Featured Reviews, VOLUME 7

Roger Lundin – Beginning with the Word [Feature Review]

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A Feature Review of

Beginning with the Word: Modern Literature and the Question of Belief

Roger Lundin

Paperback: Baker Academic, 2014
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Reviewed by Jeanne Lehninger
 
 
For me, what could be better than a book about words and stories—my stock in trade. I am a teacher of literature and a reader who delights in graceful words perfectly placed and in perceptive stories which tell me the truth about life and people, and so about myself. That Jesus himself is the Word made flesh full of grace and truth renders me breathless. That the mystery of the incarnation reverberates in writer’s words that thrill with grace and truth can give me goose bumps. Not only my mind, but my flesh responds to words of beauty and truth, and I am changed by them. Roger Lundin would agree that words have power, that they matter, and that how a culture apprehends words and stories can change everything.


 
In his book, Beginning with the Word: Modern Literature and the Question of Belief, Lundin begins and ends with the Word. He explicates his argument in the context of history and theology, philosophy and literary criticism, peppering throughout references to literature and his own winsome story. Lundin deftly and gracefully weaves these strands into a unified whole, uncovering the truth about “the word and the thing.” The central question of this book is whether it matters if words are icons embodying truth or simply signs (symbols) pointing to something else. A story about Flannery O’Connor illustrates the point:

 

Then, at some point “toward morning,” the conversation turned to the subject of “the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend.” McCarthy said that whenever she received the Host in her childhood, she had liked to imagine “it as the Holy Ghost,” that  “most portable” person of the Trinity. But now, she explained, she took to be nothing but “a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, ‘Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it….’” “I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.” (207/8)

 
Lundin, in his introduction, lays out the organization of his book as well as his purpose. “The goal of this book is to reflect upon questions of literature, language, and belief by engaging a wide array of modern theorists and imaginative writers…and to do so by treating these dialogical partners with the respect they deserve. At the same time…to introduce strong theological voices in the conversation about language and belief.” (5) His premise is one of orthodox Christianity grounded in the prologue to John’s Gospel: In the beginning was the Word…all things came into being through him…the Word became flesh and lived among us,…full of grace and truth.

 

So, who is this book for? As it is part of the cultural exegesis series by Baker Academic, it is to provide “methodological and foundational studies that address the way to engage culture theologically.” Beginning with the Word does just that in the context of the cultural discipline of language and literature. Academics will appreciate Lundin’s thorough and well-reasoned arguments about how naturalism has claimed contemporary language and literature, thereby changing how moderns view words. When words are seen as symbols rather than as icons, they no longer mean what they say. If words do not mean what they say, how can they carry truth? If they are not true, then meaning evaporates, and meaninglessness becomes the hallmark of modern thought. Lundin beautifully traces how this philosophy came to be by taking the reader on an historical journey. Along the way, he weaves in literary criticism and examples of modern literature which “prove” the point. Lundin thoroughly documents in a lengthy “Notes” section those sources which enable him to make his vigorous argument. A Works Cited section provides the reader with the opportunity for more study.



 

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