An intriguing, fun, and occasionally perverse part of being a scholar in areas where there is a lively fandom is that I am often asked to tell my “encounter” story. This can be a bit strange in that in the scholarly worlds of the authors I love: Lewis, Tolkien, Montgomery, Rowling, Le Guin (I don’t hear it with Stephen King). These encounter stories can be so powerful that it creates a warm bubble of protection around the author. Reading-encounter stories are often like conversion stories, with all the intimacy and intensity of a revival tent altar call. Who am I to break into that sacred space with a critical thought? When your favourite authors are saints, the best way to write about them is hagiography, after all.
This is obviously less of a problem with Le Guin and Rowling, who were both cultural critics and were each skewered in society in different ways. But outside of questions about gender and violence, there can be in Lewis studies a hedge of protection about the Narnian. I remember offering a critique of Lewis’ idea of “vocation” at a C.S. Lewis and Friends conference once and felt a sudden posture of caution from the crowd.
And I get it! Lewis’ writing is able to awaken my imagination. His works provoke me to think about theology, culture, literature, and spirituality in fresh ways. I understand why, with book sales exceeding 200,000,000 copies, a billion-dollar film industry, and a bookshelf of critical, philosophical, and popular works continually in print, C.S. Lewis is both the beloved author of The Chronicles of Narnia and the leading 20th century English-speaking Christian public intellectual. I like reading his works, so I do.
Because 11 years ago someone helped me think cleverly about the way I shaped my scholarly career, I thought I would write a short piece about “The Other Reasons I Became a C.S. Lewis Scholar.” Going into Lewis studies was not just fan-blindness; I was intentional in my choice to be a Lewis scholar. Here are the reasons I don’t say aloud very often because they are entirely pragmatic. But they may be able to help others shape the way they approach grad school or a book project about C.S. Lewis, another leading writer or public figure, or about any area of study that you truly love.
C.S. Lewis as Essayist and Me the Writer
A prodigious essayist, it is this area of C.S. Lewis’ work that I find the most provocative. In terms of influence on my life, I feel this more strongly even than of his popular fiction and apologetics books. Whether inspirational or controversial, his brevity, clarity and wit strike through his reviews, lectures, published letters, editorials, sermons, public controversies, papers, and critical essays. Essay writing was an area that Lewis excelled in, leading to nearly 200 short pieces still in print. Frankly, one of the reasons I turned to Lewis was because I wanted to become a better writer of nonfiction. I still haven’t managed to be as concise, but Lewis’ essay-writing has helped me learn to see in pictures and try to capture some of what I see on the page before me.
A Scholarly Community I Can Be Part Of
Sprinkled throughout the 1,100 articles on A Pilgrim in Narnia are dozens of references to what I think is the strongest feature of C.S. Lewis studies: the scholars. I have written here about the “Unpayable Debt” of writing friends, a “Small Circle of Blog Friends,” how senior Lewis scholars are great at mentoring emerging scholars, and dozens of reviews and notes about scholarly work I’ve found valuable. In a recent paper and my PhD thesis, I acknowledge the debt of gratitude of dozens of Lewis scholars and readers for their support, criticism, and conversation over the last decade.
Lewis scholarship is a remarkable place for inviting people to think about the intersection between Lewis and the literary age, culture, politics, gender, theology, and spiritual life. However, when I decided to enter this field, I had no idea what it would be like. The advice that a retired academic gave me was to pick a figure to study that had literary societies in place so that I could enter a conversation already in play–a place where I could present papers, test ideas, and dialogue meaningfully with others. I had no idea how rich that scholarly community would be for me.
Finding the Books I Need
Because of the work of C.S. Lewis scholars and his lifelong friends, and because of a hungry fanbase of book-buyers, we are in the remarkable position of having Lewis’ entire book catalogue constantly in print. It’s true, I am not always able to get a 1st edition when I need to do precise text critical work–and I own no true 1st editions. However, by keeping my eyes open, I was able to get everything that Lewis published pretty cheaply. And where something is difficult to find, such as his late ’30s essay collection, Rehabilitations, as a non-American scholar, I was able to buy an inexpensive Kindle reprint. Similarly, the 3rd volume of the Collected Letters is extremely expensive, but I was able to use the ebook until I found one at the right price.
Beyond Lewis’ book publication, circumstances have conspired to give readers a remarkable breadth of materials. Walter Hooper has published 3,800 of Lewis’ surviving letters, scholars have been continually bringing archival material to print, and Lewis’ lifetime publication of 40 books has grown to about 60 in the literary afterlife. Beyond that, Lewis’ books are available in many platforms. I can read Mere Christianity in my old paperback with Thai beach sand stuck in the crevices. Then I can reread and make highlights on Kindle, or read it by audio with Geoffrey Howard’s trusty Lewis voice (aka, Ralph Cosham–now free for US Audible subscribers) or a new version by Julian Rhind-Tutt–supplemented by a few bits of Lewis’ original BBC recordings. As Lewis is mostly out of copyright in Canada, and as Kindle is priced reasonably, I have e-copies of much of what Lewis wrote, giving me text-search capabilities I could not have of the entire œuvre of most prolific authors. In Lewis studies, we are embarrassed by the riches of availability, supplemented by resource-folks like Joel Heck and Arend Smilde. All of this allowed me to get into Lewis studies without great expense, and to launch a chronological reading project that would be much harder (or impossible) to design for many other writers.
The Hard Part of Reading
I was sitting in a campus cafe, feeling hopeless and far from home, when I got my advice to root my scholarship in the thinking of a public intellectual with established societies. I have always laughed out loud when Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, responded to Moses’ hard work by saying, “What you are doing is not good.” Fathers-in-law can be their own challenge, but this old scholar was my Jethro. I immediately took his advice. I left the conference and walked downtown, hoping that my trusty feet would lead me to a used bookstore in a city I did not know.
I was not disappointed. I spent the rest of the afternoon standing in the aisle, reading through the great theologians who have inspired me. Perhaps I am a lazy reader, but frankly, I found their work dull on extended reading (though if I knew German I may have studied Jürgen Moltmann). Theologians I enjoyed reading were still in process (like Stanley Hauerwas) or had such a large corpus I thought I could not get into the game so late (like John Wesley). Other theologians horrified me in tone or content. Honestly, I left the bookstore disappointed.
Providentially, though, I decided to ditch the conference entirely and drive out of the way to stay with dear friends. Along the way, I put in a CD of C.S. Lewis’ lectures, The Four Loves. I was surprised by the richness of his voice, the humour, the vivid examples, the stirring quotations, and a capacity for deeper thought that could be obscured by occasionally shocking comments. When I got home, weirdly, I chose his Letters to an American Lady, and was blown away by the depth of his “accidental” spiritual direction. I then read Of Other Worlds, a collection of essays on popular literature, and The Screwtape Letters. At this point, I knew that I could read and reread Lewis for a decade. That’s how long it takes to do a PhD and get the thesis out as a book, so I needed someone who could stimulate my thinking and imagination for the entire period.
As I am beginning my second decade as a reader later this year, I have discovered that Lewis’ books get better with rereading and that I never weary of going back to the same bookshelf.
Having Something to Say
For the sheer love of entering a world of myth and poetry, I read and reread J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, supplemented by The Silmarillion and all manner of published archival material. It takes me years, though, before I feel I have something original to say. The most popular articles on Tolkien I’ve written are not my close-readings or theological reflections, but Inklings pieces like “The Tolkien Letters that Changed C.S. Lewis’ Life,” the publication of essential letters and poems, resource blogs like “Approaching The Silmarillion for the First Time,” and writing pieces like “The Shocking Reason Tolkien Finished The Lord of the Rings.” My more substantial work on Tolkien is read appreciatively, but not broadly. For example, I quite like this piece I worked on for a long time on (but never got much traction): “Trees, Leaves, Vines, Circles: The Layered Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Fiction, A Note on ‘Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth’“–of course, the title may have only attracted the most serious readers! I have a similar experience in reading Ursula K. Le Guin: I find it rich and fulfilling and I love teaching her, but it takes me a long time to say anything new.
However, when I read Lewis, I am constantly making connections that I am able to talk about in my essays, lectures, and academic pieces. There is something about the way I approach the text that generates productive readings, thoughts about culture, and links to Lewis’ life and thought. And, frankly, there was a uniquely Brenton-shaped hole in C.S. Lewis studies that I am able to fill. If Lewis scholars had answered all the questions, I wouldn’t be here.
Mind the Gap
Part of having something to say is working with an author who has not said everything there is to say. That sounds obvious, but I had certain influential theologians in my young life–Miroslav Volf, N.T. Wright, and Sallie McFague, in particular–who had helped shaped me, but I was not able to really say anything in response. As soon as I read Rosemary Radford Ruether’s work, though, I knew exactly what to say and wrote an entire master’s thesis in response. I could challenge and extend the work of Volf, Wright, or McFague now, but a decade ago they were still building into me.
Immediately in reading C.S. Lewis, I was able to think dynamically in conversation with his work. This is partly because he has gaps–generalizations he makes, limitations in his point of view, personal likes and dislikes that get in the way, little shortcuts of mind and form…. Lewis’ limitations do not destroy his utility, but increase it. At least for me. I am able to pick up where Lewis left off, producing what I hope is a richer understanding of life and letters.
In particular, I think that Owen Barfield is right about his old friend, that what Lewis thought about anything is embedded in everything he wrote. Lewis is “integrative”–a holistic thinker whose theology and cultural criticism and image of spiritual life are hard-won but instinctive, emergent, flowing out of his personality and ethic into the world at great speed. One of the services I can provide to Lewis readers is to bring into a cohesive whole Lewis’ thoughts scattered over 20,000 pages of letters, manuscript fragments, poems, journal entries, essays, lectures, sermons, and books. What makes me most excited, though, is that in this way, Lewis is also able to speak cogently to theologians, spiritual directors, literature teachers, cultural critics, social activists, and theorists. Lewis’ gaps are opportunities to think critically and faithfully about his work, and I am pleased to be someone who can help bridge those fruitful gaps.
There are weaknesses in my work and even in my choice of study. Shockingly, universities are not clamouring to hire a C.S. Lewis expert. However, I hope my experience can provide you with a resource to explore your own paths of curiosity, wonder, and discovery.
Some other posts on PhD Preparation and Academic Writing that Might be Helpful:
And you can read my full academic biography here.