Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’

Religions of Iran: From Prehistory to the Present, Richard Foltz (Oneworld 2013)

This book reminded me of a line by one of Saki’s characters: “The people of Crete unfortunately make more history than they can consume locally.” Similarly, the people of Iran make more religion than they can consume locally. Much more. That’s part of why Iran is such an interesting place. I knew enough about Iran not to think it was Arabic-speaking or inhabited by Arabs. This book has taught me some more, but it deserved more time and attention than I’ve been able to give it.

As “Professor and Founding Director of the Centre for Iranian Studies at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada”, Richard Foltz is the sort of scholar who turns up regularly in the New York or London Review of Books. And he probably has done exactly that. Fortunately, his prose doesn’t sink to the levels of pretension and posturing you can often find in the NYRB and LRB. He has some illuminating things to say. But perhaps “irrigating” is a better description of this example:

The “Pool Theory”: Possibilities, not Essence

My own approach to the notion of “religion”, which sees the term as being, for practical purposes, almost synonymous with “culture” and not a separate category, places less of an emphasis on providing a description as such, than on identifying a pool of ideas and behaviour from which communities and ideas may draw in constituting their particular worldviews. I call this approach the Pool Theory: it posits that religion/culture is best understood not in terms of essential features, but as a set of possibilities within a recognizable framework, or “pool”. (Preface, pp. xii-xiii)

The Iranian pool is unusually deep and broad: the region has been creating, influencing and absorbing religious ideas for millennia. Who were the magi of the New Testament, for example? Priests from ancient Persia, that’s who. The new religion of Christianity was drawing on the prestige of a much older religion, that of Zarathustra or Zoroaster, whose life can’t even be given a fixed millennium, let alone a century. As Foltz says: “Among the founders of the world’s major religions, none is more shrouded in mystery than Zoroaster. Basic questions, such as where and when he lived, remain unresolved.” (ch. 3, “In Search of Zoroaster”, pg. 32)

But perhaps if Zoroaster had been less mysterious, he would also have been less influential. Zoroastrianism has also shaped and inspired Judaism and Islam. It’s no longer the dominant religion in Iran, but it’s the part of the cultural pool where Iranians still swim. So is Manichaeism, a religion that appeared in Iran in the third century AD. It’s much less-known than Zoroastrianism, but may be even more interesting: after all, it was “perhaps the most maligned religion in history”. Its founder Mani “died in prison in 276, presumably tortured to death, at the age of sixty” (ch. 10, “Manichaeism”, pg. 138). His eclectic and eccentric religion was known for centuries “only through the polemics of its worst enemies, such as Augustine of Hippo and the various heresiographers and historians of Islam”. (pg. 137)

Manichaeism was eventually driven out of Iran to become an official religion among the Uighur Turks of Central Asia, then die far off and long later even further east: “The last Manichaean community appears to have survived in southeastern China until the seventeenth century, when it became unrecognizably absorbed into popular Buddhism”. (ibid., pp. 143-4) What inspired the enmity that began this exile? Modern scholars like Foltz aren’t able to explain that fully, even now that they have original Manichaean texts from “the widely separated deserts of western China and Egypt” (pg. 142). But Manichaeism, while retaining its own doctrines, seems to have borrowed too readily and adapted too flexibly to other religions. That is, it was a chameleon, so its rivals could never be sure whether their own adherents were truly as orthodox as they seemed. Augustine knew it from the inside: he “was a Manichaean for nine years before converting to Christianity.” (pg. 137) As Foltz notes: “his interpretation of the latter faith was greatly influenced by his rejection of the former”.

So an Iranian religion influenced Christianity again. But Manichaeism influenced Judaism and Islam too, “if for no other reason than that its proselytizing success and extreme doctrinal positions forced apologists for other faiths to refine and strengthen their own views” (pg. 137). And the contrarian spirit of Manichaeism lives on. Iran is today the centre of “Shi‘ism” (sic), the branch of Islam that very roughly corresponds to Protestantism in Christianity and that was born in southern Iraq in opposition to orthodox Sunni Islam. When rebels become rulers in Iran, rebellion doesn’t cease. This is one of the most interesting passages in the book:

[…] the Qajar dynasty was brought to an end in 1921 by an ambitious soldier called Reza Khan (born 1878) who seized power and assumed the title of Shah in 1925. Reza Shah, as he was now known, made a conscious effort to recall Iran’s pre-Islamic greatness by calling his new dynasty the Pahlavi [after an ancient Iranian language]. […] Reza Shah’s modernizing agenda favored those among the traditional clergy, Shariat Sanglaji for example, who showed themselves pliant and willing to preach a reformist version of Islam compatible with the king’s goals. At the same time, his nationalist policies encouraged a celebration of Iran’s pre-Islamic identity. This included a replacement of Arabic words and place-names with Persian ones. Many among Iran’s intelligentsia were attracted to the national reawakening taking place during the 1930s, which sometimes portrayed Islam as an alien religion that had been imposed through force by a culturally inferior people. (ch. 14, “Shi‘ism”, pg. 205)

The dynasty founded by Reza Shah lasted until 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile in France to create “The Islamic Republic”. Foltz discusses the republic in chapter 18, but he’s understandably cautious in what he says. He has an Iranian wife and I assume he visits Iran regularly. As he says in the previous chapter, discussing the tribulations of “The Bábí Movement and the Bahá’í Faith”: “Those Bábís who survived [in Iran] adopted the age-old Shi‘ite practice of taqiyya, dissimulation of one’s true beliefs to ensure the survival of the religious community” (loc. cit., pg. 235). In some ways, Bahá’ísm is Manichaeism reborn: hated and persecuted in its land of origin.

But we don’t need to wonder many centuries later whether the hatred and persecution are in any way justified: we can see for ourselves that they aren’t. Like Ahmadis in Pakistan, Bahá’ís aren’t officially recognized except as enemies of the true faith. Like Ahmadis, many have left the country in which their religion took shape. History is repeating itself as tragedy, not farce, but the tragedies of Iranian history are part of what makes the country so interesting and you can see another side of the Islamic Republic in another chapter: “…Zoroastrians in Iran enjoy a number of privileges denied to Iran’s Muslim majority.” (ch. 19, “Iranian Zoroastrians Today”, pg. 258) For example, like “Iran’s Christians and Jews, they can make and produce alcoholic beverages”.

Persecuting or tolerant, innovative or heresy-hunting, Iranian religion is both fascinating and important. You can get a good idea of its depth and complexity in this book, whether you paddle or plunge into the millennia’s-worth of ideas, stories and personalities that swirl and mingle here.


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A Radical New Interpretation of the Christian Message


Who was He?

The Christ.

What was He?

A carpenter.

Whence was He?

From Galilee.

Let us take His attributes one by one and see what clues they offer to the true nature and purpose of the King of Kings and so-called Lord of Lords. First, Jesus was the Christ: in Greek, ho Khristos, the Anointed One, translating the Judaic term maashiah, from the Hebrew verb maashah, meaning “to smear or rub over with oil”.1 And during His ministry, He would be closely associated with Olivet, the Mount of Olives. The key concept here is oil.

Second, Jesus was a carpenter: in Greek, tektōn, the skilled worker in wood mentioned in this New Testament text:

Matthew, xiii, 55. Is this not the carpenter’s son? is not his mother called Mary?

And during His ministry, His teaching would often make literal or symbolic use of trees: the fig, the sycamine, the “mustard”, those trees bearing good fruit, those bearing bad.2 The key concept here is wood.

Third, Jesus was from Galilee, the hilly region of northern Palestine that took its name from the Hebrew verb gaalal, “to roll, to go round”. And at the end of His ministry, He would be crucified at Golgotha, the Aramaic form of the Hebrew gulgōleth, “a round, rolling thing or skull”, also from gaalal. The key concept here is roll.

And so we have oil… wood… roll… and stand trembling on the brink of a paradigm shift in terms of our perceptions of the nature and purpose of Jesus Christ and the religion He founded. One more text will suffice to tip us over:

John, xix, 33. But when they came to Jesus, and saw that he was dead already, they brake not his legs … 36. For these things were done, that the scripture should be fulfilled, A bone of him shall not be broken.

Oil… wood… roll… And a divine promise that Jesus would never break a bone… There is only one conclusion to draw: that Jesus the Anointed, Jesus the Carpenter, Jesus the Galilean was a skateboarder. A skateboarder who built His own ’boards of wood, lubricated their wheels with oil, and then rolled atop them with such skill that He never broke a bone even on the unsuitable road surfaces of first-century Palestine.

Straw Power

Though He occasionally had to get by — literally — with a little help from His friends:

Matthew, xxi, 6. And the disciples went, and did as Jesus commanded them, 7 and brought the ass, and the colt[, and] set him thereon. 8 And a very great multitude spread their garments in the way; others cut down branches from the trees, and strawed them in the way. 9 And the multitudes that went before, and that followed, cried, saying, Hosanna to the son of David: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest.

This is clearly a description of Jesus skateboarding into Jerusalem between cheering crowds who have “strawed”, or strewn, a particularly bumpy road surface with clothing and foliage to ensure Him a smooth ride. This interpretation even enables us to solve one of the greatest puzzles of New Testament scholarship: Matthew’s seemingly inexplicable misreading of the poetic parallelism of Zechariah’s prophecy of this event:

ix, 9. Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.

Zechariah refers here to one animal in two different ways, and  Matthew, unlike Mark and Luke, has long been thought to have misinterpreted him and supposed that Jesus was, grotesquely, riding two asses into Jerusalem.

But if we realize that “ass” — onos — was in fact a first-century slang term for “skateboard”, we clearly see that Matthew was merely recording something that Mark and Luke overlooked: a trick performed by the skateboarding Jesus in which, for some part of the journey, He rode simultaneously atop two boards. Today, part of such a routine can be referred to as a

Daffy duck: one person rides two boards — doing a tail wheelie [sic] with the front one and a nose wheelie with the back one.3

It is a difficult trick, part of the repertoire only of an advanced skater, even with hi-tech, easy-to-manage modern ’boards.

Jesus the Divine Skateboarder

But that, surely, is a fatal objection to the theory of Jesus the Divine Skateboarder, is it not? After all, first-century technology could not have met the engineering requirements of skateboard construction, which relies on a precise working in both wood and metal that was surely beyond the capacity of ancient carpenters and metalworkers. Surely? Not so, in fact:

The National Archaeological Museum of Greece in Athens possesses corroded fragments of a metallic object found by sponge-divers near the island of Antikythera in 1900. Complex dials and gears of the mechanism were unlike any [other] artifact from ancient Greece. From the inscription on the instrument and the amphorae found with it, a date c. 65 B.C. was ascribed to the object.4

The artifact was first misidentified as an “astrolabe” and only later realized to be “a computing machine that could work out and exhibit the motions of the sun and moon and probably also the planets”.5

Skateboards, then, would have been well within the technological grasp of the first century. But one might ask again: would the first century have realized they were there to be grasped? For it seems highly unlikely that skateboards would appear spontaneously in any culture, regardless of whether it was capable of building them to an advanced standard. In our own culture, for example, they appeared like this:

In the ’60s, Californian surfers bolted roller-skate wheels to old surfboards and used them to ride down hills when conditions at sea were against them.6

In other words, the first skateboarders were surfers. So did Jesus surf before He skated? Seemingly He did:

Matthew, xiv, 24. But the ship was now in the midst of the sea, tossed with waves: for the wind was contrary. 25 And in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went unto them, walking on the sea. 26 And when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, It is a spirit, and they cried out for fear.

Clearly this describes Jesus introducing His apostles to surfing as the first stage of their journey to the higher truths of skateboarding. They are astonished and fearful as He seems to “walk” towards them over the surface of the water, shifting His feet on the surfboard to adjust His balance as He prepares to give the most adventurous of His apostles a first surfing lesson:

Ibid., 27. But straightway Jesus spake unto them, saying, Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid. 28 And Peter answered him and said, Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water. 29 And he said, Come. And when Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on the water, to go to Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me. 31 And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?

And here we understand why Jesus recruited so many fishermen at the beginning of His ministry. Skateboarding would have been too dangerous for the apostles to undertake without an apprenticeship as surfers, but surfing likewise would have been too dangerous if some of them had not been able to swim and, when necessary, rescue themselves or their less natatorially inclined fellows as they all acquired the necessary skills of balance and footwork.

From Sea to Land

Once they had acquired these skills, they could transfer them to the more demanding conditions of “surfing” on land, where a fall or loss of control would mean not a soaking but a severe bruise, graze or even broken limb. The apostles’ apprenticeship at sea with surfboards meant that they took up skateboarding with insight and experience, neither over-cautious nor over-confident, but well able to fulfil the mission Jesus had mapped out for them: to introduce skateboarding to the world. In token of this, they were twelve in number, symbolizing on earth the heavenly skateboard wheel of the Zodiac. Here is the list of twelve given by Mark, for example:

iii, 16. Simon he surnamed Peter; 17 and James the son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James; and he surnamed them Boanerges, which is, The sons of thunder: 18 and Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphæus, and Thaddæus, and Simon the Canaanite, 19 and Judas Iscariot, which also betrayed him …

Notice again how our new interpretation of Christianity solves another long-standing puzzle of New Testament scholarship: the precise significance of Boanerges, “The Sons of Thunder”. After all, what more appropriate name could be given to a pair of young and adventurous skateboarders?7

And perhaps it was even a nickname, given to James and John by Jesus because the two were such enthusiastic ’boarders that they were inclined to neglect the oiling of their wheels. Another nickname is certainly present in the list of apostles: that of Judas Iscariot. Many suggestions have been made as to the significance of his surname, including:

(1) From Kerioth (Josh. xv. 25) … (2) From Kartha in Galilee (Kartan, A.V. Josh. xxi. 32). (3) From scortea, a leathern apron, the name being applied to him as the bearer of the bag, and = Judas with the apron.8

The Oxford English Dictionary supports the first of these, deriving Iscariot from the Hebrew ’iish-qeriōth, “Man of Kerioth”. Kerioth comes from the Hebrew verb qaaraah, meaning to “to frame, build”. Does this suggest that Judas “had the bag” (John xii, 6; xiii, 29) because he carried tools therein and was in charge of repairing Jesus’s and the apostles’ skateboards?

Repairing… and Wrecking

If so, it provides an excellent explanation for why Judas was the apostle selected by the high priests to be suborned, to become the betrayer of his master. If Judas was in charge of repairing the skateboarders, he was also very well-placed to sabotage them and thereby end Jesus’s previous immunity from harm. Jesus’s enemies had tried to kill Him previously, but He had always escaped from them in some mysterious way that has, until now, been difficult to explain:

Luke iv, 28. And all they in the synagogue, when they heard these things, were filled with wrath, 29 and rose up, and thrust him out of the city, and led him unto the brow of the hill whereon their city was built, that they might cast him down headlong. 30 But he passing through the midst of them went his way.
John viii, 59. Then they took up stones to cast at him: but Jesus … went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by.
x, 31. Then the Jews took up stones again to stone him … 39 … therefore they sought again to take him: but he escaped out of their hand.

If Jesus was on a skateboard and His enemies on foot, it becomes easy to understand how He escaped, particularly in the first case, when He had a good slope to pick up speed on. His enemies would have swiftly been left far behind, raging impotently at His speed and skill.

And vowing to find some means of turning it against Him. Hence the bribe they offered to Judas to sabotage Jesus’s skateboard: thirty silver coins symbolizing the way in which its glittering wheels bore its owner to and fro on every day of the month. By this stage in His ministry Jesus had begun to introduce the apostles to:

DOWNHILL: the easiest and deadliest form of skateboarding … Though anyone can ride down a hill at high speed, it requires considerable experience to do it safely.9

This is clearly described in the Gospels:

Mark ix, 2. And after six days Jesus taketh with him Peter, and James, and John, and leadeth them up into an high mountain by themselves: and he was transfigured before them … (cf. Matthew xvii, Luke ix)

Remember that Peter was the first to try surfing, and James and John were the “Sons of Thunder”: these three were the most enthusiastic and confident skaters amongst the apostles, and obvious candidates for this initial introduction to the potentially deadly delights of downhill, in which the lithe, darting, alinear movements of ordinary ’boarding are transfigured into a headlong linear rush of pure speed.

Jesus in a Jam

In downhill, then, the ’boarder relies even more heavily on his equipment than usual, and a jammed or otherwise malfunctioning wheel renders him liable to a very serious case of

Road rash: bruises, gashes and other skateboarding wounds.10

In other words, the scourging and other maltreatment Jesus undergoes before His “crucifixion” are in fact allegorical of wounds suffered by Him in a downhill ’boarding accident that takes place after the Last Supper in

Gethsemane … the name of a “garden” or enclosure on the Mount of Olives, scene of the agony of Jesus11

Jesus has brought the apostles here to practise downhill ’boarding on the slopes often seen in traditional portrayals of the Garden of Gethsemane. The apostles, however, become exhausted and retire for a time, leaving Jesus to skate on alone, well aware that the ’board He is using has been sabotaged by Judas. We see this described, partly in allegorical terms, by Luke:

xxii, 41. And he was withdrawn from them about a stone’s cast, and kneeled down, and prayed, 42 Saying, Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless, not my will, but thine, be done. 43 And there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him. 44 And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.

“Kneeled down” is a literal description of the position adopted for downhill ’boarding and “prayed” is allegorical of the ’boarding itself, a holy act that renders homage to God. But the prayer is cut short when disaster strikes: Judas’s sabotage is consummated, a wheel jams or falls off, and Jesus, sweating heavily from His exertions, is flung to the ground, splattering it with blood.

Rock and Roll

And now, finally, badly injured, unable to escape on His disabled ’board, He can be seized by His enemies and taken away for execution:

Luke xii, 54. Then they took him, and led him, and brought him to the high priest’s house.

Jesus’s trial proceeds, He is condemned to death, and led out for… what? Crucifixion? Nailing to a cross? So readers of English translations of the New Testament might suppose, but in fact there is no direct reference in the original to a “cross”: New Testament Greek uses the nouns stauros and xylon, meaning a “pale, stake or pole” and a “stick or piece of wood”, respectively.12

The conclusion? That the high priests sadistically and sardonically ordered Jesus to be executed with His own skateboard: injured though He is, He is forced to ride His repaired ’board again and again on the hill called Golgotha, “The Round, Rolling Place”, under the supervision of brutal Roman soldiers who force Him on with prodding spears and draughts of sour, re-invigorating vinegar. The result? That after a day of this enforced ’boarding, He “cried with a loud voice, and gave up the ghost” (Mark xv, 37).

And so Jesus passed from the Mount of Olives, the oil-trees, to execution with a piece of wood on a place named from the Hebrew-Aramaic verb to roll, and we have each of the three key concepts enunciated at the beginning of this article. The third, final, and most important of them will shortly appear again in the closing act of the Synoptic Gospels, when Jesus’s grieving female followers come to His tomb to perform the final rites of burial:

Mark xvi, 4. And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had brought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him. 2 And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came unto the sepulchre at the rising of the sun … 4 And when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away: for it was very great. 5 And entering into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment; and they were affrighted. 6 And he saith unto them, Be not affrighted: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified [ton estaurōmenon]: he is risen: he is not here: behold the place where they laid him. 7 But go your way, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee

In Greek, “rolled” is -kekylistai,13 the same verb as is used for these stone-rolling episodes in the Septuagint, an ancient Jewish translation of the Old Testament into Greek:

Genesis xxix, 10. … Jacob went near, and rolled the stone from the well’s mouth
Proverbs xxvi, 27. Whoso diggeth a pit shall fall therein: and he that rolleth a stone, it will return upon him.

In the original Hebrew, the verb in Genesis and Proverbs is gaalal, and the play on words in Mark between “rolled” and “Galilee” would have been obvious to the apostles, as would its meaning: that Jesus had conquered death, recovered from His wounds, and gone away to skateboard on the rolling hills of Galilee. The Risen Christ is the Risen Skateboarder, King of Kings, and Lord, quite clearly, of ’Boards.


1. Discussion of Hebrew words is based on Benjamin Davidson’s The Analytic Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon, Samuel Bagster & Sons, London, 1970.

2. See, respectively, Luke xxi, 29; Luke xvii, 6; Matthew xiii, 32; Matthew iii, 10.

3. John Blake, The Complete Guide to Skateboarding, Phoebus Publishing, London, 1977, “Glossary”, pg. 62

4. Andrew Tomas (sic), We Are Not the First, ch. 17, “First Robots, Computers, Radio, Television and Time-Viewing Machines”, pg. 162 of the 224-page 1973 Sphere paperback.

5. Ibid., pg. 163, words of the English scientist Dr Derek J. de Solla Price in Natural History, March, 1962.

6. The Complete Guide to Skateboarding, “Sidewalk Surfin’”, pg. 6

7. One previous suggestion: “the nickname ‘Sons of Thunder’ has been shown by Rendel Harris to be connected with the cult of twins. The sons of Zebedee were probably twins” (Peake’s Commentary on the Bible, notes to Mark iii, 17).

8. William Smith, LL.D., Smith’s Bible Dictionary, Fleming H. Revell, Old Tappan, N.J., 1977, entry for “Judas Iscariot”.

9. The Complete Guide to Skateboarding, “Superskating”, pg. 50

10. Ibid., “Glossary”, pg. 63

11. Oxford English Dictionary, which derives “Gethsemane” from the Aramaic gath shemani(m), meaning “oil-press”.

12. Liddell and Scott’s Lexicon.

13. In full, apo- or anakekylistai, the prefix apo- or ana- supplying the sense of “away” or “from”.

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The Water-Babies by Charles KingsleyThe Water-Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby, Charles Kingsley (1863)

When I first read this as a child, I didn’t realize that it was one of the strangest books ever written. I do now. And the strangeness was heightened by the old edition I’ve re-read it in, because it came as a double volume that started with Kingsley’s The Heroes, or Greek Fairy Tales (1856).

No-one reading The Heroes would guess what awaited them in the second half of the book. The prose plods, the imagery is strictly conventional – “Then Aietes’ rage rushed up like a whirlwind, and his eyes flashed fire” – and Kingsley makes interesting stories dull. I quickly gave up when I tried to read them.

Maybe I was anticipating The Water-Babies too much. It starts almost conventionally, but it has an unconventional hero: “a little chimney-sweep” called Tom. He’s unwashed, unlettered, untaught, and unfairly treated by his master in “a great town in the north country”. But he accepts the hardships of his life, finds fun where he can, and thinks of “the fine times coming, when he would be a man, and a master sweep, and sit in the public-house with a quart of beer and a long pipe, and play cards for silver money, and wear velveteens and ankle-jacks, and keep a white bull-dog with one grey ear, and carry her puppies in his pocket, just like a man.”

That first long paragraph of The Water-Babies is already richer and more vivid than the whole of The Heroes. And the book hasn’t got strange yet. It starts to do so when Tom is taken into the country to sweep the chimneys of Harthover House, the grand home of the squire Sir John Harthover:

[It] had been built at ninety different times, and in nineteen different styles, and looked as if somebody had built a whole street of houses of every imaginable shape, and then stirred them together with a spoon.

For the attics were Anglo-Saxon.

The third door Norman.

The second Cinque-cento.

The first-floor Elizabethan.

The right wing Pure Doric.

The centre Early English, with a huge portico copied from the Parthenon.

The left wing pure Boeotian, which the country folk admired most of all, became it was just like the new barracks in the town, only three times as big.

The grand staircase was copied from the Catacombs at Rome.

The back staircase from the Tajmahal at Agra. […]

The cellars were copied from the caves of Elephanta.

The offices from the Pavilion at Brighton.

And the rest from nothing in heaven, or earth, or under the earth. (The Water-Babies, ch. 1)

That’s an early taste of the eccentric lists and juggling of ideas to come. Tom begins to sweep the chimneys of Harthover House, but accidentally comes down in the bedroom of the squire’s daughter as she lies asleep in bed. She’s the “most beautiful little girl Tom had ever seen”. And she’s completely clean. Then Tom notices someone else in the room: “standing close to him, a little ugly, black, ragged figure, with bleared eyes and grinning white teeth.”

He turns on it angrily, then realizes it’s his own reflection in a “great mirror, the like of which [he] had never seen before.” For the first time in his life, he understands that he is dirty. The knowledge startles and shames him, so he tries to flee up the chimney. But he upsets the fire-irons and wakes the little girl. She screams, thinking he’s a thief; and Tom’s adventures begin. He leaves the little girl’s bedroom by the window, climbing down the magnolia tree outside, and runs off.

Soon the whole house and its staff are chasing him, but he tricks them off his trail, “as cunning as an old Exmoor stag”, and makes off through a wood, then onto the hills of a moor. After the grand catalogue of architectural styles, Kingsley’s descriptions become detailed and naturalistic: “[Tom] saw great spiders there, with crowns and crosses marked on their backs, who sat in the middle of their webs, and when they saw Tom coming, shook them so fast that they became invisible.” But when he disturbs a grouse washing itself in sand, it runs off and tells its wife about the end of the world. Like Tom, the reader has entered a new world where animals think and talk.

But the truly big transformation is still to come. The sun is very hot as Tom climbs the limestone hills and starts down the other side. He grows thirsty and begins to suffer from sun-stroke. When he seeks help at a dame-school, he’s given some milk and a place to rest, but his head is ringing and he wants to be clean. He walks to a stream in a nearby meadow and bathes in it. Then he falls asleep in it:

Ah, now comes the most wonderful part of this wonderful story. Tom, when he woke, for of course he woke — children always wake after they have slept exactly as long as is good for them — found himself swimming about in the stream, being about four inches, or — that I may be accurate — 3.87902 inches long and having round the parotid region of his fauces a set of external gills (I hope you understand all the big words) just like those of a sucking eft, which he mistook for a lace frill, till he pulled at them, found he hurt himself, and made up his mind that they were part of himself, and best left alone. (ch. II)

He’s now a Water-Baby and can begin his amphibious adventures. As the title suggests, water is central to this book: it’s a protean, ever-changing medium, with the power to transform, transport and cleanse. And it has a lot in common with language, which is also protean and transformative.

So Kingsley plays with language as he describes water and its inhabitants. I thought he was making fun of scientific terminology – “3.87902 inches long and having round the parotid region of his fauces a set of external gills” is just the start – but apparently he was a friend of Charles Darwin and accepted Evolution. A lot of that goes on in this book: physical, intellectual and moral. Tom evolves from boy to Water-Baby, but he has a lot of bad habits to unlearn as he travels down the stream and the river into which it evolves. As part of his education, he talks with all kind of animals:

And as the creature sat in the warm bright sun, a wonderful change came over it. It grew strong and firm; the most lovely colours began to show on its body, blue and yellow and black, spots and bars and rings; out of its back rose four great wings of bright brown gauze; and its eyes grew so large that they filled all its head, and shone like ten thousand diamonds.

“Oh, you beautiful creature!” said Tom; and he put out his hand to catch it.

But the thing whirred up into the air, and hung poised on its wings a moment, and then settled down again by Tom quite fearless.

“No!” it said, “you cannot catch me. I am a dragon-fly now, the king of all the flies; and I shall dance in the sunshine, and hawk over the river, and catch gnats, and have a beautiful wife like myself. I know what I shall do. Hurrah!” And he flew away into the air, and began catching gnats. (ch. III)

Tom also meets wicked otters and snobbish salmon. Then he reaches the sea, realm of the ever-changing god Proteus, and things get even stranger. He talks with hermit-crabs and lobsters as he searches for other Water-Babies. Words and ideas run and swirl through the story like currents, and so do emotions. Tom experiences both joy and sadness:

And then there came by a beautiful creature, like a ribbon of pure silver with a sharp head and very long teeth; but it seemed very sick and sad. Sometimes it rolled helpless on its side; and then it dashed away glittering like white fire; and then it lay sick again and motionless.

“Where do you come from?” asked Tom. “And why are you so sick and sad?”

“I come from the warm Carolinas, and the sandbanks fringed with pines; where the great owl-rays leap and flap, like giant bats, upon the tide. But I wandered north and north, upon the treacherous warm gulf-stream, till I met with the cold icebergs, afloat in the mid ocean. So I got tangled among the icebergs, and chilled with their frozen breath. But the water-babies helped me from among them, and set me free again. And now I am mending every day; but I am very sick and sad; and perhaps I shall never get home again to play with the owl-rays any more.” (ch. IV)

That’s a description of an oar-fish, I think. When Tom finds the Water-Babies of whom it spoke, he completes his moral education under the guidance of two mother-fairies, the ugly Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid and the beautiful Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby. But the ugly can become beautiful: Kingsley was a Christian and this is a moralistic story too. The dirt that Tom has to lose is spiritual, not just moral and physical: he saw a crucifix in the little girl’s bedroom and didn’t know what it was.

But there’s too much going on in The Water-Babies for any simple reading of Kingsley’s aims. Or perhaps I’m saying that because I’m not a Christian. Either way, the book certainly isn’t conventional in its Christianity. Like C.S. Lewis’s Narnia or J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Kingsley’s world is big enough for non-believers. But it isn’t as coherent as Narnia or Middle-earth, or as easy to enter as Wonderland. That’s part of why The Water-Babies isn’t as famous or as widely read today. Lewis Carroll played with both logic and language; Kingsley plays with both life and language.

That’s what I like about this book. You’ll find vivid little naturalistic touches like spiders shaking in their webs and words like “Necrobioneopalaeonthydrochthonanthropopithekology”. If Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll had collaborated on a book, it might have ended up something rather like The Water-Babies. And James Joyce would have been good as a collaborator too. I don’t know if he was influenced by The Water-Babies, but he could have been. He too was obsessed with language and water. Both of them are at the heart of this Fairy Tale for a Land Baby.

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Lytton Strachey by Dora Carrington (1916)

Lytton Strachey by Dora Carrington (1916)

I’d prefer to have met Strachey’s work first in this book rather than in Eminent Victorians (1918). Then the best would have been still to come. As it was, I first read Eminent Victorians, then sought out more of his work and was disappointed. Victoria (1921) is dull, Elizabeth and Essex (1928) duller.

The Shorter Strachey is much better than those two. Indeed, one short essay on Lodowick Muggleton is worthy to stand beside the long essay on Cardinal Manning that opens Eminent Victorians. This is very good writing:

Never did the human mind attain such a magnificent height of self-assertiveness as in England about the year 1650. Then it was that the disintegration of religious authority which had begun with Luther reached its culminating point. The Bible, containing the absolute truth as to the nature and the workings of the Universe, lay open to all; it was only necessary to interpret its assertions; and to do so all that was wanted was the decision of the individual conscience. In those days the individual conscience decided with extraordinary facility. Prophets and prophetesses ranged in crowds through the streets of London, proclaiming, with complete certainty, the explanation of everything. The explanations were extremely varied: so much the better — one could pick and choose. One could become a Behmenist, a Bidellian, a Coppinist, a Salmonist, a Dipper, a Traskite, a Tryonist, a Philadelphian, a Christadelphian, or a Seventh Day Baptist, just as one pleased. Samuel Butler might fleer and flout at

petulant, capricious sects,
The maggots of corrupted texts;

but he, too, was deciding according to the light of his individual conscience. By what rule could men determine whether a text was corrupted, or what it meant? The rule of the Catholic Church was gone, and henceforward Eternal Truth might with perfect reason be expected to speak through the mouth of any fish-wife in Billingsgate. (“Muggleton”, in Portraits in Miniature, 1931)

Elsewhere, Strachey writes well but not exceptionally on subjects as varied as Voltaire and Frederick the Great, the acting of Sarah Bernhardt, the humour of Dostoevsky, and his own life. He’s witty, perceptive, and, in the autobiographical pieces at least, unblushingly candid. His day-description “Monday June 26th 1916”, in which he longs for a flyweight boxer in the Daily Mirror and tries to realize a daydream of seducing “that young postman with the fair hair and lovely country complexion who had smiled at me and said ‘Good evening, sir’, as he passed on his bicycle”, couldn’t have been published in his lifetime.

Which didn’t last long. It began in 1880 and ended in 1932. There were big changes in those five decades and Strachey was at the heart of some of them. Eminent Victorians was an important book, part of the revolt against the old order provoked by the slaughter and futility of the First World War, but it wouldn’t have been so successful if it hadn’t been so well-written.

You’ll see here that Strachey was rebelling against part of himself: there’s Victorian stodginess in some of the essays and reviews, even if they were written after Eminent Victorians. But “Muggleton” is as light as a soufflé. It’s also affectionate rather than acid. It would have been a foretaste of literary bliss, if I’d read this book first.

I’d didn’t, but you should if you don’t know Strachey. If you do, you’ll learn a lot more about him here. There are also glimpses of others in the Bloomsbury Set, like Ottoline Morrell and Dora Carrington. And The Shorter Strachey closes with four essays on French literature and culture, which were both very important to Strachey. The French writer Jean Giradoux supplies his epitaph: « Seuls les médiocres sont toujours à leur meilleur. » – “Only the mediocre are always at their best.” Strachey wasn’t mediocre and wasn’t always at his best. But he got there in “Muggleton” and got close elsewhere in this book.

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Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip StokesPhilosophy: 100 Essential Thinkers: The Ideas That Have Shaped Our World, Philip Stokes (Arcturus Publishing 2012)

Caricatures are compelling because they simplify and exaggerate. A good artist can create one in a few strokes. In fact, a good artist has to caricature if he can use only a few strokes. The image won’t be recognizable otherwise.

This also applies to philosophical ideas. If you have to describe them in relatively few words, you’ll inevitably caricature, making them distinct but losing detail and complexity. So this book is a series of caricatures. With only 382 pages of standard print, what else could it be? In each case, Philip Stokes uses a few strokes to portray “100 Essential Thinkers” from Thales of Miletus, born c. 620 B.C., to William Quine (1908-2000), with all the big names in between: Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Pascal, Hume, Kant, Leibniz, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Russell, Wittgenstein and so on. The philosophical portraits are recognizable but not detailed. But that’s why they’re fun, like a caricature.

It’s also fun to move so quickly through time. There are nearly three millennia of Western philosophy here, but the schools and the civilizations stream by, from the Pre-Socratics and Atomists to the Scholastics and Rationalists; from pagan Greece and Rome to Christianity and communism. Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, which inevitably comes to mind when you look at an over-view like this, moves much more slowly, but it’s a longer and more detailed book.

It’s also funnier and less inclusive. This book discusses men who are more usually seen as scientists or mathematicians, like Galileo and Gödel. But in a sense any historic figure could be included in an over-view of philosophy, because everyone has one. You can’t escape it. Rejecting philosophy is a philosophy too. Science and mathematics have philosophical foundations, but in some ways they’re much easier subjects. They’re much more straightforward, like scratching your right elbow with your left hand.

Philosophy can seem like trying to scratch your right elbow with your right hand. The fundamentals of existence are difficult to describe, let alone understand, and investigating language using language can tie the mind in knots. That’s why there’s a lot of room for charlatans and nonsense in philosophy. It’s easier to pretend profundity than to be profound. It’s also easy to mistake profundity for pseudery.

And, unlike great scientists or mathematicians, great philosophers should be read in the original. Reading Nietzsche in English is like looking at a sun-blasted jungle through tinted glass or listening to Wagner wearing earplugs. Or so I imagine: I can’t read him in German. But some philosophers suffer less by translation than others, because some philosophical ideas are universal. Logic, for example. But how important is logic? Is it really universal? And is mathematics just logic or is it something more?

You can ask, but you may get more answers than you can handle. Philosophy is a fascinating, infuriating subject that gets everywhere and questions everything. You can’t escape it and this book is a good place to learn why.

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C.S. Lewis by Alister McGrathC.S. Lewis: A Life, Alister McGrath (Hodder & Staughton 2013)

I wasn’t expecting much from this book: Alister McGrath is a Christian who appears on the BBC, which means his theological opinions are bland and Guardian-friendly. So I assumed that C.S. Lewis: A Life would be badly written, smarmy and smug and that I wouldn’t manage to get very far into it. I was wrong. The prose could have been better, but it’s an easy and interesting read and McGrath does what he promises to do in the preface:

This biography sets out, not to praise Lewis or condemn him, but to understand him – above all, his ideas, and how these found expression in his writings. This task has been made easier by the publication of virtually all that is known of Lewis’s writings, as well as a significant body of scholarly literature dealing with his works and ideas. (pg. xiii)

And yes, readers will understand Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963) better after reading this book, from his roots in Northern Ireland to his silence about the First World War, from his distaste for T.S. Eliot to his late romance with Joy Davidman. And there isn’t much lit-crit jargon en route. McGrath has the same Irish roots as Lewis and I think that gives him an advantage over previous biographers. He’s also good on Lewis’s books, both fiction and non-fiction. He doesn’t write about them to show how clever he himself is a critic, but to show how clever Lewis was as a writer. Or how clever Lewis wasn’t, as the case may be: McGrath’s assessments are objective, not hagiographic. The cover calls Lewis an “Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet”, but I think that’s publisher’s hyperbole and aimed at the American market.

McGrath also discusses a fascinating theory about astrological symbolism in the Narnia series. The Middle Ages recognized seven major heavenly bodies, there are seven books in the series and Lewis was a dedicated medievalist. So the Oxonian scholar Michael Ward suggested in 2008 that Lewis assigned each book to a particular heavenly body:

For example, Ward argues that Prince Caspian shows the thematic influence of Mars … the ancient god of war (Mars Gradivus). This immediately connects to the dominance of military language, imagery and issues in this novel. The four Pevensie children arrive in Narnia “in the middle of a war” – “the Great War of Deliverance”, as it is referred to later in the series, or the “Civil War” in Lewis’s own “Outline of Narnian History”. (ch. 12, “Narnia: Exploring an Imaginative World”, pg. 299)

Elsewhere, The Silver Chair is assigned to the Moon, The Horse and His Boy to Mercury, and so on. It’s an ingenious theory and it makes me think again about the Narnia books. I used to find them confused and incoherent. If Ward is right, I was missing a lot.

And McGrath has a theory of his own about the true date of Lewis’s return to Christianity as an adult. He proposes that Lewis finally accepted “the divinity of Christ” not in September 1931, as previous biographers have thought, but in June 1932. McGrath argues that the latter date better fits the description Lewis gives in his autobiography Surprised by Joy of the “final stages” of his conversion. Lewis mentions a trip to Whipsnade Zoo, “birds singing overhead and bluebells underfoot”. So birdlore and botany shed light on biography. McGrath says that the bird-song strongly suggests that the bluebells were the early-flowering English kind, not the late-flowering Scottish kind, “known as the ‘harebell’ in England” (ch. 6, “The Most Reluctant Convert: The Making of a Mere Christian 1930-1932”, pp. 152-6). This is careful scholarship: I like a literary biography that bandies names like Hyacinthoides non-scripta (the English bluebell) and Campanula rotundifolia (the Scottish).

Lewis would certainly have approved: like Landor, he loved both nature and art. But would Lewis have approved of all his modern admirers and spiritual protégés? I strongly doubt it. Christianity has degenerated since his day – or rather, has continued to degenerate. Whatever some of his supporters might claim, Lewis is an important figure in liberal, not conservative, theology. “Mere Christianity” would not have been accepted by the Middle Ages and though it might be useful for individuals, it’s not useful for institutions. This helps explain why Lewis became so popular in America, which has always been full of Christians but has never had a national church. And Lewis’s popularity in America helps explain his popularity in Britain – and his rejection by Ireland. McGrath notes that there is “no entry for ‘Lewis, C.S.’ in the 1,472 pages of the supposedly definitive Dictionary of Irish Literature (1996)” (ch. 1, “The Soft Hills of Down: An Irish Childhood 1898-1908”, pg. 13).

Why? McGrath explains that Lewis was “the wrong kind of Irishman”, an Ulster Protestant who rejected Catholic Dublin and Irish nationalism without ever losing his love of his birthplace in the north. Lewis became a friend and ally of the Catholic J.R.R. Tolkien, but that didn’t help his popularity in the south. Tolkien too was an important figure in liberal, not conservative, theology. Like Narnia, Middle-earth is syncretic and heavily influenced by pagan myth. Yes, as McGrath explains, Lewis thought Christianity was a myth that had the unique virtue of being true. But that again is not something that the Middle Ages would have accepted. And like Narnia, Middle-earth achieved most success in rootless, restless, multi-denominational America. McGrath discusses the flowering and fading of that friendship and sets it into the context of scholarship and university politics at Oxford, which was “late in recognizing the importance of English literature as a subject worthy of serious academic study” (ch. 4, “Deceptions and Discoveries: The Making of an Oxford Don 1919-1927”, pg. 98).

Good for Oxford. And when it did finally succumb to EngLit, it held off further rot by employing men like Tolkien and Lewis, who did not like literary theory, psychoanalysis or modernism. Lewis might have been the wrong kind of Irishman, but he was the right kind of scholar. Like his religion, his subject has degenerated sadly since his death. McGrath’s biography shows that the degeneration isn’t complete, but McGrath is more than simply an illuminating biographer. He’s a laudator temporis acti too, a praiser of times past, whether he intended to be or not. Either way, he’s done justice to an interesting and complex writer. If you want to understand C.S. Lewis better, this is a good place to start.

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Front cover of The Screwtape Letters by C.S. LewisThe Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis (1942)

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) is most famous for what are, in my opinion, his weakest books: the incoherent and inconsistent Narnia series. The best things there are usually Pauline Baynes’ illustrations. As a fantasist, C.S.L. isn’t as good as his friend J.R.R. Tolkien, let alone the greatest of them all, Clark Ashton Smith. But I can’t imagine either of them writing this book. Smith and Tolkien could be concise, entertaining and psychologically sophisticated, but they couldn’t mix the everyday and the exotic like Lewis. The Screwtape Letters is proof of that. It’s presented as a series of letters from a senior demon, Screwtape, to his nephew Wormwood, who is trying to tempt a young Englishman to damnation:

You say you are “delirious with joy” because the European humans have started another of their wars. I see very well what has happened to you. You are not delirious; you are only drunk. Reading between the lines in your very unbalanced account of the patient’s sleepless night, I can reconstruct your state of mind fairly accurately. For the first time in your career you have tasted that wine which is the reward of all our labours — the anguish and bewilderment of a human soul — and it has gone to your head. … But do remember, Wormwood, that duty comes before pleasure. If any present self-indulgence on your part leads to the ultimate loss of the prey, you will be left eternally thirsting for that draught of which you are now so much enjoying your first sip. If, on the other hand, by steady and cool-headed application here and now you can finally secure his soul, he will then be yours forever — a brim-full living chalice of despair and horror and astonishment which you can raise to your lips as often as you please. (Letter V)

You don’t need to be a Christian or to believe in the Devil to learn from this book: it isn’t valuable simply as literature or as an insight into England before and during the Second World War. It’s valuable as an insight into England at any time. Or into France, Greece or Outer Mongolia. That’s because it’s about human nature and human imperfections. Screwtape wants human beings to be unhappy, so he’s full of cunning advice about how to foment quarrels, breed resentment, blind individuals to their own faults and sharpen their eye for the faults of others. All readers of The Screwtape Letters will find their own psychology and experience under discussion, because all readers will be human.

Okay, we might not really have personal demons feeding us malicious advice and leading us astray, but if we suppose that we do, we can direct our thoughts and emotions better. Simply ask yourself: “Would this train of thought please my personal demon, supposing I had one?” If the answer is “Yes”, you’ll know that it’s self-defeating. Screwtape points out again and again that human beings sabotage their own happiness, embracing the negative and rejecting the positive. Inter alia, they unthinkingly accept ideas that make them unhappy. After the war starts, Wormwood’s target begins work as an air-raid warden and Screwtape offers some advice on how to exploit what he will see as part of his work:

But there is a sort of attack on the emotions which can still be tried. It turns on making him feel, when first he sees human remains plastered on a wall, that this is “what the world is really like” and that all his religion has been a fantasy … we have got them completely fogged about the meaning of the word “real”. They tell each other, of some great spiritual experience, “All that really happened was that you heard some music in a lighted building”; here “Real” means the bare physical facts, separated from the other elements in the experience they actually had. On the other hand, they will also say “It’s all very well discussing that high dive as you sit here in an armchair, but wait till you get up there and see what it’s really like”: here “real” is being used in the opposite sense to mean, not the physical facts (which they know already while discussing the matter in armchairs) but the emotional effect those facts will have on a human consciousness. … The creatures are always accusing one another of wanting “to eat the cake and have it”; but thanks to our labours they are more often in the predicament of paying for the cake and not eating it. Your patient, properly handled, will have no difficulty in regarding his emotion at the sight of human entrails as a revelation of Reality and his emotion at the sight of happy children or fair weather as mere sentiment. (Letter XXX)

Those are adult ideas and you won’t find them in the Narnia books. But what you’ll find both in Narnia and in Screwtape’s letters is Lewis’s biggest theme: free will. Screwtape’s central concern is manipulation and deceit: he wants to trick human beings into making wrong decisions, into believing false and harmful things, into constantly turning away from Heaven and towards Hell:

For you and I, who see that position as it really is, must never forget how totally different it ought to appear to him. We know that we have introduced a change of direction in his course which is already carrying him out of his orbit around the Enemy; but he must be made to imagine that all the choices which have effected this change of course are trivial and revocable. He must not be allowed to suspect that he is now, however slowly, heading right away from the sun on a line which will carry him into the cold and dark of utmost space. (Letter XII)

“The Enemy” means “God”: part of the irony of this book is the way it inverts the Christian worldview, denigrating what is holy and praising what is unholy. But Lewis isn’t simply being ironic: his point is that Screwtape, as a misery-loving, human-hating demon, knows what he’s doing when he rejects Christianity. Christians reject Christianity without realizing it. And there’s part of the entertainment, for me at least: spotting the fallacies in Lewis’s concept of free will. If Wormwood’s target is finally damned, it will be because he didn’t properly understand what was going on. Screwtape’s advice is to confuse, to befuddle, to prevent thought as much as to pervert it:

You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one — the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts. (Letter XII)

If the choice between Heaven and Hell were clear during life, no-one would choose Hell except lunatics and imbeciles – that is, people who can’t reason, can’t understand and can’t act in their own best interest. That’s why Screwtape describes “one of [his] own patients” saying this on arrival in Hell: “I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked” (Letter XII). The damned soul saw the truth only when it was too late. That’s why he’s culpable, in Lewis’s eyes: he should have seen earlier, should have avoided those choices in life that led to his damnation after life. But he didn’t see because he was weak and imperfect. Meanwhile, other weak, imperfect individuals make the right choices and arrive in Heaven. And salvation is as revelatory as damnation: Screwtape says that only at death will a saved soul see its guardian angel and its tempting demon clearly “for the first time” (Letter XXXI).

I can’t accept these ideas or Lewis’s insistence on free will. Justice seems to demand that all souls have an equal chance of ascending to Heaven or descending to Hell. If the chance is 50/50, it seems impossible to distinguish free will from coin-tossing. But Christian tradition says that chance is in fact weighted heavily in one direction. According to the New Testament, the majority of human beings will be damned:

7:13 Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: 7:14 Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. (Gospel of Matthew)

Lewis wasn’t happy with that and in The Great Divorce (1945) he suggests that souls continue to have a chance of Heaven even after death. He wasn’t happy with the traditional idea of Hell either:

9:47 And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire: 9:48 Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. (Gospel of Mark)

Screwtape’s Hell isn’t fiery or physically frightening, but it’s still thought-provoking:

Music and silence — how I detest them both! How thankful we should be that ever since our Father entered Hell — though longer ago than humans, reckoning in light years, could express — no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise — Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile — Noise which alone defends us from silly qualms, despairing scruples, and impossible desires. We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. We have already made great strides in this direction as regards the Earth. The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end. But I admit we are not yet loud enough, or anything like it. Research is in progress. (Letter XXIII)

That research has indeed progressed. It means that Screwtape would like a lot of modern music. And that “reckoning in light years” is a reminder that Lewis wasn’t very knowledgeable about science. He seems to think that “light year” is a vast unit of time, rather than of distance. But if his understanding of science was weak, his understanding of psychology was strong. That was why he could make insightful critiques of science in books like The Abolition of Man (1943). Weak and imperfect human beings are gaining more and more power over nature. Lewis didn’t think it would end well. The trends he saw beginning in the first half of the twentieth century are coming to fruition in the first quarter of the twenty-first. He discusses some of them in The Screwtape Letters, partly because they’re important for his perennial theme: free will. I don’t believe in that and Lewis’s concept of Hell isn’t frightening or disturbing enough to make me consider becoming a Christian.

Maybe I’m wrong. I’m mentally weak and morally imperfect, after all. That’s why I enjoyed this book and learned things from it, because, in talking about humanity, it talked about me. Even Lewis’s weakest writing, like the Narnia books, can stay with you for life. The Screwtape Letters contains some of his strongest writing. Something I’ve always remembered from Lewis’s introduction to one edition is his point that, for proper balance, he should have written the heavenly equivalent too: letters to the guardian angel with whom Wormwood was wrestling for a human soul. But imitating an angel would be impossible for a human being: it’s much easier to think down than to think up. Lewis was a pessimistic conservative and rejected the idea of true happiness on earth. But he knew human beings can always be happier. This book contains lots of advice on how to achieve misery, so readers will understand better how to avoid misery. They’ll also be well-entertained on the way.

Elsewhere other-posted:

The Brain In Pain: Choice, Joyce and the Colour of Your Hair

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