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!

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!

Shelves of Old Books

Douglas Groothuis and the Value of Old Books

Shelves of Old Books

Old is often better. New is often bad. Why think the newer is truer, especially on philosophy and theology? Old books have withstood the test of time. That doesn’t mean they are true, but they are venerable. Most books are printed once or twice, go out of print, and are forgotten. And we spend so much of our time reading ephemera, this listless dust. When reading about physics, we need the latest discoveries and theories, but not so about the first principles and ultimate issues of life. As C.S. Lewis said, inspired by his friend Owen Barfield, moderns practice chronological snobbery, deeming the newest as the truest. There is no reason for it.

This the opening paragraph in Doug Groothuis’ latest post at DouglasGroothuis.com. I must confess that what first caught my eye was the phrase “old books” in the title and the banner image. (I can just image in the treasures buried in that aisle alone!) My wife can attest that I love books and any chance I get I buy books from our local used book stores. She’ll say that I have too many books, but I tend to think that I’m just getting started. ;) There’s something to buying used books in general; it’s as if buying a used book gives it new life and purpose. More specifically, it’s as if I have the opportunity to learn from someone else who has gone before me. As such, I have an affinity toward older books (as is evidenced by my personal library) and used books stores.

Groothuis, I can imagine, is like-minded when it comes to used books. However, what he claims is something that goes deeper than one’s love of old books. Rather, what he conveys is that it behooves us to read books by theologians, philosophers, and other thinkers who have gone before us. Too often we can be caught up in the most recent and “cutting-edge” books that claim to uncover some secret to life. This approach reflects the attitude that what happened in the past is archaic, out dated, and irrelevant. Our age is identified with progress and discovery; hence, we need to be reading the most current work.

Such an attitude, however, does not fit when it comes to books that discuss life’s perennial questions. Questions of purpose, origin, meaning, etc. are questions that have occupied the minds of thinkers throughout the ages. Books written by thinkers who have reflected deeply on  life’s ultimate questions do not wither with age – rather, they stand the test of time and give us a glimpse into the wisdom that has been handed down to us. Much of what we see today is just a repackaging of what others have said in the past. Just as The Preacher states in Ecclesiastes, there really is nothing new under the sun.

It behooves us to reach into the past by reading old book – those books that have stood the test of time – to see what we can learn, what we can avoid, and what we need reminded of. God often pointed the Israelites to their own history to remind them of their faithlessness and his faithfulness. The writers of the gospels appealed to the Old Testament in order to demonstrate to their audience that the life and work of Jesus Christ has been a part of God’s plan from the beginning. And Paul in Hebrews 11 reminds believers of the faith of those who have gone before us as an encouragement to remain steadfast in their walk with the Lord.

Though old books are not inspired, they do stand as a record of other believers’ struggles and victories, doubts and insight, and mistakes and principles – things that remind us that we are not alone this side of heaven. Someone has been where you are right now. Someone has been where I am right now in my own life. We have, therefore, much to learn from those who have made it through the fires of life. Neglect not the old books, but read them!

Post Script: I think a note should be added that in addition to reading old books by Christian thinkers of the past, it is beneficial to read old books by non-Christian authors as well. They struggle with many of the same questions believers struggle with. Though many non-believers do not arrive at conclusions with which we may not agree, they can touch on ideas that are in alignment with Scripture.  We can learn from those who do not know the Lord. Further, any ideas that are not alignment with Scripture can serve  as an encouragement to the believer to remain steadfast in God’s truth, and they can inform us on how we can reply to questions and objections to Christianity.

Thus, read widely!

Finally, take the time to read this wonderful article from BBC News titled: “A Point of View: Is There Still Any Point Collecting Books?”  The author Howard Jacobson pens a wonderful piece on the allure of old books and the special place they have in his life. I felt I met a dear friend when I read this piece – he puts into words what I can’t express when it comes to old books. It would be so much fun to see his personal library…

At the SBTS Blog: Science vs. Scientism: A Necessary Distinction

This past semester I had the opportunity to teach Introduction to Philosophy at Boyce College. This is one of my favorite courses to teach as it deals with one of my favorite areas – metaphilosophy and the relationship between faith and reason. I also enjoy this class because I have the opportunity to discuss the distinction between science and what’s known as “scientism.” What is “scientism” and why the distinction? Well, take a look at my post at the Southern Blog titled “Science vs. Scientism: A Necessary Distinction.”

Les Miles by Patrick Dennis

LSU Fans, We Are The Issue, Not Miles

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Les Miles By the Numbers

I try not to write about sports too much on here, but the Les Miles saga at LSU is getting to be a bit too much. I admit, just a few days ago I was ready to see Miles let go. Since 2011, we’ve been plagued with the same offensive issues and have failed to win the SEC West, much less the national title. A change is needed; perhaps Miles has seen his better days.

However, as emotions have settled down, I’ve been won over by those outside of the chaos that is LSU football. Those who are not emotionally involved are looking at this scenario and rightly question – is LSU serious?

Miles has won a title and has never had a losing season. Miles has produced numerous NFL players and is always one of the top recruiting classes. The program is relatively clean, and Miles has walked the talk (who else would have the guts to cut Periloux and Mathieu despite their talent?). Further, Miles has invested in the community (and loves Baton Rouge). There’s so much more to say, but the point is clear, Miles has built a solid and stable program, and he is a coach who draws no attention to himself (see here), but to the program he serves and the students he leads.

Does Miles need to change how he does offense? Yes. Is he loyal to a fault (Jordan Jefferson)? Yes. He’s got things to fix. But he’s not the problem. We are. The primary issue at play here is our dislike of Saban and Alabama, and this colors how we view everything else. It’s as if we compare ourselves to ‘Bama and we get angry when we lose to them because it means we’re not better than them. We judge our program’s success on one game. In short, our frustrations with Les, with the season, and with the program are rooted in our inferiority complex with ‘Bama. That’s our fault, not Miles’.

Les Miles by Patrick DennisWe have a program to be proud of – a team that very few can match up to. I live in Kentucky, and I can tell you there are some football fans up here who would love to have the “problem” of a 7-3 season. Our sustained success since 2000 has caused us to raise our expectations  – which is a good thing. However, in raising our expectations, we have neglected to appreciate what we have with our LSU football program.

I think Joe Alleva, the boosters, and the fans would do well to listen to the likes of Stoops, Jason Kirk at SB Nation, Pat Forde, LSU players, and everyone else not caught up in this scapegoating of Les Miles.

A Night to Remember – the McDonalds at the Bevin/Hampton Rally

Last night, my family and I attended the Bevin/Hampton rally as the election results rolled in. We have never attended anything like this and thought it would be a great opportunity for us to experience American politics in a new way (new to us). The atmosphere was charged with optimism and excitement as Republicans won key positions in state government and as the results of the governor’s race rolled in. It was an experience to remember as we took part in welcoming in Matt Bevin as Kentucky’s next governor.

My wife and I, though, have another reason to be excited about last night. As Bevin’s lead over Conway was at a comfortable  level, Bevin and his family made their way into the ballroom to great supporters. My two youngest daughters wanted to make their way toward Bevin for a chance to say hi and to take a picture with them. Making our way to Bevin was easy despite the crowd around him – we were able to get within two feet of him. The challenge was to get his attention, which my youngest daughter eventually did as she lightly tapped him on the shoulder. I was able to get a picture of my girls with Bevin, and they even took a selfie with him. :)

Little did I know that the media would jump on this photo op, and before the night was over, my girls’ picture with Bevin was on USA Today, the Courier-Journal, and Yahoo.com. It’s been fun to see an innocent picture garner attention on national media (in a good way!). All it took was a tap on the shoulder for us to have Gov.-Elect Bevin’s attention for just a short moment. The fact that he took the time to take a picture and a selfie speaks volumes about his character. Thank you, Mr. Bevin! Though this may have seemed like a small moment in your busy night (and what a wonderful night!), you made a huge impact on two girls who have big dreams!

Here are the pictures that have made the news:

USA Today: this picture was taken as I was taking a picture of the girls and Bevin with my cell phone.

From USA Today’s article titled “GOP’s Bevin defeats Conway in Ky. gov.’s race.” Click on the picture for the article.

Yahoo Newsthis picture was taken shortly after Emma got Bevin’s attention. Here Libby is talking to Gov. Elect Bevin.

Libby (future governor) meeting Gov.-Elect Bevin.

Courier-Journal (Louisville):

The photo USA Today picked up. I spoke with a photographer from CJ to give them my girls’ names.

Deborah Yetter (Reporter at CJ, via her Twitter account: @d_yetter): I had the opportunity to speak with Ms. Yetter; she’s a very nice lady. She was patient with the girls and seemed to enjoy speaking with them.

Taken by Deborah Yetter at CJ. We were by the stage getting ready for Bevin's speech.

Taken by Deborah Yetter at CJ. We were by the stage getting ready for Bevin’s speech.

Overall, it was a very good night. My girls’ overnight “fame” just topped it off!

So, with my daddy-bragging over with, I must say that attending the rally last night helped me to get a new perspective on American politics. Yes, we have problems in the government. Yes, it can get wearying hearing the fighting crossing over the political divide. But, seeing our politics in action yesterday showed me that despite our warts, we really do have a wonderful political system.

Always Be Prepared

At The Southern Blog, I have written a post (Always be Prepared to Make a Defense) that discusses how understanding the philosophy of our day helps believers to fulfill Peter’s command in 1 Peter 3:15 to “always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (ESV).

This post is a small part of my work to show how philosophy – rightly understood – can be of service to theology and to the defense of the Christian faith. I hope you find it helpful!