Saturday, April 30, 2011

Mapping The Cosmos

I just finished Michael Ward's hefty volume, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis. Ward offers a clear and nearly exhaustive argument for how C. S. Lewis used the medieval structure of the cosmos as his underlying theme for the seven books of The Chronicles of Narnia. I enjoyed the book very much, and find the work of Ward (now a tutor at Oxford and priest in the Church of England) thorough and compelling.

Part of my interest in this book comes from my own vocation as Teller of Significant Stories, which Ward argues The Chronicles are for several layers of reasons. Part comes from the fact that I experiment with writing (including the fantasy genre) myself; so I see parts of myself reflected both in Ward's analysis and in his portrait of Lewis the author. To those who have leisure and endurance for the entomed outgrowth of an Oxford PhD thesis, and ample interest in The Chronicles and Lewis himself, I recommend Ward's book.

One of the praises quoted on the back of the dust jacket says, "Michael Ward presents an absorbing, learned analysis of C. S. Lewis's best-selling and beloved series, The Chronicles of Narnia. Readily accessible to the average reader, Ward's book reads so much like a detective story that it's difficult to put down."

I agree with the first sentence of this review, and for that reason readily recommend it. The second I affirm only inasmuch as "ready accessibility" means we can get it on Amazon for less than twenty dollars. As much as I enjoy the writing of someone who easily makes up verbs like "endragon," Ward's book still reads like an Oxford PhD thesis. And I did not experience the "detective story" until the final chapter, where Ward tells us the story of how he discovered the secret theme behind Narnia. Thus the first ten or eleven chapters are icing on the cake; then again, the icing is my favorite part of the cake.

Ward's analysis of Lewis' authorship asserts that Lewis believed that although God is very present in all of human life, the divine is not something best described or experienced directly. God and divine power in life can only be known indirectly. Throughout his book, Ward uses the analogy of appreciating the power of light by looking "along" a beam rather than "at" the beam. Perhaps the best way to grasp the value of light is to see what it illumines rather than what comprises it. Thus light itself is a "hidden" reality, like the divine in our lives is "hidden" in the mundane.

As someone who preaches the story of Christ--rather than rational principles of Christianity--I resonate with this indirectness of the presence of God. In spite of the skew nature of truth, I am called to tell the story again and again in the hope that, perhaps like Lewis, listeners will at last hear the underlying theme of redemption, to their jovial pleasure.

Thanks to Kyle for introducing me to the book and lending me his copy.

~ emrys

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Last Sunday I played soccer (on the field, not in the goal) for the first time since I threw out my back. Praise the Lord for no pain!

Now, if I can just get in shape enough that I'm not wheezing after a twenty-five meter sprint . . . .

~ emrys

Friday, April 15, 2011

Opening the Agora

I don't go out in public anymore.

I didn't realize it about myself until a couple of weeks ago, but there is no public in my life.

Parker J. Palmer, the author of a 1994 book entitled The Company of Strangers: Christians and the Renewal of Public Life, helped me to see the gaping hole in my life.

Before I gain a snap reputation as a hermit, let me clarify that I do go places where anyone can see what I'm doing. As a preacher, for at least an hour every Sunday morning I put myself out there. I walk to work sometimes, using state, county, and town roads. And I go to the bank, to Wal-mart, and TGIF on occasion.

What's more, I post stuff on the internet in the form of blogs and facebook comments. My daughter and I sit at the breakfast counter and watch CNN, FoxNews, and World World. I get exposed to stuff that a significant chunk of Americans and the world are witnessing.

None of this, argues Palmer, is truly public.

The first challenge of Palmer's book was redefining (or, in my case, really defining for the first time) the word "public." He asserts that the "public" is the body of strangers to whom we are connected by proximity but with whom we have no mandate to become familiar. To be "in public," for Palmer, means having to encounter, listen to, converse with, and perhaps for a time work with those who are strangers.

When I post a blog, I'm not really interacting with anyone. On facebook, I'm not encountering a real person; even when I take the typewritten words to heart, it's often from a person I know or to whom I am related. When I preach, I do so amidst a community of people who are far from strangers. When I get mad at, say, Eliot Spitzer's commentary on the CNN site, he can't see me and I'm in no way part of a conversation.

Town meetings, well-used local parks, protests, and free pools are examples of what Palmer considers truly public. Even schools, which we often call "public" and tout as the focal points of our communities, have tight reins on communication and get sub-divided into groups of narrow age or interest. Of Palmer's truly public fora, I frequent none.

I'll leave the well structured argument of Palmer's book for you to discover. If you're a Christian who considers part of our calling to be engagement with and witness in a wider world, then I recommend this book to you. If you're a reader who likes pictures, be prepared: it sacrifices stories and illustrations for abstract (though not extremely academic) discussion. Still, it will be worth your time.

For me, Palmer had the greatest impact on my present life with his first topic: the spiritual importance of encountering the stranger. Scripture is shot through with the Spirit's working between strangers. And I interact with strangers very rarely. Maybe too rarely. I wonder if the Lord is calling me to find (or make, a la Palmer) the public from whom I have become estranged.

And to discover the merciful truth that real people are not like the yelling heads on the "news" networks.

~ emrys

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Are We Rome?

I take more than a passing interest in the Roman empire. As a student of the Christian scriptures, much of which came about inside the confines of the Roman empire's zenith of power, I have spent some time reading about things Roman. That reading, combined with a couple of decade's exposure to voices decrying the United States of America as another Rome, provides me with a filter through which I take in much of current events. I do ask, with more than academic interest, How is the United States similar to Rome?

Cullen Murphy takes up this question in his 2007 book Are We Rome?: The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America. Before beginning the read, I took in the back cover, where we are told that Murphy served as managing editor of the Atlantic Monthly. The bread and butter of the Atlantic (which has shed its adjective of late) is the cross of journalism and historiography. The magazine (to which I have a subscription, given by a friend) attempts to dig deeper than present phenomena to get at the significance and effect of diachronic patterns on current events. It caters to hyper-educated yuppie elites, who use words like "diachronic" and "historiography" without looking them up. It assumes that the reader will be equally familiar with names like Cicero, Sagan, and Schwarzkopf.

I walked into Are We Rome? with expectations that the book would, with suitable punctuation of Ivy League humor, offer a clear but thorough comparison of America and Rome. I expected that it would refrain from the trite conclusions of the talking heads (e.g. since both have the strongest military forces of their times, they are equal) and pursue deeper similarities and differences. And I assumed, as I have come to expect from the Atlantic, that it would shy away from instructing us to do anything, and remain happy just to describe the landscape with academic distance.

On all three counts I was pleasantly surprised. Murphy displays his exhaustive research without exhausting the reader. He cuts through the normal accusations and platitudes about imperial powers and gets to the marrow of both empires. And in the epilogue he makes a few suggestions for how Americans can use the comparison with Rome to avoid what might become a similar fate.

Had I read them on their own, I would have objected that Murphy's lessons smack of familiar liberal hobby-horses. But my cynicism has been stayed by his compelling arguments and generally tight logic. In fact, I think they're worth hearing, even if one doesn't pick up the book (spoiler alert!). What can Americans learn from the example of Rome?

1. Become aware of the wider world, and start by learning another language (and stop wringing your hands over "English as the official language" concerns).

2. Recognize what government can do well, and use it for that; recognize what the private sector can do well, and use it for that (don't absolutize one or the other).

3. Think in terms of centuries rather than the next episode of American Idol.

4. Assimilate immigrants by affording them every opportunity (don't make them the dreaded Other).

5. Give the military fewer tasks and theaters (don't micro-police the entire globe).

If you're convinced that the United States could never diminish, fade, or fall, then move on to the next thing on your reading list. But if you wonder whether America could follow in the footsteps of Rome, the Ottomans, the Mongols, and the Brits, I recommend Cullen Murphy's book.

Thanks to Megan for recommending this book to me.

~ emrys

Read It

Society is freaked out about money right now. Republicans say the government spends too much of it. Democrats say the government should be collecting more of it (especially from the rich). Everyone says she's not making enough of it. Words like "persistent" modify "downturn" and words like "sluggish" modify "recovery." The marketplaces and households of America, always afraid of not gaining more, now fear having less.

So the words of a book from 1981 ring still with prophetic clarity. Although Richard Foster's Freedom of Simplicity had been recommended to me several times in various venues, I just read it last month. What a piercing and graceful essay on the power of living with less--intentionally!

Foster lays a groundwork for simplicity as a way of following Jesus. He does so with a completeness which avoids the dreaded comprehensiveness of academic works. His writing glimmers with subtle humor, shines with faithful clarity, and radiates with love. He strikes the perfect balance between theory and practice, convincing the reader of the need for disciplines of simplicity and bolstering her with concrete examples of practice. Most of all, with grace and wisdom Foster steers the middle way between excusing Christians for their failures and whipping us into lives of ascetic austerity.

I found myself feeling something which written works rarely do these days: I felt convicted. Convicted to change, for the better.

Freedom of Simplicity. If you want to follow Jesus in the twenty-first century, read it.

~ emrys

Sunday, April 03, 2011

I Skipped to the End

There are two kinds of people in this world. The first kind begins reading a book, but if he doesn't enjoy or appreciate the authorship, puts it down and goes to another book. The second kind begins reading a book and, no matter how bad the writing, reads every word to the end. For most of the life I remember, I have been the second type of reader. I have become aware of this through some anguish, because I have read some very bad books. Yet when I open the cover and start reading, I feel as if I've committed to something. If the first chapter is bad (and I can identify bad writing now with some speed), I hold out hope that the second chapter will be different. If the second chapter is bad, I try to imagine some exciting nugget of fact or plot that might emerge later, making the slogging worthwhile. If I get near the end and it's all been bad, I pretend that maybe the last chapter will redeem the whole book and I'll be vindicated in my commitment. This process, by the way, requires more work than anyone should put into a book written in one's own generation. So I am slowly becoming the first type of reader. I am discovering that no one will question my lack of commitment if I don't finish a book. I am discovering that if the first chapter is bad, very rarely is the second chapter good. I am learning that really dull books do not hide exciting nuggets somewhere near the epilogue. I find that the last chapter never redeems a book. Completes it, yes; gives it all meaning, yes; brings it all together, yes; redeems it, no. And I am discovering that if the editor did not do her work on the first part, the rest of the book will only get worse. Last month I read Central Europe: Enemies, Neighbors, Friends, by Lonnie R. Johnson. (All right, "read" may not be the right verb; I'll let you decide.) The title piqued my interest because of our three months in Central Europe five years ago. And I like history. Early on in the book I realized that Mr. Johnson had command of massive amounts of data, was capable of brilliant historical analysis, and passionately loved the complexity of Central European history. I also learned, by about the third chapter, that he had an aversion to short sentences, loved adversative dependent clauses, and had a chip on his shoulder about how people use and interpret history. In the fourth chapter, I started to hope that the next chapter would be better. I started to hope (against hope) that certainly the editor, in the next section, would have woken up and begun crossing out large chunks of text. By the sixth chapter, I realized that wasn't going to happen. So I skipped to the end. That's right: I let go my fears of missing something, losing some important detail, lacking some all-important fact from history. I went to the epilogue and discovered . . . more of the same. This part was slightly more interesting, because now Johnson wrote about events from my lifetime. But the phrases still made my head ache, and the venom for errant interpreters still stung, but like an annoying ache rather than a startling pinch. I'm glad I skipped to the end. Reading only the epilogue gave me a sense of satisfaction and freedom that would have drowned in the fatigue of slogging through the whole. This kind of reading definitely has its uses. Oh, did I say I "read" the epilogue? I really just sort of skimmed it. ~ emrys

Preparing for Next Winter (Already)

Last summer I decided to do away with trudging through the snow and wet to access our stash of wood pellets. I cut a new hole in the screen and wall at one end of our porch, then closed in the other sides of that end to make a pellet shed. Later we filled it with two and a half tons of pellets, stacked to the ceiling. I discovered the following syllogism by experience: A: Two and a half tons is a lot of weight. B: When you cut out a third of the length of a wall which is half screen already, it can't bear much weight. A + B = a buckled wall in my pellet shed. In this shot you can see the interior wall (with pale ends where I sawed through it), pushed out toward the porch from a winter of serious pressure: Now the shed is empty (we'll use the last bag of pellets tomorrow), so I've thrown up some 2x4s for vertical support. (By the way, these are still home-cut boards from the summer of 2009. Those hemlocks went a long way!)
With the added support, I hope that next autumn I won't have three tons of pellets come crashing into the porch (which at times I feared last year).

I need to paint the boards to match the brown and green motif of the house before we get next year's three tons. The pressure is on: in order to get the best price on pellets ($199 per ton again this year) we need to order them this month.


Moving and Shaking

A project for work has led me to need shakers: small hand-held percussion instruments that produce a light, atonal sound. The local music store would, I'm sure, happily sell me some expensive shakers made from mahogany and dried coffee beans from Ecuador. I figured, however, that making them myself with old plastic Easter eggs and rice would be more fun. All right, it's even more fun if I don't do it myself, but invite my favorite toddler to help. Gwendolyn hesitated not at all when I told her about our project.

One half hour of entertainment (and father-daughter bonding time), four shakers, and the saved cost of mahogany and exotic coffee beans: all ours thanks to a stash of rice and old plastic eggs. The only extra price: sweeping up afterwards. And Gwendolyn enjoyed helping with that, too.

~ emrys

Going European

Travelling across the Pond gives one the perspective that things can be different in so many ways. Cars can be smaller. Vacation can be a given. Flushing can be customized. That's right: instead of the unwieldy one-size-fits-all, six-gallons-on-every-flush handle most Americans have on their toilets, Europeans--and, by our experience, especially the Brits--enjoy the option of a "light" flush or a "heavy" flush, depending on what type of product needs to move down the pipes. For most of December and January, our upstairs toilet ran on and off even when we were nowhere near the handle. An old fatigued flapper allowed water to seep through until the tank refilled itself every hour or so. Not only did this sometimes keep us awake at night, it drained our water treatment tanks faster than we'd like. At last I trundled down to the local hardware store to find another flapper. As I perused the shelves for the cheapest option, my eye alighted on a box whose front face announced, "Save Water." That convinced me to pick it up, at which point I noticed the familiar face of a two-button flush handle allowing for different excretory circumstances. Save water, spend less time tending to the chlorine tank, and teach our daughter that less can be more, all in one purchase? Count me in! I brought home and set about installing this complicated contraption in place of the original rubber ring:

Push the small upper button when you only need to incite a stream; push the lower button (marked with two dots for the blind?) when you want to open the sluice all the way.

We've had it in for a month or so now, and it seems to be working well. Even if we're not saving that much water on each flush, the random running has stopped, which makes for quieter nights and fewer trips to the cellar for the chlorine tank.

Thank God for tips from across The Pond!

~ emrys

A Rose In Any Other Hands

On Valentine's Day (aeons ago now) I bought flowers for the two loveliest ladies in my life: a rose for Sara and a carnation for Gwendolyn. Gwendolyn especially loves to sniff anything that looks like a flower (including pictures of shamrocks in board books), so she savored the gift perhaps more than most toddlers would. After a time, however, despite their setting in water and full light, the flowers reached the point at which they testified less to the triumph of love than to the sad end of all biology. So I determined to send the sagging flora to the compost pile. That was the moment Gwendolyn decided she wanted the rose. After two weeks of fending her off from the thorn-adorned stem, I gave her full authority now over the spent blossom. She wielded her executive power with impunity. I don't know that she's had exposure to the game of "he loves me, he loves me not," but one could be forgiven for drawing the conclusion that she had: Or maybe she was preparing someday to be the flower girl in a wedding. Either way, she discovered that when the petals are gone, so is the rose. ~ emrys