|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.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith
"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
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Thanks, Chris, for a thoughtful take on Warren’s new book on Annie Dillard’s work. As you know (since you sold it to me!) I have a book of 3 of Dillard’s best books combined into one volume (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, An American Childhood, and The Writing Life). I keep the book on my headboard and read through the whole thing over and over again. I am in awe of Dillard’s keen eye for the details of the Creation, her profound understanding of the connectivity of all things, and her sophisticated ability to make complex science accessible to her readers. This last time through the book, I became more aware than ever of her Scriptural allusions and the rich tapestry she weaves, threading science, observation, wonder and theology as she holds out a tiny wonder to her reader.
Warren may have missed the boat in critiquing Dillard’s theological work, but I do appreciate the fact that the new book will call attention to Annie Dillard as a previously overlooked treasure in the Church. Hmm… a “Year of Annie Dillard” would make for a great Sunday School class!
Thanks for this review. I studied Annie Dillard under Dr. Warren at Taylor University, so it’s exciting to see the release of this book. Dillard captivated me with her rich metaphors and imagery. Our Christian subculture tends to latch itself onto literalism and recycled metaphors, and Dillard broke open the dam for me. She pushed me to write in ways I never before considered.
What an inspiring post, many thanks. Hope to read more of your posts.