Archives For C.S. Lewis & the Inklings

C.S. Lewis and the Stage

December 6, 2018 — 7 Comments

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Sadly, we can’t presently spend an evening with C.S. Lewis . . . but what’s the next best thing?

A week ago my wife and I joined some dear friends at the Seattle performance of C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert. It was riveting.

The presentation used Lewis’ own words—from a variety of his works beyond his autobiography—to explain his extraordinary faith pilgrimage. Lewis of course began as a simple, trusting child. Events and educational influences caused him to reject that youthful faith. For many years he was an outspoken atheist.

As God drew Lewis closer to himself, the future author of the Narnian Chronicles resisted fiercely. Eventually he surrendered to the evidence that there most certainly was some creative force. This did not make him a Christian, of course. It was merely a conversion to Theism.

Only later would Lewis recognize just what that creative force is. Not “what,” but more accurately, “who.”

Since the engaging drama focuses on Lewis’ conversion, it does not pursue other topics such as his marriage. (This is obviously due to time constraints, since a full telling of the author’s life would require meals and evening lodging.)

Max McLean himself, founder of the Fellowship for Performing Arts,  does an outstanding job as Lewis. The production team is also superb.

The proverbial icing on the cake comes with an informal discussion following the performance. McLean takes a seat on the stage and fields questions from the audience. Coincidentally, the previous performance location was in Berkeley, where they made the tickets so inexpensive for students that they comprised at least half the audience. McLean’s description of the play’s reception and the serious conversation which followed, was fascinating.

The Fellowship for Performing Arts is based in New York City, but fortunately tours each year. I have written in the past about their insightful performance of The Great Divorce,  which happens to be my personal favorite among Lewis’ amazing corpus.

I strongly encourage you to check out their future dates and locations across the country. Some venues will be treated to The Screwtape Letters this season.

In writing this piece, the question that came to mind was—what would Lewis have thought about having his life brought to the stage. Obviously, he was quite open and vulnerable in sharing his life with others. He made no pretense to holiness, beyond that which he received by grace as a child of God.

Still, having one’s words read is quite different than having yourself portrayed on stage or film. I suspect Lewis would have felt uncomfortable with the latter, and preferred that we stick to literary avenues for learning about him.

It’s not that Lewis was averse to the stage. In Surprised by Joy he describes how one of his favorite relatives assumed some responsibility for Jack and his brother Warnie after their mother’s death. Early exposure to the theater was apparently one element in his “civilization.”

Lady E. was my mother’s first cousin and perhaps my mother’s dearest friend, and it was no doubt for my mother’s sake that she took upon herself the heroic work of civilizing my brother and me.

We had a standing invitation to lunch at Mountbracken whenever we were at home; to this, almost entirely, we owe it that we did not grow up savages.

The debt is not only to Lady E. (“Cousin Mary”) but to her whole family; walks, motor drives (in those days an exciting novelty), picnics, and invitations to the theater were showered on us, year after year, with a kindness which our rawness, our noise, and our unpunctuality never seemed to weary.

We were at home there almost as much as in our own house, but with this great difference, that a certain standard of manners had to be kept up. Whatever I know (it is not much) of courtesy and savoir faire I learned at Mountbracken.

For those who wish to consider more deeply the relationship between C.S. Lewis and the theater, I recommend “Faithful Imagination in Theater.”  The author admits that “quality theatre presented from a Christian perspective is hard to find,” but offers hope from Lewis. The article concludes with a worthy challenge.

There is a great need for more imaginative engagement with “mere Christianity” in theatre. So let’s get to it.

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Do you have trouble remembering what you read? Read on for a solution to your problem.

C.S. Lewis possessed an amazing memory of what he had read. While eidetic memory remains theoretical, many attributed a “photographic memory” to the Oxford don. Owen Barfield, Lewis’ close friend, described this gift.

He had that very pictorial imagination. I know when we used to go on walks, I used to envy him that. . . . He had what I think is called by some people an “eidetic memory,” when your imaginative pictures are almost photographic. (Owen Barfield on C.S. Lewis edited by G.B. Tennyson)

Describing Lewis’ earnest patience with others, however “ignorant or naïve” (Barfield’s opinion) the person, Barfield describes how readily Lewis recalled pertinent facts.

First he would speak as one simple man exchanging experiences with another, and only afterward (if the occasion seemed to call for it and always without the least nuance of didacticism) would he bring to bear, out of his wide reading and phenomenal memory, some pithy utterance—it might be from Aristotle’s Ethics, it might be from an Icelandic saga, it might be from George MacDonald—that contained the very substance of what the two of them had just discovered they had in common.

There appears to be hope on the horizon for those of us who are not blessed with Lewis’ talent for recalling what we read. RMIT University (formerly the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology) has devised a new font that uses a psychological principle called “desirable difficulty” to help readers retain more.

Take a look at Sans Forgetica in its own font. forgetica

 

 

The “difficult” part is evident in the lacunae that force one’s mind to fill in the gaps and make sense of each letter and word. The “desirability” comes with the way that our brains are able to decipher with just enough effort to imprint the material more deeply in our minds.

This principle reminded me of something written by Richard Foster, author of Celebration of Discipline. He describes the importance of concentration on our spiritual growth, as we seriously examine and process whatever is worthy of thinking upon. (Philippians 4:8)

I have mentioned the disciplines of service and worship. There are many others. Inward disciplines, like meditation, prayer, fasting, and study, cultivate our heart and mind toward the way of Christ. Meditation is the ability to hear God’s voice and obey his word.

Prayer is ongoing dialogue with the Father about what God and we are doing together. Fasting is the voluntary denial of an otherwise normal function for the sake of intense spiritual activity.

Study is the process through which we bring the mind to conform to the order of whatever we are concentrating upon. (Becoming Like Christ)

On the Elegance of Fonts

Longtime readers of Mere Inkling are well aware of my personal fascination with fonts. This link will reveal posts I’ve tagged with the subject. It reveals that different fonts exist for more than aesthetic reasons.

While some are simply created for decorative or mood-setting purposes—such as typefaces that mimic monastic scripts or the text created for the first Narnia film—others are devised for more practical purposes. The latter collection includes one created to aid those who suffer from dyslexia (Dyslexie). The intentionally useful category will now include Sans Forgetica.

Sans Forgetica is available for free. As evidence of either its merit or the promotional skills of its creators, they have already created an extension for the Chrome browser. It allows users to convert internet text on their screens to the memorable font.

I would suggest that such an application be used sparingly. Most of what we read on the internet is not worth recalling, much less clogging our brains with trivia and worse. Still, if applied selectively, it could be useful. After all, if it only moves us a centimeter in the direction of retaining information like C.S. Lewis, that’s a move in the right direction!

 

Teaching Kids to Write

November 20, 2018 — 12 Comments

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My grandkids have stunned me with their enthusiasm for writing. And all it took to inspire them was a very simple activity.

I invited our ten youngest grandchildren (aged 4 to 12) to write their own family newspaper. Although I devised our family publication myself, I’ve since learned that there are abundant resources—albeit of vastly different qualities—available online. You’ll find some links below.

The first challenge was to explain to them what a newspaper is. The irony is not lost on me that none of our four families currently subscribe to daily papers. It was more difficult than I anticipated to explain to all of the novice journalists precisely what newspapers are. I use the present tense, because the medium is not quite obsolete, despite the downward trajectory of most local papers. As an editorial in the Washington Post said this year, “newspapers have been dying in slow motion for two decades now.” And it seems to many the process is accelerating.

Nevertheless, as the proud veteran of high school and college newspaper staffs, and a former contributor to my hometown weekly, I believe such publications are ideal for developing writing skills. The passion overflowing from my writing bullpen has vastly exceeded my expectations, confirming my impression.

While it took a while to gather enough submissions for the first issue, they rushed to fill the second. When each was “published,” all of the kids immediately sat down and read their personal issues from proverbial cover to cover.

My endorsement of family newspapers does not carry over to the commercial press. Sadly, too much of what is presented as “objective reporting,” is patently subjective. I debated my journalism profs about that matter forty years ago, and the evidence has only grown more visible. I also agree with C.S. Lewis’ opinion that the majority of what passes for “news,” is superfluous or sensationalistic.

Even in peacetime I think those are very wrong who say that schoolboys should be encouraged to read the newspapers. Nearly all that a boy reads there in his teens will be seen before he is twenty to have been false in emphasis and interpretation, if not in fact as well, and most of it will have lost all importance.

Most of what he remembers he will therefore have to unlearn; and he will probably have acquired an incurable taste for vulgarity and sensationalism and the fatal habit of fluttering from paragraph to paragraph to learn how an actress has been divorced in California, a train derailed in France, and quadruplets born in New Zealand. (Surprised by Joy)

Perhaps ironically, Lewis did not hesitate to publish his own writings in worthy newspapers. Most notably, The Guardian (an Anglican newspaper printed between 1846 and 1951) published several of his essays. In addition, they presented to the world (in serial form) both The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce.

For an interesting discussion about C.S. Lewis’ opinion that newspapers are inadequate tools for assessing truth, check out this article. The author draws a valid distinction between Lewis’ example and the current state of affairs where “we judge too quickly and offer grace much too slowly.”

Elements of Our Family’s Publishing Experiment

After describing to the kids what newspapers are, I provided them with a list of potential subject matter. In addition to “standard” sorts of news and reviews, I added things like “sermon notes,” fiction, and comics.

I encourage them to illustrate their own articles, and the first two issues have been graced with images of dogs, horses, King Tut, and a Turtle Bear (who served as a weather forecaster). Each child contributes at their own level, and the cousins commend each other on their efforts.

We’re early in the stages of teaching the kids about rewriting and self-editing. Depending on the situation, either their parents or the editorial staff (grandma and grandpa) assist them with learning to revise their own work.

I must confess that one of the most fun aspects of Curious Cousins Courier is my ability, as the editor, to creatively engage in a bit of editorial privilege. The primary example comes in a “Family Heritage” feature that I write for each issue.

In the first, we considered the life of the cousins’ great-great-grandfather who immigrated from Norway in 1912. Julius Olaissen Næsbø unsuccessfully attempted to travel on the RMS Titanic, but the steerage class was full, and he had to settle for a departure several weeks later. The fringe benefit of reading about “Grandpa Nesby” came in learning that other languages include letters in their alphabet that are foreign to us in the States.

In the second issue, I pointed the children to one of their ancestors who helped establish our country itself, during the Revolutionary War. Joseph Johnston was born in Ireland, and was a sergeant in the Fifth Virginia Regiment.

The importance of cementing family bonds—and instilling a healthy awareness of our family’s legacy—is extremely important to me. I suppose that is due in large part to spending the first third of my life as a nomadic military kid. Yet that sense of disconnectedness from my extended family did not prevent me from inflicting the same itinerant military lifestyle on my own children. But that’s a story for another day.

If you help to establish a newspaper or journal for members of your own family, I trust you will find it as rewarding as I do.

A Few Online Resources

Get the Scoop: Create a Family Newspaper,” from Education.com

How to Make a Family Newspaper,” from wikiHow.

The 5 Ws are noted on ImaginationSoup. (In case you’ve forgotten, they’re who, what, where, when and why.)

More developed thoughts, with an eye toward the classroom, are available at The CurriculumCorner.

Dreaming of the Ark

November 7, 2018 — 8 Comments

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In the middle of the night, I heard a voice. But no one was there. Talk about unusual dreams. For the first time in my life, I awoke from a dream without any lingering images or sensations. All I recalled was a sentence. Just the words.

Unlike my recurrent dreams about being back in the military (occasionally in combat, but usually at a new base where I don’t know my way around), this one was jarring.

I feel like I awoke right after “hearing” these words. From their context, I knew they referred to the ark piloted by Noah and his family.

“Here on the ark we don’t have shuffleboard, but we do have a broom.”

I wouldn’t give it any credence at all, but for God’s prophecy recorded in Joel. “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. (Joel 2:28) After all, the words contradict no biblical doctrines, and I certainly qualify age-wise to be a dreamer.

Now, I’m not a certified dream analyst (and I’m wary of anyone who is), but I see a worthwhile message in this phrase. It may only be for me personally . . . but perhaps others could benefit from it too.

You see, the ark is an ancient metaphor for the Christian church.* Even in the Bible itself, Peter points to the account as a sign of baptism (1 Peter 3:20). It’s no accident the central part of the church where the laity sit, between the entrance and the chancel (or altar area), is call the “nave.” This comes from the Latin word for ship, navis.

In fact, in traditional church architecture, the nave is quite often raised to a peak in a manner that reflects the inverted structure of a vessel. In many older churches the similarities between the ceiling and the inverted hull of a ship are quite evident. (Of course, in addition to the ark, there are a number of other biblical events featuring boats.)

So, what meaning did I apply to these words as I lay there wide awake contemplating them?

I have a place on the ark (within the church). I am welcome. But I am mistaken if I came aboard anticipating a pleasure cruise. This is a voyage where I have important responsibilities—and they are not necessarily going to be glamorous ones. In other words, I am to pick up my broom and clean the stables.

The Timing of this Dream

One of my recent prayer focuses has been stewardship. I was re-convicted of my lack of generosity while reading Mere Christianity.

Charity—giving to the poor—is an essential part of Christian morality . . . I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare.

In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small.

There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charities expenditure excludes them.

I believe Lewis is absolutely right.

I struggle with how little I deny myself, while Christian families today can be freed from modern-day slavery for less than a thousand dollars!

Another specific reason why the ark resonates with me now, is the fact my wife and I have discussed our long held dream to take a cruise to Alaska. We’ve talked about it for years, actually planning to go for our fortieth anniversary (a couple of years ago).

That day may still come . . . but not before we help free some of our sisters and brothers from debt slavery in Pakistan. After all, God’s been extravagantly generous with us, and given us a place of safety from the floodwaters. So the entertainments will have to wait, and I’ll seek to find my joy by taking up my broom.

Addendum

C.S. Lewis wrote a poem about the ark, which can be found in Poems. Entitled “The Late Passenger,” its original title was the “Sailing of the Ark.”

The rejection of the tardy unicorn by Noah’s sons is paralleled to the rejection of the Messiah. As Noah arrives on deck to see the rejected unicorn fleeing, he says:

“’Look, look! It would not wait. It turns away. It takes its flight.

     Fine work you’ve made of it, my sons, between you all to-night!

“’Even if I could outrun it now, it would not turn again

     —Not now. Our great discourtesy has earned its high disdain.

“Oh noble and unmated beast, my sons were all unkind;

     In such a night what stable and what manger will you find?

“’Oh golden hoofs, oh cataracts of mane, oh nostrils wide

     With indignation! Oh the neck wave-arched, the lovely pride!

“Oh long shall be the furrows ploughed across the hearts of men

     Before it comes to stable and to manger once again,

“And dark and crooked all the ways in which our race shall walk,

     And shrivelled all their manhood like a flower with broken stalk . . .”

Because the poem addresses a fanciful scene, its intended meaning has been misconstrued. In 1958, he wrote to his good friend Roger Lancelyn Green:

I say–the Sailing of the Ark is not (humiliating explanation!) meant to be funny. The Unicorn, as often in medieval symbolism, is Christ, rejected. The ‘stable and manger’ to which He will come long after are those at Bethlehem.


* Saint Augustine includes an interesting discussion of Noah, including the ark, in Book 12 of Contra Faustum. See chapters 14-24 here, if you are interested. Below you will find a small sample of Augustine’s teaching.

That Noah, with his family is saved by water and wood, as the family of Christ is saved by baptism, as representing the suffering of the cross. That this ark is made of beams formed in a square, as the Church is constructed of saints prepared unto every good work: for a square stands firm on any side. . . .

That the beams of the ark are fastened within and without with pitch, to signify by compact union the forbearance of love, which keeps the brotherly connection from being impaired, and the bond of peace from being broken by the offenses which try the Church either from without or from within. For pitch is a glutinous substance, of great energy and force, to represent the ardor of love which, with great power of endurance, bears all things in the maintenance of spiritual communion.

That all kinds of animals are inclosed in the ark; as the Church contains all nations, which was also set forth in the vessel shown to Peter. That clean and unclean animals are in the ark; as good and bad take part in the sacraments of the Church. . . . as the Church, the body of Christ gathered into unity, is raised to perfection. So Christ says in the Gospel: “He that gathers not with me, scatters.” (Matthew 12:30) That the entrance is on the side; as no man enters the Church except by the sacrament of the remission of sins which flowed from Christ’s opened side.

The Church Father Tertullian discusses the ark in his treatise on baptism.

In the next place [in the baptismal rite] the hand is laid on us, invoking and inviting the Holy Spirit through benediction. Shall it be granted possible for human ingenuity to summon a spirit into water, and, by the application of hands from above, to animate their union into one body with another spirit of so clear sound; and shall it not be possible for God, in the case of His own organ, to produce, by means of “holy hands,” a sublime spiritual modulation?

But this, as well as the former, is derived from the old sacramental rite in which Jacob blessed his grandsons, born of Joseph, Ephrem and Manasses; with his hands laid on them and interchanged, and indeed so transversely slanted one over the other, that, by delineating Christ, they even portended the future benediction into Christ.

Then, over our cleansed and blessed bodies willingly descends from the Father that Holiest Spirit. Over the waters of baptism, recognizing as it were His primeval seat, He reposes: (He who) glided down on the Lord “in the shape of a dove,” in order that the nature of the Holy Spirit might be declared by means of the creature (the emblem) of simplicity and innocence, because even in her bodily structure the dove is without literal gall. And accordingly He says, “Be simple as doves.”

Even this is not without the supporting evidence of a preceding figure. For just as, after the waters of the deluge, by which the old iniquity was purged—after the baptism, so to say, of the world—a dove was the herald which announced to the earth the assuagement of celestial wrath, when she had been sent her way out of the ark, and had returned with the olive-branch, a sign which even among the nations is the fore-token of peace; so by the self-same law of heavenly effect, to earth—that is, to our flesh—as it emerges from the font, after its old sins flies the dove of the Holy Spirit, bringing us the peace of God, sent out from the heavens where is the Church, the typified ark.

But the world returned unto sin; in which point baptism would ill be compared to the deluge. And so it is destined to fire; just as the man too is, who after baptism renews his sins: so that this also ought to be accepted as a sign for our admonition. (Chapter 8)

In more recent times, Billy Graham preached a sermon in which he likened Christ himself to the ark. “The ark,” the famous evangelist proclaimed, “is a symbol of Jesus Christ. In this day, when the clouds of judgment are beginning to gather, Christ is the refuge.”

 

The Ugliest Book

October 26, 2018 — 9 Comments

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Every reader knows “not all books are created equal.” This fact has two applications. Most importantly, since books are built from words, the comparison refers to comparing the content or message of different works. In a totally distinct sense, it may distinguish between the differing presentation or physical aspects of the book itself.

Fifty-four years after its discovery, the oldest surviving Mayan text has been officially authenticated. One of the reasons for the delay was that “for a long time, critics of the codex said the style wasn’t Mayan and that it was ‘the ugliest’ of them in terms of figures and color.”

What does that mean? It means that just because the tree bark pages were composed by a less skilled artist . . . in a more primitive age . . . living in a relatively impoverished region . . . with a smaller pallet of colors available . . . its authenticity was questioned.

Not quite what I would consider top flight analysis. Fortunately, Mexico’s National Institute of History and Anthropology has finally righted that wrong. They declared, “The Mayan Codex is authentic and the oldest, legible pre-Hispanic manuscript in the Americas,”

Seriously, the only flaw I can find in the facsimile of the pictograph portrayed above is the attachment of a right hand to a left arm. Then again, if Mark Twain could make the very same mistake roughly eight centuries later, I can forgive the ancient Mayan illustrator.

Illustrative Options

Frankly, the more one learns about the publishing industry, the less responsible we can hold authors for the final look of their works. Rarely do they even get to choose the cover art for their books, although sometimes particularly prominent authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis are granted that privilege. That is how the artwork of Pauline Baynes became intimately associated with the two Oxbridge giants.

The lucky few may even be able to select their own fonts, with many wisely opting for the more trustworthy serif families.

For the common woman or man, we are lucky if our publishers even let us have a veto over the artwork that they commission. The exception to this comes with the nature of the self-publishing industry, where the author possesses sole authority in choosing their cover, illustrations, fonts and format.

Still, those hoping for “traditional” publication should recognize in advance how much control over their book they will forfeit to editors and publishers.

With Paper at a Premium

Even with influence in the selection of artwork, some aspects of publishing lie outside the control of writers. A perfect example of this is found in rationing of paper in Britain during the Second World War. The British War Economy Standard meant books visually declined in production quality.

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Paper was rationed, beginning in March 1940, when publishers were allowed only 60 percent of what they had used in 1938-39. The proportion fell to 37.5 percent by January 1, 1942, when the Book Production War Economy Agreement took effect.

The scheme mandated smaller type, less white space, and inferior papers and bindings. It resulted in some remarkably ugly books, but it conserved raw materials. (“Modernity and Print I: Britain 1890-1970” by Jonathan Rose)

A number of Lewis’ books appeared in these wartime editions. They are quite collectible.

Scarce first impression of the true first edition, produced on wartime economy standard paper, and thin boards, published during the Second World War, especially hard to find in its complete original dustwrapper in collectable condition.

Let’s consider an unlikely scenario. In eight centuries, C.S. Lewis’ writings have been forgotten. Then, one archaeologist stumbles across a rare physical copy of a book, that survived the universal “grand purging” following the transfer of such items to some post-digital, post-electronic format.

What would historians assume about the value placed on Lewis’ work if it was a wartime edition compared to other “regular” books by other authors? They could not be faulted for assuming that the people of our day valued the inferior publication less than the “nicer” editions. (This is assuming that the acid-laden paper of the war years would not simply flake apart in their hands.)

The quality of the paper and print make a strong impression on readers. Just as we often judge books by their cover.

C.S. Lewis, a true bibliophile, illustrates how even a modest book (in terms of content) can be deemed “exquisite.” In a 1935 letter to his friend Arthur Greeves, he humorously describes the impending publication of The Allegory of Love.

I have finished my book which is called The Allegorical Love Poem, and is dedicated to Barfield. The Clarendon Press have accepted it and hope to have it out by May.

As I am to get 12 free copies (Dents only give one 6) you and Tchanie shall each have one and save your silver: and whatever you think of the matter, I hope, from experience of the Clarendon Press, that binding, paper etc will be—in our old formula—excellent, exquisite, and admirable.

In other words, if you can’t read it, you will enjoy looking at it, smelling it, and stroking it. If not a good book, it will be a good pet! It will be about 400 pp, they say. (It will be funny, after this, if they do it in double columns and a paper cover.)

Returning to the Mayan pages with which we began, we sadly are unable to judge them by their original codex in its pristine state. However, the extant pieces possess great historical value, even if scholars took a long time determining the fact . . . and whether or not they would ever consider it to be “a good pet.”


In case you are interested, Mere Inkling has explored Mayan books before, in “One Weakness of Modern Books.”

 

A World Without Evil

October 9, 2018 — 6 Comments

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A world without evil. Most people long for it. Some people pray for it. A few people are fooled into believing they have discovered it.

The good news is that one day evil will be eradicated, and redeemed humanity will enjoy the unmarred splendor of the world the Lord originally desired for us.

Until then, evil is ever-present. It existed before its entrance into our perfect world when our first parents disobeyed God in the Garden. The repercussions of that celestial rebellion continue to echo.

Some, however, are capable of deluding themselves into believing they can experience some sort of perfection. That is at the heart of many cults.

Their false messiahs persuade followers that they are part of such communities. In order to do so, they often move their people far from the “contaminating” influence of other people. In addition to Jonestown in Guyana, there have been utopian-turned-deadly villages in a places like Waco (Branch Davidians) and San Diego (Heaven’s Gate). More recently we’ve seen eleven children rescued from a Taos compound where they were being groomed to become “school shooters.”

Rolling Stone (no conservative publication) reports, “those drawn to these idealistic communities typically enter with the best of intentions. ‘It’s abnormal for young people not to want to make the world a better place . . .’”

The 1840s was a heyday of American utopian communities—more than 80 were founded in that decade alone, including the Brook Farm Community, which existed in Massachusetts from 1841 to 1847, Fruitlands, formed in 1843, and the Oneida Community, which lasted from 1848 to 1880.

Even the open-minded Rolling Stone notes that innocuous communes can grow dangerous. After all, virtually every cult begins with the promise of some version of utopia on earth. And if they don’t turn violent, they eventually peter out and fade away once they realize earthly utopia is a dream.

Caterers of Evil

One does not need to scurry off to a cultic campground to encounter evil. It comes to us uninvited.

I am pondering evil’s intrusions after reading about a naïve American couple who, while bicycling around the world, were killed by an Islamic terrorist in Tajikistan.

It’s a sad story, but ironic due to their misperception of reality.  One had proudly written, “You read the papers and you’re led to believe that the world is a big, scary place. People, the narrative goes, are not to be trusted.”

The idealistic biker once named his scooter after his mentor, the French philosopher, Rousseau. Like Rousseau, he believed in the innate goodness of humanity and presumably in the jettisoning of Christian revelation as an arbiter of truth. This victim of terrorism went so far as to write, “Evil is a make-believe concept we’ve invented to deal with the complexities of fellow humans holding values and beliefs and perspectives different than our own.”

As one British theologian explains Rousseau’s position:

Of course, he does not entirely deny human fallibility, error and capacity for evil. But he treats it as inessential: something that can be understood and moved away from—through trust in the wisdom of the human heart.

The Problem

It is a good thing to remember that many (likely most) people have goodwill towards their neighbors. But minimizing the fact that there are millions of human predators is a dangerous denial.

With 4-6% of American men meeting psychiatric criteria for antisocial behavior, along with 1% of women, it’s a scarier world than even many cynics realize. (While most of the men are mere sociopaths, 1% of the population may actually be classic psychopaths.)

Talk about Naïve—and Ultimately Pessimistic

Last year Cory Doctorow, a celebrated Canadian-British writer penned an absurd article defending utopian thinking. He courageously, but foolishly, ignored traditional idealistic ground and argued that even disasters can have utopian endings.

In a diatribe against the prominent role of dystopias in modern literature, he argues that if we only had a positive view of humanity, we could avoid the collapse of society. “The belief in other people’s predatory nature is the cause of dystopia.”

Doctorow plays it safe by discussing short-term difficulties, without societal collapse. The point of most dystopian stories, however, is exploring what happens once we have exhausted the extra provisions we can share with others when store shelves are permanently emptied.

The idealistic notion is that the power of positive thinking will get us through any potential destructive force. He sounds quite optimistic, until the closing paragraph reveals his self-professed “techno-agnostic” pessimism.

Disasters are part of the universe’s great unwinding, the fundamental perversity of inanimate matter’s remorseless disordering.

Evil Does Exist

Contrary to the notion that “evil is a make-believe concept,” wise people recognize its reality. C.S. Lewis explains the existence of evil quite succinctly in Mere Christianity.

And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.

For this reason, God allows the existence of evil for a season. In the end, it will be swept far away from the new heavens and the new earth into a dustbin called Hell.

It’s possible a Christian reading this column may feel some sort of pride in being on the “good” side of the equation. Because of this, we must remember it is only by the grace of God that there is anything praiseworthy about us. Let us reflect on C.S. Lewis’ caution about how we must keep our eyes focused on our Lord, lest we too become corrupt.

If the Divine call does not make us better, it will make us very much worse. Of all bad men religious bad men are the worst. Of all created beings the wickedest is one who originally stood in the immediate presence of God. (Reflections on the Psalms)

Finally, although evil does indeed exist, we should not fear it or dwell upon it. Yet it is important that we be forewarned, so that we do not become vulnerable to destructive situations or people. Holding ourselves apart, while keeping our eyes open. As Jesus advises:

“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16)

false humility

Normally, whenever writers approach a publisher (or an agent) with a book suggestion, the authors have to prepare a formal book proposal. A key element of the document—especially for nonfiction—is often called “about the author.”

This element is not “biographical;” it is a description of your particular experience or credentials that qualify you to write this book. This is also where you typically share your “platform,” media outlets, etc. where you can promote your literary endeavor.

Publishers don’t expect us to have credentials like those of C.S. Lewis. After all, not everyone becomes a professor at a prominent university.

But what potential publishers do hope, is that we know what we’re writing about, and that we can help them sell it, assuming they opt to invest in the project.

This is a logical consideration for publishing houses, who have more publishing “failures” than bestsellers. That’s not the problem.

The problem is that we are all conditioned not to brag about our accomplishments. In general, that’s a wonderful thing. (Who loves a braggart?) The difficulty is that this natural modesty becomes a terrible handicap when we are in situations where we are required to promote ourselves.

C.S. Lewis builds on the Christian witness that we must avoid pride at all costs.

According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind. (Mere Christianity)

So, we may feel ourselves between the proverbial rock and a hard place. We genuinely desire to be modest, but certain circumstances (job interviews, anyone?) demand that we “toot our own horn.” There is, of course, one thing worse than bragging . . . pretending false humility.

A Real-Life Dilemma

A fair number of Mere Inkling’s readers also blog. Most blogging software sets up sites with a default page built in to share something about the website and its author(s). On my About page, I’ve remained anonymous. It simply describes the reason for the site’s name. The only “personal” note in the original version came in the final sentence.

Accordingly, many of the posts in Mere Inkling will be about writing and Christianity. History and humor are also keen interests of the writer of this column, so they will most certainly be encountered with regularity as well.

Now, however, I’ve discovered that we who’ve used this less personal tack have undermined the visibility of our posts.

I just learned something important on the blog of a Lutheran theologian I respect. He writes as part of the Patheos web community. They boast eleven faith channels, two of which are Nonreligious and Pagan. My friend, of course, blogs on the Evangelical channel.  I want to pass on the opening of yesterday’s column.

Google has some new algorithms, so Patheos told its writers to bolster the E.A.T. factor (“Expertise. Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness”) for our posts. One way to do that is to beef up our biographies on the “About” section of our blogs.

Professor Veith changed his biographical page accordingly. And after reflecting on the matter, I’ve decided to do the same.

Thus, I have added a section on my About page that lists some of my credentials. I am doing this not because of personal vanity, but due to my desire to reach the widest possible audience with a message that not only points to the preeminent Inkling, but also beyond Lewis, to the Lord he served.

You may wish to consider a similar modification, if you have ignored the E.A.T. Factor in the past. And don’t be intimidated by bios such as mine, just as I am not daunted by the summits attained by Lewis. After all, he and I have had long lives during which we experienced these things.

Don’t ignore the fact that a large part of what people accomplish—academic degrees included—is due to opportunity and persistence rather than to innate giftedness. Remember as well we all have unique vocations, and not everyone is called to highly visible positions. I doubt I will be contradicted if I say that in the eyes of God, being a devoted parent is more noble than becoming some nation’s head of state.

Expanding your About page may not be the right course for you, but I believe it is the proper one for me.

One reason I had previously left my page vague is because I intentionally wished to avoid the appearance of bragging. So, as I proceed with this revision for the reason above, I will simply confess to the sin of pride (tempered over the years by God’s grace), and say along with Lewis,

I wish I had got a bit further with humility myself: if I had, I could probably tell you more about the relief, the comfort, of taking the fancy-dress off—getting rid of the false self, with all its ‘Look at me’ and ‘Aren’t I a good boy?’ and all its posing and posturing. To get even near it, even for a moment, is like a drink of cold water to a man in a desert. (Mere Christianity)

Soli Deo Gloria.