Review: Pursuing an Earthy Spirituality

Pursuing an Earthy Spirituality

Pursuing an Earthy Spirituality, Gary S. Selby. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A survey of the works of C.S. Lewis through the lens of their incarnational spirituality, discussing how Lewis brings together spiritual formation and the embodied life.

One of the intriguing questions about the works of C. S. Lewis is how one accounts for their popularity and staying power. I believe one of the responses Gary S. Selby might give is the ability Lewis had to connect spiritual truth to our lived experiences as flesh and blood human beings. He writes:

“Red beef and strong beer.” Those were the words C. S. Lewis used to describe life under the rigorous tutelage of his beloved mentor, William T. Kirkpatrick, “The Great Knock”. . . .

Lewis’s choice of words to describe the crucible of Kirkpatrick’s instruction clearly shows his gift for using language to stir our imagination. It also underscores his appreciation for the earthy, embodied stuff of life. Lewis loved food, drink, laughter, and good conversation. He relished an amble in the English countryside, a joy made all the more delightful by his anticipation of the cozy fire and pint of ale that awaited him in a pub at day’s end. But I also believe that this phrase gives us a clue to what, for Lewis, it meant to be spiritual. It points to the possibility that savoring the sensations of taste and touch, sight and smell and hearing, these experiences that are often the richest of our earthly lives, represented a doorway into the presence of God and the first step of the spiritual journey (pp. 1-2).

In this book, Selby surveys the works of Lewis to develop the character of Lewis’s “earthy” spirituality, which he sees as the antidote to a kind of spirituality detached from our bodily existence. He begins by tracing what is perhaps the most well-known account of this in Surprised by Joy, recounting Lewis’s experiences of longing, punctuated by joy and sometimes sadness or wistfulness, as he read Norse poetry or glimpsed a beautiful scene in nature or even his brother’s imaginary world of Boxen. While we long for our Creator, we are often put off by perceptions of God as distant or severe, until we, like Lewis discover the God who is “not safe–but good.” He narrates the negative spirituality of Lewis’s early life, paralleled at many points by the counsel Screwtape receives, and the redemption of ordinary and everyday desire that points to the glory of God. He speaks of a new kind of consciousness, contrasted with the illusions that accompany the existence of the damned, that becomes honestly self aware of one’s sin, as well as the grace to choose the will of God. He goes on to treat the development of virtue in our lives.

“Retinas and Palates” resumes the discussion of physical pleasures in which these are taken up into praise that says “my God, how wonderful you are” and turns the delight in earthy things such as food or sex or beauty properly enjoyed into the praise of their Maker. Temptation to sin is to turn such pleasures away from God toward oneself in ways forbidden. Likewise, when we learn to delight in and learn from “the other,” those different from us, we are immeasurably enriched. He uses Lewis’s Space Trilogy to trace the development of Ransom as he encounters the various species of Malacandra and the unfallen Green Lady of Perelandra that fits him to lead the resistance to That Hideous Strength in his little religious community of St. Anne’s. I had never thought of how his experiences of the Other might have fitted him for this.

Selby concludes with Lewis’s portrayal of the Christian hope of resurrected embodied life, a life even more real, “harder” and “deeper” and more beautiful than all we have experienced. He ends where he began, with joy, and how often we disconnect joy from God, when in fact joy is at the heart of what it means to be the redeemed, embodied creatures of God.

So what is the value of one more book about C. S. Lewis and his works? In Lewis’s “Meditation in a Toolshed,” Lewis distinguishes between looking at a beam of light versus looking along that beam.  Selby’s work helps us look along a particular beam of the writing of Lewis, the light it sheds on Lewis richly textured embodied spirituality. We might notice hints of that as we look at his works, but Selby invites us to see along the beam of the earthy spirituality running through Lewis’s works, to see the source of pleasure and joy and how this might shape embodied lives of worship, virtue and hope. This book helped me not only see new things in Lewis but helped me recognize with greater clarity the connections between the experiences of everyday life in the body and the good God who so made us.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

 

Review: The Gospel in Dorothy Sayers

Sayers

The Gospel in Dorothy L. SayersDorothy L. Sayers with an Appreciation by C. S. Lewis, edited by Carole Vanderhoof. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2018.

Summary: An anthology of Sayers’ work organized by theological topics, drawing on her detective fiction, plays, and essays.

This work is the latest installment in Plough Publishing’s The Gospel in Great Writers series, and it is a gem. Dorothy L. Sayers was one of the first women to receive a degree from Oxford. Her experience in an ad agency became a resource for a series of Lord Peter Wimsey (and Harriet Vane) detective mysteries. As a committed Christian, and friend of the Inklings, she was called upon by the BBC to speak and write about the Christian faith. She published several plays that brought the gospel accounts to life. She was an essayist, and her extended essay on The Mind of the Maker, simultaneously served as a work of Christian aesthetics, and a reflection on the Trinity. Many consider her translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy (Paradiso completed posthumously by Barbara Reynolds) to be one of the best.

In this anthology, we have material from many of her works, that introduces the reader both to the different facets of her writing and the deep theological insight to be found. The material is organized into twenty chapters, each on a particular them, and combining either her fiction or plays with essay material on the same themes. Themes range from Conscience to Covetousness to Despair and Hope to Work and finally Time and Eternity.

What struck me afresh in reading this collection was how delightfully frank and able to cut through pretense Dorothy could be–the counterpart of Harriet Vane in her detective stories.

In writing about Judgement, she notes:

“It is the inevitable consequence of man’s attempt to regulate life and society on a system that runs counter to the facts of his own nature.”

In her essay, The Dogma is the Drama, she concludes:

“Let us, in Heaven’s name, drag out the Divine Drama from under the dreadful accumulation of slip-shod thinking and trashy sentiment heaped upon it, and set it on an open stage to startle the world into some sort of vigorous reaction. If the pious are the first to be shocked, so much the worse for the pious–others will pass into the Kingdom of Heaven before them.”

In her play The Man Who Would Be King, she uses informal language to describe the crucifixion of Jesus. The Bishop of Winchester protested this. Here is Dorothy’s reply:

“I’ve made all the alterations required so far, but now I’m entering a formal protest, which I have tried to make a mild one, without threatenings and slaughters. But if the contemporary world is not much moved by the execution of God it is partly because pious phrases and reverent language have made it a more dignified crime than it was. It was a dirty piece of work, tell the Bishop.”

In her essay Why Work?, she makes this trenchant observation:

“How can anyone remain interested in a religion which seems to have no concern with nine-tenths of his life?”

This work is rich in such observations and often the essay excerpts are a good reflection of the key ideas in those essays. If there is any flaw, the excerpts from the detective fiction do not sufficiently reflect these works as a whole, even if they are connected thematically to the other pieces in the chapter. Hopefully, something of the character of Lord Peter Wimsey shows through, which develops over the course of Sayers fiction. The only remedy for this is that you need to read the works in their entirety, often available in inexpensive print or electronic editions.

A bonus to this volume comes in the form of “A Panegyric for Dorothy L. Sayers” by C.S. Lewis, written following her death. I think she would have most appreciated this comment:

“There is in reality no cleavage between the detective stories and her other works. In them, as in it, she is first and foremost the craftsman, the professional. She always saw herself as one who had learned a trade, and respects it, and demands respect for it from others.”

For those who only have heard of Dorothy L. Sayers, this volume is a wonderful introduction to her broad range of writings, and her acute thinking about theology and art. For those who have read her works, it is a wonderful review that serves to connect the dots between her different genres of work. For all of us, this work gives us a chance to think along with one of the great theological minds of the twentieth century.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: Cosmology in Theological Perspective

Cosmology in theological Perspective

Cosmology in Theological Perspective, Olli-Pekka Vainio. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018.

Summary: Explores the place and significance of human beings in the cosmos, how this has been thought of through history, and how Christian theology might address contemporary questions raised about our place, the possibility of extra-terrestrial life, the size of the cosmos, drawing upon the approach of C.S. Lewis.

Anyone who has gazed up at the night sky, ancient or modern, has likely been filled with a sense of wonder, a sense of the vastness of the cosmos, and wondered about our place, and how we could possibly think ourselves of any significance before such vastness. Modern scientific discoveries of millions of galaxies, and the proposal of our universe being but one of many multiverses only multiplies the vastness. That leaves all human beings with many philosophical questions, and Christians with particular questions of how they make sense of the cosmos, the magnitude of it, and the possibilities of other life forms, and where God is in all this.

Olli-Pekka Vainio, who is working with NASA on a project on astrobiology, has thought deeply about cosmology and matters of faith and this book, drawing on the approach of C. S. Lewis. He writes of Lewis:

“In his essays, Lewis offered reasoned commentaries on our place in the cosmos that drew from the ancient Christian tradition, encountering head-on the contemporary challenges, which he often showed to be based on misunderstandings or superficial knowledge of history. He resisted the scientistic worldview as “all fact and no meaning,” that is to say, a worldview that tries to be too secure and is thereby paradoxically vacated of those things that really matter to us. By mixing elements from the contemporary and ancient cosmologies, he wished to underline the meaning that was lost, as “pure facts” had taken over the collective imagination. In a way, his science fiction was a project that tried to re-enchant the world after the disenchantment brought by scientism and crude materialism.”

He describes this approach as bringing together three elements: an understanding of history, a coherence of knowledge, and intellectual virtue. Attempts at cosmology must be understood in historical context. Coherence of knowledge for the Christian consists in the canonical witness, the ecumenical tradition, and the ecumenical consensus. Intellectual virtue “includes values like honesty, open-mindedness, critical thinking, courage, and wisdom” without which we end up “in either relativism or dogmatism.”

With this methodology in mind he begins by surveying ancient cosmologies including the Old Testament and those of Plato and Aristotle which influence the early church. He then turns to early Christian thinking, particularly that of Basil the Great and Saint Augustine, considering the philosophical and hermeneutical tools they used. He moves forward to debates surrounding the work of Galileo, Newton, and Darwin and develops observations on how to think, and not to think, in relating theology and scientific facts.

After these first three introductory chapters, he turns to contemporary questions. Chapter 4 considers the possibilities of multiple habitable planets and multiverses and how this might connect to Christian theism and proposes the interesting idea that a good Creator might create good things in abundance, or plenitude. Chapter 5 considers different understandings of the imago dei, and how that might be applied to alien life forms, artificial intelligences, and whether animals might in any sense share in the imago dei. Chapter 6 explores two possibilities: one that we are alone in the universe and two that there are other “alien” life forms. Vainio shows how Christian theism might accommodate either of these possibilities. Having considered the vast cosmos, chapter 7 asks why God did not create a human-sized cosmos and why there is so much empty space. Chapters 8 and 9 explore a number of questions about God–God’s relation to such a vast creation and where God may be found, and the question of whether the Incarnation of Christ was a unique event that might apply for other worlds, or if Christ entered other worlds in other ways.

His concluding chapter returns to C. S. Lewis, and explores how Lewis related reason and imagination in formulating his ideas about cosmology, and how this approach might be helpful in our own day. Lewis did not see these in conflict, leading to extremes either of reducing things to “all facts and no meaning” or that faith is believing what we know is not true. Rather, the cosmic significance of our faith nurtures our desire to understand the cosmos more fully, and good scientific work only deepens our wonder and awe.

The value of this work is not to enunciate inflexible dogma concerning matters of cosmology but rather to explore the questions at the boundaries of our knowledge both of science and theology and to suggest that Christian theism has the resources to address various possibilities and coherent and imaginative responses to the questions we might ask. Vainio offers us careful theological and philosophical reasoning throughout (and an extensive bibliography), that identifies the different possibilities and their strengths and weaknesses of various proposals. I appreciate the combination of careful scholarship and epistemic humility in this work that creates a space for fertile discussions between scientists and theologians working together to make sense of the cosmos.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

“Popularizer” is a Dirty Word.

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C. S. Lewis, Public Domain via Flickr

If you are an academic, one of the worst things you can be called is a “popularizer.” It means you are not a serious scholar, even if you have published serious scholarly work.

This came up in Donna Freitas newly published Consent on Campus. She urges her colleagues to engage students in classes about questions about sexual ethics as it relates to course content. But she observes that academics are their own worst enemies. Faculty who refuse to remain detached but talk about the personal and real-life implications of their scholarship run the risk of criticism from colleagues as “popularizers.”

This is not a new problem. It was one that faced one of the most significant writers and Christian apologists of the twentieth century, C. S. Lewis. Lewis graduated with a triple first and published landmark works on Paradise LostThe Allegory of Love, and The Discarded Image. Yet he never progressed beyond the rank of Fellow and Tutor at Magdalen College, Oxford. Only late in life, in 1954, was he awarded the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge.

Why? He was a popularizer. His radio addresses during World War II made “mere Christianity” understandable to ordinary listeners. He addressed pressing issues that were barriers to Christian belief in clear and carefully argued best-selling books. He wrote creative science fiction. Perhaps his worst offense was writing children’s stories.

A continued source of longing I’ve encountered among thoughtful Christians is for the rise of another C. S. Lewis. What if the real issue is not intellectual brilliance or theological knowledge or spiritual devotion, but a willingness to descend from the ivory tower and risk being called a popularizer and judged as less than a serious scholar? What if the real issue is a willingness to risk career success?

I’m not sure how to distinguish a public intellectual from a popularizer. I suspect these may be positive and negative labels for the same person. It does assume someone whose public work is marked by intellect, serious thought translated into terms any thoughtful person may grasp. Such people are not limited to the academy, but the rigor of their training and credentials, and their regular practice of teaching students do qualify them for this work.

I wonder if it comes down to conviction and courage. For such persons might “popularizer,” “associate professor,” and “not serious” become badges of honor? I suspect it is not right to set out to be the next C.S. Lewis. But I suspect it will not come to pass unless a person accepts these badges.

Review: The Personal Heresy

the personal heresy

The Personal HeresyC. S. Lewis, E. M. W. Tillyard. New York: Harper One, 2017 (originally published 1939).

Summary: A discussion of whether the personality of the author should enter into the criticism of a work of poetry.

In 1934 C. S. Lewis published an article in Essays and Studies to defend this assertion:

In this paper I shall maintain that when we read poetry as poetry should be read, we have before us no representation which claims to be the poet, and frequently no representation of a man, character, or a personality at all.

The article was written for anyone to take up. E. M. W. Tillyard published a response in the following year that led to two more rounds of responses between Lewis and Tillyard, resulting in this book in its present form.

In a nutshell, the controversy between the two men concerned whether, in poetry, we have access to the personality or mind of the poet in some degree (Tillyard) or whether poetry is about something in the world (Lewis). Lewis contends that in poetry, the poet is saying “look at that” and not “look at me.”

Tillyard proposes that in a poet’s work, we encounter a certain “fixed state of mind.” What makes the reading of and reflection upon poetry worthwhile is contact with particularly perceptive minds, and that in literary criticism, to attempt to discern the character of the poet’s mind, as well as what that mind perceives is a valuable part of the critic’s contribution to understanding a work.

What both strenuously object to is “poetolatry,” and particularly using the biography of the poet as some kind of critical shortcut to understanding a work of poetry, without doing the hard work of study and reflection upon the poem itself. The subsequent discussion then is a back and forth between Lewis, who thinks personality does not enter in any important way in the understanding of a poem, and Tillyard, who tries to find various arguments and approaches and examples to persuade Lewis, and the reader, otherwise.

It is of a piece with works like The Abolition of Man, in Lewis’s defense of the objective against the incursions of relativism and subjectivism. While I find myself in agreement with Lewis, and particularly with the slipperiness of assertions about an author’s personality, I also recognize that the style and perception of different writers does reflect something of their unique personalities. The problem, it seems is saying just what this is, and in this case, I think we are wiser to stick with Lewis’s approach, because the work, and what the poet has said in it about something is really all we have. Anything else seems largely a speculative venture, at least in my own critically untrained opinion!

One of the delights in reading this is to see two scholars sharpening each other’s thoughts in dialogue, while respecting the person with whom they are in disagreement. It also strikes me as characteristic of many academic dialogues I have observed–while ideas are sharpened and clarified, positions rarely change, at least within the frame of such a discussion. The ground of disagreement may diminish, the areas of common agreement are more clearly articulated, but usually some fundamental disagreement remains. Even if you do not understand all the terms of the argument, this is a glimpse of the academic world at its best, as these closing words of E. M. W. Tillyard suggest:

…Mr. Lewis is an admirable person to disagree with; and I incline to admire his arguments as much when they seem wrong as when they seem right. He is, indeed, the best kind of opponent, good to agree with when one can, and for an enemy as courteous as he is honest and uncompromising; the kind of opponent with whom I should gladly exchange armour after a parley, even if I cannot move my tent to the ground where his own is pitched.

Would that the university world, and our public discourse were marked more by this kind of spirit!

Review: Further Up and Further In

further up and further in

Further Up and Further InEdith M. Humphrey. Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2017.

Summary: A survey of much of Lewis’s literary corpus considering the theological themes developed in these works in interaction with Eastern Orthodox theologians.

Edith M. Humphrey is an Eastern Orthodox theologian who teaches in a Presbyterian seminary in Pittsburgh. She also has loved the work of C. S. Lewis since childhood, writing to him early in 1964, not knowing he had died not long before, asking if he would write more stories like The Chronicles of Narnia. In this work, she brings a lifelong love of Lewis and her own theological perspective to bear on a survey of much of Lewis’s literary corpus.

The work is divided into three parts. The first, titled “Mapping the Terrain.” She explores the way reading and writing, myth and reality found in story, may open our eyes to larger realities. In the Narnia accounts of creation, we consider our roles as “subcreators”, listening to Orthodox theologian, Alexander Schmemann, We marvel at Grand Miracle of the Incarnation, as considered in Lewis’s Miracles.

Part Two is titled “Travelling in Arduous Places.” She considers Lewis’s challenges of the subjectivism of the day (and anticipatory of the advent of post-modernism) in The Abolition of Man and Pilgrim’s Regress. This forces us how then we are to think and live and the deeper journey of ascesis in Lewis’s retelling of the tale of Psyche and Orual in Till We Have Faces. This brings us to the doctrine of the atonement and Athanasius’s “great exchange.”

The final part is titled “Plumbing the Depths and Climbing the Heights.” In both Jonathan Edwards and That Hideous Strength we explore the nature of human depravity and the power of the demonic. More intriguingly, she explores the doctrines of heaven and hell, reflecting on Lewis’s The Great Divorce. She touches on the “hopeful universalism” of Eastern Orthodoxy that finds echoes in this work but also suggests biblical and theological boundaries that I found quite helpful in discussing these matters, helpful enough that I quote them at length:

  • We cannot say that God’s will may ultimately be thwarted.
  • We cannot deny that God “desires all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (I Tim. 2:4).
  • We cannot view the salvation accomplished by Christ as automatic in such a way that it violates human integrity or choice, or that it does not require a human response.
  • We cannot say that salvation depends upon us in a foundational sense.
  • We cannot say that human acceptance of God’s loving offer is unnecessary.
  • We cannot claim to know that someone is damned.
  • We cannot say that the effect of Christ’s righteousness on humanity is less powerful than Adam’s sin.
  • We cannot say that the doctrine of hell is only “heuristic” — that it is only a warning. (pp. 239-240)

I thought this quite a helpful summary both of what we know, and where as yet, we still see dimly. Her final chapter in this section includes a similar list of boundaries on matters of gender, reminding us both of the “reversals” that may warn us about established fixed gender roles, and yet being cautious of eliminating the distinction of male and female, given how embedded in reality maleness and femaleness are. Her caution is one against the unthinking embrace of one side or the other in the culture wars around gender.

Edith M. Humphrey offers a feast for any lover of Lewis or the Inklings. We listen to a fellow lover as she shares what she has seen and loved in Lewis. We listen to a careful biblical and theological scholar who brings us into conversation with Orthodox theologians. We consider the nature of our world, our role as sub-creators, how both contemporary thought and our fallen natures color our thought and lives, and the grand purposes revealed in the Grand Miracle, the Great Exchange, and our future hope. The title is fitting. The whole book invites us to join Lewis in pressing, “further up and further in.”

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: A Grief Observed

A Grief Observed

A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1961.

Summary: Lewis’s reflections after he lost his wife, Joy, that explores the different seasons of grief and his honest wrestling with what it means to believe in God when facing profound loss.

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.

At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.”

These are the first words of this extended reflection on the experience of grief by C. S. Lewis after he lost his wife Joy to cancer. It is not a theological treatise but an unvarnished account of the devastating experience of loss Lewis faced. During his life, he published this under a pseudonym (N. W. Clerk), only permitting it to be published over his name after his death.

So much of the book is like these opening words, simple description of the experience, and seasons of grief, the loss of energy, the moments of brightness followed by gloom, the remembering, the ache for one with whom he had been so intimate. He wrestles with the question of why, so late in life, he was granted to taste the joy of love with an intellectual equal, only to have her snatched away so quickly.

He speaks of how little comfort he finds in his faith at these times:

    Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.”

In fact he struggles at times in not believing evil of God and admits it. Certainly he struggles with the concept of the goodness of God. At one point he comments, “What do people mean when they say, ‘I am not afraid of God because I know He is good’? Have they never been to a dentist?”

He struggles with memories, and the question of how memories distort the character of the beloved. He speculates about the afterlife, but without but confesses that while he believes in the resurrection, it is something he does not understand. He also comments that between Lazarus and Stephen, Lazarus was the greater martyr, who had to die twice.

This is not a book to explain the inexplicable. Not even Lewis could do that. Rather, he simply gives word to his own grief, and perhaps that of others and the impossibility of just “getting over it.” We see someone facing the grief every widow or widower faces of being parted with one you’ve shared life and love with–whether for just a few years, or nearly 70 like my father. It is never easy, and the amazing thing is to watch Lewis lean into believing when one does not see, when all seems dark–with humility, with faltering steps, and with honesty that does not sugar coat death and loss.

This is a book we all need, whether to give words to our grief, or to listen, and maybe have a notion, of what our friends or loved ones struggle with in their grief. Read, reflect, and learn. So much in such a slim volume.

Review: The Problem of Pain

The Problem of Pain

The Problem of PainC. S. Lewis. New York: Harper Collins, 2015 (originally published 1940).

Summary: Lewis’s classic work exploring the existence of suffering and pain and how this is possible in a world made and sustained by a good and omnipotent God.

There is some sense a reviewer has when reviewing books like this to feel the mere “poser” and to be simply tempted to say, “read Lewis!” But that would be a very short review! So what I might do is simply suggest a few reasons why we might read Lewis on this subject.

One is that while the experience of suffering, even as Lewis acknowledges, requires of us fortitude when we ourselves face it and supportive sympathy when we walk along side friends in the midst of this, there are other times when we must take the larger view and ask “why pain and suffering?” And here, Lewis begins to help us because he observes that this is alike a question for the theist and the materialist. Particularly as we witness both the ravages of disease and the inhumanity of people against each other, it seems that this is a monstrous assault on our sense of the good. The fact that the central figure of Christianity suffered at the hand of evil himself is not in itself an answer to this question but only poses another–why this death?

Some of what Lewis does that is quite helpful is define terms. Omnipotence does not mean that God is able to do what is impossible because of who he is or what he has decreed, to do. For God to be good does not require that he make us happy. We must at least allow that suffering may not be contrary to a God who loves us and seeks our ultimate good.

He also helps us take a hard, and uncomfortable look at human wickedness, in itself, the source of much suffering and pain. We are fallen creatures, not simply by the fault of another but by our own active perversity.  We often minimize the “crooked timber” of our own lives even as we displace the focus onto God.  Pain, at least has the function of shattering our illusions that all is well, and we are sufficient in ourselves. It also calls us into the belief that holds onto God when there is no benefit in doing so.

He takes on the idea of hell, and perhaps most helpfully says that his aim is not to make the doctrine tolerable, for it is not, but to show that it may be moral, despite the objections raised. He observes that most of us do want to see retributive punishment and that we would find great offense in God forgiving one who remains unrepentant in great wickedness. He notes that eternal may be something different than an endlessly prolonged time. He also cautions against literal interpretations of vivid imagery.

His final chapters consider the question of animal pain and heaven. On animal pain, he cautions that there is much that we do not know about this, nor for that matter the ultimate destiny of animals. On heaven, Lewis observes that whereas hell is privation, heaven is the fulfillment of those deepest longings that we reach for and never quite grasp, that filling of a place in us that nothing has ever filled that being in the presence of God at last fills utterly and beyond measure.

The group with which I discussed this book had one quibble with Lewis. He states that when we reach the maximum of pain, the pain of another does not add to the sum total of the pain. While this may be true at a physical level, we did wonder about the emotional pain we experience when we witness the sufferings to others, particularly those inflicted by human cruelty. It also raises a question about the suffering of Christ. Was the pain he experienced as sin-bearer of humanity (if we believe this) any greater than bearing the sins of just one person? There was something in the way Lewis framed this that was unsatisfying, even if logically true.

This summer, the group I mentioned will probably be reading A Grief Observed, where all of Lewis’s ideas are tested in the crucible of the loss of his wife Joy. It will be interesting to see if this changed his thinking in any way, or to what extent his ideas helped him. Stay tuned!

Borrowing and Lending Books

gregoryIf you haven’t been feeling guilty lately, one way to invoke that guilt is to peruse the shelves of your library for books that belong to others. Recently, for example, I came across a catechism of the Catholic Church I had “borrowed” thirty-five years ago! There is no way I can return it. I have another book, an early history of college student movements. It turns out the lender died ten years ago. And those are just ones I’ve “happened” upon. For this, there is this quote of Anatole France:

Never lend books, for no one ever returns them; the only books I have in my library are books that other people have lent me.”

Feel better? Those folks should have expected that the books would not be returned. Actually, the truth is, I often lend (really give away) books that I have no expectation of getting back. In some cases, I don’t really want them back. And the truth is, with over-flowing bookshelves I need to pass along books in any way I can. Lending (giving) a book to someone who will find some help or enjoyment in it just makes sense. Another quote, attributed to Joe Queenen:

“Lending books to other people is merely a shrewd form of housecleaning.”

Of course, there is that awkward situation of someone wanting to borrow a book that you really treasure. We can try things like bookplates signifying whose book this is, or from whose library (ex libris) this comes. Some use embossed stamps, some just inked stamps. Some even go to the trouble of library cards. Most of us just lend the book, bidding it “good bye” in our hearts, sometimes wistfully eyeing it on our friend’s shelves when we visit. Only on rare occasions have I said, “this book is kind of a family treasure that we don’t lend.” And then I feel terrible. This sentiment, uttered by an unknown booklover captures the feeling:

“No books are lost by loaning except those you particularly wanted to keep.”

Likewise, there is this saying attributed to Anatole Boyard:

“I feel about lending a book the way most fathers feel about their daughters living with a man out of wedlock.”

I’m not sure I want to take it that far (but then I’ve never had daughters!). Most of the time, I feel, at least with a good book, that what is in its pages is too good to be kept to oneself, to collect dust on my shelves if it can be of benefit to another. Lending books can be a way to give what is most precious about our experience with that book to another so that the experience is multiplied in the sharing. Laura Bush once said,

“The power of a book lies in its power to turn a solitary act into a shared vision.” 

Perhaps it is good to get over this thing of personal ownership of our books. As I get older, I realize that if I don’t pass along my books, particularly making sure those that matter get to those who matter to me, it will be left to someone else who probably won’t do this nearly as lovingly. The words of C. S. Lewis are a particular comfort to me:

My friend said, “I don’t see why there shouldn’t be books in Heaven. But you will find that your library in Heaven contains only some of the books you had on earth.” “Which?” I asked. “The ones you gave away or lent.” “I hope the lent ones won’t still have all the borrowers’ dirty thumb marks,” said I. “Oh yes they will,” said he. “But just as the wounds of the martyrs will have turned into beauties, so you will find that the thumb-marks have turned into beautiful illuminated capitals or exquisite marginal woodcuts.*

*C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 216.

Review: Bedeviled

bedeviled

BedeviledColin Duriez. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015.

Summary: An exploration of the conflict of good and evil in the works of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, and how two World Wars influenced their thinking.

This is the second of two books that look at the intersection of war experience and the works of Lewis and Tolkien. The difference, I would say, between Joseph Loconte’s A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War (reviewed here) and this book is that in Loconte’s book, war is foregrounded to a greater degree; in Duriez’s book, the nature of evil, the evil powers, and the conflict with the good running through their works.

The book opens at the beginning of World War II as Lewis puzzles over the attraction of Hitler. Duriez writes:

“As planned, they tuned in and listened on the radio to a speech by Hitler. The BBC provided a simultaneous translation. A possible answer to a puzzle occurred to Lewis as he listened—how was the German leader so convincing to so many? Though Lewis rarely read the daily newspapers, he of course knew Hitler’s claims were grossly untrue. Making what he blatantly called his ‘final appeal to common sense,’ Hitler boasted, ‘It never has been my intention to wage war, but rather to build up a State with a new social order and the finest possible standard of culture.’

Hitler’s emotive speech may have still tugged at Lewis’s mind in the quietness of his church that Sunday. England faced the very real danger of invasion by Hitler’s forces, driven and maintained like a machine….During the church liturgy and bad hymns (as Lewis regarded them) he found his thoughts turning to the master of evil, Satan. Somehow, the arrogant dictator resembled him—not least in the size of his ego and self-centeredness. In the jumble of thoughts jostling with words of a great tradition, it struck Lewis that a war-orientated bureaucracy was a more appropriate image of hell for people ignorant of the past than a traditional one. Here was Hitler bent on taking over and ruling European countries, including England. There was the devil, who had designs to exert his will systematically over all parts of human life, his ultimate aim being dehumanization—the “abolition of man,” as Lewis later called it.” (pp. 21-22).

Duriez proceeds to show how the “war-oriented bureaucracy” that aim to dehumanize was at the heart of Lewis’s portrayal of hell and the work of the tempters in The Screwtape Letters. Chapter 3 then shows how much of the work of Lewis and Tolkien during the Second World War focused around devilry, from the decision of Tolkien to begin writing The Lord of the Rings (a new Hobbit book) to Lewis’s publication of The Problem of PainThe Abolition of Man, The Great Divorce, and the Space Trilogy. In addition, there were the BBC broadcasts that formed the core of Mere Christianity, in which Lewis argues for our sense of right and wrong as basic to our search for meaning, and from this to a Christian understanding of God and his work in Christ. In fiction, he explores the same themes in the Space Trilogy as Ransom understands the nature of our fallen planet in Out of the Silent Planet, fights evil in the character of Weston in Edenic Perelandra, and faces the banal but de-humanizing character of evil, so present in Hitlers prison camps, in That Hideous Strength, where technology is de-coupled from human values.

This last idea is one both Loconte and Duriez explore, how a tendency of evil is to pour one’s power into objects which are then used to dominate, such as the Ring (or Voldemort’s horcruxes in Harry Potter lore). When technology is severed from transcendent values seeking human flourishing, it may then be used to dominate the very humans it was meant to serve. [I sometimes wonder about our smartphones, and the connected world they represent, and how much power we have poured into these devices, and how in turn, they shape, and even dominate our engagement with the world. Is this our culture’s “one Ring to rule them all?”]

While the first part of the book explores the problem of evil, particularly laid bare by war, the latter part of the book focuses more on the intersection of good and evil, exploring progress and regress in Lewis’s Pilgrim’s Regress, the divide between good and evil in Tolkien’s “Leaf, by Niggle” and Lewis’s The Great Divorce, the power for change, whether good or ill, portrayed throughout the Chronicles of Narnia, and the experiences we have of pain and love in A Grief Observed, The Four Loves, and Till We Have Faces (this last exploring the evil of loving inordinately and possessively, and the hope even here, for redemption).

The final two chapters consider how we become free of the tyranny of self to become who we are truly, and the images of future hope in both Lewis’s and Tolkien’s writing. The book then concludes with two appendices which return to themes explored throughout the book: “War in Heaven” being concerned with devilry, and “The Spirit of the Age” with subjectivism, the detaching of morality from any transcendent sense of meaning, anticipating both scientism and our post-modern turn.

I found Duriez’s exploration of the forms evil can take in modern society chilling–the machine, the soulless bureaucracy, the big lie that they state can make us safe, secure, and usher in a new order of greatness. Against this is the challenge of goodness, that makes no dramatic or inordinate claims, that recognizes that the small choices matter the most and may lead us “imperceptibly toward good or evil, heaven or hell” (p. 145). We see in Lewis and Tolkien, the heroism of the ordinary person, with no pretensions, acting in faith and trusting obedience in the face of threatening evil, and the final victory of the good. They wrote to encourage those facing the great conflict of World War II, and in their words, we might also find the kind of bracing comfort we need to face the challenges of our own day.