Archives For Christianity

C.S. Lewis & Karl Marx

April 19, 2022 — 18 Comments

C.S. Lewis recognized quite early how Karl Marx’s philosophy, a “potent evil,” would justify terrible crimes.

The greatest threats to humanity’s future are the two major Communist powers. We see Russia’s brazen criminal ambitions currently on display in Ukraine.

Communist China’s malevolent intentions are more insidious and far more dangerous.

Aside from its nuclear arsenal, we now recognize how vastly overrated Russia’s military has been. China, by contrast, possesses an army and navy that grow deadlier each day.

C.S. Lewis understood the evil at the core of Marxism. Communists and, to a lesser degree, Socialists, seek to strip away individual rights for the illusory betterment of the whole.

But, because human beings are sinful and self-centered, even true Marxist idealists invariably end up devolving into fascist totalitarians. That’s why every one of these so-called “people’s republics” reflect nothing of republican or democratic values.

They invariably become corrupt oligarchies, typically led by ironfisted dictators. In addition to the aforementioned regimes, consider Cuba and Venezuela. When was the last time any of these four beacons of Socialism held free elections?

Karl Marx was a very troubled man. This essay in a recent publication addresses not only his insane economic theories, but his extensive personal failures as well.

The sufferings of the Marx family, and especially of poor faithful Jenny, are difficult to describe. Though they did have a housekeeper and though Friedrich Engels spent in the course of the years at least 4000 Pounds on Karl Marx, they lived in abject misery.

The death of one child, a boy, is directly attributable to poverty and neglect. Family life must have been absolutely terrible, but Marx could not be moved – neither by entreaties, nor by tears, nor by cries of despair. . . .

Yet it would be a mistake to think that Marx suffered silently and proudly. By no means! In his letters and in his conversations he never failed to complain and to lament. He had a colossal amount not only of self-hatred, but also of self-pity, but no human feelings for others, least of all for his wife whose health he had ruined completely.

In a 1946 essay entitled “Modern Man and His Categories of Thought,” C.S. Lewis discussed the atheistic core of Communism. He noted that its advocates can use “religion” as a puppet to bolster their power. Read here about the official position of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the sad fact that “Patriarch Kirill is a staunch ally of Mr. Putin.”

Such is the fruit of the Marxist mind. Here is C.S. Lewis’ description.

Proletarianism, in its various forms ranging from strict Marxism to vague “democracy” . . . [is] self-satisfied to a degree perhaps beyond the self-satisfaction of any recorded aristocracy.

They are convinced that whatever may be wrong with the world it cannot be themselves. Someone else must be to blame for every evil.

Hence, when the existence of God is discussed, they by no means think of Him as their Judge. On the contrary, they are His judges. If He puts up a reasonable defence they will consider it and perhaps acquit Him. They have no feelings of fear, guilt, or awe.

They think, from the very outset, of God’s duties to them, not their duties to Him. And God’s duties to them are conceived not in terms of salvation but in purely secular terms – social security, prevention of war, a higher standard of life. “Religion” is judged exclusively by its contribution to these ends (“Modern Man and His Categories of Thought”).

As destructive as Marxism is wearing its true, secular garb, it becomes far more calamitous when it infiltrates the Christian Church. As C.S. Lewis observed, Marxism can use and abuse the Church, but that is done from an external position.

When actual members of the Church are deceived to the degree they adopt this error, it is beyond tragic. In 1940 Lewis warned of this danger in a letter to a Roman Catholic priest with whom he corresponded.

Fascism and Communism, like all other evils, are potent because of the good they contain or imitate. Diabolus simius Dei.* And, of course, their occasion is the failure of those who left humanity starved of that particular good.

This does not for me alter the conviction that they are very bad indeed. One of the things we must guard against is the penetration of both into Christianity-availing themselves of that very truth you have suggested and I have admitted.

Mark my words: you will presently see both a Leftist and a Rightist pseudo-theology developing – the abomination will stand where it ought not.

C.S. Lewis was an honest man, who was capable of acknowledging his own shortcomings. Thirteen years after the previous letter, he wrote to another priest in the wake of massive suppression of Christianity in China.

After lamenting the persecution, he acknowledges the failure of the Church to live according to its calling. To this failure he attributes the rise of “other evils” such as Communism.

At last, dearest Father, there has come to hand that copy of . . . your article on that Chinese disaster. I used myself to entertain many hopes for that nation, since the missionaries have served there for many years not unsuccessfully: now it is clear, as you write, that all is on the ebb.

Many have reported to me too, in letters on this subject, many atrocities, nor was this misery absent from our thoughts and prayers.

But it did not happen, however, without sins on our part: for that justice and that care for the poor which (most mendaciously) the Communists advertise, we in reality ought to have brought about ages ago. But far from it: we Westerners preached Christ with our lips, with our actions we brought the slavery of Mammon.

We are more guilty than the infidels: for to those that know the will of God and do it not, the greater the punishment. Now the only refuge lies in contrition and prayer. Long have we erred.

In reading the history of Europe, its destructive succession of wars, of avarice, of fratricidal persecutions of Christians by Christians, of luxury, of gluttony, of pride, who could detect any but the rarest traces of the Holy Spirit?

Christians, I encourage you to join me in repenting of our failures. We must still challenge the lies, such as those of Karl Marx. But, we should never do so without remaining conscious of our own failures which too often provide fertile soil for such deceptions.


* Diabolus simius Dei means “the Devil is the ape of God.” This refers to Satan’s attempts to imitate or counterfeit divine actions and principles. The observation was first made by Tertullian, and echoed by Augustine and others.

Jesus died on a cross. So why in the world would his followers choose the image of a cross to identify their faith?

The answer comes via a paradox. The cross is about two, superficially-contradictory realities. (1) Jesus bled, suffered and died on the cross. (2) On that very cross, Jesus purchased for all who call upon his name, eternal life.

This seeming paradox between simultaneous truths is sometimes referred to as a theological dialectic.

C.S. Lewis brilliantly illustrates this dynamic in his description of Death in his book Miracles.

On the one hand Death is the triumph of Satan, the punishment of the Fall, and the last enemy. Christ shed tears at the grave of Lazarus and sweated blood in Gethsemane: the Life of Lives that was in Him detested this penal obscenity not less than we do, but more.

On the other hand, only he who loses his life will save it. We are baptized into the death of Christ, and it is the remedy for the Fall. Death is, in fact, what some modern people call “ambivalent.”

It is Satan’s great weapon and also God’s great weapon: it is holy and unholy; our supreme disgrace and our only hope; the thing Christ came to conquer and the means by which He conquered (Miracles).

Thus, the grim suffering of Good Friday . . . becomes Good. It is not an accident. Nor is it a mistake. It was the necessary consequence of humanity’s fall and our costly, divine rescue. As C.S. Lewis writes in The Four Loves:

He creates the universe, already foreseeing – or should we say “seeing”? there are no tenses in God – the buzzing cloud of flies about the cross, the flayed back pressed against the uneven stake, the nails driven through the mesial nerves, the repeated torture of back and arms as it is time after time, for breath’s sake, hitched up. . . .

Herein is love. This is the diagram of Love Himself, the inventor of all loves.

Of course, this truth is only recognizable to those who have knelt before Jesus the Messiah and received his grace.

To unbelievers, “the world,” the cross makes no sense at all. Those in spiritual blindness reject it as the epitome of Christian absurdity.

Just such claims were made from the very beginning. Not long after Christ’s resurrection, these challenges were addressed by Paul, the Pharisee turned Apostle. Proclaiming the miracle of the cross, he reminds the young church in Corinth how they cannot expect the lost to comprehend its glory, its untainted goodness.

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. . . .

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men (1 Corinthians).

The crucifixion and resurrection of the only begotten Son of God are the sole means by which you and I may be cleansed, healed, and restored to the unending life for which our Lord created us.

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.

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.

Christians & Retirement

December 7, 2021 — 30 Comments

When do pastors retire? Or, in the opinion of some, can Christian pastors actually retire?

If you’re looking for answers to this question in the Bible, you will find it’s not specifically addressed. Retirement is a relatively modern concept. In earlier ages, women and men were expected to continue contributing to the family and common good as they were able, even during their winter years.

This added a type of dignity to many of their lives. It is not that the crippled or dependent were viewed as something less, but there was an expectation that as long as a person had something valuable to offer to others, it was wrong to waste it.

Pastors are in a unique position. Most believe they have been “called” by God in some manner to serve the Lord and our brothers and sisters, created in his image. If God actively calls you, does that vocation (from vocatio, calling) expire on some set timeline?

It’s curious how people refer to some arbitrary age such as sixty-five as time to retire. Many Western nations have institutionalized that rather capricious practice by determining an age at which you can begin collecting money from the government’s coffers.

Some, like the U.S., have recently adjusted that beneficent accomplishment (i.e. becoming a senior citizen eligible to receive “social security” payments), in light of increasing lifespans, and political policies not suitable for discussion among the genteel audience of Mere Inkling.

Most secularists naturally think retirement – like everything else – is about them. One financial adviser said, “Retirement is like a long vacation in Las Vegas. The goal is to enjoy it the fullest, but not so fully that you run out of money.”

C.S. Lewis described one such person in a 1921 letter to his brother. He describes a mutual friend’s in-laws as ironic.

As you will never meet them (nor indeed will I), it is no breach of confidence to touch on the grim humours of his future ‘in-laws.’ A mother . . . who has all the money but is nevertheless incapable of resisting her husband, a retired army officer, busily engaged in trying to see if his constitution will ‘keep’ by being sufficiently soaked in spirits.

This indeed has been his life work, and the devil of it is that it seems likely to ‘keep’ a good bit yet.

Semi-Retirement

The frame on my auto license says “Semi-Retired Military Chaplain.” After retiring from active duty in the Air Force, I anticipated providing “pulpit supply” for vacationing pastors and serving an occasional “vacancy.” An interim or vacancy pastor covers the months between the departure of a congregation’s pastor and the call of a new pastor. I’ve served three, one of which was more than a year long.

Now that I’m a bona fide senior, I thought my vacancy days were over. It appears, however, that God may have other plans. This week I’ve been approached by a congregation interested in calling me to serve them in that role.

Please pray that God leads them in whether or not they should formalize that call. And, please pray that I will clearly discern God’s desire in this matter. Right now it appears to be one of those “Matthew 26” moments where “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Can Anyone Truly Retire?

So, do pastors ever really retire, in the sense of ending their ministry? The answer is an unequivocal “no.” What’s more, if you are a Christian, you don’t get to retire either.

Here’s the catch – this vocation to actively serve God all of our days doesn’t just apply to pastors. You see, all Christians are called to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

Consider 1 Peter 2:5 where the apostle writes: “You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

While you usually hear the truth of the “priesthood of all believers” from Protestants, the fact is that it comes directly from the Bible and applies to us all. As one prominent Roman Catholic journal puts it:

The priesthood of all believers is a call to ministry and service; it is a barometer of the quality of the life of God’s people in the body of Christ and of the coherence of our witness in the world, the world for which Christ died. . . . this teaching is a summons to faithfulness on the part of all Christians, Protestants and Catholics alike.

Retirements or Transitions?

So, whatever we would like to be true, the fact remains that retirement is not part of God’s plan for his children. But that shouldn’t trouble us. Because the Lord not only promises to give us the strength to do anything he asks of us, he also leads us into different fields of harvest at different points in our pilgrimage.

Thankfully, he doesn’t expect me to be as effective working with youth as I was in my thirties (although some of the best youth workers I’ve seen were in their seventies).

Just as I can’t rapidly deploy to a warzone with members of my flock as I once did, I possess the maturity, patience and compassion to care for those in the twilight of their lives far better than I did decades ago.

An interesting testimony to these shifts in ministry focus is found in the Old Testament. God set the tribe of Levi apart to oversee all details related to the worship of God in the Temple. But their ministry in the holy place (the Temple and the Tent of Meeting which preceded it) was of a specified duration.

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “This applies to the Levites: from twenty-five years old and upward they shall come to do duty in the service of the tent of meeting. And from the age of fifty years they shall withdraw from the duty of the service and serve no more.

They minister to their brothers in the tent of meeting by keeping guard, but they shall do no service. Thus shall you do to the Levites in assigning their duties” (Numbers 8).

This passage is fascinating. At fifty, the priest step down from their ceremonial religious duties. But they do not drift off into some lazy retirement. They assume new responsibilities. A role God deemed better suited to this stage of their lives.

So too, wizened old pastors still have a role in God’s church. For some it may be serving during seasons of congregational vacancies. For others it may simply be to pray.

In a 1930 letter to his closest friend, Arthur Greeves, C.S. Lewis offers a delightful description of a “retired” pastor who is still about the business of caring for others. The fact that Lewis wrote this while an avowed atheist makes it all the more moving.

I walked as usual after lunch, dropping in on the way to see if old Foord-Kelsie would accompany me. I think I have mentioned him to you – a retired country parson of 80, who drives his own car, carpenters, and mends everyone’s wireless.

He is an irreplaceable character . . . as redolent of English country life as an old apple in a barn. He is deliciously limited: cares for no poetry but Shakespeare, distrusts all mysticism and imagination, and all overstrained moods.

Yet you could not wish him to be otherwise: and inside this almost defiantly human and mundane framework there is such tenderness of heart that one never feels it bleak.

He was in his workshop when I arrived, with shavings all about his ankles, making a cover for the font of old Headington Church.

He would not come out, and I stayed to shout conversation for fifteen minutes above the thudding and singing of his circular saw. We had a bit of everything: an outburst against Shaw, a broad story, and then, as always, onto Tristram Shandy. ‘Wonderful book–oh a wonderful book. You feel snug when you read that–you get in among them all in that little parlour. . . .’

I wish you could have seen him saying all this, bending down as he shoved a beam of wood against the saw, with one dear old wrinkled eye screwed up and held close to the work. You must hurry up and come and see me before he dies, for he of all people should be added to our stock characters.

Lewis does, indeed, portray his walking companion, the Reverend Foord-Kelcey, as a “stock character.” But he does so with evident and sincere affection.

So, our vocations do not forever remain constant. They may change over time, but God’s call on our lives does not wane.

We may approach these transitions with some trepidation. I am not ashamed to admit I do so at the present moment. I hope you will join me in seeking to hear God’s call and respond with joy and enthusiasm, just as the saints before us – “Here I am! Send me.

“When I was in high school in Oklahoma in the 1960s, my best friend was a fellow adolescent intellectual. We had lots in common, but at the time I was a liberal . . . and he was a conservative.” Thus begins a recent post from a scholar named Gene Veith, whose work I follow. But listen to the shocking statement which follows.

“We loved to argue politics. (You might think by today’s standards that it is impossible for people who disagree with each other politically to be friends, let alone best friends, but trust me, this happened back in those days.)”

It happened in those days . . .

I pity those too young to have experienced this wonder. In today’s viciously partisan culture, it is difficult to imagine we once shared such authentic humanity. As I recently wrote, even families are being torn apart by the spirit of judgment and division that reigns today.

There is one being who rejoices at this bitterness, vitriol and hatred.

Meanwhile, Jesus weeps.

Mutual Respect in the Olden Days

It used to be normal for people of goodwill to respect the consciences of those who thought differently.

People of strong convictions, like C.S. Lewis, could publicly and privately debate others without reproach or ad hominem arguments. There was a desire to persuade one’s counterpart to see things as you did. But it was absent the vile bile that spews every day across America and much of the rest of our angry world.

During WWII, C.S. Lewis began the Socratic Club, a debate society, at Oxford University. I have mentioned the group briefly in the past. Lewis explained his reasoning for helping establish the group in the first issue of the Socratic Digest.

In any fairly large and talkative community such as a university, there is always the danger that those who think alike should gravitate together into coteries where they will henceforth encounter opposition only in the emasculated form of rumour that the outsiders say thus and thus.

The absent are easily refuted, complacent dogmatism thrives, and differences of opinion are embittered by group hostility. Each group hears not the best, but the worst, that the other groups can say.

I commend to you two articles available online that (1) reveal the rich history of the Socratic Club, and (2) a biographical sketch of Chaplain Stella Aldwinckle, who first envisioned and shepherded the organization.

Four years ago I wrote a column encouraging greater civility in religious conversations. I said:

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.

Today I wish to extend that thought to all conversations, political, medical, and otherwise. We must reverse the path we are on. And, with God’s grace, we must do so sooner rather than later.


[In the article “My Experience with Conservative Atheism,” source of the anecdote with which I began, Veith discusses Libertarian atheist Ayn Rand. I have written about her in the past at Mere Inkling, noting how deeply she despised C.S. Lewis.]

Humorous Examinations

September 21, 2021 — 13 Comments

Could you pass this examination?

Sketch the development of human thought, estimate its significance. Compare with the development of any other kind of thought.

In contrast to the serious tone of the last two posts, today I am offering some edifying entertainment. As a gift to you, I have edited a perennial favorite of internet humorists. I recently came across my copy of this comprehensive knowledge examination, which motivated me to tweak it for Mere Inkling’s erudite audience.

You have probably seen versions of this exam in the past. The basic questions have remained surprisingly stable despite its age. I encountered it in the University of Washington campus paper in 1973. One writer claims “the Graduation Exam—Authentic Assessment has been in circulation since at least the 1950’s.”

The exam certainly makes the rounds, as this Navy veteran described.

The pressures of comprehensive exams were apparent to many, which resulted in one of the few officially sanctioned jokes in Naval Nuclear Power. In one of the official publications of Naval Reactors, someone inserted a sample “final exam” from Nuclear Power School.

In 2012 elements of the examination created confusion in the People’s Republic of China. It was included in an article about how Chinese nationals could prepare for an American State Department exam required for positions at the United States embassy in Beijing. According to China’s Global Times, “US embassy spokesman Richard Buangan made clear on his Sina microblog Sunday that an alleged ‘recruitment test for expatriate employees at the US embassy’ is fake.”

A June 2008 issue of Foreign Service Journal carried a story, which includes an English version of the [exam stating] the questions are from the US State Department’s entrance exam, in a bid to “measure the stability of perspective Foreign Service officers and to weed out the dummies.”

The Function of Examinations

Testing and documenting competence is obviously important. This is especially true for people in critical roles, such as prescribing drugs, designing aircraft engines, and manufacturing ice cream.

Of course, not everyone is able to pass every test. Which is precisely how things should be.

C.S. Lewis noted how educators truly familiar with their students readily recognize when it is a waste of time for them to continue repeating an exam they obviously cannot pass. He said an academic “master often knows, when boys and parents do not, that it is really useless to send a boy in for a certain examination again” (The Problem of Pain).

I have met very few people who enjoy being tested. Yet, for many faculty members (C.S. Lewis included), being on the “other side” of exams is not particularly enjoyable either. This delightful passage comes from a 1927 letter to his brother, Warnie.

My period of examining passed over with its usual accompaniment of neuralgia and oaths, relieved by the one excellent boy who defined ‘a genie’ correctly, yet more than correctly, as ‘an eastern spirit inhabiting bottles and buttons and rings.’ Pretty good for a boy.

I was also pleased with a youth who, being asked to write a letter to a friend recommending Guy Mannering,* wrote to his brother recommending it and saying ‘I think you would be interested in the character of Colonel Mannering, he is so like our father’: and then later in a paper on Guy Mannering in which I had set the question ‘Would you have liked Colonel Mannering as a father?’—illustrate your answer etc.—began decisively ‘I would not have liked Colonel Mannering as a father in the least.’

Well, it’s time now to offer you the opportunity to prove your worthiness. If you wish to evidence the breadth and depth of your knowledge, proceed now to the exam. (Astute readers will note I’ve added a personal twist to a couple of the exam questions.)

Comprehensive Knowledge Exam

HISTORY: Describe the history of the papacy from its origins to the present day, concentrating especially, but not exclusively, on its social, political, economic, religious, and philosophical impact on Europe, Asia, North and South America, and Africa. Be brief, concise, and specific. Now do the same for the Zoroastrian priesthood. [Bonus credit for including Antarctica in your response.]

MEDICINE: You have been provided with a razor blade, a piece of gauze and a bottle of scotch. Remove your appendix. Do not suture until your work has been inspected. You have fifteen minutes. [Option: if you feel the scotch would impair your responses to the remaining questions, you may defer this portion of the exam to the end of the exam.]

PUBLIC SPEAKING: Two thousand riot-crazed anarchists are storming the campus. Calm them. You may use any ancient language except Latin, Greek or Sanskrit. [Pig Latin is allowed.]

BIOLOGY: Postulate the 500 million year progression of a life form based on silicon, ranking its likely preference for form of government Enumerate the pros and cons it would associate with democracy, monarchy, socialism, theocracy, and totalitarianism. [Caution: any references to the Horta of Janus VI will result in disqualification of your answer, since Star Trek is a fictional resource.]

MUSIC: Write a piano concerto. Orchestrate and perform it with flute and digeridoo. You will find a piano under your seat. The wind instruments, of course, were among the items you were directed to bring with you to the examination.

PSYCHOLOGY: Based on your knowledge of their works, evaluate the emotional stability, degree of adjustment, and repressed frustrations of each of the following: Alexander of Aphrodisias, Hildegard of Bingen, Rābi’a bint Ka’b al-Quzdārī and Simeon the Stylite. Support your evaluation with quotations from each individual’s work, citing original sources. It is not necessary to translate.

SOCIOLOGY: Using the pretext of Planet of the Apes, where homo sapiens have been subordinated to various primate species, assess the prospects for achieving mutual toleration and equilibrium before one group is driven to extinction. [Caution: confusion of apes (which lack tails) and monkeys (which lack an appendix) will result in disqualification of your response.]

CHEMISTRY: Transform lead into gold. You will find a beaker, a three hundred count box of matches and five lead sinkers under your seat. Show all work including Feynman diagrams and quantum functions for all steps. [Transformation into silver will provide half credit.]

ENGINEERING: The disassembled parts of a high-powered rifle have been placed on your desk. You will also find an instruction manual, printed in Swahili. In 10 minutes a hungry Bengal tiger will be admitted to the room. [Special Consideration: Satisfactorily explain the differences between Fahrenheit and Celsius to the tiger, and it will be replaced by a rabid ferret.]

ECONOMICS: Develop a realistic plan for refinancing global debt, without hypothesizing a benevolent intergalactic alliance with unlimited resources coming to the planet’s aid. Trace the possible effects of your plan in the following areas: Cubism, the Donatist controversy, and the 1913 foundation of Hôpital Albert Schweitzer in Gabon.

POLITICAL SCIENCE: Devise an infallible, seven-step plan to transform the United Nations into an organization that will successfully foster peace and goodwill in all international relationships. [Bonus credit for providing a major role for two of the following nations: Dominica, Liechtenstein, Tuvalu.]

AGRICULTURAL SCIENCE: Outline the steps involved in breeding your own super high yield, all weather hybrid strain of wheat. Describe its chemical and physical properties and estimate its impact on world food supplies. Construct a model for dealing with world-wide surpluses. Draft your Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

PHYSICS: Explain the nature of matter. Include in your answer an evaluation of the impact of the development of mathematics on astronomy, botany and numismatics. [Bonus Credit: write today’s date in metric.]

PHILOSOPHY: Sketch the development of human thought, estimate its significance. Compare with the development of any other kind of thought. Be sure to include an analysis of the influence exerted on philosophy by Diogenes the Cynic.

CREATIVE WRITING: Compose an epic poem based on the events of your own life in which you see and footnote allusions from T.S. Eliot, Titus Lucretius Carus, Miguel de Cervantes, Dante Alighieri, Þorbjörn Hornklofi, Gilgamesh and Stephen King. Critique your poem with a full discussion of its syntax and metrics. [Bonus Credit for writing alternating stanzas between free and rhyming verse.]

EDUCATION: Formulate an examination which accurately measures an individual’s comprehensive knowledge base without cultural or linguistic prejudice. Limit the question parameters to what can reasonably be covered during a four hour testing block.

LITERATURE: Discuss in detail at least three major literary figures from each of the following civilizations: the Xia Dynasty, the Akkadian Empire, the Mayan Empire, the Aksumite Empire, the Polynesian Tuʻi Tonga Empire, and nineteenth century United Kingdom. [Caution: failure to include J.R.R. Tolkien and/or C.S. Lewis will result in disqualification of your answer to this question.]

Congratulations on finishing the exam. You are encouraged to use any remaining time to review your answers in light of the fact that grammatical errors and misspellings will significantly impact your final grade.


* You can download a personal copy of Guy Mannering, one of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverly novels, at Internet Archive.

If you should question the distinctions I noted between apes and monkeys, please know that the facts are genuine. However, for future examinations, you should be aware that not all monkeys have tails.

Glorifying the Evil One

August 24, 2021 — 8 Comments

One perplexing behavior of humanity, is seen in the inclination of some to glorify our greatest enemy. Some people sincerely adore a being who desires nothing more than humanity’s suffering and eternal separation from our loving Creator.

I once heard the difference between God and Satan put this way: even when you hate him, God still loves you, and even when you love him, Lucifer still hates you.

Yet some still idealize this fallen angel who has earned many corrupt titles, including Tempter and Father of Lies.

In literature and other media you can readily find positive treatments of the Devil. John Milton’s Paradise Lost presents Lucifer as the classic tragic figure. Even his arrogance and vanity about his beauty are presented in a sympathetic fashion. In “Why Satan’s Character in Paradise Lost is the Original Antihero,” Lisa Ampleman says “at the 350th anniversary of its publication, Milton’s masterpiece seems ever more relevant.”

The Romantic poet William Blake even said that Milton was “of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” For the first few books, the charismatic demon’s concerns are front and center, and God seems authoritarian and legalistic.

Fortunately, Milton does not leave us with this sympathetic portrayal of Lucifer. As the article’s author writes, Satan “is not the absolute evil we may have expected, and a sympathetic devil is a dangerous devil.” In Book IX, the Devil even confesses his grim obsession.

But neither here seek I, no nor in Heaven
To dwell, unless by mastering Heaven’s Supreme;
Nor hope to be myself less miserable
By what I seek, but others to make such
As I, though thereby worse to me redound:

For only in destroying I find ease
To my relentless thoughts; and, him destroyed,
Or won to what may work his utter loss,
For whom all this was made, all this will soon
Follow, as to him linked in weal or woe;

In woe then; that destruction wide may range:
To me shall be the glory sole among
The infernal Powers, in one day to have marred
What he, Almighty styled, six nights and days
Continued making . . .

In his Preface to Paradise Lost, C.S. Lewis astutely describes Milton’s depiction of the Devil’s eternal dilemma.

What we see in Satan is the horrible co-existence of a subtle and incessant intellectual activity with an incapacity to understand anything. This doom he has brought upon himself; in order to avoid seeing one thing he has, almost voluntarily, incapacitated himself from seeing at all.

And thus, throughout the poem, all his torments come, in a sense, at his own bidding, and the Divine judgement might have been expressed in the words “thy will be done.” He says “Evil be thou my good” (which includes “Nonsense be thou my sense”) and his prayer is granted.

Turning to one of America’s most renowned authors, we encounter in Mark Twain an unabashedly positive portrayal of Lucifer. In Letters from the Earth (which was too controversial for publication during his lifetime), Satan remains a trusted member of God’s Grand Council. It is left to Satan to question God’s arbitrary creation of violent and flawed creatures.

After a long time and many questions, Satan said, “The spider kills the fly, and eats it; the bird kills the spider and eats it; the wildcat kills the goose; the — well, they all kill each other. It is murder all along the line. Here are countless multitudes of creatures, and they all kill, kill, kill, they are all murderers. And they are not to blame, Divine One?”

“They are not to blame. It is the law of their nature. And always the law of nature is the Law of God. Now – observe – behold! A new creature – and the masterpiece – Man!”

Far from humanity being created in the Divine image, Twain’s twisted version of the Creator has God throwing together all of the positive, and negative, traits he had bestowed on the imperfect animals.

“Put into each individual, in differing shades and degrees, all the various Moral Qualities, in mass, that have been distributed, a single distinguishing characteristic at a time, among the nonspeaking animal world – courage, cowardice, ferocity, gentleness, fairness, justice, cunning, treachery, magnanimity, cruelty, malice, malignity, lust, mercy, pity, purity, selfishness, sweetness, honor, love, hate, baseness, nobility, loyalty, falsity, veracity, untruthfulness – each human being shall have all of these in him, and they will constitute his nature.

“In some, there will be high and fine characteristics which will submerge the evil ones, and those will be called good men; in others the evil characteristics will have dominion, and those will be called bad men.”

Satan later offered some sarcastic compliments about creation and is exiled briefly to Earth. There, Twain’s hero pens a number of letters to archangels sympathetic to his views. A single passage is adequate to illustrate the whole.

Man is a marvelous curiosity. When he is at his very very best he is a sort of low grade nickel-plated angel; at his worst he is unspeakable, unimaginable; and first and last and all the time he is a sarcasm. Yet he blandly and in all sincerity calls himself the “noblest work of God. . . .”

Moreover – if I may put another strain upon you – he thinks he is the Creator’s pet. He believes the Creator is proud of him; he even believes the Creator loves him; has a passion for him; sits up nights to admire him; yes, and watch over him and keep him out of trouble. He prays to Him, and thinks He listens. Isn’t it a quaint idea?

For an accurate illustration of Satan’s activities and purposes, one need look no further than C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters. In one letter, Screwtape highlights the progress Satan’s minions have made in desensitizing humanity to what was recognized as provocative in an earlier age.

We have engineered a great increase in the licence which society allows to the representation of the apparent nude (not the real nude) in art, and its exhibition on the stage or the bathing beach. It is all a fake, of course; the figures in the popular art are falsely drawn; the real women in bathing suits or tights are actually pinched in and propped up to make them appear firmer and more slender and more boyish than nature allows a full-grown woman to be.

Yet at the same time, the modern world is taught to believe that it is being ‘frank’ and ‘healthy’ and getting back to nature. As a result we are more and more directing the desires of men to something which does not exist – making the rôle of the eye in sexuality more and more important and at the same time making its demands more and more impossible. What follows you can easily forecast!

Artistic Presentations of a Sympathetic Devil

It was actually a nineteenth century Belgian sculpture of Lucifer which is part of the elaborate pulpit of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Liège which inspired today’s reflections. Guillaume Geefs was commissioned to create the piece as part of a general theme of the triumph of religion over evil. The Devil as he portrayed the rebel angel, is rather too appealing for those acquainted with his actual biblical portrait.

Even though his wings have devolved to appear more like those of a bat than a bird, and his foot is chained, the sculpture’s physique is attractive. His apparent regret, evident in his expression and the presence of a tear, invite sympathy. It is regarded as an outstanding example of Romanticism. In a word, it serves as an attractive personification of a vile and malignant being. And this presents a dangerously misleading view of the very real spiritual warfare raging about us.

Curiously, Guillaume’s nude (with a robe safely draped over his lap) was actually a more modest and religious alternative to the image originally intended for the space. Ironically, it was the artist’s younger brother, Joseph, who originally received the commission. Joseph’s sculpture was regarded as even more titillating, and it was replaced. The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium admits “Joseph created one of the most disturbing works of the period.”

When it was revealed, the initial version of “Le Génie du Mal” (The Genius of Evil) raised questions about its positive portrayal. One publication reported the cathedral’s administrators determined “this devil is too sublime.”

The last thing imperfect human beings living in a fallen world need are sublime and alluring depictions of evil. In the words of C.S. Lewis,

To admire Satan, then, is to give one’s vote not only for a world of misery, but also for a world of lies and propaganda, of wishful thinking, of incessant autobiography. Yet the choice is possible. Hardly a day passes without some slight movement towards it in each one of us.

That is what makes Paradise Lost so serious a poem. The thing is possible, and the exposure of it is resented. Where Paradise Lost is not loved, it is deeply hated. (A Preface to “Paradise Lost”).

Replacement Sculpture by Guillaume Geefs.

I have a problem forgiving others. You see, I don’t think it’s quite as simple as some people make it out to be.

I’m especially stunned when I hear people say they have forgiven people who have done them grievous injury, such as murdering their loved one, or molesting them when they were a child. How, I wonder, can they do that? Of course, I know the answer. It is a miracle. It is a gift of God. Not primarily to the sinner, but to the victims themselves.

It’s not that I don’t want to forgive. I truly believe life is healthier when we forgive. Add to that the fact that God in essence commands me to forgive – read the story of the unforgiving servant – and I am doubly challenged to learn to be a better forgiver.It is simply a fact that I am too sinful, too human, to simply press a button for a one-time decision and forgive.

I’m afraid I personally need to continue to pray daily for the ability to forgive and the grace to let go of disappointment and hurt, over and over again. This prayerful act may need to be repeated – as many times as necessary – up until I take my final breath.

But there is a place I can take some comfort despite my struggle. There is a refuge in which a wiser Christian than I, reminds me that I am not alone in experiencing forgiveness as a process. C.S. Lewis described this very predicament in his Reflections on the Psalms. I share the following in the hope that it may offer similar comfort to you.

There is no use in talking as if forgiveness were easy. We all know the old joke, “You’ve given up smoking once; I’ve given it up a dozen times.” In the same way I could say of a certain man, “Have I forgiven him for what he did that day? I’ve forgiven him more times than I can count.”

For we find that the work of forgiveness has to be done over and over again. We forgive, we mortify our resentment; a week later some chain of thought carries us back to the original offence and we discover the old resentment blazing away as if nothing had been done about it at all.

We need to forgive our brother seventy times seven not only for 490 offences but for one offence.

Thus the man I am thinking of has introduced a new and difficult temptation into a soul which had the devil’s plenty of them already. And what he has done to me, doubtless I have done to others; I, who am exceptionally blessed in having been allowed a way of life in which, having little power, I have had little opportunity of oppressing and embittering others. Let all of us who have never been school prefects, N.C.O.s, schoolmasters, matrons of hospitals, prison warders, or even magistrates, give hearty thanks for it.

Recipients of Forgiveness and Mercy

C.S. Lewis is speaking for me in this passage. And his admission that even we who possess “little power” have still too often abused that minor opportunity. What a profound insight, encouraging us to thank God for not affording us greater opportunity to misuse our authority!

In Paul’s letter to the Christians in Ephesus, the Lord puts the principle of forgiveness in terms all of us should be able to comprehend. “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4).

It almost sounds as though my forgiveness of others shouldn’t be dependant on their remorse. Nor should its measure be determined by the vagaries of my own moods.

I suppose that my very awareness of my own struggle in forgiving others is a good thing. If I mistakenly thought I was capable of simply saying the words and it would be done, I would be dangerously mistaken. That is merely one small step in the process.

Far better that I recognize I’m just like C.S. Lewis in this aspect of my life. Like him, I’m better off recognizing I need to forgive others seventy times seven not only for 490 offences but for a single offence. In truth, that may simply be the beginning, since I’m called to forgive others just as God in our Lord Jesus forgives me.

It’s nearly impossible to avoid digressions – those temporary departures from the current subject of conversation. While many digressions are interesting in the own right, they occasionally cause the speaker (or writer) to lose track of the actual point they are attempting to establish.

It’s like when I would be reading something the Emperor Constantine the Great, and at the mention of the Persian Empire, I would put the current article on hold while I explored the subject of just how the current regime in Iran reflects the religious fundamentalism of Zoroastrianism as it resisted during the Abbasid Caliphate. Ah, but forgive me, I digress.

The reason I am thinking about digressions today is because I recently encountered a massive one in one of Mark Twain’s works. But before we look at it, let’s consider a more recent example, in an article about C.S. Lewis.

In “The Uses of Ignorance,” literary critic Alan Jacobs explores a number of themes, including the way Lewis’ presentation of Christianity’s core resonates with believers from diverse theological backgrounds.

One lesson to be learned . . . is just how carefully Lewis articulated his “mere Christianity” so that it seemed “mere” indeed – recognizable to Christians from many different traditions as the faith they understood and practiced. But we also see . . . “that the lasting appeal of Mere Christianity is not based so much on Lewis’s genius as on his ability to point readers to the luminosity of the gospel message itself.” Which, I might add, is a kind of genius in itself.

The article is well worth reading, but the specific reason I mention it now, is because the author includes a lengthy (315 word) departure from his main theme which he brackets with the words “A digression:” and “End of digression”.) It’s rare to see something this straightforward.

C.S. Lewis as a Digresser

If the average woman or man is prone to digression, it seems apparent a genius – with voluminous knowledge on diverse subjects – would occasionally succumb to the same temptation. For someone like C.S. Lewis this is not a major problem, as he would never lose his place in the original conversation. On the contrary, Lewis’ digressions would invariably enrich the discussion, as they illuminated his points.

One of the only books written by C.S. Lewis which has entered the public domain is Spirits in Bondage. When it was published in 1919 (while he was an atheist), Lewis wrote to a friend: “The sub-title ‘A cycle of lyrical poems’ was not given without a reason: the reason is that the book is not a collection of really independent pieces, but the working out, loosely of course and with digressions, of a general idea.” (You can download a free copy of Spirits in Bondage at Project Gutenberg.)

Mark Twain’s Masterful Digression

I’ve written about Mark Twain in the past. In one column I shared his humorous reflections on the nature of editors. Writers will find the post particularly entertaining.

Editors played a major (usually unwelcome) role in Twain’s existence. Thus, it is unsurprising that a major digression in “How to Make History Dates Stick” involves these denizens of the publishing world.

One book I was reading this week includes an extensive and, of course, intentional example of digression. Although he doesn’t bracket it with the word “digression,” it is probably one of the best examples in existence. (We would expect nothing less from Samuel Clemens!)

In his novel Roughing It, Twain describes a pervasive blight to the western frontier, sagebrush.

I do not remember where we first came across “sage-brush,” but as I have been speaking of it I may as well describe it. This is easily done, for if the reader can imagine a gnarled and venerable live oak tree reduced to a little shrub two feet high, with its rough bark, its foliage, its twisted boughs, all complete, he can picture the “sage-brush” exactly.

Often, on lazy afternoons in the mountains I have lain on the ground with my face under a sage-bush, and entertained myself with fancying that the gnats among its foliage were Lilliputian birds, and that the ants marching and countermarching about its base were Lilliputian flocks and herds, and myself some vast loafer from Brobdingnag waiting to catch a little citizen and eat him.

Twain’s description of his daydreaming about sagebrush is entertaining, but this is not the quintessential digression I wish to share. After this brief digression, Twain writes a page and a half about the plant’s actual physical attributes and utility (e.g. for fires and tea). But then, when the reader least expects it, Twain goes off on another extended ramble.

Sage-brush is very fair fuel, but as a vegetable it is a distinguished failure. Nothing can abide the taste of it but the jackass and his illegitimate child, the mule. But their testimony to its nutritiousness is worth nothing, for they will eat pine knots, or anthracite coal, or brass filings, or lead pipe, or old bottles, or anything that comes handy, and then go off looking as grateful as if they had had oysters for dinner. Mules and donkeys and camels have appetites that anything will relieve temporarily, but nothing satisfy.

In Syria, once, at the head-waters of the Jordan, a camel took charge of my overcoat while the tents were being pitched, and examined it with a critical eye, all over, with as much interest as if he had an idea of getting one made like it; and then, after he was done figuring on it as an article of apparel, he began to contemplate it as an article of diet. He put his foot on it, and lifted one of the sleeves out with his teeth, and chewed and chewed at it, gradually taking it in, and all the while opening and closing his eyes in a kind of religious ecstasy, as if he had never tasted anything as good as an overcoat before in his life.

Then he smacked his lips once or twice, and reached after the other sleeve. Next he tried the velvet collar, and smiled a smile of such contentment that it was plain to see that he regarded that as the daintiest thing about an overcoat. The tails went next, along with some percussion caps and cough candy, and some fig-paste from Constantinople.

And then my newspaper correspondence dropped out, and he took a chance in that – manuscript letters written for the home papers. But he was treading on dangerous ground, now. He began to come across solid wisdom in those documents that was rather weighty on his stomach; and occasionally he would take a joke that would shake him up till it loosened his teeth; it was getting to be perilous times with him, but he held his grip with good courage and hopefully, till at last he began to stumble on statements that not even a camel could swallow with impunity.

He began to gag and gasp, and his eyes to stand out, and his forelegs to spread, and in about a quarter of a minute he fell over as stiff as a carpenter’s work-bench, and died a death of indescribable agony. I went and pulled the manuscript out of his mouth, and found that the sensitive creature had choked to death on one of the mildest and gentlest statements of fact that I ever laid before a trusting public.

At that point, the writer pretends to realize he has digressed and concludes the chapter in the persona of the naturalist he has earlier assumed.

I was about to say, when diverted from my subject that occasionally one finds sage-bushes five or six feet high, and with a spread of branch and foliage in proportion, but two or two and a half feet is the usual height.

Well, that’s probably more than enough of a diversion from your day’s responsibilities. I hope you enjoyed reading these words, and that your own skills as a digresser will be correspondingly enhanced.