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)
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.
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 government 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.