Archives For Christianity

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In 1957, C.S. Lewis wrote an encouraging letter to a young author whose first book had been written at the age of fourteen. Jane Gaskell’s Strange Evil was described by the Times Literary Supplement as “a fantasy of macabre and gorgeous nonsense.” The review even alluded to Lewis himself in its description of the novel.

Judith, who poses nude for a living, is carried off to a C.S. Lewis-ish land where a monster called Baby conducts his reign of terror and where one extravagantly gory battle follows another.

Miss Gaskell is eloquently fascinated by words, the longer and more lush the better, and her book reveals an undoubted talent for fanciful description.

Gaskell went on to become a journalist. She also authored several more novels, and ultimately became a professional astrologer.

But, returning to the young girl and her first publication . . . Lewis considered the young girl worthy of encouragement.

My wife and I have just been reading your book and I want to tell you that I think it a quite amazing achievement–incomparably beyond anything I could have done at that age. The story runs, on the whole, very well and there is some real imagination in it.

The idea of the gigantic spoiled brat (had you a horrid baby brother once?) is really excellent: perhaps even profound. Unlike most modern fantasies your book also has a firm core of civilised ethics. On all these grounds, hearty congratulations.

Lewis does, however, offer a suggestion for how the book may have been improved. “I hope you will not think it impertinent if I mention (this is only one man’s opinion of course) some mistakes you can avoid in future.”

In a fantasy every precaution must be taken never to break the spell, to do nothing which will wake the reader and bring him back with a bump to the common earth. But this is what you sometimes do.

The moving bar on which they travel is a dull invention at best, because we can’t help conceiving it as mechanical. But when you add upholstered seats, lavatories, and restaurants, I can’t go on believing in faerie for a moment. It has all turned into commonplace technological luxury!

This concept is noteworthy for writers—especially writers of fiction, for whom imagination is an indispensable ingredient. We must avoid elements that derail the story, as inappropriate technology can sometimes do.

Beware of the Temptation

I suspect most writers today experience technology as a more concrete threat to their vocation than the inopportune example Lewis was noting. It’s not that we include too many or too few mechanical or scientific references in our work. The problem is that we are so distracted by the wonders of the world in which we live, that we never get around to putting the pen to paper.

Some of us can lose ourselves in the internet or social media. One fascinating read leads to another and we wonder “where the time has gone.” Vast programming “on demand,” is ready at a moment’s notice to occupy (or, sometimes, numb) our minds. And even when we do sit down at the keyboard, emails and messages interrupt our concentration.*

Technology, of course, is not only dangerous to writers. It can distract any of us from what is most important in life. How many hours have we squandered when we could have spent our time with family or friends? Why do we prefer to anesthetize ourselves with digital opiates, rather than helping a neighbor?

Not long ago, Christianity Today conducted an interview with Richard Foster. Foster’s 1978 book, A Celebration of Discipline, has been extremely influential in calling believers to lives of deeper simplicity and prayer. In their article they mentioned a revision in the preface that speaks powerfully to me.

Oh, for the day when all we had to do was turn off the television if we wanted solitude and silence! . . . we are bombarded by the broad distractions of constant noise, constant demands, constant news. Everyone, it seems, wants us to be accessible 24/7 and to respond instantly to any and every request.

Neuroscience studies are now showing us that the neural pathways of our brains are being rewired accordingly, so that our physical capacity for sustained attention is decreasing.

We, of course, complain endlessly about our wired world. But—let’s be honest—we do enjoy our technological gluttony. There is, however, a better way to live.

I’m going to close this post with a personal prayer. Feel free to join me in it, if you desire.

Gracious Father, forgive me my trespasses, and deliver me from the sin of technological gluttony to which I so often surrender. Draw me away from the table of excess, and lead me on that better path . . . the way that leads to life, and to you. Amen.


* Many of these distractions can be significantly decreased by setting your software to provide fewer “notifications” when various things occur. For example, I recently had to reset my iTunes because the program was throwing up a message every time a new song began.

When I am listening to the soundtrack of The Lord of the Rings, I don’t care to be told that “The Foot of Orthanc” is coming up as the strains of “The Road to Isengard” are fading away.

C.S. Lewis and the Stage

December 6, 2018 — 7 Comments

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Sadly, we can’t presently spend an evening with C.S. Lewis . . . but what’s the next best thing?

A week ago my wife and I joined some dear friends at the Seattle performance of C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert. It was riveting.

The presentation used Lewis’ own words—from a variety of his works beyond his autobiography—to explain his extraordinary faith pilgrimage. Lewis of course began as a simple, trusting child. Events and educational influences caused him to reject that youthful faith. For many years he was an outspoken atheist.

As God drew Lewis closer to himself, the future author of the Narnian Chronicles resisted fiercely. Eventually he surrendered to the evidence that there most certainly was some creative force. This did not make him a Christian, of course. It was merely a conversion to Theism.

Only later would Lewis recognize just what that creative force is. Not “what,” but more accurately, “who.”

Since the engaging drama focuses on Lewis’ conversion, it does not pursue other topics such as his marriage. (This is obviously due to time constraints, since a full telling of the author’s life would require meals and evening lodging.)

Max McLean himself, founder of the Fellowship for Performing Arts,  does an outstanding job as Lewis. The production team is also superb.

The proverbial icing on the cake comes with an informal discussion following the performance. McLean takes a seat on the stage and fields questions from the audience. Coincidentally, the previous performance location was in Berkeley, where they made the tickets so inexpensive for students that they comprised at least half the audience. McLean’s description of the play’s reception and the serious conversation which followed, was fascinating.

The Fellowship for Performing Arts is based in New York City, but fortunately tours each year. I have written in the past about their insightful performance of The Great Divorce,  which happens to be my personal favorite among Lewis’ amazing corpus.

I strongly encourage you to check out their future dates and locations across the country. Some venues will be treated to The Screwtape Letters this season.

In writing this piece, the question that came to mind was—what would Lewis have thought about having his life brought to the stage. Obviously, he was quite open and vulnerable in sharing his life with others. He made no pretense to holiness, beyond that which he received by grace as a child of God.

Still, having one’s words read is quite different than having yourself portrayed on stage or film. I suspect Lewis would have felt uncomfortable with the latter, and preferred that we stick to literary avenues for learning about him.

It’s not that Lewis was averse to the stage. In Surprised by Joy he describes how one of his favorite relatives assumed some responsibility for Jack and his brother Warnie after their mother’s death. Early exposure to the theater was apparently one element in his “civilization.”

Lady E. was my mother’s first cousin and perhaps my mother’s dearest friend, and it was no doubt for my mother’s sake that she took upon herself the heroic work of civilizing my brother and me.

We had a standing invitation to lunch at Mountbracken whenever we were at home; to this, almost entirely, we owe it that we did not grow up savages.

The debt is not only to Lady E. (“Cousin Mary”) but to her whole family; walks, motor drives (in those days an exciting novelty), picnics, and invitations to the theater were showered on us, year after year, with a kindness which our rawness, our noise, and our unpunctuality never seemed to weary.

We were at home there almost as much as in our own house, but with this great difference, that a certain standard of manners had to be kept up. Whatever I know (it is not much) of courtesy and savoir faire I learned at Mountbracken.

For those who wish to consider more deeply the relationship between C.S. Lewis and the theater, I recommend “Faithful Imagination in Theater.”  The author admits that “quality theatre presented from a Christian perspective is hard to find,” but offers hope from Lewis. The article concludes with a worthy challenge.

There is a great need for more imaginative engagement with “mere Christianity” in theatre. So let’s get to it.

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I wonder what C.S. Lewis would have made of our twisted world in which some adherents of a globe-spanning “monotheistic tradition” believe they can enter heaven by spilling the blood of innocents.

Not long ago, a husband and wife in Indonesia, simultaneously attacked three different Christian churches. Yes, three. There, in the world’s largest Islamic nation, they killed all four of their own children to work ISIS-inspired jihad.  

The father blew himself up at one church in a car bomb. The two teenage sons exploded at a second congregation. And the woman who had given birth to these willing murders, ushered her 9 and 12 year old daughters into a Christian sanctuary and . . . 

CNN has some video related to the incident, accompany their article on the attacks. 

I’ve written about suicide in the past from two perspectives. This discussion considered the question in a general sense, and this piece was inspired by my own encounter with a suicide situation.

The horrific event describe above—the mass murder accomplished by a single family—leaves us speechless. How can this be? How can a group of people be so deceived as to think the suffering of others will purchase their entrance into heaven? How can they wantonly sacrifice their own children on that altar of hatred?

The only answer to these questions is that it is caused by evil. Not confusion, evil. And not even merely evil—but Evil. The precedent for such vile acts go all the way back to humanity’s first family.

We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. (1 John 3:12)

A dozen victims died that morning. More than forty more were wounded. And this murder/suicide will surely not be the last of its kind.

C.S. Lewis’ View

Lewis was acquainted with evil. He recognized it bears many faces. Yet, it seems to me, that he too would find this murderous abomination incredible. Incredible in its most naked sense—impossible to believe.

I believe Lewis would be stunned. Just like we are. 

This is true, despite the fact that Lewis was prescient about the decay of the life-affirming core of civilization. In the words of an insightful article by Richard Weikart:

Many Christians recognize that we are living in a “culture of death,” where—especially in intellectual circles—there is easy acceptance of abortion and increasing support for physician-assisted suicide, infanticide, and euthanasia. . . . 

When C.S. Lewis cautioned about the dangers of dehumanizing secular ideologies in The Abolition of Man and his science fiction novel That Hideous Strength . . . on the whole, the intellectual world paid little heed, careening further down the fateful road against which Lewis warned. 

Few of us, by God’s mercy, see this sort of evil face-to-face. Military personnel and first responders are more likely to encounter it.

Despite our personal insulation from this violence, we too are targets of the Evil One. However, the tactics he employs against us are usually far more subtle and insidious. 

Lewis recognized this well. The Screwtape Letters is his masterful exploration of the way the Devil attempts to corrupt even those among us who do not believe in his existence. 

It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts . . .

No one who reads Mere Inkling will be tempted to immolate themselves. Much less to steal the life of innocents. Still, the more conscious we become of this world’s self-destructive inclinations, the better equipped we should become to consciously become life-affirming influences in our cultures. 

This, I believe, is our common prayer.

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The diary of Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, includes some revealing insights into the life of a writer . . . words that I suspect may echo your own experience.

While I would never turn to Søren Kierkegaard for theological inspiration (many do), his comments about writing parallel my own.*

Only when I write do I feel well. Then I forget all of life’s vexations, all its sufferings, then I am wrapped in thought and am happy. If I stop for a few days, right away I become ill, overwhelmed and troubled; my head feels heavy and burdened.

So powerful an urge, so ample, so inexhaustible, one which, having subsisted day after day for five or six years, is still flowing as richly as ever, such an urge, one would think, must also be a vocation from God.

If these great riches of thought, still latent in my soul, must be repressed, it will be anguish and torture for me, and I shall become an absolute good-for-nothing. […]

Being an author . . . is not self-chosen; it is concomitant with everything in my individuality and its deepest urge.

May God then give me good fortune and succor and above all a certain spirit, yes, a certain spirit to resist the onslaughts of doubt and temptation that rise within me, for after all it is not too hard to do battle with the world.

This passage fascinates me. Kierkegaard eloquently expresses the struggle of the Christian writer, then ends on such a uniquely positive note, “after all it is not too hard to do battle with the world.” This victory, he indicates, comes from God placing within us a certain spirit to resist the onslaughts of doubt and temptation that rise within” us.

Keeping our eyes on Christ, and yielding to the Holy Spirit who abides within us, does indeed ensure our victory. Though the world assaults us daily, as we grow more mature in our Lord its temporary gains against us grow smaller and fewer.

I encountered Kierkegaard’s words in a recent post by Steve Laube, a prominent agent. (His agency’s blog is well worth subscribing to.) As he says,

These words resonate because it is the universal condition of writers. The call, the urge, to write is part of who you are. However, notice his last sentence where he admits to “the onslaughts of doubt and temptation that rise within me.” This, again, is a universal condition. It is normal. Embrace it and pray that God will grant you the strength today to resist.

Then do it again tomorrow.

Turning to Lewis

Although Kierkegaard’s words were written in 1847, it’s doubtful C.S. Lewis would have been familiar with them. The rather severely** edited diary did not appear until 1960, only a couple of years before Lewis’ passing.

As a scholar, Lewis was familiar with Kierkegaard. While he did not find Kierkegaard’s existentialism helpful, he could acknowledge that some appreciated his writings. In 1961, he responded to a correspondent’s request for some recommendations, he wrote,

For meditative and devotional reading . . . I suggest . . . my selection from MacDonald, George MacDonald: an Anthology. I can’t read Kierkegaard myself, but some people find him helpful.

The primary reason for Lewis’ albeit tepid mention of Kierkegaard here must have been the fact that one of his close friends was keen on the philosopher. An early translator of Kierkegaard’s works praised Inkling Charles Williams who “affectionately fostered the enterprise of publishing S.K.’s works in English.” (“How Kierkegaard Got into English”).

I am curious how Lewis would have responded to Kierkegaard’s notes on the writing life. Would he have identified with these sentiments?

I suspect they would concur in the statement, “If these great riches of thought, still latent in my soul, must be repressed, it will be anguish and torture for me.” After all, as many of Mere Inkling’s readers can personally attest, the Great Dane was not alone in experiencing this explosive pressure.

As an ancient man named Elihu once said to the Prophet Job, “I am full of words, and the spirit within me compels me; inside I am like bottled-up wine, like new wineskins ready to burst.” (Job 32:18-19).

My advice—get your precious words out before they explode.


* Here you will find the “testimony” of a person whose atheism was reinforced by reading Kierkegaard.

** The editor, Peter Rohde, says in his preface: “The luckless reader who sets out on his own to find his way in Kierkegaard’s vast, and vastly demanding works, runs the risk of losing his way and finally of losing his courage.”

It is precisely their fragmentary character that dispenses us from the obligation which the finished works place upon us, viz. to respect their wholeness—for it is nonexistent.

However, from their 8,000 to 10,000 pages it is possible to distill some one hundred and fifty pages that contain the true essence—that is, if the editor has been successful in his selection.

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What would you expect an assembly of Orthodox Jewish rabbis to say about Christianity? Well, read on, and you may be quite surprised.

A 2015 statement issued by twenty-five international rabbinic leaders acknowledges the painful legacy of interfaith relationships, then calls for Jews to welcome overtures from Christians to work towards common goals.

After nearly two millennia of mutual hostility and alienation, we Orthodox Rabbis who lead communities, institutions and seminaries in Israel, the United States and Europe recognize the historic opportunity now before us.

We seek to do the will of our Father in Heaven by accepting the hand offered to us by our Christian brothers and sisters. Jews and Christians must work together as partners to address the moral challenges of our era.

But the declaration doesn’t stop there, and forty-eight additional rabbis from around the world have added their signatures since the initial publication.

Both Jews and Christians have a common covenantal mission to perfect the world under the sovereignty of the Almighty, so that all humanity will call on His name and abominations will be removed from the earth.

The proclamation includes a statement with which many Christians would agree: “We Jews and Christians have more in common than what divides us . . .”

C.S. Lewis, following his conversion to Christianity, reflected his awareness of this truth. In 1941, he referred to a correspondent’s “Hebraic background,” and added, “which I envy you.”

One Jewish website includes this insight into Lewis’ regard for the Jewish faith.

After Joy passed away from cancer Lewis continued to raise her two boys Douglas and David. While Douglas would go on to become a follower of Messiah like his mother, David became an Orthodox Jew and eventually took up the profession of a schochet (ritual slaughterer).

While he still lived with C.S. Lewis, Lewis would provide him with kosher food, which was no small task in 1950s Oxford, England. This was certainly a testament to Lewis’ character and his compassion for the Jewish people.

The rabbinic declaration does not gloss over the differences between Jews and Christians.

Our partnership in no way minimizes the ongoing differences between the two communities and two religions. We believe that G-d employs many messengers to reveal His truth, while we affirm the fundamental ethical obligations that all people have before G-d that Judaism has always taught through the universal Noahide covenant.

Yet it focuses on what we share, and affirms those beliefs as a common gift of our Creator.

In a 1953 letter, Lewis expresses a similar thought, albeit from a Christian perspective.

I think myself that the shocking reply to the Syrophenician woman (it came alright in the end) is to remind all us Gentile Christians—who forget it easily enough and even flirt with anti-Semitism—that the Hebrews are spiritually senior to us, that God did entrust the descendants of Abraham with the first revelation of Himself.

Lewis’ admiration for Judaism increased when he married Joy Davidman, who had been raised in the faith. He penned the Forward to her book, Smoke on the Mountain. In it he expressed a sentiment that reflects the goodwill and familial affection displayed in the rabbinic document.

In a sense the converted Jew is the only normal human being in the world. To him, in the first instance, the promises were made, and he has availed himself of them. He calls Abraham his father by hereditary right as well as by divine courtesy. He has taken the whole syllabus in order, as it was set; eaten the dinner according to the menu.

Everyone else is, from one point of view, a special case, dealt with under emergency regulations . . .  we christened gentiles, are after all the graft, the wild vine, possessing “joys not promised to our birth;” though perhaps we do not think of this so often as we might.

It would be wrong to say there is no difference between Judaism and Christianity. But there certainly is much truth the faiths share. And, laboring together towards shared goals they can help make this fallen world measurably happier. It may be “surprising” that many Orthodox rabbis have come to recognize that, but it is certainly welcome news.

What We Worship

February 1, 2018 — 12 Comments

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It’s curious to consider the varieties of deities worshipped throughout history and around the globe. And it is important that we understand the god we choose to follow, as well as the nature of “faith” allows us.

This picture came from a nearby garden. The squirrel effects the pose of a worshipper, but it’s motivated by the nuts the gardener has rested in the Buddha’s lap. It’s not intended to be irreverent, and one assumes that Siddhārtha Gautama would not be offended.

The image is provocative. If you were to put yourself in the squirrel’s place, it would be of no surprise that you would be devoted to the “Provider of Nuts,” especially if you did not make the connection between the gentleman who filled and the statue that actually offers them to you.

Whether we are adherents of one of the so-called monotheistic religions, or pantheists who see the presence of god in all of universal nature, our “religion” directly affects our worldview and life choices.

And then there are the “no religious preferences,” who embrace or reject labels like “agnostic.” Some of them long to believe, but demand proof, where God calls for faith. Others opt for lives of hedonism, gambling that their notion there is no Creator is right. Many of these individuals actively hope that there is no God, and not a few of them have a nagging fear that he may just exist, and call them to account one day for their selfish lives.

C.S. Lewis was in the latter category. Before he became a Christian, Lewis entertained no desire to seek Christ out. “Amiable agnostics,” he wrote, “will talk cheerfully about ‘man’s search for God.’ To me, as I then was, they might as well have talked about the mouse’s search for the cat” (Surprised by Joy).

About the Nature of Faith

God chooses to call us into a restored relationship with himself through the mechanism of faith. If that word troubles you, think of it as “trust.” Faith is necessary, for an obvious reason. In the New Testament, we read, “without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).

That faith is necessary may sound intimidating. However, the good news is that what God demands, he himself provides . . . even to the most reluctant of converts such as Saul of Tarsus or C.S. Lewis of Oxford.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis discusses the nature of faith at great length. He provides a number of helpful images. In the book he clearly distinguishes between faith (trust) and feelings or moods. I enjoy the way that the final sentence of this passage is evocative of the worshipping squirrel which inspired these reflections.

Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods. For moods will change, whatever view your reason takes. I know that by experience.

Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable: but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable. This rebellion of your moods against your real self is going to come anyway.

That is why Faith is such a necessary virtue: unless you teach your moods “where they get off,” you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion.

Dithering to and fro, indeed.

A Surrealistic Postscript

I had been thinking about writing on this subject ever since I saw the photo, some months ago. I was spurred to compose it now, by a fact that recently appeared in Ripley’s Believe It or Not. It speaks for itself.

A Brazilian grandmother believed she was praying to a figurine of Saint Anthony for years, only to discover that it was an action figure of the Elf Lord Elrond from the “Lord of the Rings” films!

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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.