Onions and Roses

The Onion, ‘America’s finest news source’, provides a satirical perspective on local, national, and international news. It was founded in 1988 as a weekly print publication and in 1996 began appearing online.

Why was it named The Onion? There are two explanations, according to Wikipedia. One version has it that the co-founders, Tim Keck and Chris Johnson, were at the time so poor that their diet consisted of raw onions on white bread. The other version claims the name is a mocking twist on a campus newsletter called The Union.

Perhaps both accounts are true. But what interests me more than the name’s origin is the aptness of the name itself. Calling a satirical newspaper The Onion is perfect. The word is short and snappy. It can be sketched easily for the masthead logo. Furthermore, an onion means precisely what it ought to mean for this particular purpose.

Onions have a strong and pervasive smell – just as the satire of The Onion is pungent, recognizable, and lingering.

Onions make you weep, but the tears are neither of joy nor sorrow – just as The Onion often leaves you unsure whether you’re laughing or crying.

Onions have multiple layers, and The Onion’s satire works on many levels at once, – mocking the self-importance of news outlets, the credulity of readers, and whatever topic is being skewered in any given article.

I submit that The Onion would not have achieved its great success if it had been called, say, The Rose. And I am moved to make this judgement by the example of C.S. Lewis who once remarked that the medieval love poem The Romance of the Rose would simply not have worked if it had been called The Romance of the Onion.

The Romance of the Rose is one of the greatest love poems of the Middle Ages. It is an allegorical dream vision, written in French, and published in the thirteenth century, – the first part authored by Guillaume de Lorris and the second part by Jean de Meun.

In his little-known academic article, ‘De Audiendis Poetis’ (published posthumously in 1966), Lewis comments that, “If roses did not smell sweet Guillaume de Lorris could never have used a rose to symbolize his heroine’s love. An onion would not do instead.”

Lewis knew that onions carry with them a number of peculiar qualities and associations, owing to their astringent odour, their flimsy, film-like, Russian-doll rings, and the Onionambiguous tears they provoke. Roses, on the other hand, are fragrant, soft, delicate. A lover is obviously going to compare his beloved to something tender, beautiful and gently unfolding, rather than to something acrid, plain, hard, and self-enclosed.

But though this is an obvious point, it is sometimes necessary to restate the obvious. As Dr Johnson declared: “Men more frequently require to be reminded than informed.” The world is charged with meanings that are given by the nature of the things themselves. Onions and roses have essential or substantive qualities that inhere in the very objects that they are. We can’t make onions and roses mean whatever we like.

Lewis followed Johnson in this regard: people need reminding. Roses have certain meanings that are simply given, – meanings that are not given by onions. The scent, the fragility, the mystery of a rose as it slowly discloses its heart, – these are its data. These inescapable, ineradicable real-life qualities of a rose must be recognized and respected. They should not be treated as if they were interchangeable with the qualities of a certain strongly-flavoured vegetable of the genus Allium.

This is common sense. That roses mean something different from onions is a fact handed down to us from time immemorial; it is part of the tradition of human perception which could not have been otherwise. And authors should not be ashamed of such a “stock response” (so Lewis argues in A Preface to Paradise Lost). On the contrary, authors should acknowledge the immutable identity of onions and roses and try to discern their intrinsic meanings as fully as possible. Just as scientists must not manipulate their data to come to some pre-arranged conclusion, so poets must respect the inherent qualities of things if they are to write wisely about reality and use symbols intelligently.

And, of course, this principle is not limited to onions and roses. In The Allegory of Love, Lewis invites his readers to try replacing the shepherds and swains of the pastoral tradition with policemen and tram-conductors. It cannot be done – or not without loss. There are certain responses to things which are required by reason. A rational interaction with the world rules out wilful or arbitrary or autonomous responses, but necessitates patient and attentive and inquisitive responses. In this way, meanings are not imposed upon reality but rather perceived within reality. This is the way of love, as opposed to the way of violence and objectification. It is the “law of love” that the poet Ruth Pitter said writers should observe, in a lecture she delivered at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, entitled ‘A Return to Poetic Law’.

“Law” sometimes implies unwelcome constraint, but the law of love is constrained by nothing save the need not to hate. As long as you don’t hate or scorn or belittle the thing you’re exploring, you can be as bold as you like in teasing out its suggestions, recognising its limits, exposing its (apparent) contradictions, following up its implications, delving into its origins, and so forth.

Take roses again. One need not only focus on the beauty and fragrance of the flower. One might also wish to observe, like George Herbert in his poem ‘Virtue’, that however lovely red-rose-1347966359HaBthe bloom, the rose’s root is “ever in its grave and thou must die”. Or one might point out, like Shakespeare (in Sonnet 35), that “roses have thorns and silver fountains mud”. Roses are mortal, their thorns can draw blood. Though the lively and lovely aspects of roses tend to be most focussed upon, they are not the only aspects. Poets don’t always have to make use of the most immediate meanings.

And even where poets focus on the beautiful bloom, that meaning is limited in its range of applications. For instance, Robert Burns compares his love to “a red, red rose / That’s newly sprung in June”, – a powerful image of female beauty. But what if his beloved’s beauty was of a different kind? William Wordsworth uses not the rose but the violet for the beauty he wishes to communicate. Wordsworth’s beautiful woman is compared to “a violet by a mossy stone / Half hidden from the eye”.

As Lewis writes in Studies in Words, these poets force us to “imagine two (very different) women. I see the rose-like, overpowering, midsummer sweetness of the one; the reticent, elusive freshness, the beauty easily overlooked in the other”. The nature of the woman in each case is made evident through the poet’s ability to discern the distinctive qualities of the flower under consideration. Things only signify something beyond themselves by first being themselves, and only the person who properly sees the thing sees its meaning.

To see the meaning of a thing is to make a metaphor. A metaphor is, literally, a “carrying over”. The poet sees in a flower a meaning that can be carried over to explicate or illustrate or ornament something about his beloved. Readers who understand the metaphor find their minds rewarded or enlarged; their responses to the world become more integrated, textured, pleasing. It is akin to getting the point of a joke.

Those poets with the greatest metaphor-making capacity are “the masters of meaning”, as Lewis writes in his essay ‘Bluspels and Flalansferes: A Semantic Nightmare’. One such poet was Dante (1265-1321), whose masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, moved and fascinated Lewis for years, prompting him to pen some of his most detailed and illuminating literary criticism. In ‘Dante’s Similes’, for example, he confesses:

I think Dante’s poetry, on the whole, the greatest of all the poetry I have read: yet when it is at its highest pitch of excellence, I hardly feel that Dante has very much to do. There is a curious feeling that the great poem is writing itself, or at most, that the tiny figure of the poet is merely giving the gentlest guiding touch, here and there, to energies which, for the most part, spontaneously group themselves and perform the delicate evolutions which make up the Comedy.

The greatest part of this greatest poem was its third canticle, the Paradiso. This section Lewis regarded as “the highest point that poetry has ever reached” (see his essay ‘Shelley, Dryden, and Mr Eliot’). As Dante’s pilgrim approaches paradise, he is granted a vision of heaven as a Mystic Rose – the “celestial rose” (‘Dante’s Similes’), the “eternal Rose” (‘Imagery in the Last Eleven Cantos of Dante’s Comedy’). Gustave Doré’s famous illustration to the Paradiso (see below) brings out the rosiness of that vision most beautifully.

Now notice Lewis’s supreme wit when he turns from literary criticism to his own creative work. In The Last Battle, the final volume of his Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis’s Paradiso_Canto_31characters also gain a vision of heaven – or ‘Aslan’s country’ as it is in that world. They go through the door of a stable, a small hut on a hill, but the interior of the stable turns out to be not dark and smelly and confined as they had expected, but light and fragrant and endlessly spacious. As they journey “further up and further in” to Aslan’s country, they find it contains a walled garden, situated on a great height, from which they can see the whole of Narnia spread out below. Lucy meets her old friend Mr Tumnus, the faun, and together they stand looking down over the wall at the glorious view beneath them. Then Lucy turns inward again, standing with her back to the wall and looks at the enclosed garden:

“I see,” she said at last, thoughtfully. “I see now. This garden is like the Stable. It is far bigger inside than it was outside.”

“Of course, Daughter of Eve,” said the Faun. “The farther up and the farther in you go, the bigger everything gets. The inside is larger than the outside.”

Lucy looked hard at the garden and saw that it was not really a garden at all but a whole world, with its own rivers and woods and sea and mountains. But they were not strange: she knew them all.

“I see,” she said. “This is still Narnia, and, more real and more beautiful than the Narnia down below, just as it was more real and more beautiful than the Narnia outside the Stable door! I see . . . world within world, Narnia within Narnia . . .”

“Yes,” said Mr Tumnus, “like an onion: except that as you go in and in, each circle is larger than the last.”

With this metaphor that he puts in the mouth of Mr Tumnus, Lewis pulls off one of his most daring and outrageously funny tricks. Heaven itself, which Dante had compared to a rose, Lewis compares to an onion, but an onion bigger on the inside than on the outside.

Great metaphor-maker that he was, Lewis sees that an onion bears a meaning not found in the rose. The onion’s rings reflect the geocentric medieval cosmos, that system of nestled spheres focussed either on God or on man, depending on your point of approach. From the physical perspective, man’s home, earth, was the centre of everything, and God’s home, the Empyrean, was on the circumference. But from the spiritual perspective, heaven was the heart of reality, and earth was merely peripheral, suburban. These competing perspectives Lewis unpacks in The Discarded Image:

How, we ask, can the Empyrean be the centre when it is not only on, but outside, the circumference of the whole universe? Because, as Dante was to say more clearly than anyone else, the spatial order is the opposite of the spiritual, and the material cosmos mirrors, hence reverses, the reality, so that what is truly the rim seems to us the hub.

Onions have circumferences, rims, hubs; they are globes, whereas roses are buds and blooms, – their petals don’t hold the circle. To that extent, onions are more like cosmological reality as the medievals understood it, and roses turn out to be metaphorically deficient.


The pre-Copernican cosmos

The repeated cry at the end of The Last Battle – “Further up and further in!” – is a paradoxical statement, reflecting both the spatial order and the spiritual order at once. Lewis’s pilgrims go “up” as if heaven were outside earth, but they simultaneously go “in” as if earth were outside heaven. Lewis, the great lover of the Comedy, sees where Dante’s imagery falls short. He ends Narnia not with a slavish repetition of the Mystic Rose, but with his own freshly-minted vision of a Mystic Onion.

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!


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.



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

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

A Pointless Article

“When you have to kill a man, it costs nothing to be polite.”

So wrote Winston Churchill, explaining the elaborate courtesy with which, on behalf of the British Government, he declared war on Japan in 1941.

Intellectual combat, like actual warfare, benefits from politeness. And in this respect, C.S. Lewis provides us with a notable example.

In his ripe, late work, An Experiment in Criticism (1961), Lewis guns down one of his Cambridge colleagues. But you will not learn the name of Lewis’s target from the pages of his book; he never mentions it. Why make your opponent’s fate worse by brandishing his identity before the public? Play the ball, not the man.

In An Experiment in Criticism Lewis sets out to discover what makes a book good. (We may usefully apply his findings to films and plays as well as books.) He concludes that what makes a book good is whether it “permits, invites, or even compels good reading”.

Very well. And what is good reading? Good reading is reading which does not use the book, but receives it.

Using a book (or a film, or a play) means interpreting it so that it serves some pre-existing agenda of your own, turning it to account, making it do things for you. Receiving a book is something quite different. Receiving means surrendering to it, allowing it to work whatever degree of authority it can attain, and paying respect to it on at least two levels, not just as ‘something said’ – that is, something with a social or political or religious message, – but also as ‘something made’ – that is, a work of art, a work of beauty, with its own internal logic or design or pattern. Continue reading


CS Lewis-1john-piperAs anyone knows who has even remotely been paying attention, Calvinism is alive and well in the contemporary church.  Indeed, the Reformed movement has been aggressively on the march in recent years, led by a number of young, theologically articulate pastors.  However, the godfather of the movement is undoubtedly John Piper, a senior scholar-pastor who has written numerous books and is a passionate preacher and oral communicator.  No contemporary leader has shaped the movement nearly as much as Piper.


While there is certainly much to admire about Piper, I think some of his central theological emphases pose severe difficulties when carefully examined.  Indeed, there are some deep problems and confusions in his theology.   Unfortunately, most of his young followers are not equipped to detect or critique these confusions, partly because they involve distinctions with which they are not familiar, and partly because these confusions are obscured by his powerful rhetorical skills.


I recently explored some of these problems in a lecture I gave at a conference at Azusa Pacific University.  I did so with the help of a number of passages from the writings of C. S. Lewis, who offers a profoundly different account of divine sovereignty and human freedom than Piper espouses.  But the deepest issue at stake in this debate is not human freedom, but the very character of God.  How do we understand God’s love and perfect goodness, and what truly brings him glory?


Here is the link for my lecture.


C.S. Lewis on Power

In Norman Maclean’s fly fishing novella, A River Runs Through It, Maclean suggests (echoing some Native American traditions) that fishing isn’t merely an exercise in raw power, but a graceful recognition that you and the fish you seek to catch are part of one wondrous whole. Not only must you have the right combination of skill and luck to catch a fish, but the fish itself must freely rise to the bait. In effect, the fish makes you into a fisherman.

Such a symbiotic relationship is a delicate balance, and therefore a difficult one for us to strike. Maclean writes, ‘It is natural for man to try to attain power without recovering grace.’ But, he suggests, in fishing as in life, the two can—and perhaps should—go together.

This is a daring thought in a modern context because it does not assume (as we all too often assume) that power is inherently evil—in fact, it implies that power rightly understood can be a good thing; and, even more challengingly, that power rightly practised can be a good thing. Read more . . .

Writing and Thinking in the School of C. S. Lewis

In a previous post, I wrote about using the essays of C.S. Lewis to help college students learn to write well and think well at the same time. While writing and thinking seem to go hand in hand, they frequently do not. But why should that surprise us? Humans are perfectly capable of speaking without thinking. In fact, considering the human capacity for communication without any real reflection, it should surprise no one that the hardest part of teaching college students to write is getting them to shed their habitual mental blinders, look about themselves, and think a little.

C.S. Lewis is in a class of his own when it comes to reasoning by analogy, which makes his writing extremely attractive to a professor who is desperate to get students to think. In the final paragraphs of “Religion: Reality or Substitute,” Lewis turns his attention the relationship of faith, reason, and doubt. Lewis recognizes that doubt is not the enemy of faith but a part of human experience. He points out that humans are subject to fears, passions, and moods that threaten to overwhelm one’s faith. Clearly, Lewis is not a fideist, someone who sees an adversarial relationship between faith and reason. But almost every college student has been trained by our culture to see just such a conflict between faith and reason, so they are a bit bewildered by Lewis’s claim that “When we exhort people to Faith as a virtue, to the settled intention of continuing to believe certain things, we are not exhorting them to fight against reason.” Even if they agree with Lewis, they are not sure why.

In the past, I have asked students to take note of the analogies Lewis uses to make his case, and then write their own analogical account of faith, reason, and doubt. On this point, Lewis likens faith to the experience of learning to swim. The instructor tells the student that he will be safe in the water and the student listens to the reasons given, agrees with them, and agrees to proceed with the project of learning to swim. But once in the water, he feels a little differently. With nothing underfoot and nothing to hold onto, the new swimmer might seriously doubt his instructor. Regarding this experience, Lewis writes, “You will have no rational ground for disbelieving. It is your senses and your imagination that are going to attack belief. Here, as in the New Testament, the conflict is not between faith and reason but between faith and sight.”

When students are forced to imagine their own every-day analogy of a conflict between faith and sight, they are forced to step away from many of their bad writing habits. Instead of sitting down to write an essay and looking for lots smart-sounding but insubstantial nonsense, students are forced to think: when have I been tempted to doubt something I knew to be true? They begin to examine their own experience. They begin to examine their own reason. They begin to think twice about what they always believed about doubt.

Students might write about flying on airplanes. Reason tells us that they are less risky than driving in cars. But once you are inside a metal tube, going several hundred miles per hour, several thousand feet in the air, well, not only sight begins to rebel against reason, but the other sensations do as well. Or students might write about a relationship. That girlfriend who you know to be kind, thoughtful, beautiful, and self-giving might seem not to be “the one” after all when you are having a wretched day and she neglects to notice and actually says some pretty heartless things about whiners.

When students write an assignment like this, I am not interested in seeing academic-speak. I am interested in organized paragraphs and well-wrought sentences, as always, of course. But more than that, I am interested in guiding them to participate in Lewis’s reasoning, which, this case, is particularly important because he is connecting reason with faith. In many ways, students must be asked to reason because only by doing so will their faith be strengthened. Hopefully when they try to write their own analogy about faith, reason, and doubt, they will begin to understand how human reason, though fallen, is not the adversary of faith. As Lewis notes, faith needs reason and reason needs faith. But faith is a both a virtue and a gift, and our reason must be redeemed. Our culture is not accustomed to seeing faith and reason in such a light; hopefully, after following Lewis’s example of reasoning by analogy students gain not only greater writing skills but greater insight into themselves and their own doubts, not as the assertions of rationality but as the temptation to reject reason.

From the Mundane to the Metaphysical: the Essays of C.S. Lewis

Like every other child raised in a Christian home, my introduction to Lewis came through his Narnia stories, and I still very much enjoy these stories, especially now that my oldest child can enjoy them with me. But as a teacher of college composition and writing classes, I have found his apologetic essays both delightful and instructive. One frequently overlooked dimension of C. S. Lewis’s talent as a writer is the careful attention he pays to form in the crafting of his essays. I have long admired “Religion: Reality or Substitute?” as being a particularly good examples of Lewis’s art. When I began teaching composition as a graduate student in 2003, I turned to this essay as a model of good writing and continue to use it today. Several colleagues, including my wife, have joined me in using this essay as an example of good writing that students willingly engage on many levels.  Why do this essay work so well? There are several reasons, but I think Lewis’s deft use of supporting evidence—or his ability to reinforce his thesis through variation and repetition—stands out as particularly skillful. And worth imitating.

The essay “Religion: Reality or Substitute?” illustrates Lewis’ skillful use of supporting evidence particularly well.  Here, Lewis confronts a frequent objection to faith—that religion is merely a comforting fiction we tell ourselves for protection against the grim reality of life. Lewis confesses that humans are pretty good at inventing such stories and likens the practice to Aesop’s fox, who comforted himself with the imagined sour grapes. In order to refute this persuasive argument rooted in human psychology, Lewis turns to his own experiences. The progression of his examples is a movement from the mundane to the metaphysical.

He demonstrates that experience alone is an unreliable teacher of reality by turning to such diverse yet analogous examples as smoking cigarettes, listening to gramophone records, and eating margarine. In his final example, he turns away from his own experience to a well-known scene in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The movement from the mundane to the metaphysical is also a movement from the more subjective (boys stealing cigars) to the universal (negotiating the movement between self-love and love of another).

In the first example, Lewis recalls how two “bad boys” stole cigarettes from their father. (Considering Lewis’s tobacco habit, it’s easy to infer who these two little boys might have been.) Only when the cigarette supply ran low did the boys resort to their father’s cigar stash to avoid detection. Because they preferred cigarettes, they viewed the cigars as merely a substitute for the better smokes. Lewis concludes that “the boys” were quite right so far as their own experience went, but if their own experience led them to conclude that cigars were an inferior place-holder for cigarettes, then their quite limited experience led them astray.

For the second example, Lewis recounts another experience of a child who is gathering information about the world. As a boy, he first heard orchestral music through a gramophone, which, owing to the technology of the time, collapsed all the individual sounds into “a single undifferentiated sound.” So when he first heard a live concert, and could hear each instrument, it seemed that he was not listening to “the Real Thing.” This he calls an even better example that the cigars/cigarettes misjudgment, for here, he really is confusing the reality with the substitute due to “miseducation.”

All this talk of “substitutes” reminds Lewis of wartime rations, so he recalls his experience of margarine: when he first began to eat it, he did not notice a difference, but as time wears on and there is no butter ever, only margarine, Lewis can hardly think of anything except that margarine is not butter. This, he says, is a different example than the other two. For in the first two examples, his early education and experience taught him to prefer the substitute and even view it as the reality. In the case of butter/margarine, Lewis is first acquainted with the real thing and can only stomach its substitute for so long.

Lewis quickly transitions from his own experience to an example drawn from Milton’s Eve in Paradise Lost. Soon after her creation, Eve happens to view herself in a pool of water. Taken with her own beauty, she falls in love with her reflection. But then God makes her look up to see Adam. She initially resists loving him, for he is nowhere near as beautiful as what she has just seen, but God guides her to see that loving Adam is better than loving herself. Here is reality and substitute completely beyond the realm of cigars/cigarettes, gramophone/concert, and margarine/butter.

Love is so near a religious experience. Though tied to the senses, it goes beyond sensation to the soul. If we are speaking of religious experience to those who are skeptical about religion, then it is an extremely good idea to use love, which transcends subjective reality most forcefully. Only the most hardened materialist cynic would disagree. So this last example prepares the reader for Lewis’s next move. What seemed so easy and natural—little boys stealing cigarettes or wartime rations—led to another fairly easy example (his audience at the time would have been familiar with Milton and this scene in particular). But this final example allows Lewis to move to his most forceful point: at times, “all of those sensations which we should expect to find accompanying the proper satisfaction of a fundamental need will actually accompany the substitute” and if we can all agree that is the case, then “we should hold it quite unflinchingly from this moment to the end of our lives.”

The reader is caught. If he is convinced that Lewis was right about the little boy listening to the gramophone and then going to the concert, and if he is led to agree with Lewis’s assessment of Milton’s Eve, then he has suddenly agreed to believe something until the moment of his death. Experience can no longer be admitted as a completely trustworthy authority.

Thus, in this essay, Lewis captures something about reality and human nature in both the form and content of his argument—we all form judgments based on experience and tend to give too much weight to experience alone. Each reader understands those examples about mistaking reality for the substitute because he has had that experience himself. The human proclivity to trust experience, however, has only increased since Lewis. Nearly all my students have never been taught to examine critically the authority of their own experience. I think it is a good exercise for students of writing to write a paragraph in which they provide their own example of discovering that the reality was the substitute or vice versa. Nearly all students enjoy this exercise. For they are invited to share in a quality of Lewis’s writing that gives it universal appeal: we see ourselves—our reasons and experiences—reflected in clear, forceful prose. We see ourselves reflected and then are made to admit an uncomfortable truth. However, in the end, as in Lewis’s essay, the “uncomfortable” truth may turn out to be quite comforting. For, Lewis reminds readers “Our faith in Christ wavers not so much when real arguments come against it as when it looks improbable.” Because our experience is unreliable, recognizing that reality ultimately helps the reader turn to a better teacher.  

Lewis’s apologetics legacy

An audio recording is now available of the Panel Discussion that I had the privilege of chairing at St Margaret’s, Westminster Abbey, on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of C.S. Lewis’s death (21st November 2013). The topic was Lewis’s apologetics legacy and the panellists were theologian Judith Wolfe, novelist Jeanette Sears, philosopher William Lane Craig, and apologists Michael Ramsden and Peter S. Williams. Do listen to their thoughts, if you have a spare hour some time; it was an interesting and helpful discussion. Rounding off the occasion, Professor Don King, an expert in Lewis’s poetry, read his “Apologist’s Evening Prayer”.


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