Why I Don’t Write Bad Book Reviews

Though I do not review every book that I read, I do like to highlight a few. In particular, I like to draw attention to books that readers of A Pilgrim in Narnia—in particular, students of C.S. Lewis and the Inklings—may not know but are worth their while. I especially like to highlight indie and small-firm books when they overlap with my core conversations (the intersections of faith, culture, and fantasy). My reading of weightier work I might treat with literary criticism—as I have with Jane Austen, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Ursula K. Le Guin, Stephen King, and C.S. Lewis—or I might let it slide. Of the writing of book reviews there is no end, after all.

Now that I’ve brought it up, long-term readers may notice that I haven’t done a review of a book that was not worth reading. I’ve tried to note disagreements or weaknesses in each substantial review—and may have been a bit heavy-handed in earlier work—but I only treated with material that was worth your time and mine.

There are other limitations to my reviews. Thinking back, it is interesting that I haven’t reviewed most of the most important materials in Fantasy or Inklings Studies. Others will do that, and I don’t feel the need retread someone else’s tires. I am also very focussed now in my reading: I have a thesis to write, and a very specific schedule for the next two years. I say “no” to most publishers who contact me for a review. I simply cannot change my schedule, and will not accept a review that I can’t do an excellent job on.

Part of it is pickiness in my own work, and part of this is my own agenda. I want my reviews:

  1. To be so well written that authors would include a snippet on a website or book cover;
  2. To challenge readers to consider adding the book to their queue;
  3. To enhance my reputation as a reliable voice on books (i.e., don’t break the blogger-reader covenant);
  4. To honestly treat the material, including weak points; and
  5. To make the author’s day.

That’s my agenda, and it is clear that poor reviews don’t fit well with some of those points. My reasoning for not reviewing poor books is a little deeper. Here’s why I don’t tend to write bad book reviews.

I Don’t Have Time to Spend Reading Bad Books

Early on in my C.S. Lewis scholarship days, I asked a senior scholar that I trusted what to do with weak books. Honestly, books about C.S. Lewis are quite often weak, and sometimes atrociously redundant and uncreative. There was a flurry of book publishing right around the time that The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe landed on film. If I didn’t respect books so much, I would use some of the cute Lewis-devotional material of the period to stabilize old coffee shop tables downtown.

My academic mentor challenged me quickly on this point. “Why would you bother?” he said. Then, pressing the point, he asked me: “Why bother even reading bad books? Are you short of reading material?” I am not short of things to read, and so I now no longer spend time reading bad books unless I have to.

I Don’t Want to Advertise Poor Work

Not all press is good press, but there is a certain truth to the “legitimation” that happens in negative critiques. I don’t engage with trolls because it feeds them; likewise, I don’t review bad books because it highlights the work. Though it isn’t true that the drudge will settle to the bottom and good taste win out—the 50 Shades, Left Behind, and new atheist phenomena are proof of this—the act of reviewing states to the world that I think this is, at least, a real book. I don’t want to do that and I don’t want to waste readers’ time.

The Making of Enemies is Tiresome

Isn’t it? Maybe not for you, or Sherlock, but when I am involved in a controversy, I get this pit in my stomach and I feel my body worrying. Who wants enemies in a world as isolating as ours?

More than that, the scholarship communities of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and theology and literature are both small and supportive. Lewis Studies is almost too supportive, so that when an idea comes up that needs to be debated—like Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia thesis, the Lindskoog Affair, or the work of outsiders like A.N. Wilson or John Beversluis—the air in the room can get a bit weak. The Lewis Studies community needs critical scholars but does not have much capacity for negativity for the sake of negativity. I will give that scholarly critique, but I need the support of scholars I disagree with in this small academic world. I can’t afford to make enemies, though I am open to some Archenemies. Inquire within.

It is a Negative Age

Besides, are we below quota on negativity? Hardly. American and British culture is drowning itself in divisiveness, drinking in the draughts of extremism like a thug steeling himself for a barfight. I wrote this before someone stole young life in Manchester or the President went out to fix the Middle East. These are the flashpoints of a culture of negativity that begin at my keyboard and yours. Why would I contribute to that?

I am not naturally an optimist and am a very dim dreamer. In the digital spaces I occupy, though, I have chosen the path of intellectual generosity. This is one of the most endearing features of my late-millennial students—that, combined with a curiously unfounded hope. I would like those features to be part of my scholarly work and my writing. I am a realist: things are bad in many ways. But there is brightness and beauty and originality, and I would like to highlight those points when I can and in my own little way.

Authors are Humans (at least, for now)

Until the robot apocalypse becomes fully realized, most of what we read will be written by humans. There are doubtless fraudsters and intellectual floozies, hopping on the trends of the day and churning out books because they will sell. Most writers, though, are not like that. They pour heart and soul into a book, spending months working pennies on the dollar to get their material (or their name) into print.

This is true even of authors whose work is crud and whose ideas are bosh. I remember reading an interview with Stephanie Meyers, the person responsible for Twilight. I actually read this book as I tried to understand what the young women I taught were reading. I was bored, and, honestly, I thought Meyers was too. Yet, she showed great vulnerability in this interview, showing me a dimension of humanity I had not seen. She was doing her best and I don’t have much need to speak into that part of her life.

I have warned readers of a poor product or an unfounded thesis or a very poor audiobook reader. Mostly, though, I keep my critiques to academic publications (which hardly anyone reads!).

I Might Be Wrong

Well, there’s that, isn’t there? I have been wrong, before. Ask my wife. Or my kid. Or my students. Or … you get the idea.

Part of this might be a matter of taste. I read Michael Phillips’ The Garden at the Edge of Beyond. That was a painful read for me, and I only finished it because C.S. Lewis and George MacDonald are main characters, and we owe Phillips a deep debt of gratitude for his work in getting MacDonald into the public’s hands. I did not like this floral American rewriting of The Great Divorce.

But I might be wrong about the book’s essential qualities. My antipathy to allegory and American Christian pop fiction may simply have overwhelmed my critical mind. Given the positive ratings on Goodreads, that might be the case. And I might be wrong about this academic thesis or that historical argument or those theological ideas. I have an academic world to work out those critiques; I don’t need to use blogging as a platform for my own ignorance or narrow-mindedness.

These are the reasons why I don’t do bad book reviews. Now I’d like to hear from you. What do you think of this approach? Am I pulling punches too much? Am I missing critical opportunities? Are reviews of bad books just better to read? Let me know your thoughts here in the comments, on Twitter (@BrentonDana), or on Facebook.

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

John Lawlor on C.S. Lewis’ “The Allegory of Love”

The Allegory of Love … is a work which has all the authority of a mind of the highest quality marking out clear paths in a complex and absorbing mass of material. As such it effortlessly joins company with that very small class of books for which a future can be confidently predicted. They are those works which handle a large subject—large not in range, merely, but in significance to the human spirit—with a pioneer’s skill, marking out new country and leaving an indelible impression for all subsequent settlement of the area. They can be wrongheaded in approach or mistaken in detail; but they must not be so much accounts of literature in the past as themselves instances of literature in being.

When Anatole France spoke of literary criticism as recording the adventures of the soul among masterpieces he doubtless had something of the sort in mind. Alas! from the ordinary output of criticism we can only conclude that there are some very dull souls about. Yet there is a rare category of works of criticism that justifies the aphorism. One thinks of Bradley’s Shakespearian Tragedy, Ker’s Epic and Romance, John Livingston Lowe’s Road to Xanadu, to name no others. Each is a book which not only shows great powers of penetration and organizing skill; each succeeds in communicating the activity of a mind of the highest quality entirely intent on the material before it, to which it is giving new and distinctive shape. Let us describe these books in one word: they are in the highest degree readable.

Lewis’s The Allegory of Love surely belongs in any such classification. There is a luminous intelligence of the first order at work—an angel who writes as only Lewis could, humorously, graphically, and with an exalted seriousness. To be sure, there are things to be disputed, in Lewis’s book as in all the others of its distinguished class. Lewis was the first to point them out…. But, as with the other works I have listed, here is a book, obedient to the first rule of writing—that on every page it asks to be read. How many extended works of literary criticism are truly unputdownable? It is the severest test; and The Allegory of Love triumphantly survives it.


From John Lawlor, C.S. Lewis: Memories and Reflections (1998). Prof. Lawlor was an undergraduate student of Lewis’ and a graduate student of J.R.R. Tolkien. This review was written near the end of his life, on the 100th anniversary of C.S. Lewis’ birth. It begins a section that describes the strengths of The Allegory of Love in detail, and puts it in the context of Lewis as a scholar who was writer worth reading. You can see my full review here. The italics in the text are original, but I added the bold highlighting and changed the paragraphing a little.

Posted in Reflections | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Fund King Arthur’s Return!

I’m pleased to be a part of the team that created this innovative book, The Inklings and King Arthur, edited by the intrepid Sørina Higgins. Most people wouldn’t know that academic books are a labour of love. They don’t make any money for the authors, and not a tremendous amount for the publishers (who rely on superstar academics and textbook sales to support the important works that only sell a handful of copies). When we do archival and recent history and literature, there can be additional costs. Here is your chance now to contribute in a small way to this important work on how the Arthurian tales were taken up and reused in J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and their friends.

The Oddest Inkling

Charles_Ernest_Butler_-_King_ArthurDear readers of The Oddest Inkling:

As you know, in 2013, a previously-unpublished work by J.R.R. Tolkien appeared: The Fall of Arthur, his only explicitly Arthurian writing.  The publication of this extraordinary poem revealed subtle connections between “The Matter of Britain” and the rest of JRRT’s legendarium, and thus invited an examination of the theological, literary, historical, and linguistic implications of the Arthurian writings of all the major Inklings: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield. It became immediately obvious that a scholarly study of these works was necessary.

The book I have been editing for four years, The Inklings and King Arthur, fills that gap. It is an edited essay collection that examines the Arthurian works of Tolkien, Lewis, Williams, Barfield, their predecessors, and their contemporaries. It offers exciting, rigorous analytical perspectives on a wide range of the Inklings’ Arthurian and related works, contributing…

View original post 472 more words

Posted in Reflections | Leave a comment

On Reading Calvin’s Institutes as a Non-Calvinist

As I come from a non-Calvinist tradition I have never read the foundation of the Reformed tradition, Institutio Christianae Religionis, or Calvin’s Institutes. My theological training was biblical studies, history, and literature, so I never spent much time in Calvin beyond his commentaries. As I am halfway through a PhD in theology, I thought it was time to read one of the most influential thinkers of the West, and one of the seminal minds behind the American religious scene today.

One of my teachers, J.I. Packer, used to chide students into getting over their prejudice of these old, foundational books. C.S. Lewis calls us to read old books in order to have an informed conversation with culture that won’t be in danger of getting lost in today. Actually, when it comes to John Calvin, Lewis pressed the point further: “And tho’ I’m no Calvinist I wish people who write about Calvin wd. read the Institutio first” (Letter to Dorothy L. Sayers, July 4th, 1957). So, thinking of Tyndale and my teachers, I put my hand to the plough.

John Calvin, a French lawyer, was one of the earliest of the great theologians to break from Roman Catholicism (in 1530, 13 years after Luther’s 95 Theses). He wrote many commentaries, sermons, and letters, but his magnum opus was the Institutes. He spent 25 years writing this book, beginning as a pamphlet in outline and finishing as a complete Protestant primer by 1559 (in Latin; 1560 in French). At the time, Latin was the lingua franca of Europe, used for trade, scholarship, and religious debate. Though Calvin’s French version was as foundational to the development of Modern French as the King James Bible was to English or Luther’s Bible was to German, and though it is still quite readable in the 21st century to a basic French reader like me, I chose to read an English translation of the Latin by Henry Beveridge (1845)—mostly because I had a copy and was too cheap to buy a new one.

Here are the more surprising lessons I learned as a non-Calvinist reading this great (in most senses of the word) book of theology.

Calvin is really offering a third way.

Some critical thinking could have led me to guess this was the truth, but I think I had reduced Calvin to an anti-Catholic writer in my head. Calvin was trying, though, to chart a complex centre line through the controversies of the first generation of Protestants. In many issues, there are “two classes of opponents to be guarded against…” (IV.14)—here speaking of those who undervalue the sacraments and those who attribute too much to the sacraments. Calvin’s reformation is against Catholicism, but he is also trying to avoid what he sees as excesses among Anabaptists, Millenarians, Unitarians like Servetus, and radical folks like Thomas Müntzer and Andreas Karlstadt. While the Intistutes might seem to us super strict, they were partly written to reduce unnecessary rigour and what Calvin saw as overly selective readings of Scripture.

Calvin was attempting an Augustinian recovery.

Often, Calvin will list his argumentative pattern like this: This proof is confirmed by examples and passages of Scripture, by reason, and by the authority of Augustine. While Calvin is less interested in a balanced “three-legged stool” of Scripture, tradition, and reason—as, say, Anglicans are—he calls upon Augustine and the fathers of church tradition on nearly every page. Calvin’s admiration of Augustine is no secret, and part of his restoration is to point out that with critical exceptions, Augustine’s reading of Scripture and theology is both a true and helpful critique of the Western church.

Some of this might be a rhetorical tool, using the greatest Catholic theologian against Catholics. But Calvin did not use all those rhetorical tools. Despite writing what looks to me like a scholastic book in the spirit of Aquinas, Ockham, and Duns Scotus, Calvin speaks often of the “errors of the Schoolmen.” Augustine was particularly important to Calvin, and one of the reasons that all kinds of evangelical thinkers are returning today to Augustine is because Calvin has opened that door so widely. I don’t think there can be anything more precise than this:

“Augustine … we quote more frequently, as being the best and most faithful witness of all antiquity…” (IV.14).

Calvin isn’t as antisemetic as some other reformers, but he has little understanding of the Jewish context of the 1st century Christian emergence.

One of my great disappointments in writing a thesis on antisemitism was deep-seated prejudices against Jewish people in the context of the period and in the reformers’ writings. Luther himself gives a pretty good outline of how to perpetrate ethnic cleansing against Jewish people, and the perpetrators of the Holocaust had good support from Luther in building the antisemetic attitudes of Germans. While the Holocaust was not a Christian event—Hitler drew on popular science, Nietzsche, folk tales, Norse mythology, pagan intimations, and ideas of the Christian west—European Christians have a great deal of blood on their hands for the fate of the Jews.

Calvin, though, is not especially responsible for this blood-guilt. There are some tiresome stereotypes and clichés in Calvin, such as the Catholic/Jewish legalistic parallel, and the idea of Jewish corruption at the time of Christ. Despite this, Calvin affirms again and again that the Hebrew covenant was based upon God’s grace.

Moreover, most of the truly vociferous ideas about Jews are absent in Calvin. And while he does so ignorantly, Calvin makes generous connections between the church and synagogue that would have made some reformers and 19th century liberal theologians uncomfortable. Unfortunately, though, Calvin never took the time to understand the world of Second Temple Judaism, and so understand exegesis within the emergence of Christianity from Judaism.

If you read his other works, you will see that he did not have a very high view of Jews of his world. In the classic text of the Institutes, however, he chose not to seal in that experience to the degree that others of his day did.

Calvin was a better lawyer than pastor, and a better polemicist than anything.

Calvin was a great polemicist, and his writings are a significant foundation of slam poetry of later ages. Perhaps his best drop-the-mic moment is at the end of his chapter on civil government (IV.20), where he ends this way: “I have, in some measure, deprived these asses of their lion’s skin.”

Bam! Calvin was great at this, equating those who disagree with the minions of Satan and the doctrines of sacrament different than his as “made void by the infidelity or malice of men” by those who “ignorantly and erroneously … cast forth the body of Christ to be eaten by dogs” (IV.17).

Not a terribly subtle fellow. At least he makes these insults in high fashion: “in the present day so many dogs tear this doctrine with envenomed teeth, or, at least, assail it with their bark” (I.17). That is some fine use of imagery right there.

Being a great polemicist does not make Calvin a great pastor. Providence and predestination are pastoral doctrines, but the way that Calvin wields the swords of pen, church discipline, and statecraft serve to sever rather than repair the bond of Christ. As he admits himself, complexities can be “a Gordian knot, which it is better to cut than to lose so much labour in untying” (IV.19). One of Calvin’s great mistakes, I think, is that of human psychology. The way he treats his opponents—and here I mean more than fine words, but his comfort with capital punishment against ideas—shows the need for redemption in his pastoral theology.

Polemicists play an important role in working out straight thinking across time and space, but it is up to Calvinist pastors today to reshape their pulpit ministry as a partial critique of Calvin.

Against every possible evidence to the contrary, Calvin thought the Institutes was a brief book.

This is a thick book. My copy is a thin 944 pages of smallish type, but Goodreads editions run up to 1822 pages and usually in 2 or 4 volumes. Besides a number of prefaces and a postlude of 100 aphorisms, there are 84 chapters divided into four books. In English, there are about 700,000 words—longer even than any Stephen King book or The Lord of the Rings (with Silmarillion and The Hobbit). To read this book in 3 months—a chapter a day—it would require on average an hour a day. However, some of the chapters are much longer: II.8, III.2, III.4, and IV.17 are all 2-3 hour reads. Calvin’s chapter on prayer—which is, incidentally, my favourite non-controversial chapter and a good treatise on the topic—took me well over three hours.

Yet, Calvin apologized a number of times for being too brief, culminating around the 350,000th with the audacious claim that he has a “natural love of brevity”–and, even more–“perhaps, any attempt of mine at copiousness would not succeed” (III.6).

No, Calvin, you would not be successful in trying to write a long, detailed, complete treatise.

Calvin was funny, but not very often.

It took until the last lines of the super long chapter of III.4 before I had any evidence that Calvin had a sense of humour. The chapter is cleverly titled, “PENITENCE, AS EXPLAINED IN THE SOPHISTICAL JARGON OF THE SCHOOLMEN, WIDELY DIFFERENT FROM THE PURITY REQUIRED BY THE GOSPEL. OF CONFESSION AND SATISFACTION.” In this chapter (which is as long as some books), he takes a pretty critical dig at a Pseudo-Augustinian work which some were passing off as authentic and building doctrine upon this “book absurdly compiled by some rhapsodist, alike from good and bad authors.” Then he says,

“Wishing to save my readers trouble, they will pardon me for not searching minutely into all their absurdities. For myself it were not very laborious, and might gain some applause, to give a complete exposure of dogmas which have hitherto been vaunted as mysteries; but as my object is to give useful instruction, I desist.”

After 545 pages that struck me as funny. Not very funny, though. Really the funniest parts are the insults throughout and his own sense that he was being brief (see above).

I still like Calvin better than Calvinism.

There is quite a debate about “Calvin vs. Calvinism,” and I must admit that a lot of my reaction against Calvinism was due to his earliest followers and some recent public Calvinists. The idea of TULIP, though, is there in the Institutes—though not in a clever, memorable form. Calvin was, for the most part, a Calvinist.

And, yet, I still liked reading this book better than reading Charles Hodge, B.B. Warfield, John Piper, and Wayne Grudem. Even then, it was a long dry book, which is probably why I turn to Calvinists like J.I. Packer, Stanley Grenz, Marilynne Robinson, Dallas Willard, and Eugene Peterson more often. Perhaps the really interesting point here is not about Calvin but about me: it looks like I prefer literary, apologetic, communal, and pastoral theologies to systematics. That’s probably true.

I should have bought a modern translation.

I chose to read a cheap public domain edition, but if I ever do so again it will be a more contemporary translation. The standard edition today was edited by John T. McNeil and translated by Ford Lewis Battles—an Oxford student that impressed C.S. Lewis. J.I. Packer summed up the major translations:

“No English translation fully matches Calvin’s Latin [1560[; that of the Elizabethan, Thomas Norton [1561], perhaps gets closest; Beveridge [1845] gives us Calvin’s feistiness but not always his precision; Battles [1960] gives us the precision but not always the punchiness, and fleetness of foot; Allen [1813] is smooth and clear, but low-key.”

I will miss the feistiness of Beveridge, but would like to sit with a pencil in hand and enjoy it next time without thinking about all those obscure -ate verbs we lost long ago in verb form (like arrogate, abominate, irradiate, obviate, vitiate, actuate, inculcate, supplicate, promulgate, propitiate, intimate, abrogate, expiate, execrate, extenuate, expostulate, derogate, vacillate, and, of course, predestinate). And the word concupiscence, which I had to look up.

I agreed more with Calvin than I thought.

I speak of rereading this text—a thought that never entered my skull until the fourth book. My disagreement with Calvinism runs deep, and has to do with hermeneutics, exegesis, a philosophy of time, and a psychology of the human person. I think Calvin is a pretty consistent systematician based on his understanding of how to read the Bible and his ideas about the world. It is there where we disagree, so much of what he says I disagree with.

And yet this reading was valuable. His Augustinian recovery is essential, and he can help evangelicals re-remember sacramental theology. A number of the chapters should be assigned reading in theology programs outside of the four- and five-point Calvinist schools. He is a great thinker with a broad and lively mind.

Moreover, he is lacking almost any subtlety whatsoever. There is nothing cloaked in Calvin. I am not a convert, but I am one who thinks this is an important text to read—even for Catholics and non-Calvinist Protestants. It is also important to recognize that in God’s wisdom Calvin’s work looks little like Scripture itself, and we are called to work in a complex book of diverse voices and ages. Taken critically, Calvin can be one of our guides in this project and I was pleased to submit my mind to his teaching for a little while.

Posted in Reflections | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

My Teaching Philosophy

Last week I was duly chuffed to receive a teaching award. I mentioned my “teaching philosophy” in that post, which piqued some curiosity. I thought I would post my teaching philosophy, developed over my decade or so in the classroom and previous decade of youth ministry. True pedagogues will have their own version, even if they haven’t written it down. While mine is informed by research into the art of teaching, I have largely avoided any of the technical terms that teaching scholars use. If you have articulated your own philosophy of teaching–or if you can share it briefly–let us know in the comments below.

Statement of Teaching Philosophy

The Classroom as Space for Transformational Experience

I believe that University should be an encounter. My postsecondary education had a profound impact on my thinking in every area of my life, even though the curriculum was focused in very specific areas. Because of my own experiences as a student, my classroom teaching, and my work in youth leadership, I have come to see education as creating an environment for transformational experiences. My key pedagogical values have developed out of this belief.

The Classroom Space and Vocation

There is a lot of discussion today about the University’s role in shaping students for their work-life. This is a discussion that I have been a part of in my role as a University teacher, government researcher, and student vocational counsellor. We are in a time of great change as the University is being redefined and the global marketplace continues to evolve.

As much as the world around is in a period of accelerated transition, students themselves are also in a period of vast changes and development—perhaps even changing faster than the world around them. While a University education should excel at discipline-specific and interdisciplinary preparation, I believe that our teaching should meet students in the midst of their life journeys. The older idea of vocatio—a sense of calling—can inform our conversations with students as we create classroom space where they can explore who they are, where they fit in the world, and what roles they want to fulfill in personal, family, work, and community life.

Critical Thinking and Inquiry

I have worked hard to engender good student-teacher relationships. With student experience at the centre of my teaching, I intentionally create an atmosphere of “critical empathy” in the classroom. Students are invited to ask any question, knowing they do so within an ongoing personal conversation with colleagues, with the professor, and with the material. The study of religion and literature is ideal for developing the twin skills of critical thinking and inquiry. We want to give our students the space to learn how to ask the right questions and think through the great problems of human experience.

Multi-Modal Education

If the classroom is about creating a space for personal exploration and teaching skills of critical inquiry, what, then, is the role of the academic as “professor”—as one who imparts knowledge?

As we talk about “flipping the classroom,” there is a battle in the world of pedagogy between philosophies of outcome-based or expectation-driven education and a student-centred approach in the classroom. There is also an emerging tension between the university as a protected space for critical inquiry and the university as a job preparation tool.

I do not believe that these philosophies of education are either universally applicable or diametrically opposed. Different courses and programs will have different outcome requirements and explorative opportunities. Indeed, a multi-modal approach to education adapts ongoing exploration of critical ideas with both the tools/methods available and the intention of shaping students to be workplace engaged. The goal is to create an interactive atmosphere that identifies the skills a student can achieve in the classroom while protecting that space for curiosity, inquiry, and critical thinking.

Indeed, those things are precisely the kinds of identifiable skills that employers require. When we combine the ideas of critical inquiry and learning goals, we can create a student experience that allows learners to define their own roles within the educational encounter. That onus on the student for success is still centred in key conversations of Religious Studies—discussions of history, culture, theology, and ideas that make Religious Studies an exciting and broad discipline.

Therefore, I do not feel like it is my job to merely impart knowledge. I do impart knowledge, and my students sometimes feel overwhelmed by the complexity of religious ideas. But my key job is to impart enthusiasm, to excite the imagination, to awaken dreams, and to help students mine the great depths of the human story. Ideally, then, I do not teach classes; instead, I teach students, allowing them to shape their transformational experience as organically as possible while being true to the curriculum.

Relevant Teaching Methods

Practically speaking, this means augmenting the lecture model with other teaching methods, I also must create within the classroom a culture of openness, where the students are safe to share ideas within the educational environment.

Education should be relevant, not just economically and vocationally, but also personally and culturally. I passionately believe that each coming generation—and the generations seem to shorten with time—is charged with the task of changing the world for the better. This seems like a grand statement, but each cohort of students really does stand on the edge of new worlds. The university is a place that shapes the potential of the generation that is before us.

I aim, then, to use a number of different teaching methods in my work. I am constantly seeking to develop my teaching skills. I demonstrate this by the numerous workshops and seminars I have attended. I also seek to expand students’ experience through a variety of teaching methods, including discussion, debate, journaling, breakout groups, moodle forums, blogging, wikis and glossaries, video and media integration, class readings, fully written lectures, improvised lectures from outlines, Powerpoint presentations and Prezis, dramatic monologues, thought-mapping, question-storming, and team-teaching. I continually seek to develop these methods and hone my skills as a communicator and facilitator of learning. As the ultimate goal is student engagement, I will try most any creative endeavour to draw the students into the material.

Publically Engaged Scholarship

As an emerging scholar, I am excited about the opportunities to integrate the oft-separated academic pillars of research, teaching, and service. Anticipating the metrics for networked participatory scholarship in UPEI’s draft Academic Plan, my scholarship already exists both in academic forums as well as in blogs, editorials, interviews, guest lectures, and podcasts. In continuity with my philosophy of education, I have extended the classroom and the research process into the worlds of social media. I am actively engaged on Twitter and Facebook, rooting the conversation to my popular blog on faith, fantasy, and fiction (www.aPilgrimInNarnia.com).

Posted in Reflections | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Teacher of the Year!

I am feeling very honoured to have received the Hessian Award for Excellence in Teaching at the UPEI banquet last night. It was very moving to be honoured in such a way, before my friends and colleagues and with five other faculty members set apart for outstanding teaching or research.

I have been teaching sessionally (as an adjunct) at the University of Prince Edward Island since January 2006, missing only one academic year. Since that time, I have taught 45 courses at UPEI–very close to a full-time load. I designed the vast majority of those courses, by myself or in a team of great colleagues. UPEI was where I tested my academic mettle, discovering my own mind for integrating life and research into the classroom experience. It was also at UPEI where I first developed my work on C.S. Lewis and the Inklings as I discovered that they gave me tools for a more capacious conversation for discussions of faith, culture, and literature.

Though non-permanent academic staff are not given time for research and service, during the last decade I have also given 14 conference presentation, written 12 academic book reviews, read 3 honours theses, supervised one masters thesis, led four UPEI directed studies, written 645 blog posts, published 7 academic papers with 2 more in process, and taught more than 40 courses at undergraduate and graduate level at great schools like Maritime Christian College, Regent College, The King’s College, and Signum University. If anyone thinks that the life of an adjunct professor is one of well-supported leisure or part-time fancy, I would encourage you to take a non-permanent prof to lunch and find out about their experience. You probably should pay.

Last night, I got treated to lunch, as well as to a second helping of encouragement. As a good friend and teaching teammate gave a short introduction to the award, I found myself embarrassed in an intriguing way. I still feel like an imposter, even though I am now a veteran in this world. I have done my time and created a rigorous research and teaching portfolio. I have taught thousands of students who are all out in the wide, wide world. I have even walked the picket line, just a week after reading Marx with my students in my first semester on the job in 2006.

Though I have all this history, I still feel like I don’t belong. Part of that is the structural reality that I don’t truly belong at UPEI. As a sessional prof, I am the first to have classes reduced when budgets get tight or when tenured faculty are first in line. I am rarely able to teach in my research discipline and I have developed classes from top to toe that I only got to teach once (or sometimes not at all). I share an office, but am largely a squatter on campus as real university needs shuffle and shuffle again. I do not have a budget for research or travel; I don’t have health insurance. I am 41 and have never received a dime in retirement income or pension. I don’t even have adjunct status on campus–a higher category of non-permanent faculty that I have never achieved.

But this is the life of an adjunct/sessional/non-permanent prof. Many of you know this story. I don’t have a PhD or position, and am not entitled to these things. Yet, it is not for these reasons that I felt like an imposter as my 2 minutes of “This is Your Life” played before my eyes last night. Even if the university itself uses me for the cheap labour that I am–which I agree to–I have felt great support from those I teach with. My religious studies colleagues–one of who got the research award–have always been in my corner, as have the entire Arts and Humanities teaching team. They are genuinely interested in my work and would lend a hand if they could. This award, we should note, is from our faculty association, not the university proper. The award came from other teachers, supported by my students.

No, the imposter feeling does not come from the outside but from the heart, and I cannot shake it. Most days I still feel like a kid pretending at adult life, playing house and leveraging our finances against our dreams in an elaborate and incredibly detailed game of Life. And though I could post my “Statement of Teaching Philosophy” where I lay out my understanding of the possibilities of the classroom, it comes down to pretty simple things: creativity, imagination, strong organizational skills, an openness to new ideas, an absurd sense of hope and an incontrovertible sense of humour. Perhaps above all these things is the fact that I care. I care about my work, yes, and the material. But I care about the students–these storied lives in the most transformational and radical points of their time on earth. I suspect that’s why students like me as a teacher.

For reasons of part-mortification, part-honouring the honourers, and part-encouragement to the thousands of contract academic staff who may not have the supports that I have, I am posting the little speech that prefaced my award. Despite my imposter syndrome, I am a little pleased to have been honoured. Thank you to all–to my colleagues who put their oar in, and to Kerry, who for the first time ever missed her Kindergarten Spring Concert to be there for me. That says a lot.


Engaging. Challenging. Fair. Questioning. Insightful. Passionate. Approachable. Caring. Impactful. These words capture the essence of Breton Dickieson’s teaching. It is no wonder, then, that a former student describes Brenton as “the type of professor every student dreams of having.”

Brenton Dickieson has been a “trusted and cherished sessional instructor” in UPEI’s Religious Studies Department for over a decade. His versatility is evident from the breadth of courses he has taught over this period. Most recently, Brenton has been an integral contributor to the newly designed UPEI 102 Inquiry Studies.

It is clear that Brenton creates a classroom atmosphere that leaves students yearning for more. As one student reflects, “He is the only professor I have had in my seven years of study that I would like his classes to run longer.”

In his teaching philosophy, Brenton states that he sees “education as creating an environment for transformational experiences.” Feedback suggests he is doing just that. As one alumna wrote, “the lectures he gave are still impacting my world today. Brenton’s teaching had an immeasurable impact on my university experience.”

In recognition of your outstanding contribution to teaching at UPEI, the Faculty Association is delighted to award you with a Hessian Merit Award for Excellence in Teaching by a Sessional Instructor.

 

Posted in Reflections | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

A 20th Anniversary Post to Kerry

Today is my 20th anniversary! Our house this morning was not a La La Land set, but filled the mundane tasks of laundry, breakfast, and off to school. As much as I would expect all the world to break out in celebration, jazz hands at the Dickieson home were set to tying shoes and packing lunchboxes. Still, I wanted to write a little note of celebration.

20 years. That means Kerry and I were married in a previous century, the 1900s. Kids can call that “olden times” without irony. When we were married, we used telephones to make phone calls, you had to watch television one episode at a time, and we still had hope for rock music. We are married longer than my parents even knew each other. In just a few months I’ll have been married more than half my life. All told we have been together for 23 years, 4 months, and 6 days.

On that night, January 3rd, 1993, I was terrified to ask Kerry out. Finally, after encouragement from friends, I called her from a pay phone. A pay phone! I tucked my hair up in a ponytail, found a relatively clean shirt on the floor, and picked her up in my 1985 VW Golf. Knowing what I know about women now, it was perhaps unjust of my to call her a half-hour before I picked her up. Still, she said yes.

Our first date was a safe bet: a movie. Unfortunately, we went to Beethoven 2, which is twice as lame as the VHS tape cover suggests. This is the least epic of all films to begin an epic relationship, and I have shame.

Still, Kerry’s forgiveness was great. We went on a second date: Sister Act 2, with friends, and only moderately lame. On our third date we hopped in the car and I said I would take her to Toronto. “Okay,” she said doubtfully, knowing it was a city more than a 1000 miles away. I boldly drove her to Toronto, but not the fake capital of Canada. I took her to Toronto, PEI, population 47, a single paved road intersecting a red dirt road a few miles from Anne’s Green Gables.

That night, Kerry kissed me, and to this day tries to deny that is our first kiss on some sort of technicality.

We were married on May 9, 1997 in New Glasgow, PEI, at the church where my parents were married. I realize now we threw a terrible party, but our friends and family were generous enough to enjoy it. Opening the mic to best wishes at our reception is a mistake in a family like mine with its gift of gab. But it garnered us a rendition of “When I’m 64” from Uncle Everett and a punk version of “Brown-Eyed Girl” by some of my youth group students (now captains of industry). Kerry’s eyes are hazel, but it is still one of my favourite covers.

It snowed the day after we were married. As we drove that week toward Florida on our honeymoon, we watched the seasons change along the East Coast. It is hard not to stay in Virginia forever in May. I look back enviously on a three-week honeymoon. We would use three weeks well now. We’d probably clean the garage.

As dreamy-eyed as we all are in our early stages of love, as we learn in La La Land! life has a settledness to it that is hard to imagine at the altar. I don’t remember our ceremony much—we might have that on Beta somewhere—but I know we promised to love through all the great difficulties of life. Thinking of our wedding party, there is

Thinking of our wedding party, there is loss. Kerry’s sister passed away not long after we were married. Also gone from our lives since we started dating are all our grandparents, a cousin, and most recently my mother. Some friendships have faded from that photo as well. We have suffered loss, and also great disappointment. We were together as we moved across this continent, to another continent, back to this one and then all the way across to home again. We failed in business. We lost a child that was never ours. Dreams have crumbled. And we have felt the strain of poverty move from months to years, and then to a decade.

Surprisingly, it is in none of these great valleys that marriage has been a struggle that made us worry. Is it just me, or is the time between the times the most difficult? The everydayness of Monday to Monday, the lunchboxes and parenting choices and paperwork of family life—these are the things that seem to wear on us the most. I wonder if marriage vows should supplement “for richer and poorer, in sickness and in health,” with, “and when the payment is due, the door handle is broken, and when we can’t decide what to do about our children.” Fidelity for us does not fail in the starburst moments, but fades in the times in between.

Without knowing exactly how to explain it, perhaps I saw this principle early on. Kerry and I have lived closely together for long periods of time, often apart from others. We are partners and friends and enjoy our time together. For one season, though, we were apart. I was working in Asia and Kerry in Vancouver. Reading the Odyssey, I recognized that so many readers forget the sheer length of time that Odysseus was away from his beloved. Time moved on, and what heroics meant changed its meaning as Odysseus fought through his wandering curse.

In that space, thinking of marriage as odyssey, as journey, I wrote this poem. I have never published it because I think it lacks poetic greatness, but it is the only poem I have ever written or Kerry. And it says more deeply, even in its childish, clumsy poesy, that I see our life together as a life, and for life. It is also my way of saying that the heroes and heroisms in stories don’t always look like what they seem.

I love you Kerry. Here’s to the next 20 years! Also, I took chicken out for supper and hung the whites. Happy anniversary!

Magnificent Defeat
By Brenton Dickieson

Remember, when we were young
We drank of youth and youth-fullness
Think how you blushed in my arms
And we cried in failure’s earnest sight
And shared joy in failure’s failing
When the future’s hope loomed large and near
And love’s true kiss held eternity
I lifted you above the storm, and still
You carried me

Since, I have climbed the mountain’s heights
And conquered the ocean’s watery grave
I have led armies of the living God
And sheltered lambs in the valley’s shade
Felled giants’ hands at your feet
And challenged Intelligent’s delight
I resisted Sirens’ luring glare
And drank poison from a wounded heel, and still
You carry me

True, I will grow old
And in growing failing comes
Mountains will loom large above
And waters rest on foreign shores
Pilgrims’ ways will falter soon
And enemies will prosper
My Sight will dim in Athena’s glade
And doubt gather in my throat, and still
You’ll carry me

Posted in Reflections | Tagged , , , , , , , | 11 Comments