Archives For Interfaith Issues

Epitaphs & C.S. Lewis

June 10, 2020 — 15 Comments

Have you already decided on an epitaph for your headstone? Or are you trusting others to sum up your life in familiar, traditional words of relationship? C.S. Lewis was of the opinion that a unique sentiment was most appropriate for such occasions.

My own decision has been made by default. At the present time I’m leaning towards simply using a military marker. They look distinguished, and the money that is saved can benefit the living, or perhaps one of the charities we support.

Basically, they have name, rank (I just want “Chaplain” instead of “Lieutenant Colonel”), dates and sometimes a very short personalized element. I think I’ll opt for the simple “Christian cross” which is familiar to those who have visited military cemeteries. I am tempted though, to use the agnus dei, even though it is listed as the official emblem of the United Moravian Church.

Due to the religious diversity (and confusion) in the United States, the Veterans Administration offers a theological smorgasbord of options. You can see the seventy-five options currently available here.

They include established American faiths such as Zoroastrianism and the Tenrikyo Church as well as more contemporary favorites Wicca and Eckankar (which claimed not to be a religion when I encountered its missionaries during my college years). Not to be ignored, are Humanism and its sibling, Atheism. For those preferring ethnic options, we have the Medicine Wheel, ancestor worship (African Ancestral Traditionalist), and the Hammer of Thor.

How Much Should an Epitaph Say?

I’ve seen some headstones that record only a name. Leaves only questions. Some give a brief observation, such as Boot Hill’s marker for Dan Dowd who perished in 1884. It records single word, “Hanged.”*

There are a few longer epitaphs, such as this one, sounding almost like an apology. “Here lies George Johnson hanged by mistake 1882. He was right we was wrong. But we strung him up and now he’s gone.” Sadly, they learned too late the horse they assumed he had stolen, was purchased legally.

In New Hampshire, there is a headstone with a 150 word inscription. Apparently, the woman’s husband had quite an axe to grind with a local congregation.

Caroline H., Wife of Calvin Cutter, M.D. Murdered by the Baptist Ministry and Baptist Churches As follows: Sep’t. 28, 1838; aged 33 She was accused of lying in church meeting by the Rev. D. D. Pratt and Deacon Albert Adams. Was condemned by the church unheard. She was reduced to poverty by Deacon William Wallace. When an exparte council was asked of the Milford Baptist Church, by the advice of their committee, George Raymond, Calvin Averill, and Andrew Hutchinson They voted not to receive any communication on the subject. The Rev. Mark Carpenter said he thought as the good old Deacon said, “We’ve got Cutter down and it’s best to keep him down.” The intentional and malicious destruction of her character And happiness as above described destroyed her life. Her last words upon the subject were “Tell the Truth and The Iniquity will come out.”

C.S. Lewis’ Epitaph

Lewis wrote a moving epitaph for his wife, Joy Davidman. It was based upon one he had written for his good friend Charles Williams. The phrase “Lenten Lands” was used by his stepson David Gresham, as the title of his story of his parents’ marriage.

Here the whole world (stars, water, air,
And field, and forest, as they were
Reflected in a single mind)
Like cast off clothes was left behind
In ashes, yet with hopes that she,
Re-born from holy poverty,
In Lenten lands, hereafter may
Resume them on her Easter Day.

To adorn C.S. Lewis’ own grave, his brother Warnie opted for simpler verse. It was taken from a passage in Shakespeare’s King Lear.

“Men must endure their going hence.”

C.S. Lewis wrote another noteworthy epigraph. It was in a poem by that very name. It was originally published in 1949 in Time and Tide magazine. It has been included in the collection of Lewis Poems as a stanza in “Epigrams and Epitaphs.” He shared it with his fellow poet, Ruth Pitter when it was first written, writing “I append my latest Short, your most obliged C.S. Lewis.”

My grave my pillory, by this blabbing stone
Forbidden to rest unknown,
I feel like fire my neighbours’ eyes, because
All here know what I was.
Think, stranger, of that moment when I too
First, and forever, knew.

In 2013, C.S. Lewis received the great honor of having a memorial stone placed in Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey. The inscription was chosen from one of his talks.

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen,
not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.

I began with the question of what each of us might hope is inscribed as the legacy of our life. In truth, I don’t care if my marker even bears my name, since the Lord knows me as a member of his flock. But what I would like to see gracing my passing, are the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:23).


The photograph adorning this post comes from side-by-side monuments for two Yale chemists. You can read the curious story about them, and the reason for the “Etc.” that adorns the second. Apparently it was added by the family at a later date, since they regarded “Nobel Laureate” as insufficient.

* The most famous epitaph in Arizona’s Boot Hill Cemetery reads “Here lies Lester Moore. Four slugs from a 44. No Les. No More.”

bennett

Some Christians are obnoxious. Well, okay, quite a few Christians are insufferable when they persistently “witness” to those who are deaf to their appeals. But, truth be told, many atheists are becoming increasingly obnoxious in their attitudes towards Christians as well. Let’s consider which group is worse.

First, some definitions. By Christians I don’t mean people who have some vague deistic notion that there is a God, and Jesus is somehow connected to this divinity because he was such a holy prophet.

By Christian I mean someone who has placed their faith and trust in Jesus the Christ, the only begotten Son of God who declared he was the Way, the Truth and the Life… The Logos (Word) through whom the universe was created.

By Atheist, I don’t mean people who do not share that faith, but who consider it an unprovable thesis. Most people with this viewpoint are ambivalent about whether or not others “believe.” The majority of these folks, many of whom do not feel threatened by religious conversations, are better understood as Agnostics.

By Atheist I mean people who are so convinced that Christianity is fallacious that they feel they must do what they can to stamp it out. They are so emotionally engrossed in the matter that they are genuinely unable to recognize that their own belief is based on nothing other than faith itself.

I can respect the fact that Atheists have historically been mistreated by “Christendom.” By my definition, this institutional entity is not synonymous with actual Christianity. In fact, it’s persecuted far more Christians of different denominational allegiances, than it has unbelievers who simply kept their mouths closed. But that’s a subject for another day.

Christians do not hate agnostics, or even atheists. Their motivation for sharing the Gospel inclines them towards the opposite attitude. Certainly they do it in obedience to their Lord’s command. Most possess a genuine concern and compassion for those they consider to be lost and facing eternal separation from God.

On the other hand, an increasing number of Atheists are insultingly dismissive of Christians who they consider—as a group—to be ignorant and prejudiced.

An Atheist columnist acknowledged this fact, and the discomfort it causes him, in a recent essay. David Harsanyi wrote the following in “Political Idols,” an article about a broader subject.

Unlike many of my fellow non-believers, I don’t feel especially enlightened or rational for my apostasy; I feel kind of unlucky, actually.

The typical non-believer sees the strictures of Christianity or Judaism [the faith in which Harsanyi was raised] as a punishment—mythical limitations set to inconvenience him—but I see people who take profound comfort in a beautiful fate that awaits them as long as they treat people as they would want to be treated themselves.

As a man who believes his story ends in a pile of dirt rather than celestial salvation, I have many reasons to be envious.

Yet, for my entire atheistic life, I’ve been nudged to mock the believer. The unifying doctrine of atheism is a reflexive antagonism toward faith and all the ideas it has dragged along with it through the centuries.

If all Atheists recognized this, and all Christians acknowledged that they are no more deserving of God’s mercy than their neighbor, oh what wonderful conversations about matters of eternal significance we could have!

C.S. Lewis’ Comment about an Atheist Writer

In a 1916 letter to his friend Arthur Greeves, Lewis comments on a book that Greeves had mentioned. He says the particular volume is of little value, without remarking on the author’s work in fiction, for which he as better known.

What is most significant about this particular letter is Lewis’ reference to the writer’s atheism, and the allusion to his own. It must be remembered that Lewis would not experience his conversion to Christianity for another fifteen years!

The book you refer to is ‘How to Form a Literary Taste’ by Arnold Benett: the edition is pretty but the book is not of any value. The very title—as if you set out to ‘learn’ literature the way you learn golf—shews that the author is not a real book-lover but only a priggish hack.

I never read any of his novels & don’t want to. Have you? By the way, he is a rather violent atheist, so I suppose I shall meet him by

‘The fiery, flaming flood of Phlegethon,’ as good old Spenser has it.

Before we look at Arnold Bennett (1867-1931), the author Lewis is describing, let us take a moment to consider the literary allusion Lewis includes in this passage.

“The fiery, flaming flood of Phlegethon” comes from The Faerie Queene, an epic poem which was the masterpiece of Edmund Spenser (1552-1599). Various editions of the fantasy poem are available.

In Spenser’s poem, the Phlegethon is a river found in Hell. The name itself means “flaming,” and it initially appears in Greek mythology as one of the Underworld’s five rivers. In The Faerie Queene, the terrible place where “the damned ghosts in torments fry.”

While his agnosticism assumes there is no afterlife, he acknowledges he may be wrong. And, if so, it is precisely to this tragic, fiery end that the unbelieving Lewis delivers Bennett . . . and himself.

So, who was Arnold Bennett?

Bennett was a versatile writer, and found success not only as a novelist, but also in theater and journalism. He even served as the Director of Propaganda for France during WWI, even though he was English. (He had resided in France since 1903.)

He was outspoken in his view that religious faith was not for the wise. Ironically, he died of typhoid after ignoring a French waiter’s counsel not to drink the “ordinary [tap] water from a carafe,” which was unsafe.

In 1932, Bennett’s widow began editing and publishing his journals. In a review that year, a literary magazine noted his antagonism towards Christianity.

Through it all one gets the impression of a terribly self-centered personality. Perhaps the artist is necessarily self-centered, though I cannot believe that Shakespeare was.

There have been artists like Dante, like Milton, whom it would be absurd to call selfish in the usual sense of the term because, colossal as their egos were, they yet consecrated themselves and all their pride of art and pride of soul to something for which, in the final analysis, their inmost spirits cared immensely more than they cared for self or for art or for any other thing on the earth below or in the heavens above it. . . .

Probably he was as great an artist as a man can be without religion, and the measure of his greatness is to be found in his straining against the limitations he so needlessly imposed upon himself. . . .

He had nothing of the mystic in him. In a moment of illumination he declares that “there is no such thing as ugliness in the world,” but this is as far as he gets. Yet he holds out against Christianity as he holds out against what he thinks of as sentimentalism, and his wife was probably right in her feeling that he might have made a very good Christian if he had only been willing to let himself go.

Civil Atheism

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.

And, as for those who identify themselves as Atheists, perhaps there is some room for improvement in this area as well. If more people resisted atheism’s “reflexive antagonism toward faith,” the world would definitely become a more friendly place.

A final note for those who would read more about Bennett. G.K. Chesterton wrote an essay about morality and punishment, in which he responds to a proposal offered by Bennett that society should not “judge” criminals. You can read “The Mercy of Mr. Arnold Bennett” here.

Since it relates to our discussion here, I must share a portion of Chesterton’s witty introduction to his essay.

Mr. Arnold Bennett recently wrote one of his humorous and humane “causeries” pleading very properly for social imagination and the better understanding of our fellows. He carried it, however, to the point of affirming, as some fatalists do, that we should never judge anybody in the sense of condemning anybody, in connexion with his moral conduct.

Some time ago the same distinguished writer showed that his mercy and magnanimity were indeed on a heroic scale by reviewing a book of mine, and even saying many kind things about it.

But to these he added a doubt about whether true intelligence could be consistent with the acceptance of any dogma. In truth there are only two kinds of people; those who accept dogmas and know it, and those who accept dogmas and don’t know it. My only advantage over the gifted novelist lies in my belonging to the former class.

I suspect that his unconsciousness of his dogmas extends to an unconsciousness of what he means by a dogma. If it means merely the popular idea of being dogmatic, it might be suggested that saying that all dogmatism is unintelligent is itself somewhat dogmatic.

And something of what is true of his veto on dogma is also true of his veto on condemnation; which is really a veto on vetoes.


The photograph above is of a statue of Arnold Bennett unveiled this summer in his home town of Stoke-on-Trent.

Tolerating Blasphemy

June 30, 2015 — 9 Comments

There is a high price to be paid for the privilege of freely proclaiming our personal faith.

It is not simply respectfully allowing every competing worldview the same freedom.

It requires far more than that.

Free speech—as understood in the Western tradition—means allowing even objectionable messages to be expressed.

A British author recently spoke to students graduating from an American college about this conundrum.

The British novelist called on students to remember that “religion and atheism, and all thought systems, all grand claims to truth, must be open to criticism, satire, even, sometimes, mockery,” and that “being offended is not to be confused with a state of grace; it’s the occasional price we all pay for living in an open society.”

Mockery of what we consider holy . . . that certainly is a steep price.

Some are unwilling to pay this price for the freedom of speech. The bloody atrocities committed by some followers of Muhammad attest to that.

Christians, on the other hand, no longer take the lives of blasphemers. They follow the leading of the Prince of Peace in praying for those who despise them and their Lord.

No one likes blasphemy—not even, I believe—those who spew it. And yet, the very existence of such “hate speech” proves at least two things.

First, that Christians are willing to endure hearing painful speech in appreciation for their own right to speak honestly about matters of eternal significance.

Second, that we recognize our Creator is great enough—and, more importantly, compassionate enough—to offer grace, mercy and healing to the wounded souls who are so desperate they can only express their anguish with a curse.

May God have mercy on those guilty of blasphemy.

We are Blasphemers All

Forgiveness and mercy flow naturally from the hearts of the redeemed when they reflect on the magnitude of their own sins.

Who among us can cast the first stone when it comes to dishonoring the name of our Creator? Not I.

And, as an imperfect man I am in good company.

C.S. Lewis describes an example of his own blasphemies in his autobiographical Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. The situation revolved, ironically, around his “confirmation” within the Anglican communion.

His father was eager to see his son publically confirm his faith and assume a fuller membership in the church. The problem was, Lewis was no longer a Christian. He was already apostate. Yet, out of deference to his father, he willingly made a mockery of the “sacrament.”

My relations to my father help to explain (I am not suggesting that they excuse) one of the worst acts of my life. I allowed myself to be prepared for confirmation, and confirmed, and to make my first Communion, in total disbelief, acting a part, eating and drinking my own condemnation.

As Johnson points out, where courage is not, no other virtue can survive except by accident. Cowardice drove me into hypocrisy and hypocrisy into blasphemy. It is true that I did not and could not then know the real nature of the thing I was doing: but I knew very well that I was acting a lie with the greatest possible solemnity.

It seemed to me impossible to tell my father my real views. Not that he would have stormed and thundered like the traditional orthodox parent. On the contrary, he would (at first) have responded with the greatest kindness. “Let’s talk the whole thing over,” he would have said. But it would have been quite impossible to drive into his head my real position.

The thread would have been lost almost at once, and the answer implicit in all the quotations, anecdotes, and reminiscences which would have poured over me would have been one I then valued not a straw— the beauty of the Authorized Version, the beauty of the Christian tradition and sentiment and character. And later, when this failed, when I still tried to make my exact points clear, there would have been anger between us, thunder from him and a thin, peevish rattle from me. Nor could the subject, once raised, ever have been dropped again.

All this, of course, ought to have been dared rather than the thing I did. But at the time it seemed to me impossible. The Syrian captain was forgiven for bowing in the house of Rimmon. I am one of many who have bowed in the house of the real God when I believed Him to be no more than Rimmon (2 Kings 5).

Like Lewis, I have much for which to be forgiven. I am willing to suffer the abuse of my beliefs precisely because my Lord Jesus was willing to endure the thorns, whip and nails that should have been mine.

And, because of God’s love for all sinners, I can sincerely pray, “Lord, have mercy on those who blaspheme.”

Sanctified Languages

January 6, 2015 — 8 Comments

petrusOne major difference between Christianity and Islam is their view of language. For the Muslim, Arabic is the language by which the Quran is to be known. For the Christian, there is a great impulse to translate the Scriptures into every tongue in the world.

In Islamic worship, the Quran is properly recited only in Arabic, whether the individual understands Arabic or not. This is similar to the way that most Hindus chant mantras in ancient Sanskrit.

A parallel can be drawn with the medieval practice in the Western branches of Christianity where Latin continued to be used for worship, even after it lost its role as the shared language.

The fact, however, that the Bible had even been translated into Latin was due to the Christian desire to make God’s word accessible to all people. Jerome, an early Christian theologian, became a linguistic scholar with the goal of translating the Vulgate, into the common language of his day.

It would have been a great shock to him, and to Pope Damasus I who commissioned his effort, to see the Latin so ingrained in the church’s usage that their heirs in leadership lost sight of the desire to bring the Lord’s words directly to the people so that all could understand them.

One of the great successes of the Reformation was the successful translation and distribution of the Scriptures into the vernacular of various language groups. Martin Luther’s translation, in fact, standardized the German language which had evolved into several different dialects.

Coincidentally, Lutherans have remained at the forefront of Bible translation, and Lutheran Bible Translators continue that vital work today. They currently have twenty-two Bible translations in process. LBT works in conjunction with Wycliffe Bible Translators, which is an even larger organization.

C.S. Lewis delivered a lecture at the University of London entitled “The Literary Impact of The Authorised Version.” In one portion he addressed the influence of the King James translation on the English language. While not nearly so pronounced as Luther’s on German, it is measurable.

The history of the Authorised Version has been told so often that I will not attempt to re-tell it, and its beauties praised so lavishly that I will not praise them. Instead, I will proceed at once to its influence as an English book. I shall attempt to define that influence, for I think there has been misunderstanding about it and even a little exaggeration.

Lewis’ argument is that the Bible has a profound influence on English literature, the particular translation, less so.

Ideally, all Christians would understand Hebrew and Greek, and be able to read the Scriptures in their original languages. However, there is no stigma in reading a translation. In fact, there are small pockets of people who do not understand the history of the Bible who believe that one particular translation (i.e. the King James Version) is the only authoritative text.

Sadly, I once saw an advertisement in a newspaper inviting worshipers that read: “Are you tired of people changing the Authorized Version of God’s Word with Greek and other languages? If so, come and join us at . . .”

Fortunately, the vast majority of Jesus’ disciples celebrate the translation of God’s word of life into every language spoken today.

Meanwhile, memorization of the Quran in Arabic (even when that is not the reciter’s actual language) remains highly regarded in Islam. Arabic has been regarded as so holy, in fact, that there was great reluctance to contaminate the Quran by using a printing press.

During the Ottoman Empire, until 1729, printing anything in Arabic was a crime. Somewhat ironically, the first printing utilizing Arabic movable type was done by Pope Julius II in the first decade of the sixteenth century. It was created for the benefit of Christians living in Arabic lands.

To provide a powerful illustration of a Christian validation of the authentic inspiration and power of God’s words—in any language—we turn once again to the German reformer.

Since it becomes Christians then to make good use of the Holy Scriptures as their one and only book and it is a sin and a shame not to know our own book or to understand the speech and words of our God, it is a still greater sin and loss that we do not study languages, especially in these days when God is offering and giving us men and books and every facility and inducement to this study, and desires his Bible to be an open book. . . .

In proportion then as we value the gospel, let us zealously hold to the languages. For it was not without purpose that God caused his Scriptures to be set down in these two languages alone—the Old Testament in Hebrew, the New in Greek. Now if God did not despise them but chose them above all others for his word, then we too ought to honor them above all others. St. Paul declared it to be the peculiar glory and distinction of Hebrew that God’s word was given in that language, when he said in Romans 3, “What advantage or profit have those who are circumcised? Much indeed. To begin with, God’s speech is entrusted to them. . . .”

Similarly, the Greek language too may be called sacred, because it was chosen above all others as the language in which the New Testament was to be written, and because by it other languages too have been sanctified as it spilled over into them like a fountain through the medium of translation. (Martin Luther, “To the Councilmen of Germany”).

_____

The image above is an illuminated “P” which begins the name Petrus (Peter). The manuscript is displayed in Malmesbury Abbey in England, but was originally transcribed in Belgium circa 1400.

Jews Following Jesus

March 4, 2014 — 9 Comments

interfaithJewish poetry is breathtaking. The Psalms have nourished people of faith, as well as secularists, for millennia. C.S. Lewis wrote this about the providence of God in using the Jewish people as his conduit for blessing the world.

My enjoyment of the Psalms has been greatly increased lately. The point has been made before, but let me make it again: what an admirable thing it is in the divine economy that the sacred literature of the world should have been entrusted to a people whose poetry, depending largely on parallelism, should remain poetry in any language you translate it into.

He alluded to this in a letter to Sister Penelope, an Anglican nun and writer. In 1941 she sent him a copy of her new book, Windows on Jerusalem: A Study in the Mystery of Redemption. Lewis responded with gratitude. (Contemporary authors will find the detail of Lewis’ informal critique of her book illustrative of what he brought to the meetings of the Inklings.)

Thank you very much for the book. It has given me real help. What I particularly enjoy in all your work, specially this, is the avoidance of that curious drabness which characterises so many ‘little books on religion.’ Partly it is due to your Hebraic background which I envy you: partly, no doubt, to deeper causes.

Things that particularly pleased me were the true meanings of Beloved (p. 8) and Son (p. 9), the whole account of the Transfiguration (pp. 16 et seq), the passage on Sacrifice (p. 32), the passage ‘This was a shock’ (on p. 35), on our inability to understand sin (41 and 47), the very important bit about Hebrew & Roman ideas of ransom (52, 53): the really splendid account of how God can’t help deceiving the devil (56) and the allegorical close. There are, in fact, a good many Gifford Lectures and other such weighty tomes out of which I’ve got less meat (and indeed less efficient cookery!).

Judaism & Christianity

Jews and Christians have a complex relationship. This is even more true for Jewish people who come to accept Jesus as the promised Messiah. For most Jews, this automatically results in their expulsion from the Jewish community. However, for a growing number, there is a more gracious attitude developing.

A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center revealed some interesting statistics. Note the percentage of United States Jews considering the following to be essential:

Remembering the Holocaust – 73%

Leading an Ethical & Moral Life – 69%

Caring about Israel – 43%

Having a Good Sense of Humor – 42%

Observing Jewish Law – 19%

Here is the most surprising part of the survey. Thirty-four percent of American Jews consider believing Jesus is the Messiah, is compatible with being Jewish.

Let me repeat that . . . 34% of Jews in the United States (35% of the ultra-Orthodox Jews) believe that “Messianic Jews” remain Jewish.

I find that amazing. I also find it encouraging, since it’s consistent with the understanding of the Jews in first century Judea who worshipped beside the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem until its fall.

Some years ago I heard a lecture by a prominent Jewish theologian who described how historical Judaism rarely rejected those who considered any particular rabbi to be the Messiah. Apparently this remains true today, as some modern Jews, for example, consider  Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994) to be the Messiah.

Returning to the case of Jesus of Nazareth, the improving attitude is encouraging to see. In part, because most Messianic Jews say accepting Jesus as the Messiah has made them more Jewish. By that, most mean that they now practice the traditions of their Jewish heritage more faithfully than they previously did.

Following his conversion, C.S. Lewis grew in his positive consideration of the Jewish faith and people. In 1933, as Hitler’s hatred for Judaism became more evident, he wrote in a letter:

I might agree that the Allies are partly to blame, but nothing can fully excuse the iniquity of Hitler’s persecution of the Jews, or the absurdity of his theoretical position. Did you see that he said “The Jews have made no contribution to human culture and in crushing them I am doing the will of the Lord.”

Now as the whole idea of the “Will of the Lord” is precisely what the world owes to the Jews, the blaspheming tyrant has just fixed his absurdity for all to see in a single sentence, and shown that he is as contemptible for his stupidity as he is detestable for his cruelty. For the German people as a whole we ought to have charity: but for dictators, “Nordic” tyrants and so on . . .

All of the civilized people of the world share Lewis’ revulsion with Hitler and his agenda. In that we definitely agree with the vast majority of Jews who regard “Remembering the Holocaust” as something essential.

Postscript:

As positive a sign as the 34% support of Messianic Jews remaining Jewish is, the survey includes a more sobering corollary. Exactly twice that number, 68%, agreed that you can remain Jewish even if you don’t believe in the existence of God. Shocking. But that’s a subject for another day.

The Bible’s Songbook

October 10, 2013 — 15 Comments

psalmistI experienced an embarrassing moment many years ago while taking a broadcasting media course at seminary. I had used a passage from the Psalms as the basis for an assigned devotional, and when the professors (from several different seminary faculties) critiqued it, a distinguished professor dismissively pointed out that I had mispronounced the word “psalm” itself!

I had foolishly pronounced the “l” sound in the word (the way I’d always heard it pronounced). I don’t know whether any of the other students were as ignorant as I, but no one denied that the condescending correction was correct.

The first thing I did upon returning home was grab my dictionary to see if the doctor of theology was right. It turned out, of course, that he was right with how to pronounce the word [i.e. sahm] . . . but he was definitely wrong about how to properly correct a student.

On a more positive note, the Psalms are the foundation and epitome of worship music for Jews and Christians alike. One could read a Psalm each day and since there are one hundred and fifty, when you returned to the first psalm five months after beginning, it would be utterly fresh.

C.S. Lewis enjoyed the Psalms. The following passage comes from a letter written in 1940.

My enjoyment of the Psalms has been greatly increased lately. The point has been made before, but let me make it again: what an admirable thing it is in the divine economy that the sacred literature of the world should have been entrusted to a people whose poetry, depending largely on parallelism, should remain poetry in any language you translate it into.

And glorious poetry it is. The beauty of the songs extends far beyond the family “Lord is my shepherd . . .” And yet, it would be impossible to comprehend the number of grieving souls that have been comforted with the words “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

Most Christian traditions greatly value the Psalms, and many include them as a portion of the regular service or liturgy. And individuals who include them in the personal devotions are never disappointed.

C.S. Lewis included them in his prayer and devotion. In fact, he enjoyed the Psalms so much that in 1958 he wrote a book entitled Reflections on the Psalms. There he proclaims, “The most valuable thing the Psalms do for me is to express that same delight in God which made David dance.”

The Church has added an immense repertoire to the Psalms during the past two millennia, but they will never be replaced. In fact, many inspired songs owe a major debt to the Psalms themselves. This includes the Odes of Solomon, the first (post-Psalms) Christian hymnal (composed circa 100 A.D.).

Speaking of the Odes, I wrote a thesis on them many years ago, and have been considering writing a book about these treasures. Perhaps I’ll share more about them in the future.

_____

The lovely window pictured above is from a church in Fringford, England. David was likely a bit younger when most of the psalms he composed were written.

parentsThere are a variety of reasons for expressing affection and care for one’s parents. Many feel gratitude for the sacrifices their parents made while providing for them. Others treasure memories of never doubting their parents’ love for them. Some enjoyed less idyllic childhoods, but honor their parents out of a sense of duty.

C.S. Lewis described the last type of family in The Four Loves. Rather than giving cause for their children to appreciate them, some parents raise obstacles to their affections.

We hear a great deal about the rudeness of the rising generation. I am an oldster myself and might be expected to take the oldsters’ side, but in fact I have been far more impressed by the bad manners of parents to children than by those of children to parents.

Who has not been the embarrassed guest at family meals where the father or mother treated their grown-up offspring with an incivility which, offered to any other young people, would simply have terminated the acquaintance?

Dogmatic assertions of matters which the children understand and their elders don’t, ruthless interruptions, flat contradictions, ridicule of things the young take seriously—sometimes of their religion—insulting references to their friends, all provide an easy answer to the question “Why are they always out? Why do they like every house better than their home?” Who does not prefer civility to barbarism?

Yes, there are several reasons for honoring our parents, even when they have not “earned” that respect. And now we can add another incentive to do so—because you might be sued in court if you do not honor them! While this statute has not arrived in the Western world, it is a relatively new law in the world’s most populous nation.

The recently revised law requires that adult children visit their parents “often” . . . without defining the specific frequency. Apparently, too many children have become preoccupied with their own concerns. (Shades of Harry Chapin’s “Cats in the Cradle.”)

Traditional Chinese culture is renowned for the value it places on revering elders in general, and parents specifically. In the Analects of the philosopher Confucius, an entire section is devoted to “filial piety.”

58. Confucius said: “When at home, a young man should serve his parents; when away from home, he should be respectful to his elders. He should always be earnest and truthful, express love to all, and follow men of virtue. Then, if he has the time and energy, he should study literature and the arts.” [1.6]

71. Confucius said: “When your father is alive, obey him. When your father has passed on, live as he did. If you do so for [at least] three years after your father’s death, then you are a true son.” [1.11]

72. Tzu Lu asked about the meaning of filial piety. Confucius said: “Nowadays filial piety means being able to support your parents. But we support even our horses and dogs. Without respect, what’s the difference between the two kinds of support?” [2.7]

73. Tzu Hsia asked about filial piety. Confucius said: “What matters is the expression you show on your face. ‘Filial piety’ doesn’t mean merely doing physical tasks for your parents, or merely providing them with food and wine.” [2.8]

74. Confucius said: “In serving your parents, you may disagree with them from time to time and seek to correct them gently. But if they will not go along with you, you must continue to respect and serve them without complaining.” [4.18]

75. Confucius said: “Never ignore your parents’ ages, which are both a source of joy (because they are still living) and a source of anxiety (because their deaths are coming nearer).” [4.21]

The Judeo-Christian tradition, of course, also demands respect for one’s parents. “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you (Exodus 20:12, ESV). And from the Letter to the Church in Ephesus: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.”

It is challenging to discern what it means to honor a parent who does not merit gratitude. Indeed, destructive (abusive) parents may well disqualify themselves from receiving honor, since they tacitly reject the very essence of what it means to be a mother or father.

Aside from these extreme cases, where only a biological relationship exists, we must be honest. None of our parents are perfect. But then the corollary is also true—none of their children are, either. It is in these common, shaded cases where our own character is tested.

C.S. Lewis lost his mother at a young age. His father remained distant, and sent his sons to distant boarding schools. During the First World War, Lewis was severely wounded and shipped from the front lines to a London hospital where he recuperated. While a patient he wrote the following to his father in Ireland.

Wherever I am I know that you will come and see me. You know I have some difficulty in talking of the greatest things; it is the fault of our generation and of the English schools. But at least you will believe that I was never before so eager to cling to every bit of our old home life and to see you.

I know I have often been far from what I should be in my relation to you, and have undervalued an affection and generosity which an experience of “other people’s parents” has shown me in a new light. But, please God, I shall do better in the future. Come and see me, I am homesick, that is the long and the short of it.

Sadly, Lewis’ father did not make the trip to visit his son at the hospital. Such is the nature of real life relationships . . . and such is the reason why honoring our parents sometimes needs to assume the form of a law, or even a Commandment.

May it not be so in your family. If your parents still live, I pray God will grant you great joy in honoring them. And, if you have children, I pray that the Lord will fill them with well-deserved affection for you.

_____

If you have never heard the song “Cats in the Cradle,” you owe it to yourself to ponder its powerful message today. You can view it here.

Not Another Funeral

February 26, 2013 — 9 Comments

threeFollowers of Mere Inkling will recall that my father passed away last month. Yesterday found our family attending the funeral of our last surviving uncle. My mother was not a superstitious person. Nevertheless, whenever two deaths occurred near the same time, she used to almost reflexively say, “deaths come in threes.”

You may have heard that adage yourself. It’s apparently been around some time, and is occasionally applied to catastrophes in general. However it is used, it is merely a superstition. And, like most such things, if you diligently search for evidence to support it, you can frequently discover some.

I assume that some Christians may even be vulnerable to believing in credulous notions, but this would be a particularly bizarre one for them to affirm since (in terms of biblical numerology) the number three is anything but eerie. Three, after all, represents the Persons of the Trinity.

Of course, many may regard the study of biblical numerology to be a variant of superstition itself. I suppose that depends on the traits you attribute to them. For example, if they are signs of meaning—e.g. completeness such as twelve for the twelve tribes of Israel or four for the writers of the Gospels—there is little controversy.

However, if the numbers themselves are perceived as being imbued with some sort of mystical nature or power, the percentage of scoffers would likely increase. Nevertheless, the ancient Chinese culture, with its billions of members, are keenly attuned to “lucky” and “unlucky” numbers. Good are two and eight, which are homophones for the words “easy/bright” and “prosper/wealth.” Bad are four and six, which are pronounced similarly to “death” and “drop/decline.”

In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis has the senior demonic tempter advising his protégé about the value of superstitions in numbing human beings to the Truth. In the context of a letter advising how to encourage cowardice in a soldier, he writes:

The main point is that precautions have a tendency to increase fear. The precautions publicly enjoined on your patient, however, soon become a matter of routine and this effect disappears. What you must do is to keep running in his mind (side by side with the conscious intention of doing his duty) the vague idea of all sorts of things he can do or not do, inside the framework of the duty, which seem to make him a little safer. Get his mind off the simple rule (‘I’ve got to stay here and do so-and-so’) into a series of imaginary life lines (‘If A happened—though I very much hope it won’t—I could do B—and if the worst came to the worst, I could always do C’). Superstitions, if not recognised as such, can be awakened.

The point is to keep him feeling that he has something, other than the Enemy and courage the Enemy supplies, to fall back on, so that what was intended to be a total commitment to duty becomes honeycombed all through with little unconscious reservations. By building up a series of imaginary expedients to prevent ‘the worst coming to the worst’ you may produce, at that level of his will which he is not aware of, a determination that the worst shall not come to the worst. Then, at the moment of real terror, rush it out into his nerves and muscles and you may get the fatal act done before he knows what you’re about. For remember, the act of cowardice is all that matters; the emotion of fear is, in itself, no sin and, though we enjoy it, does us no good.

I strive to leave as little room in my life for superstition as possible. Whenever I become aware of it, I immediately seek to weed it out. Life in our fallen world, with my own sinful nature, is difficult enough without adding the burden of carrying superstitions.

Thus, I’m reflecting on our family’s two recent funerals . . . without anticipating another

Beware of Zoolatry

January 8, 2013 — 17 Comments

royal catWhen my wife and I dated, I praised her beautiful cat when I visited her home. The cat maintained that imperial posture and attitude that is common in virtually all felines. And that came as no surprise, since she was an Egyptian Mau, one of the most ancient of breeds. She passed on long decades ago, but her haughty, regal bearing is etched in my memory.

I thought of her today when I read the following in the December issue of First Things, in the executive editor’s column.

Wandering around the American Kennel Club’s big “Meet the Breeds” event with my two youngest children recently, I saw a big banner in the cat section proclaiming that a particular breed had been considered a god by an ancient civilization. Of course, our understanding of the genuine religious impulses of ancient religions has increased, but still, one of the gifts the Jewish people have brought the world is that no one who knows about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the least bit tempted to worship cats.

I mean, would you want to worship a murderous narcissistic psychopath? This is not an image of God to make anyone happy. If you’re going to worship an animal, why not the Border Collie, frantically eager to please, or the loving, soulful-eyed Lab? Or the alert and protective German Shepherd? Or the indomitable Saint Bernard? Or the classic loyal and even-tempered mutt?

I don’t intend to offend any cat lovers by repeating this observation—my son has an affectionate tabby he rescued as a kitten while a senior in high school, that’s welcome in our home anytime. Still, as an unrepentant dog person, and “papa” to a rescued border collie, the words above brought a smile to me.

C.S. Lewis painted a graphic image of one animal-headed deity. It was Tash, the god of the Calormenes. In The Last Battle, we see that in Narnia, the reality behind the lifeless image can be most terribly revealed.

In the shadow of the trees on the far side of the clearing something was moving. It was gliding very slowly Northward. At a first glance you might have mistaken it for smoke, for it was grey and you could see things through it. But the deathly smell was not the smell of smoke. Also, this thing kept its shape instead of billowing and curling as smoke would have done. It was roughly the shape of a man but it had the head of a bird; some bird of prey with a cruel, curved beak. It had four arms which it held high above its head, stretching them out Northward as if it wanted to snatch all Narnia in its grip; and its fingers—all twenty of them—were curved like its beak and had long, pointed, bird-like claws instead of nails. It floated on the grass instead of walking, and the grass seemed to wither beneath it. . . .

The others watched it for perhaps a minute, until it streamed away into the thicker trees on their right and disappeared. Then the sun came out again, and the birds once more began to sing. Everyone started breathing properly again and moved. They had all been still as statues while it was in sight. “What was it?” said Eustace in a whisper. “I have seen it once before,” said Tirian. “But that time it was carved in stone and overlaid with gold and had solid diamonds for eyes. It was when I was no older than thou, and had gone as a guest to The Tisroc’s court in Tashbaan. He took me into the great temple of Tash. There I saw it, carved above the altar.”

“Then that—that thing—was Tash?” said Eustace.

In our world, idolatry has certainly evolved since it’s pantheistic and zoolatrous beginnings. Today we are tempted by material indulgences and corruptions aplenty. While few of us impute divinity to animals or objects of stone or wood, we don’t have to look far to find something we deem worthy of adoration.

Our favorite idol is neither beast nor mammon. It is ourselves. As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain:

This act of self-will on the part of the creature, which constitutes an utter falseness to its true creaturely position, is the only sin that can be conceived as the Fall. For the difficulty about the first sin is that it must be very heinous, or its consequences would not be so terrible, and yet it must be something which a being free from the temptations of fallen man could conceivably have committed. The turning from God to self fulfils both conditions. It is a sin possible even to Paradisal man, because the mere existence of a self—the mere fact that we call it “me”—includes, from the first, the danger of self-idolatry. Since I am I, I must make an act of self-surrender, however small or however easy, in living to God rather than to myself. This is, if you like, the “weak spot” in the very nature of creation, the risk which God apparently thinks worth taking.

Now, this is a sin to which I frequently find myself succumbing. I far too often think first about my own desires and appetites . . . only later (if ever) becoming concerned with the needs of my neighbor.

No, it’s neither cat nor dog that needs to be evicted from the throne in my soul reserved for my Creator—it’s me.

Creation Story Similarities

September 20, 2012 — 4 Comments

I love being welcomed into other cultures by individuals who are proud of their heritage and eager to share it. Yesterday I attended a gathering of pastors at a church in Neah Bay, Washington, which lies in the far northwest corner of the “Lower Forty-Eight” United States.

Neah Bay is the largest community on the Makah Indian Reservation. A visit to the outstanding Makah Museum taught me many things. The unfortunate burial of the Makah village of Ozette preserved numerous artifacts that teach us about “pre-contact” Native American tribal life. A 1750 mudslide covered ten long houses and that tragedy has been redeemed in a small way by providing the modern Makah nation with a wealth of knowledge about its ancestors.

As a dog lover, I was fascinated by the fact that the Makah bred a special type of dog that was sheered for its “wool.” This, of course, was due to the absence of sheep, goats, llamas and the like. These particular canines were kept on an island to prevent their interbreeding with camp dogs. Unfortunately, their breed is no longer known, although I am curious as to whether it could be established from studying remains, assuming the tribe still knows which island was used as their refuge.

The news that intrigued me most was that, in Makah mythology, at the time of their creation, all of the animals could speak. Now, it will not surprise any readers to know this reminded me of another creation tale. My thoughts immediately leapt to the story of Narnia’s creation, which C.S. Lewis describes in The Magician’s Nephew.

[Aslan] was going to and fro among the animals. And every now and then he would go up to two of them (always two at a time) and touch their noses with his. He would touch two beavers among all the beavers, two leopards among all the leopards, one stag and one deer among all the deer, and leave the rest. . . . the creatures whom he had touched came and stood in a wide circle around him. . . . The Lion, whose eyes never blinked, stared at the animals as hard as if he was going to burn them up with his mere stare. And gradually a change came over them. The smaller ones—the rabbits, moles, and such-like—grew a good deal larger. The very big ones—you noticed it most with the elephants—grew a little smaller. Many animals sat up on their hind legs. Most put their heads on one side as if they were trying very hard to understand.

The Lion opened his mouth, but no sound came from it; he was breathing out, a long, warm breath; it seemed to sway all the beasts as the wind sways a line of trees. Far overhead from beyond the veil of blue sky which hid them the stars sang again; a pure, cold, difficult music. Then there came a swift flash like fire (but it burnt nobody) either from the sky or from the Lion itself, and every drop of blood tingled in the children’s bodies, and the deepest, wildest voice they had ever heard was saying: “Narnia, Narnia, awake. Love. Think. Speak. Be walking trees. Be talking beasts. Be divine waters.”

In the Makah creation story, the two brothers of the sun and moon changed preexisting material into the people and creatures we know today. Here is the brief account of their labors. It is interesting to note that both accounts impute personhood to the trees, as well as the animals.

When the world was very young, there were no people on the earth. There were no birds or animals, either. There was nothing but grass and sand and creatures that were neither animals nor people but had some of the traits of people and some of the traits of animals.

Then the two brothers of the Sun and the Moon came to the earth. Their names were Ho-ho-e-ap-bess, which means “the Two-Men-Who-Changed-Things.” They came to make the earth ready for a new race of people, the Indians. The Two-Men-Who-Changed-Things called all the creatures to them. Some they changed to animals and birds. Some they changed to trees and smaller plants.

Among them was a bad thief. He was always stealing food from creatures who were fishermen and hunters. The Two-Men-Who- Changed-Things transformed him into Seal. They shortened his arms and tied his legs so that only his feet could move. Then they threw Seal into the Ocean and said to him, “Now you will have to catch your own fish if you are to have anything to eat.”

One of the creatures was a great fisherman. He was always on the rocks or was wading with his long fishing spear. He kept it ready to thrust into some fish. He always wore a little cape, round and white over his shoulders. The Two-Men-Who-Changed-Things transformed him into Great Blue Heron. The cape became the white feathers around the neck of Great Blue Heron. The long fishing spear became his sharp pointed bill.

Another creature was both a fisherman and a thief. He had stolen a necklace of shells. The Two-Men-Who-Changed-Things transformed him into Kingfisher. The necklace of shells was turned into a ring of feathers around Kingfisher’s neck. He is still a fisherman. He watches the water, and when he sees a fish, he dives headfirst with a splash into the water.

Two creatures had huge appetites. They devoured everything they could find. The Two-Men-Who-Changed-Things transformed one of them into Raven. They transformed his wife into Crow. Both Raven and Crow were given strong beaks so that they could tear their food. Raven croaks “Cr-r-ruck!” and Crow answers with a loud “Cah! Cah!”

The Two-Men-Who-Changed-Things called Bluejay’s son to them and asked, “Which do you wish to be—a bird or a fish?”

“I don’t want to be either,” he answered.

“Then we will transform you into Mink. You will live on land. You will eat the fish you can catch from the water or can pick up on the shore.”

Then the Two-Men-Who-Changed-Things remembered that the new people would need wood for many things.

They called one of the creatures to them and said “The Indians will want tough wood to make bows with. They will want tough wood to make wedges with, so that they can split logs. You are tough and strong. We will change you into the yew tree.”

They called some little creatures to them. “The new people will need many slender, straight shoots for arrows. You will be the arrowwood. You will be white with many blossoms in early summer.”

They called a big, fat creature to them. “The Indians will need big trunks with soft wood so that they can make canoes. You will be the cedar trees. The Indians will make many things from your bark and from your roots.”

The Two-Men-Who-Changed-Things knew that the Indians would need wood for fuel. So they called an old creature to them. “You are old, and your heart is dry. You will make good kindling, for your grease has turned hard and will make pitch. You will be the spruce tree. When you grow old, you will always make dry wood that will be good for fires.”

To another creature they said, “You shall be the hemlock. Your bark will be good for tanning hides. Your branches will be used in the sweat lodges.”

A creature with a cross temper they changed into a crab apple tree, saying, “You shall always bear sour fruit.”

Another creature they changed into the wild cherry tree, so that the new people would have fruit and could use the cherry bark for medicine.

A thin, tough creature they changed into the alder tree, so that the new people would have hard wood for their canoe paddles.

Thus the Two-Men-Who-Changed-Things got the world ready for the new people who were to come. They made the world as it was when the Indians lived in it.