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C.S. Lewis and Metaphors

October 26, 2016 — 9 Comments

hobbit-quoteLearn how to effectively wield metaphors, and you will be powerful indeed. They are one of the most creative and intrinsically rewarding tools used by communicators.

Metaphors are not simply ornamental. Nor are they limited to abstracts subjects. The following description comes from C.S. Lewis’ book, Miracles.

It is a serious mistake to think that metaphor is an optional thing which poets and orators may put into their work as a decoration and plain speakers can do without. The truth is that if we are going to talk at all about things which are not perceived by the senses, we are forced to use language metaphorically.

Books on psychology or economics or politics are as continuously metaphorical as books of poetry or devotion. There is no other way of talking, as every philologist is aware. . . . All speech about supersensibles is, and must be, metaphorical in the highest degree.

To effectively communicate—especially about deep or profound subjects—metaphors need to be part of a readers’ or speakers’ core vocabulary. That’s what Lewis meant by saying “we are forced to use language metaphorically” when speaking about things that transcend our senses.

Former Time editor James Geary has echoed Lewis’ description of the universality of metaphors.

Metaphor is not just confined to art and literature but is at work in all fields of human endeavor, from economics and advertising, to politics and business, to science and psychology. . . .

There is no aspect of our experience not molded in some way by metaphor’s almost imperceptible touch. (I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World)

Without being conscious of it, we all use metaphors more frequently than we realize it. Geary claims “We utter about one metaphor for every ten to twenty-five words, or about six metaphors a minute.” Granted, most of these are routine like the four appearing in this sentence he quotes from an economic report.

“Britain’s recovery from the worst recession in decades is gaining traction but confused economic data and the high risk of a hung parliament could yet snuff out its momentum.”

Metaphors Versus Similes

Envisioning fresh metaphors may seem challenging, but it is a skill which can be practiced. One need not feel embarrassed if they find the subject of metaphors confusing. In their simplest form, they are like especially meaningful similes.

In a simile we compare two distinctly different things and declare that they are similar. For example, someone might say about the sleek new stealth destroyer, “the USS Zumwalt is like a Porsche.” This simile suggests a number of attributes and the statement contains the familiar phrase “is like.”

By contrast, a metaphor is not merely “like” something else. Using a metaphor implies that the two different things share, in a true sense, some common nature or element. So, a person might write, “the current election season is a nightmare.” Certainly, a less confident writer might weaken the power of this sentence, by diluting it into a simile, it’s “like” a nightmare.

But the bold speaker or writer recognizes how much more sharply the metaphor communicates their message. They want to state that the experience is not just nightmarish. It is a nightmare. It is (to many) horrific, frightening, and something from which we wish we could awaken to resume our lives in a world that still makes sense.

Like any rhetorical or literary tool, metaphors can be misused. They can be stretched so far that they don’t make sense, or they only appeal to individuals who share some narrow interpretation of existence.

While metaphors can be used in an ostentatious or overdone way, that simply weakens their effect. The judicious application of metaphors is a skill well worth practicing.

The Scriptures as a Treasure Trove

The subtitle above can itself be viewed as a similar or a metaphor. But that’s beside the point, since it simply introduces our discussion of the fact that the Bible is filled to overflowing with metaphors.

This is unsurprising, since almost the entire text deals with the story of an infinite Creator’s love for his fallen creation.

Put another way, our God, whose nature is utterly incomprehensible to the beings he fashioned from the earth (adamah), longs to communicate his love for we whose lives in this world are so very brief. How could the Lord accomplish this without metaphors? Thus he describes himself in this fashion:

“I am the alpha and the omega.”

“I am the bread of life.”

“I am the light of the world.”

“I am the vine; you are the branches.”

“I am the resurrection and the life.”

Metaphors are not reserved for God in the Scriptures. On the contrary, they abound, like radiant dandelions in the early days of summer.

“The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life . . .”

“The Lord is my shepherd . . .”

“O Lord . . . we are the clay, and you are our potter . . .”

“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.”

All of us, “new creations” in particular, have much to learn from C.S. Lewis about metaphors. A good place to start is the brief essay “C.S. Lewis and the Apt Metaphor.”

After reflection, you may want to try your hand at creating a novel metaphor. After all, a thought-provoking metaphor is a refreshing breath in any conversation.

_____

I’ve written about metaphors in the past posts, including this one. I also wrote a a column which includes George Orwell’s advice for writers: “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”

barthOne wonders what sort of fireworks might have erupted if J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis had spent an evening with theologian Karl Barth. Although their lives overlapped, and all three were Christian academics, it is questionable how much they would have agreed upon.

And yet, there were several subjects where I think they would have enjoyed firm consensus.

Tolkien (1892-1973) was a devout Roman Catholic. Lewis (1898-1963) was a committed “low church” Anglican. Barth (1886-1968) was a Reformed theologian who rejected the liberalism that had become dominant in European academies. All three thus believed in the reality of the Christian gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ.

All three men hated war, and the two Brits had served in the trenches of WWI. All opposed Nazism and Barth was the primary author of the Barmen Declaration which challenged the Christian faith of all who supported the Nazi government.

And we’ll consider another shared attribute in just a moment.

First, though, we need to acknowledge that presumably the Inklings never met the Swiss clergyman. Their circles did not overlap. I have not been able to uncover any evidence of Tolkien referring to Barth, or of Barth mentioning either of the Inklings.

Lewis did, however mention Barth in his prolific correspondence. From his exposure to Barth it’s clear he did not share the opinion of Pope Pius XII that he was “the greatest theologian since Thomas Aquinas.” Heady praise . . . especially coming from a Roman Catholic.

In a 1940 letter to his brother Warren, Lewis reacted against what he perceived as legalism in some quarters of Protestantism that was alien to his understanding of the liberty of the Christian.

I am afraid the truth is . . . that the world, as it is now becoming and has partly become, is simply too much for people of the old square-rigged type like you and me. I don’t understand its economics, or its politics, or . . . Even its theology—for that is a most distressing discovery I have been making these last two terms as I have been getting to know more and more of the Christian element in Oxford.

Did you fondly believe—as I did—that where you got among Christians, there, at least, you would escape (as behind a wall from a keen wind) from the horrible ferocity and grimness of modern thought.

Not a bit of it. I blundered into it all, imagining that I was the upholder of the old, stern doctrines against modern quasi-Christian slush: only to find that my ‘sternness’ was their ‘slush.’ They’ve all been reading a dreadful man called Karl Barth, who seems the right opposite number to Karl Marx. ‘Under judgment’ is their great expression.

They all talk like Covenanters or Old Testament prophets. They don’t think human reason or human conscience of any value at all: they maintain, as stoutly as Calvin, that there’s no reason why God’s dealings should appear just (let alone, merciful) to us: and they maintain the doctrine that all our righteousness is filthy rags with a fierceness and sincerity which is like a blow in the face.

Sometimes the results are refreshing: as when Canon Raven (whom you and Dyson and I sat under at Ely) is sharply told in a review in Theology that ‘it is high time persons of this sort learned that the enjoyment of a chair of theology at Cambridge does not carry with it a right to criticise the Word of God’—that’s the kind of rap on the knuckles which has not been delivered for a hundred years!

Comparing Their Thoughts on the Nature of Myth

Many readers of Mere Inkling will know Tolkien and Lewis were deeply influenced by the significance of myth. They were also, in the creation of Middle Earth and Narnia, active in the act of mythopoeia, creating imaginary lands whose stories convey profound meaning.

But, despite the fact their literary products are fictional, that does not mean that all myth is “untrue,” in the sense of being unhistorical. Myth, for these great thinkers, is something far more complex and wonderful.

Without going into depth on this involved subject, I offer here the familiar story of how Lewis’ epiphany about true myth was key to his conversion.

I was by now too experienced in literary criticism to regard the Gospels as myths. They had not the mythical taste. And yet the very matter which they set down in their artless, historical fashion . . . was precisely the matter of the great myths. If ever a myth had become fact, had been incarnated, it would be just like this. And nothing else in all literature was just like this.

Myths were like it in one way. Histories were like it in another. But nothing was simply like it.

And no person was like the Person it depicted; as real, as recognizable, through all that depth of time, as Plato’s Socrates . . . yet also numinous, lit by a light from beyond the world, a god.

But if a god—we are no longer polytheists—then not a god, but God. Here and here only in all time the myth must have become fact; the Word, flesh; God, Man. This is not “a religion,” nor “a philosophy.” It is the summing up and actuality of them all. (Surprised by Joy)

This epiphany took place in 1931, during an all-night discussion (it lasted until 4:00 am) with Tolkien, and other Inkling, Hugo Dyson. Here’s how Lewis related the moment to his lifelong friend, Arthur Greeves.

It was really a memorable talk. We began (in Addison’s walk just after dinner) on metaphor and myth–interrupted by a rush of wind which came so suddenly on the still, warm evening and sent so many leaves pattering down that we thought it was raining.

We all held our breath, the other two appreciating the ecstasy of such a thing almost as you would. We continued (in my room) on Christianity: a good long satisfying talk in which I learned a lot . . .

A month later he elaborated on how the insights gained that evening were gestating in his mind and heart.

Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself (cf. the quotation opposite the title page of Dymer) I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels.

The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose ‘what it meant.’

Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things.’

Therefore it is true, not in the sense of being a ‘description’ of God (that no finite mind could take in) but in the sense of being the way in which God chooses to (or can) appear to our faculties. The ‘doctrines’ we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are translations into our concepts and ideas of that which God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.

Does this amount to a belief in Christianity? At any rate I am now certain (a) That this Christian story is to be approached, in a sense, as I approach the other myths. (b) That it is the most important and full of meaning. I am also nearly certain that it really happened.

In a different setting, Barth argued for the very same truth. His context was a theological environment greatly influenced by the liberal doctrines of Rudolf Bultmann, who dismissively regarded anything miraculous in the Scriptures as primitive and ignorant thinking.

The Christian Church confesses that [what the world calls] “myth” is history itself. She recognizes herself by this myth, she recognizes her life, her true reality. She is the witness of witnesses, she recognizes through the Holy Spirit that this is the one really interesting story.

Then she turns back the historians’ weapon: She says to them: What you call “myth,” that is history! She will also add: What you call history, that is a myth! A myth, a made-up history, that fancies the fate of man as depending on his earthly vicissitudes, a myth, a made-up history, that confuses the immediate success of a cause with its truth, and so on.

The only true history is the history of Christ, in which the Church participates, and which is already the secret reality of all history, since it is history itself. (The Faith of the Church)

Now, there’s an argument the Inklings could truly have appreciated.

A Bonus, for Fans of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Barth was not the only Christian seminary professor who rejected the heresies of Bultmann, who sought to “demythologize” the Scriptures. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a fellow German, repudiated Bultmann’s rejection of the supernatural in God’s Word. In a recent book, Taking Hold of the Real, Barry Harvey writes:

In a prison letter [Bonhoeffer] criticizes Rudolf Bultmann for excising the “mythological” elements in an attempt to reduce Christianity to its “essence.” “My view,” he writes, “is that the full content, including the ‘mythological’ concepts, must remain—the New Testament is not a mythological dressing up of a universal truth, but this mythology (resurrection and so forth) is the thing itself.”

Bonhoeffer thus acknowledges that describing a way of seeing the world as mythic thus does not summarily dismiss it either as deceptive or as an archaic and feeble attempt at doing “science.” Indeed, a truthful description of the world and especially of human existence ultimately requires mythic form.

The tales that women and men have fashioned and passed down through the centuries to discern the overall sense and significance of their existence are “never just ‘lies,’” says Tolkien, as “there is always something of the truth in them.”

policePolice are entrusted with the power and authority to protect the innocent. That very power provides them with the opportunity to abuse that trust.

Recent events in the United States have drawn to the world’s attention the fact that human beings are incapable of providing perfect law enforcement. That should come as no surprise since, due to our fallen nature, we can do nothing perfectly.

C.S. Lewis never wrote a treatise specifically about law enforcement, but he did refer to it on a number of occasions. This week I thought it might be beneficial to consider a number of his insights. The final quotation relates a specific experience Lewis had with responsive police and a rather unresponsive judiciary.

Lewis had an impressive knack for using familiar images to illustrate biblical principles. In the following example he uses police, an occupation recognized by all, to display the absurdity of the logic of skeptics of Christianity.

If the universe is teeming with life, this, we are told, reduces to absurdity the Christian claim—or what is thought to be the Christian claim—that man is unique, and the Christian doctrine that to this one planet God came down and was incarnate for us men and our salvation.

If, on the other hand, the earth is really unique, then that proves that life is only an accidental by-productd in the universe, and so again disproves our religion. Really, we are hard to please. We treat God as the police treat a man when he is arrested; whatever He does will be used in evidence against Him. (“Dogma and the Universe”)

Let us now consider a few of the principles easily gleaned from Lewis’ writings.

Law Enforcement is a Normal Occupation

In that sense, police are no different than any other member of the community. C.S. Lewis illustrates that truth by including them in a list of “regular” occupations.

Dr. Pittenger would be a more helpful critic if he advised a cure as well as asserting many diseases. How does he himself do such work? What methods, and with what success, does he employ when he is trying to convert the great mass of storekeepers, lawyers, realtors, morticians, policemen and artisans who surround him in his own city? (“Rejoinder to Dr. Pittenger”)

Law Possesses a Vital Function

The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life. A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden—that is what the State is there for. And unless they are helping to increase and prolong and protect such moments, all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police, economics, etc., are simply a waste of time. (Mere Christianity)

In his essay “Vivisection,” Lewis mentions in passing the role of law enforcement in society. We have assigned to them the responsibility of investigating suspicious behavior to determine whether it conforms to the law of the land. And they do so according to whatever guidelines or restrictions the government (presumably of by and for the people) levies upon them.

In justifying cruelty to animals we put ourselves also on the animal level. We choose the jungle and must abide by our choice. You will notice I have spent no time in discussing what actually goes on in the laboratories. We shall be told, of course, that there is surprisingly little cruelty. That is a question with which, at present, I have nothing to do. We must first decide what should be allowed: after that it is for the police to discover what is already being done.

In Democracies Police are Generally Trustworthy

Lewis acknowledges that there are places where the police are frequently corrupt and perhaps even brutal. But he reminds us that we who live in democratic nations should be grateful for the normal behavior of those who serve in law enforcement.

The decline of ‘religion’ is no doubt a bad thing for the ‘World.’ By it all the things that made England a fairly happy country are, I suppose, endangered: the comparative purity of her public life, the comparative humanity of her police, and the possibility of some mutual respect and kindness between political opponents.

But I am not clear that it makes conversions to Christianity rarer or more difficult: rather the reverse. It makes the choice more unescapable. When the Round Table is broken every man must follow either Galahad or Mordred: middle things are gone. (“The Decline of Religion”)

Is it inappropriate to note how prophetic Lewis’ observation was that the secularization of Western culture would also erode political civility?

“Police States,” by Contrast, are Evil

In his preface to The Screwtape Letters, Lewis divulges where he found some of his images for his infernal milieu.

I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of “Admin.” The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the office of a thoroughly nasty business concern.

C.S. Lewis’ father was an attorney. But not just any sort of solicitor. He was a Police Court Solicitor, an important role which had as one of its purposes allowing a person who was arrested on suspicion of a criminal offense to consult with a lawyer while in initial police custody.

Lewis describes in his autobiography how his father regaled him and his brother Warnie with stories about curious police-court happenings. At the same time, Lewis confesses to his father’s struggle to relate to his boys after the loss of his wife when they were still young. Confessing that he frequently found his father’s conversations with his young sons confusing, he writes:

The man who, in his armchair, sometimes appeared not so much incapable of understanding anything as determined to misunderstand everything, was formidable in the police court and, I presume, efficient in his office. He was a humorist, even on occasion, a wit. (Surprised by Joy)

Corrupt Governments Corrupt the Police Force

One of the characteristics of police states is that they have extensive networks of “secret police,” who are often imbued with extraordinary prerogatives. One such malevolent presence plays just such a role in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Searching for Mr. Tumnus, the Pevensie children are discovered by Mr. Beaver. When they inquire of Lucy’s friend, the faun, he says:

“Ah, that’s bad,” said Mr. Beaver, shaking his head. “That’s a very, very bad business. There’s no doubt he was taken off by the police. I got that from a bird who saw it done.”

That explains the note the children had discovered at Mr. Tumnus’ ransacked home.

The former occupant of these premises, the Faun Tumnus, is under arrest and awaiting his trial on a charge of High Treason against her Imperial Majesty Jadis, Queen of Narnia, Chatelaine of Cair Paravel, Empress of the Lone Islands, etc., also of comforting her said Majesty’s enemies, harboring spies and fraternizing with Humans.

signed MAUGRIM, Captain of the Secret Police

LONG LIVE THE QUEEN!

One more passage reveals how quickly the deceitful captain can vacillate between threatening and gracious poses. Edmund has arrived at the Witch’s castle is been confronted by Maugrim.

“If you please, sir,” said Edmund, trembling so that he could hardly speak, “my name is Edmund, and I’m the Son of Adam that Her Majesty met in the wood the other day, and I’ve come to bring her the news that my brother and sisters are now in Narnia—quite close, in the Beavers’ house. She—she wanted to see them.”

“I will tell Her Majesty,” said the Wolf. “Meanwhile, stand still on the threshold, as you value your life.”

Then it vanished into the house. Edmund stood and waited, his fingers aching with cold and his heart pounding in his chest, and presently the gray wolf, Maugrim, the Chief of the Witch’s Secret Police, came bounding back and said, “Come in! Come in! Fortunate favorite of the Queen—or else not so fortunate.”

The Police Can Solve Problems

Yes, the example below comes from his novel The Silver Chair, but it is too good to overlook. Lewis is skilled at teaching through his fiction as well as in his essays.

This excerpt come from one of the Chronicles of Narnia, and Aslan has just returned Jill and Eustace to England, where there was a “corrective” encounter with some school bullies. The headmistress calls the police, and we join the scene . . .

When the police arrived and found no lion, no broken wall, and no convicts, and the Head behaving like a lunatic, there was an inquiry into the whole thing. And in the inquiry all sorts of things about Experiment House came out, and about ten people got expelled.

After that, the Head’s friends saw that the Head was no use as a Head, so they got her made an Inspector to interfere with other Heads. And when they found she wasn’t much good even at that, they got her into Parliament where she lived happily ever after.

Police are Not Soldiers

In the following passage, Lewis shows an astute awareness of the actual role of the Roman soldier in the Jerusalem of Jesus’ day. They were certainly an occupation force, but their role in garrison was not to be “soldiers,” but rather to be “peacekeepers.” They were to maintain law and order, the so-called Pax Romana.

And because the whole difficulty for us is that the natural life has to be, in a sense, ‘killed,’ [Jesus] chose an earthly career which involved the killing of His human desires at every turn—poverty, misunderstanding from His own family, betrayal by one of His intimate friends, being jeered at and manhandled by the Police, and execution by torture. (Mere Christianity)

Lewis does the same thing in his essay “Modern Translations of the Bible,” where he compares the common* nature of the Greek used to write the Scriptures with the Incarnation.

The New Testament in the original Greek is not a work of literary art: it is not written in a solemn, ecclesiastical language . . . It is a sort of `basic’ Greek; a language without roots in the soil, a utilitarian, commercial and administrative language. Does this shock us? It ought not to, except as the Incarnation itself ought to shock us.

The same divine humility which decreed that God should become a baby at a peasant-woman’s breast, and later an arrested field-preacher in the hands of the Roman police, decreed also that He should be preached in a vulgar, prosaic and unliterary literary language. If you can stomach the one, you can stomach the other.

C.S. Lewis’ Experience with the (In)Justice System

In 1957, Lewis wrote an essay** about a personal experience with the British judicial system. I choose to close with this selection because it is quintessential Lewis. He uses a fine critique of the treatment of criminals to also acknowledge his personal sinfulness. In this true story, the police do their job admirably. The judge . . . not so much.

Not long ago some of my young neighbours broke into a little pavilion or bungalow which stands in my garden and stole several objects—curious weapons and an optical instrument. This time the police discovered who they were. As more than one of them had been convicted of similar crimes before, we had high hopes that some adequately deterrent sentence would be given.

But I was warned: “It’ll all be no good if the old woman’s on the bench.” I had, of course, to attend the juvenile court and all fell out pat as the warning had said. The—let us call her—Elderly Lady presided. It was abundantly proved that the crime had been planned and that it was done for gain: some of the swag had already been sold.

The Elderly Lady inflicted a small fine. That is, she punished not the culprits but their parents. But what alarmed me more was her concluding speech to the prisoners. She told them that they must, they really must, give up these “stupid pranks.”

Of course I must not accuse the Elderly Lady of injustice. Justice has been so variously defined. If it means, as [Athenian sophist] Thrasymachus thought, “the interest of the stronger,” she was very just; for she enforced her own will and that of the criminals and they together are incomparably stronger than I.

But if her intention was—and I do not doubt that the road on which such justice is leading us all is paved with good ones—to prevent these boys from growing up into confirmed criminals, I question whether her method was well judged. If they listened to her (we may hope they did not) what they carried away was the conviction that planned robbery for gain would be classified as a “prank”—a childishness which they might be expected to grow out of.

A better way of leading them on, without any sense of frontiers crossed, from mere inconsiderate romping and plundering orchards to burglary, arson, rape and murder, would seem hard to imagine.

This little incident seems to me characteristic of our age. Criminal law increasingly protects the criminal and ceases to protect his victim. One might fear that we were moving towards a Dictatorship of the Criminals or (what is perhaps the same thing) mere anarchy. But that is not my fear; my fear is almost the opposite.

According to the classical political theory of this country we surrendered our right of self-protection to the State on condition that the State would protect us. Roughly, you promised not to stab your daughter’s murderer on the understanding that the State would catch him and hang him.

Of course this was never true as a historical account of the genesis of the State. The power of the group over the individual is by nature unlimited and the individual submits because he has to. The State, under favourable conditions (they have ceased), by defining that power, limits it and gives the individual a little freedom.

And so we see that Lewis shared a concern that has only become accentuated among many today. When the State abuses its prodigious power, and especially when it revises the role of those in law enforcement, transforming them into “enforcers,” we are in dire straits.

Thankfully, that has not yet transpired in most democratic lands. Still, the possibility of such decay has not been eliminated, and wisdom suggests that we remain vigilant should we see things sliding in that direction.

_____

* On the subject of the commonness of the language God uses to speak to us, you may wish to read my column on “Vulgar Christianity.”

** “Delinquents in the Snow” is included in the readily available collection, God in the Dock.

The Bible’s Complexity

September 1, 2015 — 7 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”).

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* 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.

Bach’s Deathbed Hymn

April 28, 2015 — 11 Comments

jsbBlind and restricted to his deathbed, Johann Sebastian Bach asked a fellow organist to play one of his own hymns. Bach then did what any brilliant composer would have done.

No, he did not criticize his colleague for the way he interpreted it musically. Bach, in his final hours, revised his own composition, making a number of musical improvements.

And the genius did not rest there, he retitled the work and modified its strains in a manner which perfectly addressed his circumstances. Anticipating his imminent encounter with his Creator, he changed the name to Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich hiermit (Before Your Throne I Now Appear). The first and last verses of the hymn are as follows.

Before your throne I now appear,

O God, and beg you humbly

Turn not your gracious face

From me, a poor sinner.

Confer on me a blessed end,

On the last day waken me Lord,

That I may see you eternally:

Amen, amen, hear me.

As a Lutheran, Bach was well acquainted with his sinful nature and utter dependence on the grace of God. He was a serious student of the Bible, and his annotated edition of Luther’s translation is held in the collection of Concordia Seminary. (Two of the three volumes are currently on loan to Leipzig.)

The medical missionary, Albert Schweitzer, was a renowned Bach scholar before he left a promising career in music performance to pursue medicine. Schweitzer wrote:

At heart Bach was neither pietistic nor orthodox: he was a mystic thinker. Mysticism was the living spring from which sprang his piety. There are certain chorales and certain cantatas which make us feel more than elsewhere that the master has poured into them his soul. These are precisely the mystical chorales and cantatas.

Like all the mystics, Bach, one may say, was obsessed by religious pessimism. This robust and healthy man, who lived surrounded by the affection of a great family, this man who was embodied energy and activity, who even had a pronounced taste for the frankly burlesque, felt at the bottom of his soul an intense desire, a Sehnsucht, for eternal rest. (Albert Schweitzer, The Life and Character of Bach).

During his lifetime, Bach’s international renown arose from his performance skills. It was nearly a century later that the gifted Felix Mendelssohn reintroduced Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion and the world grew to admire Bach as the brilliant composer he was. Referring to his partnership with a playwright in the effort, Mendelssohn said, “To think that it took an actor and a Jew’s son to revive the greatest Christian music for the world!”

Bach remains quite popular, although not everyone shares an appreciation of organ music. In 1956, C.S. Lewis provided insight into his own preferences in the following correspondence.

Concerning hymn singing and organ playing: if they have been helpful and edified anyone, then the fact that they set my teeth on edge is infinitely unimportant. One must first distinguish the effect which music has on people like me who are musically illiterate and get only the emotional effect, and that which it has on real musical scholars who perceive the structure and get an intellectual satisfaction as well.

Either of these effects is, I think, ambivalent from the religious point of view: i.e. each can be a preparation for or even a medium for meeting God but can also be a distraction and impediment.

In that respect music is not different from a good many other things, human relations, landscape, poetry, philosophy. The most relevant one is wine which can be used sacramentally or for getting drunk or neutrally. I think every natural thing which is not in itself sinful can become the servant of the spiritual life, but none is automatically so

When it is not, it becomes either just trivial (as music is to millions of people) or a dangerous idol. The emotional effect of music may be not only a distraction (to some people at some times) but a delusion: i.e. feeling certain emotions in church they mistake them for religious emotions when they may be wholly natural.

That means that even genuinely religious emotion is only a servant. No soul is saved by having it or damned by lacking it. The love we are commanded to have for God and our neighbour is a state of the will, not of the affections (though if they ever also play their part so much the better).

So that the test of music or religion or even visions if one has them is always the same– do they make one more obedient, more God-centred, and neighbour-centred and less self-centred? ‘Though I speak with the tongues of Bach and Palestrina and have not charity etc.’!

Fortunately, even the “musically illiterate” can be blessed by the anointed ministry of Bach. Lewis is correct that musical brilliance, without a gracious component, is empty. Fortunately, in the case of J.S. Bach we encounter a man who truly lived by the words he appended to much of his music: Soli Deo Gloria, to Glory to God Alone.

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You can listen to Bach’s music for this chorale here. This performance is from the church in Leipzig where Bach himself performed.

Food that Bites

March 17, 2015 — 7 Comments

Guardians_of_the_Galaxy_Rocket_movie_posterMany peculiar delights are eaten in Los Angeles County, but diners might want to reconsider the fare offered at The Metro Supermarket. While it’s apparently not illegal to sell raccoons for consumption, it could become dangerous when the Guardians of the Galaxy learn of the practice.

In one of the year’s most successful blockbusters, Guardians of the Galaxy, we were introduced to Rocket Raccoon. Rocket is a genetically altered Procyon lotor designed to be a deadly fighting machine. Not only is he a brilliant tactician, the genetic manipulations have left him with one bad attitude.

Which makes it all the more important for the customers who purchase the ten-dollar-a-pound frozen raccoon carcasses to be cautious.

On a more serious note, the question of what we eat is not merely academic.

I’m not referring to modern insights into healthy diets. I’m talking about international, and potentially intergalactic, relations!

World travelers are often introduced to foods that seem, to put it gracefully, exotic. On such occasions, some respond enthusiastically—eager to sample alien delights. Others are somewhat more wary—reluctant to place in their mouths things they cannot quite identify.

Back in the 1980s I resided for a year in the Republic of Korea. I declined to eat gaegogi, not because I assumed dog meat would be unpalatable, but because I could not imagine contributing in any way to the slaughter of dogs for their flesh.

Another time that year, a sergeant who worked at our chapel purchased a paper cone full of toasted rice during an outing. When he was done with the rice (burned, he thought, rather than “toasted”), his Korean girlfriend clarified that he had just devoured a cup of rice beetles.

Military members stationed abroad are encouraged to be respectful of the cultures they encounter. And those cultures included different foods.

We need not travel to other nations to experience this diversity. I grew up in a family which considered processed “fish sticks” to be seafood. Combined with canned tuna fish and an occasional canned salmon “patty” it constituted the whole of my exposure to the abundance of the sea.

While I have since that time expanded my tastes to include many types of fresh fish, I must admit that crustaceans are not among my favorite foods. And, well, let’s not even talk about those creatures that have tentacles . . .

Not that I’m a culinary snob. In Texas I sampled rattlesnake. In South Carolina I ate alligator. (I preferred the rattlesnake, but I don’t reserve a regular spot for reptiles on my menu.)

To Eat, Or Not to Eat

Showing respect to others by dining as they do, is not a new concept. The early Christians were advised to eat without reluctance food that may have been sacrificed in a pagan temple, without questioning their hosts as to its source. “If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience” (1 Corinthians 10:25, ESV).

C.S. Lewis enjoyed a good meal. And he wrote many times about eating. Here are two of his insights on the subject.

For eating and reading are two pleasures that combine admirably. Of course not all books are suitable for mealtime reading. It would be a kind of blasphemy to read poetry at table. What one wants is a gossipy, formless book which can be opened anywhere. (Surprised by Joy).

Contrasting humility and pride, he wrote:

A man who is eating or lying with his wife or preparing to go to sleep in humility, thankfulness and temperance, is, by Christian standards, in an infinitely higher state than one who is listening to Bach or reading Plato in a state of pride. (Letters of C.S. Lewis).

Those interested in learning more about how Lewis approached the subject of meals in his fiction should download a copy of a doctoral thesis on the subject. Lower Sacraments: Theological Eating in the Fiction of C.S. Lewis is available for free here.

We’ll close with the following words from the newly minted “doctor’s” abstract to his dissertation, citing some of the subjects he explores.

For years, critics and fans of C. S. Lewis have noted his curious attentiveness to descriptions of food and scenes of eating. Some attempts have been made to interpret Lewis‘s use of food, but never in a manner comprehensively unifying Lewis‘s culinary expressions with his own thought and beliefs.

My study seeks to fill this void [proposing] ecclesiastical themes appear whenever Lewis’s protagonists eat together. The ritualized meal progression, evangelistic discourse, and biographical menus create a unity that points to parallels between Lewis’s body of protagonists and the church. . . .

Lewis’s meals which are eaten in the presence of the novel’s Christ figure or which include bread and wine in the menu reliably align with the Anglo-Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist. . . . sinful eating affects the spiritual states of Lewis’s characters.

The author ends his introduction with a particularly intriguing thesis that makes sense with my own reading of Lewis. He argues “Lewis’s culinary language draws from Edenic sources, resonating with a very gastronomic Fall of Humanity, then examines how the progressively sinful eating of certain characters signifies a gradual alienation from the Divine. . . . Lewis’s portrayal of culinary desire and pleasure ultimately points to an eschatological theme”

I love that phrase, “gastronomic Fall of Humanity.” I’m not sure I can work it into a sermon someday, but only time will tell.

Until then, I have to be content to regard the eating of dogs—and probably raccoons as well—as consequences of humanity’s Fall. And I will look forward to the new creation when all such things will have passed away.

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”).

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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.