Archives For History

How should Christians relate to modern culture? Should they try to identify with culture so they are indistinguishable from their secular peers? Or, would it be better for them to stand aloof from a society espousing a worldview diametrically opposed to their own?

C.S. Lewis would recommend a different course. He would be saddened by Christians who felt compelled to pander to the ideals of contemporary culture. At the same time, he would be offended by disciples of Jesus who deemed themselves too enlightened—or, God forbid, holy—to stoop to engage with modern civilization.

In his essay “Christianity and Culture,”* Lewis begins by pointing out that the omnipresence of culture makes us unconscious of its independence from our religious worldview.

At an early age I came to believe that the life of culture (that is, of intellectual and aesthetic activity) was very good for its own sake, or even that it was good for man. After my conversion, which occurred in my later twenties, I continued to hold this belief without consciously asking how it could be reconciled with my new belief that the end of human life was salvation in Christ and the glorifying of God.

After this epiphany, Lewis began to consciously explore the proper relationship a believer should have with culture. And, his conclusion rejected both of the aforementioned extremes.

Culture has been on my mind since reading the 2019-20 schedule of the Fellowship of Performing Arts. I have written about two of the Lewis-related plays presented by this wonderful theatrical community in the past. The Great Divorce and C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert were both superb. I’m hoping that The Screwtape Letters will return to Seattle soon. All of their work is deeply inspiring.

The founder of FPA, Max McLean, affirms how their mission—producing quality “theatre from a Christian worldview meant to engage a diverse audience”—continues to guide their efforts. This includes a new rendition of Paradise Lost which will debut on Theater Row in New York in January. You won’t get to see the new play outside of New York City, but check this site for a list of their touring casts to see what wondrous performances may be available near you.

McLean writes, “In the arts world, Christians are seen as cultural critics, not culture makers. Mainstream opinion is that Christianity is a regressive idea that has nothing to add to the cultural conversation.”

McLean, like C.S. Lewis, encourages us to challenge this misinterpretation. After all, even if some Christian communions have retreated from the modern Areopagus, most of the great cultural accomplishments of the Western world owe a great deal to Christianity. And that is a debt of gratitude we can increase when we choose.

Culture is Not Our Enemy

Lewis posed an interesting contrast in “Christianity and Culture.” Speaking of the positive aspects of culture (for there are assuredly many shortcomings), he writes:

Culture is a storehouse of the best (sub-Christian) values. These values are in themselves of the soul, not the spirit. But God created the soul. Its values may be expected, therefore, to contain some reflection or antepast of the spiritual values. They will save no man. They resemble the regenerate life only as affection resembles charity, or honour resembles virtue, or the moon the sun.

But though “like is not the same,” it is better than unlike. Imitation may pass into initiation. For some it is a good beginning. For others it is not; culture is not everyone’s road into Jerusalem, and for some it is a road out.

This final observation—that immersion in culture can lead one on a path away from Life—is profound. I have witnessed this in the action of some who make cultural sophistication an end in itself.

In a far different essay, “Learning in War-Time,” C.S. Lewis elucidates how culture is a given. Even the most earnest prayers of the eremites can dispel it. No cloister has walls so impenetrable that they make culture irrelevant.

In the context, then, of education, Lewis describes the necessity of Christians engaging deeply with culture.

If all the world were Christian, it might not matter if all the world were uneducated. But, as it is, a cultural life will exist outside the Church whether it exists inside or not. To be ignorant and simple now—not to be able to meet enemies on their own ground—would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defence but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen.

Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered. The cool intellect must work not only against cool intellect on the other side, but against the muddy heathen mysticisms which deny intellect altogether.

Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.

A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age. The learned life then is, for some, a duty.

And so, just as the “learned life” is a duty for some, so too is an “artistic life.” It is a good thing, perhaps even an excellent thing, when Christians excel at the arts and talents esteemed by one’s local culture.

What might change if Christians decided to forego their identity as mere cultural critics and strove to become cultural leaders? Now that’s a question worth pondering.


* T.S. Eliot wrote a book with the same title. Published seventy years ago, he assessed a cultural conflict that has only grown more acute.

The problem of leading a Christian life in a non-Christian society is now very present to us, and it is a very different problem from that of the accommodation between an Established Church and dissenters. It is not merely the problem of a minority in a society of individuals holding an alien belief.

It is the problem constituted by our implication in a network of institutions from which we cannot dissociate ourselves: institutions the operation of which appears no longer neutral, but non-Christian. And as for the Christian who is not conscious of his dilemma—and he is in the majority—he is becoming more and more de-Christianized by all sorts of unconscious pressure: paganism holds all the most valuable advertising space.

Before human beings ventured into space, the possibility of surviving in this alien realm was tested by sending animals as their surrogates. Fruit flies blazed the trail, as passengers on a V-2 launch in 1947.

In our previous cosmic conversation, we considered space debris cemeteries. Today we will consider space exploration’s cost in lives, as it was driven by the space race.

Two years after the fruit flies passed beyond Earth’s atmosphere, Albert II, a rhesus monkey became the first primate to survive space, only to have his parachute fail upon reentry. His predecessor, Albert I, had failed to reach space when his rocket failed before reaching the 50-mile boundary which marks the space threshold.* Monkeys were probably not great fans of the early space race, since about two-thirds of their space veterans failed to survive the experience.

Presumably for emotional distance, animals were frequently given impersonal names. For example, the first monkeys to survive a spaceflight (in 1959) were Able and Baker.** Out of deference to their gender, their full names were Miss Able and Miss Baker. They were accompanied on their flight by onions, yeast, and sea urchin eggs.

Miss Baker was an exception to the rule of increased mortality for astronauts. She lived until 1984 and her tombstone at the United States Space and Rocket Center is often adorned with memorial bananas.

Human astronauts and cosmonauts competed among their peers for space flights. The animals who journeyed there, did not. Animals in Space: From Research Rockets to the Space Shuttle journals their stories. The volume does not shy away from the costs of the experiments, but it focuses on the rewards. The story of Ham, the first chimpanzee to return from space is told in a detailed and entertaining manner.

A little wobbly in the legs and slightly dehydrated, Ham was otherwise in excellent physical condition . . . The next day he was flown back to Cape Canaveral where hordes of reporters and photographers were eagerly waiting . . . for a glimpse of America’s newest space hero. Ham was quick to show his displeasure at this noisy, unwanted intrusion . . .

The handlers tried to get the reluctant chimp to pose next to a Mercury training capsule but he rebelled; he didn’t want to go anywhere near the darned thing. . . .

Ham later trained for a second mission, but it seems he’d had his taste of glory and showed very little enthusiasm for another ride on a rocket. Another chimp would make the flight.

Ham retired and died in 1983, in the company of two female chimps half his age. But other animals, including monkeys perished in accidents in the United States and the Soviet Union. Some were euthanized prior to takeoff. It is a complex story, and painful for a lover of animals to hear.

The Sad Story of Laika (Лайка)

One of the first animals to fly in space was a small dog who perished on Sputnik 2, in 1957. Laika is celebrated as a hero and a memorial with her likeness was erected near the research facility in which she was trained. In Moscow, the Monument to the Conquerors of Space also bears her image.

Sadly, Laika carried a one way ticket aboard Sputnik. There was no provision made for her survival. It is unfortunate enough that her body incinerated along with the spacecraft upon reentry, but her actual death was perhaps even more horrific. The Soviet government falsely reported that she was euthanized prior to the depletion of the oxygen. In fact, the temperature aboard the spacecraft rose to unsurvivable rates and little Laika was . . . well, it was certainly terrifying for the trusting dog strapped into tight restraints.

Laika had been a stray roaming Moscow. The Soviets felt that homeless dogs possessed stronger constitutions than those cared for by families. This website describes “10 Tragic Facts about Laika.”

The day before the launch, Dr. Vladimir Yazdovsky brought Laika home. For the last four weeks, he had been closer to her than anyone. He had led the team that picked Laika. After [life on]the streets, he’d trained her, and he’d personally chosen her to go into space.

Dr. Yazdovsky brought her home so that his children could play with her. For one last moment before her last day on Earth, he let her experience life as a domesticated dog with a loving family. “I wanted to do something nice for her,” Dr. Yazdovsky said. “She had so little time left to live.”

As if Laika’s final hours were not poignant enough, the pitiable canine was restrained in her space coffin for three days before Sputnik 2 was able to launch. For seventy-two relentless hours she was trapped in the spacecraft as they made repairs to conclude the launch protocols. One can only imagine what fear and confusion she suffered as she waited for her human friends to remove her from the duress.

Although it would be years before the full details of Laika’s pain would be revealed, there were many animal lovers who recognized the barbarity of the event from day one. C.S. Lewis was a man who loved dogs. And not only dogs, Lewis was opposed to all cruelty to animals.

Several months after Laika’s death, Lewis referred to her passing in a letter to a friend. His comment is offered sardonically, but it reveals his genuine compassion for the innocent victim of humanity’s actions.

I shall be glad when people begin talking about other things than Sputniks, won’t you? One gets quite sick of the whole subject. The pity is that some cosmic rays didn’t produce a mutation in the dog which would have made it super-rational: then it might have found its way back alive and started taking revenge on the humans!⁂

When I witness tragedy in terms of the suffering of people and sentient animals, I grieve. At those times I seek comfort in God’s promise of the redemption not only of humanity, but also of nature.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:18-25)

I’ve discussed in the past whether animals will be welcomed into heaven. I am not alone in pondering this subject. Likewise, I suspect I am not alone in hoping that innocent Laika will join us where the tears are wiped away from all of our eyes.


* The United States boundary for space is 50 miles, while the international threshold is the Kármán Line, established at 100 kilometers.

** Able was a resus macaque and Baker was a squirrel monkey. Able did not survive the postflight medical procedures.

⁂ This revenge of the animal kingdom against humankind is the premise of a television series entitled “Zoo,” which aired 2015-17. For those who find the notion provocative, be forewarned. The series does not live up to its potential.

Where do all the satellites go when their utility ends? No, they don’t all just burn up on reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere as their orbits decay. Many are too large for that, and they must be escorted to a remote and desolate Spacecraft Cemetery.

While a great deal of debris and smaller satellites burn up upon re-entry, larger items—including entire space stations—need to be disposed of in a way that keeps the hazardous materials out of public circulation. And what better place than the dark depths of the ocean? Among the craft that have been scuttled at the spot are unmanned satellites . . . and, possibly most remarkably, the entire decommissioned Russian space station, Mir.

The isolated location of this unique graveyard is near the “oceanic pole of inaccessibility,” which marks the location on earth which lies the farthest from any land. The cemetery, which is already the final resting place for more than 260 spacecraft from Russia, Europe, Japan and the United States, lies on the deep seabed approximately 1,500 miles between Pitcairn Island, Easter Island, and Antarctica.

This remote locate is truly mysterious. Members of my critique group expressed concern that residual extraterrestrial elements aboard the satellites might birth some variation of ゴジラ [Godzilla]. Another member, steeped in the Lovecraftian lore of the Cthulhu mythos, pointed out that this “oceanic pole of inaccessibility” is virtually identical with the location of R’lyeh, the subterranean cavern wherein Cthulhu awaits his terrible awakening. In response to these observations, I reminded my colleagues that I happen to be writing nonfiction.

The international space race formally launched in 1957 when the Soviet Union placed Sputnik in orbit. The United States scrambled to catch up, and in 1959, the USSR placed the first human in space. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was preceded by a precious little dog, the first living being to reach out for the stars. Her name was Laika, and we will consider Laika’s sad tale in a moment.

C.S. Lewis & the Space Race

The realm of space was not unfamiliar to Lewis. From 1938 to 1945 he authored three volumes of science fiction that would come to be known as the Space Trilogy (or Cosmic Trilogy).

In one book he describes the danger posed to spacecraft by interstellar debris. Presumably similar dangers led to the early demise of some of the residents of the Space Cemetery. In the first volume, Lewis describes the protagonist’s initial exposure to the “undimensioned, enigmatic blackness.”

The period spent in the spaceship ought to have been one of terror and anxiety for Ransom. He was separated by an astronomical distance from every member of the human race except two whom he had excellent reasons for distrusting. He was heading for an unknown destination, and was being brought thither for a purpose which his captors steadily refused to disclose.

All was silence but for the irregular tinkling noises. He knew now that these were made by meteorites, small, drifting particles of the world-stuff that smote continually on their hollow drum of steel; and he guessed that at any moment they might meet something large enough to make meteorites of ship and all. But he could not fear. He now felt that Weston had justly called him little-minded in the moment of his first panic. The adventure was too high, its circumstance too solemn, for any emotion save a severe delight. (Out of the Silent Planet)

Lewis’ initial foray into space was influenced by H.G. WellsFirst Men in the Moon. In The War of the Worlds, the second chapter is entitled “The Falling-Star.” It describes the terrible dangers that can fall from space. Earth’s “greatest authority on meteorites, stated that the height of its first appearance was about ninety or one hundred miles.” So common are meteorites that “no one seems to have troubled to look for the fallen mass that night.” However, the next morning they discovered,

An enormous hole had been made by the impact of the projectile, and the sand and gravel had been flung violently in every direction over the heath, forming heaps visible a mile and a half away. The heather was on fire eastward, and a thin blue smoke rose against the dawn.

It is precisely due to the destruction that would be caused by a crash-landing catastrophe such as this, that the nations of the world have identified an unpopulated spacecraft cemetery.

This international competition, one of the most publicized elements of the Cold War, unfolded as C.S. Lewis was at the height of his professional influence. Unlike many, who regarded sputnik’s orbit as alarming, Lewis offered a measured, yet realistic, assessment of the advance.

I don’t feel that ‘Sputnik’ in itself is anything very dangerous, but one doesn’t like the underlying implication, i.e. that its existence proves that Russia is far ahead of your country in inter-continental missiles. (Letter to Vera Gebbert, 12 November 1957)

Lewis understood that the race to control the thermosphere and exosphere would not be won in a day. His insight was affirmed as the United States overtook the Soviets’ early advantage and planted a flag on the moon.

In his preface to a theological book, Lewis refers to Sputnik in passing, using its fame as a counterpoint to what is truly lasting and of profound significance.

Dr. Farrer is far too wise and workmanlike in his pastoral office to waste any time on being topical. You will find nothing here about the [nuclear] Bombs or Sputniks. What is usually called ‘the contemporary’ is in fact a composite picture of the recent past, based on secondary sources (chiefly newspapers) and touched up with guesses about the future.

Dr. Farrer . . . has no leisure to spare for such a phantom. He deals with what is really and knowably contemporary–with the august and terrible coincidence of the present moment and the eternal, in which each one of us lives. He is never speaking to the abstraction ‘modern man,’ always to you and me. (Preface to Austin Farrer’s A Faith of Our Own)

C.S. Lewis recognized well how the flash of “the contemporary” served to outshine what was of lasting import. He recognized Sputnik’s scientific breakthrough for what it was. And then he turned his attention to more significant concerns.

The space race, however, never ended. Today we see another shift in the transnational race for space with many nations vying for a role in exploration of the solar system. Likewise, after a period of rewarding international cooperation, the three superpowers are now all actively pursuing the militarization of space. Where it will end only our descendants will witness.

Still, like C.S. Lewis, we have personally witnessed much progress when it comes to humanity’s desire to touch space. And many of the most powerful memories have involved tragedy.

Soyuz 1 (1967) and Soyuz 11 (1971) cost four lives. In the West, entire crews were lost in three disasters: Apollo 1 (1967) and Space Shuttles Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003). Humans, though, were not the only ones to sacrifice their lives in the exploration of space. In our next post, we’ll reflect on the price paid by animals in beginning this extraplanetary journey.

C.S. Lewis begins his essay “Miracles” with a rather odd analogy. “I have known only one person in my life,” he writes, “who claimed to have seen a ghost.” As he tells the rest of the story, it works well to illustrate his point about the necessity of faith for recognizing miracles.

It was a woman; and the interesting thing is that she disbelieved in the immortality of the soul before seeing the ghost and still disbelieves after having seen it. She thinks it was a hallucination. In other words, seeing is not believing. This is the first thing to get clear in talking about miracles. Whatever experiences we may have, we shall not regard them as miraculous if we already hold a philosophy which excludes the supernatural.

In our previous post, we explored a number of references to ghosts in C.S. Lewis’ works and correspondence. Most of these notes relate to encountering these disembodied spirits in literature.

For example, as a young man, he commended a poem by Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) to his friend Arthur Greeves.

I was sure that you wd. like “Balder Dead . . .” it is a topping piece of work, especially the journey, as you say, and the description of the ghosts, and the ending with its impressive pause before the glorious line “At last he sighed & set forth back to Heaven.” Doesn’t it all make you think of the dear old days when we were writing our great opera on Loki & Odin & the rest?

It is easy to see how “Balder Dead” resonated with Lewis, given his affinity for “Northernness.”

And doleful are the ghosts, the troops of dead,
Whom Hela with austere control presides…
And all the nobler souls of mortal men
On battle-field have met their death, and now
Feast in Valhalla, in my father’s hall;
Only the inglorious sort are there below…

In 1952, C.S. Lewis was invited to comment on a volume written by Phyllis Elinor Sandeman. The sensitive Inkling displayed the virtues of every good member of a writing critique group. Lewis begins with praise, and offers a single, concrete constructive comment, to aid the author.

Dear Mrs. Sandeman, I have read Treasure on Earth and I don’t believe you have any notion how good it is. . . . The only page that I can’t enter into at all is p. 83. I can’t conceive not being afraid, as a child, of those unseen presences. I should have behaved like little Jane Eyre in the Red Room when she dried her tears for fear a ghostly voice should awake to comfort her. One would rather be scolded by a mortal than comforted by a ghost.

Lewis is referring to a passage in which a specific location in her childhood home presumably granted the author immunity from fears: “Stories of ghosts and witches so delightful in cheerful company returned to trouble her when alone in the dark. It was impossible ever to feel fear in the drawing-room—there could surely never be a room more conducive to peace of mind.”

Two months later, Lewis again wrote Sandeman, perhaps to address her disappointment at receiving his comment about ghosts.

You were perfectly right to put in the bit about the friendly ghosts. I think the absence of fear is, as far as it goes, probable evidence that the experience was not merely imaginary. Everyone fears lest he should meet a ghost, but there seems to be some ground for supposing that those who really meet them are often quite unafraid.

Notice that angels, on the other hand, seem in Scripture to be nearly always terrifying & have to begin by saying “Fear not.”

In Ireland I stayed at a lonely bungalow last summer which the peasants avoided not because a ghost had been seen near it (they didn’t mind ghosts) but because the Good People, the Faerie, frequented that bit of coast. So apparently ghosts are the least alarming kind of spirit.

In a letter to another correspondent, Lewis describes the same stay at the isolated Irish lodging. “I have been really in quiet and almost unearthly spots in my native Ireland. I stayed for a fortnight in a bungalow which none of the peasants will approach at night because the desolate coast on which it stands is haunted by ‘the Good People.’ There is also a ghost but (and this is interesting) they don’t seem to mind him: the faerie are a more serious danger.”

The Anthroposophist Connection

Anthroposophy is a religious philosophy created by Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). It is diametrically opposed to Christian revelation, and was the cause of one of C.S. Lewis’ greatest disappointments. Tragically, his dear friend and fellow Inkling, Owen Barfield, subscribed to Steiner’s doctrines. C.S. Lewis’ “Great War” with Owen Barfield describes a five year period when the two young scholars argued about the religion. Unfortunately, this was prior to Lewis’ own conversion, so he did not bring a Christian faith to the battle.

Steiner’s religion is complex and confusing. There are, in his view, a plurality of gods. And the god to whom he refers as humanity’s Creator is not the God of Genesis. Steiner argues we have lost sight of the true knowledge or gnosis.

During this [contemporary] era, people no longer see Christ as the being who came down from the stars, because they do not understand the stars themselves as an expression of the spirit as it weaves in the cosmos. For humanity today, there is no God or Christ in the cosmos. (The Three Eras of Human Religious Education)

Naturally, since Barfield was such a good friend of Lewis, there is much that is commendable in him . . . despite his esoteric beliefs. Lewis, after all, entrusted Barfield to be the executor of his estate. Despite their differing theologies, Lewis wrote nakedly about his deep sorrow in the wake of the death of their fellow Inkling, Charles Williams.  

My dear Barfield Thanks for writing. It has been a very odd experience. This, the first really severe loss I have suffered, has (a) Given corroboration to my belief in immortality such as I never dreamed of. It is almost tangible now. (b) Swept away all my old feelings of mere horror and disgust at funerals, coffins, graves etc.

If need had been I think I could have handled that corpse with hardly any unpleasant sensations. (c) Greatly reduced my feeling about ghosts. I think (but who knows?) that I should be, tho afraid, more pleased than afraid, if his turned up. In fact, all very curious. Great pain but no mere depression.

In this letter C.S. Lewis is speaking wistfully about the ghost of a friend. He is well aware of the fact that—despite the British fascination with spiritualism—that is not how the afterlife works. Those who die “in Christ” join him in Paradise, just as he promised the believing thief who perished beside him.

Ghosts do not wander around the earth. Those are different types of spirits, to be discussed another day. By contrast here are some Steinerian thoughts on the subject.

When human beings cling too strongly to earthly things it may be difficult for them to find their bearings in the sphere of the Moon Beings [which] may cause human beings who have to pass after death into the Moon sphere—the soul-world—but are unable to understand the Moon Beings, to be trapped . . . and they can actually be seen . . . wandering about as ghosts, as spectral shades. (Steiner, Karmic Relationships)

The accumulation in the etheric body caused through these [wicked] experiences of the soul . . . brings about detachments from the beings working in the spiritual worlds and these likewise are now to be found in our environment—they are the “specters” or “ghosts.” (Steiner, Nature Spirits)

Ghosts, as they are generally called, are spirits which have acquired a sensory-physical character (or have become tangible) through the human organisation, whereas impulses, instincts, desires and passions are modern spectres pointing towards the future, spectres which have not yet been raised to spirituality. (The Contrasting World-Conceptions of East and West)

But enough of quotations that foster more confusion than understanding. Let’s look at a letter C.S. Lewis wrote to his friend Arthur Greeves in 1920. In it Lewis describes a visit with Leo Kingsley Baker (1898-1986). Like Lewis, Baker was a young veteran of the First World War. Both served in France, Lewis in the trenches and Baker as a pilot in the RAF. Baker also happened to be an Anthroposophist, and it was in fact Baker who introduced C.S. Lewis and Owen Barfield.

I was in [Leo] Baker’s rooms with [Rodney] Pasley last night: Pasley departed early and the conversation between us two fell on shadowy subjects–ghosts and spirits and Gods. You may or may not disbelieve what followed.

Baker began to tell me about himself: how he had seen things ever since he was a child, and had played about with hypnotism and automatic writing: how he had finally given it all up, till now “things” were coming back of their own accord. “At one time” he said “I was afraid to look round the room for fear of what I might see.”

He also stated confidently that anyone could compel a ghost to appear, that there were definite ways of doing it: though of course the thing you “fished up” might not be what you wanted—indeed quite the contrary.

The greater part of his views I will reserve for our next meeting: what I wanted to tell you was the effect on me. I got, as it were, dazed and drunk in all he said: then I noticed his eyes: presently I could hardly see anything else: and everything he said was real—incredibly real.

When I came away, I moved my eyes off his, with a jerk, so to speak, and suddenly found that I had a splitting headache and was tired and nervous and pulled to pieces. I fancy I was a bit hypnotised. At any rate I had such a fit of superstitious terror as I have never known since childhood and have consequently conceived, for the present, a violent distaste for mysteries and all that kind of business. Perhaps he is a bit mad.

It comes as little surprise that an encounter such as this would leave one with a serious headache. Likewise, further consideration of these arcane matters here at Mere Inkling would likely promote similar cranial vexation. Suffice it to say, as we close, that we who trust in Christ need not fear any spirit or demon we might encounter, because “greater is he who is in [us] than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).

C.S. Lewis did not write ghost stories, but he lived in a country that celebrated the strange genre. For some bizarre reason, the telling of ghost stories became associated with Christmas Eve. It’s a wonder to me why Lewis didn’t include this impropriety in his brilliant essay on Xmas.

“Christmas Eve was traditionally the time to tell scary stories round the hearth,” opens an article in The Guardian. I had never before associated Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol with this bizarre tradition. Nor had I connected it with Amy Grant’s “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” (Far better the theme of Grant’s Nativity song “Breath of Heaven.”)

I presume I can thank my Scandinavian heritage for the absence of ghost stories in our Christmas season traditions. Mercifully we also avoided the plague of seasonal trolls and gnomes.

One of the most noted of authors of ghost stories had much in common with C.S. Lewis. M.R. James (1862-1936) was a medievalist scholar who taught at Cambridge. In fact, “James came to sharpen his craft – by telling his stories after the Christmas service at King’s College, Cambridge (where he was provost) to an audience of uneasy fellows.” In the same article no less than H.P. Lovecraft himself is cited as describing James as “a literary weird fictionist of the very first rank.”

I suppose it is a sign of his minimal interest in ghost stories that I cannot find any reference to James’ fiction in C.S. Lewis’ writing. Lewis does, however, refer to one of James’ scholarly works, The Apocryphal New Testament: Being the Apocryphal Gospels, Acts, Epistles and Apocalypses.

In a 1955 letter, Lewis describes how experiencing a relationship with Christ is different than simply knowing about him.

Yes, Jesus Himself, of course: the heart. Not only the God in Him but the historical Man. I don’t know that I ever got much from reading things about Him. Perhaps, in a queer way, I got most from reading the Apocryphal Gospels (The whole Apocryphal N.T. is done in one vol. ed. M.R. James). For there you find things attributed to Him that couldn’t be true. You even find wise & beautiful sayings which nevertheless just don’t ring true. And have you noticed–reading the true sayings in the real Gospels–how hardly one of them could have been guessed in advance?*

References to Ghosts

As befits a person writing over a fifty year period, C.S. Lewis’ comments about ghosts vary. This is emphasized by the change in his worldview which accompanied his conversion from atheism to Christianity.

A 1915 letter to Arthur Greeves reveals Lewis’ affinity for the supernatural. He is describing his reading of “Roots of the Mountains” by William Morris (1834-1896).

Tho’ more ordinary than the [“Well at the World’s End” here and here], it is still utterly different from any novel you ever read. Apart from the quaint and beautiful old English, which means so much to me, the supernatural element, tho’ it does not enter into the plot, yet hovers on the margin all the time: we have ‘the wildwood wherein dwell wights that love not men, to whom the groan of the children of men is as the scrape of a fiddle-bow: there too abide the kelpies, and the ghosts of them that rest not . . .’

In Lewis’ essay “The Novels of Charles Williams,” he describes the uniqueness of Williams’ work.

We meet in them, on the one hand, very ordinary modern people who talk the slang of our own day, and live in the suburbs: on the other hand, we also meet the supernatural—ghosts, magicians, and archetypal beasts.

The first thing to grasp is that this is not a mixture of two literary kinds . . . Williams is really writing a third kind of book which belongs to neither class and has a different value from either.

He is writing that sort of book in which we begin by saying, ‘Let us suppose that this everyday world were, at some point, invaded by the marvellous. Let us, in fact, suppose a violation of frontier.’

In 1939 he wrote to his brother about a play by W.B. Yeats featuring a ghost.

The plays were worth seeing: one, by Yeats [“Purgatory” in Last Poems and Two Plays], his last one, was really powerful: conversation between a tramp and his son outside the ruins of a great house and then the ghost of its last mistress at the window, re-enacting her past life-she being the one who had finally let the whole thing down, marrying a horse-dealer . . . all the usual tragedy of the Irish aristocracy.

Not quite true, of course, because probably most of the preceding generations had been pretty good wasters too: but an effective play.

I have previously explored C.S. Lewis’ actual encounter with Yeats. It was quite odd. In 1921, he had written to his father.

I have been taken recently to see the mighty Yeats. It was the weirdest show you ever saw, and I fear he is a Kod [slang, I believe, for a fraud or a hoaxer]. You sit on hard antique chairs by candlelight in an oriental looking room and listen in silence while the great man talks about magic and ghosts and mystics . . .

What fluttering of the dovecote! It is a pity that the real romance of meeting a man who has written great poetry and who has known William Morris and Tagore and Symons should be so overlaid with the sham romance of flame coloured curtains and mumbo-jumbo.

In 1940 Lewis shared with Warnie his notion that if the seances were real — they had been popular during England’s flirtations with spiritualism — it did not suggest the spirits are particularly bright.

Part of Thursday afternoon I spent with unusual pleasure in the dark, pleasantly smelling, warmth of the old library with a slow dampish snow falling outside-flakes the size of matchboxes. I had gone in to look for something quite different, but became intrigued by the works of Dr Dee [(1527-1608) of Trinity College Cambridge], a mysterious magician and astrologer of Queen Elizabeth’s time.

The interesting thing about this was the fact that it was so uninteresting: I mean that the spirit conversations displayed, so far as I could see from turning over a few pages, just exactly the same fatuity which one observes in those recorded by modern spiritualists. What can be the explanation of this?

I suppose that both are hallucinations resulting from the same kind of mental weakness which, at all periods, produces the same rubbish. One can’t help, however, toying with the hypothesis that they are all real spirits in the case, and that we tap either a ghostly college of buffoons or a ghostly home for imbeciles.

In 1946 he complimented Ruth Pitter (1897-1992), a longtime friend and correspondent. Pitter’s First Poems are available here.

I’m not sure I’ve understood The Bridge as a whole: but I love ‘shapes of sorrow and empty vessels,’ etc. Nice things in Seaborn. The Cygnet comes off as well as things like air-raids can come off in poetry. I don’t mean because they’re modern.

But as a rule, the bigger a thing is, physically the less it works in literature. One ghost is always more disquieting than ten: no good fight in a story can have more than a dozen or so combatants: the death of a million men is less tragic than that of one.

By the way, that final comment will prove of great value to any modern writer!

I’ve accumulated several other Lewisian references to ghosts, so what say we continue this discussion in our next post? In the meantime, perhaps you will care to read some of the linked volumes, or to comment on the odd link between ghost stories and Christmas Eve.


* The Apocrypha Anecdota: A Collection of Thirteen Apocryphal Books and Fragments by Montague Rhodes James is available here. He also wrote The Lost Apocrypha of the Old Testament: Their Titles and Fragments.

Several of James’ ghost stories are available in these collections: The Five Jars and A Thin Ghost and Others. Dr. Dewi Evans has compiled The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James and made them available in several formats on his website.

Saved by a Misspelling

September 9, 2019 — 7 Comments

Recently I came across a sad record from the American Civil War. It described a too-common occasion during the later years of the war—the execution of Union deserters. Yet this story was unique. One of the three men sentenced to death, was spared. And this wonder occurred because of a simple misspelling.

As we know, most misspellings are inconsequential, while others are significant, such as making a mistake with the Lord’s name.

On New Year’s Day in 1960 The Times Educational Supplement published a letter from C.S. Lewis on the subject of spelling.

Nearly everything I have ever read about spelling reform assumes from the outset that it is necessary for us all to spell alike. Why? We got on for centuries without an agreed common orthography. Most men of my age remember censoring the letters of soldiers and know that even the wildest idiosyncrasies of spelling hardly ever made them unintelligible

In the case of the Civil War deserter, the misspelled name was not significant. Everyone in the regiment knew the three guilty parties. After their initial arrests, the men had escaped from confinement, and then been recaptured. Not once, but twice.

According to the regimental history of the Sixth Connecticut Infantry, the circumstances followed a common pattern.

Volunteering having partially subsided in the State, and as the government was in need of more troops, drafting commenced in other States as well as in Connecticut. The Sixth received about 200 men in October; some were conscripts and others drafted men, as but few volunteered for the service. Their advent was not hailed with much pleasure or satisfaction by the old regiment, as they claimed that “forced” men would not fight and could not be trusted in case of an emergency.

Some were vile roughs and were frequently in the guard house; while others manifested a disposition to do their duty, and did make very good soldiers. Three of the substitutes deserted from the regiment while on picket . . . (The Old Sixth Regiment by Charles K. Cadwell)

The three deserters shared a common background, and were destined for a common fate.

[Following their first escape] they were tried for desertion before a court martial . . . found guilty and sentenced to be shot to death by musketry. They were then chained hand and foot to a post inside of the provost quarters; and, notwithstanding these precautions, together with a strong guard, they succeeded in getting away again.

They took a boat near the pier and made off; but while in Warsaw Sound near the shore, their boat grounded and they were captured by a picket boat from the gunboat Patapsco. They were very bold, ingenious men, and their skill and perseverance might have won them honor if rightly applied. The culprits were Germans by birth: privates Henry Schumaker, of Co. C, Henry Stark, of Co. E, and Gustav Hoofan, of Co. B. (The Old Sixth)

The execution was conducted in the traditional, solemn manner of the era. However, one of the condemned soldiers would survive another day.

[Two of] the prisoners were taken from their cells at about two o-clock, placed in army wagons and seated on the coffins in which they were to be buried. . . . The funeral escort, consisting of a corporal and eight men, marched to funeral music, with arms reversed.

Slowly the procession proceeded to the appointed place; the square was formed on three sides, and the victims were driven around once that all might see them and avoid their fate. They maintained a calm demeanor to all, except as they passed our regiment they took off their caps several times to their old comrades. On reaching the end of the square they were assisted to alight from the wagons, the coffins were placed on the ground, the culprits sitting down upon them while the Provost Marshal read the charges, findings and sentence.

After a short prayer by the priest they were blindfolded and their hands tied behind them and made to kneel upon their coffins, facing the center of the square. The firing party came up and were halted at six paces distant, when, at a signal from Capt. Babcock, they fired and the victims fell upon their coffins. . . . They lay just as they had fallen till the whole command marched past them on the way to camp, when they were put into the coffins and buried. (The Old Sixth)

Only two of the three deserters had perished in the fusillade that riddled their bodies. Gustav Hoofan survived. Alternative spellings in Civil War records were common. In the rosters as maintained by the National Park Service, Hoofan’s name was also spelled Hoffan and Hofen. The unfamiliarity of Hoofan’s name—combined with the mercy of a commander—were his salvation.

In the case of the [the third deserter] an error was discovered in writing his name, the name Hoofan having been written Hoffman by the Judge Advocate. Col. Duryee wishing to be merciful to the full extent consistent with duty, availed himself of this technical error and protested against his execution. This protest was allowed, and he was saved from death and ordered to return to duty with his regiment. The man was more than pleased at this announcement, but the Judge Advocate, a lieutenant of the Eighty-fifth Pennsylvania regiment, was severely censured in general orders for his inexcusable carelessness and fatal error. (The Old Sixth)

I was unable to ascertain what eventually became of Private Hoofan. Apparently he completed the rest of this service commitment and returned to civilian life with a profound sense of gratitude.

C.S. Lewis’ Thoughts on Spelling

I shared above the beginning of Lewis’ letter to The Times Educational Supplement. The remainder of it is well worth reading. It is clear that he regarded the communication of information (i.e. the actual function of writing) to be far more important than the execution of arbitrary rules.

Printing houses will always have, as they have now, their own rules, whether authors like them or not. Scholars, who know the ancestry of the words they use, will generally spell them accordingly. A few hard words will still have to be learned by everyone. But for the rest, who would be a penny the worse if though and tho, existence and existance, sieze, seize and seeze were all equally tolerated?

If our spelling were either genuinely phonetic or genuinely etymological, or if any reform that made it either the one or the other were worth the trouble, it would be another matter.

As things are, surely Liberty is the simple and inexpensive ‘Reform’ we need? This would save children and teachers thousands of hours’ work. It would also force those to whom applications for jobs are made to exercise their critical faculties on the logic and vocabulary of the candidate instead of tossing his letter aside with the words “can’t even spell.”

It’s so refreshing to see that even a renowned scholar can exercise such common sense.

We live in what some consider a scary age. Even if you avoid all the dystopian books and films, real life provides more than enough worries. Thank God that C.S. Lewis offers wise counsel to help us cope with our fears without despairing.

The Department of Defense just released its 2019 report from the Electromagnetic Defense Task Force. The 2018 Report, which lays the foundation for the latest electromagnetic pulse (EMP) study, is also available.

These reports make fascinating, though sobering, reading. Their warnings are applicable not only to the United States, but to everyone depending on modern conveniences such as electricity. The EMP threat comes, after all, not only from nuclear attacks, but also from coronal mass ejections which are spawned regularly by the sun. (NASA agrees with the potential dangers.)

As the report says, “The potentially catastrophic effects of these types of natural or man-made EMP events are not science fiction but science fact and have been well studied and documented for nearly six decades.”

Warning people about the dangers—and preparations that can easily be made in advance to survive them—is the mandate of the Task Force. I imagine one of their educational recommendations they suggest might come to resemble the “Duck and Cover” training provided to students in the 1950s and 1960s.

How Bad Could It Be?

Pretty terrible, if the worst circumstances align. The reports support the findings of a previous Congressional study that “an EMP-induced blackout could cause a long-term nationwide grid collapse and the loss of up to 90 percent of the population through starvation, disease, and societal collapse.”

Ninety percent. This would be nothing less than apocalyptic. Yet, even in such a scenario, we would not need to surrender to hopelessness. I’ve discussed this in the past.

Most of the fatalities would result from starvation, since food production would drop dramatically, and there would be no fuel available to move it to markets. The even more ominous threat would come from our fellow citizens. Describing this, one contributor to the report cites three certain factors that are not currently considered in any official plans: human desperation, starvation, and “living without the rule of law” which has its own acronym, WROL.

C.S. Lewis’ Response

The danger of EMPs was little known during Lewis’ life. Nonetheless, he did write about the possibilities for global disaster created by the existence of hydrogen bombs. And Lewis’ response was the Christian one—do not despair, since these threats change almost nothing. Even without them, we humans are mortal. Likewise, barring the creation of a new heaven (which is coming), even the expanding universe we inhabit is destined to fade away.

Our ultimate hope comes not from the material creation, which itself shares the scars of humanity’s fall. We are not simply physical beings. Created in the image of God, you and I possess a spiritual nature. And God will deliver us from this final dissolution.

Lewis describes this dilemma extremely well in his essay “On Living in an Atomic Age.” And this video helps to illustrate Lewis’ words.

As Lewis says,

If we are all going to be destroyed by [an event such as an EMP], let that [event] when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep” dwelling on our vulnerability. Such terrible events “may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.” (On Living in an Atomic Age)

Preparing for Disasters

When we lived in the Midwest, where winter storms could readily strand motorists for a day or more, we carried a “survival kit.” It was a wise precaution, though by the grace of God we never needed to use it.

Off the West Coast of the U.S. and Canada, lies a mounting danger. The Cascadia Subduction Zone generates earthquakes and mega-tsunamis every 500 years or so . . . Today tsunami escape routes have become a normal component of disaster preparedness for those living on the Washington and Oregon coasts.

Each individual and family must determine their own course when it comes to disaster preparation. If my family had settled in Texas where two tornadoes passed near our home while we lived there, I would not have relied on taking shelter in a hallway beneath an antique table. I would have prepared for the potential threat by having a home built with a basement designed to serve as a tornado shelter.

The problem isn’t that people take precautions that often prove unnecessary—at worst they have expended money that purchased only peace of mind. The problem is that some people become consumed by the prospect of a national or global disaster. Their fear can grow to the point where it is all they can think about and the rest of their life often ends up in ruins.

It is to people in this group—those we might call extreme doomsday preppers—that C.S. Lewis speaks most intentionally. He offers sound advice that can help restore balance to the lives of those who have been crippled by fear.

It will be very interesting to see how the recommendations of the Electromagnetic Defense Task Force are implemented. Particularly their challenge to actively educate the public. Hopefully whatever program arises will be reasonable and constructive, and avoid excessive drama. But, living in our increasingly hyperbolic world, I’m not confident that will be true. Prepare to hear more about this subject in the years ahead.


The image above was captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory and the “Sun-flanking STERO-B spacecraft” in 2012.