6 Surprising Celebrity Audiobook Narrators

I first discovered audiobooks while taking graduate courses by distance in Japan. I received these world-class lecture packages in the mail, pulled the cassette out of its cellophane wrapper (yes, a tape!), and then popped it into my car’s tape player. These lectures filled my commutes in Japan, from the rice paddies of Asashina-mura with old farmer wives knee-deep in water, crooked backs bending to plant tender shoots of grain, through the Miyota river valley filled with its onion fields and cherry blossoms and Coca Cola vending machines, to the mountaintop tourist village of Karuizawa–a hidden paradise of pine trees and ancient roads and large families of monkeys that wandered across your path. Glad to leave behind J-pop on the radio, and tired of the mixed tapes I brought across the Pacific, I listened to lectures on theology and literature.

My wife didn’t always like it, but by the time I sat down to “attend” the lecture with notebook open at my kitchen table, I had a sense of where the lecturer was going. And when I was ready to write the exam, I listened again, fast-forwarding the bits that I had now nearly memorized. I loved it.

Lectures were the slippery slope for me. I began picking up bargain bin audio fiction, and we would listen to novels on our long trips through the peaks and valleys of Japan or the great expanse of the North American continent. Sometimes our stories came from CBC or NPR or the military radio from the Kanto Plains. Usually, though, we found our stories in bookstores and yard sales and libraries, and most recently from iTunes and Audible. These stories have accompanied us through 10 Canadian provinces, 29 American states, and 12 Japanese prefectures. Despite my wife’s wishes, however, we haven’t yet been to Rome.

Soon I realized that I had this space in life that I could fill with stories. So I have become, by small steps over years, an avid audiobook reader. I still listen to a lot of lectures–you can get whole courses free from iTunesU or at a small price from schools like Regent College. But I mostly listen to stories, or to ideas books that I’ve already read.

I am not alone. The audiobook market is a huge development, as people are anxious to put something worthwhile on their iPhones as they walk, job, build, plant, or drive. In my hunt for good books, I have come across 6 surprising celebrity audiobook narrators you should know about (and a couple of not so surprising ones).

1. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, read by Nicole Kidman

Most will know Virginia Woolf for her classic novel, Mrs. Dalloway, or her brilliant pseudo-lecture, A Room With a View. Of Woolf’s fiction, though, it is To The Lighthouse that really drew me in. This story of a matriarch in the 1910s haunts me months after I first read it. Even though the protagonist dies during WWI, she continues to delicately structure the lives of all of the children and adults that are part of her household.

We do have some recordings of Virginia Woolf’s own voice, and librivox.org has some volunteer recordings of her work. Among the professionally produced versions of To The Lighthouse includes one read by Nicole Kidman. Here Kidman explains why she, of all people, would go through the labour-intensive project of reading this book:

She likes Virginia Woolf, and loves this book, but Kidman has also played Virginia Woolf in The Hours. I was blown away by this film when I saw it: it is a sophisticated way of capturing Woolf’s biography and literature all in one. But as I watch the trailer, having now read Woolf, I wonder if they’ve interpreted her well.

Nicole Kidman is a beautiful and talented actress. Her unusual beauty is deliberately lost in her stunning performance as Woolf. Unfortunately, some of the energy that she brings to the screen is lost in this reading. But it is a great way to reread this essential book.

2. Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, read by David Carradine

That’s right, David Carradine. If you are a bit older, you’ll know him as Caine. People in my generation will know him from Kill Bill, a complex and intricately sketched film of revenge without redemption where Carradine’s character echoes his iconic Kung Fu role. If anyone doubted it from his selective acting history, David Carradine is a storyteller. Here’s his performance of The Legend of Pai Mei from Kill Bill:

If you think it is odd that the Kung Fu icon of a generation is reading a beatnik story of life on the road, listening to just a few minutes of the book on tape will change your mind. This book formed a generation; it is American mythology. So it takes a mythic figure to do it justice. It must be done by a poet–you can hear Jack Kerouac read a bit himself here–because it is not just poetry that has been created, but a poetry that creates. David Carradine’s abridgement is far too short. How can you pull any of those lines from the text? But if it has to be read by anyone, it should be him, or it will descend into a farce.

3. The New Testament, read by Johnny Cash

My father-in-law is laid up in the hospital, and doesn’t sleep well to begin with. Dripping taps and overhead pages and 32 snorers within an arm’s throw doesn’t help.

So I bought him an inexpensive MP3 player and sat at my computer trying to decide what I might load on it. Believe it or not, I have no Hank Snow or Ricky Skaggs. I put a couple of Louis Armstrong songs on, but passed on Muddy Waters. I decided I would ask him about the Beatles (I have everything, pretty much), and searched for Johnny Cash–his Best Of, as well as his Folsom Prison album. Loading Johnny Cash gave me a crazy idea.

After a brief search, I ordered the mp3 for “Johnny Cash Reads the New Testament.” Cash’s voice is pretty impressive, and he reads the entire New Testament, beginning with genealogy and prophecy in Matthew, and ending with the renovated earth and prophecy fulfilled in Revelation.

It took a bit to teach him to use the device, but he found his way. On the first night he struggled sleeping, so he put on Johnny Cash’s rich voice, and listened all night long to the Man in Black read about the Son of Man.

He dozed at points, he thinks, but awoke this morning to hear of a dragon with seven heads! Quite a night. I don’t know if he will levitate in holiness, or shoot a man in Vegas just to watch him die. We’ll see. But Johnny Cash stands next to James Earl Jones as one of the great Biblical voices.

4. Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, read by Benedict Cumberbatch

It’s hard to name any actor more popular among lit-loving TV-watchers than Benedict Cumberbatch. I can no longer imagine Sherlock Holmes as anyone else, though I’m still attached to the original Spock.

Apparently, when he isn’t busy destroying dwarf kingdoms and being a self-obsessed crime solver, he reads books. Out loud, I mean. I’ve heard that he is going to read Sherlock, but I haven’t seen any of them yet. He did, however, read the mental-bending Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. Here is part 1:

And, as a special bonus, you can see Kafka summoned a generation later on in Jonathan Goldstein’s “Wiretap,” where Samsa corresponds with Dr. Seuss about his transformational experience. You can listen to this hilarious skit here (beginning about 5 minutes in).

5. Cornelia Funke’s Dragon Rider, read by Brendan Fraser

Brendan Fraser is my definition of a bohunk: great jaw, good physique, and a dangerous lack of functional intelligence. So it was surprising when I put in a library CD of Dragon Rider for a family drive, and I had a growing suspicion that it was Brendan Fraser speaking to me. I shuddered a bit, and then settled in for an enjoyable ride.

As it turns out, Brendan Fraser is pretty good at this. He creates fun and engaging voices for literally dozens of characters as the dragon and his wards fly through Europe and the Maghreb into Central Asia. When he uses his own voice and accent, waves of cheesy film roles threaten to overtake the story. It is not a very precise recording; his accents slide from speaker to narrator. But for the most part, he is a great reader for this children’s fantasy novel.

6. C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, read by John Cleese

Let’s be honest: as soon as you hear that Monty Python’s great liege, John Cleese, reads The Screwtape Letters, it all falls together. The voice is perfect: a pretentious prig speaking the Queen’s English as he launches condescending lectures at a sniveling and resisting student. Screwtape is a pedant, and who can play it better than Cleese?

Alas, this Grammy-nominated recording is now out of print, so you have to find it used–or through nefarious means. Here is a taste of a marriage made in hell:

Not So Surprising Narrators

Stephen King On WritingWhile these celebrity readings might be surprising, there are some great audiobooks read by the author. Many nonfiction authors reading their own work are quite bad. But there are some who are either excellent at reading or who bring something to the text.

Rob Bell, for example, ad libs a little and seems to enjoy himself as he reads his already short books. Even though C.S. Lewis began his public career as a voice on the BBC, we have very little of his nonfiction read aloud–only one chapter of Mere Christianity. But my absolute favourite nonfiction book read by the author is Stephen King‘s On Writing. Beyond a handbook on writing professionally, this memoir guides the reader through King’s career up to the point he was nearly killed by a distracted driver while walking near his home . And, from humorous to touching, King’s own voice–imperfect as it is as a reading voice–is the right companion as King speaks of rebuilding his writing life after the accident.

Madeleine L'Engle A Wrinkle in TimeOn the fiction side, I am a beginner here. But it was a real pleasure to hear Madeleine L’Engle read the first three of her Time books. Not only was reading A Wrinkle in Time as an adult the renewal of a great pleasure, but the introduction she gives to the book is quite wonderful.

And, for a final treat, you can hear J.R.R. Tolkien reading bits of his work. It is scattered across the internet, and mostly short chapters and poems in English or Elvish. Still, it is always a thrill. Here is Tolkien reading The Hobbit, ch. 5, “Riddles in the Dark“:

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Memoir in Poetry by G. Leibholz

Dietrich Bonhoeffer remains such an intriguing figure. A pastor who stayed in Germany in WWII so that he might resist Hitler and Nazism, he is one of the more original and evocative 20th century theologians. The 70th anniversary of his assassination has led me back to his work.

Bonhoeffer wrote The Cost of Discipleship in 1937; by 1945 he demonstrated that he really knew what that cost was. He stayed firm against isolation, prison, torture, and threat to his family and friends. Instead of giving in to a holocaust of hope, he chose to to be an encouragement to his own captors, whom he felt suffered also under the inhumanity of National Socialism. Even when the Western world would not listen to his warning against the real threat of Naziism–the Jewish Shoah and a threat to global freedom–Bonhoeffer continued to speak.

When picking up Discipleship, I read the memoir of Bonhoeffer by Leibholz. He begins fairly typically, sketching out what is an unusually provocative family history. But as he moves through Bonhoeffer’s timeline, Leibholz is really writing a primer on Christian humanism. And he does it not only through biographical details, or even through sermons, letters, and books. Instead, Leibholz focusses on some of Bonhoeffer’s prison poetry, set with important life moments. I was so taken by this approach, and the impact of Bonhoeffer’s life, I thought I might share from the memoir. If you are tempted, pick up the book. I am still reeling over its first chapters.

Memoir by G. Leibholz

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in Breslau on February 4th, 1906, the son of a university professor and leading authority on psychiatry and neurology. His more remote ancestors were theologians, professors, lawyers, artists. From his mother’s side there was also some aristocratic blood in his veins.

His parents were quite outstanding in character and general outlook. They were very clear-sighted, cultured people and uncompromising in all things which matter in life. From his father, Dietrich Bonhoeffer inherited goodness, fairness, self-control and ability; from his mother, his great human understanding and sympathy, his devotion to the cause of the oppressed, and his unshakable steadfastness.

Both his father and mother brought up their son Dietrich with his three brothers, his twin sister and three other sisters, in Breslau and (from 1912) in Berlin, in that Christian, humanitarian and liberal tradition which to the Bonhoeffers was as native as the air they breathed. It was that spirit which determined Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life from the beginning.

Bonhoeffer was as open as any man could be to all the things which make life beautiful. He rejoiced in the love of his parents, his sisters and brothers, his fiancée, his many friends. He loved the mountains, the flowers, the animals—the greatest and the simplest things in life. His geniality and inborn chivalry, his love of music, art and literature, the firmness of his character, his personal charm and his readiness to listen, made him friends everywhere.But what marked him most was his unselfishness and preparedness to help others up to the point of self-sacrifice. Whenever others hesitated to undertake a task that required special courage, Bonhoeffer was ready to take the risk.

Theology itself was somehow in his blood. On his mother’s side Bonhoeffer’s grandfather, von Hase, had been a chaplain to the Emperor, whose displeasure he incurred when he allowed himself to differ from his political views. When the Emperor stopped attending his services, Hase was urged to tender his resignation. His great-grandfather was Carl von Hase, the most distinguished Church historian in the Germany of the nineteenth century, who tells us in his autobiography of his visit to Goethe in Weimar in 1830, and who (just as Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s grandfather on his father’s side) was himself imprisoned for his subversive liberal views in the fortress of the High Asperg in 1825. On his father’s side he belonged to an old Swabian family which had been living in Württemberg since 1450 and which was also able to claim not a few theologians in previous generations.

This tradition of the Bonhoeffer family may explain why Dietrich Bonhoeffer had already made up his mind at the age of fourteen, when he was still at school, to read theology. At the age of seventeen he entered Tübingen University. A year later he attended courses at Berlin University, and sat at the feet of Adolf von Harnack, R. Seeberg, Lietzmann and others. Harnack soon formed a very high opinion of his character and abilities. Later he came under the influence of Karl Barth’s theology which, though he never went to his lectures or studied under him, left its mark on Bonhoeffer’s first book, Sanctorum Communio. In 1928 he went as a curate to Barcelona for a year and in 1930 at the age of twenty-four he became a lecturer in Systematic Theology in Berlin University. But before actually starting with his academic career he went to Union Theological Seminary in New York as “a brilliant and theologically sophisticated young man.” His writings quickly gave him a firm reputation in the theological world, especially his Nachfolge which through his death gained a new and deep significance; this book greatly impressed theologians throughout the world at the time when it first made its appearance. Some of his other books, especially his Ethics, written by him in prison, are published in English, and others will appear before long.

A splendid career in the realm of theological scholarship lay thus open before him. In the light of his achievement and in the prospect of what he might have achieved, his death is a great tragedy. But worldly standards cannot measure the loss adequately. For God had chosen him to perform the highest task a Christian can undertake. He has become a martyr. “And seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not. For behold, I will bring evil upon all flesh; but thy life will I give unto thee for a prey in all places whither thou goest.” “I cannot get away from Jeremiah 45,” wrote Bonhoeffer from the prison cell.

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a great realist. He was one of the few who quickly understood, even before Hitler came to power, that National Socialism was a brutal attempt to make history without God and to found it on the strength of man alone. Therefore in 1933, when Hitler came to power, he abandoned his academic career, which seemed to him to have lost its proper meaning. He was not, however, expelled from the University until 1936 and even lectured there in the summer and winter of 1935–36. As late as February 1933 he denounced on the wireless a political system which corrupted and grossly misled a nation and made the “Führer” its idol and god.

In October 1933, after six months of the Church struggle, he decided to leave Berlin for London, where, as a pastor, he ministered to two congregations and tried to explain to his British friends, among them especially the Bishop of Chichester, the true character of the German Church struggle. He quickly realized that in the situation in which the world and the Churches found themselves in the ’thirties nothing was gained any longer for the Churches by citing their old credal statements. The ecumenical movement seemed to him to offer the only way of reuniting the various members of the body of Christ. This explains why Bonhoeffer considered it the duty of the Churches to listen anew to the message of the Bible and to put themselves in the context of the whole Church. Therefore no wonder that Bonhoeffer soon played a remarkable rôle in the ecumenical movement1 and that it was he who, more than any other teacher in a German university or theological seminary, had made German students familiar with the life, the history and development of the non-Lutheran Churches.

In 1935 Bonhoeffer, already one of the leaders of the Confessional Church, returned to Germany. He went to Pomerania to direct an illegal Church Training College, first in a small peninsula in the Baltic, later on in Finkenwalde near Stettin. This College was not formed after any existing model. It was not an order comprising men living in ascetic seclusion; nor was it a Training College in the ordinary sense of the word. The attempt was made here to live the “community life” of a Christian as described in one of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s shorter writings. Young ministers who came from all over the Reich learned here what is so sorely needed to-day—namely, how in the twentieth century a Christian life should be lived in a spirit of genuine brotherhood, and how such a life could naturally and freely grow if there were only men who entirely belonged to the Lord and, therefore, in brotherly love to one another. It was not until 1940 that the College was finally closed down by the Gestapo.

When war seemed inevitable, Bonhoeffer’s friends abroad wanted him to leave Germany to save his life, for he was unalterably opposed to serving in the Army in an aggressive war. When asked by a Swede at the Ecumenical Conference at Fanö, Denmark, in 1934, “What will you do when war comes?” he answered: “I shall pray to Christ to give me the power not to take up arms.” In June 1939, American friends got him out of Germany. But soon he felt that he could not stay there, but that he had to return to his country. When he came to England on his return from the United States, his friends quickly realized that Bonhoeffer’s heart belonged to his oppressed and persecuted fellow Christians in Germany and that he would not desert them at a time when they needed him most.

The reasoning which brought Bonhoeffer to his decision belongs, as Reinhold Niebuhr1 says, “to the finest logic of Christian martyrdom.” “I shall have no right,” Bonhoeffer wrote to Niebuhr before leaving America, “to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people…. Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose; but I cannot make this choice in security.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer never regretted this decision, not even in prison, where he wrote in later years: “I am sure of God’s hand and guidance…. You must never doubt that I am thankful and glad to go the way which I am being led. My past life is abundantly full of God’s mercy, and, above all sin, stands the forgiving love of the Crucified.”

At the outbreak of the war friends in Germany managed to spare him the ordeal of serving in the Army, so that he was able to go on with the work for the Confessional Church and to combine it with some activity for the political underground movement to which the war had given its chance. Bonhoeffer, qualified both by character and general outlook, soon belonged to the few who had a strong spiritual influence on the growing opposition in Germany.

Bonhoeffer (together with his sister Christel and her husband, Hans von Dohnanyi) was arrested by the Gestapo in the house of his parents on April 5th, 1943. In prison and concentration camps, Bonhoeffer greatly inspired by his indomitable courage, his unselfishness and his goodness, all those who came in contact with him. He even inspired his guards with respect, some of whom became so much attached to him that they smuggled out of prison his papers and poems written there, and apologized to him for having to lock his door after the round in the courtyard.

His own concern in prison was to get permission to minister to the sick and to his fellow prisoners, and his ability to comfort the anxious and depressed was amazing. We know what Bonhoeffer’s word and religious assistance meant to his fellow prisoners, especially during their last hours (even to Molotov’s nephew Kokorin, who was imprisoned with Bonhoeffer in Büchenwald and to whom the teaching of Christ was brought home); we know what Bonhoeffer’s practical aid meant in prison (Tegel) during political trials to those men of whom ten or twenty were sentenced to death by a military court every week in 1943 and 1944. Some of these (among them a British soldier), charged with sabotage, were saved by him (and his father and solicitor1) from certain death. We have heard that his fellow prisoners were deeply impressed by the calmness and self-control which Bonhoeffer displayed even in the most terrible situations. For instance, during the very heavy bombings of Berlin, when the explosions were accompanied by the howling of his fellow prisoners, who beat with their fists against the locked doors of their cells clamouring to be transferred to the safe bunkers, Bonhoeffer stood, we have been told, like a giant before men.

But this is only the one side of the picture. The other side is that Bonhoeffer was a man who lived in, and loved, this world. He, a giant before man, was but a child before God. While he was in the body, the fight between flesh and spirit, Adam and Christ, was going on in him. Sometimes he seemed to have become a riddle to himself. One day he gave expression to this conflict in his soul in a moving poem written from the prisoncell and entitled:

WHO AM I?
Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
like a Squire from his country house.

Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
freely and friendly and clearly,
as though it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness,
tossing in expectation of great events,
powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.

Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person to-day and to-morrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
and before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army
fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!

On October 5th, 1944, Bonhoeffer was transferred from Tegel to the main Gestapo prison in the Prinz Albrechtstrasse in Berlin. Although fully aware of what he had to expect there, he was perfectly calm, saying goodbye to his friends as though nothing had happened, but, as a fellow prisoner remarked, “his eyes were quite unnatural.” The direct contact hitherto maintained with the outside world was now cut. One of the last messages received from him was a poem composed at the Gestapo prison in Berlin during the very heavy air raids on Berlin. It was entitled “New Year 1945” and reads as follows:

With every power for good to stay and guide me,
comforted and inspired beyond all fear,
I’ll live these days with you in thought beside me,
and pass, with you, into the coming year.

The old year still torments our hearts, unhastening:
the long days of our sorrow still endure.
Father, grant to the soul thou hast been chastening
that thou hast promised—the healing and the cure.

Should it be ours to drain the cup of grieving
even to the dregs of pain, at thy command,
we will not falter, thankfully receiving
all that is given by thy loving hand.

But, should it be thy will once more to release us
to life’s enjoyment and its good sunshine,
that we’ve learned from sorrow shall increase us
and all our life be dedicate as thine.

To-day, let candles shed their radiant greeting:
lo, on our darkness are they not thy light,
leading us haply to our longed-for meeting?
Thou canst illumine e’en our darkest night.

When now the silence deepens for our harkening,
grant we may hear thy children’s voices raise
from all the unseen world around us darkening
their universal paean, in thy praise.

While all the powers of Good aid and attend us,
boldly we’ll face the future, be it what may.
At even, and at morn, God will befriend us,
And oh, most surely on each new year’s day!

In February, when the Gestapo prison in Berlin was destroyed by an air raid, Bonhoeffer was taken to the concentration camp of Büchenwald and from there to other places until he was executed by special order of Himmler at the concentration camp at Flossenburg on April 9th, 1945, just a few days before it was liberated by the Allies. This happened just about the time when his brother Klaus and his sisters’ husbands, Hans von Dohnanyi and Rüdiger Schleicher, met their execution at the hands of the Gestapo in Berlin and in the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen.

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The guiding force in Bonhoeffer’s life, underlying all that he did, worked and suffered for, was his faith and love of God, in whom he found peace and happiness. From his faith the breadth of vision came which enabled him to separate the gold in life from the dross and to differentiate what was and what was not essential in the life of man. From it came the constancy of mind, persistency of purpose, love of suffering humanity and of truth, justice and goodness. But it was not enough for him to seek justice, truth, honesty and goodness for their own sake and patiently to suffer for them. No, according to Bonhoeffer, we have to do so in loyal obedience to Him who is the source and spring of all goodness, justice and truth and on whom he felt absolutely dependent.

It is the same call of God which also obliges us only to make use of freedom with a deep feeling of responsibility. Bonhoeffer believed in man as a free spiritual being, but this freedom was conferred and inspired by divine grace and granted man, not for his glorification, but for the conservation of the divine ordering of human life. If Christian teaching does not guide us in the use of freedom and God is denied, all obligations and responsibilities that are sacred and binding on man are undermined. A Christian has then no other choice but to act, to suffer and—if it has to be—to die. As he put it in his poem, “Stations on the Road to Freedom,” composed in prison when he realized that his death was certain, the last verse of which runs as follows:

DEATH
Come now, solemnest feast on the road to eternal freedom,
Death, and destroy those fetters that bow, those walls that imprison
this our transient life, these souls that linger in darkness,
so that at last we see what is here withheld from our vision.
Long did we seek you, freedom, in discipline, action and suffering.
Now that we die, in the face of God himself we behold you.

It was his brotherly love of his fellow-men which also caused Bonhoeffer to believe that it was not enough to follow Christ by preaching, teaching and writing. No, he was in deadly earnest when he called for Christian action and self-sacrifice. This explains why Bonhoeffer always acted spontaneously, “in hiding,” far from all publicity, and why he considered self-righteousness and complacency great sins against the Holy Spirit, and regarded ambition and vanity as the start of the road to hell.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the Courtyard of Tegal Prison

Bonhoeffer stood for what is called Christian Humanism to-day. For he offered his life for a new understanding of the personal life which has its roots in the Christian faith. It was he who made true the word that “the spirit of man is the lamp of the Lord” (Prov. 20.27) and that God’s revelation is through man and for man only. To Bonhoeffer, Christianity was not the concern of the believing, pious soul who shuts himself up and keeps himself within the bounds of the sacramental sphere. No, according to him Christianity has its place in this world and the Church as the Body of Christ, and the fellowship in him can only be the visible Church. Man must follow him who has served and passed through this world as the living, the dying and the risen Lord. Therefore, wherever it pleases God to put man in this world, the Christian must be ready for martyrdom and death. It is only in this way that man learns faith.

As he himself has put it: “The Christian is not a homo religiosus, but simply a man as Jesus (in distinction from John the Baptist) was a man…. Not the flat and banal ‘This-sidedness’ of the Enlightened, of the deep ‘This-sidedness’ which is full of discipline and in which the knowledge of the Death and Resurrection is always present, this it is what I mean.1 When a man really gives up trying to make something out of himself—a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called clerical somebody), a righteous or unrighteous man,… when in the fullness of tasks, questions, success or ill-hap, experiences and perplexities, a man throws himself into the arms of God… then he wakes with Christ in Gethsemane. That is faith, that is metanoia and it is thus that he becomes a man and Christian. How can a man wax arrogant if in a this-sided life he shares the suffering of God?”

The idea that God himself has been suffering through Christ in this world and from its remoteness from him, had occupied Bonhoeffer’s mind again and again. Bonhoeffer frequently felt strongly that God himself shared his suffering. In the second verse of the poem “Christian and Unbeliever,” composed by Bonhoeffer a few months before his death, this feeling is expressed as follows:

Men go to God when he is sore bested:
find him poor and scorned, without shelter and bread,
whelmed under weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead.
Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving.

Bonhoeffer’s standing with God in his hour of grieving explains, ultimately, why he did not take his own suffering seriously and why his courage was so great and uncompromising.

This steadfastness of mind and preparedness to sacrifice everything has been proved on many occasions. For instance, when in the summer of 1940 despair had seized most of those who were actively hostile to the Nazi régime and when the proposal was made that further action should be postponed so as to avoid giving Hitler the air of a martyr, Bonhoeffer unswervingly and successfully opposed this suggestion: “If we claim to be Christians, there is no room for expediency.” Thus the group led by him went on with its activities at a time when the world inside and outside Germany widely believed in a Nazi victory. Or when the question arose as to who was prepared to inform the British Government, through the Bishop of Chichester, of the exact details of the German resistance movement, it was again Bonhoeffer who, as early as May 31st, 1942, at the risk of his life, undertook this task at the instigation of his brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi in the hope of a sympathetic understanding on the part of the British Government.

Further, in his hearing before the Gestapo during his imprisonment, defenceless and powerless as he then was and only fortified by the word of God in his heart, he stood erect and unbroken before his tormentors. He refused to recant, and defied the Gestapo machine by openly admitting that, as a Christian, he was an implacable enemy of National Socialism and its totalitarian demands towards the citizen—defied it, although he was continually threatened with torture and with the arrest of his parents, his sisters and his fiancée, who all had a helping hand in his activities. We know of another scene in October 1944, when friends made an attempt to liberate him and to take him to safety abroad, and he decided to remain in prison in order not to endanger others.

We also know from the testimony of a British officer, a fellow-prisoner, of the last service which Dietrich Bonhoeffer held on the day before his death and which “moved all deeply, Catholics and Protestants alike, by his simple sincerity.” When trying afterwards to keep the imprisoned wives of men executed for their leadership in the plot against Hitler from depression and anxiety, he was taken away. We know that Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was never tried, went steadfastly on his last way to be hanged, and died with admirable calmness and dignity.

God heard his prayer and granted him the “costly grace”—that is, the privilege of taking the cross for others and of affirming his faith by martyrdom.

4
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and work has far-reaching implications. First, Bonhoeffer’s and his friends’ political activities show that the still widely-held view that the plot of July 1944 was simply a “conspiracy of a small clique of reactionaries and discouraged officers,” who saw that Hitler was losing the war and had made a mess of their profession, is wrong. There also was in the German opposition movement another strand of uncorrupted spiritual forces which opposed all that Hitler and National Socialism stood for on grounds of Christianity and the basic values of life, of truth, justice, goodness and decency. This trend drew its members from quite different political parties and religious groups. None of these men stood for a special party belief, but for a certain way of life, the destruction of which was the avowed purpose of National Socialism. Here there was the “other Germany” of which there was so much talk in the ’thirties. These men were in truth the upholders of the European and Western tradition in Germany, and it was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who more than anybody else realized that nothing less than a return to the Christian faith could save Germany. The failure of these men was not only a tragedy for Germany, but for Europe as a whole, and historians may well come one day to the conclusion that the consequences of this failure cannot be made good.

The existence of this strand within the German opposition movement confirms that the last war was, ultimately, ideological in its basic character and that we are living to-day in a primarily ideological age. Only thus can we fully understand the motives of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s action. No doubt, Bonhoeffer was a great patriot and he loved his country so much that he preferred death to safety. But he was also too astute a political analyst not to see that Germany would be engulfed in the coming catastrophe. The fanatical devilish forces within National Socialism left no alternative. They were aiming at the destruction of Germany as a European and Christian country. By planned political action he hoped to avoid this tragic disaster. As he used to say: it is not only my task to look after the victims of madmen who drive a motorcar in a crowded street, but to do all in my power to stop their driving at all.

Ultimately, it was the allegiance which he owed to God and his master which forced upon him the terrible decision, not merely to make a stand against National Socialism (all the underground movements in the German-occupied countries did that), but also—and this in contradistinction to all the underground movements which appealed to nationalism—to work for the defeat of his own country, since only thus could Germany as a Christian and European country be saved from extinction. For this very reason Bonhoeffer and his friends were tortured, hanged and murdered. It was Bonhoeffer and his friends who proved by their resistance unto death that even in the age of the nation-state there are loyalties which transcend those to state and nation. They proved that even in this age nationalism stands under God and that it is a sin against him and his call for fellowship with other nations if it degenerates into national egotism and greed. This message, which implies the virtual death sentence of the still prevailing materialistic concept of nationalism, belongs to the spiritual inheritance of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s and his friends’ martyrdom. Only from this point of view can it be proved that Hitler and his gang were not only the destroyers of Europe but also traitors to their own country; and, further, that men can lose their country if it is represented by an anti-Christian régime.

True, it cannot be said that the war had actually been waged by the Western countries on these ideological lines. We know that in the later stages of the war, when the regrettable “unconditional surrender” policy of Casablanca was accepted by the Western countries, the war had gradually lost its ideological character and taken on a more and more nationalistic outlook. This was due to the fact that the West and its political leaders were, ultimately, not confronted with the tragic conflict of loyalties to which Christians in Germany were exposed. Of course, there were in the Western countries outstanding Christians and non-Christians who felt this conflict weighing heavily on their conscience and their thought and courageously refused during the war to bow down to public opinion.1 These men raised the claims of a higher loyalty than the national, and challenged politicians and churchmen alike. But they had not experienced the full weight of the tragic issue at stake. Only those who paid with their lives for the tragic conflict of loyalties can claim to be the martyrs of a new age.

5
Secondly, the religious implications concern the Protestant Church in Germany especially, but also affect the Church as a whole.

In the earlier stages of his career Bonhoeffer accepted the traditional Lutheran view that there was a sharp distinction between politics and religion. Gradually, however, he revised his opinion, not because he was a politician or because he refused to give Caesar his due, but because he came to recognize that the political authority in Germany had become entirely corrupt and immoral and that a false faith is capable of terrible and monstrous things. For Bonhoeffer Hitler was the Antichrist, the arch-destroyer of the world and its basic values, the Antichrist who enjoys destruction, slavery, death and extinction for their own sake, the Antichrist who wants to pose the negative as positive and as creative.

Bonhoeffer was firmly and rightly convinced that it is not only a Christian right but a Christian duty towards God to oppose tyranny, that is, a government which is no longer based on natural law and the law of God. For Bonhoeffer this followed from the fact that the Church as a living force in this world entirely depends on her this-sidedness. Of course, Bonhoeffer understood this term neither in the sense of modern liberal theology nor in the sense of the National Socialist creed. Both modern liberal theology and secular totalitarianism hold pretty much in common that the message of the Bible has to be adapted, more or less, to the requirements of a secular world. No wonder, therefore, that the process of debasing Christianity as inaugurated by liberal theology led, in the long run, to a complete perversion and falsification of the essence of Christian teaching by National Socialism. Bonhoeffer was firmly convinced that “this side” must be fully related to, and permeated by, Christian love, and that the Christian must be prepared, if necessary, to offer his life for this. Thus all kinds of secular totalitarianism which force man to cast aside his religious and moral obligations to God and subordinate the laws of justice and morality to the State are incompatible with his conception of life.

This explains why Bonhoeffer did not take the pacifist line, although his aristocratic noble-mindedness and charming gentleness made him, at the bottom of his heart, a pacifist. But to refrain from taking any part in the attempt to overcome the National Socialist régime conflicted too deeply with his view that Christian principles must in some way be translated into human life and that it is in the sphere of the material, in state and society, that responsible love has to be manifested.

Again, it was typical of Bonhoeffer that he did not commit the Church by his actions. The responsibility was his and not that of the Church, and therefore he cannot, alas, be said to have represented by his action the Confessional Church as a whole. True, the Barmen Declaration had committed the Church to action in the political as well as in the religious sphere, and Bonhoeffer left no doubt that deciding for or against Barmen was deciding for or against the Confessional Church in Nazi Germany. As he once said: “He who severs himself from the Confessional Church severs himself from the Grace of God.” But there were only a few of its members who took the Barmen message so seriously that they were prepared courageously to act upon the practical consequence of their conclusions. Therefore we cannot be surprised that Bonhoeffer was filled with increasing sorrow about the course the Confessional Church took in the later years of the National Socialist régime. He felt that the Confessional Church was more concerned with her own existence and inherited rights than with preaching against the war and with the fate of the persecuted and oppressed. Thus it was Bonhoeffer who first brought home the full lesson of the Oxford Conference to the Lutheran Church in Germany, namely, that the life of the Church must be linked with the life of the people. This is the deeper meaning of Bonhoeffer’s martyrdom and death for the Protestant Church in Germany. Her future depends on her right understanding of them.

6
Those who attended the service held at Holy Trinity in London at the instigation of the late Bishop of Chichester on July 27th, 1945,1 felt that, on April 9th, 1945, when Dietrich Bonhoeffer met his death at the hands of the S.S. Black Guards, something had happened in Germany that could not be measured by human standards. They felt that God himself had intervened in the most terrible struggle the world has witnessed so far by sacrificing one of his most faithful and courageous sons to expiate the crimes of a diabolical régime and to revive the spirit in which the civilization of Europe has to be rebuilt.

Indeed, if self-sacrifice is the highest fulfilment of the human being, and if the value of man with his bodily existence depends on the measure of sacrifice he is called to exercise for the sake of responsible love in the material environment in which he has been set, then Bonhoeffer’s life and death belong to the annals of Christian martyrdom, or, as Niebuhr said, “to the modern Acts of the Apostles.” His good fight has been a living symbol that the spiritual has the primacy over the material. His story has become the story of the victory of the spirit of the loving and truly human person over evil, evil which was not able to break the last stronghold of responsible spiritual freedom. “The life of the spirit is not that which shuns death and keeps clear of destruction: rather it endureth death and in death it is sustained. It only achieves its truth in the midst of utter destruction.”

It has often been said that those of the many who are not directly guilty for the crimes of the former régime in Germany must be punished for their passive attitude towards it. In a modern dictatorship, however, with its subterranean ubiquity and all-embracing instruments of oppression, a revolt means certain death to all who support it. To reproach in a modern tyranny a people as a whole for failing to revolt is as if one would reproach a prisoner for failing to escape from a heavily guarded prison. The majority of the people in all nations alike does not consist of heroes. What Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others did cannot be expected from the many. The future in modern society depends much more on the quiet heroism of the very few who are inspired by God. These few will greatly enjoy the divine inspiration and will be prepared to stand for the dignity of man and true freedom and to keep the law of God, even if it means martyrdom or death. These few perform the law because they “look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are unseen: for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”

Bonhoeffer often asked himself about the deeper meaning of his life, which seemed to him so disconnected and confused. A few months before his death, when coming events cast their shadows before, he wrote in prison: “It all depends on whether or not the fragment of our life reveals the plan and material of the whole. There are fragments which are only good to be thrown away, and others which are important for centuries to come because their fulfilment can only be a divine work. They are fragments of necessity. If our life, however remotely, reflects such a fragment… we shall not have to bewail our fragmentary life, but, on the contrary, rejoice in it.”

Indeed, we have to rejoice in God’s mercy. We have not found Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s grave, but the memory of his life will safely be guarded, not only in the hearts of those who are indissolubly united with him, but also in the heart of the Church who draws her life-blood again and again from those who “follow him.”

Beyond that we know that the time will come when we shall have to realize that we owe it to the inspiration of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and death, and of those who died with him, that Western civilization can be saved. For not only in its material standards, but also in its spiritual vitality, has Western civilization been falling steadily and with increasing rapidity into ruin and desolation. The good message of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and death is that Western civilization must not die. It will be born again to youth. It has already recaptured faith and vitality. What was said of Moses as he went to his death, “And the Lord showed him all the land” (Deut. 34.1), applies to Bonhoeffer and to those who have given their lives for the new humanity which will arise through their martyrdom.

Thus Bonhoeffer’s life and death have given us great hope for the future. He has set a model for a new type of true leadership inspired by the gospel, daily ready for martyrdom and death and imbued by a new spirit of Christian humanism and a creative sense of civic duty. The victory which he has won was a victory for us all, a conquest never to be undone, of love, light and liberty

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Out of the Silent Planet, the comic book. By AaronTP

Brenton Dickieson:

I’ve blogged about the crazy book covers for Out of the Silent Planet, and I’ve talked about its meaning in my War of Worldviews series (Part 1 & Part 2), as well as “There’s No Such Thing as Space” and “Between Mars and Malacandra, Fantasy and Real Life“–one of my most popular post. Now here is a link to someone making a comic book of Lewis’ first space fantasy book. Enjoy!

Originally posted on Geeks of Christ:

Here is his Deviant Art page: AaronTP’s page .

This is a book I had considered most potent in novel form. A movie version or comic version couldn’t transmit the depth of Ransom’s thought life like the novel does. But, I’m not an artist or a movie-maker, so what do I know? These beautiful pages represent a telling of the Burroughs-side of the story.

And here are the pages (linked back to his website):

View original

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The Imaginative Landscape of The Worm Ouroboros

The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison is one the most important early fantasy works of the twentieth century. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote:

I read the works of Eddison, long after they appeared; and I once met him. I heard him in Mr. Lewis’s room in Magdalen College read aloud some parts of his own works – from the Mistress of Mistresses, as far as I remember. He did it extremely well. I read his works with great enjoyment for their sheer literary merit (letter to Caroline Everett 24 June 1957).

Tolkien’s praise wasn’t without criticism. He did not prefer Eddison’s Mistress of Mistresses (1935), they clashed on ideas of honour and integrity in characters, and Tolkien denied there was an influence on his own work. Still, though, Tolkien saw his importance:

I still think of him as the greatest and most convincing writer of ‘invented worlds’ that I have read (letter to Caroline Everett 24 June 1957).

Of Other Worlds by CS LewisC.S. Lewis, who had engaged Eddison with an extended dialogue in Elizabethan English (yes, they really wrote like that), introduced Eddison and Tolkien in a meeting of the Inklings. Lewis agreed with Tolkien about Eddison’s ability to shape a speculative universe–an “invented world.” Lewis discusses The Worm Ouroboros in his famous essay, “On Stories”:

Every episode, every speech, helps to incarnate what the author is imagining. You could spare none of them. It takes the whole story to build up that strange blend of renaissance luxury and northern hardness. The secret here is largely  the  style,  and  especially  the  style  of  the dialogue. These proud, reckless, amorous people create themselves and the whole atmosphere of their world chiefly by talking.

It is an intriguing idea, being incarnated as a reader. Not just the word in flesh but the enfleshment of the word, drawing us wholly into the “whole atmosphere of the world.”

Carpenter Tolkien LettersWith comments like this–and because I’m going through a list of the All Time Best Fantasy Novels–I knew I had to read The Worm Ouroboros. I will fully admit that I found this a challenging read. Like when reading English from other eras, it takes a few minutes to get into the rhythm of the language. Actually, without some work in Shakespeare and Milton and a good knowledge of the King James Bible I would have failed in the task.

It isn’t just the language, though. I found the characters confusing at first and had to sketch out a character map. I found a lot of that “atmosphere” dull and disorienting at first. There are long narratives of courtesy and rituals of war. Yet, as the story moved on, I became more and more enthralled. When I finally finished (it is a longish book), I began reading it again so I could understand what I might have missed in the beginning! There are not many books where I am unsure if I’ve missed anything.

Yet, I was hooked. When it was over, it was over too soon. The last half was exciting and evocative. It isn’t very often that a book gets better and better, and the writing solidifies to create that entire imaginative experience. After an elaborate setup to the story and a description of the characters (more anon), here is the first we hear of the Lords of Demonland, the protagonists of the story who had just finished defending another country from the Lords of Witchland and are at rest in the palace:

“What kill-joy have we here?” said [Lord] Spitfire. “The trumpet soundeth only for travellers from the outlands. I feel it in my bones some rascal is come to Galing, one that bringeth ill hap in his pocket and a shadow athwart the sun on this our day of festival.”
“Speak no word of ill omen,” answered [Lord] Juss. “Whosoe’er it be, we will straight dispatch his business and so fall to pleasure indeed. Some, run to the gate and bring him in.”
The serving man hastened and returned, saying, “Lord, it is an Ambassador from Witchland and his train. Their ship made land at Lookinghaven-ness at nightfall. They slept on board, and your soldiers gave them escort to Galing at break of day. He craveth present audience.”
“From Witchland, ha?” said Juss. “Such smokes use ever to go before the fire.”
“Shall’s bid the fellow,” said Spitfire, “wait on our pleasure? It is pity such should poison our gladness.”
[Lord] Goldry laughed and said, “Whom hath he sent us? Laxus, think you? to make his peace with us again for that vile part of his practised against us off Kartadza, detestably falsifying his word he had given us?”
Juss said to the serving man, “Thou sawest the Ambassador. Who is he?”
“Lord,” answered he, “His face was strange to me. He is little of stature and, by your highness’ leave, the most unlike to a great lord of Witchland that ever I saw. And, by your leave, for all the marvellous rich and sumptuous coat a weareth, he is very like a false jewel in a rich casing.”
“Well,” said Juss, “a sour draught sweetens not in the waiting. Call we in the Ambassador.

There it is. Rearding it now again I see that the themes of the main tension in the book are here in this little passage. But more than that, we feel that “atmosphere” and literary merit that Lewis and Tolkien speak about.

It really is a remarkable book, and the best way to introduce it to my readers is to include a part of a later chapter. Here the Lord Juss’ brother, Lord Goldry Bluszco, is being held in an echantment by King Gorice XII in a prison on the top of Zora Rach Nam. The mountain is unclimbable, and the Lords of Demonland must find a hippogriff’s egg so Lord Juss can hatch the egg and fly upon the magical beast’s back to his brother’s aid.

Don’t worry too much about the names of places and people. Don’t even get caught up in the meaning of every individual word. Just read the beginning of this great adventure below for the sheer sense of the fictional world.

Chapter XXVIII – Zora Rach Nam Psarrion
Of the Lord Juss’s riding of the hippogriff to Zora Rach, and of the ills encountered by him in that accursed place, and the manner of his performing his great enterprise to deliver his brother out of bondage.

Lulled with light-stirring airs too gentle-soft to ruffle her glassy surface, warm incense-laden airs sweet with the perfume of immortal flowers, the charmed Lake of Ravary dreamed under the moon. It was the last hour before the dawn. Enchanted boats, that seemed builded of the glow-worm’s light, drifted on the starry bosom of the lake. Over the sloping woods the limbs of the mountains lowered, unmeasured, vast, mysterious in the moon’s glamour. In remote high spaces of night beyond glimmered the spires of Koshtra Pivrarcha and the virgin snows of Romshir and Koshtra Belorn. No bird or beast moved in the stillness: only a nightingale singing to the stars from a coppice of olive-trees near the Queen’s pavilion on the eastern shore. And that was a note not like a bird’s of middle earth, but a note to charm down spirits out of the air, or to witch the imperishable senses of the Gods when they would hold communion with holy Night and make her perfect, and all her lamps and voices perfect in their eyes.

The silken hangings of the pavilion door, parting as in the portal of a vision, made way for that Queen, fosterling of the most high Gods. She paused a step or two beyond the threshold, looking down where those lords of Demonland, Spitfire and Brandoch Daha, with Gro and Zigg and Astar, wrapped in their cloaks, lay on the gowany dewy banks that sloped down to the water’s edge.

“Asleep,” she whispered. “Even as he within sleepeth against the dawn. I do think it is only in a great man’s breast sleep hath so gentle a bed when great events are toward.”

Like a lily, or like a moonbeam strayed through the leafy roof into a silent wood, she stood there, her face uplifted to the starry night where all the air was drenched with the silver radiance of the moon. And now in a soft voice she began supplication to the Gods which are from everlasting, calling upon them in turn by their holy names, upon gray-eyed Pallas, and Apollo, and Artemis the fleet Huntress, upon Aphrodite, and Hera, Queen of Heaven, and Ares, and Hermes, and the dark-tressed Earthshaker. Nor was she afraid to address her holy prayers to him who from his veiled porch beside Acheron and Lethe Lake binds to his will the devils of the under-gloom, nor to the great Father of All in Whose sight time from the beginning until to-day is but the dipping of a wand into the boundless ocean of eternity. So prayed she to the blessed Gods, most earnestly requiring them that under their countenance might be that ride, the like whereof earth had not known: the riding of the hippogriff, not rashly and by an ass as heretofore to his own destruction, but by the man of men who with clean purpose and resolution undismayed should enforce it carry him to his heart’s desire.

Now in the east beyond the feathery hilltops and the great snow wall of Romshir the gates were opening to the day. The sleepers wakened and stood up. There was a great noise from within the pavilion. They turned wide-eyed, and forth of the hangings of the doorway came that young thing new-hatched, pale and doubtful as the new light which trembled in the sky. Juss walked beside it, his hand on the sapphire mane. High and resolute was his look, as he gave good-morrow to the Queen, to his brother and his friends. No word they said, only in turn gripped him by the hand. The hour was upon them. For even as day striding on the eastern snow-fields stormed night out of high heaven, so and with such swift increase of splendour was might bodily and the desire of the upper air born in that wild steed. It shone as if lighted by a moving lamp from withinward, sniffed the sweet morning air and whinnied, pawing the grass of the waterside and tearing it up with its claws of gold. Juss patted the creature’s arching neck, looked to the bridle he had fitted to its mouth, made sure of the fastenings of his armour, and loosened in the scabbard his great sword. And now up sprang the sun.

The Queen said, “Remember: when thou shalt see the lord thy brother in his own shape, that is no illusion. Mistrust all else. And the almighty Gods preserve and comfort thee.”

Therewith the hippogriff, as if maddened with the day-beams, plunged like a wild horse, spread wide its rainbow pinions, reared, and took wing. But the Lord Juss was sprung astride of it, and the grip of his knees on the ribs of it was like brazen clamps. The firm land seemed to rush away beneath him to the rear; the lake and the shore and islands thereof showed in a moment small and remote, and the figures of the Queen and his companions like toys, then dots, then shrunken to nothingness, and the vast silence of the upper air opened and received him into utter loneliness. In that silence earth and sky swirled like the wine in a shaken goblet as the wild steed rocketed higher and higher in great spirals. A cloud billowy-white shut in the sky before them; brighter and brighter it grew in its dazzling whiteness as they sped towards it, until they touched it and the glory was dissolved in a gray mist that grew still darker and colder as they flew till suddenly they emerged from the further side of the cloud into a radiance of blue and gold blinding in its glory.

So for a while they flew with no set direction, only ever higher, till at length obedient to Juss’s mastery the hippogriff ceased from his sports and turned obediently westward, and so in a swift straight course, mounting ever, sped over Ravary towards the departing night. And now indeed it was as if they had verily overtaken night in her western caves. For the air waxed darker about them and always darker, until the great peaks that stood round Ravary were hidden, and all the green land of Zimiamvia, with its plains and winding waters and hills and uplands and enchanted woods, hidden and lost in an evil twilight. And the upper heaven was ateem with portents: whole armies of men skirmishing in the air, dragons, wild beasts, bloody streamers, blazing comets, fiery strakes, with other apparitions innumerable. But all silent, and all cold, so that Juss’s hands and feet were numbed with the cold and his moustachios stiff with hoar-frost.

Before them now, invisible till now, loomed the gaunt peak of Zora Rach, black, wintry, and vast, still towering above them for all they soared even higher, grand and lonely above the frozen wastes of the Psarrion Glaciers. Juss stared at that peak till the wind of their flight blinded his eyes with tears; but it was yet too far for any glimpse of that which he hungered to behold: no brazen citadel, no coronal of flame, no watcher on the heights. Zora, like some dark queen of Hell that disdains that presumptuous mortal eyes should dare to look lovely on her dread beauties, drew across her brow a veil of thundercloud. They flew on, and that steel-blue pall of thunderous vapour rolled forth till it canopied all the sky above them. Juss tucked his two hands for warmth into the feathery armpits of the hippogriff’s wings where the wings joined the creature’s body. So bitter cold it was, his very eyeballs were frozen and fixed; but that pain was a light thing beside somewhat he now felt within him the like whereof he never before had known: a deathlike horror as of the houseless loneliness of naked space, which gripped him at the heart.

They landed at last on a crag of black obsidian stone a little below the cloud that hid the highest rocks. The hippogriff, crouched on the steep slope, turned its head to look on Juss. He felt the creature’s body beneath him quiver. Its ears were laid back, its eye wide with terror. “Poor child,” he said. “I have brought thee an ill journey, and thou but one hour hatched from the egg.”

He dismounted; and in that same instant was bereaved. For the hippogriff with a horse-scream of terror took wing and vanished down the mirk air, diving headlong away to eastward, back to the world of life and sunlight.

And the Lord Juss stood alone in that region of fear and frost and the soul-quailing gloom, under the black summit-rocks of Zora Rach.

Setting, as the Queen had counselled him to do, his whole heart and mind on the dread goal he intended, he turned to the icy cliff. As he climbed the cold cloud covered him, yet not so thick but he might see ten paces’ distance before and about him as he went. Ill sights enow, and enow to quail a strong man’s resolution, showed in his path: shapes of damned fiends and gorgons of the pit running in the way, threatening him with death and doom. But Juss, gritting his teeth, climbed on and through them, they being unsubstantial. Then up rose an eldritch cry, “What man of middle-earth is this that troubleth our quiet? Make an end! Call up the basilisks. Call up the Golden Basilisk, which bloweth upon and setteth on fire whatsoever he seeth. Call up the Starry Basilisk, and whatso he seeth it immediately shrinks up and perisheth. Call up the Bloody Basilisk, who if he see or touch any living thing it floweth away so that nought there remaineth but the bones!”

That was a voice to freeze the marrow, yet he pressed on, saying in himself, “All is illusion, save that alone she told me of.” And nought appeared: only the silence and the cold, and the rocks grew ever steeper and their ice-glaze more dangerous, and the difficulty like the difficulty of those Barriers of Emshir, up which more than two years ago he had followed Brandoch Daha and on which he had encountered and slain the beast mantichora. The leaden hours drifted by, and now night shut down, bitter and black and silent. Sore weariness bodily was come upon Juss, and his whole soul weary withal and near to death as he entered a snowbedded gully that cut deep into the face of the mountain, there to await the day. He durst not sleep in that freezing night; scarcely dared he rest lest the cold should master him, but must keep for ever moving and stamping and chafing hands and feet. And yet, as the slow night crept by, death seemed a desirable thing that should end such utter weariness.

Morning came with but a cold alteration of the mist from black to gray, disclosing the snow-bound rocks silent, dreary, and dead. Juss, enforcing his half frozen limbs to resume the ascent, beheld a sight of woe too terrible for the eye: a young man, helmed and graithed in dark iron, a black-a-moor with goggle-eyes and white teeth agrin, who held by the neck a fair young lady kneeling on her knees and clasping his as in supplication, and he most bloodily brandishing aloft his spear of six foot of length as minded to reave her of her life. This lady, seeing the Lord Juss, cried out on him for succour very piteously, calling him by his name and saying, “Lord Juss of Demonland, have mercy, and in your triumph over the powers of night pause for an instant to deliver me, poor afflicted damosel, from this cruel tyrant. Can your towering spirit, which hath quarried upon kingdoms, make a stoop at him? O that should approve you noble indeed, and bless you for ever!”

Surely the very heart of him groaned, and he clapped hand to sword wishing to right so cruel a wrong. But on the motion he bethought him of the wiles of evil that dwelt in that place, and of his brother, and with a great groan passed on. In which instant he beheld sidelong how the cruel murtherer smote with his spear that delicate lady, and detrenched and cut the two master-veins of her neck, so as she fell dying in her blood. Juss mounted with a great pace to the head of the gully, and looking back beheld how black-amoor and lady both were changed to two coiling serpents. And he laboured on, shaken at heart, yet glad to have so escaped the powers that would have limed him so.

Darker grew the mist, and heavier the brooding dread which seemed elemental of the airs about that mountain. Pausing well nigh exhausted on a small stance of snow, Juss beheld the appearance of a man armed who rolled prostrate in the way, tearing with his nails at the hard rock and frozen snow, and the snow was all one gore of blood beneath the man; and the man besought him in a stifled voice to go no further but raise him up and bring him down the mountain. And when Juss, after an instant’s doubt betwixt pity and his resolve, would have passed by, the man cried and said, “Hold, for I am thy very brother thou seekest, albeit the King hath by his art framed me to another likeness, hoping so to delude thee. For thy love sake be not deluded!” Now the voice was like to the voice of his brother Goldry, howbeit weak. But the Lord Juss bethought him again of the words of Sophonisba the Queen, that he should see his brother in his own shape and nought else must he trust; and he thought, “It is an illusion, this also.” So he said, “If that thou be truly my dear brother, take thy shape.” But the man cried as with the voice of the Lord Goldry Bluszco, “I may not, till that I be brought down from the mountain. Bring me down, or my curse be upon thee for ever.”

The Lord Juss was torn with pity and doubt and wonder, to hear that voice again of his dear brother so beseeching him. Yet he answered and said, “Brother, if that it be thou indeed, then bide till I have won to this mountain top and the citadel of brass which in a dream I saw, that I may know truly thou art not there, but here. Then will I turn again and succour thee. But until I see thee in thine own shape I will mistrust all. For hither I came from the ends of the earth to deliver thee, and I will set my good on no doubtful cast, having spent so much and put so much in danger for thy dear sake.”

So with a heavy heart he set hand again to those black rocks, iced and slippery to the touch. Therewith up rose an eldritch cry, “Rejoice, for this earth-born is mad! Rejoice, for that was not perfect friend, that relinquished his brother at his need!” But Juss climbed on, and by and by looking back beheld how in that seeming man’s place writhed a grisful serpent. And he was glad, so much as gladness might be in that mountain of affliction and despair.

Now was his strength near gone, as day drew again toward night and he climbed the last crags under the peak of Zora. And he, who had all his days drunk deep of the fountain of the joy of life and the glory and the wonder of being, felt ever deadlier and darker in his soul that lonely horror which he first had tasted the day before at his first near sight of Zora, while he flew through the cold air portent-laden; and his whole heart grew sick because of it.

And now he was come to the ring of fire that was about the summit of the mountain. He was beyond terror or the desire of life, and trod the fire as it had been his own home’s threshold. The blue tongues of flame died under his foot-tread, making a way before him. The brazen gates stood wide. He entered in, he passed up the brazen stair, he stood on that high roof-floor which he had beheld in dreams, he looked as in a dream on him he had crossed the confines of the dead to find: Lord Goldry Bluszco keeping his lone watch on the unhallowed heights of Zora. Not otherwise was the Lord Goldry, not by an hairsbreadth, than as Juss had aforetime seen him on that first night in Koshtra Belorn, so long ago. He reclined propped on one elbow on that bench of brass, his head erect, his eyes fixed as on distant space, viewing the depths beyond the star-shine, as one waiting till time should have an end.

He turned not at his brother’s greeting. Juss went to him and stood beside him. The Lord Goldry Bluszco moved not an eyelid. Juss spoke again, and touched his hand. It was stiff and like dank earth. The cold of it struck through Juss’s body and smote him at the heart. He said in himself, “He is dead.”

With that, the horror shut down upon Juss’s soul like madness. Fearfully he stared about him. The cloud had lifted from the mountain’s peak and hung like a pall above its nakedness. Chill air that was like the breath of the whole world’s grave: vast blank cloud- barriers: dim far forms of snow and ice, silent, solitary, pale, like mountains of the dead: it was as if the bottom of the world were opened and truth laid bare: the ultimate Nothing.

To hold off the horror from his soul, Juss turned in memory to the dear life of earth, those things he had most set his heart on, men and women he loved dearest in his life’s days; battles and triumphs of his opening manhood, high festivals in Galing, golden summer noons under the Westmark pines, hunting morns on the high heaths of Mealand; the day he first backed a horse, of a spring morning in a primrose glade that opened on Moonmere, when his small brown legs were scarce the length of his fore-arm now, and his dear father held him by the foot as he trotted, and showed him where the squirrel had her nest in the old oak tree.

He bowed his head as if to avoid a blow, so plain he seemed to hear somewhat within him crying with a high voice and loud, “Thou art nothing. And all thy desires and memories and loves and dreams, nothing. The little dead earth-louse were of greater avail than thou, were it not nothing as thou art nothing. For all is nothing: earth and sky and sea and they that dwell therein. Nor shall this illusion comfort thee, if it might, that when thou art abolished these things shall endure for a season, stars and months return, and men grow old and die, and new men and women live and love and die and be forgotten. For what is it to thee, that shalt be as a blown-out flame? and all things in earth and heaven, and things past and things for to come, and life and death, and the mere elements of space and time, of being and not being, all shall be nothing unto thee; because thou shalt be nothing, for ever.”

And the Lord Juss cried aloud in his agony, “Fling me to Tartarus, deliver me to the black infernal Furies, let them blind me, seethe me in the burning lake. For so should there yet be hope. But in this horror of Nothing is neither hope nor life nor death nor sleep nor waking, for ever. For ever.”

In this black mood of horror he abode for awhile, until a sound of weeping and wailing made him raise his head, and he beheld a company of mourners walking one behind another about the brazen floor, all cloaked in funeral black, mourning the death of Lord Goldry Bluszco. And they rehearsed his glorious deeds and praised his beauty and prowess and goodliness and strength: soft women’s voices lamenting, so that the Lord Juss’s soul seemed as he listened to arise again out of annihilation’s waste, and his heart grew soft again, even unto tears. He felt a touch on his arm and looking up met the gaze of two eyes gentle as a dove’s, suffused with tears, looking into his from under the darkness of that hood of mourning; and a woman’s voice spake and said, “This is the observable day of the death of the Lord Goldry Bluszco, which hath been dead now a year; and we his fellows in bondage do bewail him, as thou mayst see, and shall so bewail him again year by year whiles we are on life. And for thee, great lord, must we yet more sorrowfully lament, since of all thy great works done this is the empty guerdon, and this the period of thine ambition. But come, take comfort for a season, since unto all dominions Fate hath set their end, and there is no king on the road of death.”

So the Lord Juss, his heart dead within him for grief and despair, suffered her take him by the hand and conduct him down a winding stairway that led from that brazen floor to an inner chamber fragrant and delicious, lighted with flickering lamps. Surely life and its turmoils seemed faded to a distant and futile murmur, and the horror of the void seemed there but a vain imagination, under the heavy sweetness of that chamber. His senses swooned; he turned towards his veiled conductress. She with a sudden motion cast off her mourning cloak, and stood there, her whole fair body bared to his gaze, open- armed, a sight to ravish the soul with love and all delight.

Well nigh had he clasped to his bosom that vision of dazzling loveliness. But fortune, or the high Gods, or his own soul’s might, woke yet again in his drugged brain remembrance of his purpose, so that he turned violently from that bait prepared for his destruction, and strode from the chamber up to that roof where his dear brother sat as in death. Juss caught him by the hand: “Speak to me, kinsman. It is I, Juss. It is Juss, thy brother.”

But Goldry moved not, neither answered any word

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Adventures in Geekland: Book Collecting and C.S. Lewis

Lewis at His DeskWarning: You are about to experience C.S. Lewis geekery brought to a new level.

Now, I have gone down this road before. After all, I travelled to New York city to spend four hours with a handwritten manuscript of The Screwtape Letters. Worse than that, I undertook the insane project of counting C.S. Lewis’ letters in the 3 Volume collection and then made charts about how much he was writing in each stage of his life. That’s right. I made charts.

Well, I like charts. And though that displays some disturbing aspect of my own life, I can easily say that I am not the worst. Websites, blogs, C.S. Lewis societies, Narnia role play games, podcasts, tumblr paNumber of Pages of Letters Lewis Wrote Per 4-5 Year Periodges, digital networks, Disney film protest groups, midnight reenactments of Narnian celebrations, facebook chats, international conferences—there’s even talk of a C.S. Lewis College, a kind of “Good Books” school. There is no end to Lewisimania.

On the well-respected edge of this geekery—somewhere near chart makers—are book and letter collectors. C.S. Lewis literary artifacts are no mean affair. Letters typically sell between $300-$5000, and 1st edition books with the dust jacket can go for five figures. This project hasn’t interested me all that much. You may be surprised, but I’m just not in the market to buy 1st editions—even with all these blog revenues. Ahem. Cough.

C.S. Lewis signatureMoreover, as a researcher, I find the cost a little annoying. I need, in some cases, the 1st edition printing to compare with manuscripts or to see how a work developed over time. Fortunately, I have been able to get 6th or 7th printing of some books in fair shape for $20-$30. But I would prefer to pay $5-$10.

Among the master collectors is Edwin W. Brown, an American doctor. He began collecting nearly fifty years ago, and about fifteen years ago provided his collection to The Center for the Study of C.S. Lewis & Friends in the Zondervan Library at Taylor University in Upland, IN. By that time he had In Pursuit of CS Lewis Edwin Browncollected multiple 1st editions of most of Lewis’ books, as well as an extensive collection of Lewis letters and two original manuscripts—a rare thing indeed, since Lewis used them to start his fires. I had the opportunity of viewing the Edwin W. Brown collection in 2012 when visiting TaylorU.

In 2006, with the help of his friend and George MacDonald editor, Dan Hamilton, Edwin Brown decided to write up his experience of collecting C.S. Lewis artifacts. The result is a delightful and helpful book, In Pursuit of C.S. Lewis: Adventures in Collecting his Works (2006).

In Pursuit of C.S. Lewis is divided into two sections. The first is a series of chapters on various topics:

  • How Dr. Brown began collecting Lewisiana.
  • Who the major players are in Lewis’ literary estate.
  • How he came across various collections, books, and manuscripts.
  • An entire chapter about the dedications in Lewis’ books, as well as notes on various editions.
  • Tips on how to spot a forgery.
  • Conversation about C.S. Lewis’ handwriting.
  • The work of Walter Hooper, C.S. Lewis’ literary executor.
  • Some amazing scribal notes in books he’s found.
  • Tips on how to find a bar stool in Britain.

It is a crazy variety of topics, and that is what makes this book so much fun. It is neither very literary nor very academic. Instead, Dr. Brown tells stories of how he stumbled into bookshops, made C.S. Lewis friends, worked through tight issues in the field, and even how he was ripped off by an inauthentic signature that he had actually authenticated.

In Pursuit of C.S. Lewis is humorous and light, and yet quite informative. The second half of the book is a highly organized list of all the first edition books with details to look for. Throughout Brown avoids speaking of financial matters, but he gives enough clues that other collectors could follow his literary breadcrumbs to authentic C.S. Lewis and Inklings materials.

I loved this book, but it isn’t without weakness. Edwin Brown reminds us that he does not know the publishing industry, and that is what we are missing: a solid chapter on how the book printing industry worked, especially in WWII. There is repetition in the book, and the outline rolls along, taking time to stop whenever something beside the road seems interesting. I’m sure this book would drive some readers mad!

CS Lewis Apologetics Books Mere Christianity Miracles ScrewtapeBut that’s partly why I like it. I suspect this book—with typos and quick-moving paragraphs and both too-much-said and not-nearly-enough—is authentic to Dr. Brown’s voice as a storyteller. An example is in the Lindskoog-Hooper controversy, where an American researcher accused Walter Hooper of substantial forgery. This topic is no man’s land for most of us in the field, and yet Edwin Brown rolls over it without so much as a wrinkle. He made friends with both parties, and though he chose sides, he avoids the demonization that often happens in the discussion.

Critical historians are going to struggle with this kind of “pretty” history. Brown sees C.S. Lewis in bright colours,  even recounting a sort of saintly C.S. Lewis miracle a leading British Christian experienced after Lewis’ death.Lewis books signature series

Fair enough. But isn’t it the stories that we want anyway? It’s true, there are times when charts are the bomb. And Dr. Brown’s book list is essential on-the-shelf material for any researcher. But reading In Pursuit of C.S. Lewis was like getting to sit down at dinner with the book collector himself. It was scattered, disorganized, self-indulgent, and simple. It was sheer geekery.

In that sense, then, it was perfect.

I’m pretty sure I warned you.

For those interested, included below are a book description, as well as an expanded index. Brown only indexed the second half of the book; I attempted to index the first half too.

Book Description
Behind the Edwin W. Brown Collection at Taylor University — one of the world’s finest holdings of C. S. Lewis first editions, letters, and manuscripts — are tales of thirty years of warm and humorous adventures, tales of curiosity, perseverance, and “coincidence” — a British pub in an American basement — an obscure name scrawled in a rare Lewis book — a long-lost Lewis manuscript which solves a modern controversy — a little girl’s treasure, sold by mistake and amazingly recovered –and friendships and encounters with those (among many others) who knew Lewis well — Walter Hooper, Doug Gresham, Pauline Baynes, George Sayer, and Owen Barfield.

Expanded Index
Note: Additions 03/18/14, adding page numbers from the body of the book to the index at the back of the book. Bolded items are entries I have added. I have not included all listings about letters and poems; it is necessarily incomplete and added only for interest based on my own notes. For corrections or additions, drop me a note.

Abolition of Man – 222, 224
Allegory of Love – 69, 71, 76, 83, 135, 149-50, 185, 189
All My Road Before Me – 310
Arthurian Torso – 72, 241

Beyond Personality – 91, 143, 225, 226
Beyond the Bright Blur – 128, 296
Boxen – 30, 167
Broadcast Talks – 61, 211

Case for Christianity – 212
Christian Behaviour – 87-92, 214, 216
Christian Reflections – 305
Collected Letters – Vol. I – 311
Vol. II – 312
Vol. III – 134, 312

Dark Tower – 94, 100-104, 307, 308
Discarded Image – 76, 301
Dymer – 68, 110, 125, 169, 172, 174

English Literature in the Sixteenth Century – 126, 265, 267
Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces – 311
Experiment in Criticism – 294, 295

Four Loves – 76, 285, 286

George Macdonald Anthology – 25, 37, 38, 63, 68, 235, 237
God in the Dock – 307
Great Divorce – 71, 87, 232, 233
Grief Observed – 123-7, 292

Horse and His Boy – 74, 118-22, 147, 262, 263

Joyful Christian – 308

Last Battle – 41, 75, 85, 147
Letters of C.S. Lewis – 133, 304 (see also 32, 35-6, 38, 62-7, 68, 131-5, 136-9, 143-5, 149)
Letters to Don Giovani Calabria – 310
Letters to an American Lady – 305, 306
Letters to Children – 74, 309, 310
Letters to Malcolm – 128-30, 298, 299
Light – 87, 94-5, 98, 100-4, 113, 158 (see Dark Tower; see Charlie Starr, Light)
Lion, Witch, and Wardrobe – 11, 41-2, 43, 47, 51, 72-3, 86, 102, 110, 247, 248

Magician’s Nephew – 72, 122, 268, 269
Mere Christianity – 20, 34, 49, 61, 253, 254 (see also Beyond Personality, Broadcast Talks, Christian Behaviour)
Mind Awake – 306
Miracles – 56, 71-2, 87

Narnia – 41-2, 43, 47, 50, 77, 84-6, 102, 118, 122, 146, 158, 171
Narrative Poems – 306, 307

Of Other Worlds – 304
Of This and Other Worlds – 309
On Stories – 309
Out of the Silent Planet – 44-7, 51, 69, 102, 190, 193 (see also Space Trilogy)

Perelandra – 20, 47, 56, 68, 74, 218, 220
Personal Heresy – 198
Pilgrim’s Regress – 63, 69, 177, 180, 181, 182, 183
Poems – 303
Preface to Paradise Lost – 71, 136, 208
Prince Caspian – 41, 74, 122, 146, 250, 251
Problem of Pain – 68, 95, 110, 200, 202

Reflections on the Psalms – 75, 280, 281
Rehabilitations and Other Essays – 70, 195

Screwtape Letters – 46-8, 67, 70, 110-3, 204, 206
Screwtape Letters and Screwtape Proposes a Toast – 130, 288, 290
Selected Literary Essays – 307
Silver Chair – 41, 74, 147, 259, 260
Space Trilogy – 51, 171
Spenser’s Images of Life – 305
Spirits in Bondage – 12, 29-33, 61, 85, 95, 125, 149-50, 159, 165
Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature – 303
Studies in Words – 76, 287
Surprised by Joy – 33, 72, 75, 93, 97, 100, 114-5, 140, 271, 272

That Hideous Strength – 47, 51, 71, 87, 228, 229
They Asked For a Paper – 295
They Stand Together – 308 (see Letters of C.S. Lewis)
Till We Have Faces – 75, 114, 277, 278
Tortured Planet – 230
Transposition and Other Addresses – 244

Undeceptions – 307

Visionary Christian – 308
Voyage of the Dawn Treader – 41-2, 74, 148, 256, 257

Weight of Glory – 245
World’s Last Night – 283

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Somebody Who Gave a Damn

It was an age when Kurt Cobain’s suicide made some sense. Not his own personal death, of course, distilled, slipping from faded light to darkness. It is easy to forget the icons as souls sometimes.

It seemed, though, like a suicidal age. As Cobain was the icon in a non-iconic era, it made sense to me. It was 1994, and things were ending. The music was falling together. We forgot about mixed tapes. Fashion was tearing to threads. I was finishing high school and falling casually in love, so some things were beginning I guess. I learned guitar playing “Come As You Are.” But it was a decade without much hope. It was Nirvana.

As we escape, though, other things find union. I was discovering poetry after a teenage exile. And so I heard Jewel one day, between Soundgarden and Foo Fighters. It was her voice, her overly-affective tonal caricatures. Then it was the lyrics, the stories in song. I had forgotten about stories in song.

So Jewel’s music, until that strange pop and country thing she did later, became one of my secret traveling soundtracks. Pieces of You came with me as I lived in five provinces and a mountainous prefecture. They are sad songs, mostly. But it was a break from my era.

At some point the song “Foolish Games” caught my creative imagination. It is the story of a woman who is enamoured with a distant lover, “fashionably sensitive but too cool to care.” I know our empathy should be for the beloved, the woman playing her guitar at the kitchen table as the lover is lost in his own self-interest. But I wondered about the guy. Did he know he was playing with her? Was he so lost in himself that he had no clue he was breaking her heart?

So I decided to try out the character. It is adolescent, of course, a caricature. But a good exercise in seeing the story from another angle. And I think it captures the era, now 20 years after Kirk Cobain’s death.

Angst Attendant

My cleanly clipped fingernails scratch my gotee
As the inspiration comes–
A poem, dressed in black
–And the words roll off the keys of my Mac.
Another Blake begs to break to the soft glow of my intellect,
Dylan Thomas reaches from within
As critical adjectives release my fashionable anger,
Insensitive wit, my god-eye watches the sell-out world.

‘Where is the artistry?’ I scream on screen
Advertising images stir the corner of my eye;
A gasmask I wore in protest this morning
Lies beside a bike messenger’s helmet.

He, there, at the table, in spandex shorts,
Drinks a latte and talks to his girlfriend,
A Tommy tramp shelving the world’s delights.
Her saccharine smile, all reality vanishing into the…

I stop typing, a bitter mistake.
A stifled doubt thickens the Adam’s apple
Inside my gray turtleneck sweater:

My dark clothes and mystical look,
My black coffee staining the pages of a Life After God,
My love of classic and criticism of pop,
“I read Ecclesiastes, without the ending,” I say,
As I light candles in my dark apartment
And smoke Cloves on holidays,
Twelve-year-old scotch and an open mic
Four days after hand-tatooing ‘por nada’ on my forearm,
My thrills, my delights, my Truth held pure.

Yet (as he, there, picks up his helmet and leans for a kiss),
Why is there still no one to clumsily strum her guitar?

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Sometimes It’s Hard To Know What God Wants: A Response to Noah

Sometimes it is hard to know what God wants.

Set aside for a moment the strengths and weaknesses of the new film adaptation of Noah featuring Russell Crowe. And leave for another day the questions of myth and history, of Hollywood racism and stereotyping, of speaking into the American culture war, of death and judgement in an age of peace, and of biblical integrity and the realities of adaptation in storytelling. I haven’t read any reviews or blogs, but I presume that’s what people are talking about. Those are good questions, but the idea that came home to me in watching Noah is this: sometimes it is hard to know what God wants.

Somewhere in my heathen childhood or my earliest years as a Christian I had turned the Noah tale into digital flannelgraph images in my mind. Noah became a static character, receiving a most terrible word from God and simply doing it. I stripped away all complexity, the question of suffering and doubt. I didn’t even look at my own life and ask the question, “how does God speak?”

In Noah, Russell Crowe is already living after the apocalypse. Noah’s world still has some of the magic of Eden within it, a mythical past where the lid of earth is still very close to heaven. But earth has been broken. Evocative of that 70s cult classic Mad Max, humanity has stripped the earth of all vitality, leaving a desolate wilderness filled with wandering hordes of warlords. Women, like the lands themselves, are for the subjugation of men and dominion of men. This industry of man has ruined all, and humanity slips away from the community of men.

Against this darkness stands the nomadic family of Noah. This family skirts the edges of the collapsed civilization, avoiding a pre-historic culture that had made sophisticated machinery to produce mines, buildings, cities, clothing, metallurgy and weaponry (all of which is implicit in the film). They are historically rooted, formed around their family heritage back to Adam and an ethic of living in the world with love for one another and consideration for the very limited resources they possess.

There are moments when the film is a bit preachy about Noah’s lifestyle, but the desperation is palpable. Something has to give, and it does, beginning with a dream from the Creator. This dream begins a pilgrimage to find Noah’s lost Grandfather, Methuselah, a witty mage played by Anthony Hopkins. This journey begins the re-creation of the world.

As it turns out, re-making the world includes the heartbreaking project of unmaking it. Not by fire, as in nature’s reseeding of an ancient forest, the re-creation will be the irrigation of the desert. Beneath the burnt cities and dry soil are the seeds of Eden, which God will water. Rather than begin the forward course of the world again with only vegetation and the beasts of the seas, the Creator calls Noah to save the animal kingdom in a vessel of safety. All of humanity, save Noah’s family, will be wiped out. The bloodthirsty Cain’s line will end forever.

But, sin crouches at the doorstep of every generation and every human family. The Creator calls Noah to the task, providing miraculous means to reseed the world. But God is silent about humanity. The visions are not clear about whether Noah’s family will restart the line of Seth, or if Noah’s youngest son will be the last man alive, a shepherd born to die. As “civilized” humanity panics in the collapse of their world, turning to bestial violence, Noah despairs of humanity altogether. He concludes that God wants Eve’s children to pass away. Committed to the One who gives life and provided the miracle of re-creation, Noah stands strong against the crashing wave of violence that falls upon the ark in the dying moments of the antediluvian world.

We shouldn’t be surprised that people panic at the sinking of Atlantis. But the tension in the story is not so much the violence without, but the violence within. As the earth floods, the violence is swept away. And yet that seed too is upon the ark. With each act of destruction within his little world, Noah feels confirmed that his family must pass away when the ark finally comes to rest. And weighed down with the passive murder of hundreds, Noah threatens the murder of those he loves so very much.

All throughout, Noah looks to the heavens but the Creator is silent, speaking only in portents that simply confirm what is already in one’s heart. So with each miracle that Noah’s family witness, they see possibility from the Creator. But with each of those miracles, Noah is confirmed in his intention to follow through with God’s judgment upon the world. It is hard to know what God wants sometimes. Noah sets his heart to violence.

Now, don’t be tempted to judge Noah too swiftly—just another fundamentalist bent on violence. Have you not seen this complexity in your own world? You have read,

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8, NIV)

It is simple enough: justice, mercy, humility. And yet each time you purchase coffee or buy clothing for your children, you participate in an economic system that keeps the weakest in poverty. Withdraw from that system and you leave the poor without any means. House pets bring great joy and healing, and yet North America’s pets use precious fish and grain resources that could feed others. Anyone who has committed his or her life to another knows how difficult it is to humbly uphold justice and mercy when you are late for work. Now imagine that family under threat.

Sometimes it is hard to know what God wants.

imagine adoptionIn my own life, our family felt like God wanted us to adopt internationally. We chose Ethiopia, and with the help of our church family pulled together $15,000 to begin the adoption. We bought a home and changed jobs and filled out endless forms as we waited the months for the chance to hold a little girl in our arms. Of 4.8 million orphans in Ethiopia, we thought we could love one who was forgotten by everyone else. Isn’t this what true religion is, the orphan coming home?

But it was not to be. Our adoption funds were mismanaged, used by someone for her own personal gain. Even with a national campaign and thousands of dollars more, the bureaucratic distance between the orphan and our home only grew. It never happened.

noah jennifer connellyWhat is God’s will there? I’m sure for some God’s will is always crystal clear. But for me, it is hard to know what God wants sometimes. Many times. God speaks in many ways, each as difficult to discern as the last.

So it is with Noah. Noah’s journey is not just the saving of animals, but test to see if he can hear the other ways that God is speaking. Jennifer Connelly’s compelling performance as God’s voice makes up for the film’s weaker points. God speaks not only in the tradition passed on to us, or in the prophet’s vision, but also in others who struggle along the path.

Whatever other strengths and weaknesses it might have, Noah is a parable of what it means to strain to hear God’s voice. We have the constant temptation to take the human stories in Scripture and cut them out in nice little pieces. This film doesn’t allow us to do this, for it admits that sometimes it is hard to know what God wants.

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