“The Personal Heresy” and C.S. Lewis’ Autoethnographic Instinct: An Invitation to Intimacy in Literature and Theology (Congress2021 Paper)

Personal Heresy 1st slide

As I noted yesterday, this week is Canada’s annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, Congress2021. In the same morning, I am presenting twice, at two different societies–at the Canadian-American Theological Association with a paper on C.S. Lewis’ spiritual theology, and at the Christianity and Literature Study Group (CLSG). For the CLSG, I am presenting my paper “The Personal Heresy and C.S. Lewis’ Autoethnographic Instinct: An Invitation to Intimacy in Literature and Theology.” At its simplest, “autoethnography” simply means self-writing, where we implicate our selves–our stories, our bodies, our worldviews, faith, hopes, and dreams–in our research and writing. In autoethnographic writing, our lives become a “text,” part of the data set for our work of reflection.

This piece is part of a long-term project on Lewis and literary theory. Some of the implications are in my (hopefully) forthcoming book, The Shape of the Cross in C.S. Lewis’ Spiritual Theology, but it won’t be fully worked out there. As I continue to tease these ideas out, the CLSG community is a great collection of writers, teachers, and scholars thinking about literature and theology–and thus a good space to tentatively draw out a thread of my discoveries thus far.

Lewis till we have faces 9There are three other Lewis papers at this year’s CSLG:

  • Katharine Bubel and Laura Van Dyke (Trinity Western), “The Liminal Land of Glome in Lewis’s Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold” (in the Environmental Relations/Narratives of Nature section)
  • Monika Hilder (Trinity Western), “Darwin or Ptolemy? Asking Mr. C.S. Lewis About the Divided Human Consciousness” (in the The Inklings: Inner Relations section)
  • Brett Roscoe (The King’s University, Edmonton), “The Fear of the Lord in C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia” (in the The Inklings: Inner Relations section)

Katharine Bubel and Laura Van Dyke gave their brilliant paper already, challenging me to rethink some imaginative contexts for Till We Have Faces (including an intriguing Charles Williams link). I have already talked about the importance of Monika Hilder’s work in Lewis studies, and I look forward to Brett Roscoe’s thoughts as a medievalist.

Despite what my longer description below promises, I am not sure I get quite to “clarity” in my presentation. My conclusions are tentative–not because I don’t think I am reading Lewis correctly, but because it is hard to talk about Lewis on the way he thought about reading and writing without talking about everything he thought on the matter. I hope that this over-full presentation, though, will inspire us to weave our own story into our work as teachers, storytellers, and researchers.

The Personal Heresy and C.S. Lewis’ Autoethnographic Instinct: An Invitation to Intimacy in Literature and Theology” by Brenton D.G. Dickieson

lewis personal heresy 4Short Abstract

In his diverse literary catalogue, C.S. Lewis makes numerous attempts to tell his life story, uses poetry to frame philosophical beliefs, writes himself into fiction, narrates stories and lectures with intimacy, and uses his own experience as evidence for argumentation. Lewis displays a tendency for what later critics will call an “autoethnographic” instinct. Lewis shows a proto-critical instinct for autoethnography that sits in interesting tension with his own literary theoretical work in The Personal Heresy. This autoethnographic instinct, however, invites fruitful possibilities for those who would seek to undertake an exploration of Christianity and literature in a Lewisian vein.

Personal Heresy by CS Lewis 60sLonger Abstract

Of the forty-five books C.S. Lewis completed in his lifetime—a literary catalogue that spans diverse genres of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry—an almost unrecognized unity in this diversity is the degree to which Lewis is present as a voice in the text. Lewis makes numerous attempts to tell his life story, uses poetry to frame his philosophical beliefs and religious doubts, writes himself into his fiction, narrates his stories and lectures with personal intimacy, and uses his own experience as evide nce for his literary and theological arguments. Lewis argues in his inaugural Lecture from The Chair of Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University that “my conviction is a historical datum to which you should give full weight” (“De Descriptione Temporum” 14) In “On Stories,” Lewis confesses that he must be “autobiographical for the sake of being evidential” (93).

Lewis displays not only a tendency to be autobiographical but an instinct for what later anthropologists, theologians, and critics will call “autoethnography.” In this paper, I set the context for autoethnography as an emergent discipline using the critical approach to literature and theology by Heather Walton and others. In considering Lewis’ extensive and diverse corpus, I argue that Lewis shows a proto-critical instinct for autoethnography. Lewis consistently offers a critique of modern scholarship as critical, distant, external study and turns to autobiographically integrated explorations of literature, philosophy, and religion.

The autoethnographic nature of Lewis’ poetry and prose problematizes his literary theoretical work. In The Personal Heresy (1939), Lewis warns against confusing the author and the text: to “see things as the poet sees them,” Lewis argues that we must share the poet’s “consciousness” but “not attend to it” (14)—an argument used as the launching point for the famous essay on “The Intentional Fallacy” by Wimsatt and Beardsley. Thus Lewis, a thoroughly autographic writer of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, shares in the legacy of the so-called “New Criticism” and the eventual “death of the author” movement.

This tension is particularly intriguing when we consider that Lewis’ Experiment in Criticism (1961) is specifically about the experience of reading and predicts the critical turn to readers’ response. Moreover, in his final work of literary history, The Discarded Image (1964), Lewis criticizes readers who do not respect the cultural distance between their own context and that of the text. He compares these readers to English tourists “who carry their resolute Englishry with them all over the Continent, mix only with other English tourists, … and have no wish to realise what those ways of life, those churches, those vineyards” mean to locals (x).

Clarity is needed bridge the divide between Lewis’ theory and praxis on this point. When this clarity is achieved, Lewis’ work invites fruitful possibilities for those who would seek to undertake an exploration of Christianity and literature in his vein.

Lewis De Descriptione Temporum

Sorina Higgins Brenton Dickieson Inklings and King ArthurResources for More

Here is a PDF of the slides that I will use for my paper: Dickieson-CSL Autoethnographic Instinct-CLSG 2021. You can also find my still-being-updated “Resource Sheet” in this Google Doc link.

Checking out my biography will give you a sense of the kinds of things I’m am doing as a theologian of literature and literary theologian. This paper is part of a long-term project on Lewis and literary theory. There are some threads and implications are in my (hopefully) forthcoming book, The Shape of the Cross in C.S. Lewis’ Spiritual Theology (which came out of my PhD research; you can read about that here). My other published work of literary theory and Lewis is “Mixed Metaphors and Hyperlinked Worlds: A Study of Intertextuality in C.S. Lewis’s Ransom Cycle,” in the Mythopoeic Award-winning The Inklings and King Arthur: J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis, and Owen Barfield on the Matter of Britain (ed. Sørina Higgins, Apocryphile Press), pp. pp. 81-113.

If you are interested in publishing The Shape of the Cross in C.S. Lewis’ Spiritual Theology, of if you are a researcher looking for the larger, detailed chapter in my embargoed thesis, “The Great Story on Which the Plot Turns”: Cruciformity in C.S. Lewis’ Narrative Spiritual Theology, email me: junkola [at] gmail [dot] com.

Finally, I do recommend the approaches of Heather Walton (and some of her friends, colleagues, and students of the University of Glasgow) to theological reflection, feminist theology, and her work in theology and literature.

Heather Walton and Friends Literature and Theology books

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 “The Personal Heresy” and C.S. Lewis’ Autoethnographic Instinct: An Invitation to Intimacy in Literature and Theology (Congress2021 Paper)

  1. Lex McMillan says:

    Dear Brenton, I am intrigued by your forthcoming study of Lewis as an “autoethnographer,” which sounds very similar to my doctoral thesis, “C. S. Lewis as Spiritual Autobiographer: A Study in the Sacramental Imagination” (Notre Dame, 1986). In a close reading of “The Pilgrim’s Regress,” “Surprised by Joy,” and “Till We Have Faces,” I attempted to demonstrate that one of the unifying impulses in all of Lewis’s diverse popular works was a search for a “language more adequate” to portray the “universally profitable” in his private religious experience. This life-long exercise in spiritual autobiography culminates, fittingly, in his “re-interpretation” of the Cupid and Psyche myth, which I see as his most successful and moving attempt to convey the shape of his own spiritual journey. Good luck with your book. Cheers! Lex

    Lex McMillan 400 Ridgewood Drive Gettysburg, PA 17325

    H: 717.337.9001 C: 610.207.1674

    Sent from my iPad



    • Dear Lex, thank you for the note. I have ordered your PhD thesis and will certainly consider it! If there is any overlap, it will be some confirmation I am moving in the right direction.


  2. robstroud says:

    Two presentations on the same day–you are the Superman of Inklings academia!


    • Ah, not how I planned it! I’m the last presenter in the CLSG, and CATA begins on CLSG’s last day. I was just pleased they weren’t at the same time!
      (and it could be the same afternoon, not morning, depending where one is)


  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I hope to catch up with this paper when available to read! (Or will there be an audio-visual recording before then?)

    Wisely or not, I turned to the English Wikipedia (EW) article, “Autoethnography”, and checking what other languages have articles, decided to try the Afrikaans (AW) as well… So far, reading-through has become browsing…

    EW quotes Deborah E. Reed-Danahay (in 1997) that autoethnographies “vary in their emphasis on the writing and research process (graphy), culture (ethnos), and self (auto)”, while AW has an apparently approving quotation from Goethe by C. Conle (1999).

    I wonder what Lewis’s approach may have in common with or in debt to, variously, that of Herodotus, Plato, and (to put it broadly!) the (English and German) ‘Romantics’ and their heirs? For example, since at least Plato there is reflection on how, for better or worse, knowledge of ‘ethnoi’ is so largely indebted to ‘graphai’ – writings – not least of the ‘ethnoi’ concerned. And Eric Voeglin somewhere says something to the effect that the consciousness of a concrete person is the ‘instrumentarium’ of any investigation. And then there’s the fascinating ‘matter’ (as I remember it) in one of Lewis’s contributions to The Personal Heresy (1939) concerning ‘creative misunderstanding’… And what of the relations of the languages of ‘ethnoi’ (at various stages of their histories) to the (scholarly) writer? To what extent are masters of Greek and Latin and Old English and Old Norse and the French of various periods like Lewis and Tolkien related to ‘ethnoi’ in which those languages were/are spoken and written? There are (again, as I remember it) some fascinating observations in ‘De Descriptione Temporum’ about the deep differences between a widely-read ‘learned’ mastery and the native speaking of a language.


    • Hi David, my approach is a little light on the “ethnoi,” granted, and is probably mostly autography, self-writing. “Autoethnography” has been taken up in literature and theology and some other disciplines to describe the simple process of using the “self” as “data” in research and writing. Anthropology simply worked out the structures, questions, and problems of approaches in a very vibrant way, so we tend to look to them for some of the language.
      However, there are moments that Lewis really does seem to anticipate what the developing field of writing the self in theology and literature looks at. This is partly his instinct, partly (as I argue), his “two ways of seeing,” and partly because (as Walton says) self-writing is a long and grand tradition in Christian thought.
      I will have a video up Wednesday or Thursday. It isn’t a conference recording (which wasn’t allowed) but my own practice recording.
      I don’t know the answer to your question about “ethnoi.” In the Jewish context, that also means “everyone non-Jewish,” the “other.” Paul in the his letters tends to use the phrase “and all” to capture those outside the church.
      I suppose Nordic peoples and those on the British Isles were all Barbarians (i.e., all the rest who weren’t Jews or Romans/Greeks).


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Thanks! I look forward to it!

        I have now been browsing dictionaries – and the Septuagint and Vulgate Psalm translations – with reference to ‘ethnos’ – though I have not yet looked up any version of the ‘New’ or ‘Oxford English Dictionary’ (NED/OED). I would love to read a detailed discussion… My 1972 American dictionary seems most helpful in one way, having as one of the senses of ‘ethnic’, “designating or of any of the basic groups or divisions of mankind or of a heterogeneous population, as distinguished by customs, characteristics, language, common history, etc.” and ethnography’ (traced to French ‘ethnographie’) as “the branch of anthropology that deals descriptively with specific cultures, esp. those of non-literate peoples or groups”. Somehow, with ‘ethnography’, the accent has fallen on “culture”, but therewith I suppose the features or elements of “customs, characteristics, language, common history” are still in view.

        The ‘culture’ in which Lewis and Tolkien and Barfield and Williams and Sayers and before them Chesterton and McDonald grew up and expressed themselves was indebted to Ancient and Byzantine Greek and Ancient and continuous Latin ‘cultures’, Romance and Germanic – and Celtic – cultures – including, more recently, ‘historical cultures’ of various phases of their languages (to accent these – without losing sight of others: e.g., one thinks of Martin Lings’ reminiscences of Lewis wishing that he, like Lings, knew Persian so he could properly experience Persian poetry). They could learn languages – and language phases – and know the texts written in them and the related ‘scholarship’, and reflect on them all, inwardly or outwardly.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Ah yes, I see the link. I think Lewis’ lecture, “Christianity and Culture”, may be a helpful link. There, he really means a kind of high-brow culture, civilizational culture: art and literature and learning. That’s the link for these folks, I think, is this sense of the Western literary project, in which they could imagine the important (not tangential) margins, like Nordic and “oriental” cultures.
          “Ethnic” as in “ethnographer” could be as broad as a civilization but as narrow as a tiny community, such as the “dying lands” of a handful of people in, say, the Scottish Isles or small communities along the Black or Caspian seas, or a “new tribe” that emerges in a jungle or urban environment, or a tiny subculture or group of particular interest.
          Today we would call jews a “religio-ethnic” or “ethno-religious” group, but they would have not call themselves an “ethnos” in the Greco-Roman world!


          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Sudden thought – almost ‘ thinking aloud’ – Lewis and Tolkien as ostensible ‘ethnographers’ – or, where Ransom is primary ‘ethnographer’ (or, indeed, Professor Kirke et al.), as ‘ethnographic popularizer’ (among other things) – of the various Speaking Peoples of Middle-earth/Arda, and of Malacandra, Perelandra, the Field of Arbol, and of Narnia – in the sense ‘Planet Narnia’ (and Charn) (!).


            • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

              Just checked Liddell and Scott which includes ‘ethnos’ as also referring to a group of (presumably mostly non-talking!) animals, “swarms, flocks, etc.” with examples from the Iliad and from Sophocles’s Philotetes and his Antigone. (I suppose it would be confusing if we started swopping the curious ‘herd immunity’ off with ‘ethnic immunity’, though…!)


            • Yes, very true. Although Lewis is the “Grapher”, the writer, the secretary, you can see Ransom’s instinct for anthropology, wanting to describe the cultures in more depth. Cool thought.


              • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

                Having tried to look into the history of ‘herd immunity’ quickly via Wikipedia in 6 languages, the furthest back I got was a linked 1923 article, which seemed to assume the reader knew the sense – and was concerned with groups of mice… I woke up wondering what both Lewis and Reepicheep said in referring to mice (but have not yet gone a-looking…)!

                Also, The Book of Saint Albans sprang to mind – which I think I first ecountered thanks to Tolkien, but cannot immediately place the reference, if so – and all the wonderful differentiation of animal group names…


  4. Pingback: “The Personal Heresy” and C.S. Lewis’ Autoethnographic Instinct: An Invitation to Intimacy in Literature and Theology | A Pilgrim in Narnia

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