Archives For Theological Matters

During the Second World War, Germany and Japan (leaders of the Axis) committed many loathsome acts. But at least one Allied country was also guilty of an unnecessary atrocity. Genocide and the mass murder of civilians were only part of the Axis’ evil agenda. Germany and Japan also performed horrific medical “experiments” on their innocent captives. No one defends these acts.

The Second World War ended rather abruptly. At the war’s conclusion, a new weapon persuaded the Empire of Japan to surrender unconditionally. The Potsdam Declaration which called on the Emperor to yield offered a grim alternative.

We call upon the government of Japan to proclaim now the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces, and to provide proper and adequate assurances of their good faith in such action. The alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction.

Before the use of the two atomic bombs, plans were well underway for Operation Downfall, the invasion of Japan. Massive Allied casualties were anticipated—but due to the nature of warfare, these were dwarfed by the number of Japanese who would have perished.

While few ever praised the total destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nearly all objective minds recognized that the swift conclusion which followed saved far more lives. This opinion is not only the “military” consensus. It is also shared by those Japanese who were being trained, with bamboo poles, to resist the impending invasion of their islands. (I have had personal conversations with several Japanese citizens who were part of this civilian army.)

Operation Ketsugō (決号作戦), called for the nation’s entire population to resist the invasion. The Japanese Cabinet “essentially called the entire population to military service, while propagandists began ‘The Glorious Death of One Hundred Million’ program to whip up enthusiasm for dying for the Emperor” (A War to Be Won).

While the need for the bombing of Nagasaki is debatable, the use of the atomic bomb in ending the war, saved countless lives. Some have called its use a war crime. They are wrong.

That does not mean, however, that the Allied hands were innocent. In the European theater of the war, the British responded to Germany’s bombing of their civilian populations with terror bombing of their own. Air Chief Marshal Arthur Harris embodied this vile strategy and, as head of the Royal Air Force Bomber Command, he could wage a war of retribution. And, as a leader of the winning army, his criminal behavior would be overlooked.

“Bomber Harris” justified raining fire on civilians because it would abbreviate the war. He said, in my opinion to his lasting shame, “I do not personally regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany [i.e. all of the citizens abiding in them] as worth the bones of one British Grenadier.”

Air Force Magazine has an informative article available online which addresses Harris’ strategy. It cites Churchill’s acknowledgement that “we hoped to shatter almost every dwelling in almost every German city.” Only with the utter destruction of the city of Dresden, did Churchill admit that “the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed” (“The Allied Rift on Strategic Bombing”).

War is a Terrible Thing

Ernest Hemingway was a talented, but deeply troubled, writer. A Boston University article describes his religious outlook in this way: “While raised by devout Christian parents, Hemingway converted to Catholicism at the age of twenty-eight for marriage and proved religiously indifferent throughout his lifetime, despite a preoccupation with biblical themes in many of his works.”⁑

Hemingway addressed the subject of this post in a sober, profound and honest manner. “Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.” Even people such as myself, advocates of Just War Theory, can agree with this.

War is a crime against humanity itself, an activity that was never part of our Creator’s original design. War represents a battle in which even the victor is often left scarred, as one of my fellow chaplains describes in his newly released book, Nailed! Moral Injury: A Response from the Cross of Christ for the Combat Veteran.*

Yet, as horrible as war is, it is sometimes necessary. G.K. Chesterton astutely noted the proper motive for soldiers. They don’t seek personal conquest. Nor is the pursuit of personal glory a proper justification. According to Chesterton, “The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.” In the same light, he wisely described war in the following manner in his Autobiography.

The only defensible war is a war of defence. And a war of defence, by its very definition and nature, is one from which a man comes back battered and bleeding and only boasting that he is not dead.

C.S. Lewis was just such a man. Deeply acquainted with the bloody toll of war, he did not glorify combat. In 1939 he wrote in a letter, “My memories of the last war haunted my dreams for years.” Yet, that very same year, Lewis described moments when war was truly unavoidable, saying “if war is ever lawful, then peace is sometimes sinful” (“The Conditions for a Just War”).

Chivalry is the Imperfect Response to War

Chivalry may sound like an archaic word and an obsolete concept. It may be the former, but is definitely not the latter. For C.S. Lewis, it was the principle that could reduce the anguish caused by war.

C.S. Lewis recognized the profound cost of war and acknowledged short of Christ’s return, it will remain unavoidable. The only way its violence can be tempered is through a principle like chivalry, which naturally arises from the belief that though some wars cannot be avoided, all wars can be restrained by humane guidelines. This notion even inspires the Geneva Conventions.

Mere Inkling has discussed the Inkling concept of chivalry in the past, so I will not repeat that discussion here. Instead, allow me to refer you to an excellent article I recently read on this vital subject, “C.S. Lewis, War, and the Christian Character.”

Addressing the familiar canard that C.S. Lewis glorifies war, particularly in the Chronicles of Narnia, Marc LiVecche declares.

For Lewis, the Narnian stories are all about love—not about love despite the battles and wars, but about love that, because it is love, reveals itself in the rescue of the innocent, the defense of justice, and the punishment of evil even, in the last resort, by war and, most crucially, in the character of the warriors who wage those wars.

In a candid manner that could possibly cause the prudish to blush, LiVecche describes how Botticelli’s Venus and Mars illustrates the view that in a fallen world, war can be harnessed to serve positive ends. This painting is significant, in that “a facsimile of the Botticelli masterwork hung in Lewis’ Oxford rooms in Magdalen College.”

In any case, whether through the influence of Venus or the two-aspects of his internal character, Lewis’ Mars—and the martial character he influences in others—is about much more than war and violence. For Lewis, the fullness of the martial character is best communicated by the chivalric idea of “the knight—the Christian in arms for the defence of a good cause,” which Lewis called “one of the great Christian ideas.” This chivalric ideal, in turn, is best understood through those words addressed to the dead Launcelot, the greatest of all the knights, in Malory’s Morte D’Arthur: “Thou wert the meekest man that ever ate in hall among ladies; and thou wert the sternest knight to thy mortal foe.”

Lewis expounds: “The important thing about this ideal is…the double-demand it makes on human nature. The knight is a man of blood and iron, a man familiar with the sight of smashed faces and the ragged stumps of lopped-off limbs; he is also a demure, almost a maidenlike guest in hall, a gentle, modest, unobtrusive man. He is not a compromise or happy mean between ferocity and meekness; he is fierce to the nth and meek to the nth.”

LiVecche discusses how Lewis’ thought reflects the Christian just war tradition. It is a crucial damper to unbridled war, since “human beings are motivated both by love and kindness as well as selfishness and cruelty [requiring that] the use of force must be viewed with skepticism and deployed within carefully prescribed constraints.”

War crimes are criminal precisely because they fall outside the boundaries of what is just and necessary. These offenses should never be ignored or minimized, no matter who commits them . . . be they Nazi bureaucrats, genocidal Japanese commanders, or sophisticated British baronets who serve as military marshals.


* Chaplain Mark Schreiber’s book is available from Amazon and its kindle version will be available soon.

Casual readers of C.S. Lewis are not always familiar with his supremely balanced view of science and faith.

In a world where skeptics allege science and religious faith are incompatible, Lewis upheld the orthodox Christian understanding that Christianity and true science are 100% compatible. The problem arises when people attempt to use science to explore matters science cannot address.

In “C.S. Lewis and How Christians Should Think about Science,” we read that “C.S. Lewis has written extensively on science or specifically on how believers should think about science. Lewis himself was not antiscience. But he had grave concerns about the use of science to either manipulate nature or validate worldviews based on reductionism or naturalism.”

I would like to emphasize this warning, by adding three simple letters. C.S. Lewis “had grave concerns about the misuse of science.” And so should we all.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis describes science’s proper role.

Science works by experiments. It watches how things behave. Every scientific statement in the long run, however complicated it looks, really means something like, “I pointed the telescope to such and such a part of the sky at 2:20 a.m. on January 15th and saw so-and-so,” or, “I put some of this stuff in a pot and heated it to such-and-such a temperature and it did so-and-so.” Do not think I am saying anything against science: I am only saying what its job is.

And the more scientific a man is, the more (I believe) he would agree with me that this is the job of science—and a very useful and necessary job it is too. But why anything comes to be there at all, and whether there is anything behind the things science observes—something of a different kind—this is not a scientific question. If there is “Something Behind,” then either it will have to remain altogether unknown to men or else make itself known in some different way.

The statement that there is any such thing, and the statement that there is no such thing, are neither of them statements that science can make. And real scientists do not usually make them. It is usually the journalists and popular novelists who have picked up a few odds and ends of half-baked science from textbooks who go in for them. After all, it is really a matter of common sense. Supposing science ever became complete so that it knew every single thing in the whole universe. Is it not plain that the questions, “Why is there a universe?” “Why does it go on as it does?” “Has it any meaning?” would remain just as they were?

There are, of course, many, many thousands of scientists who are Christians.

I recently read an interesting article on the Society of Roman Catholic Scientists. I commend it to everyone, whatever your religious affiliation (or lack thereof). It is entitled “Christianity in Scientific Mythology,” and begins with the author saying,

It shocks many people to find out that I am both an astrophysicist and a religious believer.  It shocks some of my fellow astrophysicists and even some of my fellow Catholics. . . . But why should this be?  Why should it be a surprise that someone whose chosen profession is the scientific study of the universe is also a person of faith? Why the perception of conflict?  Is it intrinsic to the business of science that it be “at odds” with religion?

Despite the fact that Professor Clemens fails to mention C.S. Lewis in his essay, he makes many valid points. The first lays a solid foundation for his message, and dispels a patently obvious, but seldom acknowledged, fact.

One of the defects of contemporary culture is the undue and unhealthy reverence we show toward scientists.  The public imagines scientists to be too smart to disagree with, too objective to be swayed by emotion or bias, and experts on every subject they choose to talk about.  None of these things is true, of course, and the unquestioning acceptance of these notions does great harm.

C.S. Lewis’ Concept of Scientism

Like all sane people, C.S. Lewis appreciated the great value of science. What he warned against was a sort of deification [my word] of science. It is like the elevation of scientific mythology to the status of ultimate religious truth, able to answer even metaphysical questions with certitude.

If you would like to read more on this subject, consider the following articles:

Science and Scientism: The Prophetic Vision of C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis: Science and Scientism

C.S. Lewis and the Religion of Science

C.S. Lewis on Science, Evolution, and Evolutionism

Another worthwhile article, published in the journal of Science and Christian Belief, is available at “Science and Religion in the Writings of C.S. Lewis.”

As a person of faith, albeit not a scientist, I concur wholeheartedly with C.S. Lewis. In the following passage from The Weight of Glory, Lewis makes a profound point, although it may require more than a single reading to comprehend. You may wish to read the entire essay to see how he builds up to this observation, but I offer it here on its own merits.

The waking world is judged more real because it can thus contain the dreaming world: the dreaming world is judged less real because it cannot contain the waking one. For the same reason I am certain that in passing from the scientific point of view to the theological, I have passed from dream to waking. Christian theology can fit in science, art, morality, and the sub-Christian religious. The scientific point of view cannot fit in any of these things, not even science itself.


The illustration above was drawn by E.J. Pace and appeared a century ago in The Sunday School Times. You can download a personal copy of a book featuring a hundred of Pace’s cartoons here.

Don’t you find it slightly irritating when people intentionally mispronounce words? Sometimes it isn’t merely a silly affectation. What bothers me are cases where people consciously reject the accurate version and flaunt their personal (inaccurate) alternative. It comes across to me like they are magnifying their ignorance with a sizeable dose of obnoxious stubbornness.

Anyone, of course, can accidentally mispronounce a word. Well, anyone aside from C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, that is.

I don’t enjoy (but don’t object to) simple silliness. In a 1932 American Speech article entitled “Intentional Mispronunciations,” the author says, “the custom is an old one, and in our age of light-hearted youth it is unusually widespread.” She immediately notes one danger.

The use of mispronunciations sometimes becomes habit, and it is often difficult to speak correctly when one is in sophisticated company.

The humble person, when advised on the proper enunciation of a particular word, thanks their friend (only friends should dare to sensitively point out such a slip). After expressing that appreciation, they go forward with the commitment to being a bastion of proper usage of the word in question.

However, there are those obstinate ignoramuses (OIs) who defiantly insist on perpetuating their sins.  

Let us consider a common error. One that is quite easily corrected, unless the OI insists on actively rejecting knowledge. The word is “nuclear,” and you already know what the all too common mistake is. How can anyone, much less a graduate of Yale, entrusted with the Gold Codes, accompanied at all times by a military aide ready to hand them the “nuclear football,” continue to use the non-word nu-cu-lar? I have no idea how common this atrocity is outside the United States, but here in the States, it is far from rare.

A good friend of mine, who does public speaking, insists on pronouncing “recognize” without its “g.” I understand he must have learned it that way, but I will never get used to a person with advanced degrees saying “rec-a-nize.” My father was a curmudgeon, and this conscious affront reinforced his chosen image. He loved to push my buttons by adding an “r” to the state I call home. Warshington doesn’t exist on any map, but it certainly did in his mind.

Why Pronunciations Err

People are prone to mispronunciation when they’ve only read a word, and never heard it pronounced before. This was especially perilous before the existence of online dictionaries.

There is another hazard which can mislead someone in pronouncing a word incorrectly—and it was to this that I succumbed my first year at seminary. This is the case where a word is spelled in a manner that makes the errant pronunciation possible, and you have only heard it pronounced in the wrong way. This is the story of my shame.

I was taking a consortium course on ministry and media, which was taught by professors from four or five different seminaries. In my first “radio” presentation, I cited a passage from one of the Psalms. Everyone said it was well done—until the Roman Catholic professor (with nary a hint of affirmation) declared, ex cathedra: “it’s ‘sahm;’ you don’t pronounce the ‘l.’”

I was so embarrassed that I remained silent and soon as I got home I pulled out my dictionary, and darned if he wasn’t right. I have pronounced it correctly ever since, even in the face of a world that now considers me to be wrong.

My aversion to the intentional-mispronunciators does not extend to people who say “salm.” After all, that’s how the word should be pronounced.* But those people who insist on saying “re-la-ter” when the profession is clearly spelled “re-al-tor,” are begging for some sort of aversion therapy.

There is one additional case I wish to note here. That is when there are two (or more?) legitimate ways to pronounce a word. I’m not referring to homographs, like wind (wĭnd) and wind (wīnd).

C.S. Lewis also discusses pronunciation at great length in his essay “The Alliterative Metre,” where he notes,

In modern English many words, chiefly monosyllables, which end in a single consonant are pronounced differently according to their position in the sentence. If they come at the end of a sentence or other speech-group—that is, if there is a pause after them—the final consonant is so dwelled upon that the syllable becomes long.

If the reader listens carefully he will find that the syllable man is short in ‘Manifold and great mercies’ or ‘The man of property,’ but long in ‘The Invisible Man’ or ‘The Descent of Man.’

Words with multiple formally accepted pronunciations are fair game—as long as a person’s choice is from the list. Here’s one where pronouncing the “l” is optional: almond. Apricot can begin with either the sound “app” or “ape.”

A Playful Game Using Homographs

The following example uses a name, but the principle would be the same for any word with more than one authentic pronunciation. It comes from a book I read many years ago, which has retained a fond place in my memory. Robert McAfee Brown (1920-2001) was a Presbyterian theologian. The title of the volume suggests its satirical bent: The Collect’d Writings of St. Hereticus.

One of the appendices in the book is called “Theological Gamesmanship.” One of the games he features is “How to Win a Theological Discussion Without Knowing Anything.” The following gambit is called “Help from St. Augustine.”

A quiet yet forceful way of demonstrating superiority when Augustine is under discussion is to pronounce his name in contrary fashion to the pronunciation of the Opponent.⁑ Make a point of emphasizing the contrast, so that it will be apparent that you know you are right, and not even for politeness’ sake will you pronounce the name incorrectly as Opponent is doing. Either,

Opponent: . . . leading ideas in Augustine (Ogg-us-teen).
Self: Augustine (uh-Gust’n)may have said that on one or two occasions, but . . .
Or,
Opponent (usually an Anglican in this case): . . . leading ideas in Augustine.
Self: Augustine may have said that on one or two occasions, but the whole Augustinian tradition, following, as I believe, the essential Augustine himself . . .

In this second gambit, it is advisable to maneuver the conversation into a discussion of “the Augustinian tradition” as indicated, so that when Opponent refers to it, as he must, without pronouncing it “the Augustinian tradition,” you can smile deprecatingly, to indicate that your point has been made.

[Brown adds a footnote that reads:] With sensitive Anglicans, it will often be enough simply to raise, ever so slightly, (a) both eyebrows, and (b) the second, third, and fourth fingers of the left hand.

Naturally, I’m not seriously suggesting that one-upmanship is something in which one should engage. On the contrary, Brown (and I) are holding up this sort of petty behavior as beneath the dignity of good people.

I’m sure that some would argue that correcting someone’s pronunciation in even the most glaring examples of verbal atrocities, constitutes bad manners. I, however, appreciate being privately corrected, so that I might not continue making the same mistake. Thus, I consider it the act of a friend.

C.S. Lewis was a patient and gracious man. He was quite tolerant of variation in pronunciation, even when it came to his own creations. In 1952 he responded to a correspondent inquiring how to properly pronounce the name of Aslan. I would guess the most common American version would be “æzˌlæn” opting to pronounce the “s” as a “z.” Here is Lewis’ response:

It is a pleasure to answer your question. I found the name in the notes to Lane’s Arabian Nights: it is the Turkish for Lion. I pronounce it Ass-lan [æsˌlæn] myself. And of course I meant the Lion of Judah. I am so glad you liked the book.

I loved the book, and I affirm its readers, whichever way they pronounce the name of the Great Lion. Well, as long as they don’t intentionally mispronounce it, including an invisible “r.” After all, there is most certainly no beloved image of Christ named Arslan!


* This waiver does not extend, however, to what may be the most common biblical mistake. The Book of Revelation does not have an “s.” Yet, how often do you hear it cited as Revelations?

⁑ This brazen technique is equally effective, no matter which pronunciation the person you seek to upstage has used.

The cartoon at the top of this post is used with the permission of xkcd.

One of the pivotal events in the history of God’s grace is found in the Torah account of a dream. Jacob was the heir of Abraham, through whom the Lord promised to redeem the world. But Jacob was far from noble.

Nevertheless, because of the Lord’s mercy (the same mercy he offers to us), he forgave Jacob and promised to bless his descendants. In his dream, Jacob saw a ladder extending from earth all the way to heaven. “And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!” (Genesis 28).

This dynamic connection between heaven and earth reveals God’s constant concern for his creation. Some, such as Martin Luther, have seen in the dream a foreshadowing of the Incarnation itself.

This ladder or stairway can be interpreted in a variety of ways. One thing it is not, however, is a guide to human ascent from our fallen world to the presence of our Creator. (The Lord is the one who comes to us.)

Having acknowledged that the dream’s purpose is not to model sanctification or individual spiritual ascent, it is easy to see why the metaphor of ladders, and the action of climbing, give way to other applications.

The most vivid contemporary example comes in the form of a Christian spiritual entitled “We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.” A number of versions of the lyrics exist. This is quite unsurprising since it began as part of an oral tradition. According to one website devoted to spirituals, the following lyrics are typical.*

We are climbing Jacob’s ladder
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder
Soldier of the Cross

Ev’ry round goes higher ‘n’ higher
Ev’ry round goes higher ‘n’ higher
Ev’ry round goes higher ‘n’ higher
Soldier of the Cross

Brother do you love my Jesus
Brother do you love my Jesus
Brother do you love my Jesus
Soldier of the Cross

If you love him why not serve him
If you love him why not serve him
If you love him why not serve him
Soldier of the Cross

While there are longer versions, this one aptly illustrates how the metaphor of the ladder—in this case, explicitly Jacob’s ladder—offered a powerful image of deliverance. Climbing the ladder with Jesus, was tantamount to experiencing deliverance from the ills of this world.

America’s Library of Congress offers a useful page which describes “African American Gospel music [as] a form of euphoric, rhythmic, spiritual music rooted in the solo and responsive church singing of the African American South.” They add that “its development coincided with—and is germane to—the development of rhythm and blues.” The site offers links to four 1943 recordings of spirituals. None of these, however, is the hymn we are discussing.

“We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” was one of the earliest spirituals to be widely adopted by the interracial faith community. It is familiar in many denominations, and was recently sung in my own Lutheran congregation. Hymnary.org states the song has been “published in 79 hymnals.” Even those who consider themselves unfamiliar with the hymn often recognize its rousing refrain: “Rise and shine and give God the glory, glory, Soldiers of the Cross.”

The talented Paul Robeson recorded the hymn on a number of his albums. The inspiring rendition by scholar Bernice Johnson Reagon was included in Ken Burn’s documentary, The Civil War.

C.S. Lewis and the Spiritual Ladder

The ladder offers such a convenient analogy for growth or spiritual maturation that others have also applied it in this manner. The ladders inspired by Jacob’s dream include the following two which continue to influence Christian disciples today, even though they were written many centuries ago. The second of these was considered by C.S. Lewis to be one of the works of faith influential in his life.

John Climacus (579-649) was a Christian teenager when he entered the monastic life at the foot of Mount Sinai. He soon earned the respect of his elders in that barren land. In the words of Fathers of the Desert, “in this ascetic seclusion he became ripe for the designs of God.”

The abbot of a monastery on the Red Sea requested guidance on the ascetic life to use with his monks. John responded with The Ladder of Divine Ascent. You can download a modern translation of this priceless work here. While the treatise was written specifically to guide monastics in their spiritual growth, many other Christians have also found its wisdom helpful in their own, non-monastic settings.

John introduces the virtue of obedience with two vivid images used by the Apostle Paul, the athlete in training and the armor of God.

Our treatise now appropriately touches upon warriors and athletes of Christ [and the manner in which] the holy soul steadily ascends to heaven as upon golden wings. And perhaps it was about this that he who had received the Holy Spirit sang: Who will give me wings like a dove? And I will fly by activity, and be at rest by contemplation and humility.

But let us not fail, if you agree, to describe clearly in our treatise the weapons of these brave warriors: how they hold the shield of faith in God and their trainer, and with it they ward off, so to speak, every thought of unbelief and vacillation; how they constantly raise the drawn sword of the Spirit and slay every wish of their own that approaches them; how, clad in the iron armour of meekness and patience, they avert every insult and injury and missile.

And for a helmet of salvation they have their superior’s protection through prayer. And they do not stand with their feet together, for one is stretched out in service and the other is immovable in prayer.

The following passage will be of particular interest to Christian writers. John advises those drawing closer to God to maintain a journal of their progress and insights. I offer it within its wise context.

Let all of us who wish to fear the Lord struggle with our whole might, so that in the school of virtue we do not acquire for ourselves malice and vice, cunning and craftiness, curiosity and anger. For it does happen, and no wonder!

As long as a man is a private individual, or a seaman, or a tiller of the soil, the King’s enemies do not war so much against him. But when they see him taking the King’s colours, and the shield, and the dagger, and the sword, and the bow, and clad in soldier’s garb, then they gnash at him with their teeth, and do all in their power to destroy him. And so, let us not slumber.

I have seen innocent and most beautiful children come to school for the sake of wisdom, education and profit, but through contact with the other pupils they learn there nothing but cunning and vice. The intelligent will understand this.

It is impossible for those who learn a craft whole-heartedly not to make daily advance in it. But some know their progress, while others by divine providence are ignorant of it. A good banker never fails in the evening to reckon the day’s profit or loss. But he cannot know this clearly unless he enters it every hour in his notebook. For the hourly account brings to light the daily account.

In the fourteenth century, an Augustinian mystic in England wrote a book called The Scale [Ladder] of Perfection.” Walter Hilton (c. 1340-1396) provides spiritual exercises requested by a woman adopting life as an anchoress.⁑ You can download a free copy of Evelyn Underhill’s 1923 edition of Hilton’s counsel at Internet Archive.

In 1940, C.S. Lewis wrote to Roman Catholic monk Bede Griffiths in response to the latter’s question about his familiarity with Hilton’s work. “Yes, I’ve read the Scale of Perfection with much admiration. I think of sending the anonymous translator a list of passages that he might reconsider for the next edition.” That same decade Lewis’ collected correspondence reveals he recommended the title to at least two individuals.

Of greatest interest to students of C.S. Lewis will be his mention of the medieval treatise in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy. Here the great author describes his worldly understanding of prayer served as a terrible stumbling block to his faith.

To these nagging suggestions my reaction was, on the whole, the most foolish I could have adopted. I set myself a standard. No clause of my prayer was to be allowed to pass muster unless it was accompanied by what I called a “realization,” by which I meant a certain vividness of the imagination and the affections.

My nightly task was to produce by sheer will power a phenomenon which will power could never produce, which was so ill-defined that I could never say with absolute confidence whether it had occurred, and which, even when it did occur, was of very mediocre spiritual value.

If only someone had read to me old Walter Hilton’s warning that we must never in prayer strive to extort “by maistry” what God does not give! But no one did; and night after night, dizzy with desire for sleep and often in a kind of despair, I endeavored to pump up my “realizations.” The thing threatened to become an infinite regress.

One began of course by praying for good “realizations.” But had that preliminary prayer itself been “realized”? This question I think I still had enough sense to dismiss; otherwise it might have been as difficult to begin my prayers as to end them.

How it all comes back! The cold oilcloth, the quarters chiming, the night slipping past, the sickening, hopeless weariness. This was the burden from which I longed with soul and body to escape. It had already brought me to such a pass that the nightly torment projected its gloom over the whole evening, and I dreaded bedtime as if I were a chronic sufferer from insomnia. Had I pursued the same road much further I think I should have gone mad.

This ludicrous burden of false duties in prayer provided, of course, an unconscious motive for wishing to shuffle off the Christian faith; but about the same time, or a little later, conscious causes of doubt arose.

David Downing, co-director of the Wade Center wrote an excellent essay entitled “Into the Region of Awe: Mysticism in C.S. Lewis” which describes in the broader context what C.S. Lewis wrote in Surprised by Joy.

Note for example a passage in Surprised by Joy in which Lewis discusses the loss of his childhood faith while at Wynyard School in England. He explains that his schoolboy faith did not provide him with assurance or comfort, but created rather self-condemnation.

He fell into an internalized legalism, such that his private prayers never seemed good enough. He felt his lips were saying the right things, but his mind and heart were not in the words. Lewis adds “if only someone had read me old Walter Hilton’s warning that we must never in prayer strive to extort ‘by maistry’ [mastery] what God does not give.”

This is one of those casual references in Lewis which reveals a whole other side to him which may surprise those who think of him mainly as a Christian rationalist. “Old Walter Hilton” is the fourteenth-century author of a manual for contemplatives called The Scale of Perfection. This book is sometimes called The Ladder of Perfection, as it presents the image of a ladder upon which one’s soul may ascend to a place of perfect unity and rest in the Spirit of God . . . [passage continued in footnotes]. ⁂

We’ve considered four separate ladders today. Despite their differences, they all share a common trait—they are meaningful to those who are earnest about growing in the faith. Whether slave or free, wise or simple, or hermit or cosmopolitan—each of these ladders affirms eternal truths.

Underhill described Hilton’s motivation for writing in this way: “It is for those who crave for this deeper consciousness of reality, and feel this impulse to a complete consecration, that Hilton writes.” I believe this is true for the authors of each of these four treasures.


* The following, simpler version appears to follow an earlier tradition. A musical accompaniment for this example can be found in The Books of American Negro Spirituals. The author, James Weldon Johnson (1876-1938), provides a rich and earnest introduction to the book, originally published in two volumes. He expresses his hope that collection “will further endear these sons to those who love Spirituals, and will awaken an interest in many others.”

We am clim’in’ Jacob’s ladder
We am clim’in’ Jacob’s ladder
We am clim’in’ Jacob’s ladder
Soldiers of the cross

O

Ev’ry roun’ goes higher, higher
Ev’ry roun’ goes higher, higher
Ev’ry roun’ goes higher, higher
Soldiers of the cross

⁑ An anchoress (or anchorite) was a religious woman (or man) who would often be walled off in their monastic cell near a church, to foster their life of prayer by freeing them from interruption.

⁂ Downing’s discussion of C.S. Lewis’ reference to Walter Hinton’s insights on prayer is so valuable that I am compelled to offer the rest of it here. You can read the entire essay via the link on the article’s title.

The passage about “maistry” Lewis wished he’d known as a boy comes early in The Scale of Perfection, a section about different kinds of prayer, including liturgical prayers, spontaneous prayers, and “prayers in the heart alone” which do not use words.

Hilton’s advice for people “who are troubled by vain thoughts in their prayer” is not to feel alone. He notes it is very common to be distracted in prayer by thoughts of what “you have done or will do, other people’s actions, or matters hindering or vexing you.”

Hilton goes on to explain that no one can keep fully the Lord’s command to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. The best you can do is humbly acknowledge your weakness and ask for mercy. However badly one’s first resolve fades, says Hilton, you should not get “too fearful, too angry with yourself, or impatient with God for not giving you savor and spiritual sweetness in devotion.”

Instead of feeling wretched, it is better to leave off and go do some other good or useful work, resolving to do better next time. Hilton concludes that even if you fail in prayer a hundred times, or a thousand, God in his charity will reward you for your labor. Walter Hilton was the canon of a priory in the Midlands of England and an experienced spiritual director of those who had taken monastic vows. His book is full of mellow wisdom about spiritual growth, and Lewis considered it one of “great Christian books” that is too often neglected by modern believers.

Hilton’s recurring theme—do what you know to be right and don’t worry about your feelings—is one that appears often in Lewis’s own Christian meditations. But, alas, Lewis as a boy did not have the benefit of Hilton’s advice.

In those boyhood years at Wynyard, he was trapped in a religion of guilt, not grace. More and more he came to associate Christianity with condemnation of others, as in Northern Ireland, or condemnation of oneself, for not living up to God’s standards.


A Note on the Illustration

Nicolas Dipre was a French early Renaissance painter, who flourished 1495-1532. His painting of Jacob’s Ladder portrays the biblical account of the Jewish patriarch’s dream. The icon Ladder of Divine Ascent was painted four centuries earlier by an anonymous iconographer. It is from Saint Catherine’s Monastery beside Mount Sinai, and portrays the ascent of saints in the pursuit of holiness. While fallen angels (devils) seek to drag them from the path, John Climacus leads other in the path to heaven.

If you were a Scandinavian living a millennia ago, you would be faced with a critical decision. Would you embrace Jesus Christ and a new life based on mercy, or would you cling to Odin and the Norse pantheon, with its glorification of bloodshed?

When I first heard this choice posed as a choice between the “White Christ” and the blood-drenched Thor, I assumed the white color alluded to traits commonly associated with it today—e.g. purity, innocence, and holiness.*

To my surprise, I recently learned there was a completely different to the Vikings. For them, referring to Christ as “white” was a term of derision.

Before returning to the Northmen, let’s consider for a moment the Inklings. These brilliant writers were well acquainted with white as a biblical metaphor for holiness, etc. They understood how the miracle of the <a rel="noreferrer noopener" href="http://&lt;!– wp:embed {"url":"https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+17%3A1-9\u0026version=ESV","type":"rich","providerNameSlug":"embed","className":""} –> <figure class="wp-block-embed is-type-rich is-provider-embed wp-block-embed-embed"><div class="wp-block-embed__wrapper"> https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+17%3A1-9&version=ESV </div></figure> Transfiguration described Jesus’ radiant face shining “like the sun” as the “bright cloud overshadowed them.”

As <a rel="noreferrer noopener" href="http://&lt;!– wp:embed {"url":"https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+17%3A1-9\u0026version=ESV","type":"rich","providerNameSlug":"embed","className":""} –> <figure class="wp-block-embed is-type-rich is-provider-embed wp-block-embed-embed"><div class="wp-block-embed__wrapper"> https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+17%3A1-9&version=ESV </div></figure> Mark records in his Gospel, Jesus “was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them.”

It is no accident Tolkien’s Gandalf the Grey returns as Gandalf the White following his deadly battle with the Balrog.

In C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Aslan manifests himself to the children as an unblemished lamb.

But between them and the foot of the sky there was something so white on the green grass that even with their eagles’ eyes they could hardly look at it. They came on and saw that it was a Lamb. “Come and have breakfast,” said the Lamb in its sweet milky voice. . . .

“Please Lamb,” said Lucy, “is this the way to Aslan’s country?”

“Not for you,” said the Lamb. “For you the door into Aslan’s country is from your own world.”

“What!” said Edmund. “Is there a way into Aslan’s country from our world too?”

“There is a way into my country from all the worlds,” said the Lamb; but as he spoke his snowy white flushed into tawny gold and his size changed and he was Aslan himself, towering above them and scattering light from his mane.

On the other hand, C.S. Lewis tosses us a curve with the White Witch in his Chronicles of Narnia. The reason for her identification with white is obvious, since she is holding Narnia in an austere, perpetual winter. The witch’s hue carries other messages. Her unthreatening appearance moves Edmund to drop his defenses during their initial encounter.

[Queen Jadis was] a great lady, taller than any woman that Edmund had ever seen. She also was covered in white fur up to her throat and held a long straight golden wand in her right hand and wore a golden crown on her head. Her face was white—not merely pale, but white like snow or paper or icing-sugar, except for her very red mouth. It was a beautiful face in other respects, but proud and cold and stern.

Northern Mythologies

C.S. Lewis was enraptured by Northernness. He and Tolkien spent many hours reading Viking sagas.

However, Lewis was inspired not by the warrior Thor, but the person of Baldur. Several of my online friends and acquaintances have also written about Lewis’ affinity for Baldur. These include Brenton Dickieson, Eleanor Parker, and Bradley Birzer.

Turning from Baldur (Baldr) the Brave to Thor (Þórr), the god of thunder, we find the Norse deity with the largest number of followers. Thor was the ideal divinity for independent adventurers, warriors and violent raiders.

The story of the heroic thunder god still resonates today, as the success of the recent cinematic blockbusters attests. To suit contemporary tastes, the bloody red giant-slayer of myth has shed his more gruesome traits. They have been replaced by nobler aspects, as befitting a modern superhero protecting Midgard (Earth) from danger.

But the medieval period was not the relatively safe world we know. And pleas to turn the other cheek sounded like utter foolishness. The belligerent nature of the Germanic and Scandinavian chieftains of the era, resulted in a modification of the Gospel which was shared by some evangelists. In order to impress a militant population, the pacific nature of Jesus was downplayed. In “Why Trust the White Christ?” we read, “Not until the 1100s did the concept of the suffering Christ take root in Scandinavia; before that Christ was depicted as a triumphant prince—even on the cross!”

Eventually the Gospel would triumph, but one of its first effective renditions for the northern barbarians came in a gospel harmony⁑ entitled the Heliand. A number of references to the Gospel in J.R.R. Tolkien’s academic writings reveals his familiarity with the Old Saxon work, which he also mentioned in his lectures. The Heliand was commissioned by Charlemagne’s grandson Louis the German (806-876) to reach the Franks’ fellow Germanic tribes who remained Pagan. It was written by a Benedictine monk named Notker, who also wrote The Life of Charlemagne.⁂

The fact that this alliterative Gospel (in poetic form) was composed for the Saxon warrior class (their nobility), makes it particularly interesting.  Knowing it was recited not only in monasteries, but also mead halls, makes one’s personal reading of it feel like a journey into the ancient past.

Mariana Scott’s 1966 translation ⁑⁑ is available here. This site posits her translation beside the original Old Saxon. One of my favorite passages comes in the “introduction,” as the context of the Gospel proper is set for the hearers. It is very serious and describes the four Evangelists as inspired by God.

[The Lord] had filled the hearts of the heroes,
     with the Holy Ghost.
Perfectly all,
     with pious opinion,
And wise words many
     and still more of wit.
That they should begin
     the goodly Gospel
With their holy voices,
     raise it on high—

The Question of the White Christ

Referring to Jesus as the “White Christ” may have been related to the association of white baptismal robes worn by the newly baptized. But it involved more than that.

Apparently, the appellation “white,” especially when linked to Christ, was a Pagan insult. In a Scandinavian Studies article entitled “The Contemptuous Sense of the Old Norse Adjective Hvítr, ‘White, Fair’” we learn that it possessed a pejorative sense.

The [Old Icelandic] heathen religion glorified physical strength and courage in combat, a direct antithesis to the Christian ideal of pacifism based upon the Golden Rule. Hence, the heathen Icelanders interpreted the Christian Hvítakristr ‘The White Christ’ as a cowardly, contemptible counterpart of Thor, the god of courage and strength . . .

And this negative connotation continued, even after the triumph of the new faith.

[Even] after Christianity had become established as the national religion in Iceland, this heathen conception of Christian ‘cowardice’ disappeared but left its traces in the epithet hvítr, especially when one wished to belittle or vilify a personal enemy.

. . .

The double sense (‘fair’ : ‘cowardly’)was characteristic of skaldic poetry and served to enhance the sarcastic effect.

And thus my youthful innocence about the meaning of the White Christ has been dispelled. But, at the same time, my insight into the historic prejudice against the sacrificial Son and Lamb of God has grown.

Jesus was no coward, but he is—now and forever—pure, innocent, and holy.


* It should go without being said that associating the color white with Jesus has absolutely nothing to do with ethnicity. The Incarnation of our Lord makes it abundantly clear that Jesus was a Jew born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth. The Bible describes nothing noteworthy about his appearance that would distinguish him from the rest of the Jewish people in ancient Palestine. Thus, whatever Jesus’ complexion, he would have looked little like the pale Anglo-Saxon messiah we have often seen in paintings and cinema.

⁑ A Gospel harmony is a blending together of the four canonical Gospels into a single account. Tatian (c. 120-180), an Assyrian theologian, compiled the Diatessaron, which was prominent in the Syrian church, and is thought to have directly influenced the Germanic harmony, the Heliand.

 ⁂ Notker (c. 840-912) who also composed hymns and poetry. As mentioned above, the Benedictine monk also wrote The Life of Charlemagne which records many fascinating stories about Frankish and Germanic Christianity. Apparently a poor precedent was set by Frankish generosity when a group of Northmen serving as envoys received baptism.

As I have mentioned the Northmen I will show by an incident drawn from the reign of your grandfather in what slight estimation they hold faith and baptism. . . .

The nobles of the palace adopted them almost as children, and each received from the emperor’s chamber a white robe and from their sponsors a full Frankish attire, of costly robes and arms and other decorations.

This was often done and from year to year they came in increasing numbers, not for the sake of Christ but for earthly advantage.

A very enlightening and sadly entertaining account. But what happens when the gifts run out?

⁑⁑ In the foreword to her translation, Scott shares some intriguing thoughts on the challenging labor of translation.

It was important for me to remember that the Heliand was originally intended for recitation. This accounts for the very great emphasis on rhythm. While the exact form of the old alliterative verse, though common to both early English and German poetry, proved too confining, a freer adaptation was possible. Let us remember that much of the effect of modern free verse depends on the interplay of sounds: assonance and alliteration.

Keeping in mind the purpose of the original, I read my translation aloud as I worked, repeating lines several times, varying and checking rhythms, trying to imitate the surge of the meter and yet avoid monotony. The end result was a line of variable feet, usually a rather free alternation of anapests and iambics with a few scattered tribrachs and spondees, divided by the traditional caesura.

I aimed for an alliteration of at least one accented syllable in the first half line with one accented syllable in the second half. If more sounded right, I was delighted. If none worked, I tried to make the rhythm carry the line along to the next cadence. Not all of it, I painedly admit, turned out to be poetry—but then not all of the Old Saxon is!

Prayers, Barbers & Saints

January 27, 2021 — 14 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lewis’ High Street Barber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Story of Another Godly Barber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Not Quite Christmas

December 21, 2020 — 11 Comments

Sadly, most people miss out on the true meaning of Christmas. But then, there are some people who really miss the mark altogether. That was the case with many Brits during the Victorian era.

Today I read in Philosopher Mouse of the Hedge about Victorian Christmas cards. Phil’s great post was inspired by a BBC article, “Frog Murder and Boiled Children: ‘Merry Christmas’ Victorian style.” As Phil writes, “and you thought that sinister Elf on the Shelf was creepy.”

The card at the top of my post comes from the BBC collection. Pretty morbid. Where does the “Joyful Christmas” enter in? One might think this is the kind of card a passive aggressive victim of ornithophobia might send an enemy—but that was not its original design.

The Robin redbreast is a treasured resident of Britain, as this interesting article describes in detail. Just a few years ago, in fact, “it won a BBC Springwatch poll to choose the UK’s national bird.” The author describes their distinctive association with Christmas, although I am positive he did not have the image of this unfortunate creature in mind when he penned these words.

Another reason we connect robins with Christmas is that the early postmen wore red uniforms, and so were nicknamed ‘robins.’ And, as the cards pop through your letter box over the coming days, note how many feature a robin!

Here’s another peculiar card that has nothing to do with Christmas. At least it simply refers to “the Season,” and doesn’t tarnish the word “Christmas” itself.

Such a modicum of good taste did not deter the creator of the next card from associating robbery and homicide (actually frogicide) with the day celebrating Christ’s birth. One must hope that the grim illustration was originally fashioned for a different context.

C.S. Lewis knew that the British had a problem comprehending Christmas’ meaning. Why, they even twisted things sufficiently to link telling ghost stories to the commemoration of the Nativity.

It may have something to do with a confused relationship between church and state. Nations with “state religions” typically see those religious faiths morph into distortions of their true selves. Thus history is filled with examples of total secularists or hedonists who were the “titular head” of a state church.

Henry VIII set the bar for hypocrisy quite high, with adultery and murder his bywords. C.S. Lewis includes a tribute (of damning sorts) to this despicable ruler in his sequel to The Screwtape Letters, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast.” In the address, fictitiously delivered by the devil Screwtape, the Tempter bemoans the mediocre vices of the humans whose anguish provides the main course.

The scene is in Hell at the annual dinner of the Tempters’ Training College for young Devils. The Principal, Dr Slubgob, has just proposed the health of the guests. Screwtape, who is the guest of honour, rises . . .

Your dreaded Principal has included in a speech full of points something like an apology for the banquet which he has set before us. Well, gentledevils, no one blames him. But it would be vain to deny that the human souls on whose anguish we have been feasting tonight were of pretty poor quality.

Not all the most skilful cookery of our tormentors could make them better than insipid. Oh to get one’s teeth again into a Farinata,* a Henry VIII, or even a Hitler! There was real crackling there; something to crunch; a rage, an egotism, a cruelty only just less robust than our own. It put up a delicious resistance to being devoured. It warmed your innards when you’d got it down.

So much for Henry VIII and the peculiarities of Church and State relations in England. Whatever the origin of this confusion about Christmas, it is quite tragic and disturbing.

So, What is the Proper Focus?

For an entertaining take on the proper focus during Christmas, you might want to check out “Martin Luther Yells about Anglican Christmas Hymns.” (Apologies to those who love English hymns for sentimental reasons.)

And now, one final Victorian card which serves as a fitting capstone to today’s conversation. ’Tis innocent mirth that gives Christmas its worth. (Or not.)


* Manente degli Uberti (aka Farinata delgi Uberti, 1212-1264) was an Italian heretic mentioned by Dante in Inferno.

An Audience of Angels

December 8, 2020 — 10 Comments

Most writers are content to have humans read their works. Not so, William Blake (1757-1827). He indicated on various occasions that his audience included angels.

Blake was a very odd man. Talented, true. Inspired, likely. (Though by whom, debatable.) Christian, I think not. C.S. Lewis had a mixed opinion of him, affirming some of his poetry, and challenging one of his most prominent theological errors.*

True, Blake drew most of his imagery from Christian themes, but that is to be expected by someone writing and painting around the turn of the nineteenth century in Britain. His views of Christian faith were anything but consistent with orthodoxy.

Indeed, Blake appears to have fashioned his own religion, with an unrestrained syncretistic impulse, and an unhealthy measure of sinuous semantics.

The source of many of Blake’s unorthodox musings appears to have been spiritual sources. He reported seeing visions, beginning in his childhood. Apparently, he would sketch the likenesses of spirits that presented themselves to him. At an 1819 séance he saw and communicated with the ghost of a flea (portrayed above).

The British Library offers a brief and informative video about Blake’s spiritual visions which is available here.

He sees angels—they’re angels to him. He sees figures at the window of his bedroom and as life goes on, these visions become more challenging. The old prophets, or Raphael, the painter, or some great figure he wants to discuss things with, appears in his chamber—it’s a kind of séance.

Eventually Blake’s conflated visions of heavenly beings and departed humans, developed into his own peculiar blend of spiritualism. In 1800, he wrote to comfort a friend whose son had died.

I know that our deceased friends are more really with us than when they were apparent to our mortal part. Thirteen years ago I lost a brother, and with his spirit I converse daily and hourly in the spirit, and see him in my remembrance, in the region of my imagination. I hear his advice, and even now write from his dictate.⁑

Despite William Blake’s flaws, C.S. Lewis was capable of appreciating his poetry.

I am just back from my Easter walking tour with Barfield and co., this year in Derbyshire. Have you been there? It is appreciably more like my ideal country than any I have yet been [to].

It is limestone mountains: which means, from the practical point of view, that it has the jagg’d sky lines and deep valleys of ordinary mountainous country, but with this important difference, that owing to the paleness of the rock and the extreme clarity of the rivers, it is light instead of sombre–sublime yet smiling–like the delectable mountains. It gives you something [like] the same sensation as Blake’s songs.

Lewis is referring here to Blake’s collection, Songs of Innocence. From that collection, I particularly enjoy “The Lamb,” which you can read in the footnote section below.⁂

When I previously wrote about C.S. Lewis’ visits to the home of William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), I shared Lewis’ impression of the occultic flavor of the residence. In a 1921 letter to a close friend, Lewis writes the following:

His house is in Broad Street: you go up a long staircase lined with pictures by Blake–chiefly the ‘Book of Job’ and the ‘Paradise Lost’ ones, which thus, en masse, have a somewhat diabolical appearance.

We cannot know exactly which images adorned Yeats’ stairwell, but this sample comes from Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job.

Returning to Spiritual Matters

Not only did Blake’s angelic audience laud his work, their praise was so great he could pen this bizarre description of the celestial realms. (How much is irreligious satire, and what part is genuinely inspired by actual visions and belief, remains debatable.)

I am more famed in Heaven for my works than I could well conceive. In my Brain are studies & Chambers filled with books & pictures of old, which I wrote & painted in ages of Eternity before my mortal life; & those works are the delight & Study of Archangels.

Perhaps C.S. Lewis’ most direct response to the confusion promoted by William Blake’s beliefs is found in his classic, The Great Divorce. This illuminating exploration of the gulf between heaven and hell was written, in part, as a response to Blake’s volume, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. But, the comparison between the two requires an examination more than worthy of its independent discussion.

Suffice it here to include an example of Blake’s advocacy for hell. Blake describes a confrontation between “a Devil in a flame of fire, who arose before an Angel that sat on a cloud.” After their brief argument about God, the Angel “stretched out his arms embracing the flame of fire, and he was consumed . . .” That was not his end, however, for Blake adds a “Note.”

This Angel, who is now become a Devil, is my particular friend; we often read the Bible together in its infernal or diabolical sense . . . (William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell).

As noted, the matter of whether Blake’s championing of Satan was sincere or simply an arcane literary device is debatable.⁑⁑ However, his correspondence reveals his belief in the supernatural was certainly genuine.

In the end, there’s no question that C.S. Lewis’ assessment of William Blake was accurate. Unsurprisingly, it is one I share. The poet Blake possessed talent, and some of his poetry is quite good. However, as a theologian, this confused mystic is utterly unreliable.

Of course, Christians may be wrong regarding Blake’s spiritual enlightenment. What if, after all, Blake’s vision of his distinguished reputation with the angelic hosts was not a mere delusion? In the unimaginable possibility that this odd man truly is “famed in Heaven,” you must count me among those due to be the most surprised.  


* Even as he challenged one of Blake’s major works, C.S. Lewis wrote, “if I have written [disagreeing with Blake] this is not because I think myself a fit antagonist for so great a genius . . .”

⁑ Some might contend that Blake is referring here to “imagining” the presence of his brother in some sentimental fashion. That is clearly not the case. The fact that he states his brother is, at that moment, advising him on what to write, is intended to be understood as fact. It should be noted he is not referring to the spiritualist practice of “automatic writing,” which is done in a state of trance or spirit possession. Blake’s description of the process is more that of conversational interaction and “advice.”

⁂ “The Lamb,” by William Blake
Little lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee,
Gave thee life, and bade thee feed
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
   Little lamb, who made thee?
   Dost thou know who made thee?
   Little lamb, I’ll tell thee;
   Little lamb, I’ll tell thee:
He is called by thy name,
For He calls Himself a lamb.
He is meek, and He is mild,
He became a little child,
I a child and thou a lamb,
We are called by His name.
  Little lamb, God bless thee!
   Little lamb, God bless thee!

⁑⁑ Like most literary expressions, Blake’s was likely an amalgam of his beliefs and his fancies. A fascinating article on this subject is Peter A. Schock’s, “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: Blake’s Myth of Satan and Its Cultural Matrix,” published in 1993. Shock says, “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell presents a programmatic expression of [Blake’s] interconnected political, moral and metaphysical thought . . .”

Beijing’s Murderous Jesus

November 23, 2020 — 14 Comments

Communist China* hates Christianity. They do everything they can to destroy the Gospel, with its power to free people from bondage. That’s because China is all about keeping human beings in bondage.

Mere Inkling is not a political blog, so I have no incentive to go through the litany of communist China’s demagoguery. Besides, listing their crimes would take far too long.

In terms of their persecution of the Christian Church, however, many agnostics know little.⁑ The Red Chinese began their war against Christianity in the days of Mao. Millions have been denied their civil rights, imprisoned, and even murdered. Even with their “enlightened” and “tolerant” policies, they continue to deface and destroy church buildings and harass and imprison believers.

But now, they have done the unimaginable.

They have sought to replace the various Chinese translations of the Bible with a new, official edition. The regime’s Bible, though, is not a genuine translation.

It is an intentional corruption of God’s Word, and it is no exaggeration that some of its inspiration comes from the Father of Lies,  an honored commissar in all Communist nations.

In a superb essay discussing the pseudo-bible, Cameron Hilditch reveals how the Communists are attempting to co-opt the Messiah and present him as the herald of the Marxist gospel.

Put simply, the Chinese Communist Party “plans to turn the Scriptures into another piece of regime propaganda by rewriting them beyond all recognition.”

Beyond all recognition indeed. Before looking at their perversion of Jesus’ message of mercy, let’s consider the actual biblical account. We read that in Jerusalem,

Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in their midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?”

This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”

And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and

Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

Here is the communist mistranslation⁂ of the end of this powerful example of God’s grace and mercy.

When the crowd disappeared, Jesus stoned the sinner to death saying, “I too am a sinner. But if the law could only be executed by men without blemish, the law would be dead.”

Twisting the Scriptures

The act of translating the Scriptures is not controversial. In fact, it is necessary. C.S. Lewis noted this in his essay “Modern Translations of the Bible.”

The truth is that if we are to have translation at all we must have periodical re-translation. There is no such thing as translating a book into another language once and for all, for a language is a changing thing.

If your son is to have clothes it is no good buying him a suit once and for all: he will grow out of it and have to be re-clothed.

However, the re-translation must be an honest one.

There are several warnings in the Bible itself not to alter the words in the Scriptures either by deleting or adding to the text. Substituting the actual words, as the Communist Chinese have done, would violate both of those prohibitions.

Some people argue that mainland China exerts a benign influence on the world. “We have short memories,” says Christian attorney and advocate for the poor, Anna Waldherr. Rather than praise China for its increased engagement with the world, she reminds us of the true situation.

These days, the United States and China have mutual economic, political, and security interests.  But China remains a Communist nation with a totalitarian government and unresolved issues involving human rights.

The evil purposes of communist China’s ruling elite do not extend to their people. On the contrary the residents of that historic nation are its primary victims. The Chinese people and their culture possess much nobility. As I have written before, “C.S. Lewis held great respect for Chinese civilization. He was interested in the Chinese philosophical concept of the Tao.”

I share Lewis’ high regard for all that is good in China along with a genuine compassion for the Chinese people. May God deliver them from the dark principalities that reign over them.


* The communist People’s Republic of China is not to be confused with the democratic Republic of China, which is usually called Taiwan, due to the PRC’s coercive actions. For the same reason, the 23 million people living in the Republic of China are denied representation in the United Nations.

⁑ The Communists persecute other religious groups as well, most notably the Uighur (Islamic) people, who are being placed in vast reeducation and labor camps. In addition to rewriting the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, they are presumably also rewriting the Quran with the same, pro-regime agenda. Unsurprisingly, when asked their specific plans, “the Chinese Embassy in Washington declined to comment.”

⁂ As reported in Hilditch’s article, “China’s Communist Christ,” linked to above.

The original painting featured in the illustration above, “Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery,” was painted in 1653 by Nicolas Poussin.

On the Nature of Virtue

November 3, 2020 — 13 Comments

Are you virtuous? If you have high moral standards, there’s a fair chance you are. If you fall short of that mark, moral excellence is a goal which few completely attain in this life.

If you’d like to learn more about virtue, there is a free book I would like to recommend to you. In just a moment.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis discusses virtue in a straight-forward manner. Virtue is not simply doing the right thing. As Lewis writes, “right actions done for the wrong reasons do not help to build the internal quality or character called a ‘virtue,’ and it is this quality that really matters.”

He’s right. To do something “good” simply to receive a reward or avoid a punishment, is not virtuous. It is good. True. But when a person’s thoughts and actions are motivated without regard to consequences, they reflect their actual character. And, accordingly, genuine virtue is a rare commodity.

Lewis put it this way: “We might think that God wanted simply obedience to a set of rules: whereas He really wants people of a particular sort.”

Christians just celebrated All Saints Day on the first of November. Some ecclesiastical organizations have relegated the title “saint” to those who were exemplary disciples of Jesus Christ. In actuality, these are better referred to as “canonized” saints.

The biblical usage of the word saint includes all Christians. For example, the Apostle Paul describes his days of persecuting the church as persecuting saints.

I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them (Acts 26:10, ESV).

So, are all Christians—all saints—virtuous? Hardly. However, when we examine our own lives and confess our sins, God eagerly forgives them. And we can strive anew to live a life that brings honor to our Lord.

You see, no one is born with a virtuous character. But virtue is built, by drawing close to God. And virtue is not the domain solely of Christians. Anyone, be they theistic, agnostic or Pagan, can become virtuous. As C.S. Lewis noted, nurturing virtue is a noble process. “Virtue—even attempted virtue—brings light; indulgence brings fog.” Good people, we who are proto-virtuous, prefer to live in the light, rather than beneath the clouds.

And What about that Book?

I haven’t forgotten. I want to share with you an offer from an excellent publishing house that offers a monthly newsletter that features a free ebook. They also offer periodic sales that are uber-bargains. You can sign up here via “Stay in Touch” and perhaps receive access to a download of the current offering.

The book is written by a Finnish professor. It is simply titled Virtue, and is intended to be an introductory text.

The list of both virtues and vices is very long. It would be quite easy to list several dozen of them. It is not necessary for us to go through all virtues and vices, or even the most important, here. In this chapter we will look at the four traditional cardinal virtues (temperance, courage, justice, wisdom) and the three theological virtues (faith, hope, love).

Study of these virtues and their corresponding vices shows how they are dependent on each other, how the different virtues support one another, and how lack of one virtue prevents realization of another.

One final warning from C.S. Lewis. In the context of self-examination, Lewis cautioned a future friend not to spend much time dwelling on our spiritual state. It was 1954 and he was responding to a letter from Walter Hooper, who would a decade later assist Lewis as a secretary.

I am glad if I have been the instrument of Our Lord’s help to you: in His hands almost any instrument will do, otherwise none. We should, I believe, distrust states of mind which turn our attention upon ourselves.

Even at our sins we should look no longer than is necessary to know and to repent them: and our virtues or progress (if any) are certainly a dangerous object of contemplation.

As to Lewis’ humble statement about our progress “if any,” allow me to add that he most certainly did recognize growth in our spiritual lives as a natural result of the Spirit’s work in our lives.

Although I never penned a letter to Lewis, like many of you, I share Hooper’s gratitude for God’s use of C.S. Lewis as an instrument to bless and encourage me.