|A Brief Review of
Annie Dillard and
Reviewed by Chris Smith.
Since my intial engagements with her work in my Senior English class in high school, Annie Dillard has long been one of my favorite writers, and I especially appreciate the themes of faith that emerge as she engages the world around her in her non-fiction writings. So, I was delighted to hear that Lehigh University Press published the new book Annie Dillard and the Word Made Flesh: An Incarnational Theory of Language by Colleen Warren. This project, as Warren admits in the introduction, is a peculiar one, weaving strands of literary criticism and theology, but not fitting neatly into either of these categories. The backbone of Warren’s argument here is comprised of four of Dillard’s convictions that, taken together, comprise an “incarnational theory of language”:
1) “[J]ust as Christ’s incarnate, physical body contained the Divine Word, so also does Dillard believe in the material world’s worth and capacity to contain a spiritual language” (28).
2) “Dillard believes that the spiritual is not an ethereal abstraction but a concrete, incarnate reality and that it is the work of the writer to enflesh the spiritual with tangible words, to realize it” (29).
3) “Language has inherent meaning and significance” (29)
4) [In light of the previous three convictions,] ” the author, as a worker in words, has an awesome and formidable calling” (30).
Warren establishes these convictions well through her examination of Dillard’s non-fiction and poetry books, and in so doing, she offers us much to consider about the gift of writing and its role within the church community. The book’s final two chapters on Dillard’s idea of “the author as sacrifice” are particularly rich for us in reflecting on the relationship of the writer to the church community, and although Warren is concerned here primarily with the use of language and the written art, the basic concept could be extrapolated for all artists (in a fashion reminiscent of that called for by Daniel Siedell in his excellent book GOD IN THE GALLERY.)
The only unfortunate part about this book is that — in contrast to Dillard’s works — it reads a little too much like literacy criticism: always analyzing and heavy on the footnoting. I was particularly disappointed with Warren’s use of scripture, which seems to me at least to bear too much resemblance to literary criticism — referencing passages and interpretations on the fly with little context and assumed agreement on their meaning. Some grace should be extended, of course, as she is in fact an English professor and not a theologian.
Annie Dillard and the Word Made Flesh is an excellent book that serves well to intiate some theological conversation about the significance of Dillard’s works for the life and well-being of the Church. However, one is left wishing that its theological roots would have run deeper, but perhaps one can hope that Warren’s fine work will open the door for exactly this sort of richer theological engagement with Dillard’s works.