In my 400th blog post I noted that In 2011 I began pretending I was in a PhD. It is doubtless an odd thing to say, though it has been normal for me for so long I didn’t even think about it! One of the readers of A Pilgrim in Narnia asked me about it. So I decided to tell the story of how pretending to be a PhD student led to my place in a doctoral program. Part 1 is about how I stumbled into C.S. Lewis.
Mine is the story of the frustrated post-masters student. I would bet my best friend’s bank account that there are many people out there frustrated that their years after grad school didn’t go as planned.
I did very well in my graduate studies at Regent College, taking the award for my discipline (biblical studies). Soon after graduation, though, I began a business that would define the next 5 or 6 years of my life. Disastrously, the business neither succeeded nor failed. I floundered, painfully spending day after day, week after week, pouring my energy into something I had neither the skills nor the heart to make a beautiful thing. I was an honest businessman, and a creative one. But I was also a broke and exhausted businessman. I finally sold the assets and collapsed on my living room couch.
I have never really given voice to this period in my life. There were good things happening. My son was learning to walk and talk—two things he does constantly still today. My wife was finding her way toward a career, and is right now sitting across from me with teacherly glasses sitting on the end of her nose and curriculum books spread across the table. I found friends and a church community who both spurred me on to greater depths of love and greater heights of freedom.
And I began to write. One day, in the midst of my daily sorrow, I decided to write instead of plan on writing or wish I was writing. I have not stopped writing since.
In this time my academics floundered. I kept my ancient languages strong, but never developed new modern languages. I kept up with secondary literature in my field, but every time I sat down to get that paper from 90% complete to the journals, I failed to see it through. And, worst of all, I never came up with a biblical studies project worth spending 5-6 years of a PhD working on.
Have you been there?
During this time my interests began to evolve. I was teaching full time between the local Bible college and state university. The courses I loved were those that brought together the ideas of today in conversation with the deepest religious wells. It is what we might call “Christianity and Culture” or “Theology and Literature.” My favourite classes were on apologetics, religion and philosophy, and classes where we got to read contemporary literature in light of the old stories.
After fruitless attempts to resurrect my old research, I decided to apply my biblical studies techniques to theology and literature. It turns out that my background gives me a lot to bring to the table in this discussion. These tools of discovery, with my peculiar ability to see how ideas crash together in new ways, gave me hope for a future PhD.
So I refocused my work, looking at emerging trends in evangelicalism. Among the ideas I had, I suspected that evangelicals would rethink hell. I charted out what a project would look like, and was quite excited.
Then, all of a sudden, my prediction of an emerging theme came true. With Rob Bell’s Love Wins in spring 2011, the conversation exploded. My emerging project emerged just as I predicted it. But I was too late. Everyone is a prophet after the prediction has come true.
So I was in academic limbo again. I also had a couple of fiction manuscripts I couldn’t find an agent for, and they were starting to make cuts at the university. I was feeling pretty grim.
I was sitting at a Tim Hortons table at an academic conference in May 2011, bemoaning my still-frustrated situation. A man walked up to me, and said:
“Hello! I’d like to publish your book!”
As a fiction writer, this is a dream come true. In Academic publishing, however, this is enough to put you on watch for crooks. So I answered:
“Oh?” he answered. “Why not?”
“Because,” I said, “It is the story of an 11-year-old girl who thinks she is an adult. She is stuck in her much loved and incredibly boring life until a precocious orphan handsprings into her path and destroys everything in the most wonderful ways.”
“No,” the man said. “I don’t want to publish that. Why are you here at an academic conference?”
So I told him, sharing my story of missteps and research frustrations. He answered me with Jethro’s words to Moses:
“What you are doing is not good.”
I smiled at the stranger. Truth-telling is hard to find in academia sometimes.
“Why is that?” I asked.
And he told me.
First, you shouldn’t study something that is emerging—at least in a PhD. You can never narrow down your data. You will make it so your reading list never ends. Second, if you ever want to get a job, you shouldn’t study evangelicalism. No one will get it. University hiring committees still believe the media conversation about evangelicalism. They still see the cartoons and ignore the fact that evangelicalism is one of the single most important 21st century movements.
“You’d be unemployed forever,” he said. “Instead, study a thinker. Root yourself to someone in the past, a figure whose ideas are fixed in history but are fresh enough that they can inform today’s issues. That way you can narrow your research field, maximize your critical point of view, and join in a conversation at play in your thinker’s societies and schools.”
It was absolutely amazing advice, given by a man who never did get to publish my book. I’ve kept his card, though.
So, study a thinker. What thinker, though?
My favourite thinkers are German, but my German is so bad that I wouldn’t be able to do it credibly. So I set aside Bonhoeffer, Barth, Brunner, and Möltmann. I know French well, but have you ever tried to read a French thinker? Tremendously exciting and almost unintelligible. I was reading Jean Baudrillard, which is enough to make the reader shun any Frenchman again. I love Camus and like Sartre, but never found a corner on which to set my pen.
So I turned to the English thinkers. I read Jonathan Edwards and felt much like I did when I was in college: Edwards is a great mind, and I would be glad if I never have to read him again. I love John Wesley, but I was unsure that I would ever get through his corpus. Finally, as I went through the books of dead authors on my bookshelf, I came to C.S. Lewis.
I hadn’t thought of Lewis at first, partly because he isn’t a theologian. But he is a cultural critic. I found quickly that I could latch onto his upside-down way of looking at ideas. He also met the other criteria I was using:
- I can use my biblical studies tools to read and apply his work.
- His thought makes a strong point of criticism of contemporary culture.
- He is a Pauline thinker.
- I can integrate literature, theology, and culture in my work.
- There are communities of people reading Lewis.
- I can understand what he’s talking about (most of the time).
- I enjoy reading him.
- His ideas and writings are worth spending the next decade on.
There was also the further benefit that his closest friends—J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Dorothy L. Sayers, and the Inklings—provide a context for reading and thinking that add excitement and depth.
C.S. Lewis was a match.
So I began the project of moving from being a reader of C.S. Lewis to becoming a critic.