Mark Vernon’s “A Secret History of Christianity,” review by Wesley Schantz (On Owen Barfield)

Review of A Secret History of Christianity: Jesus, the Last Inkling, and the Evolution of Consciousness, by Mark Vernon

A guest post from Wesley Schantz
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

For purposes of calibration or, if you like, conversion, I would have given Good Omens a perfect score of 5 out of 5, even while acknowledging it has its flaws, so maybe I’m an easier grader than Brenton. And in the interest of full disclosure: Mark Vernon graciously allowed me to interview him for my ongoing study of Philip Pullman; he subsequently sent me an advance copy of his new book. According to his website, A Secret History of Christianity will be released in August.

Lest the title put you off (or simply mislead you), the author hastens to clarify: “By ‘secret,’ I don’t mean a Dan Brownish reference to an occult code, let alone a conspiracy theory, but to a truth that seems obscure or hidden only because it’s tricky to grasp” (2). Humble, good-humored, and reasonable as that sentence is, it gives a good sense of the book as a whole.

In a short space, and in a remarkably lucid style considering the intellectual heft of his subject matter, Mark Vernon brings together a great many insights into Christianity which, if not entirely new, he puts in a new light with reference to the peculiar philosophy of Owen Barfield.

If, like me, you’ve tried tackling Barfield on the strength of his reputation (for instance, coming to his works via Verlyn Flieger’s seminal treatment in Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World) and found his writing difficult to get into, Vernon’s approach here is welcome. He eschews the more academic, close-reading analysis of major texts in favor of a richly allusive introduction to them. In Vernon’s encouraging retelling, we get the context for the Christian story from its Hebrew and Greek roots through to its efflorescence, reformation, and decline as a religious and cultural force, rapidly bringing us all the way from the prophets and Plato right up to the present moment. Right now we find ourselves, as ever, in a critical time, and we would do well, Vernon counsels, to consider Barfield as a guide in attempting to make sense of what this history, and its central mystery in the figure of Jesus, might portend.

Running parallel to the more familiar apologetics of his contemporary and frequent compère C.S. Lewis (whose Discarded Imaged and Surprised by Joy in particular bear referencing here), Barfield advocated a profoundly philological and mythological worldview (whose outlines also become apparent, to take another well-known point of comparison, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “On Fairy-stories”). In Vernon’s account, Barfield still accords Jesus a central role in the drama of history, but rather than laying a theological emphasis, in terms of divine providence and salvation, for him the historical Jesus embodies a key turning point in consciousness. In one of the strongest sections of the book, Vernon, who nowhere in it either professes or rejects Christian faith outright, sketches the transformation in human consciousness in the light of the gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

For me, the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection is consummately portrayed in Piero della Francesca’s sixteenth-century fresco. (Vernon,132)

Part of the effectiveness of these central chapters, of course, is owing to the groundwork Vernon lays out for readers in the first third of the book. Though without pictorial illustrations, there are enough memorable exempla from ancient works of art and literature to give us a sense of the stages in cultural evolution, and its impact on individuals’ experience of the world. Barfield’s theory of participation provides the core of the argument, but Vernon brings in evidence from a variety of sources for support. He juxtaposes a selection of Romantic poetry with the Socratic aporia, and draws connections between the shifting conception of ancestry, land, and divinity among the Hebrews and the inner life of parts of the body among the Greeks.

A particularly momentous occasion came when a painter of pots discovered the trick of foreshortening. (Vernon, 49, cf. The Story of Art, by E.H. Gombrich)

Ultimately, the serious student of any one of these subjects will probably find something (or the absence of something) to gripe about. For the art historian or textual scholar, the superficial analysis of imagery and language will grate; for the theologian or aspiring mystic, the sweeping generalizations and relative lack of fear and trembling will appal; and for the perplexed reader of Barfield, the loose and baggy summaries of this “first and last” Inkling’s dense thought will leave plenty in his writings to puzzle over. In recompense, though, and in a way that opens it up to be accessible to anyone, the succinctness and ready fluency of Vernon’s Secret History cut right to the heart of the matter. The further reading, and re-reading, he invites us to more than make up for any initial impression of a lack of depth given by his conversational tone.

Little wonder that Blake was drawn to the suspended end of Mark’s gospel. No one has caught this moment of possibility like him, in his watercolor “The Three Maries at the Sepulchre.” (Vernon, 183)

Appropriately enough, a series of questions follows this passage. As Vernon notes elsewhere, following Barfield, perhaps “the move from the Greek historia, which had meant ‘knowledge gained by inquiry,’ to history as ‘the study of the past,’ arose with the need for objectivity from the Bible” (157). His Secret History continues this speculative, imaginative inquiry into the essential truth of scripture as prose and poetry, and the possibility of our participation in it.


Wesley Schantz coordinates Signum Academy, writes about books and video games, and works as a substitute teacher in Spokane, WA.

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7 New Audiobooks on C.S. Lewis: Michael Ward, James Como, Stephanie Derrick, Patti Callahan, Joe Rigney, Diana Glyer, Gary Selby

Checking Audible for something completely unrelated, I was pleased to see that Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia is now on audiobook. I thought I would provide a brief set of reviews on some good, new Audible C.S. Lewis finds. While sometimes audiobooks give us a new book discovery (like these “6 Surprising Audiobook Celebrity Narrators“), they are often for me a way of rediscovering a book or reading it with different eyes–or ears, as the case may be.

Michael Ward, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis (13 hrs)

I have argued that Dr. Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia is the most important resource for reading Narnia that has emerged in the new century. While one might argue with parts of Ward’s thesis–as I have donePlanet Narnia is a great book for providing close readings of Lewis’ greatest works in a literary way that invites us into a deeper understanding of the books behind the Narnian chronicles. I hope the publishers record The Narnia Code, the popular version of the Planet Narnia resource, but I am thrilled that they began with the magnum opus, Planet Narnia. Meanwhile, Audible also has Ward’s “Now You Know” audio course, “Christology, Cosmology, and C.S. Lewis,” a shorter but helpful resource for newcomers to the conversation. The audiobook reader, Nigel Patterson, is professional and even in tone.

James Como, C.S. Lewis: A Very Short Introduction (4.5 hrs)

I was thrilled when I heard that New Yorker James Como was writing the volume for C.S. Lewis when someone showed me the text in a galley proof form. Honestly, I was surprised this little volume was as good as it is. Not because of James Como, who has invested 50 years into reading C.S. Lewis well. But I have read about 20 of these Very Short introductions, and have looked at another dozen or so. Though they typically balance brevity and thoroughness, this one is peculiar for the strong voice of the text. Como writes in a lively style within a very understated series. Effectively, you have a 4-hour summary of Lewis’ life organized as a study of his texts. It works pretty well, and there are even a few surprises and refreshing moments, particularly in his treatment of Till We Have Faces and Letters to Malcolm. Roger Clark’s voice is engaging and professional, but needs to be sped up a little.

Patti Callahan, Becoming Mrs. Lewis: The Improbable Love Story of Joy Davidman and C. S. Lewis (12.5 hrs)

Patti Callahan turns from her career as a popular novelist to the study of Joy Davidman, American poet, literary convert, and ultimately “Mrs. Lewis,” late-of-life companion to C.S. Lewis. Callahan balances the historical work of people like Abigail Santamaria and uses some recently discovered love poems to C.S. Lewis to structure a novel about Joy’s life. It is a fictional retelling, so we should be aware of some of the conceits used to make the story flow. Callahan is a winsome personality and an enjoyable writer to read. Lauren Woodward’s voice is quite lovely, though she is new to audiobook narration. The accents are not well localized, and I wonder if Woodward’s softness contributes to my concern that Callahan doesn’t quite capture the edge, risk, and raucousness of Joy Davidman. I found I also needed to speed this reading up to enjoy it fully. This complaint, that we don’t quite see Joy in the novel, is not one that everyone shares, but it made the book ultimately unsatisfying to me–like an itch I can’t quite reach or a recipe I can never get quite right.

Stephanie L. Derrick, The Fame of C.S. Lewis: A Controversialist’s Reception in Britain and America (8 hrs)

I have been anxiously waiting for this book for some time. Dr. Stephanie Derrick, while she was a Ph.D. student, was one of the people who revealed C.S. Lewis’ lost “Christmas Sermon for Pagans,” and I have her dissertation on the reception of Lewis. While I am disappointed that The Fame of C.S. Lewis is not a little longer–hardly a terrible critique for most writers–this conversion of a thesis to a popular-level book is a lot of fun. Based on research that many of us have no chance to undertake, Derrick keeps pressing on the question about why Lewis was so well received in the US, how he was viewed in the UK, and how his image grew globally in the 55 years since his death. I am rereading Fame this week as I write a review for Sehnsucht. Narrator Elizabeth Sastre has a gorgeous voice, and her experience reading fiction gives the audiobook a nice depth.

Joe Rigney, Lewis on the Christian Life: Becoming Truly Human in the Presence of God (12 hrs)

While there are some books on Lewis and spirituality–and quite a number of devotional style materials–intelligent, integrated conversation about C.S. Lewis and the spiritual life is still limited. Narrator Sean Runnette’s fatherly, backyard American-style BBQ afternoon voice is rich and enjoyable. It does add, however, to an anxiety I have about Rigney’s connection to Bethlehem College & Seminary, which does not accept women in their seminary programme. While the book is limited by the questions that Rigney brings, nowhere in Lewis on the Christian Life do I see Rigney bending Lewis to his perspective. Unless you know that Rigney is offering a double critique–on the one hand, inviting fundamentalist and conservative Christian readers to be shaped by Lewis, and critiquing Lewis on perceived weaknesses on the other hand–the chapter on “Theology” is a bit strange as it sits in the text. But it is a book that grows throughout the reading, so that the later chapters on “Pride and Humility,” “Christian Hedonics,” and “Healthy Introspection” are among the best. It is a very American book (Lewis was not American, but many creative readers are), and it is very evangelical (Lewis was not evangelical, but many faithful readers are), but it brings a strong reading to a great many topics that a diverse set of readers have questions about.

Diana Pavlac Glyer, The Company They Keep: C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as Writers in Community (10 hrs)

As I mentioned in my discussion with William O’Flaherty and Diana Glyer about the new Tolkien biopic, I think Glyer’s The Company They Keep is one of the most important books on Lewis and the Inklings in this century. It is a book that took decades to complete, offering a rereading of the Inklings by considering the ways that they worked together, wrote together, read with one another, edited one another’s work, offered criticism, and encouraged one another toward writing the books that ended up changing the face of literary history. Glyer is a careful researcher and a lyrical writer, so even in the depth of archival, historical, and literary analysis, we are still in the midst of a story. I was pleased with Bandersnatch, the popular version of The Company They Keep–also an audiobook, read by Michael Ward (see above). But I was thrilled when I heard that there was an audiobook available. Bev Kassis’ reading is a little flat, but is largely accurate and works better than most for the complex of materials in the book.

Gary S. Selby, Pursuing an Earthy Spirituality: C.S. Lewis and Incarnational Faith (7.25 hrs)

This book is perhaps as closely related to my work as Joe Rigney’s and came out the week after I submitted my thesis on the same topic. I am very curious to begin reading Pursuing an Earthy Spirituality next week. Like many of the writers on Lewis featured here, Selby is a teacher who has found Lewis to be an engaging classroom conversation. While Selby is doing what Rigney has done, Rigney has avoided the word “spirituality” and Selby includes it in the title. The difference could be telling, as is the focus: “By considering themes such as our human embodiment, our sense of awareness in our everyday experiences, and the role of our human agency–all while engaging with the writings of Lewis, who himself enjoyed food, drink, laughter, and good conversation–Selby demonstrates that an earthy spirituality can be a robust spirituality.” The audiobook reader, James Anderson Foster, is professional and even in tone.

Don’t forget to check out my review of Alan Jacobs‘ The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis, which is now available on audiobook. Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of J.R.R. Tolkien and his story of The Inklings are both available on Audible with stronger narrators.

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CFP: “2020: L.M. Montgomery and Vision”: Conference in Prince Edward Island

Living on the extreme end of the continent has its perks. Besides a rich culture, gorgeous beaches, and something we call weather–sorry folks, most of you don’t really have weather–we in Prince Edward Island also have Anne of Green Gables.

It’s true, it gets a bit much with all the tourists buzzing around and all the TV remakes. But even those have upsides. Lucy Maud Montgomery’s work has introduced the world to a gem of an Island, and this interest, in turn, has buoyed the prosperity of Canada’s poorest province. And as far as TV remakes go, the cartoon and the Martin Sheen version were painful, but the 1980s Kevin Sullivan miniseries still wears well, there is intriguing work coming out of Japan, and the new Anne program on Netflix/CBC is very well done (though the latter is either loved or hated by fans).

As part of encouraging the worlds of Anne from an Academic and artistic perspective, the L.M. Montgomery Institute has a biennial conference at the University of Prince Edward Island (where I teach part-time in religious studies). I had a wonderful experience at the conference in 2018 (see my write-up here), and I hope that you will consider joining us.

The Institute is looking for strong, interdisciplinary papers and presentations that draw out the best of Canada’s century-old literary superstar with the best of 21st-century scholarship. This conference is extremely rigorous; with a proposal deadline is August 16th–a full 10 months before the conference next June–they expect Montgomery scholars and readers to be on their toes.

Besides spending time in Prince Edward Island at a lovely point at the end of June, this conference might be interesting to you as an academic or as a reader of L.M. Montgomery. My own proposal is about how Montgomery deals with providence and evil in Anne’s House of Dreams, a book she wrote during WWI and after she lost a child. What would your approach be? With a theme about vision, perhaps you want to talk about how Montgomery (or Anne, or Emily) envisions the future. Or maybe you want to look through her books to see what she sees about culture, ideas, religion, politics, or something more intimate. Or perhaps you want to come and just soak in the words and the work by attending a world-class conference

In any case, you should come to this little Island! For me, I’m back to my reading of Anne’s House of Dreams.

CFP: L.M. Montgomery and Vision (link here)

The L.M. Montgomery Institute’s Fourteenth Biennial Conference
University of Prince Edward Island, 25-28 June 2020

“My fingers tingle to grasp a pen—my brain teems with plots. I’ve a score of fascinating dream characters I want to write about. Oh, if there only were not such a chasm between seeing a thing and getting it down on paper!” –Emily Climbs (1925)

“If for Montgomery Nature was eternal and eternally present, then the memory pictures of Nature reflected were perhaps meant to help her and her viewers to transcend time and, in entering the imaginative landscape, initiate generative seeing and fresh reverie.” –Elizabeth Epperly, Through Lovers Lane: L.M. Montgomery’s Photography and Visual Imagination

The 2020 conference invites proposals for research pertaining to L.M. Montgomery’s life, writings, and/or scholarship through the lens of vision. Montgomery found inspiration in what she saw around her, and she spent a lifetime translating what she saw into her writing and other creative works. The word vision derives from the Latin videre, “to see,” but as Montgomery knew, there is never a direct or straight line between the observing eye and the object that is seen (or not seen). Beyond topics relating to “visuality,” “vision” might also suggest, among others, (in)visibility, prescience, dreams, wisdom, imaginary or supernatural phenomena, apparitions, and the visioning and re-visioning of material – including her own life – for which Montgomery is renowned.

The conference theme might inspire papers that explore:

  • Montgomery’s visual descriptions and aesthetic; how she “sees” the world through her writing
  • Adaptations or revisions of Montgomery’s life and works on/in film, stage, art, new media, and beyond
  • The art and artistry of the illustrators of Montgomery’s works
  • Connections between vision and other senses in her fiction
  • Sight/seeing and the limitations of it or the enhancements and physical aids to it (e.g., glasses, binoculars, telescopes, camera lenses, etc.)
  • Metaphors of vision (e.g., re/views, perspectives, visionaries, reflections, blindness, opacity/transparency, etc.) in and around the world of Montgomery
  • Re-seeing, revision, remembering, and nostalgia in Montgomery’s creative and/or autobiographical processes
  • Things unseen, invisible, imaginary, or otherwise out of sight

Please submit 250-300-word proposals by 16 August 2019. Proposals should clearly articulate a strong argument, but they should also situate that argument in the context of established Montgomery scholarship. Proposals that view Montgomery’s life and art from different cultural and theoretical perspectives are welcomed. All proposals are blind reviewed. Proposals for pre-conference workshops, special exhibits, films, performances, or other visual displays are encouraged and welcomed.

PS., here are PEI’s old tourism videos, many of them gorgeous.

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Lessons on Christian Culture from Good Omens, and Why the Protests Make Weird Sense

Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, WitchGood Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I decided to reread Good Omens because of the Amazon Prime series–though don’t tell fundamentalist American Christians that the series is on Prime or else they’ll have to end their boycott of Netflix. It is a pretty silly protest–not because playing with the powers of darkness is something we take likely (see the current geopolitical scene), but because it shows that the offended religious folk hadn’t bothered to take the time to be offended by the actual series. Instead, they were offended by an IMDB listing.

Intriguingly, unlike their anti-religionists, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman are pretty nuanced in this sacrilicious book.

Terry Pratchett was an avowed atheist, and Neil Gaiman is a Jewish author who is generally reticent to speak about faith, though I think it’s fair to say he has a pretty secular outlook. Individually, they are among the most important fantasy writers of the generation.

It is reputed that Pratchett’s Discworld series represented 1% of the book sales in England, even through the Harry Potter craze. This 40ish-book series begins in parody but develops into a book-world of some beauty and depth. Pratchett hinges the series on various characters–Samuel Vimes and the Watch, Granny Weatherwax and the witches, Rincewind and the wizards, Moist von Lipwig on industry, Tiffany Aching on the Chalk, and Death on what it means to be human–allowing the series to become detective novels, social commentary, adventure stories, quest narratives, and character explorations as the story develops organically (and often goofily). Pratchett’s Discworld is a stunning achievement, and I miss him.

While Pratchett’s work continues in the parodic, idiosyncratic, colourful trajectory of Good Omens, Gaiman’s most important fantasy moves into more mythic realms. A certain kind of reader will be forever grateful for Gaiman‘s Sandman project, and yet I think American Gods is his most important and underrated work. I would go further: I think that American Gods is the single most important work of American mythopoeic fantasy, with Stephen King‘s The Stand as a possible exception. Patrick Rothfuss may unseat American Gods if he would ever finish his work, and George R.R. Martin has a more extensive reach. But in terms of genre development and a rooted reorientation of classical stories, Gaiman is mythmaker without contemporary equal.

Intriguingly, Gaiman and Pratchett as so-called anti-religious writes can have strikingly original and helpful things to say for Christian readers. I could speak endlessly about their work from a theological perspective, but it is important to note that Good Omens isn’t a parody of the church or of religion. Like a pretty typical UK landscape, the people are largely non-religious–a post-Christian culture trying to figure out how to live normal lives with all these oddments of religion still lying around. Good Omens is a parody of the film The Omen, with some drive-by swattings of religious ideas and popular culture along the way. It is often obscure in its writings, with bits of past-its-prime cultural humour and “this is the real meaning of life” preaching that it could do without.

Good Omens is a flawed book, for certain. But there is an instinctive reaction to popular themes of Christian theology that warrants our attention.

In the tradition of Voltaire‘s anti-theodicy, Candide, Good Omens puts ideas about God, faith, neighbourliness, violence, hope, and love in the stocks. This results in a public viewing of some of our difficult beliefs, misrepresented ideas, and things that live as paradoxes for faithful believers. Some of these ideas will be mocked–and sometimes for legitimate reasons. But putting these ideas in the stocks of cultural view also tests the character of these beliefs, giving us a chance to clarify, to challenge, to defend, to live beautifully with Christian authenticity, and to make our own art that explores the depth of our worldviews.

Such as ineffability, to choose a pertinent example.

So I think faithful Christian readers owe Pratchett and Gaiman a debt of gratitude.

I suspect my offended American fundamentalist brothers and sisters in Christ don’t feel the same. Setting aside the fact that Christ never calls us to be offended–and it is in some people’s minds a lifelong vocation of monastic clarity–it is okay for us to disagree. But the sheer ridiculousness of the protest is a sad and often accurate picture of the Christian response to a kind of cultural criticism that Good Omens offers. Quite frankly, I don’t know that European Christianity ever truly responded to Voltaire’s Candide, and it has meant the senescence of Christianity in much of that society.

In this way, outside of the American context, the sheer normalness of Good Omens shows how clearly unnecessary the offended fundamentalists are to the rest of the world.

And yet, American fundamentalists protesting the wrong firm for a TV show that they haven’t seen is a kind of goofiness that I think fits well in Good Omens. In fact, it could be a scene in the book, though I think it would be better if environmentalists protested the Archbishop of Canterbury for the death of all the fish. Perhaps it is better that religious folks were pretty much left out of the book altogether.

While it is a book with a lot of flaws, Good Omens is an important work of cultural criticism. It’s also pretty funny. I don’t know what they have done with the series on Prime, but it looks pretty good. If it is well done, it will also be a work that tells us a lot about the cultural moment. For this reason, if not for the great fun of the story, it is worthy of our attention.

View all my reviews

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Master’s Class Announcement: C.S. Lewis and Mythologies of Love and Sex (Signum University Class)

I am truly pleased to be re-offering my course at Signum University this coming Fall, “C.S. Lewis and Mythologies of Love and Sex.” In this masters-level course, I use C.S. Lewis’ concept of four loves to structure a course about the great myths at the foundation of our culture. Ranging from the ancient world until now, these are the moments where stories of friendship, love, sex, marriage, fidelity, and devotion have intersected with the hinges of history. It will be a semester of great reading and transformational ideas. Consider joining us this autumn at Signum!

Click here for more information. This course is part of a slate of language and literature courses that make up Signum University’s unique, online, affordable MA program. You can focus on Germanic Philology, Tolkien Studies, Imaginative Literature (like Fantasy and SciFi), and Classical Literature. I have pre-recorded most of the lectures of this course and will be meeting with students each week to discuss the lectures and the great reading list. If you are interested in this course or if you are thinking about an MA program and want to know more about Signum, send me an email at

About Signum University

Signum University believes education should be accessible, dynamic, and affordable. Signum is committed to establishing a completely virtual campus that will cultivate fruitful intellectual exchange between students and teachers, prolific vocational growth for our staff, and a vibrant academic community among our students.

Signum University and Mythgard Institute offer a unique digital campus environment in which students all over the world can engage throughout the course. Each class encourages rigorous academic conversation through multiple points of instruction and dialogue. Classes are available as part of the MA program, or as an inexpensive audit.

  • The Signum Classroom provides a convenient interface for live, direct interaction with instructors
  • A Class Forum provides a place for students and instructors to hold in-depth conversations about class-related topics
  • Discussion Sections offer a moderated setting where M.A. students can talk with each other on a weekly basis
  • Lecturer and preceptor Office Hours allow further conference opportunities to ask questions, clarify ideas, and present paper topics

C.S. Lewis and Mythologies of Love and Sex (Fall 2019)

Taught by Brenton Dickieson

This course explores some of the great mythologies of love that provide a background to today’s culture. Sketched out along the twin paths of C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves and a chronological development of the idea of romantic love, we explore foundational stories of love, sex, fidelity and betrayal, romance, loss, marriage, and divine and devotional love.

This treatment of love and sex has six movements. In the prologue we ask questions about the conversations of sex and love today, we begin in the civilizational nursery by looking at some of the ideas of love in ancient Mediterranean cultures. As we move into the first chapter, we look at the emergence of Greek and Jewish understanding of love, and the Christian idea of agape, or unconditional love.

In the second chapter, we will see the development—and in some cases a recovery—of the myth of romantic love in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, including themes of devotional, courtly, forbidden, and erotic loves, as well as the forms of storytelling that blended them all. Once love stories have shed their allegorical undertones, Shakespeare is an accessible starting point to discuss the place of romantic love in culture. Shakespeare is in this way the inventor of the modern romantic tradition, though his work suggests an inversion of that tradition. While Goethe captures romantic love in all its poignancy, we see Jane Austen’s inversive mind expand the theme, and turn to the four loves with a powerful cultural treatment in Pride & Prejudice.

In chapter three we turn to familial loves. Perhaps no more rapid change in relationships has come in the family loves, particularly those between parents and children. We will read pieces that suggest that the reassertion of this parental love makes for new problems as romantic, religious, and vocational love sit in uncomfortable tension with that earliest of all loves. Problematizing parental love, then, serves as an opportunity to return to the messages and stories of love in culture today.

Chapter four’s consideration of friendship love leaves us in a difficult situation. Though popular culture is beset with friends on facebook and television, the deep traditions of friendship are largely lost to us. So we turn to some children’s literature to discuss this almost forgotten love.

As an epilogue to the class, we ask some questions about love and culture today. Are we really in a renewed romanticism? What is love in a digital age? What happens when love fails—or when the mythologies of love fail? Which is the most important of the loves? We will close by returning to an ancient theme of “calling,” meant to open questions as to where the reader sits in the world.

Course Schedule

We will schedule our discussion sessions later this summer. I will be live recording a lecture on The Four Loves, and there is a chance another book will find its way into the syllabus.

Prologue: Who Did Write the Book of Love?

Week 1: “Art is a Lie Which Makes us Realize the Truth”

    • Read: Tolkien, “Mythopoeia,” Genesis 1 – 3, Lewis, The Four Loves
    • Watch: The Princess Bride
    • Recommended: Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” Lady in the Water Mr Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, 1980s Brat Pack films

Week 2: Introduction to Love, Religion, and Mythology

    • Read: Song of Solomon; Lewis, The Four Loves
    • Recommended: The Epic of Gilgamesh; Homer, The IliadThe Odyssey; the Cupid and Psyche cycle in Books 4 – 6 of The Golden Ass

Chapter One: The Emergence of Agape

Week 3: Greek and Christian Inventions of Love

Chapter Two: The Establishment (and Inversion?) of Eros

Week 4: Form, Flesh and Fidelity: The Art of Courtly Love

    • Read: Selections from The Letters of Abelard & Héloïse; Patristic and Medieval Writings handout; Selections from Lewis, The Allegory of Love
    • Recommended: Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur; Andreas Capellanus, The Art of Courtly Love

Week 5: Shakespeare: The Invention (and Inversion?) of Romantic Love

    • Read: Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Sonnets handout
    • Recommended: Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet

Week 6: Goethe and the Romantic Tradition

    • Read: The Sorrows of Young Werther
    • Recommended: Orlando

Week 7: Jane Austen and the Change of the Heart

Chapter Three: The Problem of Storge

Week 8: The Forbidden Love of Asher Lev

    • Read: Potok, My Name is Asher Lev

Week 9: When Love is No Better than Hate

Chapter Four: Can We Recover Philia?

Week 11: Where did Friendship Go?

HarperCollins Signature EditionEpilogue: Love and the Cosmos

Week 12: Plastic Bodies and Broken Hearts: Myths of Love Today

    • Read: Coelho, The Alchemist
    • Watch: Lars and the Real GirlEasy A
    • Recommended: Lewis, A Grief Observed


Most of these books are widely available in local libraries or in inexpensive editions. Any edition of the books is fine. Translation in parentheses; it is okay to choose a different translation. In some cases, handouts will be provided in class, as noted below.

We’ve linked to free online resources where possible. Where no legally free version is available, links point to the Amazon page where a copy of the text may be purchased. Purchases made through these links help Signum University at no additional cost to you.

Required Texts

Required Films

Suggested Works

Note: Course schedules, texts and other details are subject to change. Upon enrolling, students should refer to the syllabus and Moodle course page for the most current information.

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A Timeline of C.S. Lewis’ Major Talks

I have been interested for a while in working with precision on C.S. Lewis’ timeline. Joel Heck has a detailed 1100-page chronology, which includes all the verifiable facts in C.S. Lewis’ life. Prof. Heck joins other Lewis biographers and academic researchers, all of whom have used Walter Hooper’s collection of resources (listed below).

Rather than the fullest possible view, what I have been trying to do is capture aspects of Lewis’ public life. For example, I provided “My Cheat Sheet of C.S. Lewis’ Writing Schedule,” which is the resource I use to keep Lewis’ publications and writing periods straight. I worked that into “The Periods of C.S. Lewis’ Literary Life,” which Joe Hoffman was able to supplement. I had done some early statistical analysis of C.S. Lewis’ letter-writing, which was part of a public discussion here and here (again, with Joe Hoffman).

I have been wanting to enhance these flirtations with digital humanities resources to look at historical and literary materials. I have some larger projects in mind, including some “distant reading” of some of C.S. Lewis’ writing, as well as a comprehensive tool that lays Lewis’ life out in time and space, including photographs, audio clips, film clips, short docs, literary samples, book covers, maps (with videos of pertinent locations), and other digital features. I think this could be a beautiful and helpful tool for students of C.S. Lewis and the Inklings.

This last project is quite frankly huge and will need a significant grant if I am to pull it off. In the meantime, though, I thought I would try some software out on smaller projects. I made an interactive timeline that focusses on some of Lewis’ most influential sermons, lectures, and talks. To do this I used the Timeline app by Knight Lab. It is a pretty usable tool, though it does not embed in the online version of WordPress, unfortunately. Still, you can click here and enjoy the entire timeline of Lewis’ major talks.

Walter Hooper Bibliography For C.S. Lewis Research

  • C.S. Lewis: A Companion and Guide. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.
  • The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis: Vol. 1: Family Letters 1905-1929. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004.
  • The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis: Vol. 2: Books, Broadcasts, and the War 1931-1949. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004.
  • The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis: Vol. 3: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy 1950-1963. HarperSanFrancisco, 2007.
  • “The Lectures of C.S. Lewis in the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge.” Christian Scholar’s Review 27.4 (1998): 436-453.
  • With Roger Lancelyn Green, C.S. Lewis: A Biography. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974.

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The Deeper Meaning of “The Great Divorce” (Throwback Thursday)

Last year I introduced an occasional feature I call “Throwback Thursday.” This is where I find a blog post from the past–raiding either my own blog-hoard or someone else’s–and throw it back out into the digital world. This might be an idea or book that is now relevant again, or a concept I’d like to think about more, or even “an oldie but a goodie” that I think needs a bit of spin time.

Since this blog began in 2011, I have been trying to create a recovery of The Great Divorce. I think this novella is, quite frankly, brilliant. It has a gorgeous landscape set behind a theological novella that gets to the heart of Lewis’ spiritual legacy.

A few years back I ran a series on The Great Divorce, and there is a building momentum among Lewis readers. My students continue to be struck by this unknown book. There is now a second audiobook recording of it, as well as a stage play. There are still signs that The Great Divorce hasn’t found its way out to Lewis lovers. I’ve talked before about the Oh Hellos and their Dear Wormwood album. The Oh Hellos are a smart band that make great Irish-influenced folk collective music. The host of Audiotree noted their Screwtape influences and asked about their favourite C.S. Lewis book. Intriguingly, the host suggested “the Hell Bus one, The Great Divorce” (29:00). Alas, it was still on the band’s to-be-read list.

And, if it remains on your TBR list, I hope this post will nudge you forward. After writing a thesis on C.S. Lewis writing about spiritual life, I continue to think that The Great Divorce captures it in a tight, short, character-centred story of some imaginative depth. This post about “Deeper Meaning” remains a Pilgrim in Narnia top ten read over the years, though I have added a line or two. I hope you enjoy.

This is dangerous territory–partly because so many have trumbled into the “real” meaning of this or that book and caused an awful mess. When read this way, with a view to the veiled meaning, the Bible especially becomes secret code for everything from American foreign policy to the missing political allies of Atlantis to the reason why its words mean the exact opposite of what they say.

That’s right, the picture to the right is about the hidden Roswell UFO links in the King James Bible. I’m sure that’s clear to everyone.

C.S. Lewis is certainly not immune to being co-opted by this group or that. You know what I mean, I think. I was reading the other day that some people with a particular cultural view of what “masculinity” is are interpreting Lewis’ famous lecture “Men Without Chests” as a rallying cry against a generation raising “males without chests”–i.e., without their vision of what they think masculinity is (where “chest” is the heart of human emotion, ethic, and motivation for action). Apparently, integrity and honesty are not features that are part of this vision of the chest.

So clever readings that co-opt an original text’s meaning are deadly. This is certainly true of The Great Divorce, a book filled with theological speculation.

Intriguingly, Lewis warned us in the preface to The Great Divorce that we should avoid certain sorts of speculation:

“I beg readers to remember that this is a fantasy. It has of course–or I intended it to have–a moral. But the transmortal conditions are solely an imaginative supposal: they are not even a guess or a speculation at what may actually await us. The last thing I wish is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the after-world.”

great divorce

In The Great Divorce, Lewis describes heaven and hell with vivid clarity: the great, apathetic, narcissistic, blandness of hell contrasted to the bright, sharp, penetrating beauty of heaven. Lewis wants here to avoid a school of thought that would blame him for redrawing the faint lines of historic teaching about the after-life. He only wants to go as far as Dante, telling a morally invested story with the artistry that he has that invites us into a grander vision of spiritual life.

But Dante really did redraw the lines of eschatology, whether we have read him or not. His cosmography of hell, purgatory, and heaven has stuck with us, shaping our cultural understanding, repainting every bit of our imagination from catechism classes all the way up to the works of the greatest modern artists. Perhaps Lewis is trying to have the reader keep the moral, and even the tang of heaven and hell, without accepting its landscape.

So why do I push in to what he has created, trying to discern meaning that he seems to resist? Besides the Dante Effect–the reality that art and culture shape culture and thought–there are two reasons.

Collected Letters vol 2

First, there is this little statement that Lewis makes in a letter to fellow poet Ruth Pitter. Pitter had said that there was something jarring or frightening or personally vivid about The Great Divorce. On July 6th, 1947, Lewis wrote back:

“I was rather frightened myself by the Great Divorce. — condemned out of my own mouth.”

There is something of The Great Divorce that tells the truth about C.S. Lewis’ understanding of the world. Without trying to bend Lewis, or find the super secret Bible code, that something that frightened Lewis is worth exploring.

Second, Lewis really is telling us something about his beliefs on what heaven and hell means. This is C.S. Lewis speaking in the preface:

“I believe, to be sure, that any man who reaches Heaven will find that what he abandoned (even in plucking out his right eye) was precisely nothing: that the kernel of what he was really seeking even in his most depraved wishes will be there, beyond expectation, waiting for him in “the High Countries.” In that sense it will be true for those who have completed the journey (and for no others) to say that good is everything and Heaven everywhere.”

Lewis cautions against trying to live the heaven-in-all-good now, suggesting that if we do “we are likely to embrace the false and disastrous converse and fancy that everything is good and everywhere is Heaven” (Preface). Otherwise, though, he is saying something definite about heaven and hell. We are not to imagine heaven and hell as distinct, geographically specific domains.

In this way, Lewis is carrying on a conversation begun in The Problem of Pain. His eighth chapter captures the trilemma of hell: something seems to be wrong with the teaching of a good-loving God who puts sinners in an eternal hell for conscious, non-reforming punishment. After setting aside common objections to the doctrine of hell, he chips away at our understanding of time in the after-life. Finally, he hints at a solution of the trilemma on the issue of consciousness:

“[Hell] is in no sense parallel to heaven: it is ‘the darkness outside’, the outer rim where being fades away into nonentity” (“Hell”).

This was written about 5 years before The Great Divorce. Not quite a decade later, Lewis encapsulated some of his understanding of heaven in the final Narnian chronicle, The Last Battle (1956). There is a great deal to say about that complex little book, but two sets of characters show us something of Lewis’ eschatological imagination.

In one scene, a group of Dwarfs sit in a tight circle, refusing to admit that they are in heaven. All light is for them darkness. All good food is waste. All hope is a con. In another scene, a Calormene officer, Emeth, is invited into this Narnian heaven even though he had served as an enemy of Aslan. Aslan says, “I take to me the services which thou hast done to Tash.” These two scenes show The Great Divorce idea of the continuity of earthly life into either heaven or hell, as well as the blurring of the regional boundaries.

It is true that Lewis draws the picture in The Great Divorce a little differently than he does elsewhere. He resists George MacDonald‘s universalism–intriguingly by having MacDonald adjust his own views in the text itself!–and affirms the essential difference between heaven and hell. But he does so in surprisingly unorthodox way. Here is one of those pictures, where George MacDonald, a spirit of heaven, is explaining why the saved cannot go into hell to rescue the damned:

“… a damned soul is nearly nothing: it is shrunk, shut up in itself. Good beats upon the damned incessantly as sound waves beat on the ears of the deaf, but they cannot receive it. Their fists are clenched, their teeth are clenched, their eyes fast shut. First they will not, in the end they cannot, open their hands for gifts, or their mouths for food, or their eyes to see” (ch. 13).

These sorts of images have led some people to draw theological conclusions using C.S. Lewis’ work. David Clark argues in C.S. Lewis Goes to Heaven that people will get a chance to accept Christ, whether that is here on earth or in heaven. Clark argues that when we follow Lewis’ understanding of heaven and hell, we will discover that:

“Lewis removed this huge stumbling block to Christianity and vindicated both the justice and mercy of God” (see here).

rob bell love winsAnother author, and one with a far greater influence, is Rob Bell. Though often missed by reviewers, Bell’s work is shot through with Lewis’ influence. In Love Wins, that book that transformed millions of readers and set the stage for his exit left from the evangelical conversation, Bell argues exactly for the continuity that Lewis sets up in The Great Divorce. Heaven and hell are both experienced here on earth, and one’s decisions sets one in a heavenward or hellward direction. We can bring heaven into our earthbound reality, or we can sow hell into everyday life. While Bell isn’t very clear about what this means for the actual movement of the human being into the realms beyond, it is a powerful image as a spiritual truth. Bell leans on Lewis for this road map.

Still, as we think about heaven and hell, we remember Lewis’ caution. Is this arousing “factual curiosity about the details of the after-world?” I have to admit that as he poignantly captures the landscapes of heaven and hell in imagination, I’m tempted to believe that his landscape hints at something “factual.” And it may be that Lewis offers something to Christian thinking about choice, salvation, and the after-life.

But I don’t think that’s the deepest meaning of The Great Divorce–as much as I think Lewis leaves room for discussion open.

Through this speculative fantasy, Lewis captures the truth of the human condition–the truth of his human condition. Most of us are not murderers or rapists or dictators, yet we play with evil within the subtle inclinations of our hearts. We do this not to evil men or even to strangers. No, we rage against or manipulate the ones we claim to love. I rage against and manipulate the ones I love. In this I am sowing hell on earth, bending myself toward self–that is, bending myself toward hell.

Each of our choices here on earth invests us further into heavenliness or hellishness. In this way, The Great Divorce is not really about heaven or hell and the afterlife, but about whether or not Galatians 2:20 is true in this life:

I have been crucified with Christ. I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. So the life that I now live, I live in faith in the son of God who loves me and gave up his life for me.

What is the deeper meaning in The Great Divorce? It is, I think, the thing that shocked Lewis so much. On the great stage of this heavenly dream vision, Lewis saw his own sin and selfishness played out, scene after scene. While as readers we can close ourselves off to its message, Lewis could not. It stripped bare his willful blindness, and this is what he was left with:

“One  dreadful  glance  over  my shoulder I essayed-not long enough to see (or did I see?) the rim of the sunrise that shoots Time dead with golden arrows and puts to flight all phantasmal shapes.

“Screaming, I buried my face in the folds of my Teacher’s robe. ‘The morning! The morning!’ I cried, ‘I am caught by the morning and I am a ghost.’

“But it was too late. The light, like solid blocks, intolerable of edge and weight, came thundering upon my head. Next moment the folds of my Teacher’s garment were only the folds of the old ink-stained cloth on my study table which I had pulled down with me as I fell from my chair. The blocks of light were only the books which I had pulled off with it, falling about my head. I awoke in a cold room, hunched on the floor beside a black and empty grate, the clock striking three, and the siren howling overhead” (ch. 14).

What is the secret code of The Great Divorce? It’s the basic principle that it matters how we live, and whatever lies we tell ourselves in the dark will be set to flight in the truth of that last great sunrise.




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