In Memory of Chris Mitchell
I recently saw Richard Linklater’s amazing film, Boyhood, which–filmed over twelve years, with the same actors–captures the passage of time and the process of growth like no other film I’ve seen. I’ve also recently been in Europe, where history and the links between what is and what was are impossible to miss.
Because of this I’ve been reflecting on my own personal history: How I’ve come to be who I am, planted where I am. The thought experiment of backwards-tracking the dominoes of one’s trajectory inevitably leads to rabbit trails and spider webs of limitless complexity. But isolating certain threads can make the process more manageable.
In Oxford last week, I reflected on one such thread: my fondness for C.S. Lewis and the important role he’s played in my life. As my family and I toured Magdalen College, walked along Addison’s Walk, sat down in the Eagle & Child, snapped pictures in front of the Kilns and and marveled at the beauty of St. Mary’s church, I thought of the profoundly shaping times I spent in each place as part of C.S. Lewis Foundation events. But I would never have gotten involved with the C.S. Lewis Foundation, and probably never have come to adore Oxford and Cambridge (and England generally), had I not worked for four years as a student worker at the Marion E. Wade Center while an undergraduate at Wheaton College. And my experience at the Wade–a place where my love of Lewis, Tolkien, Chesterton and others blossomed–would not have been what it was without the friendship of its director, Dr. Chris Mitchell.
Perhaps it is fitting that it was in a London hotel room on July 11 that I first received the news of Chris’s passing. I couldn’t believe the e-mail I was reading. I couldn’t believe that I would never see Chris again. Just a few weeks earlier I had passed Chris on the campus of Biola and we’d made plans to get dinner this summer with our wives, as we’d done once before since he and Julie moved out to California last year. I couldn’t believe that, just like that, he was gone.
The shocking e-mail on July 11 reminded me of another rather shocking e-mail that I’d received in January 2013. It was from Chris Mitchell and the subject heading read “Coming Your Way.” In the e-mail he broke the news that he was stepping down as director of the Wade Center and accepting a teaching position at the Torrey Honors Institute here at Biola, where I’ve worked for the past six years (!!). I was elated. I hadn’t seen Chris for several years but was excited by the possibility of re-connecting with him in California. And when he arrived on campus, we did.
Now that Chris was a Biolan, I immediately asked him to write a cover story on C.S. Lewis for the Biola Magazine in honor of the 50th anniversary of his death. In spite of being crazy busy winding up at Wheaton and moving across the country, Chris agreed. You can read the excellent piece he wrote here.
Chris was a man I respected deeply: A faithful Christian, a top-notch scholar, a family man, a lover of life. He’s the type of man I aspire to be.
You could talk to Chris about anything. Literature, theology, relationships, scotch. When I worked as a student at the Wade Center in Wheaton, he’d often chat with me about movies because he knew that was one of my passions. Even though he was the director and I was merely a student working just a few hours a day, Chris always made me feel more like a colleague than an underling. One time he asked me to do some primary research in the letters of Lewis and Tolkien to help him with a paper he was writing about the relationship between the two authors. I remember feeling so honored by that, so respected. Chris always cared for people in a way that encouraged and valued them. It’s one of the reasons why he’s such a natural and beloved teacher, and why it’s so sad that he only got to bless the students of the Torrey Honors Institute here at Biola for one year.
I’m grieved by the loss of Chris Mitchell, as everyone is who knew him. He had much life still to live. And yet I know that his joy, frivolity and energy for life is infinitely amplified in his present state.
On the night I heard of Chris’s death, I thought of the line from Lewis’s Till We Have Faces when Psyche says that “the sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing—to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from.” As much as I’ll miss him, I’m comforted by the fact that Chris has reached the Mountain and is now in the presence of Beauty’s true source.