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.

Beauty in Education

Scarry - On BeautyElaine Scarry’s elegant On Beauty and Being Just (Princeton, 1999) observes that, in education,

“One submits oneself to other minds (teachers) in order to increase the chance that one will be looking in the right direction when a comet makes its sweep through a certain patch of sky” (7).

Many educators teach for a similar reason: we, too, long for the comet that passes, but view it within a panorama of reflected images in our students’ eyes.

Reading and Discovery

ImageYou don’t have to be an academic slogging over books to review or student papers to grade in order to have lost the joy of reading. But wherever you are on the spectrum between joy and aversion, I suspect you’ll find some unexpected delights in Alan Jacobs’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (Oxford University Press, 2011).

Jacobs warns against reading patterns that stifle enjoyment (i.e. tackling the top 50 books of the twentieth century), embraces technology as a means of restoring readerly inertia (e.g. he loves his Kindle), values the role of the social dimension in the reading process (e.g. blog posts and letter writing each foster meditation and reflection), and encourages readers to avoid the temptation to read only the classics (namely, you can’t eat steak at every meal).

Many books on reading require a vast knowledge of literature to appreciate. It’s a rather deflating prospect, I think. Who would want to read a book that tells you how little you know? Jacobs’s book isn’t like that—just uncommon wisdom, from a seasoned teacher, in prose I enjoyed.

This thoughtful meditation on accidental discoveries gives a taste of the whole:

“Plan once appealed to me, but I have grown to be a natural worshiper of Serendipity and Whim; I can try to serve other gods, but my heart is never in it. I truly think I would rather read an indifferent book on a lark than a fine one according to schedule and plan. And why not? After all, once upon a time we chose none of our reading: it all came to us unbidden, unanticipated, unknown, and from the hand of someone who loved us” (145).

Perhaps serendipity in reading is but the hand of God.