Archives For History

C.S. Lewis was not alone in recognizing horses are magnificent creatures. Many of us share his appreciation for the more than 300 breeds that comprise the equine family.

Horses hold a prominent place in Lewis’ zoologically rich fantasies. In the Chronicles of Narnia, we encounter many Talking Horses. Among them are Bree, the titular hero of The Horse and His Boy, and Hwin, the heroine who teaches Bree what it means to be a Narnian.

But before Bree and Hwin galloped across the fields and plains of Narnia, a horse from Earth was transported to that Land at the hour of its very creation.* And there, Aslan anointed this modest draft horse⁑ to become the progenitor of a race of pegasi. Fledge’s story is quite inspiring.

Fledge was once named Strawberry, and pulled a Hansom cab in London. But after journeying to Narnia, Aslan chose him to be one of the very first Talking Animals, and granted him wings.

Would You Like Wings?” offers an illuminating meditation on this transformation.

So Strawberry, in this first stage, goes from beast to person. From a dream to wakefulness. From slavery to freedom. From silence to speech, from witless to intelligent.

From C.S. Lewis’ account of the “miraculous” event:

He then turned to the Horse who had been standing quietly beside them all this time, swishing his tail to keep the flies off, and listening with his head on one side as if the conversation were a little difficult to understand. “My dear,” said Aslan to the Horse, “would you like to be a winged horse?”

You should have seen how the Horse shook its mane and how its nostrils widened, and the little tap it gave the ground with one back hoof. Clearly it would very much like to be a winged horse. But it only said: “If you wish, Aslan – if you really mean – I don’t know why it should be me – I’m not a very clever horse.”

“Be winged. Be the father of all flying horses,” roared Aslan in a voice that shook the ground. “Your name is Fledge.” The horse shied . . . It strained its neck back as if there were a fly biting its shoulders and it wanted to scratch them. And then, just as the beasts had burst out of the earth, there burst out from the shoulders of Fledge wings that spread and grew, larger than eagles’, larger than swans’, larger than angels’ wings in church windows. . . .

“Is it good, Fledge?” said Aslan.

“It is very good, Aslan,” said Fledge.

When Aslan sends Polly and Digory on a quest with Fledge, they camp for the night and enjoy a delightful human~animal conversation (much like I would anticipate having with the deer that visit our yard daily, should they be graced with speech).

“And my wings are beginning to ache,” said Fledge. “There’s no sign of the valley with a Lake in it, like what Aslan said. What about coming down and looking out for a decent spot to spend the night in? We shan’t reach that place tonight.”

“Yes, and surely it’s about time for supper?” said Digory. So Fledge came lower and lower. As they came down nearer to the earth and among the hills, the air grew warmer and after traveling so many hours with nothing to listen to but the beat of Fledge’s wings . . .

A warm, good smell of sun-baked earth and grass and flowers came up to them. . . . “I am hungry,” said Digory.

“Well, tuck in,” said Fledge, taking a big mouthful of grass. Then he raised his head, still chewing and with bits of grass sticking out on each side of his mouth like whiskers, and said, “Come on, you two. Don’t be shy. There’s plenty for us all.”

“But we can’t eat grass,” said Digory.

“H’m, h’m,” said Fledge, speaking with his mouth full. “Well—h’m—don’t know quite what you’ll do then. Very good grass too.”

Polly and Digory stared at one another in dismay. “Well, I do think someone might have arranged about our meals,” said Digory.

“I’m sure Aslan would have, if you’d asked him,” said Fledge. “Wouldn’t he know without being asked?” said Polly. “I’ve no doubt he would,” said the Horse (still with his mouth full). “But I’ve a sort of idea he likes to be asked.”

“But what on earth are we to do?” asked Digory.

“I’m sure I don’t know,” said Fledge. “Unless you try the grass. You might like it better than you think.” (The Magician’s Nephew).⁂

In C.S. Lewis’ first story about Narnia, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, we read about the “statues” that surround the castle of the White Witch. Edmund has been corrupted by the Witch, and told that Aslan is dangerous.

The Witch has the power to turn living creatures to stone. When Edmund discovers a lion in her garden, he is delighted. But the lion is not alone.

The relief which Edmund felt was so great that in spite of the cold he suddenly got warm all over right down to his toes, and at the same time there came into his head what seemed a perfectly lovely idea. “Probably,” he thought, “this is the great Lion Aslan that they were all talking about. She’s caught him already and turned him into stone. So that’s the end of all their fine ideas about him! Pooh! Who’s afraid of Aslan?”

And he stood there gloating over the stone lion, and presently he did something very silly and childish. He took a stump of lead pencil out of his pocket and scribbled a mustache on the lion’s upper lip and then a pair of spectacles on its eyes. Then he said, “Yah! Silly old Aslan! How do you like being a stone? You thought yourself mighty fine, didn’t you?”

But in spite of the scribbles on it the face of the great stone beast still looked so terrible, and sad, and noble, staring up in the moonlight, that Edmund didn’t really get any fun out of jeering at it. He turned away and began to cross the courtyard.

As he got into the middle of it he saw that there were dozens of statues all about – standing here and there rather as the pieces stand on a chessboard when it is halfway through the game. There were stone satyrs, and stone wolves, and bears and foxes and cat-a-mountains of stone. . . . a winged horse and a long lithe creature that Edmund took to be a dragon (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe).

I find the description of the lion quite provocative. “. . . so terrible, and sad, and noble.” That is exactly what I experienced when I saw the model for a “war horse” memorial in Romsey, England. The artists have done a brilliant job. The sorrow overflows from it eyes.

True, my impression is influenced by the outstanding 2011 film titled War Horse. If you’ve never seen this Spielberg gem, I encourage you to watch it and challenge you to do so without shedding a tear.

Horses have long been used in war. That is not what God created them for, but fallen humanity has often harnessed their power for combat. Some of their names are remembered today, including Bucephalus, Copenhagen, Cincinnati, and Traveler.

Returning to Fledge, we find a horse not only experiencing the fullness of his equine nature, but receiving blessings unimagined.


* C.S. Lewis did not compose the seven volumes of the Chronicles of Narnia chronologically. This has led to different opinions on the order in which the books should be read.

⁑ Draught horse, to you Brits.

⁂ While I typed this, a doe and her two fawns were peacefully grazing on our clover-seeded lawn, just a few feet away, outside my office window. [I’m sure they would have happily shared with me.]

The war in Ukraine trudges on, but the world has become safer with the imminent expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Recognizing the expansionist aspirations of Dictator Putin’s Russia, Sweden and Finland have decided to request formal admission to the peacekeeping alliance. Their reception has tentatively been approved, although just today another dictator, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey is threatening to “freeze” them out if they don’t support his efforts to suppress Kurdish independence.

I have my own experiences with NATO. Foremost among them was the small part I played in helping bring about the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. (I even served as one of the “escort officers” for a Soviet verification team when it visited RAF Greenham Common.)

I mentioned the treaty on Mere Inkling and lauded its success.

The great thing about NATO’s cruise missiles is that they were deployed to bring the Soviet Union to the negotiating table, where the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty led to the elimination of all such munitions from Europe!

Alas, this monumental treaty has expired.

It is a casualty of Russian Federation dreams to restore the Soviet Union’s former borders in Europe. Combined with the “defection” of the former Warsaw Pact nations, it is easy to understand why a suspicious Russia postures so aggressively.

Which, of course, encourages the democratic nations to draw closer in mutual defense.

How are the Finns Celebrating

Finns are different.

Not quite what you would expect. Many people – certainly most Americans, the ones who are not totally geographically ignorant – mistakenly think Finland is a Scandinavian country. Not quite. True, they are a Nordic nation, but Nordic Perspective offers an insightful discussion, replete with great maps, on the subject.

Being a Nordic people, it comes as no surprise many Finns are welcoming their entry into NATO with a beer. In fact, a brewing company named “Olaf” has opted to use the French acronym for NATO – OTAN – as a play on words. “The beer’s name is a play on the Finnish expression ‘Otan olutta,’ which means ‘I’ll have a beer…’”

Good for them. (So long as they remember to drink in moderation.)

Now, this OTAN-business raises a question in my mind. Is it merely a coincidence, or might the French have a passive aggression purpose in mind with this heteropalindrome?

After all, the headquarters of NATO had to be moved from Paris to Belgium when Charles de Gaulle withdrew from the military alliance.

Wondering about French subliminal messages got me thinking about C.S. Lewis’ thoughts on the subject. Lewis loved all people, but was no one’s fool. He understood many of the influences exerted upon culture are destructive. Decadent societies (e.g. pre-war Berlin) sow seeds that ultimately bear tragic fruit.

As the Second World War was just beginning, and Lewis’ brother Warnie had safely returned home after the Dunkirk evacuation, Lewis mentioned France in one of his 1940 letters to his veteran brother. It is quite entertaining, as long one is not an über-Francophile.

I am also working on a book sent me to review, Le Mystere de la Poesie*by a professor at Dijon, of which my feeling is “If this is typical of modern France, nothing that has happened in the last three months surprises me” – such a mess of Dadaists, Surrealists, nonsense, blasphemy and decadence, as I could hardly have conceived possible.

But one ought to have known for, now that I come to think of it, all the beastliest traits of our intelligentsia have come to them from France.

Well, that’s enough of that. It’s time to pop the tab on an OTAN and toast the NATO, and its expanding protection of world democracies.


* Volume two of The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis has a footnote reading “This work cannot be traced.” I believe the likely object of Lewis’ disdain may have been written by André Vovard and published in 1951 in Paris and Montreal by Fides.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Renaissance Fashions

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

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

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

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

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

Would you like to leave your mark on literary history? Why not invent a new poetic form? It just might catch on.

If it did, you could become as famous as Adelaide Crapsey (1878-1914). She lived a privileged but brief life. Adelaide is remembered today as the creator of the American Cinquain. She also wrote a book entitled A Study in English Metrics which you can download for free.

C.S. Lewis describes the imaginative aspect of writing poetry as a creative act. “For poetry too is a little incarnation, giving body to what had been before invisible and inaudible” (Reflections on the Psalms).

LitCharts offers a description of the form itself, and notes an alternative name for the poetic invention.

The American cinquain is an unrhymed, five-line poetic form defined by the number of syllables in each line—the first line has two syllables, the second has four, the third six, the fourth eight, and the fifth two (2-4-6-8-2). They are typically written using iambs.

In the early twentieth century the American poet Adelaide Crapsey, inspired by the five-line Japanese poetic form of tanka, began to write five-line poems that followed a distinct form. This poetic form soon came to be known as an American cinquain (though it’s also sometimes referred to as a Crapseian cinquain, after its creator).

I think I’ll stick with “American.”

Oddly, one of the reasons Crapsey’s story drew me in is the fact she was the daughter of a prominent Episcopal clergyman. Algernon Sidney Crapsey (1847-1927) had aspirations of becoming a bishop, only to end up defrocked for heresy.

Writer’s Digest offers a list of 168 poetic forms, including “a few fun super new nonce forms.” I advise reviewing this listing so you don’t go to the effort of birthing your own form, only to find out that someone beat you to it.

I’ve written in the past about the benefit of writing outside of our normal styles. As a nonfiction writer, I’ve never desired to be considered a poet.

But I have enjoyed dabbling in a variety of poetic forms as a literary exercise. On occasion, I’ve actually been pleased with the results. And, due to its Inkling inspiration, my personal favorite is probably “A Foreshadowing of Epics.”

In a moment I’ll share my modest attempts at American Cinquains. But first, allow me to offer a Sijo that I wrote to introduce my Cinquains. A Sijo is “a Korean verse form related to haiku and tanka and comprised of three lines of 14-16 syllables each, for a total of 44-46 syllables.”

Immortalize your poetic memory this novel way.
Inventing a new form of poetry is easy to do.
With meter, hyperbole and rhyme – make your fame last for all time.

What follows is a medley of American Cinquains that I composed yesterday while waiting for an optometry appointment. My goal was not to awe readers, but to stretch my writing – what Chuck Palahniuk (the author of Fight Club) refers to as one’s “writing chops.”

The last story you should write is the most important story. You should start with a story that is just an amusing, entertaining, fun story to write and learn your writing chops with the least important things before you start applying them to the most important things.

I intentionally attempted to write cinquains evoking a variety of emotions. Here you will find examples that are thoughtful and frivolous, serious and sentimental.

Cudgel
Beaten by words
Angry themes beget hate
Eardrums torn by condemnation
Wounds last.

Pet dogs
Each breed a joy
Humanity’s best friends
Frolicking with unbounded joy
Precious.

Just War
Tragic option
For innocents still die
Theology deems it okay
Last choice.

Poets
Can be stuck up
Denigrating others
Counting fine prose lower than verse
Vain pride.

Dinner
Fresh fare tonight
Feasting on each choice cut
Cannibals toast missionaries
Dessert.

Comfort
Love wraps its arms
About the wayward lamb
Carried safely back to the fold
Rescued.

Try your own hand at writing an American Cinquain. Or, better yet, establish your own unique poetry form. If you promote it well – say by getting someone like Oprah to endorse it – you could one day become as famous as Adelaide Crapsey.

Ukrainian War Poetry

May 4, 2022 — 7 Comments

In the heat of war, bullets are not the only weapons piercing the air. Words too are wielded as weapons. And some of those martial messages take the form of poetry.

C.S. Lewis thought and wrote much about poetry. In his monumental study, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, he offers this curious insight. “Great subjects do not make great poems; usually, indeed, the reverse.”

Certainly, countless refrains have been penned about historical events and noteworthy personages. But the poetry that seems to speak directly to the emotions is typically unencumbered by dramatic or political reference.

That does not mean poetry and conflict do not possess an intimate bond. One of the tragedies of the First World War was, in fact, that so many promising young poets were cut down in their youth. These brief biographical notes introduce readers to several of them.

C.S. Lewis was a veteran of the grim trench warfare himself. Although most “professional poets” don’t consider his work praiseworthy, I do. I once wrote a post on the subject and included a poem which includes the following stanza.

Long leagues on either hand the trenches spread
And all is still; now even this gross line
Drinks in the frosty silences divine
The pale, green moon is riding overhead.

Voices of Ukraine

The current conflict raging in Europe carries echoes of the past century. Among those reverberations we hear war-inspired lyrics. Some seek to stir patriotic passions. Others consider the universal grief spawned by scenes of mangled mortality.

Five years ago, a collection of poetry entitled Words for War: New Poems from Ukraine was published. It chronicled the Euromaidan Revolution, also called the “Revolution of Dignity,” which possesses direct links to today’s war, and preceded Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Borys Humenyuk fought during that revolution, and appears to be in uniform today, as well. Presumably he will write more about today’s war, once Russia has been repelled and Ukraine’s sovereignty has been reaffirmed. In the meantime, he is likely reexperiencing the moment he captured in these words almost ten years ago.

When you shoot
Even when it’s at night and you don’t see the enemy’s face
Even when night hides the enemy from you and you from the enemy
And embraces each of you as her own
You smell like gunpowder
Your hands, face, hair, clothing, shoes —
No matter how much you wash them —
    smell of gunpowder
They smell of war
You smell of war
You and war are one.

It is poignant how the suffering birthed by war is also capable of giving voice to such moving sentiments.

Would that war should end. The loss of such heartrending words would be small price to pay.


After publishing this column, I received correspondence from Ukrainian poet, Vyacheslav Konoval, inviting me to share one of his poems. I offer the following, which I found particularly poignant. And I encourage you to visit Slava’s personal website at All Poetry.

Dog Day

Staggering, a drop of dew falls from the green grass,
fog, and even acrid smog, covers the ground,
the cylinder was torn on all sides, so it was gas.

Ragged camouflage with holes,
the Red Sea swallows the corpses
Are they in the field, cartridges without controls?

The tire blazed, moaned and tire finished,
here is the hostility, aggressive appetite has not diminished,
the enemy turned into fertilizer.

A stray dog ​​howls,
recites prayers with a hoarse voice,
stares at the torn soldier’s jaws,
the enemies have made their choice.

C.S. Lewis & Karl Marx

April 19, 2022 — 19 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.

Jesus died on a cross. So why in the world would his followers choose the image of a cross to identify their faith?

The answer comes via a paradox. The cross is about two, superficially-contradictory realities. (1) Jesus bled, suffered and died on the cross. (2) On that very cross, Jesus purchased for all who call upon his name, eternal life.

This seeming paradox between simultaneous truths is sometimes referred to as a theological dialectic.

C.S. Lewis brilliantly illustrates this dynamic in his description of Death in his book Miracles.

On the one hand Death is the triumph of Satan, the punishment of the Fall, and the last enemy. Christ shed tears at the grave of Lazarus and sweated blood in Gethsemane: the Life of Lives that was in Him detested this penal obscenity not less than we do, but more.

On the other hand, only he who loses his life will save it. We are baptized into the death of Christ, and it is the remedy for the Fall. Death is, in fact, what some modern people call “ambivalent.”

It is Satan’s great weapon and also God’s great weapon: it is holy and unholy; our supreme disgrace and our only hope; the thing Christ came to conquer and the means by which He conquered (Miracles).

Thus, the grim suffering of Good Friday . . . becomes Good. It is not an accident. Nor is it a mistake. It was the necessary consequence of humanity’s fall and our costly, divine rescue. As C.S. Lewis writes in The Four Loves:

He creates the universe, already foreseeing – or should we say “seeing”? there are no tenses in God – the buzzing cloud of flies about the cross, the flayed back pressed against the uneven stake, the nails driven through the mesial nerves, the repeated torture of back and arms as it is time after time, for breath’s sake, hitched up. . . .

Herein is love. This is the diagram of Love Himself, the inventor of all loves.

Of course, this truth is only recognizable to those who have knelt before Jesus the Messiah and received his grace.

To unbelievers, “the world,” the cross makes no sense at all. Those in spiritual blindness reject it as the epitome of Christian absurdity.

Just such claims were made from the very beginning. Not long after Christ’s resurrection, these challenges were addressed by Paul, the Pharisee turned Apostle. Proclaiming the miracle of the cross, he reminds the young church in Corinth how they cannot expect the lost to comprehend its glory, its untainted goodness.

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. . . .

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men (1 Corinthians).

The crucifixion and resurrection of the only begotten Son of God are the sole means by which you and I may be cleansed, healed, and restored to the unending life for which our Lord created us.

Dangerous Facial Hair

March 29, 2022 — 21 Comments

Beards come, and beards go. Yet humanity offers no consensus on their value. Perhaps that is because there are so many diverse styles, ranging from restrained to insane.

C.S. Lewis mentioned in passing the “biblical” style of beards in a 1939 letter to his brother Warnie.

For instance the presence of the revolving bookcase in the study has just introduced me to a book of Minto’s mother’s which is well worth studying. It is called Gems of Literature/Elegant, rare, and Suggestive

The engravings are of a sort you can probably imagine – damsels with those peculiar comic-section or peg-top legs and eyes raised to heaven and old men with what can only be called Biblical beards.

Facial hair is a personal choice. But when that choice becomes deadly, perhaps society should intervene. Take the case of Hans Steininger, a sixteenth century burgomaster in the Austrian-German city that would one day become the birthplace of Adolf Hitler.

Some mental disorder apparently compelled him to have scissors banned from his city, lest a single hair on his magnificent beard be severed. Seriously, he died because he tripped over his chin whiskers during a major fire in 1567.

Steininger usually kept his prodigious beard hair rolled up and stuffed in a pocket, but during the commotion he was running around with it hanging free. In the midst of the chaos, he managed to step on his own beard, sending him tumbling down a flight of stairs and breaking his neck…

The full-body illustration at the church shows Steininger’s beard bifurcated into two scraggly strands, stretching down past his feet. And tucked away in the local district museum is the town’s most hirsute artifact: the 450-year-old beard of Steininger.

Even in ancient times, everyone recognized an unkempt beard was a liability, particularly in combat. In The Life of Theseus, Plutarch states this was why Alexander the Great ordered his soldiers in his phalanxes to shave.

They write also that this was the reason why Alexander gave command to his captains that all the beards of the Macedonians should be shaved, as being the readiest hold for an enemy.

Although I sported a modest mustache for a short time back in the day when Tom Selleck starred as Magnum P.I., I’ve never been a big fan of facial hair. Seeing Steininger’s likeness reinforces that.

Add to that the biblical warning from Leviticus: “When a man or woman has a disease on the head or the beard, the priest shall examine the disease. And if it appears deeper than the skin, and the hair in it is yellow and thin, then the priest shall pronounce him unclean.” (Leviticus 13).

Historical Biases

While well-maintained beards are okay, two additional (historical) factors contribute to my discomfiture. First, as a student of the American Civil War, I find myself repelled by the odd appearance choices of people such as General Ambrose Burnside. Although he gave his name to “sideburns,” that’s hardly what I would call these monstrosities. (Also called mutton chops, which is precisely what the cultured bon vivant should have adorning their cheeks.)

The second reason for my wariness is due to the affinity of too many pastors in my own denomination for beards. I doubt they wear them to wow the ladies. Perhaps they think the beards make them appear more distinguished?

Actually, I’ve become desensitized to most pastors who opt for facial hair – with one bizarre exception. To employ a cliché literally: for the life of me, I can’t understand why anyone living in the twenty-first century would opt for a “chin curtain.” I understand the Amish have an affinity for them, but who ever considered those German Anabaptists fashionable?

Sadly, because my church also possesses a strong Germanic strain, I’ve discovered more than one minister bearing this mark of Cain. Perhaps they hope to emulate the denomination’s first president, the Rev. Dr. C.F.W. Walther. If so, my advice is they follow his example of conscientious pastoral care, and dispense with the externals. (I will concede that his black leather suit does look rather dapper, being that the image was captured for posterity in the mid-1800s.)

C.S. Lewis & His Beard

I can forgive C.S. Lewis for aligning with the beard-faction on at least two occasions. That’s because there were extenuating circumstances.

In 1924 he wrote to his father about an illness that led to what may have been his first transgression.

My dear Papy,

I got chicken pox and am only now out of quarantine. I have of course been quite well enough to write for some time but I don’t know whether you have had this complaint and thought it better not to chance infecting you: I am told that the older you are the less likely it will be to ‘take’, but the worse if it does.

I had a pretty high temperature at the beginning and some very uncomfortable nights of intense perspiration, but it soon passed off.

The danger of cutting any of the spots on my face of course made shaving impossible till this very day and I had a fine beard. I have left the moustache which would excite ‘poor Warren’s’ envy, but I shall probably get tired of it in a few weeks. It is very stiff, and all the hairs grow in different directions and it is thicker on one side than on the other.

In a 1931 letter to his childhood friend, Arthur Greeves, he mentions offhand as he closes that he has altered his appearance.

I suppose you have heard about Warnie’s peerage – for gallantry during the recent manoeuvres. I have grown a beard – Good night.

In two letters written in 1956, C.S. Lewis would describe the illness-induced beard he had mentioned to his father.  He humorously describes its imperfections. The first was written to a young fan.

Your mother tells me you have all been having chicken pox. I had it long after I was grown up and it’s much worse if you are a man for of course you can’t shave with the spots on your face. So I grew a beard and though my hair is black the beard was half yellow and half red! You should have seen me.

The following month he shared more details with a longtime correspondent.

The Tycoon may count himself lucky to have got chickenpox before he reaches the age of shaving brushes and razors. I had it in my late 20’s and grew a beard which was part yellow and part red though my hair is black – a very striking colour scheme.

Apart from that, though, I think it a very good sort of illness on the whole. A nice long quarantine which by sentencing one to solitary confinement secures one against pupils, committees etc. But no doubt it had no such charms for you.

Seeing C.S. Lewis adorned with a beard would surely make for an odd photograph. Especially one taken in color.

Postscript

Forgive me. I’ve vented more than I intended. Wear whatever hairstyle you prefer. However, I would caution you that if your beard drags on the ground, it’s best to carry an emergency set of shears, lest you stumble during an emergency stampede.

As a treat for those who have read to the end of this column, here is an image from Gems of Literature. I suspect these were two of the “Biblical beards” to which C.S. Lewis referred.

Bonus for beard aficionados: For a curious look at a guy whose quest is to see how many facial hair variations he “can check off from the chart of facial hair types,” visit this site.

Sadly, we see history repeating itself. The Russians (resurgent Soviets) are trying to expand their borders by violence.

Czarist Russia was unabashedly imperialistic. However, their successors, the Russian Communists combined their hunger for new conquests with unbelievable brutality.

C.S. Lewis viewed them with the distrust they merited. At the beginning of the Second World War, the Russians played the Allies for fools when they signed a nonaggression pact with the Nazis, so the two countries could carve up poor Poland between them.

The following month, in September of 1939, Lewis referred to the ominous event in a letter to his brother Warnie, who was a career soldier. First, however, he describes the situation with evacuee children who were living at the Kilns.

The nicest of our evacuated girls (the Rose Macaulay one) has been taken away by a peripatetic lip-sticked mother who has changed her mind, and been replaced by an Austrian Jewess (aged about 16) whom the school warned us against as difficult: but so far neither Minto nor Maureen nor I can find any fault in her.

The house has shaken down into its ‘war-economy’ quite well, and indeed the children are incomparably less of a nuisance than [other guests] with whom we have often been afflicted in peacetime.

To-day is a bad day because we have just heard the news about Russia and poor Minto, for the moment, regards this as sealing the fate of the allies–and even talked of buying a revolver!

That December, he mentioned Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Finland in another missive to his brother Warnie. In the letter he refers to some old story told by their father, that was of special, humorous recollection to the brothers.

Well, Brother, (as the troops say) it’s a sad business not to have you with me to-morrow morning-and not to have the January walk ahead. The most cheerful thing at present (oddly enough) is the News. Russia’s attempt to do to Finland what Germany did to Poland reminds me of your father’s story of the “great bosthoon”* whom his athletic friend took out for the run and who tried to imitate him in jumping the flax-pond-one of those of his wheezes whose point lay wholly in his telling.

During the brief “Winter War,” Finland inflicted severe casualties on the Soviet invaders, despite being vastly outnumbered. Despite their heroic defense, Finland was forced to surrender some of their territory to the Soviets.

During World War Two, the Western allies (primarily Britain, the U.S., and France) liberated countries from Nazi oppression.

The Soviets, in contrast, simply changed the nationality of the victims’ oppressors. They regarded the nations devastated by the Germans as new conquests. And, rather than helping them reestablish their independent governments, the Communists absorbed the areas they could, and set up puppet regimes in nations they could not manage to digest.

When the collapse of the Soviet Union finally left Eastern Europeans with a chance at freedom, most fled from behind the Iron Curtain.

In 1950, only a half a decade after the global war’s end, another major war was erupting. The Korean War pitted another Communist aggressor (China) against the democracy in South Korea. Soviet troops covertly joined the North Korean forces, flying early generation MiG-15s. (It is the modern MiG-29 that Poland is hoping to transfer at the present time to Ukraine.)

Despite the Soviet denials, the Korean Conflict pitted the two great world powers in a battle that could well have erupted into a wider conflict.

The concern expressed by C.S. Lewis in the following letter was common among those who were still reeling from WWII’s violence. In June of 1950 Lewis wrote to thank an American friend for food sent to supplement the postwar rationing.

For once, the all absorbing topic of food has been swept into the background by the dreadful news from the Far East. The only gleam of satisfaction is that all of us feel that your prompt action may still save us from a third war; it has at least saved us from a second Munich, and there are hints in our papers today that Russia will very likely back down–but start probing for a ‘soft spot’ elsewhere: Burma, Cochin-China, or even Europe. One can but pray.

In 1950 Lewis prayed, as all Christians should, for a de-escalation and peace.

Seventy years later, events in Ukraine clearly reveal that Russian rulers still long to conquer their neighbors. While we pray for peace, the world dare not close its eyes to the specter of Putin’s resurrected Soviet empire.


  • Bosthoon is an Irish word for an ignorant or uncouth boy or man. The inference is that the initial failure of the Soviet invasion revealed their foolhardiness.

If you would like to join C.S. Lewis in one of his Lenten experiences, read on, because I have the perfect suggestion for you.

During Lent, the forty days preceding Easter, many Christians undertake special “disciplines.” This practice is different from the familiar exercise of “giving things up” for the season.

These disciplines often include fasting and devoting more time to reading the Scriptures and inspiring Christian literature.

Two of C.S. Lewis’ letters mention that he was rereading, as part of his Lenten pilgrimage, two ancient classics that have inspired believers for nearly seventeen centuries.

In 1936, he wrote to Dom Bede Griffiths, a regular correspondent who was a Roman Catholic priest.

I re-read St. Augustine’s Confessions during Lent, and found it better than I remember, tho’ still it is the explicitly devotional parts that edify me least.

The following year he wrote the following in a letter to his childhood friend, Arthur Greeves.

I have been progressing all this lent through the first volume of a v[ery] nice edition of St Augustine’s City of God only to find that the other volume has been so wrongly bound that it begins and ends in the middle of sentences. What a tragedy this would once have been!

Lewis’ regard for Augustine lasted throughout his life. In 1961, Lewis responded to a correspondent who asked what books he would recommend to a recent convert. He included Augustine in that list, writing “St. Augustine’s Confessions will give you the record of an earlier adult convert, with many v. great devotional passages intermixed.”

Saint Augustine was a bishop in Hippo Regius, a city in north Africa. Augustine was a brilliant scholar who desperately sought the truth, and intently studied many religions and philosophies before finding Truth in the person of Jesus Christ.

His life is fascinating, in part because he lived during the turbulent era when Rome itself was sacked by the Vandals, who went on to conquer North Africa.

Augustine was a native African, a member of the Christian Berbers, who along with the Romans in the regions were destined to be overrun by Islamic armies.

Augustine was a prolific writer, and due to their spiritual value, many of his works are readily available today.

If you would like to read one of the volumes mentioned by C.S. Lewis, you can download copies of early translations at Internet Archives. Here are the links, with two biographical studies thrown in for good measure.

Confessions

The City of God

Lives of the Fathers

Saint Augustine and his Age

If you choose to follow C.S. Lewis’ example of reading one of these works for Lent, you will have the added joy of sharing with him a Lenten discipline which he found rewarding.


If you prefer listening to the Confessions, you can download a free Librivox version here.