C.S. Lewis, Jupiter and Christmas

November 29th is the anniversary of the birth of C.S. Lewis. In his university lectures on the medieval cosmos, Lewis would sometimes refer to his own birthday, saying: ‘Those born under Jupiter are apt to be cheerful and festive, loud-voiced and red-faced.’ He would then pause and add, ‘It is obvious under which planet I was born!’ – which always produced a laugh.

Lewis did not literally believe in astrology, but he certainly admired the poetical use to which astrological symbolism could be put. ‘The characters of the planets, as conceived by medieval astrology, seem to me to have a permanent value as spiritual symbols,’ he wrote in 1935. In this article I want to show something of what he thought about the stars and planets not only in connection with his own birthday and ‘days’ in general, but also with an immeasurably greater day, the Feast of Christmas, the nativity of Christ.

From time immemorial and right through into the late Middle Ages, there were only seven known planets. Uranus was not discovered till 1781, Neptune in 1845, and Pluto in 1930 (since 2006 it has been classified as a ‘dwarf planet’). A planet is literally a ‘wanderer’. The planets are the wandering stars that take their own individual paths across the sky. All the other celestial bodies are not planets, but stars, either fixed in their own unique positions, like the Pole Star, or forming fixed parts of larger constellations. The seven medieval planets included the Sun and the Moon; the other five were Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. The Earth was not considered ‘Planet’ Earth, but rather was thought to be the still centre of the turning universe.

Version 2

The planetary deities in the order of the days of the week.  Illustration from an edition of Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’.

It is from the seven medieval planets that we take the names of the days of the week. How Saturday, Sunday, and Monday relate to Saturn, the Sun, and the Moon is pretty obvious. The connection between the other four planets and the other four days of the week is slightly concealed from us who speak English because, for some odd reason lost in the mists of time, we use the Norse names for the relevant planetary deities rather than the Roman names. Thus Tuesday is named for Tiw or Tyr, the Norse equivalent of the Roman god, Mars (think of Martes in Spanish or Mardi in French). Wednesday is named for Woden, the Norse equivalent of the Roman Mercury (Miercoles / Mercredi). Thursday is named for Thor, the Norse equivalent of Jupiter or Jove (Jueves / Jeudi). And Friday is named for Freya or Frigg, the Norse equivalent of Venus (Viernes / Vendredi).

In the course of researching Lewis and the seven heavens for my book, Planet Narnia, I discovered a page of notes (see below) that he scribbled in the end-leaves of one of the volumes of his complete edition of Chaucer.  These notes, which Lewis made about Chaucer’s poem, ‘The Knight’s Tale’, from The Canterbury Tales, indicate the interest Lewis took in the poetic use that could be made of planetary symbolism.  Lewis admired the way Chaucer not only put the planetary characters into ‘The Knight’s Tale’ as actors in the drama, but also wove the relevant planetary influences into the plot. So, for example, the climax of ‘The Knight’s Tale’ happens on a Tuesday, the day of Mars, an appropriate ending for a story about martial knights.

lewis-on-chaucerLewis’s notes explain how it is that certain days of the week are connected to particular planets. He writes: ‘The first hour of every day belongs to the planet of the day: after that the others follow in downward order from him to the rest; then go on repeating.’

To understand what Lewis means by ‘downward order’, take a look at the diagram below, showing the seven heavens. The planet in the seventh heaven is Saturn. Below Saturn come Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, Venus, Mercury, and the Moon.cosmos

Lewis’s notes clarify why Monday follows Sunday in the order of the days of the week, even though the Moon and the Sun are not adjacent in the order of the planets. The Sun, being the eye and mind of the whole universe, was believed to rule the first hour of the first day of the week. After the Sun has laid claim, so to speak, to Sunday by ruling its first hour, it moves aside and allows Venus, the planet immediately underneath in the order of the planets, to rule the second hour of Sunday. Venus then makes way for Mercury to rule the third hour of Sunday, and Mercury then lets the Moon have a go. After the Moon has ruled the fourth hour, there are no planets lower down to take over, so the sequence starts again from the top, with Saturn ruling the fifth hour of Sunday, Jupiter ruling the sixth hour, and Mars ruling the seventh hour. At the eighth hour, it’s the Sun’s turn again. And, as the sequence continues, the Sun rules also the fifteenth hour and the twenty-second hour. With the day drawing to a close, the twenty-third hour of Sunday is ruled by Venus, the twenty-fourth hour by Mercury, and then Sunday’s twenty-fifth hour (as it were) is governed by the Moon, but since each day only has 24 hours, we find ourselves in a new day, whose first hour is Lunar, – hence we call it Moonday. And that, in a nutshell, is why Monday follows Sunday!

jupiter

Jupiter enthroned in the heavens and the people on earth who exhibit the Jovial influence.  Woodcut by Hans Sebald Beham (1500-1550).

Back to the date of Lewis’s birthday and his being born under Jupiter: we are all familiar with the idea of being ‘born under’ a planet. We tend to think of this mostly in connection with the twelve houses or ‘signs’ of the zodiac, as they correspond (roughly) to the twelve months of the year. If you are born in late November, like C.S. Lewis, that puts you in the house of Sagittarius, whose sign is a centaur aiming a bow and arrow. The planet responsible for ‘ruling’ that zodiacal house, according to astrological tradition, is Jupiter.  So Lewis was indeed ‘born under’ Jupiter, as he said he was, at least as regards the month of his birth.

As for the day on which he was born: 29th November fell on a Tuesday in 1898, so he was born under Mars as well as under Jupiter. I do not know the hour in which he was born on that Tuesday, but one supposes it to have been a ‘jovial’ hour. Lewis was a hearty, rubicund man who had a love of Jupiter (or Jove) throughout his life. He inherited these qualities from his father, for Albert Lewis was ‘often the most jovial and companionable of parents’, according to Surprised by Joy.

Version 2

Ruth Pitter

Lewis once declared that, if he were to marry anyone, it would be the poet Ruth Pitter (this was before he was surprised by Joy Davidman!). He wrote to her in 1954 remarking on her name: ‘I always thought that the Pitters (dies-piter and all that) descended from Jove through Aeneas and Brute.’ The name Jupiter derives from dies-piter, which literally means ‘shining father’, as Lewis would have known from (among other sources) Edwyn Bevan’s Symbolism and Belief, a book he rated highly.

Brute, or Brut, the first king of Britain in mythical history, was the son of Aeneas Silvius, grandson of Ascanius and great-grandson of Aeneas of Troy. In another letter of 1954, Lewis offers a little more detail about this mythical British or Celtic line ‘that goes back through the Tudors to Cadwallader and thence to Arthur, Uther, Cassibelan, Lear, Lud, Brut, Aeneas, Jupiter.’ It is amusing to find Lewis, the self-styled Jovial man, toying with the idea of marrying into Jupiter’s family by taking Ruth Pitter as his wife. And it is intriguing to observe that Lewis gives to the heroine of That Hideous Strength, Jane Studdock, the surname ‘Tudor’ as her maiden name. Jane and her husband Mark (a suitably Martial moniker) are to become the parents of a son who will perpetuate Jupiter’s line in modern-day England.

Version 2How apt, incidentally, that Lewis’s favourite Oxford pub, the Eagle & Child, home to so many meetings of the Inklings, was named for an episode in the life of Zeus, the forerunner in Greek mythology of the Roman god, Jupiter. Zeus fell in love with the beautiful child, Ganymede, and sent an eagle to snatch him up to Mount Olympus where he could serve as his royal cup-bearer.

Those who knew C.S. Lewis have often noted his joviality, though not always with a clear recognition of the significance the term had for him in his personal lexicon. Paul Piehler remembers ‘a plumpish, red-faced Ulsterman with a confident, jovial Ulster rasp to his voice’. Peter Milward recalls ‘a burly, red-faced, jovial man’. John Lawlor relates how Lewis’s ‘determined and even aggressive joviality was all on the surface: within was a settled contentment’. Peter Bayley describes him as ‘Jove-like, imperious, certain, absolute’. Richard Ladborough says he was ‘frequently jovial’. W.R. Fryer speaks of his ‘jovial maleness’. Peter Philip opines that ‘his manner was jovial when he was in a good mood, which I must say was most of the time’. Pat Wallsgrove likens Lewis to ‘a jovial farmer’. Claude Rawson writes that his nickname, ‘Jack’, was ‘well suited to his jovial “beer and Beowulf” image’. Nevill Coghill recalls that, although Lewis was formidable, ‘this was softened by joviality’. Douglas Gresham remembers his step-father as ‘jovial’. The title of Chesterton’s novel, The Man Who Was Thursday, might have been coined as a description of C.S. Lewis, notwithstanding his Tuesday nativity!

Version 2But though so many people use the word ‘jovial’ of the man, only George Watson, his Cambridge colleague, explicitly recognizes how important the planetary derivation was for Lewis himself: ‘His own humour was sanguine, its presiding deity Jove, and . . . he knew that it was’ (Watson, Critical Essays on C.S. Lewis, 1992, p3). Peter Milward goes further, making a link to Lewis’s fiction. Having emphasized Lewis’s ‘sturdily jovial manner’, Milward notes an important connection: ‘he was indeed a . . . jovial man; and these qualities of his I later recognized . . . in his character of the kingly animal, Aslan.’

Aslan, Narnia’s Christ figure, brings us to Christmas and the birth of the infant Jesus. In early January 1953, Lewis wrote to Ruth Pitter remarking on what he had seen in the night-sky during the recent Christmas: ‘It was beautiful, on two or three successive nights about the Holy Time, to see Venus and Jove blazing at one another, once with the Moon right between them: Majesty and Love linked by Virginity – what could be more appropriate?’ Venus signifies love, of course, and the Moon virginity. Jupiter signifies majesty or kingliness and, as such, was a very suitable symbol for Christ, the ‘king of kings’ (Revelation 19:16).

In attempting to read the significance of the Christmas stars, Lewis was modeling himself on the magi, the wise men who followed the star from the east and who came to Herod asking, ‘Where is he that has been born King of the Jews?’ (Matthew 2:2). There is a right and proper use of astrology, if it leads to the worship of Christ. That the stars speak of Christ is only to be expected, for, in the words of Lewis’s favourite psalm, ‘The heavens are telling the glory of God’ (Psalm 19:1).

Lewis was alert to the royal and imperial implications of Christ’s nativity.  Writing about Psalm 110 in his only full-length work of scriptural commentary, Reflections on the Psalms (1958), Lewis notes that this psalm is appointed to be read on Christmas Day in the order of readings given by the Anglican Prayer Book. He remarks:

We may at first be surprised by this.  There is nothing in [Psalm 110] about peace and goodwill, nothing remotely suggestive of the stable at Bethlehem.  It seems to have been originally either a coronation ode for a new king, promising conquest and empire, or a poem addressed to some king on the eve of war, promising victory.  It is full of threats.  The “rod” of the king’s power is to go forth from Jerusalem, foreign kings are to be wounded, battle fields to be covered with carnage, skulls cracked.  The note is not “Peace and goodwill” but “Beware.  He’s coming”.  Two things attach it to Christ with an authority far beyond that of the Prayer Book.  The first of course is that He Himself did so; He is the “lord” whom “David” calls “my Lord”.  The second is the reference to Melchizedek.

Lewis then proceeds to give a detailed disquisition on Melchizedek, the numinous priest-king mentioned in the Book of Genesis (14:18-19). Melchizedek becomes, in Psalm 110, a spiritual ancestor of the Davidic king. The psalmist says of the king, ‘thou art a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek’, a description which is taken up in the New Testament in the Epistle to the Hebrews and applied repeatedly to Jesus Christ (Hebrews 5:6; 6:20; 7:11; 7:17; 7:21).

There is one interesting fact about Melchizedek that Lewis does not disclose in his Reflections on the Psalms, though he undoubtedly knew of it, and it provides another reason for regarding this Christmas psalm as Jovial in its symbolism: the Hebrew word Melchizedek means both ‘my king is righteousness’ and ‘my king is Jupiter’.  (For more details on this fascinating link, see the helpful article here.)

Jesus Christ, the king of kings and lord of lords, the divine Word by whom all things were made, spoke the planet Jupiter into being on the fourth day of creation (Genesis 1:14-19). Lewis in his commentary on the psalms is not, of course, arguing, or even suggesting, that Jesus was actually ‘born under Jupiter’, as he jokingly told his university lecture audiences that he himself had been. But from all that we have seen of his interest in the planets and his love of Jove in particular, I am sure he would have considered the idea highly appropriate.

John Collins (Yale) at HBU: 10/13, 7:30pm

A.O. Collins Lectures

Featured Guest: John J. Collins (Yale Divinity School)

Thursday, October 13 7:30pm; Belin Chapel

Title: Outside the Canon. The Literature of Second Temple Judaism, and Why It Matters: The Apocalyptic Genre

The School of Christian Thought is pleased to announce that John J. Collins will deliver the A. O. Collins lectures for fall 2016.

A native of Ireland, Professor Collins is the Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Interpretation at john_collinsYale Divinity School. He previously taught at the University of Chicago and the University of Notre Dame. He has published widely on the subjects of apocalypticism, wisdom, Hellenistic Judaism, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Including among his many books are the commentary on Daniel in the Hermeneia series; The Scepter and the Star: The Messiahs of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Ancient Literature; Apocalypticism in the Dead Sea Scrolls; Jewish Wisdom in the Hellenistic Age; The Apocalyptic Imagination; Between Athens and Jerusalem: Jewish Identity in the Hellenistic Diaspora; Introduction to the Hebrew Bible with CD-ROM; He holds an honorary D.Litt. from University College Dublin, and an honorary Th. D. from the University of Zurich.

Please join us for this lecture.

It is an important event for our campus and community.  Should you have questions, please contact the chair of the Department of Theology, Dr. Jason Maston.

See also our upcoming lectures at our Annual Theology Conference: hbu.edu/TheologyConference.

How the Bible Came into Being. HBU Spring Theology Conference

On March 2-4, 2017 the Department of Theology at HBU, in conjunction with Lanier Theological Library, is hosting the conference How the Bible Came into Being. The conference will consider the formation of the biblical canon, the literature included and excluded, and its theological significance. Our keynote speakers are James Charlesworth (Princeton Theological Seminary) and Lee McDonald (formerly of Acadia Divinity College). The plenary talks are free and open to the public.

We also invite proposals for short papers from scholars and graduate students from a wide array of topics related to how the Bible came into being, for example:

  • The formation of the canon (including its establishment and later discussions)
  • The canonical process of individual texts
  • Comparisons of canonical traditions
  • The theology of the canon
  • Canonical criticism

Anyone who is interested should submit a 300 word abstract on any relevant topic by December 8, 2016. Papers should be 25 minutes long with 5 minutes for questions. Decisions will be announced in late December. Send proposals to Daniel Streett.

We will be publishing some of the conference papers. If you would like your paper considered for inclusion, please indicate this on your proposal. You must also provide a full version of the paper at the time of the conference.

You can find out more details and register for the conference at the Theology Conference webpage.

This year’s conference is partially sponsored by Faithlife, the makers of Logos Bible software. At the conference they will give a demonstration of the Logos software and offer significant discounts on purchases.

WHY NAMING RADICAL ISLAM MATTERS

WHY NAMING RADICAL ISLAM MATTERS

It is a ritual that has become all too familiar.   A gunman claiming to act on behalf of Islam, or ISIS, or simply shouting “Allahu Akbar” murders numerous people.  President Obama condemns the atrocity as workplace violence, extremist violence, or even terrorism, but studiously avoids using the terms “radical Islamic terrorism” or “jihad.”   It then becomes a deeply partisan issue as conservative politicians and other commentators point this out, and argue that his failure to name radical Islamic terrorism for what it is reflects a fundamental failure of his policy for dealing with it.  If he cannot even name it, he will never defeat it.  Indeed, the whole matter has played out most sharply in the recent exchanges between Obama, Donald Trump, and Hillary Clinton after the tragic shooting in Orlando.

But does it really matter?  Does this dispute identify a substantive issue, or is it useless wrangling over words or nothing more than a game of political ping-pong?

Continue reading

Houston Church Planting Network Lunch

The Department of Theology is co-hosting this month’s Houston Church Planting Network lunch. It’s May 25th at 11:30 in McNair Hall. See the RSVP details below.

May HCPN Gathering

Our next HCPN gathering will be Wednesday, May 25th from 11:30a-1:30p.

Please make sure and RSVP if you plan to attend.

NOTE: Each person attending must RSVP separately.

We will be hearing from Daniel Im. Daniel is the Director of Church Multiplication for New Churches and LifeWay Christian Resources, while also serving as a Teaching Pastor at The Fellowship, a multisite church in Nashville, TN. Recently he wrote Planting Missional Churches: Your Guide to Starting Churches that Multiply (2nd ed.)with Ed Stetzer.

Our host this month is Houston Baptist University. The address is 7502 Fondren Rd, Houston, TX 77074. Click here for directions.

Lunch will be provided but we need an accurate count by May 20th so please RSVP in plenty of time to get them the correct number.

Our Guest Speaker: Daniel Im, Director of Church Multiplication at LifeWay Christian Resources

Punishing Mothers for Abortion?

Punishing Mothers for Abortion?

In this year, 2016, the Republican nomination process has been the most entertaining reality show on television, but the other night the show took a strange turn. Donald Trump said something that has angered both the right and the left of the political spectrum, which is not surprising or unusual. But what is surprising is that what he said should have been supported by the right. In fact, his position is the only logical one given the rhetoric of the Pro-life movement.

Let’s wade into this controversy and see where the logic takes us.

Continue reading

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Sanctuary

It’s the season of Lent, that time in the church year when Christians prepare for the incomparably great Easter Feast. The forty days of Lent, reflecting Christ’s forty days in the wilderness, are intended to be observed as a kind of askesis, a spiritual training and a moral challenge, undertaken in order to discipline our desires and strengthen our wills, subduing our unruly habits and showing us ‘the one thing needful’.

This Lenten boot-camp usually involves a temporary (and sometimes, for some people, even a permanent) giving up of things which are good in themselves, but not essential. By abstaining for a while from these good things, we exercise the muscles of detachment and clarify our vision.

In the two traditions I’m familiar with – Anglicanism and Catholicism, – and no doubt in other Christian traditions too, part of this preparatory activity is seen in certain small changes to the liturgy of public worship. For instance, the Gloria in excelsis Deo (‘Glory to God in the highest’), an ancient hymn of praise that Christians have sung since at least the fourth century, and which is usually recited every Sunday, is forgone during Lent. The word ‘alleluia’ is not used at the proclamation of the Gospel reading. Hymns with the word ‘alleluia’ aren’t sung. Flowers aren’t used to decorate the church.

Like Christ in the desert, we go through a barren period. We simplify our lives and forsake things that are good in themselves in order to check on our priorities, to ‘detox’ our spiritual system, to run down our batteries so they will hold the charge better when we charge them back up.

Now, all these reflections on Lent are meant by way of introducing the following account. I wish to relate something I saw recently, soon after the start of Lent, something that ranks as . . . well, you will see what I think it ranks as. It’s completely true. I haven’t changed or exaggerated it. Let me set the stage.

It occurred at the church I go to in Oxford, where I live. The church is dedicated to St Gregory and St Augustine, the ‘apostles to the English people’. It’s a church where J.R.R. Tolkien often worshipped, when he lived in north Oxford, and where his daughter, Priscilla Tolkien, still attends. It’s a small, uncluttered building, erected in 1911, a fine example of the Arts and Crafts movement in English architecture and design.

I was attending the 6.00p.m Vigil Mass for the second Sunday of Lent. (For those who aren’t familiar with Catholic-speak, ‘Vigil Mass’ means ‘Saturday evening service of Holy Communion’.) The date was 20th February 2016.

As I entered the church, I noticed a dog lying on the floor to one side of the aisle, by the back pew on the left. I was surprised. I had never seen a dog inside St Gregory’s before. In fact, I’m fairly sure I’ve never seen a dog inside any church anywhere at any time.

It was a golden Labrador Retriever (full-grown) and at first I thought it was a guide-dog for a blind person, but when I glanced at the lady who was obviously in charge of it, I could tell she wasn’t blind. For some reason, she’d just brought her dog inside the church. I’d not seen this lady before. She was short-ish and trim; about 55 years old, I supposed; quiet and unassuming, with a slightly nervous air, keeping herself to herself, – doing her best, perhaps, not to invite comments or complaints about her pet.

The dog seemed to be well-trained and well-behaved. There it was, lying down on the floor, quiet and contented. Though it had a collar round its neck, it wasn’t on a leash, indicating the extent to which the owner trusted the dog to behave itself, so there didn’t seem to be any reason for anyone to object. I did have to take a quarter step to the right to avoid stepping on the gently waving tail as I passed down the aisle; apart from that there was nothing at all about its presence that could be taken as offending against public-spirit.

I recalled how a cathedral tour-guide had once told me that, in the Middle Ages, dogs would quite often be taken to services, because they would lie across their owner’s feet, helping to keep them warm. And although this dog wasn’t serving as a feet-warmer, evidently its owner wanted or needed it there for some reason, and I assumed that she had probably got permission beforehand from the parish priest, Father John Saward. And if she hadn’t got permission, well, – it would be up to Father John to speak to her about it afterwards. So I said to myself, ‘Live and let live,’ and went and took my customary place in the front pew on the right.

The bell rang and the service began. Things started, as normal, with the Penitential Rite, and proceeded smoothly to the Liturgy of the Word. The dog was behaving itself, as far as I could tell. I mean, it was ten rows behind me, so it wasn’t in my eye-line, but I couldn’t hear it making any noises, so I assumed it was continuing to conduct itself with all due propriety.

I was serving as lector, and when I returned to my seat after doing the readings and leading the responsorial psalm, I glanced to the back of the church and saw that the dog was still lying down, innocently enough, in the aisle adjacent to the back pew.

During the Offertory, I got a further chance to check on the dog because I was responsible for taking up the two collections. This meant that I twice went to the back of the church as I was passing round the plate. Again, I had to take a little care to avoid stepping on its tail. Again, the dog continued to be perfectly well behaved.

Then there was the Liturgy of the Eucharist. When it came to Holy Communion, I went and knelt along with the first batch of people at the sanctuary rail, as my seat was in the front pew. I returned to my seat, where I again knelt and prayed, like I always do. Sometimes I pray with my eyes open and sometimes with my eyes shut. On this occasion, I kept my eyes open.

St Gregory’s is a small church, so I was only a yard and a half from the sanctuary, and one always gets a good view of other communicants as they come and go.

The last person to come and receive Communion was the dog-owning lady. The dog, somewhat surprisingly, decided to follow her up to the front and, while the owner knelt at the rail towards the left of center, the dog walked to the right, passing behind the backs of the other kneeling communicants, sniffing their shoes and legs and sometimes, rather embarrassingly, their bottoms. As dogs will. But it was quiet and unthreatening and no one took any notice of it. If it had been a Rottweiler or Great Dane, I daresay things would have been different. But everyone likes a Labrador Retriever, even if it sniffs where it oughtn’t. The whole scene was a classic case of the English being far too polite to suggest that anything impolite was going on.

Once the last batch of communicants were returning to their seats and the rail was mostly unoccupied, the dog saw that it could actually get through the rail and into the sanctuary. The rail is wooden and the uprights are widely spaced, so it was easy enough for the dog to pass through, without any squeezing. I could see the dog making up its mind to do this. It didn’t do so quickly, but actually rather hesitantly and thoughtfully.

The owner, who had just received Communion, was still kneeling as the dog began to make its move and as soon as she saw what he was about she tried to stop him. But he was already half way through and although she tried to grab his haunches she couldn’t halt him, let alone pull him back.  Once he was fully through the rail and inside the sanctuary, – that was when the extraordinary thing happened.

The dog very deliberately and devoutly knelt. I kid you not. He put his forepaws against the altar step, lowered his front forelegs and laid his chin flat on the red carpet. His hind legs were still standing upright, but his front legs were flat on the floor. He held this position for a few seconds. An agile and experienced acolyte could not have done an act of obeisance more humbly or unself-consciously.

This was remarkable enough, but what followed was just as striking. The dog then turned towards his left. Previously, he had been facing straight towards the altar. Now he turned so that he was sideways on, with his right side close to the riser of the altar step.

At this point, he stretched his full length on the carpet, his back legs out behind him, his chin again flat on the floor. He pressed himself downwards as flat as he could manage, and squirmed to and fro and round about, – an inch forward, an inch left, an inch back, an inch right. He was hugging the carpet, trying to pull himself, or push himself, into the ground. After he’d continued this prostration for about six or seven seconds, he just rolled on his back and basked.

The priest was standing on the altar step with his back to all this and didn’t see what was going on. It was happening silently, so there was no cause for him to turn round and watch. I had an uninterrupted view from where I was kneeling in the front pew. One of the two altar boys, who was occupied with handling the sacred vessels, observed it from the side of the sanctuary. The other altar boy, who was closer to the dog, stood looking down at this curious canine behaviour, utterly transfixed, like I was, and like the owner was.

Eventually, the boy opened the altar gates, at which point the dog’s owner, who was still on her knees, edged herself into the sanctuary, whispering ‘Come here, come out!’ But the dog was enjoying himself far too much to be going anywhere right away. He just lay there, first on his back, then on his side, till finally the owner was close enough to grab his collar and bodily drag him out. He wasn’t exactly ‘playing doggo’, but it was rather like that. She had to pull him forcibly towards her before he accepted that his time was up and he would have to get on his feet. Which he did. He followed his owner back to her seat, and that was the end of the curious incident.

What could account for her dog’s behavior? Imitation? Was the dog trying to mimic human actions? Very unlikely, I would suggest. Nobody had lain down flat on the floor and then rolled on their back as the dog had. Most people in the building, including the dog’s owner (the person whom the dog would be most likely to imitate), had simply knelt at the rail, yet the dog hadn’t copied that.

The simplest and most natural explanation, I think, is that the dog was, according to his lights, in his own doggy way, worshipping. For many Christians, not only Catholics, it is an article of faith that Jesus Christ is really, and not just metaphorically or symbolically, present in the bread and the wine (John 6:55; 1 Corinthians 10:16; etc). Catholics call the process by which this comes about transubstantiation; Lutherans call it consubstantiation; Christians of the Eastern churches, together with some Anglicans and Methodists, call it an objectively real presence but avoid technical explanations as to how it occurs; other Christians call it a presence which is there for those with the faith to perceive it, subjectively rather than objectively real. Yet in all these traditions, in different ways, the bread and the wine are not merely bread and wine. They somehow become more than themselves; they become channels of divine grace and even of divine presence. Never before had I seen evidence that animals could sense this too, but that’s what this dog’s behavior so strongly indicated. He was, after his own fashion, ‘discerning the body of the Lord’  (1 Corinthians 11:29).

Very properly, the dog didn’t stand on the altar step, let alone try to jump up on the altar in order to reach the Tabernacle, where the consecrated bread and wine are housed. He remained on the floor of the sanctuary, on a level with his owner. So he seemed to know his place, but nevertheless wanted to get as close to the Blessed Sacrament as he could and play his part in this corporate act of worship.

I spoke to the dog-owning lady after the end of the service, to praise her pet’s devoutness. She was embarrassed about the whole thing and more concerned to apologise for accidentally letting him into the sanctuary than to discuss the deeper significance of what had happened.

But to my mind we had witnessed an example of what the psalmist exhorts all creation to do: ‘Wild animals and all cattle, small creatures and flying birds . . . praise the name of the Lord!’ (Psalm 148: 10, 13); ‘Praise God in his sanctuary . . . Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!’ (Psalm 150:1, 6). It’s a theme taken up in the New Testament. Repeatedly, in the Book of Revelation we are told of the ‘living creatures’ – in Greek the word is zoon, a term that normally denotes animals rather than humans or angels, – who worship God night and day (Revelation. 4:8-9; 5:11-13, etc).

Had I caught a glimpse of that ideal, heavenly paean at a little church in north Oxford? Quite possibly so, I think. And, in an odd way, it struck me as being suitably Lenten in spirit, – an extraordinary thing that disturbed one’s normal routine. It made me forget the very good sermon that had been preached that day and pay attention instead to an ‘enacted sermon’, if I can call it that. I had been invited to hear the divine Word speaking in an unusually provocative manner, – not unlike what happened to Balaam when his donkey turned prophet (Numbers 22:21ff). It had jolted me out of conventional patterns of thought and caused me to consider the mystery of faith in a mode that was strange and challenging.

It was like something out of a medieval bestiary or like a Nativity scene where the ox and the ass reverently bow before the new-born Christ-child. The great creation hymn of St Francis of Assisi comes to mind:

Let all things their Creator bless

And worship Him in humbleness.

Alleluia, alleluia!

 Please forgive me for saying ‘Alleluia’ in Lent.

 

A Better Way with Bacon: a Meditation on Creative Synthesis

Bacon is one of my favorite foods, even if it shares its name with a second-rate philosopher. For years I made bacon the old-fashioned way in a skillet on the range-top. The results were delicious—nice crispy bacon with tons of flavor—but the time it took to pan-fry a thick-cut strip (a package can easily take ½ hour) and the subsequent cleanup were serious impediments (greasy pan and backsplash) to making this tasty treat. So coveting the sweet delicious taste without the mess, I recently went in search of a better way with bacon.

I first made the mistake of reading a “click-bait” bacon article on Yahoo! that insisted the best way with bacon was in a hot oven with bacon strips laid across a rack set inside a lipped cookie sheet. The results were disastrous. The bacon was not carmelized (insufficient Maillard reaction) and the cookie sheet contained a disgusting pool of grease—not to mention that cleaning a greasy cooling rack is no fun.

Then I began to think about the “tricks” I already knew. For years, whenever I craved a homemade BLT, I have turned to the trusty microwave. On a plate lined with paper towels, I microwaved a few slices of bacon that I also covered with paper towels. My three girls have all turned about to be bacon lovers, so I’ve increasingly used this method to make a quick treat for them. Your bacon cooks quickly with acceptable results, but I still don’t consider microwave bacon to be the equal of stove-top. The cleanup is easier, since most of the grease collects in the paper towels, but the bacon can dry out, and I miss the browning and flavor of the stove-top method.

I was still mulling over my bacon quandary when my wife reminded me that we were having a special a breakfast-for-dinner night. In our family we have pancakes for dinner on Shrove Tuesday (i.e. Mardi Gras). My wife was in charge of the pancakes and I, as usual, was on bacon duty. But instead of opting for either the stove-top or the microwave, I took a moment to consider. What was I really after? Taste? Texture? Less mess? All of the above. Could I come up with a way to achieve all of that?

And then I had a sudden realization: what if I par-baked the bacon in the microwave and then transferred it to the hot skillet? I recently had followed my wife’s instructions for baked potatoes. “After scrubbing them, microwave them for five minutes and then put them in the oven. They’ll cook much faster,” she told me over the phone. Why not adopt that same approach for bacon? I set my microwave to one minute per strip (thick-cut) on high—enough to render much of the fat but not completely bake my favorite meat candy. Then I moved the bacon to the skillet and finished the bacon in just a few minutes. The results were very close to baking exclusively on the stove-top. The bacon was crispy and brown but not dried out. I had found a better way with bacon! I was the hero of Shrove Tuesday. Just ask my kids.

As I thought over my better way of making bacon, I realized that—trivial as it may be—this episode illustrates an important truth about human creative endeavors. Most good ideas, like my serendipitous Shrove Tuesday bacon discovery, are the result of combining vectors of previous thoughts. We can labor fruitlessly to come up with some grand new idea, but often the “new” idea is no more than a creative synthesis of two existing ideas.

As a professor, I am always looking for ways to explain abstract concepts to my students. I notice that students—and their professors for that matter—often struggle to find “original” arguments for their scholarly work. I hope that this tasty illustration will help my students understand one of the ways that truly insightful original scholarship can come about. I plan to use my bacon discovery to show them that while research is necessary and useful, you might not need to slog through hundreds of pages of dry, boring academic prose. Instead, you might just need to bring together ideas that have not been previously synthesized. This creative synthesis is sometimes slow to mature but it is always intrinsically rewarding once achieved. Especially if it involves bacon.

A Taste of the Banquet: Hopkins’ ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’

 

“Taste and see that the Lord is good,” the Psalmist tells us. We wish to invite others to the great banquet of the Kingdom, where they will experience for themselves the goodness of God. This is no easy task. We must, for one thing, be able to a strong case that the Kingdom is real, and that we’re not inviting people to sit down at a fairy banquet where the food is only illusion!

But knowing that we are invited is only half the battle. We must also want to attend – and not just ‘one of these days’ or ‘maybe sometime,’ but now. And it is no easy task to make the invitation properly inviting.

Tell me – what does coffee taste like? What about chocolate? A ripe plum? A slice of freshly baked bread? Can you do it, well enough that someone who has never so much as smelled or seen these foods would have an idea of what they’re like, and would want to taste them?

That’s one of the tasks for which imaginative and literary apologetics is especially well suited. (If you are wondering what ‘imaginative and literary apologetics’ is, read Dr Michael Ward’s excellent piece here.)

There are as many different ways to approach literary apologetics as there are writers and artists; our Christian faith is endlessly rich and inspiring, and we have a great diversity of forms and genres in which to express it – but it’s no good saying that without giving an example, is it?

Let me guide you through a single poem, a sonnet by the Catholic poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins, that gives the reader a taste of what it’s like to be a Christian – to be united with him, and find our identity in him.

Here we see two complementary aspects of literary apologetics – the creative side (Hopkins’ poem) and the critical side (our careful attention to the poem’s meaning and effects, as apologists and teachers.) Good literary criticism is a significant way that Christians can and do contribute to the work of cultural apologetics, and to the renewal and recovery of goodness, truth, and beauty both in academia and in popular culture. It’s important work, and I’m glad to be seeing signs of its growth, both in my own field of Inklings studies and elsewhere.

I’m going to look at the poem with a detailed literary-critical analysis precisely because I want you, my reader, to see both the beautiful things that Hopkins does, and how he achieves them. To use C.S. Lewis’s terms, we are going to Contemplate the poem so that you will then more fully Enjoy it (and help others to do the same). My “Creative Writing and Apologetics” students might also get some ideas for their own writing!

“As Kingfishers Catch Fire”

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells;
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

“Kingfishers” is a deeply experiential poem. Consider, first, how both the octet (the first eight lines) and the sestet (the next seven lines) flow from beginning to end with pauses but no full stops; like water flowing downhill, we fall from one image to the next in sequence, ending up pausing at the opening phrase of the sestet: “I say more.”

It is almost impossible to explain the music of this poem without reading it aloud. First, Hopkins makes extensive use of alliteration throughout the poem, with the effect that it carries us onward from one phrase to the next as well as highlighting particular words and thus bringing certain images into sharper focus:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells…

He also uses end rhyme, a fascinating drawing-together of two strands of English poetry, for unrhymed alliterative verse is the Old English tradition, and end-rhyme is a French-influenced Middle English innovation. Hopkins uses only two rhymes here, yet his musical pattern sounds natural and unforced; the pattern is ab ba ab ba, which gives us an underlying structure that nonetheless feels entirely natural and unforced:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells;

Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

Not only does he use end rhyme, but also internal rhyme, sometimes within and sometimes between lines:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same…

Considered in this analytical manner, “Kingfishers” can begin to seem artificial, but the point here is not to pull apart the auditory effects of the poem for the sake of analysis, but rather to indicate the way that Hopkins has crafted what is in effect a musical composition in English words.

When this poem is read aloud, it sings. Even reading it silently, it draws us in to pure music—and joyful music!

Not only does the poem sound beautiful, but this music is paired with images of beauty. Kingfishers: brightly colored, fast-moving birds; dragonflies: elegant jewel-toned insects whose name itself echoes fantastic creatures of medieval myth. The created world, made by God through Christ, is faithful in being what it was made to be.

Then on to the human interaction with God’s creation: wells, evoking fresh water, but also mystery and magic (think of tossing coins down a wishing well), and a child’s playfulness in tossing a stone into a well just for the pleasure of hearing the ring of the falling stone. Bells: the swinging bell, that flings out the note in joyful exuberance. The stone makes its sound as it tumbles down a man-made well; likewise, Hopkins gives us the image of the hung bell, the work of human hands, ringing out its name.

These lines draw us into an experience of pure, unmediated joy—and then Hopkins tells us what that joy is. First he hints it with the bell that “finds tongue to fling out broad its name”: the bell speaks not just any word, but its name. Then he follows with the larger conclusion: “Each mortal thing does one thing and the same… myself it speaks and spells; / Crying What I do is me.” All things naturally express their own identity – and the poem’s first lines have helped us feel, deep in our bones, that this identity is a joyous one. Hopkins goes a step further: following “what I do is me” we have “for that I came”: he takes us in one beat from identity to purpose.

Having introduced the idea of purpose at the pivot-point of the poem, Hopkins says “I say more,” declaring that he will unfold the meaning behind all of this.

However, he does not immediately name Christ; rather, he turns first to the human experience, “the just man justices”; by making a verb out of the noun justice, Hopkins makes the connection of identity and action concrete. This just man “Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces” – a play on words that emphasizes that God’s gift of grace is what allows the man to have all that he does unfold in grace. By including the word “grace” here, Hopkins helps the reader make the connection between beauty, joyful identity, and Christ before Christ is named, so that the name of Christ will be heard not as an evangelizing add-on, but as the piece that makes all the rest fit together perfectly.

And now Hopkins points to Christ who is at the heart of all of this: the man “Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is— / Christ.” Here we have a clear and robust statement of Christian identity: it is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me. Hopkins closes the poem with words that express the joy of living out that identity: “for Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his / To the father through the features of men’s faces.”

The fact that “Kingfishers” is beautiful purely as a poem draws us deeply into the heart of this experience: as poet, Hopkins takes us through a lived moment of pure, joyful Christian identity. We feel the joy of the kingfisher, dragonfly, stone, bell, and man each being exactly what it is meant to be – and we get a little taste of what it means to “put on Christ.”

 

WHEATON, ALLAH, AND THE TRINITY: DO MUSLIMS REALLY WORSHIP THE SAME GOD AS C. S. LEWIS?

Islam-and-Christianity

There was an exquisitely beautiful house in the woods.   It had obviously been built hundreds of years ago, but its exact origin was controversial.  The identity of the builder was in dispute, and some said no one really knew, and a few even denied the house had a builder.   Two men were discussing the matter, and they happened to agree that a man named Mr Devine was indeed the builder, and they were both admirers of him and his work.   As they continued their conversation, one of them commented that Devine was from Edinburgh, but the other insisted that he had come from Heidelberg.   “No, I assure you, Mr Devine and his family moved here from Edinburgh in 1787, and they built the house that year.”   The other replied: “Family? What family?  Mr Devine was a lifelong bachelor, and he moved here from Heidelberg in 1792, and that is when the house was built.”  “Well,” the first man replied, “while Mr Devine indeed designed the house, his two sons played vital roles alongside him in crafting and constructing it.”

There is an ongoing controversy involving Wheaton College and its decision first to suspend, and then to proceed with plans to terminate Larycia Hawkins, a tenured political science professor, for her statement that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.  For many observers, her statement is obviously true, while for others it is just as obviously false and no Christian teacher should even think it, let alone declare it in public.  Both within the secular media, as well as the Christian community, still others see the debate as a matter of quibbling over words that betrays Wheaton’s true legacy, or that reflects excessive rigidity. Continue reading

%d bloggers like this: