Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Inklings and Friendship - There but not Back Again

In my previous post I touched on the unhappy irony of the title of Philip and Carol Zaleski’s marvelous new book, The Fellowship – The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams. When Lewis recorded his talks on The Four Loves in 1958 (which subsequently became a book) he must have reflected back on the Inklings when he prepared the section on friendship, one of the finest treatments on the subject that I’m aware of. And yet…relying on memory (and I will go back and reread that section), Lewis does not explore what happens when friendship breaks down, nor does he, as I recall, explore how friendships might be restored. By this time the Inklings are no more and his friendship with Tolkien has been cold for a few years; and so while Lewis’s treatment of friendship in The Four Loves is touching and while there is much to be enjoyed and gained from it, it’s failure to recognize the likelihood of conflict and breakdown in friendship is unfortunate.

One of the characteristics of the Inkling’s gatherings was the give-and-take, their argumentative disagreements; yet eventually some of these disagreements fermented into some of the members becoming disagreeable. It is painful for me to read of Hugo Dyson’s attitude toward Tolkien reading sections of his draft of The Lord of the Rings- to the point where Tolkien stopped reading from it altogether. This must have been painful for Tolkien who was constantly struggling with writing and rewriting and doubt about the worth of his Middle-Earth mythology. Here are Tolkien and Dyson, the two men who took a walk with C.S. Lewis some twenty years prior to Dyson having enough of hobbits and elves, a walk that led to Lewis coming to know Jesus Christ, in such conflict that Tolkien gives up reading from the work which has consumed much of his life.

Then there is Tolkien’s severe criticism of Lewis’s Narniad, this after Lewis’s encouragement of Tolkien in Tolkien’s writing of the Lord of the Rings. Tolkien writes to the effect that Lewis’s encouragement was critical in his completion of his Middle-Earth trilogy, but now Tolkien can’t let his displeasure with Lewis’s Narnia go, he can’t leave his remarks at the level of helpful questions and constructive criticism – he raises his criticism to another level…a level that exits the pale of friendship.

It is warm to see the Inklings as they were when times were good, it is sobering to see them when clouds overshadowed their fellowship as the clouds of Mordor threatened the existence of Gondor. It is one thing to see the Inklings as if they lived all their lives in the Shire, it is another to see them as they encountered Orcs. The test of fellowship, of friendship, is not found in the serene confines of the Shire of hobbits, but rather in the challenges of ego, agendas, tastes, preferences, envy, jealousy, gossip, and the choice between honesty and deceit.As Bilbo Baggins demonstrates in The Hobbit – There and Back Again, it isn’t just how a journey begins that matters, or the adventures found in the journey that matter, but it is supremely important that the journey ends well. Tolkien and Lewis demonstrate this in their writings – that is one of the joys in The Lord of the Rings; it is one of the sorrows of the Inklings.

What can we learn from this?

To be continued…

Monday, July 27, 2015

The Fellowship - The Literary Lives of the Inklings, Review

I recently finished the book, The Fellowship – The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski; 2015, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York. At 644 pages (512 pages are the main text, the balance contain footnotes, bibliography, index, and acknowledgements), this is the most comprehensive treatment of the Inklings of which I am aware and it is also the best – both in terms of breath and depth. This is a book to be read more than once.

The book begins and ends with the question, “What then, were the Inklings?” If you’d like to know, or if you think you know, or if you’re sure you know the answer – this book is for you. If you don’t care about the answer but you have an interest in Lewis, Tolkien, Barfield or Williams this book is for you. If you think life has a purpose, if you think life has no purpose, if you don’t know whether life has any purpose, this book is for you. If you enjoy well-written biography and want to know the lives of two of the most influential scholars and writers of the 20th Century, this book is for you. I could continue this “this book is for you” list but you get the message – this is a book rich in narrative detail and yet broad enough to appeal to many people. Philip and Carol Zaleski (husband and wife) have written a masterpiece; Philip is a writer and Carol is a professor of world religions at Smith College.

The subtitle is, The Literary Lives of the Inklings; the book explores the lives of Tolkien, Lewis, Barfield, and Williams using their writing as a compass to guide the narrative – what they wrote was who they were and their writing, and the cross-pollination it produced, was the coal that fed the fires of their meetings and friendships. Sometimes the coal fell out of the stove and produced disagreements with sad results. Fire is dangerous.

This is an adult book, it is not hagiography. While I need not write this for most people, there are those who idealize and idolize others and find it difficult to acknowledge their imperfections…and yes…their sins. How is it that we can so easily forget Romans 3:23? The authors treat difficult personal issues and struggles with respect and decorum and do not engage in tangential psychoanalytics; they keep their eyes on the compass and the compass keeps them on course.

As a work of the rare genre of collective biography the narrative comes together nicely with the tributaries entering the River Inklings in due season. Two of the tributaries (Lewis and Tolkien) are longer than the other two (Barfield and Williams). Other Inklings are picked up along the way, such as Dyson, Havard, Cecil, and Christopher Tolkien. Another Inkling’s life (Warnie Lewis) is intertwined with his brother’s throughout the book. Non-Inklings such as Sister Penelope, Ruth Pitter, Dorothy L. Sayers, and of course Joy Davidman also contribute to the river’s flow.

There is an unhappy irony in the title, The Fellowship; for unlike Tolkien’s, The Lord of the Rings, the Inklings unravel and that which was once intimate becomes distant and in some cases bitter at worst, and bitter sweet at best. In the Fellowship of the Ring, the first volume of Tolkien’s trilogy, the fellowship is broken, but with the exception of Boromir it comes together at the end in the third volume, The Return of the King. In that light perhaps we can anticipate that when our King returns the Inklings will find themselves in the fullness of reconciled fellowship. This is also a book about friendship; I will explore this subject in the book in a future post.

If you know Lewis’s life well you may find it tedious going over much of the same ground early in the book, the journey down the river is worth it; when we leave home on a long trip we have to travel through familiar places to reach the unfamiliar or to revisit places we have not seen in some time.

The authors provide rich context and explanation of the literary, philosophical, religious, and spiritual currents that informed the lives of these men and influenced their relationships – this context in turn helps us understand their lives and writings.

In our day it is difficult to conceive of a group of men (or women) meeting together every Tuesday morning and Thursday night to enjoy each other’s company, to share their creative work, to critique that work, to talk about ideas, to share stories, to encourage one another, and to vigorously disagree with each other – week after week, year after year. Why weren’t they busy, busy, busy like we are? What did they hope to accomplish, if anything? Surely drinking pints of beer at a pub and imbibing whisky in Lewis’s university rooms could lead to no good thing – not to mention the walks they took together, sometimes for hours, other times for days.

No good thing? No The Lord of the Rings, no Mere Christianity, no Space Trilogy, no Narnia…? to name just a few.   Philip and Carol Zaleski have invited us on a journey well worth taking – There and Back Again.

Robert L. Withers, July 26, 2015

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Whose Body?

In 1932 Dorothy L. Sayers published her first novel, Whose Body? The mystery launched her literary career, along with the detective career of her protagonist, Lord Peter Wimsey. A strange man is found dead in a peaceful citizen’s bathtub, wearing only a pince-nez. Who is he? How did he get there? Are the occupants of the apartment certain they don’t know him? Whose body is this?

It is mystery.

As with good mysteries there are possibilities, conjectures, clues to pursue. The professionals look askance at Lord Peter and his pursuit of the truth – what does he know, he isn’t trained in police work – stand aside Lord Peter. A body in a bathtub, how did it get there and why is it wearing a pince-nez?

We seem to have answered the question of “Whose body?" in our culture with a resounding “IT IS MINE! IT IS MINE! IT IS MINE AND I SHALL DO WHAT I PLEASE WITH IT!”

The Bible tells us that “God created man…” The Bible tells us that God created the heavens and the earth, and throughout the Bible God is celebrated as not only the Creator of the planet and the heavens, but He is also celebrated as the Creator of man – as our Creator. The thing is, that if God is our Creator then the question “Whose body?” takes on added meaning for it means that we are not the products of time plus matter plus chance but rather that we have been formed into the image of God and that we ought not to do with ourselves as we please – for our bodies were not designed and created to live autonomously from our Creator God but rather to enjoy intimate relationship with Him.

One of the problems in the professing church is that we like to pick and choose in what areas of life we recognize our bodies as belonging to the Creator and in what areas we insist on being in control of our bodies. We think we are entitled to use our bodies in certain ways, including our minds and emotions and desires, and we think that we can do so with impunity – after all, everyone else is doing it. But I will pick this thread up in a future post. What I want to say now is that in Dorothy L. Sayers’s Whose Body? it was obvious that the body didn’t put itself in the bathtub; there was disagreement about how the body got to the bathtub, but no one suggested (as I recall, it’s been awhile since I read the book) that the body put itself there because there was no evidence of suicide. And why the pince-nez?

As Chesterton said (quoting from memory), “Darwinism didn’t destroy God, it destroyed man.” To live life in an awareness of our Creator, to learn to see ourselves as we were meant to be – in whatever measure that is possible – to see others not as objects of exploitation but as fellow creatures made in the image of God, to see ourselves as inhabiting bodies that have been given to us to use wisely in accordance with the purpose of their formation, and from there to seek the Creator who desires us to know Him as daughters and sons – this is a foundational principle of life, a principle sadly lost in the church and in society.

It is incongruous to think that we just “happened.” Where does beauty come from? Consciousness? Conscience? Love? The desire to create and assemble and form? What immaterial cosmic accident could have produced a thing called hope? A desire for redemption? A yearning for forgiveness and reconciliation in various facets of life? What about the connection that we sometimes have when our eyes look into the eyes of another and see something more than eyes?

Whose body is it that we live in? Whatever this body is, it is more than a body, it is part of a person, a mysterious being called a person – and when the body dies there is a palpable change – something happens – what was there is there no more…yet do we really believe that what was there is no more anywhere? It may not be there, but that does not mean that it is nowhere.

Do we really think that our bodies are here to be used, abused, and then thrown on the trash heap at the end of life – biodegrading – and that the person who once loved and joyed and sorrowed and hoped and dreamed and sacrificed and gave and received and marveled at beauty and learned and grew – that that person is no more?

The protagonists of both Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie were often amateurs, looked down on by professional detectives, thoughtfulness and common sense were often dismissed in an effort to make a speedy arrest and obtain a conviction. Lord Peter Wimsey and Miss Marple and Poirot watch and wait and ask questions and ponder, observing human nature, considering the clues that others ignore.

Our bodies are more than just bodies – how have we been tricked into thinking otherwise?

Just whose body is it in the bathtub, naked except for the pince-nez?  

Monday, July 13, 2015

The Dung of the Devil

This past week Pope Francis called unbridled capitalism “the dung of the devil.” Too bad Protestant leaders don’t have the courage to address materialism and the stewardship of wealth.

I’d better start by saying that I deeply regret not being a better steward of the resources God has given me over the years and that I’ve been in deep repentance for this. So what I’m writing I’m writing to myself and well as to the reader.

As I’ve written previously, money has become the magnetic north of our thinking, we do what is economically profitable – and we do it for ourselves. I’m not just writing about the world, what the world is the world is; I am primarily writing about the church, which has adopted the way of the world.

Many Christians are quick to argue that the early Jerusalem church in Acts is not to be a model for us today, that what was appropriate for their time and place may not be, in fact is not, appropriate for our place and time.

“Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need,” Acts 2:44-45. “Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common,” Acts 4:32. “Nor was there anyone among them who lacked…and they distributed to each as anyone had need,” Acts 4:34 – 35.

Notice that the believers “were together”; notice that they were “of one heart and one soul.” Surely this community of people was as miraculous as anything else we see in the Acts of the Apostles. Could it be that where there is a community of heart and soul that there is a community of possessions, and that where a community of soul and heart is lacking that our attitude is “what’s mine is mine”?

In approaching the above passages we can be so obsessed in making the point that what was appropriate for them may not be (we mean is not!) appropriate for us that we gloss over the description of these Christians as being “together” and as being “of one heart and one soul.”

Furthermore, what do we do with the statement, “Nor was there anyone among them who lacked…”? Surely this statement transcends culture and time if we are truly the Body of Christ.

But let us leave Jerusalem and visit Greece, for after the church has glossed over the passages in Acts which demonstrate that the community birthed by the Holy Spirit on Pentecost was a supernatural community with practical expression – practical to the point that “nor was there anyone among them who lacked” – we like to move to 2 Corinthians and preach that “God loves a cheerful giver,” (2 Corinthians 9:7). Of course the context of our preaching is typically that we should give to support the structure and organization of the church. Yes, there are the calls for giving to the poor, there are calls for giving to missions, but the bread and butter of the matter is that the organization needs to be fed and it needs to be well fed in order that it can grow larger and be fed more. This is the natural progression when we are thinking of ourselves first and others are an afterthought.

We miss the context of 2 Corinthians, which is giving to support others; in this case it is giving to support the Christians in Jerusalem who have fallen on hard times. The cynic can say, “What did they expect? They should have taken care of themselves and not taken care of each other – the idea that there should be none who lacked was stupid economic policy.” I’m not sure that Jesus would agree with that statement, after all, for our sakes He became poor (2Cor. 8:9).

Paul writes to the Corinthians, “For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but by an equality, that now at this time your abundance may supply their lack, that their abundance also may supply your lack – that there may be equality. As it is written, ‘He who gathered much had nothing left over, and he who gathered little had no lack.’ “, (2 Cor. 8:13-15).

There is that nagging and offensive idea that people should not lack, it has turned up in Greece and not just Jerusalem. While the way the Christians approached the subject may have been different in Greece and Macedonia than the way their brothers and sisters did in Jerusalem – the principle was still there, the love was still there, and in Macedonia and Greece it has become explicit Apostolic teaching.

How can we gloss over 2 Corinthians Chapters 8 and 9 and compress these chapters into “God loves a cheerful giver…give to support church organization” and not submit to the context of the chapters that we are to be living in community to the point where we materially care for one another? Note that this community goes beyond the local church, it goes beyond one’s country – the Macedonians and Greeks are caring for Christians in Judea.

The early Christians “were together.” We live lives of isolation.

The early Christians “were of one heart and one soul,” we can take fellowship or leave it.

Among the early Christians there was no one “who lacked,” obviously they were stupid economically and did not have our work ethic.

Perhaps if the devil cannot divide us via jealousy and pride and doctrinal disputes and ethnicity…he can divide us by greed. Perhaps? Looks like he has.

To be continued…

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Letter to a Sister – The Church, III

Experiencing God is a great thing, knowing the presence of the indwelling Trinity is something that words cannot adequately express; our hearts and souls are touched by the Eternal One. Peter writes about unspeakable joy that is full of glory, and Paul talks about a peace that passes understanding – to be in a relationship is to experience the one with whom we have a relationship, and to be in a relationship with our Father and Lord Jesus and the Holy Spirit means that they live in us, individually and collectively as the people of God. When we consider that marriage is an image of the relationship between Christ and His Church then perhaps we get a glimpse of what intimacy God is meant to be. As I write this I think that our desecration of marriage over the past few decades, within and without the church, no doubt makes the image of the marriage of Christ and His Bride difficult to understand – but let us not allow our folly to rob us of the beauty of what our Lord Jesus wants to give us – which is Himself.

Guard against the temptation to make your experience with God normative for others. While your experience with God will have many similarities to the experiences of others, there will be an element of it that will be special to you. Guard against only associating with professing Christians who have experiences similar to yours – especially regarding the way they came to know our Lord Jesus and regarding any crisis experience they may or may not have had. Jesus Christ has called us to know Him and experience Him and learn and obey His teachings – while His teachings should be normative for all Christians as we strive to understand and obey them, the way Jesus speaks to us and draws us ever deeper into Himself may be as diverse as the sand of the sea – I say “may” because I don’t know for sure, but I do know that God created us as individuals and that He knows us as individuals (as well as His Bride, His Body, His Church).

As you read the Gospels and the Book of Acts you’ll see that God is diverse in His dealings with women and men. He brings people to Himself in different ways, He heals in different ways, He uses people collectively in different ways. As you read the letters of the New Testament you’ll see that living in community with others means there are always things to be worked out, that unity is not a given, that it needs to be protected and worked at…and worked at some more…and then worked at some more. You’ll also see that the human body is an image of the Church (see 1 Corinthians Chapter 12 and Romans Chapter 12 as examples). We’re not all the same – I’m not sure why we struggle with such a common-sense idea but we do. I don’t know why local congregations generally expect everyone to be pretty much the same but they do. I know what I’m writing about because I’ve been there; why I’ve been there even when I thought I wasn’t there and for all I know I’m there now…we can seldom trust our own perspectives of ourselves…maybe never.

One of the things I’m saying is that if someone says, “You’ve got to have this experience this particular way,” then I think you should take a step back and ask “Why?” You should also take a good long look at the entire Bible, especially the New Testament, and especially what the New Testament teaches us about our Lord Jesus and our relationship with Him.

God pours His grace through all of His people so that all of His people may partake of His grace – therefore we should celebrate the fact that the Body of Christ has many members who are different from one another…yet we seem to have a hard time with that.

I don’t want you to have exactly the same experience of Jesus and with Jesus that I do – but I do want you to know the Jesus that I do. If I insist that another Christian have my experience then I will seek to superimpose my thoughts and my experience on that person and I will not allow that person his or her freedom to know Jesus as she or he was created to know Jesus. I may also create an atmosphere where others think that unless their experience approximates mine that they do not have a legitimate relationship with our Lord Jesus. My focus as a brother to others must always and ever be our Lord Jesus and not my experience.

You see sister, the Gospel is about our Lord Jesus, not about us – let’s be excited about Him and in love with Him.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Letter to a Sister – The Church, Page 2

I was getting my hair cut a couple of months ago when Sarah, the lady that cuts my hair, said, “You don’t have to go to church to worship God. You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian.”

I replied, “Well, let’s think about that. We weren’t created to live alone but in community with others. Most of the New Testament, if not all of it, was written to a people, to churches, or to individuals living in relationship with churches. When we think of the word church today we often think of a building, but when the early Christians heard that word they thought of people – they didn’t have church buildings the way we do so they couldn’t have thought in terms of buildings.

“Yes, we can experience God as individuals, but we can experience Him more fully as we live in relationship with others. God has put things in us that others need and He has put things in others that we need. Plus, the very process of life, of getting it right and getting it wrong and falling down and getting up again is something that is meant to be lived in relationship with others.”

“I never thought of it that way,” she said.

When I hear people talk about going to church I often hear going to church spoken of as an obligation. Other times I hear it spoken of as doing something that will earn merit with God. I seldom hear “going to church” spoken of as gathering with God’s people for worship and relationship. Perhaps this is because relationship with others is seldom experienced in church. Perhaps it is also because going to church is often more about us than about worshipping God, hearing His Word, and responding to His Word in obedience.

Many people go to church seeking an experience and if they haven’t had an experience – whatever that may mean – then they think something is wrong. This thinking leads to preachers and others gearing what should be Sunday morning worship around providing an experience that will keep people coming back – this is dangerous because it displaces prayer, the Word, and the Holy Spirit with entertainment and choreographic ingenuity.

I know what I’m talking about because I’ve been guilty of it – I don’t want to do that again.

An irony is that churches that used to be open to changes in worship are often as tightly choreographed today as a high-liturgical congregation. One difference between the two is that the high-liturgical congregation is less likely to be engrossed in the personality of the preacher or the excitement of the moment – and may very well be open to a deeper and more transcendent appreciation of songs, music, and the Bible than other congregations. I also think that congregations who make having a good experience a litmus test of legitimacy are more likely to subject the Biblical text to whim and fancy rather than submit to the text in obedience.

When I was a young man a question often discussed with my Christian peers was, “Is the church an organization or an organism?” I think the Bible teaches us that the church of Jesus Christ is most certainly an organism, for we are Christ’s body and He is the head of the body. But the Bible also teaches us that this organism has organization. The organization should serve the organism, the organism is not meant to serve the organization. Unfortunately, more often than not, as in most areas of life, once an organizational structure is established people matter less and less other than as servants of the structure. This doesn’t mean that we do not have organization, it does mean that we treat structure the way we treat nitroglycerin when transporting it…very carefully.

I think the fact that most church-going people identify themselves with a denomination (or with being non-denominational) before they think to identify themselves as followers of Jesus Christ shows us just how far structural identity has permeated our thinking. It is as if we are carrying membership cards in our purses and wallets the way we carry grocery-store shoppers’ cards.

The language of the New Testament describing the church, and prescribing the way the church should live, is far more organic than organizational – and yet so much of what we do as congregations is to feed the organization.

While much of what I’ve said above is critical, I mean it so only in the sense that a sculptor chips away at extraneous marble in order to find the finished image within the block of marble – for there is nothing in all the cosmos as beautiful as Jesus Christ shining in and through His church – that is, after all, the culmination and crescendo of God’s plan of the ages (see Revelation Chapters 21 – 22).

Saturday, July 4, 2015

McKenzie (and Chesterton) on Patriotism

Robert T. McKenzie is chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College; I’ve been pondering the piece he wrote below since I read it on June 18. His Chesterton quotations and his own observations should give professing Christians something to carefully consider. McKenzie’s post is part of a series leading up to July 4 – all of which challenge many of our assumptions about American history and about the church’s role in the American Revolution. What I’ve quoted is an excerpt from McKenzie, you can read the entire post here  
“What is … troubling is the degree to which well-meaning Christians have allowed their very identity as believers to become intertwined with particular interpretations of American history. I cannot tell you how many times I have spoken with Christians who seem to see any denial that America was founded as a Christian nation as an attack on Christianity itself.
One of the very first quotes in my commonplace book is an observation from G. K. Chesterton that speaks to this mindset.  In his 1908 classic Orthodoxy, Chesterton makes a brief observation in the midst of a lengthy (dare I say rambling?) aside as part of an even longer reflection on optimism and pessimism.  Here it is:
"Only those will permit their patriotism to falsify history whose patriotism depends on history."   

If we are truly devoted to our country, in other words, Chesterton is telling us that we will not insist on a particular interpretation of its past if the evidence leads us in another direction.  True patriotism may require us to acknowledge aspects of our national history that are contrary to the story that we would prefer to tell.  We will do so, however, because patriotism is a particular form of love, and as Chesterton reminds us on the very next page,
"Love is not blind; that is the last thing that it is.  Love is bound; and the more it is bound the less it is blind."

But Chesterton's observation doesn't only help us in thinking about the relationship between history and patriotism.  Its inner reasoning can be just as helpful to us in thinking through the relationship between history and our Christian faith.  In one sense our Christian beliefs are absolutely grounded in history.  Ours is a historical faith.  Christianity's core doctrines rest on theological interpretations of historical events: creation, fall, incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection.  Deny these historical events and eviscerate the faith.
But Christianity does not rest on any particular interpretation of American history.  Let's take the first Chesterton quote above and modify it in two key respects, giving us the following:
Only those will permit their Christian faith to falsify American history whose Christian faith depends on American history.

Who among us who aspires to follow Christ would readily accept a Christian faith dependent on American history?  Of course none of us would wish this consciously, and yet our identity as Americans and our identity as Christians are so easily intertwined.  As we think about faith and the American founding in the weeks ahead, it wouldn't be a bad thing to keep Chesterton's observation in mind.”