Search This Blog

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Mere Christianity by CS Lewis

  • "I hope no reader will suppose that "mere" Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions — as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else. It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall, I have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think preferable."  - CS Lewis
CS Lewis was arguably the most powerful Christian apologist of the twentieth century. For those not familiar with what an apologist does, please don't be confused. Lewis' work didn't do for Christianity what Barak Obama did for US foreign policy. Lewis did not apologize for Christianity, for what it was or for what it has done. Unlike Obama's abject apologies for America and its success, Lewis fiercely defended the cause of Christ against all comers.

CS Lewis, an unimposing Oxford don and teacher of English literature was an unlikely defender of the Christian faith. Irish-born Lewis, embittered by the loss of his mother at an early age and years in the increasingly agnostic English boarding schools of his early education, Lewis did a stint in the Army during the First World War. He spent time in a hospital after he was gassed by the Germans and treated to the full horrors of trench warfare. On recovery, he went back to school and finished his transition to confirmed atheism. He even published a book of poetry expressing his skeptical atheism and his unhappiness with Christianity as a system of thought.

Later, in part due to his friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien, a devout Catholic and later author of The Lord of The Rings, and fellow Inkling and firm Christian, Hugo Dyson, Lewis became a Christian. He had come to see that what he had earlier dismissed as plagiarism by Christianity was, in fact, convincing evidence that the Christian myth might actually be the truth after all. Lewis called himself "the most reluctant convert in all Christendom", but when he did convert, he came with all his heart and with all his not inconsiderable mind.

Mere Christianity is not a theological treatise. It conceives of Christianity as a whole as a great hall into which all are invited. He sets aside the problem of the multiple denominations into which Christianity is fractured as equivalent to rooms off the main hall. His purpose, he declares, is to bring you into the hall.

Inclusive brands of Christianity find much to applaud in Lewis' powerful arguments in favor of Christianity. Exclusivist Christian sects will no doubt condemn him in any place they can find him unorthodox. Lewis believed in Christ, not in sets of iron-clad doctrines. Like me, Lewis believed God to be powerful enough to find and save any honestly seeking Christian. While Lewis used magic as a metaphor for truth-seeking in his novels and books, he was not into mysticism as a shortcut to truth.

Lewis sought the truth in his Christian walk and where he was fuzzy on specifics, he sought to express the truth in metaphor and symbols. His clarity of reasoning where he is certain on a point, is stunning. I found myself reading his books and going, "Yes!" Exactly, what I thought. I just couldn't put it into the words I was looking for. Lewis' writing is dense, but not in the academic sense. He, rather, has the ability to thoroughly cover an idea in a comparatively short paragraph what many Christian writers spend chapters explaining not half so well.

Lewis is one of the most widely quoted Christian authors of the age. This is because his sentences convey such rich meaning in such a clear and succinct way. When you read Mere Christianity, Try to remember you are entering the great hall. Save having others for your theological lunch for the rooms "...where there fires and chairs and meals."

Highest marks for this ground-breaking book.

© 2017 by Tom King
© 2017 by Tom King

Friday, October 27, 2017

Haunted Honeymoon

The critics hated this movie, calling it "unfunny" and saying even Dom Deluise couldn't rescue it. Well, of course the critics didn't like it. There is no nudity in "Haunted Honeymoon". There are no grisly murders, no zombies, no vampires, and not once does someone use the "f-word" as an adjective.  It's a sweet silly romp with Gene Wilder, his irrepressible wife, Gilda Radner, and Dom Deluise. It's a story within a story possibly within a story and it's one of our favorites.

My wife and I simply love this movie and we watch it every Halloween along with a couple of other great old movies that I'll be reviewing later in the days leading up to the 500th anniversary of the day Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the chapel door (October 31) and gave the Catholic Church the heebie geebies for the next half a millenium. We are not fans of slasher films and avoid them at all cost. Unfortunately, at Halloween there's hardly anything else, so we watch the same three films every year with three of the funniest people ever - Bob Hope, Abbott & Costello, and Dom Deluise. Who needs to be deliberately frightened? Not this little black duck!

If you're a person who likes your movies clean and fun, this one is for you. It is guilt-free. You don't have to put a bag over your kids' heads even once during the movie. My favorite bit is the dance number with Gilda Radner and Dom Deluise in drag doing a wild version of Ballin' the Jack. The humor is not raunchy or mean and if you can bring yourself to laugh at screwball comedy without the aid of obscenities and bare behinds, you'll enjoy it.

It's a Halloween tradition with the Missus and me. It gets three pineapples from me. I don't care what the critics think!

© 2017 by Tom King

Monday, October 23, 2017

The Dark Tower by CS Lewis

Jack Lewis, Maureen Moore and the infamous Mrs. Janie Moore

Okay, by way of full disclosure, I'm a huge fan of CS Lewis.
So when I saw The Dark Tower,  a collection of unpublished short stories of his on Kindle, I snapped the book up. I was all set to enjoy the book. These stories, only a couple of which are complete, were saved from the burn pile by a friend of the family. After Lewis' death, his brother Warnie was cleaning out their home and busily burning papers in the backyard. Fortunately, several friends were helping him and managed to save some of Jack's papers including these stories.

That Jack, himself didn't seek to publish these stories tells you something. In reading these, I found myself looking at the kind of thing a graduate student would dive into while writing a doctoral thesis about some literary figure.

The stories are interesting. They impress me as a kind of personal unburdening by the highly logical and deliberate writer/professor/theologian he was. I understand why he didn't release these stories. I think they reflect a side of Lewis that he wasn't really happy with. Many of them were abandoned after his brief marriage to Joy Davidman Gresham and afterward, I don't think Jack felt quite the same way about women that he did before.

Joy Davidman Lewis and CS Lewis
His female characters in this story do not come out well. Some of them are truly horrific and the males in the stories seem put upon by the females in their lives. Given the situation in most of his home life, the stories seem to be a way for Lewis to valve off his resentment at Mrs. Moore, his housekeeper/dungeon master who made Lewis' life something of a misery by all accounts.

Lewis had promised a friend and fellow soldier that should he not return, Jack would "take care" of his mother. Jack did so until she died in 1951. He refused to talk bad about Mrs. Moore directly, even with his brother Warnie who describes her as a bully and generally unpleasant woman. It appears that the only complaint Lewis ever made about the domineering virago who made his home a kind of torture chamber for him was to cast terrible women as characters in his books and short stories. Mrs. Moore appears vividly in The Screwtape Letters as the woman about whom Screwtape says, “She's the sort of woman who lives for others - you can tell the others by their hunted expression.”

In almost every one of these unpublished stories, Lewis makes women out to be relatively shallow and unpleasant characters. In one it gets so bad that crew members abandon two of them on Mars to escape their attentions. I suspect Lewis knew he was perhaps being unfair to women in general. Lewis' tendency to self-examination may have prevented him from finishing or publishing these stories. I suspect he'd rather have had them left on the burn pile.

Not everything a writer writes is meant to be published. It's interesting to look at Lewis as he struggles with the concept of time and space, no doubt a subject of much discussion among Lewis and his fellow Inklings - a kind of men's club and refuge from Mrs. Moore that Lewis belonged to with JRR Tolkein and other notable scholars in his circle.

It's interesting to note that while Lewis was always a strong advocate and admirer of a kind of idealized traditional womanhood, he really didn't write much about romantic spousal love relationships in his work until he fell in love with Joy Davidman near the end of his life. The book is a nosey kind of peek into Jack Lewis' maturation as a writer complete with echoes of his personal life throughout. Graduate students desperate for a thesis subject may find this book illuminating. The comments by the books editors will be helpful. One thing, however, can be gained from this volume. If you're a well-known writer, there are some things you should probably go ahead and burn before you die.

I've decided to reread Lewis' other published works and kind of flush out this one. I feel like I've rifled through Lewis' desk drawers and dug around in his private journals. I've always been uncomfortable doing that.

© 2017 by Tom King

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Shadow Warriors by Bob Mayer

Section 8 is the lead-off novel in another one of Bob Mayer's action-thriller series - The Shadow Warriors. The book moves along at a brisk clip with all the military strategy, hardware and technology you expect from the genre. Section 8 is a good introduction to the Shadow Warriors series and I WILL be looking for sequels.

Mayer always makes me want to read more without doing that cheap trick where the story is left unfinished. All of Bob's novels are complete in and of themselves, but he draws his characters so well that you want to come back later and see how they are doing in the new sequel. 

Mayer knows his military hardware and tactics. He's a worthy successor to Tom Clancy against whom all action-adventure thriller writers will continue to be measured. Really nice work, Bob.

Two pineapples

© 2017 by Tom King

Operation Hail Storm by Brett Arquette

Brett Arquette's first outing in the Hail series makes me happy. I've been trying to find someone else to get my Tom Clancy fix from. Arquette may just be it. There are a couple of things that are a little awkward with the book. He does this thing where he backs up a scene and repeats the same scene from someone else's viewpoint. I get what he's trying to do, but it interrupts the flow of the story. It's the only flaw I could find.

That said, it's a thumping good story and unlike a lot of action-thrillers out there, Arquette doesn't lean on hard profanity and sex to advance the plot.
At least if any of that is in there I missed it. The story was compelling. It had all the military and techno-stuff of a Clancy novel and kept me glued to the page all the way to the end. I suspect Arquette is going to get better and better with each new novel. I'm really looking forward to his next one.

Congratulations on a great debut, Brett. I'm going to give it three pineapples for being a good story and for not using the f-wordand other such hard profanity and sex
as punctuation! Operation Hail Storm is just a good old action story like I like 'em.

© 2017 by Tom King

Saturday, October 7, 2017

The Railway Children

If I read a story to children, I want it to celebrate the goodness in people and I want it to have a happy ending. Elizabeth Nesbit's grand old story does all that. Some 21st century readers are kind of harsh in their criticism of these books. It's not layered with enough socialist principles, feminist ideals or criticism of all things corporations to suit them. The criticism is that the story is not "realistic".

With children's books, I will always allow a trip to fairyland idealism for the sake of the kids. Better they grow up on ideals than harsh realities in their bedtime stories. Let them learn the ideals first and when they are adults, they will have the ideals against which to judge the rightness of the harsh realities.
  • It is good that Nesbit made her country-folk fallible and at the same time willing to admit their failings. 
  • It's good that neighbors are shown being neighborly. Even Perks' pride is shown up for a flaw. 
  • It's good that the "old gentleman" is a decent man. He serves to remind us that not every successful man is an evil capitalist with no heart. 
I wonder sometimes if part of the reason so many successful businessmen seem so hard-hearted is because we have been propagandized by a generation of literature that inevitably characterizes them as evil and hard-hearted. Perhaps they merely oblige us, given that we expect them to be so horrible and rotten. Wouldn't it be better to expect more rather than less to whom great wealth and responsibility has been given? The kindly capitalist may be a myth in this day and age, though having met a lot of them in my work in philanthropy, I doubt this caricature is entirely accurate.

The Railway Children is a classic
Three Pineapples!
Remember what we all learned from Joseph Campbell. Myth is the great teacher. Perhaps we should enlist our myth-telling powers to lift up and inspire rather than to tear down and vilify. Especially in children's stories, I wonder whether or not we shouldn't expect more of our leaders and our successful people instead of settling for the old saying, "With the rich and powerful, always a little patience." Maybe we should stop being shocked when they turn out to be kindly and go back to being shocked when they show themselves to be brigands.

Just a thought.

© 2017 by Tom


Jack Gregson and the Forgotten Portal

Peter Wilson's debut novel in the Jack Gregson series of young adult/fantasy novels is pretty much standard wander-around-picking-up-magic-stuff sorts of fantasy novels. It comes off like a video game plot. Peter asked me to read and review this because he saw my review of The Chronicles of Narnia. I get a lot of requests for reviews from new fantasy authors because of my Lewis review.

People writing novels that borrow the magical elements like the doors to other worlds and evil witches idea from Lewis and earlier authors of fantasy for children, see the Narnia Chronicles as simple fantasy based on a cursory reading. I tend to disappoint them when I review the books.

Like most YA fantasy novels these days, Wilson's first Gregson novel has all the standard elements:
  • Magic doors to other worlds
  • Magic objects to be discovered
  • Puzzles to be solved
  • Magic families that protect the world from evil
  • Magical and fantasy creatures
  • Children who discover they have magical powers
  • The wise mentor 
  • The sinister relative
Magic doors and such were not new even in Lewis' time, nor were magical beasts, puzzles and special children. Unlike Lewis, however, the Jack Gregson tale is less strategic in how it uses these elements to advance the story. Lewis preserves the wonder, the dramatic tension and mystery throughout his tales, but he never makes magical solutions happen by accident. Even the visit of Father Christmas to the Pevensies in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" only happened because the witch's power to sustain winter was ending.

In Gregson, the magical stuff strains credulity, it comes so fast and furious. To be sure Wilson is busily setting up the sequels, but he falls prey to the new author's temptation to brush the magical paint in layers that are rather too thick. More is not necessarily better.

If you're a video-gamer, the book probably feels familiar in how quickly the magical stuff pops up and may serve to keep an ADD reader engaged. I think it's a mistake too many books in this genre make in that all that dense magical stuff doesn't encourage the reader to work harder for answers to his or her questions as the story runs along. Notice how slowly J.K. Rowlings advances the plot in the "Harry Potter" novels. If you've wondered why the kids don't use magic to solve every little problem at Hogwarts, it's because Rowlings understands how to use magic sparingly as a plot device. Her characters are deep and nuanced.  I kept hoping the Gregson clan would grow up a little during the book, but their development was unsatisfying.

You could see Wilson learning his craft as the book progressed. If you like this genre, keep an eye on Wilson. I think he could make a success of Jack Gregson. There's certainly an audience for it. I grew up in a different generation with somewhat longer attention spans, even though I have ADHD myself. Millenials probably will thoroughly enjoy these books. It does get a lot of five star ratings.

I'll be interested to see where Wilson goes with his next entry into the Gregson series.
Jack Gregson and the Forgotten Portal
gets one pineapple.

© 2017 by Tom King