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Fall Semester (2022-23)

Atmosphere and Instinct

One day after class, my daughter Eliza asked me, “What bothers you more, when students look out the window during class or when they yawn in class?” I thought for a minute and replied, “Well, while I don’t like silly behavior in the classroom or conversations between students that are not part of our discussion, I don’t really mind when students look out the window or yawn. In a world where we spend far too much time looking at screens, a few moments of daydreaming and looking at the birds and squirrels outside the window is probably a good thing. And yawning, so I’ve heard, is the bodies instinctive way of getting oxygen to the brain, so it would make sense that some students may need to yawn a few times as they study Hamlet.” As I thought more about Eliza’s question on windows and yawning, I was reminded of the importance of atmosphere and instinct. Good classrooms, like good books, should provide indelible atmospheres and instill proper instincts.

C.S. Lewis highlights the importance of atmosphere in his essay, “On Stories.” Lewis notes that there should be pleasure in the plot of the story itself—the adventures and dangers that the characters face and conquer, but the element that shapes our imagination and provides lasting memories is… atmosphere—Narnia and Middle Earth, Sherlock Holmes’ London and Tom Sawyer’s Mississippi River, Robin’s Sherwood Forest and King Arthur’s Camelot. Lewis sees atmosphere as the primary reason that we re-read the books we love: “We want to return there. […] when such stories are loved at all, they are re-read perhaps more than any others. Re-reading them is like going back to a fruit for its taste; to an air for…what? For itself; to a region for its whole atmosphere—to Donegal for its Donegality and London for its Londonness” (Lewis, 7). Classrooms, like good books, should have an indelible atmosphere. This is why we sing and recite Scripture together in Omnibus. This is why we set up the tables together, eat lunch together, and clean-up together. And this is why I praise God everyday for a classroom with a high ceiling, lots of windows, beautiful hardwood floors, and fireplaces.

Not only should good classrooms and good books provide indelible atmospheres, they should also instill proper instincts. In her book, Deeper Heaven, Christiana Hale notes that the idea of stories shaping our instincts and loyalties was a frequent theme in C.S. Lewis’ writings:

In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, for example, shortly after entering Narnia together for the first time, the Pevensie children come across a robin that encourages them to follow him. The children have a brief discussion about whether or not it is safe to trust the robin. Peter is in favor of following the bird, arguing that robins are “good birds in all the stories I’ve ever read.” His sisters accept this as a legitimate argument. It is only Edmund (who has already succumbed to the White Witch’s magic) who raises any objections. By Peter’s reasoning, robins are always good birds in stories; therefore, we are safe to trust this particular robin. In other words, stories instructs us about the actual world. Stories teach us wisdom. Stories train our instincts and our loyalties (Hale, 65).

In Omnibus this semester we have read books that instill biblical instincts and proper loyalties. We learned from Hamlet that “there’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will,” that past sins may be forgiven, but they still place irreversible burdens on the present, and that revenge never brings resolution. We learned from Paradise Lost that true heroism is found not in cunning and killing but in patiently and courageously enduring suffering. And we learned from both Robinson Crusoe and Emma that: Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience (WSC, Q. 87).

As important as good atmospheres and good instincts are, they are not an end in themselves. Our chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever for he makes known to us the path of life; in His presence there is fullness of joy; at His right hand are pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11). So as we gaze out the window and daydream, may our minds dwell not just on birds and squirrels and good books but on God Himself. May we join with the psalmist in declaring, “Whom have I in heaven but you? There is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:25–26). And may our souls instinctively yawn and pant not just for oxygen as we read of God’s greatness and majesty but for God himself, the living and true God (Psalm 42:1).

Knowledge and Wisdom in Submission to God,

Chris M. Blackwell

- Hale, Christiana. Deeper Heaven. Roman Roads Press.

- Lewis, C. S.. On Stories. Harper Collins.

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