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“When I was in high school in Oklahoma in the 1960s, my best friend was a fellow adolescent intellectual. We had lots in common, but at the time I was a liberal . . . and he was a conservative.” Thus begins a recent post from a scholar named Gene Veith, whose work I follow. But listen to the shocking statement which follows.

“We loved to argue politics. (You might think by today’s standards that it is impossible for people who disagree with each other politically to be friends, let alone best friends, but trust me, this happened back in those days.)”

It happened in those days . . .

I pity those too young to have experienced this wonder. In today’s viciously partisan culture, it is difficult to imagine we once shared such authentic humanity. As I recently wrote, even families are being torn apart by the spirit of judgment and division that reigns today.

There is one being who rejoices at this bitterness, vitriol and hatred.

Meanwhile, Jesus weeps.

Mutual Respect in the Olden Days

It used to be normal for people of goodwill to respect the consciences of those who thought differently.

People of strong convictions, like C.S. Lewis, could publicly and privately debate others without reproach or ad hominem arguments. There was a desire to persuade one’s counterpart to see things as you did. But it was absent the vile bile that spews every day across America and much of the rest of our angry world.

During WWII, C.S. Lewis began the Socratic Club, a debate society, at Oxford University. I have mentioned the group briefly in the past. Lewis explained his reasoning for helping establish the group in the first issue of the Socratic Digest.

In any fairly large and talkative community such as a university, there is always the danger that those who think alike should gravitate together into coteries where they will henceforth encounter opposition only in the emasculated form of rumour that the outsiders say thus and thus.

The absent are easily refuted, complacent dogmatism thrives, and differences of opinion are embittered by group hostility. Each group hears not the best, but the worst, that the other groups can say.

I commend to you two articles available online that (1) reveal the rich history of the Socratic Club, and (2) a biographical sketch of Chaplain Stella Aldwinckle, who first envisioned and shepherded the organization.

Four years ago I wrote a column encouraging greater civility in religious conversations. I said:

It would be a good thing for us individually and as members of a pluralistic world, to treat one another with civility. As a Christian, I can confess for my brothers and sisters that we do not always do so. Let us strive to do better.

Today I wish to extend that thought to all conversations, political, medical, and otherwise. We must reverse the path we are on. And, with God’s grace, we must do so sooner rather than later.


[In the article “My Experience with Conservative Atheism,” source of the anecdote with which I began, Veith discusses Libertarian atheist Ayn Rand. I have written about her in the past at Mere Inkling, noting how deeply she despised C.S. Lewis.]

How long should a sermon be? There’s no universal answer to that question – unless you opt for the Holy Spirit gambit and claim you or your pastor preach inerrantly as the Spirit dictates.

The truth is, I can tell a lot about a person’s religious background or current preferences by their honest answer. That’s one of the first lessons a military chaplain learns. Different traditions possess vastly different expectations about sermon lengths.

There are plenty of individual exceptions to the rule, of course. But let me throw out a couple generalizations. People in mainline churches think the sweet spot is around 15 minutes. For many, 12 would be even more desirable, although most can tolerate 20 minutes before beginning incessant time checks on their watches or other devices. In the minds of some, brevity is next to godliness.

For many evangelicals, particularly pentecostals and more fundamentalist communions, a 15 minute sermon is an oxymoron. Anything less than half an hour is simply a devotion or meditation, and any preacher worthy of the title should be able to preach a 45 minute sermon without working up a sweat.

So, in the case of a chaplain preaching for two to three different congregations on a Sunday morning, you would need to tailor your sermons differently for various congregations. Otherwise, if you attempted to strike a happy medium, you ran the risk of having your evangelicals feeling shortchanged and your mainline protestants with eyes glazing over.

Recognizing these differences is helpful, lest we slip into that normal misconception that our assumptions/experiences/logic are shared by others. One evangelical seminary professor, clearly writing for others from a similar tradition as his own, illustrates my point.

The average sermon length, according to one poll, ranges 20 to 28 minutes. If this statistic is accurate, it is a telling indicator of the spiritual depth of today’s churches. Many churches have already discontinued their evening services. With the trend of reducing the length of Sunday morning sermons, our generation is receiving less than half the biblical teaching our parents sat under.

The better a person understands the Word of God, the more they will grow spiritually. . . . I find it difficult to believe that current pastors and their 20 minute sermon-ettes can reach any level of comparable depth to the 80 minutes (or more) pastors used to be given (between the morning and evening services).

I have been pondering this subject not because my own pastor’s sermons are too long. Actually, a few days ago the delightful newsnote, “Today in Christian History,” featured an intriguing note. It is one of Christianity Today’s free newsletters.

It described an incipient Crusade that was derailed before it set out, due to too much of a good thing (too much preaching).

September 26, 1460: Pope Pius II assembles European leaders, then delivers a three-hour sermon to inspire them to launch a new crusade against the Turks. The speech works, but then another speaker, Cardinal Bessarion, adds a three-hour sermon of his own. After six hours of preaching, the European princes lose all interest in the cause; they never mount the called-for crusade.

This is precisely the sort of event I cannot resist learning more about. In short, Pius was a talented orator who had written popular erotic literature during his pre-papal years. Bessarion was a Greek priest who coordinated the effort of Byzantine Emperor John VIII Palaeologus to reunite the Eastern and Western churches to protect Constantinople from the Turks. In 1463, a decade after the city fell to the Ottomans, Bessarion was appointed the Latin Patriarch of Constantinople.

If only Cardinal Bessarion had preached a shorter sermon, perhaps the glorious Hagia Sophia would still resound with the praise of Christ.

How to Measure Sermons

One of the worst ways to weigh a sermon, to consider its worth, is by considering its duration. There is nothing intrinsically better about a sermon that lasts 20 minutes than one of half that length. Barring extremes (e.g. Pius’ and Bassarion’s extended monologues or some jargon-laced, religious pop message modeled after fleeting modern commercials), duration matters little.

I think we could all agree that it is the substance of the message which is shared, that matters. This is where the Holy Spirit leads the way. The sermon should be based on God’s truths. It should be tailored to meet the needs of its particular hearers. And it should be timely, attuned to this specific moment.

Unfortunately, we do tend to associate sermons with extended lectures. In a 1962 letter to one of his regular correspondents, Lewis responds to her question about animals and heaven. After explaining his view, he concludes the letter with an apologetic “But this is turning into a sermon!” In truth, his comments are of the ideal duration to address the question at hand.

And that – an ideal length for the specific context – is the goal for which all preachers should strive.

A Mere Inkling Bonus

I’ve written about the importance of listening to sermons in the past. It includes an entertaining account of C.S. Lewis’ boredom during some of the sermons in his home parish. You can also read here about Lewis’ own experiences as a preacher.

One of C.S. Lewis’ rewarding essays is entitled “The Sermon and the Lunch.” Lewis uses the occasion of a sermon to explore the nature of family. The pastor offers a textbook endorsement of the importance of family, where “we can fling aside the weary disguises of the outer world and be ourselves.” Thereupon, he quickly loses the congregation’s attention.

Lewis’ own thoughts are distracted by his awareness of the pastor’s own family. Having been a guest in the home, Lewis knows the family dynamics fall far short of the ideal he is presenting. However, it is not hypocrisy which disturbs him. It is the fallacious premise upon which the sermon is based. You can read the entire essay at the link on its title in the previous paragraph, or you can listen to a reading of the essay on the link below. Here, however, is the reason for Lewis’ discomfort.

The memory of that lunch worries me during the last few minutes of the sermon. I am not worried by the fact that the Vicar’s practice differs from his precept. That is, no doubt, regrettable, but it is nothing to the purpose. As Dr. Johnson said, precept may be very sincere (and, let us add, very profitable) where practice is very imperfect, and no one but a fool would discount a doctor’s warnings about alcoholic poisoning because the doctor himself drank too much.

What worries me is the fact that the Vicar is not telling us at all that home life is difficult and has, like every form of life, its own proper temptations and corruptions. He keeps on talking as if ‘home’ were a panacea, a magical charm which of itself was bound to produce happiness and virtue. The trouble is not that he is insincere but that he is a fool. He is not talking from his own experience of family life at all: he is automatically reproducing a sentimental tradition – and it happens to be a false tradition. That is why the congregation have stopped listening to him.

Humorous Examinations

September 21, 2021 — 12 Comments

Could you pass this examination?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Function of Examinations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comprehensive Knowledge Exam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You Should Read This

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to Relationships

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glorifying the Evil One

August 24, 2021 — 8 Comments

One perplexing behavior of humanity, is seen in the inclination of some to glorify our greatest enemy. Some people sincerely adore a being who desires nothing more than humanity’s suffering and eternal separation from our loving Creator.

I once heard the difference between God and Satan put this way: even when you hate him, God still loves you, and even when you love him, Lucifer still hates you.

Yet some still idealize this fallen angel who has earned many corrupt titles, including Tempter and Father of Lies.

In literature and other media you can readily find positive treatments of the Devil. John Milton’s Paradise Lost presents Lucifer as the classic tragic figure. Even his arrogance and vanity about his beauty are presented in a sympathetic fashion. In “Why Satan’s Character in Paradise Lost is the Original Antihero,” Lisa Ampleman says “at the 350th anniversary of its publication, Milton’s masterpiece seems ever more relevant.”

The Romantic poet William Blake even said that Milton was “of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” For the first few books, the charismatic demon’s concerns are front and center, and God seems authoritarian and legalistic.

Fortunately, Milton does not leave us with this sympathetic portrayal of Lucifer. As the article’s author writes, Satan “is not the absolute evil we may have expected, and a sympathetic devil is a dangerous devil.” In Book IX, the Devil even confesses his grim obsession.

But neither here seek I, no nor in Heaven
To dwell, unless by mastering Heaven’s Supreme;
Nor hope to be myself less miserable
By what I seek, but others to make such
As I, though thereby worse to me redound:

For only in destroying I find ease
To my relentless thoughts; and, him destroyed,
Or won to what may work his utter loss,
For whom all this was made, all this will soon
Follow, as to him linked in weal or woe;

In woe then; that destruction wide may range:
To me shall be the glory sole among
The infernal Powers, in one day to have marred
What he, Almighty styled, six nights and days
Continued making . . .

In his Preface to Paradise Lost, C.S. Lewis astutely describes Milton’s depiction of the Devil’s eternal dilemma.

What we see in Satan is the horrible co-existence of a subtle and incessant intellectual activity with an incapacity to understand anything. This doom he has brought upon himself; in order to avoid seeing one thing he has, almost voluntarily, incapacitated himself from seeing at all.

And thus, throughout the poem, all his torments come, in a sense, at his own bidding, and the Divine judgement might have been expressed in the words “thy will be done.” He says “Evil be thou my good” (which includes “Nonsense be thou my sense”) and his prayer is granted.

Turning to one of America’s most renowned authors, we encounter in Mark Twain an unabashedly positive portrayal of Lucifer. In Letters from the Earth (which was too controversial for publication during his lifetime), Satan remains a trusted member of God’s Grand Council. It is left to Satan to question God’s arbitrary creation of violent and flawed creatures.

After a long time and many questions, Satan said, “The spider kills the fly, and eats it; the bird kills the spider and eats it; the wildcat kills the goose; the — well, they all kill each other. It is murder all along the line. Here are countless multitudes of creatures, and they all kill, kill, kill, they are all murderers. And they are not to blame, Divine One?”

“They are not to blame. It is the law of their nature. And always the law of nature is the Law of God. Now – observe – behold! A new creature – and the masterpiece – Man!”

Far from humanity being created in the Divine image, Twain’s twisted version of the Creator has God throwing together all of the positive, and negative, traits he had bestowed on the imperfect animals.

“Put into each individual, in differing shades and degrees, all the various Moral Qualities, in mass, that have been distributed, a single distinguishing characteristic at a time, among the nonspeaking animal world – courage, cowardice, ferocity, gentleness, fairness, justice, cunning, treachery, magnanimity, cruelty, malice, malignity, lust, mercy, pity, purity, selfishness, sweetness, honor, love, hate, baseness, nobility, loyalty, falsity, veracity, untruthfulness – each human being shall have all of these in him, and they will constitute his nature.

“In some, there will be high and fine characteristics which will submerge the evil ones, and those will be called good men; in others the evil characteristics will have dominion, and those will be called bad men.”

Satan later offered some sarcastic compliments about creation and is exiled briefly to Earth. There, Twain’s hero pens a number of letters to archangels sympathetic to his views. A single passage is adequate to illustrate the whole.

Man is a marvelous curiosity. When he is at his very very best he is a sort of low grade nickel-plated angel; at his worst he is unspeakable, unimaginable; and first and last and all the time he is a sarcasm. Yet he blandly and in all sincerity calls himself the “noblest work of God. . . .”

Moreover – if I may put another strain upon you – he thinks he is the Creator’s pet. He believes the Creator is proud of him; he even believes the Creator loves him; has a passion for him; sits up nights to admire him; yes, and watch over him and keep him out of trouble. He prays to Him, and thinks He listens. Isn’t it a quaint idea?

For an accurate illustration of Satan’s activities and purposes, one need look no further than C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters. In one letter, Screwtape highlights the progress Satan’s minions have made in desensitizing humanity to what was recognized as provocative in an earlier age.

We have engineered a great increase in the licence which society allows to the representation of the apparent nude (not the real nude) in art, and its exhibition on the stage or the bathing beach. It is all a fake, of course; the figures in the popular art are falsely drawn; the real women in bathing suits or tights are actually pinched in and propped up to make them appear firmer and more slender and more boyish than nature allows a full-grown woman to be.

Yet at the same time, the modern world is taught to believe that it is being ‘frank’ and ‘healthy’ and getting back to nature. As a result we are more and more directing the desires of men to something which does not exist – making the rôle of the eye in sexuality more and more important and at the same time making its demands more and more impossible. What follows you can easily forecast!

Artistic Presentations of a Sympathetic Devil

It was actually a nineteenth century Belgian sculpture of Lucifer which is part of the elaborate pulpit of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Liège which inspired today’s reflections. Guillaume Geefs was commissioned to create the piece as part of a general theme of the triumph of religion over evil. The Devil as he portrayed the rebel angel, is rather too appealing for those acquainted with his actual biblical portrait.

Even though his wings have devolved to appear more like those of a bat than a bird, and his foot is chained, the sculpture’s physique is attractive. His apparent regret, evident in his expression and the presence of a tear, invite sympathy. It is regarded as an outstanding example of Romanticism. In a word, it serves as an attractive personification of a vile and malignant being. And this presents a dangerously misleading view of the very real spiritual warfare raging about us.

Curiously, Guillaume’s nude (with a robe safely draped over his lap) was actually a more modest and religious alternative to the image originally intended for the space. Ironically, it was the artist’s younger brother, Joseph, who originally received the commission. Joseph’s sculpture was regarded as even more titillating, and it was replaced. The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium admits “Joseph created one of the most disturbing works of the period.”

When it was revealed, the initial version of “Le Génie du Mal” (The Genius of Evil) raised questions about its positive portrayal. One publication reported the cathedral’s administrators determined “this devil is too sublime.”

The last thing imperfect human beings living in a fallen world need are sublime and alluring depictions of evil. In the words of C.S. Lewis,

To admire Satan, then, is to give one’s vote not only for a world of misery, but also for a world of lies and propaganda, of wishful thinking, of incessant autobiography. Yet the choice is possible. Hardly a day passes without some slight movement towards it in each one of us.

That is what makes Paradise Lost so serious a poem. The thing is possible, and the exposure of it is resented. Where Paradise Lost is not loved, it is deeply hated. (A Preface to “Paradise Lost”).

Replacement Sculpture by Guillaume Geefs.

I have a problem forgiving others. You see, I don’t think it’s quite as simple as some people make it out to be.

I’m especially stunned when I hear people say they have forgiven people who have done them grievous injury, such as murdering their loved one, or molesting them when they were a child. How, I wonder, can they do that? Of course, I know the answer. It is a miracle. It is a gift of God. Not primarily to the sinner, but to the victims themselves.

It’s not that I don’t want to forgive. I truly believe life is healthier when we forgive. Add to that the fact that God in essence commands me to forgive – read the story of the unforgiving servant – and I am doubly challenged to learn to be a better forgiver.It is simply a fact that I am too sinful, too human, to simply press a button for a one-time decision and forgive.

I’m afraid I personally need to continue to pray daily for the ability to forgive and the grace to let go of disappointment and hurt, over and over again. This prayerful act may need to be repeated – as many times as necessary – up until I take my final breath.

But there is a place I can take some comfort despite my struggle. There is a refuge in which a wiser Christian than I, reminds me that I am not alone in experiencing forgiveness as a process. C.S. Lewis described this very predicament in his Reflections on the Psalms. I share the following in the hope that it may offer similar comfort to you.

There is no use in talking as if forgiveness were easy. We all know the old joke, “You’ve given up smoking once; I’ve given it up a dozen times.” In the same way I could say of a certain man, “Have I forgiven him for what he did that day? I’ve forgiven him more times than I can count.”

For we find that the work of forgiveness has to be done over and over again. We forgive, we mortify our resentment; a week later some chain of thought carries us back to the original offence and we discover the old resentment blazing away as if nothing had been done about it at all.

We need to forgive our brother seventy times seven not only for 490 offences but for one offence.

Thus the man I am thinking of has introduced a new and difficult temptation into a soul which had the devil’s plenty of them already. And what he has done to me, doubtless I have done to others; I, who am exceptionally blessed in having been allowed a way of life in which, having little power, I have had little opportunity of oppressing and embittering others. Let all of us who have never been school prefects, N.C.O.s, schoolmasters, matrons of hospitals, prison warders, or even magistrates, give hearty thanks for it.

Recipients of Forgiveness and Mercy

C.S. Lewis is speaking for me in this passage. And his admission that even we who possess “little power” have still too often abused that minor opportunity. What a profound insight, encouraging us to thank God for not affording us greater opportunity to misuse our authority!

In Paul’s letter to the Christians in Ephesus, the Lord puts the principle of forgiveness in terms all of us should be able to comprehend. “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4).

It almost sounds as though my forgiveness of others shouldn’t be dependant on their remorse. Nor should its measure be determined by the vagaries of my own moods.

I suppose that my very awareness of my own struggle in forgiving others is a good thing. If I mistakenly thought I was capable of simply saying the words and it would be done, I would be dangerously mistaken. That is merely one small step in the process.

Far better that I recognize I’m just like C.S. Lewis in this aspect of my life. Like him, I’m better off recognizing I need to forgive others seventy times seven not only for 490 offences but for a single offence. In truth, that may simply be the beginning, since I’m called to forgive others just as God in our Lord Jesus forgives me.

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.

Who doesn’t enjoy getting new clothing, especially when what we’re wearing is showing its age? C.S. Lewis could hardly be accused of a passion for keeping up with the latest fashions, but he was grateful to be adequately clothed when engaged in public endeavors.

A man of simple tastes, in 1953 he wrote an American correspondent about not attending Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. The reasons he offers are revealing.

You are quite right, I didn’t go to the Coronation. I approve of all that sort of thing immensely and I was deeply moved by all I heard of it; but I’m not a man for crowds and  Best Clothes.

I was surprised by a discovery in a long-stored box of clothing that contained five pairs of pants in near mint condition. They were none the worse for their lengthy preservation. And I would be wearing them right now if they still fit. (The length matches my current legs; the waist, not so much.)

Oh, there is one other problem. They are corduroy. Extremely popular, when they were purchased. Less so now, although I understand “the comfy fabric has made a comeback in recent years, especially with the rise of thrifting, since corduroy is an incredibly durable fabric that is a common find in vintage shops.”

Returning to C.S. Lewis, we see he didn’t possess the embarrassing surplus of clothing most of us take for granted. In fact during WWII (1939-45) and its aftermath, Europeans suffered great deprivation. Britain’s recovery from the Second World War took some time, and the Lewis’ weathered the hardships with the assistance of friends in the United States.

Because of C.S. Lewis’ generosity, the gifts Americans periodically sent to him were shared with many beyond his own household. Although clothes rationing had formally ended in 1949, food continued to be rationed five more years, until 1954.

Edward Allen was one of Lewis’ benefactors. He began sending personal support parcels in 1948. As the following letter from Lewis shows, these included clothes as well as food items.

That perfection of packing, parcel no. 184 has just arrived, and I have spent a pleasant ten minutes dismembering it. Normally we won’t open your parcels when we get them, but reserve them for that moment of domestic crisis which so constantly arrives—“We shall have to open one of Edward Allen’s parcels” we say. But I tackled this one at once on account of the clothes.

The suit is just the thing I want for the summer, if there should happen to be a summer, which at the moment looks unlikely. (My brother skillfully annexed the last one you sent, and is still wearing it: on the strength of which he had the impudence to recommend this one to me)!

Once normalcy had returned to Britain, Lewis went to great effort to discourage continued generosity of this type. In 1956 he wrote another regular American friend after receiving an unsolicited Christmas present.

A thousand thanks. But look: you must stop. We never send any one any presents, so why should we get any. Our real name is Scrooge.

In truth, C.S. Lewis’ generosity abounded. In Mere Christianity he discusses the question of how generous Christians should be. I most strongly commend this principle to everyone wondering how they should arrange their own finances.

I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc, is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little.

If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditure excludes them.

For more about Lewis’ personal generosity, read “The Generous Heart and Life of C.S. Lewis.” The author points out, “as Lewis’s books became popular, large royalties poured in. Rather than upgrade his lifestyle, Lewis decided to maintain his current standard of living and give the rest away.”

As I mentioned above, C.S. Lewis also shared the contents of the post-war parcels he received. Presumably this extended to elements of clothing, as well. No doubt though, if he had received a fine corduroy suit, even the “endlessly generosity” of C.S. Lewis would have been stretched to its limits.

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.

C.S. Lewis has introduced me to many fascinating writers. Authors I never would have learned about without Lewis’ reference to them.

Sometimes Lewis praises their work. At other times, being an honest literary critic, he is compelled to provide a less flattering appraisal. He typically offers the latter evaluation with a novel flair.

In my previous post I shared the sad tale of a blackbird tapping at our window. I promised to discuss today some other curious birds. These creatures, in contrast to the forlorn blackbird, arise from the imagination of a Scottish poet named Sir David Lyndsay* of the Mount. He lived around 1490 to 1555.

Lyndsay rose to the ceremonial rank of “The Right Honourable the Lord Lyon King of Arms,” which sounds quite impressive. In that capacity, he compiled 400 Scottish coats of arms, which was quite an achievement. You can download a rare facsimile of that document for your personal library from Internet Archive. The central shield may belong to my wife’s ancestors, “Jhonstoun of that ilke.”

Sir Lyndsay was a tutor to James V and served in his Court after his ascendancy to Scotland’s throne. However, it is for his poetry that David Lyndsay is remembered. Which is precisely why C.S. Lewis included him in the volume he wrote for the Oxford History of English Literature. English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama was published in 1944. While this authoritative volume is certainly not casual reading, it is extremely interesting. Just listen to how Lewis introduces Scottish writers of the “close of the Middle Ages.”

Sir David Lyndsay’s Legacy

This academic work is the place our favorite Inkling introduced me to “the last major poet of the old Scotch tradition.” I was on a quest for something interesting about birds, and I learned of a delightful piece of satire written by this Renaissance “Lion King.”

His works are a beautiful example of the ‘single talent well employed.’ The Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis, which holds an important place among our scanty materials for a history of the allegorical drama in Scotland, will be dealt with in another volume of this series . . . stands apart from the rest of Lyndsay’s output by the looseness of the metre and the general popularity of the style, and that it is rich in pathos and low humour.

In his remaining works he everywhere keeps well within the lines marked out for him by his great predecessors, there is no novelty in them . . . But what there is of him is good all through.

I am quite receptive to satire that skewers hypocritical clergy. That’s why the “episcopal ghost”⁑ in The Great Divorce is my favorite example of someone who has rejected the Truth.

This is what appealed to me about Lyndsay’s satire The Testament and Complaynt of our Soverane Lordis Papyngo.

The Complaynt [an earlier work] records, in a brisk, mocking fashion . . . the marked improvement in social order and general well-being throughout the kingdom, except as regards the “spiritualitie.” On the doings of the ecclesiastics he advises [the young king] to keep a watchful eye, and see that they preach with “unfeyneit intentis,” use the sacraments as Christ intended and leave such vain traditions as superstitious pilgrimages and praying to images. . . .

In The Testament and Complaynt of our Soverane Lordis Papyngo (parrot) he exposed more particularly the corruptions and worldliness of the spirituality, and this in a more comprehensive and scathing fashion than in his two previous pieces . . . (Cambridge History of English and American Literature).

And here are the ecclesiastical nemeses of the poem, “religious men, of gret devotioun.”

Here, also, all is pure satire—much of it of a very clever and trenchant character . . . the wise bird [the king’s parrot] with its “holy executors,” who appear in the form of a pyot [magpie] (representing a canon regular), a raven (a black monk) and a gled or hawk (a holy friar). The disposition and aims of these ghostly counsellors are sufficiently manifest; and they act entirely in keeping with their reputed character.

The poor parrot would have much preferred to have, at her death-bed, attendants of a less grovelling type of character, such as the nightingale, the jay, the mavis [song thrush], the goldfinch, the lark, etc.; but, since none of them has come, she has to be content with the disreputable birds who have offered her their services.

After a piquant discussion with them on the growth of ecclesiastical sensuality and greed, she thereupon proceeds to dispose of her personality—her “galbarte of grene” to the owl, her eyes to the bat, her beak to the pelican, her music to the cuckoo, her “toung rhetoricall” to the goose and her bones to the phoenix.

Her heart she bequeaths to the king; and she leaves merely her entrails, including her liver and lungs, to her executors who, however, immediately on her death, proceed to devour her whole body, after which the ged flies away with her heart, pursued by the two other birds of prey.

I can picture the assembled clergy in their avian forms offering their pseudo-comfort to the dying parrot. In English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, C.S. Lewis describes the misbegotten flock in the following manner.

[The parrot’s] testament is made in the unwelcome presence of certain birds of prey who turn out to be monks and friars of the feathered world. The dying parrot inveighs against their hypocrisy and avarice . . . while they vigorously defend themselves by throwing the blame on the secular clergy.

So far, the satire has been ordinary enough; but we find real satiric invention, and even a strange beauty, when the popinjay, having provided for the poor by leaving her gay coat to the owl, her eyes to the bat, and her voice to the cuckoo, and for herself by committing her spirit to the Quene of Farie, is torn in pieces by her carrion executors the moment the breath is out of her body—hir angell fedderis fleying in the air.

It is not without reason an article in Studies in Scottish Literature opens with this praise:

Lindsay’s concern for morality and truthfulness, in an age when political and religious institutions were notoriously corrupt, earned him a considerable reputation in his lifetime. Indeed for later generations of Scottish readers, Lindsay’s name became a byword for reliability and truthfulness, at times even rivalling divine Scripture.

You can read the original poem, along with all of Lyndsay’s other poetic works, in this 1871 collection.


* Just a caution for those looking for more information about Lyndsay: be aware that his surname is also spelled Lindsay, Lindesay and Lyndesay. Also, he should not be confused with Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie, a roughly contemporary author who compiled The Historie and Chronicles of Scotland. (Robert’s family name is also spelled with similar variants.)

⁑ Lewis’ use of the word “episcopal” here does not refer to a denomination. It suggests a churchly, or more accurately, a high-churchly theologian.

Noble Birds of Aragon, circa AD 1290