Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian DoctrineLetters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine by Dorothy L. Sayers

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This collection of sharp witted and sharp tongued essays from the brilliant 20th century poet, playwright and social commentator Is Dorothy Sayers at her best. Each essay is a concise, perceptive and incisive examination of the topic at hand. The collection begins with a number of essays addressing the inherent power, beauty, and interest that is the Christian story. She traces this power and beauty not merely to the story itself, as might be the case with any world mythology, but rather to the person of Jesus Christ himself. She contrasts that power and beauty with the dilution of dogma which was even in the mid 20th century wreaking havoc on the church of England. “If all men are offended because of Christ, let them be offended; where is the sense of there being offended at something that is not Christ and there’s nothing like him? We do him singularly little Hunter by watering down his personality tell it could not of found the fly. Surely it is not the business of the church to adapt Christ to man, but to adopt meant to Christ.”

Later in the book several essays are included on the value of work, particularly seen through the lens of the enforced privations of the second World War. Her insights into the economic roots of the war, and the social and spiritual forces that conspired to bring back economic situation to pass, are very germane to our own time. Also included is an essay on the nature of God as a creator and implications for human artists in the addressing of human problems. This essay is incisive and worth reading in its own right, but is better read along with her further thinking on the relation between human creation and the inner life of the Trinity, in her other collection, “The Mind of the Maker.” Various other essays cover topics such as literary criticism of allegory, and the treatment of the devil has a character in literature.

This book represents a tour de force of Dorothy Sayers social thought, as well as her wit and knack for creative explanation. Covering, as it does, so many areas of potent interest, this book is a must read for any thinker.

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The Personal Heresy: A ControversyThe Personal Heresy: A Controversy by C.S. Lewis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is a debate between two great 20th century scholars of English Literature, C. S. Lewis and E. M. W. Tillyard, conducted in the form of a series of essays on the subject of what Lewis dubbed “The Personal Heresy.” Simply put, this is the assertion that literary criticism (and by extension the criticism of other arts, although they are not deeply addressed) should aim at a contact with the personality of the writer (or artist), and that the corpus of a writer’s works, taken as a whole, may be said to be an indication of the writer’s personality. Dr. Tillyard wrote in defense of this proposition, and Mr. Lewis wrote in opposition to it.

Tillyard’s arguments revolved around defining what he meant by personality (“A fixed pattern of mind”) and showing by various examples that this could be observed in poetry. He then argued that the “fixed pattern of mind” of poets and other great personalities, such as artists, statesmen, etc. were demonstrably higher and more worthy than that of most ordinary men, and that the purpose of reading great literature was to spend time in the company of such outlooks and patterns of thought, so that by extension, imitation and perhaps just mere contact, the personalities of common folk might come to resemble those of greater minds.

Lewis’ argued to the contrary that the purpose of a work of literature was that literature itself and had nothing to do with the artist’s biography or pattern of mind. The work of art existed to communicate an idea, usually something ineffable and resistant to ordinary means of communication. The writer, and more specifically the poetic writer, captures this idea, or experience, or emotion by the use of the techniques and skills proper to the craft, so that it may be apprehended and grasped by others. From this he argued two propositions: firstly that it was not the poet or his state of mind that was the object to be communicated, but rather some third thing. Thus, when most nearly approximating the poet’s point of view, the reader is most definitely not looking at the poet, but rather through the poet’s eyes at whatever the poet is looking at, seeing it the way the poet does.But it was the thing looked at, the object of the poem, that was the main thing, and criticism ought to be concerned with how well or ill the poem expressed the thing. He also argued that a poet’s outlook, personality and “pattern of thought” was not a fixed part of his personality, but a technique that the poet used, partly through learning, partly through instinct, and partly through trial and error. It was not some quirk of the poet that was expressed but rather something common to all, some feeling or experience or idea that all or most people have, but which they are usually unable to express. (Lewis did allow for the ability of poets to create a reaction, thought or outlook in the reader de novo, but again as the sharing of some object rather than as a sharing of personality.

After reading the book I agree with some points of both. I agree in the main with Lewis, that art is, or rather ought to be, an act of communication of some third thing with a reader or viewer. Because of this, when we see most clearly what the artist is seeing, we are seeing him least. However, sometimes one of the things that the artist may be looking at is himself. I would argue that this is an inferior sort of art. The higher the art, the higher the object looked at, and the more the self of the artist vanishes in the appreciation, communication or even the adoration (in the case of religious and/or erotic art) of the thing looked at. However, Tillyard’s positions have become a self-fulfilling prophesy in a sense. If critics look for the personality behind the works, that is, look for the artist, and teach the average reader to do the same, then eventually artists begin to think that that is what is proper to art (I am speaking in gross generalizations here) and begin to create art whose purpose is to “express themselves.”

Finally, I agree with Tillyard that one of the main purposes of exposure to fine art is to shape one’s mind and personality by contact with that art. This has been a theme at least since Plato’s Republic. Where I would differ with Tillyard is in identifying the poet per se as the one that we wish to be in contact with rather than with his or her ideas. Thus, one can appreciate the poetry and art of a thoroughgoing rotter, and even be enobled by it, without the least bit of approbation for their misdeeds or mistaken beliefs. The plays of Robert Bolt come to mind as an example of someone whose philosophies might have been mistaken, but whose communication of an object (i.e. St. Thomas More) was so faithful and loving that it is uplifting and ennobling. In this view the artist is reduced (in the logical rather than the pejorative sense) to a vehicle for something greater than himself and it is that something else that we attend to when we read the art, rather than the artist.

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Dorothy Sayers undertakes an explication of the Trinitarian nature of God by analogy with the trinitarian manifestation of the creative mind as experienced by human artists. She describes the Idea as the unifying principle of a work of art, the Energy as the manifestation of that Idea in matter (i.e. the actual creation of the work of art), and the Power as the reception of the work of art as a finished object in comparison with the Idea; and she analogizes them to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit respectively. Without pretending that this is a comprehensive explanation of the mystery, she insists that it is no more unclear or incorrect than any of the other more technical or familiar explanations, and indeed that all explanations, even the most technical and least imagistic, must finally be acknowledged to be merely analogies.

From this platform she examines various aspects of the creative process, creating an in-depth and insightful overview of human creativity and art, while at the same time invoking a meditation on the Blessed Trinity and points of contact between that (popularly considered) “ethereal” dogma, and the real life that Trinitarian theologians are most accused of overlooking. Her chapter topics range from what makes art good or bad, defects in the writing process leading to defective writing, how the sublime Idea survives transformation into a limited sensory medium, the contrast between the artistic and scientific worldviews, and some implications of the contrast on social debates about work and employment.

This is a book to be engaged with fully, to be read with an open and receptive, but also critical, mind. The penultimate chapter on the problem/solution hermeneutic alone is well worth weeks of study and conversation. However, I do not recommend skipping to any particular chapter until you have read the whole book through as the chapters proceed in a stepwise and cumulative fashion.

51rtvb9vifl-_sy344_bo1204203200_Tonight I started reading “Winnie-the-Pooh” aloud to Evie. The book was a gift from Evie’s Godmother, Danica. Perhaps it’s a bit of an ambitious project? I mean, she just turned one year old. How much of the book is she going to remember?

But then again, it isn’t really about her remembering. The gift of the book and a few days of downtime gives me an opportunity to take advantage of one of the most important perks of having kids. That is, the opportunity to revisit your own childhood.

I know I’m not alone in this. Most of the young parents I have known have said at one time or another, “Oh,  can’t wait until they are old enough to (insert fondly remembered formative experience) together.” I think it is a natural part of being a parent, this desire to share the things that were most important to us as kids. I suppose it is an extension of the desire to give good things to our kids, the best things in fact. We each seize on the best things that we have to offer and look forward to the day when we can pass them on to our kids. For some that is the classic video games that they played (Mario Bros or what have you). For others it is their favorite movies (Star Wars, the Princess Bride, classic Disney films). For Kathleen that is skiing, the Swiss Park and road trips.

For me it is books.

I have always had shelves upon shelves of my favorite books from my childhood, even when I was living in the old bachelor pad.

Winnie-the-Pooh, the Chronicles of Narnia, Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Treasure Island, Doctor Seuss, The Lord of the Rings, Wind in the Willows, 20,000 Leagues Below the Sea, and too many, far too many to list here.

I wonder whether there is something more there than mere nostalgia. We have all found, I am sure, that revisiting old pleasures to recreate the original feel doesn’t usually work. When I read Winnie-the-Pooh now it is not with the simple delight of an eight-year-old boy delighting in the adventures of a silly old bear stuffed with fluff. I am bigger than I was, my mind is broader, sharper and more exact. My context is larger. The story connects in a hundred ways that it could not have connected as a child (I relate more to the narrator than to the characters, for one thing). Nostalgia doesn’t work. Reading to kids is a new thing, not the old pleasure. But the old pleasure is still contained in the new, especially when I can give a child the same joy of discovery that I had in getting lost in a great yarn.

But there is still another level in which I think that the perk of reliving our childhood to a certain extent is important. I am well past the intellectual level of Winnie-the-Pooh, by now. That is, I can understand much more difficult, deep and nuanced literature. I can read things for pleasure that would have been an impossible chore when I first read Winnie-the-Pooh. This growth is natural and necessary, and in fact if I was still reading exclusively or primarily children’s books, there would definitely be a problem.

However, greater learning and intellectual ability come with their own set of pitfalls, the worst of which is snobbishness. The second most dangerous, for anyone charged with teaching, is that of despising the lower. I have spent 30 years reaching my current level and I will spend the next 30 years growing still more. There is a temptation when I teach to try to get the students to skip those 30 years and all the childish things that I occupied so much of my life with. I have slowly and laboriously worked out a certain sense of good and bad, valuable and meaningless. Along the way I have let go of a lot of stuff that I once thought of as valuable, because I learned that it really wasn’t that important.

54882277be6e9a3df813b162af5be9a1I have far less use for movies than I used to. Books are better. It is tempting to want other people just to learn from my mistakes, as it were, and just go straight for the more valuable and skip all the rest of it.

It doesn’t work. In much the same way that trying to coach someone to lift too hard and heavy too quickly is the surest way to cause injuries and burnout and stunt their long term strength gains, so trying to force a child to skip the childish and go straight for the more mature is likely to stunt them at an artificial level for a very long time.

Note, this is not the same thing as saying that any thing kids like is valuable just because they like it, or that, for instance, cartoons and video games are as good for growing kids as reading Dr. Seuss and C. S. Lewis and running around outside. There are things that are helpful and valuable and easy, and things that are stupid and meaningless and easy, and I suspect discerning the difference is going to be one of the major challenges of parenting.

All that by way of saying that rereading children’s books as an adult, and at least to some extent actively sharing them with my kids is part of my spiritual growth strategy for the next twenty-odd years or so. It is one way that I plan on becoming like a little child.


And speaking of childhood classics…

“You told me to go back to the beginning! Well, I have.”

I am currently meandering my way through Happiness and Holiness: Thomas Traherne and his Writings by Denise Inges. Thomas Traherne was a clergyman in the Church of England in the 17th century (roughly 1636 – 1674). He was also a poet, theologian and religious writer. Only two of his works were published in his life, and he was set to be forgotten by all but the most obscure of scholars, until a series of chance circumstances brought to light manuscripts that had been hidden in junk piles, private collections and public libraries for centuries. One manuscript was literally pulled from a burning trash heap with the pages smoldering!

Denise Inge introduces his thoughts through his poetry and other writing, by topic rather than by work, which means that this book is not a collection of his works so much as it is an anthology. As such it is a little disappointing in places to have only bits and pieces, that go one only so long as he was addressing the particular topic that Ms. Inge is covering in that section. However, the tradeoff in terms of organization makes it worth it, as an introduction.

In the particular section I am reading today, Inge is discussing Traherne’s views on happiness, or “Felicitie.” Happiness is one of Traherne’s major themes. After graduating from university where he received he saw that there were instructors on every subject, “Logick, Ethicks, Physicks, Metaphysicks, Geometry, Astronomy, Poesie, Medicine, Grammar, Musick, Rhetorick, all kinds of Arts Trades and Mechanismes” but no instructor that professed to teach “Felicitie.” Since, in his view, happiness was the chief end of man this seemed altogether backwards and he resolved to set himself to the study of happiness, to know what it was and how it might be obtained.

Traherne’s views on happiness are somewhat foreign to our modern concept of it, instructively so. We moderns tend to think of happiness as a feeling. Things outside of ourselves give us happy feelings, and our business, the “pursuit of happiness,” if you will, is to grasp as many of those things that give us happy feelings. If we stop getting happy feelings, then we either do not have enough of those things, or those things are just not working for us anymore and we need to find new things that give us happy feelings. The implication is that if we are not happy it is the fault of the things.

For Traherne, happiness is something real and solid and objective. It is not feelings located in ourselves, but a reality that we pursue and conform ourselves to. Happiness in Traherne’s thought is something real and solid like a mountain. It does not adapt itself to us, we adapt ourselves to it, “All Things were well in their Proper Places, I alone was out of frame and had need to be Mended – for all things were Gods Treasures in their Proper places, and I was to be restored to Gods Image. Wherupon you will not believ how I was withdrawn from all Endeavors of altering and Mending Outward Things. They lay so well, methoughts, they could not be Mended: but I must be Mended to Enjoy them” (#60, Centuries of Meditations, III).

Happiness changes and transforms us by our search for it. The desire for it and the seeking after it are themselves a happiness greater than all the things in the world, because they are, finally, a hunger for God. He says, “A Sight of Happiness is Happiness. It transforms the Soul and makes it Heavenly, it powerfully calls us to Communion with God, and weans us from the Customs of this World” (#60, Centuries of Meditations, III).

His reasoning about happiness is endearingly direct, simple and childlike. He says:

“I was guided by an Implicit faith in Gods Goodness: and therefore led to the Study of the most Obvious and Common Things. For thus I thought within my self: God being as we generaly believ, infinit in Goodness, it is most Consonant and Agreeable with His Nature, that the Best Things should be most Common – for nothing is more Naturall to infinit Goodness,  then to make the Best Things most frequent; and only Things Worthless, Scarce.” (#53, Centuries of Meditations, III).

Guided by this logic he reasons that the most common things, such as air, light, bread, other people, water, sunlight, etc. are the most valuable things, while the rare items that humans prize, such as gold, silver, diamonds and jewels, are actually the least valuable.

After reading that passage I was impressed with the directness, the simplicity, but above all the beautifully childlike trust of that reasoning. It turns upside down our notions of what is and is not valuable, and why they are so. Here is philosophy informed by real holiness, trust of God, and intimacy with Him.

Pity about the Anti-Catholic writings, but other than that I find Traherne most beautiful, reasonable, and profound and I look forward to further reading.

Happiness does not change to suit us. We must be mended to suit Happiness. Happiness does not change to suit us. We must be mended to suit Happiness.

Thomas Traherne Windows at Hereford Cathedral Thomas Traherne Windows at Hereford Cathedral

“Magnanimity. It includes all that belongs to a Great Soul: a high and mighty Courage, an invincible Patience, an immoveable Grandeur which is above the reach of Injuries, a contempt of all little and feeble Enjoyments, and a certain kind of Majesty that is conversant only with Great things; a high and lofty frame of Spirit, allayed with the sweetness of Courtesie and Respect; a deep and stable Resolution founded on Humility without any baseness; an infinite Hope; and a vast Desire; a Divine, profound, uncontrollable sence of ones own Capacity, a generous Confidence, and a great inclination to Heroical deeds; all these conspire to compleat it with a severe and mighty expectation of Bliss incomprehensible.”

Thomas Traherne, Christian Ethicks, Ch. 28.