Archives For Potential

Filling the Shoes of Giants

September 22, 2020 — 9 Comments

One thing all humans have in common, is that we are mortal. Immortality is not inherent to our nature, and eternal life can only come as a gift from our Creator. All men and women live and die. In the words of Ecclesiastes:

It is the same for all, since the same event [i.e. death] happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As the good one is, so is the sinner, and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath (Ecclesiastes 9:2).

Naturally, there are many metrics by which to measure a person’s life. For my purpose today, I’m thinking about people who exerted an outsized* influence on culture through their testimony for Christ.

Richard John Neuhaus was such a man. Neuhaus served an integrated Lutheran congregation in Brooklyn during the 1960s, where his reputation as a socially conscious pastor began. Following the Roe versus Wade decision, Neuhaus’ involvement in liberal politics ebbed. However, his commitment to applying Christian ethics to society remained strong. In 1990, he became a Roman Catholic. He also founded the Institute on Religion and Public Life which continues to publish its ecumenical journal First Things.⁑

In his tribute to his uncle, “Can the Shoes of Richard John Neuhaus Be Filled?” Pastor Peter A. Speckhard acknowledges the sad prospects of lesser voices.

Sincerely Christian intellectuals who can articulate a solid orthodox take on any subject, but to whom nobody but their students and blog followers feel any urge to listen, are also a dime a dozen.⁂

Speckhard’s point is that there are many who are brilliant and devout, but few who can fill the shoes of giants. Speckhard offers this stark appraisal, however, without seeking to discourage other Christians from speaking to whomever might listen. (Which is much-needed encouragement to bloggers who are disappointed at how few read their posts.)

C.S. Lewis, an Even Taller Giant

As great as Neuhaus’ contribution to the advance of Christianity has been, it cannot match that of C.S. Lewis. Lewis, after all, was the great Christian apologist of the twentieth century. (An “apologist” is a person who argues in the defense of something that is controversial, in this case, the claim of Jesus himself that he “is the way, the truth, and the life [and] no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

While Neuhaus’ witness has continued to influence many Americans, Lewis’ impact has been felt around the world. Not only has God used his works to convert many readers, Lewis’ writings continue to teach and encourage those seeking the truth today.

I have not yet had an opportunity to read The Fame of C.S. Lewis. From the reviews, it is not so much about Lewis’ writing, but the way in which his reputation has grown. Thus the subtitle: A Controversialist’s Reception in Britain and America. The author addresses one of the myths that has bothered me for years.

You may have heard the contention that Lewis is more popular in American than he is in Britain. It often carries a negative innuendo and comes across (to me, at least) like: “Lewis is more popular in the naïve, religiously unsophisticated colonies, than he is in enlightened, theologically cultured Britain.” In fact, Stephanie Derrick concludes, “the scale of Lewis’ renown was greater in the States than in Britain in large part because the difference in population there amounted to a much larger audience.”

Derrick addresses “larger question: how is renown made and kept?” She argues that “much of Lewis’s popularity is properly attributed to factors besides Lewis’s talents.”

Indeed, much of The Fame of C.S. Lewis is devoted to exploring the external factors that shaped Lewis’s success—the many actors and circumstances that have contributed to his popularity. Institutions, editors, changing social forces, and audiences have all had a hand in moulding Lewis’s image.

She is certainly correct that a wide range of factors, recognized and unknown, influence how we view people. This is particularly true after the individual (e.g. Rev. Richard Neuhaus) has become a part of history, once death has extinguished them, as Ecclesiastes might say.

However, I disagree that Lewis’ fame is an accident, the result of a unique combination of uncontrolled variables. On the contrary, I believe his reputation is based upon (1) his literary talents, (2) his humility and transparency, and—most importantly—because, (3) at the core of his most significant work, we find truth. The foundation of Lewis’ most precious writing is based on an unchanging, even eternally, relevant foundation.

I have no doubt God will continue to raise up other Christian apologists with anointed and far-reaching ministries. Ravi Zacharias, ⁑⁑ who recently died, is such a champion. There will be others to fill the shoes of C.S. Lewis and Zacharias, but their successors will require very remarkable gifts.

Bonus

One final link. This one is to the Moral Apologetics website, which has some very good articles on C.S. Lewis. And, if you decide to subscribe to their free newsletter, they allow you download The Ichabod Letters: Epistles from a Junior Demon. (Author Elton Higgs says his “study in demonic subterfuge [is] modeled on C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters.”)


* That’s the first time I’ve ever used that word. Seems too slangish for my tastes. But apparently it has been around since it dates to the early 1800s. (By the way, I hope you appreciated my facetious use of “slangish,” which is considerably younger and more slangy.)

First Things is an ecumenical publication, but my subjective estimate is that about 70% of the articles relate rather directly to Roman Catholicism. They offer a worthwhile newsletter featuring free access to a number of their articles.

⁂ Peter A. Speckhard, “Can the Shoes of Richard John Neuhaus Be Filled?” Concordia Theological Quarterly 77 (2013), 342-53. The article is available here.

⁑⁑ Zacharias leaves behind a lasting legacy, particularly in the form of the ministry he founded, RZIM. Check it out for some thoughtful resources from Zacharias and other like minded contemporary Christian apologists.

Up in Smoke

December 6, 2013 — 2 Comments

hookahsI have the misfortune of living in one of the two states that has legalized the growing, distribution, use and promotion of marijuana.

The fauna and (natural) flora of Washington are scenic beyond compare. But in order to enjoy them, I am forced to live in a location where what was inconceivable a decade ago has become commonplace.

This week, in my small town of nine thousand, they opened our first “hookah lounge.” Although the owner’s initial license only allows the sale and on premises use of various tobaccos and other weeds, it’s no secret the owner is eager to expand his offerings.

My purpose here is not, however, to debate the merits of legalizing cannabis. I want to share with you the utterly apropos name of this hookah palace. It is called “Up in Smoke.”

While I’m sure the entrepreneur thought he concocted a brilliant play on words for his establishment, I cannot help but shake my head at the irony.

After all, what does the phrase actually mean? The expression isn’t truly an “idiom,” since the words are quite straight forward. It means what it says, referring to something of potential value that has been burned and is now lost, spoiled or wasted. Of course, the last of those synonyms also has another connection to the world of drugs.

I suspect the actual meaning of the phrases pass right over the head of the owner. He certainly misses the irony, or he would not adorn his establishment with that moniker.

I assume the purveyor of lung destroying inhalants is consciously referencing the 1978 film by this name, that glorifies the drugged induced stupors of Cheech and Chong. (Not a pinnacle of cinematic achievement.)

The saddest thing about using drugs for “recreation,” or distraction from the responsibilities of life, is that it often results in lives going up in smoke. While marijuana itself is apparently used “recreationally” by many successful people, with little negative impact, that’s far from true for all who “inhale.”

As I try to recall every individual I’ve personally known who used the drug, I’m unable to think of a single person who stopped there and did not at least experiment with some other drug. From my subjective experience, it definitely proved to be a “gateway” drug.

While none of these acquaintances became what would traditionally be labeled an “addict,” I can think of several tremendously talented and gifted people who never lived up to their potential. And I attribute at least part of that regret to being distracted from school and employment as young adults.

Similarly, of all of the people I’ve counseled regarding drug-related struggles during the past three decades, I’m hard-pressed to recall a single one who did not begin his or her narcotic journey with the ubiquitous weed.

Drugs, of course, are not the only diversions that cause us to miss out on the full experience that life offers. As C.S. Lewis wrote:

We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. (The Weight of Glory)

I’m not casting stones here. I too waste far too much time and energy with fruitless distractions. In doing so, I watch part of my own life go up in smoke. Still, I doubt I’ll ever experience the slightest temptation to waste the briefest moment of my life . . . in an ill-named hookah den.

Autistic Considerations

August 22, 2013 — 13 Comments

Bill & Barbara ChristopherMost of us have a friend, loved one, or acquaintance affected by autism. I’m not sure if this would have been accurate a generation ago.

And I’m not merely referring to the lack of proper diagnosis of the problem. There are numerous reports that its frequency is increasing.

Autism is not necessarily debilitating. In minor cases it’s barely noticeable. Like many problems, its severity is manifested across a wide spectrum.

I have autism on my mind now, as the new school year approaches and my wife sets up her special education classroom. She’s excited about the return of her precious kids. It’s wonderful how so many of them make amazing process both in academics and social abilities.

The return of school, however, is not the primary reason for my current thoughts. I’m writing an article I hope to submit to an Autism magazine, inspired by a recent interview I conducted.

I was privileged to speak at length with the father of a severely autistic son who will be known to many readers of Mere Inkling. William Christopher, who played Father Mulcahy on M*A*S*H, has been a prominent spokesman for autism concerns for many years. (A link to the article appears below.)

Along with his wife Barbara, Christopher wrote a book entitled Mixed Blessings. It recounted their early struggles providing Ned with everything he needed to make his life as full as it could possibly be. Due to their diligence and deep love for their son, Ned continues to enjoy his active life today.

They embody the noble type of earnest love C.S. Lewis describes in The Four Loves. There he says that true love is gift-love, not seeking increased dependence on itself, but liberating the beloved to become as independent as they possibly can.

The maternal instinct . . . is a Gift-love, but one that needs to give; therefore needs to be needed. But the proper aim of giving is to put the recipient in a state where he no longer needs our gift. We feed children in order that they may soon be able to feed themselves; we teach them in order that they may soon not need our teaching.

Thus a heavy task is laid upon this Gift-love. It must work towards its own abdication. We must aim at making ourselves superfluous. The hour when we can say “They need me no longer” should be our reward. But the instinct, simply in its own nature, has no power to fulfil this law.

The instinct desires the good of its object, but not simply; only the good it can itself give. A much higher love—a love which desires the good of the object as such, from whatever source that good comes—must step in and help or tame the instinct before it can make the abdication.

This despite the counsel of one early specialist who advised them that since Ned was adopted they should just take him and trade him in for a child who wasn’t defective. Yes, someone really said that to them.

If I end up publishing the article, I’ll mention it again for those who might be interested in reading it. In the meantime, the extensive interview appears in the current issue of a journal I edit for military chaplains, called Curtana: Sword of Mercy.

When we look at a list of autistic traits, it’s normal to recognize some of them in ourselves. That shouldn’t surprise us, since most of these traits are completely “normal” in various degrees.

It is a commonplace practice to perform posthumous diagnoses of well known figures, based upon detailed descriptions of their behaviors. In that vein, I found online lists that included the following personages as possibly autistic: Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein, James Joyce, Stanley Kubrick, Lewis Carroll, and Hans Christian Andersen.

Oh, and there’s another name I discovered in one article. The writer suggested that C.S. Lewis’ social preferences suggest that he too suffered the mild version of autism, typically called “Asperger’s Syndrome.”

I don’t intend to discuss that now, but I wanted to share a fascinating concept I encountered while researching for this column. In Autism, Art and Children: The Stories We Draw, I read the following about imaginary worlds like Narnia and Middle Earth:

It is this element of world building that forms a bridge between the impersonal character of research and clinical observations and the individual young artists with autism in whom our interest especially lies.

Sacks (1995) points out the importance of fantasy worlds to some individuals with autism . . . this predilection for alternate worlds is frequently encountered in many high-functioning people with autism . . . such high-functioning individuals with autism “describe a great fondness for, almost an addiction to, alternative worlds, imaginary worlds such as those of C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, or worlds they imagine themselves.”

Illustrating such world-building activities by an entire family (two parents and their son), all of whom have autism, Sacks remarks, “They have spent years constructing an imaginary world with its own landscapes and geography (endlessly mapped and drawn), its own languages, currency, laws, and customs—a world in which fantasy and rigidity play equal parts.”

This creative activity is of particular interest, for many of the children we have met have individual fantasies in alternative worlds that play major roles in their lives and activities.

I find this analysis captivating. I am utterly fascinated by the construction of imaginary settings. That’s one reason I love the alternate history genre, as it combines the familiar with elements that have transformed them into something inherently different.

I must confess I’ve occupied many an idle hour imaging new worlds. I’ve even invested a fair amount of time in world-building myself—for an alternative history for which I still compile notes and ideas, despite the fact it’s unlikely to ever be written. I don’t attribute this to autism, but it serves as another example of just how much all of us have in common.

The fact is none of us is perfectly healthy—physically, emotionally, psychologically, or spiritually. We are who we are. We can strive to improve many aspects of our lives (and the wellbeing of others), but attaining perfection is impossible in this life.

In the meantime, we can be grateful for wonderful people like Barbara and Bill Christopher, who have courageously shared their own journey to aid us in ours. Their willingness to forsake their rightful shield of privacy and step out into the glare of the public—for our benefit—reveals both their love for their children and their generosity towards strangers.

_____

The wonderful photograph at the top of the column features Bill and Barbara Christopher. Barbara had a guest role as a nurse in “Dear Mildred,” during which the two of them sang a duet.

The interview with Bill Christopher can be downloaded for free in the current issue of Curtana: Sword of Mercy, which is available here.