Archives For The Modern Church

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 — 14 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.”

kierkegaard.png

The diary of Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, includes some revealing insights into the life of a writer . . . words that I suspect may echo your own experience.

While I would never turn to Søren Kierkegaard for theological inspiration (many do), his comments about writing parallel my own.*

Only when I write do I feel well. Then I forget all of life’s vexations, all its sufferings, then I am wrapped in thought and am happy. If I stop for a few days, right away I become ill, overwhelmed and troubled; my head feels heavy and burdened.

So powerful an urge, so ample, so inexhaustible, one which, having subsisted day after day for five or six years, is still flowing as richly as ever, such an urge, one would think, must also be a vocation from God.

If these great riches of thought, still latent in my soul, must be repressed, it will be anguish and torture for me, and I shall become an absolute good-for-nothing. […]

Being an author . . . is not self-chosen; it is concomitant with everything in my individuality and its deepest urge.

May God then give me good fortune and succor and above all a certain spirit, yes, a certain spirit to resist the onslaughts of doubt and temptation that rise within me, for after all it is not too hard to do battle with the world.

This passage fascinates me. Kierkegaard eloquently expresses the struggle of the Christian writer, then ends on such a uniquely positive note, “after all it is not too hard to do battle with the world.” This victory, he indicates, comes from God placing within us a certain spirit to resist the onslaughts of doubt and temptation that rise within” us.

Keeping our eyes on Christ, and yielding to the Holy Spirit who abides within us, does indeed ensure our victory. Though the world assaults us daily, as we grow more mature in our Lord its temporary gains against us grow smaller and fewer.

I encountered Kierkegaard’s words in a recent post by Steve Laube, a prominent agent. (His agency’s blog is well worth subscribing to.) As he says,

These words resonate because it is the universal condition of writers. The call, the urge, to write is part of who you are. However, notice his last sentence where he admits to “the onslaughts of doubt and temptation that rise within me.” This, again, is a universal condition. It is normal. Embrace it and pray that God will grant you the strength today to resist.

Then do it again tomorrow.

Turning to Lewis

Although Kierkegaard’s words were written in 1847, it’s doubtful C.S. Lewis would have been familiar with them. The rather severely** edited diary did not appear until 1960, only a couple of years before Lewis’ passing.

As a scholar, Lewis was familiar with Kierkegaard. While he did not find Kierkegaard’s existentialism helpful, he could acknowledge that some appreciated his writings. In 1961, he responded to a correspondent’s request for some recommendations, he wrote,

For meditative and devotional reading . . . I suggest . . . my selection from MacDonald, George MacDonald: an Anthology. I can’t read Kierkegaard myself, but some people find him helpful.

The primary reason for Lewis’ albeit tepid mention of Kierkegaard here must have been the fact that one of his close friends was keen on the philosopher. An early translator of Kierkegaard’s works praised Inkling Charles Williams who “affectionately fostered the enterprise of publishing S.K.’s works in English.” (“How Kierkegaard Got into English”).

I am curious how Lewis would have responded to Kierkegaard’s notes on the writing life. Would he have identified with these sentiments?

I suspect they would concur in the statement, “If these great riches of thought, still latent in my soul, must be repressed, it will be anguish and torture for me.” After all, as many of Mere Inkling’s readers can personally attest, the Great Dane was not alone in experiencing this explosive pressure.

As an ancient man named Elihu once said to the Prophet Job, “I am full of words, and the spirit within me compels me; inside I am like bottled-up wine, like new wineskins ready to burst.” (Job 32:18-19).

My advice—get your precious words out before they explode.


* Here you will find the “testimony” of a person whose atheism was reinforced by reading Kierkegaard.

** The editor, Peter Rohde, says in his preface: “The luckless reader who sets out on his own to find his way in Kierkegaard’s vast, and vastly demanding works, runs the risk of losing his way and finally of losing his courage.”

It is precisely their fragmentary character that dispenses us from the obligation which the finished works place upon us, viz. to respect their wholeness—for it is nonexistent.

However, from their 8,000 to 10,000 pages it is possible to distill some one hundred and fifty pages that contain the true essence—that is, if the editor has been successful in his selection.

csl & newman.png

Those who despise C.S. Lewis seek to eradicate his influence in the Christian Church. They care not that Lewis remains one of the most effective Christian apologists the world has ever seen. Only the Lord knows how many people (literally) have been encouraged in the faith by Lewis’ ministry.

When examining Lewis’ theology, it is necessary to keep in mind several facts. First, he often reminded his readers that he was not a theologian, simply a faithful layman. Second, he formally espoused and practice the orthodox Trinitarian faith as professed by the Anglican communion. Third, Lewis consciously sought to introduce timeless truths to his readers via reason and, more effectively, through fiction and imagination. (The Great Divorce offers a fascinating yet fully fictional exploration of how purgatory might work.)

Thus, Lewis critics will always be able to gather fuel for the foot of his stake. A primary example of this comes in Lewis’ emotive receptivity to the doctrine of purgatory. It is taught only by the Roman Catholic Church, although individuals from other denominations may also be sympathetic to it.

For example, Protestant philosopher Jerry L. Walls includes a chapter in his recent book on purgatory entitled, “C.S. Lewis and the Prospect of Mere Purgatory.”

Although not a Roman Catholic, C.S. Lewis, the most popular Christian writer of the twentieth century, believed in purgatory. This is significant because his influence in Protestant and evangelical circles is perhaps especially strong.

This chapter shows not only that Lewis believed in purgatory, but also that it is integral to his theology of salvation. It explores how he understood the doctrine by examining his comments on Roman Catholic theologians John Fisher, Thomas More, and John Henry Newman. While he was quite critical of Fisher and More, he saw in Newman the recovery of the true substance and spirit of the doctrine.

It is fair for us to acknowledge that Lewis’ understanding of justification was imperfect. Salvation comes through faith (Romans 5:1), not through penitential or purgatorial efforts. But let’s read about his position in his own words. The following comes from Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, which is, itself, a collection of thoughts “shared” with a fictional friend.

I believe in Purgatory.

Mind you, the Reformers had good reasons for throwing doubt on “the Romish doctrine concerning Purgatory” as that Romish doctrine had then become. . . .

The right view returns magnificently in Newman’s Dream.* There, if I remember it rightly, the saved soul, at the very foot of the throne, begs to be taken away and cleansed. It cannot bear for a moment longer “With its darkness to affront that light.” Religion has reclaimed Purgatory.

Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, “It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy”?

Should we not reply, “With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.”

“It may hurt, you know”

“Even so, sir.”

This is where I acknowledge Lewis’ view on justification to be deficient. Of course we would wish to be fully washed and clean before standing in our Creator’s presence. And that is precisely how we enter into his presence. Clothed not in our own filthiness and rags—but in the radiant righteousness of our Savior.

As the Apostle John wrote in his first epistle, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. . . . If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:7, 9)

Lewis’ greatest contribution to the Christian Church is found in his skilled apologetics based on the core essence of our faith. Lewis communicated the divine hope that is within us in his lectures, speeches and broadcasts. But it was through the written word that his inspiring words have touched the greatest number of people.

On the Subject of Writing

It is possible that Lewis was familiar with the following advice from Newman about effective writing. Certainly, he agreed with a number of the cardinal’s literary precepts. The following passage relates specifically to writing sermons, but it possesses far broader application. It comes from The Life of John Henry Cardinal Newman.

Newman’s own feeling as to the most effective way of imparting truth by writing is conveyed in the following notes, dated 1868, on the writing of sermons:

A man should be in earnest, by which I mean he should write not for the sake of writing, but to bring out his thoughts.

He should never aim at being eloquent.

He should keep his idea in view, and should write sentences over and over again till he has expressed his meaning accurately, forcibly, and in few words.

He should aim at being understood by his hearers or readers.

He should use words which are likely to be understood. Ornament and amplification will come spontaneously in due time, but he should never seek them.

He must creep before he can fly, by which I mean that humility which is a great Christian virtue has a place in literary composition.

He who is ambitious will never write well, but he who tries to say simply what he feels, what religion demands, what faith teaches, what the Gospel promises, will be eloquent without intending it, and will write better English than if he made a study of English literature.

Reading this helpful advice from Cardinal Newman reminds us we can learn valuable lessons from people with differing theology. And that truth should be quite encouraging, since none of us possess perfect doctrine.


* The full title of the work to which Lewis refers here is The Dream of Gerontius. (You can read it here.)

 

Post-Apocalyptic Faith

April 12, 2017 — 13 Comments

shelter

In a post-apocalyptic world, would there be any room for Christianity? A variety of writers have addressed that in dramatically different ways, arguing for faith’s final dissipation or its ultimate triumph.

Post-apocalyptic literature being what it is, of course, most of the portrayals of Christianity either (1) reveal its idealistic collapse, (2) describe its survival as a crippled reflection of its former self, (3) depict its takeover by some persuasive power figure or mysterious cartel, or (4) ignore it altogether, as if it never existed.

In a recent essay on the subject, one of my favorite books was referenced. Canticle for Leibowitz was one of the first novels I read that awakened me to the fact reading could be enjoyable. A Canticle for Leibowitz struck a perfect chord in me, blending captivating science fiction with a consideration of the place of faith in the apocalyptic equation.

A cinematic masterpiece of this subject is 2010’s The Book of Eli. This amazing film which stars one of our generation’s finest actors, Denzel Washington, is set in a very desperate era. If you have never seen it, you are missing a unique examination of faith in a world where people turned away en masse because of the nuclear apocalypse.

C.S. Lewis explored the long-range future of Christianity. Barring the parousia (the second coming), history will continue its trajectory indefinitely. Spatially, this suggests humans may expand our presence beyond our present planetary home. In addition to his Space Trilogy, Lewis toyed with such concerns in a couple of short stories.

Included in the collection Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories, are two of these efforts. “Ministering Angels” begins:

The Monk, as they called him, settled himself on the camp chair beside his bunk and stared through the window at the harsh sand and black-blue sky of Mars. He did not mean to begin his ‘work’ for ten minutes yet. Not, of course, the work he had been brought there to do.

He was the meteorologist of the party, and his work in that capacity was largely done; he had found out whatever could be found out. There was nothing more, within the limited radius he could investigate, to be observed for at least twenty-five days. And meteorology had not been his real motive.

He had chosen three years on Mars as the nearest modern equivalent to a hermitage in the desert.

“Ministering Angels” was originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, volume XIII (January 1958). “Forms of Things Unknown,” an excerpt from which follows, was not published until the collection was released several years after Lewis’ death.

It is quintessential Lewis, blending reality and mythology in a creative fashion. It reads like what’s commonly called “hard scifi” (focusing on science and technology). But it hints at something more, in its opening quotation from Perelandra.

Likewise, the following passage indicates that not everything once deemed myth lacks foundation in fact. The exchange takes place between an astronaut preparing for a journey to the moon and one of his friends remaining behind.

“You’re surely not going to suggest life on the Moon at this time of day?”

“The word life always begs the question. Because, of course, it suggests organization as we know it on Earth—with all the chemistry which organization involves. Of course there could hardly be anything of that sort. But there might—I at any rate can’t say there couldn’t—be masses of matter capable of movements determined from within, determined, in fact, by intentions.”

“Oh Lord, Jenkin, that’s nonsense. Animated stones, no doubt! That’s mere science fiction or mythology.”

“Going to the Moon at all was once science fiction. And as for mythology, haven’t they found the Cretan labyrinth?”

What about the Real World?

Post-apocalyptic literature is riding the crest of popularity today. Nearly all of it is dystopian. There is little room in its pages for hope, let alone faith.

It mirrors the increasing secularization in the West and the increase in religious persecution in other parts of the world.

Atheists laud the increasing pace of the loss of faith in America and the rest of the Western world. They mistakenly think it will result in a more civil and happy world.

It will, in fact, cause the opposite.

I know nothing about Cardinal Francis George, former Roman Catholic archbishop of Chicago. However, when I read the following quotation, it stunned me. It is one of the most sobering assessments of the course of Western history I have seen.

Later in 2010, he further outlined the degree to which he believed religious freedoms in the United States and other Western societies were endangered. In a speech to a group of priests, he said, “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.

His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.”

It remains to be seen whether George’s words will prove prophetic. I fear they may. God have mercy.

Christmas Interruptions

December 25, 2016 — 8 Comments

qaraqoshA bomb has driven worshipers from their churches and homes on Christmas. Ironically, this did not transpire in lands where war currently rages. Instead, it was a British bomb intended to end German lives.

Perhaps you’ve already seen the story?

The weapon was huge, nearly two tons in weight, and it’s explosion would have been no less lethal today than when it was originally dropped.

The bomb, known as a blockbuster, was the largest of its kind dropped by the RAF during aerial attacks on Germany in the second world war. It weighs 1.8 tonnes and, if exploded, could damage all buildings within a one-mile radius.

As I have worshipped and reflected during this Christmas season, the story of this bomb has continued to intrude on my thoughts.

On that first Christmas night a group of shepherds heard music that has now echoed for millennia.

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

God’s call to peace on earth and his desire for good will among his children—gifts already given to the world in the birth of Jesus—cannot be negated by the weapons of man.

As C.S. Lewis wrote, “Once in our world, a stable had something in it that was bigger than our whole world” (The Last Battle).

Still, in this moment, when this long forgotten and deeply buried blockbuster bomb can disrupt the traditional Christmas schedule, we see a vivid contrast between the good God desires for us and the ill we too often bear for one another?

A Warzone Witness to the Celebration of Christ’s Nativity

The entire world is aware of the genocide of Christians and Yazidis being conducted in the Middle East by Jihadists. This Christmas, however, marked a moment of encouragement.

Two years after being driven from their city by the Islamic State, Christians were able to return to the recently liberated city of Qaraqosh to worship God.

The church structure had been desecrated, but the presence of God among his gathered people, has reconsecrated it.

Christianity in northern Iraq dates back to the first century AD. The number of Christians fell sharply during the violence which followed the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and the Islamic State takeover of Mosul two years ago purged the city of Christians for the first time in two millennia. (Reuters)

Despite the hatred some people hold for others, and the violence they inflict, it is encouraging to recognize that no power in this world can defeat the miracle that transpired on that first Christmas Day.

barthOne wonders what sort of fireworks might have erupted if J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis had spent an evening with theologian Karl Barth. Although their lives overlapped, and all three were Christian academics, it is questionable how much they would have agreed upon.

And yet, there were several subjects where I think they would have enjoyed firm consensus.

Tolkien (1892-1973) was a devout Roman Catholic. Lewis (1898-1963) was a committed “low church” Anglican. Barth (1886-1968) was a Reformed theologian who rejected the liberalism that had become dominant in European academies. All three thus believed in the reality of the Christian gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ.

All three men hated war, and the two Brits had served in the trenches of WWI. All opposed Nazism and Barth was the primary author of the Barmen Declaration which challenged the Christian faith of all who supported the Nazi government.

And we’ll consider another shared attribute in just a moment.

First, though, we need to acknowledge that presumably the Inklings never met the Swiss clergyman. Their circles did not overlap. I have not been able to uncover any evidence of Tolkien referring to Barth, or of Barth mentioning either of the Inklings.

Lewis did, however mention Barth in his prolific correspondence. From his exposure to Barth it’s clear he did not share the opinion of Pope Pius XII that he was “the greatest theologian since Thomas Aquinas.” Heady praise . . . especially coming from a Roman Catholic.

In a 1940 letter to his brother Warren, Lewis reacted against what he perceived as legalism in some quarters of Protestantism that was alien to his understanding of the liberty of the Christian.

I am afraid the truth is . . . that the world, as it is now becoming and has partly become, is simply too much for people of the old square-rigged type like you and me. I don’t understand its economics, or its politics, or . . . Even its theology—for that is a most distressing discovery I have been making these last two terms as I have been getting to know more and more of the Christian element in Oxford.

Did you fondly believe—as I did—that where you got among Christians, there, at least, you would escape (as behind a wall from a keen wind) from the horrible ferocity and grimness of modern thought.

Not a bit of it. I blundered into it all, imagining that I was the upholder of the old, stern doctrines against modern quasi-Christian slush: only to find that my ‘sternness’ was their ‘slush.’ They’ve all been reading a dreadful man called Karl Barth, who seems the right opposite number to Karl Marx. ‘Under judgment’ is their great expression.

They all talk like Covenanters or Old Testament prophets. They don’t think human reason or human conscience of any value at all: they maintain, as stoutly as Calvin, that there’s no reason why God’s dealings should appear just (let alone, merciful) to us: and they maintain the doctrine that all our righteousness is filthy rags with a fierceness and sincerity which is like a blow in the face.

Sometimes the results are refreshing: as when Canon Raven (whom you and Dyson and I sat under at Ely) is sharply told in a review in Theology that ‘it is high time persons of this sort learned that the enjoyment of a chair of theology at Cambridge does not carry with it a right to criticise the Word of God’—that’s the kind of rap on the knuckles which has not been delivered for a hundred years!

Comparing Their Thoughts on the Nature of Myth

Many readers of Mere Inkling will know Tolkien and Lewis were deeply influenced by the significance of myth. They were also, in the creation of Middle Earth and Narnia, active in the act of mythopoeia, creating imaginary lands whose stories convey profound meaning.

But, despite the fact their literary products are fictional, that does not mean that all myth is “untrue,” in the sense of being unhistorical. Myth, for these great thinkers, is something far more complex and wonderful.

Without going into depth on this involved subject, I offer here the familiar story of how Lewis’ epiphany about true myth was key to his conversion.

I was by now too experienced in literary criticism to regard the Gospels as myths. They had not the mythical taste. And yet the very matter which they set down in their artless, historical fashion . . . was precisely the matter of the great myths. If ever a myth had become fact, had been incarnated, it would be just like this. And nothing else in all literature was just like this.

Myths were like it in one way. Histories were like it in another. But nothing was simply like it.

And no person was like the Person it depicted; as real, as recognizable, through all that depth of time, as Plato’s Socrates . . . yet also numinous, lit by a light from beyond the world, a god.

But if a god—we are no longer polytheists—then not a god, but God. Here and here only in all time the myth must have become fact; the Word, flesh; God, Man. This is not “a religion,” nor “a philosophy.” It is the summing up and actuality of them all. (Surprised by Joy)

This epiphany took place in 1931, during an all-night discussion (it lasted until 4:00 am) with Tolkien, and other Inkling, Hugo Dyson. Here’s how Lewis related the moment to his lifelong friend, Arthur Greeves.

It was really a memorable talk. We began (in Addison’s walk just after dinner) on metaphor and myth–interrupted by a rush of wind which came so suddenly on the still, warm evening and sent so many leaves pattering down that we thought it was raining.

We all held our breath, the other two appreciating the ecstasy of such a thing almost as you would. We continued (in my room) on Christianity: a good long satisfying talk in which I learned a lot . . .

A month later he elaborated on how the insights gained that evening were gestating in his mind and heart.

Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself (cf. the quotation opposite the title page of Dymer) I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels.

The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose ‘what it meant.’

Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things.’

Therefore it is true, not in the sense of being a ‘description’ of God (that no finite mind could take in) but in the sense of being the way in which God chooses to (or can) appear to our faculties. The ‘doctrines’ we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are translations into our concepts and ideas of that which God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.

Does this amount to a belief in Christianity? At any rate I am now certain (a) That this Christian story is to be approached, in a sense, as I approach the other myths. (b) That it is the most important and full of meaning. I am also nearly certain that it really happened.

In a different setting, Barth argued for the very same truth. His context was a theological environment greatly influenced by the liberal doctrines of Rudolf Bultmann, who dismissively regarded anything miraculous in the Scriptures as primitive and ignorant thinking.

The Christian Church confesses that [what the world calls] “myth” is history itself. She recognizes herself by this myth, she recognizes her life, her true reality. She is the witness of witnesses, she recognizes through the Holy Spirit that this is the one really interesting story.

Then she turns back the historians’ weapon: She says to them: What you call “myth,” that is history! She will also add: What you call history, that is a myth! A myth, a made-up history, that fancies the fate of man as depending on his earthly vicissitudes, a myth, a made-up history, that confuses the immediate success of a cause with its truth, and so on.

The only true history is the history of Christ, in which the Church participates, and which is already the secret reality of all history, since it is history itself. (The Faith of the Church)

Now, there’s an argument the Inklings could truly have appreciated.

A Bonus, for Fans of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Barth was not the only Christian seminary professor who rejected the heresies of Bultmann, who sought to “demythologize” the Scriptures. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a fellow German, repudiated Bultmann’s rejection of the supernatural in God’s Word. In a recent book, Taking Hold of the Real, Barry Harvey writes:

In a prison letter [Bonhoeffer] criticizes Rudolf Bultmann for excising the “mythological” elements in an attempt to reduce Christianity to its “essence.” “My view,” he writes, “is that the full content, including the ‘mythological’ concepts, must remain—the New Testament is not a mythological dressing up of a universal truth, but this mythology (resurrection and so forth) is the thing itself.”

Bonhoeffer thus acknowledges that describing a way of seeing the world as mythic thus does not summarily dismiss it either as deceptive or as an archaic and feeble attempt at doing “science.” Indeed, a truthful description of the world and especially of human existence ultimately requires mythic form.

The tales that women and men have fashioned and passed down through the centuries to discern the overall sense and significance of their existence are “never just ‘lies,’” says Tolkien, as “there is always something of the truth in them.”