Shocked by Augustine’s Confessions

Lately I’ve had the leisure to do some more quality reading, as I’ve been laid up with an injury, and I’ve found myself facing Augustine’s Confessions without an excuse. So I dove into it. And I was quite shocked—not by any of his confessions (so far), but how readable it is. You always imagine classics to be quite unreadable, which doesn’t really make any sense, because how could anything become a classic unless people read it? But anyway…

The best thing about the first few chapters (and I’ve only read the first few chapters so far) is all of Augustine’s questions. Instead of doing what most books do, which is pose a question (Why does a good God allow evil? etc.) and then answer it, Augustine just poses questions. Each chapter is just a block of questions directed towards God, and Augustine doesn’t even pretend he has answers to most of them. If he has part of an answer, or a thought about the answer, he’ll say it, but it’s not from a position of authority. His bits of answers are not presented as definitive. He just lets his mind go wild with wonder over God.

I’d give a few examples, but to baldly state the questions in my own words destroys his beautiful wording of them. I’ll just say one or two—for example, haven’t you ever wondered whether you have to know God first before you cry out to him, or if you can cry out to him in order to know him? And haven’t you ever wondered how a God who’s outside time, and created time, experiences time?

The unexpected thing about this is Augustine is such a revered figure in the church. He’s more or less the ancestor of most of the churches that exist. So much of Christian theology has roots that go back to his writings. So I expected him to present himself as an expert.

And it was refreshing because I haven’t read a book that admitted it didn’t have the answers for a long time. Most often people write books because they do think they have the answers. Or they write because they think people need the answers, so they cobble together some kind of explanation. They know their book won’t attract our precious divided attention if they don’t make bold claims.  Augustine shocked me because he’s not presenting himself as the pattern the church after him should follow, even though the church does. (At least, he doesn’t present that way in the first part of The Confessions.) If anyone has a right to make bold claims, it would be Augustine, of all writers.

The second really cool thing about The Confessions is that, unlike if I was the one asking the questions, Augustine is able to ask them without a trace of cynicism. He doesn’t resent God for not providing answers to them. Somehow Augustine is able to put down all his wonderment with the deepest humility, and in a fever of steadfast love. He’s asking because he loves God. He wonders because a person is obviously interested in the things they love.

I can only hope I present a similar attitude one day.

I’ve only just started The Confessions, so I might have a few different thoughts once I’ve gotten farther in I’m only on Book I, Chapter 7, so I’m sure you could easily catch up with me before I come up with anything more to say.

If someone had wanted me to read The Confessions before now (and I don’t get the feeling anyone really did, as it was rarely on recommended reading lists), they should not have described it as Augustine’s autobiography, or however else people describe the book. They should’ve said, “Here’s a guy who lived a couple thousand years ago, who has a mind that works just like yours.” It’s crazy to reach across the centuries and find a thought pattern that feels familiar.

And as for the unanswered questions? This is what Augustine says about them:

“Let [people] ask what it means, and be glad to ask: but they may content themselves with the question alone. For it is better for them to find you, God, and leave the question unanswered than to find the answer without finding you.”

 

 

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Is Out of the Silent Planet a Christian Classic?

Is Out of the Silent Planet a Christian classic? Its author, C.S. Lewis is certainly well-known as a popular Christian writer, but his ‘Space Trilogy’—of which Out of the Silent Planet is the first—is not mentioned as often as The Chronicles of Narnia, or even several of his nonfiction works. Is the book neglected because its quality is considered inferior to The Chronicles? Is its message too dated? Or do some of its messages, despite being delivered by a Christian author, make Christians uncomfortable?

Or perhaps it’s mere happenstance that this work is not as well-known?

I already reviewed Out of the Silent Planet on my main blog, harmamaesmit.com. But as I want to give this section of my web presence a stronger emphasis on the Christian writings out there, I thought I’d address a few of my thoughts on the Christian messages in C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet here. If you’re interested in the original review, you can read it here.

So, it is too challenging, too dated, or inferior quality? Let’s dive in and look.

Too Challenging?

How often do Christian authors tackle concepts like what ‘sinless’ creation might be like, what a pre-fall society might be like, or what might be the religious beliefs of alien peoples? No, if you briefly glance through the racks of Christian fiction today, you’ll find a lot of thoughts on the ‘moment of conversion,’ and how people get to that point in their lives. You might possibly see stories addressing how Christians live through difficult circumstances. You’ll see a lot of focus on romantic relationships, and a brief treatment of how Christianity views such relationships. But deep theological concepts, presented fictionally? No, not very common.

Of course, to present ‘sinless’ creatures is incredibly risky. Any author is, of course, sinful—so likely anything anyone writes would be skewed and inaccurate in some way. However, does this mean there is no point to be made about sinlessness, or pre-fall creation? It’s a challenge for only the best writers to take on, but Out of the Silent Planet proves that such an experiment can teach us something. It can reveal our own arrogance and sense of superiority in a surprising and powerful way.

I sincerely hope this not the main reason this book is overlooked. If so, it points to a towering problem in the modern world of Christian fiction in general—an unwillingness to tackle big idea and work out ALL of our faith with fear and trembling.

Too Dated? Its Critique of Modernism and Why This is Still Relevant

The second reason might be that its strongest theme springs from the context of the time period it was written in, almost to the point that it is ‘a product of its time.’ The theme—that cold, objective scientific study cannot describe the full joy, beauty and thrill of creation, and can even lead to outright blindness to joy, beauty and thrills if it’s too strictly adhered to—is critiquing modernism. It’s directly addressing the modernist idea that science would discover everything about the world and solve all of humanity’s problems. This impulse is still around today, but it was even stronger in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They were very optimistic about the benefits solid objective study would bring humanity. But society today in general is more cynical and more postmodernist, and it’s no wonder, seeing how some scientific products (the atom bomb, for example) were not all clearly benefits to humanity.

In other words, to argue against modernist optimism hardly seems necessary, as our culture whole-heartedly agrees with cynicism.

C.S. Lewis ably critiques extreme forms of modernism here without anticipating the ways this philosophy would morph into postmodernism. It doesn’t even begin to consider the postmodernist idea that you may see space as cold and empty, whereas I may see it as full of light and life, and each of these observations depends strongly on the perspective we ourselves come from. I am not saying that C.S. Lewis should have anticipated the next challenge to the Christian worldview, only that in reading Out of the Silent Planet today, the worldview he argues against may come off as quaint and not a threat.

And really, a story arguing against the dangers of a specific philosophy can come across as less universal than a story illustrating the message of salvation (like The Chronicles), especially as many readers may not know much about specific philosophies in the first place. So perhaps it truly is a bit dated?

I’d argue, in fact, that it is important in order to understand what a threat these sorts of ideas were, and to bolster our own worldviews by working through these ideas because—well, many people who believe in modernism are still around, and the heirs of the ideas themselves still influence our society’s thoughts. How often do you hear the media advocating colonizing other planets? Saving humanity by moving away from our mess and starting over elsewhere? We still talk about these things!

Lewis’s unique contribution is to point out that we can’t just see the rest of the universe as ‘ours’ to take over as we wish. Nowadays it’s very fashionable to point out that when Europeans took that approach to other continents, they absolutely disregarded whatever existed there before their arrival as irrelevant, nonexistent (‘we discovered a country that already had people on it so it clearly must’ve been discovered before we arrived!’). It’s quite fashionable to rightly judge this colonialist attitude—other lands did not exist merely for Europeans to exploit. But when it comes to space, we all seem to turn into colonialists again.

Now, we don’t usually consider the rest of the universe as inhabited, so maybe that’s why we’re more comfortable with this idea. In Out of the Silent Planet, the other planets are inhabited, and worse, are free of all the evil and destruction that comes naturally to humanity. So in a fantasy of this sort, it’s easy to demonstrate the harm of human expansionist ideas.

But the book is more than that. It’s not aiming at expansionism alone, but beyond that to the shortcomings of the human heart—our own greed and our own tendency to view ourselves as first and most superior. Even our ‘good’ protagonist is shocked to discover not only that the other planet are inhabited, but that they’re not inhabited by monsters but by creatures who might, in fact, be superior to himself. The book provides a necessary corrective, not just to a time-bound philosophy (modernism), but also to a timeless human temptation—to think of ourselves as the centre of the universe.

Inferior Quality?

I’m not going to spend much time on this topic. It is absolutely not inferior quality to The Chronicles. To discuss the quality of the story in-depth would stray too far from my main focus on its Christian themes, but I’ll just say its lack of recognition probably stems from it being published before The Chronicles, and being aimed more at adults and therefore overlooked.

 

In Conclusion – We Need More Fiction on the Classics Lists! Could This Be One?

So my answer to the question I raised in the title is—yes, I think it should be. But thinking a work should be a classic does not make it so. I think it’s the sort of story to give someone thinking through the philosophies the story addresses.

But to be fair, there really isn’t a definitive list of Christian classics. If you search it, you get great lists of nonfiction but very little fiction, especially modern Christian fiction. So that’s one new aim of this blog—to look at fiction classics as well as nonfiction ones. Not to draw up a definitive list, but present possible candidates. And here is my first suggestion!

 

Related Book Reviews of Out of the Silent Planet:

While writing this post I discovered there were not a lot of people writing about the Space Trilogy, so I thought I’d link to a few good reviews I came across here.

The Silent Planet of C.S. Lewis – why this book counts as good classic sci-fi despite having angels in it.

The Cosmic Trilogy 1: Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – a deeper review of the books as a whole.

Out of the Silent Planet – a comparison with Gulliver’s Travels that I didn’t notice myself.

 

 

 

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Feeling Unfulfilled?

It’s been a while since I posted here! I’ve certainly posted more on my ‘Stories and Stuff’ blog, but since I recently had a short article published in the Edmonton Journal, I thought I should update ‘Somente a Deus’ with a link to it. This article comes from a time when I was thinking through what it meant to feel fulfilled in your Christian life, and whether complete fulfilment is ever truly felt by anyone. You know, because we all know in theory true fulfillment can only come through a relationship with God, but so often we don’t really feel fulfilled in practice. Anyway, here’s a short excerpt:

“How often do you meet someone who wouldn’t change a thing about their life? Very rarely will you meet someone who claims that their life is perfect – that they are completely satisfied with how things are going. And that’s pretty universal for each of us.

When we look inside we see there is something each of us desperately wants: to be looked up to by other people, to be loved by someone special, to have a purpose in life, to make lots of money. There’s always something not quite right with the way our lives are right now.

We might have strong relationships, but those relationships may not be quite as upbuilding, romantic or supportive as they could be. We might have a good job, but we hardly feel we’re making the world a better place by doing it, or that we’re really doing anything worthwhile.

Some of our longings are the result of being flawed humans, of course. Our inability to be satisfied with what God gives us is not a good thing. On the other hand, some of our longings point to the reality that the way the world is now is not how God intended it to be…”

 

The full article can be found here.

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We Might Be Camels

For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. (Luke 18:25)

Camel, by Aloys Zötl {PD}

Camel, by Aloys Zötl {PD}

Who do we think Jesus is talking about here? Our minds immediately go to fabulously wealthy people like Warren Buffet – or maybe Bill Gates. Do we ever stop and think that maybe Jesus is talking straight to us?

We like to think of ourselves as just your average Joes – not exactly rich, but not poor either. We probably don’t own a Ferrari, or blow thousands of dollars on expensive champagne in one weekend. Really, when we look at everyone around us, we’re pretty normal. Just middle class.

The fact that our society around us is so amazingly rich blinds us to the fact that we’re amazingly rich. For example, here I am, a university student, getting an education that only a small percentage of the world has the opportunity to obtain. Why should I be born into a situation where university, though still expensive and a lot of work, is within my grasp, whereas for most people it is beyond their wildest dreams?

Maybe you’re not in university. But think, exactly what is considered poor in North America? It may be a struggle for many to get by, but some of our poor are still richer than the rest of the world. Add in the social safety nets we have in North America, such as welfare, unemployment insurance, etc., and we have a situation richer than a good majority of the world – or even a good majority of history.

Yes, of history. We have riches beyond what even some kings in history could’ve imagined. Access to gigabytes upon gigabytes of information, far beyond what even the great library at Alexandria used to hold. The ability to travel almost anywhere in the world in a few hours, maybe days. The ability to treat multitudes of illnesses people used to die young from. An increase in lifespan to eighty, ninety or even a hundred years. We may not be loaded down with gold, jewels and furs, but our ancestors never dreamed of computers or ipods.

And we live in peace. In Canada, where I’m from, we have security we take far too much for granted. Have you ever considered what an amazing thing this is? Coming out of a century that produced two world wars and multitudes of other ones, it is amazing to live in a society that is not up-heaved by revolution, torn apart by civil war, or invaded by another country. To have a stable government (though flawed) that does uphold a certain amount of justice, keeping people’s worst impulses somewhat under control. Why should we be granted peace and stability at all?

To illustrate with an example, the city I live in (Edmonton) had a scare two years ago because our murder rate rose to forty-two murders in the year. There are cities in the world that see that many murders in a weekend. Compare this to the riots in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro in 2010, where the government had to send in the army to deal with the drug cartels, who were attacking civilians. Or riots in Syria, where the government itself slaughters its own citizens. Look at us. Safety and security is not something easily visible, and is not often thought about. But we are blessed.

Here, we should stop a moment and think about what riches actually are. Material things are very nice and all, but what are true riches? The Word of God, of course. How truly blessed we are! Everywhere in our society there is access to the Bible – Bibles, Bible studies, churches – the Word of God is raining down around us. It can fill every aspect of our lives, if we let it. Yet it’s easier to complain while dragging ourselves to Bible study, or find an excuse to stay home from church. We can send back the finest feast of delicacies, because we know there will always be more food tomorrow. We can take our riches for granted.

What are to think, then, about Jesus’ words about the camel? Look at our world around us. Is there a possibility our enjoyments, our freedom, our society buffers us from the necessity of having to rely on God? Not that we shouldn’t accept these! I am in no way promoting we all immediately sell our possessions and go live among the poor. But we can’t be blind to how our own comfort interferes with our ability serve the Lord, who has given the great gift of all – salvation – to us.

We are insulated from a certain kind of desperation, a dependence that comes from having nowhere else to turn. We’ve never been asked to give up everything, so we don’t think about what we’re hanging onto.

Is this reason for despair? Not at all. Those who heard these words of Jesus looked at each other and asked, “Then who can be saved?” But reading a little farther in Luke’s gospel, we come across the story of Zacchaeus – a man who was specifically pointed out by Luke as rich, but who Jesus describes as saved. God can do anything, even save a rich man. Even allow that camel to go through the eye of a needle.

And for us, whom Luke might’ve described as rich as well if he had met us, it is an opportunity to open our eyes to how great God’s love is. Let our riches not be a barrier between us and God, but rather be an opportunity to do good and help others, and to show others exactly how much God has done for us.

 

 

Harma-Mae Smit is a contributor to the infinite stream of information that gets poured into the web each day – yes, a blogger and a writer. She blogs regularly at harmamaesmit.com and amrahpublishinghouse.com

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‘It’s Not A Waste’ on Powertochange.com

‘It’s Not a Waste’ was recently published on Powertochange.com! Check out the excerpt below, or the full article here.

Have you ever hit a dead end and discovered whatever career or job or schooling you pursued wasn’t for you? Maybe you’re just not cut out for engineering (or nursing, or teaching).  As you attempt to switch directions and you look back over the last year (or two, or three) of your life is one question haunts you. Was it all a waste? I have been there and I can tell you this: It’s not a waste. Let me tell you what happened to me.

I went into nursing straight out of high school and spent three years in it before I could face the fact it wasn’t the career for me. I’d spent three years slaving to pass each course and there I was left with nothing. I had no degree, no career, and was facing at least another three years in school if I wanted to do another program. I felt like I was starting back at square one. What had been the point of these years if it had all ended up in nothing? …”

 

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