Chronological Snobbery

It was Owen Barfield who induced a young C.S. Lewis to abandon what he called ‘chronological snobbery.’ I like the term, but its meaning is not immediately clear. Is this what Lewis is referring to when he exhorts us to read old books as a corrective to the errors of the day (most famously argued in his essay “On the Reading of Old Books”)?

But no – it cannot mean simply reading old books since Lewis was already reading old books even at an early age, well before meeting Barfield and having his chronological snobbery cured. So what is it, then? In this post I’d like to explore these ideas a little bit. Let’s start with what Lewis writes about it:

In Surprised by Joy, he defines chronological snobbery as

“the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.”

There is overlap here with his famous quote from the essay mentioned above on reading old books:

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. … Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.

Reading old books is part of the solution, but the assumption of “newer is better” goes deeper, and it will likely take something more than mere exposure to old ideas to cure you of it. The fact that today we have many university humanities departments devoted to exposing the ‘hetero-normative patriarchal misogyny’ of Shakespeare and Dante and Milton makes that clear enough.

This snobbery, like all snobberies, is subtle and mostly invisible to the one infected with it. It is something that one detects in others but never in oneself. Think about how often you have heard “what a snob!” said, and how not once was the person saying it talking about themselves. We accuse ourselves of many things, but snobbery doesn’t tend to be one of them.

I’m cultured, not a snob, you silly peasant.

The attitude, to the degree that one is conscious of it, seems entirely justified by the facts of the case. “After all, I have very good reasons for feeling this way!” So we are dealing with something that must be exposed before it can be dealt with.

I take it as a matter of fact that this attitude is widespread today. And my hunch is that the less historically informed our society becomes, the more this default assumption about the superiority of our fashionable ideas – this snobbery – will spread. I can see two other reasons for its prevalence.

First, there is this myth of progress. Generally speaking, the field of engineering is more advanced now than 400 years ago. The same is true for medicine, physics, and chemistry. These are the hard sciences where a wrong theory pretty quickly slams into the solid wall of objective reality, or better, the world as God made it. Since the delay between theory and result is brief, misguided ideas tend to reveal themselves as dead ends before getting too far, and more importantly, before the theorizers get too attached to the ideas.

But it really is another story when we are talking about fields other than the hard sciences such as sociology, anthropology, morality, or ethics. The myth of progress is the assumption that steady progress has been taking place in these fields similar to the progress that we can all see happening when we look out the window at the high-speed trains, jet-liners, and orbiting satellites. In this mode of thinking, the latest idea is, by virtue of its novelty, the best idea.

The problem is that the delay between theory and result in these other fields is much longer. By the time the fruit of misbegotten ideas becomes undeniable, not only can there be a huge human cost, but sometimes the entire field of study has become institutionally committed to the bad idea and cannot abandon it despite the growing evidence for its failure.

Second, it is basic human nature to desire to feel superior to others. Simply put: chronological snobbery allows me to feel superior to an awful lot of people – and most of them are not around to call me out on it. It is therefore a satisfying attitude to adopt. I will leave aside for the moment the question of whether we ought to be trying to satisfy this desire to feel superior, other than to say that Lewis has a great insight in chapter 14 of The Screwtape Letters that is worth pondering.

To return to a point in the second quote above, every age will have its characteristic virtues and its prevalent vices. Future ages, or contemporary observers from outside that culture, will be able to see and denounce what they did not. And so we rightly reject the awful cruelty of the medieval world, the infanticide of the Romans, and the pedophilia of the ancient Greeks. But if we are not careful, we will miss their virtues and miss the chance to see and address some of our own vices.

In the next post, I’d like to reflect on some related insights I’ve gleaned from René Girard and Craig Carter.

The Narnian

To demonstrate the unique charm of this CS Lewis biography by Alan Jacobs, I’ll have to throw you right into the deep end. Try to follow me here: When Lewis encountered a modern literary scholar who, commenting on an older critic’s assertion that the theme of Milton’s Paradise Lost was simply that ‘Obedience to the will of God makes men happy and disobedience makes men miserable,’ called it ‘vague’, Lewis wrote the following: “Dull if you will. Or platitudinous. Or harsh, or jejune, but how vague? Has it not rather the desolating clarity and concreteness of certain classic utterances we remember from the morning of our own lives? ‘Bend over; go to bed; write out ‘I must do as I am told’ a hundred times. Do not speak with your mouth full.’ How are we to account for the fact that great modern scholars have missed what is so dazzlingly simple? It is after all the commonest of themes. Even Peter Rabbit came to grief because he would go into Mr. MacGregor’s garden.”

While any biographer can dig up that great quote, only a biographer with a strong literary mind and a clever pen can make the following comment:
“This is as delightful as it is wise. Any literary critic who can, in the course of a few sentences, take us from the great Milton’s account of the fall of humanity in twelve books of stately and heroic blank verse, to Beatrix Potter’s rather humbler account of Peter Rabbit’s rather humbler troubles, is a critic of – to put it midlly – considerable range.”

And so you see why, of all the commendable biographies of CS Lewis that I could read, I chose to start with Alan Jacobs’. Being familiar with some other books by Alan Jacobs (Original Sin, The Year of our Lord 1943), as well as his essays at First Things (chiefly on W.H. Auden) and elsewhere, I trusted him to do justice to not only the biographical details of Lewis’s life but the contours of his thought and the substance of his writing. I was not disappointed. One reviewer calls Jacobs’ writing ‘thick and circuitous,’ and I think that an apt description of his writing everywhere I’ve encountered it. I find it wonderful. Perhaps it is not to everyone’s liking, but I would rank him as one of the best prose writers of our day.

I have long been fascinated by CS Lewis. And while I am pretty familiar with many of his books and recurring themes, I have never read a full biography until now. I enjoyed learning about the breadth of his life: from the tragedy and loneliness of his childhood, to his adolescent arrogance, atheism and budding brilliance, to the horrors of the Great War trenches and corpses, to the strange and scandalous living arrangement he entered into after the war, to his conversion and the central place that myth and story occupied in it, to his most productive years where he churned out book after book, to his surprising but brief marriage, declining health, and death. Jacobs serves as a more-than-able guide through all these seasons of his life. While Jacobs does not hide his affinity and appreciation for Lewis, neither does he gloss over the unsavory aspects of his life, letters, and character.

Some readers expecting a deep dive into the actual writing of the Narnia Chronicles may be disappointed. For that particular itch perhaps Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia would be more suitable, although it is even more dense and scholarly than this volume.

I gladly recommend it to those looking for a good CS Lewis biography that will acquaint them with not only the arc of his life but also with the singular imagination and intellect of this towering 20th-century figure.

The Unseen Realm

This is a big book tackling some big ideas. The author aims at nothing short of a paradigm shift in the reader, who is assumed to be a modern 21st-century Christian. In this goal, I think Heiser is largely successful. The book, despite some issues, is a serious contribution to any thinking Christian’s worldview.

When I was in Bible College, one of the paradigm shifts I had was as a result of missiology courses. It was in studying different cultures that I gained some perspective on my own; it was in realizing that developing-world cultures had thoroughly supernatural worldviews that I understood how thoroughly secular my own worldview was. This book continued that process and shored it up with serious scholarship and Biblical evidence. The fact is that modern western Christians have absorbed the naturalistic cosmology of the surrounding culture. This book seeks to awaken the believer to the Bible’s thoroughly supernatural worldview.

In order to do that, the author takes the reader on a journey from one end of the Bible’s storyline to the other, developing the concepts of the divine council (see Psalm 82 for a start) and all its entailments. In this regard, I found the first half of the book, focusing on the OT, to contain the bulk of the insights. There were some good chapters in the NT sections but in general they were less compelling and convincing. At times Heiser proposes significant departures from mainstream scholarship in translation and interpretation concerning key verses. I will have to do some further study and reading on such matters before buying into them – Heiser is clearly ‘all-in’ on this paradigm and sees evidence for it everywhere, even when such evidence is a bit of a stretch.

In terms of criticisms I have of the book, there are a couple. First, in chapter 7 Heiser awkwardly inserts his understanding of free will as somehow necessary for the Bible’s storyline to make sense. It felt forced. Full disclosure: I am comfortably Reformed in my soteriology and I take the Bible to present both absolute divine sovereignty and mankind’s moral responsibility in a kind of tension best represented by compatibilism. So I shrugged and moved on.

Second, in my recent reading of Craig Carter’s work, I have become sensitized to the danger of reading and interpreting Scripture from outside an ecclesiastical tradition. This is a modern evangelical temptation, and it leads to the re-emergence of historic distortions and heresies. I saw this at work somewhat in The Unseen Realm, although time does not permit me to go into detail. Suffice it to say that the helpful correctives this book aims to bring need to be made within the structures of the historic orthodox Christian church and its teaching.

Lastly, I don’t think that what Heiser has put forth here merits a central place in the Christian’s life and theology. And yet the book is presented almost as if this should radically re-orient everything in the Christian’s life and mind. No. The fact remains that Heiser is drawing on a small percentage of carefully selected texts; the main sweep of the Bible’s storyline, while informed by this supernatural worldview and this understanding of the role of the divine council, lies elsewhere: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ the long-promised Messiah. Heiser’s contribution is to fill in some wonderful detail in the backdrop of that central drama. The gospel must remain central. And for that reason, while I would gladly recommend this book to thoughtful mature Christians, I would not hand it to a new believer.

A Baby’s Stare

Have you ever thought about the uniqueness of a baby’s stare? Since having our 4th child in November 2020, I have been thinking about this. Of all our children, this one is the stare-iest. She just loves to look; she’s glad to gaze and gape and gawk! Yes our little Lucy is simply obsessed with observing everyone and everything around her.

“I see you.”

I have spent many luxurious minutes returning her stare and wondering what might be going on in that adorable little head of hers. I realized that I could not exchange a stare like this with just anyone in the street. Could you imagine silently staring into the eyes of a stranger on the street for even 15 seconds? 30 seconds? An entire minute? Try it. Folks nowadays hardly make eye contact at all, never mind a sustained stare. “Do I know you? Is there a problem?” … “I’m calling the police.” Heck, even my other kids wouldn’t stand for that: “Dad, stop being weird.” Or my wife: “What are you doing? Do I have something on my face?!”

But with baby Lucy, there is no such reaction. Why is that? For one, she can’t talk. So while she’s staring at me, I can’t engage her with a question. If I try to stare at anyone verbal, they will inevitably engage me with words quite quickly along the lines described above. But if they know I can’t speak, they will intuitively put up with a much longer gaze. In the absence of words, we find other ways to communicate.

She’s especially expressionless soon after waking up, as seen here.

Still, it’s more than that. A non-verbal person of normal intelligence will use hand signals and facial expressions to communicate. But a baby can’t do even that. And this gets to the heart of the vulnerability and magic of babies. They come into the world with no ideas about how the world should be. A baby simply takes in the world as it is. And to do that, a baby stares. (Babies also put every single possible thing within their reach into their mouths like some kind of overzealous Roomba, but that’s not the topic of this particular reflection.)

So we have the situation that we embrace from infants what we would never accept from anyone of an older age – long silent stares. As you may know, babies don’t really make facial expressions in reaction to visual stimulus for the first few months. It’s hard work to get that baby to smile back at you. So the stare I’m talking about is wide-eyed, mouth slightly open, and expressionless. Which goes back to my previous point: a child simply takes in the world around it without making any value judgement on what it finds. It has nothing to compare to, no way to evaluate. The mother it has becomes the idea of Mother; the father it has becomes the idea of Father; the family and home it has likewise. I often imagined Lucy saying to herself, when she was in one of her gazing moods, “so this is what life is like.” This open-hearted receptiveness contributes to the weightiness of parenting; who is equal to this task?

So the next time a baby stares at you, don’t look away, don’t feel awkward, don’t laugh it off. Something momentous is happening. This child is taking in everything it can through the windows of the mind we call eyes. The open-hearted receptiveness you see on display will not survive the next two decades of various pains, disappointments, losses; no – it will give way to some level of guardedness and maybe even cynicism. While that may be inevitable, maybe this beautiful stare can remind you of a time when you were less guarded and cynical. And if you can, use that moment to let down your guard and stow your cynicism: that would make the world just a little better for this baby and for you.

Reflection on The Strange Death of Europe by Douglas Murray

Say what you will about Murray, he is a pretty honest guy. And these days that is a rare quality. He is willing to say what many are not, and willing to ask questions which make people squirm. The on-the-ground feel of the book was one of its strengths. Murray draws on his travels and conversations for first-hand experience of the realities on the ground. Upon this foundation he builds his arguments using carefully researched statistics and citations.

I think there is a counter-argument to be made, and I hope it is made publicly. The problem seems to be that these important conversations and debates are so often being shut down with slurs and slanders before they can even begin. Despite the fact that Murray everywhere rejects far-right nationalism and racism, a quick glance at the reviews in major outlets shows that these accusations are often made.

While the entire book was interesting, the most fascinating part to me, as a Christian, was chapter 16, titled “The feeling that the story has run out.” In this chapter, Murray delves into the big questions: “What am I doing here? What is my life for? Does it have any purpose beyond itself?” and reflects on the inability of modern Western Europeans to come up with satisfying answers: “the answers to these questions that we have held onto for centuries seem to have run out.” With striking clarity, Murray argues that modern Europe, with its culture of human rights and freedoms, is built on “beliefs that we have left behind…” And yet, despite acknowledging that this has prompted some “to become better acquainted with our own traditions,” such as Christianity, he says multiple times that modern people “cannot force themselves into sincere belief.” It is clear that he finds this to be true for himself as well as others.

In another striking part of this chapter, Murray reflects on a quote by Richard Dawkins to the effect that the theory of evolution bequeathed to us by Charles Darwin has solved ‘the greatest of all mysteries’: “Right there is the gulf that now exists between the accepted secular-atheist world view of our culture and the reality of how people live and experience their lives. Because although Dawkins may feel that our mystery has been solved – and although science has indeed solved part of it [notice how Murray is more modest in his claim than the ever-bombastic Dawkins] – most of us still do not feel solved.” Turning to the fact that humans are now shown to be highly evolved apes, he says “we also know that we are more than animals and that to live merely as animals would be to degrade this thing that we are. […] We know we are something else, even if we do now know what that else is.”

Perfectly anticipating my exasperation at his clear-headed insights and half-answers, the next line is: “Of course religious people find talk like this frustrating because for real believers the question will always be, ‘Why do you not just believe?’ Yet this latter question ignores the most likely irreversible damage that science and historical criticism have done to the literal-truth claims of religion and ignores the fact that people cannot be forced into faith.” He is exactly right that I find it frustrating, but he is exactly wrong about the question I would pose. ‘Why do you not just believe’ is a stupid question to ask someone whose intellect and reason have raised objections to the content of Christianity. Real faith does no violence to the intellect, although it may transcend it.

The most crucial part of the quote above is Murray’s listing of his two main intellectual objections to belief: ‘science’ and ‘historical criticism’. So the questions should be: ‘Why do you believe science and historical criticism make belief impossible? Have you taken the time to read the best responses to those objections? Why is it that there are leading thinkers in nearly every advanced field of scientific knowledge who are devout Christians? Do you understand the science better than them?’ It’s almost like he’s read the pamphlets put out by the atheists and thrown up his hands and said “so it’s hopeless – no intelligent person can believe this God stuff!”

But Murray is certainly correct that one cannot simply choose to believe. There is a mystery to true conversion; as Jesus explained to Nicodemus: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8). Even once the intellectual objections are dealt with, there is a surrender, a yielding, an unveiling, an inner transformation, which only the Spirit’s work can accomplish.

Slaughterhouse-Five and the Meaning of Life

I enjoy reading the 20th-century classics. They offer a window of insight into how we got where we are today, the early 21st century (which I for one think will be memorable). Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut fits the bill for this little hobby of mine. I was especially drawn to the book as I had not previously read anything by the author. I quite enjoyed the book — it is a fine piece of writing which explores some difficult themes that have gnawed at the hearts and minds of people since the enlightenment and especially since the horrors of the world wars.

SLH5

In a telling portion of the book, the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, shares a room in a psychiatric ward with a fellow WW2 veteran, Eliot Rosewater. “They had both found life meaningless, partly because of what they had seen in war.” The author goes on to describe atrocities and tragedies that they had each witnessed. “So they were trying to re-invent themselves and their universe.” Indeed. Hasn’t that been the intellectual project of so much Western thought? Having rejected Christianity or God as possible answers, it becomes necessary to “re-invent” ourselves and our universe, but built on a different foundation. Throughout the book, faith figures such as Christians and even Jesus himself are portrayed as misguided, pathetic, and especially capable of great cruelty. So it goes.

Lest you think I am reading this into the text, it goes on to make it clear. “[Rosewater] said that everything there was to know about life was in The Brothers Karamazov, by Feodor Dostoevsky. ‘But that isn’t enough any more,’ said Rosewater.” The Brothers Karamazov is one of the deepest literary explorations of the reasons for unbelief and for faith, which in the end makes a case for faith in God. But that isn’t enough anymore. And it seems to me this has been the experience of so many in our modern world, and forms part of the reason why this book has resonated so deeply with people in this age. 

Billy overhears Rosewater say to a psychiatrist, “I think you guys are going to have to come up with a lot of wonderful new lies, or people just aren’t going to want to go on living.” Exactly. Vonnegut can see how the secular psychological-therapeutic industrial complex has in so many ways replaced the role that faith and religion once played in the lives of people and communities. But his cynicism and nihilism bleed through: these are just new lies to replace the old ones. For the moment I make no judgment here on that cynicism and nihilism. I can’t say I would feel any differently if I had been through the firebombing of Dresden, one of the absolute worst events of WW2.

The book is clever (at times very funny) and always dark. There are no heroic characters, and instances of goodness and beauty are fleeting and accidental. The mood of the book is bleak and numb. The violence described (especially the destruction of Dresden) is at once matter-of-fact and also morally shocking. The moral neutrality of the narration serves to amplify the reader’s moral reflex to such atrocities: These things should not be, and they should not be discussed in this way! And yet as a Christian I see a disconnect between the moral point Vonnegut seeks to make and the necessary philosophical undergirding that such moral imperatives require. This is an old objection, but it is a stubborn one: On what basis is such an event morally wrong? We all intuitively know that it is wrong, but not every worldview can explain both the intuition and the why the intuition is right all the way down.  

The haunting question remains: If there is nothing eternal and life is full of seemingly meaningless suffering, what can be the point of living? Like Camus, Vonnegut points the reader to “Ignore the awful times and concentrate on the good ones.” At the end of it all, with great wit and cutting satire, Vonnegut, along with so many towering literary figures of the 20th century, can only say “So it goes”. 

Slaughterhouse-Five is a semi-autobiographical novel for our times. It captures the mood of our age with wit and satire. From the vantage point of the year 2021, it seems to have, like the work of Camus, a certain romantic glow around its existentialism, a weak and flimsy bulwark against full-blown nihilism. In the intervening decades, it seems to me that the romance and glow have faded: young people either sink into that deeper despair of nihilism and destruction (self or otherwise) or they embrace the new religion of woke progressivism with all of the zeal and fervor of religious fanatics. 

It seems we cannot live without meaning for very long. So it goes.

Why We Sleep

I decided to read this book after a friend of mine posted a number of interesting quotes from it. Sleep has fascinated me for a long time, and for some reason I carried the assumption that we still do not know much about why we sleep or what exactly happens when we do. Added to this is the fact that I have regularly gone with 6 or less hours of sleep during the work-week over the last few years due to a 6:30am start time (meaning a 5am wake time + 1hr commute) and being a night owl. Regular good sleep has thus evaded me for quite some time, and I have had mixed feelings about it. Part of me embraced the “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” mentality that sees sleep as nothing but an obstacle to further productivity, while another part of me recognized that sleep deprivation was having an undeniable effect on my physical, mental, emotional, relational, and spiritual health.

To put it simply, this book is an accessible summary of the most important scientific findings to have emerged in the ever-advancing field of sleep studies. I am by no means familiar with the world of sleep studies, so perhaps there are differing schools of thought, but the impression I got from the book was that we have learned an awful lot about sleep in the last few decades, and that this information has not yet become widely spread public knowledge.

The book itself is of considerable length, clocking in at over 300 pages (16+ hours of listening time). There is a lot of information in there, but a lot of it could be distilled down to a list of key findings. Much of the book is an exploration of how those findings were reached and what the implications of them are. Like any field of study, I am sure that some of these conclusions will be revised in the future, but hopefully not with the kind of yo-yo inconsistency that has characterized the science of food and diet (yesterday’s health food is today’s carcinogen, etc).

What were some of the key takeaways?

– Most importantly, you need sleep. That is, unless you are one of the roughly 1% of people who can function with less than 6 hours of sleep and not be impaired.

– If you think that’s you, think again: People are hilariously unable to assess their own level of impairment due to lack of sleep (similar to alcohol). We are self-deceived on this point.

– The two main types of sleep, NREM and REM, are both vital but for different reasons. NREM, among other things, is responsible for pruning memories and transferring short-term memory to long-term memory. REM (dream sleep) “is responsible for forming new neural connections, problem-solving, dreaming, blunting emotional responses to painful memories, reading other people’s facial emotions…” etc.

– Now to scare you into bed: “Sleep deprivation is associated with more severe disease: higher mortality, risk of cancer, heart disease, weight gain, rate of infection, Alzheimer’s, irritability, inflammation.” All of these are solidly demonstrated by peer-reviewed studies.

– Lastly, the effects of sleep deprivation are many: “lowers performance, social fluidity, rational decision-making, memory recall, emotional control, immune system function, response to flu vaccine,” and more.

I came away from this book and a newfound respect and awe for the magical substance and activity we call sleep. As for my sleep habits, I certainly came away chastised for my past neglect of it and motivated to embrace this good gift. The book largely broke the mental connection I had between sleeping and laziness. While this obviously still applies to certain people, our society is one that is chronically and proudly sleep deprived. If there are two ditches we can fall into, our culture is firmly in the ‘too little sleep’ ditch, and quite a ways from the lazy over-sleeping ditch.

The only significant criticism I have to make of the book is one I make as a committed Christian, and which therefore will not be shared by those who do not share my convictions. Simply put, the author, like so many in the world of science, is entirely committed to a purely naturalistic view of biological development. That is, no matter what he discovers about sleep and the human body, no matter how amazing or intricate or fine-tuned or brilliantly designed he finds it to be, he can only ever attribute it to the blind impersonal force of natural selection or the slightly anthropomorphized ‘mother nature’.

Now listen, I am not surprised at this and this little rant is perhaps more of a reflection than a criticism. I don’t realistically expect the author to start questioning his metaphysical assumptions about ultimate reality because he discovers something about how a certain hormone regulates the emotionally healing qualities of REM sleep. Well, sure, it would be nice. It does however demonstrate starkly for me the blind allegiance of the scientific establishment to a secular naturalism, despite the massive problems with the theory of evolution, especially the obvious absence of any compelling model or explanation for the origin of biological life. This is simply glossed over: The edifice has been built already, don’t go asking questions about the foundation – it’s too late for that. Our hubris really cannot handle admitting ignorance or the possibility that we’ve taken a massive 2-century-long wrong turn down a dead end. And those with the intellectual honesty to express doubts about the reigning dogma are quickly ostracized and excluded. Following the evidence indeed.

As for me, this book helped me discover the incredible ways our bodies and minds have been designed, and the crucial role sleep plays in that design. It spoke of a Creator who knows what’s good for us, who designed us to have limits which in our pride we so often try to ignore.

I enjoyed the book, learned a lot from it, and am grateful for it. If you want to learn more about sleep than you ever thought there was to know, get yourself a copy.

“for he grants sleep to those he loves.” (Psalm 127:2)

The Wingfeather Saga

The Warden and the Wolf King concludes Andrew Peterson’s 4-part Wingfeather Saga. I finished the books more than two weeks ago, but have been trying to gather my thoughts before putting pen to paper – or fingertips to keys – in the form of a review and reflection. I’ve been trying to sort out where this series fits within the world of fantasy fiction by Christians.

That the books are eminently readable, accessible, and enjoyable is beyond doubt. They make for great reading at any age, and I wholeheartedly recommend them. But not many books are truly great books. Not all enjoyable series deserve to be classified with the ‘classics’. So where does this one land? I will tell you soon, but first: let’s think about the books themselves for a bit.

Peterson describes the genesis of the Wingfeather Saga as a story he wrote for his own children. One can sense the playfulness of that first book, with its silly names and laugh-out-loud moments punctuated by serious themes. The careful reader can tell that the author is not quite sure where it is all going to go quite yet, but that the very act of imagining and incarnating the characters seems to propel him forward. Peterson’s insights into the human heart are part of what makes the series so special. In particular, he delves deeply into the personalities and relationships of the two brothers: Tink (or later, Kalmar), and Janner.

The second book and third books have a surer step as the plot is developed, the writing improves, other characters and relationships are explored, and themes of evil, friendship, loss, suffering, failure, forgiveness, and family are deepened. The humor is still present but less prominent. The fourth book, by far the longest, reveals Peterson at his creative best. The tensions are ratcheted up and up until a final resolution is reached. The defeat of evil is not the end, however. A great symbolic act of healing actually serves as the thematic climax of the series. (I am being quite guarded in my descriptions to avoid having to warn you about spoilers).

The well-read Christian will recognize the major influences immediately. J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis loom large. Behind them, present but distant, would be George MacDonald and G.K. Chesterton. It seems to me that Peterson adapts elements from both Tolkien and Lewis. The world of Aerwear is more like Tolkiens’ Middle-Earth than Narnia. There is a long history that is referred to at many points along the way, and hints at a long future as well. While nowhere near the complexity or comprehensiveness of Tolkien’s (frankly unsurpassed) world, Peterson manages to make the reader feel he is really in another place, a place that makes sense and functions according to its own nature, a place with a real history and a real future, with real characters making real choices. This alone is no small achievement.

The nature of divine involvement in The Wingfeather Saga charts a middle path between LOTR and Narnia. Unlike LOTR, there is a ‘Maker’ that the characters interact with, but unlike Narnia, that Maker makes no appearance and all interactions with him happen ‘off-stage’. The presence and use of humor was more prominent in Peterson’s work than either of these two major influences, although if I had to choose I would say it was closer to Lewis’ style than Tolkien’s. The structure of the ending seems to be a classic case of what Tolkien called the eucatastrophe, a concept he coins and explores in his famous essay “On Fairy Stories.” And it works.

The role and power of music and arts in The Wingfeather Saga was a special contribution as well. Leeli turns the tide of many battles with the power of song, which seems appropriate coming from an author who is best known for his songwriting and music. Clearly we are glimpsing here some of the ways in which Peterson sees the arts functioning in the world. I look forward to reading his more recent book, Adorning the Dark, which seems to be a set of reflections on these matters.

Despite all my admiration, I’m left with the question: does Peterson rise to the level of his esteemed masters? Is the Wingfeather Saga worthy to be classed with the Lord of the Rings and the Narnia Chronicles? My answer is: No. I believe that The Wingfeather Saga is a momentous achievement and a perfect homage to the genius of those works and authors. But, in my view, it is not groundbreaking in the same way as those were. It will not (sadly) have the reach and popular appeal that those works did (partly because of its merits, but also partly because of the cultural climate we live in compared to 70 years ago). That being said, it is a significant part of the small renaissance of fiction by Christians that we are enjoying in our day.

The Wingfeather Saga is a great gift to the church, and one that we should treasure and enjoy with our children. I can think of no better way to immerse the imaginations of our children with the truths and themes of the great redemption story than to hand them these books, or better yet, sit with them and read together.

Phil’s Best Reads of 2020

I decided not to limit myself to ten, because it was too hard. Instead I classified things by category.


Fiction:

Oliver Twist & A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson

Manalive by G.K. Chesterton

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Biography / Memoir:

The Interesting Life of Olaudah Equiano, the African by Olaudah Equiano

America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation by Grant Wacker

Anything You Can Imagine: Peter Jackson and the Making of Middle-Earth by Ian Nathan

Born Again by Charles W. Colson

Cultural Analysis / Criticism:

The Madness of Crowds by Douglas Murray

The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis

Our Secular Age: Ten Years of Reading and Applying Charles Taylor edited by Collin Hansen 

Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture by Anthony Esolen

The Superstition of Divorce by G.K. Chesterton

Theology & Christian Living

The Whole Christ by Sinclair Ferguson

Fool’s Talk by Os Guinness

He Descended to the Dead by Matthew Emerson

The Expulsive Power of a New Affection by Thomas Chalmers

Mere Fundamentalism by Douglas Wilson

Gentle and Lowly by Dane C. Ortlund

History 

Nein! by Paddy Ashdown

The First Thousand Years by Robert Louis Wilken

The Legacy of the King James Bible by Leland Ryken

Hard to Classify:

Planet Narnia by Michael Ward

Departures and Arrivals

On Saturday, November 7, I lost a friend and coworker in an accident. Eleven days later, on Wednesday, November 18, my wife gave birth to our daughter Lucy. It has been a month of stark contrasts; lows and highs.

Even as our family is overjoyed at the squishy little cuddle-cub that just showed up, the sting of the loss is still sharp. My friend’s name was Dan. He was a vibrant and brilliant person, irrepressibly positive, bountifully energetic, and unusually kind. While riding his jet ski in the late afternoon on an unusually warm November evening, he somehow fell into the water. The sequence of events is not entirely clear, but some time later witnesses saw him struggling in the water. By that time it was the dark of night. Emergency crews were called and immediately began a massive search effort involving helicopters and an army plane, but sadly he was only found the next morning, after having succumbed to the cold.

I have worked increasingly closely with Dan for the last few years, often spending a dozen hours or more on the phone with him in a given week working through technical problems of all sorts, planning projects, dealing with personnel issues, and sometimes even dipping into philosophy and metaphysics. He was my boss, but that word doesn’t really convey the relationship we had. He was incredibly supportive of me not only as an employee but as a whole person, and not only of me but of my entire family. As the founder and one of three co-owners of our small engineering / automation company, he made things feel a lot more like family than like ‘just business’.

I got the news of his death on the Sunday evening one week after moving into our new home, as I was working with my dad putting the finishing touches on our new farmhouse-style bed-frame. This farmhouse we bought has a sharp turn in the staircase and our queen-size boxspring had no hope of fitting through that opening. My wife, who was 9 months pregnant at the time and inching miserably towards 10 months, was therefore sleeping on our mattress as it lay on the floor. She had a great attitude about it, but it was not a state of affairs that any self-respecting husband could abide. But neither could I abide the thought of buying a bed-frame to assemble upstairs when I had two hands and some tools and a whole bunch of wood that someone left in these here barns on our new property. So as I was saying, I was working with my dad to finish the bed-frame when I got the call from the other two co-owners of the company.

You can’t really prepare for news like that. Numb shock, incredulity, horror, sadness. My imagination playing through the terrible scene as it unfolded in my mind’s eye. Something like guilt welled up inside as I thought back to what I had been doing the previous evening – relaxing at home and settling into the new house – while a few kilometres away my friend, unbeknownst to me, had been calling for help and fighting for his life. It’s not a rational thought, but why couldn’t I have been there to jump in, throw a rope, shine a light, do something to help?

My dad pretty much finished the rest of the bed by himself. I was useless.

Grief is a strange thing. I lost my mother to cancer in 2012 after two bouts lasting multiple year each, and with seven years of good health between them. That means that the spectre of losing my mom had been in my heart and mind for over a decade before she finally passed away. It is no slight to my friend Dan to say my mother was quite a bit more important to me and played a larger role in my life. Having had so much time to prepare for that loss, I experienced it as a painful conclusion to a long and drawn-out process. In contrast, my friend’s loss came out of the clear blue sky, totally unexpected, and left me reeling emotionally in a way that I hadn’t experienced before.

One thing stands out as tributes have come in for Dan from far and wide: we all agree that life is mighty precious, and that the loss of a life like this is a terrible tragedy. Similarly, as we have announced the birth of our fourth child, our precious little Lucy Mae, the wave of congratulations and kind messages convey the same essential truth: life is so precious.

I agree of course – no argument here. I just stare into the dark little eyes of my two day old daughter, marvel at the exquisite detail of her facial features, the skin so fresh and soft, her body so small and fragile, her mind and consciousness teeming with potential and yet not fully expressed, and I am overcome at the value and preciousness of life. Judging from the responses most people have to newborn babies, I am quite sure that this is the most common reaction.

And yet, given my bent to philosophical musings and interest in history, I can’t help but ask why we feel this way about life – both when it comes to the birth of a child and when it comes to the loss of a life. Is this simply a given universal fact? At the risk of committing epistemology, how do we know that this conviction about the value of life is, well, true? A look at human history reveals that this is by no means a universal truth affirmed everywhere. It was not true for Rome. It was not true for Greece. It was not true for that sordid list of 20th-century atrocities.

So why do we feel such pain at the loss of a life, and such joy at the new arrival of a life? For me the most compelling reason – intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually – is the imago dei; the idea that humans are made in the image of God and therefore imbued with eternal value. But this is so hard to believe these days – we are well into late modernity and the attendant mood does not encourage belief in such things, indeed it hardly allows it! There are many reasons for this, but this is not the time to get into that. It will suffice for the moment to point out that just because we are at this point in the intellectual arc of Western Civilization, where the world is disenchanted and everything has been seemingly explained materially, does not mean that it is true.

So if you believe life is precious, as I assume you do, the question is: does your worldview provide an adequate foundation for it? As I mourn the loss of my friend and celebrate the birth of my child, I’m thankful to have such deep roots to draw on and such a solid foundation to stand on.