The British academic and author is perhaps most famous for creating the Chronicles of Narnia series in the 1950s, and the book Mere Christianity, the best-seller that was adapted from a series of radio talks on the BBC during World War II. C.S. Lewis has captured the attention of Northern Michigan locals and, increasingly, visitors from the Midwest and the wider U.S. and Canada during the annual C.S. Lewis Festival, which drew nearly 4,000 participants to Petoskey last year. With a full slate of events this year focused around the 2005 PBS Documentary The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life, numbers are expected to increase yet again.
BIRTH OF A FESTIVAL
The C.S. Lewis Festival was birthed by an extraordinary convergence of events that the Festivals co-founder and Board of Directors President, David Crouse, explains could only have happened as an act of divine providence. There are just too many coincidences to explain it any other way, he says. Crouse, who had just relocated from Chicago to Northern Michigan in 2002, was put in touch with Tom and Sarah Arthur, locals from a Petoskey church who were interested in using Crouses forthcoming PBS documentary on C.S. Lewis to help launch a festival. Crouse was immediately interested.
Next, the Arthurs and Crouse approached the Crooked Tree Arts Council with the idea; CTAC immediately came on board with support. Crouse remembers: At the first planning meeting for the Festival, there were all these people who attended, far more than I ever imagined, and they represented this fascinating convergence of the arts, faith, and educational community of Northern Michigan. Nearly all of them had a close, intimate knowledge of Lewiss work. All of this interest in a small community of 6,000.
As executive director of the Festival for the past four years, Anne McDevitt notes, The focus of the festival is collaboration. We want other organizations to create their own Lewis event and be a part of the festival. In that way, we act as an umbrella and also as the marketing function of the festival. In this collaborative approach, everyone interested in Lewis can plan an event catering to a different (but often overlapping) segment of participants. Examples of the variety of events are diverse and almost overwhelming: Narnia: The Musical is a popular stage production of Lewis-inspired work presented by local thespians. Elementary schools participate in a writing workshop, studying Lewis and reading the Narnia books, while writing their own compositions. Dr. Suzanne Shumway, a professor at Petoskey-based North Central Michigan College, and also a Lewis Festival board member, teaches a fall term course on modern mythology which focuses on both Lewis and his friend, fellow author J.R.R. Tolkien. Some area churches present a Sunday sermon series based on C.S. Lewis material. Groups of casual intellectuals gather round for Pub Nights to discuss Lewiss work. This year, a juried fine art exhibition will display works that were inspired by some of Lewis non-fiction writings, at the galleries of Crooked Tree Arts Center. But the amazing thing is, the events are not even limited to the participation of local organizations; the wider C.S. Lewis community of scholarship is also joining the network.
Indeed, from its first year, the Festival has continued to gain recognition from the intelligentsia community interested in Lewis, both in the U.S. and England. In fact, with the addition to the Board of Directors of Dr. Chris Mitchell, who Crouse calls the center of the C.S. Lewis universe, the Petoskey festival has been able to draw academic speakers as diverse as Lewis stepson, Douglas Gresham; comparative religions academic and best-selling author Reza Aslan; and this years keynote speaker, Wheaton College Associate Professor and Lewis scholar Dr. Jerry Root. Mitchell, the director of one of the most dedicated manuscript preservation societies for Christian authors, The Marion Wade Centre at Wheaton College, has participated as an advisor to the festival, and this year will host the opening weekends October 26 event, on The Question of God. Throughout the month, this conversation on Christianity and Atheism, as debated in the PBS special of the same name, will permeate discussions at various venues throughout the town. Meanwhile, the secondary topic of analysis, which organizers believe links closely with The Question of God, is pain and suffering, as Lewis wrote about in The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed. These books have been a great help to so many people in the last 50 years, Crouse notes. Discussion groups will meet to grapple with these themes, and Lewiss answers to them, with clergy, physicians, and psychologists leading the dialogue. These two books will also be the subjects of the pub nights throughout the month.
ARTISTS EXHIBIT, ACTORS DINNER
Besides the ongoing array of community events that talk about Lewis, artists from home and abroad will have a chance to show their support. During the kick-off weekend on October 27, painter and graphic design artist Michael Morris will open an exhibit of his Lewis-inspired art at the Gaslight Gallery. Morris has been illustrating Lewis since childhood. I think I illustrated a cover to a book report on The Magicians Nephew in middle school. That was probably the start, he remembers; and since then, his fascination with Lewiss magical world has continued to manifest itself in art. Theres so much to get out of all of his works, and my natural disposition to experimenting with all types of mediums means youll find me at my drawing board, easel, or computer, working away at something Lewis-inspired. Morris has been designing the promotional material for the Festival for the past few years, based on his university designs.
In the Festivals second weekend, an English Dinner Theatre hosted by the Perry Hotel will feature the one-man play, An Evening with C.S. Lewis, performed by acclaimed English actor David Payne. Mr. Payne has done a brilliant job of mimicking Lewis, and the production gives glimpses into Lewis thoughts on religion, life and love, McDevitt says. The dinner, of course, will feature traditional pub fare, with a pot roast, vegetables, and, of course, the famed British potato. And finally, for the last weekend of the festival, Robert Sabuda, the illustrator and paper engineer of a new pop-up book series of the Narnia tales, will present his work at a special reception. The colorfully illustrated pages create another new and creative way of seeing Lewis childrens books as not-just-for-children.
Through the sacred and the secular, arts and academics, C.S. Lewis has certainly inspired a community of dedicated followers, and infused a Lewisian spirit into Northern Michigans autumn season. The most successful aspect of the Festival and I would say it is certainly unprecedented in Northern Michigan is the involvement of so many different civic organizations in the event. There is tremendous depth to the board and the planning team; over 20 organizations work together to promote literacy, faith, education, art, music, and dialogue through a variety of cultural events, Crouse enthuses. And, through this ecumenical association, the spirit of Lewis lives on.
You can get more information on the schedule of events, as well as the Festival itself, at www.cslewisfestival.org.