The Milk Carton Kids Live: Great Music for English Majors (Friday Feature)

mastro_milk_carton_kidsIf you don’t know, the Milk Carton Kids are an indie folk duo with Americana sensibilities. They’ve been on my playlist since I saw them on youtube on an NPR Tiny Desk concert. Kind of a Simon & Garfunkel for the folk revival era, string-plucking vocalists Joey Ryan and  Kenneth Pattengale are fascinating entertainers. Armed only with 50s-era guitars, smart writing, and boyish grins, the Milk Carton Kids are on my to-see list.

I wanted to share the 2014 NPR-produced show, “Live at Lincoln Theatre.” It’s a gem. Retro- and intro-spective melodic folk songs are interlaced with Joey Ryan’s Dryasdust commentary on their most recent album, including a typographical history, instructions on pronunciation, and a definition of “eponymous.” The definition is hardly needed for the crowd at the Lincoln Theatre. Joey Ryan claims that 75% of their fans are English majors, including one who is able to distinguish between a generic symbol and a ligature. What follows is a mini-lecture from the musician on the philology of the the ampersand.

Overall, worth sharing for word nerds and roots music lovers alike.

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Word of the Day: “Trumpery”

“I have sold all my Trumpery: not a counterfeit Stone, not a Ribbon, Glass, Pomander, Brouch  to keep my Pack from fasting,” Shakespeare, Winter’s Tale IV.4.598

breadI came across a new word the other day: trumpery. I knew it was one for our family word game. We play a fun game called “cognates,” where we find a word and see how we can connect it to other words. It’s a nerdy game, but kind of fun. Granted, it’s more long-drive-in-the-car fun than Saturday-night-feature fun, but it works for us and sneaks a love for words into my son’s life without him knowing it. I don’t do research, but am always looking for new words.

As soon as I saw the word “trumpery” I wondered whether it was connected to other words, like “trumpet,” “triumph,” and Screwtape’s demonic colleague, Slimtrumpet. And, how can we forget, there is the word “trump”–perhaps the verbal root of “trumpery.” Once an everyday word, “trump” has now become a top google search term.

critics_want_trump_name_off_building_1200x675_583585347620One of the fascinating things about this American election–fascinating as in when we slow down in traffic to look at the bloody accident and all the flashing lights–is how Donald Trump has branded himself. In campaign speeches, I don’t think he has ever made the link between his name and the noun and verb forms of “Trump.” It’s pretty cool, actually, when you think about a man named Trump who has invested in casinos where card games fill the floor, even if the casinos haven’t all been winners.

blog_trump_cardThough the campaign team hasn’t made the link, Trump has been running this election with the brand of “Winner” as key to his image. Trump prides himself in being better than most other people in most things that count for someone who will be the manager of the world’s largest economy, the general of the globe’s deadliest military, and the curator of the social life, education, innovation, technology and culture of one of the greatest civilizations the world has ever produced. Having confidence in the New York tycoon’s ability to do this task, and sensitive to a country disenchanted by ineffective politics and a Pennsylvania Avenue that seems radically disconnected from Main Street, Republicans chose The Donald as their Trump Card.

See what I did there?

It’s pretty clever, even if it hasn’t been said out loud all that often. I suspect that Mr. Trump knew the connection. After all, he is highly educated at an Ivy League school and considers himself a supreme wordsmith.

As a verbal elite, Donald Trump no doubt played “Cognates” and other word-nerd games with his dad when their airplane’s 8-track stopped working.

The Trump pun is fairly obvious, and the Donald expects to triumph in the upcoming election and then trumpet his win throughout the world. But there is an essential problem with Trump’s branding: What happens if the Winner begins to lose? What happens if you pull out your Trump Card at the wrong time or in the wrong game? Mr. Trump has cast himself to his conservative base and to dissatisfied Americans as a winner, and has mocked many who disagree with him as losers. He is a winner at business (often enough in high-risk ventures), he can win political support (evident by his performance in the primaries and attendance at rallies), and he lands on the upside in his relationship with women (if we are to believe his “locker room talk”–though, to be fair, most of us don’t view women as things to be conquered in the way he does).

about_body_img_1He thinks of himself as a perennial winner, but what if Trump isn’t triumphing? What if he can’t trump others? Despite his ability to enthrall a crowd, leverage the markets, and take advantage of women, he is slumping in the polls. 3 weeks is a long time in politics, but all the polls have Trump at a poor showing, near the floor of 40% Republican support. It is still winnable, but he isn’t winning.

So, what happens when the shimmer of the Trump Card/Winner brand starts to wear off? Apparently, we turn to conspiracy.

trump-speakingTrump claimed in April and August the election was rigged, though he has committed to accepting the outcome of the election. Now he has turned to a new series of allegations, including the fact that his opponent is using drugs to get ready for debates–debates he really won, despite the polls–and that the media is conspiring to have Hillary Clinton elected, including FoxNews, the only leading news network clearly open to his campaign. Despite his clear intelligence, Trump never connects the fact that he calls one of Fox’s star commentators a “bimbo” to his own downfall.

It never occurs to Trump to look to himself when things are going badly. Instead, Trump connects left-leaning media with election corruption. I have no doubt the media have a liberal bias, but there is more going on. In this election, polls show that if you are in the media you are suffering. And despite all of the past Rupublican concerns about media and its bias, no other Presidential candidate confused that severely flawed social engine with actual election rigging. I mean, he’s saying stuff that makes experienced conservative leaders blush–people who have worked in systems of power for years.

Now Trump has taken it to an entirely new level. Most recently in West Palm Beach, Trump has claimed to self-sacrificially “take all of the slings and arrows” on behalf of the people and on behalf of the movement so “we can have our country back.” He assures Americans he is suffering all this for the people, not for himself. And although he claims that “many political experts warned me that this campaign would be a journey to hell,” they are wrong. Instead, in true messianic form, he promises us that, “it will be a journey to heaven.” It is quite a promised land speech, though, to be fair, Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t have to defend himself against nine unwanted sexual assault allegations in a single week. Oh, and King died for his people, like the Christ he followed.

trump_china_arrowThis peculiar approach and the new campaign direction put me in mind of another interesting word connection to “Trump.” Remember the new word I found the other day? I think that “trumpery” might help us understand this circus of an election and this candidate’s unprecedented approach.

I was reading C.S. Lewis’ recently published unfinished autobiography from late 1930 or early 1931 (edited by Andrew Lazo*). He used the phrase “trump card,” but he also wrote this phrase: “It made all my recent excursions into magic and eroticism seem like trumpery” (“Early Prose Joy,” 22). Though I haven’t seen the word before, the meaning of “trumpery” in context means “illusory” or “false.” A quick trip over to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)–a centuries old database of words, which I’m sure Donald Trump consults regularly–confirms the definition. Taken from the 14th-century French tromperie, which itself came from the French verb tromper, “to deceive,” its origin is ultimately unknown. In English, though, it has a few meanings:

  1. Deceit, fraud, imposture, trickery
  2. “Something of less value than it seems,” rubbish
  3. Idle or superstitious
  4. Showy but unsubstantial
  5. In horticulture, referring to weeds or refuse that hinder the growth of valuable plants
  6. Applied to a person as trash (giving us the word “strumpet”)
  7. As an adjective, to refer to something of little or no value; trifling, paltry, insignificant; worthless, rubbishy, trashy

First, I love the English language, especially that we can have a word cluster that means both winner and loser.

Second, almost every part of this OED entry gives us another possibility for looking at the “Trump brand.” While Trump may triumph, these other words seem remarkably precise: deceit, trickery, rubbish, superstitious, showy-but insubstantial, and weed-hindered. I think we have to be careful about our words, though. Despite every discussion Donald Trump had with Howard Stern, I wouldn’t go as far as calling the candidate a strumpet. After all, we wouldn’t want to descend into locker room talk.

trump-mocks-disabled-journalist*for this recently published draft, see C.S. Lewis, ‘”Early Prose Joy”: C.S. Lewis’s Early Draft of an Autobiographical Manuscript”‘ in VII: Journal of the Marion E. Wade Center (2013). It is edited by Andrew Lazo, with intros in both #30 and #31 of VII.

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Announcement: “Getting Medieval With C.S. Lewis” A Theology on Tap with Chris Armstrong

Armstrong, Medieval Wisdom for Modern ChristiansOne of my favourite speaking events ever was my “Hobbit’s Theology” talk at a Theology on Tap last winter. This is a local tradition where professors and wordsmiths share their leading discoveries at a “Research on Tap,” or where they talk about the intersection between faith and critical thought at a “Theology on Tap.” It is hosted by the Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture at UPEI, and part of a great week of events around the Centre this week–including a lecture on John Henry Newman on Friday a Theology on Tap Tuesday night, and an “open class” on medieval Christianity.

We are very excited to have Wheaton historian Dr. Chris R. Armstrong in Charlottetown for a Theology on Tap on Tuesday, Oct 18th. Dr. Armstrong’s lecture title is “Getting Medieval With C.S. Lewis.” He will speak for 45 minutes or so, and then there is an open discussion. As everyone is gathered in a pub for the general public, the questions are often broad and interesting. I once had a 10-year-old who snuck in to push me on my thoughts about Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle. It is a great atmosphere for the exchange of ideas, and we know that there is a recovery of interest in medieval thought and life these days.

For those who are within striking distance of Charlottetown, come on down to the Pourhouse tomorrow night at 7:00 (doors open at 6:30). It’s right above the Olde Triangle. Dr. Armstrong just published a book that will be available to purchase, so I’ve included a review below. I’ve also attached a couple of videos he has done where he talks about the ideas in the book. Here is the schedule for this amazing week of events host by UPEI:

Tues, Oct 18, 7:00pm, “Getting Medieval with C.S. LewisTheology on Tap, The Pourhouse, Charlottetown (free event, but do enjoy some excellent food or drink)

Wed, Oct 19, 9:30-10:30am,  Open Class at UPEI. Dr. Armstrong will offer a lecture entitled “Medieval Wisdom: Holding the Spiritual and Material Together” to the RS 101 class. Everyone is welcome to join in for free. The lecture is in the Don and Marion McDougall Hall 246 in the Hennessey MacDonald Lecture Theatre. If you have questions, send me an email ( or a tweet (@BrentonDana).

Fri, Oct 21, 6:00-9:00pm, The Second Annual John Henry Newman Dinner at the new School of Sustainable Design Engineering, UPEI. The fundraiser begins with a reception at 6:00 PM, followed by dinner at 7:00 PM. Tickets are $80 each, with a table of ten costing $750. The tickets are available in SDU Main Building Room 203 on UPEI Campus, with information on the website

Chris R. Armstrong, Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians: Finding Authentic Faith in a Forgotten Age with C. S. Lewis (2016)

You might say that old is the new new. As culture commits itself further to its pathological aversion to stillness, and as the American evangelical church betrays its artistic, intellectual, and communal thinness, we should not be surprised that many people are searching for something more. Plastic church and two-dimensional relationships are not enough for those who are desperately seeking a deeper life. There is, I think, a remnant of rooted Christians. It is not a visible revolution, but an invisible fellowship of artists, writers, bloggers, academics, servants, and worshippers.

Chris Armstrong is one of these secret seekers. His Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians (2016)—much like his Patron Saints for Postmoderns (2009)—tries to give a resource to root contemporary seekers into the rich soils of the past. As the subtitle suggests, Armstrong uses C.S. Lewis as a primary link to medieval faith and practice.

Armstrong patron saints for postmodernsIn the first chapter, Armstrong offers a critique of what he calls a culture of “Immediatism”—a spiritual habit in contemporary evangelicalism that leaves it culturally irrelevant and spiritually anemic. His second chapter will be of great interest to many readers. In “C.S. Lewis—A Medieval Modern Man,” Armstrong shows how Lewis acts as a bridge for us to the very strange land of the middle ages. Lewis remains a guide to that land throughout the rest of the book.

After a defense of tradition as a source of meaning and truth, Armstrong takes a chapter each to discuss Christian thought, morality, acts of service, the human connection to the natural world, the development of heart-felt faith, and the importance of humanness. In each of these chapters Armstrong surveys medieval figures in conversation with biblical texts and modern thinkers. Using C.S. Lewis as that primary contact point, Armstrong uses the medieval habits that we have regretfully lost to touch on points of weakness in the church and world today.

Chris Armstrong finishes with a call to a new kind of monasticism meant to resist twin challenges: on one side, a world adrift in its own cultural myth; on the other side, a church corrupted by the subtle prejudices of the rootless culture. I don’t know who will answer this call, and whether we can integrate the best of monastic life in our urban-embedded lives, but I found this one of the more inspiring chapters. I gained the most from the chapter, “God’s Second Book—The Natural World,” but was pleased that throughout I was being educated in a way that I know mostly second hand.

Chris Armstrong,For me, the particular strength of Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians is how we are drawn back to the middle ages—a period foreign to most of us. Working as a professional historian and Christian leader, and using C.S. Lewis as a guide, this book is filled with meaningful ways to deepen life in church, family, and neighbourhood today.

Who is this book for?

  1. Readers of C.S. Lewis who would like to go deeper into his world. This book can be a warm up to Robert Boenig’s S. Lewis and the Middle Ages (2012) or Lewis’ own The Discarded Image (1964).
  2. Students of C.S. Lewis at the beginning of a survey of secondary literature. Following the footnotes will allow you to capture some of that conversation (see the Conversational Group Clusters below).
  3. Evangelical and charismatic Christians looking to root their faith in richer soil. This is really the reason Armstrong wrote the book. A reader in this stream committed to following the trail-markers that Armstrong has left behind can find in it a decade of rich devotional reading, spiritual habits, and acts of service.
  4. Evangelical and charismatic Christians offering a critique of their own community. This is Armstrong himself, and I am in this camp. Leaders, teachers, pastors, journalists, bloggers, and professors can use this text to help form a substantial new posture before their community of faith.
  5. Students of American faith movements struggling to understand the great shifts taking place in those communities. I don’t know if there is a lot of these, but future historians will see this period as a definitive shift in American religious life.
  6. Christians who have always been attracted to art, activism, contemplative practices, and the life of the mind, but have never had a community that supports that kind of expression. There are others like you. You are not alone. The footnotes in this text will help you find the books you will love.

Conversational Group Clusters: Besides historians—the bulk of Armstrong’s dialogue partners—there are certain clusters of people he is reading that you might find helpful in the next stages of your reading.

  1. Christian writers drawing contemporary readers into the past: Phyllis Tickle, Kathleen Norris, Eugene Peterson, Frederick Buechner, Dallas Willard, Bruce Hindmarsh, and Richard Foster
  2. Experts on Evangelical self-critique: James K.A. Smith, Eugene Peterson, Dallas Willard, Christian Smith, Hans Boersma, Mark Noll, and Ron Sider.
  3. The Inklings, Friends, and Influences: J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Dorothy L. Sayers, George MacDonald, and (especially) G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis.
  4. Creative Christians: T.S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dorothy L. Sayers, and the Inklings.
  5. Critical writers on C.S. Lewis: David C. Downing, Michael Ward, Paul F. Ford, Andy Barkman, Marsha Daigle-Williamson, and Will Vaus.

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Introducing The Mythgard Academy

mythgardheaderAs an independent scholar, I have the opportunity to work with a number of great schools. One of them is Signum University. SignumU is an established online university offering an MA in literature to a growing global community of adult learners. Using technological ingenuity and cutting edge pedagogy, Signum provides high-quality graduate-level education based on core values.

Readers of A Pilgrim in Narnia would love their concentrations: Germanic Philology, Mythological and Classical Literature, Imaginative Literature (including Fantasy and Science Fiction), and Tolkien Studies. In a teaching team model, I either work as a lecturer or as a small group instructor (Preceptor). I have been brought in (I think) as a C.S. Lewis expert and cultural theologian, and join a diverse world-class team.

maxresdefaultSignumU began with Corey Olsen, who began a podcast as @TolkienProf that became incredibly popular. Seeing a hunger for high-level conversations about J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, classical and mythopoeic literature, Corey began the Mythgard Institute, “an experiment in online education.” Mythgard Institute was built to encourage thought about imaginative and speculative literature of all sorts, a space where lovers of literature that doesn’t always fit in the mainstream can explore the deep resonances of those texts and those worlds. The Mythgard Academy developed as a way to offer free education on specifically the imaginative literature genres (SF, fantasy, mythological works, etc.) as part of the larger mission to make world-class education available to the public.

signumlogo-1000x1000-greyAs a result, the Mythgard Academy is one of the few places where you can take an entire graduate-level, full-length course for free on:

This incredible list of free fantastic resources is augmented by 9 courses on Tolkien’s work, including The Lord of the Rings. Right now you can jump into the middle of an 8-week course on Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic, The Dispossessed (sign up here). All of these open online course are added to a huge slate of credit and audit courses available at Signum.

secret_viceI would encourage you to check it out. There is a lot of great material there, and some of you may find that it is time to consider doing at MA. Or, perhaps, you want to help in the goals of Mythgard and SignumU by donating time or money.

Either way, Mythgard is in one of its annual fall fundraisers. These are huge, raucous events, which include video game challenges I don’t understand, thesis chats, rogue commentaries on books that nerds love, free lectures and the day-long “Webathon” coming at the end of October (check out the schedule here). I’m very excited about the Webathon, as well as a 3-part special “Secret Vice Seminar” hosted by Dr. Dimintra Fimi and Dr. Andrew Higgins.

Make sure you check out Mythgard and all the great things they offer. Below are some of the details about the program scooped from the website. Hope to see you at the Webathon!


Mythgard Academy is an innovative program through which we aim to make in-depth, scholarly discussion of people’s favorite works of fantasy and science fiction literature free and open to everyone.  The Mythgard Academy features live discussions with Mythgard Institute faculty to which all are invited, free of charge.  Recordings of our sessions are freely available, and we let our supporters decide what books we read.


To take part in our free discussions, please use the Academy tab of our navigation menu at the top of this page. There you will find links to:

  • Information about how our live discussion interface operates
  • Our current discussion series with live session registration and schedules
  • Past discussions with downloadable and streaming audio and video

Mythgard Academy is funded through donations made to Signum University, the parent organization of the Mythgard Institute. Our annual campaign takes place in the fall each year – usually starting on or near Hobbit Day (Sept. 22). However, you can help fund programs like Mythgard Academy at any time!

Take advantage of great opportunities to crowdfund the future of education – and learn what you love – by contributing towards our goal. Those who donate at least $25 throughout the year can help vote on the Mythgard Academy courses, and those who donate $100 or more will become a part of the Council of the Wise that makes the initial nominations!


In order to make Mythgard Academy classes numerous, diverse, and free to everyone, we need your support! Organizing, delivering, hosting, and downloading our discussions takes a lot of resources and a dedicated team of people

We want Mythgard Academy discussions to be something that we can offer consistently for many years to come. To make this a reality, we have set up our own fund raising campaign with multiple tiers of options so that you can choose the level of involvement that’s right for you.

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Canadian Thanksgiving; a Sonnet for my Canadian Friends

A Thanksgiving Sonnet by poet and Christian thinker Malcolm Guite on Canadian Thanksgiving Day!

Malcolm Guite

The true North Strong and Free (on the Victoria Ferry!) The True North Strong and Free (on the Victoria Ferry!)

As this Monday 10th October is Thanksgiving Day in Canada I am posting here a sonnet for Thanksgiving which I have written for all  my North American friends. But today I am particularly grateful for the hospitality I recieved  from Steve Bell, and the good people at St. Bendict’s Table and St. Benedict’s Monastery, and from David Jennings

There is no feast of Thanksgiving in either the British national or church calendars, but it seems to me a good thing for any nation to set aside a day for the gratitude which is in truth the root of every other virtue. So here is an Englishman’s act of thanksgiving. as always you can hear the poem by clicking on the play button if it appears or on the title.

This sonnet comes from my sequence Sounding the Seasons

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Giving Thanks

Happy Thanksgiving to all Canadians. Author L.A. Smith has a nice little blog that puts Thanksgiving in Canadian and European context that I hope you enjoy. We in Canada are celebrating this weekend because, frankly, if we waited until late November there would be nothing of the harvest left to eat! We are having beautiful weather here in PEI but I’ve had to protect tomatoes from frost three times already!
The ovens are hot across the country and we are settling down to feast today or tomorrow. See you next on Tuesday!

the traveller's path

Here in Canada we are celebrating Thanksgiving this weekend. We don’t have the stories of the Pilgrims and the Mayflower, but we do have a wonderful tradition of giving thanks in this country as well. I didn’t know much about the history of our Thanksgiving, but in a quick search on the web I found these fascinating details:

  • Some historians say that the first North American Thanksgiving was held in 1578 as explorer Martin Frobisher, who with a fleet of ships was searching for the Northwest Passage, gave thanks and celebrated Communion after a particularly harrowing voyage from Frobisher Bay on Baffin Island and back again.
  • French settlers who crossed the ocean with Samuel de Champlain and arrived safely in Canada with him in 1604, celebrated with a feast of Thanksgiving. They formed the Order of Good Cheer (don’t you love that name?) and held weekly feasts, during which they shared food…

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Why I am not Anglican: A Response to Rachel Held Evans

old celtic cross mossWhy should I be, after all? Of all the many branches—or scattered splinters—of Christianity, why should I address this particular and peculiar English Episcopalian one?

Some already assume that I am Anglican, simply because I am engaged in the project of C.S. Lewis’ spiritual perspective. A great number of readers of this C.S. Lewis & Friends blog are Anglican. There are perhaps advantages to those that can share Lewis’ pew-perspective, but I did not come to Lewis because we shared the same altar. Far from it. Lewis has that peculiar ability to say out loud some of the things that I have been thinking inside. But we don’t share the same approach to faith.

Anglicanism does factor into my family tree. My grandmother was Anglican. It is a kind of family secret, actually. Not a secret that she was born Anglican: in Prince Edward Island, one’s religious roots are a matter of public record. If you visit here, someone older might ask your last name, and you can see they are doing some mental ancestral arithmetic. Born Anglican, my grandmother married someone from the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement—the churches of Christ/Christian churches—a tradition that I have inherited. We are adult-baptism folk, and they are fiercely committed to that point. We put Baptists to shame, really, despite the name. My grandmother used to criticize the changes that we made to church life. “It’s only proper,” she would say, “that a person comes forward one Sunday, gets baptized the second, and gets their Bible the third.” A free Bible was part of the master plan of evangelism, it seems.

As my grandfather was dying, a thought struck me. I had been through all the church records, and wrote a sort of amateur history of the local church when I was in college. I had never seen my grandmother’s baptism recorded anywhere. As my grandfather was a church Elder for many decades, it would be highly irregular for him to have a non-baptized partner. So, when he was in the hospital dying in his quiet and firm way he always had, I asked him:

New Glasgow Christian Church“Did Grammie every get baptized?”

“By immersion?” he asked.

“Dunked,” I answered.

“Not that I recall,” he said. “But you never know.”

My grandmother, then, staunch traditionalist of the dunk-tank way, had never converted to the tradition.

My cousin, Dawn of the “Flags of Dawn” blog, is an Anglican priest. We met at a Larry Norman concert, and then at a national theological conference. This was quite a surprise, because it is always unlikely fact that there will be two Dickiesons in a room who so misunderstood social norms that they think a life of ministry worth pursuing. Some years later my family was able to worship at her church in my mother’s hometown. We still have a picture of my son, dressed as a biblical shepherd in the garb of a Saudi oil baron, participating in the most impromptu nativity play I have ever seen. Confederates in the challenges of ministry and the struggle of living Christian faith in this strange world, we still talk on until hours disappear. Dawn makes me want to be an Anglican, though she has never once tried to draw me in—at least as far as I can tell.

There is also my years working with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, where Anglicans/Episcopalians are stable features in a dynamic group that tries to hold a diverse and rapidly changing community together. IVCF was a vibrant period for me, a community that excelled at Mere Christianity in action. At Regent College and Vancouver School of Theology the Anglican ministry candidates impressed me. My PhD program is at a Church of England school, a 19th century seminary in a cathedral city that is now a university of the future bursting at the seams. I have recently spent a month in the U.K., visiting churches and attending cathedral services. And there are my friends, scattered across the world, who after years or decades of Fundamentalism, Evangelicalism, and Pentecostalism are finding their way into Anglican, Episcopalian, Catholic, and Orthodox traditions. The liturgy calls many to Anglicanism; the strength of history others; the elastic orthodoxy to still more.

All these features—and especially the latter—draw me in. Still, I am not Anglican.

And still I keep wondering why.

searching-for-sunday-rachel-held-evansNot long ago I read Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans. The very first thing I read about this book, released last year, was that it was Held Evans’ story of how she left evangelicalism. Although I did not know her personally, and had never read any of her books or followed her blog, I could immediately guess why she might leave. I was certain that she was frustrated with particular aspects of American evangelicalism, particularly its stance on women in family and ministry, its anti-science posture, its investment in commercialism, and the blood it has shed in the culture wars. Rachel Held Evans is the snapshot of a frustrated older Millennial/younger Gen-Xer. Her story is in very many ways my story.

As I found the courage to begin the book (at the urging of digital friend Jennifer Neyhart), I was pleased that Held Evans’ was more than just my story. Far from it.

Truly, I have never been a woman growing up in a fundamentalist family in the deep American South who lacked the theological conversation partners to work through her faith questions. I doubt I ever will be. In fact, I had almost no spiritual upbringing. My church experience growing up was severe nuns in shades of grey, moralistic teachers, and hundreds of farm-folk crammed into an over-heated church for mumbled Christmas recitations and misfiring hymns. Church was that thing that happened to other people that I had to do from time to time. Christianity smelled to me of manure on rubber boots and wood-stain, not the great incense-filled cathedrals of so many. Even my childhood polemic against the church, really just the distaste of my parents, was half-hearted. I was a very poor atheist, longing for a God I knew didn’t exist and fearing a god I was told by others would punish my sins.

rachel-held-evansMy faith came in young adulthood. I landed in a conservative evangelical church, like Rachel Held Evans describes. There was a critical difference, though: my first church was one that encouraged my questions. Occasionally shocked and more than a little dismayed, they nurtured my faith and gave space to my doubt. As a newly drenched believer, still mostly heathen, habitually atheistic, dangerously drawn to the arts, and perhaps one part pagan, I was probably the recipient of more prayers and the beneficiary of more mentoring moments than any other Canadian youth in the mid 1990s. Yes, they bemoaned evolution and were invested in male leadership patterns; these church walls cheated to the right. The music was poor and the preaching was loud and there may even have been a plastic bobble-head Jesus on a dashboard or two in the parking lot. In all likelihood I owned, at one time or another, a DC Talk t-shirt. But it was a place of growth and challenge and, occasionally, a place of beauty.

Rachel Held Evans’ journey of struggle and doubt does lead her out of her childhood Christian movement and ultimately into an Episcopal Church. For Held Evans, the discovery of the majesty of liturgy and its rejection of Mall-of-America-Christianity, combined with a space for women in leadership and a reasonable approach to sexual, political, and scientific questions, meant that Anglicanism would be a good landing space. At least for the moment. Her story, as is true of most of our stories, is still being written.

cd-talk-jesus-freakSearching for Sunday is a beautifully written book. It is moving in parts, and often uncomfortable. It lacks an architectural structure that could bear much more weight, and yet the deftness with which she treats her story makes it essential for so many who need to hear it. While she could easily reject so much, throwing out baby, bathwater, and tub, Held Evans holds on, even tenuously, to the evangelical community. I was drawn into her great doubts and struggles. Yet I was not left with the kind of cynicism that Gen Xers tried to pass on to me. Rachel Held Evans critiques the baseline of cynicism, drawing her criticism back toward her own limitations and ideas. In the end, I am left with stronger faith, and new energy to engage with my spiritual community.

A spiritual community that is not Anglican, but still has within its diverse and elastic right-leaning walls all the things that frustrate Held Evans. And me.

I am especially frustrated with my (non)denomination’s approach to gender. I am an ordained minister and have been a church elder, but I will not return to leadership in a male-leaders-only church. I am also concerned that my denomination has sold out not to the image of Christ on the cross, but to the “pattern of this world”: marketing campaigns, political movements, self-help books, and charismatic male leaders on a bright stage leveraging a radically disengaged flock in a quickly shifting spiritual landscape. Most of all I’m concerned with a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps spirituality that has overtaken much of evangelicalism. Can’t get your life together? Just try harder.

It pains me—and not me alone, I think, not least because my heart wants to give it to it.

So why not leave? Why not join a movement that combines the rootedness of Scripture with the trunks of history and the lifeblood of reason? Why not become part of a denomination that gives space for what I believe is biblical Christianity? Rachel Held Evans is just one of a great number of people my age that have made this very move. Why not go to the Anglican church down the road.

It isn’t just because I’m scent-sensitive and the incense does weird things to my head. Liturgical churches do make my eyes water and my nose itch—in ways that are less spiritual than you would like. I like the bells better than the smells. But I would make the sacrifice if I thought I should.

Even then, though, I don’t prefer the bells either. I’m sure that the great majesty of the Christian liturgy draws people into the magnanimity of God’s presence. My bad eyes don’t help. I can’t read the liturgy most of the time. But it is more than that. I love the great big worship world of evangelicalism globally. I like the acoustic guitars and full bands and drums and repetitive choruses. This strange mix of adult contemporary and Coldplay-era Brit rock, typically played with much gusto and not quite enough skill, is actually a musical space that allows me to move to that interior castle. It isn’t entertainment for me: it is an invitation for my body and voice and heart to move together. I take my glasses off in worship, setting aside my questions to live in the presence.

christ_church_cathedral_oxfordI have gotten liturgical chills before, at Christ Cathedral in Oxford, or as the boys sang in the C.S. Lewis’ Magdalen chapel. Even then, I preferred the charismatic worship across the street at St. Aldates, where they sang Jesus-is-my-girlfriend worship songs and a young woman prophesied for half an hour. It isn’t just because I almost knocked down the modesty rail at the Cathedral, which would have certainly cracked the funereal stones that have lain intact for centuries beneath the feet of worshippers. In that St. Aldates evangelical-charismatic community on that muggy Sunday evening, in a room with dozens of denominations and nations gathered together—there is where I find the space to make worship not about me. I would make the sacrifice to move into liturgy, but I would still sneak across the street from time to time.

And I wonder about my son. Where do I want Nicolas to grow up? Right now he is in a community that loves him, that challenges him, that gives space for him to serve and ask impossible questions. Why would I change that?

So I have quite a complex answer to why I am not an Anglican—an answer that no one has required except myself. My theological perspective and reading of Scripture sit within the overlap space of the Venn diagram between the Anglican communion and my own. There is a lot of space in that intersection of two sets, even if the communities look so radically different. I am a little hesitant that the Anglican communion does not consider my ordination valid, but I can set that aside and choose another path. In a crass cost-benefit chart I would gain more than I lose in my work as a Christian theologian with the Church of England as my home base.

greek bibleMore than my comfort or my preferences or my fear of doing something stupid in the liturgy, more than my desire to have my son grow up in a community that I think is more consistent in reading Scripture in the world today, more than a yearning for a deeper biblical theological conversation—more than any of these is my sense of calling. I feel called to engage with a community that has taught me so much. Perhaps I am wrong about our areas of disagreement, and they can draw me into greater authenticity and truth. Or maybe I can help our community navigate the choppy waters of culture today.

Either way, I am called to engage.

You will still likely see me sneaking over to the Anglican church across the street from time to time. And I am studying Anglicanism, continually, always. But I will remain a part of this frustrating, problematic, flawed, and beautiful global communion that gave birth to my faith and gave me space to question everything—even when it made them afraid. This Sunday I will raise a shot glass of Welch’s grape juice to my Anglican sisters and brothers out in that big, wide world. Perhaps I will also dig out that old DC Talk t-shirt and see if it fits, even if I’m not doing a denominational Nu Thang.

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