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Finding a place in the marketplace of ideas

By Andrew De Young

The sign on the corner says "Cornmarket Street," but most of the locals simply call it "Cornmarket"-and rightly so, since there's really not much street to speak of. Cars aren't allowed on this two-block thoroughfare in the heart of the city-seasoned shoppers coming out of the Gap will cross the street to pick up a latte at Starbucks without so much as a glance to the right or left, and parents grasp their children's hands, not for the fear that they will be hit by a car, but for fear that they will be lost in a sea of shopping bags and crisscrossing legs. Even early every morning, when the delivery trucks inch down the road and park only feet away from the stores, people walk back and forth as if they haven't a care in the world. The truckdrivers, impatient though they are, know their place-in Cornmarket, the pedestrians always have free reign.

Welcome to Oxford, England, home of one of the world's most prestigious universities, and the place I called "home" for a little over three months. Almost every morning during my stay, I plowed through Cornmarket on my way to class, a hectic and tiring end to an already exhausting walk.

I would begin-after eating a piece of buttered toast in four bites and gulping down a cup of hot tea-by stepping out the door of my flat in northern Oxford. After I made sure that the door to my flat, the door to the building, and the front gate were locked behind me, I would proceed down Woodstock Road, bombarded by noise. A somewhat narrow road, Woodstock nonetheless carried a lot of traffic, cars speeding, tailgating, and honking all the way from quiet northern Oxford to the crowded City Centre. The air smelled constantly of exhaust; from time to time I could feel a rush of air as buses whizzed by, inches away from the curb. The bus went all the way from my front door to my destination, but I, a student on a rather tight budget, couldn't afford it. No, I had to walk, loaded down with a few notebooks, a couple of bulky Victorian novels, the complete poetry of John Milton, my day planner, and an umbrella, just in case the ominous gray skies decided to drop rain-or worse, hail.

But what a walk! After catching a glimpse of the beautiful garden in St. Hugh's College full of bright yellow daffodils, I would stroll up the street past a series of quaint and inviting pubs: The Royal Oak, the Lamb and Flag, and, of course, the Eagle and Child, where C.S. Lewis and his Inklings met for drinks and conversation. Then, up the street a ways, where the beautiful and impenetrable gates of St. John's College lay to my left, the Ashmolean Museum to my right, and St. Giles Church, once a part of the city wall, right in front of me. If I wanted to (and if I had the time), I could go a few blocks east and see Keble College's gorgeous and awe-inspiring chapel, take a walk in the always-green University Parks, or browse the shelves in the Bodleian Library.

But no matter how beautiful or inspiring those historic sites were, Cornmarket was still my favorite stop on the way to class. My first glimpse of it, every morning, was from about a block away. I couldn't see the road itself from that distance; just a sea of bobbing heads. My pace quickened as I crossed the street-the last one cars were allowed to drive upon-and plunged into the crowd. The sides of the road were lined with shops, some of which we have over here in America-the Gap, McDonalds, and Starbucks, and some we don't-Boots and W.H. Smith. But the most interesting thing about Cornmarket was the people. The homeless, for instance-"rough sleepers," the English call them-selling magazines with their dogs beside them to arouse the sympathy of passers-by and to keep them warm at night. Or the occasional group of anti-war demonstrators, most of them sitting with their legs crossed on mats while one woman read a description of the horrors in Iraq into a bullhorn. A brass quintet from Russia playing a selection from Bizet's Carmen. A man with a guitar, turning up his amp to drown out the bagpiper who has camped out just a block away. And then everyone else, faces coming in and out of view, snatches of conversation becoming suddenly audible and then disappearing into the constant roar.

After a few minutes of this, my walk came to an abrupt end-I would slip down a side street and find myself suddenly at class, exhausted and exhilarated from the walk over. And even as I engaged in animated discussion with my tutors and fellow students about the ins and outs of literary study, I couldn't help but think about where I had just come from. My mind may have been on literature, but the energy, the adrenaline-that came from the street.

I've been back in the United States for several weeks now, and when I think about Oxford, it's often that busy marketplace that comes to mind. It's as good a thing to remember as any, I guess. Because in the end, Oxford is a marketplace, too-a marketplace of ideas. Droves of people, each with their own theories and ideologies to pedal. Each person trying to make his way to a destination in a landscape that always seems to be changing, moving parallel to some, working at cross purposes or even colliding head-on with others.

It's very different from Dordt College, a place where most students walk the same paths: to and from the classroom building, to and from the library, to and from the Commons. In most places, sidewalks cut across campus in a prescribed path; in others, the way is made clear by grass worn down by hundreds of shoes. It's not much different in the classroom. Professors at Dordt differ on many issues, but for the most part, they navigate their way through life by using a common set of landmarks: the sovereignty of God and the authority of Scripture, to name a couple. In my first five semesters at Dordt, some of these professors taught me how to use these landmarks for myself.

I spent my sixth semester in Oxford and found these landmarks suddenly taken away from me. In this marketplace of ideas, there was no set of foundational beliefs held in common. One of my tutors thought of the Bible as nothing more than an interesting and mildly entertaining piece of literature. Another flippantly denied the existence of objective truth in a passing remark. At Dordt these statements would have been met with shock and outrage; at Oxford, they didn't raise an eyebrow. And my beliefs? When the opportunity arose to share them with my tutors, they were sometimes seriously discussed, but just as often dismissed. Just another set of ideas in an already crowded marketplace.

It was a bit scary at first, but I managed. No matter how hard it may have been for me to maintain my beliefs in Oxford's academic community, it would have been much harder to abandon them and start from scratch. The foundational assumptions taken for granted at places like Dordt College were more important than ever. I was in a place full of scholars, each with their own book to read, their paper recently published, or a lecture they wanted me to attend. The Bodleian library alone had over seven million volumes-if I was going to read any of them with discernment, I would have to cling to the beliefs instilled in me during my first five semesters at Dordt.

Gradually, I came to realize that these foundational assumptions, these landmarks by which I found my way, worked just as well at Oxford as they did at Dordt. Suddenly the marketplace of ideas became more clear to me, more manageable, and Oxford was transformed from a confusing place where truth didn't seem to exist into an exciting place to live and think. Those people, moving back and forth as they traversed a thousand different paths, peddling a thousand different ideas, weren't that much different than people back home-they, too, were fallen sinners, searching desperately for something they had lost. And I, my discussion and papers shot through with an understanding of God's grace and the lordship of Jesus Christ, had a message that they responded to. Armed with what I had learned from five semesters at Dordt College, twelve years at Christian schools, twenty odd years living with Christian parents and attending a strong church, I was navigating my way through the marketplace of ideas. I may have been a long way from home, but as long as Oxford belonged to my God, I could make my way.

I still think about Oxford sometimes, and it still looks, in my head, a lot like Cornmarket. The side of the street lined with shops, crowded windows full of colorful merchandise. A man stands on the corner, selling magazines, while a woman a few feet over is holding a sign and trying to pull people into her tiny store. A mob of people work the crowd, handing out flyers for a dance club nearby. Sitting against the wall is a homeless man who smells of alcohol and begs for change with slurred speech; people look away when they approach him. I'm in there, too, walking confidently, because I know this place, and I know who it belongs to.