The Power of Story

It’s no accident that Jesus taught in parables. Humans are creatures of story.

Our movie and entertainment industry is largely engaged in the telling of tales, modern computer games, far from their relatively simple Space Invader-type antecedents, are replete with stories and missions and characters and plot. Go back further and the rise of the modern novel developed storywriting into a high art; go back even further and every inn or tavern had its old greybeard who would regale the patrons with tall stories of the doings of their youth. Ancient mythology finds its parallel in modern superhero stories (what are Jason and the Argonauts but the Avengers of the mythic age?); whoever we are and whatever our culture is like, we surround ourselves with many-coloured weavings of story.

Terry Pratchett, late author of the celebrated Discworld comic fantasy series, expresses the story element of humanity with his narrativium: the Fourth Wall-busting magical element that makes sure the universe doesn’t wander off-plot. It’s narrativium that determines why million-to-one chances crop up nine times out of ten – if heroes don’t overcome overwhelming odds, what’s the point? – and explains why magic works at all: stories want to be told, every story has a definite shape as it unravels, and a narrativium-based universe is very good at editing out the bits that don’t fit.

I’d go so far as to suggest that storytelling is part of the most basic set of traits that make us human, which would make it part of the Divine image that we are told humans bear. God is a storytelling God: look at the Book He communicates to us through. Not a list of commands or propositional statements (though there is some of that), not a hymn in praise of the Divine greatness (though that’s in there too); at root the Bible is a collection of narrative stories. We believe they’re true, factual accounts (with certain exceptions such as parables, which are couched in such language as to suggest hypothetical examples rather than real-life incidents, and symbolic writing like the book of Revelation), but they are primarily narrative rather than poetry, scientific textbook, discursive writing like a Socratic dialogue, or lists of commandments.

This is important because the ubiquity of story has implications for how we present truth, how we teach, even how we think.

As Westerners, we’re very attached to our propositional, analytical way of presenting information. If you were to ask almost any teacher from a Western country to teach about the Kingdom of Heaven, their first instinct would likely be to create a list or chart, detailing everything we know about the Kingdom: what is it, where is it, who’s in it, who isn’t, how do you get into it, all that sort of thing.

While this is a very good method for passing on factual information, it has very little in common with the way Jesus is recorded as having done it. “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…”

  • A tiny seed growing to become the largest of garden plants; a tree that the birds come and perch in…

  • A net that fishermen threw down into the water…

  • A sower going out to sow seed…

  • A man going on a journey, who called three of his servants together and entrusted them with certain sums of money, each according to his ability…

Since we believe that Jesus Christ was God incarnate, we ought to trust that He knew what He was doing selecting the teaching mode that He did. Maybe our way of teaching isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be.

I have to confess that I don’t personally read a lot of Christian books. If you like that sort of thing, there are some good ones out there, but most of the ones I’ve read haven’t stuck with me all that well. I’m blowed if I can even remember the main point of The Prayer of Jabez or Wild at Heart or The Purpose-Driven Life, but narrative stories like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or The Lord of the Rings or even something completely pagan like the Harry Potter books have stayed with me.

I’ve learned far more Biblical truth over the years from the Chronicles of Narnia than I ever have from any number of teaching books, and in a far more important way. The stories make it live, make the truth something you want to emulate and live and be a part of. There really is a great cosmic struggle of good and evil that will take every power you possess (and a few you don’t) to gain the victory in. The power of love and self-sacrifice really is stronger than all the powers of darkness arrayed in their hellish might. The small deeds of kindness and loyalty done by unlikely, out-of-their-depth heroes really can tip the scales; in the Divine economy, these widow’s mites weigh more than the great gifts of the high and mighty.

Our stories don’t need to be strict allegories in order to communicate truth, either. I’m right with CS Lewis in “cordially detesting” allegory, with its one-to-one correspondence of story and truth, so that the whole thing becomes one of those slot puzzles we give to babies to teach them pattern recognition and hand-eye coordination. The round block only ever goes into the round hole; character X only ever represents truth Y.

“Real” stories are more complex and subtle, alluding to truth rather than hitting you in the face with it. Gandalf’s near-death and return in The Lord of the Rings is suggestive of Christ’s death and resurrection, and Gandalf himself does become a sort of Christological character, but there is no absolute parallel. He’s Gandalf, not Jesus in disguise; you can’t take everything he says or does as What Jesus Would Do. But in his character as written there are truths which the Holy Spirit can recall to those hearts He has been preparing.

Allegory seems to be a persistent temptation for the Christian storyteller. It’s neat and tidy; by one imperious gesture on the part of the writer their story world incarnates the truths they want to focus on in visible form.

But it usually makes for a rather artificial or stilted manner of storytelling that seldom works as well on its own terms as a pure story.

While allegory can sometimes be profitable, it’s so rare to find a well-written one. The Pilgrim’s Progress may be a classic of Christian literature, but it gets heavy and didactic at times, and all the labels are placed so visibly that there’s little to tell but the eventual proof of a character’s name. Where’s the story in that?

I have to confess to a sneaking suspicion that our love affair with allegory as Christian writers reflects a refusal to trust that the Holy Spirit of God knows His business.

If we are truly regenerate, if we have truly come to the saving trust in Jesus Christ and Him crucified that produces real change in a person’s life, we will write regenerate stories. Writing from our heart as believers without necessarily worrying about symbolism will of necessity produce a story as spiritually distinct from that produced by an unbeliever as light is from darkness.

Not that all non-Christian storytelling is necessarily spiritual darkness, either. For those with eyes to see, you can find Scriptural parallels even in the Harry Potter books, and no-one is claiming that Joanne Rowling is a Christian author. Sometimes the Holy Spirit is downright sneaky, putting things in there that even the authors do not necessarily intend. Or as CS Lewis put it, “all good stories are reflections of the one Good Story”.

When we write about great themes like love, self-sacrifice, the struggle of good and evil, triumph against the odds, personal redemption and so on as Christians, of course our faith is going to find expression in what we write. Tolkien’s work is far more intrinsically Christian in this sense, even with its pagan cosmology and elves and gods and magic, than many books supposedly set in this real universe that is a direct creation of God.

Similarly, too, the Holy Spirit working in the heart of a reader might use a single sentence, comment, paragraph, even the very heart of a tale itself, in His drawing of that reader closer to the Lord whether as someone inside or outside the faith. I don’t pretend to believe that JK Rowling intended to present Harry Potter as a deliberately Christological character, but as a person of faith I can make connections whether she intended them or not. In the final book, for instance, Harry is killed by Voldemort, the chief adversary and evil character, and then comes back from the dead to destroy him forever. Sound familiar?

Harry isn’t Jesus any more than Gandalf is, but Joanne Rowling handed the church a great set of culturally-relevant parallels to draw upon when she wrote those books. And the series is a rollicking good tale on its own merits, too.

All this to say what we all already knew by instinct: that storytelling is a powerful thing.

But as to implications for the way we teach, I’m sometimes struck by how dissimilar a modern sermon is from one of Jesus’ parables.

Could you teach entirely in parable-type stories? It’s a fascinating idea. Jesus did it, but the Gospels record that His disciples frequently missed the point or had to come to Him privately for explanation. Not something many preachers of my acquaintance would have time for; the object is to do the explaining, not to tell an obscure tale which requires further explanation before it’s understood.

What’s the point, then? Why take the risk on your hearers misunderstanding?

Maybe some are going to misconstrue, no matter what you say. Maybe it’s a way of guarding your truths from being deliberately twisted by the ignorant and hostile.

Maybe, too, it’s a way to slip past people’s guardedness and plant seeds that will bear fruit in time. A good tale on its own merits can get a hearing where a bald statement of fact will be rejected. Phillip Pullman notwithstanding, there have been hardcore atheists who have loved CS Lewis’ Narnia even with its innate Christianness. We are, as I said earlier, creatures of story, we humans.

Even in politics, it’s easier to make a hardline statement of position if you never hear the story of someone on the other side whose life has been messed about by that self-same position. Listening to their story, you begin to enter into their world, see it from their perspective. Story energises our compassion; they’re no longer a statistic, but a person with goals and hopes and dreams and pain. Listening to their story, we become more fully human, more like the Divine image. We care, we start to love and show mercy. Because we know their story.

Good stories are incredibly powerful things.


The Dark Side of the Force

I watched the original Star Wars trilogy again recently. I was introducing my kids to it, trying to wait until the younger ones were old enough to vaguely grasp what’s going on. And beginning with the original trilogy because The Phantom Menace isn’t actually all that good as a film (particularly not compared to A New Hope), and because I’m a purist like that.

Lots has been said already about the Star Wars conception of “the Force” and how, despite what we’d like to believe sometimes, the Force isn’t a direct equivalent of God.

The Force isn’t God, because the Force is an impersonal energy field that is created by living things, whereas God is a personal Creator of all that is. The Force is dualistic, with good and evil both a part of it, whereas God is good, solely and purely.

I know all this, and it isn’t what I want to talk about.

Being fully aware that the Force isn’t God, the original trilogy can serve as a metaphor or parable of sorts, describing a great spiritual conflict of good and evil like the one we find ourselves in here on Planet Earth. So long as you treat it as a metaphorical story and not a direct allegory, you can still find glimpses of truth in it. It’s become a part of our modern cultural lore, and we can use it to communicate certain truths at need, just like we can use other stories.

No, what I wanted to talk about was Yoda’s speech about being a Jedi; the one that comes in both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

You know the one: “A Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware anger, fear, aggression; the Dark Side are they. Easily they flow; swift to join you in a fight. But once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.”

I’m willing, with certain caveats in line with what I’ve already said, to interpret the Force as being a dim reflection of the Godhead, and the Jedi as the Miles Christi, the soldier of Christ in the spiritual battle in which we find ourselves. So “a Christian’s strength flows from the Lord”.

Thus far so good. This is a truth which we hold to be self-evident, and is in line with Scriptural teaching that “without Him we can do nothing”.

But it’s after that that we begin to run into troubles.

Anger, fear and aggression are deemed to be irreversibly corrupt products of darkness and evil, along with hatred.

This we need to be more careful with. Certainly hating one’s fellow man is no Christian thing to do. Jesus died for him as much as He died for me; He loves the most hardened ISIS fanatic as much as He loves me.

Not that the hardened ISIS fanatic is doing His will, you understand, but that even his evil deeds do not change the love of the Lord for him.

But the Bible instructs us to “Hate what is evil; cling to what is good”. If hatred is intrinsically evil in and of itself, we’re in a bit of a quandary. Or in other words, it’s ok to hate the devil, so long as we recognise those who have made themselves his footsoldiers on earth as dupes as much in need of salvation as we. Hating the devil is fulfilling the will of God, and in line with His character. Hating sin is Godly, so long as we love the sinner.

We’re typically not very good at that, but it’s nevertheless a mistake to follow half-remembered Star Wars lore and make this sort of hatred wrong.

When the Emperor tempts Luke to give in to his hatred and strike him down, we have to be careful how we let ourselves interpret it. Luke, hate the evil that the Emperor represents, but the Emperor himself is a human being made in the image of God, and worthy of your compassion, not your hate.

Similarly, anger, fear and aggression.

I’ve talked about anger before on this blog, pointing out that God Himself is “slow to anger”, not incapable of it. He’s capable of feeling anger and acting righteously at all points. We sometimes aren’t, yet it’s not anger itself that’s the problem, but what we do with it. Anger is a normal, healthy and good response to a situation in which a wrong has been done. Luke does not sin by becoming angry at the Emperor’s manipulations and contempt. But he does have to be careful what he does with that anger.

The Jedi response is apparently to get rid of your anger somehow. Either by stuffing it down and sitting on the lid, or by the Buddhist means of killing your sense of self. If you can destroy your own capacity to feel these dark emotions, then the anger and hate goes away, because we can’t feel them any more. This is the Buddhist ideal of nirvana, as closely as I can make out, and it’s wrong and unhealthy. God made us with the capacity to feel angry about injustices and to hate sin. If we destroy our own ability to feel anger or hate, we cripple ourselves for the spiritual battle the Lord has called us to. We open ourselves not to “positive emotions” like peace and happiness, but to feeling nothing at all. This is unhealthy, and opposed to God’s design.

Fear is a dark power when it masters us, causing us to do all sorts of crazy, unhelpful and sinful stuff. But even fear is not evil itself. The proper purpose of fear is to alert us to danger and ready us to flee or fight. If we cripple this capacity in ourselves we are not behaving in a healthy manner, and are in danger of extreme foolhardiness.

We’re instructed to fear the Lord, because He’s dangerous. He’s described as a lion, a consuming fire, surrounded by whirlwinds. He made the great white shark and called it good. He is, as CS Lewis rightly pointed out, not remotely safe.

But He’s good. He truly loves us and wants the best for us, but that shouldn’t lure us into deciding that He’s a sort of supernatural teddy bear.

He loves us and wants the best for us, yes; but He’s all-knowing and really does know what that best looks like. More, He has nothing invested in perpetuating our comfortable sins, He wants to set us free from all that and isn’t really so interested in how much it’s going to hurt us to give up the destructive sins we love. Just like it isn’t loving to buy a drink for an alcoholic, so the Lord would not be truly Love if He allowed us to continue in our comfortable sins.

Fearing the Lord is the antidote to this. If we truly recognise how very unsafe He is, it will restrain us from pursuing such things.

Aggression is a trickier one. This is allied to Yoda’s statement that “A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defence; never for attack”.

It’s seductive because it sounds so reasonable. We don’t want to be hurting other people or attacking them. We don’t want to be the aggressor in a conflict.

But what if we are attacking evil? According to a strict interpretation of Yoda’s words, this is wrong because it’s aggression, which is the Dark Side. So by these lights, the right thing to do is to stand by until you are attacked. Evil can flourish so long as it doesn’t actually make a direct assault.

To be fair, the Star Wars universe never goes this far down this particular pathway, but we must remember that Yoda’s counsel to Luke was to sacrifice his friends, even let them die if necessary, and continue his training.

Now, I’m all in favour of being fully trained, but knowing that an evil is occurring and deliberately standing by and doing nothing is a grievous wrong.

And this is what’s wrong with the Jedi. They’re supposed to be the guardians of right and order, but the Old Republic is riddled with smugglers, gangsters, criminals, oppressors and exploiters, all proceeding about their business apparently unmolested by Jedi interference.

The spiritual Christian soldier sung of in the old hymn is supposed to be an aggressive attacker of the enemy’s domain. Jesus’ words were that “I will build My church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it”. The picture is of an active church aggressively assaulting the domain of the devil, taking ground in the spiritual realm and rescuing the prisoners of darkness, not of the gates of hell assaulting a beleaguered church. Passivity is a Jedi ideal, not a Christian one.

The Biblical ideal is that ultimate Good will emerge victorious and that evil will ultimately be done away with. The problem with the Jedi is that their theology is as uninterested in the ultimate triumph of the light side of the Force as it is in the ultimate triumph of the dark side. They are keepers of the balance, seeking a world in which good and evil cancel one another out somehow, not a world in which good reigns supreme.

And I know which world I’d rather live in.

Anger, fear and aggression are not the enemy, any more than earthly nations or political groups are the enemy, or individual Muslims for whom Christ died are the enemy, or homosexuals are the enemy.

We do have to be careful what we do with our anger, fear and aggression, and careful not to let them control us, but it’s a mistake to paint them as intrinsically evil. It’s when we’re controlled by anger, fear and aggression that we begin to paint human beings as the enemy, and this is wrong, but properly-disciplined anger at injustice is Godly and righteous. Fear of the Lord is wise and leads, paradoxically, to freedom from other fears, and aggression directed at a Godly end and channeled through righteous means is a powerful force for good in the world.

The last line of Yoda’s speech is “once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny”.

This is another line that sounds almost Christian. Once you start down the path of sin, it will have mastery over you and you canot be rid of it by your own strength.

But the problem is that we have all “started down the dark path”, and Yoda’s words and actions lead to no hope or possibility of redemption.

Turning Vader back to the light side is prtrayed as Luke’s idea, not Yoda’s. Obi-Wan counsels Luke to abandon this hope that even Darth Vader can be saved.

This is wrong and unbiblical. No-one is beyond redemption. God “so loved us, even when we were dead in sins and trespasses, that He made us alive together with Christ, and raised us up and seated us together with Him in the heavenly places”. Paul the Apostle started out as the ISIS or Taliban of his day. Surely there was no hope that he would be brought to faith.

And yet God did it anyway. Saul the persecutor and militant fanatic became Paul the fanatic for Christ, as committed to seeing the Good News about Jesus proclaimed as he had been to seeing it extinguished. Who knows whether the leaders of ISIS might not be potential Pauls in the making?

The other thing is that in Darth Vader’s turning back to the light, there’s nothing said about any price to be paid for his previous life of evil. The past is apparently gone, all that matters is that he’s now on the right side. There are no consequences for his previous evil deeds.

This could only play in a semi-Christianised culture where we’ve accepted the idea that we don’t have to earn our way back into God’s good graces, but it’s only partly true. The thing is, there was a price to pay, a terrible one. One that we could not begin to pay. But it’s a price that God did pay. It doesn’t make it any less real; sin and evil is still sin and evil, and God is just in what He says the punishment is. But with Him there is forgiveness.

So I guess the point of this is that we shouldn’t strive to be like the Jedi in all things. Star Wars can serve as a parable of the spiritual battle, up to a point, but there are things we need to be aware of as believers seeking to have the mind of Christ. Yoda is one of the good guys, and has a certain amount of wisdom, but he doesn’t speak with the voice of God, and sometimes even what Yoda has to say can be unhelpful.

Fun for all the Family

My wife got the Meccano (“Erector set” in American-speak) she deciced she wanted for Christmas. I got Lego. So did my kids, and since it’s all going to be pooled together I’ll get to play with that too ūüôā

In some households, this would be how you spell “mid-life crisis”.

Around here, it’s just this branch of the Horswoods being themselves.

Some time in the last year or so I decided to stop being embarrassed about being a grown man that still wants to play with Lego. It is, after all, no greater a potential expenditure of money than football tickets, it lasts longer than a cricket test series, and is no sillier than painting your body in your team’s colours. And grown adults do all of these without shame or embarrassment. In the case of sports fandom, it’s culturally the done thing. You get respect for it.

If an adult admits to building things with Lego, though, we think they’re childish. Having a midlife crisis. Trying to avoid the reality that they’re getting old.

I guess I might be. But if so, I’m not going to be bothered by it.

I’m reminded of something CS Lewis wrote once:

“As a teenager I read fairy tales in secret and would have been embarrassed if anyone had discovered it. Now, as an adult, I put childish things behind me, including the fear of looking childish, and read fairy tales openly”.

So I’m going to take it as evidence of maturity, not childishness, that I can openly have a hobby of Lego building.

And given some of the creations that adult Lego builders make, is it really “just” a children’s toy?

I’ve often wondered why the Lego sets have an upper age limit on their “suitable for” age suggestion box. I suppose that it helps the non-builder relative of an avid Lego fan kid to avoid getting something overly simple. But even the simplest little car is still a good source of bricks that you can build into anything. Fun for all the family. In this case, with the probable exception of my wife, quite literally.

Though I still think that if I got Heather some Technic Lego she’d have a lot of fun. She has a mind of wheels and gears, like a sort of unfallen Saruman, and she wants to make something that really works. Hence the erector set.

Faith (Chivalric Virtues series)

This is one of a series of posts on the chivalric virtues.  I am identifying seven chivalric virtues as detailed in this introduction.

I was initially intending to talk about courage as the first virtue in this series. It’s how I numbered them when I was originally coming up with the list. However, I’m feeling particularly uninspired to talk about courage right now, so I’m choosing to focus this time on faith.

There’s some justification for doing so. After I published the introduction and its list of seven chivalric virtues, I realised that if I combined mercy and justice (something that many will probably think is weird, but I have my reasons) and separated Humility and Fealty, then I could indeed tie them to the seven Medi√¶val planets as an interesting and altogether quite apt secondary symbolic system. Faith would, under this schema, be associated with Luna, which is the first of the Planets in ascending order. It makes a certain amount of sense. ¬†The list of virtues is thus:

  1. Faith (Luna)
  2. Courtesy (Mercury)
  3. Mercy (Venus)
  4. Largesse (Sol)
  5. Courage (Mars)
  6. Fealty (Jupiter)
  7. Humility (Saturn)

Faith in its Mediæval sense is a considerably broader and (I would argue) deeper concept than our modern usage would suggest. In our regular usage, the primary meaning of faith is religious feeling or belief. We talk about our Christian faith, and about other faiths.

Our secondary meaning is closer to the Medi√¶val sense, but still lacks some of the full meaning of the term. We tell each other to “have faith” in a time of crisis – to keep on believing that God is good and that He will come through for us.

It’s still all about belief, though.

Faith in the Medi√¶val sense is less about a mere “belief” (like belief in ghosts or ufos) and far more about trust.

The knight Roland‘s chivalric vows included vows “to keep faith” and “always to tell the truth”, which are far more about one’s character than one’s beliefs. Allied far more to the Biblical idea of faithfulness, faith is perhaps best thought of as integrity and its outworking. Keeping our word. Being holy, because of Whose we are. Actively trusting God even in the face of circumstances. This is no mere “belief”. It’s a solid trust that God is who He says He is.

In the Bible, faith and faithfulness are often the same word. If you have faith, in this sense, you will be faithful. Integrity stems from trust in God and produces trustworthiness. The inside matches the outside, and both match Reality.

But why tie this to the Moon?

In Medi√¶val thought, the Moon was on the boundary, both subject to change (like the human realm) and constant (like the heavens). Above the Moon, one was in the heavenly places, where God’s will is done perfectly as we are told to pray it will be here on earth. Below the Moon, there is doubt and uncertainty, things are not what they seem and God’s good laws can have disastrous effects on our fallen natures. Above the Moon, there is certainty and full knowledge, even as we are fully known. The Moon, in Medi√¶val cosmology, was the boundary.

Thus, Luna embodies the idea of faith. Here below the Moon, we may not know, we cannot tell. All we can do is trust. Here below the Moon, there is uncertainty and things are not as they appear, but as citizens of a heavenly Kingdom it behooves us to live with the integrity of the upper realm.

The Moon was said to produce wanderings, not only physical travel but in the wits. The word is “lunacy” for a reason: it was thought to be the result of Lunar influence. Spiritually, this reminds us that we live beneath the Moon as “aliens and strangers in the world”, and that faith can sometimes look like madness. This world is not our permanent home. We’re on a journey, wandering beneath the moon, though as Tolkien reminded us, “not all those who wander are lost”.

Here below, faith looks like lunacy. Not only trust in God but trustworthiness and integrity are sometimes considered ridiculous. (Can you be a successful salesperson or politician and tell the truth at all times? If not, why not?) Faith (not only trust in God but also integrity) requires us to live as citizens of a Heavenly Kingdom.  If the outside lived in this world matches the inside transformed into the image of God, then certainly we are going to look strange. We cannot but help look like lunatics if we are going to be true to ourselves as a new creation in Christ.

An episode in CS Lewis’ The Silver Chair brings out what I mean. The two children, the newly-rescued Prince Rilian plus the gloomy but fundamentally honest Marsh-wiggle Puddleglum have been captured by an evil witch in Underland who is trying to lay them under an enchantment. Her siren-song causes them to forget their quest, forget Narnia, forget even Aslan Himself. But all of a sudden Puddleglum speaks up:

“You may be right. Your world may be the only world there is. But it’s a pretty poor world. WE may be just four babies playing a game, but four babies can create a play-world that licks the real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to live as much like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it.”

He has kept faith. He’s true to the real Narnia even in the face of his own doubts of its existence. He speaks and acts with integrity and truth.

This is what faith is. Not “believing something you know isn’t true”. Not some mystical energy that causes God to do what we want, but being true to what is Really Real.

A Different Brand of Manly

There’s a lot of junk propagated in the name of manhood and masculinity. All the old irrelevant cultural expectations, juvenile machismo and chauvinist patriarchalism. You Must Like Sports. You Must Like Tools. You Must Be Good At Fixing Things. You Must Drink Beer In Vast Quantities. You Must Win The Girl. You Must Turn Everything Into A Competition. You Must Keep Your Woman In Her Place.


What does liking sports have to do with the possession of a Y chromosome? Why should my ability to repair my car reflect on my masculinity? What does my capacity for alcohol signify except that I drink to excess? Why does being a Real Man apparently have to involve domination and suppression of women?

And why, why, why should my masculinity be threatened by capable womanhood?

Some of this is cultural. Americans seem to have much more of a gender-based division of labour in their expectations. When Heather and I were getting married, I tried to ease the burden of things that she had to do by phoning the florist about our flowers. I knew what we wanted; Heather was busy with 89 other tasks. No problem, right?

Wrong. Bafflingly, the response I got was universally negative. As in “I don’t want to talk to you.” Unhelpful attitudes, in some cases ridiculously so. My wife-to-be phones the same florists – instant warmth and cooperation. Apparently I was trespassing in a “women only” zone.

America has a lot of unmarked single-sex zones. Cars, sports fandom, any repair work, grilling/barbecue; these are masculine zones. Flowers, weddings in general, the kitchen, childcare, cleaning; these are feminine. You will get weird looks if you cross the boundary.

This is why American barbecue grills are such replacement ovens. Men aren’t allowed in the kitchen, either because of exclusion by women or by the disparagement as “unmanly” of their masculine peers.

The pernicious popular American notion of the “man card” plays right into this nonsense. The Man Card, for those unfamiliar with the concept, is the metaphorical certification of True Manhood; the idea being that if you do “unmanly” things, your Man Card can be revoked, or certainly challenged.

It’s all junk, though. There’s nothing about the Y chromosome that fatalistically determines that you will like football, hunting, fishing and shooting, be able to repair things and be incapable of boiling an egg. If you need even a metaphorical card to prove you’re a man, you probably aren’t.

Apparently my masculinity was forged in a different fire.

I don’t like sports, in general. Never really have; as a child I was probably undiagnosed borderline dyspraxic, so I was never any good at them. And It’s difficult to like something you utterly suck at.

My wife’s the sports fan in our household. I’ve learned enough that I can follow her conversations about baseball, but I did that because I love her, not because I love baseball.

I don’t hunt. I have to get up really early in the morning six days a week for my job; the thought of voluntarily doing it on a day when I don’t have to isn’t that pleasant. Also, I work outside in the heat and the bugs; why would I want to do that on a day when I don’t have to just on the off-chance that I could make a deer go boom?

I don’t fish, either. I’m a redhead, with a redhead’s natural tendency to burn in the woods on a cloudy day. I wear so much sunscreen that I can taste it for most of the evening some days, long after I’ve got home and showered. The thought of sitting for hours on end out on the highly-reflective water with nothing between me and that fiery orb but God’s blue heaven is actually painful.

And I don’t shoot. I don’t hunt for the aforementioned reasons, and I have personal issues as a believer with guns for self-defence. That seems to take away the two main reasons for investing the time and money in learning to shoot.

I’m not particularly good at repairing things. I can do a few things on the car if I need to, but I have little interest in it for its own sake. Cooking is more fun.

I think machismo is juvenile and insecure, and patriarchalism is one of the results of the Fall.

So I don’t really fit much of the American masculine stereotype. And yet I’m fully secure in my masculine identity. I have, in my mind, nothing to prove.

People have asked me why this should be.

Part of it is that I channel a different masculine archetype. America loves the Man of Action: Superman, the Lone Ranger, the high school athlete, the military man. Britain tends more to the cerebral: Sherlock Holmes is a hero because of his brain, not his brawn. Robin Hood was a man of wit and skill more than muscle and strength; that role was taken by Little John.

In Greek mythological terms, I always preferred Theseus as a hero over Hercules. The wily Odysseus was in my personal pantheon of childhood heroes, not the arrogant and petulant Achilles.

In Lord of the Rings terms, I wanted to be Gandalf or Aragorn rather than the straightforward warrior Boromir. In Star Wars, Yoda or Obi-Wan.

In short, I gravitate to the Man of Lore, not the Man of Action. And even the heroes that go both ways I tend to interpret with a heavy weighting in that direction.

But I’ve come to realise that this is only part of the answer to why I can be so secure in my masculinity when surrounded by a culture that doesn’t define manhood in those terms.

CS Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader has a little exchange in it between Caspian and Ramandu’s daughter which serves as an apt illustration of why this should be.

Caspian says “In the world my friends come from, there is a story. In it, the prince must kiss the princess in order to dissolve the enchantment.”

“Ah, but here it is different,” Ramandu’s daughter replies. “Here he must dissolve the enchantment before he can kiss the princess.”

Most of us men seem to unconsciously assume that we are in the story of the Sleeping Beauty. That the act of kissing the princess (winning the heart of the woman, as it were) is what dissolves the enchantment of lies we believe about our masculinity. In some cases, it may be that it does. But not in mine.

I had to dissolve the enchantment before I could kiss the princess.

I had a period of a few short months through which I was taken on an inner journey into the depths of my own sense of masculine identity, to confront the lies I had believed about what it is and where it comes from.

I had to deconstruct all of the lies that “Real Men do thus-and-so” and come to the realisation that culture really shouldn’t be defining my sense of manhood at all.

As long as I let some physical trait or thing I do define my masculinity, I am held hostage to it. If my sense of masculinity is rooted in liking sports, or motor repair, or beer consumption, or getting the girl, or some mistaken sense of positional authority vis-à-vis my wife, I will be insecure and react to anything that undermines those things as a threat.

These things are not the roots of manhood, despite what advertisers and our culture would have us believe. My masculinity is rooted in the image of God, just like my wife’s femininity. How that expresses itself is as diverse as the full spectrum of human personality and culture.

And having dissolved the enchantment of lies about my manhood, I was then able to kiss the princess.

However, let the reader understand that I don’t mean “princess” in the vapid Disney sense but in the powerful medi√¶val sense in which all independent rulers, no matter their individual title, were “princes”.

So I find nothing remotely threatening to in the fact that my wife is at least as capable as I am. Why on earth should I?

I’m more secure in my manhood than to be disurbed by the idea of eating pink ice cream (ridiculous as it sounds, I’ve had friends raise eyebrows and treat it like it’s unusual). Are we really that insecure, men?

When I paint a picture of flowers, I paint manly flowers, because my painting (including subject matter) flows out of who I am rather than determining it. ¬†I am free to pick up my wife’s handbag to bring it to her without diminishing my masculinity, because it is defined from within, not by actions. ¬†I’m free of all that immature crap.

In short, I don’t need a Man Card, because God says I don’t have anything to prove in that regard. If I can stretch the point a little, it’s rather like the second temptation of Christ, to throw himself down from the Temple. If the first temptation (stones into bread) was about whether Jesus was going to depend on God or himself for his being, the second was about proving it. Ok, you’re trusting God, are you? Prove He cares. Prove He’s really got your back.

Jesus answered: “It is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to a foolish test'”.

I know He cares for me and I don’t need to prove it.

It’s rather like that with our sense of manhood. My masculinity is rooted in His image. He says I’m a man, and I don’t need to prove it.


In the Sixties, women burned their bras as an expression of liberation from the oppressive and lopsided expectations placed on their gender. It may be time we men do the same with our man cards. It is, after all, the same sort of thing.

If you’re not a man without a card that says so (even a metaphorical one), then you aren’t a man just because you have one.

With Liberality

At least in this part of the States, American Christians so overwhelmingly align themselves with the political right that there’s a perception that you can’t be a Christian and not be a conservative. (I should point out that this is Texas, however, and in the last election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, most Texans voted for Quark of the Ferengi.)

“Liberal” has come to more or less mean “evil”, and is associated with all those things that Good Christians Don’t Support. You hear “so-and-so is dangerously liberal” or “Christians shouldn’t support their liberal agenda” or other things. As far as usage goes, you could substitute the word “bad” or “evil” with little difference.

But regardless of your political leanings, “liberality” is a good and useful word, and it does not deserve to be have a lot of the associations it seems to. I’d like to explore some of this original spectrum of meaning.

Liberality in its traditional, non-political sense is first and foremost about generosity. The King James version of the Bible translates Romans¬†12:8 as “Let him who gives do so with liberality”. Generously. Not with a measure, no matter how big the ladle. “Liberal” itself derives from the Latin word for freedom, and with this in mind we are brought to Jesus’ challenge to us: “Freely you have received. Now freely give.”

God’s generosity expressed in His grace to us is not measured, but lavish, measureless, disproportionate, not counting the cost. He doesn’t dole out His favour with a teaspoon, nor even by the bucket. Unconstrained in the resources He is able to deploy, He is truly free in His giving and His favour, and He calls us to the same liberality of spirit.

Liberality was also traditionally connected with the idea of liberal study – that which desires knowledge for the sheer joy of knowing rather than for some practical purpose. This is to all intents and purposes the opposite of a modern education, which is intended to be useful in the job market, always having in mind the goal of producing competitive worker bees and salary-earners. It’s instructive to note that CS Lewis, in his Narnia chronicles, often describes his witches and evil magicians as being “very practical”, by which he means that they are only interested in things or people if they wish to make use of them. This utilitarian “practical” streak is the opposite of liberality; the liberal pursuit of knowledge will not be constrained by ends and use and profitability, but with the higher goals of expanding the field of human knowledge. Knowledge not for an end, whether economic or poltical, but on its own terms, following the evidence wherever it leads.

Now, obviously we need both. All the high ideals of the world won’t put bread on the table. But it seems to me that at the moment we’re much more in danger of losing the idea that the pursuit of knowledge in and of itself is a good thing.

It’s obviously difficult to be truly liberal in our pursuit of knowledge. Everyone has an agenda, whether stated or unstated, conscious or unconscious. Even me. But perhaps if we held our agendas a little more loosely we might avoid some problems.

Thirdly, and by way of its first meaning of generosity, liberality is the antithesis and cure of the plutonic, covetous impulse. Freedom from the captivating desire to possess and to own; it is able to use worldly wealth without being mastered by it. St Francis of Assisi was radical in this regard. If we are to be masters of our money and not servants of our mammon, we must cultivate liberality. Freedom to give, open-heartedness and peace, in the place of the shrunken, close-fisted, avaricious spirit that always wants what it does not have and cannot be content.

Then, too, liberality does not consider the objects of its generosity, but bestows wherever there is opportunity. Like the rain, which “raineth on the just and on the unjust”, like the sun which sheds abroad its light to both the good and the evil among men. This is another trait that I would venture to suggest is desperately needed in our society, particularly as Christians. We’re so often so caught up in what we do and don’t support that we lose sight of the sheer grace of giving. To give without an agenda, just to bless… Isn’t this how the Lord gives?

So here’s to liberality.

The Stone Table

The Stone Table

Having a rain day yesterday, and thus no work, I decided to get out my paint and brushes and see if I could set down on canvas one of the images in my head.

It’s not something I’ve done a lot of late, because it takes some planning to get the materials out from under my son Ethan’s bed while he’s not taking his nap, and he’s only stopped taking afternoon naps fairly recently. Also, my wife has a tendency to use my off days as a time to bustle around doing all the things she needs to do that are so much more complicated with children in tow. I don’t normally mind – with my work schedule I don’t see nearly enough of my children – but it does rather put a damper on painting.

So yesterday I decided, “you know what? I want to paint something”, and actually did it. Procrastinators of the world unite, some time tomorrow.

The result was “The Stone Table” here:

The Stone Table

I’ve been thinking about the Chronicles of Narnia quite a lot recently, and with Easter just passed it was perhaps inevitable that I should settle on the Narnian equivalent of the Easter story as my subject matter, but there’s more going on in my internal world than just an Easter picture.

In the Narnian world of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the Stone Table is a sort of megalithic monument, described as a great table of stone engraved with ancient writing. It’s the initial rendezvous point for Aslan’s company and the children, where the great Lion is encamped in his royal pavilion. More importantly, it’s where the Witch kills Aslan, the Narnian Christ-figure, and where he comes back to life in resurrected power.

It’s described as an ancient place even in the days of the coming of Aslan and the breaking of the Witch’s hundred-year winter, connected with the powerful and mysterious Deep Magic from the dawn of time:

“Have you forgotten the Deep Magic?”

“Let us suppose I have forgotten it,” replied Aslan. “Tell us of this Deep Magic.”

“Tell you?” the Witch shrieked. “Tell you what is written on this very Stone Table? Tell you what is carved in letters as deep as a spear is long on the fire stones of the secret hill? Tell you what is engraved on the sceptre of the Emperor-over-Sea?”

As I’ve grown older, the Stone Table has become associated not only with the Crucifixion but with the Law of Moses. Linguistically, it’s practically no distance at all from the tablets of stone that the Law was written on to a table of stone that the Deep Magic is written on.

Is the Deep Magic a Narnian incarnation of the Law, then?

Well, partly, perhaps. Certainly it looks symbolic of the “written code with its regulations that was against us and that stood opposed to us” (Colossians 2:14). The Law as our enemy, the cold power of legalism, the “letter” that “kills” as opposed to the “Spirit” that “gives life”.

Even, or more probably especially, as a follower of Christ, it’s dead easy to fall into legalism. Pun intended. Legalism is, after all, the essence of the religious spirit: the Rules we live by that tell us what God want from us and what we have to do to be a Good Christian. All of the “as a Chistian you shouldn’t…” things we add to the simple obedience of faith. Listen to that sort of music. Watch that sort of TV programme. Support that sort of political agenda.

In Colossians, St. Paul refers to these sorts of rules (“Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” Col2:20-21) as “the basic principles of this world”, the same word he uses in Galatians 4:9 to describe the “weak and miserable principles” which the Galatian church were in danger of turning back to. As I understand it, the Greek words translated “basic principles” are also translateable as “elemental spirits”, and this connection may reveal a second layer of symbolism in the Deep Magic and the Stone Table.

In the ancient world of Greek philosophy there were four elements: Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Everything that existed was thought to be a combination of these four substances, which were presided over by guiding spiritual forces – the “powers of nature” if you will. In the Stone Table we have Earth, obviously. The “fire stones of the secret hill” are connected with Fire. The very name of the Emperor-over-Sea reveals a connection with Water. That’s three out of four.

I have no idea whether this symbology is deliberate choice on Lewis’ part or simply me reading into it. On the face of it, this speech of the Witch’s is just ornamental detail, but it’s suggestive ornamental detail. And CS Lewis may have had more going on in his Narnia books than meets the eye, as Michael Ward persuasively argues in Planet Narnia. A connection between the Deep Magic and the elemental spirits of this world is not out of the question, and certainly the way St. Paul uses the word in Galatians and Colossians is more to do with legalistic rules of “righteousness” than with the ancient elements. The Law, both as it is written and as it is applied.

But the Deep Magic, like the Law of Moses, is not bad in itself. It is, as Aslan points out, the Emperor’s Magic. It’s written on the Emperor’s sceptre; impregnated into the very fabric of the Narnian creation at the dawn of time itself. As St. Paul said, “the Law is holy and the commandment is holy (Romans 7:12). How can a Law which Paul speaks of as good in one breath be described as our enemy in the next?

It’s because we are fallen. We’re sinful, under the thumb of selfish desires we cannot fully master, proud, conceited, greedy and wrathful. A good Law can have bad effects if the one it is applied to is bad. To rescue us from the bad effects of the Law required something fundamental, because the Law, like the Deep Magic, is woven into the very fabric of the created order.

The universe is moral. We crave justice and hate it when justice cannot be seen to be done because we recognise at root that injustice Should Not Be. But all of humanity’s efforts have never succeeded in rooting out our flawed natures and creating the perfect moral society. Fascism tried. Communism tried. The Religious Right look like they’re trying, with all of the attempts to legislate Christian morality.

But we can’t do it on our own. Even the best of us are flawed. “There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). The whole idea that we can make a paradise here on earth by our own efforts is nothing less than a reinvention of the ancient alchemical dream that we can make gold.

In Narnia, however, the Deep Magic is not the highest law. There is a Deeper Magic from before the dawn of time, of which the Witch is sublimely ignorant. Aslan’s sacrificial death on the Stone Table puts an end to the power of the written code and the elemental powers of legalism. As Aslan explains, “If she had known the Deeper Magic, she would have known that if a willing victim who had committed no treachery were killed in a traitor’s stead, then the Deep Magic would unravel, the Stone Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards”.

The cracking and breaking of the Table is no natural event, but part of Aslan’s resurrection and symbolic of the final end of the Witch’s power, just as the arrival of Father Christmas heralded the joy of the new Spring and the unravelling of her hundred-year winter.

If a stone table were to break naturally through the weathering of years or an earthquake, you would expect it to collapse in the middle. This is how it’s often portrayed. But the breaking of the Table is anything but natural, so I painted it the opposite way. Just as in the mundane world the Temple curtain had to be torn from top to bottom, so in the Narnian world the Table should buckle upwards as if from a blast out of the very ground itself.

“What is it?” Susan asked. “Is it Magic?”

“Yes!” said Aslan’s voice. “It is more Magic!”

The Deeper Magic from before the dawn of time. The grace and mercy of God that triumphs over judgement and rescues from death.

I’m quite pleased with how it came out. Both the reality and the picture.