Plumbing not posting


Mostly, I’m grading, traveling with my family to and from conferences, and overseeing the re-plumbing of my entire house—which necessitated the destruction of pretty much all of my driveway—and the much needed remodeling of our bathrooms. Now we’ve got new water and sewer lines out to the street. Soon the entire house will have new pipes, replacing a true hodge podge of cast iron, copper, steel, and PVC lines.

I shouldn’t say I’m overseeing all that.

My wife, having grown up around construction, really has been overseeing everything. She talks to the plumbers, the carpenter, the architect, the guys who were supposed to remove all the chunks of concrete driveway by now. Meanwhile I stand, at six feet and four inches tall, scowling and nodding to give such occasions gravitas. I never understand what they’re talking about.

I’ve still been writing here, just not posting any of it yet.

For about two weeks now, I’ve been working on a post tentatively entitled “A Challenge for Christian Apologists: Brain Scans and Bible Reading,” in which I wrestle with two research studies on how our brains respond when we are listening to someone with a declared point of view. It turns out what we know or believe about a speaker influences activation or deactivation in parts of our brains—and it seems to me this has broader implications within the context of my personal experiences and observations in evangelical and fundamentalist corners of America.

Considering the recent change in my tagline for this blog, I also want to write a post entitled “What is ex-evangelical?” I imagine a few folks, in some local church drama, might want to make that tag into something other than it is. (They’re the ones teased in that old joke: be quiet when you pass through their part of Heaven—they think they’re the only ones there.)

After I had changed the tag, I came across “The Last Temptation” by Michael Gerson in The Atlantic, which if you haven’t seen it already, is well worth your time. The article’s subtitle, at least on the webpage, is, “How evangelicals, once culturally confident, became an anxious minority seeking political protection from the least traditionally religious president in living memory.”

Meanwhile, among the previous posts that lately keep popping up in my blog stats are two you might like if you haven’t already seen them:

Cornell West as jazz man, blues man, as ‘a Christian but not a Puritan’

C.S. Lewis Drank Three Pints of Beer in the Morning—A Letter from Tolkien

I hope to see you again here soon.

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The net of our days chasing the bird of our lives: relating stories to life


I’ve been trying to deepen my understanding of plot and storytelling. I’ve been reading ancient (Aristotle’s time-honored Poetics) and contemporary (Benjamin Percy’s amazing Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction).

So it seems like a good time to dust off an essay from which I have quoted here before, C.S. Lewis’s essay “On Stories” (which grew from a presentation in 1940 to a published essay in 1947). Like Lewis himself said, there’s more hope for someone who has never read a book than someone who has read it once and thinks he’s got it down. So re-reading him along with Aristotle and Percy, I hope, will help my fiction-writing-challenged brain better understand the basics and make new connections. (My graduate degree is in literary nonfiction.)

It’s been interesting to read Aristotle’s assumptions about real-world psychology as he dissects plot in general and tragedy in particular. (“Now character determines men’s qualities, but it is by their actions that they are happy or the reverse.”) Considering relationships between our real lives and fictional stories, here’s a segment from Lewis’s “On Stories” I think is especially interesting because it offers a useful metaphor.

“It must be admitted that the art of Story as I see it is a very difficult one. What its central difficulty is I have already hinted when I complained that in the War of the Worlds the idea that really matters becomes lost or blunted as the story gets under way. I must now add that there is a perpetual danger of this happening in all stories. To be stories at all they must be series of events: but it must be understood that this series—the plot, as we call it—is only really a net whereby to catch something else. The real theme may be, and perhaps usually is, something that has no sequence in it, something other than a process and much more like a state or quality. Giantship, otherness, the desolation of space, are examples that have crossed our path. The titles of some stories illustrate the point very well. The Well at the World’s End—can a man write a story to that title? Can he find a series of events following one another in time which will really catch and fix and bring home to us all that we grasp at on merely hearing the six words? Can a man write a story on Atlantis—or is it better to leave the word to work on its own? And I must confess that the net very seldom does succeed in catching the bird….

“It may be asked why anyone should be encouraged to write a form in which the means are apparently so often at war with the ends….

“Shall I be thought whimsical if, in conclusion, I suggest that this internal tension in the heart of every story between the theme and the plot constitutes, after all, its chief resemblance to life? If Story fails in that way does not life commit the same blunder? In real life, as in a story, something must happen. This is just the trouble. We grasp at a state and find only a succession of events in which the state is never quite embodied. The grand idea of finding Atlantis which stirs us in the first chapter of the adventure story is apt to be frittered away in mere excitement when the journey has once been begun. But so, in real life, the idea of adventure fades when the day-to-day details begin to happen. Nor is this merely because actual hardship and danger shoulder it aside. Other grand ideas—home-coming, reunion with a beloved—similarly elude our grasp. Suppose there is no disappointment; even so — well, you are here. But now, something must happen, and after that, something else. All that happens may be delightful: but can any such series quite embody the sheer state of being which was what we wanted? If the author’s plot is only a net, and usually an imperfect one, a net of time and event for catching what is not really a process at all, is life much more?… The bird has escaped us. But it was at least entangled in the net for several chapters. We saw it close and enjoyed the plumage. How many ‘real lives’ have nets that can do as much?

“In life and art both, as it seems to me, we are always trying to catch in our net of successive moments something that is not successive.”

I love the idea of seeking or reaching for something we kind of know, we almost see, we suspect is there, yet somehow evades us. With Lewis’s metaphor, the best aspirations of life could be the best accomplishments of stories. In life we want to achieve a qualitative state, and we hope to maintain it. (Most of us keep failing to catch it.) We go to the arts to experience a distilled version of a qualitative state. (Of any number of qualitative states.) We return to certain works of art because they do so well at allowing us to experience that distilled qualitative state again.

Of course, not everyone agreed with Lewis’s view of stories, including his former student turned friend John Wain, an acclaimed writer in his own right who would “frequent the Inklings.” Read Wain’s recollection of his differences with Lewis on the purpose of stories here.

Tolkien and the ‘Actualism of Story-Growing’


From a post at The Flame Imperishable:

“It wasn’t just that Tolkien’s tale grew in the telling, but the very concept, for example, of what a hobbit is was something that grew and developed as Tolkien told the story about him. We sometimes think of stories or fictional beings such as hobbits as having a Platonic form, whether in the mind of God or not, that the author or sub-creator simply ‘discovers.’ But this is not how the fictions of our minds work.” Read the entire post: Actualism of Story-Growing.

Please also see: 

Paul Holmer on how literature functions

Umberto Eco on theory and narrative

James K.A. Smith: ‘We were created for stories’

The tragicomic in daily life: internal blindness in Chekhov’s characters

Bob Dylan on Religion


I blog about religious issues, so it might seem counter-intuitive to post something against religion. But no matter what good comes from religious people, and no matter how much I think about God-related stuff, I’ve spent most of my adult life thinking Blaise Pascal was right to say much strongly motivated evil stems from religious convictions. (Pascal had more depth, breadth, and nuance in his thinking than his famous Wager, taken by itself, might suggest.)

In our time, Bob Dylan seems to have the same idea as Pascal:

“Religion is a dirty word. It doesn’t mean anything. Coca-Cola is a religion. Oil and steel are a religion. In the name of religion, people have been raped, killed, and defiled. Today’s religion is tomorrow’s bondage,” Dylan once said, as quoted in Dylan: The Biography by Dennis McDougal.

h/t to J.D. Landis

Please also see Bob Dylan on Morality.

‘Marx in Soho’ and the current political climate


Howard Zinn, in his 1999 play Marx in Soho, has Karl Marx say something like, “Why is it that every movement of six people is trying to expel someone?” In Zinn’s imagination, even Marx is exasperated at the ideological zealotry that can lead a group as small as six people (with essentially the same goals and values) to wage an intense purity campaign within its own ranks. It’s food for thought in these times, when someone who agrees with you 75% of the time can be 100% your enemy. There is no room for compromise, is there? Better a scorched Earth than a shared Earth, right? Just to be sure, you have to keep everyone within your ranks pure enough. Be vigilant.

During my visit to the Museum of Communism in Prague this past summer, I saw a display that revealed Party officials would sometimes torture and execute Party loyalists just to keep everyone in line through fear. The display showed mugshots of innocent people who were cherry-picked for torture and execution—even when the Party officials knew they had done nothing wrong. Purity through terror.

Update, Jan. 14: 

While social media hissing is not quite like torture and execution, the condemnation of Margaret Atwood by the self-appointed, self-anointed “Good Feminists” is an example of a vicious purity campaign. Read Atwood’s account in The Globe and Mail.

If the name of Margaret Atwood rings a bell, it’s because she is the author of the 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which recently became an acclaimed Hulu series. I teach her essay, “The Female Body,” in one of my writing courses each semester. Atwood strikes me as a feminist icon, but lately she has fallen out of favor with some purists.

The purists’ response to her civil-rights stance underscores my original point in this post. In a world with Donald Trump as president, left-leaning people actually want to target Margaret Atwood? But if you agree with her only 75% of the time, she must be 100% your enemy. That kind of thinking earns you Donald Trump.

Owen Barfield and Clyde Kilby discuss C.S. Lewis on video


I just yesterday found this video, which includes Owen Barfield’s account of his friendship with C.S. Lewis. The occasion was Barfield’s Nov. 3, 1977, visit to Wheaton College’s Marion E. Wade Center, which is devoted to The Inklings, G.K. Chesterton, and Dorothy L. Sayers. (Barfield was at Wheaton to give a lecture, a piece of which is included in the below video.)

During the video, Kilby shows Barfield one of the Center’s prized pieces: the wardrobe from Lewis’s home. Barfield also talks about his first book, The Silver Trumpet, and its popularity among the children of J.R.R. Tolkien.
 

 
Please also see:

Rediscovered C.S. Lewis Christmas sermon: ‘we shall have to set about becoming true Pagans’

And, the short documentary “Owen Barfield: Man and Meaning.”

And, C.S. Lewis on … ashtrays.

And, an interview with Lewis scholar Don W. King on Ruth Pitter, an award-winning poet and friend of Lewis.

Plus, you can search this site for more notes, annotations, and posts about Lewis, Barfield, Tolkien, Charles Williams, and G.K. Chesterton.

Freedom of speech, freedom of expression


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