An Interview With Dan DeWitt – Author of “The Owlings”

Front Cover - The Owlings Book II

Front Cover – The Owlings Book II

In early 2015, I reviewed Dan DeWitt’s novella titled The Owlings. DeWitt’s novella is a foray into children’s fiction, but with a special twist. Here is what I said a year ago:

DeWitt, Dean of Boyce College, approaches the philosophical and theological concept of worldview in a manner reminiscent of C. S. Lewis – through the medium of narrative. The primary way to communicate philosophical ideas in Western philosophy is through monographs, treatises, journal articles, and other forms generally preserved for academic and professional realms. Such avenues, though effective for the student and professional philosopher, have inevitably isolated philosophy from the general public. If one seeks to communicate philosophical concepts beyond the walls of academia, narrative literature has the potential to make philosophy more palatable and easier to understand for those uninterested in or unable to pursue philosophical study.

DeWitt has followed up his first novella with Book Two of The Owlings series. The story picks up with Matt and his sister Megan, leading to their eventual encounter with the beloved owls from Book 1.

To mark the recent release of The Owlings: Book 2, I had the opportunity to interview the author, Dan DeWitt back in December. The focus of our interview was threefold: 1) the writers that influenced his work on The Owlings, 2) the role of fiction in teaching, and 3) the value of fiction in teaching. The interview ends with some advice from DeWitt for aspiring writers.

In addition to marking the release of Book 2, my interview with DeWitt also serves to add to my work into the value of fiction (in particular) and literature (in general) in teaching. To gain some background on what I’ve written so far, you can check out the following posts. This can give you some context into why I asked the questions I did.

So, stay tuned! In the meantime, take the time to visit Dan DeWitt’s website – you’ll get a glimpse of his God-given creativity!

Review: “The Owlings: A Worldview Novella” Part II

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Dan DeWitt, "The Owlings: A Worldview Novella" (Theolatte Press, 2014)

The Owlings’ main character, Josiah, is a young boy who lives in rural America. Nothing is given by way of information about Josiah when it comes to his age and location. What is said of Josiah gives the reader a glimpse into his interests, of his observations of his small world, and his family life. For instance, Josiah and Addi (his best friend) note their bus driver’s peculiarities in order to detect his mood and tendencies. Also, when Josiah and Addi arrive at her house after school (Chapter 3 “Bad News and a Scary Owl”), the children note the somber mood in the air, making the distance between their parents in the kitchen and the front door seem like “a country mile.” DeWitt’s development of Josiah allows the reader to step into his world and to connect with the issues he’s facing. Unbound by age or geographic location, anyone can relate to Josiah.

As I stated in my previous post, The Owlings is reminiscent of C. S. Lewis, particularly his Chronicles of Narnia, in that throughout the book, Josiah encounters talking owls. Where this book departs from Lewis’ Narnia series is that it lacks the adventure and action of battles, travel between worlds, and mysterious lands and castles. But such aspects would not fit with the dilemma in which Josiah finds himself. Rather than facing evil cronies of the White Witch, our young friend encounters reality of a harsh world (losing his home to eminent domain) and of competing worldviews. It is the seemingly mundane, every-day life issues where finds the greatest tension and the impetus behind Josiah’s transformation.

DeWitt’s novella opens up with Josiah sitting in his thinking spot. On this particular night, the young lad thinks back upon his day at school, particularly his science class. With his regular science teacher out on maternity leave, the substitute teacher (Sam) introduces the class to
naturalism – that nothing exists outside of nature. Though the students seem confused, Sam patiently and respectively answers students’ questions. Josiah Is not sure, though, whether what Sam claims is true; Josiah likes nature and had hoped there was something beyond what we perceive in this world.

Josiah’s world is soon rocked with the news that he and his mom would be required to move from their family farm to make way for a highway expansion. Once Josiah receives the bad news, The Owlings is dominated by his family’s concern about and planning for the move, as well as Josiah’s strange encounter with a bespectacled, caped owl. Sam and his naturalist message takes back stage to Josiah’s impending move until he is visited by three owls on one fateful night.

DeWitt’s juxtaposition of the two dominating themes in Josiah’s life mirrors contemporary culture. Josiah’s concern about Sam’s claim that “nature is all there is” takes the back seat to his family’s impending move and loss of their family farm. Josiah has to come to the realization that not only is he going to lose his home, but he will also have to move away from his best friend Addi, whom he has lived next to his entire life. In fact, as the book progresses, Josiah’s home situation and his curiosity about the owls dominates the story. It lulls the reader into placing greater emphasis on the housing problem as opposed to the worldview clash taking place in the classroom.

And so it goes in the Western culture (particularly American culture) – life’s ultimate questions are typically brushed aside as everyday struggles and decisions are given greater attention and prominence. Questions about the origin of the universe, the nature of mankind, ultimate reality – among others – tend to be relegated to the arena of “personal beliefs” or for those interested in such “academic” questions. Such questions have little (if any) relevance on the goings on and problems of the modern world and do little in solving problems such as that faced by Josiah and his mother.

A significant twist occurs in the story when Josiah is greeted by three owls one evening. They sought to help Josiah with his very serious issue. Josiah – as well as the reader – is taken aback when the owls seek to discuss what Mr. Sam is teaching in science class as opposed to Josiah’s impending move. According to the owls, one’s worldview – how they understand and view the nature of the world – is a far more important issue as it affects how one approaches all of life, including issues like losing one’s home.

Josiah is confused at first; he thought the owls would help him figure out a way to get his house back. Yet, as the owls discuss the importance of one’s worldview, Josiah comes around to understanding the issue at stake. The morning after his late-night conversation with the owls, Josiah and his mother are surprised with the news that their farm home would be saved because their land is home to a rare owl.

The Owlings does not end with Josiah accepting Jesus Christ as his savior. It does not end with him at least going to church to learn more about what the owls shared with him. But, this was DeWitt’s intention. The purpose of the novella is to get anyone – believer and un-believer – to acknowledge at the least that life’s ultimate questions are very important – more so than many are led to believe.

DeWitt intends his book to be a conversation-starter. Unlike the atheistic naturalist who holds that all answers are found through science, DeWitt’s books points one to the need of going to Scripture to know more about the answers to life’s ultimate questions. They are not found in a novella – or any other work of literature; rather, the answers to these vital questions are found in the Bible. As such, DeWitt’s book intentionally leaves the reader with more questions than answers so that they are spurred on to search out those answers from the Wise One Himself – God as revealed through His Word.

DeWitt’s use of literature to illustrate the importance of reflecting upon life’s ultimate questions and on worldview thinking helps make what many feel to be a dry academic topic more accessible. The message is more readily received through connecting with realistic characters than through dry or technical textbooks. The Owlings is an excellent for parents to share with their children as a means to introduce the all-important task of developing a thoughtful and, Lord willing, biblical worldview.

Review: “The Owlings: A Worldview Novella” Part I

Dan DeWitt, "The Owlings: A Worldview Novella" (Theolatte Press, 2014)

Dan DeWitt, “The Owlings: A Worldview Novella” (Theolatte Press, 2014)

 

In a day and age where more pragmatic and results-oriented careers drive universities to offer degrees in the hard sciences, institutions of higher education offer fewer and fewer degrees in humanities and liberal arts. In particular, philosophy is a discipline that has seen its better days when it comes to its perception and reception by not only academicians, but by the public as well. Over the last half-century, philosophy has been relegated more and more to a peripheral area of study – one that serves to merely fulfill an elective or to satisfy the philosophical itch some may have. As a result, our society is increasingly populated by those who lack any basic knowledge of philosophy (or, at the least, have a very minimal working knowledge) and how it under-girds various aspects of human life, including disciplines of study, public policy, economic policy, among other areas.

However, the blame for contemporary attitudes toward philosophy ought not to be placed only on universities – the reasons for the malaise in which philosophy finds itself are numerous and varied (something that’s been written about in many a book and article). Philosophers themselves shoulder some of the blame because of the obtuse, dense, and technical nature of many modern philosophical works.

One of the few things that I remember from my writing courses in high school and college is the maxim to write clearly – write so that your point comes across to your audience.  Unfortunately, this basic maxim is forgotten or neglected by some philosophers with their works requiring specialists to decode their meaning. But, this situation is not as prevalent as some may think; rather, the dense, obtuse,  and/or technical nature of philosophical works is due to the dense, obtuse, and/or technical nature of many philosophical subjects. Thus, without a sufficient background in the basics of philosophy, the non-philosopher finds philosophy uninteresting and difficult, to be ready only by those who are “super-smart.”

So, how does this apply to Dan DeWitt’s new book, The Owlings: A Worldview Novella? DeWitt, Dean of Boyce College, approaches the philosophical and theological concept of worldview in a manner reminiscent of C. S. Lewis – through the medium of narrative. The primary way to communicate philosophical ideas in Western philosophy is through monographs, treatises, journal articles, and other forms generally preserved for academic and professional realms. Such avenues, though effective for the student and professional philosopher, have inevitably isolated philosophy from the general public.[1] If one seeks to communicate philosophical concepts beyond the walls of academia, narrative literature has the potential to make philosophy more palatable and easier to understand for those uninterested in or unable to pursue philosophical study.

The use of narrative is not unique to DeWitt, and not even to Lewis for that matter. One can go back as far as Plato, who presented his philosophy in the form of dialogues between Socrates and misguided or unsuspecting individuals. Jumping forward one millennium and several centuries, Hume, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard employed dialogue in some of their writings, while Sartre, Rand, Camus, and C. S. Lewis utilized fiction.[2] The benefit of writing philosophy in narrative form is that it appeals to our proclivity to connect with stories, it lowers philosophical concepts from the ivory tower into the nitty-gritty of everyday life, and it has the potential of appealing to the whole person – heart and mind.

In The Owlings, DeWitt illustrates in story-form the life-impacting value of worldview thinking as he takes the reader into the life of young Josiah who, in a matter of days, faces the reality of leaving the only home he knows and of the weightiness of life’s ultimate questions. More to come in Part II…. in the meantime, visit Dan’s blog Theolatte to get to know him more.


 

[1] This is a rather loaded claim here that can be misleading. What I intend to communicate here is that while various philosophers have decried the apathy toward philosophy exhibited by many non-philosophers, they have not helped out the situation by making difficult philosophical issues more accessible to the non-philosopher (whether it be through popular works and other non-technical avenues). This is changing, though, in some ways through sites like 8-bit Philosophy and philosophy presented in comic book form (http://www.actionphilosophers.com/). Nevertheless, such efforts appeal to a very narrow demographic and do not have the mass appeal needed if philosophy were to gain a wider audience.

[2] This list is by no means exhaustive; rather, it lists the names of those who have transcended academic circles and therefore recognizable by the general public.