Wow, What a Fall!

Or a trip–choose your double entendre. I have been impeccably busy these last few weeks, so that family meals have been like Gatorade cups in a marathon, and my garden has started to engulf the neighbour’s Buick. The wood is not in yet for the Winter, and will not be for a few weeks. Here are the awesome reasons why:

1. It’s All Greek to Me!

Yep, I’m teaching Greek again. This is a course that comes up every 3-4 years at the local Bible College, and I love it. No, it isn’t sheer linguistic masochism that make me want to make these poor students suffer. Well, not just that. Instead, there are three great reasons teaching Greek these days is awesome:

  • It gets me into the structures of the language. I can read most any day, or create reading courses for myself to stay fresh. But must of us who enjoy language don’t spend a lot of time in the basics. Teaching Greek allows me to get up close and see the trees for the forest.
  • The resources today are awesome. Granted, the Koine/Biblical Greek training materials by Bill Mounce are three steps above anything in the Classic Greek worlds. His system is so clear and approachable, that most students are highly successful. Beyond Mounce, though, we are in the days of great apps, solid exercises, textbook diversity, and audio aids. Much better than those old school suffering programs.
  • The students are awesome. Seriously, students today are part of a revival of the value of classical languages, core philosophical or scientific approaches, a recovery of history, and the reading of old books. Sure, not all students. But there are enough students excited about more classically styled education using contemporary technology that it is fun to leave the office door open.

2. Is There Any Such Thing as Christianity?

Through sadder circumstances–I am pinch-hitting for a sick colleague–I am teaching a course at UPEI called RS 202: Christianity. That’s right, Christianity. Talk about a super broad topic!

If I were bright, I would teach it historically, going through history and looking for diversifying and unifying moments. But I am not bright. Plus, I am traveling, interrupting that great historical flow.

Instead, I am setting the historical stage, and then talking about different movements, spiritualities, Christian expressions, and core questions in the Church globally. In the biblical roots I’m focusing on Worldview and Story. I’m also doing two or three Vlogs that I will post that cover some pretty cool topics.

screwatape sig3. Reading The Screwtape Letters as Epistolary Fiction (ISRLC)

I am presenting a paper in Leuven, Belgium, in just a few days. I am very excited, and a little bit nervous. For those who are interested, here is another abstract in my ongoing campaign to have the world re-read The Screwtape Letters as Literature:

From Epistles to Epistolary Fiction: Expanding Norman R. Petersen’s New Testament Sociology of Narrative Worlds

In approaching the apostle Paul’s letter to Philemon, Norman Petersen has attempted a “socio-literary” reading. In Rediscovering Paul: Philemon and the Sociology of Paul’s Narrative World (1985) he explores the sociology of the narrative worlds that Paul constructs in his letters. With the goal of noting Paul’s rhetorical emphases, Petersen suggests that we treat the reality of the text as a “world,” and then examine it from social and cultural standpoints. As such, we are examining a constructed world even when it is presented within a letter of historically referential parties. Petersen explores the narrative world Paul constructs in Philemon, and considers what ways the particular construction of this world reflects Paul’s rhetorical emphases. The result is a sociology of narrative worlds.

This paper explores the question of whether this fruitful approach can be generalized into other letter forms. In his project of spiritual theology, C.S. Lewis used the letter form to frame The Screwtape Letters—the project that launched Lewis into the public sphere and began a veritable genre of demonic epistolary (anti-)spiritual theology. If the author of epistolary fiction has created a consistent fictional world, and if Petersen’s project is plausible, then we can attempt a socio-literary reading along Petersen’s lines in more contemporary—and even fictional—letter forms. Based upon the recent discovery that The Screwtape Letters is plausibly connected to the broader speculative universe of Lewis’ Ransom Cycle, this paper will focus on character typification and narratology in The Screwtape Letters with the goal of understanding “Structure and Anti-Structure” and spiritual resocialization in Screwtape’s universe. Finally, in considering the sociological features of a contemporary narrative world in letter form, we can augment and refine Petersen’s New Testament project, extending the project to more sophisticated early Christian letters.

4. I am Going to King Arthur’s Court! (University of Chester and Gladstone’s in Wales)

Well, less his court, and more the general area we think the Arthur legends emerged. And even that is a stretch. But I am going to the University of Chester–you remember the Cheshire cat, I hope–so I can meet with my PhD supervisors and get to know the campus. I am taking a bullet train through France from Brussels to London, then a train up North. Chester is on the trainline from London, and I will be staying at a downtown hostel while I do some research and get some context for further work.

Of my time in Chester, I am taking a couple of days to study at Gladstone’s Library. This is the Prime Minister’s library, situated in Wales near the border with England. This amazing, historical library will be my study session for part of my time in the Northwest of England. These days will be filled with long hours reading and great long walks in old countryside.

Perfect.

5. Oxford

That’s all there is to say, really. Oxford.

I am spending four days in Oxford before I fly back to Canada. The weekend will (hopefully) be filled with walking through this grand historic University town, giving context to the things I have been reading these last years. I have a dear friend as a guide, and hope to see all there is. Well, at least a quarter of what there is. I hope the feel of cobblestones through my old boots will help me as I study the Inklings–that strange Oxford School of great writers and thinkers.

I will also be spending a couple of days at the Bodleian library. There is no place like “the Bod.” One of the oldest libraries in England, as a deposit library, it has almost every book every produced in England.

However, it is more than that. It is both the place that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien did their work–Lewis complained he couldn’t smoke there–and it is where their papers are held in England. Or at least many of them. My goal is to do some fact checking, and then spend some time reading out of C.S. Lewis’s handwritten notebooks. They contain some of our favourite stories and essays, and some that we’ve never read.

We’ll see what comes to Light!

6. Spiritual Theology from the Master (Eugene Peterson)

I’m thrilled, on top of these things, to be the instructor for two of Eugene Peterson’s spiritual theology courses at Regent College. The first course, “Soulcraft,” is a reflection on Ephesians from the perspective of spiritual practice. Here’s the description:

In this series, Eugene Peterson uses the letter to the Ephesians as the primary text in developing the craft of spiritual formation (soulcraft). The letter is explored in the actual conditions in which this formation takes place in us, such as the home, workplace, congregation, institutions and culture. As God does his formational work in us and with those with whom we live, we will develop skills in recognizing what he is doing, and look for the appropriate ways to respond, participate, and guide.

I get to help students work through the material, engage in online discussions, and then mark their papers. I am doing the same for his longer course, “Praying with Jesus.” These graduate-level courses are challenging, but they are most challenging not in academic content, but in personal investment. I love these world-class courses.

Is That All?

No, that’s never all! I am editing a book in October, and writing a chapter on Arthur and the Inklings. I have a couple of short stories spinning, and I am, as always, working on the larger project of rereading the Ransom Cycle.

It will be a busy fall, but some amazing experiences. Take care dear reader!

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Falling Towers and Failing Courage: The Sleeping Giant a Decade after 9/11

How have we moved and grown in our reflection on 9/11? My family walked through the 9/11 site a couple of summers ago, the great testament of this experience to Lower Manhattan’s story. Tourists streamed through, office workers streamed by, and the economy of 9/11 is strong. I remember being in Manhattan the Christmas after 9/11. “Fight Terrorism: Go Shopping” was the message. It seems it worked.

And I continue to teach, using 9/11 as a reference point. It is the formative memory in childhood for many young students. It is the end of the 20th century in my framing of time, the event that closed a century of progress and violence. It is the beginning of a new Myth in America, and new consciousness, a new place in the geopolitics.

That place is increasingly difficult to pin down. In the face of Islamist Insurgence in Iraq and Syria, a movement crushing ethnic and religious minorities and trading lives for Youtube hits,  President Obama and other Western leaders seem to waffle. Is it indecision? Or is it a mature cautiousness that comes from less mature mistakes? Or is it a conscientiousness to the complex situation?

Or is it fear?

I am reposting my 10 year anniversary reflection of 9/11, partly because it was so offensively simplistic. I felt that the reasons for going to war in Iraq and Afghanistan were bad, and the reasons for doing right by these cultures in finishing things well were good. I still feel that. I also still feel that we sold our cultural souls for a myth of personal and economic security. I still feel that political decisions dishonour the war-dead.

But I am not able to be so certain about what to do today in the Middle East. Part of me puts my finger to the War-button or Political Pressure-button when I hear the stories of Yazidi and Christian persecution, the ongoing civil war in Syria, the children lost to Boko Haram, the disproportionate bombing of Palestinian Muslims and Christians by Israel, and of Russia returning to 19th century ways of taking over the world.

But is that courage, or another kind of fear?

As the decade after 9/11 closes I am struck not by the strength of America in the face of great adversity, but weakness: economic chaos, political stalemates, global paranoia, leaderless disarray, military discord and the frenetic clutching of a culture gasping for breath. Canada, meanwhile, languishes in the warm bath of the comfortable, occasionally bracing itself in case the sleeping giant that is the American economy that Canadians are tethered to decides to take a dive off the Brooklyn bridge. Again.

C.S. Lewis’ rootedness in times of war provides a stark contrast to the American response to 9/11. An Ulster Protestant, he felt little of that anti-Catholic hostility in that generation that created—for me, decades later—my first glimpse of terrorism that was the IRA. Lewis fought and was severely injured in WWI, and his voice rang out words of encouragement during the bombing of London in WWII. Yet, he was not absolutely defined by them, and spoke remarkably little of war in his millions of printed words. Rather than scrambling in desperation in times of tension, Lewis simply picked up his pen and wrote.

He does, however, use his experience facing the German leagues at a couple of points in his work that he produced during WWII. Most notably was in his BBC lectures that became the book, Mere Christianity (some of the records of which were lost in the rubble of the German blitzkrieg). Chief among his arguments for the existence of God is the Moral Argument. Thomas Aquinas argued something similar before him: we see among humans an “ought”—a moral law at place among all people of all times. While the individual ethics have changed from time to time, there is always an “ought.” Lewis argues that it suggests there is a moral principle in play, since the only “ought” in the universe applies to human in culture.

Lewis gives a couple of examples, but the one he highlights is striking:

“Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle” Mere Christianity, Book I, Chapter 1.

In the context of the Nazis raping Europe and exterminating the unwanted, Lewis asks us to imagine what kind of culture would hold up as honourable what is really cowardice—and not just any cowardice, but selfish treachery against a fellow soldier and one’s homeland. Lewis believes that although individual humans will disagree on moral laws or choose to break them, no culture would breed a generation that values cowardice over bravery.

Yet, that is precisely the post-9/11 generation. We are the culture that honours running away in battle over standing and fighting.

Bravery in the face of great tribulation was the story of Manhattan in the hours and days after the towers fell. We saw images of volunteers sorting through rubble, of mothers looking for their daughters, of firemen fighting an unwinnable battle. I drove through New York that Fall. The state was filled with American flags, the stars and stripes that steadied the hand of the broken proud in the face of evil falling from the sky. Even to me, a Canadian that winces every time the sleeping giant rolls over in bed, I was filled with awe at the strength of Americans.

Now, though, a decade later, that’s not what I see. A few months ago, Canadian soldiers were pulled out of active military duty in Afghanistan because Canadians lost heart. It wasn’t because we won the war—or even lost it—but because there was no longer the political will back home. Afghanistan remains in chaos, the lives of its people permanently disrupted by a decade-long war of retribution against one who was hiding in its hills, and Canada decides it has had enough. Too many of our sons and daughters have died for … well, for what?

And the United States have now taken over the Canadian role in the war it started two weeks after bin Ladin’s men struck at the American heart of politics, security and economy. But their surge of troops into Afghanistan comes at the cost of military withdrawal from Iraq. Because of political pressure from an unhappy American population, Barack Obama commanded his soldiers to run away from the battle—there are better, less costly wars to fight elsewhere. While Iraq was in the news daily for seven years, now we hardly hear a thing about it. But at least American kids aren’t dying there anymore; the Iraqi kids can take care of themselves.

The land of the free and the brave has become neither. Their people have enslaved themselves to the myth of security and, consequently, have run from battle.

It isn’t that I supported the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq. Iraq was obviously a corrupt war from the get-go. And though I was tempted to believe that the collapse of the Taliban was a worthy reason for the action in Afghanistan, it was a coalition of forces attacking a sovereign country to hunt down a threat that either wasn’t there, or that was more clever that the coalition the dozens of countries that joined the U.S.A. in solidarity. No, I believe the wars were morally wrong.

But fleeing from them, I believe, is a greater transgression of morality. It is worse because we have made a mess there, playing with people’s lives, and did not deliver on the promises that were the bargain against international outcry.

Fleeing from war, though, shows that we are a morally bankrupt culture in the very essence of what it means to be humans. What kind of soldier is it that chooses—with the backing of its country—to leave behind orphaned children and burnt villages and druglords in action and insurgents on the prowl, simply because he hasn’t the heart to continue? This is the choice this generation has made, not the soldiers, and this is the demonstration of who we really are.

During his wartime novels in Britain, Lewis warned that the culture that honours cowardice over courage will fail:

“We have made men proud of most vices, but not of cowardice. Whenever we have almost succeeded in doing so, God permits a war or an earthquake or some other calamity, and at once courage becomes so obviously lovely and important even in human eyes that all our work is undone, and there is still at least one vice of which they feel genuine shame.”  CS Lewis, Screwtape Letters, Letter 29.

The one speaking is the senior demon Screwtape, and he is angry that these calamities create courage. But we shouldn’t read the war or earthquake—or market crisis, or housing crash, or drop in literacy, or dirth of jobs, or crippling debt, or failure in leadership—as a supernatural fist crushing people from heaven. No, these things are the natural products of a generation who no longer has the moral backbone to make courageous decisions.

And by all accounts, the recent nightmares in the sleeping giant we call America have not awakened its courage.

Instead, we mark the passing of 9/11’s decade as a collection of nations less prepared than ever to create an environment of freedom. We have chosen, when we became victims, to victimize others. And with our judgment fierce upon the world, we have failed to look at our own hearts. In this, we dishonour those that died in 9/11.

By all accounts, it seems to me, the terrorists succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

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10 Great Quotations for International Literacy Day

Brenton Dickieson:

Some Inspiration for International Literacy Day!

Originally posted on Interesting Literature:

Today is International Literacy Day! What better time, then, to celebrate some of the wisest, wittiest, pithiest, silliest, and most profound things that writers have ever said about literature and reading? The following are 10 of our personal favourites from the last 21 months of Interesting Literature.

‘A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies,’ said Jojen. ‘The man who never reads lives only one.’

– George R. R. Martin

Parents should leave books lying around marked ‘forbidden’ if they want their children to read.

– Doris Lessing

There is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature.

– P. G. Wodehouse

Cat with book

There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.

– Charles Dickens

No entertainment is so cheap as reading, nor any pleasure so lasting.

– Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

One always tends to overpraise a long…

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On Trusting Your Audience: My Thoughts on “The Giver” on Film

Lois Lowry’s The Giver was so transformational for me that it sits so far back in memory I can no longer remember when I first encountered it. It was, I think, the first dystopia I understood. Its post-apocalyptic calm is like a permanent photograph in my mind.

Anyone who loves a book this much is bound to hate the film adaptation. Most casual readers of Lord of the Rings loved the movies for their adventure, humour, and care in production. Many über Tolkien fans, though, either hated them or had severe reservations. The Hobbit adaptations have only made the gap between reader and film lover grow wider. These critical Tolkien readers have walked into the theatre wincing. Some didn’t go at all.

I’m sure many avid readers of The Giver will feel about the same. There are some differences. The Giver has been a long anticipated film, with several failed proposals in the twenty-odd years since the book first appeared. Lowry writes of uniformity in The Giver in such a way that any good director is going to bring a contemporary interpretation to the setting. Phillip Noyce, who made some great action films in the 90s, captures Jonas’ village exquisitely as he intentionally moves past the hints we have in the book. His explanation for civilizational memory as technology is super lame, but the way he captures Sameness in architecture and environmental control is well done. In some ways, Noyce is stronger than Lowry in this aspect.

Where Noyce fails, though, is that he doesn’t trust his audience.

The Giver is a very short book, and yet it takes the time to build the story and the world around Jonas. We have some of Jonas’ experiences growing up that act as pillars to the platform of the utopian community Jonas is born into.

One of the intriguing things is that Lowry’s book leaves questions open. A fighter jet appears on the first page of The Giver, and yet nothing like that technology really fits into everyday life in their community. Why do they need a fighter jet if the world is perfect—if there is no war, no enemy, no hatred? What technological links does the community have to the past? How far back is that past?

Intriguingly, we do not know how memory works in The Giver, and even the ending is open to great ambiguity. Personally, I think that Lois Lowry misinterprets the ending to her own book—I’ll leave it to the comments for readers who agree or disagree to talk with spoilers. In all these ways, though, Lowry allows her audience—a young teen audience, remember—to understand the story and to make up the difference in the details she leaves out. Lois Lowry trusts her audience.

Phillip Noyce, however, does not.

Again and again, Noyce makes step-by-step links that the audience does not need. Instead of allowing the audience to decide about memory for itself—it could be magic, religion, technology, miracle, or just a mystery—Noyce draws tight boundaries that squeeze out imagination. Similarly, whenever there is a part in the film that Noyce feels incapable of showing well on screen, he does a voice-over with the protagonist. Except for one part, the epilogue voice-over works well, and the prologue could have been good if they wrote it well. But a handful of times they slowed the action down, had Jonas look up to the sky pensively, and inside his head we heard a profound thought—a profound thought that a good film-maker will show on screen rather than voice in afterward.

It could be that Noyce was just in a rush. The first 15 minutes of the film (after the prologue) fly by, and all the great details about the community are rushed. The result is that the motivations of the characters are sometimes confused. In a science fiction futuristic utopia, Meryl Streep and Katie Holmes could be captivating figures. Because of Noyce’s rush to get to the motorcycle chases and teenagers kissing, these beautiful and talented women are wasted on screen. Their motivations are unclear, and the conspiracy is muddled. Oh, how good that added dimension to the story could have been! Instead, it comes off as kid wearing his first suit. All the parts are right, yet it is wrong in so many ways.

This awkward rushing happens at the ending, too. As Jonas works through the complex moral world he has to navigate, his choice has profound implications. The barrenness of that choice is captured well on film, but the loneliness, desperation, and sheet danger of time running thin are missing. The audience should feel panic and terror; what we really feel is mild discomfort.

Normally when I complain about film adaptations on A Pilgrim in Narnia, it’s because I think that film-makers misunderstand something about adaptation. In this case, Noyce knew he had to transform a book where the action all takes place in a young adolescent’s head. I don’t think Nocye failed in making the transition from book to film; I think he failed in making a great film.

There are redeeming qualities to the film that make it well worth watching. Jeff Bridges is brilliant. Not every line is exquisitely crafted, but his character comes in and transforms the role the way he did as Obadiah Stane in Iron Man. It is a different Giver than in the book, but it captures beautifully the relationship that develops there between mentor and protégé.

Despite flubbing the framework, the memory scenes in the film are very well done. Often beautiful, frequently captivating, the montage scenes of human experience is as vivid as they could be. There are one or two scenes that I would slow down, and I would handle the film’s transition to colour a little differently, but I thought that Noyce understood this feature of the story well and displayed it for us brilliantly.

While some of this praise and criticism comes down to taste and artistic license, I think at the core Phillip Noyce does not trust his audience. Some of the shifts are consumeristic pandering. For example, Noyce elevates the age of the characters so he can move Jonas’ sensual discovery into the realm of the sexual. It is a good economic move.

Beyond these sorts of decisions, though, Noyce is uncomfortable with ambiguity. In the book, the strictest people are caring and kind; in the movie they are harsh. The creepiness of Jonas’ dad cooing as he “releases” a child is bowled over by Noyce’s need to overstate things. In doing so, he misses the key political moment, that the emphasis on “sameness” is really a betrayal of basic human individuality, and the structures for “precision in speech” are really a way of making all speech—and thus all human interaction—meaningless. The Orwellian nature of the dystopia is lost, despite Noyce’s clear eye for the visual.

All of this is there in Lois Lowry’s middle grade novel. She believes that twelve-year-olds are sophisticated enough to appreciate the book in all its layers. I’ve taught The Giver for young teens and university students, and they understood the book.

But Noyce believes that movie-goers aren’t going to get it. We’re just not smart enough to use our imaginations and fill in the blanks ourselves. So Noyce condescends to us by giving us a good story in a great setting with lots of breakneck speed and pedophilic sexual tension built up by pounding music meant to make your heart rush. It is a troubling approach to film-making. It might even be a troubling trend.

But imagine if Christopher Nolan approached The Giver the way he approached Inception. A smart, visually-stunning film with enough ambiguity to make our head’s spin, Inception set a new bar for speculative fiction on film.

 

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“Into the Region of Awe” by David C. Downing: A Review

David Downing, Lewisian AuthorFor some time I have suspected that David Downing was on to something here. Part of what I’m doing in researching C.S. Lewis is to see what is at the core of who he was as a Christian—not just what believed, but the thoroughgoing centre of his faith and life. I have a paper coming out this year that argues that the idea of self-surrender in Galatians 2:20 is at the centre of Lewis’ spiritual theology:

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (NIV).

So I am interested when people write directly about C.S. Lewis’ spirituality. John Bowen’s The Spirituality of Narnia: The Deeper Magic of C.S. Lewis (2007) is one. David Downing’s Into the Region of Awe: Mysticism in C.S. Lewis (2005) is another, and I’ve finally had time to sit down and read it.

David Downing is a well-respected C.S. Lewis scholar and an American English Professor. I’ve reviewed some of his fiction here before, and have worked through his essential study on Lewis’s science fiction, called Planets in Peril (1992), and his biographies of Lewis. Into the Region of Awe is a focus on both Lewis’ biography and his writing, narrowing the lens on a particular aspect of C.S. Lewis’ spirituality.

Looking for the King by David DowningIt is probably important to wipe from people’s mind the idea that Lewis was himself a full-blown mystic. That isn’t the case. Instead, Lewis studied mystical writers as well as historians of mysticism, and drew from that tradition. While some people devote their entire lives to mystical ecstasy and visions, what we mean here is something more rooted. It is about being relationally connected with the Divine, being aware of the Other, the Holy in everyday life. Lewis experienced what he called “Joy,” a numenous longing that led him into his faith. It is a practice of faith that includes the awakening and then emptying of self, the enlightening of the soul and spiritual struggle, and finally union with Christ.

The outline of the book is a bit peculiar. Downing begins with a wide look at mysticism (as expected), then narrows in to the mystical elements in Lewis’ faith. The following chapter then gives a survey of Christian mysticism using the authors Lewis knew well as the focus point for the history. I loved this chapter—it is a great introduction to the topic—but I think it could have better prepared the reader for Lewis’ own experience.

Unsurprisingly, Downing includes a chapter on Narnia. Again, I think the order is strange—this chapter should occur before his fifth chapter on expressing mystical experiences in words—but within the chapter he goes through various examples of mystical elements in the Chronicles of Narnia. It is a good study, especially in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Last Battle.

Although the Narnia chapter is good, and the history of mysticism very useful and readable, the real strength is Downing’s study on The Space Trilogy—the science fiction books featuring Dr. Ransom, written in the WWII-era. His exploration of the themes is superb, going into detailed analysis of Ransom’s journey. One phrase captures Ransom’s conversion best: “For Ransom it is a revelation to discover that what he thought of as his ‘religion’ is simply reality” (88). This is the strongest point of Downing’s work: showing that a mystical faith is one that is integrated into the soul. What look like external practices—reflection, prayer, fasting, meditation, service—is really the expression of God’s working in a whole life. The unit on the Ransom Cycle was superb.

Lewis was not without critiques of mysticism. While many would be concerned with “otherworldliness,” Lewis was concerned about “inner-worldliness”—an opposite concept that can have the same result of disengaging with all of life. Moreover, Lewis was critical of the mysticism movement in general.

“Ultimately, the contemporary trend in world mysticism must be found wanting, both for its logical inconsistencies and for its empty promises of gnōsis without kenōsis, the gaining of knowledge without the losing of self” (148).

Neither did Lewis think everyone was to walk the mystical path.

“Unlike scholars such as William Inge and Evelyn Underhill, Lewis did not see mysticism as the norm for Christian spirituality but rather as a special calling. He considered mystical sensibility to be a natural gift the Spirit could use in one person the way he might use physical strength in another. But Lewis felt it would be as much a mistake for every Christian to seek to be a mystic as it would to take up fishing for a living because that is what so many of the disciples did” (160).

Still, Downing is convincing in arguing that even for those who do not walk down this very narrow path, there is much to learn from those who have. I must agree.

Since I was looking for a particular kind of conversation going into this book, I was pleased to see that the idea of self-surrender was on Downing’s radar.

“Evelyn Underhill wrote that the great goal of every mystic is complete self-surrender. Ransom achieves that goal, but only by undergoing a kind of mystical death and resurrection.” (105)

I will have more to say about that paragraph as I go on in my work, but it was thrilling to see someone teasing out these threads without unraveling the whole garment.

This is not a highly academic work of impenetrable theology by any means. It is learned, evenly paced, and clear, and certainly accessible to anyone who has an interest in C.S. Lewis or Christian spirituality. It is also very short. Downing has a gift for saying a lot of things in few words, and, in this case, taking a very big, potentially complex topic and explaining in a way that capture’s the reader’s imagination. This was definitely a good purchase.

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Three rules for naming your fantasy world

Brenton Dickieson:

I enjoy Mr. Wright’s work. A New Zealand historian and blogger, he also has cool things to say about building fictional worlds. 

Originally posted on M J Wright:

In my mis-spent early twenties, a friend and I created a fantasy world map for our RPG sessions.

I had to share this pic, taken by She Who Must Be Obeyed. We end up in some interesting places, sometimes. Just in case anybody googles "Stockton Mine".

To build a world, start by wearing a hard hat (like mine).

Yes, I played Dungeons and Dragons – and later a game we invented ourselves to get around the sillier D&D ideas. The world was designed around what we might call the ‘rule of funny’, with place names made up mostly of bad puns and motorcycle parts manufacturers. This meant we had waters such as the Greg Lake, next door to rolling hills such as the Sinfields. And there was the Hergest Ridge – though we didn’t have the Old Fields. We also riffed on Tolkien’s unfortunate habit of ending place names with ‘-dor’. You know… Backdor. Frontdor. Dianador. Groan.

That does raise a point for those of us engaged in (more serious) fantasy world-building. Place names gotta be credible. Tolkien, inevitably, set…

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The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth… Or At Least Pass the Pepper

B Unfortunate @ 10I admit it: I’m a geek.

It didn’t have to be this way. When I was fourteen, all of my comic books (and my dad’s) and my Dungeons & Dragons books were lost in a fire. I also lost my “Farms Not Arms” shirt. I just didn’t have the heart to start over.

And, surprisingly, comics were not as much of a chick magnet as you’d imagine for a teenager with bad teeth and bad skin who couldn’t look girls in the eyes. By fifteen I got braces to straighten my alien teeth, and found good, kind friends who told me when my hair looked dumb or when I was being a dork. It was a chance to start over.

I did well for a while, living the life of the almost normal. Never fully normal, of course. But the 90s were pretty good for individuals. Kurt Cobain appeared on Rolling Stone, and suddenly my slovenly look and edgy music made me mainstream. I was popular at my youth group and did well at college. I was on a roll, and even managed to convince someone to marry me after college. When you are a closet geek, you have to jump at these opportunities.

Then along came charts. I know, I know. Charts for many people are benign. Charts are just a part of life for most, just a way to organize data.

For me, though, charts were the gateway drug to greater Geekdom. I used charts first in my teaching as a way to synchronize huge ideas into simple patterns. I loved it. Then I started doing basic graphic design (think 90s internet style… very cool), and when Powerpoint came along, I was a like an innocent traveler in the Dark Lord Microsoft’s hands.

About this time I started reading for fun again. Working full time through college had been brutal, and by the time I got my B.A., it had been some time since I read a great book. At first my reading was filled innocent things like the latest bestseller, books that aren’t likely to make you disappear into literary woods forever. But soon I rediscovered J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Stephen King. I devoured J.K. Rowling and Ursula K. LeGuin (the books, not the people), and took a graduate class called “Books, Children, and God.” I haven’t stopped reading since.

You have to watch out. If you want to avoid Geekicity, you need to avoid reading good books at all cost. The worlds of those books and others sucked me in. By the end of grad school I was creating worlds of my own and my bedside reading pile threatened to topple. It’s been that way ever since.

Bedside Table ReadingEventually I took the next step in Geekianity. I began blogging, and discovered a digital universe of like-minded folks. Not all geeks are created equal, of course. I’m on the fantasy, theology, and politics side of the Geekist scale, while others are more into SciFi, horrror, photography, poetry, interpretive dancing, and medieval languages. I’m sure there are readers of A Pilgrim in Narnia who even love puzzles and cat videos (or videos of cat puzzles), but they haven’t admitted it openly.

Reading, Writing, Blogging … it’s a slippery slope. One thing led to another and I’m doing a PhD in fantasy literature and presenting papers at Mythcon. It has been an epic descent.

Now, some of you have been reading this and thinking, “That’s not all that geeky. What’s the harm of a little fantasy literature and a few teaching aids?” Anyone who has asked this has never been to Mythcon.

Mythcon is a new level of Geekism.

As it turns out, no one had to be asked to remove his or her wimple or light saber during the paper presentations.  The papers themselves were of generally high quality. There were some fan presentations, but most of the sessions were led by grad students, authors, and academics who laid out hard-hitting ideas.

I’d encourage you to watch The Oddest Inkling blog as Sørina captures a few of the highlights. I attended great talks on Neil Gaiman, Harry Potter, H.P. Lovecraft, Beowulf, Terry Pratchett, C.S. Lewis & Carl Jung, and various Tolkien topics. The panels were real features. I was on the “Inklings and King Arthur” panel, and realized I was the least among greats in the weekend panels, with topics like “Faith and Fantasy” and “Teaching Tolkien.”

There are different kinds of folk at Mythcon in sometimes overlapping groups. There was a pretty hardcore Tolkien contingency. I had lunch with someone who was fluent in Tolkien’s languages, and was amazed that whenever someone quoted an obscure passage from the legendarium, heads nodded throughout the room. There was a large Christian contingency, folk who feel that fantasy helps capture the basic existential fact that the universe is made up of more than matter. There were subcultures of neopagans, professors, fantasy writers, theologians, grad students, linguists, and philosophers. There were probably some attendees that were all of these.

There were some odd moments at Mythcon. I heard a great paper from a student on Tolkien’s evolving Anti-Speciesist ideas. I asked a question that began a dialogue I could not have anticipated.

“Thanks for the great talk,” I said. “A question: When Tolkien writes, ‘The fox thinks…,’ is he being anthropocentric?”

The presenter was about to respond, when someone from the crowd spoke.

“When animals speak with me telepathically….”

And it went on from there as the speaker talked about his praeternatural calling to lead a dying community of sentient-sapient forest animals in a last chance resistance to a Mordor-like human conspiracy to crush them. Believe it or not, the presenter had not prepared an answer ahead of time to that perspective, but I thought she handled it beautifully.

There was a general medieval feeling to the weekend conference. There was always a sword nearby (when needed), and one could often see a Mythcon participant having to sweep back his or her robe sleeve in order to tap out a text message. I heard renditions of “Edge of Night” (Pippin’s song) and the Last Unicorn song. I sat in a room as dozens of people recited the first 18 lines of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales by heart (a useful skill I discovered) while a friend texted an alluring photo of himself as King Arthur to his wife.

Yes, I admit that the pinnacle of Mt. Geek is dominated by Comic-Con in San Diego and Doctor Who listserves, where hardcore fans critique comma splices in the thousands of episodes they’ve learned by heart. Doctor Who fans understand commitment to the craft.

Where Mythcon shines, though, is in its inclusiveness. I had dinner with the Doctor at Mythcon, but he had the bowtie of #11 and the shoes of #10–a syncretism that many fans would never allow. At Mythcon it was greeted with a blessing in one of Tolkien’s elvish tongues (I think … it might have been Vulcan, or Portuguese).

It’s true, there were some pokes and jabs throughout the weekend, but they were mostly harmless. For example, late at night we were standing in a failed horse stable using a junior baseball bat to hit a zombie head of Prince William off of a dummy wearing a 1970s McDonalds uniform with the hope of hitting a fuzzy rabbit toy. Typical Sunday night. When someone flubbed it, there was a low murmur from the crowd, chanting, “Linguist … linguist ….” Linguists, apparently, were fair game (see below).

Even that, though, just accentuates the Geek-embracement of Mythcon. There were some trolls (as you can imagine), but for the most part they weren’t overfed. There were some popular folk at Mythcon, but they seemed to act more like mentors than alpha leaders. Overall, everyone was supportive and encouraging. I was hoping to get more pushback on my ideas, especially since I was speaking to a group that knew more than I did. Overall, though, I was thrilled with how easy it was to connect with others.

Other geeks, that is. It would be a shocking event for anyone who thought they were mainstream and über cool because they knew the 3 Laws of Robotics, Tolkien’s given names, or why there are two dots above the “u” in über.

Sorry friend, you are a geek. But, the good news is that you have a space at this table. Pull up a chair and dig in to some roast beast. Oh, can you pass the pepper? It’s behind Lewis’s lost Athurian poem and next to the guy with the tentacles and the woman handing the Light of Eärendil to that little hairy fellow. They won’t bite.


*Hard to explain that game with the bat except by quoting The Hobbit:

“If you have ever seen a dragon in a pinch, you will realize that this was only poetical exaggeration applied to any hobbit, even to Old Took’s great-granduncle Bullroarer, who was so huge (for a hobbit) that he could ride a horse. He charged the ranks of the goblins of Mount Gram in the Battle of the Green Fields, and knocked their king Golfibul’s head clean off with a wooden club. It sailed a hundred yards through the air and went down a rabbit-hole, and in this way the battle was won and the game of Golf was invented at the same moment”  Tolkien, The Hobbit.

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