Avoiding The Road, 31 Years

For fifteen years I have avoided The Road. Perhaps longer.

I did not need the book description to know that I would avoid reading it. I picked it up, held it in my hand, and I knew. It was Cormac McCarthy. There was a little boy in it. That was all it took.

I have avoided other stories too. I have never watched Blood Diamond or The Pursuit of Happiness. I stopped reading The Kite Runner during the kite battle, before Hassan finds the kite. I turned off The Walking Dead as the bullet sliced through the deer. The boy fell in dead leaves and I have never watched another moment. I did watch Life is Beautiful. I had to, and I wept in front of my students, as if a man can be broken by fiction.

There are probably more stories that I have left in my spiritual wilderness over the years. I cannot know. It was never a conscious choice, a mental category that framed my yes and no. It was just there.

It is not for the words themselves that I set The Road aside. Its sparse narrative, torn images of a grey world, reveal the skeins of a thousand untold tales. In those few words, a reader could learn to hate the sky, or love water, or forget the way forever. It is brilliant. It is hard.

It was never the words, or even the images. It was the story.

It is always the story.

And in 2006 Cormac McCarthy told the story that I have never had the courage to tell.

Seasons change by the slow arc of the earth. Lives change by the collection of postcards and phone bills and mismatched socks. Somewhere over the unmeasured, bending moments of life, my reason for avoiding The Road has itself bent. But where it was uncertain in seasons past, it is certain to me now:

It is my newborn son, wet and bruised and naked, skin turning blue because breath would not come, a sliver nearer to life than death.

It is my son, curious simian gate, tiny fingers slipping from mine in the crowd.

It is my son, at the breakfast table, cereal soggy because he has too many questions to ask.

It is my son, tender-hearted, curious, and artistic in a world that breaks hearts, crushes questions, and has moved on to better things than beauty.

Grief has a way of distilling life, so that the pixels of hard universal fact blur in the radiant palette of yellow to green to blue. So all of my life as a father is found on a single night, this night, when I was just a boy.

Smoke makes a sound as it suffocates you, exchanging cells of life for cells of death in your lungs. And I awoke.

I stood there in the darkness, rushing heat and smashing glass and thickening grey breath. I was inches from his door, my brother’s door. He would not wake on his own, I knew. He slept beneath heavy blankets, stuffed animals squeezed against his sweaty cheeks.

I could have touched that panelled door.

But I was afraid, and I turned away, trusting my father to save us. I knew he would do anything to see us live.

Fathers do anything to see their sons live, and live well.

My bare toes froze in the unseasonable cold. The front door closed to the flame and smoke. They remained inside, my father and brother. It was the end of their road.

And while I used to mourn my father and my brother, now I mourn my son, still living. If I were gone, what he would miss. What I would miss. My father missed so much.

So for thirty-one years I have avoided The Road. Perhaps longer.

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“An Older Wardrobe: Echoes of Deuteronomy in The Silver Chair” by A.J. Culp

As a child, I wasn’t much of a reader. But I was a listener. I loved listening to stories—to stories told and stories read. And the Chronicles of Narnia were some of my favourites, with my mother often reading them to me and my sisters before bed. Later in life, I would come to realize that C. S. Lewis was much more than a good storyteller, that he was a man with an unusual ability for seeing into the bone and marrow of humanity and for bringing this to life in story. And I found him especially skilled at enlivening one particular area of human existence: the reading of Scripture.

One such instance of this was when I was completing my seminary studies. I would often read fiction in the evenings, and at one point I re-opened The Chronicles of Narnia. As I came to the sixth book, The Silver Chair,[i] something caught my attention for the first time: the scene from which the story unfolds has deep echoes of the Bible. In that scene Jill receives instruction from Aslan about her mission, to rescue her companion Eustace and to find the lost Prince Rilian. Aslan has given Jill four signs to guide her journey but suspects she has not grasped them:

“Child,” said Aslan, in a gentler voice than he had yet used, “perhaps you do not see quite as well as you think. But the first step is to remember . . . remember, remember, remember the signs. Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning and when you lie down at night, and when you wake in the middle of the night. And whatever strange things may happen to you, let nothing turn your mind from following the signs. And secondly, I give you a warning. Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearances. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters.”[ii]

I soon discovered this echoed Deuteronomy, where Moses prepares Israel to live without him in the promised land. Time and again he calls the people to remember what the Lord had done in Egypt and the wilderness so that they might live rightly in the land. It was interesting to me that Deuteronomy, like The Silver Chair, cast memory as a vital guide for the people and portrayed its preservation therefore as a chief calling of the people.

I was fascinated by Lewis’s use of Deuteronomy in the book and wondered how it compared to the perspective of biblical scholars. But when I went searching, I was surprised by what I found: very little. The question had awakened a curiosity in me and I couldn’t leave it alone, so when my wife and I moved to England for my PhD the following year, I changed my topic up arrival. Instead of the original topic, I decided to pursue the question of memory in Deuteronomy (the fruit of this work can now be found in my book: Memoir of Moses: The Literary Creation of Covenantal Memory in Deuteronomy [Fortress Academic, 2020]).

Through my research I would learn that Lewis does not echo Deuteronomy alone, but appears to combine ideas from both Exodus and Deuteronomy. To be sure, Deuteronomy serves as the governing framework for that scene in The Silver Chair: framing the story, firstly, as a great and challenging journey for which memory is vital, and characterizing the practice of memory, secondly, as a diligent and daily exercise (see Deut 6:4–9). But he also uses an element from Exodus, namely its notion of memory proper. In Deuteronomy, people remember God’s acts in order to motivate obedience to his commands; but in Exodus, people remember the commands themselves (compare Exod 20:8 and Deut 5:15). In terms of human memory, this means Deuteronomy focuses on episodic memory (images and experiences) and Exodus on semantic memory (words, facts, etc.).

In Aslan’s insistence that Jill remember the “signs,” therefore, it appears Lewis has adopted Exodus’s notion of memory, for it focuses on semantic memory: namely, the list of signs.  And what it means is that the memory motif in The Silver Chair represents a tapestry of interwoven ideas from both Exodus and Deuteronomy. I cannot say whether this merging of ideas reflects something intentional by Lewis, but I do think it represents a classic Lewis trait: an imagination saturated in Scripture that has produced a deeply theological exposition in story.

[i] C. S. Lewis, The Silver Chair (New York: HarperTrophy, 1953).

[ii] Lewis, The Silver Chair, 25–26.

Although he now serves as lecturer in Old Testament and Biblical Languages at Malyon Theological College in Brisbane Australia, A.J. Culp originally studied English literature and writing. It was during those studies that he came to appreciate C.S. Lewis’ imaginative exposition of Scripture, which still influences his work today. For more of A.J.’s work, see https://malyon.academia.edu/AJCulp.

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My 18 Phrenetic Stages of Academic Paper Writing, Or Why Writing is So Hard

Writing is both beautiful and challenging, with heart-breaking hopefulness in the shadows of sheer impossibility. By creating this digital space, I have been able to create a writing environment where I can bypass many of the dead-ends and disasters of the writing journey. On A Pilgrim in Narnia, I am unpaid and unsupervised, thus I am no longer tethered to soul-destroying expectations of the publishing industry. Of the 1,100 blog posts here, 700 or 800 of them are pieces I have shaped out of my own curiosity, creativity, and desire to says something in the moment. Of those, about 200 articles are pieces that I spent a great deal of time shaping–often hours–containing a new reading or original thought that exists nowhere in the world. And about 100 of these posts are places where I can edit and share the work of others, allowing writers and artists and scholars to speak to the world on this little platform that plays in the intersectional space of faith, fiction, and fantasy.

But a website like this cannot be all writerly things in all seasons. I have a novel or two that I want to get into the world, and an academic fantasy blog with a ten-year-old design cannot replace the tactile experience of holding a book. I have never found this to be a good place for sharing fiction, in any case, and will need to find my way to the places that produce long- and short-form fiction for the tale-hungry masses. I have an academic book near completion and another in design. Because I would like, one day, to have an academic post that allows me to teach and write and serve the community, I need to throw myself into the long and winding paths of academic publication. I have found over the years that Twitter is a good outlet for a certain kind of creativity, and it would probably be good for my CV to move nonfiction pieces out into other outlets. So http://www.aPilgrinInNarnia.com has some limitations.

And then there is the Academic Essay–the various channels of peer-reviewed book chapters and journal articles. This is an absolutely critical element of my work and one that needs focus. Up to this moment, I have been able to produce about one peer-review or long academic piece a year–though they tend to get completed at various points and times, as I am able and as publishers are ready for it. Here is my list thus far:

  • 2012: “The Pedagogical Value of The Screwtape Letters for a New Generation,” Inklings Forever VIII (2012): 12-29 (begun as a 2012 conference paper, written 2011-12).
  • 2013: “The Unpublished Preface to C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters,” Notes and Queries 60, no. 2 (2013): 296-298 (begun with archival work in 2012, written 2012-13).
  • 2013: “Nuestra Señora de las Sombras: The Enigmatic Identity of Santa Muerte,” Journal of the Southwest 55, no. 4 (Winter 2013): 435-471. Co-authored with Pamela Bastante (a long-term, team-based research project resulting in this article and a 2012 conference presentation).
  • 2015: “‘Die Before You Die’: St. Paul’s Cruciformity in C.S. Lewis” in Both Sides of the Wardrobe: C. S. Lewis, Theological Imagination and Everyday Discipleship (ed. Rob Fennell, Resource Publications, 2015), pp. 32-45 (begun as a 2013 conference paper, written 2013-2015).
  • 2018: “Mixed Metaphors and Hyperlinked Worlds: A Study of Intertextuality in C.S. Lewis’s Ransom Cycle” pp. 81-113 in 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) (begun as a Mythcon panel in 2014; written 2014-2015; proofs in 2017; the book won the 2018 Mythopoeic Award for Inklings Scholarship).
  • 2019: “The Archangel Fragment and C. S. Lewis’s WWII-era World-building Project,” Sehnsucht: The C.S. Lewis Journal 13 (2019): 11-28. Co-authored with Charlie W. Starr (begun with archival work in 2018, written 2018-19 and Sehnsucht published it very quickly).
  • 2020: “Rainbow Valley as Embodied Heaven: L.M. Montgomery’s Narrative Spirituality in Rainbow Valley,” Journal of L.M. Montgomery Studies (begun as a 2018 conference paper, written 2018-19, last edits in early 2020).
  • 2020: “A Cosmic Shift in The Screwtape Letters,” Mythlore 39, no. 1 (2020): 5-33 (begun as a response to the “Ransom Preface” work in 2012-13, with a Mythcon presentation in 2014 and a C.S. Lewis & Friends conference paper in 2016; most of the writing was 2012-14, with significant revisions in 2016; much of summer 2020 was dedicated to completing this long project and Mythlore published it very quickly).
  • 2021: “Making Friends with the Darkness: L.M. Montgomery’s Popular Theodicy in Anne’s House of Dreams,” accepted with slight revision for peer-review publication in The Journal of L.M. Montgomery Studies (initial notes made in 2019, prepared to present in the 2020 Montgomery conference, moved online; wrote the paper in June 2020 and spent much of summer 2020 revising; winner of the L.M. Montgomery Institute’s 2020 Elizabeth Epperly Early Career Paper Award; accepted peer review in 2020; in revision; the digital presentation is not yet complete).

2020 was a really strong year for me, with PhD graduation, two peer-review publications and one paper award (as well as a host of lectures, talks, workshops, and presentations). However, the flurry of activity in 2020 is really the result of years of pretty steady work punctuated by periods of extreme writing sessions–usually, a spring and fall writing retreat each year, and a great deal of editing in the summer and winter. In four days in June 2020, for example, I wrote a 10,000-word paper. In June 2018, I did a 7,500-word paper in a single day and a 3,500-word paper in a single week. I will need two spring retreats this year as I have two keynote speeches and three paper presentations (though one is roughed in already). I have come to realize that I work well in the undulating patterns of intensity and rest.

However, even though I have shaped myself over the last 17 years as an academic and nonfiction prose writer, producing a huge portfolio of work in quite diverse genres and media, I still find this writing really, really difficult. Part of it is the workload that I have taken on. Another part is the distraction-laden environment that I am in. While writing this note, I have had to answer two phone calls and an emergency email, I wrote a strong page of notes for a talk that jumped out of this writing here, and I am thinking about my lecture on the Aorist and Future Passive in the Greek language, which I am giving in an hour. I think I need to make an infographic. There is always something fluttering not far from the centre of my vision.

But, most of all, academic writing is hard because of successive layers of challenges and choices along the way. Will a concept work out? Is my instinctive reading correct? What’s the right mode or media for this discussion? Do I actually have anything to say? Can I pull this off? Is it good, true, and beautiful? These are the questions that continually cycle through my imagination at every single step of a long process–from the spark of an idea to the selfie with the journal or book that just landed in my mailbox. Writing, even academic writing, is a deeply personal and psychologically fraught endeavour. Adding to the reality that it is hard in the sense of extensive research, deep reading, finding clarity of thought, wrestling huge swaths of material into place, ensuring that the work is logically sound, and finding a creative and winsome way of communicating complex ideas, it is a process filled with doubt and discouragement.

And in the end, there is the haunting question of “why?” No one pays me. None of this has led to an academic job. I know a few people read the work, but rarely is there deep academic engagement. What is it all for?

Deep in revisions in response to peer-reviewer comments, these are the thoughts that ran through my mind yesterday. These peer-review comments are great (not often the case), but they are critically challenging and pull me in different directions. I’ve been wrestling with the same paragraph on my screen for 10 days. I have been uncertain of how to resolve another section and have spent two weeks thinking and reading. And one of the comments is basically “redraw the entire imagistic thread of your piece,” which I don’t have the heart to do. Or the need, necessarily. For after these weeks of wrestling with this post-submission draft, I have broken through and have a full draft that responds to my invisible peers’ concerns.

As I teetered on the edge of giving it all up yesterday–or rashly resubmitting without due care–I began a Twitter thread that captures the interiority of academic writing here. I thought I would share it with you. Right now, I’m on step #13–but the hasty step #14 haunts and threatens me. I could jump at any time. However, if my wiser self prevails–we are all Gollum and Smeagol when writing, I think, at least in some moments–I will let this sit for a few days and come back fresh next week. In the journey of writing, there are few shortcuts, though some paths become more familiar. In academic writing, there is no way around the mountain and no way to avoid slaying the Demogorgon who guards the gate. So I will do the work to finish this piece well.

Still, I thought I would share this Twitter thread with you. Perhaps it will encourage you to know that you do not wander alone–or to prepare you who are new to academic writing for the perils in the path.

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Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, Owen Barfield, Language, Childlike Faith, Joy, and the Inklings

I have just begun reading Susanna Clarke’s weighty novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. I mean “weighty” in the literal, physical sense: I am finding this 1,000-page wonder, a book I did not believe could be written in this century, a difficult one to hold comfortably while reading in bed! But it is also weighty both in its material–a Regency-era fantasy presenting an alternative world not far off our own maps–and its impact. Incredibly, it was longlisted for the 2004 Man Booker Prize; less surprising, it won the 2005 Hugo Award for Best Novel, as well as the World Fantasy Award, the Locus, and the Mythopoeic Award for Adult Lit. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is one of the books of the decade.

And I am enjoying it. True, I have needed supplementary physiotherapy to adjust for the weight of the tome. But I am pleased to finally get to Strange & Norrell, which has been tempting me for years.

Besides the desire for a SHANWAR 2021 read, part of my reason for pulling Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell off the bookshelf now is because Clarke has recently published Piranesi, a dramatic fantasy experiment in fiction. I had heard that there is a significant connection to C.S. Lewis’ Narnian prequel, The Magician’s Nephew. This novel has been noted for its fantastic evocation by J.K. Rowling, and continues to fascinate readers and writers alike. A quote from Uncle Andrew is also the epigraph to Piranesi, inviting us to think about the possible links between these two fantastic worlds.

Because I study literature and the spiritual life, someone recently sent me an interview with Susanna Clarke by Sarah Lothian of the Church Times. Lothian notes the importance of The Magician’s Nephew for its ability to help her think about difficult questions of life. While it seems that no doubt The Magician’s Nephew is worth reading with Piranesi, it is actually Owen Barfield who seems to be the most important influence behind the new novel. Barfield’s philosophical treatments of the evolution of language–captured in philosophical books like Poetic Diction and Saving the Appearance, or more popularly in things like History in English Words–is one of the critical unseen realities that binds together the work of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. It also seems to be the core material for a literary experiment by one of the 21st-century’s most important speculative fiction writers, Susanna Clarke.

This note remains just a teaser, as it will take me weeks to read Strange & Norrell before I finally get to Piranesi. However, I thought it was worth sharing the Church Times interview. This podcast is actually quite lovely as a whole. Clarke talks about Owen Barfield’s work about 30 minutes in, with an intentional nod to Lewis, Tolkien, and the Inklings and a thanks to Malcolm Guite. But beyond these literary Inklings’ links, it is a winsome conversation about Clarke’s own faith journey, as well as a cautious invitation to a childlike faith and a robust invitation to consider religious joy.

You can find the podcast here or click below.

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Christ and Hitler with C.S. Lewis and Frederick Buechner

This week, I have been sharing my thoughts about and some highlights from Frederick Buechner‘s recent book, The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life (2017). Drawing materials from his memoirs–, which are a continual part of my devotional life, Buechner also reminds us in these newly published lectures some key moments in texts like The Alphabet of GraceA Room Called Remember, and Whistling in the Dark. Buechner wants to draw out how the transformational moments in life are not always remarkable miracles, but the attention to the details, the anticipation of the predictable, and astonished reflection upon the ordinary.

I have shared how Buechner quoted from J.R.R. Tolkien and George MacDonald, so it is only fitting to also share his brief quotation of C.S. Lewis. In his memoir, Buechner includes Lewis among his conversation partners when he worked as a chaplain and religion teacher at a wealthy private school. He also engages with Lewis, MacDonald, Tolkien and others in his chapter, “The Gospel as Fairy Tale” in Telling the Truth (1977). Beuchner also deals with Lewis pretty extensively in Telling Secrets (1981), which has a chapter on “The Dwarves in the Stable” from The Last Battle.

The Lewis quotation I am highlighting today is not terribly long, but it shocking and perhaps would fit well in its original context. When talking about “the face of Christ” in the people around us, Buechner closes chapter 1 of Remarkable Ordinary with C.S. Lewis:

Then there’s that wonderful passage in C. S. Lewis’s Letters to Malcolm where Lewis speaks of having met a European minister who had seen Hitler. Lewis says, “What’d he look like? What did Hitler look like?” and the minister says, “Like Christ, of course.” Like Christ. Tremendously moving.

Our secret face is that face. Paul’s right—the whole creation is moving, the whole great complex show has started so that we may eventually obtain the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, but to see it, the artist says, you have to stop and really look, look for it with X-ray eyes.

This is, of course, one of those moments where a Christian understanding of the “other” can be uncomfortable. In a generation of Christians being paraded across social media and news networks who clearly cannot recognize the face of Christ in the people in their neighbourhoods–let alone in the face of the widow, the orphan, the refugee, the stranger–Lewis’ reminder is essential. In Letter XIV of Letters to Malcolm, Lewis wants to press in on the biblical point that the stranger among us is Christ himself:

“Now the very Pagans knew that any beggar at your door
might be a god in disguise: and the parable of the sheep and
the goats is Our Lord’s comment. What you do, or don’t do,
to the beggar, you do, or don’t do, to Him.”

Avoiding theological extremes of legalism or what would look today like an “all is god” New Age thought, Lewis instead notes the “brotherhood” of being that is the stranger, the oneness who all share our human flesh. It is this fellowship of humanity that stands in distinction to God, the true Other: “All creatures, from the angel to the atom, are other than God; with an otherness to which there is no parallel.” One must not blur the distinction, for though “God is present in each thing,” it is not necessarily in the same mode or in the same degree.  And yet, God is present in each person:

“In each of them as the ground and root and continual supply of its reality.”

Therefore, of each person, there is both an otherness and a not-otherness, a shared reality and let a separate reality. And of this shared and distinct human experience, Lewis turns to the face of our enemy:

“Therefore of each creature we can say, ‘This also is
Thou: neither is this Thou.'”

Simple faith leaps to this with astonishing ease. I once
talked to a continental pastor who had seen Hitler, and had,
by all human standards, good cause to hate him. ‘What did
he look like?’ I asked. ‘Like all men,’ he replied. ‘That is,
like Christ.'”

Like Christ. Tremendously moving.

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“I Would Rather Die for Evermore Believing,” with George MacDonald and Frederick Buechner

This week, I have been sharing my thoughts about Frederick Buechner‘s recent book, The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life (2017). I have also been sharing some highlights from the text, including quotations from remarkable–and remarkably ordinary–authors. As Buechner wants to draw out how the transformational moments are not always astounding miracles, but the attention to the details, the anticipation of the predictable, and astonished reflection upon the ordinary, he turns to George MacDonald.

George MacDonald was a Scottish minister, lecturer, novelist, essayist, and fantasy writer. MacDonald was tremendously influential to C.S. Lewis and the Inklings, and is really a writer recovered in the last generation or so. He also, apparently, had quite an impact on Frederick Buechner‘s work. While the context of Buechner’s use of the following quotation is interesting, it is the strident and determined nature of the text’s voice that I want to highlight. Buechner captures a speech that MacDonald’s protagonist of Thomas Wingfold, Curate, speaks in the novel. I have always been uncomfortable with the all-in nature of this kind of comment–a speech that Puddleglum echoes in The Silver Chair. But I admire this commitment to the deepest rhythms of truth in the universe, even if it haunts me:

“Whatever energies I may or may not have, I know one thing for certain, that I could not devote them to anything else I should think entirely worth doing. Indeed nothing else seems interesting enough—nothing to repay the labour, but the telling of my fellow-men about the one man who is the truth, and to know whom is the life. Even if there be no hereafter, I would live my time believing in a grand thing that ought to be true if it is not. No facts can take the place of truths, and if these be not truths, then is the loftiest part of our nature a waste. Let me hold by the better than the actual, and fall into nothingness off the same precipice with Jesus and John and Paul and a thousand more, who were lovely in their lives, and with their death make even the nothingness into which they have passed like the garden of the Lord. I will go further … and say, I would rather die for evermore believing as Jesus believed, than live for evermore believing as those that deny him….”

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“Joy Beyond the Walls of the World, Poignant as Grief,” with J.R.R. Tolkien and Frederick Buechner

This week, I have decided to share my thoughts about Frederick Buechner‘s recent book, The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life (2017), and to share some highlights from the text. Drawing materials from his memoirs in a storied approach to his life, Buechner wants to draw out how the transformational moments are not always remarkable miracles, but the attention to the details, the anticipation of the predictable, and astonished reflection upon the ordinary.

One of these great spots in Buechner’s book is another piece that originated as a lecture and became a famous essay. This is J.R.R. Tolkien’s brilliant piece, “On Fairy-stories,” first given in 1939 as a talk, and then drawn into the C.S. Lewis edited volume, Essays Presented to Charles Williams (1947), as well as some other collections like Tree and Leaf (1964). I have already published on Tolkien’s poem, “Mythopoeia,” but readers may not know how theory and ideas of “On Fairy-stories” shoots through my academic work.

In his closing chapter, “The Presence of Peace,” Buechner turns to the subject of “joy.” Given how important C.S. Lewis was to Buechner (see more on Friday), and how central joy is to Lewis’ spirituality (see here), prompting an autobiography called Surprised by Joy, we can imagine how he would turn to Lewis to discuss how one must listen for joy in everyday life. Instead, and with a great lyrical lift in the text, he turns to Tolkien’s “On Fairy-stories.” I will simply leave you with Buechner’s selection of Tolkien’s comments on joy:

And, of course, one of the things we must listen for is joy. It’s hard to talk about joy for the almost superstitious reason that you might take the bloom off it, you’ll quit, you’ll threaten it, you fear it will come to an end when the demons come and gobble it up. But almost in spite of ourselves we get glimpses of joy, and maybe glimpses is all we can ever have of joy. There’s a wonderful phrase of Tolkien’s in an essay he wrote on fairy tales where he speaks of “Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief,” which you glimpse in fairy tales during what he calls the “sudden joyous ‘turn’”—where the frog turns out to be a prince, where the straw is spun into the gold, or the funny little man turns out to be the king, or whatever it is. The sudden glimpse of a joy beyond the walls of the world. We do get glimpses of it, I think, if we have our eyes opened for that possibility, like when I suddenly realized that I was at the manger, or being at SeaWorld where I saw the peaceable kingdom and Eden and tears filled my eyes and also the eyes of my wife and daughter. These glimpses we have of joy—that’s part of the news of the day and a very easy part to somehow let slip by.

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“The Laughing Room of Maya Angelou” by Frederick Buechner

This week, I am sharing my thoughts about and some highlights from Frederick Buechner‘s recent book, The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life (2017). Reminiscent of his memoirs–each year I select one to reread–with echoes from key texts like The Alphabet of GraceA Room Called Remember, and Whistling in the Dark, Buechner reads his life as a text. And in this story, he shows how the transformational moments in his life have not been grand miracles, but the attention to the details, the anticipation of the predictable, and astonished reflection upon the ordinary. It is not a terrible tight collection, but I am grateful for the release of these old lectures and some new material.

Today, I want to share with you the time when Buechner first met Maya Angelou at a shared series of lectures by the Trinity Institute. These lectures are “geared for burned-out Episcopal clergy—men and women who simply have had it,” Buechner says. Often filled with big names like theologian Jürgen Moltmann, archbishop Desmond Tutu, the archbishop of Canterbury, and the like, these thinkers and writers and ministers talk about ethics, the church, and the role of Christianity in terms of culture. Buechner, a relatively well-known novelist, was invited to share from his recently published memoirs, The Sacred Journey (1982) and Now and Then (1983). No doubt the audience of church leaders would be intrigued by hearing from a clergyman working in the arts, sharing about the moments when God had worked in Buechner’s life.

It isn’t hard to explain why Maya Angelou would be invited, and Buechner particularly notes I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as one of his favourite of her writings. Buechner describes encountering her in his life:

Maya Angelou is a large woman about my height, black, beautiful, and so full of energy you can warm your hands in front of her. She was born in the South and brought up in great poverty by her grandmother in the little town of Stamps, Arkansas. Awful things happened to her. She was raped at the age of eight, not a violent rape but a sort of one-thing-leads-to-another rape by a boyfriend of her mother whom she’d gone to visit. She came back from that experience afraid to tell anybody about it, but she eventually told her little brother Bailey that this thing had happened. By a fluke, within a couple of days of that, word came that the man who’d raped her had died, and she was terrified that her words had killed him. So she was mute for five years—didn’t say anything for five years. Well, she grew up, became a dancer, became a waitress, became a cook, and for a brief time she was a prostitute. She fell on evil times—the man whom she was with at that time said he needed some money and, if she wouldn’t mind, could she entertain some of his friends, and she did that for a time. Then she started to write and one thing led to another—acclaimed books, operas, films, and TV shows. She’s a Renaissance woman, in other words. Full of life, full of beans, full of stories.

Buechner tells two or three great stories about Maya Angelou and what she said and did, and I would encourage you to read the entire third chapter of The Remarkable Ordinary–including what a “laughing room” might be. I would, however, like to share two bits, out of order in the chapter.

One story is about the way that Angelou and Buechner were introduced, and how Angelou worked to bridge the distance between the wealthy, white, urban Presbyterian minister and her own experience as a black woman coming out of extreme poverty.

The other thing Maya Angelou said that moved me was when the two of us were being introduced by the friendly fellow I had made cry on the phone. I had given my lecture first, which was based, as I said, on my spiritual autobiography, and after I was done, this fellow introduced Maya, saying, “Ms. Angelou will now get up and tell you her story, and it will be a very different story from the one that you have just heard from Frederick Buechner.” As he said that, Maya Angelou, who was sitting in the front row and shaking her head from side to side, got up, and she said he was wrong. She said, “I have exactly the same story to tell as Frederick Buechner.”

I was very touched by that because in so many ways, what stories could be more different? I’m a man and she’s a woman, I’m white, she’s black, she grew up in dire poverty while by comparison I grew up with riches, though God knows we weren’t rich, and yet she said it’s the same story. And what she meant I think is that at a certain level we do, all of us, with all the differences, we do all have the same story. When it comes to the business of how do you become a human being, how do you manage to believe, how do you have faith in a world that gives you 14,000 reasons every week not to believe, how do you survive—especially surviving our own childhoods as Maya Angelou survived hers and we’ve all survived ours—at that level we all have the same story, and therefore anybody’s story can illuminate our own.

And that’s the only reason I have, the only justification, to tell you my story. Who gives a hoot about my story? But you can give a hoot about it because also it’s in many ways your story.

I don’t know how Maya Angelou’s work to bridge the distance of culture with the universality of story would go over today, but it was a striking moment for Beuchner nearly 40 years ago. I will leave you with another one of these stories, this one about an encounter Maya Angelou had with a friend–and, I think, an instance of The Remarkable Ordinary that Buechner is trying to draw out, the astonishing beauty within everyday life.

The most moving part of my time at Trinity happened after one of Maya’s lectures. There had been a number of questions and one person asked her a question about racism—has it gotten better, has it gotten worse, is it better in one place in the West Coast than the East Coast? And she had said, “Let me tell you a story.” She said she had been in the San Francisco Bay area fifteen years or so before to do a public television program on African art, and out of the blue one day she got a telephone call from a white man who told her that he had a collection of a certain kind of African statue and perhaps she would like to come over and look at them. So she went over and they were wonderful examples of whatever form of African art they were, and he lent them to her and she used them in ways that pleased him. Through this experience, they became great friends. She went to his house for dinner a number of times, got to know his wife, and Maya had them over to her place for dinner, and they were terrific pals. She said it had been one of the bright spots during her time there, and then the public television show was over and she went back to wherever it was she went. Time went by and about four or five years later she returned to the Bay Area, this time for a longer period of time. So right away she called up her friend, who told her he’d be delighted to see her again. He said, “Let me just catch you up on what I’ve been doing since I saw you last. I have been in Europe working on the problem with American troops over there. It’s not an easy row for them to hoe in a way,” he said, “and it’s especially hard for the black troops for obvious reasons. There aren’t too many blacks over there, but our boys are also having a hard—”

She interrupted him. “What did you say?”

“I said, in Europe it’s especially hard for the black troops, and that our boys are also—”

“What did you say?” She had interrupted him again, she told us, because she wanted him to hear it.

So again, “Well, the black troops . . .” and then he got it. “Oh my God! What have I said to you, of all people? The black troops . . . our boys. I’m so embarrassed I simply have to stop talking. I’m going to hang up. To say this to you, of all people.”

And Maya had said, “No, don’t. Don’t hang up. This is just the time we need to talk. This is what racism is beneath the level of liberal utterance and superficial friendship, the sort of deeply rooted sense of we and they, the whites, the blacks, the browns, the whatever it is.”

So they finished off their conversation agreeing that they would meet. Then she said after that she had tried to call him innumerable times and left messages of one kind or another, and there was never any response at all.

She told us that was the end, and when she had finished that question and answer time, she had been obviously very moved and sort of shaken by it. The next day she had started her lecture reflecting on this story about racism, saying, “As I left the room yesterday, a man stood up and said, ‘Here I am!’”

No sooner had these words left her lips when this small, bearded, white Episcopal clergyman suddenly stood up in our midst a few rows behind me and walked down the aisle, up onto the platform, and put his arms around her. He was, of course, her friend who had been too embarrassed to talk to her anymore. And she cried and he cried and all of us cried because we just got a glimpse of the kingdom of God. So moving. So gorgeous.

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The Remarkable Ordinary, with Frederick Buechner

A few weeks ago, I wrote about being “Enslaved to the Pressure of the Ordinary.” This was a quotation I found in The Screwtape Letters, and what I thought was a self-revelation I had during our COVID-19 lockdown and the “new normal” we have to face. This is what I wrote:

“for me, the strange self-revelation of 2020, is how much I am mourning the ordinary. I don’t want a new normal, I have come to realize. I want the old normal, the patterns and stirrings and possibilities of everyday life before the end of the world hit in early 2020”

Characteristically, it takes me more than a single try to find my words and ideas. This is one of the reasons I blog: sometimes you have to say something out loud to know if it is true. A number of people wrote to me, concerned that I was missing an essential part of life that they had recovered themselves. “The mundane can be beautiful,” one person assured me. Another reader wrote in and said:

“’Ordinary Life’ can be a good gift from God. It is when our clinging to or yearning for ordinary leads us to sin that is the danger. If we hold it loosely, if we are willing to accept whatever God brings us in each day, I am not certain it is wrong to appreciate and savor the good in the ordinary.”

I think this reader is on to something that is inside of me, though I would press it a little further. I do think that the “every day” can be a gift, can be beautiful in its very mundaneness. I like the image of holding the ordinary loosely, because what my self-revelation was about in 2020 was actually the enslavement to the normal that worried me. And reflection since has led me to realize that I learned more in 2020 than I had imagined.

For the last two decades, I have lived my life trying to resist the snares of “what everybody does,” shaping my vocational choices, my community service, and my family life as a kind of resistance to the white picket fence suburban picture of success I had imbibed as a child in the late 20th century. For a long time, that meant staying off the grid of socioeconomic culture, living a kind of vagabond lifestyle in various parts of the world. Since then, because we have made certain choices, I have been able to write and teach and study what I wanted–always with unhelpful pressure to pay the bills as a non-tenured, unsponsored public intellectual, but never finding ourselves disappearing into sheer necessity. Socially, spiritually, intellectually, religiously, environmentally, and economically, I have resisted the “normal.”

Indeed, not to put too fine a point on it, I believe it to be immoral for most Christians to live a normal Canadian (or American, or Western European) lifestyle. Even if not immoral, how tepid to live one’s life according to the Baby Boomer washing out of the American Dream that has been handed down to us!

And yet, with all my rebel dress and revolutionary heart, COVID-19 hit and I found out how absolutely dependent I was upon the normal systems and patterns of our world. I now believe I have always misunderstood Mario Savio’s famous speech. He protested in 1964, crying out that

“There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart”

So sick at heart. That’s where my mind hung since I first heard those words, sampled in a song I now forget. How mind-numbingly, soul-destroyingly normal North American life seemed to me–enough to make me sick at heart, though I am not one of the oppressed. To be a cog in that machine that strains the last bit of life out of every person–no, of course, I mean every taxpayer. Sick at heart. Those words.

Yet I missed the part where Savio called us to cast our “bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels” of the machine, to allow our ragged flesh and crushed bones to jam the workings of the whole damned and damnable thing. 2020 has been that kind of year too, a year of disruption, of reflection about the systems we participate in and the ones we perpetrate. Though I have been trying to reconfigure the machine, I have not died upon it.

As this call for liberation echoes in my ears this year, it brings home even more clearly to me my desperate “attachment” to this world–to use a Buddhist image. In St. Paul’s words of Romans 12:2, I have aligned the schematic of my life to the world’s blueprint in ways I was never aware of. I think the two kinds of liberation are linked, that we cannot truly have that radically sacrificial, community-connected, love-infused liberation of Romans 12 as long as we are simply cogs in the machine of the world around us. That this world system is so liberating to many, so full of opportunity and beauty and potential for equality, only makes our unreflective submission to it even more nefarious.

Thus the normal kills–both in the individual soul as well as the systemic violence of bigotry and inefficiency and technocratic ends that match economic means.

And yet there is great beauty and grace and laughter here in the ordinary. This cup of coffee, the music in my ears, waking and laying down in warmth and love, children playing in the other room, the cat supervising my work, these books at my elbow and on my bedside, making love and sharing the sign of peace, mandarin oranges, arugula, cameras in our pockets, fat snowdrops on red and brown faces, beautiful eyes above non-medical masks, the season’s death and rebirth in the great turning of the world. Oh, the beauty that there is!

So when I wrote late last year about enslavement to the normal, I really was not rejecting all the little patterns we make in our jobs and families and friendships. Humans are liturgical beings, and I believe it is healthy for us to make little liturgies of the ordinary. Sometimes that ordinary is disrupted like it was in 2020. And in that disruption, I discovered patterns in myself that I could not recognize in the cross, which is the model of true life. For there is also a danger in the normal, the mundane, the everyday–as anyone who has been crushed by the machine of the world can tell us.

Intriguingly, even when kindhearted readers were challenging me about my understanding of the ordinary, I knew I was struggling with the words to say what I mean. Truly, I anticipated that I wasn’t quite capturing what I wanted to say even before I published my piece. So I picked up a book to read devotionally, Frederick Buechner‘s The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life (2017). Each year I select one of Buechner’s memoirs to reread, and The Remarkable Ordinary is very much reminiscent of those autobiographies. There are also echoes of key texts like The Alphabet of GraceA Room Called Remember, and Whistling in the Dark. In The Remarkable OrdinaryBuechner reads his life as a text. And in this story, he shows how the transformational moments in his life have not been grand miracles, but the attention to the details, the anticipation of the predictable, and astonished reflection upon the ordinary.

Admittedly, this tiny book is not a terrible tight collection. It pulls together some old lectures and some new material to help us recover or reimagine our relationship to mundane reality. However, with some imagination on our part, we can walk alongside Frederick Buechner as his memories and experiences show the little moments of grace in the daily routines and terrible surprises of life. To live my life going against the grain of the world’s systems–both in solidarity with those who suffer and for the health of my soul–does not mean that I reject the simple and lovely ordinary things in life. Indeed, I think that’s where my greatest strength comes from: the Spirit of God in my heart and at my elbow, at my desk and the dinner table, as I lay down to sleep and rise to walk in the road. So I am thankful for Frederick Buechner’s newest collection of ideas for reminding me of the liberation that comes in the normal moments of life.

This week, I will be blogging each day with a reflection from Frederick Buechner‘s The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life. You do not need to have read the book to enjoy these articles, but this is a text worth having.

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Texmoot 2021 Call for Papers and Conversations (Feb 13th, 2021)

One advantage of our online environment is that we now have some options for attending conferences that we would otherwise miss. On Feb 6th, for example, is the free Urbana Theological Seminary online Tolkien conference, with guest speakers Carlie W. Starr, Craig A. Boyd, Sarah Waters, and Matt Green. You can register here.

As part of the normal regional conference cycle of the “Moots” connected to Signum University is this year’s TexMoot. While would all like to go to the LoneStar state to talk about Tolkien’s non Middle-earth poetry, C.S. Lewis’ vision of the hnau, Madeleine L’Engle’s awkward bodies, physics and metaphysics in the Harry Potter world, anime and body image in Eastern Poland, aetherial love-making in Shakespeare, Ready Player Three: After the Apocalypse, or whatever nerds like you happen to be thinking about. In the meantime–and with some degree of perspective–the organizers of TexMoot have gone digital on Feb 13th, but rooted the theme in the idea of Embodiment. This happens to be the same Saturday as the first Tolkien Society Seminar of 2021–though the Seminar is pretty focussed on content, and the times overlap but are not the exact same. You can probably attend TexMoot and get some of the Seminar as a bonus. In any case, I thought I would share this opportunity with you all. They are not looking for full academic papers, exactly, but more like conversational teasers and provocative conversation starters. It looks like an intriguing day.

TexMoot 2021:
Signum University’s Fourth Annual Texas
Literature & Language Symposium

13 February 2021
in the Cyberverse

Do You Need Some Body to Love?

Signum University is pleased to announce its fourth annual Texas Literature & Language Symposium (aka “TexMoot”) on Saturday, February 13th, 2021, in the great universe of Internet, Texas. TexMoot will offer a gleeful gallimaufry of lively curated conversations, a keynote presentation, workshops, and lots of fellowship and social time. Plan ahead to enjoy this balanced blend of academic rigor and avid literary fandom. Stay tuned on the Announcements page and in our Facebook group for more information about special guests, optional pre-conference activities, workshop participation, and more. Visit our CFP page for info about how to submit a topic for discussion; the deadline is January 16th. Email info@texmoot.org with questions.


Registration for TexMoot 2021 costs $10 for students and $15 for everyone else. CLICK HERE to register now!

What is a “Moot”? 

The word “moot” refers to a meeting or legislative assembly and also the place in which that meeting is held. It’s from the Old English -mot, which could be appended to the end of a word, as in “Texmoot.” It was made famous by the “Entmoots” of the tree-shepherding Ents in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

Signum University sponsors regional gatherings called “moots” throughout the year. These are times of academic conversation and fellowship that often include creative presentations and special guests. Although these conferences may vary in flavor, they are united by a love of stories and the people who read them.


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