Archives For Faith

The Bible’s Complexity

September 1, 2015 — 10 Comments

locustsWhy is it people say the Bible has many writers, but only one Author? The answer to that question is simpler than it seems.

Many different people, over a span of centuries, wrote the various books we find in the Scriptures. At the same time, each of these diverse individuals was inspired by the same Person—the Holy Spirit. Thus it is said by orthodox Christians that the Scriptures are the “Word of God.”*

The word “scripture” itself simply means a written work, although it is almost always applied to books regarded as sacred.

For Christians, Scripture/s can be singular or plural since the Bible possesses both aspects, being inspired by a single Author, yet compiled by numerous individual scribes.

The current issue of World magazine offers a satisfying interview** with David Skeel, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

Skeel was raised with minimal exposure to Christianity, and while majoring in English, he found his ignorance of biblical allusions to be a serious handicap.

To rectify that problem, he decided to read the Bible over the summer after his sophomore year. Riding on a cross country trip with some classmates, he says “by the time I’d gotten a few chapters into Genesis I was persuaded it was true. I had never read anything so beautiful, so psychologically real.”

I was especially intrigued by the following insight offered by Skeel.

Christianity impressed you because it’s complicated?

Absolutely. The psychological complexity of Christianity was really powerful for me, as was the complexity of the language of the Bible. Truth can’t be conveyed in a single genre, so the Bible’s mix of genres, language and images is part of the evidence of its veracity.***

I don’t recall ever thinking of it that way, but he is right. God’s revelation of his mercy and grace is far too vast to be “conveyed in a single genre.”

Back to Oxford

Skeel doesn’t mention C.S. Lewis in his interview, and I have no idea whether Lewis’ work has influenced his life.

Despite that, his response to the question above reinforced for me one of the reasons Lewis has proven to be such a powerful blessing in my own pilgrimage.

Lewis intuitively recognized that same truth. God’s message is too boundless to be restrained to a single means of proclaiming it. And because of that, he used every genre at his command to celebrate it.

Essays, debates, poetry, fantasies and history were all fair game.

Which brings me to a corollary to Skeel’s observation. Not only is Truth too immeasurable to be limited to a single genre . . . by God’s design, humanity’s diversity is too abundant to allow for a single manner of communication to speak with the same power.

Some are moved by God’s poetry in a singing brook. Others by his majesty in the face of a snow-capped summit.

Some are drawn to his embrace through stories of human struggle and redemption. Others by logical arguments that appeal to their confidence in reason.

This is precisely why different individuals favor different books in the Scriptures, just as they prefer various writings over others within the Lewis “canon.”

Fortunately, Skeel’s literary interest in the Bible led him to pick it up without any life-changing expectations. That makes him one of the rare exceptions to Lewis’ observation with which we will close.

It may be asked whether now, when only a minority of Englishmen regard the Bible as a sacred book, we may anticipate an increase of its literary influence. I think we might if it continued to be widely read. But this is not very likely.

Our age has, indeed, coined the expression “the Bible as literature.” It is very generally implied that those who have rejected its theological pretensions nevertheless continue to enjoy it as a treasure house of English prose. It may be so.

There may be people who, not having been forced upon familiarity with it by believing parents, have yet been drawn to it by its literary charms and remained as constant readers. But I never happen to meet them.

Perhaps it is because I live in the provinces. But I cannot help suspecting, if I may make an Irish bull [an incongruous statement], that those who read the Bible as literature do not read the Bible. (“The Literary Impact of the Authorised Version”).

_____

* Although the Bible is commonly referred to as the “Word of God,” it is more properly referred to as the written Word of God. The actual Word is none other than Jesus Christ himself, through whom all things were spoken into existence. This is clear when you compare the following passages from the Scriptures. If you have any questions about this, feel free to write to me here at Mere Inkling.

Creation as described in the book of Genesis, chapter 1.

Echo of creation in the Gospel according to John, chapter 1.

** You can read the interview here.

*** In his response, Skeel wisely answers the actual question by substituting the word “complex” for “complicated.” The latter implies unnecessary complexity and a problem. The former, complexity, simply states the facts. It is impossible to adequately describe an infinite God with finite words.

The illustration on this page is from the Walters Art Museum and portrays the plague of locusts visited upon the Egyptians.

ggfI have never been more glad to have a birthday than I was this year. After all, at a mere sixty, I would have been far too young to become a great-grandfather. Now, at sixty-one, I feel adequately prepared for the momentous event which transpired just under an hour ago.

Tobin (meaning “God is Good”) is the child of my grandson and his wife, who currently reside in Texas where dad handles munitions for B-1 bombers.

Age and offspring do not always line up the way that we ourselves would plan. Yet every precious child is a miraculous gift from God.

Our grandson was born to our precious daughter-in-law while she was in high school. We didn’t get to meet him until he was ten, but we’ve done our best to make up for lost time. Our grandson, early on began calling us his “great grandparents.” That didn’t make us feel old, just special.

When my wife worked in a residential care facility for severely handicapped children, one of the aides arrived one morning with joyous news. “I’m a great-grandmother!”

Because the woman seemed too young, Delores responded, “Congratulations, you look so young for being a grandmother.”

The lady laughed and said, “No, a great-grandmother!” It turns out she was not yet forty . . . having been 13 when she had a daughter who was 13 when she had her own daughter who now had birthed her own baby. (I don’t recall the gender of the child.)

As I wrote this, it dawned on me that this all took place thirty-seven years ago, so it’s quite possible there are now several more generations in that particular family tree.

Some people will scoff at the thought of celebrating such early and assumedly unintended pregnancies. But, that caregiver knew the truth—every young life is a gift from God.

As an imperfect parent and grandparent, I recognize all too well that I won’t be the great-grandfather Tobin should have. I do pray, though, that God would grant that my mistakes with him would be few, and the memories forged during this life will help this little one grow into the finest man that he can become.

Most importantly, I pray that he will see Christ in my life and recognize the value of faith. Only the Lord knows what the future will bring, and I will not be here to share too many decades of life with my grandchildren and great-grandchildren. But my hope is that the time we do have will leave a lasting legacy of encouragement, faith, and compassion.

The letters of C.S. Lewis provide insights into the influence of his grandparents on his young life.

In a 1905 letter to his brother Warnie, he describes family festivities on Halloween. They even persuaded his grandfather to join in.

On Halow-een we had great fun and had fireworks; rockets, and Catherine wheels, squbes, and a kind of thing that you lit and twirled and then they made stars. We hung up an apple and bit at it. We got [his paternal] Grandfather down to watch and he tried to bite.

In a 1916 letter to his father, he refers to his grandmother’s declining health. (She died two weeks after he wrote.) Lewis refers to the common sentiment that we should have tried harder to spend time with family while they were with us. “I am sorry to hear what you say about [Lewis’ maternal] Grandmother: I feel that we ought to have seen more of her, but it was not easy.”

I should dearly love to get away for a bit, but, as you say, for so short a time, the expense and the interruption of work is hardly worth it. The Colonel must have had an unpleasant journey: I wish he would keep a diary which we could compare with that of Grandfather Hamilton in the same waters. Two generations of sub-tropical Atlantic and Hamilton temperament would be worth studying!

The diaries left by C.S. Lewis’ grandfather, and by his brother Warnie, provide a reminder to us that a written legacy will outlast our voices. If we have something important to say to our descendants, perhaps that is something we should keep in mind.

Slippery Crimes

February 17, 2015 — 12 Comments

willeIn the hierarchy of criminals within the penitentiary system, murderers are feared, crime lords respected, and pedophiles despised. Where, one wonders, did the butter forgers rank?

Alongside Machine Gun Kelly, and my namesake, the Birdman of Alcatraz, the Pen at Leavenworth housed violators of the Oleomargarine Act of 1886. Notorious, they were not.

Take a look at Chuck Wille’s mug shot above. I wonder what bank robbers and car thieves thought of his dandy mustache.

wirthJoe Wirth, pictured to the right, looks more like a vaudeville comedian than a hardened criminal. I can easily imagine naive people being duped by someone who appeared as unthreatening as Wirth.

mcmonigleJohn McMonigle, prisoner 8468, was not deterred by his stint in prison. He was sent to Leavenworth twice, due to an encore violation of the oleomargarine law.

The word oleomargarine probably sounds alien to most young people. They know what margarine is—well, some of them do—but the oleo part likely sounds more like a cookie than a butter substitute.

Oleomargarine was made from beef fat. A chemical compound of olein and margarine. Olein is “a colorless to yellowish, oily, water-insoluble liquid, C57 H104 O6.” How appetizing!

Most people today opt for margarine made from refined vegetable oils, but even today animal “by-products” can find their way into margarine products.

I recall growing up when oleo was still part of the American lexicon. My mother used it as a sort of synonym for margarine. That faded as I grew, but persisted long enough for me to vividly remember it.

Washington State was one of those with a strong dairy industry. Such locations drew clear demarcations between butter and its “substitutes.” The dairy organizations vigorously challenged the “unnatural” competition.

The primary battle line was whether or not oleo could colored to make it appear more like the food it was replacing. You see, in its natural state it doesn’t look nearly as tasty as when a yellow coloring was kneaded into it.

Congress taxed the invention differently. Ten cents a pound for the yellow version, but only .25 cents (1/4 of a cent) per pound for the raw version. Amazingly, this tax did not end until 1951. Homemakers would color their own oleomargarine to get their unsuspecting children to eat the stuff.

Nowadays, some people prefer margarine to butter. And, even when it was inferior to current standards, if butter was unavailable, most people would be delighted to have access to the alternative.

Meanwhile, at the beginning of the twentieth century, 32 states—with strong dairy lobbies—banned the coloring of margarine by businesses.

Naturally, where there is a law, there will be lawbreakers. Presumably private citizens were able to continue camouflaging the material in the secrecy of their own homes. The three criminals on this page violated the Oleomargarine Act. And they paid for their illicit marketeering.

C.S. Lewis & Margarine

Regular readers of Mere Inkling may be wondering how in the world this subject connects with the Oxford don.

Lewis wrote a wonderful essay, entitled “Religion: Reality or Substitute?” You can find it in the Christian Reflections collection, edited by Walter Hooper.

The message of the essay is that we cannot completely trust our own experiences. Some people, he says, are inclined to think that the spiritual realm is a sort of “substitute” for reality, rather than real itself. Among the vibrant illustrations he provides for this is the following.

‘Substitutes’ suggest wartime feeding. Well, there too I have an example. During the last war, as at present, we had to eat margarine instead of butter. When I began doing so I couldn’t tell the difference between them. For the first week or so, I would have said, ‘You may call the margarine a substitute if you like, but it is actually just as good as the real thing.’ But by the end of the war I could never again have mistaken one for the other and I never wanted to see margarine again.

This is different from the previous examples because here I started knowing which, in fact, was the substitute. But the point is that mere immediate taste did not at first confirm this bit of knowledge. It was only after long experience that the margarine revealed itself to my senses as the inferior.

Lewis’ essay argues that “There is nothing we cannot be made to believe or disbelieve,” so it is necessary that we place our truth (faith) in something more reliable than our own impressions.

Lewis is right. Just as there have been secular criminals who sought to profit off of the misrepresentation of oleomargarine, there are religious hypocrites and vermin who desire to deceive people about divine truths.

The deepest purpose of all things dark, is to draw people away from the Light. Evil seeks to substitute the lie for the Truth. It has been this way ever since our first parents resided in the Garden.

Whether one prefers butter or margarine, is left to individual taste, and of little consequence. However, whether we choose to consign ourselves to death, when freely offered Life, is something of eternal consequence.

_____

The criminal masterminds cited here are identified further at the National Archives page subtitled, “Crimes against Butter.”

 

 

Words of Death

April 10, 2014 — 24 Comments

joseyOne of the cinema’s most powerful scenes occurs in a film many might disregard due to its genre. In “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” a man trying to rebuild his war-shattered life, rides out to face a Comanche chieftain.

Josey: You be Ten Bears?

Ten Bears: I am Ten Bears.

Josey: I’m Josey Wales.

Ten Bears: I have heard. You’re the Gray Rider. You would not make peace with the Blue Coats. You may go in peace.

Josey: I reckon not. Got nowhere to go.

Ten Bears: Then you will die.

Josey: I came here to die with you. Or, live with you. Dying ain’t so hard for men like you and me, it’s living that’s hard; when all you ever cared about has been butchered or raped. Governments don’t live together, people live together. With governments you don’t always get a fair word or a fair fight. Well I’ve come here to give you either one, or get either one from you. I came here like this so you’ll know my word of death is true. And that my word of life is then true. The bear lives here, the wolf, the antelope, the Comanche. And so will we. Now, we’ll only hunt what we need to live on, same as the Comanche does. And every spring when the grass turns green and the Comanche moves north, he can rest here in peace, butcher some of our cattle and jerk beef for the journey. The sign of the Comanche, that will be on our lodge. That’s my word of life.

Ten Bears: And your word of death?

Josey: It’s here in my pistols, there in your rifles . . . I’m here for either one.

Ten Bears: These things you say we will have, we already have.

Josey: That’s true. I ain’t promising you nothing extra. I’m just giving you life and you’re giving me life. And I’m saying that men can live together without butchering one another.

Ten Bears: It’s sad that governments are chiefed by the double-tongues. There is iron in your word of death for all Comanche to see. And so there is iron in your word of life. No signed paper can hold the iron, it must come from men. The word of Ten Bears carries the same iron of life and death. It is good that warriors such as we meet in the struggle of life . . . or death. It shall be life.

This conversation has always caused me to stop and think—even as I typed it out now. It contains many profound thoughts about honesty, commitment, respect and even peace. Most captivating to my thoughts, though, is the contrast between words of death and words of life.

“There is iron in your word of death . . . And so, there is iron in your word of life.”

People say all sorts of things, often without much regard as to whether or not they are true. They often speak without thinking about the words before they leave their lips. Most daily conversation is superficial, and immediately forgotten.

That changes, when we speak of death. Sure, comedians joke about it, but when people discuss actual death—often in the wake of someone’s passing—our words become more measured, our tempo slows, and we more consciously ponder what we are saying.

I recall a conversation with a fellow chaplain who described his father’s dying. He contracted a terminal disease, which would take some time to extinguish his life, and he told his children: “As you have grown up, I’ve done my best to teach you how to live. Now I will do my best to teach you how to die.”

It doesn’t require faith in God to die with dignity, but those of us who know the resurrected Jesus, face death with a confidence that death does not have the final word.

The truly wise live all of their days in the knowledge that we all will someday (barring the parousia) experience physical death. In light of that, our words should not be careless, or even frivolous. That’s true for our life words, as well as our death words.

By this I do not mean that we should not play with language or engage in humor. After all, humor is inarguably one of God’s most precious gifts to us. Nor should we allow the cloud of death that hangs over all mortal flesh rob us of the many joys life brings.

C.S. Lewis would have understood the essence of the conversation quoted above. (The movie was made thirteen years after his own death.) When grieving the death of his wife, Lewis wrote:

You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn’t you then first discover how much you really trusted it? . . . Only a real risk tests the reality of a belief. (A Grief Observed).

What I am trying to capture is more than simply the notion that our words of life, our day to day conversations, should be just as sincere and thoughtful as our words of death. It’s more in line with what Lewis was referring to. That our words, thoughts, and hopes have been tested and proven true . . . because they are based not on the fancy of the moment, but on the final, concluding whole of the testimony of our lives.

In other words, it is precisely because one’s word of death (ultimate, naked honesty) is true, that you can trust their word of life.

That’s a message that echoes both the sound of a hammer driving nails on a Judean hill, and a heavy stone rolling away from the entrance to a sealed tomb, two days later.

Chinese Complexity

October 22, 2013 — 6 Comments

Chinese ChroniclesSome people consider “writing” difficult. It’s not. When you add the adverb “well,” it does become much rarer. Still, writing in English is not challenging at all when you compare it to the hurdle traditional Chinese authors face.

One of the most popular television programs in the People’s Republic of China is essentially a “spelling bee.” During a recent episode the studio audience was embarrassed by the fact only one-third of them were able to correctly write “gan ga,” which means “embarrassed.”

Chinese ComplexThe problem is apparently two-fold. First, Chinese characters are “complex.” That’s why I selected that very word to include here.

The most comprehensive Chinese dictionary, Zhonghua Zihai, was compiled in 1994. It includes 85,568 characters. When compared to the Latin alphabet of 26 characters, it’s no surprise that a poll in China found 99% of the population admitting they forget how to write words. (To be fair, I’m not sure we could find even 1% in the West claiming that they never forget how to spell a word.)

The second reason for the growing national writing crisis in China is the amazing phenomenon called pinyin. Pinyin is the official phonetic system for transcribing the sound of Chinese characters into Latin script. It was created in 1958 by mainland China and has been adopted by the Republic of China as well.

The influence of pinyin has grown dramatically with the advent of computing, and many young Chinese have become dependent on the shortcut. Some educators have labeled the crippling practice “a type of social disease.”

Fortunately for aspiring Chinese authors, knowing a meager 4,000 distinct characters makes one “functionally” literate. Still, even that seems rather daunting. I’ll no longer take for granted my good fortune in having a mere 26 characters to strive to master.

C.S. Lewis offered some fascinating observations about the Chinese worldview. While he discussed the subject in a variety of places, he presents his thoughts most extensively in The Abolition of Man. He finds the concept of “Tao” a useful corollary to what Christians usually refer to as Natural Law.

The Chinese also speak of a great thing (the greatest thing) called the Tao. It is the reality beyond all predicates, the abyss that was before the Creator Himself. It is Nature, it is the Way, the Road. It is the Way in which the universe goes on, the Way in which things everlastingly emerge, stilly and tranquilly, into space and time. It is also the Way which every man should tread in imitation of that cosmic and supercosmic progression, conforming all activities to that great exemplar.

“In ritual,” say the Analects, “it is harmony with Nature that is prized.” The ancient Jews likewise praise the Law as being “true.” This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, and Oriental alike, I shall henceforth refer to for brevity simply as “the Tao.”

Some of the accounts of it which I have quoted will seem, perhaps, to many of you merely quaint or even magical. But what is common to them all is something we cannot neglect. It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.

Although the following story does not relate to C.S. Lewis directly, it offers an interesting insight into the subject of this post. It appears in the book Remembering C.S. Lewis: Recollections of Those who Knew Him, and refers to J.A. Smith, one of Lewis’ fellow professors at Magdalen.

“At the Breakfast Table” was written by another member of the faculty, Adam Fox. Both men knew Lewis well, since they were part of a breakfast foursome in the Common Room at the college.

Now J.A. had fallen into the way of speculating on odd little problems, which apparently assailed him in bed when sleep deserted him. I remember him coming down one morning and telling us that he had been thinking in the night what a dreadful thing it would be for a learned Chinese to go blind. I do not know if the other members of the party knew why it would be more dreadful for a Chinese than for any other learned person.

I had no idea, but I knew my place, and when I asked why this was so, it appeared, according to J.A., that many of the ideograms that make Chinese writing so beautiful conveyed meaning to the eye but had no sound attached to them. Reading in Chinese was in part at least like looking at a picture book, and for that reason, of course, a blind man is fatally handicapped.

As an epilogue of sorts, I can’t resist including one of my favorite Chinese characters. Perhaps you’ll enjoy it also.

Chinese Verbose

Ironically, since it required sixty-four strokes, the word zhé fell from common usage around the fifth century.

Writing Life Scripts

September 13, 2013 — 9 Comments

ben hurI was shaped by the heroic religious films of the 1950s and 60s. The powerful messages of epic movies like Ben Hur, Quo Vadis and The Robe planted within my young Christian heart an awareness of nobility and radical self-sacrifice.

About twenty years ago, I spent a year doing graduate work in education. One of my Educational Psychology classes was taught by a professor who was a devotee of Transactional Analysis. I don’t recall too much about TA, aside from one of its principles that resonated with me.

It’s a concept called Life Scripts. Without going into great detail, it is an often subconscious notion of how we “think” our lives will or should play out. It’s adjusted throughout our lives, but the basic theme is established when we are quite young.*

A recent article says “script is broadly understood as a series of decisions, formed as coping strategies in childhood, which continue to shape the life course outside of awareness.”**

It was only as an adult that I realized just how significant an impression these virtuous stories made on me. I recalled the countless times I lay in bed at night rehearsing the story of The Robe. I was the unbelieving Roman soldier, converted by the gentle witness of the wrongfully persecuted Christians.*** Ultimately, I took my stand with them, defending them and voluntarily laying down my life for Christ.

That same plot line still echoes through my mind and soul.

I consider myself blessed to have been exposed to such positive influences while my self identity was being shaped. And I pray for children today whose parents allow them to be exposed (at terribly vulnerable ages!) to violent, fearful and morally ambiguous influences.

Those precious minds and hearts are scarred by the vulgarity and immorality that are endemic in modern cinema, television and music. May God have mercy on them.

C.S. Lewis lived during the era when the virtuous dramas such as those named above were at the peak of their influence.

In a diary entry from the mid-1920s, he mentions Quo Vadis in passing. He is describing his weekend schedule.

Saturday 22 April: Got up about 6.30 and did the same jobs as yesterday. Was settled to work by 9.5 o’clock and put in an excellent morning . . . Sheila Gonner—jolly child—came to tea. Dorothy is to come back tomorrow: so we shall no longer be servantless. At her request I lent her my crib to Tacitus’ History for her sister Rose— I wonder what makes her imagine that she would like it? Possibly early Christian novels of the Quo Vadis type. Worked again after tea, and from supper till ten o’clock, finishing Herodotus. The last few pages of the IXth Book I now read for the first time, having got tired of it on my first reading . . .

I find this diary passage intriguing, in the way that Lewis posits a reader’s potential interest in classical literature as arising from their exposure to ancient Rome via contemporary novels. That’s precisely where my own lifelong fascination with the Roman empire was born.

If you’ve never seen these three movies, I commend them to you. I would also encourage you to consider reading one or all of the novels. They are available for free download in various digital formats.

Quo Vadis

Ben Hur

The Robe

_____

* I’m a pastor and historian, not a psychologist, so I don’t pretend to understand all of the implications. Because of that, I don’t endorse TA as a fully valid theory. What’s more, in our fallen world it’s obvious that many early “life scripts” can be based on wounds inflicted on neglected or abused children. In such cases, particularly where the scripts are destructive, we are not “destined” to live out a tragedy. By the grace of God, even the saddest of stories can be redeemed and “rewritten” into tales of hope and wonder.

** From “Script or Scripture?” by Jo Stuthridge in Life Scripts edited by Richard Erskine (Karnac Books, 2010).

*** It didn’t hurt that the main Christian disciple in the film was the lovely and chaste Diana, played by the British actress Jean Simmons. But that’s another story, and it’s important to note that these life scripts are pre-pubescent creations, so they are motivated by much deeper impulses than hormones. As the previously footnoted quotation referred to them, they are fundamentally “coping strategies” for survival in the calm (or frequently turbulent) world in which children find themselves.

csl and kingAuthor Stephen King surprised quite a few fans during a recent PBS interview when he expressed his belief in the universe’s intelligent design. In nature and the cosmos, like theist C.S. Lewis before him, he views a creation so complex and wondrous that he thinks it makes more sense to believe in a divine power than to dismiss faith.

During the interview, King said,

I choose to believe it, yeah. I think that . . . there’s no downside to that, and the downside—if you say, well, OK, I don’t believe in God, there’s no evidence of God—then you’re missing the stars in the sky, and you’re missing the sunrises and sunsets, and you’re missing the fact that bees pollinate all these crops and keep us alive and the way that everything seems to work together at the same time.

In an essay, “Christianity and Culture,” C.S. Lewis alludes to the “Theist” phase of his own life. He points out how limiting a faith that recognizes God only abstractly, in his handiwork, can be.

There is an easy transition from Theism to Pantheism; but there is also a blessed transition in the other direction. For some souls I believe, for my own I remember, Wordsworthian contemplation can be the first and lowest form of recognition that there is something outside ourselves which demands reverence.

To return to Pantheistic errors about the nature of this something would, for a Christian, be very bad. But once again, for “the man coming up from below” the Wordsworthian experience is an advance. Even if he goes no further he has escaped the worst arrogance of materialism: if he goes on he will be converted.

King is, of course, far from what one would properly call a “person of faith.”** Still, it may be that he is presently moving in a positive direction. The following words reveal his yearning for hope, criticism of institutional religion, and his as yet unanswered questions about why God allows suffering in our world.

It’s certainly a subject that’s interested me, and I think it interests me more the older that I get. And I think we’d all like to believe that after we shuffle off this mortal coil, that there’s going to be something on the other side because for most of us, I know for me, life is so rich, so colorful and sensual and full of good things, things to read, things to eat, things to watch, places to go, new experiences, that I don’t want to think that you just go to darkness. . . .

But as far as God and church and religion and . . . that sort of thing, I kind of always felt that organized religion was just basically a theological insurance scam where they’re saying if you spend time with us, guess what, you’re going to live forever, you’re going to go to some other plain where you’re going to be so happy, you’ll just be happy all the time, which is also kind of a scary idea to me. . . .

Everything is sort of built in a way that to me suggests intelligent design. But at the same time there’s a lot of things in life where you say to yourself, well, if this is God’s plan, it’s very peculiar. And you have to wonder about that guy’s personality, the big guy’s personality. . . . What I’m saying now is I choose to believe in God, but I have serious doubts.

For many intelligent people, like C.S. Lewis and Stephen King, coming to faith cannot be severed from their reason. They desire to make sense of the world. Some, sadly, determine that human beings perish forever with their final breath. With that worldview, using King’s words, “you just go to darkness.”

Fortunately many others—brilliant and simple people alike, for God shows no partiality—possess true wisdom and heed the words of Jesus, that he is the way, the truth and the life. Both of these writers experienced an ineffective exposure to the church when they were young. Unfortunately, it served as more of an inoculation than a foundation.

Eventually C.S. Lewis followed that path from theism to Christianity. It’s not impossible that Stephen King may, as well.

_____

* A full transcript of the PBS interview is available here.

** In the interview, King “commends” the entertainment value of enthusiastic, emotionally-charged preaching, while disparaging his own mainline upbringing.

I went to a Methodist church for years as a kid, and Methodist youth fellowship on Thursday nights, and it was all pretty – you know, think of a bottle of soda with the cap off for 24 hours. There weren’t very many bubbles left in that stuff by then. It was pretty – it was Yankee religion, Terry, and there’s really not much in the world that’s any more boring than that. They tell you that you’re going to go to hell, and you’re half-asleep.

Not to be Missed

May 13, 2013 — 6 Comments

csl doodlesA recent post at the wonderful C.S. Lewis Minute blog introduced me to an amazing new way to experience the brilliance of the great author. I want to pass on the information so that you too can enjoy it.

The site is called “C.S. Lewis Doodles,” and it is the creation of a Kiwi (New Zealander) named Kalman Kingsley.

Kingsley uses a skillful artistic presentation of the clearly read original essays, to give Lewis’ words a particularly engaging and comprehensible air. It is, in a sense, C.S. Lewis “updated” to contemporary media.

Lewis himself alluded to the value of different types of media in communicating. In “Studies in Words” he says, “Language exists to communicate . . . Some things it communicates so badly that we never attempt to communicate them by words if any other medium is available.” Of course, in this case Lewis’ words are profound—in and of themselves. However, the addition of the illustrations serves to highlight and amplify his message.

Lewis, after all, passed away nearly sixty years ago, when most homes still owned black and white televisions. Technology has advanced light years since then, and transposing Lewis’ timeless wisdom to new formats such as this is an important work worthy of the talents of innovative men and women.

C.S. Lewis Doodles is available here, but don’t head there until you finish reading this Mere Inkling post.

The YouTube “Channel” offers three essays:

“The Grand Miracle” (from a sermon about the Incarnation preached in 1945)

“The Laws of Nature” (a 1945 consideration of the interplay between Nature and prayer)

“On ‘Sexual’ Morality” (a 1963 essay entitled “We have No ‘Right to Happiness’”)

All three of these essays are found in the collection published as God in the Dock. (For Americans the last word in that title refers not to a marina, but to a courtroom.)

Because each presentation covers an entire essay, they range in length from eight to ten minutes. Nevertheless, they are so well presented that they will certainly hold your interest.

I believe Lewis would have enjoyed this presentation of his work. Had he been an artist and had access to this technology, he may have experimented with it himself. As he wrote to Arthur Greeves in 1933, his book Pilgrim’s Regress is “going to be decorated by a map on the end leaf which I had great fun in drawing the sketch for.”

You can hear (and view) Lewis’ thoughts on “the Laws of Nature,” by clicking on the image below.

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C.S. Lewis Minute is a website every true Lewis fan should be following. You can read the column I referred to—and subscribe to the blog—here.

Why War?

May 6, 2013 — 17 Comments

bulletsI recently read a profound statement penned by G.K. Chesterton. Although he was not a military veteran himself, he was absolutely on target when he wrote: “The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.”

Terrible things are happening today in Syria. Yesterday, over lunch, I “debated” one of my sons regarding the merits (and drawbacks) of American intervention in that Levantine cauldron.

He believes we can’t “stand by” while the world watches as a civil war rages around another of the world’s mad dictators. I argued the United States isn’t morally responsible to serve as the world’s guardian of peace. And, even if we as a single, fallible, divided people were accountable . . . what about the violence and injustice in so very many other places. Sudan, Myanmar (Burma), the Congo, and scores of other lands cry out for intervention on behalf of the oppressed.

There is an almost unlimited amount of injustice around the globe today. And, looking in the mirror, it’s evident we have problems to resolve right here.

Sending American troops to intervene in foreign civil wars is ugly business. Taking sides against dictators does not always provide a safer and more just world—we need look no further than the so-called Arab Spring to reveal that.

I was proud to serve my nation—and causes I believed in—during the liberation of Kuwait and the retaliation for the September 11 attacks on the United States a decade later.

I am now retired from active duty, and I’ve lived long enough to witness how little positive fruit seems to follow war.

Like C.S. Lewis, I remain persuaded that some evils are so malevolent (Hitler, for example, comes to mind) . . . that they must be confronted. As he wrote in “The Conditions for a Just War,”

If war is ever lawful, then peace is sometimes sinful.

At the same time, however, war is something into which we should never rush. It demands our conscious consideration of the cost and an accurate determination that the blood spilled—include that of noncombatants inevitably caught up in the horror—is a price worth paying.

It is that question which moral men and women must debate and ponder.

“Learning in War-Time” is a brilliant essay included in the collection which goes by the name of Lewis’ speech, “The Weight of Glory.” In the essay, Lewis discusses the seriousness of war. As a combat casualty during the First World War, he vividly understood its nature.

However, as a Christian, Lewis recognized that warfare is not the worst thing that can befall a human being.

What does war do to death? It certainly does not make it more frequent: 100 percent of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased. It puts several deaths earlier, but I hardly suppose that that is what we fear. Certainly when the moment comes, it will make little difference how many years we have behind us.

Does it increase our chances of painful death? I doubt it. As far as I can find out, what we call natural death is usually preceded by suffering, and a battlefield is one of the very few places where one has a reasonable prospect of dying with no pain at all.

Does it decrease our chances of dying at peace with God? I cannot believe it. If active service does not persuade a man to prepare for death, what conceivable concatenation of circumstances would? Yet war does do something to death. It forces us to remember it.

True. To die at enmity with God is a fearful thing. Still, even better than coming to faith during war (Lewis would surely agree), is recognizing God’s love and living a life of peace.

Books C.S. Lewis Loved

April 23, 2013 — 21 Comments

csl booksThose of us who admire C.S. Lewis respect his words on many subjects, not least of which would include literary matters. He was, after all, both a gifted writer and a professor teaching related subjects at two of the world’s most prestigious universities.

In 1962 The Christian Century asked him to list the ten titles most influential in his professional and philosophical life. (Most of these are available as free downloads on the internet.)

1. Phantastes by George MacDonald

2. The Everlasting Man by G. K. Chesterton.

3. The Aeneid by Virgil

4. The Temple by George Herbert

5. The Prelude by William Wordsworth

6. The Idea of the Holy by Rudolf Otto

7. The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius

8. Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell

9. Descent into Hell by Charles Williams

10. Theism and Humanism by Arthur James Balfour

The following year Lewis was interviewed by Sherwood Wirt, longtime editor of Decision magazine. (Decision is published by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and you can learn more about the publication here.)

During his interview, Wirt focused on spiritual rather than professional benefits from books Lewis had found beneficial.

Sherwood Wirt: What Christian writers have helped you?

C.S. Lewis: The contemporary book that has helped me the most is Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man. Others are Edwyn Bevan’s book, Symbolism and Belief, and Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy, and the plays of Dorothy Sayers.

Fortunately all of these titles are readily available for those who would like to explore works that influenced Lewis’ conversion and Christian growth. Let’s briefly consider them in the order Lewis cited them.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) was a prolific English writer. Just how prolific, one might ask. Well, he wrote approximately eighty books, hundreds of poems, hundreds of short stories and about 4,000 essays. His works continue to inspire many today, and merit contemporary reading.

Chesterton shared many of the same values as Lewis, and preferred calling himself an “orthodox” Christian rather than adhering to denominational labels. (In this he foreshadows Lewis’ invaluable emphasis on “mere” Christianity.)

The Everlasting Man was published in 1925 and ponders the universal significance of Jesus Christ. It was composed in reaction to The Outline of History, in which H.G. Wells paints Jesus as just one more political agitator in a political backwater of the Roman empire. Honestly, he does describe him as being remarkable, but mostly in terms of having a charismatic persona.

Lewis said that Chesterton’s Everlasting Man “baptised” his intellect, which is no small expression of praise.

You can purchase The Everlasting Man through normal channels or download a free text format version at this site. If you enjoy listening to audiobooks, you can obtain a free audio copy of the volume here.

Edwyn Robert Bevan (1870-1943) was an English philosopher and historian who specialized in the Hellenistic world.

In Symbolism and Belief, based on a series of lectures presented in 1933-34, Bevan discusses major religious symbols and metaphors. He illustrates how figurative language is best capable of describing spiritual truth. He argues that the greater precision offered by philosophical terminology is actually counterproductive in this quest.

The volume offers insight into the rationality of religious faith, although it concludes with his conviction that it ultimately boils down to a genuine encounter with God—“what actually causes anyone to believe in God is direct perception of the Divine.”

Symbolism and Belief is available for free download in a variety of formats at this site.

Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) was a German Lutheran theologian. He spent most of his ministry teaching at one of the most prominent seminaries in the world, the University of Marburg Divinity School.

In The Idea of the Holy Otto espoused the concept that the things of God were “numinous.” He defined this as a “non-rational, non-sensory experience or feeling whose primary and immediate object is outside the self.” The word itself was derived from the Latin numen which refers to divine power.

Otto explains how the numinous is a mystery (mysterium) that is simultaneously terrifying (tremendum) and fascinating (fascinans). C.S. Lewis found the notion of the numinous particularly useful in his book, The Problem of Pain.

The Idea of the Holy: an Inquiry into the Non-rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational is available in multiple formats here.

Dorothy Leigh Sayers (1893-1957) was a personal friend of C.S. Lewis. In a 1963 letter he wrote: “She was the first person of importance whoever wrote me a fan letter. I liked her, originally, because she liked me; later, for the extraordinary zest and edge of her conversation—as I like a high wind. She was a friend, not an ally.”

Sayers was an extremely successful English writer. Her versatility allowed her renown to grow as a poet, playwright, essayist and as a writer of popular detective mysteries. She was also a classicist, and regarded her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy as her finest work.

Fortunately, four of her plays are available in a collection available here. They include “The Zeal of Thy House,” “The Devil to Pay,” “He That Should Come,” and “The Just Vengeance.” And, although you can’t download the file, if you would like to stream the recording, an audio version of her famous “The Man Born to be King” is available here.