I Am Legend: Book vs. Film(s)

I am preaching tomorrow on the topic, “It is not Good for Man to be Alone” (Gen 2:18). I have decided to use Robert Neville from I Am Legend as the starting point. I Am Legend took on a new significance in 2011 with the outbreak of H1N1 in 2011, fuelling conspiracy theories and providing teachers like me with great material for the classroom. Like then, thoughts of plagues, death, and social breakdown bother our minds–and the fact that New York City is contagion ground zero in the film and one of today’s COVID-19 hotspots is not insignificant. There are some differences, though.

In 2011, the conversation about I Am Legend and H1N1 was about the limits of human science. Today, the mythic relevance of the film takes a new shape–a shape that I think helps restore one of the beauties of Richard Matheson’s original novella. I have argued here that we should not be driven by fear or tempted by conspiracy theories in the face of COVID-19. I remain convinced of this stance. But other perils have grown in our world, not least of which is the peril of isolation. “It is not Good for Man to be Alone” is a good description of the main theme of I Am Legend in book and in adaptation. However, in this area, the book is stronger than the film–though the film really offers us more hope for our current moment. I thought, then, it was worth returning to this 2016 post. 

i-am-legend-logoCan a film be better than the book? It depends on how we define “better,” but book-lovers tend to say two sorts of things about adaptations:

  1. “The book was a richer experience.”
  2. “The film adaptation was not faithful to the book.”

i_am_legend_will-smithIt is rare that I hear a true book-lover say that the film was better than the book, but I’m sure we can find exceptions. Someone mentioned The Princess Bride to me lately, and I agree that the film has it hands down. I am both a book-lover and a film buff, so I am open to the idea that a film might be better than the book. Some people, of course, never feel a film shows fidelity to the original author. The arguments around Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth adaptations, where there is both heat and light, shows a number of dividing lines. My solution to go around the problem—I got in a bit of trouble here—doesn’t take away from the fact that I think the books are far better than the films, even if I am a big fan of the LOTR trilogy on screen.

With I Am Legend we have an intriguing opportunity to compare book and film. The book is important historically, though without the 2007 adaptation starring Will Smith, contemporary readers wouldn’t bump into it in an airport bookstore. As a 2007 adaptation, I Am Legend has the advantage of being a story tested by time, and yet not so well known that there will be an angry fan base. It was adapted twice before—including The Omega Man starring Rosalind Cash and Charlton Heston—so the filmmakers could witness the flexibility of the original story to be adapted to certain times and places.

omega-man-filmIt is also interesting that the book and the movie take a similar amount of time to experience, the book being a novella that you can read in 3-4 hours. Usually in an adaptation the book has the luxury of time, allowing the reader to sink into the story, to fill their imagination with the depth of that fictional world. In this case, the book is relatively thin on both time and detail, so the pacing is more like an episodic film. In this case, the novella has a relatively flat storyline with moments of intensity that might be an episode of violent encounter, or a moment of the protagonist’s emotional collapse. In this way, it is very much like any Lone Survivor type film.

One advantage of any book is reader investment, so that the reader provides most of the imaginative detail about landscape, scene, facial features, body posture, and the like. Film has its advantages too, so that I am much more frequently emotionally overwhelmed by the human interaction in a film. We have started watching Stranger Things on Netflix, and my wife says I’m leaning forward and nodding as Eleven searches for something to say. Add the soundtrack, the elastic snap of suspenseful action coming into play, the modulation of sound and light, and film has a great pull on its audience. In the case of the 2007 I Am Legend, the post-apocalyptic environment is captured in just a few stunning seconds, while it takes the 1954 novella pages and pages to establish the environment.

i-am-legend-4Still, for people who love literature, there is nothing like 10-20 hours (or more) of being lost in the interior mind of a character or the adventures of a world that is not our own, all told in beautiful prose. Films have their epic moments of poetry, but the genre is such that rarely can the words do the work without the support of movement and music. Poetry, however, is on many pages. It is the limitation of the mode of film, but also its great strength. I rarely cry reading books, but I cry all the time in film. I do laugh in both.

As it stands, the book and the film are two quite different experiences. I Am Legend in print is all about interiority—the feelings and emotions of Robert Neville as he struggles to be the last man on earth. Both the film and the book make a statement that undercuts our confidence in how we made the civilization we live in, but that critique is far stronger in the book. The film undercuts the confidence of our scientific progress, while the book has a cold war background (much like Night of the Living Dead in the late 60s).

While the film also deals with interiority—Will Smith’s mental collapse is pretty well done—we feel it more keenly in the book. Moreover, in the film all of the players around protagonist Robert Neville shift to create a different kind of story. The 2007 film is about disintegration and redemption, while the 1954 novel is only about disintegration. There is no recovery in Richard Matheson’s original invention, whereas the film weaves that recovery into its very core.

i_am_legend_will-smith-dogThis recovery happens in various ways and plays out differently depending upon the ending you choose to watch. In the alternative ending, the director plays out the theme of scientific hubris. Robert Neville’s scientific pride makes the social formation of the zombie clans invisible, leading to near utter destruction. His humility—his ability to see the human within the animal—opens up for a moment of redemption. But that recovery only comes at great cost, and only by the grace of the beast. The moment of driving off into the sunrise is just a little too clean. This ending is weaker, though it is an intriguing message.

i_am_legend_richard-mathesonThe theatrical ending is a much stronger moment of recovery, and a much more shocking interpretation of Matheson’s work. The theatrical version takes up the Christ myth, so that self-sacrifice is the central turning moment of humanity, and “healing is in the blood.” This cross-shaped narrative is strengthened by the use of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” and gives substance to the Elijah character in the film, the prophetess that leads to Robert Neville’s personal redemption.

While the theatrical version is far stronger, in either case, the 2007 film is quite a distance from the book. When asked about what the central metaphor in his story was, Matheson answered bluntly:

“I think that ascribing metaphors to a book after it is written is silly…. I don’t think the book means anything more than it is: the story of a man trying to survive in a world of vampires.”

The symbolic value of the 2007 theatrical ending is too specific to be accidental. In any case, recovery is not part of the original story, while central to the film.

i_am_legend_richard-matheson-3We have an intriguing problem with comparing the book and film. The 1956 I Am Legend book is a vampire story inspired by Dracula; 50 years later the film is about zombies. And yet the core characteristics of the nightwalkers in the 2007 film are relatively true to one strand of what we see in the 1950s story. How does this happen?

It’s an intriguing moment of the complexity of influences. While there have been Haitian zombie stories since the 1800s, and classic zombie films from the 30s onward, it is George Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead that created an established zombie film genre that exists in strength right up to today. Among Romero’s influences was Matheson’s 1950s vampire story, where the vampires lack the superhuman strength of Dracula type vampires, and so hang around living beings at night waiting to drink their blood. Matheson’s story, and the 1964 Last Man on Earth adaptation, have this same weak, unintelligent night vampire hunter. This figure only works in a plague scenario, and might have been bound to die except that Romero took up the character. He linked it with the zombie narrative, set it in an historical setting that incited fear, and upped the amount of gore the audience gets to see. It’s a genius move that makes Night of the Living Dead a cult classic.

While there are two kinds of zombies in the 1954 story —the living and the dead—the 2007 film simplifies that technical point into social hierarchy and adds a factor that Matheson’s original story was missing: speed and strength. The swarm ability of zombies is part of the classic tale, and Matheson’s vampires could work together on basic tasks (as Neville discovers too in the 2007 film). In the book, there are moments where Neville is swarmed by the nightwalkers, but he is able to fight them off, create some space, and escape.

i_am_legend_will-smith-zombieIn the 2007 film, the speed and lithe bodily energy of the vampire-zombies increase the action and the thrilling elements in the film. I think it is a core problem in the Matheson tale: Robert Neville, if he keeps his head and his routine, is never truly in danger once he has set up the safe house. Neville in the film needs the safe house and the routine, but dangers lurk in much more imminent ways.

i_am_legend_richard-matheson-coversI say “problem,” but Matheson was really doing something different in the book. In Matheson’s script, Neville’s greatest danger is himself, and that principle remains true to the end of the story. That element is there in the Will Smith version, but the way they re-cast the dog shows the brilliance of film as a mode—Neville is able to talk to the dog, so isn’t just thinking all the time. This also shows the completely different kind of challenge he has to face. In both the book and the film the hunt for the scientific secret is there, but that search operates in two different ways.

That search also results in two completely different kinds of approaches to the ending. This difference makes a fascinating case study in adaptation.

So comparing the film(s) and the book makes for an interesting study, but we still have our first question: is the film better than the book?

i_am_legend_richard-matheson-4In this case, I am going to go for the theatrical version of the film over the book. I like the complexity of the symbolism, and am intrigued about it. I think the casting is strong, and the soundtrack is a good background to the story—something Matheson also achieves in the book (listen to the pieces he mentions while you read and you’ll see). The writing of the original tale is not elegant, and as someone tempted to that interior collapse as a story I find it a bit self-indulgent. I know how I would be in grief for the loss of my world, my loves, and I resist writing it. Matheson did that here. And although it is an inescapably compelling tale, I still connected more to Robert Neville on the screen than Robert Neville in the pages.

I’m sure this won’t settle the question of whether or not a film adaptation can be better than the book. Some may say that Francis Lawrence’s “redemption” motif is a Hollywood sell-out, and there are flaws in the film. Still, though Richard Matheson’s story is more important piece in the development of a genre—both the evolution of vampire fiction and the popularizing of the zombie film—the 2007 I Am Legend film is for me a richer “reading” experience.

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Trees, Leaves, Vines, Circles: The Layered Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Fiction, A Note on “Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth”

I am for the first time teaching J.R.R. Tolkien‘s “Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth,” the “Debate between Finrod and Andreth”–though I wonder if “Dialogue” is a better term for “Athrabeth.” Finrod was the son of Finarfin, great Elven King of the Noldor, brother to Galadriel and Aegnor, and a friend of the race of Men. Andreth was a Man, a wisdom speaker of the House of Bëor, a woman who fell in love with Finrod’s brother–a love that was requited, but forbidden as Elves are forbidden to wed during times of war. Nearly half a century after the “Athrabeth,” Andreth died alone and childless.

As Andreth was one of the Lore Masters of Bëor, Finrod relished in spending long evenings at her fireside, One of their conversations was recorded and ultimately published in Morgoth’s Ring, the 10th volume of the History of Middle-earth, edited by Christopher Tolkien.

The Athrabeth is a gorgeous and troubling piece of work. Its beauty lies in its ability to capture a lore-rooted theological debate that still evokes the relational depth of two friends. The text combines the great and bitter longing of Andreth for her lost lover Aegnor and a delicate blend of fear and daring hope as Elves and Men consider their fates.

It is troubling because the Athrabeth challenges one of the critical concepts of Middle-earth, that the gift of Men is mortality (Tolkien letter #131, to Milton Waldman; see the Quenta Silmarillion). According to Andreth, though, wisdom says that death for Men is a wrong–an unnatural breaking of body (hröa) and soul (fëa):

“dying we die, and we go out to no return. Death is an uttermost end, a loss irremediable. And it is abominable; for it is also a wrong that is done to us” (Morgoth’s Ring, 311).

It is unlike anything I have read in Tolkien’s papers.

Besides the questions of mortality and the gifts of Eru, the “Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth” brings us more deeply into the Sindarin idea of estel, hope, one of the names of Aragorn the hope-for king. “Hope” is perhaps too thin of a concept we discover in the Athrabeth. As the word “longsuffering” was invented to capture a concept in St. Paul, perhaps “hopetrust” or “longhope” is the right way to translate estel.

Though it was a rich discovery, my reading of the “Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth” was for a purpose, to guide a discussion of Signum University students. I was reading with pencil in hand, so to speak, so I also had some other volumes open as I hunted down some of the many links that J.R.R. Tolkien makes in his interwoven works and that Christopher Tolkien draws our attention to in the footnotes and commentaries. As I was writing a note in my copy of Tolkien’s letters–sent there from an endnote Christopher wrote to one of his father’s own self-commentaries–I realized how ridiculously implicated these stories are!

After all, when I think of it, I am writing a blog post about marginal notes I wrote next to a letter J.R.R. Tolkien wrote to a Lord of the Rings fan, which I found in Christopher Tolkien’s endnote to an author’s note his father wrote to an inserted episode from the 12-volume History of Middle-earth, which is the Legendarium, that is both the foundation of and the prequel to the published story, The Lord of the Rings.

And so the circle goes. As they have come to us through eight decades of publication by father, son, and scholars, Tolkien’s works are deeply implicated with one another–layered to an almost infinite degree in language, poetry, story, history, legend, and myth. My circular experience of reading is not unique to me, I think.

But although Tolkien’s works are like circle, and layered in complex ways, the works are also “rhizomatic”–a word some of my favourite teachers have been using lately, but that we see the idea of in the Inklings‘ own work. Like a wild tree or creeping vine, Tolkien’s writings are like send out roots and shoots as they move out into the world. And Tolkien was not just the writer of his work, but a kind of discoverer–a gardener who plants and watches what grows. C.S. Lewis describes this kind of rhizomatic project in his commentary on fellow-Inkling Charles Williams’ poetry, where writing

is more a dove-like brooding, a watching and waiting as if he watched a living thing, now and then putting out a cautious finger to disentangle two tendrils or to train one a little further toward the support which it had almost reached, but for the most part simply waiting (Arthurian Torso, 279).

There, in the past, Tolkien is watching the roots of ideas shoot out across the garden wall, while he trains the vine, disentangling some tendrils and bringing others together. Tolkien himself used a similar metaphor in “Leaf by Niggle,” an allegorical tale about life as a subcreator. Niggle is a painter, but as his life goes on he cannot feel any real interest in any of his paintings except this one tree:

It had begun with a leaf caught in the wind, and it became a tree; and the tree grew, sending out innumerable branches, and thrusting out the most fantastic roots. Strange birds came and settled on the twigs and had to be attended to. Then all round the Tree, and behind it, through the gaps in the leaves and boughs, a country began to open out; and there were glimpses of a forest marching over the land, and of mountains tipped with snow. Niggle lost interest in his other pictures; or else he took them and tacked them on to the edges of his great picture (Tales from the Perilous Realm, 286).

And so the tree grows, such an elegant metaphor for Tolkien’s own work. Trees, Leaves, Vines, Circles, the loom–I suppose our metaphors for the work could spread out from here in their own branches. But it strikes me at such a time as this how deeply layered Tolkien’s works are, and how we are invited into the intricate patterns of his interwoven worlds.

“Leaf by Niggle” by Emily Austin. Adding to the layers of our reading experience, you can find Emily’s Inklings-inspired art here.

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C.S. Lewis and Other Fantasy Books, Free Streaming in Audible

These are unusual times, and there is evidence that people are thinking in creative ways about how to live big in small spaces. J.K. Rowling, for example, has waived any licensing concerns that might arise by teachers reading her books online or recording sections dramatized or read.

A nice gesture–though I imagine Scholastic would suffer for suing Mrs. Fabula from Utopia, NY, reading about Harry’s life beneath the stairs to her 5th graders! But Rowling has certainly caught the moment.

I suspect there are dozens of examples like this, but one other I’d like to point out is a nice invitation by Audible (in the US and Canada, but perhaps elsewhere). As long as there is a disruption of school, they are streaming a few hundred resources for kids and eager teens.

You can click here for the full catalogue, but some audiobooks are noteworthy. Among these are Edith Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, James Stephens’ collection of Irish Fairy Tales, Scarlett Johansson reading Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World, and Franz Kafka‘s The Metamorphosis (though if you can find the Benedict Cumberbatch reading, it’s brilliant). All of these are free for streaming on the Audible website or app.

Brilliantly, there are three C.S. Lewis books also included in the educational stream, each read professionally by Ralph Cosham.

The Screwtape Letters 

It is not an overstatement to say that C.S. Lewis‘ career was launched by The Screwtape Letters–a witty, upside-down look at spiritual life through the eyes of those most invested in seeing humans falter. Though I prefer John Cleese’s hard-to-get Grammy-nominated reading of Screwtape, Ralph Cosham’s reading is a great way to hear the Letters in a fresh new way.

Click here to Livestream

Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life

This is a book I reread every summer. My rereading cycle began because as much as I loved the story–and it is C.S. Lewis’ conversion story, filled with home anecdotes and connections to his past–it is also a philosophy of Joy, or Sehnsucht. I still appreciate Surprised by Joy for its humorous and strangely edited history of Lewis’ life, but the idea of Joy and longing has been slowly seeping into my soul.

Click here to Livestream

A Grief Observed

C.S. Lewis’ memoir of loss at the passing of his wife, Joy Davidman, remains one of the most powerful books of its kind. I have lectured on it and blogged about it, linking my own story of grief with Lewis’ story. Perhaps you can do so too, and these are moments in culture where it is good to take stock of what we believe and who is important to us.

Click here to Livestream

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“Those Who Lived to see Such Times”: Suggested Readings from the Wade Authors during Times of Uncertainty

Here is a thorough and thoughtful blog post from our research friends at the Wade centre in Wheaton. I don’t know how long this particular spell will last, but I do hope we get to get some good reading in!

Off the Shelf

C.S. Lewis at RAF Chaplaincy School, 1944 C.S. Lewis at R.A.F. Chaplaincy School, 1944. Image in the public domain. Original print at R.A.F. Chaplaincy Branch Archive, R.A.F. Museum, Hendon, London.

The world is currently experiencing a unique and unsettling time with the Coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19). As you are aware, most businesses have closures or limited services, cultural and social centers such as libraries and museums (including the Wade Center) are closed to the public, large public events have been cancelled, and individuals are being encouraged to keep their distance for safety in order to prevent the spread of the virus. This isolation is hard, and it has made many fearful. However, our current circumstances are very reminiscent of what five of the seven Wade authors experienced while living in 20th century Britain through some of the most difficult periods in modern history. During this time, they witnessed both world wars, and four of them (Owen Barfield…

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C. S. Lewis and Friends Colloquium Postponed, but Student Paper Contest Continues

Here is a victim of COVID-19 that I talked about on Monday. The 2020 C.S. Lewis & Friends Colloquium at Taylor University has been postponed from June 2020 to June 2021. I am quite disappointed as this was part of a large research and conference sweep, with presentations in London, ON, Uplands, IN, and Wheaton, IL, a great research schedule for the Marion E. Wade Center, and visits with family and friends in New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario, Illinois, and Indiana. However, the decision works in a lot of great ways:

  • The decision to postpone now, 11 weeks before the event, shows strong leadership in the midst of a crisis and allows people near and far to adjust their plans.
  • The conference is rescheduled for Jun 3-6, 2021, which means there is plenty of time to make plans (and to get those papers written!).
  • A postponement also works well for scholars, as our accepted proposals are still accepted, so we can still use this as a CV line (really important for emerging scholars and academics under review for advancement or tenure).
  • And, exciting for students, the Student Writing Competition is still active and open! The deadline is Mar 31st, but I suspect they’ll extend that a bit. This undergraduate essay competition not only awards a prize, but also includes free registration for 2021. It’s a good deal.

A little good news mixed with the not-so-good news. Fortunately, they are trying to re-book all of the plenary speakers lined up for 2020 including Monika Hilder, Jane Chance, Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson, Don King, Diana Glyer, Jason Lepojärvi, and Charles Huttar (note that there are 3 Canadians there!). The theme remains the same (see below), and I have my own presentation abstract attached below if you are interested. I want to talk more about C.S. Lewis and Gender, particularly in moving Monika Hilder’s research forward. And, best, of all, the 2021 conference will be filled with engaging papers, artistic expression, and fellowship at table and abroad.

So many of our great conferences cannot make this kind of accommodation and recreate the entire event for a date further out. If you are of the philanthropic persuasion, consider investing in the Center for the Study of C.S. Lewis and Friends at Taylor University. This is not in their materials about the postponement but my own note of consideration. No doubt this will be crushing to some, but I hope that as we start peeking outside our doors again in the future we can look forward to this great event.

Here is my proposal:

“As High as My Spirit, As Small as My Stature”: C.S. Lewis’ Theology of the Small and Monika Hilder’s Theological Feminism

Canadian literary critic Monika Hilder has provided a model for reading Lewis’ fiction that she calls “theological feminism.” Hilder outlines a consistent “feminine heroic” in Lewis’ fiction that resists, critiques, and transforms classical-masculine models. Some critics claim that Lewis’ medieval-soaked imagistic approach to gender creates damaging exclusivities. Hilder argues that, by contrast, Lewis uses gender metaphors in remarkably gender-inclusive ways.

Though Hilder’s well-reviewed work provides a turning point in Lewis studies, the full impact of her thesis has not yet been exploited. This paper considers the implications of Hilder’s thesis for Lewis’ narrative spiritual theology. In taking feminist critics seriously, we discover the upside-down form of Lewis’ moral thought that emerges from the interrogation of his spiritual theology. This inversive, even subversive element in his thinking offers possibilities for a hopeful, holistic spirituality of the cross evident in his fiction and nonfiction. Combining Hilder’s feminist literary criticism with a careful concentration upon Lewis’ crucicentric theology leads ultimately to what I call Lewis’ “theology of the small”—an ironic spirituality that subverts culturally constructed expectations. Extending past the specific questions of gender Hilder is addressing, I argue that there is an inversive quality inherent to Lewis’ thought that confirms the comedic, eucatastrophic narrative pattern at the centre of his theology.

Beyond what I’m going there to talk about, the conference theme is intriguing, calling upon Dorothy L. Sayers’ 1938 essay, “Are Women Human?” My own proposal is working with the research of one of the keynotes, Monika Hilder, on C.S. Lewis’ theological feminism. Here is the original announcement:

Are WomEn Human (Yet)?
Gender and the Inklings
C. S. Lewis & Friends Colloquium
Taylor University
New Date: Jun 3-6, 2021


JOIN US for our 12th Biennial C. S. Lewis & Friends Colloquium, June 4-7, 2020. Sponsored by Taylor University’s Center for the Study of C. S. Lewis & Friends, the Colloquium features keynote addresses from top scholars in the field, plus hundreds of presentations of both original scholarship and original creative work in paper sessions, workshops, panel discussions, performances, artist exhibitions, and much more. The Colloquium welcomes scholars, teachers, students, life-long learners, fans, seekers, and, as always, new friends to be part of our adventurous company. For the first time in our history, and as part of our mission to identify and support the next generation of friends, the Colloquium will feature a one-day pre-conference especially for “Young Inklings” on June 3.

Of course, this liveliest of conferences will have its usual dramatic performances, board games, late night singalongs, tea and biscuits,  and the return of the fabulous pop-up bookstore by Eighth Day Books. In addition, The 2020 Colloquium will also once again include the opportunity to buy used and rare copies of books by Lewis & Friends authors. Come discover why Devin Brown says “The Taylor University Lewis Colloquium is the premier Inklings conference on the planet, with something for every level of scholar.”

Plenary Speakers: We are happy to announce that our plenary speakers for 2020 include Monika Hilder, Jane Chance, Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson, Don King, Diana Glyer, Jason Lepojärvi, and Charles Huttar.

Conference Theme: The 2020 Colloquium program will highlight the specific theme of “Are WomEn Human (Yet)? Gender and the Inklings.” Over eighty years after Dorothy L. Sayers first posed her startling question (and in honor of the centennial of woman’s suffrage), we think it is high time to acknowledge and celebrate women in the lives and works of authors like C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Dorothy L. Sayers, and George MacDonald, but also to look carefully at their attitudes towards and relationships with women. We also hope to encourage new scholarship on individuals such as Ruth Pitter, Joy Davidman, Mary Neylan, Barbara Reynolds, Louisa and Lilia MacDonald, Ida Gordon, Katherine Farrer, Sister Penelope, Anne Ridler, and others whose contributions have been insufficiently noticed and/or undervalued in the shadow of their more famous friends. In keynote addresses, panel discussions, paper presentations, and creative work of all kinds, we will explore together these topics and many others. As always, papers on more general topics are also encouraged.

Call for Papers: We invite proposals for scholarly papers on any topic related to C. S. Lewis and his circle (broadly defined) – Owen Barfield, G. K. Chesterton, George MacDonald, Dorothy L. Sayers, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and others. We are especially interested in papers on the conference theme, papers that expand the horizons of previous scholarship, and papers from new and emerging scholars. We also invite creative work—poetry, fiction, essay, drama, film, visual art, musical composition—that responds to or is influenced by the conference theme and/or these authors.  Proposals should be 100-200 words in length and should anticipate a twenty-minute presentation time limit.  Creative work must be a complete work, rather than a proposalDeadline for proposals is February 15, 2020. All proposals will be considered on a rotating basis.

Complete information, including submission instructions, will be available soon at our website: library.taylor.edu/cslewis. Direct all proposal-related questions to jsricke@taylor.edu. Please address all other questions to cslewiscenter@taylor.edu.

Young Inklings Pre-Conference: College and university undergraduates are invited to the first-ever “Young Inklings” event on June 3. The complete student registration package will include lodging, meals, and the events of that day, as well as the main conference. Students will have the opportunity to attend special lectures and participate in workshops with leading scholars, as well as to present their own scholarly and creative work. Work submitted for the student writings contests (see below) will be considered for presentation at both the pre-conference and the Colloquium.

Student Essay Contest: Currently enrolled undergraduate students may submit complete critical essays on the work of C. S. Lewis or a related author (see Call for Papers above for further information). Essays should not exceed ten double-spaced pages, excluding Works Cited. Winners will present their papers at the Colloquium and will receive free registration, room, and board. First place will receive a cash award as well. Deadline for student essays is March 31, 2020. For further information and submission instructions, please see our website at library.taylor.edu/cslewis.

Student Creative Writing Contest: Currently enrolled undergraduate students may submit creative writing (poetry, prose, drama, creative non-fiction, graphic novels, screenplays, etc.). Submissions should not exceed ten double-spaced pages (and should be at least five pages). The creative works should show familiarity with and influence by (or response to) the works of C. S. Lewis and his circle (broadly defined). Winners will present their papers at the Colloquium and will receive free registration, room, and board. First place will receive a cash award as well. Deadline for student creative work is March 31, 2020. For further information and submission instructions, please see our website at library.taylor.edu/cslewis.

Keep in Mind: The best way to be aware of Colloquium news and updates is to pay attention to our new website: library.taylor.edu/cslewis. Colloquium announcements and other important information will also be added regularly on our Facebook page (please “like” to make sure you are in the loop): https://www.facebook.com/cslewiscenter/.

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Why the Logic of Prevention will Always Fail for Some: Steady Thoughts in Response to COVID-19

I awoke early this morning, before the alarm, thinking about teaching. Over the weekend, leaders in our largest colleges and universities and in our government have taken steps to limit the spread of COVID-19. It is not yet a state of emergency–though the City of Calgary has joined the United States in this approach–but our local officials are following the guidance of Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam that we need to act now to “flatten the curve” of VOCID-19’s spread. The Michigan Health Blog shows in a simple chart what we mean by that.

This is not charting the novel Coronavirus growth pattern, and there are a lot of nonsense statistics and graphics floating around social media. The viral growth in the United States has been relatively rapid compared with Canada (an exact reverse of SARS in 2003-04, for largely the same reason). As the US data seems to get people excited, let me show the Canadian data visually, as of yesterday:

The chart shows that all 10 provinces in Canada have cases of the virus, but it is not yet in our territories. A tool like the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Dashboard, and some knowledge of Canadian geography (rare, I know), will show a relatively contained and quickly moving virus, mostly in Canada’s urban centres.

But the chart is pretty striking. It is what, I think, media might call “exponential growth,” but it is actually just rapid growth (we’ll address that in a moment). The case is not one for panic either here or in the United States. Because of the nature of this virus and because of social measures, according to these numbers, 80% of known cases are travel-related, and another 10% trackable contacts. It remains a trackable phenomenon. To date, only one person has died in Canada (69 deaths in the US), and only 1/7 have been hospitalized. The fact that 2/3 of known cases are people over 40–the age that travels most for business or pleasure–suggests that it is likely there are some under-40 carriers who have few or no symptoms and a robust recovery rate. People over the age of 70, however, have a 1/10 chance of dying, and that rate nearly doubles for those above 80.

So, are we supposed to panic or not? Charts like the above are meant to lead us to thinks so, though only 1 in 45,000 has contracted the virus thus far (Canada is 1 in 100,000, the US 1 in 90,000).

No, we aren’t supposed to panic.

Granted, I am biased. In a sermon I preached yesterday–perhaps the last live service we’ll get to have for a while (you can see it here)–I argued that we should not be afraid. We do not know if this is the end of civilization, or the last we’ll see of some friends or family. We don’t know if it is something we’ll ride hard for a period and recover from, or if all this investment of time and money will have been a waste. We are guaranteed nothing in his life except that, from a Christian perspective, our hope is rooted in something deeper than a current crisis. We invest heavily in this world, but we don’t root our hopes here.

As the single most repeated prohibition in the Bible is “Fear Not!”, I am theologically biased against panic and fear-based response. But I can waver–mostly out of a curious mind that can imagine a million scenarios. In fact, I’d love to have time to write them out in stories, but all these preparations have me inundated with work!

I believe, though, that we need not panic.

Granted this, I am part of a counter-panic resistance force that comes to this front line against fear for many different reasons. As much as I want to tell people to “steady on” and “Fear Not!” in these days, there is something disturbing about the other side of things that we have to address.

Though related, I’m not going to talk about Media Hyperbole–the deep, rich, steady, “exponential growth” voice of panic at local and national levels. An interesting moment in the US was when the main editorial voices at Fox News went out of step with the White House to talk about the emergent virus. It is true that the response of the United States was slow, which comes out of a large, unwieldy system, the realpolitik of American life, and the leadership capabilities of the current government. But when Fox was faced with a choice between ideological friendship or a chance to incite panic, it’s not terribly surprising it chose the latter. That is the nature of media in our moment, and Fox is a steadier hand than some right now.

Also related, but also too big to talk about is our cultural addiction to Conspiracy Thinking. Americans are particularly good at this, it seems–though it might be just that American media dominates our various screens. There remains a weird party-line split in the US, so that Democrats are more concerned about COVID-19 than Republicans. This largely comes down to who you trust, and Republicans are more likely to trust this White House than Democrats (though there is shakiness in this number). Intriguingly, an Economist/You Gov poll shows that 13% of Americans thought on Mar 8-10 that the Coronovirus was a hoax–and 25% more Americans hesitate, saying that it’s probably not a hoax.

It might appear that I’m making a left-right distinction: left-leaning minds are inviting panic and distrust in government, while right-leaning minds flirt with conspiracy. That might be the case now, but it was the precise reverse during the H1Ni panic of 2009 (which happened during a recession rather than causing one). The conspiracy theory survey data shows that this view is only partly correlated ideologically, and I also think it’s the case that these views will level out–though YouGov interprets the data to show that the Conspiracy Theory train continues with a new focus.

Instead of talking about either of these social realities, I want to come to the heart of the problem for those of us who are more cautious about over-caution.

Honestly, I am as disturbed by the public panic as I am by the conspiracy theories–though conspiracy theorists we will always have among us, someone once said. It is specifically not the case that systematic panic and over-correction by governments–particularly those slow to act initially–will not have an effect on people. Let me say it positively:

Bad leadership that creates undue restrictions will hurt people who are vulnerable.

Specifically, who is going to be economically okay during social distancing? People with white-collar jobs, stable businesses where they control their own destiny, and those in essential services who are generally well paid, if underpaid. And who is going to lose their jobs and maybe their livelihood? People who are already poor, already making low wages, already untrained for vocational flexibility, and those with businesses either on the edge of trouble or unduly affected by quarantinism (like those in the travel and hospitality sectors, support workers for schools, daycare workers, etc.).

There is a cost to panic, but it is a cost borne by people who can’t afford to panic-buy toilet paper or hole up in tech-connected, Laz-Y-Boy bunkers.

I think government reactions in Canada and the US are flirting with this kind of overcorrection, with infection rates still in the 1/100,000 rate and with a mortality rate of 2.3-3.4% (though with an infection rate of double normal flu). Moreover, in a democracy, it always pays for elected officials to focus on the middle and upper classes.

However, I might be wrong in my hesitation to isolate, and I am certainly not the best person to determine those things. My schools have closed and I will work to move my teaching online. We probably won’t have a church gathering for a while, and I will do whatever it takes to help. I can work at home and help out as a citizen in the ways that present themselves. It will be sad to do so, but if required I will cancel my research and conference trips this spring. If I am told that I cannot leave the house to plant my garden in the spring, I may find ways to resist if it appears to be folly. But, spring is a long ways away, and I am pleased to comply as much as possible.

Partly, this is because I am neither at risk for the virus (those 60+) nor at risk for economic hardship because of social isolation (I am underpaid whether I work in an office or at home). And another part of me wants to be a good neighbour, a steady head and hand during a time of crisis.

At a deeper level, though, my logic for complying with social isolation measures is very simple.

If we fail to act and this contagion becomes a plague, we will know that we failed to act in time and in the right ways. If our response measures are weak, or if the novel coronavirus evolves (they have a tendency to do this) and mortality or infection rates increase, or if people break the quarantine walls and allow the virus to jump locations, then people will die. When that happens, we will know that we have done too little.

But here’s the thing: When it comes to reasonable restrictions of social movement, we can never know if we have done too much.

Well, someone might know, and government forces can go too far in restrictions. But a virus is not like preparing for a storm that never arrives or resisting an army that fails to break the wall.

If our measures fail, there will be blame to go around.

But if all the governmental and societal measures succeed in stopping the virus, if we bend the curve, if this virus fizzles out into nonexistence or sleeps until a cure arrives, then for conspiracy theorists or virus-deniers or anti-whatever-government-is-in-power or plain old common sense cautionists like myself, we can never make a case for the governments’ social isolation measures. C.S. Lewis said it himself decades ago,

“theory which could never by any experience be falsified can for that reason hardly be verified” (Letters to Malcolm 50).

This is the double-edged sword of cautionary measures.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” my grandmother used to say. But for all our charts and figures and data, knowing what would have happened if is beyond human ken, and remains in the realm of folk wisdom. “What would have happened” is a universe outside of human contact, into which no wormhole currently exists.

This is why, then, I will do everything I can to support the COVID-19 resistance movement. This means saying “no” to media panic and conspiracy theory thinking–both of which cut indiscriminately with the double-edged sword of evidence as C.S. Lewis called it out. This means doing my best to present a positive if somewhat cynical social media presence. This means giving my students the best possible experience in the weeks that are left in the semester. And this means pitching in where I can to help as help is needed.

It isn’t often a rogue professor-theologian-writer-pastor-data-loving cynic can be helpful to society. But I can call for steadiness and I can speak for peace. I can preach against fear and tweet against conspiracy. I can’t turn a jack and I can’t lay a track, but I can use a pick and shovel–really, most anything they ask me to do.

And, ultimately, I can resist the resisters for the sake of others. And I hope you do too.

Don’t forget to wash your hands! And if you are stuck at home, I have 1,000+ blog posts where I write about faith, fantasy, and fiction from the perspective of a rogue professor-theologian-writer-pastor-data-loving cynic.

And teachers can check out this discussion about online teaching, hosted tonight!


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Announcement: Teaching Engaging Classes Online: A Tutorial and Discussion (by Signum University)

A lot of teachers and professors are suddenly finding themselves in the position of moving to a fully online teaching schedule as colleges, universities, and even some school districts shut down in response to the coronavirus. As a result, there are a lot of questions — and perhaps a little bit of anxiety — about how to be an effective, engaging instructor in a virtual learning environment.

On Monday, March 16, 2020, at 9 pm ET, Signum University Founder and President Dr. Corey Olsen will present a live tutorial and discussion on how to teach an engaging online class. This session will draw on more than a decade of Dr. Olsen’s experience as an online educator, which includes:

This tutorial and discussion will also serve as an example as well, with participants able to join and ask questions, offer comments, and otherwise engage. The session will be recorded and posted to Signum’s YouTube channel for those who cannot attend live.

Register for the Online Teaching Tutorial

There are two ways you can join the live session:

  • Signum Twitch channel (preferred) – Anyone can view the livestream simply by visiting Signum’s Twitch channel. While you do not need to register, we recommend registering and subscribing (for free!) to Signum’s channel to receive an announcement when the livestream begins.
  • GoToWebinar classroom – Note that participation will be limited to the first 100 people to join. Registrants will receive a reminder by email approximately 1 hour before the broadcast begins.

Dr. Olsen will view and respond to questions and comments from both of these participation channels.

The session will be taped for later viewing.

Get Online Teaching Tips from Signum Faculty

In addition to Dr. Olsen’s tutorial, we recently published a blog post that includes a number of great tips and advice about teaching online from Signum faculty. Click here.

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