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

Personal Heresy 1st slide

Canada’s annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences (Congress2021) is now winding down. I missed being live on the ground, stumbling with weary feet and droopy eyes from one brilliant intellectual session to another, discovering great local craft brewpubs and unique coffee shops and the secret walk that every university town hides from the world, making personal connections with like- and contrary-minded friends. I love feeling the room as I speak, knowing who is with me and who is somewhere else. I wanted to stand before an editor in a large conference centre, seeing their eyes as I made my pitch. I think I can learn more in a few moments like these than in a week of reading and researching.

Personal Heresy by CS LewisHowever, I was able to enjoy a great time of connection with the Canadian-American Theological Association (where I presented a paper on C.S. Lewis’ spiritual theology; see video here) and at the Christianity and Literature Study Group (CLSG). The folks at the CLSG were personable and bright, engaged in the papers that scholars and students brought to the conference and invested in the outcomes. There was nothing disconnected in this fellowship, where all the high and heady thoughts were still grounded in our Canadian classrooms, connected to our city streets, and rooted in faithful artistry. More than anything, the CLSG seemed to me to be a community very much invested in seeing in new and deep ways–in particular, in understanding the way our institutions and communities have failed to see, in many ways, what First Nations people have been trying to show us.

My CLSG paper was a project of fairly high literary theory. However, I believe that “The Personal Heresy and C.S. Lewis’ Autoethnographic Instinct: An Invitation to Intimacy in Literature and Theology” has deep implications for the way that we relate to one another in our increasingly diverse worlds of connection. Though Lewis’ thinking is often emergent and instinctive, and although it often needs our thoughtful engagement to carry it to its conclusions, I believe that Lewis is a profound dialogue partner for teachers, scholars, writers, and Christian public intellectuals today.

Lewis what you see depends on where you stand magician's nephew quoteThis 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. Certainly, the conversation after the papers in the Lewis section where helpful in clarifying my own thought. 

This video is not of the live conference but prepared specially for you. I hope you find it a fruitful discussion. There are some resources below (including abstracts and a PDF of the slides), and my announcement last week has more detail. In particular, the “Resource Sheet” in this Google Doc link is becoming a kind Lewis & Lit Theory resource page that could be useful to those interested in understanding how Lewis understood the tasks of reading (and writing or talking about reading).

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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8 Responses to “The Personal Heresy” and C.S. Lewis’ Autoethnographic Instinct: An Invitation to Intimacy in Literature and Theology

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