My First Hour at the Bodleian Library, Oxford

I arrive early to the Bodleian library in Oxford, very nervous and quite intimidated. The attached quadrant has named each of its doorways in Latin: Schola Grammaticae et Historiae and Schola Naturalis Philosophiae. I have to go to the Clarendon Building—think the press—but it is not named. I find my way to admissions and stand in queue (British for “line”) in front of four scholars dressed far more professionally than I am. I finally gain entrance to the registrar. The conversation goes like this:

Registrar: Good morning. Welcome to the Bodleian!
Me (trying not to throw up, which is always unimpressive): Good morning. I’m here to register for a reader’s card.
Registrar: Lovely. I’m sure then that you have reserved a place in the Reading Room?
Me: Um….
Registrar: And you have ordered your material a few days ahead of time?
Me: Well….
Registrar: Otherwise I’m not sure I can help you. We are moving buildings this week and I have not heard if the Reading Room is even open.

Great start.

I convince her to give me the reader’s card, which at least my son will think is interesting. I have all the paperwork properly in hand, though I put “Brenton” for surname and “Dickieson” for given name like a dufus (Canadian for “idiot”). I swear an oath not to write in books, or burn the library down, or smoke in the library—C.S. Lewis complained about this rule. Then she directs me to the New Bodleian Library, a medieval building being updated to house the rare books and manuscripts.

I have held my breath now for twenty minutes, so I breathe in the early Oxford air.

With great fear I walk up the dusty ramp to the New Bodleian. If the sheer confusion of my arrival, and scholars in robes darting between ancient buildings with spires to the sky were not enough, I open the glass doors and am met by twenty people in suits and hardhats, clearly celebrating. A kind porter sees my pale face and directs me to a locker room where I leave my bag—after getting change, believe it or not, from Blackwell’s historic bookstore!—check my bag, put my laptop and journal in a large Ziploc bag, and move forward. I am given a welcome packet, three different people check my ID, and one porter finally directs me to the lift (British for “elevator”). We are chatting away, and then I speak awkwardly, as I often do:

Me: You’re not really the master of the library or something?
Porter: Oh no, just a volunteer pulled out of retirement.
Me: Oh, good.
Porter: But I did work at the Radcliffe Camera all my life.
Me: Oh, just that 18th century neoclassical tower in the Bodleian that houses one of the greatest science libraries in the world?
Porter: Yes, that’s the one.
Me: Lovely.

I enter the lift, and all the buttons say “staff only.” I stare at the buttons then look at the strangers in the elevator. “Just press whatever you like,” a man with a rolling chair said. “They aren’t supposed to say that.”

Finally I enter the Reading Room, where I explain to a young librarian who looks as nervous as I do that I have engaged in a very embarrassing academic breech of etiquette but I am traveling from Canada and would like to view C.S. Lewis materials please. She smiles wanly at me and suggests I speak to a gentleman in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Reading Room.

I take a breath and walk into the Rare Books and Manuscripts Reading Room. I explain that I have engaged in a very embarrassing academic breech of etiquette but I am traveling from Canada and would like to view C.S. Lewis materials please. He suggests I speak to the C.S. Lewis expert, whose name I have forgotten but who I recognized.

This expert comes in and we shake hands and I explain that I have engaged in a very embarrassing academic breech of etiquette but I am traveling from Canada and would like to view C.S. Lewis materials please. He smiles, and explains what I already knew, but it’s a cool, potentially devastating, story.

The Old Bodleian is very full, so they have been working on the New Bodleian for some time. It has just opened this morning and I am one of the very first patrons! Yay! Instead of closing the library for several months, they simply closed for a week—this past week, a deadly week if I had timed things differently. All of the buildings in Oxford were full, so they were storing old books and original manuscripts in a Salt Mine in Cheshire! You fill out a little green card, and a bus delivers materials in the mid afternoon or the next morning.

Me: Are the books still in the Salt Mines of Cheshire?
Expert: No, that’s quite expensive.
Me: I believe you. I’ve never rented a Salt Mine in Cheshire.
Expert: Right, of course sir. Can I show you the C.S. Lewis catalogue?
Me: Well, yes, that would be nice.
Expert: If you could order your first ten materials in the next 15-20 minutes we can get them for you this afternoon. If all goes well.

So for the next fifteen minutes I furiously scratch out requests on green slips of paper, which are then written in an ancient log, which are then sent for and brought by a van. I make my most important selections, enough for two days full of work—or two months, really—and then sit back in my seat.

A breath. Another breath.

Now I’m leaning back in my chair. I must wait, so I decide to open my welcome packet. It says “Weston Library” on the front—the real name of the New Bodleian, I presume—and contains an apology for the dust on my laptop and dress shoes and a description of the project. It also explains that I should request materials 24 hours in advance; i.e., that I have perpetrated an embarrassing breach of academic etiquette.

Brenton Bodleian MugshortIt also contains a little white box, and inside is a plastic Bodleian Libraries card, blue on one side and white on the other. I cannot figure out if it is a real library card or a swipe card for reading materials or the key to the toilet (British for “bathroom”). I ask the very helpful gentleman at the desk, who also has no idea.

I sit down again, content to a mysterious souvenir, when a bleach blond crew cut pair set themselves down, and one pops it open. It is a USB drive. I walk over to them and ask them how it works. They show me, and after a chuckle, I mentioned the thirty porters in suits and hard helmets at the front door. The female bleach blond said, “This is the most intimidating library I’ve ever been in.”

Agreed.

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10 Great Quotations from T. S. Eliot on His Birthday

Originally posted on Interesting Literature:

T. S. Eliot was born on 26 September 1888. So, on what would have been his 126th birthday, we’ve compiled ten of our favourite quotations from the great poet, playwright, critic, editor, and publisher. All of them are prose quotations. Eliot’s poetry is rightly praised as being among the greatest achievements of twentieth-century literature, but he was a fine prose writer too, with some wicked one-liners, as these quotations demonstrate…

To do the useful thing, to say the courageous thing, to contemplate the beautiful thing: that is enough for one man’s life. – The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933)

We read many books, because we cannot know enough people. Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948)

Never commit yourself to a cheese without having first examined it. – Hugh Kenner, The Invisible Poet (1959)

People to whom nothing has ever happened cannot understand the unimportance…

View original 164 more words

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On Monasticism and New Monasticism

I am posting this from the Gladstone’s library. This is a relatively new library for Wales (the 19th century), and is the Prime Minister’s own library, though he isn’t here at the moment. I am sitting in the theology reading room looking out wrought-iron framed glass to the red sandstone residence across the lawn. A cobweb traces from Raymond Brown’s Introduction to the New Testament to my banker’s light. Except for the shuffle of feet and an occasional whisper it is absolutely silent. My fingers on the keyboard feel harsh.

It is supposed to be quiet. It is a place of study.

As I was finding my seat, this month’s copy of The Tablet caught my eye. The Tablet is a British Catholic journal, and the 13 Sep 2014 issue is all about the “New Monasticism.” It is subtitled, “The Archbishop of Canterbury’s bold experiment for a restless generation.” This special report on monastic renewal speaks about a new religious community at Lambeth Palace, encouraged by Archbishop Justin Welby himself. It includes a cartoon with a picture saying, “I’m Deactivating Facebook.”

Other articles speak of “internships” at abbeys, ecumenical communities of prayer taking over former Carmelite monasteries, and Anglican monastics offering mediation classes and Christian yoga. There’s an ad for “sabbatical” sessions–semesters of study connected with the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. And there is a feature on Enzo Bianchi, an ecumenical monastic recently promoted by Pope Francis to a role in the Holy See. Themes throughout the issue include: prayer, sabbath, education, authenticity, and social justice.

Those are roughly the themes I cover in this video I made while in Leuven, Belgium. In this 16 minute webcam talk I ask the question of what monasteries are and what monks do, as well as how they arose in history. Students watching this video are also reading about Shane Claiborne, a young, evangelical American activist who lives in community with the poor. Christianity Today has covered this emerging new monasticism here, and here is a great interview with him on the Patheos blog. Other resources might be Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s Life Together and Jean Vanier’s Being Human.

What I’m suggesting–and I’d love to hear if you think I’m wrong–is that monasticism is not simply a retreat from culture. I am retreating now so I can set aside uninterrupted time for research. But ultimately, this retreat is about engaging. I argue here that monasticism is historically a movement for cultural engagement and transformation. Students will discuss this in class on Friday, but anyone can let me know their thoughts by commenting below.

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Leuven to Chester in 12 Hours (Live Tweeting Adventure)

08:59 Very thankful for church bells in Leuven; set my Mon-Fri alarm on Sunday #fail
09:00 Evidently I am incapable of sleeping in Europe. Ugh.
09:01 Breakfast: three leftover sips from a Coke Zero named Michaël
09:15 Finished last Belgian shower: hot, faintly rusty coloured water, Smurf-sized towel
09:22 Flee! Flee! Pack, clean the room, drop the key in the letterbox, and enter the rain

09:31 Great walk to the station! Light misty rain, cobblestones, brick townhouses, and… Thank God the bakery is open. Don’t know what I ordered, but it looks good.
09:24 Me: Van Leuven Naar Brussel-Zuid
Station Guy: I speak English
Me: Good, because I actually want to get there.
09:39 Tall Kenyan Roast at Starbucks.|
09:39 They don’t yet take Starbucks card, and the water is scalded. But: Coffee. Coffee.
09:40 Free Wifi at Starbucks!
09:41 Random Belgian bakery awesomeness makes the coffee better
09:43 Free Wifi at Starbucks doesn’t work.

09:49 Standing on the platform, pretty sure I’m going to the wrong place.
09:51 Me to Japanese Couple: Sumimasen. Eigo wakarimase ka? (=Do you speak English? I need help)
Them: Chaigaimasu! (=Nein!)
Me: Gomenisai (Sorry)

09:52 Still lost.
09:57 Get on the train anyway. I’m heading West, which is generally good.
09:59 Ancient City Wall of Leuven? Stella Artois factory.

10:23 Brussels-Zuid. Dumpy little train platform. Is this really international departure? #followthecrowd
10:27 Oh, I get it. Go to the basement = super duper train station (think modern airport, but for wheeled things)

10:33 Need food. Open the door of a restaurant. No one is there. Literally, I just broke into a restaurant in Brussels.
10:33 Running from Interpol.
10:37 Stop for a sandwich. Ordered Ham on the Lamb. They’ve got free wifi and are Interpol-free.
10:38 Do European cops eat donuts? Like, is that a UN sort of thing, or a North American thing?

10:51 Not a good sandwich.

10:59 French tip: Just start speaking with confidence. Say, “Je besoin de acheter une giraffe.” The rest will come quickly enough.
11:09 Customs officer: Where are you staying in England?
Me: Um… a hostel in Chester.
Her: The address?
Me: Um…
Her: So, you would like to enter England with no evidence.
11:28 The guy that scans the bags is quietly singing Eastern European folk songs.
11:41 Europeans seem to like lines. Sorry, sorry. Queues.
11:56 We’re moving. I’m stealing that great big spacious window seat.

12:01 I forgot how fast Bullet trains go. It is like a lightning strike as we pass another. The trees blur.
12:08 Cows are forlorn in any country.
12:14 Windmills are like European accessories.
12:17 Sunshine breaks through the clouds as we approach the border of France.
12:19 What do churches do now in Europe? They are the centre of these small towns. Are they empty or life-filled?
12:21 What is it about abandoned farms? Haunting, sad, longingly beautiful—whether it is clay slate tile or wooden shake.
12:25 Just zoomed over a 4-lane highway. First highway I’ve seen in a week.
12:26 There’s a trailer park next silos full of grain. Don’t think Trailer Park Boys trailers, think Brad Pitt in Snatch.

12:28 I’m in France! I’m pretty sure, anyway. There is no sign of Dutch left and all the buildings are Modern.

12:29 I’m in Lille. Wish I could stop and visit my friend Marie and her Hardcore Rock Band Alwaid. Next time.
12:31 Very noisy and disoriented, but by all accounts friendly English geriatrics took the seat I didn’t pay for.

12:32 Marion (English Geriatric): “Petah, do you need your bib?”
Petah: “Shut up, Marion.”
Marion: “I can’t get Wifi on my phone.”
12:33 Geriatrics sharing a bag of crisps. Lays nature.
12:33 Marion: “Petah, are you trying to eat crisps with a fork?”
Petah: “Shut up, Marion.

12:36 Student next to me from California has majored or minored in almost everything.

13:30 Still chatting with this student as the French countryside zooms by. To be honest, the grassy fields don’t look particularly French.
12:33 Marion: “Petah, you have crisps on your shirt. You should have used the bib.”
Petah: “Shut up, Marion.

13:45 The English Channel Tunnel. Ears popping and need to put the clocks back an hour. It is 12:45 again.
13:01 Holy Cultural Diversity Batman… London.

13:23 Nasria from Seychelles—near Madagascar—sold me a Coke Zero named Nehu at a store called Boots.
13:23 Me: “Boots” like car trunks?
Nasria: No.
Me: “Boots” like the shoes?
Nasria: No, like Mr. Boots, the really rich owner.
13:24 Nasria is amazed that Canada isn’t always cold. I spoke of our rainforests and deserts and tundra. And Toronto.
13:24 Nasria never heard of Prince Edward Island, but I never heard of Seychelles
13:25 The other cashier is Corinne from Rwanda. She was born in a UN clinic as her parents fled.
13:25 I spoke of Canada’s role in Rwanda, and the memories. Then I was quiet.

13:25 Corinne: I don’t know how my parents escaped.
Me: They escaped because of you. I would for my son.
Corinne: I know. I feel blessed.
13:29 How does it not crush your heart? Or set it free?

13:41 Stealing Wifi from Starbucks. Drinking a Mozambique Dark. They’ve scalded the water.
13:43 A pigeon is looking at me. We are well inside the station. Starbucks pigeon?
13:44 Me: I haven’t got anything. Pigeon is silent.
13:59 I have about 2.5 hours to walk and get lunch. It’s just London. I won’t get lost, right?

14:19 No one can break a £50 note so I finally get a small sub at Subway. Tip: “salad” means toppings in case you are ever at St. Pancras Subway.
14:19 As buddy puts my “salad” on the sub, my hand rests on a white wallet. I could be a different identity, a new person in the sea of the city.

14:20 I give the lost wallet to the cashier. She panics.

14:31 an Anarchist/Socialist/Anti-Fascist/Feminist bookstore with a used section in the basement.
14:36 Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Wandering Fire for £1, since I loaned mine to my mom, who loaned it to my sister, who loaned it to her husband, who loaned it to….
14:56 The British Library. The big statue of Isaac Newton is on Google Maps, if you look.
14:59 Bag searched at the British Library. My dainties are on a table in the British Library. The security guard is more embarrassed than me.
15:03 Almost bought a Clockwork Orange t-shirt, but I would have to cash in my pension early.

15:20 Oh! There’s an exhibit.

Illegal Picture of Beowulf15:21 Beowulf. Really, it’s actually Beowulf, the book that had been discovered and then saved from a fire and pasted into the pages of another book.
15:22 Me: [Click—taking a picture]
Security Guard: Under no circumstances is there to be any photography in the gallery.
15:23 Jane Austen’s desk top and the handwritten draft of Persuasion. No joke. Right there behind the glass.
15:24 Dickens’ henscratching. Makes me feel better squinting at C.S. Lewis’ handwriting.
15:25 I can’t believe it. There’s the first copy of “Yesterday.” I’ve heard McCartney woke up with the tune in his head, assuming someone else wrote it.
15:26 Michelangelo’s knee. Or someone else’s knee. Doesn’t matter—it’s Michelangelo’s sketch books! Right there.
15:27 The Monument’s Men letter by Churchill. I’ll have to watch that movie.
15:27 Prince Æthelsti’s will, 1014 CE. I got everything.
15:28 Me: Hey me, what are you looking at?
Me: Just the Magna Carta.
The Magna Carta!
15:29 A letter from Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn to Cardinal Wolsey (1528). Oh, never mind. That’s not cool. There’s a little water damage.
15:30 A 3rd-4th century papyrus with Exodus 40:26-32 in Greek. I can make out some letters, but that’s all. Revelation 1 is on the verso.
15:32 Nearly peed my pants. It’s Codex Sinaiticus. I mean, this is almost a whole Greek Bible, mid-4th century. This I can read. Some. See it online: http://www.codexsinaiticus.org/en/
15:38 The Kufic Qur’an, 9th century. Gorgeous, simple, clear. If only I picked up Arabic along the way.
15:40 The Gothic Roll—a 10 foot 12th century manuscript. Google this one.

16:04 How do I leave the British library? I was meant to live here, next to Isaac Newton.

16:51 Euston Station. Can’t find platform 9 3/4, so platform 18 will have to do.
16:52 3 hours in London and not one blue Police Box. #DoctorWho
16:57 They intend to board all 1000 people in 11 minutes. Really?
17:08 They did.
17:08 Someone has taken my seat. I point it out to her but she looks like she’s going to cry. Sit next to a Welsh girl reading Persuasion.
17:09 The Welsh girl is a seat nomad. She’s not sure where she’s supposed to be. It’s only her 2nd train ever.
17:39 I’m a seat nomad. I’ve got a window seat now.
17:41 Cows are forlorn in any country.
17:42 The sheep look like toilet paper rolls on a lumpy green mattress.

17:43 to ? Random English countryside and small towns. Finding it a little …
18:31 Woke up with a start. I thought I was falling.
19:02 The sun sets in pink flames.

19:11 Chester!

19:16 Lost in Chester. Computer restarted and I lost my map.
19:29 Concierge: Excuse me sir, can I help you?
Me: No, that’s okay I’m just stealing Wifi.
Concierge: Are you a guest?
Me: No.
Concierge: Right then.

19:33 Dear Mr. Google. How do I know which direction is “north” when it is dark.
19:37 Dear Chester Town Planners. Please consider installing streets signs. Just one or two would be nice. Even inaccurate ones.
19:41 Never mind. I’m just going to guess where it is.

19:46 Found it!

19:59 I’m in my room. Sharing with a bike mechanic and another Canadian from Montreal. Both like Dr. Who apparently.
20:00 It’s called the “Bunkroom Hostel” and yet I’m surprised by bunk beds. Middle or top? Given the weight to floor-slant ratio… middle.

20:03 I have wireless. I’m going to call the fam and then good night, good night, good night! Leuven to Chester (and around the world) in 12 hours!

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You Are Here: My First Afternoon in Leuven

My first few hours of Leuven, Belgium is captured perfectly by the very helpful city maps scattered throughout its shops and streets. A series of cobblestone paths and stone houses radiating out of the ancient University centre, the maps capture all of the streets in their asymmetrical charm. Every map is perfectly detailed for the city guest.

And every map lacks a little red dot that says “You Are Here.”

It gets better: most of the streets have no street signs.

It might be a tourist’s nightmare, but it’s a writer’s paradise.

When I’m not trying to get lost, I can accomplish it in a pinch. But when I am resigned not to worry about it—settled to a fate of wandering lost in a medieval monastic-trading village in all its 21st century glory—I find cities remarkably easy to access. I’ve navigated my way through Tokyo so we could eat at Subway. I tested my internal GPS in Jerusalem, placing my fingers in the bullet holes that remain in clay walls. As hard as they try to disorient the visitor, I am able to find my way through most modern cities. Leuven is no exception.

But just because I can access the streets does not mean I know the city’s heart.

With fine reference to the metaphor, the organ of Leuven is the many-buildinged KU, the oldest Catholic university in the world. Twice the Germans burnt their ancient library during our World Wars, destroying ancient manuscripts and un-copied texts and original artwork from the Renaissance masters. ­Twice the continent cleared away the ash and began again, and Lueven is built up around this Dark Age seat of higher education.

But to know its historical, religious, hard “c” cultural centre is not necessarily to know the heart of the culture. I’ve always thought that a city is known less by its Wikipedia page and more by its sights and sounds and dominant smells.

When I first arrived in Leuven, I was tempted to judge its people as my own. Perhaps this is unique to me, coming as I do from a hometown about the same size and with about the same ethnic makeup. But it is more than pink flesh. Their mannerisms are similar, and as I wander by their tables and bus queues, and overhear their language, I am tempted to think I already know it—that I can speak Flemish without having learned it.

But there are differences in the culture around me.

There are girl skateboarders here—not in street clothes, but in handsome short and blouse suits. A skateboard is transportation. And so are bicycles. Miles of bicycles streaming through streets ill equipped for cars anyway. There are stations to park your bike, but they are largely ignored as every sidewalk is thinned with bikes leaning on every wall. The bicycles are locked to themselves.

The bicyclists themselves are confident the roads are theirs. Women ride in short skirts without the slightest hint of thigh, and yet bare-breasted women on posters proffer wares. What wares they sell, I don’t know. Perhaps it is the women. Or simply the breasts.

The people are thinner here than in my home town—even the ones that are not. They are better dressed, though that trend evolves into jeans and t-shirts the more I move away from the train station toward the campus.

It is a country where even four hundred years ago they knew they would need every inch of real estate. So they nestled rows of four-story brick houses block after block after block. Some of these are homes still, no doubt, but the ground floors are now shops and cafés. There is a bakery on every commercial block, selling delicacies that I didn’t even know existed. I am certain they will alter my understanding of pastries forever if I dare to step in.

Every block also has a restaurant, with tables and chairs taking ground from the cobblestone pedways. On every table is a glass of beer, like a minimum requirement for considering lunch. The blot-white traces of malt head record the history of each drink in pilsner glasses, lager glasses, beer steins, juice tumblers, and even wine glasses. Stella Artois signs are as ubiquitous in Leuven as Coca Cola signs are in Georgia or Bangkok. Stella Artois is served by the centilitre.

I found a drug store—it looks like the ancient, evil-tinted word, “pharmakeia”—but have yet to see a supermarket. Perhaps everyone eats only at these cafés and restaurants and bakeries, but the closest thing I’ve seen to a 7-11 is packed.

I found a used bookstore. I believe I know the phrase “Antiquarian Booksellers since 1908” in most European scripts. They had bins of books in Dutch, German, English, and French, three for five Euros. There were a few Arabic books, but no Chinese ones. The Asian grocers here are West Asian, though I can see around me that even this is shifting.

The great Dutch humanist Erasmus is honoured in the form of a driving school.

Church bells adorn every hour and chime the quarters. They are out of tune now, but still retain their hymnic charm.

Hipsters, even here, walk small dogs in one hand and hold coffee in the other.

2014-09-17_12-41-47_226There is a store that specializes in retro refrigerators.

I steal Wifi from Starbucks—a ritual I am comfortable with on most any continent—hoping I can use their bathroom. They have none—none of the small restaurants or little shops do as the Flemish are apparently not hospitable in this particular way. But they are in other ways. When I meet a cashier’s complex question with mute silence she abandons her native tongue for German. I smile. Then she tries French, and she smiles at me as I buy an “Italian” sub. It has pesto, a light, white, mystery cheese, and tomatoes. I buy a Coke Zero with the name Jean-Marc. It is sold in half litres.

I still have not found a bathroom as I wander. Finally I jump into a construction site’s porta potty. Heavy set men in yellow hard hats yell at me as I leave, and though I don’t speak the language, I have some clear idea what they said.

I find myself going downhill and eventually find a park with shade and a bench to sit and write. There are not so many parks in Leuven’s downtown core, but this is a great green field on a hill. It is packed with students, and I wonder sometimes if everyone in Leuven is between the ages of fourteen and twenty-four. Oh, no, there’s a Stella Artois pub filled with old guys smoking.

They certainly are better at smoking here. The students drink beer from cans on the great grassy lawn. They sip wine from plastic cups and pass joints in a grass-stained circle. They are great sharers. A young woman in a dress lies beside a young man. They talk, their eyes nine inches apart. He takes out his phone and shows her a picture. She points to something on the phone and now her arm is on his chest.

It is a good move. I’ll have to remember than one.

Two guys in jeans recklessly chase a Frisbee over the revelers’ heads. No one notices.

An improvised marching band in frat drag just walked by my park bench for no apparent reason.

I walk on as the trumpet fades away.

It seems the north side of the circle flows downward to the university, but I resist for a bit, heading back up sun-shadowed streets. There is an exhibition here, with tilt-a-whirl type rides and second-rate Ferris wheels. There are carnies here, but they are different. They wear clean white shirts and Bermuda shorts. One young woman in an Elmo t-shirt is in charge of giving expectant risk-takers a chance to win a one-eyed stuffed minion. The carnies aren’t very carnie like, though they smoke a lot of pot. Perhaps they aren’t so different. Which is good. If you can’t trust a carnie to submit to social stereotypes, who can you trust?

I don’t remember much for the few minutes after the street exhibition.

Finally I stop resisting the geography and tumble downhill into an open plaza with five dozen restaurants and bars. The pubs are so inviting and the crowds so big that you can hardly even notice the breathtaking seventeenth century brownstones and fifteenth century sandstone gentry houses.

2014-09-17_18-30-25_106I sit at the Café Belge and write. It offers free Wifi and over sixty “special beers.” The date 1694 is set in stone between the second and third floors. The date? The address? Finally, the waitress finds her way to me. She says, “Hello. Welcome.” How does she know, “Hello,” instead of “Hallo” or “Goeie avond” or “Bievenue” or “Hola” or “Assalamu Alaykum?”

English is an accessory here. It is in most ads and on a great number of buildings. Everyone knows it, yet no one speaks it. How do Europeans know to collect languages like that?

The waitress does not speak much English, so I have her just bring me whatever she wants. She brings a local blonde lager and a bag of Lays potato chips. “Naturel” flavour. The blonde is in a heavy Caesar glass, and has a citrus flavour with light hops and no aftertaste. I think it is about 42cl.

I’m supposed to pay her right there, and I tip 15% though I have no idea if you tip in Belgium, and how much. I can’t connect to the free Wifi, so I cannot even look it up.

The sun is setting. Or, if it isn’t setting yet, the line of warm light is slowly creeping up the wall of the buildings across the street. The waitress has asked if I would like some cheese, but I politely refused. Blot-white traces of malt head record the history of my drink, and I think it is time I found food greater than a bag of Lays naturel chips. My head is starting to spin from cigarette smoke as the patio fills.

Perhaps I will go to the shawarma place down a little alley I passed. The guy was making fun of his customers and it smelled good. At least, I think he was making fun of them. I still don’t speak Flemish, despite being here all day. Is it odd going to a Mediterranean restaurant in Belgium? Somehow I doubt it.

I wonder what it’s like to live in a city that is built upon lost civilizations and early generations. A city where, if we pulled back these worn paving stones, we would find beneath them a Roman road or Frankish field or the foundations of some Roman-era Gaelic mead house. Perhaps it doesn’t mean anything, in particular. Perhaps it is just cell phones and cobblestones and sixty kinds of special beer. I don’t know. For all this city is a series of radiant lines from the centre, I’m not sure people live their lives that way.

I don’t know.

It’s hard to know from an afternoon of wearing out Reeboks and looking for a toilet. I am going to need a toilet again soon.

But I can’t help wondering about all these people. It seems they are casually indifferent to the heartbreaking beauty of it all.

Or perhaps they just haven’t found the red dot on their map saying, “You Are Here.”

Postscript

I did eat at that shawarma place. The cook made fun of me, but was nice enough to do it in English. He migrated here from Syria. The customers were watching professional Tetris players on TV. The studio audience cheered maniacally at a simple two line sweep. I had what he called a “pita” but is really pita toppings on fries on a plate with garlic sauce and a little piece of tiny, tasty flatbread lain on top. I had a Coke Zero named Ronaldo. The pop was 33cl. Tip: If you go to this store, get a fork.

I found a 15cl beer, unopened, on the way home. It is a Mexican styled Cerveza called “Desperado.” I’m trying to decide if I should leave it somewhere else for someone else to find.

I was able to go to the bathroom at that sixty special beers pub. It was a unisex bathroom with urinals. A gal came in when I was reading the graffiti, and wasn’t upset she had to share or that a man was at a urinal. She was upset they were out of soap.

Here’s the view from the urinal on my floor at the Dominican monastery where I am staying.

2014-09-17_19-18-23_367So you get perspective, here’s the bathroom.

2014-09-17_19-18-42_740

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Wow, What a Fall!

Or a trip–choose your double entendre. I have been impeccably busy these last few weeks, so that family meals have been like Gatorade cups in a marathon, and my garden has started to engulf the neighbour’s Buick. The wood is not in yet for the Winter, and will not be for a few weeks. Here are the awesome reasons why:

1. It’s All Greek to Me!

Yep, I’m teaching Greek again. This is a course that comes up every 3-4 years at the local Bible College, and I love it. No, it isn’t sheer linguistic masochism that make me want to make these poor students suffer. Well, not just that. Instead, there are three great reasons teaching Greek these days is awesome:

  • It gets me into the structures of the language. I can read most any day, or create reading courses for myself to stay fresh. But must of us who enjoy language don’t spend a lot of time in the basics. Teaching Greek allows me to get up close and see the trees for the forest.
  • The resources today are awesome. Granted, the Koine/Biblical Greek training materials by Bill Mounce are three steps above anything in the Classic Greek worlds. His system is so clear and approachable, that most students are highly successful. Beyond Mounce, though, we are in the days of great apps, solid exercises, textbook diversity, and audio aids. Much better than those old school suffering programs.
  • The students are awesome. Seriously, students today are part of a revival of the value of classical languages, core philosophical or scientific approaches, a recovery of history, and the reading of old books. Sure, not all students. But there are enough students excited about more classically styled education using contemporary technology that it is fun to leave the office door open.

2. Is There Any Such Thing as Christianity?

Through sadder circumstances–I am pinch-hitting for a sick colleague–I am teaching a course at UPEI called RS 202: Christianity. That’s right, Christianity. Talk about a super broad topic!

If I were bright, I would teach it historically, going through history and looking for diversifying and unifying moments. But I am not bright. Plus, I am traveling, interrupting that great historical flow.

Instead, I am setting the historical stage, and then talking about different movements, spiritualities, Christian expressions, and core questions in the Church globally. In the biblical roots I’m focusing on Worldview and Story. I’m also doing two or three Vlogs that I will post that cover some pretty cool topics.

screwatape sig3. Reading The Screwtape Letters as Epistolary Fiction (ISRLC)

I am presenting a paper in Leuven, Belgium, in just a few days. I am very excited, and a little bit nervous. For those who are interested, here is another abstract in my ongoing campaign to have the world re-read The Screwtape Letters as Literature:

From Epistles to Epistolary Fiction: Expanding Norman R. Petersen’s New Testament Sociology of Narrative Worlds

In approaching the apostle Paul’s letter to Philemon, Norman Petersen has attempted a “socio-literary” reading. In Rediscovering Paul: Philemon and the Sociology of Paul’s Narrative World (1985) he explores the sociology of the narrative worlds that Paul constructs in his letters. With the goal of noting Paul’s rhetorical emphases, Petersen suggests that we treat the reality of the text as a “world,” and then examine it from social and cultural standpoints. As such, we are examining a constructed world even when it is presented within a letter of historically referential parties. Petersen explores the narrative world Paul constructs in Philemon, and considers what ways the particular construction of this world reflects Paul’s rhetorical emphases. The result is a sociology of narrative worlds.

This paper explores the question of whether this fruitful approach can be generalized into other letter forms. In his project of spiritual theology, C.S. Lewis used the letter form to frame The Screwtape Letters—the project that launched Lewis into the public sphere and began a veritable genre of demonic epistolary (anti-)spiritual theology. If the author of epistolary fiction has created a consistent fictional world, and if Petersen’s project is plausible, then we can attempt a socio-literary reading along Petersen’s lines in more contemporary—and even fictional—letter forms. Based upon the recent discovery that The Screwtape Letters is plausibly connected to the broader speculative universe of Lewis’ Ransom Cycle, this paper will focus on character typification and narratology in The Screwtape Letters with the goal of understanding “Structure and Anti-Structure” and spiritual resocialization in Screwtape’s universe. Finally, in considering the sociological features of a contemporary narrative world in letter form, we can augment and refine Petersen’s New Testament project, extending the project to more sophisticated early Christian letters.

4. I am Going to King Arthur’s Court! (University of Chester and Gladstone’s in Wales)

Well, less his court, and more the general area we think the Arthur legends emerged. And even that is a stretch. But I am going to the University of Chester–you remember the Cheshire cat, I hope–so I can meet with my PhD supervisors and get to know the campus. I am taking a bullet train through France from Brussels to London, then a train up North. Chester is on the trainline from London, and I will be staying at a downtown hostel while I do some research and get some context for further work.

Of my time in Chester, I am taking a couple of days to study at Gladstone’s Library. This is the Prime Minister’s library, situated in Wales near the border with England. This amazing, historical library will be my study session for part of my time in the Northwest of England. These days will be filled with long hours reading and great long walks in old countryside.

Perfect.

5. Oxford

That’s all there is to say, really. Oxford.

I am spending four days in Oxford before I fly back to Canada. The weekend will (hopefully) be filled with walking through this grand historic University town, giving context to the things I have been reading these last years. I have a dear friend as a guide, and hope to see all there is. Well, at least a quarter of what there is. I hope the feel of cobblestones through my old boots will help me as I study the Inklings–that strange Oxford School of great writers and thinkers.

I will also be spending a couple of days at the Bodleian library. There is no place like “the Bod.” One of the oldest libraries in England, as a deposit library, it has almost every book every produced in England.

However, it is more than that. It is both the place that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien did their work–Lewis complained he couldn’t smoke there–and it is where their papers are held in England. Or at least many of them. My goal is to do some fact checking, and then spend some time reading out of C.S. Lewis’s handwritten notebooks. They contain some of our favourite stories and essays, and some that we’ve never read.

We’ll see what comes to Light!

6. Spiritual Theology from the Master (Eugene Peterson)

I’m thrilled, on top of these things, to be the instructor for two of Eugene Peterson’s spiritual theology courses at Regent College. The first course, “Soulcraft,” is a reflection on Ephesians from the perspective of spiritual practice. Here’s the description:

In this series, Eugene Peterson uses the letter to the Ephesians as the primary text in developing the craft of spiritual formation (soulcraft). The letter is explored in the actual conditions in which this formation takes place in us, such as the home, workplace, congregation, institutions and culture. As God does his formational work in us and with those with whom we live, we will develop skills in recognizing what he is doing, and look for the appropriate ways to respond, participate, and guide.

I get to help students work through the material, engage in online discussions, and then mark their papers. I am doing the same for his longer course, “Praying with Jesus.” These graduate-level courses are challenging, but they are most challenging not in academic content, but in personal investment. I love these world-class courses.

Is That All?

No, that’s never all! I am editing a book in October, and writing a chapter on Arthur and the Inklings. I have a couple of short stories spinning, and I am, as always, working on the larger project of rereading the Ransom Cycle.

It will be a busy fall, but some amazing experiences. Take care dear reader!

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Falling Towers and Failing Courage: The Sleeping Giant a Decade after 9/11

How have we moved and grown in our reflection on 9/11? My family walked through the 9/11 site a couple of summers ago, the great testament of this experience to Lower Manhattan’s story. Tourists streamed through, office workers streamed by, and the economy of 9/11 is strong. I remember being in Manhattan the Christmas after 9/11. “Fight Terrorism: Go Shopping” was the message. It seems it worked.

And I continue to teach, using 9/11 as a reference point. It is the formative memory in childhood for many young students. It is the end of the 20th century in my framing of time, the event that closed a century of progress and violence. It is the beginning of a new Myth in America, and new consciousness, a new place in the geopolitics.

That place is increasingly difficult to pin down. In the face of Islamist Insurgence in Iraq and Syria, a movement crushing ethnic and religious minorities and trading lives for Youtube hits,  President Obama and other Western leaders seem to waffle. Is it indecision? Or is it a mature cautiousness that comes from less mature mistakes? Or is it a conscientiousness to the complex situation?

Or is it fear?

I am reposting my 10 year anniversary reflection of 9/11, partly because it was so offensively simplistic. I felt that the reasons for going to war in Iraq and Afghanistan were bad, and the reasons for doing right by these cultures in finishing things well were good. I still feel that. I also still feel that we sold our cultural souls for a myth of personal and economic security. I still feel that political decisions dishonour the war-dead.

But I am not able to be so certain about what to do today in the Middle East. Part of me puts my finger to the War-button or Political Pressure-button when I hear the stories of Yazidi and Christian persecution, the ongoing civil war in Syria, the children lost to Boko Haram, the disproportionate bombing of Palestinian Muslims and Christians by Israel, and of Russia returning to 19th century ways of taking over the world.

But is that courage, or another kind of fear?

As the decade after 9/11 closes I am struck not by the strength of America in the face of great adversity, but weakness: economic chaos, political stalemates, global paranoia, leaderless disarray, military discord and the frenetic clutching of a culture gasping for breath. Canada, meanwhile, languishes in the warm bath of the comfortable, occasionally bracing itself in case the sleeping giant that is the American economy that Canadians are tethered to decides to take a dive off the Brooklyn bridge. Again.

C.S. Lewis’ rootedness in times of war provides a stark contrast to the American response to 9/11. An Ulster Protestant, he felt little of that anti-Catholic hostility in that generation that created—for me, decades later—my first glimpse of terrorism that was the IRA. Lewis fought and was severely injured in WWI, and his voice rang out words of encouragement during the bombing of London in WWII. Yet, he was not absolutely defined by them, and spoke remarkably little of war in his millions of printed words. Rather than scrambling in desperation in times of tension, Lewis simply picked up his pen and wrote.

He does, however, use his experience facing the German leagues at a couple of points in his work that he produced during WWII. Most notably was in his BBC lectures that became the book, Mere Christianity (some of the records of which were lost in the rubble of the German blitzkrieg). Chief among his arguments for the existence of God is the Moral Argument. Thomas Aquinas argued something similar before him: we see among humans an “ought”—a moral law at place among all people of all times. While the individual ethics have changed from time to time, there is always an “ought.” Lewis argues that it suggests there is a moral principle in play, since the only “ought” in the universe applies to human in culture.

Lewis gives a couple of examples, but the one he highlights is striking:

“Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle” Mere Christianity, Book I, Chapter 1.

In the context of the Nazis raping Europe and exterminating the unwanted, Lewis asks us to imagine what kind of culture would hold up as honourable what is really cowardice—and not just any cowardice, but selfish treachery against a fellow soldier and one’s homeland. Lewis believes that although individual humans will disagree on moral laws or choose to break them, no culture would breed a generation that values cowardice over bravery.

Yet, that is precisely the post-9/11 generation. We are the culture that honours running away in battle over standing and fighting.

Bravery in the face of great tribulation was the story of Manhattan in the hours and days after the towers fell. We saw images of volunteers sorting through rubble, of mothers looking for their daughters, of firemen fighting an unwinnable battle. I drove through New York that Fall. The state was filled with American flags, the stars and stripes that steadied the hand of the broken proud in the face of evil falling from the sky. Even to me, a Canadian that winces every time the sleeping giant rolls over in bed, I was filled with awe at the strength of Americans.

Now, though, a decade later, that’s not what I see. A few months ago, Canadian soldiers were pulled out of active military duty in Afghanistan because Canadians lost heart. It wasn’t because we won the war—or even lost it—but because there was no longer the political will back home. Afghanistan remains in chaos, the lives of its people permanently disrupted by a decade-long war of retribution against one who was hiding in its hills, and Canada decides it has had enough. Too many of our sons and daughters have died for … well, for what?

And the United States have now taken over the Canadian role in the war it started two weeks after bin Ladin’s men struck at the American heart of politics, security and economy. But their surge of troops into Afghanistan comes at the cost of military withdrawal from Iraq. Because of political pressure from an unhappy American population, Barack Obama commanded his soldiers to run away from the battle—there are better, less costly wars to fight elsewhere. While Iraq was in the news daily for seven years, now we hardly hear a thing about it. But at least American kids aren’t dying there anymore; the Iraqi kids can take care of themselves.

The land of the free and the brave has become neither. Their people have enslaved themselves to the myth of security and, consequently, have run from battle.

It isn’t that I supported the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq. Iraq was obviously a corrupt war from the get-go. And though I was tempted to believe that the collapse of the Taliban was a worthy reason for the action in Afghanistan, it was a coalition of forces attacking a sovereign country to hunt down a threat that either wasn’t there, or that was more clever that the coalition the dozens of countries that joined the U.S.A. in solidarity. No, I believe the wars were morally wrong.

But fleeing from them, I believe, is a greater transgression of morality. It is worse because we have made a mess there, playing with people’s lives, and did not deliver on the promises that were the bargain against international outcry.

Fleeing from war, though, shows that we are a morally bankrupt culture in the very essence of what it means to be humans. What kind of soldier is it that chooses—with the backing of its country—to leave behind orphaned children and burnt villages and druglords in action and insurgents on the prowl, simply because he hasn’t the heart to continue? This is the choice this generation has made, not the soldiers, and this is the demonstration of who we really are.

During his wartime novels in Britain, Lewis warned that the culture that honours cowardice over courage will fail:

“We have made men proud of most vices, but not of cowardice. Whenever we have almost succeeded in doing so, God permits a war or an earthquake or some other calamity, and at once courage becomes so obviously lovely and important even in human eyes that all our work is undone, and there is still at least one vice of which they feel genuine shame.”  CS Lewis, Screwtape Letters, Letter 29.

The one speaking is the senior demon Screwtape, and he is angry that these calamities create courage. But we shouldn’t read the war or earthquake—or market crisis, or housing crash, or drop in literacy, or dirth of jobs, or crippling debt, or failure in leadership—as a supernatural fist crushing people from heaven. No, these things are the natural products of a generation who no longer has the moral backbone to make courageous decisions.

And by all accounts, the recent nightmares in the sleeping giant we call America have not awakened its courage.

Instead, we mark the passing of 9/11’s decade as a collection of nations less prepared than ever to create an environment of freedom. We have chosen, when we became victims, to victimize others. And with our judgment fierce upon the world, we have failed to look at our own hearts. In this, we dishonour those that died in 9/11.

By all accounts, it seems to me, the terrorists succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

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