I just read that I’m now a “distinguished guest speaker.” Checked quickly in the mirror: doesn’t look like I have any more grey hairs . . .
Anyhow, the Madison C S Lewis Society has just posted the audio of a tremendous series of nine top scholars, plus me, speaking at their Oct 2012 conference on the ten books that most influenced C S Lewis. I’ve got to say this was the most stimulating conference I’ve attended in a long, long time.
These were the books Lewis listed toward the end of his life in answer to a question from the American magazine The Christian Century about which books had most influenced his “sense of vocation and philosophy of life.” My assignment: to discuss how Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, of which the medievalist Lewis said, “To acquire a taste for it is almost to become naturalized in the Middle Ages,” influenced the Oxford don.
Appropriate to my activities these days in Bethel Seminary’s Work with Purpose initiative, in this talk I pay particular attention to the question of how Lewis saw his own vocation as a public intellectual attempting to preserve and recommend the Old Western Christian tradition.
The link is here. (In my bit, the talk is around 40 minutes; the lively Q&A at the end is perhaps the most interesting part: you may just want to skip ahead!) And here is the full list of books and speakers:
|The Idea of the Holy by Rudolf Otto presented by Dr. Adam Barkman from Redeemer University College.
|The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell presented by Dr. Paul Tankard from the University of Otago, NZ.
|Theism and Humanism by Arthur James Balfour presented by Dr. Charles Taliferro from St. Olaf College.
|The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius presented by Dr. Chris Armstrong from Bethel University.
|Phantastes by George MacDonald presented by Dr. David Neuhouser from Taylor University
|The Temple by George Herbert presented by Dr. Don King from Montreat College.
|The Everlasting Man by G. K. Chesterton presented by Dr. Donald T. Williams from Toccoa Falls College.
|Descent Into Hell by Charles Williams presented by Dr. Holly Ordway, Houston Baptist University.
|The Aeneid by Virgil presented by Dr. Louis Markos from Houston Baptist University.
|The Prelude by William Wordsworth presented by Dr. Mary Ritter from New York University.
Arthur and Mordred, The Boys' King Arthur
Here’s a ringing review and tasty samples of a new translation of “The Death of King Arthur,” done by Simon Armitage, from The Guardian [UK].
Hat tip to Alan Jacobs of Wheaton College for bringing this to my attention on his tumblr blog.
The review is here.
And here is a sample of this newly translated epic:
The startled glutton glared gruesomely,
grinned like a greyhound with grisly fangs
then groaned and glowered with a menacing grimace,
growling at the good King who greeted him angrily.
His mane and his fringe were filthily matted
and his face was framed in half a foot of foam.
His face and forehead were flecked all over
like the features of a frog, so freckled he seemed.
He was hook-beaked like a hawk, with a hoary beard,
and his eyes were overhung with hairy brows.
To whomever looked hard, as harsh as a hound-fish
was the hide of that hulk, from head to heel.
His ears were huge and a hideous sight,
His eyes were horrid, abhorrent and aflame,
His smile was all sneer, like a flat-mouthed flounder,
and like a bear his fore-teeth were fouled with rank flesh,
and his black, bushy beard grew down to his breast.
He was bulky as a sea-pig with a brawny body,
and each quivering lump of those loathsome lips
writhed and rolled with the wrath of a wolf’s head.
He was broad across the back, with the neck of a bull,
badger-breasted with the bristles of a boar,
had arms like oak boughs, wrinkled by age,
and the ugliest loins and limbs, believe me.
He shuffled his shanks, being shovel-footed,
and his knock-kneed legs were abnormally knuckled.
He was thick in the thigh and like an ogre at the hips,
and as gross as a grease-fed pig, a gruesome sight.
He who mindfully measured that monster’s dimension
from face to foot would have found it five fathoms.
Image from 1861 British edition of Paradise Lost
Found on Alan Jacobs’ excellent blog filled with snippets from the cyberworld, this neat series in the Guardian on John Milton’s Paradise Lost. A snippet (the one Alan presents, too):
By the time Milton reaches Book VII he has come to a kind of accord with his own frustration. All right, he says: I can’t get up to heaven, and if I try I “fall/Erroneous”. Writing purely about God, he comments, is like being an amateur rider on a particularly frisky winged horse. Humanity is the proper perspective for poetic endeavour; so he asks the Christian muse, Urania, to carry him downwards and deposit him safe in his “Native Element”. He will write now about the earth: about its nature, its making; about its creatures; about relationships and sex and intellectual curiosity and mistakes and sorrow and “the human face divine”.
This is most deeply God’s place to speak through his poet, he points out; singing amid violence; taking love into hell; readying himself for sacrifice, to be destroyed by the blind desires of an angry mob. The figure with whom he identifies in connection with this role is Orpheus, the prototype poet of myth. But, of course, he is thinking about Christ too, who in Christian theology is God suffering all that humans inflict on each other. There won’t be much explicit scope for Christ in Paradise Lost. But Milton sees his own position – surrounded by rabid Royalists, “fall’n on evil dayes”, slandered by “evil tongues” – as Christlike. In the face of violence, Milton too will sing.
Statue of C.S. Lewis looking into a wardrobe. Entitled "The Searcher" by Ross Wilson. Photo credit: "Genvessel" (Flickr)
H/t to my Baker editor Bob Hosack for passing along a Huffpost meditation on evangelical Americans’ obsession with C. S. Lewis. The article, by Princeton graduate student in religion Ryan Harper, is entitled “The American Evangelical Love Affair with C.S. Lewis: Why He’s Important But Still Not Jesus”:
The causes for Lewis’s influence are numerous. He grew up in the church, became an atheist and returned to Christianity. The Oxford don has sacred and secular imprimatur, carrying the inheritance of both the prodigal son returned and the wise Greek redeemed. His writing is charming and concise, tinged with a cool, incisive English wit that plays well in an American evangelical milieu that delights in the courtly muses of the British Isles. Churchill, U2, The Lord of the Rings, The Screwtape Letters: stuff evangelical white people like.
Above all, Lewis means a lot to evangelicals because he argues against a number of “-isms” many evangelicals find troubling: atheism, secularism, humanism, materialism, naturalism, subjectivism and moral relativism. Continue reading
If you are a J R R Tolkien fan, you owe it to yourself to pick up one of the several excellent Tolkien & “Inklings” reference books by my friend Colin Duriez. Colin has great insight into Tolkien, Lewis, et al. Here I’m posting his essay “Christianity, Tolkien and,” from the wonderful J. R. R. Tolkien Handbook (Baker, 1992) (the following uses my typical abbreviations; “xn” is Christian, “xnty” Christianity, “T” is Tolkien):
[If this topic interests you, may I also recommend the issue of Christian History & Biography I edited on Tolkien. It's available here. You can also browse previews of the issue's articles here. For Duriez's equally fine essay on the "theology of story" implicit in the work of C S Lewis, J R R Tolkien, and Charles Williams, see here.]
Christianity, Tolkien and
“According to Paul H. Kocher, T was inspired and guided on his way by the mythology of Denmark, Germany, Norway and especially Iceland (see MYTH; IMAGINATION). The Norse pantheon of gods was headed by Odin. This is particularly clear as embodied in the Icelandic Elder Edda and Younger Edda, and the Icelandic sagas. As a Christian, T rejected much of the Norse world outlook, but admired its imaginative power. Those elements that he could transform into xn meaning, he kept. Continue reading
An excellent book on the theology of Dorothy Sayers–indeed the only such book that I know of–is George Fox University professor Laura K. Simmons’s Creed Without Chaos (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005). Simmons goes methodically through Sayers’s theological thought, stopping at one point to examine the writer’s handling of the Incarnation:
77: “The dogma of the Incarnation is the most dramatic thing about Christianity,” Dorothy L. Sayers wrote in October 1937, “and indeed, the most dramatic thing that ever entered into the mind of man; but if you tell people so, they stare at you in bewilderment.”One of the doctrines on which Sayers reflected perhaps more than any other was the incarnation. A proper understanding of Christ’s essence, character, and mission on earth was “the difference between pseudo-Christianity and Christianity,” she wrote in June of 1945. The relationship between the God who created the world and God’s Son, Jesus, who walked in it, was a crucial part of her theology. Continue reading
C. S. Lewis‘s The Discarded Image (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964) is a key text in my course “Medieval Wisdom for Modern Ministry.” Though it is studded with an erudite array of quotations and references that can prove daunting for the newcomer, this is a tremendous introductory survey on the medieval thought-world. The book’s central argument is that medievals held a certain idea of the cosmos not as a sort of random and trivial scientific fact, but as a living, pulsing image, worthy of allegiance and indeed love. He demonstrates this argument persuasively, and along the way challenges us to compare that image (which has the drawback of not being scientifically true, but a number of advantages too) with our own.
The following are quotations and brief passages I marked while reading the book. Continue reading
A Christian literary feast
One of the more fascinating books I’ve read in the last 10 years is a sort of group biography by the prolific Catholic writer Joseph Pearce. Called Literary Converts (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2000), this sprawling account leads us through a surprisingly large and varied network of 20th-century British literary Christians. Here are G. K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Evelyn Waugh, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Ronald Knox, T. S. Eliot, Dorothy L. Sayers, and many more. They all play their part in the spread of Christianity in English literary culture after the spiritual doldrums of the 1910s and 20s.
Pearce weaves themes and connections that will grip any fan of those writers who shares their faith. His keen eye for the telling detail, the revealing vignette, and the colorful anecdote make this book both a rich resource and a pleasure to read, if you can forgive the Roman Catholic triumphalism that emerges here and there along the way. Continue reading
Posted in Patron Saints for Postmoderns, Resources for Radical Living
Tagged Anglicanism, C S Lewis, distributism, Dorothy L Sayers, economics, G K Chesterton, J R R Tolkien, Joseph Pearce, literature, Roman Catholicism, World War II
Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian Roman Catholic philosopher and literary critic who gave us ‘The medium is the message” and “the global village,” had some penetrating things to say about G. K. Chesterton in the introduction to the little book Paradox in Chesterton, by Hugh Kenner (London: Sheed & Ward, 1948). I think he got Chesterton both very right and very wrong. Right in talking about Chesterton’s moral thought. Wrong in trying to separate that thought from various aspects of his literary imagination and literary style.
Basically, McLuhan thought we should all dump Chesterton the Victorian literary medievalist in favor of Chesterton the “master of analogical perception and argument who never failed to focus a high degree of moral wisdom on the most confused issues of our age.”
This does not mean that McLuhan saw Chesterton as a systematic moral philosopher (which he certainly was not). McLuhan enjoined editors to produce, “not an anthology which preserves the Victorian flavor of his journalism by extensive quotation, but one of short excerpts which would permit the reader to feel Chesterton’s powerful intrusion into every kind of confused moral and psychological issue of our time.” Why? Because “he seems never to have reached any position by dialectic or doctrine, but to have enjoyed a kind of connaturality with every kind of reasonableness.”
McLuhan is quite hard on Chesterton’s Victorian literary medievalism, as were many contemporary and later critics. He saw that frame of Chesterton’s work as derivative, low-quality, and not inherent to the great writer’s metaphysical-moral thought (his clear-sightedness into the many moral conundrums of his age, rooted in metaphysical insight):
“So very impressive is this metaphysical side of Chesterton that it is always embarrassing to encounter the Chesterton fan who is keen about The Ballad of the White Horse or the hyperbolic descriptive parts of Chesterton’s prose. In fact, it might be the kindest possible service to the essential Chesterton to decry all that part of him which derives so obviously from his time. Thus it is absurd to value Chesterton for that large and unassimilated heritage he got from [medievalist and all-round wacko] William Morris—the big, epic dramaturgic gestures, riotous colour, medieval trappings, ballad themes and banal rhythms. Morris manages these things better than Chesterton ever did: and nobody wants to preserve William Morris.” Continue reading