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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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 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.”

 

Christmas isn’t the Charade. Peace apart from Christ is.

“We are close to Christmas. There will be lights, there will be parties, bright trees, even Nativity scenes – all decked out – while the world continues to wage war … It’s all a charade. The world has not understood the way of peace. The whole world is at war.” – Pope Francis [1]

Many articles have been circulating concerning Pope Francis’ recent mass wherein he claimed that the Christmas celebrations this year are a charade, because there is no peace in the world right now. While it is true there is much war and bloodshed currently taking place in the world and we should weep as Jesus weeps for those that suffer, there is something strangely missing from the message of the leader of the largest Christian community in the world. The message of hope that only the Prince of Peace can bring.

While it is true that many of those that will celebrate during the upcoming Christmas season are not celebrating the birth of Christ, the truth remains that Christmas is about Christ. It is about Christ coming into a world of sin, brokenness, and death to save us from an eternal death. It is a message of hope precisely because of the darkness of this world. It is a message of peace precisely because there is no true peace to be found in the world.

One need only crack a history book to find evidence that if there has ever been a time when there was absolutely no war, bloodshed, or genocide, those periods were very short lived, if there are any. Even Jesus’ birth was marked by a mass genocide of all Jewish boys 2 years of age and younger, in King Herod’s attempt to kill the infant Jesus (Matt 2:16). If the very birth of the one we celebrate was marked by blood, why should we expect peace during our commemoration of it?

While the victimization of the past year has not been exclusive to Christians, many of the people who are suffering the most horrifically are the very ones who call on the name of Christ. Innumerable Christians are being persecuted throughout the Middle East simply because they are Christ followers. Videos of their executions have circled the internet, wherein even at the moment of execution these fearless Christians are praying and bearing witness to Christ’s ability to save and bring peace in the midst of the most horrific of circumstances. Is it not dishonoring to their sacrifice to consider the celebration of the birth of the Savior, in whose name they died, a charade because their blood was shed?

They died because they refused to deny him. Many more suffer because they refuse to deny him and pray that through their witness others will come to know him. The bloodshed in western countries is precisely because our post-Christian societies still bear witness to the freedom found in Christ’s message, even if our societies no longer recognize that freedom’s foundation in Christ.

During this season of remembrance, those of us who are Christians should use the atrocities of this year as an opportunity to share the message of Christ’s peace with others. We should use this season of celebration as an opportunity to share the real reason that we can celebrate, because we are free in Christ and have life that cannot be taken by a sword, gun, or bomb, eternal life in Jesus. Rather than focusing on the fallen state of this world, we should be celebrating our freedom in Christ and sharing that freedom with the lost. The lack of peace in the world should be no surprise to anyone that calls on the name of Christ, for Christ said “You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Matt 10:22). So rather than shrink away from celebration this year, due to the atrocities of this world, let us as Christians celebrate all the more, for the freedom the persecuted have in Christ, for the freedom the martyrs now experience in full in the presence of Christ, and for the opportunity to shine light into the darkness of this world, through our witness.

“The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” – John 1:9-13

[1] https://ca.news.yahoo.com/pope-says-christmas-charade-because-121919232.html

Image from: http://www.christianstatements.com/and-his-name-shall-be-called-isaiah-9-vinyl-wall-decal

Faith, Hope and Poetry

When I tell people that I teach ‘Imaginative and Literary Apologetics’ I am often met with a non-plussed look.

Some people are simply unfamiliar with the term ‘Apologetics’. They presume it must have something to do with saying sorry for Christianity – when, of course, it actually means giving reasons why Christianity can be considered credible.

And those people who are familiar with the term ‘Apologetics’ often assume it has just one dimension: that it’s all about giving reasons for Christianity’s credibility by showing the rationality of its claims to truth. But ‘Apologetics’ means more than that, – and for good reason. To concentrate solely on the ‘truth claims’ of Christianity runs the risk of turning the faith into a mere system of thought, a set of reasonable propositions to which its adherents intellectually grant assent.

Of course, belief in Christianity does include assent to certain propositions, and those propositions need to be grappled with by our intellects working logically and rigorously. But Christianity is more than a set of propositions. It’s not just something that’s true, it’s also something that’s good and beautiful. There are moral and artistic dimensions to Christian faith as well as philosophical dimensions. If apologists are to show how Christianity is fully credible, it needs to be demonstrated as the answer to ethical needs and aesthetic desires as well as to intellectual enquiries.

These three dimensions – the ethical, the aesthetic, and the intellectual – can’t be treated in hermetically sealed compartments when it comes to Apologetics. Indeed, part of the credibility of the faith resides in the fact there is connection and overlap and interinanimation between these three areas; the Christian life is an organic and integral whole. However, for the sake of clarity we can usefully divide Apologetics into the rational, the moral, and the artistic. Continue reading

Being a (Creative) Christian Writer

lightstock_150776_medium_user_870913What does it mean to be a creative writer? As Christians, how can we use literature and the arts for apologetics – and use them well?

These rather open-ended questions have been embodied for me (and for my students) this fall, as I teach a brand-new course on “Creative Writing and Apologetics” for the online MA in Apologetics program at HBU – a course that’s now part of the regular offerings for our MAA! As I write, we’re half-way through the semester, and I couldn’t be happier with my students and with how the course is going.

Teaching this course began with encouraging my students to think carefully about questions like: What is a writer? What does it mean to be a Christian writer? What kind of adventure are we all going on?

My course is, deliberately, designed as an introductory course – for students who are just dipping their toes into the stream (come on in, the water’s fine!) as well as those who are confident and ready to go deeper, and also for those who don’t think of themselves as ‘creative writers’ at all, but who want to learn how better to appreciate literature and the imagination as a way of sharing the truth.

The question of “what does it mean to be a creative writer?” opens up a wide range of possibilities for the course. Writing is a highly varied art!

One of the things I’ve experienced as a writer, myself, is Continue reading

C.S. Lewis’s Wit

One of my favourite books is Frederick Buechner’s Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale.

The chapter on Comedy is especially good, I think. And especially needed. Both church-life and the world of theological study are far too po-faced.

As my contribution to injecting a little humour into this situation, I thought I would do a quick survey of C.S. Lewis’s shining wit.

Lewis once wrote: ‘The English take their “sense of humour” so seriously that a deficiency in this sense is almost the only deficiency at which they feel shame.’ It must be remembered, of course, that C.S. Lewis was Irish. If he’d had the great good fortune to be born English (as I, I humbly admit, did) he would have realised how grievous a thing it is to be humour-impaired.

To lack a sense of humour is to lack a divine attribute. Lewis himself observed, in a letter he wrote in 1956, that ‘there may be some humour [in the New Testament]’. He gives three possible examples:

Matthew 9:12 – “People who are well . . . don’t need doctors.”

Matthew 17:25 – ‘Jesus said, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their sons . . . or from others’?”’

Mark 10:30 – ‘Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake and the gospel’s, but he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands – ahem, with tribulations, – and in the world to come eternal life.’

If there are other examples of dominical humour, Lewis wonders whether he, as a Westerner, would be able to spot them. He wrote, ‘I’ve been much struck in conversation with a Jewess’ – he means his wife, Joy Davidman – ‘by the extent to which Jews see humour in the [scriptures] where we don’t. Humour varies so much from culture to culture.’

So don’t worry if you don’t find this blog-post funny. Humour varies so much from culture to culture . . .

Continue reading

The Unexpected Defenders

Christianity Today's April Cover Photo

Christianity Today’s April cover photo featuring HBU faculty

Christianity Today’s April issue focuses on women in apologetics, featuring the female faculty at Houston Baptist University. “The Unexpected Defenders: Meet Women Apologists” is a significant story for our time. While many other articles have shown the groundbreaking work of women in areas such as business leadership, law, and medicine, there has been a persistent, albeit fading, idea that the Christian intellectual life is only full of men and for men. Yet, there are many Christian women interested in the life of the mind and in how to take responsibility for understanding the faith they profess. Continue reading

Practical Advice for Christian Writers

Being a Christian writer means, on the one hand, no more and no less than to be a Christian who writes; we are called to honor God in any and all work that we do. But there is something special about writing as a Christian vocation. Language, both spoken and written, is part of God’s creative action and His interaction with humanity. In the beginning, God said, ‘let there be light,’ and the first work God gave Adam to do, before the Fall, was to name the animals. God inspired the writers of the sacred Scriptures – which include a great deal of poetry. Jesus is the Word made flesh, and he taught in parables. To be a creative writer is to imitate, in our own way, God’s divine creative action. As J.R.R. Tolkien put it, “we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”

Furthermore, writers are in a unique position to help present the Christian faith in a compelling way. We need to be able to defend the truth of the Christian faith with strong, clear rational arguments, but the words we use in our arguments are of little use if they aren’t invested with meaning, which only the imagination can provide; and we won’t get people engaging with us unless they feel interested by or (even better!) drawn toward Christianity. Imaginative literature can help the apologist in many ways.

But how does one become a writer? I have found that many Christians are eager to write, but are unsure how to go about it, or have habits or ideas that are getting in the way of their growth as writers.

Without further ado, here are five pieces of advice for writing as a Christian… and an invitation at the end of this post to come join us if you’re intrigued by this as a vocation in apologetics!

  1. Pray, but don’t wait for inspiration.

My experience as a writer is that counting on, waiting for, or making too big a deal of “being inspired” leads to discouragement when a burst of creative energy subsides. God gives us talents, but we have to develop them and use them. There is no substitute for hard work: for putting in the time, day in and day out, week in and week out, to learning and polishing the skills of writing.

Include your writing in your regular daily prayers, just as you would include any other work that you are doing. If you wish to specially pray before your writing, I suggest something simple like: “Dear Lord, I commit my day’s writing to you, that I may honor you through my work. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, amen.”

Then write.

“Orare est laborare, laborare est orare.” (To pray is to work, to work is to pray – attributed to St Benedict).

  1. Write. Learn. Revise. Write more.

Writing is something you learn by doing. Your early work won’t be any good; that’s okay. How else are you going to learn? Think of sports or playing a musical instrument, and how much time and effort you would have to put in before you can play well in a big game, or do a solo at a recital.

The key is to learn from what you’ve written. That means you need to develop the ability to assess your work objectively, and to see where and how to improve. Feedback from a writing group, fellow writer, mentor, or teacher is extremely helpful in this regard.

  1. Read.

Writers write. They also read! Reading both widely and deeply will help you grow tremendously as a writer. You’ll see the different ways that great writers tackled the same sorts of challenges you’re facing, and you’ll get a deeper and more intuitive grasp of what you can do with language and form.

Don’t just read modern works in your favorite genre. Read the classics; it will break you out of imaginative ruts you didn’t even realize you were stuck in. Go upstream: read what your favorite authors read. And don’t just read Christian authors, either!

  1. Make time to write.

If you want to be a writer, then write. Put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. If you never “find time” to write, then evaluate what you are spending your time on. If you discover that you are frittering your time away on social media, then it may be the wake-up call you need to change your habits and stop wasting time on things you don’t actually enjoy very much. Writing takes time and effort and, above all, practice. Find a routine that works for you. Many blog posts and books recommend getting up early to write in the morning, for instance – if that works, great, but if it doesn’t, find what does work. (For the record, I am not a morning person, and I do not write in the mornings. No way.)

  1. Learn the craft.

Too often Christians take the “good enough” approach. If it has the right values… if it presents the Gospel… if it has Christian ideas in it… then it’s good enough, even if the writing is so-so, the plot is weak, and the characters a bit cardboard. This is a terrible mistake and a terrible missed opportunity. Christian writers are called, as creators, to show forth the truth and beauty of our faith both in what we say and in how we say it.

Put in the time and effort and attention to learn how to communicate well – how to use the right word in the right place at the right time; how to set a scene, how to create a compelling character, how to explore a difficult theme. Learn how to write so that your work is both true and beautiful.

Let me quote here from Dr Michael Ward, writing on this very subject:

“When there is so much apologetic work to be done in a world desperate for the good news of God in Christ, it may be asked what could be more important than to strain every sinew in the service of the Gospel – and to forget luxuries like beauty and think only of utility. Isn’t beauty an extravagance? Shouldn’t we think only, or at least chiefly, of effectiveness, of usefulness?

“Questions worth asking, to be sure. But what is the Gospel? It is not just a message, something said for the achieving of a particular utilitarian purpose. It is also a life, indeed ‘life in all its fulness’, something made by God to be received and enjoyed by us for its beauty, as well as for its goodness and its truth. […] In other words, it is part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to make room for the aesthetic category. Pointless, ‘useless’ beauty is essential to the good life lived under God.”

(Read the whole piece here.)

What now?

This advice comes from my own experience as a writer – which is quite varied! In addition to my academic writing and popular apologetics writing, I’ve written a memoir, Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms (Ignatius Press, 2014). I’m also a published poet; my work has appeared in the journals Sehnsucht: The C.S. Lewis Journal; Windhover: A Journal of Christian Literature; Dappled Things: A Quarterly of Ideas, Art, and Faith; and Californios Review, and most recently in the anthology Word in the Wilderness (Canterbury Press, 2014).

So, it’s with great pleasure that I can announce that starting in Fall 2015, I’ll be teaching a new elective course: “Creative Writing and Apologetics.” This course aligns perfectly with Dr Michael Ward’s “Literature and Apologetics” to provide a particular niche in the Cultural Apologetics MA for literary apologetics. (These courses are in Online format, so both our Houston and our Online students can take them.)

You see, we’re serious about imaginative apologetics. Some of our students will be teachers and pastors and ministry leaders – equipped with a deep understanding of culture and with an integrated approach to apologetics that uses both reason and imagination. Others will practice apologetics in the context of the workplace or the home. And some will work creatively – writing novels, screenplays, blogs, poems, graphic novels, children’s and young adult books…

I’m excited to think of the impact our students will have by being producers of culture. Want to join us? Check out the MA in Cultural Apologetics, and feel free to be in touch with me.

Write on!

Fifty Shades of…Blah

blah_blahThis is my post on ‪#‎50shadesofgrey‬: Blah. Blah. Blah.

So goes the culture in which we live. Full of the blah, blah, blah drone of a zombie culture looking for the next thing that will make it feel human once more, but gravely missing the mark yet again. Sleepers, awake! You were not created to be the walking dead, reduced to searching endlessly to satiate your immediate desires. You are made in the image of the glorious Creator! Bring sexuality back from the dead. It is a life-giving part of being human, not a zombified float on the surface of the earth. Where is our desire for the depths? Where is our dignity and resolve? Have we forgotten what it means to be human? Yes….and so blah, blah, blah goes even our artistic endeavors: revelry in the mundane, death where there should be life. And yet, there is hope.

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