Archives For Family

Visiting the dentist for a regular check-up is one thing. Going there to address a painful problem is quite another. That is a truth everyone – including Oxford’s great scholar, C.S. Lewis – understands.

Occasional comments in his letters reflect on his mixed attitude toward dentistry. In 1914 he related to his father this balanced attitude. Many readers will identify with his ironic opening.

This week I have enjoyed the doubtful privilege of having two teeth extracted, both of which had been bothering me a good deal off and on this term. The dentist, who is a thoroughly competent official, pronounced his verdict that as they had been tinkered with over and over again, and were now hopelessly rotten, they had better come out. So out they came, with gas, and I think it was a good job.

I too have “enjoyed the doubtful privilege.” Like Lewis, I appreciate the skill and care of dentists, but hold an aversion to the more painful of their interventions.

Typically, C.S. Lewis was able to use our complex attitudes toward dental work, one of the “necessary evils of life” (Surprised by Joy), to teach about larger truths. An interesting piece on the subject can be seen here.

Lewis says when we move toward God, it will be like going to the dentist. If we dodge and hesitate to move, our aches will only increase.

Lewis wouldn’t tell his mother about his toothache because he knew it meant fixing it, and that likely meant the pokes and prods of the dentist on other infected teeth. So he hid and endured the pain for a time. It didn’t help. And it doesn’t help when we hesitate to be upturn our lives for Jesus. “Our Lord is like the dentists,” Lewis says. “He will give you the full treatment.”

As Lewis learned from experience during his extractions, healthy teeth are inseparable from bone, which forms the “tooth sockets.”

Which segues into a subject of even more significance to C.S. Lewis and every other lifeform with a skeleton: bones. But before we discuss that subject, allow me to share a personal note.

A Patient’s Dilemma

The reason dentistry is on my mind comes from the fact that I recently endured the extraction of one of my molars. That initiated the involved (and expensive) process of getting a “dental implant.”

The molar had served me well for decades, even after having a root canal many years ago. Its full golden crown still shines radiantly. Sadly, one of its roots fractured, and an endodontist determined removal is the only option.

For those who will someday follow this regrettable path, we no longer have to resort to human (or animal) bone to restore our jaws after the extraction of the renegade teeth.

Yes, that’s right. The most common “grafting material” has historically been bone. While it’s possible to transplant some of your own, it usually comes from another source.

Autograft Tissue is from your own body. Allograft Tissue is donated by another – typically deceased – individual. I wonder if others find the thought of having cadaver bone added to one’s personal physiology unsettling.

I’ve been an organ donor since I was first able to sign up. Sadly, being stationed in England during the spread of the Mad Cow Disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) has reduced any future value for my redundant body parts.

The seriousness of the danger is revealed in the story of Sergeant Major James Alford, a Green Beret who contracted it during his military service.

Speaking of the armed forces, the military is on the leading edge of medical advances. Shortly before I required my own bone graft, I read a fascinating press release from the Veterans Affairs Health Care System. It describes a new system for using 3D printers to create “3-dimensional bioprinting of vascularized bone tissue.” This breakthrough promises to relieve the suffering of countless people with bone injuries and ailments.

For VA Ventures, the future of using 3D printing to build constructs from each patient’s own cells, matched to their anatomy and defect geometry will soon be a reality, offering customized bone tissue grafts at the point of care.

The connection between teeth and bones is one thing, but there are far more important bones in the human body than the sockets in our jaw bones.

C.S. Lewis & Bone Disease

C.S. Lewis died young; he was nearing his sixty-fifth birthday. Toward the end of his life, he suffered from osteoporosis. He describes his diagnosis in a 1957 letter.

My back turns out to be not slipped disc but osteoporosis – a spongy condition of the bones that is common in men of 75 but almost unknown at my age (58). After full investigation by a great Professor of Pathology the cause remains quite obscure.

It has passed the stage of spasms and screams (each was rather like having a tooth out with no anaesthetic and you never knew when they were coming!), but I still ache a good deal and need sleeping draughts.

As vividly as C.S. Lewis describes the pain created by his bone disease, it diminished to nothing in comparison to the suffering of his wife, Joy. She was dying of cancer resident primarily in her bones, when Lewis married her at her hospital bedside.

Although she would eventually succumb to the disease, she experienced a miraculous respite after an Anglican priest prayed for her healing as he laid his hands upon her frail, pain-racked body.

Peter Bide had laid hands on Joy and prayed for her healing because, some years earlier, he had discovered that when he did this people often were indeed healed: he possessed, it appears, what the Church calls the gift of healing.

In January 1959 an essay by Lewis appeared in the Atlantic Monthly; it was called “The Efficacy of Prayer,” and one of its early paragraphs goes like this: I have stood by the bedside of a woman whose thigh-bone was eaten through with cancer and who had thriving colonies of disease in many other bones as well. It took three people to move her in bed. The doctors predicted a few months of life, the nurses (who often know better), a few weeks. A good man laid his hands on her and prayed. A year later the patient was walking (uphill, too, through rough woodland) and the man who took the last x-rays was saying, “These bones are solid as rock. It’s miraculous.” (The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis).

Sadly, Joy’s remission was only that. She did, however, live for several years. Her relative health even allowed the couple to take a bona fide honeymoon.

During her terminal illness, Lewis resorted to a questionable practice to which many of us can personally relate. He prayed that God might spare his wife, and transfer her pain to him instead. This common prayer is fueled by the desperation and helplessness we feel as we witness the suffering of our loved ones.

On these grounds Lewis began [after her release from the hospital] to pray for Joy’s sufferings to be transferred to him. Soon thereafter, Joy’s bones began to heal, and Lewis’s began to weaken. He did not get cancer but rather osteoporosis; nevertheless, as the pain in her bones decreased, his increased.

To Sister Penelope he wrote about his worst period: “I was losing calcium just about as fast as Joy was gaining it, and a bargain (if it were one) for which I’m very thankful.” In the same conversation in which he told Coghill of his unexpected happiness, he explained that he believed that God had allowed him to accept in his body her pain: the way of exchange.

These were for him very strange times. When he still thought that, despite his osteoporosis, Joy was dying, he wrote to Dorothy Sayers . . . “Indeed the situation is not easy to describe. My heart is breaking and I was never so happy before; at any rate there is more in life than I knew about.”

But at this point he still had little hope, though he noticed that she seemed much better than the doctors told him she really was, despite her bedridden status. By November he could tell Sister Penelope that Joy was walking with a cane; a month later he could tell a godson that she “has made an almost miraculous, certainly an unexpected, recovery.”

In August 1958 he wrote to a friend to say that “my wife walks up the wooded hill behind our house”; it seems likely that the image of her doing so was what went into the Atlantic essay. “All goes amazingly well with us.” (The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis).

In the previously cited 1957 correspondence, C.S. Lewis describes a curious interplay between their two ailments. It notes a practical benefit to his own osteoporosis.

Joy is now home, home from hospital, completely bed-ridden. The cancer is ‘arrested,’ which means, I fear, hardly any hope for the long term issue, but for the moment, apparently perfect health, no pain, eating & sleeping like a child, spirits usually excellent, able to beat me always at Scrabble and sometimes in argument.

She runs the whole house from her bed and keeps a pack of women not only loving her but (what’s rarer) one another. We are crazily in love. . . .

My back turns out to be not slipped disc but osteoporosis . . . Can you realise the good side? Poor Joy, after being the sole object of pity & anxiety can now perform the truly wifely function of fussing over me – I’m in pain and sit it out – and of course the psychological effect is extremely good. It banishes all that wearisome sense of being no use. You see, I’m very willing to have osteoporosis at this price.

To recognize the grace in being the one “in need,” is a wonderful gift. Something only the mature can ever possess.

So, once again we see just how much we have in common with the creator of Narnia. We may lack his brilliance, and fall shy of his skills as a communicator . . . but his willingness to lay bare his own life, offers encouragement to us as we experience the same challenges – and joys.

People who are wise understand that not all forms of “love” are healthy. That’s obvious with the epidemic of faux love in today’s “hookup culture.”

But even in genuine relationships, such as families, what passes for “love” can become twisted. Even the best of motives can blind us to what’s really best for our children. This sad irony is on my mind right now, since it recently struck close to home.

The title of this post suggests that just as there is a healthy version of family love, there can also be subtle corruptions of that virtue.

Parenting is complicated. We love our children, but if we make “happiness” the primary goal we are missing the mark. This pursuit of what is more often “pleasure” than genuine joy, usually devolves into letting kids do whatever they want. Some people parent this way.

Others are willing to pay the price of helping their children learn the lessons that will lead to a truly meaningful and fulfilling life. This is love. Children raised with the first objective often end up pursuing their appetites. They seldom accomplish much in life and rarely look beyond their own desires, to see the needs of others.

One prominent organization supporting the families of addicts shares the following epiphany.

When I first came to Al‑Anon, I spent a great deal of time wrestling with the term, “enabling.” I am a mother. Surely a mother’s role is to enable her children, is it not? It has been a struggle to understand, let alone accept, that the behavior I viewed as that of a good mother was actually unhealthy!

In his brilliant book, The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis describes how this unbalanced approach can be based in love, but results in unintended consequences.

The maternal instinct . . . is a Gift-love, but one that needs to give; therefore needs to be needed. But the proper aim of giving is to put the recipient in a state where he no longer needs our gift.

We feed children in order that they may soon be able to feed themselves; we teach them in order that they may soon not need our teaching.

Thus a heavy task is laid upon this Gift-love. It must work towards its own abdication. We must aim at making ourselves superfluous. The hour when we can say “They need me no longer” should be our reward.

But the instinct, simply in its own nature, has no power to fulfil this law. The instinct desires the good of its object, but not simply; only the good it can itself give. A much higher love – a love which desires the good of the object as such, from whatever source that good comes – must step in and help or tame the instinct before it can make the abdication.

The internationally recognized Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation offers an article on the subject entitled “Five Most Common Trademarks of Codependent and Enabling Relationships.”

The concept of codependency and enabling sounds simple and straight forward – doing for a loved one what they can and should do for themselves – but it can be incredibly difficult to tell the difference between supporting and enabling a loved one.

So what’s the difference? After all, enablers want to help their loved one, too, and codependency might feel like healthy support. But enabling allows the status quo – drinking or using drugs – to continue, whereas healthy support encourages a person to address their addiction and all of its consequences.

In contrast to this indulgent version of parenting, good parents are able to say “no” to their children, when it is necessary or appropriate. Teaching healthy behavioral boundaries early on teaches kids to make their own, healthy, decisions. Letting them take shortcuts and lie leads to disaster.

God’s divine love is inexhaustible. But God’s approval and blessing are linked to the choices we make. He does not commend self-destructive actions. He still loves, but he makes quite clear the life he desires for his children and the alternative path that leads to Death. God does not prevaricate. God does not hesitate to say “no.”

In the Book of Hebrews, the writer elaborates on this truth – that discipline (not to be confused with anger or punishment) is an evidence of genuine love.

Have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”

It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.

Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.

For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it (Hebrews 12).

Parental Love in Lewis’ Fiction

C.S. Lewis’ classic The Great Divorce creatively illuminates errors that can come between each of us and God’s desire to bless and redeem us, and to usher us into his heavenly presence. In an “encounter” which shows how something as wonderful as familial affection can be perverted into a grotesque distortion of true love.

You should read the entire account in Lewis’ book, but hopefully the selection below will illustrate his insight.

One of the most painful meetings we witnessed was between a woman’s Ghost and a Bright Spirit who had apparently been her brother. They must have met only a moment before we ran across them, for the Ghost was just saying in a tone of unconcealed disappointment, ‘Oh…Reginald! It’s you, is it?’ ‘Yes, dear,’ said the Spirit. ‘I know you expected someone else. Can you…I hope you can be a little glad to see even me; for the present.’

‘I did think Michael would have come,’ said the Ghost . . . ‘Well. When am I going to be allowed to see him?’

‘There’s no question of being allowed, Pam. As soon as it’s possible for him to see you, of course he will. You need to be thickened up [the unredeemed are insubstantial, thus their description as “ghosts”] a bit.’

‘How?’ said the Ghost. The monosyllable was hard and a little threatening.

‘I’m afraid the first step is a hard one,’ said the Spirit. ‘But after that you’ll go on like a house on fire. You will become solid enough for Michael to perceive you when you learn to want Someone Else besides Michael. I don’t say “more than Michael,” not as a beginning. That will come later. It’s only the little germ of a desire for God that we need to start the process.’

‘Oh, you mean religion and all that sort of thing? This is hardly the moment . . . and from you, of all people. Well, never mind. I’ll do whatever’s necessary. What do you want me to do? Come on. The sooner I begin it, the sooner they’ll let me see my boy. I’m quite ready.’

‘But, Pam, do think! Don’t you see you are not beginning at all as long as you are in that state of mind? You’re treating God only as a means to Michael. But the whole thickening treatment consists in learning to want God for His own sake.’

‘You wouldn’t talk like that if you were a mother.’

‘You mean, if I were only a mother. But there is no such thing as being only a mother. You exist as Michael’s mother only because you first exist as God’s creature. That relation is older and closer. No, listen, Pam! He also loves. He also has suffered. He also has waited a long time.’

‘If He loved me He’d let me see my boy. If He loved me why did He take Michael away from me? I wasn’t going to say anything about that. But it’s pretty hard to forgive, you know.’

‘But He had to take Michael away. Partly for Michael’s sake…’

‘I’m sure I did my best to make Michael happy. I gave up my whole life . . .’

‘Human beings can’t make one another really happy for long. And secondly, for your sake. He wanted your merely instinctive love for your child (tigresses share that, you know!) to turn into something better. He wanted you to love Michael as He understands love. You cannot love a fellow-creature fully till you love God. Sometimes this conversion can be done while the instinctive love is still gratified. But there was, it seems, no chance of that in your case. The instinct was uncontrolled and fierce and monomaniac. Ask your daughter, or your husband. Ask our own mother. You haven’t once thought of her. . . .

‘This is all nonsense—cruel and wicked nonsense. What right have you to say things like that about Mother-love? It is the highest and holiest feeling in human nature.’ ‘Pam, Pam—no natural feelings are high or low, holy or unholy, in themselves. They are all holy when God’s hand is on the rein. They all go bad when they set up on their own and make themselves into false gods.’ ‘My love for Michael would never have gone bad. Not if we’d lived together for millions of years.’

‘You are mistaken. And you must know. Haven’t you met—down there—mothers who have their sons with them, in Hell? Does their love make them happy . . ?’

‘Give me my boy. Do you hear? I don’t care about all your rules and regulations. I don’t believe in a God who keeps mother and son apart. I believe in a God of love. No one had a right to come between me and my son. Not even God. Tell Him that to His face. I want my boy, and I mean to have him. He is mine, do you understand? Mine, mine, mine, for ever and ever.’

Exercising the right kind of family love is not always easy. Due to our sinful nature, it is often corrupted. Still, striving to build a healthy (and, dare I say, holy) family is quite an adventure. A final thought from C.S. Lewis.

Since the Fall no organization or way of life whatever has a natural tendency to go right. . . . The family, like the nation, can be offered to God, can be converted and redeemed, and will then become the channel of particular blessings and graces.

But, like everything else that is human, it needs redemption. Unredeemed, it will produce only particular temptations, corruptions, and miseries. Charity begins at home: so does un-charity.

By the conversion or sanctification of family life we must be careful to mean something more than the preservation of “love” in the sense of natural affection. Love (in that sense) is not enough. Affection, as distinct from charity, is not a cause of lasting happiness. Left to its natural bent affection affection becomes in the end greedy, naggingly solicitous, jealous, exacting, timorous. It suffers agony when its object is absent—but is not repaid by any long enjoyment when the object is present. . . . The greed to be loved is a fearful thing. . . .

Must we not abandon sentimental eulogies and begin to give practical advise on the high, hard, lovely, and adventurous art of really creating the Christian family? (“The Sermon and the Lunch”).

An Evolutionary Fluke

January 11, 2022 — 19 Comments

Did trees evolve from apes? An odd question, to be sure, but one humorously posed by C.S. Lewis in a letter to his father.

While this column does discuss the theory of evolution, it’s not doctrinaire. So, whatever your opinion of Darwin’s notions, read on, and you may enjoy a pleasant surprise.

C.S. Lewis, the brilliant Christian apologist was not an ironclad “evangelical” in the American sense of the word. Here in the U.S., that typically requires adherence to a handful of doctrines, usually including the affirmation of the infallibility of the Scriptural autographs and of the creation of humanity in the persons of our first parents, Adam and Eve.

As important as these matters are, very few Christians would deem them salvific, in the sense that people holding less “vigorous” views on these issues will be excluded from heaven.

C.S. Lewis was one of those who focused on the core of the Christian faith, rather than secondary doctrines. He referred to this as “mere Christianity,” and it was based on a trusting relationship with God through the Person of Jesus, God present with us in the Incarnate Word.

As for doctrines per se, like all good defenders of the faith, C.S. Lewis preferred not to get bogged down with secondary matters. This is consistent with the spirit of Paul’s advice to the young pastor, Timothy.

Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. . . . Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone . . . (2 Timothy 2:14, 23-24).

Lewis’ 1927 Evolutionary Conversation

In March of 1927, C.S. Lewis wrote one of his eclectic letters to his father in Northern Ireland. As usual, he commented on his father’s previous correspondence and shared about his current health and activities. While his relationship with his father grew strained after his mother’s untimely death while he was still a child, Lewis’ letters to his father exude familial respect framed in the context of early twentieth century British sensibilities.

That said, Lewis was always eager to share curious or silly experiences he knew would amuse his solicitor father. He takes a humorous approach, for instance, to advising his father to consult a more skilled doctor to diagnose an ailment, rather than suffering with the incomplete work of the physician he has always known, he will simply be “offer[ing] up several months of pain as a sacrifice on the altar of an old acquaintance.”

At the same time, he acknowledges his personal inclination toward doing the same, stating that “if I lived at home [I] would continue to use Gillespie all my life.” Gillespie, it turns out, ran a taxi service long favored by the family despite his bumpy transportation. “I have never regretted Gillespie and his hexagonal wheel,” Lewis shares.

He returns to his argument, however, by saying his father’s health demands the attention of a competent physician rather than relying on past ties. He concludes with an illustration based on his own brother. “Hang it all, even you wouldn’t suggest that because I’ve known Warnie a long time I ought to trust him as an interpreter on a holiday in Spain.”

C.S. Lewis proceeds to share with his father current events at Magdalen College (“we are putting up a new building”) and a recent nightmare (“it was the sense of being on the moon . . . the complete desolateness, which gave the extraordinary effect”).

The letter includes other fascinating elements, but it is time now to consider the reference to evolution.

An Absurd Age

I absolutely love the way C.S. Lewis invites us to experience the following moment. His story is so vivid, it still lives a century after the described events transpired.

We live in the most absurd age. I met a girl the other day who had been teaching in an infant school (boys and girls up to the age of six) where the infants are taught the theory of Evolution. Or rather the Headmistress’s version of it.

Simple people like ourselves had an idea that Darwin said that life developed from simple organisms up to the higher plants and animals, finally to the monkey group, and from the monkey group to man.

The infants however seem to be taught that ‘in the beginning was the Ape’ from whom all other life developed – including such dainties as the Brontosaurus and the Iguanodon.

Whether the plants were supposed to be descendants of the ape I didn’t gather. And then people talk about the credulity of the middle ages! À propos of this can you tell me who said ‘Before you begin these studies, I should warn you that you need much more faith in science than in theology.’ It was Huxley or Clifford or one of the nineteenth century scientists, I think.

Another good remark I read long ago in one of E. Nesbitt’s fairy tales –‘Grown ups know that children can believe almost anything: that’s why they tell you that the earth is round and smooth like an orange when you can see perfectly well for yourself that it’s flat and lumpy.’

Ironically, immediately after this, Lewis introduces his next subject with the words: “Almost the only interesting thing that has happened to me lately was a visit from a young German.” You see, I wasn’t misleading you when I said his letters are filled with fascinating material.

One must assume that times have changed, and that English children are no longer being taught such simplistic distortions of actual theories. But that’s not the theme of this current post. Rather, I wish to show how wonderfully entertaining a simple family letter can be – especially when it comes from the pen of C.S. Lewis.

Some of us had the sad misfortune of growing up without parents. A larger number had mothers, but absent fathers. For a few, there was a dad, but the home lacked the presence of a mother. And then there are those who were blessed with the presence of a loving mother and father.

Each of these circumstances (and there are even more, of course), generates a different dynamic in a home. I am persuaded that God’s ideal of a father and mother, joined together as a “single flesh,” is best for nurturing healthy children. Thankfully, God loves every child, and living in less than ideal situations does not mean a person will grow up handicapped.

C.S. Lewis provides an amazing example of a boy who lost his mother to disease, and was raised by an emotionally distant father. Lewis’ father resorted to sending his sons off to boarding school rather than attempting to work through their shared grief together, in their home.

As an echo of that decision, C.S. Lewis sent his own sons away to school after their mother succumbed to her own battle with cancer. The situation was different, since Joy was raising the boys alone before Lewis married her, and Lewis who had imagined he would die a bachelor, was ill-equipped to provide a suitable environment for the children once their mother died.

I would be a different man today, if I had been raised in a home with parents whose love for one another overflowed. Perhaps my own family background is the reason I kept a plaque in my office that proclaimed that “the most precious gift a father can give his children is to love their mother.”

I was thinking about parenting because of a wonderful quote I read this morning in a interview with British comedian, Ricky Gervais. He was talking about growing up in a working class family, but being unconscious of their relative poverty.

I didn’t know I was poor, because my mother knitted all my jumpers, she made our Christmas presents, did all the decorating, grew things in the garden that she then cooked. I always thought, men work hard, but women work miracles.

Now that’s certainly a humorous way to express something that is quite frequently true.

What Kind of a Parent Am I?

Not all of us are blessed to be parents. Some consciously choose that path. Others, with whom I sincerely sympathize, wish to, but are never given the opportunity.

Some men simply contribute to the physical process and go merrily on their way, often carelessly impregnating others. These individuals can be considered “biological” parents, but they are not fathers. On the other hand, a woman who feels compelled by circumstances to allow her child to be raised by others, displays the compassion of a true mother.

I’ve seen some great fathers in my day. Unfortunately, I didn’t see them while I was growing up. So I had to “learn on the job.” I consider my early years as a dad “above average,” but my later years have actually been pretty decent. It’s been far easier than for many people, because my wife brings out the best in me. I wouldn’t care to postulate what kind of dad I would be without her counsel and encouragement.

I always imagined I’d be a husband and father someday. I see that is becoming less true with each generation.

If you are considering the question of “what kind of parent” you are, I’d like to caution you about two dangers. First, don’t get cocky. You aren’t perfect, not by a long stretch. There’s definitely room for some improvement.

Second, don’t get discouraged. We can all improve as parents, even after serious stumbles. Give parenting the attention it deserves. Seek advice from those who appear more successful – and are willing to be honest about their struggles. Choose schools and social activities that reinforce your efforts to raise healthy human beings. Adding prayer to the formula is often a wise choice.

There are a vast number of parental resources available online. The best of them are framed by a biblical worldview. Many address specific contexts, while others are more general. One I just visited for the first time is Philosophy for Parents.

Holly Hamilton-Bleakley teaches philosophy at the University of San Diego. Although she hasn’t posted recently, there is a wealth of thought-provoking material on her site. The most recent addresses the challenge of “Parenting in an Age of ‘Politics-as-Destruction.’”

She confronts a concern that should be at the forefront of every parents’ concern today, saying “It’s taking everything I have to protect my family from the toxic political culture in which we find ourselves.”

One of her earliest columns posed this question: “Could Parenting be More Important than Politics?” I highly recommend the piece, which begins with a pertinent passage from a letter C.S. Lewis wrote in 1955.

Quoting Lewis: “I think I can understand that feeling about a housewife’s work being like that of Sisyphus (who was the stone rolling gentleman). But it is surely in reality the most important work in the world. What do ships, railways, miners, cars, government etc. exist for except that people may be fed, warmed, and safe in their own homes? As Dr. Johnson said, ‘To be happy at home is the end of all human endeavor’ … We wage war in order to have peace, we work in order to have leisure, we produce food in order to eat it. So your job is the one for which all others exist.”

I love this quote.  I live my life by this quote.  But I think it needs some discussion.

And the discussion she provides is excellent. Regular readers of Mere Inkling know I’m no particular fan of “philosophy,” but these articles possess practical value! Something I’m confident C.S. Lewis would also commend.

Have you severed ties with a friend or relative because you view the question of vaccination policies differently?

Apparently this tragedy is growing in frequency. Just last week, a person very, very dear to me declared that we had “come to a parting of the ways.” I pray for a restoration of the relationship when emotions cool, but for the moment, it seems I am “dead” to my sister.

She is one of the people who find themselves at one end of the vaccination spectrum. There are, of course, some who believe those who receive vaccinations are dupes, endangering their health with possibly unnecessary medicine that may have lasting side effects. At the opposite end, stand those who consider anyone unwilling to be vaccinated as tantamount to being a heartless murderer.

Sadly, those of us who lie midway along said spectrum—who understand precisely how others might arrive at those extreme positions, and call for reasonable, respectful conversation—are typically regarded with contempt by each extreme.

Ironically, my wife and I eagerly received our injections at the first possible opportunity. Yet, because our adult children (intelligent and mature, one and all) have made a different decision, we have suffered this separation from some of our extended family.

A report published this week revealed 14% of vaccinated respondents said “they ended things with friends who refused to get vaccinated.” That suggests that approximately one out of seven people are unwilling to place friendships on pause; they apparently prefer to terminate them.

“Stress from the Pandemic Can Destroy Relationships with Friends—Even Families” describes the tragedy in the following way.

The pandemic’s toll on friendships goes deeper than mere political polarization — the confusion of a mask with support for “big government.” It’s more about discovering personality differences between you and your relatives and friends, including different levels of risk-tolerance and what might seem like irrational optimism on one side vs. hysterical alarmism on the other.

At a time when many of us are losing sleep, picturing ourselves or someone we love gasping for air in a crowded emergency room, these differences are painfully relevant.

Taking these words to heart should help us all be more tolerant of our varying responses to the strain of living during this pandemic.

I hope that you have not experienced the pain of ruined relationships. And, I beg you, if you are inclined to write off friends who disagree with you on this controversial subject, please reconsider. After all, as C.S. Lewis wisely said to those who claim to be followers of Jesus, “to be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you” (The Weight of Glory).

You Should Read This

I just finished the best article I’ve read on this subject, and commend it to you. Pastor Peter Leithart authored the provocatively titled “Why I Didn’t Get the Covid Vaccine.”

The title is a little misleading, since Leithart’s rationale is that as a covid survivor he currently has the resulting “natural immunity.”

The article is quite enlightening, however, because it is not an argument for or against the treatment per se. Rather, it is a very brief historical reminder of a perhaps more perilous ailment. He approaches the subject through the work of an Italian philosopher.

As Roberto Esposito put it in Biopolitics, political authority was traditionally the authority to kill. Under the reign of biopolitics, rulers care for and manage life. Once upon a time, the ruler bore a sword; now, a syringe.

“Body politic” is an ancient metaphor, but in biopolitical regimes the body becomes the real place “where the exercise of power [is] concentrated.” Public health takes center stage in a “limitless process of medicalization” as health care is “superimposed” on politics. It’s now the government’s job—its primary job—to keep us safe and healthy.

“Life becomes government business,” Esposito writes, and “government becomes first and foremost the governance of life.” To manage life, governments have to exercise social control, keep populations under surveillance, maintain constantly-updated databases, and, as necessary, isolate and separate sectors deemed dangerous to the corporate body.

In an article written more than a year ago, entitled “Biopolitics in the Time of Coronavirus,” the writer describes the evolution of the concept of biopolitics since the 1970s. He warned then, “Instead of worrying about the increase of surveillance mechanisms and indiscriminate control under a new state of exception, I therefore tend to worry about the fact that we already are docile, obedient biopolitical subjects.” One can only imagine what he might say today.

Back to Relationships

I am no philosopher, and it is not the purpose of this post to answer the big questions. What I believe is simple. The vaccine is good for some, but not all. And disease is terrifying, especially when it can be terminal.

Oh, and I believe one other thing. We should discuss such matters civilly. Graciously, even. Because differences of honest opinion about debatable matters are insufficient grounds for destroying lifelong relationships. After all, true friendships are precious . . . and rare.

C.S. Lewis discerned a little-known truth about the importance of friendships. One that reminds us they should not be discarded in the passion of a moment. Lewis describes here how there are eternal repercussions related to our actions. Refer to salvation, the resurrection and heaven as the “glory” God desires for all people, Lewis writes:

It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. . . .

All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations [heaven or hell].

It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.

There are no ordinary people. You have never met a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.

But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours (The Weight of Glory).

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.

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.

C.S. Lewis as a Stepfather

September 8, 2020 — 16 Comments

Step-parenting well can be a challenge. In many cases it brings great joy to both parent and child. But in some unfortunate cases, parenting the biological child of another can seem nearly impossible.

If you needed another reason to respect C.S. Lewis—and I recognize most readers of Mere Inkling don’t—consider the case of his stepsons. I’ll refer you in a moment to an informative column by Jonathon Van Maren, but first, some background.

C.S. Lewis was a confirmed bachelor. He anticipated living out his senior years in the fraternal company of his brother and close friends. God, however, had other plans. His marriage to Joy Davidman is familiar, in part because of the 1993 film, Shadowlands.

Curiously, the film itself raised a question in my mind that has not been satisfactorily answered until now. Where is David Gresham? Joy had two sons Lewis helped raise. Only David is portrayed in the film. At the time I attributed the absence to cinematic convenience. After all, since the son(s) were not the primary focus of the drama, one could easily suffice for the pair.

Some years later I corresponded (too briefly) with Doug Gresham, who has admirably championed the legacy of his stepfather’s faith and work. When I asked about his brother, Doug shared that he had elected to follow Judaism, and chosen not to be directly involved in the workings of C.S. Lewis Co. Ltd. and associated projects.

Now, following David’s death, Doug is free to share with us another insight into the patience and compassion of C.S. Lewis. The great author did not flinch from the duty he had accepted when he married Joy and brought his bride, and her children, into his home. Doug has previously written about their family in his wonderful book, Lenten Lands. He describes the adjustments.

We became a family. It didn’t happen all at once, but slowly and surely Jack and Warnie and I were building some sort of relationship. I could never claim to have been anywhere near as important to Jack [Lewis] as he was to me, but I really do believe that I did become important to him. In addition, I began to understand a little about Jack and began to be able to see the enormous wealth of compassion in him.

The marriage was too brief, lasting from March 1957* until Joy’s death in July 1960. After that, Lewis was diligent in establishing the best future for his sons. Douglas’ life has been a testimony to that commitment. David’s sadly, was not.

The Curse of Psychosis

Schizophrenia is an ugly affliction. Psychotic episodes, where a person is unable to discern between reality and illusion, can create chaos. While modern medications are helpful, in severe cases, long term hospitalization may be required. In David’s case, his life ended several years ago in just such an institution, in Switzerland. 

While schizophrenia often first manifests between the late teens and early thirties, in some cases its onset begins earlier. Such was the case in the Davidman family. And it was during these turbulent years that Lewis did his best to protect and nurture his new sons. Doug relates a shocking example of how his elder brother “was continually trying to get rid of me.” From the aforementioned column:

“I came out of the kitchen [at The Kilns] one afternoon, for example. . . As I walked out the brick arch doorway, there was a splash, and I was covered in gasoline. My brother was standing there trying to strike a match to throw at me.

I kicked his wrist so hard I nearly broke it. The matches went flying, and I took off.” Douglas told me that this sort of thing was not uncommon. “It was a difficult childhood for me,” he said. “Jack tried his very hardest for David all the time. He tried to help in every way he could—he was kind and gentle and wonderful with him.”

Those of us whose families have been scarred by the scourge of schizophrenia understand how one’s compassion and patience can be tested to their limits. C.S. Lewis passed that test. He neither surrendered to the challenge, nor shirked the burden he had willingly assumed.

After reading “C.S. Lewis and His Stepsons” at First Things, my respect for the man continues to grow. I suspect that yours will, as well.


* Their true marriage took place while Joy was hospitalized on 21 March 1957. Lewis had entered into a civil marriage with Joy a year earlier, to allow her to remain in the United Kingdom.

This is the most amazing post you will ever read about hyperbole. Well, until you write one yourself and use even more exaggerated adjectives.

Hyperbole is a curious rhetorical device, a frequent element of satire. Unfortunately, hyperbole is too often employed in a sloppy way (e.g. “he was the worst politician ever”). Yet, in skillful hands it can be quite effective. For example, in English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, when Lewis discusses poet Michael Drayton,* he writes:

When he speaks simply as any lover he can sometimes outsoar all the sonneteers except Shakespeare. . . . Yet again, and in quite a different vein, that of towering hyperbole, Drayton (this time with no rival at all, neither Shakespeare nor any other) sets up the seamark beyond which poetry in that kind has never gone nor could go:

And Queens hereafter shall be glad to live
Upon the almes of thy superfluous prayse.

If he had never written another verse, these two would secure him that praise which is due to men who have done some one thing to perfection.

I was thinking about hyperbole after coming across a wonderful quote by Erasmus of Rotterdam⁑  about his contemporary, the reformer Martin Luther. Though they shared many concerns, they parted company on how best to reform the Roman Catholic Church. Erasmus objected to Luther’s tendency to take every disagreement to extremes, and he named the Wittenberg professor “Doctor Hyperbolicus.”

It reminded me of one of our sons. As a youngster, he suffered from that common childhood disease, excessive summa hyperbolism. Everything was either the best thing ever, or the worst thing he’d ever encountered. Sometimes I referred to him as the “King of Hyperbole,” which was hyperbole on my own part. He was more like a Duke of Hyperbole.

John Colet⁂ was another English scholar discussed in Lewis’ longest work. Colet was a theologian, and a strong advocate of biblically-grounded morality. As we frequently find, Lewis’ assessment is informative, and entertaining.

Colet is, in fact, a declamatory moralist. By calling him declamatory I do not at all mean that he is insincere, but that his methods are those of the declamation; repetition, hyperbole, and a liberal use of emotional adjectives. The morality he wishes to enforce is harsh and ascetic. . . .

The truth is that Colet is a Platonist at heart and has really little interest in the temporal and mutable world below the moon. . . . A cloistered perfectionist, who happens to be also a rhetorician, often says, not exactly more than he means, but more than he understands. He leaves out the reservations: he has really no idea of the crudely literal applications which will be made. (English Literature in the Sixteenth Century)

Hyperbole in Lewis’ Personal Life

The First World War began in 1914. It was a conflict which would cost ten million military lives. C.S. Lewis himself would be counted among a greater number, who suffered terrible wounds during combat. At the beginning of the conflict, Lewis gently chided his father for embracing a growing British fear.

My dear Papy, You have surpassed yourself. The popular press . . . remarks on the possibility of an invasion: the idea, after being turned over in your mind, appears in your next letter, clothed as “it is absolutely certain that he is going to invade England” Surely . . . this is rather hyperbole?

The one thing that Britain can depend upon is her fleet: and in any case Germany has her hands full enough. You will perhaps say that I am living in a fool’s paradise. “Maybe thon.” But, providing it only be a paradise is that not preferable to a wise and calculating inferno? Let us have wisdom by all means, so long as it makes us happy: but as soon as it runs against our peace of mind, let us throw it away and “carpe diem.” I often wonder how you came to have such a profound and genuine philosopher for your son, don’t you?

In a 1949 letter he explains to a correspondent that the Gospel claims to Christ’s divinity were not hyperbolic appellations.

The Jews may have had their own use of hyperbole but the last direction in wh. they would have used it was to deify a man. The absolute chasm which they put between Jahveh and His creatures was just the thing that cut them off from Pagans.

No other race could have told the stories they told about Moses & Elijah and yet left these persons absolutely, sheerly human. What was Jesus condemned for by the Sanhedrin? Surely His declaration “I am etc.” must have been recorded right?

And, finally, a quotation C.S. Lewis selected for inclusion in his anthology of George MacDonald’s writings.

“But how,” says a man, who is willing to recognize the universal neighborhood, but finds himself unable to fulfill the bare law toward the woman even whom he loves best—“How am I then to rise into that higher region, that empyrean of love?” And, beginning straightaway to try to love his neighbor, he finds that the empyrean of which he spoke is no more to be reached in itself than the law was to be reached in itself. . . .

The man who will love his neighbor can do so by no immediately operative exercise of the will. It is the man fulfilled of God from whom he came and by whom he is, who alone can as himself love his neighbor who came from God too and is by God too. The mystery of individuality and consequent relation is deep as the beginnings of humanity, and the questions thence arising can be solved only by him who has, practically at least, solved the holy necessities resulting from his origin. In God alone can man meet man. . . .

It is possible to love our neighbor as ourselves. Our Lord never spoke hyperbolically. (Unspoken Sermons, First Series, “Love Thy Neighbor”)

I am absolutely convinced C.S. Lewis is one of the most outstanding Christian writers in history. That’s not hyperbole. If anything, it is a vast understatement.


* A selection of the poetry of Michael Drayton (1563-1631) is available at Internet Archive. The introduction to the collection begins, “no poet is more thoroughly English than Michael Drayton.”

⁑ Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus (1466-1536) was a Dutch humanist who shared many concerns about the state of the Roman Catholic Church with Luther. However, he disliked Luther’s roughshod response and chose to attempt to accomplish some amount of reform from within. His early epistles are available in this free volume.

⁂ For more about John Colet (1467-1519), you might download this biography.

C.S. Lewis did not write a Cinderella story of his own, but he did refer to one of his books as his “Cinderella,” for a different reason.

The Cinderella folk tale is familiar to many cultures. Like the Ugly Duckling, it celebrates real life occasions where events turn upside down, and the disadvantaged are vindicated.

More than two thousand years ago, the Greeks told the story of Rhodopis, a Greek slave girl whose sandal was snatched by an eagle and dropped into the lap of the Egyptian pharaoh. His search for the lovely foot that graced the footwear culminated in a joyous marriage.

I was thinking about step parenting recently, and how some people care for their own children differently than they treat children brought into the union from a spouse’s previous relationship. The subject arose during my prayers, when I thought to offer thanks to God for the depth of love he has given me for my “step-grandchildren.” It is, as far as I can tell, indistinguishable from the love I hold for my biological grandkids.

Following my prayers, I reflected further on family. And—because it reflects real life in terms of raising children, I thought of the story of Cinderella. In particular, I was wondering whether the “wicked stepsisters” were destined to be cruel simply because they were raised by their “wicked stepmother.”

The answer to that dilemma is obvious. Do bad parents raise bad kids? Sometimes, but thankfully, not always. Do good parents raise good kids? Sometimes, but sadly, not always.

If you remove the outliers—the saints on one side and the sociopaths on the other—kids have a reasonable chance to turn out “okay.” Basically, just because someone’s parents are disreputable, doesn’t mean the kids will grow up to be bums as well.

This comes as no shock to any of us, of course. We are too sophisticated to impute the sins of the parents to their children. But are we really? In truth, we often make judgments based upon things utterly beyond a child’s control. Nationality, social status, physical or mental disability . . . some people default to an unconscious ranking of desirability.

I’m reminded of the rewards of working with orphans and the tragic manner in which even these victims are “ranked” in terms of their perceived worth. So much for viewing the world through carnal eyes.

C.S. Lewis described the way a children’s story can flip things around in a way that reveals truth. In 1947 he described this to an American correspondent.

About stories for children. (a) Don’t the ordinary fairy tales really already contain much of the Spirit, in solution? Does not Cinderella give us exaltavit humiles,* and is not Redemption figured in The Sleeping Beauty? (b) For something a little more explicit, what about Geo. MacDonald’s⁑ The Princess & the Goblins, Curdie & the Princess, The Wise Woman, and The Golden Key?

In a 1943 letter to Sister Penelope, Lewis commented on a manuscript she had sent for his review. He suggests a “longish speech” by Melchizedek would be better presented in a different manner.

He’s got to have the sense of mystery about him. That means, for purposes of these plays, he must sound like a king out of a fairy tale. Actually in this speech he sounds more like a Bampton Lecturer! Represents, condemnation, include, mediator all strike the wrong note. I am referring only to the style: the matter is perfectly right. It is easier, of course, to pick holes than to mend them!

He then offers a note about the power of stories to communicate facts and deeper truths.

If I were trying to do it myself I should make it a speech about the Kings of Salem, not about ‘kingship’ in general—like a special magic in that family. (The Kings of Salem are not ordinary kings. . . .)

On the imaginative level I think the deepest truths enter the mind much better as arbitrary marvels than as universal theorems. Cinderella had to be back at midnight—Psyche must not see Cupid’s face—Adam and Eve must not eat the fruit: how much better these statements are than any philosophical generalities about obedience.

C.S. Lewis’ Personal Cinderella

Each reader of C.S. Lewis has their personal favorite, thoughtfully selected from the rich buffet of his diverse works. While I treasure many of his works, my personal favorite is The Great Divorce. It pleases me that the title also occupied a special place in Lewis’ own estimation.

Lewis described the underappreciated volume as his “Cinderella.” The beauty and nobility were there all of the time, though unrecognized.

Writing in 1954 to his editor, Jocelyn Gibb, he expresses appreciation for two handsomely bound copies of his books. He says, “perhaps these two charming volumes will teach me at last to have for the bodies of my own books the same reverence I have for the bodies of all other books.” In the same letter he writes, “I am always glad to hear of anyone’s taking up that Cinderella, The Great Divorce.”

Kathryn Lindskoog wrote an article about the book, calling the volume “C.S. Lewis’s Divine Comedy.” She begins with a personal anecdote.

C. S. Lewis beamed, then said “It’s my Cinderella.” I had just told him how much I loved The Great Divorce. (If I had been forced to choose one favorite of all his books, that would have been my choice.) He said he didn’t understand why Screwtape Letters got all the attention when The Great Divorce was so much better.

The Screwtape Letters is another of Lewis’ works that continues to impress me for its unique and effective way of illustrating the malevolent mind that shapes so many of the temptations that assail us. But, for sheer pleasure, I too prefer the wisdom, and the witness to heaven’s reality, that shine so brightly in The Great Divorce.

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* Exaltavit humiles comes from the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) and means God “has exalted the humble.”

⁑ Most of MacDonald’s books are available for free download at Google and Kindle.