"
 
    
header

“Use Nothing Only Once”:

Believing Again with Roger Lundin, Emily Dickinson, and Ron Rash

Martha Greene Eads

As a twentieth-century Christian aspiring to become an English professor, I probably couldn’t have been luckier than to enter graduate school in the 1990s. The Eli Lilly Pharmaceutical Company had made a fortune on Prozac, which went on the market in 1988, and soon thereafter the Lilly heirs established a foundation that to this day supports a number of Christian higher education initiatives, including the postdoctoral fellowship program that led me to my position at Eastern Mennonite University in 2003. Around the same time, the Pew Foundation developed what seemed then like an endless stream of grants for Christian scholars, one of which matched me as a Ph.D. student at UNC-Chapel Hill with M.A. student Anthony Wilson at Vanderbilt and then-assistant professor Hal Bush at St. Louis University for mutual support and mentoring by Roger Lundin of Wheaton College. Pew gave us each a generous stipend for three years and covered our travel for a series of meetings, during which we shared both professional and personal concerns. One piece of advice Roger repeated to us then and in the years that followed was “use nothing only once.” Especially if you end up teaching at a small Christian college with a heavy teaching load, the only sure path to publishing productivity is to find a rich vein of scholarly inquiry and to tap it again and again.

Roger attributed this insight to his dear friend and colleague, historian Mark Noll. We all cheered when Alan Wolfe proclaimed in The Atlantic in October 2000 that “[b]ecause of the work of historians such as Noll, George Marsden, Joel Carpenter, and Nathan Hatch, the provost of Notre Dame, no serious student of American history can any longer dismiss evangelical Christianity as little more than a backward reaction against modernity” (61). Wolfe called his article “The Opening of the Evangelical Mind” in a nod to Noll’s 1994 book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Although Wolfe wrote bluntly in the Atlantic about some shortcomings he saw in Christian higher education, his article largely refuted the assumption, increasingly popular as the twentieth century unfolded, that church-related schools were second-rate and that Christian scholars must be closing their eyes to the hard truths twentieth-century physicists, evolutionary biologists, psychologists, and sociologists had revealed. Mark Noll’s bold book, as well as his subsequent gigs at Harvard and Notre Dame, further challenged the conventional wisdom. Even secular religious skeptics could not deny that he and fellow-historian Nathan Hatch, as well as Roger Lundin and Alan Jacobs, all then at Wheaton; along with philosophers Nicholas Wolterstorff and Alvin Plantinga at Calvin College; and, a little later, sociologist Christian Smith, then at UNC, were phenomenally productive and closing their eyes to nothing.

Another piece of advice Roger gave to my Pew Foundation cohort was to think, speak, and write as honestly as we could about the truth before us. He often quoted a phrase from Richard Wilbur’s poem “Lying”: “In the strictest sense, of course, we invent nothing, merely bearing witness/ To what each morning brings again to light” (qtd. in Beginning with the Word 10). For Roger, a scholar of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature, what the morning usually brought to light were texts about the difficulty of religious belief. The skepticism that largely ruled in twentieth-century academia had taken root in the nineteenth century, and Roger read carefully, respectfully, and even lovingly the poetry, novels, essays, and letters of nineteenth-century women and men whose Christian faith often wore thin under the pressure of scientific advances, new streams of philosophy, and the everyday horrors of life. Drawing from the work of historian James Turner, Roger asserted in his 2009 book Believing Again: Doubt and Faith in a Secular Age that the good news of Christian faith was no longer a surety for many educated people by the mid-nineteenth century. He wrote, “[O]pen unbelief became for the first time an intellectually viable and socially acceptable option in the countries of the North Atlantic…. Agnosticism entailed both a ‘permanent suspension of belief in God’ and a stubborn inability to rest in the reality of God. It quickly ‘became the distinctively modern unbelief’ and established itself as a ‘self-sustaining phenomenon’ in the decades after the American Civil War” (104).[1] One exemplar of this perspective was the poet Emily Dickinson, the writer to whom Roger gave the most scholarly attention and about whom he published his award-winning biography The Art of Belief in 2004.

Among the Dickinson poems Roger regularly quoted was “Those—dying then,” which he asserted describes the spiritual loss many have experienced with the rise of unbelief. The poem, which he dated to 1882, observes:

Those – dying then,
Knew where they went –
They went to God’s Right Hand –
That Hand is amputated now
And God cannot be found –
The abdication of Belief
Makes the Behavior small –
Better an ignis fatuus
Than no illume at all –  

Lundin explains, “Dickinson here refuses to place the blame for the loss of belief. She renders the amputation of God’s hand in the passive voice, and with the word ‘abdication’ she leaves it unclear whether God’s disappearance is a result of divine self-mutilation or a parricidal act of human aggression. What is clear is that belief’s abdication has created a void in the lives of many who had once rested in its assurances” (114).  Fascinated by this poem’s account of Emily Dickinson’s spiritual struggle, Roger mined it for all it was worth in his lectures, articles, and books.

As an English teacher eager to draw connections and parallels (even when they might not be entirely justified!), I could not help but think of this poem’s central image when I read North Carolina poet and fiction-writer Ron Rash’s short story “The Dowry,” which he published first in his 2013 collection Nothing Gold Can Stay and then a year later in Something Rich and Strange: Selected Stories.[2] In the story, set in rural Marshall, North Carolina, just after the Civil War, a pastor named Boone gives his own hand when a Confederate veteran demands that his daughter’s sweetheart, who had fought for the Union, offer his as a sort of a reverse dowry. In developing this story, Rash operates as if on Roger Lundin’s “use-nothing-only-once” principle; he had already written a poem called “The Dowry,” which he published in the 2002 collection Raising the Dead. Although the characters’ names and the outcomes are different in the poem and the story, Rash is obviously circling round and round his knowledge of nineteenth-century social and political conflict in North Carolina, much as Roger did with Emily Dickinson’s poetry and letters.

The image of the severed hand, however, is not the only link between the Dickinson poem that haunted Roger and the postbellum animosity that haunts Rash. Whether or not Rash had Dickinson’s poem in mind when he wrote “The Dowry,” the two works function similarly to illustrate unbelief’s tightening grasp since the U.S. Civil War, the unbelief that developed in response to what Roger called in Believing Again “the materialist narrative” (7). Among the central influences on this narrative, according to Lundin, are Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley (Believing Again 79, 104), two writers whose works are at least on the periphery of Pastor Boone’s thinking. Boone’s physician-friend Noah Andrews, whose office “served as a salon for the best-educated men in Marshall to discuss everything from literature and politics to science and religion” (184), keeps on his office shelves Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species and Huxley’s Man’s Place in Nature alongside works by Shakespeare, Scott, and Thackeray. “An oil lamp,… its flame alive” illuminates this temple of learning, and “a lacquered darkness gave the office the aura of a confessional booth, which, like the room’s seeming immutability, no doubt made it easier to speak of fears too often confirmed” (185). When Pastor Boone comments on the speed with which Dr. Andrews’s new pipe has reached him from the United Kingdom, the doctor responds, “I only wish ideas could cross the ocean as quickly” (187). Dr. Andrews is bucking against the strictures of a traditional Christian worldview, and he wants to pull his friend Pastor Boone out along with him.

From the opening image of “The Dowry,” however, Rash signals that he is depicting a world in which traditional Christian faith falters. “The garden angel’s wings were submerged,” Pastor Boone observes through his window, “the redbud’s dark branches damasked white” (173). As Pastor Boone braces himself to visit a parishioner in the bitter weather, his housekeeper Mrs. Newell warns him about catching “the ague” and threatens that “[i]nstead of hearing yourself read the Good Book, you’ll be hearing it read over your coffin.” Teasing her gently about her eschatological interpretation, he sets forth in his buggy and begins planning the next week’s sermon. “Instead of a chapter of Acts on mercy, he pondered the opening verse in Obadiah, The pride of thine own heart hath deceived thee,” Rash writes.

Already, in just five pages, Rash has invited readers to interpret Boone’s change of plan as a rebuke of the man he is preparing to visit, Leland Davidson. Davidson has refused to let his daughter Helen marry Union veteran Ethan Burke unless Burke will amputate his own hand. Pastor Boone seems to be on his way to talk sense into Davidson—to secure permission for the star-crossed childhood sweethearts in his congregation to marry apart from such a condition. In a battle of the Bible in the Davidson parlor, Colonel Davidson and Pastor Boone each reach for scriptural support, the former citing eye-for-an-eye passages from Leviticus and the latter preaching forgiveness from Colossians. Certainly, their debate illustrates the struggle to reconcile the apparent tension between the Old Testament’s emphasis on justice and the New Testament’s on mercy. Rash is, however, going beyond illustrating this tension to pointing out another: the modern tension between belief and unbelief exemplified by the struggle between Pastor Boone and Dr. Andrews.

When Pastor Boone convinces Dr. Andrews to perform the amputation, the physician fumes,

I can’t believe I’ve allowed you to talk me into this barbarism, and for no other reason than some bundles of papyrus written thousands of years ago. We may as well be living in mud huts, grinding rocks to make fire. Huxley and his X Club will soon end such nonsense in England, but in this country we still believe the recidivists not the innovators bring advancement in human endeavors (190).

As the surgical procedure begins, Dr. Andrews returns to the subject Mrs. Newell had broached as the story opens: the resurrection of the dead. Clearly, he is more skeptical than she about its likelihood.

Whether the dead—Christ, specifically—can be raised is central to this story’s conflict. Passages about mercy in the New Testament book of Acts—one of which Pastor Boone has rejected for his next week’s sermon—follow closely upon assertions about Christ’s resurrection. The book opens with a description of Christ’s ascension forty days after His resurrection, and the next chapter recounts Peter’s Pentecost sermon, in which he identifies Christ as not only as David’s descendent but also the fulfillment of his prophetic vision of resurrection. Those who heard this sermon and subsequently trusted in Christ were baptized, witnessed and performed miracles, and established a radically joyful, hospitable, and merciful community (Acts 2:41-47). Throughout the book, followers of Christ affirm His resurrection, linking it to David’s messianic prophecies. Biblical scholar N. T. Wright asserts in Acts For Everyone that “[t]he good news, the great news, of Jesus is that with his resurrection it becomes clear not only that he is Messiah and Lord, but that in his death he has dealt evil itself a blow from which, though it still retains some power, it will never recover” (39).

An inability—or a refusal—to believe in Christ’s literal, physical resurrection is a hallmark of the new nineteenth-century decline in conventional Christian faith, as Dickinson’s poem demonstrates. In “The Dowry,” Doctor Andrews exemplifies this new agnosticism, but even Boone, a pastor, is not immune to it. Boone’s shift in sermon text from Acts serves as evidence. Of course, Obadiah is a judgment passage, and most readers of “The Dowry” would agree that Davidson deserves some kind of judgment. Rash soon makes clear, however, that Pastor Boone reads Obadiah as a judgment of his own life rather than of Davidson’s. Rash writes, “To hold together what frayed benevolence remained in the church, a pastor need appear neutral…. Yet [there] were times [Pastor Boone] suspected his silence [about his Union sympathies] had been mere cowardice” (175). A few pages later, he reflects, “Even in the war’s brutal last winter, he had never lacked firewood and food, and, childless, no son to fear for. No outliers had abused him. Almost alone in that dark time, he, Christ’s shepherd, had been blessed” (177). It is in glimpsing the prints of young Ethan’s poorly repaired boots in the snow from his own relatively luxurious buggy, not a direct encounter with the cruel Davidson, that prompts Pastor Boone’s consideration of Obadiah 1:3: “The pride of thine heart hath deceived thee, thou that dwellest in the clefts of the rock, whose habitation is high; that saith in his heart, Who shall bring me down to the ground?”

Thus Boone determines, when Davidson will not agree to lift his hand-for-a-hand demand, to sacrifice his own hand—not only as a dowry but as a payment for his own war-time idolatry—congregational conflict-avoidance and material comfort. Confronted with the suffering resulting from the Civil War (as well as the suffering Colonel Davidson is inflicting on Helen and Ethan), plagued by guilt, and deprived of the spiritual resources a more robust Christian faith might have offered him, Pastor Boone has no choice but to sacrifice himself.[3] When Dr. Andrews observes that “[i]t always comes down to guilt, does it not, that and somebody’s blood. Your religion, I mean,” Pastor Boone replies, “I suppose, though I would add that hope is also a factor” (190). He himself, however, must undergo amputation to claim that hope. If Christ’s crucifixion has not resulted in a sure triumph over evil and death, Pastor Boone must embrace some sort of salvific sacrifice of his own.

In “The Dowry,” Pastor Boone thus comes to the limits of his wisdom, ability, and strength in the face of evil. Rash hints, least obliquely, in other stories as well as this one that the hope Christian faith once offered cannot meet the particular demands suffering poses on men and women in the agnostic cultural context that dawned in the nineteenth century. For him, William James’s account of religious experience seems to offer a measure of hope in the form of existential heroism, a heroism that Pastor Boone exemplifies. James asserts in “The Value of Saintliness”:

In a general way, then, and “on the whole,” our abandonment of theological criteria, and our testing of religion by practical common sense and the empirical method, leave it in possession of its towering place in history. Economically, the saintly group of qualities is indispensable to the world’s welfare. The great saints are immediate successes; the smaller ones are at least heralds and harbingers, and they may be leavens also, of a better mundane order. Let us be saints, then, if we can, whether or not we succeed visibly and temporally. But in our Father’s house are many mansions, and each of us must discover for himself the kind of religion and the amount of saintship which best comports with what he believes to be his powers and feels to be his truest mission and vocation. There are no successes to be guaranteed and no set orders to be given to individuals, so long as we follow the methods of empirical philosophy. (377)

William James, Roger Lundin asserts, deserves credit—along with Friedrich Nietzsche—for dissuading Western intellectuals from “search[ing] for truth [that] involved confident efforts to uncover the worded order God had woven into the fabric of the reality” (Beginning 17). For James, the only thing humans can learn for certain from examining religious practices would be more about ourselves.

Although Rash acknowledges an intellectual debt to James, he has accepted the label “a religious man” in an interview with Thomas Aernold Bjerre (222), and Anna Dunlap Higgins notes that his “own particular background, passed down to him via his mother’s line, was Southern Baptist, although not the staid version one might imagine.” She asserts that “[t]he poet is a deeply spiritual man, believing in the grace of second birth” (53). The nature of such birth, however, at least as it appears in stories from Something Rich and Strange, is uncertain, and Rash has been cagey when interviewers ask him about his faith. When I dared, however, to send him a copy of the Michaelmas 2015 Cresset article in which I assert that one of his darkest novels, The World Made Straight, ultimately points to Christ’s redemptive power, he thrilled me with this email response: “Dear Marti, …[T]hanks so much for understanding the book’s true core. ron, who is among the believers” (email to the author, October 14, 2015).[4]

How did I recognize this deeply Christian element in Rash’s work? From heeding Roger Lundin’s advice, taken from Richard Wilbur, simply to “bear witness.” Like me, Rash is an English professor who grew up in the Scripture-saturated Blue Ridge Mountains in a Baptist church. In fact, we’re sixth cousins two different ways. Having pursued higher education (and then some), we’ve both been steeped in the materialist narrative. Thanks to Roger, I don’t have to be afraid of experiencing a dance, of sorts, between belief and unbelief, and I was able to glimpse a similar oscillation in Rash’s fiction. For Emily Dickinson, Lundin points out, as for many other modern poets, novelists, and dramatists, unbelief has become a way station within belief. He quotes a line from a letter she wrote around the same time as “Those—dying then”: “On subjects, of which we know nothing, or should I say Beings—we both believe, and disbelieve a hundred times an Hour, which keeps Believing nimble” (115). Many scholars have called attention to the poems in which Dickinson explored her doubts about the existence and benevolence of a traditional God, but Roger called attention to those in which she celebrated her love for Christ. It makes sense to me that Ron Rash might similarly still look to Christ as Savior, even if he’s not always sure why.

My friend and mentor Roger Lundin’s own immersion in the materialist narrative familiarized him with doubt, too, but witnessing and experiencing the effects of sin in this broken world directed him to the Cross and beyond to the empty Tomb. He found companionship, challenge, and inspiration in literary accounts of belief and unbelief, and his love for Christ animated not only his scholarship but also his many friendships and his deeply satisfying family life until his death two and a half years ago. He was a professor who had truly Good News to profess—one whose example has left me unwilling to give up the label “evangelical,” despite its recent negative associations. I am grateful to have this opportunity now to bear witness to Roger’s gift to so many, including me: his example of literary study as a means of testing our assumptions, facing our fears, cultivating compassion, and growing in gratitude.

 

Martha Greene Eads is Professor of English at Eastern Mennonite University.



[1]       Lundin notes that Huxley “coined the term agnosticism to describe what was at that point a strange phenomenon having to do with the sudden, widespread loss of belief” by 1869.

[2]      In keeping with the spirit of this article’s title, I discuss this story similarly alongside others in “The Christ-Abandoned Landscape of Nothing Gold Can Stay” in Summoning the Dead: Essays on Ron Rash (ed. Randall Wilhelm and Zachary Vernon, USC, 2018).

[3]       Boone “voluntarily [takes] the initiation” into suffering, a phrase that William James uses in his 1902 book The Varieties of Religious Experience.

[4]       http://thecresset.org/2015/Michaelmas/Eads_M15.html

 

Copyright © 2016 | Valparaiso University | Privacy Policy
rose