Stonework is published by Houghton College, a Christian liberal arts college located in New York’s rural Genesee Valley. Stonework seeks a diverse mix of mature and emerging voices in fellowship with the evangelical tradition. Published twice a year, the journal reflects the arts community at Houghton College where excellence in music, writing, and the visual arts has long been a distinctive.

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  • Issue 6
    Poetry by Paul Willis and Thom Satterlee. Fiction and interview with Lori Huth. Essay by James Wardwell, and student poets from Christian campuses.
  • Issue 5
    Poetry by Susanna Childress and Debra Rienstra. Fiction excerpt by Emilie Griffin. Art from Houghton's 2007 presidential inauguration and a forum on women writing.
  • Issue 4
    Matthew Roth--new poems. Diane Glancy--from One of Us and an interview. John Tatter-on gardens and poetry. The Landscapes of John Rhett. Stephen Woolsey--on the poetry of Jack Clemo. James Wardwell--on Herrick.
  • Issue 3
    Poetry by Julia Kasdorf, Robert Siegel and Sandra Duguid. Fiction by Tom Noyes. The portraits of Alieen Ortlip Shea. An anthology of Australian Poets
  • Issue 2
    Thom Satterlee - Poems from Burning Wycliff with an appreciation by David Perkins. Alison Gresik - new fiction and an interview. James Zoller - Poems from Living on the Floodplain.
  • Issue 1
    Luci Shaw — new poems with an appreciation by Eugene H. Peterson & Hugh Cook — new fiction and an interview

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

A Wealth of Example: Reflections on Oxbridge 2005

Benjamin Walker

On the train from London traveling to the C. S. Lewis Institute’s Oxbridge 2005 Conference on “The Good, the True and the Beautiful in the 21st Century,” I had been looking at the tourist maps of Cambridge that the Oxbridge people had sent me a month before. I had the idea I would make me look smart if I knew in which room each event was being held and how many meters it was from one location to another when I arrived. After picking up my registration packet, however, the first thing I did was get lost in Cambridge. Not intentionally. I got lost with Carina, another Houghton student. We were going to be presenting papers at the conference, she on the depiction of women in The Chronicles of Narnia, I a paper I had written with Dr. Charles Bressler on The Lord of the Rings.

We managed to get lost by missing a footpath on the right side of the road that would have led us directly from Robinson College to the Clare College dormitories. This caused us to make a large circuit around a block of cricket fields and private houses, walk into downtown Cambridge, and finally locating the main college buildings, walk ten minutes back the way we had come to discover the dorms. We received generous assistance from a retiree from Kentucky who was no use in giving us directions, but gallantly shouldered Carina’s (unwheeled) suitcase for a while. We finally made it to the dorms with only twenty minutes to spare until the first event, the 1:30 bus trip to the cathedral in “Cromwell’s Ely,” but I was glad to have just gotten there.

That was Sunday, July 31st. Monday afternoon was the paper presentation. The paper in question had been the result of collaborative research between Dr. Charles Bressler and myself during the spring semester, in an independent study of Tolkien’s work, the goal of which was to bring to life two papers based on abstracts he had developed. Bringing them to life meant reading through The Lord of the Rings once for each paper, hundreds of note cards, and lots of discussion with Dr. Bressler. The paper we were presenting, “J. R. R. Tolkien’s Love of Words: The Revelatory Nature of Tolkien’s Aphorisms in The Lord of the Rings,” discussed the little phrases and constructions, scattered throughout the book, which seemed to fit the definition of an aphorism, a “short, pithy statement of an evident truth concerned with life or nature”, as we defined it.

These sayings ranged from the mundane— the Hobbit-saying “all’s well as ends better”— to the profound—Gandalf’s comforting words “I will not say do not weep; for not all tears are evil” and seemed to us to express the deep underlying truths of Tolkien’s elaborately realized universe, truths which we saw as connected to, even inseparable from Tolkien’s own sacramental Christian worldview. I was very glad the presentation was scheduled for Monday: that would mean getting it out of the way, so that for better or worse, I would not have to worry about it more than one day. There was also another comforting fact: Dr. Bressler and I would be co-presenting the paper. He would be introducing it and introducing me, as well as, I hoped, fielding most of the questions that would occur afterwards.

I can’t say I slept very well Sunday night, despite my tiredness, what with the jet lag and the nervousness and the unfamiliarity of sleeping in a new bed. Also, I had so much to think about. The evening program for Sunday had included “A Visit with Rick Warren,” the author of The Purpose-Driven Life. To see him and hear what he had to say had been a very interesting experience. Not knowing much about either Warren or his book except the fact of their success, I didn’t know what to expect. Stepping onstage in a red and green palm-treed Hawaiian shirt and moccasins, he explained that he had been traveling for a couple of weeks and those were his only remaining clean clothes. There was something delightfully American and laid back about that. As a student, I was overwhelmed by the stature of the conference and the prestige and age of the venue. Warren’s little bit of informality relieved me. As he talked about his current projects, I was surprised to hear him say that he had been become actively interested in problems like AIDS and poverty in the developing world. That seemed to me an excellent message to set the tone for the week. It helped me to see the conference’s goals of redeeming culture in proper focus: we were redeeming things like the arts and literature, as part of God’s larger purposes for every aspect of human society.

Especially for a neophyte like me, this was a useful reminder, because the conference was, on a variety of levels, so impressive. Clare College, where I was saying, had been founded in the year 1326. The speakers, all respected Christian thinkers and writers came from all over the cultural spectrum, from Sir John Polkinghorne, the physicist and theologian, to Dana Gioia, poet and current chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and Richard J. Foster, author of Celebration of Discipline. The speakers, the venue, the crowded schedule, the academic paper sessions, the fact that dinner “in college” as the schedule phrased it, was served in courses, as you sat and conversed with other conferees at wooden tables that ran almost the length of the room, as the room’s oil portraits and stained glass windows looked on: all of these things amazed me It gave me a glow of pleasure to clip on to my shirt the laminated index card that read Clare College: Conference Delegate, because it allowed me past the gatekeepers whose main duty was, it seemed, to politely steer wandering tourists away from college grounds.

Sometime around lunchtime Monday, Dr. Bressler and I met for a read-through of the paper together. We agreed that he would give the introduction and read the first part of the paper. Then we would alternate sections with me reading the conclusion. We sat on a park bench outside the venue, the Faculty School of Music, Robinson College, in which all of the plenary lectures had occurred and where the paper sessions were to be held. By this point I had become nervous; I would actually have to do this thing, upon which all of the college’s generosity in letting me be in Cambridge, England right now, instead of Selkirk, New York, was predicated.
At two thirty, I arrived at the room in which the paper was to be read. In it sat a scattering of people, probably about a dozen. The conference facilitator and the other presenter, a professor from Georgia, were sitting near the front. We didn’t have long to wait before the facilitator got up and introduced Dr. Bressler and the topic of our paper.

It was started.

I got up, tried to smile and look normal as Dr. Bressler introduced me and explained the background of our topic, trying to summarize our research and our main conclusions in a few sentences before plunging into the reading of the paper. He read his section, stopping at points to expand or explain, or make a small joke. When he reached the paragraph where I was to begin reading, he stepped aside from the podium and sat down. I stood up from my front row seat and assumed his place, flinging one nervous smile in the general direction of the audience before starting the reading where he had left off. It actually wasn’t too difficult, just draining. My main concerns were to pronounce all of the words right and to keep my legs or hands from visibly shaking. Dr. Bressler and I transitioned fairly smoothly from section to section. I even managed to put some feeling into the dialogue from Sam Gamgee at the conclusion of the paper. During the time for questions, one middle-aged American lady directed one specifically at me, clarifying that I was, indeed, an undergraduate. She marveled that I had gotten to come all the way over to this conference and present this paper, and all as an undergrad. She seemed pretty impressed. “That’s great!” she said. I couldn’t agree more: I felt like I should expound on what a completely unexpected privilege it was, or thank Dr. Bressler in some way, or at least say something intelligent-sounding and gracious, but I ended up sort of smiling fixedly and nodding at her, saying something clever like “Yeah, it really is,” especially now that it was over and I could breathe, though I didn’t say that last part.

So that was the paper presentation. As for the rest of the conference, for getting a larger view of the life of the Christian mind today, few events could have been more challenging to me. The conference. was ecumenical: the keynote speaker was a Catholic, one of the morning worship sessions was led by an Orthodox bishop. The presenters and conferees represented the full range of the American and British denominational spectrums. It was also multidisciplinary: the speakers there had experience in all areas of public life from fashion advertising (business consultant Gordon Pennington) to high energy physics (Sir John Polkinghorne) to running government agencies (poet Dana Gioia,). They all brought forth their own ideas and visions of the transformation that Christians could effect in today’s culture by reclaiming and resurrecting the ideals of goodness, beauty and truth in the secular world. My favorite speaker had to be Malcolm Guite, who is both an ordained clergyman and a Fellow of Girton College in Cambridge, where he currently teaches courses in both Literature and Pastoral Theology. He had striking blue eyes behind a bushy beard flowing to grey at the sides. In his afternoon workshop discussion of C.S. Lewis’s literary criticism (which I made sure to attend, despite the fact that it was quite crowded) he quoted, apparently from memory, everything from 14th century folk verse to lines from Philip Larkin. As I watched and listened to Guite, he seemed to me in many ways an heir to Lewis—both a respected part of the secular academy, clearly comfortable and even thriving in it, but also deeply and unapologetically Christian, allowing his intellectual and spiritual pursuits to meld, enriching, enlivening and informing each other.

It is memories of people that I take away from the conference. When I look over my pages of notes, I can find plenty of fresh, inspiring and challenging ideas and tantalizingly suggestive phrases littered throughout all of the addresses and lectures and talks I heard. But what staye with me, and comes back to me most distinctly, are the images of the many people there, people like Guite, or like Kathleen Norris, or many of my fellow conferees who I met at the breakfast or dinner table, who themselves were expressions of ways in which Christians and Christian belief could come into culture and create things that were true and beautiful, and inspire the love of those things in others. Maybe more than anything else about my time in Cambridge, that wealth of example which I saw around me gave me the first inkling that, the conference’s lofty and admirable goals might actually be applied to the world, not through programs and papers, but on a human-to-human level, through the efforts of individuals it could be achieved. And who knows? Maybe I could even be one of those working to achieve them.