The Power of Words

by Julianne Sandberg '08

Books are standing counselors and preachers, always at hand, and always disinterested; having this advantage over oral instructors, that they are ready to repeat their lesson as often as we please.
— Oswald Chambers

I came to Cedarville with one goal: to learn as much as I possibly could in four years. And I graduated in 2008 with much more than I bargained for.

Through daily chapel, Christian ministries and the Bible minor, my education extended far beyond academic knowledge and reached into the sinews of my soul. Although biblical education played a large part in this process, the stack of books at the end of my bed — faithfully accumulating each semester — played a profound role in amplifying my spiritual growth.

By my sophomore year, I declared a major in English, mostly because I liked to read and thought studying literature was a great way to build my personal library. Unaware of how significant this decision would be, I casually entered the language and literature department, soon propelled into a challenging and exciting journey of spiritual development.

Beginning the Journey
It all started in fall 2005 when I walked into an American literature course. The professor opened the class by saying, “This semester is a quest for truth.” Oh boy, I thought. Just because we’re at a Christian university doesn’t mean we have to “spiritualize” everything we read. I sat skeptical in the back of the classroom, disheartened at what I perceived as an attempt to convert the study of literature into a loose-knit Bible study.

But as I proceeded through the semester, I realized this was not what the professor had in mind at all. Instead, she demonstrated that literature — when interpreted, not distorted, through the lens of the Christian worldview — held profound potential to move readers toward spiritual awareness and a fuller understanding of truth. And I was certainly no exception.

I completed that semester with a new-found excitement to explore literature in search of what God wanted to teach me. Echoing Ralph Waldo Emerson, I silently announced to myself, “I am a transparent eyeball” — ready to see myself, God and the world more fully.

Witnessing the World
Although Emerson initiated this journey, he was soon followed by Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman. These men relished the joys of existence and chose to see, feel and experience the beauty of the world. From their example, I recognized that I often rushed through life unobservant of the world around me. As Thoreau did, I needed to retreat occasionally, to refocus my mind and heart. I began to live more intentionally, taking time to reflect on God’s activity and looking for ways to redeem each moment. Like Thoreau, I wished “to live deliberately … and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Enjoying Life
Soon, I broadened my literary horizons and ventured into Renaissance literature. Although sometimes disgruntled with the tedious Old English language, I learned from — and came to love — artists like William Shakespeare, Philip Sydney and Castiglione. But the writer who most significantly influenced my spiritual walk was John Donne, the 17th-century pastor-poet whose work spans the topics of romantic love, moderation, death, grace and redemption.

As Donne skillfully mingled the secular and sacred in his poetry, I recognized my failure to do the same in my life. I elevated what I deemed “spiritual” activities, such as Bible reading and prayer, often to the neglect of other aspects of life: laughing with a friend, enjoying a theatre performance, or basking in a afternoon nap. God was as much a part of my day-to-day activities as He was in my brief moments of spiritual exercise. From Donne’s example, I began to find joy in the mundane and see individual moments as God-ordained encounters through which I could, as Tennyson said, “drink life to the lees.”

Knitting Souls
The more I experienced life to its fullest, the more I recognized the role of community in this journey. Whether contemplating Scripture, a poem, nature, or a textbook, I grew most when I interacted with other people. Once again, literature perpetuated this discovery. Authors like George Eliot and Virginia Woolf reminded me that God had intricately wired the human soul with the need for intimate relationships with fellow image-bearers.

Although I understood in theory the importance of relationships, my choices did not always reflect this priority. The responsibilities of work, school and extracurricular activities often forced me into a lone corner of the library where I opted out of after-dinner conversations and weekend events.

But I began to intentionally spend more time with people, quickly experiencing the fruits of this choice. My peers sharpened my thinking, encouraged me to make the most of the college experience, and challenged me to know God better. My professors shared their lives with me as I spent hours in their offices listening to wisdom that stretched far beyond classroom walls and into the depth of their lives and faith. No longer able to rationalize moments of disconnection and isolation, I could now say with Eliot, “What greater thing is there for two human souls than to feel that they are joined ... to strengthen each other ... to be one with each other in silent unspeakable memories?”

Reaching People
Faithful to its mission, the language and literature department also instilled in me a desire to engage the world. Friends, professors and chapel speakers daily confirmed this goal, as did various authors — and none better than Flannery O’Connor. Knowing that comfortable stories of beautiful crosses and quaint nativity scenes wouldn’t reach an unbelieving audience, O’Connor employed untraditional methods to proclaim truth to her readers: “You have to make your vision apparent by shock. To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”

O’Connor serves as a pertinent example of what Cedarville hopes to infuse in its students: a desire to reach the world with the heart and mind of Christ by “becoming all things to all men,” holding firmly to the bedrock absolutes of God’s Word. I’m confident that I’ve graduated with the increased ability and motivation to do just that.

Pressing Onward
I am forever indebted to Cedarville’s English program and to the professors who utilized literature to spur me toward spiritual growth. Longing to more fully understand who God is and who He wants me to be, I continue to read, study, research and write. I leave Cedarville as a voracious reader and a transformed Christ-follower — obsessed with written words, rooted in God’s Word, and striving to become more like the Word made flesh.

Chapel: Nehemiah 11:1 - 12:26