Detective Fiction and the Fun of Orthodoxy

We’re a little late for Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday, which was last Tuesday, but all the same I’m delighted to share this fun piece from Matthew Mellema, a new guest writer for us at Mere Orthodoxy. Matt is a lawyer specializing in religious institutions. He’s also a writer who explores evangelicalism and quitting cynicism at Follow him on Twitter at @Matt_Mellema. 

“It is the dogma that is the drama.”

Dorothy Sayers wrote the line against the watery theology of her time. But it has implications beyond theology. It could also apply to another one of Sayers’ passions: detective writing.

To love detective fiction is to love rules. Continue reading

Twitter Is Like Elizabeth Bennet’s Meryton

I’m quite pleased to feature this piece from Mere Fidelity contributor Alastair Roberts today. You can follow him on Twitter here or read his personal blog here

‘A Truth Universally Acknowledged…’

In a 1997 article on communal judgment in Pride and Prejudice, William Deresiewicz observed that Pride and Prejudice is, at first glance, an apparent exception to Austen’s practice of opening her novels by introducing a central character.(1) Indeed, Elizabeth Bennet’s character doesn’t truly come to the foreground until around the sixth chapter. Closer examination, however, reveals that there is a central character introduced at the beginning of the novel: the community, with its values, expectations, conventions, and practices. The opening sentence of the book—‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’—is a ‘mock aphorism’, which is swiftly exposed to be nothing but a judgment that is ‘well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families’ of the neighbourhood. The earlier episodes of the story focus upon the neighbourhood of Meryton and its collective consciousness, which emerges as Mr Bingley and his friends move to Netherfield and become known to the community of the local gentry, most particularly in the opening ball. Deresiewicz remarks: ‘Elizabeth cannot appear until well into this initial story because it is that story—the story of how a community thinks, talks, exerts influence—that produces her plot, that produces her’ (504). Continue reading

On GK Chesterton and Chicken Vindaloo

An introduction to Chesterton is old hat for Mere O readers. But I’m posting this because this is the draft of a talk I plan to give as an intro to GKC when I lead a reading group at my church through Orthodoxy later this year. The typical group member likely has not read Chesterton themselves and may not even have heard of him prior to the group. So this is meant to be a way of getting people ready to read Chesterton so that they’re prepared for some of the difficulty (his style as well as cultural references) while also being made aware of the delights of reading him. If you have thoughts on how this can be improved, please share them in the comments.

Imagine you’re a kid from small-town Iowa visiting a family member in the city. In your small town you had three restaurants—a Pizza Ranch, a locally owned diner, and a McDonalds. Now your aunt and uncle are telling your family about where they want to go eat dinner: It’s an Indian restaurant. You’ve never had Indian food. You’ve eaten meat and potatoes your whole life at home with pizza and midwestern staples like pancakes, chicken fried steaks, and cheeseburgers when you’ve gone out to eat. The most exotic sauce you’ve ever tried is the alfredo your mom sometimes service with pasta and roasted chicken. You’ve never had anything like Indian food.

You get there and the first thing you try is the Mulligatawny, a soup made with lentil beans and plenty of spices you’ve probably never had before. But it’s actually not that strange–it’s just a bean soup. You’ve had that before, even if it was never quite like this. Then someone brings out a plate of garlic naan and you realize it’s just garlic bread. The dipping sauce with it is something new, but it’s a sweet white sauce so it’s still somewhat familiar.

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What I Saw in the Shire–JRR Tolkien and the Love of Little Things

Note: It’s March 25 which is the day that the Ring of Power was cast into Mount Doom in JRR Tolkien’s  The Lord of the Rings. About 10 years ago, a group of Tolkien fans decided to commemorate the day by making every March 25 Read Tolkien Day. So you should go do that.

If you’ve not read  The Hobbit  or  The Lord of the Rings, I can think of no better day to start (and no better time to be reading them than the days of spring and Ascension which is only a week and a half away). If you’ve read those, go pick up  The Silmarillion. It’s a denser book, but the stories are marvelous and they’ll bring you a bit deeper into the imagination of Tolkien, who had a quite remarkable intellect and was a deeply formed Christian.

There’s a scene near the end of The Lord of the Rings when Frodo and Sam are on the slopes of Mt Doom making their ascent to the crack in the mountain into which they hope to cast the Ring of Power, thereby bringing an end to Sauron’s power in Middle Earth. But at this point it seems as if they may not make it. They’ve marched for weeks on weeks with little food or water. They’ve been attacked by giant spiders, taken captive by orcs multiple times, and now appear to have lost their final reserves of energy as they attempt to make the final push up the mountain. But something is able to keep them going–memory.

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The Law and the Burden of Love in Harry Potter

In Les Miserables Victor Hugo told a number of miraculous stories, but none greater than that of its main protagonist, the former convict Jean Valjean. For those who don’t know the story, Valjean was a convict who worked on a chain gang for 19 years in early 19th century France for stealing food and then later attempting to escape multiple times. Upon his release he was granted a yellow passport which freed him, but also marked him as a former convict–thereby ruining his chances of finding good work or a place to stay.

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Curiosity and Love in Harry Potter


I’m currently enjoying my biennial tradition of reading through the Harry Potter books. This is my fifth time through the books and I find that each time through I seem enjoy them at least as much as I did the last time I read them. I’m taking notes as I go through and am attempting to turn those notes into blogs.

If there is a signature sin of our day, you could easily argue that it is curiosity. Thanks to the internet we are inundated with cheap media, making it easier than ever to plunge ourselves into a well of information for no reason other than the lack of anything better to do.

In a post at Reformation 21 about lust, Brad Littlejohn wrote:

The “curiosity” that sends the bored or weary mind browsing for pornography is often little different from the impulse that has already sent the same mind back to Facebook ten times a day to look for new notifications, or rushing to your inbox every time you hear a chime.  In its digital form, pornography has united the age-old human desire for sex with our age-old propensity to seek diversion in the new and different, and offered almost unlimited and effortless “satisfaction” of both impulses.

This curiosity that Littlejohn is describing should be familiar to anyone who has ever begun mindlessly clicking on various links from social media only to discover that they’ve spent an hour online and have no lasting memory of any of it. And like all sin, this curiosity has a touch of madness about it. In Orthodoxy GK Chesterton notes that the mad man isn’t the man who has lost his reason, but the man who has lost everything except his reason. His mind moves in a perfect circle–an impossibly small one that offers no help to the man as far as accurately perceiving reality is concerned, but a perfect circle nonetheless. So it is with this digital-age version of curiosity. There is a sort of completeness to it–the archives of Wikipedia alone could occupy a person for a lifetime, let alone the many blogs, journals, and other forms of–forgive my use of this wretched word–“content” available on the web.

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Tolkien and Violence

There’s a further Tolkien-related question that needs to be discussed after last week’s comments by George RR Martin, concerning the role of violence in Tolkien’s legendarium. Martin asked in the interview if Aragorn hunted down and killed all the orcs after his ascent to the throne, “even the little baby orcs in their orc cradles?”

As it happens, this is a terrible way of raising an interesting point. We need to talk about violence in Tolkien if we are to talk intelligently about his politics, but talking about the orcs is the wrong way of doing that. Tolkien is fairly dodgy about the origins of the orc, but the best hints we have are that orcs were originally elves who joined with Morgoth, the original Dark Lord for whom Sauron was a mere lieutenant. Due to their allegiance to Morgoth, the orcs were, by definition, evil to their core and were incapable of redemption. So the only thing left was to fight them and attempt to eradicate them. You can find ambiguity in Tolkien’s work regarding violence, but if you go looking for it in his treatment of the orcs you’re looking in the wrong place.

Martin’s comment about “little orc babies” is especially telling as it betrays a surprising ignorance of Tolkien’s world—it’s far from clear that there ever were such things as baby orcs. Tolkien never describes how exactly an individual orc comes to be, but there’s some reason to suspect that Peter Jackson’s view that orcs were made rather than born is correct. Indeed, if one reflects on the fact of Tolkien’s Catholicism it’s not hard to imagine him thinking that orcs, by virtue of their essential selfishness and lack of even the most basic form of affection or love, would be incapable of having sex and giving birth in the same way as the free peoples of Middle Earth. The simple act of sex, as Tolkien understood it, would have been the least orc-ish thing one could possibly do. (It is perhaps unsurprising that a man who writes sex in the way that Martin does would fail to pick up on this point.) So while it may seem an obvious place to go in thinking about violence in Tolkien’s work, the orcs are not the best place to begin.

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Things I’ve Learned From C.S. Lewis

The world didn’t take much notice of C.S. Lewis on November 22, 1963, the day he died. It was too frenzied by the shocking assassination of John F. Kennedy, which occurred in Dallas about an hour after Lewis died in his Oxford home, The Kilns. Every moment of JFK’s assassination aftermath and funeral was watched by the world. His exit of this life had the attention of billions. Lewis departed quietly. Word of his death traveled slowly to many of his friends, and his funeral was poorly attended.

Lewis’ inauspicious end, however, was doubtless for him the most auspicious of beginnings. That day, before all hell broke loose on Dealey Plaza, all heaven broken open for Lewis, and for the first time the longings he so eloquently articulated in life were satiated; the weight of glory made material. On that day, he drank joy from the fountain of joy.


50 years later, Lewis is still drinking that joy–tasting at the fountainhead that stream of which we can only taste the lower reaches (but even so how intoxicating!). Meanwhile, for us, “the cross comes before the crown and tomorrow is a Monday morning.” But we carry on. And at least for me, the carrying on is a whole lot easier because of Lewis.

I’ve learned a lot from the man. His words have played a significant role in my spiritual, intellectual and professional development. Even before I spent a week living at the Kilns, sleeping in the room he slept in, I felt him to be a kindred spirit–a man who gave eloquent expression to my “inconsolable secret” and awareness of Sehnsucht.

The first time I visited Oxford was absolute magic. The “city of dreaming spires” was indeed a dream. One of the unforgettable moments from that first trip was an evening worship service at the University Church of St. Mary as part of the C.S. Lewis Foundation’s Oxbridge 2005 conference. Part of the program was a reading by British actor Joss Ackland of the entire text of “The Weight of Glory,” a sermon delivered by C.S. Lewis in the same church in 1941. It was quite something to hear those words–one of the most eloquent and profound sermons I’ve ever heard–in that church, on a humid summer evening likely similar to the summer night on which Lewis originally delivered the address.

Since then, “The Weight of Glory” has become one of my favorite Lewis works. It manages to capture an amazing amount of truth, beauty and longing in just a few short pages. I’ve read it a dozen or so times, and in re-reading it this week it struck me that there are a few key ideas that have particularly impacted me:

“We are far too easily pleased.”

The first part of “The Weight of Glory” examines desire and debunks the notion that it is wrong to desire too much; rather, argues Lewis, we desire too little:

If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and to eagerly hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion…is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

This idea rang so true for me. I had sensed, ever since I was a young boy, that my deepest experiences of joy were often intimately tied with longing. I loved reading great books and watching awe-inspiring movies. I loved traveling and camping and exploring the creeks and rivers of my Oklahoma youth. But each of these things only fanned the flames of exploration and the longing in my soul. They whispered of even greater wonders. And that was the joy. It was the realization that what stirred my heart most when I encountered something beautiful was not the thing itself; but the reality that it was only a glimpse of something more. “They are only the scent of a flower we have not found,” wrote Lewis, “the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

“We cannot mingle with the splendours we see.”

One of my favorite sections of “The Weight of Glory” comes when Lewis elaborates on the bittersweet longing we feel when we encounter beauty:

We usually notice it just as the moment of vision dies away, as the music ends, or as the landscape loses the celestial light… For a few minutes we have had the illusion of belonging to that world. Now we wake to find that it is no such thing. We have been mere spectators. Beauty has smiled, but not to welcome us; her face turned in our direction, but not to see us. We have not been accepted, welcomed, or taken into the dance. We may go when we please, we may stay if we can, no one cares. Now, a scientist may reply that since most of the things we call beautiful are inanimate it is not very surprising that they take no notice of us. That, of course, is true. It is not the physical objects that I am speaking of, but that indescribable Something of which they become for a moment the messengers. And part of the bitterness which mixes with the sweetness of that message is due to the fact that it so seldom seems to be a message intended for us, but rather something we have overheard. By bitterness I mean pain, not resentment. We should hardly dare to ask that any notice be taken of ourselves. But we pine. The sense that in the universe we are treated as strangers, the longing to be acknowledged, to meet with some response, the bridge some chasm that yawns between us and reality, is part of our inconsolable secret.

This section illuminated for me a connection between my faith and my love of art and culture. The longings stirred up within me through a beautiful film or a beautiful sunset were exactly as Lewis describes: unsatisfied desires to not just observe something so beautiful but to be a part of it. And yet there are barriers: “we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see.” For Lewis this is a reflection of the now-but-not-yet nature of glory, which he defines as the fact of being noticed and known by God, more fully than we have ever been known before (1 Corinthians 13:12). There’s a sorrow wrapped up within our present joy because we know the beauty, goodness and truth we touch in this life are only “through a mirror dimly.” But one day we’ll see the glory face to face. Lewis saw the glory 50 years ago today.

“There are no ordinary people.”

For Lewis, the “weight” of glory is the mind-blowing reality that we will one day be in the presence of God and a pleasure to Him, “a real ingredient in the divine happiness … to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son.” This improbable notion is the weight of glory. But weightier still is the reality that every human we’ll ever know–our neighbors, our classmates, our enemies–will either be glory-filled in heaven or gloriously hideous in hell, and “all day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.”

What are the implications of this in our day to day lives? What Lewis says here is truly convicting, especially at a time when it seems so easy to abstract our enemies or wish ill upon the many people we encounter everyday (hundreds on Facebook, for example) who are irksome or difficult to abide:

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinners – no mere tolerance, or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.

As with much of what I read in Lewis, I pray that I take these words to heart. I pray that I would always seek the “infinite joy that is offered us,” and that I would gladly, gracefully bear the weight of glory as Lewis did.

When the Story Stops Telling Itself: A New Letter from C.S. Lewis

As the author of the bestselling children’s stories The Chronicles of NarniaC.S. Lewis inspired many young readers to take up the pen and write him in response.  And they did not write in vain.

It is well known that he replied to every letter he received, a task that he normally considered a duty but which Walter Hooper suggests became a delight when corresponding with children.  Many of these letters were published in Letters to Children and then later in the three-volume set.

But there are other such letters floating out there that the world has never seen.  Like this letter that Lewis wrote to Sarah Hauser on the 31st of July, 1957.  Ms. Hauser had written to the Professor asking whether he would please consider writing more Narnia stories, as she had enjoyed them very much.  She was twelve when she sent it off and this was Lewis’s reply:

The Kilns

Headington Quarry


July 31, 1957

Dear Sarah Hauser,

I am delighted to hear that you like the Narnian books and it was nice of you to write and tell me.  There won’t be any more.  When the story stops telling itself to me, I have to stop telling to other people; if I tried to go on it would only sound forced and dull.

With all good wishes,


C.S. Lewis

CS Lewis's letter to Sarah Hauser

Like so many words that C.S. Lewis wrote, this letter had a profound impact—even though it has not been widely known until now.  Ms. Hauser went on to become an accomplished storyteller, someone who spends her time delighting children and audiences of all ages with her craft.  I met Ms. Hauser during a memorable day at The Kilns,  we corresponded afterward, and she was kind enough to give permission to post it.

Lewis’s theory of artistic expression is worth considering carefully, but what strikes me in this letter is his characteristic directness about what he knew must have been disappointing news. Lewis does not hesitate, nor does he think his notions of how he tells story is beyond the child’s mind.  He does not “talk down” to Ms. Hauser, but responds with a frankness that indicates respect and equality.

That quality in Lewis’s relationship with children extended beyond his letters, though, and is indeed partly why the Chronicles of Narnia have had such perennial and broad appeal.  As Lewis wrote in his essay on writing for children:

Everything in the story should arise from the whole cast  of the author’s mind. We must write for children out of those elements in our own imagination which we share with children: differing from our child readers not by any less, or less serious, interest in the things we handle, but by the fact that we have other interests which children would not share with us. The matter of our story should be a part of the habitual furniture of our minds….We must meet children as equals in that area of our nature where we are their equals. Our superiority consists partly in commanding other areas, and partly (which is more relevant) in the fact that we are better at telling stories than they are. The child as reader is neither to be patronized nor idolized: we talk to him as man to man.

Judging by his response to Ms. Hauser, Lewis apparently thought such a relationship of equality extended even to the finer points of the nature of the creative vision.

Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Modern Literature?

Back during the halcyon days of the Bush administration (ha!), I read a piece in Touchstone which bemoaned the dearth of Evangelical modern literature. Evangelical professor David T. Williams surveyed the fiction produced by his tradition over the past century and found a great deal of “schlock and kitsch” but nothing “recognized as having literary value by the literary world.” Williams noted Christian authors from other traditions finding success, specifically Flannery O’Connor, and attributed this lack to several hallmarks of Evangelical doctrine and practice:

Our failure to encourage our people to apply doctrine to the realities of life; our failure to include in our theology the whole counsel of the God who called Bezalel and Oholiab and gifted them as artists; and our pragmatism, an uncritical reflection of American culture rather than a biblical mandate, with our mystery-impoverished worship tradition are all simple failures to be what we claim to be, faithful to Scripture.

I chafed.

I chafed mostly because I believe that, despite the prevailing stereotype, Evangelical aesthetics are well formed. For example, the musical tradition of Evangelicalism, from Watts and Wesley to Tomlin and Getty easily excels that of other streams of the Christian tradition. Why wouldn’t there be Evangelical writers producing creative works of fiction as well?Chris Tomlin

But while the piece stuck in my craw, I struggled to formulate a reply. After all, I couldn’t name a current Evangelical literary star either. Finally, this month, two articles combined to explain this phenomenon.

First, in First Things, Randy Boyagoda penned a piece with the following provocative beginning:

I’m sick of Flannery O’Connor. I’m also sick of Walker Percy, G. K. Chesterton, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Dostoevsky. Actually, I’m sick of hearing about them from religiously minded readers. These tend to be the only authors that come up when I ask them what they read for literature.

These writers brilliantly and movingly attest to literature’s place in modern life, as godless modernity’s last best crucible for sustaining an appreciation of human life’s value and purpose that corresponds to our inherent longing for the good, the true, and the beautiful. But what else do they have in common? They’re all dead.

Boyagoda admits that every strain of Orthodox Christianity is batting .000 when it comes to producing a living literary giant. (Paul Elie made much the same point in the New York Times last year.)

Perhaps then, the failure of an Evangelical darling to emerge shouldn’t be so much of a surprise. Maybe the problem lies in the institution of modern literature itself. Continue reading