In the Bleak Midwinter: en Route to a DPhil

There was a moment, a brief, foolish moment, when it seemed like Spring was about to arrive. And then, at the very end of February, Winter returned to England and as I sit here typing in the Radcliffe Camera, the lawn outside is once again blanketed with snow. There is something wonderfully concentrating about being inside while snow or rain fall outside. I would be lying, however, if I said I would not prefer the rains of Springtime to the snows of a second Winter.

However. As the snows do fall, I have now found myself working on a 5000 word essay which I will present to the Theology Faculty as part of the next step in my DPhil process.

In comparison with the five or seven or nine years it can take to get a PhD in the US, and the extensive coursework and hoop-jumping that the US process entails, getting a doctorate in the UK is relatively straightforward and self-driven. There are no classes. There are no grades. Instead, it’s just me and my supervisor and an increasingly large pile of read, unread, half-read, and optimistically-skimmed books. However, there are a handful of way stations on the way, if everything goes according to plan. The essay I am presently carving out of the rather middling-quality stone blocks of my reading so far is part of the first milestone: the Transfer of Status.

Upon entering Oxford on the DPhil course, I was not immediately given the status of a DPhil student. Rather, we all begin with the rather delightful title of “Probationer Research Student.” I think that makes my supervisor my probation officer. Given that all postgraduate students must live within 25 miles of Carfax tower at the center of the city, the parallels grow more uncanny.

In order to progress from PRS to DPhil status, I have to present the faculty with two pieces of writing: 1) a 500 word abstract of my research giving my project a title, summarizing the project’s goals, and outlining how I am going to get from here to there and 2) a 5000 word writing sample, on the topic of the project, perhaps constituting a draft of a chapter. Finally, after submitting the writing to the faculty, it will be read by two of its members who will then interview me on my research to make sure I really do have some sense of what I’m doing here.

Assuming this goes well, I will be given full DPhil status, and the next way station is the Confirmation of Status viva (that is, an in-person interview/examination), whose purpose seems primarily to be to confirm that I am indeed still alive and still working.

Finally, at some future date, a year or two from the Confirmation viva, is THE Viva. Having submitted my thesis (here it’s a doctoral thesis not dissertation), I will dress in my sub fusc and defend my work in a one or two hour to two members of the faculty who aren’t my supervisor. Then, if my experience conforms to that of my friends, I will go drink lots of whisky.

Given the degree of freedom afforded DPhil students in the Oxford system, it seems both a long way to the Viva, and a terrifying short journey. The prospect, however, of milestones between here and there makes it feel a little bit less like I am lost in a blizzard like the one blowing outside my library window.

The books in my head(er image) 4: I Shall Wear Midnight

This is the fourth in my series of posts on the books that are stacked in the header image of this site. Each of them has contributed to my decision to embark on a DPhil studying faith and imagination. The first is on Tolkien’s Tree and Leaf, and the second is on Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique, and the third addresses Martha Nussbaum’s Poetic Justice.

I came to the Discworld late and slowly, but between getting handed a copy of The Color of Magic in college by a friend and then discovering the masterful narration skills first of Nigel Planer and then Stephen Briggs in the audio productions of the other two score novels, it was not long before I discovered that Pratchett and the Discworld were more than the snarky satirical fantasy that the first handful of books promise.

For those unfortunates who have not read any of the Discworld books, the Discworld is just what it says on the tin: a flat, circular world. It glides through the cosmos on the back of four elephants who themselves ride on the back of Great A’tuin, a sea turtle of truly enormous proportions. The Disc is, as is often noted in the opening pages of the novels, “a world and mirror of worlds”. Gradually shifting over the course of the novels from a typical medieval fantasy-type world in the best (worst?) traditions of mid-twentieth-century pulp fantasy into a kind of pastiche of the Middle Ages, Victorian England, and the industrializing west. As “mirror of worlds” it picks up stray ideas that speed through the multiverse and makes them its own, throwing up fantastic manifestations of film, rock music, print media, the telegraph, advanced medicine, and the list goes on. In all respects Pratchett couples faithful representation of the (near)human condition with a mode of social critique that employs and subverts stereotypes, usually to great comic effect.

And this is important. The books are funny. Often deeply so. And in the way that we are seeing late-night comedians drive public discourse around the travesties of the Trump administration, Pratchett was able to take contemporary issues such as economic inequality and racial injustice and through the distorting lens of fantasy and the disarming power of humor and render them compelling and palatable to a wide readership.

For instance, while the Discworld does not have the discourse around disability and access, the ways that society changes or fails to change around the issues of “dead rights” for zombies (who are prone to losing body parts at inopportune moments) and the struggles of reformed vampires (apt to disintegrate into dust in the presence of strong light) open narrative space not unlike contemporary real-world conversations.

Likewise, it is a lot easier to talk about religion when the gods in question are Offler the Crocodile God whose favorite offering is grilled sausages, The Great God Om (who spends much of one novel in the form of a tortoise trying not to be eaten by eagles and hungry humans), and Anoia, goddess of things that get stuck in drawers and whose most cherished prayer is “How can it close on the damned thing but not open with it? Who bought this? Do we ever use it?” While religion, ostensibly, has a major role in the Discworld itself, it rarely takes center stage. However, questions of religious tolerance and controversies over piety abound. As is often asserted throughout the later novels, Dwarves have no religion, at leas inasmuch as they don’t spend much time at worship to a named personal deity. However, the legal disputes and conflict over what constitutes “true dwarfishness” as determined by the legal experts called grags, sure starts looking like religion more broadly construed. The freedom of the setting and the genre allow Pratchett to explore religion without stepping not he toes of any particular real-world faith.

Which brings us, more or less, to Tiffany Aching. I Shall Wear Midnight is the forty-fourth of forty-seven novels, books, and short stories set in the strange world of the Disc, and it represents the final complete* story of the adventures of Tiffany Aching, witch from the Chalk country that strongly resembles Pratchett’s own childhood countryside.

There is not much religion on the Chalk, and when it arrives in the form of traveling preachers or private devotees, it is usually met with a lack of interest or a silent disdain. However, and this is what I find compelling about the Tiffany Aching books especially, is that in the place of priests and churches, the Chalk has witches.

Reading The Wee Free MenA Hat Full of SkyWintersmith, and I Shall Wear Midnight, and observing the way that witches function in Chalk society led me into the avenues of thought which eventually led me to the doctoral work I am set to begin in October. Though not religious in themselves or in the least, Tiffany and her fellow-witches (among them the estimable Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg) nonetheless fill the roles of clergy in many ways. The attend to the dying and even sometimes officiate weddings. They mediate transcendence to the people in the form of magic. They teach and offer pastoral care. In this they are not unlike the wizards of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle. After writing a comparison of the two cultures of magic in a paper for the American Comparative Literature Association in 2015, I began to think I might be on to something.

Not only do the witches and wizards occupy roles not unlike clergy, the nature of a fantasy world lends magic yet more religious character. The blurred lines between myth and practical reality in fantasy worlds gives all of life a mythic quality. In a world where the gods really do live on a mountain over there and the creator can be encountered in the flesh, the transcendent and meaning-laden character of the mythologies which only achieve reality by being enacted in ritual and ethical practice in our world have a concrete reality in fantasy worlds that lights everything with the transcendent.

Pratchett was not a religious person. Though he grew up in the Anglican milieu of twentieth-century England, he did not end his life a person of faith. Likewise, though deeply engaged with spirituality, Le Guin is most certainly not religious in the way the word is commonly understood today. And so the degree to which both the Discworld stories and the Earthsea stories seem to be doing something religious, seem to be saying something about who God is and what mythic thinking can look like in everyday life. Or, put in the terms of the witches stories in Discworld, stories are real and they have power: we get to choose the stories we live by and we have the power to resist and participate in the “narrative causality” that takes the Discworld place of fate, and even Divine Providence.

I keep returning to the Discworld, and to the stories of Tiffany Aching especially because they seem to be saying something interesting about what counts as transcendence and how stories shape our lives. Or, as I like to call it: religion.

The books in my head(er image) 3: Poetic Justice

This is the third in my series of posts on the books that are stacked in the header image of this site. Each of them has contributed to my decision to embark on a DPhil studying faith and imagination. The first is on Tolkien’s Tree and Leaf, and the second is on Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique.

Since I arrived at Dartmouth for my undergraduate degree in what turned out to be English literature, I had assumed I would go on to do doctoral work. Beside the fact that I have always enjoyed school, and so more school seemed like something to be desired on its own merits, I have also always enjoyed teaching. As I learned more about research and the work of the academic, the PhD life grew in attraction. However, as mentioned in my post on The Limit’s of Critique, when the time came, I didn’t find the preoccupations of my chosen field to be very congenial to the questions that occupied my imagination, and so for that and other good reasons, I didn’t pursue what had been, more or less, a lifelong desire, despite being consumed with curiosity about questions like “how do stories work on people?” and “how do stories help us think about God?”

By the time I had begun entertaining the possibility of returning to school for doctoral studies, “because it would be fun” no longer seemed to be sufficient reason to put myself through the famously grueling work of getting a PhD. The intensely personal work of being a priest, as well as observing the material good being done by friends and loved ones had opened my eyes and my heart to questions of the value of the work we do. “Because I find this question fascinating” and even “because I can’t take my mind of this field of knowledge” were no longer sufficient grounds for dedicating year of my life to the work. Surely there is more good I could be doing, right?

My quandary was close cousin to the broader question being asked in the academy and beyond, namely “What good are the humanities?” Living and working in a part of the world that is enchanted and consumed by the potential for technology to solve many (all?) of the world’s problems, the value of such “soft” fields as literature, theology, and cultural studies are easy to dismiss as unnecessary luxuries. Less necessary, indeed, than Tesla sports-cars or wearable computers. (Are my prejudices showing?)

And so, despite feeling a deep desire to pursue the questions and interests that occupied my mind, I found myself needing to be able to say why my doctoral work would be of value beyond my own gratification. Martha Nussbaum helped me find the words.

A philosopher of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, Nussbaum also has an abiding interest in the power of art and literature to serve the cause of ethical formation. In Poetic Justice, she argues that the very act of reading invites the reader to see the world from the perspective of someone unlike themselves. This is the very act of empathy. Literature, then, can serve as a practice arena for developing our empathic faculties, and it can offer a point of concrete reflection on questions of difference and interpersonal conflict.

Literature, of course, can be used in the service of any kind of agenda, engendering empathy only with certain populations and promoting negative or even sentiments against others. However, Nussbaum argues, its capacity for promoting and fostering needed skills of empathy and fellow-feeling is likely unrivaled by other art forms. Narrative’s capacity to capture the temporal experience of human life and the interior experience of a variety of characters is certainly peculiarly strong. By learning to read deeply and critically, we are able to build out and learn the kind of value for difference on which a democracy depends for maintaining the sense of a common life.

What does any of this have to do with theology? Well, not necessarily much directly, except inasmuch as ethics and theology are always bound together. However, her steadfast and well-reasoned argument for the practical value of the study of stories and narrative art inspired me. Here was the framework I had been seeking to put words around the value of studying cultural artifacts and reflecting on them in ethical or indeed theological terms. For much of my ministry, I have considered it the role of the priest to help their people learn better how to read the world theologically, to discern in the shape of their own story how God is moving and how to join in that movement. Nussbaum’s articulation of the moral value of literature and the practical value in teaching people to read literature and the world more deeply has been vital in helping me to articulate why it is worth it to pursue this work: worth it to me, worth it to the church, worth it to the world.

The books in my head(er image) 2: The Limits of Critique

This is the second in a series of posts about the books that have helped to get me to where I am today, namely starting a DPhil in theology. The first covered J. R. R. Tolkien’s Tree and Leaf, an unusual book by the writer who has had perhaps the most influence on my imagination of anyone. Other books, less well-rooted in my heart, indeed encountered by chance and bought on a whim, have nonetheless had a profound effect on my thinking.

Critique proves to be a remarkably efficient and smooth-running machine for registering the limits and insufficiencies of texts… It is conspicuously silent, however, on the many other reasons why we are drawn to works of art: aesthetic pleasure, increased self-understanding, moral reflection, perceptual reinvigoration, ecstatic self-loss, emotional consolation, or heightened sensation — to name just a few. (The Limits of Critique, p.188)

The Limits of Critique, by Rita Felski

If there is one book that is directly responsible for getting me on the road back to graduate school it is The Limits of Critique. At the end of my undergraduate degree in English, I found myself disappointed by the literary conversation in academia. I had settled on an English major because of a lifelong fascination (OK, obsession) with stories: how they work, why some take root in the public imagination and others don’t, how they move us, how they show us parts of ourselves that we didn’t know about before. By the end of my four years at Dartmouth, however, I had discovered that for the most part, these questions were not being asked in English departments.  Instead, literary studies had expanded into cultural studies, using literature as the medium of investigation, and the methods employed were what Felski and others have called “symptomatic reading.”

The concern in this mode of literary analysis is to demonstrate how the text manifests symptoms of a variety of cultural and societal distresses our dysfunctions.  Symptomatic readings are engaged to show how a text undercuts itself and undermines, legitimates, or otherwise manifests a particular set of concerns. Such concerns include the economic (championed by Marxist readings), gendered (pioneered by feminist readings), and specifically oppressive (addressed by schools such as queer and postcolonial studies). Being made to study these modes of analysis in my undergraduate courses went lightyears towards breaking me out of the white, upper-middle class, bourgeois life that had led me to those very classrooms. I continue to be challenged by scholars in all of these traditions.

These discourses are vital to the welfare of society and offer a needed corrective to generations of straight, white men dictating the terms of literary discourse. They continue to form and inform my work. But they did not go very far in helping me to answer the questions that continued to burn in my imagination: how do stories work? Why do people read some books and not others? What makes a book great? Disheartened, I gave up on literary studies and followed my other passion into seminary. At the very least, theologians seemed to be taking stories seriously on their own terms because many theologians are interested in how stories work on readers and participants in the narratives certain stories describe. Thank goodness I did, or I wouldn’t be here now. Indeed in the great web of serendipity, coming to seminary in Berkeley introduced me to one of the country’s finest bookstores. Years after turning my back on a dream of doctoral work in literature, I found myself browsing the shelves of City Lights Books in San Francisco, and I happened upon The Limits of Critique and my heart was strangely warmed.

In this short book, Felski aims directly at the state of literary studies in the academy. In the end, The Limits of Critique is a plea for sanity in the study of literature and an argument in the vital battle to advance the value of the study of the humanities.

Most pointedly, Felski aims her analysis at symptomatic reading. A published feminist literary critic and professor of English at the University of Virginia, Felski had begun to find herself dissatisfied with the state of literary studies and offers The Limits of Critique as the beginning of a conversation about what is keeping the study of literature so bound up in its own internal conversation and why such privilege has been conferred on a style of reading that seems to treat the work under consideration with such disdain. The concern of symptomatic reading is always to get “under” or “behind” or “beyond” a text in order to see what it is “really up to.” Borrowing from another of my favorite thinkers on language and meaning, Paul Ricoeur, Felski begins to experiment with leaving behind the “hermeneutics of suspicion” that characterizes symptomatic reading, and adopting a “hermeneutic of generosity” that is interested in what the text is trying to do and concerns itself with the dynamics of the text itself and the text’s relationship to its history, context, and readership.

That anyone in the world of literary studies was taking these ideas seriously struck me as profoundly exciting: serious scholars are asking questions not unlike my own! It was around this time that I began to have some sense that there might be a place for me in the academic study of literature, meaning, imagination, and narrative. It is no secret that the academy has its own trends and fashions. Perhaps The Limits of Critique heralds a shift in fashion, back toward narrative and the power of fiction on its own terms.

Felski concludes Limits with a gesture towards the Actor-Network Theory (ANT) of Bruno Latour which attempts to situate art (among other things) within a series or web of relationships. I am looking forward to learning more about Latour’s thought as it might help me understand how imagination and works of fiction relate to people of faith and help them to interpret their experience and make sense of the world and their faith.

Books in my head(er image) 1: Tree & Leaf

Getting a graduate degree in the humanities mostly means reading. A lot of reading. One of the purposes of a doctoral degree is to get some kind of mastery of a particular field, which means reading a great deal, and reading a great deal that may or may not be helpful, but is nonetheless part of the literature and so must be read, even if just to be intelligently disagreed with.

There are also books that you keep coming back to. Some turn of phrase or useful perspective or ever-plumbable depth calls you back again and again. In my MDiv and MA work, there were one or two books or articles that I referenced or cited many, many times: History of the World Christian Movement by Dale Ivrin and Scott Sunquist, was one; Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning by Paul Ricoeur was another. One of the reasons I decided finally to give in and go back to study for a doctorate is that the books to which I have kept returning, even after finishing my MA, seem to be trending toward a coherent interest and set of questions that just wouldn’t stop being asked.

For the header image of this site (at least for now), I stacked up some of these books, since they seem like a good summary of what this is all about. I can recommend all of them heartily. I had initially thought to write about all eight of them in one post but things got long, and I’ve split them up into one post apiece. For each, I have included my thoughts on how this book has impacted my thought and how it has pointed me down this road. If you’ve read any of them, I would love your thoughts, and if any of them seem interesting, I encourage you to pick them up and give them a read.

Tree and Leaf, by J. R. R. Tolkien

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’… this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially ‘escapist’ or ‘fugitive’… it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat.

Tree and Leaf is not Tolkien’s best-known book, but it should be better known than it is. Published in t 1964, it is a peculiar piece of publishing: it contains an essay and a story, both complementary works on the theme of the fairy-story.

“On Fairy-Stories” is a seminal study of both traditional fairy tales and later Victorian fairy-stories. It not only offered some of the first critical and theoretical treatment of the fairy-story as a legitimate form of literature, but it also laid the groundwork for much subsequent study of not only fairy-stories , but also the study of fantastic literature more generally. The essay covers a broad survey of the sorts and dynamics of fairy-stories as opposed to other kinds of narrative, but the most compelling insights the he offers on the subject of fairy-stories are the notion of “eucatastrophe” and his rebuttal to accusations of escapism.

On the one hand, “eucatastrophe” is a word of his own coinage that points in approving terms to that aspect of fairy tales sometimes derided by critics, namely, the happy ending. For Tolkien, the collapse of the danger, trauma, and suffering of the tale into the re-making of the world in the form of graced and miraculous salvation is critical to the work of the fairy-story. Like the Gospel, the fairy-story offers a window out of the compromised and sometimes unrelenting violence of the world as it is, to a sense of what could be, and it serves as a reminder or a signpost towards hop.

On the other hand, Tolkien’s rebuttal to the perennial critique of fairy-stories and fantastic literature more broadly is that it is “mere escapism.” To which critique, he offers the observation that a condemnation of escape is generally the sort of sentiment expressed by those running the jails. To be sure,  seeking escape at all points, refusing to engage with the world as it is, does not well serve the individual or the common good. However, never to seek a broader view, never to look out the window is to miss the beauty and the hope for which we are working. Even better, for those who are truly imprisoned in a life from which they cannot find escape, the fairy-story can offer a healthful dream in which to escape, at least for a time, the constraints of an intolerable life.

Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he things and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has become less real because the prisoner cannot see it.

The view to which Tolkien believes fairy stories can point us is the view “as we are (or were) meant to see them – as things apart from ourselves.” The fairy story has the special magic ops making the familiar strange so that it can be returned to with fresh eyes. This power of estrangement and recovery makes the fantastic an invaluable tool in reading the world.

Tolkien originally worked on the material of “On Fairy-Stories” for the 1939 lecture at the University of St. Andrews in honor of Andrew Lang, compiler of the variously colored “Fairy Books” of the Victorian age. As such, it retains much of the oral and even conversational style one would expect from a well-delivered lecture rather than the dry, dense prose of an academic essay.

“Leaf by Niggle,” the story that accompanies “On Fairy-Stories” is a fairy-story of Tolkien’s own devising. It is a beautiful tale in which Tolkien shows rather than telling some of what he means when he talks about fairy-stories. It is a contemplation of Tolkien’s own creative process and his own fascination with what he called “sub-creation,” the work of the fantasy writer reaching beyond himself to fashion something new and recognizable. Or, out another way, the work of cutting a new window through which to see what is and what might yet be.