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

Roger Lundin
Published by Baker Academic in 2014

Reviewed by Chris Willerton, Language and Literature, Abilene Christian University

Lundin’s Beginning with the Word will serve both experienced and less-experienced readers who work at connecting modern literature and theology with modern theories of art, language, and culture. Lundin links theorists like Ferdinand de Saussure, Jean-François Lyotard, and Hans-Georg Gadamer with writers such as Frederick Douglass, Emily Dickinson, and Flannery O’Connor by making them “dialogical partners” (5). His position in all the comparisons and exchanges is clear: to question naturalism (“the tacit creed of contemporary intellectual life”[3]) and its popular corollary, namely “defining religious belief as a matter of personal formation and social aspiration rather than as an endeavor to know and obey the truth” (6). But this is not a triumphalist critique. Lundin wants to “reflect upon” literary, linguistic, and religious questions but at the same time to “introduce strong theological voices into the conversation” (5). The book first discusses language, especially as structuralism describes it, and then examines how stories may help our pursuit of the great questions of justice and God’s nature. Rather than crush his opponents – becoming as dogmatic as some of them are – Lundin wants to “bear witness” reasonably and humbly as a Christian thinker fascinated by words and the Word (9).

Chapter 1 sketches the rise of structuralism, which extends naturalism by challenging every Christian premise about reality and God’s nature. Amid the intellectual fragmentation of the modern world, naturalism has provided an eagerly accepted “master narrative” (19). Structuralism began drawing admirers (in Robert Scholes’s words) as “’a complete, self-regulating entity that adapts to new conditions’” (20) that can achieve “’the unification of all the sciences into a new system of belief’” (23). Not only intellectuals but Western culture took on a naturalistic habit of mind. Lundin recalls his discouragement as a working-class teenager grieving for his dead brother: “I feared that if God did exist, he certainly had to be a heartless character” (27). Truth, forgiveness, and eternal life “were simply words that embodied my desires but had nothing to do with anything real or possible beyond my mind” (27). He moved toward literature because his predicament was so well expressed by Thomas Hardy, Edith Wharton, Henry Adams, and others.

Chapters 2-3 continue analyzing our struggles to understand experience, using William Faulkner’s fiction with ideas from Gadamer, Saussure, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Karl Barth, and others. In The Sound and the Fury, Benjy Compson, howling for the loss of his sister Caddy, has no language to help bring wisdom out of his suffering. In earlier eras, wisdom might be learned through tragedy because audiences still believed in moral failure. Aeschylus’ characters and Shakespeare’s Lear, for example, can trace their suffering to hubris or to sin. But, says Lundin, “We in the modern world have simply swapped out the ethical categories and replaced them with psychological, chemical, and biological ones” (35). For moderns such as Faulkner and Gadamer, “our interpretive limitations have to do with the fact of our finitude rather than the reality of our sin” (35). And language itself drifted from the conviction that words embodied realities, as Walter Ong and George Steiner ex- plain. Part of the “disenchantment of the world” that is the price of scientific and technical mastery is that a word is merely a sign rather than an image (eikon) that corresponds to and participates in realities. The mark of the modern, in Paul Ricoeur’s words, is consequently the “‘loss of man himself insofar as he belongs to the sacred’” (42). Coleridge and other Romantics tried to develop language into symbols that would keep imagination and reason connected. But Darwinian theory left the imagination powerless and structuralism triumphant. Language consists of arbitrary signs, argues Saussure. Despots have benefited, adds Lundin, by finding “pernicious signifiers … to enslave or exterminate those signified by them” (52; italics in original).

But in chapter 3, Lundin spins around to pose a question that sign theory does not answer: how do we account for the transforming power of language? He demands a “more modest and more mysterious” theory that will “temper structuralism’s claims concerning the power of language to constitute reality and truth full” (58). Gadamer becomes a great ally here, arguing that “‘experience of itself seeks and finds words that express it.’” Hence, “‘the word still belongs to the thing insofar as a word is not a sign coordinated to the thing ex post facto’” (59). In the words of religious ceremony, says Gadamer, worshippers feel that the seen and the unseen coincide exactly, but language as a whole might best be thought of as a picture since it indicates both presence and absence of the things it names (62). With the Reformation, of course, arguments began about sign, symbol, and picture in the Eucharist, and many have looked for “vestiges” of the Creator and the Trinity in nature. The fundamental challenge, says Lundin, is to understand “God’s use of natural realities and human capacities to reveal his will and convey his grace” (68). As Barth demonstrates, structuralism cannot address the question. Lundin points to Addie Bundren’s speeches in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Their images “seem to sum up two centuries of an ever-expanding cultural anguish over the limits of finitude and the emptiness of language” (73). We must turn, then, to stories, says Lundin, because sign theory “does not have it within itself to sustain a Christian vision of the truth” (75).

Chapter 4 shows why emphasizing stories has its own complications. Postsecular literary criticism limits us to studying “lived religion,” not revealed religion. The experience of religion is real in this “immanent cosmos” though gods, souls, and afterlives are not. Chapter 4 examines “the rewards and limits” of the postsecular approach in three current scholars – Tracy Fessenden, Pericles Lewis, and Amy Hungerford.1 All three are skeptical of the “secularization thesis” borrowed from sociology and “subtraction stories” (Charles Taylor’s term) that attribute human progress to the discarding of illusions (82-83). But all three still “rule out the idea of a transcendent, self-revealing God” (87). Religious practice is a power struggle (Fessenden) or it is the development of “imaginative (i.e., literary) supplements and substitutes” for beliefs that now are impossible (Hungerford, Lewis [86]). Unsatisfied, Lundin turns back to Barth, who argues that God “commandeers” human language to convey divine truth and bring redemption (92). The “grand narrative of the Incarnation” supplants arguments over signification (94). When a speaker decides to say something and do something, says Ricoeur, the noun and the verb set the sign free for action and history. Linking Barth, Gadamer, Ricoeur, and Hans Urs von Balthasar, Lundin shows the Trinitarian God as the ultimate speaker and doer. As if in reply to Luigi Pirandello’s play Six Characters in Search of an Author, God as author has entered the drama, changing it forever (99).

Having made a case for God’s commandeering of language and story, Lundin tests it in chapters 5, 6, and 7 by examining literary works from William Wordsworth through Don DeLillo. How do modern and postmodern stories connect with God’s cosmic story? “How do we reconcile our modern conceptions of freedom and self-formation with a doctrine of divine providence” (104)? To take arms against meaninglessness, postindustrial culture often admires the Stoical “Daring Warrior” who embodies “courageous human conceit as the engine of life” – characters from Hemingway and Crane, modern rock stars like Jim Morrison and Amy Winehouse (114). Still, the domestication of time (endless Secular Time replacing Sacred Time) produces Emma Bovary, Edna Pontellier, Hedda Gabler, and others who spurn its ennui, even preferring death. Wallace Stevens and Frank Kermode affirm the need for “fictions” that give form to time but are wary when they harden into myth. But Barth, Balthasar, and Alisdair MacIntyre insist that humans use stories to figure out their own meaning, and God’s narrative framework is a valid choice. Time is “the theater of God’s Glory [where believers’ free choices honor Him] and the field in which God acts [that is, history]” (149; italics in original).2 But for modern writers to choose God’s narrative is complicated. DeLillo’s Jack Gladney (in White Noise) is content if someone else does the believing for him. Postsecular critics likewise “seem to have a yearning for belief that is satisfied mainly by their comforting admiration of others who do believe” (161). According to John McClure in Partial Faiths, much literature nowadays aims at “spiritually inflected” meaning rather than wholly spiritual or wholly secular meaning (162). Hungerford, says Lundin, “champions the virtues of ‘belief without content.’” She wants religion and literature to collaborate “to build bridges … ‘between conviction and relativism’ and ‘between doctrine and pluralism’” (164). Some writers, though, are not satisfied to “add a particular tone or pitch” from religion (163) but have “often treated unbelief as a facet of belief” (168) – see The Brothers Karamazov or The Assault by Harry Mulisch, a contemporary Dutch writer.

The final two chapters bring us to Lundin’s hard-earned wisdom for believers who write and read literature in postmodern culture. Although the books by McClure, Hungerford, Lewis, and Fessenden “open many windows,” they also “close just as many doors for a Christian engagement with modern literature” (167). But Christians can choose to “dwell in Possibility” (Dickinson’s phrase, 183) in their view of language, history, and free will. As Czeslaw Milosz writes in his poem “Either-Or,” society wants to force a choice upon us between naturalism and religion. In fact, we move between them. We confront the actual – what the newspapers and TV tell us – but also imagine the possible. Literature enables us to put aside our accustomed thinking, says Ricoeur. “To imagine … is to address oneself to what is not” (192). As Bobby Kennedy famously declared, “Some men see things as they are and say, ‘Why?’; I dream things that never were and say, ‘Why not?’” (190).3 Frederick Douglass and Augustine showed by their lives – by their choices to remake themselves with God’s guidance – the enormous power of imagining the possible. Living in anticipation is modeled by God Himself. Quoting Robert Jenson, Lundin notes that the Bible establishes God’s identity “‘not from the beginning but from the end, not at birth but at death, not in persistence but in anticipation’” (204; italics in original). To consider the relation of literature, language, and theology involves “a number of riddling matters,” says Lundin, but “we do best … when we follow the arc of the very story of redemption that the Christian proclaims” (220).

As much as I admire the erudition of Beginning with the Word, I admire even more its eagerness to help the reader. Its main predecessors (Lundin’s From Nature to Experience and Believing Again) focused on explaining modern culture and suggesting Christian responses. In contrast, Beginning with the Word is an equipping book, arranged to consider problems (of epistemology, linguistics, and spirituality) that confront Christian readers and writers.4 Like the earlier books, it shows us how to use Barth, Bonhoeffer, Gadamer, et al. to deepen our understanding of modern writers, but it is more thorough in exploring bedrock issues of language and story. How do we reply to the postmoderns and postsecularists when they propose to take the linguistic and epistemological ground from under us? Lundin equips us to engage these theorists civilly and hopefully, using a dialogic method that gives opponents a fair hearing. As always, he models the open-mindedness, clear logic, and brio (his term, 5) essential to his method. To provide this volume for Baker Academic’s series, Lundin was the ideal author, not least because of his personal engagement with issues of naturalism and postsecularism. His touches of autobiography (his grief over his brother’s death, his sorrow over his dying parents) persuade us that issues of theory are really issues of humanity. There are emotional and philosophical costs to disenchanting the world. Lundin urges us to confront those costs with integrity – refusing sentimentality, evasion, or dishonesty – in our service as Christian critics and writers.

Cite this article
Chris Willerton, “Beginning with the Word: Modern Literature and the Question of Belief”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 44:4 , 405-409


  1. Lundin discusses Tracy Fessenden’s Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and American Literature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), Pericles Lewis’s Religious Experience and the Modernist Novel (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2010), and Amy Hungerford’s Postmodern Belief: American Literature and Religion Since 1960 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).
  2. Ibid., 148-149. Lundin draws on Barth (who had drawn on John Calvin) and John Paul II.
  3. As Lundin explains, the phrase is George Bernard Shaw’s.
  4. Lundin mentions (5) that he had developed his approach in the earlier books From Nature to Experience: The American Search for Cultural Authority (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2005) and Believing Again: Doubt and Faith in a Secular Age (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2009). Beginning with the Word is part of Baker Academic’s Cultural Exegesis series. Its goal is to provide the appropriate tools to “equip the reader to engage and interpret the surrounding culture responsibly” (cover note to paperback edition).

Chris Willerton

Abilene Christian University
Chris Willerton, now retired, served as Professor of Language and Literature at Abilene Christian University.