History in Retrospect

This title, “History in Retrospect,” is of course redundant. There is no other way to consider history than by looking back at the past – from our current vantage point.

That is why it’s impossible to view history completely objectively. Since each of us measures things from our personal worldview, the same event means vastly dissimilar things to different people.

When people are hyper-partisan, they are incapable of reasoning with others who view events differently. The history of the United States is currently the subject of intense (too often extremist) debate by its citizens. Balanced people, the type I prefer talking to, admit the shortcomings in our history, and praise the accomplishments.

There are those, sadly, who believe their nation can have done no wrong. There are others who relish condemning the country’s imperfections. Those in the latter camp remind me of the prejudice exhibited by Nathanael, one of Jesus’ future disciples, when he dismissed his brother’s enthusiasm about the Messiah with the words “can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1).

C.S. Lewis was a gifted writer and academic. He was also a historian, especially an expert in literary history. His volume in the Oxford History of English Literature reflects that fact quite clearly.

Lewis was not only brilliant, in many ways he revealed great wisdom. Listen to these remarks about history from a letter he wrote to one of his casual correspondents in 1952.

You are not the kind of correspondent who is a ‘nuisance:’ if you were you would not be now thinking you are one – That kind never does.

But don’t send me any newspaper cuttings. I never believe a word said in the papers.

The real history of a period (as we always discover a few years later) has very little to do with all that, and private people like you and me are never allowed to know it while it is going on.

Educated originally as a “journalist,” I’m forced to agree completely with Lewis. Every word in print today is suspect. Those who do not read critically are on dangerous ground. And, of course, it’s not just newspapers and journals that demand caution. Digital media are even worse.

For that reason, we should never pretend any publication is 100% reliable. However, one magazine that I believe honestly strives toward that goal, is World Magazine. I appreciate the fact that it approaches subjects from my own theistic (Christian) worldview. By default, that makes it makes it untrustworthy to those who possess an anti-Christian worldview.

The open-minded individuals I referred to above, ever a minority, are willing (even eager) to read articles written by people from a range of perspectives. And it is for you, the honest and inquisitive people, that I suggest you consider adding World to your reading list.

Andrée Seu Peterson, recently wrote a provocative article discussing a recurrent historical phenomenon. It is entitled “A gathering in Switzerland: Little-known meetings can have massive outcomes.”

Down through history there have been little conferences attended by small numbers of elites that have quietly changed the world while the rest of mankind was going about its mundane business unawares. . . .

In June of 1494 King Ferdinand II of Aragon, Queen Isabella I of Castille, and King John II of Portugal drew a demarcation line like a vertical knife edge running from North to South poles, trampling established communities as it divided the Western world between Spain and Portugal.

People falling on one side of the line would henceforth speak Spanish and people on the other side would speak Portuguese.

Echoes of C.S. Lewis’ cautions about the “inner ring!”

Considering the “End of History”

History is defined in a variety of ways. To avoid politically charged definitions, let’s turn to a source in that most-neutral nation, Switzerland. In the description of their doctoral program in the field, the Universität Basel says “history examines past events, processes and structures [and] is both a cultural studies and a social sciences discipline.”

The point being that history relates to humanity, rather than our planet as an entirety. Thus, history won’t end with death of our solar system “in about 5 billion years [when] the sun will run out of hydrogen.” Even the most optimistic advocates of a starfaring future for humanity would likely admit history will end long before that.

Christians, on the other hand, foresee a future history without end. Yes, this earth will pass away, but our Creator has promised a new heaven and a new earth that will not echo the perishable nature of our fallen world.

In light of this conviction, Peterson includes a sobering observation in her essay about history.

People living in the Stone Age didn’t know they were living in the Stone Age. People alive at the time the monks in Ireland furiously copied Greek and Latin Bible manuscripts as fast as the Huns and Visigoths could torch the libraries of Europe didn’t know they were living through the near destruction of Western civilization. Such things are clear only in hindsight.

No Christian pretends to know the day of Christ’s return. In fact, Jesus expressly said “concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven . . . Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matthew 24).

Speculation about the Day of the Lord has rarely been beneficial. Suffice it to know that we should remain, at every possible moment, “ready.”

C.S. Lewis wrote another letter in 1952 which addresses this principle. His friend Don Giovanni Calabria (1873-1954), who was canonized by John Paul II in 1999, had written to Lewis sharing his impression that the day of the Lord’s return was drawing nearer.

Lewis reminded the priest of something Calabria already knew quite well. And it’s something well worth being reminded of today.

The times we live in are, as you say, grave: whether ‘graver than all others in history’ I do not know. But the evil that is closest always seems to be the most serious: for as with the eye so with the heart, it is a matter of one’s own perspective.

However, if our times are indeed the worst, if That Day is indeed now approaching, what remains but that we should rejoice because our redemption is now nearer and say with St John: ‘Amen; come quickly, Lord Jesus.’

Meanwhile our only security is that The Day may find us working each one in his own station and especially (giving up dissensions) fulfilling that supreme command that we love one another.

Lewis closes his letter with an affectionate prayer and promise, worthy of emulation in our own lives. “Let us ever pray for each other.” A sentiment I share with you.

An Author with the Heart of an Inkling

C.S. Lewis and Frederick Buechner never met, yet they are “friends” because they share so many similarities as authors writing from a Christian perspective. In terms of Buechner’s themes and range of his writings, this award winning American author and ordained Presbyterian minister may have as much in common with C.S. Lewis as his own British Inklings. So let me introduce Frederick Buechner and his writings.

Do you read primarily to relax and allow your imagination to soar? Or, do you normally select “useful” books, with the potential to be applicable to meeting the challenges of real life?

During my college years, I enjoyed scifi and fantasy. I still have a weak spot for alternative histories. But my seminary years had a subtle effect on my reading. With time always at a premium as a young pastor with a family, I had so many practical, pastoral books and journals to study, that I seldom had time for something so frivolous as “fiction.” Fortunately, semi-retirement has released me from that restrictive literary diet.

I’ve finally found some time to unpack a few of the boxes of books sitting in my garage. (The fact we moved them into the garage around 2010 would be embarrassing if it got out, so I ought not to mention it here.)

As one would expect, I’ve encountered many pleasant surprises. A number of books I had been missing have turned up, I’ve found some that are even more timely today than when they were stored, and—best of all in the minds of my adult children—I’ve been able to part with about two-thirds of the titles, and recently donated about 150 volumes to a local charity.

One of the titles I am currently reading is Frederick Buechner’s Telling Secrets. I had picked up a copy when it was highly recommended to me, only to discover it was a memoir. Being a “practical pastor” who always had too many utilitarian books to read, I set it aside . . . only to pick it up twenty years later.

And what a joyous surprise it has been. Buechner is in his nineties, and is widely respected. He has been a prolific writer, and has received numerous awards for his fictional works. Readers, particularly from the Reformed branch of Christianity have been especially fervent fans of the Presbyterian pastor and theologian. My friend, Brenton Dickieson is quite fond of Buechner and has written about him in A Pilgrim in Narnia on several occasions. He notes that Buechner quotes a number of the Inklings, including Tolkien, Williams and Lewis.

I vaguely recall the Lewis connection being one reason my fellow Air Force chaplain recommended Telling Secrets to me. But I had forgotten that the first section is entitled “The Dwarves in the Stable.” This is, of course, an allusion to an extremely momentous scene in The Final Battle, the final volume of the Chronicles of Narnia. It was originally published as an independent essay, as this entertaining post points out.

Buechner shares a dark family secret, the consequences of his father’s suicide in 1936. Listen to how movingly he describes the secret’s power:

His suicide was a secret we nonetheless tried to keep as best we could, and after a while my father himself became such a secret. There were times when he almost seemed a secret we were trying to keep from each other.

Buechner moves on to relate the suffering the family experienced during his daughter’s battle with anorexia. He shares few details, since “it is not mine to tell but hers.” Nevertheless, he describes setbacks in the struggle causing him to feel as though he “was in hell.”

I choose the term hell with some care. Hell is where there is no light but only darkness, and I was so caught up in my fear for her life, which had become in a way my life too, that none of the usual sources of light worked any more, and light was what I was starving for. . . .

I remained so locked inside myself that I was not really present with them at all. Toward the end of C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle there is a scene where a group of dwarves sit huddled together in a tight little knot thinking that they are in a pitch black, malodorous stable when the truth of it is that they are out in the midst of an endless grassy countryside as green as Vermont with the sun shining and blue sky overhead.

The huge golden lion, Aslan himself, stands nearby with all the other dwarves “kneeling in a circle around his forepaws” as Lewis writes, “and burying their hands and faces in his mane as he stooped his great head to touch them with his tongue.” When Aslan offers the dwarves food, they think it is offal.

When he offers them wine, they take it for ditch water. “Perfect love casteth out fear,” John writes (1 John 4:18), and the other side of that is that fear like mine casteth out love, even God’s love. The love I had for my daughter was lost in the anxiety I had for my daughter.

This is just a single example of the sensitive wisdom Buechner shares throughout this grace-filled work.

After I finish Telling Secrets, I look forward to reading two of Buechner’s novels already on my shelf, Godric and Brendan. They are both historical fiction, telling the stories of two sainted monks from the twelfth and sixth centuries respectively.

I encourage any of you unfamiliar with his writings to explore his work. If an autobiography can be this good, I’m eager to take a journey through what I have no doubt will be quite an adventure in his fiction.

Buechner possesses an additional connection to C.S. Lewis, which has the potential to last centuries. He describes his decision to offer his personal papers to Wheaton College, where they are available in the archives. The theologian describes his decision in this humble manner.

Wheaton College [has] a great collection there of the manuscripts and papers of people like C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, George MacDonald, J.R.R. Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, and the like, and because I could think of no more distinguished company than theirs among whom to have my own literary remains molder, a year earlier I had offered them everything I had stowed away over the years in cardboard boxes and scrapbooks and manila folders; and to my delight they said that they would be delighted to have it.

If you would enjoy learning more about the relationship between Buechner and the Inklings, check out this fine article; “C.S. Lewis and Frederick Buechner: Literary Expression of Faith” is available for download. It’s quite enlightening.


Bonus Insight

The second chapter of Telling Secrets is entitled “The White Tower.” Many Inkling fans will jump to the conclusion (especially after reading this post) that it is a reference to the citadel of Minas Tirith, the capital of Gondor. Like me, they would be incorrect.

Buechner is not alluding here to Tolkien’s masterpiece. On the contrary, he is referring to the central tower which was the old keep of the Tower of London. Ironically, that very keep, the White Tower, was built by a Norman monk who became the Bishop of Rochester. His name . . . Gundulf.

Buechner chose this metaphor for the human condition for the following reason.

I think here of the Tower of London. More particularly I think of that oldest part of it, known as the White Tower, which was built by William the Conqueror in the eleventh century. On the second floor of it there is a small Norman chapel called the Chapel of Saint John. It is very bare and very simple. It is built all of stone with twelve stone pillars and a vaulted ceiling.

There is a cool, silvery light that comes in through the arched windows. . . . The chapel is very silent, very still. It is almost a thousand years old. You cannot enter it without being struck by the feeling of purity and peace it gives. If there is any such thing in the world, it is a holy place.

But that is not all there is in the White Tower. Directly below the chapel is the most terrible of all the tower’s dungeons. It has a heavy oak door that locks out all light and ventilation. It measures only four feet square by four feet high so that a prisoner has no way either to stand upright in it or to lie down at full length. There is almost no air to breathe in it, almost no room to move. It is known as the Little Ease.

I am the White Tower of course. To one degree or another all of us are.

Do People Say You’re Crazy?

First of all, they may be right. If everyone tells you you’re crazy, you should be concerned. Especially if those you trust the most are convinced you’re unhinged, you should probably be evaluated by a psychiatrist.

However, even when you are 100%, bona fide sane, you may have to deal with the misperception that there is something off kilter in your perceptions or behavior. It happened to me.

I’m not too concerned, since there are even maniacs out there who consider C.S. Lewis to be a tad daft due to his counter-cultural (i.e., Christian) views.

In an article measuring his legacy a half century after his death, James Como said, Lewis’ “long and unrelenting resistance [to civilization’s decline] yields a commanding perspective that is not only not cultural, not only not trans-cultural, not only not merely counter-cultural, but almost anti-cultural; in a word it is supra-cultural . . .”

Surely Lewis’s sharp-shooter’s application of the phrase “enemy-occupied territory” to Western culture must come to mind.  Of course, from inside the culture, it is Lewis who must seem crazy: if not quite as febrile as  Jeremiah out there in the wilderness, surely close enough?  And so his genius – the application of his transcending individuality – is to present us with a choice: in or out?  We, with Lewis, might escape, leaving the Zeitgeist behind.

I’m with Lewis, which I understand makes me suspect in the eyes of the worldly. But it’s not my faith that has caused me to be labeled as crazy for many decades, even by family members whose love for me is beyond question.

It’s all about that despicable herb some people sickeningly regard as delicious – cilantro. As early as I can remember, I would sometimes have a meal where I found a dish had been contaminated by soap. It was horrible. Not just unpalatable, but inedible.

Everyone would praise the food and call me crazy. Especially when I told them why it tasted so bad. It was because it tasted like the chefs had grated a bar of soap over the meal. They would all laugh, look at each other with that “he can’t be serious” expression, and resume their dinner. Meanwhile, I’d basically go hungry, since I was unwilling to eat the perfectly “good” food.

After many years, as an adult, I finally was able to analyze the problem and identify the culprit as cilantro. This did not, unfortunately, restore my mental credibility. Now everyone was certain I was insane, because the whole world knows cilantro is delicious! My case was weakened by the fact that I thought the seeds of the plant, coriander, were just fine. Ahah! That inconsistency proved to them that I was faking my dislike for some unknown reason.

During the decades that followed, I would try to avoid the herb. Occasionally I would bite into something only to unexpectedly encounter the dreaded flavor of a bar of soap. If it was minor, like mixed very lightly into the salsa, I could force myself to ignore, but it was still there, robbing me of the opportunity to really savor my meal.

If I mentioned that I had tasted the cleansing residue, I’d get the familiar quizzical looks and drop the subject. Until one glorious day when one of the other people at the table said, “it tastes like soap to me too.” And I learned they too had lived under the stigma of being a nutcase.

Over the years (I’m not young), I encountered a number of like spirits who shared my alleged dementia. I delighted in assuring them they were not alone. Like most people who truly are crazy, we had learned to try to mask our aberrant tastes and blend in with the cilantro-enamored masses . . . lest we be treated as outcasts.

Still, I wondered why only a small number of people shared my experience, when the taste is so pronounced it can taste literally like biting into a bar of Ivory.

Thank God, I was finally rescued by genetic scientists. Per Brittanica, “for those cilantro-haters for whom the plant tastes like soap, the issue is genetic. These people have a variation in a group of olfactory-receptor genes that allows them to strongly perceive the soapy-flavored aldehydes in cilantro leaves.”

And, in a related article, they warn about one member of the aldehyde-family you will want to steer clear of: “formaldehyde (HCHO), also called methanal, an organic compound, the simplest of the aldehydes.”

Pure formaldehyde is a colourless, flammable gas with a strong pungent odour. It is extremely irritating to the mucous membranes and is associated with certain types of cancer in humans and other animals. Formaldehyde is classified as a human carcinogen (cancer-causing substance).

Cilantrophiles be warned. It may be cilantro is just a gateway aldehyde. Now who’s the crazy one? The lesson – don’t be hasty in judging the mental acuity of others. (With the single exception for contemporary Americans, who feel compelled to say the absolute worst about anyone who has different political opinions.)

On a serious note, actual mental illness is no joke. Whether it’s genetic, accidental, or degenerative, it can destroy the life of the victim and all those who care about them. If you don’t have any acquaintances suffering in this manner, there are plenty of places you can volunteer to serve these various communities.

Providing love and encouragement to others is always admirable. When we do so for those unable to “repay” us in any way, it’s doubly rewarding. Jesus had something to say about that, and you can read it in Matthew’s Gospel.

C.S. Lewis & the Playful God

When my grandchildren were younger, we played a game where everything would be “normal” and I would without warning say “you don’t need to be afraid of me, because I’m not…” [transformational pause, followed with a growl] “… an ogre!”

The kids would squeal and hightail it for cover where they were safe while I briefly lumbered about for a moment. It was much fun, and if Jesus tarries, perhaps I’ll play a similar game with their children.

I recently read an interesting article about Martin Luther’s understanding of God’s playfulness. You can read the entire article here: “Deus Ludens: God at Play in Luther’s Theology.”

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Luther knows a kind of unstructured play, especially between parents and children, that may involve . . . a kind of pretending which then gives way to the revelation of reality.

C.S. Lewis was a confirmed bachelor when he was surprised by encountering Joy, who would become his wife. He did a commendable job as a stepfather after her death, but wasn’t well equipped for the job.

In The Abolition of Man, Lewis confessed “I myself do not enjoy the society of small children . . . I recognize this as a defect in myself.” Yet he did enjoy other forms of play – of the mental and imaginary varieties – that many young people also savor.

One pastor encourages us to apply Lewis’ observation to ourselves.

Do you recognize that an inability to enjoy children is not representative of a defect in the children, but of a defect in us? I hope that you do. And if not, I hope that you will.

In “C.S. Lewis on Pretending,” the author touches on this theme. After quoting the following passage from Mere Christianity, he writes, “Lewis is drawing out two key elements of change. The role of imagination in faith. The necessity of visionary faith for change.”

Very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already. That is why children’s games are so important. They are always pretending to be grown-ups – playing soldiers, playing shop.

But all the time, they are hardening their muscles and sharpening their wits so that the pretence of being grown-up helps them grow up in earnest.”

Poet Malcolm Guite challenges (accurately, in my opinion) Lewis’ self-diagnosed disconnect from children.

That Lewis could write immortal children’s tales in late middle age, and weave into those tales such truth and vision that the children who first read them at 8 or 9 keep returning to them in adult life and finding more and more, is a sign that he retained to the end, ‘the child within,’ to borrow George Macdonald’s phrase. And yet in those very stories he provides for both children and grown-ups some very searching truths about what it is both to be a child and to grow up.

Other Christians have identified with Lewis’ challenge. One pastor repeated Lewis’ words about his “defect,” admitted he felt similarly, and responded:

Do you recognize that an inability to enjoy children is not representative of a defect in the children, but of a defect in us? I hope that you do. And if not, I hope that you will.

Because children, just like the poor, offer us another unique opportunity to see what it means to live inside God’s kingdom.

Like it or not, children are going to be who they are. With zero nuance or subtlety, they are going to be consistent – the authentic version of themselves – in every situation.

Ironically, despite his supposed handicap, C.S. Lewis directly blessed more children than it would be possible to number. The follow article, “A Playful Romp with God,” reveals an excellent example of his accomplishment.

The first time I encountered this scene – as an adult, reading the Narnia books to my own kids – I cried. The possibility that God might laugh, romp, and play with his children stopped me in my tracks. How could such a scandalous thing be true?

Growing up, I never heard a word about God laughing, joking, or doing anything for fun. No one invited me to imagine the Jesus of the Gospels smiling, much less goofing around with his disciples, playing hide-and-seek with the children who flocked to him, or basking in the sunshine on a gorgeous summer day.

The list of characteristics I associated with God – omniscience, holiness, transcendence, righteousness – did not include playfulness.

The writer of these words is not alone. Too many people have been raised with the image of a stern, humorless Christ. That’s one of the reasons I am so pleased with the new series, “The Chosen.”

While they may carry the image of Jesus’ playfulness a bit too far – who can say – it is a truly refreshing and convincing portrayal of the Lamb who came to lay down his life as a sacrifice for each of us.

C.S. Lewis portrays this aspect of God brilliantly in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. After his resurrection, Aslan reveals himself first to Susan and Lucy. And, rather than rush off to prepare Narnia for the approaching battle with the Witch . . . he plays.

“Oh, children,” said the Lion, “I feel my strength coming back to me. Oh, children, catch me if you can!” He stood for a second, his eyes very bright, his limbs quivering, lashing himself with his tail. Then he made a leap high over their heads and landed on the other side of the Table.

Laughing, though she didn’t know why, Lucy scrambled over it to reach him. Aslan leaped again. A mad chase began. Round and round the hilltop he led them, now hopelessly out of their reach, now letting them almost catch his tail, now diving between them, now tossing them in the air with his huge and beautifully velveted paws and catching them again, and now stopping unexpectedly so that all three of them rolled over together in a happy laughing heap of fur and arms and legs.

It was such a romp as no one has ever had except in Narnia; and whether it was more like playing with a thunderstorm or playing with a kitten Lucy could never make up her mind. And the funny thing was that when all three finally lay together panting in the sun the girls no longer felt in the least tired or hungry or thirsty.

Do we have a playful God? If you still think not, you have my sympathy, my prayers, and my encouragement to read this helpful article, “The Role of Laughter in the Christian Life,” written by the author of Surprised by Laughter: The Comic World of C.S. Lewis.

Resurrection Bodies, Angels & C.S. Lewis

And just what will those heavenly bodies be like..? And what about those angels..?

Among the many things that Christians look forward to, as an unearned gift from God, is a new body. This resurrected body will not be like our old (i.e. former) body… but it will be similar to the bodies of our first parents, Eve and Adam. So, in a sense, one might say it’s a bit like that old, old (i.e. original) body.

Sadly, there’s a lot of unnecessary confusion about what awaits us after death. While the Lord doesn’t give us all the details (which we wouldn’t be able to comprehend right now anyway), he does make the big picture clear. Here are some facts (based on the Scriptures as interpreted for 2,000 years within the orthodox Christian faith).

1.  You can’t do enough good works to deserve to enter heaven. It’s all about God’s mercy and grace.

If you think you can be good enough to get there on your own . . . sorry. If you therefore don’t think it matters at all how you live… you will end up just as sorry.

2. In heaven, God’s redeemed will not be incorporeal spirits. We’ll have bodies, just as our Maker intended from the day he breathed life into Adam’s lungs. Christians affirm belief in the “resurrection of the body.”

As to the nature of the bodies, God doesn’t leave us ignorant. One of the best New Testament descriptions is found in First Corinthians.

Even the Old Testament prophet Job proclaimed the wonders of a bodily resurrection when, in his own flesh, he would see the Lord.

God’s written word includes more about our resurrection bodies. One, from the letter to the Christians in Philippi, says, “the Lord Jesus Christ . . . will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body.” This verse, like the stained glass image above, inspires me to wonder what that body will be like. Like Jesus’ own resurrection body, we learn.

Perhaps also like humanity’s unfallen human bodies portrayed here in colored glass. If the artist’s vision is accurate, I’m eager to welcome back the hair that once adorned my head, and to enjoy those stunningly defined abs, that I unfortunately never possessed.

Writing to his friend Arthur Greeves, Lewis clarified the biblical definition of resurrection.

I agree that we don’t know what a spiritual body is. But I don’t like contrasting it with (your words) “an actual, physical body.” This suggests that the spiritual body wd. be the opposite of “actual” – i.e. some kind of vision or imagination. And I do think most people imagine it as something that looks like the present body and isn’t really there.

Our Lord’s eating the boiled fish seems to put the boots on that idea, don’t you think? I suspect the distinction is the other way round—that it is something compared with which our present bodies are half real and phantasmal. (19 August 1947)

3. Human beings never become angels. One of most common mistakes about heaven is that people (“good” ones, at least) become angels after they die. They don’t. Period. Angels are angels and people are people – two separate beings, each with their own nature. Angels are majestic, most certainly, but they were not blessed like humanity to be created in the very image of God.

And never forget, not all angels are good. Those fallen ones, in fact, no longer merit their identification as angels. Better to label them as what they’ve become, demons.

As for people being intrinsically distinct from angels, C.S. Lewis wrote a poem that contrasts angelic and human personhood.

On Being Human by C. S. Lewis

Angelic minds, they say, by simple intelligence
Behold the Forms of nature. They discern
Unerringly the Archetypes, all the verities
Which mortals lack or indirectly learn.
Transparent in primordial truth, unvarying,
Pure Earthness and right Stonehood from their clear,
High eminence are seen; unveiled, the seminal
Huge Principles appear.

The Tree-ness of the tree they know – the meaning of
Arboreal life, how from earth’s salty lap
The solar beam uplifts it; all the holiness
Enacted by leaves’ fall and rising sap;

But never an angel knows the knife-edged severance
Of sun from shadow where the trees begin,
The blessed cool at every pore caressing us
– An angel has no skin.

They see the Form of Air; but mortals breathing it
Drink the whole summer down into the breast.
The lavish pinks, the field new-mown, the ravishing
Sea-smells, the wood-fire smoke that whispers Rest.
The tremor on the rippled pool of memory
That from each smell in widening circles goes,
The pleasure and the pang – can angels measure it?
An angel has no nose.

The nourishing of life, and how it flourishes
On death, and why, they utterly know; but not
The hill-born, earthy spring, the dark cold bilberries.
The ripe peach from the southern wall still hot
Full-bellied tankards foamy-topped, the delicate
Half-lyric lamb, a new loaf’s billowy curves,
Nor porridge, nor the tingling taste of oranges.
– An angel has no nerves.

Far richer they! I know the senses’ witchery
Guards us like air, from heavens too big to see;
Imminent death to man that barb’d sublimity
And dazzling edge of beauty unsheathed would be.
Yet here, within this tiny, charmed interior,
This parlour of the brain, their Maker shares
With living men some secrets in a privacy
Forever ours, not theirs.

Heaven will be wondrous. Not only will we get to worship the One who created and redeemed us, there is so much more we have to look forward to. Enjoying a new, unflawed body . . . hobnobbing with angels who sang to celebrate Christ’s Nativity . . . and waiting in line to enjoy a beverage with C.S. Lewis.


The picture above is of a stained glass window in the Basilica of Our Lady of the Children in Châteauneuf-sur-Cher, France. Olive Titus, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

C.S. Lewis on Stupidity

Just because someone did something extraordinarily stupid does not mean that another fool should repeat the act. And C.S. Lewis would agree.

This summer a (likely unemployed) Coloradan decided to push a peanut to the top of Pikes Peak – a 14,115 foot American landmark – using his nose. Talk about stupid. His ambition was to be the first person in the twenty-first century to accomplish this pseudo-impressive goal.

That’s right, “in the twenty-first century.” Oddly, he is the fourth man (women are too intelligent, IMHO) to waste time in this pursuit, but the others proved their mettle in the twentieth century.

Simple stupidity is not the oddest motivator of irrational actions. Some people feel compelled to pursue death-defying activities. Those of us who would prefer to avoid danger whenever possible, are confused by others who embrace it.

Quite recently, “the body of an American mountaineer whose daring achievements brought her acclaim among some of the world’s most elite climbers was found . . . on a peak in Nepal.” Apparently, she climbed the “world’s eighth-highest peak” so she could ski down from its peak.

Hilaree Nelson, 49, and her romantic and climbing partner, Jim Morrison, were trying to ski down Manaslu . . . An avalanche apparently blew her off a cliff onto the south face of the mountain, opposite of their intended route of descent.

Tragic, most would agree. Foolish, many would add.

Doing something silly falls lower on the FDS (foolishness disorder spectrum) than does taking arbitrary and utterly unnecessary risks.

C.S. Lewis offers some interesting counsel to a woman who shared concern about the marital frustrations of someone close to her. (Yes, people actively sought his advice.) He ranks ignorance very low on the scale of relationship problems.

It is a great joy to be able to ‘feel’ God’s love as a reality, and one must give thanks for it and use it. But you must be prepared for the feeling dying away again, for feelings are by nature impermanent.

The great thing is to continue to believe when the feeling is absent: & these periods do quite as much for one as those when the feeling is present. It sounds to me as if Genia had a pretty good husband on the whole.

So much matrimonial misery comes to me in my mail that I feel those whose partner has no worse fault than being stupider than themselves may be said to have drawn a prize! It hardly amounts to a Problem. (Correspondence, 1953).

So it is, that while obviously undesirable, stupidity is not a bad thing in itself. In “The World’s Last Night,” Lewis includes the trait in a curious list. And the passage suggests to me the dangers implicit in allowing one‘s ignorance to jeopardize their wellbeing.

Perfect love, we know, casteth out fear. But so do several other things – ignorance, alcohol, passion, presumption, and stupidity.

It is very desirable that we should all advance to that perfection of love in which we shall fear no longer; but it is very undesirable, until we have reached that stage, that we should allow any inferior agent to cast out our fear.

It is precisely when what I would identify as stupidity inspires dangerous activities, that C.S. Lewis would rule it to be detrimental. And this brings us to the question of why some few people do what the majority of us “saner” people would avoid.

Why Do People Pursue Risky Activities

For our discussion here, I am not including people who face danger due to their vocations. Doubtless some “first responders” and military members relish brushes with death, but they are in the minority. Most are not eager to court death.

It has been debated as to why some people are drawn to the most hazardous of so-called “extreme sports.” The uncharitable might attribute a vulnerability to the siren call of danger to mere stupidity, but there are other factors at work.

However, some people are conditioned by their upbringing to participate in unsafe behaviors (e.g. base jumping, smoking or alligator wrestling). And, in recent years, we have been hearing more about genetic dispositions to such activities. It appears there is some merit to the notion of there being a “risk taking gene.”

A major 2019 study reported in in Nature Genetics “identified . . . 99 [genetic] loci associated with general risk tolerance.” An accessible discussion of the study says, “the genetic variants identified in the study open a new avenue of research on the biological mechanisms that influence a person’s willingness to take risks.”

In any case, DNA is only one, limited factor. Researchers confirmed “non-genetic factors matter more for risk tolerance than genetic factors. The study shows evidence of shared genetic influences across both an overall measure of risk tolerance and many specific risky behaviors.”

Lacking the fear gene is not quite the same thing as being courageous. As noted above, a person may face danger because of a valid reason. Thus “first responders” and most military members I served as a chaplain were not foolhardy. They didn’t take unnecessary risks. But most were willing to place themselves between very real threats and those they were protecting.

If you personally are of an adventurous nature, I encourage you to take sensible precautions. Avoiding rafting on Class VI rapids and cave diving – anywhere – would be a good place to start..

And for the less daring among us, perhaps we can avoid foolish pursuits that are merely a waste of time. It seems apparent to me that time spent serving others in a food bank, or mowing the lawn of a disabled neighbor, constitute a far better use of our time.

CS Lewis | Emptiness

Deep Thoughts from the Quill of the Other C.S. Lewis

Welcome to another in an occasional series of fictitious quotations from a fabricated contemporary of the great Oxbridge professor, Clive Staples Lewis.

The C.S. Lewis who authored these questionable observations, Clyde Scissors Lewis, possessed a worldview enigmatically different from that of the esteemed Christian author. Despite the fact that their two lives overlapped in a variety of ways, the similarities were superficial.

A brief biography of the lesser Lewis is available at this link.

The Other C.S. Lewis: A Brief Biography

By all means, do not confuse the wisdom of the genuine article with his shadowy counterfeit. Despite any cursory similarities between the two men, this is most definitely not the C.S. Lewis readers have come to know and love.

C.S. Lewis & Roald Dahl

Do C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) and Roald Dahl (1916-1990) have anything in common, besides authoring books enjoyed by children?

Looking back, I must have been deprived of opportunities to read common children’s books. I recall my mom having many of Dr. Seuss’ classics, but don’t remember more advanced works such as those of Beatrix Potter or E.B. White.

I suppose that is why Roald Dahl’s name means little to me. By the time I was aware of his popular works, I was too old to appreciate them. Added to that was my intense dislike for the cinematic presentation of his Chocolate Factory, which has permanently (and probably unfairly) soured my impression of the poor man.

In Matilda, published in 1988, Dahl offers a rather curious homage to the Inklings. The young protagonist offers to her teacher the following observations.

“I like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” Matilda said. “I think Mr. C.S. Lewis is a very good writer. But he has one failing. There are no funny bits in his books.”

“You are right there,” Miss Honey said.

“There aren’t many funny bits in Mr. Tolkien either,” Matilda said.

If you are intrigued by this brief interchange, you would probably enjoy reading “Disagreeing with Matilda on Lewis and Tolkien.”

Curiously, a number of people have offered their evaluations of Lewis and Dahl, vis-à-vis one another. Author Grudge Match: Roald Dahl vs. C.S. Lewis invited diverse contributions to the debate eight years ago on LibraryThing.

A Christian blogger offers a faith-based appraisal on an entertaining website called “Like but better.” It’s entitled “How C.S Lewis is like Roald Dahl, but better (and Aslan is like Willy Wonka, but better).”

C.S Lewis is serious about what Dahl jokes about; even as both want us to pursue a childlike wonder and joy. For Lewis these enchanted stories and our sense of wonder are small stories reflecting on the big story — the ‘myth that became history’ — the death and resurrection of Jesus.

A BBC Culture article is quite critical of Dahl, despite his popularity. The introduction to “The Dark Side of Roald Dahl” aptly describes the essay.

Roald Dahl was an unpleasant man who wrote macabre books – and yet children around the world adore them. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us, writes Hephzibah Anderson.

An article by a Jewish journalist refers to both of the authors discussed here. It describes his bitter introduction to the major flaws of an author whose work he enjoyed as a child. “Why I Hope My Kids Never Read Roald Dahl” is, for me, most valuable for the way in which the journalist regards the faith which underlies the tales of Narnia.

As a nerdy Jewish kid in Indiana and Tennessee in the late 1970s and 1980s, I had far better relationships with books than I did with other kids. If I liked a book, I read it again, and again and again.

And so it was with Roald Dahls “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Dahl’s protagonists Charlie and later James (of the “Giant Peach”) both provided early models for how to find a better way through a hostile world where I always felt like an outsider.

Given that personal history, the announcement that Netflix has acquired Dahl’s entire catalog and plans a robust lineup of multimedia adaptations ought to feel like good news. . . .

Seeing his work still celebrated fills me with sadness, leaving me caught between attachment to something that mattered to me as a boy and commitment to the principles that, I hope, make me the man I am today.

Because I know that Roald Dahl hated Jewish people like me.

There are cases where it’s complicated to ascribe modern values to figures from the past and as a reader, my feelings, my emotions, are just not going to be consistent. I don’t share C.S. Lewis’ religious views . . . J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy is, I’m sad to say, bound up in long histories of racism.But my childhood copies of their books still occupy my shelves, some missing covers and pages, and I bought new copies for my kids and tried – with mixed success – to share my love of those stories with them. It’s hardly new for readers of one generation to struggle with the views of authors from another.But Dahl is different. He passed away in 1990, only 31 years ago. And we know he was an anti-Semite because he said so.

While I would challenge Perry’s modest critiques of the Inklings, I am delighted he is able to look beyond his adult disappointment with their imperfections to commend them to his own children. As for Dahl . . . this article reinforces my lack of regret in being unfamiliar with his work.

Enough, now, of their differences. I promised readers a surprising similarity between the two British authors.

And What Is Their Unusual Commonality?

In 1951, C.S. Lewis was approached by Prime Minister Churchill’s office to accept an honor occasionally bestowed upon renowned literary figures. He was invited to become a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Lewis declined, because he felt the political implications might overshadow the nonpartisan spirit of his writings. He was, however, honored to have been offered the honour.

This decision brings us to the peculiar similarity between the two writers. It turns out that Roald Dahl also passed up the invitation to join this chivalric order.

And the two were not alone. In 2012 a list of deceased individuals who had declined related honors between 1951 and 1999 was published.

Literary names were prominent amongst those to have said no to CBEs, OBEs and knighthoods in the annual New Year or Birthday Honours list, with Dahl, Lewis, and Huxley . . . joined by fellow naysayers Eleanor Farjeon, the children’s author, the poets Philip Larkin and Robert Graves, who said no to both a CBE and a CH (Order of the Companions honour), literary critic F.R. Leavis, Booker [Prize] winner Stanley Middleton and the authors J.B. Priestley and Evelyn Waugh.

An aspiring literary historian might do well to research whether and why successful writers might be more inclined to dismiss such an honor than other British citizens. I wonder if that inclination would carry over to other nationalities or cultures.

Ultimately, I assume most writers care less about receiving honors, than having their work read. And, perchance, having their literary efforts improve the lives of one or two others along the way. [This statement inspired vigorous debate when I shared this draft with members of my critique group.]

That desire – to enrich lives – is what motivates me. I believe it is also what inspired C.S. Lewis. And I know we are not alone.

The Weight of Class Reunions

I clearly remember my mother preparing to attend her fortieth high school reunion. I was struck by the thought wow, my mom is really old!

A few days ago, I attended my own fiftieth reunion. Needless to say, the milestone was sobering.

Read on and I’ll share two insights – the first of which is widely recognized, the second thought is a personal insight to the emotional trauma that can accompany these gatherings.

As the decades advance, most such events add a moment where the names of classmates who are deceased are read. Naturally, the list continues to grow. From my class of 220, 38 are no longer alive. One can only imagine how many of the 74 graduates the steering committee couldn’t reach belong on that list as well.

Seeing the names of people you remember as energetic teenagers, who have already perished, reminds us of our own mortality. Not a single person can be sure their own name won’t appear on that memorial roster, when next the class of 1972 gathers.

Death is rarely a welcome specter, but as a Christian who is confident of the resurrection, reading those names does not elicit fear. True, I do feel some sadness, knowing that each of their families and friends have suffered deep personal loss. But I am resigned to the brevity of life in this world.

I’ve arrived at peace with the fact that we “do not know what tomorrow will bring . . . for [we] are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4).

King David declared our utter dependence on God for everything, and the short duration of our earthly life.

O Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am! Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing before you. Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath! (Psalm 39).

Fortunately, however, as most people have at least heard, if not (yet) believed: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3).

This aspect of class reunions is self-evident. The next, less so.

The Legacy of Isolation

Why is it that so many of my classmates opted to skip the reunion – when I know for a fact that a number of them still live in the local area? I suppose the cost may have discouraged some. But I recognize the most significant reason for the majority who were absent.

They felt they were never part of “the In Crowd.” They watched other people standing in the limelight, getting all of the attention, and pretending to be happy and carefree.

The truth is that adolescence is a challenge for everyone. And it’s quite possible that the most “popular” kids are actually the most angst-ridden. The people we considered safely nestled in the popular cliques were frequently stressed by their insecurities about continuing to be perceived as winners.

In many cases, the years after high school are great equalizers. And, it’s not uncommon for the people who appeared to have the easiest social paths during their teens to be the least equipped to live successful adult lives.

So far, what I’ve said is not too surprising. But here I am going to take a bit of a leap. I make no claims to being a psychologist, but as a dedicated student of humanity, and a pastor who has heard many private, personal stories, I believe this observation to be true.

While we were teenagers attending school, nearly all of us felt like we were on the fringe of our school’s social core. And the handful who didn’t could well have been nascent narcissists. Trust me, the few who experienced actual delusions of grandeur at that time, were destined to take the greatest falls as they left that insulated environment.

So, this is what I think. Most of those who choose not to attend their class reunions, lacked a feeling of truly belonging. But, on the other side of the very same coin, most of those who choose to attend those very same gatherings also felt like they were insignificant people on the periphery of what was “happening.”

The Lord of this world (Lucifer) invests a great deal of energy trying to destroy the self-image of women and men who were created in the very image of God. My prayer is that if you have read this far, you consider what I’ve written. You are precious. You have always been precious, even when you considered yourself most ugly.

Attending your next class reunion may not be something you desire to do. But, don’t allow a false perception that you are unimportant be the reason you skip the event.

C.S. Lewis wrote a superb essay on the subject of “The Inner Ring,” and the temptation people have to compromise their integrity trying to fit in. He presented it as a lecture at King’s College, University of London, in 1944. In his words, “Of all the passions, the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”

If you read the essay, which I heartily recommend, recognize that he was speaking to a student audience which consisted only of men. The truths he describes are applicable, of course, to both genders. Lewis’ observations certainly ring true with me.

I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.

C.S. Lewis, the Psalms, and Penitence

When do you feel closest to God? When you’ve been about holy business all day and are now praying at your bedside? Or, when everything in your life seems to have imploded, and you look about you helplessly, with nowhere else to turn than your heavenly Father?

In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis provides a brilliant insight into the nature of our souls.

Man approaches God most nearly when he is in one sense least like God. For what can be more unlike than fullness and need, sovereignty and humility, righteousness and penitence, limitless power and cry for help?

This rings true as I ponder my own spiritual pilgrimage. Tribulation and suffering clear my vision of material distractions in a way that allows me to recognize more vividly my need for God’s grace. And, in relying more consciously on his mercy and compassion, I draw closer to my Lord.

It’s no accident, in my opinion, that among the Psalms of David most treasured by God’s people, are those in which he cries out to the Lord for deliverance and salvation. Verses where David places no trust in his own strength or even in God’s previous beneficence. Poetry where this anointed king acknowledges that even the drawing of his next breath depends wholly on the providence of his Creator.

Seven of David’s songs are traditionally identified as the Penitential Psalms.* The great Saint Augustine’s regard for these Psalms is revealed in the manner in which he spent his final days.

As Augustine lay dying . . . he ordered those psalms of David which are especially penitential to be copied out [for example, “Have mercy on me according to thy steadfast love . . . For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me,” Psalm 51], and when he was very weak, he used to lie in bed facing the wall where the sheets of paper were put up, gazing at them and reading, and copiously and continually weeping as he read (Robert Wilken, The First Thousand Years).

Like this ancient saint, C.S. Lewis knew the Psalms – and the English language – intimately. This led to his appointment to a distinguished “Committee to Revise the Psalter” for the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Joint service on this committee facilitated the healing of a previously strained relationship with the poet T.S. Eliot.

Lewis had largely taken on this task in order to discourage revisions, since he thought the Miles Coverdale version that had been in use for four hundred years more than adequate.

His opinion was shared by another member of the committee, T.S. Eliot, whom Lewis finally got to know. (They had met only once, very briefly, in the forties, though they had corresponded for a while about Charles Williams after their mutual friend’s death.)

The two men got along very well indeed; bygones could at last be bygones, it seems. (The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis)

One of C.S. Lewis’ books is devoted to his thoughts about various themes in the Psalms. One such theme is judgment.

The “just” judge, then, is primarily he who rights a wrong in a civil case. He would, no doubt, also try a criminal case justly, but that is hardly ever what the Psalmists are thinking of. Christians cry to God for mercy instead of justice;’ they cried to God for justice instead of injustice. The Divine Judge is the defender, the rescuer. (Reflections on the Psalms)

In the introduction to this work, Lewis explains, “This is not a work of scholarship. I am no Hebraist, no higher critic, no ancient historian, no archaeologist. I write for the unlearned about things in which I am unlearned myself.” This, readers, is not false humility. It’s the real thing.

One of his most valuable observations comes in the following passage:

What must be said, however, is that the Psalms are poems, and poems intended to be sung: not doctrinal treatises, nor even sermons. Those who talk of reading the Bible “as literature” sometimes mean, I think, reading it without attending to the main thing it is about; like reading Burke with no interest in politics, or reading the Aeneid with no interest in Rome. That seems to me to be nonsense.

But there is a saner sense in which the Bible, since it is after all literature, cannot properly be read except as literature; and the different parts of it as the different sorts of literature they are. Most emphatically the Psalms must be read as poems; as lyrics, with all the licences and all the formalities, the hyperboles, the emotional rather than logical connections, which are proper to lyric poetry.

They must be read as poems if they are to be understood; no less than French must be read as French or English as English. Otherwise we shall miss what is in them and think we see what is not (Reflections on the Psalms).

In C.S. Lewis’ monumental study of English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Excluding Drama), Lewis does not discuss the Psalms per se. He does, however, refer to them as the occasional subjects of Renaissance writers.

The most interesting such discussion involves John Fisher (1469-1535), a Roman Catholic bishop who was executed by Henry VIII. Fisher was a scholar, whose works included Commentary on the Seven Penitential Hymns.⁑

His vernacular works include devotional treatises – a Consolation to his sister and The Ways to Perfect Religion – and sermons, a series on the Penitential Psalms, funeral orations for Henry VII, and for the Countess of Richmond, and the famous sermon against [Martin] Luther in 1521.

Fisher’s style is grave and a little diffuse, never comic (though the pulpit then admitted that excellence), mildly rhetorical, and at times really eloquent. . . . His chief weakness is that he is too leisurely he is in no hurry to end a sentence or to let an idea go. . . .

Some of the medieval sweetness and richness still hangs about the prose of Fisher . . . but for our present purpose he matters less as a literary figure than as a convenient representative of the religion in possession at the very beginning of the English Reformation. He was a bishop and died for his faith. In him we ought to find what men like Tyndale were attacking. It was not in all respects what they imagined it to be. The Pelagianism of which they implicitly accused the Roman Church is, like the antinomianism of which the Papists accused them, a figment of controversy.

Some of Fisher’s statements seem, at least to a layman, to be very close to Tyndale’s own, as when Fisher writes: ‘From the eyen of almyghty God whiche may be called his grace shyneth forth a meruaylous bryghtnes lyke as the beme that cometh from the sonne. And that lyght of grace stereth and setteth forthwarde the soules to brynge forth the fruyte of good werkes.’ (Sermon on Psalm xxxii)

And again, on Psalm li, ‘no creature of himself hath power to do good werkes without the grace and help of God’ What Tyndale would have regarded as the cloven hoof appears chiefly when Fisher is talking of penance By penance, on his view, sinners can ‘make due satysfacion’ so as to be ‘clene out of dette’ (Sermon on Psalm xxxii), and so ‘mstyfyed by the sacrament of penaunce’ that ‘God can ask no more of them’ (ibid). . . .

One merit, very unusual in that age, Fisher can claim he is hardly at all scurrilous. His attack on Luther is not, indeed, masked under those forms of politeness which are usual between theological (though not between political) opponents today. But there is hardly any real abuse, compared with More, or even with Tyndale, Fisher is almost courteous.

Many readers of Mere Inkling already possess a high regard for the Psalms. In light of the affection felt for them by saints (including C.S. Lewis) for millennia, perhaps those who do not yet appreciate them, will reconsider their appraisals.


* They are Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143. The opening of the first expresses a theme common to all: “O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger, nor discipline me in your wrath” (ESV).

Likewise, the beginning of Psalm 130: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord! O Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy!” (ESV).

⁑ You can download John Fisher’s Commentary in two volumes at no cost, from Internet Archive (1 and 2).

Renaissance Fashions

Although it does not relate to the topic of this post directly, the following information from the “Medieval Manuscripts Blog” of the British Library is quite interesting. It describes “Girdle Books,” which frequently included selections from the Psalms.

In the 16th century, it became fashionable for aristocratic women to wear miniature prayer books bound in elaborate metalwork covers hanging from their girdles (i.e. belts). These girdle books provided them with handy reading material as well as fashionable dress accessories, allowing them to display their literacy and piety to the world.

The images on the page are fascinating. Of special historical interest is one that once belonged to Anne Boleyn (shown above), a gift from her murderous husband.

A particularly luxurious example is a girdle book with covers of gold filigree . . . It contains selected Psalms in English verse, translated and apparently written out by John Croke, one of Henry VIII’s clerks in Chancery, with a portrait of Henry VIII at the beginning.

The volume is traditionally thought to have belonged to Anne Boleyn, who is said to have handed it to one of her maids of honour when she was standing on the scaffold before her execution in 1536.