This Time of Year, This Time of Life

As a house full of educators and students, normally this week our family is having first first days, second first days, and third first days.

My son’s first day of high school was yesterday. He was off to school, nervous and excited with intense casual ease. My wife was at school to greet all the students in grades 1-12 as yesterday was her first first day, but her second first day is today when the kindergarten kids arrive, and her third first day is tomorrow when the four-year-olds show up, ready to learn their letter of the week. Normally, I would be having first and second first days at each of the campuses here in Charlottetown, making this week a critical time in the Dickieson household.

But this year I will be having no first days on campus. I am an adjunct professor and although I have plenty of teaching in the winter, I won’t be showing up in a classroom near you this autumn. It’s too bad. Besides my sheer love of teaching, I love the first week at a university. It is one of the few times of the year when you see students wandering around the campus in nice clothes rather than yoga pants and a hoodie. Wide-eyed and wondering, the newbies try to calibrate the information on their phones and the confusing campus map in front of them. All the while, the veterans look on with knowing eyes as they mainline coffee into their intellectual veins, or tilt their heads back to the 3D schematics or spreadsheets before them. I love first days and wish I could be there.

Instead, I am here at my desk. It’s a good place to be, generally, but it has its own challenges. One of the challenges is books, which teeter and totter in what were once meaningful piles, but now seem to be simply other places to put coffee cups. Another challenge is the email list. I took Saturday night and Sunday off, and woke up Monday to 170 unread email. About half of those are quickies, but it seems like the emails are unending. Early this summer I accidentally clicked “Mark All Read,” and was horrified to find that my entire queue-of-work list disappeared. After a brief moment of panic came clear, fervent relief.

And then there are the deadlines. Being an independent scholar has challenges like an unpredictable teaching schedule, and I left winter 2018 without having completed all my tasks. This summer has been a mad rush of conferences, project writing, and catching up on my work, all while trying to continue my main path of research on C.S. Lewis’ spiritual theology. I have had a brilliant 12 months of writing, completing about 100,000 words. But there is always, always more to do. Much more.

Despite all the deadlines and distractions, and though I don’t get to try out a new pair of teacher jeans this fall, I am excited to have this autumn pretty well dedicated to research. I am guiding some students in a discussion on spiritual theology, and I am still working on theory with others, but my focal point is research. In particular, I have a thesis due this winter, so I am writing and reading voraciously and incisively this fall. I am spending October in the UK, looking at future things, visiting some friends, and getting some archive time at the Bodleian and some library time in Chester. I am also pleased to say that I am speaking a bit about my research at the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society on 23 October, which is pretty thrilling and not a little intimidating.

So I have a very busy autumn and winter to follow, hoping that this time next year I’ll have some extra initials after my name.

What this means is that I probably have missed an email from you–erased by an accidental (providential?) flick of a key–or maybe even an appointment. I probably owe you a paper, or a response to a paper. Perhaps I have signed a book contract with you and forgotten? Not likely, but there is a distant chance. I do know that I got terribly behind on the great blog comment discussions here this summer. I read every comment on my phone but I couldn’t respond to them all–sometimes because of technology, but often because of time. Thanks for the intelligent and compassionate disagreement to everyone who engaged! I hope my absence wasn’t viewed as rejection.

All this to say that regular readers will no doubt feel my “time” in this upcoming season. I will still be posting weekly, supplemented by some Throwback Thursday posts and perhaps some guest posts. My posts will probably feel random but they will follow the pattern of my research–a thread that will feel invisible to most but is ever present to me. As things appear in my reading and writing I will post them, hoping (as always) that they will encourage you, disturb you, provoke your own thoughts, or just make you happy. I am planning a Planet Narnia series for January-February, which could be fun. I’m also thinking of a “5 Book” series for next spring (with some guests), but will hold off on that for now. I have about thirty posts that are partly written or sketched out, but these will appear organically as they interest me (or encourage, disturb, or provoke me, etc.).

So, for now, thanks to everyone for reading and commenting. I might not always be able to comment on your blog posts, comments, and academic work, but do know that I am paying attention. If you have a guest blog, article response, or book announcement that fits the parameters of this site that you’d like to share, send me an email (junkola[at]gmail[dot]com). Although it has gone on its own journey over the last seven years, A Pilgrim in Narnia remains a faith, fantasy, and fiction blog dedicated to exploring the work of C.S. Lewis, the Inklings, and other imaginative writers as they tell us great, deeply rooted stories. It always pleases me that I’m not the only pilgrim on this journey.

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The Last Letter of J.R.R. Tolkien, on the 45th Anniversary of His Death

I have just finished reading The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (1982), which is fitting given that this is the 45th anniversary of his death (2 Sep 1973). With help from Christopher Tolkien, noted writer, broadcaster, and biographer Humphrey Carpenter collected the letters in that energetic period between the publication of The Silmarillion (1977) and the beginning of The History of Middle-earth in the two-volume Book of Lost Tales (1983-4).

Though I was not yet awake to the world, I can imagine that these were heady days for Tolkien fans. The Maker of Middle-earth passed in 1973, no doubt leading to the great disappointment of throngs of avid readers hoping (since 1955) for more. Then, with the help of Guy Gavriel Kay, Christopher Tolkien is able to publish The Silmarillion–something his father was never able to do. Carpenter published his Tolkien biography the same year, followed by a biography of the Inklings in 1978 and the letters in 1981. I can imagine the energy of Tolkien and fantasy societies in these days, long before the internet, when hope for more was fueled by hearsay, rumour, and happy self-delusion. And yet, in the 45 years since his father’s death, Christopher Tolkien has published 23 major volumes. My copy of The Fall of Gondolin (2018) arrived on Friday at suppertime.

Tolkien’s Letters was my most recent “occasional book,” meaning that I read about a letter a day, taking a break last winter to read L.M. Montgomery’s diary. Of the 400 pages of letters, unfortunately only a handful are preHobbit, leaving us with a great gap in that incredibly fertile period of the pre-narrative production of the legendarium. I suppose that gives plenty of space for fans to speculate, for students to explore, and for scholars to make their living. After all, in Carpenter’s collection there are dozens of critical letters concerning Middle-earth (including this one). There are also critical moments in the history of the Inklings (see here and here), letters about the inspiration of his work (like this one), letters to, from, and about fans (like this and this), and–especially in the last decade–many letters about critical details of language development and what we might call Middle-earth theory (like this one–though the ignorance in the post title is mine, not Tolkien’s).

For me, the most profound moments among Tolkien’s letters were when he shared his deeply personal and painful struggle to complete his work. No doubt Tolkien was a publisher’s nightmare even if, when the work was done, he was a dream. In either his academic or his popular work, I’m not sure he ever hit a deadline (at least after the 1930s). I talk here about how the first quarter of The Letters are filled with “insecurity and faint hope.” The brief and light post, “12 Reasons not to Write Lord of the Rings, or an Ode Against the Muses” shows Tolkien at his procrastinating best. But it is not all sheer perfectionism and the self-delusion of “I’ll do it tomorrow.” As I blogged occasionally about the Letters, I often mixed these moving moments in Tolkien’s life. In particular, “Battling a Mountain of Neglects with J.R.R. Tolkien” is about the weight of neglected tasks when desire to tackle them is deep–and yet, there is no time. And in “The Shocking Reason Tolkien Finished The Lord of the Rings” we finally get to look toward the end of that 20-year journey.

I am a little sad now that I have finished The Letters. It was moving to see the end of his life come. Though it was 45 years ago–and the anniversary is only a coincidence–I have joined thousands that have no doubt bowed their heads for a brief moment on closing the last page of this book.

How did The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien end? In the last few pages there are letters about proper Middle-earth names for cattle, detailed letters about philology and Elvin tongues, reflections on his status as a “cult figure,” a reunion with Christopher Wiseman of the TCBS, and notes of grief at the death of his wife, the distance of his family, the debilitations of old age, and his disappearing set of friends. In this collection filled with information about the man and his work that we would have in no other way, what is the last letter about?

Actually, it’s a prattling, familial note to his daughter, Priscilla, while on vacation in Bournemouth at his friends, the Tolhursts. While there are a hundred great notes we would wish to have from J.R.R. Tolkien on his deathbed, I kind of like that this collection ends with the phrase, “… but forecasts are more favourable.” We don’t–or I don’t, in any case–actually know the last thing that Tolkien wrote. We do not have a definitive “Collected Letters” as we do with Dorothy L. Sayers (edited by Barbara Reynolds) or C.S. Lewis (edited by Walter Hooper). Until then, here is the last post of J.R.R. Tolkien, on the 45th anniversary of his death.

Wed. Aug. 29th. 1973                                               at 22 Little Forest Road, Bournemouth.

Dearest Prisca,

I arrived in B’th. about 3.15 yesterday, after a successful drive with most traffic going north not seawards, & a curry-lunch shared by Causier [the driver], Mrs C. and David. It was v. v. hot here & crowded. The Cs. then went off to find ‘accommodation’ for 2 nights, and departed necessarily with all my luggage on what looked like a hopeless quest. They dropped me on the East Overcliff by the Miramar which nostalgically attracted me; but I went into the town & did some shopping, including having a hair trim. I then walked back to the Miramar at 4.45 – and things then began to go wrong. I was told Causier had called to find me about 4 p.m. which made me afraid that he was in difficulties. I also found that I had lost my Bank Card &: some money. ‘Reception’ were surprised but welcoming, comforted me with a good tea. Also assuming that I had been looking for something more than a tea, they told me they could have done nothing at all for me, but for a cancellation which would allow them to take me in on Tuesday Sep. 4 – but I said I would see. I took a taxi to 22 L.F.R. (which promptly lost its way) and arrived late to find the house crowded & lively — only the Dr. was away till evening. (Happy go-lucky folk.) Then I waited anxiously for Causier. It was nearly 7 before he (and Mrs C. & D) turned up – I suspect he too had lost his way – and said it had only taken him 15 mins to find v. g. rooms for 2 nights! In the meanwhile Martin Tolhurst (formerly of N[ew] College), now grown to an immensely tall, charming, and efficient man, had by telephone located my Bank Card etc. at The Red Lion Salisbury. So all was well, for the present. But I have accepted the Miramar offer, and shall not return to Oxford till Sep. 11. For various reasons: the chief being I wish to give Carr plenty of time to clean my rooms [at Merton College], which, and I too, were much neglected latterly; I wish v. much to visit various people here, also Chris Wiseman at Milford, and I am old enough to much prefer familiar surroundings.

My dearest love to you.


It is stuffy, sticky, and rainy here at present – but forecasts are more favourable.

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On Embracing my Inner Nerd, Or Erasing the Division between Head and Heart (Throwback Thursday)

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

I thought about this post when I was rereading C.S. Lewis’ essay, “On the Reading of Old Books.” This classic piece began as a foreword to Sr. Penelope‘s translation of St Athanasius’ The Incarnation of the Word of
. I have been thinking about the ways that Lewis resisted and took up culture, and one thing he encourages is that we read old books in order to have another worldview crash with our own. Though I’ve read this a few times, I had never coded this note from Lewis’ own life:

“I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others. I believe that many who find that “nothing happens” when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.”

I saw that and thought of this longish post from a few years ago, where I admit my struggle with so-called “devotional” books and how I feel energized by academic and theological work. If you change “pipe” for “coffee” in the above quote, I quite agree with Lewis. I hope this post sets some people free and starts the school year off well.

huckleberry finn 1883The phrase, “doing your devotions,” still gives me the shivers. Early in my spiritual journey, my well-meaning leaders tried to instill a little religion in me. I was the Christian equivalent of Huckleberry Finn when it came to disciplines that shape spiritual growth. My early mentors recommended I do a “devotion,” and gave me these little devotion books. They had names like 15 Minutes for God! and Devotions for a Young Man.

I don’t want to knock sincere believers who are just trying to shape young adults. I, like Huck, needed a little civilizin’. But the devotion books like Time with Jesus for Those in a Hurry and Life-changing Stories of Spiritual Heroes were filled with trite tear-jerking stories or heart-warming tales augmented by an asinine question or two and a little prayer to finish things off. Honestly, I found more inspiration in the Chicken Soup for the Soul stories I read in line waiting to buy toothbrushes and avocados.

But the problem wasn’t the books, even those named The 30 Second Devotional or Prayers for Power.

The problem was me.

Chicken-Soup-for-the-Soul-actual soupFor years I struggled to do these devotions. I just couldn’t set aside the time or find the motivation. Instead of mortaring in the bricks of my faith and knowledge and service with a life of praying and listening and waiting, guilt became my mortar. It wasn’t long before the foundation was beginning to crumble.

Going to Bible College actually made my spiritual life worse.

Part of it was the sheer limitations of time and energy. I worked full-time through college, on top of the rigours of a university curriculum and, from time to time, dates with a gal I very much wanted to become my wife. Finding space to do devotions between textbooks and time-clocks was a challenge.

I have to admit that the pale devotional books weren’t very inviting in times like these. It is hard to look at books named Little Tastes of the Almighty or Christian Thoughts for Commuters and feel like they will make any difference at all.

It wasn’t all bad. I was developing the amateur’s version of a Brother Lawrence style prayer practice in the normal of life. At work I would volunteer for the lonely jobs where I could slip away into a silent pattern of prayer. And I was good at reading the Bible—usually in large, greedy chunks in binges rather than a healthy daily diet. That’s still true of me in some ways. But I was missing both the nourishment and the formation of the great spiritual expressions.

richard foster booksAnd all this time the spines of Richard Foster books frowned at me from my bedside table.

At college, the professors would occasionally remind us to do our “devotions” outside of the reading for class. We were reading literature, history, and educational materials, as well as theology and biblical studies. Their concern was that we would harden ourselves into the difficult material that we “have to read” and miss the kind of reading that can excite and nourish us. I think the expectation was that we will have spent time in prayer and reading before class began at 8:30—a time one professor referred to as the “sweet hour of prayer.” Most days I slid into my desk, hardly awake, barely dressed, still smelling of the pizza restaurant where I worked until 4am and unsure whether it was “Systematic Theology” or “Models of Christian Leadership.”

You already know that I wasn’t doing my devotions regularly. Usually, the professor’s prayer to start the class was my first one of the day. So there was guilt—blurry-eyed, but real.

But there was another problem: I actually liked the things they made us read, the difficult books, the long boring textbooks. By contrast, I didn’t like Nifty Nutrients for Needy Christians or Soulful Stories for Spiritual Strength or 10 Minutes to a Better Prayer Life. Instead, I liked books with titles like Systematic Theology, Christian History in the West, A Commentary on Ezekiel’s Visions, and The Hermeneutics of Modern Dispensationalism.


It’s not that I didn’t think these books were boring. They sure were, though there are some diamonds in the rough. It’s just that these books said something. It was often a horrifying something, or a disagreeable something, or a something that made my head swim. But these books got my head pounding and my heart racing.

These books meant something. All that books like Healing Halitosis of the Heart and Warm Snuggly Stories for a Spiritual Fireside did was empty the Amazon of its trees and empty the heads of evangelicals. I remain concerned about the clearcutting of both.

I actually went to do a Masters in New Testament Studies at Regent College as research for a novel I was working on (and never finished). Sometime in the first year I had come to realize that there were other folks who actually liked the old, hard, boring books. There were lots, actually—and not just professors, but nurses and lawyers and bricklayers that occupied the desks nearest me. They walk among us, these lovers of ideas, with nothing to warn us of their strangeness except the dim outline of a weathered book in their purse or pocket.

It was somewhere in those first few months of study—study for which I was woefully unprepared—that I realized something about myself. I discovered that I not only liked the boring books, but I was enriched by them. The feeding of the brain was, for me, nourishment of the soul. The separation of head and heart that was made early in my formation—the distinction between the academic and the devotional—wasn’t helping. Indeed, it is these old books that were finally filling up in me the place that the devotional books were meant to fill. What The Hipster’s Guide to Daily Prayer couldn’t do, Luther’s Preface to Romans could–even if I only understood a little of it.

I suspect it was the same for most of my professors, that they found deep spiritual fulfillment from their daily reading of the great minds, though I don’t know for sure. But I have been able to support and grow this geeky spiritual discipline, so that intellectual growth for me is a part of soulcraft.

And I don’t mean in just the warm writings or even the theological stuff. I did my masters in the Christian roots of antisemitism—going to the hardest, most horrifying stories of faith-abuse that I could find. I was tired at the end of that project, but I was fed too. I worked with the new atheists for five years, and was able to speak benediction as I read arguments against God and faith. The closest thing I’ve ever had to a “daily devotion” was reading Darwin’s Origins of the Species each night before going to sleep. It is a moving, worship-full book, though it is believed by some to have undercut all religious stories.

Christopher Hitchens God_is_not_great bookMy spiritual partners, then, have been not only St. Augustine, Anne Lamott, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Miroslav Volf, but also Christopher Hitchens, Simone de Beauvoir, Dylan Thomas, and Bart Ehrman. Lately, I’ve found that Albert Camus, Margaret Atwood, Hans Küng, and Stephen King have slid into the pew beside me. I’m not sure how they feel about that! It’s true that I find Marilynne Robinson more uplifting to read than Richard Dawkins, for it is both more beautiful and more deeply rooted in truth. But I find Philip Pullman at his best as spiritually energizing as C.S. Lewis and John Milton—the men he is trying to both emulate and undercut.

For C.S. Lewis, the liturgy was important because in it

“we are therefore called upon to carry on a critical and a devotional activity at the same moment: two things hardly compatible” (1952 letter).

Not for me. For me, worship is abandonment. But in my reading and learning I am carrying on the seemingly incompatible task of combining the critical and the devotional. I suspect Lewis, who found devotional books unhelpful and read theology for enrichment, was similar, though I don’t want to press my story upon his.

For you, the ideal pattern for shaping spiritual life may be different than mine. You may even find great joy and help in books like Daily Prayers for Life in the Fast Lane or Second Helpings of Spiritual Feasts! If so, whatever you do, don’t change your pattern by what I’ve said. You are blessed, so be a blessing to others.

But for those few who are discovering their inner nerd, it could be that the division between head and heart isn’t helping. Perhaps there is a way to integrate spiritual and intellectual nourishment.

Simpsons-The_7_Habits_of_Highly_Effective_Pre-TeensAnd for those of you, nerd or not, who struggle with guilt or frustration about the failure of your devotional life, I want to offer a little hope. Yes, like me, you are the problem. But that’s the point of Christian spirituality: It isn’t about you. It isn’t about me. It is God who grows good things in us. I think that “Chicken Soup for the Soul” church culture is lame, but I also think the “Habits of the Highly Effective Christian” culture is damaging. What is driving this daily devotion culture? I wonder if it has more to do with emptying the Amazon and filling Christian bookstores than it does with rooting a generation in the long, deep story of Christ in the world.

In any case, be free. Christ did not die on the cross so that you could read the Bible in a year or finish off 365 Days to a Spiritualer You! in 120 days. And think of the millions of believers who have gone before—and the tens of millions today—who cannot read, or who spend every waking moment trying to find a little food for an empty table. Your “daily devotion” guilt may well be less a product of the Holy Spirit and more a product of a culture addicted to efficiency and comfort—a culture that salivates over systems and snappy book titles.

So, my friends, be free of commercialized commitment and systematized spirituality. Be free of guilt and see what a great world is there for you to explore. Embrace the nerd–or the artist, or the builder, or the comforter hidden inside you–and see what for you is the best way to be open to the Spirit growing you in your faith.

Note: The names of devotional books have been changed to protect the identities of the authors.

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The Fall of Gondolin next week!

I’m quite excited about this. See also John Garth’s review in Times (behind a registration wall). I am also pleased by Alan Lee’s illustrations, but I would love in 10 or 20 years to see a new edition of these great pieces come out with other superb artwork. Looking up for the Fall of Gondolin!

A Tolkienist's Perspective


The official Facebook page for J.R.R. Tolkien recently unveiled an exclusive Alan Lee artwork from The Fall of Gondolin and, suffice to say, it looks gorgeous. Not only that, it features quite possibly the coolest Vala in Arda.

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H.P. Lovecraft’s “Supernatural Horror in Literature”

I am in the midst of an extended reading of Stephen King‘s Dark Tower Cycle, including the extra books that connect most intimately with King’s great mythic universe (see Mathew Olson’s essay here; I’m rereading ‘Salem’s Lot now with Wolves of the Calla). This multi-year project of reading, combined with my interest in Stephen King as supernatural writer, my love of gothic and vampire fantasy, my slow discovery of literary history at the hand of C.S. Lewis, and my work in teaching literary theory led me to place Stephen King’s Danse Macabre (1981) on my digital bedside table. Knowing how influential H.P. Lovecraft was to King, someone recommended Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature as a warm up to Danse Macabre. I’m glad they did.

Lovecraft is no doubt the king of the early 20th-century horror genre. I don’t always love his prose style and his (thankfully sparse) dialogue is abominable. But he can evoke an atmosphere that commands attention as he draws from myth, legend, superstition, religion, the occult, faërie, folktale, and rumour to create weird tales and horror stories that readers loved in his day and love still. Lovecraft was terribly influential for King, who in many ways exceeds Lovecraft in popular appeal and breadth of possibilities for the genre.

With these strengths in hand, and despite these disadvantages, H.P. Lovecraft provides the reader with an engaging long essay/short book in Supernatural Horror in Literature. Though I am not a critical scholar on the development of the macabre, and remembering that Lovecraft was writing 90 years ago–long before Stephen King and the explosive popularity of horror films–I was surprised by the ease with which Lovecraft tells the story of the development of horror stories. Though the last half of the essay descends into description and summary without thematic connection, and though we have a “tell” rather than “show” author at points–he uses the word “hideous” and variants more than 30 times, rather than actually creating a feeling of hideousness–Lovecraft is convincing in his grasp of the general development of the genre. In particular, this essay shows that Lovecraft was remarkably well read, providing a reading list in his analysis of the genre that would delight and disturb readers for a decade.

Having enjoyed this essay so much, I thought that I would share with your one of its strongest features, the introduction. It acts as an introduction to his survey as well as a trigger warning to two kinds of people.

First, he admits that he is dealing with tales of terror: not all will want to follow in this particular journey. Second. Lovecraft roots horror writing within sound historical, literary, and psychological soil, inviting the genre to be considered on its own literary merits rather than as merely another stream of pulp fiction to opiate the masses. It’s a gutsy move, yet done unselfconsciously. Indeed, Lovecraft uses a genre that is not yet matured–zombie fiction–to imagine the plight of those “free enough from the spell of the daily routine to respond” to the imaginative scope of the macabre.

For those of us who feed on genre fiction, who live in the literary ghettoes defined by the suspension of disbelief, the introduction is a lot of fun. I hope you enjoy this introduction to Supernatural Horror in Literature by H.P. Lovecraft. Lovers of Lovecraft might appreciate Dr. Amy H. Sturgis SignumU class, “Literary Copernicus: The Cosmic Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft,” which is on sale for audit in celebration of H. P. Lovecraft’s birthday (see here). It would also be a nice background to Dr. Dimitra Fimi’s class, “Folkloric Transformations,” which focusses on werewolf and vampyre fiction.

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. These facts few psychologists will dispute, and their admitted truth must establish for all time the genuineness and dignity of the weirdly horrible tale as a literary form. Against it are discharged all the shafts of a materialistic sophistication which clings to frequently felt emotions and external events, and of a naively insipid idealism which deprecates the aesthetic motive and calls for a didactic literature to uplift the reader toward a suitable degree of smirking optimism. But in spite of all this opposition the weird tale has survived, developed, and attained remarkable heights of perfection; founded as it is on a profound and elementary principle whose appeal, if not always universal, must necessarily be poignant and permanent to minds of the requisite sensitiveness.

The appeal of the spectrally macabre is generally narrow because it demands from the reader a certain degree of imagination and a capacity for detachment from every-day life. Relatively few are free enough from the spell of the daily routine to respond to rappings from outside, and tales of ordinary feelings and events, or of common sentimental distortions of such feelings and events, will always take first place in the taste of the majority; rightly, perhaps, since of course these ordinary matters make up the greater part of human experience.

But the sensitive are always with us, and sometimes a curious streak of fancy invades an obscure corner of the very hardest head; so that no amount of rationalisation, reform, or Freudian analysis can quite annul the thrill of the chimney-corner whisper or the lonely wood. There is here involved a psychological pattern or tradition as real and as deeply grounded in mental experience as any other pattern or tradition of mankind; coeval with the religious feeling and closely related to many aspects of it, and too much a part of our inmost biological heritage to lose keen potency over a very important, though not numerically great, minority of our species.

Man’s first instincts and emotions formed his response to the environment in which he found himself. Definite feelings based on pleasure and pain grew up around the phenomena whose causes and effects he understood, whilst around those which he did not understand—and the universe teemed with them in the early days—were naturally woven such personifications, marvellous interpretations, and sensations of awe and fear as would be hit upon by a race having few and simple ideas and limited experience. The unknown, being likewise the unpredictable, became for our primitive forefathers a terrible and omnipotent source of boons and calamities visited upon mankind for cryptic and wholly extra-terrestrial reasons, and thus clearly belonging to spheres of existence whereof we know nothing and wherein we have no part.

The phenomenon of dreaming likewise helped to build up the notion of an unreal or spiritual world; and in general, all the conditions of savage dawn-life so strongly conduced toward a feeling of the supernatural, that we need not wonder at the thoroughness with which man’s very hereditary essence has become saturated with religion and superstition. That saturation must, as a matter of plain scientific fact, be regarded as virtually permanent so far as the subconscious mind and inner instincts are concerned; for though the area of the unknown has been steadily contracting for thousands of years, an infinite reservoir of mystery still engulfs most of the outer cosmos, whilst a vast residuum of powerful inherited associations clings around all the objects and processes that were once mysterious, however well they may now be explained. And more than this, there is an actual physiological fixation of the old instincts in our nervous tissue, which would make them obscurely operative even were the conscious mind to be purged of all sources of wonder.

Because we remember pain and the menace of death more vividly than pleasure, and because our feelings toward the beneficent aspects of the unknown have from the first been captured and formalised by conventional religious rituals, it has fallen to the lot of the darker and more maleficent side of cosmic mystery to figure chiefly in our popular supernatural folklore. This tendency, too, is naturally enhanced by the fact that uncertainty and danger are always closely allied; thus making any kind of an unknown world a world of peril and evil possibilities. When to this sense of fear and evil the inevitable fascination of wonder and curiosity is superadded, there is born a composite body of keen emotion and imaginative provocation whose vitality must of necessity endure as long as the human race itself.

Children will always be afraid of the dark, and men with minds sensitive to hereditary impulse will always tremble at the thought of the hidden and fathomless worlds of strange life which may pulsate in the gulfs beyond the stars, or press hideously upon our own globe in unholy dimensions which only the dead and the moonstruck can glimpse.

With this foundation, no one need wonder at the existence of a literature of cosmic fear. It has always existed, and always will exist; and no better evidence of its tenacious vigour can be cited than the impulse which now and then drives writers of totally opposite leanings to try their hands at it in isolated tales, as if to discharge from their minds certain phantasmal shapes which would otherwise haunt them. Thus Dickens wrote several eerie narratives; Browning, the hideous poem “Childe Roland”; Henry James, The Turn of the Screw; Dr. Holmes, the subtle novel Elsie Venner; F. Marion Crawford, “The Upper Berth” and a number of other examples; Mrs. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, social worker, “The Yellow Wall Paper”; whilst the humourist W. W. Jacobs produced that able melodramatic bit called “The Monkey’s Paw”.

This type of fear-literature must not be confounded with a type externally similar but psychologically widely different; the literature of mere physical fear and the mundanely gruesome. Such writing, to be sure, has its place, as has the conventional or even whimsical or humorous ghost story where formalism or the author’s knowing wink removes the true sense of the morbidly unnatural; but these things are not the literature of cosmic fear in its purest sense. The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.

Naturally we cannot expect all weird tales to conform absolutely to any theoretical model. Creative minds are uneven, and the best of fabrics have their dull spots. Moreover, much of the choicest weird work is unconscious; appearing in memorable fragments scattered through material whose massed effect may be of a very different cast. Atmosphere is the all-important thing, for the final criterion of authenticity is not the dovetailing of a plot but the creation of a given sensation. We may say, as a general thing, that a weird story whose intent is to teach or produce a social effect, or one in which the horrors are finally explained away by natural means, is not a genuine tale of cosmic fear; but it remains a fact that such narratives often possess, in isolated sections, atmospheric touches which fulfil every condition of true supernatural horror-literature.

Therefore we must judge a weird tale not by the author’s intent, or by the mere mechanics of the plot; but by the emotional level which it attains at its least mundane point. If the proper sensations are excited, such a “high spot” must be admitted on its own merits as weird literature, no matter how prosaically it is later dragged down. The one test of the really weird is simply this—whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim. And of course, the more completely and unifiedly a story conveys this atmosphere, the better it is as a work of art in the given medium.

This piece was published in 1927 in the single issue magazine, The Recluse, and updated in the early 30s. It is included in a couple of collections, including Dagon. For the full online edition see here


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instead, I want to be a Digital Leopard Frog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

In all these ways, I am Digital Leopard Frog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So is America greatest when she is divided or unified?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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