Book Review: Till We Have Faces

A review of Till We Have Facesby C.S. Lewis.

The story, ultimately, of a courageous woman’s case against the gods, this book is at once cathartic and rousing.

Technically, this is Lewis’ “modern retelling” of the myth of Cupid and Psyche. But familiarity with the myth, of which most modern readers probably have little, is unnecessary—this retelling is complete in its own right. The book tells the story of Orual, princess and queen of Glome. Through haunting and extraordinary circumstances, she loses her teenage sister and must grapple with that loss, and her role in it, for the rest of her life, while learning hard lessons about the world of men, gods, war and friendship. Eventually she dedicates herself to her worldly affairs, choosing implicitly to reject thoughts of higher things—the gods, most centrally—and of her beloved lost sister.

A reader would have missed the point of this book had it not brought to the mind buried, or perhaps active and present, frustrations with the world and what forces direct the more random aspects of our lives. Set in pre-Christian Europe and tangential to ancient Greece, this story is full of analogies that paint a picture of us all—mortal people with immortal questions about the human condition.

From the protagonist’s coming-of-age pains to her adolescent kingdom’s identity crisis (in the shadow of towering Greece) to her Greek tutor’s instruction on the world and the gods, the book is an exploration of what it means to deal with pain and uncertainty in a world infused by spiritual forces yet seemingly devoid of any supernatural intercourse. Are the gods real? Is it foolish to ask such a question, even after one has seen their faces? Can we even understand such questions or their answers, and do the gods care about us?

In more ways than one, the book does not answer these questions. It raises them by way of intimate first-person narrative that, ideally, will feel familiar to readers as a narrative that lies somewhere deep within them—an elaborate “retelling” of their own attempts to reconcile what was with what could have been, and why the gods don’t seem to care.

As a piece of writing, the books dialogue and narrative is simple and unornamented. Lewis, of course, was a classicist (and the myth, of course, is classical) and reveals no transparent urge to differentiate his prose from other early- and mid-twentieth century mainline writers. In that sense, the language itself is uninteresting. The chapters are not long and the writing is easier to understand than one might expect, given the book’s mature subject.

This is one of Lewis’ best.

The earth beneath

“Do you know, Sister, I have come to feel more and more that the Fox hasn’t the whole truth. Oh, he has much of it. It’d be dark as a dungeon within me but for his teaching. And yet … I can’t say it properly. He calls the whole world a city. But what’s a city build on? There’s earth beneath. And outside the wall? Doesn’t all the food come from there as well as all the dangers? … things growing and rotting, strengthening and poisoning, things shining wet … in one way (I don’t know which way) more like, yes, even more like the House of–”

“Yes, of Ungit,” said I. “Doesn’t the whole land smell of her? Do you and I need to flatter gods any more? They’re tearing us apart … oh, how shall I bear it? … and what worse can they do? Of course the Fox is wrong. He knows nothing about her. He thought too well of the world. He thought there were no gods, or else, (the fool!), that they were better than men. It never entered his mind — he was too good — to believe that the gods are real, and viler than the vilest men.”

“Of else,” said Psyche, “they are real gods but don’t really do these things. Or even — mightn’t it be — they do these things and the things are not what they seem to be?”

From chapter seven of C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold.

Some news

My wife and I visited her sister at Florida State University last weekend. Beautiful place (even if stupidly humid). Here’s a photo I took with my smartphone of an especially impressive trees on campus — one of many. Click on the image for a bigger view.

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In other news, these past few weeks have been the hardest of my life. I don’t know how personal I want to be on this blog just yet, but those who know me understand what I’m talking about. I honestly can’t imagine anything worse. I’m not convinced the worst is behind me, either. I’m confused and I wonder sometimes if I even know what has happened, or what is going on. I wonder whether it will hit me — all of it — when I least expect it. I’m scared of the future for reasons I never thought of before. I’m privy to things that I didn’t know existed, and worry about things I’m not sure I can handle. The days blur together, at least for now, and my goals and aspirations seems to have gotten lost somewhere — I’m sure they’ll look quite different when I find them.

But despite all this, I’m ok. It’s odd, really, that despite so much change and so much loss, many things remain the same — things you don’t notice until they become all you have left. These things are comforting.

Lastly, please believe me when I say we need each other. We need other people more than we need food and shelter. We need love and companionship. We need camaraderie. We need hugs and gifts and family dinners and late nights out with friends. We need someone to see us cry every now and again. We need to hear someone’s secrets and to let them know ours. We need to worry about others and be worried about. We need to get mad sometimes when others aren’t there for us. And we need someone to forgive when we remember that there’s always more to the story.

We need these things. We cannot live without them. They are the stuff of life — glimpses of another world, in a mysterious way, that give us a reason to keep going through even the most horrifying of circumstances. They’ve sure kept me going these past few weeks.

Please believe me. You need these things. Your friends at work, school, and church need these things. Be a giver of these things, and take them as often as you can. Never forget that.

Dehomogenizing deflation

From Selgin, Lastrapes, and White:

The postwar eradication of deflation would count among the Fed’s achievements were deflation always a bad thing. But is it? Many economists appear to assume so. But a contrasting view, supported by a number of recent studies, holds that deflation may be either harmful or benign depending on its underlying cause. Harmful deflation—the sort that goes hand-in-hand with depression—results from a contraction in overall spending or aggregate demand for goods in a world of sticky prices. As people try to rebuild their money balances they spend less of their income on goods. Slack demand gives rise to unsold inventories, discouraging production as it depresses equilibrium prices. Benign deflation, by contrast, is driven by improvements in aggregate supply—that is, by general reductions in unit production costs—which allow more goods to be produced from any given quantity of factors and which are therefore much more likely to be quickly and fully reflected in corresponding adjustments to actual (and not just equilibrium) prices.

Historically, benign deflation has been the far more common type.

In other words, not all falls in the price level are bad. When prices fall because of improvements in productive technologies, for example, that’s good. That’s the point of growth. That is growth.

Falling LFPR isn’t a huge deal

LFPR is low. That’s all over the news these days. Mostly just conservative pundits trying to downplay the economic recovery.

Now, there are good reasons to downplay the recovery. Zero percent interest rates for 80+ months with no end in sight—that’s a much better reason.

But that aside, the low (and even falling) LFPR alone just isn’t evidence of poor recovery. LFPR, as I’ve explained before, is sensitive to demographic shifts that don’t necessarily correlate with any economic trends in particular. Theoretically, a low LFPR is a long-term economic goal—more wealth means fewer people (especially 18-24 and 55+ year olds) need to work in order to maintain a certain quality of life. Stay in school longer, retire earlier, go fishing, chill-out, etc.

For example, the percentage of 16-24 year olds as part of the workforce has fallen since 1990, as college becomes attainable for more people. That’s good. The LFPR also fell dramatically over the past several hundred years, as capital accumulation made it possible for people to actually quit working when they get old, or to put off work until adulthood. Again, that’s good.

Also, LFPR fell almost every year from 1956 to 1964, during which time GDP grew by more than 50 percent. That’s really good.

So don’t worry too much about LFPR—at least not in the way pundits want you to worry. Vox has a good, well-balanced perspective.

In general, one index or metric never tells the whole story. Look for trends and patterns. Ignore the hiccups. Be generally optimistic.

Faithful presence (anti-“culture war”)

From James Davison Hunter:

Christians need to abandon talk about ‘redeeming the culture’, ‘advancing the kingdom’, and ‘changing the world’. Such talk carries too much weight, implying conquest and domination. If there is a possibility for human flourishing in our world, it does not begin when we win the culture wars but when God’s word of love becomes flesh in us, reaching every sphere of social life. When faithful presence existed in church history, it manifested itself in the creation of hospitals and the flourishing of art, the best scholarship, the most profound and world-changing kind of service and care – again, not only for the household of faith but for everyone. Faithful presence isn’t new; it’s just something we need to recover.

Is this why we’re fat?

The Atlantic today on why it was easier to be skinny in the 1980s:

They found a very surprising correlation: A given person, in 2006, eating the same amount of calories, taking in the same quantities of macronutrients like protein and fat, and exercising the same amount as a person of the same age did in 1988 would have a BMI that was about 2.3 points higher. In other words, people today are about 10 percent heavier than people were in the 1980s, even if they follow the exact same diet and exercise plans.

The piece goes on to explore three possible reasons for this: chemical exposure and its effect on hormonal processes, use of prescription drugs tied to weight gain, and excessive meat consumption that alters “gut bacteria” in ways that add up slowly over time.

On Pope Francis, think deeper

Pro-market Christians in America could learn much from Pope Francis about holy living and compassionate thinking if only they’d think more deeply about his message. Instead, they’re too quick to extract superficial, tangential inferences about what his teaching means for the cause of free market capitalism. Indeed, advancing free markets is no end in itself — it is, or ought to be, a corollary cause for those believe, with sound and defendable reasons, that markets are a just way to bring economic progress to all peoples. Citing Pope Francis’ (alleged) anti-capitalism alone to argue against his teaching reveals a total misunderstanding of why beliefs about economic life are worth holding and, possibly, of the very nature of God.

Neither should one evaluate Pope Francis according to whether he’s pro-America. If a Christian disagrees with the Pope, it ought to have something to do with the Pope’s theology. Patriotism, as an ideal, simply doesn’t rise high enough to serve as any defense against anyone who claims to speak for or about God, no matter what one may think of such a teacher’s true place or motive. If my God is wrong because you’re country is great, it’s country, not God, who you serve.

So don’t interpret Pope Francis’ exhortations against greed and inequality as falling somewhere to the left-of-center on the political spectrum. When the Pope criticizes the market, he’s not doing so as an advocate of further state regulation. He’s doing so as an advocate of holy living. In this sense, we ought to take his teaching on restraint, discretion, and sacrifice personally — applicable to our own lives in some way that perhaps only we can know — and not as part of some larger, implicit ideology or political campaign. Ironically, if we all did this, I’m convinced we’d hear much less about the “evils of capitalism,” even in the context of an economically competitive, “free market” society.

All of this hits on a larger, more insidious issue plaguing American churches today. Sadly, how many have chosen to interpret the Pope — as speaking anti- this or pro- that, instead of do this or do that — is how so many Christians interpret sincere exhortations from truly good teachers. Sound, Biblical teaching on issues like sexuality, family, and citizenship are too quickly seen as denouncements of this or that way of thinking about such issues rather than as (sometimes hard) lessons on how we, personally, can walk with God. The extent to which we think about the Pope’s, or any good teacher’s, lessons on life in such terms is the extent to which we fail to glean what’s truly valuable in good teaching. To be wise has never been so much about understanding what’s true and good, but about willing and living accordingly.

Hayek on competition and discovery

From F.A. Hayek’s Competition as a Discovery Procedure:

I should like to begin with the observation that market theory often prevents access to a true understanding of competition by proceeding from the assumption of a “given” quantity of scarce goods. Which goods are scarce, however, or which things are goods, or how scarce or valuable they are, is precisely one of the conditions that competition should discover: in each case it is the preliminary outcomes of the market process that inform individuals where it is worthwhile to search.

How to argue with the Pope

If you’re going to argue with Pope Francis, at least respond in kind.

When the Pope speaks about immigration reform, wealth redistribution or climate change, he’s proclaiming God’s perspective. You may not believe he knows anything more about God’s perspective than you do, but you can, I hope, acknowledge that he believes this is true. His comments on “political” issues like the ones I listed above are rooted in, he believes, a correct understanding of Scripture and what we know about God through our observations of the universe.

So saying something like…

“The Pope is wrong about climate change. Anti-warming policy is bad policy — it’s just a red carpet for bigger government.”

…means nothing to him and those who believe him. He, along with millions around the world, believes this is God’s perspective. It doesn’t matter what you think about anti-warming policy, even if you could prove it wrong, as long as God is for it.

So if you’re going to argue with the Pope, do so in kind. Here’s how:

If you don’t believe in God, then don’t argue with the Pope’s facts. His facts are of a different kind than yours. For you, the Pope is simply wrong because he believes in a false being called “god.” Why argue any further than that? Why analyze and critique his statements according to your understanding of things? He says what he says because, he believes, God says it that way. Showing him some “evidence” that is rooted in something other than God’s revelation is pointless.

If you’re a Christian but not Roman Catholic (or, for that matter, Roman Catholic but not a Francis fan), then correct the Pope with Scripture and an appeal to general revelation (that is, what we know about God from our observations of the universe). Correct his theology. Correct his view on God’s will for these particular “political” issues, specifically. Don’t go around saying he’s wrong about, say, immigration reform because that’s bad economic policy. Why should he care? Why should anyone who takes him seriously care? If God said it, it’s not bad economic policy (according to those who take him seriously).

What’s worst is when Christians who don’t like the Pope think he’s wrong because his views don’t align with free market capitalism. What if God’s views don’t align with free market capitalism? If you want to wage a sound argument against the Pope’s ideas, show that God supports free market capitalism, or whatever you think God supports.

These thoughts are jumbled. I hope you get what I’m trying to say.

Basically, if you think Pope Francis is wrong about things and you’re not a Christian, don’t argue with the specifics of his propositions. Argue with the source of his ideas. If you think Pope Francis is wrong about things and you’re a Christian, take issue with his theology. Don’t say he’s wrong just because the numbers don’t add up — again, why should he or his supporters care if they truly believe he speaks for God?

Are Americans generally wealthier than Brits?

From Fraser Nelson at The Spectator:

That fits our general idea of America: a country where the richest do best while the poorest are left to hang. The figures just don’t support this. As the below chart shows, middle-earning Americans are better-off than Brits. Even lower-income Americans, those at the bottom 20 per cent, are better-off than their British counterparts. The only group actually worse-off are the bottom 5 per cent.

I recommend the rest of the piece. It’s important to remember, though, that GDP isn’t everything. This Time response piece hits on that point:

It is also a little simplistic to equate poverty with GDP, which measures business and government spending as well as individual consumer behavior. Poverty is better reflected by rates of joblessness, education level and life expectancy. The UK’s unemployment rate is 6.6%, roughlycomparable to New York (36th among the states). The UK has a 91% high school equivalent graduation rate, which would put it in the top 5 among states. And the UK’s life expectancy at birth is over 80; that would rank it among the top 10 states.

Imagination, boldness, and modeling human choice

Israel Kirzner on entrepreneurial discovery:

For neoclassical theory the only way human choice can be rendered analytically tractable, is for it to be modeled as if it were not made in open-ended fashion, as if there was no scope for qualities such as imagination and boldness. Even though standard neoclassical theory certainly deals extensively with decision-making under (Knightian) risk, this is entirely consistent with absence of scope for the qualities of imagination and boldness, because such decision-making is seen as being made in the context of known probability function. In the neoclassical world, decision-makers know what they are ignorant about. One is never surprised. For Austrians, however, to abstract from these qualities of imagination, boldness, and surprise is to denature human choice entirely.

It does nobody any favors

From Theodore Dalrymple:

If we can sympathize only with the utterly blameless, then we can sympathize with no one, for all of us have contributed to our own misfortunes – it is a consequence of the human condition that we should. But it does nobody any favors to disguise from him the origins of his misfortunes, and pretend that they are all external to him in circumstances in which they are not.