What C.S. Lewis Means to Me

Clive Staples Lewis died today, November 22, in 1963. I simply cannot imagine what my life would be like if this man were not a towering figure in it. This past summer I tried to capture a little bit of the debt of gratitude I feel toward him when we gave our newborn son the middle name “Lewis.” One of the great pleasures I have right now is looking forward to telling Charlie Lewis about the professor whose name he bears, and what a wondrous world he let me enter.

I read Lewis for the first time in high school. Mere Christianity hit me like a battering ram of clarity and reasonableness; it gave a logical shape to the faith I (thought I had) inherited from my parents, but which seemed so often to not fit into the world around me. What Lewis gave me in Mere Christianity was not a mere step-by-step proof of Christianity, nor an unassailable list of “defeaters” for atheism. He gave me something infinitely more important: A reason to believe that the claims of Jesus Christ and the New Testament were reasonable and beautiful. Of course, one doesn’t need Lewis to see the self-authenticating glory of the gospel. But by mowing down arguments–especially the snobbish mentality of modernity that Screwtape calls “an inarticulate sense of actuality”–Lewis paved the way in my mind for Christ.

As I look at the influence Lewis has had on me, I see four characteristics that have shaped (or, that I hope shape!) my thinking and my feeling in my life.

1) A gentle absoluteness

Lewis’s work is consistently characterized by a calm, winsome, yet irresistible firm absoluteness. Lewis did not see a conflict between empathy with those who disagree and unyielding conviction that they were wrong. His book Miracles is a wonderful example of his ability to sympathize with the atheist-materialist worldview in a way that gives his case against it a moral and emotional credibility. Of course, much of this comes from the fact that Lewis spent much of his adult life as an unbeliever. I constantly come back to this fact whenever I am gripped, as many Christians are nowadays, by a fear of “wasting my life.” No life that finds Christ, however late and however feebly, is wasted.

2) A love of the written word

Lewis, professor of English, was a master at saying. I don’t just mean he was a master of writing, or even a master at thinking. I mean he was a master of saying. There is a crucial difference between the ability to talk, or write, and the ability to say. Putting one’s thoughts or one’s research on paper is an exercise between a person and the material. But saying involves a third party–the reader, the listener, the neighbor. Lewis’ ability to say–to say meaningful things in beautiful but precise ways–was one of his great gifts, and I’ve tried and will keep on trying to make it my own as long as I may.

3) A humble time for others

If you want to know what Lewis thought of others, perhaps the best thing to show you is this massive, wonderful 3-volume collection of his collected letters. Lewis made a point of responding (where health permitted) to anyone who corresponded with him. The day before he died, Lewis penned a reply to a young admirer who loved the Narnia books. The note, perhaps Lewis’ last ever, perfectly sums up so much about Lewis himself:

There are simply not many people who would advise a world-renowned academic, novelist, and philosopher to spend time on his deathbed responding to children’s fan mail. But Lewis did, and even as I write, his example shames me in my self-centeredness. “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” (1 Cor. 13:2)

4) An ability to see

Lewis could see. He could see the way ideas work together. More importantly, he could see the human condition. He understood that modernity was making a case not only against God, but against the individual. He understood that the Christian life isn’t lived in the “big” moments, but it can most certainly be thwarted in the small ones. He understood that materialism was attractive for an educated, postwar Western culture, but that it had a gaping hole at the center.

He also understood that truth was not, contra the linguistic philosophers, a mere power play by subculture against subculture. It’s sometimes said that Lewis would not have fit in with the fundamentalist evangelicals who love to claim him. That’s probably true. But it’s equally true that he would not have sailed quietly among those progressive revisionists, deconstructing the faith for a “new era.” In the Abolition of Man, Lewis exorciated modern teachers who urged their disciples to “see through” the claims of religion:

“You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things forever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that a window should be transparent, because the street or the garden beyond is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.”

That quote has stayed with me since the first time I read it. Is there a better summation anywhere of the folly of learned unbelief?

I sometimes hear it said that the church needs a new C.S. Lewis for today. But that’s not quite right. What the church needs is the old C.S. Lewis of yesterday. And it needs preachers and teachers and moms and dads and children whose souls are shaped by the same transcendent “Joy” that captured Lewis.

I am thankful to C.S. Lewis, and to the Hound of Heaven who chased him–and me– down relentlessly with jealous love.

Rowling In the Deep

I have plans to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them later today. Before I do, though, I want to reiterate a version of something I’ve said several times before in this space: Regardless of how good Fantastic Beasts is, and how much I enjoy it (which, based on reviews from people I trust, may be quite a lot), I think its existence is, for the most part, a mistake, and something that sincere fans of J.K. Rowling’s work will regret in years to come.

Right now, American pop culture is absolutely trapped in a hyper-nostalgia. There are plenty of reasons to be concerned that this isn’t just a fad or a phase. Rather, it looks more like a philosophical shift in how culture makers produce stories, and how we as an audience consume them. As A.O. Scott has written, so much of our film, TV, and literature appeals to childlikeness–not childlike wonder, mind you, but childlike sense of identity. Critical conversations about meaning and narrative are being thrown aside in what Scott has called the “ascendancy of the fan,” the transformation of mainstream pop culture into a mere collection of constantly rebooted brands: Marvel vs DC, Star Wars vs Star Trek, Bourne vs Bond, etc etc, ad infinitum.

I’ve said all this before, and I’m not going to restate my many comments here. But I want to very briefly apply these concerns to Rowling and to the Harry Potter universe. I have two reasons. First, I love the Potter series and have an especial affection and admiration for it. Second, I think what Rowling is doing with her legacy is the most glaring example we have of the danger of the reboot nostalgia culture.

The Harry Potter series (books 1-7) will, I’m convinced, be read widely with delight centuries from now. A few days ago I drew the wrath of Twitter when I declared that the Potter books were, taken as a whole, better than Lewis’s Narnia series. I stand by that. That’s not a dig at Narnia, either; I just believe that the Potter series is that good, and that its genius will only be greater appreciated in the years to come.

Part of that genius is in the story’s ending. I won’t spoil it (if you haven’t read the series, I envy the joy you will take in reading it for the first time), but the best way I can put it is that Rowling ended her tale with a beautiful and poetic symmetry that brought her characters a genuinely satisfying closure. At the last turn of the page in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, there is an eschatological joy in seeing good triumph over evil in a final, authoritative way.

What Rowling has done in the years since Deathly Hallows is more than marketing. She has sought to open up her mythology in a way that keeps the story going eternally. This was the point of Pottermore, a website that put users into the wizarding world through interactive content–content written by Rowling (as the ads for Pottermore made a point of repeating over and over again). Rowling’s involvement in Pottermore was clearly a pitch to fans that the story hadn’t ended, that the world was still being written and that by signing up for the service, they could be part of the new stories.

Rowling’s intentions became even more clearer with the publication of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Officially, the hardback copy that was sold in Barnes and Noble was simply the published script of a stage play, based on the Potter series. *Unofficially* (and again, in marketing), it was quite obviously the 8th book of the series. I never read the book, but my wife excitedly did. She was extremely disappointed, telling me that the characters of Cursed Child spoke and acted like fan fiction creations, not the heroes of books 1-7. Several reviews I saw echoed this sentiment.

The reviews for Fantastic Beasts have been much more positive, and I fully expect to enjoy it. But the pattern that Rowling has established thus far seems clear. The world of Harry Potter has been reopened, and its mythology has broken out of its original fate and is being written, and rewritten, and written again. It is, for all practical purposes, now a piece of fan fiction.

Fan fiction exists to let fans live inside their favorite stories. But one of the defining marks of all great stories is the way they live inside of us. What I fear is happening to Harry Potter is that a wonderful, beautiful piece of literature is becoming a cultural artifact to our inability to let stories teach us about this world and this life. The lessons we can draw from Harry, Ron, and Hermione are in danger of becoming lost in the constant reinvention of their world. By not letting our favorite stories end, we turn them into tools rather than teachers–objects that authenticate our childlike desire to not let go, to not courageously follow Harry outside the safety and comfort of our magical world, and into a dangerous, wild place where we have a job to do.

I want very much for succeeding generations to know the Harry Potter series as a brilliantly told, biblically haunted epic, not as another resource for Dungeons and Dragons devotees. My fear is that even in well-made films and interesting books, Harry’s lessons are lost, and we will be entertained and distracted at the cost of something precious.

You Get What You Pay For

I didn’t grow up wealthy. My dad was a minister and we were firmly in the “working class” category that economists overuse. When it came to using money, we weren’t free spenders. But I’m thankful that neither did we squelch when a little extra was called for.

This principle came from my dad, who instilled in me a sense that you get what you pay for. If you want something–if you really want it, not just if you want other people to know you have it or want to spend–then that something is worth paying for. So, for example, if you want an MP3 player, and you want one that will actually last for years and is good quality, then it’s worth paying a little extra for the iPod. If you need a new jacket, and you want it to keep you warm for many winters, then it’s worth paying a little extra for one with better and more durable materials. Once you decide that something is worth buying, my Dad thought, then it’s worth buying well, because you get what you pay for. Paying less money for something that isn’t quite as good and won’t last quite as long or won’t do exactly what you’re wanting it to do makes less sense–and is a poorer use of money–than simply waiting.

It seems to me that we live in an era of American culture that is awash in the cheap and unsatisfying. I’m thinking now of entertainment. Think of how streaming services like Netflix and iTunes now dominate the entertainment economy, when just a decade ago most people still frequented brick-and-mortar retailers like Blockbuster. The appeal of Netflix is its cheapness; for $10/month, you can stream hundreds of movies and TV shows at will, without ever leaving your home. You don’t have to be a math major to see how Netflix was successful at this.

But there’s a sense I think in which Netflix (and its musical counterpart, Spotify) is actually the cheaper, less satisfying product. After all, a subscriber to Netflix doesn’t actually own anything. The Netflix collection that he treasures can disappear at any point, for any reason (and often does). Netflix determines what’s watchable and what’s not, and there’s no other Netflix “location” you can visit to see if it has what you’re looking for. What Netflix offers is cheapness and convenience, and in exchange it squelches on availability, selection, and, if we’re being honest, often quality. This relationship isn’t incidental. The ease of Netflix exists because of its flaws, not in spite of it. You get what you pay for.

I’m not just thinking of entertainment here either. We’re only weeks away from a presidential election in the US, and can you imagine an election cycle that more exemplifies the tradeoff between easy and good than this one? Our national politics seems to have fallen squarely in the Netflix trap. We are often drawn to candidates, on either side, who embody identity politics and confirm our worst suspicions about the “other side.” As long as a politician can make us feel correct and victimized, we somehow find ways to ignore serious faults in character, honesty, and personal morality. We want the politics of the easy and the convenient, and are willing to get less quality leadership in return.

This is why it’s important to remember that wanting a better national politic entails a better electorate.  Last week I was sad to hear that a great publication, Books and Culture, was closing. I immediately thought how difficult it is right now to produce high quality writing by high quality writers, when the internet is page after page after page of third-tier, amusing, often trivial content. The concept of writing itself is being defined down by Buzzfeed and social media. What’s the appeal here? It’s all free! It’s all easy! But so little of it is good. You get what you pay for.

Ours is a culture of cheap, low-quality entertainment; cheap, low-quality politics; cheap, low-quality religion; cheap, low-quality education. We are so adapted to the tradeoff between inexpensive and mediocre that we hardly notice it anymore–until, of course, we have nothing else to choose from except the vulgar, the dishonest, and the middlebrow. And at that point, often a point of no obvious return, we lament, “How on earth did we get here?”

I’m not sure what the answer is. But I have a feeling it starts with taking Philippians 4:8 seriously. What if obedience to Christ and the renewal of our minds means that we submit even our money to the pursuit of that which is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and praiseworthy? Faithfulness to this command may not be as convenient as we might think. It may look less like an instant streaming service or a listicle, and more like a trip to the video store and a well-edited magazine. Want the good, the true, and the honorable? You get what you pay for.

 

 

The Purifying Effect of Pleasure

One of my favorite parts of The Screwtape Letters is a section from the senior demon Screwtape, advising his “junior tempter” Wormwood to make sure that the human he is attempting to divert from God doesn’t cultivate many personal pleasures:

I myself would make it a rule to eradicate from my patient any strong personal taste which is not actually a sin, even if is something quite trivial such as a fondness for country cricket or collecting stamps or drinking cocoa. Such things, I grant you, have nothing of virtue in them; but there is a sort of innocence and humility and self-forgetfulness about them which I distrust.

The man who truly and disinterestedly enjoys any one thing in the word, for its own sake, and without caring two pence what other people say about it, is by that very fact fore-armed against some of our subtlest modes of attack. You should always try to make the patient abandon the people or food or books he really likes in favour of the “best” people, the “right” food,” the “important” books. I have known  a human defended from strong temptations to social ambition by a still stronger taste for tripe and onions.

In other words: The more a person learns to love things because they are lovely to him, and not because they make him look better or advance his sense of ego, the closer they are to a true kind of humility. The man who loves every film that all his friends seem to like too may not actually be loving the art itself, he may be loving the satisfaction that comes when his peers authenticate his loves. In this instance, the object of love is not the film, nor even really his friends, but himself.

It may sound at first like Lewis is urging a kind of individualistic self-assertion. But that’s not true. What Screwtape dreads to see is not an isolated, self-focused, contrarian human existence (on the contrary, such ground is fertile for demonic success). What Screwtape fears is a human who finds genuine pleasure in things that do not rebound to his own glory. In this kind of moment of authentic delight, a person experiences a crucial reality of the kingdom of God: The things that bring the most happiness are the things that bring us out of ourselves.

The Italian poet Dante interestingly differentiated between a lustful love of the other, and a love of the self. In the Inferno, unrepentant adultery is punished in hell, but it is punished less severely than other kinds of human passion. Why? Because even sexual immorality with a lover requires a sort of surrendering of the self to the other. It is the “self-lovers” who are closer to the bottom of hell, because their sin is both rebellion against God and a violent disregard of that which is outside themselves.

In our contemporary Western culture, such a strong condemnation of self-oriented love sounds not just absurd, but outrageous. Ours is a therapeutic age that encourages us to live hyper-introspectively, continually discerning “who we are,” “what we want,” and most importantly, “what we deserve” out of life. The mantra of the 21st century is “Only God can judge me,” and in an age of murky religious pluralism everyone knows that God is really a euphemism for oneself.

My generation has no trouble encouraging individualism. The age of Netflix and Spotify is, if nothing else, the reign of the individual, with full power for selectivity and customization without any fear of ever being unable to satisfy preexisting tastes. But that’s not the kind of pleasure that Lewis is talking about. Lewis is not talking about individualistic pleasure, but personal pleasure. Individualistic pleasure seeks to hide from others to protect itself; personal pleasure does not hide, but neither does it demand to be the center of attention. It’s a contentment with what Lewis elsewhere called the “quiddity” of life–a real thankfulness and wonder at the universe, and a recognition of a great Giver.

Cultivating pleasures and interests that we can enjoy alone helps to protect against the instinct to always measure ourselves against others. Enjoying a favorite book that no one would give us props for reading allows to take delight in something truly outside ourselves, to forget ourselves for a moment and receive a gift. Making time for hobbies that won’t improve our resume or get us “Likes” on Instagram helps us to make sure that our personal formation isn’t merely an effort to gain approval and, thus, a sense of self-actualization.

It is fascinating to reflect that even though our modern age enables and incentives “me time,” so much of that time is meant to ultimately rebound in social approval. Perhaps one reason so many modern Americans find their “me time” dissatisfying is that they actually don’t do it well enough. By living life preoccupied by what’s most Tweetable or makes for the most compelling Facebook post, many of us don’t ever actually cultivate habits of rest and contentment. Even our R&R is mostly about working to get approved.

What Lewis prescribes here is, I think, supremely important in a digital age. Looking for joy in things that don’t come back to you in the form of praise or admiration is a spiritual practice. It could very well be that the price of digital distraction will be a widespread inability to really love anything, just an instinct to click, “Like,” and keep swiping. We should heed the words of Lewis’s fictional demons, and learn the freedom of personal, self-forgetful pleasure again.

Some Thoughts on “Hillbilly Elegy”

I bought J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy just days before my son came into the world, so it’s taken longer than typical for me to finish the book. But the effort was richly rewarded. “Elegy” is an unusually absorbing memoir, particularly when you consider that its author writes nothing more spectacular about his life than getting accepted into Yale Law school. What makes “Elegy” a poignant read is, I believe, the fact that so much of Vance’s childhood and teenage life is an experience of America that is buried beyond recall for most people in this country. It’s not just that most Americans have no conception of the poverty, cultural dissipation, or disenchantment of rural whites; it’s that, as Vance shows without arguing, this ritual of life on the fringe is left almost entirely untouched by politicians or cultural critics. These people are literally invisible to the American consciousness.

Much of that invisibility is self-inflicted, of course. That is part of the central tension of Vance’s book: How do you legislate help for the kind of person who absolutely would not help himself? There are two heroes of the book, Mamaw and the Marines, and without them Vance freely admits that his life likely would have become another stagnant existence, riddled with substance abuse and apathy. But my takeaway from Vance’s story is that the gap that both Mamaw and the Marines filled in his life was not a gap that an anti-poverty agenda can fill, nor even one that access to better education, lower taxes, or more upwardly mobile jobs could.

What Mamaw and the Marines did for Vance, I think, was give him parents. An aloof biological father, a drug-addicted mother, and a revolving door of variably disinterested stepdads meant that Vance’s life was anchored into jello; there was no constance or pattern of consistent love and protection that solidified a sense of hope or duty in a young boy.

I hope to expand these thoughts in an upcoming essay. For now, let me just remark on a few things that Hillbilly Elegy reinforced for me:

  1. The cost of the sexual revolution’s disintegration of the family will always be higher for the poor.
  2. Addiction–to heroin, prescription medication, or even pornography and TV for that matter–is a cultural epidemic that far too few are willing to look in the eye– partially, I suspect, because of the politically palatable rhetoric of disease and victimhood that surrounds it.
  3. Place matters. Upward mobility means little if people displace themselves from relational networks that can support and care for them.
  4. National politics, either of Left or Right, mean very little to a large group of Americans in this country. Very large.
  5. It’s quite possible that evangelicalism’s focus on renewing the urban city has come at the expense of rural Christians and non-Christians, many of whom are left with either a vacuous Bible-belt religion or else open unbelief. There are more atheists in Owsley County, Kentucky, than we think.
  6. There is no way to replicate the parent-child relationship. Saving graces can intervene (see what I said above), but any desire of cultural elites to go “post-parent” is foolhardy.

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(image credit)

“You Should Write a Book!”

A couple days ago I got a question again that I’m starting to get fairly regularly:

“When are you going to write a book?”

The first time I was ever asked seriously about writing a book, I thought I would faint from flattery. I couldn’t imagine a bigger compliment. I probably mumbled something in false self-effacement, then spent the rest of the afternoon daydreaming about what kind of signature would be best for book signings. For me, that simple question was a validation–more than a query, it was an assertion that my talent and my work deserve the honor of being bound and sold in bulk.

The question felt great at first. But eventually something changed. What had sounded like the ultimate “You the man!” started sounding like the knowing inquiry of an accountability partner. As I was asked more and more about writing a book, I came to intensely dread that conversation.

Why? Simple reason: I know I can’t write a book right now, and admitting that is, in the presence of my particular friends and in my particular line of work, a humiliation.

I have friends and coworkers who are my age or younger, who have published multiple books. Just today I saw a Facebook friend announce his 2nd or third published work. My social media feeds could double as newsletters for writing friends, several of whom seem to be on the fast track to the bestseller list. It’s quite honestly difficult to name peers who aren’t either publishing now or getting ready to publish. This issue is a tender one for me, one I have to fight insecurity about almost every day.

I’m glad for these friends. I rejoice in their work and their reach. Their success is a joy. But whatever it is in my friends that has clicked and borne literary fruit, hasn’t clicked in me. When I say I can’t write a book right now, I’m not being facetious or falsely modest. I can’t write a book right now because I know for an objective fact that I have nothing to say worthy of a publisher.

It’s just where I am. I wish I could pivot from this reflection to an argument against the hyper-inflated market of young evangelical authors (there is definitely one to be made). Or, I wish I could justify my own feebleness with some grandiose thoughts on what it means to publish, to have a platform, and why evangelicalism will almost certainly suffer from its not-very-discriminate platform-building culture (I believe it will). All of that is true, and I believe all of it. But that’s not what’s really stopping me from trying to get a book deal. What’s stopping me is the question, “What would I say?”

I don’t have an answer to that question right now. I don’t even know when I will. But I do know that, for me, unless in the future I jettison completely something I believe very strongly about the relationship between people and truth, I won’t ever try to write a book unless I can answer that question.

Contrary to what bibliophiles like me say, there aren’t actually that many good books out there. There are a few, and they are diamonds. But there is an ocean of bad ones. There is not one shred of desire in me to be even a drop of contribution to that ocean. I’d rather stay on the beach altogether (with a good book, of course!).

 

Quote of the Day

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is no such work. As other countless fans have pointed out, the writing of the work is mediocre, at best—full of clichés and halfhearted character development, with a plot that is absolutely riddled with holes. Many of the original characters (especially Hermione) are not true to their original selves, serving as two-dimensional copycats.

So what does the book do? Well, it keeps the Harry Potter series alive and in the limelight. It serves to inspire new fans to return to the original books. And it definitively makes money—lots of it. But that’s the extent of its virtues.

I caution you, because I think there’s a point at which truly excellent authors know how to say “enough.” Their fans can content themselves with the simplicity and beauty of a finite offering (be it one book or seven). Limiting the scope of a fictional creation enables it to stay mysterious, enchanting, and delightful. Limiting the scope of Harry Potter serves to inspire and foster the imagination of its fans more than coughing up another 20 volumes ever would.

-Gracy Olmstead, in an “open letter” to Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling that also doubles as a disappointed review of the published play, “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”

Olmstead gets to something important here: Churning out low-quality work, merely for the sake of keeping a franchise in the news, is not just bad for the franchise, it’s bad for the reader. No matter how many superfans will wait in line at Barnes and Noble for your newest offering, there is something in this kind of hyper-nostalgic, never-say-die mentality that robs future generations of the literary richness that comes from having some of the story untold.

Did Gandalf Rescue Evangelicals?

Yesterday afternoon I was watching the live stream of the 2016 ERLC National Conference. Specifically, I tuned into a panel that discussed how evangelicals could engage with art in a gospel-centered way. In the course of the conversation, one of the panelists, Alissa Wilkinson (a film critic that you should read), remarked that, in her view, evangelical attitude toward art has notably improved over the last 10 years.

I agree with that. Having grown up in conservative evangelical culture my entire life, I absolutely have noticed a change in how many pastors, theologians, and those in Christian circles have talked about film, literature, TV, etc. There just seems to be a greater interest right now in talking about art from a Christian perspective than there was when, say, I was in junior high, and buying the “kids versions” of the Left Behind books and the albums of rock bands that were openly marketed as “mainstream alternatives.”

But Wilkinson’s comment got me thinking: What changed? What happened with evangelicals roughly 10 years ago that set these trends in motion? Here’s a theory: Peter Jackson happened. The Lord of the Rings film trilogy is, I believe, the most influential factor in the renewal of American evangelicalism’s interest in art.

The Fellowship of the Ring premiered in December of 2001. The timing of that release is important, because just a few weeks before FOTR, the first film version of the Harry Potter novels also premiered. Up to this point, Harry Potter was the most significant literary event in the world, and evangelicals had spent most of their time and energy debating whether it was even permissible to read/watch. There was precious little “engagement” with the biggest book of the century; it just fell, like so many other things did, into trenches of evangelical “Do or Don’t” war.

But when Fellowship debuted, evangelicals were flummoxed. Here was a PG-13 adaptation of a novel written by a traditional Catholic in the latter half of the 20th century. I had never heard of J.R.R. Tolkien when I saw the movie in December 2001, and neither had most of my family or friends. But enough Christians knew about the books to herald the coming of the movies as a significant moment for believers and Hollywood.

There was, of course, an irony here. Many of the influential evangelical publications that had urged believers to avoid the wizardry of Harry Potter took a starkly different approach to Gandalf. The dissonance was unmistakeable. World Magazine, which had studiously criticized the Potter books, preemptively advertised Fellowship as a “family-friendly blockbuster” that Christians should be interested in (and so too with the next two Lord of the Rings movies). Plugged In (Focus on the Family’s media review publication) threw red flags all over Hogwarts, but saw Tolkien’s “Christian themes at work” in Jackson’s films. The difference was, of course, that Tolkien spoke openly about his Catholic faith, while in the evangelical world, you could occupy your day reading chain emails with conspiracy theories about J.K. Rowling’s intentions. Unlike the Potter phenomenon, a lot of believers saw in the Lord of the Rings movies an opportunity to see their “values” on the screen.

The effects were immediate. Lord of the Rings was an enormous financial success, of course, fomenting new trends in cinema and a wave of religiously tinged “prestige pictures.” But more than that, the movies started something in evangelicals. Suddenly it seemed that Reformed Christians everywhere were putting fantasy books on their favorite lists. Shortly after the Lord of the Rings movies my own Bible college made the books required reading. Even Hogwarts started to fare better, with later installments of the film series getting positive reviews in many evangelical outposts. It wasn’t that evangelicals’ convictions had changed, necessarily; it was that Jackson’s movies had broken down barriers between faith and imagination that many American evangelicals didn’t even realize had gone up.

Just a theory, but this does seem to match my own experience as far as when I noticed a new evangelical engagement with popular art. It’s just not possible for me to imagine a round of Christian think pieces on something like Netflix’s “Stranger Things” 15 years ago. Now, it seems so inevitable that it’s actually good parody. Something had to happen for that to be the case.

In my view, Gandalf happened.

A Few Thoughts on “Purity Culture”

I’ve been trying over the last couple years to keep in tension two things that I believe are equally true.

The first is: Many of evangelical culture’s ideas about sexuality, marriage, and relationships have borne bad fruit. I’ve heard from many people who, like me, were raised in a conservative evangelical context, but unlike me, were exposed to a grievously harsh and legalistic theology that shamed, alienated, and wounded them. Even though my own personal experience growing up in conservative evangelicalism was much better, these testimonies are not a conspiracy. There really is a heartbreaking legacy that many Christian churches passed onto the young people in their care, and it’s a legacy that has done incalculable damage to the kingdom.

Many of the men and women who suffered under this kind of legacy have given it a name. “Purity culture” may be something of a misnomer, but most people who were raised in it know what you’re talking about immediately when you mention it. Many who were preteens and teens in evangelical churches were an oppressive “purity culture” was practiced are now actively opposing it as adults, which, I think, is a testimony to how genuine the toxic effects have been.

The second truth I hold is this: Many (not all) of the critiques that are launched at “purity culture” could be (and often are) applied more generally to traditional evangelical doctrine writ large; thus, in many cases (not all), criticism of a legalistic “purity culture” within the church is also a meta-criticism of orthodox Christianity’s teaching on sexuality.

In other words, it is often difficult for me to read a blog post that excoriates evangelical purity culture, and discern where the criticism of legalism ends and the criticism of the Bible’s teachings on sex begin. Sometimes the testimony of a harsh, un-Christian, and even abusive church culture is so obvious that denouncing it is easy and essential. On the other hand, sometimes it is not clear to me that what the person is describing as oppressive “purity culture” is meaningfully different than what Christians have believed about gender, sex, and marriage for two thousand years. Thus, affirming the dangers of purity culture in that context may double as affirming the wrongness of, say, the Bible’s clear teaching about sex outside of marriage, or the need to flee sexual immorality, or the sinfulness of same-sex sexual relationships .

A good example of where I have difficulty untangling this knot is the angst that I see many people having over Joshua Harris’s “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” If you have no idea what that book is, feel free to stop reading now and move on to something more relevant. But if the title “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” triggers a lot of memories, feelings, and or even just interest in you, then you and I probably experienced much of the same “purity culture.” The short version of the story is that IKDG was a hugely influential book that advocated what some might call a “courtship” approach to Christian relationships, over and against what you might call a “dating” approach. Harris was a young, single Christian when he wrote the book, and his ideas–the dangers of “casual” dating, the need to “guard one’s heart” in all relationships, etc.–were widely approved and disseminated in conservative evangelical culture.

That was in the mid to late 90s. Now, a growing number of the teens whose youth groups made IKDG required reading are rethinking the book’s effect on them. To which I say: Me too! I’ve seen firsthand what an overly timid, emotionally paralyzed group of young Christian singles looks like, and it ain’t pretty. I remember reading IKDG and thinking that Harris oversimplified a lot, seemed to be speaking to too many situations at once, and honestly, just seemed to be laying down a law where a principle of wisdom would suffice.

So yes, I sympathize very much with the struggles of anyone whose worldview of dating and marriage was formed primarily by IKDG.

But after reading Ruth Graham’s piece on Harris and the book in Slate, I feel like I’ve once again been transported from empathy and agreement to untangling a knot. It’s really tough for me to read the bloggers Graham mentions and not feel like Harris and IKDG are really being used as a convenient lightning rod for what is actually a full-throated dispute with Christianity’s most basic teachings about sex and marriage.

I appreciate that Harris himself seems to be walking back some of the things he wrote in the book. That’s an admirable thing to do that most authors, evangelical or otherwise, wouldn’t do. But, as Graham notes matter-of-factly, the most vociferous critics of IKDG aren’t taking “I’m sorry” for an answer. They want something more from Harris, and from the “purity culture” at large. This is where the knot tightens: The more time I spend reading these young writers, the more I am convinced that the “Anti-Purity Culture” genre is about more than righting wrongs. It’s about righting the wrong faith.

Here’s what I mean. This is an excerpt from Graham’s piece, and it bubbles with the underlying tensions I’ve been describing

I was 17 when I Kissed Dating Goodbye came out, and everyone I knew in my upper-middle-class evangelical community in suburban Chicago was talking about it. For me as a teenager, the whole topic had a pleasing ratio of certainty to ambiguity. The foundational “fact” of purity culture was that having intercourse before marriage was wrong. There was a reassuring black-and-white quality to that stricture, with the promise of a juicy wedding-night reward for my self-control.

Everything about this paragraph is fascinating. The word “fact’ in scare-quotes (is having intercourse before marriage wrong…really?); the description of Harris’ belief in pre-marital abstinence as a “black-and-white stricture.” Note that Graham isn’t even talking about IKDG’s practical rules for dating, which are certainly open to critique. She’s talking about Harris’s underlying worldview of what sexuality is for. In this critique, the fundamental fault lines within Harris’s “purity culture” start here.

Why does this matter? It matters because confessional, orthodox evangelicals have a moral obligation to correct where the “purity culture” has abused, shamed, and alienated. We have a vested interest in holding the truth with love, in preaching a gospel where Jesus died and rose again, not so that our sex lives could be spotless but so that we could be accepted by God when they’re not. There is a moral imperative on evangelical Christians to teach what the Bible says about sexuality through a lens of redemption and wholeness, not through a lens of “Don’t mess this up or you’ll regret it.”

But at the same time, how can we do this if the voices setting the agenda are ones that fundamentally reject what Christianity teaches about the ultimate meaning of sex, marriage, gender, and even love? Healing those who were wounded by oppressive legalism and graceless shaming requires healing them with something, and that “something” has to be more than a narrative of autonomy and self-authentication. Trading in the purity culture for the hook-up culture isn’t a win.

We can do better than “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” Harris would agree. But we can’t do better if, seeking to restore what the locust destroyed, we plant snakes instead of bread. What Jesus teaches us about our bodies is beautiful, even if our stewardship of it has been anything but.

 

Of Mothers and Imaginations

floramabel

In his poem “Elegy in a Country Churchyard,” the English poet Thomas Gray memorably reflected on the legacy of un-famous lives buried in a rural graveyard.

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil //
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile //
The short and simple annals of the poor.

With tender lyrical beauty, Grey conveyed the worth and righteousness of a small, obscure life, one spent in the ordinary hum of love of God, family, and neighbor. It’s a sentiment that cuts across our fame-seeking, platform-building digital age. The idea of living and dying while the world isn’t watching is an idea that fills many of us with horror. But that is the fate of so many of whom Jesus said would be called great in the kingdom.

Here’s something to consider this weekend: Of all these noble unnamed, how many are mothers?

How many women have given their life to their children? How thicker would the books of history be if we could record the daily love and loss of women whose heart was with their home? I doubt it could even be imagined. When it comes to bearing the burdens of our very humanity, surely mothers carry the heaviest and hardest loads. And yet how many of these years—or rather, how many of these lives–of sacrifice ever cue public applause or congratulations?

Meditate with me on two women, two mothers, whose names will probably be strange to you: Mabel Suffield and Flora Hamilton.

Mabel Suffield lived to be only 44 years old, dying of disease. She was widowed less than 10 years into her only marriage, left to raise two children by herself. To make life even harder, she was shunned by both her family and in-laws when she joined the Catholic church during a time of rampant English anti-Catholic sentiment. Living in charitable housing and often relying on the kindness of priests and strangers, Mabel tied her whole self, her entire earthly well-being, into protecting and raising her children.

By earthly standards, her life was a tragic waste. She had married too daringly an adventurer who died in Africa, thousands of miles away. She had chosen religion over relationship and financial support. Nothing about Mabel Suffield’s existence registers on the scale of worldly success. What success she did enjoy, however, was in shaping the imagination and talents of her youngest son. She gave him

…more than a lovely world in which to grow up; she gave him an array of fascinating tools to explore and interpret it. We know little of her own education, but she clearly valued learning and vigorously set about transmitting what she knew…She taught him to draw and to paint, arts in which he would develop his own unmistakeable style.

Mabel was clearly talented, but her talents did not earn her the rewards of ambition or the approbation of her peers. They went, instead, to her son. That was to be, in divine Providence, the outermost borders of her life, her “short and simple annal.”

Flora Hamilton likewise died young, at 46, of cancer. In many ways her life is more obscure than that of Mabel Suffield. You won’t find anything named after Mabel in her native Northern Ireland. Even her love life was cool and temperate; she responds to passionate letters from her husband with, “I wonder do I love you? I am not quite sure. I know that at least I am very fond of you, and that I should never think of loving anyone else.” Imagine if those kinds of words appeared today, anonymously in an advice column. They would be met with pity and calls to radical action.

But nothing about Flora was radical. Her life was small and given to her children. She loved books and taught her boys to love them too. She was imaginative and rational, and educated her boys to think with both logic and fervor. When she passed away, few took note, except for her family. Her youngest son would write years later that Flora’s death had signaled that “all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life.”

Flora and Mabel lived brief, small lives. They invented no great thing and built nothing amazing. The only architecture that bears their names are likely gravestones. What they did do was love, nurture, and teach their children. Their legacies were made in young hearts, not the hearts of adoring fans or thankful shareholders but the hearts of their sons.

What appeared wasted at the time was anything but. Mabel’s youngest boy would put her sacrificial spirit in the characters of his fiction—characters like Gandalf, and Aragorn, and Frodo and Sam. J.R.R. Tolkien’s mother may have been mere biographical trivia to the millions who were moved by The Lord of the Rings, but for Middle-Earth itself, she was a specter whose love and faithfulness and resolve is dazzlingly bright in the pages of her son’s masterpiece.

And Flora? I think we see her too. I think we see the mother of C.S. Lewis in The Magician’s Nephew. She is, I believe, Digory’s deathly ill mother. It’s not outrageous to think that Aslan’s gift of Narnia’s healing fruit is the moment of joy and life that Lewis always wished had come to Flora. She was a beam of happiness in his young life, and it’s not hard to hear lingering sadness in the description of the healing of Digory’s mother:

About a week after this it was quite certain that Digory’s mother was getting better…And a month later that whole house had become a different place. Aunt Letty did everything that Mother liked; windows were opened, frowsy curtains were drawn back to brighten up the rooms, there were new flowers everywhere, and nicer things to eat, and the old piano was tuned and Mother took up her singing again, and has such games with Digory and Polly that Aunt Letty would say “I declare, Mabel, you’re the biggest baby of the three.”

Without the brief, small, hard lives of Mabel and Flora, we may never have known the lives of Frodo and Sam, or Digory and Polly. Without the quiet, unremarkable love of two mothers, how much more impoverished would countless imaginations and faiths be?

How thankful we ought to be for homely joys, and destinies obscure!

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Biographical information is taken from The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams