That beautiful strength

That Hideous Strength

The Shadow of that hyddeous strength
Sax myle and more it is of length.

The shadow of that hideous strength
Six miles and more it is of length.

Opening quotation to C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength

That Hideous Strength is the third book in C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy, the other two being Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra. Out of the Silent Planet is the first science fiction book that featured aliens in which the aliens were not a vile monstrosity, but I am not concerned with the science fiction here. That Hideous Strength has an important Arthurian element, and while I’ve written my own take on the Arthurian legends, I am not concerned with that here either. And there are other things about That Hideous Strength that I am also not concerned with.

Then what am I concerned with?

Among programmers there is a slang term “hhos”, an abbreviation for “Ha ha, only serious!” It describes, not exactly jokes that aren’t really funny, but jokes that aren’t really jokes at their core: three of my own examples might be Pope Makes Historic Ecumenical Bid to Woo Eastern Rite Catholics, Devotees of Fr. Cherubim (Jones) Demand his Immediate Canonization and Full Recognition as “Equal to the Heirophants”, and Unvera Announces New Kool-Aid Line. These pieces fall on to the more “serious” end of “Ha ha, only serious!” And something like “Ha ha, only serious!” is found in That Hideous Strength.

That Hideous Strength is darker and harder to appreciate than Out of the Silent Planet or Perelandra, but I’ve heard people say they appreciate it most of all when they have got into it. The book, as Lewis clearly introduces it in some editions, is “a fairy-tale for grown-ups”, and he makes an opening pre-emptive move to explain that the traditional fairy tale begins with once-common themes before moving to the magical: “We do not always notice [the traditional fairy-tale’s] method, because the cottages, castles, woodcutters, and petty kings with which a fairy-tale opens have become for us as remote as the witches and ogres to which it progresses.” But the traditional fairy-tale begins with the pedestrian John Q. Public and only then moves on to the magical. And Lewis’s book begins with “such hum-drum scenes and persons” before moving on to “magicians, devils, pantomime animals, and planetary angels.”

But C.S. Lewis’s tale is, if not exactly “ha ha, only serious,” a prime example of “ha ha, only realistic.” I do not mean exactly that the figure of Merlin or a Pendragon who has visited other planets is realism; what I do mean is that That Hideous Strength is a tale of a hideous strength and that hideous strength is realistic and real in our world today.

Today that hideous strength has bared its power, and I would be very wary of saying the worst is past.

The poem Lewis quotes, “The shadow of that hideous strength / Six miles and more it is of length,” is about the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-13, RSV):

Now the whole earth had one language and few words.

And as men migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built. And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”

So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Ba’bel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

I spent a long time trying to think of how to put this, and perhaps this is one way of explaining. Those of us who used to play Dungeons & Dragons heard of, and perhaps wanted to play, a race of elves called Drow. The earliest AD&D sources denied or were ambiguous about whether Drow even existed, and then more and more became known about them. They were a Machiavellian society living deep in caverns beneath the earth; they kept fearsome “mind flayers” (Illithid) as slaves; they possessed weapons and armor of adamantite alloy that was on par with some of the most powerful magical items those on the surface of the earth could have. And these enchanted adamantite armaments were dependent on the magical energies of the Underdark; they needed to spend one week in four immersed in the magical energies flowing around the Underdark, and their enchanted properties would be destroyed completely if they saw the light of the sun. I believe this adamantite gear was what military buffs would call a “capture-proof weapon”: weapons and armor that would soon cease to be useful if captured by enemy forces.

I am one of many who succumbed to the temptation to have a really cool watch; the watch I have is a dark green Casio Pathfinder by Casio and features a barometer/altimeter and compass, and I’ve used it to navigate. And it features “tough solar” power; I should never need to replace its batteries because it draws power from the sun, making it the opposite of Drow gear… or maybe not. I purchased it after a botched battery replacement broke the waterproof seal on an earlier model Pathfinder; I wanted something cooler, so I chose a forest green watch rather than a blue watch, and one that was “atomic”, meaning not exactly that it contained a super-exact atomic clock, but that its time would be set to well under one second accuracy by a nightly radio signal in various parts of the world. But my point is not exactly about this magical attunement to energies of the Underdark, but that my watch is a capture-proof weapon. I purchased it to replace a watch I was annoyed at having broke down, and the company that gave me an earlier watch that broke down also gave me a newer watch that will also break down. It would probably take a few years to break down, but I do not imagine I have purchased a watch that I can wear for the rest of a long life.

My newly upgraded iPhone 4 is also capture-proof, dependent on the energies of the Underdark in more ways than one. It needs to be kept charged, and will quickly become useless without a source of power. But 90% of its functionality is lost immediately if it loses network functionality. People can and do make iPhone apps that work without network access, but the overall current is to fetch things fresh from the network in a way that is completely useless if network access is not available. And, as a Popular Mechanics cover article stated, “Your gadgets spy on you;” my iPhone’s GPS is what older science fiction referred to as a tracking device, if it were not enough to have the NSA monitoring phone calls and network usage.

This is just the tip of an iceberg, the outer ornament of a Tower of Babel that is at its heart not about technology any more than astronomy is about telescopes or love letters or about ink. This Tower of Babel permeates life and culture. A political ideology is by definition a Tower of Babel. But something is odd even in the technology. Advances of technology in practice mean technologies that are more dependent on Underdark energy, and ultimately more fragile, than “obsolete” technologies they replace. This fragility, this vulnerability is the outer shell in shifts in life and culture that are at the essence of that hideous strength. Only I’m not sure how to untangle the whole of it. Perhaps I don’t need to. Perhaps it is enough to say that trouble has been brewing for centuries and it takes a global political and economic meltdown for people to see how hideous it is.

I’m uneasy about some of the things that seem to come with Fr. Seraphim (Rose)’s followers. However, interest in Taoism and the Tao Te Ching was also part of how I found my way to Holy Orthodoxy, and a very brief look at Christ the Eternal Tao made it clear that Fr. Seraphim (as a monastic, he does not need to have ‘Rose’ repeated) grasped Taoism and the Tao Te Ching at a deeper level than I did, and in a more organic way. And one of the points I believe Fr. Seraphim nailed is that people were less tangled in Lao Tzu’s world than ours, that in some sense Lao Tzu can be placed with Plato as (anonymous) Christians before Christ, and that however fallen Lao Tzu’s China may have been, we have fallen further. One head of this hydra is marketing, cognate to manipulation, propaganda, and porn, that basically relates to people as things to be manipulated and not related to as human. One American visited (our day’s) China and wondered how the Chinese could stand to be bombarded by such ludicrous propaganda: and then came home with fresh eyes to messages informing her that she would be cooler if she drank Pepsi. Some people have said that branding has taken the place of spiritual discipline in today’s world—a professor asked students a question, “Imagine your successful future self,” and continued, “With what brands do you imagine yourself associating?” And he received no puzzled stares or social cues that anybody found this a strange question. Branding is powerful; I’ve mentioned a couple of brands and regard my name-dropping of Casio Pathfinder and the iPhone 4 as ultimately shameful. And this is one tentacle among a thousand; I could elsewhere review some of Exotic Golden Ages and Restoring Harmony with Nature: Anatomy of a passion, or make a deeper cut and say, “Feminism is anti-woman. No, really. Never mind the marketing image; if you really want to see sparks fly, ask a good, devoted feminist if feminism and gender studies give us human fluorishing, and then smile and say, ‘You know, I think Phyllis Schlafly is a beautiful example of human flourishing.'” And when you’re done ducking for cover, look at another of the many tentacles of today’s Tower of Babel (or perhaps many Towers of Babel). Perhaps look at the premise that relationships are a disposable commodity and marriages fall apart at the drop of a hat next to not-particularly-close friendships in bygone ages: and if that is not enough, the next installment is that relationships are not disposable if someone wants out, but transactional, intended to be dropper fairly quickly even if there is nothing like a falling-out.

Perhaps we do not need to spend too much more time looking into that abyss.

That Beautiful Strength

An Orthodox icon of the Resurrection.
An icon of the Resurrection

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov answers C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength.

The Brothers Karamazov does not discuss anything apocalyptic and predicts no Russian Revolution, but it is eminently concerned with the problem of evil, and two chapters provide two of the most powerful statements of the problem of evil in literature. But after evil has full reign, something good follows in its wake. There is a superficial happy ending when an escape is planned for a man who wounded but did not kill his father, and is convicted of parricide. But that is almost superficial. On a deeper level there is something good that follows the Christlike Alyosha, and evil at the death of a young boy does not have the last word. The book as a whole is painful to read, or I found it such. But its ending is fragrant. It has the fragrance of the resurrection.

The mystery of the resurrection is not only for the consummation of time in the Last Judgment. Heaven is for now, and the mystery of the resurrection is for now.

This year, on Holy Saturday, I finally got something that I hadn’t gotten before, thick as I am. I had begun studying theology and against what seemed insurmountable odds (including studying during treatment for cancer), I earned a master’s degree in theology. Then I entered a Ph.D. program at another school to be able to teach at a seminary. I did not complete the program; you can read my author bio if you want to see what I’ve accomplished in other settings, but I washed out of this program in a very painful way. (As in, it was so rough that I found chemotherapy an easier experience.)

What I realized this Sunday was that what prevented me from getting a Ph.D. did not stop God’s purposes; it may well enough have thwarted what I thought was God’s intent, but right now I have a great many blessings to count and am profoundly grateful to God that I am not still working on a Ph.D. program that would have on the average taken eight years to complete and would still not have gotten me a Ph.D. by now. My regrets now are the right and proper regrets that I was angry and I failed to use hardship in an ascetical, spiritually disciplined manner. And I recognize God’s wonderful, severe mercy in all of this: I failed to recognize the words of Christ the True Vine: Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. God’s hand was powerful enough when several good things that never happen fell into place for me to go a certain distance into academic theology. And it was even more powerful in several bad things that never happen fell into place to keep me from completing my program.

Most of the theology covered was queer, or gender studies, or Marxist, or what have you; but on this point I would recall the words of one flaming liberal theologian who said that Christ’s resurrection was not on the same level as his death; it wasn’t simply reversing his death so that with Lazarus he was alive in the same way as before. Instead Christ remained, in a certain sense, dead; the marks of death remained with him, but God had the last word. The East does not really have a tradition of saints bearing the stigmata but instead saints who shine with the radiant uncreated Light of Heaven, but even in the East it is clear that the marks of the crucifixion on St. Francis of Assisi are a treasure beyond pearls. Christ was crucified, but this did not annihilate Christ: instead it annihilated crucifixion. Christ would become the firstborn of the dead: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death!” And others have pointed out that Christ did not return to the level of things in his passion and have a petty triumph: he did not return to Pilate and say, “You said, ‘What is truth?'”, nor return to the Sanhedrin and say, “Are you sure that I am a mere man who blasphemed when you asked me if I was the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?” It’s not just that Christ wasn’t being petty; he was working on another level. The only exception seems to be St. Thomas, who said, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.” and when Christ took him up on his claim, St. Thomas answered, “My Lord and my God!“, confessing infinitely more than Christ’s resurrection. Christ triumphed in his fruitful unbelief.

That Hideous Strength describes something that is real and active, but for all the hideous strength of Hell, when evil triumphs, God the changes the game.

That Beautiful Strength has the last word. The resurrection is not a fundamental exception to how God works; it is the supreme example of a law that plays out on a much smaller scale. An unintended pregnancy can be the gateway for two people to move past living for themselves, and live for something bigger than an egotism of two. And in some ways that is like how, despite all my best efforts to become an official theologian, God has introduced me to theology—the real kind. Not that he doesn’t mean others to be a scholar, but to Orthodox scholar and nonscholar alike theology is life; it is for all Orthodox Christians; it is a Heaven that begins on earth, a practice of the virtues and a spiritual walk, and something much bigger than an academic discipline. Even if some Orthodox can and should be practitioners in academic theology. And even if I’m thick enough that it took me years to see this.

That Beautiful Strength is unconstrained no matter how many cards that hideous strength plays off the side of the deck. That Beautiful Strength brings Heaven wherever God’s saints may be, even in a concentration camp. That Beautiful Strength thrives in losses we consider catastrophic, losses of things we think we need. That Beautiful Strength takes tragedy as the canvas for a masterpiece of beauty, glory, and wonder. That Beautiful Strength fixes the root problems despite all our efforts to fix things ourselves. That Beautiful Strength, however deep the magic of that hideous strength may be, is of a deeper magic from beyond the bounds of time. That Beautiful Strength took the marks of the lowest death, the crucifixion of a disobedient slave, and made them more precious than rubies and pearls. That Beautiful Strength takes sinners and makes them saints. That Beautiful Strength will someday hear the praises of the mute, be heard by the deaf, and be seen by the blind, but it is a strength that is alive and well and works its power and wonder today.

That Hideous Strength is alive and powerful, but it need never be the last word.

The Angelic Letters

The damned backswing


A pilgrimage from Narnia