“Looking comes first.”

“Looking comes first.”

Several months ago, I reread my old copy of C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce for a chapter in my forthcoming book on the Christian imagination (Now submitted!).

Lewis’ tale is a creative recasting of heaven, hell, and purgatory—all couched in a dream sequence—that allows him to demur (though not entirely convincingly) that he has no intention of “speculating” on the details of the afterlife. (Nonsense; but I’ll save that for another time.)

One of the more convicting encounters in The Great Divorce involves a famous artist who visits heaven and responds with awe: “I should like to paint this!”

Unfortunately, it is precisely this desire (to depict heaven rather than experience it) that will cause him to depart willingly for hell.

Then the money quote:

Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from love of the thing he tells, to love of the telling till, deep down Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him (85).

I don’t know about poets, musicians, and artists—but this is darn sure true of preachers.

As proof, I found this note, scrawled in my handwriting from freshman year of college.

Great Divorce pic.jpeg

The command given to the ambitious artist is simple: “Looking comes first.”

There is nothing wrong with painting, describing, depicting Beauty.

Fine. Good. Do it.

But put down your brush, for a moment—Look first.

Let’s not be tour guides for a land we no longer inhabit.

The Kingdom has no need of expats trading legal residence for commentary and holiday excursions.

“…if you are interested in the country only for the sake of painting it, you’ll never learn to see the country.”

“At present your business is to see. He is endless. Come and feed.”

Amen.

 

 


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Red in Tooth and Claw (pt 3)

Red in Tooth and Claw (pt 3)

You will find HER between Bambi and René Descartes.

That’s my mantra in this third installment in a series on animal suffering and the goodness of God. (Read posts one and two if you’re late to the carnage.)

My point here is that one cannot speak to the relative goodness or evil of animal predation until one first determines the extent to which animals actually do suffer.

To adopt what I’ll call a “Bambi perspective” is to overemphasize the continuity between animal and human experience. While to follow Descartes is to underappreciate the extent to which animal pain does seem—at least in some instances—to approach what one may call a “suffering” that raises questions for theology.

Now for the specifics.

1. CARTESIAN CALLOUSNESS

One option in this discussion is to side with René Descartes (1629–1649) in denying the very existence of animal “suffering.”

Descartes’ view was that animals were nothing more than soulless biological machines (automata), devoid of emotion, higher thought, and suffering. This belief led him to perform cruel experiments, including the torture and vivisection of live dogs, to observe their inner “machinery.”

Given today’s standards, this view may (rightly) seem both foolish and barbaric. To take just one example, I have watched what I take to be reliable footage of, say, elephant mothers grieving, sometimes to death, after the loss of a calf. These are not emotionless machines.

Still, one need to not go all the way with Descartes in order to adopt some version of the view that animals do not genuinely suffer. C. S. Lewis famously attempted this in his book The Problem of Pain. In fairness, Lewis was a lover of animals who even campaigned against vivisections. Still, his claim was that while an animal’s nervous system may deliver all the “letters” A, P, N, I – they do not “build it up into the word PAIN” because they lack the consciousness to reflect upon it as genuine subjects.

It is not obvious why Lewis thinks this is so, and later science has tended to disagree with him, even if it is true that animals do not suffer to the extent that humans do (For the scientific argument, see Michael Murray, Nature Red in Tooth and Claw, ch. 2: “Neo-Cartesianism”).

2. SENTIMENTAL BAMBI-IZING

An equal and opposite extreme to the Cartesian denial of animal suffering is the sentimental anthropomorphizing of non-human creatures (“Bambi-izing”). This error is at least partly fueled by cartoons, books, and movies in which the animals are “just like us, only more so.”

Examples of “Bambi-i-zation” (I consulted an English professor on that one) may be found on the radical fringe of the animal rights movement in which little or no distinction is made between the value of, say, a human baby and that of a sea turtle or a golden retriever.

It may also happen in a bizarre form of “forced veganism,” in which some pet owners are now feeding their unfortunate housecats “vegan pet food” in an attempt to be humane. To be clear, I have nothing against “vegan humans” (they sound delicious), but when forced on felines, the diet has an unintended consequence: the cats go blind and die.

Finally, a subtler form of Bambi-izing may be at work in the likes of Richard Dawkins. In the opening post (here), I ended with a famous quote from Dawkins’ River out of Eden:

The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation.

Dawkins then goes on to describe a veritable holocaust outside our doors:

During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease.

The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.

To be clear, Dawkins is not wrong about the rasping, running, and devouring. But he is certainly imbalanced when he presents the created order as (seemingly) ONLY one big  bloodbath.

In fact, his work on “selfish genes” has now been roundly criticized by other biologists who point out the importance of cooperation, creaturely altruism, and even something approaching self-sacrifice within the animal realm (see esp. Martin A. Nowak).

The danger in only emphasizing the violent “Redness” of creation is that we invariably place ourselves in the “furry heads” of animals. We invariably–because of human empathy–“walk a mile in their ‘hooves’,” and in so doing we may exaggerate the full extent to which animal pain and suffering is like that experienced by humans.

The big idea is this: Both Cartesian callousness and sentimental Bambi-izing should be avoided.

CONCLUSION

Try as we might, we can’t know what it’s like to be an animal; thus we can’t know the full extent to which animals suffer. My hunch, however, is that “She” (that is, the truth) “lies somewhere between Bambi and René Descartes.”

Some animals do seem to experience life in such a way that the language of “suffering”—and perhaps “evil”—is appropriate, even while they do not suffer in the same way as humans.

If that is true, then the question of animal suffering and divine goodness is legitimate.

In the next post, I’ll come to a possible solution.

 


I’m considering this topic for a forthcoming book that is under contract with IVP Academic.

The work deals with the place of speculation in Christian theology.

Look for it (hopefully) in late 2020.

 

Winking at the Devil

Winking at the Devil

Every story needs a villain.

And in much of the Christian tradition, that character is unquestionably the devil.

In recent days, I’ve been focusing my energy on a non-blog-related project: a book on the atonement. And the present chapter has to do with Satan.  This sounds like a strange topic for the Christmas season. Yet the Scriptures connect it explicitly with Christ’s coming.  As 1 John writes:

“The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work” (3.8).

Yet while belief in God is quite common throughout our culture, belief in Satan does not rank nearly so highly.

As the late Walter Wink put it, the demonic is “the drunk uncle of the twentieth century.” We keep them out of sight.  And we don’t talk about them at dinner parties.  As he goes on:

Nothing commends Satan to the modern mind. [He is] a scandal, a stone of stumbling, a bone in the throat of modernity.

As evidence, a recent Barna survey indicated that around half of American Christians do not believe in the devil as a living being. Rather, they tend to see him as a mere symbol for profound evil.

REVIVING “OLD SCRATCH”

In response to this, Richard Beck, in his new book Reviving Old Scratch, describes the modern experience somewhat like the plotline from an episode of “Scooby Doo.”

STAGE ONE: At the beginning of every episode, whatever evil that had transpired was blamed on some sort of ghost or goblin. The supernatural was everywhere! And it was up to no good. Beck calls this Stage One, or the period of “enchantment.”

STAGE TWO: Yet after some investigation by Scooby and the gang, it was invariably discovered that the “ghost” was really “Old man Cringle” with a fog machine, a bed sheet, and some fancy voice modulation. Beck calls this Stage Two: the age of “disenchantment.” And as he argues, it has much to commend it. After all, science has shown that many ancient superstitions were just that.

STAGE THREE: Yet in Stage Three (not included in the Scooby Doo episodes), Beck argues that we need a kind of “re-enchantment” if we want to account fully for the pervasive nature of evil in this world. In his view, this is not a simple return to a belief in a demon behind every bush. But nor is it the peculiarly modern (white, wealthy, and western) superstition of full-fledged naturalism.

TWO DANGERS

In his own way, C.S. Lewis proposed something similar. As he wrote:

There are two equal and opposite errors into which [we] can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.

The unhealthy interest is encountered in various forms. One is the tendency we all have to demonize our opponents, detecting whiffs of sulfur in their presence. Case in point:

hitler

Or as Beck writes:

            We always smell sulfur around those we want to kill.

A second form of unhealthy interest comes when Christians use Satan as an excuse to cover their own faults.

Along these lines, I recall once being in a meeting in which serious allegations (and serious evidence!) were brought forth regarding misconduct. When confronted, one leader responded that “This is just Satan getting angry because we’re doing such good work!”

Sometimes sulfur masks our own scent.

Thirdly, Satan can be wrongly used as a tool to terrify people into compliance, as seen in the Christian cottage industry that springs up around Halloween to scare the “heck” out of unsuspecting sinners as they wander through a warehouse version of the afterlife.

Such moves confuse a love of Jesus with fear of torture.

Finally, an excessive interest in “the devils” can lead to a dualism that puts God and Satan on (almost) the same level. This is not the biblical portrait. For as Luther wrote of Satan–and perhaps enacted by hurling his ink well at the devil–“one little word shell fell him.”

LOVE IS AN EXORCISM

Yet while “excessive interest” carries pitfalls, unbelief does too.

It does nothing to stop the march of minions. For as Wink notes: Disbelief in Satan did little to prevent him running roughshod across corporate boardrooms and bloodstained battlefields throughout modernity.

What is needed, Wink suggests, is a kind of exorcism, though not the kind from horror movies.  In his words:

The march across the Selma bridge by black civil rights advocates was an act of exorcism. It exposed the demon of racism, stripping away the screen of legality and custom for the entire world to see.

What’s more:

The best “exorcism” of all is accepting love. It is finally love, love alone, that heals the demonic. “How should we be able to forget those ancient myths about dragons,” wrote Rainer Maria Rilke, “who at the last minute turn into princesses that are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave?”

CONCLUSION

In the end, Wink’s work (and even the above quote) shows forth certain faults. In particular, he demythologizes far more than I would, and his views on Christ, creation, and atonement are hardly biblical in certain respects.

Nonetheless, he did do the academy a great service by restarting the conversation on evil powers, and by showing how spirituality interlocks with political, psychological, and social forces of all kinds.

If you’re interested in reading more, try the following:

  • Walter Wink, Unmasking the Powers.(here)
    • An academic work, but very readable with vivid prose and applications.
  • Richard Beck, Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted. (here)
    • An easy-to-read popularizing of some of Wink’s ideas.

No one is called to “singleness” (reclaiming spiritual friendship)

No one is called to “singleness” (reclaiming spiritual friendship)

As many have noted, the modern church has sometimes treated “single” adults as we treat those with an unfortunate disease.

There is sympathy to be sure. And encouragement—perhaps in the form of a “small group” that also functions as the non web-based equivalent of e-Harmony.

But ultimately, the hope is to be cured of this unfortunate condition.

Here, the “gift” of singleness sounds somewhat like the gift of mononucleosis (though contracted differently).

Recently, however, some have proposed a recovery of Christian singleness as a sacred vocation.

After all, while many evangelical churches would never hire an unmarried Senior Pastor, folks like Jesus, Paul, Augustine, and John Stott seemed to do okay in ministry.

In short, it’s not just Catholics who have “strange” views on marriage and the ministry. We Protestant evangelicals have also bowed to a tradition that is rooted nowhere in the Bible.

Still, others suggest that the calling of “singleness” also carries problematic connotations if we do not pair it with the recovery of another calling.

A PERSONAL LETTER

In the recently released Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church, Wesley Hill shares part of a personal letter (with permission), sent from a friend:

It was a great relief to me to realize that if God is, in fact, calling me to a vocation of celibacy it does not mean I am called to “singleness.” God does not call anyone to singleness [as we conceive it in contemporary Western societies]. We are all created by God to live within kinship networks wherein we share daily life in permanent relationships.

The point here is that imagery of “singleness” carries connotations of a life lived as a Lone Ranger.

And this would have been news to many celibate ministers and missionaries (including Jesus) throughout Christian history.

EMACIATED FRIENDSHIP

Part of the problem, as C.S. Lewis long ago argued, is that our modern view of friendship has left us with an emaciated husk of the ideal.

While the ancients viewed friendship as among the highest of the loves, Freud argued that it could only be a disguised form of homosexual or heterosexual Eros.

Thus when folks from prior generations expressed deep (and even physical) affection for same sex friends, we moderns decided that everyone from Jesus (Jn. 13.23) to Abraham Lincoln was really a closeted homosexual.

Not so, says Lewis.

While homosexual relationships certainly existed throughout history, the claim is that we moderns often read them into the lives of people who simply had deeper friendships than us.

(After all, Facebook is a relatively new invention.)

Lewis then goes on to distinguish Freud’s romantic love from amicitia:

“Eros will have naked bodies; Friendship naked personalities.”

While some might disagree slightly with such a firm distinction (see again Hill in Two Views), the point is not merely to differentiate two types of love.

RECLAIMING SPIRITUAL FRIENDSHIP

The goal is also to reclaim deep and abiding spiritual friendship as an alternative to the false choice between either marriage or abiding lonesomeness.

God may call some to celibacy, Hill says, but he calls no one to “singleness” in the sense of a lonely and isolated pattern of living.

In short, we must reclaim spiritual friendship in the pattern of Jesus.

 

Saving Bacchus: How C.S. Lewis redeemed the pagan god of wine and wild parties

Saving Bacchus: How C.S. Lewis redeemed the pagan god of wine and wild parties

Recently, I’ve begun reading The Chronicles of Narnia to my daughters. You must do this as a Christian parent, or you forfeit your credentials. So I comply.

Fortunately, Lucy and Penelope love the books, and I’ve enjoyed the change from Disney princesses whose primary aim is to meet a man and live in a castle.

We just finished Prince Caspian, and near the end, Aslan arrives to help the Narnians. In gratitude, the spirits of the trees begin to dance, and all the creatures join together in a raucous celebration. It’s basically a rave, minus the Molly and the techno.

The party is led by a figure known as Bacchus.

He appears as

a youth, dressed only in a fawn-skin, with vine-leaves wreathed in his curly hair. His face would have been almost too pretty for a boy’s, if it had not looked so extremely wild. You felt, as Edmund said when he saw him a few days later, “There’s a chap who might do anything – absolutely anything.”

self-portrait_as_the_sick_bacchus_by_caravaggio

WHO IS BACCHUS?

Unbeknownst to my daughters, Bacchus (also called Dionysus) is the pagan god of wine, fertility, and wild parties. The Latin translates to “Kardashian.”

For the Greeks, his symbol was the phallus, and he was accompanied by a throng of women, the Maenads, who danced and sang around him. The Maenads also make the trip to Narnia.

As Lewis writes:

Bacchus … and the Maenads began a dance … and where their hands touched, and where their feet fell, the feast came into existence.

Thus Aslan feasted the Narnians till long after the sunset had died away, and the stars had come out … And the best thing about this feast was that there was not breaking up or going away, but as the talk grew quieter and slower, one after another would begin to nod and finally drop off to sleep with feet towards the fire and good friends on either side.

It sounds fantastic. Yet the question is why Lewis decided to have the pagan Bacchus lead the celebration of the Christ-cat.

The fundamentalist internet knows why.

INTERNET OUTRAGE! 

It turns out, C.S. Lewis was a closet pagan, whose true desire was to turn your children into tiny Satanists. It’s true; I read it on a blog with multi-colored font (see: “homemakerscorner.com”). And who could doubt it, for as the blogger writes:

What Lewis is describing here is nothing other than a Bacchanalian orgy!

(Well, yes, minus the sex.)

The post goes on:

C.S. Lewis was a master of combining … heathen myths to develop his plots. Worst of all, this is for children! … It’s too bad nobody ever explained to him the consequences of such behavior. … Perhaps he would not have cared. Perhaps he had a known “calling” for his father the devil which he was willingly fulfilling.

And “homemakers corner” is not alone.

A quick Google search finds many sites, some even with monochrome font, decrying Lewis’ debauchery, his paganism, and what’s worst: his similarity to J.K. Rowling (*makes sign of the cross).

So why did Lewis do this?

SAVING BACCHUS

Three points:

First, it is clear that Bacchus’ Narnian revelry has been reformed in crucial ways. Thus there is no mention of sexual looseness, drunkenness, or pagan worship.

Second, it is also clear that Lewis’ view of the party god is hardly uncritical, for he has Susan say to her sister:

I wouldn’t have felt very safe with Bacchus and all his wild girls if we’d met them without Aslan.

Third, and quite important, is Lewis’ belief that even paganism got certain things right about the divine, even though they got other things dreadfully wrong (See Till We Have Faces; also Paul in Acts 17).

Indeed, what the Maenads knew, far better than Ned-Flanders-Christianity (TM), is that with the divine comes festival joy. Consider, for instance, how many of Christ’s parables involve parties. And consider also the critiques of Pharisees against him.

Thus, one of Lewis’ goals throughout his writings is to show that true delight is not tamped down, but rather found in Jesus. As he famously wrote in The Weight of Glory:

It would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

Given this, Lewis’ point is not to elevate the Greek god of parties, but to show that true mirth is found in Aslan’s presence.

As I heard someone say once:

I seriously doubt that Christians will have much to say to the world until we can learn to throw better parties.

That’s true, and it has nothing to do with embracing drunken licentiousness. 

LORD OF THE WINE

But why use Bacchus?

This, of course, is the objection from the rainbow-fonted internet.

Why not create a less phallo-centric mythological creature to deliver this lesson, like a talking cucumb… (okay, bad example) tomato, a talking tomato?

newer-larryboy-larry-the-cucumber-veggietales-30496594-186-216

One last point:

Interestingly, it may be that the selective nod to Bacchus was not original to Lewis.

It may trace back to Christ himself.

In John 2, Jesus’ first miraculous sign is not the healing of a leper, the raising of the dead, or the restoration of lost sight. Instead, it is the creation of over 120 gallons (!) of the headiest wine imaginable—enough to overflow three bathtubs—and this, to keep a dying party from going dry.

There is much symbolism here, but as Tim Keller notes in the best sermon I have heard on the text (here), one intended echo may have been the Dionysian tales of the hills running with wine and revelry.

In this miracle, Christ was showing himself to be the true Lord of the Wine, and the true bringer of festival joy.

This matters, as Keller says, because most people reject Jesus for the wrong reasons. They do so, because they fear that it will cost them mirth. Yet as both the Psalmist and the Maenads knew, in the presence of the divine

“there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16).

And while one may say this with a talking tomato, I prefer Lewis’ approach.