Podcast: Emily Heady on the Christian Worldview, Ethics, and A Christmas Carol

Podcast with Emily Heady In this special Christmas edition of the podcast, we sit down with Dr. Emily Heady to discuss Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Dr. Heady holds a Ph.D. in English Literature with a concentration in Victorian Studies. She also has a special interest in the work of Charles Dickens and has published articles and books exploring his novels. In this episode, Dr. Heady explains how A Christmas Carol relates to ethics and the Christian worldview.

 

 

Photo:  "A Christmas Carol, New York Public Library" By G. Ziegler. CC Licence.

Music:  “O Come O Come Emmanuel” by IKOS David Clifton with the choirs of Peterborough Cathedral. CC License. 

Comment

Emily Heady

Emily Walker Heady is Dean of the College of General Studies and Professor of English at Liberty University.  She holds a PhD in Victorian literature from Indiana University and has published on Victorian literature and culture, especially Dickens and the realist novel.  Her book, Victorian Conversion Narratives and Reading Communities, was released in 2013 (Ashgate).  She serves as a worship pianist at Lynchburg First Church of the Nazarene and, along with her husband Chene, is raising two children, Beatrice and Avery.

Jack Reacher, Superheroes, and Jesus Christ

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Jack Reacher is a former military policeman. With neither permanent address nor credit card this formidable 6’5” martial arts tactician drifts in anonymity. Wherever he goes he finds helpless victims caught in powerful webs of evil. Against insurmountable odds Reacher comes to their aid.

Author of the super popular Jack Reacher novel series, Lee Child, discussed with writer Steven King at Harvard University the derivation of his character ‘Jack Reacher’. ‘Jack Reacher’, he said, is his iteration of the ageless longing for the superhero.

This Advent season we Christians reflect on the coming into the world of the promised Prince-King-Savior, Jesus Christ. Is he, like Jack Reacher, just another construct of wishful human thinking? So skeptical critics since the nineteenth century have argued. They discount Jesus Christ as just another myth in the long line of human longing for the super hero – the deified Man. Such critics have taken their cue from the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach who said God—substitute Jesus Christ—is a human invention. He is the deified essence of Man. Jesus Christ is humankind’s highest ideals, hopes, and imaginations fictionally personified. Namely, Jesus, just like Jack Reacher, is a projection of the human imagination.

Feuerbach’s and the skeptical critics’ contention is as unsuitable as it is an inadequate explanation of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ was enough unlike the profile of a hoped-for messiah-savior that not only his own Jewish people but the world did not recognize him. Let me point out why Feuerbach’s claim is off base and show the disparity between the human, idealized super-hero and Jesus Christ.

The imagined deified heroes embody what we are not but wish we were. They fill up our cosmic inadequacies. Fantasize with me about an archetypical super-human. What is your god or goddess’s profile? The idealized deified idol is endowed with super-human strength. Muscular, attractive, with enhanced intelligence, he or she is a champion who knows what to do in all circumstances. Endowed with an indomitable spirit, the conqueror is virile, generous, and has a streak – just a streak – of good. With death-defying acts, the divine hero surmounts improbable odds to triumph over every impossible predicament to save helpless persons. In the superhero, evil meets its match. They right wrongs, fight for justice, and defend the public from the catastrophic machinations of tyrannical, psychopathic villains. You know their names: Hercules, James Bond, X-Man, Batman, Wonder Woman, et cetera. We cannot forget Superman! In 1935, two New York City taxi-cab-drivers imagined a superman who could defeat crime and fight for truth and justice. He is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. “Is it a bird? – Is it a plane? – No, it’s SUPERMAN!” Possessing X-ray vision, he has extraordinary, muscular strength, good looks, and, yes, he is honest and humble.

He was a model for this American male. I had my Superman suit with the big ‘S’ on my chest. I waited for that suit to arrive for two months. Mom said it was only two weeks. I went “flying around” – I mean, running around – our backyard. I could not bend steel, or outrun the dog, but I was hopeful.

Superman is made to be seen! His stupendous saving acts are performed before the eyes of the watching world. Who can miss a man flying down Wall Street in royal blue tights, a giant red ‘S’ centered on his chest, and a red cape flapping behind him? Humankind dreams of heroes who flex their muscles, and make the spectacle of their superiority resoundingly clear. At the end of the day, no one is left in doubt who wields the greatest strength, the superior intelligence, and the supreme prowess.

Contrast the hero tradition with the coming Ruler, Messiah-King, Jesus Christ. Does Jesus match their profile? He is born in an animal shelter to a craftsman family in an obscure country. The prophet Isaiah says of him, “He had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.” He did not possess the unusually attractive Grecian star-quality looks of Hercules. We’re told nothing of his looks, or the color of his skin, in fact, but plenty about his character. Moreover, contrary to Superman, his great works were performed not in the great cities like Rome or Athens but in the rural, country villages of Galilee … the Big Islands and Tight Squeezes of this world. His miracles were always awesome, but often not sensational. He was not Hercules holding up the world or Batman swooping down from a skyscraper in Gotham City’s searchlight. Though there were exceptions, He worked in understated and invisible ways to leave room for doubt … and faith. Though the results were overwhelming, one saw very little flash. When religious or secular leaders asked him for the spectacular sign of a ‘superman’, he refused to give it.

The Gospel writers make clear in Jesus’ own as well as the Gospel writers’ minds his culminating glory was the scornful cross! What human fantasy would ever conceive it? What hoped-for human imagination would envision the ideal hero-god’s climaxing achievement a humiliating public execution by his enemies on a cross? Shall the ideal superhero die like a dog an excruciating and humiliating death stretched out naked publicly in front of his enemies?

Jesus Christ is distinctly different from human fictions. Contra Feuerbach and the skeptical critics, human authors could not imagine him. His profile is not a construct of wishful, human thinking. He is not the fantasized superhero. Jesus Christ is beyond human fantasies. He is from elsewhere. ‘Of the Father’s love begotten, Ere the worlds began to be, He is Alpha and Omega, He the source, the ending, He.’

And yet none like Him so deeply satisfies our yearning for a Savior, for in allowing Himself to be broken, He offered the world its only chance to be healed.

 

Comment

Tom Thomas

Tom was most recently pastor of the Bellevue Charge in Forest, Virginia until retiring in July.  Studying John Wesley’s theology, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Bristol, Bristol, England. While a student, he and his wife Pam lived in John Wesley’s Chapel “The New Room”, Bristol, England, the first established Methodist preaching house.  Tom was a faculty member of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1998-2003. He has contributed articles to Methodist History and the Wesleyan Theological Journal. He and his wife Pam have two children, Karissa, who is an Associate Attorney at McCandlish Holton Morris in Richmond, and, John, who is a junior communications major/business minor at Regent University.  Tom enjoys being outdoors in his parkland woods and sitting by a cheery fire with a good book on a cool evening.

Jerry before Seinfeld: Delightfully Distinct

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For nearly thirty years, Jerry Seinfeld has been a fixture of the American cultural landscape. His signature sitcom, the so-called “show about nothing,” dominated television during the 1990s, and the comedian himself became a household name. Close to twenty years after its finale, Seinfeld remains in syndication, and its namesake has a net worth of $860 million. Seinfeld still commands sell-out crowds on his comedy tours and has recently inked a deal with Netflix to distribute new standup specials and host new episodes of his low-key Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.

Bottom line: Jerry Seinfeld is just about as big as it gets in today’s America. And yet, ironically enough, he has achieved this iconic status by dealing in minutia. The quintessential observational comic, Seinfeld draws the attention of his audience to the often-overlooked mundane realities that comprise our lives—breakfast cereal, wallpaper, construction tools, laundry, childhood toys, shopping, furniture. And through his comic vision, Seinfeld culls insights on our shared hopes and dreams, our fears and failings, our charms and virtues, our pride and pretensions—insights as brilliant as they seem, after the fact, obvious.

A recent documentary on Joan Didion said that her writing revealed a recurring and remarkable knack for showing the centrality of the peripheral and the universality of the particular. Much the same can be said of Seinfeld’s penchant for accentuating the extraordinary of the ordinary. Both artists remind us all of the magic of the everyday and the beauty of the quotidian. Despite this similarity, they manifest this shared trait in remarkably distinct ways. No one would confuse Jerry with Joan. And in these very differences is revealed the allure of diversity’s charm.

Seinfeld’s delightful pairing of the big and the small, the distinctive and the seemingly insignificant is at the heart of Jerry before Seinfeld, the special that kicks off his deal with Netflix, released this September. In this combination documentary/standup routine, the comedian returns, literally and figuratively, to his professional roots. Seinfeld once again takes the stage at the Comic Strip, the New York comedy club that gave him his start. Interspersing bits from his show with an assortment of memories tracing his career back to its beginnings, Jerry before Seinfeld offers a needful cultural corrective—emphasizing that the comedian’s value lies not in his celebrity status but in his unique calling and craft.

It turns out that the Jerry who became Seinfeld was remarkably unremarkable. He grew up in the suburbs of New York, second child of a middle-class Jewish family, with an upbringing marked by no major traumas or spectacular good fortunes. He was simply an ordinary kid. But that ordinary kid had an extraordinary bent toward humor. He couldn’t get enough—poring over MAD magazines, collecting every comedy album he could get his hands on, and stopping everything if a comedian came on TV.

Great performers like Jean Shepherd, George Carlin, and Abbot and Costello transported him from his “boring, regular life” to a realm of wonder and creativity. What captured his imagination, he says, is that these comics held nothing sacred; they just didn’t respect anything. It blew his mind to think that he didn’t have to simply accept what was handed to him.

Such a lesson might be poison to some kids; to Seinfeld it was liberation. It freed him to discover his unique angle on the world, to believe that his perspective mattered, too. It also enabled him, at twenty-one, to walk away from a full-time construction gig and throw himself completely into comedy, earning nothing but free meals and t-shirts and dealing with hecklers and gigs that bombed. Even still he testifies, “None of this bothered me. I was in comedy, and it just felt like heaven.”

Thus inspired, it took real work to cultivate his act, develop material, and find his voice. One of the great services Seinfeld has offered us is the inside scoop of what it takes to become a premier comedian, to achieve excellence in one’s field. Though a prodigious talent, he was willing to put in the time and effort to maximize his innate skills.[1]

What’s true for Seinfeld is true for us all: each of us has a unique voice to share, something we’re a genius at doing, which we can do unlike anyone and everyone else. As Christians we most often say that human value resides most significantly in the fact that we were, all of us, made in God’s image, His imago dei. What we all share in this respect is something unspeakably remarkable indeed.

But John Hare points out that there’s another vital ingredient to our value as human persons: our distinctiveness. It’s not just what we share in common that matters; our differences, too, are a crucial part of who we are and of why we’re valuable. No two of us is exactly alike; each of us is designed to reflect a different aspect of our Creator. A prodigious talent and distinctive voice like Seinfeld’s is a reminder that each of us is unique, that each of us has a contribution to make that’s a reflection of how God made us and what He intended us to do.

Hare writes as follows:

. . . [T]here is a call by God to each one of us, a call to love God in a particular and unique way. Revelation 2:17, in the instructions to the church in Pergamos, refers to a name about which God says, “and [I] will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no one knows except the one that receives it.” If we think of this name, like “Peter” meaning “rock” (the name Jesus gives to Simon), as giving us the nature into which we are being called, and if we think of this nature, as Scotus does, as a way of loving God, then we can think of the value of each of us as residing in us, in our particular relation to God.[2]

A theistic and Christian picture of the human condition provides a compelling account of human dignity, of incommensurable worth, and of ordained work, not just for humanity as a whole but for each and every individual. This is an account strong enough to sustain our deepest intuitions about the inestimable value of every human person—a profound truth hinted at even in a guy whose concerns canvass nothing. The story of Seinfeld shows that there’s something sacred after all.

 

 

Notes: 

[1] Horace make this same point regarding the poet in his classic Ars Poetica:It has been made a question, whether good poetry be derived from nature or from art. For my part, I can neither conceive what study can do without a rich [natural] vein, nor what rude genius can avail of itself: so much does the one require the assistance of the other, and so amicably do they conspire [to produce the same effect].”

[2] “What we have here is an intrinsic good in a slightly odd sense; not that we have value, each of us, all by ourselves . . . since we have our value in relation. But the value is not reducible to the valuing by someone outside us, on this account, but resides in what each of us can uniquely be in relation to God.” Hare, God’s Command, p. 29.

 

image: By Tracie Hall from Orange County, us (DSC_0235) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Mailbag: Doubts about the Privation Theory of Evil

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Berat writes:

Hello,

Is there a post on the "ontological foundation of evil"? It seems to me that theistic metaethical theories have a strange implication like this: If God exists, he is the substantial ontological foundation of goodness. However, evil can't have a substantial ethical foundation like goodness since God doesn't have anything substantially evil in his nature. Therefore, evil is somehow derivative, it supervenes on God's attitudes and/or commands. It seems to be that something like privation theory of evil has to be true for a theistic metaethical theory to be able to completely explain the realm of moral values.

I'm highly skeptical of privation theories. So, my question is this: Can theism provide a substantial ontological foundation for evil as well? Like something analogous to Goodness=God's Essential Moral Nature.

Reply by Jonathan Pruitt

Hi Berat,

Thanks for this great question. Before attempting an answer, I think it will help to say what makes this such an important issue. If we think of God as identical to the good, as Baggett, Walls, Adams, and many other Christian thinkers propose, then we think that goodness has an essence and that it exists in a substantive way. God is the Good, that is, the ontological grounding for how we can meaningfully talk about goodness in daily life. We think that our moral judgments about moral goodness are meaningful only because there is some substantive, stable good which grounds them. Something is morally good when it bears a resemblance to God, who is the Good.

If then we ask, “What does it mean to say something is evil?” one obvious suggestion would be that there is some substantive evil which functions the same way that God as the good functions. When we say something is evil, we would mean it bears some resemblance to this object or person. This, however, would be a kind of dualism, according to which there are two fundamental and opposing forces in the world. Goodness would be grounded by reference to one and evil by reference to the other.  This is contradictory to theism and, therefore, not a live option for theists.

A second option would be that evil does exist, but that it was made by God or it is sustained by him. We might think that evil is some abstract object in the mind of God which does the kind of work that the Platonic forms do.[1] God would be the ground of evil in the same way he is the ground of the number 7 or the color red. However, it seems problematic to think of evil as ontologically grounded in God in this way. If God is wholly and perfectly good, we might expect that this entails that he could not be the ground of evil. This, then, is not option for the theist either.

The skeptic might pose one more possibility: if we can meaningfully speak of evil without it having the analogous ontological grounding of goodness, then why think goodness either needs or has God as its foundation? We seem to use the term “evil” with just as much confidence as we use the term “goodness,” but theists insist one needs ontological grounding and the other does not. Either both need grounds or neither does. Either way, the notion that God is identical to the good turns out to be false. Thus, the theist is faced with this “trilemma of evil”: Either (1) dualism is true, (2) God is not wholly good, or (3) God is not necessary for morality.[2]

It seems that the best way to overcome these objections and sustain our commitment to the idea that God is the good is to show how it is that evil is a meaningful concept, yet has its meaning in some way disanalogous from goodness. This is why a privation theory of evil might appear at least initially appealing. It is the threat of dualism that likely motivated Augustine, the former Manichean dualist, to think of evil as a privation of the good. He says, “All things that are corrupted suffer privation of some good.”[3] By this, Augustine meant that evil is not some entity which can have substance. Rather, evil is just some lack of goodness. Selfishness, for example, might be identical to a lack of love. The advantage of a theory like this is that it avoids a metaphysically substantive evil while also offering an explanation of the essence of evil. When we say something is evil, we are really saying that it lacks goodness.

However, it is not clear that mere privation can successfully ground our concept of evil. Adams suggests that God is the essential nature of the good similarly to the way that H20 is the essential nature of water. If water is essentially H20, then this would explain all the features that water has. Water is wet and quenches thirst exactly because it is H20 and our concept of water as having these features is best explained by its essential nature.[4] If evil is a unified concept like goodness, it ought to have an essence that makes sense of our usage of the term, assuming we have some understanding of evil. But it seems there is some difficulty with the idea that evil is merely privation. An example from Tolkien might help us see why this is the case.

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, which contains the deep mythology behind The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, he explains that God or Eru creates the world through music. Eru intends that his creatures sing a song that corresponds to the main theme that Eru has begun in creation. When all his creatures play together harmoniously, goodness and beauty fill the world. However, some of Eru’s creatures refused to play in harmony with Eru’s theme and this is the origin of evil in Tolkien’s mythology. If we thought of evil as merely privation, then we might expect Tolkien to explain that some creatures simply refused to play the part he was given by Eru and were silent. But instead Tolkien imagines that evil begins when Melkor interwove “matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of [Eru]; for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself.”[5]

Tolkien’s mythology helps us see that evil can be understood in at least two different ways. Certainly, we can imagine some creature who simply fails to play anything at all and this would a kind of evil. But it also seems that, when some creature opposes Eru’s theme, this is a different kind of evil altogether. We might be able to say that Melkor’s song is a privation in the sense that it lacks the order intended by Eru, but it also seems that is only one narrow feature of his act and that opposition to the good would be a better and fuller description. Opposition is something active and not merely negative, like privation. As Adams says, “No doubt privation of goodness often does constitute badness, but that is not an apt explanation of the nature of all badness.”[6]

It also seems that in our everyday usage of the term evil, we often mean more than merely privation of the good. If we say that Hitler was evil, it would be surprising to find out that all we really are saying is that Hitler lacked goodness. “He lacked goodness” might equally as well describe a couch potato as it does Hitler. It may be that our moral judgment of Hitler as evil would be better explained if it turned out that evil was essentially opposition to good, perhaps opposition so strong that it amounts to hatred of the good. This concept of “opposition,” I think, makes more sense of how we often see evil portrayed in mythology and culture.

Evil characters have a visceral, active quality about them that cannot be explained in terms of mere privation. Darth Vader is not merely the negation of the good or “light side” of the Force. He opposes it; he rivals it. Perhaps the greatest archetype of all evil characters is the biblical Satan, whose name literally means “the adversary.” Barth argues that the demons, of whom Satan is chief, “are not divine but non-divine and anti-divine. . . . They can only hate God and His creation. They can only exist in the attempt to rage against God and to spoil His creation.”[7] Here again we see the intuitive move to think of evil as opposition to the good. If privation were the essence of evil, then the archetype of evil might be better named “Nothingness” rather than “Adversary.”  But what we see in our best representations of evil is that their primary, salient feature seems to be opposition rather than privation. We would more naturally describe Melkor, Vader, Hitler, and Satan as hating the good rather than merely lacking it; a recalcitrant fact for the privation theory.[8]

Even if this opposition theory of evil is correct, we have not yet said how this synthesizes with theism or solves the trilemma of the skeptic. Here is how an answer might go. First, this theory easily harmonizes with the idea that God is the good without entailing or implying dualism because evil understood as opposition clearly requires that evil supervene on the good. After all, evil is not merely opposition, but opposition in a definite direction. Martin Luther King Jr. actively opposed racism and inequality and we call him good precisely for that reason. Opposition is not intrinsically evil. Thus, if we have a definite concept of evil, it will likely be best explained by relation to some stable, ultimate good to which it is opposed.

Second, evil may depend on God in the same way that the notion of privation depends on existence or being, but this does not seem to pose a challenge to God’s goodness. We can think of the origin of evil as following from the reality of genuine freedom. God makes creatures with a will to choose between real alternatives, even to choose opposition to himself. God creates the possibility for opposition, but there is not a morally meaningful sense in which God is the ground of evil. If this is so, then we as theists have a way of thinking about evil that does not commit us to dualism, preserves God’s status as the best explanation of the good, and does justice to our best intuitions about the concept of evil.

[1] I have in mind the sort of metaphysics Plantinga describes in “How to be an Anti-Realist,” though Plantinga does not suggest that evil is one of the objects in the mind of God. See Alvin Plantinga, “How to Be an Anti-Realist,” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 56, no. 1 (1982): 47–70.

[2] Of course, there is more to say about each of these possibilities, but my aim here is just to show some initial problems that this puzzle about evil might create.

[3] Saint Augustine, The Confessions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 124.

[4] Robert Merrihew Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics (Oxford University Press, 1999), 15.

[5] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), 18.

[6] Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods, 103.

[7] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics The Doctrine of Creation, Volume 3, Part 3: The Creator and His Creature (Bloomsbury Academic, 2004), 523.

[8] However, this view would not entail that privation is not evil at least in some cases. It would only mean that evil cannot essentially be privation.

Detective Morse and Post-Modern Relativism

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In the mid 1960’s, Detective Constable Morse ponders the death of a young bricklayer Barry Fink at Mapplewick Hall estate north of Oxford, England.  Detective Constable Morse is the central character in Masterpiece Theater’s ‘Endeavour’ series based on ground-breaking crime writer Colin Dexter’s novels.  Detective Morse is an Oxford University dropout.  When his love affair failed so did his academic performance.  He then joined the army and after his discharge the police force.

The years have not tarnished the scholarly mind which entered Oxford with a scholarship.  Viewed in the police force as a bit of a fish out of water, he relishes poetry, classical music, and a pint of ale.  Fellow officers begrudgingly admit he has a brilliant nose for making abstruse connections in erudite Oxford crimes. While studying bricklayer Barry Fink’s suspicious death at Mapplewick Hall, Morse is also assigned to guard a controversial activist Mrs. Joy Pettybon.  Mrs. Pettybon is an outspoken conservative crusader against smutty language on TV.  She is bringing her national campaign ‘National Clean Up TV’ to Oxford.

Her ‘Clean Up TV’ crusade targets a nationally popular rock group ‘Wildwood’ (think Pink Floyd) who locates, of all places, at Mapplewick Hall estate. Mrs. Pettybon is to dialogue with ‘Wildwood’ on the weekly current affairs TV show Almanac.  As Detective Morse accompanies Mrs. Pettybon to her TV appearance, he wonders about the connection of Mapplewick Hall to the dead bricklayer and ‘Wildwood’.

The faceoff between Mrs. Pettybon and ‘Wildwood’ is broadcast.  Caricatured as an old fashioned ‘party pooper’, Mrs. Pettybon accuses ‘Wildwood’ of ramming down the throats of people in their homes sexually explicit and drug referent lyrics.  Viewers should not be subjected to ‘dirty’ lyrics in their home.   Rock group leader, Nick Wilding, is amused.  He smugly asks her, ‘What is dirty?’  This is the edgy, post-modern, 'gotcha' question relished by the ‘Endeavour’ writers. ‘Dirty’ is dirty’ she responds.  Nick retorts, ‘What’s dirty to you might be quite acceptable to someone else…quite normal in fact’.  Snigger, snigger.

Here the show ‘Endeavour’ revealed its post-modern penchant for pressing the philosophy of moral relativism.  Moral relativism holds actions are moral only for those who think them so.  They are not moral for everyone, let alone objectively or absolutely true.  Others may hold different behaviors are moral.  One cannot expect what one believes to be moral or true for anybody else who does not believe it.[i]

We watched ‘Endeavour’ to enjoy a good crime mystery; however, ‘Endeavour’ was interested in peddling moral relativism.  I was provoked with its ‘air’ of self-assurance that the argument is unassailable.  I wondered if they knew ethicists consider it a difficult ethical position to maintain.  It has been readily observed relativism’s own assertion is its logical contradiction.  If it is believed there is no moral claim true for everybody, then one is making a moral claim one applies to everybody!  The very claim ‘No moral claim is true for everybody’ denies the possibility of this absolutist statement.

Though Plato’s refutation of Protagoras’s promulgation of relativism is slick and not irrefutable, it exposes relativism’s vulnerability:

Most people believe that Protagoras’s doctrine is false.

Protagoras, on the other hand, believes his doctrine to be true.

By his own doctrine, Protagoras must believe that his opponents’ view is true.

Therefore, Protagoras must believe that his own doctrine is false (see Theaetetus: 171a) c).[ii]

That is, if Protagoras and relativists are true to their relativistic belief, they must accept their opponent’s rejection of their view.  They have to allow their opponents who say they are wrong are right!  Oddly, in making the case for relativism one argues for its own refutation!

Back to ‘Endeavour’ and Detective Morse.  If ‘Endeavour’ premises crime is not good, then the consequences ‘Endeavour’ portrays of a relativistic philosophy are telling arguments against moral relativism.  Just as the claim of relativism boomerangs back upon itself, so do its consequences.  Detective Morse finds out the bricklayer Barry Fink died at Mapplewick Hall while in bed with ‘Wildwood’ rock band lead singer Nick (who was found comatose from an overdose) and Pippa, a girl groupie – a bisexual threesome.  A fourth person, Emma, was stalking the bedroom that night and found no place in bed next to Nick.  She was jealous of Barry Fink for stealing Nick’s affections from her.  So, she strangled him.  Her intense jealousy led her to murder.  ‘Polyamory’ creates jealousy between ‘lovers’ which in turn incites murder which leads to criminal charges. One overdosed, one dead, and one charged with murder!  A pretty good night for moral relativism!  Unintentionally, ‘Endeavour’s’ moral of the story is, the moral consequences of a relativistic philosophy are its own telling argument against it!

 

 

 

[i] Trigg, Roger, Philosophy Matters: An Introduction to Philosophy(Madlen, Mass:  Blackwell Publishers Inc., 2002), pp. 59-60

[ii] Swoyer, Chris, “Relativism”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2015/entries/relativism/

Image: "The World's Greatest Dective." by Kit. CC license. 

Comment

Tom Thomas

Tom was most recently pastor of the Bellevue Charge in Forest, Virginia until retiring in July.  Studying John Wesley’s theology, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Bristol, Bristol, England. While a student, he and his wife Pam lived in John Wesley’s Chapel “The New Room”, Bristol, England, the first established Methodist preaching house.  Tom was a faculty member of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1998-2003. He has contributed articles to Methodist History and the Wesleyan Theological Journal. He and his wife Pam have two children, Karissa, who is an Associate Attorney at McCandlish Holton Morris in Richmond, and, John, who is a junior communications major/business minor at Regent University.  Tom enjoys being outdoors in his parkland woods and sitting by a cheery fire with a good book on a cool evening.

New Edition of C. S. Lewis as Philosopher: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty

From the Preface to the 2017 Edition of C. S. Lewis as Philosopher: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty It has been nearly ten years now since the first edition of C. S. Lewis as Philosopher: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. That decade has seen only growing interest in the philosophical aspects of Lewis’s work. What at the time seemed to us to be a rather novel approach to Lewis has become much more common, unsurprising because by both training and temperament Lewis often exhibited the earmarks of a first-rate philosophical mind. It was likely his amazing and eclectic range of interests and talents that concealed his philosophical acumen.

Some books have taken the project further than we were able, like Adam Barkman’s excellent and wide-ranging Philosophy as a Way of Life, a trend that we think is excellent. Stewart Goetz has recently argued in his A Philosophical Walking Tour with C. S. Lewis that Lewis was first and foremost a philosopher, and he is currently writing another book in which he will explain in depth Lewis’s philosophical views.

Our original collection was the result of several philosophically themed essays read at Oxbridge 2005—including keynote addresses by the likes of Peter Kreeft and Jean Bethke-Elshtain—but almost inevitably this genealogy meant that there would be gaps in our treatment. Because we didn’t make comprehensiveness our goal, however, we didn’t let this dissuade us. The collection that resulted was, in the estimation of many, a needed contribution to the literature irrespective of its limitations. InterVarsity Academic made possible the book coming to the light of day, and it enjoyed a solid run for a decade. It has been adduced by several researchers in the literature, and some of its chapters, like David Horner’s on the Trilemma or Bethke-Elshtain’s on The Abolition of Man, have been cited prominently quite a number of times. We are deeply grateful to Liberty University Press for catching the vision of and making possible a new edition.

We do not claim that this new expanded edition fills in all the various gaps in our treatment of Lewis as philosopher. It remains only one contribution toward this ambitious living research agenda. However, we have intentionally added five major new chapters that, each in its own way, contribute to a fuller picture of Lewis the philosopher. Our goal remains not to cover all the traditional areas of philosophy, but to show more intentionally some of the rich insights of Lewis’s writing that reveal aspects of philosophy and the human condition that, too often in contemporary times, go unaddressed, or at least under-addressed.

For example, Bruce Reichenbach has written an epistemology essay that reveals the way Lewis recognized some aspects of knowledge that often go overlooked. Among such features of knowledge are the ways in which it is perspectival, value-laden, and personal, but without any of these aspects of knowing detracting from objective truth or the propriety of deeply held convictions. Lewis could adroitly integrate subtle aspects of postmodernity with those of premodernity, like perhaps no other, holding in synergistic balance insights often mistakenly conceived as contradictory or in irremediable tension.

Another example is Will Honeycutt’s chapter that discusses Lewis’s penetrating engagement with various pagan myths. Rather than gravitating toward a simple “disassociationist” model in which there is only or primarily a disconnect or dissonance between Christianity and the pagan myth stories, Honeycutt reveals the way Lewis had the mind of both a philosopher and a poet, a logician and a classicist. The resonances and points of connection between the pagan myths and the “true myth” of Christianity are just as if not more evidentially important to Lewis than the differences and disanalogies.

One of Lewis’s most important and repeated apologetic arguments went unaddressed in the first edition, and we came to see that it deserved a serious and sustained treatment, namely, the argument from desire. To this end, we commissioned Sloan Lee to write an essay on it, and in his characteristic and charming zeal he ended up writing two terrific chapters. Not only does he meticulously spell out what the argument says and what motivates it; he brilliantly and carefully subjects to withering critical scrutiny no less than five significant objections to the argument.

Stew Goetz wrote the fifth new chapter, in which he discusses the hedonistic elements of Lewis’s work. He rightly points out a recurring theme in Lewis: that God’s intention is that we experience joy and pleasure. To the contrary of this lending itself to a crass sort of hedonism, however, Lewis’s understanding of our high calling in Christ elevates the kinds of pleasure that should satisfy. Rather than settling for base pleasures or ones that don’t fit our deepest nature or ultimate end, we need to undergo a transformation of character, indeed a death to self, that enables us to develop a taste for the higher and better pleasures for which we were designed.

In sum, this book has about 35,000 entirely new words of analysis and commentary on Lewis that, combined with all of the original essays in the collection, will hopefully result in a book that will feature prominently in the library of every Lewis aficionado. Once more the labor that made this edition possible was a labor of love, done in the earnest hope and prayer that the result will be a blessing to many.

Image: "Lamp Post of Narnia?" by K. Franklin. CC License. 

Till We Have Faces, Self-Knowledge, and Learning to Die

One important way that C. S. Lewis went about irrigating deserts and planting gardens was to be honest that the tide had turned against many of his most cherished convictions, and since he was convinced that the new direction was mistaken, he would often point backwards. To the charge that this was retrograde, he famously said, “We all want progress, but if you're on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.”

After accepting his new post at Cambridge, Lewis—on his 56th birthday—gave his inaugural address in 1954 called De Descriptione Temporum, a description of the times, in which he aimed to identify the central turning point in western civilization. “[S]omewhere between us and the Waverley Novels, somewhere between us and Persuasion, the chasm runs.” To make the case for his proposal, Lewis adduced germane examples from the realms of politics, the arts, religion, and technology. With respect to religion, what Lewis primarily had in mind was the un-christening of culture. Exceptions abound, but the “presumption has changed,” adding

It is hard to have patience with those Jeremiahs, in Press or pulpit, who warn us that we are ‘relapsing into Paganism’. It might be rather fun if we were. It would be pleasant to see some future Prime Minister trying to kill a large and lively milk-white bull in Westminster Hall. But we shan’t. What lurks behind such idle prophecies, if they are anything but careless language, is the false idea that the historical process allows mere reversal; that Europe can come out of Christianity ‘by the same back door as in she went’ and find herself back where she was. It is not what happens. A post-Christian man is not a Pagan; you might as well think that a married woman recovers her virginity by divorce. The post-Christian is cut off from the Christian past and therefore doubly from the Pagan past.

In 1935 Cambridge philosopher William Sorley expressed misgivings about this demotion of morality that’s bound to result in an artificially truncated worldview in which moral ideas are paid short shrift. “If we take experience as a whole,” Sorley wrote, “and do not arbitrarily restrict ourselves to that portion of it with which the physical and natural sciences have to do, then our interpretation of it must have ethical data at its basis and ethical laws in its structure.” Perhaps it’s not surprising that Sorley is a luminary in the field of moral apologetics, as the later Cambridge professor Lewis would be as well. For at the heart of moral arguments is the abiding conviction that morality can provide a vital window of insight into reality. Hermann Lotze, a 19th century German philosopher, in fact once wrote that “the true beginning of metaphysics lies in ethics,” a sentiment with which both Sorley and Lewis resonated.

Recall Lewis’s words from Mere Christianity to this effect:

These, then, are the two points I wanted to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.

This paper is about perhaps the greatest example he provided of this: his novel Till We Have Faces (subsequently TWHF), which harmoniously weaves together and integrates numerous of Lewis’s philosophical, theological, and ethical emphases. It contains, in fictional form, what Lewis thought about the import of myth and beauty, of joy and desire, of reason and imagination. This essay will cover an aspect of the novel that arguably resides at the thematic heart of the story and at the intersection of ethics and epistemology.

Lewis’s story refashions the myth of Cupid and Psyche. It is set in Glome, a barbarian kingdom on the edge of the Hellenistic world, and is told by the main character, Orual, the eldest daughter of Rom, King of Glome, step-sister of Psyche, and sister of Redival. The main story is about Orual’s indictment of the gods for failing to make their ways plain. Ostensibly the worry is wholly epistemic. The indictment comes in the form of an account of the major portion of her life, presented with the request that the reader judge her case against the gods. Her intended audience is “wise Greeks,” who, because of their philosophical education, will readily see in the events she reports puzzling epistemological problems and, therefore, will more likely see the truth of her charge.

The events in question pertain to Orual’s central passion: her love of Psyche. The two people who give her happiness are Fox, a Greek slave her father secured as tutor for his daughters, and Psyche, who is not only uncommonly beautiful but virtuous as well. After Psyche’s mother dies at childbirth, it is Orual who brings Psyche up as her own child. What generates conflict with the gods is the demand, presented by the Priest of Ungit—Glome’s version of the fertility goddess—that Psyche be sacrificed on the Grey Mountain to her son, the Shadowbrute, supposed god of the Mountain. The sacrifice is to remove a curse that has befallen the kingdom.

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After the sacrifice, Orual makes a trek to bury Psyche’s remains but discovers Psyche alive and well, radiant in fact, claiming to be living with her husband/god in a beautiful palace. Orual, though, is unable to see the palace, so she is left to figure out the truth. Skeptical the gods are good, she devises a plan to liberate Psyche, but it goes horribly wrong, sending Psyche into exile. Orual returns home to reign as Queen of Glome and tries to forget her past.

As for aspects of the novel that pertain to the question of epistemology, particularly religious epistemology, first one should note that the era and context of the story is distinctly premodern. The default position is decidedly not atheism, agnosticism, or skepticism, but one of robust religious conviction and theological interpretation of the events in question. Following Robert Holyer, we can immediately identify two major epistemological issues: whether the gods are just inventions of the priest and pandering to popular superstition, or rather that the gods are real. The Fox is of the former opinion, but Orual and Psyche of the latter. The second major epistemological question is this: If the request for Psyche’s sacrifice is genuinely Divine, how is it to be understood? Is it a malevolent request born of jealousy and intended to bring suffering not only to Psyche but also those who love her, particularly Orual? Or is there some paradoxical way in which the deed might result in Psyche’s well-being and therefore be consistent with the affirmation that the gods are good? Orual inclines to the former, always casting the holy places as dark places; Psyche, to the latter.

So a central problem of the novel is to read the signs of the Divine correctly and to find in them reasonable assurance sufficient to live faithfully in the face of the irresolvable mystery and ambiguity featured heavily in the book. Evidence is not undeniable or incorrigible, and questions remain unanswered. A related concern of the book involves Lewis’s most important innovation: Orual’s inability to see the palace of the gods. In Lewis’s key adaptation, Psyche saw it and claimed to live in it, but Orual couldn’t see it at all, except once and only briefly.

Among the various signs and signals of divine reality and goodness, perhaps the most important is the experience of the Holy. Rudolf Otto, author of The Idea of the Holy, claimed that experiences of the Holy are one of the basic sources of religious belief throughout the centuries. He distinguished and described several constituent elements of the experience of the Holy, two of which are these (both found in TWHF): (1) tremendum, a kind of dread or fear unlike our other fears—as Orual rightly describes it, a fear “quite different from the fear of my father,” and (2) fascinans, a consuming attraction or rapturous longing. Psyche is poignantly aware of both, Orual mainly only of the former. Fascinans, or “Joy,” to use another Lewisian term, is associated with the objects of the imagination, with beauty, with poetry, and above all with the Mountain—all common motifs in Lewis’s fiction.

A second sign is empirical evidence, which is ambiguous. A third sign is finding Psyche alive and well days after her sacrifice, which raises the question of how reliable her testimony is. The story Psyche recounts is remarkable, but Orual has to admit that Psyche had always been trustworthy. The final and most difficult piece of evidence is experience of divine realities—like Orual’s glimpse of the palace and Psyche’s more continuous experience of the gods.

The epistemological task in the novel is to determine the nature of ultimate reality—whether it is jealous and cruel, or mysterious and marvelous. Reason plays an important role—drawing conclusions from premises taken from a broad array of experience, but much of the reasoning that Lewis thought is called for is implicit and intuitive, requiring an equal mixture of philosophy and vision, a reconciliation of reason and imagination. Orual has to choose between rival explanations in the face of real ambiguity and mystery, a measure of hiddenness that perhaps ensures that her inquiry reveals her real motivations more than just her cognitive prowess.

Lewis suggests looking within, as part of an epistemic quest predicated on the traditional idea that at the foundation of all knowledge is self-knowledge. Thales thought the hardest thing to do is “to know thyself,” employing a phrase that invokes the specter of what would be on the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Plato would write that the essence of knowledge is self-knowledge. Centuries before Plato, the Hindu Upanishads confirmed, “Enquiry into the truth of the Self is knowledge.”

In the Apology, Socrates, at the precipice of his own death, asked, “Are you not ashamed to spend so much trouble upon trouble heaping up riches and honor and reputation, while you care nothing for wisdom and truth and the perfection of your soul?” Socrates did not claim to have attained to great wisdom, but the most important knowledge of all, he thought, is self-knowledge. Other speculative matters of alleged knowledge aren’t likely to conduce to greater perfection of the soul than authentic knowledge of the self. And perfection of soul far exceeds in importance anything else, which is why this ancient approach to epistemology, focused on self-knowledge with the goal of moral maturation, resides at the intersection of epistemology and ethics.

TWHF assumes that who we are shapes what we see, but rather than culminating in a radical subjectivism, for Lewis it leads to something like a virtue epistemology, according to which there’s a reality to be seen. Admittedly it’s seen through a glass darkly, but how much of it we can genuinely grasp remains a function of who we are. Understanding who and what we are, then, is foundational to knowledge. For Lewis, poetry—and art more generally—though vitally important, was penultimate, hardly anything like a compensation for lost faith.

In Part II of TWHF, Orual augments her original book—her original complaint against the gods—by writing that “I know so much more than I did about the woman who wrote it.” Interestingly, she says that what began the change was “the very writing itself.” The writing itself—the art—enables the growth in self-knowledge, but this is only the beginning: to prepare her for “the gods’ surgery.” “They used my own pen to probe my wound.” Lewis didn’t think that the epistemic quest was over once we looked within, practiced art, or saw the world under some fresh aspect, but that by growing in self-knowledge we can begin to see the world more accurately, we can apprehend more of reality, and the world will begin to look quite different from how it did before.

Orual had written her complaint against the gods. Ostensibly her complaint is epistemic, but when she adds to the book later, she admits things aren’t as they seem. How does her writing probe her wound and reveal to her the truth about herself? Primarily by a close and brutally honest examination of her various relationships—and the past she has tried so hard to veil. For example, she has had no pity in her heart for her sister Redival, but, after writing her original complaint, she encounters a former servant of her father’s named Tarin, who says, of Redival, “She was lonely.” This catches Orual by surprise, the “first snowflake of the winter I was entering.” She comes to admit as a certainty that she had not thought at all how it had been for Redival when she, Orual, first turned to Fox, then to Psyche, because “it had been somehow settled in my mind from the very beginning that I was the pitiable and ill-used one. She had her gold curls, hadn’t she?”

Next comes insight concerning her treatment of Bardia, her servant whom she loves. He is married, though, and always out of reach. After she finishes her book, she hears he is sick, and within a few days, he dies. She goes to visit Ansit, his widow, but Ansit is bitter toward the Queen, accusing her of working Bardia to death. “After weeks and months at the wars—you and he night and day together, sharing the councils, the dangers, the victories, the soldiers’ bread, the very jokes. . . .” And “I do not believe, I know, that your queenship drank up his blood year by year and ate out his life.”

The Queen replies with incredulity that Ansit should have spoken up, but Ansit says she never would have deprived her husband of his work and “all his glory and his great deeds.” Should she make a child and dotard of him? “I was his wife, not his doxy. He was my husband, not my house-dog. He was to live the life he thought best and fittest for a great man—not that which would most pleasure me.”

Ansit is suggesting that her love for Bardia means she had to give up some of her own desires, not make it all about herself, which begins to prick the Queen’s conscience because this very pattern has always been her own modus operandi. This raises a most important thematic element in the book: a recurring question of what real love means and looks like. Lewis was of the view that we can convince ourselves that our motivation is one of the purest love, when it might be far from it. The point here is that, sometimes when we think we are at our moral best, we may well be at our worst.[su_pullquote align="right"]Lewis, like Kant, saw such moral darkness as powerfully suggestive that it’s altogether rational to believe there are resources beyond our own to close this moral gap. [/su_pullquote]Orual long thought of the gods as indulgent and selfish, and is now accused by Ansit of being “gorged with other men’s lives, women’s too: Bardia’s, mine, the Fox’s, your sister’s—both your sisters.” Now, Orual writes, “the divine Surgeons had me tied down and were at work.” At first she is angry, but then Orual admits to herself that it is all terribly true, more than Ansit could even know. And she confesses her horrific treatment of Bardia, finally concluding, “Did I hate him, then? Indeed, I believe so. A love like that can grow to be nine-tenths hatred and still call itself love.” She adds, “I had been dragged up and out into such heights and precipices of truth, that I came into an air where [her love for Bardia] could not live. It stank; a gnawing greed for one to whom I could give nothing, of whom I craved all.”

Next, she has to reexamine her relationship with Batta, who had been a servant Orual had executed. Now she remembers that Batta had her loving moments. Yes, she was a busybody and tattletale and rumormonger, but now she recalls Batta’s warmth and humanity. Orual is inexorably forced to face the truth of who she was and is and of what she’d done—none of which she wanted to hear, all of which she needed to hear.

Having long thought of the gods as ugly in character, Orual now sees this as projection; now she comes to think that she herself is like Ungit: ugly in soul. In despair, she plans to kill herself before she’s stopped by the voice of a god: “You cannot escape Ungit by going to the deadlands, for she is there also. Die before you die. There is no chance after.” Earlier Lewis availed himself of the Socratic dictum “Know Thyself,” and now Lewis makes reference to the Socratic notion that true wisdom is the skill and practice of death. Reflecting on Socrates, the Queen writes, “I supposed he meant the death of our passions and desires and vain opinions.”

Philosophy, properly understood, trains us how to die, and not just physically. That part of us that most needs to die is our vainglory, our self-aggrandizement, our pride, our inordinate passions. She then reasons, “[I]f I practiced true philosophy, as Socrates meant it, I should change my ugly soul into a fair one. And this, the gods helping me, I would do. I would set about it at once.” The Queen resolves to be “just and calm and wise in all my thoughts and acts; but before they had finished dressing me I would find that I was back (and know not how long I had been back) in some old rage, resentment, gnawing fantasy, or sullen bitterness. I could not hold out half an hour.” She writes, “I could mend my soul no more than my face. Unless the gods helped. And why did the gods not help?”

In her angst and emotional tumult the Queen comforts herself with her complaint against the gods, and with obstinate tenacity holds on to one last consolation. Namely, at least she had cared for Psyche, taught her, and tried to save her, even wounded herself for her. And then comes a vision. In the vision she has a chance to read her indictment against the gods. The book/indictment/complaint has, however, now become much shorter. She is reluctant to read it, but she does, and in fact, without realizing it, reads it over and over again. We can identify three closely related salient highlights.

First, on the evidential score, she admits that she had been shown a real god and the house of a real god and should have believed; the real issue isn’t that. She admits she could have endured belief in the gods if they were like Ungit and the Shadowbrute. In truth she resents their meddling, their wooing of Psyche, their failure to follow through and devour Psyche as promised. “I’d have wept for her and buried what was left and built her a tomb. . . . But to steal her love from me!” The beauty of the gods—the fascinans she’d heretofore resisted and rejected—didn’t make things better, but worse. For it enables the gods to lure and entice, leaving Orual nothing. Second, she’d have rather Psyche remain hers and dead than the gods’ and made immortal. She has prided herself for her profound love of Psyche, but now the truth is revealed: it isn’t Psyche’s well-being she wanted to secure, but her own comfort. Psyche was hers.

Third, Orual insists that had she been the one to whom the gods had made themselves known, she would have been able to convince Psyche of their reality and goodness. Instead it was Psyche made privy, and Orual resented it. “But to hear a chit of a girl who had (or ought to have had) no thought in her head that I’d not put there, setting up for a seer and a prophetess and next thing to a goddess . . . how could anyone endure it?” Orual only wanted Psyche to be happy on terms she dictated. “What should I care for some horrible, new happiness which I hadn’t given her and which separated her from me? Do you think I wanted her to be happy, that way? It would have been better if I’d seen the Brute tear her in pieces before my eyes,” and “Did you ever remember whose the girl was? She was mine. Mine. Do you not know what the word means? Mine!” The sober truth about who Orual is has now been revealed, its dregs poured out. The complaint is the answer. She now has knowledge of herself, and what it reveals is a horrible malady, a problem in need of a solution.

Lightly men talk of saying what they mean. When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?

The death of most importance in TWHF is not Orual’s physical death in the final chapter, but rather the death to which she’s called after coming into a deep knowledge of herself and her moral malady. When Orual faces who she is, her initial response is one of despair, and rightly so when she sees the distance between where she morally is and where she thought she was, when she sees that at her best she is actually at her worst, when she sees that what she thinks is her love is actually mainly hate. Lewis, like Kant, saw such moral darkness as powerfully suggestive that it’s altogether rational to believe there are resources beyond our own to close this moral gap.

The solution called for in TWHF, however, is radical. What’s needed is nothing less than death—not physical death, though. What philosophy, rightly understood, can teach us is how to die—to experience the death of our moral malady, our self-righteousness, our pride, our predatory natures, our possessiveness, our self-consumption. What such moral desperation reveals is the need for radical transformation—far beyond what we can do on the strength of our own meager moral resources alone. And if we “die before we die,” before it’s too late, as Orual is told to do, then perhaps the sting of death can be removed, its inevitability not entail fatalism, and its aftermath be full of hope. For the longest time Orual had hardened her heart and resisted intimations of something more, whereas for Psyche such a longing constituted the “inconsolable secret” of her heart. Psyche’s longing for the Mountain and the imaginary gold-and-amber castle of her youth, rather than a groundless hope or vacuous wishful thought, was the “sweetest thing” in her whole life.

Sophocles and the Doctrine of Sin: A Reflection on Teaching Greek Tragedy

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This past year I taught 9th grade Ancient Literature for the second time. My first year teaching this curriculum I spent too much time in Homer, and did not make it to tragedy; this year, my goal was to pace the course correctly and work through the most significant plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Along the journey, I discovered an unexpected blessing of teaching Greek tragedy: no other literature I have taught highlights quite so well the reality, the unavoidability, and the consequences of sin. I spent seven weeks with sixty 9th graders discussing questions of justice, inherited guilt, atonement, reconciliation, and grief. As a Christian educator in a secular school, I feel a burden to urge my students to consider topics I believe will prepare them for the gospel, and teaching Sophocles led to just such a discovery.

In setting the context for Oedipus Rex, I explained the play’s basic assumption that the plague in the city of Thebes resulted from a violation of the universe's moral law; the action of the play then, is a mystery solving the crime and rooting out the perpetrator. When the story unfolded and Oedipus’ guilt became increasingly plausible, I learned one of my students was a fervent relativist. He asserted adamantly that every person has a value system and that no one value system is preferable to another. People are good or bad based on how well they achieve their chosen values. This student left me scratching my head; how could I steer him towards truth without coming right out and telling him he is wrong? How do I guide him dialogically to discover that his thinking is insufficient? Fortunately, Sophocles himself resolved my dilemma.

That night, the students read a section of Oedipus Rex which made the incestuous relationship between Oedipus and Iocaste unmistakable; my student came in the next afternoon with a new declaration: “Mr. Herring, that’s wrong!” “Whether it fits his value system or not?” I responded. “Yes - that, that right there, is wrong.” Leave it to the Greeks—their licentiousness notwithstanding—to enshrine moral rock bottom in their literature. The battle for truth is in no way won; I suspect this student and I will go back and forth on the nature of truth for the next three years. But his declaration of “wrongness” struck me: Sophocles reached for a universal category in his drama, and in so doing he communicates down through the ages to our own “secular age.”

There is a sense in which it is harder to teach virtue than it used to be; teachers of years past could frame their moral instruction capitalizing on a common biblical literacy. Today, the idea of “loving your neighbor” because “God first loved you” simply does not compute without lengthy preparation. If we have lost the common cultural framework of biblical literacy, however, we are not left to our own devices to begin re-establishing the categories of sin and guilt. These are universal human experiences, and they underpin the best literature.

Sophocles can teach us moral fundamentals; sleeping with your mother and producing children offends the universe, human sensibility, and civic law. In Antigone, Sophocles has the title character appeal to the “unwritten laws of God” to justify her actions. In this line lies the glory of human literature as a moral teacher. On the other hand, therein also lies its insufficiency. Poets can discern sin, just as Paul calls the law the teacher of sin. Incest, pride, atheism, child murder: the tragedians illustrate the wrongness of these things. And yet, they can point to nothing more certain than the “unwritten laws of God” to prove the wrongness of these actions. These tragedies pull on a common human awareness of wrong actions, but fail to answer the desire for something clear, certain, and definitive.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the divine wrote down the rules? And then clarified them for us? This of course is exactly what we have in the Bible. We have the clarity of the Ten Commandments and the extensive development of practical outworkings all grounded in the nature of a loving God who created all things and knows our best interests. Suddenly, we have a sense of why hubris is dangerous: because God made us humans for a certain place, and the man of pride reaches for more than God intended. In the overreach lies the dangerous fall. Incest, too, offends the created order, wherein God intended human beings to form new covenant communities to diversify across the earth so that new facets of his image are revealed across creation. Scripture also shows us an alternative for guilt. We run not away from the angry Greek gods of Sophocles but to the loving God who through bloodshed atones for our wrongdoing. The Bible looks to the same universal problems and longings Greek tragedy addresses, but with hope.

After seven weeks in the wonderful poetry of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripedes, I reached three conclusions. First, tragedy operates in a pre-evangelistic manner. The stories are simple, but so well-crafted that the reader becomes imminently mindful that he may have committed some great evil unawares just like Oedipus. Second, tragedy highlights a missing certainty in 21st century post-postmodernity. Reading Oedipus Rex worked to “blow the roof off” of my student’s assumptions that morality is completely relative, beginning a further conversation about the existence of moral truth. Third, tragedy is like a cancer diagnosis without chemotherapy; it provides no hope. Without the gospel, without the real word from a real God, we are left with Oedipus in despair over what our understanding reveals. Unless God is real and the Bible is true, we stand with Nietzsche gazing into the abyss of existence with no authentic response but despair.

Pascal famously wrote of a “God-shaped void” in every human heart; Greek tragedy can illuminate this void, but does nothing to fill it. In seeking some sort of atonement, Oedipus blinds himself, Iocaste commits suicide, and (in a later play) Antigone ends the evil of her existence by hanging herself. Tragedy looks at the human experience, sees the reality of sin, and concludes that nothing but despair remains. Where the tragedians despair, the gospel proclaims hope. Christ himself enters our tragedy and in the greatest eucatastrophe in human history reverses the tragic into the salvific.

 

Image: Bénigne Gagneraux, The Blind Oedipus Commending his Children to the Gods, Public Domain

The Most Reluctant Convert: C. S. Lewis Onstage, Part III

Image credit: Jeremy Daniel

Image credit: Jeremy Daniel

We had been told to wait in the lobby of the second floor for Max McLean to arrive, which he did about fifteen minutes later. After one performance and before another, with a Q&A sandwiched in between, I marveled in advance at his generosity of time. We didn’t want to waste his energies, so we dove right in after quick introductions. He’d freshly turned 64 a week before, as it happens, which happened to be the age Lewis was when he died, but McLean exudes vitality and shows every appearance of being able to keep going like this for quite a while.

To prepare to interview him, we’d read all the interviews he’d done we could get our hands on, and in so doing we discovered that, from a young age, he’d suffered from a fear of public speaking, a severe form of social anxiety, sociophobia. As a certified introvert I wanted to ask about this because, seeing him on the stage performing, nobody would ever imagine this. He had actually turned to theatre originally in college to overcome his fears; we wanted to know if the fears were gone or if he’d simply learned to manage them.

“I think that if I’m not prepared the anxiety will come back. The fear makes you really prepare. I find that there’s an enormous fear of failure. I don’t think I’ve gotten over that.” Asked whether he considered himself an introvert or extrovert, he said he is definitely an introvert, getting his energy from reading and his quiet time. “Absolutely,” he added for emphasis.

After college McLean studied acting in London, always having been impressed by British actors and their use of language. Interesting to note, too, are the various English thinkers and writers who have left an impression on McLean—from Shakespeare to Shaw, Eliot to Chesterton, Spurgeon to Lewis. He will be returning to England this summer for Oxbridge, a triennial Lewis conference held at Oxford and Cambridge Universities, and doing some of this performance there.

Prior to McLean’s conversion to Christian faith, he admitted that he’d tried to read the Bible but it made no connection; he couldn’t find a way of getting into it. “It was just a flat book. It could have been an engineering book, but it wasn’t a book that captured my imagination. Once Jesus became alive to me, I read the Bible differently. I read John’s Gospel; I thought Jesus was going to come out of the pages. He was a story, a human being that was a hero and an overwhelming one. So my emotions were engaged.”

So why are theatre and story so powerfully effective at capturing the imagination of people, and why is that important? McLean replied, “Well, that’s the critical thing, because the imagination serves up the raw material of what we think about. Romans 1 tells us we all have the knowledge of God. There’s that thing about how we all have eternity in our hearts. And these things are intact—like I mentioned in the Q&A that people want to talk about these things but they don’t know how to talk about them—so I think that the theatre captures people’s imagination and stirs the imagination—which then asks, could this be true? And then a person is more willing to invest intellectual capital. You know, you’re not going to invest intellectual capital unless your imagination is engaged, unless you want to know more. So I think theatre is an extraordinary tool for that.”

In pursuing this goal, by what intentional steps does the FPA strive to engage a diverse audience? “People make their own choices about their entertainment options. So essentially we don’t do it in a church. We do it in a theater. We advertise in the New York Times, we advertise in the subway. We advertise at NPR. I think the main thing is this: our best audience is somebody . . . who’s able to use relational capital to say, ‘Okay, come with me to see this play, because you’re not going to be embarrassed. It’s going to be a safe space, and you’re going to enjoy it.’ And if they don’t want to engage, no harm done. You know, you go out to dinner, and when they have questions, that’s great, and when they don’t have questions, that’s great too.”

McLean thinks the theatre can do great good, but only if it’s done well. We’d been struck by the plethora of rave reviews his work had consistently garnered, by reviewers both sacred and secular. Accolades and awards are commonplace—from the DC Metro Arts to the Washington Post, the Chicago Critic and Splash, the Indianapolis Monthly to World Magazine to Stagebuddy and The Weekly Standard. Adjectives among reviewers describing his work abound like “fascinating,” “smart,” “brilliant,” “masterful,” “winsome,” “delightful,” “captivating,” “satisfying,” and “moving.” We asked him to talk about the importance of striving for excellence in his work.

“Doing it in New York . . . New York is kind of hyper in that way. To do theatre in New York is such a challenge, and if you make it known that it comes from a Christian worldview the bar just gets really much, much higher. And then to consider doing it in such a way as to engage a diverse audience in this highly polarized world that we’re in right now, it’s almost impossible. So you depend on these kind of things: the writing, the acting, the stagecraft . . . you don’t want it to be turned off at that level or you won’t get a fair hearing. And a fair hearing might be ‘I’ve heard it, I listened to it, I think it’s rubbish, but it was really well executed.’ As opposed to what mostly happens: the execution is terrible, and nobody even bothers . . . or the message is so trite that it’s just immediately dismissed. So what we do, in order to accomplish our mission, we spend a lot of time thinking about what material has the best possibility to reach a diverse audience, then we have to execute it to the highest levels that our budgets will allow. Which means that we hire all our designers. They’re professionals. Just like you go to the best doctor, the best dentist, we hire the best sound designer, the best set designer . . . because you don’t want it to be dismissed at the execution level. You want the message to be heard, and you don’t want anybody to say, ‘Oh, I’m not going to listen to the message because the messenger just doesn’t care.’”

We thought it particularly interesting that one of the most recurring descriptions we’d read of his work was “funny,” and especially all the references to self-deprecating humor. Why, we asked, does this seem to function so well as an ice breaker and bridge builder with his audience?

“Well, humor is a reaction. It doesn’t lie. I mean, there are things you can do to create it, depending on your sense of humor. So much of modern comedic humor is based out of anger, and putting somebody down. Lewis’s humor is based on wit, and surprise, and also his own making fun of himself. He didn’t take himself that seriously. He did, but he tried to act like he didn’t. So I think that humor does tear down barriers, that if you can get to it, that if you’re good enough to find the humor, theatre is built on it. . . . I do think it’s a very high priority. Chesterton thought humor was the bloom of his argument.”

Having seen McLean at work, I must say: if anybody can demonstrate that life is a comedy and not a tragedy, McLean’s channeling Lewis can. Still, he admits to mixed results among certain atheist reviewers. Plenty of “generous atheists” have accorded his work accolades because they enjoy a good time. Still, particularly among those who seem to think they have a stake in the game, there’s resistance. “A real true blue atheist is one for whom the possibility of the supernatural world breaking into the material world is just considered impossible. So any other possibility is more probable than the supernatural. That’s really hard core.”

When up against that level of settled conviction that theism isn’t so much as possibly true, perhaps McLean’s work is exactly what’s needed to chip away at the wall. Rather than just more discursive argument that only heightens defense, something that’s engaging, entertaining, and aesthetically pleasing might be what’s needed to break down the barriers. McLean agrees, adding: “People have these moments of joy, moments where the supernatural breaks in. Because there are two spheres. There’s the sphere of love, which isn’t just biochemistry.”

Using performance art to wake people up, stir curiosity, and generate conversation is what McLean and the FPA are all about. This summer this show will hit the road; readers are encouraged to find out if it’s showing near you; and if so, sell all you have and see it! It’s a world-class production, and it’s eminently worth it, irrespective of your worldview. And this fall in New York a new production will begin, again based on Lewis: “Shadowlands.” I think this may necessitate another death-defying trip to the City.

McLean has written, “I’m keenly aware that, despite the best of intentions, as soon as the word ‘Christian’ appears within an artistic context, red flags go up. That, obviously, creates a challenge.” He continues:

During our first season of four plays in New York City, several reviewers expressed misgivings. Realizing that the work was from a Christian perspective, one critic wrote “my heart sank.” Another made the understatement that “presenting what is unequivocally come-to-Jesus fare to a general audience is no easy thing.”

In both cases, it was the play itself that turned them around. The first declared, “I expected a preachy bore, not the deliciously witty, theatrical treat that still resonates and amuses the day after.” He went on, “I expect that, like the first, [the next production] will be entertaining, very well staged, canny, and imbued with serious Christian thought and an earnest invitation to introspection.”

The second reviewer began by clarifying his background: “I’m Jewish by birth, liberal by conviction, and an atheist by observation and introspection.” He went on to say “how much I admire the approach of Fellowship for Performing Arts. . . . They do their work through a careful combination of good story-telling—craft comes first—and avoiding overt preachiness, allowing any message implicit in the material to take care of itself.”

Such feedback is reassuring. Art hints at the deeper structures of reality. FPA desires to create theatre that contributes to a better understanding of it. To do that requires honest, clear-eyed storytelling that entertains and engages its audiences. If a work doesn’t do that, regardless of intent, it really doesn’t matter what else it does.

It’s inspiring to see a faithful worker in this field, laboring in the hardest of venues, speaking truth and spreading light. He and the FPA deserve our admiration, support, and prayers. He’s someone who knows, like Orson Welles knew, the power of story and the importance of the imagination to wake people up, evaluate their assumptions, and generate conversations worth having. For McLean, though, the message to look up is not one of fear, but of soaring hope.

In that connection, one might wonder what C. S. Lewis was doing in jolly England when Welles did his radio performance. I don’t know. But I do know that, just hours before, Mars came up in some of his correspondence. Evelyn Underhill, famous for her works on mysticism and a convert to Anglicanism in 1921, had written a letter to Lewis that arrived on October 26th of 1938. He replied to her on October 29th, the day before Welles’ American broadcast. Here is what Underhill had written to Lewis:

May I thank you for the very great pleasure which your remarkable book Out of the Silent Planet has given me? It is so seldom that one comes across a writer of sufficient imaginative power to give one a new slant on reality: & this is just what you seem to me to have achieved. And what is more, you have not done it in a solemn & oppressive way but with a delightful combination of beauty, humour & deep seriousness. I enjoyed every bit of it, in spite of starting with a decided prejudice against “voyages to Mars.” I wish you had felt able to report the conversation in which Ransom explained the Christian mysteries to the eldil, but I suppose that would be too much to ask. We should be content with the fact that you have turned “empty space” into heaven!

In chapter 5 of Out of the Silent Planet, Ransom is in the spaceship on the way to Mars: “He had read of ‘Space’: at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds . . . now . . . the very name ‘Space’ seemed a blasphemous libel for the empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam . . . it was the womb of worlds, whose blazing and innumerable offspring looked down nightly even from the earth with so many eyes—and here, with how many more! No: Space was the wrong name. Older thinkers had been wiser when they named it simply the heavens.”

Lewis’s reply to Underhill, written on October 29th, after expressing his alarm and delight at hearing from such a notable writer as she, went like this: “I am glad you mentioned the substitution of heaven for space as that is my favourite idea in the book. Unhappily I have since learned that it is also the idea which most betrays my scientific ignorance: I have since learned that the rays in interplanetary space, so far from being beneficial, would be mortal to us. However, that, no doubt, is true of Heaven in other senses as well!”

True to form for a guy who recognized that a convert must gravely count the cost.

The Most Reluctant Convert: C. S. Lewis Onstage, Part II

Image credit: Jeremy Daniel

Image credit: Jeremy Daniel

Like others who have been privileged to see what next transpired, I was thrilled and transported. It was as if C. S. Lewis himself walked onto the stage. The makeup was exquisite, and the resemblance to Lewis uncanny. Even the voice was near perfect—I remember having listened to one of the few extant recordings of Lewis a year ago. McLean intentionally didn’t aim at enunciating quite so thick an accent as Lewis actually had, explaining why after the play in a Q&A session. For an American audience, in particular, this was a smart decision to avoid it becoming a distraction. McLean’s classical training in voice paid its dividends.

Most people are likely familiar with what happens when watching an inferior performance, show, or movie; it’s hard not to hold it at arm’s length because there’s something mildly insulting and off-putting about the shoddy craftsmanship. In patent contrast, we also know what it’s like when we watch a particularly excellent performance: we’re drawn in, we lose ourselves in the story, we become thoroughly engaged. This was my experience as I sat and watched FPA’s production. A virtuoso performance, it was by turns instructive and convicting, insightful and hilarious, poignant and memorable.

The crisp monologues by the pipe-wielding Lewis recounted the tale of his conversion, chronicling how, step by methodical step, he traversed a path from skepticism to belief. Included in the account were the seminal figures of his life: his father, his brother, his teacher the “Great Knock,” and literary influences from Yeats to Chesterton to George MacDonald, whose Phantastes “baptized” Lewis’s imagination prior to his conversion.

Lewis’s aversion to Christianity was hard for him to square with the fact that so many of his favorite writers, whose writing tasted most real, were Christians. His hard-thinking friend Owen Barfield’s conversion to Christianity upset Lewis, yet Lewis found Barfield’s logic unassailable. Too many aspects of life, to be taken seriously—from consciousness to morality to reason itself—require rock bottom reality to be intelligent. Coghill helped Lewis see the virtues as relevant to understanding reality; Tolkien enabled him to see that Christianity is the True Myth; and gradually Lewis became open to the Absolute, then to Spirit, then to God, then to the Incarnation, each incremental step ineluctably inching toward greater and greater concreteness. Acutely mindful that it took God’s initiative to draw him, Lewis finally relented to the Hound of Heaven, admitting defeat, allowing himself to be vanquished by love, and not the least bit happy about it.

In contrast with any theology of “cheap grace,” or an accommodating Christianity that readily capitulates to swirling cultural whims, blithely smearing the name “Christian” on views conditioned by secularity rather than scripture, Lewis seemed intuitively to grasp from the start that real Christianity would be costly, that its implications were radical, that its demands were all-encompassing. Little wonder he counted the cost, and, after finally relenting—first to theism, then to Christianity—he was, by his own admission, the most reluctant and dejected convert in all of England. Far more quickly than most, he was able to apprehend the paradox of Christianity: to find life we must lose it, to live we must die, and that ultimately we can’t hold anything back.[su_pullquote align="right"]Lewis seemed intuitively to grasp from the start that real Christianity would be costly, that its implications were radical, that its demands were all-encompassing.[/su_pullquote]

The play was simply spectacular, and we loved it. Most of the audience stayed for the Q&A, and about ten or fifteen minutes after the play was done, McLean re-emerged, this time as himself rather than Lewis. It was a remarkable metamorphosis! Donning salmon slacks and a coal shirt, his hour as Lewis was clearly over, and now it was time to hear from the actor and writer himself. He joked about his pants, exuded confidence, showed relaxed body language, sat in the chair, and patiently fielded questions from the audience. His answers were perspicacious and trenchant, revealing him to be well read and often quite eloquent and erudite.

Asked about obstacles doing a play like this in New York, he said that theatre is a great venue to have these sorts of conversations. He’s convinced that people want to have such dialogues, but are often unsure how to do it. He spoke of his admiration for Lewis, despite admitting that some of Lewis’s writings were an acquired taste, demanding effort to apprehend them well. He had largely relied on Lewis’s own words for this play, but had to work hard to thin out some of Lewis’s diction and elaborate explications to make the ideas more widely accessible and understandable.

The result, to my thinking, was a veritable “greatest hits” woven together masterfully. I had enjoyed the play immensely, and the Q&A only enhanced my appreciation for McLean, and in a few moments Marybeth and I would get the chance to speak with him personally.

The Most Reluctant Convert: C. S. Lewis Onstage, Part I

It was Halloween Eve, Mischief Night as it’s often dubbed, the penultimate day of October in 1938. At a time when the radio was the main source of news and entertainment, the big draw that evening was the legendary Edgar Bergen and his ventriloquist dummy Charlie McCarthy. Popular lore says that a musical interlude in Bergen’s performance led many radio listeners to surf the channels and tune in to what would subsequently be called the most famous radio broadcast of all time.

Perched high in the Columbia Broadcasting Building on Madison Avenue, a precocious 23-year-old impresario Orson Welles was orchestrating a coup of the airwaves. Already reputed as Broadway’s most brilliant rising star, Welles made this particular Sunday anything but restful, directing the terrified eyes of his rapt listeners to quite the ominous October sky. It was a scant nine years before, almost to the day, that Black Tuesday had initiated the Great Depression, whose painful ripple effects were still felt. With Hitler’s foreboding rise to power and Europe so susceptible to his domination and imminent encroachment, the future was uncertain; people were already on edge and accustomed to hearing bad news.

Image credit: Jeremy Daniel

Image credit: Jeremy Daniel

That night, by the time they started listening to this storied adaptation of H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (1898), much of the audience had missed the opening introduction identifying it as a dramatization. Welles’ magisterial depiction of an alien invasion in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey induced panic in lots of quarters, accounts varying as to its extent. The show was strategically punctuated by realistic breaking “news bulletins”; by a sudden impromptu and pregnant, protracted and deafening silence initiated by Welles himself; and by another voice actor emulating the rhythm and cadence of Herbert Morrison’s immortal heart-rending eyewitness radio report of the Hindenburg’s fiery destruction just a year before.

For a few hours, the show simply terrified a nation already fraught with fear. Amidst subsequent media outrage and furious calls for greater FCC regulation, Welles feigned shock and dismay over the tumult his broadcast had produced. In truth the whole scenario would catapult him into the stratosphere of international fame, issuing him his ticket to Hollywood.

On the one hand, the remarkable episode furnishes a cautionary tale against the power of propaganda; on the other, more positively, it’s a reminder of the remarkable ability of drama and story to capture and mesmerize the imagination and move the will. The broadcast was a production of the Mercury Theatre, founded by Welles and John Houseman (later of Paper Chase fame as Professor Charles Kingsfield), located on West 41st Street in New York City, a mere half mile from where my wife and I recently watched a different drama unfold—one more tethered to actual history.

H. G. Wells wrote War of the Worlds in 1898, forty years before the Mercury Theatre’s radio adaptation. The year of Wells’ book in England also marked the birth of C. S. Lewis in Belfast, Ireland, and it just so happens that the play that we recently saw was a one-man show about the great Oxford don’s reluctant conversion to Christian faith.

Inexplicably navigating the frenetic, frantic Manhattan traffic by sheer force of will and a deft defiance of physics, our taxi driver dropped us off at the Acorn Theatre on West 42nd Street. Until then we’d assumed the Amtrak train hurling along in northern Virginia at breakneck speed might be the most terrifying part of our journey, feeling suspiciously like the Knight Bus in Harry Potter’s London. The Acorn Theatre is part of “Theatre Row,” headquartered in the heart of NYC’s Theater District.

Surviving that harrowing freak show of vehicular congestion made receptive our hearts to the transcendent and miraculous, and indeed a magical afternoon at the theatre was about to ensue. It was less than an hour to the matinee show time. We were excited to relish the performance we’d heard so much about already, and just as enthused at the prospect, afterwards, of meeting its star, Max McLean, who co-directed the show with Ken Denison. His publicist had neatly arranged our post-show interview.

After procuring our tickets, we made it to the third floor theatre, its set smartly arranged as a cozy book-lined office replete with desk, virtual pictures on the back wall, and a requisite cushy chair—just the sort of environment for the bookish Lewis to make an appearance. The ostensible location is Lewis’s study at Magdalen College, Oxford, 1950. While we admired the décor and became acclimated to the surroundings—feeling more than a little giddy as quite the sophisticated NYC theatre-goers—I perused the play’s brochure.

The performance, it was explained, is a production of the Fellowship for Performing Arts (FPA), which was founded by McLean in 1992, and which aims to create theatre from a Christian worldview that engages a diverse audience. It has developed and presented award-winning plays such as The Screwtape Letters, which I saw in North Carolina some years ago, never imagining at the time I’d later get to meet McLean personally, aka Screwtape. Other productions—staged in theatres and performing arts centers in New York, London, and across America—have included The Great Divorce, Mark’s Gospel, Martin Luther on Trial, and of course this one: C. S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert. The outfit has also produced critically acclaimed audiobook narrations of classic Christian works, predicated on the power of not just reading scripture, but hearing it.

I read with particular interest the brochure’s “Note about the Play,” which helpfully explains the subtitle. In 1950, Lewis received a letter from a young American writer expressing his struggle to believe Christianity because he thought it “too good to be true.” Lewis responded, “My own position at the threshold of Christianity was exactly the opposite of yours. You wish it were true; I strongly hoped it was not. . . . Do you think people like Stalin, Hitler, Haldane, Stapledon (a corking good writer, by the way) would be pleased on waking up one morning to find that they were not their own masters . . . that there was nothing even in the deepest recesses of their thoughts about which they could say to Him, ‘Keep out! Private. This is my business’? Do you? Rats! . . . Their first reaction would be (as mine was) rage and terror.”

The Note goes on to say that this was Lewis’s mindset before he “gave in,” as he put it. Lewis had embraced ideologies like materialism, atheism, naturalism, determinism, and reductionism—views that hold in common the conviction that all of life, every action, emotion, or perception, is susceptible to deflation. Each can be reduced to pre-existing physical causes all the way back to the Big Bang. There is no need to appeal to a supernatural source. God is not required to explain or define origin, meaning, ethics, or destiny. “For many years, Lewis was a defender of this view. And given his rhetorical gifts and love of debate one could see him fit into the ‘New Atheist’ camp with the likes of the late Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris.”

This play, it was explained, would explore Lewis’s dramatic conversion from this position to Christianity. McLean, the author of the Note, adds that he thinks Lewis’s vibrancy and resonance as a Christian apologist is rooted in this experience. The primary sources for the play, the Note continues, would be Lewis’s autobiography, Surprised by Joy, as well as his Collected Letters, a three-volume veritable treasure trove of insights and rich historical nuggets. McLean wrote the script by carefully cobbling together Lewis’s disparate words into a seamless tapestry and compelling narrative with a readily discernible and inherently fascinating trajectory. In addition to the primary sources, McLean also relied on several of Lewis’s books and essay collections, including The Problem of Pain, The Weight of Glory, Mere Christianity, God in the Dock, Present Concerns, and Christian Reflections. And he acknowledges his debts to various biographies and critical insights by Douglas Gresham (Lewis’s stepson), Walter Hooper (editor of Lewis’s literary estate), Devin Brown (from Asbury University), Tim Keller (whose church McLean attends in NYC, a church that has several pastors with specific ministries for the artists in the congregation), Alan Jacobs (Wheaton), Jerry Root (who’s written a book on Lewis and the problem of evil), Andrew Lazo, George Sayer, David Downing, Oxford’s Alister McGrath, Armand Nicholi (author of a book comparing and contrasting Lewis and Freud), Sheldon Vanauken, Kenneth Tynan, and A. N. Wilson, among others.

Finally, I read that the play takes place prior to the publication of Lewis’s first Narnia story and well before he met his wife, Joy Davidman—which introduces the tantalizing possibility of a sequel. My appetite thus whetted, I was primed to see the show.

Bishop S. I. Newman at the Gate of St. Peter

Guest article by Dr. Livingston Greystoke

Bishop S. I. Newman stood at the Gate of Heaven.  There Saint Peter met him.  We are privy to their conversation which I report just as it occurred.

St. Peter: Who are you?

Bishop Newman: Who are you? Where am I?

St. Peter: I am Peter, the Lord’s apostle.  You are at the very entrance of heaven. I can tell, Mr. Newman, you are surprised to see me.  Did you think that what we now see extending out through that Gate to eternity was a myth?  You did teach, quite consciously, the Lord Jesus was a mental projection of the needs and hopes of us disciples.  Certainly, you did not expect to meet Him – or me - here, did you?  I assure you, Mr. Newman, we are quite real.

Bishop Newman: You can understand why I made such an assumption.  Our most brilliant scholars in the most esteemed academies using the most contemporary historical analysis convinced me.   I was just using my God-given reason to consider the texts.  God would not want me to commit ‘intellectual suicide’ in reflecting on what people wrote about him – or her – or it- whoever.

St. Peter: Reason is one thing, prejudice another.  And, isn’t reason exercised together with faith?  After all, ‘without faith it is impossible to please God’.  Let me ask you.  Why should you be admitted through these gates?

Bishop Newman: Since you asked, all modesty aside,  I rose to the top of the clergy ranks; colleague among colleagues; leader of leaders; most devout of the devout, esteemed by clergy and lay; viewed to have an unusual set of leadership skills; an apt expounder of relativizing the Scriptures for our day; and passionate for the issues which oppress.  What might have been my most important attribute, I was recognized as having the gift of being able to make myself acceptable to all.  I strove to fulfill Jesus’ greatest passion - unity in the Church!  This was no easy task.  Glory be to God what God inspired in me!

St. Peter: Were you not like brother Paul?  He regarded ‘everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord?’  He determined to ‘never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ’.  Didn’t you hold back from preaching the cross? You thought it foolishness so you didn’t preach it! Though it is foolishness to the pagans brother Paul preached it anyway! You should have known the cross is the power of God to those being saved.  You thought talk of the cross as a necessary, objective substitutionary sacrifice for sin a crass antiquarian throwback to medieval days. 

Bishop Newman: But I was so moved when I administered the Eucharist and passed the cup, saying, ‘The blood of Christ given for you. Amen’.  It was a numinous experience.

St. PeterBut you lived as an enemy of the cross.  You promulgated the rejection of the authority of God’s Word by urging persons to indulge their lusts and make their god the belly. You, of all people, the ecclesial leader of God’s people, have led the weak into licentious ways.  You have encouraged extra-marital sex by advocating the right to homosexual practice.  You ought to know unrepentant ‘fornicators’ will not be at home here!  You promised freedom but gave slavery!

Bishop Newman:  I was extremely passionate on behalf of those upon whom the shadow of the cross falls.  I stood with the oppressed and the ‘have-nots’ against ‘the haves’.  I challenged systems of discrimination and injustice.  I politicked for the care of creation and climate justice.  I struggled against the criminalization of abortion.  I supported the absolute right of a woman to choose to abort a fetus at any stage in her womb.  I fought hard against the erection of structures of homophobia and heterosexism.  I have protested against discrimination based on gender identity – transvestites should be welcomed in every pulpit! Prejudice against any chosen, loving sexual practice must not be indulged.

St. Peter:   Bishop S. I. Newman, your compassion for the humble, the lowly, the poor in body and spirit is admirable. Nonetheless, for you, what is bitter is sweet; what is dark is light; what is false is true. You have the form of religion but not the power.  You know the politic but not the Person.  You are a teacher of the law without understanding either what you say or the things about which you assert.  You have come to the wrong Gate.  Your own words speak against you.  You will neither fit nor be happy here. Adieu.

********************

The Case for Christ: Movie Review

While God certainly draws people to Himself via apologetic arguments and evidences, He certainly has many more resources in His arsenal than that. This truth is illustrated beautifully in the recently released movie The Case for Christ. The movie is set in Chicago in 1980 and tells the story of the conversion to Christianity of the well-known Christian author Lee Strobel (played by Mike Vogel) and his wife Leslie (played by Erika Christensen). Neither Lee nor Leslie were Christians when they married. Lee was having much success in his career as a legal editor for the Chicago Tribune, and both he and his wife were quite happy in their lives as unbelievers. But when God used a chain of events—that did not involve apologetic arguments and evidences—to stir Leslie to the conviction that Christianity is true, Lee was forced to come face to face with the truth claims of Christianity for the first time and reexamine his atheism.

The movie captures in a powerful way the intense spiritual struggle that is often involved in coming to Christ, and it wonderfully depicts how the Holy Spirit works in a multitude of ways to break down the barriers of sin in unbelieving hearts to prepare people to accept the gospel. While Leslie encountered God in a more emotional way through events and Christian friends that God providentially placed into her life, Lee’s conversion illustrates how God can use a combination of arguments, evidences, and personal experiences to soften the heart of even a highly skeptical atheist. Leslie’s conversion and newfound passionate love for God sent Lee on a personal mission to use all of his investigative skills as a reporter to gather the evidence needed to convince his wife that she was caught up in what he considered to be a “cult” that is not rooted in facts. But this journey did not unfold as Lee planned. Lee interviewed experts in such fields as theology, philosophy, psychology, and medicine; however, what he discovered did not allow him to rest easy in the confident unbelief that he had always maintained.

The movie is gripping and entertaining from start to finish. Unlike many Christian movies that leave the viewer cringing, the story is put together well and features quality acting. The film does not force apologetics into the story; rather, solid apologetic evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is sprinkled into the story in a natural way as Lee travels down his road to faith in Christ. While the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is crucial to Lee’s conversion, the Holy Spirit brings him to faith via a multi-pronged plan that includes events that Lee experienced at work and within his family. There are a number of emotional scenes in which the personal spiritual battle that Lee is facing is palpable and moving, and the movie does well to illustrate how coming to faith is not merely a matter of coldly weighing out the evidence. Moreover, the turmoil that Leslie faces as Lee remains committed to his unbelief will resonate with many who have come to faith in Christ but feel the stress of not being able to convince loved ones to do the same. Indeed, the loving and patient way that she responds to this turmoil and balances her love for Christ and her love for Lee is one of the most instructive aspects of the film.

Ultimately, this film has much to offer for both believers in Christ and unbelievers. For believers, it reveals what a powerful tool apologetic evidence can be and how the Spirit makes use of it to impact certain unbelievers and draw them to the truth. It also reveals the importance of Christians loving unbelievers unconditionally and being a living testimony to them. In this way, it reminds those Christians who tend to think of evangelism as a matter of purely logic chopping and apologetic evidence that unbelief is never merely about evidence—it involves the heart and moral and emotional dimensions as well. At the same time, it reminds those who think of evangelism as a matter of simply “loving people to Jesus” without answering their hard evidential questions that this approach is inadequate for some unbelievers; some people need to have their intellectual questions answered before they will come to Christ. The film highlights how God is sovereign and is constantly working in providential ways to help unbelievers realize the truth of the gospel, and people can legitimately come to faith through evidential and non-evidential means. For unbelievers who see the film, it will introduce to them highlights of some of the best historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus and will expose them to the names of leading scholars in Christian apologetics—people like William Lane Craig and Gary Habermas. The movie also is sympathetic and fair to the unbelievers who are portrayed in it and does not demonize them—a criticism that can rightly be made of the 2014 Christian film God’s Not Dead, for example. Unbelieving viewers should also be able to appreciate the movie as a well-told and well-acted tale of two people who faced wrenching turmoil in their lives and in their marriage. From a plot standpoint, the movie holds its own and is engaging even apart from the fact that the story centers around religious aspects, though an unbeliever may not find it to be as much of a feel-good story as a believer would. While the love story between Lee and Leslie can be appreciated by any viewer, hopefully the love that God has for humanity shines through to the unbeliever as well through this film. In the final analysis, this reviewer highly recommends the film.

 

 

 

Simon of Cyrene Takes the Cross (Luke 23:26)  

 

But I was only looking on!

No lover of this miserable Nazarine,

Who pushed his truth too far

And tempted power to kill.

The cross he bears

Is self-inflicted shame and pain.

I have no part in this

Except conscripted brawn!

 

--Heavier than it looks;

A burden more than wood.

Amazing

That he bore the thing this far,

And carries still

A weight He cannot share.

 

                                                  --Elton D. Higgs

                                                  (Apr. 8, 2012)

Comment

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Ash Wednesday and Existential Longing in The Moviegoer

"Golden Theater" by T. Hawk. CC License. 

"Golden Theater" by T. Hawk. CC License. 

Binx Bolling, the protagonist of Walker Percy’s 1961 novel The Moviegoer, has settled for an ordinary life. Foregoing his previous intent to study law or medicine or engage in scientific research, he no longer desires to do “something great.” Instead, Binx prides himself on having given up “grand ambitions” and “the old longings” and now “sell[s] stocks and bonds and mutual funds; quit[s] work at five o’clock like everyone else” and dreams of “having a girl and perhaps one day settling down.”

And so Binx partakes in the ritual of the everyday. He lives in the suburbs rather than amid the excitement of New Orleans whose “old world atmosphere” incites within him feelings he cannot control. Instead, he prefers predictability: living as a model citizen and perfect tenant, armed with the paraphernalia of modern life by which he circumscribes his identity. Binx’s longing for normalcy and stability is unsurprising given that his life has been marked by tragedy—with a brother dying from pneumonia and another from an accident, losing his father at a young age, and being wounded himself while fighting in the Korean War.

Determined to stave off yet more devastating losses, Binx fills his wallet full of “identity cards, library cards, credit cards” and stuffs his lockbox with “his birth certificate, college diploma, honorable discharge, G.I. insurance, a few stock certificates,” and the deed to land inherited from his father. Consumerism drives his life, as he purchases popular products of the day, derives guidance from advice columns, and even models his relationships on movie plots.

Yet, try as he might to reduce himself to a cog in the machine, Binx remains unalterably human, with an innate hunger for significance, meaning, and purpose. To satisfy this hunger, he adopts the ceremonies of his thoroughly secularized culture—the moviegoing of the novel’s title being the most prominent. The routines of mid-twentieth-century America give him forms by which to understand his life, and he dignifies those routines with official titles like “certification,” “repetition,” and “rotation.” An evening radio program This I Believe, he tells readers, serves as his “compline,” referring to the traditional night prayer that completes the Church’s work that day.

But Percy’s novel shows just how dissatisfying these counterfeit, superficial, secularized rituals are, how little they are able to sustain a meaningful existence. The story’s events transpire in the days leading up to Mardi Gras, with parties and floats and general raucousness planned on the periphery of Binx’s central concerns. He is approaching his thirtieth birthday, and his aunt—the principal authority figure—is pressuring him about his future plans. He has none, and worse, though ill-equipped, he has been charged with caring for his depression-riddled step-cousin Kate. All he offers, all he can offer, is desacralized sex and a relationship mimicking the interaction between a director and his actress.

Even Binx himself recognizes the insubstantial nature of such a foundation on which to build a life, on which to found a marriage: “Flesh poor flesh failed us. The burden was too great and flesh poor flesh, neither hallowed by sacrament nor despised by spirit [. . .]—flesh poor flesh now at this moment summoned all at once to be all and everything, end all and be all, the last and only hope—quails and fails.”

The spiritual malaise of Binx and Kate, which parallels the spiritual malaise of the world they inhabit, is underscored by contrast with the onset of Lent, Ash Wednesday being the culmination of the novel’s events.

The novel’s most admirable figure, Binx’s terminally ill younger brother Lonnie, is a devout Catholic, and his childlike faith combines with wisdom beyond his few years to squelch any sympathy the readers might be tempted to harbor for Binx’s self-imposed existential despair. In the midst of his debilitating illness, Lonnie’s concerns are for the state of his soul, confessing feelings of pleasure over his brother Duval’s death, and for the state of Binx’s soul, praying for him when he takes communion.

It is Lonnie whose sufferings point beyond himself to Christ; it is Lonnie who revels in the life he is offered, perhaps out of knowing its limits. And it is Lonnie of whom we think when Binx and Kate watch a parishioner enter church to receive his ceremonial ashes.

Ash Wednesday is the start of Lent, the period leading up to Easter which calls Christians to spiritual preparation for the day marking the lynchpin of our faith—the resurrection of Christ. On this day, services and ritual highlight two themes: human mortality and sinfulness. Ministers mark worshipers’ heads with ash as a sign of grief for the human condition and repentance for our own participation in the sins of mankind.

The ashes—while an external sign—function on a level not possible for Binx’s material-bound rituals. In reaching back through history to the origin of humanity itself—touching on a multiplicity of biblical stories along the way—these ashes bind us, to each other, to our creator, and to our redeemer. They tell us who we are, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” and what we should do with that knowledge, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

Binx’s rituals, on the other hand, fail to answer these big questions, or if they attempt to do so, the answers themselves fail. These citizenly duties—purchasing his auto tag, heeding public service announcements, contributing to the economy—merely situate him within his society. They provide a guidebook for making his way through the social maze. These rules and roles offer him little exploration of the human condition, more expansively construed.

For man is both more and less than Binx envisions him. Man is not merely the physical creature Binx reduces him to, nor is he the epitome of reality. The ritual of Ash Wednesday corrects both misconstruals, pointing to our creator God as the author of our existence, the source of our identity, the framer of our purpose, and the vehicle of our redemption.

 

Moral Transformation in C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces

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Introduction

If asked what morality looks like, many would say it’s listening to one’s conscience or, particularly if speaking to a Christian, following the instructions laid out in the Bible. However, C. S. Lewis describes a process of total moral transformation which is significantly more involved, including divine intervention in addition to personal choice and rule-following, and which bears a striking resemblance to plot elements found in standard fictional plot structure. Where the avoidance of evil and the effort to make good choices serves as the whole of the moral question for some, Lewis describes four separate, if sometimes overlapping, stages—self-deception, honest assessment, serious moral effort, and finally redeemed morality—that can be compared to the exposition, crisis, try-fail cycle, and climax of a story’s plot. This succession of stages can most clearly be seen in Lewis’s retelling of the myth of Psyche, his novel Till We Have Faces.

Exposition: Self-Justification and Self-Deception

In our flawed moral state, we naturally find ways of justifying or even completely ignoring our moral failings. Here we find the tin soldier in one of Lewis’s analogies: in the attempt to turn him into a real man he does not want to be made real, mistakenly thinks that he is being killed, and fights as hard as he possibly can to remain in his current state.[1] “Before we can be cured we must want to be cured.”[2] The preference to try and cure ourselves, or worse, the temptation to believe that there is nothing of which to be cured, keeps us in a scenario in which we are attempting to be good (or think we are) but are in fact seeking happiness as our ultimate goal, an impossible situation since, while holiness can produce happiness, the pursuit of happiness cannot produce morality.[3]

Orual spends the greater portion of Till We Have Faces in this stage of the plot. She continually justifies her own selfish actions or overlooks them completely, avidly accuses the gods of punishing her without valid cause, and both actively and passively harms those around her throughout the process, all while thinking of herself as a martyr and demanding that everything happen on her own terms. “It had been somehow settled in [her] mind from the very beginning that [she] was the pitiable and ill-used one.”[4] Even when shown the truth of situations, Orual refuses to acknowledge it for what it is, doggedly insisting that she is in the right and has been treated unfairly, even when threatening violence and blatantly manipulating or mistreating the people around her. Orual sees a glimpse of Psyche’s palace, claims the gods are mocking her, and eagerly accepts the faulty theories of Bardia and the Fox to make herself feel better, to justify her desire to control Psyche and ruin her happiness because Orual had not been the one to provide it for her.[5] She even goes so far as to suggest, when the god appeared to her, that he changed the past to make her appear guilty: “He made it to be as if, from the beginning, I had known that Psyche’s lover was a god, and as if all my doubtings, fears, guessings, debatings, questionings of Bardia, questionings of the Fox, all the rummage and business of it, had been trumped-up foolery, dust blown in my own eyes by myself.”[6] She is shown truth at this moment (and at other moments throughout the story) and dares to accuse the gods of wrongdoing rather than acknowledging her own sin. This is an excellent example of the lengths to which someone will go to avoid the realization of their own moral failure. Lewis’s description is unique but its silhouette is readily recognizable at the center of human nature. Every person contains this exposition in his own story though the specific details will obviously vary. It is where we all start in terms of morality.

Crisis: Honest Assessment

In the midst of all the denial and justification comes a point (or points) at which an honest voice is heard speaking the truth of our failures, sometimes a slap to the face and sometimes a gentle nudge to direct our focus. We have the choice to suppress the warning or heed it. When we choose the first option, we revert to the previous stage to begin again. This is seen in Orual’s dismissal of her glimpse of the palace, her suppression of her brief desire to let Psyche be happy, her refusal to hear that Psyche’s husband could be anything other than a villain, insisting that the gods hate her, etc. When we choose the second option, though, we turn a corner. This is the point at which Orual says that she must edit her book because

I know so much more than I did about the woman who wrote it. What began the change was the very writing itself…. Memory, once waked, will play the tyrant. I found I must set down (for I was speaking as before judges and must not lie) passions and thoughts of my own which I had clean forgotten. The past which I wrote down was not the past that I thought I had (all these years) been remembering. I did not, even when I had finished the book, see clearly many things that I see now. The change which the writing wrought in me (and of which I did not write) was only a beginning—only to prepare me for the gods’ surgery. They used my own pen to probe my wound.[7]

She begins to see the reality of her situation when she makes a legitimate effort to be honest about her story, and this attempt at sincere honesty provides clarity. “Virtue—even attempted virtue—brings light; indulgence brings fog.”[8] When our focus shifts from ourselves and our natural motives to virtue and the sincere desire to be good (and not primarily happy), we begin to make real progress and see ourselves more and more clearly. “When a man is getting better he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him.… You can understand the nature of drunkenness when you are sober, not when you are drunk. Good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either.”[9] In the minds of many this stage of honest self-assessment and desire to be good, to make better choices, amounts to the peak of one’s personal moral journey. They would say that the only thing left is to follow through with those better choices and to continue being honest with oneself. For Lewis, though, this stage is more akin to the crisis point in a story’s plot; this is where the protagonist realizes the problem and attempts to effect change. Pride is identified and begins to be rejected.[su_pullquote align="right"]Once we are in right relation to God, he will make us more like himself as well as most fully ourselves.[/su_pullquote]

The Try-Fail Cycle: Moral Effort and Repeated Failure

It is at this point that sincere moral effort begins. Lewis’s recommendation at this point is to “make some serious attempt to practice the Christian virtues.… Try six weeks. By that time, having, as far as one can see, fallen back completely or even fallen lower than the point one began from, one will have discovered some truths about oneself. No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good.”[10]

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This stage can be seen in a handful of moments in Orual’s journey. She comments directly on it at one point: “I could not hold out half an hour…. I could mend my soul no more than my face.”[11] She gives the Fox his freedom, sets out to improve conditions for the workers in Glome’s mines, gives Redival the husband she wants, and takes other steps to help the people in her kingdom.[12] On the other hand, some of these actions are more selfless than others and for every success there seems to be a corresponding moral failure—her bitterness that the Fox might choose his home and family over her, her hostility toward Redival, the execution of Batta, her possessive love of Bardia, to name a few.[13] The attempt to be virtuous is admirable in that it allows us to strengthen the desire to reach that goal and in a practical sense does improve our character. Certainly, we will make better choices when the desire to do good is present rather than only the desire for happiness, but for Lewis its primary purpose is to convince us that we need divine assistance.

Now we cannot…discover our failure to keep God’s law except by trying our very hardest (and then failing). Unless we really try, whatever we say there will always be at the back of our minds the idea that if we try harder next time we shall succeed in being completely good. Thus, in one sense, the road back to God is a road of moral effort, of trying harder and harder. But in another sense it is not trying that is ever going to bring us home. All this trying leads up to the vital moment at which you turn to God and say, “You must do this. I can’t.”[14]

According to Lewis, under the right circumstances and with a decent natural temperament, we can appear to be exceptionally moral people but even at our natural best we are caught in this try-fail cycle precisely because our focus is centered on our actions and motives while God is looking for something related but different. “[W]hat God cares about is not exactly our actions. What he cares about is that we should be creatures of a certain kind or quality—the kind of creature He intended us to be—creatures related to Himself in a certain way [and therefore related to others in a certain way].”[15] For that to happen, we must reach a point, through the try-fail cycle, at which we recognize our inadequacy and seek God himself rather than seeking only moral actions.

Climax: Redeemed Morality

The climax of moral transformation (on Earth) is reached at the point when failure is recognized and the need for divine assistance is accepted and pursued. The climax is humility before God. Moral effort is still required but now Jesus is providing what is needed to succeed. “It is a living Man, still as much a man as you, and still as much God as he was when he created the world, really coming and interfering with your very self; killing the old natural self in you and replacing it with the kind of self He has. At first, only for moments. Then for longer periods. Finally, if all goes well, turning you permanently into a different sort of thing; into a new little Christ, a being which, in its own small way, has the same kind of life as God.”[16]

Something resembling the try-fail cycle will still occur but with more and more success and less and less failure, really more analogous to the falling action of the story. “For you are no longer thinking simply about right and wrong; you are trying to catch the good infection from a Person…. The real Son of God is at your side. He is beginning to turn you into the same kind of thing as Himself…beginning to turn the tin soldier into a live man. The part of you that does not like it is the part of you that is still tin.”[17] The solution draws near and things are being put right. Now when we fail, it is not in vain. God is producing perseverance and dependence in us, moving us toward virtue with each choice and making us more into the creatures he means us to be.[18]

The final stretch of Till We Have Faces shows us this stage in Orual’s story and it occurs in a relatively brief amount of time. Once she accepts that the last virtue she thought she possessed—her love for Psyche—was not the selfless love she imagined it to be, when she sees herself and the gods accurately, acknowledges that they had been right all along and that she had no excuse for her actions, she is finally able to change in a much more significant way than her previous efforts had allowed. Once Orual accepts her own failings and the illegitimacy of her accusations against the gods, accepts their judgment and the fact that she cannot fix herself, she receives more clarity. Shown Psyche’s suffering, her response is no longer justifications and denials. Instead she asks the Fox, “Did we really do these things to her? ... And we said we loved her.”[19] And when Psyche returns from her task, Orual falls at her feet and begs forgiveness, showing the new understanding she has gained in the process: “I never wished you well, never had one selfless thought of you. I was a craver.”[20]

Having tried her best to be good and failing and having recognized her actions for what they were, she finally reaches the climax: her moral redemption. When the god comes to her, she sees her reflection alongside Psyche’s. “Two figures, reflections, their feet to Psyche’s feet and mine, stood head downward in the water. But whose were they? Two Psyches, the one clothed, the other naked? Yes, both Psyches, both beautiful (if that mattered now) beyond all imagining, yet not exactly the same.”[21] This harks back to Lewis’s assertion that, once we are in right relation to God, he will make us more like himself as well as most fully ourselves.[22] Having moved through the previous stages and embraced God, Orual undergoes a radical change, not only in her actions but at her core. This is the climax of moral transformation.

Conclusion

For C. S. Lewis, moral transformation is a dynamic process and dramatic event with a very specific end result. It begins in a dark place and requires sincere effort, recognition of incompetence, and a turn to God—the exposition, crisis, try-fail cycle, and climax of one’s moral story. The process in reality is perhaps a bit messier than a typical plot structure but the categories fit well. Lewis assures us that the process a realistic one, that we possess the ability to become a Psyche with God’s assistance and will be if we allow God to have his way and embrace the process.

The command Be ye perfect is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. He said (in the Bible) that we were “gods” and He is going to make good His words. If we let Him—for we can prevent Him, if we choose—He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful, but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what He said.[23]

Lewis’s simple explanation of this moral transformation can be found in the instruction to Orual: “Die before you die.”[24] Socrates said philosophy trains us how to die—and perhaps this is what’s most true about his dictum: we need to die to our vainglory, our self-aggrandizement, all the various maladies within that only God’s grace can excise and heal.

Bibliography

Lewis, C. S. The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.

Lewis, C. S. Till We Have Faces. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1956.

[1] C. S. Lewis, The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 97.

[2] Ibid., 59.

[3] Lewis, The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, 105.

[4] C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1956), 256.

[5] Ibid., 132-133, 137-138, 144.

[6] Ibid., 173

[7] Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 253-254.

[8] Lewis, The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, 60

[9] Ibid, 56.

[10] Ibid., 78

[11] Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 282.

[12] Ibid., 207, 212, 231-236.

[13] Ibid., 207, 212, 230, 233.

[14] Lewis, The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, 81.

[15] Ibid., 80.

[16] Lewis, The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, 103.

[17] Ibid., 102.

[18] Ibid., 60.

[19] Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 304.

[20] Ibid., 305.

[21] Ibid., 307-308.

[22] Lewis, The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, 118.

[23] Lewis, The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, 109.

[24] Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 279.

Intuiting the Beauty of the Infinite: Ramanujan and Hardy’s Friendship and Collaboration

The Man Who Knew Infinity, a recent movie based on a book of the same name by Robert Kanigel, recounts the short but remarkable life story of India’s great mathematical prodigy Srivivasa Ramanujan (henceforth SR). Although what follows is a response to the film, the book is well-worth reading, filled with luscious prose such as in this sample: “The Cauvery was a familiar, recurrent constant of Ramanujan’s life. At some places along its length, palm trees, their trunks heavy with fruit, leaned over the river at rakish angles. At others, leafy trees formed a canopy of green over it, their gnarled, knotted roots snaking along the riverbank.”

The movie begins by quoting Bertrand Russell (a character in the movie itself): “Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth but supreme beauty.” It then shows SR in India, doing his mathematics (without much formal training) while trying to eke out a living for his family. His passion and talent for math are obvious; trying to describe maths (the preferred British abbreviation) to his wife, he says it’s like a painting, but with colors you can’t see. There are patterns everywhere in mathematics, he adds, revealed in the most incredible forms. Finding himself in need of someone who could understand and appreciate his ground-breaking work, SR wrote G. H. Hardy, legendary professor at Cambridge, and eventually Hardy invited SR to traverse the ocean and come work with him there.

This incredible opportunity required SR to leave his wife behind and endure the long journey and culture shock of moving to England, which contributes to a compelling narrative, with many twists and turns I’m not discussing but that make for a terrific, sometimes heart-wrenching tale. Despite the trials and challenges (including a war), what’s amazing was how much work SR and Hardy were able to do over the next five years—publishing dozens of groundbreaking articles.

The divergent worldviews of the two men make the dynamics of their friendship particularly fascinating to chronicle. SR was a devout Hindu whereas Hardy was a committed atheist—though the first time Hardy says this to SR in the movie (“I’m what’s called an ‘atheist’”), SR replies, “You believe in God. You just don’t think he likes you.” Incidentally, this is a key structuring question in C. S. Lewis’s moving novel Till We Have Faces: whereas both Psyche and Orual believe in the gods, Psyche believed they were marvelous and loving, but Orual thought they were only dark, unkind, and mysterious. In Rudolph Otto’s terminology, Orual was familiar with the tremendum aspect of the Numinous, but Psyche with both the tremendum (the awe-inspiring mystery) and the fascinans aspect of the Numinous. Fascinans is the aspect of the Divine involving consuming attraction, rapturous longing—and is often connected to the imagination, beauty, even poetry.

The diametric difference in SR’s and Hardy’s ultimate worldviews proves to be related to a central aspect of the plot. Hardy is adamant about the need to show step-by-step proofs of SR’s conclusions, while SR is depicted as functioning on a much more intuitive level. I’m not concerned for now what artistic liberties the moviemakers might have taken in this regard, but it is true that SR would often write down the conclusions of his work and not all the intervening steps. There may be at least a partial explanation of this which is fairly prosaic: paper tended to be in short supply for SR in India. But it’s at least intriguing to consider the explanation advanced in the movie: SR possessed incredibly strong intuitive skills. Mystifying Hardy, SR could just see things that few others could and felt little need to offer the proofs.

Hardy—though incredibly impressed with SR’s abilities, likening him to an artist like Mozart, who could write a whole symphony in his head—repeatedly says that intuition is not enough. Intuition must be “held accountable.” Proofs mattered, to avoid projecting the appearance of SR’s mathematical dance or art as on a par with conjuring.

It isn’t that SR’s intuitions were infallible. His theory of primes, however intuitively obvious, turned out to be wrong. Still, though, many of his intuitions were eventually vindicated and proved right. One among other interesting questions that SR’s reliance on intuitions raises is how much discursive analysis they involve. It’s a vexed question among epistemologists whether intuitions are a lightning quick series of inferences, or something more immediately and directly apprehended. The quickness with which they come naturally lends itself to the latter analysis, but perhaps there’s something to the former option—particularly if much of the analysis is done beneath the level of conscious awareness. In the Sherlock Holmes stories, for example, Sherlock’s inferences would come so quickly that Watson characterized them as resembling intuitions; likewise, realizing it’s sometimes easier to know something than to explain the justification for it, Sherlock himself recognized the way knowledge can have features that resemble more immediate apprehendings than just the deliverances of the discursive intellect. A couple of real-life Sherlocks, Al Plantinga and Phil Quinn had a dust up some years back on whether basic beliefs are formed inferentially or not.

The difference in Hardy’s and SR’s styles, we come to see, is related to their divergent worldviews. Exasperated at Hardy’s recurring disparagement of intuition as lacking in substance, SR finally blurts out, “You say this word as if it is nothing. Is that all it is to you? All that I am? You’ve never even seen me. You are a man of no faith. . . . Who are you, Mr. Hardy?” The underlying dynamic that brought this exchange to a head was the way SR connected his own identity to those intuitions. Hardy had asked SR before how he got his ideas. Now SR gives his answer: “By my god. She speaks to me, puts formulas on my tongue when I sleep, sometimes when I pray.”

SR asks Hardy if he believes him, and adds, “Because if you are my friend, you will know that I am telling you the truth. If you are truly my friend.”

In Till We Have Faces, we find a similar scene. Orual can’t see the gold-and-amber castle that Psyche tells her of, but Orual also knows that Psyche had never told her a lie. One issue here is testimony, and the conditions that need to be in place to take it as reliable. Of course someone could be telling the truth, the best they understand it, and still be unreliable—for perhaps they’ve unwittingly made a mistake, or they’re delusional or confused.

At any rate, Hardy’s reply is transparent: “But I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe in anything I can’t prove.”

“Then you don’t believe in me,” SR responded. “Now do you see? An equation has no meaning to me unless it expresses the thought of God.”

Hardy remained skeptical of SR’s theology, but couldn’t dispute with the results. He would go to bat for SR to get him a fellowship at Cambridge, and in his impassioned defense of SR’s accomplishments he extolled his incredible originality, by which SR could apprehend so much truth otherwise missed. On Hardy’s view, the creativity and originality, though they provided SR a lens through which to see, didn’t subjectivize SR’s findings; rather, they were a tool for seeing farther and seeing more.

This contrasts with, say, Simon Critchley’s interpretation of the poetry of Wallace Stevens. On (Critchley’s) Stevens’s view, the only reality we experience is mediated through categories furnished by the poetic imagination, rendering our perspectives products of the imagination and, thus, subjective—yet still able to be believed despite their fictive nature. This is what some might call a more “postmodern” perspective than Hardy’s more traditional view that there’s an objective reality we’re able to discern, however imperfectly and through a glass darkly.

In real life, when Hardy died, one mourner spoke of his “profound conviction that the truths of mathematics described a bright and clear universe, exquisite and beautiful in its structure, in comparison with which the physical world was turbid and confused. It was this which made his friends . . . think that in his attitude to mathematics there was something which, being essentially spiritual, was near to religion.”

Hardy didn’t believe in God, but he did believe in SR and in the objectivity of mathematical truth. He wrote of his Platonism in his Mathematician’s Apology, and the movie captures this too. In one of his defenses of SR, he related the story of the way SR said mathematical truths are thoughts of God—a view parallel to, say, Plantinga’s view that modal and necessary moral truths are also thoughts in the mind of God. Then Hardy added, “Despite everything in my being set to the contrary, perhaps he’s right. For isn’t this exactly our justification for pure mathematics? We are merely the explorers of infinity in the pursuit of absolute perfection. We do not invent these formulae—they already exist and lie in wait for only the brightest minds to divine and prove. In the end, who are we to question Ramanujan—let alone God?”

Though math, on Hardy’s view, is discovered, not invented, it may take those with prodigious talents to uncover its deepest truths. Speaking of which, near the start of the film Hardy had said, “I didn’t invent Ramanujan. I discovered him.” Even more than the math, this is a movie about men and their remarkable friendship and fertile partnership across radically divergent and conflicting paradigms. The humanity of the film is its best feature of all.

After five years of collaboration between these unlikely friends, SR returned to India, having contracted a fatal disease—likely tuberculosis. Within a year he died, at the age of just 32. Hardy was crestfallen when he heard the news, and grieved the loss deeply. Near the end of the movie, he reflected on his collaboration with both SR and another colleague, Littlewood, saying he’d done something special indeed: “I have collaborated with both Littlewood and Ramanujan on something like equal terms.”

Paraphrasing Hardy, he once commented that out of 100 points, he would give himself 30 as a mathematician, 45 to Littlewood, 70 to Hilbert. And 100 to Ramanujan. In the year SR spent in India before his death, he poured his brilliant findings into another notebook. It was lost for a while, but when found, the importance of its discovery was likened to that of Beethoven’s “10th Symphony.” A century later, these formulas are being used to understand the behavior of black holes.

The Unsafe Lion

Two encounters with Aslan, the Great Lion in the Narnia books by C. S. Lewis, serve to illustrate the idea that meeting this being (a Christ figure) is risky business. The first instance is in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, when the Pevensy children are having a meal with Mr. and Mrs. Beaver. In the course of their conversation, the Beavers speak of Aslan and are questioned about him by the children. Told that he is a lion and not a man, and is moreover the Great Lion, son of the Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea, Susan asks, “”Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” To which Mrs. Beaver replies that indeed, any sane person would tremble in his presence. “’Then he isn’t safe?’ Said Lucy. ‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver . . . . Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.’” Later, when children do meet Aslan, they finally come to understand that joining his cause means leaving behind their conventional ideas of safety.

Another “dangerous” encounter with the Great Lion is in The Silver Chair, when the girl Jill is left alone with Aslan after she has foolishly endangered her companion Eustace and inadvertently forced a premature separation between them. She finds herself suddenly very thirsty, and when she discovers a stream to drink from, the Lion is between her and the water. She stands there terrified of what the Lion might do if she goes to the water, but increasingly tormented by thirst, so that “she almost felt she would not mind being eaten by the Lion if only she could be sure of getting a mouthful of water first.” When Aslan invites her to come on and drink, she responds, “Will you promise not to—do anything to me, if I do come?” When he says, “I will make no promise,” she is nevertheless desperate enough to come forward and drink. It is a risky step that results in her being in a frame of mind, after she has drunk, to be corrected and instructed by Aslan.

These and perhaps another half-dozen or so of Narnia meetings between Aslan and humans or sentient animals demonstrate the mixture of terrifying presence and gentleness that these meetings entail. They may be taken allegorically as parables of our relationship with God. Coming into His presence is entirely on His own terms. We have no right nor power to make demands or cut deals. In the Gospels, Jesus Himself challenges people who hear His call to respond in ways that seem contrary to prudent regard for safety and security. He called Peter, Andrew, James, and John to abruptly leave their nets (for James and John even to abandon their father) and become “fishers of men” with Him (Matt. 4:18-22). He chided some who wanted to tend to reasonable business, like saying goodbye to loved ones or burying one’s father, before following Him (Luke 9:57-62). He called Matthew to get up from his profitable, if disreputable, tax-collecting table and join Jesus’ itinerant, dusty band of disciples (Matt. 9:9). Jesus set a severe standard overall for being His disciple: one must forsake father and mother and all possessions, if these interfere with following Jesus (Luke 14:-33, 18:18-33). The Master concludes that “any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 18:33). Serving this Master entails the paradox that “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:39). According to human wisdom, walking with Jesus is unsafe at any speed.

But on the other hand, serving Christ with the abandon He asks of us is a risk well worth taking, for at the core of the risk is trust in God’s justice and mercy and in the sure hope that He will always be faithful to His promises.. Since God will not waver in turning our holy recklessness into great gain, casting our lot with Him is the “sure thing” that earthly gamblers are always looking for. A prime illustration of this is the passage in Hebrews where the writer speaks of the faith of Abraham, who gave up his homeland to start out for a destination only vaguely represented to him by God; who accepted the promise of the Lord to give him a son from whom a great nation would, even when his wife was barren and both of them were advanced in age; who, in the face of all common sense and human feeling, proceeded to obey God by sacrificing his only son, the son of divine promise. These “foolhardy” actions were to human eyes extremely risky, but they were based on the words of a God so great that there was none higher by whom He could swear (Heb. 6:13-18).

And we also, heirs to the modeling faith of Abraham, “we who have fled for refuge . . . have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf . . . “ (Heb. 6:18-20). To come back to Mr. Beaver of Narnia, “‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.’” Paradoxically, then, He is to be both feared and trusted.

Comment

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Fire in the Bones: Love that Holds the Dark Wolves at Bay

Mark R. Harris’s Fire in the Bones, a 2015 publication with Black Rose Writing, is an enchanted tale, featuring effective storytelling that offers readers a delightful way to while away some hours by taking a foray through the prescient mind and life of a pre-teen boy growing up in the sixties. The boy, besides being charming and innocent, inquisitive and intelligent, is eminently likeable. And the book often effortlessly funny, eliciting many smiles and a few laugh-out-loud moments, and sometimes quite touching and poignant.

The story chronicles the young Luke’s doubts and fears, loneliness and powerlessness, successes and failures, all seamlessly filtered and processed through the TV, music, and radio of the period, punctuated with pop cultural icons ranging from Batman to Secret Agent Man, from Underdog to Catwoman to, most importantly, The Beatles. Despite the tumult of the 60s, the story evokes a sense of a simpler time, in part because, at this point in Luke’s life, much of the world occupying his attention wasn’t overwhelmed by the Vietnam War or flower children, but with more personal concerns. And yet, in its own way, inside his head was a universe of its own. The privileged perspective of the novel is always childlike, though rarely childish, and its unassuming and simple clarity shouldn’t be mistaken for anything simplistic; it’s in fact psychologically rich.

Early in the narrative Luke faces a couple challenges that upset his equanimity and create feelings of anger and fear within him. He’s in a car accident from which it takes some time to recover, and his family relocates 500 miles away, leaving behind the familiar and rendering him powerless in the face of such unexpected events along the way. A sense of fear and anger haunts much of his childhood, and navigating such negative emotions—a “surging wave of heat” when provided with fresh “fodder for his fury”—becomes one of his biggest recurring challenges. Sometimes the only way for him to fight fear is with anger, relegating him to feel viscerally one or the other.

Very bright, and gifted with a vivid imagination, Luke develops a number of coping mechanisms—including, the night of the relocation, conjuring up a character from a dream, an imaginary friend (Bob) who would be his faithful companion for years. Such a measure of constancy seems to help counterbalance life’s fluctuating circumstances. Similarly, retreating to his imagination enables Luke to exert power he likes to think he has; assuming the persona of Underdog or Secret Agent Man, he relishes picturing himself heroically swooping to the rescue of various girls who’d struck his fancy. The character is far from static, as he continues valiantly to struggle to outgrow his fears, even experimenting with recklessness after renouncing those fears, and finally facing his fears with courage.

Besides fear and anger, coping with loss and change and feelings of helplessness, Luke yearns for safety. Taking his first fledgling steps navigating a big scary world filled with questions—especially the mystery of girls—Luke isn’t debilitated by his fears. This, despite that some of his fears run very deep. From a very young age they extend to angst over potential blasphemy, raising the very question of who God is—an unbending Judge, or loving Father. In his precocious fashion, he apprehends a tension between his worst fears, on the one hand—like the idea that God doesn’t love him after all and the unquenchable fires of hell—and the good theology he’d learned at church that he held firmly to in his head.  Most of all, Luke wants to forge connections—with God, with friends, with girls, with family. Despite his power of imagination and prodigious gift for introspection, he becomes ready to act when the time is right.

Luke realizes at a certain point he’s been afraid all of his life, and he wants to be delivered from that fear. For help he looks to the two resources he’s come to trust the most: God (the Bible, prayer) and The Beatles. He is enamored with The Beatles: they are part of the air he breathed from early on, and they offer a lens through which to understand life and process his experiences. Winsomely credulous and tenacious in hope more than naïve or indolent, Luke tries to discern insight and glean direction from various sources, lyrics of The Beatles at the top of the list. He looks to them not just for direction; he becomes a real aficionado of their music, developing a sophisticated taste for their work and the ability to distinguish between better and worse songs they produce. The credulity of readers isn’t strained by believing the observant boy noticing halting harpsichords, musical progressions, harmonious lullabies, orchestral accompaniment, and layers of discordant singing. Luke can even be critical of them on occasion, but generally his taste and respect for them are unparalleled, and his confidence in them towering. The two biggest virtues they exemplify, to Luke’s thinking, are the insights and illumination their music provides and the togetherness and teamwork they embody.

These twin themes, in my view, are what most tie this whole novel together, and both of them are a function of Luke’s mind and methodology. Part of Luke’s charm is the way he’s so sensitive to signs and signals. It’s as if he’s on a perpetual quest for the truth, for insight into the human condition, or at least for an accurate understanding of the little gestures of affection from his prospective girlfriend. How he reads a wealth of meaning into the way a girl intentionally touches his sleeve a few times is nothing less than delightful, especially when, in retrospect, he tortures himself with questions of whether she meant what he hoped she did. It’s all quintessential childhood, invoking the mystery of gender that rears its head so early, but mostly forgotten until a writer like Harris re-assumes a childhood persona with such authenticity and power and invigorates our recollection.

In this connection, Harris’s portrayal of Luke’s romantic interests is done with a masterfully light and winsome touch, accurately capturing the innocence of childhood so often sacrificed nowadays as if nothing sacred is lost. What we find in Luke is romance that isn’t illicit, an interest in girls without the requisite inordinate sexualization from a ridiculously young age. As such, it’s all quite innocent by contemporary standards, and boldly refreshing, reminiscent of a time when a kiss alone was rife with significance, when the mere prospect of holding a girl in one’s arms was practically rapturous. This feature of the book is simply enchanting. Rather than swallowing an elephant, Harris’s forte and gift is savoring a morsel. Despite all of Luke’s efforts to understand girls, he finally realizes he doesn’t understand them at all, but that they’re still worth the trouble.

Girls are but one example of Luke’s desire for connection, the second integrating motif of the volume, and another visible virtue of The Beatles, at least for a while. Luke understands the band as a team, better together than apart, more than the sum of their parts. He loves to hear them make music that integrated their constituent pieces into a melodious whole with such excellence and skill, and he seems to relish what such integration represents: friends working harmoniously together, forging connectivity. It resonates with Luke’s own passion for community and connection. And this theme is related to the first, for the togetherness of The Beatles is reliable evidence of their teamwork and integration. This is why, for so long, the young Luke resists the idea that the band is experiencing tensions or, later, on the verge of breaking up, or, later still, that they have in fact separated. It grates against Luke to admit or accept it, for if their togetherness shows the power of community and elicits hope, what does the demise of the band represent?

Connection with others, and a girlfriend in particular, animates so much of Luke’s pilgrimage. It’s a prescription to loneliness, the cure for aloneness, deliverance from anger and powerlessness, a way to secure and enjoy love. Even from his early age, Luke recognizes the need for love, its importance and centrality. The very questions Luke asks about love—its permanence, whether God loves him, whether God’s nature is love, whether there can be a conflict between love and the right thing to do, how we can recognize it, whether love can be perfected, how to find it—show the novel to be, despite the protagonist’s introspection, perhaps introversion, profoundly communal in its scope and tenor.

As I read this remarkable little novel, it leaves me with several salient impressions, and a few central questions it intimates at and to which it may offer a clue or two. In the recognition of others—in both their sameness and difference—we find ourselves in need of connection and community, of love and emotional intimacy, of friendship and family. As the inveterate observer that young Luke is, he models how we can’t help but be insatiably curious about life’s mysteries. For one like him, incurably reflective and looking for signals of transcendence, how can love not be the most important clue of all? If a girl touching a sleeve can contain a world, what’s contained in love but the universe? If the mystery and beauty of a girl’s shining smile can fill Luke’s heart with hope, what veridical sign of hope, intimation of the eternal, and insight into reality do relationships of love provide? In a world touched with corruption and loss, grief and death, is there a love that doesn’t disappoint? A love that can keep the dark wolves of fear and loneliness forever at bay? Does the fire within and without consume us, or ultimately perfect us, readying us for ever deeper and rewarding, transformative relationships of love?

Onward, Christian Satirists!

Kansas City, MO—In a hopeful move for the future of quality religious writing, scores of contemporary Christian wordsmiths have rallied behind what promises to be a whole new way in which the kingdom of God can irrupt into this fallen world: satirical blogging. This week marked the launch of The Leek, a radically iconoclastic Christian website that loftily aspires to lampoon evangelical foibles, hoping to root them out and make way for a fresh move of the Holy Spirit in congregations across America. In this bold endeavor, The Leek’s writers and editors have assumed the mantle passed on by church luminaries through the ages. Through incisive pieces that aim to prick the church’s conscience over its potluck obsession and turn our collective hearts to repentance about hokey email sign-offs, these social-media visionaries are natural heirs to the Basils, Augustines, Anselms, and Pascals of past eras.

Finding little audience for and feeling creatively restrained by the strictures of drab discursive analysis or dense literary fiction, these modern-day Christian Juvenals have chosen instead the sarcastic path less traveled.

In an age bereft of entertainment and saturated by abstruse deliberation and punctilious analysis, these courageous countercultural writers embody the Apostle Paul’s charge to resist conformity to this world. They are jumping headlong into the humor void to remind American evangelicals that there are, indeed, a plethora of quirky aspects of our subculture that we must recognize and publicly mock.

Citing the challenges of retaining hope in this fallen world, editor Seth Brown explains that the purpose of The Leek is to seek out elements of the evangelical subculture that are already farcical but that have not yet been roundly ridiculed, bringing eschatological irony to bear on those aspects of our world in most desperate need of it.

Well aware of Christ’s charge in Matthew 28 for his followers to provide hope and light to a dying world, these writers have decided to answer the need subversively—by not addressing it at all. “I know people are spiritually starving to death,” said Jane Lassiter, who recently left her post at Wycliffe Global Alliance to become a modern-day prophetic purveyor of levity. “But I think what they need even more than illuminating truth is a good belly laugh. The peccadillos and idiosyncrasies of the Christian subculture provide a veritable treasure trove of resources to do this impeccably. A merry heart does good like a medicine, after all!”

Thinking along these same lines, other believers have jettisoned their university press contracts for the exciting opportunity to have a by-line at The Leek. “What?” defensively asked John Small whose previous tomes weighed heavily in academic debates against naturalism and scientism. “More people will read my blogs than my books anyway.” Readers of The Leek agree. “The apostle Paul was a good writer; he’d have killed at this kind of thing,” expressed Sam Sawyer who relishes seeing insufferable derogation transmogrified into an art form.

But does the satire do much good, reaching its intended target? “Sure! Good satire is an effective way at providing social commentary,” another enlightened virtual-Jonathan-Swift-wanna-be who’s seen the light added. “For example, the other day my article was like, ‘So what’s up with people always sitting in the same pew in church?’ And a few weeks ago, I offered compelling implicit commentary on how many times worship songs get repeated in services. And recently a friend ripped on Christians who are bad tippers. That’s golden, man! Christians really need to learn to laugh at themselves.”

At press time, Thomas Nelson was increasing its Bible-production-output in preparation for the imminent nation-wide revival The Leek’s launch is bound to spark.