Archives For The Modern Church

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.

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 & Karl Marx

April 19, 2022 — 20 Comments

C.S. Lewis recognized quite early how Karl Marx’s philosophy, a “potent evil,” would justify terrible crimes.

The greatest threats to humanity’s future are the two major Communist powers. We see Russia’s brazen criminal ambitions currently on display in Ukraine.

Communist China’s malevolent intentions are more insidious and far more dangerous.

Aside from its nuclear arsenal, we now recognize how vastly overrated Russia’s military has been. China, by contrast, possesses an army and navy that grow deadlier each day.

C.S. Lewis understood the evil at the core of Marxism. Communists and, to a lesser degree, Socialists, seek to strip away individual rights for the illusory betterment of the whole.

But, because human beings are sinful and self-centered, even true Marxist idealists invariably end up devolving into fascist totalitarians. That’s why every one of these so-called “people’s republics” reflect nothing of republican or democratic values.

They invariably become corrupt oligarchies, typically led by ironfisted dictators. In addition to the aforementioned regimes, consider Cuba and Venezuela. When was the last time any of these four beacons of Socialism held free elections?

Karl Marx was a very troubled man. This essay in a recent publication addresses not only his insane economic theories, but his extensive personal failures as well.

The sufferings of the Marx family, and especially of poor faithful Jenny, are difficult to describe. Though they did have a housekeeper and though Friedrich Engels spent in the course of the years at least 4000 Pounds on Karl Marx, they lived in abject misery.

The death of one child, a boy, is directly attributable to poverty and neglect. Family life must have been absolutely terrible, but Marx could not be moved – neither by entreaties, nor by tears, nor by cries of despair. . . .

Yet it would be a mistake to think that Marx suffered silently and proudly. By no means! In his letters and in his conversations he never failed to complain and to lament. He had a colossal amount not only of self-hatred, but also of self-pity, but no human feelings for others, least of all for his wife whose health he had ruined completely.

In a 1946 essay entitled “Modern Man and His Categories of Thought,” C.S. Lewis discussed the atheistic core of Communism. He noted that its advocates can use “religion” as a puppet to bolster their power. Read here about the official position of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the sad fact that “Patriarch Kirill is a staunch ally of Mr. Putin.”

Such is the fruit of the Marxist mind. Here is C.S. Lewis’ description.

Proletarianism, in its various forms ranging from strict Marxism to vague “democracy” . . . [is] self-satisfied to a degree perhaps beyond the self-satisfaction of any recorded aristocracy.

They are convinced that whatever may be wrong with the world it cannot be themselves. Someone else must be to blame for every evil.

Hence, when the existence of God is discussed, they by no means think of Him as their Judge. On the contrary, they are His judges. If He puts up a reasonable defence they will consider it and perhaps acquit Him. They have no feelings of fear, guilt, or awe.

They think, from the very outset, of God’s duties to them, not their duties to Him. And God’s duties to them are conceived not in terms of salvation but in purely secular terms – social security, prevention of war, a higher standard of life. “Religion” is judged exclusively by its contribution to these ends (“Modern Man and His Categories of Thought”).

As destructive as Marxism is wearing its true, secular garb, it becomes far more calamitous when it infiltrates the Christian Church. As C.S. Lewis observed, Marxism can use and abuse the Church, but that is done from an external position.

When actual members of the Church are deceived to the degree they adopt this error, it is beyond tragic. In 1940 Lewis warned of this danger in a letter to a Roman Catholic priest with whom he corresponded.

Fascism and Communism, like all other evils, are potent because of the good they contain or imitate. Diabolus simius Dei.* And, of course, their occasion is the failure of those who left humanity starved of that particular good.

This does not for me alter the conviction that they are very bad indeed. One of the things we must guard against is the penetration of both into Christianity-availing themselves of that very truth you have suggested and I have admitted.

Mark my words: you will presently see both a Leftist and a Rightist pseudo-theology developing – the abomination will stand where it ought not.

C.S. Lewis was an honest man, who was capable of acknowledging his own shortcomings. Thirteen years after the previous letter, he wrote to another priest in the wake of massive suppression of Christianity in China.

After lamenting the persecution, he acknowledges the failure of the Church to live according to its calling. To this failure he attributes the rise of “other evils” such as Communism.

At last, dearest Father, there has come to hand that copy of . . . your article on that Chinese disaster. I used myself to entertain many hopes for that nation, since the missionaries have served there for many years not unsuccessfully: now it is clear, as you write, that all is on the ebb.

Many have reported to me too, in letters on this subject, many atrocities, nor was this misery absent from our thoughts and prayers.

But it did not happen, however, without sins on our part: for that justice and that care for the poor which (most mendaciously) the Communists advertise, we in reality ought to have brought about ages ago. But far from it: we Westerners preached Christ with our lips, with our actions we brought the slavery of Mammon.

We are more guilty than the infidels: for to those that know the will of God and do it not, the greater the punishment. Now the only refuge lies in contrition and prayer. Long have we erred.

In reading the history of Europe, its destructive succession of wars, of avarice, of fratricidal persecutions of Christians by Christians, of luxury, of gluttony, of pride, who could detect any but the rarest traces of the Holy Spirit?

Christians, I encourage you to join me in repenting of our failures. We must still challenge the lies, such as those of Karl Marx. But, we should never do so without remaining conscious of our own failures which too often provide fertile soil for such deceptions.


* Diabolus simius Dei means “the Devil is the ape of God.” This refers to Satan’s attempts to imitate or counterfeit divine actions and principles. The observation was first made by Tertullian, and echoed by Augustine and others.

Puritans often get a bad rap from people who don’t know their true history. Reading C.S. Lewis can help correct that error.

Digital History describes the problem in the following way.

Few people, however, have been as frequently subjected to caricature and ridicule. The journalist H.L. Mencken defined Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, might be happy.”

In truth, Puritans enjoyed having a good time as much as anyone. They only objected to sinful activities. Drinking, fine. Drunkenness, sinful. Sexual intimacy in marriage, wonderful. Fornication and promiscuity, iniquitous. As C.S. Lewis writes in his essay “Tasso,” the Puritans were not about eliminating pleasure.

Asceticism is far more characteristic of Catholicism than of the Puritans. Celibacy and the praise of virginity are Catholic: the honour of the marriage bed is Puritan. (Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature)

In English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, C.S. Lewis includes Puritans in his description of the broader Protestant Reformation landscape.

Nearly every association which now clings to the word puritan has to be eliminated when we are thinking of the early Protestants. Whatever they were, they were not sour, gloomy, or severe; nor did their enemies bring any such charge against them. . . .

For [Thomas] More, a Protestant was one “dronke of the new must of lewd lightnes of minde and vayne gladnesse of harte.” Luther, he said, had made converts precisely because “he spiced al the poison” with “libertee.” Protestantism was not too grim, but too glad, to be true. . . . Protestants are not ascetics but sensualists.

Within the contemporary American Christian community, Puritanism has many defenders. This is due, I believe, to the prominence of Reformed theology within Protestant churches, something traceable to the nation’s beginnings.

Contrary to common understanding, the Puritans were not “separatists” who rejected the established church. In contrast, they remained members of the Church of England throughout the late sixteenth century. They did, however, believe that the Anglican Church retained too many extrabiblical Roman Catholic Church elements and ceremonies.

Much confusion derives from failing to distinguish between the Pilgrims and Puritans.

The main difference between the Pilgrims and the Puritans is that the Puritans did not consider themselves separatists. They called themselves “nonseparating congregationalists,” by which they meant that they had not repudiated the Church of England as a false church.

But in practice they acted – from the point of view of Episcopalians and even Presbyterians at home – exactly as the separatists were acting (History.com).

While the far more numerous Puritans began arriving in the colonies in the 1630s, the Pilgrims (who referred to themselves as “Saints,” not “Pilgrims”) arrived on the Mayflower a decade earlier. The previously quoted article describes the denigration of the Puritan theology, in the following manner.

As they gained strength, Puritans were portrayed by their enemies as hairsplitters who slavishly followed their Bibles as guides to daily life or hypocrites who cheated the very neighbors they judged inadequate Christians.

Sadly, nowadays any serious Christian – anyone who honestly reads the Bible and tries to live according to God’s teachings – is regarded with similar disdain. This sad fact was recognized by C.S. Lewis long ago.

To be sure, there are standards by which the early Protestants could be called “puritanical;” they held adultery, fornication, and perversion for deadly sins. But then so did the Pope. If that is puritanism, all Christendom was then puritanical together (English Literature in the Sixteenth Century).

So From Where Does the Puritan Label Come?

C.S. Lewis answers this question in an essay, “Edmund Spenser, 1552–99.”

By purity the Elizabethan Puritan meant not chastity but “pure” theology and, still more, “pure” church discipline (Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Studies).

In “Donne and Love Poetry” he elaborates on Puritan focus on ecclesiastical, rather than moral, matters.

We have come to use the word “Puritan” to mean what should rather be called “rigorist” or “ascetic,” and we tend to assume that the sixteenth-century Puritans were “puritanical” in this sense. Calvin’s rigorist theocracy at Geneva lends colour to the error.

But there is no understanding the period of the Reformation in England until we have grasped the fact that the quarrel between the Puritans and the Papists was not primarily a quarrel between rigorism and indulgence, and that, in so far as it was, the rigorism was on the Roman side (Selected Literary Essays).

Returning to the essay on Edmund Spencer, we see Lewis elaborating on the ecclesiastical hopes of the Puritans.

We must picture these Puritans as the very opposite of those who bear that name today: as young, fierce, progressive intellectuals, very fashionable and up-to-date. They were not teetotallers; bishops, not beer, were their special aversion. . . .


There was no necessary enmity between Puritans and humanists. They were often the same people, and nearly always the same sort of people: the young men “in the Movement,” the impatient progressives demanding a “clean sweep.” And they were united by a common (and usually ignorant) hatred for everything medieval . . . (Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Studies).

Some readers may be surprised to see Lewis, an Anglican, speak so favorably of Puritans. To those of us who are interested in genuine history, his words are illuminating. And, his warning – which is applicable to many other historical movements – is appreciated.

I must immediately guard against a possible misunderstanding. Both words have so changed their sense that puritan now means little more than ‘rigorist’ or ‘ascetic’ and humanist little more than ‘the opposite of puritan.’

The more completely we can banish these modern senses from our minds while studying the sixteenth century the better we shall understand it.

That is sound advice for every circumstance. Accurately understanding what we are discussing is a necessity. Just think how much disagreement could be dispelled in our polarized world, if we only followed C.S. Lewis’ example.

Glorifying the Evil One

August 24, 2021 — 9 Comments

One perplexing behavior of humanity, is seen in the inclination of some to glorify our greatest enemy. Some people sincerely adore a being who desires nothing more than humanity’s suffering and eternal separation from our loving Creator.

I once heard the difference between God and Satan put this way: even when you hate him, God still loves you, and even when you love him, Lucifer still hates you.

Yet some still idealize this fallen angel who has earned many corrupt titles, including Tempter and Father of Lies.

In literature and other media you can readily find positive treatments of the Devil. John Milton’s Paradise Lost presents Lucifer as the classic tragic figure. Even his arrogance and vanity about his beauty are presented in a sympathetic fashion. In “Why Satan’s Character in Paradise Lost is the Original Antihero,” Lisa Ampleman says “at the 350th anniversary of its publication, Milton’s masterpiece seems ever more relevant.”

The Romantic poet William Blake even said that Milton was “of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” For the first few books, the charismatic demon’s concerns are front and center, and God seems authoritarian and legalistic.

Fortunately, Milton does not leave us with this sympathetic portrayal of Lucifer. As the article’s author writes, Satan “is not the absolute evil we may have expected, and a sympathetic devil is a dangerous devil.” In Book IX, the Devil even confesses his grim obsession.

But neither here seek I, no nor in Heaven
To dwell, unless by mastering Heaven’s Supreme;
Nor hope to be myself less miserable
By what I seek, but others to make such
As I, though thereby worse to me redound:

For only in destroying I find ease
To my relentless thoughts; and, him destroyed,
Or won to what may work his utter loss,
For whom all this was made, all this will soon
Follow, as to him linked in weal or woe;

In woe then; that destruction wide may range:
To me shall be the glory sole among
The infernal Powers, in one day to have marred
What he, Almighty styled, six nights and days
Continued making . . .

In his Preface to Paradise Lost, C.S. Lewis astutely describes Milton’s depiction of the Devil’s eternal dilemma.

What we see in Satan is the horrible co-existence of a subtle and incessant intellectual activity with an incapacity to understand anything. This doom he has brought upon himself; in order to avoid seeing one thing he has, almost voluntarily, incapacitated himself from seeing at all.

And thus, throughout the poem, all his torments come, in a sense, at his own bidding, and the Divine judgement might have been expressed in the words “thy will be done.” He says “Evil be thou my good” (which includes “Nonsense be thou my sense”) and his prayer is granted.

Turning to one of America’s most renowned authors, we encounter in Mark Twain an unabashedly positive portrayal of Lucifer. In Letters from the Earth (which was too controversial for publication during his lifetime), Satan remains a trusted member of God’s Grand Council. It is left to Satan to question God’s arbitrary creation of violent and flawed creatures.

After a long time and many questions, Satan said, “The spider kills the fly, and eats it; the bird kills the spider and eats it; the wildcat kills the goose; the — well, they all kill each other. It is murder all along the line. Here are countless multitudes of creatures, and they all kill, kill, kill, they are all murderers. And they are not to blame, Divine One?”

“They are not to blame. It is the law of their nature. And always the law of nature is the Law of God. Now – observe – behold! A new creature – and the masterpiece – Man!”

Far from humanity being created in the Divine image, Twain’s twisted version of the Creator has God throwing together all of the positive, and negative, traits he had bestowed on the imperfect animals.

“Put into each individual, in differing shades and degrees, all the various Moral Qualities, in mass, that have been distributed, a single distinguishing characteristic at a time, among the nonspeaking animal world – courage, cowardice, ferocity, gentleness, fairness, justice, cunning, treachery, magnanimity, cruelty, malice, malignity, lust, mercy, pity, purity, selfishness, sweetness, honor, love, hate, baseness, nobility, loyalty, falsity, veracity, untruthfulness – each human being shall have all of these in him, and they will constitute his nature.

“In some, there will be high and fine characteristics which will submerge the evil ones, and those will be called good men; in others the evil characteristics will have dominion, and those will be called bad men.”

Satan later offered some sarcastic compliments about creation and is exiled briefly to Earth. There, Twain’s hero pens a number of letters to archangels sympathetic to his views. A single passage is adequate to illustrate the whole.

Man is a marvelous curiosity. When he is at his very very best he is a sort of low grade nickel-plated angel; at his worst he is unspeakable, unimaginable; and first and last and all the time he is a sarcasm. Yet he blandly and in all sincerity calls himself the “noblest work of God. . . .”

Moreover – if I may put another strain upon you – he thinks he is the Creator’s pet. He believes the Creator is proud of him; he even believes the Creator loves him; has a passion for him; sits up nights to admire him; yes, and watch over him and keep him out of trouble. He prays to Him, and thinks He listens. Isn’t it a quaint idea?

For an accurate illustration of Satan’s activities and purposes, one need look no further than C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters. In one letter, Screwtape highlights the progress Satan’s minions have made in desensitizing humanity to what was recognized as provocative in an earlier age.

We have engineered a great increase in the licence which society allows to the representation of the apparent nude (not the real nude) in art, and its exhibition on the stage or the bathing beach. It is all a fake, of course; the figures in the popular art are falsely drawn; the real women in bathing suits or tights are actually pinched in and propped up to make them appear firmer and more slender and more boyish than nature allows a full-grown woman to be.

Yet at the same time, the modern world is taught to believe that it is being ‘frank’ and ‘healthy’ and getting back to nature. As a result we are more and more directing the desires of men to something which does not exist – making the rôle of the eye in sexuality more and more important and at the same time making its demands more and more impossible. What follows you can easily forecast!

Artistic Presentations of a Sympathetic Devil

It was actually a nineteenth century Belgian sculpture of Lucifer which is part of the elaborate pulpit of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Liège which inspired today’s reflections. Guillaume Geefs was commissioned to create the piece as part of a general theme of the triumph of religion over evil. The Devil as he portrayed the rebel angel, is rather too appealing for those acquainted with his actual biblical portrait.

Even though his wings have devolved to appear more like those of a bat than a bird, and his foot is chained, the sculpture’s physique is attractive. His apparent regret, evident in his expression and the presence of a tear, invite sympathy. It is regarded as an outstanding example of Romanticism. In a word, it serves as an attractive personification of a vile and malignant being. And this presents a dangerously misleading view of the very real spiritual warfare raging about us.

Curiously, Guillaume’s nude (with a robe safely draped over his lap) was actually a more modest and religious alternative to the image originally intended for the space. Ironically, it was the artist’s younger brother, Joseph, who originally received the commission. Joseph’s sculpture was regarded as even more titillating, and it was replaced. The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium admits “Joseph created one of the most disturbing works of the period.”

When it was revealed, the initial version of “Le Génie du Mal” (The Genius of Evil) raised questions about its positive portrayal. One publication reported the cathedral’s administrators determined “this devil is too sublime.”

The last thing imperfect human beings living in a fallen world need are sublime and alluring depictions of evil. In the words of C.S. Lewis,

To admire Satan, then, is to give one’s vote not only for a world of misery, but also for a world of lies and propaganda, of wishful thinking, of incessant autobiography. Yet the choice is possible. Hardly a day passes without some slight movement towards it in each one of us.

That is what makes Paradise Lost so serious a poem. The thing is possible, and the exposure of it is resented. Where Paradise Lost is not loved, it is deeply hated. (A Preface to “Paradise Lost”).

Replacement Sculpture by Guillaume Geefs.

One of the pivotal events in the history of God’s grace is found in the Torah account of a dream. Jacob was the heir of Abraham, through whom the Lord promised to redeem the world. But Jacob was far from noble.

Nevertheless, because of the Lord’s mercy (the same mercy he offers to us), he forgave Jacob and promised to bless his descendants. In his dream, Jacob saw a ladder extending from earth all the way to heaven. “And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!” (Genesis 28).

This dynamic connection between heaven and earth reveals God’s constant concern for his creation. Some, such as Martin Luther, have seen in the dream a foreshadowing of the Incarnation itself.

This ladder or stairway can be interpreted in a variety of ways. One thing it is not, however, is a guide to human ascent from our fallen world to the presence of our Creator. (The Lord is the one who comes to us.)

Having acknowledged that the dream’s purpose is not to model sanctification or individual spiritual ascent, it is easy to see why the metaphor of ladders, and the action of climbing, give way to other applications.

The most vivid contemporary example comes in the form of a Christian spiritual entitled “We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.” A number of versions of the lyrics exist. This is quite unsurprising since it began as part of an oral tradition. According to one website devoted to spirituals, the following lyrics are typical.*

We are climbing Jacob’s ladder
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder
Soldier of the Cross

Ev’ry round goes higher ‘n’ higher
Ev’ry round goes higher ‘n’ higher
Ev’ry round goes higher ‘n’ higher
Soldier of the Cross

Brother do you love my Jesus
Brother do you love my Jesus
Brother do you love my Jesus
Soldier of the Cross

If you love him why not serve him
If you love him why not serve him
If you love him why not serve him
Soldier of the Cross

While there are longer versions, this one aptly illustrates how the metaphor of the ladder—in this case, explicitly Jacob’s ladder—offered a powerful image of deliverance. Climbing the ladder with Jesus, was tantamount to experiencing deliverance from the ills of this world.

America’s Library of Congress offers a useful page which describes “African American Gospel music [as] a form of euphoric, rhythmic, spiritual music rooted in the solo and responsive church singing of the African American South.” They add that “its development coincided with—and is germane to—the development of rhythm and blues.” The site offers links to four 1943 recordings of spirituals. None of these, however, is the hymn we are discussing.

“We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” was one of the earliest spirituals to be widely adopted by the interracial faith community. It is familiar in many denominations, and was recently sung in my own Lutheran congregation. Hymnary.org states the song has been “published in 79 hymnals.” Even those who consider themselves unfamiliar with the hymn often recognize its rousing refrain: “Rise and shine and give God the glory, glory, Soldiers of the Cross.”

The talented Paul Robeson recorded the hymn on a number of his albums. The inspiring rendition by scholar Bernice Johnson Reagon was included in Ken Burn’s documentary, The Civil War.

C.S. Lewis and the Spiritual Ladder

The ladder offers such a convenient analogy for growth or spiritual maturation that others have also applied it in this manner. The ladders inspired by Jacob’s dream include the following two which continue to influence Christian disciples today, even though they were written many centuries ago. The second of these was considered by C.S. Lewis to be one of the works of faith influential in his life.

John Climacus (579-649) was a Christian teenager when he entered the monastic life at the foot of Mount Sinai. He soon earned the respect of his elders in that barren land. In the words of Fathers of the Desert, “in this ascetic seclusion he became ripe for the designs of God.”

The abbot of a monastery on the Red Sea requested guidance on the ascetic life to use with his monks. John responded with The Ladder of Divine Ascent. You can download a modern translation of this priceless work here. While the treatise was written specifically to guide monastics in their spiritual growth, many other Christians have also found its wisdom helpful in their own, non-monastic settings.

John introduces the virtue of obedience with two vivid images used by the Apostle Paul, the athlete in training and the armor of God.

Our treatise now appropriately touches upon warriors and athletes of Christ [and the manner in which] the holy soul steadily ascends to heaven as upon golden wings. And perhaps it was about this that he who had received the Holy Spirit sang: Who will give me wings like a dove? And I will fly by activity, and be at rest by contemplation and humility.

But let us not fail, if you agree, to describe clearly in our treatise the weapons of these brave warriors: how they hold the shield of faith in God and their trainer, and with it they ward off, so to speak, every thought of unbelief and vacillation; how they constantly raise the drawn sword of the Spirit and slay every wish of their own that approaches them; how, clad in the iron armour of meekness and patience, they avert every insult and injury and missile.

And for a helmet of salvation they have their superior’s protection through prayer. And they do not stand with their feet together, for one is stretched out in service and the other is immovable in prayer.

The following passage will be of particular interest to Christian writers. John advises those drawing closer to God to maintain a journal of their progress and insights. I offer it within its wise context.

Let all of us who wish to fear the Lord struggle with our whole might, so that in the school of virtue we do not acquire for ourselves malice and vice, cunning and craftiness, curiosity and anger. For it does happen, and no wonder!

As long as a man is a private individual, or a seaman, or a tiller of the soil, the King’s enemies do not war so much against him. But when they see him taking the King’s colours, and the shield, and the dagger, and the sword, and the bow, and clad in soldier’s garb, then they gnash at him with their teeth, and do all in their power to destroy him. And so, let us not slumber.

I have seen innocent and most beautiful children come to school for the sake of wisdom, education and profit, but through contact with the other pupils they learn there nothing but cunning and vice. The intelligent will understand this.

It is impossible for those who learn a craft whole-heartedly not to make daily advance in it. But some know their progress, while others by divine providence are ignorant of it. A good banker never fails in the evening to reckon the day’s profit or loss. But he cannot know this clearly unless he enters it every hour in his notebook. For the hourly account brings to light the daily account.

In the fourteenth century, an Augustinian mystic in England wrote a book called The Scale [Ladder] of Perfection.” Walter Hilton (c. 1340-1396) provides spiritual exercises requested by a woman adopting life as an anchoress.⁑ You can download a free copy of Evelyn Underhill’s 1923 edition of Hilton’s counsel at Internet Archive.

In 1940, C.S. Lewis wrote to Roman Catholic monk Bede Griffiths in response to the latter’s question about his familiarity with Hilton’s work. “Yes, I’ve read the Scale of Perfection with much admiration. I think of sending the anonymous translator a list of passages that he might reconsider for the next edition.” That same decade Lewis’ collected correspondence reveals he recommended the title to at least two individuals.

Of greatest interest to students of C.S. Lewis will be his mention of the medieval treatise in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy. Here the great author describes his worldly understanding of prayer served as a terrible stumbling block to his faith.

To these nagging suggestions my reaction was, on the whole, the most foolish I could have adopted. I set myself a standard. No clause of my prayer was to be allowed to pass muster unless it was accompanied by what I called a “realization,” by which I meant a certain vividness of the imagination and the affections.

My nightly task was to produce by sheer will power a phenomenon which will power could never produce, which was so ill-defined that I could never say with absolute confidence whether it had occurred, and which, even when it did occur, was of very mediocre spiritual value.

If only someone had read to me old Walter Hilton’s warning that we must never in prayer strive to extort “by maistry” what God does not give! But no one did; and night after night, dizzy with desire for sleep and often in a kind of despair, I endeavored to pump up my “realizations.” The thing threatened to become an infinite regress.

One began of course by praying for good “realizations.” But had that preliminary prayer itself been “realized”? This question I think I still had enough sense to dismiss; otherwise it might have been as difficult to begin my prayers as to end them.

How it all comes back! The cold oilcloth, the quarters chiming, the night slipping past, the sickening, hopeless weariness. This was the burden from which I longed with soul and body to escape. It had already brought me to such a pass that the nightly torment projected its gloom over the whole evening, and I dreaded bedtime as if I were a chronic sufferer from insomnia. Had I pursued the same road much further I think I should have gone mad.

This ludicrous burden of false duties in prayer provided, of course, an unconscious motive for wishing to shuffle off the Christian faith; but about the same time, or a little later, conscious causes of doubt arose.

David Downing, co-director of the Wade Center wrote an excellent essay entitled “Into the Region of Awe: Mysticism in C.S. Lewis” which describes in the broader context what C.S. Lewis wrote in Surprised by Joy.

Note for example a passage in Surprised by Joy in which Lewis discusses the loss of his childhood faith while at Wynyard School in England. He explains that his schoolboy faith did not provide him with assurance or comfort, but created rather self-condemnation.

He fell into an internalized legalism, such that his private prayers never seemed good enough. He felt his lips were saying the right things, but his mind and heart were not in the words. Lewis adds “if only someone had read me old Walter Hilton’s warning that we must never in prayer strive to extort ‘by maistry’ [mastery] what God does not give.”

This is one of those casual references in Lewis which reveals a whole other side to him which may surprise those who think of him mainly as a Christian rationalist. “Old Walter Hilton” is the fourteenth-century author of a manual for contemplatives called The Scale of Perfection. This book is sometimes called The Ladder of Perfection, as it presents the image of a ladder upon which one’s soul may ascend to a place of perfect unity and rest in the Spirit of God . . . [passage continued in footnotes]. ⁂

We’ve considered four separate ladders today. Despite their differences, they all share a common trait—they are meaningful to those who are earnest about growing in the faith. Whether slave or free, wise or simple, or hermit or cosmopolitan—each of these ladders affirms eternal truths.

Underhill described Hilton’s motivation for writing in this way: “It is for those who crave for this deeper consciousness of reality, and feel this impulse to a complete consecration, that Hilton writes.” I believe this is true for the authors of each of these four treasures.


* The following, simpler version appears to follow an earlier tradition. A musical accompaniment for this example can be found in The Books of American Negro Spirituals. The author, James Weldon Johnson (1876-1938), provides a rich and earnest introduction to the book, originally published in two volumes. He expresses his hope that collection “will further endear these sons to those who love Spirituals, and will awaken an interest in many others.”

We am clim’in’ Jacob’s ladder
We am clim’in’ Jacob’s ladder
We am clim’in’ Jacob’s ladder
Soldiers of the cross

O

Ev’ry roun’ goes higher, higher
Ev’ry roun’ goes higher, higher
Ev’ry roun’ goes higher, higher
Soldiers of the cross

⁑ An anchoress (or anchorite) was a religious woman (or man) who would often be walled off in their monastic cell near a church, to foster their life of prayer by freeing them from interruption.

⁂ Downing’s discussion of C.S. Lewis’ reference to Walter Hinton’s insights on prayer is so valuable that I am compelled to offer the rest of it here. You can read the entire essay via the link on the article’s title.

The passage about “maistry” Lewis wished he’d known as a boy comes early in The Scale of Perfection, a section about different kinds of prayer, including liturgical prayers, spontaneous prayers, and “prayers in the heart alone” which do not use words.

Hilton’s advice for people “who are troubled by vain thoughts in their prayer” is not to feel alone. He notes it is very common to be distracted in prayer by thoughts of what “you have done or will do, other people’s actions, or matters hindering or vexing you.”

Hilton goes on to explain that no one can keep fully the Lord’s command to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. The best you can do is humbly acknowledge your weakness and ask for mercy. However badly one’s first resolve fades, says Hilton, you should not get “too fearful, too angry with yourself, or impatient with God for not giving you savor and spiritual sweetness in devotion.”

Instead of feeling wretched, it is better to leave off and go do some other good or useful work, resolving to do better next time. Hilton concludes that even if you fail in prayer a hundred times, or a thousand, God in his charity will reward you for your labor. Walter Hilton was the canon of a priory in the Midlands of England and an experienced spiritual director of those who had taken monastic vows. His book is full of mellow wisdom about spiritual growth, and Lewis considered it one of “great Christian books” that is too often neglected by modern believers.

Hilton’s recurring theme—do what you know to be right and don’t worry about your feelings—is one that appears often in Lewis’s own Christian meditations. But, alas, Lewis as a boy did not have the benefit of Hilton’s advice.

In those boyhood years at Wynyard, he was trapped in a religion of guilt, not grace. More and more he came to associate Christianity with condemnation of others, as in Northern Ireland, or condemnation of oneself, for not living up to God’s standards.


A Note on the Illustration

Nicolas Dipre was a French early Renaissance painter, who flourished 1495-1532. His painting of Jacob’s Ladder portrays the biblical account of the Jewish patriarch’s dream. The icon Ladder of Divine Ascent was painted four centuries earlier by an anonymous iconographer. It is from Saint Catherine’s Monastery beside Mount Sinai, and portrays the ascent of saints in the pursuit of holiness. While fallen angels (devils) seek to drag them from the path, John Climacus leads other in the path to heaven.

Beijing’s Murderous Jesus

November 23, 2020 — 15 Comments

Communist China* hates Christianity. They do everything they can to destroy the Gospel, with its power to free people from bondage. That’s because China is all about keeping human beings in bondage.

Mere Inkling is not a political blog, so I have no incentive to go through the litany of communist China’s demagoguery. Besides, listing their crimes would take far too long.

In terms of their persecution of the Christian Church, however, many agnostics know little.⁑ The Red Chinese began their war against Christianity in the days of Mao. Millions have been denied their civil rights, imprisoned, and even murdered. Even with their “enlightened” and “tolerant” policies, they continue to deface and destroy church buildings and harass and imprison believers.

But now, they have done the unimaginable.

They have sought to replace the various Chinese translations of the Bible with a new, official edition. The regime’s Bible, though, is not a genuine translation.

It is an intentional corruption of God’s Word, and it is no exaggeration that some of its inspiration comes from the Father of Lies,  an honored commissar in all Communist nations.

In a superb essay discussing the pseudo-bible, Cameron Hilditch reveals how the Communists are attempting to co-opt the Messiah and present him as the herald of the Marxist gospel.

Put simply, the Chinese Communist Party “plans to turn the Scriptures into another piece of regime propaganda by rewriting them beyond all recognition.”

Beyond all recognition indeed. Before looking at their perversion of Jesus’ message of mercy, let’s consider the actual biblical account. We read that in Jerusalem,

Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in their midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?”

This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”

And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and

Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

Here is the communist mistranslation⁂ of the end of this powerful example of God’s grace and mercy.

When the crowd disappeared, Jesus stoned the sinner to death saying, “I too am a sinner. But if the law could only be executed by men without blemish, the law would be dead.”

Twisting the Scriptures

The act of translating the Scriptures is not controversial. In fact, it is necessary. C.S. Lewis noted this in his essay “Modern Translations of the Bible.”

The truth is that if we are to have translation at all we must have periodical re-translation. There is no such thing as translating a book into another language once and for all, for a language is a changing thing.

If your son is to have clothes it is no good buying him a suit once and for all: he will grow out of it and have to be re-clothed.

However, the re-translation must be an honest one.

There are several warnings in the Bible itself not to alter the words in the Scriptures either by deleting or adding to the text. Substituting the actual words, as the Communist Chinese have done, would violate both of those prohibitions.

Some people argue that mainland China exerts a benign influence on the world. “We have short memories,” says Christian attorney and advocate for the poor, Anna Waldherr. Rather than praise China for its increased engagement with the world, she reminds us of the true situation.

These days, the United States and China have mutual economic, political, and security interests.  But China remains a Communist nation with a totalitarian government and unresolved issues involving human rights.

The evil purposes of communist China’s ruling elite do not extend to their people. On the contrary the residents of that historic nation are its primary victims. The Chinese people and their culture possess much nobility. As I have written before, “C.S. Lewis held great respect for Chinese civilization. He was interested in the Chinese philosophical concept of the Tao.”

I share Lewis’ high regard for all that is good in China along with a genuine compassion for the Chinese people. May God deliver them from the dark principalities that reign over them.


* The communist People’s Republic of China is not to be confused with the democratic Republic of China, which is usually called Taiwan, due to the PRC’s coercive actions. For the same reason, the 23 million people living in the Republic of China are denied representation in the United Nations.

⁑ The Communists persecute other religious groups as well, most notably the Uighur (Islamic) people, who are being placed in vast reeducation and labor camps. In addition to rewriting the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, they are presumably also rewriting the Quran with the same, pro-regime agenda. Unsurprisingly, when asked their specific plans, “the Chinese Embassy in Washington declined to comment.”

⁂ As reported in Hilditch’s article, “China’s Communist Christ,” linked to above.

The original painting featured in the illustration above, “Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery,” was painted in 1653 by Nicolas Poussin.

Filling the Shoes of Giants

September 22, 2020 — 9 Comments

One thing all humans have in common, is that we are mortal. Immortality is not inherent to our nature, and eternal life can only come as a gift from our Creator. All men and women live and die. In the words of Ecclesiastes:

It is the same for all, since the same event [i.e. death] happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As the good one is, so is the sinner, and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath (Ecclesiastes 9:2).

Naturally, there are many metrics by which to measure a person’s life. For my purpose today, I’m thinking about people who exerted an outsized* influence on culture through their testimony for Christ.

Richard John Neuhaus was such a man. Neuhaus served an integrated Lutheran congregation in Brooklyn during the 1960s, where his reputation as a socially conscious pastor began. Following the Roe versus Wade decision, Neuhaus’ involvement in liberal politics ebbed. However, his commitment to applying Christian ethics to society remained strong. In 1990, he became a Roman Catholic. He also founded the Institute on Religion and Public Life which continues to publish its ecumenical journal First Things.⁑

In his tribute to his uncle, “Can the Shoes of Richard John Neuhaus Be Filled?” Pastor Peter A. Speckhard acknowledges the sad prospects of lesser voices.

Sincerely Christian intellectuals who can articulate a solid orthodox take on any subject, but to whom nobody but their students and blog followers feel any urge to listen, are also a dime a dozen.⁂

Speckhard’s point is that there are many who are brilliant and devout, but few who can fill the shoes of giants. Speckhard offers this stark appraisal, however, without seeking to discourage other Christians from speaking to whomever might listen. (Which is much-needed encouragement to bloggers who are disappointed at how few read their posts.)

C.S. Lewis, an Even Taller Giant

As great as Neuhaus’ contribution to the advance of Christianity has been, it cannot match that of C.S. Lewis. Lewis, after all, was the great Christian apologist of the twentieth century. (An “apologist” is a person who argues in the defense of something that is controversial, in this case, the claim of Jesus himself that he “is the way, the truth, and the life [and] no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

While Neuhaus’ witness has continued to influence many Americans, Lewis’ impact has been felt around the world. Not only has God used his works to convert many readers, Lewis’ writings continue to teach and encourage those seeking the truth today.

I have not yet had an opportunity to read The Fame of C.S. Lewis. From the reviews, it is not so much about Lewis’ writing, but the way in which his reputation has grown. Thus the subtitle: A Controversialist’s Reception in Britain and America. The author addresses one of the myths that has bothered me for years.

You may have heard the contention that Lewis is more popular in American than he is in Britain. It often carries a negative innuendo and comes across (to me, at least) like: “Lewis is more popular in the naïve, religiously unsophisticated colonies, than he is in enlightened, theologically cultured Britain.” In fact, Stephanie Derrick concludes, “the scale of Lewis’ renown was greater in the States than in Britain in large part because the difference in population there amounted to a much larger audience.”

Derrick addresses “larger question: how is renown made and kept?” She argues that “much of Lewis’s popularity is properly attributed to factors besides Lewis’s talents.”

Indeed, much of The Fame of C.S. Lewis is devoted to exploring the external factors that shaped Lewis’s success—the many actors and circumstances that have contributed to his popularity. Institutions, editors, changing social forces, and audiences have all had a hand in moulding Lewis’s image.

She is certainly correct that a wide range of factors, recognized and unknown, influence how we view people. This is particularly true after the individual (e.g. Rev. Richard Neuhaus) has become a part of history, once death has extinguished them, as Ecclesiastes might say.

However, I disagree that Lewis’ fame is an accident, the result of a unique combination of uncontrolled variables. On the contrary, I believe his reputation is based upon (1) his literary talents, (2) his humility and transparency, and—most importantly—because, (3) at the core of his most significant work, we find truth. The foundation of Lewis’ most precious writing is based on an unchanging, even eternally, relevant foundation.

I have no doubt God will continue to raise up other Christian apologists with anointed and far-reaching ministries. Ravi Zacharias, ⁑⁑ who recently died, is such a champion. There will be others to fill the shoes of C.S. Lewis and Zacharias, but their successors will require very remarkable gifts.

Bonus

One final link. This one is to the Moral Apologetics website, which has some very good articles on C.S. Lewis. And, if you decide to subscribe to their free newsletter, they allow you download The Ichabod Letters: Epistles from a Junior Demon. (Author Elton Higgs says his “study in demonic subterfuge [is] modeled on C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters.”)


* That’s the first time I’ve ever used that word. Seems too slangish for my tastes. But apparently it has been around since it dates to the early 1800s. (By the way, I hope you appreciated my facetious use of “slangish,” which is considerably younger and more slangy.)

First Things is an ecumenical publication, but my subjective estimate is that about 70% of the articles relate rather directly to Roman Catholicism. They offer a worthwhile newsletter featuring free access to a number of their articles.

⁂ Peter A. Speckhard, “Can the Shoes of Richard John Neuhaus Be Filled?” Concordia Theological Quarterly 77 (2013), 342-53. The article is available here.

⁑⁑ Zacharias leaves behind a lasting legacy, particularly in the form of the ministry he founded, RZIM. Check it out for some thoughtful resources from Zacharias and other like minded contemporary Christian apologists.

C.S. Lewis & Nuns

January 30, 2020 — 14 Comments

One of the great disappointments of Roman Catholic fans of C.S. Lewis is that he never converted to their communion. Lewis did, however, sincerely respect Roman Catholic nuns. In fact, he considered the reverence and joy of the nuns he encountered to be one of the church’s most commendable elements.

In 1947 he wrote to one of his regular correspondents who wondered why he had not forsaken his “low church” loyalties for a more elevated perspective. His response reveals his perception of the virtues of consecrated nuns.

I am particularly pleased to have been of any help as a bridge between the parish and the convent. I’m not especially ‘high’ Church myself but Nuns seem to me the strong argument on that side.

They are in my experience almost invariably so very nice—and so happy: much more so either than the same number of married women picked at random or the same number of monks. I don’t know why this should be so.

One does not have to be Catholic to appreciate people who consecrate their lives to God, willing to make radical sacrifices like living a life of celibacy. Nearly four decades ago, while I was serving a congregation in Citrus Heights, California, I earned a (post-M.Div.) Master of Theology degree. Since I was focused on Patristics, I was enrolled at a Jesuit seminary in the Bay area.

One day during my studies, an Episcopal priest and I were having lunch with a half dozen Roman Catholics, most of whom were religious sisters.* The conversation turned to a celebration by the sisters present that they no longer had to wear habits. The respectful person I am, I remained silent as they discussed their “family” business. Apparently, though, I was softly grinning, because of one them (it may even have been my thesis advisor) asked, “what are you smiling about?”

My response was that it wasn’t my place to offer an opinion, but when they pressed, I said, “well, throughout my life, whenever I’ve seen a nun in her habit, it’s been an encouraging thing, and I think—there goes a life that is consecrated to God.” My companions were shocked and at a loss for words. In retrospect, I believe that C.S. Lewis might have offered a similar comment.

Due to the century during which he lived, and his setting in the British Isles, Lewis encountered nuns far more frequently than I do. In fact, since their “liberation” from the habit, we can’t know precisely how many religious sisters cross our paths. In 1947 he describes to a close friend a trip to see his brother who was hospitalized in Ireland. His colorful description of the town he visited ends with an uplifting remark.

My Brother, thank God, was out of danger when I reached him on Monday morning last but was at the unearthly city of Drogheda where almost every building is a church or a tavern⁑  and what men do but pray and drink or how life is supported in their bodies I can’t conceive. . . . And you hear more wit and humour in one day of London than in a week of Drogheda. My Brother was in the care of the most charming nuns.

Nuns are found in various Christian traditions. In addition to those who take such vows in the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox churches trace the lineage of these female monastics back to the ancient eremites. ⁂ There are also Anglican and Lutheran convents. In fact, one of C.S. Lewis’ close friends was an Anglican nun. Sister Penelope, CSMV (1890-1977), was a member of the Community of St Mary the Virgin. Lewis dedicated his novel, Perelandra, “to some ladies at Wantage,” her convent.

In a 1941 letter to the BBC, Lewis pleads that he is unable to add to his current speaking commitments. These apparently included specific presentations to nuns.  

I’m afraid in view of my other commitments I should be ‘over-talked’ if I accepted the job you kindly suggest for me. I’m talking already to the R.A.F., to the general public, to nuns, to undergraduates, to societies. The gramophone will wear out if I don’t take care! With thanks and much regret.

Lewis’ Three Theses

Mary Willis Shelburne was a widow in Washington, D.C., with whom Lewis corresponded for a number of years. Beginning in 1950, they exchanged more than a hundred letters, which were collected in the volume Letters to an American Lady. Lewis arranged for her to receive financial support from the sales of his books in the United States. This support continued after his own passing. In 1952 Shelburne converted to Roman Catholicism, and proposed that Lewis follow her example. His response was gracious.

It is a little difficult to explain how I feel that tho’ you have taken a way which is not for me. I nevertheless can congratulate you—I suppose because your faith and joy are so obviously increased. Naturally, I do not draw from that the same conclusions as you—but there is no need for us to start a controversial correspondence! I believe we are very near to one another, but not because I am at all on the Romeward frontier of my own communion.

In a short note written four years later, Lewis thanks her for a picture of herself and a nun. He uses the occasion to voice his sentiment that nuns are happy and pleasant. He then proposes three curious theses, noting that his presumption is subjective and she may disagree with him. Do you agree with his opinions here?

Problem: why are nuns nicer than monks and schoolgirls nicer than schoolboys, when women are not in general nicer than men? But perhaps you deny all three statements! All blessings.

My own experience with the first category are limited, but the monks I’ve met have all been very kind, as have the nuns. I fully agree with his second contention. Girls are much nicer than boys. That seems to me a no-brainer . . . although I assume there are many girls who have been bullied by their peers and would disagree.

As for the final thesis, that neither women nor men are better than each other as a group, I would strongly disagree. While it is only a generalization, of course, I believe men tend far more toward cruelty and greed than do women. On the other end of the spectrum, experience tells me that women are significantly more disposed toward virtues such as nurture, mercy and compassion, than their Y chromosome counterparts.

Obviously, C.S. Lewis proposed this question to his correspondent off the cuff. Given the opportunity to discuss it at greater length, say over a pint at the Eagle and Child, it’s certainly possible he could persuade me that his ideas on this matter are correct. After all, we both share a respect for women who feel called to a religious life.


* The essential difference between nuns and sisters is that the former normally live in monasteries, while the latter takes a more tempered vow and often serves in a non-cloistered setting.

⁑ Although this article focuses on England, it provides details on a sad trend in which church buildings are being converted for use as pubs and bars.

⁂ Eremites are Christian hermits. This was the earliest form of monasticism, with individuals removing themselves from secular society. Communal monasticism developed later.

Good, Bad and Ugly Hymns

August 12, 2019 — 27 Comments

There’s good “church music.” There’s mediocre church music. (And, there’s even terrible church music.) Read on and I’ll provide a link to an article I wrote about one questionable ditty that wormed its way into a military hymnal.

C.S. Lewis was not a fan of most church music. I’ve written about his musical tastes previously.

His assessment is no secret. He deemed most hymns to be “fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music.”

When it comes to hymns, there is general agreement on what’s good. These songs have passed the test of time. They have proven edifying and inspirational for generations. Some contemporary music is also biblically faithful and possesses the potential to join the ranks of the church’s lasting hymnody.

Then there are the others. Uninhibited redundancy, for example, suggests a corresponding shallowness. I forego the idiom about something being broad but shallow, since such songs are actually narrow and shallow. Case in point, the song “Yes, Lord.”

It begins promisingly enough:
I’m trading my sorrow
I’m trading my shame
I’m laying it down for the joy of the Lord

Then the theology gets a wee bit blurrier, especially for believers who still suffer after praying for healing:

I’m trading my sickness
I’m trading my pain
I’m laying it down for the joy of the Lord

But it’s the chorus that undermines the song’s edificatory potential.

And we say
Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord
Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord
Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord Amen

Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord
Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord
Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord Amen

The last two chorus breaks are replaced by the less challenging:

La la la la la la
La la la la la
La la la la la la
La la la la la
La la la la la la la la la
La la la la

La la la laLa la
La la la la la
La la la la la la
La la la la la
La la la la la la la la la
La la la laLa la la la

To those of you who adore this particular song—please accept my apologies for singling it out. Yet I stand by my view of these lyrics. And I can certainly imagine what C.S. Lewis would have thought of it.

The Power of Music

Various Christian leaders have expressed the opinion it’s more important to write the church’s hymns than its theological books. Hopefully that’s hyperbole, but few would deny the words we sing directly influence our thinking.

Arius, one of the early heretics who denied the divinity of Christ, knew this. His movement created tremendous confusion and resulted in much persecution. One of his most successful tools consisted of composing heretical songs. The words were “religious,” and the tunes were catchy, so people were singing them even when they didn’t agree with his doctrine.

C.S. Lewis & Church Music

As mentioned above, C.S. Lewis was very candid about his own disaffection for most church hymnody. In “Answers to Questions on Christianity,” Lewis answers the question of whether it’s necessary to attend worship services. He describes how duty rather than desire brought him to congregational worship.

When I first became a Christian . . . I thought that I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and I wouldn’t go to the churches and Gospel Halls; and then later I found that it was the only way of flying your flag . . .

[However,] I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off.

I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.

In light of Lewis’ attitude toward religious hymnody, it’s ironic that in 1946 he was invited to help evaluate new hymns.

The Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland is opening a file of new hymns to which modern hymn-writers are to be asked to contribute. I have been asked to write to you and ask if you will be a member of the panel to whom new hymns may be submitted in order that their merit may be assessed . . .

Lewis’ response to the invitation is as revealing as it is (unintentionally, I’m sure) curt.

The truth is that I’m not in sufficient sympathy with the project to help you. I know that many of the congregation like singing hymns: but I am not yet convinced that their enjoyment is of a spiritual kind. It may be: I don’t know.

To the minority, of whom I am one, the hymns are mostly the dead wood of the service. Recently in a party of six people I found that all without exception would like fewer hymns. Naturally, one holding this view can’t help you.

Two months later, the men exchanged letters again, and Lewis clarified his thoughts.

I can’t quite remember my own last letter; but I was wrong if I said or implied that . . . hymns, were bad in principle. . . . In modern England, however, we can’t sing—as the Welsh and Germans can. Also (a great pity, but a fact) the art of poetry has developed for two centuries in a private and subjective direction.

That is why I find hymns ‘dead wood.’ But I spoke only for myself and a few others. If an improved hymnody—or even the present hymnody—does edify other people, of course it is an elementary duty of charity and humility for me to submit. I have never spoken in public against the use of hymns . . .

The Gospel Coalition has an informative essay on Lewis’ broader view of worship here.

The Armed Forces Hymnal Scandal

At the outset of this column I promised readers a link to a recently published article. If you would like to read about a bizarre hymn that (temporarily) slithered into the Book of Worship for United States Forces, check it out here. The article begins on page fifteen of the new issue of Curtana: Sword of Mercy.

The hymn in question may be thought-provoking, but it belongs in a discussion group, not in a worship service. The lyrics are placed on the tongue of thief crucified beside Jesus. The criminal who was not invited by Jesus to “be with [him] in paradise” (Luke 23). The first stanza will amply illustrate the spirit of the piece.

It was on a Friday morning that they took me from my cell,
And I saw they had a carpenter to crucify as well
You can blame it on to Pilate, you can blame it on the Jews,
You can blame it on the Devil, It’s God I accuse.
(Refrain)
It’s God they ought to crucify, instead of you and me.
I said to the carpenter a-hanging on the tree.

If you read the article, and consider me unfair to the song’s writer, please leave a comment below. I would love the chance to respond. Likewise, if you think I’ve been too harsh in my evaluation of “Yes, Lord.” Given a choice between mediocre and terrible hymns, there’s no contest.

One wonders how Lewis would have rated “It was on a Friday Morning.” I suspect it would not even rise to the bar of being a “fifth-rate poem.”