Colleen Warren. Annie Dillard and the Word Made Flesh: An Incarnational Theory of Language. Lanham, MD: Lehigh University Press, 2010.
The use of words as a primary route to faith has fallen out of favor in many theological and philosophical circles. Scholars suggest that the body is a sexier mode for coming to know who God is, who we are, and how truth is revealed. And so we now live in a mythic world where word and reason have been divorced from bodily knowing, where neo-Barthians are pit against feminists, neoliberals against liberationists. We have grown suspect of words or bodies even as we attempt to live into this dichotomized word/body paradigm.
However, Colleen Warren’s critical perception of Annie Dillard’s incarnational theory of language blurs these lines and complicates the idea that body and word are opposing forces. Her account of Dillard reminds me of all the ways in which words render the spirituality of materiality more real than real in my life of faith. This is especially true in the words, sentences, and symbols that have been constructed by Dillard in her works of nonfiction, from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in 1974 to her last work of nonfiction, For the Time Being, in 1999.
Any reader of Dillard knows she is a master word painter. She can look at a muskrat, stone, fish, or eclipse and then evoke their essence so vividly that they come to life in our heads. Those muskrats, stones, and fish, we soon realize, are saturated in God’s meaning and purpose, and they are waiting there for the courageous artist to stop, look, listen, and respond to the spirituality entrenched in all materiality.
Over the years, critics and scholars have highlighted Dillard’s ecological emphases as well as her skill with the craft of memoir. Many have noted the influence God has had on her writing and seeing of the world. But few have picked up on her christological emphases. In Annie Dillard and the Word Made Flesh, Warren notes that some readers even lament an absence of Christ in Dillard’s work. Warren thus aspires to fill a gap in past analyses of Dillard, to focus on Dillard’s ecological emphases while also talking of how Christology is revealed in the very form and style of Dillard’s language. Warren argues that Dillard’s use and understanding of language asserts that words incarnate the very same Word that was (and is) incarnate(ed) as Jesus Christ.
Warren sets the philosophical stage for her incarnational theory with John 1:1–18, which begins in verse 1 by saying, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (NIV). Warren argues that, as a writer, the “designation of Christ that most intrigues Dillard and that subsequently infuses her theory of language is of Christ as the Word” (17). What sets Christ apart as Word, Christ as logos in the philosophical realm, is that the mediating force in the world is not Heraclitus’s originary supreme reason that kept the world from chaos, nor the Stoics’ mind of God, nor Philo’s creative plan of God “effected through man’s own intelligence” (18). Rather, the Gospel of John reveals logos as a personified mediator, a reasoning and creative eternal Word that is enfleshed and dynamic. In Jesus Christ, material and spiritual reality are unified. Thus, Warren argues on behalf of Dillard, our words “concretely express both the material and spiritual” as they seek to “convey their interconnectedness” (22).
Warren makes her points concerning Dillard’s incarnational Christology by arranging her chapters as limbs, four large ones and four smaller ones (28). The large limbs discuss how human words have the capacity to contain spiritual language, just as Christ’s physical body contained the Divine Word (chapter 1); how spirituality can be enfleshed and encountered through words (chapter 3); how language has inherent meaning, not merely our own superimposed meanings (chapter 5); and how our words must imitate the kenotic self-emptying of Christ so that they may become incarnate and transfigured reality (chapter 7). Each of these limbs is followed by a shorter even-numbered chapter that focuses on a central image in one of Dillard’s works—the stone, prayer, baptism and communion, and the moth, respectively.
Throughout the chapters, Warren highlights Dillard’s conflict with contemporary modernism, a movement that seeks to reject meaning as anything more than that which the seekers of meaning construct themselves. Contemporary modern writers are not concerned with the self-effacement Dillard believes is necessary for writers to make meaning; she believes that words have a power of their own, just as the Word does, and that writers must strive to be obedient to those words, not vice-versa. Dillard rejects any possibility that the human mind has the capacity to construct and invent meaning for itself. Rather, it is the role of the human, and writers in particular, to seek after meaning as it lurks in the everyday ordinary aspects of the biological, cosmological, and historical world. An incarnational theory of language opposes theories of language in science and Christianity that desacralize nature. To Dillard, some scientists, even scientists who are Christians, drain the world of meaning as a way of attempting to make meaning and control truth. In contrast, Dillard strives to re-enchant the world with meaning using words that convey the voice in the stone, the symbol in the moth scorched in flame.
Incarnational language imitates the incarnation: as God and humanity collaborate in the particularities of Word/word, eternal meanings are revealed. Writers must seek a balance of unconsciousness and self-consciousness in order for this revelatory incarnation to take place. Unconsciousness renders writers open to God’s communication, which for Dillard is frequently found in the minutia of the everyday. Writers must resurface to a state of self-consciousness in order to bring particular words to the encounter; this is the way that they can awaken other humans to the meaning met in their unconscious encounters with incarnation. Language, for Dillard, is pivotal in the breaking open of the symbols and meanings embedded by God in all of nature. In this sense, God does not seek after humans; instead, we must seek after God with language (79).
Dillard, according to Warren, understands the created world—history, time, universe, cosmos—to be the base of all shared meaning, and from this shared meaning, different people at different times create different word systems of language to reveal that common God-given meaning (102). At the same time, this meaning is only God-given because of the fact that God is incarnate in Christ—the universal becoming particular. Our words, despite their imperfection, imitate the Word in this particularized revelation of the universal.
Dillard’s essay “An Expedition to the Pole” juxtaposes the narratives of explorers seeking after the North Pole with churchgoers seeking after God. Although both ultimately complete their respective missions in her essay, fumbling and stumbling in search of the pole that is God, the journey itself is worthwhile and can only be made with our language (87). Dillard suggests it is better to be awake to the work of seeking meaning and to never reach the pinnacle than to live life asleep in front of the television, divorced from the exploration, for “God is to be found in our days” (84). As Dillard’s narrator, according to Warren, awakens to the presence of the spiritual in all things material, she “assists God in the work of redemption.” (143).
This theme of redemption happens to be one of several theological terms that Warren uses in her book that lacks a clear parallel investigation in Dillard’s work. In other words, it is unclear in Warren’s recapitulation of Dillard what redemption is and does in the material world. Is there in Dillard’s work a concrete example of redemption? Is redemption the awakening to God’s presence or is it more far-reaching than this aesthetic sensibility? These are the kinds of questions Warren seems to leave unaddressed.
Likewise, Warren is at times shaky in her biblical identification of Dillard with John the Baptist and with Jesus Christ. On the one hand, Warren likens Dillard to the prophet in the wilderness, set apart from the center of things in order to point to what is coming. The Baptist’s words were prelude to the coming of the Word; he serves as a participant with God in preparing a way for the incarnate one known as Jesus. Dillard, Warren shows us, does this with her words, writing her way into encounter with God. On the other hand, Warren also highlights Dillard as a kenotic writer and images her as a Christlike figure whosacrifices herself in order for the Word to incarnate in her and become the source of the words she pens. The theological implications for these two identifications are underutilized in this work, potentially because Warren, in faithfulness to Dillard, sees the writer’s task manifesting itself through both ways.
And speaking of both ways—in each chapter Warren returns to the idea that in Dillard we see an utter lack of dichotomy, that Dillard begins as much in the spiritual realm to relate to the material as she begins in the material realm to relate to the spiritual. I would argue, however, that there is more evidence of Dillard beginning in materiality. Dillard, after all, is a self-proclaimed surveyor of the physical land. She does theology from the ground up. It is the form of her work as a writer and grassroots theologian. Warren seeks after a balance, but an emphasis on the ground floor is undeniable in Dillard.
Perhaps the greatest effect of reading Warren’s study of Dillard is an overwhelming urge to put the book down and dive back into the essays of Dillard. This is because Warren does a fabulous job of weaving Dillard’s themes together across works as she constructs her incarnational theory for Dillard, but she does so as a literary critic, not as a theologian, nor as a creative writer or semiotician. Likewise, theologians and biblical scholars will need to cultivate some grace as they come across her cursory use and framing of Scripture and her often undefined use of theological language—Warren is a professor of English at Taylor University and she makes no claim otherwise. In fact, though she highlights Dillard’s Catholicism, Warren never reveals to the reader her own theological underpinnings, and there is an assumed world of shared meaning in her theological language that will frustrate many critical theologians today.
Annie Dillard and the Word Made Flesh will interest those lovers of Dillard’s work who have traced her theological themes through the years but had not the time or insight to pull them together for deeper exploration. At the same time, this is not a theology according to Dillard. That potentially illuminating work remains to be done—imagine the alignment of Dillard’s incarnational theory of language with Rebecca Chopp’s systematic theology, for example. Warren is a professor of English constructing a theory of language from Dillard using theological terms. She is not a theologian constructing a system of theology from Dillard. As a homiletician, I am especially cognizant of the parallels between Dillard’s theory of incarnational language, specifically the role of the writer within this system and the role of the preacher in modern homiletic theory—an intriguing project for me would be to turn to Dillard’s theory and theology of language in order to construct a homiletic theory. But again, this is work for the future, work that Warren has now made much easier. Dillard’s works are dense and rich enough for more of this cross-disciplinary exploration and dialogue to take place through and around her corpus.
I would not recommend this book for someone who has not yet read any Dillard. It is not a Dillard primer. For those of us who have read Dillard, we remember how she pulls us into the world of meaning as it’s constructed by words, only to send us back out into the world, awake and salivating to find lights in trees and stones that cry out in a language which originates in the mouth of God. This book may not have quite the same effect, but it will inspire Dillard fans to dig back into her world of words in search for encounters with the risen and living transformative Word of Christ in and through her effort at fleshing and texturing the mystery of God in the now of the world.