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I think I know what C.S. Lewis would think of this. Academic titles are often confusing to those unfamiliar with the maze of higher education. And their usage sometimes reveals the vanity of their bearers. For example, some people insist on using titles such as “Doctor,” even when they earned the degree online with requirements that pale when compared to an honest bachelor’s degree.

When young, most of us become acquainted with the title “Doctor” in association with medical treatment. Even as adults, many people immediately think of stethoscopes and syringes when they hear the word.

Because an M.D. (Doctor of Medicine) is a professional degree, similar to an Ed.D. (Doctor of Education) or J.D. (Doctor of Law), some holders of so-called academic degrees such as the Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) disparage them. I recall a conversation with an acquaintance who taught college courses at our overseas military base. Upon my mention of one of our flight surgeons, the professor said with a chuckle, “oh, I thought you were referring to a real doctor.”

Professional degrees are, in fact, real. The current conversation about the First Lady’s desire to be addressed as “doctor” is inappropriate. She earned her Ed.D., and such honorifics are appropriate. While—prior to becoming an “emeritus”—I always preferred the simple title “pastor,” during my years as a chaplain, I was frequently addressed by my military rank. I would gently remind the individual that (per regulation) all chaplains, even flag officers, are to be addressed as “chaplain” or another appropriate religious title.

I have written about titles in the past. They are useful, and many possess deep inherent significance. Think of “rabbi” in the case of Jewish teachers such as Nicodemus. He was the Pharisee who approached Jesus of Nazareth saying, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him” (John 3).

Solid academic credentials, like hard-earned skills or talents, do not guarantee success. Circumstances, and even prejudices, often limit opportunities. It was, after all, the snobbery of the English faculty at Oxford that denied C.S. Lewis a full professorship while he taught there. The more enlightened Cambridge righted that wrong. You can read an account of that sad story here.

Shifting Fashions in Academia

This mention of Oxbridge leads us to the inspiration for today’s reflections. For a number of years, some universities have exchanged long held traditions for a variety of modern fashions. (They remain bastions of many archaic customs, of course, and not all of them noble.)

One such discarded tradition was referring to certain university roles with the title “master.” It was used in the British sense, owing nothing at all to the historical blight of slavery. Rather, as Yale University stated in their announcement:

The term “master,” when used to describe the role in the residential colleges, will be changed to “head of college.” The use of “master” as a title at Yale is a legacy of the college systems at Oxford and Cambridge. The term derives from the Latin magister, meaning “chief, head, director, teacher,” and it appears in the titles of university degrees (master of arts, master of science, and others) and in many aspects of the larger culture (master craftsman, master builder).

The rationale for their decision—which one wonders whether it may eventually be applied even to “master degrees”—is revealed in the inevitable victor in contemporary social debates.

Some members of our community argued that discarding the term “master” would interject into an ancient collegiate tradition a racial narrative that has never been associated with its use in the academy. Others maintained that regardless of its history of use in the academy, the title—especially when applied to an authority figure—carries a painful and unwelcome connotation that can be difficult or impossible for some students and residential college staff to ignore.

What struck me was not the commonplace rejection of traditional verbiage. Words change and although I have a couple sheets of paper declaring me a magister (master), I possess no exceptional attachment to the title.

One thought that flashed upon my mind when I heard the choice of a replacement title. Head strikes me as an altogether loftier appellation than master. The head is the utter sovereign of the body. Consider the following declaration from the fourth chapter of Ephesians.

And he gave the apostles . . . to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ . . . speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

Head is a powerful word in the Scriptures. Doubtless its days are also numbered at Yale, should any of their “Religious Studies” scholars stumble across other biblical passages, such as Ephesians 5:23 or 1 Corinthians 11:3.

A More Ominous Reason to Beware of Academic Heads

Readers of C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy (also referred to as the cosmic trilogy or the Ransom trilogy, after the name of its protagonist) should immediately draw the same connection I did about the potential dangers wrought by academic heads.

The three books are outstanding, individually and as a group. They deal with humanity living in the midst of a supernatural universe, when spiritual forces of holy and unholy purpose vie to influence us. (Just as they do in the real world in which we all reside.) One article echoing my encouragement to read the trilogy acknowledges,

While Narnia is a world apart from our own, this science fiction trilogy is set within our own solar system. While its events happen closer to home, perhaps one reason that it gets relatively little attention is that it lacks a Christ figure on par with Aslan the Lion. Though this of course is silly, as the Christ figure of our world is Christ himself.

Perhaps the biggest reason it is less popular than Narnia is that its lessons are not as easily digested. The Space Trilogy is aimed at adult readers and not at children.

I cannot reveal the significance of the academic leader at work in the final volume, That Hideous Strength. Suffice it to say that the head of the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.) may not live up to the acronym of the academy he oversees. He is rather dictatorial, as one of his faculty inadvertently suggests when attempting to recruit a young PhD candidate for the Institute.

“What exactly are you asking me to do?” she said.

“To come and see our chief, first of all. And then—well, to join. It would involve making certain promises to him. He really is a Head, you see. We have all agreed to take his orders” (That Hideous Strength).

C.S. Lewis’ life revolved around the university. I would love to share a cup of tea with him today and hear what he would think about the modern elimination of the title master. Still, I somehow doubt the Oxford and Cambridge don’s opinion would come as any surprise.

Epitaphs & C.S. Lewis

June 10, 2020 — 15 Comments

Have you already decided on an epitaph for your headstone? Or are you trusting others to sum up your life in familiar, traditional words of relationship? C.S. Lewis was of the opinion that a unique sentiment was most appropriate for such occasions.

My own decision has been made by default. At the present time I’m leaning towards simply using a military marker. They look distinguished, and the money that is saved can benefit the living, or perhaps one of the charities we support.

Basically, they have name, rank (I just want “Chaplain” instead of “Lieutenant Colonel”), dates and sometimes a very short personalized element. I think I’ll opt for the simple “Christian cross” which is familiar to those who have visited military cemeteries. I am tempted though, to use the agnus dei, even though it is listed as the official emblem of the United Moravian Church.

Due to the religious diversity (and confusion) in the United States, the Veterans Administration offers a theological smorgasbord of options. You can see the seventy-five options currently available here.

They include established American faiths such as Zoroastrianism and the Tenrikyo Church as well as more contemporary favorites Wicca and Eckankar (which claimed not to be a religion when I encountered its missionaries during my college years). Not to be ignored, are Humanism and its sibling, Atheism. For those preferring ethnic options, we have the Medicine Wheel, ancestor worship (African Ancestral Traditionalist), and the Hammer of Thor.

How Much Should an Epitaph Say?

I’ve seen some headstones that record only a name. Leaves only questions. Some give a brief observation, such as Boot Hill’s marker for Dan Dowd who perished in 1884. It records single word, “Hanged.”*

There are a few longer epitaphs, such as this one, sounding almost like an apology. “Here lies George Johnson hanged by mistake 1882. He was right we was wrong. But we strung him up and now he’s gone.” Sadly, they learned too late the horse they assumed he had stolen, was purchased legally.

In New Hampshire, there is a headstone with a 150 word inscription. Apparently, the woman’s husband had quite an axe to grind with a local congregation.

Caroline H., Wife of Calvin Cutter, M.D. Murdered by the Baptist Ministry and Baptist Churches As follows: Sep’t. 28, 1838; aged 33 She was accused of lying in church meeting by the Rev. D. D. Pratt and Deacon Albert Adams. Was condemned by the church unheard. She was reduced to poverty by Deacon William Wallace. When an exparte council was asked of the Milford Baptist Church, by the advice of their committee, George Raymond, Calvin Averill, and Andrew Hutchinson They voted not to receive any communication on the subject. The Rev. Mark Carpenter said he thought as the good old Deacon said, “We’ve got Cutter down and it’s best to keep him down.” The intentional and malicious destruction of her character And happiness as above described destroyed her life. Her last words upon the subject were “Tell the Truth and The Iniquity will come out.”

C.S. Lewis’ Epitaph

Lewis wrote a moving epitaph for his wife, Joy Davidman. It was based upon one he had written for his good friend Charles Williams. The phrase “Lenten Lands” was used by his stepson David Gresham, as the title of his story of his parents’ marriage.

Here the whole world (stars, water, air,
And field, and forest, as they were
Reflected in a single mind)
Like cast off clothes was left behind
In ashes, yet with hopes that she,
Re-born from holy poverty,
In Lenten lands, hereafter may
Resume them on her Easter Day.

To adorn C.S. Lewis’ own grave, his brother Warnie opted for simpler verse. It was taken from a passage in Shakespeare’s King Lear.

“Men must endure their going hence.”

C.S. Lewis wrote another noteworthy epigraph. It was in a poem by that very name. It was originally published in 1949 in Time and Tide magazine. It has been included in the collection of Lewis Poems as a stanza in “Epigrams and Epitaphs.” He shared it with his fellow poet, Ruth Pitter when it was first written, writing “I append my latest Short, your most obliged C.S. Lewis.”

My grave my pillory, by this blabbing stone
Forbidden to rest unknown,
I feel like fire my neighbours’ eyes, because
All here know what I was.
Think, stranger, of that moment when I too
First, and forever, knew.

In 2013, C.S. Lewis received the great honor of having a memorial stone placed in Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey. The inscription was chosen from one of his talks.

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen,
not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.

I began with the question of what each of us might hope is inscribed as the legacy of our life. In truth, I don’t care if my marker even bears my name, since the Lord knows me as a member of his flock. But what I would like to see gracing my passing, are the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:23).


The photograph adorning this post comes from side-by-side monuments for two Yale chemists. You can read the curious story about them, and the reason for the “Etc.” that adorns the second. Apparently it was added by the family at a later date, since they regarded “Nobel Laureate” as insufficient.

* The most famous epitaph in Arizona’s Boot Hill Cemetery reads “Here lies Lester Moore. Four slugs from a 44. No Les. No More.”