Holly Ordway, longtime friend and supporter of the C.S. Lewis Foundation, has just put up a blog post on her website Hieropraxis, chronicling one day in the course of the conference. She gave us her permission to re-post it here, so we’d like to share it. Photos were taken by Lancia E. Smith:
“It might seem premature to write about the experience of attending the CS Lewis Summer Institute in Oxford and Cambridge on the morning of only the third full day of the conference. For those who are here, however, it makes perfect sense. As Steve Bell, the musician who has blessed us with his music on several occasions already, said on the second morning: “If they sent me home today, it would be enough.”
The CS Lewis Foundation‘s vision for events like Oxbrdge could perhaps be summed up in the word “integration.” All the Foundation’s events – including Oxbridge – integrate the life of the mind with the creative arts and with worship, centering everything on Our Lord Jesus Christ. It’s characteristic of the Foundation that they seek to inspire every participant to make this integrated life our own, and in renewing our vision, to be lights in the world. The Oxbridge experience is intended to be transformative.
What does that look like in practice?
One key element is community. We begin our day with breakfast in the Great Hall of Keble College: seated at long wooden tables, with place settings laid out, we break bread together. Plenary speakers, Foundation board members, workshop leaders, and artists mingle with conference attendees. There’s no separate “faculty dining area”! Stop and think about that for a moment: it is simple, and profoundly counter-cultural. This is an expression of Christian community, in which gifts are recognized and celebrated, in the context of a lived-out understanding of the Body of Christ.
After breakfast, since we are in Oxford for the first half of the Institute, we walk down the cobbled streets to St Mary’s, the University Church where CS Lewis preached his famous “Weight of Glory” sermon. We raise our voices together in the singing of hymns, and hear a meditation, and then have two plenary speakers. The setting couldn’t be better, with St Mary’s enormous stained glass windows glowing with morning light and the pipe organ, flanked by Oxbridge banners, as the frame for the speaker’s podium.
And what speakers we have had! Just one – any one! – of the speakers thus far could easily be the Big Name Speaker at a regular conference. But something like the miracle of the loaves and fishes seems to happen regularly at Foundation events, and so we are blessed by day after day of abundant gifts. Just consider a few: Os Guinness spoke of the challenges of Christians engaging culture. Bishop Kallistos Ware spoke in prayer and cultivating inner peace so that we can truly be lights in the world. Joseph Pierce recounted his conversion and the radical, deep healing that transformed him from being committed to racist, violent ideology to being committed to Christ. Ken Blanchard drew from his deep well of experience in the business world to share a vision of leadership centered on Jesus.
As you can see from even this brief list, the speakers address the integration of faith, ideas, and the arts from a variety of
disciplines. As a teacher, I was profoundly moved by Malcolm Guite’s plenary session, in which he addressed the challenges of education today, clearly setting out the fact that we are in a very dark place indeed, yet we have hope. He simultaneously challenged and inspired us to be story keepers and story tellers, holding on to the Gospel story even in a culture that tells us, as King Miraz tells young Prince Caspian, that it’s nonsense for babies. We are called to keep the story, and to share it, and to pray for and support those who, like Dr Cornelius in Prince Caspian, are doing the difficult work of teaching in the secular world. I know that I am not the only one in the room who had tears in their eyes at the end of Malcolm Guite’s talk, or who felt energized and inspired in our work of writing and teaching.
You’d think that would be enough for the day, wouldn’t you? But this is the Foundation we’re talking about. Loaves and fishes.
After the plenary sessions, we have an hour and a half for lunch on our own, perhaps spent having tea in an Oxford cafe, or fish and chips at the Eagle and Child – the very same pub where the Inklings met! In small groups, enjoying our conversation, we disperse, to reconvene later for the afternoon sessions.
Again the diversity of disciplines and topics is astonishing – as well as the caliber of the workshop leaders. I can only give a few examples. Michael Ward is teaching on “Cosmos or Chaos? CS Lewis and the Heavens,” based on his new book Planet Narnia (which I highly recommend). Brett McCracken’s workshop is on “Hipster Christianity.” John Mark Reynolds is teaching on the Great Books approach to teaching – very relevant, seeing as this is the approach that the CS Lewis College will take. Charlie Olcott is leading a Business Symposium. Joy Jordan-Lake is doing a creative writing workshop. And there are even more! I myself am participating in the Academic Roundtable, led by Scott Key, in which we present papers and discuss them – another great example of community building, in this case among academics.
Whew! Again, this would be more than enough for a rich, full day. But this is Oxbridge. There’s more…
After the workshops, we have some time to relax, perhaps take a nap, or wander Oxford. I’ve enjoyed visiting the bookshops… Blackwell’s in particular, with its winding, almost mazelike layout in which you climb up and find rooms devoted to different subjects on each level, all the way up to the fourth level where the secondhand books are found. The third level (or second floor as the British say, as they call the first floor the “ground” floor and start numbering after that) has my personal favorite, the Poetry Corner.
(I’m eagerly looking forward to Cambridge, where I’ve been told there is a place called the Haunted Bookshop…)
Dinner is once again in community, seated on those long tables that make me, at least, feel like a student at Hogwarts; and have I mentioned how good the food is? It’s a good thing we’re walking so much during the day…
After dinner we have an experience of the arts: thus far, that has included a wonderful performance of song and guitar music from Steve Bell, a Readers Theater production of Freud’s Last Session, and (last night) an English country dance. Many of the ladies (myself included) changed into dresses or skirts beforehand, the better to whirl and twirl in the patterns of the dances. It was marvelous good fun, and with an excellent dance caller who taught us each dance pattern and guided us through them, even dancing neophytes (myself included) could join in. Looking around the room, I saw older men and women and teenagers, and every age in between; I saw how the more exuberant dancers drew in the shyer ones; I saw smiles and heard laughter and clapping everywhere I turned.
Most everyone has called it a night at around 10 pm (I think you can see why!) but for some of us the day is not yet over. We make our way to the Keble College bar and settle in for Bag End Cafe, masterminded and led by Andrew Lazo. This is another important form of community here: Andrew works his magic to bring everyone together in a community that celebrates the arts and nurtures creativity. People tell stories, read poetry, play music, and share laughter; each Bag End is unique. Here we again see the reality of Christian community. A published poet or professional musician will be followed perhaps by someone who wrote his first poem ever just the day before. (And I’ve seen it happen again and again that people are inspired by Bag End to do exactly that – to write something and share it.)
Finally we head back to our rooms. The patterned brick of Keble College catches the gleam of moonlight; the grassy quad is a well of shadows now. We say our goodnights and climb, weary but happy, into our beds. Tomorrow is another day of fellowship, learning, beauty, and joy.”