Archives For Meaning

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There is something to be said for brevity. But I won’t belabor that here.

In an essay entitled “Before We Can Communicate,” C.S. Lewis explores the frequently overlooked necessity of using commonly agreed upon definitions. He cites examples where apparent disagreement could be traced to differing assumptions about how others would interpret a given word.

We’ve all experienced that sort of confusion and if emotions become involved in the dispute, it can result in more than simple frustration.

As a military chaplain, working in an extremely diverse and pluralistic environment, I devoted much attention to communicating clearly. As an example, when dealing with “theological matters,” I always inquired into the religious background of the person with whom I was speaking.

I did not do so with the intention of altering an iota of the conversation that followed. I learned early on that the religious training each person received carried with it a sort of doctrinal dictionary, where the words carried particular meaning. One problematic example is “baptism,” which means something quite different for different parts of Christ’s Body. When focusing on communication, the question is not which understanding is most biblical. It is, what does the word mean in its present usage in this conversation.

In Lewis’ essay on communication, he describes something that should be a core skill of every pastor.

What we want to see in every ordination exam is a compulsory paper on (simply) translation; a passage from some theological work to be turned into plain vernacular English. Just turned; not adorned, nor diluted, nor made “matey.”

The exercise is very like doing Latin prose. Instead of saying, “How would Cicero have said that?” you have to ask yourself, “How would my scout or bedmaker have said that?”

Lewis cites multiple benefits from this effort. Foremost among them is the usefulness of a commonly understood vocabulary, which he refers to as “learned language.”

In the very process of eliminating from your matter all that is technical, learned, or allusive, you will discover, perhaps for the first time, the true value of learned language: namely, brevity.

It can say in ten words what popular speech can hardly get into a hundred. Your popularisation of the passage set will have to be very much longer than the original. And this we must just put up with.

People who know (and love) me, consider me wordy. I confess to the crime. But in my defense, I declare that with misunderstandings resulting from even the simplest conversations, I strive to dispel as thoroughly as possible, all clouds of potential confusion.

A Note on the Future of Mere Inkling

As is natural in dynamic or living things, such as active blogs, change naturally occurs over time. Such drifting, or even radical alteration, is normal. While altering course results from a conscious decision, drift typically takes place subtly, and slowly.

Over the past year or two, the columns posted here at Mere Inkling have grown in length. While this has allowed for deeper exposition of complex subjects, and a more nuanced treatment of C.S. Lewis’ contributions to the ideas discussed, the increased length has had other unhappy consequences.

The first is that it has, I believe, modestly decreased the readership of Mere Inkling. The internet, by its very nature, favors shorter treatments, and that is a simple truism. Combined with our rapidly decreasing attention spans, an online writer must consciously weigh the tradeoffs.

The second reason is that it takes significantly longer to write a more thorough “essay.” Increasing demands on my time have made the “long form” posting more of a hardship.

So, in light of these considerations, it is my desire to return Mere Inkling to its roots. I will endeavor to keep the posts shorter—along the lines of today’s column above this “note.”

I hope this minor reorientation will be welcomed by you, dear member of the Mere Inkling family.

Similes & Metaphors

December 16, 2014 — 10 Comments

agdeiSimiles are wonderful literary tools. Being able to compare two dissimilar things in a way that brings out subtle nuances and insights is quite enjoyable.

Here are a couple of examples off the top of my head. (I don’t pretend others haven’t written these things, but I didn’t plagiarize them.).

A politician is like a weathervane.

Arguing theology is like having indigestion.

Disliking Narnia is like hating a feast.

Metaphors, of course, are far more powerful than similes. When we consider a metaphor we are pondering how two different things actually share some fundamental quality.

Comprehending metaphors requires the ability to think abstractly. A child—confined to a world of concrete concepts—cannot begin to think of their nation as a “motherland” or “fatherland,” as the case may be. Yet, those are powerful nurturing and bonding words that countless patriots have embraced throughout the centuries.

A simile might say “our country is like a family.” A metaphor suggests far more. In this case, it might convey that one’s allegiance to their nation should exceed their loyalty to their biological kin.

Nowhere is the magnificence of metaphors more manifest than in the way we talk about God. One of the most famous biblical passages is a straight forward example. “God is love” (1 John 4:8).

Jesus the Christ said of himself, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6). He also called himself the “Light of the world. Whoever follows me,” he added, “will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

It is a sad thing when a symbol loses its meaning. There is a prime example of that phenomenon in Oxford. And you can see it in the sign that hangs above a pub frequented by the Inklings.

No, not the Eagle and Child, which they affectionately referred to as the Bird and Baby.

After renovations to the Eagle and Child eliminated their privacy, the writers transitioned across the street to the Lamb and Flag. Both pubs trace their history back to the seventeenth century, and the latter is actually owned by St. John’s College. (It’s profits fund student scholarships.) In a 1963 letter, Lewis colorfully described the move thusly:

Mon 11 March it is. But note that our causeries de lundi are now permanently transferred to the Lamb & Flag. We were sorry to break with tradition, but the B & B had become too intolerably cold, dark, noisy, and child-pestered.

Sadly, when many people look at the Lamb on the pub’s sign, they fail to recognize it’s significance. The lamb carrying a cross-emblazoned banner is nothing other than the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God.

What, some may wonder, is the Lamb of God? The better question is “who” is the lamb. The symbol represents Jesus Christ himself. It hearkens to the declaration of John the Baptizer as Jesus approached the Jordan: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).

To understand what it means to say “Jesus is the Lamb,” requires two things. First, a recognition that it is more than a simile; it is not simply that he possesses some of the attributes we would naturally associate with a lamb, such as gentleness. The second requisite is that we understand something about the Jewish sacrificial system.

For, Jesus being the Lamb of God means nothing less than that he is the true, complete, ultimate and final sacrifice for the sins of humanity.

And that is a wonder definitely worth pondering during this Christmas season.

Following Your Heart

January 27, 2014 — 11 Comments

trust your heartI read a lot. That’s no surprise, and it’s true of most readers of Mere Inkling. We read a lot.

It is not easy to resist the temptation to pass on many more of the profound insights I encounter on my literary meanderings. I am encouraged there are so many brilliant people in the world who understand what it means live life with integrity and influence in this new millennium.

I want to share a comment taken from a recent interview with Steven James.* He has authored more than thirty books, and won a number of awards. Since most of my reading is nonfiction, I confess I’m not familiar with his writings, but based on the interview I am quite intrigued about his work.

James was asked: “Are non-Christian books and movies more often either manic or depressant?”

That’s a nicely provocative question. There are certainly many examples that could justify either response. In his response, James identifies one of the lies that has come to dominate Western thinking—that there is no ultimate, objective truth.

Building upon that underlying premise, we see the inevitable consequence. Today’s governing philosophy has become one of personal freedom and choice. Nothing (certainly not a nonexistent agreement on right and wrong) can stem the resultant  moral and ethical chaos.

“To thine own self be true,” reads one of Shakespeare’s best recalled lines. Its power arises from the fact it resonates with our deepest desires. Don’t impose your standards on me, our flesh cries out, I will be the master of my own destiny. Of course we wouldn’t want to be untrue to our own conscience. The part that is so often left out here, is the need to pursue truth (Truth).

The Book of Proverbs includes the following maxim: “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes . . .” (We prefer to dispense with the second part of the wisdom saying: “. . . but the Lord weighs the heart.”)

What, you may be wondering, was James’ response to the interview question. Trust me, it was worth the wait.

Some movies and books say life is just terrible now: Slit your wrists. Disney on the other hand is: Follow your dreams and everything will be wonderful in the end. This whole idea of follow your heart—that’s not Christian either. Rapists follow their hearts. Pedophiles are true to themselves.

Nazis pursued their dreams. The Bible says that the heart’s deceitful above all things. Why would you want to follow something deceitful? We believe you should follow something greater than your heart, that you need Someone else to inform your dreams. We turn to God.

Point made. Nihilistic films aside, even the sentimental, idealistic, “positive” types of entertainment are fundamentally flawed. Neither reflects reality. And, while the poisoned fruit of the former may be more apparent in its corruption than the latter, the produce of unrealistic optimism is also tainted.

C.S. Lewis describes the untrustworthiness of personal desires, consciences and hearts.

“If our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart.” And equally, if our heart flatter us, God is greater than our heart.

I sometimes pray not for self-knowledge in general but for just so much self-knowledge at the moment as I can bear and use at the moment; the little daily dose. Have we any reason to suppose that total self-knowledge, if it were given us, would be for our good?

Children and fools, we are told, should never look at half-done work; and we are not yet, I trust, even half-done. You and I wouldn’t at all stages, think it wise to tell a pupil exactly what we thought of his quality. It is much more important that he should know what to do next. . . . The unfinished picture would so like to jump off the easel and have a look at itself! (Letters to Malcolm).

This isn’t all bad news, of course. As Lewis says, we are freed from depending on our hearts—the emotions of the moment—for our understanding. We no longer need to be “tossed about by the waves” of circumstance.

In the scriptural passage Lewis cites, we are reminded that “God is greater than our hearts.” He alone deserves to be the “Someone else” who “informs our dreams” and reveals to us reality. And, the wonderful result is that when we listen to God, we learn just how deeply he loves us.

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* The interview was entitled “Truth Teller,” and appears in the 14 December 2013 issue of World magazine.

Nature’s Melodies

July 12, 2012 — 9 Comments

Recently we were walking our five year old granddaughter home after a visit to our house, and she said something remarkable. (Our son’s family lives on a forested parcel adjacent to our own near Puget Sound.)

This precious little girl gazed to the top of the tall pine and fir lining the path and said, “I love the music the woods make.” She went on to describe various elements of nature’s orchestra, including the whistling wind in the treetops, the croaking of innumerable frogs drumming down by the pond, and, of course, the varied melodies of the birds who also call this glorious place “home.”

It was a wonderful moment.

When we pause to appreciate nature, it reminds us of the beneficent God who created it. Nature, especially when it is pristine and untouched by human hand, is truly wondrous. There are, I recognize, some “natural” settings that might actually be improved by human intervention . . . but these are few.

Unspoiled nature is beautiful. And that is a crucial distinction to make—because nature too has been corrupted by humanity’s fall from grace. Its capricious temperament is manifested in storms and other disasters.

So we, as Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve must be content to savor this blurred image of God’s original creation. For, even this corrupted world, is surely magnificent.

C.S. Lewis appreciated this truth. He and his close friends enjoyed many a long walk across the English countryside.

Nature is an awe-inspiring thing, but she is incapable of communicating ultimate joy. To find that, we must look beyond the forest to see who wrote the music it so eloquently sings.

In The Four Loves, Lewis emphasizes this truth:

Nature cannot satisfy the desires she arouses nor answer theological questions nor sanctify us. Our real journey to God involves constantly turning our backs on her; passing from the dawn-lit fields into some pokey little church, or (it might be) going to work in an East End parish. But the love of her has been a valuable and, for some people, indispensable initiation.

May our Creator grant us the opportunity to enjoy his unfathomable creation—even as we recognize that it is only by his boundless grace we are capable of doing so.