Archives For Sweden

Civilized Savages

June 24, 2014 — 13 Comments

civilization-and-savageryWhat are the proper criteria for determining who is civilized? If you asked a score of people, you would probably end up with twenty different opinions.

In continuing my research about America’s first woman chaplain, I encountered an early American teaching resource that offered great insight into education during the early nineteenth century.

Some of it was quaint—“goats were made as profitable to the farmer as sheep.”

Some of it was insightful—“In America the Grecian architecture is prevailing, as it is better adapted than the Gothic to small buildings, and does not require splendid edifices to display its beauty.”

The text, Peter Parley’s Universal History, on the Basis of Geography, was used in schools and homes.

After finding confirmation of the point I was researching, I couldn’t resist skimming through the volume. Out of its myriad lessons, the one that got me thinking most seriously was a discussion of relative levels of civilization.

At the end of each lesson, several questions are posed. In this case:

Questions: What would you observe in traveling through other countries? What of people in a savage state? What of people in the barbarous state? What of people in the civilized state? What of people in the highest state of civilization?

Preceding these questions is the lesson proper, from which I now quote passages that correspond to the questions just listed.

In some countries the people live in huts built of mud or sticks, and subsist by hunting with bow and arrow. These are said to be in the savage state . . .

In some countries the people live in houses partly of stone and mud. They have few books, no churches or meeting-houses, and worship idols. . . . These are said to be in the barbarous state . . .

In some countries the inhabitants live in tolerable houses, and the rich have fine palaces. The people have many ingenious arts, but the schools are poor, and but a small portion are taught to read and write. . . . which may be called a civilized state.

In many parts of Europe, and in the United States, the people live in good houses; they have good furniture, many books, good schools, churches, meeting-houses, steamboats and railroads. These are in the highest state of civilization.

It appears that Peter Parley (the pseudonym of Samuel Griswold Goodrich) considered two factors to be the clearest measures of civilization—the quality of a society’s domiciles, and the access to learning and increase in literacy.

These are not inappropriate measures, although the latter dwarfs the former in significance.

I realize these lessons are intended for elementary education, so I don’t fault Goodrich for failing to address the subject from a more philosophical or mature angle. Nevertheless, I could not help wondering whether the societies that have attained the “highest state of civilization” are truly the least barbaric.

In some ways, the societies that have attained the loftiest technological levels might also be considered among the most savage.

I don’t have the time or inclination to pursue this thought any further in Mere Inkling, but I offer it to you. Some readers will agree that it merits reflections and others will consider it absurd.

Before moving on the Inklings, though, I wish to share a pertinent bit of wisdom from economist Thomas Sowell. “Each new generation born is in effect an invasion of civilization by little barbarians, who must be civilized before it is too late.”

C.S. Lewis thought, and wrote, a great deal about civilization. In English Literature in the Sixteenth Century there is a delightful remark, made in passing, that it is possible to retreat from civilization, once attained.

From the varied excellence of the fourteenth century to the work of the early sixteenth it is a history of decay; so that in turning from the Scotch poetry of the age to the English we pass from civilization to barbarism.

I end with a longer citation from C.S. Lewis which connects uniquely with the mindset with which Goodrich penned his textbook. Lewis also affirms true education, and the advancement of humanity towards that for which it was created, as the genuine mark of civilization.

One of the most dangerous errors instilled into us by nineteenth-century progressive optimism is the idea that civilization is automatically bound to increase and spread. The lesson of history is the opposite; civilization is a rarity, attained with difficulty and easily lost. The normal state of humanity is barbarism, just as the normal surface of our planet is salt water. Land looms large in our imagination of the planet and civilization in our history books, only because sea and savagery are, to us, less interesting.

And if you press to know what I mean by civilization, I reply “Humanity,” by which I do not mean kindness so much as the realization of the human idea. Human life means to me the life of beings for whom the leisured activities of thought, art, literature, conversation are the end, and the preservation and propagation of life merely the means. That is why education seems to me so important: it actualizes that potentiality for leisure, if you like for amateurishness, which is man’s prerogative.

You have noticed, I hope, that man is the only amateur animal; all the others are professionals. They have no leisure and do not desire it. When the cow has finished eating she chews the cud; when she has finished chewing she sleeps; when she has finished sleeping she eats again. She is a machine for turning grass into calves and milk—in other words, for producing more cows. The lion cannot stop hunting, nor the beaver building dams, nor the bee making honey. When God made the beasts dumb He saved the world from infinite boredom, for if they could speak they would all of them, all day, talk nothing but shop. (“Our English Syllabus”).

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An illustration from the book, which taught generations of Americans that the heirs of the Vikings were still a picturesque and virile people.

scandinavians

Worshiping Thor

November 25, 2013 — 20 Comments

thorI have a confession to make. One that is particularly awkward for a pastor.

The current success of the recent films about the Norse god of thunder have reminded me of one of the “errors” of my youth.

As a young boy I discovered great delight in reading comic books. And among all of the countless Marvel and DC titles I read during my youth, none was more precious to me than Thor. I never really “worshiped” him, of course, but I was enraptured by his saga.

I loved the comic, and it was difficult to wait each long, long month for the next issue to be published. I followed Thor’s adventures with intense devotion. An intense loyalty that was probably inappropriate since it was directed towards a pagan deity.

To make matters worse, the part of the magazine that appealed most to me was not the contemporary escapades of the otherworldly hero. The feature that most captivated my imagination was a smaller story included in each issue and entitled “Tales of Asgard.”

These stories were terribly brief, only five short pages, and didn’t introduce contemporary terrestrial or interstellar villains. Instead, they recounted the historic tales of Norse myth and religion. Their very earthiness—their historical authenticity—impressed me far more profoundly than did the 1960s superhero fare so commonplace during that era.

In fact, in Thor’s two cinematic blockbusters, I find the same to hold true. I find the mythological elements, the portions of the story set in Asgard far more captivating than the familiar, run of the mill heroic landscape of Midgard (Earth).*

I doubt  I am alone in my appreciation of the mythical over the scientific or magical elements. In the preface to The Pilgrim’s Regress, C.S. Lewis wrote, “When allegory is at its best, it approaches myth, which must be grasped with the imagination, not with the intellect.”

C.S. Lewis wrote a great deal about the power of myth. Like his close friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings, Lewis brought myth to life in The Chronicles of Narnia. In 1944, Lewis wrote an essay entitled “Myth Became Fact.” In it he explores the notion that in a sense Christianity too, is a myth—with one distinction from all of the rest.

Now as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens—at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences.

We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.

I began by saying I was making a confession of sorts. In truth, fascination with myth is nothing to be ashamed of. Lewis describes how it was precisely his own interest in such matters that played a primary role in his conversion to Christianity. In a 1931 letter to his friend Arthur Greeves, he describes the incipient process. These words foreshadow the message of the essay referred to above.

Now what [Hugo] 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 . . . 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.

The awareness that a mind so brilliant (and sanctified) as Lewis’ recognized the value of myth comforts me. I guess, in retrospect, that my youth was not entirely misspent reading those amazing stories. Thor still occupies a special place in my life journey, albeit not in a pantheon.

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* There are nine worlds in Norse cosmology. Midgard lies between the noble worlds of Asgard, Vanaheim and Alfheim . . . and Jotunheim, home of the frost giants, Svartalfheim, realm of the Dark Elves, and Muspelheim, abode of the Fire Giants and demons.

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.

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