Archives For Sin

C.S. Lewis and Punditry

January 30, 2017 — 10 Comments

chesterton-sanity

Odds are that you, kind reader of Mere Inkling, are a pundit. While the overpaid professionals who overpopulate the media would like for us to think being a pundit requires possessing special knowledge or expertise, that’s simply not true.

Any of us who make comments or pass judgments in an authoritative manner can rightly be deemed a pundit. If you are simply a commonplace critic, you probably qualify for the title. All the more so if you publish your thoughts.

If the recent elections proved anything, they revealed there may well be more pundits per cubic acre in the modern world, than there are bees.

Recently I came across a peculiar essay, written by a writer with whom I’m totally unfamiliar. David Harsanyi is a senior editor of The Federalist, although this article appeared in National Review. Presumably he is a conservative, but of the atheist variety. (No wonder I haven’t read any of his work.)

At any rate, he’s a journalist who describes his “line of work” as “punditry.” Punditry as we have noted, has become all the rage in our modern era. I’m debating though whether adding it to one’s resume would be beneficial. It appears that receiving the validation of a punditry paycheck is the best gauge for making that determination.

As soon as people had the leisure time to develop their senses of humor, the seeds of punditry were planted, and many a silver tongued cynic has reaped the harvest. The past has known people who offered social criticism with a dash of wit (typically of the sarcastic variety).

An admirable example of such was G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936). Chesterton differed from Harsanyi in that he was also a philosopher and poet, not merely a journalist. Most notably, Chesterton was also a Christian.

C.S. Lewis held Chesterton in very high regard, and included his book The Everlasting Man among the top ten titles which had influenced his professional and philosophical thought. You can download an audio copy of that text here.

There is a great essay here that explores the influence of Chesterton’s essay “Ethics of Elfland” on the Inklings.

Jerk Logic

Returning to the article with which I began, “Jerk Logic” is the title of Bersanyi’s essay. He began with a question that more people should probably ask themselves.

Am I a jerk? You may find this an odd question for a person to ask himself. But when you’re in my line of work—which, broadly speaking, is called punditry—complete strangers on social media have little compunction about pointing out all your disagreeable character traits.

I found his article interesting for several reasons. He’s candid about some of the booby traps that endanger those who dare to write about controversial subjects. He offers a confession about just how soul-scarring the past election has been for some who have followed its permutations closely.

The 2016 election, I’m afraid, has convinced me that the joke is definitely on me. But after taking meticulous inventory of my actions over the past year or so, I am forced to acknowledge that perhaps, on occasion, some of my behavior might be construed as wantonly unpleasant. Long story short, I am a jerk . . . with an explanation.

Another thing I enjoyed in the brief piece is how he turned to a personality inventory (similar to the Myers Briggs Type Indicator) to assess his potential jerk quotient.

As I learned more about my personality type, I began feeling sorry for everyone in my almost certainly beleaguered family. While we pride ourselves on “inventiveness and creativity” and “unique perspective and vigorous intellect,” Logicians can also be “insensitive,” “absent-minded,” and “condescending.”

The essay concludes with a justification for a modest amount of jerkiness when living the life of a journalist, and especially a pundit.

As a writer, it’s incumbent on me to be clinically unpleasant and prickly when focusing on self-aggrandizing do-gooders or abusers of power or those who pollute our culture with garbage. One can make arguments in good faith while still being downright disagreeable. So I make no apologies for being disliked. There’s nothing wrong with being hated by the right people.

There are, in fact, far too many journalists overly concerned about being shunned. As a young critic writing his first reviews for a wire agency, I sometimes wrestled with an existential question: “Who am I to say these horrible things about people who are far more successful and powerful than I am?” Nowadays I ask myself: “How exactly can I say more horrible things about these people who shouldn’t be more successful or powerful than any of us?”

A skeptical and contrarian disposition is not only useful if you want to be a decent pundit, but indispensable if you want to be a good journalist on any beat.

I wonder whether Chesterton would think of this as an indispensable journalistic trait. He did, after all, have an honest view of the overall profession. “Journalism largely consists in saying ‘Lord Jones is dead’ to people who never knew Lord Jones was alive.” (The Wisdom of Father Brown)

I did find a fascinating description of the press provided by Chesterton in “The Boy.” It was published in 1909 in All Things Considered . . . and echoes true a century later.

But the whole modern world, or at any rate the whole modern Press, has a perpetual and consuming terror of plain morals. Men always attempt to avoid condemning a thing upon merely moral grounds.

If I beat my grandmother to death to-morrow in the middle of Battersea Park, you may be perfectly certain that people will say everything about it except the simple and fairly obvious fact that it is wrong.

Some will call it insane; that is, will accuse it of a deficiency of intelligence. This is not necessarily true at all. You could not tell whether the act was unintelligent or not unless you knew my grandmother. Some will call it vulgar, disgusting, and the rest of it; that is, they will accuse it of a lack of manners. Perhaps it does show a lack of manners; but this is scarcely its most serious disadvantage.

Others will talk about the loathsome spectacle and the revolting scene; that is, they will accuse it of a deficiency of art, or æsthetic beauty. This again depends on the circumstances: in order to be quite certain that the appearance of the old lady has definitely deteriorated under the process of being beaten to death, it is necessary for the philosophical critic to be quite certain how ugly she was before.

Another school of thinkers will say that the action is lacking in efficiency: that it is an uneconomic waste of a good grandmother. But that could only depend on the value, which is again an individual matter.

The only real point that is worth mentioning is that the action is wicked, because your grandmother has a right not to be beaten to death. But of this simple moral explanation modern journalism has, as I say, a standing fear. It will call the action anything else—mad, bestial, vulgar, idiotic, rather than call it sinful.

Amen. Evil acts today are nearly always attributed to some shortcoming or flaw such as insanity (e.g. individual acts) or delusional indoctrination (e.g. jihadism). While these are sometimes contributing factors, Chesterton rightly assessed the base cause.

Sadly, by affirming that fact, I expect that I too will be going on some people’s “jerk” list. They may consider me contrarian, but I’m simply striving to be honest.

 

C.S. Lewis & Alcohol

December 15, 2016 — 11 Comments

chaliceWe children of alcoholics often have a difficult time determining the proper place for alcohol in our lives. Because we’ve seen the damage its abuse can cause, some are tempted to condemn it all together.

At the same time, like the abused child who is likelier to grow up becoming an abuser himself, as a group we are vulnerable to misusing alcohol ourselves.

The church’s attitude towards “drink” does not always help. Many denominations overlook the fact that it is drunkenness that the Scriptures condemn, and extend the prohibition to all drink that contains alcohol.

They are like the exegete who transforms the warning about the “love of money” being the root of sin into a rejection of all mediums of exchange beyond barter itself.* They overlook the attitude towards the object, and make the object itself the objectionable thing. Thus, money becomes the problem.

In the case of alcohol, it is no longer inappropriate or damaging use that is condemned, it is the drinking of anything containing alcohol that is reasoned to be sinful. Moving the bar in this fashion is simple legalism.

But this column isn’t about legalism. I don’t have an axe to grind. And, as the saying goes, some of my best friends (and family members) abstain from all drink. Similarly, I rarely drink myself. My point is not that wariness about alcohol’s dangers may be wise, but pushing God’s cautions to the degree where we call sin that which is not, is wrong in and of itself.

The solution does not come in the form of devising a pasteurization process so we can improve on the first eighteen centuries of Christian worship and now enjoy “Dr. Welch’s Unfermented Wine” for holy communion.

At the other extreme, there are some religious communities that celebrate their freedom in the gospel to degrees that may invoke Romans 14:21. There is something uncomely, perhaps even sinful, in a church celebrating this liberty. (And I write this as a pastor in a denomination that frequently takes note of the arrival of Oktoberfest.)

Neither prohibiting what God has deemed lawful, nor uncritically embracing secular festivities is the right course. The proper solution to the question of how drinking can or should fit into our lives is found by looking at the Scriptures themselves.

The Biblical Christian View on Alcohol

The Scriptures could not be clearer on the use of alcohol. Unless God has directed an individual to a particular course (or vow) in their personal life, the general rule is this: in moderation, treated as a beverage without the goal of intoxication, drinks containing alcohol are okay.

I know that some churches teach otherwise, but from the Bible itself it is clear that merely drinking a glass of wine or beer is not a sin. It is drinking to excess, that is sinful.

C.S. Lewis provides an extremely clear explanation of this distinction in Mere Christianity. He explains how the principle of temperance is applicable to many aspects of our lives.

Temperance is, unfortunately, one of those words that has changed its meaning. It now usually means teetotalism. But in the days when the second Cardinal virtue was christened ‘Temperance,’ it meant nothing of the sort.

Temperance referred not specially to drink, but to all pleasures; and it meant not abstaining, but going the right length and no further.

It is a mistake to think that Christians ought all to be teetotallers; Mohammedanism, not Christianity, is the teetotal religion. Of course it may be the duty of a particular Christian, or of any Christian, at a particular time, to abstain from strong drink, either because he is the sort of man who cannot drink at all without drinking too much, or because he is with people who are inclined to drunkenness and must not encourage them by drinking himself.

But the whole point is that he is abstaining, for a good reason, from something which he does not condemn and which he likes to see other people enjoying.

One of the marks of a certain type of bad man is that he cannot give up a thing himself without wanting every one else to give it up.

That is not the Christian way.

An individual Christian may see fit to give up all sorts of things for special reasons—marriage, or meat, or beer, or the cinema; but the moment he starts saying the things are bad in themselves, or looking down his nose at other people who do use them, he has taken the wrong turning.

One great piece of mischief has been done by the modern restriction of the word Temperance to the question of drink. It helps people to forget that you can be just as intemperate about lots of other things. A man who makes his golf or his motor-bicycle the centre of his life, or a woman who devotes all her thoughts to clothes or bridge or her dog, is being just as ‘intemperate’ as someone who gets drunk every evening.

Of course, it does not show on the outside so easily: bridge-mania or golf-mania do not make you fall down in the middle of the road. But God is not deceived by externals.

If he were alive today, Lewis could easily add sports-mania and social media-mania to his list of excesses that voraciously consume a person.

The fact that C.S. Lewis could enjoy a pint of beer with his friends becomes a stumbling block to some who would otherwise benefit from reading his work. Likewise, some readers of Mere Inkling may consider this post an endorsement of drinking.

That could not be farther from the truth. We children of alcoholics are acutely aware of the pain and chaos caused by its abuse.

On the contrary, these words are written to caution my brothers and sisters in Christ about a potentially more destructive sin, legalism.

Fortunately, the simple solution to both problems is an unfiltered, honest reading of God’s word.

_____

* This is an exaggeration, of course. Few, if any, reject all coin and currency, even if they misquote 1 Timothy 6:10 in alleging “money is the root of many evils.”

** “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble” (Romans 14:21).

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.

Tolerating Blasphemy

June 30, 2015 — 8 Comments

There is a high price to be paid for the privilege of freely proclaiming our personal faith.

It is not simply respectfully allowing every competing worldview the same freedom.

It requires far more than that.

Free speech—as understood in the Western tradition—means allowing even objectionable messages to be expressed.

A British author recently spoke to students graduating from an American college about this conundrum.

The British novelist called on students to remember that “religion and atheism, and all thought systems, all grand claims to truth, must be open to criticism, satire, even, sometimes, mockery,” and that “being offended is not to be confused with a state of grace; it’s the occasional price we all pay for living in an open society.”

Mockery of what we consider holy . . . that certainly is a steep price.

Some are unwilling to pay this price for the freedom of speech. The bloody atrocities committed by some followers of Muhammad attest to that.

Christians, on the other hand, no longer take the lives of blasphemers. They follow the leading of the Prince of Peace in praying for those who despise them and their Lord.

No one likes blasphemy—not even, I believe—those who spew it. And yet, the very existence of such “hate speech” proves at least two things.

First, that Christians are willing to endure hearing painful speech in appreciation for their own right to speak honestly about matters of eternal significance.

Second, that we recognize our Creator is great enough—and, more importantly, compassionate enough—to offer grace, mercy and healing to the wounded souls who are so desperate they can only express their anguish with a curse.

May God have mercy on those guilty of blasphemy.

We are Blasphemers All

Forgiveness and mercy flow naturally from the hearts of the redeemed when they reflect on the magnitude of their own sins.

Who among us can cast the first stone when it comes to dishonoring the name of our Creator? Not I.

And, as an imperfect man I am in good company.

C.S. Lewis describes an example of his own blasphemies in his autobiographical Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. The situation revolved, ironically, around his “confirmation” within the Anglican communion.

His father was eager to see his son publically confirm his faith and assume a fuller membership in the church. The problem was, Lewis was no longer a Christian. He was already apostate. Yet, out of deference to his father, he willingly made a mockery of the “sacrament.”

My relations to my father help to explain (I am not suggesting that they excuse) one of the worst acts of my life. I allowed myself to be prepared for confirmation, and confirmed, and to make my first Communion, in total disbelief, acting a part, eating and drinking my own condemnation.

As Johnson points out, where courage is not, no other virtue can survive except by accident. Cowardice drove me into hypocrisy and hypocrisy into blasphemy. It is true that I did not and could not then know the real nature of the thing I was doing: but I knew very well that I was acting a lie with the greatest possible solemnity.

It seemed to me impossible to tell my father my real views. Not that he would have stormed and thundered like the traditional orthodox parent. On the contrary, he would (at first) have responded with the greatest kindness. “Let’s talk the whole thing over,” he would have said. But it would have been quite impossible to drive into his head my real position.

The thread would have been lost almost at once, and the answer implicit in all the quotations, anecdotes, and reminiscences which would have poured over me would have been one I then valued not a straw— the beauty of the Authorized Version, the beauty of the Christian tradition and sentiment and character. And later, when this failed, when I still tried to make my exact points clear, there would have been anger between us, thunder from him and a thin, peevish rattle from me. Nor could the subject, once raised, ever have been dropped again.

All this, of course, ought to have been dared rather than the thing I did. But at the time it seemed to me impossible. The Syrian captain was forgiven for bowing in the house of Rimmon. I am one of many who have bowed in the house of the real God when I believed Him to be no more than Rimmon (2 Kings 5).

Like Lewis, I have much for which to be forgiven. I am willing to suffer the abuse of my beliefs precisely because my Lord Jesus was willing to endure the thorns, whip and nails that should have been mine.

And, because of God’s love for all sinners, I can sincerely pray, “Lord, have mercy on those who blaspheme.”

Imitating Animals

March 31, 2015 — 4 Comments

bearsHave you ever imitated a bear? Perhaps not intentionally. Still, if you are typical, you may do so routinely.

And it’s all because of your acnestis.

When I first saw the word, I thought it might be some recently coined term to address a semi-serious subject. But, the word is neither new, nor is the dilemma it describes exaggerated.

From the 1828 edition of Webster’s Dictionary.

ACNESTIS, n.

That part of the spine in quadrupeds which extends from the metaphrenon, between the shoulder blades, to the loins; which the animal cannot reach to scratch.*

While most human beings may not replicate bears’ behavior with trees, it is not uncommon to seek relief from a handy doorjamb.

Scratching that unreachable epicenter of that infernal itch has motivated the creation of a variety of tools. Yet none of these instruments can match the sheer relief offered by a sturdy doorway. I doubt I am alone, or excessively ursine, for believing that.

It could be worse, of course. At least people (most of them) don’t follow the example of dogs. We’ve all seen how they use the excuse of scratching their backs, to justify picking up unsavory scents while they wriggle around on the ground.

Descending to Subhuman Levels

Emulating animals has implications extending far beyond physical considerations. It is one thing to share a mutual appreciation for scratching one’s acnestis. Quite another to echo their baser natures.

In one of his letters, the Apostle Peter considers the fate of false prophets. After describing the damnation of fallen angels, he writes about those who teach deceitful doctrines. “But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed, blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant, will also be destroyed . . .” (2 Peter 2:12, ESV).

The following passage from the Psalms reveals how even the righteous are not immune to behaving like animals. “When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you [God]. Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. . . . My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:21-23, 26, ESV).

God’s word is filled with allusions to bestial behaviors. One of the most literal is found in the example of the humiliation of the great King Nebuchadnezzar. You can read it here, from the fourth chapter of the Book of Daniel.

What Distinguishes Us from the Beasts?

C.S. Lewis describes how being a true human being differentiates us from animals. We share physical natures and numerous biological similarities. But we are far more. Lewis explores this in The Abolition of Man, which begins with the chapter “Men Without Chests.”

This image of lacking a “chest” actually refers to a classical reference for the part of a person where our character or virtue resides.

The excerpt below addresses how the enlightened or morally educated individual is capable of transcending the slavery of animals to their fleshly nature.

Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism. I had sooner play cards against a man who was quite sceptical about ethics, but bred to believe that ‘a gentleman does not cheat,’ than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among sharpers.

In battle it is not syllogisms that will keep the reluctant nerves and muscles to their post in the third hour of the bombardment. The crudest sentimentalism . . . about a flag or a country or a regiment will be of more use.

We were told it all long ago by Plato. As the king governs by his executive, so Reason in man must rule the mere appetites by means of the ‘spirited element.’

The head rules the belly through the chest—the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments.

The Chest-Magnanimity-Sentiment—these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.

It is wise, I believe, for every man and woman to devote themselves to the health and of their own heart and purpose—that which makes us human.

In doing so, we will still share some of the basic behaviors of the animal world about us, such as being plagued by our acnestis . . . but the choices that direct the course of our lives will no longer be dictated solely by carnal instincts.

And such growth, my friends, will make us each day, a little bit more human.

_____

* I realize Noah Webster limited his definition to quadrupeds, but today it has been expanded to aptly apply to all of us who suffer from this curse.

Food that Bites

March 17, 2015 — 7 Comments

Guardians_of_the_Galaxy_Rocket_movie_posterMany peculiar delights are eaten in Los Angeles County, but diners might want to reconsider the fare offered at The Metro Supermarket. While it’s apparently not illegal to sell raccoons for consumption, it could become dangerous when the Guardians of the Galaxy learn of the practice.

In one of the year’s most successful blockbusters, Guardians of the Galaxy, we were introduced to Rocket Raccoon. Rocket is a genetically altered Procyon lotor designed to be a deadly fighting machine. Not only is he a brilliant tactician, the genetic manipulations have left him with one bad attitude.

Which makes it all the more important for the customers who purchase the ten-dollar-a-pound frozen raccoon carcasses to be cautious.

On a more serious note, the question of what we eat is not merely academic.

I’m not referring to modern insights into healthy diets. I’m talking about international, and potentially intergalactic, relations!

World travelers are often introduced to foods that seem, to put it gracefully, exotic. On such occasions, some respond enthusiastically—eager to sample alien delights. Others are somewhat more wary—reluctant to place in their mouths things they cannot quite identify.

Back in the 1980s I resided for a year in the Republic of Korea. I declined to eat gaegogi, not because I assumed dog meat would be unpalatable, but because I could not imagine contributing in any way to the slaughter of dogs for their flesh.

Another time that year, a sergeant who worked at our chapel purchased a paper cone full of toasted rice during an outing. When he was done with the rice (burned, he thought, rather than “toasted”), his Korean girlfriend clarified that he had just devoured a cup of rice beetles.

Military members stationed abroad are encouraged to be respectful of the cultures they encounter. And those cultures included different foods.

We need not travel to other nations to experience this diversity. I grew up in a family which considered processed “fish sticks” to be seafood. Combined with canned tuna fish and an occasional canned salmon “patty” it constituted the whole of my exposure to the abundance of the sea.

While I have since that time expanded my tastes to include many types of fresh fish, I must admit that crustaceans are not among my favorite foods. And, well, let’s not even talk about those creatures that have tentacles . . .

Not that I’m a culinary snob. In Texas I sampled rattlesnake. In South Carolina I ate alligator. (I preferred the rattlesnake, but I don’t reserve a regular spot for reptiles on my menu.)

To Eat, Or Not to Eat

Showing respect to others by dining as they do, is not a new concept. The early Christians were advised to eat without reluctance food that may have been sacrificed in a pagan temple, without questioning their hosts as to its source. “If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience” (1 Corinthians 10:25, ESV).

C.S. Lewis enjoyed a good meal. And he wrote many times about eating. Here are two of his insights on the subject.

For eating and reading are two pleasures that combine admirably. Of course not all books are suitable for mealtime reading. It would be a kind of blasphemy to read poetry at table. What one wants is a gossipy, formless book which can be opened anywhere. (Surprised by Joy).

Contrasting humility and pride, he wrote:

A man who is eating or lying with his wife or preparing to go to sleep in humility, thankfulness and temperance, is, by Christian standards, in an infinitely higher state than one who is listening to Bach or reading Plato in a state of pride. (Letters of C.S. Lewis).

Those interested in learning more about how Lewis approached the subject of meals in his fiction should download a copy of a doctoral thesis on the subject. Lower Sacraments: Theological Eating in the Fiction of C.S. Lewis is available for free here.

We’ll close with the following words from the newly minted “doctor’s” abstract to his dissertation, citing some of the subjects he explores.

For years, critics and fans of C. S. Lewis have noted his curious attentiveness to descriptions of food and scenes of eating. Some attempts have been made to interpret Lewis‘s use of food, but never in a manner comprehensively unifying Lewis‘s culinary expressions with his own thought and beliefs.

My study seeks to fill this void [proposing] ecclesiastical themes appear whenever Lewis’s protagonists eat together. The ritualized meal progression, evangelistic discourse, and biographical menus create a unity that points to parallels between Lewis’s body of protagonists and the church. . . .

Lewis’s meals which are eaten in the presence of the novel’s Christ figure or which include bread and wine in the menu reliably align with the Anglo-Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist. . . . sinful eating affects the spiritual states of Lewis’s characters.

The author ends his introduction with a particularly intriguing thesis that makes sense with my own reading of Lewis. He argues “Lewis’s culinary language draws from Edenic sources, resonating with a very gastronomic Fall of Humanity, then examines how the progressively sinful eating of certain characters signifies a gradual alienation from the Divine. . . . Lewis’s portrayal of culinary desire and pleasure ultimately points to an eschatological theme”

I love that phrase, “gastronomic Fall of Humanity.” I’m not sure I can work it into a sermon someday, but only time will tell.

Until then, I have to be content to regard the eating of dogs—and probably raccoons as well—as consequences of humanity’s Fall. And I will look forward to the new creation when all such things will have passed away.

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.

______

* 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.