Beautiful Stories to Tell in the Dark

So, this one time, C.S. Lewis stayed at a haunted house.

But that’s not the part he chooses to emphasize. I would love to read a short mystery novel about Lewis at this haunted inn on a windswept hill in Ireland. But it doesn’t exist yet.

Anyway, the spooks and ghouls didn’t have nearly the effect on the locals as “the good people.” In addition to being allegedly haunted, this building was said to have faeries. And that was why the townsfolk steered clear of it. Now, having said that, I know that someone just rolled their eyes and maybe even just clicked away to a Neil DeGrasse Tyson video to remind themselves that we’ve conquered all mysteries.

But Jack had a medieval mind. Don’t forget, his day job was to teach medieval and Renaissance literature. And he took seriously what they took seriously. But to overcome the modern stereotype of Tinkerbell, he preferred to call them the Longaevi (“the long lived”). And in The Discarded Image, he takes great pleasure in subdividing them into different types with references from Milton and Spenser as his footnotes.

But my point is not to argue whether or not C.S. Lewis believed that faeries were real. His mind was thoroughly pre-modern and so was his imagination. And when he sought to explain the Longaevi (nymphs, fauns, satyrs, dryads, etc.), he sensed the tension they introduce in the medieval system. You had the seven heavens and the earth and the fullness thereof. But then we see this third category that defies tidy organization.

“They are marginal, fugitive creatures. They are perhaps the only creatures to whom the Model does not assign, as it were, official status. Herein lies their imaginative value. They soften the classic severity of the huge design. They intrude a welcome hint of wildness and uncertainty into a universe that is in danger of being a little too self-explanatory, too luminous” (Discarded Image, p.122).

A welcome hint of wildness and uncertainty. The philosopher Charles Taylor gets credit for introducing the term “disenchantment” to describe the secularization of the West. Jamie Smith, in his very helpful guide to reading Taylor’s The Secular Age, explains that the location of meaning has been moved from the world to the mind. Things aren’t soaked through with significance. Our minds, and their ability to perceive meaning internally, are drenched with importance.

The cosmos becomes the universe. Creation becomes nature. The curse of the lightbulb means that all the shadows and uncertainties have been banished from the haunted house. Things are, in Lewis’ words, “a little too self-explanatory, too luminous.” Charles Taylor calls it “the rage of order.” And faeries, sea monsters, ghosts, and goblins are that splinter of wildness wedged in the gears of a well-oiled and easily observed machine.

That’s my point in bringing all of this up. A hint of wildness and uncertainty can be a corrective to the secular mindset, the one that sees the world for what it appears to be. There’s that great scene in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in which the children and Caspian are talking with a fallen star named Ramandu and the ever practical Eustace doesn’t quite have a category for what he’s seeing (despite meeting one already). He tried to correct the retired star on his own existence.

“‘In our world,’ said Eustace. ‘A star is a huge ball of flaming gas.’ ‘Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.’”

I remember reading that as a kid and shivering with delight. A welcome hint of wildness. Do you see? That’s why I like watching scary movies. That’s why I enjoy fantasy novels and science fiction. That’s why I’ll binge certain shows that offer up an intrusion of uncertainty into a world with too many lightbulbs and not enough shadowy corners.

We can’t put everything under the microscope, least of all God Almighty. The medievals understood that at first blush. Jack did as well. So, yes, maybe those stars really are what science tells us they are. That’s fine. But I’m holding out hope that I’ll meet Rigel enjoying his retirement on the new earth someday.

Wouldn’t that be wild?

Like Ferns.

Sometimes I think that I don’t really like books; I like sentences.

Now, that’s not entirely true. Some books I do love in their entirety, for the overall feel they give off. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane was like that. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (probably my favorite fiction) is like that.

I’m working my way through Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley right now. It’s a story about a writer who wants to get more in touch with his country so he goes on an American road trip with his French poodle, Charley. As one does, I suppose. But there’s one line that I keep thinking about, probably best left without comment simply because it’s a smart sentence and a beautiful image. For your enjoyment:

“The customers were folded over their coffee cups like ferns.”

Of Bono and Shattered Labels

So, here I sit. By light of the Christmas tree, by light of this laptop, uncomfortably propped up on the couch. An open Bible, flopped apart somewhere in early Deuteronomy. I read a Martin Luther quote last night. He was writing to a songwriter, a George Spalatin, asking him to turn the Psalms into hymns that could be sung. He wrote:

“I wish to follow the example of the prophets and Church fathers, and compose German Psalms for the people ; that is, spiritual songs, so that the Word of God may dwell among them through the hymn. Therefore, we are seeking poets everywhere.”

Searching everywhere for poets? When did the Church stop doing that? Joseph Ratzinger contended that one of the final and true apologetic for the Church is her art. Bono famously lamented the state of the arts in the Church, especially in her evangelical subculture. Andrew Peterson helpfully pointed out that there are tons of honest and beautiful art made by Christians.

Luther’s quest to find poets is an ongoing one for the Church. They are there. They are creating. And beauty will speak in this secular age more than our jargon. This is especially vital since Evangelicalism as a cultural byword is losing its usefulness.

This proverb has been rolling through my mind the last few hours:

Hope deferred makes the heart sick,
    but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.

Christmas Eve always ends, but Easter lasts for a lifetime. No emotion is permanent, but the glory of good beauty will always be a deep well from which to drink. Adoration-of-the-Shepherds