Engaging Literature with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien

February 7, 2017
Tim Basselin, Darrell L. Bock, and W. Hall Harris

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Topic Time Codes

00:16
Harris’ and Basselin’s background in literature
04:04
The value of studying literature and culture along with theology
10:14
Engaging beauty through literature
18:06
Basselin and Harris’ class on the works of Lewis and Tolkien
21:57
Methodology for reading literature well
27:52
What is literature immersion?
34:35
Identifying tensions within a piece of literature
40:21
Humility and learning from literature

Transcript

Darrell Bock
Welcome to The Table where we discuss issues of God and culture. I'm Darrell Bock, executive director of the Hendricks Center at Dallas Theological Seminary, executive director for cultural engagement.

And my two guests are Tim Basselin and Hall Harris, who are partners in crime this semester. They have combined to teach a course on the fictional writings of Tolkien and Lewis. And Tim teaches in our Arts – Media and Arts Program here at the Seminary, and Hall is a colleague in New Testament Studies.

And so, how could it possibly be that a New Testament guy and an arts guy get together and teach a class on literary works? And, Tim, I think I'll let you launch us into the – tell the story about where this came from.
Timothy Basselin
Student demand.
Darrell Bock
Student demand, huh?
Timothy Basselin
Yeah. There was a student in one of Hall's classes, where he was mentioning – were you talking about Tolkien or Lewis?
Hall Harris
Lewis.
Timothy Basselin
Lewis? And he came up to him after class and asked if there would – the possibility of having a class on that. And Hall mentioned that to me in the faculty lounge, and I was like, "Yeah, let's do it. That would be fun. Let's teach one together." And I was half joking. And then it – we started – the ball started rolling and it just kept going.
Darrell Bock
You don't joke with Hall.
Timothy Basselin
No.
Darrell Bock
He takes it seriously.
Timothy Basselin
He was very excited to teach something outside of New Testament.
Darrell Bock
And, Hall, where did your interest in this area come from? I know you're a big – I knew you were a big Lewis fan. So, where did your interest in all this come from?
Hall Harris
Well, I've read literature since I was in high school. This is the crazy thing about it. When I was a sophomore and junior in high school, the English Department decided they didn't have any more to teach me. So, they turned me loose in the library during the English class period. And one year, I read through the great books of the Western world. All of 'em – 37 million words I forget how much it is.

And I really read pretty freely. And I really enjoyed it, because I didn't have anybody telling me, "You should like Dickens," or, "You shouldn't like Trollope," or, "You –" whatever.

But I went away to college. I thought I wanted to be an aerospace engineer. I decided to come to Seminary. And so, my fourth year, I switched to an English lit. major and finished with a degree in English lit. and a minor in French. But I have been reading Lewis and Tolkien since that time. And over and over and over again.

I used to read the Space Trilogy and The Lord of the Rings annually. I've slipped a little on that in the last ten years.
Darrell Bock
The New Testament will do that to you.
Hall Harris
Yeah, it kind of has a way to do that, but I've always been engaged with that, because it does something to me. I feel like, in these imaginary worlds that Lewis and Tolkien have created, I somehow find myself more at home than I do in the real world sometimes.
Darrell Bock
And, Tim, where's your interest in all this come from?
Timothy Basselin
We didn't read a lot of books – I didn't read a lot of books, growing up, but a very distinct memory I have over and over again is my parents reading me The Chronicles of Narnia. So, us all climbing into their king-sized bed in the evening and reading and going through them, and that they just opened up my imagination in ways that, I think, I'm only now coming to appreciate.
Darrell Bock
Hmm, hmm.
Timothy Basselin
So, I returned to those and read them myself, obviously. I had a course in college that was on Lewis that I really enjoyed. And I also did an English major in college and continued that through my Ph.D. and did some literature studies and ultimately focused on Flannery O'Connor, but I've always had an interest in literature studies.
Darrell Bock
Now, the obvious transparent question is what is a course like this doing in a place like this? We're at a Seminary. I don't think – I think it would be fair to say – in fact, I'd be willing to bet that I could go through the catalogs of most seminary offerings around the country, and you'd be hard pressed to find a course like this. You might find it in a few places, but not in very many.

So, explain, for those who are listening, as they – thinking through this – why in the world would a seminary be engaged in a course on literary fiction? What is it designed to do for students? And what kind of reflection are you aiming at?
Timothy Basselin
That's a little hard for me to answer, because it's just so natural for me; it's what I've studied all – I did a double major in college Bible and English, I continued that through my Ph.D. work. So, it's just very – it's the way that I think.

So, it feels to me very natural and like, "Why wouldn't you have this sort of course?" But what I find from students is that in a similar way to the way I feel like my imagination was awakened with some of this – these types of readings when I was young, that students are longing for that.

So, in one way, it allows or teaches people how to allow their imagination to be part of their spiritual life would be one aspect of it. And then I think another one is understanding our culture, understanding how to interact with culture very generally, not just through analysis or reason, but also with the emotions, with viewing art, with seeing movies, and actually being affected by them, which is something Lewis talks about a lot.

What's your view on it, Hall, why the school needs this kind of course?
Hall Harris
Well, I started from a somewhat different place. I used to – I've taught Philippians for years in one of our required courses, and I'll get to that point in Philippians 4 where Paul would talk about, "If there's anything worthy, think about these things."

And I always used to use Lewis' imaginary works and Tolkien's fictional worlds as an example of things that were worth thinking about. And one of the – I really became convinced – and I still am, though I've had to broaden my views out, thanks to my colleague – that this actually applies, perhaps, to all literature and not just the fictional works of Christian authors like Lewis and Tolkien.

But I really feel like, when you go into this fictional reality that they've created, you see moral and ethical choices in relief in a way that they stand out and jump at you in ways that in all of our complex modern world, with all it's different shades of gray and uncertainty, we don't see the clarity or the difference between good and evil, for example.

And when you go into Lord of the Rings, or when you go into Narnia, or when you go to Mars – Malacandra – with Lewis' Out of the Silent Planet, you suddenly see stuff for what it really is. And when you watch other people in the – when you watch the characters making choices between good and evil, whose side am I on? Who am I willing to die for?

You come away from that and back into our real world with an enhanced capability to make those discernments, those choices. And so, you come away a more ethical, better person as a result.

Now, I've since come to think, thanks to Tim, that this actually applies in some greater or lesser degree to virtually all of literature in the sense that literature forces us outside of ourself. And even in literature that we might look at and consider morally questionable or in some cases even morally reprehensible, we actually learn something by negative example about how not to do this.
Darrell Bock
'Cause we still see choices in –
Hall Harris
Because we –
Darrell Bock
– dilemmas, intensions –
Hall Harris
Yes.
Darrell Bock
– and all that –
Hall Harris
Absolutely.
Darrell Bock
Yes.
Hall Harris
And so, I think it's actually a huge part of character development and moral and ethical formation. And if there's one thing that people training for ministry, in a theological school, really need to think about in this present day and age, it's moral and ethical choices.
Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm.
Timothy Basselin
Yeah. I think an enormous part of that is empathy, not just seeing moral choices and negative examples and positive examples, but walking in someone else's shoes and really understanding where they're coming from and training ourselves to actually listen and to hear well rather than just speak.
Darrell Bock
Yeah, but you're all over a value we constantly talk about in here, which is – my remark goes – one of the first rules of cultural engagement is to put on – is to get a spiritual GPS on where someone's coming from, which means you listen, and you shut off your truth meter for a while and just listen to what it is the person is saying. What motivates them; why they are the way they are; where their influences are coming from, etcetera.

And the goal is really to get to know them. And to get to know them in a way that's healthy and that allows you to have and wrestle with, "Where can I connect with where this person's coming from," that kind of thing.
Timothy Basselin
Yeah. Lewis has an incredible quote, and maybe Hall can remember it more precisely than I can – he has that ability a little better than I do – about it does no good to – basically to critique literature from the beginning until you've given yourself to it and allowed it to have its emotional affect on you. Until you've allowed it that power, there's no point in critiquing it, because it hasn't – you have not allowed it to be what it's supposed to be and to do what it's supposed to do.
Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm. So – okay, so, you've got this course on – well, there's one other question I do want to ask before we go into the particulars and let me do it now. Another value that we've talked about, besides the value of listening and engagement is a value that I would call an embrace of kind of truth and beauty – and we might add reflection in the midst of all that.

And I think it's an undervalued value, if I can. And I heard you evoke the idea of imagination. So, I think this is an interesting combination. So, talk a little bit about the goal of opening up the imagination that you feel like these works do.

Do you think they work, in part, because not only do they take you out of yourself, but in some cases they put you in a different place, a different location, and you find yourself trying to get oriented to start off with? And in that process – in the process of being dislocated, you actually have the opportunity to get located, if I can say it that way?
Timothy Basselin
Yeah, yeah. So, like Brueggemann talks about orientation, disorientation, reorientation, yeah. There's different ways to define and understand, obviously, what beauty is and how it works. So, a more traditional model may be that God is beautiful. And so, beauty is – "static" might not be quite the right word, but you can define it according to God's characteristic. And then we can see reflections of that, and we can notice reflections of that.

The Old Testament actually doesn't use the word "beauty" very much at all. It uses the word "glory" a lot. And in referring to things that we might call beautiful. And Bill Dyrness has done some good work. He was on my dissertation committee. He's done some really incredible work on looking at beauty in the Old Testament and talking – when he talks about beauty, the way he defines it is – the way he says the Bible defines it is beauty is that which is fitting.

So, it is that which is in correct relation to God's purposes in the world. So, it's not this objective – it's objective in the sense that it is true, and it's objectively true –
Darrell Bock
And it exists.
Timothy Basselin
Right. But it's not so a person is simply beautiful – well, or a thing is simply beautiful. You can take something that one person considers beautiful, and you can use it to very terrible purposes. So, it is beautiful when it is being used correctly, or when it is in relation to God in the right way.

And I think talking about the imagination, what literature can do for us, is it can re-imagine what is beautiful. It can take our understandings that may have holes and flaws in them, and it can give us a different perspective that we see as more fitting into God's purposes in the world, that we couldn't see from where we were at from our original perspective.
Darrell Bock
So, kind of in shaking up the box, if you will, you're almost forced to think through what configuration might make some kind of sense. Or, in some works, it's so disheveled that you go – there is no way – good way to put this together, but it may make sense out of something else that's going on in your life that helps you to appreciate things may be better than they seem.

I think of some of the movies that are very, very popular today, which are about – the Mockingjay movies in particular – where the game – the reality show is so out of whack, if I can say it that way, that you're forced – you're forced to think through, "What kind of a – what kind of a moral world is that?" And then, "What kind of a moral world should we think about living in?"

And then, of course, part of the point of the movie is the way in which a virtue shines through even in the midst of that kind of disorienting environment, if I can say it that way. Is that part of what we're looking at here is this kind of reshuffling of the deck, if you will, or something like that?
Timothy Basselin
I think we – going into every class, we have some sort of purpose in reshuffling our student's deck.
Hall Harris
Yeah, we call it messing with their minds.
Darrell Bock
Yeah, yeah. Yeah, but this is a healthy messing of the minds. You aren't just messing with minds to mess with minds; it has a point to it, doesn't it, Hall?
Hall Harris
Oh, absolutely. And I think, before we get too far off the topic of beauty, I kind of wanted to throw in there's also this tension between internal and external. It fits with the major New Testament theme that you and I would know as the great reversal of values –
Darrell Bock
Right.
Hall Harris
That what, from a human standpoint looks to be outstanding and perfect and desirable, from God's standard, it's only useful for paving material. It's just worth trampling underfoot.

And that is that when you look at beauty, there's inner beauty, and there's external beauty. And we often focus only on the latter. We focus on what we can see with our eyes and what meets our senses. But there's an inner beauty of character that somebody can exhibit, as a human being, who might actually, on the outside, be a disabled person, a disfigured person, even a very grotesque person, but there's this inner radiance of character that comes through.

You know, the quote I always keep going back to is one from – one of the most famous aviation writers of the 20th century, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who's famous for The Little Prince. It's been translated in – all over, "It is only with the heart that one can see rightly the essential is invisible to the eye." And that really says a lot. And you may want to comment on this inner vs. outer, 'cause I know it concerns some of your dissertation work.
Darrell Bock
And it actually – I do have one train I want to pick up now, which is it does actually show why it is that sometimes the most – how can I say this? – the most honorable kind of character, the most outstanding type of character emerges in the midst of oftentimes the most horrible of circumstances.

That in other words – that the external situation that we find ourselves in may be terrifically horrible, in many ways, and yet the person who stands out in the midst of that stands out in part because the contrast then becomes so great.
Hall Harris
Yes.
Darrell Bock
Yeah.
Timothy Basselin
And that's often a questioning of, I think – I see those things as a questioning of what it is that we consider to be good and bad and to be beautiful or not beautiful. So, why is it that we – when we see a disabled person, we have these standards of beauty that we apply, and we apply them kind of randomly, according to the way our culture has shaped us and the way that we understand the world.

So, some disabilities, like we're all wearing glasses here. And people don't necessarily find glasses ugly. I have some teenaged kids that are kind of interested in getting glasses that are not even for use. You know? It's just a cool factor.
Darrell Bock
The aesthetics, yeah.
Timothy Basselin
The aesthetics of looking at 'em. So, what is it that we're looking at and calling beautiful or not calling beautiful? What standards are we bringing that are wrong and need to be challenged and need to be questioned?
Darrell Bock
Hmm, hmm. So, let's talk – let's dive in a little bit into the course and how it works. How have you all built the semester and how are you getting at these kinds of issues through these writings? What's the general outline of how you're going about this? I know you're in the midst of it. So –
Timothy Basselin
Easy to difficult.
Darrell Bock
Uh-huh.
Hall Harris
It's the arrangement of the works, yes.
Darrell Bock
Yeah, yeah.
Timothy Basselin
We've started with Lewis, who Tolkien accused of being more allegorical.
Hall Harris
Not fair.
Timothy Basselin
He's not fair, maybe, but I mean he probably is more allegorical than Tolkien is anyway. He certainly can be seen that way. That's stuff that our theology students can connect really well with. So, when we read stuff from The Chronicles of Narnia, where there's easy parallels to the Christian story, and then we move through and move them more into Lewis' and Tolkien's definition of myth and the significance of myth, and then go all the way to Lewis' most difficult work, which we had a little argument about whether or not to include, which is probably Till We Have Faces –
Hall Harris
Which you won.
Darrell Bock
[Laughs]
Timothy Basselin
– which is all myth. Right.
Darrell Bock
That's probably not to be sorted out in public. But anyway –
Hall Harris
So, I don't mind. I'll make a comment on this. It – I've read it several times, and I – let me say up front, and in all fairness, it never did much for me, and I was never one of its greatest fans. Lewis, in some of his correspondence, put that one and Perelandra as the two most favorite books of his that he ever wrote, and he thought, technically, as a novel, it was the best thing he ever wrote.

But it's not an easy work to get into, and it – I had problems with it that were pretty much my own making, because I tend to be a little bit of an engineer by trade, and I tend to like to look at life as an engineering problem to be solved. And there is a character in Till We Have Faces who takes a very similar approach to life, and I didn't like that character very much, because it was too close to home let's just say.
Darrell Bock
[Laughs] Oh, you're looking at in the mirror and didn't like what you saw.
Hall Harris
Yeah, I think I'm going to have to confess on that one. So, I've kind of revised my view on this and said, "Yes, I'll acknowledge this is an important work, and it needs to be studied in detail because of what it tells us about who we are and how we respond to other people."
Timothy Basselin
And I fought for it precisely for that reason, and I know that we have students – a lot of students who would need that same sort of –
Darrell Bock
Prodding?
Timothy Basselin
Yeah.
Timothy Basselin
That helped Hall out.
Darrell Bock
So – and so, I take it that the goal is not just to analyze these works and talk about it, but to really engage in a semester in which a student does something, they probably don't get a chance to do very often in seminary, at least in this kind of way, and that is to be led into a kind of self-reflection that normally they might not get if they were in a systematic theology class or debating philosophy or debating historical criticism or whatever. Is that part of the point of the exercise?
Timothy Basselin
Yes, certainly. And so, we have them posting online before class and interacting with one another and creating a lot of conversation. And our whole class is pretty much conversation about the stuff rather than us being the sages on the stage and telling them everything.
Darrell Bock
So, your class time is even handled a little bit differently than most normal –
Timothy Basselin
Yeah.
Darrell Bock
We'll have to talk about that on the other side of the break. That's an interesting observation from a pedagogical standpoint. And for those of us who teach in a variety of settings, that might be good.

So, let's talk about which works dispose themselves to this discussion first, Hall, and then talk about what kinds of things are you getting the students to reflect on as they read?
Hall Harris
Well, last week we had students read side by side Lewis' The Abolition of Man – which is kind of a philosophical text on education theory, where Lewis argues real strongly for an objective reality outside ourselves – and compare that to Lewis' The Great Divorce, which he subtitles A Dream – which is a picture of people making choices, choosing self or choosing others, whether to stay in Heaven or go back to Hell. All imaginary.

This week we're talking about Lewis' work on experiment and criticism, which is perhaps, in some ways, maybe one of the more technical things we do, where Lewis is arguing that rather than have people told what they should or shouldn't like, they should learn how to read and really engage the literature and immerse themselves in it and learn how to receive rather than to simply comment on.

And so, it's really important. We're gonna move on from that to talk about Tolkien's – it was originally the Andrew Lang lectures – and then published as On Fairy Stories, where Tolkien talks about creating imaginary worlds and our role as human beings as sub-creators under God the Creator, where we use our imaginative, inventive capability to come up with these imaginary worlds that people can visit.
Darrell Bock
Hmm. Now, Tim, as you look at this, what are you hoping students get out of this particular section on literary theory?
Timothy Basselin
Well, in the beginning of An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis is talking about the difference – not just talking about good literature vs. bad literature; he tries to change the conversation and instead talk about reading well or not reading well.

And he talks about people who don't read well. One example is they don't read things twice, because as soon as they figure out they've read it before, they're done with it. They've used it. It's already had its purpose. And he talks about reading well. I mean imagine going to a family reunion and then you're invited back the next year, or five years down the road or whatever, and, "No, I've done that before. I'm finished with it." Right?
Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm.
Timothy Basselin
That's not – it doesn't make for a good relationship; it doesn't – there's other things to be discovered and learned and to grow form it. So, he's calling people into, again, a listening – a listening well and sitting with something and taking time. If you have a favorite spot outdoors, on your back porch, or at a park or whatever, you don't want to just go there once, and then you've got it, and you've figured it out. It's something that washes over you, and you allow it to affect how you are.

So, again, it's about listening well and not simply using what we read for our own purposes and then tossing it and being done with it.
Darrell Bock
Now, obviously, we're thinking about a kind of reading that is different, perhaps, in the way a lot of people use their reading. Most people, they either read for information, or the read for what they might call leisure, which is just to experience a store or whatever, but it's still kind of at a –
Timothy Basselin
Almost escapist.
Darrell Bock
– a distance. Yes. And that's not what you're talking about, right?
Timothy Basselin
No, no.
Darrell Bock
So, okay, those are two of the ways most people read. So, what kind of an experience are you inviting students to –
Timothy Basselin
And those are the examples that Lewis brings up as well, that he is arguing against. You want to speak into that, Hall?
Hall Harris
Well, I'll try to be brief. I think there's – it's a kind of immersive reading that – where we, in a sense, give up ourselves and die to ourselves, but I don't mean in a spiritual Christian dying to self sense, but it's a lot further than simply what Coleridge famously called the "willing suspension of disbelief" that everybody who works with literature and narrative has thrown that phrase around. It's deeper than that; it's beyond that.

And I'm gonna read one stanza of a poem I wrote this weekend that describes my own experience about this, because I think it says it better than I can say it any other way. The poem was called Literary Immersion, and this is the first stanza:

Sinking in a sea of words,

down in the darkened depths of a literary sea,

I plunge beneath the surface meaning,

gasping as I go, choking for air, fighting for light, longing for life itself,

Within existing memory or no, dying to myself

as I lose myself in words I neither spoke nor wrote.

And yet, in dying I am altered, changed within, enlarged, made greater than I was before.
Timothy Basselin
I think you can hear in that, Hall has an immense ability to reason, and there's somewhat he's fighting that, and that almost –
Darrell Bock
He's reasoning as he's drowning.
Timothy Basselin
Yeah, yeah, exactly.
Hall Harris
That's right. Throw me a lifeline, folks.
Timothy Basselin
The need to reason is the drowning almost.
Darrell Bock
Yeah, right, right, right.
Hall Harris
That's right.
Timothy Basselin
To try to figure out before it even starts.
Darrell Bock
Yes.
Timothy Basselin
And it's the learning to give yourself over as Lewis talks about. Give yourself over to the work and allow it to affect you and allow it to do its work on you.
Darrell Bock
You know, it's interesting, 'cause as we're having this conversation, I'm thinking about the there's an entire genre of stuff that is actually very popular today, the whole realm of science fiction and futurism and all that kind of stuff, which I have to confess I, for the most part, do not connect to.
Timothy Basselin
I don't either.
Hall Harris
Oh, I do; don't get me started.
Darrell Bock
And so, I watch this, and particularly people's fascination with it a lot of times, and I go, "I just can't connect to that. I mean there's no –" And yet, in one sense, in an exaggerated kind of way, I think, it's designed to be this disorienting but yet orienting experience that I think your poem is shooting after. Is that – is that part of what we're talking about here? I'm going to say it this way, allowing yourself to get disoriented so that you have the chance of getting reoriented at the same time?
Hall Harris
Yeah, I think that's true, but it's reoriented within the universe you've entered in this literary work. And you have to be careful about that, because obviously, for talking about imaginative Christian literature like Lewis and Tolkien wrote, you're in fairly safe territory most of the time.
Darrell Bock
Exactly, that's –
Hall Harris
You can be very deeply challenged –
Darrell Bock
You're going right down the track I'm wrestling with.
Hall Harris
Yeah. But, obviously, there's some – what are considered great classic literature in the history of the Western world that, frankly, can get a little scary if you completely immerse yourself in. And I think you need to keep that in mind.

It reminds me of Strabo, the geographer, commenting on the ancient city of Corinth, once said, "Not for everyone is the voyage to Corinth."
Darrell Bock
That's right.
Hall Harris
In other words, as Obi-Wan Kenobi says to Luke Skywalker, going into the Mos Eisley Cantina, "This place can be a little rough.
Darrell Bock
Yeah, yeah. And so – and I think – I think what I'm hearing here is there are actually two experiences that you kind of – and maybe this is a reflection of the poem as well, Hall – on the one hand you've got the immersion, which is allowing yourself into this world that may operate in different ways and in different rules to see what a reconfiguration can look like. But there's also still is the critical part of the person who goes through that experience, who in the midst of going there also has to also kind of step back and assess what's happening at the same time. Is that an interplay that we're also talking about?
Hall Harris
It is, but I wonder, because if you're not careful, you can find yourself doing all assessing and not much listening. You can end up being critical of the universe you're going into, maybe because it raises red flags about your theology of predestination.
Darrell Bock
So, you put your toe in the water, but you don't actually dive in.
Hall Harris
Yeah, exactly. And I'm thinking that maybe the reflection comes more on the way back out as you're thinking about it after you've been there, but not so much while you're actually in the experience.
Darrell Bock
So, rather than thinking about it as a dialectic exercise, in which the two things are happening simultaneously, although I'm not sure we can totally shut that off, it's more a – it's more a dive in and then step – get immersed and then step back operation. Tim, is that how you see it, or do you wrestle with it differently?
Timothy Basselin
Yeah, I think I wrestle with it a little differently.
Darrell Bock
I'm looking at his look, and I'm going, "I'm not sure he's on the same page."
Hall Harris
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. This is not the first time this has happened.
Timothy Basselin
It feels to me like what you all are describing is still a very rational kind of – okay, when does my rational part get to be able to judge and tell it what to do? And I'm not trying to suggest we need to take the rational out of it, of course. I'm not suggesting that at all.

Let me see if I can put this in a different way. I think there's certainly danger in literature. But for me, the real danger is when we read it as escapism. Because literature does work on us. It simply does. And when you read it as escapism, you don't recognize it as doing work on you.
Darrell Bock
You pretend that something's not going on that is.
Timothy Basselin
Exactly.
Darrell Bock
Yeah.
Timothy Basselin
So, if you approach it as only entertainment – to a movie, or whatever you go to – then it does its work on you, and it affects you, but you don't – you're just changed, and you don't know why or anything like that.

I think there's a deeper way of learning how to engage cultural objects, how to engage – how to recognize the image of God in the world, how to listen for the Spirit being at work in the world in a variety of places, and to be in touch with that, and to listen to the Spirit, and to allow our – the Spirit in us to recognize, as Paul does at the Areopagus, "In him we live and move and have our being."

That's not a Christian writing those words, and yet Paul recognizes it and says, "Yes, this is true." And he points it out and calls it what it is.

And then – so, here's another example, maybe. There's a difference in going to a bar just for entertainment and not realizing the effects that that's having on you, and going to actually engage people and engage the music that is there and really listen to a person.
Darrell Bock
So, I'm there to have the drink rather than to actually get to know the people sitting next to me.
Timothy Basselin
Right.
Darrell Bock
Yeah.
Timothy Basselin
And you can – we tend – we approach relationships that way. We use other people for ourselves. How to Win Friends and Influence People – is that the name of the book?
Darrell Bock
Yeah, yeah.
Timothy Basselin
It's basically be generous to people, but really, your idea is that you're trying to get something, and it's an exchange kind of model as opposed to a generosity of spirit, which is – requires a lot of vulnerability. And I think literature requires a lot of vulnerability. But the payoff is so much more great.
Darrell Bock
And so, the goal here is to really get the student to – you guys have used the picture of immersion, you used the picture of drowning to illustrate it – is to really get a student to open themselves up to the place the author is trying to take them in many ways. Is that – would that be a fair way to characterize what you're after?
Timothy Basselin
I would say that's part of it, yeah.
Hall Harris
Mm-hmm.
Darrell Bock
Okay. What comes with it?
Timothy Basselin
For me, there's a large element of the Spirit at work in the world and recognizing God at work in the world.
Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm. And by that – I'm going to tease this out a little bit – by that you mean in all kinds of ways and in all kinds of directions? Right?
Timothy Basselin
And by – I think part of what I'm pushing back against a little bit is that it's not just about authorial intent.
Darrell Bock
Right.
Timothy Basselin
So, I can't say, "Oh, this person is not a Christian," or, "This person believes something – is a Christian, but believes a very different way than I do. Therefore, what they write is no good, and I can't listen to it."
Darrell Bock
Right, right. Sometimes what I – the way I like to get at this is the suggestion that sometimes when we talk about culture or the messages that culture sends us, we tend to take it through a good and a bad filter –
Timothy Basselin
Right.
Hall Harris
Mm-hmm.
Darrell Bock
– if I can say it that way. And not only do we take it through a good and bad filter, but we tend to be really, really sensitive to when it's bad and notice that and tend to pay very little, if any, attention to when it's good so that the culture meter has a tilt button, and the tilt button is all aligned to be really, really sensitive to one direction of that.

And my guess is, as a part of what I'm hearing is is that you're teaching students to listen more carefully and more sensitively to what's written for the mix that's in the materials. And that oftentimes there is a good coming through it, or a wrestling coming through it, or a really good articulation of a tension coming through it that is a good part of being engaged with life.
Timothy Basselin
Yeah. Let me give another example of something that we're trying to do that's really good I think.
Darrell Bock
Okay.
Timothy Basselin
We tend to reduce the meaning down to good and bad, and we tend to reduce it down to moral choices.
Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm.
Timothy Basselin
And part of what we're after is something closer to spiritual formation, that students, when you submit yourself to a work, it forms you, and it creates habits inside of you that allow you to become that way more than just changing your mind and your understanding of the facts about it so that when you're in a situation you can choose it.
Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm.
Timothy Basselin
There's a lot of situations we're in where we simply act and we simply do. And we spend a lot of time forming people's minds, especially at a seminary.
Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm.
Timothy Basselin
Right? And then they get out, and they're in situations where their mind doesn't have time to react. Or like Paul, in Romans 7, "The things that I don't want to do I end up doing." That's just part of our human nature and who we are.

And if we don't have habits in our lives that form our heart's desire – this is something that largely comes from James Smith's book Desiring the Kingdom – that form us – and I think literature can do that. Reading good literature can give us those experiences that are more than just, "Do this, don't do that," kind of explanation. And this is the parables, too, right?
Darrell Bock
Yeah, absolutely. I mean part of what I'm thinking about, as I'm listening to you, is is that there is – and this is another thing that we say regularly on these podcasts is is that life, in a fallen world, is a life lived in tension. There are things that are coming in collision with one another. And sometimes there are good values that are in collision with one another 'cause of the circumstances that surround it.

It strikes me that good literature and good art exposes that.
Hall Harris
Yes, yeah.
Darrell Bock
And in the midst of exposing that, it forces you to recognize – I just don't have a singular level choice here. There's a depth to the situation and circumstance that I find myself in that puts me, in some cases, a very uncomfortable position, 'cause I'm not quite sure which way to go. There's a tug. And good literature helps you wrestle with that, even beyond the resolution that might happen within the story by just taking you on that trip, if I can say it that way.
Timothy Basselin
And there's not necessarily, always –
Darrell Bock
A resolution.
Timothy Basselin
– a right or wrong answer.
Darrell Bock
That's right, there's not a resolution.
Timothy Basselin
– of the exact way that you – like if I was in that situation, that I would have reacted that way.
Darrell Bock
That's right.
Timothy Basselin
But I can understand why that person that was in that situation did react that way.
Darrell Bock
That's right.
Timothy Basselin
And I come to understand them better and to know and to listen better.
Darrell Bock
And that's part of what you were talking about when earlier you were talking about empathy is that –
Timothy Basselin
Right.
Darrell Bock
– creating an empathy and an understanding for why people end up in certain circumstances that they do and how – why they react in certain ways that they do.

So, I take it there's a lot of – you say there's a lot of conversation. My guess is is that a lot of the conversation is going into this direction of what the literature is doing for people and the way they are reflecting and almost getting them to think about a different way of reflection. Is that fair?
Hall Harris
Oh, I think very much fair. I think that's very much what we're after, because we even label a lot of the writing we have people doing as theological reflection because we're wanting them to listen, to look, and to learn how to receive rather than to critically analyze, "Oh, I think this point is wrong here," or, "That point is wrong over there."

There's a place for that, but it short circuits the process if you come at the front end to a piece of literature only with the idea of judging, say, it's orthodox or non-orthodox theology.
Darrell Bock
This is so fascinating, 'cause I – again, I'm back to something that I say regularly in doing all the cultural engagement pieces that we do. And you're meeting someone, and you're interacting with them initially, and I – not only do you supposed to get a good GPS on them, but I make the point alongside of it and shut off your truth meter at the same time, in other words.

And the point that I'm trying to get at here is is that sometimes we enter into conversation where we're interacting with people, we're interacting with ideas. Our tendency is to say, "All right, where is this in the truth meter, and what should my reaction be in light of that?"

And in the process, it creates static, if I can say it that way, for actually hearing what may be going on with the person and why they're oriented the way – the example I love to use is of my grandmother-in-law. My grandmother-in-law grew up in a home in which her father was supposedly to be this very devout Christian, but everything that he did in life ran against that. And he was the classic Christian hypocrite.

She wanted nothing to do with the Church when she grew up. Why? Because that was the model that she had that she reacted. Now, I say to people, "That's actually a very important piece of information for me to have about my grandmother-in-law, you know, and how I was to relate to her. And if I didn't know that, and didn't know how to react to that, I might simply say, 'Well, she just – she just hates the Church.' "

Well, wait a minute. There's something that's gone on in her life that has shoved her in that direction that is actually very important to be aware of. And I think literature can do this kind of thing for us as well.
Timothy Basselin
Having your truth meter on high alert is also a very – like a great lack of humility. My theology is broken; it's fallen. You know? I'm not perfect in my theology. And if I go around always starting with that, I'd never have the ability to hear and listen to someone else.
Darrell Bock
And receive correction.
Timothy Basselin
Right.
Darrell Bock
Genuine correction.
Timothy Basselin
And hear God speaking to me. God speaks in the Old Testament outside of the Hebrew people, speaks from other sources –
Hall Harris
And animals.
Timothy Basselin
– and they have to learn to listen.
Darrell Bock
Languages
Timothy Basselin
And animals, right.
Hall Harris
Balaam's donkey.
Darrell Bock
Yeah. So, we're rapidly, sadly, running out of time. But it strikes me that this is a very good exercise and a very kind of – it seems like a backdoor way to come at spiritual formation. But when you talk about it, it actually sounds like a very front door way to come at spiritual formation, in a way that we don't think about often, but that can open us up for possibilities.

And so, my guess is, is that you guys are thinking about not just using Tolkien and Lewis to do this, but that there's probably sequels coming?
Darrell Bock
Am I reading that right?
Timothy Basselin
We're only three weeks in, so, we're seeing how it goes.
Hall Harris
Right.
Timothy Basselin
So far, we may just do this one again; it's been really lovely.
Hall Harris
Hmm. Oh, I think we'll have to do this one again, but I'm thinking in bigger terms further along. There's so much to learn out there. This is a complex world.
Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm.
Timothy Basselin
I already do this in other classes. I take students to Sundance.
Hall Harris
Yes.
Timothy Basselin
I have a theology and literature class. And so –
Darrell Bock
This is why we have you on campus. This is great, because it does add, I think, a dimension of reflection that we tend not to engage in, and frankly, it can take people who may not have initially deep, particularly spiritual interests, but who are exposed to culture.

It's a whole avenue of conversation for possibility of going to some very fruitful places without it being transparent that's where you're going, if I can say it that way, and actually end up being very beneficial in the process.
Timothy Basselin
Yeah. Well, one of the comments we've had from multiple students is, "I've kept my literature, which I love reading, separate from my theology."

And the question is, "Why?"
Darrell Bock
That's right. You want to be sure those two things come together and come together powerfully.

Well, this – I feel like – you talked about drowning, but I feel like we just put our toe in the water and just got started with this conversation. But it's an interesting one. It's one that I think Christians tend not to engage in very often, and yet it can be very, very useful. So, I think you all for giving us kind of a initial preview into what you're doing and the way this works in the arts, and hopefully the conversation's been helpful to our listeners.

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