- Reputation, character, integrity
- A 54th Anniversary
- Why I felt kindly toward David Cassidy
- A spiritual to-do list?
- Far-seeing, but blinded by evil
- Thanksgiving versus Christmas
Tag: C.S. Lewis
Channeling the Tradition
I’ve been out of blogging commission for a week because of vacation with a strangely buggy internet connection. Everything worked, albeit a bit slowly, except my WordPress blogging platform, which consistently wouldn’t let me save my work and presumably wouldn’t have let me publish, either.
It was a very eventful week in “public affairs,” but I was kind of glad for the excuse to take a break from commentary. And at least today, I’m focusing on things more eternal than urgently timely.
My traveling soundtrack with Mrs. Tipsy invariably includes Mars Hill Audio Journal, this time Volume 134, which included retired history professor Chris Armstrong, author of Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians: Finding Authentic Faith in a Forgotten Age with C. S. Lewis.
Excerpts, including a striking suggestion about the primary value of C.S. Lewis — a suggestion which makes a lot of things about Lewis fall into place for me:
Ken Myers: Now again, you repeatedly in this book, deal with mistaken assumptions that many Christian people have about medieval faith, and you’ve already alluded to one. And that is I’ve heard many Protestants say that before the Reformation, Christians weren’t concerned with all of life and one of the great boons of the Reformation was that, suddenly, people realized that the Gospel had consequences for all of life, and God begat Abraham Kuiper.
Chris Armstrong: Yeah, Grant Wacker said once, and I think this may have ultimately come from David Steinmetz, that ever since the Protestant Reformation broke Christendom, Protestants have been trying to figure out how to get back to that original concern for these questions, I suppose you might say, of Christ and culture. And so it’s certainly true that there was a great concern for that in the Reformation and after the Reformation, but it seems to have come not from a previous lack, but from having broken an earlier synthesis.
Chris Armstrong: … As it turns out, [C.S.] Lewis in fact was not just a professional medievalist, but what I call an intuitive Medievalist …
Ken Myer: His consciousness, if you will, was more Medieval than modern, or so it seems.
Chris Armstrong: In fact he claimed that … when in the ’50s he was made Chair of Medieval and Renaissance studies … when he said that “I am a dinosaur. I am an artifact, a creature of the past. You should use me as an example as much as a teacher.” … He uses the distinction between contemplating and enjoying something. If you contemplate something, you look directly at it in an analytical mode. If you enjoy it, you begin to look along it, like along the sunbeam, to see what it illuminates ….
Ken Myers: … Given Lewis’s popularity among Evangelicals, and particularly the popularity of the Chronicles of Narnia — but also I suppose you could include a lot of his books of apologetics — that given the popularity of this person with a pre-modern mentality, pre-modern disposition, who seems to be so affable and helpful as guide to seeing the world and understanding how we understand God, how is it that the Medieval mentality that he embodied is still regarded with such suspicion among people who otherwise might really like his work?
Chris Armstrong: I think that’s a wonderful question. What I would say is the more I read Lewis, the more I thought that his primary value is as a conduit of The Tradition. And I just don’t think that people have seen him that way often. They see him say something that deeply affects them, or that strikes them as being deeply true, and they assume … that he’s simply telling them in a clearer way what Scripture already says, and “Isn’t it good that he’s such a good rhetorician and that he helps us understand these things that are so clearly in Scripture.” What they don’t know is that what he’s doing is actually channeling The Tradition to them. They won’t read those sources, probably, most Evangelicals won’t read Athanasius’s On the Incarnation … of Aquinas’s Summa Theologica. But he had read both ….
A podcast I recently began following is Albert Mohler’s Thinking in Public. Last September, he interviewed Alan Jacobs, a regular on Mars Hill Audio Journal as well, following up on Jacobs’ Harpers article The Watchmen: What Became of the Christian Intellectuals?
One thread of their discussion reminds me that Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, insofar as it stands for building parallel consciously Christian institutions to preserve and channel the tradition, even at the price of less “public involvement,” is nothing new:
Mohler: … I was reminded of the fact—and this was important to my response to your article—just how important Reinhold Niebuhr was in the Cold War, and the fact that his realism, in terms of prescriptions for American foreign policy, became very much appreciated by the Truman administration, also by the Eisenhower administration, and by Henry Luce who was the founder of TIME, who put Reinhold Niebuhr on the cover. But at the same time I was reminded again of how routinely Niebuhr was dismissed by the academy. I was reminded of James Conan, the President of Harvard, trying to bring him to Harvard and to no avail. This is such a mixed picture.
Jacobs: Yeah, it really is a mixed picture. In the article, there’s a point where I’m putting what I think to be the key issue, the key issue is this: for the Christian public intellectual, if there is to be such a thing, that person has got to be both audible and free. That is, if you’re going to be genuinely public, then you’ve got to be audible, you’ve got to be somewhere where people can hear you, people across the range of the culture can hear you. But you’ve also got to be free. You’ve got to be free to be able to speak out of genuine Christian conviction or else what’s the point of you? Why would you even be there if you don’t have that to say? And finding that audibility, along with the freedom, has been really problematic for a long time. And you can lose freedom, not because people are constraining you, but because you’re constraining yourself. And I think that is—you mentioned this in your response—the downfall of liberal Protestant establishment in America. And I think that that downfall happened. Now what a lot of people will say in the liberal Protestant world is that well, we lost our—people stopped listening to us, and so we became marginal. And my argument is that they stopped listening to you because you ceased to have anything distinctive to say; when you didn’t want to say anything that was distinctly or particularly Christian; when all you could really do was to say “Me too” to what the rest of the world was saying. Then why should they listen to you anymore? You became inaudible because you chose to speak in ways that were no longer particularistically, distinctively, recognizably Christian. So everybody else was already saying that stuff, who needs you? So I think they marginalized themselves in that regard. There was a certain self-marginalizing by evangelicals and traditionalist Catholics also, but for almost opposite reasons.
Mohler: … I want to ask you—because this is also something that engendered controversy in your essay—and I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but you basically say, or imply, that evangelicals, or Christian intellectuals, a better way to put it, willingly withdrew and that it’s largely our fault that there are no Christian intellectuals in the larger public square. And let’s go back to Mannheim for a minute with the cultural production. What didn’t happen that should have? Even trying to take it on those terms, I’m up against a hard place trying to answer the question, What didn’t happen that should have?
Jacobs: Well, Dr. Mohler, I’m not sure that there was anything that should have. Here’s what I mean by that: Christians—orthodox, biblical, Nicene Christians, evangelicals, yes, but also traditionalist Catholics—found themselves in a situation where the intelligentsia and educated classes were to some degree drifting away from them. It was becoming more difficult for them to get a hearing. They became concerned, I think, to make sure that their positions didn’t get lost, that their positions were passed down to the next generation of believers. They chose to do that primarily—not exclusively by any means—but primarily by building up Christian institutions, which in the post-war years with the economic boom there was some money to do. This is an analogy, rather than example. But, Father Hesburgh at Notre Dame was able to transform Notre Dame into a research university because those poor immigrant Catholics in the pre-WWII era, who didn’t have much money to support Notre Dame, had a lot more money after the war and were able to support it. And I think you see the creation of institutions like the National Association of Evangelicals, the founding of Fuller Seminary, and then, existing institutions like Wheaton College, where I taught for 29 years, were able to develop their resources to have, for instance, smaller class sizes, more individual attention to students. They were able to hire people who were more academically ambitious. They were able to build themselves up, and strengthen themselves in such a way that they were able to pass down core Christian convictions to the next generation. But the more energy you spend doing that, the less energy is left over to be a player in the larger, broader, especially secular, culture. And, I’m not sure, I don’t think any of those people were wrong to make the choice that they made.
(Emphasis added) After carefully transcribing audio, I discovered that Dr. Mohler has provided a complete transcript at the site above linked. Help yourself.
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There is no epistemological Switzerland. (Via Mars Hill Audio Journal Volume 134)
More, obliquely, on The Common Core
I was assembling over several days some clippings for another set of Tasty Tidbits when I saw a common theme emerging from two of them. Truth has many facets.
Brave New World is a work of genius, a phrase almost in common coinage, and probably the only work for which Aldous Huxley will be remembered. He died the same day JFK was assassinated, a rather depressing anticipation of Timothy Leary, dropping acid on his death bed, his last 31 years never having come close to his magnificent 1932.
John Naughton thinks Huxley was a greater visionary than C.S. Lewis or George Orwell. As an admirer of Harrison Bergeron, I’d have to agree.
Revolutions have overthrown the grimmest real-world versions of 1984 and Animal Farm, and I don’t think that Lewis was aspiring to “visionary” so much as “reteller of sacramental myth” in his great That Hideous Strength (and it’s two prequels, Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra).
For the sickness of Brave New World and Harrison Bergeron, there may be no cure.
Here endeth my book endorsements disguised as literary criticism.
[I]f you follow the fevered lamentations over the Common Core, look hard at some of the complaints from parents and teachers, and factor in the modern cult of self-esteem, you can guess what set Duncan off: a concern, wholly justified, that tougher instruction not be rejected simply because it makes children feel inadequate, and that the impulse to coddle kids not eclipse the imperative to challenge them.
The Common Core, a laudable set of guidelines that emphasize analytical thinking over rote memorization, has been adopted in more than 40 states. In instances its implementation has been flawed, and its accompanying emphasis on testing certainly warrants debate.
What’s not warranted is the welling hysteria: from right-wing alarmists, who hallucinate a federal takeover of education and the indoctrination of a next generation of government-loving liberals; from left-wing paranoiacs, who imagine some conspiracy to ultimately privatize education and create a new frontier of profits for money-mad plutocrats.
(Frank Bruni in the New York Times, with metered paywall)
There’s a lot to like about Bruni’s column. But he hasn’t engaged the sober, nonpartisan, humanistic concerns that militate against The Common Core – concerns I alluded to the other day and above, which Aldous Huxley understood imaginatively, C.S. Lewis understood both analytically and imaginatively, and Ross Douthat recalls in his separate metered paywall column.
Douthat links a Huxley page with the excerpt from Brave New World where the Savage and the Controller spar:
There isn’t any need for a civilized man to bear anything that’s seriously unpleasant. And as for doing things–Ford forbid that he should get the idea into his head. It would upset the whole social order if men started doing things on their own.”
“What about self-denial, then? If you had a God, you’d have a reason for self-denial.”
“But industrial civilization is only possible when there’s no self-denial. Self-indulgence up to the very limits imposed by hygiene and economics. Otherwise the wheels stop turning.”
“You’d have a reason for chastity!” said the Savage, blushing a little as he spoke the words.
“But chastity means passion, chastity means neurasthenia. And passion and neurasthenia mean instability. And instability means the end of civilization. You can’t have a lasting civilization without plenty of pleasant vices.”
“But God’s the reason for everything noble and fine and heroic. If you had a God …”
“My dear young friend,” said Mustapha Mond, “civilization has absolutely no need of nobility or heroism. These things are symptoms of political inefficiency. In a properly organized society like ours, nobody has any opportunities for being noble or heroic. Conditions have got to be thoroughly unstable before the occasion can arise. Where there are wars, where there are divided allegiances, where there are temptations to be resisted, objects of love to be fought for or defended–there, obviously, nobility and heroism have some sense. But there aren’t any wars nowadays. The greatest care is taken to prevent you from loving any one too much. There’s no such thing as a divided allegiance; you’re so conditioned that you can’t help doing what you ought to do. And what you ought to do is on the whole so pleasant, so many of the natural impulses are allowed free play, that there really aren’t any temptations to resist. And if ever, by some unlucky chance, anything unpleasant should somehow happen, why, there’s always soma to give you a holiday from the facts. And there’s always soma to calm your anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and long-suffering. In the past you could only accomplish these things by making a great effort and after years of hard moral training. Now, you swallow two or three half-gramme tablets, and there you are. Anybody can be virtuous now. You can carry at least half your morality about in a bottle. Christianity without tears–that’s what soma is.”
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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)
Learning from Ebeneezer
It’s the Advent season, so of course Dickens’ A Christmas Carol gets trotted out. Our Bach Chorale Singers concert Saturday was interwoven with a reading of it.
I’m feeling a bit like a blog-obsessed (not money-obsessed) version of Ebeneezer Scrooge, and I don’t want to be visited by ghosts of blogs past, present and future warning me that “Obsessive blogger dies from lack of exercise, perspective” could be my obituary some day, while my tombstone reads “Always in the know, but never got wisdom.”
So I have just unsubscribed several blogs. Considering how many blogs I follow just for pleasure, “several” doesn’t sound like many, but the ones I dropped probably make up a third or more of my blog volume. The ones I dropped are primarily political, and we’re well into the 2012 Presidential cycle, sorry to say, so the volume is rising.
Since <stunning news> I don’t trust either party, </stunning news> it’s becoming frustrating to read one more darned angle on why serial adulterers with ADD/HD shouldn’t be POTUS even if they’ve repented, or that Mormons wear funny undies, or that the Texan hangs out with people who are fewer than three degrees removed from whacko Theocrats, or that the sane, antiwar, committed-to-the-constitution candidate can’t win because he’s out of the mainstream. (That last one’s the most disheartening, because if the Tea Party were what it’s cracked up to be, he would have a really good shot at it.)
If there’s some slightly new angle in any of this stylishly written political swill, though, I’m likely to pass it on to my readers, however trifling it may be in the grand scheme of things. Yup. It’s come to that. My OCD gene has been expressing itself. Time for cold turkey, or something close. Daily tidbit aggregations are ceasing.
So what will I do with the extra time? Well, as hinted, exercise will be part of it. I’ll multiply the saved time from that by not reblogging so many blog trifles (trifles are for Tweeting, at most). And “persepective” will be the other part.
How can I add perspective to my life while dropping voices from my daily fare? By adding older voices – the kinds of guys who write, or likelier “wrote,” books, for instance. I’ve cleared desk space and gotten a good light in my den, away from the TV (before which my wife tends to collapse deservedly after a hard day of schoolchildren on the one hand and aging, failing parents – my mother, her dad – on the other).
I’ve got a bunch of unread books, many of them classics, and that doesn’t even count re-reading the Bible with Orthodox commentaries nearby, or digital versions of the Church Fathers. I’ll read more poetry, too. It’s time especially for W.H. Auden’s “For the Time Being,” which has become a personal Advent tradition for me.
I’ve added to my Christmas list a C.S. Lewis book that I’ve inexplicably not read in 63 years: C.S. Lewis’ “The Discarded Image.” That’s likely to lead to still other books. But it also honors one of Lewis’ most important (and ignored, including by me) bits of advice: for every current book you read, read an old book, too, for the sake of perspective. A future book could give perspective, too, but future books are not in print any more. 😉 All the bloggers I read, in contrast to old authors, share a cosmology with me to a degree greater than we recognize – even if we appear, in today’s conventional terms, bitterest adversaries. I intend to find some pre-moderns, and not just Bible and Early Church Fathers, and try to get inside their heads.
But I’ve been bit by the blogging bug, so I’m not apt to disappear entirely. But I expect to be much more selective. I hope you’ll like it. And if you’ve been thinking of dropping me because of the low signal-to-noise ratio, stay tuned for an upgrade, the particulars of which remain to be determined precisely because I remain, for now, a tipsy teetotaler, and sensitively dependent on initial conditions.
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Tasty Tidbits 8/17/11
- Adam and Eve.
- The benefits of ignorance.
- Venerable voice on progressive politics.
- WSJ tells the parts Buffet left out.
- Unwinding a Ponzi scheme.
- All Politics, All The Time.
- Everyone’s a genius.
Tasteless (but Timely) Tidbits 8/7/11
- Mene mene tekel upharsin.
- Our most conservative President.
- Safety in time of turmoil.
Tasty Tidbits 8/5/11
- Man tries to hurl himself over the White House fence.
- Something’s not right ….
- Tu quoque.
- Did anyone warn the legislature?
- The elephant in the budget room.
- Happy Birthday, Wendell Berry.
- E-Trade Baby loses his … diaper region.