The World’s Last Night, and Other Essays

Recently, I stumbled onto a collection of essays, The World’s Last Night, and Other Essays by C.S. Lewis, published in 1960 by Harcourt Brace. It has been years since I’ve read any of C.S. Lewis’ nonfiction works, and I thought it could be fun to dive into these bite-sized topics and if I didn’t abandon the reading entirely, perhaps even talk about them here. For anyone who may not recognize C. S. Lewis’ name at a glance, he is the author of the beloved fantasy series, The Chronicles of Narnia.

This particular collection has seven different essays, all previously published in various reviews or magazines, and here compiled. Any errors in describing or misrepresenting the author’s work is my own error entirely, but, I’ll do my best to be as concise and accurate as I possibly can.

The Efficacy of Prayer

This opening essay discusses whether prayer has any effect, or if the things that we pray for would’ve happened anyway, even without believing and praying to a Higher Power. Lewis defines prayer as a form of request, and draws comparison between the requests we make to God, and the requests (or prayers) we make to our fellow man. This gave me pause, as I tend to think of prayer as being communication between one person and God, or perhaps a group of persons, if corporate prayer, and God, rather than some of the allusions Lewis makes to, the request a man makes to a woman for her hand in marriage, for example. Lewis goes on to express the view that prayer should not be viewed as something that God only hears the select few, as if He played favorites. Prayer is not us giving God advice on what to do. It is not a magical incantation.

We put requests to people, and have a reasonable expectation of a reply (in favor or against) because we know them. We have a relationship with them. We are dealing with a person, not a myth. What stands apart, with prayer, according to Lewis, why we can believe that prayer works, is the foundation of our relationship with God. “Our assurance is quite different in kind from scientific knowledge. It is born out of our personal relation to the other parties; not from knowing things about them but from knowing them” (7). Because prayer is grounded in a relationship with a Person. This argument, of whether God should be treated as a myth or a Person, is continued in his essay, “On Obstinacy in Belief”.

On Obstinacy in Belief

Lewis goes on to explain, “To believe that God — at least this God — exists is the believe that you as a person now stand in the presence of God as a Person. You are no longer faced with an argument which demands your assent [does God exist or not?], but with a Person who demands your confidence” (26). And if God does exist, it’s reasonable to suppose that we may not always understand why He acts as He does, because we lack that divine understanding. We can instead, only put our confidence in Him, whether this thing or that thing that we ask for is given or denied, and that it is for our benefit, even if we cannot rationally see its outcome.

Lilies That Fester

In “Lilies That Fester”, Lewis discusses the potential of the human spirit for an appreciation of higher pursuits, the lilies that fester from over-cultivation by culture, embarked upon for its own sake. Lewis argues that elements of culture must be spontaneously embarked upon, to be inspired by our own interests and passions, to have any lasting value, rather than the pursuit of a thing because it is considered ‘cultured’ or ‘refined’. The self-awareness destroys the learning.

When I read this, I wonder what Lewis would have made of tourists queuing to take the same insipid photos of the same unchanging vista, the one that’s been taken a thousand times before, cameras and camera phones all jostling overhead for that perfect shot unmarred by the sight line of another camera by the stranger’s next to yours. I suspect that Lewis would’ve eschewed such pastimes, or if he viewed them, found a quiet spot instead to reflect upon creation and its Creator, and left the camera at home entirely.

Lewis discusses the superficial knowledge of culture, of knowing the right remark to say on such-and-such a topic, but when plumbing its depths, you find that pretense of culture is instead a Potemkin village, a propped-up illusion with no substance behind it. “I should have hopes for that boy [reading Fantasy and Science Fiction, rapt and oblivious of all the world aside]. Those who have greatly cared for any book whatever may possibly come to care, some day, for good books.

Screwtape Proposes a Toast

Lewis’ own foray into fiction was quite extensive, and no collection of essays would be complete without an example of his allegorical writings. The Screwtape Letters were a charming allegorical tale, in the epistolary style, where Screwtape, an elderly demon, teaches his nephew how to better torment his human assignment and lead him to hell. In “Screwtape Proposes a Toast”, we revisit Screwtape who addresses a demonic hoard in the form of a toast, that is more or less, a long monologue. Screwtape discusses how the intensity of evil has diminished over the centuries in individuals (with some exceptions), but what hell lacks for the solo human bastions of evil, they have an over abundance of tepid souls — in short, quantity over quality, as it were.

This wasn’t my favorite sampling of Lewis’ work from the bunch but I get what the author is trying to do. It’s pretty straightforward and hard to miss. I find it disturbing comparing the idea of demons feasting on evil, like humans feast on a buffet, and the comparisons of humanity’s sin to food and wine is deeply unsettling. For this essay alone, I would not recommend this for younger audiences.

Good Work and Good Works

Moving on from a discourse on evil to what type of action we should take on this earth, in “Good Work and Good Works”, Lewis makes a case for the nature of work, and how good work has become nearly impossible. Lewis is critical of the advertising movement, which he says is designed solely to make people want to buy things that have already been made.

“In a rational world,” Lewis says, “things would be made because they were wanted.” (76). Lewis extols the virtues of a simpler time, when the craftsman was rewarded for making things that were not only needed and necessary, but built to last, and ornamental. Now, we live in an age where things are not needed, but manufactured en masse, and then we are manipulated into thinking we need them. Worse yet, they are made to last a short time, and we must replace them again, feeding the consumerist cycle.

It is nearly impossible to find good work to be had, work that needs doing for its own sake, and should we find it, we may not want it. The job worth doing, the ones most labor-intensive, are too often the least financially profitable, and therefore, not desirable. Lewis explains it thusly, “We shall try, if we get the chance, to earn our living by doing well what is worth doing even if we had not our living to earn. A considerable mortification of our avarice may be necessary. It is usually the insane jobs that lead to big money; they are often the least laborious” (78). How topsy-turvy the job market seems, when described this plainly!

As a final example from this essay, Lewis also discusses how the role of the artist has changed in society, from being one where the artist was formerly, perhaps, a trade of necessity, like, a storyteller or singer of songs, someone who could make no other trade, and this being a way they could support their community. Now, Lewis says, the community exists for the sake of the artist. Our ‘duty’ as society, is to laud the artist for art’s own sake, regardless of whether it represents or reflects the needs, desires, or tastes of the community. If we don’t, we are a pariah. How accurate and backwards this seems, when put in this light!

Religion and Rocketry

Lewis’ interest in science fiction (and his own writings) may have influenced his next featured essay, “Religion and Rocketry”, where he muses on the space age race, and the possibility of alien life on other planets and whether they might have souls that need Salvation.

This was fascinating to me, as we cannot presume that we would necessarily find intelligent life, or intelligent life with souls, or intelligent life with souls that would have the same level of fallen natures as humankind. Lewis speculates that no doubt, there would be a kind of “theological imperialism” in space travel, where humans would try to impose their own religious beliefs on alien races, because, there will always be people who believe that what applies for humankind, must apply for all., irregardless of the conditions of the soul of the ‘native’ population.

While I haven’t read it myself, Lewis mentions this august topic has been discussed previously, by one of the saints. St. Augustine wrote a piece speculating on the “theological position of satyrs, monopods and other semi-human creatures” (92), which is such an imaginative direction that I completely didn’t expect to find from St. Augustine, I’m tempted to take a peek at it sometime. At any rate, it shall be interesting to see how history plays itself out (if it happens within my lifetime), as it did not in C. S. Lewis’ case. He did make a prognostication that is worthy of mentioning here, on the subject of what manner of people would most likely be the first to reach populated alien worlds. ‘Our ambassador to new worlds will be the needy and greedy adventurer or the ruthless technical expert. They will do as their kind has always done” (89). This sounds grim, frankly, but, in my opinion there is a certain kind of logic — space exploration funded by greed, technical genius, the foolhardy or the desperate. What do you think of Lewis’ claims?

The World’s Last Night

The final essay in this collection, “The World’s Last Night”, was, predictably, about eschatology and the Judgment spoken of in the Book of Revelation, and other places. Lewis believed that the world would likely end when there has been a global shift in how we view Christianity, that is, from the possibility that God might exist, to the compulsory belief that He does not, fed by a strong, nearly irrefutable case against Christianity, which would “deceive (if it were possible) the very elect, [which] will appear with Antichrist” (92), and then, the world would end.

The bulk of this essay delves into the differences between viewing the end of the world and judgment, as a theory, a maybe, to living in preparation for it and always being at the ready, like the Biblical story of the faithful servant, ready at the gate, or the wise virgins who had their lamps trimmed, awaiting the Bridegroom when He appears. Lewis (of course) errs on the side of being watchful and ready. He does caution against living in the agitated excitability of when, and instead, being faithful in every moment, disciplining ourselves to look at our thoughts, words and actions, in the light of Eternity.

Concluding Thoughts

This was an absolute treasure of a collection that I never meant to stumble upon but am so grateful that I did. I’ve tried to accurate represent C.S. Lewis’ essays here, but any errors are my own. The copy that I found (dusty, old, forgotten) may or may not be in print anymore, so, I’ve tried here to give a fair summary of its contents, in case you cannot locate a copy for yourselves, but I would highly recommend reading this if you’re a fan of his writings, and looking for something new, or if not, then perhaps you are intellectually curious and want to read his writings for yourself. This book is for both types.

The Transitory Nature of a Moment

When was the last time that you shared a moment with someone and you knew, this is our goodbye? Did you take a pause to honor that situation or that person, why or why not? Do you have any lingering regrets?

Recently, I’ve begun meditating on the transitory nature of moments – how they pass away so quietly and we often don’t recognize in that brief span of time that it is the final time. We assign no goodbyes to mark the occasion. They just slip away quietly, relegated to the recesses of our memories. As a friend recently mentioned to me, one day was the last day you went outside to play with the neighborhood kids. Or, as I thought, when is the last time that a child requests a hug or a kiss, or a wave goodbye? When is the last time we see a certain place, or a group of friends or colleagues? I suspect that while some of these moments, a job transition, a death, moving away, all have a definitive end, far more fall into that other category, just silently fading away.

One day, without realizing it, there will be a final blog post, and this site here will be shut down, the domain and upgrades not renewed, and the articles and musings will disappear. Today isn’t that day, but, the reality is that it’s coming, someday. Goodbyes are inevitable. I don’t know about you but since I can’t undo those moments, those relationships, that weren’t honored with a proper goodbye, it makes me all the more eager to live in a state of awareness of the present, to cherish each moment, each person that enters my life (however briefly) and to try not to cling too tightly, for who knows when that passing moment will be the last?

If you could go back, would you hold that child just a smidgen tighter, longer? Would you savor that meal that much more? Linger a few more moments with that friend, before rushing off home or to your next engagement? Hold their hand a while longer? Embrace every moment, my anonymous readers, and take care.

In Search of Freedom

Happy belated Fourth of July, or, as I like to say to my friends across the pond, “Happy Insurrection Day!”. If you’re an American and celebrated the holiday this weekend, I hope that you had a great time of fellowship, food, fun, and fireworks.

Fireworks are always something I’m a bit leery of — I worry that the loud BANG! will frighten the pets. My own cat seemed to do just fine, but he was definitely sticking to dark, quiet, cave-like spaces…so perhaps it bothered him more than he let on. There was a community fireworks display, which we weren’t sure if it was going to go on as planned or not (apparently so). For our part, we picked up some not-so-loud, kid-friendly fireworks at a tent in a neighboring county and brought them out to be enjoyed by family we went visiting this weekend.

Fireworks have really evolved. They still have the smoke bombs I grew up with, but now there are also smoke sticks, that accomplish the same thing and burn longer. Snappers are still around, but so are firecrackers, that you light and throw and a loud POP! follows. Sparklers are no longer just wands, but they glow neon or change colors. And I still manage to burn my fingers attempting to keep a lighter lit long enough for the fuse to catch….instead of just using any of the number of provided pumps instead (haha).

Did you have a favorite firecracker growing up? Mine, either are no longer made, or just weren’t available at the highway stop that we tried. I think my personal favorite was one I nicknamed the “Japanese Lantern” — a beautiful disc that spun around, once lit, with sparks, and it exploded into an accordion of paper that you could hang up, and for lack of a better term, they looked like a delicate rice paper lantern, that you could hold suspended in the air, or string up and admire from a distance. Whatever your favorite, if you think back far enough, there’s probably a fond memory too.

Some of the firecrackers brought to this year’s celebration. I’ve no idea what that large bulb-looking one does.

As we drove home, I reflected on the glaring absence of any patriotic hymns, sung either at church earlier that day, or amongst family and friends. When did it become out of fashion to celebrate being an American? I hardly know. In small-towns, or in the heart of Trump country (sometimes, the same thing!), you might still find tiny flags lining driveways and large signs thanking our troops and veterans, or a Main Street parade with hay-strewn floats, tractors, and fire engines. Is it polarizing to be patriotic these days, maybe? Or maybe a better question, should outward signs of celebrating the holiday be a fair judge to begin with? Perhaps not, but that’s where I find my mind drifting.

Missouri skews largely Republican in the majority of the state, and predominantly Democrat in the two major cities, so, these party lines are keenly felt the the more rural you get, as there’s a shift. This may differ in your own area, and I don’t mean to imply that patriotism is strictly Republican, but, small-town America, in the rural parts, seems to be where you’re most likely to encounter these homey holiday touches that feel like they’re quietly vanishing. By the time my nieces and nephews are fully grown, and have children of their own, will their children be celebrating the Fourth of July in the same way I did at their age? Will there even be a free America to celebrate?

John Locke once said that “Liberty is not license”, and he goes on to speak that this license doesn’t permit us to destroy ourselves, but to seek a nobler purpose than just preservation for its own sake.

Jim Caviezel, who notably portrayed Jesus in The Passion of the Christ, cautioned in one of his speeches, “Every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom exists not to do what you like, but having the right to do what you ought.”

St. Paul, in the book of Galatians, wrote, “For you were called for freedom, brothers. But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love. For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”. But if you go on biting and devouring one another, beware that you are not consumed by one another.” (Galatians 5:13-15).

These are just a few ready quotes that come to mind as I’m mulling over the nature of freedom, in this case, to love and serve our neighbor. It’s not unreasonable to make the observation that you turn on the news and a lot of it seems to be the “biting and devouring” that St. Paul cautions the Galatians against. We are being consumed by one another, and our Nation with us. We have lost the noblest origins of our country’s founding, and it’s questionable whether we’ll ever see it again. These somber reflections leave me this year with a bigger question that I’m not sure how to begin to answer: is our nation’s freedom still worth celebrating?

Dulcimer

I have a story to tell you that is just beginning, of God’s faithfulness. Would you like to hear? If so, read on.

I started writing at a pretty young age and while I appreciate it, I have always admired people who could draw art or play an instrument. I tried a few different ones growing up and none really stuckā€¦piano, didgeridoo, flute.

When I was 10, 12, 13 (somewhere around there), I became aware of a television show set in the Appalachian Mountains about the English and Scotch-Irish who settled that region, and became fascinated by their musical history. As I grew older, I fell in love with folklore and especially, early American folk ballads.

Among them, I was especially drawn to the fiddle and to the mountain dulcimer. Now, growing up, my father had a fiddle we never played, but a year or so ago, I walked into a music shop to get it tuned and tried playing for the first time.

What I quickly discovered is that self-instruction can sometimes result in bad practices of fiddle playing that can be hard to break later, so I abandoned the attempt (for now). But, I have still been curious about the dulcimer, even though I’ve never tried it.

For a little while now, I have felt drawn to getting a mountain dulcimer. I don’t know why at this point in my life I decided to start pursuing it. I wasn’t even sure what they cost. After some research, I had a better idea of what a low-end dulcimer goes for around here.

A while back, I went dulcimer shopping. I experienced what I can only describe as “shopper paralysis” as there were so many options, but with none of them did I feel a stirring in my heart for, and I was horribly disappointed. I left empty handed.

I now had a better idea mentally of what I sensed I wanted. Realistically, it was never going to fit into my budget. I already had a conversation with God that if He wanted me to take this leap and get a dulcimer, He was going to have to work with what I could afford.

It wasn’t until I was woken up in the middle of the night by the devil whispering lies about God’s lack of provision that I started wondering if maybe I should’ve settled and bought a random dulcimer that didn’t fit my list, when I had had the chance. What if I missed out?

I went looking online to see if any of the ones I’d seen were still available, and that’s when I saw it; a dulcimer that I felt God said to my heart, “This is the one I prepared for you.” It was beautiful. It hit some (but not all) of my checklist, and it was the only one there.

Without going into all of the details, getting there to this particular music shop ended up being a challenge and I felt as if God was saying, “If you want this, you need to go today. This is the way.” I ended up walking 4km, up and down two hills, from the nearest transit stop, passing streets named after saints, and a wooden heart someone had nailed to a tree. When I got to the music store, not only was this particular dulcimer still available, but, the website description left off details.

Each of the things on my list, including the ones I thought didn’t make the cut, were all there after all, as if God Himself had seen my checklist and said, “Anything else?” And who am I to argue? And to top it off, the dulcimer and the accessories came a few dollars shy of the price point I’d given God to “work with”. If I’d bought a pair of strings, it probably would’ve rounded up to exactly that. No joke. It seems like God wanted me to own a dulcimer. So, I bought it and took it home.

Now, the very first weekend I had the dulcimer, I was looking forward to sitting down and trying to learn how to play. On the way home from work that day, I was thinking about how much I loved God, and singing or humming to myself songs about God and praying for people, and, I missed a raised slab of sidewalk, and went crashing, hard, and breaking the fall with my hands.

My palms looked like they’d been through a cheese grater. Mercifully, I was able to get home, unlock the house, and shut the door before the shock caught up with me and my brain registered the pain. I’ll spare you the rest of the details but, there was no way with my bleeding, stinging hands that I was going to be playing anytime soon. I didn’t even have gauze in the house to bandage them properly. It was just going to have to wait.

While I was thanking God for not being more seriously hurt, and for making it home safely, I felt His nudge again that I should practice playing my dulcimer, now, bleeding hands and all. So I found myself strumming and trying to read TAB (tablature) for “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”, which turned into “Amazing Grace”, and while my palms were freshly opened and bleeding, my fingers were able to press the frets and hold a pick.

It was kind of around that time I realized, maybe I need to start documenting this journey with this dulcimer because, it seems significant, maybe even prophetic, to not only be facing a mild form of suffering but being called to praise God in the middle of it all, which made me wonder, what exactly does God have in store for this little dulcimer in my broken hands?

Thank You

Recently, a few people have been contacting me about this blog, and expressing a desire to pray more, or speaking of finding enjoyment or encouragement from these notes. You’ve no idea how blessed I am to hear from you all. Thank you. Comments are always open on my blog posts — if it’s your first time commenting, there is an approval process, which means I basically just scan the comment to make sure it isn’t inappropriate by most community website standards, and it gets approved.

This is a small community but one I am grateful for, and if anything I’ve written is helpful, or that you have questions about, or that might be applicable to your own experience, I’d love to hear about it. So, please consider leaving a comment sometime, and let’s grow closer to Christ, together. Thank you again!