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bennett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C.S. Lewis’ Comment about an Atheist Writer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, who was Arnold Bennett?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Civil Atheism

It would be a good thing for us individually and as members of a pluralistic world, to treat one another with civility. As a Christian, I can confess for my brothers and sisters that we do not always do so. Let us strive to do better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

babble.jpg

With civil discourse in such short supply today, it may be beneficial to consider some wisdom from the past about disagreeing calmly.

If you’re a thoughtful person, and you interact with other rational people, it’s inevitable that you will sometimes disagree. These differences of opinion are not bad things, in and of themselves. They help us sharpen our thinking and occasionally result in someone (from either side) recognizing the errors in their opinions.

There are times, however, when disagreements are not handled respectfully. In such situations, they seldom result in a positive end. In cases where quarrels arise, people don’t persuade others. They do the opposite—they motivate them to entrench themselves and hide behind mental and verbal barricades that reinforce their “errors.”

You can go all the way back to the Scriptures to find the recognition that this sort of debate is destructive. Here is the counsel of the apostle Paul to his protégée Timothy, a young pastor:

Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. (2 Timothy 2:14-17)

In the second century, Tertullian, a brilliant North African Christian scholar, penned one of my favorite passages in all of patristic literature.

I might be bringing forward this objection from a want of confidence, or from a wish to enter upon the case in dispute in a different manner from the heretics, were not a reason to be found at the outset in that our Faith owes obedience to the Apostle who forbids us to enter into questionings, or to lend our ears to novel sayings, or to associate with a heretic after one admonition—he does not say after discussion.

Indeed, he forbade discussion by fixing on admonition as the reason for meeting a heretic. And he mentions this one admonition, because a heretic is not a Christian, and . . . because argumentative contests about the Scriptures profit nothing, save of course to upset the stomach or the brain.

This or that heresy rejects certain of the Scriptures, and those which it receives it perverts both by additions and excisions to agree with its own teaching. For even when it receives them it does not receive them entire, and if it does in some cases receive them entire, it none the less perverts them by fabricating heterodox interpretations.

A spurious interpretation injures the Truth quite as much as a tampered text. Baseless presumptions naturally refuse to acknowledge the means of their own refutation. They rely on passages which they have fraudulently rearranged or received because of their obscurity.

What wilt thou effect, though thou art most skilled in the Scriptures, if what thou maintainest is rejected by the other side and what thou rejectest is maintained? Thou wilt indeed lose nothing—save thy voice in the dispute; and gain nothing—save indignation at the blasphemy. (On the Prescription of Heretics, 16-17)

If you would like to read a fascinating scholarly article on this passage you can download one here. In “Accusing Philosophy of Causing Headaches: Tertullian’s Use of a Comedic Topos,” J. Albert Harrill writes:

Among the most famous passages in Tertullian’s De praescriptione haereticorum (ca. 203) is what appears to be nothing more than a throwaway line. After declaring that ‘heretics’ have no right to use Christian Scripture, he writes, ‘Besides, arguments over Scripture achieve nothing but a stomachache or a headache.’

Previous scholarship has assumed the protest to epitomize Tertullian’s fideism and general anti-intellectualism. However, I argue that the line evokes a comedic stereotype within a medical topos about ‘excessive’ mental activity causing disease in the body, going back to Plato and Aristophanes.

The passage is, therefore, not a throwaway line but an important part of Tertullian’s attempt to caricature his opponents with diseased superstitio (excessive care and ‘curiosity’).

More Recent Variations of this Theme

Those who have attempted serious, rational argument with someone who is unserious or irrational know very well what Tertullian was describing. If you are earnest and calm in your advocacy, only to have your counterpart act flippant or ignorantly obstinate, it really can make one feel nauseous.

G.K. Chesterton, who was an articulate defender of Christianity during the beginning of the twentieth century, described the frustration in a predictably entertaining manner.

If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by things that go with good judgment.

He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by clarity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections.

Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.” (Orthodoxy)

As Chesterton suggests, the madman has retained his ability to reason, but is no longer inhibited by reason itself. I would liken it to retaining the appearance of reasoning, bereft of its essence. It parallels what we read in 2 Timothy 3.

In the last days . . . people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy,  heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good,  treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. (Italics added.)

C.S. Lewis also addresses the inability of many who are wrong to conduct rational conversations. Whenever they meet a reasoned argument, they are disarmed.

Unfortunately, their lack of logic does not prevent them from charging into the disputation. They assume their passion or their appeal to subjectivity (i.e. that “everyone” is right) will win the day.

Lewis grew so frustrated by the phenomenon that he coined a new word to identify it. He regrets the passing of the day when you persuade someone of their error before you could legitimately explain why your own position is correct on a given issue.

The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly.

In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it Bulverism.

Some day I am going to write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father – who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third – `Oh you say that because you are a man.’

“At that moment,” E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet.

“Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.” That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.

I find the fruits of his discovery almost everywhere. Thus I see my religion dismissed on the grounds that “the comfortable able parson had every reason for assuring the nineteenth century worker that poverty would be rewarded in another world.” Well, no doubt he had. On the assumption that Christianity is an error, I can see early enough that some people would still have a motive for inculcating it.

I see it so easily that I can, of course, play the game the other way round, by saying that “the modern man has every reason for trying to convince himself that there are no eternal sanctions behind the morality he is rejecting.”

For Bulverism is a truly democratic game in the sense that all can play it all day long, and that it gives no unfair privilege to the small and offensive minority who reason. But of course it gets us not one inch nearer to deciding whether, as a matter of fact, the Christian religion is true or false. . . . I see Bulverism at work in every political argument.

Until Bulverism is crushed, reason can play no effective part in human affairs. Each side snatches it early as a weapon against the other; but between the two reason itself is discredited. (“‘Bulverism:’ Or the Foundation of Twentieth Century Thought”)

So, there we have it. We may derive some comfort from the fact that irrational arguing has frequently displaced civil discourse since the dawn of human communication.

As for me, I intend to avoid the Bulverites as much as possible. The last thing I need is a migraine or a serious case of indigestion.

A Rare C.S. Lewis Book

March 29, 2017 — 6 Comments

readers

Just because you read a book doesn’t mean you need to purchase it for your library. Yet some of us do feel compelled to add almost every volume we enjoy to our personal collections. The dilemma arises when the cost of a particular book may exceed its “long-term” value to us.

Faced with this question a few weeks ago, I pursued a course open to many readers of Mere Inkling. I simply borrowed the book from my local library, which in turn borrowed it via interlibrary loan from a university in a neighboring state. Most libraries offer this service without charge. I regularly use it when researching obscure subjects I don’t anticipate I will continue to follow.

The subject of the particular text I am currently reading, of course, C.S. Lewis. While I believe I own a copy of every work ever written by Lewis that has been published, I doubt any human being could gather together every book written about the Oxford and Cambridge professor.

The Volume in Question

So, I have been spending some time during recent days reading notes and essays on Lewis that were written in a variety of periodicals and collected in 1992. Critical Thought Series 1: Critical Essays on C.S. Lewis was edited by George Watson, and published by Scolar Press. Watson also served as General Editor of the Series, compiled “in an attempt to recover the controversies that have surrounded the great critics of the modern age.”

The material is of particular interest to those interested in Lewis’ work as a literary critic. In addition to general reviews, there are special sections for critiques of The Allegory of Love, A Preface to Paradise Lost, and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century. Allow me to share a small taste of CEoCSL.

In the editor’s introductory article, he argues that Lewis possessed an “essential modernity, which was seldom if ever noticed in his lifetime.” An example he offers is Lewis’ “mingling of formalism and fantasy.” This facet of Lewis’ genius has a peculiar result.

[Lewis] belongs to that rare breed of critics who are more original than they would wish to be.

Watson also provides an intriguing view of how Lewis’ faith and literary community were perceived by those outside its influence.

Early and late, critics and reviewers found [Lewis] a hard nut to crack. In his middle years, from the late 1930s till his removal to Cambridge in 1954, the critical reception of his works was admiring of his style but wary of his matter.

It was vaguely understood by the late 1930s that a neo-Christian group of story-tellers and critics existed at Oxford, even that they were known as Inklings; but they formed no part of London literary life and were widely seen as a reactionary clique all to apt to a remote, rainy place celebrated for its devotion to lost causes and impossible loyalties.

Lewis, though a best seller, belonged wholly to that remote world, and his sales only made matters worse. They made him look formidable. He and his friends were occasionally dismissed as new-romantics, since a label can be an easy excuse for declining discussion; and the suspected association with Chesterton was not, to avant-garde opinion, endearing. The Inklings were anti-Modernist, anti-modern, backward-looking and deliberately unfashionable.

As I hinted above, this book contains a number of interesting pieces not readily accessible elsewhere. It is no hagiography, and includes essays that offer criticisms of some of Lewis’ writing.

In one review of English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, American poet and literary critic Yvor Winters enumerates problems he has with Lewis’ arguments. He then wraps up his review with an analysis of the cause of the disagreements.

There are many men who have re more in this field than I have, and Lewis is certainly one of them. Some of them will find errors in Lewis which have overlooked. I have found more errors in my own few publications than I have found in Lewis. It is not the errors in scholarship which trouble me, primarily, however, for those are inevitable. It is the critical mind that bothers me. . . .

There is a great deal in Lewis’s book which is valuable, and I may as well confess a great deal which has added to my own education. . . . But what is the function of this kind of book? No single man is competent to write it. . . .

Because it is impossible to write a flawless survey] the book is, as I have said, misleading, and so is every other book of the kind which I have ever read. And within twenty years it will doubtless be superseded by another book on the same subject, which will be better in some ways and worse in others.

The first-rate monograph, or the first-rate critical essay, is never superseded; it becomes a part of literature; but the text-book is a hugger-mugger affair, no matter who writes it. Lewis undertook a thankless task, and a hopeless one.

Personal Libraries

You are fortunate if you have this volume in your library. But don’t let its absence rob you of the chance to read it. There are many fascinating insights to be gleaned from its pages . . . and I am certainly glad that I borrowed it.

Oh, and as to Winters’ prediction that Lewis’ treatment of sixteenth century English literature would be superseded . . . thanks to the marvels of Kindle, it remains in print more than sixty years after his prognostication.

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The picture on this page is a drawing entitled, “Their First Quarrel.” It was obviously sketched prior to the invention of the television and cellphone.

Religious Kitsch

October 13, 2015 — 7 Comments

socksAre souvenir socks a good way of celebrating one of the move pivotal points in human history? That’s right, stockings. Socks emblazoned with one of the most famous statements of Christian faith made during the past millennium.

Hier stehe ich!” “Here I stand” (on the clear message of God’s word). This was Martin Luther’s steadfast defense where his salvation on the teaching that we are saved by God’s grace and mercy, not by our own efforts.

Ich kann nicht anders.” I can do no other, Luther continued. He invited his adversaries to correct him if they could show him in error, according to the Scriptures.

We are beginning a season when many people are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation of the Church. Some of the commemorations are quite noteworthy. Others . . . less so.

On the positive side, I rank near the top The Wittenberg Project, the restoration of the Old Latin School in the city where Luther preached the Gospel.

Near the other extreme, I have to place the “Here I Stand” socks. While I briefly considered purchasing a pair for one of my sons, my admittedly plebian sense of fashion saved me from doing so. (If you, on the other hand, find them tasteful or suitable for an acquaintance, you’ll find a link to the footwear below.)*

In his essay, “What Christmas Means to Me,” C.S. Lewis describes this sort of product. In his description of the “commercial racket” associated with the season, he writes:

I condemn it on the following grounds. . . . Things are given as presents which no mortal ever bought for himself – gaudy and useless gadgets, ‘novelties’ because no one was ever fool enough to make their like before.

Have we really no better use for materials and for human skill and time than to spend them on all this rubbish?

I understand that one person’s “rubbish,” though, can be another’s treasure. Still, as Edward Veith writes in The State of the Arts:

The problem with religious kitsch is that its cuteness and self-gratifying nature can domesticate and thereby distort Biblical faith. Christianity is not a sickly, sweet religion . . . The anemic figurines of Jesus Christ are poor testimony to His deity and His lordship.

Viewing It All in (a Humorous) Perspective

sockeWhile surfing the net researching this peculiar item, I encountered an entertaining website where we see how the Catholic—Reformer struggle lives on today.

A Roman Catholic website comments on the same sort of socks—tastefully offered in the original German. The author of The Ironic Catholic writes:

With all due apologies to my Lutheran brothers and sisters: while this catapults you into a real race with the Catholics for kitsch, we will crush you like grapes in this arena.

It’s all good-natured, of course. I haven’t bothered to research Catholic variations on the footings quotations front, but I imagine they are equally pithy.

I did, however, find one prolific Roman Catholic author whose following statement might be just as suitable for a hat as for stockings.

“It is because we are standing on our heads that Christ’s philosophy seems upside-down.” (G.K. Chesterton)

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* You can order your own pair of “Here I Stand” socks here.

** The Ironic Catholic post is here.

updikeHappy Easter Monday. Even if you do not believe Jesus has risen from the dead, I sincerely hope you are experiencing a special season of hope and peace.

For Christians, however, the bodily resurrection of Jesus is not an optional doctrine.

The Scriptures affirm the truth that, “. . . if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. . . . if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:14-19, ESV).

John Updike (1932-2009) recognized this truth and wrote an oft-quoted poem about it.*

“Seven Stanzas at Easter”

Make no mistake: if he rose at all

It was as His body;

If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,

The amino acids rekindle,

The Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,

Each soft spring recurrent;

It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the

Eleven apostles;

It was as His flesh; ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes

The same valved heart

That—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then regathered

Out of enduring Might

New strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,

Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,

Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded

Credulity of earlier ages:

Let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,

Not a stone in a story,

But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of

Time will eclipse for each of us

The wide light of day.

And if we have an angel at the tomb,

Make it a real angel,

Weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in

The dawn light, robed in real linen

Spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,

For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,

Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed

By the miracle,

And crushed by remonstrance.

Updike & Lewis

Poetry and faith were not the only interests shared by Updike and C.S. Lewis. Both men were literary critics, as well as authors in their own right. Updike’s description of his approach to criticism echoes many of the same principles displayed by Lewis.

1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

2. Give enough direct quotation—at least one extended passage—of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.

3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy précis.

4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending.

5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s œuvre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?**

Updike wrote, “I read C.S. Lewis for comfort and pleasure,” praise that has been included in advertising campaigns. A fuller account of his appreciation for Lewis’ work comes in the following passage, from Conversations with John Updike.

The provableness of God is a subject Updike may have mused upon during the many Sunday mornings he has spent in church. Updike is a lifelong churchgoer. He was raised a Lutheran, became a Congregationalist during his first marriage, and has recently joined the Episcopal church.

“I don’t see anything else around really addressing, for me, one’s basic sense of dread and strangeness other than the Christian church,” he said. “I’ve written maybe all too much about religion here and there. But there have been times when I read a lot of theology. The year I spent in England [after graduation from Harvard] I was very nervous and frightened, standing more or less on the threshold of my adult life and career, if any.

“One of the ways I assuaged my anxiety was to read a lot of G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis, some Kierkegaard, and when I moved to New England, I read a lot of Karl Barth. My intensive theology reading extends from about the age of 22 to, say, 30. I get great pleasure out of reading theology.”

Reading Theology

Updike was correct. Contemplating holy matters can certainly be pleasurable. That is true even when we are chewing on complex subjects, difficult to digest. After all, “everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” Hebrews 5:13-14, ESV).

The resurrection of Jesus may be one of these truths not simple for all to believe. I pray for those who find this a challenge. But, God forbid that any of us should reject the most significant event in human history, “Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed by the miracle, and crushed by remonstrance.”

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* For the interesting story of how this poem won first place in a competition at his church, you can read his pastor’s recollections here.

** Updike’s list concludes with these words: “To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in any ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never . . . try to put the author ‘in his place,’ making of him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys of reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.”

csl & chesterton

Sadly, politics are by definition nearly always polarizing. In the linguistic battleground of political warfare, we seem to more and more frequently encounter a “take no prisoners” attitude. It’s ominous.

I recently read the following words which describe, quite well I think, the positions of the two main rivals in virtually all political campaigns. (And, in this sentence, I’m referring to the military definition of “campaign.”)

“The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.”

Some things never change. This cutting critique appeared nearly a century ago (in the 19 April 1924 issue of the Illustrated London News). It was penned by G.K. Chesterton, a British writer who was admired by many of his contemporaries, from a number of different perspectives. George Bernard Shaw, a Socialist, considered the conservative journalist a “man of colossal genius.”

Chesterton was one of the Christian writers whose faith made a significant impression on the unbelieving C.S. Lewis. Before encountering Jesus, the atheist Lewis resented the “intrusions” of Christian references into the writings of authors he otherwise enjoyed. He describes this conundrum delightfully in Surprised by Joy.

All the books were beginning to turn against me. Indeed, I must have been as blind as a bat not to have seen, long before, the ludicrous contradiction between my theory of life and my actual experiences as a reader. George MacDonald had done more to me than any other writer; of course it was a pity he had that bee in his bonnet about Christianity. He was good in spite of it.

Chesterton had more sense than all the other moderns put together; bating, of course, his Christianity. Johnson was one of the few authors whom I felt I could trust utterly; curiously enough, he had the same kink. Spenser and Milton by a strange coincidence had it too.

Even among ancient authors the same paradox was to be found. The most religious (Plato, Aeschylus, Virgil) were clearly those on whom I could really feed.

On the other hand, those writers who did not suffer from religion and with whom in theory my sympathy ought to have been complete—Shaw and Wells and Mill and Gibbon and Voltaire—all seemed a little thin; what as boys we called “tinny.” It wasn’t that I didn’t like them. They were all (especially Gibbon) entertaining; but hardly more. There seemed to be no depth in them. They were too simple. The roughness and density of life did not appear in their books. . . .

The upshot of it all could nearly be expressed in a perversion of Roland’s great line in the Chanson—Christians are wrong, but all the rest are bores. The natural step would have been to inquire a little more closely whether the Christians were, after all, wrong.

And C.S. Lewis, to his eternal joy, did just that. He inquired more deeply into the faith held by the writers he so respected. This included, of course, Chesterton. Echoes of Chesterton’s masterful expressions of Christian faith recur in the work of Lewis. For example, in his essay “Membership,” Lewis writes:

Equality is a quantitative term and therefore love often knows nothing of it. . . . Even in the life of the affections, much more in the body of Christ, we step outside that world which says “I am as good as you.” . . . We become, as Chesterton said, taller when we bow; we become lowlier when we instruct.

Similarly, in A Preface to Paradise Lost, Lewis describes how best to savor the historical work of writers from different eras. Although the reference to Chesterton here is given in passing, I will reproduce the larger passage in light of its insight into how best to benefit from what we read.

The things which separate one age from another are superficial. Just as, if we stripped the armour off a medieval knight or the lace off a Caroline courtier, we should find beneath them an anatomy identical with our own, so, it is held, if we strip off from Virgil his Roman imperialism, from Sidney his code of honour, from Lucretius his Epicurean philosophy, and from all who have it their religion, we shall find the Unchanging Human Heart, and on this we are to concentrate.

I held this theory myself for many years, but I have now abandoned it. I continue, of course, to admit that if you remove from people the things that make them different, what is left must be the same, and that the Human Heart will certainly appear as Unchanging if you ignore its changes. . . .

Instead of stripping the knight of his armour you can try to put his armour on yourself; instead of seeing how the courtier would look without his lace, you can try to see how you would feel with his lace; that is, with his honour, his wit, his royalism, and his gallantries out of the Grand Cyrus. I had much rather know what I should feel like if I adopted the beliefs of Lucretius than how Lucretius would have felt if he had never entertained them. The possible Lucretius in myself interests me more than the possible C.S. Lewis in Lucretius.

There is in G.K. Chesterton’s Avowals and Denials a wholly admirable essay called “On Man: Heir of All the Ages.” An heir is one who inherits and “any man who is cut off from the past . . . is a man most unjustly disinherited.” . . .

You must, so far as in you lies, become an Achaean chief while reading Homer, a medieval knight while reading Malory, and an eighteenth century Londoner while reading Johnson. Only thus will you be able to judge the work “in the same spirit that its author writ” and to avoid chimerical criticism.

G.K. Chesterton is well worth reading, and most fans of Lewis will appreciate his prodigious work. The best thing about Chesterton, is that since he entered the presence of his Lord in 1936, nearly everything he wrote is in the public domain. His essays, poetry, apologetic works—and even the tales of his fictional detective Father Brown—are readily accessible online.

For a friendly introduction to the relationship between Lewis and Chesterton, I recommend “Chesterton and Lewis, Side by Side.” In an issue devoted entirely to comparing the two pillars of Twentieth Century Christian apologetics, the St. Austin Review, we read:

In 1946, ten years after Chesterton died, Lewis wrote a short article defending Chesterton against the two charges with which he is still attacked—or dismissed—by most academicians: one, that he was popular, and two, that he was dated. Of course, Lewis is attacked for the same two reasons.

The entire article is available here. Those interested in one of the areas where Chesterton’s writing overlapped with that of Lewis and his good friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, will also enjoy “G.K. Chesterton: Fairy Tale Philosopher,” which is available here.

Shut Up He Explained

August 27, 2013 — 14 Comments

LardnerMy wife and I love that phrase, and we often recall it when we encounter particularly over-strained (or “broken”) grammar. When I encountered it as the title of a book, I was unaware of its original source.

This is where I reveal that I wasn’t an American Lit major in college. (Well, regular readers probably figured that out long ago.)

I had never heard of Ring Lardner until today. (If you don’t recognize his name either, you needn’t feel embarrassed . . . he died eighty years ago.)

Lardner was a well regarded humorist who considered himself a sports writer. One of his satires was entitled The Young Immigrunts. It was a parody of a popular English book, The Young Visitors, which was allegedly written by a young girl.

The Young Immigrunts is fictitiously ascribed to Lardner’s son, Ringgold Wilmer Lardner, Jr. His son was only four, at the time. Later he would become a successful screenwriter, winning an Academy Award for the film M*A*S*H. He also wrote prolifically for the television series.

Perhaps Lardner Junior is best remembered as one of the Communist writers blacklisted in Hollywood. But we need not go into that, since his father was merely using his young son as a surrogate author for the work.

The book takes the form of the ramblings of a child, and its quaintness will appeal to many readers. You can download a copy of it here.

It’s not my own preferred genre, so I won’t be reading it in its entirety, but in small doses, I find it rather entertaining.

A little later who should come out on the porch and set themselfs ner us but the bride and glum [pictured above].

Oh I said to myself I hope they will talk so as I can hear them as I have always wandered what newlyweds talk about on their way to Niagara Falls and soon my wishs was realized.

Some night said the young glum are you warm enough.

I am perfectly comfertible replid the fare bride tho her looks belid her words what time do we arrive in Buffalo.

9 oclock said the lordly glum are you warm enough.

I am perfectly comfertible replid the fare bride what time do we arive in Buffalo.

9 oclock said the lordly glum I am afrade it is too cold for you out here.

Well maybe it is replid the fare bride and without farther adieu they went in the spacius parlers.

I wander will he be arsking her 8 years from now is she warm enough said my mother with a faint grimace.

The weather may change before then replid my father.

Are you warm enough said my father after a slite pause.

No was my mothers catchy reply.

And now the phrase that always makes me smile.

The lease said about my and my fathers trip from the Bureau of Manhattan to our new home the soonest mended. In some way ether I or he got balled up on the grand concorpse and next thing you know we was thretning to swoop down on Pittsfield.

Are you lost daddy I arsked tenderly.

Shut up he explained.

I am curious as to whether or not C.S. Lewis was acquainted with Lardner’s work. It doesn’t quite conform to his literary tastes, but Lewis was so widely read that I think it’s possible he was at least acquainted with who he was.

My research on the matter did produce an interesting juxtaposition between the two authors. I discovered it in a book by Sherwood Wirt, perhaps the last reporter to interview C.S. Lewis (for Decision magazine, of which he was editor). I was privileged to know “Woody,” so I enjoyed finding that he mentioned both men in his book I Don’t Know what Old is, But Old is Older than Me.

With twentieth century fiction we have to be quite selective. In limiting my comments to the American scene, I will pass by many of the great names of fiction — Henry James, Stephen Crane, Edith Wharton, Jack London, Theodore Dreiser, Ring Lardner, William Faulkner, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, James Baldwin, John Steinbeck, Vladimir Nabokov, Norman Mailer, and Truman Capote.

While most of these are excellent writers, I doubt whether they have much to say to today’s older readers that would make life more pleasant, more interesting, or more fruitful in the closing stretches of life’s journey. Nor do I think that these authors have anything worthwhile to say about what lies beyond death. We might better spend our reading hours riding off into the sunset with Louis L’Amour or Zane Grey, rather than punish ourselves with a ghastly tale like In Cold Blood.

We old boys and girls have been around a long time. We know what the world is like. We know sleaze when we see it, and we don’t need contemporary authors to embellish it or explain it to us.

The reading tastes of the American public have been corrupted almost beyond redemption by blasphemy, vulgarity, and scatology, all for the sake of increased book sales to prurient minds. There are, however, many twentieth-century American novels worth reading, such as Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October, the Savannah quartet of Eugenia Price, and the Sebastian series of James L. Johnson, to name only a few.

Earlier in the century the Christian novels of Lloyd C. Douglas—The Magnificent Obsession, The Robe, and The Big Fisherman—inspired thousands of readers young and old, but no American has since matched his popular appeal.

The demand for detective fiction continues unabated, and no one needs my advice to read Agatha Christie. I would, therefore, limit my remarks to a reference to two British creations, G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown and Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, since both are written from Christian backgrounds. My two favorite Wimsey stories are Busman’s Honeymoon and The Nine Tailors.

In contrast there is a wealth of devotional literature that makes wonderful reading for older people. One can start with the sermons of D.L. Moody, Charles Spurgeon, Samuel P. Jones, Joseph Parker, and T. DeWitt Talmage of the nineteenth century. The early twentieth century gave us Andrew Murray, Ole Hallesby, P.T. Forsyth, and Oswald Chambers, whose writings are hard to surpass. Amy Carmichael’s poetry and prose written in India, have blessed millions of readers. More contemporary are the writings of C.S. Lewis and A.W. Tozer, which carry seeds of greatness.

The passage above comes from the book’s chapter on “Reading.” If you would like to see more, the entire book (although published as recently as 1992) is legally available for your review online.

“Shut up he explained” may not be proper English, but literature doesn’t need to be proper to be entertaining. And even though Lardner is no longer a familiar name, perhaps his writings are worth visiting.

For the moment, knowing the context of this delightful phrase makes the words all the more entertaining to me. After all, like many others, my dad often “explained” the same thing to me!