The Bible’s Complexity

September 1, 2015 — 6 Comments

locustsWhy is it people say the Bible has many writers, but only one Author? The answer to that question is simpler than it seems.

Many different people, over a span of centuries, wrote the various books we find in the Scriptures. At the same time, each of these diverse individuals was inspired by the same Person—the Holy Spirit. Thus it is said by orthodox Christians that the Scriptures are the “Word of God.”*

The word “scripture” itself simply means a written work, although it is almost always applied to books regarded as sacred.

For Christians, Scripture/s can be singular or plural since the Bible possesses both aspects, being inspired by a single Author, yet compiled by numerous individual scribes.

The current issue of World magazine offers a satisfying interview** with David Skeel, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

Skeel was raised with minimal exposure to Christianity, and while majoring in English, he found his ignorance of biblical allusions to be a serious handicap.

To rectify that problem, he decided to read the Bible over the summer after his sophomore year. Riding on a cross country trip with some classmates, he says “by the time I’d gotten a few chapters into Genesis I was persuaded it was true. I had never read anything so beautiful, so psychologically real.”

I was especially intrigued by the following insight offered by Skeel.

Christianity impressed you because it’s complicated?

Absolutely. The psychological complexity of Christianity was really powerful for me, as was the complexity of the language of the Bible. Truth can’t be conveyed in a single genre, so the Bible’s mix of genres, language and images is part of the evidence of its veracity.***

I don’t recall ever thinking of it that way, but he is right. God’s revelation of his mercy and grace is far too vast to be “conveyed in a single genre.”

Back to Oxford

Skeel doesn’t mention C.S. Lewis in his interview, and I have no idea whether Lewis’ work has influenced his life.

Despite that, his response to the question above reinforced for me one of the reasons Lewis has proven to be such a powerful blessing in my own pilgrimage.

Lewis intuitively recognized that same truth. God’s message is too boundless to be restrained to a single means of proclaiming it. And because of that, he used every genre at his command to celebrate it.

Essays, debates, poetry, fantasies and history were all fair game.

Which brings me to a corollary to Skeel’s observation. Not only is Truth too immeasurable to be limited to a single genre . . . by God’s design, humanity’s diversity is too abundant to allow for a single manner of communication to speak with the same power.

Some are moved by God’s poetry in a singing brook. Others by his majesty in the face of a snow-capped summit.

Some are drawn to his embrace through stories of human struggle and redemption. Others by logical arguments that appeal to their confidence in reason.

This is precisely why different individuals favor different books in the Scriptures, just as they prefer various writings over others within the Lewis “canon.”

Fortunately, Skeel’s literary interest in the Bible led him to pick it up without any life-changing expectations. That makes him one of the rare exceptions to Lewis’ observation with which we will close.

It may be asked whether now, when only a minority of Englishmen regard the Bible as a sacred book, we may anticipate an increase of its literary influence. I think we might if it continued to be widely read. But this is not very likely.

Our age has, indeed, coined the expression “the Bible as literature.” It is very generally implied that those who have rejected its theological pretensions nevertheless continue to enjoy it as a treasure house of English prose. It may be so.

There may be people who, not having been forced upon familiarity with it by believing parents, have yet been drawn to it by its literary charms and remained as constant readers. But I never happen to meet them.

Perhaps it is because I live in the provinces. But I cannot help suspecting, if I may make an Irish bull [an incongruous statement], that those who read the Bible as literature do not read the Bible. (“The Literary Impact of the Authorised Version”).

_____

* Although the Bible is commonly referred to as the “Word of God,” it is more properly referred to as the written Word of God. The actual Word is none other than Jesus Christ himself, through whom all things were spoken into existence. This is clear when you compare the following passages from the Scriptures. If you have any questions about this, feel free to write to me here at Mere Inkling.

Creation as described in the book of Genesis, chapter 1.

Echo of creation in the Gospel according to John, chapter 1.

** You can read the interview here.

*** In his response, Skeel wisely answers the actual question by substituting the word “complex” for “complicated.” The latter implies unnecessary complexity and a problem. The former, complexity, simply states the facts. It is impossible to adequately describe an infinite God with finite words.

The illustration on this page is from the Walters Art Museum and portrays the plague of locusts visited upon the Egyptians.

Life in Middle Earth

August 25, 2015 — 28 Comments

theodenIf you resided in Middle Earth during the Third Age,* which of the major characters might you have been? Boromir,** Pippin, or perhaps Gandalf himself?

And, we’re only talking about the “good guys and gals.” We’ll have no one identifying with villains like Saruman, the Nazgûl ringwraiths or Grima Wormtongue here at Mere Inkling!

In a moment, I’ll help you answer that question.

Unfortunately, the internet abounds with time-consuming black holes. Pouring minutes and hours of our lives into the abyss of mindless videos or addictive games is the sad result.

Some entertaining diversions, however, possess merit. Case in point, an analysis of the leaders of Lord of the Rings, arranged according to their personality types.

Visiting a website such as this is not only fun, it offers insight into human differences. And, for the unwary, it may even reveal some new insights into our own nature.

I believe in the general validity of the best known personality inventory, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. I have posted in the past about C.S. Lewis’ (likely) personality type being an INFP. That appropriately identifies him with none other than Frodo, “the idealist.”

elrondMy own type is ENTJ, which matches with King Théoden above. As I age, however, I am finding myself less extraverted and more desirous of solitude. That means I am progressively becoming an INTJ, and that aligns me with Elrond. Frankly, both of the characterizations suit me quite well.

A person’s type is determined by which of four polarities is dominant.

Extraversion/Introversion

Sensing/Intuition

Thinking/Feeling

Judging/Perceiving

If you don’t know your type, and have the time to take an online assessment now, you can do so for free here.

You don’t need to do it to enjoy the Lord of the Rings chart though. So, which are Middle Earth leader are you? Find out here.

A Note of Caution

While instructive, tools such as this should never be used to put people into boxes (which is ironic, since the MBTI is graphically presented in that fashion).

The last thing we need is someone thinking they are defined by a psychological instrument such as this. After all, today’s Gimli may just well be tomorrow’s Bilbo.

_____

* The complete timeline of Middle Earth is available here.

** I have written in the past about the hero Boromir.

 

valedictoriansWell, not quite. But, if you just graduated from Washington and Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia, there is a fair chance you might be.

That’s because W&L named one hundred and seventeen—that’s right, 117—as valedictorians. And that was out of a class of 457. That means that each of W&L’s graduates had better than a 25% chance to be the/a valedictorian.

Congratulations.

I graduated 22 out of a class of 224. I thought that was a pretty solid accomplishment (especially since military moves meant I attended three different high schools, with both transitions occurring midyear).

My true brilliance was evidenced not in my own academic performance, but the fact that I was smart enough to marry a valedictorian!

Technically the valedictorian does not need to have the top grade point average in their class, although that is the usual custom. In fact, they simply need to be chosen to deliver the valedictory. (Yes, it is a noun, as well as its more familiar appearance as an adjective.)

Apparently, at our afore-celebrated high school, over a hundred students shared in this honor. (Must have been a protracted ceremony.)

It seems that in the modern era, we are so compelled to boost children’s self-esteem, that we feel compelled to exaggerate their accomplishments. Many have argued that this misguided effort has the reverse effect.

On the United States’ opposite coast, Long Beach Polytechnic opted for a measly thirty valedictorians (presumably out of a class of more than sixty).

Julia Jaynes, 17, who shared the valedictorian title with 29 others, said that if her school chose only one, it would destroy collegiality among her classmates. “If everyone wants to be the best, I feel like there’d be less collaboration,” she said. “It makes it so you’re only out for yourself.”

Unfortunately, poor Julia is likely to encounter more competition than collaboration in the world she is entering.

I found the following fact disturbingly humorous. The “dean of admissions at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, recalled an applicant whose Midwestern high school reported that every student finished in the top half of the class.”*

Okay. Can we get a little remedial education in mathematics for the administration of that school?

Screwtape lauded this elevation of the average. (Mind you, there is nothing wrong with being average; that’s why it’s called the average.) Screwtape, of course, is the devil whose correspondence fell into C.S. Lewis’ hands and was published to warn humanity of some demonic strategies for harming us.

The basic principal of the new education is to be that dunces and idlers must not be made to feel inferior to intelligent and industrious pupils. That would be “undemocratic.” . . . Children who are fit to proceed to a higher class may be artificially kept back, because the others would get a trauma . . . by being left behind.

The bright pupil thus remains democratically fettered to his own age group throughout his school career, and a boy who would be capable of tackling Aeschylus or Dante sits listening to his coeval’s attempts to spell out A CAT SAT ON A MAT.

In a word, we may reasonably hope for the virtual abolition of education when I’m as good as you has fully had its way. All incentives to learn and all penalties for not learning will vanish. The few who might want to learn will be prevented; who are they to overtop their fellows? And anyway the teachers—or should I say, nurses?—will be far too busy reassuring the dunces and patting them on the back to waste any time of real teaching.

We [i.e. demonkind] shall no longer have to plan and toil to spread imperturbable conceit and incurable ignorance among men. The little vermin themselves will do it for us.

_____

You can read more about the peculiar story of Washington and Lee High School here.

 

Who is Your Muse?

August 8, 2015 — 17 Comments

reposeWhich Muse provides your inspiration? Poetry, history, music, dance, epic?

I’ve always been fascinated by the Greek & Roman concept of the Muse. While I don’t regard these personifications as true “beings,” they provide wonderful insight into the multifaceted nature of inspiration.

The Muses were personifications (representations of abstract concepts in human form). It’s not the same thing as believing in a “god,” although devotional exercises could be offered in “their” honor. (The simple people, in fact, may have regarded them as minor deities.)

The number of Muses—who represented the arts and fields of knowledge—varied in the ancient world. However, nine constituted the final Roman tabulation.

Possessing a historical nature, my “matron” Muse would necessarily be Clio (History).

Sadly, I’ve learned Muses don’t always fulfill their promises. At my suggestion, my wife agreed to name our puppy Calli, abbreviated from Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry. Unfortunately, at ten months her raucous barking sounds anything but poetic.

In his biography, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, C.S. Lewis includes an interesting reference to Muses. It relates to one of their secondary qualities, civility. In the following passage, Lewis had been sent to the Headmaster of his school for review due to “bad work” (i.e. inadequate academic performance).

The Headmaster misunderstood Smewgy’s report and thought there had been some complaint about my manners. Afterward Smewgy got wind of the Head’s actual words and at once corrected the mistake, drawing me aside and saying, “There has been some curious misunderstanding. I said nothing of the sort about you. You will have to be whipped if you don’t do better at your Greek Grammar next week, but naturally that has nothing to do with your manners or mine.”

The idea that the tone of conversation between one gentleman and another should be altered by a flogging (any more than by a duel) was ridiculous. His manner was perfect: no familiarity, no hostility, no threadbare humor; mutual respect; decorum. “Never let us live with amousia” was one of his favorite maxims: amousia, the absence of the Muses. And he knew, as Spenser knew, that courtesy was of the Muses.

For Lewis’ instructor, the concept of the Muse meant more than simply inspiring some form of art or literature. The influence of the Muses flowed into the broader culture. In a sense, it reflected the distinction the Greeks held between themselves and the barbarians. Surely the uncivilized savages had no Muses of their own!

Sources of Inspiration

It isn’t uncommon today for people to use muse (lower case) as a shorthand for a person who inspires them. Pablo Picasso, for example, considered his favorite model (and mistress) to be his muse. The portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter above, entitled “Repose,” surely conveys the profound vision she provided him.

In cinema, there was the 1999 movie aptly named The Muse, which posits a deflated screenwriter seeking the aid of the supposed “daughter of Zeus.”

Speaking of Christians . . . they too identify a source for their inspiration. In addition to other human beings, who may offer wisdom, insight or encouragement, the preeminent source of inspiration is the Holy Spirit.

There is a danger in considering God himself to be the source of one’s inspiration. When taken to an extreme, it results in God being blamed for a lot of maudlin prose and gross violations of grammar.

Fortunately, few Christians believe their own writing is infallible. That divine quality is reserved for the Scriptures themselves.

Editors at Christian publishing houses would probably argue with my statement that few Christian authors are so presumptuous as to claim God “breathed” into them every word found in their manuscripts.

So, who is your Muse? When I said Clio is mine, it is because History—the story of humanity and especially God’s hand in it—fascinates me more intensely than any other subject. For you, it could be music or poetry.

Even astronomy has its own Muse, Urania. And, gazing at the boundless heavens God spoke into existence, it is no wonder that many would find their inspiration there.

A Classical Lewisian Poem

C.S. Lewis wrote a number of poems that are satires of Greek and Roman poetry. Some of them are quite witty.

For those interested in reading one such poem, I am pleased to offer “A Cliche Came Out of Its Cage.” In C.S. Lewis: Fantasist, Mythmaker, and Poet, Bruce Edwards describes it as “a sharp attack upon moderns who believe they are heralds of a return to the ‘golden age’ of paganism.” Included in his critique are F.R. Leavis and Bertrand Russell whose philosophy he rejected.

A Cliche Came Out of Its Cage

You said ‘The world is going back to Paganism.’
Oh bright Vision! I saw our dynasty in the bar of the House
Spill from their tumblers a libation to the Erinyes,
And [F.R.] Leavis with Lord Russell wreathed in flowers,
heralded with flutes,
Leading white bulls to the cathedral of the solemn Muses
To pay where due the glory of their latest theorem.
Hestia’s fire in every flat, rekindled, burned before
The Lardergods. Unmarried daughters with obedient hands
Tended it. By the hearth the white-armed venerable mother
Domum servabat, lanam faciebat. At the hour
Of sacrifice their brothers came, silent, corrected, grave
Before their elders; on their downy cheeks easily the blush
Arose (it is the mark of freemen’s children) as they trooped,
Gleaming with oil, demurely home from the palaestra or the dance.
Walk carefully, do not wake the envy of the happy gods,
Shun Hubris. The middle of the road, the middle sort of men,
Are best. Aidos surpasses gold. Reverence for the aged
Is wholesome as seasonable rain, and for a man to die
Defending the city in battle is a harmonious thing.
Thus with magistral hand the Puritan Sophrosune
Cooled and schooled and tempered our uneasy motions;
Heathendom came again, the circumspection and the holy fears …
You said it. Did you mean it? Oh inordinate liar, stop.

Or did you mean another kind of heathenry?
Think, then, that under heaven-roof the little disc of the earth,
Fortified Midgard, lies encircled by the ravening Worm.
Over its icy bastions faces of giant and troll
Look in, ready to invade it. The Wolf, admittedly, is bound;
But the bond will break, the Beast run free. The weary gods,
Scarred with old wounds the one-eyed Odin, Tyr who has lost a hand,
Will limp to their stations for the Last Defence. Make it your hope
To be counted worthy on that day to stand beside them;
For the end of man is to partake of their defeat and die
His second, final death in good company. The stupid, strong
Unteachable monsters are certain to be victorious at last,
And every man of decent blood is on the losing side.
Take as your model the tall women with yellow hair in plaits
Who walked back into burning houses to die with men,
Or him who as the death spear entered into his vitals
Made critical comments on its workmanship and aim.
Are these the Pagans you spoke of? Know your betters and crouch, dogs;
You that have Vichy water in your veins and worship the event
Your goddess History (whom your fathers called the strumpet Fortune).

_____

You can read about my true Muse here.

 

ggfI have never been more glad to have a birthday than I was this year. After all, at a mere sixty, I would have been far too young to become a great-grandfather. Now, at sixty-one, I feel adequately prepared for the momentous event which transpired just under an hour ago.

Tobin (meaning “God is Good”) is the child of my grandson and his wife, who currently reside in Texas where dad handles munitions for B-1 bombers.

Age and offspring do not always line up the way that we ourselves would plan. Yet every precious child is a miraculous gift from God.

Our grandson was born to our precious daughter-in-law while she was in high school. We didn’t get to meet him until he was ten, but we’ve done our best to make up for lost time. Our grandson, early on began calling us his “great grandparents.” That didn’t make us feel old, just special.

When my wife worked in a residential care facility for severely handicapped children, one of the aides arrived one morning with joyous news. “I’m a great-grandmother!”

Because the woman seemed too young, Delores responded, “Congratulations, you look so young for being a grandmother.”

The lady laughed and said, “No, a great-grandmother!” It turns out she was not yet forty . . . having been 13 when she had a daughter who was 13 when she had her own daughter who now had birthed her own baby. (I don’t recall the gender of the child.)

As I wrote this, it dawned on me that this all took place thirty-seven years ago, so it’s quite possible there are now several more generations in that particular family tree.

Some people will scoff at the thought of celebrating such early and assumedly unintended pregnancies. But, that caregiver knew the truth—every young life is a gift from God.

As an imperfect parent and grandparent, I recognize all too well that I won’t be the great-grandfather Tobin should have. I do pray, though, that God would grant that my mistakes with him would be few, and the memories forged during this life will help this little one grow into the finest man that he can become.

Most importantly, I pray that he will see Christ in my life and recognize the value of faith. Only the Lord knows what the future will bring, and I will not be here to share too many decades of life with my grandchildren and great-grandchildren. But my hope is that the time we do have will leave a lasting legacy of encouragement, faith, and compassion.

The letters of C.S. Lewis provide insights into the influence of his grandparents on his young life.

In a 1905 letter to his brother Warnie, he describes family festivities on Halloween. They even persuaded his grandfather to join in.

On Halow-een we had great fun and had fireworks; rockets, and Catherine wheels, squbes, and a kind of thing that you lit and twirled and then they made stars. We hung up an apple and bit at it. We got [his paternal] Grandfather down to watch and he tried to bite.

In a 1916 letter to his father, he refers to his grandmother’s declining health. (She died two weeks after he wrote.) Lewis refers to the common sentiment that we should have tried harder to spend time with family while they were with us. “I am sorry to hear what you say about [Lewis’ maternal] Grandmother: I feel that we ought to have seen more of her, but it was not easy.”

I should dearly love to get away for a bit, but, as you say, for so short a time, the expense and the interruption of work is hardly worth it. The Colonel must have had an unpleasant journey: I wish he would keep a diary which we could compare with that of Grandfather Hamilton in the same waters. Two generations of sub-tropical Atlantic and Hamilton temperament would be worth studying!

The diaries left by C.S. Lewis’ grandfather, and by his brother Warnie, provide a reminder to us that a written legacy will outlast our voices. If we have something important to say to our descendants, perhaps that is something we should keep in mind.

font conversationDo you want readers to trust what you write? If so, beware of using common fonts like Arial and Helvetica.

It turns out that serif fonts (those with more traditional finishing strokes) are not simply more legible than their sans serif counterparts.

There is evidence that serif fonts also contribute to the confidence people feel they can place in what they read. You can read a brief account of the research in “Can a Font Make Us Believe Something is True?

The brief article linked above refers to the results of a study conducted in the New York Times.

The experiment revealed dual effects of using serif fonts. They increased the intensity of agreement with statements, and they reduced the intensity of those who disagreed with the statements.

For many writers, fonts barely register as a consideration. For others, such as yours truly, they are an object of fascination. (Not obsession.) Mere Inkling has approached the subject from a number of angles.

A Font for Dyslexics

Monastic Fonts

Uninhibited Fonts

The Purpose of Punctuation

Even if the subject bores or confuses you, it is certainly worth taking note: if you want to enhance the perceived veracity of what you write, avoid the sterile sans serif fonts and stick with more traditional variants.

C.S. Lewis on Trust

It is ironic that a concept so vital as trust receives so little conscious reflection.

We rely on intuition, those proverbial “gut feelings,” to guide in awarding credence to different sources or individuals.

Well, intuition and prejudices.

Sometimes we distrust people because of their professions. Politicians, used car salesmen, and (in recent years) clergy, do not always rank high when it comes to trust. In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis describes his introduction to J.R.R. Tolkien. Though they became close friends, Lewis was initially quite wary.

When I began teaching for the English Faculty, I made two other friends, both Christians [who would play roles in Lewis’ conversion from atheism]. They were H.V.V. Dyson and J.R.R. Tolkien. Friendship with the latter marked the breakdown of two old prejudices. At my first coming into the world I had been (implicitly) warned never to trust a Papist, and at my first coming into the English Faculty (explicitly) never to trust a philologist. Tolkien was both.

Prejudices are part of the human experience. Everyone has them. Wise are those who recognize their own.

Subconscious “prejudices” are more hazardous. Most, fortunately, are of little consequence. In this category I would file the subject of how fonts influence perceptions of truthfulness.

Nevertheless, despite the miniscule influence they may exert, it would be foolish to ignore the evidence that our selection of fonts does matter. It would be foolish to ignore that fact.

Creative writers and publishers have a multitude of fonts to choose from. Making those selections consciously—with an awareness of how they affect readers’ impressions of our truthfulness—is essential.

Postscript – While the content here at Mere Inkling may range across a wide spectrum, one thing you can be sure of. . . the odds of having to endure the Comic Sans* font is almost nil.

_____

*Comic Sans is one of my wife’s favorite fonts. I’m glad for that, because with all of her other amazing traits, I am sometimes tempted to forget she is merely human.

NietzscheI unexpectedly encountered C.S. Lewis while unpacking a box today.

I’m ashamed to admit it, but five years after moving into our retirement home, I have yet to unpack half of my library.

The text that stood out among the two score volumes restored to the light today is called The Cult of the Superman. It was written in 1944 by Eric Bentley.

The 1969 edition which I possess includes “An Appreciation” by C.S. Lewis. Before emigrating to the United States, Bentley had studied under Lewis at Oxford. He spent his own professorial career at Columbia University.*

I have yet to find the time to read the volume, but it’s subtitle clarifies the profound subject it addresses: A Study of the Idea of Heroism in Carlyle and Nietzsche, With Notes on Other Hero-Worshippers of Modern Times. Thomas Carlyle and Nietzsche, in elevating the exceptionality of the hero or superman who “shapes history,” diminish the value of the vast majority of human beings who seek no such domineering role.

This view, so warmly embraced by the Nazis, is directly opposed to the Christian worldview.

The news that God lifts the lowly will come as a disappointment to any supermen or superwomen who are reading this.

However, to those of us who do not yearn to rule over the masses, it is joyous news. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

In Jesus’ own words, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

Nietzsche would revile those words, yet his knee too will one day bow before the One who “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”

In his “Appreciation,” Lewis declares that Bentley is the right man to address this challenging topic.

The Author, though sternly critical, has a sympathy which I cannot emulate with those elements in Heroic Vitalism which really deserve a serious answer, and this enables him to make a constructive book out of what might easily have become a mere chamber of horrors.

Sheep or Wolves?

This aggrandizement of those who seize their self-ordained right to lord over others can certainly lead to horrors. One example I recently saw was a violent criminal’s justification for his actions. “There are sheep and there are wolves. I’m a wolf. The sheep only exist for my benefit.”

Those of us who comprise the lambs find it inconceivable that evil people believe we exist only to be preyed upon. Yet, this is precisely what predators think. And this Nietzschean notion can justify any atrocity, based as it is upon the maxim that “might makes right.”

Coincidentally, as I was writing this column, “Fishers of Men” by The Newsboys began playing. The first lyrics in the song coincide perfectly with the biblical promise above that every single person—including you—is precious to God.

Seven billion people on a spinning ball,

And they all mean the world to You.

So much for those who would consider themselves super-men . . .

_____

* Lewis’ praise for Bentley’s work is also found in a letter included as an expression of appreciation in ‪The Play and Its Critic: Essays for Eric Bentley.

For an interesting assessment of Lewis’ influence on Bentley’s vocation as a drama critique, Donald Cunningham writes in his Ph.D. dissertation:

Dissent and debate were seen by Lewis as a method for testing ideas, and so he felt that discussion of an ideological sort could only strengthen a grasp on truth. . . . It is possible, then, that Bentley’s positive attitude toward conflict and its necessary presence in a pluralistic, growth-oriented world was learned at Oxford.