Adam Mattern on C.S. Lewis’ Science Fiction (Announcement)

Join us tomorrow, Thursday, March 14, at 6pm ET for a Thesis Theater with recent Signum University MA graduate Adam Mattern, who will present his thesis titled “An Image of the Discarded: C. S. Lewis’s Use of the Medieval Model in His Planetary Fiction.” The conversation will be facilitated by Brenton Dickieson (that’s me), and special guest Lewis scholar, Dr. David Downing, director of the Wade Center at Wheaton College, will join to interview Adam.

Sometime in late 1936 or early 1937, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien agreed to write science fiction stories, since what was being published at the time included too little of what they enjoyed. Within Lewis’s science fiction series, he incorporated the Medieval Model (as described in his The Discarded Image) to construct the cosmos of his trilogy and populate his extraterrestrial worlds of Malacandra and Perelandra. With an eye on Lewis’s history with the genre and his approach to writing fiction, this paper explores why Lewis patterned his cosmos after the Medieval Model and how he used medieval literature to inspire a feeling of Sehnsucht or Joy, a critical component of his fiction. His personal experiences with Sehnsucht informed Lewis’s approach to creating a sense of Other by drawing on spiritual elements, which he believed to be an analog of the type of alien worlds that science fiction readers longed to visit. It was through the Medieval Model and the experience of other worlds that Lewis’s series critiqued and subverted what he saw as the growing misapplication of specific scientific principles to ethics, which had become popular in other science fiction stories of the time.

Adam Mattern works for Cisco Talos as a team lead for a group that conducts web traffic analysis for a web filtering product. He lives in Bloomington, Indiana, with his wife as she completes her Ph.D. in Medical Anthropology. He started with Signum University with the Tolkien and the Epic class and discovered Medieval Literature through reading about Tolkien and Lewis’s friendship and their fiction. Now finished with his M.A., he plans to get back into woodworking, writing, and attempting to surmount a reading list that has only been bolstered by his time at Signum.

To register, click here:

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David Bentley Hart’s Prophetic New Testament Translation and America’s Heresies

The New Testament: A TranslationThe New Testament: A Translation by David Bentley Hart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is a little awkward to provide a star-rating for a Bible, but I am thinking here of the translation by David Bentley Hart. I read this translation quickly, on an almost daily basis in short readings over the last 3 months. I did not do any extra digging, except for a few moments where I ran to the Greek text to see if what Hart was doing with the text was fair. I don’t share Hart’s religious perspective, and I certainly don’t share his social class–both of these are essential to his translation–but this is largely how I would do a literal Greek translation if I had to.

Indeed, when I started reading the translation I got an eerie feeling that Hart was looking over my shoulder. His translations sound like my teaching notes, the ad hoc and planned translations I do for students when teaching Greek or upper levels of New Testament classes. In that way, this is an exciting and useful translation to read.

Now that Hart has done it, I know that it would have been folly for me to spend five years producing a translation like this. Not that I am not grateful, but my skills and desires really lie elsewhere. I would like to do a translation like what Robert Alter has done of the Old Testament, though that comes with a life of letters, and I am still a young thing.

But there is this other thing that holds me back from doing what Hart has done.

Truthfully, a translation like this can only ever be two things connected as one: 1) an exegetical aid to smart readers, leaders, teachers, and pastors, with 2) a prophetic edge. So translating doulos as “slave” rather than slave or servant depending on context, or transliterating logos or cosmos are moves that make us stop short in our reading. They challenge our assumptions, help us recontextualize the passage, and help us think more deeply about the integrative nature of the text. Too often we forget or are ignorant of the social moments in the New Testament, embedded in a particular worldview that is translated in our English versions but invisible to us as untrained readers.

Hart’s translation, with his helpful footnotes and supporting essays, is a brilliant text for providing that prophetic edge. But we cannot pretend that “slave” is more accurate than “servant” in translating doulos, or that cosmos is actually more accurate in English than “world.” These are choices we make. And this is where Hart’s value really shines forth. Every translation is an exegetical school, and so his version next to your favourite go-to translation (combined, I hope, with the King James for literary merit and the original text if you can) makes for a conversation that hopefully helps us rethink our walking assumptions in Bible reading.

In particular, although Hart and I have different beliefs and have really different social spaces, we are both concerned about one of America’s real Christian heresy, which is a subliminal commitment to Mammon–though I suppose we call it “security” or “blessing”–rather than the radical transformation of the Christ-life.

Jesus said very specifically that we are not to save money for the future. James goes further. I have never heard a sermon that took this passage seriously in an English, Canadian, Japanese, or American pulpit (and I can’t even recall reading a chapter about it in a Christian book, though I’m sure it’s there somewhere). The Prosperity Gospel is an American heresy, but that is partly important because it is the cartoonish, exaggerated version of what North American Christians have brought into their own souls. Even in the realm of politics, North American Christians have traded economics for integrity, and believe their leaders to be economic managers rather than formers of culture.

By contrast, in American church life there is a fascination with sex and sexuality–topics Christ hardly ever addressed, though he lived them as humans do. To use another cartoonish heresy as an example, North American evangelicalism has had an intensive, generation-long fascination with “purity” conversations about sex. This despite the fact that Christ’s biggest criticism of his fellow Jews was of their fascination with purity. More than that, there is not a single unambiguous passage in the New Testament that says “don’t have sex before you are married.” And yet millions of young people have had this message dominate youth conferences, Sunday School classes, youth groups, devotional literature, and other ways we do pulpits and pamphlets today.

This is what we Christians have traded for God’s grace and the cosmic transformation of the cross: an attention to young people’s bodies, especially to girls, in a way that is pedophilic at worst and perverse and imbalanced at best. Anyone who claims that evangelicals follow a literal reading of Scripture betrays great ignorance. It is no wonder that young people leave the church in staggering numbers. They are right to reject idolatry and they prefer civility to barbarism. And we North American church leaders will be held accountable for what they have lost.

Meanwhile, as the richest culture in all history remains terrified that it will lose a tiny bit of its financial stature, the world inside and outside the church and all through the world looks on, longing for rice in their bowls, spiritual bread in their hearts, and eucharistic transformation of their communities. Frankly, I think we deserve these ridiculous leaders, Trump and Trudeau. They are the messages writ large on the canvas of world history that which are the secrets of our own heresies.

But this is a book review, and that’s precisely the point. I don’t know how to translate as I do in the classroom without providing what is lacking in our culture. The problem with that is that I too am lacking. In the words that close Hart’s translation:

If anyone should add to them [this book’s prophecies], God will add to him the calamities that have been written about in this book. And if anyone takes away this prophecy’s book, God will take away his share from the tree of life and from the holy city that are written about in this book.

Frankly, I am simply not good enough to provide this prophetic self-critique embedded in words of Scripture. As a writer or a preacher I can discern these lines, but given my own heart and the selective and perverse literalism of many committed Anglo-American Christians, this would be a grave error.

So I leave this job to David Bentley Hart.

But as readers, we must recognize what this translation does. It is a tool for us, as are all English translations, and we read it as part of the study that forms our lives and (hopefully, God willing) transforms our church into the likeness of Christ, who gives up all worldly power and submits to the cross in order to lay down his life. As so we do the same.

If you are interested in this book, you should look at reviews that are more careful and detailed. This is merely a teaser. For example, you can read N.T. Wright’s extensive criticism at The Christian Century and David Bentley Hart’s response on Fr. Aiden Kimel’s blog. While I have profound respect for Wright, a fellow that has shaped me radically, I think he may miss the overall sense of what this translation is meant to do. As a prophetic literalized translation it works really well, and should be read with nothing more in mind.

Of course, I would quibble in 200 places in the text translation. I think that is expected in a translation like this. I wish the text was a bit more readable, but I think that reminds us of the role of this translation as a prophetic text not a primary one. I actually wish I had a critical edition of this text with twice as many footnotes, like a study Bible. Perhaps that will come. But overall, this is a pleasing result from a book that is meant to make us feel uncomfortable—both in its original Greek form and in this American English edition.

View all my reviews

Note: I have chosen not to note the importance of this translation for Anglo-American Orthodox believers, or Hart’s desire to bend translation back from Augustinian traditions (like Roman Catholicism and Protestantism). If people want my masters thesis, where I translate in a similar way (using “Judaist” instead of choosing Jew or Judean as translators including Hart do), send me an email: junkola [at] gmail [dot] com. It also has benzodiazepinic properties for those struggling with insomnia.

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TOLKIEN Official Trailer: Tentative Hope

I’m actually starting to get excited about this. Coming from a place of deep skepticism, I am a bit of a late adopter to the idea of this film. Or most any biopic, actually, if I know the main characters. If I know nothing about the historical figure, I tend to love beautifully made biopics. I feel good about living in blissful ignorance of the great story in front of me. It’s quite a strong decade for these films, particularly those set in WWII.

But I do know something about J.R.R. Tolkien. I am not an expert in his biography, but I feel a pretty solid sense of the man, an image in my mind of his character, his habits, his dreams, and some of the hurts and tensions in his life. So over the last few years, I have winced at each step of this Tolkien biopic journey, worrying that it would be terrible.

I began to turn with some hope toward the film with the teaser trailer a few weeks ago. It looked professional and tight with some nice imagery. Strong production does not make for a well-researched biography, but I do like a well-made film. What the teaser suggested and what this new trailer confirms for me, is that the film is largely about Tolkien’s imaginative formation in the context of friendship (the TCBS), war, and love. I’m starting to think this might work.

The cast looks compelling–we must now admit that Edith and John Ronald Tolkien are the best-looking of all the Inklings families–and the filmmakers clearly have a good sense of set direction, costume, and character interaction. The close-up scenes are great, and the war scenes look competent. We will see. Perhaps the least elegant bits of what we’ve seen thus far are the quick shots of Tolkien’s imaginative world.

And then there is this:

They had to know that Tolkien nerds were going to screenshot this bit. Hardly subtle, the shot suggests a link between war and Tolkien’s work. The link is important, and a great way to prepare for this film is to read John Garth‘s Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth. I am intrigued to see how they interpret the link between story, war, language, and Tolkien’s building vocation as a mythmaker. But I am a bit worried about whether they really understand fantasy and can interpret it for us on film.

At the end of the day, I will be pleased if this is a strong story about friendship. I will find my way to the theatre, I’m sure. And as the original Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings films are both important to me and a little disturbing in some ways, I may never be satisfied. Still, this is my note of tentative hope!

TOLKIEN explores the formative years of the orphaned author as he finds friendship, love and artistic inspiration among a group of fellow outcasts at school. This takes him into the outbreak of World War I, which threatens to tear the “fellowship” apart. All of these experiences would inspire Tolkien to write his famous Middle-Earth novels.

Only In Theaters May 10, 2019

Posted in Fictional Worlds, News & Links | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 24 Comments

Literary Diversity and the Bottomless C.S. Lewis: A Unique Journey in Books

In George Sayer‘s compelling biography of C.S. Lewis, Sayer recalls the first time he met his future tutor and friend. Before and after his first meeting, Sayer found himself chatting with an unknown professor, later to be revealed as J.R.R. Tolkien. When Sayer described how his  first meeting went, Tolkien remarked:

“You’ll never get to the bottom of him” (Jack, xx).

This bottomless Lewis creates some interesting puzzles for biographers, but it is also a neat phenomenon for readers. I don’t know how you tumbled into Lewis. For me, I had read Narnian fairy tales as a child, and had used sections from Lewis’ most popular apologetics, Mere Christianity, as a young teacher, but hadn’t seriously wrestled with it. When my wife and I immigrated to Japan, we found ourselves inheriting an advanced English class that had The Great Divorce as the main text for the year.

Reading that book, a Dante-like dream vision, and reading it with people from another culture as we looked at it word-by-word, line-by-line, is probably an unusual way for an adult encounter with Lewis. Yet the experience invited me deeper into his world of books over the next few years. I turned seriously to the apologetics books, especially Mere Christianity and The Problem of Pain, as a professor of religious studies in the hot, heady new atheist days of the last decade. The Ransom Trilogy was a great delight, rousting a long-lost love of classic sci-fi. I found myself reading Letters to An American Lady and Of Other Worlds at the beach, and was soon tumbling through his essays. And, just before I decided to do a Ph.D. on C.S. Lewis, I found myself peculiarly attracted to A Grief Observed, mostly for its intensely personal logic.

Like Stephen Fry‘s “linguistic elasticity,” my journey into C.S. Lewis’ literary career is such that I can be certain that nobody has ever done it that way before in the history of communication. Or even in Dorset. My reading experience is a unique child born of a unique mother.

Where does this unique pathmaking in Lewis’ literary life come from?

No doubt it comes partly from our own wandering along the pathways of literature. But we must admit that it also comes from this bottomless C.S. Lewis himself. Lewis’ corpus is diverse, developmental, and, on the surface, apparently disparate, with extent work that includes literary history, literary criticism, theory, philology, lecture, debate, letter, diary, memoir, anthology, festschrift editing, literary commentary, epistolary fiction, dream vision, philosophical novella, Christian teaching, sermon, biblical commentary, Wellsian sf, neo-Miltonian space fantasy, proto-Orwellian dystopia, myth retelling, fairy-tale, narrative and lyric poetry, apologetics, popular philosophical theology, and cultural criticism—and this list itself is a narrow description of Lewis’ play in form, idea, and story.

CS Lewis 1st Editions Books Photo by Lancia Smith

Photo by Lancia Smith

Kath Filmer once suggested that “every novel in his oeuvre was a ‘radical departure’ for Lewis” (The Fiction of C.S. Lewis, 112). If we change “novel” to “book” and allow Narnia to sit as a single experiment, she is on to something. Even in Narnia, which is a tightly written septet of children’s fantasy patterned after fairy tales, each one has a distinctive atmosphere and a unique adventure. The plotline of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Horse and His Boy follows fairly typical adventure stories and will be emulated many times over in the half-century to follow. I’m not certain that something like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or The Last Battle has ever existed before, and may never be approximated again.

What is the reason for this greatly varied writing career?

There are many answers, I suppose, but I kind of want to resist an answer that might pin Lewis down. Lewis loved diversity, and the bookshelf he has donated to future readers is a dramatic example of someone who took joy in playing with his pen. He was compelled to write because of requests from people, because he saw a problem or possiblity in culture around him, because of images that popped into his head, and because of storylines that worked through him over years and decades. I think any of us who are writers know why he wrote so much (hint: it isn’t because of missing a joint in his thumb). But why did he write so many different kinds of things?

In the end, I think that Lewis wrote with such vigorous and beautiful diversity because he thought it was fun.

Not a terribly academic answer from a Lewis scholar, I know, but I think we need look no further. And I think that sense of fun and enjoyment of many different kinds of stories and books started early for Lewis. George Sayer looked through the Lewis Papers and discovered that:

“Jack [Lewis] had begun to make up stories before he could write, with his father acting as amanuensis…. By the age of ten, he had acquired the habit of writing. He spent some time every day and most of his time on rainy days in the attic writing and illustrating books. He produced a bibliography, a “list of my books,” seven items, including a novel, “Man Against Man,” a history called “The Relief of Murry,” and “My Life” (a journal)” (Jack, 49, 51-2).

There we see it: stories, illustrations, a novel, a history, a journal that looks like a prepubescent attempt at a memoir. The collection called Boxen is Lewis’ childhood collaboration with his brother and includes a play (a comedy), vignettes, sketches, copious histories, “scenes from Boxonian city life,” and Encylopedia Boxonia with lists and timelines–all mapped and diagrammed and beautifully illustrated. The only thing missing from that collection is fantasy and poetry, the two genres Lewis would play with as a teenager (in The Quest of Bleheris and Loki Bound) when he wasn’t writing lyric poetry that would become his first book, Spirits in Bondage.

Following his poem collection, he published a narrative dystopic poem (Dymer), started a realistic novel, began writing reviews and literary essays, started his first literary history (The Allegory of Love), and penned the best of his poems that appeared in The Pilgrim’s Regress. All of this, and perhaps two or three narrative poems, were before his conversion to Christianity in 1931–a conversion that seems to have deepened Lewis’ worldview and broadened his literary vision.

This is C.S. Lewis’ literary playground. This habit for genre diversity and story play began in childhood and continued throughout his life. My journey into his books is no doubt different than yours, but that is the fun of it, I think. In this case, I think Tolkien is right: you’ll never reach the bottom of C.S. Lewis.

Posted in On Writing, Thoughtful Essays | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

And The Greatest of These…: A Review of C.S. Lewis’ Four Loves

This year 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 relatively uncontroversial review is my 5th most popular C.S. Lewis post ever. I have read The Four Loves a few times since I first made this post back in 2012. I am now far more aware of the flaws in this book, as well as some of the material that horrifies people. But I am also more and more keenly aware of how prophetic this book is, calling us to a certain character of love and showing where that can go wrong. I think of North American Christians read this book faithfully and tried to live in the world this way, our entire culture would be transformed. Just like the preacher who preached the same sermon several times defended his repetition by the lives of his congregation, so my church, evangelicals, needs to root our public lives in transformative love. So I post again of my first experience reading The Four Loves back in 2011.

The Four Loves is one of C.S. Lewis’ last Christian books. Of his popular nonfiction, this is the book that is closest to his field of study. His Allegory of Love (1936) was the most popular of his work in literary criticism and was a kind of break-out book for him. The Four Loves is also a book that I haven’t even pretended to read before. In a lecture for my “Myths of Love, Sex and Marriage” class in Fall 2010 I kept stumbling across references to this book in footnotes and weblinks. I am doing the same lecture again this Fall, so I thought it would be a great opportunity to finally read this famous book.

Lewis explores the topic of love by looking at the four ancient Greek words for love: eros (romantic love), storge (affection), philia (friendship), agape (charity). After separating love into two categories—Need-love, where something is received; Gift-love, its altruistic opposite—Lewis chooses not to begin at the top of the mountain by exploring the idea of the love of God, but starts at the base and works upwards. He first explores the idea of liking, fondness for pets and a love of nature and country. When he has set out his definitions and has explored the terrain in the foothills of love, he dedicates a chapter each for navigating the Greek loves. The summit, for Lewis, is God’s love, which animates and perfects all other loves.

Lewis deals first with Affection, from the Greek storge (two syllables, a hard g). In the Greek context, Affection—except for Eros, he hardly ever uses the Greek words in the book—is used most of familial love. It can be the Gift-love of a mother to a child, or the Need-love of a little girl to her daddy. We see this love between a man and his dog, or even, when the cat condescends, between a humble dog and the household cat.

Affection is a modest, inclusive love. One does not typically select to whom we lend our Affection. We don’t pick our family, after all. But more than that, we don’t choose who we like based on beauty or interests or goals. We find a lover from those we are attracted to, and we develop our deep friendships with those who can walk beside us in a common interest, but Affection doesn’t work that way. A teenager’s Affection for a wrinkled old neighbour or an awe-tinged smile at the class clown are not selective: they fall to us, or emerge out of us. I can remember when I was falling in love, or when my great friendships developed, but I can’t remember when I became so curious about the octogenarian nun from up the street.

In this way, Affection is not exactly a completely separate love, but works in all our loves—what would friendship or erotic love be without affection? And unlike the other loves, Affection lives quietly in our existence, slinking through our lives without notice. Erotic love could not stand this—can you imagine how a wife would feel if her husband was embarrassed when they accidentally brushed hands in public?—and friendship requires some moments of pause and reflection. Lewis captures the difference of Affection well:

It [affection] would not be affection if it was loudly and frequently expressed; to produce it in public is like getting your household furniture out for a move. It did very well in its place, but it looks shabby or tawdry or grotesque in the sunshine. Affection almost slinks or seeps through our lives. It lives with humble, un-dress, private things; soft slippers, old clothes, old jokes, the thump of a sleepy dog’s tail on the kitchen floor, the sound of a sewing-machine, a gollywog left on the lawn. (56-57)

I’m not sure what a gollywog is, but we can see the mundane nature of Affection; at the same time, we can see its deep value.

I have talked about Affection in a longer way because it is less recognized or understood in our world. When was the last time you heard a pop song that captures the Affection we see described here? Lewis goes on to describe Friendship, Greek philia for brotherly love or a sense of sisterhood, and Erotic Love. While “we picture lovers face to face” in eye-locked embrace, we imagine friends walking “side by side; their eyes look ahead” (98). Lewis places great value on friendship. Look at the Narnia series. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader Eustace is saved from his liberal school and its class-based bully system by a warm circle of friends. Eustace Scrubbs and Jill Pole become deep friends in The Silver Chair, just as we see the lock of friendship with Shasta and Aravis in The Horse and His Boy. Likewise, Lewis surrounded himself with a handful of friends who could challenge and encourage him.

A great example is the deep friendship that developed between J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis within the literary circle called the Inklings—a kind of high-end back-of-the-pub writing group. Lewis and “Tollers”—as he was called by “Jack” Lewis—loved the same things, particularly the great Northern myths and worlds of fantasy. Tolkien, the older man, helped Lewis see the value of myth, how it shares deep truths of the world. Ultimately Tolkien showed Lewis the last intellectual steps he needed to take in his conversion.

The relationship, however, was not a one-way experience of a mentor and his prodigy. When Tolkien was self-consciously working on a little children’s story, Lewis saw its potential and encouraged Tolkien to have it published. By himself, Tolkien may never have had the courage to seek out a publisher—he was an extreme perfectionist and always shy about his work. The little children’s story was The Hobbit, and set the stage for the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the entire Silmarillion mythology. As we see in Lewis’ own life, Friendship Love is of great importance.

Of the chapters, Lewis’ treatment of Eros is by far the most interesting, but also the obscure. Much of his critique is within a context that has changed pretty dramatically. He is struggling against a population that has a strange, conservative propriety about Eros on the one hand, but almost worships it in a secret sexual license on the other. There are some points of explanation and critique that are relevant to us. For example, he distinguishes between Eros, the love of the beloved, and Venus, the act of sex. And he really hits the nail on the head when he talks about the limitation of Eros:

In reality, however, Eros, having made his gigantic promise and shown you in glimpses what its performance would be like, has “done his stuff”. He, like a godparent, makes the vows; it is we who must keep them. It is we who must labour to bring our daily life into even closer accordance with what the glimpses have revealed. We must do the works of Eros when Eros is not present. This all good lovers know, though those who are not reflective or articulate will be able to express it only in a few conventional phrases about “taking the rough along with the smooth”, not “expecting too much”, having “a little common sense”, and the  like. And all good Christian lovers know that this programme; modest as it sounds, will not be carried out except by humility, charity and divine grace; that it is indeed the whole Christian life seen from one particular angle. (159-160)

By way of critique, I would have liked to see Lewis spend more time in Plato’s understanding of Eros—he passes it briefly, as if we all know it already—and struggle with Augustine’s argument that our love of God is best captured in Eros: it is Eros that sees the Beloved as Other, and then worships and serves the other. But his strength is showing the limitations of each of these loves: Affection, Friendship, and Eros.

Thus Eros, like the other loves, but more strikingly because of his strength, sweetness, terror and high port, reveals his true status. He cannot of himself be what, nevertheless, he must be if he is to remain Eros. He needs help; therefore needs to be ruled. The god dies or becomes a demon unless he obeys God. (160)

It is in the fourth love that we meet God Love that subdues and completes and lifts up all the other loves. North American Christians may know the Greek word for this love as agape (three syllables, a hard g). Lewis, however, uses the old English word “Charity,” which is the translation of the love poem in 1 Corinthians 13 in the King James:

Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, 5Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; 6Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;
Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
Charity never faileth

I like the NIV better, but Charity for Lewis and Shakespeare’s generation is far beyond what we call charity—a helping hand of pity and piety. Charity is Agape, that deep, unconditional Gift-love that God has for us and that completes all the other loves.

His argument is far more complicated than I have presented here. Actually, it is a pretty complex book, a 200-page argument, an inch-by-inch trek to a summit that is obscured by a bright setting sun. We know that at the end of the book we haven’t quite grasped Love fully. But we do understand some key things. There is no safety in love; it is risk. And only in hell can we escape it. And, as always in Lewis, it is about the will. Agape love demands that we give our will to God, for we cannot serve two masters without hating one of them. We do not give our will to God because he needs it—God needs nothing, so his love for us is entirely for us: we are God’s beloved. And in God’s great Love, we will be given back the “us” that we had given to God, so that in abandoning our will in God’s Love, we gain so much more of who we are.

This is a good book. The writing is evocative; Lewis is knowledgeable, a guide for the mountain path, and he is brief. But I don’t think this is his best book—or at least not the one most likely to endure. Despite the fact that this edition comes after he has fallen in love and experienced the loss of that love, it still has a detached tone. Moreover, some of the monsters he slays in the journey no longer haunt our world, so it is hard sometimes to know precisely what the implications of his thought are.

Most of all, I miss his stories, especially his caricatures. He has a couple of famous ones: Dr. Quartz, the professor who “collected” students, but dropped them if they challenged his ideas in any way (surely Prof. Horace Slughorn in Harry Potter is based on him) and Mrs. Fidget, who loves her family to pieces—almost literally (I’ve told her alter-ego’s story in my review of The Great Divorce). But for the most part, stories are kept to a minimum. The effect, for me, is that we get a scent of the sea on the wind, but we never fully see its depths.

I read the book with an eye to detail, taking 11 pages of notes on a 200-page book, so perhaps I am a little too critical. Stepping back for a moment, I can see the value of this book in teaching us about love that we might not recognize in our lives. It also offers a critique of love in our culture, which I can’t help but think is profoundly broken. And, most of all, for the believer, we see the full impact of the phrase, “God is Love” (1 John 4:8), the Ultimate Love of all.

Note: for a fuller explanation of the four Greek loves and this book in a Christian context, see Earl Palmer’s talk on the Kindlings podcast here. He really is an engaging speaker–I got to interview him once a few years ago–and he draws much more out of the book than I have been able to here. He also points out that agape was hardly used in the Greek world outside of Judaism and Christianity. I have some doubts but I think it is clear that Christianity did deepen and transform that word in the Greek world.

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Terry Lindvall’s Heavy Treatment of a Light Topic: A Review of Surprised by Laughter

Surprised by Laughter Revised & Updated: The Comic World of C.S. LewisSurprised by Laughter Revised & Updated: The Comic World of C.S. Lewis by Terry Lindvall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The word “levity” has two main definitions that we walk around with: a kind of frivolity and something that lacks weight. In an irony that would make the author of The Light Princess proud (George MacDonald), Terry Lindvall’s book on C.S. Lewis and humour is one of the weightiest on my bookshelf. My edition has 455 pages, not including notes and indices. Surprised by Laughter: The Comic World of C.S. Lewis may be about levity, and it is written in a light, joyous, but not frivolous manner, but it is a book with significant gravity.

Quite frankly, it is one of the most serious books on comedy that I have ever read. Lindvall categorically works through literally (and literarily) hundreds of humour references in Lewis‘ catalogue. Called “Heavy Lewis” in his early years in Oxford, Lewis makes a deft conversation partner with some heft on issues of hilarity. Not only is he a mirthful writer, dashing his poetry, academic writing, Christian apologetics, and fantasy with generous helpings of wit and hilarity, but Lewis composed formal satire, wrote satirically in various places, evaluated humour in his literary criticism, included something like a theory of humour in his work, and shaped his entire spiritual life around the concept of Joy. Lewis is precisely the right figure for a study on levity of this density.

Beyond those reasons though, there are two deeper ones that Lindvall draws out and one that I would like to add.

First, Lewis’ literary mentors were George MacDonald and G.K. Chesterton. While both were funny writers, Chesterton was a genius of wit, irony, and repartee. Along with some contemporary theory of humour, Chesterton structures Lindvall’s assessment of Lewis’ comedic vision. Lindvall not only emphasized for me the deeply ironical, satirical, and evaluative nature of Chesterton’s prose, but showed how Lewis takes that voice and transforms it into his own. More attention is needed, I think, to Chesterton’s shaping of Lewis’ mind at the deepest levels.

Second, Lewis said of himself that “There’s no sound I like better than adult male laughter.” Lindvall anchors his substantial study of Lewisian buoyancy in Lewis’ life–his life of light and darkness growing up, the self-deprecating nature of his humour, Lewis’ life in love and friendship, Lewis’ profile as a public figure, and his peculiar theory of Joy. Lindvall models how a study can integrate life and letters in productive ways.

To these two points I would add a third–something that is not drawn out by Lindvall but that I think is there, lurking in the text. All of Lewis’ spiritual perspective, I would argue, is shaped in comedic form. Comedy follows a U shape: the descent of downward luck or fortune or adventure and the sudden turn to goodness or light or hope. Lewis’ conversion is one of these turns, of course, but Lewis’ entire perspective is patterned after the great U-shaped comedy of all history: the Christ event, where God takes the form of humanity, even that of a slave, and dies upon the cross so that the entire wheel of history turns in Christ’s resurrection and return to heaven. That is Lewis’ pattern, and thus we see in almost everything Lewis ever wrote an ironical, comedic, eucatastrophic, U-shaped perspective that is able to hold together light and darkness, levity and gravity, a real look at the world and a wild abandon to hope.

Professor Terry Lindvall, Virginia Wesleyan University

Critically-speaking I loved the prose in this book, but it is a bit much overall. I think the text could be shorter, though we now have a dense tome of “data” and “analysis” as we do our further work. I took two years to read this book because, frankly, I could only read so much at a time. It is a long book, and though the chapter divisions are generally good, I needed more guidance within the chapters as the text can seem to roll from idea to idea without a linking logic. I also don’t really understand the outline of the text as a whole, but that may be my weakness as a reader. Finally, I know little of theories of humour and felt that this aspect was light in the text–though I think Lindvall is right that Lewis’ humour is typically that of incongruity.

Overall, however, this book is an adipose study on lightness that looks ponderously into the grave subject of levity. It carries its own literary avoirdupois because of the buoyant tone and festive delight in the subject matter. Dr. Terry Lindvall’s Surprised by Laughter is worth reading and available in a cheap Kindle edition for fans and researchers.

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An Update on the 700,000th Hit, or Everybody Needs a Little Time Away

Dear Readers,

With 876 Posts, 6,929 Followers, 15,179 Comments–3,821 of them mine–A Pilgrim in Narnia just passed 700,000 viewers a couple of weeks ago. The stats are pretty good for a blog that hits at a fairly high intellectual level–and after it has been said that blogging is a dead art. The blog has done exactly what I meant it to do, allowing me to test material, hone my craft, and extend my reach. A Pilgrim in Narnia has become a terrifically effective sandbox for playing with ideas about C.S. Lewis, the Inklings, literature, world-building, and theology. It has also allowed me to sharpen my writing skills, though my spelling is still mit and hiss.

And when it comes to the last goal, expanding my network and providing me a platform from which to work as an independent scholar, it has exceeded my best imaginations of what was possible. Without any advertising, no network-growth software, no real focus on design, and no media or celebrity attention, A Pilgrim in Narnia has grown organically over the last 7 years.

The only thing the blog hasn’t done is get me a book deal, land me a major award, provide me an invitation to speak in a warm spot in winter, put me in line for a tenure-track position, or get me a chance to argue about Tolkien with Stephen Colbert.


A Pilgrim in Narnia has grown as I have grown, developing a more academic tone the further I’ve gone into the project, and slaloming back and forth with the questions I am knocking about in my brain. I like that, and I like writing the blog.

And I like readers. Faithful readers and those just passing in for a visit have clicked through to more than 25,000 links to other blogs, websites, writers, and social media. Nice folk have shared this blog on Twitter more than 15,000 times and more than 35,000 times on Facebook–and my ability to track that is pretty limited. Thousands of comments have come in, each one shaping the reader’s experience and the writer’s scope. And many of those readers have become (or began as) guest bloggers, leading to the most popular guest blog series ever, the Inkling and Arthur series from last spring, edited by David Llewellyn Dodds.

All that is pretty cool, but there have been some challenges. I have never been able to get the time to update the platform, for one. I love the header for my topic, but it is more than a wee bit dated. I have refused to monetize–I think that learning and scholarship should be as free as possible–but I have not taken advantage of Amazon accounts or Patreon to get rid of ads on the blog (which I can’t control and might well be offensive). I have also fallen off of reading and commenting on most other blogs, because of a limitation of time. I appreciate you bloggers who still show up, like, share, and reblog my work, and wish I could be more connected.

Ultimately, I have been unsuccessful in being able to control the time this blog takes to research, write, edit, design, moderate, facilitate, and promote. I am at the very last stages of Ph.D. thesis writing. In a few months when someone on an airplane shouts, “this man is having a heart attack, is there a doctor on board?”, I can confidently stand up and provide the dying man with a list of critical tools for reading fantasy literature theologically. As he will no doubt be grateful for.

But for now, my time is incredibly full. So it is time to take a wee break.

Not a total break, just a kit kat break. I have blog posts lined up for the next six weeks or so, including a series of “Throwback Thursday” posts that draws out old material. This is what my break looks like:

  • I will not be engaged on social media like Facebook and Twitter, though I will probably still share things
  • I am turning down all unpaid speaking, teaching, guest blogging, preaching, consultation, editing, writing, podcasting, and reviewing requests until the summer; requests come almost weekly now so I have to take this step
  • I am putting off the “Other Fiction of C.S. Lewis” series until the end of March; more anon
  • I am moving the Planet Narnia series to this fall (a bit awkward, but I have another reason for doing so)
  • I will not be moderating comments on blog posts for the next 6 weeks; this is not really a problem as 90% of comments are from a few dozen intelligent and generous thinkers, but I will miss the dialogue (note: most of you know how to contact me if things go awry)

How can you help? I know you were wondering!

First, if you happen to have a book deal for me, or want to give me a major award, or provide me with an invitation to speak in a warm spot this winter, or you have the ability to put me in line for a tenure-track position, or if you are on Stephen Colbert’s team, you can drop me an email: junkola [at] gmail [dot] com. Oh, and if you are a wealthy patron who wants to support independent scholarship, I’d also take that email.

Since those are sort of superhuman things, for most readers this is where I need help from you:

  • 2019 will be the first year that I (likely) won’t experience growth on the blog. We are still on track to get 150,000 visitors this year, but I expect numbers to soften. If you would be so kind as to share by email, social media, or personal invitation, it would be a blessing. This is especially the case with facebook groups, where I typically find the best conversations (outside of the comments on this blog). I’m not all that fussed with numbers, personally, but they do help independent scholars convince editors and committees their work is worthwhile.
  • Is there an older blog post that you liked that you think could use a new audience? Let me know in the comments here (or email me).
  • I have 2 or 3 guest blog spots open for March if you are interested (just email me).
  • I have need of beta readers of my thesis of two types. First, I could use critical readers for logic, flow, and scholarly conversation. Second, I could use bright readers who have an attention to detail (either grammar or format).

Besides a magic focus fairy, or a Gandalfian mentor with magical editing abilities at my elbow, these are things that I could use in this season.

Asking for help is tough, and so is taking a break. I have worked here for years with no supporting institution, no patronage, no grants, and absolutely no income for the blog (or for most of my writing). I have taught more than 80 courses in the last 13 years, and have only twice received a short-term contract at full pay–and have never received medical insurance or other benefits. I am in year 6 of an unfunded, full-cost Ph.D., and I am still very much in the midst of it. The statistics at the top of this post make these numbers look pale, but there is a weariness that sets in from longterm overwork combined with insistent poverty. So a breath, now, while I can.

Most of the Ph.D. student bloggers I know have had to stop, so I hope that this shift gives me space to breathe so I can begin a new life as A Pilgrim in Narnia later this year. Readers will be pleased to know there is a book in the works for late 2020 or early 2021, and I am looking to do some travelling (and hopefully some speaking) in spring-summer of 2020. There is more ahead, but long ago Bilbo warned us of the danger of pilgrimage:

“It’s a dangerous business … going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

Hopefully, this move steadies me a bit! Everybody does need a little time away, apparently, so I leave you with Chicago. Boy, they can write a break-up song, but I am pleased that this isn’t a break-up post! I’d love to hear from you before I slide into the ether, so leave your thoughts in the comments below.


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