Thursday, August 25, 2005

Revisiting C.S. Lewis -- If God is good and all powerful, why do we suffer?


Back in 1979, when I first read C.S. Lewis' "The Problem of Pain," the paperback was published by Macmillan and sold for just $1.25. Today there are a number of softcover editions; a popular one, sold by HarperSanFrancisco, is $10.95. Just recently I've reread the book (my old paperback has crinkled with age, but then so have I) and can heartily recommend it as a cogent -- and surprising -- defense of Christianity.

Lewis' specific focus is the so-called "problem of evil": If God is good and all powerful, why is there pain? Wouldn't such a God eliminate it? So if pain is real -- and it is -- maybe God is not.

Lewis' defense is surprising because rather than arguing that God exists because of some supposed order of the universe, he acknowledges that the world of nature is decidedly ambiguous -- or even downright hostile -- to any such "proof." His book begins with a litany of misery: Pain in nature, pain in human relationships, the death of civilizations.

In his days as an atheist this was Lewis' own argument against a "wise and good Creator." Now, looking back, Lewis realizes that "the spectacle of the universe as revealed by experience can never have been the ground of religion: It must always have been something in spite of which religion, acquired from a different source, was held." In other words, no great religion has ever made, in its beginning, "an inference from the course of events in this world to the goodness and wisdom of the Creator."

That's a bit startling in our own time, especially with proponents of what is called Intelligent Design, such as William Dembski, maintaining that the natural world shows evidence of a Designer, and evolutionary biologists, such as Richard Dawkins, arguing that random changes over time mimic "design" and that therefore there is no Designer. Lewis would say both are off track.

Instead, Lewis traces the origin of religion to other factors: the numinous (the sense of awe at "something more" in the universe than just the material); morality; and, especially in Judaism, the revelation that the "something more" was also the guardian of morality, the "righteous Lord."

Finally, there is the historical Jesus, who "claimed to be, or to be the son of, or to be 'one with,' the Something which is at once the awful haunter of nature and the giver of the moral law. ... Only two views of this man are possible. Either he was a raving lunatic of an unusually abominable type, or else He was, and is, precisely what He said. There is no middle way. If the records make the first hypothesis unacceptable, you must submit to the second. And if you do that, all else that is claimed by Christians becomes credible -- that this Man, having been killed, was yet alive, and that His death, in some manner incomprehensible to human thought, has effected a real change in our relations to the 'awful' and 'righteous' Lord, and a change in our favour."

For Lewis the bottom line is this: "Christianity ... is not a system into which we have to fit the awkward fact of pain: It is itself one of the awkward facts which have to be fitted into any system we make. In a sense, it creates, rather than solves, the problem of pain, for pain would be no problem unless, side by side with our daily experience of this painful world, we had received what we think a good assurance that ultimate reality is righteous and loving."

Lewis goes on to consider hell ("that fierce imprisonment in the self" in which the doors are "locked on the inside") and heaven. His vision of heaven -- "All that you are, sins apart, is destined, if you will let God have His good way, to utter satisfaction" -- is one of the most extraordinary descriptions I've ever read.

"The world," he writes, "is a dance in which good, descending from God, is disturbed by evil arising from the creatures, and the resulting conflict is resolved by God's own assumption of the suffering nature which evil produces." In Christ's own suffering lies our redemption. In his resurrection lies the certainty that "every tear shall be wiped away." And we shall be fully ourselves at last.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2005 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

A God-haunted novel from retired Chico State professor, David A. Downes


Just a few moments ago, as I write this, I pulled an aging binder from a bookshelf and gazed once again at notes I had taken for a memorable course in "Great Books" at Chico State University.

The year was 1978 and I, yet a whelp, sat under the tutelage of one David Anthony Downes, professor of English literature. Nothing had prepared me for his intense love of the works we studied that semester, from Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" to Eliot's "The Waste Land." Though he must have taught them often before, I remember his passion for each work, his evident joy in exposition. I wanted to be a teacher like that.

Downes is also an acknowledged expert on the great Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. From an Anglican family he became a Roman Catholic priest; his poetry never reached the wider world until after his death and he felt himself a failure. One of his sonnets begins: "To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life / Among strangers." Downes has published scholarly works on Hopkins and today Downes' papers, from 1951-1996, reside in the Gerard Manley Hopkins collection at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash.

Now retired, Downes has taken to writing novels under the name of "David Anton." His latest, "The Angel In Wax: A Love Story" ($30.99 in hardcover from Xlibris Corporation) is something of an epistolary work. The story begins with Brother Cletus, a member of the Trappist community of monks in the fictional Monastery of St. Bernard "nestled in the valley looking out to the Sierra." A visitor to the guest house for a private retreat, a man named Dennis Dominic Leroy, has died suddenly on the monastery grounds and Cletus, the keeper of the garden, is asked to clean out Leroy's room.

What Cletus finds is "an unbound book. ... He thumbed through the first pages. They appeared to be a book of printed e-mails from a Net chat room called 'The Spirit's Voice.' Only the first pages were e-mails. Most of the remaining pages were handwritten 'real' letters. The first e-mail was from a person named Leila. It read: 'Dear Anyone: I have been chosen. I need a Gabriel to hear of my dark dream. Please, some starlight over my bed'."

Dennis Dominic Leroy answered. "You are a case. I am a writer of bad fiction. Right now I am looking for a model for a female character. You may fill the bill. You may not. Here's the deal. You write me and tell me about yourself ... and I will respond to what I hear. I will not be your counselor, your amateur shrink. I do not want to invade your privacy or your intimacy, yet I do want to hear your soul talking. Is this a contradiction? I hope not."

Leila Skerjanic had become a nun but had left the convent in her mid-30s.

As Cletus makes his way through the letter book, he is disturbed, shaken by fears that he ought not to be reading someone else's letters. As a 10-year-old boy he had idly looked into his mother's diary, only to discover one of those family secrets that forever alter one's life.

"The Angel In Wax" is a story within a story. As the letters from Leroy and Leila become more soul-revealing (Leila wonders if she has turned away from God's grace by leaving her vocation; Dennis responds that Leila is "grace in action and if you keep open to yourself and your self-search, you will come into contact with the Being that is"), Cletus finds confused feelings in his transgression.

Then Leila meets Father Michael Dolan, who awakens her to the sensuality of opera. The two have endless chaste discussions about Jesus' Incarnation and fallen humanity, and what it means to love as a celibate priest. Just as Cletus must decide whether to continue reading the letter book, so Father Dolan is faced with a decision of his own. Who would be his first love?

At the end, the two stories meet. Downes brings together Dolan and Cletus in the aftermath of Leila's untimely death, each in the midst of "a confusing sin that is full of grace." In eavesdropping, the reader, as well, becomes part of this story of higher love and human forgiveness.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2005 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Skyway poets, Joy Harold Helsing, featured Saturday at Chico's Art, Etc.


Patricia Wellingham-Jones of Los Molinos is not only a published poet but owns a small publishing house herself. Saturday PWJ Publishing will host a special reading and book signing featuring the "Skyway Poets." The event is free and open to the public, and is scheduled from 7—9 p.m. at Art, Etc., 122 W. Third St. in downtown Chico.

Invited authors include Patricia Wellingham-Jones, Sally Allen McNall, Audrey Small, Lara Gularte and Sylvia Rosen, along with Kathleen McPartland and featured poet Joy Harold Helsing. PWJ Publishing has printed a number of chapbooks from several of these authors; Wellingham-Jones' own broadside, "Mill Race Cafe" ($4.50 from Rattlesnake Press) contains "Three Queens," about poetry, and begins slyly as follows:

They hunch over a table

scattered with papers,

scratch out phrases,

toss away adjectives, crush


get rid of i-n-g endings.

Helsing herself is both funny and sly, and her new book of poems, "Confessions of the Hare and Other Old Tales" ($15 in paperback, which includes shipping and handling, from brings new twists to Greek myths, Biblical stories, Shakespeare, nursery rhymes and Don Quixote.

According to an author's note, Helsing earned a doctorate in clinical psychology, "won two top awards for poetry in the Atlantic Monthly college writing contests," and, after life in the Bay Area, now joins the Skyway Poets.

The layout of the poems in "Confessions" is open and inviting, and for each thematic section Helsing includes a list of characters with brief descriptions so each reader can partake of the fun. In the poem that gives its title to the book, the hare laments that "I could have won that race / without a doubt." But the hare was "young and foolish" and his running ability caused only resentment: "First came boos and jeers, / then clods of earth, rotten fruit, / even stones. I stopped, / not to go to sleep / (that's all a lie), / but to mourn the loss of friends." Then:

I let him pass to win the cheers

that I would never get

even if I won.

Now I run fast


when no one's there.

Several of the five poems in the section called "Testaments" exchange the humor of the other sections for serious theological questioning. Eve rebels and as she looks back there is an edge to her remembrance:

I miss those days. But they are


And I no longer blame the

snake. We are

as we were made to be. It was

the serpent's nature

to seduce, ours to yield. If God

made us to seek

and question, was it such a sin

temptation overcame us?

Of Cain, Eve sighs, "He should not / have harmed his brother. I do not excuse him. / But he too did as he was formed to do. ... / Though I worship Him / as He requires, obey as He commands, / I will never till my final breath forgive / this God."

Then Noah, with a similar complaint:

Were they all so bad? We

knew our neighbors

sinned, but children, newborn


Did they have to be destroyed?

Enough, enough. I must not


His judgment. ...

In the first section Greek myths are retold. Cassandra, the prophetess of Troy, laments that "There is no limit to the cruelty of the gods" who "remain impassive on their Olympian peak."

At other times the grand forces of the world seem not to be impassive at all. The sirens, those deadly mermaids whose song lures sailors to certain death, are here as well.

As the ship draws near, they

start to sing,

first one, then another, and


a bell-tone chorus weaving

tendrils of promise and mystery

into a net of seduction.

Helsing's own simple verse has something of that mystery and seduction. But there are romps here as well as in "Soliloquy, Hamlet, First Draft." The first lines read: "To exist, or not to exist: That is the conundrum." Then: "To die, to sleep; / To sleep: perchance to dream: aye, there's the abrasion. ..."

Helsing's poetry seems effortless, yet there is craft here, and a writer not too timid to wrestle with the gods and, in "Them," to warn that

Grown-ups are coming

with well-meaning schemes

to rob you of wonder

and trample your dreams --

hide, children, hide!

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2005 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

The boy, the number singing parrot and Sherlock Holmes


Berkeley novelist Michael Chabon, who won the Pulitzer Prize for "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay," returns with a superb Sherlock Holmes pastiche, "The Final Solution: A Story of Detection" ($16.95 in hardcover from Fourth Estate). Though the famous detective is referred to only as "the old man," it is clear that the game is still afoot and that the murderer will meet his match.

It is midsummer, 1944, wartime, and the old man, now 89, lives alone in the English countryside as a keeper of bees. But then he spots him: "A boy with a parrot on his shoulder was walking along the railway tracks." It was, Chabon writes, "a promising anomaly." In an effort to warn the boy of the danger of the electrified third rail the old man gets up. Chabon describes the event in telling detail.

"Even on a sultry afternoon like this one, when cold and damp did not trouble the hinges of his skeleton, it could be a lengthy undertaking, done properly, to rise from his chair, negotiate the shifting piles of ancient-bachelor clutter -- newspapers both cheap and of quality, trousers, bottles of salve and liver pills, learned annals and quarterlies, plates of crumbs -- that made treacherous the crossing of his parlor, and open his front door to the world."

The boy does not speak, but the parrot does. "'Zwei ens sieben funf vier sieben drei,'" the parrot said, in a soft, oddly breathy voice, with the slightest hint of a lisp. ... The old man blinked. The German numbers were so unexpected, literally so outlandish, that for a moment they registered only as a series of uncanny noises, savage avian utterances devoid of any sense."

The boy, it turns out, is named Linus Steinman, 9 years old, seemingly mute, a refugee from Nazi Germany with only the exotic African gray as his companion. He and the bird are living in a vicarage near the old man. Mr. Panicker, the vicar, tells the new lodger, Mr. Shane, that the boy "formed part of a small group of children, most of them Jewish, whose emigration to Britain was negotiated by Mr. Wilkes, the vicar of the English Church in Berlin."

Mr. Shane takes little interest in anything but the bird, Bruno. Later, when Shane is found murdered and the bird purloined, Reggie Panicker, the vicar's ne'er-do-well son, is arrested, charged with both crimes. When Detective Inspector Michael Bellows (whose grandfather had known the old man) and Detective Constable DC Quint show up at the old man's door, he takes little interest in the crime -- until the missing parrot is mentioned. "I am retired," the old man tells the two officials. "As indeed I have been since the 10th of August, 1914."

But still: "'I have considered the needs of my bees. And I believe that I can spare a few hours. Therefore I will assist you.' He held up a long, admonishing finger. 'To find the boy's parrot.' ... 'If we should encounter the actual murderer along the way, well, then it will be so much the better for you.'"

The vicar, Mr. Panicker, "was a faithless middle-aged minister, drunk and in flight from the ruin of his life." The old man finds himself in the company of the vicar as the two journey to London, past military checkpoints, to solve the crime. Mr. Panicker "felt a mounting sense ... that they were penetrating to the heart of some authentic mystery of London, or perhaps of life itself; that at last, in the company of this singular old gentleman whose command of mystery had at one time been spoken of as far away as Kerala, he might discover some elucidation of the heartbreaking clockwork of the world."

The title of the book, of course, has a double meaning, and while the case is solved and the parrot found (there is a chapter from Bruno's point of view), the central mystery of the numbers sung by the bird -- are they the key to a Swiss bank account? A secret German code? -- reminds the reader that though the existence of detective stories speaks to some measure of order and justice in the world, those mysterious numbers speak of a disorder and injustice in the world, "devoid of any sense," that Sherlock Holmes could never fathom.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2005 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.