Archives For Britain

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.

______

* 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.

PENTAX ImageDo you ever talk to inanimate or non-sentient objects? My wife often talks to her computer, and though she is never vulgar, the conversation is rarely pretty.

There is a current advertisement featuring the slightly off Gary Busey, in which he says, “If you’re like me, you like to talk to things.” His gaze drifts to the side, and he adds, “Hello lamp.” Smiling after greeting his tabletop light source, he drops his gaze and gets an expression like someone who has just encountered a long lost friend. “Hello, pants.”

It’s quite bizarre, but rather humorous in an oddly disconcerting way.

My wife and I named the first car we owned. It was an orange Gremlin. Newlyweds, and still in college, we named it Hezekiah in the hopes that it would “live” long.

In those days Hezekiah became sick and was at the point of death. And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came to him and said to him, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Set your house in order, for you shall die; you shall not recover.’” Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord, saying, “Now, O Lord, please remember how I have walked before you in faithfulness and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight.”

And Hezekiah wept bitterly. And before Isaiah had gone out of the middle court, the word of the Lord came to him: “Turn back, and say to Hezekiah the leader of my people, Thus says the Lord, the God of David your father: I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears. Behold, I will heal you. On the third day you shall go up to the house of the Lord, and I will add fifteen years to your life. (2 Kings 20).

A recent survey in the United States found that nearly a quarter of the population give their rides a name. Younger drivers (18-34) do so more frequently than their parents, with 36 percent giving their cars a personal name. “Hello, car.”

A British poll found that women are more likely than men to attribute personality to their cars, with 60 percent naming their rides compared with 41 percent of men.

The higher likelihood of a British car being named than its American cousin does not surprise me. After all, we learned during our three years in the United Kingdom that they even name their houses. We lived on a family farm near Newbury while stationed at RAF Greenham Common. There were several domiciles on the farm, each with its respective appellation. We resided in “New House,” which was ironically a good thirty years old.

C.S. Lewis’ house in Oxford had a name. “The Kilns” received its distinctive name when it was built on the site of a former brickworks. There is a small lake nearby, which was originally the clay pit which supplied the kilns.

In the United States I suppose it’s possible to find a few places where a home has a name rather than a number. But the norm in our systematized structure is for homes to have sequential numbers. This proves quite practical for reasons such as emergency response by fire fighters, and doubtless many other countries have adopted the practice.

We’ve made the change at some cost though. Houses do have architectural character. Personalities, even. When naming houses, some might choose labels that relate to the profession of the owner. For example:

Clergy: Ascension Manor or Hosanna House

Attorney: Prosecution Place or Litigation Lodge

Physician: Resident’s Residence or Hemorrhoid Hall

If one dispenses with a requirement for alliteration as an arbitrary naming convention—the options would expand exponentially.

Sadly, we don’t get to name our houses today, unless we do so informally like one would with an automobile. We must be content for our streets to possess names while our houses must be content with numbers.

If you are interested in reading more about unusual or entertaining house names, check out this site. (It’s from the United Kingdom, of course.) Names like “Tadpole Cottage,” “Leprechaun’s Leap,” and “The Riddlepit” certainly evoke entertaining images.

Perhaps you’ll also want to consider naming your own home. It just might make your conversations with your residence a little more interesting when they no longer have to begin with “Hello, house . . .”

potterSo much for the effectiveness of “state churches.” The European ones appear to have become abject failures. There is ample evidence that the “establishment” of religions has rarely served either church or state very well.

Here’s the latest proof from the United Kingdom. The BBC recently reported a study that shows three in ten teenaged Brits don’t know the Nativity of Jesus came from the Bible. Similar numbers had never heard about the Crucifixion or Adam and Eve.

I imagine they’ll consider the new Noah film just another work of Hollywood fiction. (Actually, half of them didn’t know that very story comes from the Bible.)

What’s more—their parents are nearly as ignorant.

Many of the teens did, however, think that the plotlines from the Harry Potter series were based on Bible stories.

As a person who was genuinely inspired by England’s magnificent cathedrals while I lived there, it is painful to contemplate the terrible loss. The great-great-grandchildren of saints who suffered and sacrificed for the Gospel have disregarded the good news.

And, lest any readers think I’m pointing fingers as a “self-righteous” American, let me assure you I take no pride in my own nation’s slide into apostasy. The words of Micah’s prophecy seem closer to fulfillment each day. “The faithful have been swept from the land; not one upright person remains.”

C.S. Lewis saw this coming. Consider the following from his 1950 essay, “The Literary Impact of the Authorised Version.”

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, that those who read the Bible as literature do not read the Bible.

Speaking of reading the Bible “as literature,” that’s not a bad thing. It informs so much Western literature, that an ignorance of the Scriptures is tantamount to possessing an inadequate education. An excellent online resource for exploring this truth can be found at the Bible Literacy Project.

The site includes a copy of a comprehensive 2006 study of English professors from America’s top-rated schools, including Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Texas A&M, UC-Berkeley and others. In the study, not a single professor disagreed with the statement that: “Regardless of a person’s faith, an educated person needs to know the Bible.”

If some people could get past their prejudices against the Bible, they would recognize the truth of this statement. Everyone should be reading the Bible, even if only as a significant literary work.

Perhaps, if this widespread study comes to pass, one day people will be able to recognize the difference between the Scriptures and Harry Potter.

Thanksgiving in London

November 28, 2013 — 4 Comments

thanksgiving ukHappy Thanksgiving. I extend this wish and my goodwill to all readers of Mere Inkling, whatever your nationality.

I recognize that many countries have similar days, during which the population pauses to offer thanks to God for all of their blessings. Whatever its name, a nationwide recognition that we owe gratitude to God’s divine provision is a good thing.

I was thinking today, as I often do, about our years in the United Kingdom, and the hospitality of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Each year they open their doors on Thanksgiving as hosts to a wonderful service for “expatriates.”

Although Thanksgiving is a civil, rather than ecclesial celebration, it revolves around prayer. Simple logic says without Someone to “thank,” there could be no thanksgiving.

However, on the civic or “patriotic” side of the ceremony, we expect to see military honor guards and sing various familiar anthems.

And St. Paul’s offers a gracious welcome. Since Britain is “ahead” of the United States in terms of the clock, I actually saw photographs from today’s service already posted to their website. While online, I also saw something I didn’t recall from my visits there. It’s likely I saw it in the nineties, but I found it inspirational to read about the American Memorial Chapel.

St Paul’s Cathedral has a long-standing connection with the American people. At the east end of the Cathedral behind the High Altar is the American Memorial Chapel.

This part of the building was destroyed during the Blitz of World War II and as part of the post-war restoration it was decided that the people of Britain should commemorate the 28,000 Americans who were killed on their way to, or stationed in, the UK during the Second World War. Their names are recorded in the 500-page roll of honour encased behind the high altar. This was presented by General Eisenhower in 1951 and a page of the book is turned every day.

The American Chapel was designed by Stephen Dykes Bower and constructed by Godfrey Allen, Surveyor to the Fabric 1931-1956. The images that adorn its wood, metalwork and stained glass include depictions of the flora and fauna of North America and references to historical events. The three chapel windows date from 1960. They feature themes of service and sacrifice, while the insignia around the edges represent the American states and the US armed forces. The limewood panelling incorporates a rocket—a tribute to America’s achievements in space.

In a 1952 letter Lewis illustrates a post-war British opinion about Americans. Many Europeans—Lewis included—had been extremely grateful to the United States for massive amounts of aid sent there to assist with rebuilding. Most American’s are shocked to learn that in many parts of Europe, rationing continued long after the war. (It ceased in 1946 in American, and 1954 in the United Kingdom.)

As you say, we shall no doubt have large numbers of Americans in England for the Coronation, and some of them may not be a good advertisement for your country; but it is an odd thing that I have noticed, that since the war, the type of American visitor we have had is much nicer on the whole than that which came to us between the wars.

I suppose it is that, owing to the drop in sterling, we are now getting the Americans of modest means. And it has been my experience that the rich of any country are usually the least attractive specimens of the nation.

Curiously, Lewis had second thoughts about how his words might be read, and he added his own footnote to the paragraph.

There are very important exceptions. Also, on further thought, I don’t believe much in “French, American, or English people.” There are only individuals really.

In a world that often seems increasingly hostile, it’s encouraging to see the goodwill shared by some members of the international community.

And that is one treasure for which I am very thankful today.

_____

The photograph above features the bald eagle above the American Memorial Chapel altar in St. Paul’s Cathedral.

A Multiplicity of Polls

November 4, 2012 — 3 Comments

Here in the United States, our presidential election season is nearing its end. This is something people on both sides of the political spectrum are anticipating with joy. It’s been a grim process, grimmer than usual. The nation’s financial woes appear to have ramped up the vitriol. Christian values, especially, are maligned by many candidates and the partisan press that ingenuously professes objectivity. Yes, it will be a relief when it ends.

One of the features of modern elections that continues to grow in importance is polling. Scores of different pollsters—with widely varying results—compete for the public’s attention. Some of it is quite interesting, but the dizzying whirlwind of contradictory results creates confusion about their accuracy.

That, however, doesn’t slow their multiplication. Polling as we know it today is a fairly recent invention. It was 1958, when George Gallup gathered all of his nascent polling operations into a single organization. Gallup founded the American Institute of Public Opinion, the precursor of The Gallup Organization, in 1935. Gallup has maintained its reputation for integrity by refusing to accept any funding from political parties or candidates. Today, the company conducts opinion polls in more than 140 countries around the world.

As I was pondering the surplus of polls, I grew curious as to whether or not C.S. Lewis had ever commented on their like. I’m no expert on British politics, but I imagine they had occasional surveys, projections or prognostications. C.S. Lewis and his works have been the subject of innumerable contemporary polls . . . but did the Oxford don ever discuss such matters?

Desiring to avoid superficial attachments that might prove distracting to his literary goals, Lewis maintained a distance from political issues. It was for this reason he declined the well-deserved honor of becoming a “Commander of the British Empire.”

Lewis’ thoughts about politics reflect those of all who have grown tired of empty promises and venomous threats related to the election of “the opposition.” He would have longed, like many of us, for a reasonable and respectful conversation about charting the best course for his country.

Lewis longed for peace, in the spirit of Paul’s exhortation in his epistle to the young pastor, Timothy: “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” (I Timothy 2:1-2, ESV).

In that spirit he wrote to his brother Warnie in 1940 about the tragedy of living in an epic era, wracked by not one, but two global conflicts.

Lord! How I loathe great issues! ‘Dynamic’ I think is one of the words invented by this age which sums up what it likes and I abominate. Could one start a Stagnation Party—which at General Elections would boast that during its term of office no event of the least importance had taken place? (Maundy Thursday, 21 March 1940).

Lewis’ collected Poems include the following delightful reflection on political campaigning.

Lines During a General Election

Their threats are terrible enough, but we could bear

All that; it is their promises that bring despair.

If beauty, that anomaly, is left us still,

The cause lies in their poverty, not in their will.

If they had power (‘amenities are bunk’), conceive

How their insatiate gadgetry by this would leave

No green, nor growth, nor quietude, no sap at all

In England from The Land’s-End to the Roman Wall.

Think of their roads—broad as the road to Hell—by now

Murdering a million acres that demand the plough,

. . .

And all our coasts one Camp till not the tiniest wave

Stole from the beach unburdened with its festal scum

Of cigarette-ends, orange-peel, and chewing-gum.

Nor would one island’s rape suffice. Their visions are

Global; they mean the desecration of a Star;

Their happiest fancies dwell upon a time when Earth,

Flickering with sky-signs, gibbering with mechanic mirth,

One huge celestial charabanc [tour bus], will stink and roll

Through patient heaven, subtopianized from pole to pole.

As I mentioned above, there are an abundance of polls about Lewis and his writings. It’s fitting to close this post with a related discussion from the introduction to The Quotable C.S. Lewis.

A quick survey of the Encyclopedia Britannica’s great books of the Western world reveals that an average of approximately three authors per century have been included in that august collection. This being so, what authors from this century will be read in the next? Of course, we can no more than guess; only time will tell. If votes are going to be cast, however, the name C. S. Lewis ought at least to be on the ballot.

The influence of his pen can hardly be overestimated. One observer noted that Lewis “is read with enormous affection and loyalty by a wide and diversified audience today. . . . In fact, more of his books are sold today than those of any other Christian writer in history.” Indeed, with over sixty of his books in print, Lewis has for many in this century become the dominant exponent and champion of thoughtful Christianity. Lewis wrote on a wide variety of subjects in many literary forms.

These words were written during the twentieth century. A decade into the new century they ring just as true. Lewis’ contributions to literature and faith are passing the test of time. And I suspect that will remain true at the close of this century, whether polls anticipate it or not.

Those of you with extra time on your hands may wish to participate in Mere Inkling’s nonscientific poll, below.