Saturday, June 30, 2012

On C. S. Lewis, Research, and Kindred Spirits

This past week I got to do something I've been wanting to do for years: visit the Wade Center at Wheaton College. Ever since I wrote my dissertation on Lewis in the 1980s I've been aware that the Wade Center is the mecca for Lewis scholarship in the United States. Clyde Kilby, a professor at Wheaton, is often credited as the man who "discovered" C. S. Lewis and helped make his writings known in this country. Kilby struck up a correspondence with Lewis, visited him in England, and, eventually, became friends with Lewis and Lewis' brother, Warnie. As a result, Warnie began to send his brother's letters, papers, and books to the Wade. Today the center holds about 2,500 books from Lewis' personal library, as well as personal books, manuscripts, and papers from British writers of period associated with Lewis: J. R. R. Tolkien, Dorothy L. Sayers, G. K. Chesterton, George MacDonald, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams.

It has been said that Disneyland is the happiest place on earth, but, I tell you, for someone like me, the Wade Center is the happiest place on earth!

Here's a shot of me at work at the Wade Center. One of the great benefits of being in this setting is the immediate acccess you have to research materials. For example, one day I was reading through Lewis' letters and came across a reference to a 17th century spiritual work called The Way to Christ by Jacob Boehme. Though I had never heard of Jacob Boehme, the reference was interesting because Lewis wrote the letter in 1929, some two years before his conversion to Christianity. I asked one of the archivists at the Wade if I could see Lewis' copy of the book and within a few minutes, I was holding it in my hands. I could see what passages Lewis had underlined, and I could read his annotations in the margins of the book. It was so cool!

As I planned and anticipated my trip, this is pretty much what I envisioned myself doing. I saw myself mining the vast resources of the center. In my more optimistic moments, I saw myself making some remarkable discovery that would change the face of Lewis scholarship forever. I imagined myself putting in long days of reading and notetaking and then returning to my little apartment in the evenings, perhaps to do more research--or maybe watch some baseball.

Well, I didn't make any earth-shattering discoveries during my week at the Wade. I did rent a remarkably comfortable apartment from two Wheaton graduates that was perfect and very reasonably priced. I did watch some baseball and even parts of the NBA draft. I did find some great new resources and clarified the direction of my current research project. I also came upon several other topics of interest that I would like to do research on in the future.  Many of these clarifications and new topics came not simply from researching but from talking to the people I met during the week: Chris Mitchell, the Wade Center director and Marj Mead, the associate director; the two archivists who hang out in and supervise the Reading Room: Laura Schmidt and Heidi Truty; Wheaton College professors Jerry Root and Wayne Martindale; and Andrew Lazo, a fellow CSL scholar from Wheaton whose research trip coincided with mine.

Here's a shot of me and Andrew. Andrew is a high school teacher in Houston who spends his summers researching and writing about Lewis--not for his job, not for tenure, but simply because he loves it. The people I met on this trip--that's what I had not anticipated. I was awed by the kindness of strangers, with their eagerness to answer my questions, with their interest in my research project, with their generosity, and with how quickly they became new friends rather than strangers. They took me to lunch; they invited me into their homes; they offered me pipes and scotch (more on that in another post); one even gave me a first edition of a Dorothy L. Sayers book because, as he said, "When I give my books away, I experience two moments of joy: one when I find the book and buy it, the second when I give it away. 

In the space of a few days, I discovered a whole community of scholars, bound together by their common interest in the writings of a British professor who died in 1963. In retrospect, I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised. It was Lewis, after all, in The Four Loves, who noted that it is often common interests that draw us together as friends. He talked about that "aha" moment when we realize that someone else is interested in the same books (or music or movies or gardens or ideas) that we are when we thought we were the only ones.

Out of many great moments in the week, this picture will probably stay with me the longest (unfortunately I don't have a photo of this one).  I'm sitting in the garage of a Wheaton College professor with another scholar who is doing research at the Wade. We're sitting in the garage rather than on the patio because there's thunder and lightning outside (for my Northwest friends, this is real thunder, not the measly, soft rolling thunder we get in the Portland area). We're drinking red wine and smoking pipes (though unlike my more experienced companions, I'm having a hard time keeping mine lit), and we're talking about C. S. Lewis. At one point the other Wade researcher talks for a good 30 minutes about a discovery he thinks he's made from reading the letters of Joy Davidman. He thinks he's found that, contrary to what the Lewis biographies say, Lewis invited Joy to stay at the Kilns the first day they met in Oxford and that the widow of Charles Williams advised Joy on the dress she should wear to make the best impression at her first meeting with Lewis. He meticulously traces the dates and tries to reconstruct the chronology and present the evidence for his theory as the two of us listen with rapt attention. It strikes me that if someone overheard our conversation they would think we were talking about someone still alive, a friend or relative that had just begun an exciting love affair. It also occurs to me that if that same person found out that our intense discussion was about someone long dead, she would think we were crazy or geeky or both.

As the night winds down (at about 2:30 a.m.; the other researcher had a 5:30 a.m. flight), I express my gratefulness for the many kind people I'd met during the week and wonder aloud whether all the folks attracted to the study of Lewis are so nice. Our host says, "I've been lots of places and met lots of folks, and, in my experience, there's no chumps among the lovers of  C. S. Lewis."  I can only hope that he won't change his mind after meeting me!

Monday, June 11, 2012

It's Time to Man up about Christian Feminism


 I grew up in a Christian denomination that discriminated against women. It took me years to admit this, and I don't think the congregations of this group did so out of maliciousness or ill intent. Rather they had adopted a hermeneutic (a method of reading scripture) that led to the conclusion that Paul's instruction for women to keep silent in church assemblies was a universal rule that should be followed in the church for all time.

Rachel Held Evans has been posting a very good series of blogs on egalitarianism (, and my friends Melanie Springer Mock and Kendra Weddle Irons have a lively blog that regularly addresses the ways images in evangelical Christianity limit the freedom of women to live out their calling before God ( I want to stand in solidarity with these women and throw my own small pebble into the stream of discussion.

What I don't want to do in this post is to engage in biblical exegesis. That's what I did in the early years when I first became aware of the "women's role in the church" issue, as it was called. I tried to analyze and slice and dice all those New Testament passages, tried to understand what the Greek word for submission really meant, pondered whether it was elder Junia or elder Junius, and whether Phoebe was really a deacon (or a deaconess!). While interesting, those efforts often seemed to end in confusion and frustration. It just seemed impossible to arrive at any solid conclusion.

I'm not saying those kinds of biblical explorations don't have value. Rachel Held Evans does a great job in her blog series of surfacing and explaining all those questions, so if you want to go down that path, I recommend checking out her series.

So instead of focusing on biblical interpretations, I want to share a bit of my own story. I want to talk about the process by which I arrived at my current views and identify some influences along the way. My hope would be that my story might provide some insight into why people change their views on issues like this. Maybe someone out there might even identify with my journey. If not, this may be an exercise in self reflection and exorcising my own demons, and that's not all bad either.

First, just to be clear, here's pretty much where I'm at these days on the "women's role in the church" issue:  “Decisions about who should do what [in the church] should . . .  be made on the basis of individual gifts and not on the basis of gender—any more than we would automatically allocate tasks and resources on the basis of skin color, ethnicity, or class” ( A Sword between the Sexes? C. S. Lewis and the Gender Debates by Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2010, 188). 

The last part of this quote is significant for me. My real movement on this question came about when I began to see it, not as an issue of biblical hermeneutics, but as an issue of social justice. That was the game changer for me.

I could write tons on this topic, but I will limit myself to two observations about my story.

First, my changing views on this issue came about not through intellectual argument, but through my experiences and my relationships in churches and in the workplace. When I think about my attitudes and opinions on the role of women in the church, my mind goes--not to books, not to seminars, not to bible class discussions, but to people, both men and women, whose life and actions spoke to me. One of the first people I think of is Oliver Howard. Oliver was one of the most brilliant biblical scholars I've ever known. His theological degree was from Hebrew Union, but at the time I knew him he was a practicing corporate attorney in Tulsa. He was the one who first introduced me to the biblical questions and conundrums surrounding this issue. But Oliver's actions spoke louder to me than his words. You see for years Oliver spoke at my denomination's lectureships, hoping to open peoples' minds to more freedom for women in the life of the church. But Oliver and his wife had three daughters--bright, capable, excellent public speakers. Ultimately Oliver and his wife realized that their daughters would never be given the opportunity to use their gifts, and so he and his family left and joined a denomination that practiced equality in ministry for all members. 

My views also changed because of the many wonderful, spiritually gifted women I worshiped with over the years: Carol Sherwood, Suzanne Wood, June Breninger (I could go on). As I listened to these women share their hearts and spiritual insights in small group or Bible study settings, it began to dawn on me that they were prohibited from sharing those same spiritual insights with the larger congregation. This didn't seem right. I began to wonder what we were missing by effectively silencing half the church.  A fairly recent stage on the journey for me has been working at George Fox University. The Friends movement has a long history of equality for women in ministry, and even though my Quaker colleagues tell me that there are still struggles in many of their churches about women's leadership, I've observed a marked difference that occurs in a faith tradition that begins with the assumption that all members are equal in gifts and ministry.

One of the characters in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, says that during the Civil War, he had to leave his Presbyterian church and “go sit with the Quakers” for awhile—to get away from the Christian patriotism and expressions of support for war in his own church. I’ve felt somewhat the same about my last three years, and I’m thankful for the change of scenery religiously that has given me space to reflect on what I feel and believe about women and ministry.

In my faith tradition, I also saw how this religious practice influenced the ways women were treated (and mistreated) in the life of the church and in the workplace. Sometimes this manifested itself in subtle ways, sometimes more blatantly.  I'll give a couple of examples from the religious colleges where I taught. In the college setting, of course, women were not prohibited from teaching or chairing committees or achieving academic honors. However, because of denominational beliefs, there were certain things that female faculty members could not do that male faculty members could do. For example, a female faculty member could not speak in chapel. At one college a capable, theologically prepared female faculty member was asked to teach a freshman Bible course; however, enrollment in the course had to be limited to women because, obviously, a woman could not exercise a teaching role--at least in a "Bible" course. Never mind that other female faculty members were no doubt "teaching the Bible" to their male students in a variety of English, History, and Psychology courses. At another college, an Academic Dean opened a faculty meeting by reading scripture and making some devotional comments. She was later visited in her office by a couple of concerned (male) faculty members, who suggested that, next time, she should ask a male faculty member to lead the devotional. Presumably, it was OK with these male faculty members that the female dean could craft a college mission statement, oversee the curriculum, and hire and fire faculty--just so long as she didn't intrude on their sacred patriarchal privilege of reading and interpreting scripture.

I also saw how this religious stance played out in more subtle ways. I can recall several meetings where it was obvious to me that a female faculty member or female administrator's ideas were being discounted--not because they were bad ideas--but simply because the person presenting those ideas was female. I'm not even sure the male faculty members and administrators were aware of what was going on, but it was obvious to me. I could see it in the way a male faculty member interrupted a female speaker in a meeting or the way he dismissed a woman's suggestions without consideration. As I look back on it now, it's actually surprising to me that more of this kind of thing didn't go on. After all, if you live in a religious system where women are silenced in arguably the most important hour of the congregational life of the church on a weekly basis, where women are relegated to proscribed roles like teaching children's classes and Bible classes where only "ladies" are present, and, further, where men are likely to be taught that the role of their wives in the home is to submit to their God-given male leadership authority, what would you expect to happen?

Second, my views changed when I began to look more at the way Jesus treated women. As a result, I came to view the debate in terms of social justice. It seems clear to me as we read the stories recorded in the New Testament about Jesus' encounters with women we notice that his tendency was always to move in the direction of more freedom of expression and more voice and more significant spiritual standing for women--and that this tendency was diametrically opposed to the cultural and religious assumptions of his own day. Can you really imagine Jesus silencing a woman who wanted to pray or share a Bible verse? Can you really imagine Jesus advising a woman not to teach a man? I think Jesus was fully aware that women in his society were oppressed, and, as a result, he always tried to grant more freedom, more opportunity, and more dignity to the women he encountered. For me, this example of Jesus is much more convincing and much less confusing than trying to sort out the advice Paul gave to 1st century churches. 

I remember Oliver Howard once posing this question to a group of church leaders: if a woman were to approach you with a request to share a prayer or a devotional thought with the congregation on a Sunday morning, what would you do? Would it be right to deny this woman the opportunity to share what she believes is her spiritual gift? Or would it be right to allow this woman to share? WWJD?
If you have to err, would you rather err on the side of law and restrictions? Or would you rather err on the side of grace? 

Looking back, I suppose that was the day I became a Christian feminist. 

I mentioned that I now see women's equality in ministry as a social justice issue, so here's another analogy that's been helpful to me. I've always admired the Freedom Riders who stood up for equality in the segregated South. While I realize that the black Freedom Riders were risking more in the struggle, I've always been impressed with those White Freedom Riders who chose to stand in solidarity with their black brothers and sisters, risking life, limb, and reputation because they believed in the rightness of the cause, not because it necessarily affected them personally. 

Perhaps it's time for a similar freedom ride where guys like me stand in solidarity with their Christian sisters: To stand against discrimination and oppression and misogyny in all its forms. To declare clearly and boldly that "there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).