Unbearably Light: Reflections on My Sons’ Love of Light and an Unbearably Light Vision

David Russell Mosley

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Ordinary Time
St Cyril and St Methodius
14 February 2015
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

Ever since we spent all that time in the hospital for Edwyn’s cancer treatment, I’ve been meaning to write this post. Tonight, another minor vision, more of a palpable sense than a vision, has finally been the impetus to do so.

I noticed it first when we were in our first room when the cancer treatment proper began. Both of my sons had an obsession. They loved to look at light. When the sun would pour in as it began to set. While we adults would shield our eyes, my sons soaked it in, preferring to look at what it illumined in contrast with what it did not. Shadows and light were their delights, often catching their attention. Little has changed in this regard. Now, however, rather than being merely content to watch light, they seek it out and attempt to grasp it. So often when the sun shines (and it almost always the sun or a reflection of it that they are attracted to, not artificial light) and lands on their highchair trays will they try to grasp it. Or when the sun is reflected off a watch or a phone or something similar they will gaze upward as it moves across the ceiling and the walls. It reminds me of a portion of one of George MacDonald’s fairy tales.

The whole fairy tale is ultimately about light and the love of light in its varying shades. The story is about a witch who raises a boy and girl, quite separately from one another. The girl knows only night and the boy only day from infancy. While both have an obsession with light, the girl’s is stronger. She falls in love with the moon, her lamp as she calls it, and is confused when it is gone one day. So she decides to go in search of it:

‘She followed the firefly, which, like herself, was seeking the way out. If it did not know the way, it was yet light; and, because all light is one, any light may serve to guide to more light. If she was mistaken in thinking it the spirit of her lamp, it was of the same spirit as her lamp and had wings. The gold-green jet-boat, driven by light, went throbbing before her through a long narrow passage.’

I’ve always been drawn by this passage. MacDonald gives us here a kind of participatory ontology (as he usually does, he is very much a Platonist). This little insect is thought of as made of light ‘it was yet light’ and also ‘driven by light’. Light is its being and yet is also its source and its power of motion. What is more, there is the light out of which the firefly is made is derived from a more ultimate, and in this story, unnamed Light. C. S. Lewis describes Christianity by comparing it to the sun. He believes in it not because he see it but because by it he can see everything else. All of this is, I believe, my sons’ love of light.

This brings me to tonight. Every night when we put our boys in their cribs, I sing them a lullaby; read them a bed time story; and pray for them. My prayer for my sons usually goes something like this: ‘Heavenly Father, be with my sons this evening. Send them your Holy Spirit to guide them and give them dreams and visions; send your angels to watch over them and protect them from the fears and dangers of the night. Blessed Virgin, watch over my sons as you watched over your own Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.’ Tonight however, I was led to pray more. I began to feel an unbearable lightness. I could sense the saints and angels present with me in that room. So I prayer: ‘Saints and angels in this room, praise our heavenly king with me: Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might, Heaven and Earth are full of your glory.’ I began to weep. The sense of their presence, of God’s presence through his created cosmos which includes the angels and the saints was unbearably light (God, as Dionysius would remind us, is full of these paradoxes).

Light has two meanings here: the radiance of a creature; and of little or no weight. Yet I think they are connected. For the light of the sun is unbearable, not because of its weight but because of its brilliance. While I saw no light during my prayer this evening, it was nevertheless brilliant and it was unbearable for a sinner such as me.

Sincerely yours,

David

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The Unintentional and Unseen Godparents: The Light Princess’s Diabolical and Heavenly Godparents

David Russell Mosley

Old books

Epiphanytide
22 January 2015
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

George MacDonald’s fairy tale, ‘The Light Princess’ is one of my favourites amongst his fairy tales. In many ways, it is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty. Let me explain. The story begins, very similarly with a king and queen who cannot have, but want, a baby. They are much sillier than the king and queen in sleeping beauty, but they are generally good people. So, eventually, a baby they have.

After the baby is born they begin planning the christening. Now, it’s true that there are no fairies invited to this christening, nor is anyone invited to be the little princesses godmother. I think, however, this is because MacDonald wants to provide her with two very different godparents: Princess Makemnoit, the little girl’s aunt who was not invited, by accident, to the christening; and God himself. Let me explain.

Like in Sleeping Beauty, Princess Makemnoit, who is a witch (and potentially a fairy as MacDonald writes, ‘she beat all the wicked fairies in wickedness, and all the clever ones in cleverness’), decides to revenge herself on the king for forgetting her. When she arrives, ‘she contrived to get next to [the baptismal font], and throw something into the water; after which she maintained a very respectful demeanour till the water was applied to the child’s face. But at that moment she turned round in her place three times, and muttered the following words, loud enough for those beside her to hear:—

“Light of spirit, by my charms,

Light of body, every part,

Never weary human arms—

Only crush thy parents’ heart!”‘

The witch deprives the little girl of all her gravity, in both senses. She is not directed downward and most all other creatures are and she has no gravitas, no sense of the grave or serious. It is telling that this is the only “gift” the princess receives on this day. And so the princess grows up, always laughing, never smiling. Even her levitas was incomplete, because it lacked gravitas.

Unlike Sleeping Beauty, this princess has had no godmother, fairy or otherwise to give her gift that will undo Princess Makemnoit’s curse. In Sleeping Beauty’s case, the final fairy godmother gives her the possibility of finding love. But in the Light Princess’s case it is the curse that leads her to love. In fact, first it leads her to water and then leads her to love. Princess Makemnoit is not only the cause of the undoing of the princess’s curse, by draining the water of the lake and causing the prince to give his life for the Light Princess, but she is also her own undoing. And so, Princess Makemnoit does good for the Light Princess. She teaches her gravitas, she gives her a reason to cry. She gives her, a bit delayed perhaps, a good gift, the gift of balance between gravitas and levitas that makes happiness and joy possible.

Up to this point, I have looked at Princess Makemnoit as an Unintentional Godmother, she is, after all, the only one who gives anything to the child on the day of her baptism. However, I think there is clearly another godparent. God is clearly present in this story, working like a godparent to the Light Princess from the first. It is he who makes it possible for the curse of Princess Makemnoit to ultimately lead to love. It is he who avenges himself and nature on Princess Makemnoit by the use of nature itself. What is more, Princess Makemnoit sins against the waters of baptism by defiling them before the princess is baptised. It is fitting then, that the mode of her destruction should be water itself. For further proof that God is the unseen godparent of the Light Princess, notice that it is in water itself that the Princess regains her right relationship with gravity. Water was the means of her curse, but it was also the means of her salvation and redemption, both in her baptism, and in the death of her love.

So, in the end, George MacDonald’s ‘The Light Princess’ gives us a very interesting look at godparenthood in fairy tales. Rather than give his Princess a fairy godparent (or at least giving her a good one), she receives instead God himself as her godparent.

Sincerely yours,
David

Fairy Tale Pedagogy, Part 1

An absolutely fantastic post from Christ and University.

Christ & University

Princess Irene follows her great-great grandmother's magic thread Princess Irene follows her great-great grandmother’s magic thread

Early this semester, three young women in my English 101 course asked me to come to their table during one of our weekly writing workshops.  “This doesn’t have anything to do with dependent clauses,” said one, a little bashfully, “but we were all talking, and we just think that you must be Belle from Beauty and the Beast!” I accepted their compliment with what I hope was professional grace, but secretly I was thrilled. For many women of my generation, Belle was one of the first pop culture figures to show that a love of reading, combined with love for one’s foolish family and monstrous neighbor, could make a little girl into a hero.
I spent the rest of the day wondering if fairy tales could help me learn to be a better teacher and scholar. After all, fairy tales inspired my…

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Creativity as Deifying: On Fairy Stories, Part II

David Russell Mosley

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Lent
4 April 2014
On the Edge of Elfland Beeston, Nottinghamshire

Dear Friends and Family,
Here is the lengthier part 2 of yesterday’s thesis extract. This section is, in essence, a commentary on J. R. R. Tolkien’s essay ‘On Fairy-Stories’. Let me know what you think.

On Fairy Stories

‘Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.’1 One could easily replace fantasy with poetry, make with create or poetise, made with created or a poem, and Maker with Creator or Poet. What Tolkien says about Fantasy and fairy-tales is equally true of poetry. As Tolkien writes, ‘Fairy- stories were plainly not primarily concerned with possibility, but with desirability. If they awakened desire, satisfying it while often whetting it unbearably, they succeeded.’2 In On Fairy Stories, Tolkien is laying out what he thinks fairy-tales are and what they are meant to do. Tolkien, as noted above, tells us that the purpose is to elicit desire. This desire is simultaneously a desire for what is past, namely a nostalgia for Eden. Equally, however, the desire is for what is to come, namely the new Heavens and new Earth, or deification, though Tolkien is not so explicit.

Nevertheless, Tolkien’s own work here bears out that fairy-tales are for more than the awakening of this desire, we might even call it a natural desire for the supernatural, but that it also serves as a kind of corrective lens. In chapter 2 I argued that the Fall incurs and includes an obfuscation of our sight, that humans can no longer see correctly. This is something Faerie can help us overcome. He writes:

Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re- gaining––regaining of a clear view. I do not say “seeing things as they are” and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say “see- ing things as we are (or were) meant to see them”––as things apart from our- selves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness of familiarity––from possessiveness.3

In Faerie we can see things for what they really are or could be or at least for how we are meant to see them. In any event, the fairy-tale helps us see more clearly. However, Tolkien also makes it clear that fairy-tales are not the only way to do this. ‘Of course, fairy-stories are not the only means of recovering, or, prophylactic against loss. Humility is enough.’4 Nevertheless, fairy-tales mixed with humility will help serve as a corrective lens so that the world may be glimpsed in a the light we were meant to see it. This passage from Tolkien is particularly provocative on this point:

Faërie includes many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.5

Tolkien begins by showing us the things we expect to see in Faerie, or Elfland as Chesterton called it in Orthodoxy: fantastical beasts, mythological creatures, wicked and benign. Then, however, Tolkien shifts to things we see in the mortal world, the first four perhaps have a commonplace in our modern imaginings of Faerie (see Disney’s preference for his heroines to be accompanied by birds and other woodland creatures). Then, Tolkien makes a very deliberate shift that helps knit this chapter together, bread and wine, which is meant to incite images of the Eucharist. Indeed, even the inclusion of water, which may at first had us thinking of Bombur’s en- chanted sleep after falling in the river of Mirkwood, but after seeing bread and wine listed, baptism ought now to be in our minds, perhaps even the stone can evoke images of medieval fonts. Even humanity, when enchanted is encompassed by Faerie.

What Tolkien does here is show forth the notions of a sacramental universe as I described above. All things are or can be more than what they are because all things exist in Faerie. All that is needed is eyes to see them. This is one of the roles fantasy plays, that poetry plays. For Chesterton, this rendering strange is an essential aspect of fantasy. He writes, ‘The only words that ever satisfy me as describing Nature are the terms used in fairy books ‘charm’, ‘spell’, ‘enchantment’. They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched. The sun shines because it is bewitched.’6 Perhaps one of the first things fantasy can do for us (particularly when written from a Christian perspective) is to show us that the God of Christianity and the Creation of Christianity are not the ones of deism. Rather God is, as I have argued throughout, Poet, Creator, intimately connected with his Creation/Poem.

This alone perhaps shows the purpose of including a long discourse on the purpose of fantasy/poetry in a chapter on redemption in an essay on deification. There is, however, more. Following on what Milbank has said above, the writing of poetry and fantasy, and particularly the act of world-creating, at least according to Tolkien, is a gift and therefore graced and also an aspect of our deification. Alison Milbank provides a perhaps even more crucial link between the writing of fiction (specifically fantasy, but all fiction ultimately) and deification. She writes, ‘And it is in the ability to create––fiction is linked to the Latin verb facere, to make––that the artist comes closest to God. For us to recognize the world as God’s creation, we have to see it as a work of art; for us to recognize the creative power of the artist, we similarly have both to experience his or her fiction as a world but also be aware of its constructed nature.’7 First note that our word fiction is related to facare which provides the latter portion of the word deification. This is the same as noting that the latter half of the Greek theopoiesis, namely poiesis, is the source of our word for poetry. Even more so, however, Milbank, alongside Tolkien, notes that this act of creativity, this act of artistic creation renders the artist as an imitator of God. What is more it reminds us that just as we need to immerse ourselves in an artists creation without forgetting its constructed nature, so too should we not forget the created nature of the cosmos around us because it has a Creator.

George MacDonald writes in an essay on imagination, ‘man may, if he pleases, invent a little world of his own, with its own laws; for there is that in him which delights in calling up new forms–which is the closest, perhaps, he can come to creation.’8 Again, connecting this to Milbank’s notions of our own creativity as a participation in the divine creativity––and indeed noting our creativity as an aspect of humanity being made in the image and likeness of God––, allows us to see this closeness to acts of creation (that is creation ex nihilo) already implies the deificatory and deifying significance of fantasy writing, of world creation. However, as MacDonald, Chesterton, Tolkien, and the Milbanks all make clear, this is a participatory creation. However real it is, however much it can be termed an addition to the Poem, it is still participatory and a gift. MacDonald writes:

In the moral world it is different [from the physical]: there a man may clothe in new forms, and for this employ his imagination freely, but he must invent nothing. He may not, for any purpose, turn its laws upside down. He must not meddle with the relations of live souls. The laws of the spirit of man must hold, alike in this world and in any world he may invent.9

MacDonald while noting that human creators can rework our physical world, as he does when he has a bedroom transmute into a forest glad right on the edge of Faerie, believes that the moral world cannot be changed. We can imagine a world in which humans are kept in cages and apes perform studies on them, but we are not to imagine a world where morality can become amorality, where falsity is given the place of prominence of truth, or evil the place of goodness, or ugliness/disorder the place of beauty.

What MacDonald writes of as almost a kind of suggestion, Chesterton sees as the only true laws of our universe. For Chesterton there are immutable facts even in world-creation:

But as I put my head over the hedge of the elves and began to take notice of the natural world, I observed an extraordinary thing. I observed that learned men in spectacles were talking of the actual things that happened––dawn and death and so on––as if they were rational and inevitable. They talked as if the fact that trees bear fruit were just as necessary as the fact that two and one make three. But it is not. There is an enormous difference by the test of fairyland; which is the test of imagination. You cannot imagine two and one not making three. But you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by their tales.10

Chesterton is here criticising the sciences which seek to suggest that the things they have observed and can predict with an amount of certainty are laws. The only laws, according to Chesterton, are those things we cannot imagine differently without unmaking them or redefining them. Two and one cannot not make three unless we change the meanings of two, one, and/or three. Similarly good cannot be evil without changing what the word good means. Alison Milbank writes that this view of the world is sourced in Chesterton’s consumption of fairy-tales, ‘Fairy-tales, however, are not natural but cultural productions and it is by means of these fictions that Chesterton comes to view the world itself as magical: utterly real and enchanted at one and the same time.’11 Thus, for Chesterton, the world is real, but it is also enchanted and this affects the way fantasy is written. While Chesterton, in the passage above, is not specifically writing about writing, that is, he is not directly speaking of the act and art of human creativity, it is implicit in what he writes. When we create worlds, whether in poetry, fantasy, science-fiction, etc., we may unhinge the ‘laws’ of nature:

break them open and make them stand on their heads. What we cannot do, however, is break the laws of mathematics or goodness/morality. It is not that the author is not allowed to do these things, but that they are not possible, or at least not possible consistently.

Milbank gives this its most theological voice when he writes:

Of course, in human beings other than Christ there is no absolute coincidence of the human will with the divine creative will; but nevertheless one can logically speak of a ‘participating’ in this creative will, where human action brings about something that is generally now, as in the case of a new sort of legal convention or a new sort of artistic idiom. But because the creative human being is ‘inspired’, and because she does not fully grasp or command the new thing she has brought about, there is no absolute creation here: the new thing invented is also ‘discovered’, given to the creator herself as a mysterious new potency.12

Milbank reminds us that humans cannot create in the same way as God. Not even divine creativity rests in us in the exact same way it does in the Godhead, despite the fact that (or perhaps precisely because) we are made in the image of God. Milbank couches our creativity in terms of gift and participation. It is our participation in divine creativity that allows us to create, yet that participation is a gift. What is more, the very things we create, insofar as they are good, are gifts from God. We receive them just as much as we create them. This is why, for MacDonald, ‘A genuine work of art must mean many things; the truer the art, the more things it will mean.’13

MacDonald takes this notion of true art having multiple meanings and applies it to the differences between creations of humans and God: ‘One difference between God’s work and man’s is, that, while God’s work cannot mean more than he meant, man’s work must mean more than he meant.’14 Here, MacDonald is not denying a multiplicity of meaning within the works of God, but that the number of meanings cannot exceed God’s intention. This is not the case with human creation. The numerous interpretations of works by human beings stand as testimony to this. Yet this multifariousness can be a good thing when applied to meaning in human works. In this way Tolkien’s work can be considered both an indictment on capitalism15 through his depictions of the Shire and yet also as providing commentary on the necessity of war but without the love of it particularly in the words of Faramir.

In the end, for Tolkien, the fairy-story serves an even larger purpose, which is the introduction into our minds of eucatastrophe and participation in the Evangelium. A fairy-tale is almost not a fairy tale, for Tolkien, if it lacks a happy ending.16 This is precisely what makes it different from tragedy. Rather than a sudden turn that causes all events to go awry (Hamlet’s mother drinking the wine meant to kill Hamlet, Laertes being stabbed by his own poisoned sword, etc.) there is a sudden turn of events that causes all to go right. Tolkien called this the eucatastrophe. For Tolkien, ‘The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of the fairy-tale, and its highest function.’17 This is so because the happy ending participates in an even greater story. ‘But in the “eucatastrophe” we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater––it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world.’18

The Gospel is, for Tolkien, the greatest fairy-tale, and is the source for all fairy-tales, even those that come before it. He writes in words similar to those I have used in the previous chapters, ‘But the story has entered History and the primary world; the desires and aspirations of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy.’19 The Poet enters the Poem, but it is more than this. The entrance of the Poet into the Poem hallows (deifies, theo-poetises) the work going on within the Poem by us. For Tolkien:

But in God’s Kingdom the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. Redeemed Man is still man. Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on. The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.” The Christian has still work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, to hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation.20

Our creative faculties, that aspect of our being made in the image of God, are redeemed and pulled up to the level of creation. In writing fantasy and poetry we imitate and participate in God as Creator, as Poet. What’s more, we participate in God as storyteller through salvation history, particularly through the story of the Incarnation which serves as the source for our storytelling.

All of this discussion of human creativity in fantasy and poetry, however, needs now to also be connected more directly to deification. Having looked at the foundations and purposes to which poetry and fantasy are put, I want to turn now to two stories about creation to show, in part, how they relate to deification, how they relate to the whole Poem and the process of Poem becoming Theo-Poem.

Sincerely yours,
David Russell Mosley

1 J. R. R. Tolkien, ‘Tree and Leaf,’ in The Tolkien Reader (New York: The Ballantine Publishing Company, 1966), 75.

2 Ibid., 63.

3 Ibid., 77.

4 Ibid., 77.

5 Ibid., 38.

6 G. K. Chesterton, ‘Orthodoxy,’ in Everyman Chesterton (London: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011), 302.

7 Alison Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians: The Fantasy of the Real (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2009), 64-5.

8 George MacDonald, ‘The Fantastic Imagination,’ in The Complete Fairy Tales, ed. by U. C. Knoepflmacher (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), 5-6.

9 Ibid., 6.

10 G. K. Chesterton, ‘Orthodoxy,’ 121.

12 John Milbank, Beyond Secular Order: The Representation of Being and the Representation of the People (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2013), 196.

13 George MacDonald, ‘The Fantastic Imagination,’ 7.

14 Ibid., 9.

15 See the chapter entitled ‘Fairy Economics: Gift Exchange’ in Alison Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians: The Fantasy of the Real (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2009), 117-141.

16 J. R. R. Tolkien, ‘Tree and Leaf,’ 85.

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid., 88.

19 Ibid., 88-9.

20 Ibid., 89.

Creativity as Deifying: An Extract from My Thesis Part I

David Russell Mosley

IMG_2850

Lent
3 April 2014
On the Edge of Elfland Beeston, Nottinghamshire

Dear Friends and Family,

Inspired by this post from Artur Rosman, ‘John Paul II, the Artist in You, and Coleridge’, I thought I would share a portion of my thesis on a related topic. This extract comes from my fourth chapter which focuses on the Christian life in light of the Ascension and the Indwelling and how deification continues and grows in us during this time. The portion I want to share is a bit long, so I’ll be sharing it in parts. Please, let me know what you think.

Sub-Creation

I want now to turn my attention to human creativity and the role it plays in the life of redemption and deification. John Milbank has suggested in Beyond Secular Order, that the human creatures is a fictioning creature, that is, a creature who shapes and re-shapes the nature around them, ‘Likewise, they are as animals fictioning creatures, or in other terms cultural and historical creatures, whose very nature is artificially to question and reshape (though not thereby to destroy) this nature.’1 This is based, for Milbank first in the Incarnation’s ability to re-shape history, ‘If the Incarnation permitted a reshaping of the world, then it was to be expected that time would bring forth beneficial innovations, including technological ones, in which the Holy Spirit was at work through human hands.’2 Note how Milbank argues that if the Incarnation has reshaped the world then as a result of this reshaping (a reorientation of humanity in a general sense towards its end) the Spirit, who is given in one sense to all humanity and in another to Christians in a particular way, will be active in bringing about additions to creation, or new parts to the Poem. This is all even further based in the notion that culture and creativity are themselves gifts and deifying participations in the divine creativity:

The ‘cultural supplement’ to which our purely animal natural reason is already, through our ‘trans-naturality’, obscurely drawn by the lure of the supernatural implanted within us, simply is, as revealed in the light of the Incarnation, the supplement of grace, the beginning of the work of deification which is always (as Sergei Bulgakov saw, through his eastern appropriation of western experience) the work of a further participation in divine creativity.3

Thus, for Milbank, culture is a gift and our participation in culture is an aspect of our deification. For this reason, the rest of this chapter will look specifically at the work of George MacDonald, G. K. Chesterton, J. R. R. Tolkien, and C. S. Lewis for modern examples of what Tolkien would come to call sub-creation, as a kind of sub- poetical contribution to the Poem which in turn contributes to our becoming Theo- poems.

Participation in the Poem

Humans, then, are to play a role as poets, participating in the Poet and in a real, but qualified sense, adding to the Poem. As Metropolitan Kallistos Ware has written, ‘Our highest vocation as human persons is to reproduce on earth, so far as this is possible for us, the movement of mutual love that passes eternally between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.’4 What God is, which is what we participate in and are in the image of, we are to recreate, re-poetise here on earth. George MacDonald, writing on the importance of imagination, writes, ‘man may, if he pleases, invent a little world of his own, with its own laws; for there is that in him which delights in calling up new forms–which is the closest, perhaps, he can come to creation.’5 These worlds which we can create, however, must hold to the moral law (one of the only laws in Elfland, as Chesterton told us above). To do otherwise is to inherently create inconsistent world. Again, MacDonald writes, ‘In the moral world it is different [from the physical]: there a man may clothe in new forms, and for this employ his imagination freely, but he must invent nothing. He may not, for any purpose, turn its laws upside down. He must not meddle with the relations of live souls. The laws of the spirit of man must hold, alike in this world and in any world he may invent.’6 For MacDonald the moral world can be recast in new clothes, but it cannot change its substance.

If we can, as I have already suggested, in some ways equate poetry and fantasy, or at least poetry and Faerie, which all have to do with creation, then this human activity is immanently important to theology and philosophy. Josef Pieper, writes:

poetry and philosophy are more closely related to one another than any of the sciences to philosophy: both, equally, are aimed, as one might say, at wonder (and wonder does not occur in the workaday world)––and this by virtue of the power of transcending the everyday world, a power common to poetry and philosophy.7

Note that Pieper equates poetry with a world beyond the workaday. His own point here is that a utilitarian world misunderstands the point of both philosophy and poetry. These are searches for wonder. Tolkien, writing about Fairy-stories, says, ‘Fairy-stories were plainly not primarily concerned with possibility, but with desirability. If they awakened desire, satisfying it while often whetting it unbearably, they succeeded.’8 This desire which is awakened is akin to the wonder that Pieper writes about, or even the joy that haunted Lewis in his pre-Christian days.9 Therefore it is necessary here to discuss fantasy and its implications in our deification.

Sincerely yours,
David Russell Mosley

1 John Milbank, Beyond Secular Order: The Representation of Being and the Representation of the People (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2013), 220.

2 Ibid., 218.

3 Ibid., 213.

4 Kallistos Ware,  ‘The Holy Trinity: Model for Personhood-in-relation,’ in The Trinity and an Entan- gled World: Relationality in Physical Science and Theology, ed. John Polkinghorne (Cam- bridge: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), 113.

5 George MacDonald, ‘The Fantastic Imagination,’ in The Complete Fairy Tales, ed. by U. C. Knoepflmacher (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), 5-6.

6 Ibid., 6.

7 Josef Pieper, Leisure The Basis of Culture, trans. by Alexander Dru (London: Faber and Faber, 1952), 95.

8 J. R. R. Tolkien, ‘Tree and Leaf,’ in The Tolkien Reader (New York: The Ballantine Publishing Company, 1966), 63.

9 See C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (Orlando: Harcourt Inc., 1955).

Vacation Reading: What does a Student in Theology Read on Vacation?

usbythelake

Dear Friends and Family,

As you’ve either seen from my wife’s blog or my reposting here and here, Lauren and I were on vacation last week. This was a kind of early anniversary gift to ourselves. We haven’t been on a vacation since we moved here in 2011, so we decided to go the Lake District. I have to be honest, Lauren planned the whole thing and did an amazing job. I didn’t want to leave. I could have stared into those fells and walked round those lakes all day every day for the rest of my life.

Those of you who know me, know that I love to read, and not just theology. So that begs the question, what did I take to read on this vacation? I decided early on that I wouldn’t take any research reading with me. I wanted my time spent reading to be a time of intellectual and spiritual renewal, not a time spent worrying about my work. I brought five books in total with me.

books

As I wrote here, my usual routine is to get up every morning at five and begin the day with prayer and Scripture reading. Now, to be completely honest, I was not up and moving at five once on our vacation. My usual wake up time was between six and seven. I still, however, tried to start with Scripture reading and prayer and thus, my Bible was the first of the five books.

The second book was Augustine’s Sermons on the Liturgical SeasonsI’ve been, quite rightly, reading his sermons from Eastertide. I have to admit, I still find the topics covered by ancient preachers refreshing. I wish we had more sermons that dealt with the importance of the incarnation, the Trinity, and so on and how those things affect our daily lives. I definitely recommend giving these sermons a peruse.

The third book, discounting both my devotional and personal journals, was William Morris’s The Wood beyond the World (click the link to see my review). Ever since I began reading biographies on C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien I have wanted to read this book. Well, now I have and can highly recommend it.

Over the past few months I have been slowly working my way through William Wordsworth poetry, at least everything that’s included in the Selected Poems of William WordsworthI brought Wordsworth along not only because I like poetry, but because I have a profound appreciation for poetry but because Wordsworth grew up in the Lake District, but he died in Ambleside. Now, sadly, we did not get a chance to go to Dove Cottage, but still, there was something wonderful in reading Wordsworth’s poetry in the Lake District, that area that inspire many of his poems.

The final book that came on this journey with me was A Book of Strife in the Form of The Diary of an Old soul by George MacDonald. This book is a collection of prayers in the form of poetry, one for every day of the year (in a leap year). These prayers were moving and earnest. They reminded me of my sinfulness, the greatness attached to humanity because of the Image in which we were made, and God’s mercy and justice.

See my wife’s blog for all the beautiful things we saw and did. I would have to write a story or poetry of my own (and I may do both) to express how renewing and sublime this trip was for me beyond the reading. Suffice it to say that in the end a combination of the books I brought, the landscapes I breathed in, and the companion with whom I shared all these experiences I have come back refreshed and ready to begin again at my work. Nevertheless, there will now always be a longing in my heart for the Lake District and the little village of Ambleside.

pipebythelake

Yours,
David

 

On Reading Fiction: A Response to The Art of Manliness: Old Post 4

The Art of Manliness and Reading Fiction

The Art of Manliness recently put out an article on why men ought to read more fiction. The article centred around the idea that reading fiction improves one’s theory of mind. As I understand it, theory of mind is what allows to understand and contemplate other minds (i.e. Using theory of mind, I can discern what another individual is thinking in a given situation). I suppose we might call this a person’s ability to ‘read people’, to a gain an understanding of what they’re thinking and how they’re feeling without them telling us. According to the research Brett McKay did for this article, men are apparently more deficient at this than women.
One way for men to increase their theory of mind is to read more fiction. It appears that reading the narratives and dialogues contained within fiction works as kind of theory of mind exercise. Thus, allowing oneself to be enmeshed in a good novel is practice for ‘reading’ people in the real world. McKay notes that according to the research, it does not matter what kind of fiction a man reads, all fiction reading will increase his theory of mind ability. McKay cites a telephone interview he had with a Dr. Oatley, a proponent of the idea that reading fiction increases men’s theory of mind. According to Dr. Oatley the kind of fiction men ought to read is a null question, ‘[Dr. Oatley’s] response [to the question of what kind of fiction men should read] was to read whatever interests you, whether it’s highbrow Russian novels or lowbrow dime paperbacks.’ If the end is simply increased theory of mind ability, then the means is whatever kind of fiction you choose to read.
Men Certainly Ought to Read Fiction
I’ll be honest, I really enjoy reading The Art of Manliness. I think McKay tackles real issues and needs in men’s lives today, as well as provides articles that are simply fun. McKay’s encouragement for men to read more fiction is laudatory. Having been an avid reader of fiction for my entire literary life, I must say that I do not fit the paradigm of men who do not read fiction, but I will certainly take any exhortation to read more. I also think that the result of reading fiction McKay introduces, increased theory of mind, is one of many reasons for men to be reading more fiction. I do wonder, however, if the conclusion of the article is useful. The idea that because reading anything increases theory of mind leads to the conclusion that one then ought to read anything. For many this will lead to read only what is simple or perhaps literarily bad. The exhortation for men to read fiction is not enough, we need men (and women) to be reading good fiction, even if it has no more of an effect on the increase of one’s theory of mind.
Why Read ‘Good’ Fiction
Reading, and especially reading fiction, must be more than about one goal. If our goal was only to increase our theory of mind, then why not read what is simplest? Why challenge ourselves to read anything of substance if a comic book or trashy romance novel will do the same without over taxing our minds on other issues like morality, philosophy, or religion. Reading any fiction may increase our theory of mind, but only reading ‘good’ fiction will increase our vocabulary, our knowledge of the world and people, and our understanding of life.
Why Even ‘Good’ Fiction Is Not Enough
Even then, reading Evelyn Waugh, or Kurt Vonnegut, or Oscar Wilde (all typically recognised as ‘good’ authors by the literatti) is deficient. As a Christian, I committed to an understanding of the world that centres around who God is and how he has, does, and will interact with this world. A Christian worldview must recognise that there is no secular autonomy. This means that when authors attempt to deal with issues they see as universals they are still approaching them through their individual (and corporate) presuppositions. Some do this consciously. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series is intended as a kind of anti-Chronicles of Narnia. He intends to introduce his audience (children) to atheism. Others, however, inject their presuppositions somewhat (if not totally unconsciously). Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle does just this. Paolini betrays his secular understanding of reality when he shows the dwarves, the only religious people, as simple, particularly when compared to the almost purely rational elves. Thus we cannot take for granted any autonomous universality. I’m not saying we should not read such authors, simply that we must (as Christians) take into account the implicit and explicit presuppositions and implications of any fiction we read and hold it to the divine standard, which is the only standard. All participate in this standard to some extent and it is our job to increase our participation in it and recognise where others do participate and where they deviate.
What Are We to Read?
In the end, I recommend that we read what good fiction. By good fiction, I do not necessarily mean what is considered good by English professors or professional critics. Instead I mean we ought mainly to read fiction that participates in the divine standard. I don’t mean we should read only cheesy Christian fiction, or even that we should read only fiction written C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, G. K. Chesterton, and others of that ilk. My suggestion is that we read fiction that is both good in terms of the level of writing (in style, grammar, and vocabulary) and that is good in terms of how well it participates in God. When we read fiction, we ought to be changed (in fact we are changed or, if the fiction is poor, we are maintained or even decreased). We ought to read books that make us think about real issues, but we must read with discernment and try to root out the presuppositions behind a text.
So, by all means read simple fiction. I love reading comic books and certain children’s fiction (though I submit that good children’s fiction is often only simple in style and vocabulary, but that the ideas presented are still good and useful for personal growth). Do not, however, stop with simple fiction. Challenge yourself in both the level of writing and the ideas presented. Above all, remember that there is no universal autonomy. If God is the creator of this world then all of creation participates in God. Thus, while all truth is God’s truth we must still be careful about the presuppositions underlying any work of fiction (really anything, not simply fiction). All creation may participate in God, but all rational creatures can still work against that participation (hence the fall of Satan and the Fall of humanity). What kind of fiction we read may not make a difference in the increase of our theory of mind, but it does make a difference on how actively we participate in God.
Some Recommendations
Finally, here are some books I’ve read that I think will help both increase your theory of mind as well as your participation in God (this list is by no means comprehensive, nor will each book be as good, in either sense, as one another or others you may have read):
Out of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis
Perelandra by C. S. Lewis
That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis
The Simarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien
The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
Phantastes by George MacDonald
The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald
The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald
The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (really any Jane Austen)
See my Goodreads page for books I’ve read and check out some of my friends and what they’ve read as well (in fact, just sign up for Goodreads and ask to be my friend, but mention this post or else I might not add you back).
What do you think? What kind of fiction should we be reading?