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barthOne wonders what sort of fireworks might have erupted if J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis had spent an evening with theologian Karl Barth. Although their lives overlapped, and all three were Christian academics, it is questionable how much they would have agreed upon.

And yet, there were several subjects where I think they would have enjoyed firm consensus.

Tolkien (1892-1973) was a devout Roman Catholic. Lewis (1898-1963) was a committed “low church” Anglican. Barth (1886-1968) was a Reformed theologian who rejected the liberalism that had become dominant in European academies. All three thus believed in the reality of the Christian gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ.

All three men hated war, and the two Brits had served in the trenches of WWI. All opposed Nazism and Barth was the primary author of the Barmen Declaration which challenged the Christian faith of all who supported the Nazi government.

And we’ll consider another shared attribute in just a moment.

First, though, we need to acknowledge that presumably the Inklings never met the Swiss clergyman. Their circles did not overlap. I have not been able to uncover any evidence of Tolkien referring to Barth, or of Barth mentioning either of the Inklings.

Lewis did, however mention Barth in his prolific correspondence. From his exposure to Barth it’s clear he did not share the opinion of Pope Pius XII that he was “the greatest theologian since Thomas Aquinas.” Heady praise . . . especially coming from a Roman Catholic.

In a 1940 letter to his brother Warren, Lewis reacted against what he perceived as legalism in some quarters of Protestantism that was alien to his understanding of the liberty of the Christian.

I am afraid the truth is . . . that the world, as it is now becoming and has partly become, is simply too much for people of the old square-rigged type like you and me. I don’t understand its economics, or its politics, or . . . Even its theology—for that is a most distressing discovery I have been making these last two terms as I have been getting to know more and more of the Christian element in Oxford.

Did you fondly believe—as I did—that where you got among Christians, there, at least, you would escape (as behind a wall from a keen wind) from the horrible ferocity and grimness of modern thought.

Not a bit of it. I blundered into it all, imagining that I was the upholder of the old, stern doctrines against modern quasi-Christian slush: only to find that my ‘sternness’ was their ‘slush.’ They’ve all been reading a dreadful man called Karl Barth, who seems the right opposite number to Karl Marx. ‘Under judgment’ is their great expression.

They all talk like Covenanters or Old Testament prophets. They don’t think human reason or human conscience of any value at all: they maintain, as stoutly as Calvin, that there’s no reason why God’s dealings should appear just (let alone, merciful) to us: and they maintain the doctrine that all our righteousness is filthy rags with a fierceness and sincerity which is like a blow in the face.

Sometimes the results are refreshing: as when Canon Raven (whom you and Dyson and I sat under at Ely) is sharply told in a review in Theology that ‘it is high time persons of this sort learned that the enjoyment of a chair of theology at Cambridge does not carry with it a right to criticise the Word of God’—that’s the kind of rap on the knuckles which has not been delivered for a hundred years!

Comparing Their Thoughts on the Nature of Myth

Many readers of Mere Inkling will know Tolkien and Lewis were deeply influenced by the significance of myth. They were also, in the creation of Middle Earth and Narnia, active in the act of mythopoeia, creating imaginary lands whose stories convey profound meaning.

But, despite the fact their literary products are fictional, that does not mean that all myth is “untrue,” in the sense of being unhistorical. Myth, for these great thinkers, is something far more complex and wonderful.

Without going into depth on this involved subject, I offer here the familiar story of how Lewis’ epiphany about true myth was key to his conversion.

I was by now too experienced in literary criticism to regard the Gospels as myths. They had not the mythical taste. And yet the very matter which they set down in their artless, historical fashion . . . was precisely the matter of the great myths. If ever a myth had become fact, had been incarnated, it would be just like this. And nothing else in all literature was just like this.

Myths were like it in one way. Histories were like it in another. But nothing was simply like it.

And no person was like the Person it depicted; as real, as recognizable, through all that depth of time, as Plato’s Socrates . . . yet also numinous, lit by a light from beyond the world, a god.

But if a god—we are no longer polytheists—then not a god, but God. Here and here only in all time the myth must have become fact; the Word, flesh; God, Man. This is not “a religion,” nor “a philosophy.” It is the summing up and actuality of them all. (Surprised by Joy)

This epiphany took place in 1931, during an all-night discussion (it lasted until 4:00 am) with Tolkien, and other Inkling, Hugo Dyson. Here’s how Lewis related the moment to his lifelong friend, Arthur Greeves.

It was really a memorable talk. We began (in Addison’s walk just after dinner) on metaphor and myth–interrupted by a rush of wind which came so suddenly on the still, warm evening and sent so many leaves pattering down that we thought it was raining.

We all held our breath, the other two appreciating the ecstasy of such a thing almost as you would. We continued (in my room) on Christianity: a good long satisfying talk in which I learned a lot . . .

A month later he elaborated on how the insights gained that evening were gestating in his mind and heart.

Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself (cf. the quotation opposite the title page of Dymer) I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels.

The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose ‘what it meant.’

Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things.’

Therefore it is true, not in the sense of being a ‘description’ of God (that no finite mind could take in) but in the sense of being the way in which God chooses to (or can) appear to our faculties. The ‘doctrines’ we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are translations into our concepts and ideas of that which God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.

Does this amount to a belief in Christianity? At any rate I am now certain (a) That this Christian story is to be approached, in a sense, as I approach the other myths. (b) That it is the most important and full of meaning. I am also nearly certain that it really happened.

In a different setting, Barth argued for the very same truth. His context was a theological environment greatly influenced by the liberal doctrines of Rudolf Bultmann, who dismissively regarded anything miraculous in the Scriptures as primitive and ignorant thinking.

The Christian Church confesses that [what the world calls] “myth” is history itself. She recognizes herself by this myth, she recognizes her life, her true reality. She is the witness of witnesses, she recognizes through the Holy Spirit that this is the one really interesting story.

Then she turns back the historians’ weapon: She says to them: What you call “myth,” that is history! She will also add: What you call history, that is a myth! A myth, a made-up history, that fancies the fate of man as depending on his earthly vicissitudes, a myth, a made-up history, that confuses the immediate success of a cause with its truth, and so on.

The only true history is the history of Christ, in which the Church participates, and which is already the secret reality of all history, since it is history itself. (The Faith of the Church)

Now, there’s an argument the Inklings could truly have appreciated.

A Bonus, for Fans of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Barth was not the only Christian seminary professor who rejected the heresies of Bultmann, who sought to “demythologize” the Scriptures. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a fellow German, repudiated Bultmann’s rejection of the supernatural in God’s Word. In a recent book, Taking Hold of the Real, Barry Harvey writes:

In a prison letter [Bonhoeffer] criticizes Rudolf Bultmann for excising the “mythological” elements in an attempt to reduce Christianity to its “essence.” “My view,” he writes, “is that the full content, including the ‘mythological’ concepts, must remain—the New Testament is not a mythological dressing up of a universal truth, but this mythology (resurrection and so forth) is the thing itself.”

Bonhoeffer thus acknowledges that describing a way of seeing the world as mythic thus does not summarily dismiss it either as deceptive or as an archaic and feeble attempt at doing “science.” Indeed, a truthful description of the world and especially of human existence ultimately requires mythic form.

The tales that women and men have fashioned and passed down through the centuries to discern the overall sense and significance of their existence are “never just ‘lies,’” says Tolkien, as “there is always something of the truth in them.”

NietzscheI unexpectedly encountered C.S. Lewis while unpacking a box today.

I’m ashamed to admit it, but five years after moving into our retirement home, I have yet to unpack half of my library.

The text that stood out among the two score volumes restored to the light today is called The Cult of the Superman. It was written in 1944 by Eric Bentley.

The 1969 edition which I possess includes “An Appreciation” by C.S. Lewis. Before emigrating to the United States, Bentley had studied under Lewis at Oxford. He spent his own professorial career at Columbia University.*

I have yet to find the time to read the volume, but it’s subtitle clarifies the profound subject it addresses: A Study of the Idea of Heroism in Carlyle and Nietzsche, With Notes on Other Hero-Worshippers of Modern Times. Thomas Carlyle and Nietzsche, in elevating the exceptionality of the hero or superman who “shapes history,” diminish the value of the vast majority of human beings who seek no such domineering role.

This view, so warmly embraced by the Nazis, is directly opposed to the Christian worldview.

The news that God lifts the lowly will come as a disappointment to any supermen or superwomen who are reading this.

However, to those of us who do not yearn to rule over the masses, it is joyous news. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

In Jesus’ own words, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

Nietzsche would revile those words, yet his knee too will one day bow before the One who “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”

In his “Appreciation,” Lewis declares that Bentley is the right man to address this challenging topic.

The Author, though sternly critical, has a sympathy which I cannot emulate with those elements in Heroic Vitalism which really deserve a serious answer, and this enables him to make a constructive book out of what might easily have become a mere chamber of horrors.

Sheep or Wolves?

This aggrandizement of those who seize their self-ordained right to lord over others can certainly lead to horrors. One example I recently saw was a violent criminal’s justification for his actions. “There are sheep and there are wolves. I’m a wolf. The sheep only exist for my benefit.”

Those of us who comprise the lambs find it inconceivable that evil people believe we exist only to be preyed upon. Yet, this is precisely what predators think. And this Nietzschean notion can justify any atrocity, based as it is upon the maxim that “might makes right.”

Coincidentally, as I was writing this column, “Fishers of Men” by The Newsboys began playing. The first lyrics in the song coincide perfectly with the biblical promise above that every single person—including you—is precious to God.

Seven billion people on a spinning ball,

And they all mean the world to You.

So much for those who would consider themselves super-men . . .

_____

* Lewis’ praise for Bentley’s work is also found in a letter included as an expression of appreciation in ‪The Play and Its Critic: Essays for Eric Bentley.

For an interesting assessment of Lewis’ influence on Bentley’s vocation as a drama critique, Donald Cunningham writes in his Ph.D. dissertation:

Dissent and debate were seen by Lewis as a method for testing ideas, and so he felt that discussion of an ideological sort could only strengthen a grasp on truth. . . . It is possible, then, that Bentley’s positive attitude toward conflict and its necessary presence in a pluralistic, growth-oriented world was learned at Oxford.

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.

Hitler Versus C.S. Lewis

December 3, 2013 — 12 Comments

hitler“Meme.” A ubiquitous word among younger generations, but a concept still rather foreign to many who are slightly more “mature.”

The word was introduced by Richard Dawkins in 1976 and means an idea or social behavior that is transmitted by repetition “in a manner analogous to the biological transmission of genes.” Dawkins echoed the sound of “gene,” using the Greek word mimeisthai (to imitate).

Some memes are quite comical. Other quickly grow wearisome (remember the “dancing baby?”).

One I find particularly creative is a scene of Hitler in his bunker during the final days of the Third Reich. The dialog is in German, and the ingenuity is manifest in all of the hilarious subtitles that people create to coincide with the actions of the characters.

I’m sure there are many tasteless examples (to be avoided), but during the last few years I’ve viewed a couple of dozen and found most quite entertaining.

When I discovered a website that allows you to create your own version, I couldn’t resist. And, of course, I could think of no subject better suited to coinciding with Hitler’s demise than the heroic work of C.S. Lewis. In just a moment I’ll share a link to my film “adaptation.”

Lewis, of course, was a patriot who volunteered for the British army and served on the frontlines. He was seriously wounded. (He was not a Christian at the time.)

During the Second World War, Lewis supported the war effort from home. He provided tremendous encouragement to his countrymen via well-received talks broadcast on BBC. And this is the inspiration for my “take” on the Hitler Bunker meme.

His sequel to The Screwtape Letters, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” mentions the madman by name. Portraying the demons at the banquet as feasting on the souls of the damned, Screwtape complains:

. . . it would be vain to deny that the human souls on whose anguish we have been feasting tonight were of pretty poor quality. Not all the most skilful cookery of our tormentors could make them better than insipid.

Oh to get one’s teeth again into a Farinata, a Henry VIII, or even a Hitler! There was real crackling there; something to crunch; a rage, an egotism, a cruelty only just less robust than our own. It put up a delicious resistance to being devoured.

Curiously, in English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Lewis mentioned how Hitler could be viewed in a humorous light.

The mixture of farce and terror would be incredible if we did not remember that boys joked most about flogging under Keate, and men joked most about gallows under the old penal code. It is apparently when terrors are over that they become too terrible to laugh at; while they are regnant they are too terrible to be taken with unrelieved gravity. There is nothing funny about Hitler now.

Lewis’ point, accurate I believe, is that in the terror of the experience itself, humor can provide some relief. Laughing in ridicule at the source of the horror can help to preserve our sanity. Only in the aftermath—once the threat has been dispatched—can we allow the true magnitude of the carnage to be comprehended. And, in that moment, there is nothing at all that is funny.

Of course, years later, when the sights and smells of Dachau are no longer recalled by the living, things shift once again. (Very few of those tragic victims or liberating heroes remain.) When the scarred battlefields have been covered with velvet grass, and it was no longer even “dad’s war,” but now “grandpa’s” or even “great-grandpa’s,” the bitterness has grown stale.

Today, it is natural to scorn and laugh at the tragic dictator who caused so much sorrow. He was a pitiful human being, and without minimizing his crimes, it is fitting that he be ridiculed once again.

History Proves Lewis True

The fact that at a certain point it becomes acceptable to ridicule a monster, is the premise behind the hilarious film “The Producers.” If you’ve never seen it, by all means take a moment to watch the theme song, “Springtime for Hitler.” For a cinematic example of Hitler-ridicule, there may be none finer than that “musical” (overlooking the tasteless burlesque costumes).

Of course, true to Lewis’ maxim, ridicule was also heaped upon the “Bohemian Corporal” during the war itself.

The classic example would be Charlie Chaplin’s celebrated “The Great Dictator.” (In addition to starring in the film, Chaplin wrote, directed and produced the movie. Oh, and he also co-composed the music.) The film was made in 1940, while war already raged, but prior to the entry of the United States.

Chaplin’s movie confirms Lewis’ contention that we should not joke about such matters while the wounds are raw. We learn from Chaplin’s My Autobiography, that in the post-war realization of the depth of Hitler’s evil, he regretted treating him with such levity. “Had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator, I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis.”

[Best if viewed in the order presented, beginning with the external link to my parody.]

A Visit to the Cinema

Hitler Versus C.S. Lewis (by Mere Inkling)

Click this link: http://meemsy.com/v/12897

Springtime for Hitler and Germany” from The Producers

Charlie Chaplin’s Version of the German Dictator

The Three Stooges actually beat Chaplin to the screen with their short, “You Nazty Spy!” The sequel, “I’ll Never Heil Again” was released the following year.

A Scene from Nazty Spy

A Brief Clip from I’ll Never Heil Again

And finally, returning full circle to the original meme in which I participated, I was surprised to discover a version of it in which Hitler views the trailer for the 2012 Three Stooges movie. (Apparently, despite their rather disrespectful treatment of him, according to this meme der fuhrer was a fan!) And with that, today’s Hitler cinema will close.

Misinterpreted Symbols

October 31, 2013 — 10 Comments

finn planeFew symbols evoke the intense reaction caused by the swastika. Regardless of the color in which it is rendered, it is inescapably associated with the Nazi insanity of the Third Reich.

And yet, for millennia it meant something else. And even today, in many lands it is recognized as representing something completely different.

I recently read a fascinating article* about the 1939-40 Winter War between the Soviet Union (Hitler’s “ally” at the time!) and tiny Finland. The Finns fought valiantly, and although in the peace settlement they forfeited territory to the insatiable communists, they inflicted terrible casualties on the aggressors.

Finnish bitterness toward the Soviets, due to their invasion, led them to ally with the Germans once the nonaggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union ended. Without any sympathy for Nazi beliefs, they naturally hoped to regain the land they had been forced to surrender in 1940.

Prior to the Finnish alliance with Germany, the swastika already served as the official symbol of their small but talented Air Force. Ironically, they had adopted it in homage to the Swedish noble who donated one of the first foreign planes imported to fight the Russians.

The plane pictured above is the modest aircraft donated by Count Eric Von Rosen. The symbols adorning it are based on his personal crest, which was in turn based upon ancient Viking runes. It represented good luck.

After the decisive defeat of the National Socialist Party, the offensive symbol was virtually wiped away. However, as one writer says, “Although de-Nazification was enforced throughout Scandinavia, it was taken rather lightly in Finland, where the symbol had become an integral symbol for their Air Forces.

This is understandable because in Finland, the symbol meant something completely different than the common association linked to Hitler’s mania.

This should serve as an important lesson for those of us who work with words (which in large part are symbolic). A meaning we may consider patently obvious might turn out to be missed entirely by a reader for whom the “symbols” mean something else entirely. In Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis provides an entertaining illustration of this.

There is no need to be worried by facetious people who try to make the Christian hope of “Heaven” ridiculous by saying they do not want “to spend eternity playing harps.” The answer to such people is that if they cannot understand books written for grown-ups, they should not talk about them.

All the scriptural imagery (harps, crowns, gold, etc.) is, of course, a merely symbolical attempt to express the inexpressible. . . . People who take these symbols literally might as well think that when Christ told us to be like doves, He meant that we were to lay eggs.

The fact that we know the swastika has an ancient pedigree, and that it continues to mean something completely different than Nazism in some locales today, is unlikely to calm the minds of the vast majority of people who will never become comfortable with it.

Turning to Lewis once more we find a dynamic image that is perfectly apropos to our discussion of the swastika as a symbol. Symbols, he reminds us, are inherently powerful. Although written in a different context (“Williams and the Arthuriad”), Lewis could easily have had in mind the preeminent symbol of Nazism and the Holocaust when he wrote:

A symbol has a life of its own. An escaped metaphor—escaped from the control of the total poem or philosophy in which it belongs—may be a poisonous thing.

_____

* You can download a copy of “The Winter War” from Air Force magazine at this link.