thunder, he may become the leader his tribe needs.

3Ragman and Other Cries of Faith. The first of several almost memoir books where Wangerin collects stories from his life, some with details changed to the point they’re more like fables than a biography. Ragman also includes meditations on the spiritual life, some in the form of letters to God.

4. The Book of God. The idea of telling the Bible’s story as a novel sounds like a Sunday School gimmick, but Wangerin does the unexpected here. He tells stories about key Biblical characters, showing the Bible’s grand scope and how its many complex pieces fit into an engaging, sweeping narrative.

5. As For Me And My House. While the subtitle, “Crafting Your Marriage to Last,” makes this sound like a Christian manual, Wangerin aims for something subtler. He tells stories from his marriage, showing vital lessons he learned without separating them from his and his wife’s story.

6. Saint Julian. An unusual part of Wangerin’s work since it’s his one historical fiction novel. The story follows the medieval saint Julian the Hospitaller, who, according to legend, devoted himself to God and caring for the needy after accidentally killing his parents. Like Frederick Buechner’s Godrick, this is a story about a saint who can’t seem to forgive himself for his sins, but his journey provides life-changing insights about grief and redemption.

7. Letters from the Land of Cancer. A series of reflections that Wangerin wrote after receiving his cancer diagnosis, sent to family and friends as he was undergoing treatment.

8. The Absolute, Relatively Inaccessible. The first of two poetry collections published in Wangerin’s last years, this book contains three parts where different poems feature different characters. In different ways, all three parts deal with concerns about sickness, mortality, and the hereafter.

9. Swallowing the Golden Stone. This collection contains six of Wangerin’s best-known children’s stories, alongside several essays for grown-ups about faith and the philosophy of writing stories for children.

10. Storycraft. Published after Wangerin’s death, this is his discussion of the art of preaching (how to tell the story well, the role of theatrics in preaching, and the communal storytelling nature that pastors create with their congregation). What his book Beate Not the Poor Desk does for writers overall, Storycraft does for preachers.

Photo Credit: Photo by Aimee Tomasek. Used by Permission of

Connor SalterG. Connor Salter is a writer and editor, with a Bachelor of Science in Professional Writing from Taylor University. In 2020, he won First Prize for Best Feature Story in a regional contest by the Colorado Press Association Network. He has contributed over 1,200 articles to various publications, including interviews for Christian Communicator and book reviews for The Evangelical Church Library Association. Find out more about his work here.

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