Oxford’s Beauty, Mystery, and Pressures
Ryan Pemberton is the author of Called: My Journey to C.S. Lewis’s House and Back Again. It is a moving memoir about the beauty, mystery, and pressures of being a student at Oxford University. If a good book is measured by whether it makes you choke back tears or laugh out loud, then this book qualifies, as it did both for me. Pemberton serves as Minister for University Engagement at First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, California.
The interview was conducted by David George Moore. Dave blogs at www.twocities.org.
Moore: Give our readers a general feel for what your book is about.
Pemberton: Called is a story about what it was like to wake up and go to bed night after night with this deep feeling that I was supposed to be doing something very different with my life, to make a dramatic change not only in terms of my career, but also in terms of my general life direction. It’s a story about what unfolded after I took this step in faith that I never could have seen coming. Called is as much a story about failure as it is about success, and it asks what it looks like to be called, specifically as a Christian, in the midst of all of that.
I wasn’t completely comfortable with how many Christian writers were writing about calling as I was wrestling with my own questions on calling, and I was also feeling like my own personal experience forced me to think about calling in a different way than when I first left home, community, and career to pursue what I believed to be God’s call. I wrote this book to get at all of that, and to say, “Maybe this will help you.”
Moore: When and how did you know you wanted to be a writer? More accurately, how did you know you were a writer even before publishing anything?
Pemberton: This was a process for me, a series of moments, rather than any one particular moment. I had a longtime fascination with words growing up—spelling them over and over again, feeling their texture on my tongue. I loved English in school, and writing stories especially, though I never considered writing as something I’d spend my free-time doing, especially not for pay. But I remember this moment in my first job out of college when I realized I was not only being paid to help my clients tell their stories, I actually really enjoyed this work. That was an important moment for me. I was also beginning to write for myself around this same time, though I wasn’t thinking of writing as a vocation—it was therapeutic for me, getting to write what I wanted to write about. The only person I shared this with at the time was my wife. Jen was the first person who encouraged me that writing was worth my time. She began sharing my work with others, which led to more and more encouragement. That kept me taking writing seriously when otherwise I’m not sure I would’ve thought much of it. There were other moments: my sister-in-law Hayley reading and sharing my words with others just before her unexpected death and getting some of the responses I did from those whose job it is to know quality writing. It was a struggle for a long time, actually, admitting that I not only wanted to be a writer, but that I somehow was a writer; I talk more about that process of realization in my book.
Moore: You mention how Lewis was such an enthusiastic teacher. How has his love for conveying truth in a winsome and creative way influenced your own teaching?
Pemberton: I’m not so sure I would say it was C. S. Lewis’s love for what he did that influenced me, but simply experiencing how he did it. It was feeling the impact of Lewis using his creativity and his razor-sharp logic to ask the difficult questions of life and faith in Christ; it was reading his best attempt to help others come to a response to these questions; and it was his willingness to say, after all of that, “That’s the best I can do. If it’s not helpful, throw it out.” That’s what left such a mark on me, personally; seeing Lewis use his God-given gifts to help others look at the world through the lens of Christ’s in-breaking, reconciling work, and showing the difference this made for all of life. My gifts are different than Lewis’s, so my work will necessarily look different, but my aim is pretty similar. And that winsome, intellectual humility that Lewis modeled so well is something I try to emulate, though even there I go about it differently. Lewis has courage that I lack.
Pemberton: I know what you’re talking about—Walter’s habit of writing down names of those he has just met—but I’m not so sure that specific act has influenced me. I don’t write down names, but Walter is a master of hospitality, and part of that comes simply from attending to people well. On that note, I think Walter has rubbed off on me, because I’ve been a recipient of his generous hospitality. Sometimes that comes simply from doing all I can to remember names, but other times it means taking the time to learn people’s stories, which Walter did with me, and which meant so much. Walter was a dear friend to me when I needed one—showing up in a foreign city, being dreadfully intimidated by Oxford and the people there—and when his life was already so full! I would like to think that he has helped me be a better friend to people I’ve only just met.
Moore: Michael Ward (aka “Spud”)said you might best fit as a “bridge” between academia and the church. Do you think his counsel is accurate?
Pemberton: It’s funny, that was one of the most pointedly true, even prophetic things that anyone has ever said to me. I’ve chewed on that line for years. I think what Spud was getting at was that my work would be the work of interpretation. And even when I didn’t know exactly what that would look like, I knew Spud’s words were true, somehow. I have never thought I was being called to be a traditional, Sunday morning pulpit minister. Nor, however, did I see my role squarely in the academy. Somehow I felt like my work was going to be more for the general public than for my scholarly peers. Even though I am quite happy to be doing that scholarly work, I felt like I wouldn’t be respecting God’s call were my work not to be reaching someone who would never be interested in scholarship. And so, yeah, that has left me in a funny, in-between spot. This word was more challenging than helpful for a long-time, but now that I’m in the role I’m in—employed by a church in a highly educated, predominantly secular city, working with those who spend most of their time in the world of higher education—Spud’s words feel prophetic.
Moore: You heard from a Dominican priest that “Good theology makes us do something.” How does this inform your present ministry?
Pemberton: One of my favorite C. S. Lewis quotes is “I warned you that theology is practical.” Karl Barth talks about the Subject of Christian theology as the God who condescends into lived experience. One of my favorite professors from Duke Divinity School when I was there, Dr. Willie Jennings, used to say all the time, “Put this on the ground.” That’s what theology is to me: practical, embodied, “on the ground.” Or else, what are we doing? I’m just as tempted to get lost in my head, lost in abstractions, as anyone, but I don’t think we get that privilege when it comes to theology. If we’ve missed that “on-the-ground-ness” of theology, we’ve missed the point, somehow. That’s central to any and all of the work I do, anytime I am talking God, about the life of faith. I am constantly trying to encourage the students I work with, for example, to think about the difference Christ makes for their life here, in this city, of all places, at this time, of all times.
Moore: You studied theology at Oxford and Duke Divinity. They have very different philosophies of learning. Oxford’s culminates in several big tests at the end of one’s studies. Duke, like most American schools, has discrete semesters or quarters where you get closure on those classes and then move on to a new set of courses. Which one do you think better facilitates learning?
Pemberton: Pedagogy is not something I spend much time thinking about. Obviously the Oxford model has been around for a long time, and it’s not likely to change anytime soon (though Cambridge did finally move away from this model not all that long ago). The tutorial system, the opportunity to work one-on-one with your instructors, is an unbelievable privilege, and that’s simply not something that many institutions can offer. But the difference in exam systems, in particular: that’s more difficult to answer. Is my recollection of the material I studied at Oxford better than that which I learned at Duke? It’s hard to say. It probably depends more on those I was working with than the institutional exam system, to be honest. I can very easily tell you which one I’d prefer never to do again!