Always Christmas, Never Winter?

Christianity in the Writings of Charles Dickens


2020 marks the 150th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ death and the 250th anniversary of William Wordsworth’s birth. The coincidence of these anniversaries has reminded me that I wrote Finals papers on both Dickens and Wordsworth when I was an undergraduate at Oxford thirty years ago. I’ve recently dug both papers out of my files and I find them less embarrassing than I feared they might be. Today I make bold to publish the Dickens essay, which I have lightly edited for flow (as the journalists say of their interview transcripts); the Wordsworth essay I’ll publish on this site later in the year. Hopefully, there is something here that may interest and/or inform readers about Dickens and his faith as expressed in his writings. And even if that isn’t the case, perhaps the paper will serve as an example of an early effort that helped shape an eventual career. To that extent, perhaps it will also serve as an object lesson in the importance of choosing with care what you write about when a student, for it may set your trajectory in all sorts of unforeseeable ways. I could not have guessed, when I wrote this exploration of fiction and faith back in 1990, that thirty years later I would be teaching imaginative apologetics, but so it has turned out and I am grateful. All I ask readers is to remember that the following exercise in literary and theological criticism had its origin “in my salad days when I was green in judgement” (to quote Queen Elizabeth II). I’d put certain things rather differently now . . . 

This essay explores the extent to which the writings of Charles Dickens might fairly be called Christian. I am not asking, “Was Dickens himself a Christian?” No one can say authoritatively what the state of another person’s soul may be, still less when that person is known primarily through his works of fiction and has been dead for a hundred and fifty years. Indeed, the very fact of Dickens’ having been a writer of fiction may throw one off the scent of his real faith. An author, however devout, is not providing a map of his spiritual state or a directory to his deepest convictions when he produces a novel; he may rather be covering up certain of his personal beliefs for the sake of the story in hand. To an author such a D.H. Lawrence, for instance, this covering up was an essential part of the writer’s art: “A theosophist cannot be a novelist, as a trumpet cannot be a regimental band. A theosophist, or a Christian, or a Holy Roller, may be contained in a novelist. But a novelist cannot put up a fence.”[1] Examining the extent to which Dickens did “put up a fence” for the sake of Christianity in his writings (and in his writings alone) is the subject of this paper.

At first glance, there would appear to be no fences at all in the works of Charles Dickens (except Fagin!), for what writer since Shakespeare has had a more generous, expansive, inclusive grasp of men and mankind than the one who flowered out of a poor boy in a blacking-factory? Like his own Mrs Nickleby, he was interested in anybody and everybody, regardless of whether they were pukka Christians or not. Everything and everyone was overwhelmed by his weed-like imagination (as George Orwell described it[2]). His self-forgetful immersion in his characters’ lives (and deaths) was total. Dickens attempted to feel the part of other men and women completely and threw himself into it, body and soul; indeed, it may even have contributed to his own death, because of the extreme histrionics with which he publicly recited the account of Nancy’s murder by Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist. Dickens was not, by temperament, a man who observed personal or psychological boundaries with particular care, and the same is true of his approach to religion in his writings.

On the other hand, he identified as a Christian, and, according to D.H. Lawrence, a Christian writer puts up a fence. In one sense, Lawrence is mistaken, because a Christian would claim to be vitally concerned with every aspect of human experience, including those aspects he believes to be in error, since the all-encompassing doctrines of creation and redemption exclude nothing: “all things hold together” in Christ (Col. 1:17). But in another sense, Lawrence may be right. Is it not a tenet of Christianity to be philosophically circumscribed, so as not to be “carried about with every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4, v. 14), and to remain “unspotted by the world” (James 1:26f)? Lawrence’s novelistic prairies should be beautifully unenclosed and windswept; but how can a Christian believe in that sort of Keatsian “negative capability” when “all the promises of God in [Christ] are yea” (2 Cor. 1, v. 20)? If a writer is to express a Christian vision of the world, however artistically and undogmatically, he must put up a fence of at least some kind, must he not? And though there might be unwelcome consequences, such as being charged, like George Herbert, with “loss of rime”,[3] it must still be done.

What precisely is the ideal modus operandi for a Christian novelist is not the concern of this essay, but insofar as Lawrence’s idea of the “fence” is pertinent, Dickens seems to have tried to straddle it, subscribing to Christianity firmly but circumscribing it loosely. His faith is simultaneously definite and undefined. Though his religious convictions are undeniably coloured by the Christian culture in which he lived, the exact doctrinal content of those convictions is hard to discern. Fences keep things in as well as out, and Dickens’ theological garden seems to be rather at the mercy of John Jarndyce’s east wind, blowing the fruit off the trees. Let us now turn to examine what Dickens’ works have to say about such Christian topics as the Bible, theological doctrine, the Church, churchmen, church-goers, sacred rituals, and, finally, Christ himself.

Dickens asserted a great love of the New Testament. In a letter to a clergyman, he declared, “There cannot be many men, I believe, who have a more humble veneration for the New Testament, or a more profound conviction of its all-sufficiency, than I have.”[4] This is not exactly a formal declaration of belief in the doctrine of sola scriptura, but it comes close and helps explain his aversion to the Catholic Church, for he thought its emphasis upon tradition and priestly authority insufficiently scriptural. He wanted to be free to read the New Testament and interpret it for himself, unimpeded by priestcraft. In his splendid Child’s History of England (splendid because it must surely have been the model for 1066 And All That), he signifies his opinion of the importance of such freedom:

There now arose at Wittenburg, in Germany, the great leader of the mighty change in England which is called The Reformation, and which set the people free from their slavery to the priests. This was a learned Doctor, named MARTIN LUTHER, who knew all about them, for he had been a priest, and even a monk, himself . . . [F]inding one day to his great surprise, that there really was a book called the New Testament which the priests did not allow to be read, and which contained truths that they suppressed, [he] began to be very vigorous against the whole body, from the Pope downward.[5]

Like Luther, Dickens was no closet supporter of the New Testament; he would have everyone know it, and desired that ministers should preach that and nothing else. In ‘Two Views of a Cheap Theatre’ he charged preachers with just this duty: “In the New Testament there is the most beautiful and affecting history conceivable by man, and there are the terse models for all prayer and for all preaching. As to the models, imitate them, Sunday preachers – else why are they there, consider? As to the history, tell it . . . You will never preach so well.”[6] The Reverend Mr Chadband, in Bleak House, receives similar advice to “move his person out of the light”.[7]

Dickens tried to practise what he preached in this respect. In The Life of Our Lord he re-presents the “beautiful and affecting” Gospel in narrative form. In ‘A Christmas Tree’ he gives a concise summary of the life of Christ (unfortunately omitting the Resurrection).[8] And in Dombey and Son he presents the following panegyric to the New Testament: “Harriet . . . read the eternal book for all the weary and heavy-laden; for all the wretched, fallen and neglected of this earth . . . read the ministry of Him who, through the round of human life, and all its hopes and griefs, from birth to death, from infancy to age, had sweet compassion for, and interest in, its every scene and stage, its every suffering and sorrow.”[9]

His reverence for the New Testament, however, was accompanied by a profound distaste for the Old Testament. “Half the misery and hypocrisy of the Christian world,” he wrote in 1858, “arises . . . from a stubborn determination to refuse the New Testament as a sufficient guide in itself, and to force the Old Testament into alliance with it.”[10] Dickens did not want a God who could be addressed as “the Lord of Hosts”, who was “mighty in battle” (Ps. 24:8). He preferred – if you will excuse the pun – a Lord of Hostesses, mighty in comfort: hostesses like Mrs Meagles, Mrs Garland, Mrs Maylie. He could derive these from his reading of the New Testament, but the Old he viewed as censorious, thundering and vengeful.

Christ himself, of course, did not fence off the Old Testament: he claimed to be the fulfilment of it (Matt. 5:17; Luke 24:27). St Paul, likewise, did not see his Jewish roots and the Hebrew scriptures as incompatible with his new-found faith in Christ, even as he brought the Gospel to the Gentiles (1 Tim. 3:16). But Dickens, like a modern-day Marcion, felt he knew better. His thinking is rather sloppy in this area. He knows that “Boanerges” means “sons of thunder” and so he names two of his less attractive religious characters Honeythunder and Boanerges Boiler. But he apparently forgets that “Boanerges” was the nick-name of Christ’s “beloved disciple”, John, and his brother James, not a label for thundering Old Testament prophets.

The same loose logic is found in Dickens’ treatment of the Murdstones in David Copperfield. David, returning from abroad, meets Mr Chillip who tells him “that Mr Murdstone sets up an image of himself, and calls it the Divine Nature”. Chillip adds, “I don’t find authority for Mr and Miss Murdstone in the New Testament”,[11] with which David heartily agrees. But does Dickens mean to suggest that there is authority for such behaviour in the Old Testament? What could be further from the spirit of the Pentateuch than the condoning of graven images? In Little Dorrit we read that Arthur Clennam had “no more real knowledge of the beneficent history of the New Testament, than if he had been bred among idolaters”,[12] the implication being, it would appear, that he had acquired (from his sour, life-denying mother) a true knowledge of the history of the Old Testament.

I have spent time on this matter because I think it helps present part of the solution to the much-discussed problem of Dickens’ sentimentality. His moralising over moribund, poverty-stricken, sweet-faced infants seems milky-and-watery because it is backed up by virtually no scriptural grist. Dickens likes to gesture vaguely in the direction of the Bible, but in a manner that is largely content-less. For instance, when it comes to the death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, we hear a great deal about “Heaven”, of Heaven’s goodness, Heaven’s kindness, and of much winging of flights, but solid Biblical imagery about either, say, the Promised Land or the New Jerusalem, is sorely lacking. Even worse is the situation with Paul Dombey, where we have to contend with the whispering waves and many a nimbussed head. Of the sea image in Dombey and Son, John Carey writes:

One trouble with this symbol is the disastrous effect it has on Dickens’ style. The religiosity, which can only survive in the absence of imaginative precision, encourages stilted archaisms like “as it was wont” and “withal”. The phrases are strung together in the hope of some approximation to transcendental effect, but whether the sea represents death or love or eternity or God is neither clear nor of much moment.[13]

I agree with Carey about the effect upon style, but not with the premise that religiosity can only survive in the absence of imaginative precision. Compare Dombey with the concreteness and precision of the Middle English poem, Pearl.  Obviously, the genres and periods are widely separated, but both deal with the death of an infant. Pearl achieves its effect successfully partly through maintaining the painful contrast between the grief-stricken narrator and the peaceful maiden, and partly through exploiting specific Biblical imagery such as “the pearl of great price” (Matt. 13:45-46), not to mention frequent references or allusions to the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard and to the Book of Revelation. Put beside the death of little Paul, Pearl looks assured, unembarrassed and intelligent, while Dickens’ attempt – as Carey indicates – seems unclear and consequently unimportant, leaving the reader cold. The surplus of authorial emotion chokes the fire and puts it out.

Dickens’ tendency toward dreamy, unsubstantiated transcendentalism occurs in many of the novels. When Bucket turns the light upon the infant in Tom-All-Alone’s, Mr Snagsby “is strangely reminded of another infant, encircled with light, that he has seen in pictures”.[14] “So what?” we may think. The link with Christ’s Nativity comes from nowhere and leads to nothing; it is simply a precious thought. To David Copperfield, the face of Agnes shines like “a Heavenly light” and moves him to exclaim, “Oh Agnes, oh my soul, so may thy face be by me when I close my life indeed; so may I, when realities are melting from me like the shadows which I now dismiss, still find thee near me, pointing upward.”[15] These words are meant to be taken as moving spiritual reflections on the part of the adult David, but they do not differ substantially from the thoughts of the young Paul Dombey, who “had much to think of, in association with a print that hung up in another place, where, in the centre of a wondering group, one figure that he knew, a figure with a light about it head – benignant, mild and merciful – stood pointing upward.”[16] The only difference is that, in the one, the person “pointing upward” is a desirable young woman and, in the other, it is the incarnate Son of God. That the language appropriate for Agnes Wickfield – “the real legless angel of Victorian romance”[17] – should be felt appropriate also for the Agnus Dei suggests a confusion of categories on Dickens’ part.

The lack of imaginative precision results from the fact that Dickens does not want, or is not able, to provide spiritual specificity – which is odd, considering his almost manic eye for detail in everything else. It is enough to cover Tom Pinch in “thees” and “thous” for him to be satisfied with an evocation of saintliness.[18] He hated Millais’ painting of Christ in the carpenter’s shop because it did not sufficiently etherealise its subject.[19] Vague is the preferred Dickensian vogue for anything religious. Though hyper-realistic to the point of surrealism in his other depictions, Dickens resorts to amateurish Impressionism when it comes to portraying Christian spiritual experience. Stephen Gill, in his article, ‘Allusion in Bleak House: A Narrative Device’ has investigated Dickens’ scriptural allusions in that novel.[20]  Some of them are merely imitations of the syntax of the King James Version and some trade off the use of “Verily”. Only four, in my opinion, are intended as specific Biblical references. Three of these are to things that any Englishman of Dickens’ time would have known about (the 23rd Psalm, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and the Lord’s Prayer), and the fourth, as Gill himself admits, is a burlesque. On every side, Dickens, though presenting Christian experience as something terribly valuable, cannot convincingly communicate that value.

Admittedly, deep spiritual experience is very hard to express; hence the apophatic tradition in theology. But there is also the cataphatic tradition, which we see exploited successfully by religious writers as diverse as Donne, Bunyan, and Hopkins. Dickens, however, falling between the two stools of the via negativa and the via positiva, resorts too quickly to “soft focus” in the hope that this will cover his inadequacy. He trusts that the dry ice from his smoke machine will pass for holy incense.

The difficulty of writing well about sacred subjects perhaps explains why Dickens takes that tack relatively rarely. He is readier with a joke. Perhaps intuiting his own inability to express ‘serious’ things in an imaginatively effective fashion, he more often turns to humour and satire. A born crowd-pleaser, Dickens will crack a joke wherever he can find one, even if it pokes fun at his own concerns such as class grievances[21] or his characters’ silly names.[22] And the rule holds good when it comes to matters religious. He is equally prepared to make comic mileage out of central New Testament doctrine. In Pickwick he has Mr Weller complain of the effect which the third chapter of John’s Gospel is having upon his wife: “She’s got hold o’ some inwention for grown up people being born again, Sammy; the new birth, I think they calls it. I should wery much like to see that system in haction, Sammy. I should wery much like to see your mother-in-law born again.”[23]

Such levity outraged sombre-minded churchmen of Dickens’ day. The Record complained: “His writings are of the most questionable tendency in point of morals, and when he touches on religion, he is often profane.”[24] The Eclectic Review warned Dickens against ridiculing “doctrines and expressions which do not originate with the extravagancies of enthusiasts, but are part and parcel of sacred Scripture.”[25] Dickens countered the criticism by claiming there was, in real life, no division between the enthusiast and the sacrosanct: the one purveyed the other. What he was really attacking via Mr Weller was not the doctrine of the new birth itself, but “Methodistical” parrotings about that doctrine. “I discountenance all obtrusive professions of and tradings in religion,” he wrote, “as one of the main causes why real Christianity has been retarded in this world.”[26]

Dickens had had a detestation of non-conformist preachers since childhood,[27] and, in preachers of the type epitomised by Stiggins, Chadband, and the Brothers Hawkyard and Gimblet, he had some of the softest targets he ever attacked. In order to pre-empt criticism from the faithful he tries to associate himself with Good Authority in his satire – for example, he says that Melchisedech Howler’s chapel is a “neat whitewashed edifice”[28] – but his outrage is delighted, not sorrowful like Christ’s animadversions on the Pharisees as “whited sepulchres” (Matt. 23:27). In an early sketch he undisguisedly enjoys labelling the Revd. Mortimer O’Sullivan as “Mr Somebody O’Something, a celebrated Catholic renegade and Protestant bigot”[29]; he relishes his simile when he complains about the Bible being slapped “like a slow lot at a sale”[30]; and he savours associating the Pope’s benediction with damp rain.[31] Christ’s criticism of the Pharisees was acerbic, but solemn (see the “Woes” in Luke 11:42ff), whereas Dickens uses his contemporary equivalents mostly as butts for broad humour.

Only occasionally does he level his barbs in a straightforward and sober manner. An example is his relatively temperate criticism of American evangelicalism: “Whenever religion is resorted to, as a strong drink, and as an escape from the dull monotonous round of home, those of its ministers who pepper the highest will be surest to please . . . It is so at home, and it is so abroad.”[32] The tone here is almost world-weary, not a mood often struck by Dickens.

More characteristic – and actually more effective as a critique – is the sparkling fun he has at the expense of the proponents of religious “Terewth!” (as Chadband pronounces it). For, truth to tell, Dickens is much more readable when he is being immoderate than when he is being realistic; his religious monsters are far more memorable than are his admirable pastors. Indeed, his ideal preachers and ministers are rather flat creations, partakers of that equable and benign temper which, being “immune from changing moods”, as Humphry House puts it, is devoid of that “which makes human beings interesting in themselves.”[33] They are usually intelligent, however. According to Norris Pope in his study Dickens and Charity, Dickens “decidedly resented being preached to by those whom he took to be his intellectual and cultural inferiors . . . [and] his social inclinations . . . drew him toward the Establishment.”[34] This perhaps accounts for the fact that the clergymen he paints favourably in his novels (Horace Crewler, Frank Milvey, Septimus Crisparkle) are all of the Established Church and presumably better-educated than their non-conformist counterparts. It also explains the rather amused, if not snobbish, attitude he strikes towards the preacher at the Little Bethel chapel in The Old Curiosity Shop who was “by trade a shoe-maker, and by calling a Divine”[35] – rather outside the spirit, one might say, of the carpenter, by calling Divine.

Dickens’ ideal minister is described for us in The Uncommercial Traveller.  Surprisingly, for once, he is not of the Church of England, but,

in respect of the large Christianity of his general tone; of his renunciation of all priestly authority; of his earnest and reiterated assurance to the people that the commonest among them could work out their own salvation if they would, by simply, lovingly and dutifully following Our Saviour . . . in these particulars, this gentlemen deserved all praise.[36]

This passage is very revealing. Notice Dickens’ approval of “large Christianity”. It was because his faith was “large” that he felt able to crack that joke about Sam Weller’s mother-in-law being born again. “That every man who seeks heaven must be born again in the good thoughts of his Maker, I sincerely believe,” Dickens once explained to an upset evangelical. “That it is expedient for every hound to say so in a certain snuffling form of words, to which he attaches no good meaning, I do not believe.”[37] Moreover, this passage from The Uncommercial Traveller reveals his dislike of sacerdotalism – no doubt  a spin-off from his anti-Romish attitudes, but somewhat inconvenient when it comes to the priesthood of Anglican ministers like Frank Milvey.[38] However, Dickens simply ignores the fact that Milvey is a clerk in holy orders, and the attributes which he commends in him (conscientiousness and usefulness) are merely what one would hope to find in any professional man and have no specific bearing upon an ordained, ecclesiastical vocation.

In The Uncommercial Traveller he describes another two worthy ministers (again with just a touch of condescension) whom he had met in real life. Their perfections consist largely in their neatly arranged papers and in their cheerful attitude at the prospect of burying scores of shipwrecked people.[39] The ideal Dickensian minister is a special creation, as is the ideal Dickensian Bible. Again, his approach to religious teachers and teaching is not fenced round in quite the way that one would expect of a Christian novelist.

But then, Dickens’ whole attitude to “the Church” is hardly what one would call orthodox. His view could more accurately be characterised as suspicious and faintly amused, and is well summed up in Wemmick’s words: “Hollo! Here’s a church! . . . Let’s have a wedding.”[40] His aversion to Catholicism has already been touched upon, and, to be sure, it was intense. He believed that the Roman Church was “hand in glove with tyranny and oppression”[41]; and, as might be expected from such a restless man with an eye for humbug and the ridiculous, he had no patience with its elaborate and solemn ceremony.[42] He paints Catholics sympathetically in Barnaby Rudge when his concern for the under-dog leads him to side against the persecuting Protestants of the Gordon Riots. But Barnaby Rudge is not a book about religious bigotry – it might just as well have been written about the Luddite Riots. Dickens makes no attempt to get inside the mind of Geoffrey Haredale, and the one Catholic metaphor in the book (“the long rosary of regrets”[43]) is the clumsiest thing I have seen in all his novels, unassisted as it is by any other understanding of Catholicism.

The Church of England was more amenable to his temperament in respect of ritual and ceremony, but even this he has difficulty in taking seriously. His piece in The Uncommercial Traveller entitled “City of London Churches” is an interesting insight into his thoughts about church-going. Again, he cannot resist a joke, this time against the Anglican art of campanology: “So many bells are ringing, when I stand undecided at a street corner, that every sheep in the ecclesiastical fold might be a bell-wether.”[44] In another writer this would be nothing more than a good pun. In Dickens, it is expressive of the spirit – part jocose, part jaundiced – in which he viewed the whole institution of Church and church-attendance. At one church he day-dreams about the names he finds written inside his prayer-book. At another, he is so bored that his mind reverts to an occasion many years before:

. . . when I, turned of eighteen, went with my Angelica to a City Church on account of a shower (by this special co-incidence that it was in Huggin-lane), and when I said to my Angelica, “Let the blessed event, Angelica, occur at no altar but this!” and when my Angelica consented that it should occur at no other – which it certainly never did, for it never occurred anywhere. And O, Angelica, what has become of you, this present Sunday morning when I can’t attend to the sermon; and, more difficult question than that, what has become of Me as I was when I sat by your side?[45]

Pure Betjeman – the church-setting, the nostalgia, and the love-sorrow! And his closing lament for the empty churches of London has more in common with Larkin’s ‘Church Going’ and its wondering description of the “accoutred frowsty barn”[46] than one would expect from a novelist purportedly concerned with the moral and spiritual health of the nation.

As with church-going, so with church occasions: sacred ceremonies are rarely treated with much respect by Dickens. The marriage of Florence Dombey to Wal’r is as casual and as comic as Wemmick’s to Miss Skiffins. The funeral of Tulkinghorn is an opportunity for plangent satire upon high society, not a moment of reflection upon the nature of mortality. Communion is never mentioned, if I mistake not, and baptism receives little serious comment. At Paul Dombey’s baptism, the clergyman appears like a ghost and Miss Tox keeps open her prayer-book at the Gunpowder Plot. Elsewhere, Dickens writes both of a curate who “got out of bed at half-past twelve o’clock one winter’s night, to half-baptise a washerwoman’s child in a slop-basin”[47] and of a certain Mr Nicodemus Dumps (another reference to John chapter 3) who hates children and becomes a god-father. But he does not seem especially scandalised when he mentions such indecencies or desecrations of holy ceremony. Indeed, he seems to be of the opinion that these rites are no longer sacred at all. When he asked Landor to be his second son’s god-father, he remarked that, even if the “realities had gone out of the ceremony”, it was still a way of bringing old friends together.[48] The only time when we find baptism seriously treated is as a running symbol in Our Mutual Friend. But here, as John Carey disposes of with a Podsnappish sweep of the pen, the idea is “muddled as well as vague.”[49] Dickens’ Christianity includes little respect for sacramental rites.

Perhaps one explanation for this lack of respect is to be found in Dickens’ generally unsympathetic view of church-goers. Christian congregations tend to come in for as much ridicule as their much-prized ceremonies. In George Silverman’s Explanation we learn how

The service closed with a hymn, in which the brothers unanimously roared, and the sisters unanimously shrieked at me, That I by wiles of worldly gain was mocked, and they on water of sweet love were rocked; that I with mammon struggled in the dark, while they were floating in a second ark.[50]

And in Sketches by Boz we discover that the baptising curate (mentioned above) drew the crowds to his church like a magician: “Pews in the immediate vicinity were at a premium”[51] etc, etc. Dickens does not have much regard for the ordinary church-goer and did not himself attend church regularly. He treats “church people” as curiosities: odd-balls like Mrs Sprodgkin, or like Miss Miff – “such a pew of a woman”[52], or like the church-wardens to whose “tender mercies” Oliver Twist was left.[53] Dedicated flocks he viewed with suspicion, and positive perspectives upon corporate worship and public fellowship are entirely lacking from his writings. Dickens’ Christianity includes little respect for “the Church Militant here on earth”.

It is to be expected, therefore, that his view of people who dedicate their lives to sacred matters should be similarly sceptical. On his American trip he saw the communal grave of some Trappist monks who had founded a convent in a lonely place and then all fallen victims to the climate: “in which lamentable fatality,” he cruelly adds, “few rational people will suppose, perhaps, that society experienced any very severe deprivation.”[54] But this disdain for monasticism – which aims to help society through prayer – is hardly consistent when one recalls how he will laud to the skies a character like Betty Higden, whose only solace is in prayer, or when contrasted with his views of Ruth Pinch whom he exalts for pouring out her pure heart “before that Being from whom such hearts and such affections come.”[55] He himself advised his youngest son in a letter: “Never abandon the wholesome practice of saying your . . . prayers, night and morning.  I have never abandoned it myself, and I know the comfort of it.”[56] The monks’ error, it would seem, was not their devotion to a life of prayer but the fact that they were monks.

His attitude to the Trappists was part of his general mistrust of formalised, strict and committed religion, which, he believed, threatened the freedom of the individual. Just as he hated the sort of schools typified by Dr. Blimber’s Academy, where boys were “forced” like plants, he hated all kinds of religious co-ordination or compulsion. In the same letter to his son, he wrote:

You will remember that you have never at home been harassed about religious observances, or mere formalities. I have always been anxious not to weary my children with such things, before they are old enough to form opinions respecting them.[57]

As a good liberal, Dickens was a great respecter of personal liberty of conscience. It was on this basis that he could justify his singular distaste for the Old Testament, the Church, church officials, church rites and fellow Christians, without throwing over Christianity altogether. It was what he believed in his own heart that mattered, nothing else and, as he made clear in “A Fly Leaf in a Life”, he had little patience with those who thought they had better become vicariously religious at his expense

Given Dickens’ range of beliefs and sympathies, it is surprising to find Chesterton saying that, “If ever there came among men what they call the Christianity of Christ, it was in the message of Dickens.”[58] I think Chesterton may have arrived at this verdict by over-enthusing about the Common Grace of Dickens’ humanitarianism. Dickens did indeed have an unswerving fascination for human life and natural lights, but was less actuated by “the Life that was life of men” (John 1:4). His attitude is akin to that of the men who fish Rogue Riderhood out of the river and who find that “the spark of life within him is curiously separable from himself now, and they have a deep interest in it, probably because it is life, and they are living and must die.”[59]

One would never find Dickens bewailing the fact that “all is vanity” (Ecc. 1:2), for he has no Swiftian disgust for human nature. To him, ordinary human nature is a trustworthy thing: “my faith in the People governed is, on the whole, illimitable.”[60]  His message in this regard is not the Christianity of Christ, but a suprisingly Smilesian self-help programme. “We can all do some good,” said David Copperfield, “if we will.”[61] He has no belief in a Fall that brings about a second nature of concupiscence, and little awareness that good intentions can lead to other destinations than Heaven. After his acrimonious separation from his wife, he happily suggested that the title for his new-planned magazine should be Household Harmony and did not perceive the incongruity until a flabbergasted Forster pointed it out. Again, he did not charge himself with any hypocrisy in baptising his son an Anglican while he himself was in his Unitarian phase. In many respects, he had the innocence of a child.

But, according to the New Testament, it is not enough to be simply innocent: we are to be “as wise as serpents” at the same time as being “as harmless as doves” (Matt. 10:16). For Dickens, only the second half of that verse had meaning, and it is this which accounts for the brainlessness of most of his benevolent characters, such as Mr Pickwick, Mr Brownlow, Abel Garland, and the Cheeryble brothers. The philanthropy of Mrs Jellyby and Mrs Pardiggle may, in contrast, be malign and interfering, but it shows more activity of the mind than the naive good nature of these genial old men. Of all Dickens’ cheery do-gooders, only John Jarndyce seems to have any respectable moral policy (or even any stated motivation), and we see that merely in his vague mouthing of “Forasmuch as she did it not unto the least of these . . .” (Matt. 25:40).[62] This policy, of course, he finds perfectly easy to act upon. There is no hint of any battle against a worse nature being fought. It falls to Edith Dombey, an otherwise flawed piece of characterisation, to voice awareness of the struggle involved in doing good. (George Silverman voices it too, to a certain extent, but he is not a major figure in the canon.) In general, Dickens’ mind does not enquire (as Trollope’s does) into the interior details of a person’s moral conflicts, let alone the possibility of perpetual moral paralysis. Anyone could do good, in principle,  and all the more easily if they had a reasonable standard of living.

In this sense, Dickens’ morality is emphatically this-worldly. When Forster sent extracts from the Life of Arnold, Dickens replied, “I respect and reverence his memory beyond all expression. I must have that book. Every sentence that you quote from it is the text-book of my faith”[63] – which somewhat undercuts his statements about the New Testament. Nothing symbolises the this-worldliness of that faith better than the noise issuing from Gabriel Varden’s workshop in Barnaby Rudge:

No man who hammered on at a dull monotonous duty could have brought forth such cheerful notes from the steel and iron; none but a chirping . . . fellow, who made the best of everything, and felt kindly towards everyone, could have done it . . . Tink, tink, tink – clear as a silver bell . . . It was the perfect embodiment of the still small voice.[64]

The divine voice that Elijah heard in the wilderness (1 Kings 19:9-18) is now audible in the tinkling anvil of the Protestant work ethic. And the way that Varden chirps as he tinks (“such cheerful notes”) puts one in mind of the cricket on the hearth and of Dickens’ inveterate love of Christmas. ‘A Christmas Carol’ is probably now his best-known work, which is apt, since his ideal world is a place where, even if it is not always Christmas, the best folk are always Christmassy in spirit. Always Christmassy and never wintry, to rephrase C.S. Lewis.[65] And I do not think it is going too far to say that the reason he loved Christmas so much was because he could use it to celebrate the notion of God the Father as Giver – a Divine Santa Claus, – who would make all His children feel warm and snug and cosy. He was less interested in God the Son as Gift, as his omission of the Resurrection from his summary of the Gospel (mentioned above) somewhat confirms.

From this perspective, the account of Christianity presented in his writings must be regarded as partial and incomplete. It is a “love thy neighbour” creed, with barely any reference to the first and greatest commandment: “love the Lord thy God” (Matt. 22:35-40). This is why Dickens seizes on the Good Samaritan so often (Luke 10:30-37). The Good Samaritan is the Biblical version of Father Christmas: he arrives out of the blue, sprinkles money, and solves all problems. Dickens was keen to defend him as a paragon of generosity and unselfishness. He first takes a bow in Hard Times:

Mr Gradgrind sat writing in the room with the deadly statistical clock, proving something no doubt – probably, in the main, that the Good Samaritan was a Bad Economist.[66]

He shows up again in Our Mutual Friend:

It is a remarkable Christian improvement, to have made a pursuing fury out of the Good Samaritan; but it was so in [Betty Higden’s] case, and it is a type of many, many, many.[67]

Between those two appearances, he is to be found in the pages of Martin Chuzzlewit:

She had a lean lank body, Mrs Todgers, but a well-conditioned soul within. Perhaps the Good Samaritan was lean and lank and found it hard to live. Who knows![68]

Who knows indeed! Not Dickens. The Parable tells us nothing about the Samaritan finding it hard to live, only that he had enough money to help a needy man by paying an innkeeper to look after him. If Dickens wanted to make such a point from the Bible, he would have done better to cite Christ himself, who had “nowhere to lay his head” (Matt. 8:20). But Dickens repeatedly shies away from specific reference to Christ himself, Christ’s Person, because that would take him onto dangerously theological ground.

One of the few occasions when he did touch upon such dangerous territory is in the closing exhortation to The Life of Our Lord, which runs:

REMEMBER!  It is Christianity TO DO GOOD always – even to those who do evil to us . . . If we do this and remember the life and lessons of our Lord Jesus Christ, and try to act up to them, we may confidently hope that God will forgive us our sins and mistakes, and enable us to live and die in Peace.[69]

Importantly, this was written for children, before whom, no doubt, he thought a respectful nod to the Lord would serve as an inspiriting example. But this passage is typical of Dickens’ religious outlook; like Mr Crimple’s leg, it is representative of the whole.[70] Theology has been displaced by morality. Dickens is promoting (no doubt unwittingly) Pelagianism or at least semi-Pelagianism all over again: there is no Original Sin to be atoned for by a redeemer; no heart of man deceitful above all things and desperately wicked (Jer. 17:9). Christianity is essentially do-goodery. We hear in this passage an echo of the chirpy self-satisfaction of Mark Tapley: “Virtue’s its own reward. So’s jollity.”[71]

That being said, Dickens’ advocacy of altruism, coupled with his genius for demotic polemic, has probably done more to further the humanitarian aspect of Christianity than the efforts of many a more conformist proponent of the Christian gospel. His depiction of selfless women such as Esther, Lizzie, and Amy, is, in my opinion, successful. They may bear a strong family likeness – as do the three Wise Men in the picture seen by Martin Chuzzlewit[72] – but at least they do not partake of the unbelievable purity of Rose Maylie and Dora Spenlow and Pet Meagles.

However, the delineation of attractive goodness is one of the most difficult tasks for a novelist; and Dickens is usually more successful when attacking selfishness than in promoting selflessness. For instance, in Martin Chuzzlewit, though he over-eulogises the Pinches and over-jollifies Mark, the book as a whole remains a powerful attack on “self, self, self”[73] through the more effective satire upon the egotism of Cherry, Merry, and, of course, Pecksniff.

Let us conclude with what I regard as the two strongest claims that can be put forward from Dickens’ writings that his Christianity did indeed have genuine, orthodox, theological content.

The first claim is minor, but telling. It comes from the mouth of Sleary in Hard Times, and it is paradoxically appropriate that it should be voiced by a loquacious character with impeded speech:

there ith a love in the world, not all thelf-intereth after all, but thomething very different . . . it hath a way of ith own of calculating or not calculating, whith thomehow . . . ith . . . hard to give a name to.[74]

Sleary’s lisp allows Dickens to say something serious without appearing to be too earnest, an important psychological move for many an Englishman, both then and now.

The second claim comes from the mouth of Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities. Here, in the character of Carton, Dickens finally overcomes his self-consciousness and straightforwardly depicts something of the genuine heart of the Christian faith. Carton willingly goes to the scaffold both to demonstrate his love for Lucie Manette and to save the life of her husband. In this he both lives out the teaching of Christ – “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13) – and imitates Christ’s own sacrificial example. Nowhere else in Dickens’ corpus is Christianity so openly invoked and enacted.

The girl who travels in the tumbril with Carton says to him: “But for you, dear stranger, I should not be so composed . . . nor should I have been able to raise my thoughts to Him who was put to death, that we might have hope and comfort here today.”[75] Thus, unobtrusively, Dickens has managed to contrive a distant echo of the words of the dying thief at the Crucifixion. And Carton’s association with Christ is continued by explicit reference to dominical utterance at the very moment of execution:

She goes next before him – is gone; the knitting-women count twenty-two.

“I am the Resurrection and the Life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die.”

The murmuring of many voices, the upturning of many faces, the pressing on of many footsteps in the outskirts of the crowd, so that it swells forward in a mass, like one great heave of water, all flashes away. Twenty-three.”[76]

Once, and once only, Dickens joins to his Christian love of fellow men the Christian command to love God and believe in His Son, Jesus Christ. All his other paeans to human nature look ludicrous when placed against the bloody backdrop of the French Revolution, the greatest testimony to man’s inhumanity that he would have known. But within it he has created one of the most memorable embodiments of Christian love ever written, one which elevates A Tale of Two Cities above all his other works.

But it is an exception. The rule is less exalted. As a rule, his is but a semi- or quasi-Christian morality, though delivered with a brilliance that puts much Christian writing to shame. He is like the exorcist of the Gospels whom the disciples rebuked, but of whom Christ said: “Forbid him not: for there is no one which shall do a miracle in my name, that can lightly speak evil of me” (Mark 9:39). The Eclectic Review admitted in 1857 that

Though we deeply regret his want of earnest homage for righteousness as distinct from mere good-nature, and think that from first to last he has been flagrantly unjust to religious people and religious institutions . . . our remembrance of [his early novels] is too clear and too bright to permit us to speak of their author’s genius as anything less than marvellous.[77]

This is about right, if a bit po-faced. And though Dickens’ Christ is too rosy-cheeked for the New Testament, he is not then Swinburne’s pale Galilean whose breath makes the world grow grey.[78] Dickens’ Christian imagination – or should we say his Christmassy imagination? – is at least a growing weed, not a festering lily. And in Sydney Carton it was better than a growing weed. It was like the flora of Nickleby’s Tim Linkinwater, “blossoming in old blacking-bottles.”[79]


[1]  D.H. Lawrence, ‘The Novel’ (1925), in Life With a Capital L: Essays chosen and introduced by Geoff Dyer (Penguin, 2019) 249-50.

[2] Orwell, George. ‘Charles Dickens’, Decline of the English Murder and Other Essays (Penguin, 1984) 130. Hereafter, Orwell.

[3] “I envie no mans nightingale or spring; / Nor let them punish me with losse of rime, / Who plainly say, My God, My King.” Herbert, George. The English Poems of George Herbert, ed. C.A. Patrides (Everyman, 1988) 75.

[4] Cited in House, Humphry. The Dickens World (Oxford, 1941) 46. Hereafter, House.

[5] Dickens, Charles. Master Humphrey’s Clock and A Child’s History of England (Oxford, 1987) 375.

[6] Dickens, Charles. The Uncommercial Traveller and Reprinted Pieces (Oxford, 1987) 38-9. Hereafter, UT.

[7] Dickens, Charles. Bleak House (Collins, 1981) 335. Hereafter, BH.

[8] Dickens, Charles. Christmas Stories (Oxford, 1987) 11. Hereafter, CS.

[9] Dickens, Charles. Dombey and Son (Collins, 1987) 780. Hereafter, D&S.

[10] The Letters of Charles Dickens, ed. His Sister-in-law and His Eldest Daughter (Chapman and Hall, 1880) Vol. II, 82. Cf. Johnson, 332.

[11] Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield (Collins, 1981) 785. Hereafter, DC.

[12] Dickens, Charles. Little Dorrit (Collins, 1977) 41.

[13] Carey, John. The Violent Effigy (Faber, 1979) 106. Hereafter, Carey.

[14] BH, 291.

[15] DC, 825.

[16] D&S, 202.

[17] Orwell, 139.

[18] E.g. MC, 386.

[19] See Carey, 58.

[20] Gill, Stephen C. ‘Allusion in Bleak House: A Narrative Device’, Nineteenth Century Fiction, Vol. 22, 1967-8.

[21] E.g., BH, 87. The joke is about a turkey in a poultry-yard having a class grievance – “(probably Christmas)”.

[22] Ibid, 613. “My name’s Bucket. Ain’t that a funny name?”

[23] Dickens, Charles. Pickwick Papers (Collins, 1981) 295.

[24] The Record, 3 June 1844, 4.

[25]The Eclectic Review, April 1837, 340f.

[26] Quoted in House, 131.

[27] See Johnson, 23.

[28] D&S, 807.

[29] Quoted in Pope, Norris. Dickens and Charity (Macmillan, 1978) 24. Hereafter, Pope.

[30] UT, 36.

[31] Dickens, Charles. American Notes & Pictures from Italy (Oxford, 1987) 405.

[32] Ibid, 56.

[33] House, 46.

[34] Pope, 41.

[35] Dickens, Charles. The Old Curiosity Shop (Collins, 1980) 285.

[36] UT, 37.

[37] Pope, 22.

[38] Chesterton has an interesting insight into Dickens’ narrow view of the priesthood, in connection with the latter’s account of the life of St. Dunstan. See Chesterton, G.K. Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens (Dent, London, 1911) 164. Hereafter, Chesterton.

[39] UT, 6f.

[40] Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations (Collins, 1982) 413.

[41] Johnson, 297.

[42] See Johnson, 293.

[43] Dickens, Charles. Barnaby Rudge (Collins, 1985) 428. Hereafter, BR.

[44] UT, 85.

[45] Ibid, 89.

[46] Larkin, Philip. The Less Deceived (Marvell Press, London, 1985).

[47] Dickens, Charles. Sketches by Boz (Oxford, 1987) 8. Hereafter, SBB.

[48] Carey, 57.

[49] Ibid, 109.

[50] UT, 745.

[51] SBB, 7.

[52] D&S, 760.

[53] Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist (Collins, 1981) 21.

[54] See Carey, 57. The same attitude can be seen in the above-quoted reference to Luther, who “had been a priest, and even a monk”!

[55] MC, 783.

[56] Quoted in Orwell, 138.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Chesterton, 240.

[59] Dickens, Charles. Our Mutual Friend (Collins, 1984), 424. Hereafter, OMF.

[60] Johnson, 567.

[61] See House, 111.

[62] BH, 201.

[63] House, 93.

[64] BR, 287.

[65] “Always winter and never Christmas”. Lewis, C.S. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Fount, 1982) 23.

[66] Quoted by Grant. Grant, Allan. A Preface to Dickens (Longman, 1986) 62.

[67] OMF, 481.

[68] MC, 788.

[69] Dickens, Charles. The Life of Our Lord (Morrison & Gibb, 1934) 127.

[70] Dickens, Charles. Martin Chuzzlewit (Collins, 1989) 423. Hereafter, MC.

[71] MC, 250.

[72] MC, 219: “Then he looked at the highly coloured scripture pieces on the walls, in little black frames like common shaving-glasses, and saw how the Wise Men (with a strong family likeness between them) worshipped at a pink manger; and how the Prodigal Son came home in red rags to a purple father, and already feasted his imagination on a sea-green calf.”

[73] MC, 506.

[74] Dickens, Charles. Hard Times (Collins, 1984) 280.

[75] Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities (Collins, 1980) 411.

[76] Ibid, 412f.

[77] The Electic Review, March 1857, 331-32.

[78] Swinburne, Algernon Charles. ‘Hymn to Proserpine’, Swinburne’s Collected Poetical Works (Heinemann, London, 1927) Vol. I, 69.

[79] Dickens, Charles. Nicholas Nickleby (Collins, 1979) 484.

Onions and Roses

The Onion, ‘America’s finest news source’, provides a satirical perspective on local, national, and international news. It was founded in 1988 as a weekly print publication and in 1996 began appearing online.

Why was it named The Onion? There are two explanations, according to Wikipedia. One version has it that the co-founders, Tim Keck and Chris Johnson, were at the time so poor that their diet consisted of raw onions on white bread. The other version claims the name is a mocking twist on a campus newsletter called The Union.

Perhaps both accounts are true. But what interests me more than the name’s origin is the aptness of the name itself. Calling a satirical newspaper The Onion is perfect. The word is short and snappy. It can be sketched easily for the masthead logo. Furthermore, an onion means precisely what it ought to mean for this particular purpose.

Onions have a strong and pervasive smell – just as the satire of The Onion is pungent, recognizable, and lingering.

Onions make you weep, but the tears are neither of joy nor sorrow – just as The Onion often leaves you unsure whether you’re laughing or crying.

Onions have multiple layers, and The Onion’s satire works on many levels at once, – mocking the self-importance of news outlets, the credulity of readers, and whatever topic is being skewered in any given article.

I submit that The Onion would not have achieved its great success if it had been called, say, The Rose. And I am moved to make this judgement by the example of C.S. Lewis who once remarked that the medieval love poem The Romance of the Rose would simply not have worked if it had been called The Romance of the Onion.

The Romance of the Rose is one of the greatest love poems of the Middle Ages. It is an allegorical dream vision, written in French, and published in the thirteenth century, – the first part authored by Guillaume de Lorris and the second part by Jean de Meun.

In his little-known academic article, ‘De Audiendis Poetis’ (published posthumously in 1966), Lewis comments that, “If roses did not smell sweet Guillaume de Lorris could never have used a rose to symbolize his heroine’s love. An onion would not do instead.”

Lewis knew that onions carry with them a number of peculiar qualities and associations, owing to their astringent odour, their flimsy, film-like, Russian-doll rings, and the Onionambiguous tears they provoke. Roses, on the other hand, are fragrant, soft, delicate. A lover is obviously going to compare his beloved to something tender, beautiful and gently unfolding, rather than to something acrid, plain, hard, and self-enclosed.

But though this is an obvious point, it is sometimes necessary to restate the obvious. As Dr Johnson declared: “Men more frequently require to be reminded than informed.” The world is charged with meanings that are given by the nature of the things themselves. Onions and roses have essential or substantive qualities that inhere in the very objects that they are. We can’t make onions and roses mean whatever we like.

Lewis followed Johnson in this regard: people need reminding. Roses have certain meanings that are simply given, – meanings that are not given by onions. The scent, the fragility, the mystery of a rose as it slowly discloses its heart, – these are its data. These inescapable, ineradicable real-life qualities of a rose must be recognized and respected. They should not be treated as if they were interchangeable with the qualities of a certain strongly-flavoured vegetable of the genus Allium.

This is common sense. That roses mean something different from onions is a fact handed down to us from time immemorial; it is part of the tradition of human perception which could not have been otherwise. And authors should not be ashamed of such a “stock response” (so Lewis argues in A Preface to Paradise Lost). On the contrary, authors should acknowledge the immutable identity of onions and roses and try to discern their intrinsic meanings as fully as possible. Just as scientists must not manipulate their data to come to some pre-arranged conclusion, so poets must respect the inherent qualities of things if they are to write wisely about reality and use symbols intelligently.

And, of course, this principle is not limited to onions and roses. In The Allegory of Love, Lewis invites his readers to try replacing the shepherds and swains of the pastoral tradition with policemen and tram-conductors. It cannot be done – or not without loss. There are certain responses to things which are required by reason. A rational interaction with the world rules out wilful or arbitrary or autonomous responses, but necessitates patient and attentive and inquisitive responses. In this way, meanings are not imposed upon reality but rather perceived within reality. This is the way of love, as opposed to the way of violence and objectification. It is the “law of love” that the poet Ruth Pitter said writers should observe, in a lecture she delivered at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, entitled ‘A Return to Poetic Law’.

“Law” sometimes implies unwelcome constraint, but the law of love is constrained by nothing save the need not to hate. As long as you don’t hate or scorn or belittle the thing you’re exploring, you can be as bold as you like in teasing out its suggestions, recognising its limits, exposing its (apparent) contradictions, following up its implications, delving into its origins, and so forth.

Take roses again. One need not only focus on the beauty and fragrance of the flower. One might also wish to observe, like George Herbert in his poem ‘Virtue’, that however lovely red-rose-1347966359HaBthe bloom, the rose’s root is “ever in its grave and thou must die”. Or one might point out, like Shakespeare (in Sonnet 35), that “roses have thorns and silver fountains mud”. Roses are mortal, their thorns can draw blood. Though the lively and lovely aspects of roses tend to be most focussed upon, they are not the only aspects. Poets don’t always have to make use of the most immediate meanings.

And even where poets focus on the beautiful bloom, that meaning is limited in its range of applications. For instance, Robert Burns compares his love to “a red, red rose / That’s newly sprung in June”, – a powerful image of female beauty. But what if his beloved’s beauty was of a different kind? William Wordsworth uses not the rose but the violet for the beauty he wishes to communicate. Wordsworth’s beautiful woman is compared to “a violet by a mossy stone / Half hidden from the eye”.

As Lewis writes in Studies in Words, these poets force us to “imagine two (very different) women. I see the rose-like, overpowering, midsummer sweetness of the one; the reticent, elusive freshness, the beauty easily overlooked in the other”. The nature of the woman in each case is made evident through the poet’s ability to discern the distinctive qualities of the flower under consideration. Things only signify something beyond themselves by first being themselves, and only the person who properly sees the thing sees its meaning.

To see the meaning of a thing is to make a metaphor. A metaphor is, literally, a “carrying over”. The poet sees in a flower a meaning that can be carried over to explicate or illustrate or ornament something about his beloved. Readers who understand the metaphor find their minds rewarded or enlarged; their responses to the world become more integrated, textured, pleasing. It is akin to getting the point of a joke.

Those poets with the greatest metaphor-making capacity are “the masters of meaning”, as Lewis writes in his essay ‘Bluspels and Flalansferes: A Semantic Nightmare’. One such poet was Dante (1265-1321), whose masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, moved and fascinated Lewis for years, prompting him to pen some of his most detailed and illuminating literary criticism. In ‘Dante’s Similes’, for example, he confesses:

I think Dante’s poetry, on the whole, the greatest of all the poetry I have read: yet when it is at its highest pitch of excellence, I hardly feel that Dante has very much to do. There is a curious feeling that the great poem is writing itself, or at most, that the tiny figure of the poet is merely giving the gentlest guiding touch, here and there, to energies which, for the most part, spontaneously group themselves and perform the delicate evolutions which make up the Comedy.

The greatest part of this greatest poem was its third canticle, the Paradiso. This section Lewis regarded as “the highest point that poetry has ever reached” (see his essay ‘Shelley, Dryden, and Mr Eliot’). As Dante’s pilgrim approaches paradise, he is granted a vision of heaven as a Mystic Rose – the “celestial rose” (‘Dante’s Similes’), the “eternal Rose” (‘Imagery in the Last Eleven Cantos of Dante’s Comedy’). Gustave Doré’s famous illustration to the Paradiso (see below) brings out the rosiness of that vision most beautifully.

Now notice Lewis’s supreme wit when he turns from literary criticism to his own creative work. In The Last Battle, the final volume of his Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis’s Paradiso_Canto_31characters also gain a vision of heaven – or ‘Aslan’s country’ as it is in that world. They go through the door of a stable, a small hut on a hill, but the interior of the stable turns out to be not dark and smelly and confined as they had expected, but light and fragrant and endlessly spacious. As they journey “further up and further in” to Aslan’s country, they find it contains a walled garden, situated on a great height, from which they can see the whole of Narnia spread out below. Lucy meets her old friend Mr Tumnus, the faun, and together they stand looking down over the wall at the glorious view beneath them. Then Lucy turns inward again, standing with her back to the wall and looks at the enclosed garden:

“I see,” she said at last, thoughtfully. “I see now. This garden is like the Stable. It is far bigger inside than it was outside.”

“Of course, Daughter of Eve,” said the Faun. “The farther up and the farther in you go, the bigger everything gets. The inside is larger than the outside.”

Lucy looked hard at the garden and saw that it was not really a garden at all but a whole world, with its own rivers and woods and sea and mountains. But they were not strange: she knew them all.

“I see,” she said. “This is still Narnia, and, more real and more beautiful than the Narnia down below, just as it was more real and more beautiful than the Narnia outside the Stable door! I see . . . world within world, Narnia within Narnia . . .”

“Yes,” said Mr Tumnus, “like an onion: except that as you go in and in, each circle is larger than the last.”

With this metaphor that he puts in the mouth of Mr Tumnus, Lewis pulls off one of his most daring and outrageously funny tricks. Heaven itself, which Dante had compared to a rose, Lewis compares to an onion, but an onion bigger on the inside than on the outside.

Great metaphor-maker that he was, Lewis sees that an onion bears a meaning not found in the rose. The onion’s rings reflect the geocentric medieval cosmos, that system of nestled spheres focussed either on God or on man, depending on your point of approach. From the physical perspective, man’s home, earth, was the centre of everything, and God’s home, the Empyrean, was on the circumference. But from the spiritual perspective, heaven was the heart of reality, and earth was merely peripheral, suburban. These competing perspectives Lewis unpacks in The Discarded Image:

How, we ask, can the Empyrean be the centre when it is not only on, but outside, the circumference of the whole universe? Because, as Dante was to say more clearly than anyone else, the spatial order is the opposite of the spiritual, and the material cosmos mirrors, hence reverses, the reality, so that what is truly the rim seems to us the hub.

Onions have circumferences, rims, hubs; they are globes, whereas roses are buds and blooms, – their petals don’t hold the circle. To that extent, onions are more like cosmological reality as the medievals understood it, and roses turn out to be metaphorically deficient.


The pre-Copernican cosmos

The repeated cry at the end of The Last Battle – “Further up and further in!” – is a paradoxical statement, reflecting both the spatial order and the spiritual order at once. Lewis’s pilgrims go “up” as if heaven were outside earth, but they simultaneously go “in” as if earth were outside heaven. Lewis, the great lover of the Comedy, sees where Dante’s imagery falls short. He ends Narnia not with a slavish repetition of the Mystic Rose, but with his own freshly-minted vision of a Mystic Onion.

C.S. Lewis, Jupiter and Christmas

November 29th is the anniversary of the birth of C.S. Lewis. In his university lectures on the medieval cosmos, Lewis would sometimes refer to his own birthday, saying: ‘Those born under Jupiter are apt to be cheerful and festive, loud-voiced and red-faced.’ He would then pause and add, ‘It is obvious under which planet I was born!’ – which always produced a laugh.

Lewis did not literally believe in astrology, but he certainly admired the poetical use to which astrological symbolism could be put. ‘The characters of the planets, as conceived by medieval astrology, seem to me to have a permanent value as spiritual symbols,’ he wrote in 1935. In this article I want to show something of what he thought about the stars and planets not only in connection with his own birthday and ‘days’ in general, but also with an immeasurably greater day, the Feast of Christmas, the nativity of Christ.

From time immemorial and right through into the late Middle Ages, there were only seven known planets. Uranus was not discovered till 1781, Neptune in 1845, and Pluto in 1930 (since 2006 it has been classified as a ‘dwarf planet’). A planet is literally a ‘wanderer’. The planets are the wandering stars that take their own individual paths across the sky. All the other celestial bodies are not planets, but stars, either fixed in their own unique positions, like the Pole Star, or forming fixed parts of larger constellations. The seven medieval planets included the Sun and the Moon; the other five were Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. The Earth was not considered ‘Planet’ Earth, but rather was thought to be the still centre of the turning universe.

Version 2

The planetary deities in the order of the days of the week.  Illustration from an edition of Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’.

It is from the seven medieval planets that we take the names of the days of the week. How Saturday, Sunday, and Monday relate to Saturn, the Sun, and the Moon is pretty obvious. The connection between the other four planets and the other four days of the week is slightly concealed from us who speak English because, for some odd reason lost in the mists of time, we use the Norse names for the relevant planetary deities rather than the Roman names. Thus Tuesday is named for Tiw or Tyr, the Norse equivalent of the Roman god, Mars (think of Martes in Spanish or Mardi in French). Wednesday is named for Woden, the Norse equivalent of the Roman Mercury (Miercoles / Mercredi). Thursday is named for Thor, the Norse equivalent of Jupiter or Jove (Jueves / Jeudi). And Friday is named for Freya or Frigg, the Norse equivalent of Venus (Viernes / Vendredi).

In the course of researching Lewis and the seven heavens for my book, Planet Narnia, I discovered a page of notes (see below) that he scribbled in the end-leaves of one of the volumes of his complete edition of Chaucer.  These notes, which Lewis made about Chaucer’s poem, ‘The Knight’s Tale’, from The Canterbury Tales, indicate the interest Lewis took in the poetic use that could be made of planetary symbolism.  Lewis admired the way Chaucer not only put the planetary characters into ‘The Knight’s Tale’ as actors in the drama, but also wove the relevant planetary influences into the plot. So, for example, the climax of ‘The Knight’s Tale’ happens on a Tuesday, the day of Mars, an appropriate ending for a story about martial knights.

lewis-on-chaucerLewis’s notes explain how it is that certain days of the week are connected to particular planets. He writes: ‘The first hour of every day belongs to the planet of the day: after that the others follow in downward order from him to the rest; then go on repeating.’

To understand what Lewis means by ‘downward order’, take a look at the diagram below, showing the seven heavens. The planet in the seventh heaven is Saturn. Below Saturn come Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, Venus, Mercury, and the Moon.cosmos

Lewis’s notes clarify why Monday follows Sunday in the order of the days of the week, even though the Moon and the Sun are not adjacent in the order of the planets. The Sun, being the eye and mind of the whole universe, was believed to rule the first hour of the first day of the week. After the Sun has laid claim, so to speak, to Sunday by ruling its first hour, it moves aside and allows Venus, the planet immediately underneath in the order of the planets, to rule the second hour of Sunday. Venus then makes way for Mercury to rule the third hour of Sunday, and Mercury then lets the Moon have a go. After the Moon has ruled the fourth hour, there are no planets lower down to take over, so the sequence starts again from the top, with Saturn ruling the fifth hour of Sunday, Jupiter ruling the sixth hour, and Mars ruling the seventh hour. At the eighth hour, it’s the Sun’s turn again. And, as the sequence continues, the Sun rules also the fifteenth hour and the twenty-second hour. With the day drawing to a close, the twenty-third hour of Sunday is ruled by Venus, the twenty-fourth hour by Mercury, and then Sunday’s twenty-fifth hour (as it were) is governed by the Moon, but since each day only has 24 hours, we find ourselves in a new day, whose first hour is Lunar, – hence we call it Moonday. And that, in a nutshell, is why Monday follows Sunday!


Jupiter enthroned in the heavens and the people on earth who exhibit the Jovial influence.  Woodcut by Hans Sebald Beham (1500-1550).

Back to the date of Lewis’s birthday and his being born under Jupiter: we are all familiar with the idea of being ‘born under’ a planet. We tend to think of this mostly in connection with the twelve houses or ‘signs’ of the zodiac, as they correspond (roughly) to the twelve months of the year. If you are born in late November, like C.S. Lewis, that puts you in the house of Sagittarius, whose sign is a centaur aiming a bow and arrow. The planet responsible for ‘ruling’ that zodiacal house, according to astrological tradition, is Jupiter.  So Lewis was indeed ‘born under’ Jupiter, as he said he was, at least as regards the month of his birth.

As for the day on which he was born: 29th November fell on a Tuesday in 1898, so he was born under Mars as well as under Jupiter. I do not know the hour in which he was born on that Tuesday, but one supposes it to have been a ‘jovial’ hour. Lewis was a hearty, rubicund man who had a love of Jupiter (or Jove) throughout his life. He inherited these qualities from his father, for Albert Lewis was ‘often the most jovial and companionable of parents’, according to Surprised by Joy.

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Ruth Pitter

Lewis once declared that, if he were to marry anyone, it would be the poet Ruth Pitter (this was before he was surprised by Joy Davidman!). He wrote to her in 1954 remarking on her name: ‘I always thought that the Pitters (dies-piter and all that) descended from Jove through Aeneas and Brute.’ The name Jupiter derives from dies-piter, which literally means ‘shining father’, as Lewis would have known from (among other sources) Edwyn Bevan’s Symbolism and Belief, a book he rated highly.

Brute, or Brut, the first king of Britain in mythical history, was the son of Aeneas Silvius, grandson of Ascanius and great-grandson of Aeneas of Troy. In another letter of 1954, Lewis offers a little more detail about this mythical British or Celtic line ‘that goes back through the Tudors to Cadwallader and thence to Arthur, Uther, Cassibelan, Lear, Lud, Brut, Aeneas, Jupiter.’ It is amusing to find Lewis, the self-styled Jovial man, toying with the idea of marrying into Jupiter’s family by taking Ruth Pitter as his wife. And it is intriguing to observe that Lewis gives to the heroine of That Hideous Strength, Jane Studdock, the surname ‘Tudor’ as her maiden name. Jane and her husband Mark (a suitably Martial moniker) are to become the parents of a son who will perpetuate Jupiter’s line in modern-day England.

Version 2How apt, incidentally, that Lewis’s favourite Oxford pub, the Eagle & Child, home to so many meetings of the Inklings, was named for an episode in the life of Zeus, the forerunner in Greek mythology of the Roman god, Jupiter. Zeus fell in love with the beautiful child, Ganymede, and sent an eagle to snatch him up to Mount Olympus where he could serve as his royal cup-bearer.

Those who knew C.S. Lewis have often noted his joviality, though not always with a clear recognition of the significance the term had for him in his personal lexicon. Paul Piehler remembers ‘a plumpish, red-faced Ulsterman with a confident, jovial Ulster rasp to his voice’. Peter Milward recalls ‘a burly, red-faced, jovial man’. John Lawlor relates how Lewis’s ‘determined and even aggressive joviality was all on the surface: within was a settled contentment’. Peter Bayley describes him as ‘Jove-like, imperious, certain, absolute’. Richard Ladborough says he was ‘frequently jovial’. W.R. Fryer speaks of his ‘jovial maleness’. Peter Philip opines that ‘his manner was jovial when he was in a good mood, which I must say was most of the time’. Pat Wallsgrove likens Lewis to ‘a jovial farmer’. Claude Rawson writes that his nickname, ‘Jack’, was ‘well suited to his jovial “beer and Beowulf” image’. Nevill Coghill recalls that, although Lewis was formidable, ‘this was softened by joviality’. Douglas Gresham remembers his step-father as ‘jovial’. The title of Chesterton’s novel, The Man Who Was Thursday, might have been coined as a description of C.S. Lewis, notwithstanding his Tuesday nativity!

Version 2But though so many people use the word ‘jovial’ of the man, only George Watson, his Cambridge colleague, explicitly recognizes how important the planetary derivation was for Lewis himself: ‘His own humour was sanguine, its presiding deity Jove, and . . . he knew that it was’ (Watson, Critical Essays on C.S. Lewis, 1992, p3). Peter Milward goes further, making a link to Lewis’s fiction. Having emphasized Lewis’s ‘sturdily jovial manner’, Milward notes an important connection: ‘he was indeed a . . . jovial man; and these qualities of his I later recognized . . . in his character of the kingly animal, Aslan.’

Aslan, Narnia’s Christ figure, brings us to Christmas and the birth of the infant Jesus. In early January 1953, Lewis wrote to Ruth Pitter remarking on what he had seen in the night-sky during the recent Christmas: ‘It was beautiful, on two or three successive nights about the Holy Time, to see Venus and Jove blazing at one another, once with the Moon right between them: Majesty and Love linked by Virginity – what could be more appropriate?’ Venus signifies love, of course, and the Moon virginity. Jupiter signifies majesty or kingliness and, as such, was a very suitable symbol for Christ, the ‘king of kings’ (Revelation 19:16).

In attempting to read the significance of the Christmas stars, Lewis was modeling himself on the magi, the wise men who followed the star from the east and who came to Herod asking, ‘Where is he that has been born King of the Jews?’ (Matthew 2:2). There is a right and proper use of astrology, if it leads to the worship of Christ. That the stars speak of Christ is only to be expected, for, in the words of Lewis’s favourite psalm, ‘The heavens are telling the glory of God’ (Psalm 19:1).

Lewis was alert to the royal and imperial implications of Christ’s nativity.  Writing about Psalm 110 in his only full-length work of scriptural commentary, Reflections on the Psalms (1958), Lewis notes that this psalm is appointed to be read on Christmas Day in the order of readings given by the Anglican Prayer Book. He remarks:

We may at first be surprised by this.  There is nothing in [Psalm 110] about peace and goodwill, nothing remotely suggestive of the stable at Bethlehem.  It seems to have been originally either a coronation ode for a new king, promising conquest and empire, or a poem addressed to some king on the eve of war, promising victory.  It is full of threats.  The “rod” of the king’s power is to go forth from Jerusalem, foreign kings are to be wounded, battle fields to be covered with carnage, skulls cracked.  The note is not “Peace and goodwill” but “Beware.  He’s coming”.  Two things attach it to Christ with an authority far beyond that of the Prayer Book.  The first of course is that He Himself did so; He is the “lord” whom “David” calls “my Lord”.  The second is the reference to Melchizedek.

Lewis then proceeds to give a detailed disquisition on Melchizedek, the numinous priest-king mentioned in the Book of Genesis (14:18-19). Melchizedek becomes, in Psalm 110, a spiritual ancestor of the Davidic king. The psalmist says of the king, ‘thou art a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek’, a description which is taken up in the New Testament in the Epistle to the Hebrews and applied repeatedly to Jesus Christ (Hebrews 5:6; 6:20; 7:11; 7:17; 7:21).

There is one interesting fact about Melchizedek that Lewis does not disclose in his Reflections on the Psalms, though he undoubtedly knew of it, and it provides another reason for regarding this Christmas psalm as Jovial in its symbolism: the Hebrew word Melchizedek means both ‘my king is righteousness’ and ‘my king is Jupiter’.  (For more details on this fascinating link, see the helpful article here.)

Jesus Christ, the king of kings and lord of lords, the divine Word by whom all things were made, spoke the planet Jupiter into being on the fourth day of creation (Genesis 1:14-19). Lewis in his commentary on the psalms is not, of course, arguing, or even suggesting, that Jesus was actually ‘born under Jupiter’, as he jokingly told his university lecture audiences that he himself had been. But from all that we have seen of his interest in the planets and his love of Jove in particular, I am sure he would have considered the idea highly appropriate.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Sanctuary

It’s the season of Lent, that time in the church year when Christians prepare for the incomparably great Easter Feast. The forty days of Lent, reflecting Christ’s forty days in the wilderness, are intended to be observed as a kind of askesis, a spiritual training and a moral challenge, undertaken in order to discipline our desires and strengthen our wills, subduing our unruly habits and showing us ‘the one thing needful’.

This Lenten boot-camp usually involves a temporary (and sometimes, for some people, even a permanent) giving up of things which are good in themselves, but not essential. By abstaining for a while from these good things, we exercise the muscles of detachment and clarify our vision.

In the two traditions I’m familiar with – Anglicanism and Catholicism, – and no doubt in other Christian traditions too, part of this preparatory activity is seen in certain small changes to the liturgy of public worship. For instance, the Gloria in excelsis Deo (‘Glory to God in the highest’), an ancient hymn of praise that Christians have sung since at least the fourth century, and which is usually recited every Sunday, is forgone during Lent. The word ‘alleluia’ is not used at the proclamation of the Gospel reading. Hymns with the word ‘alleluia’ aren’t sung. Flowers aren’t used to decorate the church.

Like Christ in the desert, we go through a barren period. We simplify our lives and forsake things that are good in themselves in order to check on our priorities, to ‘detox’ our spiritual system, to run down our batteries so they will hold the charge better when we charge them back up.

Now, all these reflections on Lent are meant by way of introducing the following account. I wish to relate something I saw recently, soon after the start of Lent, something that ranks as . . . well, you will see what I think it ranks as. It’s completely true. I haven’t changed or exaggerated it. Let me set the stage.

It occurred at the church I go to in Oxford, where I live. The church is dedicated to St Gregory and St Augustine, the ‘apostles to the English people’. It’s a church where J.R.R. Tolkien often worshipped, when he lived in north Oxford, and where his daughter, Priscilla Tolkien, still attends. It’s a small, uncluttered building, erected in 1911, a fine example of the Arts and Crafts movement in English architecture and design.

I was attending the 6.00p.m Vigil Mass for the second Sunday of Lent. (For those who aren’t familiar with Catholic-speak, ‘Vigil Mass’ means ‘Saturday evening service of Holy Communion’.) The date was 20th February 2016.

As I entered the church, I noticed a dog lying on the floor to one side of the aisle, by the back pew on the left. I was surprised. I had never seen a dog inside St Gregory’s before. In fact, I’m fairly sure I’ve never seen a dog inside any church anywhere at any time.

It was a golden Labrador Retriever (full-grown) and at first I thought it was a guide-dog for a blind person, but when I glanced at the lady who was obviously in charge of it, I could tell she wasn’t blind. For some reason, she’d just brought her dog inside the church. I’d not seen this lady before. She was short-ish and trim; about 55 years old, I supposed; quiet and unassuming, with a slightly nervous air, keeping herself to herself, – doing her best, perhaps, not to invite comments or complaints about her pet.

The dog seemed to be well-trained and well-behaved. There it was, lying down on the floor, quiet and contented. Though it had a collar round its neck, it wasn’t on a leash, indicating the extent to which the owner trusted the dog to behave itself, so there didn’t seem to be any reason for anyone to object. I did have to take a quarter step to the right to avoid stepping on the gently waving tail as I passed down the aisle; apart from that there was nothing at all about its presence that could be taken as offending against public-spirit.

I recalled how a cathedral tour-guide had once told me that, in the Middle Ages, dogs would quite often be taken to services, because they would lie across their owner’s feet, helping to keep them warm. And although this dog wasn’t serving as a feet-warmer, evidently its owner wanted or needed it there for some reason, and I assumed that she had probably got permission beforehand from the parish priest, Father John Saward. And if she hadn’t got permission, well, – it would be up to Father John to speak to her about it afterwards. So I said to myself, ‘Live and let live,’ and went and took my customary place in the front pew on the right.

The bell rang and the service began. Things started, as normal, with the Penitential Rite, and proceeded smoothly to the Liturgy of the Word. The dog was behaving itself, as far as I could tell. I mean, it was ten rows behind me, so it wasn’t in my eye-line, but I couldn’t hear it making any noises, so I assumed it was continuing to conduct itself with all due propriety.

I was serving as lector, and when I returned to my seat after doing the readings and leading the responsorial psalm, I glanced to the back of the church and saw that the dog was still lying down, innocently enough, in the aisle adjacent to the back pew.

During the Offertory, I got a further chance to check on the dog because I was responsible for taking up the two collections. This meant that I twice went to the back of the church as I was passing round the plate. Again, I had to take a little care to avoid stepping on its tail. Again, the dog continued to be perfectly well behaved.

Then there was the Liturgy of the Eucharist. When it came to Holy Communion, I went and knelt along with the first batch of people at the sanctuary rail, as my seat was in the front pew. I returned to my seat, where I again knelt and prayed, like I always do. Sometimes I pray with my eyes open and sometimes with my eyes shut. On this occasion, I kept my eyes open.

St Gregory’s is a small church, so I was only a yard and a half from the sanctuary, and one always gets a good view of other communicants as they come and go.

The last person to come and receive Communion was the dog-owning lady. The dog, somewhat surprisingly, decided to follow her up to the front and, while the owner knelt at the rail towards the left of center, the dog walked to the right, passing behind the backs of the other kneeling communicants, sniffing their shoes and legs and sometimes, rather embarrassingly, their bottoms. As dogs will. But it was quiet and unthreatening and no one took any notice of it. If it had been a Rottweiler or Great Dane, I daresay things would have been different. But everyone likes a Labrador Retriever, even if it sniffs where it oughtn’t. The whole scene was a classic case of the English being far too polite to suggest that anything impolite was going on.

Once the last batch of communicants were returning to their seats and the rail was mostly unoccupied, the dog saw that it could actually get through the rail and into the sanctuary. The rail is wooden and the uprights are widely spaced, so it was easy enough for the dog to pass through, without any squeezing. I could see the dog making up its mind to do this. It didn’t do so quickly, but actually rather hesitantly and thoughtfully.

The owner, who had just received Communion, was still kneeling as the dog began to make its move and as soon as she saw what he was about she tried to stop him. But he was already half way through and although she tried to grab his haunches she couldn’t halt him, let alone pull him back.  Once he was fully through the rail and inside the sanctuary, – that was when the extraordinary thing happened.

The dog very deliberately and devoutly knelt. I kid you not. He put his forepaws against the altar step, lowered his front forelegs and laid his chin flat on the red carpet. His hind legs were still standing upright, but his front legs were flat on the floor. He held this position for a few seconds. An agile and experienced acolyte could not have done an act of obeisance more humbly or unself-consciously.

This was remarkable enough, but what followed was just as striking. The dog then turned towards his left. Previously, he had been facing straight towards the altar. Now he turned so that he was sideways on, with his right side close to the riser of the altar step.

At this point, he stretched his full length on the carpet, his back legs out behind him, his chin again flat on the floor. He pressed himself downwards as flat as he could manage, and squirmed to and fro and round about, – an inch forward, an inch left, an inch back, an inch right. He was hugging the carpet, trying to pull himself, or push himself, into the ground. After he’d continued this prostration for about six or seven seconds, he just rolled on his back and basked.

The priest was standing on the altar step with his back to all this and didn’t see what was going on. It was happening silently, so there was no cause for him to turn round and watch. I had an uninterrupted view from where I was kneeling in the front pew. One of the two altar boys, who was occupied with handling the sacred vessels, observed it from the side of the sanctuary. The other altar boy, who was closer to the dog, stood looking down at this curious canine behaviour, utterly transfixed, like I was, and like the owner was.

Eventually, the boy opened the altar gates, at which point the dog’s owner, who was still on her knees, edged herself into the sanctuary, whispering ‘Come here, come out!’ But the dog was enjoying himself far too much to be going anywhere right away. He just lay there, first on his back, then on his side, till finally the owner was close enough to grab his collar and bodily drag him out. He wasn’t exactly ‘playing doggo’, but it was rather like that. She had to pull him forcibly towards her before he accepted that his time was up and he would have to get on his feet. Which he did. He followed his owner back to her seat, and that was the end of the curious incident.

What could account for her dog’s behavior? Imitation? Was the dog trying to mimic human actions? Very unlikely, I would suggest. Nobody had lain down flat on the floor and then rolled on their back as the dog had. Most people in the building, including the dog’s owner (the person whom the dog would be most likely to imitate), had simply knelt at the rail, yet the dog hadn’t copied that.

The simplest and most natural explanation, I think, is that the dog was, according to his lights, in his own doggy way, worshipping. For many Christians, not only Catholics, it is an article of faith that Jesus Christ is really, and not just metaphorically or symbolically, present in the bread and the wine (John 6:55; 1 Corinthians 10:16; etc). Catholics call the process by which this comes about transubstantiation; Lutherans call it consubstantiation; Christians of the Eastern churches, together with some Anglicans and Methodists, call it an objectively real presence but avoid technical explanations as to how it occurs; other Christians call it a presence which is there for those with the faith to perceive it, subjectively rather than objectively real. Yet in all these traditions, in different ways, the bread and the wine are not merely bread and wine. They somehow become more than themselves; they become channels of divine grace and even of divine presence. Never before had I seen evidence that animals could sense this too, but that’s what this dog’s behavior so strongly indicated. He was, after his own fashion, ‘discerning the body of the Lord’  (1 Corinthians 11:29).

Very properly, the dog didn’t stand on the altar step, let alone try to jump up on the altar in order to reach the Tabernacle, where the consecrated bread and wine are housed. He remained on the floor of the sanctuary, on a level with his owner. So he seemed to know his place, but nevertheless wanted to get as close to the Blessed Sacrament as he could and play his part in this corporate act of worship.

I spoke to the dog-owning lady after the end of the service, to praise her pet’s devoutness. She was embarrassed about the whole thing and more concerned to apologise for accidentally letting him into the sanctuary than to discuss the deeper significance of what had happened.

But to my mind we had witnessed an example of what the psalmist exhorts all creation to do: ‘Wild animals and all cattle, small creatures and flying birds . . . praise the name of the Lord!’ (Psalm 148: 10, 13); ‘Praise God in his sanctuary . . . Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!’ (Psalm 150:1, 6). It’s a theme taken up in the New Testament. Repeatedly, in the Book of Revelation we are told of the ‘living creatures’ – in Greek the word is zoon, a term that normally denotes animals rather than humans or angels, – who worship God night and day (Revelation. 4:8-9; 5:11-13, etc).

Had I caught a glimpse of that ideal, heavenly paean at a little church in north Oxford? Quite possibly so, I think. And, in an odd way, it struck me as being suitably Lenten in spirit, – an extraordinary thing that disturbed one’s normal routine. It made me forget the very good sermon that had been preached that day and pay attention instead to an ‘enacted sermon’, if I can call it that. I had been invited to hear the divine Word speaking in an unusually provocative manner, – not unlike what happened to Balaam when his donkey turned prophet (Numbers 22:21ff). It had jolted me out of conventional patterns of thought and caused me to consider the mystery of faith in a mode that was strange and challenging.

It was like something out of a medieval bestiary or like a Nativity scene where the ox and the ass reverently bow before the new-born Christ-child. The great creation hymn of St Francis of Assisi comes to mind:

Let all things their Creator bless

And worship Him in humbleness.

Alleluia, alleluia!

 Please forgive me for saying ‘Alleluia’ in Lent.


Faith, Hope and Poetry

When I tell people that I teach ‘Imaginative and Literary Apologetics’ I am often met with a non-plussed look.

Some people are simply unfamiliar with the term ‘Apologetics’. They presume it must have something to do with saying sorry for Christianity – when, of course, it actually means giving reasons why Christianity can be considered credible.

And those people who are familiar with the term ‘Apologetics’ often assume it has just one dimension: that it’s all about giving reasons for Christianity’s credibility by showing the rationality of its claims to truth. But ‘Apologetics’ means more than that, – and for good reason. To concentrate solely on the ‘truth claims’ of Christianity runs the risk of turning the faith into a mere system of thought, a set of reasonable propositions to which its adherents intellectually grant assent.

Of course, belief in Christianity does include assent to certain propositions, and those propositions need to be grappled with by our intellects working logically and rigorously. But Christianity is more than a set of propositions. It’s not just something that’s true, it’s also something that’s good and beautiful. There are moral and artistic dimensions to Christian faith as well as philosophical dimensions. If apologists are to show how Christianity is fully credible, it needs to be demonstrated as the answer to ethical needs and aesthetic desires as well as to intellectual enquiries.

These three dimensions – the ethical, the aesthetic, and the intellectual – can’t be treated in hermetically sealed compartments when it comes to Apologetics. Indeed, part of the credibility of the faith resides in the fact there is connection and overlap and interinanimation between these three areas; the Christian life is an organic and integral whole. However, for the sake of clarity we can usefully divide Apologetics into the rational, the moral, and the artistic. Continue reading

C.S. Lewis’s Wit

One of my favourite books is Frederick Buechner’s Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale.

The chapter on Comedy is especially good, I think. And especially needed. Both church-life and the world of theological study are far too po-faced.

As my contribution to injecting a little humour into this situation, I thought I would do a quick survey of C.S. Lewis’s shining wit.

Lewis once wrote: ‘The English take their “sense of humour” so seriously that a deficiency in this sense is almost the only deficiency at which they feel shame.’ It must be remembered, of course, that C.S. Lewis was Irish. If he’d had the great good fortune to be born English (as I, I humbly admit, did) he would have realised how grievous a thing it is to be humour-impaired.

To lack a sense of humour is to lack a divine attribute. Lewis himself observed, in a letter he wrote in 1956, that ‘there may be some humour [in the New Testament]’. He gives three possible examples:

Matthew 9:12 – “People who are well . . . don’t need doctors.”

Matthew 17:25 – ‘Jesus said, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their sons . . . or from others’?”’

Mark 10:30 – ‘Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake and the gospel’s, but he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands – ahem, with tribulations, – and in the world to come eternal life.’

If there are other examples of dominical humour, Lewis wonders whether he, as a Westerner, would be able to spot them. He wrote, ‘I’ve been much struck in conversation with a Jewess’ – he means his wife, Joy Davidman – ‘by the extent to which Jews see humour in the [scriptures] where we don’t. Humour varies so much from culture to culture.’

So don’t worry if you don’t find this blog-post funny. Humour varies so much from culture to culture . . .

Continue reading

A Pointless Article

“When you have to kill a man, it costs nothing to be polite.”

So wrote Winston Churchill, explaining the elaborate courtesy with which, on behalf of the British Government, he declared war on Japan in 1941.

Intellectual combat, like actual warfare, benefits from politeness. And in this respect, C.S. Lewis provides us with a notable example.

In his ripe, late work, An Experiment in Criticism (1961), Lewis guns down one of his Cambridge colleagues. But you will not learn the name of Lewis’s target from the pages of his book; he never mentions it. Why make your opponent’s fate worse by brandishing his identity before the public? Play the ball, not the man.

In An Experiment in Criticism Lewis sets out to discover what makes a book good. (We may usefully apply his findings to films and plays as well as books.) He concludes that what makes a book good is whether it “permits, invites, or even compels good reading”.

Very well. And what is good reading? Good reading is reading which does not use the book, but receives it.

Using a book (or a film, or a play) means interpreting it so that it serves some pre-existing agenda of your own, turning it to account, making it do things for you. Receiving a book is something quite different. Receiving means surrendering to it, allowing it to work whatever degree of authority it can attain, and paying respect to it on at least two levels, not just as ‘something said’ – that is, something with a social or political or religious message, – but also as ‘something made’ – that is, a work of art, a work of beauty, with its own internal logic or design or pattern. Continue reading

Lewis’s apologetics legacy

Screen Shot 2014-06-18 at 23.31.36On the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of C.S. Lewis’s death (21st November 2013), I had the privilege of chairing a panel discussion about his apologetics legacy at St Margaret’s, Westminster Abbey. It was part of a symposium entitled ‘Telling the Truth’, hosted by the Abbey’s Educational Institute. The panellists were novelist Jeanette Sears, theologian Judith Wolfe, philosopher William Lane Craig, and apologists Michael Ramsden and Peter S. Williams. Rounding off the occasion, Professor Don King, an expert in Lewis’s poetry, read his “Apologist’s Evening Prayer”.


C. S. Lewis as an Imaginative Apologist

Why was C.S. Lewis so successful as an apologist? Why does he continue to be so influential?

One of the reasons C. S. Lewis was successful as an apologist because he recognized the necessary place of the imagination in the defense of Christianity – and because he was able to draw on his work as a literary scholar and literary critic in his apologetics work. In these short interview podcasts, HBU Apologetics faculty Dr. Michael Ward and Dr. Holly Ordway explore some aspects of Lewis’s imaginative apologetics.

Dr. Holly Ordway discusses Lewis’s essay “Is Theology Poetry?”  and in another essay chat, Lewis’s famous essay “Sometimes Fairy Stories Say Best What’s to Be Said.”

And, Dr. Michael Ward talks about Lewis’s important contribution to English literature, in this interview about the Lewis Memorial in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey.


The Legacy of CS Lewis: Michael Ward on the Lewis Memorial in Westminster Abbey

On November 22, 2013, the 50th anniversary of his death, C.S. Lewis will join a 600-year-old fellowship of the greats: Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, London. He will join Chaucer, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Austen and other figures of worldwide literary and artistic fame – a significant recognition of Lewis’s contribution to English letters.

cs-lewis-1Dr Michael Ward, director of HBU’s C.S. Lewis Centre, is the lead organizer of the C.S. Lewis in Poets’ Corner Memorial. He was recently interviewed by Lancia Smith about this Memorial and why it’s important.

What is Lewis’s legacy? 

Michael Ward: “It’s too big and too varied to speak about in just a short answer.  You only need to look at the huge numbers of books and articles that are published about Lewis every year to see the size of it.  Some people dislike Lewis intensely.  Some people simply disagree with him.  But the vast majority of those who engage with him seriously, find him stimulating, helpful, even inspiring in a number of different ways, as a scholar, as a thinker, and as a writer.

“I think that, as time goes by, people are coming to realize that Lewis, whether you happen to agree with him or not, is a very substantial figure who needs to be reckoned with.  His combination of intellect, imagination, and faith is rare.  It’s influential.  At the very least, it’s interesting.  Continue reading

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