“I live in so many centuries…”

I live in so many centuries. Everybody is still alive.

-Barry Hannah, Ray, p. 41

Hannah is dealing with the ‘age of confusion’ that was/is post-Vietnam America as he saw it. I’ve never read it, but there is a book about the artwork of Douglas Coupland (an author I really enjoy) that’s title carries the same idea. It’s called Everywhere is Anywhere is Anything is Everything.

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The idea is also reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians:

The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist.

The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.

When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is “so it goes” (Slaughterhouse Five).

The overarching sense of all of this is that everything for the modern American is jumbled up, misunderstood, confused, etc. There’s a lot more than that, but for the sake of this post, that’s all I’m talking about.

There is something instructive, however. In his great book, Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton called Tradition the ‘democracy of the dead.’ Tradition means giving your predecessors a vote that is equally as valid as yours. C.S. Lewis made the point that books from the past are the only tool we have to check our own chronological-subjectivism (see HERE and HERE). Alister McGrath summarizes Lewis’ position by saying that reading old books “frees us from the tyranny of the contemporaneous” as it keeps “the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds.”

My point is that ‘living in so many centuries’ that everyone seems alive is not actually a bad thing. Confusion can be bad. Having a healthy relationship with history not so much. I feel like I know some dead people better than I know some of the living folks I talk to every day.

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The Mark of Hell

Milton’s devils, by their grandeur and high poetry, have done great harm, and his angels owe too much to Homer and Raphael. But the really pernicious image is Goethe’s Mephistopheles. It is Faust, not he, who really exhibits the ruthless, sleepless, unsmiling concentration upon self which is the mark of hell. The humorous, civilized, sensible, adaptable Mephistopheles has helped to strengthen the illusion that evil is liberating.

-C.S. Lewis, from the original preface to The Screwtape Letters

And that’s as good a definition of pride as I’ve seen: “…the ruthless, sleepless, unsmiling concentration upon self…”

Aiming for Truth with the Imagination

The basis of art is truth, both in matter and mode. The person who aims after art in his work aims after truth, in an imaginative sense, no more and no less. St. Thomas said that the artist is concerned with the good of that which is made…

-Flannery O’Connor, The Nature and Aim of Fiction, from Mystery and Manners, p.65

This is pretty much in line with C.S. Lewis’ famous line that the imagination is the ‘organ of meaning.’ The imagination seeks to grasp for, and embody, truth through metaphors and story. The good stories still deal with the age-old issues relating to the truth of reality. This is a good quote to keep right next to Lewis.’

Are you cultivating an imagination bent on grappling with truth? Are you a metaphor-maker? Are you content to live with abstractions? The word, says Dorothy Sayers, always needs to become flesh.

Recent Reading: Tuck Everlasting

-Natalie Babbitt, Tuck Everlasting

I think that Resurrection (what ever it exactly means) is so much profounder an idea than mere immortality. I am sure we don’t just “go on.” We really die and are really built up again (C.S. Lewis, Reference).

I thought of that quote from Lewis several times as I read this book with my children.

What if you could drink from the fountain of youth and live forever? What if drugs could extend life beyond what we presently imagine? Those are compelling questions. And it’s the question below those questions that Tuck Everlasting really addresses. I happen to think it addresses it in a beautiful way.

Winnie is faced with a decision. I think she sides with C.S. Lewis. I hope I would too.

 

Depart from Me

In The Great Divorce, Lewis has those famous lines: ‘There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it.’

Long before Lewis penned those words, Ralph Venning (1621-1673) wrote,

What is sin but a departure from God? And what is the doom of sinners but departure from God? It is as if God should say to them, You liked departing while you lived; now depart from me. You would none of me while you lived; now I will none of you or yours.

-Ralph Venning, The Sinfulness of Sin, p. 71

 

On Killing Adjectives and Thought Verbs

After listening to one of my sermons, a good friend pointed me to an article by Chuck Palahniuk on Thought Verbs (hence my current binging on Palahniuk’s books). The application to my own preaching was clear.

For example, Palahniuk writes,

Thinking is abstract.  Knowing and believing are intangible.  Your story will always be stronger if you just show the physical actions and details of your characters and allow your reader to do the thinking and knowing.  And loving and hating.

Don’t tell your reader:  “Lisa hated Tom.”

Instead, make your case like a lawyer in court, detail by detail.  Present each piece of evidence.  For example:

“During role call, in the breath after the teacher said Tom’s name, in that moment before he could answer, right then, Lisa would whisper-shout: ‘Butt Wipe,” just as Tom was saying, ‘Here’.”

Another example:

From this point forward – at least for the next half year – you may not use “thought” verbs.  These include:  Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use.

The list should also include:  Loves and Hates.

And it should include:  Is and Has, but we’ll get to those, later.

Until some time around Christmas, you can’t write:  Kenny wondered if Monica didn’t like him going out at night…”

Instead, you’ll have to Un-pack that to something like:  “The mornings after Kenny had stayed out, beyond the last bus, until he’d had to bum a ride or pay for a cab and got home to find Monica faking sleep, faking because she never slept that quiet, those mornings, she’d only put her own cup of coffee in the microwave.  Never his.”

Instead of characters knowing anything, you must now present the details that allow the reader to know them.  Instead of a character wanting something, you must now describe the thing so that the reader wants it.

All this reminded me of something I had read from C.S. Lewis regarding adjectives. Lewis writes,

Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us the thing is “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please, will you do my job for me.” (Letters to Children, p. 64)

The application is simple for the writer and the preacher. Stop simply telling and start showing.

In a college literature class I got into a (friendly) kerfuffle with a professor over Jonathan Edwards’ sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. He said it was graphic to the point of being unhelpful. I said Edwards was doing precisely what Lewis and Palahniuk are talking about. That was a great part of the effectiveness of Edwards’ preaching. He was relentlessly imaginative and descriptive. The two go hand in hand after all. Palahniuk gives examples for the writer, let me share a few for the preacher.

Instead of saying, ‘God is sovereign,’ say something like, ‘all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?”

Instead of saying, as I’ve heard so many preachers say, ‘The correct response is faith,’ say, ‘Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory.’

I heard a preacher dealing with Exodus say, ‘You cannot be a Christian and live like an Egyptian.’ Wouldn’t it be better to show us what an Egyptian looks like rather than simply making the assertion? Thomas Watson described them this way: ‘The Egyptians were not a warlike but a womanish people, imbecilic and weak, yet these were too hard for Israel and made a spoil of her.’ That says a lot more about what we are not to be.

One of my great problems as a preacher and a writer is that I tend to unpack the things that don’t need unpacking while failing to unpack the things that actually need it. If you have similar issues, perhaps it’s time to work on killing thought-verbs and adjectives.

A Secular Age is a Dated Age

They did not call themselves Atheists, they called themselves Secularists. Never was a more bitter and blighting confession made in the form of a boast. For the word “secular” does not mean anything so sensible as “worldly.” It does not even mean anything so spirited as “irreligious.” To be secular simply means to be of the age; that is, of the age which is passing; of the age which, in their case, is already passed. There is one tolerably correct translation of the Latin word which they have chosen as their motto. There is one adequate equivalent of the word “secular”; and it is the word “dated.”

-G.K. Chesterton, The Well and the Shallows

C.S. Lewis once famously said that “all that is not eternal is eternally out of date.” Spurgeon said, “whoever marries today’s fashion is tomorrow’s widow.” To call yourself a secularist is to admit that your shelf-life is short.

 

Martyn Lloyd-Jones on C.S. Lewis

A commenter on the blog brought an interesting quote from Martyn Lloyd-Jones to my attention (one that I had never heard). In his first sermon in his famous series called Revival, the doctor said this:

Do you remember the vogue of CS Lewis? You don’t hear much about him now, but why all the excitement? Ah, here is a philosopher. And it indicates our pathetic faith and belief in these methods, which are nothing but apologetics. As exactly in the beginning of the 18th century they were pinning their faith to Bishop Butler and his great Analogy of Religion…

The doctor is nothing if not irenic! (or not). Interestingly, that comment about C.S. Lewis was edited out of the sermon when it came to be published in book form. I checked again tonight. It’s simply not there. But you can find it at the 39 minute mark of the original recording HERE. This sermon was preached, it appears, in 1959, just four years before Lewis’ death. ‘You don’t hear much about him now…’ would certainly not apply in 2015.

Here is another anecdote about MLJ and Lewis I’ve come across. In The Fight of Faith, the second volume of Iain Murray’s biography of Lloyd-Jones, he records a letter written by the Doctor in 1941 to his wife, which says,

There is nothing special on Thursday but meetings in different colleges. On Friday I am due to have breakfast with William Riddle’s son – a second edition of his father. Then I will go with him to a lecture given by C.S. Lewis (author of The Problem of Pain) an I am to have lunch with Lewis…

In the footnote, Murray writes,

Lewis is said to have valued ML-J’s appreciation and encouragement when the early edition of his Pilgrim’s Regress was not selling well. Vincent Lloyd-Jones [MLJ’s brother] and Lewis knew each other well, being contemporaries at Oxford. ML-J met the author again and they had a long conversation when they both found themselves on the same boat to Ireland in 1953. On that later occasion, to the question, ‘When are you going to write another book?, Lewis replied, ‘When I understand the meaning of prayer’ (p. 52).

Another interesting tidbit was a line from MLJ in Christianity Today in 1963, shortly after the death of Lewis:

C. S. Lewis had a defective view of salvation and was an opponent of the substitutionary and penal view of the atonement.

The purpose of the post is simply to document these statements, so I will end here without further comment.

Update 8/22/17: I found another one:

This comes from a sermon Lloyd-Jones gave right after the death of C.S. Lewis. From Lloyd-Jones’ sermon on Romans 10:9-10 (audio can be found HERE, at around the 15:00 mark). ML-J compares Lewis’ teaching to a dry sort of intellectualism that doesn’t involve the heart, specifically comparing it to Sandemanianism. He summarized that teaching in this way: “if you accepted the teaching [i.e. Christianity or the doctrines of the gospel] with your mind, and were prepared to say so…that was sufficient, even though you felt nothing at all…If you accepted the teaching and were prepared to say so, that saved you, in the absence of any feelings whatsoever.”

There are certain tendencies in this direction even in our own day and generation. I had already purposed to say this before I read in the press last weekend, or heard on the wireless, of the passing of Professor C.S. Lewis. I regret to say this, but that was more or less his teaching also. He believed that you could reason yourself into the Christian faith. The first book he ever published was a book called The Pilgrim’s Regress. And the whole point of that book is to say that by clear thinking, you can think yourself from a rationalist or atheistical position into the Christian position. And he actually, at one time, founded in Oxford what he called the Socratic Club, which used to meet on Monday nights, in which he used to try to show people how to reason themselves into Christianity. ‘With the heart man believeth unto righteousness.’ You cannot do it merely by a process of intellectual reasoning.

Top Ten Posts in 2014

This will likely be my last post of the year (with the holidays and all), so I want to wish you all a Merry Christmas.

In the meantime, I give you the mandatory ‘top posts’ post. If there’s anything on the list you haven’t read before, why not give it a look? Here are the most read posts from the blog for the year:

1. Myths About the Bible: Noah Was Mocked? The Fight Against Apathy
This marks the second year in a row that this post is number one. It had about 1,800 views for the year.

2. A List of Benedictions
In the top 3 for the third straight year. Everybody needs a good list of benedictions.

3. C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton: Reading, Fairy Tales, and Mental Health
The same top 3 as last year. I still think that reading fairy tales is a balm for the soul.

4. God Is Love, But Love Is Not God
This one’s the first newcomer to the list. Here I take on not only modern culture, but no less a giant than St. Augustine.

5. Recent Reading: The Mind of the Maker, by Dorothy Sayers: Part 1 – Summary of the Argument for a Trinity in Creative Art
This marks the second year in the top 5. I go back to this post fairly regularly to brush up on Sayers’ points.

6. The Misused Passages: 1 Corinthians 2:9, Eye Hath Not Seen, Nor Ear Heard
This is my take on how people misuse the famous words, ‘Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor hath it entered into the mind of man, what God hath prepared for them that love Him.’

7. Charlotte’s Web: Dr. Dorian, Miraculous Webs, Animals Talking
I share a favorite quote from Charlotte’s Web.

8. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ Method of Pastoral Counseling and Diagnosis
I am glad this one cracked the top 10. I worked very hard on this post in an attempt to distill the basics of the pastoral counseling method of Martyn Lloyd-Jones. I work harder to actually try to put his wisdom into practice. I still highly recommend the book on which this post is based: Healing and the Scriptures.

9. Recent Reading: Leaf by Niggle, by J.R.R. Tolkien
Here’s a taste: “Christian lawyers work for justice, and the world remains unjust. Christian doctors, nurses, and pharmacists (and others of course) work for the health and well-being of people – all of whom eventually die…”

10. Him that is Unjust, Let Him be Unjust Still: What does it mean? (Revelation 22:11)
It’s a line from the Book of Revelation that has entered into the modern consciousness via Johnny Cash’s The Man Comes Around. I remember early in the season there was an SEC football commercial that used this song. I thought there was an ironically fitting display of southern culture as I saw images of Les Miles and Nick Saban as this song played in the background.

Recent Reading: Transposition, by C.S. Lewis (from The Weight of Glory)

Dawn Treader

I am still relatively new to C.S. Lewis. I only started reading him about four years ago. For this reason, I often hesitate to post about his writings. Like Chesterton working so hard to craft a worldview only to come to the realization that his newly constructed worldview was only that already held for centuries by the Christian church, I am always afraid of re-inventing the wheel. And, I probably am doing just that once again. Anyhow, it’s new to me. Writing helps to solidify thoughts.

I read Lewis’ address/essay entitled Transposition for the first time recently and found it to be very stimulating. The first element of intrigue, for me, is that anyone who has read Lewis’ fiction will realize that this idea of Transposition was important enough to him that it crept into his stories. It’s there in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, as the painting on the wall comes to life. It’s also there in The Silver Chair, as the ‘queen’ of the underworld tries to convince the children and the marsh wiggle that the ‘overworld’ doesn’t really exist. It is also there in The Last Battle, in the unveiling of the new Narnia. Finally, it is there in The Great Divorce, in the form of a ‘world’ that gets more solid as you get closer to heaven. Is it, perhaps, some form of Platonism? My very amateur experience says probably. But I am not philosophically astute enough to know for certain. You tell me.

Lewis’ starting point toward his doctrine of Transposition is, of all things, the phenomenon of ‘speaking in tongues.’ He uses this phenomenon, essentially, to make the point that the ‘higher’ experience of the emotions draws up the ‘lower’ experience of bodily sensation and affect into itself in such a way that the two, though distinguishable (I think), cannot be separated. (I am not going anywhere near any argument relating to ‘tongues,’ and I don’t think that was really Lewis’ focus either – only his starting point, seeing that the talk was originally given during the feast of Pentecost (see pp. 18-19)). In other words, our experience as embodied creatures is such that, while we recognize soulish love as superior to bodily appetite, we cannot completely separate the two. From there, Lewis goes on to make all sorts of interesting illustrations and applications of the point.

His first major application relates to the idea that Christianity uses natural (earthly) images to convey supernatural (heavenly) realities. Why does heaven just look like a fancy version of earth? His answer to that question is this:

If you are to translate from a language which has a large vocabulary into a language that has a small vocabulary, then you must be allowed to use several words in more than one sense (Transposition, from The Weight of Glory (Harper), p. 99).

In other words, if God is to reveal himself to us, and communicate himself to us, in a way that we can understand, then we must allow for some similarities and some difference between the pictures he draws and the reality to which they point.

Which leads to his next illustration of the point: that of drawing (this is the analogy that relates fairly well to The Silver Chair). If a person has only seen sketches of a road on white paper with pencil, he might not be able to differentiate a road from a rectangle. But this is not the reality of what a road is. Lewis says,

Our natural experiences (sensory, emotional, imaginative) are only like the drawing, like penciled lines on flat paper. If they vanish in the risen life, they will vanish only as pencil lines vanish from the real landscape, not as a candle flame that is put out but as a candle flame which becomes invisible because someone has pulled up the blind, thrown open the shutters, and let in the blaze of the risen sun (p. 111).

He continues,

If flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom, that is not because they are too solid, too gross, too distinct, too ‘illustrious with being.’ They are too flimsy, too transitory, too phantasmal (p. 111).

That’s the heaven of The Great Divorce in a sentence.

How then does this more glorious, more solid world relate to ours in the present?:

In a word, I think that real landscapes enter into pictures, not that pictures will one day sprout out into real trees and grass (p. 112).

That’s the painting in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The painting didn’t magically become Narnia; an image of Narnia was in the painting all along, only lacking its true solidity and glory. There was a certain glory to the painting itself, it looked quite ‘Narnian,’ but once the lines were taken away a new glory was revealed. This is reminiscent of the words of Hebrews 8:5 concerning Moses’ writings about the construction of the tabernacle:

They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.”

Now comes the point where Lewis gets really clever. He says that modern man has essentially made himself into an animal by not realizing the reality of Transposition. The materialist (I would say Scientist, but I mean that only in regards to those who hold some form of Scientism) looks at the world and sees only facts – this is the way it is. The result of this is that

He is therefore, as regards the matter at hand, in the position of an animal. You will have noticed that most dogs cannot understand pointing. You point to a bit of food on the floor; the dog, instead of looking at the floor, sniffs at your finger. A finger is a finger to him, and that is all. his world is all fact and no meaning (p. 114).

As someone who has trained a couple of Labrador Retrievers to follow hand signals, I relate to this one. This then results in things like evolutionary psychology:

A man who has experienced love from within will deliberately go about to inspect it analytically from outside and regard the results of this analysis as truer than his experience (p. 114).

And in the end

The critique of every experience from below, the voluntary ignoring of meaning and concentration on fact, will always have the same plausibility. There will always be evidence, and every month fresh evidence, to show that religion is only psychological, justice only self-protection, politics only economics, love only lust, and thought itself only cerebral biochemistry (pp. 114-115).

Hence he has progressed from speaking in tongues to the Scientistic (not scientific) deconstruction of all that is true, good, and beautiful. And it all boils down to not being able to make proper application of the signs, the pointers, that we have been given. We’ve looked at the painting and only seen it as chemicals on solidified tree pulp when we should have stood in awe and prayed for the hastening of the day when the frame would be removed and the real color would appear.

More to come.

You will not understand a word
Of all the words, including mine;
Never you trouble; you can see,
And all directness is divine—
Stand up and keep your childishness:
Read all the pedants’ screeds and strictures;
But don’t believe in anything
That can’t be told in coloured pictures.

-G.K. Chesterton