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When C.S. Lewis died, one of his Cambridge colleagues uttered a shocking statement—to his Cambridge students.

“C.S. Lewis is dead,” announced F.R. Leavis to his English literature students at Cambridge University a few days later, while the world mourned for Kennedy (the President was assassinated the same day).

American novelist and essayist D. Keith Mano, then studying at Cambridge, remembers Leavis continuing his brief commentary on Lewis’ passing as follows: “They said in the Times that we will miss him. We will not. We will not.

Who knew the world of literary criticism could be so ill-mannered?

In my readings about C.S. Lewis and his life I’ve noted references to a fellow English professor at Cambridge who waged a lengthy academic argument with Lewis over the heart of English education.

The challenger to Lewis’ history-oriented approach advocated a critical position, which diluted concern for the intentions of the original writers. I’m not a lit major, so I’ll leave the description at that.*

F.R. Leavis, a dynamic influence at Cambridge, dreaded the arrival of Lewis when he moved from Oxford to a distinguished chair tailor-made for him. The two scholars shared several traits which might have disposed them to friendship.

Both were veterans of the Great War.** One difference between the veterans is curious. Leavis declined to join the Officers’ Training Corps while a student, and chose ambulance service when conscription began. Lewis, on the other hand, voluntarily joined the OTC, even though he (as an Irishman) was exempt from the conscription.***

Another similarity between the two was that they inspired many students. Far from the caricature of droning academicians, Lewis and Leavis drew fans and even disciples from the student body. (In a recent post I mentioned the affectionate nickname some of the former’s students had for him: Papa Lewis.)

The Problem

Most writers believe this second “similarity” factored into the strained relationship between the two. Both had strong personalities, and bold convictions. They did not, however, share a common temperament. Lewis was normally respectful of his philosophical adversaries. Leavis, not so much. The following comes from “C.S. Lewis and the Art of Disagreement.”

The fact that Lewis could approve of atheists [and] liberals . . . reinforces Brewer’s point that Lewis would not allow disagreement to become personal. He could always distinguish the man from the man’s opinion, and he knew the difference between an argument and a quarrel. He would not allow himself to be betrayed into aggression, but would, where necessary, draw rein on a dispute with a wry smile and an agreement to disagree.

His public written controversy on literature with E.M.W. Tillyard (later published as The Personal Heresy) was conducted with pugnacity but without personal animus. And though Lewis laid into the arguments of another colleague, F.R. Leavis, with great forcefulness in the pages of An Experiment in Criticism, he never named Leavis within those pages, but covered his opponent in a thoughtfully woven cloak of pseudonymity.

Contrast that to Leavis’ comment with which we began, in which he “celebrates” Lewis’ passing.

Lewis was quite aware of Leavis’ animosity. In a 1961 letter to the publisher of The Screwtape Letters and Screwtape Proposes a Toast, the author strikes the Cambridge Review from the publications scheduled to receive review copies.

I’ve not additions to make, but one subtraction. Delete Cambridge Review. It’s mainly in the hands of Leavisites who will blackguard any book of mine, and I don’t know why we should let them have a free copy for their sport!

Lewis scholar Brenton Dickieson wrote a column about George Watson’s critique of Lewis. Watson met Lewis at Oxford and later joined him on the faculty at Cambridge.

Here are George Watson’s first evaluative words of Lewis: “Like F.R. Leavis, he was an offensive critic.” Awesome. I think it is an evaluation that would have made Lewis chuckle, particularly in his positive comparison with Leavis, the closest thing Lewis ever got to having a Sherlockian arch-nemesis.

However, Watson (note the name) is careful to remind us that Lewis “reveled in diversity as much as Leavis detested it.” That diversity in Lewis is one of the features that (I believe) most draws and repels readers today.

In the aforementioned article, “Lewis and Cambridge,” Barbour candidly describes the disparity between the spirit of the two nemeses.

“[Lewis’] controversies were always impersonal and often ended with the participants finding a good deal of common ground, whereas Leavis’s controversies . . . tended to end in anathematizing and deeply personal wounding.”

Leavis’ reputation for engendering conflict was so pronounced The Guardian actually included the following in his obituary:

Perhaps the most telling counter-assault on him was by C.S. Lewis, who said that the use of subliminal code words like “maturity” and “relevance” smuggled in an entire value system that was never made explicit for scrutiny. Others accused him of being a crypto-Marxist.

Leavis never replied, which was a pity, but then his weapons during his long career of humiliations in the Cambridge English faculty also included silence, internal exile and cunning.

His most murderous and underestimated weapon was ridicule, which he deployed in lectures with the virtuosity of a music-hall star and with an insensitivity verging on paranoia.

The Essence of Their Differences

Exploding English: Criticism, Theory, Culture includes a chapter entitled “Leavis, Lewis, and Other Oppositions.” It’s précis suggests one reason Lewis’ criticisms have possessed a longer lifespan than those of Leavis.

Lewis and Leavis . . . were the dominant figures in literary study in the middle decades of the twentieth century. . . . it is Lewis’s arguments and assumptions that seem to be the more challenging and which have something to contribute to contemporary debates.

This assessment echoes Lewis’ own view that the Leavis tsunami may have crested. Just a month before his death, he wrote to Basil Willey about his retirement. Willey would retire from his own chair two years later.

My dear Basil . . . I have an idea that Cambridge ten years’ hence might suit us both [better] than the Cambridge we have known. . . .

I hope your success will follow you . . . [if not], then our English school, with its neglect of language, becomes purely a school of literary criticism. And criticism, thus isolated, seems to me a positively mischievous instrument of education.

In “C.S. Lewis, Literary Critic: A Reassessment,” which appeared in Mythlore, William Calin describes Lewis’ passionate defense of English authors whose reputations were in jeopardy.

A Preface to Paradise Lost does for Milton what The Allegory of Love did for Spenser, and Lewis does for epic what he had previously done for allegory and fin’ amor [courtly love]. . . . In sum, Lewis defends his authors language from the strictures of Eliot and Leavis; he defends his worldview and its artistic embodiment from the prejudice of 1930s agnostic university faculty in English. . . .

When he tells students “Don’t read criticism” [Lewis] alludes again to Leavis and his disciples, who fetishized the term “critic.” Lewis would have called himself a scholar or an historian.

The following passage from A Preface to Paradise Lost is telling. Leavis is the unnamed standard bearer for the worldview he rejects. It reveals Lewis’ keen discernment in understanding of his unbridgeable difference with Leavis.

It is not that [Leavis] and I see different things when we look at Paradise Lost. He sees and hates the very same that I see and love. Hence the disagreement between us tends to escape from the realm of literary criticism.

We differ not about the nature of Milton’s poetry, but about the nature of man, or even the nature of joy itself.

The Apostle Paul described this difference in his correspondence with the Corinthians.

Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. . . .

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. . . . But we have the mind of Christ.

In an excellent article entitle “Three Great Critics: F.R. Leavis, T.S. Eliot, and C.S. Lewis,” Michael Aeschliman**** closes with a gospel-oriented thought.

It is pleasing to conclude by imagining C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, and F.R. Leavis now conversing together amicably, recollecting emotion in tranquility, in another and better and more luminous realm, toward which all three of them were fervent pilgrims throughout their embattled but noble lives.


* There are ample online sources available to describe the contrast in detail. For example, Brian Barbour’s Modern Philology essay, “Lewis and Cambridge,” provides a superb explanation of the struggle in its broader context.

** Lewis served in the trenches, where he was seriously wounded. Leavis was fortunate enough to avoid frontline combat by serving in the Friends Ambulance Unit. This site provides a helpful account of his service on an Ambulance Train which shuttled the wounded to ports.

*** There is no record of which ambulance train carried Lewis homeward after his injury, but wouldn’t it be ironic he and Leavis had unknowingly encountered one another at that time?

**** Aeschliman is the author of The Restitution of Man: C.S. Lewis and the Case Against Scientism.

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If you are curious about a 1950s perspective on the sexual mores of life on a Martian base, you are in for a rare treat.

Although C.S. Lewis’ foray into science fiction is best seen in his Space Trilogy, which begins with Out of the Silent Planet, he also penned a curious short story about courtesans in outer space. Lewis did not raise this rather tawdry subject, but he was responding to a serious argument for the practice, made by an American astronomer.

But First, a Quick Apologia

My posts have been fewer during recent months due to competing demands on my time. Most of these distractions are good, like watching over my wonderful brood of grandchildren. Another special pleasure has been working on a chapter for a book that will probably be published in a year or so. It deals with Theology and Star Trek.

I’ve been a fan of Star Trek ever since I watched the first episode that aired, back on September 8, 1966. Thus, it’s no surprise that my enthusiasm has seeped into Mere Inkling.

Earlier this year I posted a piece related to Star Trek, in which I censured a human version of the Klingon practice of eating animals while they are still alive. And five years ago, I wrote about “Humanity’s Interstellar Exodus” and referred to Star Trek’s utopian view of the universe.

I have always enjoyed science fiction. It was, in fact, via C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy that I was introduced to the great writer. Lewis wrote in so many diverse genres. There are many paths that can motivate readers to explore his writings further, ultimately being invited to consider issues of faith and eternity.

That’s one reason I celebrate the fact that Netflix (admittedly a company without altruistic motivation) is going to be filming new productions set in Narnia.

According to the deal between Netflix and The C.S. Lewis Company, the streaming service will develop stories from the Narnia universe into series and films that the producers hope will cross mediums, similar to what the Star Trek and Marvel franchises have done with their successful properties.

Back to Mars

In the mid-fifties of the last century, Robert S. Richardson broached the question of what life would be like for the first humans to live on Mars. There are several flaws in Richardson’s presuppositions. The first is his gender-bias, which postulates “a station of several hundred young unmarried men.”

In addition, although the challenges of travel move some theorists to view the residents as quasi-permanent colonists, Richardson’s proposal is based on an estimate that “puts the round trip at nearly three years [which] includes a stay on Mars of 449 days.” He does note that due to the cost, “a man who volunteers for Mars must do so with the expectation of remaining a minimum of, say, five years on the planet.”

At the end of the article he raises his concern for the sexual needs of “normal, healthy young men.” His solution is to consider jettisoning the “moral attitudes” of his day. “To put it bluntly, may it not be necessary for the success of the project to send some nice girls to Mars at regular intervals to relieve tensions and promote morale?”

In order to address “the greatest threat to the success of the interplanetary project [which is] the gnawing absence of the opposite sex,” he argues:

Is it not conceivable that in an entirely alien environment survival will produce among other things a sexual culture—shocking on Earth—which would be entirely “moral” judged by extraterrestrial standards?

Ironically, the erosion of moral standards in the Western world appear to make his argument rather moot. Nonetheless, the essential argument elicited a creative response from C.S. Lewis. Richardson’s article had appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and it was to that same pulp journal that Lewis responded.

Lewis’ article was chosen for republication in the 1959 anthology The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction, where it was introduced as “perceptive, human, and warmly comic. It is dated, of course, but well worth a read. And, it specifically addresses the issues raised by Richardson.

The arrival of two women at the Mars base is unexpected. But the powers that be on Earth decided that the men must be in need of Aphrodisio-Therapy, and sent two volunteers. One was rather elderly and morbidly obese. The other was a shrill psychology professor from a “modern” university.

The following scene features a conversation between the Captain (Mars base commander) and the presumably Scottish commander of the ship upon which the women arrived. It begins with the Captain being stunned that the two candidates presented for the novel role were quite ill-suited to it.

The Captain seemed at first wholly occupied with its comic side. ‘Still,’ he said at last, ‘it has its serious side too. The impertinence of it, for one thing! Do they think—

‘Ye maun recall,’ said Ferguson, ‘they’re dealing with an absolutely new situation.’

‘Oh, new be damned! How does it differ from men on whalers, or even on windjammers in the old days? Or on the North West Frontier? It’s about as new as people being hungry when food was short.’

‘Eh mon, but ye’re forgettin’ the new light of modern psychology.’

‘I think those two ghastly women have already learned some newer psychology since they arrived. Do they really suppose every man in the world is so combustible that he’ll jump into the arms of any woman whatever?’

‘Aye, they do. They’ll be sayin’ you and your party are verra abnormal. I wadna put it past them to be sending you out wee packets of hormones next.’

‘Well, if it comes to that, do they suppose men would volunteer for a job like this unless they could, or thought they could, or wanted to try if they could, do without women?’

‘Then there’s the new ethics, forbye.’

‘Oh stow it, you old rascal. What is new there either? Who ever tried to live clean except a minority who had a religion or were in love? They’ll try it still on Mars, as they did on Earth. As for the majority, did they ever hesitate to take their pleasures wherever they could get them? The ladies of the profession know better. Did you ever see a port or a garrison town without plenty of brothels? Who are the idiots on the Advisory Council who started all this nonsense?’

C.S. Lewis’ insights into human nature are far more accurate than those of our previous writer, who assumes morality is so arbitrary that it can be modified according to location. “The minority,” as Lewis rightly points out through the voice of his protagonist, will seek to live according to high moral standards . . . whether they reside in Montreal, Mumbai, on Mars or in the Delta Quadrant of the Milky Way Galaxy.

Read More about Aphrodisio-Therapy

Both of the works discussed above are available online. Read the essay and story in full at the Internet Archives.

The Day After We Land on Mars

Ministering Angels


Did you know there is a crater on Mars named Malacandra, in honor of C.S. Lewis?

 

C.S. Lewis & Scrabble

February 12, 2019 — 9 Comments

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It’s not uncommon for people who love words to also enjoy the game Scrabble.

The word game, born in 1933, is quite popular. In fact, the Hasbro company claims “today the SCRABBLE game is found in three of every five American homes.”

The game made enough of an impact in New York City, that the neighborhood where it was conceived is adorned with the distinctive Scrabblesque street sign shown above.

C.S. Lewis was also a fan of the game. He and his wife Joy played the game regularly. But they modified the rules, to allow for their particular intellects. Doug Gresham, their son, describes this in The Magic Never Ends: The Life and Works of C.S. Lewis.

They played word games with each other. They had their own rather unique rules for Scrabble. They would take one board and both sets of letters from two Scrabble sets. And then they would proceed to play Scrabble, allowing all known languages, whether factual or fictional, and they would fill the whole board with words.

Jack, Joy & Their Love of Words

The third volume of The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis includes two references to the way Scrabble became a familiar feature of their married life. In the first, written in July of 1957, he describes the situation at the beginning of Joy’s remission.

It is fascinating in several ways. It describes Lewis’ own declining health and the manner in which God had used it to be a blessing in their relationship. The shock, however, comes in Lewis’ confession about who was the Scrabble champion at The Kilns.

Joy is now home, home from hospital, completely bed-ridden. The cancer is ‘arrested,’ which means, I fear, hardly any hope for the long term issue, but for the moment, apparently perfect health, no pain, eating & sleeping like a child, spirits usually excellent, able to beat me always at Scrabble and sometimes in argument.

She runs the whole house from her bed and keeps a pack of men not only loving her but (what’s rarer) one another.

We are crazily in love.

My back turns out to be not slipped disc but osteoporosis–a spongy condition of the bones that is common in men of 75 but almost unknown at my age (58). After full investigation by a great Professor of Pathology the cause remains quite obscure. It has passed the stage of spasms and screams (each was rather like having a tooth out with no anaesthetic and you never knew when they were coming!), but I still ache a good deal and need sleeping draughts.

Can you realise the good side? Poor Joy, after being the sole object of pity & anxiety can now perform the truly wifely function of fussing over me–I’m in pain and sit it out–and of course the psychological effect is extremely good. It banishes all that wearisome sense of being no use. You see, I’m very willing to have osteoporosis at this price.

The fact that Jack and Joy were truly “crazily in love,” made the brevity of their life together all the more poignant and precious. In July of 1960, Lewis wrote to inform a friend of Joy’s passing.

Dear Mrs Gebbert, Alas, you will never send anything ‘for the three of us’ again, for my dear Joy is dead. Until within ten days of the end we hoped, although noticing her increasing weakness, that she was going to hold her own, but it was not to be.

Last week she had been complaining of muscular pains in her shoulders, but by Monday 11th seemed much better, and on Tuesday, though keeping her bed, said she felt a great improvement; on that day she was in good spirits, did her ‘crossword puzzle’ with me, and in the evening played a game of Scrabble.

At quarter past six on Wednesday morning, the 13th, my brother, who slept over her, was wakened by her screaming and ran down to her. I got the doctor, who fortunately was at home, and he arrived before seven and gave her a heavy shot.

At half past one I took her into hospital in an ambulance. She was conscious for the short remainder of her life, and in very little pain, thanks to drugs; and died peacefully in my company about 10.15 the same night.

I could not wish that she had lived, for the cancer had attacked the spine, which might have meant several days of suffering, and that she was mercifully spared.

You will understand that I have no heart to write more, but I hope when next I send a letter it will be a less depressing one.

This letter suggests that Joy’s final evening in this world was a happy one. It was filled with warm and family domesticity. Under the circumstances, who could hope for more. As Lewis writes, it would only be for our own selfishness that we would wish to prolong the suffering of those we love.

I would be curious to learn whether Lewis ever again played Scrabble during those final few years of his own life. I suspect that it would have been too painful. Best to recall the game in light of the affectionate competition the two of them shared.

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I recently read something quite disturbing about human beings. Something that revealed we have in common with Klingons and Ferengis one of their most disgusting traits. These people eat living creatures while they’re still alive (redundancy intentional).

Gene Roddenberry, creator of the Star Trek universe, foresaw a future in which humanity would rise above its omnivorous ways. “Replicated” food could still take the form of meat, but it would just be made of assorted atoms. The epitome of this view is found in Star Trek: The Next Generation. There, Commander William T. Riker declares to a diplomat from a race that consumes living mammals, “we no longer enslave animals for food purposes.”

In Roddenberry’s dream, humans have attained utopia on Earth. One way other races reveal their inferiority is by their diet. In addition to larvae and slugs, a main part of the Ferengi diet consists of squirmy Tube Grubs.* The more aggressive Klingons prefer assorted mollusks and their staple, the appropriately named Gagh. Gagh could be eaten cold or cooked, but the “serpent worms” were preferred live.**

I had deluded myself to think the devouring of living creatures was relegated to science fiction and the predators of the animal world. Sadly I recently learned about two Asian meals that merit the same stigma.

Goong ten is a Thai meal known as “dancing shrimp,” because the crustaceans are devoured alive.

In the Northeast Thailand region of Isaan, cooks often serve meat raw . . . Street vendors sometimes take the uncooked element one step further, selling a dish known as “dancing shrimp” (goong ten) from double-basket carts. On one side, seasonings await. On the other, a heap of small, translucent shrimp try in vain to escape from beneath a cloth. . . .

Those who might be anxious about eating a still-moving snack can opt to eat each bite swathed in a betel leaf. The traditional wrap conveniently prevents diners from accidentally making eye contact with their meal. Should curiosity get the better of you, however, a standard serving offers dozens of creatures you can stare down before eating alive.

In Japan, shirouo no odorigui describes another squirming delight.

Odorigui refers to the feeling of eating live sea creatures, or “dance-eating.” When it comes to shirouo no odorigui, the creatures dancing to their death are minnow-sized, transparent fish. In Japan’s Fukuoka prefecture, diners down these fish, also known as ice gobies, in shot glasses. As they’re served with nothing but a dash of soy sauce, there’s no hiding from the tiny faces of these slippery, still-moving snacks.

Eating Animals

I would be a hypocrite to condemn eating fish and other animals. However, I find myself utterly repelled by the notion of chewing something that is still alive. It seems unnecessarily cruel. I doubt I’ll ever hold membership in PETA, but I agree with their view that the abuse of animals is a grievous wrong.

C.S. Lewis would share this conviction that the abuse of these creatures is immoral. He wrote that “in justifying cruelty to animals we put ourselves also on the animal level. We choose the jungle and must abide by our choice.”

The merciful treatment of animals is one of Scripture’s most overlooked themes.

Judaism places great stress on proper treatment of animals. Unnecessary cruelty to animals is strictly forbidden, and in many cases, animals are accorded the same sensitivity as human beings. This concern for the welfare of animals is unusual in Western civilization. Most civilized nations did not accept this principle until quite recently; cruelty to animals was not outlawed until the 1800s, and even now it is not taken very seriously.

The primary principle behind the treatment of animals in Jewish law is preventing tza’ar ba’alei chayim, the suffering of living creatures. . . . Judaism has always recognized the link between the way a person treats animals and the way a person treats human beings. A person who is cruel to a defenseless animal will undoubtedly be cruel to defenseless people.

Even the slaughtering of animals is intended, under Kosher rules, “to be as fast and painless as possible . . . Hunting for sport is strictly prohibited, and hunting and trapping for legitimate needs is permissible only when it is done in the least painful way possible.

More on the Subject from Lewis

C.S. Lewis possessed a concern for suffering animals. We used to call this regard “humane,” because it reflected a natural compassion that God instills within us. Sadly, in many people it has been all but extinguished.

In 1940, Lewis included a full chapter on “Animal Pain” in The Problem of Pain. There he advocates a compassionate attitude, without being so doctrinaire as the aforementioned PETA. His concern is theological. He desires to explain how animals can suffer despite the “goodness” of God’s creation. Lewis recognizes that, in a word, the suffering of animals is an evil.

The problem of animal suffering is appalling . . . because the Christian explanation of human pain cannot be extended to animal pain. So far as we know beasts are incapable either of sin or virtue: therefore they can neither deserve pain nor be improved by it.

Lewis also confronted a distortion of biblical teaching that is often employed to justify the mistreatment of animals. Some say humanity is intended to lord over creation (including animals) however we see fit. However, in 1956 Lewis wrote to a correspondent that animals should be treasured.

I think God wants us to love Him more, not to love creatures (even animals) less. We love everything in one way too much (i.e. at the expense of our love for Him) but in another way we love everything too little. No person, animal, flower, or even pebble, has ever been loved too much—i.e. more than every one of God’s works deserves.

The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention offers an excellent article on the positive place of animals in creation. Animals are precious to God. “They aren’t the product of happenstance or fortuitous natural processes any more than humans are.” Their ten biblical observations about animals echo the thoughts of Lewis, and are quite worthy of your consideration.

One of Lewis’ essays, “Vivisection,” upset a number of his contemporaries who had no reservations at all about experimentation on animals. It appears in the collection God in the Dock, but here are a few excerpts.

The vast majority of vivisectors have no such [Christian] theological background. They are most of them naturalistic and Darwinian. Now here, surely, we come up against a very alarming fact.

The very same people who will most contemptuously brush aside any consideration of animal suffering if it stands in the way of “research” will also, on another context, most vehemently deny that there is any radical difference between man and the other animals. On the naturalistic view the beasts are at bottom just the same sort of thing as ourselves. . . .

We sacrifice other species to our own not because our own has any objective metaphysical privilege over others, but simply because it is ours.

Once the old Christian idea of a total difference in kind between man and beast has been abandoned, then no argument for experiments on animals can be found which is not also an argument for experiments on inferior men. . . . The victory of vivisection marks a great advance in the triumph of ruthless, non-moral utilitarianism over the old world of ethical law; a triumph in which we, as well as animals, are already the victims, and of which Dachau and Hiroshima mark the more recent achievements.

In justifying cruelty to animals we put ourselves also on the animal level. We choose the jungle and must abide by our choice.

And what does this human jungle bring into being?

If we cut up beasts simply because they cannot prevent us and because we are backing our own side in the struggle for existence, it is only logical to cut up imbeciles, criminals, enemies, or capitalists for the same reasons.

If you are interested in learning more about Lewis’ view of the ethical treatment of animals, download “C.S. Lewis and Animal Experimentation” by Michael Gilmour.

It appeared in 2015 in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith. All issues of the journal, going back to its founding in 1949, are accessible for free online.

The older I have grown, the more sympathetic to animals I have become. Admittedly, the live worms and crustaceans concern me less than the agony of mammals, which are far more conscious of their pain. And . . . I sincerely grieve for people who do not feel compassion for their suffering.


* The Ferengi also love their Slug-o-Cola, with its guaranteed “43% live algae in every bottle.”

** There are presumably more than 5- types of gagh, some of which had feet. And if that doesn’t gag you, your gut has a much higher quotient of iron than does mine.

*** For a lively discussion of whether “the human race has gone vegetarian in Star Trek,” check out this site.

A World Without Evil

October 9, 2018 — 6 Comments

illustration of a sheep with wolf shadow

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.

xmas cards

Fortunately, Christmas cards are not yet obsolete. Surely, many have substituted electronic alternatives, but even children of the digital age recognize that a personally scribbled note conveys a rare message—

You are worth the timeit takes me to choose a card, inscribe it, address the envelope and send it on its (dare I say, “merry”) way to you.

This pre-Christmas post is appearing so early because many of us are already addressing our Christmas greetings during the Advent season. And so it goes that Christmas cards and paraphernalia will soon usurp the place of other products in our local stores.

Whether you purchase your cards each winter, or wait until those amazing after-Christmas sales to buy them at 70% off, please keep this advice from C.S. Lewis in mind when you choose them.

Send cards that are appropriate for your recipients.

As a rule, if you are a Christian, you should send a card that celebrates the true meaningof the holy day. Naturally, this can be waived if it would cause genuine offense. However, if someone genuinely practices a different faith, why would you send them a Christmas card in the first place? A Hanukkah card, or a secular New Year’s Day or Thanksgiving seasonal missive would probably be more appropriate.

But my opinion is that for those who would not be overtly offended, a true Christ-mass card is appropriate. After all, many cards are quite gentle and inoffensive. For instance, the genre that picture a star (we recognize that celestial light as a Christian symbol during this particular season), along with words like “may you experience the joy and peace ushered in by this holy season.”

What I would encourage you to avoid sending during this time when we focus on the Incarnation miracle, is the sort of pastoral scenes with their innocuous tidings. For example, the happily sleighing family traveling in a conveyance very few of us will ever see. Send them at some other time, if you will, but they have little or nothing to do with the Nativity.

Now it’s fine if you think I’m old fashioned like the dinosaurs we recently considered.

But if you dismiss my opinion, please consider that of C.S. Lewis.

Lewis’ opinions about the commercialization of the Christmas season are well known, and we have discussed them here at Mere Inkling in the past. He, of course, abhorred the secularization of a sacred event. How sad he would be today to witness how Santa has continued to supplant Jesus.

Some will point out that Lewis himself included Father Christmas in his Chronicles of Narnia. This is true, but it is distinct from the modern secular excesses. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Father Christmas more closely resembles Saint Nicholas, in giving gifts and proclaiming the arrival of the King. It’s not accidental that he begins and ends his visit with the children by pointing to Aslan.

“I’ve come at last,” said he. “She has kept me out for a long time, but I have got in at last. Aslan is on the move. The Witch’s magic is weakening. . . .” Then he cried out, “Merry Christmas! Long live the true King!” and cracked his whip, and he and the reindeer and the sledge and all were out of sight before anyone realized that they had started.

C.S. Lewis was a truly devoted correspondent. He wrote back to the many fans who sought him out, and offered thoughtful responses to even the most frivolous queries. The writing was burdensome, and only the assistance of his brother Warnie for many years kept him from being forced to cease his generous practice.

Some of his correspondents were, or became, his friends. In December of 1955, he thanked one of these for the Christmas card he had sent. The friend was Peter Milward, a Jesuit priest. Lewis’ comments are still timely for Christian readers today.

Thank you for y[ou]r letter of Nov. 17. The enclosed card was one of the v[ery] few I have been pleased at getting.

Christmas cards in general and the whole vast commercial drive called ‘Xmas’ are one of my pet abominations: I wish they could die away and leave the Christian feast unentangled.

Not of course that even secular festivities are, on their own level, an evil: but the laboured and organised jollity of this—the spurious childlikeness—the half-hearted and sometimes rather profane attempts to keep up some superficial connection with the Nativity—are disgusting.

But your card is most interesting as an application of Japanese style to a Christian subject: and, me judice [in my opinion] extremely successful.

I hope you will reflect on Lewis’ thoughts on this subject. Christmas is too precious a time to be “entangled” with secular and pagan baggage.

If you send any holiday communiques—even of a digital nature—choose them wisely.


For more on C.S. Lewis and Christmas, read “A New C.S. Lewis Christmas Gift.”