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Articulating the Future While the World Collapses

November 26, 2008 Leave a comment

As reports of financial chaos echo through the world each day, we may begin to feel like Modern Romans watching our world collapse.

I still think the world collapsed about 90 years ago, and the collapse has been rippling across institutions and nations every since. The church’s initial response to a modern notion of progress that was built on an overconfident secular humanism was to turn inward, building a bulwark around the orthodox truths of our faith. I’m not just thinking about fundamentalism.

As the modern world forgot our past and assumed that we could do not wrong, men like G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis emerged to warn of the dangers of this blind pursuit of man’s unlimited potential. Chesterton (Apostle of Common Sense) and Lewis (Articulator of Mere Christianity) defended the past against a false future built on empty ideas of human progress that denied our need for grace (and God). In one sense, the church spent the 20th century defending the past and building fortresses around the past to protect it.

This was what the times required. But a few prescient thinkers, drawing inspiration from men like Chesterton and Lewis began to speak of the future, a Christian Future. Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy wrote and taught about articulating the future (and the cost associated with creating this future).

Two future thinker-actors were Augustine and Luther. They both lived at the end of an age. They articulated the future. When Augustine wrote “The City of God,” Rome was literally in flames due to invasions by tribal people (the terror may have felt much like the attacks from our terrorists today). He wrote that book when Rome was already a Christian empire and the pagans were accusing the Christians of the downfall of Roman power.

Augustine’s book was a defense of the faith, and in it he suggested that the city of man will never be perfect. It will never be the city of God. So all man’s system are doomed to fail until God finally establishes his city on the earth. Augustine’s ideas about the city of God inspired the people who came after him to rebuild the world that was falling apart.

The Roman empire never came back. But the empire eventually shifted into the image of Christendom when all of Europe was a Christian land. In some parts of Europe (United Kingdom, Germany, Netherlands, etc), barbaric tribal cultures were Christianized and eventually all shared a common culture and belief on the Lord. In spite of today’s bad press, there was much praiseworthy in this medieval world. (Just see Chesterton, Belloc, Lewis, Tolkien and others.)

But Christendom was not the final glory. It crumbled during the 14th and 15th centuries, leading to (or revealing) massive corruption in the church and a breakdown in the culture. In the mid to late 14th century many people were certain that the end of the world was at hand. But by the early 16th century, Martin Luther emerged to cast a new vision of what could be. (I realize that he was one voice among many. While not disparaging their contributions, he is the one who became the articulation of the future.)

His ideas led to the formation of the Protestant church, opened the door for massive developments in science, and eventually took shape in our democracy and the emergence of a modern world. (This is way oversimplified does not take into account many other significant developments.)

Now we live at the end of that world. Is it the end of time? I don’t know. If it’s not, then God will once again raise up voices who will proclaim the gospel in a way that will reshape the culture and the world. In the end, America may not look the same. It may not even be America. But God will do something glorious that will lead to a greater spread of his word.

As we acknowledge the bankruptcy of modern progress, we must move in step with what the times requires. The times require thinkers, writers, artists, musicians, and more to articulate a Christian Future.

The impetus is upon the people of God to proclaim the kingship of our Lord Jesus, and to create under subjection to His rule. The prophet who has always inspired me about creating the future is Ezekiel. He is forced to change from priest to prophet because the times required it.

From the land of exile, Ezekiel sees, eats, acts, and lives out his fantastic visions. He articulates a future Israel through word-act. We are being called to be a people who articulate the future through word-act. This often means being derided as crazy and schizophrenic like Ezekiel. We must not fear but step forward into the foolishness that will usher in a new world.

Our attempts to define every aspect of the end times has often short-circuited our ability to see forward. We’ve become like businesses who live from payroll to payroll or quarter to quarter. Rather, we must become people who live between the garden and the New Jerusalem, learning to see and hear more clearly. As we see and hear, we must speak-act the Word of the Lord.

We are people who live in between the times. Like Ezekiel, we know exile too well. And sometimes we grow bitter and weary in heart. But like Paul we press on for the high calling of God. And like John we keep our eyes on Jesus, the Alpha and Omega, the groom, the Lord of Glory who is coming for a people who are without spot.

Stories upon Stories upon Story

July 16, 2008 Leave a comment

Last weekend Rick Doughty, Brad Getz and I did a retreat on story. This was the second retreat in my series of retreats on wisdom. We started with Meditation upon the 10 Commandments, followed by The Wisdom of Stories (last weekend), then we’ll do “Acting Wisely: the Translation of Wisdom into our Active Life,” and finally we’ll conclude with “Creating the Future with Words of Wisdom.” These four retreats follow Eugen Rosenstock Huessy’s “Cross of Reality,” moving from inward (meditation) to backward (storytelling) to outward (active life) to forward (wise words).

A few thoughts recapping The Wisdom of Stories may follow in future blog posts. I’ll focus what I write primarily on the notes that I used in preparation although I may reference Rick and Brad’s thoughts as they come to mind.

Each person’s life is filled with stories. When asked to tell my life story, the answer might actually be, “Which one?” For I am moving and have moved in multiple stories. Whatever I tell you will be an extraction from the wide web of stories. My wide-ranging stories are within a context of a storied world. And then there are many contexts for stories. For instance, if I consider setting as the basis for context, my stories are set within the context of family and friends’ stories that are set withing the context of a communities’ stories set within the context of a culture’s stories set within the context of the stories of the Western World set within the context of The Story (of stories) – The Word of God.

Stories pivot on multiple points some of which include setting, characters, plots, words and lines, action, symbols and images, tone/mood and pace. Each of these pivots reveals a particular dynamic to a story. Some writers capture the essence of certain pivots better than others. Charles Dickens certainly masters characters and settings. While his plots are often intricate and delightful, I think his real genius lay in creating characters within settings.

Edgar Allen Poe and Nathanial Hawthorne captured mood. For me, the feeling captured in Young Goodman Brown is one of the richest aspects of Hawthorne’s dark tale. I personally think this is particular genius of M. Night Shymalan. His stories create a mood that overarches the story. Some critique the story or the characters but the mood is his real gift.

Pace is the tempo of the story. Some recent films have played with pace both increasing pace or decreasing pace to almost a motionless state (Into the Great Silence). Andrei Tarkovsky films slow down pace, which make his films almost unbearable for some people. At the retreat someone mentioned “Napoleon Dynamite” as a great example of a movie tinkering with pace. Good observation! This may be why the movie seems for some to have no point or no action. It’s capturing an almost suspended state of time. “Run Lola Run” is a great example of a film that goes the oppositie direction and is breathless in it’s movement forward. The Bourne films (like many action films) speeds pace to a blinding fury.

Pace makes me think of Louie Armstrong. I once heard Wynton Marsalis say that Louie’s great genius was in capturing the changing pace of the American life. America was moving from an industrial nation to a communications nations where life is non stop 24/7. Louie’s phrasing both with his coronet and his voice plays with pace.

Sometimes setting is the driving force. Gormenghast tells the tale of a castle with endless halls and twists and turns. The story cannot be extracted from the setting. E.M. Forrestor’s Howard’s End plays with setting (both social and physical) in his fateful tale of a house in the country where two women are connected by being joined to the place.

Think of the power of words and line in stories. They can leave the story and take on a life of their own. “I’ll Be Baaack!” or “Go Ahead, Make My Day” became cultural catch phrases used in everyday life to create new meanings. These trendy phrase might be contrasted with the genius of Shakespeare who gave the world words and lines that continue to drive the way we think and talk. Just consider a few of the following (with thanks to Absolute Shakespeare):

“Neither a borrower nor a lender be.”
“This above all: to thine own self be true”.
“Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t.”.
“Brevity is the soul of wit”.
“To be, or not to be: that is the question.”
“All the world ‘s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts”
“Can one desire too much of a good thing?”
“For ever and a day.”
“Now is the winter of our discontent”
“A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!”
“Off with his head!”
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

And the list of familar quotes goes on and on and on. We’ve used his quotes verbatim and we’ve altered them to create new meanings or new contexts, but the the quotes appear on the mouths of many people who’ve never read one line of Shakespeare. His words live on and shape the way we frame our world.

Sometimes an image becomes so striking within a story that the image like the lines above takes a life of it’s own. We speak of a “scarlett letter” as a public disgrace. Hitchcock took common everyday images and turned them into images of terror. Aladdin gives us the “magic carpet.” Pinochio gives us a nose that grows and grows. These images are extracted from stories and used on our everyday discourse to convey meaning and ideas. Sometimes is less than honest and we mention that their nose might be growing.

All the elements I’ve mentioend thus far (plots, settings, characters, words, lines, images, tone/mood, pace) are conveyed in stories and may be the pivotal element in a story that connects with us or speaks to us. We may not remember anything else from a story but the element that moved us. In fact, we can dislike a story while loving a single element that impacts us.

This impact may be called inspiration. Stories and their elements “in-spire” us. We breathe in their influence. We are in “spired” or in “spirited” by the power of the story. Just as we breathe in oxygen and it keeps us alive, we breathe in these elements and they shape the way we understand and communicate and act in our world. The “inspired” stories become a source of wisdom that shapes us and gives us insight in the midst of living.

In the past, I’ve written about Memory and Vision as the life span of a person. I think stories fundamentally capture the movement between memory and vision, extending from our own story to the stories around us to The Story (the Word of God). I contend like Chesterton that the Bible tells The Story and all other stories are subsets of this story. There is a movement of energy, of vitality, of spirit that moves between these stories. As I consider this movement, this conversation of stories, I might begin to think more deeply of the “Holy Spirit” breathing upon creation, but more on this later.

Joshua and the Flood

April 8, 2008 Leave a comment

18 Joshua made war a long time with all those kings. 19 There was not a city that made peace with the children of Israel, except the Hivites, the inhabitants of Gibeon. All the others they took in battle. 20 For it was of the LORD to harden their hearts, that they should come against Israel in battle, that He might utterly destroy them, and that they might receive no mercy, but that He might destroy them, as the LORD had commanded Moses. – Joshua 11:18-20

Warning: This is when I turn off a bunch of readers with my questions.

Reading through Joshua looks very similar to the pattern of the flood. The flood brings judgment to all living things with the exception of Noah et al. And God promises never to flood the earth in the same way again. But He doesn’t promise to restrain judgment.

The book of Joshua reads like a series of local, particularized floods, bringing judgment to entire cities and tribes. We read these passages with our arrogant, self-indulgent sense of morality (which when really weighed will hold no water*), and we cannot grasp the angry God who orchestrates such an event.

But another question might be asked, “Why does he hold back judgment for so long?” The pattern in Scripture and in history outside of Scripture seems to be that God shows mercy to the undeserving (such as Ninevah) in ways and for periods far longer than we would show mercy. His mercy is unfathomable, but His justice is sure.

* – C.S. Lewis’ “Till We Have Faces” is one great response to our empty self-righteous morality.

The Christmas Spirit

December 21, 2006 1 comment

I posted some more advent stuff over at Floydville this week. Here’s an excerpt from the latest:

Each year, I hear at least one person say, “Are you in the Christmas spirit?” Or another might say, “I just don’t feel like Christmas this year.” Year after year the refrain rolls on. I’m not always sure what the “Christmas spirit” is or feels like. But I think it has something to do with the anticipation and wonder experienced by many children.

Of course, most children live in a state of wonder from moment to moment. They might spend hours playing with their Christmas toys or they might spend hours playing with the boxes that held the Christmas toys.

Unfortunately most adults live in a world divorced from wonder, so naturally the Christmas spirit might seem elusive. Just as the anticipation of the tooth fairy, the hopes of finding a leprechaun, or the delight of a refrigerator box might also seem elusive.

Read the rest

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