Roger Lundin: The poetic language of leadership
The Blanchard Professor of English at Wheaton College reconciles the modern age with evangelicalism through the poetry of Emily Dickinson.
March 23, 2010
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To Roger Lundin, words and language -- even the language of poetry -- are essential tools of leadership. “A leader who has an ability with language can make a person feel that his or her experience has been taken and articulated and then given back as a gift,” Lundin says. In a recent conversation with Faith & Leadership, Lundin discusses the evangelical movement toward interior reflection and the relationships between good literature and good leadership.
Lundin is the Blanchard Professor of English at Wheaton College in Illinois, where he has been on the faculty since 1978. Among his published works are “Literature through the Eyes of Faith;” “Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief;” and “The Culture of Interpretation: Christian Faith and the Postmodern World.”
Q: You describe Emily Dickinson’s work as part of a stereotypically Protestant move away from talking about God with regard to external things toward focusing on internal things. Do you think the move toward looking for God internally is related to a modern distrust for institutions?
Several years ago I wrote an essay out of my desire to understand the move away from public life in America. I focused on Henry Adams and Emily Dickinson. Emily Dickinson was the daughter of a United States congressman who was also a leading figure in higher education. Henry Adams was the grandson and great grandson of presidents. Why did these two people retreat so dramatically from public life?
As a woman in the mid-19th century, Dickinson was not going to run for congress, of course. But it was not only a matter of gender for her. For Adams gender didn't play a role. They both deliberately turned away from public life and turned inward to what Robert Gross, a good Dickinson critic, called “the grand theatre of the mind.” This is where Emily Dickinson played out her life. That move to interior space takes place dramatically even in the 19th century.
It has to do with something that Alexis de Tocqueville wrote almost 200 years ago in “Democracy in America.” He said that the American is either occupied with a very puny and insignificant thing, i.e. himself, or with some vast subject: nature, society, God, the universe. He said the space between that small thing and that vast other is empty. Democracy drives people to an intensely inward focus. It looks at the outside world as this vast, indifferent other. That space between [the insignificant and the vast subjects] is mediating life: it’s churches, schools, politics and social communities.
Q: Does there need to be some cultivation of one’s own spirit in order to lead?
People who lead well are often people who have done that intense interior work, but you're never effective in public leadership if you're constantly reflecting and constantly, in a sense, absenting yourself. Thoreau said in “Walden,” “I'm aware of myself in a double sense.” He said, “I am both an actor in the human drama, and the one who stands back and observes myself and others in action, so that I'm both in the stream of life and standing outside of the stream of life.”
The double sense that comes from intense inward reflection can lead one to difficulties in public life. When I tell this to my students, I call it the existential rebound. I was a very big kid in the 6th grade, about 5'8 or 5'9. I was twice the size of most of the kids I played basketball against, but when I played under the basket I'd get a rebound, and instead of putting it up if I was on the offensive end, or throwing an outlet pass if I was on the defensive end, I tended to stand with the thing in front of me, like Hamlet contemplating Yorick’s skull. I’d look at it and say this is a basketball; you can do so many things with it. And as I was meditating on all the possibilities, some guy half my size would steal the ball from me.
Q: Could you talk about the contrast between Dickinson, one of our great poets, who guarded her words so carefully, and our present age of intense chattiness?
I've never thought about whether Emily Dickinson would have had a blog. I imagine the answer is no. Like so many great writers in the 19th century, Dickinson had an incredible ear and she knew, as Mark Twain said, the difference between the right word and the almost right word, which is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. Until you’ve got the right word, you probably don't want to put it down.
I don't have any statistics on this, but it's a good bet that the more we talk, the fewer words we use. The fund of commonly used words has to be down culture-wide. Once that fund of useable words is down, so too is much of the surprise and nuance. These come from words that you don't commonly use, but they're in your quiver.
Q: Is there a parallel between being a good poet and being a good leader?
Dickinson’s poem “After Great Pain a Formal Feeling Comes” is about responding to pain. The poem closes:
This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived
As freezing persons recollect the snow--
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.
I read that poem, and it brought to mind my experience of grief in losing a brother and grandmother at a very early age. She got it exactly right. A hundred years before I came along she was describing my life for me.
A leader who has an ability with language can make a person feel that his or her experience has been taken and articulated and then given back as a gift. Of course, there's the danger of rhetorical abuse. There's a danger of hysteria. Yet there's also the potential for directing people toward good and noble ends.
Q: The language you use to describe leadership sounds like a Eucharist: Take and bless and break and give.
Precisely. W. H. Auden said, "This is the secret of the Mass. All learning is by assimilation, just as all eating is." He said we grow as spiritual and educational creatures exactly as we do as biological creatures. We consume others and are nourished by them, and we then give ourselves up to be nourishment to others. He's borrowing from Charles Williams here: “The slogan of heaven is eat and be eaten. The slogan of hell is eat or be eaten.”
Q: I would guess Dickinson’s most famous line is her admonition to “Tell the truth, but tell it slant.” Why is that so powerful still?
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant--
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind--
Dickinson wrote a friend near the end of her own life about a mutual friend they had lost. She sent a five-word letter: “The crucifix requires no glove.” That's the truth of God that doesn't need to be told slant. Dickinson wrote in another letter that when Jesus tells us that in his Father's house are many mansions, we turn away. But when he says that he is one acquainted with grief, we listen. For Dickinson, one of the truths that did not need to be told slant was the truth of grief and sorrow. The crucifix requires no glove. You can touch God and not only live but be nourished. She was a very theologically astute woman for someone who never went to church.
Q: How do you convince your students that whatever they end up doing, they also ought to be reading literature?
You give them resources that sustain them for their lives. One of the most important things you can do is introduce people to books that it pays them to reread. Most of what we know that we value we learned by rereading.
Recently, I saw a student I taught 25 years ago. She said, "When I took your course I bluffed it. I didn't read ‘The Brothers Karamazov.’" I said, "Well, I'm not shocked." That’s probably the case more often than I realize. But she said to me, "I knew there was something in it because of the way you talked about it. I have reread it every five years since. It's become a touchstone in my life." I find encouragement in that.
Q: As many religious institutions are waning, how has Wheaton College remained a vibrant institution with expanding influence?
One thing that has sustained Wheaton has been that people who have come, whether as students or faculty or administrators, have sought out other strong people to sharpen, goad and lead them. You seek out the people who are going to move you, to motivate you, to challenge you, and who are going to help you grow and give you a vision.
I was in my second year of teaching at Wheaton when a fellow named Mark Noll joined the faculty. After knowing him for just a month, I realized he was an extraordinarily smart man who knew just about everything about the history of the Reformation and American religious history. I figured I had much to learn from him. I wanted to talk with him, and I wanted him to read my work; I wanted him to challenge me, and he wanted me to challenge him. I've had friends like that.
You bring in good people, and they get better by being sharpened. I’m not quite certain why it’s part of the culture at Wheaton. It may be because of the intensity of the experience and the impossible nature of the expectations. You think, “I've just been thrown into the middle of the ocean without a life raft. I've got to find out who knows how to swim in these kinds of seas. I need to learn the strokes, the breathing techniques and endurance.”
Q: What is the connection between your work as an evangelical thinker and your work as a literary scholar?
If you were growing up in the evangelical church, going back to the 18th century, I'd say music would be at the center of your experience. And, as long as you had the King James Bible, language would be too. Most of my students come to me having read dreadful Bible translations if they've read the Bible at all, and most of my students do not hear complex expository sermons anymore. They don’t have a broad sense of what’s important culturally. They don't have a broad sense of the visual arts, of architecture, of history or poetry, of contemporary fiction that's worth reading.
The students try to get up to speed, but the evangelical culture does not do much to support those arts. When many of your students worship in places that could double as gymnasiums, mall auditoriums, theatres or warehouses, they're not going to come with an interest in architectural line. When they're reading translations that are insipid, they're not going to come with the kind of ear you would have if you had been steeped in the King James Bible or you had listened to rhetorically gifted preachers.
Q: As an institution of higher education that is also evangelical, does Wheaton College encounter a great deal of diversity in thought?
Evangelical [is a word that] describes a certain orientation toward a spiritual life, toward the scriptures and interiority. There is an emphasis on the conversion experience and on the process and possibilities of sanctification. At Wheaton evangelicals are Anabaptist, Lutherans, Swedish Covenanters, a lot of Episcopalians. The fascinating thing about Wheaton is that it remains an "evangelical" institution, when over the years the faculty and student body have shifted dramatically theologically.
In the last 40 years there has been a slow but steadily growing migration away from nondenominational churches, which are marked by a strictly defined statement of faith, and towards sacramental, creedal, confessional churches where the Lord's Supper, Eucharist, is central rather than peripheral to the experience.
What you see in evangelicalism at Wheaton is a constant exploration of the question of what will be the ground of our authority. What will serve as the authority for individual Christians and for the collective Christian group? These things get played out in a place like Wheaton in very dynamic ways.
Wheaton is emblematic of experiences at evangelical protestant institutions. People at these places take seriously the question of religious authority. They ask serious question. How does God speak? Through what and through whom does God speak?
The novelist Frederick Buechner taught at Wheaton for a term 25 years ago. He said the thing that really struck him about Wheaton students was how seriously they talked about God. He said he had never been, in his adult life, in a place where intelligent young people took the language of God so seriously, as if it was a matter of life and death.
About 10 years ago I was teaching at a Catholic institution on a one-year leave. The students were just as bright as at Wheaton, and they looked the same on paper. The one thing that was missing was the Protestant angst. In any class of 35 people that I have for literature at Wheaton, for six or eight of these students reading the next book may be the turning point in their lives, because they have been trained to think that books hold the key to life's deepest moral and spiritual questions. They're on a quest to find that key.