Review: The Greater Trumps

The Greater Trumps

The Greater TrumpsCharles Williams. New York: Open Road Media, 2015 (originally published in 1932).

Summary: An legacy of a singular pack of tarot cards that correspond to images of the Greater Trumps arranged in a dance on a platform of gold in the retreat of a gypsy master drives his grandson to risk love and life to uncover the powers of the cards.

Charles Williams is known as one of the members of the Inklings who wrote supernatural fantasy thrillers. Lesser known was his interest in the occult arts, particularly through the influence of A. E. Waite and his Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. This work reflects some of those interests, centered around the Tarot.

Lothair Coningsby, an English civil servant of undistinguished refinement, inherits a small legacy from a friend including various packs of cards. Among them is a most unusual early set of Tarot cards representing the Greater Trumps, a suit of twenty-two cards. As it happens, his daughter Nancy is deeply in love with Henry Lee, a descendant of Gypsies, whose grandfather, Aaron is a master who has devoted his life to the studies of occult mysteries. In his home is an inner sanctum with a gold table on which the figures of the Greater Trumps are arranged in the dance. When Henry sees the cards he realizes that they are the exact visual counterparts of the statues on his grandfather’s table. To bring the cards together with the statues would be to unleash great power, and great insights into the mysteries of the universe.

Henry explains their powers to Nancy:

“It’s said that the shuffling of the cards is the earth, and the pattering of the cards is the rain, and the beating of the cards is the wind, and the pointing of the cards is the fire. That’s of the four suits. But the Greater Trumps, it’s said, are the meaning of all process and the measure of the everlasting dance.”

There is only one problem. Coningsby will not part with the cards. So Henry and his grandfather invite the Coningsbys to spend the Christmas holidays. This includes not only Lothair and Nancy, but also Sybil, the most spiritually centered, who seems to have a mystical communion with the world about her, and brother Ralph, a young man who lives in a common-sense, practical world. Coningsby reluctantly brings the cards and permits them to be tested in the presence of the figures, which come to life in a glorious dance. When Coningsby continues to withhold the cards, Henry determines to “borrow” the cards, and use them to whip up a super cyclonic snow storm to strand Lothair, out for his Christmas walk, and bring about his death.

He succeeds in whipping up the storm, but Nancy catches him in the act, disrupting his efforts, but also the power to end the storm. Lothair is saved when Sybil braves the storm, and with the help of Henry’s half-crazed Aunt Joanna, brings him back to the house. But this is only a temporary respite as the unleashed powers behind the snow storm threaten the destruction of the house, and all those in it.

Is there a power greater than that unleashed by the cards? When arcane knowledge cannot save, is there anything else that can? Nancy, Sybil, and even Lothair and Henry choose in different ways to lay down their lives. Will they succeed, and what will happen to them in the process? What will happen to crazed Joanna, and will she find the lost child?

Like William’s other works, seemingly unremarkable people in an ordinary English village and manor house become caught up supernatural events reflecting unleashed spiritual powers in a sequence of fantastic and sometimes bizarre events (like the gold cloud). Christians who have reservations reading about the “occult” may decide this work is not for them. Yet what Williams portrays is both the perils of the pursuit of spiritual power and hidden knowledge, and the greater power of love.

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!

Review: J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography

tolkien

J. R. R. Tolkien: A BiographyHumphrey Carpenter. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2014 (originally published 1977).

Summary: The biography of the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, describing his early life, participation in The Inklings, and his habits of work, scholarship, and how his most famous works came to be written.

Humphrey Carpenter wrote what, as far as I can ascertain, the first biography of J. R. R. Tolkien, published in 1977, four years after the death of the author of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and the unfinished Silmarillion. He opens this book by recounting his first meeting with Tolkien, in 1967. He writes:

“His eyes fix on some distant object, and he seems to have forgotten that I am there as he clutches his pipe and speaks through its stem. It occurs to me that in all externals he represents the archetypal Oxford don, at times even the stage caricature of a don. But that is exactly what he is not. It is rather as if some strange spirit had taken on the guise of an elderly professor. The body may be pacing this shabby little suburban room, but the mind is far away, roaming the plains and mountains of Middle-earth.”

Central to Carpenter’s narrative of Tolkien’s life is his preoccupation with the mythology most fully expressed in his posthumous Silmarillion but also in his earlier “elvish” poetry, The Hobbit, and in the work for which he was most know, The Lord of the Rings.  Carpenter sketches the backdrop to this mythology in a life that included the loss of both parents at an early age, the influence of Father Francis, the formation of T.C.B.S. (Tea Club, Barrovian Society, the pre-cursor to the Inklings), his romance and eventual marriage to Edith, his war experiences,  his scholarly life as a philologist at Oxford, and his involvement with the Inklings and relationship with C. S. Lewis.

I was surprised that Carpenter did not make more of the influence Tolkien’s war experience on his writing, as some recent writers including Joseph Loconte and Colin Duriez have done. [See my reviews of A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War and Bedeviled]. I wonder if for Carpenter, he would have traced more of the influence in Tolkien’s books to the mythologies of Iceland, Beowulf, to Arthurian legend, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

We learn of some of the childhood places, reminiscent of his descriptions of The Shire. We see his love of fairy stories and eventually Icelandic myths. And during his convalescence from the war, we see his first musings on a mythology that would occupy his life. Carpenter describes the beginnings of The Hobbit in stories told to his children, unconnected at first to the rest of the developing mythology, and the important role his publisher’s son had in persuading him to publish this story. Then there is the pressure for “more Hobbit stories” that leads to the beginning of the writing of The Lord of the Rings, which would occupy twelve years. We learn that Tolkien really hadn’t connected it to his larger mythology until Frodo and the Ring arrive at Rivendell. Carpenter recounts the back and forth with his publisher over publishing The Silmarillion concurrently, and the endless revising and development of backgrounds, history, and language that would occupy Tolkien for the rest of his life.

Carpenter presents us a very human figure, yet always sympathetically. He portrays a perfectionist, who is held up from publishing so much more by his endless revising. We learn of the tensions this creates with C. S. Lewis, who in short order (by comparison) dashes off the Narnia stories, which Tolkien thought too allegorical. He resented Lewis’s popularity as an apologist, considering it not quite fitting for an Oxford don, although the two remained fast friends until Lewis’s death. We see a scholar caught up in the very male atmosphere of Oxford scholarship, including the circle of the Inklings, something his wife never felt at home with. Only in her latter years, when they lived at Bournemouth, did she find a circle of friends that she was at home with. We observe a marriage characterized by abiding love, and yet with the accommodations made by many people in these times who lived in two different worlds defined along gender lines. On their headstones, he is “Beren” and she “Luthien.”

I think this is an essential biography for an Inklings fan, arising out of acquaintance with Tolkien, friendship with his family, and a sympathetic appreciation of the genius that created Middle-earth and the flat sides that come with such genius. He portrays a man who lived in hobbit-like modesty enjoying the pleasures of home and a good pipe, yet caught up in a truly great story in which he played a most significant part.

The Month in Reviews: September 2016

hillbilly-elegy

September’s reading list was certainly a diverse and wide-ranging one that reflects the quirky range of my reading interests. There were two baseball books, as we come to the close of another season of America’s Pastime. There were two Inklings books, both exploring the impact of the Inklings war experiences on their writing. I featured Ohio author J. D. Vance’s best-selling Hillbilly Elegy, and a book on the use of social media in public shaming.  I reviewed a couple of science texts, including Rachel Carson’s classic The Sea Around Us, and a new book on science and faith. There were books on social issues from micro-finance to domestic violence. And I read the usual assortment of theological texts on subjects ranging from evangelicalism’s social justice heritage to dispensational eschatology as well as a fine new book on the transition to post-college life. In all there are thirteen reviews in this list. Enjoy!

After College

After College, Erica Young Reitz. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016. A faith-oriented guide to navigating the transition from college to early adulthood, exploring issues of faith, relationships, community, work, calling and finances. Review

Banker to the Poor

Banker to the Poor, Muhammad Yunus. New York: Public Affairs, 2003. Yunus’ personal account of developing micro-lending and the Grameen Bank to help lift the rural poor out of poverty by providing the small loans they needed to develop their own small businesses. Review

No Place for Abuse

No Place for Abuse (2nd ed.), Catherine Clark Kroeger & Nancy Nason-Clark. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010. Written for Christian communities, this work chronicles the extent of domestic violence and abuse, the presence and factors that contribute to domestic violence in households in our churches, relevant biblical texts that address domestic violence, and steps church leaders can take to address domestic violence in their midst. Review

bottom-of-the-ninth

Bottom of the NinthMichael Shapiro. New York: Times Books, 2009. The story of how two legendary figures, Branch Rickey and Casey Stengel, attempted but failed in schemes to transform the game of baseball. Review

the-sea-around-us

The Sea Around UsRachel Carson. New York: Open Road Media, 2011 (first published 1951).  A survey of what is known about the oceans– including their beginnings, the dynamics of currents, tides and waves, the topography of the oceans, the life within, and our own relationship with this dominant feature of our planet. Review

eschatology

EschatologyD. Jeffrey Bingham and Glenn R. Kreider (eds.). Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2016. A compendium of essays on the future hope of Christians reflecting a dispensational premillenialist perspective. Review

shamed

So You’ve Been Publicly ShamedJon Ronson. London: Picador, 2015. Explores the use of social media for public shaming of individuals, the dark side of ourselves this reveals, and the ways those shamed deal with this experience. Review

a-hobbit-a-wardrobe-and-a-great-war

A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great WarJoseph Loconte. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015. A study of why Lewis and Tolkien, contrary to a disillusioned post-war generation, went deeper into their faith and allowed both war experience and that faith to shape their greatest works. Review

bedeviled

BedeviledColin Duriez. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015. 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. Review

hillbilly-elegy

Hillbilly Elegy, J. D. Vance. New York: Harper, 2016. A memoir of growing up in a troubled family from the hill country of Kentucky in Middletown, Ohio, exploring why so many in the working class are struggling, and what made the difference for the author. Review

rediscovering-an-evangelical-heritage

Rediscovering an Evangelical Heritage, 2nd editionDonald W. Dayton with Douglas M. Strong. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2014. An updated edition of a study of the pre-Civil War nineteenth century roots of evangelicalism in the United States and the combination of piety, preaching, and social reform characteristic of this movement in this period. Review

the-truth-about-science-and-religion

The Truth About Science and Religion, Fraser Fleming, foreword by Gary B. Ferngren. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2016. A historical, scientific, and theological survey of the interaction of science and religion around the big questions of purpose, beginnings, the rise of life, the rise of human beings, the nature of mind and consciousness. Review

the-natural

The NaturalBernard Malamud. London: Vintage Classics, 2002 (originally published in 1952). The story of Roy Hobbs, whose promising career in baseball is nearly ended by a strange woman with a silver bullet and his attempt at 35 for one more season of greatness. Review

Best of the Month: I’m going to go with J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. It may not be the best writing represented on the list (I’ll give that nod to Rachel Carson), but I found this a compelling exploration the struggles and realities of life today among many working class Americans, a “forgotten America” whose presence has re-asserted itself in the current presidential campaign.

Quote of the Month: Rachel Carson’s nature writing is among the best there is. Here was one passage that captured my imagination, describing the process of sedimentation on the ocean floors:

“For the sediments are the materials of the most stupendous ‘snowfall’ the earth has ever seen. It began when the first rains fell on the barren rocks and set in motion the forces of erosion. It was accelerated when living creatures developed in the surface waters and the discarded little shells of lime or silica that had encased them in life began to drift downward to the bottom.  Silently, endlessly, with the deliberation of earth processes that can afford to be slow because they have so much time for completion, the accumulation of the sediments has proceeded. So little in a year, or in a human lifetime, but so enormous an amount in the life of earth and sea.”

Coming soon: In the next few days I’ll be posting reviews of a Dorothy L. Sayers mystery classic and the late Kenneth Bailey’s The Good Shepherd. I’m currently finishing up a book on the possibility of moral knowledge. I’m also reading a book by Reformed philosopher Cornelius Van Til on common grace and a fascinating new book with the title of How to Survive the Apocalypse, exploring the current fascination with everything from zombies to dystopian fiction. Later in October, I will be reviewing Shusako Endo’s Silence, hopefully in time for the debut of Martin Scorsese’s film version of this Japanese novelist’s work.

Happy reading!

 

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.

Review: A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War

a-hobbit-a-wardrobe-and-a-great-war

A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great WarJoseph Loconte. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.

Summary: A study of why Lewis and Tolkien, contrary to a disillusioned post-war generation, went deeper into their faith and allowed both war experience and that faith to shape their greatest works.

In one sense, Joseph Loconte covers ground that others have covered in exploring the lives and work of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. What Loconte uniquely does are two things. For one, he explores why Lewis and Tolkien defied the trajectory into disillusionment of so many in the post-World War I generation, and went on to embrace and espouse a vibrant Christian faith. As for the second, Loconte reads the works of these two men, exploring how war experiences shaped the imaginary worlds of Narnia, the Space Trilogy, and Middle Earth. He articulates his particular theses as follows:

     “Indeed, it was the experience of war that provided much of the raw material for the characters and themes of their imaginative works. In a talk called ‘Learning in War Time,’ Lewis explained how war exposes the folly in placing our happiness in utopian schemes to transform society. ‘If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon.’ As we’ll see, unlike the disillusionment that overwhelmed much of his generation, Lewis would use the experience of war–its horror as well as its nobility–as a guidepost to moral clarity.”

For Loconte then, the beginning point is to discuss the “Myth of Progress” that preceded the war as it viewed humans, society, and technology evolving to ever more enlightened forms by which humanity would cast off the darkness of ignorance that had contributed to so much suffering in the past. With the onset of the war and the horrors of the trench warfare (perhaps Tolkien’s inspiration for his vision of Mordor), these illusions were shattered for many. Both were casualties of war through illness or wounds. In Lewis’ case, a journey through the country to a hospital to convalesce may have sparked a vision of Narnia. It was during Lewis’s war years that he came across George McDonald’s Phantastes, that certainly contributed to the conversion of his imagination.

War’s end brought the massive disillusionment of much of the intellectual class. While Tolkien devoted himself to work and to his Catholic faith, and began to sketch the outlines of the great myth that would be the foundation of Lord of the Rings, Lewis struggled with doubt. Lewis and Tolkien first met in 1926, recognizing their common interest in languages. But they had a profound disagreement about myth that culminated in a long conversation between Lewis, Tolkien, and Hugo Dyson in which Lewis recognized the story of Christ dying and rising to be a true myth, a crucial step for Lewis in coming to Christian faith. In the years ahead, they would collaborate as two key figures in a larger group knowing as the Inklings in a host of writing projects that birthed the Space Trilogy, the Chronicles of Narnia, and The Lord of the Rings, as well as many of Lewis’s apologetic works. Through the mutual encouragement they gave each other and their vibrant faith, they provide a counter for the outpouring of disillusioned, despairing writing of the post-war period.

What is more, they envisioned in their work, shaped by their experience of a brutally efficient technology unhinged from a larger theological framework, the ways bureaucracy and technology might interweave to obliterate the human image in books like That Hideous Strength, or in the idea of a Ring of Power that could subject all manner of beings to its owner’s bidding. Seeing the machines of war in their own experience, and the more sinister regimes of Hitler and Stalin, they could write of the evil power that, as Screwtape desires, would devour the other.

Yet Loconte shows how this bracing grasp of the nature of evil did not discourage them. Their works were infused with Christian hope–an Aslan that rises, a hobbit who, against all hopes, fulfills his mission with the help of tragic Gollum, the crowning of Aragorn as the long-awaited great king, and the Christ-like figure of Ransom, who summons both Merlin and the angels to subvert the villainies of the N.I.C.E. Like the foot soldiers in the war, many of the most significant turns of events come from the actions of children and hobbits doing their duty.

This, as I said, is not a book that covers new ground, but I found myself as I read making new connections, the “I hadn’t thought of it that way” moments when you see something you know in a new way. Loconte concludes the book with a tribute to grandfather, Michele Loconte, who fought with the American forces, and only after the war became a U.S. citizen. Loconte says his research helped him understand more how the war had an impact on so many ordinary families including his own. Fitting that an Inklings scholar should make this connection between his own history and that of the Inklings!

Review: The Screwtape Letters

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The Screwtape LettersC. S. Lewis.  New York: Macmillan, 1962 (Link is to current edition).

Summary: The classic collection of letters between a senior demon and junior tempter charged with undermining the new found faith of his “patient.”

I am surprised how many I’ve talked with have heard of The Screwtape Letters but have never read this classic by C. S. Lewis. It is a purported collection of letters that has fallen into his hands from a senior demon, Screwtape, to a junior tempter, Wormwood. One of the fundamental insights of this work is that this Infernal Bureaucracy is founded the axiom of consume or be consumed.

Wormwood’s patient becomes a Christian after the first letter. And so Screwtape concerns himself with advice about unraveling the faith of this new convert. Various letters explore the use of subtle distractions rather than frontal attacks. There is the avoidance of matters of truth or falsity, categorizing thing as brave or progressive. Playing on subtle annoyances is far better than tempting to spectacular sin. Don’t let the convert notice he is drifting away. Get him to spiritualize his concern for his mother while detesting her annoying habits, to have noble visions of fellowship while being put off by the neighbor in the pew.

All the tempter can do is twist and distort. Use a new circle who accompany his newfound love, a Christian woman of character, to make him look down on others. There are several letters on sexuality, and the insight that it is often in the valleys when the affections are depressed that temptation may be most effective.

The letters are short and pithy. The apparent love of the “Enemy” (God) for his creatures is incomprehensible and contemptible. At one point, Screwtape becomes so provoked at the Enemy’s designs that he is transformed into a giant centipede. Before this happens, he writes:

    “He is a hedonist at heart. All those fasts and vigils and stakes and crosses are only a facade. Or onlylike foam on the seashore. Out at sea, out in His sea, there is pleasure, and more pleasure. He makes no secret of it; at his right hand are ‘pleasures for evermore.’ Ugh! I don’t think He has the least inkling of that high and austere mystery to which we rise in the Miserific vision. He’s vulgar, Wormwood. He has a bourgeois mind. He has filled His world full of pleasures. There are things for humans to do all day long without His minding in the least–sleeping, washing, eating, drinking, making love, playing, praying, working. Everything has to be twisted before it’s any use to us. We fight under cruel disadvantages. Nothing is naturally on our side” (pp. 101-102).

Lewis found the letters difficult to write, adopting the mindset of the infernal. Yet he offers numerous insights into the dynamics of spiritual life and the nature of the battles we fight or fail to resist. He resisted pleas to write more, but did write a sequel, included here. In Screwtape Proposes a Toast, he instructs the tempters in the nuances of their trade. He has a fascinating commentary on “democracy” and mistaken ideas of equality this evokes.

Perhaps this is the summer you sit down with this collection of letters. It can be read as a witty diversion. Or it can expand our perception of the realities of the spiritual battle in the midst of which we live.

 

Reflections on C.S. Lewis

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This Sunday, November 29, was the birthday of C. S. Lewis. It’s an easy day to remember because it is also my brother’s birthday and my son’s anniversary. What is interesting to me is why people still pay attention to such things more than 50 years after his death. I kind of doubt people will be remembering my birthday 50 years after I’m gone.

I really can’t speak for anyone else but I will mention a few of the reasons I continue to read Lewis’s works and find his life of interest.

  1. I first discovered C. S. Lewis in college. What he represented to me then, and still, is an example of one who both thought deeply and believed deeply, and that these needn’t be a contradiction in terms.
  2. While Lewis thought rigorously, he was also imaginative. Whether it was creating a world of floating islands as in Perelandra, or one that could be accessed through a wardrobe, Lewis taught me that grown-ups and children could both love imaginary worlds and good stories.
  3. That leads to another reason I have loved Lewis. I shared reading The Chronicles of Narnia with my son and have watched the love of story blossom in his life as an aspiring writer.
  4. There was an amazing seamlessness about Lewis’s thought. Owen Barfield once remarked, “Somehow what Lewis thought about everything was secretly present in what he said about anything.”
  5. Lewis helped me understand the banality of evil in The Screwtape Letters, and that all evil ever does is twist and distort the good.
  6. Likewise The Great Divorce helped me understand that if anyone endures hell, it is largely of one’s own making. He wrote in The Problem of Pain, “I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.”
  7.  I cannot commend all of C. S. Lewis’s attitudes toward women, but I also find quite attractive this group of men who gathered weekly over an “adult beverage” and talked deeply about theology, literature, and whatever they were working on at the moment. Until I learned of the Inklings, I thought all a group of men could ever talk about, especially in a pub, was sports!
  8. Lewis was an amazing correspondent. There are at least two volumes of his correspondence in print in addition to several books of letters (To an American Lady; To Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer; and To Children). But then, he wasn’t on Facebook! What a wonderful thing it must have been to receive such letters.
  9. Lewis not only kindles one’s love for his books, but also for others’ books, particularly old books. In his essay “On the Reading of Old Books” which introduces a translation of Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, he advises reading one old book between our readings of new ones. He, as much as anyone, is my inspiration for a reading group I lead called “The Dead Theologians Society“.
  10. Lastly, I find particularly compelling the fact that Lewis was a first rate scholar, who because of his open espousal of his faith and his popular works, never received the accolades of others and was a “tutor” most of his life. Yet I find no evidence of him grousing about this.

I’ll stop at the convenient number of ten but would love to know what others might add to this list and how Lewis’s works and life have touched yours.