Professor Bob Dylan

February 24, 2015 — 12 Comments

dylanCan you imagine having singer Bob Dylan as your high school history teacher?

According to a recent interview,* it could have happened.

Still actively touring in his seventies and considered an American musical icon. I was stunned to hear what he said about another path his life may have taken. The interviewer posted the remark this way:

Bob Dylan: His True Calling

“If I had to do it all over again, I’d be a schoolteacher—probably teach Roman history or theology.”

I didn’t realize he and I had so much in common! When I did my undergrad studies in history, I took every Roman history course the University of Washington offered. As for theology . . . well, having become a pastor, my interest in the study of God’s revelation of himself to the world is a given.

Can you imagine Dylan lecturing on apotheosis in the early empire? [Apotheosis is the elevation of a person to godhood, and was a formal event after the death of some emperors. The emperors themselves knew it was a farce, of course. Seneca wrote that emperor Vespasian, on his deathbed, actually said, “Alas, I think I’m becoming a God.”]

Bob Dylan’s interest in spiritual matters is genuine. He has high praise in the interview for Billy Graham. “This guy was rock ‘n’ roll personified. He filled football stadiums before Mick Jagger did.”

In 1979, Dylan released the first of three “Christian” albums, “Slow Train Coming.” It has a number of great pieces, and I listen to the album at least once a month. One song, “Gotta Serve Somebody,” won him the Grammy that year for “Best Male Vocalist.” It’s lyrics are sobering, and everyone should hear it at least once.

And, Speaking of C.S. Lewis

Well, we weren’t actually. But, here at Mere Inkling we usually do.

These two men bear some obvious parallels. They are masters of words. Poets extraordinaire. Lewis and Dylan both possess enviable creative imaginations. Each has accumulated a vast legacy in their work, which will continue to inspire for many generations to come.

I also learned this on the internet—they share the same Myers-Briggs personality type. At least, this site claims they are both INFPs. (I’m an ENTJ myself, a common personality aggregate for pastors.)

And, they had at least one more thing in common. They knew that in this life, there is no such thing as spiritual neutrality. When we ultimately stand before the throne of our Creator, it will not suffice to say, “Well, I didn’t do anything truly evil.”

In a moment we will listen to Dylan’s ballad about the choice before us. First, though, consider how Lewis uses the imagery of the war engulfing the world in the 1940s to describe this truth.

Why is God landing in this enemy-occupied world in disguise and starting a sort of secret society to undermine the devil? Why is He not landing in force, invading it? Is it that He is not strong enough? Well, Christians think He is going to land in force; we do not know when. But we can guess why He is delaying. He wants to give us the chance of joining His side freely. I do not suppose you and I would have thought much of a Frenchman who waited till the Allies were marching into Germany and then announced he was on our side.

God will invade. But I wonder whether people who ask God to interfere openly and directly in our world quite realize what it will be like when He does. When that happens, it is the end of the world.

When the author walks on to the stage the play is over. God is going to invade, all right: but what is the good of saying you are on His side then, when you see the whole natural universe melting away like a dream and something else—something it never entered your head to conceive—comes crashing in; something so beautiful to some of us and so terrible to others that none of us will have any choice left? For this time it will be God without disguise; something so overwhelming that it will strike either irresistible love or irresistible horror into every creature.

It will be too late then to choose your side. There is no use saying you choose to lie down when it has become impossible to stand up. That will not be the time for choosing; it will be the time when we discover which side we really have chosen, whether we realized it before or not. Now, today, this moment, is our chance to choose the right side. God is holding back to give us that chance. It will not last forever. We must take it or leave it. (Mere Christianity).

Now, as promised, “Gotta Serve Somebody.”

_____

*You can read the entire interview in the current issue of AARP The Magazine, available here.

Slippery Crimes

February 17, 2015 — 10 Comments

willeIn the hierarchy of criminals within the penitentiary system, murderers are feared, crime lords respected, and pedophiles despised. Where, one wonders, did the butter forgers rank?

Alongside Machine Gun Kelly, and my namesake, the Birdman of Alcatraz, the Pen at Leavenworth housed violators of the Oleomargarine Act of 1886. Notorious, they were not.

Take a look at Chuck Wille’s mug shot above. I wonder what bank robbers and car thieves thought of his dandy mustache.

wirthJoe Wirth, pictured to the right, looks more like a vaudeville comedian than a hardened criminal. I can easily imagine naive people being duped by someone who appeared as unthreatening as Wirth.

mcmonigleJohn McMonigle, prisoner 8468, was not deterred by his stint in prison. He was sent to Leavenworth twice, due to an encore violation of the oleomargarine law.

The word oleomargarine probably sounds alien to most young people. They know what margarine is—well, some of them do—but the oleo part likely sounds more like a cookie than a butter substitute.

Oleomargarine was made from beef fat. A chemical compound of olein and margarine. Olein is “a colorless to yellowish, oily, water-insoluble liquid, C57 H104 O6.” How appetizing!

Most people today opt for margarine made from refined vegetable oils, but even today animal “by-products” can find their way into margarine products.

I recall growing up when oleo was still part of the American lexicon. My mother used it as a sort of synonym for margarine. That faded as I grew, but persisted long enough for me to vividly remember it.

Washington State was one of those with a strong dairy industry. Such locations drew clear demarcations between butter and its “substitutes.” The dairy organizations vigorously challenged the “unnatural” competition.

The primary battle line was whether or not oleo could colored to make it appear more like the food it was replacing. You see, in its natural state it doesn’t look nearly as tasty as when a yellow coloring was kneaded into it.

Congress taxed the invention differently. Ten cents a pound for the yellow version, but only .25 cents (1/4 of a cent) per pound for the raw version. Amazingly, this tax did not end until 1951. Homemakers would color their own oleomargarine to get their unsuspecting children to eat the stuff.

Nowadays, some people prefer margarine to butter. And, even when it was inferior to current standards, if butter was unavailable, most people would be delighted to have access to the alternative.

Meanwhile, at the beginning of the twentieth century, 32 states—with strong dairy lobbies—banned the coloring of margarine by businesses.

Naturally, where there is a law, there will be lawbreakers. Presumably private citizens were able to continue camouflaging the material in the secrecy of their own homes. The three criminals on this page violated the Oleomargarine Act. And they paid for their illicit marketeering.

C.S. Lewis & Margarine

Regular readers of Mere Inkling may be wondering how in the world this subject connects with the Oxford don.

Lewis wrote a wonderful essay, entitled “Religion: Reality or Substitute?” You can find it in the Christian Reflections collection, edited by Walter Hooper.

The message of the essay is that we cannot completely trust our own experiences. Some people, he says, are inclined to think that the spiritual realm is a sort of “substitute” for reality, rather than real itself. Among the vibrant illustrations he provides for this is the following.

‘Substitutes’ suggest wartime feeding. Well, there too I have an example. During the last war, as at present, we had to eat margarine instead of butter. When I began doing so I couldn’t tell the difference between them. For the first week or so, I would have said, ‘You may call the margarine a substitute if you like, but it is actually just as good as the real thing.’ But by the end of the war I could never again have mistaken one for the other and I never wanted to see margarine again.

This is different from the previous examples because here I started knowing which, in fact, was the substitute. But the point is that mere immediate taste did not at first confirm this bit of knowledge. It was only after long experience that the margarine revealed itself to my senses as the inferior.

Lewis’ essay argues that “There is nothing we cannot be made to believe or disbelieve,” so it is necessary that we place our truth (faith) in something more reliable than our own impressions.

Lewis is right. Just as there have been secular criminals who sought to profit off of the misrepresentation of oleomargarine, there are religious hypocrites and vermin who desire to deceive people about divine truths.

The deepest purpose of all things dark, is to draw people away from the Light. Evil seeks to substitute the lie for the Truth. It has been this way ever since our first parents resided in the Garden.

Whether one prefers butter or margarine, is left to individual taste, and of little consequence. However, whether we choose to consign ourselves to death, when freely offered Life, is something of eternal consequence.

_____

The criminal masterminds cited here are identified further at the National Archives page subtitled, “Crimes against Butter.”

 

 

Fleeting Fame

February 10, 2015 — 16 Comments

fameIt’s likely that the names of 98.6% of authors who top the bestseller charts today will be unremembered a century from now.

This weekend I posted the latest issue of Curtana: Sword of Mercy, a journal I edit about military chaplains. (If you are interested in checking it out, you can download a free copy here.)

The current issue includes an interesting article about two chaplains from Vermont who served during the War of 1812. (For international readers, that was the war following the winning of America’s independence when they British got their revenge—they captured our national capital and burned the capitol.)

In the biographical portion of the article, the author included a final summary of the life of one of the chaplains. Solomon Aiken (1758-1833) left his civilian pulpit to serve soldiers and sailors.

Aiken was quite prominent in his day. Not only was he a well known preacher and writer, he actually served as a member of Vermont’s legislature. Yet, I doubt that even Vermonters would recognize his name today.

Here is the quotation from a nineteenth century tribute published after his passing.

Mr. Aiken enjoyed uncommon health and vigor. He never took a particle of medicine, or lost a relish for food, until his final and brief sickness—a pleurisy fever. He possessed peculiar power as a logician, and was very popular as a preacher. He was kind-hearted and benevolent, almost to a fault. But it is chiefly as a political writer that Mr. Aiken is remembered. He was sent as a representative for two years, by the town of Dracut. He published several sermons and pamphlets, chiefly upon political themes, which excited much attention in their season.

The words that seized my attention were the conclusion, “. . . which excited much attention in their season.”

“In their season . . .” That season must have been brief, since the history was written just twenty years after Aiken’s death. By then his works had either withered or, more optimistically, gone to seed. In either case, their day was passed.

Translating that to our modern era, where things become obsolete almost as soon as they are envisioned, it would imply that our “season” of fame or reputation will last little more than a handful of months. And that, of course, assumes that a person actually achieves some level of renown.

Fame is fleeting. It has always been so, and the good Reverend Aiken is simply another example of that truth.

Thank God (literally) that there is more to life than notoriety.

C.S. Lewis is one of the 1.4% whose fame lasts. His has not diminished; it continues to grow. Just a year ago, on the fiftieth anniversary of his death, he was honored by having a plaque dedicated in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.

Lewis never sought fame, as the following discussion from his essay “The Weight of Glory” clearly reveals.

I turn next to the idea of glory. There is no getting away from the fact that this idea is very prominent in the New Testament and in early Christian writings. Salvation is constantly associated with palms, crowns, white robes, thrones, and splendour like the sun and stars. All this makes no immediate appeal to me at all, and in that respect I fancy I am a typical modern.

Glory suggests two ideas to me, of which one seems wicked and the other ridiculous. Either glory means to me fame, or it means luminosity. As for the first, since to be famous means to be better known than other people, the desire for fame appears to me as a competitive passion and therefore of hell rather than heaven. As for the second, who wishes to become a kind of living electric light bulb?

When I began to look into this matter I was stocked to find such different Christians as Milton, Johnson and Thomas Aquinas taking heavenly glory quite frankly in the sense of fame or good report. But not fame conferred by our fellow creatures—fame with God, approval or (I might say) “appreciation’ by God.

And then, when I had thought it over, I saw that this view was scriptural; nothing can eliminate from the parable the divine accolade, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” With that, a good deal of what I had been thinking all my life fell down like a house of cards.

This exceptional work merits consideration not only by people of faith. It invites all honest readers to gaze within themselves at their deepest yearnings.

Another passage from C.S. Lewis that relates strongly to the subject at hand comes from The Great Divorce. You can read the entire passage here, but the heart of it is this. Lewis views a simple woman, presently in heaven, receiving magnificent praise and celebration. He naturally assumes she must have been some well known saint.

He is, however, informed that she lived an obscure life, despite the fact that she touched countless nondescript people and animals with her compassion. Lewis’ heavenly guide is rather surprised that the Oxford professor has overlooked a simple truth:

Fame in heaven “and fame on Earth are two quite different things.”

Only the second will last.

Inkling Chivalry

February 3, 2015 — 15 Comments

praying knightJ.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis practiced what they preached.

While most people are content to sit back while others battle for just causes. Sadly, cowardice appears to outweigh bravery in our modern age. We have, Lewis says, “having grown up among the ruins of the chivalrous tradition . . .” (“The Necessity of Chivalry”).

Lewis and Tolkien, by contrast, were genuine heroes. Peaceful academics by nature, each of them responded to their nation’s call to defend their homeland against the Huns.

In the world of the modern university—inhospitable to those who would defend the veracity of the Scriptures—each man counted the cost, and willingly bore the ridicule of skeptics and secularists.

Not only were these two Inklings paragons of courage, they engaged in their battles with a code of chivalry. Neither desired the destruction of their foes. Instead, they sought the preservation of truth, justice, peace and mercy.

Chivalry is a concept alien to the modern era. In an age when there is so little mercy and forgiveness, it seems a more and more archaic notion each day.

Yet, chivalry is not dead.

Both of these men not only modeled the virtue, they imbued their works with its spirit. The heroes of Middle Earth and Narnia are chivalrous almost to a fault. And the spiritual heirs of both fictional domains, still yearn to be chivalrous in their own lives.

So, precisely what is it? As Lewis begins his essay on the subject, he writes, “The word chivalry has meant at different times a good many different things—from heavy cavalry to giving a woman a seat in a train.”

Lewis considers the “double demand it makes on human nature” through an exploration of the Middle Ages.

The knight is a man of blood and iron, a man familiar with the sight of smashed faces and the ragged stumps of lopped-off limbs; he is also a demure, almost a maidenlike, guest in hall, a gentle, modest, unobtrusive man. He is not a compromise or happy mean between ferocity and meekness; he is fierce to the nth and meek to the nth.

Gentle toward the innocent and vulnerable. Relentless versus evil.

What, you may ask, is the relevance of this ideal to the modern world? It is terribly relevant. It may or may not be practicable—the Middle Ages notoriously failed to obey it—but it is certainly practical; practical as the fact that men in a desert must find water or die.

We live in a violent world, and the beheading of even children suggest things are growing worse. So, more than ever, Lewis tells us, we need chivalrous people like Lancelot, who combined these conflicting qualities. We need gentle men, like Lewis and Tolkien, who are willing to lay aside their books to face the specter of war on the front lines.

Lewis forcefully describes the three divisions of humanity bereft of chivalry.

If we cannot produce Launcelots, humanity falls into two sections—those who can deal in blood and iron but cannot be “meek in hall”, and those who are “meek in hall” but useless in battle—for the third class, who are both brutal in peace and cowardly in war, need not here be discussed. When this dissociation of the two halves of Launcelot occurs, history becomes a horribly simple affair.

Lewis wrote the essay during the Second World War. He and others among the Inklings had stood in the gap during the “war to end all wars.” Now he was observing a glimmer of hope in the witness of a successive generation doing its part.

Launcelot is not yet irrecoverable. To some of us this war brought a glorious surprise in the discovery that after twenty years of cynicism and cocktails the heroic virtues were still unimpaired in the younger generation and ready for exercise the moment they were called upon.

In the face of the contemporary ferocity of global terrorism, we see many young men and women following their example. Surely, they are a minority among the population, but we are all deeply fortunate they exist.

Our prayers should accompany those of all nationalities who are courageous enough to face the blade of modern barbarians. And our prayer should be that they are not merely brave, but also meek.

Parachute Optional

January 27, 2015 — 8 Comments

c141Under what circumstances would you tell an airman that pulling their rip cord if they exit the plane is optional? I never knew of any until I read an article about resupply missions to the South Pole.

The current issue of Air Force Magazine includes a fascinating article about resupplying McMurdo Station and a second temporary site at the Pole itself. Because of the extreme cold, 100 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (that’s -73.333 degrees Celsius), any airman who accidentally fell from the plane as the pallets were dropped, could not expect to be rescued before freezing to death.

Parachute-laden crewmen standing near open doors of a C-141B Starlifter during a midwinter Antarctic airdrop in 1983 were told they could pull the D-ring ripcord if they fell overboard—or just not bother. The chance of being safely recovered in the darkness and [bone-freezing] temperatures was practically nonexistent.

Putting things in historical perspective, we can consider the fate of WWI pilots in Germany. Theirs was the first nation to provide standard parachutes, and during the first 70 bail outs, a third of the pilots perished. With those statistics, one wonders how many airmen followed the “just not bother” course of action and chose to remain with their plunging aircraft.

C.S. Lewis had a friend named Leo Baker who had served in France as a pilot of the 80th Squadron of the Royal Air Force. The two combat veterans hit it off because of shared interests, including their mutual love of poetry. Here is how Lewis initially described Baker to his lifelong friend, Arthur Greeves, in 1920.

You ask about Baker, and I hardly know how to describe him. He was at a mixed school of a very modern type, where everyone seems to have written, painted and composed. He is so clairvoyant that in childhood “he was afraid to look round the room for fear of what he might see.” He got a decoration in France for doing some work in an aeroplane over the lines under very deadly fire: but he maintains that he did nothing, for he was “out of his body” and could see his own machine with “someone” in it, “roaring with laughter.” He has a bad heart.

He was a conscientious objector, but went to the war “because this degradation and sin might be just the very sacrifice which was demanded of him.” He maintains that everything in Algernon Blackwood [writer of ghost stories] is quite possible: and though the particular cases may be fictitious, “things of that sort” are quite common. He is engaged to be married.

In appearance, he is about my height, with very fair hair, glasses, remarkable eyes and according to the Minto [Janie Moore], rather like you. I like and admire him very much, though at times I have doubts on his sanity.

Like Lewis, Baker had been seriously wounded during the war. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Fortunately, it appears he did not have to rely on a primitive parachute. Or, if he did, he was one of the fortunate survivors.

Returning to Antarctica for just a moment, it seems that South Pole mission would have been an exciting adventure in which to share. Terrifying too, perhaps. Fortunately, like Lewis and Baker (and Tolkien, as well), all of the service members returned home safely, mission accomplished.

_____

The picture above is a military photograph of a pair of Emperor penguins observing an American C-141 resupply mission during the summer months.

Engage Brain

January 21, 2015 — 16 Comments

brainsWhen I attended the University of Washington, we had to learn the old-fashioned way—by studying. Now they are anticipating downloading information directly into students’ brains.

Literal brain dumps are actually still in the future . . . but researchers have documented the first indisputable brain-to-brain interface between humans!

My first paragraph is not an exaggeration of what researchers think may one day happen.

The project could also eventually lead to “brain tutoring,” in which knowledge is transferred directly from the brain of a teacher to a student.

The student would view this shortcut as advantageous. (It could also save a great deal in tuition expenses, if each course only took, say, an hour or two of brain interfacing.)

The university sees another advantage—circumventing limited teaching skills.

“Imagine someone who’s a brilliant scientist but not a brilliant teacher. Complex knowledge is hard to explain – we’re limited by language,” said co-author Chantel Prat, a faculty member at the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences and a UW assistant professor of psychology.

My main question is, what will the teacher do, once their knowledge has been transferred to a student?

Presumably they will be able to retain a semblance of their knowledge, unlike the experience of the unfortunate Orbanians. They rely on a nanite technology, and it leaves the brilliant brain in a childlike state after the knowledge is siphoned out of it. You can learn more about them in “Learning Curve,” a documentary about the Stargate project.

C.S. Lewis had a great deal to say about education. He was a popular professor, despite the fact many of his students were intimidated by his brilliance. It is possible that if his students were able to download his knowledge, it might have caused their crania to explode.

In one essay, Lewis explains the differences between education and training, declaring “If education is beaten by training, civilization dies.” (“Our English Syllabus”).

Lewis continues, arguing that learning itself, is something distinct. It is not marked by a transfer of knowledge, but by a hunger to grow.

Now learning, considered in itself, has, on my view, no connexion at all with education. It is an activity for . . . all [who] desire to know. . . .

Societies have usually held a belief . . . that knowledge is the natural food of the human mind: that those who specially pursue it are being specially human; and that their activity is good in itself besides being always honourable and sometimes useful to the whole society.

Oh, and if you are waiting to “learn” when they can download knowledge directly into your skull, consider this wise advice from Lewis.

The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavourable. (“Learning in Wartime”).

_____

The picture above shows two UW guinea pigs transferring brain waves to one another. (I am uncertain whether two-way transfer is already possible, or if one brain is forced to serve in a receptacle role.)

The article announcing the results can be seen here.

guardian angelOxymoron is a great word. Too bad so few people understand what it means.

In America, at least, nine times out of ten you will hear it misused. Most folks seem to think it means a “contradiction in terms.”

One common example is “military intelligence.” Perhaps I am sensitive to it, being a veteran, but I would enjoy never again hearing people guffaw at that term.

In actuality, the oxymoron is a much more sophisticated rhetorical device.

An oxymoron is the combination of two incongruous words or images to create a unique effect. Often it hints of irony. For example, “she was a poor little rich girl.”

Further examples suggest complex circumstances. “Cruel kindness” and “making haste slowly,” are quite intriguing. The context would provide greater illumination, but these phrases suggest a painful treatment given in love . . . and urgency, tempered by caution.

Another example, apropos for an age in which zombies have become so popular, is the phrase “living death.” Reanimated corpses aside, this oxymoron is extremely powerful.

It evokes the sense of a person’s life having become deathlike in some way. Perhaps it is physical, emotional, psychological or spiritual. In any case, drawing together life and death in this epigram is provocative.

In his most vulnerable work, A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis describes humanity itself as an oxymoron. Most certainly, he uses the word appropriately.

Sometimes, Lord, one is tempted to say that if you wanted us to behave like the lilies of the field you might have given us an organization more like theirs. But that, I suppose, is just your grand experiment. Or no; not an experiment, for you have no need to find things out. Rather, your grand enterprise. To make an organism which is also a spirit; to make that terrible oxymoron, a ‘spiritual animal.’

Lewis’ point is well taken. That the Creator of the cosmos would make flesh bound human beings with a spiritual nature that allows him to describe as made in his own image, is incomprehensible.

Animals are animals. That is what modern secularists argue that we are. Yet it is evident to the vast majority of humans throughout all times and cultures, that we are unlike beasts. For we possess a spirit. And we are, accordingly, that unique thing among all beings—a spiritual animal.

So peculiar are we in the universe that even the angels themselves—spirits, never “animals”—are curious about the nature of our redemption. As Peter writes in his first epistle:

Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories.

It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.

From one oxymoron to another, I hope that this new year brings you many blessings. Most especially, I pray that if you have not already experienced this wondrous miracle which amazes even the angels of heaven . . . that you would come to know God’s love.