Archives For Judaism

C.S. Lewis & Roald Dahl

August 17, 2022 — 6 Comments

Do C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) and Roald Dahl (1916-1990) have anything in common, besides authoring books enjoyed by children?

Looking back, I must have been deprived of opportunities to read common children’s books. I recall my mom having many of Dr. Seuss’ classics, but don’t remember more advanced works such as those of Beatrix Potter or E.B. White.

I suppose that is why Roald Dahl’s name means little to me. By the time I was aware of his popular works, I was too old to appreciate them. Added to that was my intense dislike for the cinematic presentation of his Chocolate Factory, which has permanently (and probably unfairly) soured my impression of the poor man.

In Matilda, published in 1988, Dahl offers a rather curious homage to the Inklings. The young protagonist offers to her teacher the following observations.

“I like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” Matilda said. “I think Mr. C.S. Lewis is a very good writer. But he has one failing. There are no funny bits in his books.”

“You are right there,” Miss Honey said.

“There aren’t many funny bits in Mr. Tolkien either,” Matilda said.

If you are intrigued by this brief interchange, you would probably enjoy reading “Disagreeing with Matilda on Lewis and Tolkien.”

Curiously, a number of people have offered their evaluations of Lewis and Dahl, vis-à-vis one another. Author Grudge Match: Roald Dahl vs. C.S. Lewis invited diverse contributions to the debate eight years ago on LibraryThing.

A Christian blogger offers a faith-based appraisal on an entertaining website called “Like but better.” It’s entitled “How C.S Lewis is like Roald Dahl, but better (and Aslan is like Willy Wonka, but better).”

C.S Lewis is serious about what Dahl jokes about; even as both want us to pursue a childlike wonder and joy. For Lewis these enchanted stories and our sense of wonder are small stories reflecting on the big story — the ‘myth that became history’ — the death and resurrection of Jesus.

A BBC Culture article is quite critical of Dahl, despite his popularity. The introduction to “The Dark Side of Roald Dahl” aptly describes the essay.

Roald Dahl was an unpleasant man who wrote macabre books – and yet children around the world adore them. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us, writes Hephzibah Anderson.

An article by a Jewish journalist refers to both of the authors discussed here. It describes his bitter introduction to the major flaws of an author whose work he enjoyed as a child. “Why I Hope My Kids Never Read Roald Dahl” is, for me, most valuable for the way in which the journalist regards the faith which underlies the tales of Narnia.

As a nerdy Jewish kid in Indiana and Tennessee in the late 1970s and 1980s, I had far better relationships with books than I did with other kids. If I liked a book, I read it again, and again and again.

And so it was with Roald Dahls “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Dahl’s protagonists Charlie and later James (of the “Giant Peach”) both provided early models for how to find a better way through a hostile world where I always felt like an outsider.

Given that personal history, the announcement that Netflix has acquired Dahl’s entire catalog and plans a robust lineup of multimedia adaptations ought to feel like good news. . . .

Seeing his work still celebrated fills me with sadness, leaving me caught between attachment to something that mattered to me as a boy and commitment to the principles that, I hope, make me the man I am today.

Because I know that Roald Dahl hated Jewish people like me.

There are cases where it’s complicated to ascribe modern values to figures from the past and as a reader, my feelings, my emotions, are just not going to be consistent. I don’t share C.S. Lewis’ religious views . . . J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy is, I’m sad to say, bound up in long histories of racism.But my childhood copies of their books still occupy my shelves, some missing covers and pages, and I bought new copies for my kids and tried – with mixed success – to share my love of those stories with them. It’s hardly new for readers of one generation to struggle with the views of authors from another.But Dahl is different. He passed away in 1990, only 31 years ago. And we know he was an anti-Semite because he said so.

While I would challenge Perry’s modest critiques of the Inklings, I am delighted he is able to look beyond his adult disappointment with their imperfections to commend them to his own children. As for Dahl . . . this article reinforces my lack of regret in being unfamiliar with his work.

Enough, now, of their differences. I promised readers a surprising similarity between the two British authors.

And What Is Their Unusual Commonality?

In 1951, C.S. Lewis was approached by Prime Minister Churchill’s office to accept an honor occasionally bestowed upon renowned literary figures. He was invited to become a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Lewis declined, because he felt the political implications might overshadow the nonpartisan spirit of his writings. He was, however, honored to have been offered the honour.

This decision brings us to the peculiar similarity between the two writers. It turns out that Roald Dahl also passed up the invitation to join this chivalric order.

And the two were not alone. In 2012 a list of deceased individuals who had declined related honors between 1951 and 1999 was published.

Literary names were prominent amongst those to have said no to CBEs, OBEs and knighthoods in the annual New Year or Birthday Honours list, with Dahl, Lewis, and Huxley . . . joined by fellow naysayers Eleanor Farjeon, the children’s author, the poets Philip Larkin and Robert Graves, who said no to both a CBE and a CH (Order of the Companions honour), literary critic F.R. Leavis, Booker [Prize] winner Stanley Middleton and the authors J.B. Priestley and Evelyn Waugh.

An aspiring literary historian might do well to research whether and why successful writers might be more inclined to dismiss such an honor than other British citizens. I wonder if that inclination would carry over to other nationalities or cultures.

Ultimately, I assume most writers care less about receiving honors, than having their work read. And, perchance, having their literary efforts improve the lives of one or two others along the way. [This statement inspired vigorous debate when I shared this draft with members of my critique group.]

That desire – to enrich lives – is what motivates me. I believe it is also what inspired C.S. Lewis. And I know we are not alone.

burning bush

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.

A Symbol of Death & Life

October 6, 2014 — 6 Comments

nن – Arabic letter nun (n)

You may never have seen this symbol or, if you did, its foreign context may not have impressed it on your mind.

This Arabic letter is now being used to mark people for persecution and death. Yet, at the very same moment, this same symbol is also being transformed into an emblem that stands for courage and life.

The Islamic State has martyred or enslaved many Christians. Survivors have had all of their property stolen from them and been marked for death if they do not reject Christ and embrace the Muslim religion.

They have gone throughout the neighborhoods of their new conquests and placed this mark, the nun, on homes to mark them for evacuation or death. The “N” stands for “Nazarene,” referring to Jesus’ home town.

With the passage of time, we will likely see once again the truth proclaimed by Tertullian, that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. In the meantime, everyone of good will (Christian, Jew, Muslim, Agnostic alike) should rally to the support of the suffering.

We do not yet know the magnitude of the atrocities committed by ISIS/ISIL. Like Nazi concentration camps, the complete story will not be revealed until the sites of the horror are liberated from their vile control. And, like the Mogen David (Star of David) which marked its bearers as Jews, the nun marks its bearers as Christians and targets of militant Islam.

C.S. Lewis recognized the horror of Nazism early on. In 1933 he wrote about the cruelty, and stupidity of Hitler’s attack on Judaism.

Did you see that [Hitler] said “The Jews have made no contribution to human culture and in crushing them I am doing the will of the Lord.” Now as the whole idea of the “Will of the Lord” is precisely what the world owes to the Jews, the blaspheming tyrant has just fixed his absurdity for all to see in a single sentence, and shown that he is as contemptible for his stupidity as he is detestable for his cruelty.

One can only imagine what Lewis would write about the leaders of Islamofascism today.

There are a number of organizations that support Christians currently experiencing violent persecution. None, however, approaches this work from the same perspective of Voice of the Martyrs. I wholeheartedly commend their labors to you.

They are currently offering shirts emblazoned with the letter nun. They are even more important as a witnessing tool, than as a fundraiser. Please read more about them here and share the link with your friends. Also, please take a few minutes to explore their website once you are there.

To boldly state “I am N” is to identify with the oppressed. It is to show the world you understand that each disciple of Jesus must be prepared to take up his or her own cross. Dying for one’s faith in Jesus is not a myth; it is a daily reality.

The ن symbol, intended as a mark of derision, humiliation and rejection, has assumed a new meaning. It has become a mark of hope, courage, and deliverance.

What the persecutors in Iraq and Syria intended to be a label of death has been transformed by the Holy Spirit and the faithfulness of Christians into a symbol of life.

Jews Following Jesus

March 4, 2014 — 9 Comments

interfaithJewish poetry is breathtaking. The Psalms have nourished people of faith, as well as secularists, for millennia. C.S. Lewis wrote this about the providence of God in using the Jewish people as his conduit for blessing the world.

My enjoyment of the Psalms has been greatly increased lately. The point has been made before, but let me make it again: what an admirable thing it is in the divine economy that the sacred literature of the world should have been entrusted to a people whose poetry, depending largely on parallelism, should remain poetry in any language you translate it into.

He alluded to this in a letter to Sister Penelope, an Anglican nun and writer. In 1941 she sent him a copy of her new book, Windows on Jerusalem: A Study in the Mystery of Redemption. Lewis responded with gratitude. (Contemporary authors will find the detail of Lewis’ informal critique of her book illustrative of what he brought to the meetings of the Inklings.)

Thank you very much for the book. It has given me real help. What I particularly enjoy in all your work, specially this, is the avoidance of that curious drabness which characterises so many ‘little books on religion.’ Partly it is due to your Hebraic background which I envy you: partly, no doubt, to deeper causes.

Things that particularly pleased me were the true meanings of Beloved (p. 8) and Son (p. 9), the whole account of the Transfiguration (pp. 16 et seq), the passage on Sacrifice (p. 32), the passage ‘This was a shock’ (on p. 35), on our inability to understand sin (41 and 47), the very important bit about Hebrew & Roman ideas of ransom (52, 53): the really splendid account of how God can’t help deceiving the devil (56) and the allegorical close. There are, in fact, a good many Gifford Lectures and other such weighty tomes out of which I’ve got less meat (and indeed less efficient cookery!).

Judaism & Christianity

Jews and Christians have a complex relationship. This is even more true for Jewish people who come to accept Jesus as the promised Messiah. For most Jews, this automatically results in their expulsion from the Jewish community. However, for a growing number, there is a more gracious attitude developing.

A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center revealed some interesting statistics. Note the percentage of United States Jews considering the following to be essential:

Remembering the Holocaust – 73%

Leading an Ethical & Moral Life – 69%

Caring about Israel – 43%

Having a Good Sense of Humor – 42%

Observing Jewish Law – 19%

Here is the most surprising part of the survey. Thirty-four percent of American Jews consider believing Jesus is the Messiah, is compatible with being Jewish.

Let me repeat that . . . 34% of Jews in the United States (35% of the ultra-Orthodox Jews) believe that “Messianic Jews” remain Jewish.

I find that amazing. I also find it encouraging, since it’s consistent with the understanding of the Jews in first century Judea who worshipped beside the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem until its fall.

Some years ago I heard a lecture by a prominent Jewish theologian who described how historical Judaism rarely rejected those who considered any particular rabbi to be the Messiah. Apparently this remains true today, as some modern Jews, for example, consider  Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994) to be the Messiah.

Returning to the case of Jesus of Nazareth, the improving attitude is encouraging to see. In part, because most Messianic Jews say accepting Jesus as the Messiah has made them more Jewish. By that, most mean that they now practice the traditions of their Jewish heritage more faithfully than they previously did.

Following his conversion, C.S. Lewis grew in his positive consideration of the Jewish faith and people. In 1933, as Hitler’s hatred for Judaism became more evident, he wrote in a letter:

I might agree that the Allies are partly to blame, but nothing can fully excuse the iniquity of Hitler’s persecution of the Jews, or the absurdity of his theoretical position. Did you see that he said “The Jews have made no contribution to human culture and in crushing them I am doing the will of the Lord.”

Now as the whole idea of the “Will of the Lord” is precisely what the world owes to the Jews, the blaspheming tyrant has just fixed his absurdity for all to see in a single sentence, and shown that he is as contemptible for his stupidity as he is detestable for his cruelty. For the German people as a whole we ought to have charity: but for dictators, “Nordic” tyrants and so on . . .

All of the civilized people of the world share Lewis’ revulsion with Hitler and his agenda. In that we definitely agree with the vast majority of Jews who regard “Remembering the Holocaust” as something essential.

Postscript:

As positive a sign as the 34% support of Messianic Jews remaining Jewish is, the survey includes a more sobering corollary. Exactly twice that number, 68%, agreed that you can remain Jewish even if you don’t believe in the existence of God. Shocking. But that’s a subject for another day.