Thanks to those who have prayed for us during my recovery from a stupid back injury; your nice wishes and prayers mean a lot. Although befuddled by some strong pain meds, I have, in my bed rest, been able to scrunch myself into a position to read, and although I’ll try to be brief – you’re welcome – I am eager to announce a few important new resources for those who are fans of C.S. Lewis & Co. Even if you are not fans, you should know about these three new and very significant items. We need some summer biz on this end, too, so order ’em now, even if you don’t have time to read or watch until the Autumn. For our BookNotes readers, everything is 20% off, too. Cheerio.
Yet One More Spring: A Critical Study of Joy Davidman Don W. King (Eerdmans) $32.00//$25.60
DVD Discussing Mere Christianity: Exploring the History, Meaning & Relevance of C.S. Lewis’s Greatest Book Devin Brown, hosted by Eric Metaxas (Zondervan) $49.99//$39.99
A Hobbit A Wardrobe and a
Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith,
Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914 – 1918 Joseph Loconte (Nelson) $24.99//$19.99
Yet One More Spring: A Critical Study of Joy Davidman Don W. King (Eerdmans) $32.00 our discounted price $25.60
This long-awaited book just arrived yesterday, just in time to make this little list, but I have not studied it yet. I do know three things for sure: Montreat College professor Don King is a wonderful, learned, generous thinker and author and is very well respected in Lewis studies. He has the critical edition of Lewis’s complete poems and he edited the remarkable collection of letters by Lewis’s wife, Joy Davidman, Out of My Bone: The Letters of Joy Davidman. I don’t know of anyone more suited to a thoughtful study of Lewis’s colorful, American formerly Jewish wife whose death stung Lewis so he wrote a book on grief under a pen name.
Secondly, we are told that this is the first comprehensive study of this gifted, but largely overlooked American writer. Even Douglas Gresham, Joy’s son, agrees: “Don King has long been fascinated and intrigued by my mother’s writing… an amazing portrait of a complex, extremely intelligent, deeply emotional, strong and courageous, yet emotionally fragile woman creeps out of the pages of this book.”
Thirdly, there was not long ago a recently unearthed set of love sonnets written by Davidman to C.S. Lewis, and this is a “pioneering discussion” which (according to Michael Ward, of Planet Narnia and The Narnia Code fame) “is causing a major reassessment of her literary – and possibly her personal reputation.”
This looks to be a great read, described by one reviewer as “Part anthology, part biography, part literary analysis.” Yet One More Spring caused Diana Pavlac Glyer (author of the wonderful book The Company They Keep about the friendship between Lewis and Tolkien) to say “I was intrigued, enlightened, and at times frankly astonished by what I discovered in these pages…. Challenging. Satisfying. And long, long, overdue.”
DVD Discussing Mere Christianity: Exploring the History, Meaning & Relevance of C.S. Lewis’s Greatest Book Devin Brown, hosted by Eric Metaxas (Zondervan) $49.99 our discounted price $39.99
The impressive Devin Brown (Professor of English at Asbury University, and friend of H&M, I might add) is a great thinker, and, more importantly for this project, a great communicator and teacher. Not only is he a Lewis (and Tolkien) expert, but he knows how ordinary folks, churched or not, need to grapple with big ideas made accessible.
We have for decades wished for a useful video curriculum serving as an upbeat introduction to this beloved, but sometimes, dense British masterpiece, and having a good guide, who knows the material well, and is skilled at writing about it makes a huge difference. Brown is a former Scholar-in-Residence at the Kilns (Lewis’s Oxford home) and he has written a number of excellent books on Lewis, and he is also a teacher himself, making this a perfect resource. That it is interestingly hosted by the jovial Lewis buff, Eric Metaxas, gives these video studies a professional, congenial tone. Fabulous invited guests share solid insights and fun anecdotes, helping us appreciate and enjoy the relevance of this best-selling book from a century ago. Featured are N.T. Wright, Tim Keller, Lauren Winner, Devin Brown, Paul McCusker, Douglas Gresham, all who “help us understand the timeless message of C.S. Lewis in fresh ways for a new generation.” Kudos to all involved.
There are eight sessions here, following the main arguments of Mere Christianity. Here are the titles of the sessions.
- Our Sense of Right and Wrong
- What’s Behind Our Sense of Right and Wrong
- The Rival Conceptions of God
- Free Will and the Shocking Alternative
- Christian Behavior and the Great Sin of Pride
- The Christian Virtue of Hope
- God in Three Persons
- Counting the Cost
This follows Lewis’s exquisite logic and draws on his elegant prose. It offers solid, smart argument and holds up some of his very best analogies and illustrations, of which there are many.
One copy of the must-have study book, created by Dr. Brown, is included in the package shown above (more are available for each participant if your using it in a class or small group) and it includes further video notes, discussion questions, individual activities and personal study suggestions for each session. It is very, very good and highly recommended. Two new covers, paperback,hardback.
A quick closing remark about this book, and one thought about why using it in your church or group is important: at our blog here we review a diversity of books, mostly Christian, although we define that pretty broadly. It’s a fact that we have brothers and sisters who are theologically progressive, liberal, Evangelical or conservative, some customers who are spiritually mature and inquisitive, others who are churchy but not very interested in deeper things. Some folks like to learn and others need a little help – and this can offer that help! We know Greek Orthodox believers, Catholics of all sorts, Anabaptists, free church fundamentalists and the truly, truly Reformed. There are — as Tom Sine once put it — emergents and missionals, multi-ethnics and monastics. From United Methodists to United Church of Christ, from Church of God members of both sorts to Lutherans of various Synods, Presbys to Pentecostals, Congregationalists to Episcopalians, there is a very wide array of folks within Christ’s big church.
I would hope that a basic sort of Creed from the earliest of days would unite us, although not everybody these days even believes the ancient formulations. Perhaps this – mere Christianity – is a help. Does your church hold to this much, at least? Can we be, in whatever tone or accent we each bring, mere Christians? I think this is a good start to help us know what we believe (at least) and why we believe it (or at least some of the reasons why) and how to offer this good news to a skeptical, confused, but hungry world. It will do the Church good to become re-familiarized with Clive Staples Lewis and his now-classic BBC radio talks which became the book Mere Christianity. We’ve been waiting for this resource. Let us pray that many use it, and many are equipped to know and live in the deep, profound truths of mere Christian faith.
Here is a four minute “trailer” introducing you to this thoughtful, charming study.
A Hobbit A Wardrobe and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914 – 1918 Joseph Loconte (Thomas Nelson) $24.99 our sale price $19.99
We have a large selection in the shop of Lewisy/Tolkien/Inklings related books —I’m glad we’ve promoted, and glad some customers of ours even have hosted an on-line reading group of Philip & Carol Zaleski’s The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, one of the most important books in this field in many a year. But, sometimes I wonder what else can possibly be said. I did a small review of a few recent Lewis-related books this past spring, and was very happy about that list, but this recent one was not released then. And oh my, it should have been on that list, and it definitely offers some new considerations of what fueled the extraordinary work of these two scholars, and frames the themes of their writing in some interesting, helpful ways. A Hobbit A Wardrobe and a Great War is a very good read, and a major contribution to the field.
Professor Loconte (who teaches History at the Kings College in New York) is an excellent writer, intelligent, serious, mature, and his command of the history and philosophy of the ethos of the era in which Lewis and Tolkien came of age is prodigious. His writing, while sober, is insightful and at times exceptionally powerful. (His 2012 book about those who are religious seekers in this age of doubt — The Searchers – was eloquent and at times profound.)
His fan and friend Eric Metaxas raves about this new one saying,
Loconte’s book is rendered with typical passion, erudition, and élan; and his explanation of how the tragedy of the Great War warped the moral landscape of the past century is an utterly vital contribution to our understand of where we are today.
The opening introduction and first major chapter of this learned book, whether you care about Hobbits or Narnians, Mordor or Perelandra, or not, is worth every nickel of the price of the book. This study of how the secularized myth of progress, ever-growing technological and economic achievement, supposedly spurring even the natural upward improvement of human nature (and the formative role of Herbert Spenser, Darwinism, eugenics, the social gospel, and other ideological and social trends, and new inventions to fund that myth) shaped the early part of the 20th century is succinct, compelling, and important. (Is he really describing the visions and values and habits of heart from over a century ago, or is he ruminating on stuff I read from thought leaders, uh, last week?)
This early salvo is rich and important, and if one doesn’t have an awareness of and discernment about this (idolatrous and disastrous) meta-narrative of our times, it is must reading. That Mr. Laconte shows the horror of World War I – reading a few stats and stories on the first pages made the hair rise on my arm, and nearly brought tears to my eyes, so brutal was that devastation – and how it influenced Lewis and Tolkien who both fought in the trenches and saw grotesque things no human should have to face, is a very helpful way into the story. But even leaving the men who eventually became friends and legendary storytellers out of it, these first chapters are essential for those who care about our own times, and how we got here. Metaxas’s endorsement is spot on.
Laconte reminds us that “All this self-generated progress, this mastery of nature, was occurring without the help of religion.”
For many Europeans and Americans, Christianity seemed irrelevant to the insights ad blessings of the new technologies… Thus, it was not only technological innovations that were emboldening the believers in progress. Scientists and social thinkers were also transforming the way Europeans and Americans viewed even human nature and the cosmos.
Reformers of this era – even the eugenicists – were committed to improving human nature and thought what they were doing was virtuous. (Sounds familiar, from last weeks news, huh?) Laconte distills a consensus among many scholars when he writes, “The conceit of the intellectual elites of the day was that science, and the technology it underwrites, could solve the most intractable of human problems.”
As I said, this study of the cultural backdrop of the Great War, and how it then influenced our favorite fantasy writers, could nearly be writing about the mood of many today. Am I wrong to recall a headline I saw in my inbox today about bio-engineering, or a review I read last week about the hit BBC Orphan Black or a letter I got back from my Congressman yesterday about his resistance to labeling GMO foods? GivenPlanned Parenthood and Monsanto and drones over Pakistan, Locante’s dour analysis of the pre-War ethos and tendencies and visions might be helpful in assessing our own times.
Again, as Locante reminds us, the thought leaders and many theologians and preachers believed not just in the blessings of better technology, but a whole scientistic worldview that promised the improvement of society, the ending of truly bad wars, even a maturity of the human condition, of human nature itself!
Tolkien and Lewis encounter the horrific progeny of this thinking – in the trenches and barbed wire and mortars of the Great War – and it gave them great pause about human potentiality. On the one hand the characters in their novels possess a great nobility: creatures endowed with a unique capacity for virtue, courage, and love. Indeed, a vital theme throughout is the sacred worth of the individual soul: in Middle earth and in Narnia, every life is of immense consequence. On the other hand, their characters are deeply flawed individuals, capable of great evil, and in desperate need of divine grace to overcome their predicament. Both authors thus reflect the historic Christian tradition: human nature is a tragic mix of nobility and wretchedness.
Although with a different tone and making a few different connections, Loconte does what Brian Walsh and J. Richard Middleton did in the middle portions of their classic book on worldview, The Transforming Vision and especially in the opening of their book on postmodernity, Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be by heading to the World’s Fair exalted in London in 1851 with the “promise of the Crystal Palace.” This remarkable tribute to the hopes of progress rooted in Enlightenment rationalism driven by the technological innovation of the Industrial Revolution was even then perspicuous for offering a religious-like worship of the gods of progress. Loconte tell us that the Crystal Palace was an
enormous glass and cast-iron monument built to house the Great Exhibition…it was the largest glass structure in the world and a symbol of Victorian England’s cultural triumphs, spread across ten miles of floor space, and grouped into four main categories: raw materials, machinery, manufacturers, and fine arts. Of the fifteen thousand contributors, Britain claimed half the display space. Queen Victoria declared the opening day of the fair “the greatest day in our history.”
Locante, by the way, shows how both Tolkien and Lewis were uncomfortable with this technological take-over of their pastoral British countryside and these glitzy promises of more, more, more. The ecological overtones of their fantasy (and their letters) makes clear they disapproved of the encroachment of technological life into rural England, and their concerns about a culture’s loss of traditions and faith and sense of reality due to the over-reliance of technology. Others such as Matthew Dickerson have written at length about this (see his semi-scholarly but fascinating Narnia and the Fields of Abol and Ants, Elves, and Eriador) but Laconte succinctly underscores how our Inklings “lampoon the growth of technologies and bureaucracies at the expense of human freedom.”
(It is refreshing, by the way, to see an esteemed social and political conservative like Joe Laconte note approvingly of this insight – less thoughtful conservatives have mocked “hippies and tree-huggers” for seeing these concerns in Tolkien and Lewis, as if it is silly to suggest ecological sensibilities were important to these authors or as if these sensibilities themselves are somehow unimportant or only of interest to the far left. “Lewis viewed nature as an intrinsic part of human life,” Loconte writes. “This is why the Narnia novels give such a prominent role to its animals.” Good for him for saying so.)
More to the point of the argument that Laconte is making, with the help of a wonderfully close reading of the vast work of these two writers, however, is that the Great War and its demonic devastation changed everything for the West. Its horror was ghastly and almost beyond belief, and its impact huge, on life and limb, on property and land, on political systems and governance, and, importantly, on ideas and beliefs and attitudes and faiths. The way the war left the optimism of the myth of progress in its dark wake is essential to understand.
Like no other force in history, the First World War permanently altered the political and cultural landscape of Europe, America, and the West. In the judgement of more than one historian, the war became “the axis on which the modern world turned.” Literary critic Roger Sale has called the conflict “the single event most responsible for shaping the modern idea that heroism is dead.” For a generation of men and women, it brought the end of innocence – and the end of faith.
Loconte looks at “the merciless machinery of war” and helps us realize – without any didactic extrapolation to current wars or faith in military lasers, drones and other vile gizmos – “this was the most terrifying result of The Myth of Progress: it inspired great advances in military technology, but failed to advance any new theories of warfare to address the consequences of this technology to the battlefield.
What an illusion it all was, exposed as hollow by the savagery of total, technological war shook the ground, literally and metaphorically, under the feet of much of the world.
“The early apostles of The Myth of Progress believed they had overcome the problems of the industrial society. More than that, they imagined that they had solved the riddle of human existence.” Right. And even after subsequent Gulags and Holocausts, Genocides and ghastly modern moments like Hiroshima and Nagasaki, some continue to say this.
These are my ruminations, of course, inspired by the first few chapters of this remarkable and very interesting book. This is important stuff, and Laconte shows how Lewis and Tolkien understood much about the prevailing cultural zeitgeist, as we say nowadays.
But Locante’s main task in A Hobbit, A Wardrobe and a Great War is to prove his case by drawing on the men themselves (their friendship, their mutual aid, their influence over each other, spiritually and literarily and professionally) and the stories themselves, on Bilbo and Caspian and N.I.C.E. Moving deftly from relevant European military and political history to mid-twentieth-century philosophy and theology to the children’s stories and fantasy novels, this is a bio of Tolkien and Lewis unlike any other.
Although the chapters are not exclusively dedicated to any one work, the chapter titles are familiar: “The Last Battle”, “In a Hole in the Ground There Lived a Hobbit” “The Lion, the Witch, and the War” and on he goes. Chapter Five is called “The Land of Shadow” while Chapter Six is “That Hideous Strength.” I loved his conclusion, aptly entitled “The Return of the King.”
Laconte, like his writerly heroes, and the fictional characters they’ve created, is not a pacifist. He teaches a bit in American Foreign Policy and I suppose he is a realist in these things, as they say. As one trying to follow the way of Jesus and other Biblical mandates about peacemaking and nonviolence, I will admit I did not agree with some of the conclusions of this otherwise fine work, particularly around the question of violence and the nature of the tragic, and the ethics of war-fighting. I do agree, however, with Laconte’s read on how these authors realize in their imagined worlds, that we must live “in the world as we find it” as one chapter section calls it.
Central to the experience [in the war] was an encounter with the presence of evil: the deep corruption of the human heart that makes it capable of hunting down and destroying millions of lives in a remorseless war of attrition.
Is this struggle with evil – even in the way we resist evil – at the heart of the lessons of Gandalf and Frodo. Gandolf explains
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness
In the land of Mordor where the shadows lie.
I am not sure if Mr. Laconte, and most other Lewis and Tolkien devotees, have taken this grand drama and its profound warning adequately to heart. Have any of us? We need grace and resurrection power to resist evil, I am sure, and although there are battles galore in Middle Earth and Narnia (and there will be “wars and rumors of wars” here East of Eden) I still wonder about those who valorize bravery inspired by pagan Greeks and warriors and killers. I am confident that this great study of the ethics and social visions of these enduring post-WWI fantasies will bring us much closer to the way of the Cross, but without even deeper, deeper magic, and a willingness to critique the unholy injustices of war, I am afraid we will fall short of the way of the Lamb.
I do agree, though, that Loconte’s writing is inspiring and good. I value his social criticism and I enjoyed his obviously very astute fluency in Tolkien and all things through the Wardrobe. I love how he inspires us,
In the end, the creators of Narnia and Middle-earth offer a vision of human life that is at once terrifying and sublime. They insist that every soul is caught up in an epic story of sacrifice and courage and clashing armies: the Return of the King…. This King, who brings strength and healing in his hands, will make everything sad come untrue.
Here is a one minute advert for the book — very nicely done! Check it out.
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