Review: Modern Literature and the Question of Belief

Roger Lundin. Beginning With the Word: Modern Literature and the Question of Belief. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014, 272 pp., £14.99/$24.99 pbk.
In an attempt to defend the Christian understanding of a reasonably and narratively structured cosmos, Roger Lundin merges contemporary literary theory, modern prose and poetry, and theology in his latest publication on the question of belief in contemporary culture.  The introduction to his study unabashedly proclaims his Christian faith as he agrees with Karl Barth (a dialogue partner kept throughout the text) in that “theology has taken too many pains to justify its own existence” (p. 5); thus, Lundin seeks to “break the silence that so often seems to surround literary theory and cultural studies when it comes to the question of theology” (ibid.).

He performs this task by confronting the railing arguments brought against Christianity by the forces of structuralism and naturalism—what he calls “the tacit creed of contemporary intellectual life” (p. 3).  Lundin’s purpose, however, is not to debunk this creed’s every claim, but rather to show how modern conceptions of language and reality have come into being and to offer—through experience and story—a different account of the power of language and depth of reality.

Such a purpose entails a detailed account of how the relationship between words and things (i.e. what words signify) has evolved over time, from ancient thought concerning their unity to modernism’s belief in their utter separateness.  This task alone consumes the majority of Lundin’s study as he references the major thinkers on the subject.  While this makes for a good source on such a history, its page-consuming nature keeps at bay Lundin’s most interesting comments until Chapter Five, “Modern Times: Literature and the Patience of God.”  It is, however, at this point that Lundin, in succession, writes the book’s three best and most interesting chapters.

Therein, Lundin diagnoses modernism with a recurrence of second-century gnosticism, and, as Irenaeus combatted it then with the theology of recapitulation, argues for the same remedy.  He takes as his most prominent case study, William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury; Lundin’s acute sense of interpreting literature is revealed as he addresses the gnostic confusions of Benjy and Quentin Compson:

…words call to mind things they have lost and point to desires whose satisfaction they will never enjoy. …these fictional characters are torn between a spirit of lamentation and a sense of resignation.  As such, they have been powerfully shaped by a modern version of the ancient heresy of gnosticism and what Colin Gunton calls its “eschatology of return.” …To Gunton, the central flaw in Origen’s theory has to do with its idea of the fall as an event that took place before the creation of time and the universe. …As a result, having concluded that the creation was marred and compromised before it even came to be, Origen was all but compelled to define redemption as “a movement back to the beginning rather than forward to perfection” (176-7).

The Compson brothers are gnostic in the sense that they look to the past for fulfillment, despite the fact that they can never return to such a state of joy.  Lundin contrasts this view with the doctrine of recapitulation as it is stated in Ephesians 1:9-10—“For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (RSV).  Lundin elaborates:

“Having created all things through the Word, he [God] overcame the fall, not by returning us to the perfection of the past, but by transforming us through his love and his promises for the future. …This is a forward-looking doctrine, not a backward one, for redemption comes at the end of a transforming journey through death and resurrection rather than through some restorative retreat to a state of innocence before time” (152, 179).

In light of this, Lundin concludes: “For our view of language, the doctrine of recapitulation shifts the emphasis from space to time, and it exchanges the certainty of presence for the hopefulness of promise” (pp. 180).  Whereas presence and absence, sign and signifier are spatial categories, Lundin argues that recapitulation brings “the question of word and thing, and of story and reality—myth and fiction—into a new framework” (179).  Thus, while modernism favors a spatially-oriented semiotics, Christian thought posits a temporally-oriented theology of recapitulation, where all things will be fulfilled in Christ and where word and thing are ultimately reunited.
Yes, the tale of the competing narratives of modernity and Christianity is one we have heard many times before, and, unfortunately, Lundin’s interesting points take up but a small portion in comparison to the totality of his overly lengthy book marked by repetition and sometimes disparate chapters.  However, at book’s end, the patient reader may be encouraged by the words of Czeslaw Milosz, a poet quoted throughout Lundin’s work: “Nothing is lost, if one day our words / Come so close to the bark of trees in the forest, / And to orange blossoms, that they become one with them, / It will mean that we have always defended a great hope” (p. 182).


Review by Kevin Burns


  • Kevin Burns recently completed an MLitt at at the Institute of Theology, Imagination and the Arts. He currently works for the El Paso Museum of Art in El Paso, Texas.

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