Archives For Britain

Who Said That?

June 14, 2016 — 3 Comments

thoms and lewisWho said that? It’s a question people ask when they recall a familiar saying and don’t remember the source.

Occasionally when we are reminded of the source, we shake our heads and think that’s right; how could I have forgotten!

At other times though, discovering the source of the maxim doesn’t help at all. It could be because the proverb is anonymous, or it might be due to the fact that it’s originator was not particularly well known.

That’s the case of the following statement, which is familiar to many Christians.

“Be careful how you live; you will be the only Bible some people ever read.”

When I thought of this phrase several weeks ago, I had a bit of trouble tracking it down. I actually found it on a number of sites, but the problem was that the author’s name was so unfamiliar it was almost always misspelled.

He was usually cited as “William Toms.” Yet I was pretty sure the saying hadn’t originated, however, with an Irish footballer.*

Just when I assumed I had encountered a clichéd brick wall, I stumbled upon the truth. Like so many classic maxims, the quotation did indeed originate from the British Isles.

The British writer William J. Thoms penned this thoughtful maxim, and it isn’t the only wise thing he wrote.

William John Thoms (1803 – 1885) was a British writer credited with coining the term “folklore” in the 1840s. Thoms’ investigation of folklore and myth led to a later career of debunking longevity myths. Hence, he is an early advocate of “validation research” when examining demographics.

Several of Thoms’ works are available online. They include:

C.S. Lewis had more in common with Thoms than simply being British and engaging in literary pursuits. The two men shared an interest in simple tales that intrigued and inspired men and women through the ages.

It was Thoms, in fact, who in 1846 introduced into English the term “folklore.”

A shared interest in legends and even the supernatural, suggests that the two may well have enjoyed one another’s company, had their lives intersected.

Sadly, Thoms’ desire to compile a comprehensive “Folk-Lore of England” was never realized, as this superb article describes.

The two scholars shared another trait of bookish people. (“Bookish,” by the way, is a compliment here at Mere Inkling.) Neither man sought out the frivolities of popular society. They were both content to socialize with similar minds in more intimate community. The following description of Thoms, from the Dictionary of National Biography,could just as naturally have been written about Lewis.

Thoms went little into society, but at congenial resorts, such as the ‘Cocked Hat Club,’ he was remarkable for a ready play of wit and an almost inexhaustible fund of humorous anecdote and reminiscence.

Can’t you just picture the Cocked Hat Club meeting at one table in the Eagle and Child while the Inklings shared their own warm friendship at their table at the other end of the pub?

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* Not that I follow English football, but I learned an athlete by that name played forward for Plymouth Argyle and Manchester United.

** The Book of the Court, published in 1838 with the second edition, linked here, printed six years later, has the delightful, if rather lengthy, subtitle: Exhibiting the History, Duties, and Privileges of the Several Ranks of the English Nobility and Gentry, Particularly of the Great Officers of State and members of the Royal Household; Including Vaious Forms of Court Etiquette, Tables of Precedency, Rules to be Observed at Levers and Drawing Rooms, Etc.

The Nones Have It

June 1, 2016 — 22 Comments

noneThe arrival of the “post-Christian” Western world is ahead of schedule. Great Britain just passed the point where those with “no religious preference” actually outnumber those who profess to be Christians.

With Europe leading the way, can North America be far behind?

You know what makes this even more shocking? The results come from a survey where all the people claiming to be disciples of Jesus needed to do, was simply check a box. One wonders how many among that 48% would still claim to be Christians if they lived in Iraq.

Ponder for a moment the sobering title of an article in London’s The Spectator.

“Britain Really is Ceasing to be a Christian Country.”

The secularization of the United Kingdom was a matter of great concern to C.S. Lewis. And this erosion was well underway during his lifetime.

The truth is that although Lewis excelled as a Christian apologist (defender of the faith), it was not a role he coveted. He much preferred to write speculative fiction, literary criticism and devotional works.

Yet, because the need to reach people with the simple truth of the Gospel had grown so dire, Lewis felt forced to offer a persuasive rationale for belief. Consider the following description of his self-understanding. These words were written in response to a public attack of his work by a theologian. The final sentence bears directly on the subject of this column.

When I began, Christianity came before the great mass of my unbelieving fellow-countrymen either in the highly emotional form offered by revivalists or in the unintelligible language of highly cultured clergymen.

Most men were reached by neither. My task was therefore simply that of a translator—one turning Christian doctrine, or what he believed to be such, into the vernacular, into language that unscholarly people would attend to and could understand. For this purpose a style more guarded, more nuance, finelier shaded, more rich in fruitful ambiguities . . . would have been worse than useless. It would not only have failed to enlighten the common reader’s understanding; it would have aroused his suspicion. He would have thought, poor soul, that I was facing both ways, sitting on the fence, offering at one moment what I withdrew the next, and generally trying to trick him.

I may have made theological errors. My manner may have been defective. Others may do better hereafter. I am ready, if I am young enough, to learn. 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? One thing at least is sure.

If the real theologians had tackled this laborious work of translation about a hundred years ago, when they began to lose touch with the people (for whom Christ died), there would have been no place for me. (“Rejoinder to Dr. Pittenger”)

It is the duty of each generation of Christians to share the faith with their neighbors. Likewise, it is the responsibility of each new generation of clergy to teach faithfully . . . and to live a God-pleasing life.

Whenever we fail to tackle the “laborious work of translation,” God is able to raise up another to do it. Still, men and women of the caliber of C.S. Lewis are few and far between.

May God have mercy on Britain, America, and all of those lands where we have taken for granted the heritage of faith bequeathed to us.

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If this subject interests you in the least, take a moment to read “Having Pity on Pittenger.” Anglican priest Dwight Longenecker describes a chance encounter with Dr. Pittenger decades after Lewis’ death.

I was alerted to this news account by Gene Veith’s fine blog, Cranach. The good doctor does an outstanding job of bringing newsworthy stories to the attention of those interested in Church and State relations.

calfWhen we lived in England, we witnessed the birth of a calf in a peculiar setting. We were driving along winding country roads, turned a corner, and saw a newborn calf lying in the middle of the road, covered in her still-warm afterbirth.

During the decades since that day, our (now adult) children complained: “why do you always get to save the baby cows?” (They had been restricted to the safety of our car, pulled off of the road with flashers blazing.)

To describe it succinctly, we were able to set up warnings along the rapprochements and lift the newborn infant into farm-familiar hands. While I attended to approaching traffic, a neighbor farmer picked up the little one and carried him or her to their mother who was mournfully mooing on the hillside above.

You see, she had backed up near the fence that surrounded her pasture, and when the infant was delivered, it slid down the fifteen-foot embankment onto the road.

I directed the traffic, while my wife Delores assisted the farmer in conveying the child to its mother.

I was surprised by what I saw as we climbed up into the field. There was the mother of the lost infant, crying out in her misery for her terrible misfortune. And gathered around her were the rest of her herd, mooing in anguished sympathy for her loss.

When we laid the bloodstained calf on the ground behind its forlorn mother, we called out to it to turn and recognize the deliverance that had dawned. The mother approached the calf, with the rest of the cattle hanging respectfully in her wake.

She sniffed at her little one and began immediately to lick it clean and smother it with love. The plaintive cries gave way to soothing moos, and a holy calm fell upon that field.

It was a glorious moment I will never forget. One of those where we recognize the privilege God has granted us to simply be in his presence as we gaze in awe at his creation.

C.S. Lewis and the Wonder of Cattle

In July 1930, Lewis wrote to his dear friend Arthur Greeves, complaining about the burden of “marking papers” at the end of the academic year. He then gently rebukes his friend for thinking that the discussion of the mundane matters of home life are insignificant.

Thank you for writing–I enjoyed your two letters enormously. Do stop apologising for them and wondering archly . . . how I can read them. Surely it needs no great imagination for you to realise that every mention of things at home now comes to me with the sweetness that belongs only to what is irrevocable.

Those who have left the rural life for academia can relate to the sentiments of C.S. Lewis. He loved the ambiance of Oxford, but missed the simplicity of the common world.

Lewis thanks Greeves for his description of the birth of a calf and confesses his own moral shortcoming in not celebrating without reservation the wondrous moment.

Oh you can’t imagine the poignancy with which your account of the sunny windy day near the dry tree fell across a dreary, dusty afternoon of those sordid papers, when my head was aching and the boys’ horrid handwriting seemed to jump on the page.

I don’t know quite what I feel about your assistance at the accouchement of our sister the cow.

I know what I ought to feel—simply the same thrill that I feel at the first coming up of a flower.

Physical disgust is a sensation which I have very often and of which I am always ashamed. If one lets it grow upon one it will in the end cut one out from all delighted participation in the life of nature. For God is gross and never heard of decency and cares nothing for refinement: nor do children, nor most women, nor any of the beasts, nor men either except in certain sophisticated classes.

And yet its hard to feel that the faculty of disgust is a sheer evil from beginning to end. I don’t know what to make of it. (Perhaps in one way it is, in another, it isn’t!)

Lewis closes his letter with an entertaining reflection on the amazing scenes such as I witnessed long ago in the English countryside.

At any rate there can be no two opinions about the delightfulness of seeing the other cows coming round to inspect the infant. Did they show any signs of congratulating the mother? for I notice that when one of our hens lays an egg, all join in the noise—whether that is congratulation or simply that they regard themselves as a single individual and announce “We have laid an egg.”

If you have another free moment, check out this great post on the spiritual value of maternal instincts . . . You can read Gloria Furman’s thoughts at desiringGod.

Not Wholly Contemptible

April 13, 2016 — 4 Comments

cornwallisEveryone loves a compliment. Allow me to rephrase that. Most people appreciate a sincere compliment when it is genuinely flattering.

Actually, “flattering” isn’t a good word choice here. Flattery has a bad rep. The way it’s currently used, it hints of exaggeration and manipulation.

So let’s return to the concept of “compliments” in general. Most, we know, are welcome. It’s nice to have someone tell us we did a commendable job or had a good idea.

Then there are those less sincere “compliments” that require a bit of intelligence or wit to offer. The go by different names, but are commonly referred to as “left-handed compliments” or “backhanded compliments.”

This type of statement might sound on its surface like a compliment, but includes an element that undermines the praise. The Urban Dictionary offers the following example:

“Boy, you’re pretty hot . . . for a fat (or skinny) chick!”

Now, that is nothing but an insult. And it’s an insult of the crassest variety. One that demands no wit at all.

The British, on the other hand, are often capable of offering highly refined backhanded compliments.

I just came across a delightful one, delivered by the commander of the King’s forces during America’s War of Independence. What makes this exquisite is that it was offered in the wake of the general’s defeat at the close of the war.

When finally brought to heel at Yorktown, Lord Cornwallis reported, “I will not say much in praise of the Militia of the Southern Colonies, but the list of British officers and Soldiers killed or wounded by them since last June, proves but too fatally that they are not wholly contemptible.”

You can read more about the context for that statement in an excellent article about the American legacy of “citizen soldiers” published in Hallowed Ground magazine. This excellent journal is published by the Civil War Trust, which works diligently to preserve battlefields from the Civil War. They have recently expanded those efforts to include the Revolutionary War.

C.S. Lewis & Compliments

Lewis included backhanded compliments in his fictional works. Two simple examples follow. The first is found in The Screwtape Letters, where the tempter frequently commends the skill of God (“the Enemy”) in redeeming the lost.

Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s ground. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is His invention, not ours.

Here is an offhanded compliment that Lewis places on the lips of Prince Corin in The Chronicles of Narnia. He is asked where Queen Susan is, on the eve of a battle and he responds like a typical young boy (which he still is at the time). He praises the martial spirit of her sister, Queen Lucy, who is a young adult at this point in the series.

At Cair Paravel. She’s not like Lucy [her sister who is in the ranks of the archers], you know, who’s as good as a man, or at any rate as good as a boy. Queen Susan is more like an ordinary grown-up lady. She doesn’t ride to wars, though she is an excellent archer. (The Horse and His Boy).

The late Bruce Edwards described how C.S. Lewis offered H.G. Wells a backhanded compliment. He did so by following the structure of Wells’ works, but devoting them to a vastly different philosophical purpose.

In Out of the Silent Planet (1938), Lewis adapted the general plot outline from H.G. Wells’s First Men in the Moon in order to tell an essentially anti-Wellsian tale. In Perelandra, Lewis pays a similar backhanded compliment to the man he admired as a speculative writer, but not as a philosopher.

The broad narrative structure of Perelandra resembles another novel by H.G. Wells, The Time Machine (1895). . . . In Wells’s novel, this narrative outline provides the basis of a quasi-Marxist fable about effete bourgeoisie and surly proletariat. In Lewis’s hands, a similar story structure tells a very different tale, one in which the ultimate battles are not economic and political, but rather cosmic and spiritual. (C.S. Lewis: Fantasist, Mythmaker, and Poet).

Compliments: the Good & the Bad

Lewis’ use of Wells’ science fiction template was not meant to slight him. It was actually a tribute. Likewise, in the examples from his fiction, Lewis is simply representing (effectively) the attitudes of the speakers.

Returning for a moment to the abject General Cornwall, we recognize as well the grudging nature of his praise of the enemy. They were certainly rabble—possessing no great military skill, in his estimation. Yet, in terms of bringing the army of the greatest power in the world at that time to its surrender, “they are not wholly contemptible.”

And that, when it came to winning the war, apparently proved quite sufficient.

Beware of British Cows

January 26, 2016 — 14 Comments

cowMad Cow Disease is no laughing matter. Because my family and I resided in the United Kingdom during the early nineties, we have never been eligible to donate blood back home in the States.

Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy is a truly terrible, and always fatal, affliction. In a grotesque abuse of these docile herbivores, it turns out that the disease was introduced to cattle via mixing contaminated bone and tissue from sheep into their feed. (Whoever came up with that idea should be in prison.)

I seldom think about the possibility of this disease lying dormant in my body’s cells, and each year the likelihood of that being true diminishes. Frankly, since I’ve never heard of any of the Americans stationed there during that period contracting the disease, I consider it nearly certain that it is not present.

Still, just when I’ve finally accepted the notion that British cows are not a threat to me, I come face to face with the fact that they actually are.

Recently, an official report in the United Kingdom revealed that during the past fifteen years, cattle are responsible for the deaths of seventy-four people. Seventy-four!

That means they kill more Brits than sharks! And I doubt that most of those victims were taunting the cattle like the foolish young woman pictured above.

If you’ve never spent much time around cows, you may not realize how large and heavy they are. They can trample or crush people accidentally, and since they are not aggressive by nature, I assume that most of the deaths they are responsible for are just that, accidents.

Best, I suppose, to avoid farms, unless you crave a life of adrenalin-fueled risk on the edge of disaster.

C.S. Lewis reveals how deceptively innocent cattle can appear. In a letter written to a close friend in 1916, he described the calm pastoral setting for his life.

In fact, taking all things round, the world is smiling for me quite pleasantly just at present. The country round here is looking absolutely lovely: not with the stern beauty we like of course: but still, the sunny fields full of buttercups and nice clean cows, the great century old shady trees, and the quaint steeples and tiled roofs of the villages peeping up in their little valleys–all these are nice too, in their humble way.

Lewis should have been more cautious. It seems to me the cleanliness of the cows was a clear evidence they may have been up to no good.

In 1925 Lewis wrote to his father that the deer at Magdalen College were taking the place of the cattle he had left at home.

My external surroundings are beautiful beyond expectation and beyond hope. . . . My big sitting room looks north and from it I see nothing, not even a gable or spire, to remind me that I am in a town. I look down on a stretch of level grass which passes into a grove of immemorial forest trees, at present coloured with autumn red. Over this stray the deer.

They are erratic in their habits. Some mornings when I look out there will be half a dozen chewing the cud just underneath me, and on others there will be none in sight–or one little stag (not much bigger than a calf and looking too slender for the weight of its own antlers) standing still and sending through the fog that queer little bark or hoot which is these beasts’ ‘moo.’ It is a sound that will soon be as familiar to me as the cough of the cows in the field at home, for I hear it day and night.

Lewis obviously possessed a fondness for the cattle that framed his youthful memories. Likewise the deer that meandered through college grounds without fear for their safety.

Having an uncle who was a farmer, I enjoyed some small exposure to gentle, albeit not quite “clean,” cows when a boy. Today I enjoy many a day when deer leisurely cross in front of my study window to munch on some of the thick grass that we planted more for their benefit than our own.

Obviously, I do not hold bovine diseases against the poor cattle. And, at least for the present, I choose to believe that cattle (unlike cats) do not harbor any plans for world domination.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that I’m foolish enough to trust them where I haven’t already planned a potential escape route . . . especially when I’m in the U.K.

_____

Check out this post for another entertaining C.S. Lewis observation about cows!

I’m informed by my lovely wife that “clean cows” are dairy cows that need to be kept clean for hygiene reasons. Makes sense to me, but I still think that it’s an odd adjective to associate with cattle.

Fleeting Fame

February 10, 2015 — 17 Comments

fameIt’s likely that the names of 98.6% of authors who top the bestseller charts today will be unremembered a century from now.

This weekend I posted the latest issue of Curtana: Sword of Mercy, a journal I edit about military chaplains. (If you are interested in checking it out, you can download a free copy here.)

The current issue includes an interesting article about two chaplains from Vermont who served during the War of 1812. (For international readers, that was the war following the winning of America’s independence when they British got their revenge—they captured our national capital and burned the capitol.)

In the biographical portion of the article, the author included a final summary of the life of one of the chaplains. Solomon Aiken (1758-1833) left his civilian pulpit to serve soldiers and sailors.

Aiken was quite prominent in his day. Not only was he a well known preacher and writer, he actually served as a member of Vermont’s legislature. Yet, I doubt that even Vermonters would recognize his name today.

Here is the quotation from a nineteenth century tribute published after his passing.

Mr. Aiken enjoyed uncommon health and vigor. He never took a particle of medicine, or lost a relish for food, until his final and brief sickness—a pleurisy fever. He possessed peculiar power as a logician, and was very popular as a preacher. He was kind-hearted and benevolent, almost to a fault. But it is chiefly as a political writer that Mr. Aiken is remembered. He was sent as a representative for two years, by the town of Dracut. He published several sermons and pamphlets, chiefly upon political themes, which excited much attention in their season.

The words that seized my attention were the conclusion, “. . . which excited much attention in their season.”

“In their season . . .” That season must have been brief, since the history was written just twenty years after Aiken’s death. By then his works had either withered or, more optimistically, gone to seed. In either case, their day was passed.

Translating that to our modern era, where things become obsolete almost as soon as they are envisioned, it would imply that our “season” of fame or reputation will last little more than a handful of months. And that, of course, assumes that a person actually achieves some level of renown.

Fame is fleeting. It has always been so, and the good Reverend Aiken is simply another example of that truth.

Thank God (literally) that there is more to life than notoriety.

C.S. Lewis is one of the 1.4% whose fame lasts. His has not diminished; it continues to grow. Just a year ago, on the fiftieth anniversary of his death, he was honored by having a plaque dedicated in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.

Lewis never sought fame, as the following discussion from his essay “The Weight of Glory” clearly reveals.

I turn next to the idea of glory. There is no getting away from the fact that this idea is very prominent in the New Testament and in early Christian writings. Salvation is constantly associated with palms, crowns, white robes, thrones, and splendour like the sun and stars. All this makes no immediate appeal to me at all, and in that respect I fancy I am a typical modern.

Glory suggests two ideas to me, of which one seems wicked and the other ridiculous. Either glory means to me fame, or it means luminosity. As for the first, since to be famous means to be better known than other people, the desire for fame appears to me as a competitive passion and therefore of hell rather than heaven. As for the second, who wishes to become a kind of living electric light bulb?

When I began to look into this matter I was stocked to find such different Christians as Milton, Johnson and Thomas Aquinas taking heavenly glory quite frankly in the sense of fame or good report. But not fame conferred by our fellow creatures—fame with God, approval or (I might say) “appreciation’ by God.

And then, when I had thought it over, I saw that this view was scriptural; nothing can eliminate from the parable the divine accolade, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” With that, a good deal of what I had been thinking all my life fell down like a house of cards.

This exceptional work merits consideration not only by people of faith. It invites all honest readers to gaze within themselves at their deepest yearnings.

Another passage from C.S. Lewis that relates strongly to the subject at hand comes from The Great Divorce. You can read the entire passage here, but the heart of it is this. Lewis views a simple woman, presently in heaven, receiving magnificent praise and celebration. He naturally assumes she must have been some well known saint.

He is, however, informed that she lived an obscure life, despite the fact that she touched countless nondescript people and animals with her compassion. Lewis’ heavenly guide is rather surprised that the Oxford professor has overlooked a simple truth:

Fame in heaven “and fame on Earth are two quite different things.”

Only the second will last.

Avoiding Gadzookeries

August 25, 2014 — 8 Comments

gadzookeryWriting quality historical fiction is challenging. This is especially true if one wishes to avoid the common crutch that a talented writer of the last century first labeled “gadzookery.”

And just what is this faux pas we should avoid when writing about the past? Well, it relates most directly to the dialog placed on the lips of historical figures. The offensive technique involves the overuse of archaic expressions or phrases. (Some would argue it includes any use of any archaisms.)

If the word gadzookery sounds a tad, how shall I put it, “goofy” to you, you may prefer using another word that means the same thing: “tushery.” Tushery was coined by Robert Louis Stevenson. Way back in the nineteenth century.

Gadzookery is a newer version, insulting the same lazy writing technique. I believe it may have been coined by Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-1992). Sutcliff’s historical influence has exerted a literary influence on my life second only to C.S. Lewis.*

The article about Sutcliff in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature praises her work, saying, “She carefully creates dialogue in her novels that recollects the speech of a bygone era without falling into what she termed ‘gadzookery.’”

Having tested the waters of historical fiction myself, I know this to be far more difficult that it may sound.

Sutcliff had several things in common with C.S. Lewis. Both wrote for adults and for children. (It was her young adult series about the decline of Roman influence in Britain that sparked my own lifelong interest in Rome.)

Both authors also received the Carnegie Medal for their work. When Lewis was awarded his, he received a congratulatory letter from Pauline Baynes, who had illustrated several of his books. He responded quite graciously.

Dear Miss Baynes, Very nice to hear from you again, and thanks for sending on the book, which I have returned to Lane. Thanks for your congratulations on the Carnegie, but is it not rather ‘our’ Medal? I’m sure the illustrations were taken into consideration as well as the text. I am well, and as happy as a man can be whose wife is desperately ill.

Although C.S. Lewis had married, quite late in life, the two authors were alike in spending most of their life single. Sutcliff, in fact, lived with her parents during most of her life, having suffered crippling arthritis as a child. She did not resent remaining unmarried. In a 1992 interview she said,

Beatrix Potter wrote all her gorgeous stories when she was very lonely and not very happy—after she married, she never wrote another thing. Nothing worth reading, anyway.

Another similarity between the two was that they both fell under the powerful sway of myth during their childhoods. They used their familiarity with its rich echoes to imbue their own work with themes that flowed far beyond the familiar channels travelled by other writers.

Each of them took their readers seriously, and refused to speak down to them. That is why they share one more quality I wish to mention in closing—their high standards. Neither Lewis nor Sutcliff could tolerate poor writing. And their finely tuned skills meant neither ever needed to resort to gadzookery.

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* Excepting, of course, the Bible itself, which is literature of an entirely different sort. I don’t consider it fair to compare mortal writers, no matter how inspired, to a volume I regard as God’s written word.