Sunday, November 27, 2011

Varian's War

Vickie and I watched Varian's War a few days ago. It is a 2001 Made-for-TV movie about Varian Fry, an American who saved primarily Jewish intellectuals and artists from Vichy France in the early days of WWII; prior to America's entrance into the war. Please note, I haven't taken the time to research the real Varian Fry - the movie is based on a true story, that much I know, and the little I have read confirms the storyline. This morning at breakfast Vickie talked about being uncomfortable with the movie, and by extension with the true story - for did you note that Varian Fry was saving artists and intellectuals?

The argument in the movie for saving artists, writers, and intellectuals was that they represented cultural hope for the future as well as being a group of people who could articulate Nazi atrocities to the outside world. This raises the question, "Are some people more valuable than other people?" The answer in 2011 from the general public is usually, "Yes. Some people are more valuable than others based on their contributions to society."

To the film's credit it shows a number of people seeking asylum from Fry and his associates who are turned away because they are average moms and dads and kids - they are not culturally special. The film does not gloss over the choices made by Fry - but I wonder if the contemporary viewer has any philosophical angst about turning away normal people in favor of special people? I suspect there is emotional angst during one prolonged scene of people being turned away to likely face death in concentration camps, but once that scene has passed I think it's probably business as usual for most viewers.

How many older people have I known who think they have no value to family, friends and society? Many. What does it say about our society when that thinking is prevalent? We are valued in terms of our use, of our utilitarian contribution to the greater welfare of the state and society. We are machines and when we start rusting out it is time to dispose of us. 

As Vickie discussed the film with me an irony hit me square in the face; Varian Fry was doing much the same thing Hitler was doing - he was judging between people based on something other than people being created in the image of God; while Hitler was judging in racial terms, Fry was judging in intellectual terms - both judgments meant life or death. I am not saying that Fry and Hitler were identical, I'm not saying that Fry was close, I'm not saying that Fry was evil as Hitler was; but I am saying that underlying Fry's actions was an utilitarian view of men and woman and children that held that social contribution is what matters as opposed to intrinsic worth.  

Friday, November 25, 2011

How A Word Or A Tangent Can Lessen The Impact Of A Message

A letter, written by an acquaintance, appeared this week in our local weekly newspaper. For the most part the letter was well-written and contained good facts about the subject matter – the opening of a local Pregnancy Support Center. It also contained important facts regarding a certain organization vehemently opposing the Pregnancy Center. The writer’s presentation of the facts was well done and thought provoking – if a reader had never considered the information before the reader might well ponder the letter; and if the reader had been opposed to the Pregnancy Center’s opening prior to reading the letter, such a reader might well have paused to reconsider his or her position.

It was a fine letter until the last paragraph when the writer referred to the opposing organization as “those nefarious places of business”. What was the point of this language? What was the point of the letter?

If the point of the letter was to set the record straight regarding the Pregnancy Center and its opposing organization then the writer accomplished that goal prior to the last paragraph. If another point of the letter was to provoke thoughtful consideration among those readers who may have opposed the Pregnancy Center or have been ambivalent about the Center then the writer did a pretty good job of doing that prior to the last paragraph. But then we have the characterization of the opposition as “those nefarious places of business”. What could such characterization possibly accomplish?

From a communications point of view the adage “show don’t tell” still stands – don’t tell me something is nefarious, show me that it is nefarious. Such a statement is not likely to encourage supporters of the opposing organization to reflect on the information previously presented in the letter, on the contrary, it may evoke a reaction that will lessen the likelihood of such reflection – for while information encourages reasoning, adjectives such as “nefarious” evoke emotion, in this case possible defensive emotion. The characterization of the other organization as “nefarious” was unnecessary and, I think, counterproductive. It may have made the writer feel good, but we ought to communicate with the reader or listener in mind – I’ve been guilty of this many times so I know whereof I write (or speak).

This in turn reminds me of a presentation I heard in the past year on a Sunday morning; the focus of the presentation was to be the speaker’s testimony, of how the speaker came to know Jesus Christ. It was a pretty good presentation, just as the above letter was a pretty good letter; but at one point during the presentation the speaker negatively referred to two well-known Christian authors – associating them with the devil and occult; then at another point the speaker raised the issue of how people interpret the seven days of Genesis – portraying those who do not believe in seven twenty-four hour days as not believing the Bible.  

In the case of the presentation did the speaker enhance or hurt the communication of the Gospel by introducing topics that may cloud the issue and dull the thrust of his testimony? I’m not aware that belief in seven twenty-four hour days in Genesis is necessary to our salvation; nor am I aware that thinking that these two well-known authors are outside the pale of Biblical Christianity is necessary to coming into a relationship with Jesus Christ. It may have made the speaker feel good to make these statements, but did these statements serve to communicate the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Did they serve to draw a listener into a relationship with Christ?

When we take any doctrine or opinion and place it on the same level as the person of Jesus Christ, when we add anything to the basic equation of trusting in Christ, of believing in Christ, of repentance to salvation in Christ – then we tread on dangerous ground and place barriers to knowing Jesus that I don’t see either Jesus or the Apostles erecting in the Scriptures.

I read a pretty good letter, and I heard a pretty good testimony – they both would have been better if their respective goals and audiences were kept in mind. As I wrote above, I’ve been guilty of these things more than once. As soon as we introduce a tangent or a statement that can hijack a listener’s or reader’s mind and pull him or her away from the main point then we have run the train off the track – no matter how good it made us feel.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

C.S. Lewis on Writing and Learning by our Mistakes

On August 31, 1958 Lewis writes to Joan Lancaster:

I am sure you had fun writing the stories. The main fault of the animal one is that you don’t mix the reality and the fantasy quite in the right way. One way is Beatrix Potter’s or Brer Rabbit’s [note: by Joel Chandler Harris]. By fantasy the animals are allowed to talk and behave in many ways like humans. But their relations to one another and to us remain the real ones. Rabbits are in danger from foxes and men.

The other way is mine: you go right out of this world into a different creation, where there are a different sort of animals…

…I hope you don’t mind me telling you all this? One can learn only by seeing one’s mistakes…

I post this excerpt because I’m interested in writing, in Lewis’s approach to writing and imagination, and in Lewis’s coaching and critique. As I’ve written before, I love Lewis taking the time to share insights with correspondents – with reading their material and thoughtfully responding to it.

One can learn only by seeing one’s mistakes… This is a hard saying in 2012 when feelings are valued above objectivity and when personal likes and dislikes rule the day as opposed to objective critique.

In a recent business meeting I was asked, “How did you feel about presenting this budget in its current form?” I restrained myself from a straightforward response, for how I “felt” about the budget was not the point, the point was whether the budget was a representation of reality.

I often encounter managers who will not tell their subordinates what they need to hear about their performance because “they will take it personally”. What often ends up happening is that the subordinate finds himself seeking other employment and the manager fails to grow as a manager because he uses feelings as a compass as opposed to facts. We miss the truth that we can work with facts while taking others’ feelings into consideration, people do matter, their feelings do matter – but the truth, or honest critique, must not bow to feelings which change as the wind.

While there are certainly other ways to grow in addition to seeing one’s mistakes, it is doubtful whether one can grow without seeing one’s mistakes. When playing a musical instrument and hitting a wrong note we (hopefully) recognize the error as it occurs, and hopefully we don’t take it personally, and more hopefully we don’t ignore the misplayed note – why should it be any different in other spheres of life?

Sports analogies are helpful to me when I reflect on learning from mistakes. Baseball teams have pitching coaches, hitting coaches, conditioning coaches – and one of the roles of these coaches is to critique players’ performance; it is a foolish player who rejects out-of-hand a coach’s observations and advice.

Yet most of what we experience today is feeling-oriented and feeling-dominated critique, and in the end we all lose. We lose because we don’t deal in truth, because we aren’t challenged to communicate in constructive ways, because we won’t take a good look at ourselves. We also lose because often, when the truth finally comes out, it comes out in ways that are not fruitful and that are without consideration for others. Anger, which we see so much of today – is partly a result, I think, of our collective sorrowful lack of daily communication skills and our burial of truth in daily life.

I have seen churches where feelings and harmony were dominate at the expense of truth. I have seen students who think they are getting an education when what they are getting is the lowest common denominator so that feelings won’t be hurt, tuition will be paid, and instructors will not have to deal with conflict and investment in students.

As Lewis well knew, no writer can grow without critique; self-critique and the critique of others. The Inklings were many things, including a critique group – critique was part of the fabric of Lewis’s life – it was invigorating as well as painful. But what is true of writers is true of us all – how much growth do I forfeit by being overly sensitive to critique? How much growth do I forfeit by not examining my own life by the light of God’s Word and in the light of the Holy Spirit? And what, I wonder, would my friends and associates tell me about myself if I had ears to hear them?

Monday, November 21, 2011

C.S. Lewis on the unity of his work

On October 29, 1957 Lewis writes to Kathryn Stillwell:

“…you (alone of the critics I’ve met) realise the connection, or even the unity, of all the books – scholarly, fantastic, theological – and make me appear a single author not a man who impersonates half a dozen authors, which is what I seem to most. This wins really very high marks indeed.

I can’t help thinking what “higher critics” centuries from now would think of Lewis; no doubt they’d insist that his work was that of at least “half a dozen authors”.

The above excerpt from Lewis indicates that he viewed his work as a unity, interconnected, and complementary. Lewis’s literary palette has abundant colors, including poetry, essays, short-stories, scholastic literary works, as well as those books familiar to the general (typically Christian) public. Lewis did not write in a vacuum however, his was a life of reading and pondering what was read, it was a life of reading and discussing with others what was read, it was a life of writing and listening to others critique what he’d written, it was a life of interchange and interplay and cross-pollination. Lewis didn’t travel much geographically, in fact, for a man of his renown he hardly traveled at all – but oh that mind of his, but oh that heart, but oh that imagination – C.S. Lewis may well have been one of the most-travelled men who have ever lived.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

C.S. Lewis to a Young Correspondent: Also Bob on Aslan and Images

On September 14, 1957, Lewis writes to Lucy Matthews:

I am so glad you like the Narnian stories and it was nice of you to write and tell me. I love E. Nesbit too and I think I have learned a lot from her about how to write stories of this kind. Do you know Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings? I think you wd. like it. I am also bad at Maths and it is a continual nuisance to me – I get muddled over my change in shops. I hope you’ll have better luck and get over the difficulty! I makes life a lot easier.

I makes me, I think, more humble than proud to know that Aslan has allowed me to be the means of making Him more real to you. Because He could have used anyone – as He made a donkey preach a good sermon to Balaam. Perhaps, in return, you will sometimes say a prayer for me?

[As a reminder, all letters are from The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis – 3 Vols, editied by Walter Hooper, Harper San Francisco].

I’ve included this letter in this series of posts because I love Lewis’s letters to children and adolescents. I love them because of the simple fact that he wrote them in the midst of a busy and sometimes painful life, I love them because it seems to me that he was as thoughtful in these letters as he was in those to adults, and I love them because I can hear Lewis’s voice to young people in the letters.

A friend of mine who is a Lewis scholar mentioned recently that someone who knew Lewis (I forget the name) said that, “Lewis wrote as he spoke”. If that is the case then in reading his letters we are reading (usually) the conversational Lewis. This quote also reminds me of a recent post in which Lewis gave the advice to write for the ear, not just for the eye.

The Bible is a book of images, yes there is narrative and there is didactic material, but there is also image, and image, and more image. There is image embedded in narrative and in didactic material. Consider that the Bible culminates in a book that is primarily a book of image – The Apocalypse. Yet rather than reading the images naturally we often try to force a literal reading, which in turn causes us to miss the life and reality of the images. On a literal level Lucy Matthews knew there was no Aslan, but why would someone even pose that question? That would be nonsense. But as an image portraying a reality, there is a seamlessness in Christ and Aslan – not even a transition is necessary for many (most?) Christian readers – anymore than a transition is necessary from the images of the Lamb and the Lion in Revelation to Christ, they are seamless.

Men without chests, as Lewis styles modern man, are people without hearts and imaginations, people who view life mechanistically and therefore materialistically and, by extension I suggest, literally. That is, if we can’t see it and touch it we don’t recognize it. There is an element of Christendom that embraces this approach when reading the Bible and considering the things of the Holy Spirit. Rather than seeking to balance the didactic with image in a natural holistic reading and experience of Scripture, this element sublimates image to the literal and material – thus sucking the life from the image; it unwittingly finds itself oriented toward things seen rather than things unseen (2 Corinthians 4:18). Perhaps it is little wonder elements of American Christianity are so politically oriented – if all we see is this world (in the sense of what is seen) then we must look for solutions in this world’s political systems – for we have chosen not to see the unseen.

But I digress you must be thinking – or perhaps I’m just following things to their logical conclusion. Just as Aslan is caricatured in The Last Battle, so is Christ caricatured  in our time…often by those who profess to follow Him. If we’ll just use our imaginations a bit I think we’ll see it.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

C.S. Lewis on Writing: II

Continuing with Lewis’s September 2, 1957 letter to Jane Gaskell:

You are too fond of long adverbs like ‘dignifiedly’, which are not nice to pronounce. I hope, by the way, you always write by ear not by eye. Every sentence shd. be tested on the tongue, to make sure that the sound of it has the hardness or softness, the swiftness or languor, which the meaning of it calls for.

Haskell was 14 when she wrote the book Lewis read; she was 16 or 17 when Lewis wrote to her. Here is a world-renown author and professor at Cambridge taking the time to write to a teenager, and not just write, but to critique and offer advice.

Lewis concludes the letter with:

I hope all this does not enrage you. You’ll get so much bad advice that I felt I must give you some of what I think good.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

C.S. Lewis on Writing

On September 2, 1957, Lewis writes to Jane Gaskell. Gaskell had written a book when she was 14 that Lewis reads and comments on. Since Gaskell’s book is in the genre of fantasy, much of what Lewis writes is about that genre. However, there are a couple of paragraphs that apply to us all; whether we’re writing or speaking:

Never use adjectives or adverbs which are mere appeals to the reader to feel as you want him to feel. He won’t do it just because you ask him: you’ve got to make him. No good telling us a battle was ‘exciting’. If you succeeded in exciting us the adjective will be unnecessary; if you don’t, it will be useless. Don’t tell us the jewels had an ‘emotional’ glitter; make us feel emotion. I can hardly tell you how important this is.

When preparing sermons I found the temptation to succumb to what Lewis warns against was a temptation to take the short-cut – telling people what I wanted to them to experience rather than working to bring them into the experience. I could write the words “tense” or “exciting” or “amazing” in seconds, but it might take me hours to structure words and passages that would cause the congregation to sense tension, excitement, or amazement.

When listening to presentations, whether in a Christian gathering or elsewhere, as soon as I hear someone succumb to the above temptation (usually with no idea what they’re doing) I want to interrupt the speaker and talk about what he or she is doing. It happens more often than not, and it happens with people who have been doing public speaking for years. Writing and public speaking, at any level, is a craft, and as a craft it should be honed and practiced and critiqued – just as a concert pianist practices and practices and then practices some more – so should we constantly be aware of our writing, our speaking, our communication – it is a never-ending endeavor.

I’ll share a second paragraph in Lewis’s letter in my next post.

Monday, November 14, 2011

C.S. Lewis – Duty & Love, A Distinction

On July 18, 1957, Lewis writes to Joan Lancaster:

But of course you are quite right if you mean that giving up fun for no reason except that you think it’s ‘good’ to give it up, is all nonsense. Don’t the ordinary old rules about telling the truth and doing as you’d be done by tell one pretty well which kinds of fun one may have and which not? But provided the thing is in itself right, the more one likes it and the less one has to ‘try to be good’, the better. A perfect man wd. never act from a sense of duty; he’d always want the right thing more than the wrong one. Duty is only a substitute for love (of God and of other people) – like a crutch, which is a substitute for a leg. Most of us need the crutch at times: but of course it’s idiotic to use the crutch when our own legs (our own loves, tastes, habits etc) can do the journey on their own!

I’d not thought of the distinction Lewis makes between duty and love prior to reading this letter. As a matter of fact I’ve always ranked duty high on my list of virtues – a sense of duty has been important to me. Is Lewis equating duty with obedience to the Law? That is, he is in effect saying, “If we need to conform our actions to an external Law in order to do the right thing then it is better to do that than not to do it; however, as we are transformed by grace into the image and character of Christ then we no longer need the scaffolding of the Law to motivate us to right behavior, for our internal character will naturally rejoice in right behavior – we will love God and others”.

I don’t know if this is what Lewis means or not, I’m thinking out loud on paper, so to speak/write. My take on the performance of duty has been that grace empowers me to fulfill my duty – I see my duty and I do it; there may even be a sense in which we can say, “I love fulfilling my duty. I have a love of duty.” But again, I’m thinking out loud.

A problem with equating duty with Law is that Law cannot produce obedience; it produces death and condemnation (2 Corinthians 3:5-11). So I don’t think Law and duty are the same thing because Law can only produce failed attempts at doing what is right, and I don’t see duty in that same light. Anyway, I thought this excerpt worth posting  in the hope it might stimulate our thinking.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

C.S. Lewis – Reading Narnia

In a letter to Laurence Krieg, dated April 21, 1957, Lewis writes:

I think I agree with your order for reading the books more than with your mother’s. [Hooper’s footnote says: Mrs. Krieg believed the Narnian books should be read in the order in which they were published, while Lewis agreed with Laurence that they be read chronologically according to Narnian time.] The series was not planned beforehand as she thinks. When I wrote The Lion I did not know I was going to write any more. Then I wrote P. Caspian as a sequel and still didn’t think there would be any more, and when I had done the Voyage I felt quite sure it would be the last. But I found I was wrong. So perhaps it does not matter very much in which order anyone reads them. I’m not even sure that all the others were written in the same order in which they were published. I never keep notes of that sort of thing and never remember dates.

I include this in the current series of “Lewis” posts because of the insight it gives on Lewis’s writing of The Narniad as well as other personal insights; such as the fact that he didn’t keep notes on that sort of thing. And of course people do discuss the order in which the books should be read.

My own opinion has some flexibility in that I think either The Magician’s Nephew or The Lion should be read first, with the others in their Narnian sequence – though I suppose one could delay the Magician and read it any time prior to reading The Last Battle. The value in reading The Magician’s Nephew first is not only that it deals with the creation of Narnia, but it contains Aslan bestowing the gift of speech on selected (elected?) animals along with Aslan’s warning of what will happen to them if they go back to the ways of the Dumb Beasts.

Once one has journeyed through Narnia one can move from Genesis to Revelation with perspective and context – keeping in mind the entire time that it is always the appearing of Aslan that is central to the story; too bad Christians miss that element in their Biblical reading; too often it is anything but Jesus Christ that is central to our exposition of Scripture (using the word “exposition” loosely). To hear us (North American Christians)  a stranger would think that foreign policy, domestic politics, and economics are at the heart of the Gospel. Have we caricatured Christ and the Gospel to the point that we see Aslan caricatured in The Last Battle? 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

C.S. Lewis and Willaim Gresham - II

On April 6, 1957 Lewis wrote to Gresham:

Joy is far too ill to write and has asked me to answer yours of the 2nd. This is a ticklish job. If through clumsiness, in the effort to put things strongly, I sound like one who writes with animosity, believe me this is not so. I think there has never been any ill-feeling between you and me, and I very much hope there never will be.

…Now, bitterly against their [David and Douglas] will on top of the most appalling tragedy that can happen to childhood (I went through it and know), tearing them from all that has already become familiar and shattering all sense of security that remains to them, it would be disastrous. If you realized the cruelty of what you are proposing to do, [forcing David and Douglas to live with him in American after Joy’s death] I am sure you would not do it.

If you do not relent, I shall of course be obliged to place every legal obstacle in your way, Joy has, legally, a case…You have a chance of recovering at some future date, instead of alienating for ever, the love and respect of your children. For God’s sake take it and yield to the deep wishes of everyone concerned except yourself…

As a reminder, all excerpts from Lewis’s letters are from The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis (Three Volumes), edited by Walter Hooper and published by Harper San Francisco.

I share this letter for the same reasons I shared the letter in the previous post; and my feelings in sharing it are the same. I don’t think there is any more I have to say about these letters except that they remind me that we all have pain in our lives.

Friday, November 11, 2011

C.S. Lewis and William Gresham

On April 4, 1957, Lewis wrote to Bill Gresham, Joy’s former husband and the father of David and Douglas; excerpts follow:

…Of course I cannot judge between your account and Joy’s account of your married life; nor is it perhaps the chief point. What you and I have to think of is the happiness of the boys…Why should there not be a real unconfused, reconciliation between you and them when they are grown up? But by forcing them back at a moment when their hearts are breaking you will not facilitate this but render it permanently impossible. The boys remember you as a man who fired rifles thro’ ceilings to relieve his temper, broke up chairs…and broke a bottle over Douglas’s head…Children have indelible memories of such things and they are (let us admit) self-righteous…

Wait Bill, wait. Not now. A bone that breaks in a second takes long to heal. The relation between you and your sons has been broken. Give it time to mend. Forcible surgery (without anesthetics) such as you are proposing is not the way.

When I first read this letter (and another that I’ll excerpt in the next post) I “saw” Lewis  in a light that I hadn’t seen before, namely that of a husband and step-father trying to do his best for his wife and step-sons; here is a picture of a domestic Lewis in a most difficult situation. When I was typing these excerpts this morning I almost moved on to other letters, skipping this one, because of Bill Gresham – after all – Mr. Gresham was no worse than any of us outside of Christ, and since in Christ we have nothing to be proud of regarding ourselves we simply have no grounds for comparing ourselves favorably with Bill Gresham. So I felt (and feel) as if I’m intruding on something that is none of my business and which exposes Mr. Gresham to unwarranted judgment.

Perhaps if these letters were a hundred years old I wouldn’t feel quite the same, they’d be more “history” then rather than of recent vintage, at least recent for me. However, these letters are in the published Collected Letters and in the interest of sharing glimpses of Lewis, his relationships, his thinking, and his heart, I’m quoting excerpts. But let me caution – it is a fool that looks down on William Gresham, a fool that lives in a house without mirrors. I’ve been that fool more than once in my life.

Here is Lewis, caring for a dying wife, trying to do his best for his step-sons, teaching at Cambridge, conducting a general correspondence that would overwhelm most of us, caring (off and on) for an alcoholic brother, continuing his literary career, and in the midst of his own painful health problem – osteoporosis.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

C.S. Lewis – Narnia and TWHF

On February 28, 1957, Lewis writes to Deborah Fraser:

I am so glad you like my Narnian stories, and it was nice of you to write and tell me. I don’t feel I can do any more of them. After all there are seven of them and they cover the history of Narnia from its creation to the end!

Thank your father very much for his nice article. Tell him I am extra-specially glad he likes Till We Have Faces, because it is so far the most unpopular of my books. We have a hamster and a white rat and there’s a little wood full of owls in our garden.

I thought I’d post this letter because it illustrates a comment I made on a recent post about TWHF – note that Lewis uses the word “unpopular”.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

C.S. Lewis – Till We Have Faces: III

Continuing with Lewis’s letter to Professor Kilby:

3. Orual is (not a symbol but) an instance, a ‘case’, of human affection in its natural condition: true, tender, suffering, but in the long run, tyrannically possessive and ready to turn to hatred when the beloved ceases to be its possession. What such love particularly cannot stand is to see the beloved passing into a sphere where it cannot follow. All this, I hoped, would stand as a mere story in its own right. But -

4. Of course I had always in mind its close parallel to what is probably at this moment going on in at least 5 families in your own town. Someone becomes a Christian, or, in a family nominally Christian already, does something like becoming a missionary or entering a religious order. The others suffer a sense of outrage. What they love is being taken from them!...Let’s hope it is only a phase!...Oh come back, come back, be sensible, be the dear son we used to know.

Now it just so happens that on my other blog, Kaleidoscope, I’m in the process of sharing a story about Maureen and Sean, a story not too far off the mark of what Lewis is writing about. When I read TWHF the second time, reading it as a story without trying to figure everything out, I “saw”, in a measure at least, what Lewis is telling Kilby. Psyche describes a wonderful place to Orual; she takes Orual to the wonderful place; and yet Orual cannot see it – Orual simply sees the mundane, not the beauty. I won’t share any more of TWHF in case you’ve not read it and are thinking about reading it.

As I ponder the negative reaction of readers and reviewers to TWHF a couple of things come to mind:

  1. Had Lewis written the book in the early 20th Century as opposed to the second-half of the 20th Century would it have received a different literary reception? Would early 20th Century reviewers and readers been more at home with the storyline and imagery?
  2.  Did (does?) the fact that the storyline is a mystery to many tell us something about the accommodation of Western Christianity to the surrounding culture? That is, more often than not Christianity is seen as one option out of many, and more often than not becoming a Christian need not be accompanied by a change in living, a change in priorities, or by relational misunderstanding and conflict. Becoming a Christian is seldom, it seems, accompanied by the call to deny oneself and take up the cross. A perusal of contemporary books written for a Christian audience often portrays something more akin to Amway or a diet fad (self-improvement) than laying one’s life down for Christ and others.

My point in “B” is that Psyche went through a radical change and Orual didn’t understand it; because Orual couldn’t follow Psyche she had to make other plans – which I won’t divulge. Christianity is hardly radical in the West – perhaps that is one reason why we find it hard to enter into the story – we simply can’t relate to it. Psyche and Orual lived in two different spheres; whereas it’s hard to distinguish the Western church from the world.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

C.S. Lewis – Till We Have Faces: II

Continuing with Lewis’s February 10, 1957 letter to Clyde S. Kilby:

2. Psyche is an instance of…the best of the Pagan religion she is brought up in and thus being guided (but always ‘under the cloud’, always in terms of her own imagination or that of her people) towards the true God.

Lewis believed, if I understand him correctly, that those who respond to the innate knowledge of God, in whatever historical circumstances they might find themselves, will be drawn to the true and living God. Perhaps the most familiar statement of Lewis’s regarding this is found in The Last Battle, when we see Emeth, a Calormene who had served the Pagan Tash, brought into Aslan’s country, the true Narnia. Here’s an excerpt from Emeth’s account:

…in a narrow place between two rocks there came to meet me a great Lion. The speed of him was like the ostrich, and his size was an elephant’s; his hair was like pure gold and the brightness of his eyes like gold that is liquid in the furnace. He was more terrible than the Flaming Mountain of Lagour, and in beauty he surpassed all that is in the world even as the rose in bloom surpasses the dust of the desert.

Then I fell at his feet and thought, Surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion (who is worthy of all honour) will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him. Nevertheless, it is better to see the Lion and die than to be Tisroc of the world and live and not to have seen him. But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, “Son, thou art welcome.”

Paul writes in Romans Chapter Two: For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when the nations, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

The above section of The Last Battle gives some folks heartburn, and probably causes others to reject Lewis’s thinking outright; but then, as I wrote in an earlier post, we don’t know everything…do we? 

Monday, November 7, 2011

C.S. Lewis – Till We Have Faces

Of all Lewis’s writings, he placed Till We Have Faces at (or toward) the top of his list; yet its reviews and sales were toward the bottom. It appeared a failure. While Lewis gratefully acknowledged letters of appreciation from readers of all of his books, in my reading of his correspondence it appears to me that he was especially encouraged to receive letters from readers who appreciated TWHF

In a February 10, 1957 letter to Clyde S. Kilby Lewis writes at length about TWHF. While the letter is too long to quote in full in one or two blog posts, I’m going to share some excerpts along with my observations:

            Dear Professor Kilby –
            An author doesn’t necessarily understand the meaning of his own story better than anyone else, so I give you my account of the TWHF simply for what it’s worth. The ‘levels’ I am conscious of are these.

If for no other reason than to gain insight into Lewis’s take on writers and their stories I think the above worth quoting. While I can’t speak for all authors, many whom I have read on the subject of “writing” would echo Lewis’s words – they follow the story where it takes them, they allow their characters to develop. I’m reminded of Dorothy L. Sayers’s response to Christian readers who wanted Lord Peter Wimsey to become a Christian; Wimsey would never become a Christian because that would not be Wimsey – that is not where his character had taken Sayers as an author – Sayers had to respect the character of Wimsey and could not override Lord Peter’s character and his will. (If this seems a bit strange you might want to read her Mind of the Maker to better understand her thinking.)

Lewis’s statement about authors and their stories also reminds me of sermon development. A standard preaching text (Design for Preaching) by H. Grady Davis, a Lutheran, approaches sermon preparation organically – allowing the Biblical text to grow and develop, honoring and submitting to its growth and development – rather than forcing it into one’s own image.

Resuming Lewis’s letter:

1. A work of (supposed) historical imagination. A guess at what it might have been like in a little barbarous state on the borders of the Hellenistic world with Greek culture just beginning to affect it…Much of what you take as allegory was intended solely as realistic detail.

TWHF is first and foremost a story. The Narniad and the Space Trilogy are stories before they are anything else. While we don’t have Kilby’s letter, Lewis’s response indicates that Kilby was reading things into the text that the author didn’t intend – maybe they are there and waiting to be discovered, but then maybe they aren’t there at all. Maybe they are there with application to the reader’s present circumstances apart from the author’s intent.

We are finite creators, whether we paint or sculptor or design buildings or write books; and being finite we cannot see all the possibilities of our creations. How many times has a person shared with me something gleaned from a Sunday morning message that was not intended to be a point of mine in the least, but yet was communicated through the sermon without my design or knowledge? I could think, “You didn’t understand what I was saying”, or I could think, “I didn’t realize that what I was saying could communicate that message”.

The first time I read TWHF I wasn’t sure what I was reading, and I think that’s because I was trying to understand it intellectually rather than allow the story to take me along a journey. The second time I read it I purposed to read it as a story – and the experience…and the understanding…were both quite different from the first time.

When I first view a painting of my dear friend David Zuck’s I’ve learned to allow the painting to come to me and draw me to it; only as that occurs do I experience and appreciate the nuances and counter plays of the art. When I hear a piece of music (and I think this especially true of classical music) it is only when the musical motif is permitted to weave its tapestry in my heart and mind that I’m able to dance (internally) with the patterns, backgrounds, and point-counterpoints.

I think one reason why we can read the Bible and yet not read the Bible is that we’re in a hurry to the break the Bible down into data and information rather than understand its message, allowing its message to come to us, allowing our hearts and minds to be conformed to the message, to become one with the message – and of course the message is Jesus.

Most Bible-study materials do not encourage its users to see the story; all Biblical genres have stories, and yet the vast majority of Bible-study materials do not guide the users into seeing the stories – if we can’t see the shape of the tree, how can we put its branches in context to the tree on which they grow and the forest in which the tree is planted?

More in Lewis’s letter to Kilby in the next post.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

C.S. Lewis – Pushing the Envelope or Christian Liberty – or Both?

In a letter to a correspondent identified as Mrs. Johnson; Lewis writes on August 7, 1956:

All you tell me is good and very good. Your Mother in Law has done good to the whole circle by the way she died. And where she has gone I don’t doubt that she will do you more still. For I believe that what was true of Our Lord Himself (‘It is expedient for you that I go, for then the Comforter will come to you’) is true in its degree (of course, an  infinitesimal degree in comparison, but still true) of all His followers. I think they do something for us by dying and shortly after they have died which they couldn’t do before – and sometimes one can almost feel it happening. (You are right by the way: there is a lot to be said for dying – and being born – at home).

What do we do with a paragraph such as the above? Some of us may endorse it; some may say that they don’t really see a Biblical basis for it, but that Lewis is certainly entitled to his opinion and conjecture; some may ponder it with the thought – “Well, I guess it’s possible”; and others may cry “Heresy – Lewis is teaching heresy!”

There’s a sense in which C.S. Lewis is like Abraham Lincoln – different constituencies want to take ownership of him and recreate him in their image. The thing about learning about a man or woman, or learning about the history of a people, whether a village, a nation, or a family, is that things get pretty complex before it’s all over – as if learning about history, any history, could ever be said to be really “over”.

People that call a wart a beauty mark can be accused of glossing over the facts, and those who call a beauty mark a wart are often accused of having agendas to discredit the subject – whether a person or family or village or nation.

My take on Lewis is that he’d be quick to say that he doesn’t know it all – and you’d be under suspicion if you told him that you, or your theological camp, knew it all. Lewis knew the danger of thinking that you know it all, and he knew the danger of looking down on others – he had been like that, and I think that when he met Christ, and as he came to know Christ – that perhaps he had a good look at Christ and then a good look at himself; with the result that his days of knowing it all were history.

Not everything in the Bible fits into a neat little definable compartment, nor does everything in life – and I think that not recognizing that, that glossing over the unexplainable as if it doesn’t exist, serves to dull our minds and imaginations and dampen our hearts.

Consider Paul’s words in Colossians 1:24: Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church...

Some of us can try to work what that statement, others gloss over it and act as if Paul never wrote those words.

Or what about Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:4: When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present…

Some of us can try work with that statement, others gloss over it and act as if Paul never wrote those words. To explain away either of the above Pauline quotations, to put them in a box (probably more for quarantine than for anything else), is to shut the door on the mystery behind the words. The Bible has statements in it that most of us – likely all of us – simply don’t fully understand. Life has experiences that we don’t understand. As we engage Biblical statements and paradigms, and as we engage life, hopefully we’ll do the best we can by the grace of God and be wise enough not to take all of our understanding for infallible dogma. If we never push the envelope of thinking, of imagination, or of heart ponderings, if we do not have the liberty in Christ to honestly engage the mysteries before us – and if we deny the freedom to others to do so in Christ, within the framework of the Bible and the Gospel – then we become not only our own jailers, but the jailers of others.

Much of my early Christian experience was one of forcing every Biblical verse into a straightjacket of doctrinal rigidity – whether the verse or passage or paradigm fit or not. Biblical passages were meant to be ridden and broken like a wild bronco, saddled with rigid thinking, devoid of imagination (for the most part), and controlled by the reins of conformity to denomination or particular tradition. Deviation from the norm was not acceptable.

I think that Lewis would hardly have considered his words to Mrs. Johnson as dogma, and I think he gladly gave others room for exploration of mysteries. Was Lewis pushing the envelope? I don’t think so, though you might, and that’s okay with me. Lewis was simply sharing his thoughts with a correspondent. Was Lewis exercising Christian liberty? I think he was; he must have felt free to express himself to Mrs. Johnson – too bad we all don’t feel free to share our musings. I wonder what we’d collectively find if we did exercise liberty in Christ to discuss and explore and roam the Biblical terrain?

Lest you should misunderstand me, I’m all for Biblical exegesis with integrity; but that means there are times when I have to say, “I don’t know what that means.”

I’ll close with another quotation from Paul; 1 Corinthians 13:12: For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

C.S. Lewis to Mary Willis Shelburne – Good Works

On July 7, 1956 Lewis writes to Shelburne:

Yes, what your Franciscan author says is very true. As some one says, “The Devil used to try to prevent people from doing good works, but he has now learned a trick worth two of that: he organizes ‘em instead.”

Not having Shelburne’s letter of June 30, 1956, to which Lewis was replying, I don’t know what Shelburne wrote to elicit Lewis’s comment. But I am reminded of Mr. Worldly Wiseman in The Pilgrim’s Progress. He tells Christian:

In that village in the distance, its name is Morality, there lives a gentleman whose name is Legality, go and see that man and he will help you with this weight you are carrying. There is no need for you to continue in the path that Evangelist and the Book have directed you – there is a much better way, a much easier way.
[My paraphrase].

The idea that good works are an enemy to the Gospel and to knowing the forgiveness of Christ is an enigma to many. On the one hand those who are in relationship with Jesus Christ are to model good works; on the other hand they are not justified by good works – that is, they have not come into a relationship with God because of their good works; God has not accepted them because of their good works; God accepts them because of His Son Jesus Christ. To try to measure up to the Law of God is impossible – and the burden of sin becomes crushing under the burden of the Law. Morality and Ethics and good works for the sake of self-righteousness can mask our sin and unrighteousness and deceive us into thinking that we have no need of a Savior – a black hole indeed.

Morality and ethics and good works can also deceive the Christian, the one who has come to know Jesus Christ, into thinking that he or she can live the Christian life under her or his own power – as Paul writes to the Galatians, “Are you so foolish, having begun in the Spirit do you really think you can grow to maturity in your own strength?”

That which looks like a much easier way, because it avoids the Cross of Christ and repentance and our surrender to Jesus Christ – turns out to be anything but an easier way – it is…if we venture deep within it…a black hole.

And so back to Lewis’s letter to Shelburne – if we are focused on good works for the sake of good works, for the sake of making us feel better, look better, and for the purpose of building ourselves up, for the sake of our own morality – we will become so full of ourselves and our good works that we will fail to see our emptiness, our sin, and our need of a Savior. Just as it is a fool who serves as his own lawyer; it is a fool who attempts to be his or her own savior. What a shame this is when we consider how deeply God loves us.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

C.S. Lewis and Church People; with Bob’s Musings

In a letter to longtime correspondent Mary Willis Shelburne, dated May 21, 1956, Lewis writes:

            But there remains the quite separate trouble of having lost your job. Oh dear, I am sorry. Surely all these Church people will find some way to provide for you. I will indeed pray – oh what a business life is.

Shelburne was an American, living in the United States; the laws of Britain at the time prohibited British citizens from sending money out of the country (this is according to a Walter Hooper footnote to the Lewis – Shelburne letters), so Lewis could not help her; though once the law changed he would assist her through his charitable trust – Lewis helped many through his trust administered by his friend and lawyer, Owen Barfield.

When I read this letter I couldn’t help but think of our current economic climate and the hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens, and brothers and sisters in Christ, who have lost their jobs. I wondered how many were being helped by their congregations; I wondered how many congregations were reaching out in their communities to help those in need.

When I was with my former employer, prior to joining my current firm, one of my tasks was to inspect homes that were selling within homeowners’ associations. Many of these homes were being foreclosed upon and were vacant prior to my inspection – the families having left. As I inspected those homes I visualized dads and moms and children – playing, eating together, getting ready for work and school, celebrating birthdays and anniversaries and holidays; I visualized a house that was a home – not a vacant house but a living home. I prayed for the families, wherever they might be; that they would know Jesus Christ and His amazing love and security, and that they would know health and healing from the pain of the loss of a home, and the loss of what was likely their greatest financial asset.

Lewis led a fairly cloistered life, and his statement to Shelburne seems a bit na├»ve, because the fact is that it’s fairly common to be involved in a church and yet to be invisible when there is pain and need; our individualistic society has permeated the church and we seldom “bear one another’s burdens” as Paul admonishes. Some of the harshest words I’ve heard during the current recession/depression have come from professing Christians – “they got what they deserve” is the mantra I’ve heard expressed any number of ways toward those who have lost their homes and jobs.

During the past month a “Christian” organization in our region had as its marquee speaker, at its annual marquee event, a man who stated that if you’re unemployed that it’s your own fault – I suspect there was applause from the audience. That’s the kind of Christianity I sure want to embrace – kick ‘em when they’re down! But hey – it absolves us of responsibility to come alongside others graciously and sacrificially.

I wonder, were I to have been a member of Mary Willis Shelburne’s congregation, whether I would have cared whether she lost her job or not?