If there were another Narnia book

There are some books you always come back to, no matter how long you have been away from them. You come back to be comforted, uplifted, to see old friends again…

Or you come back because there is something still nagging at you.

This post is for people who have read The Chronicles of Narnia. There are spoilers, so if you have not read the books, please go fill the gaping hole in your childhood as soon as possible and come back to this post afterwards.

hipster-belle-meme-generator-i-read-that-book-before-it-was-a-movie-66fd20

Now then–

The Pevensie children, who enter the world of Narnia through the wardrobe, help put an end to winters with no Christmases, and become kings and queens, appear in five out of the seven books in the series. One wonders if perhaps Narnia with all its creatures was created just for them — for their particular salvation, though of course they play a large role in saving Narnia in return many times.

They appear at the very end of book seven, The Last Battle, on the other side of the stable door and in Aslan’s country.

There are three fascinating plot choices Lewis made in this last book regarding the Pevensies:

  1. Peter, Edmund and Lucy die in a train crash. That is how they end up in Aslan’s country (heaven) at all.
  2. Susan, however, was not on the train, and does not die. So she is left alive in our world and is not present with the other three in the last book.
  3. We learn that Susan has stopped believing in Narnia altogether.

Briefly – #1 is fascinating because up until this point, the only main character who dies during any of the stories is Aslan himself, and he comes back because of the “deeper magic before the dawn of time.” The children’s deaths are not dwelt upon at length, but I remember feeling a little shock when my dad read this part to me when I was a child. I may have been dimly aware that I would have only been a few years younger than Lucy was at that point. Lewis does not seem to shy away from hinting at his young readers’ own mortality as they learn that the characters they have followed and identified with met a rather tragic end.

But it is points 2 and 3 that surprised me far more when I first read The Last Battle. In fact, “surprised” isn’t really the right word. “Horrified” might be closer.

The whole book, of course, is about the battle of belief. Eustace and Jill find themselves in a Narnia where many people do not believe in Aslan anymore, or confuse Aslan with the demonic figure Tash. The Pevensie children, who had saved Narnia long before, are now perceived as mere legends themselves.

And then we find out that Susan herself has also stopped believing:

“Sir,” said Tirian, when he had greeted all these. “If I have read the chronicle aright, there should be another. Has not your Majesty two sisters? Where is Queen Susan?”
“My sister Susan,’ answered Peter shortly and gravely, ‘is no longer a friend of Narnia.”
“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says, ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.’”
“Oh Susan!” said Jill. “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.”

C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle

I was crushed.

Initially, I was devastated by Peter, Edmund and Lucy’s seemingly quick recovery from the loss of their sister. They seem irritated with her instead of deeply wounded by her absence.

Then, I was angry with the culprit herself. How could Susan give Narnia up for nylons? How could she leave her brothers and sister and the world they had shared? Above all, how could she leave Aslan? 

And, finally, I was furious with the author. How could Lewis have left Susan?

If your feminist side, like mine, is also angry with Lewis for condemning Susan’s interest in “nylons and lipstick” and growing up, see Eileen Lee’s wonderful response to that complaint here. A taste:

It is not so much Susan’s external activities, I think, that Lewis wanted to highlight, but the condition of her heart. And this was her condition—that she was preoccupied with things that, while not necessarily bad, were not worthy to be the foundation of her identity or source of affirmation. For she was a Queen. She had simply forgotten so.

My younger self was angry with Lewis, and my older self is still troubled by his choice, but now I think perhaps he was onto something.

Losing one’s faith really is a form of forgetting.

I’ve written about the connection between faith and memory before, and so have Popes Francis and Benedict in Lumen Fidei. How often does our faith in God waver because we forget what he is really like?  How often do we sin because we forget ourselves?

How many friends of ours, or family members, have fallen away from faith because they seem to have forgotten something? You kind of want to shake them sometimes and say, “But don’t you remember?”

In Susan’s case the relationship between faith and memory is particularly striking. She wants to be “grown up” and leave her former identity behind. She has forgotten who she really is.

But of course Aslan has not. He always did say, “Once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen.”

That line gives me hope for Susan, and for all the Susans in the world (of which number I am often included).

JustinSweet_Narnia-concept

Concept Art via Narniafans.com

Later, Lewis gave this tantalizing response to a concerned young reader in 1957:

“The books don’t tell us what happened to Susan. She is left alive in this world at the end, having by then turned into a rather silly, conceited young woman. But there’s plenty of time for her to mend and perhaps she will get to Aslan’s country in the end . . . in her own way.”

via Matthew Alderman, “Whatever Happened to Susan Pevensie” First Things

His words still echo in my mind.

I have this crazy desire to write that book. How does Susan “get to Aslan’s country in the end, in her own way”? How does she react to the death of her entire family? (We learn the Pevensie parents also died in the crash.) Does she grow up like she wants to? Does she get married and have kids? Does her daughter get to Narnia somehow, even after the ending of that world in The Last Battle? (Time always was flexible between that world and ours.) Does the story somehow involve the horn of Queen Susan, which was lost after the events of Wardrobe and rediscovered in Prince Caspian? Or does it perhaps explore the chase of the ever-elusive White Stag?

I have, of course, no right to attempt such a story. The “canon” is closed.

And perhaps leaving Susan’s fate unresolved is wise. Lewis’ troubling, irritating choice alerts young readers to the fact that “the last battle” of your life–the only battle of your life–is the battle of faith, and that it is ongoing. You win, you lose, you win again, you lose again. Even a Queen of Narnia is not safe. And even a “grown up” is not lost.

Peter, Edmund, and Lucy are not devastated by Susan’s departure not just because the “sorrows of hell cannot touch the joys of heaven” but also because, perhaps, the separation may only be temporary. Susan’s story, Lewis indicates, is not over yet.

Neither is ours.

I can see the beginning chapter now.

They were not to take the train, because Mother hated trains. But Father was very ill and the doctors said country air was the kindest medicine left for him. The small farm cottage that had been left to them years ago was prepared. So the Walker family took a bus from London, and then another bus, and then another—each a little less crowded than the last…

5 Comments

Filed under Christ, Feminism, Fiction, Uncategorized

The Force needs five more minutes…

#spoileralert. #nerdalert.

You have been warned!

I was reading a review of “The Force Awakens” the other day and the author mentioned a simple but illuminating lens through which to critique movies (and really any type of story). He said that he always looks at setting, plot, and character. For him, the newest Star Wars movie excels in creating setting and character, but does not do so well with plot (especially towards the end). He’s right. I wish I remembered where I read his review. If I find it again I will link to it here.

I found this lens very helpful when trying to sort through my feelings about “The Force Awakens.”

The characters (especially the new ones) are endearing. Lots of people have mentioned how captivating Rey is and how one inevitably wants to root for her. Finn, although he is given some clumsy lines, is also very lovable and the idea of  a stormtrooper going rogue is new and intriguing. Oscar Isaac makes Poe’s relatively short screen time feel important. And Kylo Ren is angsty and dangerous and interesting in the best way– the whole point is that he isn’t as cool as Darth Vader, and Adam Driver shows us his character’s weaknesses so well.

reykylo

This is really cool. source: makingstarwars.net

The setting feels like Star Wars. The practical effects Abrams promised us were great. Seeing old star destroyers and x-wings submerged in sand on Jakku was pretty moving. The cantina–er, Maz’s castle–was full of weird and quirky puppets. And the final lightsaber battle found a perfect backdrop in that creepy snowy forest.

But the plot… well, that’s where the movie falters. The plot works pretty well for the first half of the movie — the problem (finding Luke) is set up in the text crawl, new characters are rapidly introduced, we become invested in them as their paths cross and they seem to approach that original problem… but then all of a sudden finding Luke is sidelined. Halfway through the movie, we’re suddenly facing the planet-destroyer threat. It provides a convenient backdrop for Poe’s trench-run and Han’s death, but none of it feels earned.  I understood why Abrams chose to model some of the events after Episode IV, (Rey on a desert planet, a droid with a mission, a reluctant hero, etc.) and I am okay with him repeating the the overall story arc–it’s the Hero’s Journey archetype, after all–but that bigger and more ridiculous death star that came out of nowhere was pretty annoying. It felt cheap. So did the sudden discovery of Anakin’s lightsaber in Maz’s castle. When Han rightly asks her, “How’d you get that?”, she (and Abrams) cop out. “That’s a story for another time.”

No, actually, it’s not. If this movie really was about finding Luke Skywalker, as the text-crawl originally suggested, then the time to tell (better, to witness) the story of that lightsaber is now.

There were choppy places–as if certain scenes were left on the cutting-room floor. Plot threads hinted at but never fully developed.

I love this meme, but on another level I think it explains movie’s weakness quite well:

images

source: imgur.com

I think The Force Awakens needed five more minutes (literally and figuratively speaking) to be the great movie it could have been. The second half of the movie felt rushed and haphazard, although there were some good moments. If the writers had spent more time — even five more minutes— on crafting a story that was all about finding Luke Skywalker, and actually explored the question Abrams has said made him want to make the movie in the first placeWho is Luke Skywalker?– we would have had a great movie.

But shifting gears halfway through to the stupid Starkiller Base introduced a competing, and inferior, problem for the heroes to solve. By the time Poe had his trench run, there wasn’t any time left to finish the real story arc introduced in the text crawl. So R2D2 miraculously “awakens” and somehow has the rest of BB8’s map in his system. Rey sails away on the Millenium Falcon in the last two minutes and finds Luke far too easily–because there was no time for anything else.

The movie ceased to be about Luke and the nature of the force or anything really compelling and instead became an inferior rehash of “A New Hope”. Oh no, there’s another planet-destroying weapon. We need to disable the shields and blow it up. Except that our main hero–Rey– does not blow it up or save the day, as Luke did in the original, because her character belongs to the original plot arc of the movie.

We are left with carefully crafted cliffhangers–what’s Luke been up to all this time? how will Leia deal with the loss of Han? what will Ren’s “further training” involve? who are Rey’s parents, anyway? — to ensure we will be eager to see the sequel. But even those made me feel a bit cheated–as if those questions were carefully placed to entice me to see the next movie, instead of being answered (or not answered) for the sake of this movie’s story. One worries if some of those questions will even be answered at all.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed “The Force Awakens.” The setting and characters charmed and appeased me. Abrams hit a lot of the right notes.

But the faltering plot was disappointing, only because if Abrams had gotten that right–if he hadn’t taken the “quick and easy path”–we really would have had a compelling movie on par with the original trilogy.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Augustine, Advent, and the “O Antiphons”

One of my all time favorite passages from the Office of Readings is Saint Augustine’s meditation on desire:

Why he should ask us to pray, when he knows what we need before we ask him, may perplex us if we do not realize that our Lord and God does not want to know what we want (for he cannot fail to know it), but wants us rather to exercise our desire through our prayers, so that we may be able to receive what he is preparing to give us. His gift is very great indeed, but our capacity is too small and limited to receive it. That is why we are told: Enlarge your desires, do not bear the yoke with unbelievers. (Office of Readings, Saint Augustine, “Letter to Proba”, emphasis added)

I remember reading this while I was studying in Rome seven years ago. I was praying a lot then, for many things, and the idea that my prayer was a means by which God was “stretching” my heart so that I could have the capacity to receive his gift really helped me.

It strikes me that this meditation describes very well what Advent is all about. We are waiting and hoping for God to finally come, just like Israel waited (and still waits).

Augustine continues:

The deeper our faith, the stronger our hope, the greater our desire, the larger will be our capacity to receive that gift, which is very great indeed. No eye has seen it; it has no color. No ear has heard it; it has no sound. It has not entered man’s heart; man’s heart must enter into it. (Ibid)

Because, of course, the “gift” which is “very great indeed” is the Emmanuel Himself.

If you read the Old Testament this way, it makes more sense. All of that wandering in the desert, the exile and return, the judgment of the prophets, the takeover by Babylonians and Greeks and Romans was an enormous stretching process whereby the desire of Israel for the Messiah was increased. By the time of Jesus, that desire was so intense that people were identifying messiahs everywhere.

We see this same desire in the Church as we look forward to the Messiah’s second coming. We see it especially in the “O Antiphons” and the repetition of the word “come” over and over again. Each antiphon has a different name for Jesus– “Wisdom”, “Leader,” “Root”, “Key”, “Radiant Dawn”, “King”, “Emmanuel”, and in each antiphon the speaker begs for the Messiah to “come”:

O Wisdom of our God Most High,
guiding creation with power and love:
come to teach us the path of knowledge!

O Leader of the House of Israel,
giver of the Law to Moses on Sinai:
come to rescue us with your mighty power!

O Root of Jesse’s stem,
sign of God’s love for all his people:
come to save us without delay!

O Key of David,
opening the gates of God’s eternal Kingdom:
come and free the prisoners of darkness!

O Radiant Dawn,
splendor of eternal light, sun of justice:
come and shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the
shadow of death.

O King of all nations and keystone of the Church:
come and save man, whom you formed from the dust!

O Emmanuel, our King and Giver of Law:
come to save us, Lord our God!

(“The ‘O Antiphons’ of Advent”, USCCB website)

Every antiphon is a prayer and an exercise in desire.

antiphons

via maryellenb.typepad.com

Advent is a season for this desire, as Fr. James Martin in his recent seasonal reflection explains. But of course, in some sense, we are always living in Advent, until the Second Coming itself or our own death–whichever comes first.

Augustine even alludes to “set times and seasons” in which we pray to God “in words” to help us “mark the progress we have made in our desire.” I think this is exactly what Advent is:

In this faith, hope and love we pray always with unwearied desire. However, at set times and seasons we also pray to God in words, so that by these signs we may instruct ourselves and mark the progress we have made in our desire, and spur ourselves on to deepen it. The more fervent the desire, the more worthy will be its fruit. When the Apostle tells us: Pray without ceasing, he means this: Desire unceasingly that life of happiness which is nothing if not eternal, and ask it of him who alone is able to give it.

(Office of Readings, Saint Augustine, “Letter to Proba”, emphasis added)

 

7 Comments

Filed under Catholicism, Christ

Meaningful Questions, Meaningful Discussions

So I use “Fishbowl Discussions” in my English classes.

They are whole-class discussions in which an inner circle of students talks about questions related to a certain topic, and the outer circle observes, takes notes, and–in my version– can raise their hands to ask questions of people in the inner circle.

So the desks are set up like this:

fishbowl

via nwlink.com

It’s called a fishbowl because it kind of looks like a fishbowl:

fish-bowl-600

via people.com

See?

Only the fishes on the inside can talk, whereas the fishes on the outside of the fishbowl… well… can’t breathe?

The thing with fishbowls is you need to have something to talk about. And in order to do that, the kids have to be prepared. So usually I give them a reading and create questions in the margins to help guide them and to help push them toward the objective. Then we discuss the questions in the fishbowl.

Sample from the text we discussed in class yesterday:

Screen Shot 2015-11-04 at 5.35.24 PM

This system works pretty well, but I find myself having some doubts.

A lot of my questions are pretty basic comprehension level questions. I stick with lower-level questions because a huge number of my kids really struggle with basic reading comprehension. These questions help those kids identify a purpose for reading and help them focus on what is important in the text, but they tend to limit my stronger students.

Example:

Screen Shot 2015-11-04 at 5.44.05 PM

Those are pretty low-level questions, but they are really helpful for my struggling kids. And discussing those basic-level questions in class, even if the “stronger” students answer them, provides a helpful model for the struggling kids about how to look for textual evidence, etc.

But my stronger students often are limited by these basic questions. They want to dig deeper, but the format I’ve established seems to limit them to the questions I have created.

One possible solution to this would be creating multiple versions– like include more advanced analysis questions for the stronger kiddos. But this solution wouldn’t work very well in a fishbowl when we’re all trying to answer the same questions together. And it would confuse the struggling kids who already have a hard time following along as it is.

Another solution, related to the first, is to keep the margin blank for the stronger students so that they create their own questions. But that would be really confusing for the struggling kids if they could not actually see the questions in front of them. It’s really hard for a lot of my kids to follow along with a conversation if they don’t have visual anchors.

Maybe I could give everyone two versions–one with the basic, anchoring questions, and one with a blank margin. They could read and answer the first version, and then in smaller groups they could create their own “higher-level” questions about the text after I had modeled examples for them.

Teachers – what are some other techniques you use to create meaningful discussions in your classroom?

Leave a comment

Filed under Education, Literature, Teaching

“Beauty Will Save The World”

The other evening I attended the Archbishop’s Lecture Series. Dr. Jonathan Reyes came and spoke about how to preach the Gospel in a skeptical age–and an age in which reasoned arguments no longer have much purchase.

Jenny over at Mama Needs Coffee has a beautiful reflection on his talk. An excerpt:

That’s the kind of love that speaks to a world grown blind to logic and deaf to reason. They might not believe in absolute Truth any more, but they can still perceive its counterpart, absolute Love. And from that encounter of being loved, of being valuable…a conversation can begin. (“My Little Lepers”)

She goes on to recount Dr. Reyes’ reflection on Mother Teresa. The reason the world loves Mother Teresa is because although it cannot comprehend faith very well, or the idea of “objective truth” (the phrase even makes me cringe a little), or rational argument, it is still attracted to beauty, for all of its infatuation with ugliness. And because Mother Teresa went to the ugliest human places with love, she reminded us of what real beauty is like. And the world noticed.

Dr. Reyes encouraged all of us to “get our hands dirty.” The world will not really listen to what Christians have to say anymore, but it is still watching us closely, and it may yet be moved by something beautiful.

Dostoevsky famously said, “In the end, the world will be saved by beauty.”

I thought about this in the context of my own world–my students. They are, as I am, products of a “skeptical age” that has lost the ability to reason. Our generation does not have the patience careful argument requires. Just watch the Presidential debates. We prefer slogans, soundbites, tweets, and hashtags.

I’ve noticed this countless times when I try to teach essay writing at the beginning of the year. Especially this year, I have been bewildered and discouraged by my student’s intellectual poverty–their struggle to form coherent thoughts, never mind reasoned arguments. Many of them still have a hard time wrapping their minds around what an “arguable thesis” even is. They can parrot back cliches and soundbites, but they cannot prove a basic claim.

It is my responsibility to try to teach them how to do this.

And yet, Dr. Reyes’ talk gave me pause. Maybe I am starting in the wrong place. Maybe I shouldn’t start off the school year with essay writing– essentially, teaching kids how to think and prove a point.

Maybe I need to start off the year with beauty.

Maybe they would be more open and eager to learn how to think, how to write, how to formulate a thesis and use evidence to support it, if they were at first struck by something beautiful.

I’m still not sure what that would look like. But I’m going to give it some thought.

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under Catholicism, Christ, Education, Literature

Teaching Archetypes; Or, Backdoor Natural Law Theory and “Myth Become Fact”

 

I’m in the middle of a mythology unit with my kids and we’re learning about archetypes–recurring character and event patterns that show up in stories from all different cultures, times and places.

For instance, the orphan-turned-hero archetype: the young boy in the Native American Blackfeet myth we read, Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins, Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Jane Eyre, , even Luke Skywalker if you admit that Anakin is kind of dead, practically speaking.

cfe-little-orphan-annie

And of course, Lil’ Orphan Annie.

Or the mentor figure who must die/disappear so the hero can become a hero: Gandalf, Dumbledore, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Glenda the Good Witch.

frodoscream

So sad.

Or the flood myth archetype: Noah and the Ark, Utnapishtim in The Epic of Gilgamesh, Deucalion and Pyrrha in the Greek story, and stories in practically every culture on this planet.

Or the hero’s journey archetype. Here’s a fun video we watched in class about that:

Or, perhaps more provocatively, the dying and rising godlike hero: the Egyptian Osiris, Babylonian Tammuz, Greek Persephone, Hercules going to the Underworld and bringing Theseus back, Odysseus, Aeneas… and Gandalf the Grey coming back from the dead as Gandalf the White, and Aragorn passing through Dunharrow.

And, of course, Jesus.

Whoah. Yes, it’s true. Jesus fulfills archetypes big time.

One of the essential questions we are considering in this unit is What do Archetypes Suggest About Human Nature?

Well, what they suggest about human nature is that such a thing actually exists– and that human beings all over the world are caught up in the same search for meaning and often come to surprisingly similar answers.

Archetypes suggest there may be eternal truths about human beings. The stories we tell are similar because we are all similar. Among these standards are moral standards that all cultures recognize but some cultures realize more fully than others do.

And there you go: Backdoor Natural Law Theory. Sort of.

Next up on the unit plan: Is Christianity just another myth?

I mean, it is pretty similar to a lot of other myths. Sometimes uncannily so. There’s the whole scapegoat archetype thing going on. And isn’t Jesus basically like the half-god, half-human heroes of old? And doesn’t that prove that Christianity just adopted other mythologies and so basically our God is just an updated Zeus, or something?

We’ll have some interesting discussions, for sure. But to guide us, we will be reading excerpts from C. S. Lewis’ “Myth Become Fact.”

Now as myth transcends thought, incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the dying god, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens-at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle. (Lewis, “Myth Become Fact”)

This is going to be a bit mind-boggling for some of my kids, but I think it’s worth a try.

5 Comments

Filed under Catholicism, Education, Literature, Teaching

A Letter to Parents

Dear Parents of my Students,

I am writing you this letter to let you know that we are on the same team. It may not always feel like it, but we are. We both want your child to succeed in English class this year, to learn a lot, to improve in writing and reading and grammar usage. We also want your child to be responsible, kind to others, and hard working. Above all, we both want your child to be happy and to be close to God.

You should know that I love all of my students, including your child.

I hope you know it would be much easier for me, as a teacher, to just give everyone a “good” grade. I would avoid a lot of angry emails from you that way and a lot of hurt feelings and a lot of heartache.

But what is easy isn’t always right.

I hope you know that when I give your child a grade, I am not grading your child at all. I am assessing his work. I am trying to give him as accurate feedback as possible on what he has demonstrated he has learned, and what he has demonstrated he hasn’t learned yet. Your child’s grade in my class is a grade he has earned.

So when you say to me, “My child is not a D student!”– I completely agree. She might have a D in my class right now, but she is not a “D student.” There is no such thing as a D student–or, I might add, a “B student” or “A student.” Because, whether or not he or she is doing well in my class, your son or daughter cannot be defined by a mere letter grade.

The grade merely attempts, as accurately as possible (but certainly not perfectly) to reflect the learning your child has demonstrated so far.

I am on your team. I love your son or daughter and I hold them to high expectations not in spite of, but because of that love.

I promise to give them help, support, encouragement, and guidance. I promise to show my own love of learning and of English literature.

Anything you can do to support that effort is greatly appreciated. You are the primary educator of your son or daughter and I very much honor and respect that huge responsibility. I honor the fact that you are making many sacrifices to send your child to a Catholic school. I thank you for entrusting your child to me. I can only imagine how challenging it is to be the parent of a teenager, and I know you are doing your best. You have your own crosses to carry every day that I know nothing about.

I ask you to believe that I, too, am doing my best. I ask you to respect my professional background, my dedication, my experience, and my dignity during parent-teacher conferences this week.

Let’s work together for your child.

Sincerely,

Ms. Shea

1 Comment

Filed under Christ, Education, Teaching