Book Reviews: Till We Have Faces

“Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold” by C.S. Lewis

Given the fact that Lewis is one of my favorite authors, it is a bit surprising that, until recently, I had never read the book which Lewis himself claimed was his best-written and personal favorite of his own works. This is a situation now happily rectified!

Like his friend J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis believed that stories were the best vehicle for spreading ideas. In this story, he adapts the old Greek myth of Cupid & Psyche into a novel told from the perspective of one of Psyche’s sisters. (Incidentally, a summary of the original myth is included as an appendix to the book for those unfamiliar with it, so prior knowledge is no prerequisite for reading this book!) Through fiction, Lewis explores love and the hidden motivations behind human action.

The principal theme of the book is related to the 12th verse from 1 Corinthians 13, the “love chapter”: For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. The novel wrestles with the question of whether we can truly know God without seeing him face to face. While this theme is a decidedly Christian one, the book is devoid of the overtly Christian symbolism common in most of his other works of fiction—something perhaps expected in a book that takes pagan mythology as its source!

If you’ve never read this story, I highly recommend it. You won’t be disappointed; Lewis picked it as his favorite for a reason! Buy it here.

Can a Non-Christian Lead a Good Life?

This is the question which C.S. Lewis addresses in “Man or Rabbit?”, which many consider to be his best short essay. It is published in his book God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, and if you’ve never read it I encourage you to set aside ten minutes or so and read Lewis’ thoughts on what “good” is, and how one can live a good life. I love this quote from the last paragraph: “Morality is a mountain which we cannot climb by our own efforts; and if we could we should only perish in the ice and unbreathable air of the summit, lacking those wings with which the rest of the journey has to be accomplished.”

Here is a longer excerpt to whet your appetite:

A Christian and a non-Christian may both wish to do good to their fellow men. The one believes that men are going to live forever, that they were created by God and so built that they can find their true and lasting happiness only by being united to God, that they have gone badly off the rails, and that obedient faith in Christ is the only way back. The other believes that men are an accidental result of the blind workings of matter, that they started as mere animals and have more or less steadily improved, that they are going to live for about seventy years, that their happiness is fully attainable by good social services and political organisations, and that everything else (e.g., vivisection, birth-control, the judicial system, education) is to be judged to be “good” or “bad” simply in so far as it helps or hinders that kind of “happiness”.

Now there are quite a lot of things which these two men could agree in doing for their fellow citizens. Both would approve of efficient sewers and hospitals and a healthy diet. But sooner or later the difference of their beliefs would produce differences in their practical proposals. Both, for example, might be very keen about education: but the kinds of education they wanted people to have would obviously be very different. Again, where the Materialist would simply ask about a proposed action “Will it increase the happiness of the majority?”, the Christian might have to say, “Even if it does increase the happiness of the majority, we can’t do it. It is unjust.” And all the time, one great difference would run through their whole policy. To the Materialist things like nations, classes, civilizations must be more important than individuals, because the individuals live only seventy odd years each and the group may last for centuries. But to the Christian, individuals are more important, for they live eternally; and races, civilizations and the like, are in comparison the creatures of a day.

You can read the rest of this essay online here, or look for a copy of God in the Dock. Our local library has a copy, if you happen to live in the Cookeville area.

The Great Divorce: A One-Man Play – Tonight!

It’s not too late to get your tickets to The Great Divorce, a one-man play written and performed by Anthony Lawton, based on the book by C.S. Lewis of the same title (my review). In case you’re unfamiliar with the book, here’s the basic plot: Several people from Hell are given a bus ride to the outskirts of Heaven, where they are given a choice about whether they will travel on to the “high country” or return to the “Grey City”. I don’t want to give away too much, but here is the most famous quote from the book, which may give you some idea of how things turn out:

“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened. ”

Here’s a short description of the stage adaptation, taken from the Humanitas Forum on Christianity and Culture, which is sponsoring tonight’s play:

Anthony Lawton will make you laugh.  He will make you think.  He will also make you examine your own soul as he portrays the rationalizations and self-deceptions used to refuse Heaven.

Anthony’s masterful performance combines with his faithful adaptation of Lewis’s The Great Divorce to produce an evening of spiritual insight and challenge.  Using a wide range of dialects—from Cockney to American Midwestern to Scottish—Anthony Lawton brings to life over a dozen characters in his one-man stage adaptation of Lewis’s classic.  “Now this is storytelling,” says the Philadelphia Inquirer.

A further description of the play was provided by the Lantern Theater Company for performance from earlier this year.

Anthony Lawton has uploaded a few clips from his play as well:

The play starts TONIGHT at 7:00 at the Cookeville Performing Arts Center. Tickets will be available at the door, provided it isn’t sold out. Student tickets are $10, individuals are $15, couples are $25, and $45 gets in everybody living under the same roof. Also, children under 13 get in free! I don’t know that I’d take young children to see this play, but it will be suitable for middle school students.

I hope to see you there this evening!

Lewis and Tolkien Debate Myths and Lies

I recently stumbled upon this re-enactment (HT: Theater of the Word) of the fateful conversation in 1931 between J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis which led to the latter’s conversion to Christianity (P.S. – for those who don’t know, Lewis’ nickname among his friends was “Jack”):

Thank the Lord that in His providence he arranged for these two men to become friends! Our world is so much richer for their work.

Their friendship is fascinating to read about. If you’re interested, here is a great article about it, and here is another which is more specifically about the conversation portrayed in the video. Colin Duriez has written a book about their friendship (Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship), and the relationship also plays heavily in The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind the Lord of the Rings by Peter Kreeft (my review).

A feature-length film (“The Lion Awakes”) is now also in the works, which will hopefully bring this story to a broader audience. Here is the trailer:

The Englishness of English and the Nature of Nature

I’m currently working my way through C.S. Lewis’ book Miracles for the second time. It’s tougher reading than most of his stuff, but I think I’m following it a little better this time around!

In one of my favorite sections in the book — which presents a philosophical argument for the existence of the Supernatural and the possibility of miracles — Lewis says that before he became a believer, one of his biggest hangups with belief in the Supernatural was “a deep repugnance to the view of Nature which, as I thought, Supernaturalism entailed”. In other words, he thought that to be a Christian he would have to think poorly of Nature.

Once he became convinced of the existence of God, he found that, on the contrary, he actually came to have a higher view of Nature than he’d had before. I love the way he explains why this is:

The Englishness of English is audible only to those who know some other language as well. In the same way and for the same reason, only Supernaturalists really see Nature. You must go a little away from her, and then turn round, and look back. Then at last the true landscape will become visible. You must have tasted, however briefly, the pure water from beyond the world before you can be distinctly conscious of the hot, salty tang of Nature’s current. To treat her as God, or as Everything, is to lose the whole pith and pleasure of her. Come out, look back, and then you will see… this astonishing cataract of bears, babies, and bananas: this immoderate deluge of atoms, orchids, oranges, cancers, canaries, fleas, gases, tornadoes and toads. How could you ever have thought this was the ultimate reality? How could you ever have thought that it was merely a stage-set for the moral drama of men and women? She is herself. Offer her neither worship nor contempt. Meet her and know her. If we are immortal, and if she is doomed (as the scientists tell us) to run down and die, we shall miss this half-shy and half-flamboyant creature, this ogress, this hoyden, this incorrigible fairy, this dumb witch. But the theologians tell us that she, like ourselves, is to be redeemed. The ‘vanity’ to which she was subjected was her disease, not her essence. She will be cured in character: not tames (Heaven forbid) nor sterilised. We shall be able to recognise our old eneny, friend, playfellow and foster-mother, so perfected as to be not less, but more, herself. And that will be a merry meeting.

Combing the Net – 7/5/2012

Malware May Knock You Off the Internet Monday — The FBI estimates that tens of thousands of Americans will lose Internet service on Monday due to a malicious computer infection. And unlike many similar warnings that appear on Facebook all the time, this one’s legitimate… it’s Snopes verified! Hopefully you haven’t been affected (NEVER download “free” programs off the Internet!), but you can check to be sure by clicking over to this website set up by the FBI. If it comes up green, you’re good to go.

The Awfulness of Classical Music Explained — I can’t tell you how much I love this article! The Managing Director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic says that classical music concerts are too boring… and he’s right! With all the “‘clap here, not there’ cloak-and-dagger protocols to abide by” is it any wonder that orchestras have a difficult time attracting new audiences? He argues compellingly that the problem isn’t the music itself; people listen to orchestra music today more than ever… they just don’t enjoy the theater experience. Besides… music is intended to provoke a response in the listener. Why stifle that response?

I don’t think classical music was intended to be listened to in this way. And I don’t think it honors the art form for us to maintain such a cadaverous body of rules… One step therefore we might take to make classical music less boring again is simply for audiences to quit being so blasted reverential.

He Never Said That — One of my biggest pet peeves is the use of “apocryphal” quotes, which are sayings commonly attributed to someone who never actually said them. One of the most famous are variations on “Preach the gospel at all times, if necessary use words“, usually attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. This article looks at a fake C.S. Lewis quotation: “You don’t have a soul. You are a Soul. You have a body.” You might also like to click over to this Mere Orthodoxy article which goes in to more detail.

Every year on July 4, the Internet is filled with patriotic/nationalistic posts. I made a point not to read any of them yesterday (one of the reasons I skipped making a “Combing the Net” post), but did want to highlight a few that stood out as being exceptional:

The Idea of America — Kevin DeYoung on why the ideas upon which America was founded are worth celebrating:

I understand the dangers of an unthinking “God and country” mentality, let alone a gospel-less civil religion. But I also think love of country–like love of family or love of work–is a proximate good. Patriotism is not beneath the Christian, even for citizens of a superpower.

Should Churches Display the American Flag in Their Sanctuaries? — Three views on a sometimes touchy subject. While I have strong sympathy for Douglas Wilson’s position (“No”), I probably resonate more with Russell Moore’s (“Fly It Responsibly”):

Removing a flag doesn’t remove the tendency to idolatry or triumphalism; it just leaves such things unaddressed and untroubled. If a congregation already has a flag in the sanctuary, the first step might be for the pastor to use it as an object lesson in a right-ordered patriotism.

The flag can prompt the church to pray for and honor leaders. The flag can prompt us to remember that national identity is important but transitory. There will come a day when Old Glory yields to an older glory, when the new republic succumbs to a new creation. Until then, let’s reorder all our affections, including our flag-waving. But let’s do so maintaining the paradoxical tension of “resident aliens.” There is no need to play “Rapture the Flag.”

Place, Patriotism, and Sensucht — Reflections on C.S. Lewis’ thoughts on patriotism from The Four Loves.

Patriotism is a good thing. It’s the natural emotional connection we have with place. We’re wired to ache for this notion of “home.” It’s what the Israelites longed for in the Sinai. It’s what the Hobbits longed for (the Shire) during their Middle Earth adventures. It’s what constitutes part of C.S. Lewis’sSehnsucht: a nostalgic longing for the “Green Hills” of his Belfast childhood, “the low line of the Castlereagh Hills which we saw from the nursery windows.”

…Ultimately my fondness for “home” and all of its nostalgic resonances–Gettysburg, Old Faithful, college football tailgating, Norman Rockwell, Kansas City barbecue, cherry cobbler–should point me heavenward, stirring my heart but not satisfying it, stoking the fires of Sehnsucht just as the Irish green hills did for Lewis.

Did You Hear What Happened in San Diego Last Night? — Last, but not least, some fun (at others’ expense) is in order! Everyone complaining about a lack of fireworks due to the drought should get a good laugh out of this SNAFU from the San Diego fireworks show, which inadvertently set off ALL the fireworks at once, condensing an 18-minute show into a 15-second fireball:

Combing the Net – 6/4/2012

50 Marathons in 50 Days — And I thought marathon runners were insane when they only ran one!

What Speed Do You Read? — Here’s a fun little timed test to see how you measure up. Be sure you don’t skim, though… you’ll be tested on your comprehension!

Where Do Sex Slaves Come From? — Sex trafficking is a lucrative business, as displayed in this small Mexican town which supplies  New York City with a steady stream of women seduced or coerced into prostitution.

Five Secrets Pastors Refuse to Tell — Anonymous confessions that give insight into the lives of the men God gives as shepherds for His bride.

Marriage Advice from Ronald Reagan — A 1971 letter from the future president to his son Michael, days before his wedding. There’s some wise counsel here, but here’s hoping you benefit more than Michael, as his marriage lasted only a year. (HT: Z)

C.S. Lewis on Queen Elizabeth II — The British author’s reflections on Elizabeth’s coronation, the anniversary of which came over the weekend. Here is some archive footage of the ceremony, the first coronation ever televised: