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.
There 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
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.
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.
Resources for More
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.