An Interview with Dan DeWitt: The Value of Fiction in Teaching and Some Tips

Front Cover - The Owlings Book II

Front Cover – The Owlings Book II

In the final installment of a three-part series, Dan DeWitt – author of The Owlings: A Worldview Novella and The Owlings Book II – shares his thoughts on the value of fiction in teaching, as well as some tips for those who aspire to writing purposeful fiction.

How can fiction be used to serve propositional books?

Let’s say I were to say to my wife propositionally how I care for her as opposed to writing a poem. The poem can awaken emotions, it touches on the imagination, it’s going to be more meaningful, although substantively it’s not going to say anything differently. This is how I see the difference between fictional writings and propositional writings. Propositional truth is really important, which is why I wrote a discussion guide for The Owlings. But writings like poetry awaken the imagination.

What I think Lewis did in Narnia was…in Michael Ward’s Narnia Code, Ward proposes a theory that Lewis hid a Medieval cosmology into the Narnia stories. Each book dealt with a specific planet within the Medieval perspective. I think he built a compelling case, but I think if he is right, then Lewis did this in a very powerful way. You read the story and say, “What he’s saying is really about our world.” He’s talking about Narnia. Aslan tells Lucy, “You will come to know me in your world by a different name.” But there’s a sense in which you have that epiphany where you go, “Wow! This is true about reality. This isn’t just true in the story, but this is something true in our world.”

In what way can Christians improve upon this genre?

As a very young author in this genre, I don’t want to speak on this with hubris. I don’t think I’m necessarily changing a negative trend. I would say that I go to the Christian fiction section and all I tend to see is Amish romance. Nothing necessarily against this genre, but I do think N. D. Wilson and Andrew Peterson are great examples of ways that you kind of write fiction in a really powerful way.

I will tie this back to a question that I was asked last week in my C. S. Lewis class. Someone asked if there was going to be another C. S. Lewis, or is there another C. S. Lewis? If there is, they are not teaching at a Christian school. The power of Lewis was that he was a professor of philosophy early in his career, and later in Medieval/Renaissance literature. He brought all that to bear on his stories. If the problem in Christian fiction is going to be corrected, it’s going to be done by someone who is well-versed in literature. It’s not going to be someone who is a Bible college professor like me, but someone who is outside of Christian circles professionally. C. S. Lewis said, “Do we need more books about Christianity? We need books about other topics written by Christians.” So a Christian is bringing their worldview to bear on a particular topic. [Today, though,] I agree that the Christian fiction section feels like the Hallmark section instead of something like the literature section in a used bookstore that contains books by Austin and other greats.

Based upon your experience and what you are doing, if there are those out there who want to write fiction, what are some tips that you wish you knew before hand or those that you have used that are helpful?

C. S. Lewis wrote a letter to a child about how to write for children – that would be a good place to start. [See also “On Three Ways of Writing for Children“]The think I wish that I had done more of and that I want to do more of now is to read more award-winning children’s literature. I think that would improve my writing. When writing the first and second books of The Owlings I picked up best-sellers in the age-frame that I’m writing for, and I would read either the entire book or just sections of it to see what the author is doing. I would say read a lot of children’s literature. Or, if you’re wanting to write fiction in another genre, then read more in that area. So, read a lot in your area and read books about writing. Doug Wilson’s book Wordsmithy is an appetizer.

Another thing I would mention is that there are two different approaches. One, you could wait until you perfect the genre, perfect your craft, perfect your storytelling, before you publish. I think if you did that you would probably die before you published. So, the other route is the route I’ve taken is to just write. The downside is that you might get some harsh criticism, but I would rather try it and fail rather than not try it. So, I’ll tell people to read books in the genre, books on writing, and then try it whether it’s on a blog, you’re self-publishing, or other routes. I’m self-publishing; I work with a literary agent and he told me that the children’s market is almost impossible to get into and that he didn’t want to represent me. I thought that I could sit around for the next ten years waiting for someone to give me a contract, or I can just do it. I’ve never pitched my idea to a publisher. If in time someone’s interested, then great. If not, it’s okay.

What I find valuable in what DeWitt shares is that the writing of fiction is a good thing for Christians to pursue. As I stated in the previous post, Scripture is full of examples where story is used to teach. Christians can, and should, strive to produce quality, purposeful fiction. There’s something to stories that grab the audience’s heart, making the path to their mind an easier road to travel. If we aim to proclaim the Gospel and to teach truth – then the use of story is a most excellent vehicle.

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If you missed the first part of the interview, you can follow these links:

An Interview with Dan DeWitt: The Role of Fiction in Teaching

Front Cover - The Owlings Book II

Front Cover – The Owlings Book II

In yesterday’s post, DeWitt shared with us what writers influenced his work on The Owlings. In today’s post – the second installment of a three-part series – DeWitt discusses the role of fiction in teaching.

What role does fiction play as a vehicle for teaching in your novellas?

I’m very new to writing fiction, so I make no claims to being an expert. I’m an amateur. What Andrew Peterson is doing [today] is way up on the list – I think he’s great. What I’m doing is even different from what Andrew Peterson has done – it’s not nearly as good. It’s different in that I’m trying to be a bit more explicit, and so…I think G. K. Chesterton did this a bit.

If you were to have a scale with Tolkien on the far end with rich symbolism and not nearly as explicit; C. S. Lewis might be somewhere in the middle; and Chesterton would write a novel and it would be very explicit with the worldview principles he was trying to teach. I have very specific things I want to teach on, and fiction allows me to tell a story that I think someone can be interested in and want to know what happens – something my kids would be interested in. But, then I turn to teach a very specific principle.

Regarding the power of story, I’ll give a quick example. Several years after James Sire’s book The Universe Next Door, Sire wrote Naming the Elephant in which he critiques The Universe Next Door. And one of the elements is that he talks about the power of story to communicate worldview. Now, the newer editions of The Universe Next Door have an updated definition of “worldview.” I think Sire has come to realize the power of story. Through reading Sire, it’s helped me to realize that if we only teach propositionally, we’re going to miss this postmodern generation.

So, my goal in The Owlings – to go back to Sire – is to teach his seven questions he lists at the end of each chapter. (I say that there is an eighth question, because he always asks whether the worldview in question lines up with how one lives.) I want to find a way to deal with these eight questions and find a way to teach them to kids through story. The first book dealt with metaphysics – nature is not all there is. The second book deals with epistemology – specifically scientism: “Is science the only way to know things?” And so, the next book is going to deal with the question, “What does it mean to be human?” You see that I’m following Sire’s questions, but in total I am writing five stories dealing with these questions.

The theme that sticks out in this post is that fiction can be purposeful. That is, fiction is not necessarily a genre for mere entertainment. Narrative can be a powerful vehicle through which important truths are communicated. The encounter between the prophet Nathan and King David (2 Samuel 12: 1-15) comes to mind here. After David’s affair with Bathsheba and his murder of Uriah, the prophet Nathan approached the king to confront David with his grave sin. Rather than accusing David of his sin, Nathan begins with a parable – a fictitious story that aims to instruct. Nathan was able to drive home his point in a powerful way. Nathan’s parable engaged David’s mind, emotions, and imagination such that when Nathan connected the story to David’s sin, David confesses (2 Sam. 12:13) “I have sinned against the Lord.” This is not to take away the conviction of the Holy Spirit in David’s heart; indeed, the work of the Spirit is necessary and vital!

Rather, what 2 Samuel 12:1-15 illustrates is that truth can be communicated through different means, and some times story can be more effective and powerful than just communicating propositionally. In the final installment of our three-part series, Dan DeWitt discusses the value of fiction in teaching, as well as some tips for Christians who aspire to write fiction purposefully.

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If you missed the first part of the interview, you can follow these links:

An Interview with Dan DeWitt: The Influence of the Inklings

Front Cover - The Owlings Book II

Front Cover – The Owlings Book II

In the first installment of a three-part series, Dan DeWitt shares with me what writers have influenced his work on The Owlings – both in his style and in his approach.

What drew you to the Inklings as an influence on your work with The Owlings?

During the early stages of my doctoral studies I signed up for a community reading group on The Screwtape Letters. I read The Screwtape Letters (rather, I re-read it as I had read it in my younger days) and thought about it, and showed up at the study, but nobody else was there. It was just me. I had the Signature Series of C. S. Lewis, so I read some of his other works. I realized while sitting there that I didn’t really know C. S. Lewis. I had loved the idea of C. S. Lewis, and I loved that everybody around me loved C. S. Lewis – it’s like you saying that you love John Calvin but may have never read his writings.

So, I began reading as much of C. S. Lewis as I had time in my doctoral studies. It was my leisurely escape. And so, I was exposed to his powerful ability to teach you without feeling like you’re necessarily being taught. That’s what first drew me to C. S. Lewis. And then I learned about G. K. Chesterton’s influence on him, and so I began reading Chesterton. I read a little bit of George MacDonald because of MacDonald’s influence on Lewis. Then I was introduced to Dorothy Sayers, and through that Tolkien. I was familiar with The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, but I didn’t know about his children’s stories that he wrote for his children – his Father Christmas Letters that he wrote every year for his kids. And so I stepped into this world.

What I hope I did, and what I encourage my students to do, is – say you hear a great sermon. Don’t just listen to the content of the sermon, but to think about the method – to learn from the methodology of the preacher. What is he doing besides his content? I learned from the Inklings’ content, but I slowly adopted their methodology, although far from where they were with it. That, though, is what drew me to the Inklings.

I have small children, and I thought, “How do I expose them to the authors that I love?” And not just these authors, but also a way of looking at the world that I think is rich in truth and also in imagination. So, I got the idea to write a children’s story, specifically after I watched a video with Richard Dawkins where he talked about writing a children’s story himself – The Magic of Reality – a book for pre-teens and early teens. In this book he calls people who teach their children about the Bible “those stupid people.” This kind of made me mad. So I thought, “What if I wrote a children’s book? How do I present these dead British authors to my children?” So, that’s where an idea of an owl as the symbol of wisdom, and then I thought, “What if I have talking owls?” And that’s how the Inklings became The Owlings.

In my review of The Owlings: A Worldview Novella, I noted the evident influence of C. S. Lewis on DeWitt’s writing:

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 one finds the greatest tension and the impetus behind Josiah’s transformation.

What DeWitt finds in the classic works of Lewis is the use of imagination and creativity to convey significant truths that impact everyone’s life. In the second installment of this three-part series, Dan DeWitt shares with us the role fiction plays in teaching. In the meantime, visit Dan’s website at Theolatte.com, and order The Owlings Book II!

Using Science Fiction to Convey Theology: Robert J. Sawyer’s “Calculating God” as a Test Case

The post below is a revised version of a post from a now defunct blog I once had. In this post I discuss Robert J. Sawyer’s “Calculating God” and briefly explore how science fiction can be used as a vehicle to explore philosophical and theological ideas. This post coincides with my recent post regarding the value of historical fiction. More and more I am convinced on fiction’s value as a vehicle for philosophical and theological exploration and teaching.

What I’m purporting here is nothing new; rather, I’m discovering something that has been utilized with great skill by the likes of Dostoyevsky, Hugo, Twain, Lewis, and Tolkien, and more recently Umberto Eco. Other authors of less renown include Kenneth L. Roberts and Leon Uris. The genre of fiction is immensely popular in Christian literature, but (at least in my opinion) has little value in teaching and exploring; rather, Christian fiction seems to go little beyond mere storytelling. Storytelling is not bad in itself, but it seems that Christian authors have a phenomenal opportunity to use fiction to its fullest extent in teaching Christian truth in way that captures not only one’s mind, but one’s imagination and heart. We have a rich heritage from which to draw in the likes of Lewis and Tolkien, but it is one that is seems to wield little influence in contemporary authors (for the most part).

Despite the flood of fiction-for-fiction’s-sake book flooding Christian bookstores, there are Christian authors who seek to use fiction to build up the Christian worldview. One such author, who is fairly new on the scene, is Dan DeWitt (see recent post on The Owlings: A Worldview Novella here and here. See also his site for other books he’s published.) DeWitt has a new book coming out soon that is in the same vein as The Owlings. Another author is singer-song writer Andrew Petersons The Wingfeather Saga. I am sure there are more out there, but to this point, this is what I know. As I continue my discovery, I hope to find more!

And now, without delaying the inevitable, here is my discussion of Calculating God and the use of sci-fi to convey philosophical and theological ideas.

In 2009 I read Robert J. Sawyer’s Calculating God and found it to be an interesting work of sci-fi.  To be honest, my impression of sci-fi at that time was not that high.  I’ve tended to see the genre of sci-fi as nothing short of a playground for the imagination.  However, Sawyer’s book has dismantled my ill-informed view.  Science-fiction, at least those that are written well, can serve as a vehicle in integrating current scientific thought into the everyday world.  In other words, sci-fi can serve as a vehicle to play out the implications of certain scientific theories and experiments, utilizing the possible-world line of thinking as employed by philosophers.  More so, some sci-fi can even attempt to deal with the centuries-old problem of science and religion – what is their relationship, if any?  Sawyer’s Calculating God is not necessarily a book about extraterrestrials and their attempt to over take earth, thus resulting in a galactic world war; rather, Sawyer’s book is an attempt to meld together evolution and naturalism with Intelligent Design with the purpose of coming to grips on the existence and nature of God.

The Story

Without going into too much detail, I’ll need to go into the setting of the book in order for what I’m about to say to make sense.  Tom Jericho, a paleontologist (and, important to the story, an atheist) at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, is visited by an alien (Hollus) who is in the process of studying the evolution of the universe.  Hollus, along with several other aliens, visits Earth with no intention to overtake it; rather, they are on a voyage to several different universes to gather data for their research.  The book, then, is largely Tom’s interactions and conversations with Hollus (and at times another alien, T’kna) in which they collaborate with each other on their own findings and attempt to understand the nature of this world and its relationship to “God”, if there’s one at all (at least according to Jericho).  Of course, there must be action, so sprinkled throughout the storyline is a side plot of two religious fanatics (young-Earth creationists who hold to Scripture and the “traditional” God) who seek to destroy the fossils located in the ROM because of the “lies” they teach.  These characters quickly fade out of the picture, but play an important role in supporting Jericho’s (and ultimately the author’s?) view that anyone holding to the belief in the biblical God and the biblical teaching of creation (specifically of the young earth) is basically barbaric, an un-evolved person.

The Problem of Evil

A significant subplot of the story is Tom’s cancer.  The alien’s visit coincides with Tom’s final stages of lung cancer.  As Tom struggles with Hollus’ argument for “God”, Tom is unable to see why an Intelligent Designer would allow for the “mistake” of cancer, and ultimately, suffering.

Not a Bad Start!

In its teaching regarding the nature of God and this world, the novel starts off rather tame from a Christian perspective.  In the initial stages of Hollus’ visit with Jericho, the alien breaks the news to Jericho that there indeed exists an Intelligent Designer – God.  Hollus explains that the universe itself gives evidence of this Intelligent Designer and uses the same illustrations as current ID proponents to support their thesis (i.e. how the world consists of the right combinations of certain elements, the distances between planets and their sun are set at the precise measurement to avoid destruction, etc.).  Hollus finds it surprising that Jericho and fellow scientists on Earth do not believe in God as, according to Hollus, the evidence clearly points to an Intelligent Designer.  We see throughout the book Jericho’s struggle with this argument and his eventual acceptance of an Intelligent Designer.  Upon further reading, however, Sawyer’s concept of an Intelligent Designer begins to diverge significantly from the Christian concept of an Intelligent Designer (as such, when referring to God as defined by Sawyer, I’ll place the word “God” in quotes, along with any pronouns referring to Him in order to distinguish between the biblical God).

Sawyer’s Assumptions

A major assumption of Sawyer and his characters is the truth of Darwinian evolution and naturalism.  The universe is closed with no being existing outside of the material universe (as opposed to the traditional Christian view that God, as creator, is outside the universe though able to intervene in His creation at His pleasure).  As such, the material world is all that exists and has existed over time.  Further, implied in the novel, I believe, is an empirical view of epistemology – one comes to know something only through observation.  As such, there is no special revelation, no a priori knowledge, etc.  The aliens’ knowledge of “God”, then, came about only through their study of the universe.

A “Scientific” God

Because of Sawyer’s empiricism, naturalism, and Darwinism, his view of an Intelligent Designer takes on a non-theistic understanding of God.  For instance, in one of Hollus’ conversations with Jericho, the alien states, “I suspect God exists in the universe because of science” (92).  The alien further explains:

“As I said earlier, our universe is closed – it will eventually collapse back down in a big crunch.  A similar event happened after billions of years in the universe that preceded this one – and with billions of years, who knows what phenomenal things science might make possible?  Why, it might even make it possible for an intelligence, or data patterns representing it, to survive a big crunch, and exist again in the next cycle of creation.  Such an entity might even have science sufficient to allow it to influence the parameters for the next cycle, creating a designer universe into which that entity itself will be reborn already armed with billions of years worth of knowledge and wisdom” (93, emphasis mine).

In other words, with the creation of a new universe (after the previous universe collapses in a “big crunch”), a new “God” is reborn and “God” gains scientific knowledge based on what was learned (?) from the previous creation(s) and as evolution progresses.  Further, according to Hollus:

“I believe that the being which is now the God of this universe was a noncorporeal intelligence that arose through chance fluctuations in a previous  universe devoid of biology” (93).

As such, “God” is not omnipotent or omniscient, for these are just “adjectives” assigned to “God” by humans (170).  Instead, “He” just seems to be a higher evolved being than humans (and whatever else exists out there).

A question I have based upon this reading is: what has priority, science or “God”?  If I’ve read Sawyer’s work correctly, it seems that science has priority, setting the parameters from which “He” is to work.  Nonetheless, one sees the preeminence of science in understanding the world and God according to Sawyer’s view.

Implications

With a “God” limited by the world (being contained in a closed universe) and possibly even being created “Himself”, how, then, does “He” relate to creation, and specifically, to mankind?

Real = Imperfect

According to another alien (of a different species) named T’kna, because “God” is real, “He” is imperfect, as only “an abstraction can be free of flaws.”   In fact, the idea of a perfect God is a “fallacy.”

Referring back to Tom’s cancer, because “God” is real (and thus imperfect), it ‘follows’ that suffering exists since an imperfect “God” cannot prevent it.

Metaphysics

Borrowing from quantum physics, only that which is observed is real.  Whatever “God” chooses to observe (having chosen from any number of possibilities) is what is real.

An Impersonal Being

“God” does indeed have a purpose for creating the universe (a purpose not mentioned, at least explicitly); however, “God” takes no interest in individuals and their lives.  As such, one is “delusional” in thinking that God listens to his prayers.

This idea is illustrated towards the end of the novel when Tom was able to travel with the aliens to the site of  a dead star (a star that had gone supernova that “God” shielded the aliens’ universe and Earth from) in order to meet “God.”  Upon arrival, Tom expects to receive no acknowledgment from “God” (though he does have some slight hope for a small acknowledgment at the least), and his expectations come to be true.  “God” is portrayed as some deep-black, spherical being with six appendages that shows no inclination of acknowledging the presence of the aliens and guests other than giving “life” to the concoction of DNA made by one of the alien groups.

Morals/Ethics

With “God” having no part in an individual’s life, the role of morals and ethics takes an expected turn – they are merely man-made.  Specifically, morals are just a means to an end.  For instance, Hollus’ species determined their morals in order to instill peace in their society (which had been war-wracked for so long and almost faced complete destruction of their race).

Death

Staying true to the naturalistic view, there is no life after death.  Any belief of life after death is based upon a fear of death

Science, then, can lead one to belief in the existence of God, but this “God” is nothing like the God revealed in Scripture.  In fact, Scripture is never referenced as support for “God”.

Scripture, etc.

Though not explicitly stated (if I recall correctly), Scripture is nothing but a book developed by ignorant (not as highly evolved) mankind.  Scripture, according to this book, does not reveal a true or real God.

If you recall the side plot with the two religious nuts, those who believe in Scripture as literal truth (the world is created, God is revealed to us in the Word, etc.) are presented as fanatics, those who seek to impede the progress of mankind.  In fact, when Tom finds out the purpose of the religious fanatics and their plot, he mutters, “Creationists!”  Quite humorous, but a sad fallacy of generalizing all who believe in creation to be backwards, ignorant people.

Sawyer’s book by no means conveys a traditional view of God, but it does illustrate what I spoke about earlier in this post. Fiction is one area that Christians can redeem and use to its fullest extent. Fiction need not be for the sake of merely telling a story; rather, employed with telos, it can help shape and guide the worldviews of generations of Christians to come.

I hope to write more on this topic in the near future, so stay tuned!