Archives For Humor

Humorous Examinations

September 21, 2021 — 12 Comments

Could you pass this examination?

Sketch the development of human thought, estimate its significance. Compare with the development of any other kind of thought.

In contrast to the serious tone of the last two posts, today I am offering some edifying entertainment. As a gift to you, I have edited a perennial favorite of internet humorists. I recently came across my copy of this comprehensive knowledge examination, which motivated me to tweak it for Mere Inkling’s erudite audience.

You have probably seen versions of this exam in the past. The basic questions have remained surprisingly stable despite its age. I encountered it in the University of Washington campus paper in 1973. One writer claims “the Graduation Exam—Authentic Assessment has been in circulation since at least the 1950’s.”

The exam certainly makes the rounds, as this Navy veteran described.

The pressures of comprehensive exams were apparent to many, which resulted in one of the few officially sanctioned jokes in Naval Nuclear Power. In one of the official publications of Naval Reactors, someone inserted a sample “final exam” from Nuclear Power School.

In 2012 elements of the examination created confusion in the People’s Republic of China. It was included in an article about how Chinese nationals could prepare for an American State Department exam required for positions at the United States embassy in Beijing. According to China’s Global Times, “US embassy spokesman Richard Buangan made clear on his Sina microblog Sunday that an alleged ‘recruitment test for expatriate employees at the US embassy’ is fake.”

A June 2008 issue of Foreign Service Journal carried a story, which includes an English version of the [exam stating] the questions are from the US State Department’s entrance exam, in a bid to “measure the stability of perspective Foreign Service officers and to weed out the dummies.”

The Function of Examinations

Testing and documenting competence is obviously important. This is especially true for people in critical roles, such as prescribing drugs, designing aircraft engines, and manufacturing ice cream.

Of course, not everyone is able to pass every test. Which is precisely how things should be.

C.S. Lewis noted how educators truly familiar with their students readily recognize when it is a waste of time for them to continue repeating an exam they obviously cannot pass. He said an academic “master often knows, when boys and parents do not, that it is really useless to send a boy in for a certain examination again” (The Problem of Pain).

I have met very few people who enjoy being tested. Yet, for many faculty members (C.S. Lewis included), being on the “other side” of exams is not particularly enjoyable either. This delightful passage comes from a 1927 letter to his brother, Warnie.

My period of examining passed over with its usual accompaniment of neuralgia and oaths, relieved by the one excellent boy who defined ‘a genie’ correctly, yet more than correctly, as ‘an eastern spirit inhabiting bottles and buttons and rings.’ Pretty good for a boy.

I was also pleased with a youth who, being asked to write a letter to a friend recommending Guy Mannering,* wrote to his brother recommending it and saying ‘I think you would be interested in the character of Colonel Mannering, he is so like our father’: and then later in a paper on Guy Mannering in which I had set the question ‘Would you have liked Colonel Mannering as a father?’—illustrate your answer etc.—began decisively ‘I would not have liked Colonel Mannering as a father in the least.’

Well, it’s time now to offer you the opportunity to prove your worthiness. If you wish to evidence the breadth and depth of your knowledge, proceed now to the exam. (Astute readers will note I’ve added a personal twist to a couple of the exam questions.)

Comprehensive Knowledge Exam

HISTORY: Describe the history of the papacy from its origins to the present day, concentrating especially, but not exclusively, on its social, political, economic, religious, and philosophical impact on Europe, Asia, North and South America, and Africa. Be brief, concise, and specific. Now do the same for the Zoroastrian priesthood. [Bonus credit for including Antarctica in your response.]

MEDICINE: You have been provided with a razor blade, a piece of gauze and a bottle of scotch. Remove your appendix. Do not suture until your work has been inspected. You have fifteen minutes. [Option: if you feel the scotch would impair your responses to the remaining questions, you may defer this portion of the exam to the end of the exam.]

PUBLIC SPEAKING: Two thousand riot-crazed anarchists are storming the campus. Calm them. You may use any ancient language except Latin, Greek or Sanskrit. [Pig Latin is allowed.]

BIOLOGY: Postulate the 500 million year progression of a life form based on silicon, ranking its likely preference for form of government Enumerate the pros and cons it would associate with democracy, monarchy, socialism, theocracy, and totalitarianism. [Caution: any references to the Horta of Janus VI will result in disqualification of your answer, since Star Trek is a fictional resource.]

MUSIC: Write a piano concerto. Orchestrate and perform it with flute and digeridoo. You will find a piano under your seat. The wind instruments, of course, were among the items you were directed to bring with you to the examination.

PSYCHOLOGY: Based on your knowledge of their works, evaluate the emotional stability, degree of adjustment, and repressed frustrations of each of the following: Alexander of Aphrodisias, Hildegard of Bingen, Rābi’a bint Ka’b al-Quzdārī and Simeon the Stylite. Support your evaluation with quotations from each individual’s work, citing original sources. It is not necessary to translate.

SOCIOLOGY: Using the pretext of Planet of the Apes, where homo sapiens have been subordinated to various primate species, assess the prospects for achieving mutual toleration and equilibrium before one group is driven to extinction. [Caution: confusion of apes (which lack tails) and monkeys (which lack an appendix) will result in disqualification of your response.]

CHEMISTRY: Transform lead into gold. You will find a beaker, a three hundred count box of matches and five lead sinkers under your seat. Show all work including Feynman diagrams and quantum functions for all steps. [Transformation into silver will provide half credit.]

ENGINEERING: The disassembled parts of a high-powered rifle have been placed on your desk. You will also find an instruction manual, printed in Swahili. In 10 minutes a hungry Bengal tiger will be admitted to the room. [Special Consideration: Satisfactorily explain the differences between Fahrenheit and Celsius to the tiger, and it will be replaced by a rabid ferret.]

ECONOMICS: Develop a realistic plan for refinancing global debt, without hypothesizing a benevolent intergalactic alliance with unlimited resources coming to the planet’s aid. Trace the possible effects of your plan in the following areas: Cubism, the Donatist controversy, and the 1913 foundation of Hôpital Albert Schweitzer in Gabon.

POLITICAL SCIENCE: Devise an infallible, seven-step plan to transform the United Nations into an organization that will successfully foster peace and goodwill in all international relationships. [Bonus credit for providing a major role for two of the following nations: Dominica, Liechtenstein, Tuvalu.]

AGRICULTURAL SCIENCE: Outline the steps involved in breeding your own super high yield, all weather hybrid strain of wheat. Describe its chemical and physical properties and estimate its impact on world food supplies. Construct a model for dealing with world-wide surpluses. Draft your Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

PHYSICS: Explain the nature of matter. Include in your answer an evaluation of the impact of the development of mathematics on astronomy, botany and numismatics. [Bonus Credit: write today’s date in metric.]

PHILOSOPHY: Sketch the development of human thought, estimate its significance. Compare with the development of any other kind of thought. Be sure to include an analysis of the influence exerted on philosophy by Diogenes the Cynic.

CREATIVE WRITING: Compose an epic poem based on the events of your own life in which you see and footnote allusions from T.S. Eliot, Titus Lucretius Carus, Miguel de Cervantes, Dante Alighieri, Þorbjörn Hornklofi, Gilgamesh and Stephen King. Critique your poem with a full discussion of its syntax and metrics. [Bonus Credit for writing alternating stanzas between free and rhyming verse.]

EDUCATION: Formulate an examination which accurately measures an individual’s comprehensive knowledge base without cultural or linguistic prejudice. Limit the question parameters to what can reasonably be covered during a four hour testing block.

LITERATURE: Discuss in detail at least three major literary figures from each of the following civilizations: the Xia Dynasty, the Akkadian Empire, the Mayan Empire, the Aksumite Empire, the Polynesian Tuʻi Tonga Empire, and nineteenth century United Kingdom. [Caution: failure to include J.R.R. Tolkien and/or C.S. Lewis will result in disqualification of your answer to this question.]

Congratulations on finishing the exam. You are encouraged to use any remaining time to review your answers in light of the fact that grammatical errors and misspellings will significantly impact your final grade.


* You can download a personal copy of Guy Mannering, one of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverly novels, at Internet Archive.

If you should question the distinctions I noted between apes and monkeys, please know that the facts are genuine. However, for future examinations, you should be aware that not all monkeys have tails.

Inkling Action Figures

August 31, 2021 — 8 Comments

Have you ever dreamt of having an action figure made in your honor? No, neither have I.

Well, that was until I saw this picture of product knockoffs published last week by The Power of Story.

One of the characters portrayed above raised the notion in my mind because of the counterfeit’s “name.” No, it wasn’t the muscular hero with the S emblazoned on his chest (even though my family frequently reminds me that I am “special”).

The figure that inspired me was Robert Cop. Not because I wore a police uniform for seven years (as a volunteer chaplain for the Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office). But because Robert is my own name.

By the way, the Social Security Administration says that it’s still the 80th most popular boy’s name in America (down from 29th twenty years ago). For those curious about the frequency of their own names, I’ll provide a link to the SSA website below.*

“Robert” was number three in the 1950s when I received it (superseded only by James and Michael). That’s not to suggest frequency of usage bears any significance. One could easily argue that having a less common name makes a person more “special.”

Take C.S. Lewis, for example. His full name was Clive Staples Lewis—Clive came from Major-General Robert Clive (1725-1774) and Staples was a great-grandmother’s family name.

In fact, Lewis published his two early poetic works, (Spirits in Bondage in 1919 and Dymer in 1926) under the name Clive Hamilton, using his mother’s original surname.

Later, Lewis chose to use his first two initials for publication and official purposes. To his family and friends, however, he was always known as “Jack.” This oddity was a consequence of his conscious decision as a very young (and, apparently, precocious) child to choose his own name.

In his ‘Memoir’ of his brother, Warren – or ‘Warnie’ as he was known – said that when Clive was about four years old he “made the momentous decision to change his name. Disliking ‘Clive’…he marched up to my mother, put a forefinger on his chest, and announced ‘He is Jacksie.’ He stuck to this next day, and thereafter . . . a name contracted to Jacks and then to Jack” (C.S. Lewis: Apostle to the Sceptics).

C.S. Lewis also, like most of us, had a variety of nicknames. I’ve written about some of them here.

Inkling Action Figures

Sure, heroic characters from Narnia and Middle Earth have been memorialized as action figures. Many have even made it into the hallowed halls of Lego figurines.

But where are their creators (or subcreators, to use Tolkien’s parlance)? I know I’m not alone in yearning for some great Inkling figures. (And I’m confident there must be at least two or three other potential customers.)

Just think of all the dynamic action poses a creative manufacturer could include. You could have C.S. Lewis lecturing at a podium. Or J.R.R. Tolkien busy at his desk working on his translation of Beowulf.

You might pose Charles Williams proofreading a volume of the Oxford English Dictionary. Or Owen Barfield conscientiously administrating C.S. Lewis’ estate. What about Hugo Dyson lecturing about Shakespeare on a 1960s television soundstage?

And these exciting scenes around the campus environment are merely the beginning. Can you imagine a group of them seated around a table at the Eagle and Child pub? Or, getting them off of their bums [British usage], you could pose them in the midst of one of their thrilling walks.

Seriously, several of the Inklings did exhibit heroic actions that would provide forceful images. Take Tolkien and Lewis, for example, during their combat service during the First World War.

Warnie Lewis was a veteran as well, and a career Royal Army officer to boot. Nevill Coghill served in the artillery during the First World War, and occasional member Christopher Tolkien was in the Royal Air Force during the second global conflict.

In one of his essays, Lewis described the use of particular things for alternative purposes. In making his case, he illustrates it with several examples. One is apropos here. And, although he would never have dreamed of it being applied to him personally, I believe it fits the manner in which many of us regard him and his friend Tolkien.

You can use a poet, not as a poet, but as a saint or hero; and if your poet happens to have been a saintly or heroic man as well as a poet you may even be acting wisely. (The Personal Heresy).

Both men were talented writers. Each was a sincere disciple of Jesus. And both responded to their nation’s call to face the horrors of the Western Front. In light of their service, it seems a skillful designer could base exciting Tolkien and Lewis figurines on something like this generic WWI British officer.

Just do everyone a favor, please don’t use a doll as a template for my literary and spiritual hero.

After all, real heroes are not always cuddly. But they are definitely epic! Just like Robert Cop and Special Man.


* If you are curious about where your first name ranks in popularity, now or during various decades back to the 1880s, you can find out here.

If you were to liken your personal writing to that of a famous author, who would you name? Are you similar to Emily Dickinson, or are you an echo of Charles Dickens?

Perhaps your words flow like Shakespeare’s or erupt in staccato, like Hemingway’s. If you are a member of a writing critique group – which I highly recommend – your friends may have offered their own suggestions about authors you resemble.

It just so happens there are a couple of tools that can offer hints as to the answer to this question. When I looked back at an earlier post on this subject, I was shocked to find I had written it all the way back in 2012. Yes, I know some of you were in grammar school then.

I shared then a site which was relatively new. The “I Write Like” site invites you to submit samples of your writing, which it compares to a range of famous authors. I am curious to try the process today, since the programmer continued to update it until 2016. Perhaps my results will be different than those from 2012.

Programs such as this are frankly quite limited. For those of you interested in the programmer who designed this one, you can check out an interview conducted when it was initially released. In the interview, Dmitry Chestnykh explains how his “algorithm is not a rocket science, and you can find it on every computer today. It’s a Bayesian classifier, which is widely used to fight spam on the Internet.”

My Own Results

I’m unsure how many authors our Russian friend has included in the comparison files. It does include historical and contemporary authors. I have no idea whether my favorite author, C.S. Lewis, found his way into the database or not. My results do reveal, however, that at least one of his fellow Inklings did make the cut.

Without further conversation, allow me to share the results from my experiment nearly a decade ago.

Make sure you include lengthy selections from your work. Also, testing the program with different genres (assuming you write in different styles) will actually give you new matches. (That is, of course, as it should be.)

I tried a number of times (no, not fishing for results I wanted, but using a variety of types of my writing) and here were the repeated results:

For my blog posts: H.P. Lovecraft or J.R.R. Tolkien
For my more formal essays: J.R.R. Tolkien or Jonathan Swift

These were admirable results with which I have been happy to live. Thus, it is with some trepidation that I revisited the astonishing program today. And the results – For my blog posts: Arthur C. Clarke – For my more formal essays: Ditto.

Very interesting. Aside from the possibility that the program has been contaminated by some spaceborne virus, or intemperate Clarkean fans, I have to assume that Clarke may have been added after my initial venture into the unfathomable world of I Write Like.

In case any of you try out the program, I’d enjoy hearing your results – especially if they are someone other than a science fiction writer who died in 2008.

Another Way to Look at Writing Styles

There are a multitude of different elements involved in assessing a writer’s style – that which constitutes your “voice.” Vocabulary, sentence length, cadence, tone and a myriad of additional elements meld together in unique ways.

As David Downing’s fine article on C.S. Lewis’ advice to writers points out, the skilled writer considers how their words “sound.”

Lewis also believed that one should always write for the ear as well as for the eye. He recommended that a piece of prose be read aloud, to make sure that its sounds reinforce its sense.

Naturally, when we write for different audiences or purposes our voice can shift accordingly. That is why I fed the program selections from my blogs and my more considered essays. And, if they differ somewhat, you can imagine how distinctive my devotions are from my catechesis, or my fiction from my satire.

Speaking of satire, check out my recent report on Chinese Olympic results and the Uyghur people published last week in the Damascus Dropbear, a site similar to the Babylon Bee from the Land Down Under.

Back now to a second online program for assessing one’s writing. It can be found on a curious site called MySocialBrain. There you can participate in a variety of “research projects” that forfeit structured controls for broader access. The scientific benefit is obviously debatable, but the personal insights may well be beneficial.

One study entitled “Who do you write like?” compares the writing you submit with a number of famous authors. (As with “I Write Like,” your text is not retained on the system. Likewise, neither site requires that you enter your name or any other identifying information.)

This research project focuses narrowly on one dimension of stylometric study, a field explored in great depth in “Quantitative Patterns of Stylistic Influence in the Evolution of Literature,” available online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

MySocialBrain bases its study on a reasonable premise. “Despite the seemingly ineffable qualities of style, great progress has been made in measuring writing quantitatively. This process, known as stylometry, can identify the influence of one writer on another or reveal the author of unattributed work.”

You can have your writing compared to that of others at this site.

I used two different samples of my writing (blog, then essay) and came up with fairly similar results. I haven’t read much from every one of these authors, but my gut suggests there may be a valid correlation here. And that impression is reinforced by how little correlation my submission had with the writing of Beatrix Potter, R.M. Ballantyne and Baroness Orczy (of whom I had never heard).

If you have a few free minutes, and are curious about what this stylometry tool might conclude about your writing, give it a try.


The cartoon at the top of this column is used with the permission of its talented creator, Jonny Hawkins. He is both talented and prolific. Enjoy a humorous jaunt through his personal website today.

Mark Twain wrote some entertaining travelogues about his overseas travel. In A Tramp Abroad, he relates a conversation he and a friend had with an American who had been studying veterinary medicine in Germany. The expatriate complains about how long his studies have taken – nearly two years – and proclaims how good it is to hear his native tongue.

The student’s most humorous words relate to his impression of the German language. It’s unusual in its nineteenth century phrasing. However, he does note one rather common opinion in his earthy observation.

“I spotted you for my kind [fellow Americans] the minute I heard your clack. . . .” The young fellow hooked his arm into the Reverend’s, now, with the confiding and grateful air of a waif who has been longing for a friend, and a sympathetic ear, and a chance to lisp once more the

sweet accents of the mother tongue, — and then he limbered up the muscles of his mouth and turned himself loose, — and with such a relish!

Some of his words were not Sunday-school words, so I am obliged to put blanks where they occur. . . . “when I heard you fellows gassing away in the good old American language, I’m – if it wasn’t all I could do to keep from hugging you! My tongue’s all warped with trying to curl it around these forsaken wind-galled nine-jointed, German words here; now I tell you it’s awful good to lay it over a Christian word once more and kind of let the old taste soak in. . . .

“I’m learning to be a horse-doctor! I like that part of it, you know, but ____ these people, they won’t learn a fellow in his own language, they make him learn in German; so before I could tackle the horse-doctoring I had to tackle this miserable language.”

And, as if mastering German wasn’t difficult enough in itself, he continues:

“First-off, I thought it would certainly give me the botts, but I don’t mind it now. I’ve got it where the hair’s short, I think; and dontchuknow, they made me learn Latin, too. Now between you and me, I wouldn’t give a ____ for all the Latin that was ever jabbered; and the first thing I calculate to do when I get through, is to just sit down and forget it. ’Twon’t take me long . . .”

I don’t intend to offend Germans for the challenge their language poses to some. (In fact, one set of my grand-parents named Vonderohe originally came from Pomerania.) But the nature of agglutinative languages is so alien to most of us that the very length of the glued-together words becomes daunting.

Since I’m not a linguist, I had to research to discover as I wrote this post that German is not a truly agglutinative language. It merely uses agglutination. Apparently, the distinction involves distinctions with which most non-linguists need not concern themselves. We can be satisfied with the simplified definition provided by Glottopedia.org – “Agglutinating language is a language which has a morphological system in which words as a rule are polymorphemic and where each morpheme corresponds to a single lexical meaning.”

In truth, it’s quite logical to make new words by stringing them together. Most English compound words are a combination of two elements. Longer Germanic words seem more common. Kraftfahrzeug-Haftpflichtversicherung, for example, sounds “nine-jointed,” but is actually only two words, meaning motor vehicle liability insurance.

C.S. Lewis and the German Language

C.S. Lewis was multilingual, and studied German while relatively young. He and his wife used every language as a source when playing Scrabble.

Nevertheless, Lewis was quite modest about his grasp of German. In 1954, while thanking a German professor for the offer of a philosophy book he had written, Lewis wrote,

I look forward to reading the book (when the translation arrives! My German is wretched, and what there is of it belongs chiefly to the libretto of the Ring and Grimm’s Märchen – works whose style and vocabulary you very possibly do not closely follow).

The following year Lewis wrote once again to Helmut Kuhn. This time it was to thank him for a review Lewis’ works. Lewis said, “it certainly seems to me that your grasp of the whole situation in which I have written and of the relation of my ideas both to it and to each other, goes far beyond any criticism I have yet had.” Before he makes that noteworthy statement, Lewis makes a playful comment relating to the presumed dignity implicit in the German language itself.

To be written about in the German language is, for an Englishman, a grave temptation to spiritual pride. The sentences are so massive and the words so long that, even if the content were less flattering than it is in your article, the subject can hardly resist feeling that he must be a much weightier phenomenon than he had ever supposed!

Eucestoda Words: Well Worth a Postscript

Germans are an accomplished, literate people who take pride in their language. They have gone so far as to coin a word that specifically identifies these sometimes lengthy compound words. Germans call them bandwurmwörter, which literally means “tapeworm words.” (Mark Twain would have delighted in knowing that.)

Friedrich Akademie, an education website, devotes a page on their website to “Beautiful German Tapeworm Words.”

Tapeworm words . . . what a fascinatinglyinventivesemanticnovelty!

It’s nearly impossible to avoid digressions – those temporary departures from the current subject of conversation. While many digressions are interesting in the own right, they occasionally cause the speaker (or writer) to lose track of the actual point they are attempting to establish.

It’s like when I would be reading something the Emperor Constantine the Great, and at the mention of the Persian Empire, I would put the current article on hold while I explored the subject of just how the current regime in Iran reflects the religious fundamentalism of Zoroastrianism as it resisted during the Abbasid Caliphate. Ah, but forgive me, I digress.

The reason I am thinking about digressions today is because I recently encountered a massive one in one of Mark Twain’s works. But before we look at it, let’s consider a more recent example, in an article about C.S. Lewis.

In “The Uses of Ignorance,” literary critic Alan Jacobs explores a number of themes, including the way Lewis’ presentation of Christianity’s core resonates with believers from diverse theological backgrounds.

One lesson to be learned . . . is just how carefully Lewis articulated his “mere Christianity” so that it seemed “mere” indeed – recognizable to Christians from many different traditions as the faith they understood and practiced. But we also see . . . “that the lasting appeal of Mere Christianity is not based so much on Lewis’s genius as on his ability to point readers to the luminosity of the gospel message itself.” Which, I might add, is a kind of genius in itself.

The article is well worth reading, but the specific reason I mention it now, is because the author includes a lengthy (315 word) departure from his main theme which he brackets with the words “A digression:” and “End of digression”.) It’s rare to see something this straightforward.

C.S. Lewis as a Digresser

If the average woman or man is prone to digression, it seems apparent a genius – with voluminous knowledge on diverse subjects – would occasionally succumb to the same temptation. For someone like C.S. Lewis this is not a major problem, as he would never lose his place in the original conversation. On the contrary, Lewis’ digressions would invariably enrich the discussion, as they illuminated his points.

One of the only books written by C.S. Lewis which has entered the public domain is Spirits in Bondage. When it was published in 1919 (while he was an atheist), Lewis wrote to a friend: “The sub-title ‘A cycle of lyrical poems’ was not given without a reason: the reason is that the book is not a collection of really independent pieces, but the working out, loosely of course and with digressions, of a general idea.” (You can download a free copy of Spirits in Bondage at Project Gutenberg.)

Mark Twain’s Masterful Digression

I’ve written about Mark Twain in the past. In one column I shared his humorous reflections on the nature of editors. Writers will find the post particularly entertaining.

Editors played a major (usually unwelcome) role in Twain’s existence. Thus, it is unsurprising that a major digression in “How to Make History Dates Stick” involves these denizens of the publishing world.

One book I was reading this week includes an extensive and, of course, intentional example of digression. Although he doesn’t bracket it with the word “digression,” it is probably one of the best examples in existence. (We would expect nothing less from Samuel Clemens!)

In his novel Roughing It, Twain describes a pervasive blight to the western frontier, sagebrush.

I do not remember where we first came across “sage-brush,” but as I have been speaking of it I may as well describe it. This is easily done, for if the reader can imagine a gnarled and venerable live oak tree reduced to a little shrub two feet high, with its rough bark, its foliage, its twisted boughs, all complete, he can picture the “sage-brush” exactly.

Often, on lazy afternoons in the mountains I have lain on the ground with my face under a sage-bush, and entertained myself with fancying that the gnats among its foliage were Lilliputian birds, and that the ants marching and countermarching about its base were Lilliputian flocks and herds, and myself some vast loafer from Brobdingnag waiting to catch a little citizen and eat him.

Twain’s description of his daydreaming about sagebrush is entertaining, but this is not the quintessential digression I wish to share. After this brief digression, Twain writes a page and a half about the plant’s actual physical attributes and utility (e.g. for fires and tea). But then, when the reader least expects it, Twain goes off on another extended ramble.

Sage-brush is very fair fuel, but as a vegetable it is a distinguished failure. Nothing can abide the taste of it but the jackass and his illegitimate child, the mule. But their testimony to its nutritiousness is worth nothing, for they will eat pine knots, or anthracite coal, or brass filings, or lead pipe, or old bottles, or anything that comes handy, and then go off looking as grateful as if they had had oysters for dinner. Mules and donkeys and camels have appetites that anything will relieve temporarily, but nothing satisfy.

In Syria, once, at the head-waters of the Jordan, a camel took charge of my overcoat while the tents were being pitched, and examined it with a critical eye, all over, with as much interest as if he had an idea of getting one made like it; and then, after he was done figuring on it as an article of apparel, he began to contemplate it as an article of diet. He put his foot on it, and lifted one of the sleeves out with his teeth, and chewed and chewed at it, gradually taking it in, and all the while opening and closing his eyes in a kind of religious ecstasy, as if he had never tasted anything as good as an overcoat before in his life.

Then he smacked his lips once or twice, and reached after the other sleeve. Next he tried the velvet collar, and smiled a smile of such contentment that it was plain to see that he regarded that as the daintiest thing about an overcoat. The tails went next, along with some percussion caps and cough candy, and some fig-paste from Constantinople.

And then my newspaper correspondence dropped out, and he took a chance in that – manuscript letters written for the home papers. But he was treading on dangerous ground, now. He began to come across solid wisdom in those documents that was rather weighty on his stomach; and occasionally he would take a joke that would shake him up till it loosened his teeth; it was getting to be perilous times with him, but he held his grip with good courage and hopefully, till at last he began to stumble on statements that not even a camel could swallow with impunity.

He began to gag and gasp, and his eyes to stand out, and his forelegs to spread, and in about a quarter of a minute he fell over as stiff as a carpenter’s work-bench, and died a death of indescribable agony. I went and pulled the manuscript out of his mouth, and found that the sensitive creature had choked to death on one of the mildest and gentlest statements of fact that I ever laid before a trusting public.

At that point, the writer pretends to realize he has digressed and concludes the chapter in the persona of the naturalist he has earlier assumed.

I was about to say, when diverted from my subject that occasionally one finds sage-bushes five or six feet high, and with a spread of branch and foliage in proportion, but two or two and a half feet is the usual height.

Well, that’s probably more than enough of a diversion from your day’s responsibilities. I hope you enjoyed reading these words, and that your own skills as a digresser will be correspondingly enhanced.

Oh, the curse of being  a book lover. How can we thin the shelves of our libraries to make room for new additions we absolutely must add?

Digital copies have resolved the worst of that problem for many of us. Yes, holding a physical book in our hands is different altogether from reading off a screen, but when you compare the space requirements . . . or the accessibility when away from home or office . . . well, it is to me a worthwhile tradeoff.

I have always invested a significant (read “huge”) portion of my discretionary income in books. Like C.S. Lewis, I regard a good library as a treasure. While we both appreciate the extensive collections available in public and academic libraries, borrowing a text is not the same as owning it. Lewis alludes to this in a slightly off-handed manner in a 1952 letter to fellow Inkling, Roger Lancelyn Green.

I have re-read The Luck and liked it very much, as I had felt at the first reading . . . As luck would have it I met a lady who was looking for things to “read to the children” & The Luck is now on her list. I think she’s a buyer too, not a library addict.

The full title of the book to which Lewis refers is The Luck of the Lynns, and it was written by Green himself. This essay offers an excellent discussion of the book, and the author himself.

Books shaped Lewis’ life, particularly its beginning. In Surprised by Joy he describes visits to the home of Irish relatives. “In some ways Mountbracken was like our father’s house. There too we found the attics, the indoor silences, the endless bookshelves.”

Unpacking Book Boxes Twenty Years Later

Life has settled down to the point where I have been able to attack the forty to fifty boxes of books that were pulled out of storage when I retired and built our home. They weren’t actually removed from storage. It was more like a transfer—from a commercial storage unit to two-thirds of our three-car garage.

It’s been liberating to feel free to donate about 80% of the books to local charities. Some of those I’m retaining will join them in new libraries after I’ve had a chance to glean a few details from them. Coincidentally, this week one book box I unsealed included a few files, and among them was “Before the Book Sale,” from a 1995 issue of Christian Century.

The author, James M. Wall, was a Methodist pastor. His death this March, at the age of ninety-two, makes the article’s pull quote exceptionally poignant: “As I choose which books go and which stay, I confront my past and my mortality.”

Since the article is not available online, I will make it available as a one page pdf to anyone who requests a copy. The essay begins casually, but moves into a serious conversation that is well worth the read.

My town puts on a book sale every fall. Proceeds go to a worthy cause, and I am told the event is well attended. I never go because I already have too many books on my crowded shelves. But I do participate in the sale as a supplier.

It is for this reason that each summer as the time to turn books in approaches I am seized by an intense feeling of anxiety. I know I have to prune my shelves and I also know that there is no reason to hold onto all the books I have.

As I choose what goes and what stays, I confront my mortality—Who will want all these books when I am gone?—and my past. Each title evokes a memory of an earlier time of intense interest in a particular topic . . . and when I reject a book I once thought had to remain with me forever, I wonder in what ways I’ve changed.

The Final Disposition of One’s Books

In years past, it was not uncommon for exceptional personal libraries to be presented, in toto, to a university library. Today, the largest collection of books that originally graced the office and home of C.S. Lewis are housed at the Wade Center of Wheaton College.

A complete list of titles in the Lewis archive comes replete with indications whether a title includes a signature, underlining, and/or a handwritten annotation.

As for my own library, I hope my children and grandchildren will want to hold onto most of it. I have a feeling that ultimately the bulk of physical texts I still own will relate to the Inklings and related subjects. (I also have a substantial digital library in Logos, but that is primarily theological, and presently beyond the interests of those not headed to a seminary.)

Whatever the shape and size of your own library, the key is to actually use it. And it’s even more fun when you share it (with people who know how to respect books, of course).

Even if you have no funds available to purchase books, there are vast numbers of amazing volumes in the public domain that you can download for free.*

And finally, don’t hesitate to use your local library. Neither C.S. Lewis nor I would ever honestly desire to disparage a “library addict.” After all, he probably spent a hundredfold more hours reading library books than all the regular readers of Mere Inkling combined.


* Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg are my go to sites for public domain titles. Google Books is another option, for those already ensnared in the behemoth’s tentacles. (Just joking, Google. I know you’re watching…)


The cartoon above is used with the permission of its creator, Doug Savage. You can enjoy more of his comics at Savage Chickens.

I just read something funny about automobile commercials. This anonymous comment resonated with me, and may with you as well: “car advertisers grossly overestimate how much time I spend driving across the desert.”

It’s a versatile joke, since the final location is interchangeable. Despite the fact I live off a gravel road in the woods, they also grossly overestimate the time I spend summiting snowy mountains. Despite the “all wheel drive” in our two RAV4s,* I have no desire to race through dangerous or hostile environments.

Well, with one possible exception. I really enjoyed this entertaining advertisement from years ago. Trust me, watching this witty Jeep ad will be a worthwhile use of 31 seconds.

Cars are a ubiquitous presence in our world. In the States, getting a personal driver’s license is a traditional rite of passage for sixteen-year-olds. Even in many developing nations, automobile ownership is commonplace. While some urbanites consider the expenses associated with vehicles a foolish investment, most people find the alternative inconceivable. And, whether one owns, leases, rents, or borrows cars, having a driver’s license is a necessity.

That wasn’t always true. When my mother was learning to drive, the brakes went out on the car. She was so traumatized, she never drove again.

C.S. Lewis, on the other hand, had no interest in learning to drive. In fact, the brilliant Oxbridge professor was generally dismissive of automobiles. Presumably this did not carry over to his view of motorcycles, as his conversion while riding in brother Warnie’s sidecar attests.

On the Disadvantage of Traveling by Car

In his autobiography, C.S. Lewis declares “I number it among my blessings that my father had no car, while yet most of my friends had, and sometimes took me for a drive.”

The second half of the sentence makes ready sense. If our family lacks a car, it is fortuitous that generous friends compensated for its absence. But what could Lewis have meant by considering growing up without an automobile to be a “blessing?”

Fortunately, Lewis doesn’t leave us guessing—and his rationale provides a thought-provoking question. What might we sacrifice for the convenience of instantly accessible access to transportation that can carry us hundreds of miles in a handful of hours?

This meant that all these distant objects could be visited just enough to clothe them with memories and not impossible desires, while yet they remained ordinarily as inaccessible as the Moon.

The deadly power of rushing about wherever I pleased had not been given me [emphasis added].

I measure distances by the standard of man, man walking on his two feet, not by the standard of the internal combustion engine. I had not been allowed to deflower the very idea of distance . . .

The truest and most horrible claim made for modern transport is that it “annihilates space.” It does. It annihilates one of the most glorious gifts we have been given. It is a vile inflation which lowers the value of distance, so that a modern boy travels a hundred miles with less sense of liberation and pilgrimage and adventure than his grandfather got from traveling ten (Surprised by Joy).

This final idea of feeling adventure with modest travel opened my eyes to one of the “oddities” I experienced as a child. One year while I was young, my father was stationed overseas with the USMC, and my mother relocated us so we would be near her parents.

My grandparents had a practice that struck me, already a fairly well-traveled lad, as very strange. Each Sunday, after church, we would all pile into the family sedan and go for “a drive.” The cause for this special event was not to get from point A to point B. No, the purpose was simply to enjoy the simple experience of traveling. I don’t recall ever driving more than thirty miles from home, but setting out in random directions to savor the beauty of God’s creation did produce a unique type of satisfaction.

Human Perceptions of Distance

Distance can be considered in a variety of ways. We commonly think of distance in visual terms. Depth perception is made possible by binocular vision. Monocular (single eye) vision is poor at recognizing depths, although it can still be useful for comprehending distances and sizes. However, we are not reliant solely on our eyes.

An obvious alternative is found in the phenomenon of auditory distance perception. Not as efficient as its visual cousin, this medical article notes it does possess one significant advantage.

A normal-hearing person has an immediate appreciation of auditory space in the sense that orientation toward acoustic events is natural, rapid, and in general, accurate. Although spatial acuity is poorer by up to two orders of magnitude in the auditory than in the visual domain, the auditory world has the advantage of extending in all directions around the observer, while the visual world is restricted to frontal regions.

In “The Various Perceptions of Distance: An Alternative View of How Effort Affects Distance Judgments,” scientists discuss the even broader complexity of the subject.

Direct judgments of spatial relations are key to a variety of research domains, both inside and outside the discipline of psychology (e.g., spatial cognition, neuropsychology, exercise science, medical diagnosis, human factors). Thus, the lessons learned from this work have implications extending well beyond visual space perception.

Having noted there are psychological aspects of perceiving distances, I recommend QGIS. QGIS is a free, open source, cross-platform application which supports viewing and editing of geospatial data. It’s actually less complicated than it may sound, and a quick look at their “lesson” on “Spatial Thinking” is extremely informative.

“There are three fundamental concepts of spatial analysis: space, location, and distance.” Each of these perspectives includes absolute, relative and cognitive dimensions. It is the cognitive aspect that most fascinates me and, I sincerely believe, intrigued C.S. Lewis.

Absolute distance is a physical unit of measure, for instance, the number of miles between downtown Houston and downtown Toronto. Relative distance is calculated measuring distance, using metrics such as time, effort, or cost. For instance, the distance of two cities may be 2000 miles apart, which is an absolute description of distance, becomes the distance of two cities measured in tanks of gas, or mileage charge.

Last, let’s discuss the cognitive perception of distance. This refers to an individual’s perception of how far things are apart. For instance, to some, driving 200 miles between Houston and San Antonio Texas is a reasonable drive. However, for others, a 200 mile drive may seem like a very, very far distance to travel if they are not used to traveling such a distance regularly.

This final example, of the varying perceptions of distance by people with different experiences is precisely what Lewis identified in Surprised by Joy.

The truest and most horrible claim made for modern transport is that it “annihilates space.” It . . . is a vile inflation which lowers the value of distance, so that a modern boy travels a hundred miles with less sense of liberation and pilgrimage and adventure than his grandfather got from traveling ten.

Perhaps the Most Significant Matter of Distance

An article entitled “Closest Proximity And Infinite Distance” discusses Lewis’ insight into matters of distance. The author includes the following passage from Lewis’ Letters to Malcolm.

I fully agree that the relationship between God and a man is more private and intimate than any possible relation between two fellow creatures. Yes, but at the same time there is, in another way, a greater distance between the participants.

We are approaching—well I won’t say “the Wholly Other,” for I suspect that is meaningless, but the Unimaginably and Insupportably Other. We ought to be—sometimes I hope one is—simultaneously aware of closest proximity and infinite distance.

Once again, we witness C.S. Lewis’ brilliance. An awareness of both our Lord’s proximity to us and the vast distance between Creator and humankind, is a fundamental truth of Christian faith. And, here I will be bold in love, if either element is lacking in your personal relationship with God, I strongly encourage you to pursue such a balance.


* Lest anyone think we are extravagant, the “new” car is a 2013, and its older garage-mate is a 2004, complete with a manual transmission.

Prayers, Barbers & Saints

January 27, 2021 — 14 Comments

Barbers, and hairdressers, play a unique role in society. Let’s consider now two barbers whose interactions with great Christians contributed to our understanding of prayer.

Before we do, however, I wish to share another aspect of C.S. Lewis’ life which parallels many of our own. The great professor and author was exceptional for his knowledge, but in most other ways was just like us.

One example of Lewis’ normalness, is seen in his interactions with barbers. Due to the survival of much of his correspondence, we can witness a perennial tension—the desire of fathers that their sons cut their hair.

As a veteran whose adult son had a ponytail for several years, I understand the frustration of Lewis’ father, the Irish solicitor, when his son Jack lacked diligence in maintaining a neat appearance. In my own case, the die had been cast from my youth. Growing up in the late sixties, I did manage to sport a thick contemporary mane which chafed my own father, but too much of my youth was spent with a crewcut, the haircut-of-choice for my dad, the Marine Corps sergeant.

Presumably, while young Jack was still at home, his parents saw to it his hair was attended to. After his mother Florence’s death, and his move to boarding school, haircuts were a curious recurring theme in Lewis’ correspondence with his “Papy.” Below are a few of young Jack’s passing remarks on the subject.

Today I did a thing that would have gladdened your heart: walked to Leatherhead (for Bookham does not boast a barber) to get my hair cut. And am now looking like a convict (1914).

My dear Papy, Thanks very much for the photographs, which I have duly received and studied. They are artistically got up and touched in: in fact everything that could be desired–only, do I really tie my tie like that? Do I really brush my hair like that? Am I really as fat as that? Do I really look so sleepy? However, I suppose that thing in the photo is the one thing I am saddled with for ever and ever, so I had better learn to like it. Isn’t it curious that we know any one else better than we do ourselves? Possibly a merciful delusion (1914).

I am very sorry to hear that you were laid up so long, and hope that you now have quite shaken it off. I have had a bit of a cold, but it is now gone, and beyond the perennial need of having my hair cut, I think you would pass me as ‘all present and correct’ (1921).

I am afraid this has been an egotistical letter. But it is dull work asking questions which you can’t (at any rate for the moment) give a reply to. You do not need to be told that I hope you are keeping fairly well and that I shall be glad to hear if this is the case. For myself—if you came into the room now you would certainly say that I had a cold and that my hair needed cutting: what is more remarkable: you would (this time) be right in both judgements. Your loving son, Jack (1928)

Lewis’ High Street Barber

In the early 1950s, C.S. Lewis developed a meaningful relationship with his barber, based on their shared faith. Before we consider an essay inspired, in part, by this friendship, this 1951 letter reveals the affection Lewis held for the man.

My brother joins me in great thanks for all your kindnesses, and especially on behalf of dear little comical Victor Drewe—our barber, as you know.

When he cut my hair last week he spoke in the most charming way of his wife who has just been ill and (he said) ‘She looks so pretty, Sir, so pretty, but terribly frail.’ It made one want to laugh & cry at the same time—the lover’s speech, and the queer little pot-bellied, grey-headed, unfathomably respectable figure.

You don’t misunderstand my wanting to laugh, do you? We shall, I hope, all enjoy one another’s funniness openly in a better world.

Years later, C.S. Lewis would write a profound essay on “The Efficacy of Prayer.”

Some years ago I got up one morning intending to have my hair cut in preparation for a visit to London, and the first letter I opened made it clear I need not go to London. So I decided to put the haircut off too.

But then there began the most unaccountable little nagging in my mind, almost like a voice saying, “Get it cut all the same. Go and get it cut.” In the end I could stand it no longer. I went.

Now my barber at that time was a fellow Christian and a man of many troubles whom my brother and I had sometimes been able to help. The moment I opened his shop door he said, “Oh, I was praying you might come today.” And in fact if I had come a day or so later I should have been of no use to him.

It awed me; it awes me still. But of course one cannot rigorously prove a causal connection between the barber’s prayers and my visit. It might be telepathy. It might be accident. . . .

Our assurance—if we reach an assurance—that God always hears and sometimes grants our prayers, and that apparent grantings are not merely fortuitous, can only come [through a relationship which knows the promiser’s trustworthiness].

There can be no question of tabulating successes and failures and trying to decide whether the successes are too numerous to be accounted for by chance. Those who best know a man best know whether, when he did what they asked, he did it because they asked.

I think those who best know God will best know whether He sent me to the barber’s shop because the barber prayed.

You can read “The Efficacy of Prayer” in its entirety here. Or, should you prefer, you can hear it expertly read here.

The Story of Another Godly Barber

Four centuries before C.S. Lewis honored his barber by forever associating his name with the subject of prayer, the church reformer Martin Luther did the same. Luther’s friend was named Peter, and he lived during an age when skilled barbers also served as surgeons. According to the Barber Surgeons Guild,

The early versions of the Hippocratic Oath cautioned physicians from practicing surgery due to their limited knowledge on its invasive nature.  During the Renaissance, Universities did not provide education on surgery, which was deemed as a low trade of manual nature.

Barber surgeons who were expertly trained in handling sharp instruments for invasive procedures quickly filled this role in society. Barber surgeons were soon welcomed by the nobility and given residence in the castles of Europe where they continued their practice for the wealthy. These noble tradesmen, armed with the sharpest of blades, performed haircuts, surgeries and even amputations.

One church historian describes the Reformation context in an article entitled “Praying with Peter the Barber.”

Early in the year 1535, Peter Beskendorf became the most famous hairdresser of the reformation. He was Martin Luther’s barber and wrote to the great reformer asking for advice on how to pray.

Peter not only had a reputation as the master barber of Wittenberg, but he had a reputation for godliness and sincerity in his love for the Word of God. He was one of Luther’s oldest and best friends, so his request is not all that surprising.

What is surprising, however, is that Luther took the time out of his immensely busy reformation schedule to write him a thirty-four-page reply with theological reflections and practical suggestions about how he ought to approach prayer to the Almighty God.

In “Cutting Hair and Saying Prayers,” a lay theologian describes the focus of Martin Luther’s counsel.

When Luther’s barber, Peter Beskendorf, asked him how to pray, Luther wrote him an open letter that has become a classic expression of the “when, how, and what” of prayer. It is as instructive today as when it was first penned in 1535. . . .

Luther spends the bulk of his letter discussing what to pray. Implicitly in his letter, Luther teaches that God’s word is the content of our prayers.

Luther graces the beginning of the book with a sincere prayer of blessing. “Dear Master Peter: I will tell you as best I can what I do personally when I pray. May our dear Lord grant to you and to everybody to do it better than I! Amen.”

In a very interesting essay entitled “Warrior Saints,” a Marquette professor commends the “sweet and practical booklet,” writing that “today this work is justly celebrated as a minor classic that both epitomizes Luther’s spirituality and powerfully suggests what a deep and lasting impact he would make on the lives of his many followers.”

Volume 43 of Luther’s Works includes the treatise. In the collection’s introduction to the document, it includes a heartbreaking event that followed its publication.

Luther wrote the book early in 1535 and it was so popular that four editions were printed that year.

At Easter a tragedy befell Peter. He was invited to the home of his son-in-law, Dietrich, for a convivial meal the Saturday before Easter, March 27, 1535. Dietrich, an army veteran, boasted that he had survived battle because he possessed the art of making himself invulnerable to any wound. Thereupon the old barber, doubtlessly intoxicated, plunged a knife into the soldier’s body to test his boast. The stab was fatal.

Master Peter’s friends, including Luther, intervened for him, and the court finally sent him into exile. . . . He lost all his property and, ruined and impoverished, spent the rest of his life in Dessau.

Such was the sad course of Beskendorf’s life. One can only hope that, as his life itself had been spared, Peter experienced some sort of healing and peace. Such blessings, after all, are often the fruit of prayer.

Luther’s humble essay on prayer remains in print today. If you would like to read or own it for free, I have found a London edition entitled The Way to Prayer.

One caveat, which might trouble some readers: since the translation was published in 1846, it employs the “medial S,” the one that looks more like a lower case “F.”* Whichever edition you choose to read, you will not be disappointed.


* The medial S is sometime referred to as the long S. You can read about its history in this interesting article.

The history of S is a twisting, turning path. Until around the 1100s or so, the medial S was the lowercase form of the letter, while the curvy line we use today was the uppercase form. But over time, the regular S, technically known as the “round S” or “short S,” started being used as a lowercase letter, too.

By the 1400s, a new set of S usage rules was established: The medial S would be used at the beginning of a lowercase word or in the middle of a word, while the round S would appear either at the end of a word or after a medial S within a word, as in “Congreſs” (which appears in the first line of Article I of the Constitution).

Each writer brings a unique balance of talents to the task before them. Some excel at the initial writings. Others are especially talented at sharpening their work after the first draft has been created.

Understanding where we fit on that spectrum of author or editor, can be very empowering. Knowing our strengths and non-strengths is a major step in becoming a better writer.

Andy Le Peau worked for four decades at InterVarsity Press. His excellent blog, Andy Unedited, explores “books, life, and writing.” Five years ago he penned a short post that I still find extremely enlightening.

In “Authors are Like Pioneers—Editors Are Like Settlers,” Le Peau uses that unusual analogy to explain a creative tension at play in the lives of most writers I know. And, once we understand this fluid dichotomy, I believe it makes us better writers.

Authors tend to come up with new ideas and push them forward. They like to move into literary territories not explored before. Creating something new is like a shot of caffeine to their systems.

Good editors see how to improve a book, make it read better, clearer. They don’t try to shape the book in their own image. Rather they see the good that is already there and find ways to make it even more effective, better organized, clearer.

Good writers are usually pretty decent editors. Not expert, but adequate enough to recognize ways in which their own work can be improved. That’s why we call the “first draft” a first draft.

Now, if you consider your initial draft a finished product, you are definitely not a settler!

C.S. Lewis was a gifted writer. He also knew a great deal about editing, as I’ve discussed here in the past. I’ve even described his astonishment with the practices of some editors.

Lewis was quite open to revising his own work, even after it was published. In 1959, he wrote to one of his publishers, “Yes, there is one chapter of Miracles that needs revision. The result of the revision will, I think, make it shorter rather than longer. I’ll get onto this job as soon as I can.”

My Perspective on the Writing Process

While I embrace the pioneer or settler symbolism, I expand the analogy by thinking about my own writing process. I tend to think of it in three categories, with

Researching – Writing – Editing

To this process, if we desire to actually share our work, should be added at its end, “Submitting/Publishing.” Submitting refers to presenting it for potential publication in various media. By publishing, I refer to skipping the proverbial middle person, and posting your work online or using one of the self-publishing options readily available today.

In my personal context, I regard researching as a semi-independent stage of the writing process.

This may be due to the fact I focus on nonfiction. (Fiction writers can devote meager attention to it, and get away with it—not that they should ever ignore it.)

There are two additional reasons researching earns its own place in my writing process. First, because it is in my innate nature to be thorough and accurate. Second, I simply love the process. I know I’m in the minority.

Most writers prefer to get on with the task as soon as possible. I, however, am enslaved by my inherent curiosity to learn as much as possible about the undertaking as I can, before embarking on the actual writing. (And, yes, I recognize this may be exaggerated by my mortal tendency to procrastinate.)

To maintain the original analogy, in the spirit of Leif Erikson, I think of it this way:

Explorer – Pioneer – Settler

This works well for me, and I hope this post offers some insight and encouragement to you, as well.

If you are like me, you could benefit from a rich, genuine laugh right about now. Las year was stressful on all of us, and many are wary the new year may not be dramatically better.

For many of us, humor is an integral part of our lives. In our extended family, it is an ever ready tool for lifting the spirits of others. Just the other day our son and his six-year-old son dropped by, and as they entered the front door I said, “enter, most welcome king and prince.” Without missing a proverbial beat, my grandson responded, “I’m the king, and he’s the prince.” It was a hilarious, spontaneous moment. My wife and I are deeply blessed because our lives are filled with these moments.

We have all heard about the healing powers of laughter. One Mayo Clinic article on the subject, “Stress Relief from Laughter? It’s No Joke,” lists a number of short- and long-term benefits. For example:

Laughter enhances your intake of oxygen-rich air, stimulates your heart, lungs and muscles, and increases the endorphins that are released by your brain. . . . [It can] improve your immune system. Negative thoughts manifest into chemical reactions that can affect your body by bringing more stress into your system and decreasing your immunity.

By contrast, positive thoughts can actually release neuropeptides that help fight stress and potentially more-serious illnesses. [And laughter can] relieve pain . . . by causing the body to produce its own natural painkillers.

Since laughter has indisputable mental—and physical—benefits, promoting it is a worthwhile avocation. That effort is complicated by the fact our individual sense(s) of humor differ significantly. For example, some people find slapstick humor wildly funny. I find it funny (in the sense of “odd”), that they consider it witty.

On the other hand, some people appreciate the “subtleties” of so-called British humor. Many of my relatives have never understood how much I have enjoyed Monty Python. To them, the Python approach is bizarre and unpalatable. Meanwhile, they enjoyed the clumsy stumblings of Jerry Lewis.*

Ricky Gervais, an English comedian who has met great success on both sides of the pond, wrote an interesting piece for Time. He offers very thoughtful observations on “The Difference Between American and British Humour.” Having lived in the United Kingdom, and counting some Brits as friends today, the following comment rings true with me.

There’s a received wisdom in the U.K. that Americans don’t get irony. This is, of course, not true. But what is true is that they don’t use it all the time. It shows up in the smarter comedies but Americans don’t use it as much socially as Brits.

We use it as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and a weapon. We avoid sincerity until it’s absolutely necessary. We mercilessly [verbally assault] people we like or dislike basically.

And ourselves. This is very important. Our brashness and swagger is laden with equal portions of self-deprecation. This is our license to hand it out.

Perhaps my affinity for British humor comes from a flaw in my personal psyche, I mean, an innate appreciation for irony.

Another consideration is whether laughter is genuine or feigned. The latter presumably produces no positive results. Researchers in Japan conducted some laughter studies. One professor noted that honest laughter reaches down to a person’s diaphragm. He devised a machine to measure it.

Sensors placed near the diaphragm transmit waves to a computer screen, and these waves apparently reflect not only the intensity of a subject’s laughter but also its sincerity. A genuine laugh, straight from the heart, weighs in at 5 or more “aHs” per second –the “aH” (read “aha” in Japanese) being the unit of measurement Kimura devised in his quest to quantify laughter. Fake laughter makes no waves. The sensors ignore it, and the graph-lines on the screen remain unmoved.

Most of us, I suspect, can usually tell the difference between sincere responses, be they simple chuckles or raucous belly laughs, and the fake stuff. Fortunately, the inauthentic laughter is rarely malicious. An interesting dissertation entitled “The Meaningless Laugh,” explores laughter’s use to ease tension and “cover-up,” or mask, true opinions. It seems to me that insincere laughter has much in common with “white lies.”

Humor in the Life of C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis had a healthy sense of humor. Laughter abounded at gatherings of the Inklings. In light of Gervais’ comment about the British propensity for “teasing our friends,” check out “C.S. Lewis Compared J.R.R. Tolkien to What?

Our sense of humor is shaped and refined (or dulled) throughout our lives. An interesting letter from 1914, before Lewis was scarred in the trenches of the First World War, reveals his entertainment preferences as a young man.  

Last week I was up with these people to the Coliseum: and, though of course (which by the way I see no prospect of) I had sooner have gone to some musical thing, yet I enjoyed myself. The Russian Ballet–and especially the music to it–was magnificent, and G.P. Huntley* in a new sketch provoked some laughter.

The rest of the show trivial & boring as music halls usually are. At ‘Gastons’ however, I have no lack of entertainment, having been recently introduced to Chopin’s Mazurkas, & Beethoven’s ‘Sonate Pathétique.’

The mature Lewis made a profound observation about humor in Reflections on the Psalms.

A little comic relief in a discussion does no harm, however serious the topic may be. (In my own experience the funniest things have occurred in the gravest and most sincere conversations.)

I have found this to be true in my own life and ministry. In the words of the Mayo Clinic piece, “Laughter can also make it easier to cope with difficult situations. It also helps you connect with other people” even during the most trying of times.

Can Laughter Be Dangerous?

We all recognize that when humor is pursued at the expense of others, it is often destructive. Sarcasm is a dangerous, and often cruel, weapon. Healthy laughter, though, possesses a divine quality.

Laughter can, in fact, be such a positive thing that even the Tempter Screwtape⁂ warns his protégé to undermine it. (Remember, when reading Screwtape, that since Screwtape, the fictional writer of the infernal advice, serves the Devil, and thus the language is reversed.)

I am specially glad to hear that the two new friends have now made [your patient] acquainted with their whole set. All these, as I find from the [infernal] record office, are thoroughly reliable people; steady, consistent scoffers and worldlings who without any spectacular crimes are progressing quietly and comfortably towards Our Father’s house.

You speak of their being great laughers. I trust this does not mean that you are under the impression that laughter as such is always in our favour. The point is worth some attention. I divide the causes of human laughter into Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper, and Flippancy.

You will see the first among friends and lovers reunited on the eve of a holiday. Among adults some pretext in the way of Jokes is usually provided, but the facility with which the smallest witticisms produce laughter at such a time shows that they are not the real cause. What that real cause is we do not know.

Something like it is expressed in much of that detestable art which the humans call Music, and something like it occurs in Heaven—a meaningless acceleration in the rhythm of celestial experience, quite opaque to us. Laughter of this kind does us no good and should always be discouraged. Besides, the phenomenon is of itself disgusting and a direct insult to the realism, dignity, and austerity of Hell (The Screwtape Letters).

As to whether or not laughter can nudge a person towards a negative end, Screwtape singles out flippancy.

But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it.

If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour-plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy: it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practise it (The Screwtape Letters).

Forewarned about the potential pitfalls of unhealthy humor, we can choose to avoid it. Meanwhile, we can rejoice with laughter that our Creator has bestowed upon us the ability to laugh.

C.S. Lewis celebrated this gift in his echo of our own creation in the story of Narnia’s birth. From the very first day, laughter was meant to resound throughout the world.

“Creatures, I give you yourselves,” said the strong, happy voice of Aslan. “I give to you forever this land of Narnia. I give you the woods, the fruits, the rivers. I give you the stars and I give you myself. The Dumb Beasts whom I have not chosen are yours also. Treat them gently and cherish them but do not go back to their ways lest you cease to be Talking Beasts. For out of them you were taken and into them you can return. Do not so.”

“No, Aslan, we won’t, we won’t,” said everyone. But one perky jackdaw added in a loud voice, “No fear!” and everyone else had finished just before he said it so that his words came out quite clear in a dead silence; and perhaps you have found out how awful that can be—say, at a party.

The Jackdaw became so embarrassed that it hid its head under its wing as if it were going to sleep. And all the other animals began making various queer noises which are their ways of laughing and which, of course, no one has ever heard in our world.

They tried at first to repress it, but Aslan said: “Laugh and fear not, creatures. Now that you are no longer dumb and witless, you need not always be grave. For jokes as well as justice come in with speech.”

So they all let themselves go. And there was such merriment that the Jackdaw himself plucked up courage again and perched on the cab-horse’s head, between its ears, clapping its wings, and said: “Aslan! Aslan! Have I made the first joke? Will everybody always be told how I made the first joke?”

“No, little friend,” said the Lion. “You have not made the first joke; you have only been the first joke.” Then everyone laughed more than ever; but the Jackdaw didn’t mind and laughed just as loud till the horse shook its head and the Jackdaw lost its balance and fell off, but remembered its wings (they were still new to it) before it reached the ground.

Laughter is a gift from God. I believe it is one of his best.


* The warm appreciation of comedian Jerry Lewis (1926-2017) by the French has always been a mystery to me. Talk about different ways to view humor. An interesting discussion of that enigmatic fact is found in “Why France Understood Jerry Lewis as America Never Did.”

Jerry Lewis was always a subject of a deep trans-Atlantic misunderstanding, one that triggered sarcasm in the United States, and bewilderment in France. While some Americans felt embarrassed by this contortionist comic, the French embraced Mr. Lewis’s humor as both an abstract art and social satire of American life.

Americans mocked the French for falling for this crass clown, while the French couldn’t understand why Mr. Lewis’s genius was not obvious to his compatriots.

⁑ George Patrick Huntley (1868–1927) was an Irish actor, known for comic performances in the theatre and the music halls.

⁂ The fictional author of C.S. Lewis’ book, The Screwtape Letters. Screwtape, the senior Tempter serves his master, the Devil. He refers to him as “Our Father Below,” accordingly.


The graphic above comes from the blog of a very talented writer and producer. Mitch Teemley included in a recent post at The Power of Story. I agree with my friend that “laughter has healing properties.” If you believe the same, you absolutely need to spend a few minutes reading his hilarious post.