Monday, April 26, 2010

Book 10 of 15: The World's Last Night and Other Essays by C. S. Lewis

One of the other readers in this 15/15 project read some Lewis and that reminded me that it'd been way too long since I'd read any myself, so yesterday I tackled "The World's Last Night and Other Essays."

The titular essay was my Lenten meditation during the first year I really observed Lent, back in college, and I have to say, I found it just as convicting and heartening yesterday as I found it then. He says of Jesus: 

His teaching on the subject quite clearly consisted of three propositions. (1) That he will certainly return. (2) That we cannot possibly know when. (3) And that therefore we must always be ready for him.

Note the therefore. Precisely because we cannot predict the moment, we must be ready at all moments. Our Lord repeated this practical conclusion again and again as if the promise of the Return had been made for the sake of this conclusion alone. Watch, watch, is the burden of his advice. I shall come like a thief. You will not, I most solemnly assure you you will not, see me approaching . . . The point is surely simple enough. The schoolboy does not know which part of his Virgil lesson he will be made to translate: that is why he must be prepared to translate any passage. The sentry does not know at what time an enemy will attack, or an officer inspect, his post: that is why he must keep awake all the time. The Return is wholly unpredictable. There will be wars and rumours of wars and all kinds of catastrophes, as there always are. Things will be, in that sense, normal, the hour before the heavens roll up like a scroll. You cannot guess it. If you could, one chief purpose for which it was foretold would be frustrated. And God's purposes are not so easily frustrated as that.

Reading that, I remembered that it was in Lewis' writings that I first saw the obvious: that the "wars and rumors of wars" passages in the Bible didn't mean the times before the End would be extraordinary, but rather that they would be normal: there are always disasters. (If you don't believe me, just look at any newsfeed you care to name.) Once again, I appreciate Lewis' common sense; his ability to state the obvious and make it stick.

But here is the part that always makes me stop and consider and repent and go forth with renewed purpose:

We have all encountered judgments or verdicts on ourselves in this life. Every now and then we discover what our fellow creatures really think of us. I don't of course mean what they tell us to our faces: that we usually have to discount. I am thinking of what we sometimes overhear by accident or of the opinions about us which our neighbours or employees or subordinates unknowingly reveal in their actions: and of the terrible, or lovely, judgments artlessly betrayed by children or even animals. such discoveries can be the bitterest or sweetest experiences we have. But of course both the bitter and the sweet are limited by our doubt as to the wisdom of those who judge. We always hope that those who so clearly think us cowards or bullies are ignorant and malicious; we always fear that those who trust us or admire us are misled by partiality. I suppose the experience of the Final Judgment (which may break in upon us at any moment) will be like these little experiences, but magnified to the Nth.

For it will be infallible judgment. If it is favorable we shall have no fear, if unfavorable, no hope, that it is wrong. We shall not only believe, we shall know, know beyond doubt in every fibre of our appalled or delighted being, that as the Judge has said, so we are: neither more nor less nor other. We shall perhaps even realise that in some dim fashion we could have known it all along. We shall know and all creation will know too: our ancestors, our parents, our wives or husbands, our children. The unanswerable and (by then) self-evident truth about each will by known to all.

I do not find that pictures of physical catastrophe - that sign in the clouds, those heavens rolled up like a scroll - help one so much as the naked idea of Judgment. We cannot always be excited. We can, perhaps, train ourselves to ask more and more often how the thing which we are saying or doing (or failing to do) at each moment will look when the irresistible light streams upon it; that light which is so different from the light of this world - and yet, even now, we know just enough of it to take it into account. Women sometimes have the problem of tryign to judge by artificial light how a dress will look by daylight. that is very like the problem of all of us: to dress our souls not for the electric lights of the present world but for the daylight of the next. The good dress is the one that will face that light. For that light will last longer.

Whew. A lot to type and a lot to take in. Is it any wonder I could spend a whole Lent thinking about this essay? (and the Donne poem from which it takes its title?)

There were, however, six other essays in this collection, and all of them were worth a re-read too. "The Efficacy of Prayer" talks about what prayer actually is (a relationship, not a magical transaction) and "The Obstinacy of Belief" talks about why Christians think it is good to persist in their faith even when it is tested. "Lilies that Fester" was about education, and I found it particularly interesting now that I'm teaching my own children. I also liked this quotation, which seemed to address the problem I have with Modernist literary theory:

For it is taken as basic by all the culture of our age that whenever artists and audience lose touch, the fault must be wholly on the side of the audience. (I have never come across the great work in which this important doctrine is proved.)

True! How, for instance, could Shakespeare have become as famous as he was unless his plays were actually intelligible and interesting? Do we take it as the audience's fault that Henry VI, Part II is so seldom performed or do we just admit that, you know, sometimes even a great man is off his game?

There was more along this line in "Good Work and Good Works". In talking about how some work would be worth doing even if we weren't paid for it, and how that is the work you want to try to get (and get paid for, because a man must earn his living), he does get to talking about art and says:

But though we have a duty to feed the hungry, I doubt whether we have a duty to "appreciate" the ambitious. This attitude to art is fatal to good work. Many modern novels, poems and pictures, which we are brow-beaten into "appreciating," are not good work because they are not work at all. They are mere puddles of spilled sensibility or reflection. When an artist is in the strict sense working, he of course takes into account the existing taste, interests, and capacity of his audience. These, no less than the language, the marble, or the paint, are part of his raw material; to be used, tamed, sublimated, not ignored or defied. Haughty indifference to them is not genius or integrity; it is laziness and incompetence. you have not learned your job. Hence, real honest-to-God work, so far as the arts are concerned, now appears chiefly in low-brow art; in the film, the detective story, the children's story. These are often sound structures; seasoned wood, accurately dovetailed, the stresses all calculated; skill and labour successfully used to do what is intended. Do not misunderstand. The high-brow productions may, of course, reveal a finer sensibility and profounder thought. But a puddle is not work, whatever rich wines or oils or medicines have gone into it.

This made me reflect that the high-brow puddles are really the same kind of thing as the Mary Sue fan-fic story: in both cases, the writer is primarily thinking of his or herself, not the audience.

I also like that Lewis points out that Christians have an example to follow when it comes to doing whatever work is their own really, really well:

When our Lord provided a poor wedding party with an extra glass of wine all round, he was doing good works. But also good work; it was a wine really worth drinking.

Amen! and don't you wish you could have been at that party?

The final two essays were "Screwtape Proposes a Toast" and "Of Religion and Rocketry" but I'm sure I've quoted enough Lewis for the day! That's the problem with reviewing the man: all I really want to do is retype the whole book. My congratulations if you've made it this far. :)

More on the 15/15 project can be found here.

peace of Christ to you,

Jessica Snell


Amber said...

I am so amazed that not only are you doing this, you're also reviewing the books! Thanks for sharing the Lewis quotes, I haven't read this particular collection and it looks like one I'll have to hunt down.

Girl Detective said...

The quote where he talks about finding out what others think of you reminds me of the scene in Dawn Treader where Lucy does just that, and Aslan later counsels her on how to manage it. I learned so much from those books w/o even realizing it at the time.