posted April 24, 2007

Meditations Feature Literary Works

From "Watership Down" to Shakespeare's "King Lear," literary works provide the inspiration for a series of meditations written by Dr. David Cunningham of the Hope College faculty for those experiencing sorrow and change.

The nine meditations are featured in the book "Friday, Saturday, Sunday: Literary Meditations on Suffering, Death, and New Life," published earlier this year by Westminster John Knox Press.

Cunningham, who is director of the college's CrossRoads Program and a professor of religion at Hope, draws from novels, poems and plays in considering the themes of suffering, death and new life. The events of Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday provide a framework for the meditations' reflections on grief and pain, separation and absence, and transformation and renewal.

"Friday, Saturday, Sunday" stems from Cunningham's ongoing interest in exploring the way that literary works can illuminate Christian themes. Literature, he believes, can play a helpful role in assisting those who are dealing with loss and transitions.

"Literature's chief advantage for helping us with this process is that it creates an imaginative world that does not immediately demand that we compare it to our own reality on a one-to-one basis," he writes. "Moreover, unlike first-person accounts of suffering, novels and poems and plays offer us multiple points of view; they help us understand the complex layers of influence that act on people and show us the inside of their characters' souls (and not just the parts that one might choose to reveal about oneself)."

"Finally, rather than narrowing our focus and leading us to think primarily about ourselves, literature tends to turn our attention outward, toward others," Cunningham continues. "As readers who enter into an imaginative fictional world, we come to care about the characters and to concern ourselves with their hopes and sorrows rather than simply focusing on our own."

The literary works drawn upon in the meditations in "Friday, Saturday, Sunday" include Fyodor Dostoevesky's "The Brothers Karamazov"; T.S. Eliot's "Four Quartets"; William Shakespeare's "King Lear"; Iris Murdoch's "The Sacred and Profane Love Machine"; Gerard Manley Hopkins's "The Wreck of the Deutschland"; Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"; Richard Adams's "Watership Down"; Janet Morley's "All Desires Known"; and Shakespeare's "The Tempest."

"The two words that spring to mind on reading David Cunningham's book are wisdom and rootedness," said Francesca Murphy, coordinator of the Catholic Studies Program at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. "Rooting himself in ordinary human experience with its dilemmas and questions, the author succeeds in making the Christian way into suffering come alive. With its rare combination of directness, simplicity, and depth, the book will appeal to both academics and to ordinary readers."

Cunningham has published widely in the areas of Christian theology and ethics. His previous books include "Reading Is Believing: The Christian Faith through Literature and Film," "Faithful Persuasion: In Aid of a Rhetoric of Christian Theology" and "These Three Are One: The Practice of Trinitarian Theology." "Reading Is Believing" received a "Gold Award" for Religion in "ForeWord Magazine's" 2002 Book Awards.

Cunningham has been a member of the Hope faculty since 2003. He was previously on the faculty of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary and had also taught at the University of St. Thomas and at Austin College, and during 2002-03 held an Alexander von Humboldt Fellowship at the University of Freiburg in Germany. He holds a bachelor's degree in communication studies from Northwestern University; a bachelor's and master's degree in theology and religious studies from the University of Cambridge in England; and a doctorate in religion from Duke University.