On Being a Digital Leopard Frog, or Living Among the Digital Natives (Throwback Thursday)

This summer I introduced an occasional feature I call “Throwback Thursday.” This is where I find a blog post from the past–raiding either my own vault or someone else’s–and throw it back out into the digital world. This might be an idea or book that is now relevant again, or a concept I’d like to think about more, or even “an oldie but a goodie” that I think needs a bit of spin time.

I wrote this post three years ago when I was thinking about the opportunities and consequences of our so-called “digital native” generation. I was writing government policy for higher education and workforce development at the time. I found myself skeptical of the two easiest messages to cling on to. Though I think parents do damage to their kids in protecting them (see here), I utterly reject the “kids these days” apocalypticism that imagines Millenials as a whiney, entitled, moronic zombies mudding up the economic waters. And I was skeptical, on the other side, that somehow innovation and integrity have been gifted to a generation of digital natives who can intuitively use their knowledge to create a robot revolution for good. I have great confidence in this generation, and though I detest the language–I was coding before DOS but don’t own an iMac, so what does that make me?–I hope that digital natives can teach us a lot. But I also think we sometimes underestimate the trade-offs in our iManic race for tech-utopia.

I have talked about this before, writing “sabbath unplugged” for Geez magazine and tagging into C.S. Lewis’ “Instructions for Avoiding God.” This amphibious post, though, keeps coming back to my mind, especially after teaching a course on technoculture last spring. And though I’ve tweaked this piece a bit, I still want to be a Digital Leopard Frog.

Imagine digital technologies as the creatures that live in the Reptile Room at your local zoo or aquarium. I think there are three types of technology creatures in our culture zoo today.

Technology Turtles are our reptilian luddites. They withdraw from technological advancements into their hard shells whenever they are threatened. This could be the invention of a new social media platform, or it could be a social revolution like the move from script to type, from paper to digital, from desktop to handheld technology, or from tech as separate from our bodies to tech that is laced into our fleshly infrastructure.

Digital Hardbacks may be classic luddites in that they resist the revolution because of some important principle. More often, however, they either love the old ways—and so resist the new ones—or they have been hurt in the dangerous world of digital Darwinism. They thought they lived in a certain world and now discover they are digital refugees. Once Bitten Twice Shy Technological Turtles rarely peak their beaks out in a digitally rich environment. Turtles move forward, but very slowly.

I have no desire to become a Technology Turtle. Who would want to miss the great things that new technologies and social media have to offer?

At the other side of the enclosure you will find the Connected Chameleon. The tech-savvy Chameleon is on the cutting edge of every social media moment. They don’t merely use technology. They adapt to it. They are able to spot a new creative environment and they quickly find a way to blend in. They are so adept at tech access that it is soon difficult to tell the user from the technology. Connected Chameleons disappear into their digital environment as digital natives comfortably inhabit the land they are designing.

Although I love tech talk and new inventions, I don’t want to be a Connected Chameleon either. I think too often our generation’s identity is lost in the tools we use.

Instead, I want to be a Digital Leopard Frog.

Leopard Frogs live double lives. About the size of a child’s fist, these little soldiers have adapted to life in water and on land.

In the technological world, Digital Leopard Frogs are also amphibious, able to live in the world of script as comfortably as the world of type. We love print books, but pick up an eBook with ease. We admire inkwells and classic typewriters in the antique store, but pound out our thoughts on keyboards or thumb-tap them into a smartphone. We can pick up social media, but set it aside when it is time to chat with a friend or play outside. Digital Amphibians can fall in love with a tablet or curl up with a book beside a glowing fire.

Digital Leopard Frogs live the double life of the old and the new, finding our way in the world with past-forward spirituality. We might be digital immigrants or digital natives, but we always find a home.

Besides a take-it-or-leave-it approach to technology, Leopard Frogs also teach us another thing about culture. Frogs are canaries in the mine when it comes to natural environments. The North American Leopard Frog has been decimated in population in the last 50 years. In their own creaturely way, they are telling us about the poisons in our natural world.

Because Technology Turtles shelter themselves from culture, they cannot tell us of its subtle dangers. And because Connected Chameleons are so skilled at blending in, they are often too close to see when the digital environment is poisonous.

Digital Leopard Frogs, though, are close enough to know the best, but far enough away to see the worst. Our amphibious ways give us a prophetic view of the culture around us.

In all these ways, I am Digital Leopard Frog.

Where do you live in the Reptile Room of Contemporary Culture?

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Turn Off CNN and Talk to Actual Americans: On Division in the United? States of America

Are you ready for a shock? As I sat down to write this, CNN had on the front page of its website an article putting Donald Trump in a dim light. Hard to believe, I know. And–are you ready for this?–Fox News is defending some of President Trump’s peculiar actions. In fact, Fox commentaries are almost primarily about supporting Trump, while late-night comedy shows seem to have changed their format from the classical approach of self-deprecating mockery of American culture to serial lampooning of the many dumb things the President says or does. The whole industry of American news and late-night talk shows has become a White House burlesque, meant to confirm (I think) how deeply divided American society is today.

I grant that the United States of America has deep divisions. Some of these are historical, so that much of the Red-Blue divide still runs along Civil War lines. Don’t imagine that something as thin as the Mason-Dixon line couldn’t divide a country a quarter of a millennium later. America is built on mythologies, a land formed as much by folktale as by ideology. The greatest social experiment in history (I believe) was, after all, shaped by revolution and by civil war as well as by philosophy and religion. There are also deep critical divides within what appear to be like-minded regions like the Northwest, the Rust Belt, the South, or New England. Livia Gershon’s suggestion that we might be in a “Cold Civil War” is tempting to accept.

But isn’t it true that, as we just saw, America has always been divided? As someone who came to age in the aftermath of the collapse of the Iron Curtain, America’s “victory” was dominated in my experience by culture wars. I was never sure that war ended in the 90s (or even began then), but 9/11 certainly created a cohesive moment that allowed everyone to take a breath. But, frankly, when was there a non-divisive moment in American postwar history? McCarthyism, the 60s, Vietnam, the Nixon scandal, Reaganomics, the Cola wars, repeated gulf wars, perennial culture wars, the Tea Party, the alt-right and the new left, Brad and Angelina–I don’t know that divisiveness is new.

I mean, all the Presidents have been deeply divisive. According to FiveThirtyEight, every President except JFK went below 50% approval at one point, and even Kennedy was descending steadily to that depth when he was assassinated. It is true that Trump’s disapproval rating is record-breaking, being the only President to have a lower approval rating than disapproval rating at inauguration, and the only one to never have a majority approval (thus far). However, Truman spent most of his Presidency with support below 40%, being popular only during his two elections and the 1946 mid-term. Obama, Bush Jr., Carter, and Ford all spent more than half their presidency with less than half of America approving of their work. On the 569th day of their presidencies, Obama, Clinton, Reagan, Carter, Ford, and Truman were about where Trump is now in approval–in the low 40s. In fact, the only moments of unity in America where approval was at 80% or above are classic ones: Truman finishing WWII, Bush Jr.’s initial response to 9/11, Bush Sr.’s victory in West Asia, and Johnson’s accession after JFK’s assassination. Violent are the moments that create unity in America in the era of modern comfort and wealth after WWII.

It seems to me that division is part of America’s story and I don’t know whether America is greatest when she is divided or unified. The unified response of America to join WWII after Pearl Harbour is offset by the divided feelings about entering WWI, and there is a case to be made that Wilson hoodwinked America into joining that global conflict. The critical unity of America after 9/11, filled as it was with public debate, disintegrated into a decade of desert war with thinning allies, certainly creating the conditions for the tragedy of the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) and one of the greatest refugee crises of history. The divisiveness of McCarthyism is no doubt a betrayal of American cultural values, and yet it was a challenge to American values of segregation that led to the beginning of a long revolution of understanding about race, from Martin Luther King to Black Lives Matters. All abolition movements, cultural revolutions, and religious revivals are divisive, and yet America has been great in global matters when unified.

So is America greatest when she is divided or unified?

I don’t know, though I think it is a powerful question. What troubles me about the “America divided” conversation is not the complex data that could lead to answers, but the media rhetoric about the question. Set aside the inherent hypocrisy on the left with the principle of inclusion and reasoned revolutionary speech, or the fact that Trump’s person and politics are a betrayal of American conservativism. In this, CNN and Fox News are each undermining that which they are trying to defend, as are superstars like Stephen Colbert or Glenn Beck. Every week millions of people around the world watch American news channels, political commentators, and late-night monologues. Youtube has hyper-realized our connection with these kinds of media. And, especially when you consider the clickbait nature of mainstream news, rather than bringing clarity they are unified in one thing: a certain vision of America. If we trust in Fox News, CNN, and BBC, or Stephen Colbert and his friends, what do we learn about what Americans are like?

Non-Americans not living in America are likely to imagine America as a swirling cesspool of bigotry and violence. I have heard it, heard the fear of non-Americans about travelling in the US or having US immigrants in their communities (there are millions of Americans living across the world, including 2 million in Canada). I have heard foreigners working in specialized trades in the US talk about getting out, and Canadians hesitate about taking jobs there (there are more than a million Canadians in the US, most of them working as hockey players or baristas in Los Angelos). No doubt the President’s anti-immigration rhetoric and interest in trade wars heightens the anxiety, but even without that the news is filled with guns, violence, racism, character assassinations, and the twin realities of hypersexualized idolatry and violence. What are people supposed to think about America?

This is where I think it is time to turn of the news and close the youtube app. I think it is time to turn off CNN and spend time with real Americans.

I have had the blessing of two trips into the US this year. I spent a week in archival research, a week in conferences and meetings, and a week vacationing, including a four-day music festival. During my time there, without fail people were generous, kind, engaged, and hospitable. Americans are legendary for their ignorance about Canada, but I found on these latest visits that people were especially open and even curious. At moments people were almost apologetic about the current political situation, and terribly cautious. Many were very interested in Prime Minister Trudeau, though living here I am only too aware that the tousle-headed ideologue is always smilier on the other side of the fence.

At both the festival and the conference, America showed its great diversity and commitment to human freedom–both in the culture of the programming and the messages from the stage. The festival in New Hampshire is a case in point. The programming was clearly meant to communicate the message that is their motto: Music, Love, Action. The artists and presenters spoke of social action, calls for justice, racial equality, and the global abolition movement that is trying to address the contemporary crisis of slave-trading today. The stage was filled with immigrants all week. And when the Compassion International presentations arose, they highlighted children who received American sponsorships and then went on to immigrate to America and become successful. The message of love and inclusivity flowed into the audience, which was the most polite 10,000 people crammed together you could meet. During torrential rains, shin-deep mud, tornado warnings and threats of flash floods, festival-goers kept their cool, helping one another out as Christian neighbours.

A week in the New Hampshire mountains without Fox News or BBC International reminded me of the true heart of America’s social space.

Although I spent all my time in four states this year, I have visited 31 US states. I have experienced the same integrity, kindness, and good-hearted neighbourliness almost without fail. This doesn’t surprise me. Most of my students are Americans, and they show intelligence and hard work in all they do, despite many challenges. Many of my colleagues are American, and though they are less diverse in political stance and heritage than my students, they show rugged integrity and an unfailing commitment to vision. Every year, our little province of Prince Edward Island hosts a population 7 times our size in visitors (including tourists and international students). Americans have always been a large part of our lives, and generally a positive one.

So, here we are. This is my rant. Not as clever as Stephen Colbert or as angry as Glenn Beck. There isn’t great clickbait here that shows the sexy side of news. However, if you turn off CNN and turn to real people you will find great examples of neighbourliness–not to mention the courage, ingenuity, and brawny dream-making that is America’s global gift. I think the free press is an essential element to political democracy, an element that is under threat today in America. It is under threat mostly, though, due to an internal sickness. I think media is important, but in today’s media culture it might be time to take a break.

I follow the news, but I’m increasingly drawn to C.S. Lewis’ view of the media. Most of what we see in the media, he says, will be proven “false in emphasis and interpretation, if not in fact as well, and most of it will have lost all importance” before long. In consuming the media, we “will probably have acquired an incurable taste for vulgarity and sensationalism and the fatal habit of fluttering from paragraph to paragraph” as we assess our world (Lewis, Surprised by Joy, ch. 10). He speaks elsewhere of how a reader learns from the media about “how, in some place he has never seen, under circumstances which never become quite clear, someone he doesn’t know has married, rescued, robbed, raped, or murdered someone else he doesn’t know,” and yet we think that it brings us together as a people (Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, 16). Lewis was not critically aware of all that the media does for us, yet he was wary of what looks like a unified view of the world but what really brings alienation in the end. I think this is true today if it never was before.

So, please, ignore your youtube app, tuck your newspaper under your arm, close the screen on this blog post, and go meet real Americans. It might change your view of the world.

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The Wade Center Welcomes New Co-Directors Crystal and David Downing (Feature Friday)

As I announced before, Drs. Crystal and David Downing have been appointed as Co-Directors of the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College. The Wade is the premier North American deposit of archival and library materials for the Inklings and some of their friends and influences. The work that staff and volunteers do at the Wade is irreplaceable and gives us access to the lives and works of some of our favourite authors, including C.S. Lewis (and his brother, Warren), J.R.R. Tolkien, Dorothy L. Sayers, G.K. Chesterton, Owen Barfield, George MacDonald, and Charles Williams.

More than just a great organization, my life has been changed by the Wade. And I must say that the Downings are the perfect directors for a new era of the Wade. I have commented on their excellent work in Inklings-related work as Christian intellectuals (see herehere, and here). More than this, though, Crystal and David have each been encouraging to me in my scholarly development, including some work together in the spring when I was in the Midwest. I couldn’t wish a better set of candidates on the Wade or a more important task upon the Downings.

Here is a little video from the Downings:

And here is the entire press release from the Wheaton College website:

The Marion E. Wade Center is delighted to announce the appointment of Dr. Crystal Downing and Dr. David C. Downing as co-directors and co-holders of the Marion E. Wade Chair of Christian Thought. As Lisa Richmond, Director of Library and Archives at Wheaton College, explains, “The opportunity to have two such distinguished scholars leading the Wade Center is very exciting and holds great promise for continuing the Wade’s strong legacy of work on the seven authors. We are thrilled that the Downings are joining Wheaton in this role.” As co-directors, the Downings will share administrative responsibilities, and as a joint appointment they will also have significantly more time to invest in writing and research on the Wade authors. They will take up their responsibilities at the Wade Center on July 1, 2018.

Dr. Crystal Downing is currently Distinguished Professor of English and Film Studies at Messiah College, PA. She has published on a variety of topics, with much of her recent scholarship focused on the relationship between cultural theory and religious faith. Her first book, Writing Performances: The Stages of Dorothy L. Sayers (Palgrave Macmillan 2004) received an international award from the Dorothy L. Sayers Society in Cambridge, England in 2009. The thought of Sayers and C.S. Lewis is evident in Crystal’s next two books, How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith (IVP Academic 2006) and Changing Signs of Truth (IVP Academic 2012). The success of her fourth book, Salvation from Cinema (Routledge 2016) has led to her current book project, The Wages of Cinema: Looking through the Lens of Dorothy L. Sayers. Crystal has received a number of teaching awards and was the recipient of the Clyde S. Kilby Research Grant for 2001 from the Wade Center. She holds a PhD in English from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Dr. David Downing currently serves as the R.W. Schlosser Professor of English at Elizabethtown College, PA. He has published widely on C.S. Lewis, including Planets in Peril: A Critical Study of C.S. Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy (UMass 1992), The Most Reluctant Convert: C.S. Lewis’s Journey to Faith (IVP 2002), which was awarded the Clyde S. Kilby Research Grant for 2000, Into the Region of Awe: Mysticism in C.S. Lewis (IVP 2005), and Into the Wardrobe: C.S. Lewis and the Narnia Chronicles(Jossey-Bass 2005). David is also the editor of C.S. Lewis’s The Pilgrim’s Regress: The Wade Annotated Edition (Eerdmans, 2014). A prolific speaker and writer, David has spoken extensively throughout the U.S. and internationally. He has received numerous teaching awards and holds a PhD in English from the University of California at Los Angeles.

The Downings are the first to be jointly appointed to the Wade directorship in the more than 50-year history of the Wade Center. They follow Wade founder and first director Clyde S. Kilby (1965–1980), director Lyle W. Dorsett (1983–1990), and director Christopher W. Mitchell (1994–2013).

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Idea-Seeds in C.S. Lewis’ Letters (Throwback Thursday)

This summer I introduced an occasional feature I call “Throwback Thursday.” This is where I find a blog post from the past–raiding either my own vault or someone else’s–and throw it back out into the digital world. This might be an idea or book that is now relevant again, or a concept I’d like to think about more, or even “an oldie but a goodie” that I think needs a bit of spin time.

This post comes from the second anniversary of my blog in August 2013. When I wrote it I was at August 1937 of my project of reading Lewis Chronologically. I had just finished reading The Allegory of Love (1935) and Out of the Silent Planet (1937), and I was nearly complete The Personal Heresy (1933-9) and the 1930s pieces that would become Rehabilitations and Other Essays (published in 1939). 

As I paced my chronological reading project to Lewis’ letters, I got to know them intimately. What I noticed then and still see in Lewis’ work is that he will often try out an idea for a book or line of argument while writing a letter. No doubt he did this in everyday conversations too, but we have the letters and so that is where our attention goes. I don’t know which comes first: Does Lewis use the letter to test an idea? Or does the correspondence trigger something that will eventually become a book or essay? I suspect both are true, and in this short post, we see some of these emergent ideas. At the end of this piece I talk about the trails that Lewis leaves for us. Intriguingly, on the winding path of a PhD project, these are the breadcrumbs that I am still following into the wood of Lewis’ imaginative work. 

collected-letters-c-s-lewis-box-set-c-s-paperback-cover-artOne of the reasons I like reading C.S. Lewis’ letters is that I get to see hints of ideas that will one day become books. Except for some pretty boring entries in his 20s, we don’t have Lewis’ diaries and most of his notebooks aren’t published. So what we have most to go on are the little ideas that pop up in his letters to friends, colleagues, and fans.

One of the friends is Leo Baker, a teacher and Anthroposophist that Lewis had gone to Oxford with. In a 24 Jun 1936 letter talking about Lewis’ The Allegory of Love, Lewis offers a hilarious self-deprecating apology for the length of his new book. Then he turns to Baker’s personal issues:

I am greatly distressed to hear that you are still suffering….

I must confess I have not myself yet got beyond the stage of feeling physical pain as the worst of evils. I am the worst person in the world to help anyone else to support it. I don’t mean that it presents quite the intellectual difficulties it used to, but that my nerves even in imagination refuse to move with my philosophy. In my own limited experience the sufferer himself nearly always towers above those around him: in fact, nothing confirms the Christian view of this world so much as the treasures of patience and unselfishness one sees elicited from quite commonplace people when the trial really comes. Age, too–nearly everyone improves as he gets old, if this is a ‘vale of soul making’, it seems to, by round and by large, to be working pretty well. Of course I can’t hazard a guess why you should be picked out for this prolonged suffering.

I am told that the great thing is to surrender to physical pain–I mean not to do what’s commonly called ‘standing’ it, above all not to brace the soul (which usually braces the muscles as well) not to try to ignore it: to be like earth being ploughed not like marble being cut. But I have no right to discuss such things on the basis of my very limited experience.

The Problem of Pain weeping CS LewisIn these words, we see the beginnings of Lewis first apologetics book, The Problem of Pain (1939-40). The book argues for a Christian response to thoughts about pain with Lewis’ own admission that thinking about pain as a philosophical problem is a lot different than actually living through it.

“when pain is to be born, a little courage helps more than much knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and the least tincture of the love of God more than all” (Preface to The Problem of Pain).

Perhaps it is conversations like those with Baker combined with the ill-health of people in his household and the looming prospect of war that turned Lewis to a book of apologetics that is surprisingly personal. Lewis’ works of nonfiction emerge in the letters, but the germ of some of Lewis’ characters also appear there. In a June 1937 letter to Dom Bede Griffiths–a student of Lewis’ who became a monk–we see the character of Weston from Out of the Silent Planet. Weston is a megalomaniacal genius who would sacrifice the environment or humans or the people of other worlds or “savage” societies in order to extend his particular idea of the human race. Here is what Lewis wrote to Griffiths about nine weeks before completing Out of the Silent Planet:

I was talking the other day to an intelligent infidel who said that he pinned all his hopes for any significance in the universe on the chance that the human race by adapting itself to changed conditions and first planet jumping, then star jumping, finally nebula jumping, could really last forever and subject matter wholly to mind.

When I said that it was overwhelmingly improbable, he said Yes, but one had to believe even in the 1000th chance or life was mockery. I of course asked why, feeling like that, he did not prefer to believe in the other and traditional ‘chance’ of a spiritual immortality. To that he replied–obviously not for effect but producing something that had long been in his mind–‘Oh I never can believe that: for if that were true our having a physical existence wd. be so pointless.’

Was this encounter the invention of Weston that became a mental trigger that finally gave the imaginative energy for Lewis to write Out of the Silent Planet (and fulfill his wager with Tolkien)? Or had Lewis been working on Out of the Silent Planet and Griffiths’ letter became an opportunity to think through his encounter with the planet-jumping infidel colleague?

We cannot know. But a study could be made of all the idea-seeds that appear in Lewis’ letters. He was a percolator, someone who would have an idea and let in roll around his brain for a while. He would jot notes down, make false starts on stories and lectures, and write poems in the margins. And, of course, he would test his ideas out on others.

Which, if we can insert ourselves into Lewis’ story as an imaginative correspondents, leaves a trail for all of us.

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The Inklings and Arthur Book Wins the Mythopoeic Award!

Sorina Higgins Brenton Dickieson Inklings and King ArthurThis truly is great news! I heard last week that The Inklings and King Arthur has won the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award in Inklings Studies. I’m not quite as astonished as Sørina is since I have a pretty strong understanding of her capability as editor. Still, this is pretty cool. Although I have a chapter in the volume, I hope people do not find me immodest when I say that The Inklings and King Arthur: J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis, & Owen Barfield on the Matter of Britain is an important book. It deserves to be in the company it is in. What is perhaps surprising is the strength of that fellowship of books. Though I don’t know Lisa Coutras’ work, Verlyn Flieger, Jane Chance, and Christopher Tolkien are essential scholars, critics, and editors. This year’s bookshelf of Mythopoeic Award nominees is a treasure.

So, congratulations to Sørina and to all involved in the project. Follow the reblog link below for more details. Make sure you check out the great guest blog series that accompanied the release of the book this spring by clicking on The Inklings and Arthur Series Index. And don’t forget to buy and review the book. The paper copy is about $40 and the Kindle less than $10.

The Oddest Inkling

mythoI am utterly astonished and delighted to announce that The Inklings and King Arthur has won the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award in Inklings Studies! This is a prestigious award that “is given to books on Tolkien, Lewis, and/or Williams that make significant contributions to Inklings scholarship.” Congratulations to all of my chapter-writers for their amazing work. I am happy to see how this book seems to be opening paths in Inklings scholarship, and I hope that continues.

I would like to acknowledge the other nominees for this year. They were:

  • Chance, Jane, Tolkien, Self and other: This Queer Creature (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016)
  • Coutras, Lisa, Tolkien’s Theology of Beauty: Majesty, Splendor, and Transcendence in Middle-earth (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016)
  • Flieger, Verlyn, There Would Always Be a Fairy Tale: More Essays on Tolkien (Kent State University Press, 2017)
  • Tolkien, Christopher, ed., Beren and Luthien (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017)

And previous winners are a…

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Lewis, Tolkien and Different Views of Fan Fiction

One of the assignments that I give my students, adapted from the late C.S. Lewis scholar Dr. Bruce Edwards, is for students to get into groups and sketch out an 8th Chronicle of Narnia in the form of a book proposal or film treatment. It is always a rewarding assignment for both me and the students. Students may insert another court tale like The Horse and His Boy, explore the background of Puddleglum or the secret history of Tumnus, or spend time thinking about “The Problem of Susan,” as Neil Gaiman called it. As students creatively integrate their reading experience, artistic talents, and writerly instincts, I have never failed to enjoy reading these assignments. Plus, it helps students think through the process of the creation of Narnia and some effective ways to read the series.

And the assignment fits pretty well with Lewis’ view of the matter. Lewis approved of teachers reading the books with students and playing dramatically with the content (see the 2 Nov 1956 to Walter Hooper). Letters to Children is filled with notes about Narnia, including moments where Lewis encourage children to continue his Narnia tradition:

The Kilns, Kiln Lane,
Headington Quarry,
Oxford.
29th March 1961

Dear Jonathan Muehl,
Yours is one of the nicest letters I have had about the Narnian books, and it was very good of you to write it. But I’m afraid there will be no more of these stories. But why don’t you try writing some Narnian tales? I began to write when I was about your age, and it was the greatest fun. Do try!
With all best wishes,
yours sincerely,
C. S. Lewis

The Kilns,
Headington Quarry,
Oxford
8 Sept 62

Dear Denise
I am delighted to hear that you liked the Narnian books, and it was nice of you to write and tell me. There is a map at the end of some of them in some editions. But why not do one yourself? And why not write stories yourself to fill up the gaps in Narnian history? I’ve left you plenty of hints–especially where Lucy and the Unicorn are talking in The Last Battle. I feel I have done all I can!
All good wishes.
Yours
C. S. Lewis

Even with the thing most troubling to fans–Susan’s excision from Narnia–Lewis invited readers to write up the story of her return to Narnia (see the 19 Feb 1960 letter to Pauline Bannister). When you read through his letters, you see that Lewis has a pretty loose view of intellectual property.

The same is not the case with J.R.R. Tolkien’s later work. Delighted to have The Hobbit in print, from the time it became popular through the two decades of working on The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien worked to ensure that his text was as accurate as possible. It drove him crazy when people carelessly “corrected” his spelling and grammar (see the 4 August 1953 letter to Christopher Tolkien). If Tolkien thought that this would be a great obstacle for him to deal with, he underestimated the response of the world to LOTR. Almost as soon as it was clear LOTR would sell, it was pirated in America. Tolkien took some months to create an authorized American edition, but many North Americans read about Númenor and the war of the ring for the first time in copies that Tolkien was never paid for.

Then there were the fan fiction requests. This letter to his publisher is among the spiciest of Tolkien’s responses to the phenomenon, filled with a sense of defeat and somewhat lacking in the open approach that Lewis had to his fans.

12 December 1966
76 Sandfield Road, Headington, Oxford

Dear Miss Hill,
I send you the enclosed impertinent contribution to my troubles. I do not know what the legal position is, I suppose that since one cannot claim property in inventing proper names, that there is no legal obstacle to this young ass publishing his sequel, if he could find any publisher, either respectable or disreputable, who would accept such tripe.

I have merely informed him that I have forwarded his letter and samples to you. I think that a suitable letter from Allen & Unwin might be more effective than one from me. I once had a similar proposal, couched in the most obsequious terms, from a young woman, and when I replied in the negative, I received a most vituperative letter.

With best wishes,
Yours sincerely,
J. R. R. Tolkien.

Vituperative indeed. It is notes like this that has created a tentative approach to fan fiction within Tolkien and Inklings scholarship. And is there an author that has created more fan fiction and shadow books that Tolkien? There are memorial volumes, like After the King: Stories in Honor of J.R.R. Tolkien (1992), and careful disciples like Guy Gavriel Kay‘s The Fionavar Tapestry (1984), but copies of Tolkien’s style, atmosphere, and his elfin invention are myriad and quite varied in quality. Tolkien and Lewis each created a new framework for writing fantasy in the late 20th century, but the degree to which Tolkien’s vision has inspired and impelled fans to write similarly is unparalleled.

Lewis’ relative ease in the face of fan response has a context. If Lewis had faced the pressures that Tolkien felt from early fans, publishers, and pirates, he may have responded differently. Both Lewis and Tolkien were skeptical that film could capture their authorial vision–were they correct? Lewis discouraged stage productions of The Screwtape Letters, encouraging them to simply adopt the “general diabolical framework” and create their own stories. Lewis and Tolkien each attempted to exert editorial control over translations, and Lewis resisted what he considered “fundamentalist” appropriations of his work (see the 9 May 1960 letter to his publisher).

And certainly the Lewis estate did not retain a completely open approach to publishing (as can be expected). Someone did write an 8th Narnian chronicle on the topic of Susan–a Carmelite nun, it turns outs, with the title The Centaur’s Cavern–and it is rumoured to have been denied permission to print. I have read authors that have quietly looped Narnian elements or Tolkienesque elves into their work to good effect. And I generally love intertextual looping. Still, I have little hope that The Centaur’s Cavern and the 30 or 40 others like it out there would be any good.

While Lewis and Tolkien each had their own feelings about how their work was met in the world, I don’t think either of them could have imagined today’s world of fan fiction, spurred on by the digital connectivity that our technology allows. And I’m hardly the person to speak critically about the field. My students get it and they write excellent papers about fanfic, but I just don’t know it well enough. Reading comments by Lewis and Tolkien, though, stirs up opposing feelings.

For one, I feel both rebellious against editorial control and yet I am grateful when the work is protected from idiotic things (see the Anne thing below or what could appear on the right).

And I also wonder if my ignorance of fan fiction has been given to me by osmosis rather than critically chosen. What am I missing? I’d love to know.

Here is a couple of pictures I smooshed together of interpretations of Anne in the Anne of Green Gables series. Anyone who has read the story knows what Anne should look like. Should it be the thin, (sort of) homely, red-headed orphan on the right (Kevin Sullivan’s film), or the blond, buxom, “come-hither” farm-girl on the left (the Amazon print edition)? Perhaps copyright control isn’t totally a bad thing.

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twenty øne piløts and fǟmily müsĩc

One of my absolute favourite bands is Twenty One Pilots, or twenty øne piløts, TØP, or various versions of the logo on the right. I stumbled upon this band in a cool way. For years I have been indoctrinating my son in the best music, people like Muddy Waters, the Beatles, Bob Dylan (and Jakob), Elton John, Queen, Billy Joel, U2, Guns N’ Roses, Nirvana, The Tragically Hip, Green Day, Counting Crows, Marc Cohn, Mark Heard, Train, Eminem, fun., Relient K, the Foo Fighters, Jars of Clay, Mumford & Sons, Fall Out Boy, Pierce the Veil, 30 Seconds to Mars, Needtobreathe, Imagine Dragons, Lorde, Chvrches, Arcade Fire, the Avett Brothers, and a hundred others that might come on your radio in a minute or two. Even doing this list, I’m not sure Nicolas knows about Jack Johnson or Stars or Steve Earle or Bruce Cockburn or the Decemberists. Jeepers, what if all he knows of Clapton is what’s on the radio? Shameful. No doubt I am a derelict in your eyes because of who I missed. Be assured I am hanging my head in shame.

Of course, not everything connected. Nicolas doesn’t share my fascination for Brandi Carlisle or Americana in general, but we have institutions for that kind of thing if he gets in trouble. We have enjoyed some great non-great greats–we are actually going to see TobyMac, Skillet, and Paul Colman next week at Soulfest in Gunstock, NH–and we just kind of breeze for fun over 70s rock, 80s pop, and 90s acoustic rock without coding it too deeply (but without neglecting it). It has been a fun 13-year journey, which began with “I Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll All Night” when he was so young he looked like a ginger-tinged naked mole-rat.

Our journey of family music has grown over the years, especially with our recovery of vinyl and the brilliant age we are in of music videos. I don’t know how many times we sat as a family and watched Pharrell Williams’ video, “Freedom”

or how much we’ve talked about how ideas, symbols, activism, criticism, pop sensibility, and art come together in Childish Gambino’s “This is America”:

Even now I had to just stop and watch that again. Wow.

All of this great music. But what is cool is that it was Nicolas who brought Twenty One Pilots to me for my edification and training. The son leads the father. The disciple teaches the master. It actually began with a video, I think, of a song I had no doubt heard on the radio a few times, “Blurryface.”

Catchy song and a fun video, with this kind fresh-breeze innocence about it. As I thought about it more and more, though, I began to see that the metaphor of “Blurryface” is actually kind of brilliant, even if the song seems to have two paths that don’t fully converge. Digging into it a bit, we discovered that there was a subtle, narrative thread that runs through the album, with character and story links that show real skill in combining pop music with cultural criticism.

I started listening more deeply. Even in what looks like just another innovative pop song that causes a musical apocalypse in Chinatown, “Tear in My Heart” is actually a pretty intelligent word picture for what that radical experience of otherness looks like when we truly fall in love. Plus, it features lead singer Tyler Joseph’s wife, which is pretty cool, and Josh Dun just thrashing the drums as Joseph pounds on the keys in the street.

And then there is one of their biggest songs ever, “Heathens,” a Grammy-award nominated/MTV Award-winning single from the Suicide Squad soundtrack. For me, the video is just another well-done movie tie-in video rather than a short film, but the lyric of the song is a terribly important message to the American evangelical community–if they have ears to hear.

I don’t know if they’ll be able to hear or not as they aren’t majoring in subtlety or showing artistic sophistication at the moment. But, there might be more.

I mean “might” because I’m not certain. A couple of weeks ago, after a long, long silence, a fanlist email came to my box and twitter lit up with a kind of creepy eye gif.

And then, for TØP fans, the world exploded. On the same day, July 11th, they released two songs and announced an international tour. The first video, “Jumpsuit,” is a visually rich interplay of–again–symbol and ideas wrapped up with Tyler Joseph’s own journey.

When the second short film released this past week, “Nico and the Niners,” the fan theories and digital suspicions suddenly made a lot of sense. The songs are not just linked by the “jumpsuit” image, but by some sort of integrated story that goes beyond small tips of the hat back to previous work (which are there too). Rumours were that a three-song cycle in the album was actually the story of Tyler Joseph’s character trying to escape from a cult. I’ll let you see if there’s a link:

Fan response has been strong. I was about the 250,000th person to view “Jumpsuit” on Youtube and by the time Nicolas got home from camp two days alter there were more than 10,000,000 hits (and doubled again in a week). Apparently, 5.2m hits in the first 24 hours is a Youtube record, and “Jumpsuit” is the first song in a decade to reach Billboard #1 for Alternative songs in just two weeks. It hit, and hit hard.

Anyway, the popularity doesn’t matter much to me. But it does show Nicolas’ pretty strong instincts for a good thing. I think it comes from a proper musical education. I do hope, though, that the popularity is a sign that listeners want to tap into songwriting that is more rooted than much of pop music today. In any case, it works for us. And Nicolas was blown away when we told him I’m taking him to Boston for their October concert. I don’t know if this band will be one of the greats, or if this album will reach the epic status fans want, but I suspect it will be an epic moment in Nicolas’ life.

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