“Gilbert and Jack: What C.S. Lewis Found Reading G.K. Chesterton”: Audio Drama by Alan C. Duncan

I am sometimes asked to provide a blurb for an upcoming book, usually something to do with C.S. Lewis and the Inklings. I rarely get the book read in time to meet a publisher’s schedule, so don’t bother heading to your bookshelf to see if I am there on those glowing inside flaps–though I did get my note in on time for Christine Norvell’s second edition of Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold: A Reading Companion.

In the past little while, though, I have been in dialogue with Alan C. Duncan, an American writer and broadcaster. Though we have never met, Alan reached out to me because, if I recall, of my archival work on C.S. Lewis and some of my writing about the Marion E. Wade Center in Wheaton, IL. Alan had a kind of cool project in mind. Inspired by the possibilities, Alan travelled to the Wade archive to read the marginal notes that C.S. Lewis made on his copies of G.K. Chesterton‘s books. Chesterton was one of Lewis’ literary guides and spiritual masters, and the Wade keeps these books safe for researchers. It seems like a natural fit, as we see in this brief clip from a Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton interview (the full clip is below):

After he had done the hard work of spending the hours and days reading marginal notes–and sometimes Lewis’ scrawl is pretty challenging to read–Alan and I dialogued a bit about the potentials of his project. My help was actually pretty limited. Alan went away and set to work pulling all of these notes into a project that would be meaningful to others. The outcome includes a Kindle ebook. What Alan invited me to preview, though, was the audiobook that he wrote and produced. Without saying anything negative about the book version, I found full cast audiobook not only excellently produced but also compelling on a personal level.

And I told him so. As a result, Alan included a brief blurb in the Audible description:

“One of the things that makes this a unique project is the archival work. In Gilbert and Jack, Duncan makes dozens of links that come from personal notations in Lewis’ copies of Chesterton’s books, providing an introduction to their theological kinship that we are unlikely to get anywhere else.” (Dr. Brenton Dickieson)

I think, though, that is worth sharing the longer version of the blurb which he wisely edited for Audible but has kept in the book and on various parts of social media:

In a skillfully produced and casted audio performance, Alan Duncan is able to narrow in on one of the more powerful and effective literary mentorships of the 20th century, that of C.S. Lewis and a critical influence in his faith and life, G.K. Chesterton. Yet, little is known in the popular world about how important Chesterton was to Lewis’ faith formation and intellectual development. Duncan’s “Gilbert & Jack” seeks to close that gap, using the good old-fashioned tools of close-reading to make literary links between the two British Christian thinkers. One of the things that makes this a unique project, though, is the archival work. In “Gilbert & Jack,” Duncan makes dozens of links that come from personal notations in Lewis’ copies of Chesterton’s books, providing an introduction to their theological kinship that we are unlikely to get anywhere else. This is a huge wealth of notations, and Duncan allows the reader to draw their own conclusions about the value and uses of the material, while also sharing personal essays of their own spiritual encounters. Because of their approach–both personal and academic–listeners can get a sense of the joy of doing Inklings archival work at places like the Marion E. Wade Center in Wheaton, IL. The result is a work of great use, deep interest, and much beauty–all within a devotional cast.

The longer blurb captures what I think is best about the project: careful close reading, evidence-based links between Chesterton and Lewis, and nerdy archival work all brought together in a personal story of discovery.

I should note a couple of things.

While I liked Alan’s initial ideas, I was not overly hopeful about an audio version. My confidence in small-project film and dramatic productions isn’t very high, so I had pretty low expectations. Alan has shifted my expectation of what is possible for small-budget projects. The excellence and entertainment value of the production enhances the work at the core.

And part of that work is the personal journey. I would be pleased to have read a long, boring, 40-page academic article that I would find quite exciting. However, Gilbert & Jack is not merely a long article or short-book write-up of archival findings, but a faith-implicated study of the link between these two famously popular British Christian public intellectuals. I believe this is a strength of the project, though it means the material is coming from a rooted perspective.

If you look up the background of the American Policy Roundtable that published the book, most will recognize it as a deeply conservative and very pro-American think tank. The Roundtable is a constitutional conservativism rather than the kind of conversation the current US Republican party is most interested in. Not being in that context but believing the US to be one of the greatest political experiments in history with a great propensity for creating a space for human flourishing, I wish the Roundtable could see “liberty” in a broader way. I have never understood why liberty-loving Americans of conservative leanings don’t have a love of liberty for those who want to be free to live morally different lives (like LGBTQ+ folk). I don’t understand why liberty-loving Americans who find by C.S. Lewisgovernment systems so distasteful and abusive of freedom–and I largely agree–can’t see how those systems can select out certain kinds of people on the margins for greater abuse than others. The Hebrew prophets saw it. And why do American conservatives in conversation with C.S. Lewis avoid Lewis’ argument that anti-environmental policy restricts the freedom (without consent) of future generations? Or that the state must intervene to ensure people are treated equally? C.S. Lewis’ liberty-loving thread in his work will always be subversive and cuts both ways against anti- and pro-state action–as we see in a humorous form at the close of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:

“And they made good laws and kept the peace and saved good trees from being unnecessarily cut down, and liberated young dwarfs and young satyrs from being sent to school, and generally stopped busybodies and interferers and encouraged ordinary people who wanted to live and let live.”

While my reading of Gilbert & Jack picked up the American context and a faith journey of a conservative Christian, I did not sense a kind of backdoor political recovery movement. What I think Alan Duncan does is to take two Christian thinkers that he admires, read them well, and then draw them into his own context in meaningful ways. This is where G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis can shine for theological conversation, popular philosophical debate, ethical exploration, spiritual development, and for the pursuit of social justice in all kinds of contexts.

Sometimes people roll their eyes, for here is another conservative or another American taking these figures up to challenge, reshape, and communicate their conservative, American perspectives. But frankly, they’re just better at doing it! When read well, neither Gilbert nor Jack would make an American conservative–and, particularly, an American Evangelical as in the case of many other projects–very comfortable for very long. CSL & GKC are too subversive, ironical, inversive, counter-cultural, and rooted in a worldview and place much different than the context in which they are being read. If we take it seriously, their thought will challenge our own.

And is that not the journey we share as Christians–not a commitment as a nation, time, ideology, or political movement, but a commitment to the discovery of truth, the doing of goodness, and the sharing of beauty? Thus, I am not afraid of honest disagreement–though I will always resist appropriations that are essentially rebranding attempts for ideological purposes.

So I would encourage you to read and enjoy Gilbert & Jack: What C.S. Lewis Found Reading G.K. Chesterton for its inherent value. You can find the kindle book on Amazon in your country, and you can find the audiobook at Audible or through Alan Duncan’s website.

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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10 Responses to “Gilbert and Jack: What C.S. Lewis Found Reading G.K. Chesterton”: Audio Drama by Alan C. Duncan

  1. riorider@earthlink.net says:

    Dr. Dickieson,

    Long time reader (and “enjoy-er”) of your writings, and I may have sent you a comment or two along the way, but aside from how fascinating this book & audio project look (and I will be looking into it!) I wanted to comment very briefly on one of your statements in the article which has not really much to do with CSL or GKC:

    “I have never understood why liberty-loving Americans of conservative leanings don’t have a love of liberty for those who want to be free to live morally different lives (like LGBTQ+ folk).”

    I do not have this well thought through, but my initial response would be “were I to dig into this, what I suspect I would find would be some philosophical foundation that the same [kind of or line of] thinking that leads one to “liberty” would also lead one to produce a politic like we have in the US (at least, traditionally, historically).” And a corollary: the kind of “liberty” which crosses some line into “license” which would then say nothing against LGBTQ+ concepts and proposed systems of insertion and acceptance by the society would be incapable of producing the “liberty” loving and respecting politic. I would think it similar to pacifist thinking – good and wholesome and laudatory it may be on an individual level it cannot exist in a societal form (for very long) without being protected by a non-pacifist society. There needs to be a distinction made between the treatment of LGBTQ+ individuals by “liberty” individuals and the defense of a system which can protect those individuals – thus a “conservative” system whose mores do not extend to LGBTQ+ practice.

    I do not defend the popular US Republican thinking or recent history, but I do think that is what has produced a society capable of protecting and accepting (to a point) those who act and think differently.

    Cheers to you!

    Best,

    Phil Brodersen

    Chandler, Oklahoma, USA

    Liked by 1 person

    • I appreciate these thoughts, Phil. As a non-American, it is difficult to see the gun culture as anything but licentious, or the Christian community’s slow 20th c. response to racial justice as being authentic to that framework of liberty. But I do think that the Republican community could, if it intended to do so, create structures for liberty that went beyond their tribal mandates–as could the Democrats. They just don’t seem interested in doing so.
      Thus, there ends up being accidental “conservative” and “progressive” realities. The environment is one, where the decimation of the family farm means a loss of the conservative voice of conservation and stewardship which is then heightened by dispensational fundamentalist Christians with a “let it burn” mentality for God’s creation, a tribal reaction against liberal eco movements, and so on. By contrast, in my local Evangelical church, one of the elders works at the university’s climate lab, and there is an easy and natural understanding that we are carers for creation. We aren’t always awesome, but we don’t have America’s strange division of things.
      Which is what I mean by a “local” church allowing cultural ideas to overwhelm the deeper, transcultural church of all times and places.

      Like

  2. danaames says:

    “CSL & GKC are too subversive, ironical, inversive, counter-cultural, and rooted in a worldview and place much different than the context in which they are being read. If we take it seriously, their thought will challenge our own.”

    Along with your observations re conservative USAmerican Christians and sociological issues, the reality is that the USA was founded and influenced on very deep levels by a certain swath of Protestant Christians. That influence comes through in the thought processes of all types of USAmericans, including people who are not Christians, or who are even anti-Christian. (For example, among some political liberals here, especially those with no religious identity, there are currently unforgivable “original sins”, and nothing can convince them to actually listen to, or even tolerate, people afflicted with those sins.)

    The influence of that founding group of Christians also makes the average USAmerican, again, of conservative or no religious persuasion, antithetical to traditional Catholics and others with a similar “high” liturgical practice. That puts Chesterton squarely outside the field of view of most conservative religious folk in this country. If people actually read Lewis deeply, especially including his letters and other personal writing, even though he describes himself as not a particularly high churchman, he is clearly a committed Anglican and committed to the Anglican liturgy, which, along with the traditional Lutheran liturgy, is the oldest and most elaborate Protestant liturgy, and rather closely resembles that of Roman Catholicism. Dogmatically Lewis is conservative, but in practice his stance also closely resembles the respect that the Catholic Church gives to a people outside the Catholic Church (whether Protestant or of another or no affiliation) and their consciences. It wasn’t always that way, of course, but it was what I was familiar with growing up Catholic in the 1950s/60s/70s.

    This is a lot like how it is for most Orthodox today, even in the Old Country. Granted, there are plenty of Orthodox who get exercised over the same things that upset conservative Protestants. But generally, the ideal is to love and accept everyone. If at some point they want to become a Christian, then we start talking about what that means, and move from there into how that meaning affects one’s personal actions. Orthodoxy has its share of shameful deeds, but there was no Inquisition (which actually coincided with the early rumblings and growth of the Reformation movement – it was not a feature of medieval Catholicism). This is yet another thing that attracted me eastward.

    Dana

    Like

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      The Catholic and Anglican contributions to the American founding at various points of its realization – pre- and post-War of Independence, with respect to the Articles of Confederation (1781), and the Constitution (1789), and the Orthodox contributions to and through what can be called ‘Russian America’ including formal Imperial Russian interactions with the Republic from the Russo-American Treaty of 1824 to the Alaska Purchase of 1867 (while St. Innocent of Alaska was Metropolitan of Moscow), are complex and interesting matters of which I know far too little. I think for instance of Charles Carroll, signer of the Declaration of Independence, his cousin, Daniel Carroll, signer of both the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution, and his younger brother, John, made (if I may trust Wikipedia on this) provisional “Superior of the Missions in the thirteen United States of North America”, with faculties to celebrate the sacrament of Confirmation and then Prefect Apostolic in the time of the Articles, and first Catholic Bishop in the Republic nine months after the ratification of the Constitution. I also think of the fact that the ‘Establishment Clause’ of the First Amendment to the Constitution (1791) did not prevent the effectve establishment of ‘state churches’ in the individual States of America, and that the Anglicans were at a distinct disadvantage in Massachusetts for quite a while thereafter.

      And, trying to brush up on my ‘Russian American’ history, I find that the book, Orthodox Christians in North America (1794 – 1994), by Mark Stokoe and the Very Rev. Leonid Kishkovsky is available for free online!:

      https://www.oca.org/history-archives/orthodox-christians-na

      Like

    • David, you always have such divergent and convergent thinking and always add something I could not have imagined was connected. In the past, you had mentioned old Orthodox churches in Alaska, which makes historical sense. But then you link them here. (I’ve always been a little annoyed that Canada had not pulled off the Alaska purchase for visual and aesthetic aspect of the thing, though I have since come to feel the staggering arrogance and hurt caused by a phrase like “Alaska purchase”)
      The little I know of Canada’s Orthodox history–we have far fewer Eastern European and Mediterranean immigrants before the 1880s than the US–is that Orthodox people settled here and found themselves in other churches. For example, Prince Edward Island was very British and Acadian, with fewer European folks. There is a solid Syrian-Palestinian-Lebanese community (which we call “the Lebanese Community”). As Maronites and Orthodox, they migrated here and joined the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches, often providing leadership or (when wealthier) patronage. An Orthodox church began about a generation ago and is small and significant. The community has never lost that strange, rugged, interiority of faith and practicality, that includes an unusual (to me) attachment to God and loyalty to church even when, as sometimes happens, choosing a lifestyle they know to be wrong by that perspective.
      Canada’s appropriation of indigenous lands and institutionalization as a New-European country was much later than the USA’s and at a much lower rate of population. But from the beginning we had a bicultural negotiation of Protestant (English Anglicans, Methodists, etc., Scotch Baptists, Scottish and Scotch-Irish Presbyterians and Anglicans of various stripes, and new Americans, some UK non-conformists but few European sectarians, very few Huguenots, Dutch Calvinists, German Reformed, etc.) and Roman Catholic (Irish and French, of course, but also Scotch Catholics on the run). Biculturalism and bilingualism created an easy framework for multiculturalism. We have our own issues of diversity, definition, and inclusion in terms of identity and justice, but the framework is there.

      And Dana, your point about a kind of progressive Puritanism is one I resonate with. There is always someone ready to stone sinners and heretics in the (actual or digital) streets.

      Dana, my reading of Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History prepared me for the story you told. What it did not prepare me for was the question: Why should Christians of any variety by walking around with functional categories of unforgivable sins–let along founding communities with that idea in the new DNA? To answer the question about how churches that have the most emphasis on grace and forgiveness in theological terms can have the most dynamic structures for condemnation and the least trust in spiritual transformation. For that question, history leaves me cold–tho I do have my own heart.

      But it also brings up the point that ones status as a minority religious person not only gives one a different perspective, but perhaps shapes different responsibilities wrt the rest.

      And I would note that I didn’t talk about appropriations of CSL (and others) to the fullest extent. And on the other side, I think that there are helpful, respectful, and organic non-Anglican conversations with Lewis, like Edith Humphrey’s Orthodox conversation, Further Up and Further In.

      Sorry of the haste, a busy period.

      Like

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    “I would be pleased to have read a long, boring, 40-page academic article that I would find quite exciting.” Me, too! Why not both? (If this idea of an academic article more or less corresponds to the Kindle ebook, then more forms of that text would be welcome, not least for us ‘non-Kindlers’! If not, then a third, ‘academic’ text would be an appealing idea. Or, for a fourth thing, a script of the audiobook – if that would be different from the Kindle ebook text – to be able to browse back and forth at your own speed as well as listen to a fine audio production, is, in my experience, a great delight and quite useful.)

    In any case, thank you for bringing this very interesting-sounding ‘ fruit of the archives’ to our attention.

    (Thoughts occurring re. Lewis – and Chesterton – and political thought – the fascinating discussions of (1) political institutions in Chesterton’s Short History of England (1917) and (2) of the complex and varied interrelations of religious, theological, and political thought and practice in the booklet-length introduction in Lewis’s OHEL volume and in the section on Richard Hooker, there.)

    Like

    • I suppose it is just more work to do it all! The market on long, boring, 40-page academic articles is not as big as you might think.
      Good tip on GKC’s history and the OHEL Hooker convo.

      Like

  4. Larry Repass says:

    My thanks to you all for allowing an uneducated West Virginia hillbilly to eavesdrop and learn that I have a couple of books on my shelf which I will definitely open tomorrow.
    Larry

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Lori T says:

    💙🤜. “ While my reading of Gilbert & Jack picked up the American context and a faith journey of a conservative Christian, I did not sense a kind of backdoor political recovery movement. What I think Alan Duncan does is to take two Christian thinkers that he admires, read them well, and then draw them into his own context in meaningful ways. This is where G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis can shine for theological conversation, popular philosophical debate, ethical exploration, spiritual development, and for the pursuit of social justice in all kinds of contexts.” 👍👏

    Liked by 1 person

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