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.

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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.

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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

Oxford

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,

Yours,

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

A Reading Guide for 2013

In the Andersonian fashion of asking questions, I submit that one of our urgent questions is this: What are the possibilities of the vita contemplativa in the late modern world? In Human, All Too Human, Friedrich Nietzsche lamented, “Because there is no time for thinking, and no rest in thinking, we no longer weigh divergent views; we are content to hate them. With the tremendous acceleration of life, we grow accustomed to using our mind and eye for seeing and judging incompletely or incorrectly, and all men are like travelers who get to a land and its people from the train.” What a sharp observation! We moderns view life from a train window – blurred. Nietzsche continues:

The farther West one goes, the greater modern agitation becomes; so that to Americans the inhabitants of Europe appear on the whole to be peace-loving, contented beings, while in fact they too fly about pell-mell, like bees and wasps. This agitation is becoming so great that the higher culture can no longer allow its fruits to ripen; it is as if the seasons were following too quickly on one another. From lack of rest, our civilization is ending in a new barbarism. Never have the active, which is to say the restless, people been prized more. Therefore, one of the necessary correctives that must be applied to the character of humanity is a massive strengthening of the contemplative element. And every individual who is calm and steady in his heart and head, already has the right to believe that he possesses not only a good temperament, but also a generally useful virtue, and that in preserving this virtue, he is even fulfilling a higher duty.

How, then, can we moderns, in our train-zooming and bee-buzzing world, undergo that “massive strengthening of the contemplative element”? In my own life, I try to slow the acceleration through five practices: lectio divina, liturgy, cooking, walking, and reading.

For this post I will focus on reading. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then after years of rapturous listening to Ken Myers, host of Mars Hill Audio, I’ve developed his gift of bibliography. Other than John Wilson, editor of Books & Culture, I’m not aware of any contemporary Christian who has a more refined taste in books than Myers, who consistently brings forth treasures from his deep-sea diving in the sea of published works. Permit me to be a bibliographic fascist of sorts, dictating what new and forthcoming titles sound promising from various publishers.

My favorite American academic publishers are the trinity of Ivy League schools: Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.

From Harvard: Literary critic David Mikics demonstrated his virtues as a slow reader in The Art of the Sonnet, so I am excited to read Slow Reading in a Hurried Age (October 2013). As an instructor of literature, I goad my students to control their “ecosystem of interruption technologies” in order to develop the habits of deep attention, otherwise the reading of Great Expectations or Crime and Punishment is nearly impossible. Mikics shows “exactly how the tried-and-true methods of slow reading can provide a more immersive, fulfilling experience. He begins with fourteen preliminary rules for slow reading and shows us how to apply them. The rules are followed by excursions into key genres, including short stories, novels, poems, plays, and essays.”

If we follow Nietzsche’s exhortation to “weigh divergent views,” then every Christian should engage the secular humanism of philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum. In Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice (October 2013), she asks this big question: “How can we achieve and sustain a ‘decent’ liberal society, one that aspires to justice and equal opportunity for all and inspires individuals to sacrifice for the common good? In this book, a continuation of her explorations of emotions and the nature of social justice, Martha Nussbaum makes the case for love. Amid the fears, resentments, and competitive concerns that are endemic even to good societies, public emotions rooted in love—in intense attachments to things outside our control—can foster commitment to shared goals and keep at bay the forces of disgust and envy.”

Another divergent view that should be weighed is Albert Camus, the most honest atheist that I’ve encountered. Continue reading

Home: An Essay on The Little Way of Ruthie Leming

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” – T. S. Eliot

Home. It’s a mythic notion. Two of the three great epics of the Greco-Roman world trade explicitly in its associations. Odysseus and Aeneas each journey homeward – the former back toward the home he left that yet remains, although not unchanged; the latter, his home destroyed, moves forward toward a home yet to be found. The Odyssey, then, is a story about those who have a home to go back to, and the Aeneid is a story for those who long for home but have no place that answers to the name.

And then there is the story of Cain in the book of Genesis. After Cain murdered his brother, he was condemned to be a wanderer, forever alienated from God and family. His plight presents itself as an allegory of the human condition. But then there was a twist. Cain, we are told, went on to build a city, he would not be a wanderer after all; and his descendants are reckoned the founders of agriculture, metallurgy, and the arts – in short, of human civilization. Out of the dissatisfactions of homelessness, we are led to conclude, flowed the great achievements of human culture. But the narrator has the last word. He tells us that Cain built his city in the land of Nod, a name that echoes the Hebrew word for wandering. It is a touch of literary artistry which poignantly suggests that, even when it is surrounded by the accouterments of civilization, the human soul wanders lost and alienated … homeless.

Reflections on the theme of home and homelessness are not the preoccupation of ancient writers alone. They persist because the condition with which they wrestle persists. Rod Dreher’s The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, recently reviewed in these pages by Michael Reneau, admirably takes its place within this ancient literary tradition.The Little Way of Ruthie Leming

The book tells the story of Dreher’s alienation from his family and hometown, his sister’s battle with lung cancer, the love of the small town that rallied around his sister and her family, and, finally, Dreher’s homecoming. It is a moving book, but it is not sentimental. It praises the virtues of community without being blind to its vices. It raises all sorts of terribly important questions – about place, identity, ambition, love, family, and more – that we should all consider with great seriousness. It deserves to be read widely, and I hope that it will be. And I hope that it generates conversation, discussion, and debate about the assumptions that order our lives.

My Home and Homelessness

Little Way led me to think again about my own identity. Continue reading

A distant, glorious echo: Tolkien and typology

In his foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien boldy declares his dislike of allegory and notes that, whatever critics and readers have suggested, the novel is most certainly not an allegory. Nonetheless, Christian readers have insisted on finding parallels to Christian theology throughout his works, to the extent that they commonly consider various characters—Gandalf in particular—to be explicitly Christ-figures.

Orthanc, illustrated by Alan Lee

The Tower of Orthanc, illustrated by Alan Lee

Given Tolkien’s adamant rejection of any sort of allegorical reading of his text, we surely cannot admit of an accidental allegory; such a thing would not make sense. More, when we hold The Lord of the Rings up against works that are explicitly allegorical—C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, for example—we note that there is a real and even profound difference between the two in character and tone. We should therefore grant that Tolkien is not to be argued with here and move on.1

Still, Christian ideas keep popping up in his works: the death and resurrection of Gandalf, the unambiguously demonic evil that the heroes oppose in its various incarnations of Sauron or the Balrog, the king returning to claim his throne after a long stewardship, the long-awaited marriage of that triumphant king to a radiant bride, and so forth. While these do not have the sorts of explicit allegorical turns that characterize, for example, Lewis’ explicit identification of Aslan with Jesus, clearly there is something going on here. What is more, Tolkien himself would freely admit it.

The answer is simple enough. What many readers have mistaken for allegory is typology instead. Continue reading

Romance in Pride and Prejudice: Sometimes, We Settle

It is axiomatic that an artist’s work will be admired and disdained for a single set of qualities. Some admire the breadth and passion of Beethoven while others find his stamina and pathos tedious. Some admire the precision and pacing of Kubrick’s films while others find them pretentious.  Jane Austen is no exception; her longevity is like that of any other significant artist. The defenders and detractors never stop having their arguments about the worth of her work.

It may be worth revisiting Pride & Prejudice, which is two hundred years old this year, to consider what distinguishes her romances from contemporary romances. After all, Elizabeth Bennett is not the kind of character we can imagine will be convincingly portrayed by a Meg Ryan or a Kate Hudson, or even a Julia Roberts. Lizzy and Jane are not heroines who lend themselves to being championed by America’s sweethearts in just about any generation of film.

Arguably, Noah Berlatsky, writing for the Atlantic, has summed up the paradoxical appeal of Austen’s work: “She has to be one of the least romantic writers ever to write romance.”

Austen’s tales of romance may endure because she put so little stock in romance as we tend to define it. In an Austen novel, career advancement, real estate values, the size of an entailment, and the social and fiscal connections that come with marriage all matter. If that seems unappealing it is because we can’t conceive of a culture in which a marriage could be arranged to benefit clans rather than as the culmination of a quest for a “soulmate.” We also live in a culture which, in some sense, denies the inevitability of death.  And so Austen’s tales of matrimony and negotiation don’t make sense to us because they are often, as Berlatsky put it, as “small as life.”  Americans want life to be bigger and grander in every respect than a life could be in Jane Austen’s time.Elizabeth and Darcy

But a title like Pride & Prejudice suggests that however domestic the tale, Austen’s themes are hardly small. Just as stories about war are rarely “just” about war, Austen’s tales of romance are not “just” stories of people who marry.  The title tips us off to character flaws before we’ve even opened the book. Though Elizabeth and Darcy are not imbued with a social or symbolic significance as apocalyptic as Dostoevsky’s characters, they do represent ways of living life. That Austen is quotidian where Dostoevsky is apocalyptic, that Austen is mundane where Dostoevsky is grotesque hardly means she was not writing about ideas. Austen had an eye for the mundane details with which philosophies of life must contend on a daily basis. Dostoevsky wrote about the personal and social cataclysms that philosophies create when untempered by other ideals.  But it is the dry domesticity of Austen’s narrative world and the long term decisions made within it that give her characters’ decisions weight.  Irreversible life-altering decisions hinge on a person’s ability or inability to make the right decision after observing mundane details. Continue reading

Jackson and Tolkien: Hollywood’s Infatuation With Angst

Matt’s piece on The Lord of the Rings a few weeks ago nicely summed up one of the major ways in which Peter Jackson’s view of the world diverges from Tolkien’s: its profoundly different moral vision. But Jackson’s storytelling sense diverges from Tolkien’s in other, equally profound ways — not least in its approach to conflict.

Return of the King book and movie covers

There are two fundamental types of conflict in literature: external and internal. External conflicts pit the character against forces in the world around them: other men, society, or nature itself. Internal conflicts pit the character against himself. For prototypical examples, one might think of Odysseus and Hamlet. While each faces a variety of conflicts, Odysseus spends of the majority of his time confronting external enemies, and Hamlet spends a great deal of his time wrestling with himself. One of the literary strengths of Tolkien’s works is that they contain just about every sort of conflict imaginable. Continue reading

Ruminations on Joy

A few weeks ago I read Zadie Smith’s essay, “Joy,” in the New York Review of Books. If you haven’t read it already, I highly recommend doing so. It’s a beautifully written, decidedly contemporary reflection on joy with a tone I suspect Millennial and Gen-X readers will particularly resonate with. I also recommend Gary Gutting’s follow-up piece in the Times, helpfully bringing Thomas Aquinas into conversation with Smith’s portrait of joy.

As I’ve reflected on Smith’s essay the last few weeks, I’ve thought about a few things. The first is that I believe Smith’s ultimate conclusions about joy as opposed to pleasure are somewhat reminiscent of those of C.S. Lewis, whose reflections on joy ring the truest of all those I’ve come across.

Smith’s essay begins with an assumption that is self-evident to anyone who exists in this world: pleasures are rather easy to come by but joy is a bit more elusive. She then describes a handful of moments in her life when she felt that she touched joy, in particular a London nightclub experience in the 90s at the beginning of the ecstasy craze. But was that really joy? The morning-after letdown makes Smith wonder. Maybe joy exists mostly in the tease, the replication, the mimesis of something far rarer or altogether out of reach?

Reflecting on her drug experience that felt awfully close to joy, Smith writes:

At the neural level, such experiences gave you a clue about what joy not-under-the-influence would feel like. Helped you learn to recognize joy, when it arrived. I suppose a neuroscientist could explain in very clear terms why the moment after giving birth can feel ecstatic, or swimming in a Welsh mountain lake with somebody dear to you. Perhaps the same synapses that ecstasy falsely twanged are twanged authentically by fresh water, certain epidurals, and oxytocin… We certainly don’t need to be neuroscientists to know that wild romantic crushes—especially if they are fraught with danger—do something ecstatic to our brains, though like the pills that share the name, horror and disappointment are usually not far behind. When my wild crush came, we wandered around a museum for so long it closed without us noticing; stuck in the grounds we climbed a high wall and, finding it higher on its other side, considered our options: broken ankles or a long night sleeping on a stone lion. In the end a passerby helped us down, and things turned prosaic and, after a few months, fizzled out. What looked like love had just been teen spirit. But what a wonderful thing, to sit on a high wall, dizzy with joy, and think nothing of breaking your ankles.

To me, Smith’s notion of joy here feels like bittersweet nostalgia and longing more than anything, which brings to mind Lewis’s notion of it in Surprised by Joy. Reflecting on the common qualities of Lewis’s own list of “joy” experiences from childhood, he writes:

For those who are still disposed to proceed I will only underline the quality common to the three experiences; it is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again. Apart from that, and considered only in its quality, it might almost equally well be called a particular kind of unhappiness or grief. But then it is a kind we want. I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasure in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is.

Smith seems to agree with Lewis that joy is a particular kind of unhappiness or grief. “The thing no one ever tells you about joy,” she writes, “is that it has very little real pleasure in it.” And yet she seems more perplexed than Lewis on the question of why humans would choose to desire joy over pleasure, even when it can cause so much pain:

The writer Julian Barnes, considering mourning, once said, “It hurts just as much as it is worth.” In fact, it was a friend of his who wrote the line in a letter of condolence, and Julian told it to my husband, who told it to me. For months afterward these words stuck with both of us, so clear and so brutal. It hurts just as much as it is worth. What an arrangement. Why would anyone accept such a crazy deal? Surely if we were sane and reasonable we would every time choose a pleasure over a joy, as animals themselves sensibly do. The end of a pleasure brings no great harm to anyone, after all, and can always be replaced with another of more or less equal worth.

Smith’s recognition of the ultimate disposability and evanescence of pleasure seems to me representative of my generation’s increasing awareness of the general ephemerality of things, and their skepticism of all the tropes (a house, a family, a career, the suburban life…) previously associated (mostly via Hollywood) with a “joyous” life.

Mine is a generation which has grown up seeing about half of all marriages end in divorce. We’ve seen the real estate market collapse a few times, as well the stock market. We’ve seen umpteen holes shot through our heroes and icons (sex scandals, doping scandals, the generally unflattering transparency of 360 degree media).

Meanwhile, the allure of physical possessions seems ever diminished. Books on bookshelves are going the way of the CD. Amassing expensive furniture, investing in home improvements, registering for fine wedding china that will rarely be used… all of it feels pointless in a world whose impermanence is palpable: a world where life is lived via moment-by-moment tweets and Insta-documents quickly forgotten; where natural disaster, terrorism and apocalyptic doom are not feared as much as expected; where market instability, escalating debt and climate change make visions the future look closer to Children of Men than “Tomorrowland.”

Because of all of this (and no doubt much more), many of us are now, on the whole, much more desirous of experiences than things. We’d rather travel, eat amazing food, see movies, have adventures, and live socially in the present-tense than build for anything long-term. Unlike our parents, we tend to rent rather than buy; we work in jobs for years but not decades; we don’t live in one place for very long. We have close friends for “seasons,” but very few for life.

To be sure, the idea of rootedness, permanence and longevity–building an idyllic homestead wherein one’s family can flourish, amidst a tightknit community where “everybody knows your name,” where we can carve out a niche and stake our place for once and all–is desirable, but mostly in a fantasy sense (in the simultaneously nostalgic and eschatological sense, perhaps, of Marilynne Robinson’s reflections on home in the essay, “When I was a Child I Read Books.”) Such a vision confronts us mostly as a stab, a pang, a longing for what we know will probably never be.

And this brings us back to the discussion of joy. For it is precisely in those pangs and longings where joy exists, argues Lewis. “All joy (as distinct from mere pleasure, still more amusement) emphasizes our pilgrim status; always reminds, beckons, awakens desire,” he wrote once in a letter to Dom Bede Griffiths. “Our best havings are wantings.”

Though I agree with Lewis that pleasure is surely distinct from joy, I also think they are very closely linked. That is, I believe pleasure–mostly the nostalgic remembrance of a pleasure–can often be a catalyst for joy. Zadie Smith’s experience in the London club likely felt more joyous and profound in her memory–with great distance–than it did in the actual moment. Perhaps in the moment it was closer to pleasure than joy. But without that initial pleasure to look back on and long for, would there be joy?

When I consider instances of joy in my life thus far, most of what I would list probably felt more like pleasure at the time. I think of the summer night in Cambridge when I snuck onto the roof of Clare College with friends, looking out over the moonlit gardens, punting down the Cam river well after midnight, with champagne and laughter in ample supply. I think of the long, late-night undergrad conversations at Wheaton with my roommates: about God, movies, theology, relationships and the like. Or the childhood trips with my family to the Tulsa State Fair, an autumnal tradition rife with the screams and whirring of carnival rides and the smells of all things barbecue and fried. Pleasures all.

The memories of all that, the longing for those happy experiences and the intense recognition that they will never be replicated in just the same way… that’s what stirs up joy. Sehnsucht. And it’s not just nostalgia for the past. It’s nostalgia for a future that a lifetime full of accumulated pangs and pleasures leads us to believe exists. Somewhere. Joy is the ineffable, the transcendent, the sublime stasis which a million little experiences grasp at but can never fully capture. An ultimate settledness for which our hearts now restlessly pine.

This is why Smith feels that there is something melancholy about joy, that it has such a paradoxical capacity to bring us pain. And perhaps that is why in today’s world–so untrusted and unstable, where we’re all so aware of contingency and fragility–the idea of joy makes a lot more sense when articulated as a groaning for completion rather than a smiling-face present perfection. Lewis’ characterization of joy as always pointing away or calling us elsewhere (emphasizing our “pilgrim status”) rings true for citizens of discombobulated late modernity. We know all too well the vacuity that so often accompanies lives of consumption; the limited capacity of things to bring lasting pleasure. (Of course, experiences can also be disposable and empty, though I think they have greater capacity to morph into pleasant memories which ultimately bring joy).

Still, whether we’re curating commodities or experiences, It’s up to us to make the most of the little pleasures we come across. We can either celebrate the presentness of pleasure (YOLO, right?!) and stop there; or we can go further and see in pleasure signposts, recognizing that the ecstatic feeling triggered by a dance party, or a small-batch bourbon, or a down-to-the-wire Super Bowl, is not an end unto itself but rather a means by which we can contemplate our true pilgrim status and the telos to which it all must point.

Law and Les Miserables, Revisited

Ed. note:  I’m thrilled to publish this reflection by on Les Mis. by Dr. Jason Hood, a friend of mine and author of an important upcoming book on imitation that you should really preorder right now

In its opening weeks at the box office, some reviewers have reluctantly praised Les Miserables while panning it for being too sincere and epic, laden with “unashamed, operatic-sized sentiments.” This criticism is similar to the objections raised against Babel, the recent effort from Mumford and Sons. But just as many Christians praised Mumford and co. for letting music and faith take them soaring above cynicism, the epic new production of “Les Miz” has been racking up acclaim from Christians, including bloggers Tim Dalyrmple and Owen Strachan.

les miserablesCNN suggests that a marketing effort concentrated on evangelicals, including large institutions like Focus on the Family, is paying off at the box office. But the story’s themes of radical, beautiful grace are widely and justly celebrated. Even those who didn’t see the film in advance were pulsing with excitement. Mike Cosper wrote a paean for The Gospel Coalition even before seeing the film, urging readers to see it. Cosper’s pre-review rightly highlights the powerful depiction of grace in the film and garnered a great deal of attention (over 2,000 tweets and Facebook posts and likes at my last visit).

Cosper, Dalrymple and Strachan rightly highlight the beautiful depiction of the gospel in this classic tale. Dalrymple began his post: “I cannot think of any work of fiction that conveys the contrast between Law and Grace as vividly and profoundly as Les Miserables.” All three authors cite the distinction between law and grace in the titles of their posts, a distinction that has often been a common theme in analysis of Les Miz.

But what if the story also shows us a beautiful picture of law?

In a famous scene at the beginning of the story, we encounter a thief named Valjean who is newly released from prison. After being turned away for being a convict he is finally welcomed by a priest. He repays the kindness by stealing the priest’s silver and running away. When he is caught and dragged back, the priest forgives him and even gives him more than he had taken. In the musical version, the priest sings, “By the Passion and the Blood,
 God has raised you out of darkness; 
I have bought your soul for God!”

This encounter with grace is far more beautiful and sacrificial than I can portray in this summary, but I also haven’t spoiled it for you. Valjean is reformed and transformed. Yet the antagonist, a policeman named Javert, hunts Valjean down ruthlessly, as he is convinced of his own righteousness and Valjean’s depravity. The common approach is that the story presents a sharp contrast between the law (Javert) and the gospel (the priest and Valjean).

But there’s another way to look at the narrative. Rather than seeing Javert as a law-riddled villain and Valjean an anti- or post-law hero, perhaps we should see two different approaches to law: one fueled by grace and the pursuit of mercy and true righteousness, the other fueled by anger and self-righteousness. When the priest and Valjean depict grace, they are in fact keeping the law. The priest is obeying the commands of Jesus: loving his neighbor, turning the other cheek, doing mercy, and forgiving freely as he has been freely forgiven by God. In other words, the picture of grace and gospel in Les Miserables is also a beautiful portrait of law and commands.  Hugo’s priest isn’t just a Christ-figure; he’s also a Christ-follower.

Conversely, Javert might sing “Mine is the way of the Lord” while he ruthlessly pursues Valjean, but he’s wrong. His desire for justice and order is right, but his practice doesn’t represent law in any sort of biblical sense. Javert didn’t need to ditch the pursuit of law and justice; he needed grace and redemption that led to new law, a godly law that wouldn’t imprison a man for five years for stealing bread. He needed to discover merciful justice that wouldn’t imprison the poor inhumanely or treat the at-risk with ruthless contempt. In other words, he needed a law more like the law of Moses and Jesus.

Of course, any command can be used cruelly. But a healthy approach to law–an approach infused with beauty and grace–is possible, and helps us contribute to the creation of a more merciful world. In conversation with Cosper and others on Twitter, Jamie Smith pointed out that some celebrations of the story seemed to reject law wholesale, leaving little room for the vital cultural task of lawmaking and the pursuit of justice. Yes, there is a difference between law and grace, or law and gospel. But uncritical acceptance of a radical dichotomy between them can be spiritually harmful, hermeneutically disastrous, and culturally damaging. (Let me hasten to add that Cosper, Strachan, and Dalrymple aren’t guilty of those charges.)

Given that the word nomos in the NT is used in many different ways, an adjustment in our taxonomy might be helpful. Joe Rigney, a professor at Bethlehem College and Seminary in Minneapolis, asks why we aren’t using the label “legalism” (the ruthless, unbiblical application of constraints) instead of “law” to describe Javert.

In today’s climate, where law and constraint are dirty words and “freedom” and “liberty” are feted and glorified to the point of idolatry, it’s all too easy for law to become a derogatory label, which makes it helpful to have other terms in hand. Many contemporary Christians see law primarily in negative hues, wrongly taking Paul’s relegation of Old Testament Law—Torah—in Romans 6-7 as a rejection of any sort of command or law. But as OT scholar Jay Sklar puts it, biblical laws “are windows into the heart of the lawgiver.” When Moses gave Israel laws, he began by stressing God’s gracious redemption of his people (both versions of the Ten Commandments begin with a note of grace; Deut 5:6, Exod 20:1-2). When Jesus commanded his disciples to lay down their lives, he only did so on the basis of the fact that he was doing the same for them. And in Hugo’s story, obeying Jesus’ commands on the basis of grace becomes a vehicle for the extension of grace and mercy.

Consider the irony of trying to pit mercy against biblical law. As Rigney notes, Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees for their lawlessness (Matt 23:23 and context) fits Javert: by neglecting mercy and perpetuating injustice, he was showing his utter disregard for God’s law, neglecting what Jesus called “the weightier matters of the law.”

It’s the law informed by grace and mercy, not pitted against it. We find that law in the Bible; I also think we can see it in Les Miserables.

Jason B. Hood is author of Imitating God in Christ: Recapturing a Biblical Pattern (IVP, 2013). Among other fun activities, he teaches graduate courses in Old Testament for Union University.