Archives For Literature

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think I’ll stick with “American.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ukrainian War Poetry

May 4, 2022 — 7 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

Voices of Ukraine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Confessions

The City of God

Lives of the Fathers

Saint Augustine and his Age

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


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

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

Digital History describes the problem in the following way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So From Where Does the Puritan Label Come?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Writing a Biography

January 4, 2022 — 14 Comments

What kind of writer are you? A poet, journalist, essayist or, perhaps, a minimalist? (By “minimalist” I mean someone who writes the bare minimum they have to.)

Many readers of Mere Inkling are, in fact, writers in their own right. Even ignoring the profusion of texts ricocheting around the globe (which are, in fact, literary creations), a fair number of Mere Inkling subscribers have blogs of their own.

The preeminent position of physical letters as the medium for correspondence has been usurped by email. People still write to one another, but – to the woe of the struggling United States Postal Service – they do it digitally.

More serious writers gravitate toward a varieties of genres. Often we try our hands at the sort of literature we prefer reading. That’s why I seldom write poetry. (And, when I do, it’s usually because I’m consciously stretching myself.)

My poetic skills may be limited – you can decide for yourself – but I don’t experience any of the disappointment that befell C.S. Lewis when his poetic dreams were dashed.

Poets are fine. Until they become snobs. If they treat other genres with respect, they stand on an equal footing with everyone else. But when they claim primacy for their preference, they lose me. Consider “William Faulkner Makes Us Wonder: What’s So Great About Poetry, Anyhow?

There’s a reason I can call poetry the highest form of artistic expression without thinking twice about it. And even though most Americans today don’t acknowledge the art form all that much, you’d be hard-pressed to find a sensible person who doesn’t respect or – if only from a distance – admire the magic in it.*

I guess I am one of the Americans who doesn’t possess a special reverence for poetry. And, as for “admiring the magic in it,” please. Wait, I don’t desire to offend you poets out there. Unless, of course, you consider yourself better than everyone else. In that case, consider my words a gentle rebuke (and encouragement to consider the virtue of humility).  

I hope that everyone will read on, and forgive me for maligning “the highest form of artistic expression.”

A Less Honored Literary Genre

I write nonfiction, unsurprising for someone who is basically a historian. Theologically, I neglect the conjecture of systematic theological considerations and focus on what’s usually called “practical theology.” It too, is unpretentious, and intended to make sense to “regular” people.

Recent years have found me dabbling in the memoir, or versions of autobiography, as I consider the potential value of such documents to my descendants.

One arena I’ve never really considered is biography. I suspect it would be a comfortable literary form, for a historian. I mean, you’re simply telling the story of a single life, relating facts and explaining the context of various events. That doesn’t sound too challenging, does it?

I suppose almost anyone could write a biography. The question is, could we write a good one?

Writing a Biography

I have been thinking about this subject ever since my research for my previous post introduced me to the work of David Cecil,⁑ one of the Oxford Inklings who shared the company of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Cecil wrote several biographies. At Internet Archives you can read his lives of William Cowper, Charles Lamb, or Max Beerbohm, or his two-volume biography of Lord Melbourne (1 and 2).

If those individuals don’t tickle your proverbial fancy, you might want to look at the book that piqued my interest: An Anthology of Modern Biography. In it, Cecil explores the work of sixteen biographers. One of the chapters is his own portrayal of the evangelical Anglican cleric, John Newton (an extract from his biography of Cowper).

What intrigues me most about the volume is not the biographical material itself. Rather, it is Cecil’s very informative introduction. Here is his opening, which may whet the interest of future biographers . . . one of whom could be you?

Biography is not an important form of literary art. But it has a special interest to the student of modern literature. For it is the only new form. We can talk of modern poetry and modern novels, but these are only new variations on old forms. . . . Not so biography.

Art is primarily the expression of the artist’s creative powers; he writes to express his personal vision; he chooses as his subject that which he thinks will best exhibit his particular talent.

Now this is not true of the biographer of the past. His aim was not artistic, it was useful; he wanted to give people information. If he was a man of literary talent . . . his book was a work of art. But even if it had not been, it would not have failed. For its primary purpose had been, not to give an artistic impression, but to tell the truth.

This desire for the truth over ostentation resonates with me. But, mind you, he is referring to biographers “of the past.” Now (the book was published in 1936), other influences are at work.

But for the typical modern biographer literature comes first. Mr. Lytton Strachey writes about Queen Victoria, not in order to give us information about her, but because he thinks her life an excellent subject for a work of art. . . .

He does not set out his facts . . . complete with reference and proof, he weaves them into a story, grouping them in order and proportion that will make his picture as vivid and entertaining as possible.

Cecil’s explanation for this transformation is fascinating, and I encourage you to read it yourself, whether or not you are interested in writing a biography yourself. The book is available here, and thanks to the Public Library of India, you can download a complete copy for free.

In a 1932 letter to Arthur Greeves, C.S. Lewis contrasts biographies with the evidence from people’s daily lives. He shares with his lifelong friend a question this raises in his own minid.

It is a very consoling fact that so many books about real lives – biographies, autobiographies, letters etc. – give one such an impression of happiness, in spite of the tragedies they all contain. What could be more tragic than the main outlines of Lamb’s or Cowper’s lives?

But as soon as you open the letters of either, and see what they were writing from day to day and what a relish they got out of it, you almost begin to envy them.

Perhaps the tragedies of real life contain more consolation and fun and gusto than the comedies of literature?

Biography. Considering trying it. And, Poetry, it’s not that bad, either.


* The article does include interesting information about Faulkner. It appears his disappointed poetic dream shifted him to more productive fields. This parallels C.S. Lewis’ literary career.

For all of [Faulkner’s] achievements, his Nobel Prize for Literature, his Pulitzers and National Book Awards, his mug on a 22-cent postage stamp – the man still fell short. And it wasn’t that he dropped out of high school and did only a few semesters of college, or that he was once fired by an employer for reading on the job.

These were small missteps and shortcomings that were basically inconsequential in the long run. The larger issue is that, in his own view, William Faulkner was a failed poet. Failed.

“Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first,” he told The Paris Review in 1956, “finds he can’t, and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And, failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.”

What you may not know is that before his first novel, Soldier’s Pay, Faulkner had written two books of poetry, Vision in Spring in 1921 and The Marble Faun in 1924. While he’d long dreamed of being taken seriously as a poet, the verse was always second-rate and not particularly significant. Eventually he abandoned his efforts as a poet to focus solely on his fiction.

⁑ In the spirit of most colonials who shook off the reigns of monarchial rule, I tend to respect the Queen as a head of state, and disregard the affectations of an aristocracy they once “lorded” it over. Thus, I can take or leave Cecil’s normative citation as “Lord David Cecil.

If we were to ask C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and the rest of the Inklings for insights about a New Year, what wisdom might they share?

Read on. Mere Inkling answers that question with a few select quotations from their writings. We also include comments from several other writers associated, in spirit, with the Oxford Inklings.

While some of the pithiest of the quotations below are well represented at quotation websites, your humble host has secured the less familiar quotations through the diligent search of obscure manuscripts.

J.R.R. Tolkien:

From a holiday letter to a friend.

“There is small chance of this reaching you tomorrow Jan. 1 to wish you a Happy New Year. I hope you have plenty of food in store! It is my birthday on Jan. 3rd, and I look like spending it in the isolation of a house turned igloo; but the companionship of several bottles of what has turned out a most excellent burgundy (since I helped to select it in its infancy) will no doubt mitigate that: Clos de Tart 1949, just at its top. With that hobbit-like note I will close, wishing you and your wife and children all blessings in 1962.”

As the world conflict raged on, Tolkien wrote to his son Christopher who was serving in the Royal Air Force. “This empty year is fading into a dull grey mournful darkness: so slow-footed and yet so swift and evanescent. What of the new year and the spring? I wonder.”

Christopher Tolkien:

A scholar in his own right, Christopher devoted much of his life to editing his father’s published and unpublished works. In The End of the Third Age, he reminds us that sometimes the jobs on which we embark end up being far more involved than we anticipated. “With this book, my account of the writing of The Lord of the Rings is completed. I regret that I did not manage to keep it even within the compass of three fat volumes.

C.S. Lewis:

“What wonderful adventures we shall have, now that we are all in it together.”

“You are never too old to set another goal or dream a new dream.”

“Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back, everything is different.”

“I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and help others to do the same.”

“If you live for the next world, you get this one in the deal; but if you live only for this world, you lose them both.”

“There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”

“I think that if God forgives us we must forgive ourselves. Otherwise, it is almost like setting up ourselves as a higher tribunal than Him.”

Charles Williams:

“I think in order to move forward into the future, you need to know where you’ve been.”

“Play and pray; but on the whole do not pray when you are playing and do not play when you are praying.”

Owen Barfield:

“. . . the poet, while creating anew, is likely to be in a sense restoring something old.”

In a short story entitled “The Devastated Area,” Barfield, a veteran of WWI, described the way a soldier can view an uncertain future. “Armistice day; the last shot; and the hushed, doubtful little group in the dug-out at 11 o’clock. He is sitting there in uniform, willing for the first time in three years to let his thoughts run on into the future. But they will go back to the past instead . . .”

Adam Fox:

In his history of English hymnody, Fox praises his nation’s people and offers timely advice regarding musical accompaniment. “It takes no long argument to prove that Hymn Singing is a national institution in Great Britain. It is so rather in the same way as cricket. . . . The singing is usually accompanied on an organ, or if there is no organ, then on a piano. The harmonium, though sometimes used for the purpose, cannot be recommended, and is falling into disuse.”

Jack A.W. Bennett:

In The Humane Medievalist, Bennett praises his friend and fellow Inkling, C.S. Lewis. Coincidentally, this essay was his own inaugural lecture as he assumed the Cambridge chair which had been created for Lewis himself. “C.S. Lewis died a year ago today, and the year has deepened not diminished our sense of loss. Those of us who had the good fortune to call him master must feel as the prentice Hoccleve felt about Chaucer: ‘Fain he would me have taught, But I was dull, and learned little or naught.’”

Lord David Cecil:

He begins his biography of Lord Melbourne with a curious sentence suggesting that even we who have lived the most average of lives, may still have great things ahead of us. “William Lamb, second son of the first Viscount Melbourne, had arrived at the age of forty-seven without achieving anything of significance in the world.”

Hugo Dyson:

Discussing the Tragedies written by Shakespeare, Dyson reminds us to recognize potential blessings in the coming year’s challenges. “Our awareness both of ourselves and of the world at large is intensified by confrontation with an unexpected or serious or painful situation. Our wits and imaginations alike grow more acute under difficulties.”

Nevill Coghill:

Referring to Chaucer’s portrayal of the Knight, Coghill describes an ongoing goal for those who will to live nobly. “There is a fundamental answer to those who want to think the Knight’s moral nature . . . was too good to be true, and so can be no better than a romantic illusion. People who think thus can never have thought about Christianity at all; that we can live up to the moral demands that it makes on us, and that at any moment we may fall into the pit that opens beneath us, does not lessen the love we are taught . . . to have, and to attempt. Christianity plainly tells us to be perfect, impossible as it seems, impossible as it proves; but this does not make that demand less real, or even less realistic . . . Coming to the aid of human imperfection, there is grace.”

A Special Bonus for Mere Inkling Readers as the Year Ends

And a few additional thoughts from writers with connections to our favorite Inklings.

George MacDonald:

“A man’s real belief is that which he lives by. What a man believes is the thing he does, not the thing he thinks.”

A reminder to trust God for his daily provision. “It is not the cares of today, but the cares of tomorrow, that weigh a man down. For the needs of today we have corresponding strength given. For the morrow we are told to trust. It is not ours yet. It is when tomorrow’s burden is added to the burden of today that the weight is more than a man can bear.”

“Past tears are present strength.”

Dorothy Sayers:

“Paradoxical as it may seem, to believe in youth is to look backward; to look forward we must believe in age.”

G.K. Chesterton:

“When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.”

Joy Davidman:

“Being a fool for God was not merely alright but liberating.”

“We do not need a world in which there is nothing to be afraid of . . . Nor can we have such a world, for all our strivings; no matter pleasant and safe we make the journey, the end of it is death. What we do need is to remember that we have been redeemed from death and the fear of death, and at a rather high price too.”

Douglas Gresham:

“I am beginning to realize that every point in one’s life at which one loses everything is far more a beginning than an end, for one has lost merely the past, and one has yet to gain the future, and eternity itself.”

And, encouragement for those among us who are writers: “Don’t forget, the rejection by a publisher of a book that you’ve written is not a failure.”

One Final Bit of Wisdom for the New Year

The internet offers lots of valuable information, accessible with the click of a key. Unfortunately, a significant amount of it is unsubstantiated, and downright false. This includes the quotations attributed to various people.

Some largescale quotation “aggregators” consider attribution on other unvalidated sites sufficient justification for loading the questionable citations to their own pages. For example, check out the quotations attributed online to Lord David Cecil. Or, better yet, don’t.

During my research for this post I discovered many of them – or, at least those most beneficial to reflective minds – actually come from the pen of Richard Cecil (1748-1810), an Anglican priest. Here is a grand example of misattribution, particularly appealing to a pastor such as myself: “It requires as much reflection and wisdom to know what is not to be put into a sermon, as what is.”

We’ll close now with an apocryphal C.S. Lewis quote. Despite scores of sites attributing the following thought to Lewis, no one can find it anywhere in his work. It is, however, consistent with his wisdom, and leaves us with an optimistic truth as 2021 draws to a close.

“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”

Amen. Lord, grant all those who read these words of wisdom, both now and during years to come, a blessed New Year.

Respecting Animals We Kill

December 21, 2021 — 6 Comments

Sometimes even a moral sluggard can say something profoundly true. I was recently visiting the uplifting site of a British pet photographer, and came across this wonderful insight:

“Until one has loved an animal a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”

As I spent a moment reflecting on the quote, having just enjoyed a morning game with our border collie, it dawned on me these words are not only philosophically true. The more I consider them the stronger the case, it seems to me, can be made for their theological truth.

Turn the statement around. Can someone be considered spiritually awake if they have never possessed a moment of genuine affection for an animal, the pinnacle of God’s natural creation? I tend to think not.

Cultural matters certainly influence one’s connection with nature. It may be that people surviving on the edge of food sufficiency would view animals primarily as a resource. Yet even then, the best among us still possess a regard for the creatures whose lives we curtail to extend our own.

An outstanding example of this is found in a common practice among North America’s first peoples. (First Nations is the common term in Canada). Many of these people would include prayer on behalf of the prey they sought.

In the Cherokee legend “The Little Dear, Awi Usdi,” describes how hunters were taught to only take life when necessary, and to “ask pardon when an animal was killed.”

Another site explains how “Coast Salish women were forbidden from stepping over deer meat, and the men had to look away when uncovering it. All bones had to be thrown into the water, and the viscera not consumed were buried so the dogs would not eat it.”

Post-Kill Rituals: Matters of the Heart,” describes how this “ancient reverence” for hunted animals extended beyond the Americas. It concludes with a valuable thought.

Rituals aren’t a bad idea . . . But you show the utmost respect by concentrating on killing the animal quickly. Hunters’ conduct toward wildlife and nature should be consistent with their conduct toward other humans.

While Christians will necessarily overlook the religious elements of these various traditions,* those most attuned to the love of God – a Creator who viewed the “living creatures” he had fashioned and proclaimed, “it was good” – will possess at least a glimmer of reverence or affection for wildlife.

Not that Christians can’t be avid hunters. The Roman Catholic Church even has a Patron Saint for hunting. St. Hubert, pictured above, was (before his canonization, of course) a worldly nobleman. In the seventh century, Hubert had ignored invitations to attend worship on one of the holiest of days, Good Friday. Yet the Lord met him there, in the forest. His conversion occurred when he saw a vision of a crucifix while hunting. Hubert would later use his skill with a bow to draw crowds for his preaching of the Gospel.

C.S. Lewis & the Hunting of Deer

In an essay entitled “The Seeing Eye,” C.S. Lewis turns the analogy of hunting upside down. Using his own life, in which searching for God was the farthest thing from his desires, Lewis describes his conversion in a fascinating manner. It is interesting that while Lewis reveals he wasn’t desirous of faith, he was seeking honesty within his own conscience. He was also seeking truth.

I never had the experience of looking for God. It was the other way round; He was the hunter (or so it seemed to me) and I was the deer. He stalked me like a [hunter], took unerring aim, and fired. And I am very thankful that that is how the first (conscious) meeting occurred. It forearms one against subsequent fears that the whole thing was only wish fulfilment. Something one didn’t wish for can hardly be that.

But it is significant that this long-evaded encounter happened at a time when I was making a serious effort to obey my conscience. No doubt it was far less serious than I supposed, but it was the most serious I had made for a long time.

So, Who was the Author of the Initial Quote?

I began by saying even moral sluggards can occasionally make a good point. The person who drew the connection between our regard for animals and our souls is Anatole France. Not only was he a serial adulterer, he was a devout atheist. (Not all atheists are adulterers, of course, but rejecting the God of the Bible does make it a lot easier to justify one’s immorality.)

Anatole wrote some curious works ridiculing Christianity, and until I was writing this post I had completely forgotten about my 2014 post about his advocacy for Satan.

Returning to Positive Subjects . . . Like Animals

The site that used the great quotation with which we began, is excellent. It is called “Mad about Greys,” and is the work of a British photographer.

Liz Coleman does an amazing job capturing the hearts and – dare I say, souls – of the pets she shoots. Even though Surrey is quite a ways for most Mere Inkling readers to visit her studio, I encourage you to visit her website today.


* There were additional Native American beliefs and taboos. For example, “the Pentlatch and Squamish buried or hid all deer bones. The West Sanetch were not permitted to eat deer meat and fish at the same meal.”

Out of Context

December 14, 2021 — 13 Comments

Journalists quickly learn the skill of taking the words of people they dislike out of context. By doing this, they can make absolutely brilliant men and women sound like simpletons.

If the person is a public figure, with lots of material to sort through, you can find partial quotations (or obviously humorous or sarcastic remarks) that make the object of their ridicule sound like nearly anything – from a compassionate philanthropist to a conniving fascist.

That’s one reason some people who hope to tarnish the reputation of C.S. Lewis consciously avoid citing his work in its totality (or each piece in its honest context). Thus, as this article suggests, intelligent readers understand Lewis’ writing is “exceptionally good,” while some infantile critics regard it as “dodgy and unpleasant.”

(Do you appreciate my skillful use of adjectives in the previous sentence? They, of course, represent another dishonest method of undermining the arguments of people with whom one disagrees.)

Returning to the idea of taking things out of their context, I offer the graphic (meme, if you will) that I created for the top of this column. It was inspired by “The 12 Most Inspiring Verses In The Bible” in the Babylon Bee. The brief article humorously illustrates how excising words from their context can make them sound rather bizarre.

These examples (mine included) are offered in a light-hearted way. However, the internet teems with examples of malicious attacks on God’s written Word. And many of these rely on the tried and true[false] technique of ignoring the immediate or full context to construct their strawman.

Strawmen or strawwomen are another dishonest form of argument, as “Logical Fallacies 101” explains.

Strawmen, scarecrows, and mannequins all have one thing in common: they are, by nature, flimsy objects that are easy to knock down. In the context of logical fallacies, a “straw man” argument is an argument that is framed in such a way that it is easy to “knock down” or dismantle.

How many times have you been in conversation with someone—someone who holds an opposing viewpoint to yours—who frames your position in a way that you have not? Then once they frame your position in that way, they attack it, supposing that by doing so they have won the argument?

In “Lewis on the Atheist’s Straw Man,” the author quotes a concise argument provided by C.S. Lewis “in Mere Christianity, [where] Lewis warns about over simplifying Christianity (something some people who call themselves Christians sometimes do), and the straw man Atheists often build from this. It’s definitely worth the read.

Biblical Verses that Demand Knowledge of Their Context

Admittedly, there are some passages in the Scriptures that are challenging to comprehend, apart from the whole. Intervarsity Press even has a website “Hard Sayings of the Bible,” subtitled “A Difficult Passage Explained Each Day.”

In “Encountering Difficult Passages,” the author charts a helpful course in how to discover their meaning. Here’s a sample of their sound advice:

Be extra careful with Google. I know. It’s so easy. It’s so tempting. You think, “Google tells me where to go when I’m physically lost; why can’t it help when I’m lost in the Bible?”

The problem is that Google only shows you what’s popular; it cannot differentiate between sites that provide truth and sites that provide ignorance. Avoid your natural impulse to click the first link that appears in a search. There are good websites out there to find answers, but you have to be discerning.

Some of Jesus’ own teachings were difficult for the disciples to comprehend. This was especially true of his announcement that he must die as part of the divine plan to deliver us all from the consequences of sin. When he announced the marvelous mystery of the eucharist (Lord’s Supper) he said “I am the bread of life. . . . Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. . . . This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever” (John 6).

While the twelve who become the Apostles continued to follow the Lord, some fell away in confusion because “When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?’”

The Bible Truly “In Context”

Christians understand that the Incarnation, Life, Death, Resurrection and Return of Jesus Christ is the final, ultimate Word of the Bible. The Word himself, through whom all things were created, is the central, life-giving message of the holy Scriptures.

Because of this truth, we can evaluate the entire, comprehensive meaning of the Scriptures. We recognize the clear significance of those passages dealing with the Savior of humanity are vital, while those dealing with the nutritional value of locusts are rather less so.

While many people consciously practice this Christocentric reading of the God’s Word, one of its great champions was Martin Luther. If you wish to explore this subject in detail, I commend to you “All Scripture is Pure Christ: Luther’s Christocentric Interpretation in the Context of Reformation Exegesis.” You can find the entire volume in which this essay appears here.

As Martin Luther puts it, “To him who has the Son, Scripture is an open book; and the stronger his faith in Christ becomes, the more brightly will the light of Scripture shine for him.”

Christians are not Gnostics, who believe the Bible is hiding divine secrets from the uninitiated. Quite the contrary. However, the only way to truly understand the meaning of the Scriptures is to read them in their full context. And that context is Jesus, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

Christians & Retirement

December 7, 2021 — 30 Comments

When do pastors retire? Or, in the opinion of some, can Christian pastors actually retire?

If you’re looking for answers to this question in the Bible, you will find it’s not specifically addressed. Retirement is a relatively modern concept. In earlier ages, women and men were expected to continue contributing to the family and common good as they were able, even during their winter years.

This added a type of dignity to many of their lives. It is not that the crippled or dependent were viewed as something less, but there was an expectation that as long as a person had something valuable to offer to others, it was wrong to waste it.

Pastors are in a unique position. Most believe they have been “called” by God in some manner to serve the Lord and our brothers and sisters, created in his image. If God actively calls you, does that vocation (from vocatio, calling) expire on some set timeline?

It’s curious how people refer to some arbitrary age such as sixty-five as time to retire. Many Western nations have institutionalized that rather capricious practice by determining an age at which you can begin collecting money from the government’s coffers.

Some, like the U.S., have recently adjusted that beneficent accomplishment (i.e. becoming a senior citizen eligible to receive “social security” payments), in light of increasing lifespans, and political policies not suitable for discussion among the genteel audience of Mere Inkling.

Most secularists naturally think retirement – like everything else – is about them. One financial adviser said, “Retirement is like a long vacation in Las Vegas. The goal is to enjoy it the fullest, but not so fully that you run out of money.”

C.S. Lewis described one such person in a 1921 letter to his brother. He describes a mutual friend’s in-laws as ironic.

As you will never meet them (nor indeed will I), it is no breach of confidence to touch on the grim humours of his future ‘in-laws.’ A mother . . . who has all the money but is nevertheless incapable of resisting her husband, a retired army officer, busily engaged in trying to see if his constitution will ‘keep’ by being sufficiently soaked in spirits.

This indeed has been his life work, and the devil of it is that it seems likely to ‘keep’ a good bit yet.

Semi-Retirement

The frame on my auto license says “Semi-Retired Military Chaplain.” After retiring from active duty in the Air Force, I anticipated providing “pulpit supply” for vacationing pastors and serving an occasional “vacancy.” An interim or vacancy pastor covers the months between the departure of a congregation’s pastor and the call of a new pastor. I’ve served three, one of which was more than a year long.

Now that I’m a bona fide senior, I thought my vacancy days were over. It appears, however, that God may have other plans. This week I’ve been approached by a congregation interested in calling me to serve them in that role.

Please pray that God leads them in whether or not they should formalize that call. And, please pray that I will clearly discern God’s desire in this matter. Right now it appears to be one of those “Matthew 26” moments where “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Can Anyone Truly Retire?

So, do pastors ever really retire, in the sense of ending their ministry? The answer is an unequivocal “no.” What’s more, if you are a Christian, you don’t get to retire either.

Here’s the catch – this vocation to actively serve God all of our days doesn’t just apply to pastors. You see, all Christians are called to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

Consider 1 Peter 2:5 where the apostle writes: “You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

While you usually hear the truth of the “priesthood of all believers” from Protestants, the fact is that it comes directly from the Bible and applies to us all. As one prominent Roman Catholic journal puts it:

The priesthood of all believers is a call to ministry and service; it is a barometer of the quality of the life of God’s people in the body of Christ and of the coherence of our witness in the world, the world for which Christ died. . . . this teaching is a summons to faithfulness on the part of all Christians, Protestants and Catholics alike.

Retirements or Transitions?

So, whatever we would like to be true, the fact remains that retirement is not part of God’s plan for his children. But that shouldn’t trouble us. Because the Lord not only promises to give us the strength to do anything he asks of us, he also leads us into different fields of harvest at different points in our pilgrimage.

Thankfully, he doesn’t expect me to be as effective working with youth as I was in my thirties (although some of the best youth workers I’ve seen were in their seventies).

Just as I can’t rapidly deploy to a warzone with members of my flock as I once did, I possess the maturity, patience and compassion to care for those in the twilight of their lives far better than I did decades ago.

An interesting testimony to these shifts in ministry focus is found in the Old Testament. God set the tribe of Levi apart to oversee all details related to the worship of God in the Temple. But their ministry in the holy place (the Temple and the Tent of Meeting which preceded it) was of a specified duration.

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “This applies to the Levites: from twenty-five years old and upward they shall come to do duty in the service of the tent of meeting. And from the age of fifty years they shall withdraw from the duty of the service and serve no more.

They minister to their brothers in the tent of meeting by keeping guard, but they shall do no service. Thus shall you do to the Levites in assigning their duties” (Numbers 8).

This passage is fascinating. At fifty, the priest step down from their ceremonial religious duties. But they do not drift off into some lazy retirement. They assume new responsibilities. A role God deemed better suited to this stage of their lives.

So too, wizened old pastors still have a role in God’s church. For some it may be serving during seasons of congregational vacancies. For others it may simply be to pray.

In a 1930 letter to his closest friend, Arthur Greeves, C.S. Lewis offers a delightful description of a “retired” pastor who is still about the business of caring for others. The fact that Lewis wrote this while an avowed atheist makes it all the more moving.

I walked as usual after lunch, dropping in on the way to see if old Foord-Kelsie would accompany me. I think I have mentioned him to you – a retired country parson of 80, who drives his own car, carpenters, and mends everyone’s wireless.

He is an irreplaceable character . . . as redolent of English country life as an old apple in a barn. He is deliciously limited: cares for no poetry but Shakespeare, distrusts all mysticism and imagination, and all overstrained moods.

Yet you could not wish him to be otherwise: and inside this almost defiantly human and mundane framework there is such tenderness of heart that one never feels it bleak.

He was in his workshop when I arrived, with shavings all about his ankles, making a cover for the font of old Headington Church.

He would not come out, and I stayed to shout conversation for fifteen minutes above the thudding and singing of his circular saw. We had a bit of everything: an outburst against Shaw, a broad story, and then, as always, onto Tristram Shandy. ‘Wonderful book–oh a wonderful book. You feel snug when you read that–you get in among them all in that little parlour. . . .’

I wish you could have seen him saying all this, bending down as he shoved a beam of wood against the saw, with one dear old wrinkled eye screwed up and held close to the work. You must hurry up and come and see me before he dies, for he of all people should be added to our stock characters.

Lewis does, indeed, portray his walking companion, the Reverend Foord-Kelcey, as a “stock character.” But he does so with evident and sincere affection.

So, our vocations do not forever remain constant. They may change over time, but God’s call on our lives does not wane.

We may approach these transitions with some trepidation. I am not ashamed to admit I do so at the present moment. I hope you will join me in seeking to hear God’s call and respond with joy and enthusiasm, just as the saints before us – “Here I am! Send me.