Roger Lundin (1949–2015): A Remembrance

Roger LundinRoger Lundin (1949–2015) holds a special place in my heart. Roger is, quite simply, one of my favorite people in this entire world. I do not say this lightly. Roger filled a room with his towering presence, but to talk to him over a meal or over coffee was to sit with a sage and a shepherd, a man who cared about me as a person. Finding words to describe this has been difficult.

Perhaps I can begin somewhere safe, for his singular ability to convey ideas about life in moments of personal communion, of course, shines through in his writing. In one section of his Believing Again (2009), Roger draws on W. H. Auden to articulate the idea of surrendering ourselves in order to be assimilated: “We give ourselves up in the service of the books, beliefs, and rituals that have nourished us, and in turn we surrender ourselves to others and to the future, so that they may assimilate us according to their needs” (281).

Roger thought narrative had a peculiar capacity to mediate transformation. He shared that deeply Romantic insight of Coleridge that literature gives “words for my inmost thoughts, songs for my joy, utterances for my hidden griefs, and pleadings for my shame and my feebleness.” Roger says much the same thing in a lovely short video for a summer course: “Narrative can help us by giving us the capacity to find in the record of the past—and specifically in God’s faithfulness in the past—grounds for hope for the future.”

So it is no surprise that when I first met Roger, as he led Wheaton College’s new faculty Faith and Learning program, we quickly developed a friendship over theology and literature and a common appreciation for the place of suffering in the Christian life. I came to Wheaton in the midst of a great sadness. Broken and uncertain, I found in Roger a friend who cared and understood. Part father-figure, part companion in the life of reflection, Roger reached out to me, put his arm around me, and held me tight more than once.

In the Fall 2011 semester, Roger and I co-taught a seminar on transatlantic Romantic Literature and Theology. Teachers rarely learn from colleagues in the classroom. We work down the hall or across campus. To lead a seminar together was something entirely different.

In fact, I struggled to find my voice that semester. Me, a young professor still developing as a scholar and forming an interpretation of the age as a whole, paired with an established guide who had shaped hundreds and thousands of students with the strength of his mind and the force of his personality. His memory was unparalleled: I once counted more than forty specific references or quotations from religious and literary figures in a one hour conversation he had with students. But as a co-teacher, Roger, ever generous, gave me space to speak, to share, to teach.

But my voice that semester was also feeble as I faced personal trials yet again. I came to class, so often, under-prepared, exhausted, and distracted. Students looked to me for lectures, but my thoughts were muddled and inadequate. He stepped in, so often, drawing on his vast resources and experience. Still, my confession is true: Roger shared my weakness in a time of great need. He held me in friendship as we walked through that semester together. Roger was Christ in my life.

It’s hard not to look back on time with lament. In the spring, we talked of projects for the future. A new iteration of our class. A conference on theology and literature. I imagined, foolishly, more time remained. Regrets fill my eyes with tears of what should have been, of what I failed to do.

Here, now, I find myself returning to Roger’s words, translating life into thought once more. “I’ve always tried to tell my students, and remind myself, that’s why in human life our goal can’t be to go back to the innocence of the childhood we have lost,” he says in the video I find myself playing over and over again. “The way back is barred. The Christian life is about the way forward. But the way forward is the way forward through the cross and the empty tomb.”

Roger, like so many authors he could recite from the vast stores of his memory, nourished others in friendship. His presence, now assimilated, belongs to our future. “The Bible begins in the Garden and ends in the City.” We cannot go back to a time of innocence. Couldn’t we go back just a little while longer? I still find myself asking.

The brief video is here.

The Wheaton College notice is here.

Brett Foster (1973-2015)

Brett FosterMy friend Brett Foster, poet and professor of Renaissance literature, died last night of cancer, even as Wheaton College’s Arena Theater performed a selection of his poems to a packed room of colleagues and students.

Not that I’ve tasted the prophet’s honey or fire:
I’m just a shocked, confounded fellow
who’s standing here, pumping the bellows
of his mellifluous sorrow.

Brett’s words and spirit filled the room, amidst our tears. A prophet, far more than he knew. His poetry, a eulogy of life and love and friendship.

And speaking of things overheard, you heard right:
if I have to go out, I am going to go out singing.*

You have crossed the bar, but we will see you anon. Rest in peace.

*Lines from “Tongue is the Pen.” Brett Foster’s Bio can be found HERE, with recent poems here and in this video.

Losing Everything: Jenny Offill’s “Dept. of Speculation”

Dept of SpeculationWhat does it feel like to lose what matters most? It feels like life is askant, disoriented, even though you are surrounded by friends, children, and meaningful work. That’s why Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation (Vintage, 2014) works. Continue reading

History, Humanity, and Ha Jin’s “Nanjing Requiem”

nanjing requiemWhen I learned that the prolific, award-winning Ha Jin had been named to the highly selective American Academy of Arts and Letters (an exclusive honor recognizing only 250 members at any given time), I decided to read Nanjing Requiem (Pantheon, 2011) to learn more about the author and his noted prose style. Continue reading

Paul Fiddes on Theology and Literature

fiddesI recently shared a passage from Paul Fiddes’s The Promised End: Eschatology in Theology and Literature (2000) with students in my class on interdisciplinary theology. Fiddes, Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Oxford, offers a constructive model for how to perform theology through literature: Continue reading

Losing Religion, Finding Self in Thompson’s “Blankets”

Blankets CoverStories permeate religious discourse, and among the most important stories in the history of Christianity are those which recount the life converted. Shared features have emerged over time—a search for meaning, a recognition of self-limitation, choices that signal self-denial and dependence on another. These moments, which reappear through time and across cultures, signal shared understanding of faith and community, and provide theologically rich sources of reflection on God and the self. But while some evangelical conversion narratives became formulaic in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many recent “spiritual autobiographies” or “life writings” have broken convention with remarkably powerful results. Continue reading

Romanticism and Materialism in Thelwall

SolomonescuRomanticism can be linked with vitalism, idealism, and varieties of anti-materialism, but the period also gives evidence to other philosophical and scientific conceptions of the world. Yasmin Solomonescu’s John Thelwall and the Materialist Imagination (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) provides an intriguing new account of how Thelwall intended to produce “material effects on the minds and bodies of audiences in the service of sociopolitical reform” (7). Solomonescu uses the term “materialist” to convey more than a natural philosophy by extending scientific materialism to political and social life broadly conceived. Continue reading

John Wesley and Christian Practice

Interpretations of John Wesley abound. Two recent monographs from Oxford University Press show how different dimensions of Wesley’s early ministry can yield vital clues to understanding the heart of Wesley’s life and ministry—and how his example may shape Methodist commitments today. Continue reading

Blake and Methodism

William Blake’s religious thought is notoriously challenging. Several recent studies, however, shed light on this area through particular attention to the theological and historical impact of British Methodism on his achievement. Two recent monographs deserve mention.

jennifer_jesseJennifer Jesse, in William Blake’s Religious Vision: There’s a Methodism in His Madness (Lanham: Lexington, 2013), maintains that Blake works “against the backdrop” of Wesleyan theology. She argues that Blake critics have relied excessively on contemporary caricatures of the Wesleys, Whitefield, and Methodism generally rather than historically accurate portrayals of the movement. Continue reading