Clive Staples Lewis, November 29th 1898 – November 22nd 1963

(Repost from last year, slightly adapted)

On this day fifty-three years ago, the great C.S. Lewis died.

Because of the assassination of President Kennedy on the same day, the death of Lewis has always been somewhat overshadowed. Far be it from me to downplay Kennedy and what he stood for, but for me, Lewis was by far the more influential man.

In the early 1990s I lent a United Church minister friend a copy of Lewis’ Mere Christianity; when he gave it back to me, he said, “Do you have any idea how much this man has influenced you?” Mere Christianity came along at just the right time for me; I was seventeen and had begun to feel the lack of a rigorous intellectual basis for my faith. In this book, Lewis gave me just that. I went on to read pretty well everything he had written, including the various editions of his letters which seem to me to contain some of the best common-sense spiritual direction I’ve ever read. I’ve parted company with Lewis on a few issues (pacifism, Conservative politics, the ordination of women), but for the most part I still consider him to be one of the most reliable guides available to a rigorous, full-orbed, common-sense Christianity.

Lewis was a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and, later, of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and in his professional career he taught English literature. Brought up in Ireland in a conventionally religious home, he became an atheist in his teens. Later, in his late twenties and early thirties, he gradually came back to Christianity (he told the story himself in his book Surprised by Joy) and went on to become a popular writer and speaker on Christian faith. He claimed for himself Richard Baxter’s phrase ‘Mere Christianity’; although he lived and died entirely content to be a member of the Church of England (‘neither especially high, nor especially low, nor especially anything else’, as he said in his introduction to Mere Christianity), he had no interest in interdenominational controversy, preferring to serve as an apologist for the things that most Christians have in common.

Nowadays evangelicals (especially in the United States) have claimed Lewis as a defender of a rigorous Christian orthodoxy (despite the fact that he did not believe in the inerrancy of the Bible and was an enthusiastic smoker and imbiber of alcoholic beverages). Likewise, Roman Catholics have sometimes pointed out that many fans of Lewis have gone on to convert to Roman Catholicism (something he himself never did, because he believed that Roman Catholicism itself had parted company on some issues with the faith of the primitive church), and have resorted to blaming his Irish Protestant background as somehow giving him a phobia about Catholicism that made it psychologically impossible for him to convert to Rome. Lewis himself, I believe, would not have approved of these attempts to press him into the service of advancing a particular Christian tradition or denomination. I believe we should take him at his word: he was an Anglican by conviction, but was most comfortable with the label ‘Christian’.

What about his books? Well, there are many of them! In his professional discipline of literary criticism he wrote several influential books, including The Allegory of Love (on the medieval allegorical love poem), The Discarded Image (an introduction to the world view of medieval and renaissance writers), An Experiment in Criticism (in which he examines what exactly it means to take pleasure from reading a book), A Preface to Paradise Lost (in which he introduces us to one of his favourite works of literature, John Milton’s famous poem Paradise Lost), and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama (this is only a selection of his works of literary criticism).

Turning to his more specifically ‘Christian’ works, in The Screwtape Letters Lewis gave us an imaginary series of letters from a senior to a junior demon on the art of temptation; along the way, as Lewis intended, we get some penetrating insights into practical, unpretentious, daily holiness. Miracles and The Problem of Pain are intellectual defences of Christian truth (the first examining the question of whether miracles are possible, the second dealing with the issue of evil and the goodness of God). Reflections on the Psalms is a series of meditations on the issues raised by the psalms (including an excellent chapter on the ‘cursing’ psalms), while Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer gives us accurate guidance on what a life of prayer is really all about. In the ‘Narnia’ stories and the Space Trilogy, Lewis baptizes our imagination, using the genre of fairy story and science fiction to present Christian truth in a fresh and compelling way. And in Mere Christianity he presents his case for the truth of Christianity and a good explanation of its central ideas.

These are just a few of his books; there are many websites that give exhaustive lists.

This website by Lewis’ publishers is of course focussed on trying to sell books – Lewis’ own books, collections of his writings published since his death, and many of the books that have been since written about him. Personally, I like Into the Wardrobe better; it isn’t trying to sell me anything, but includes a biography, a collection of papers, articles, and archives, and some excellent links.

Since his death Lewis has become almost a cult figure, especially in the U.S., and the number of books and articles about him continues to grow. He himself was uncomfortable with the trappings of fame, and I believe he would have been horrified with the growth of the C.S. Lewis ‘industry’ today. It seems to me that the best way to observe the  anniversary of his death is to go back to his books, read them again (or perhaps for the first time), ponder what he had to say, and pray that his work will lead us closer to Christ, as he would have wanted.

Rest in peace and rise in glory, Jack. And once again, thank you.

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Books I Read (or Re-Read) in 2015

In the back of my journal, I keep a little list of the books I read. I don’t do this as a kind of score-keeping exercise; more as an aid to reflection. Here’s the list for 2015, in the order in which they were read:

The Poems of Wilfred Owen
Rudy Wiebe: Come Back
John Grisham: Gray Mountain
John Grisham: The Litigators
John Clare: Poems (selected by Paul Farley)
Matt Garvin: Six Radical Decisions
Malcolm Gladwell: David and Goliath
Wendell Berry: That Distant Land
Bill Hybels: Too Busy Not to Pray
Kent Haruf: Plainsong
Kent Haruf: Eventide
Lesslie Newbigin: Proper Confidence
Rudy Wiebe: The Blue Mountains of China
John Goldingay: Exodus and Leviticus for Everyone
Guy Vanderhaeghe: The Last Crossing
Carrie LaSeur: The Home Place
Greg Ogden: Transforming Discipleship
Thomas King: Medicine River
Guy Vanderhaeghe: A Good Man
Bill Hull: The Disciple-Making Pastor
Wendell Berry: The Memory of Old Jack
N.T. Wright: How God Became King
Guy Vanderhaeghe: The Englishman’s Boy
Francis Spufford: Unapologetic
Scot McKnight: The King Jesus Gospel
Salman Rushdie: Haroun and the Sea of Stories
Marilynne Robinson: Gilead
Wendell Berry: A World Lost
Tom Wright: Simply Jesus
R.T. France: Mark (Doubleday Bible Commentary)
N.T. Wright: Simply Good News
Elizabeth Gaskell: Cranford
C.S. Lewis: Mere Christianity
O. Hallesby: Prayer
Wendell Berry: Hannah Coulter
Thomas Hardy: The Woodlanders
Elizabeth Gaskell: The Moorland Cottage
Michael Curry: Crazy Christians: A Call to Follow Jesus
Craig Johnson: A Cold Dish
Wendell Berry: Remembering
Hilary Mantel: Wolf Hall
Jack Nisbet: Sources of the River
John Goldingay: Numbers and Deuteronomy for Everyone
D’arcy Jenish: Epic Wanderer: David Thompson and the Mapping of the Canadian West
Craig Johnson: Death Without Company
Craig Johnson: Kindness Goes Unpunished
Francis S. Collins: The Language of God
William E. Moreau, Ed.: The Writings of David Thompson, Vol. 1: The Travels, 1850 Version.
Craig Johnson: Another Man’s Moccasins
C.S. Lewis: The Screwtape Letters
Ursula K. LeGuin: A Wizard of Earthsea
C.S. Lewis: Miracles
Paula Gooder: Heaven
C.S. Lewis: The Problem of Pain
Ursula K. LeGuin: The Tombs of Atuan
Sarah McLean: Pink is the New Black
Arthur Ransome: Swallows and Amazons
Vera Brittain: Testament of Youth
N.T. Wright: Luke for Everyone
C.J. Sansom: Lamentation
Harold Percy: Your Church Can Thrive
Dan Rubinstein: Born to Walk
Nick Baines: Why Wish You A Merry Christmas?
Stephen Cottrell: Walking Backwards to Christmas
St. Athanasius: On the Incarnation of the Word of God
John Grisham: The Rogue Lawyer
Adam Hamilton: Making Sense of the Bible
Wendell Berry: This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems

********

A few reflections.

First, this is a much longer list than the one I posted this time last year. I was disappointed in myself at how little I’d read last year, when I remembered what an avid reader I used to be. This year I’ve intentionally spent a lot less time surfing the web and reading blogs, and more time on reading books, both light and substantial. And I’ve enjoyed it.

Some of these were books I worked on for a while. The Writings of David Thompson, for instance, was one I worked on, on and off, for a couple of months, and so was the big fat Wendell Berry poetry book This Day.

I’ve discovered a few authors I’ve really enjoyed this year. Guy Vanderhaeghe’s trilogy about the old Canadian/American west was hugely enjoyable; I’ll look forward to reading anything new he comes out with. I read my first Salman Rushdie book and really liked it. I enjoyed Craig Johnson’s Longmire mysteries way more than the Netflix TV series based on them. And (how come it took me so long) I started reading Ursula K. LeGuin and I know I’ll go on to read a lot more of her books.

A couple of broadly ‘Christian’ books stood out for me. Adam Hamilton’s Making Sense of the Bible is one of the best introductory books I’ve ever read; he tells the story of how the Bible came about, discusses issues like biblical authority, ‘inerrancy’ etc., and then goes on to consider specific issues: creation and science, violence, homosexuality. Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic was a fresh way of approaching the whole issue of commending Christianity to others, not so much by intellectual argument as by reflecting on our emotional makeup as human beings. Ole Hallesby’s old classic Prayer was refreshing and inspiring, and again I found myself asking ‘How come I waited so long to read it?’

Finally, I’ve decided to slowly re-read my C.S. Lewis collection, and I made a good start this year. I hadn’t read Miracles or The Problem of Pain since the 1980s, and I remembered them as being a difficult read, so I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I didn’t find them anything like as hard as I had expected; I thoroughly enjoyed them, in fact.

What’s ahead? My good friend Daren Wride has written a book called DNA of a Christ-Follower; he was kind enough to ask my opinion of an earlier draft of the book, and I’m looking forward to reading the final text. I’ve also decided to read Dante’s Divine Comedy; I read the Inferno and half of the Purgatorio a few years ago, but then ran out of steam. I’m going to have another go at them. I’m looking forward to more Ursula LeGuin, more re-reading of C.S. Lewis, and some more poetry, too: I’ve got some volumes of Thomas Hardy, John Clare, Oscar Wilde, and John Keats in my pile. Also in the pile are Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and the 1541 French edition of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (quite a bit shorter than the final version), and Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ. And I’m sure that when I want an easy read I’ll read a few more of Craig Johnson’s Longmire mysteries!

That’s just the stuff I know about, but of course, there will be surprises – even surprisers that are already on my shelves. Like most readers, I’ve bought books I’ve left unread, for one reason or another. I know from long experience that at least once this year I’ll probably have the experience of taking one of those ‘undiscovered countries’ down from the shelf, starting to read it, and finding it unexpectedly good.

Happy reading in 2016, folks!

Clive Staples Lewis, November 29th 1898 – November 22nd 1963

(Repost from last year, slightly adapted)

On this day fifty-two years ago, the great C.S. Lewis died.

Because of the assassination of President Kennedy on the same day, the death of Lewis has always been somewhat overshadowed. Far be it from me to downplay Kennedy and what he stood for, but for me, Lewis was by far the more influential man.

In the early 1990s I lent a United Church minister friend a copy of Lewis’ Mere Christianity; when he gave it back to me, he said, “Do you have any idea how much this man has influenced you?” Mere Christianity came along at just the right time for me; I was seventeen and had begun to feel the lack of a rigorous intellectual basis for my faith. In this book, Lewis gave me just that. I went on to read pretty well everything he had written, including the various editions of his letters which seem to me to contain some of the best common-sense spiritual direction I’ve ever read. I’ve parted company with Lewis on a few issues (pacifism, Conservative politics, the ordination of women), but for the most part I still consider him to be one of the most reliable guides available to a rigorous, full-orbed, common-sense Christianity.

Lewis was a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and, later, of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and in his professional career he taught English literature. Brought up in Ireland in a conventionally religious home, he became an atheist in his teens. Later, in his late twenties and early thirties, he gradually came back to Christianity (he told the story himself in his book Surprised by Joy) and went on to become a popular writer and speaker on Christian faith. He claimed for himself Richard Baxter’s phrase ‘Mere Christianity’; although he lived and died entirely content to be a member of the Church of England (‘neither especially high, nor especially low, nor especially anything else’, as he said in his introduction to Mere Christianity), he had no interest in interdenominational controversy, preferring to serve as an apologist for the things that most Christians have in common.

Nowadays evangelicals (especially in the United States) have claimed Lewis as a defender of a rigorous Christian orthodoxy (despite the fact that he did not believe in the inerrancy of the Bible and was an enthusiastic smoker and imbiber of alcoholic beverages). Likewise, Roman Catholics have sometimes pointed out that many fans of Lewis have gone on to convert to Roman Catholicism (something he himself never did, because he believed that Roman Catholicism itself had parted company on some issues with the faith of the primitive church), and have resorted to blaming his Irish Protestant background as somehow giving him a phobia about Catholicism that made it psychologically impossible for him to convert to Rome. Lewis himself, I believe, would not have approved of these attempts to press him into the service of advancing a particular Christian tradition or denomination. I believe we should take him at his word: he was an Anglican by conviction, but was most comfortable with the label ‘Christian’.

What about his books? Well, there are many of them! In his professional discipline of literary criticism he wrote several influential books, including The Allegory of Love (on the medieval allegorical love poem), The Discarded Image (an introduction to the world view of medieval and renaissance writers), An Experiment in Criticism (in which he examines what exactly it means to take pleasure from reading a book), A Preface to Paradise Lost (in which he introduces us to one of his favourite works of literature, John Milton’s famous poem Paradise Lost), and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama (this is only a selection of his works of literary criticism).

Turning to his more specifically ‘Christian’ works, in The Screwtape Letters Lewis gave us an imaginary series of letters from a senior to a junior demon on the art of temptation; along the way, as Lewis intended, we get some penetrating insights into practical, unpretentious, daily holiness. Miracles and The Problem of Pain are intellectual defences of Christian truth (the first examining the question of whether miracles are possible, the second dealing with the issue of evil and the goodness of God). Reflections on the Psalms is a series of meditations on the issues raised by the psalms (including an excellent chapter on the ‘cursing’ psalms), while Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer gives us accurate guidance on what a life of prayer is really all about. In the ‘Narnia’ stories and the Space Trilogy, Lewis baptizes our imagination, using the genre of fairy story and science fiction to present Christian truth in a fresh and compelling way. And in Mere Christianity he presents his case for the truth of Christianity and a good explanation of its central ideas.

These are just a few of his books; there are many websites that give exhaustive lists.

This website by Lewis’ publishers is of course focussed on trying to sell books – Lewis’ own books, collections of his writings published since his death, and many of the books that have been since written about him. Personally, I like Into the Wardrobe better; it isn’t trying to sell me anything, but includes a biography, a collection of papers, articles, and archives, and some excellent links.

Since his death Lewis has become almost a cult figure, especially in the U.S., and the number of books and articles about him continues to grow. He himself was uncomfortable with the trappings of fame, and I believe he would have been horrified with the growth of the C.S. Lewis ‘industry’ today. It seems to me that the best way to observe the  anniversary of his death is to go back to his books, read them again (or perhaps for the first time), ponder what he had to say, and pray that his work will lead us closer to Christ, as he would have wanted.

Rest in peace and rise in glory, Jack. And thank you.

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Books I read (or re-read) in 2014

In the back of my journal, I keep a little list of the books I read. I don’t do this as a kind of score-keeping exercise; more as an aid to reflection. Here’s the list for 2014, in the order in which they were read:

Joanna Trollope: Sense and Sensibility
Stella Gibbons: Cold Comfort Farm
John D. Roth: Beliefs
Philip Yancey: The Question that Never Goes Away
Wendell Berry: Jayber Crow
Brian Zahnd: Beauty Will Save the World
Tom King: The Inconvenient Indian
Wendell Berry: A Place in Time
Val McDermid: Northanger Abbey
Arthur Kroeger: Hard Passage
Brian Zahnd: A Farewell to Mars
Wendell Berry: Andy Catlett: Early Travels
Wally Kroeker: An Introduction to the Russian Mennonites
Wendell Berry: The Mad Farmer Poems
Rudy Wiebe: Of This Earth
Michael Harris: The End of Absence
Richard Rohr: Breathing Under Water
Rowan Williams: Being Christian
Stephen Cherry: Beyond Busyness
Alexander McCall Smith: Emma
Walter Brueggemann: Sabbath as Resistance
Philip Yancey: Vanishing Grace
James Runcie: Sydney Chambers and the Shadow of Death
James Runcie: Sydney Chambers and the Perils of the Night
Bruce Cockburn: Rumours of Glory

A few reflections and explanations, in no particular order:

I’ve been following ‘the Jane Austen Project’, in which contemporary authors are writing modern retellings of Austen’s six classic novels. Of the three I’ve read so far, Joanna Trollope’s version of Sense and Sensibility was actually quite good. The other two, by Val McDermid and Alexander McCall Smith, were very disappointing.

I tend to have trusted authors, and I read everything they’ve written. Philip Yancey is definitely in that category, and so is Wendell Berry. Marci and I have gradually been working our way through all of Berry’s novels, and we’ve got a collection of his stories that we’re reading right now. Quietly, over the last couple of years, he has become my favourite author, and also one of my most trusted spiritual guides.

Marci and I read together a lot; I enjoy reading books aloud, and she enjoys having books read aloud to her. Both of us read individually too, but when we find an author we both like, we tend to read his or her books together. All the Wendell Berry books on this list were read together, as was Tom King’s Inconvenient Indian and Rudy Wiebe’s Of This Earth.

I continue to be quite interested in Mennonite/Anabaptist history and spirituality. I read a couple of books this years about the Russian Mennonite experience and the saga of their immigration into Western Canada. I also re-read John Roth’s Beliefs, which is a primer on Mennonite faith, along with Rudy Wiebe’s memoir of his ‘Mennonite Childhood in the Boreal Forest’ Of This Earth, and two books by the pacifist Pentecostal pastor (try saying that fast!) Brian Zahnd.

Best new discovery of the year: definitely Walter Brueggemann’s Sabbath as Resistance. Somehow I’ve managed to ignore Brueggemann up till now, but I am definitely going to read more of his books in 2015. Also, Marci and I watched the ‘Grantchester’ mysteries and this prompted me to read the two James Runcie story collections, featuring his fictional amateur sleuth, Canon Sydney Chambers. I thought they were great.

I ended the year with Bruce Cockburn’s autobiography, which I found surprisingly enjoyable, given that I’m not such a big Cockburn fan any more.

I note the almost complete absence of works of academic theology on this list. In my twenties I read a lot of that sort of thing, but nowadays I have very little patience for it. I like stories (real or fictional). I was surprised, however, to notice that I hadn’t read any complete books of poetry this year, as I quite enjoy poetry. I’ve dipped into a few; I just haven’t finished any.

I note that thirteen of the twenty-five books on this list were read on my Kindle.

I should also say, of course, that I read the Bible daily as well, mainly with Marci, although I may do another ‘read the Bible in a year’ project by myself in 2015. I last read the Bible all the way through in 2011, in the King James Version, to celebrate its 400th anniversary. I may read through the 2011 NIV this year, but I haven’t decided yet. When I do that, I don’t use any of the available reading plans; I simply start at the beginning and go straight through, reading for fifteen minutes a day. I find this works better than having a set number of chapters or pages per day.

So – into a new year of reading! My first book for 2015 is going to be Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath.

The Joy of Teaching Primary Sources

Excellent piece by Ben Myers:

For me, the most rewarding part of teaching is introducing my students to primary sources. Each of my classes involves a lecture period plus an hour of small-group tutorials in which the class works its way through a book that I have chosen. In the books that have come down to us from the past, we have access to Christian minds far more energetic and more accommodating than our own. It is a joy to find yourself in the presence of a mind that you cannot fully comprehend. This has always been one of the chief reasons for studying the humanities at all: to learn that the human spirit is larger and more interesting than one’s own poor spirit, or (this is the political benefit of studying the humanities) than the spirit of the age.

To read books from the past is also to encounter minds with their own prejudices, parochialisms, and blind spots. But students soon discover that they are able to discern these limitations and to address them. Such scholarly discernment is much more difficult (i.e. usually impossible) if one is reading contemporary authors, since in this case the blind spots of the reader and those of the author tend to be identical. (For more on this, see C. S. Lewis’ brilliantly perceptive introduction to Athanasius.) If students are given a book by Moltmann, they will simply absorb it; if they are given Augustine’s Confessions, they will be forced to argue with it. I have seen students walk away from my first-year theology class either infatuated with Augustine or infuriated with him; in both cases I am delighted to see that real learning had occurred. But when students read only contemporary authors – even if they are very good authors – something quite dangerous and enfeebling happens. The students come away feeling neither infatuated nor infuriated but only affirmed. Their own prejudices and parochialisms have been reinforced. Their blind spots have become even blinder.

Read the rest here.

A few years ago I read Augustine’s Confessions for the first time, and experienced exactly what Ben Myers talks about here. Previously I knew Augustine only second-hand, from other people’s summaries of his thought, and my Anabaptist reading had coloured my thinking about him. I saw Augustine as the first apologist for Christendom (fail!), one of the earliest defenders of a Christian just war position (fail!), the one who taught the rather strange view that babies are guilty of the sin of their forebears (and hence need to be baptized to wash away the stain of the original sin) (fail!). But I had not realized what a brilliant thinker Augustine actually was, or the depth of his spiritual insights into the human condition.

Reading the Confessions forced me to grapple with Augustine himself, not other people’s ideas about him, and I am grateful. I’ve had this experience with other old authors too – and not just Christians. Boethius’ The Consolations of Philosophy, Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Inferno, Plato’s The Last Days of Socrates, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, St. John Chrysostom’s On Wealth and Povertyand the writings of the Apostolic Fathers.

Reading Myer’s piece has reminded me of the importance of this sort of reading. I have a few other books on my shelves that I want to read or re-read: Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Son of God, Thomas Cranmer’s A Defence of the True and Catholick Doctrine of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of our Saviour Jesus Christ, Bernard of Clairvaux’s On the Love of God, Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (the shorter 1541 version, not the voluminous 1559 version, which I’ve tried and failed to finish!), St. Francis de Sales Introduction to the Devout Life, William Wilberforce’s Practical View, The Writings of Pilgram Marpeck, and Peter Riedemann’s Confession of Faith.

Which old authors have you read that have challenged and enriched your thinking?

When bad things happen

Adrian Plass is an old hero of mine. Here’s part of a letter from his website this month:AP

In the course of this month I’ve lost most of the use of my right hand because of a stroke, together with something akin to neuralgia, also connected with the stroke, which causes a continual, throbbing headache. It’s a long haul, and the future is uncertain, but medication and hard work are already beginning to show results. The thing I want to make clear, though, is that, however shitty things get, they will never be a measure of God’s love for me or those who are close to me.  Terrible things happen to Christians. They die in car crashes. They become paralysed. Businesses fail. Dreams plummet. Nightmares become reality. Our leader was crucified. If we can’t beef up our puny little theology by embracing and incorporating these inescapable facts we might as well give up our ridiculous faith and join the Ember Day Bryanites. They do coffee and biscuits. They’ll do.

Not for me. I’m in for the long haul, stroke or no stroke.

Yours, written with my left hand

Adrian 

Read the rest here (please do). And if you don’t know Adrian’s work, the best place to start is his bestseller, ‘The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass, aged 37 3/4‘, which manages to be both hilariously funny and deeply profound at the same time.

First, prayers are in order for Adrian, Bridget and their family.

Second – yes, it is often true of those of us who were raised in charismatic Christianity that we have an excellent theology of healing but a terrible theology of suffering.

Third, this from the Daily Office lectionary for today:

‘Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us’ (Romans 5:3-5 NIV 2011).

Carry on.

h/t David Keen

Happy 450th birthday, Will Shakspear

During his lifetime William Shakespeare spelled his last name in a variety of ways; I’m rather fond of ‘Shakspear’ myself.

Will Shakspear was born 450 years ago this year. He was baptized on April 26th 1564; the actual date of his birth is not known, but baptism at the age of three days would have been a fair assumption, hence the convention of celebrating his birthday on April 23rd (which, 52 years later, was the date of his death).

Personally I would have no problem calling Shakspear the greatest writer in the English language. His plays, of course, were meant to be seen, not read, and I’m sure millions of English schoolchildren, like me, have struggled with them as printed texts but been thrilled by them as they are brought alive on the stage. One of the things I’m proud of is that we gave our children the chance to see Shakspear live before they read him. It appears to have worked; they all seem to enjoy him.

Will Shakspear does not need my praise. I’m reminded of the story of a man who was walking through an art gallery making disparaging comments about the paintings. Finally the exasperated curator said, “Sir, the paintings are not on trial – you are!” By all the standards we possess, Shakspear was at least ‘a’ great writer – I would say, ‘the’ great writer, the one who formed our language, captured our imagination, and gave us a compelling vision, not of humanity as it should be, but of humanity as it actually is, in all its nobility and wickedness. And he did it with that deliciously outrageous sense of humour that has given us not only tragic characters like Lear and Macbeth, or villains like Richard III, or pedants like Polonius and Jaques, but also wonderful comic figures like Sir Toby Belch, or Sir John Falstaff, or Robin Goodfellow (otherwise known as Puck), or Nick Bottom with his donkey’s head.

Thank you, Master Shakspear. You did your job well, and we can all enjoy the benefits of it, if we want to. A very happy 450th birthday to you, sir.

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