The Adventure Aslan Sends

Or, The Last Lesson to Fortify Children with Chests


Here are my notes for the talk I gave at the recent Raggant Fiction Festival. The video of my talk is here, and the audio will be available soon.


Channeling Screwtape

My dear Wormwood,

Many demons have done well, nephew, but you excel them all. It has been quite some time since I’ve written to you and, as you yourself know, I do not usually give such high and blameworthy compliments. But progress for our Father Below has been delightfully dark and your patient is helping us more than he could imagine in our deceptive work.

We cannot entirely stop the Enemy from giving His so-called blessings. He comforts and helps His creatures because it is His despicable nature. The parties thrown in His name are gross, and I would spit in all their wine glasses if alcohol didn’t also turn some humans to our brand of misery. But even as your patient enjoys some of these blessings he is restricting other blessings to his students, and doing so in the Enemy’s name. What I mean is that he is keeping his Fifth Grade Class from dealing with anything that smells grave. He looks for books with sunny stories about safe things. He’s committed himself, as far as he’s able as a teacher, not to let the kids think about DEATH.

Of course you have encouraged this censorship, and gotten your patient to call it righteous. As you know, DEATH is actually the Enemy’s tool, not our idea; He uses it for punishment and for warning (and in one awful case, atonement). It is our specialty to distract from DEATH. We don’t want humans to deal with it. That will only make them consider what comes after, about what it would be like to see the Enemy’s Son face to face, and perhaps about how to please the Enemy now. Entertainment is your offering and the screen your altar. These numb their fears and sooth any sick feelings that might get them searching, let alone fighting, for what human poets foolishly call noble.

Your efforts to provide a virtually endless stream of vapid comics and cartoons, along with your program to keep the adults too tired to push the off button, will earn you a glorious cup of lukewarm coffee with your praise in gates of hell. I am so impressed with your use of technology that I may write you again via email (another tool, I’m told, which our side has almost entirely claimed for its own).

Your affectionate uncle,

Screwtape

The Burdens of the Battle

For the first three fiction festivals I was the first speaker of the day. In my leadoff position I just needed to get a walk and then depend on the other speakers to do the heavy hitting, not stranding me (and my thoughts about fiction) on base. I am in the fourth spot today not because I’ve become a heavy hitter but because my topic is more heavy. I’m going to talk about The Last Battle, the seventh of the seven Chronicles. Some people find this book harder to digest than a talk immediately following lunch.

How many of you have read The Last Battle? As a kid under 10? As an adult? How many of you love it? How many of you hate it? How many of you tolerate it?

I aim to convince you that, at the least, the series would not be complete without it, and not merely because “Last” is in the title. But I also aim to persuade you that it is the most needed of the seven books for our day. While not sufficient all by itself, it is the crucial consummation of the series.

A number of people don’t like this book at all and they have their reasons. I’ve talked to some of them, I’ve read some of their reviews. They don’t think that TLB is consistent with the previous books, either in its tone or its message of salvation or even how it is that a talking animal in Narnia has become so bad so quickly. They don’t think it is enjoyable to read even if they end up liking Lewis’ picture of heaven. A few readers name it as their favorite, but those people are usually weird, and they’re usually adults.

Admittedly I often prefer things that aren’t as popular. When I told Mo a couple months ago that I was considering talking about why this is the best Chronicle, I unexpectedly launched us into a multi-hour back and forth. I had only read it once before that conversation, but since then I’ve read it a couple more times and I am even more excited to consider it’s weaknesses and it’s strategy with you.

What I am most burdened to answer about The Last Battle are these two questions: 1) Why did Lewis write this book? In other words, what agenda did he have? 2) Is this book really a children’s book? Should we accept it in the series, but only give it to our kids when they are older?

Who in Heaven’s Name?

Before answering those, let’s admit that there are a few bona fide problems in the book. Two of them relate to presence and absence in the afterlife, and one is about whether the afterlife should be part of the plot at all.

Emeth, the Calormene, is in heaven. Susan, one of the two Queens of Narnia, is not.

I hope to post something more detailed in the future about Emeth in particular. Emeth believed in Tash, not Aslan. He knew of Aslan, and hated him. He worshiped Tash, served Tash faithfully, and was willing to die in order to see Tash. But at the end Emeth is in heaven, and Aslan explains that Emeth’s faithful service was really for Aslan because Tash doesn’t do faithfulness. I recently read a lengthy argument that this corresponds to a biblical truth, that there could be true believers in God who are ignorant about God’s name. That is bologna. Lewis confirmed in this-world letters that he personally believed in the category of “ignorant Christian,” those who were ignorant that what they believed made them Christians. Lewis had been giving an otherwise orthodox view of salvation through atonement by grace in the previous six Chronicles. Emeth’s salvation is wrong, not only soteriologically but also in terms of the plot, as I’ll mention below. The sympathy the royal Narnians feel for Emeth is part of Lewis’ own sentimental leftovers, something he usually destroys.

Missing from heaven is Susan Pevensie. In this case I think that there is no need throw the lamppost. TLB ends when Susan is not yet dead. Peter, Edmund, and Lucy are dead, and Peter does say that Susan is “no longer a friend of Narnia,” and Jill says that Susan is distracted with the things of this world. If we take Peter’s words finally, it’s not good. If we liken Susan’s concerns to the cares of this world choking out the growth of the gospel seed (Matthew 13:22), it’s also not good. But Aslan himself crowned Peter, Susan, Edmond, and Lucy and said, “Once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen,” (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, 167) and so I’m satisfied leaving time for Susan to repent.

But isn’t this really quite something, to be talking about so much death? In his book Planet Narnia Michael Ward observes that this is a bold move on Lewis’ part for a “children’s book” because [SPOILER!:] every character who starts the story in The Last Battle Lewis kills (Planet Narnia, 198). The verbs “to die, to kill, and to murder (and cognate nouns and adjectives)” appear once every 2.67 pages (ibid., 202). This is a story about the last battle, and for every key person (except Susan) it concerns their last breath, whether in England or Narnia.

Realized Cosmology

How does all this fit Lewis’ agenda? There are three ways it fits his agenda.

First, and this is my opinion based on considering Lewis as a character, I think Lewis liked to mess with the church ladies. I can picture him in the back room of The Bird and Baby talking to Tolkien and responding to a hysterical woman: “Oh, you like to have your neat Bible categories? You’d like for your kids to never say the word ‘ass’? You don’t want your kids to have think about what it would be like if terrible things happened to them? Hold my beer.” Lewis is an old-school contrarian, and I at least wonder if he wasn’t going out of his way to make some of it scary for those who like their theological underpants too tidy and boring white (e.g. including Bacchus). The Chronicles are good, not tame.

Second, I buy Michael Ward’s thesis that Lewis wrote seven books in the series around the seven planets known in medieval cosmology. I went to a Wordsmithy conference a few summers ago and Ward was the guest speaker. I wasn’t going because of him, but I figured I’d read his book beforehand. I read it, and then heard him speak about it, and then made Maggie read it, and bought a copy for Jonathan, and still take opportunity to poke at Leila about it as much as possible. Friends of Narnia, get and read Planet Narnia. Analyze Ward’s case, and note how the “feel” of the seventh Chronicle fits the “feel” of the seventh planet.

Saturn is not only the seventh planet, it is the furthest from earth and the final threshold into heaven. Saturn is death. Saturn is cold and bitter and dark like December. Saturn was known to bring about disastrous events, even fatal events. How many times does Tirian’s band make a plan only to have it ruined at the last minute? Dis-aster (aster is the Greek word for star), de-staring, is exactly what happens in the sky, and before that, one bad thing after another happens to our crew of heroes. Saturn is usually associated with Father Time, the great giant who awakens to end the Narnian world (TLB, 83).

Lewis loved pre-Copernican cosmology and lamented the loss of its worldview so much so that he wrote a scholarly treatment of it in his book The Discarded Image. Each of the previous six Chronicles fits with the characteristics of a planet, not to mention how the planets fill the Space Trilogy and much of Lewis’ poetry. It’s not even well hidden that Roonwit says “The stars never lie,” and “I know there are liars on earth; there are none among the stars” (TLB, 8). If you wonder why this book feels different, it’s because Saturn is called Infortuna Major – the greatest unfortunate-maker. The influence of Saturn gives TLB the bad feels.

The Last Lesson for Fortifying Chests

But I’m convinced there is still another reason beyond messin’ with the church ladies and rounding off his cosmology. This is what the cosmology was good for, not just a convenient orbit for the plot.

What was Lewis trying to do in this book? All of the previous books have a central lesson:

  1. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: atonement
  2. Prince Caspian: authority
  3. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: repentance and redemption
  4. The Silver Chair: Aslan’s word, spiritual disciplines
  5. The Horse and His Boy: providence
  6. The Magician’s Nephew: creation and fall

The last lesson is given in order to finish fortifying children with chests. The well-known ”men without chests” line comes from Lewis’ strain in The Abolition of Man. In that book Lewis attacks modern education that makes men who have no loves, no affections, no will to fight. They have no chests.

He specifically attributes the problem to a children’s book (with his own made-up title): “The operation of The Green Book and its kind is to produce what may be called Men without Chests” (Abolition, 26). A few paragraphs later he says,

In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful. (ibid., 27)

In The Last Battle Shift, the ape, admits that he has a “weak chest.” Shift is the not-quite-evolved-man who acts like the boss by manipulating others until someone stronger than him comes along. Shift has no backbone, no virtue, no manliness.

We don’t like Shift and that’s an important dislike. Instead, our heroes are those who live for someone other than and bigger than themselves. You don’t have to be an adult to figure this out; the kids know it.

As Scrubb and Pole (which incidentally would be a great name for a detective show) learn about Shift and the Calormenes they want to fight.

In the end Eustace and Jill begged so hard that Tirian said they could come with him and take their chance—or, as he much more sensibly called it, “the adventure that Aslan would send them.” (TLB, 52)

The word adventure 11 occurs times in the story. “Adventure” is what adults call it to kids to make it seem less scary. Perhaps adults should think about it as adventure, too.

Their adventure—Tirian and Jewel, Poggin and Puzzle, Eustace and Jill—is fighting to Make Narnia Great Again (#MNGA). And it is through that battle that they reach their greatest joy. Their fight is not to get to heaven, not initially. They get to heaven through fighting, and in this story, by losing the right fight. They lose everything they were fighting for and gain more than they were fighting for.

The last lesson that fortifies children with chests teaches loyalty to Aslan and longing for Aslan’s ways that is so deep they are willing to die for it. And of course, “whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39).

This is the report Farsight the Eagle gave Tirian about Roonwit:

I was with him in his last hour and he gave me this message to your Majesty: to remember that all worlds draw to an end and that noble death is a treasure which no one is too poor to buy.” (TLB, 50)

Later when Tirian realized they probably could not win, “his only thought now was to sell his life as dearly as he could” (TLB, 72).

Food is good and to be enjoyed, especially in Aslan’s name, but it is not worth stealing from or manipulating other people for it (as Shift did to Puzzle and the squirrels). Castles and commerce are good, but not at the expense of other’s dignity (as the Calormene’s to the Narnians and Talking Horses). And while death is not good in itself, and there are ways to die that are fearful and then damnable, it is possible to fight to the death in a way that Aslan says, “Well done, last of the Kings of Narnia who stood firm at the darkest hour” (TLB, 81)

Lewis makes us sick of selfish economics (Shift’s socialism), sick of selfish religion (the Tarkaan’s “Islam”), and sick of selfish cynicism (the dwarves’ selfishness). He also makes us long for something more desirable than we have ever had satisfying us here in this world, a longing to be really home where we belong. When we are freed from belonging here in a final way we are ready to fight for good for here whether we win it now, or not like we thought.

We don’t know if we will make it better. Maybe our fight will be an example for future fighters. Maybe we are the last generation of fighters. Either way, we fight to win. The battle is not all rousing speeches and shining steel, but also includes gathering wood for a fire, cleaning the blood off swords, stacking chairs, and making another pot of coffee. And when things keep going wrong we can imagine asking, “Aslan, how many more times shall we regroup? Child, regroup until there is no more group.”

Fiction Up and Fiction In

Most people appreciate the last quarter of TLB with its imaginative (and Platonic) view of heaven. Whatever heaven is like, we will love it.

But the main agenda Lewis had for us is to love Aslan and whatever adventure Aslan sends enough to be willing to pay the ultimate cost. We try to protect kids from death, when we should promote love for Aslan and prepare them to fight on his behalf.

This sort of love can’t be stuck on like an “I voted” sticker. This sort of love longs for peace and feasts and work and a kingdom under a good king. This sort of love has hates, recognizes enemies, and is vigilant and bold to defend and fight against those enemies. Emeth was an enemy who would have killed the Pevensies and Eustace and Jill and Tirian in Tash’s name; the children would have fought him, not expected him to be in Aslan’s Country. This sort of love cries at loss, but doesn’t let the tears fall on the bowstrings.

Near his death Lewis wrote a letter to a group of 5th graders: “The only way for us to get to Aslan’s country is through death, as far as I know.” (Omnibus intro essay to The Magician’s Nephew). Lewis lost his mom when he was eight years-old. He wrote to the generation after WWII, those who undoubtedly wondered about battle, about loss and death.

Some adults panic about or pooh-pooh the book and yet modern kids (and adults) need the book. The United States is not Narnia any more than England is, but the lessons of Narnia are for us. Socialism, Islamism, cynicism, abound around us. They are not ways of Christ’s blessing. They bring no peace, no redeemed bacchanalian joy. Regardless of one’s eschatology and millennialistic expectation of the end, it will be better in heaven to the degree we love our place here and now.

We want our kids standing with us in the gates for the last battle. Parents, don’t expect TLB to do your work, but put it to work for you. Like the Narnia air, good fiction such as the Chronicles makes kids stronger, even if they can’t explain it. That’s why we need to get fiction up and fiction in.

And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before. (TLB, 101)

Fiction Up and Fiction In

I mentioned in my previous post that our next Raggant Fiction Festival is coming up in a couple weeks, March 23rd to be precise. This year’s theme revolves around The Chronicles of Narnia and other things Lewisian, and you can get tickets through March 18th. A ticket gets you a great lunch, some other goodies, and opportunity to hear the following talks:

  • Leila Bowers – Sleuthing Stories: How Narnia Teaches Us To Slay Sneaky Dragons
  • Bekah Merkle – The Nobility of the Common: American Aristocracy in Narnia
  • Jonathan Sarr – What is Bacchus Doing in Narnia? Feasting, Revelry, and Making an Ice Queen Sweat
  • Myself – The Adventure That Aslan Sends or, The Last Lesson to Fortify Children With Chests
  • Bekah Merkle – Loyalty and Treachery: Virtues, Vices, and Victories

Alsan invites you to come

Why I Hate Fiction

Or, Why I’ve Repented from Hating Fiction


What follows are never before published notes from my talk at the very first Raggant Fiction Festival in 2015. If you’re interested in more, not only can you check out three years’ worth of talks at the above link, you could register for this year’s festival that’s happening on March 23!


It’s Not Business, It’s Personal

Mine will be a personal talk and there are a few reasons for it. It will be personal because I am a fiction amateur. I read fiction now because I love it, which is what being an amateur used to mean (from Latin amator meaning "lover"). I do not get, nor have I ever been, paid to read or write or teach about fiction. I don’t have a degree in literature or intentions to pursue one. I read to my kids, I read as an auditor in our school’s Omnibus class, and I read on my treadmill for fun. I read fiction out of enthusiasm not due to employment.

This also will be a personal talk because I am a fiction noob, an inexperienced and possibly incompetent student of fiction. I have only been a lover of fiction for at most three years, and considered over my lifetime reading fiction has only played a meaningful part during the last five years. A Vegas bookie would offer a generous over-under to say that I’ve read 50 fiction books more than 50 pages long. Teachers assigned me more than that, and I suppose there is irony in my ability to write fictional answers to all the non-fiction comprehension questions those teachers posed.

So I love it but I am new to it. And the last reason I’ll give for why this is a personal talk is that I am a recovering fiction hater. I despised it like a mime despises small talk. I am an unlikely covert because I didn’t merely believe that all fiction was worthless, I believed that all fiction dishonored God. It was a waste of time and resources best spent on reading the Bible and making disciples of the nations. Even more than that, it was a distraction from truth, from worship, from God Himself.

But I was wrong. I was the one dishonoring God. I will go so far as to say that my hatred of fiction, and the convictions that I used to justify it, were sinful. Mine is a personal testimony of a fiction hater who repented.

I could wear this quote from C.S. Lewis like a man of letters jacket.

The key to my books is Donne’s maxim, “The heresies that men leave are hated most.” The things I assert most vigorously are those that I resisted long and accepted late.

Because I resisted so intensely and accepted fiction into my heart so recently, I can’t wait to pay years’ worth of lost tribute in thanks to God for the gift of fiction.

What I have to offer is a sort of, I hope, "helpful unprofessionalism" on the subject. In fact, because I’m not an authority on fiction perhaps that means that I’m in a good spot to submit to it. I don’t have to say good things about fiction for my job. If anything, I risk alienation from my own pastoral guild by even caring about such a festival.

Why a Testimony?

Christians appreciate testimonies as fire appreciates oxygen; we feed on them. Each one of us can tell the story of how God saved us as we recount what our life was like before He caused us to be born again and how He’s grown us in Christlikeness since. God often uses a testimony to encourage His people and sometimes even to prod an unbeliever to see his own similar need.

I am not saying that fiction is a gospel or that I wasn’t saved until I started appreciating fiction. I’m noting God’s pleasure in using personal stories to raise the flag of His goodness.

I’d like to think that my testimony will, first, challenge fiction fussers to stop their fussing. I’m an argument from the greater to the lesser: if God can cause me to change my mind then it shouldn’t be harder for Him to nudge a doubter through the library door. If someone produces a show called "Behind the Bookshelf" someday, I would be a good candidate for the first fool-to-fiction episode. Besides, many Christians seem to think that more problems makes for a more dramatic narrative arc. Let me tell you, I’ve got problems.

Not everyone shares my issues, and aren’t you glad? So a second reason for a testimony like this is to encourage those who have friends that are fiction fussers that it is possible for the hate to stop. Is it one of your children? Do you have students who struggle to appreciate the gifts you’re trying to give them?

Repentance, or Why I Was Wrong to Hate

I don’t want to criticize bad fiction as much as I want to criticize those who won’t read fiction for fear that it all is bad. I want to criticize former me (and maybe present-day you).

Why did I hate fiction? How did I defend my hate? I can look back on two stages of my hatred, an immature stage of ignorance and then a better informed, more mature stage of ignorance. The defenses for both stages were different and both were problematic. An autopsy on the former fiction hater may help others to see and subdue their own excuses.

When I was a child, I read as a child, or at least I read like a boy who preferred to hold any type of ball over any type of book. It wasn’t for lack of opportunity. We had books at home. My mom took my sister and I to the county library almost every week during summer breaks. My mom had been a high-school English literature and drama teacher before I came along, so one might think that I had narrative in my blood. But I resisted sitting still and I suppose my inner contrarian took pleasure in resisting whatever good things people put before me. While there is nothing wrong with shooting hoops and hitting wiffle balls–activities my nine year-old son also enjoys–I was lazy.

Only if it was raining and the car was in the garage and I couldn’t come up with any new ways to annoy my sister, would I read chapters of Encyclopedia Brown and The Mad Scientist’s Club, along with another detective series about a boy named McGurk. Otherwise I preferred that my entertainment take the least amount of mental effort. I defended myself by claiming that I was just a kid, I was a boy, I was an athlete. Really I was a sluggard. And I missed out.

I kept up this game through high school. The only assigned book I remember reading in its entirety was The Lord of the Flies. I must have read more because they did finally award me the highest order of hall pass: a diploma. During my freshman year of college I switched after one semester to Milligan College which required a 24 credit Humanities course, eight hours a semester for the first four semesters. Here was just one of the essay questions on the final exam.

Goethe, Voltaire, Dostoyevsky, and Melville are sitting at a round-table discussion. The three latter each offer their opinions of Goethe’s Promethean character, Faust, and recommend improvements in the character and/or story. Goethe responds to each in turn. Provide a transcript of the conversation.

I knew enough to know that I was going to need to transfer again to get out of taking this course.

Something positive was about to happen, though. That summer between my freshman and sophomore years I became a Calvinist. A new light shone on all my studies and, for the first time (in forever), now I wanted to read. Alas, I only wanted to read books about the Bible and theology. I wanted true books, the ones that would help me know God better. Because I was studying to be a pastor, stories were only as good as they were potential sermon illustrations and, in my circles, the shorter the illustration the better. After all, a preacher ought not draw attention away from the truth.

I believed that what mattered most, if not what mattered only, were spiritual things. Paul said not to set one’s mind on the things of earth but instead on the things of heaven (Colossians 3:1-2). He said don’t get entangled in the affairs of this life as a soldier of Christ (2 Timothy 2:4). He urged Timothy to preach the Word (2 Timothy 4:2), not novels, and told the Corinthians that the wisdom of the world was nothing compared to preaching the gospel. "I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified" (1 Corinthians 2:2).

At this point in my life I wasn’t being lazy. I wasn’t trying to avoid books or using my brain. But now I was a dualist. I believed that God cared about celestial things more than bodily, earthly ones. I railed from my heart through my mouth against immature believers who didn’t grasp the priority of truth and the urgency for us to know it and explain it to others. Truth comes in propositions, not epic Greek poems. Truth advances in formulas, not fables. Truth demands clarity, not creativity. Truth may by mysterious but it is not mythical. Truth is, above all, non-fiction.

But I was wrong. That’s not to say that truth is imaginary, but good fiction can and does carry truth. I made false divisions and, what’s worse, I asserted untrue propositions in doing so. I was lying about truth, cropping the truth to my preferred, more comfortable, and more personally benefitting forms, the ones that made me seem more spiritual.

Both my childish laziness and developed dualism were image-bearing problems. That’s why the target audience of this festival is anyone fussy enough to complain about reading fiction.

Stages of Restoration

Maybe you’ve been standing on the side of the pool and need someone to tell you that the water is warm. Jump in. What helped to show me the errors in my hatred of fiction? There are five ingredients that God used to bless me into good fiction as He restores His image in me. They are sort of in order with overlap on the timeline.

First, I got married and we had kids. When Mo and I met and got engaged she was appalled that I hadn’t read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. She encouraged me to read it, which I did, but didn’t get past the first chapter in Price Caspian. A few years later God gave us Maggie and that raised questions about raising her, especially what sort of education we wanted to give her. Mo’s parents homeschooled her, Mo loved it, and at the time I was glad to delegate all of that to her. But the questions kept coming up though I hadn’t come to answers yet.

Second, I started to study and teach Genesis. I was a youth pastor at a church where the New Testament was 95% of the Sunday sermon diet as well as the staple for home Bible studies. I was more comfortable with epistles, but believed that some Old Testament study would benefit the youth and challenge me to expand my arsenal. I had no idea.

In the first chapter of Genesis the Bible confronted me with God’s gladness in stuff. "The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof" (Psalm 24:1). The non-spiritual things are His idea. Out of all the ways that He could have communicated His glory and reveal what He liked, He chose dirt and then made man from it to work it.

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:28)

He created and then He created mini-creators, image-bearers. Men and women are made in His image to reflect His likeness which means among other things that we were made to make. Dorothy Sayers summarized it this way in her book, The Mind of the Maker:

[W]hen we turn back to see what he says about the original upon which the "image" of God was modeled, we find only the single assertion, "God created." The characteristic common to God and man is apparently that: the desire and the ability to make things.

The cultural mandate, if you’re okay calling it that, included science and technology and art. By chapter four of Genesis we see music and instruments and gangster rap poetry from Lamech. All of this started to step on the toes of my dualism, and it hurt in a good way. Then I came across Tolkien’s idea of sub-creators.

Although now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not de-throned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned:
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted Light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons- ’twas our right
(used or misused). That right has not decayed:
we make still by the law in which we’re made.

Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.
(Tolkien on Fairy-stories)

Not only are story-makers allowable, they are necessary. Writing, and by good and reasonable implication, reading, are ways that men truthfully emulate God. Characters, plot, battle, love, loss, battle, magic, return, these are all God’s narrative devices and good fiction imitates His patterns. The Bible says so.

Third, I drank the classical education Kool-aid. About this time our oldest daughter had started school at home and we were trying this thing called the "classical" model. Mo had given me a book or two to read about it. I read The Lost Tools of Learning and wrote some of the nastiest comments in the margins. Because I wanted to be an involved dad, I kept reading. After the first couple years the curriculum for all the classes got harder, and then both Mo and I realized that we needed a school to help us.

We found Providence Classical and Christian School in Lynnwood the same year that our son Calvin started Kindergarten. We loved Providence and I kept seeing the benefit of books, even fiction ones, for shaping thinking and worldview and loyalties. By this time we had started a church and wanted this sort of exposure and enculturation for more than just our family. So we started thinking about starting a school in Marysville. That meant even more reading, more thinking about why and what we wanted for students and their families. It meant most asking what we as parents wanted to get first for ourselves so that we could give it to our kids and the next generations.

Fourth, I was bit by the Abraham Kuyper bug. His oft-quoted comment about Christ’s lordship over every thumb’s-width in the universe fit with Genesis and confirmed that my dualism dishonored God’s Son. It also affirmed the classical and Christian model of education. Kuyper didn’t write fiction himself but his testimony of salvation credits a Victorian novel, The Heir of Redclyffe, as a key in his conversion. His eagerness for men and women and children to use all of the world as a way to honor Christ applies to good stories.

Fifth, I tasted the sweetness of fiction itself. I started to read it. I read the Narnia series to my kids and I liked it. I wanted to sail with Reepicheep to the end of the world on the Silver Sea into Aslan’s Country. I saw too much of myself in Eustace Scrub, fussy and unfamiliar with the right sort of books. I read The Pilgrim’s Progress. I read the 100 Cupboards series by Nate Wilson to the kids and loved it. Our school mascot is, after all, the raggant.

I read Omnibus books along with the first three secondary students like The Odyssey and now in year four The Iliad. We read how Virgil gave real meaning (through a mostly made-up story) to Rome in The Aeneid and how the right kind of laughter makes Grendel and his mother furious in Beowulf.

Nate Wilson encouraged me to read Lewis’ Space Trilogy. Specifically he said that That Hideous Strength was without question the greatest English novel. I couldn’t imagine stomaching science fiction but he said that skipping the first two books was for cheaters. Not only did I read them, not only do I agree with his assessment, but the power of the categories Lewis gives in THS have shaped my thoughts on peer pressure, dualism, the dangers of human "progress" without God, ironic acronyms, Aurthurian legend, and Merlin’s magic. It even made me want to drink tea.

A Luxury I Can’t Live Without

Not every fiction book that I’ve read has been so much fire in my belly. But I have tasted and seen that good fiction is good. I would even say that over the last few years during times in between fiction readings, I’ve felt malnourished. I would say that I need it like food.

Growth requires food. Multiple times every day, throughout my entire childhood, I was fed. How many specific meals do I remember? How many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches do I remember uniquely as distinct from all the others? I remember meals in the same way that I remember story times. The atmosphere and aura of feeding—-goblets and goblins, milk and villains, ice cream and orcs. I was fed. I grew. Inside and out. We are narrative creatures, and we need narrative nourishment—-narrative catechisms. (Death by Living, 11)

Why?

Good fiction puts flesh on the skeleton of the past. It makes names, dates, and places warm. This is a specialty of our keynote speaker. For example, I’ve appreciated John Calvin for more than twenty years. I’ve read books by him and biographies about him. Mo and I named our son after him. But this summer I read The Betrayal which colored a unique hue on Calvin’s life that made his life more vibrant.

The Illiad shows rather than defines a worldview where glory-seekers and shame-haters will kill. It also should make us glad that the true God doesn’t have a sulking daughter forever complaining and manipulating. A Tale of Two Cities and Macbeth exhibit the senseless self-destructive nature of revolution and revenge. Uncle Tom’s Cabin may play too much on the reader’s emotions, but how we deal with others must not be unemotional.

Good fiction also puts perspective on the present. It lets you look at yourself as from a telescope rather than a mirror on the cool side of the car sun visor. The Inferno may not paint even one accurate stroke about hell except that hell is just and it is bad. We do well to realize that we get what we deserve apart from God’s grace. Likewise, The Screwtape Letters may not even be close to the way principalities and powers and rulers and authorities communicate. Everyone knows they text message these days. But how it is not gives us insight into the temptations and battles we are in. And the general liturgical value of reading stories reminds us that we are all characters in a bigger story. We are being read. What do the critics think about us?

Finally, good fiction puts gas in the tank as we fight into the future. One of the best parts about a book is the final page. If we enjoyed the book we may not be glad that it’s over. But we often need the encouragement that the story will be over someday. Life is not a movie. The valley and the climax doesn’t resolve in two hours, or even in the 15-20 hours of reading a Russian novel. But the positive part reminds runners to run for the prize, kids to make and pursue goals, soldiers to fight for victory, disciples to be with Him where He is.

Fiction also expands our imaginations for sake of holiness. The Bible provides much clarity on do’s and don’ts. But sometimes we encounter new situations. Wisdom is more than being able to regurgitate facts on command. Wisdom is being able to anticipate and see what the proper response would be.

1984 (which, by the way, I’d love to contrast with That Hideous Strength if we do this festival again next year), written in the future to Orwell’s first readers, is still a scary prophecy of the kinds of tyranny we vote over ourselves. The Ashtown Burials series gives confidence that spending your life to death will bring life. I love watching characters battle the criticism and pain. There are true stories, biographies, that encourage us to be unbroken, but so do hobbits coming back to the Shire who won’t accept the new way.

As Sam Gamgee said, "No welcome, no beer, no smoke, and a lot of rules and orc-talk instead. I hoped to have a rest, but I can see there’s work and trouble ahead."

Bringing Good Things to Life

We have too many non-fiction problems not to read fiction.

What then is the good of—-what is even the defence for—-occupying our hearts with stories of what never happened and entering vicariously into feelings which we should try to avoid having in our own person?
The nearest I have yet got to an answer is that we seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. Each of us by nature sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and a selectiveness peculiar to himself. And even when we build disinterested fantasies, they are saturated with, and limited by, our own psychology….We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own….We demand windows. Literature as Logos is a series of windows, even of doors. One of the things we feel after reading a great work is "I have got out". (Lewis, C. S., An Experiment in Criticism. Cambridge University Press, 1961, 137-138)

The name of this organized celebration is the Raggant Fiction Festival. The raggant is an animal that doesn’t exist and yet he does. We want to bring him to life, but differently than Pinocchio. We want more than a graduating class of raggants, we want generations of them. N.D. characterized the raggant as a creature with one sense who interprets everything in the world through that sense. It’s what fired up Jonathan to see the analogy with classical Christian education in which we equip students to interpret all of life through the grid of Jesus Christ as Lord. It is a make-believe creature that we believe is worth making.

Thanks for being here to celebrate, or at least to consider why Christians should be the least fussy people, about non-fiction and fiction. Maybe you’ve been given reason to repent, or hope, or to grow bigger than you were when the story started.

Fiction as a Political Weapon

The second Raggant Fiction Festival is less than two weeks away. This year’s theme is: Fiction as a Political Weapon

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I get to lead off the day comparing two dystopian imaginations, That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis and 1984 by George Orwell. There’s a new children’s track this year for kids ages 3-10. I wrote a short story that I’m going to read for them in the afternoon. Check out the festival page for the full schedule and titles of the talks. Registration closes next Monday.

The Lifeblood of Fiction

My mom really wanted me to read when I was a kid. She taught English before I was born, then she stayed home to care for me (and my sister who joined us two years later). Summers included weekly trips to the public library where, as I remember, my sister would return her borrowed stack and collect a new tower for the following week while I thought about whether or not I really wanted to read the next McGurk mystery.

Maybe it wasn’t quite that pitiful, but after Encyclopedia Brown and McGurk and The Mad Scientist’s Club I spent my time reading things such as road signs. I don’t remember any book from my elementary school classes. I do remember much better the books I was assigned in Junior High and High School that I didn’t read. Somehow I graduated, and Lord of the Flies left the greatest impression. That’s what happens when you only read one.

Between my freshman and sophomore years of college I became a Calvinist. That got me excited about studying and reading but only so far as it concerned “the Truth.” The novels assigned in my Humanities class were for the “less spiritual” in my book. Through college and seminary I devoured works full of propositions and despised those filled with plots and characters. When I met Mo, she told me it was wrong that I hadn’t read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. So I read it, earned the respect points, and then quit somewhere in the first chapter of Prince Caspian.

More than a decade later, not only did I realize I was missing out, I realized I needed to repent. My disdain for fiction was dumb. Willful neglect truncated my imagination, my worldview, and my relationships. It also pruned my theology and worship. There is more to say about all this, and I’m excited to say it at the Raggant Fiction Festival.

Fiction Festival

Our keynote speaker for the festival is Douglas Bond. He’s an actual author (!) and I’ve enjoyed The Betrayal and am almost finished reading the first of three in the Crown and Covenant series to our kids. His talks will make the day worth the cost. Also speaking will be our school’s headmaster, Jonathan Sarr. Among other things he teaches our Omnibus class which includes many of the shapers and staples of Western culture. Andy Bowers was our first full-time teacher and has covered all kinds of literature with our older grammar students. New to our faculty this fall is Leila Bowers who will teach another Omnibus class. She’s been teaching at a community college for several years and will bring more narrative mettle to the pot than most of us.

But I get to lead off. I am the least qualified to talk about the merits of all the fiction books that should go on one’s shelf, but I am definitely excited to talk about the need for fiction to be on the shelf. Good fiction is a lifeblood for Christian faith and faithfulness. It cannot replace the Bible nor does it intend to. It does help us think about how to live out the Bible and, done right, moves us to want to.

If you are a fiction hater, or ignore fiction, and especially if you hate or ignore with fussy theological reasons, then this Festival is aimed to bless you. If you already love fiction, then you will probably enjoy it as well. Check out the event page and consider hanging with us in Marysville on Saturday, September 26.