A friend, knowing my penchant to watch the skies, sent me a story about the British and the weather. The story by Alastair Sooke on the BBC’s cultural page is discussing Alexandra Harris’s book Weatherland. I have to admit that I haven’t read the book (yet) but the report of it appeals to someone who’s written a book on the weather, but for a much older timeframe. According to Harris, according to Sooke, the British are rumored to be obsessed with the weather. While living in the United Kingdom, my wife and I observed this. It is not merely casual conversation when someone discusses the weather. It is a serious topic. For a nation so accustomed to rain and gloomy skies, the weather has a religious import. It rarely goes without comment. I suppose that’s the point I was trying to make in my book. The weather is important. Vital, in fact, to human survival.
What really caught my attention here, however, was Harris’s observation that weather is used to characterize mood. Sooke mentions ice and snow and melancholy. The image is vivid: early Anglo-Saxons turing a wary eye to a winter sky with its low clouds and preternatural chill. It is so universal, it seems, not to require comment. Yet at the same time, weather can be a great trickster. C. S. Lewis once wrote that the image of the Arctic north filled him with an inexplicable joy. Winter can be fickle that way. In the world of the Psalmists, rain was a blessing and a weapon. How you look at it depends, well, on your mood.
The British may take their weather more seriously, on a day-to-day basis, than those of us across the Atlantic. We tend to treat the topic casually. In reality, it is just as serious here. Drought, which has gripped the western half of the country for about half a century now, is a serious concern. Winter storms, hurricanes, tornadoes. A lightning storm can still be a theophany. (One awoke me in the middle of the night, just hours ago.) Weather impacts our bodies as well as our moods. It is all-pervasive, but we generally don’t like to articulate it. I suspect our understanding of the weather says more about us than we’re willing to admit. Our British colleagues, however, are less squeamish about the topic than we tend to be. There’s more to the sky than it might appear.
Posted in Bible, Books, Britannia, Environment, Posts, Psalms, Weather
Tagged Alastair Sooke, Alexandra Harris, BBC, C. S. Lewis, Psalms, Weather, Weathering the Psalms, Weatherland
The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame’s children’s classic, was a book I first read during my doctoral studies. In the UK professors are likely to be able to cite A. A. Milne and the fictional bits of C. S. Lewis as well as the current academic stars. Of course I’m over-generalizing. In my experience, however, I met many wonderfully rounded professors and I tried, during my too-brief stint in academia, to emulate them. My wife recently read The Wind in the Willows to our college-aged daughter and me. As I’ve mentioned before, we’ve had an accord for all our married life that I will wash dishes if she will read to me, and we have read well over a hundred books this way, from children’s titles to scholarly tomes. From my perspective, listening to a book read adds a layer of meaning to the text. The cadences, the intonations, and the editorial remarks all lend texture to the experience. I had quite forgotten, as it has been years since I’ve read the book myself, about the mysterious theophany in chapter 7, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.”
In a passage that is almost overwritten for today’s youth, Rat and Mole, in search of Otter’s lost son, encounter Him out on the river. The language is reverent, and languid. The two animals come upon a horned deity who is not named, and fall in worship. The fact that he has pan-pipes makes Pan an obvious candidate, but the description also reminds me on this autumnal equinox of Cernunnos, the horned god. The spirit of nature. I feel myself trapped in a world of cubicles and drywall and money. Who wouldn’t fall at the feet of even a pagan deity offering release from such shackles? We have allowed ourselves to be trapped here. We have bought into the system that enslaves us. “There is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing than simply messing about in boats.” Rat is my preacher; I am his acolyte.
Nature reminds us that we are evolved creatures and that civilization comes at a great cost. I never feel so alive as when I’m walking in the woods. I don’t pretend that I could survive alone, but having a position that requires growing heavier at a desk day-by-day feels out of sync with what I grew these feet to do and these eyes to see. Manhattan is a wonder, to be sure, but it too comes at great cost. Nashotah House was not a problem-free place, by any stretch, but it was in the woods. The trails on and near campus could restore a soul in the way chapel could never nearly approximate. So it seems appropriate to slip The Wind in the Willows onto my bookshelf next to my Bible, and to slip outdoors for one last untrammeled moment of summer before autumn begins.
Posted in Books, Britannia, Deities, Environment, Literature, Memoirs, Posts
Tagged A. A. Milne, autumnal equinox, C. S. Lewis, Cernunnos, Kenneth Grahame, Manhattan, Nashotah House, Pan, the horned god, The Wind in the Willows, theophany
When I travel, when I have time to plan, I like to visit the haunts of literary figures. It would be difficult to think of two more influential (or abbreviation-ridden) English writers than J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. Both Oxford men, they liked to drink, I believe, at the Lamb and Flag. I stopped by to see, but just in case it was actually the Eagle and Child, I back-tracked to see it as well. Post-war Oxford was a place for an academic to write, and C. S. Lewis has influenced an entire generation of evangelical fans who overlook his penchant for drinking, and J. R. R. Tolkien seems to have invented the perfect fodder for CGI animators. Perhaps there was something in the air. Although no less of a literary talent, it may be less common to hear Thomas Hardy’s name. He is rumored to have written Jude the Obscure, appropriately, mostly in this pub. Good to know there’s someone else so obscure, by definition. It’s hard not to feel scholarly in Oxford.
I have to confess, I dressed the part. I wore my Harris Tweed jacket and my Edinburgh school tie. It was a beautiful spring day, the like of which were extremely rare in Scotland some two decades ago. Not knowing that my business trip would offer the opportunities to explore the city a little, I hadn’t done much homework. A colleague suggested I stop into St. John’s College to look at the gardens. They’re only open from 1 to 5, and I timed it right to get there shortly before closing. Students wandering out in jeans, staring at their smartphones, could have been students at any number of universities I’ve known. The setting was, however, quite beautiful. There seems to be evidence that they don’t walk on the lawn. Tradition is treated with considerable respect here. Although, upon closer look, graffiti does make an appearance now and again.
As I was stepping out the door of St. John’s, a family from eastern Asia was coming in. It was near closing time. The father asked me if this was Oxford University. I explained that it was part of Oxford University, but that the university was quite large and was all around the town. As he pressed me for more information, I wondered why he was asking an American who’d only been to Oxford once before about the place; I hadn’t done my homework, after all. Then it occurred to me. I was dressed rather like a prototypical professor. The tweed, the beard, the glasses, the consistently confused look on my face—I’d been mistaken for an university professor. I stepped outside and looked around. In a different time, perhaps it would have been true. And maybe Tolkien and Lewis would have lifted a warm pint in a cold pub and we all might have learned something.
Posted in Britannia, Higher Education, Literature, Memoirs, Posts, Travel
Tagged C. S. Lewis, Eagle and Child, Edinburgh University, J. R. R. Tolkien, Jude the Obscure, Lamb and Flag, Oxford, Oxford University, St. John’s College, Thomas Hardy
I’m not a fan of true crime. It seems that daily life has enough drama for me without reading about the truly dark aspects of human behavior. Nevertheless, I appreciate those who spend their life taking on perpetrators of evil. I haven’t read any of Vincent Buliosi’s true crime books, but I was curious about how a famous trial lawyer would treat the question of God. Bulgiosi’s recent book, Divinity of Doubt: The God Question, is a glimpse into an active, agile mind that is innately curious about the issue of the divine. Neither believer nor atheist, Bugliosi makes a strong case for agnosticism. He has no time for the nonsense of many religious beliefs, and like a lawyer, won’t let shoddy excuses such as “it’s a mystery” justify unacceptable answers. Many Christians (especially) would find his unrelenting logic a little distressing. If we accept reason, he fairly demonstrates, the God of traditional Christian design is not possible. Still, he acknowledges that religion has very positive aspects.
Before the angry atheists can begin laughing, however, Bugliosi turns his sharp mind to the arguments of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris to show how none of them really make a strong case for atheism either. He notes, as Dawkins does at one point, that proving the absence of God (or anything, for that matter) is not logically possible. There’s always the possibility that, beyond the edge of what you’re arguing, the object in question may lurk. Nevertheless, a strong case might conceivably be built, but Bugliosi declares that it hasn’t. Many atheists attack religion and think they’ve destroyed God. Not that Bugliosi is a friend of God. Indeed, to borrow a title from one of his nemeses, C. S. Lewis, he might have called his book God in the Dock.
Divinity of Doubt is one of those books that throws many questions open. Being an agnostic, of course, Bugliosi is fine with that. Although the book is enjoyable and thought-provoking, there are a few uneven parts. It is difficult to keep logical rigor at fever pitch continuously. Some, no doubt, will find his doubts about evolution puzzling. Others (or the same) may find his understanding of death a little under-developed. Nevertheless, it is refreshing to read a clearly thought-out account of how the proof and disproof of God are equally problematic. Some things you just can’t know. Don’t say that it’s a matter of faith, however; Bugliosi won’t let you get away with that. At times funny, written with verve and wit, this account keeps the reader moving along, even though most people will find something to seethe at along the way. Don’t let it lead you to crime, though, because you wouldn’t want Bugliosi on the prosecution against you.