Research

I have every confidence that the details of this page will change over the next three or four years. However, as I set out, here’s what I’m planning to study. The DPhil application is mostly made up of a research proposal that shows a) the gist of what you would like to study and b) that you have some sense of what you’re talking about and getting yourself in for. Below is the research proposal I submitted to Oxford. It is not uncommon, however, for the focus or even basis of the research to change as the project develops.

Systematic Theology Research Proposal

Mythopoeic Fiction’s Potential for a Recovery of Theological Imagination

In an era of declining religious participation and the encroachment of materialist rationality, can mythopoeic fiction help reinvigorate the language of faith? In an era when fewer people are exposed to formal religious instruction, many now reject religious faith without a sophisticated sense of what is being rejected. However, ideas about God and religious experience are still present in our culture, in both explicit and coded forms. This is especially true in the pages of fiction. Much has been written on the theological qualities of such “mythopoeic” or myth-making fiction as The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, and more recently, Harry Potter and His Dark Materials. All of these works take Christianity as their framework and use the tools of mythology to explore it, justify it, or attempt to dismantle it. The implicit theologies of these texts are much discussed, as they are in influential in shaping the thought of a wide public, and are diagnostic of the currents of contemporary common theology. However, less has been written on the theological currents of another widely read body of literature: mythopoeic fiction that is less explicitly Christian in character. I will address this gap by examining the religious and theological dimensions of the mythopoeic fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin and Terry Pratchett, with a focus on both what they are saying about who God is, and how their use of myth, symbol, and magic might broaden our language for articulating the dynamics of faith today.

Scholars have previously explored the theological implications of both explicitly Christian and explicitly non-Christian fiction. On the Christian end of the spectrum, much has been written on the theological character of the Harry Potter stories and yet more on Lewis’s Narnia novels. Both works are exemplars of mythopoeic or “myth-making” fiction engaging with Christianity in either overt or coded manners. On the other end of this spectrum, a great deal has also been written on the way that Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, represents an atheist’s myth-making, deploring Christianity and organized religion. Both Rowling and Pullman make masterful use of mythological forms and narratives in novel configurations to evoke and explore questions of meaning and meaning-making. Elizabeth Gruner has even observed that, in spite of Pullman’s anti-theist agenda, his myth-making and evocation of religious practice is so convincing that it paradoxically rehabilitates the kind of discourse he seeks to undermine (Gruner 278).

Notably, however, this work on theology in fiction has neglected an arguably more common category of books: those which explore similarly myth-like imagination without espousing any explicitly religious outlook. Within this category fall such works as the Earthsea novels of Ursula K. Le Guin and the Tiffany Aching novels and other Discworld novels of Terry Pratchett. Far from being merely genre fiction or escapist entertainment, both Le Guin’s and Pratchett’s novels recognize the importance of ways of knowing that go beyond the merely practical. However, they often approach spirituality and religious practice with reticence, and do so by way of mythic forms that emphasize the care-oriented relationships that characterize religious faith.

Le Guin’s Earthsea novels are rooted in an anthropological understanding of religious experience, and suffused with a non-Christian sensibility. They are also often explicitly mythological in character and begin to articulate a sense of what constitutes the transcendent or divine and how human beings can respond. Conversely, the agnostic Pratchett’s work is grounded in a humanistic outlook tempered by the cultural Christianity of his rural English upbringing. While the Discworld novels do address themes of faith and spirituality with deep suspicion, they can also be seen to embody an ethic of charity and self-offering that is congruent with a Christian outlook. Indeed the god(s) rejected by many of Pratchett’s characters would be rejected by thoughtful Christians and theologians, and the faith after which they strive bears some resemblance to the absent God of negative theology. Can Le Guin’s work serve as a starting place for Christian theological reflection, or is it fundamentally working at cross-purposes with the Gospel? Can Pratchett’s work inform a reticent, even apophatic articulation of the divine, or in spite of its mythopoeic character is it overwhelmed by a humanist-materialist view?

In pursuing these questions, my study will approach Le Guin’s and Pratchett’s work from three directions. First, I will address the questions of what is meant by faith and belief, and how these concepts relates to mythological imagination. Second, I will explore the dynamics of mythopoeic fiction and its formal relationship to theology and religious experience. Finally, I will examine the particular aesthetics, literary qualities, and theological preoccupations of Le Guin’s and Pratchett’s works.

The dissertation project will begin by exploring the dynamics of faith in order to situate it in relationship to ways of knowing and mythological thinking. The two core perspectives guiding this aspect of my work are those of Graham Ward and Karen Armstrong. Ward observes that the language of belief has bifurcated in contemporary discourse. “Belief ” can signify both a bond of faith emerging from relationship or assent to a set of propositions, with or without evidence. It is the difference between telling a loved one “I believe in you” and “I believe it is raining just now” or the difference between believing “in Christ the saviour of the world, or the anti-ageing properties of a new cosmetic mousse” (Ward 280). Armstrong explores a similar terrain from the perspective of the history of religions, identifying mythos and logos modes of thinking, overlapping with Ward’s relational and propositional forms of belief. Armstrong’s mythos links Ward’s relational belief with forms of religious practice and the ways that faith is rooted in lived experience. In addition, I anticipate drawing from the work of scholars such as Donald Gelpi, who articulates the work of theology itself the “attempt to decode religious experience” (Gelpi 5) and Johann Huizinga, author of the influential study of play, Homo Ludens. Both offer compelling and intriguing avenues for further study of the relationship between imagination, experience, and faith. By engaging this variety of approaches, I intend to shed light on the dynamics of belief itself and to discern ction’s and imagination’s proximity to faith and religious experience.

Next, I will study the qualities of mythopoeic fiction and its potential for doing theological work. Paul Fiddes has contrasted narrative’s ability to drive deeper into the mystery of the divine with discursive theology’s ability to articulate it more clearly (Fiddes 13-15). The very freedom of narrative that renders its speech open to interpretation also enables it to capture something of the freedom of God’s self-revelation. In Chesterton and Tolkien as theologians, Alison Milbank explores the dynamics of Tolkien’s and G.K. Chesterton’s fiction in mediating the divine, in light of their Catholic faith and grounding in Thomist theology and aesthetics. I will investigate if and how an engagement with Le Guin and Pratchett with Milbank’s approach might critique or illuminate the theological dimensions of their work as well. At least since Basil of Caesarea’s Address To Young Men On e Right Use Of Greek Literature, theologians have recognized that non-Christian literatures can do theological work. In A Theology of Reading, Alan Jacobs develops a “hermeneutic of love” building up a “charitable reading” not unlike Basil’s, rooted in divine love and God’s eagerness to be known by whatever means ( Jacobs 142). I will explore if and how novel mythological work, such as that done by Rowling, Pullman, Le Guin, and Pratchett, might also be read as an entry point for theological work, both in the sense of faith seeking understanding and of “God-talk” more generally.

Finally, I will examine what Le Guin’s Earthsea and Pratchett’s Discworld novels are doing theologically. In earlier work I have traced the similarities between Le Guin’s and Pratchett’s use of magic and religious practice understood as the enactment of the narratives of mythos. In much of their work, in cultures conspicuously free of clergy and institutions of worship, magic and magic-users take on much of the character of religious faith and practice, from the symbolic practices of magical ritual to the social roles of witches and wizards at the beginnings and endings of life. I intend to extend this study to include a more comprehensive examination of if and how Le Guin’s and Pratchett’s fiction translate or re-articulate the forms, practices, and ways of thinking that are characteristic of religious faith and in doing so what it may be saying about who God is.

In this project, I will be building on the research that I have done in my previous undergraduate and graduate work. In my undergraduate honors thesis, I explored the anthropological basis of Le Guin’s ctional religions, including the religious character of the ostensibly non-religious cultures of her Earthsea novels. In my Master’s thesis, I examined the theological potential for narrative in the “News from Lake Wobegon” monologues delivered by American public radio presenter Garrison Keillor. In it, I investigate the potential for narrative to encode spiritual and theological themes in a way that allows them to “get under” the secular culture of the stereotypical American public radio audience. Most recently, in a paper building on my undergraduate honors thesis, I explored how magic can stand in for religious practice in Le Guin and Pratchett’s fiction. Both Pratchett and Le Guin’s fiction offer compelling grounds in which to explore the embedded religious discourse in popular literature as well as the potential of such literature as a starting point for specifically Christian theological reflection.

I am especially interested in pursuing this work in the context of Oxford University, as Graham Ward’s work has been so influential in developing the project so far. The chance to continue the work under his supervision would offer great opportunity for deepening and enriching my research. I hope to continue in academic research and teaching after completing my DPhil. As a theologian and priest, I hope to contribute to the theological conversation of the Church and to the continuing work of bringing the Gospel to the world.

Bibliography

Armstrong, Karen. Fields of Blood. Alfred A. Knopf: New York: 2014.

————. The Case for God. Anchor Books: New York, 2009.

Gelpi, Donald L. Experiencing God: A Theology of Human Emergence. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1987.

Fiddes, Paul. Freedom and Limit. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991.

Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. New York: Roy Publishers, 1950.

Imfeld, Zoë Lehmann, Peter Hampson, and Alison Milbank, eds. Theology and Literature after Postmodernity. London: T&T Clark, 2015.

Jacobs, Alan. A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love. Cambridge: Westview Press, 2001. Le Guin, Ursula. A Wizard of Earthsea. Atheneum: New York, 1991.

————. Tales of Earthsea. Harcourt: New York, 2001.

————. Tehanu. Atheneum: New York, 1990.

————. The Farthest Shore. Atheneum: New York, 2012.

————. The Tombs of Atuan. Atheneum: New York, 1971.

————. The Other Wind. Harcourt: New York, 2001.

Milbank, Alison. Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians: The Fantasy of the Real. London: T&T Clark, 2007.

Pratchett, Terry. A Hat Full of Sky. HarperCollins: New York, 2004.

————. I Shall Wear Midnight. Harper: New York, 2010.

————. The Wee Free Men. Doubleday: London, 2003.

————. Wintersmith. HarperTempest: New York, 2006.

Ward, Graham. How the Light Gets In. Oxford: OUP, 2016.