A Timeline of C.S. Lewis’ Major Talks

I have been interested for a while in working with precision on C.S. Lewis’ timeline. Joel Heck has a detailed 1100-page chronology, which includes all the verifiable facts in C.S. Lewis’ life. Prof. Heck joins other Lewis biographers and academic researchers, all of whom have used Walter Hooper’s collection of resources (listed below).

Rather than the fullest possible view, what I have been trying to do is capture aspects of Lewis’ public life. For example, I provided “My Cheat Sheet of C.S. Lewis’ Writing Schedule,” which is the resource I use to keep Lewis’ publications and writing periods straight. I worked that into “The Periods of C.S. Lewis’ Literary Life,” which Joe Hoffman was able to supplement. I had done some early statistical analysis of C.S. Lewis’ letter-writing, which was part of a public discussion here and here (again, with Joe Hoffman).

I have been wanting to enhance these flirtations with digital humanities resources to look at historical and literary materials. I have some larger projects in mind, including some “distant reading” of some of C.S. Lewis’ writing, as well as a comprehensive tool that lays Lewis’ life out in time and space, including photographs, audio clips, film clips, short docs, literary samples, book covers, maps (with videos of pertinent locations), and other digital features. I think this could be a beautiful and helpful tool for students of C.S. Lewis and the Inklings.

This last project is quite frankly huge and will need a significant grant if I am to pull it off. In the meantime, though, I thought I would try some software out on smaller projects. I made an interactive timeline that focusses on some of Lewis’ most influential sermons, lectures, and talks. To do this I used the Timeline app by Knight Lab. It is a pretty usable tool, though it does not embed in the online version of WordPress, unfortunately. Still, you can click here and enjoy the entire timeline of Lewis’ major talks.

Walter Hooper Bibliography For C.S. Lewis Research

  • C.S. Lewis: A Companion and Guide. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.
  • The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis: Vol. 1: Family Letters 1905-1929. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004.
  • The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis: Vol. 2: Books, Broadcasts, and the War 1931-1949. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004.
  • The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis: Vol. 3: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy 1950-1963. HarperSanFrancisco, 2007.
  • “The Lectures of C.S. Lewis in the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge.” Christian Scholar’s Review 27.4 (1998): 436-453.
  • With Roger Lancelyn Green, C.S. Lewis: A Biography. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974.


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The Deeper Meaning of “The Great Divorce” (Throwback Thursday)

Last year I introduced an occasional feature I call “Throwback Thursday.” This is where I find a blog post from the past–raiding either my own blog-hoard or someone else’s–and throw it back out into the digital world. This might be an idea or book that is now relevant again, or a concept I’d like to think about more, or even “an oldie but a goodie” that I think needs a bit of spin time.

Since this blog began in 2011, I have been trying to create a recovery of The Great Divorce. I think this novella is, quite frankly, brilliant. It has a gorgeous landscape set behind a theological novella that gets to the heart of Lewis’ spiritual legacy.

A few years back I ran a series on The Great Divorce, and there is a building momentum among Lewis readers. My students continue to be struck by this unknown book. There is now a second audiobook recording of it, as well as a stage play. There are still signs that The Great Divorce hasn’t found its way out to Lewis lovers. I’ve talked before about the Oh Hellos and their Dear Wormwood album. The Oh Hellos are a smart band that make great Irish-influenced folk collective music. The host of Audiotree noted their Screwtape influences and asked about their favourite C.S. Lewis book. Intriguingly, the host suggested “the Hell Bus one, The Great Divorce” (29:00). Alas, it was still on the band’s to-be-read list.

And, if it remains on your TBR list, I hope this post will nudge you forward. After writing a thesis on C.S. Lewis writing about spiritual life, I continue to think that The Great Divorce captures it in a tight, short, character-centred story of some imaginative depth. This post about “Deeper Meaning” remains a Pilgrim in Narnia top ten read over the years, though I have added a line or two. I hope you enjoy.

This is dangerous territory–partly because so many have trumbled into the “real” meaning of this or that book and caused an awful mess. When read this way, with a view to the veiled meaning, the Bible especially becomes secret code for everything from American foreign policy to the missing political allies of Atlantis to the reason why its words mean the exact opposite of what they say.

That’s right, the picture to the right is about the hidden Roswell UFO links in the King James Bible. I’m sure that’s clear to everyone.

C.S. Lewis is certainly not immune to being co-opted by this group or that. You know what I mean, I think. I was reading the other day that some people with a particular cultural view of what “masculinity” is are interpreting Lewis’ famous lecture “Men Without Chests” as a rallying cry against a generation raising “males without chests”–i.e., without their vision of what they think masculinity is (where “chest” is the heart of human emotion, ethic, and motivation for action). Apparently, integrity and honesty are not features that are part of this vision of the chest.

So clever readings that co-opt an original text’s meaning are deadly. This is certainly true of The Great Divorce, a book filled with theological speculation.

Intriguingly, Lewis warned us in the preface to The Great Divorce that we should avoid certain sorts of speculation:

“I beg readers to remember that this is a fantasy. It has of course–or I intended it to have–a moral. But the transmortal conditions are solely an imaginative supposal: they are not even a guess or a speculation at what may actually await us. The last thing I wish is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the after-world.”

great divorce

In The Great Divorce, Lewis describes heaven and hell with vivid clarity: the great, apathetic, narcissistic, blandness of hell contrasted to the bright, sharp, penetrating beauty of heaven. Lewis wants here to avoid a school of thought that would blame him for redrawing the faint lines of historic teaching about the after-life. He only wants to go as far as Dante, telling a morally invested story with the artistry that he has that invites us into a grander vision of spiritual life.

But Dante really did redraw the lines of eschatology, whether we have read him or not. His cosmography of hell, purgatory, and heaven has stuck with us, shaping our cultural understanding, repainting every bit of our imagination from catechism classes all the way up to the works of the greatest modern artists. Perhaps Lewis is trying to have the reader keep the moral, and even the tang of heaven and hell, without accepting its landscape.

So why do I push in to what he has created, trying to discern meaning that he seems to resist? Besides the Dante Effect–the reality that art and culture shape culture and thought–there are two reasons.

Collected Letters vol 2

First, there is this little statement that Lewis makes in a letter to fellow poet Ruth Pitter. Pitter had said that there was something jarring or frightening or personally vivid about The Great Divorce. On July 6th, 1947, Lewis wrote back:

“I was rather frightened myself by the Great Divorce. — condemned out of my own mouth.”

There is something of The Great Divorce that tells the truth about C.S. Lewis’ understanding of the world. Without trying to bend Lewis, or find the super secret Bible code, that something that frightened Lewis is worth exploring.

Second, Lewis really is telling us something about his beliefs on what heaven and hell means. This is C.S. Lewis speaking in the preface:

“I believe, to be sure, that any man who reaches Heaven will find that what he abandoned (even in plucking out his right eye) was precisely nothing: that the kernel of what he was really seeking even in his most depraved wishes will be there, beyond expectation, waiting for him in “the High Countries.” In that sense it will be true for those who have completed the journey (and for no others) to say that good is everything and Heaven everywhere.”

Lewis cautions against trying to live the heaven-in-all-good now, suggesting that if we do “we are likely to embrace the false and disastrous converse and fancy that everything is good and everywhere is Heaven” (Preface). Otherwise, though, he is saying something definite about heaven and hell. We are not to imagine heaven and hell as distinct, geographically specific domains.

In this way, Lewis is carrying on a conversation begun in The Problem of Pain. His eighth chapter captures the trilemma of hell: something seems to be wrong with the teaching of a good-loving God who puts sinners in an eternal hell for conscious, non-reforming punishment. After setting aside common objections to the doctrine of hell, he chips away at our understanding of time in the after-life. Finally, he hints at a solution of the trilemma on the issue of consciousness:

“[Hell] is in no sense parallel to heaven: it is ‘the darkness outside’, the outer rim where being fades away into nonentity” (“Hell”).

This was written about 5 years before The Great Divorce. Not quite a decade later, Lewis encapsulated some of his understanding of heaven in the final Narnian chronicle, The Last Battle (1956). There is a great deal to say about that complex little book, but two sets of characters show us something of Lewis’ eschatological imagination.

In one scene, a group of Dwarfs sit in a tight circle, refusing to admit that they are in heaven. All light is for them darkness. All good food is waste. All hope is a con. In another scene, a Calormene officer, Emeth, is invited into this Narnian heaven even though he had served as an enemy of Aslan. Aslan says, “I take to me the services which thou hast done to Tash.” These two scenes show The Great Divorce idea of the continuity of earthly life into either heaven or hell, as well as the blurring of the regional boundaries.

It is true that Lewis draws the picture in The Great Divorce a little differently than he does elsewhere. He resists George MacDonald‘s universalism–intriguingly by having MacDonald adjust his own views in the text itself!–and affirms the essential difference between heaven and hell. But he does so in surprisingly unorthodox way. Here is one of those pictures, where George MacDonald, a spirit of heaven, is explaining why the saved cannot go into hell to rescue the damned:

“… a damned soul is nearly nothing: it is shrunk, shut up in itself. Good beats upon the damned incessantly as sound waves beat on the ears of the deaf, but they cannot receive it. Their fists are clenched, their teeth are clenched, their eyes fast shut. First they will not, in the end they cannot, open their hands for gifts, or their mouths for food, or their eyes to see” (ch. 13).

These sorts of images have led some people to draw theological conclusions using C.S. Lewis’ work. David Clark argues in C.S. Lewis Goes to Heaven that people will get a chance to accept Christ, whether that is here on earth or in heaven. Clark argues that when we follow Lewis’ understanding of heaven and hell, we will discover that:

“Lewis removed this huge stumbling block to Christianity and vindicated both the justice and mercy of God” (see here).

rob bell love winsAnother author, and one with a far greater influence, is Rob Bell. Though often missed by reviewers, Bell’s work is shot through with Lewis’ influence. In Love Wins, that book that transformed millions of readers and set the stage for his exit left from the evangelical conversation, Bell argues exactly for the continuity that Lewis sets up in The Great Divorce. Heaven and hell are both experienced here on earth, and one’s decisions sets one in a heavenward or hellward direction. We can bring heaven into our earthbound reality, or we can sow hell into everyday life. While Bell isn’t very clear about what this means for the actual movement of the human being into the realms beyond, it is a powerful image as a spiritual truth. Bell leans on Lewis for this road map.

Still, as we think about heaven and hell, we remember Lewis’ caution. Is this arousing “factual curiosity about the details of the after-world?” I have to admit that as he poignantly captures the landscapes of heaven and hell in imagination, I’m tempted to believe that his landscape hints at something “factual.” And it may be that Lewis offers something to Christian thinking about choice, salvation, and the after-life.

But I don’t think that’s the deepest meaning of The Great Divorce–as much as I think Lewis leaves room for discussion open.

Through this speculative fantasy, Lewis captures the truth of the human condition–the truth of his human condition. Most of us are not murderers or rapists or dictators, yet we play with evil within the subtle inclinations of our hearts. We do this not to evil men or even to strangers. No, we rage against or manipulate the ones we claim to love. I rage against and manipulate the ones I love. In this I am sowing hell on earth, bending myself toward self–that is, bending myself toward hell.

Each of our choices here on earth invests us further into heavenliness or hellishness. In this way, The Great Divorce is not really about heaven or hell and the afterlife, but about whether or not Galatians 2:20 is true in this life:

I have been crucified with Christ. I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. So the life that I now live, I live in faith in the son of God who loves me and gave up his life for me.

What is the deeper meaning in The Great Divorce? It is, I think, the thing that shocked Lewis so much. On the great stage of this heavenly dream vision, Lewis saw his own sin and selfishness played out, scene after scene. While as readers we can close ourselves off to its message, Lewis could not. It stripped bare his willful blindness, and this is what he was left with:

“One  dreadful  glance  over  my shoulder I essayed-not long enough to see (or did I see?) the rim of the sunrise that shoots Time dead with golden arrows and puts to flight all phantasmal shapes.

“Screaming, I buried my face in the folds of my Teacher’s robe. ‘The morning! The morning!’ I cried, ‘I am caught by the morning and I am a ghost.’

“But it was too late. The light, like solid blocks, intolerable of edge and weight, came thundering upon my head. Next moment the folds of my Teacher’s garment were only the folds of the old ink-stained cloth on my study table which I had pulled down with me as I fell from my chair. The blocks of light were only the books which I had pulled off with it, falling about my head. I awoke in a cold room, hunched on the floor beside a black and empty grate, the clock striking three, and the siren howling overhead” (ch. 14).

What is the secret code of The Great Divorce? It’s the basic principle that it matters how we live, and whatever lies we tell ourselves in the dark will be set to flight in the truth of that last great sunrise.




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“Unveiling Bird Box” ICRF Conference Talk Resources

I’m pleased to announce that I will be presenting a paper today at the 2019 International Conference on Religion & Film in Halifax, Nova Scotia. My talk title is “Unveiling Bird Box: Thinking about Genres of Apocalypse and Contemporary Culture.” This post includes the resources, including the abstract, the powerpoint show, some of the clips I’m using, and a handout from The Apocalypse of Abraham. See more here.

“Unveiling Bird Box” Abstract: Unveiling Bird Box: Thinking about Genres of Apocalypse and Contemporary Culture

Bird Box has emerged as a pop culture phenomenon with ads warning the audience, “Don’t Look!” The supposal is basic: a global apocalyptic scenario of near elimination where the near survivors must veil themselves in order to survive. And yet, much of the speculative logic of the film is unknown. Despite widespread social media speculation, we do not know if the entity or entities that threaten human elimination are supernatural or natural. Despite the unknowns, and although the film presents itself as being about veiling, Bird Box is clearly about seeing.­ The tension of looking/not looking that film marketers captured in the ad campaign is not merely a challenge to the audience but is the essential diegetic crisis of the survivors.

While there are many unknowns about the speculative universe of the film, it is clear that it is an entirely post-religious world. And yet, to call the film “apocalyptic” is to recall the Jewish roots of the genre. Observation of themes of seeing in Bird Box reveals intriguing points of continuity and discontinuity with the religious roots of the genre, even in this post-religious film. In exploring definitions in John J. Collins’ The Apocalyptic Imagination and other scholars of Second Temple Jewish and Christian literature, and using examples in sacred texts like The Apocalypse of Abraham, this paper explores ways Bird Box invites us to think about apocalyptic films as revelations for contemporary culture.

“Unveiling Bird Box” Presentation: Unveiling Bird Box presentation final (PPT)

“Unveiling Bird Box” Presentation: Click Here (PPT Online).

“Unveiling Bird Box HandoutUnveiling Bird Box Handout (PDF)

Some Clips Used in the Presentation (note: the one where Tom tells a story won’t load, but it is at 1:30:54 in the film)

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Unveiling Bird Box: My Conference Talk on Apocalypse and Contemporary Culture at the International Conference on Religion & Film, Halifax, NS

I’m pleased to announce that I will be presenting a paper this week at the 2019 International Conference on Religion & Film in Halifax, Nova Scotia. My talk title is “Unveiling Bird Box: Thinking about Genres of Apocalypse and Contemporary Culture.” I’ve included the abstract below.

I intend to have some fun with this presentation, and I am using Zombieland to set up the talk. There is a weird and probably accidental coincidence between the way the Bird Box film thinks about apocalypse and the way that ancient Jewish people wrote apocalypse. It might not be accidental, I suppose, and in terms of genre, apocalyptic film is the great-great-grandbaby of Jewish and Christian apocalypses (like Daniel, Revelation, The Apocalypse of Abraham, 2 Enoch, etc.). But there is a recovery in Bird Box of some peculiar ancient features, so that (in my mind) apocalyptic and postapocalyptic film is uniquely suited to recover that sense of what was going on when Jews started shaping this genre–even in a secular world.

I want to announce this not just to tell folks what I have been up to, but to invite local students to the conference. If you are a student living in Eastern Canada or New England, this is a unique opportunity. While there will be costs involved in going (unless you happen to live in Halifax), there are some great prices involved in this conference. It is FREE for undergraduate students, and only $30 for graduate students. That’s pretty cool, and shows a group of scholars intentional about raising up the next generation. You can register here.

I’m also looking forward to conversations about films that involve Mi’kmaq peoples, including Wi’Kupaltimk (Feast of Forgiveness), which I’ve linked below. Here is a brief description of the heart of the film, which is about food security issues for urban indigenous peoples:

The film [Wi’Kupaltimk] celebrates of the resilience of the Mi’kmaq, and Indigenous people in general; the rich landscape and resources which were available to them prior to colonization, the medicines and wild food that are still available and the sacredness of the food that sustains human beings spiritually, culturally, and physically.

If you are nearby, I would encourage you to join us! I’m presenting on Thursday morning.

Abstract: Unveiling Bird Box: Thinking about Genres of Apocalypse and Contemporary Culture

Bird Box has emerged as a pop culture phenomenon with ads warning the audience, “Don’t Look!” The supposal is basic: a global apocalyptic scenario of near elimination where the near survivors must veil themselves in order to survive. And yet, much of the speculative logic of the film is unknown. Despite widespread social media speculation, we do not know if the entity or entities that threaten human elimination are supernatural or natural. Despite the unknowns, and although the film presents itself as being about veiling, Bird Box is clearly about seeing.­ The tension of looking/not looking that film marketers captured in the ad campaign is not merely a challenge to the audience but is the essential diegetic crisis of the survivors.

While there are many unknowns about the speculative universe of the film, it is clear that it is an entirely post-religious world. And yet, to call the film “apocalyptic” is to recall the Jewish roots of the genre. Observation of themes of seeing in Bird Box reveals intriguing points of continuity and discontinuity with the religious roots of the genre, even in this post-religious film. In exploring definitions in John J. Collins’ The Apocalyptic Imagination and other scholars of Second Temple Jewish and Christian literature, and using examples in sacred texts like The Apocalypse of Abraham, this paper explores ways Bird Box invites us to think about apocalyptic films as revelations for contemporary culture.


Thursday, June 13th 2019            

9:00 a.m. – 10:30 a.m.                   Morning Sessions One                 

Sobey 260

Amir Hussain, Keeping it Reel: Muslims Changing Images of Muslims in Film and Television

Rubina Ramji, Following the Route of The Muslim Djinn – From Arab Folklore to American Theatres

Serife Goktas, Discovering The Truth With Cinema

Sobey 265

Natasha Wright, The Devil Wears Prada and so does the Witch: Female Bodies as ‘Evil’ in Horror

Jason WM Ellsworth, Jurassic Constructions: What Dinosaurs in Film Can Teach Us About Religion

Brenton Dickieson, Unveiling Bird Box: Thinking about Genres of Apocalypse and Contemporary Culture

 11:00 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.                Morning Sessions Two                 

 Sobey 260

Philip Deslippe, Yogis and Swamis in Early American Film

Harshita Yalamarty, “Wear the Turban, Pray to God, Beat up Bad Guys”: Religion, Masculinity and Superheroes in ‘Super Singh’

Sailaja Krishnamurti & Saira Chibber, Hindu normativity and South Asian American masculinities in diasporic cinema

Sobey 265

Adam Stewart, Framing Masculinity in Evangelical Film

Diana Abernethy, Worthy of Love: The Omission of Biblical Quotations in Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time

Zachary Ingle, A Heady Brew of Christian Science, Salvation Army, and the Social Gospel

2:30 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.                    Afternoon Sessions                       

Sobey 260

Thomas Curran, Religion and Verisimilitude in Film

Johan Roeland & Miranda van Holland, “A more plausible Jesus”: the many faces of authenticity in the Jesus Christ Superstar phenomenon

Andrew Quicke, Christian Box Office: Why did Fox Fail, Sony Succeed?

Sobey 265

John Lyden, Sacred Death: Legitimizing Sacrifice in American War Films

Dan Brockway, A God of Violence and Nonviolence?: Imagining Hacksaw Ridge and The Birth of a Nation (2016) in a Shared Cinematic Universe

Kelly MacPhail, “Got to hate fences”: Authority and Spiritual Anarchy in Lonely are the Brave (1962)

Friday, June 14th

9:00 a.m. – 10:30 a.m.                   Morning Sessions One  

Sobey 260

Monisa Qadri, Locating the muslim woman’s identity in Shyam Bengal’s Cinema

Zainub Beg, Jodha Akbar: A Case of Interfaith marriage, Bollywood, and ‘Otherness’

Nadira Khatun, Constructing a New Identity of Bengali Muslims in Zulfiqar, Rajkahini, and Kabir

Sobey 265

Jeanette Reedy Solano, No Promised Land: Immigrant Realities in Independent Film

Darrell Varga, Indigenous Resistance and Popular Cinema: Rhymes for Young Ghouls and Maliglutit

Rebecca Makas, “Knowledge Belongs to All. You Do Not Understand That—You Are Just a White Man”

11:00 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.                Morning Sessions Two                 

Sobey 260

Lina Verchery, Temporal Density: Buddhist Perspectives on Temporality and Film

James H. Thrall, Song of the Other: Kon Ichikawa’s Biruma no Tategoto (The Burmese Harp)

Sobey 265

Michele Byers, After post-Jewish:  Memory, Mediation, and American Identity on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

Chris Miller, What is Going on in Room 104?: Mormons and Shifting Mainstream Perceptions

Syed Adnan Hussain, Posthuman Creation in the Films of Alex Garland

Wi’kupaltimk Film

Wi’kupaltimk – Feast of Forgiveness from Kent Martin on Vimeo.

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My Disappointed Review of Greg Boyd’s “Cross Vision”

Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament ViolenceCross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence by Gregory A. Boyd
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I approached Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence quite hopefully, for a number of reasons. Greg Boyd’s Letters to a Skeptic was really important to me when I was younger. I found his soft theodicy really compelling, and I admired his honest look at difficult passages while offering hopeful readings. I ultimately rejected Boyd’s theory of Open Theism in God of the Possible, but I was attracted to the concept–again, because I felt like he was unwilling to turn away from difficult aspects of Scripture. On a personal level, I admire how Boyd has been able to be a voice of nonviolence and social ethics while holding together pastoral responsibilities, cultural engagement, and academic research.

Finally, I am curious about the implications of what Boyd calls “the cruciform character of God” (43, 59) and his use of God’s self-sacrifice in the cross as the primary lens for reading Scripture, forming Christian thought, growing in spiritual life, and extending our witness of Christ into the world. It is what I am doing in my work on C.S. Lewis and the Spiritual Life, and I admire others who call for this point of view in their areas (like Stanley Hauerwas, who says the cross is the model of our response to violence, or Michael Gorman and Richard Bauckham, who see the cross in the stories that St. Paul tells about spirituality, or Jürgen Moltmann in how he envisions the transformation of society as it begins in Christian life, or L. Ann Jervis in how she imagines the Christian response to suffering). I want to see the consequences of what we call “crucicentric” (cross-centred) approaches to life. Boyd’s Cross Vision is about how we read the Scriptures, particularly the Hebrew Bible.

To say that I am disappointed is an understatement. This is a deeply troubling book. Boyd is honest about his commitment to what he calls a “conservative hermeneutic,” a way of reading Scripture that believes it to be God-breathed and inspired, and therefore true regardless of its genre or whether a particular story refers to something that happened in history. This is a good approach, overall, and Boyd is able to trace the growth of how God is revealed to God’s people as it connects with their capacity to see the truth, beauty, and goodness of God in their cultural moment. Ultimately, this leads to God’s self-revelation the cross.

I agree that God reveals God’s self perfectly upon the cross, and there are others who talk sensibly about the growth of understanding in God’s people (like Henry Webb). But it is not twisting Boyd to say that God lies about who God is to a people that can’t bear the full reality of God. It isn’t just that we don’t see God fully in the Exodus or the giving of the law or a particular prophetic or worship moment. Do we ever? But that God pulls on a cloak of evil in order to, ultimately, show good. The Bible is intentionally misleading when picturing God as a violent God, not just limited or foggy or that something else is going on textually (though he uses each of these solutions at times).

Primarily, Boyd is focussed on violence, and I’ll return to his evaluation of that in a moment. But the distance between the New Testament portrayal of God and the Old Testament portrayal is drawn out to absurd differences in this book. Frankly, the picture is deeply troubling as it portrays the Hebrew people, and Boyd seems ignorant of how deeply anti-Jewish (and sometimes antisemitic) biblical interpretation has been in academia. I did a masters degree on Christian antisemitism, and it was hard for me to read this book at points because Boyd doesn’t seem to be able to answer the question of what deep and meaningful truth, goodness, and beauty Israel is given from God that is particular to Israel. If God is a self-sacrificial God–which I believe is true–then Israelite and early Jewish religion as given to them in Scripture bears that out faithfully for them–not just a feint or stop-gap religion. Though this book is meant to defend a “violent portrait of God in the Old Testament,” I am now left with a deceptive God who fakes a religion for a while until some of God’s people capture the vision of the cross. It could be a chapter in the book could have addressed this, but that chapter isn’t there.

On the question of violence and God, Boyd is no doubt correct to speak to it. The two stars on this review (instead of one) is because of his desire for honesty, and for his affable way of translating what are two complex volumes of exegesis into a popular-level book. And I have said I admire his evangelical social ethic.

But he pushes this too far sometimes and leaves other questions open. For example, at one point Boyd rejects any violence by God, including violence against animals. This is an intriguing point, as God set up an entire system of animal sacrifice, used a meat-based meal in Jesus’ last supper, and used animals cut in half to confirm the covenant with Abraham. In his admirable animal rights stance, Boyd presses too far in saying that “we later learn that God doesn’t actually approve of animal sacrifices” (73). That’s certainly a too severe representation of prophetic criticism of empty sacrifice, and Christian and Jewish theologians in history have talked about how worship and community formation ultimately moves past animal sacrifice.

Beyond this, Boyd argues that God perpetuates no violence at all. But I think this isn’t a good enough statement as:
1) at times God has given the job of violence to others (Body is correct that much of this is the natural, organic violence that emerges from the community, but not all);
2) God has gifted people, entities, and empires with powers to perpetrate violence of a special kind (like fireballs from heaven, earthquakes, superhuman strength, genocide, etc.); and
3) God has designed this world as one soaked in violence.

I suppose a Christian, Jewish, or Muslim will respond and say (in their own words) that the world we have is broken because of choices we make. I think that’s true, though God leaves us a historical record in the earth of untold violence before the first humans awoke to see the choice of sin before them.

But the “Fall of humanity” is not a surprise to God. Contrary to Boyd’s argument in God of the Possible, God does not live in time, rolling with the punches, so that the temptation of Adam and Eve could go either way. God spins no theoretical wheels; there is no “what if?” in God’s character. In loving and being love, God makes; and in making, God lovingly introduces violence to the world. In the moment of your reading this line, there have been a billion deaths on this planet, from the microscopic to the catastrophic.

To say that these deaths and the actions in the Hebrew Bible are not caused by God is to say because God is one or two degrees removed is, in my mind, like saying the general who commanded the gassing of people in Auschwitz was innocent because he never killed a single Jew, Polish person, disabled child, or homosexual. This pass-the-buck spirituality in secular life is our generation’s most consequential sin.

I wonder, can we ever say that “violence” is something other than a spectrum? It is violent to restrain a knife-wielding terrorist rather than submit to his violence. Childbirth is violence, and even loving sex that produces those children is a kind of violence at times, even minute. Agriculture, engineering, policing, medicine–all these vocations involve a kind of violence to them. The most loving zoologist brings death, lovingly, in its season.

Chagall's White CrucifixionIt is true that we each have moral responsibility within our sphere. It is also true, I believe, that human sin has caused great unnecessary human suffering that grieves all who are good. Moreover, I believe that in God’s self-sacrifice on the cross–a moment of significant violence–God is taking violence upon God’s self not just in that moment but in all history. Thus, we are to live differently because of it, so that being Christlike is a radical life choice. But Boyd’s theodicy is not convincing.

I am very disappointed, and I am perhaps overly sensitive about popular antisemitism, so there is heat in this review that may be unwarranted. Greg Boyd is a Christian brother whom I admire and who has taught me much. Boyd is trying to do a good thing, but I think the problem of violence in the Bible remains. I don’t find his “cross vision” convincing as he applies it here, though it is largely the approach I adapt. I just don’t think a cross-centred Bible reading makes the problem of violence go away totally.

But I do think it gives us new meaning. I think we are meant to live in these troubling Scriptures as we are meant to live in the troubling world, where death is all around and mortality a constant, heart-breaking, and transformational truth.

And there is our cultural moment, too. We believe as a society that death is an evil itself, and yet we bring death with our lifestyles, or politics, our fight for individual rights, our desire for comfort, and our certainty that we need the next coffee, car, semi-detached house, avocado, running shoes, or whatever. Was it Rafael Rodriguez who laughed at our culture that says “look at your violent God” and then obsesses over Game of Thrones? There’s that.

And, of course, I may be wrong. Ultimately, I think we need to turn to Boyd’s two-volume Crucifixion of the Warrior God. Matt Lynch of Westminster Theological Centre has done a careful, four-part review of Boyd’s academic version of this approach. I would encourage you to follow up as part of the problem with the book is the breezy way it moves through questions that are centuries in the making.

View all my reviews

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My Discussion with Diana Glyer about the Tolkien Biopic on William O’Flaherty’s All About Jack Podcast

I have recently had the opportunity to be part of a few different dialogues about the Tolkien biopic. I wrote a review for Forefront, where I talked about the Problem of Beauty and some of the struggles that Christian artists have in this age. I also posted a response to the film–almost a reaction to it rather than a review. “My Defiant Appreciation of the Tolkien Biopic” was also a plea to Tolkien-lovers to judge the film on its own merits as a biopic, and my own desire to love something that brings me more of Tolkien’s world. Both responses created a lot of discussion, but I was pleased when Dome Karukoski, the director of Tolkien, retweeted my review and called it “my favourite to rule them all.”

On the weekend I also recorded a podcast with a couple of friends. C.S. Lewis lovers should know William O’Flaherty’s “All About Jack” podcast, which for the last few years has brought dozens (hundreds?) of great author interviews, reviews, and features related to Lewis and the Inklings. William hosted me and Diana Glyer for a conversation about the Tolkien biopic. Diana is well known to lovers of the Inklings. Her magnum opus The Company They Keep is an essential text for people who study book creation or for folks interested in how the Inklings as a group managed to change the world of literature. More recently, her Bandersnatch provides a readable and resourceful guide for creators and writers–particularly those interested in collaboration, and guided by the Inklings and the stories they told.

Our conversation was a lot of fun and, I think, created a thoughtful and careful response to the film. Whether you have seen the film or you are waiting for the DVD release this summer, I hope you enjoy our Tolkien biopic podcast.

Or click here: https://allaboutjack.podbean.com/e/discussion-of-tolkien-biopic-glyer-and-dickieson/.

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Thesis Submitted!

Well, the time has come. Last Thursday, just after noon, I submitted my thesis for a PhD in theology and literature at the University of Chester. I spent the Friday cleaning my digital and actual desk–a task with a few days more ahead–and the weekend with family. But I wanted to take a brief moment to celebrate and share with you why I have been sequestered away for these last few months.

The thesis is titled:

“The Great Story on Which the Plot Turns”:
Cruciformity in C.S. Lewis’ Narrative Spiritual Theology

I include the abstract below. I argue that there is an image that was central to C.S. Lewis’ conversion, and that image orients his entire thought process about life. The image is death and resurrection, patterned in the cross as a way that we are to live. When we refocus our lens of reading Lewis upon his vision of spiritual life–rather than, specifically, Lewis as apologist or critic or whatever party people want to align him with–we can see this image not just in his Christian teaching, but in the heart of his fiction and even his approach to literary theory and cultural criticism. It is this idea, I believe, that integrates all of Lewis’ thought.

I will spend the next three months preparing to defend this thesis, and at some point it will be a book–either in a dissertation series, or rewritten for more popular audiences. We will see!

The Deets

  • 73 months since I first registered, though I began “pretending” I was in a PhD in August 2011, which was 2,884 days ago; that means I will have been at this for 8 years when I defend
  • 110,269 words including bibliography and front matter; 99,969 words of body text
  • 279 pages at A4/1.5 space; 348 pages at 8.5×11/2 space
  • 1,334 footnotes; 445 bibliographic entries–92 of which are C.S. Lewis’ materials
  • 6 chapters (I didn’t count the sections) made up of 2,579 paragraphs

The Dedication and the Blog

I will wait until I actually pass the PhD before I share the full dedication, but I wanted to say that I included you readers in my brief dedication. I really have used this blog to test out my ideas, knowing that if I haven’t clarified my ideas in writing them, the audience of book fans, scholars, and students who read this blog would work on my blunt edges. I mention some of the senior scholars in Inklings studies who have reached out to me personally for support, but also this “strange” blog that I write. Some of my colleagues have looked at part or all of the thesis, and I thank them, but then I note some people–some of you–who have read parts or all the thesis:

“the online forum at A Pilgrim in Narnia, which I have used as a thesis sandbox over the years. Others in that community have also read portions or all of this thesis, including David, Yvonne, and Dana—who revealed all of my typographical oddities.”

Thanks so much, folks, for your strong reading and thinking.

I have found it increasingly difficult over the last seven months to multitask–as I have always done well in the past. In the last three months, I have failed to keep up with comment conversations and the many places this blog has been shared in digital forums. At one point, I grew quite impatient and left a conversation in our comment section; other times I am told I sounded grumpy: what were happy and short comments from me, unfortunately came out as brusque or dismissive (I tried to fix the ones I recognized as such, but my apologies to others whom I’m sure I’ve missed). I’ve realized that I have also come to loathe public controversy, and found myself worrying at night about this space. I used to relish in the classroom and dinner table spaces of battle and friendship, but when I can’t see people’s eyeballs I now know that I don’t love it. This experience will shape my writing, I think.

I suspect that this blog space will still be pretty speculative and playful over the summer and early part of the fall term–including some lessons learned from this process. But I think it will settle in again to more familiar patterns. I hope to have a Narnia series in Winter 2020, another L.M. Montgomery series in Spring 2020, and later that year something about a book.

The Outline

The thesis has six chapters. I’ve included the Table of Contents below, and I probably should have split the conclusion, but here’s the outline:

  1. Introduction: Cruciform Spirituality in the Works of C.S. Lewis
  2. Where the Secret of Secrets Lies Hid: C.S. Lewis as Spiritual Theologian
  3. “Die Before You Die”: C.S. Lewis’ Logic of Cruciformity
  4. The Shape of Cruciformity: Narrative Patterns of the Cross in Lewis’ Fiction and Nonfiction
  5. The Long Shadow of the Cross and the Cruciform Heroic in C.S. Lewis
  6. Conclusion: The Inversive Shape of C.S. Lewis’ Theology of the Cross


This thesis presses in on C.S. Lewis’ extremely diverse corpus to explore his integrative narrative spirituality of the cross. Chapter one argues that attention to the concept of spiritual self-death and resurrection in Lewis is lacking critical treatment despite the spirituality of the cross that I argue is deeply woven into the fabric of Lewis’ poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and letters. This cross-shaped spirituality, what Michael Gorman calls “cruciformity,” is central to Lewis’ understanding of Christian life. Though neglected because of reductive readings of Lewis as an apologist, chapter one surveys occasional notes about this death-and-resurrection motif in Lewis scholarship and provides definitions for methodological approaches to the study. Following definitions of spiritual theology by Eugene Peterson, chapter two turns from systematic theological explorations of Lewis to consider him as a spiritual theologian, a move that is organic to his theological enterprise, his epistemology, and his fiction. Chapter three explores Gorman’s biblical-theological approach to Pauline cruciformity, arguing that there is a six-point Logic of Cruciformity in Lewis’ so-called apologetics writings that moves past and refocuses Thomas à Kempis’ Imitation of Christ. As Lewis’ spirituality is embedded in narrative form within poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, chapter four explores “The Shape of Cruciformity” in Lewis’ œuvre, using Northrop Frye’s narratology and J.R.R. Tolkien’s theory of eucatastrophe to argue that there is a comedic, U-shaped pattern of cruciform imagery in Lewis’ fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Chapter five interrogates Lewis’ integrative, normative narrative cruciformity with feminist theological critique, provoked by Anna Fisk’s concerns about cross-shaped spiritualities in women’s experiences. A response to this problematisation reveals an inversive quality inherent to Lewis’ thought that is itself U-shaped, comedic, and eucatastrophic. This thesis concludes by exploring this inversive U-shaped thinking central to Lewis’ theological project, arguing that the shape of cruciformity in Lewis is the shape of his spiritual theology. I conclude with “sacred paradoxes” in Lewis’ thought that invite further work and deepen our understanding of Lewis’ concept of spiritual life, thus inviting a prophetic self-critique for Christian believers.

Table of Contents

Abstract          i
Declaration     ii
Table of Contents       iii
Abbreviations vi
Acknowledgements    vii

Ch. 1: Introduction: Cruciform Spirituality in the Works of C.S. Lewis        1

Introduction: Accounting for the Integrative Nature of C.S. Lewis’ Thought 1
Definitions as Methodological Approaches   7
Death is at the Root of the Whole Matter     16
“The Macdonald Conception of Death”         20
A Brief Survey of Lewis’ Theology of the Cross          27

Ch. 2: Where the Secret of Secrets Lies Hid: C.S. Lewis as Spiritual Theologian    34

Introduction   34
An Approach to Spiritual Theology: Eugene Peterson and “Living, living fully and well”            34
C.S. Lewis as Spiritual Theologian      38

Secondary Literature on Lewis and Spirituality         39
Social Thought and a Spirituality of the Cross in Conversation         42
A Tilt of the Head: From Systematic to Spiritual Theology    51
The Great Divorce: Eschatology to Spirituality          53
Lewis’ “Meditation in a Toolshed” as Epistemology 56
Mere Christianity: Lewis’ Emphasis on the Spiritual Life       57

An Experiment in Narnia: From Atonement Theory to Spiritual Theology   64

C.S. Lewis and The Cross Event          64
Aslanic Sacrifice as Imitation Motif    69

Conclusion      75

Ch. 3: “Die Before You Die”: C.S. Lewis’ Logic of Cruciformity        77

Introduction   77
Michael Gorman as Conversation Partner for C.S. Lewis       77
C.S. Lewis’ Logic of Cruciformity        80

Mere Christianity: Incarnational Necessity and the Echo of God      80
The Problem of Pain: Lewis’ Six Point Logic of Cruciformity 82

Cruciformity in Lewis’ Fiction 89

The Great Divorce (1944-45)  90
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952)       93
Till We Have Faces (1956)       98

Conclusion: Clarifying and Moving Past Thomas à Kempis’ Imitation of Christ        104

Ch. 4: The Shape of Cruciformity: Narrative Patterns of the Cross in Lewis’ Fiction and Nonfiction           107

Introduction: Recognisable Narrative Patterns of Spirituality          107
Lewis as Imagistic Mythmaker: “It All Began with a Picture” 108
Lewis’ Imagistic Story-making and Frye’s U-Shaped Pattern 111
Dive: U-Shaped Cruciform Imagery in Lewis’ Life and Writing          114
The Fairy Tale Form in Lewis’ Fiction 121

Eucatastrophe and Fairy Tale 121
The Pilgrim’s Regress  124
Narnia 126
That Hideous Strength           128
Descent and Ascent in Planetary Journeys    136

Death Restored to the Baptised Imagination 141
Conclusion: The Zenith of the Cosmic Story  150

Ch. 5: The Long Shadow of the Cross and the Cruciform Heroic in C.S. Lewis        155

Introduction: A Black and Scarlet Cord: Violence and Death in the Shadowlands   155
The Long Shadow of the Cross: A Feminist Critique of Crucicentric Spirituality       160

Approaches to Feminist Christologies           160
Anna Fisk and Images of the Cross     164

Kath Filmer and the First Generation of Critics on Lewis and Women          170
Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen and the Second Generation of Lewis Gender Critics    178
Integrative Cruciformity and Inversive Qualities in Lewis’ Life and Work     183

Ann Loades and Lewis’ Christological Inversion        183
Inversive Cruciform Elements in The Four Loves and A Grief Observed       184
The Cruciform Principle and A Severe Mercy 187
Lewis’ Deepening Cruciform Inversion of Hierarchy in Love 192

Monika Hilder and the Lewisian Spiritual “Feminine” Heroic           194
Lewis as Conversation Partner in a Cruciform Spirituality of Sex and Gender          199

Ch. 6: Conclusion: The Inversive Shape of C.S. Lewis’ Theology of the Cross         202

Introduction: The Shape of Lewis’ Spiritual Theology           202
Comedy, Satire, and Ironic Inversion in Lewis’ Work 204
The Screwtape Letters as Moral Inversion    208
Comedy and Inversive Thinking         213
“As High as My Spirit, As Small as My Stature”: C.S. Lewis’ Theology of the Small   214
Criticism as Conversion: Active Surrender in C.S. Lewis’ Spiritual Theology 224

C.S. Lewis’ Experiment in Criticism    226
On A Grief Observed  229

Sacred Paradoxes: Limitations and Invitations to Further Work       232

Bibliography   243

C.S. Lewis Bibliography          243
Secondary Source Bibliography         247
Primary Sources and Archival Material          271


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