Citation on Award Plaque presented posthumously to Roger's family on Jan. 7, 2017
The Conference on Christianity and Literature honors Roger Lundin as the recipient of its Lifetime Achievement Award.
We do so with enormous gratitude for his extraordinary contribution to literary studies anchored in the Word. His scholarship is elegantly written, theologically astute, and reflective not only of his incisive intellect but also of his compassion. His energy and his spirit will remain forever alive in the countless students he inspired and in the books he wrote with such precision and care—studies of Emily Dickinson, of doubt and faith in a secular age, of Emerson, of hermeneutics, and, always, of literature through the eyes of faith. On the last page of his last book he writes of “the wonder of God’s faithfulness, the beauty of his promises, and the mystery of his ways.” These were his subjects, and this his legacy.
Jill Baumgaertner’s Tribute to Roger Lundin
CCL Luncheon | MLA | Philadelphia | January 7, 2017
I first met Roger Lundin during the summer of 1980. He was reading in the Kilby room in the English department of Blanchard Hall before it was remodeled, and my first impression was of a very tall, broadly smiling young scholar, filled with excitement about teaching and a love of literature. He had begun his teaching in an English department that had held such legendary figures as Clyde Kilby, Joe McClatchy and Beatrice Batson, themselves forces of nature who approached the study of literature with passion, conviction and unabashed delight. Roger Lundin caught the literary vision from these master teachers as an undergraduate at Wheaton. He went on to study theology at Gordon-Conwell Seminary, receiving his M.A. in 1976 and then realized that literature was his calling and so pursued the M.A. and Ph.D. in English at the University of Connecticut. Roger was a highly sought after teacher, whom the sociologist of religion Alan Wolfe once described as having a“revivalist lecture style [which] breathes passion and life into the poetry of Emily Dickinson.” (“The Opening of the Evangelical Mind,” The Atlantic, 2000). His classes were always overloaded with students and his office hours an endless series of conferences with a professor who made a lasting imprint on their lives. How many times have I read in the course evaluations written by students in his classes: “This course changed my life.”
Roger was the paradigm of the Christian scholar/teacher/servant. In fact, when we conducted a national search for a stellar professor to occupy the Arthur Holmes Chair of Faith and Learning, the search committee kept referring to Dr. Lundin as the model of what we were seeking: a scholar whose teaching and scholarship were anchored in St. Anselm’s dictum: “faith seeking understanding.” So—after serving as the Kilby Chair and a Blanchard Professor, Dr. Lundin became the Holmes Chair. His scholarship was elegantly written, theologically astute, and reflected his razor-sharp intellect but also his compassion and his tender heart. His mind was brilliant, his soul passionate and kind. He adored his family and his students. His energy and his spirit are alive in the books he wrote with such precision and care—books on Emily Dickinson, on doubt and faith in a secular age, on Emerson, on hermeneutics, and on literature through the eyes of faith. And his most recent book, Beginning with the Word: Modern Literature and the Question of Belief, was a finalist for the Lilly Fellows Program Book Award.
Roger’s fifteen books include other award winners. His Believing Again: Doubt and Faith in a Secular Age was named one of the “Best Books of 2009” by the Times Literary Supplement and one of the “Top Ten Books of Theology for 2009” by the Christian Century. Note that the award was for books of “Theology.” How rare this is for a literary critic. His Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief was named an “Outstanding Academic Book" by Choice; received an “Honorable Mention” award for the “Book of the Year” competition by CCL; was selected as a Christianity Today Book Award Winner; and received the Institute for Advanced Christian Studies/Books and Culture “Book of the Year” award, a $5000 prize.
In addition to publications, Roger also served as a Visiting Research Fellow at Duke Divinity School, Director of the American Literature and Religion Project ($240,000 grant from Pew Charitable Trusts and the Erasmus Institute), was on the Advisory Board for Theology Through the Arts at Cambridge University, was Director of Faith and Learning at Wheaton College, and was President of the Conference on Christianity and Literature.
This is a miniscule representative listing of Roger’s many accomplishments—and not only awards but the many ways in which he has served the Kingdom in his roles as literary scholar/theologian/teacher/leader.
How many hours have so many of us sat with Roger talking about literature and faith, and the ways in which the Word infuses words. He gave wise counsel, and our lunches often stretched beyond the closing time of the dining hall as he spoke of his concerns for students, for colleagues in distress, for his beloved Wheaton, and for CCL. At the heart of everything he did and said was his faith.
It is most appropriate at this point to let Roger’s words speak for themselves, and I have chosen three passages from his writings to give you a brief glimpse both of his brilliance and of his heart.
From The Oxford Handbook of Religion and the Arts, Roger Lundin’s essay on “Doubt and Belief in Literature”:
“As Dostoevsky was wrestling with his profound doubts, he was also furiously at work developing a new form of fiction, which Mikhail Bakhtin was to call the dialogical novel. According to Bakhtin in fiction of this kind the author cedes control of the thoughts and discourse of his characters and permits them to embody and promote ideas profoundly antithetical to his own. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky presents Alyosha as his hero, even as he allows Ivan to espouse countervailing views with great force and clarity. In like manner, in Moby Dick Melville clears a space in which two dramatically conflicting visions—the grim idealism of Captain Ahab and the good-humored pragmatism of Ishmael—flourish side by side. Propelled by these opposing visions, the novel repeatedly shifts from deadly serious assertions to comically absurd asides and back again.
“For Dickinson the new, fluid state of belief and unbelief played directly into her poetic vision and practice. It led her to conceive of individual poems as provisional explorations of multi-faceted human experience. Many of her poems offer the feel of life as a believing mind or trusting heart might experience it, but just as many or more offer the texture of experience as a deeply doubting or openly disbelieving person might know it. No single poem or any small ensemble of poems can represent Dickinson’s settled view of the issue at hand, for the affirmation one poem may give with the right hand in one verse is likely to be snatched away by the left hand in another. The dashes that punctuate her lines, the pronouns that stand alone without a hint of antecedents, and the metaphors that alternately entice our interest and spurn our inquiries—all are signs of the tantalizing ambivalence of Dickinson’s mind as it explores the possibilities of belief and unbelief.
. . . “In a letter written in the final months of her life, Emily Dickinson described herself as being both “Pugilist and Poet.” Like Jacob, who told the angel, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me,” Dickinson would not let go of God, nor would Flannery O’Connor. And as the stories of Walker Percy, John Updike, Toni Morrison, and Saul Bellow bear witness and the poems of Richard Wilbur, Denise Levertov, and Czeslaw Milosz attest, many of the modern world’s most accomplished writers have continued to refuse to relax their grip as they have pressed ahead with their restless quests to believe, and rest, in God.”
In the conclusion of his book, Believing Again: Doubt and Faith in a Secular Age, Roger writes of an incident in his first year of teaching: “We had arrived at Emily Dickinson in the syllabus, and as I worked my way stiffly through the poems, we came upon one that had me stumped. The poem begins,
A Clover’s simple Fame
Remembered of the Cow
Is sweeter than enameled Realms
Of notoriety --- (#1256)
I uttered something unmemorable about the idea of memory, and was ready to move on to firmer ground and an easier poem, when one student near the back of the class spoke up. He returned our discussion to the imagery of the poem and implored us to think of how a cow turns clover into milk. He urged us to think of “remembered” not just in the sense of something “being brought back to mind,” but of its being “remembered” in the sense of its having been broken, its having died, and its having been transformed.
. . . “Through acts of re-membering, Christian belief and practice are nourished by a love that reveals the hidden and heals the brokenhearted. In the contemporary world, the Christian faith bears witness by remembering that ‘the Word became flesh and lived among us’ and by proclaiming that the breach between subject and object has been healed through the suffering love of the Son of God. By the light of the incarnation, we may see ourselves as subjects in new ways, and we may learn to see once again the loveliness of objects, even those we once found most unlovely.”
Then from his final book, Beginning with the Word: Modern Literature and the Question of Belief.
“The miracle of the Incarnation is that long before any of us began to grope about in the maze of our confusion and sin, God—as Emily Dickinson and Roland Hayes might put it—prepared a body for the Tender Pioneer to tunnel his way to meet us. While we struggle and stammer with our words that “strain, crack,” “slip, slide, and perish” (Four Quartets, 121), the God who lives forever as the Word has come to us in the baby Jesus, and he has become our child, so that our affection might come and we might be his forevermore.
“The many emotions and experiences I had felt while caring for my dying parents several decades earlier rushed together one day several years ago, as I held my wife’s hand and held my first grandchild in a Minnesota hospital room, Here, in this sweet, smooth face with its dimpled chin, in these ruddy leg and tiny long-fingered hands, in this bundled body so small I could cradle it in my own hands, here I found a gift from God so astonishing that my heart raced, my arms trembled, and glad tears filled the corners of my eyes. I was probably experiencing, as my friends in Applied Health Science might tell me, an adrenaline rush, but I was also sensing the wonder of God’s faithfulness, the beauty of his promises, and the mystery of his ways.
“That the God of Abraham, that the force that rules the universe, that the power behind and beyond all events and all accidents, took on a body and became a child as fragile and delicate and vulnerable as this little one—this seems to me almost beyond imagining. But so it was, for the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. And so it still is. And so it will forever be, throughout all ages, world without end.”
In rereading his work in preparation for this address, I realized all over again the huge extent of our loss—for Wheaton and CCL, which he led so wisely, for his students and readers and friends and family, for the world of literary scholarship and for those in it struggling with faith and doubt. How strong the waves of loss are as they wash over me again reading his words. He made the world a much, much better place—even the world of MLA.
This is the third occasion when I have spoken about Roger and his legacy. The first was at Wheaton three days after he died. The second was at an English Department Chapel service this past fall commemorating the lives of Roger Lundin and Brett Foster. Each time I have felt that it was most appropriate to end with a poem by one of Roger’s favorite poets—Czeslaw Milosz. The poem: “And yet the Books.”
And yet the books will be there on the shelves, separate beings,
That appeared once, still wet
As shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn,
And, touched, coddled, began to live
In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up,
Tribes on the march, planets in motion.
“We are,” they said, even as their pages
Were being torn out, or a buzzing flame
Licked away their letters. So much more durable
Than we are, whose frail warmth
Cools down with memory, disperses, perishes.
I imagine the earth when I am no more:
Nothing happens, no loss, it’s still a strange pageant,
Women’s dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley.
Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born,
Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.
Read Professor Jeremy Begbie's tribute to Roger Lundin.