Archives For Death

shakespearean-suicideAre all who commit suicide damned? Some would claim this is true. I, however, agree with Martin Luther and C.S. Lewis that God’s mercy is capable of rescuing even these. Suicide invariably leaves in its wake more sorrow than it heals.

Even the irreligious Mark Twain recognized this. In 1889 he wrote to a friend: “I do see that there is an argument against suicide: the grief of the worshipers left behind, the awful famine in their hearts, these are too costly terms for the release.”

I share with Lewis and Luther the belief that suicide can be forgiven. Our position is based on our personal understanding of the counsel in God’s word, as viewed through the lens of the Incarnate Word himself. As a personal conviction, not based on clear biblical guidance yea or nay, it is not a concept that should be formally taught.

There a second reason why this interpretation should not be actively promoted. It may encourage the premature ending of human life. The fact is that many, perhaps most, people contemplate suicide at some point in their life. But nearly all choose instead to live—some because of their fear of damnation. Prevented from killing themselves due to this fear, the critical moment passes, and they learn suicidal impulses are a transitory curse. Some seek help from others, which is even better.

In other words, when people are especially vulnerable to such thoughts, the last thing they need to hear is that suicide offers a ticket from the trials of this life to the bliss of heaven. On the contrary, if they can be discouraged from choosing the irreversible course during these moments of deep confusion and suffering, they can survive to experience restoration and renewed hope.

Many potential suicides press on and end up living lives filled with joy, contentment and meaning.

Martin Luther put it this way.

I don’t share the opinion that suicides are certainly to be damned. My reason is that they do not wish to kill themselves but are overcome by the power of the devil.

They are like a man who is murdered in the woods by a robber.

However, this ought not be taught to the common people, lest Satan be given an opportunity to cause slaughter, and I recommend that the popular custom be strictly adhered to according to which it [the suicide’s corpse] is not carried over the threshold, etc.

Such persons do not die by free choice or by law, but our Lord God will dispatch them as he executes a person through a robber. Magistrates should treat them quite strictly, although it is not plain that their souls are damned.

However, they are examples by which our Lord God wishes to show that the devil is powerful and also that we should be diligent in prayer. But for these examples, we would not fear God. Hence he must teach us in this way.

C.S. Lewis understood this dilemma as well. In a 1955 letter to Sheldon Vanauken, who had lost his wife and was drowning in grief, Lewis even appealed to the church’s traditional teaching on the subject to quash in advance any contemplation of suicide.

[Jean] was further on [more spiritually mature] than you, and she can help you more where she now is than she could have done on earth. You must go on.

That is one of the many reasons why suicide is out of the question. (Another is the absence of any ground for believing that death by that route would reunite you with her. Why should it? You might be digging an eternally unbridgeable chasm. Disobedience is not the way to get nearer to the obedient.)

There’s no other man, in such affliction as yours, to whom I’d dare write so plainly. And that, if you can believe me, is the strongest proof of my belief in you and love for you. To fools and weaklings one writes soft things.

In our world, which appears to value life less each day, Lewis proclaimed the mere Christian commitment to the value of every life. Historian Richard Weikart addresses this in “C.S. Lewis and the Death of Humanity, or Heeding C.S. Lewis’s Warnings against Dehumanizing Ideologies.”

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. While many Christians make cogent arguments against such practices—as they should—we seem to be losing ground.

This is because our society is embracing secular philosophies and ideologies, many of which deny that the cosmos has any purpose, meaning, or significance. Once the cosmos is stripped of value, humanity is not far behind, especially since most secularists have also rejected any objective morality.

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, many Christians took notice. But, on the whole, the intellectual world paid little heed, careening further down the fateful road against which Lewis warned. Lewis’s critique is still a powerful antidote to the degrading vision of humanity being foisted on us by intellectuals in many institutions of higher learning.

We Christians are not immune to the genuine power of some of these arguments. For example, as a military chaplain I determined many years ago to one day write an article about the complexity of “Euthanasia on the Battlefield.” We do not serve Christ well by ignoring complex subjects or dismissing the reasoning of our “adversaries” without giving their points genuine consideration.

The ultimate barrier comes in the fact that our worldviews ultimately collide. Secularism and other religious philosophies are irreconcilable with the teachings of the One who said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis notes that suicide has been regarded in some philosophies as a virtuous path. Not so, in Christianity.

If pain sometimes shatters the creature’s false self-sufficiency, yet in supreme ‘Trial’ or ‘Sacrifice’ it teaches him the self-sufficiency which really ought to be his—the ‘strength, which, if Heaven gave it, may be called his own:’ for then, in the absence of all merely natural motives and supports, he acts in that strength, and that alone, which God confers upon him through his subjected will.

Human will becomes truly creative and truly our own when it is wholly God’s, and this is one of the many senses in which he that loses his soul shall find it. . . . When we act from ourselves alone—that is, from God in ourselves—we are collaborators in, or live instruments of, creation: and that is why such an act undoes with ‘backward mutters of dissevering power’ the uncreative spell which Adam laid upon his species.

Hence as suicide is the typical expression of the stoic spirit, and battle of the warrior spirit, martyrdom always remains the supreme enacting and perfection of Christianity.

This great action has been initiated for us, done on our behalf, exemplified for our imitation, and inconceivably communicated to all believers, by Christ on Calvary. There the degree of accepted Death reaches the utmost bounds of the imaginable and perhaps goes beyond them; not only all natural supports, but the presence of the very Father to whom the sacrifice is made deserts the victim, and surrender to God does not falter though God ‘forsakes’ it.

Whenever you encounter someone overshadowed by the dark cloud of despair and death, speak to them life. Dispel the lies of suicide. Confront the Enemy, so that Satan would not be “given an opportunity to cause slaughter.” As Luther also said in the context quoted above:

It is very certain that, as to all persons who have hanged themselves, or killed themselves in any other way, ’tis the devil who has put the cord round their necks, or the knife to their throats.

Graphic and true. I choose not to participate in Satan’s murderous purposes by promoting suicide, and I encourage you to join me.

_____

The photo above comes from one of the many renditions of Romeo and Juliet.

night patrolThe poetry of a dead veteran spoke to me today. He was a close friend of J.R.R. Tolkien, and in a sense his life lives on in the descriptions of Middle Earth.

In a recent column my Canadian friend Brenton Dickieson, introduced me to one of the many poets whose lives tragically ended on the battlefields of WWI.

Professor Dickieson describes the context of a new film about the impact of the war on J.R.R. Tolkien. It is called Tolkien’s Great War. It is based on the book Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth.

You will find a link to the half hour documentary below, and I strongly—yes, strongly—encourage you to watch it. It is quite moving.

Like most members of their generation, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were deeply moved by the horrors of the First World War. Both served on the front lines, in the grim trenches, during the bloody conflict. And they lost friends. I’ve written in the past about their military service, including posts herehere, and here.

The Deceased Poet

The documentary describes the untimely deaths of two of Tolkien’s closest friends during the war. One of them, Geoffrey Bache Smith, was a poet.

Following his death, Tolkien gathered together his writings and published them as a tribute to his friend. It was one of the earliest contributions to a wealth of soldier’s poetry that would deluge grieving Europeans by the close of the conflict.

Due to the brevity of his life, the collection, published as A Spring Harvest, is short. Tolkien also penned an introduction to the work which is equally Spartan. The literary austerity is fitting, given the sad reason for the volume’s brevity. The introduction, in full, reads:

The poems of this book were written at very various times, one (“Wind over the Sea”) I believe even as early as 1910, but the order in which they are here given is not chronological beyond the fact that the third part contains only poems written after the outbreak of the war. Of these some were written in England (at Oxford in particular), some in Wales and very many during a year in France from November 1915 to December 1916, which was broken by one leave in the middle of May.

“The Burial of Sophocles,” which is here placed at the end, was begun before the war and continued at odd times and in various circumstances afterwards; the final version was sent me from the trenches.

Beyond these few facts no prelude and no envoi is needed other than those here printed as their author left them.

J.R.R.T., 1918.

The poems themselves run the gamut of emotions. This is unsurprising, given that some were born during the idyll dreams of youth, while others were forged by the anvil of war.

The limited press run of the book has made it difficult to find. Fortunately, it is now available for free via Project Gutenberg.

While the poems include the familiar references to the “old gods” so common to the period, there are also some moving references to a more Christian ethos.

Creator Spiritus

The wind that scatters dying leaves

And whirls them from the autumn tree

Is grateful to the ship that cleaves

With stately prow the scurrying sea.

Heedless about the world we play

Like children in a garden close:

A postern bars the outward way

And what’s beyond it no man knows:

For careless days, a life at will,

A little laughter, and some tears,

These are sufficiency to fill

The early, vain, untroubled years,

Till at the last the wind upheaves

His unimagined strength, and we

Are scattered far, like autumn leaves,

Or proudly sail, like ships at sea.

Tolkien and Smith formed half of the T.C.B.S., a communion knit together during the school years. The war would cut that number in half, as poignantly described in Tolkien and the Great War. The first of the companions had already died, and five months later Smith was spending the final moments of his own life encouraging his friend to press on, whatever might befall him.

Before reading Smith’s “So We Lay Down the Pen,” consider his final letter to Tolkien. He wrote it as he prepared to lead a night scout through dead man’s land at the front. It was dangerous duty which did indeed, that very evening, cost him his life.

My chief consolation is that if I am scuppered [ambushed and killed] tonight—I am off on duty in a few minutes—there will still be left a member of the great T.C.B.S. to voice what I dreamed and what we all agreed upon. For the death of one of its members cannot, I am determined, dissolve the T.C.B.S.

Death can make us loathsome and helpless as individuals, but it cannot put an end to the immortal four! A discovery I am going to communicate to Rob before I go off tonight. And do you write it also to Christopher. May God bless you my dear John Ronald and may you say things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them if such be my lot.

Yours ever,

G.B.S.

Tolkien compiled Smith’s poems as a tribute. And, when he wrote his masterpieces, there is a profound sense in which he truly did say things his friends had tried to say, long after they were not there to say them.

So We Lay Down the Pen

So we lay down the pen,

So we forbear the building of the rime,

And bid our hearts be steel for times and a time

Till ends the strife, and then,

When the New Age is verily begun,

God grant that we may do the things undone.

 

repentanceC.S. Lewis foresaw one of the greatest plagues of the post-modern world. He knew that humanity’s insistence on its own “goodness” would undermine our love for God

Believing the lie that we do not require forgiveness causes us to rely on a deception that will ultimately disappoint. As Lewis wrote, “a man who admits no guilt can accept no forgiveness” (The Problem of Pain).

In the United States we have a sad propensity to worship celebrity. Famous people possess an allure that many find irresistible.

I am amazed so many people who lived for American Idol never recognized the irony of the program’s name.*

I suspect most famous people recognize fame’s fickle and fleeting nature. Some avoid the dangers of fame’s flames, but many rush headlong into the furnace.

Some allow the illusory nature of celebrity to deceive them into thinking they rise above the concerns of normal human beings. Why, you might even find one of them professing to be a Christian while denying the very core of the faith.

One of our presidential candidates (unnamed here, because this post is not about politics) went so far as to profess his love for God and when asked if he has ever asked God for forgiveness responded, “I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don’t think so. . . . I don’t bring God into that picture.”**

It is vitally important for all of us to understand that (1) we need forgiveness and (2) God is eager to extend it to us.

Most Christians understand this.

It is second nature, for example, to orthodox Lutherans. Lutheran preaching is based on the Law/Gospel dialectic. While it’s often short on the “How Then Shall We Live?” counsel, it goes to great lengths to avoid any intermingling of the Law and the Gospel.

This sharp divide between the two is proclaimed throughout the Scriptures, but clearly seen in the following passage: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 7:23).

A proper understanding of the Law, and our sinfulness, lays the solid foundation for understanding the Gospel. It declares we cannot—under any circumstances—rescue ourselves.

“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. . . . But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. (Romans 3:10-12, 21-25).

Or, as the Apostle John cautions us: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:8-10).

I need not belabor here our need for God’s mercy. God help those who choose to rely on their own corrupt “holiness!”

C.S. Lewis’ Take on Rejecting Mercy

In one of Lewis’ most amazing books, The Great Divorce, he addresses a common excuse for atheism. How could a loving God allow Hell to exist? He illustrates with a number of fascinating vignettes the sad truth.

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek, find. Those who knock, it is opened.

My favorite encounter in the book involves a liberal, atonement-denying theologian, but there is another that perfectly illustrates the point of this column.

We all require mercy.

One of the lost souls has been approached by a redeemed saint who attempts to persuade him to continue journeying towards the presence of God. It so happens that the “ghost” (as the insubstantial disbelievers are called, knew the forgiven man while both were alive. And the redeemed person had committed murder. The perceived “injustice” of the forgiveness of that sin only reinforces the intransigence of the ghost towards God’s mercy.

‘Look at me, now,’ said the Ghost, slapping its chest (but the slap made no noise). ‘I gone straight all my life. I don’t say I was a religious man and I don’t say I had no faults, far from it. But I done my best all my life, see? I done my best by everyone, that’s the sort of chap I was. I never asked for anything that wasn’t mine by rights. If I wanted a drink I paid for it and if I took my wages I done my job, see? That’s the sort I was and I don’t care who knows it.’

‘It would be much better not to go on about that now.’

‘Who’s going on? I’m not arguing. I’m just telling you the sort of chap I was, see? I’m asking for nothing but my rights. . . . But I got to have my rights same as you, see?’

‘Oh no. It’s not so bad as that. I haven’t got my rights, or I should not be here. You will not get yours either. You’ll get something far better. Never fear.’

‘That’s just what I say. I haven’t got my rights. I always done my best and I never done nothing wrong. . . . I’m only telling you the sort of chap I am. I only want my rights. I’m not asking for anybody’s bleeding charity.’

‘Then do. At once. Ask for the Bleeding Charity. Everything is here for the asking and nothing can be bought.’

‘That may do very well for you, I daresay. If they choose to let in a bloody murderer all because he makes a poor mouth at the last moment, that’s their look out. But I don’t see myself going in the same boat as you, see? Why should I? I don’t want charity. I’m a decent man and if I had my rights I’d have been here long ago and you can tell them I said so.’

Every time I read those words I am reminded of the truth that I am not a perfect man . . . I don’t want to pay the price the Law demands . . . I want, and need, to receive the bloody Charity of God that flowed from the wounds of my Lord on Golgotha.

It is my hope and prayer that you share this joy with me.

_____

* Yes, I realize it was based on a British show with a similar title; that may suggest that some other Western nations succumbed even more dangerously to secularism than America. Talent competitions make fine entertainment, but a little more thought should have gone into naming the two series.

** Ironically, this individual professes to be Presbyterian, and I am confident that if Calvin were still alive, he would have a few facts he would like to teach him.

pressIf the devil has used the printing press so effectively to advance his purposes, one can only imagine how easily the internet can be twisted to his purposes.

Whether or not you believe Satan is an actual (fallen angelic) person, we all recognize the web provides a ready conduit for unimaginable evil. Recent discussions of the traffic that occurs on the Dark Web is sobering. Actually, not “sobering,” but frightening.

While a small fraction of the data is innocent, the majority deals with criminal and dehumanizing material. Some investigators suggest more than half of the data transfers involve pedophilia.

I’ve been doing some personal research into parallels between the advent of the printing press and the rise of the internet. I’m approaching it from the perspective of how each has provided access to competing faith claims.

Martin Luther viewed the “recent” invention of Gutenberg’s press as divinely appointed to coincide with what would come to be known as the Reformation.

Roman Catholics also published treatises and pamphlets opposing the calls for institutional change within the church. The persuasiveness of arguments aside, one reason for their lack of success against the evangelical leaders was simple.

Rather than writing for the German people in their own tongue, they directed nearly all of their initial energies at writing for the elite, in Latin. While only a minority of sixteenth century Germans were literate, only a small percentage of these were able to read Latin.

During the first half century of the existence of movable type for the press, the majority of published titles were religious. Only later did popular and secular titles eclipse them.

However, they did. Many were wonderful. Scientific and literary knowledge blossomed.

Foremost among the good fruits disseminated by the press, we would have to include the works of the Inklings, especially C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. (Consecrated imaginations are capable of wondrous creations!)

Eventually, of course—given humanity’s imperfect nature—this neutral device was harnessed to baser purposes.

This would lead a nineteenth century minister to write an essay with the title of this column, “The Devil’s Printing Press.” Thomas Green described the dilemma vividly.

The first book printed in Europe had six hundred leaves, and it took nearly ten years to make it. Now books are written, printed, sold, read and forgotten in one-fourth the time. A single century ago, and a man well to do, thought himself fortunate if he had one book in this wild western world.

Today there are books in well kept rank upon almost every cottage shelf It is little wonder that the powers of evil should have invaded the province of the influence of the book shelf and bound up in attractive colors and insidious page the poison of wickedness and sin.

Later in his address, available to read at your leisure here, he contrasts the noble and corrupt purposes for which the press (or internet) might be used.

There are papers of every shape and for every use; daily, tri-daily and almost hourly, weekly and semi-weekly, monthly and quarterly, and filled with everything. You have no idea unless you have given it especial attention, of the magnitude and wondrous dimensions of the newspaper as a factor in civilization. You have little idea, unless you have studied it, of the influence, the formative power of this outwardly ephemeral agency upon human life.

You have little idea, unless you have sought it, of the labor, the enterprise, the energy, the talent, the outlay necessary to plan and execute this gigantic result. You have little conception of the influence of the printing press, as an enlightener, as a pioneer of civilization, as a promoter, a creator, a conservator of purity and virtue; and you have little idea of the magnitude of the devil’s work through this mighty agency, as in a thousand ways he uses it for pollution and ruin.

Green’s florid and dated verbiage may weaken the impact of his argument. Likewise the revivalist tones of his message. Still, as the existence of the dark web reminds us, even the good can be touched by corruption. Perhaps our vigilance can reduce this danger.

We will close now with another description by the author of the lurid material which preceded the pornography which abounds today. Would that our dulled sensitivities remained innocent enough to “blush” at explicit material, as he says.

But the devil has a channel by which he ruins life and character, in a specialty in the newspaper line that panders to the low and more bestial part of man’s being. Broadcast over the land there are sown every day almost countless thousands of papers filled with the corrupt, lascivious, the impure, gathered from all the fact and fancy that a filthy mind can contrive.

Facts that transpire often in the lowest slums of life are here placarded with all the embellishment of illustration and seductive coloring; language and recitals no man would read without a blush are hidden in its folds. It is a slimy, salacious mosaic of filth and wickedness, and yet go up and down the city streets and in every news-dealer’s window and on every corner stand they are spread out for inspection and sale.

_____

The woodcut illustration above comes from a book entitled The Dance of Death, and is the first representation of a printing press. The point being made was not to associate death with printing, but to reveal how death comes to all, unanticipated, regardless of who they are.

dressed dogAt least that appears to be the thinking in Seattle. A recent census of the city’s population found that the preference isn’t even close.

While Seattle boasts 107,178 children it is home to about 153,000 dogs.

As a dog-loving Washingtonian, I’m not surprised by this statistic. But I don’t support the odd excesses of some pet owners. These include a woman who uses a baby stroller to keep her Chihuahua safe. “She also owns a basket full of dog clothes, including a few dog necklaces and wigs…”

Seattle Magazine notes the city is becoming a top destination for canine travelers.

Seattle’s dog-mecca status is starting to get noticed nationally; it’s considered one of the top 20 destinations in the United States for people who want to travel with their dogs, according to Melissa Halliburton, the founder of Bring Fido, a dog-focused travel agency out of South Carolina. “Seattle has 45 pet-friendly hotels, 38 [pet-friendly] attractions—including the dog-friendly Fremont Sunday Ice Cream Cruise…”

As delightful as an Ice Cream Cruise for dogs sounds, I’d prefer to invest in my children’s educations and take our Border Collies for a brisk walk. I’m sure they’d enjoy the frozen treat, but they will appreciate the exercise even more.

Why Dogs Instead of Kids?

Obviously, simultaneously enjoying human offspring and doggie kids is possible. They aren’t mutually exclusive. And most of the parents I know understand how having a dog in the family helps children grow up healthier (allergies aside).

The article asks this question and offers insightful thoughts.

Why are we so dog crazy? It could be that the 41 percent of us who are single appreciate the companionship. Maybe our outdoorsy pursuits are more fun with dogs. Or maybe dogs just make us feel good.

I heartily concur with the second and third points. And I find the first suggestion (highlighted in the original article) to be quite provocative.

God created us to desire companionship. “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man [or woman] should be alone…”

This companionship need not be restricted to marriage. Some people have the gift of celibacy and can live chastely without marrying. C.S. Lewis would be a good example of this. He found his needs for deep friendships met by a handful of intimate friends. The profound joy he experienced when he married caught him totally off guard.

Unfortunately though, there are many who long to find their life companion and have yet to find that prayer answered. Then there are those tragic cases where illness, accident or war have stolen a spouse far too early. The Christian Church has always possessed an intense compassion for widows.

In either of these cases, the companionship of a dog provides a responsive outlet for our affection. Here too C.S. Lewis provides an example. I’ve written here in the past about his love of dogs.

However, it is not only the still-waiting and the bereaved who find themselves reluctantly single.

Another case that is far more common arises when people have made themselves vulnerable and opened their hearts to another… only to be betrayed.* This betrayal may have been physical, emotional, or psychological. Often it is all of these.

In these cases, replacing our unfaithful partner with a dog is especially apropos. There could be no more faithful and forgiving a friend than a dog. A dog who welcomes you every time you come through the door with passionate enthusiasm and happiness impossible to fake.

The truth is that as special as they are, dogs aren’t better than kids… even in Seattle. But, that said, life is sure a lot more fun with them in the mix.

_____

* Just as most of us know the pain of betrayal, many of us recognize we too may have been betrayers. There have been times—perhaps many—when we have disappointed or wounded those who trusted and loved us. However, it does not need to end here, with us mired in guilt.

If you find yourself in this situation, seek reconciliation or forgiveness from the person(s) you have wronged. Confess what you have done as the sin it is, and receive his promised forgiveness. And finally, as Jesus himself said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

Bach’s Deathbed Hymn

April 28, 2015 — 11 Comments

jsbBlind and restricted to his deathbed, Johann Sebastian Bach asked a fellow organist to play one of his own hymns. Bach then did what any brilliant composer would have done.

No, he did not criticize his colleague for the way he interpreted it musically. Bach, in his final hours, revised his own composition, making a number of musical improvements.

And the genius did not rest there, he retitled the work and modified its strains in a manner which perfectly addressed his circumstances. Anticipating his imminent encounter with his Creator, he changed the name to Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich hiermit (Before Your Throne I Now Appear). The first and last verses of the hymn are as follows.

Before your throne I now appear,

O God, and beg you humbly

Turn not your gracious face

From me, a poor sinner.

Confer on me a blessed end,

On the last day waken me Lord,

That I may see you eternally:

Amen, amen, hear me.

As a Lutheran, Bach was well acquainted with his sinful nature and utter dependence on the grace of God. He was a serious student of the Bible, and his annotated edition of Luther’s translation is held in the collection of Concordia Seminary. (Two of the three volumes are currently on loan to Leipzig.)

The medical missionary, Albert Schweitzer, was a renowned Bach scholar before he left a promising career in music performance to pursue medicine. Schweitzer wrote:

At heart Bach was neither pietistic nor orthodox: he was a mystic thinker. Mysticism was the living spring from which sprang his piety. There are certain chorales and certain cantatas which make us feel more than elsewhere that the master has poured into them his soul. These are precisely the mystical chorales and cantatas.

Like all the mystics, Bach, one may say, was obsessed by religious pessimism. This robust and healthy man, who lived surrounded by the affection of a great family, this man who was embodied energy and activity, who even had a pronounced taste for the frankly burlesque, felt at the bottom of his soul an intense desire, a Sehnsucht, for eternal rest. (Albert Schweitzer, The Life and Character of Bach).

During his lifetime, Bach’s international renown arose from his performance skills. It was nearly a century later that the gifted Felix Mendelssohn reintroduced Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion and the world grew to admire Bach as the brilliant composer he was. Referring to his partnership with a playwright in the effort, Mendelssohn said, “To think that it took an actor and a Jew’s son to revive the greatest Christian music for the world!”

Bach remains quite popular, although not everyone shares an appreciation of organ music. In 1956, C.S. Lewis provided insight into his own preferences in the following correspondence.

Concerning hymn singing and organ playing: if they have been helpful and edified anyone, then the fact that they set my teeth on edge is infinitely unimportant. One must first distinguish the effect which music has on people like me who are musically illiterate and get only the emotional effect, and that which it has on real musical scholars who perceive the structure and get an intellectual satisfaction as well.

Either of these effects is, I think, ambivalent from the religious point of view: i.e. each can be a preparation for or even a medium for meeting God but can also be a distraction and impediment.

In that respect music is not different from a good many other things, human relations, landscape, poetry, philosophy. The most relevant one is wine which can be used sacramentally or for getting drunk or neutrally. I think every natural thing which is not in itself sinful can become the servant of the spiritual life, but none is automatically so

When it is not, it becomes either just trivial (as music is to millions of people) or a dangerous idol. The emotional effect of music may be not only a distraction (to some people at some times) but a delusion: i.e. feeling certain emotions in church they mistake them for religious emotions when they may be wholly natural.

That means that even genuinely religious emotion is only a servant. No soul is saved by having it or damned by lacking it. The love we are commanded to have for God and our neighbour is a state of the will, not of the affections (though if they ever also play their part so much the better).

So that the test of music or religion or even visions if one has them is always the same– do they make one more obedient, more God-centred, and neighbour-centred and less self-centred? ‘Though I speak with the tongues of Bach and Palestrina and have not charity etc.’!

Fortunately, even the “musically illiterate” can be blessed by the anointed ministry of Bach. Lewis is correct that musical brilliance, without a gracious component, is empty. Fortunately, in the case of J.S. Bach we encounter a man who truly lived by the words he appended to much of his music: Soli Deo Gloria, to Glory to God Alone.

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You can listen to Bach’s music for this chorale here. This performance is from the church in Leipzig where Bach himself performed.

Autobiographical Lies

March 10, 2015 — 12 Comments

cardsWatching the series House of Cards is not a “guilty pleasure.” It is often a painful exercise in examining just how corrupting, dehumanizing and (ultimately) damning political power can be. The depth of the viewers’ discomfort is a tribute to the perfectly pitched acting and writing.

It’s set in Washington D.C., and I am afraid it is more accurate portrait of that dark political environ than anyone but Mephistopheles could imagine.

Political corruption is not an American problem. It’s a human condition. Sadly, the perversions of power are replicated in capitals around the globe.

House of Cards examines the rise of a particularly evil pair, President Francis Underwood and his wife Claire.* They will stop at nothing—literally, nothing—to sate their shared hunger for power.

President Underwood is so self-consumed that few viewers will identify with his dead soul. On the other hand, he is in many ways an attractive, witty and “charismatic” man. This, of course, is the whitewash over the sepulcher that has allowed his rise to the heights of human dominance.

Despite his moral decay, there are elements of his behavior with which many can relate. I am not referring to his devotion to his wife, which appears noble but is actually a twisted symbiosis.

One way we see how a human being with the potential for true greatness has fallen to such depths comes in small sins. The ones that many of us commit without wasting a “second thought.” Such compromises often lead, as we know from personal experience, to greater transgressions.

Too often, our fall begins with a lie. We see a glimmer of this in the following scene.** The president has enlisted a popular writer to pen his “autobiography.” The author chooses to open the book with a dramatic story about Underwood’s courage and willingness to risk all for a cause.

He relates a story from the president’s youth in South Carolina. He stunned his peers by his commitment to swim all the way out to the famous Fort Sumter, at the mouth of Charleston Harbor. He did not make it the first time, and needed to be rescued by the Coast Guard. However, he tried and tried again, until he defeated the tides and waves, and rose triumphant on the island’s shore.

After the writer reads the stirring account to the president, in a dramatic aside,*** Underwood says to the audience:

I never tried to swim to Fort Sumter. Thomas probably knows I made it up. But he wrote it anyway because he understands the greater truth. Imagination is its own form of courage.

This passage is powerful. It not only displays the impulse for self-aggrandizement to which many powerful people are disposed. It also seeks to justify that compromise with integrity, by transforming the very flaw into a virtue! “Imagination is its own form of courage.” True, but given the context, repugnant.

And that sort of perversion, which had to have seemed a discordant rationale when he originally voiced it, becomes a rule for his life.

I can make up any lie that serves my purpose, because the very act of creating that new “truth” is heroic in itself. In essence, the ends (my accumulation of power), will forever justify the means.

C.S. Lewis on the Lies We Make Our Truths

One of Lewis’ lesser read theological books is The Problem of Pain. The book offers Lewis’ insights into why a loving God would allow suffering. One intriguing feature of the text is its chapter on the suffering of animals, which reveals the breadth of Lewis’ concern as well as his affection for what we now call “other species.”

The following passages suggest that when we tell ourselves the lie—that existence is ultimately about us—we are destined for disappointment. This is the tragedy being staged before our lives in the television series we have been discussing. It can be summarized in the scriptural maxim familiar even to those who never read a Bible: “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:26, ESV).

[Humanity] fell. Someone or something whispered that they could become as gods—that they could cease directing their lives to their Creator and taking all their delights as uncovenanted mercies, as ‘accidents’ (in the logical sense) which arose in the course of a life directed not to those delights but to the adoration of God.

As a young man wants a regular allowance from his father which he can count on as his own, within which he makes his own plans (and rightly, for his father is after all a fellow creature), so they desired to be on their own, to take care for their own future, to plan for pleasure and for security, to have a meum [personal possession] from which, no doubt, they would pay some reasonable tribute to God in the way of time, attention, and love, but which, nevertheless, was theirs not His. They wanted, as we say, to ‘call their souls their own.’

But that means to live a lie, for our souls are not, in fact, our own.

They wanted some corner in the universe of which they could say to God, ‘This is our business, not yours.’ But there is no such corner. They wanted to be nouns, but they were, and eternally must be, mere adjectives.

. . .

I have begun with the conception of Hell as a positive retributive punishment inflicted by God because that is the form in which the doctrine is most repellent, and I wished to tackle the strongest objection. But, of course, though Our Lord often speaks of Hell as a sentence inflicted by a tribunal, He also says elsewhere that the judgement consists in the very fact that men prefer darkness to light, and that not He, but His ‘word,’ judges men.

We are therefore at liberty—since the two conceptions, in the long run, mean the same thing—to think of this bad man’s perdition not as a sentence imposed on him but as the mere fact of being what he is. The characteristic of lost souls is ‘their rejection of everything that is not simply themselves.’

Our imaginary egoist has tried to turn everything he meets into a province or appendage of the self. The taste for the other, that is, the very capacity for enjoying good, is quenched in him except in so far as his body still draws him into some rudimentary contact with an outer world. Death removes this last contact. He has his wish—to lie wholly in the self and to make the best of what he finds there. And what he finds there is Hell.

Lewis’ description of his “imaginary egoist” ably fits the fictional President Underwood and his First Lady. Their lives are consumed by self. The fiction derives its power from the reality. The Underwoods are not simple cartoons. They reveal the life choices of real people in our world.

Men and women who have clawed their way onto the throne in their lives, find in the end, that it crumbles beneath them. Only a miracle can rescue them from their terrible chosen destinies . . . and gloriously, that redeeming miracle awaits their cry for mercy, so long as they have breath.

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* Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright play their tragic characters so well that both have won Golden Globe awards and a variety of other accolades.

** From “Chapter 34,” season three, episode four.

*** An “aside” is a device where a character speaks directly to the audience, revealing some private thought or knowledge. It can easily be overused, but is quite finely tuned in this series. The writers of House of Cards are definitely talented.