When it comes to the renewal of a truly Catholic culture, we need both a sword and a trowel. The sword, as G.K. Chesterton explains it, is logic—which is to say conceptual arguments, both philosophical and theological. Yet as Chesterton reminds us, logical arguments are essentially weapons of defense. They are useful to rebut, distinguish, clarify, even to point us in new directions. But that is not enough. Outside of renewing the practice of argumentation itself—no small thing, to be sure—logical arguments alone do not renew the practices and institutions of culture, most notably the family, education, the arts, and business enterprises of all sorts.
For the difficult “spade-work” of cultural rebuilding, a tool is needed with which to dig up the weeds and prepare the ground for new plants. What is needed is a trowel—which for Chesterton is a metaphor for the role the imagination plays within a person’s life, and in a culture.
Comparing the imagination to a trowel is apt, for the role of the imagination is to help cultivate human nature. It is to help us realize our basic human powers to know the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.
In many ways our culture is excessively logical and rationalistic. C.S. Lewis took aim at this aspect of our culture in the essays in his little book, The Abolition of Man. Our educational strategies, for example, too often sacrifice the formation of the imagination and the emotions to the idols of technocratic prowess.
But in other ways our culture exalts the imagination (as well as the emotions) in dangerous fashion. In Friday’s New York Times, Walter Isaacson, author of the new biography of Steve Jobs, compared Jobs to both Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein. What Jobs possessed with these men, according to Isaacson, was genius, or at least super-ingenuity, as opposed to just being super-smart (a quality Isaacson attributes to Bill Gates). And what is genius? It is intuition. As distinct from the ability to ratiocinate, to logically analyze a thing into its parts, intuition refers to the ability to “see” reality whole and at once—an ability linked to the visualizing powers of the imagination.
Isaacson writes: “Both Einstein and Mr. Jobs were very visual thinkers. The road to relativity began when the teenage Einstein kept trying to picture what it would be like to ride alongside a light beam. Mr. Jobs spent time almost every afternoon walking around the studio of his brilliant design chief Jony Ive and fingering foam models of the products they were developing.”
But without taking anything away from Jobs’s prodigious intuitive abilities, they were restricted to product design and efficiency in the uses of digital technology. We are all—at least all of us Mac fanatics—in his debt for this. Yet surely the riches of intuitive imagination are not limited to the uses put to them by Steve Jobs. The power of imagination is above all meant to help us understand what it means to be a human being, which is far more than to be a consumer of technology. As Dale Ahlqhist succinctly puts it in a lovely article on Chesterton and the imagination: “The purpose of the imagination is to make us more like God.”
The Golden Age
This is the Catholic moment in the arts. In other words now, more than ever, our culture demands the fruit of a truly Catholic imagination, to save it from the Scylla of hyper-rationalization and the Charybdis of an exaltation of the imagination rooted more in the passions than in reality.
There are many Catholics, as well as other Christians, doing exciting things in the arts. And yet so much more is needed, especially in the arenas of popular culture. Recently I decided to make my own contribution to this effort, to lend my small trowel to the cultural cause. I started a company, Trojan Tub Entertainment, devoted to my Patria series of humorous adventure stories for middle grade readers. With Trojan Tub I hope to share with children and families my passion for wholesome, but always funny, children’s literature.
Who are middle grade readers? Readers from the ages of approximately 8 to 12. Readers enjoying what has been termed the “golden age” of reading.
What makes for the golden age of reading? Surely it has something to do with the child’s emerging ability to understand complex plots and complicated emotions. But it also has to do, I think, with the child’s growing desire to see and understand the world, to strike out (at least imaginatively) on his or her own, to have an adventure.
And it’s curious—middle grade adventures often involve a character discovering a kind of “golden” world. This is most obviously the case in so-called “high fantasy,” such as we find in Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and J.K. Rowling. But golden worlds are also present in stories that are set squarely in this world. As long as the hero or heroine finds a place of haven, a place where he or she is called upon to grow in wisdom and courage, a place where he or she can truly love and be loved, then we can talk about that story as having a golden world.
Middle grade adventures tap into our deepest longings. In showing us a golden world, they paint for us a picture of what we would hope to achieve in our own lives. And the fact that our longing for a deeper happiness starts to become self-conscious just as we are ready for middle grade books, such stories tend to leave a burning impression upon the heart.
Like many writers of children’s stories, my apprenticeship began in a family room chair with kids on my lap as I made up a bedtime story. I vividly remember the first time I told a Patria story, sitting with my two little girls (now teenagers). They were very different stories then. Years later, as I began to write them down, the nature of the golden world of Patria changed. What began as a fantasy world, in the sense of “high fantasy,” became something “fantastical.” Patria as I re-defined it no longer was discovered in another world. Patria became part of our world—that is, given a rather comical take on ancient history.
So where is Patria? Northern Indiana. I can’t be more specific than that. The precise location of Patria is a well-kept secret. You’ve heard of the government’s Area 51? Patria is Area 1.
The first book in the Patria series is called Stout Hearts & Whizzing Biscuits. About Stout Hearts Rachel Dove of Kindle Book Review wrote: “It’s fresh, highly amusing, and with Oliver Stoop being such an identifiable, lovable character (and a bookworm himself to boot!) I can see this book quickly becoming a modern classic that will stay with children long after the last page.”
Here’s a synopsis:
“When Oliver Stoop, age 11, moves with his family to a remote piece of land in northern Indiana, he soon discovers that someone is already living there—an entire kingdom of someones, in fact. These are the good citizens of Patria, a secret land founded by refugees from the Trojan War who sailed across the Atlantic in a reconfigured Trojan Horse—3,000 years ago!
“For Oliver, Patria is a land of wonders—and for the first time in his life, friendship. There’s young Prince Farnsworth Vesuvius, inventor of the Magna-Pneumatic Whizzing Biscuit Blaster, and his formidable sister, Princess Rose, whose inedible, stone-hard biscuits provide the blaster’s ammunition. But there’s also the rest of the eccentric and lovable Patrian Royal Family, the boy warriors in the Potawatomi Indian Camp, not to mention the Viking kids from the Geat Village, newcomers to the area who only arrived 1,000 years ago.
“Yet when the noble Knights of the Blue Sock threaten to drive off the Stoops by force of arms, Oliver has to decide where his loyalties lie, and whether he has the courage to undertake the quest that is both Patria’s, and his family’s, last, best hope of peace.”
Stout Hearts & Whizzing Biscuits is only available as an ebook. It’s available now at Amazon (for the absurdly low price of $2.99), and soon, if not already, at Apple’s iBooks Store, and at Barnes & Noble’s Nook Store. The audiobook, read by the author, is also available at Worldwide Audiobooks ($4.99).
So no hardcover or paperback? Nope. Trojan Tub Entertainment is a digital project, all the way down to the 1s and 0s. This means that Stout Hearts & Whizzing Biscuits and my other Patria stories will only be available as electronic documents to be read on e-readers such as Kindles and Nooks (and laptops). Did you know that, according to Amazon, Kindle books (e-books sold by Amazon for Kindle e-readers) started outselling hardcovers back in July 2010, and began outselling paperbacks in January 2011? Our culture is quickly changing from a print culture to an electronic culture, and this is more and more reflected in how we read. If pattern holds, more and more of us in the future will be reading books electronically—and that includes, I strongly believe, kids.
I say this as a great lover and collector of conventional books. I have on my shelves the (literally) dusty tomes of Leonine editions of St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa theologiae to prove it. Conventional books aren’t going anywhere. But they are being joined by electronic books as the experience of how we read broadens with changes in technology. This situation doesn’t place us in an either-or between print and electronic books. To me, it’s a delightful both-and.
When it comes to the question of cultural renewal, my idea with Trojan Tub is to go out and meet our culture where it is. And more and more, our culture can be found with its nose in a Nook.
We live surrounded by what Pope Benedict calls a great “digital sea.” Trojan Tub Entertainment is all about “putting out into the deep” (to use the beloved phrase of Pope Benedict’s beloved predecessor), bringing what I hope is a golden experience of fun and adventure to you and your children.
The Kingdom of Patria
Trojan Tub Entertainment is not only about the Patria ebooks. There is also an immersive Kingdom of Patria website which launches today, November 1, 2011. The Kingdom of Patria is a place for kids and families to play—to enjoy free Patria short stories, listen to audio, join one of two Patria “clubs”—either the Illustrious Order of Knights of the Blue Sock, or Madame Mimi’s Well-Ordered School for Ill-Mannered Girls—as well as read blog posts from Patria’s main characters: Oliver, Farnsworth, and Princess Rose.
Thanks so much for listening to this story of my little cultural trowel. Together, maybe we can use it to make something grow.