I stepped off of the plane lugging the emotional baggage that sentiment wouldn’t let me leave behind. Eagerness and anxiety clawed at my throat as I made my way through customs. There I was, alone in a foreign country, an adult by name but not by nature, facing off against life’s rising tide one wave at a time.
When I came to the Oxford Study Centre, I expected to gain a new credential for my resume, make some new friends, and have a lot of new experiences; I didn’t plan to see such beauty. Perhaps see is too strong of a word, perhaps I should say glimpse. Behind the glass of my perceptions there lay an image; it was an accident, and the image was blurred, but there was something appealing to me. Through this image, I saw an invisible narrative.
It wasn’t long after my arrival that our Worldviews Course began. I cannot explain what this course was by its name alone, and I cannot describe it without a cryptic description. I can say that during our course we sought answers and discovered more questions, and I can say that we fought for truth but only managed to scrape away some of the lies. But these statements do not bring clarity. Instead, I will describe the man who led it and what I learned while I was there. Kevin Bywater is a man as complex as any man, with as many facets. So, for the sake of this essay, I will only describe two: The Great Bywater and Kevin the man.
I first met him as The Great Bywater. The Great Bywater is charismatic and persuasive; he sees the world in a way entirely his own. The originality and energy of The Great Bywater can excite and inspire people; it makes them see the world in High Definition. His passion and charisma can lead people, even to the point of discipleship. He cannot make them think; he can only make them question. He leaves them at times confused and displaced. It is here that Kevin the man comes in.
I first met Kevin through his family when his sons burst into the room, huge grins eating up their excited red faces. As Harrison announced with uncensored joy to the room of adoring Oxford Scholars that he passed his math test, I saw in Kevin’s face a man enamored of his children.
His family anecdotes and subtle smiles showed me that Kevin the man was one proud papa, but who could blame him? I myself wanted to adopt them all as soon as I met them, but it was unnecessary because they had already adopted me. Their warmth and affection and hospitality released us from the chains of forced etiquette and disconcerting small talk. However, though his family is a big part of his identity, they were not the sum total.
Even I, who spent three months studying with him (sometimes studying him), don’t fully understand Kevin the man. What I do know, is that, in our academics, Kevin comes out when he tells a story. Whether it is a story about his wife, Angela (who lives up to her description), his children (who we all couldn’t help but love), his experiences, or his testimony, Kevin the man comes to the foreground. Through these stories, these narratives, we were encouraged to connect the metaphoric dots.
Kevin also came out when others told stories. He could listen with undivided focus as someone shared a personal experience and banter easily when that experience was comical. Whenever anyone did or said something ridiculous, like a funny noise or weird facial expression, his unwavering gaze and childlike insistence to “do it one more time” simultaneously heightened embarrassment and lowered inhibitions. Kevin was a man of comfortable interaction and easy conversation. By listening at least half as often as he spoke, we were encouraged to make our own connections.
The Great Bywater made us question everything, and Kevin the man taught us how to look for the answers using stories as our guides.
I am a student of literature and narrative structure; both of my tutorials at Oxford focused on this. I have always known that I love a good story, but I didn’t realize the depth of my passion, nor did I realize the cultural and social significance of narrative. Narrative affects everything we do; it carries every subject. But at the time, I couldn’t see how my Oxford tutorials would relate to the Worldviews Course. It was easy to see how my Literary Techniques and my English Literature tutorials related, but how would a course that focuses on religion, philosophy, and politics relate to literature and narrative? In our culture, we treat each subject as separate and unrelated. I didn’t realize how much this mentality had affected me (a girl who chose a liberal arts college for this very reason).
However, at the Oxford Study Centre, everything relates to everything else.
Every experience and class at Oxford taught me this, and the Worldviews Course reinforced it in practice. I was able to communicate with all the brilliant minds around the table without feeling too intimidated. I brought value to the discussions, not by forcing myself to think as they do, but by embracing and expressing my own perspective. My experiences, passions, and education were a window to a different section of the image, and, by placing my window next to theirs, we got closer to seeing and solving the puzzle of truth.
What I learned is that we use narrative in everything we do.
We communicate with it; we think in it; we interpret the world with it. We use it in art, politics, religion, and philosophy. But not all narratives are good. We must compare and contrast the narratives we are told with our own observations of reality. If they do not coincide then they are misleading. We must also be wary of the anti-narratives: stories that subvert the narrative structure. The role of the narrative is to bring clarity because that is how our brains process information. An anti-narrative disrupts the order of our minds and confuses our brains. So, while I learned about narrative structure and how to interpret it in my tutorials, I learned an equally important lesson in my Worldviews Course: I learned about the power of narratives on the human mind, how they can bring clarity and influence people for the better, and, also, how they can bring chaos and lead people astray.
While at the Oxford Study Centre, I found that at the heart of humanity lies a universal, divine narrative. Every story we tell each other is but a pixel in this larger, blurry, dim graphic. It is the job of every artist, politician, theologian, scientist, and human being to identify the good pixels from the bad. We must restore the good pixels: brighten colors, enhance definition, and sharpen blurred edges. In this way, we aim to make the image clearer.
• • •
This is Kevin now. Kevin the man, I suppose.
Frequently I ask our students to provide some reflections on the term so that I can share with others. Every time I’m struck by how they phrase their perceptions and perspectives on our time together. Sometimes I’m simply pleased. Sometimes perplexed. Sometimes embarrassed.
Adriana’s words made gratitude well up within me and embarrassment spill down my front. I wondered, am I really like that? It is true that I tend to beam bright smiles around my wife and children. And it is true that I tell stories and listen to stories. Over the years I’ve found that narratives connect, draw together, even constellate ideas and issues and convictions and perspectives that otherwise reside in this world all a bit disheveled. So, I will take Adriana’s reflections as a collection of compliments.
It is striking to me that we read in John 1:1 that “in the beginning was the word,” and that we can turn to the first chapter of Genesis and encounter a God who communicates and commands as he creates community. It also strikes me that the first five books of the Bible — the Torah — comprise what we call the law of Moses. But as the Torah, these books first and foremost are instruction. And they are largely comprised of narratives designed to engage our imaginations and excite our emotions toward the end that we might come to share God’s affections and aversions — to love what God loves and despise what he despises. Only then can we begin to envision God’s view of our world and embody it as agents of the good, the true, the beautiful, and the just.
*The Oxford Study Centre formerly was the Summit Oxford Study Centre (or Summit Oxford).