>Some of you may know that I was an older, non-traditional student who graduated from the University of Iowa in 2006 (No, I’m not telling how old!). Even as a young child, I was fascinated with books. I knew how to read before I knew I knew how (a story for another post someday). As a child, I longed to grow up, go to college, and write books. As an adult with many other commitments, I still longed to learn and to write. As my children grew and were educated, I became a self-educator through extensive reading.
One of the authors with whom I was most impressed was Leland Ryken. More than any other author, he expressed my beliefs about literature and faith. I often thought that, if I could have attended any college, I would have liked to attend Wheaton and study under his instruction. As church librarian, I placed several of his excellent works in our church’s library.
It was only in recent years that I learned he’d grown up in my hometown! Shortly after I’d contacted him regarding an interview, the woman I was sitting beside in church choir practice mentioned that she and her husband were just back from the Chicago area and had enjoyed a nice visit with “Lee” Ryken, a friend from high school.
Small world? Coincindence? I think not. God is in control of even these seemingly coincidental trivialities of life (see my 11 February 2011 post on Psalm 103).
The following is a slightly edited version of my interview with Leland Ryken that appeared in the February 11, 2009, issue of Christian Renewal.
Some titles of the more than 30 books Dr. Ryken has had published reflect his broad range of interest and expertise: Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible; The Christian Imagination: The Practice of Faith in Literature and Writing; The Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly About the Arts; The Word of God in English: Criteria for Excellence in Bible Translation; Worldly Saints: The Puritans As They Really Were; Redeeming the Time: A Christian Approach to Work & Leisure; and Realms of Gold: The Classics in Christian Perspective.
Dr. Ryken and his son, Philip Graham Ryken, co-authored the extensive studies in The Literary Study Bible, ESV and were two of three authors for Ryken’s Bible Handbook. He also co-authored with Margaret Lamp Mead the popular A Reader’s Guide Through the Wardrobe: Exploring C.S. Lewis’s Classic Story and A Reader’s Guide To Caspian: A Journey into C.S. Lewis’s Narnia. He has additionally served as a primary editor for The Discerning Reader: Essays on Christian Literary Criticism; A Complete Literary Guide to the Bible, and Dictionary of Biblical Imagery.
He has been a professor of English at Wheaton College since 1968. He has taught a wide range of courses through the years. His current repertoire reflects his various areas of expertise and includes Shakespeare, 17th-century English literature, the Bible as literature, writing, and survey of British literature.
Dr. Ryken served as Literary Chairman for the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible. In 2003 he received the Gutenberg Award for his contributions to understanding the Bible. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Oregon and his B.A. from Central College and is—I recently learned—a native of my hometown: Pella, IA.
Dr. Ryken responded via email to several of my questions regarding his work and his perspective.
GM: Dr. Ryken, you’ve written about biblical translation and biblical literature, Milton and the Puritans, work and leisure, and the intersection of faith and art. How have you managed not only to develop this variety of interests, but also to write extensively on many different topics?
LR: Early in my career I had success in publishing on topics “outside my field,” as we call it in the academy. I can remember reaching a conscious decision that I would have a writing career in addition to my career as a professor and literary scholar. It is one of the best decisions I have made. My writing career is the story of entering pretty much every publishing door that opened before me, governed by God’s providence in the matter.
GM: How do you maintain focus with your many productive pursuits?
LR: I just concentrate on the topic of the moment. I actually enjoy working on multiple writing projects at the same time. In fact, if I have an afternoon to write, I normally divide the time among multiple projects just to avoid the potential boredom or discouragement that comes from spending the whole afternoon on a single project.
GM: In writing on so many different topics, have you published on subjects about which you were initially unqualified to write?
LR: I have. In much of my writing I have become an expert through a really great human invention known as research. It is a great sadness to me that many people do not envision the possibility of mastering something that currently lies beyond their field of knowledge.
GM: You’ve taught at Wheaton since 1968. What are the joys and challenges of teaching?
LR: For me, the joys of teaching are primarily being given the opportunity to interact with material that interests me a lot and of being able to share what I have found with students in the classroom. I enjoy performing in the classroom. I do not enjoy grading, and I have been disillusioned with developments in the youth culture during the past dozen years.
GM: What are those developments and how has youth culture changed since you began teaching?
LR: Multiple aspects of the current youth culture make this an inauspicious time to be a teacher. Young people are simply less knowledgeable than they once were in the subject areas that have traditionally made up education. Most young people have lost the old authentic thrill to be learning something new. Modern technology (even the computer by itself) has raised expectations of getting what we want immediately, and these expectations have produced a colossal entitlement mentality. Obsession with grades is an epidemic. Most young people do not revere the expertise represented by their teachers and are quick to set themselves up as rival authorities. Most teachers’ fund of anecdotes on these trends is full and overflowing.
GM: You’ve published more than thirty books. What are the joys of writing and publishing?
LR: The joy of publishing has been the joy of making an impact on people around the world. My books have made the world my classroom. They have fallen into the hands of people (chiefly teachers, broadly defined) who have in turn shared my thoughts with people under their influence. In the late stages of my career it is obvious that my books have been my chief contribution to the Kingdom, though I did not know this as the process was unfolding.
GM: Do you prefer teaching or writing?
LR: In both activities I would have withered on the vine if I had not had the two activities to feed each other. I could not have been a good teacher or writer alone.
GM: Your Wheaton faculty bio lists “travel and research in England” as one of your interests. What is the nature of your travel in England?
LR: I am poised to serve as a director on the Wheaton College program for the sixteenth time. I first served in that capacity in 1977. Intermingled with those trips have been seven or eight research trips lasting a couple of weeks each. My current upper-level scholarly project is to contextualize selected sonnets of John Milton in a Puritan milieu, so I have spent weeks and months typing Puritan data into my computer.
GM: Related to the above question, what literary projects do you have in the works?
LR: In keeping with what I said earlier about entering every open door, my current publishing ventures include books on English Bible translation, pastors in the literary classics, and expository preaching. If that list sends some of your readers into shock, let me add that many of my publishing ventures have been collaborative ones, and sometimes I have undertaken a role of what I call midwife as a servant to worthy projects. Essays that are currently in the publishing pipeline include ones on Calvinism and literature, Shakespeare and the Bible, and what I call “Christian Shakespeare.” Some of my best work in the past decade has come in the form of addresses for professional conferences, college audiences, and church audiences.
GM: You served as Literary Chairman for the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible and have written extensively about the difference between essentially literal Bible translations (like the ESV) and dynamic equivalency ones (like the NIV). Can you briefly summarize the difference and explain its importance?
LR: Let me say first that people who want to know the full scope of this topic should consult my books on English Bible translation. But if you want my viewpoint in a single sentence, it is this: an essentially literal translation gives you what the biblical writers actually wrote (subject to the necessary changes of translating from one language to another); a dynamic equivalent translation is not a translation—it is a translation with intermingled commentary, with the result that an ordinary Bible reader has no way of knowing what the biblical authors wrote and how much has been added to that or subtracted from it.
GM: Readers of the Chronicles of Narnia differ in their views of allegory in the books. I identify allegorical elements in the stories; others identify the stories as allegories. As a co-author of reader’s guides to Chronicles of Narnia books, how would you summarize your view of allegory in the Chronicles of Narnia?
LR: The key to understanding allegory in any work of literature is the idea of an allegorical continuum on which we can plot the degree to which a work is allegorical (not whether it is “an allegory”). The Narnia stories range over the explicitly allegorical half of the continuum. In a letter, Lewis himself listed his allegorical intention for each of the seven books. For example, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe portrays “the Crucifixion and the Resurrection” of Christ. In that same letter, Lewis said that “the whole Narnian story is about Christ.” It is impossible to reach those conclusions without seeing an allegorical or symbolic level of meaning in the stories.
GM: How would you characterize or describe your view of literary criticism?
LR: I believe that the function of literary criticism is to enhance a reader’s understanding and enjoyment of works of literature. To achieve that goal, a critic needs to keep the focus on the work of literature and not on a substitute. My own love is explication or close reading of literary works.
Dr. Ryken’s responses during the interview process were instrumental in helping me view my many work commitments more positively and structure my regular work days more efficiently.
I hope that the above interview whets your appetite to explore some of Leland Ryken’s extensive works and discover for yourself how his meticulous research and articulate writing contribute to the continuing story that is literature.