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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.

C.S. Lewis and Punditry

January 30, 2017 — 11 Comments

chesterton-sanity

Odds are that you, kind reader of Mere Inkling, are a pundit. While the overpaid professionals who overpopulate the media would like for us to think being a pundit requires possessing special knowledge or expertise, that’s simply not true.

Any of us who make comments or pass judgments in an authoritative manner can rightly be deemed a pundit. If you are simply a commonplace critic, you probably qualify for the title. All the more so if you publish your thoughts.

If the recent elections proved anything, they revealed there may well be more pundits per cubic acre in the modern world, than there are bees.

Recently I came across a peculiar essay, written by a writer with whom I’m totally unfamiliar. David Harsanyi is a senior editor of The Federalist, although this article appeared in National Review. Presumably he is a conservative, but of the atheist variety. (No wonder I haven’t read any of his work.)

At any rate, he’s a journalist who describes his “line of work” as “punditry.” Punditry as we have noted, has become all the rage in our modern era. I’m debating though whether adding it to one’s resume would be beneficial. It appears that receiving the validation of a punditry paycheck is the best gauge for making that determination.

As soon as people had the leisure time to develop their senses of humor, the seeds of punditry were planted, and many a silver tongued cynic has reaped the harvest. The past has known people who offered social criticism with a dash of wit (typically of the sarcastic variety).

An admirable example of such was G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936). Chesterton differed from Harsanyi in that he was also a philosopher and poet, not merely a journalist. Most notably, Chesterton was also a Christian.

C.S. Lewis held Chesterton in very high regard, and included his book The Everlasting Man among the top ten titles which had influenced his professional and philosophical thought. You can download an audio copy of that text here.

There is a great essay here that explores the influence of Chesterton’s essay “Ethics of Elfland” on the Inklings.

Jerk Logic

Returning to the article with which I began, “Jerk Logic” is the title of Bersanyi’s essay. He began with a question that more people should probably ask themselves.

Am I a jerk? You may find this an odd question for a person to ask himself. But when you’re in my line of work—which, broadly speaking, is called punditry—complete strangers on social media have little compunction about pointing out all your disagreeable character traits.

I found his article interesting for several reasons. He’s candid about some of the booby traps that endanger those who dare to write about controversial subjects. He offers a confession about just how soul-scarring the past election has been for some who have followed its permutations closely.

The 2016 election, I’m afraid, has convinced me that the joke is definitely on me. But after taking meticulous inventory of my actions over the past year or so, I am forced to acknowledge that perhaps, on occasion, some of my behavior might be construed as wantonly unpleasant. Long story short, I am a jerk . . . with an explanation.

Another thing I enjoyed in the brief piece is how he turned to a personality inventory (similar to the Myers Briggs Type Indicator) to assess his potential jerk quotient.

As I learned more about my personality type, I began feeling sorry for everyone in my almost certainly beleaguered family. While we pride ourselves on “inventiveness and creativity” and “unique perspective and vigorous intellect,” Logicians can also be “insensitive,” “absent-minded,” and “condescending.”

The essay concludes with a justification for a modest amount of jerkiness when living the life of a journalist, and especially a pundit.

As a writer, it’s incumbent on me to be clinically unpleasant and prickly when focusing on self-aggrandizing do-gooders or abusers of power or those who pollute our culture with garbage. One can make arguments in good faith while still being downright disagreeable. So I make no apologies for being disliked. There’s nothing wrong with being hated by the right people.

There are, in fact, far too many journalists overly concerned about being shunned. As a young critic writing his first reviews for a wire agency, I sometimes wrestled with an existential question: “Who am I to say these horrible things about people who are far more successful and powerful than I am?” Nowadays I ask myself: “How exactly can I say more horrible things about these people who shouldn’t be more successful or powerful than any of us?”

A skeptical and contrarian disposition is not only useful if you want to be a decent pundit, but indispensable if you want to be a good journalist on any beat.

I wonder whether Chesterton would think of this as an indispensable journalistic trait. He did, after all, have an honest view of the overall profession. “Journalism largely consists in saying ‘Lord Jones is dead’ to people who never knew Lord Jones was alive.” (The Wisdom of Father Brown)

I did find a fascinating description of the press provided by Chesterton in “The Boy.” It was published in 1909 in All Things Considered . . . and echoes true a century later.

But the whole modern world, or at any rate the whole modern Press, has a perpetual and consuming terror of plain morals. Men always attempt to avoid condemning a thing upon merely moral grounds.

If I beat my grandmother to death to-morrow in the middle of Battersea Park, you may be perfectly certain that people will say everything about it except the simple and fairly obvious fact that it is wrong.

Some will call it insane; that is, will accuse it of a deficiency of intelligence. This is not necessarily true at all. You could not tell whether the act was unintelligent or not unless you knew my grandmother. Some will call it vulgar, disgusting, and the rest of it; that is, they will accuse it of a lack of manners. Perhaps it does show a lack of manners; but this is scarcely its most serious disadvantage.

Others will talk about the loathsome spectacle and the revolting scene; that is, they will accuse it of a deficiency of art, or æsthetic beauty. This again depends on the circumstances: in order to be quite certain that the appearance of the old lady has definitely deteriorated under the process of being beaten to death, it is necessary for the philosophical critic to be quite certain how ugly she was before.

Another school of thinkers will say that the action is lacking in efficiency: that it is an uneconomic waste of a good grandmother. But that could only depend on the value, which is again an individual matter.

The only real point that is worth mentioning is that the action is wicked, because your grandmother has a right not to be beaten to death. But of this simple moral explanation modern journalism has, as I say, a standing fear. It will call the action anything else—mad, bestial, vulgar, idiotic, rather than call it sinful.

Amen. Evil acts today are nearly always attributed to some shortcoming or flaw such as insanity (e.g. individual acts) or delusional indoctrination (e.g. jihadism). While these are sometimes contributing factors, Chesterton rightly assessed the base cause.

Sadly, by affirming that fact, I expect that I too will be going on some people’s “jerk” list. They may consider me contrarian, but I’m simply striving to be honest.

 

The Urgent Need for Chivalry

September 13, 2016 — 12 Comments

chivalryWith all the nations of the world engaged in power struggles—or cowering behind the protection of their more courageous allies—C.S. Lewis’ essay on “The Necessity of Chivalry” demands our attention.

Yes, the very word “chivalry” reeks of a bygone era that has been superseded and relegated to history books. But those who consider the concept outdated impoverish their lives and quite possibly contribute to the violent spirit of our age.

Warfare is not an abstract concept to the millions—yes, millions—of people who are surrounded by vicious threats every hour. Britain itself was in this position when Lewis penned these words during the Battle of Britain.

As he wrote, three days before Winston Churchill’s most famous speech, Lewis commended those same few to whom so many owed so much. It was 1940, and Germany’s advance had yet to be halted. Ultimate victory in the world conflagration would remain uncertain for years.

It is in this milieu, but not only for this context, that Lewis challenges us to combine the chivalrous values of meekness and ferocity.

Lewis argues that in the chivalrous “knight,” true humility and the capacity for great (but moral) violence are merged. The result is not a schizophrenic warrior, but a noble defender of what is good.

Indeed, even apart from wartime, it is vital that society has heroes to protect sheep from wolves. In a moment I will share with you a brief video featuring an amazing artistic rendering of this essay on chivalry.*

In the essay, Lewis’ examples span Western history. He uses Launcelot as the archetype of the chivalrous man. And he offers the hope and evidence that chivalry is not extinct. A veteran of the previous war, he wrote at the outset of the Second World War:

Launcelot is not yet irrecoverable. To some of us this war brought a glorious surprise in the discovery that after twenty years of cynicism and cocktails the heroic virtues were still unimpaired in the younger generation and ready for exercise the moment they were called upon. Yet with this “sternness” there is much “meekness;” from all I hear, the young pilots in the R.A.F. (to whom we owe our life from hour to hour) are not less, but more, urbane and modest than the 1915 model. (“The Necessity of Chivalry”)

And accordingly, in our own day there are many serving in uniform who exemplify the same virtues. Would, though, that all who bear arms could be described thusly.

Some who are reading these words may regard chivalry as a “sexist” concept. It is not. Certainly no more than courage, strength and virtue could be deemed such. The fact that Lewis’ historical examples of society’s defenders are men simply reflects history.

In the seventy-five years since he wrote, it has become evident that women too can easily embody both meekness and unyielding courage. One need look no further than the ranks of the military and law enforcement to see this borne out.

Chivalry for the Civilian

It would be a tragic mistake to think that chivalry is only required during war. It is a vital, daily necessity of all social life. And the increasing incivility of the world suggests its erosion. (Many attribute this in part to the anonymity of the internet, which allows bullies to savage others anonymously and without mercy.)

This is what Lewis was saying when he described Launcelot as being “not a compromise or happy mean between ferocity and meekness; he is fierce to the nth and meek to the nth.”

After all, it is not the bland or “lukewarm” person who makes this world a better place. It is upon chivalrous men and women that the majority of the vulnerable must ever rely.

Each of us needs to be willing to examine our own lives for the union of these two traits: courage that does not surrender to what is wrong, and meekness that is gentle, calm and patient with others.

These are the values that we need to promote in our communities, media and schools. Because what we instill in receptive minds is precisely that which will take root. To use more contemporary terms, the “programming” these young minds are subject to will directly influence the behaviors that they “output.”

Let us do all we are capable of, to be, and to raise up, what is chivalrous. After all, despite all of the utopian promises of those who believe humanity is capable of purifying itself, the evidence shows otherwise. As Lewis said,

There was, to be sure, a rumour in the last century that wolves would gradually become extinct by some natural process; but this seems to have been an exaggeration.

Enjoy this fine presentation of  “The Necessity of Chivalry.”

_____

* This video is a creation of CSLewisDoodle, about which I have written before. (Their name may sound quaint, but the expertise with which they visualize Lewis’ words is astounding.)

The Artistry of Nature

September 1, 2016 — 5 Comments

flamingoes
This picture of flamingos is delightful. That they “randomly” arranged themselves into a silhouette of themselves is amazing. Or, perhaps a divine hand painted this glorious portrait?

“What a fanciful thought,” poets muse.

“How absurd!” atheists groan.

“Is he serious?” realists wonder.

“Now that’s something to ponder…” people of faith think.

“Of course God has fashioned nature’s beauties with his hands,” the eremite smiles.

I happen to believe God was speaking literally when he said through the Psalmist:

For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is mine (Psalm 50).

It was on the fifth day of creation that the Lord spoke into existence for the first time “every winged bird according to its kind.”

And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth” (Genesis 1:22).

And, to reveal God’s concern for the creatures he has made did not end with their genesis, allow me one more biblical citation . . . a familiar one. In reminding us of how precious we are to our Father, Jesus describes that God’s concern extends even to the least of his creation.

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father (Matthew 10:29).

C.S. Lewis touches on the preciousness of creation in a 1956 letter to one of his regular correspondents.

I think God wants us to love Him more, not to love creatures (even animals) less. We love everything in one way too much (i.e. at the expense of our love for Him) but in another way we love everything too little. No person, animal, flower, or even pebble, has ever been loved too much—i.e. more than every one of God’s works deserves (Letters to an American Lady).

Now, does God’s concern for his creatures, in this case flamingoes, mean that he takes the time to direct their flight, their nesting, and the shape of their earthly “congregations?” Of course not. But even in saying that, it is wise to note that if he chose to do so, he could. And there are, of course, some scriptural examples of his using animals in specific ways.

It’s possible, and even likely, that this was a mere coincidence. Like the clouds whose shapes sometimes mirror actual things, even in minute detail. While there are rather odd people who believe cloud shapes can foretell the future, I don’t believe there are any Christians who would base their decisions upon the physical arrangements of a flock, colony, gaggle, or flamboyance (with is fancy name for a group of flamingos).

That said, I still believe that the divine Artist is not above occasionally enjoying some playfulness with the tapestry he has fashioned here on earth, and in the heavens.

Lewis & Flamingos

On 12 July 1956, C.S. Lewis attended a garden party at Buckingham Palace hosted by Queen Elizabeth II. Below you will find excerpts from two letters mentioning the subject. They were written to Ruth Pitter (1897-1992), a well-regarded poet with whom Lewis enjoyed a strong friendship.

Lewis wondered if she might be attending the same event, and suggested they might accompany one another, if so. Less than a week later, following the event, he shares with her his delightful observations of the teeming gathering.

Dear Ruth

Do you play croquet with the Queen on Thursday? (Croquet is not mentioned in the invitation but I am well-read enough to know that a royal garden party will involve hedgehogs, flamingos, soldiers, Heads-man, and the grin of a Cheshire cat). If so are you coming via Oxford? I was thinking of going up by 1.58 and returning by the 6.45 or 7.35 on either of which we could dine. You are an experienced courtier and it would give me great moral support to arrive in your company!

Apparently Pitter was not in attendance at this particular outing, also she had been the first woman to receive the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry the previous year. Two decades later the Queen would appoint her a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for her contributions to English literature. Two days after the extravaganza, Lewis wrote again.

Dear Ruth

You were well out of it. I learn from the papers that I was one of 8000 guests and also that the Queen was present, a fact of which I had no evidence from my own experience. One could not even get a cup of tea for the crowd round the refreshment tables was reminiscent of Liverpool Street station on an August bank holiday. Most people didn’t know one another. One saw many married couples pathetically keeping up between themselves a dialogue which was obviously wearing very thin. If I hadn’t run across Archbishop Matthew I’d have been in a vast solitude.

There are flamingoes: metal silhouettes of them round the lake—a tasteful device which we perhaps owe to Prince Albert. In a word, it was simply ghastly. Two pints at the little pub on Praed St. were necessary afterwards.

A Postscript on Pitter

Ruth Pitter was a talented poet, but because she was a traditionalist—something quite agreeable to Lewis—she has not been accorded the respect she merits. One scholar who published her letters in 2014 writes:

Pitter, in contrast to T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and W.H. Auden, is a traditional poet in the line of George Herbert, Thomas Treharne, Thomas Hardy, A.E. Housman, W.B. Yeats, and Philip Larkin. Unlike the modernists, she rarely experiments with meter or verse form, nor does she explore modernist themes or offer critiques of modern English society.

Instead, she works with familiar meters and verse forms, and her reluctance to alter her voice to follow in the modernist line explains in part why critics have overlooked her poetry. She is not trendy, avant-garde, nor, thankfully, impenetrable.

As mentioned above, their friendship was deep. Lewis’ friend George Sayer says Lewis once volunteered that if he had not been a confirmed bachelor, Pitter was just the sort of woman to whom he could be happily married.

They influenced one another professionally, sharing poetic advice and critique. Pitter also attributed her spiritual reawakening, her conversion to Christianity, to Lewis’ influence. In 1948 she wrote to a friend:

Did I tell you I’d taken to Christianity? Yes, I went & got confirmed a year ago or more. I was driven to it by the pull of C. S. Lewis and the push of misery. Straight prayer book Anglican, nothing fancy . . . I realize what a tremendous thing it is to take on, but I can’t imagine turning back. It cancels a great many of one’s miseries at once, of course: but it brings great liabilities, too.

In 1985 she wrote to a correspondent about the same subject.

As to my faith, I owe it to C. S. Lewis. For much of my life I lived more or less as a Bohemian, but when the second war broke out, Lewis broadcast several times, and also published some little books (notably The Screwtape Letters), and I was fairly hooked. I came to know him personally, and he came here several times. Lewis’s stories, so very entertaining but always about the war between good and evil, became a permanent part of my mental and spiritual equipment.

Since we have been introduced to this unique woman now, it’s fitting to close with one of her poems. A poem inspired by another of the avian wonders created by our artistic God.

stormcock

Stormcock in Elder

In my dark hermitage, aloof

From the world’s sight and the world’s sound,

By the small door where the old roof

Hangs but five feet above the ground,

I groped along the shelf for bread

But found celestial food instead:

For suddenly close at my ear,

Loud, loud and wild, with wintry glee,

The old unfailing chorister

Burst out in pride of poetry;

And through the broken roof I spied

Him by his singing glorified.

Scarcely an arm’s-length from the eye,

Myself unseen, I saw him there;

The throbbing throat that made the cry,

The breast dewed from the misty air,

The polished bill that opened wide

And showed the pointed tongue inside;

The large eye, ringed with many a ray

Of minion feathers, finely laid,

The feet that grasped the elder-spray;

How strongly used, how subtly made

The scale, the sinew, and the claw,

Plain through the broken roof I saw;

The flight-feathers in tail and wing,

The shorter coverts, and the white

Merged into russet, marrying

The bright breast to the pinions bright,

Gold sequins, spots of chestnut, shower

Of silver, like a brindled flower.

Soldier of fortune, northwest Jack,

Old hard-times’ braggart, there you blow

But tell me ere your bagpipes crack

How you can make so brave a show,

Full-fed in February, and dressed

Like a rich merchant at a feast.

One-half the world, or so they say,

Knows not how half the world may live;

So sing your song and go your way,

And still in February contrive

As bright as Gabriel to smile

On elder-spray by broken tile.

_____

The Bible verses quotes above are taken from the ESV, the English Standard Version.

The “stormcock” in whose humble honor Pitter dedicates this poem is also called the Mistle Thrush. Its informal nickname arises from its eagerness to sing its songs in every sort of weather.

Robotic Religion

June 6, 2016 — 17 Comments

robot monkClergy can be irritating. I know that better than most . . . because I am one.

While a tiny minority bear some striking similarities to humble saints of the past, far more carry all of the common marks of fallen humanity. They can be argumentative, vain, manipulative, and even vindictive.

It’s not pretty.

Ministers aren’t unique. Being on the “inside” of any community—be it construction workers, educators, soldiers, bankers and politicians—allows one to see unpleasant attributes that are often shielded from the general population.

But, getting back to clergy . . . Since their role is unique in conveying “divine” counsel to others, it is especially important that they be approachable and amicable.

Scientists in China are working on a means of getting around the built-in limitations of the human mediation of divine wisdom.*

They have devised a “robot monk.” It is quite versatile. Not only can it chant Buddhist mantras, something an iPod could do at least as well, it is able to carry on a conversation! Well, the conversation is presently limited to 20 set questions about Buddhism. And the use of a touch screen “held” against his chest makes the comparison with an iPad a bit more accurate.

The automaton’s creator predicts the robot in the yellow robe of a novice will have a major impact, even though he spends most of his day “meditating” on an office shelf.

Enthusiastically agreeing, one worshiper said, “He looks really cute and adorable. He’ll spread Buddhism to more people, since they will think he’s very interesting, and will make them really want to understand Buddhism.”

Now, how can a Christian pastor hope to compete with that. After all, not many are considered to be “cute and adorable.”

What Would C.S. Lewis Think?

That’s a question I sometimes ponder when confronted by particularly odd realities that few of his day could have foreseen.

Lewis was quite respectful of clergy. Read, for example, this account of the way that even religious leaders can succumb to a type of patriotism that is far from biblical.

Patriotism . . . is not a sentiment but a belief: a firm, even prosaic belief that our own nation, in sober fact, has long been, and still is markedly superior to all others. I once ventured to say to an old clergyman who was voicing this sort of patriotism, “But, sir, aren’t we told that every people thinks its own men the bravest and its own women the fairest in the world?”

He replied with total gravity—he could not have been graver if he had been saying the Creed at the altar—“Yes, but in England it’s true.” To be sure, this conviction had not made my friend (God rest his soul) a villain; only an extremely lovable old ass. It can however produce asses that kick and bite. On the lunatic fringe it may shade off into that popular Racialism which Christianity and science equally forbid. (The Four Loves)

Now, it was not the personality or demeanor of this elderly priest that made his comment inappropriate. It was the comment itself. But for a prime example of clerical pride that drives people away from the Gospel, one needs look no farther than the “Episcopal Ghost” in Lewis’ The Great Divorce.

In Mere Christianity, Lewis concisely states the distinctive purpose of clergy. “The clergy are those particular people within the whole Church who have been specially trained and set aside to look after what concerns us as creatures who are going to live for ever.”

Could any other role demand so much integrity and goodwill? I think not. And it is precisely because this role is so unique and significant, that our shortcomings are doubly damning.

Perhaps, given the failings of sinful (i.e. all) ministers, it’s time to consider substituting a robot?

shermanI have no doubt that in no few cases it would be an improvement.

Of course, Christian churches would require a different model. Perhaps one that looks like Sherman on the Mount (minus the bird)?

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* You can read a Reuters article about this marvel of Chinese technology here.

The Nones Have It

June 1, 2016 — 23 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I may have made theological errors. My manner may have been defective. Others may do better hereafter. I am ready, if I am young enough, to learn. Dr. Pittenger would be a more helpful critic if he advised a cure as well as asserting many diseases. How does he himself do such work? What methods, and with what success, does he employ when he is trying to convert the great mass of storekeepers, lawyers, realtors, morticians, policemen and artisans who surround him in his own city? One thing at least is sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Trivial Windstorm

November 29, 2015 — 9 Comments

bellsIt’s amazing what we can accomplish during a multi-day power outage. Over the Thanksgiving holiday I learned a few new religious tidbits you may find interesting as well.

Several years ago I obtained a copy of Catéchic, “the Catholic trivia game” by Tyco®. While the power was out, I read all 1,000 trivia questions. It proved to be an interesting diversion.

The question of whether or not considering trivialities is a waste of time was addressed by C.S. Lewis at the outset of WWII.

Every Christian who comes to a university must at all times face a question compared with which the questions raised by the war are relatively unimportant. He must ask himself how it is right, or even psychologically possible, for creatures who are every moment advancing either to heaven or to hell, to spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology. (The Weight of Glory)

Lewis’ point is well made. When we contrast the matters which occupy our minds and energies with the things we ignore—including our eternal destiny and whether we are drawing closer to our Creator or drifting farther from him—the things of this world grow dim.

Perhaps that will be slightly less true in the case of trivia gleaned from the history of the largest denomination in the Christian Church.

Test Your Knowledge

A few questions were dated, not surprising I suppose, since the game was copyrighted in 1991. What was surprising is why they would choose to include questions about the names of prominent American archbishops of that decade, knowing it would date the product.

Question: Who is the Archbishop of San Antonio, Texas?

Answer: Archbishop Patrick Flores

Comment: He was historic, being the first Roman Catholic bishop of Mexican American heritage, and service as archbishop was lengthy (1979-2004), but the question as posed has passed its expiration date.

Name the Native American woman who may soon be canonized.

Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha

Tekakwitha (1656-1680) was canonized in 2012 and led a tragically short but interesting life. She was an Algonquin-Mohawk, the first Native American to be canonized.

Most other questions remain valid.

What is the name of Emperor Constantine’s decree that legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire in 313 A.D.?

The Edict of Milan

Bravo. As a student of ancient history and a Constantinian numismatist, I am pleased to see this vital moment in church history acknowledged.

Was St. Francis of Assisi a priest?

No

Good one! Most of us who’ve studied medieval history would probably get that right, but I assume the majority of Christians (Protestants, Catholic and Orthodox) would likely err on the side of ordaining Francis.

Which pope authorized the use of torture during the Inquisition?

Innocent IV

The irony of his chosen papal name is almost torturous. Admittedly, it was an improvement on his given name, Sinibaldo Fieschi.

A fair number of questions about ecclesiastical paraphernalia appear. To advance in the game, it helps to know your patens, piscina, and cinctures from your purificators, pyxes and cruets.

Is a “stermutatory” a piece of furniture found in a church?

No. A stermutatory is something that makes you sneeze.

That said, if some of the pews have grown so musty that they aggravate worshipers’ allergies, wouldn’t they qualify?

Some of the trivia provides arcane information sure to surprise one’s peers.

What is a cardinal who observers believe may have a chance of becoming pope called?

Papabile.

Nice to know . . . Now I just have to think of a way to work that into a typical conversation.

Seriously, using a word like this to show off one’s knowledge of obscure things reminds me of a passage I read many years ago attributed to St. Hereticus.* It offers satirical advice on how to upstage others in religious conversations.

The Superior Knowledge Gambit (not for beginners). Easier to illustrate than explain:

Opponent: I think my interpretation of the church has full historical precedent in Augustine.

Self: (starting hesitantly, but gradually gaining assurance until the final words are spoken with complete authority, in an ex cathedra tone of voice): But surely, much as I admire your exposition, really now, which interpretation of Augustine’s do you mean? There are at least five (eyes to the ceiling for a brief moment of counting), yes five . . . (pause, then confidently) There are at least five interpretations of the church in Augustine’s extant writings. (Give ever so slightly more emphasis to the word “extant.”)

. . .

Help from St. Augustine. A quiet yet forceful way of demonstrating superiority when Augustine is under discussion is to pronounce his name in contrary fashion to the pronunciation of Opponent. Make a point of emphasizing the contrast, so that it will be apparent that you know you are right, and that not even for politeness’ sake will you pronounce the name incorrectly as Opponent is doing. Either,

Opponent: . . . leading ideas in Augustine.”

Self: Augustine may have said that on one or two occasions, but . . .

Or,

Opponent (usually an Anglican in this case): . . . leading ideas in Augustine.

Self:Augustine may have said that on one or two occasions, but the whole Augustinian tradition, following, as I believe, the essential Augustine himself . . .

In this second gambit, it is advisable to maneuver the conversation into a discussion of “the Augustinian tradition” as indicated, so that when Opponent refers to it, as he must, without pronouncing it “the Augustinian tradition,” you can smile deprecatingly, to indicate your point has been made.

Well, that is enough trivia for one day. In my next post I’ll discuss some more substantial literary and theological concerns that emerge in the questions. Until then, one final trifle to entertain.

What 1975 film tells the story of King Arthur’s search for the Holy Grail as a comedy?

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Some Python humor is too irreverent (or even blasphemous**) for my tastes, but this historic fantasy is one of my guilty pleasures. (I especially love the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog which can only be dispatched by the “holy hand grenade of Antioch.”)

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* The Collected Writings of St. Hereticus by Robert McAfee Brown. An irreverent look at many aspects of ecumenical life in the mid twentieth century.

** Some (perhaps much) of the Python corpus leans towards vulgarity, but if you still enjoy the humor—and you are offended by blatant blasphemy, avoid reading the lyrics to their song, “All Things Dull and Ugly.”

There is a more positive connection between Monty Python and C.S. Lewis, however. John Cleese recorded The Screwtape Letters in 1995, lending his voice to the devilish “author” of the correspondence.