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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

"Beginning with the Word" (Roger Lundin)

TITLE: Beginning with the Word: Modern Literature and the Question of Belief (Cultural Exegesis)
AUTHOR: Roger Lundin
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014, (272 pages).

What shapes our thinking? What kind of philosophy drives us on a daily basis? Why are there so many accusations of people who think one way and behaves another? What does it mean to think Christian hope in the light of living in a contemporary world? With all kinds of theories flying around, how do Christians engage literature, language, belief, culture, and of course imagination? Perhaps, there is a lot of opportunity to educate and engage people toward believing what they practise and to practise what they believe. It is the "guiding conviction" of the author in this book that it is God who "seeks, embraces, and gives himself over to the conversational voice" of culture. This essentially means that we begin with the Word in any forms of engagement with the world or culture at large. Making it more explicit, Roger Lundin, Professor of English at Wheaton College adopts the French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur's posture of choosing "hermeneutics of testimony" over "philosophy of absolute knowledge." For to do so would encourage one to put into practice, to act upon, and to experience what one knows or believes. Words, stories, literature are literary tools and devices to help us reconnect the world we live in and the divine future we can anticipate.

Lundin begins with a biblical support based on a reflection of John 1:1 on how the Word became flesh and dwelt among people. He connects the words used in literature and argues that these form a starting platform for further expression. In Christ, one connects the past and the future. All of the Church's creeds, doctrines, traditions, practices are all based on the Word. The historical problem was how the belief soon "imposed" upon rather than being "immanent" from within.  With the rise of "idealism" in the 19th Century, and "textualism" in the 20th Century, one unfortunate result is the limiting of the role of science. Using Richard Rorty's argument, Lundin points out that idealism seeks to replace philosophy while textualism seeks to replace science. What is lacking is the connection or bridge from "words to things." Then there is "structuralism" which tries to link language and meaning with a grand narrative, a network of relations, and an attempt to unify the sciences under a new belief, namely, naturalism. The problem is while such naturalistic philosophies deal more with things "present," it fails to adequately explain "absence." Thus, with the failure of naturalism as a background, Lundin works on the premise that the Christian needs to let the Word help them engage fearlessly both the visible and the invisible.

Lundin continues his criticism of naturalism by showing the limits of trying to explain "ethical categories" with modern sciences such as psychology, chemistry, and biology. For such things deal more with one's finite being rather than beyond. In contrast, the use of names and language is able to mark both the presence as well as the absence of reality. For instance, the Word of God reveals that all things were made through Christ, pointing out that both the seen and the unseen, the entirety of the Universe can be framed within the Word that expresses the truth. Literature plays a powerful role even when the world is getting more disenchanted. Art enables not just the creation of art but how the making of the art creates new understanding of ourselves. Working with the power of imagination, words can go to places where "darwinian naturalism" and "structuralist narrative" are unable to travel to. With words, one can picture the truth in ways that images, signs and symbols are unable to even tread. For words have identity, ideas, and intimately fuses the finite with the infinite realm.

If words alone have such significance, imagine if the words combine to become sentences, phrases, and paragraphs. Here is where Lundin continues to shine in using language to grasp one's understanding of God. As he does the linking, he makes several arguments against secularism, the dangers of reducing God to human consciousness, and some alternate understanding of fiction. For the latter, he even claims that "fiction creates so that religion can be honest about itself." For one's hunger for God is better expressed through imagination and literature rather than finding some finite object. It is like trying to prove God humanly rather than to let God reveal to us divinely. Using stories and literature, Lundin shows us how one can move beyond mere salvation language toward a vibrant narrative that connects God's redemptive acts with our human endeavours. Like William Wordsworth's poem that links the physical with the divine, Emily Dickinson's "imaginative forays" that bridges humanity with divinity, or Jorge Luis Borges's spiritual turnaround as he discovers the truth in the gospel of Mark. For literature captures many more things such as sacred time, how the Divine Word is also very humanly real, and how stories capture the "space, time, and the patience of God." Language can express space and time in past, present, and future. Lundin brilliantly links the two with the "patience of God," finding meaning via definition, Romantism development and to Christian doctrine. We also grow to appreciate the way Karl Barth had infused theological rigour and pastoral passion with how God patiently allows man to develop and grow in understanding from one level to another.

On art, Lundin points out the deficiencies and limitation of using art to explain time without a belief in God. Without religious belief, art and literature can only do so much. Like the difference between the Greek words, chronos and kairos, the world of reason will only resemble "chronos" that is earthly limited, without the richness of kairos, which can extend beyond time, space, and eternity. Experiencing life also means knowing our limits. Faith is essentially learning to venture beyond our human abilities and as a result learning to respect our fallible beings and limited world. As Lundin proceeds, readers can sense his excitement as he dwells upon the vision of how redemption and the restoration of God's world can become reality. Such anticipation bridges the present and the future with hope. In Christ, we see truth that surpasses all understanding that merges into one whole, that stands forever, that will keep our hearts and minds in Christ. 

So What?

This book is given me a fresh appreciation of the power of words, the eloquence of stories, and the beauty of hope. Fiction and myth have often been seen as something foreign to faith and theology. In fact, they are very human ways in expressing truth experienced or felt. If we were to look seriously at the supposedly non-fictional nature of non-fiction books, if one only sticks to the nuts and bolts of pure facts, it takes the wind out of the sails of free expression. For without the breadth of language, the depth of creativity, or the height of human imagination, pure non-fiction will be impoverished for the lack of tools to connect present reality with future hope.  At the same time, works of fiction cannot occur on a vacuum for much fiction is dependent on reality and factual information. Many movie dramas for example are based on a true story or event. While they are not totally true at every technical point, they communicate truth that can only be embodied in the human experience.

Lundin has helped me toward a renewed reverence for John 1, which talks about how Jesus became flesh and dwelt amongst us. The very same way that Jesus teaches and demonstrates truth, is through stories and the powerful words he uses. The Reformers stand for "sola scriptura," but one of the unfortunate things is that it has led to some quarters that put the texts before people. On the other extreme, the reaction is also unhelpful when parties become too liberal and culture-centered when they put people's needs before the Word of God. This book carefully walks between the two extremes, highlighting the positives of each with the help of philosophers, theologians, and Christian thinkers, and of course the truths as revealed in Holy Scripture.

My main gripe is that there are several pages in the advanced reader copy I had that leaves out the poems and literary words due to copyright issues. With the full copy and all the quotes in full, the book will be a marvelous resource to renew our appreciation of words, of literature, and definitely of God's Word.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Baker Academic and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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