Archives For C.S. Lewis

Good & Bad Memories

April 6, 2022 — 12 Comments

We humans are fascinating creatures. Our capacity to remember both the good and the ill from our past, exerts a powerful influence on the course of our future.

I’ve been reflecting on this contrast since our lectionary readings from worship this past Sunday. (I’ll note the particular passage that triggered my thoughts in a moment.)

The question I’ve pondered is whether good memories are more powerful than bad memories. By bad, I’m not referring to horrific experiences which our minds sometimes actively suppress or bury.

I’m thinking of unpleasant, disappointing memories. Things that we regret having happened, either to us, or because of us.

When I use the word “powerful” in my question, I’m referring to the ability of a given memory to continue actively impacting our lives.

In too many lives, it seems the joy and light emanating from positive recollections is often shaded or eclipsed by the clouds of painful memories.

Perhaps our lives would be happier if we consciously spent time recalling good experiences, and taught ourselves to reject – rather than dwell upon – negative thoughts when they force their way onto the stage?

C.S. Lewis provides a curious insight into the nature of memories. Their overarching essence often seem to magnify as time passes. Listen to his words, penned after a vacation in 1921, in which he describes how the joyful memories will grow ever sharper as they are recalled in the future.

I still feel that the real value of such a holiday is still to come, in the images and ideas which we have put down to mature in the cellarage of our brains, thence to come up with a continually improving bouquet.

Already the hills are getting higher, the grass greener, and the sea bluer than they really were; and thanks to the deceptive working of happy memory our poorest stopping places will become haunts of impossible pleasure and Epicurean repast.

Sadly, though, even glorious memories can sometimes fade away. This is the grimmest tragedy of many forms of dementia.

Memory in the Chronicles

C.S. Lewis does some curious things with memory in his Chronicles of Narnia. While the Pevensie children grow to adulthood reigning over Narnia, they end up forgetting about their earlier lives. Only when they stumble upon the Lamp-post, do they recall the land of their birth.

“By the Lion’s Mane, a strange device,” said King Peter, “to set a lantern here where the trees cluster so thick about it and so high above it that if it were lit it should give light to no man!”

So these Kings and Queens entered the thicket, and before they had gone a score of paces they all remembered that the thing they had seen was called a lamp-post, and before they had gone twenty more they noticed that they were making their way not through branches but through coats.

And next moment they all came tumbling out of a wardrobe door into the empty room, and they were no longer Kings and Queens in their hunting array but just Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy in their old clothes.

It was the same day and the same hour of the day on which they had all gone into the wardrobe to hide. Mrs. Macready and the visitors were still talking . . . (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe).

In Prince Caspian, a wise advisor, Doctor Cornelius, secretly informs the heir to the Narnian throne that the old stories were not simply myths. The evil Telmarines had actively labored to erase all memory of Narnia’s true nature.

“Listen,” said the Doctor. “All you have heard about Old Narnia is true. It is not the land of Men. It is the country of Aslan, the country of the Waking Trees and Visible Naiads, of Fauns and Satyrs, of Dwarfs and Giants, of the gods and the Centaurs, of Talking Beasts. It was against these that the first Caspian fought.

It is you Telmarines who silenced the beasts and the trees and the fountains, and who killed and drove away the Dwarfs and Fauns, and are now trying to cover up even the memory of them. The King does not allow them to be spoken of.”

I find the following description of a renewed memory particularly picturesque. It takes place after the Pevensie children return to Narnia years after their initial visit.

Everyone except Lucy went to sleep at once. Lucy, being far less tired, found it hard to get comfortable. Also, she had forgotten till now that all Dwarfs snore. She knew that one of the best ways of getting to sleep is to stop trying, so she opened her eyes.

Through a gap in the bracken and branches she could just see a patch of water in the Creek and the sky above it. Then, with a thrill of memory, she saw again, after all those years, the bright Narnian stars. She had once known them better than the stars of our own world, because as a Queen in Narnia she had gone to bed much later than as a child in England.

And there they were – at least, three of the summer constellations could be seen from where she lay: the Ship, the Hammer, and the Leopard. “Dear old Leopard,” she murmured happily to herself (Prince Caspian)

Forgetting the Past

Every one of us has made mistakes. And far too often we allow those poor decisions and choices to haunt us the rest of our lives. That delights the Devil, one of whose titles is Accuser.

He wants us mired in the past, thinking there is no way we could ever earn God’s love.

The simple fact is that we don’t earn our Creator’s love. It’s a free gift. It is pure grace, and utterly unmerited.

Once we have confessed our sins, God washes them away and cleanses us from all unrighteousness.

To emphasize how God no longer holds our past sins against us, consider some of the ways he expresses his capacity to permanently forgive our confessed sins.

He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities… so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us (Psalm 103).

Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression..? You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. (Micah 7:18-19).

And now, for the verse which inspired my thoughts. It struck me as particularly helpful for our Christian lives, given the fact that God does not keep a permanent record of our sins. Wouldn’t our lives be better if we followed the Lord’s example?

Not that I… am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own… one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:12-14).

“Forgetting what lies behind,” our past failings which have been forgiven, liberates us to live the life to which God calls us.

That’s seldom easy to do, but knowing how “far [God] removes our transgressions from us,” makes that possibility much more likely. Let us press on.

Dangerous Facial Hair

March 29, 2022 — 21 Comments

Beards come, and beards go. Yet humanity offers no consensus on their value. Perhaps that is because there are so many diverse styles, ranging from restrained to insane.

C.S. Lewis mentioned in passing the “biblical” style of beards in a 1939 letter to his brother Warnie.

For instance the presence of the revolving bookcase in the study has just introduced me to a book of Minto’s mother’s which is well worth studying. It is called Gems of Literature/Elegant, rare, and Suggestive

The engravings are of a sort you can probably imagine – damsels with those peculiar comic-section or peg-top legs and eyes raised to heaven and old men with what can only be called Biblical beards.

Facial hair is a personal choice. But when that choice becomes deadly, perhaps society should intervene. Take the case of Hans Steininger, a sixteenth century burgomaster in the Austrian-German city that would one day become the birthplace of Adolf Hitler.

Some mental disorder apparently compelled him to have scissors banned from his city, lest a single hair on his magnificent beard be severed. Seriously, he died because he tripped over his chin whiskers during a major fire in 1567.

Steininger usually kept his prodigious beard hair rolled up and stuffed in a pocket, but during the commotion he was running around with it hanging free. In the midst of the chaos, he managed to step on his own beard, sending him tumbling down a flight of stairs and breaking his neck…

The full-body illustration at the church shows Steininger’s beard bifurcated into two scraggly strands, stretching down past his feet. And tucked away in the local district museum is the town’s most hirsute artifact: the 450-year-old beard of Steininger.

Even in ancient times, everyone recognized an unkempt beard was a liability, particularly in combat. In The Life of Theseus, Plutarch states this was why Alexander the Great ordered his soldiers in his phalanxes to shave.

They write also that this was the reason why Alexander gave command to his captains that all the beards of the Macedonians should be shaved, as being the readiest hold for an enemy.

Although I sported a modest mustache for a short time back in the day when Tom Selleck starred as Magnum P.I., I’ve never been a big fan of facial hair. Seeing Steininger’s likeness reinforces that.

Add to that the biblical warning from Leviticus: “When a man or woman has a disease on the head or the beard, the priest shall examine the disease. And if it appears deeper than the skin, and the hair in it is yellow and thin, then the priest shall pronounce him unclean.” (Leviticus 13).

Historical Biases

While well-maintained beards are okay, two additional (historical) factors contribute to my discomfiture. First, as a student of the American Civil War, I find myself repelled by the odd appearance choices of people such as General Ambrose Burnside. Although he gave his name to “sideburns,” that’s hardly what I would call these monstrosities. (Also called mutton chops, which is precisely what the cultured bon vivant should have adorning their cheeks.)

The second reason for my wariness is due to the affinity of too many pastors in my own denomination for beards. I doubt they wear them to wow the ladies. Perhaps they think the beards make them appear more distinguished?

Actually, I’ve become desensitized to most pastors who opt for facial hair – with one bizarre exception. To employ a cliché literally: for the life of me, I can’t understand why anyone living in the twenty-first century would opt for a “chin curtain.” I understand the Amish have an affinity for them, but who ever considered those German Anabaptists fashionable?

Sadly, because my church also possesses a strong Germanic strain, I’ve discovered more than one minister bearing this mark of Cain. Perhaps they hope to emulate the denomination’s first president, the Rev. Dr. C.F.W. Walther. If so, my advice is they follow his example of conscientious pastoral care, and dispense with the externals. (I will concede that his black leather suit does look rather dapper, being that the image was captured for posterity in the mid-1800s.)

C.S. Lewis & His Beard

I can forgive C.S. Lewis for aligning with the beard-faction on at least two occasions. That’s because there were extenuating circumstances.

In 1924 he wrote to his father about an illness that led to what may have been his first transgression.

My dear Papy,

I got chicken pox and am only now out of quarantine. I have of course been quite well enough to write for some time but I don’t know whether you have had this complaint and thought it better not to chance infecting you: I am told that the older you are the less likely it will be to ‘take’, but the worse if it does.

I had a pretty high temperature at the beginning and some very uncomfortable nights of intense perspiration, but it soon passed off.

The danger of cutting any of the spots on my face of course made shaving impossible till this very day and I had a fine beard. I have left the moustache which would excite ‘poor Warren’s’ envy, but I shall probably get tired of it in a few weeks. It is very stiff, and all the hairs grow in different directions and it is thicker on one side than on the other.

In a 1931 letter to his childhood friend, Arthur Greeves, he mentions offhand as he closes that he has altered his appearance.

I suppose you have heard about Warnie’s peerage – for gallantry during the recent manoeuvres. I have grown a beard – Good night.

In two letters written in 1956, C.S. Lewis would describe the illness-induced beard he had mentioned to his father.  He humorously describes its imperfections. The first was written to a young fan.

Your mother tells me you have all been having chicken pox. I had it long after I was grown up and it’s much worse if you are a man for of course you can’t shave with the spots on your face. So I grew a beard and though my hair is black the beard was half yellow and half red! You should have seen me.

The following month he shared more details with a longtime correspondent.

The Tycoon may count himself lucky to have got chickenpox before he reaches the age of shaving brushes and razors. I had it in my late 20’s and grew a beard which was part yellow and part red though my hair is black – a very striking colour scheme.

Apart from that, though, I think it a very good sort of illness on the whole. A nice long quarantine which by sentencing one to solitary confinement secures one against pupils, committees etc. But no doubt it had no such charms for you.

Seeing C.S. Lewis adorned with a beard would surely make for an odd photograph. Especially one taken in color.

Postscript

Forgive me. I’ve vented more than I intended. Wear whatever hairstyle you prefer. However, I would caution you that if your beard drags on the ground, it’s best to carry an emergency set of shears, lest you stumble during an emergency stampede.

As a treat for those who have read to the end of this column, here is an image from Gems of Literature. I suspect these were two of the “Biblical beards” to which C.S. Lewis referred.

Bonus for beard aficionados: For a curious look at a guy whose quest is to see how many facial hair variations he “can check off from the chart of facial hair types,” visit this site.

Sadly, we see history repeating itself. The Russians (resurgent Soviets) are trying to expand their borders by violence.

Czarist Russia was unabashedly imperialistic. However, their successors, the Russian Communists combined their hunger for new conquests with unbelievable brutality.

C.S. Lewis viewed them with the distrust they merited. At the beginning of the Second World War, the Russians played the Allies for fools when they signed a nonaggression pact with the Nazis, so the two countries could carve up poor Poland between them.

The following month, in September of 1939, Lewis referred to the ominous event in a letter to his brother Warnie, who was a career soldier. First, however, he describes the situation with evacuee children who were living at the Kilns.

The nicest of our evacuated girls (the Rose Macaulay one) has been taken away by a peripatetic lip-sticked mother who has changed her mind, and been replaced by an Austrian Jewess (aged about 16) whom the school warned us against as difficult: but so far neither Minto nor Maureen nor I can find any fault in her.

The house has shaken down into its ‘war-economy’ quite well, and indeed the children are incomparably less of a nuisance than [other guests] with whom we have often been afflicted in peacetime.

To-day is a bad day because we have just heard the news about Russia and poor Minto, for the moment, regards this as sealing the fate of the allies–and even talked of buying a revolver!

That December, he mentioned Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Finland in another missive to his brother Warnie. In the letter he refers to some old story told by their father, that was of special, humorous recollection to the brothers.

Well, Brother, (as the troops say) it’s a sad business not to have you with me to-morrow morning-and not to have the January walk ahead. The most cheerful thing at present (oddly enough) is the News. Russia’s attempt to do to Finland what Germany did to Poland reminds me of your father’s story of the “great bosthoon”* whom his athletic friend took out for the run and who tried to imitate him in jumping the flax-pond-one of those of his wheezes whose point lay wholly in his telling.

During the brief “Winter War,” Finland inflicted severe casualties on the Soviet invaders, despite being vastly outnumbered. Despite their heroic defense, Finland was forced to surrender some of their territory to the Soviets.

During World War Two, the Western allies (primarily Britain, the U.S., and France) liberated countries from Nazi oppression.

The Soviets, in contrast, simply changed the nationality of the victims’ oppressors. They regarded the nations devastated by the Germans as new conquests. And, rather than helping them reestablish their independent governments, the Communists absorbed the areas they could, and set up puppet regimes in nations they could not manage to digest.

When the collapse of the Soviet Union finally left Eastern Europeans with a chance at freedom, most fled from behind the Iron Curtain.

In 1950, only a half a decade after the global war’s end, another major war was erupting. The Korean War pitted another Communist aggressor (China) against the democracy in South Korea. Soviet troops covertly joined the North Korean forces, flying early generation MiG-15s. (It is the modern MiG-29 that Poland is hoping to transfer at the present time to Ukraine.)

Despite the Soviet denials, the Korean Conflict pitted the two great world powers in a battle that could well have erupted into a wider conflict.

The concern expressed by C.S. Lewis in the following letter was common among those who were still reeling from WWII’s violence. In June of 1950 Lewis wrote to thank an American friend for food sent to supplement the postwar rationing.

For once, the all absorbing topic of food has been swept into the background by the dreadful news from the Far East. The only gleam of satisfaction is that all of us feel that your prompt action may still save us from a third war; it has at least saved us from a second Munich, and there are hints in our papers today that Russia will very likely back down–but start probing for a ‘soft spot’ elsewhere: Burma, Cochin-China, or even Europe. One can but pray.

In 1950 Lewis prayed, as all Christians should, for a de-escalation and peace.

Seventy years later, events in Ukraine clearly reveal that Russian rulers still long to conquer their neighbors. While we pray for peace, the world dare not close its eyes to the specter of Putin’s resurrected Soviet empire.


  • Bosthoon is an Irish word for an ignorant or uncouth boy or man. The inference is that the initial failure of the Soviet invasion revealed their foolhardiness.

If you would like to join C.S. Lewis in one of his Lenten experiences, read on, because I have the perfect suggestion for you.

During Lent, the forty days preceding Easter, many Christians undertake special “disciplines.” This practice is different from the familiar exercise of “giving things up” for the season.

These disciplines often include fasting and devoting more time to reading the Scriptures and inspiring Christian literature.

Two of C.S. Lewis’ letters mention that he was rereading, as part of his Lenten pilgrimage, two ancient classics that have inspired believers for nearly seventeen centuries.

In 1936, he wrote to Dom Bede Griffiths, a regular correspondent who was a Roman Catholic priest.

I re-read St. Augustine’s Confessions during Lent, and found it better than I remember, tho’ still it is the explicitly devotional parts that edify me least.

The following year he wrote the following in a letter to his childhood friend, Arthur Greeves.

I have been progressing all this lent through the first volume of a v[ery] nice edition of St Augustine’s City of God only to find that the other volume has been so wrongly bound that it begins and ends in the middle of sentences. What a tragedy this would once have been!

Lewis’ regard for Augustine lasted throughout his life. In 1961, Lewis responded to a correspondent who asked what books he would recommend to a recent convert. He included Augustine in that list, writing “St. Augustine’s Confessions will give you the record of an earlier adult convert, with many v. great devotional passages intermixed.”

Saint Augustine was a bishop in Hippo Regius, a city in north Africa. Augustine was a brilliant scholar who desperately sought the truth, and intently studied many religions and philosophies before finding Truth in the person of Jesus Christ.

His life is fascinating, in part because he lived during the turbulent era when Rome itself was sacked by the Vandals, who went on to conquer North Africa.

Augustine was a native African, a member of the Christian Berbers, who along with the Romans in the regions were destined to be overrun by Islamic armies.

Augustine was a prolific writer, and due to their spiritual value, many of his works are readily available today.

If you would like to read one of the volumes mentioned by C.S. Lewis, you can download copies of early translations at Internet Archives. Here are the links, with two biographical studies thrown in for good measure.

Confessions

The City of God

Lives of the Fathers

Saint Augustine and his Age

If you choose to follow C.S. Lewis’ example of reading one of these works for Lent, you will have the added joy of sharing with him a Lenten discipline which he found rewarding.


If you prefer listening to the Confessions, you can download a free Librivox version here.

Puritans often get a bad rap from people who don’t know their true history. Reading C.S. Lewis can help correct that error.

Digital History describes the problem in the following way.

Few people, however, have been as frequently subjected to caricature and ridicule. The journalist H.L. Mencken defined Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, might be happy.”

In truth, Puritans enjoyed having a good time as much as anyone. They only objected to sinful activities. Drinking, fine. Drunkenness, sinful. Sexual intimacy in marriage, wonderful. Fornication and promiscuity, iniquitous. As C.S. Lewis writes in his essay “Tasso,” the Puritans were not about eliminating pleasure.

Asceticism is far more characteristic of Catholicism than of the Puritans. Celibacy and the praise of virginity are Catholic: the honour of the marriage bed is Puritan. (Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature)

In English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, C.S. Lewis includes Puritans in his description of the broader Protestant Reformation landscape.

Nearly every association which now clings to the word puritan has to be eliminated when we are thinking of the early Protestants. Whatever they were, they were not sour, gloomy, or severe; nor did their enemies bring any such charge against them. . . .

For [Thomas] More, a Protestant was one “dronke of the new must of lewd lightnes of minde and vayne gladnesse of harte.” Luther, he said, had made converts precisely because “he spiced al the poison” with “libertee.” Protestantism was not too grim, but too glad, to be true. . . . Protestants are not ascetics but sensualists.

Within the contemporary American Christian community, Puritanism has many defenders. This is due, I believe, to the prominence of Reformed theology within Protestant churches, something traceable to the nation’s beginnings.

Contrary to common understanding, the Puritans were not “separatists” who rejected the established church. In contrast, they remained members of the Church of England throughout the late sixteenth century. They did, however, believe that the Anglican Church retained too many extrabiblical Roman Catholic Church elements and ceremonies.

Much confusion derives from failing to distinguish between the Pilgrims and Puritans.

The main difference between the Pilgrims and the Puritans is that the Puritans did not consider themselves separatists. They called themselves “nonseparating congregationalists,” by which they meant that they had not repudiated the Church of England as a false church.

But in practice they acted – from the point of view of Episcopalians and even Presbyterians at home – exactly as the separatists were acting (History.com).

While the far more numerous Puritans began arriving in the colonies in the 1630s, the Pilgrims (who referred to themselves as “Saints,” not “Pilgrims”) arrived on the Mayflower a decade earlier. The previously quoted article describes the denigration of the Puritan theology, in the following manner.

As they gained strength, Puritans were portrayed by their enemies as hairsplitters who slavishly followed their Bibles as guides to daily life or hypocrites who cheated the very neighbors they judged inadequate Christians.

Sadly, nowadays any serious Christian – anyone who honestly reads the Bible and tries to live according to God’s teachings – is regarded with similar disdain. This sad fact was recognized by C.S. Lewis long ago.

To be sure, there are standards by which the early Protestants could be called “puritanical;” they held adultery, fornication, and perversion for deadly sins. But then so did the Pope. If that is puritanism, all Christendom was then puritanical together (English Literature in the Sixteenth Century).

So From Where Does the Puritan Label Come?

C.S. Lewis answers this question in an essay, “Edmund Spenser, 1552–99.”

By purity the Elizabethan Puritan meant not chastity but “pure” theology and, still more, “pure” church discipline (Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Studies).

In “Donne and Love Poetry” he elaborates on Puritan focus on ecclesiastical, rather than moral, matters.

We have come to use the word “Puritan” to mean what should rather be called “rigorist” or “ascetic,” and we tend to assume that the sixteenth-century Puritans were “puritanical” in this sense. Calvin’s rigorist theocracy at Geneva lends colour to the error.

But there is no understanding the period of the Reformation in England until we have grasped the fact that the quarrel between the Puritans and the Papists was not primarily a quarrel between rigorism and indulgence, and that, in so far as it was, the rigorism was on the Roman side (Selected Literary Essays).

Returning to the essay on Edmund Spencer, we see Lewis elaborating on the ecclesiastical hopes of the Puritans.

We must picture these Puritans as the very opposite of those who bear that name today: as young, fierce, progressive intellectuals, very fashionable and up-to-date. They were not teetotallers; bishops, not beer, were their special aversion. . . .


There was no necessary enmity between Puritans and humanists. They were often the same people, and nearly always the same sort of people: the young men “in the Movement,” the impatient progressives demanding a “clean sweep.” And they were united by a common (and usually ignorant) hatred for everything medieval . . . (Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Studies).

Some readers may be surprised to see Lewis, an Anglican, speak so favorably of Puritans. To those of us who are interested in genuine history, his words are illuminating. And, his warning – which is applicable to many other historical movements – is appreciated.

I must immediately guard against a possible misunderstanding. Both words have so changed their sense that puritan now means little more than ‘rigorist’ or ‘ascetic’ and humanist little more than ‘the opposite of puritan.’

The more completely we can banish these modern senses from our minds while studying the sixteenth century the better we shall understand it.

That is sound advice for every circumstance. Accurately understanding what we are discussing is a necessity. Just think how much disagreement could be dispelled in our polarized world, if we only followed C.S. Lewis’ example.

Gambling, Sin & C.S. Lewis

February 14, 2022 — 10 Comments

Gambling has become pervasive in modern society. It is so endemic that people rarely spend a moment wondering whether it is morally good, bad or indifferent.

This past week numerous articles appeared about multi-million dollar bets and the stunning amount waged on the final game of the NFL season. And, a day after the game is played, the odds for next season’s winner are already online.

The Super Bowl is traditionally the biggest annual sports betting event in the United States. But it’s only one of many events where the legally gambled totals are stunning.

It is estimated that Americans wager over $150 billion dollars per year on sporting events, and even more is bet on legally [on events] around the world.

Naturally, the World Cup – with its global audience – trumps the sum gambled on American football.

In the United States, opportunists created state-sponsored lotteries, presumably to fund worthy causes like education. Today most of these are taken for granted as a stable revenue stream (not always for their promised purpose).

And we haven’t even factored in the casual or unsanctioned gambling that takes place.

In many gambling situations, wagers are made between friends, for minor amounts. In such cases there seems to be little reason for concern. Perhaps it is about willpower and moderation.

However, there are some cases where people wager large amounts – far beyond what they can “afford” to lose. And in such cases, something dangerous is afoot. In the worst cases, people can lose everything they own. Even worse, innocent members of their families frequently suffer.

These are the people for whom Gamblers Anonymous exists. The organization “is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from a gambling problem.”

Recent brain research has confirmed a genetic element and that “gambling addiction triggers the same brain areas as drug and alcohol cravings.”

The grim truth, you see, is that gaming businesses are not the fun, innocent entertainment industry they claim to be. Gambling enterprises don’t rely on casual bettors for their profits. It’s the people who cannot resist making just one more bet, who fund their rich coffers.

And, while technology may make some gambling more appealing, it’s dangers were recognized centuries ago.

By the time George II came to the throne in 1727, Britain was a nation addicted to gaming. The capital was fit to burst with gaming houses, where play continued round the clock . . . A game named Hazard was one of the most popular games, and also one of the most aptly named, since there were hazards aplenty in playing.

Squeezed around a large, circular table, a player could easily win or lose an entire fortune in a single night, since large stakes were wagered on each throw of the dice, and four-figure losses were not uncommon. No amount of skill could improve the odds of winning at Hazard, either. . .

It was a highly addictive game too; payouts and losses came quickly, and so the atmosphere around the table was always one of fevered anticipation.

But is Gambling a Sin?

The fact that gambling can destroy families and lives suggest that it is not morally ambiguous. But, is it a matter of degree, rather than a right or wrong?

To answer that question, people of Christian faith look first to the Scriptures. The Bible speaks a great deal about money, but very little that relates directly to gambling. Most people are well acquainted with the biblical warnings that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils.” The rest of that verse describes the troubled state of people who have surrendered to its power.

It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs (1 Timothy 6:10).

Beyond the cautions about being tempted by money, gambling is not expressly addressed. Nevertheless, this essay offers a thorough discussion of the subject, and is worth reading.

What did C.S. Lewis Think?

C.S. Lewis had an excellent hermeneutic, or approach to interpreting the Scriptures. He believed that Jesus’ disciples should do what God’s Word tells us to do, and avoid what it instructs us to avoid. Pretty simple, right? Too bad we find that model so challenging to follow.

Because the Bible is essentially silent on the practice, Lewis applied his reason, and his personal experience to the matter when he was asked about it. In a collection entitled “Answers to Questions on Christianity,” he offered a very practical response.

Gambling ought never to be an important part of a man’s life. If it is a way in which large sums of money are transferred from person to person without doing any good (e.g., producing employment, goodwill, etc.) then it is a bad thing.

If it is carried out on a small scale, I am not sure that it is bad. I don’t know much about it, because it is about the only vice to which I have no temptation at all, and I think it is a risk to talk about things which are not in my own make-up, because I don’t understand them.

If anyone comes to me asking to play bridge for money, I just say: `How much do you hope to win? Take it and go away.’ (God in the Dock).

An Inkling Postscript

J.R.R. Tolkien’s estate faced an ethical challenge when Warner Brothers, one of their licensees, abused their rights and created “online games, slot machines and other gambling-related merchandise based on the author’s books The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings.”

Tolkien’s estate had accused the defendants of violating a 1969 agreement allowing the sale of “tangible” merchandise, by associating the books with the “morally-questionable (and decidedly non-literary) world of online and casino gambling”.

It said this “outraged Tolkien’s devoted fan base” and irreparably harmed the legacy of the English author, who died in 1973 at the age of 81.

Since the Chronicles of Narnia were written for children, they are less susceptible to such abuses. But, wherever a dollar can be made (or won) the possibility exists they could also be misused to that end.

Peace is almost universally valued. Ironically, it cannot be achieved without holding militaristic forces at bay. And preventing them from crushing the weak, requires that a more “benevolent” be strong enough to stand up to the international bullies.

If there is no champion for those unable to defend themselves, the wolves tear their prey apart and the only limits placed on their appetites are the threats posed by other predators. The fate of the small ranges from domination by ruthless powers to domination by less ruthless overlords.

If there is no benevolent “superpower,” or if it is viewed as feeble and indecisive, the Third Reichs of the world will reign.

Historically, imperialistic agendas have been checked by other empires or alliances. Some alliances are small, such as the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) which includes only Canada and the U.S. Others are intercontinental, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), with its thirty members. Further growth of this alliance is at the heart of global tensions as this post is published.

The alliances I have mentioned are established for mutual defense. NATO has not secreted away a covert plan for world domination.

My thoughts turn to the possibility of war because (in view of many) the power of the United States is waning. Wolves are licking their proverbial chops, eager to expand their spheres of influence.

Even as we pray that God would preserve Europe from conflict around Ukraine, remember that there are nations where civil wars have raged for generations. God have mercy.

War & Peace

The “collectable plate” pictured at the top of this post was purchased by my mother when she visited our family in the U.K. in 1990. A decade after my retirement from the USAF, I am still unpacking some of the boxes I accumulated during decades, and after my mom’s passing, this souvenir joined the archives.

It really is beautifully ornate. Such an attractive setting for an awesomely combative image.

Lest they be misperceived as “conventional” weapons, it should be noted that Ground Launched Cruise Missiles were expressly devised to deliver intermediate range nuclear explosives. Deadly.

The great thing about NATO’s cruise missiles is that they were deployed to bring the Soviet Union to the negotiating table, where the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty led to the elimination of all such munitions from Europe!

Combining military and peace imagery has a long tradition. I wrote about “Powerful Names” and how Iran chose the classic name “Peacekeeper” for one of its deadly missiles. But you can find in my post many other, stranger labels. (I’m still confused why the Brits named of their 1950s missiles “Green Cheese.”)

My assignment at Royal Air Force Greenham Common was a joy. And it was a genuine privilege to be part of a mission that literally made the world a safer place.

I hope all people who desire lasting peace will join me in supporting the allied nations of democratic countries as they counterbalance the world’s totalitarians. And if they can combine the power of necessary arms with artistry that celebrates the pastimes of peace, all the better.

C.S. Lewis worked his own magic combining frightening images with peaceful pursuits. Included in the ranks of Aslan’s army, after all, we see not only cute badgers and prickly hedgehogs. Fierce (even beastly) satyrs are found in the ranks of Good. (Think super-gross, goat-faced fauns . . . with axes). Still, when they are aligned in the ranks beside Narnia, they appear noble. I can even imagine them, during seasons of peace, tilling the soil and tending the orchards.

We will close with a piece of trivia about Narnian warriors. In the books, the Minotaurs (nasty creatures these), are all portrayed in a negative light. They are among the troops of the White Witch celebrating Aslan’s death. However, in the films they have been redeemed and some fight beside Aslan and Narnia’s kings. C.S. Lewis’ son, Doug Gresham, explained the change in an interview:

There are several reasons for that. Firstly, we felt that we needed to show that in Narnia as here, old foes can be forgiven and can reconcile and work together, given the will to do so. Secondly, that in Narnia as also it is here, a common adversary will bring even the worst of enemies together and unite them.

Also, that the shapes and colours of a species’ body do not necessarily denote their character, that just because someone is a Minotaur does not have to mean that they are all bad. Finally, we kind of like Minotaurs.

To Pray or Not to Pray

January 29, 2022 — 14 Comments

I’m in the midst of a health issue, and it has sharpened some thoughts I have long held about prayer.

I welcome prayer. From anyone, pretty much.

That’s because I believe despite the pray-ers beliefs’, it could possibly help, definitely can’t harm, and may simply possess a positive sociological element, even when the prayers are not efficacious. More on that in a moment.

The Current Concern

I think I’m coming off of a bad cold. Early in the week I experienced a cough, a moderate temp, and a couple other symptoms (minus the scratchy throat) I’ve associated with the Rhinovirus for decades.

I’m vaxxed and boosted against the Coronavirus, but being a super-conscientious pastor (who counts a fair number of seniors in his congregation) I decided it would be best to know whether or not these few sickly days have been caused by omicron, I got tested yesterday. Results are due in today or tomorrow.

Testing is never so easy, of course, as we would like it to be. In my case, my primary medical care provider was referring people like me to other facilities. The one which was the least inconvenient proved to still involve major time and effort.

The hassle came from having to fill out a fistful of forms to verify everything from my insurance providers to my current gender identification. One sheet was an extensive questionnaire about who they could speak to in regard to my health. It was more thorough than ones I’d encountered in the past, and raised an existential question at its end.

It began by asking if they could talk to my spouse (I think they called her a “partner”). I checked “yes” and wrote in her name. Next it asked about other family members. Triple check; I inscribed the names of my three children. After that it asked about sharing information with my other medical providers. Fine (although getting different medical caregivers to communicate on my behalf in the past has proven quite challenging).

I was surprised the form didn’t ask whether I wanted the results made available to the People’s Republic of China, but immediately realized that was a moot question since they have access to every American’s most personal data. And due to their earlier breaches of Department of Defense systems they probably already have my DNA code.

The final question on the form was not surprising. Still, in the (literal) Friday morning fog, I considered responding rather than simply passing on to the next sheet. “Is there anyone else we can speak to about your condition?”

I had an answer to that, and even I doubt anyone will ever read it once the paper is filed, I decided to write it down. “You have my permission to speak to God on my behalf.”

The Theological Ramifications of My Invitation

Being a Lutheran, especially a theologically trained one, means you can never take something simply at face value. You have to critically analyze it to the point where each of the statement’s innate flaws is stripped bare. I’m sure some readers are doing that right now with my words.

The question boils down to whether or not it is a “good” thing to have people from alien worldviews or faiths pray for you. I’ve met people in the past who were quite clear about not wanting Christians, for example, to pray for them.

A few of these were atheists. In such cases I tried to give them the benefit of not desiring to be seen as a hypocrite by “welcoming” such prayers during a crisis – but I sometimes thought they were actually afraid of the turbulence that would result from God showing his divine hand in the pristine secularity of their lives.

Returning to my case, I have never consciously rejected anyone’s offer to silently pray for me. The following ideas guide my thinking on the subject.

1. It could well mean absolutely nothing. The offer to pray is frequently just a reflex. Many people say “I’ll pray for you” the moment they hear about a need, and I think we’d all be disappointed to discover how many actually follow through. While this sort of thinking is not healthy for those who manifest it, it causes no harm to the intended recipient of the prayer.

2. Non-Christians who might be called “spiritual” want to wish others well, and I don’t see any benefit in preventing them. This sort of person may use prayer terminology, but some are more self-aware and say things like “I’m sending you positive thoughts.” To be gracious, they are attempting to communicate their empathy. To be accurate, they are wasting their time. I know I don’t have telepathy, so any thoughts they may be able to transmit in my direct won’t be received at this end. Likewise for the new age trope “positive energy.” That’s the immaterial stuff that gurus have supposedly been harnessing for centuries to make our world a more peaceful place. Since I’m pretty sure it’s 100% sentiment, it doesn’t hurt me, so I don’t mind having it launched toward my vector.

3. Adherents of other religions will sometimes offer to pray for each other. In this too, I find no problem. Those who know me, understand without a shadow of doubt, that I believe Jesus Christ’s declaration that he is the way, the truth and the life, and that no one comes to the Father except through him.

But if they wish to offer me the sincere expression of their friendship by offering to pray for me, I regard that as an honor. Not something that will result in a positive intervention by a deity which does not actually exist.

(By the same token, when I offer to pray on their behalf, I do not expect them to believe in the faith I profess, or even the existence of God himself.)

So, this sort of prayer does me no harm, does not compromise my Christian witness, and can strengthen bonds of friendship and shared humanity with other individuals for whom Jesus died.

4. People who worship real entities. Now, this is really “out there,” as they say, and so uncommon as to be something none of us are likely to ever experience. But let’s discuss it theoretically, since it falls under the umbrella of having “anyone” pray for you. In this scenario, we have a person who worships an actual supernatural entity. Let’s ignore the lower echelons of the “principalities and powers” and skip right to their boss, the broken-winged Lucifer. Let’s also ignore the fact no true Satanist would be inclined to intercede for a Christian who ridicules their Master. But, let’s assume someone did mention my name in their conversations with Screwtape’s “Our Father Below.” It would mean, and accomplish, nothing. Christians, you see, have nothing to fear from Satan. He is powerless against the Holy Spirit of God himself who lives within us.

Update

So, as it turns out, I just got a call from a nurse at the clinic and . . . yes, I do have a case of covid. It was mercifully short, with no temp now and decreasing nasal congestion. Basically back to “normal,” with a future “natural immunity” added to my “vaccine-induced immunity.”

Adding new T cells to my body’s arsenal will be a beneficial consequence of this week’s sickness.

The dangers of covid for people (like myself) possessing so-called comorbidities, are real. I pray regularly for medical breakthroughs in battling the viruses, bacteria and cellular aberrations that plague human life.

But I recognize all too well that life is fleeting, as the Scriptures say, like “a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.”

As Larry Norman used to sing, we’re “only visiting this planet,” on our way to a new and unfallen world like the one the Lord first created for us.

This pilgrimage entails many challenges. And, although I know my Savior will see me safely through everything I face, you have my permission to pray for me.

An Evolutionary Fluke

January 11, 2022 — 19 Comments

Did trees evolve from apes? An odd question, to be sure, but one humorously posed by C.S. Lewis in a letter to his father.

While this column does discuss the theory of evolution, it’s not doctrinaire. So, whatever your opinion of Darwin’s notions, read on, and you may enjoy a pleasant surprise.

C.S. Lewis, the brilliant Christian apologist was not an ironclad “evangelical” in the American sense of the word. Here in the U.S., that typically requires adherence to a handful of doctrines, usually including the affirmation of the infallibility of the Scriptural autographs and of the creation of humanity in the persons of our first parents, Adam and Eve.

As important as these matters are, very few Christians would deem them salvific, in the sense that people holding less “vigorous” views on these issues will be excluded from heaven.

C.S. Lewis was one of those who focused on the core of the Christian faith, rather than secondary doctrines. He referred to this as “mere Christianity,” and it was based on a trusting relationship with God through the Person of Jesus, God present with us in the Incarnate Word.

As for doctrines per se, like all good defenders of the faith, C.S. Lewis preferred not to get bogged down with secondary matters. This is consistent with the spirit of Paul’s advice to the young pastor, Timothy.

Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. . . . Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone . . . (2 Timothy 2:14, 23-24).

Lewis’ 1927 Evolutionary Conversation

In March of 1927, C.S. Lewis wrote one of his eclectic letters to his father in Northern Ireland. As usual, he commented on his father’s previous correspondence and shared about his current health and activities. While his relationship with his father grew strained after his mother’s untimely death while he was still a child, Lewis’ letters to his father exude familial respect framed in the context of early twentieth century British sensibilities.

That said, Lewis was always eager to share curious or silly experiences he knew would amuse his solicitor father. He takes a humorous approach, for instance, to advising his father to consult a more skilled doctor to diagnose an ailment, rather than suffering with the incomplete work of the physician he has always known, he will simply be “offer[ing] up several months of pain as a sacrifice on the altar of an old acquaintance.”

At the same time, he acknowledges his personal inclination toward doing the same, stating that “if I lived at home [I] would continue to use Gillespie all my life.” Gillespie, it turns out, ran a taxi service long favored by the family despite his bumpy transportation. “I have never regretted Gillespie and his hexagonal wheel,” Lewis shares.

He returns to his argument, however, by saying his father’s health demands the attention of a competent physician rather than relying on past ties. He concludes with an illustration based on his own brother. “Hang it all, even you wouldn’t suggest that because I’ve known Warnie a long time I ought to trust him as an interpreter on a holiday in Spain.”

C.S. Lewis proceeds to share with his father current events at Magdalen College (“we are putting up a new building”) and a recent nightmare (“it was the sense of being on the moon . . . the complete desolateness, which gave the extraordinary effect”).

The letter includes other fascinating elements, but it is time now to consider the reference to evolution.

An Absurd Age

I absolutely love the way C.S. Lewis invites us to experience the following moment. His story is so vivid, it still lives a century after the described events transpired.

We live in the most absurd age. I met a girl the other day who had been teaching in an infant school (boys and girls up to the age of six) where the infants are taught the theory of Evolution. Or rather the Headmistress’s version of it.

Simple people like ourselves had an idea that Darwin said that life developed from simple organisms up to the higher plants and animals, finally to the monkey group, and from the monkey group to man.

The infants however seem to be taught that ‘in the beginning was the Ape’ from whom all other life developed – including such dainties as the Brontosaurus and the Iguanodon.

Whether the plants were supposed to be descendants of the ape I didn’t gather. And then people talk about the credulity of the middle ages! À propos of this can you tell me who said ‘Before you begin these studies, I should warn you that you need much more faith in science than in theology.’ It was Huxley or Clifford or one of the nineteenth century scientists, I think.

Another good remark I read long ago in one of E. Nesbitt’s fairy tales –‘Grown ups know that children can believe almost anything: that’s why they tell you that the earth is round and smooth like an orange when you can see perfectly well for yourself that it’s flat and lumpy.’

Ironically, immediately after this, Lewis introduces his next subject with the words: “Almost the only interesting thing that has happened to me lately was a visit from a young German.” You see, I wasn’t misleading you when I said his letters are filled with fascinating material.

One must assume that times have changed, and that English children are no longer being taught such simplistic distortions of actual theories. But that’s not the theme of this current post. Rather, I wish to show how wonderfully entertaining a simple family letter can be – especially when it comes from the pen of C.S. Lewis.

Writing a Biography

January 4, 2022 — 14 Comments

What kind of writer are you? A poet, journalist, essayist or, perhaps, a minimalist? (By “minimalist” I mean someone who writes the bare minimum they have to.)

Many readers of Mere Inkling are, in fact, writers in their own right. Even ignoring the profusion of texts ricocheting around the globe (which are, in fact, literary creations), a fair number of Mere Inkling subscribers have blogs of their own.

The preeminent position of physical letters as the medium for correspondence has been usurped by email. People still write to one another, but – to the woe of the struggling United States Postal Service – they do it digitally.

More serious writers gravitate toward a varieties of genres. Often we try our hands at the sort of literature we prefer reading. That’s why I seldom write poetry. (And, when I do, it’s usually because I’m consciously stretching myself.)

My poetic skills may be limited – you can decide for yourself – but I don’t experience any of the disappointment that befell C.S. Lewis when his poetic dreams were dashed.

Poets are fine. Until they become snobs. If they treat other genres with respect, they stand on an equal footing with everyone else. But when they claim primacy for their preference, they lose me. Consider “William Faulkner Makes Us Wonder: What’s So Great About Poetry, Anyhow?

There’s a reason I can call poetry the highest form of artistic expression without thinking twice about it. And even though most Americans today don’t acknowledge the art form all that much, you’d be hard-pressed to find a sensible person who doesn’t respect or – if only from a distance – admire the magic in it.*

I guess I am one of the Americans who doesn’t possess a special reverence for poetry. And, as for “admiring the magic in it,” please. Wait, I don’t desire to offend you poets out there. Unless, of course, you consider yourself better than everyone else. In that case, consider my words a gentle rebuke (and encouragement to consider the virtue of humility).  

I hope that everyone will read on, and forgive me for maligning “the highest form of artistic expression.”

A Less Honored Literary Genre

I write nonfiction, unsurprising for someone who is basically a historian. Theologically, I neglect the conjecture of systematic theological considerations and focus on what’s usually called “practical theology.” It too, is unpretentious, and intended to make sense to “regular” people.

Recent years have found me dabbling in the memoir, or versions of autobiography, as I consider the potential value of such documents to my descendants.

One arena I’ve never really considered is biography. I suspect it would be a comfortable literary form, for a historian. I mean, you’re simply telling the story of a single life, relating facts and explaining the context of various events. That doesn’t sound too challenging, does it?

I suppose almost anyone could write a biography. The question is, could we write a good one?

Writing a Biography

I have been thinking about this subject ever since my research for my previous post introduced me to the work of David Cecil,⁑ one of the Oxford Inklings who shared the company of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Cecil wrote several biographies. At Internet Archives you can read his lives of William Cowper, Charles Lamb, or Max Beerbohm, or his two-volume biography of Lord Melbourne (1 and 2).

If those individuals don’t tickle your proverbial fancy, you might want to look at the book that piqued my interest: An Anthology of Modern Biography. In it, Cecil explores the work of sixteen biographers. One of the chapters is his own portrayal of the evangelical Anglican cleric, John Newton (an extract from his biography of Cowper).

What intrigues me most about the volume is not the biographical material itself. Rather, it is Cecil’s very informative introduction. Here is his opening, which may whet the interest of future biographers . . . one of whom could be you?

Biography is not an important form of literary art. But it has a special interest to the student of modern literature. For it is the only new form. We can talk of modern poetry and modern novels, but these are only new variations on old forms. . . . Not so biography.

Art is primarily the expression of the artist’s creative powers; he writes to express his personal vision; he chooses as his subject that which he thinks will best exhibit his particular talent.

Now this is not true of the biographer of the past. His aim was not artistic, it was useful; he wanted to give people information. If he was a man of literary talent . . . his book was a work of art. But even if it had not been, it would not have failed. For its primary purpose had been, not to give an artistic impression, but to tell the truth.

This desire for the truth over ostentation resonates with me. But, mind you, he is referring to biographers “of the past.” Now (the book was published in 1936), other influences are at work.

But for the typical modern biographer literature comes first. Mr. Lytton Strachey writes about Queen Victoria, not in order to give us information about her, but because he thinks her life an excellent subject for a work of art. . . .

He does not set out his facts . . . complete with reference and proof, he weaves them into a story, grouping them in order and proportion that will make his picture as vivid and entertaining as possible.

Cecil’s explanation for this transformation is fascinating, and I encourage you to read it yourself, whether or not you are interested in writing a biography yourself. The book is available here, and thanks to the Public Library of India, you can download a complete copy for free.

In a 1932 letter to Arthur Greeves, C.S. Lewis contrasts biographies with the evidence from people’s daily lives. He shares with his lifelong friend a question this raises in his own minid.

It is a very consoling fact that so many books about real lives – biographies, autobiographies, letters etc. – give one such an impression of happiness, in spite of the tragedies they all contain. What could be more tragic than the main outlines of Lamb’s or Cowper’s lives?

But as soon as you open the letters of either, and see what they were writing from day to day and what a relish they got out of it, you almost begin to envy them.

Perhaps the tragedies of real life contain more consolation and fun and gusto than the comedies of literature?

Biography. Considering trying it. And, Poetry, it’s not that bad, either.


* The article does include interesting information about Faulkner. It appears his disappointed poetic dream shifted him to more productive fields. This parallels C.S. Lewis’ literary career.

For all of [Faulkner’s] achievements, his Nobel Prize for Literature, his Pulitzers and National Book Awards, his mug on a 22-cent postage stamp – the man still fell short. And it wasn’t that he dropped out of high school and did only a few semesters of college, or that he was once fired by an employer for reading on the job.

These were small missteps and shortcomings that were basically inconsequential in the long run. The larger issue is that, in his own view, William Faulkner was a failed poet. Failed.

“Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first,” he told The Paris Review in 1956, “finds he can’t, and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And, failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.”

What you may not know is that before his first novel, Soldier’s Pay, Faulkner had written two books of poetry, Vision in Spring in 1921 and The Marble Faun in 1924. While he’d long dreamed of being taken seriously as a poet, the verse was always second-rate and not particularly significant. Eventually he abandoned his efforts as a poet to focus solely on his fiction.

⁑ In the spirit of most colonials who shook off the reigns of monarchial rule, I tend to respect the Queen as a head of state, and disregard the affectations of an aristocracy they once “lorded” it over. Thus, I can take or leave Cecil’s normative citation as “Lord David Cecil.