Skip to main content

Detective Morse and Post-Modern Relativism

By Tom Thomas

In the mid 1960’s, Detective Constable Morse ponders the death of a young bricklayer Barry Fink at Mapplewick Hall estate north of Oxford, England.  Detective Constable Morse is the central character in Masterpiece Theater’s ‘Endeavour’ series based on ground-breaking crime writer Colin Dexter’s novels.  Detective Morse is an Oxford University dropout.  When his love affair failed so did his academic performance.  He then joined the army and after his discharge the police force.

The years have not tarnished the scholarly mind which entered Oxford with a scholarship.  Viewed in the police force as a bit of a fish out of water, he relishes poetry, classical music, and a pint of ale.  Fellow officers begrudgingly admit he has a brilliant nose for making abstruse connections in erudite Oxford crimes. While studying bricklayer Barry Fink’s suspicious death at Mapplewick Hall, Morse is also assigned to guard a controversial activist Mrs. Joy Pettybon.  Mrs. Pettybon is an outspoken conservative crusader against smutty language on TV.  She is bringing her national campaign ‘National Clean Up TV’ to Oxford.

Her ‘Clean Up TV’ crusade targets a nationally popular rock group ‘Wildwood’ (think Pink Floyd) who locates, of all places, at Mapplewick Hall estate. Mrs. Pettybon is to dialogue with ‘Wildwood’ on the weekly current affairs TV show Almanac.  As Detective Morse accompanies Mrs. Pettybon to her TV appearance, he wonders about the connection of Mapplewick Hall to the dead bricklayer and ‘Wildwood’.

The faceoff between Mrs. Pettybon and ‘Wildwood’ is broadcast.  Caricatured as an old fashioned ‘party pooper’, Mrs. Pettybon accuses ‘Wildwood’ of ramming down the throats of people in their homes sexually explicit and drug referent lyrics.  Viewers should not be subjected to ‘dirty’ lyrics in their home.   Rock group leader, Nick Wilding, is amused.  He smugly asks her, ‘What is dirty?’  This is the edgy, post-modern, ‘gotcha’ question relished by the ‘Endeavour’ writers. ‘Dirty’ is dirty’ she responds.  Nick retorts, ‘What’s dirty to you might be quite acceptable to someone else…quite normal in fact’.  Snigger, snigger.

Here the show ‘Endeavour’ revealed its post-modern penchant for pressing the philosophy of moral relativism.  Moral relativism holds actions are moral only for those who think them so.  They are not moral for everyone, let alone objectively or absolutely true.  Others may hold different behaviors are moral.  One cannot expect what one believes to be moral or true for anybody else who does not believe it.[i]

We watched ‘Endeavour’ to enjoy a good crime mystery; however, ‘Endeavour’ was interested in peddling moral relativism.  I was provoked with its ‘air’ of self-assurance that the argument is unassailable.  I wondered if they knew ethicists consider it a difficult ethical position to maintain.  It has been readily observed relativism’s own assertion is its logical contradiction.  If it is believed there is no moral claim true for everybody, then one is making a moral claim one applies to everybody!  The very claim ‘No moral claim is true for everybody’ denies the possibility of this absolutist statement.

Though Plato’s refutation of Protagoras’s promulgation of relativism is slick and not irrefutable, it exposes relativism’s vulnerability:

Most people believe that Protagoras’s doctrine is false.

Protagoras, on the other hand, believes his doctrine to be true.

By his own doctrine, Protagoras must believe that his opponents’ view is true.

Therefore, Protagoras must believe that his own doctrine is false (see Theaetetus: 171a) c).[ii]

That is, if Protagoras and relativists are true to their relativistic belief, they must accept their opponent’s rejection of their view.  They have to allow their opponents who say they are wrong are right!  Oddly, in making the case for relativism one argues for its own refutation!

Back to ‘Endeavour’ and Detective Morse.  If ‘Endeavour’ premises crime is not good, then the consequences ‘Endeavour’ portrays of a relativistic philosophy are telling arguments against moral relativism.  Just as the claim of relativism boomerangs back upon itself, so do its consequences.  Detective Morse finds out the bricklayer Barry Fink died at Mapplewick Hall while in bed with ‘Wildwood’ rock band lead singer Nick (who was found comatose from an overdose) and Pippa, a girl groupie – a bisexual threesome.  A fourth person, Emma, was stalking the bedroom that night and found no place in bed next to Nick.  She was jealous of Barry Fink for stealing Nick’s affections from her.  So, she strangled him.  Her intense jealousy led her to murder.  ‘Polyamory’ creates jealousy between ‘lovers’ which in turn incites murder which leads to criminal charges. One overdosed, one dead, and one charged with murder!  A pretty good night for moral relativism!  Unintentionally, ‘Endeavour’s’ moral of the story is, the moral consequences of a relativistic philosophy are its own telling argument against it!

 

 

 

[i] Trigg, Roger, Philosophy Matters: An Introduction to Philosophy(Madlen, Mass:  Blackwell Publishers Inc., 2002), pp. 59-60

[ii] Swoyer, Chris, “Relativism”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2015/entries/relativism/

Image: “The World’s Greatest Dective.” by Kit. CC license. 

Till We Have Faces, Self-Knowledge, and Learning to Die

By David & Marybeth Baggett

One important way that C. S. Lewis went about irrigating deserts and planting gardens was to be honest that the tide had turned against many of his most cherished convictions, and since he was convinced that the new direction was mistaken, he would often point backwards. To the charge that this was retrograde, he famously said, “We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.”

After accepting his new post at Cambridge, Lewis—on his 56th birthday—gave his inaugural address in 1954 called De Descriptione Temporum, a description of the times, in which he aimed to identify the central turning point in western civilization. “[S]omewhere between us and the Waverley Novels, somewhere between us and Persuasion, the chasm runs.” To make the case for his proposal, Lewis adduced germane examples from the realms of politics, the arts, religion, and technology. With respect to religion, what Lewis primarily had in mind was the un-christening of culture. Exceptions abound, but the “presumption has changed,” adding

It is hard to have patience with those Jeremiahs, in Press or pulpit, who warn us that we are ‘relapsing into Paganism’. It might be rather fun if we were. It would be pleasant to see some future Prime Minister trying to kill a large and lively milk-white bull in Westminster Hall. But we shan’t. What lurks behind such idle prophecies, if they are anything but careless language, is the false idea that the historical process allows mere reversal; that Europe can come out of Christianity ‘by the same back door as in she went’ and find herself back where she was. It is not what happens. A post-Christian man is not a Pagan; you might as well think that a married woman recovers her virginity by divorce. The post-Christian is cut off from the Christian past and therefore doubly from the Pagan past.

In 1935 Cambridge philosopher William Sorley expressed misgivings about this demotion of morality that’s bound to result in an artificially truncated worldview in which moral ideas are paid short shrift. “If we take experience as a whole,” Sorley wrote, “and do not arbitrarily restrict ourselves to that portion of it with which the physical and natural sciences have to do, then our interpretation of it must have ethical data at its basis and ethical laws in its structure.” Perhaps it’s not surprising that Sorley is a luminary in the field of moral apologetics, as the later Cambridge professor Lewis would be as well. For at the heart of moral arguments is the abiding conviction that morality can provide a vital window of insight into reality. Hermann Lotze, a 19th century German philosopher, in fact once wrote that “the true beginning of metaphysics lies in ethics,” a sentiment with which both Sorley and Lewis resonated.

Recall Lewis’s words from Mere Christianity to this effect:

These, then, are the two points I wanted to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.

This paper is about perhaps the greatest example he provided of this: his novel Till We Have Faces (subsequently TWHF), which harmoniously weaves together and integrates numerous of Lewis’s philosophical, theological, and ethical emphases. It contains, in fictional form, what Lewis thought about the import of myth and beauty, of joy and desire, of reason and imagination. This essay will cover an aspect of the novel that arguably resides at the thematic heart of the story and at the intersection of ethics and epistemology.

Lewis’s story refashions the myth of Cupid and Psyche. It is set in Glome, a barbarian kingdom on the edge of the Hellenistic world, and is told by the main character, Orual, the eldest daughter of Rom, King of Glome, step-sister of Psyche, and sister of Redival. The main story is about Orual’s indictment of the gods for failing to make their ways plain. Ostensibly the worry is wholly epistemic. The indictment comes in the form of an account of the major portion of her life, presented with the request that the reader judge her case against the gods. Her intended audience is “wise Greeks,” who, because of their philosophical education, will readily see in the events she reports puzzling epistemological problems and, therefore, will more likely see the truth of her charge.

71heAHih2wLThe events in question pertain to Orual’s central passion: her love of Psyche. The two people who give her happiness are Fox, a Greek slave her father secured as tutor for his daughters, and Psyche, who is not only uncommonly beautiful but virtuous as well. After Psyche’s mother dies at childbirth, it is Orual who brings Psyche up as her own child. What generates conflict with the gods is the demand, presented by the Priest of Ungit—Glome’s version of the fertility goddess—that Psyche be sacrificed on the Grey Mountain to her son, the Shadowbrute, supposed god of the Mountain. The sacrifice is to remove a curse that has befallen the kingdom.

After the sacrifice, Orual makes a trek to bury Psyche’s remains but discovers Psyche alive and well, radiant in fact, claiming to be living with her husband/god in a beautiful palace. Orual, though, is unable to see the palace, so she is left to figure out the truth. Skeptical the gods are good, she devises a plan to liberate Psyche, but it goes horribly wrong, sending Psyche into exile. Orual returns home to reign as Queen of Glome and tries to forget her past.

As for aspects of the novel that pertain to the question of epistemology, particularly religious epistemology, first one should note that the era and context of the story is distinctly premodern. The default position is decidedly not atheism, agnosticism, or skepticism, but one of robust religious conviction and theological interpretation of the events in question. Following Robert Holyer, we can immediately identify two major epistemological issues: whether the gods are just inventions of the priest and pandering to popular superstition, or rather that the gods are real. The Fox is of the former opinion, but Orual and Psyche of the latter. The second major epistemological question is this: If the request for Psyche’s sacrifice is genuinely Divine, how is it to be understood? Is it a malevolent request born of jealousy and intended to bring suffering not only to Psyche but also those who love her, particularly Orual? Or is there some paradoxical way in which the deed might result in Psyche’s well-being and therefore be consistent with the affirmation that the gods are good? Orual inclines to the former, always casting the holy places as dark places; Psyche, to the latter.

So a central problem of the novel is to read the signs of the Divine correctly and to find in them reasonable assurance sufficient to live faithfully in the face of the irresolvable mystery and ambiguity featured heavily in the book. Evidence is not undeniable or incorrigible, and questions remain unanswered. A related concern of the book involves Lewis’s most important innovation: Orual’s inability to see the palace of the gods. In Lewis’s key adaptation, Psyche saw it and claimed to live in it, but Orual couldn’t see it at all, except once and only briefly.

Among the various signs and signals of divine reality and goodness, perhaps the most important is the experience of the Holy. Rudolf Otto, author of The Idea of the Holy, claimed that experiences of the Holy are one of the basic sources of religious belief throughout the centuries. He distinguished and described several constituent elements of the experience of the Holy, two of which are these (both found in TWHF): (1) tremendum, a kind of dread or fear unlike our other fears—as Orual rightly describes it, a fear “quite different from the fear of my father,” and (2) fascinans, a consuming attraction or rapturous longing. Psyche is poignantly aware of both, Orual mainly only of the former. Fascinans, or “Joy,” to use another Lewisian term, is associated with the objects of the imagination, with beauty, with poetry, and above all with the Mountain—all common motifs in Lewis’s fiction.

A second sign is empirical evidence, which is ambiguous. A third sign is finding Psyche alive and well days after her sacrifice, which raises the question of how reliable her testimony is. The story Psyche recounts is remarkable, but Orual has to admit that Psyche had always been trustworthy. The final and most difficult piece of evidence is experience of divine realities—like Orual’s glimpse of the palace and Psyche’s more continuous experience of the gods.

The epistemological task in the novel is to determine the nature of ultimate reality—whether it is jealous and cruel, or mysterious and marvelous. Reason plays an important role—drawing conclusions from premises taken from a broad array of experience, but much of the reasoning that Lewis thought is called for is implicit and intuitive, requiring an equal mixture of philosophy and vision, a reconciliation of reason and imagination. Orual has to choose between rival explanations in the face of real ambiguity and mystery, a measure of hiddenness that perhaps ensures that her inquiry reveals her real motivations more than just her cognitive prowess.

Lewis suggests looking within, as part of an epistemic quest predicated on the traditional idea that at the foundation of all knowledge is self-knowledge. Thales thought the hardest thing to do is “to know thyself,” employing a phrase that invokes the specter of what would be on the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Plato would write that the essence of knowledge is self-knowledge. Centuries before Plato, the Hindu Upanishads confirmed, “Enquiry into the truth of the Self is knowledge.”

In the Apology, Socrates, at the precipice of his own death, asked, “Are you not ashamed to spend so much trouble upon trouble heaping up riches and honor and reputation, while you care nothing for wisdom and truth and the perfection of your soul?” Socrates did not claim to have attained to great wisdom, but the most important knowledge of all, he thought, is self-knowledge. Other speculative matters of alleged knowledge aren’t likely to conduce to greater perfection of the soul than authentic knowledge of the self. And perfection of soul far exceeds in importance anything else, which is why this ancient approach to epistemology, focused on self-knowledge with the goal of moral maturation, resides at the intersection of epistemology and ethics.

TWHF assumes that who we are shapes what we see, but rather than culminating in a radical subjectivism, for Lewis it leads to something like a virtue epistemology, according to which there’s a reality to be seen. Admittedly it’s seen through a glass darkly, but how much of it we can genuinely grasp remains a function of who we are. Understanding who and what we are, then, is foundational to knowledge. For Lewis, poetry—and art more generally—though vitally important, was penultimate, hardly anything like a compensation for lost faith.

In Part II of TWHF, Orual augments her original book—her original complaint against the gods—by writing that “I know so much more than I did about the woman who wrote it.” Interestingly, she says that what began the change was “the very writing itself.” The writing itself—the art—enables the growth in self-knowledge, but this is only the beginning: to prepare her for “the gods’ surgery.” “They used my own pen to probe my wound.” Lewis didn’t think that the epistemic quest was over once we looked within, practiced art, or saw the world under some fresh aspect, but that by growing in self-knowledge we can begin to see the world more accurately, we can apprehend more of reality, and the world will begin to look quite different from how it did before.

Orual had written her complaint against the gods. Ostensibly her complaint is epistemic, but when she adds to the book later, she admits things aren’t as they seem. How does her writing probe her wound and reveal to her the truth about herself? Primarily by a close and brutally honest examination of her various relationships—and the past she has tried so hard to veil. For example, she has had no pity in her heart for her sister Redival, but, after writing her original complaint, she encounters a former servant of her father’s named Tarin, who says, of Redival, “She was lonely.” This catches Orual by surprise, the “first snowflake of the winter I was entering.” She comes to admit as a certainty that she had not thought at all how it had been for Redival when she, Orual, first turned to Fox, then to Psyche, because “it had been somehow settled in my mind from the very beginning that I was the pitiable and ill-used one. She had her gold curls, hadn’t she?”

Next comes insight concerning her treatment of Bardia, her servant whom she loves. He is married, though, and always out of reach. After she finishes her book, she hears he is sick, and within a few days, he dies. She goes to visit Ansit, his widow, but Ansit is bitter toward the Queen, accusing her of working Bardia to death. “After weeks and months at the wars—you and he night and day together, sharing the councils, the dangers, the victories, the soldiers’ bread, the very jokes. . . .” And “I do not believe, I know, that your queenship drank up his blood year by year and ate out his life.”

The Queen replies with incredulity that Ansit should have spoken up, but Ansit says she never would have deprived her husband of his work and “all his glory and his great deeds.” Should she make a child and dotard of him? “I was his wife, not his doxy. He was my husband, not my house-dog. He was to live the life he thought best and fittest for a great man—not that which would most pleasure me.”

Ansit is suggesting that her love for Bardia means she had to give up some of her own desires, not make it all about herself, which begins to prick the Queen’s conscience because this very pattern has always been her own modus operandi. This raises a most important thematic element in the book: a recurring question of what real love means and looks like. Lewis was of the view that we can convince ourselves that our motivation is one of the purest love, when it might be far from it. The point here is that, sometimes when we think we are at our moral best, we may well be at our worst.

Lewis, like Kant, saw such moral darkness as powerfully suggestive that it’s altogether rational to believe there are resources beyond our own to close this moral gap.
Orual long thought of the gods as indulgent and selfish, and is now accused by Ansit of being “gorged with other men’s lives, women’s too: Bardia’s, mine, the Fox’s, your sister’s—both your sisters.” Now, Orual writes, “the divine Surgeons had me tied down and were at work.” At first she is angry, but then Orual admits to herself that it is all terribly true, more than Ansit could even know. And she confesses her horrific treatment of Bardia, finally concluding, “Did I hate him, then? Indeed, I believe so. A love like that can grow to be nine-tenths hatred and still call itself love.” She adds, “I had been dragged up and out into such heights and precipices of truth, that I came into an air where [her love for Bardia] could not live. It stank; a gnawing greed for one to whom I could give nothing, of whom I craved all.”

Next, she has to reexamine her relationship with Batta, who had been a servant Orual had executed. Now she remembers that Batta had her loving moments. Yes, she was a busybody and tattletale and rumormonger, but now she recalls Batta’s warmth and humanity. Orual is inexorably forced to face the truth of who she was and is and of what she’d done—none of which she wanted to hear, all of which she needed to hear.

Having long thought of the gods as ugly in character, Orual now sees this as projection; now she comes to think that she herself is like Ungit: ugly in soul. In despair, she plans to kill herself before she’s stopped by the voice of a god: “You cannot escape Ungit by going to the deadlands, for she is there also. Die before you die. There is no chance after.” Earlier Lewis availed himself of the Socratic dictum “Know Thyself,” and now Lewis makes reference to the Socratic notion that true wisdom is the skill and practice of death. Reflecting on Socrates, the Queen writes, “I supposed he meant the death of our passions and desires and vain opinions.”

Philosophy, properly understood, trains us how to die, and not just physically. That part of us that most needs to die is our vainglory, our self-aggrandizement, our pride, our inordinate passions. She then reasons, “[I]f I practiced true philosophy, as Socrates meant it, I should change my ugly soul into a fair one. And this, the gods helping me, I would do. I would set about it at once.” The Queen resolves to be “just and calm and wise in all my thoughts and acts; but before they had finished dressing me I would find that I was back (and know not how long I had been back) in some old rage, resentment, gnawing fantasy, or sullen bitterness. I could not hold out half an hour.” She writes, “I could mend my soul no more than my face. Unless the gods helped. And why did the gods not help?”

In her angst and emotional tumult the Queen comforts herself with her complaint against the gods, and with obstinate tenacity holds on to one last consolation. Namely, at least she had cared for Psyche, taught her, and tried to save her, even wounded herself for her. And then comes a vision. In the vision she has a chance to read her indictment against the gods. The book/indictment/complaint has, however, now become much shorter. She is reluctant to read it, but she does, and in fact, without realizing it, reads it over and over again. We can identify three closely related salient highlights.

First, on the evidential score, she admits that she had been shown a real god and the house of a real god and should have believed; the real issue isn’t that. She admits she could have endured belief in the gods if they were like Ungit and the Shadowbrute. In truth she resents their meddling, their wooing of Psyche, their failure to follow through and devour Psyche as promised. “I’d have wept for her and buried what was left and built her a tomb. . . . But to steal her love from me!” The beauty of the gods—the fascinans she’d heretofore resisted and rejected—didn’t make things better, but worse. For it enables the gods to lure and entice, leaving Orual nothing. Second, she’d have rather Psyche remain hers and dead than the gods’ and made immortal. She has prided herself for her profound love of Psyche, but now the truth is revealed: it isn’t Psyche’s well-being she wanted to secure, but her own comfort. Psyche was hers.

Third, Orual insists that had she been the one to whom the gods had made themselves known, she would have been able to convince Psyche of their reality and goodness. Instead it was Psyche made privy, and Orual resented it. “But to hear a chit of a girl who had (or ought to have had) no thought in her head that I’d not put there, setting up for a seer and a prophetess and next thing to a goddess . . . how could anyone endure it?” Orual only wanted Psyche to be happy on terms she dictated. “What should I care for some horrible, new happiness which I hadn’t given her and which separated her from me? Do you think I wanted her to be happy, that way? It would have been better if I’d seen the Brute tear her in pieces before my eyes,” and “Did you ever remember whose the girl was? She was mine. Mine. Do you not know what the word means? Mine!” The sober truth about who Orual is has now been revealed, its dregs poured out. The complaint is the answer. She now has knowledge of herself, and what it reveals is a horrible malady, a problem in need of a solution.

Lightly men talk of saying what they mean. When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?

The death of most importance in TWHF is not Orual’s physical death in the final chapter, but rather the death to which she’s called after coming into a deep knowledge of herself and her moral malady. When Orual faces who she is, her initial response is one of despair, and rightly so when she sees the distance between where she morally is and where she thought she was, when she sees that at her best she is actually at her worst, when she sees that what she thinks is her love is actually mainly hate. Lewis, like Kant, saw such moral darkness as powerfully suggestive that it’s altogether rational to believe there are resources beyond our own to close this moral gap.

The solution called for in TWHF, however, is radical. What’s needed is nothing less than death—not physical death, though. What philosophy, rightly understood, can teach us is how to die—to experience the death of our moral malady, our self-righteousness, our pride, our predatory natures, our possessiveness, our self-consumption. What such moral desperation reveals is the need for radical transformation—far beyond what we can do on the strength of our own meager moral resources alone. And if we “die before we die,” before it’s too late, as Orual is told to do, then perhaps the sting of death can be removed, its inevitability not entail fatalism, and its aftermath be full of hope. For the longest time Orual had hardened her heart and resisted intimations of something more, whereas for Psyche such a longing constituted the “inconsolable secret” of her heart. Psyche’s longing for the Mountain and the imaginary gold-and-amber castle of her youth, rather than a groundless hope or vacuous wishful thought, was the “sweetest thing” in her whole life.

Sophocles and the Doctrine of Sin: A Reflection on Teaching Greek Tragedy

 

Josh Herring

This past year I taught 9th grade Ancient Literature for the second time. My first year teaching this curriculum I spent too much time in Homer, and did not make it to tragedy; this year, my goal was to pace the course correctly and work through the most significant plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Along the journey, I discovered an unexpected blessing of teaching Greek tragedy: no other literature I have taught highlights quite so well the reality, the unavoidability, and the consequences of sin. I spent seven weeks with sixty 9th graders discussing questions of justice, inherited guilt, atonement, reconciliation, and grief. As a Christian educator in a secular school, I feel a burden to urge my students to consider topics I believe will prepare them for the gospel, and teaching Sophocles led to just such a discovery.

In setting the context for Oedipus Rex, I explained the play’s basic assumption that the plague in the city of Thebes resulted from a violation of the universe’s moral law; the action of the play then, is a mystery solving the crime and rooting out the perpetrator. When the story unfolded and Oedipus’ guilt became increasingly plausible, I learned one of my students was a fervent relativist. He asserted adamantly that every person has a value system and that no one value system is preferable to another. People are good or bad based on how well they achieve their chosen values. This student left me scratching my head; how could I steer him towards truth without coming right out and telling him he is wrong? How do I guide him dialogically to discover that his thinking is insufficient? Fortunately, Sophocles himself resolved my dilemma.

That night, the students read a section of Oedipus Rex which made the incestuous relationship between Oedipus and Iocaste unmistakable; my student came in the next afternoon with a new declaration: “Mr. Herring, that’s wrong!” “Whether it fits his value system or not?” I responded. “Yes – that, that right there, is wrong.” Leave it to the Greeks—their licentiousness notwithstanding—to enshrine moral rock bottom in their literature. The battle for truth is in no way won; I suspect this student and I will go back and forth on the nature of truth for the next three years. But his declaration of “wrongness” struck me: Sophocles reached for a universal category in his drama, and in so doing he communicates down through the ages to our own “secular age.”

There is a sense in which it is harder to teach virtue than it used to be; teachers of years past could frame their moral instruction capitalizing on a common biblical literacy. Today, the idea of “loving your neighbor” because “God first loved you” simply does not compute without lengthy preparation. If we have lost the common cultural framework of biblical literacy, however, we are not left to our own devices to begin re-establishing the categories of sin and guilt. These are universal human experiences, and they underpin the best literature.

Sophocles can teach us moral fundamentals; sleeping with your mother and producing children offends the universe, human sensibility, and civic law. In Antigone, Sophocles has the title character appeal to the “unwritten laws of God” to justify her actions. In this line lies the glory of human literature as a moral teacher. On the other hand, therein also lies its insufficiency. Poets can discern sin, just as Paul calls the law the teacher of sin. Incest, pride, atheism, child murder: the tragedians illustrate the wrongness of these things. And yet, they can point to nothing more certain than the “unwritten laws of God” to prove the wrongness of these actions. These tragedies pull on a common human awareness of wrong actions, but fail to answer the desire for something clear, certain, and definitive.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the divine wrote down the rules? And then clarified them for us? This of course is exactly what we have in the Bible. We have the clarity of the Ten Commandments and the extensive development of practical outworkings all grounded in the nature of a loving God who created all things and knows our best interests. Suddenly, we have a sense of why hubris is dangerous: because God made us humans for a certain place, and the man of pride reaches for more than God intended. In the overreach lies the dangerous fall. Incest, too, offends the created order, wherein God intended human beings to form new covenant communities to diversify across the earth so that new facets of his image are revealed across creation. Scripture also shows us an alternative for guilt. We run not away from the angry Greek gods of Sophocles but to the loving God who through bloodshed atones for our wrongdoing. The Bible looks to the same universal problems and longings Greek tragedy addresses, but with hope.

Pascal famously wrote of a “God-shaped void” in every human heart; Greek tragedy can illuminate this void, but does nothing to fill it.

After seven weeks in the wonderful poetry of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripedes, I reached three conclusions. First, tragedy operates in a pre-evangelistic manner. The stories are simple, but so well-crafted that the reader becomes imminently mindful that he may have committed some great evil unawares just like Oedipus. Second, tragedy highlights a missing certainty in 21st century post-postmodernity. Reading Oedipus Rex worked to “blow the roof off” of my student’s assumptions that morality is completely relative, beginning a further conversation about the existence of moral truth. Third, tragedy is like a cancer diagnosis without chemotherapy; it provides no hope. Without the gospel, without the real word from a real God, we are left with Oedipus in despair over what our understanding reveals. Unless God is real and the Bible is true, we stand with Nietzsche gazing into the abyss of existence with no authentic response but despair.

Pascal famously wrote of a “God-shaped void” in every human heart; Greek tragedy can illuminate this void, but does nothing to fill it. In seeking some sort of atonement, Oedipus blinds himself, Iocaste commits suicide, and (in a later play) Antigone ends the evil of her existence by hanging herself. Tragedy looks at the human experience, sees the reality of sin, and concludes that nothing but despair remains. Where the tragedians despair, the gospel proclaims hope. Christ himself enters our tragedy and in the greatest eucatastrophe in human history reverses the tragic into the salvific.

 

Image: Bénigne Gagneraux, The Blind Oedipus Commending his Children to the Gods, Public Domain 

The Most Reluctant Convert: C. S. Lewis Onstage, Part III

By David Baggett 

Part I 

Part II

We had been told to wait in the lobby of the second floor for Max McLean to arrive, which he did about fifteen minutes later. After one performance and before another, with a Q&A sandwiched in between, I marveled in advance at his generosity of time. We didn’t want to waste his energies, so we dove right in after quick introductions. He’d freshly turned 64 a week before, as it happens, which happened to be the age Lewis was when he died, but McLean exudes vitality and shows every appearance of being able to keep going like this for quite a while.

To prepare to interview him, we’d read all the interviews he’d done we could get our hands on, and in so doing we discovered that, from a young age, he’d suffered from a fear of public speaking, a severe form of social anxiety, sociophobia. As a certified introvert I wanted to ask about this because, seeing him on the stage performing, nobody would ever imagine this. He had actually turned to theatre originally in college to overcome his fears; we wanted to know if the fears were gone or if he’d simply learned to manage them.

“I think that if I’m not prepared the anxiety will come back. The fear makes you really prepare. I find that there’s an enormous fear of failure. I don’t think I’ve gotten over that.” Asked whether he considered himself an introvert or extrovert, he said he is definitely an introvert, getting his energy from reading and his quiet time. “Absolutely,” he added for emphasis.

After college McLean studied acting in London, always having been impressed by British actors and their use of language. Interesting to note, too, are the various English thinkers and writers who have left an impression on McLean—from Shakespeare to Shaw, Eliot to Chesterton, Spurgeon to Lewis. He will be returning to England this summer for Oxbridge, a triennial Lewis conference held at Oxford and Cambridge Universities, and doing some of this performance there.

Prior to McLean’s conversion to Christian faith, he admitted that he’d tried to read the Bible but it made no connection; he couldn’t find a way of getting into it. “It was just a flat book. It could have been an engineering book, but it wasn’t a book that captured my imagination. Once Jesus became alive to me, I read the Bible differently. I read John’s Gospel; I thought Jesus was going to come out of the pages. He was a story, a human being that was a hero and an overwhelming one. So my emotions were engaged.”

So why are theatre and story so powerfully effective at capturing the imagination of people, and why is that important? McLean replied, “Well, that’s the critical thing, because the imagination serves up the raw material of what we think about. Romans 1 tells us we all have the knowledge of God. There’s that thing about how we all have eternity in our hearts. And these things are intact—like I mentioned in the Q&A that people want to talk about these things but they don’t know how to talk about them—so I think that the theatre captures people’s imagination and stirs the imagination—which then asks, could this be true? And then a person is more willing to invest intellectual capital. You know, you’re not going to invest intellectual capital unless your imagination is engaged, unless you want to know more. So I think theatre is an extraordinary tool for that.”

There’s that thing about how we all have eternity in our hearts.

In pursuing this goal, by what intentional steps does the FPA strive to engage a diverse audience? “People make their own choices about their entertainment options. So essentially we don’t do it in a church. We do it in a theater. We advertise in the New York Times, we advertise in the subway. We advertise at NPR. I think the main thing is this: our best audience is somebody . . . who’s able to use relational capital to say, ‘Okay, come with me to see this play, because you’re not going to be embarrassed. It’s going to be a safe space, and you’re going to enjoy it.’ And if they don’t want to engage, no harm done. You know, you go out to dinner, and when they have questions, that’s great, and when they don’t have questions, that’s great too.”

McLean thinks the theatre can do great good, but only if it’s done well. We’d been struck by the plethora of rave reviews his work had consistently garnered, by reviewers both sacred and secular. Accolades and awards are commonplace—from the DC Metro Arts to the Washington Post, the Chicago Critic and Splash, the Indianapolis Monthly to World Magazine to Stagebuddy and The Weekly Standard. Adjectives among reviewers describing his work abound like “fascinating,” “smart,” “brilliant,” “masterful,” “winsome,” “delightful,” “captivating,” “satisfying,” and “moving.” We asked him to talk about the importance of striving for excellence in his work.

“Doing it in New York . . . New York is kind of hyper in that way. To do theatre in New York is such a challenge, and if you make it known that it comes from a Christian worldview the bar just gets really much, much higher. And then to consider doing it in such a way as to engage a diverse audience in this highly polarized world that we’re in right now, it’s almost impossible. So you depend on these kind of things: the writing, the acting, the stagecraft . . . you don’t want it to be turned off at that level or you won’t get a fair hearing. And a fair hearing might be ‘I’ve heard it, I listened to it, I think it’s rubbish, but it was really well executed.’ As opposed to what mostly happens: the execution is terrible, and nobody even bothers . . . or the message is so trite that it’s just immediately dismissed. So what we do, in order to accomplish our mission, we spend a lot of time thinking about what material has the best possibility to reach a diverse audience, then we have to execute it to the highest levels that our budgets will allow. Which means that we hire all our designers. They’re professionals. Just like you go to the best doctor, the best dentist, we hire the best sound designer, the best set designer . . . because you don’t want it to be dismissed at the execution level. You want the message to be heard, and you don’t want anybody to say, ‘Oh, I’m not going to listen to the message because the messenger just doesn’t care.’”

We thought it particularly interesting that one of the most recurring descriptions we’d read of his work was “funny,” and especially all the references to self-deprecating humor. Why, we asked, does this seem to function so well as an ice breaker and bridge builder with his audience?

“Well, humor is a reaction. It doesn’t lie. I mean, there are things you can do to create it, depending on your sense of humor. So much of modern comedic humor is based out of anger, and putting somebody down. Lewis’s humor is based on wit, and surprise, and also his own making fun of himself. He didn’t take himself that seriously. He did, but he tried to act like he didn’t. So I think that humor does tear down barriers, that if you can get to it, that if you’re good enough to find the humor, theatre is built on it. . . . I do think it’s a very high priority. Chesterton thought humor was the bloom of his argument.”

Having seen McLean at work, I must say: if anybody can demonstrate that life is a comedy and not a tragedy, McLean’s channeling Lewis can. Still, he admits to mixed results among certain atheist reviewers. Plenty of “generous atheists” have accorded his work accolades because they enjoy a good time. Still, particularly among those who seem to think they have a stake in the game, there’s resistance. “A real true blue atheist is one for whom the possibility of the supernatural world breaking into the material world is just considered impossible. So any other possibility is more probable than the supernatural. That’s really hard core.”

When up against that level of settled conviction that theism isn’t so much as possibly true, perhaps McLean’s work is exactly what’s needed to chip away at the wall. Rather than just more discursive argument that only heightens defense, something that’s engaging, entertaining, and aesthetically pleasing might be what’s needed to break down the barriers. McLean agrees, adding: “People have these moments of joy, moments where the supernatural breaks in. Because there are two spheres. There’s the sphere of love, which isn’t just biochemistry.”

Using performance art to wake people up, stir curiosity, and generate conversation is what McLean and the FPA are all about. This summer this show will hit the road; readers are encouraged to find out if it’s showing near you; and if so, sell all you have and see it! It’s a world-class production, and it’s eminently worth it, irrespective of your worldview. And this fall in New York a new production will begin, again based on Lewis: “Shadowlands.” I think this may necessitate another death-defying trip to the City.

McLean has written, “I’m keenly aware that, despite the best of intentions, as soon as the word ‘Christian’ appears within an artistic context, red flags go up. That, obviously, creates a challenge.” He continues:

During our first season of four plays in New York City, several reviewers expressed misgivings. Realizing that the work was from a Christian perspective, one critic wrote “my heart sank.” Another made the understatement that “presenting what is unequivocally come-to-Jesus fare to a general audience is no easy thing.”

In both cases, it was the play itself that turned them around. The first declared, “I expected a preachy bore, not the deliciously witty, theatrical treat that still resonates and amuses the day after.” He went on, “I expect that, like the first, [the next production] will be entertaining, very well staged, canny, and imbued with serious Christian thought and an earnest invitation to introspection.”

The second reviewer began by clarifying his background: “I’m Jewish by birth, liberal by conviction, and an atheist by observation and introspection.” He went on to say “how much I admire the approach of Fellowship for Performing Arts. . . . They do their work through a careful combination of good story-telling—craft comes first—and avoiding overt preachiness, allowing any message implicit in the material to take care of itself.”

Such feedback is reassuring. Art hints at the deeper structures of reality. FPA desires to create theatre that contributes to a better understanding of it. To do that requires honest, clear-eyed storytelling that entertains and engages its audiences. If a work doesn’t do that, regardless of intent, it really doesn’t matter what else it does.

It’s inspiring to see a faithful worker in this field, laboring in the hardest of venues, speaking truth and spreading light. He and the FPA deserve our admiration, support, and prayers. He’s someone who knows, like Orson Welles knew, the power of story and the importance of the imagination to wake people up, evaluate their assumptions, and generate conversations worth having. For McLean, though, the message to look up is not one of fear, but of soaring hope.

In that connection, one might wonder what C. S. Lewis was doing in jolly England when Welles did his radio performance. I don’t know. But I do know that, just hours before, Mars came up in some of his correspondence. Evelyn Underhill, famous for her works on mysticism and a convert to Anglicanism in 1921, had written a letter to Lewis that arrived on October 26th of 1938. He replied to her on October 29th, the day before Welles’ American broadcast. Here is what Underhill had written to Lewis:

May I thank you for the very great pleasure which your remarkable book Out of the Silent Planet has given me? It is so seldom that one comes across a writer of sufficient imaginative power to give one a new slant on reality: & this is just what you seem to me to have achieved. And what is more, you have not done it in a solemn & oppressive way but with a delightful combination of beauty, humour & deep seriousness. I enjoyed every bit of it, in spite of starting with a decided prejudice against “voyages to Mars.” I wish you had felt able to report the conversation in which Ransom explained the Christian mysteries to the eldil, but I suppose that would be too much to ask. We should be content with the fact that you have turned “empty space” into heaven!

In chapter 5 of Out of the Silent Planet, Ransom is in the spaceship on the way to Mars: “He had read of ‘Space’: at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds . . . now . . . the very name ‘Space’ seemed a blasphemous libel for the empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam . . . it was the womb of worlds, whose blazing and innumerable offspring looked down nightly even from the earth with so many eyes—and here, with how many more! No: Space was the wrong name. Older thinkers had been wiser when they named it simply the heavens.”

Lewis’s reply to Underhill, written on October 29th, after expressing his alarm and delight at hearing from such a notable writer as she, went like this: “I am glad you mentioned the substitution of heaven for space as that is my favourite idea in the book. Unhappily I have since learned that it is also the idea which most betrays my scientific ignorance: I have since learned that the rays in interplanetary space, so far from being beneficial, would be mortal to us. However, that, no doubt, is true of Heaven in other senses as well!”

True to form for a guy who recognized that a convert must gravely count the cost.

The Most Reluctant Convert: C. S. Lewis Onstage, Part II

By David Baggett

Part I 

Like others who have been privileged to see what next transpired, I was thrilled and transported. It was as if C. S. Lewis himself walked onto the stage. The makeup was exquisite, and the resemblance to Lewis uncanny. Even the voice was near perfect—I remember having listened to one of the few extant recordings of Lewis a year ago. McLean intentionally didn’t aim at enunciating quite so thick an accent as Lewis actually had, explaining why after the play in a Q&A session. For an American audience, in particular, this was a smart decision to avoid it becoming a distraction. McLean’s classical training in voice paid its dividends.

Most people are likely familiar with what happens when watching an inferior performance, show, or movie; it’s hard not to hold it at arm’s length because there’s something mildly insulting and off-putting about the shoddy craftsmanship. In patent contrast, we also know what it’s like when we watch a particularly excellent performance: we’re drawn in, we lose ourselves in the story, we become thoroughly engaged. This was my experience as I sat and watched FPA’s production. A virtuoso performance, it was by turns instructive and convicting, insightful and hilarious, poignant and memorable.

The crisp monologues by the pipe-wielding Lewis recounted the tale of his conversion, chronicling how, step by methodical step, he traversed a path from skepticism to belief. Included in the account were the seminal figures of his life: his father, his brother, his teacher the “Great Knock,” and literary influences from Yeats to Chesterton to George MacDonald, whose Phantastes “baptized” Lewis’s imagination prior to his conversion.

Lewis’s aversion to Christianity was hard for him to square with the fact that so many of his favorite writers, whose writing tasted most real, were Christians. His hard-thinking friend Owen Barfield’s conversion to Christianity upset Lewis, yet Lewis found Barfield’s logic unassailable. Too many aspects of life, to be taken seriously—from consciousness to morality to reason itself—require rock bottom reality to be intelligent. Coghill helped Lewis see the virtues as relevant to understanding reality; Tolkien enabled him to see that Christianity is the True Myth; and gradually Lewis became open to the Absolute, then to Spirit, then to God, then to the Incarnation, each incremental step ineluctably inching toward greater and greater concreteness. Acutely mindful that it took God’s initiative to draw him, Lewis finally relented to the Hound of Heaven, admitting defeat, allowing himself to be vanquished by love, and not the least bit happy about it.

In contrast with any theology of “cheap grace,” or an accommodating Christianity that readily capitulates to swirling cultural whims, blithely smearing the name “Christian” on views conditioned by secularity rather than scripture, Lewis seemed intuitively to grasp from the start that real Christianity would be costly, that its implications were radical, that its demands were all-encompassing. Little wonder he counted the cost, and, after finally relenting—first to theism, then to Christianity—he was, by his own admission, the most reluctant and dejected convert in all of England. Far more quickly than most, he was able to apprehend the paradox of Christianity: to find life we must lose it, to live we must die, and that ultimately we can’t hold anything back.

Lewis seemed intuitively to grasp from the start that real Christianity would be costly, that its implications were radical, that its demands were all-encompassing.

The play was simply spectacular, and we loved it. Most of the audience stayed for the Q&A, and about ten or fifteen minutes after the play was done, McLean re-emerged, this time as himself rather than Lewis. It was a remarkable metamorphosis! Donning salmon slacks and a coal shirt, his hour as Lewis was clearly over, and now it was time to hear from the actor and writer himself. He joked about his pants, exuded confidence, showed relaxed body language, sat in the chair, and patiently fielded questions from the audience. His answers were perspicacious and trenchant, revealing him to be well read and often quite eloquent and erudite.

Asked about obstacles doing a play like this in New York, he said that theatre is a great venue to have these sorts of conversations. He’s convinced that people want to have such dialogues, but are often unsure how to do it. He spoke of his admiration for Lewis, despite admitting that some of Lewis’s writings were an acquired taste, demanding effort to apprehend them well. He had largely relied on Lewis’s own words for this play, but had to work hard to thin out some of Lewis’s diction and elaborate explications to make the ideas more widely accessible and understandable.

The result, to my thinking, was a veritable “greatest hits” woven together masterfully. I had enjoyed the play immensely, and the Q&A only enhanced my appreciation for McLean, and in a few moments Marybeth and I would get the chance to speak with him personally.

Part III

The Most Reluctant Convert: C. S. Lewis Onstage, Part I

 

by David Baggett

It was Halloween Eve, Mischief Night as it’s often dubbed, the penultimate day of October in 1938. At a time when the radio was the main source of news and entertainment, the big draw that evening was the legendary Edgar Bergen and his ventriloquist dummy Charlie McCarthy. Popular lore says that a musical interlude in Bergen’s performance led many radio listeners to surf the channels and tune in to what would subsequently be called the most famous radio broadcast of all time.

Perched high in the Columbia Broadcasting Building on Madison Avenue, a precocious 23-year-old impresario Orson Welles was orchestrating a coup of the airwaves. Already reputed as Broadway’s most brilliant rising star, Welles made this particular Sunday anything but restful, directing the terrified eyes of his rapt listeners to quite the ominous October sky. It was a scant nine years before, almost to the day, that Black Tuesday had initiated the Great Depression, whose painful ripple effects were still felt. With Hitler’s foreboding rise to power and Europe so susceptible to his domination and imminent encroachment, the future was uncertain; people were already on edge and accustomed to hearing bad news.

That night, by the time they started listening to this storied adaptation of H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (1898), much of the audience had missed the opening introduction identifying it as a dramatization. Welles’ magisterial depiction of an alien invasion in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey induced panic in lots of quarters, accounts varying as to its extent. The show was strategically punctuated by realistic breaking “news bulletins”; by a sudden impromptu and pregnant, protracted and deafening silence initiated by Welles himself; and by another voice actor emulating the rhythm and cadence of Herbert Morrison’s immortal heart-rending eyewitness radio report of the Hindenburg’s fiery destruction just a year before.

For a few hours, the show simply terrified a nation already fraught with fear. Amidst subsequent media outrage and furious calls for greater FCC regulation, Welles feigned shock and dismay over the tumult his broadcast had produced. In truth the whole scenario would catapult him into the stratosphere of international fame, issuing him his ticket to Hollywood.

On the one hand, the remarkable episode furnishes a cautionary tale against the power of propaganda; on the other, more positively, it’s a reminder of the remarkable ability of drama and story to capture and mesmerize the imagination and move the will. The broadcast was a production of the Mercury Theatre, founded by Welles and John Houseman (later of Paper Chase fame as Professor Charles Kingsfield), located on West 41st Street in New York City, a mere half mile from where my wife and I recently watched a different drama unfold—one more tethered to actual history.

H. G. Wells wrote War of the Worlds in 1898, forty years before the Mercury Theatre’s radio adaptation. The year of Wells’ book in England also marked the birth of C. S. Lewis in Belfast, Ireland, and it just so happens that the play that we recently saw was a one-man show about the great Oxford don’s reluctant conversion to Christian faith.

Inexplicably navigating the frenetic, frantic Manhattan traffic by sheer force of will and a deft defiance of physics, our taxi driver dropped us off at the Acorn Theatre on West 42nd Street. Until then we’d assumed the Amtrak train hurling along in northern Virginia at breakneck speed might be the most terrifying part of our journey, feeling suspiciously like the Knight Bus in Harry Potter’s London. The Acorn Theatre is part of “Theatre Row,” headquartered in the heart of NYC’s Theater District.

Surviving that harrowing freak show of vehicular congestion made receptive our hearts to the transcendent and miraculous, and indeed a magical afternoon at the theatre was about to ensue. It was less than an hour to the matinee show time. We were excited to relish the performance we’d heard so much about already, and just as enthused at the prospect, afterwards, of meeting its star, Max McLean, who co-directed the show with Ken Denison. His publicist had neatly arranged our post-show interview.

After procuring our tickets, we made it to the third floor theatre, its set smartly arranged as a cozy book-lined office replete with desk, virtual pictures on the back wall, and a requisite cushy chair—just the sort of environment for the bookish Lewis to make an appearance. The ostensible location is Lewis’s study at Magdalen College, Oxford, 1950. While we admired the décor and became acclimated to the surroundings—feeling more than a little giddy as quite the sophisticated NYC theatre-goers—I perused the play’s brochure.

The performance, it was explained, is a production of the Fellowship for Performing Arts (FPA), which was founded by McLean in 1992, and which aims to create theatre from a Christian worldview that engages a diverse audience. It has developed and presented award-winning plays such as The Screwtape Letters, which I saw in North Carolina some years ago, never imagining at the time I’d later get to meet McLean personally, aka Screwtape. Other productions—staged in theatres and performing arts centers in New York, London, and across America—have included The Great Divorce, Mark’s Gospel, Martin Luther on Trial, and of course this one: C. S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert. The outfit has also produced critically acclaimed audiobook narrations of classic Christian works, predicated on the power of not just reading scripture, but hearing it.

I read with particular interest the brochure’s “Note about the Play,” which helpfully explains the subtitle. In 1950, Lewis received a letter from a young American writer expressing his struggle to believe Christianity because he thought it “too good to be true.” Lewis responded, “My own position at the threshold of Christianity was exactly the opposite of yours. You wish it were true; I strongly hoped it was not. . . . Do you think people like Stalin, Hitler, Haldane, Stapledon (a corking good writer, by the way) would be pleased on waking up one morning to find that they were not their own masters . . . that there was nothing even in the deepest recesses of their thoughts about which they could say to Him, ‘Keep out! Private. This is my business’? Do you? Rats! . . . Their first reaction would be (as mine was) rage and terror.”

The Note goes on to say that this was Lewis’s mindset before he “gave in,” as he put it. Lewis had embraced ideologies like materialism, atheism, naturalism, determinism, and reductionism—views that hold in common the conviction that all of life, every action, emotion, or perception, is susceptible to deflation. Each can be reduced to pre-existing physical causes all the way back to the Big Bang. There is no need to appeal to a supernatural source. God is not required to explain or define origin, meaning, ethics, or destiny. “For many years, Lewis was a defender of this view. And given his rhetorical gifts and love of debate one could see him fit into the ‘New Atheist’ camp with the likes of the late Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris.”

This play, it was explained, would explore Lewis’s dramatic conversion from this position to Christianity. McLean, the author of the Note, adds that he thinks Lewis’s vibrancy and resonance as a Christian apologist is rooted in this experience. The primary sources for the play, the Note continues, would be Lewis’s autobiography, Surprised by Joy, as well as his Collected Letters, a three-volume veritable treasure trove of insights and rich historical nuggets. McLean wrote the script by carefully cobbling together Lewis’s disparate words into a seamless tapestry and compelling narrative with a readily discernible and inherently fascinating trajectory. In addition to the primary sources, McLean also relied on several of Lewis’s books and essay collections, including The Problem of Pain, The Weight of Glory, Mere Christianity, God in the Dock, Present Concerns, and Christian Reflections. And he acknowledges his debts to various biographies and critical insights by Douglas Gresham (Lewis’s stepson), Walter Hooper (editor of Lewis’s literary estate), Devin Brown (from Asbury University), Tim Keller (whose church McLean attends in NYC, a church that has several pastors with specific ministries for the artists in the congregation), Alan Jacobs (Wheaton), Jerry Root (who’s written a book on Lewis and the problem of evil), Andrew Lazo, George Sayer, David Downing, Oxford’s Alister McGrath, Armand Nicholi (author of a book comparing and contrasting Lewis and Freud), Sheldon Vanauken, Kenneth Tynan, and A. N. Wilson, among others.

Finally, I read that the play takes place prior to the publication of Lewis’s first Narnia story and well before he met his wife, Joy Davidman—which introduces the tantalizing possibility of a sequel. My appetite thus whetted, I was primed to see the show.

Part II

Ash Wednesday and Existential Longing in The Moviegoer

By Marybeth Davis Baggett 

Binx Bolling, the protagonist of Walker Percy’s 1961 novel The Moviegoer, has settled for an ordinary life. Foregoing his previous intent to study law or medicine or engage in scientific research, he no longer desires to do “something great.” Instead, Binx prides himself on having given up “grand ambitions” and “the old longings” and now “sell[s] stocks and bonds and mutual funds; quit[s] work at five o’clock like everyone else” and dreams of “having a girl and perhaps one day settling down.”

And so Binx partakes in the ritual of the everyday. He lives in the suburbs rather than amid the excitement of New Orleans whose “old world atmosphere” incites within him feelings he cannot control. Instead, he prefers predictability: living as a model citizen and perfect tenant, armed with the paraphernalia of modern life by which he circumscribes his identity. Binx’s longing for normalcy and stability is unsurprising given that his life has been marked by tragedy—with a brother dying from pneumonia and another from an accident, losing his father at a young age, and being wounded himself while fighting in the Korean War.

The ashes—while an external sign—function on a level not possible for Binx’s material-bound rituals. In reaching back through history to the origin of humanity itself—touching on a multiplicity of biblical stories along the way—these ashes bind us, to each other, to our creator, and to our redeemer.
Determined to stave off yet more devastating losses, Binx fills his wallet full of “identity cards, library cards, credit cards” and stuffs his lockbox with “his birth certificate, college diploma, honorable discharge, G.I. insurance, a few stock certificates,” and the deed to land inherited from his father. Consumerism drives his life, as he purchases popular products of the day, derives guidance from advice columns, and even models his relationships on movie plots.

Yet, try as he might to reduce himself to a cog in the machine, Binx remains unalterably human, with an innate hunger for significance, meaning, and purpose. To satisfy this hunger, he adopts the ceremonies of his thoroughly secularized culture—the moviegoing of the novel’s title being the most prominent. The routines of mid-twentieth-century America give him forms by which to understand his life, and he dignifies those routines with official titles like “certification,” “repetition,” and “rotation.” An evening radio program This I Believe, he tells readers, serves as his “compline,” referring to the traditional night prayer that completes the Church’s work that day.

But Percy’s novel shows just how dissatisfying these counterfeit, superficial, secularized rituals are, how little they are able to sustain a meaningful existence. The story’s events transpire in the days leading up to Mardi Gras, with parties and floats and general raucousness planned on the periphery of Binx’s central concerns. He is approaching his thirtieth birthday, and his aunt—the principal authority figure—is pressuring him about his future plans. He has none, and worse, though ill-equipped, he has been charged with caring for his depression-riddled step-cousin Kate. All he offers, all he can offer, is desacralized sex and a relationship mimicking the interaction between a director and his actress.

Even Binx himself recognizes the insubstantial nature of such a foundation on which to build a life, on which to found a marriage: “Flesh poor flesh failed us. The burden was too great and flesh poor flesh, neither hallowed by sacrament nor despised by spirit [. . .]—flesh poor flesh now at this moment summoned all at once to be all and everything, end all and be all, the last and only hope—quails and fails.”

The spiritual malaise of Binx and Kate, which parallels the spiritual malaise of the world they inhabit, is underscored by contrast with the onset of Lent, Ash Wednesday being the culmination of the novel’s events.

The novel’s most admirable figure, Binx’s terminally ill younger brother Lonnie, is a devout Catholic, and his childlike faith combines with wisdom beyond his few years to squelch any sympathy the readers might be tempted to harbor for Binx’s self-imposed existential despair. In the midst of his debilitating illness, Lonnie’s concerns are for the state of his soul, confessing feelings of pleasure over his brother Duval’s death, and for the state of Binx’s soul, praying for him when he takes communion.

It is Lonnie whose sufferings point beyond himself to Christ; it is Lonnie who revels in the life he is offered, perhaps out of knowing its limits. And it is Lonnie of whom we think when Binx and Kate watch a parishioner enter church to receive his ceremonial ashes.

Ash Wednesday is the start of Lent, the period leading up to Easter which calls Christians to spiritual preparation for the day marking the lynchpin of our faith—the resurrection of Christ. On this day, services and ritual highlight two themes: human mortality and sinfulness. Ministers mark worshipers’ heads with ash as a sign of grief for the human condition and repentance for our own participation in the sins of mankind.

The ashes—while an external sign—function on a level not possible for Binx’s material-bound rituals. In reaching back through history to the origin of humanity itself—touching on a multiplicity of biblical stories along the way—these ashes bind us, to each other, to our creator, and to our redeemer. They tell us who we are, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” and what we should do with that knowledge, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

Binx’s rituals, on the other hand, fail to answer these big questions, or if they attempt to do so, the answers themselves fail. These citizenly duties—purchasing his auto tag, heeding public service announcements, contributing to the economy—merely situate him within his society. They provide a guidebook for making his way through the social maze. These rules and roles offer him little exploration of the human condition, more expansively construed.

For man is both more and less than Binx envisions him. Man is not merely the physical creature Binx reduces him to, nor is he the epitome of reality. The ritual of Ash Wednesday corrects both misconstruals, pointing to our creator God as the author of our existence, the source of our identity, the framer of our purpose, and the vehicle of our redemption.

Photo: “Cinema at the Barracks” by Andreass. CC License. 

Moral Transformation in C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces

 

by Ashley Starnes

Introduction

If asked what morality looks like, many would say it’s listening to one’s conscience or, particularly if speaking to a Christian, following the instructions laid out in the Bible. However, C. S. Lewis describes a process of total moral transformation which is significantly more involved, including divine intervention in addition to personal choice and rule-following, and which bears a striking resemblance to plot elements found in standard fictional plot structure. Where the avoidance of evil and the effort to make good choices serves as the whole of the moral question for some, Lewis describes four separate, if sometimes overlapping, stages—self-deception, honest assessment, serious moral effort, and finally redeemed morality—that can be compared to the exposition, crisis, try-fail cycle, and climax of a story’s plot. This succession of stages can most clearly be seen in Lewis’s retelling of the myth of Psyche, his novel Till We Have Faces.

Exposition: Self-Justification and Self-Deception

In our flawed moral state, we naturally find ways of justifying or even completely ignoring our moral failings. Here we find the tin soldier in one of Lewis’s analogies: in the attempt to turn him into a real man he does not want to be made real, mistakenly thinks that he is being killed, and fights as hard as he possibly can to remain in his current state.[1] “Before we can be cured we must want to be cured.”[2] The preference to try and cure ourselves, or worse, the temptation to believe that there is nothing of which to be cured, keeps us in a scenario in which we are attempting to be good (or think we are) but are in fact seeking happiness as our ultimate goal, an impossible situation since, while holiness can produce happiness, the pursuit of happiness cannot produce morality.[3]

Orual spends the greater portion of Till We Have Faces in this stage of the plot. She continually justifies her own selfish actions or overlooks them completely, avidly accuses the gods of punishing her without valid cause, and both actively and passively harms those around her throughout the process, all while thinking of herself as a martyr and demanding that everything happen on her own terms. “It had been somehow settled in [her] mind from the very beginning that [she] was the pitiable and ill-used one.”[4] Even when shown the truth of situations, Orual refuses to acknowledge it for what it is, doggedly insisting that she is in the right and has been treated unfairly, even when threatening violence and blatantly manipulating or mistreating the people around her. Orual sees a glimpse of Psyche’s palace, claims the gods are mocking her, and eagerly accepts the faulty theories of Bardia and the Fox to make herself feel better, to justify her desire to control Psyche and ruin her happiness because Orual had not been the one to provide it for her.[5] She even goes so far as to suggest, when the god appeared to her, that he changed the past to make her appear guilty: “He made it to be as if, from the beginning, I had known that Psyche’s lover was a god, and as if all my doubtings, fears, guessings, debatings, questionings of Bardia, questionings of the Fox, all the rummage and business of it, had been trumped-up foolery, dust blown in my own eyes by myself.”[6] She is shown truth at this moment (and at other moments throughout the story) and dares to accuse the gods of wrongdoing rather than acknowledging her own sin. This is an excellent example of the lengths to which someone will go to avoid the realization of their own moral failure. Lewis’s description is unique but its silhouette is readily recognizable at the center of human nature. Every person contains this exposition in his own story though the specific details will obviously vary. It is where we all start in terms of morality.

 

Crisis: Honest Assessment

In the midst of all the denial and justification comes a point (or points) at which an honest voice is heard speaking the truth of our failures, sometimes a slap to the face and sometimes a gentle nudge to direct our focus. We have the choice to suppress the warning or heed it. When we choose the first option, we revert to the previous stage to begin again. This is seen in Orual’s dismissal of her glimpse of the palace, her suppression of her brief desire to let Psyche be happy, her refusal to hear that Psyche’s husband could be anything other than a villain, insisting that the gods hate her, etc. When we choose the second option, though, we turn a corner. This is the point at which Orual says that she must edit her book because

I know so much more than I did about the woman who wrote it. What began the change was the very writing itself…. Memory, once waked, will play the tyrant. I found I must set down (for I was speaking as before judges and must not lie) passions and thoughts of my own which I had clean forgotten. The past which I wrote down was not the past that I thought I had (all these years) been remembering. I did not, even when I had finished the book, see clearly many things that I see now. The change which the writing wrought in me (and of which I did not write) was only a beginning—only to prepare me for the gods’ surgery. They used my own pen to probe my wound.[7]

She begins to see the reality of her situation when she makes a legitimate effort to be honest about her story, and this attempt at sincere honesty provides clarity. “Virtue—even attempted virtue—brings light; indulgence brings fog.”[8] When our focus shifts from ourselves and our natural motives to virtue and the sincere desire to be good (and not primarily happy), we begin to make real progress and see ourselves more and more clearly. “When a man is getting better he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him.… You can understand the nature of drunkenness when you are sober, not when you are drunk. Good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either.”[9] In the minds of many this stage of honest self-assessment and desire to be good, to make better choices, amounts to the peak of one’s personal moral journey. They would say that the only thing left is to follow through with those better choices and to continue being honest with oneself. For Lewis, though, this stage is more akin to the crisis point in a story’s plot; this is where the protagonist realizes the problem and attempts to effect change. Pride is identified and begins to be rejected.

Once we are in right relation to God, he will make us more like himself as well as most fully ourselves.

The Try-Fail Cycle: Moral Effort and Repeated Failure

It is at this point that sincere moral effort begins. Lewis’s recommendation at this point is to “make some serious attempt to practice the Christian virtues.… Try six weeks. By that time, having, as far as one can see, fallen back completely or even fallen lower than the point one began from, one will have discovered some truths about oneself. No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good.”[10]

da1cea3160This stage can be seen in a handful of moments in Orual’s journey. She comments directly on it at one point: “I could not hold out half an hour…. I could mend my soul no more than my face.”[11] She gives the Fox his freedom, sets out to improve conditions for the workers in Glome’s mines, gives Redival the husband she wants, and takes other steps to help the people in her kingdom.[12] On the other hand, some of these actions are more selfless than others and for every success there seems to be a corresponding moral failure—her bitterness that the Fox might choose his home and family over her, her hostility toward Redival, the execution of Batta, her possessive love of Bardia, to name a few.[13] The attempt to be virtuous is admirable in that it allows us to strengthen the desire to reach that goal and in a practical sense does improve our character. Certainly, we will make better choices when the desire to do good is present rather than only the desire for happiness, but for Lewis its primary purpose is to convince us that we need divine assistance.

Now we cannot…discover our failure to keep God’s law except by trying our very hardest (and then failing). Unless we really try, whatever we say there will always be at the back of our minds the idea that if we try harder next time we shall succeed in being completely good. Thus, in one sense, the road back to God is a road of moral effort, of trying harder and harder. But in another sense it is not trying that is ever going to bring us home. All this trying leads up to the vital moment at which you turn to God and say, “You must do this. I can’t.”[14]

According to Lewis, under the right circumstances and with a decent natural temperament, we can appear to be exceptionally moral people but even at our natural best we are caught in this try-fail cycle precisely because our focus is centered on our actions and motives while God is looking for something related but different. “[W]hat God cares about is not exactly our actions. What he cares about is that we should be creatures of a certain kind or quality—the kind of creature He intended us to be—creatures related to Himself in a certain way [and therefore related to others in a certain way].”[15] For that to happen, we must reach a point, through the try-fail cycle, at which we recognize our inadequacy and seek God himself rather than seeking only moral actions.

Climax: Redeemed Morality

The climax of moral transformation (on Earth) is reached at the point when failure is recognized and the need for divine assistance is accepted and pursued. The climax is humility before God. Moral effort is still required but now Jesus is providing what is needed to succeed. “It is a living Man, still as much a man as you, and still as much God as he was when he created the world, really coming and interfering with your very self; killing the old natural self in you and replacing it with the kind of self He has. At first, only for moments. Then for longer periods. Finally, if all goes well, turning you permanently into a different sort of thing; into a new little Christ, a being which, in its own small way, has the same kind of life as God.”[16]

Something resembling the try-fail cycle will still occur but with more and more success and less and less failure, really more analogous to the falling action of the story. “For you are no longer thinking simply about right and wrong; you are trying to catch the good infection from a Person…. The real Son of God is at your side. He is beginning to turn you into the same kind of thing as Himself…beginning to turn the tin soldier into a live man. The part of you that does not like it is the part of you that is still tin.”[17] The solution draws near and things are being put right. Now when we fail, it is not in vain. God is producing perseverance and dependence in us, moving us toward virtue with each choice and making us more into the creatures he means us to be.[18]

The final stretch of Till We Have Faces shows us this stage in Orual’s story and it occurs in a relatively brief amount of time. Once she accepts that the last virtue she thought she possessed—her love for Psyche—was not the selfless love she imagined it to be, when she sees herself and the gods accurately, acknowledges that they had been right all along and that she had no excuse for her actions, she is finally able to change in a much more significant way than her previous efforts had allowed. Once Orual accepts her own failings and the illegitimacy of her accusations against the gods, accepts their judgment and the fact that she cannot fix herself, she receives more clarity. Shown Psyche’s suffering, her response is no longer justifications and denials. Instead she asks the Fox, “Did we really do these things to her? … And we said we loved her.”[19] And when Psyche returns from her task, Orual falls at her feet and begs forgiveness, showing the new understanding she has gained in the process: “I never wished you well, never had one selfless thought of you. I was a craver.”[20]

Having tried her best to be good and failing and having recognized her actions for what they were, she finally reaches the climax: her moral redemption. When the god comes to her, she sees her reflection alongside Psyche’s. “Two figures, reflections, their feet to Psyche’s feet and mine, stood head downward in the water. But whose were they? Two Psyches, the one clothed, the other naked? Yes, both Psyches, both beautiful (if that mattered now) beyond all imagining, yet not exactly the same.”[21] This harks back to Lewis’s assertion that, once we are in right relation to God, he will make us more like himself as well as most fully ourselves.[22] Having moved through the previous stages and embraced God, Orual undergoes a radical change, not only in her actions but at her core. This is the climax of moral transformation.

 

Conclusion

For C. S. Lewis, moral transformation is a dynamic process and dramatic event with a very specific end result. It begins in a dark place and requires sincere effort, recognition of incompetence, and a turn to God—the exposition, crisis, try-fail cycle, and climax of one’s moral story. The process in reality is perhaps a bit messier than a typical plot structure but the categories fit well. Lewis assures us that the process a realistic one, that we possess the ability to become a Psyche with God’s assistance and will be if we allow God to have his way and embrace the process.

The command Be ye perfect is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. He said (in the Bible) that we were “gods” and He is going to make good His words. If we let Him—for we can prevent Him, if we choose—He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful, but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what He said.[23]

Lewis’s simple explanation of this moral transformation can be found in the instruction to Orual: “Die before you die.”[24] Socrates said philosophy trains us how to die—and perhaps this is what’s most true about his dictum: we need to die to our vainglory, our self-aggrandizement, all the various maladies within that only God’s grace can excise and heal.

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

Lewis, C. S. The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.

Lewis, C. S. Till We Have Faces. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1956.

 

[1] C. S. Lewis, The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 97.

[2] Ibid., 59.

[3] Lewis, The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, 105.

[4] C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1956), 256.

[5] Ibid., 132-133, 137-138, 144.

[6] Ibid., 173

[7] Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 253-254.

[8] Lewis, The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, 60

[9] Ibid, 56.

[10] Ibid., 78

[11] Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 282.

[12] Ibid., 207, 212, 231-236.

[13] Ibid., 207, 212, 230, 233.

[14] Lewis, The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, 81.

[15] Ibid., 80.

[16] Lewis, The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, 103.

[17] Ibid., 102.

[18] Ibid., 60.

[19] Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 304.

[20] Ibid., 305.

[21] Ibid., 307-308.

[22] Lewis, The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, 118.

[23] Lewis, The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, 109.

[24] Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 279.

Fire in the Bones: Love that Holds the Dark Wolves at Bay

 

By David Baggett 

Mark R. Harris’s Fire in the Bones, a 2015 publication with Black Rose Writing, is an enchanted tale, featuring effective storytelling that offers readers a delightful way to while away some hours by taking a foray through the prescient mind and life of a pre-teen boy growing up in the sixties. The boy, besides being charming and innocent, inquisitive and intelligent, is eminently likeable. And the book often effortlessly funny, eliciting many smiles and a few laugh-out-loud moments, and sometimes quite touching and poignant.fire

The story chronicles the young Luke’s doubts and fears, loneliness and powerlessness, successes and failures, all seamlessly filtered and processed through the TV, music, and radio of the period, punctuated with pop cultural icons ranging from Batman to Secret Agent Man, from Underdog to Catwoman to, most importantly, The Beatles. Despite the tumult of the 60s, the story evokes a sense of a simpler time, in part because, at this point in Luke’s life, much of the world occupying his attention wasn’t overwhelmed by the Vietnam War or flower children, but with more personal concerns. And yet, in its own way, inside his head was a universe of its own. The privileged perspective of the novel is always childlike, though rarely childish, and its unassuming and simple clarity shouldn’t be mistaken for anything simplistic; it’s in fact psychologically rich.

Early in the narrative Luke faces a couple challenges that upset his equanimity and create feelings of anger and fear within him. He’s in a car accident from which it takes some time to recover, and his family relocates 500 miles away, leaving behind the familiar and rendering him powerless in the face of such unexpected events along the way. A sense of fear and anger haunts much of his childhood, and navigating such negative emotions—a “surging wave of heat” when provided with fresh “fodder for his fury”—becomes one of his biggest recurring challenges. Sometimes the only way for him to fight fear is with anger, relegating him to feel viscerally one or the other.

Very bright, and gifted with a vivid imagination, Luke develops a number of coping mechanisms—including, the night of the relocation, conjuring up a character from a dream, an imaginary friend (Bob) who would be his faithful companion for years. Such a measure of constancy seems to help counterbalance life’s fluctuating circumstances. Similarly, retreating to his imagination enables Luke to exert power he likes to think he has; assuming the persona of Underdog or Secret Agent Man, he relishes picturing himself heroically swooping to the rescue of various girls who’d struck his fancy. The character is far from static, as he continues valiantly to struggle to outgrow his fears, even experimenting with recklessness after renouncing those fears, and finally facing his fears with courage.

Besides fear and anger, coping with loss and change and feelings of helplessness, Luke yearns for safety. Taking his first fledgling steps navigating a big scary world filled with questions—especially the mystery of girls—Luke isn’t debilitated by his fears. This, despite that some of his fears run very deep. From a very young age they extend to angst over potential blasphemy, raising the very question of who God is—an unbending Judge, or loving Father. In his precocious fashion, he apprehends a tension between his worst fears, on the one hand—like the idea that God doesn’t love him after all and the unquenchable fires of hell—and the good theology he’d learned at church that he held firmly to in his head.  Most of all, Luke wants to forge connections—with God, with friends, with girls, with family. Despite his power of imagination and prodigious gift for introspection, he becomes ready to act when the time is right.

Luke realizes at a certain point he’s been afraid all of his life, and he wants to be delivered from that fear. For help he looks to the two resources he’s come to trust the most: God (the Bible, prayer) and The Beatles. He is enamored with The Beatles: they are part of the air he breathed from early on, and they offer a lens through which to understand life and process his experiences. Winsomely credulous and tenacious in hope more than naïve or indolent, Luke tries to discern insight and glean direction from various sources, lyrics of The Beatles at the top of the list. He looks to them not just for direction; he becomes a real aficionado of their music, developing a sophisticated taste for their work and the ability to distinguish between better and worse songs they produce. The credulity of readers isn’t strained by believing the observant boy noticing halting harpsichords, musical progressions, harmonious lullabies, orchestral accompaniment, and layers of discordant singing. Luke can even be critical of them on occasion, but generally his taste and respect for them are unparalleled, and his confidence in them towering. The two biggest virtues they exemplify, to Luke’s thinking, are the insights and illumination their music provides and the togetherness and teamwork they embody.

These twin themes, in my view, are what most tie this whole novel together, and both of them are a function of Luke’s mind and methodology. Part of Luke’s charm is the way he’s so sensitive to signs and signals. It’s as if he’s on a perpetual quest for the truth, for insight into the human condition, or at least for an accurate understanding of the little gestures of affection from his prospective girlfriend. How he reads a wealth of meaning into the way a girl intentionally touches his sleeve a few times is nothing less than delightful, especially when, in retrospect, he tortures himself with questions of whether she meant what he hoped she did. It’s all quintessential childhood, invoking the mystery of gender that rears its head so early, but mostly forgotten until a writer like Harris re-assumes a childhood persona with such authenticity and power and invigorates our recollection.

In this connection, Harris’s portrayal of Luke’s romantic interests is done with a masterfully light and winsome touch, accurately capturing the innocence of childhood so often sacrificed nowadays as if nothing sacred is lost. What we find in Luke is romance that isn’t illicit, an interest in girls without the requisite inordinate sexualization from a ridiculously young age. As such, it’s all quite innocent by contemporary standards, and boldly refreshing, reminiscent of a time when a kiss alone was rife with significance, when the mere prospect of holding a girl in one’s arms was practically rapturous. This feature of the book is simply enchanting. Rather than swallowing an elephant, Harris’s forte and gift is savoring a morsel. Despite all of Luke’s efforts to understand girls, he finally realizes he doesn’t understand them at all, but that they’re still worth the trouble.

Girls are but one example of Luke’s desire for connection, the second integrating motif of the volume, and another visible virtue of The Beatles, at least for a while. Luke understands the band as a team, better together than apart, more than the sum of their parts. He loves to hear them make music that integrated their constituent pieces into a melodious whole with such excellence and skill, and he seems to relish what such integration represents: friends working harmoniously together, forging connectivity. It resonates with Luke’s own passion for community and connection. And this theme is related to the first, for the togetherness of The Beatles is reliable evidence of their teamwork and integration. This is why, for so long, the young Luke resists the idea that the band is experiencing tensions or, later, on the verge of breaking up, or, later still, that they have in fact separated. It grates against Luke to admit or accept it, for if their togetherness shows the power of community and elicits hope, what does the demise of the band represent?

Connection with others, and a girlfriend in particular, animates so much of Luke’s pilgrimage. It’s a prescription to loneliness, the cure for aloneness, deliverance from anger and powerlessness, a way to secure and enjoy love. Even from his early age, Luke recognizes the need for love, its importance and centrality. The very questions Luke asks about love—its permanence, whether God loves him, whether God’s nature is love, whether there can be a conflict between love and the right thing to do, how we can recognize it, whether love can be perfected, how to find it—show the novel to be, despite the protagonist’s introspection, perhaps introversion, profoundly communal in its scope and tenor.

As I read this remarkable little novel, it leaves me with several salient impressions, and a few central questions it intimates at and to which it may offer a clue or two. In the recognition of others—in both their sameness and difference—we find ourselves in need of connection and community, of love and emotional intimacy, of friendship and family. As the inveterate observer that young Luke is, he models how we can’t help but be insatiably curious about life’s mysteries. For one like him, incurably reflective and looking for signals of transcendence, how can love not be the most important clue of all? If a girl touching a sleeve can contain a world, what’s contained in love but the universe? If the mystery and beauty of a girl’s shining smile can fill Luke’s heart with hope, what veridical sign of hope, intimation of the eternal, and insight into reality do relationships of love provide? In a world touched with corruption and loss, grief and death, is there a love that doesn’t disappoint? A love that can keep the dark wolves of fear and loneliness forever at bay? Does the fire within and without consume us, or ultimately perfect us, readying us for ever deeper and rewarding, transformative relationships of love?

Podcast: Emily Heady on the Christian Worldview, Ethics, and A Christmas Carol

Podcast with Emily Heady

In this special Christmas edition of the podcast, we sit down with Dr. Emily Heady to discuss Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Dr. Heady holds a Ph.D. in English Literature with a concentration in Victorian Studies. She also has a special interest in the work of Charles Dickens and has published articles and books exploring his novels. In this episode, Dr. Heady explains how A Christmas Carol relates to ethics and the Christian worldview.

Photo:  “A Christmas Carol, New York Public Library” By G. Ziegler. CC Licence.

Music:  “O Come O Come Emmanuel” by IKOS David Clifton with the choirs of Peterborough Cathedral. CC License.