Categories
Bring Them Up

Plotting Imaginative Coordinates

On the Making of a Fully Ready Non-Fiction Rumpus

Here are the notes from my talk at the 2024 Raggant Fiction Festival. If you’d prefer to watch, here’s a link to the video.


Magic Words

There is a two-word combo that I have not been able to spin out of my mental orbit for at least nine years, a verbal pairing that has affected my reading, my teaching, my recommendations, and my vision. They’ve almost been magic words, making something that didn’t exist before.

I value those who demonstrate that good reading, including good fiction, shapes our loves and loyalties. We learn to react the right way, who to root for and who to run away from. Yes(!) to stories that deepen and direct our affections. And, also, stories expand our imaginative coordinates. They push our mental boundaries of what was possible, and in so doing expand our world-building ideas.

Coordinates are a way to find where you’re at, or locate a place you plan to travel to, or even describe the length and breadth of the area considered. Coordinates belong on maps, X and Y, and sometimes a Z. The word “ordinate” comes from the idea of arranging or setting in order, and the “co” means that it involves at least two components working together. To plot coordinates is to set a course, which works not only when navigating a trip but also when writing a story.

Plotting imaginative coordinates in this respect isn’t figuring out how Mr. Rogers’ trolly gets to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, but imagining that there could be different, even better, places that would be good to go than we previously thought.

I first read the phrase “imaginative coordinates” in Michael Ward’s book, Planet Narnia. He also partners “imaginative” with:

  • imaginative vision
  • imaginative palate
  • imaginative outlook
  • imaginative pleasure
  • imaginative access
  • imaginative difficulties
  • imaginative resting-place
  • imaginative point-of-view
  • imaginative engagement
  • and imaginative form

Imaginative here doesn’t mean imaginary, as if fake, but rather using one’s creative efforts to see an image not seen before.

Beyond the Page

This is lifeblood for world-building. The Festival’s title/focus this year includes: “reading and writing as world-builders.” Reading requires imagination to picture the world the writer describes. This is one point for books over movies, as movies leave little to your imagination. You’re still dependent on someone else’s imaginative effort since they’ve built the world so you don’t have to. And writing obviously requires imagination to see a story to tell.

But imaginative sub-creating as God’s image-bearers — as Tolkien called it — is not only good for fiction. These imaginative capacities are crucial for non-fiction world-building.

If you need someone to give you a list of everything you need to do, fine, but you won’t be better than a robot. Robots can follow instructions, and with less pouting. As I’m talking about imagination, I’m talking about going from good stories to better cities, from plot twists to new products and better businesses. My talk is sort of a thank-you letter to fiction for helping me go from good fiction to better non-fiction.

Ready Raggants

I’ve affectionately called this year at ECS “The Year of the Raggant.” This event, after all, is the “Raggant Fiction Festival.” The biggest problem is that there is no such thing as a raggant. Or is there? Well, turns out, raggants not only exist in the fictional stories of the 100 Cupboards series, the raggants have become a select group of flesh-and-blood students (who pay non-fiction tuition dollars). That is so real that the author added a plural noun for a group of raggants: many raggants are a rumpus.

This year I’ve also been thinking about a word at the beginning of James 1, the Scripture about trials going to work on us, making us something. They test our faith toward our character arc of becoming “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” Perfect is related to telos, meaning the end it was made for, and complete is holokleros, sometimes translated as sound or whole. But one dictionary defined it as: “ready to meet all expectations.”

Trials push us beyond what we thought our faith could survive, they expand our imaginative coordinates of perfection and joy.

So how can we make a fully ready, non-fiction rumpus? That’s a twist on our school’s mission, that the next generation carry and advance Christ-honoring culture. How do we prepare the rumpus when we don’t know what will happen tomorrow, what exact challenges are coming in the next chapter, for when there is no exact script to follow?

Off the Edge

Before I give some actual points, I saw an interaction on my Twitter timeline a couple weeks ago that resonates with me. One guy asked: “What work of fiction changed your worldview the most?” Another guy, a guy who loves the Lord and loves the truth, said: “None. No work of fiction should ever change our worldview. As a Christian, my worldview is shaped by Scripture alone.” And, you know, here’s two thoughts about that.

First, okay, yeah, if you had to choose, the Bible OR Narnia, you know what to do. But remember how Nathan told David a made-up story to show David his own sin? Remember the made-up story about the prodigal son that Jesus told to show the Jews their rebellion? Each of those is a “work of fiction” that God inspired for sake of producing In-Real-Life change.

Second, maybe we could get hung up on the word “changed.” Okay, yeah, but there are ways that non-fiction explanations change the facts to distort, shape to cover, shape to deceive, and ways that fiction reveals higher or deeper or broader truths.

And again, fiction plots our imaginative coordinates further out on the page, maybe even off the edge of the map. We don’t advance without imagination, and so till we have fiction we won’t complete the mission.

A Trifecta of Stuck

Three characters won’t advance, at least not well. This is not to say that only perfect characters make progress. I really enjoyed following both Cora (in The Winter King) and Lio (in The Sinking City), and Cora in particular who kept choosing wrong things, not by accident, not due to naivety. They both had flaws, and yet they both went forward. But there are three traits that cannot see beyond their plight (not plot), and all three traits are temptations for all of us.

Victims Aren’t Ready to Advance

By victim I don’t mean someone who has something bad happen to him. Why would you read something where nothing bad happens; no conflict equals no concern. By victim I mean the slave to how the other people, and the circumstances, keep him from happiness, success, glory. If it is always someone else’s fault, if you can’t imagine that there’s something you can do to make things better, you will not advance.

Frodo was not just short, he was weak, and he was greatly tempted and greatly tired and greatly whining about it. And yet, for as much Elijah Wood’s sulky face is sadly burned into my mind, Frodo was not stuck because he believed enough in his calling/responsibility to leave the Shire.

I would summarize Till We Have Faces as Orual’s turn from victimhood. She did quite a lot for much of the story while convinced that she was the victim. But this is Lewis’ imaginative power providing a fictional mirror for us, and we are the ugly ones. Telling us the story through Orual’s perspective shows us that victims often claim their virtue, but victims are not more happy but angry as they claim their virtue.

Again, bad things happen, brutal things happen, unfair things happen, and all of that happens to characters completely out of their control. But is that all they can see?

“the thinking processes that lead one to assume that one’s life situation is in extremis are partially determined by the breadth of one’s horizons at the time—which, of course, correlates with one’s imaginative capacity and sense of adventure.” (A Failure of Nerve, Location 2952)

Victims are stuck without their imaginative coordinates expanding past blaming everyone else.

Faint-Hearts Aren’t Ready to Advance

Faint-heart is an actual fictional character in The Pilgrim’s Progress. Faint-heart joined the progress/advance with Christian and Faithful for a while, but abandoned the path and went back to the City of Destruction.

Cowards hide from conflict, and lose passively. Little-faiths lay down to get out of the wind and are, of course, caught in the wind longer. Lose-hearts lose heart, they give up.

Two things. One, again, the world is full of scary things as well as bad things, and even if you could avoid the scary and bad, there’s still gravity. Things are heavy, hard. Plus, the more imaginative you are, the more you may be able to imagine how painful something will be, the losses you could experience. Staying the course is more like crossing the English Channel with a kick-board; it’s within reach but it’ll be rough.

Two, being afraid is not just possible, some of it is quite reasonable. When O’Brien threatens to strap the cage of rats to Winston’s face in 1984, that’s only a visceral fear, when in fact, all of 1984 is a red-pill of dystopian anxiety that was bad when it was fiction, let alone when it turned 2020. It makes sense that the hobbits wanted nothing to do with the Nazgul, the Balrog, or with Shelob; watch out for Tolkien monsters with six letter names. The point is not that the next page is sure to have cuddly puppies, or a pot of gold, but that we’re willing to advance.

It’s not fiction, but Paul does plot some imaginative coordinates in 2 Corinthians 4.

“So we do not lose heart… For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16a, 17–18 ESV)

It takes faith, and isn’t one part of faith being stronger is faith seeing further? Your picture of glory is probably too small. In order to not lose heart you need your imaginative coordinates enlarged.

Faint-hearts are stuck without their imaginative coordinates expanding past the immediate difficulties and inevitable discouragements.

Cynics Aren’t Ready to Advance

A pessimist is just a baby cynic, someone who can’t see anything good. A full-grown cynic is more like a nihilist, who thinks there is no point. This is why there are less Crazy-villains and more Cynic-villains. When you’re reading, and then when you’re thinking about your own responses to things, complaints unchecked lead to souls undone, and that leads to destruction. Cynicism is a self-fulfilling chaos-maker.

The disillusioned have imagination that is twisted toward their own self-interest. In their mind there’s no reason to be honorable, in fact, the honorable should be exposed and brought down.

Scrooge was a cynic, the Grinch was a cynic. They not only had bad attitudes in private, their suspicious and scoffing attitudes wanted others to pay. It was the same with Denethor and Saruman, whose cynicism led to lust for power to cause pain. They couldn’t leave well-enough alone. Shift’s cynicism opened up Narnia to slavery, murder, and eventually to being devoured by the real Tash.

Cynics are stuck without their imaginative coordinates expanding past the vices and vanities surrounding them.

On We Go

Why be so negative if the emphasis should be on advancing by the expanse of imaginative coordinates? First, because these are challenges that I’ve run into while trying advance. Second, because there are prerequisites to advancing, like not tying your shoelaces to a table leg. Third, because maybe you are one of the stuck, and you can’t imagine not being stuck, but actually fiction shows characters like you can get unstuck! It might require repentance, it might require a change in mental diet, but it is possible.

Fiction is fun, it’s entertaining, sure. But it can change your mind, and that can change/build your world. Good stories are imaginative mirrors to appall the ugly out of you, imaginative protein for world-building muscle, and imaginative coordinates to explore beyond the visible map.

Good fiction helps you be ready to meet all expectations, plotting imaginative coordinates IS part of making a fully ready non-fiction rumpus.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. stated,

“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.”

Till you have fiction, you may be stuck on your rump.

Categories
Bring Them Up

On a Mission from God

Or, Virgil’s Legendary Guide to the West

The following are my notes from the 2022 Raggant Fiction Festival. Audio and video are here.


The Rented Mule Epic

On almost any 21st Century list of epics, Virgil’s Aeneid is the rented mule. You need it to carry the burden of Western Civilization through a fairly gnarly section on the world timeline, but it’s not the epic you care about. You don’t treat it like a pet, you beat it, freely, like a rented mule.

Could we have been such chronological snobs to have a festival about monumental myths that have shaped western man and left out Virgil? Not unless we also wanted to leave out Dante, who consciously patterned his Divine Comedy after Virgil and, even more significantly, turned Virgil himself into a character to guide the pilgrim Dante through the Inferno and Purgatorio. We’d also have to ignore how culture itself went west from Athens to Rome, leaving unanswered the shift from Spartans to Caesars, skimming over the world into which the Logos took on flesh, and in which, to some extent, we still live. Like it or not, we are sons of Aeneas.

We could no more ignore Virgil’s myth than we could Thomas Jefferson while staring at Mt. Rushmore.

I will admit, I didn’t like it. When we decided on the epic theme for this Fiction Festival, the one thing I knew is that I did not want to talk about the Aeneid. Bleh; boring. I offered to buckle up with a number of other options, Dante or Milton or Beowulf or perhaps even Spenser. But Providence had other purposes, and I could do no other. If Aeneas is a reluctant hero, I was at least reluctant to start my journey with him (though I am not a hero). Knowing my calling, it was my duty to love this epic in front of you so that you might appreciate it more.

Duty Is a Four Letter Word

I said it was my duty to battle my previous boredom with this book. The zeitgeist, or common cultural and moral climate, of the 21st century is to dismiss duty. We don’t think about our duties, we deny that things are our duties. We like to think we are our own people, supposedly equal and equally allowed to do whatever we want. Modern man doesn’t have anyone else to answer to but himself; if there is a God, then He is irrelevant.

This is one of the reasons why the Aeneid doesn’t resonate the way it used to. Duty to family, and duty to the (appropriate) gods, is what drives the plot of the poem. Aeneas, at least initially, doesn’t want to leave Troy (even though it’s in flames), and then he doesn’t want to leave Dido (even though she is a hot mess), and doesn’t really even seem up to making the final kill. It’s only as Aeneas realizes and remembers and takes up his responsibilities that he can establish a civilization. He is on a mission from God (in his case, Jupiter, the “Almighty Father” and “chief power of the world,” along with the Fates).

If stories are profitable to get our loyalties tied up in the right places, and they are, and if stories are good for stimulating our affections for something bigger than ourselves, and they are, then hopefully it will become obvious why the Aeneid has shaped, and might become useful again for, Christians in the tossed and troubled days of Western Civilization.

Mythic Material

Have you read the poem? Do you know the story? Are you familiar with Virgil and his pre-Christ context?

Virgil, full name Publius Vergilius Maro, was born in 70 BC and lived until 19 BC in Italy. He was well known from two other collections of pastoral poems, the Ecologues (37 BC) and the Georgics (29 BC). He was more than a pop artist, but yet also that, like the Robertus Dylanus of his day.

Virgil lived in a politically volatile time. Caesar Augustus was taking Rome from a Republic to an Empire, and in doing so killed off some high-profile enemies. Whether or not Rome was looking for an identity, it at least was looking for some solidarity. Virgil’s story was a way to give the Romans an origin story that they could hold to, patriotically, and come to unity and peace (under Caesar’s rule).

The original #MAGA: Make Augustus Great Again. Rome had to be great, dang it. Show us why. Invent it if you need to.

Virgil worked on the Aeneid for over ten years, plodding along some days producing only two or three lines. He also wanted it burned. Legend has it that on his deathbed he pleaded with his friends to destroy it, but they didn’t, and Augustus ordered it to be published.

The poem is just under 10k lines. It is written in Latin, in dactylic hexameter, just as Homer’s epics, though Homer wrote in Greek. (For what it’s worth, a few months ago Mr. Callender and I were talking and he said that we really needed a Latin expert to talk about the Aeneid. Here I am talking about the Aeneid; I am not a Latin expert. But, I did make it through a few hours of an online course that works through the Aeneid in Latin, and…I really enjoyed it. Turns out, the original is a lot more fun and colorful. I re-read Fitzgerald in English, and, meh; it’s the recommended Omnibus version, and often recommended online. But, yeah, the Latin itself magna gloria est).

Arma virumque cano is the first line. It’s providential, and amusing, because when I (reluctantly) agreed to teach Maggie Latin when we were homeschooling, this is the second little phrase that Latin for Children Primer A has the students memorize. What I had no clue about then, is that even in these first words, Virgil is giving a shout out to Homer. The Arma, arms or weapons, look to the second six books of twelve in the Aeneid, but they also reflect the Iliad, Homer’s story of war. The virum is the man, yes, Aeneas, but also Odysseus in the Odyssey. The first six books of the Aeneid are similar sailing struggles. Even cano, I sing, connects with Homer’s song.

The main character is Aeneas. The story is called Aeneid, and not The because there is no definite article in Latin. That said, this is definitely definite; this is the Aeneid above all. Aeneas is in the Iliad, a super small role. Aeneas and Odysseus lived at the same time, and, it’s possible that they are stuck on Mediterranean seas around the same time. On the biblical timeline, this is probably just a bit before David becomes king in Israel.

Virgil writes almost a thousand years later, with the foreshadowing and prophecy making Rome’s power appear fated.

The poem sets up the hero, Aeneas, and the antagonist, which is mostly the goddess Juno (Jupiter’s wife), but it includes the Greeks and the Carthiginians and the inhabitants of Italy.

Aeneas not only admits that he is weak, he is also defeated. We find Aeneas as Troy is ransacked by the Greeks. Aeneas loses his city, his wife, and has to carry his father out of the burning wreckage to escape in ships (the subject of numerous works of art). They set sail, and Juno stirs up Aeolus to send winds against them to destroy the fleet, but Neptune doesn’t take kindly to others messing with his surf. Some ships are lost, others make port in Carthage, where Aeneas and Dido, the queen, fall in love and get married, of a sort, a relationship consummated but not covenanted.

Aeneas carries his father, Anchises, out of Troy

But the gods remind Aeneas that he has to keep going; Jupiter sends a messenger. Aeneas is called, by duty, to get to Italy and plant a people who would become Rome.

Dido is humiliated and enraged and kills herself, lighting herself on fire in a big pyre. (She’s found in Dante’s second level of hell in the Inferno).

Aeneas and his men make port at another stop, and here Aeneas is shown the door to the underworld where he goes, and sees not only Dido (awkward), but also his dad (Anchises), who reiterates that Aeneas must keep going to found a great people.

By the time Aeneas comes back from the realm of the dead at the end of Book VI, he is ready for his responsibility. His ships sail up the coast to the mouth of the Tiber River, he greets the current king, Latinus, who promises his daughter to Aeneas. That makes Turnus angry, a local prince, and the second half of the poem, Books VII-XII, are all about the various battle scenes. Finally, and abruptly, Aeneas faces Turnus in single-combat, and kills him.

Number One on the Romans Times

Though Virgil didn’t even want the thing published, the Aeneid became a bestseller almost immediately. How many people in Rome could read? How many scribes were making handwritten copies? Hard to say. Even Augustus probably didn’t read the whole thing. But it resonated with the Romans.

And why wouldn’t it? This was a story about their awesomeness. It gave them an origin story for their civilization that was Jupiter’s own desire, with the blessing of most of the gods, and the inevitability of the Fates. Remus and Romulus were descendants of Aeneas, and how could the Empire not be great? They had Virgil’s 20/20 hindsight and artistic flair to help them embrace their greatness.

Like Dido, Without Dying

When it comes to shaping Western man, the Aenied didn’t stop in first century Rome. Many men have loved Aeneas.

For fun, many medievals played Sortes Vergilianae, flipping open a Virgil book to a random page, blindly pointing at a sentence, and taking that as a prophecy (e.g., Hadrian, Charles I, others). This is also known as bibliomancy, “foretelling the future by interpreting a randomly chosen passage from a book, especially the Bible” (New Oxford American Dictionary).

Augustine couldn’t stop referencing it. In his Confessions he refers to reading Virgil again and again as a young student, and early after his conversion struggled with how it benefitted him compared to eternal things. Years later, he loved to point out how wrong Virgil was in The City of God, with some 44 interactions just with the Aeneid, probably because so many people were familiar with it. Even if Augustine loved to beat it like a rented mule, he still didn’t want to kill it.

Christians throughout the medieval period had a much more sympathetic, and appreciative take on the Aeneid. Maybe it was because they could take it as a good story more than a tool of the Caesar.

Dante certainly kept Virgil in the game. Dante gave Virgil as good a place as any pre-Christian could get. Though Virgil wasn’t welcome in Paradise because he didn’t believe in Christ, he went as far as he could with the light he had. Virgil is the poetic example and the philosophical expert. Virgil had already guided Aeneas through the underworld as an author, now Virgil could be used by an author to guide some more. Virgil was legendary.

Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin regularly quoted Virgil. Translating Latin passages on sight was a standard entrance requirement at many colleges. (source)

In C. S. Lewis’ list of books that affected him the most, G. K. Chesterton’s book The Everlasting Man was number two (after a book by George MacDonald). In The Everlasting Man Chesterton argues that Virgil’s world, as represented in the Aeneid, was the largest possible world into which the Christ would come. Chesterton wrote:

Virgil had the best news to tell as well as the best words to tell it in. His world might be sad; but it was the largest world one could live in before the coming of Christianity. (The Victorian Age in Literature (source))

the popularisation of the Trojan origin by Virgil has a vital relation to all those elements that have made men say that Virgil was almost a Christian. It is almost as if two great tools or toys of the same timber, the divine and the human, had been in the hands of Providence; and the only thing comparable to the Wooden Cross of Calvary was the Wooden Horse of Troy. (Everlasting Man, Location 2366)

It turns out, on Lewis’ top ten list, the Aeneid itself was number three. He loved it. He identified in various ways with the reluctancy of Aeneas, but knew that he had a duty to do. Lewis wrote a 180+ page introduction to Paradise Lost and included numerous reflections on the Aeneid. He even translated about a third of the poem himself, and we should wish that he had finished, because it is an attempt to get rhythm into the lines.

“Of arms and the exile I must sing, of yore / Guided by fate from Troy to the Lavinian shore.”

Vital Destiny

Lewis probably lived in one of the last generations that, as a group, sensed duty. Those who lived through, and especially those who fought during, the World Wars had more of a mind about their obligations. That said, Lewis even more was upset by the modern mindset, was consciously devoted to being an old Western man.

We have such little sense of duty, and this is mostly because we have such little sense of God.

Mrs. Bowers shared a great essay with the speakers creatively titled, “The Epic”, published in 1914. I learned a lot from reading it.

Lascelles Abercrombie (who was awarded a professorship at the University of Leeds instead of Tolkien in 1922) distinguishes between “Heroic” epic, what could also be called “Primary” or “Authentic” or even “Primitive” epic, compared to “Literary” or “Secondary” or even “Artificial” epic. Lewis, in his Preface to Paradise Lost spends multiple chapters on this distinction (Chapter 6 – “Virgil and the Subject of Secondary Epic”).

Homer, and Beowulf and the Song of Roland, for example, are Heroic, where “vehement private individuality freely and greatly assert(ed) itself.” It’s as if the men were too great not be sung; the greatness of the story demanded poetic expression. Milton, and certainly Virgil, are intentionally, self-consciously writing. They used poetic expression to make a story great.

But Abercrombie asserts that the “gods” were not really things that men believed in, they were more cultural and verbal leftovers. “Virgil is more decorous; but can we imagine Virgil praying, or anybody praying, to the gods of the Aeneid?” The “supernatural machinery” must ride the line between fanciful and functional, but there is no actual faith required.

I couldn’t disagree with that more. Aeneas did not leave Troy or leave Dido or fight Turnus except that he was convinced that that is what the gods wanted him to do. “I sail for Italy not of my own free will” (IV.499). He was on a mission from god. The Aeneid is not just the telling of events, but the telling of “vital destiny” (Abercrombie), and destiny is determined outside of ourselves.

Almost every reader who reads any background knows that Aeneas is known for his piety. There is no piety without a god/gods to be dutiful to. We don’t get epics without deity.

  • sic volvere Parcas “thus the Fates will roll out” history (line 22)
  • Aeneas first speech: “God will grant us an end”
  • Jupiter told Venus that her son will found imperium sine fine, “rule without end.”
  • “Aeneas came as one ordained, / Brought by palpable will of the unseen” (XI.318)
  • In the end, Vicit iter durum pietas, “piety has conquered the hard road”

Aeneas could barely hold himself together. He complains of his inabilities for the majority of the story. He was set up to suffer, and suffer big time. It was only divine assurance, prophecy, repeated, that sent him forward.

This is why it resonates not just with Romans, but with believers in the true God, maker of heaven and earth. God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility (courage and endurance) may be difficult to understand together, but no God leaves us with “man’s sovereignty” and that is an anti-epic. Scientific formulas (without a God who created science) have not made men more courages than men who had least had supernatural categories such as the Fates.

Read negatively, our protagonist is a weak and whiny little boy who ends up becoming the worst possible version of himself as an authoritarian tyrant. Read positively, our protagonist is a broken man who against all odds becomes strong and overcomes great suffering to establish a greater society. Read atheistically, there is no hero and no story and no West because there is no God.

Conclusion

So Virgil’s legend is legendary, and it gives us a guide, limited as it is.

“It was Virgil who taught Christian Europe the shape of history, the cost of empire, the primacy of duty, the transience of fame, the inevitability of death, the pain of letting go, and the burden of adopting new strategies.” (Louis Markos, C. S. Lewis’s List, 49)

Virgil’s poem is heavy with the weight of history, prophecy, and glory. Men want to know where they’ve come from and what they should do. They want to know how to be great. And they cannot do this unless they know their mission from God.

Categories
Bring Them Up

An Epic Festival

Registration closes March 18th for our upcoming Raggant Fiction Festival on Monumental Myths. A couple months ago I wrote that I’ll be Tackling Virgil, and other speakers will cover epics by Homer, Dante, and Milton.

My journey into and through fiction has been fun (not quite epic, though at the start it may have felt a little like visiting the underworld). I went so far as to say that I needed to repent from hating fiction, and there’s notes from that 2015 talk to prove it.

Anyway, check out the Festival page for more info and to purchase tickets.

Categories
Every Thumb's Width

Tackling Virgil

We’ve made the call that our 2022 Raggant Fiction Festival will cover some of the epics. The festival’s title is: Monumental Myths – Lit That Made Western Man. When talking about which epic I wanted to cover my first response was anything except for the Aeneid. Ha. Turns out, due to a number of variables, that I am now very excited about tackling Virgil. As I get going, I found this fantastic looking resource that I’ll be trying for doing some work in the original Latin text. I told my Latin students in class today that they can help keep me accountable.

Categories
Bring Them Up

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 _vir_tue, no _man_liness.

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)

Categories
Bring Them Up

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
Categories
Bring Them Up

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

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.

Categories
Bring Them Up

A Site to See

There’s a new website for the Raggant Fiction Festival that includes audio and video for all seven of this year’s talks. You can also download an audiobook of the whole kit.

My talk is here: The Testimony of an Unlikely Convert (and the notes are here).

Categories
Every Thumb's Width

Raggant Fiction Festival

The first ever Raggant Fiction Festival happens Saturday and today is the last day to register.

Categories
Bring Them Up

Why I Hate Fiction

Or, Why I’ve Repented from Hating Fiction


What follows are notes from my talk at the very first Raggant Fiction Festival. If you prefer to watch, here’s the video.


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 defense 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.