Saturday at Mythcon 45 was an excellent day. It began well with a panel on teaching Tolkien at the college level, with Corey Olsen (my hero and new boss), Verlyn Flieger, Chip Crane, Kristine Larsen, and Brian Walter. They talked about getting Tolkien courses accepted on college curricula — no easy task! Corey managed to do get a Tolkien course on the curriculum of his liberal arts college by offering it as an Introduction to Medieval Literature, or, really, a proto-intro-to Medieval literature course. In other words, undergrads who aren’t ready to read, say, The Romance of the Rose or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or Pearl or Beowulf might be perfectly ready to read Tolkien in a college course, and from there can be easily led into “real” medieval lit. Kristine Larsen is an astronomer, and has looked at the cosmology and scientific elements of JRRT’s fiction.
They all faced challenges getting their schools to admit Tolkien — Verlyn said it was like “pushing a train by hand” — but once in, these courses have become wildly popular and astonishingly successful. Tolkien does everything that any great literature does: he’s got fantastic passages for close reading, yields a wealth of readings via any theoretical approach, he’s packed with all the “Great Ideas” of philosophy and religion, and it’s just a whacking good story. So now English departments sadly shake their heads as they allow Tolkien courses on the curriculum, because it gets students in seats and therefore brings in tuition revenue. Some day they’ll come around to seeing that just because something’s popular doesn’t mean it’s bad, and will rejoice to add Tolkien to their syllabi for the right reasons.
Then my Mythcon afternoon took a nasty turn. I heard two excellent papers by The Reichard brothers, Joshua and Jared. Joshua’s paper was entitled “Matter, Myth, and Meaning: Science, Fantasy LIterature, and the Spiritual Quest.” Jared’s was “Menace, Myth, and Madness: Villiany, Fantasy Literture, and the Search for Self.” Jared’s was extremely interesting, as it combined two topics I’m interested in. The first was something I often encourage my students to write about, as it is a way of connecting literature with something in “real life”: he diagnoses several characters in LOTR with mental illnesses. Then the second topic, which was related, suggested that fantasy literature might have a possible clinical application in helping traumatized kids — a topic I am very interested in.
But it was Joshua’s paper that gave rise to the title of this post. Don’t get me wrong: his paper was very reasoned and reasonable. It included material related to my Inklings and King Arthur topic, and it also presented CSL’s definition of and attack against “scientific materialism.” Here is a blog post (not written by anyone having anything to do with Joshua or Mythcon, as far as I know) that gives a sample of the ways people frequently summarize Lewis-contra-materialist reductionism.
Anyway, Joshua gave a brief definition of scientific materialism as a belief that everything is a random pattern of molecules, and (therefore) without meaning. The room exploded! Four people started yelling at him at once, including one rather unstable woman in the front row who screamed at him that “YOU are the kind of person who tells me I can’t have meaning and beauty and truth and love in my life! YOU are the sort of bigot who refuses to understand that I do have meaning, and it comes from natural law! YOU are the type of arrogant fool who refuses to see things from someone else’s perspective or to admit that anyone else’s view might make sense to them!” and so on and so forth. Joshua stayed calm, pointing out that he hadn’t stated his position at all, but had merely paraphrased Lewis’s position, but the yelling continued until the room needed to be cleared for the next speaker.
I found it exhausting and stressful. Interestingly, however, I talked to a new friend about it over the dinner line, and he said it was “Only a rational academic debate.” So perhaps I misinterpreted.
I’m not 100% sure that Joshua used the correct definition, either. Lewis went through a radical change in his understanding of “scientific materialism” after his notorious debate with Margaret Anscombe, rewriting his definitions of and arguments against naturalism. Without having the texts on hand I can’t be sure, but I have a suspicion that Reichard may have been using the pre-Anscombe terminology. Anyway, it was a lively session, to say the least!
Later in the afternoon, I heard Donald Williams talk about “Text vs. Word: C. S. Lewis’s View of Inspiration and the Inerrancy of Scripture.” His paper was clear and precise. Yet its conclusion was (in very rude summary) that because of Lewis’s unwillingness to subscribe to a position on innerrancy that could conform (anachronistically) to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (the text of which you can get here), thus far was Lewis “unorthodox.” Williams was particularly concerned about the slippery slope of approaching some Biblical texts as myth, and so forth.
Well, whatever you believe about Biblical inerrancy, this paper certainly led to one of the most memorable afternoons in my experience: my four panelists, the Tolkien Professor, and I met by a pond in the middle of campus (and ended up IN the pond before the end) and talked about the Bible for two hours. It was a glorious, warm, sunny, gentle summer afternoon, and there we stood with our feet in the water, sharing our denominational stories and approaches to the Biblical text. Happiness!!
And that wasn’t the end of the day, either. It continued with a collaborative reading of Beowulf, alternating readings in the original Anglo-Saxon text and in JRRT’s translation. And THEN, as if that wasn’t enough, we ended Saturday by giving a spontaneous Mythgard-at-Mythcon live broadcast — my first audio appearance with the Tolkien professor! Yay!