Recovering the Sacred: C.S. Lewis, Philip Rieff, and the Cleveland Museum of Art

A while back I wrote about my visit to the Cleveland Museum of Art and my reaction to all of their Mary-oriented medieval art. Today, I want to think about the bigger journey that gallery was a part of. As I walked through the museum, it was wildly apparent that the artistic ideal of society was deteriorating as each age passed. For example, let’s look at something from the medieval exhibit:

Crucified Christ, late 1300s

The point of the piece is immediately apparent: this is what the world is all about. Not only does it clearly present an ideal in the person of Jesus and the event of his crucifiction, but you can tell it’s a piece that the public was intended to interact with. It belongs in a church with people worshipping nearby. This is a sign intended to draw people’s minds to the highest understanding of perfection. It’s not a particularly unique piece for the era. The medieval galleries were stuffed with reliquaries, altars, and religious paintings. I can’t help but be staggered by the sheer level of devotion towards the sacred that people were expressing.

Now let’s look at something from the modern gallery:

Metal Fence, Cady Noland

What’s being conveyed? Certainly nothing positive. It’s a critique. Perhaps something like “Why build fences when you could build bridges,” “America is built on keeping others out,” “we need to knock down exclusionary structures,” etc. There’s no positive statement being made. There’s no indication that there’s a sacred ideal. If anything, it’s just the opposite. The plaque that accompanies this particular piece indicates that the author intended it as a critique of the history of the United States. This is a piece specifically intended to tear down images of the sacred. It’s definitely not beautiful. There’s also no possible way that a piece like this could be identified as an artistic endeavor outside of a museum. If you popped this in a community center, people wouldn’t stop to admire it. They would assume you were doing construction and avoid that part of the building! This is a piece intended for appreciation by cultural elites, not everyday people. Again, this example is anything but unique for the modern gallery. You have your fences, you have your baby carriages full of spray-painted phalluses, conglomerations of nude body parts, etc.

All of this is what came to mind as I read through C.S. Lewis’s A Confession:

A Confession
I am so coarse, the things the poets see

Are obstinately invisible to me.
For twenty years I’ve stared my level best
To see if evening–any evening–would suggest
A patient etherized upon a table;
In vain. I simply wasn’t able.
To me each evening looked far more
Like the departure from a silent, yet a crowded, shore
Of a ship whose freight was everything, leaving behind
Gracefully, finally, without farewells, marooned mankind.

Red dawn behind a hedgerow in the east
Never, for me, resembled in the least
A chilblain on a cocktail-shaker’s nose;
Waterfalls don’t remind me of torn underclothes,
Nor glaciers of tin-cans. I’ve never known
The moon look like a hump-backed crone–
Rather, a prodigy, even now
Not naturalized, a riddle glaring from the Cyclops’ brow
Of the cold world, reminding me on what a place
I crawl and cling, a planet with no bulwarks, out in space.

Never the white sun of the wintriest day
Struck me as un crachat d’estaminet.
I’m like that odd man Wordsworth knew, to whom
A primrose was a yellow primrose, one whose doom
Keeps him forever in the list of dunces,
Compelled to live on stock responses,
Making the poor best that I can
Of dull things . . . peacocks, honey, the Great Wall, Aldebaran,
Silver weirs, new-cut grass, wave on the beach, hard gem,
The shapes of horse and woman, Athens, Troy, Jerusalem. (Poems, p. 3-4)

Right out of the gate, Lewis is striking out at the people who are deconstructing classic visions of beauty. T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is put on blast because there’s nothing sterile or dead about the evening sky. The evening is beautiful, melancholy, and momentous, but certainly not sterile. All these other popular poetic metaphors are equally unfitting. People keep taking these visions that should be massive, beautiful, even transcendent, and warping them into things that are mundane and ugly. The leading poets seem intent to warp the things that once inspired us into things that should disgust us.

As someone particularly fond of William Blake, I couldn’t help but think of him. He was one of the great masters of subverting the sacred. Take, for example, his poem Infant Sorrow:

My mother groand! my father wept. 
Into the dangerous world I leapt: 
Helpless, naked, piping loud; 
Like a fiend hid in a cloud. 

Struggling in my fathers hands: 
Striving against my swaddling bands: 
Bound and weary I thought best 
To sulk upon my mothers breast.

This was part of a collection called Songs of Innocence and of Experience. It was a two part collection. In Songs of Innocence, he presented the beautiful ideal of something, and in his later Songs of Experience, he warped it to show how a world-weary mind mind might experience the same circumstance. In this case, we have birth. Is there a miracle of life? In one sense, sure. But in another, there is the horrible burden of life.

The longer he writes, the clearer that basic motif becomes. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell blurs the lines between the sacred and the profane to suggest that both good and evil, in their own way, are sacred. Devils and angels both have wisdom that we need to learn from. He even creates his own mythology and writes grand creation stories about the history of the world. He portrays God the Father (especially as seen in the Old Testament) as hideously oppressive and in constant war against the great spirit of artistic inspiration and human freedom. What was once sacred is now profane as Blake’s spirit of freedom descends upon the world.

That’s exactly what we have in the contemporary art gallery. We have people eager to call what was once sacred profane. Any sense that something is beautiful or worthy of particular praise is dangerous. Who is one person to tell another what is beautiful? To restrict in any way is wrong. That is the great truth in our era.

It pairs perfectly with the famed sociologist Philip Rieff’s critique of modern culture. Historically, a massive part of culture has been that series of restrictions placed on us (via both taboo and law) in the hopes of helping us live a good life. Do you want to be like Jesus? Then don’t sin. Do you want to honor the gods? Then don’t forget your sacrifices. By coming together around one great vision of purpose and orienting ourselves towards that vision, meaningful community is possible and visions of the sacred are kept. Modern culture, however, no longer has a meaningful vision of the sacred apart from autonomy from all external obligations. People do not long to be a grand embodiment of the good so much as they long to be free to do what they please. Under these circumstances, discussions of good or evil becomes almost laughable because so few people aspire to become more than what they already are:

Evil and immorality are disappearing… mainly because our culture is changing its definition of human perfection. No longer the Saint, but the instinctual Everyman, twisting his neck uncomfortably inside the starched collar of culture, is the communal ideal , to whom men offer tacit prayers for deliverance from their inherited renunciations.

The Triumph of the Therapeutic, 6.

What we end up with is what Rieff calls an anti-culture. It can’t bind together or orient people towards a vision of the good life. The only thing really binding us together is mutual disgust at the thought of people telling us how to live, be the source older visions of natural law, religious obligations, or something else entirely. To paraphrase another great thinker, Stanley Hauerwas, the modern story is that we have no story except the story we choose for ourselves (Community of Character, 84). We end up rudderless in a life without meaning, desperately trying to create meaning for ourselves while knowing we just made it all up.

And what of the great thinkers and artists? Historically, their efforts were part of what bound us together. Buonarroti’s Creation of Adam, the icon Christ Pantocrator, the stained glass of Sainte-Chapelle and other great works served the public by bringing them together to aspire to be like God. Today’s intellectual class does not feel the same burden:

I suspect the children of Israel did not spend much time elaborating a doctrine of the golden calf; they naively danced around it, until Moses, their first intellectual, put a stop to the plain fun and insisted on civilizing them, by submerging their individualities within a communal purpose. Now, although there is some dancing again, the intellectuals mainly sit around and think in awe about the power and perversity of their instincts, disguising their rancorous worship of self in the religion of art.

The Triumph of the Therapeutic, 7.

While Rieff’s Moses seems a little elitist for my taste, I think there’s truth to what he’s trying to get at. We live in a world without a sense of the sacred with intellectuals and artists that would rather root out any remaining bits of transcendence than attempt to build anything that points to more than our own disenchantment and appetite.

That’s what I see Lewis lamenting here. The threads that have bound our culture together are unraveling. The waterfall is no longer a sign to point our eyes to God, so much as a mundane thing that might remind us of sex. The glaciers are no longer a sign that we are tiny, limited things in the world, so much as they are reminders of garbage. We have lost the sense that the world is pointing to something greater, and so historic memory of the sacred becomes bizarre. All we can do is ironically poke fun at the old world and trudge through our flattened-out world in frustration and disappointment.

But Lewis points to a solution: don’t give in. Don’t be someone who loses your sense of wonder. Be fascinated by the things that others think dull. Look at fresh cut crass and delight. Observe the miracle of honey. Taste it and be satisfied. Be astounded by the great cities of Jerusalem and Athens and the ideals they represent. Don’t lose hope, and don’t start defining yourself by opposition. Yes, he is absolutely being critical of his rivals in this poem, but the great hope he points to is not in opposition. That was Blake’s hope. “Opposition is true friendship,” he wrote (MHH20; E42) and eternal opposition seems to be the best that the modern anti-culture of self-gratification can offer. Don’t be like that. Be amazed. Rejoice in old stories about satyrs, magic, miracles, and devils. Recover the sacred, which never abandoned us even as we attempted to abandon it. Live a life defined by hope and beauty. Be the dunce in the eyes of the elites, “for the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom,” (1 Cor. 1:25).

C.S. Lewis’s Nerdy Poetry: The Country of the Blind

Most of my experience with C.S. Lewis comes from those approachable classics that sit on many a Christian’s bookshelf: The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, A Grief Observed, The Great Divorce and a few others. Only recently have I started to see the more academic, professorial side of him. Books like The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval Literature are way more intense than Narnia, and frankly, they’re a bit of a slog. And now, I found out the man wrote poetry! Not just any poetry either. He wrote the nerdiest poetry you’ll ever find. These poems were not intended for general audiences. They’re just a smart guy playing with ideas in verse. If you enjoy them, great! If you don’t get ’em or don’t like ’em, I don’t think he would particularly care. My current success rate of “getting” his poetry is about 70%. Some of them are loaded with mythology and theory that I’m not familiar with (especially the Greek mythology, which he clearly loves), but the ones that I do get are brilliant. I thought I’d share a couple of them on here along with my thoughts as I work through them.

The Country of the Blind
Hard light bathed them-a whole nation of eyeless men,
Dark bipeds not aware how they were maimed. A long
Process, clearly, a slow curse,
Drained through centuries, left them thus.

At some transitional stage, then, a luckless few,
No doubt, must have had eyes after the up-to-date,
Normal type had achieved snug
Darkness, safe from the guns of heavn;

Whose blind mouths would abuse words that belonged to their
Great-grandsires, unabashed, talking of light in some
Eunuch’d, etiolated,
Fungoid sense, as a symbol of

Abstract thoughts. If a man, one that had eyes, a poor
Misfit, spoke of the grey dawn or the stars or green-
Sloped sea waves, or admired how
Warm tints change in a lady’s cheek,

None complained he had used words from an alien tongue,
None question’d. It was worse. All would agree ‘Of course,’
Came their answer. “We’ve all felt
Just like that.” They were wrong. And he

Knew too much to be clear, could not explain. The words —
Sold, raped flung to the dogs — now could avail no more;
Hence silence. But the mouldwarps,
With glib confidence, easily

Showed how tricks of the phrase, sheer metaphors could set
Fools concocting a myth, taking the worlds for things.
Do you think this a far-fetched
Picture? Go then about among

Men now famous; attempt speech on the truths that once,
Opaque, carved in divine forms, irremovable,
Dear but dear as a mountain-
Mass, stood plain to the inward eye.

This one especially has consumed me as of late. I can’t help but read it and think about Jesus’s response to the disciple’s question: why do you speak in parables?

13 This is why I speak to them in parables:

“Though seeing, they do not see;
    though hearing, they do not hear or understand.

14 In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:

“‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
    you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
15 For this people’s heart has become calloused;
    they hardly hear with their ears,
    and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
    hear with their ears,
    understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’ (Matt 13:13-15)

I generally assume that Jesus wants everyone to understand what he’s saying. Sure, I might rail against visions of him that are altogether too polite and soft, but by no means do I assume he would intentionally make his points opaque to keep people from understanding them. And we could go back and forth trying to soften the impact of the verse by applying different theological methodology to it (after all, it does say that they closed their eyes first), but it seems like it would be almost impossible to erase the sense that not everyone will understand what Jesus is saying and that that is intentional (John Calvin is smiling down on this paragraph, I’m sure).

Lewis’s poem is right in this same vein. We still have people that do not see, but it’s not their own willfulness or crafty parables that are keeping them from seeing. They’ve shut their eyes for so long that their biology has shifted to accommodate their decision. Even if they wanted to see, they lack the capacity. Worse than that, they refuse to confront the reality of their own blindness. They’re happy to discuss the world with the small amount of people that can still see, but only insofar as they’re treated as complete equals. Whatever is being discussed is primarily understood as a matter of internal experience, rather than external truth. “Of course, we’ve all felt like that,” they croon, completely missing the simple fact that they haven’t. Every piece of information being shared is radically different from anything they’ve ever conceptualized, but rather than admit it, they just insist that they already know and continue on.

What a tremendous way to look at the modern shift in metaphysics. I can’t help but think of it in terms of pastoral expectations as they were laid out in Andrew Root’s, The Pastor in a Secular Age. In each era, Christians have expected different things from pastors. In the medieval era, the priest had power. Even if the whole service was in Latin and you didn’t quite understand how communion worked, the popular imagination had such a strong sense of God’s action and a dynamic range of entities beyond human senses that you knew he carried power. He was the bridge between this world and the next. In a magical world, the priest stood as an obvious and clear figure worthy of your attention. With the shift to Protestantism, there was a fundamentally new way of imagining metaphysics. Suddenly, it wasn’t just the priest that was responsible for navigating the path between this world and the next; it was the individual believer. You were responsible for what you believed! You had to devote yourself to the highest ideals of Christian life and take responsibility for your own faith if you wanted to please God. Here, we see this tremendous shift towards the pastoral ideal as a professor. People like Luther and Calvin are the obvious legendary figures in this tradition, but the example Root provides is Johnathan Edwards. According to legend, Johnathan Edwards studied and prayed for thirteen hours every day. And his congregation was happy! They wanted to understand the intricacies of the world around them and the claims that were being made in the Bible, so if the pastor preached an hour long sermon that relied on multiple commentaries and theological bigwigs? Awesome! Bring it on. These were people that strove to see. They wanted to know the nature of the universe, and no watery spirituality would be an acceptable substitute.

Root details a long history of philosophical shifts that slowly lead to modernity, but as we approach our own era, the assumptions about what a pastor does have totally shifted. A pastor does not tell objective truths. That’s what math and science are for! No, a pastor works in the realm of values. They tell you how to live a good life. They help you understand who you are. They belong in the humanities section of a university, not the sciences side. Their value comes from their ability to befriend people, reflect an identity for others to consider, and build a massive church with multiple satellites to reflect the vitality of the community. The ideal pastor is a mix between an entrepreneur and an instagram influencer, encouraging us to try on a way of living that will make us happy. We moved from a world in which the Church was expected to teach objective truths about the world around us to a world in which the church was expected to help us feel subjective somethings within ourselves.

Unfortunately for moderns, Scripture is devilishly difficult to cast as something that’s primarily concerned with subjective feelings. The whole of the book bursts with objective claims about creation! And yet, religious dialogue is often dominated by what feels right and how we can live moral, decent lives. Not that either of these are inherently bad things, of course, but when they’re uprooted from the metaphysical grounding of the objective claims that surround them, they wither and shift whatever way the wind blows. Our cultural hesitance to let the audacious claims of Scripture be what they are muddies them considerably and betrays a certain unwillingness to claim them as true knowledge. Christians and non-Christians alike are put into a position where truth is what we make of it. We fail to see the reality around us because we’re so busy constructing our own narrative that suits us.

We do not see.

Even the claims in Scripture start to look less and less like truth claims and more and more like “sheer metaphors” and “myths.” What if Jesus was not actually Jesus? What if he’s only intended to be a metaphor for humanity’s capacity for good? What if Jesus’s resurrection is no longer an actual resurrection, but a symbol intended to reflect the eternal resurrection of hope and goodness in the world? That slow erosion of the claim slowly eats away at it, giving more and more authority to us and less and less to the claim itself. Symbolic meaning can always be uncovered in an objective event, but once the event or story is stripped of objectivity, not only does it lose the core of its meaning, but the possibility for symbolism becomes infinite. Without any semblance of authority, the claim exists only to allow others an opportunity to create their own meaning. The “divine forms, irremovable” that were once so obvious and clear to every eye have become “symbols of abstract thought;” ideas to toy with and little more.

The ultimate consequence is a sort of de-evolution. Lewis never was shy about suggesting that things in the premodern world were better, and here he’s said it in an incredibly direct way. The people he’s considering aren’t portrayed as the same bipartite beings that were created in Genesis: “God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life,” (Gen 2:7). Their descriptors lack that sense of divine spark. The language surrounding the blind creatures is primitive and earthy. They are “mouldwarps” with “fungoid” ways of describing things. They lack that spirit that separates them from the plants that preceded them.

And yet, the poem isn’t just a gripe about the good ‘ol days. At least, I don’t think it is. It’s profoundly melancholy. Some of these creatures still see. They see the grandeur of the stars, the waves, the human form, and the misty dawn. But even as they see the wonders around them, they have so few to to share it with. By the eyes they were given, they are able to see tremendous beauty, but they also become the bearers of an incredible sense of loneliness. What Christian in the postmodern era has not felt like that? Who has not lamented the inability of others to see the throngs of angels singing, the cloud of witnesses watching, the divine spark that lingers in every eye, and the glory of God in every rock? But attempts to uncover the transcendent turn shallow all too quickly. Even semi-regular churchgoers are all too often concerned with mere morality and tradition than the vibrant eternity around them, frustrating the Christian all the more. To see is to be lonely and burdened. How do you awaken others to the world?

Part of me wants to cut the intensity of the poem by suggesting that the claim isn’t quite what it is. It sounds hopelessly arrogant to claim to see when everyone else is blind. To say that you understand a reality that the rest of the world can only hopelessly grasp at until they are somehow granted sight is brash! But didn’t Jesus make those claims? Isn’t that the whole of the history of Christianity? Lewis has claimed to see, and while it would be more comfortable to mask the arrogance of claiming to know truth, it’s critically important for us to let his statement stand and consider it not as arrogance, but as humility in the face of a truth beyond himself.

Christianity-and-Water with C.S. Lewis

Life hack: Taco Bell napkins make great bookmarks.

Continuing my grand tradition of reading way too many books at the same time, I picked up C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity again this week.  Lewis is so easy to read.  When he writes, I find that he doesn’t have to persuade me about much.  Instead, it’s almost like he’s uncovering all of the things I already believed in my heart, gathering them up, and presenting them back to me in a way far more logical and clever than I ever could have managed.  Don’t get me wrong.  I went through a period where I hated C.S. Lewis with a burning passion.  When you’re a Christian that wants to learn more about faith, he’s one of the only serious theologians that many pastors seem to be comfortable prescribing.  You’d get sick of anyone if they came up that many times!  But ultimately he’s prescribed for a reason: he’s phenomenally good.  Perhaps the closest thing to a mutual source of authority for Protestant churches in America.

In any case, this quote particularly struck me: 

I will tell you another view that is also too simple.  It is the view I call Christianity-and-water, the view which simply says there is a good God in Heaven and everything is all right- leaving out the difficult and terrible doctrines about sin and hell and the devil and redemption.  Both of these are boys’ philosophies.  It is no good asking for a simple religion.  After all, real things are not simple.

Mere Christianity, 40

It was such a relief to hear that a man as distinguished as Lewis had experiences with pop faith that are so similar to ours today.  After all, how many people do you know that are just Christian enough to acknowledge that God exists, but can’t imagine that this God would want anything aside from their own happiness?  It’s so common! The term “moral therapeutic deism” is thrown around to describe that kind of faith today, and Lewis is talking about it all the way back in 1952.  That flimsy faith rarely gets further than this: God exists and he wants us to be happy.  Don’t be mean, love yourself, and everything will work itself out.  The best of secular wisdom is echoed back at an individual with a tint of religious nostalgia.  It’s distinctly frustrating to hear for those of us that are eager to dig in to Christianity as the core of our life, and a core that continually forces us to give things up, to repent, and to turn back to the baffling God that demands everything.  A faith less than that would seem frivolous to us!  As the famous agnostic philosopher Julian Barnes wrote, “there seems little point in a religion which is merely a weekly social event (apart, of course, from the normal pleasures of a weekly social event), as opposed to one which tells you exactly how to live, which colours and stains everything,” (Nothing to be Frightened Of, 64).

On one hand, it was self-justifying.  I remembering being in seminary and seeing that the United Methodist baptismal liturgy didn’t contain the traditional question “Do you reject the Devil and all of his works?”  I asked the professor about the exclusion and his answer was blunt: “Oh, yes, they replaced that with ‘evil, injustice, and oppression.’  The governing body didn’t think they would be able to get the traditional language approved by a vote.”  What a loss! It’s a tragedy to throw away a liturgy over a thousand years old because we’ve fixed the language with something moderns find more comforting.  That stuck in my head. I imagined myself as the bold Christian, right alongside Lewis, representing the real faith for the world.

But don’t’ worry.  That spiritual cockiness didn’t make it through the week.

I’ve been working on a little project to try to understand how we can be better at Christian service. And as since I want to be better at serving in a distinctly Christian way, I have to understand what “Christian service” actually is and how it differs from other ways of serving it the world (community service, quid pro quo, etc.).  It’s been a delightful adventure so far.  A challenging one too!  I’ve begun by recording each narrative of service in the book of Acts and then recording commonalities between the events to see what consistently comes to the top.  And geeze!  It’s convicting! 

Two of the most common pieces of service in Acts are the invocation of the name of Jesus, and the proclamation of the Gospel.  I have to ask myself, do I do them?  Do I actually use the name Jesus?  The name that caused scandal all those years ago because of the brash claims that accompanied it?  Not really.  I often use “God,” which is a name that’s a lot more culturally comfortable.  It’s easy to say, causes less tension with other traditions, and is printed on all the money for maximum cultural complicity.  And how often do I proclaim the Gospel apart from preaching and teaching in the church?   The popular (and probably fake) St. Francis quote “Proclaim the gospel always.  Use words when necessary,” suits my sensibilities so well.  But is that what the apostles did?  Or is it a way that I can comfortably move in a secular world without risking discomfort?  I suppose none of this is “theology” in the way that Lewis meant it, but it’s certainly a way in which the faith I’m living is not like that of the Christians in the Bible.  I may include the “terrible doctrines” about Hell and sin, but I exclude the terrible actions that would risk embarrassment as I move through the world.

Lewis not only believed uncomfortable truths in the comfort of his own mind, but he lived them out in the real world.  And not always in a way that won him admiration!  Close Christian friends like J.R.R. Tolkien thought he was too evangelistic, and more than a few promotions went to other people because he was “too Christian” for the taste of others (131 Christians Everyone Should Know, 135).  He’s proven himself invaluable one more time on my journey.  On one hand, he gives a word that comforts.  On the other hand, the same word cuts to the core. I hope my faith is never too comfortable, in thought or in deed.