altC. S. Lewis on Scripture: His Thoughts on the Nature of Biblical Inspiration, the Role of Revelation and the Question of Inerrancey by Michael J. Christensen (Abingdon Press, 1979)

When this book was written, there was a lot of fur flying in the Christian world over the nature of Biblical inspiration. Christensen's book is an attempt to ferret out what C. S. Lewis thought about the matter, though it's perfectly clear that if Lewis had still been alive during that time, he would have determinedly steered clear of the controversy. With the imprimatur of a forward by Owen Barfield and an introduction by Clyde S. Kilby, however, I suspect this book hits pretty close to the mark.

In any case, as far as I can tell from the Lewis books I've read, it seems a fair explanation. Moreover, I learned a lot here and respect Lewis's views even more—though I don't pretend to understand all the ins and outs of the philosophy and the literary criticism.

Many colleges, and sometimes even high schools, offer a course called "The Bible as Literature." I've never taken one, the very title sounding to me like a course in "what you can get out of the Bible if you don't actually believe a word of it." C. S. Lewis on Scripture makes me realize that such a course taught by Lewis would be a totally different experience altogether.

I won't attempt to summarize his ideas, nor even to summarize this summary of his ideas. But in a nutshell, Lewis believed that we cannot properly interpret Scripture without approaching it through both rational thought and imagination. Leave one out, and you miss the point. Thus he will not be put into a box when it comes to his views on the inspiration of the Bible. In short, to no surprise, he is very ... Anglican.

C. S. Lewis on Scripture is worth reading, though not as valuable as reading Lewis himself.

Partial Table of Contents

  1. IN WHAT WAY IS THE BIBLE INSPIRED?
    Are there errors in the Bible?
    What does the Bible say about itself?
    Revelation: Personal Encounter or Propositional Truth?
    Where does Lewis stand?
  2. LEWIS: LIBERAL OR CONSERVATIVE?
    Religious tolerance: we are not to judge
    Heaven and hell: the choice is ours
    Purgatory: our souls demand it
    The Eucharist: the very life and grace of God
    Theistic Evolution: animal raised to higher life
    Immortality of animals: a heaven for mosquitoes
    Christ's Atonement: fact and theories
    Is the Bible historically true?
    Biblical criticism: friend or foe?
    Modern theology: Christianity-and-water
    Lewis: Liberal, Conservative, or Fascinating Mixture?
  3. LITERARY CRITICISM OF THE BIBLE
    Good literature compels good reading
    Good poetry is artistic imitation of reality
    A "baptized imagination"—the key to ultimate reality
    Human language falls short of the reality it seeks to describe
    The human predicament
  4. MYTH, REVELATION AND SCRIPTURE
    We see through a glass darkly
    Myth converys the inexpressible
    Wishful thinking or the truly real?
    God's revelation assumes different forms
    Scripture as inspired literature
  5. THE QUESTION OF INERRANCY
    What did the early church believe?
    What did the medieval church believe?
    What did the reformers assert about Scripture?
    What happened after the Reformation?
    With the Age of Reason came the liberal position
    Neoorthodoxy: return to orthodoxy or religious cop-out?
    Evangelicalism: A house divided
  6. A TREASURE IN EARTHEN VESSELS
  7. How should the Bible be read?
    The problem of authority: we are not content
    Conclusion: a treasure chest of truth

APPENDIX A. TWO LETTERS FROM C. S. LEWIS
APPENDIX B. LEWIS: THE RATIONAL ROMANTIC

From the Preface

Most evangelicals believe in the inerrancy of Scripture. C. S. Lewis, who said "most of my books are evangelistic," did not. The Bible for him was human literature, divinely inspired and authoritative, but not verbally inspired or without error.

Should evangelicals simply dismiss Lewis as too "liberal" or "naive" because he failed to affirm a particular notion of inerrancy? Or, should they give him a fair hearing and withhold judgment until they have thoroughly considered his literary understanding of the nature of Scripture? In light of Lewis's firm evangelical commitment and acknowledged orthodoxy, I support the latter.

From Chapter 2: Lewis: Liberal or Conservative?

A self-confessed romantic converted to Christianity halfway through life, he is neither theologically liberal nor conservative; he defies classification.

From Chapter 4: Myth, Revelation and Scripture

The notion of progressive revelation suggests that God discloses himself to man in a way that is best suited to man's particular stage of religious development. For pagan culture, divine revelation took the form of mythology. For the Hebrew culture, God spoke through the Law and the prophets. Christianity is the grand culmination of progressive revelation and religious maturity in both cultures.

How are Christians to understand the obvious similarities between pagan myths and Christianity? Either pagan mythology is essentially demonic and functions as counterfeit revelation for the purpose of confusing mankind, or else it is the dim foreshadowing of God's supreme revelation in Christ. Lewis identifies with the latter view.

It can be concluded at this point that Scripture for Lewis functions as myth, as well as historic fact. It has most of the qualities of imaginative literature and all the characteristics of myth, requiring an imaginative embrace to perceive meaning.

Myth, it must be remembered, does not mean lie, error, illusion or misunderstood history. The term has little to do with fact or history but transcends both. Properly understood, myth is a medium of divine revelation bringing a level of understanding superseding that which can be known through facts and history. To regard a portion of Scripture as myth, far from being less than true, is to acknowledge a higher truth and a deeper reality than could otherwise be expressed.

From Chapter 6: A Treasure in Earthen Vessels

This divine message, Lewis would have us remember, is not confined to the medium of Scripture. God, the Source of all truth, in the process of "reconciling the world unto himself," has used many means to call his sheep back into the fold: He has inspired great myths and literature throughout history, created in us immortal longings, spoken to us through conscience and religious experience, and given us Holy Scripture to convey his message. And finally, he has revealed himself in human form, died, and risen again so that we might die and live with him.

Because of God's initiative in revelation, we possess a treasure chest of truth that is of eternal value. God's Word is the "treasure" revealed through "earthen vessels," as 2 Corinthians 4:7 implies: "But we have this treasure in earthen vessels to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us." Let us not mistake the vessels for the treasure nor fail to find the treasure in the vessels.

From Appendix A: Two Letters from C. S. Lewis

[Quoting from a page of Lewis's notes] That the over-all operation of Scripture is to convey God's Word to the reader (he also needs his inspiration) who reads it in the right spirit, I fully believe. That it also gives true answers to all the questions (often religiously irrelevant) which he might ask, I don't. The very kind of truth we are often demanding was, in my opinion, not even envisaged by the ancients.

From Appendix B: Lewis: the Rational Romantic

As a rationalist, Lewis approached the message of the Bible as a truth to be believed. As a romantic, he approached the message of the Bible as a reality to be received. Lewis's literary view of inspiration encompassed both his rational faculty for understanding and his romantic intuition to find meaning.

Reason and imagination for Lewis are the complementary human faculties for knowing. In the realm of facts, empirical evidence, sense objects, particulars, and so on, truth is known through reason. But transcendent Reality—knowledge of universals in the eternal realm—if it is to be known at all, must be grasped by imagination.

Such is Lewis's rational-romantic synthesis of truth and meaning, reason and imagination. Reason alone cannot lead us to truth. But neither can truth be understood apart from reason. Both reason and imagination, seemingly at odds with one another, are necessary for truth to be meaningful.

The appendix ends with this poem, from Lewis's novel, Till We Have Faces.

O who will reconcile in me both maid and mother,
Who make in me a concord of the depth and height?
Who make imagination's dim exploring touch
Ever report the same as intellectual sight?
Then could I truly say, and not deceive,
Then wholly say, that I BELIEVE.
Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, April 18, 2019 at 6:51 am | Edit
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altUnplanned
The Movie

About once a year or so we actually go out to a theater and watch a movie. I knew I wanted to see Unplanned, and did not have any confidence that it would eventually make it to Netflix. So Porter bought tickets online for our local AMC theater, and we made a date of it.

"Date" is an appropriate word, because despite the seriousness of the subject and a couple of horrifying scenes that probably earned it its "R" rating, Unplanned is basically a love story: The unconditional love of parents for a child who has made lifestyle choices in complete opposition to their own deeply-held values; the steadfast love of a man in support of his wife despite his conviction that her chosen career path is an immoral one; the love that leads us to embrace our common humanity in the face of chasmic differences; and the relentless love of God for his hurting world—"unresting, unhasting, and silent as light."

Abby Johnson's desire to make a difference in the world, to support the rights of women, and to help women in crisis situations led her, beginning as a student volunteer at the local Planned Parenthood clinic, to a promising career with that organization. She became one of the youngest-ever clinic directors, and won an Employee of the Year award in 2008.

And then that same heart-felt desire to help women led her to quit. Unplanned is her story.

The story is well told. The movie is beautiful—except of course where it's ugly. I particularly like the fact that it is not a black-and-white, one-dimensional story of a sudden conversion, despite the "what she saw changed everything" subtitle. As much as can be done in a movie less than two hours in length, we see Abby's growth through time and experience. Her change of heart seems more of a tipping point than a crisis, though there are certainly elements of the latter as well. Abby at the end of the movie is more knowledgeable, more experienced, certainly less naïve, and moving in a different direction in more than one area of her life—but still Abby.

The only fault I find is the portrayal of Abby's boss, who is indeed one-dimensional; we never see her human side. It reminds me of what C. S. Lewis said about George MacDonald, that he was rare among authors in being able to portray good much better than evil: "His saints live; his villains are stagey." It's certainly possible that this woman was as nasty as she seems, and as I said, it's a short movie, but I would like to have seen something redeeming about her character.

Do I recommend seeing Unplanned when you have the chance? Absolutely, 100%, a hundred times over. Do I recommend it for our grandchildren? Eventually. They're all under age for the rating at this point, anyway. Maybe the oldest one or two could handle it well, if their parents watch the film first and agree. Anyone younger than that would be traumatized, maybe scarred for life—if they understood it at all. At first I wondered about the R rating, given the horrible things I've seen in PG-13 movies, but I believe the MPAA got it right in this case. Unplanned is a beautiful movie, and an important one, but there's no denying that it's disturbing in a way no child should be asked to handle. Not that so many kids haven't already seen worse. And it's rather bizarre to require parental consent for a child watch a movie with a few abortion scenes, when that same child could actually have an abortion without it.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, April 11, 2019 at 11:11 am | Edit
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altThe Abolition of Man: or Reflections on Education with Special Reference to the Teaching of English in the Upper Forms of Schools by C. S. Lewis (Macmillan, 1978; originally published 1947)

Don't be put off by the occasional dated and UK-based references: this is very important material, definitely still applicable today. It is a good book to read either before or after That Hideous Strength, the third book in Lewis's space trilogy, in which the same ideas appear in the form of fiction. You must also get over Lewis's use of the term Tao. You can see why he uses it, but the meaning is not exactly the same as in Chinese philosophy. 

As the review is short, so the quotations are few. Lewis is not easily reduced to sound bites. The bolded emphasis is mine, though I'm not sure it's a good idea, because it separates them from their context, which is just as important.

From Chapter 1, "Men Without Chests"

I doubt whether [the authors of a particular English literature textbook] really planned, under cover of teaching English, to propagate their philosophy. I think they have slipped into it for the following reasons. In the first place, literary criticism is difficult, and what they actually do is very much easier. To explain why a bad treatment of some basic human emotion is bad literature is, if we exclude all question-begging attacks on the emotion itself, a very hard thing to do. ... To "debunk" the emotion on the basis of a commonplace rationalism, is within almost anyone's capacity. In the second place, I think [they] may have honestly misunderstood the pressing educational need of the moment. They see the world around them swayed by emotional propaganda ... and they conclude that the best thing they can do is to fortify the minds of the young people against emotion. My own experience as a teacher tells an opposite tale. ... The right defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.

Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it—believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence, or our contempt. 

Where the old [education] initiated, the new merely "conditions." The old dealt with its pupils as grown birds deal with young birds when they teach them to fly: the new deals with them more as the poultry-keeper deals with young birds—making them thus or thus for purposes of which the birds know nothing. In a word, the old was a kind of propagation—men transmitting manhood to men: the new is merely propaganda.

It still remains true that no justification of virtue will enable a man to be virtuous. Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism. I had sooner play cards against a man who was quite sceptical about ethics, but bred to believe that "a gentleman does not cheat," than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among sharpers. ... Reason in man must rule the mere appetites by means of the "spirited element." The head rules the belly through the chest—the seat ... of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest—Magnanimity—Sentiment—these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal. The operation of [this textbook] and its kind is to produce what may be called Men without Chests.

And all this time...we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.

From Chapter 2, "The Way"

[The authors of this textbook] will be found to hold, with complete uncritical dogmatism, the whole system of values which happened to be in vogue among moderately educated young men of the professional classes during the period between the two wars [World War I and World War II]. Their scepticism about values is on the surface: it is for use on other people's values: about the values current in their own set they are not nearly sceptical enough. And this phenomenon is very usual. A great many of those tho "debunk" traditional or (as they would say) "sentimental"values have in the background values of their own which they believe to be immune from the debunking process.

This thing which I have for convenience called the Tao, and which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgements. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained. The effort to refute it and raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory. There never has been, and never will be, a radically new judgement of value in the history of the world. What purport to be new systems or (as they now call them) "ideologies," all consist of fragments from the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they possess. If my duty to my parents is a superstition, then so is my duty to posterity. If justice is a superstition, then so is my duty to my country or my race. If the pursuit of scientific knowledge is a real value, then so is conjugal fidelity. The rebellion of new ideologies against the Tao is a rebellion of the branches against the tree: if the rebels could succeed they would find that they had destroyed themselves. The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of imagining a new primary colour, or, indeed, of creating a new sun and a new sky for it to move in.

From Chapter 3, "The Abolition of Man"

In what sense is man the possessor of increasing power over Nature?

Let us consider three typical examples: the aeroplane, the wireless, and the contraceptive. In a civilized community, in peace-time, anyone who can pay for them may use these things. But it cannot strictly be said that when he does so he is exercising his own proper or individual power over Nature. If I pay you to carry me, I am not therefore myself a strong man. Any or all of the three things I have mentioned can be withheld from some men by other men—by those who sell, or those who allow the sale, or those who own the sources of production, or those who make the goods. What we call Man’s power is, in reality, a power possessed by some men which they may, or may not, allow other men to profit by. Again, as regards the powers manifested in the aeroplane or the wireless, Man is as much the patient or subject as the possessor, since he is the target both for bombs and for propaganda. And as regards contraceptives, there is a paradoxical, negative sense in which all possible future generations are the patients or subjects of a power wielded by those already alive. By contraception simply, they are denied existence; by contraception used as a means of selective breeding, they are, without their concurring voice, made to be what one generation, for its own reasons, may choose to prefer. From this point of view, what we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.

For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please. In all ages, no doubt, nurture and instruction have, in some sense, attempted to exercise this power. But the situation to which we must look forward will be novel in two respects. In the first place, the power will be enormously increased. Hitherto the plans of educationalists have achieved very little of what they attempted and indeed, when we read them—how Plato would have every infant “a bastard nursed in a bureau”, and Elyot would have the boy see no men before the age of seven and, after that, no women, and how Locke wants children to have leaky shoes and no turn for poetry—we may well thank the beneficent obstinacy of real mothers, real nurses, and (above all) real children for preserving the human race in such sanity as it still possesses. But the man-moulders of the new age will be armed with the powers of an omnicompetent state and an irresistible scientific technique: we shall get at last a race of conditioners who really can cut out all posterity in what shape they please.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, April 8, 2019 at 7:40 am | Edit
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altMiracles: A Preliminary Study by C. S. Lewis (Macmillan Books, 1978; first published 1947)

This is another book in my C. S. Lewis retrospective. It's hard to imagine that it has probably been 40 years or so since I read Miracles. I can't be sure, since I began keeping track of my reading only in 2010, but the book is covered with clear contact paper, a practice I used in college and for a little while thereafter. The cover is clean and almost new, but protecting it did not help the binding—many of the pages are falling out and I think I'm due for an upgrade.

If you're looking for a book full of examples of purported miracles—faith-healing stories out of Africa, perhaps, or an examination of testimonies from Lourdes—this is not your book. Lewis's approach is much more academic and philosophical, from careful definition of terms, to examination of the presuppositions inherent in different worldviews, to analysis of the type and function of various miracles in Christianity.

For me, the book started slowly, a bit of a slog. Lewis spends a great deal of time laying the philosophical groundwork for his study of miracles. Philosophy makes my head spin more than physics ever did, and I don't pretend to have a clear grasp of all his arguments. But I can testify that the end of the book is well worth the work at the beginning. The last three chapters, the Epilogue, and the two appendices are especially worthwhile. Here's the Table of Contents:

Chapter 1 The Scope of this Book
Chapter 2 The Naturalist and the Supernaturalist
Chapter 3 The Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism
Chapter 4 Nature and Supernature
Chapter 5 A Further Difficulty in Naturalism
Chapter 6 Answer to Misgivings
Chapter 7 A Chapter of Red Herrings
Chapter 8 Miracles and the Laws of Nature
Chapter 9 A Chapter Not Strictly Necessary
Chapter 10 “Horrid Red Things”
Chapter 11 Christianity and “Religion”
Chapter 12 The Propriety of Miracles
Chapter 13 On Probability
Chapter 14 The Grand Miracle
Chapter 15 Miracles of the Old Creation
Chapter 16 Miracles of the New Creation
Appendix A: On the Words “Spirit” and “Spiritual”
Appendix B: On “Special Providence”

I didn't mark many quotations this time, and almost none in my favorite chapters—not because there was little worthwhile, but because it all hangs together in a way I find difficult to dissect into independent pieces. But here are a few.

From "Answers to Misgivings"

It is no accident that parents and schoolmasters so often tell us that they can stand any vice rather than lying, the lie being the only defensive weapon of the child.

If we are content to go back and become humble plain men obeying tradition, well. If we are ready to climb and struggle on till we become sages ourselves, better still. But the man who will neither obey wisdom in others nor adventure for her [that is, for wisdom] himself is fatal. A society where the simple many obey the few seers can live: a society where all were seers could live even more fully. But a society where the mass is still simple and the seers are no longer attended to can achieve only superficiality, baseness, ugliness, and in the end extinction. 

From "A Chapter Not Strictly Necessary"

Everything becomes different when we recognize that Nature is a creature, a created thing, with its own particular tang or flavour…. It is not in her, but in Something far beyond her, that all lines meet and all contrasts are explained. It is no more baffling that the creature called Nature should be both fair and cruel than that the first man you meet in the train should be a dishonest grocer and a kind husband. For she is not the Absolute: she is one of the creatures, with her good points and her bad points and her own unmistakable flavour running through them all.

To say that God has created her is not to say that she is unreal, but precisely that she is real. Would you make God less creative than Shakespeare or Dickens? ... The theologians certainly tell us that He created Nature freely. They mean that He was not forced to do so by any external necessity. But we must not interpret freedom negatively, as if Nature were a mere construction of parts arbitrarily stuck together. God's creative freedom is to be conceived as the freedom of a poet: the freedom to create a consistent, positive thing with its own inimitable flavour.

From "Christianity and 'Religion'"

We who defend Christianity find ourselves constantly opposed not by the irreligion of our hearers but by their real religion. Speak about beauty, truth and goodness, or about a God who is simply the indwelling principle of these three, speak about a great spiritual force pervading all things, a common mind of which we are all parts, a pool of generalized spirituality to which we can all flow, and you will command friendly interest. But the temperature drops as soon as you mention a God who has purposes and performs particular actions, who does one thing and not another, a concrete, choosing, commanding, prohibiting God with a determinate character. People become embarrassed or angry. Such a conception seems to them primitive and crude and even irreverent. The popular "religion" excludes miracles because it excludes the "living God" of Christianity and believes instead in a kind of God who obviously would not do miracles, or indeed anything else.

The stillness in which the mystics approach [God] is intent and alert—at the opposite pole from sleep or reverie.

From "The Grand Miracle"

The central miracle asserted by Christians is the Incarnation. They say that God became Man. Every other miracle prepares for this, or exhibits this, or results from this. Just as every natural event is the manifestation at a particular place and moment of Nature’s total character, so every particular Christian miracle manifests at a particular place and moment the character and significance of the Incarnation. There is no question in Christianity of arbitrary interferences just scattered about. It relates not a series of disconnected raids on Nature but the various steps of a strategically coherent invasion—an invasion which intends complete conquest and “occupation.” The fitness, and therefore credibility, of the particular miracles depends on their relation to the Grand Miracle; all discussion of them in isolation from it is futile.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, April 5, 2019 at 5:45 am | Edit
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I have a new favorite cooking show, and no one is more surprised than me. It's called Struggle Meals and features a crazy young person (probably one of those Millennials, born on Bastille Day in 1990, somewhere between our youngest daughter and our oldest nephew) whose audience is a world vastly different from my own, a world of potty-mouthed youngsters who claim to be struggling financially yet who almost never cook at home, preferring restaurant food, most often in take-out or food-truck form, because they "don't have time" to do otherwise. They probably also pay for cable TV, but that's a rant for another time. In any case, I'm clearly not his intended audience.

But hey, food is food! Cooking is cooking, and Struggle Meals is full of great ideas. Frankie Celenza is highly entertaining (if also, like much of his audience, a bit of a potty-mouth), and the Struggle Meals shows are short (five to fifteen minutes) and to the point. The link above takes you to the YouTube channel, but if you have access to Facebook, you can follow Struggle Meals there, with the advantage that the comments always include recipes for his featured dishes.

The point of the show is that inexpensive, high-quality, homemade food is within reach of almost everyone. Each show features the creation of (usually) three attractive, healthful meals on a theme (such as wraps, chicken, coconut, breakfast, street food, etc.), all of which can be prepared with minimal effort for under $2 per serving. And without special equipment: for example, he uses the "Struggle Whisk 9000"—a fork. Or "Struggle Plastic Wrap"—a plate on top of a bowl.

One feature of most of the shows is his famous "packet drawer," which is where I first got the hint that his audience lives on take-out food. Frankie has one kitchen drawer dedicated solely to those tiny packets of soy sauce, sugar, butter, mustard, mayonnaise—even sriracha—that usually come in excess with take-out orders. This is "free flavor" and he makes liberal use of it, a significant savings of both money and food over tossing them into the trash. "Normal people" won't have this resource, but that doesn't hinder the recipes—nor the fun—in any way.

Here's an example, Episode 1 of the first season. Warning: gratuitous violence in the introduction. I've learned where to close my eyes.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, February 28, 2019 at 6:23 am | Edit
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altA Preface to "Paradise Lost" by C. S. Lewis (Oxford University Press, 1942)

When C. S. Lewis writes a preface, it isn"t just a few pages stuck on the front of a book.  His A Preface to "Paradise Lost" is itself a book.  It's not one we have in our large collection of books by and about Lewis, but I was able to find it in PDF form and read it on my Kindle.

Confession:  I have not read Milton's Paradise Lost.  I'm sure my education is the worse because of that omission, and I could certainly see books that my teachers did inflict on me that Milton should have replaced.  When, if ever, it will climb to the top of my current, very long reading list, I don't know.  But at least now it is on my radar, and I know that I am better prepared for having read Lewis first.

I only have two quotes, not because there isn't much more of value in the book, but because the format made it a lot harder to keep track of them.

pp 62-65

How are [the] gulfs between the ages to be dealt with by the student of poetry? A method often recommended may be called the method of The Unchanging Human Heart. According to this method the things which separate one age from another are superficial. Just as, if we stripped the armour off a medieval knight or the lace off a Caroline courtier, we should find beneath them an anatomy identical with our own, so, it is held, if we strip off from Virgil his Roman imperialism, from Sidney his code of honour, from Lucretius his Epicurean philosophy, and from all who have it their religion, we shall find the Unchanging Human Heart, and on this we are to concentrate. I held this theory myself for many years, but I have now abandoned it. ... How if these are not really the most important elements in the actual balance of the poem we are reading? Our whole study of the poem will then become a battle between us and the author in which we are trying to twist his work into a shape he never gave it.... I do not say that even on these terms we shall not get some value out of our reading; but we must not imagine that we are appreciating the works the old writers actually wrote.

Fortunately there is a better way. Instead of stripping the knight of his armour you can try to put his armour on yourself; instead of seeing how the courtier would look without his lace, you can try to see how you would feel with his lace; that is, with his honour, his wit, his royalism, and his gallantries... To enjoy our full humanity we ought, so far as is possible, to contain within us potentially at all times, and on occasion to actualize, all the modes of feeling and thinking through which man has passed. You must, so far as in you lies, become an Achaean chief while reading Homer, a medieval knight while reading Malory, and an eighteenth century Londoner while reading Johnson. Only thus will you be able to judge the work "in the same spirit that its author writ"....

We must therefore turn a deaf ear to Professor [Denis] Saurat when he invites us "to study what there is of lasting originality in Milton"s thought and especially to disentangle from theological rubbish the permanent and human interest." This is like asking us to study Hamlet after the "rubbish" of the revenge code has been removed, or centipedes when free of their irrelevant legs, or Gothic architecture without the pointed arches. Milton's thought, when purged of its theology, does not exist. Our plan must be very different—to plunge right into the "rubbish," to see the world as if we believed it, and then, while we still hold that position in our imagination, to see what sort of a poem results.

This puts me in mind of the way I've heard that actors prepare for their rôles:  To play Richard III one must as much as possible become Richard III.  I see why acting can be a spiritually dangerous profession!  I read recently of an incident where actor Michael Weatherly was accused of making sexually inappropriate comments to one of his coworkers.  No matter what one might think of his supposed comments, I don't see how anyone can be shocked that he might say something inappropriate given thirteen seasons of total immersion in the NCIS character Tony DiNozzo—whose stock-in-trade was just such language and actions.

Pages 100-101

In all but a few writers the "good" characters are the least successful, and every one who has ever tried to make even the humblest story ought to know why. To make a character worse than oneself it is only necessary to release imaginatively from control some of the bad passions which, in real life, are always straining at the leash.... But if you try to draw a character better than yourself, all you can do is to take the best moments you have had and to imagine them prolonged and more consistently embodied in action. But the real high virtues which we do not possess at all, we cannot depict except in a purely external fashion. We do not really know what it feels like to be a man much better than ourselves. His whole inner landscape is one we have never seen, and when we guess it we blunder. It is in their "good" characters that novelists make, unawares, the most shocking self-revelations. Heaven understands Hell and Hell does not understand Heaven, and all of us, in our measure, share the ... blindness. To project ourselves into a wicked character, we have only to stop doing something, and something that we are already tired of doing; to project ourselves into a good one we have to do what we cannot and become what we are not.

It is worth noting that elsewhere Lewis praises George MacDonald for being that very rare writer who can portray goodness much better than evil.

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altThe Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien edited by Humphrey Carpenter (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981)

It may seem as if I've copied the whole book, but is a lot of value in those 463 pages.  It's too long, perhaps, for anyone not a Tolkien fan, but it's a fascinating look not only into the life and mind of the creator of The Lord of the Rings, but into his times and society as well.

Herewith only a small sample.

Page 17

An American publisher showed interest in The Hobbit, adding that they would like more illustrations and suggesting the employment of good American artists. Tolkien was amenable but had one concern:

It might be advisable, rather than lose the American interest, to let the Americans do what seems good to them—as long as it was possible ... to veto anything from or influenced by the Disney studios (for all whose works I have a heartfelt loathing).

Page 46

At any minute it is what we are and are doing, not what we plan to be and do that counts.

Page 68

[C. S. ] Lewis is as energetic and jolly as ever, but getting too much publicity for his or any of our tastes. [One publication], usually fairly reasonable, did him the doubtful honour of a peculiarly misrepresentative and asinine paragraph.... It began "Ascetic Mr. Lewis"—!!! I ask you! He put away three pints in a very short session we had this morning, and said he was "going short for Lent." I suppose all the stuff you see in print is about as accurate about Tom, Dick, or Harry. It is a pity newspapers can't leave people alone, and don't make some effort to understand what they say (if it is worth it): at any rate they might have some standards that would prevent them saying things about people which are quite untrue, even if not actually (as often) painful, angering, or indeed injurious....

Pages 97-98

Both the sexual and the sacred [curse] words have ceased to have any content except the ghost of past emotion. I don't mean that it is not a bad thing, and it is certainly very wearisome, saddening and maddening, but it is at any rate no blasphemy in the full sense.

Page 98

I include the following fan letter excerpt simply for the name of the school, which will have meaning to our family.

Dear Mr Tolkien, I have just finished reading your book The Hobbit for the 11th time and I want to tell you what I think of it. I think it is the most wonderful book I have ever read. It is beyond description ... Gee Whiz, I'm surprised that it's not more popular ... If you have written any other books, would you please send me their names?

John Barrow 12 yrs.
West town School, West town, Pa.

Page 111

Jive and Boogie-Woogie [are] essentially vulgar, music corrupted by the mechanism, echoing in dreary unnourished heads.

The appalling destruction and misery of this war mount hourly: destruction of what should be (indeed is) the common wealth of Europe, and the world, if mankind were not so besotted, wealth the loss of which will affect us all, victors or not. ... There seem no bowels of mercy or compassion, no imagination, left in this dark diabolic hour. By which I do not mean that it may not all, in the present situation ... be necessary and inevitable. But why gloat! We were supposed to have reached a stage of civilization in which it might still be necessary to execute a criminal, but not to gloat, or to hang his wife and child by him while the orc-crowd hooted. The destruction of Germany, be it 100 times merited, is one of the most appalling, world-catastrophes.

Pages 122-123 (from a letter to his publisher)

The thing is to finish the thing as devised and then let it be judged. But forgive me! It is written in my life-blood, such as that is, thick or thin; and I can no other. I fear it must stand or fall as it substantially is. It would be idle to pretend that I do not greatly desire publication, since a solitary art is no art; nor that I have not a pleasure in praise, with as little vanity as fallen man can manage (he has not much more share in his writings than in his children of the body, but it is something to have a function); yet the chief thing is to complete one's work, as far as completion has any real sense.

Page 128

I write only because I find it easier to say such things as I really want to say. If they are foolish or seem so, I am not present when they fall flat.

Page 131

This university business of earning one's living by teaching, delivering philological lectures, and daily attendance at "boards" and other talk-meetings, interferes sadly with serious work.

Page 218

My work did not "evolve" into serious work. It started like that. [The Hobbit] was a fragment, torn out of an already existing mythology. In so far as it was dressed up as "for children," in style or manner, I regret it. So do the children.

I avoid hobbies because I am a very serious person and cannot distinguish between private amusement and duty.

I am affable, but unsociable.

Page 220

I am (obviously) much in love with plants and above all trees, and always have been; and I find human maltreatment of them as hard to bear as some find ill-treatment of animals.

Page 249

I find that many children become interested, even engrossed, in The Lord of the Rings, from about 10 onwards. I think it rather a pity, really. It was not written for them. But then I am a very "unvoracious" reader, and since I can seldom bring myself to read a work twice I think of the many things that I read—too soon! Nothing, not even a (possible) deeper appreciation, for me replaces the bloom on a book, the freshness of the unread.

Page 257

[The completion of The Lord of the Rings] still astonishes me. A notorious beginner of enterprises and non-finisher, partly through lack of time, partly through lack of single-minded concentration, I still wonder how and why I managed to peg away at this thing year after year, often under real difficulties, and bring it to a conclusion.

Pages 266-267

In 1958, Tolkien and his publisher were considering a film proposal that eventually fell through.

[The story line document] is sufficient to give me grave anxiety about the actual dialogue that (I suppose) will be used. I should say [Morton Grady] Zimmerman, the constructor of this s-l, is quite incapable of excerpting, or adapting the "spoken words" of the book. He is hasty, insensitive, and impertinent.

He does not read books. It seems to me evident that he has skimmed through the L.R. at a great pace, and then constructed his s.l. from partly confused memories, and with the minimum of references back to the original. Thus he gets most of the names wrong in form—not occasionally by casual error but fixedly (always Borimor for Boromir); or he misapplies them: Radagast becomes an Eagle. The introduction of characters and the indications of what they are to say have little or no reference to the book....

I feel very unhappy about the extreme silliness and incompetence of Z and his complete lack of respect for the original (it seems wilfully wrong without discernible technical reasons at nearly every point). But I need, and shall soon need very much indeed, money, and I am conscious of your rights and interests; so that I shall endeavour to restrain myself, and avoid all avoidable offence.

Page 271

In another letter, Tolkien sets out in detail some of his objections.  I fear he would also apply the following judgment (as well as many others that I won't take the space to quote here), to Peter Jackson's version, had he had the chance to see the film that is now nearly synonymous with his book.

He has cut the parts of the story upon which its characteristic and peculiar tone principally depends, showing a preference for fights; and he has made no serious attempt to represent the heart of the tale....

Page 297

When I published The Hobbit—hurriedly and without due consideration—I was still influenced by the convention that "fairy-stories" are naturally directed to children (with or without the silly added waggery "from seven to seventy"). And I had children of my own. But the desire to address children, as such, had nothing to do with the story as such in itself or the urge to write it. But it had some unfortunate effects on the mode of expression and narrative method, which if I had not been rushed, I should have corrected. Intelligent children of good taste (of which there seem quite a number) have always, I am glad to say, singled out the points in manner where the address is to children as blemishes.

Page 310

Children are not a class or kind, they are a heterogeneous collection of immature persons, varying, as persons do, in their reach, and in their ability to extend it when stimulated. As soon as you limit your vocabulary to what you suppose to be within their reach, you in fact simply cut off the gifted ones from the chance of extending it.

Page 321

There was a great tree—a huge poplar with vast limbs—visible through my window even as I lay in bed. I loved it, and was anxious about it. It had been savagely mutilated some years before, but had gallantly grown new limbs—though of course not with the unblemished grace of its former natural self; and now a foolish neighbour was agitating to have it felled. Every tree has its enemy, few have an advocate.

Page 323

Well here comes Christmas! That astonishing thing that no "commercialism" can in fact defile—unless you let it.

Page 336

Years before I had rejected as disgusting cynicism by an old vulgarian the words of warning given me by old Joseph Write. "What do you take Oxford for, lad?" "A university, a place of learning." "Nay, lad, it's a factory! And what's it making? I'll tell you. It's making fees. Get that into your head, and you'll begin to understand what goes on."

Alas! by 1935 I new knew that it was perfectly true.

Page 394

The "protestant" search backwards for "simplicity" and directness—which, of course, though it contains some good or at least intelligible motives, is mistaken and indeed vain. Because "primitive Christianity" is now and in spite of all "research" will ever remain largely unknown; because "primitiveness" is no guarantee of value, and is and was in great part a reflection of ignorance. Grave abuses were as much an element in Christian "liturgical" behaviour from the beginning as now. (St. Paul's strictures on eucharistic behaviour are sufficient to show this!) Still more because "my church" was not intended by Our Lord to be static or remain in perpetual childhood; but to be a living organism (likened to a plant), which develops and changes in externals by the interaction of its bequeathed divine life and history—the particular circumstances of the world into which it is set. There is no resemblance between the "mustard seed" and the full-grown tree. For those living in the days of its branching growth the Tree is the thing, for the history of a living thing is part of its life, and the history of a divine thing is sacred. The wise may know that it began with a seed, but it is vain to try and dig it up, for it no longer exists, and the virtue and powers that it had now reside in the Tree.

Page 396

I have only since I retired learned that I was a successful professor. I had no idea that my lectures had such an effect—and, if I had, they might have been better. My "friends" among dons were chiefly pleased to tell me that I spoke too fast and might have been interesting if I could be heard. True often: due in part to having too much to say in too little time, in larger part to diffidence, which such comments increased.

Pages 401-402 (written in November 1969)

What a dreadful, fear-darkened, sorrow-laden world we live in—especially for those who have also the burden of age, whose friends and all they especially care for are afflicted in the same way. Chesterton once said that it is our duty to keep the Flag of This World flying: but it takes now a sturdier and more sublime patriotism than it did then. Gandalf added that it is not for us to choose the times into which we are born, but to do what we could to repair them; but the spirit of wickedness in high places is now so powerful and so many-headed in its incarnations that there seems nothing more to do than personally to refuse to worship any of the hydras' heads.

Page 403

I am wholly in favour of the "dull stodges." I had once a considerable experience of what are/were probably England's most (at least apparently) dullest and stodgiest students: Yorkshire's young men and women of sub-public school class and home backgrounds bookless and cultureless. ... A surprisingly large proportion prove "educable": for which a primary qualification is the willingness to do some work (to learn) (at any level of intelligence). Teaching is a most exhausting task. But I would rather spend myself on removing the "dull" from "stodges"—providing some products of [B to B+] quality that retain some sanity—a hopeful soil from which another generation with some higher intelligence could arise. Rather—rather than waste effort on those of (apparently at any rate) higher intelligence that have been corrupted and disintegrated by school, and the "climate" of our present days. Teaching an organized subject is simply not the instrument for their rehabilitation—if anything is.

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altThe Weight of Glory and Other Addresses by C. S. Lewis (Macmillan Books, 1980; talks originally given from the 1930s through the 1950s)

Once again, this is not a review—though I highly recommend the book—but a collection to replace the sticky notes I had affixed to this book as I re-read it recently. With some comments. The emphasis is my own.

 

From "Learning in Wartime"

A cultural life will exist outside the Church whether it exists inside or not. To be ignorant and simple now—not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground—would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethren.... Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered. The cool intellect must work not only against cool intellect on the other side, but against the muddy heathen mysticisms which deny intellect altogether. Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.

There are always plenty of rivals to our work. We are always falling in love or quarrelling, looking for jobs or fearing to lose them, getting ill and recovering, following public affairs. If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that the seek it while the conditions are still unfavorable. Favourable conditions never come.

From "Why I Am Not a Pacifist"

Why I am not a fan of the movement to "not impose our moral and religious values on our children, but leave them free to make up their own minds."

Human beings must be trained in obedience to the moral intuitions almost before they have them, and years before they are rational enough to discuss them, or they will be corrupted before the time for discussion arrives.

We have seen that every moral judgment involves facts, intuition, and reasoning, and, if we are wise enough to be humble, it will involve some regard for authority as well. Its strength depends on the strength of these four factors. Thus if I find that the facts on which I am working are clear and little disputed, that the basic intuition is unmistakably an intuition, that the reasoning which connects this intuition with the particular judgment is strong, and that I am in agreement or (at worst) not in disagreement with authority, then I can trust my moral judgment with reasonable confidence. And if, in addition, I find little reason to suppose that any passion has secretly swayed my mind, this confidence is confirmed. If, on the other hand, I find the facts doubtful, the supposed intuition by no means obvious to all good men, the reasoning weak, and authority against me, then I ought to conclude that I am probably wrong. And if the conclusion which I have reached turns out also to flatter some strong passion of my own, then my suspicion should deepen into moral certainty. By "moral certainty" I mean that degree of certainty proper to moral decisions; for mathematical certainty is not here to be looked for.

It may be asked whether, faint as the hope is of abolishing war by Pacifism, there is any other hope. But the question belongs to a mode of thought which I find quite alien to me. It consists in assuming that the great permanent miseries in human life must be curable if only we can find the right cure; and it then proceeds by elimination and concludes that whtever is left, however unlikely to prove a cure, must nevertheless do so. Hence the fanaticism of Marxists, Freudians, Eugenists, Spiritualists, Douglasites, Federal Unionists, Vegetarians, and all the rest. But I have received no assurance that anything we can do will eradicate suffering. I think the best results are obtained by people who work quietly away at limited objectives, such as the abolition of the slave trade, or prison reform, or factory acts, or tuberculosis, not by those who think they can achieve universal justice, or health, or peace. I think the art of life consists in tackling each immediate evil as well as we can. To avert or postpone one particular war by wise policy, or to render one particular campaign shorter by strength and skill or less terrible by mercy to the conquered and the civilians is more useful than all the proposals for universal peace that have ever been made, just as the dentist who can stop one toothache has deserved better of humanity than all the men who think they have some scheme for producing a perfectly healthy race.

From "Is Theology Poetry"

We should distinguish Evolution in the strict [biological] sense from what may be called the universal evolutionism of modern thought. By universal evolutionism I mean the belief that the very formula of universal process is from imperfect to perfect, from small beginnings to great endings, from the rudimentary to the elaborate, the belief which makes people find it natural to think that morality springs from savage taboos, adult sentiment from infantile sexual maladjustments, thought from instinct, mind from matter, organic from inorganic, cosmos from chaos. This is perhaps the deepest habit of mind in the contemporary world. It seems to me immensely unplausible, because it makes the general course of nature so very unlike those parts of nature we can observe. You remember the old puzzle as to whether the owl came from the egg or the egg from the owl. The modern acquiescence in universal evolutionism is a kind of optical illusion, produced by attending exclusively to the owl's emergence from the egg. We are taught from childhood to notice how the perfect oak grows from the acorn and to forget that the acorn itself was dropped by a perfect oak. We are reminded constantly that the adult human being was an embryo, never that the life of the embryo came from two adult human beings. 

From "Membership"

This lecture was given in 1945. Read the next paragraph and try to imagine what Lewis might think nearly 75 years later.

When I first went to Oxford the typical undergraduate society consisted of a dozen men, who knew one another intimately, hearing a paper by one of their own number in a small sitting-room and hammering out their problem till one or two in the morning. Before [World War II] the typical undergraduate society had come to be a mixed audience of one or two hundred students assembled in a public hall to hear a lecture from some visiting celebrity. Even on those rare occasions when a modern undergraduate is not attending some such society he is seldom engaged in those solitary walks, or walks with a single companion, which built the minds of the previous generations. He lives in a crowd; caucus has replaced friendship. And this tendency not only exists both within and without the university, but is often approved. There is a crowd of busybodies, self-appointed masters of ceremonies, whose life is devoted to destroying solitude wherever solitude still exists. ... If an Augustine, a Vaughan, a Traherne, or a Wordsworth should be born in the modern world, the leaders of a youth organization would soon cure him. If a really good home, such as the home of Alcinous and Arete in the Odyssey or the Rostovs in War and Peace or any of Charlotte M. Young's families, existed today, it would be denounced as bourgeois and every engine of destruction would be levelled against it. And even where the planners fail and someone is left physically by himself, the wireless has seen to it that he will be ... never less alone than when alone. We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence, and privacy, and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship.

I have wanted to try to expel that quite un-Christian worship of the human individual simply as such which is so rampant in modern thought side by side with our collectivism, for one error begets the opposite error and, far from neutralising, they aggravate each other. I mean the pestilent notion ... that each of us starts with a treasure called "personality" locked up inside him, and that to expand and express this, to guard it from interference, to be "original," is the main end of life. This is Pelagian, or worse, and it defeats even itself. No man who values originality will ever be original. But try to tell the truth as you see it, try to do any bit of work as well as it can be done for the work's sake, and what we call originality will come unsought.

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Here are four poems that struck me in particular from a book of C. S. Lewis' collected poems.

 

Irresponsible actions have consequences.

Pan’s Purge

I dreamt that all the planning of peremptory humanity 
Had crushed Nature finally beneath the foot of Man; 
Birth-control and merriment, Earth completely sterilized, 
Bungalow and fun-fair, had fulfilled our Plan; 
But the lion and the unicorn were sighing at the funeral, 
Crying at the funeral 
Sobbing at the funeral of the god Pan.

And the elephant was crying. The pelican in his piety 
Struck his feathered bosom till the blood ran, 
And howling at humanity the owl and iguanodon, 
The bittern and the buffalo, their dirge began, 
But dangerously, suddenly, a strange ecstatic shuddering 
A change that set me shuddering 
Through all the wailful noises of the beasts ran.

No longer were they sorrowful, but stronger and more horrible, 
It had only been a rumour of the death of Pan. 
The scorpions and the mantichores and corpulent tarantulas 
Were closing in around me, hissing, Long Live Pan! 
And forth with rage unlimited the North Wind drew his scimitar 
In wrath with ringing scimitar 
He came, with sleet and shipwreck, for the doom of Man.

And now, descending, ravening, loud and large, the avalanche, 
And after it the earthquake, was loosed upon Man.
Towering and cloven-hoofed, the power of Pan came over us, 
Stamped, bit, tore, broke. It was the end of Man; 
Except where saints and savages were kept from his ravaging, 
And crept out when the ravaging 
Was ended, on an empty earth. The new world began.

A small race — a smiling heaven — all round the silences 
Returned; there was comfort for corrected Man. 
Flowered turf had swallowed up the towered cities; following 
His flocks and herds where nameless, untainted rivers ran, 
Leisurely he pondered, at his pleasure wandering, 
Measurelessly wandering... 
Clear, on the huge pastures, the young voice of Man.

 

Shades of the Irish Rovers!

The Late Passenger

The sky was low, the sounding rain was falling dense and dark,
And Noah’s sons were standing at the window of the Ark.

The beasts were in, but Japhet said, “I see one creature more
Belated and unmated there comes knocking at the door.”

“Well, let him knock or let him drown,” said Ham, “or learn to swim.
We’re overcrowded as it is; we’ve got no room for him.”

“And yet it knocks, how terribly it knocks,” said Shem. “Its feet
Are hard as horn—but oh the air that comes from it is sweet.”

“Now hush!” said Ham, “You’ll waken Dad, and once he comes to see
What’s at the door, it’s sure to mean more work for you and me.”

Noah’s voice came roaring from the darkness down below,
“Some animal is knocking. Let it in before we go.”

Ham shouted back, and savagely he nudged the other two,
“That’s only Japhet knocking down a brad-nail in his shoe.”

Said Noah, “Boys, I hear a noise that’s like a horse’s hoof.”
Said Ham, “Why, that’s the dreadful rain that drums upon the roof.”

Noah tumbled up on deck and out he put his head;
His face went grey, his knees were loosed, he tore his beard and said,

“Look, look! It would not wait. It turns away. It takes its flight.
Fine work you’ve made of it, my sons, between you all to-night!

"Even if I could outrun it now, it would not turn again
—Not now. Our great discourtesy has earned its high disdain.

"Oh noble and unmated beast, my sons were all unkind;
In such a night what stable and what manger will you find?

"Oh golden hoofs, oh cataracts of mane, oh nostrils wide
With indignation! Oh the neck wave-arched, the lovely pride!

"Oh long shall be the furrows ploughed upon the hearts of men
Before it comes to stable and to manger once again,

"And dark and crooked all the roads in which our race will walk,
And shrivelled all their manhood like a flower with broken stalk,

"And all the world, oh Ham, may curse the hour when you were born;
Because of you the Ark must sail without the Unicorn.”

 

It's presented as a poem, but to anyone familiar with the hymn, "Lead Us, Heavenly Father, Lead Us" it's a song that sings itself.

Evolutionary Hymn

Lead us, Evolution, lead us
Up the future's endless stair;
Chop us, change us, prod us, weed us.
For stagnation is despair:
Groping, guessing, yet progressing,
Lead us nobody knows where.

Wrong or justice, in the present,
Joy or sorrow, what are they
While there's always jam-tomorrow,
While we tread the onward way?
Never knowing where we're going,
We can never go astray.

To whatever variation
Our posterity may turn
Hairy, squashy, or crustacean,
Bulbous-eyed or square of stern,
Tusked or toothless, mild or ruthless,
Towards that unknown god we yearn.

Ask not if it's god or devil,
Brethren, lest your words imply
Static norms of good and evil
(As in Plato) throned on high;
Such scholastic, inelastic,
Abstract yardsticks we deny.

Far too long have sages vainly
Glossed great Nature's simple text;
He who runs can read it plainly,
"Goodness = what comes next."
By evolving, Life is solving
All the questions we perplexed.

On then! Value means survival-
Value. If our progeny
Spreads and spawns and licks each rival,
That will prove its deity
(Far from pleasant, by our present
Standards, though it may well be).

 

And finally,

The Apologist's Evening Prayer

From all my lame defeats and oh! much more
From all the victories that I seemed to score;
From cleverness shot forth on Thy behalf
At which, while angels weep, the audience laugh;
From all my proofs of Thy divinity,
Thou, who wouldst give no sign, deliver me.

Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust, instead
Of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.
From all my thoughts, even from my thoughts of Thee,
O thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free.
Lord of the narrow gate and the needle’s eye,
Take from me all my trumpery lest I die.

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altGo Wild: Free Your Body and Mind from the Afflictions of Civilization by John J. Ratey and Richard manning (Little, Brown and Company, 2014)

I've neither the time nor the inclination for a full review of Go Wild, which I borrowed from the library while waiting for them to acquire Spark, another book by John Ratey, which was highly recommended by a friend. Fortunately, the friend said about Go Wild that she found it good but not worth paying for, so I'm still looking forward to Spark. I found Go Wild too annoying to call "good," but I am glad I read it, as there's a reasonable amount of inspiring information in it.

To begin with, the author pushes several wrong buttons for me, from the trivial to the overwhelming. As an example of the former, there's this (emphasis mine):

Even the child's song knows that the leg bone is connected to the thigh bone; we mean to press this idea a lot further to provide some appreciation of the enormous complexity and interconnectedness of the various elements of human life.

I'm sure he's referring to the spiritual, Dem Bones, which is not a child's song, even if it might end up in a collection of songs intended for children. And I know there are different versions, as there always are with songs of the people, but all the versions I've found acknowledge that the thigh bone is connected to the knee and the hip, not the "leg bone" (or "shin bone" as I know it). Yes, it's trivial—but to me it points to carelessness on the part of the author, which doesn't increase my confidence in what he says. (Or maybe I should blame his proofreaders.) There are other occasions where I get the same feeling.

Then there's this, which to me undercuts all his arguments: I'm fine with evolution as a scientific theory of origins and change. I'd go so far as to say it does an excellent job of explaining much of the available data. But I am not okay with evolution personified and deified, which is what happens in this book. All over, everywhere: "Evolution endowed," "evolution created," "evolution designed." Not only is evolution the basis for all the book's arguments, but the language makes evolution seem like a living, sentient, personal entity—though not, the authors are careful to point out, a loving one.

I was late in coming to the appreciation of religion, but I've always loved science. The religion of science horrifies me, however, and with that this book abounds. Add to that a significant dose of Eastern spirituality, and the feeling that the authors have been, perhaps, a little too selective in the studies they choose to believe—well, I wasn't too happy with the book.

It's also hard to take too seriously someone who—although he loves the outdoors and runs ultramarathons, will also drive 45 minutes to find a gym in the middle of nowhere.

That said, it's almost amazing that I found much of value here, but I did.

The authors cover a lot of ground. Here's a brief summary, although it doesn't come close to doing the ideas justice.

Overall

  • Do what works for you. There is no one-size-fits-all. Take the first step in any of the areas they recommend changing, and you will find yourself gradually taking on more and more.

Food

  • Don't eat sugar in any form.
  • Eat no wheat, rice, oats, or any other grain, not even in whole-grain form. No high-carb vegetables like sweet potatoes. No manufactured fats, no processed food, no fast food.
  • Eat eggs, grass-finished beef, cold-water fish, nuts, simple fresh fruits and vegetables—but no fruit juices.
  • Variety is important—as long as you avoid the long list of don'ts.

Movement

  • Find a form of exercise you like, and do it.
  • Exercise that invovles a variety of movements, the whole body, and lots of variation is best.
  • Exercise is better out in nature.
  • Exercise is better with other people.

Sleep

  • Get more sleep. If you live in 21st century America, it's guaranteed you're not getting enough sleep.
  • Sleeping in the same room with the rest of your family is more healthful. (And we thought better sleep at the Maggie P. was due to the salt air.)
  • Don't make your babies sleep alone.
  • Soothing sounds, such as a crackling fire, or trusted adults moving around and talking quietly, lead to more satisfying sleep.
  • Sleep doesn't have to happen all at once. Naps are fine. If you find yourself lying awake in the middle of the night, don't fight it, but get up and do something. Go back to bed later.

Awareness

  • The authors clearly admire Eastern spirituality, and thus promote the practice of meditation. But what they are trying to replicate is the relaxed hyper-awareness common among hunter-gatherer peoples, an ability to calm the brain of distractions while being alert—even more alert than otherwise. This turns out to be good for both brain and body health.

Nature

  • Being out in nature is enormously healthful. Even an indoor potted plant helps.

People

  • We need other people. We need our own "tribe."
  • I wish he had dealt with the differences between introverts and extroverts in this section. We all need people, but they way we need each other is very different for the different personality types, and the authors appear to consider only the extrovert point of view.

As usual, this started out as the place to record a few interesting quotations, and ended up being a long review after all, though my summary did peter out at the end. There's a lot to think about here. I steadfastly reject the authors' extremes: for example, when it comes to food I am an omnivore by inclination but even more by principle, and I would no more adopt this no-carb regimen than I would go vegetarian. At the same time, it's good to eat a lot of vegetables, and it's also good to reduce our intake of carbohydrates, at least of the empty variety. I won't become a marathon runner, much less tackle an ultramarathon—but the book's thesis on the importance of movement is not only convincing, but provides inspiration to do things I've known for a long time that I should be doing.

Here are the random quotes:

Cows evolved to eat grass, but mostly we no longer feed them grass; we feed them the corn and soybeans that are the prime products of our industrial agriculture system. The practice of fattening beef in feedlots and the preponderance of factory beef in the fast-food system passes this omega-3 shortage into our bodies. ... [T]his is also why eating red meat itself has gotten a bad rap, with endless strings of studies linking it to heart disease and a variety of other issues. The beef that is the basis of these conclusions is factory beef, and no wonder.

Although I agree with the authors' complaint that the studies were made with the wrong kind of beef, they provide no evidence that beef from grass-fed cows does not have the same bad effects. I suspect that to be the case, but a citation of some evidence would have been nice.

[W]e begin to understand why social sleeping seems to be a nearly universal characteristic of cultures.... While we are sleeping, we continue to monitor our surroundings for cues of safety: relaxed conversation, relaxed movement of others, popping fire. Those cues, subtle sounds signaling safely, tell us we can retreat to our deepest sleep.

Many cultures are, in fact, conscious of all of this and the importance of these arrangements, and no place is the importance more pronounced than in the case of infants. ... All of this helps explain ... an almost universal perplexed response among most other cultures upon hearing of the Western practice of making babies sleep alone. "They think of this as child abuse. They literally do."

A very recent paper correlates an increase in the incidence of autism with receiving Pitocin during delivery. [Neurobiologist Sue Carter] says that Pitocin is routinely administered to delivering mothers in, she estimates, 90 percent of cases, although there are some signs that this practice is waning.

Why does aggression persist beyond reasons for it? Why are we so riven with senseless killing and warfare?

I picked up on that last one just because it highlights the central problem for people who have no sense of the reality of sin, only of its consequences.

The vagus nerve links up all the tools we need to respond to an existential threat, and so the vagal brake is a signal sent through the system for everything to stand down and engage—at ease. ... There is a simple measure of this. It can be read in the tension or lack of tension in facial muscles, heard in voice timbre and edge, and counted in rate of respiration. ... There is such a thing as vagal tone, completely analogous to muscle tone—and the tone shows how clear and distinct a given individual's ability to apply the brake is.

The vagal brake can be driven by breath, a clear connection readable as blips on a chart. You are in control of your breath, to some degree. Thus, this is not simply a point for measuring or sensing arousal; it is a point for controlling arousal and, downstream, the health problems that stem from lack of control.

If you force yourself to smile, the specific spots in the brain that register depression suddenly say your depression is better. ... It turns out that a halfway, forced smile won't do the trick, because it won't light up the neurons of increased happiness in your brain. But if that forced smile goes so far as to engage the little muscles in the corners of your eyes—that is, if you do what socially adept people understand instinctively—these neurons do indeed light up. And the muscles at the corners of your eyes are within the reach of the vagus nerve.

[The breath] exerts control through the alarm system that is the autonomic nervous system. [Researcher Stephen Porges] says he realized a long time ago—because he is a musician, specifically a horn player—that the act of controlling the breath to control the rhythm of music and at the same time engaging the brain to execute the mechanics of music works like a mental therapy. To his mind, it has all the elements of pranayama yoga, a form of yoga that stresses breath control.

The act of controlling the breath has a parallel brain response of calming our instincts for fear and danger. It's easy enough to see this in deliberate practices like yoga, but the same idea applies in many more time-honored practices: choral singing, Gregorian chants, even social music like bluegrass or blues derived from the chants and work songs that African slaves developed to help them tolerate oppression.

Music or evidence of music appeared fifty thousand years ago in that sudden flourish of evidence of cultural evolution that defined humans as humans—and ever since, music has loomed as a cultural universal. All known cultures and people make music. Yet all of this also suggests that we lose something when the crane's leg bone gets replaced by an iPod. We lose the benefits of sitting in a circle of fellow humans and driving the breath and beat that drives the music. [Emphasis mine]

As my friend said, Go Wild is worth reading—but not worth buying. If what I can only describe as bizarre spirituality—bizarre for a book that claims to be scientific—doesn't bother you, and if you can overlook the extremities, which are at their worst in the section on food, there are a number of interesting and worthwhile points.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, January 16, 2019 at 7:40 am | Edit
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altThe Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis (Simon & Schuster, 1986; originally published 1940)

This is not a review, but a collection to replace the sticky notes I had affixed to this book as I re-read it recently. With some comments. The emphasis is my own.

 

 

Chapter Three: Divine Goodness

The association of ... man and dog is primarily for the man's sake: he tames the dog primarily that he may love it, not that it may love him, and that it may serve him, not that he may serve it. Yet at the same time, the dog's interests are not sacrificed to the man's.  The one end (that he may love it) cannot be fully attained unless it also, in its fashion, loves him, nor can it serve him unless he, in a different fashion, serves it. Now just because the dog is by human standards one of the "best" of irrational creatures, and a proper object for a man to love—of course with that degree and kind of love which is proper to such an object, and not with silly anthropomorphic exaggerations—man interferes with the dog and makes it more lovable than it was in mere nature. In its state of nature it has a smell, and habits, which frustrate man's love: he washes it, house-trains it, teaches it not to steal, and is so enabled to love it completely. To the puppy the whole proceeding would seem, if it were a theologian, to cast grave doubts on the "goodness" of man: but the full-grown and full-trained dog, larger, healthier, and longer-lived than the wild dog, and admitted, as it were by Grace, to a whole world of affections, loyalties, interests, and comforts entirely beyond its animal destiny, would have no such doubts.

The man (I am speaking throughout of the good man) takes all these pains with the dog, and give all these pains to the dog, only because it is an animal high in the scale—because it is so nearly lovable that it is worth his while to make it fully lovable. He does not house-train the earwig or give baths to centipedes. We may wish, indeed, that we were of so little account to God that He left us alone to follow our natural impulses—that He would give over trying to train us into something so unlike our natural selves: but ... we are asking not for more Love, but for less.

Chapter Four: Human Wickedness

This chapter will have been misunderstood if anyone describes it as a reinstatement of the doctrine of Total Depravity. I disbelieve that doctrine, partly on the logical ground that if our depravity were total we should not know ourselves to be depraved, and party because experience shows us much goodness in human nature. Nor am I recommending universal gloom. The emotion of shame has been valued not as an emotion but because of the insight to which it leads. I think that insight should be permanent in each man's mind: but whether the painful emotions that attend it should also be encouraged, is a technical problem of spiritual direction on which, as a layman, I have little call to speak. My own idea, for what it is worth, is that all sadness which is not either arising from the repentance of a concrete sin and hastening towards concrete amendment or restitution, or else arising from pity and hastening to active assistance, is simply bad; and I think we all sin by needlessly disobeying the apostolic injunction to "rejoice" as much as by anything else. Humility, after the first shock, is a cheerful virtue: it is the high-minded unbeliever, desperately trying in the teeth of repeated disillusions to retain his "faith in human nature" who is really sad.

It's important to realize that when Lewis talks about sadness as being bad, he's not referring to the kind of sorrow, for example, that we feel when someone we love dies. The chapter is about sin and human wickedness.

Chapter Seven: Human Pain, continued

We must never make the problem of pain worse than it is by vague talk, about the "unimaginable sum of human misery." Suppose that I have a toothache of intensity x: and suppose that you, who are seated beside me, also begin to have a toothache of intensity x. You may, if you choose, say that the total amount of pain in the room is now 2x. But you must remember that no one is suffering 2x: search all time and all space and you will not find that composite pain in anyone's consciousness. There is no such thing as a sum of suffering, for no one suffers it. When we have reached the maximum that a single person can suffer, we have, no doubt, reached something very horrible, but we have reached all the suffering there ever can be in the universe. The addition of a million fellow-sufferers adds no more pain.

I'm not sure I buy this argument completely. I'm quite certain God knows (and feels) the fullness of that "composite pain"—though if there's a human limit, Jesus as man could not have experienced more than that. Lewis is speaking of human suffering so maybe what Omniscience knows doesn't count. And I do believe that to some extent pain is additive (or multiplicative): If I am sufferning x, and my child is suffering x, if we remain ignorant of each other's suffering, then we are indeed each only experiencing x. But if we know, if we can see, if we can hear each other's agony, then our own pain becomes greater: 1.5x, 2x, 10x, whatever—but definitely greater. This is why the media's fascination with reporting tragedies in all their gory details, over and over, is a problem. The graphic portrayal of even false suffering (think movies, TV shows, and video games) affects us badly. It might be worthwhile if it resulted in an outpouring of effective efforts to address the needs represented, but I believe the net effect is actually an increase in the natural responses to viewing suffering we cannot alleviate: depression and callousness.

Chapter 10: Heaven

Each of the redeemed shall forever know and praise some one aspect of the divine beauty better than any other creature can. Why else were individuals created, but that God, loving all infinitely, should love each differently? And this difference, so far from impairing, floods with meaning the love of all the blessed creatures for one another, the communion of the saints. If all experienced God in the same way and returned Him an identical worship, the song of the Church triumphant would have no symphony, it would be like an orchestra in which all the instruments played the same note. Aristotle has told us that a city is a unity of unlikes, and St. Paul that a body is a unity of different members. Heaven is a city, and a Body, because the blessed remain eternally different: a society, because each has something to tell all the others—fresh and ever fresh news of the "My God" whom each finds in Him whom all praise as "Our God."

Union exists only between distincts; and, perhaps, from this point of view, we catch a momentary glimpse of the meaning of all things. Pantheism is a creed not so much false as hopelessly behind the times. Once, before creation, it would have been true to say that everything was God. But God created: He caused things to be other than Himself that, being distinct, they might learn to love Him, and achieve union instead of mere sameness. ... Even within the Holy One Himself, it is not sufficient that the Word should be God, it must also be with God. The Father eternally begets the Son and the Holy Ghost proceeds: deity introduces distinction within itself so that the union of reciprocal loves may transcend mere arithmetical unity.

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The Wreck and Rise of Whitson Mariner by S. D. Smith (Story Warren Books, 2018)

My place beside you, my blood for yours,
Till the Green Ember rises, or the end of the world!

I cannot resist a new Green Ember book, and while we are waiting for a continuation of the main series, S. D. Smith has provided an appetizer in the form of a sequel to the prequel. Of The Black Star of Kingston, I wrote, "It's a distant-past prequel to The Green Ember, and definitely enjoyable to read in its own right. It's not quite as satisfying, mainly because it's much shorter, but also because the strong female characters are mostly missing. Perhaps even rabbit civilizations need to develop over time."

Much the same could be said about The Wreck and Rise of Whitson Mariner. As an appetizer, it is small, and lacks the depth and nuance of a full meal. It's also primarily about battles, the kind that tend to appeal more to a young, male audience. While reading, I couldn't help seeing a juvenile version of the car chases and gun battles in NCIS: Los Angeles. Or, if you prefer a more classical analogy, the battle descriptions in The Iliad. That aside, it's a fun story, and not lacking in the examples of courage, love, and sacrifice I've come to expect from S. D. Smith. Plus, even though the men get most of the action, the women get some exciting parts, too, and come out better than in the previous story—if not as well as in the later Green Ember books.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, December 10, 2018 at 5:27 am | Edit
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The Masterline Series of studies on George MacDonald, edited by Michael Phillips (Sunrise Books, 1989)

Volume 1: From a Northern Window: A Personal Reminiscence of George MacDonald by His Son by Ronald MacDonald

 Volume 2: The Harmony Within: The Spiritual Vision of George MacDonald by Rolland Hein

Volume 3: George MacDonald's Fiction: A Twentieth-Century View by Richard Reis

The first book is an interesting look at George MacDonald through the eyes of one of his sons. It was definitely worth reading, though not sufficiently well-written to encourage me to anticipate reading it again.

The other two are another story; I found them dust-and-ashes. Not dry, as in pedantic or overly academic, but of almost no value to me. And not for obvious reasons.

Both these authors have a good deal of respect for MacDonald and are fulsome in their praise of some of his works, so my active dislike of their books is not because they abuse one of my all-time favorite authors. C. S. Lewis, whose praise of MacDonald is as high as one person can give to another, acknowledges that while some of his works are unsurpassed, many others are clearly mediocre. As far as I can tell his points are valid, so the fact that these authors say the same thing can't be the sole reason I find their works unprofitable. I have to say, though, that some of what the literary world finds of no value I think is great. MacDonald was a preacher, and the fact that his philosophical ideas come through in his books is a plus for me. Not to mention that, unlike the literary world, I like happy endings and characters who are "too good to be true."

Partly, I'm sure, my dislike of these books is because they are in the genre of literary criticism, and the process of pulling apart a book to see what it is made of is distasteful to me. (Michael Ward's Planet Narnia is the only exception that comes to mind.) I've always been a voracious reader and it's obvious how much I now enjoy writing, but I hated English class at every level of school, and the process of taking apart a good (or bad) story, and guessing at what the author "really" meant, was largely responsible for that. I especially resent the apparent need to find "obvious" sexual meanings embedded in otherwise lovely and as far as I can tell innocent stories—which both Hein and Reis do. Possibly MacDonald meant the sexual references—he was a man, and as a gender men do have some extraordinary ideas about sex, plus he had eleven children—but I'm skeptical.

That aside, I did pull out a few quotes I wanted to remember:

These are from Ronald MacDonald's From a Northern Window.

After his abandonment of the predicant profession, he never took remuneration for a spoken sermon; and never, I am sure, refused his preaching, from whatever Christian denomination the invitation might come. I remember very well his saying that the Unitarians were among the most instant to get him to preach; and that he always stipulated for liberty to maintain the doctrine of the Trinity; by which orthodoxy I do not think he ever gained a Sunday's rest. (p. 35)

His own family of eleven children, whatever the narrowness of accommodation or banking-account, seemed never enough to keep the house comfortably full. During his lecturing tour in the United States, in 1872-3, it was widely reported that he was father of thirteen children—a mistake proved to be due to his frequent statement that he had "the wrong side of a dozen." (p. 50)

These from The Harmony Within by Rolland Hein.

MacDonald felt deeply that the great possibility for mankind is to grow into complete godlikeness, so that men shall be one with God. This does not mean that men shall be absorbed into God, as more pantheistic systems hold; rather, as men mature into moral and spiritual perfection, they develop at the same time a more distinct individuality. ... MacDonald's vision is one of an innumerable multitude of redeemed individuals with a final unity of will and spirit. (p. 30)

God made each man unique, MacDonald insists, and God intends that each maintain his uniqueness, that he might serve and worship the Lord in a way no one else can. The result is that each man both learns and teaches something of God in his relations with his neighbors. (p. 68)

And these are from George MacDonald's Fiction by Richard Reis.

More interesting ... are MacDonald's views on God's self-expression in nature. "This world is not merely a thing which God hath made, subjecting it to laws; but it is an expression of the thought, the feeling, the heart of God himself." "Nature is brimful of symbolic and analogical parallels to the goings and comings, the growth and changes of the highest nature in man." "The faces of some flowers lead me back to the heart of God; and, as his child, I hope I feel, in my lowly degree, what he felt when, brooding over them, he said 'They are good'; that is, 'They are what I mean.'" "There is not a form that lives in the world, but is a window cloven through the blank darkness of nothingness, to let us look into the heart, and feeling, and nature of God." (p. 38)

I shall not discus at much length MacDonald's theories about the interpretation of Christ's words in the New Testament, because his views are essentially those of every other interpreter—that Jesus taught precisely what the interpreter believed all along. (p. 37)

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, November 26, 2018 at 6:35 am | Edit
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altC. S. Lewis: A Biography by Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974)

I'm already convinced I made the right decision to begin my C. S. Lewis "retrospective" with biography. Learning about an author's personal life may not be the best introduction to his works, but when I'm facing a list of nearly 50 books that range from those I haven't yet read (e.g. The Discarded Image) to those I've read literally dozens of times (e.g. the Narnia books), it's probably a good idea to remind myself of the man behind the words.

I can recommend this biography without qualification, even though there were one or two spots that annoyed me, such as when the authors accuse Lewis of exaggerating the horrors of one of his childhood schools. "Oh, come on; it isn't that bad" are harsh words for a sufferer to bear. Lewis was safely dead ten years before the book was published, but I'm sure he heard similar comments in his lifetime.

What struck me most about Lewis this time was how brilliant he really was, from his earliest days. The sheer volume of his reading is phenomenal, and it seems he forgot nothing. He read adult books as a child and children's books as an adult, enjoying them strictly on their merits. He suffered greatly in the normal British educational system, but absolutely thrived in his two and a half years, beginning at age 14, with a private tutor (William T. Kirkpatrick) who would have terrified most children. "Some boys would not have liked it [but] to me it was red beef and strong beer."

"If ever a man came near to being a purely logical entity, that man was Kirk*", Lewis decided, and his own acutely logical mind was to a great extent formed and sharpened by Kirkpatrick's. Kirkpatrick's outstanding conviction was that language was given to man solely for the purpose of communicating or discovering truth. The general banalities and "small-talk" of most people did not enter into his calculations. "The most casual remark was taken as a summons to disputation." To a mere "torrent of verbiage" he would cry "Stop!", not from impatience, but because it was leading nowhere. More sensible observations might be interrupted by "Excuse!", ushering in some parenthetical comment. Full approval would be encouraged by "I hear you"—but usually followed by refutation:  "Had I read this? Had I studied that? Had I any statistical evidence? And so to the almost inevitable conclusion: 'Do you not see then that you had no right...' "

Lewis arrived ... on Saturday, 19 September 1914, and two days later he was flung straight into Homer, of whom he had never read a word, nor had any introduction to the Epic dialect, having only studied the straight Attic of Xenophon and the dramatists. Kirkpatrick's method was to read aloud twenty lines or so of the Greek, translate, with a few comments and explanations for another hundred lines, and then leave his pupil to go over it with the aid of a lexicon, and make sense of as much of it as he could. It worked with Lewis, who had no difficulty in memorizing every word as he looked up its meaning. Kirkpatrick at this stage seemed to value speed more than absolute accuracy, and Lewis soon found himself understanding what he read without translating it, beginning to think in Greek.

Of Lewis, his tutor said,

He was born with the literary temperament and we have to face that fact with all it implies. This is not a case of early precocity showing itself in rapid assimilation of knowledge and followed by subsequent indifference or torpor. ... It is the maturity and originality of his literary judgements which is so unusual and surprising. By an unerring instinct he detects first rate quality in literary workmanship, and the second rate does not interest him in any way. ... [He] has a sort of genius for translating. ... He has read more classics in the time than any boy I ever had, and that too very carefully and exactly. In Homer his achievement is unique. ... In the Sophoclean drama, which attains a high level in poetic expression ... he could beat me easily in the happy choice of words and phrases. ... He is the most brilliant translator of Greek plays I have ever met.

With that as background, consider how near Lewis and Oxford University—with which he had fallen in love at first sight—came to missing out on each other. Without trying to understand and explain the British university system, I can boil it down to this: Lewis was accepted to Oxford pending the successful completion of a particular examination. In this, the brilliant student failed the mathematics portion. He was admitted anyway, because he had volunteered for Army service (World War I) and he went through the Officers' Training Corps there. The theory was that he would be working on algebra (his downfall) as he could and would re-take the exam after his service ended. He tried, but never mastered the subject well enough to pass the exam. Fortunately for all of us, after the war veterans were specifically exempted from the need to pass that exam. "Otherwise," Lewis observed, "I should have had to abandon the idea of going to Oxford."

I shudder at the close call, and while I have difficulty fathoming the idea that someone so intelligent, skillful, and hard-working could fail to understand algebra, I offer this story as encouragement to those who may find themselves struggling now that so many high schools have made the subject a requirement for graduation. You can be brilliant and successful without algebra! I just hope you don't have to fight a war to get where you want to go, and that you will be able to afford an assistant to help you with the math of daily life. Algebra was not Lewis's only problem: He never managed to grasp the difference between gross and net profit when it came to his book sales, and had to be saved from dire financial straits by friends who set up a system whereby he could be exceedingly generous to others without going bankrupt himself.

If you are new to the works of C. S. Lewis, his own writings are the place to start. I would suggest beginning with either the Narnia books or Mere Christianity, depending on your temperament. But if you're interested in learning more about the brilliant, complex, surprising person behind all the books, Green & Hooper's book is a good bet.

*Some would say Spock, not Kirk, but that's another story.

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altC. S. Lewis: Images of His World by Douglas Gilbert and Clyde S. Kilby (Eerdmans, 1973)

This book of photos—places, people, manuscripts—from the world of Clive Staples Lewis was a gift from Porter eons ago, probably not many years after its publication. I read it then, of course, and just re-read it as part of my newest reading project: binge-reading all the books in our home library by or about a particular author. I have previously tackled George MacDonald, J. R. R. Tolkien, William Shakespeare (plays only, read or viewed), and Miss Read (Dora Jesse Saint). Since the C. S. Lewis collection is exceeded only by our George MacDonald books, this is no small project.

Often I read the books in publication order, because I think that gives insight in to an author's growth and development. I'll do some of that with Lewis, but I thought I'd start with a biography, and this book seemed good to read even before that ("Book 0"), to give context to what I will be reading. It was a good choice.

It's largely a picture book, no surprise, so there's not a lot to quote from, but there were two I couldn't resist marking.

In spite of his academic success [at Malvern College], Lewis wrote home in March 1914, imploring his father to take him away. His brother Warren commented: "Much to my surprise, my father reacted to this letter by making an immediate and sensible decision. Jack was to leave Malvern at the end of the school year.... The fact is that he should never have been sent to a public school at all. Already, at fourteen, his intelligence was such that he would have fitted in better among undergraduates than among school boys; and by his temperament he was bound to be a misfit, a heretic, an object of suspicion within the collective-minded, and standardising, Public School system."

Granted, what the Brits mean by "public school" is not the American version, but the point about how school life treats those who don't fit in—especially if they are particularly intelligent—is still the same. It is worth noting that Warren himself was very happy at Malvern, yet he also said (taken from another source), "He was, indeed, lucky to leave Malvern before the power of this system had done him any lasting damage."

After almost 30 years as a professor of English Language and Literature at Magdalen College of Oxford University, Lewis became Chair of Medieval and Renaissance English at Magdalene College, Cambridge.

I think I shall like Magdalene better than Magdalen. It's a tiny college (a perfect cameo architecturally) and they're all so old fashioned, and pious, and gentle and conservative—unlike this leftist, atheist, cynical, hard-boiled, huge Magdalen. Perhaps from being the fogey and "old woman" here I shall become the enfant terrible there. 

I can identify with that. Put me with liberals, and my conservative side predominates. Put me with conservatives, and my liberal side comes to the fore. Always the troublemaker.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, November 10, 2018 at 9:43 am | Edit
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