How to Read All of C.S. Lewis’ Essays

Weight of Glory by CS Lewis signatureA prodigious essayist, it is this area of C.S. Lewis’ work that I find the most provocative—even more so than the fiction and apologetics books (though there is overlap in the latter category). Whether inspirational or controversial, his brevity, clarity and wit strike through his reviews, lectures, published letters, editorials, sermons, public controversies, paper, and critical essays.

Essay writing was an area that Lewis excelled in. After the onset of WWII, and not including book reviews, Lewis published essays, sermons, lectures or editorials at a rate of about one every 8 weeks. Beyond these pieces that appeared God In The Dock by cs lewisin local and international journals and collection, much of his popular nonfiction began as essays, lectures, or addresses. Mere Christianity (1952) is a collection of 33 WWII-era BBC talks, and much of the material of Miracles (1947) was tested out on the public during WWII as individual articles, Socratic Club papers, and sermons. Beyond his essay collections proper, the centre of many of his books began as lectures, including A Preface to Paradise Lost (1942), Abolition of Man (1943), The Four Loves (1960), Studies in Words (1960), The Discarded Image (1964), the commentary of Arthurian Torso (1948), and some part of English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (1954). Lewis used short pieces and talks to form the cs-lewis-christian-reflections-2base of much of the nonfiction we enjoy the most–and as the foundation of some of the fiction.

One of the struggles as a C.S. Lewis reader is trying to navigate the essay collections. I have 19 anthologies and collections on my shelf, and a quick internet search is going to send you scurrying to about 25 different sources all told. Those sources come from separate UK & US publication streams, as well as a series of revised editions, abridgements, gift editions, selections, and reprints under different names. It’s a bit of a mess.

present concerns lewisFortunately, though, C.S. Lewis sleuth Arend Smilde has worked it all out. Arend wrote “A History of C. S. Lewis’s Collected Shorter Writings, 1939-2000” for the Journal of Inklings Studies (JINKS), and then expanded the essay for web publication after a new volume of essays and book reviews came out in 2013 (called Image and Imagination). In the essay, Arend walks you through the pretty peculiar publication history of Lewis’ shorter pieces. Perhaps even more valuable for the C.S. Lewis reader, Arend has taken the time to list the table of contents of each of the 23 major essay collections, and has reordered the shorter pieces in both alphabetical and chronological order (see this impressive lewis-of-this-and-other-worldswork here).

Arend’s lists were important as I set up my schedule to read Lewis chronologically (though I had to redate things by time of writing, rather than publication), and I find myself frequenting his webpage whenever I need to look something up.

As I have been rereading Lewis this year according to topic instead of chronology, I started to think differently about the shorter pieces. The question finally came to me: How could I read almost every Lewis piece while buying as few volumes as possible? It cs-lewis-the-worlds-last-night-2isn’t just about being cheap! It is tough when someone asks what to read next and there is this whole mess of collections floating around. So what is the simplest way to get the vast majority of Lewis’ shorter pieces in book form?

Using a sohpisticated analytical tool (basically the MS Excel version of pencil crayons), I have determined that you can read every single published Lewis short pieces except one if you have 9 books. My fancy chart at the bottom of the page pretty much maps it out for you. To make the list short enough for the screen I’ve left out most of the short book reviews in Image acs-lewis-studies-in-medieval-and-renaissance-literature-2nd Imagination (#9). Except for the four-page essay “Christian Reunion” published in 1990–which you can read here–you can read all of Lewis’ published literary critical pieces, editorials, sermons, addresses, lectures, and essays in these nine books:

  1. The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (revised and expanded edition, US, 1980): This is a beautiful collection that shouldn’t be confused with the 1949 collection of the same name (or Transpositions and Other Essays in the UK).
  2. God in the Dock (US, 1970); Undeceptions (UK, 1971): This is the classic collection of essays on theology and ethics. 225px-selected_literary_essays_1969Beware of the tiny abridged God in the Dock (1979). Other abridgements include The Grand Miracle (1982), First and Second Things (1985), and Christian Reunion (1990) with that essay that’s missing from my list below.
  3. Christian Reflections (UK/US, 1967): These are Christian pieces that are a little lighter in tone, and offer cultural criticism and encouragement to Christian growth. The Seeing Eye (1986) has most, but not all, of these pieces.
  4. Present Concerns (UK, 1986): While the introduction suggests these are “journalistic,” it is best to think of them as cultural critical and editorial pieces. They are more timely lewis-image-and-imagination-3than other things Lewis has written, which also makes some of them dated. Still, fascinating to read.
  5. Of This and Other Worlds (UK, 1982); On Stories and Other Essays on Literature (US, 1982): This is the most full collection of Lewis’ popular-level pieces on writing, literature, and science fiction. Don’t confuse it with the excellent collection Of Other Worlds (1966), which has about half the essays plus four of the stories that are in The Dark Tower and Other Stories (1977).
  6. The World’s Last Night and Other Essays (US, 1960): This is a volume that Lewis himself put together with his publisher but has been reprinted in a couple of series. These essays are within the apologetics and popular philosophy category (like God in the Dock part 1).
  7. Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature (UK/US, 1966): This volume contains some essays that introduce the reader to literature from the late middle ages through the time of Milton (roughly 11th-17th centuries), as well as some studies of individual books in that period.
  8. Selected Literary Essays (UK/US, 1969): A diverse collection that runs from Jane Austen to the King James Bible and all the way back through Tasso to the medieval storytellers.
  9. Image and Imagination: Essays and Reviews (UK/US, 2013): Although published last, this might be the best place for the reader new to Lewis’ academic literature essays. A lot of the books he reviews are great reads, and even the more obscure reviews contain Lewisian wit and knowledge. It also includes some essays that have been out of print for decades.

Some notes: The version I put first in the list is the one I have on my shelf (and typically the most accessible to others); the 3 literary collections (#s6-9) are the same on either continent. You’ll notice there is almost no overlap, so what looked like a complete mess falls into place in 2013 with the release of Image and Imagination. Arend divides the essays between academic (#s7-9) and popular (#s1-6), but the 1st section of God in the Dock (#2) is a bit of a challenge, and much of Image and Imagination (#9) is fairly accessible. We could also divide the books between “Christian” (#s 1, 2, 3, 4, 6) and “literary” (#s 5, 7, 8, 9). There are likely some errors here (a lot of the essays are named various things and I might have messed it up); let me know if you see something.

Wherever your interests lie, I hope this list supplements Arend Smilde’s excellent work to give you the resources you need to track down Lewis’ shorter work. For the burgeoning C.S. Lewis scholar, these are the nine core books that cover the majority of the short pieces you’ll need for your bibliography.

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C.S. Lewis on “Christian Reunion”

cs-lewis-christian-reunionSubtitled “An Anglican speaks to Roman Catholics,” the essay first published in 1990 as “Christian Reunion” is one of the hardest C.S. Lewis short pieces to get your hands on. Editor Walter Hooper notes that this is one of the only full pieces we have that addresses the divide between the Roman Catholic church and Protestants. Found on a few scraps of paper and dating from the mid-1940s, Lewis briefly cuts to the heart of this disturbing rift of faith to offer a glimmer of practical hope.

In his own life, some of C.S. Lewis’ closest friends were Roman Catholic, including J.R.R. Tolkien–no doubt overcoming a good deal of the childhood in Belfast to form such friendships. In the cultic ideas of his anglo education, Lewis had been taught never to trust an Ulsterman or a philologist. Tolkien was both. And as Lewis matured in his faith, he came to appreciate the more sacramental aspects, particularly the experience the eucharist and the practice of confession.

The work of Vatican II was complete after Lewis passed away, so he never got to see the new world of Protestant-Catholic relationships. In some ways, though, he was a prophet. C.S. Lewis scholar Peter Kreeft has quipped that the “Protestant Reformation began when a Catholic monk rediscovered a Catholic doctrine in a Catholic book”–a sentiment that Lewis is getting at below. Kreeft calls Catholics (and Protestants who hope for reunification) to the same practice that Luther underwent. It is in this faithful discovery that Lewis hopes the nexus between Catholics and Protestants will occur–and indeed can occur in no other way.

In my own life I have seen some of these hopeful connection points. I remember attending Catholic events as new Christian young adult, and have had the chance to worship side by sides with Catholics. Our university’s strong Catholic Studies department recognizes as allies faithful Christians of whatever background. The Taizé worship movement crosses denominational lines, as does much of the street-level activism and charity that takes place in so many cities and towns in the world. Many of the Protestants I know are deepening their faith in traditionally Catholic habits and books.

There are also more formal signs of fidelity, including the “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” document facilitated by Chuck Colson and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. The International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission is hopeful, though pressures in both churches strain that development. The Pope Emeritus was a scholar on the topic of justification by faith, and the Lutheran-Catholic “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” was a hopeful sign–especially as the global Methodist communion later adapted it. Popeinsistent has been inistent on the need for dialogue, and in the 499th year since Luther’s 95 Thesis, Catholics and Lutherans have released “Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry and Eucharist.”

Only God knows where this is all going, but a great deal of ground has been covered since Lewis sketched out these thoughts. At the centre of his essay is what I still think is key:

“When therefore we find a certain heavenly unity existing between really devout persons of differing creeds … we must ascribe this to the work of Christ who, in the erroneous one, sterilizes his errors and inhibits the evil consequences they would naturally have … and opens the eyes of the other party to all the truths mingled in his friend’s errors, which are, of course, likely to be truths he particularly needs.”

Here is the full text of the essay that makes up part of the Christian Reunion collection.

Christian Renunion 

I have been asked to write on Christian reunion: but I am afraid that what I have to say will amount to little more than a rough analysis of the actual disunity and a suggestion as to how most of us ought to behave while our tragic and sinful divisions continue. I will begin by saying that, whether for good or ill, the nature of the disunity has changed with the centuries: it has become more strictly, or clearly, theological. I have been well placed for noticing this because I grew up in a very archaic society – that of Northern Ireland – amidst conditions which had even then long since passed away in England. I have thus had a glimpse of the old disunity – the kind that descended from the sixteenth century. In it the strictly theological differences were hopelessly entangled with differences of nationality, class, politics, and the less essential differences of ritual. (I do not suggest that all differences of ritual are unessential.) They were also very embittered. A Protestant
mother whose son turned from Atheism to Rome, or a Roman mother whose son turned from Atheism to Protestantism, would both have felt (I think) simple grief.

That state of affairs has passed away. On the question of ritual, indeed, it has almost turned upside down. In southern England the Romans are now not ritualistic enough to please the High Anglicans, and Congregationalists may (I am told) be as “high” as either. Whatever the barrier now is, it is no longer a barrier of candles: whatever the fog, it is not a fog of incense.

And on the purely theological level I think may say that the barrier is no longer that between a doctrine of Faith and a doctrine of Works. I am not myself convinced that any good Roman ever did hold the doctrine of Works in that form of which Protestants
accused him, or that any good Protestant ever did hold the doctrine of Faith in that form of which Romans accused him. At any rate I feel certain that no man of good will today hopes to see God either by Pecca fortiter [by sinning strongly] or by founding an abbey. It would still be difficult (especially in Germany) to get an agreed formula: but I think that difficulty now springs rather from the mysteriousness of the subject itself than from two clearly held and mutually exclusive doctrines.

The difficulty that remains, and which becomes sharper as it becomes narrower, is our disagreement about the seat and nature of doctrinal Authority. The real reason, I take it, why you cannot be in communion with us is not your disagreement with this or that particular Protestant doctrine, so much as the absence of any real “Doctrine”, in your sense of the word, at all. It is, you feel, like asking a man to say he agrees not with a speaker but with a debating society. And the real reason why I cannot be in communion with you is not my disagreement with this or that Roman doctrine, but that to accept your Church means, not to accept a given body of doctrine, but to accept in advance any doctrine your Church hereafter produces. It is like being asked to agree not only to what a man has said but to what he’s going to say.

To you the real vice of Protestantism is the formless drift which seems unable to retain the Catholic truths, which loses them one by one and ends in a “modernism” which cannot be classified as Christian by any tolerable stretch of the word. To us the terrible thing about Rome is the recklessness (as we hold) with which she has added to the depositum fidei [the deposit of faith] – the tropical fertility, the proliferation, of credenda. You see in Protestantism the Faith dying out in a desert: we see in Rome the Faith smothered in a jungle.

I know no way of bridging this gulf. Nor do I think it the business of the private layman to offer much advice on bridge-building to his betters. My only function as a Christian writer is to preach “mere Christianity” not ad clerum but ad populum [not to the clergy but to the people]. Any success that has been given me has, I believe, been due to my strict observance of those limits. By attempting to do otherwise I should only add one
more recruit (and a very ill qualified recruit) to the ranks of the controversialists. After that I should be no more use to anyone.

I have, however, a strong premonition as to the way in which reunion will not come. It will not come at the edges. “Liberal” Romans and “high” Anglicans will not be the ones who will meet first. For the odd thing is that the nearer you get to the heart of each communion, the less you notice its difference from the other.

It is important at this point that I should not be misunderstood. What I am trying to say might be interpreted to mean that doctrines “don’t matter”, and that the essence of the spiritual life lay either in the affections or in some “mystical” experience to which the
intelligence is simply irrelevant. I do not believe it is so. That the spiritual life transcends both intelligence and morality, we are probably all agreed. But I suppose it transcends them as poetry transcends grammar, and does not merely exclude them as algebra
excludes grammar. I should distrust a mysticism to which they ever became simply irrelevant. That is not the way in which the divisions grow less important at the centre. To the very last, when two people differ in doctrine, logic proclaims that though both might be in error, it is impossible for both to be right. And error always to some extent disables.

When therefore we find a certain heavenly unity existing between really devout persons of differing creeds – a mutual understanding and even a power of mutual edification which each may lack towards a lukewarm member of his own denomination – we must ascribe this to the work of Christ who, in the erroneous one, sterilizes his errors and inhibits the evil consequences they would naturally have (“If ye drink any deadly thing it shall not hurt you” [Mark 16:18) and opens the eyes of the other party to all the truths mingled in his friend’s errors, which are, of course, likely to be truths he particularly needs.

Posted in Reflections | 13 Comments

Murder in the Morning

Crows mock the coming of the day
heckling every suggestion of light
filling every inch of naked twig
on bare poplar flung dangerously to the sky
and on leafless maples which in summer or fall
are watercolour forms of things children call trees
but in winter are row upon row
of hard plastic seats

Thousands, tens of thousands of
crying, jeering, laughing, hacking
football fan crows, or
the arena’s thundering crowd crying for blood

A hundred thousand crows
as far from the new snow that primes the land
as roosting fowl may be
even houses shut up tight to February frost
can only dim the din
the flowing, rolling, pitching roar
of crows murdering the morning

I sigh, arise, blunder bleary-eyed through the dark
skirting creeky stairs, my line is clear:
water, wood stove, and words

And then I see
it was not crows that compelled me
from my winter cocoon of
lamb’s wool layers and rare-worn sleep

It was words that woke the light
and brought the day
a million unvoiced minds waiting to be pressed
in lines on this blank page
it is their call that killed my dreams
those shapeless, rootless, formless tales
that have no beginning, no end
it was words that woke me from
the endless middle that is night

So I will write
never knowing if all these words
are rust on hinges of the wicket gate
or snatching shouts from the howling gale
or ten million grating notes
like restless nomad crows that mock the coming of the day

Never knowing if they are any good
I will work these words through morning light
and as my family wends their way to school
and real men take up shovel,
clipboard,
or calculator—
and as those damnèd crows break up their riot
to sweep across the land
pillaging strangers’ garbage bins
and waking those for whom night is work or worry and no friend—
as all the world around me wakes
and jolts into its usual place
I will fight these words
never knowing if I should

Then, tonight, as the sun slides behind the poplars
and every skinny branch is lit with
mocking, raucous, indomitable crows
my son and I will sneak outside
to slam the lid of the garbage bin

So with that gunshot crash the din is stilled
for the sixth part of the second after the big bang
total silence, and then
the rush of a hundred million wings that take to flight
and beat the air like open gates
in a howling gale

And my words will cease, there with my son
and we will be quiet together
for the simple wonder of it all

And this, at least, is good.

Below is the trailer of a longer film on the crows that live in my neighbourhood, filmed by Jeremy Larter and Jason Arsenault.

Posted in On Writing, Reflections | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Why My Kid’s Science Teacher is Awesome

apple teaching questionNot just his science teacher, actually. Nicolas just won a poetry contest that his grade seven homeroom teacher encouraged him to enter. But more of that later. To science.

One of our initial anxieties about sending our son to a Christian school was the question of science. I have never personally encountered a Christian school that was anti-science, but I had met some homeschool parents who were, and I had let my mental categories blur. Moreover, I have seen a lot of Christian anxiety about science and evolution in the United States, parts of Canada, and Japan, and that was not a context I wanted my son to spend his formative imaginative years.

In the end, we made the decision about Nicolas using other kinds of measures, including the culture of the school and its core philosophy. We were drawn into Immanuel Christian School accidentally, reluctantly, and in the end, delightedly–invested to the point that my superstar wife has given Immanuel her career time. In our experience, it has been a school that places a profound priority on the development of curiosity. There is space for wonder and adventure in my son’s school. ICS believes that its role is not to train kids for the real world: for children, school is their real world. It is happening now, all around them and in our midst. ICS teachers engage with reflexive, deeply rooted curriculum to children where they are in their lives.

red yellow green appleThe “reflexivity” and “differentiated curriculum” is a real strength at Immanuel. I was in the staff room once washing dishes while the principal and the two middle school teachers were talking about a split in the students’ experience of the math curriculum. In the space of about twenty minutes they had carved out a new curriculum pathway–building cars out of garbage, by the way–that met a number of goals, including volunteer integration, rewards for hardworking students, and special teacher time for those struggling. It was a thing of beauty. Immanuel is a place where conversations around the water cooler include things like, “how do you think we could fit Gaelic into the high school?” or “do we actually need desks? what about work stations instead?”

apple hand beauty artIt is not educational buzzwords that make the school great, but a commitment to personal growth in the faculty and administration. And here is where we return to my kid’s awesome science teacher.

A week ago, Nicolas spent all day Saturday at our local engineering school for the Future City Project day. The students in his class were divided up into teams and each built a model of a futuristic city, incorporating design elements from engineering, sociology, and lessons learned from questions of sustainability. My son’s team was selected to go to the provincial Future City day, and joined eight other (mostly public) schools. The designs were amazing as these preteen shapers of the future talked about renewable energy, recovered urban spaces, and what transportation and innovation looks like later in the 21st century. It was a great day of workshops, challenges, nerves, imagination, not-so-subtle recruitment pitches from the engineers and teachers in the room, and pizza.

Nicolas’ team did not win. Actually, the winners were some kids from that other Christian school–the one that is just intensely good at winning things. They are sort of the academic soldiers and we’re the love and hugs school. They will do great in D.C. at the international competition.

Apply on textbook

What is significant for me as someone who things about education and faith is that my son’s science teacher spent that whole Saturday–her Saturday, her day for family and prep and study–with a room full of awkward preteens, pre-fab plastic chairs, and rubbery pizza. As a parent there, it was beautiful to see how engaged the teachers of PEI were in their students.

This is not, though, just an extraordinary extracurricular day for Joanne Mawhinney, junior high teacher. What makes Mrs. Mawhinney an awesome teacher is that she is a learner. In an age that reduces wisdom to knowledge, that reduces science to technology, that reduces biblical faith to reactions against the world, and reduces education to systems, Mrs. Mawhinney has committed herself to a much larger worldview.

teacher apple books chalkboardRather than do more describing, I think I will show you. Joanne was a featured speaker in one of our recent Theology on Tap events. Exciting and fulfilling her natural love for astronomy, Joanne was a part of a group of teachers and priests who gathered at the Vatican observatory in Arizona–a long way from Prince Edward Island. Rather than simply giving a slideshow of cool things she saw, Joanne articulates in the video below a mature philosophy of Christian engagement in the sciences. It is intelligent and accessible, informed by the journey of study that has undertaken during her adult life of self-education and discovery.

I don’t know that most Christians could describe such a compelling vision of faith and science, and I would encourage you to share it with Christian parents and teachers and pastors. What makes Mrs. Mawhinney an awesome science teacher, in the end, is not just that she is bright and engaged and well prepared. Honestly, that is the bare minimum. All teachers are to be superstars, and if you are a teacher who isn’t a superstar, either become one or get out of the classroom.

What makes Joanne an awesome science teacher is that her science teaching is a working out of her life vocation of discovery. I hope you enjoy her talk and are compelled to discover more for yourself.

Note: Every community has ebbs and flows, and not every family has experienced the space for curiosity and growth in the Christian school system that we have. I know. I also recognize the distinct privilege of being invited to this space. It is a privilege that came with great sacrifice; our first tuition bill at Immanuel was 20% of our previous year’s income (and that was after the bursary). But I would encourage parents–and the grandparents, pastors, teachers, and adopted aunts and uncles in children’s lives–to find spaces and people like the ones I described above for the children in your world. If those resources aren’t around you, then you will have to become the imagination engineer every child needs. If you can’t find it, you have to make it.

If you see the value of this and know of the right kind of educational space for the right child, consider giving part of your life to making that happen through a private donation. Immanuel’s website is here.

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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Put Them

fantastic-beasts-and-where-to-find-them-book-coverIn a recent SignumU panel on the films Rogue One and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (see below), I admitted I was disappointed with the original Fantastic Beasts book. I love J.K. Rowling’s fantastic writing, and find myself hungry for more of the Harry Potter world. When it comes to this little book, though, I think it is a lost opportunity.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a slim volume published in 2001 after the Harry Potter series had blown up but before the hepatology was complete. Written by Newton Artemis Fido “Newt” Scamander in the early 20th century, it was a required introductory textbook at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Newt Scamander was a legendary magiczoologist–why not cryptozoologist? perhaps a sub-specialty?–and the book went through numerous editions.

The copy that was released to the public is Harry Potter’s old textbook, which Ron Weasley shared because Ron’s hand-me-down copy fell apart. Throughout the book are funny marginal comments and doodles by Ron and Harry (and once by Hermione). It is a good ruse, and the marginalia supplements a brief description of 85 different magical beasts that Scamander had collected over his years of research. Each of the entries has a Ministry of Magic danger rating, and one of the running gags in the book is that Hagrid finds the most deadly ones the most cuddly.

fantastic-beasts-and-where-to-find-them-marginIt sounds pretty good, right? So why am I disappointed?

Well, this is a very thin volume. I like that there are new creatures that are not in the series, but I found myself wanting more. Much more. In fact, as the official bestiary of the Harry Potter universe, I had been hoping for a big, thick leather-bound volume with careful sketches, anatomical features, legendary studies, and mythological links. I mean, Rowling is great at utilizing mythic beasts and inventing new creatures. However, I have a little black and white text when it could have been a big, beautiful, game-changing bestiary.

I’m not sure why the fantasy book world hasn’t caught on to this opportunity. Marvel and DC make these huge colourful compendium volumes, and kids are lapping up the “nonfiction” element of their favourite fictional worlds. Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You by Hwoodelf from spiderwick field guideolly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi was a good start. It is not a meaty volume, but it is filled with beautiful sketches and well-written descriptions. Turning to Fantastic Beasts from Spiderwick–which may not have had an audience without Harry Potter–and I feel that an opportunity slipped through Rowling’s fingers.

It is still a good little book. With Quidditch Through the Ages it raised about $25m for children’s aid, which is a nice move by Rowling and her publishing team. The Tales of Beedle the Bard is the third part of the Hogwart’s Library collection, and supplements a handful of magic world fairy tales with one story from the series–the story-within-a-story that is gorgeously drawn for the Deathly Hallows film. It is a delightful book, but imagine what a fuller volume and beautiful animation would do!

Opinion on the new Fantastic Beasts film is split. Honestly, my first emotion when I saw the film was relief. So many prequels and extensions of a canonical universe go very badly. I thought it was a beautiful, fun film that gave me a touch of the Harry Potter magic while moving in a whole new direction. I thought the central four characters were gorgeous, though a little thin in terms of character development–except for Dan Fogler as the empathetic muggle Jacob Kowalski. The central cast have musical and stage experience, which adds an element of connectedness that digital films are often missing. There are many flaws in this film, including a split-person arch-enemy that fails to connect finally to the audience. Overall, this was a great family film with massive special effects that makes a nice re-launch of the Potter world.

fantastic-beasts-and-where-to-find-them-movie-charactersFantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them has received a couple of Oscar nods for set and costume, and it works well as a 1920s New York City period piece. Really, the Harry Potter world is a kind of alternative history, told from the perspective of a hidden narrative in the human record. The Harry Potter series locks that world in the 1990s, and I think an early 20th-century move is a good one. I would be afraid that Hollywood would butcher an Elizabethan period piece, but the possibilities are endless. What does the magical world look like in Ethiopia or Bangkok or Moscow? This film is the first of a five-part series where our imagination is the only limitation.

fantastic-beasts-and-where-to-find-them-suitcaseHonestly, I think they could have received a mention for art design. To me, the greatest feature of this film is Newt Scamander’s suitcase. Tapping into the magical possibilities where the inside is bigger than the outside–what I have argued is a key Christian principle–the living bestiary in Scamander’s troublesome case fills out the Fantastic Beasts book in a rewarding way. Finally, after years of waiting, we get to see the living environment of these magical beasts. Bringing these imaginary creatures to life, the filmmakers give us a magical ecosystem that is two feet wide and a hundred miles deep.

fantastic-beasts-and-where-to-find-them-poster-1This was J.K. Rowling’s first time writing a screenplay, adding a degree of risk in the quality of the product. In the end, the writing is good and Rowling continues her remarkable control over this world.

The only thing that made me uncomfortable about the film was its comment on American political culture. It has a lot of tiresome tropes in it, including narrow American legalism, intolerant fundamentalists (in this case, stripped of religion), prohibition-era toadyism, and a reactionary element somehow at play with progressive values. The movie even begins at a bank, and the Magical Congress of the USA (MACUSA) is in New York at the seat of industry and commercialism, rather than in Washington. There is no doubt the world wants to comment on the United States–and their new “leader of the free world.” As a non-American, though, this felt less like an American film and more like an American film written by a non-American. Questions of core value are embedded in Rowling’s fantastic work without having to press the point home.

fantastic-beasts-and-where-to-find-them-57In the end, a great place to put fantastic beasts is in a film like this. I am still hoping for the leather-bound, medievalish bestiary, or Newt Scamander’s field guide. I would even take a watercolourization (is that a word?) of screenshots in the film in a re-release of the book. Perhaps there is already something better out there and I missed it, and I know that there is something coming out this spring. But what the popularity of the Harry Potter books–and the films, which are of mixed quality in the good to excellent spectrum–show us is the insatiable hunger for imaginative nourishment. While Rowling & Co. have not put commercialization at the front of the Harry Potter experience, I think there is space for creative products that are authentic to her speculative universe.

Honestly, I would like to read the kinds of books that I would find in the restricted section of Hogwarts library. I would even risk the scars.

Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus.

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The Other President: Donald Trump’s First Briefing by the Magical Congress

broncobusterremingtonsculptureThe President sighed, put his hands in his pockets, and looked at the portrait of George Washington above the mantle. He thrived on crowds and cheers and chaos, so had never believed that he would be relieved for the silence. Even there, in the quiet of the oval office, the noise was still ringing through his skull. Then the memory of the good hours swelled up inside of him and he caught Washington’s eye. The place wasn’t his yet—not really his—but he would keep Washington above the fireplace. The Nixon letter would have to go somewhere else.

Not that big clock, though. Each second rang out like the striking of hammer to stone. It was obviously too old and would have to go. President Trump’s eyes fell to the carpet. What seal did Reagan use? He’d have to find out. And the desk. He didn’t want the Resolute Desk. That lightweight Bush used it. It really isn’t big enough to get any real work done anyway. It was time Washington got a little more New York.

Still, it was a well-built desk. Trump ran his fingers across its woodwork as he walked to the window. How thick was that glass? The scare earlier came to mind, and he decided that looking into the inky black of the early morning hours didn’t suit him. Just to the right of the window was that statue he had seen his first time in the office. “Bronco Buster,” one of his staff had called it. This he liked. As he looked at man and beast in motion, Trump found himself for the first time being drawn into a greater story, the story of America’s struggle between ground and sky, the struggle to break free from limitation and achieve greatness. Trump looked at the rider’s hard set jaw and determined stare, balancing between heaven and earth on a thousand pounds of animality. Trump knew then he would have done well in the wild west.

Suddenly, the rider slid off the horse’s back, put his hat in his hands, and looked up at the President with a brisk nod. The shift from still to animation was so seamless that it took a moment for Trump’s mind to catch up with his eye. It was the rough accent of the desert-formed frontier that awoke him to the moment.

“Mr. President, sir. The President of the Magical Congress and the Secretary of No-Maj States are on their way to the Oval Office.”

President Trump’s stunned silence was broken by the sound of steel on marble. He swung around to see the fireplace screen slide away from the grate unaided. He jumped as bright green flames burst into life where the last fire lay dead. Trump watched, mouth open, as a pale, thin man appeared in the flames, spinning as fast as a top. Seconds later, he stepped out of the fire and placed his feet on the wood floor. With intense, dark eyes he looked at Trump, brushed ash from the sleeves of his jet black suit, and stepped to the side.

Once again the fireplace filled with green flames and a woman’s face appeared in the fire beneath the marble mantelpiece. An older woman in purple and black robes stepped into the oval office. She was very tall—almost as tall as President Trump—with long silver hair and a single streak of blue. The woman smiled warmly at her No-Maj counterpart.

The small man strode forward, shook Trump’s hand stiffly, and spoke in a tight, crisp voice.

“Good morning Mr. President. Daedalus Blackberry, Secretary of No-Maj States. This is Dr. Rolanda Fontaine, M.A., DPhil, Professor Emeritus in No-Maj Studies at Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Advisor to the Supreme Mugwump of the International Confederation of Wizards, and President of the Magical Congress of the United States.”

“Please, Daedalus,” President Fontaine said with a chuckle. “America’s new President is no doubt overwhelmed.” Fontaine crossed the floor and took Trump’s hand. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Trump. Please call me Rolanda.”

“Rolanda,” he repeated, his eyes never leaving hers. It had been a long campaign, filled with late nights and early mornings. Somewhere in the last year he had traded his life for this office, and he was disappointed to discover that in the bargain he had lost his sanity.

“Shall we sit?” She asked.

Trump nodded, and found himself moving involuntarily toward the couch. When he looked up, Blackberry had taken out a folder and placed it on a side table, while President Fontaine was sitting with her hands resting on her lap, smiling at her counterpart.

“I imagine you will find this a strange briefing, Mr. President,” she said.

“Donald,” the President croaked, involuntarily. He reached for a glass of water on the side table and brought it to his lips. It was only after he had taken a drink that he realized the porter had not left him any water.

“Donald,” Fontaine repeated. “We will not take much of your time, and you should only hear from us on rare occasions. What we have to tell you is of a highly sensitive nature, so that even your most senior staff do not know that we exist.”

“Who is ‘we,’ exactly?” Trump still did not know if he was crazy or not, but he was certainly not going to lose control in his own delusion.

President Fontaine smiled, and Trump wondered for a moment if she was not, actually, very young. He found her compellingly beautiful.

“Donald, we are people of legend who live in reality. There are witches and wizards like Daedalus and I living throughout the world, hidden from sight. We have powerful abilities that have at times terrified your ancestors. At other times magic folk have healed your people and tilted the balance of power. We are very few, but we are your neighbors and coworkers.”

“I’m sure I would have noticed….”

Blackberry interrupted the President.

“No, sir. You will not have noticed. There have been witches and wizards in your senior staff and campaign team since you became a person of interest.”

The President brought the drink to his lips again.

“Person of interest?” he asked after swallowing. He determined that his voice was not going to remain unsteady.

“What Daedalus is referring to is an informal list that senior officials at MACUSA keep. Aurors—this is the magical equivalent of your FBI—are assigned to watch people who have the ability to do great good or great evil. You have been employing our people for some time, Donald.”

Trump let the glass linger for a moment in mid-air before setting it down.

“Which list am I on, Rolanda? Good or evil?”

Blackberry was about to speak, but Fontaine interrupted him.

“You are the President of the United States of America. You must know by now that you will do great good and great evil. Only you can tell us which will tip the scales of history’s judgment.”

Trump nodded, set down his empty glass, and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. He looked directly at Blackberry.

“What did you say your position was?”

“I am the Secretary of No-Maj States, Mr. President.”

“What’s ‘No-Maj?'”

“It is slang for non-magical people, Mr. President.” Blackberry’s eyes were level, his gaze intent. Trump wondered what having a man like this on his team would be like.

“So, me in fact?”

“Yes, sir. You and most Americans.”

“How many of you are there?”

Blackberry smiled for the first time.

“Well, sir, the statistical analysis is quite interesting….” President Fontaine interrupted him.

“Donald, we will leave you a briefing note that only you can read. To your staff it will look like your company stock reports….”

“The company of your children, sir,” Blackberry interrupted. Trump resisted the urge to roll his eyes.

“Precisely,” Fontaine continued. “The folder includes essential parts of our history, including moments of crisis globally and in the U.S. It should make for some enlightening reading!”

Fontaine concluded brightly, and watched as Trump’s brow furrowed at her description.

“There is also an audio feature,” she added. “In case you are busy.”

Trump nodded, clearly relieved.

“You mentioned times of crisis,” he said.

Daedalus Blackberry nodded, then began a succinct listing of the precise dates when No-Majs and magical folk interacted, beginning with the founding of MACUSA, the period of the Revolution and the Civil War, and the great crises that defined the first half of the twentieth century. While Trump typically did not prefer to think about history—he knew his job was to think about the future—he was fascinated by the dry outline Blackberry provided for him. Parallel to the wars that defined America was a global crisis that could have, he realized, mattered more than the struggle between East and West or between Axis and Allies.

When Blackberry had finished, including the recent magical civil war in the United Kingdom, Trump leaned back on his couch and rubbed his face. The witch and wizard sat quietly in that place of power.

“You’re real,” he said, finally.

“We are,” Rolanda Fontaine replied in a soft tone. “You are not dreaming. You are not crazy. And you need not be worried.”

Blackberry nodded curtly and rose to his feet. He walked over to the Resolute Desk and placed his fingers, one by one, on particular notches in the woodwork. A drawer slid open with a pop. Trump jumped up from his seat and went to the desk. The drawer was empty and, the President was sure, a physical impossibility.

“This magical drawer is a direct link to our headquarters in New York….”

“New York?” Trump interjected with surprise.

“Yes sir. We have been in New York since the late 19th century. We were in the Woolworth building until the construction of One World Trade Center provided an opportunity for a more spacious headquarters.” Blackberry continued to describe how, during the building of the new complex, magical architects were able to create parallel spaces that, with certain security codes and spells, provided the administrative and political center for the U.S.A.

Trump nodded. It was a move he would have ordered if he was in charge.

“Magical space,” Blackberry continued. “Can be bigger on the inside than the outside.”

Blackberry pulled a pen from his robes and placed it inside the drawer and closed it. When he put his fingers in the wood carving again, the drawer opened. It was completely empty.

“You can place items you feel we need to know about in here and we will receive them—though we have researchers that keep track of No-Maj news. From time to time, you will be notified that there is an item in here from us, especially when No-Maj security is concerned.”

Trump nodded. He could not imagine what harm a little man like this could do, besides tie up an auditor in red tape. But as he looked over at President Fontaine, he suspected their power went far beyond parlor tricks. President Fontaine then spoke.

“In the case of dire emergency, Mr. President, you can use this drawer to escape to our headquarters in New York.”

“I can fit in there?” Trump asked doubtfully.

Blackberry scowled as he answered.

“Yes sir. In fact, it has fit a number of people at one point, but that was hardly an emergency of the magnitude that we imagined when we created the mechanism.”

“Kennedy?” Trump asked.

“Precisely,” Blackberry responded.

“I will have to keep this desk then,” Trump said.

“You will find it very difficult to dispose of,” Fontaine answered with a smile.

“How do I access it?” Trump inquired. Blackberry demonstrated.

“You simply put your fingers in these notches. It only works for magical folk with proper clearance, and you Mr. President.”

“How did you know my fingerprints?” he asked. “You have that on file?”

“We do not need fingerprints, Mr. President. You reset the mechanism the first time you touched the desk a few minutes ago.”

Trump nodded. Then President Fontaine reached out her hand and took Trump’s.

“We have taken too much of your time already, Donald. You have done very well. Your predecessors have typically called for security.”

“It didn’t work though, did it?” Trump asked.

“No sir,” Blackberry answered, smiling thinly. Trump wondered if it might be time for a cabinet position shared by both governments. But, then, he doubted Daedalus Blackberry would survive the hearing.

“Provided things go well,” Fontaine continued. “You will see me very rarely. Best wishes in your term in office, and blessings upon your family. We are here if you need us, but you will find we will not typically offer the kind of help you will wish from us. But we will always help.”

Witch and wizard moved toward the fireplace. Though the President had wanted them to leave from the moment they arrived, he now found he did not want them to go at all. A thought nagged at the back of his mind, and he found the question coming out of his mouth before it was fully formed.

“Magicians,” he said. “You have tilted the balance of power before. You didn’t have anything to do with the election….”

Fontaine turned away from the fireplace and fixed the President with a gaze that contained within it the hint of a smile.

“We are wizards, Mr. President. Miracles are not in our line.”

Then the Secretary threw some powder into the fireplace, stepped into the emerald flames, and vanished with a whooshing sound. President Fontaine followed, and within moments the oval office was what it had always been.

The President stood there, quite motionless, and then fell back to his seat. Absentmindedly, he reached for his phone, thumbs on the ready. This was incredible news. He knew that he couldn’t tweet out this experience. Surely this was too far, even for twitter followers—who, he realized long ago, would believe almost anything. He knew that he should never, as long as he lived, ever dare mention this encounter to a living soul. For who in the wide world would believe him?

Then the other President looked down at his phone and decided to find out.

Posted in Creative Writing, Fictional Worlds | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 24 Comments

Why I Chose not to Perform at Trump’s Inauguration

After deep consideration and advice from my friends and family, I have decided to join the growing list of those who have chosen not to perform at Trump’s Inauguration on Friday. That includes A-list celebs like Kanye West, Céline Dion, David Foster, Ice-T, Justin Timberlake, Bruno Mars, Katy Perry, and Aretha Franklin. Even Kiss was invited, though Gene Simmons declined—which makes me sad. I think the symbol of four aged performers with too much make-up and all their best work behind them would make an interesting symbolic moment on America’s stage.

Unfortunately, “I Was Made For Lovin’ You” was not written for Donald Trump. Kiss won’t be rock and rolling all night on Friday. For Gene Simmons and artists like him, supporting Trump is a deuce of a problem.

Even getting a DJ is tough. It was rumored that The Chainsmokers were going to do it, but it was just a Twitter joke. Moby—do you remember Moby?—well he offered to DJ if he could play Green Day’s “American Idiot.” It doesn’t look like it will work out.

Not everyone pulled out because they were anti-Trump or offended by his ideas about race, gender, sexuality, political allegiances, immigration policy, fiscal management, employee relations, foreign relations, spirituality, how to respond to criticism, or how women are designed to serve his personal needs. Sometimes the world’s leading stars were just busy or not interested.

Trump sent a nice note when Elton John was joined in civil partnership with David Furnish, so there is no bad blood there. Sir Elton just didn’t want to be involved in the American political scene and suggested they just get one of those “one of those [expletive] country stars. They’ll do it for you.” Not Charlotte Church, though. She said his team should have done their research better.

Paul Anka is a long-term friend of Trump, and would even have rewritten the words to “My Way” for the occasion. Unfortunately, someone took his “Having My Baby” too seriously and he is in a custody battle that day. It’s too bad. I was hoping he would do that killer cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Again, for symbolic value.

I understand how difficult these choices are. When you disagree critically with something or someone, the hardest thing is to decide when to engage and remain in the space of influence, and when to step out altogether.

There is no institution that is free of taint. Choosing to remain in your political party, church, school, office, partnership, knitting circle, or home and school association means negotiating a complex series of compromises that seems designed to take the heart out of all our choices. I get how painful these decisions are: it is the same for the student and the street performer as it is for the pop star and the politician.

Regardless of who ended up being elected in November, each American was going to have to go through another cycle of taking the bad with what seems like an ever diminishing good. Each Christian, feminist, activist, educator, refugee, writer, factory worker, and tap-dance shoe designer would spend the months and years of the winning team’s administration trying to justify the way they engage in public life. Until the world’s leaders are women and men of breathtaking integrity and vision, this is what it means to be a citizen.

So this is why even though I am disappointed in the artists who backed down after public pressure, I understand what they went through. For the first time they were faced in most certain terms with what the little moral choices they make each day really mean. No one ever told them before that ­­our character is formed by the little decisions we make in the dark, not just the big decisions we make in the limelight.

Though I don’t understand why there are church choirs and leggy women dancing in a line at a Presidential inauguration, I admire the choir member or Rockette who steps off the stage—and maybe loses his or her career—because of what they believe. It is hard to admire the superstar who backs down after signing a contract because they realize they are now hated by a whole bunch of people with twitter accounts. If the strengths of our convictions are not enough to withstand public outrage—and how the public loves to be outraged these days!— we did not really have convictions that were worth standing up for.

But I suspect no one has ever told them that this is what it means to be a moral person. My decision whether or not to perform is the same whether the public will be pleased or outraged.

I was tempted to perform at the inauguration just because I was turned off by the morally gutless late exits by some people who suddenly grew a conscience. I was also tempted because of the public hypocrisy of moral outrage. There will be thousands of support workers at the inauguration, including line cooks, security guards, intelligence workers, President Obama’s staff, janitors, water boys, and journalists. If problematic engagement is wrong, where is the moral outrage against these support workers? It is clear we have a disturbed relationship with our celebrities.

And I was tempted to perform because of the strange reaction of liberals, progressives, and true conservatives who are protesting this President. Yes, you should hold him to account. Even if he has asbestos in his soles, if you do not hold his feet to the fire you are betraying your community. But he was America’s free choice, for better or worse. He has earned the right to be on that stage with hot acts like 3 Doors Down, a Bruce Springsteen cover band, and half the Rockettes (all the women of color and their supporters backed out).

Still, despite all the good jerky reasons to perform, I am choosing not to go to Washington on Friday.

I am not opting out because Trump is conservative. He’s not conservative in all the deepest ways, but even if he was that would not affect my decision. And it is not because Trump is Republican. I don’t think he is Republican either, but a partisan choice for me is not necessarily a moral one. And it is not because he is part of the 1%. America’s political system is for the elite; Donald Trump simply understood how that would work better than some. Presidents have been elite since I was a child. This is what Americans keep choosing. It would be hypocrisy to pretend otherwise.

No, my reason for not performing is much simpler: there isn’t enough money on the table. The offer isn’t big enough. When rejecting what has to be one of the weirdest invitations Trump’s team issued—to the women who sang “Not Ready to Make Nice” about President Bush—Dixie Chicks manager Simon Renshaw quipped that if anyone accepts the inauguration invitation, “I hope that the check they get is in the nine figures. Because it’s probably the last check they’re ever going to get.” Renshaw’s got a point. Based on the current offer, I’m out—though I would take seven figures if that super popular 80s cover band The Reagan Years suddenly grows a conscience and joins a hippy colony in one of DC’s drained swamps.

What’s the difference, after all, between selling out for big money and selling out to a crowd addicted to the lure of outrage?

The Trump team knows how to find me.

Posted in Thoughtful Essays | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments