Archives For Nature

Yes, we found hobbits in our yard, when we weren’t even looking. True, I have a sign on our property welcoming “all true Narnians,” but true fans of the Oxford Inklings will recognize that hobbits are actually residents of Middle Earth.

I suppose, though, that doesn’t mean that Middle Earth’s hobbits, elves, and Ents can’t be Narnians at heart. As for dwarves and humans, they already reside in Narnia and are welcome here even if they are traveling through on their way to Valinor, in the Blessed Realm.

To be honest, it wasn’t actual hobbits we discovered. It is a small field of Eryngium planum, which is also known to botanists as Blue Hobbit, Sea Holly.

Noted for its petite size, Eryngium planum ‘Blue Hobbit’ (Sea Holly) is a compact perennial boasting a profusion of spiny, egg-shaped, purplish-blue flower heads throughout the summer.

They are produced on silver-blue stems and stand high above the basal rosette of deeply toothed, smooth textured leaves. Its beautiful texture, unique color, long-lasting flowering, easy care and remarkable qualities as cut flowers make it a favorite of florists, gardeners, bees and butterflies.

The plant’s size is the apparent premise for its popular name. I mean, there were Blue Wizards in Middle Earth, but no blue hobbits I can recall.

According to an interesting article in a Canadian newspaper, there are several plants “eagerly adopted by Tolkien fans, at least ones with a love of houseplants.”

The author describes his new acquisition named in honor of Gollum, a Stoor, which was an old breed of hobbits that preferred riversides and marshes. Gollum, of course, devolved from his life as Sméagol, due to the corrupting influence of the Ring.

Despite the name, the plant is kinda cute. Its full name is Crassula ovata ‘Gollum,’ and if you’re keeping up with your botanical Latin, or still have the tag stuck in one of your houseplants, you’ll know that Crassula ovata is the jade plant.

J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis loved nature. And, not just from a distance. Their frequent cross country walks were of great delight to both scholars.

Lewis’ fascination with gardens began in his childhood. In his autobiography, he includes “a garden (which then seemed large)” as one of his initial “blessings” (Surprised by Joy). He also relates a pivotal experience in the development of his imagination.

Once in those very early days my brother brought into the nursery the lid of a biscuit tin which he had covered with moss and garnished with twigs and flowers so as to make it a toy garden or a toy forest. That was the first beauty I ever knew. What the real garden had failed to do, the toy garden did.

It made me aware of nature—not, indeed, as a storehouse of forms and colors but as something cool, dewy, fresh, exuberant. I do not think the impression was very important at the moment, but it soon became important in memory.

As long as I live my imagination of Paradise will retain something of my brother’s toy garden. And every day there were what we called “the Green Hills;” that is, the low line of the Castlereagh Hills which we saw from the nursery windows. They were not very far off but they were, to children, quite unattainable. They taught me longing—Sehnsucht; made me for good or ill, and before I was six years old, a votary of the Blue Flower.

The blue flower to which Lewis refers is not the Blue Hobbit. It is actually a symbol which grew to reference the Romanticism movement. Among other things, such as an emphasis on intense emotion, Romanticism fostered an idealized image of nature. In an essay about the German writer Novalis,* Norwegian-American author Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen (1848-1895)⁑ offers the following description.

In the very first chapter we meet with all the conventional machinery of Romantic fiction: night, moonlight, dreams, and the longing for the blue flower. This blue flower is the watchword and the sacred symbol of the school. It is meant to symbolize the deep and nameless longings of a poet’s soul.

Romantic poetry invariably deals with longing; not a definite, formulated desire for some attainable object, but a dim, mysterious aspiration, a trembling unrest, a vague sense of kinship with the infinite, and a consequent dissatisfaction with every form of happiness which the world has to offer. The object of the Romantic longing, therefore, so far as it has any object, is the ideal—the ideal of happiness . . .

The blue flower, like the absolute ideal, is never found in this world . . .

The blue flower, as a metaphor, may remain out of reach, but selective breeding of cultivars has provided us with genuine examples in our modern era. And, since cultivars are named according to binomial nomenclature – which uses their scientific name, followed by a vernacular epithet – we may be introduced to more Inkling plants in the future.

I imagine both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien would be pleased to know that people have commemorated their literary creations with lovely flora. Learning of their existence, I’m thrilled to have Blue Hobbit spreading across our property. Perhaps it’s time to add a Gollum Jade plant to our home?


* For some reason, Romantic poet Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg (1772- 1801), was commonly known by his pen name, Novalis, rather than his given name.

⁑ You can download a free copy of Boyesen’s Essays on German Literature at Internet Archive.

What’s your favorite season of the year? My preference is Autumn, with Spring a close second.

In the United States, Spring comes out on top. Actually, it is the preference in forty (80%) of the states. Probably due to its northern latitude, “the most popular season in the Northeast is Summer.” Unsurprisingly, Winter is the least favorite across the board, although a few hardy souls disagree. “Alaska and Vermont are the only two states that say winter is the most wonderful time of the year.”

Some years ago, Gallup published the result of polls on the subject, which are also analyzed by the ages of respondents.

Americans aged 18 to 29 are the group least likely to prefer spring (24%), while those 65 and older are most likely to prefer it (53%). Younger Americans are much more likely to prefer summer than are those in older age groups, and, in fact, summer is the top choice among this age group. [Editor: I wonder if that has anything to do with the traditional academic calendar?]

Everyone is aware of how the seasons (through length of daylight, etc.) affect our moods. In a 1914 letter to his father in Ireland, C.S. Lewis offers a curious description of the “magnificent summer” he was enjoying in England.

My mental picture of home is disturbed to a certain extent by your mention of a fire. Here, we are in the middle of a magnificent summer: day succeeds day with the same cloudless sky and parched earth, and the nights are hot and comfortless. But on the whole, fine weather is agreeable, and has, I think, a certain effect on the spirits.

At the end of September, he wrote again about the extended summer he was experiencing. It doesn’t sound like the opinion of someone whose seasonal preference was summer. “I suppose the winter has closed in at home by this time: but we are still having quite summer weather here – which I rather resent.” Sometimes, it seems, seasons do overstay their welcome.

The following year, C.S. Lewis again lamented summer’s length. In mid-November he complained to his father.

The weather here is a perfect joke, warmer than July, bright sunshine and gentle breezes. Personally I have had quite enough summer, and should not be sorry to bid it goodbye, though Kirk persistently denounces this as a most unnatural state of mind.

A year later, in 1916, Lewis’ distaste for excessive heat is seen in an October letter to his friend Arthur Greeves. One reason for this was C.S. Lewis’ passion for hiking through the countryside.

The beastly summer is at last over here, and good old Autumn colours & smells and temperatures have come back. Thanks to this we had a most glorious walk on Saturday: it was a fine cool, windy day & we set out after lunch . . .

In a poem entitled “The Day with a White Mark,” Lewis opens with vivid imagery and the notion that mood is normally related to environment and circumstances.

All day I have been tossed and whirled in a preposterous happiness:
Was it an elf in the blood? or a bird in the brain? or even part
Of the cloudily crested, fifty-league-long, loud uplifted wave
Of a journeying angel’s transit roaring over and through my heart?
My garden’s spoiled, my holidays are cancelled, the omens harden;
The plann’d and unplann’d miseries deepen; the knots draw tight.
Reason kept telling me all day my mood was out of season.
It was, too. In the dark ahead the breakers only are white.

One website offers generalized thoughts about “what your favorite season” reveals about you. For example, it says of those who share my preference:

“Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns,” George Eliot (aka Mary Ann Evans) once wrote of her affection for the fall season.

While parts of the world tend to think of spring as the season of renewal, fall is also a very good time for a fresh start. The vibrant orange colors and cooler weather of autumn appeal to your constant desire for change. The upcoming holidays inspire many to reflect back on the year that was and make plans for the year to come.

A study in England went so far as to link birth months to the frequencies of several psychiatric conditions. If it is correct, your likelihood of suffering from recurrent depressive disorder, bipolar affective disorder and even schizophrenia varies according to your birth month.

Summer does provide a welcome time for vacations and events that would be difficult to wedge into the “busier” seasons of the year. For example, it’s not too late to register for the 2022 C.S. Lewis Summer Institute. The theme is “Surprised by Love: Cultivating Intellectual Hospitality in an Age of Uncertainty.” It is slated for 28 July – 5 August 5, 2022 in Oxford.

C.S. Lewis’ Favorite Season

Last year, the United Kingdom’s National Trust* conducted a poll which determined summer (30%) as the favorite season for Brits. Curiously, for young adults, summer tied with the second overall favorite, autumn.

After autumn colour, Britons’ favourite things about the [autumn] season are spending time in nature – running, walking or cycling (13 per cent) and the weather – cold crisp days, Indian summer, or stormy days (12 per cent).

So what exactly was C.S. Lewis’ favorite season. At the end of his life he wrote the following. As he so often did, he used a familiar subject to make a profound comment about life.

Yes, autumn is really the best of the seasons; and I’m not sure that old age isn’t the best part of life. But of course, like autumn, it doesn’t last.

But then, isn’t it the flow of the seasons that makes each so welcome in turn? Charles Dickens offered just such an observation in a quote which offers a fitting end to our reflections today.

Nature gives to every time and season unique beauty; from morning to night, as  from the cradle to the grave, it’s just a succession of changes so soft and comfortable that we hardly notice the progress.


* The National Trust helps conserve sites of historic and natural significance in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Scotland has its own National Trust for Scotland, devoted to the same purposes.

Lewis’ good friend J.R.R. Tolkien also enjoyed autumn. In a post several years ago I shared a portion of a letter to his son where he says, “I have the autumn wanderlust upon me, and would fain be off with a knapsack on my back and no particular destination . . .” Sounds like something someone in Middle Earth might say – although, certainly not a hobbit!

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.

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.

Machinery, one of the fruits of scientific research, is intended to benefit humanity. It often does. However, even machines with totally peaceful purposes – hay balers, for example – can be deadly.

Machines-run-amuck populate many dystopian novels and films. One of the most successful franchises is Terminator. Humanity is brought to the precipice of extinction, after devising machines – and their perilous companion Artificial Intelligence. The very first film, The Terminator (1984) brilliantly uses the biblical allusion “Judgement Day,” to mark the sentience of the genocidal Skynet.

Nearly forty years later, debates about weaponized autonomous systems have moved far beyond speculation. And it does not require a doctorate in computer science to recognize that given a potentially lethal machine the power to make its “own” decisions poses a deadly risk. After all, if software programs can be virally infected, and secure systems can be locked tight and held for ransom, there are no guarantees that “terminators” will not be part of our future.

We’ve seen how weapons can easily be mounted on the robotic dogs that are currently accompanying our troops.

And in a recent Air Force Magazine article, “Unmanned Flying Teammates,” we read the promise that “Robots will join the Combat Air Forces within the next decade.”

The common nomenclature for the current generation of these machines is Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems. You can read about “slaughterbots” at the Future of Life Institute site.

Whereas in the case of unmanned military drones the decision to take life is made remotely by a human operator, in the case of lethal autonomous weapons the decision is made by algorithms alone.

Slaughterbots are pre-programmed to kill a specific “target profile.” The weapon is then deployed into an environment where its AI searches for that “target profile” using sensor data, such as facial recognition.

While the first generation of such weapons are still being designed, a genuinely wonderful new machine foreshadows what might be an ominous future.

In response to the destructive necessity for pesticides, scientists have come up with a new self-driving farm machine that avoids the need for poisons by selectively zapping individual weeds with lasers. Forbes has a great article on the subject, with the unwieldly but informative title, “Self-Driving Farm Robot Uses Lasers To Kill 100,000 Weeds An Hour, Saving Land And Farmers From Toxic Herbicides.”

The weeding machine is a beast at almost 10,000 pounds. It boasts no fewer than eight independently-aimed 150-watt lasers, typically used for metal cutting, that can fire 20 times per second.

They’re guided by 12 high-resolution cameras connected to AI systems that can recognize good crops from bad weeds. The Laserweeder drives itself with computer vision, finding the furrows in the fields, positioning itself with GPS, and searching for obstacles with LIDAR.

I applaud this invention, with one major caveat. How large a step is required between zapping weeds and burning holes through human bodies?

Ironically, they have even named this agricultural prototype for human-hunting machines “Terminator technology.”

Terminator technology is the genetic modification of plants to make them produce sterile seeds. They are also known as suicide seeds. Terminator’s official name – used by the UN and scientists – is Genetic Use Restriction Technologies (GURTs).

Actually, this is a very positive breakthrough in terms of increasing harvests while preserving the natural health of the earth (and the Earth). C.S. Lewis, I believe, would have welcomed this new technological achievement.

The affinity of C.S. Lewis and fellow Inkling J.R.R. Tolkien for nature is well recognized. The two WWI veterans were averse to industrialized landscapes, and much preferred bucolic images. You can see that in Lewis’ fiction, although it’s much more evident in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. (Even Tolkien’s truest fans must admit that some readers find his elaborate discussion of the Hobbits’ harmony with nature almost mundane.)

True science is a good thing, but one must remain vigilant against an idolatry that masks itself as science.

Beware of Scientism

C.S. Lewis’ role as a an apologist for Christianity – and for what was worthwhile in past history – brought him into more direct conflict with technology. Of course, it was not scientific advances per se of which he was wary. It was the creeping idolatry of scientism, which assumes the trappings of faith in its disciples’ eyes. Tolkien shared his concerns regarding the matter, but confronting such lies was not part of his vocation.

Lewis’ clearest exposition of humanity’s lust for progress may be his 1954 Inaugural Lecture as the Chair of Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University. De Descriptione Temporum (A Description of the Times) should be read in one sitting, as it was delivered. It is included in several collections, but available online here. The quotation below offers a very small slice of his influential lecture. (Coincidentally, A Pilgrim in Narnia featured a superb column on the address just yesterday.)

[The birth of the machines] is on a level with the change from stone to bronze, or from a pastoral to an agricultural economy. It alters Man’s place in nature. . . . What concerns us . . . is its psychological effect. How has it come about that we use the highly emotive word “stagnation,” with all its malodorous and malarial overtones, for what other ages would have called “permanence”?

Why does the word “primitive” at once suggest to us clumsiness, inefficiency, barbarity? When our ancestors talked of the primitive church or the primitive purity of our constitution they meant nothing of that sort. . . . Why does “latest” in advertisements mean “best”?

Well, let us admit that these semantic developments owe something to the nineteenth-century belief in spontaneous progress which itself owes something either to Darwin’s theorem of biological evolution or to that myth of universal evolutionism which is really so different from it, and earlier. . . . But I submit that what has imposed this climate of opinion so firmly on the human mind is a new archetypal image.

It is the image of old machines being superseded by new and better ones. For in the world of machines the new most often really is better and the primitive really is the clumsy. And this image, potent in all our minds, reigns almost without rival in the minds of the uneducated. For to them, after their marriage and the births of their children, the very milestones of life are technical advances. . . .

Our assumption that everything is provisional and soon to be superseded, that the attainment of goods we have never yet had, rather than the defence and conservation of those we have already, is the cardinal business of life, would most shock and bewilder [all of those who have gone before us.]

A thought-provoking article, “The Folly of Scientism,” offers the argument of a professor of Biology, which is independent of C.S. Lewis, while echoing many of his cautions.*

Of all the fads and foibles in the long history of human credulity, scientism in all its varied guises — from fanciful cosmology to evolutionary epistemology and ethics – seems among the more dangerous, both because it pretends to be something very different from what it really is and because it has been accorded widespread and uncritical adherence.

An excellent work on this subject is available for purchase, entitled The Restoration of Man: C.S. Lewis and the Continuing Case Against Scientism. Michael Aeschliman’s excellent treatment is evidenced by the fact the 2019 version is the third edition of the title.

But why should this central civilizing truth about the “res sacra homo,” [the fact that “humanity is a sacred thing”] . . . need C.S. Lewis’s [reaffirmation]? The answer to that question is philosophical, historical, and complex, but it should not be as obscure or little understood as it is today.

Although there was never a “golden age” of civilization within historical time, this radically noble idea was often better understood in the past, even the recent past.

Back to the Robots

Wait, I just noticed some armed drones flying overhead, and what appeared to be a silhouette resembling a GURT-101 Terminator skulking through the woods outside my office . . . Perhaps I’ve already written too much.


* This article appears in The New Atlantis, where they say “Our aim is a culture in which science and technology work for, not on, human beings.”

Delicious Words

August 19, 2021 — 15 Comments

Have you ever wondered what colors people see when they read what you write? If so, you are not (necessarily) insane. And we’re not talking about coloring your fonts to evoke certain responses.

The fact is, some people honestly do see colors when they read – or hear – particular words.

Perhaps even more oddly, some people actually taste specific words. And the flavor(s) they sense are not necessarily related in any reasonable way. For example, we might think that if someone heard the word “orange,” or saw an orange color, that some psychological trick might cause them to think they can taste an orange citrus flavor. But that’s not how it works. There may not be any fathomable connection at all.

This phenomena is called “synesthesia.” Healthline describes synesthesia as “a neurological condition in which information meant to stimulate one of your senses stimulates several of your senses.” Although they are rare, “synesthetes” are not unique.

A study entitled “Survival of the Synesthesia Gene: Why Do People Hear Colors and Taste Words?” alleges the condition is experienced by 2% to 4% of the population.

While a proven genetic basis for synesthesia remains elusive, the phenomenon tends to run in families, as ∼40% of synesthetes report a first-degree relative with the condition. Pedigree analyses of synesthesia suggest high transmissibility from parent to offspring . . .

I have a confession to make. Through the years I’ve met a handful of people who told me they could taste colors, or the like. They were describing to me their sincere experiences of synesthesia. Unfortunately, since I’d never read about the validity of the phenomenon, I dismissed it. I assumed that the more playful of the advocates were trying to trick me. And I attributed the other cases to people tricking themselves, due to odd imaginations or to gullibility manipulated by the power of suggestion.

Mea culpa. The awkwardness was my fault. I am sorry for any hurt I may have caused. I, of all people, should have accepted their testimony. You see, for many years I was stunned that people voluntarily ate cilantro. To me, the herb tastes like soap – exactly like picking up a bar of soap and taking a big bite. Everyone laughed and me. But one day I met someone whose eyes widened before they declared “me too!”

Britannica explains the problem: ‘for those cilantro-haters for whom the plant tastes like soap, the issue is genetic. These people have a variation in a group of olfactory-receptor genes that allows them to strongly perceive the soapy-flavored aldehydes in cilantro leaves.” The frequency of this “genetic quirk” varies by ethnicity. Trust me, if you knew what it tastes like to “us,” you would never force the unpalatable cleanser on anyone but your worst enemy.

You see, because of my dismissal of their revelation, I could very well have caused some people to consider themselves defective, or discourage them from being open in their lives after that time. Healthline describes it this way:

On the other hand, some synesthetes feel that their condition isolates them from others. They may have trouble explaining their sensory experiences because they are very different. Finding communities of other synesthetes online may help ease this feeling of isolation.

Fortunately, on the other hand, “many people seem to enjoy perceiving the world in a different way than the general population.” There are even artistic efforts which attempt to replicate the experience of these unique individuals.

For a simple guide to the numerous types of synesthesia experienced by your fellow human beings (which may or may not parallel animal phenomena), check out this article.

There is a short scene from the film Ratatouille that creatively illustrates the experience of the synesthete, who is, in this case, Remy the rat. (We’ll link to it at the end of the post.)

What about the Inklings?

I don’t believe any member of the Inklings experienced synesthesia. It is possible, of course.

Nevertheless, there are echoes of synesthesia in their works. Consider for a moment the following description of Lewis’ work as a literary critic in C.S. Lewis at Poet’s Corner.

What I want to call attention to here is yet another example of what one might call Lewis’s narrative synaesthesia. . . . I am not arguing that this kind of movement between genres is unique to Lewis – far from it, I think we all do it to some extent, if only in our imaginations rather than on paper. . . .

[Lewis] is a writer whose perceptions just jostle against each other, and are so interconnected that it is almost impossible to separate one strand from the next. These are characteristics more common in the poet than the critic, and not for nothing did Lewis see himself as primarily a poet.

C.S. Lewis could also skillfully energize his fiction with synesthetic elements. An excellent example is found in Voyage of the Dawn Treader. An article on Encyclopedia.com describes it in the following way.

As they sail nearer to Aslan’s country, references to Christ and our heavenly home accumulate quickly. Reepicheep discovers that the water is sweet! Caspian describes the phenomenon with synesthesia, using the terms of one sense experience to describe another: “It – it’s like light more than anything else.”

In the novel itself we see Reepicheep being pulled from the sea, after falling overboard.

“Sweet!” he cheeped. . . . “I tell you the water’s sweet,” said the Mouse. “Sweet, fresh. It isn’t salt.” For a moment no one quite took in the importance of this. But then Reepicheep once more repeated the old prophecy:

Where the waves grow sweet,
Doubt not, Reepicheep,
There is the utter East.

Then at last everyone understood. “Let me have a bucket, Rynelf,” said Drinian [the ship’s captain]. It was handed him and he lowered it and up it came again. The water shone in it like glass.

“Perhaps your Majesty would like to taste it first?” said Drinian to Caspian. The King took the bucket in both hands, raised it to his lips, sipped, then drank deeply and raised his head. His face was changed. Not only his eyes but everything about him seemed to be brighter. “Yes,” he said, “it is sweet. That’s real water, that. I’m not sure that it isn’t going to kill me. But it is the death I would have chosen . . .”

“What do you mean?” asked Edmund.

“It – it’s like light more than anything else,” said Caspian.

“That is what it is,” said Reepicheep. “Drinkable light. We must be very near the end of the world now.”

There was a moment’s silence and then Lucy knelt down on the deck and drank from the bucket. “It’s the loveliest thing I have ever tasted,” she said with a kind of gasp. “But oh – it’s strong. We shan’t need to eat anything now.” And one by one everybody on board drank. And for a long time they were all silent. They felt almost too well and strong to bear it, and presently they began to notice another result.

As I have said before, there had been too much light ever since they left the island of Ramandu – the sun too large (though not too hot), the sea too bright, the air too shining. Now, the light grew no less – if anything, it increased – but they could bear it. They could look straight up at the sun without blinking.

They could see more light than they had ever seen before. And the deck and the sail and their own faces and bodies became brighter and brighter and every rope shone. And the next morning, when the sun rose, now five or six times its old size, they stared hard into it and could see the very feathers of the birds that came flying from it.

Synesthetic Rodents

The dashing Reepicheep is not the only cute little rodent who experiences reality synesthetically. That should come as no surprise, since Rodentia such as mice like our hero, Remy the rat chef and their cousins like beavers and porcupines constitute about 40% of all mammal species. God alone knows how many rabbits, prairie dogs and pikas share these sensory delights.

The aforementioned scene from Ratatouille offers a “taste” of what life is like for a synesthete. Enjoy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

C.S. Lewis as a Digresser

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

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

Mark Twain’s Masterful Digression

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.