Oxford vs US: An Undergrad Degree Comparison Chart (& Glossary)

Radcliffe Camera (Oxford)

A young student, who I believe is an American, recently asked a question on one of my Facebook groups:

Anyone from Oxford University- what is it like? I have heard that there are no general education classes, and that you work strictly on your major. Is that true?

When I responded saying that I could give him some comparisons between Oxford and a US liberal arts degree, since I have been an undergraduate at both Oxford (BA in Theology) and in the US (BFA in Drama/Psychology at NYU), he wrote back, saying:

Thanks, I would like the comparison chart. I would also imagine your knowledge is much-more in-depth with a BA from Oxford than with one from America.

So, for Ian, and for any readers and seekers on the Internet who come across this page, here is my comparison chart between reading for a BA at Oxford versus studying for a liberal arts degree in the US. (For “reading” vs. “studying”, and other Oxford vs. U.S. terminology, see the glossary at the end of the post.) All opinions are my own, based on my own experience doing a humanities degree, and I’m happy to incorporate comments/suggestions/corrections into this post, especially from students who can comment on science degrees.

I can’t compare the experiences within the same subject, since my US degree was in a completely different field than my UK degree, but I would say a BA from Oxford, in Theology at least, is more equivalent to a US MA in Theology than to a US BA. The primary difference is Oxford is focused more on teaching you how to think and how to communicate, using the subject as the battlefield upon which you’re learning intellectual sword-work. A US liberal arts degree might have this same ideal, but in practice the large lectures and frequent examinations mean you really spend your time cramming for exams and being constantly evaluated by multiple-choice, computer-scored questions, rather than by soaking in the subject, doing extensive reading, and being evaluated through the more demanding essay format. However, you may have more facts drilled into you in an American program, and you will also have more freedom to explore different subjects as part of your degree. While I think the Oxford tutorial should be (re-?)introduced into American higher education, the choice of overall program really depends on each individual student’s needs, capabilities, and desires.

Here’s a short piece on my experience that I wrote for my senior subject tutor at my Oxford college (with bonus contribution from my good friend and fellow C.S. Lewis expert Ryan Pemberton):

American Theology Students at Harris Manchester

Structure-wise, here’s a brief comparison chart between the typical US undergrad degree and an Oxford one:

Years 1-2: Completion of liberal arts core requirements in the humanities and sciences (often with a required general essay-writing/composition course); choice of major and beginning on introductory classes within that major by end of 2nd year

Year 3-4: Completion of major requirements, w/ some electives related and/or unrelated to the major (often adding a second major or a minor)

Instruction is primarily in large (~200 person) lectures at beginning of degree, with some seminars/recitations. Later in degree, instruction is primarily in seminars/smaller classes (~20-30 people or fewer).

Evaluation is generally through regular quizzes and exams (midterm and final), which are often multiple-choice with some essay questions. Many classes also assign 1-2 term papers a semester, along with regular weekly problem sets/reading responses (1-2 pages each). GPA is calculated every semester, and the final outcome of your degree (GPA) is the average of all semester GPAs.

Year 1: Completion of required preliminary papers in your course. These examinations (“prelims” or “honour mods” [for “honour moderations”]) must be passed in order to move on to the “Final Honours School” (FHS), i.e., the last two years of the degree. Written examination on these papers at the end of the second or third term. (Oxbridge has three 8-week terms in an academic year.) 

(There are no “general education” requirements at Oxford. When you apply to Oxford, you apply both for a specific course and to a specific college. Your application may be “pooled”, or transferred, to another college, depending on fit and the number of openings, but you will generally be accepted – or not – for that course. You may also be accepted onto a Single Honours School [like a single major] instead of a Joint Honours School [like a double major] if you have applied to a Joint School but the college believes you will be a better fit for the Single School. For example, I applied for Philosophy and Theology, but was accepted only for Theology, which ended up being a good decision. See this post for more about my experience applying to Oxford and choosing a college. Applying for a certain course at a certain college means that there is no way to apply “to Oxford”, and then decide what to major in later. You know your major going in, and apply to colleges which offer that subject [or make an “open application”, in which you apply for a certain subject, but let an algorithm place you with a college, which does not affect your overall chances of admission]. See here for a list of which Oxford colleges offer which undergraduate subjects.) 

Years 2-3 (+ 3rd term of Year 1 for courses that give prelims at the end of the 2nd term of Year 1): Completion of required FHS papers, plus completion of elective papers within subject. (For example, in Theology I had four required core FHS papers, and then my choice of a history paper, a theologian paper, an elective paper, and either a second elective or an extended essay, for four total papers beyond the core papers.) Examination on these FHS papers at the end of the third year. During final exams, students will sit 1-2 exams a day, each of which is 2-3 hours long, over a 1-2 week period, for a total of about 6-10 exams (depending on their course). (We also take exams in full academic dress – dark suit, white bow tie, and academic gown, often with a carnation in the lapel indicating progress: white for first exam, pink for middle exams, and red for final exam.)

That means there are NO examinations during the second year. However, students generally take “collections” at the beginning of every term. Collections are practice exams – usually copies of past exam papers – that are given under exam conditions to test you on the material you learned last term. They are scored, but the scores don’t “count” (i.e., they don’t apply to your degree) – they’re just to give you an idea of how you would have scored if this was your final exam, and to help you with revision.

Instruction is primarily in 1-2 person tutorials with a tutor. The tutor assigns you a reading list for each week (with about a dozen books and articles on it), along with a related essay question. You do the reading, and then write an essay to answer the question (usually about 2,000-3,000 words, or about 6-10 pages). Next week, you bring in the essay to your hour-long tutorial (or you send it to your tutor the day before). Then, you read the essay aloud (or skip this, if your tutor has already received and read it), and spend the rest of the time discussing the ideas in your essay. Your tutor will generally present objections to your argument, which you will have to answer, or ask you questions to encourage you to think more deeply. At the end, he’ll give you a new reading list and essay question, and the process begins again.

There are also departmental lectures every week, and at the beginning of term your tutor will generally recommend a few which you should attend. These are not technically required, and there is no attendance taken. However, since the faculty members who write the exams are aware of the content of these lectures, they may write exam questions based on them, so it’s in your best interest to attend at least the listed core lectures. There may be some instruction given in seminars/classes (especially language instruction) – your senior tutor will let you know if you need to take these, and how to sign up for them.

Examination is by written examination at or near the end of the first year (prelims/mods), and at the end of the third year (finals). Exams are in the form of essay questions, with some gobbets (i.e., written commentary on a written passage), translations, and/or problem sets included, depending on the course and the paper. There is also the option of a thesis for some subjects (and a few papers are examined by written coursework [i.e., a lengthy essay like a term paper], as well as exam). If there are questions about your written exam, or if the examiners feel they need more information in order to assess your ability, you may be asked to undergo a viva voce, or oral exam. (These exams are standard for postgraduate degrees.)

The result of your final degree is not cumulative. Your final result depends entirely on your final examinations at the end of your degree (including a written thesis/coursework if applicable). Exams are marked on a scale of 0-100, and results are roughly equivalent to the following marks (which may differ depending on the degree course):

70-100: First-Class
60-69: Upper Second (2:1)
50-59: Lower Second (2:2)
40-49: Third
30-39: Pass (w/o Honours)
Below 30: Fail

Your final result is based on the average of your marks on your final papers, with a couple qualifying criteria: You will generally have to have an average of a certain mark or above, plus at least 2-3 marks over a certain number, as well as no mark below a certain number. So, for example, in Theology, in order to get a 2:1 as your final result, you need to have:

An average of 59 or above
At least two marks of 60 or above
No mark below 40

Whereas to get a First, you need to have:

(i) Average of 68.5 or above
At least two marks of 70 or above
No mark below 50
(ii) Average of 65 or above
At least three marks of 75 or above
No mark below 50

In Theology at least, and I think in the humanities generally, about 10% of students receive a First, roughly 65-75% receive a 2:1, and about 15-25% receive a 2:2. It is uncommon for a person to receive a Third or below, though it happens. You need a high 2:1 (avg 66+) or above to be accepted into graduate study generally, and some employers will also require a 2:1 or above. (Though for graduate study at Oxbridge – Oxford or Cambridge – you should aim for a First.)


Oxford “paper” = US “course”/”class”
(Oxford “paper” also means an examination, so “sitting a paper” means taking an exam. “Classes”, meaning instruction on a certain topic being given to a small group of students who attend weekly and receive regular homework, are rare at Oxford, since most instruction is delivered in other formats. Instead of saying, for example, that you’re taking a class on the Old Testament, you’d say that you’re doing the Old Testament paper, or, if you’re taking the exam, that you’re sitting the Old Testament paper. However, some papers at Oxford are given through a class, such as the special theologian papers within the Theology degree – although my class was 3 people, so it’s not the same thing as an American 20-30 student class. It’s more like a large tutorial.)

Oxford “course” = US “degree program”
(e.g., my course, i.e., my course of studies, was the Theology BA)

Oxford “subject” = US “major”
(e.g., “My subject is Theology” = “My major is Theology”)

Oxford “to read” = US “to major in” or “to study”)
(e.g., “I’m reading Theology” = “I’m majoring in Theology” or “I’m studying Theology”. A person who is reading Theology is a theologian, just as a person who is reading for a science degree is a scientist – no need to wait for the PhD to apply the appellation relevant to your field! One benefit of Oxford is that you’re treated as a colleague-in-training.)

Oxford “essay” = US “paper”
(instead of saying “I’m writing a paper on irony in the Gospel of John”, you’d say, “My essay this week is on irony in the Gospel of John”)

Oxford “revision” = US “studying”
(i.e., “I’m revising for my exams” instead of “I’m studying for my exams”)

Oxford “tutor” = US “professor”
(In the US, we generally tend to call all our faculty instructors “professors”, e.g., “my Intro Psych professor” to refer to the newly-minted PhD who’s working as an adjunct. At Oxford, a professor is a specific title for someone who has been awarded a chair in a faculty – so, for example, the Chair of Old Testament can be called Prof Bloggs, whereas another faculty member, who may have lectured and taught for 20 years as a member of the faculty but who is not a chair, is only Dr Bloggs. It is a faux pas to called a professor “Dr”, or a non-professor faculty member “Prof”. Oxford faculty members have other titles, such as “Lecturer” – which means that the person gives lectures in the department – or “Tutor” – which means that the person teaches tutorials, *not* that the person gives extra help to struggling students [though they may do that, too, out of the kindness of their hearts – Oxford tutors generally care a lot about the progress of their students]. However, you wouldn’t address someone as Lecturer Bloggs or Tutor Bloggs.)

Oxford “finalist” = US “senior”
(A finalist is a student who is about to sit finals, i.e., a student in the last year of his course. [During your last term, you no longer attend tutorials or receive essay assignments, as you are expected to spend all your time revising and attending revision classes.] Therefore, “finalist” is roughly equivalent to the U.S. term “senior”. English universities do not use the terms freshman/sophomore/junior/senior, not least because undergraduate degrees are often three years, not four. They do, however, use the term “fresher” for a new first-year student.)

Oxford “postgraduate” = US “graduate”
(Postgrad:undergrad as graduate student:undergraduate student)

And there you are! Feel free to write me if you have any questions about Oxford or study in the UK (or study in the US, if you are not American). Feel free also to share this document with others – I ask only that you don’t modify it without permission, and do credit me and link back to this blog.

Radcliffe Quadrangle (Harvard)

Dominus Illuminatio Mea!

Cole Matson

BA (Hons) – Theology – University of Oxford, 2011

BFA (w/ Honors) – Drama/Psychology – New York University, 2006

PhD candidate – Divinity – University of St Andrews, 2011-present

Why the Unicorn?

Several people have asked me why I named my blog The Unicorn Triumphant. I wrote the following explanation a couple months ago and put it up on the blog as its own page, but if you subscribe to the blog via e-mail or an RSS feed reader and don’t actually visit the blog (which is how I read almost all the blogs I follow), then you might not have seen it. So, I thought I would give it its own blog post, in case any of my regular readers were wondering what ‘The Unicorn Triumphant’ meant.

(Also, at the time this blog is set to publish, I will be sitting in a movie theatre in Oxford with my friends, hopefully in costume, about to watch the opening credits roll on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Pt 2. Talk about a hidden encounter with Christ!)


The Unicorn Triumphant is a reference to the final tapestry of the seven Unicorn Tapestries at the Cloisters, the medieval branch of the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, a set of tapestries also known as The Hunt of the Unicorn.

The Unicorn in Captivity

The Wikipedia entry on the Tapestries is here.
The museum’s online tour through the Tapestries is here.

The seven tapestries depict the hunting of a unicorn, who is killed by a spear in the side. In the final tapestry, the unicorn is alive again. This tapestry, called The Unicorn in Captivity, is the tapestry I think of as The Unicorn Triumphant. One symbolic interpretation of the tapestries, and the one I mean to reference, is that they portray the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection of Christ, whom the unicorn symbolizes. The final tapestry thus portrays Christ’s Resurrection.

The Unicorn Triumphant, to me, means that Christ, the pure and sinless Son of the Father, is alive again. We are an Easter people, because Christ is triumphant over death and all evil.

In addition, the Unicorn Tapestries are my favourite visual artwork, and when I studied at NYU my favourite place to rest and recollect was sitting in the Unicorn Room at the Cloisters, gazing at the images of the unicorn in the Tapestries. Referencing them reminds me of that time, and also expresses my love of the Middle Ages and of fantasy stories.

Finally, The Hunt of the Unicorn shows how art can lead us to a hidden encounter with Christ.

C.S. Lewis’s Tips on Writing

You may have noticed I haven’t had a post in almost 2 months. It’s been a  particularly busy term. I’ve been revising my thesis on ‘C.S. Lewis on the Moral Responsibility of the Christian Artist,’ taking a class on Thomas Aquinas, and writing essays on Julian of Norwich and the Cloud of Unknowing. I’ve also been submitting my applications to graduate programs at St Andrews, Duke Divinity School, Oxford, and King’s College London, as well as serving as the University Catholic Chaplaincy’s Master of Ceremonies, the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society’s Vice-President (and Reviews Editor for its journal), and one of the two primary docents for tours at the Kilns, C.S. Lewis’s house nearby.

I have several blog posts in draft form, including one on how we define Christian art, but sadly they’ll have to wait a bit longer. I’m going semi-off grid for the next couple weeks before term starts, as I have to finish my thesis, study for my Aquinas collections, read several books by Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross, do background reading for the capstone God, Christ & Salvation paper, catch up on a year’s worth of New Testament Greek, finish my grad school applications, and write my first couple essays of term, all within the next 15 days or so.

In the meantime, to get myself (and any other writers out there) in the mood for putting words on paper, here are some tips on writing from our favorite Narnian author, C.S. Lewis:

To a young girl

CL3 766 (Joan Lancaster, 26 Jun 1956):

1. Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure yr. sentence couldn’t mean anything else.

2. Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.

3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “more people died” don’t say “mortality rose”

4. In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible”, describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”: make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please will you do my job for me”.

5. Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”: otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.’

To a seventh-grader, in answer to a school assignment to ask a famous author about writing

CL3 1108-9 (Thomasine, 14 Dec 1959): ‘It is very hard to give any general advice about writing. Here’s my attempt.

(1) Turn off the Radio.

(2) Read all the good books you can, and avoid nearly all magazines.

(3) Always write (and read) with the ear, not the eye. You shd. hear every sentence you write as if it was being read aloud or spoken. If it does not sound nice, try again.

(4) Write about what really interests you, whether it is real things or imaginary things, and nothing else. (Notice this means that if you are interested only in writing you will never be a writer, because you will have nothing to write about…)

(5) Take great pains to be clear. Remember that though you start by knowing what you mean, the reader doesn’t, and a single ill-chosen word may lead him to a total misunderstanding. In a story it is terribly easy just to forget that you have not told the reader something that he needs to know – the whole picture is so clear in your own mind that you forget that it isn’t the same in his.

(6) When you give up a bit of work don’t (unless it is hopelessly bad) throw it away. Put it in a drawer. It may come in useful later. Much of {1109} my best work, or what I think my best, is the re-writing of things begun and abandoned years earlier.

(7) Don’t use a typewriter. The noise will destroy your sense of rhythm, which still needs years of training.

(8) Be sure you know the meaning (or meanings) of every word you use.’

To a woman

CL3 502-3 (Cynthia Donnelly, 14 Aug 1954): ‘I think you have a mistaken idea of a Christian writer’s duty. We must use the talent we have, not the talents we haven’t. We must not of course write anything that will flatter lust, pride or ambition. But we needn’t all write patently moral or theological work. Indeed, work whose Christianity is latent may do quite as much good and may reach some whom the more obvious religious work would scare away.

The first business of a story is to be a GOOD STORY. When Our Lord made a wheel in the carpenter shop, depend upon it it was first and foremost a GOOD WHEEL. Don’t try to “bring in” specifically {503} Christian bits: if God wants you to serve him in that way (He may not: there are different vocations) you will find it coming in of its own accord. If not, well – a good story which will give innocent pleasure is a good thing, just like cooking a good nourishing meal. (You don’t put little texts in your family soup, I’ll be bound.)

By the way, none of my stories began with a Christian message. I always start from a mental picture – the floating islands, a faun with an umbrella in a snowy wood, an “injured” human head. Of course my non-fiction works are different. But they succeed because I’m a professional teacher and explanation happens to be one of the things I’ve learned to do.

But the great thing is to cultivate one’s own garden, to do well the job which one’s own natural capacities point out (after first doing well whatever the “duties of one’s station” impose). Any honest workmanship (whether making stories, shoes, or rabbit hutches) can be done to the glory of God.’

*CL3 = The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, vol. III, ed. Walter Hooper.

Happy New Year!

Benedictine Theatre Company: Seeking Peace (+ C.S. Lewis Matters)

I just realized I haven’t had a Benedictine theatre company post in four months, so here’s another. Before we get started, though, I’d like to point out my new friend Ryan’s blog, which I’ve added to the blogroll on the right. Ryan Pemberton is a new theology student at my college, from Seattle, and is also a great C.S. Lewis fan, and an apologist in his own right (with a book and everything!). He is blogging about his and his wife’s new life in Oxford at Ryan & Jen Go to England. (He also has an apologetics/devotional blog at hands&feet, which provided source material for the book. If you like it, leave him a comment saying you want a copy!) He’s an engaging writer, and you’ll read about his many Oxford- and Lewis-related adventures. The guy’s been here a little over a month, and he’s already had tea with Walter Hooper, briefly Lewis’s secretary and now literary adviser to his estate, multiple times, as well as visited the Kilns and taken in meetings of the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society. All that while diving into essays and New Testament Greek (which I returned to myself as of today, since I recently decided to take the optional Greek translation paper during my final exams – don’t ask me why). If you like his blog, leave him a comment

Also, if you’ve ever wanted to take a tour of the Kilns, but can’t afford the airfare – now you can! I just put up a photo tour of 68 pictures on Flickr. ETA: Had to temporarily place the Kilns photos behind a privacy barrier, to make changes. Sorry! I’ll edit this if/when I open them back up again. Re-ETA: Kilns photos available again! Seeing the real thing is still best, though, so if you’re going to be in England and want to come visit, you can either contact me (as I am a docent) or the Warden to book a tour. More information about touring the Kilns can be found here.

Oh, and final piece of news – I finished the first draft of my thesis last Monday! 63 pages and 21,046 words, a full 40% OVER my maximum word limit. Now to begin the cutting and revision process, so I can hand in a revised draft to my supervisor in 2.5 weeks. (Thankfully, I know at least a portion of the cuttings will go to serve as seed for another paper.)

Now back to Benedict:

Prologue – Day 3

And the Lord, seeking his laborer
in the multitude to whom He thus cries out,
says again,
“Who is the one who will have life,
and desires to see good days” (Ps. 33[34]:13)?
And if, hearing Him, you answer,
“I am the one,”
God says to you,
“If you will have true and everlasting life,
keep your tongue from evil
and your lips that they speak no guile.
Turn away from evil and do good;
seek after peace and pursue it” (Ps. 33[34]:14-15).
And when you have done these things,
My eyes shall be upon you
and My ears open to your prayers;
and before you call upon Me,
I will say to you,
‘Behold, here I am'” (Ps. 33[34]:16; Is. 65:24; 58:9).

What can be sweeter to us, dear ones,
than this voice of the Lord inviting us?
Behold, in His loving kindness
the Lord shows us the way of life.


What strikes me is the line: “keep your tongue from evil.” I think a Benedictine theatre company should be known for its integrity, love, and respect for others. One of the ways it should show this respect is in the avoidance of gossip. It is the responsibility of the leaders to set an example. We all know how gossip thrives backstage, often leading to hurt feelings and petty rivalries. One of the ways leaders of a Benedictine theatre company can help avoid the creation of such a negative atmosphere is by listening to the artists with whom they work.

An example from my own life: My first time as a young producer, my superior at the theatre company I was working with called me to pass on a complaint from some actors about an action taken by a member of the production staff. Since I knew and trusted these actors, I assumed things had happened the way they had said, though from my experience with the staff member, I figured the problematic action must have been unintentional.

So, I sent out an e-mail to the production team reminding them of the staff policy in question. I didn’t name names, but I did mention that I had been told there was a violation. Unfortunately, even with the somewhat vague wording of the e-mail, I had still left in enough detail to enable other staff members to identify the alleged violator. Another staff member, who had brought the first staff member on as part of his team, e-mailed me upset that I had basically made a public, though indirect, accusation against his team member, without consulting her to get her side of the story, which was very different.

Right there, I realised my big mistake. I hadn’t even thought to ask her, and I also (albeit unknowingly) made it very easy for other production team members to know who I was talking about, leading to deeply hurt feelings.

What I should have done was handle it privately, and get both sides of the story before I made any decision. (After talking to both sides, I’m still not sure what actually happened, but I suspect that we could have worked it out if I had led with better communication.) I also learned that taking care of one’s team is the most important part of being a producer. Not even advertising, budget, or ticket sales trump showing your people respect and love.

That’s what a Benedictine theatre company is all about. We’ll see later that St Benedict says that guests should be welcomed as if they were Christ himself. I think this courtesy and care extends not only to guests (e.g. patrons), but also to all the company members, visiting artists, support staff, and anyone else with whom the company interacts. And it begins by refusing to get caught up in backstage gossip, and by giving each other the benefit of the doubt.

“Keep your tongue from evil.” “Seek after peace and pursue it.” These are two of the mantras of a Benedictine theatre company.

Previous posts:

1) Benedictine Theatre Company: Prologue

2) Benedictine Theatre Company: Arising & Running

Trevor Nunn’s Oxford Shakespeare Lecture

I just attended Sir Trevor Nunn’s inaugural lecture as the new Cameron Mackintosh Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford, held at St Catherine’s College. Before I give my notes of the lecture below, here’s a quick update on my professional life:

-Became the new Reviews Editor for the C.S. Lewis Chronicle, the peer-reviewed, MLA-indexed journal of the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society. (If you would like to see a book reviewed in the Chronicle, or would like to review a book yourself, please e-mail me.)

-Submitted my first book review for said journal. This is my first book review for any peer-reviewed journal, so it’s quite exciting. I reviewed Letters to a Diminished Church, a 2004 collection of Dorothy L Sayers’ essays.

-Wrote another guest post for the St Andrews’ Institute for Theology, Imagination & the Arts student blog, Transpositions. It’s called ‘Harry Potter & the Eucharist of Empathy’, and will most likely be published this Friday. I had to edit the original post down to meet Transpositions’ length guidelines, so I’ll be linking to the Transpositions post here when it’s published, and then publishing the full-length post on this blog a week later. Edit: You can now view my post at Transpositions here.

-Began Michaelmas Term with a high 2:1 on my medieval history/theology collections, a class on Thomas Aquinas, and an essay on Julian of Norwich and prayer. Partway through my tutorial on Julian, my tutor, the venerable Sister Benedicta Ward SLG, asked, ‘By the way, do you read any C.S. Lewis?’ When I answered, after a pause, that I was the Vice-President of the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society, her face lit up, my face lit up, and we proceeded to go through Narnia, the Space Trilogy, and more, relating Lewis’ stories to Lady Julian’s teachings. Best tutorial I’ve had, I can tell you. It’s love.

Now to the notes.


Sir Trevor Nunn, ‘All the World’s a Stage – Shakespeare, the Player Poet’, St Catherine’s College, Oxford – 18 Oct 2010

Began by debunking the various ‘claimants to [WS’s] work’:

-Earl of Oxford: died in 1604 – several WS plays were written after this date

-Christopher Marlowe: died in 1593, again too early

-Francis Bacon: style is completely different – is it at all likely he would write in one prose style in all his public work, and then lead a secret life as a verse playwright?

-Edward VI: died in 1553 at age 15; this theory (propounded by one person) claims that he didn’t die, but instead went into hiding, and wrote the plays from his secret location. He put a secret code as to his identity on every page of the First Folio, BUT the code is different on every page (since of course he couldn’t have anyone finding out who he was and causing trouble for the supposedly deceased king!).  Not only that, but in the 1609 quarto edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, when the cover page says they’re printed ‘by G. Eld for T.T.,’ that T.T. doesn’t stand for Thomas Thorpe, the publisher, but for none other than the (by now elderly) ‘Ted Tudor’!

-The source of all these conspiracy theories is that educated scholars can’t quite believe that a relatively uneducated Warwickshire boy could actually have written these brilliant plays. Only an ‘educated man’ could have done so.

-Ben Jonson, fellow playwright and author of a eulogy to WS printed in First Folio, calls him ‘my Shakespeare,’ ‘my gentle Shakespeare’, ‘sweet swan of Avon’. Jonson was known for upsetting the establishment and being willing to be locked up for telling the truth and speaking his mind. Is it likely he would cover for some educated nobleman (e.g. Oxford) and write a lie of a eulogy? It’s not in his character.

Instead, WS was an actor:

-Theatrical jargon throughout plays (Rude Mechs in Midsummer, players in Hamlet, many more instances in Shrew, Titus, Love’s Labour’s, Henry IV Pt 1, All’s Well, Lear, Tempest)

-Theatre in WS’s time like early days of Hollywood – ‘new creative language being invented’ –> Elizabethans invented blank verse, soliloquoies, scene breaks within acts, etc. –> there was a ‘culture of collaboration’

-‘This special relationship with his audience was vital to his success as a dramatist’ –> WS knew that theatre was a business, and wrote crowd-pleasers [WS is prime example of how pleasing the audience doesn’t mean lowering one’s standards and selling out! Writing for the audience made his plays better.]

-Being part of a company (the Lord Chamberlain’s Men) meant he needed to write crowd-pleasers to bring in box office, and also needed to write meaty parts for members of his company –> the lead character’s age keeps ‘migrating upwards’ as WS writes through the years, probably because of the need to write parts for his lead actor, Richard Burbage –> as the actor grows older, the leads grow older (might explain why Hamlet is necessarily younger in earlier versions, but WS perhaps inserted lines to allow for an older actor in later versions –> did RB demand to play the part?)

-Hamlet’s Advice to the Players = evidence that WS was the first director of his own plays, and possibly the first director in England (extremely unlikely that Burbage candidate for company’s director, because he was too busy playing leads, whereas WS both knew the story and had smaller parts –> their relationship caricatured in Midsummer’s Rude Mechanicals, with Burbage=Bottom and Quince=WS)

WS as humanist [not Nunn’s word, but what he seemed to describe]:

-‘doesn’t depend on an afterlife to make sense of this one’, doesn’t identify himself with any particular religious or political belief [I might quibble with this one, as would others – he speaks the language of religion as one who is within it, though I would agree not partisan]

-classless –> knows the language of both the pub and the court

-believes that we can be redeemed by love

Discovering how Shakespeare could write such timeless work is ‘not about foreign travel, classical education, or English aristocracy’, it’s about one word, ‘and that word is: GENIUS.’


+1 bonus story: Sir Trevor was talking about his difficulty with the passage ‘I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw’ in Hamlet (II.ii.). A hawk seems so different from a handsaw, that it’s not the discriminating judgement of the sober-minded that Hamlet seems to be implying to his friend that he can make. Is he really crazy? If not, what does he mean?

Nunn was travelling on the coast of England, and sat in this pub filled with stuffed birds. The proprietor turned out to be the taxidermist. Nunn saw a bird he didn’t know the name of, and asked, ‘What’s this one?’

‘Oh, that’s a hernshaw,’ the man replied. A heron.

So when the wind is southerly and warm, if the bird is soaring on the thermals above you, you know it’s not a hernshaw – it’s a hawk.

Hernshaw=handsaw. ‘Aha,’ Sir Trever thought. ‘Aha.’

Sir Trevor Nunn is the 20th Cameron Mackintosh Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford University. He was the youngest ever Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and was Director of the National Theatre from 1996-2003. He has directed most of the Shakespeare canon (30 out of 37 plays), as well as the original productions of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, Starlight Express, Aspects of Love, and Sunset Boulevard.

And may I say, the guy in no way looks 70. More like 50.

Working Summer

I thought I’d do an update post before I continued my series on a Benedictine theatre company.

I’m in what’s called the Long Vac in Oxford parlance – the long vacation during the summer, during which students are expected to do the bulk of the primary reading required for their course. I’m also using the time primarily to write my BA thesis on “C.S. Lewis on the Moral Responsibility of the Christian Artist.” I spent three weeks at Wheaton College finishing up my reading (I’ve now read all the published Lewis material, except for book reviews and other minor pieces that haven’t yet been collected into a book – though I did skim through the book reviews the Wade Center at Wheaton had on file, and took a glance at the Lewis Papers).

I then went to northern Virginia and shot two principal roles for an educational video, aimed at teaching bartenders and servers how to deal with unruly customers. (I played a restaurant customer who made inappropriate comments to his waitress, and also a bar patron who’d had a wee too much to drink – seriously playing against type!) It was nice to make some money this summer, instead of just spending it traveling.

I also did ADR (Automatic Dialogue Replacement) for The Fellows Hip. It was my first time doing ADR, and though we did about three scenes worth of dialogue, it took less than an hour, averaging about 4-5 takes per line. I saw a rough cut of the film beforehand, and I’m really looking forward to seeing the finished product.

By the way, you can now pre-order the DVD! It’s only $10 $15 ($14 $19 total with S&H in the U.S.) – AND this DVD comes with extra bonus features for folks that pre-order!

I then drove down to Virginia to attend a friend’s wedding, and then directly afterward drove up for another friend’s wedding in New York City the next day. I then stayed in NYC for a few days to see friends (and my favorite teacher at NYU), and next drove to Vermont to stay for a week at my uncle’s horse farm.

After a week of unloading hay carts, mucking out stalls, and doing various other tasks on the farm, I drove home to Virginia, stopping on the way to visit the Northfield, Mass. campus of the C.S. Lewis College (where I met Jean Mattson, wife of C.S. Lewis Foundation President Stan Mattson, sadly no relation to me) and to stay overnight with one of my NYU friends who is about to begin her last year of med school in New Jersey.

I arrived home last Friday, and attended a party for the 50th wedding anniversary of two of my Sunday school teachers on Saturday. Sunday was early Mass and then 11 a.m. service with my mother at the Presbyterian church where I grew up in the Faith. Today, I had lunch with another one of my Sunday school teachers, a gentle, wise, and holy man whom, along with his wife, my family greatly loves and respects. Afterwards, I went to see Inception, which is a pretty good movie. At the moment, I’m typing this while sitting in the living room with my parents, with the Jack Ryan flick Patriot Games playing on the T.V. (Jack Ryan, by the way, is one of those wonderful examples of how heroic figures can be interesting, much more so than anti-heroes, which seems to be an unbelievable statement to many actors  and other story-telling artists. I love when, in Clear and Present Danger, the corrupt CIA Deputy Director Robert Ritter tells Ryan he’s “such a boy scout” – as if that’s an insult – and needs to see the world and its moral choices in shades of grey, not black and white. Ryan retorts, “Not black and white – right and wrong.” Sadly, the voice of Ritter is all too often seen as the more true statement, and even the healthier [!] one. Actually, if we were all “boy scouts” like Jack Ryan, the world would be a much better place.)

This week I’ll be finishing up organizing my notes for my thesis, which I will start writing next week. I will also be visiting Duke August 16-20, which I’m very excited about. I’ll not only be seeing some friends, but also meeting with a couple current ThD students and a Divinity School professor. (Duke’s ThD and St Andrews’ PhD in Theology and the Arts are my top two choices for graduate school.)

Afterward, I’ll be coming back here for another week and prepping for my last year at Oxford, and then heading back to the U.K. the first week of September. My first stop will be the Theology, Aesthetics, and Culture conference at St Andrews, focusing on the works of David Brown. Next, I’ll be attending the Beatification ceremony of the Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman, led by His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI in Birmingham on Sept. 19!  (Learn more about the papal visit, the first visit to the U.K. by a pope in his capacity as a head of state since Henry VIII, here.) Finally, my goal is to finish my thesis and hand in an edited draft to my supervisor for his comments by the end of September.

So, that’s what’s going on for me this summer. Let me know if you’d like to meet up at any point!

Why I’m Becoming Catholic – The Reception

This coming Sunday, I will be received into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church.

I’ve written about this journey before, but I haven’t yet wrapped it up. Of course, I won’t ever be able to wrap it up, because our journey with God thankfully never ends until we reach our final destination of full union with Him. However, it seems like now is as good a time as any to officially wrap up this particular blog series, especially since in my last post I had not yet even begun the official Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) class.

RCIA class started at my University Catholic Chaplaincy in November. We’ve been meeting Thursday evenings during term time, so after this week’s last meeting, we’ll have met about 16 times. There are 9 of us – 3 being received after baptism in a non-Catholic Christian faith community (like myself – I was baptized on the day of my confirmation in the PC(USA)), 3 being confirmed after being baptized Catholic but never confirmed as teenagers, and 3 being baptized as new followers of Christ.

I’ve been catechized by Jesuits, so if you find me ignorant of any vital aspect of Catholic life or practice, you know who to blame. Or so my Jesuit RCIA director says. I, for one, could not be more grateful to the Jesuits. It was through my short time at a Jesuit college that I realized I needed to learn more about Catholicism if I wanted to be an educated Christian. The Jesuits also run our University Chaplaincy, and have given me a spiritual home in this new country. The Chaplaincy will also be my physical home next year, as I have been accepted into one of their student rooms for my second and final year at Oxford. The daily Masses, community meals, and regular spiritual direction have given me a community of brothers and sisters in faith and a grounding in prayer. Plus, St Ignatius is a knight after my own heart. The chapel is also named after St Thomas More, the saint whose name I’ll be taking as my confirmation name, and the main assembly hall is the Newman Room, named after the convert who will be beatified by Pope Benedict XVI when he visits the U.K. in September. It’s all very auspicious.

I’m also very grateful to the Dominicans. There’s one Dominican friar in particular, a member of our Chaplaincy team who’s on a one-year pastoral placement before his ordination as a priest in the fall, to whom I’m especially grateful. He’s just been ordained a deacon, and will be serving at the Mass at which I’ll be received next week, which makes me happy. He’s been a good friend and mentor who, like my father, appears to be able to read my mind, and say the exact words I need to hear. It’s uncanny. I’ve gotten to know a few other of the friars as well, and they’re all good men it’s a pleasure to be around.

We also have Benedictines in Oxford who have given of their time to advise and encourage me, and there’s a doctoral student at my College who has the heart of a Franciscan whom I enjoy speaking with about matters theological and spiritual. (There is also a Franciscan friar whose blog I read regularly, and who recently answered my request for guidance on spiritual direction with a whole post on the subject. Read it, then subscribe to his blog. I’ve read the entire archives.)

Religious life is the jewel of the Catholic Church; it throws off the light of Christ in a splendour of different colours. Each order’s gifts bring out the others’, and I hope I can one day find the one whose charism and mission I can live out, if God wills. But for the next couple years, my job is just to strive to be a good Catholic. I’ll re-enter the vocational discernment process once the honeymoon period is over.

But I am enjoying this honeymoon, this period of exploring and mining the riches of the Catholic Faith. I can’t think of a better place to be in. Oxford is one of the most Catholic towns in England. Just down the street from my College is a spot where Catholic martyrs were hanged. The University was founded by Catholics to teach theology, and here I am, a student of theology about to enter a new life as a Catholic. It doesn’t get any better than this.

I’ll end this series with one of my favourite prayers, by St Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits:

Teach us, Good Lord,
To serve Thee as Thou deservest;
To give and not to count the cost;
To fight and not to heed the wounds;
To labor and not to ask for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do Thy will.
Through Jesus Christ Our Lord, Amen.

Please pray for all of us who are entering the Church at the Oxford University Catholic Chaplaincy, that we may experience the peace and joy of Christ, live to do His will, and rest in His love at the end.

God bless you all, and thank you for your support during this journey.

Hilary Term Update

I haven’t posted in about a month and a half, so thanks for your patience. The reason? Hilary Term.

Hilary Term is the middle term of the University of Oxford’s academic year. I finished up the second half of the Patristics paper, and also had the Old Testament paper. No Greek this term, but it was a busier term than Michaelmas because I was also helping out at the University Chaplaincy more often. Over the Easter break, I have two essays to write, one to re-write, and two sets of collections for when I get back.

Next term, I’ll be taking the medieval paper, i.e. the History and Theology of the Western Church 1050-1350. The history bit will be with Dr Lesley Smith, a historian from my College, and the theology bit will be with Fr Simon Gaine OP, a Dominican theologian who just ended his term of service as the prior of our local community of friars. I’m excited to be able to study under him, having met him and heard him lecture a few times, and also having heard good things. I like the guy.

Best of all, I was accepted into his Aquinas class next Michaelmas, which almost got dropped from the schedule since only 3 people (including me) picked Aquinas as their first choice for the special theologian requirement. (All undergraduates reading Theology are required to choose a track, either Track 1 – Biblical Studies, Track 2 – History and Doctrine, or Track 3 – Religious Studies. Track 2, the track I’m on, requires students to choose a theologian to focus especially on for a term.) The other two students are from Regents Park, the Baptist PPH, and Wycliffe Hall, the evangelical Anglican PPH. And then there’s me, a new Catholic convert from Presbyterianism based at the historically Unitarian former PPH. Of course, my friend who studies at Regents Park says that the student from there is likely either an agnostic or an atheist, but that the Wycliffe student is probably an evangelical. So it’s either two Protestants and a Protestant-turned-Catholic, or an agnostic/atheist, Protestant, and Protestant-turned-Catholic, all studying one of the greatest Catholic theologians under a friar-theologian who lives, eats, breathes, and prays the same life Aquinas lived. He’s one of the Angelic Doctor’s confreres. And I get this guy two terms in a row! It’s gonna be an awesome two months.

What else is coming up on the academic front?

My supervising tutor has accepted my topic and choice of supervisor for my BA thesis. Topic: “C.S. Lewis on the Moral Responsibility of the Artist.” Supervisor: Michael Ward, author of the acclaimed recent work of Lewis scholarship Planet Narnia, which I am currently reading, by the way. The guy’s erudite, writes extremely well (with the same dry wit that is characteristic of his conversation), and really does have the “encyclopedic knowledge” of Lewis’ works that a cover blurb praises. What’s more, though I was at first highly skeptical, his argument is slowly convincing me. Now, I just need to write my full thesis proposal, due in mid-May, and get it approved by the Board of the Faculty of Theology. Hopefully they’ll think it’s academic enough. I’ve been told Theology and the Arts is becoming a more hip subject among the Faculty, and they’re keen to support it.

On the religion front, as I said, I’ve been helping out more often at the Chaplaincy this term. I helped with the Monday lunches each week for the first few weeks of term, until they went on hiatus for Lent. More importantly, the chaplains asked me to serve as a sacristan for the weekday Masses, since I attend them almost every day anyway. I was deeply honored to be asked, and I love being able to serve my priests in this way. I’m glad I can help take their mind off physically prepping before Mass, so they can have a few more moments to spiritually prep. I’ve also been asked to be an altar server on Sundays once I’ve been received, and I’m looking forward to serving in that capacity as well.

I will be received into the Church on Ascension Sunday, May 16th, at the 5:45 p.m. Mass at the Oxford University Catholic Chaplaincy. Say a prayer, if you would, for all of us who will be baptized, confirmed, or received on that day. I can’t wait.

Some Things I Made

Inspired by this post by the Hawesome Wil Wheaton, here are some things I made:

Haikus while sitting in God, Christ & Salvation lecture, Week 5 – Kant, Hegel, Feuerbach, & Nietzsche

Walking through the earth

We’re hunting the unicorn

Of lost memory.

Light speaks to light in

The dawning of the sun. Choirs —

We hear dimly — sing.

Opening the book,

Dust gives way to glitt’ring swords.

Book ends, strength remains.

Fear of padding paws,

Green eyes, open mouth, white teeth,

Fresh breath, warm tongue, love.

In the trees, white flesh

Disappears into darkness.

The hunt continues.


(To the lecturer: Don’t think of it as me not paying attention. Think of it as me being inspired by your words.)

Nothing fancy, but fun.

In Oxford!

I arrived in Oxford last week, and have been busy reviewing my Greek and reading my primary texts (i.e. the New Testament) and secondary texts (i.e. books on patristics and Biblical background, such as Henry Chadwick’s The Early Church – which I highly recommend for even non-academic types – and Rogerson and Davies’ The Old Testament World). I’ve also been working on setting up my bank account, getting a cell phone and bus pass, and generally getting sorted.

I realized that one of the reasons I haven’t been posting lately is because I’ve developed the personal expectation that each post should be lengthy and insightful, and posting is feeling more and more like a chore. Therefore, I’ve decided to do smaller posts, that may or may not be particularly in depth, but will hopefully come more often.

I’m living in the room at the Kilns in which C.S. Lewis collapsed and died, which means it holds a particular reverence for me, and I feel I need to treat it with respect. Thankfully, I’m relaxing into it (as I’m sure Lewis would want me to do), but it is a useful external discipline to have to clean my room and make my bed every other day, so that it looks tidy for the tours of the house that are giving to visiting groups on Tuesdays, Thursday, and Saturdays. (To learn more about touring the Kilns, click here.)

I’ve found a few good food-serving pubs, including the Mitre (in town) and the Six Bells (in Headington, the neighborhood that includes the Kilns). I’ve also made contact with the Jesuits at the Chaplaincy. They’ve signed me up for the Rite of Christian Initiation class that begins in November, and the newest chaplain, a young Jesuit named Father Simon, has agreed to meet me periodically for spiritual direction. I picked up a copy of the Divine Office at Blackwells Bookshop, and have found praying all seven of the Hours to be like refreshing oneself with clean and cool spring water, thick, rich bread, and hearty red meat several times a day, and at perfectly allotted portions. What’s best (though difficult for structure-loving me) is that, when a word or phrase speaks to you, you can stop and just meditate on it for a bit. (Incidentally, if any of you are interested in praying any of the Hours, I found an excellent website called Universalis. It takes you step-by-step through each day’s readings and prayers. It eliminates the confusion that comes from jumping around from section to section and using half a dozen ribbons in one’s breviary.)

I’m thinking of getting an iPhone, but in any case the phone I get will have a camera, so I’ll be able to upload pictures, perhaps directly from my phone. Let me know if there’s anything y’all would like me to post about, and I’ll try to do it. Thanks for everyone’s support during this next stage of my life!

ETA: Completely forgot the quote I read that prompted me to post. Gakked from the blog The Deacon’s Bench, who himself gakked it from The Anchoress:

“You know, the church is the one who dreams, the church is the one who constantly has the vision, the church is the one that’s constantly saying ‘Yes!’ to everything that life and love and sexuality and marriage and belief and freedom and human dignity—everything that that stands for, the church is giving one big resounding ‘Yes!’ The church founded the universities, the church was the patron of the arts, the scientists were all committed Catholics. And that’s what we have to recapture: the kind of exhilarating, freeing aspect. I mean, it wasn’t Ronald Reagan who brought down the Berlin Wall. It was Karol Wojtyła. I didn’t make that up: Mikhail Gorbachev said that…I guess one of the things that frustrates me pastorally is that there’s this caricature of the church—of being this oppressive, patriarchal, medieval, out-of-touch naysayer—where the opposite is true.”
— Archbishop Timothy Dolan, in this profile in New York Magazine.