Travels in Time: An Update from the UK

Big Ben at NightAs I write this the English countryside is passing quickly by. I am on a train, which is a rare experience for a non-urban Canadian. Taking the train through England is like moving briskly in and out of time. Clay-roofed suburbs slip away into rolling countryside. The tiled framework of grasses and grains are sliced through by ancient canals, stone henges, lost roads, arched bridges, and groves of trees. It all makes me wonder whether the land is really a mosaic, that there is a message for those with a god’s eye view. Or perhaps for those close enough to the ground to see the moss on stones and warren holes at the bases elms and oaks.

I mean, just there, in the centre of that meadow where sheep are grazing, is an abandoned castle on an ancient mound. It is overgrown with trees, and I am passing by too quickly, and the sheep don’t even know it is there. If there wasn’t a brightly coloured canal boat snail-pacing its way up a canal to the left, it is a sight a young William Shakespeare might have seen as he made his way to London to see if he could make a go of writing. Change the decals on the canal boat, add some oars, and one of Jane Austen’s characters might have seen my postcard view of England on their way to Bath for a diverting holiday.

All that in a flash, the blink of the mind’s eye, and we are in an industrial area where they make zippers or hand-gliders or windmill bushings. It is the 21st century again, and I turn back to my laptop.

20160812_181254Readers of A Pilgrim in Narnia will know that I have been on the road, so trains are becoming a bit of a habit. The first two weeks of this trip has been my family’s first big vacation together. We wore out the soles of our shoes walking and bussing around London. As we were staying in a borrowed flat on the south side of the Thames, it seemed that all roads led to Big Ben, Parliament, the Palaces, and Westminster Abbey. We visited Stonehenge and Bath with a tour group, and were nearly always the last ones back on the bus. We toured Chester, this old walled city with Roman roads and canals in the North. We rented a car—a deed of its own kind of madness—and visited the lost castles and forgotten hollows of North Wales. After an all-too-brief visit with friends in Cheltenham, we finished our week in Oxford, the city of dreaming spires, medieval colleges, and Harry Potter merchandise.

It was the trip of a lifetime for us.

A couple of weeks ago my wife and son returned to Prince Edward Island and I turned to my books. With limited internet and mounting responsibilities, I have been somewhat neglectful of the great conversations happening in the comment sections of the blog. I took a walk to see something new most every day, but my time has been rather narrowly focussed on two jobs.

bodleian library reading roomMy first task has been to work on the C.S. Lewis archive at the Bodleian library in Oxford. This was my second time visiting the Bod, and I was far more prepared. As always, it was a real treat–exhausting, but a thrill every day.

20160815_162157I went to the Bodleian to do three main things. First, I spent time in the papers we often ignore, getting to know Lewis through his notebooks, the way he edited his writing, and the kinds of things he put in the margins. Second, I had six or seven things I had to look up—things that had caught in my brain while reading or items I found I needed to follow up on from other people’s archival work. Third, and mainly, I finished the transcription of C.S. Lewis first attempt at long-form prose, an Arthurian tale Lewis mailed to his best friend when he was seventeen. More on this exciting work later.

My other main task has been to prepare to present a paper at a conference in Glasgow this coming weekend (Sep 9-11). It is the biannual meeting of the International Society for Religion, Literature, and Culture (ISRLC), and I was thrilled to have my paper accepted (against significant odds, I am told). It is, unfortunately, not yet finished and the conference begins tomorrow, so I won’t be exploring my ancestral home of Glasgow this evening. I grew up in New Glasgow, PEI, skating on the River Clyde, so I am excited to finish my paper up and get to know the town of my long since past.

oxford gargoyleI doubt the paper will be of interest to that many (see the abstract below). It is a part of a larger chapter in my PhD dissertation about C.S. Lewis’ spiritual theology. I am a bit nervous, as I am naturally shy and reclusive in new environments. But I am looking forward to testing out my material in a critical community.

I am also looking forward to home on Tuesday. I am weary, and haven’t had a full night of sleep in a couple of weeks. The dorms and hostels where I have been staying are noisy and active. I am dislocated without my family. My students have started school without me, and my colleagues at work will have wondered if I’m ever coming back.

I suppose that’s part of the illusion of moving so quickly on a train. While I am looking out the windows to the past, the rail experience is supposed to make us think we are getting to the future more quickly. While the past comes to us in eye blinks and window seats, the future only ever comes at sixty minutes an hour. The conference, the paper, my home, my family, my desk and books and classroom—all these things will come, anon, as they always have.

slothAbstract for ISRLC

Criticism as Conversion: Active Surrender in C.S. Lewis’ Spiritual Theology

Theologian Michael J. Gorman uses the term “cruciformity” to take up the Imitatio Christi and discuss in greater depth the pattern of cross in spiritual formation. Christ’s own surrender to the cross shapes the believer’s posture before the world in worship, relationships, political action, and missional engagement. In surrendering to be “crucified with Christ,” the self is set aside (Gal 2:19-20). In this view conversion is not a one-time event and the cross is not merely salvific; these are dominant motifs of Christian praxis.

When one considers the semantic overlap of these surrender images—self-death, departure from self, self-crucifixion, submission, obedience—it is not difficult to problematize this Christian perspective. How often, for example, has this call to submission led to subjugation and suppression of women in marriage and community? Brown and Parker call this cross-praxis “an abusive theology.” Even considering believers who cherish the symbolic layers of the cross, Fisk is correct that “the crucifixion has cast a long shadow on western Christianity.” For many, the founding event of Christianity is a theological red line.

Like most who have written of cross-patterned spirituality, C.S. Lewis does not address the potential for “abusive theology.” Yet he has within his literary criticism an inversive approach to cruciformity that informs his treatment of Christian praxis in his fiction and nonfiction. In An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis casts the reader-book relationship in terms of religious conversion and worship, suggesting that one must surrender to the literature. This self-death, however, is not mere passivity, but an active and engaged choice. This voluntary active-surrender metaphor—being crucified to books, in a sense—anticipates a possible response to the problematic nature of this cruciform spiritual posture.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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14 Responses to Travels in Time: An Update from the UK

  1. I am really enjoying your reflections on my country as a visitor. It allows me the opportunity to look at the familiar in a new way. It has begun to strike me that even though these islands are not one of the larger land masses on this planet one lifetime will not be enough to get to know it all. Then I read the Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh, who said that to know one field or the meeting place of two streams was sufficient work for a single life. Kavanagh tried to breathe new life into the idea of the parochial in his poetry and other writing. This, of course, is not to claim superiority for one landscape over another. I simply note that this is the landscape in which I have been placed.
    And speaking of landscape I do hope that you enjoy your stay in Glasgow. I recently conducted the wedding of my nephew to his lovely bride, both of whom are doctors in the city hospital and live in an apartment on the banks of the Clyde. I certainly enjoyed my stay in the city.


  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    A lovely evocation of old-world train-travel! And a rich, happy vacation from the sound of it, deep (if, as always, fleeting)! And an exciting, fruitful research part or sequel (do tell, do tell!) – which I hope goes on going as well as it sounds like it will, this weekend! (And John with the until now least-known and shortest-haired of the Wesley brothers?)

    Our village church’s mechanized carillon has been playing Loch Lomond these days – ah, Glasgow and environs (too little known, beguiling to the non-scion, too)!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. wanderwolf says:

    Traveling through the countryside in a train is a magical experience… There’s a very good reason Rowling made the trip to Hogwarts by rail and a lot of writing about the fruitfulness of traveling slow enough to see the world around you, but fast enough to get from point A to B in good time.
    The ability to do research in the hallowed places you are is something I hope to do one day… I imagine that’s motivation in itself.
    Hope the work continues going well! Conversations can wait. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    So, how’d it go? (Does not the prospect of readers on hopeful tenterhooks move you?)


    • Ah yes, how did it go? A good conference, excellent organization, great setting. My paper was too long, and I really was trying to do too much with it (unsurprisingly). Fortunately, there were only two of us at this paper presentation, so I had the time.
      But, for me, I was able to squeeze out an idea that I’ve been working on. It came together in that sense.


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Belated thanks for this report! Glad to hear it turned out so well, both in the working out and having the presentation time aspects!


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