Becoming Captain America (part 2)

This narrative attempts to bring together in a seamless account all the diverse elements depicted in the comics listed in Part 1.  The base story line is that of CAC #1 (March 1941), with later additions and embellishments as documented.

After watching a newsreel of Hitler’s advances in Europe, Steve Rogers immediately attempts to enlist but designated 4-F: “You’re much too frail for military duty!” A distraught Rogers protests, “But there must be something I can do—a place for me!” His plea is overhead by an officer (“General Phillips” in ToS #63, but addressed as “Colonel” in CA #109). “If you’re really serious about wanting to play a part in all this,” the officer says, “Would you become a human guinea pig—in a deadly experiment?” (CA #176, #255, AdvCA #1; in the latter, General Phillips is accompanied by an Erskine-like doctor who repeats, “perfect, absolutely perfect,” while sizing up the frail young man).

Rogers is taken by young, dark-haired woman (Lt. Cynthia Glass) to secret training center in Washington, D. C. area. He and three other potential Rebirth candidates undergo weeks of intensive training prior to the Rebirth procedure.[1] Rogers’ training is overseen by Lt. Col. James Fletcher, a.k.a. “The American Eagle” (perhaps the “Colonel” in CA #109?). The project leader (identified only as “Abraham” at first) is a German scientist. Rogers, selected by a process of elimination as the best candidate, writes a letter that night dated Jan. 13, 1941. Fletcher and “Abe” meet on Jan. 28 to discuss fears of infiltration; Abe relates the importance of “vita-rays” to the process and gives his “formula” to Fletcher for safekeeping (all AdvCA #1)

Dressed in civilian attire, two military officers and Rogers drive to a “sinister looking curio shop” in “a shabby tenement district” of Washington, D.C. The “old shop keeper” at first draws a hidden gun, then, satisfied with their identities, leads them “up a musty stairway” (depicted in new panel) to a secret room. The old woman pulls off a mask, revealing herself to be a young woman (dark hair; Lt. Glass?) whom “Grover” identifies as “Agent X-13” (CAC #1, agent not identified in ToS #63; in CA #109, Rogers makes the same trip to the curio shop, but meets “Reinstein, the world’s greatest physicist” upon entering the shop.  Describing the moment years later, Rogers recalls, “that day in 1941 when a skinny youth heard a voice behind a sliding door and walked with nervous steps through it to face a famous scientist the whole world thought was dead!” (CA #215).
Rogers follows the Professor upstairs, while the undisguised young woman remains downstairs “on guard.” Confusion over Reinstein/Erskine is resolved (CA #255), when Rogers meets “Dr. Anderson, Director of Projects” and “Head Scientist, Professor Reinstein.” Rogers exclaims, “Reinstein? Why, that’s Dr. Abraham Erskine, the famous biochemist. But I thought he’d died last spring in an auto crash!” “That’s what we wanted the world to believe, my boy,” Erskine replies, noting “Reinstein” was a code name.

The military officers (and Dr. Anderson) are seated in an observation room with others already there. In a laboratory outside a large glass window, they see a frail young man. “It has taken us months to find the proper 4F specimen whose body will react properly to our new tissue-building chemical!” The scientist in the room (as yet unidentified here and in the original story) says, “Step forward, Rogers.” Next panel elaborates, “Steve Rogers! Too puny, too sickly to be accepted by the Army! Steve Rogers! Chosen from hundreds of similar volunteers because of his courage, his intelligence, and his willingness to risk death for his country if the experiment should fail!” (ToS #63). In the original 1941 story, the as-yet unidentified young man is injected with a “strange seething liquid.” In ToS #62, Rogers is handed a large vial of “chemicals” and drinks.

“Gentlemen,” the scientist informs the observers, “This distinguished young volunteer has already been injected with my secret serum. Next you shall see how I speed up its process—and how it will affect his body cells.” To complete the process, Rogers is “bombarded . . . potent, invisible vita-rays” (CA #109).


Rogers changes before their eyes into a perfect human specimen, to be “The first of a corps of super-agents whose mental and physical ability will make them a terror to spies and saboteurs.” “We shall call you Captain America, son!” the scientist proclaims. “Because, like you—America shall gain the strength and the will to safeguard our shores” (CAC #1; CA #176). “Project Rebirth is a resounding success! Through biochemical and radioacteeve means, ve haff created ze next step in human evolution . . . . I give you ze American Super-Soldier!” (AdvCA #1).


BUT . . . one of the army observers (not seemingly one of the men who came with “Grover”) “is in the pay of Hitler’s Gestapo!” The infiltrator, later identified as “Heinz Kruger, who was smuggled ashore from a submarine by “loyal Fifth Columnists” (CA #109), pulls a gun and shoots the scientist. A vial of serum (not a syringe) is also shattered, and “Grover” (Col. Fletcher in AdvCa #1) is shot as well. Rogers reaches through the observation window, pulls the gunman through it, and dispatches him with two punches. In his “frantic effort to escape” the spy becomes entangled in equipment and is electrocuted. Recalling the event later, Cap admits to more aggressive response than intended: “I didn’t mean to hit him so hard—but I didn’t know my own strength! And I wasn’t sorry! Nothing left of him but charred ashes . . . a fate he well deserved!” (CA #176).

Afterward, in a brief scene switch to “the Wermacht headquarters of Third Reich in Berlin,” where “evil forces have received word of Project: Rebirth’s initial success,” the Red Skull makes a cryptic appearance and is identified as the mastermind behind the plot (AdvCA #1).


[1] The Super-Soldier program is variously referred to in stories as “Operation Rebirth” or “Project Rebirth.” The Marvels Project #4 (Feb. 2010, Brubaker and Epting) also depicts Rogers going through two months of extensive testing in preparation to become “America’s first Super-Soldier.” As he does so, Heinz Kruger, under his alias of Frederick Clemson, Special Agent for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, prepares to attend “the big day—the Game Changer.”

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The Presidential Election of 2017 (?)

Donald Trump appears to be on his way to the Republican nomination, but fear not; this may wind up being, if nothing else, an excellent chance for a Civics lesson! Welcome to class.

Most folks have forgotten (or never knew) this, but the U. S. Constitution does not provide any role for political parties in the Presidential election process. The Electoral College was specifically established to give the States, not the people, the predominant role in electing the President. (Article II, Sect. 1).

Sure, parties can pick their candidates however they choose, but there were not even conventions until the 1830s, and long after that convention delegates were selected by State caucuses. There were no primaries until the early 20th century. In the General Election, the people can vote for their party’s choice (or anyone else on the ballot), but that just decides which candidate “gets” their State’s electoral votes.

Here’s where it could get fun this year. If no candidate receives a majority of the electoral votes in the November General Election, the House of Representatives is empowered by the Constitution by the 12th Amendment to choose the President. And they do this voting by State delegations, not as individual representatives. So it doesn’t matter which party holds the majority in the House, but which party holds the majority in each of the State delegations (we’ll come back to this).

The last (and only) time this happened was in the infamous 1824 Presidential election (which did not get decided until 1825). The four candidates who finished with the highest number of electoral votes in that election were Andrew Jackson (99), John Quincy Adams (84), Henry Crawford (41), and Henry Clay (37). The 12th Amendment directed the House, voting by States, to choose from among the top three, leaving Clay, the sitting Speaker of the House, out of the picture.

At that time, near the end of the “Era of Good Feelings,” Democratic-Republicans dominated national politics. The four Presidential candidates were all from this party, so each was defined more by personality and region than by party affiliation. While Clay may have no longer been in the running, his position as Speaker kept him closely involved in the process. Clay detested Jackson, and while he was not allowed to vote (having been a candidate himself), he encouraged his supporters to back Adams, who was elected. So poor Andrew Jackson, while winning the most electoral votes in the election, was denied the Presidency (he came back to win big in the next election, though).

So there’s our precedent for a potential Presidential fracas this fall (and perhaps beyond). It is quite possible that if Trump is the Republican candidate, a more moderate Republican “establishment” candidate would mount a third-party run. Romney has said no (so far), but who knows what happens when it comes down to it? Or perhaps a Kasich/Rubio ticket? And in the current volatile political climate, there’s a good chance the electoral votes could fall so that no single candidate wins an electoral majority.

Granted, third-party runs for President –even in potentially propitious times—have been notorious for garnering popular support without scoring the needed States to make an electoral impact. But just for the sake of possibility let’s imagine how this year’s election could shake out. Three candidates; none receives a majority of the State’s electoral votes. The House exercises its Constitutional prerogative to choose the next President. As Speaker, Republican Paul Ryan (VP candidate last time around!) presides over the proceedings. We know the Republicans have the majority of members in the House, but how do the State delegations line up?

In the current 114th Congress, House Republicans hold a strong majority (over 60% of the state’s delegation) in 31 States; Democrats only dominate in 13 states. Three states’ delegations are evenly split, two have slight Republican majorities, and one (Illinois!) is slightly Democratic. With these numbers, it seems fairly likely that the Republican Representatives in a majority of states—most of whom are not Trump fans—would easily be in a position to give the election to a potential third party Republican challenger.

Who would that person be? Time will tell, but there is still something else to consider: the 115th Congress is being elected in November as well. No one knows for certain what the make-up of the new House membership will be. After the November election, results are certified by each State, then each State’s Governor officially declares the electors for the winner in a document that must be sent to the sitting 114th Congress by Dec. 13. The Presidential Electors must cast their votes by Dec. 19.   Generally (but not yet officially) the results are known, and everyone goes home for Christmas. But what if there is no clear electoral majority?

Unless some creative manipulation takes place, it will be the members of the new 115th Congress, who take office on Jan. 3, 2017, who will officially count the votes (as the Constitution requires) and declare a President (or not, as the case might be) when Congress meets in joint session on Jan. 6, 2017. So there we have it: the potential for a “Presidential Election of 2017.”

This situation would not exactly be a repeat of 1825, because back then the newly-elected Congress did not meet until March 4 (this date was changed by the 22nd Amendment to Jan. 3). So in 1825, it was the still-sitting 18th Congress who selected J. Q. Adams as President on Feb. 9.  This time around, things have changed a bit.

Still, it would be a fun exercise in Civic education. And hopefully it would bring an end this ridiculous notion of a Trump presidency.



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Becoming Captain America (part 1)

Captain America’s initial origin story is told in his first published appearance in Captain America Comics #1 (March 1941; hereafter CAC). Over the years numerous Timely/Marvel writers have enhanced, embellished (and sometimes confused!) his story. Two significant “modern” story arcs have added additional depth and context to the background behind “Operation Rebirth,” the program that created Captain America.  Truth:  Red, White and Black (7 issues, 2003) linked the program to a joint German-American eugenics venture initiated after WW I.  Then during Marvel’s 70th Anniversary year, Ed Brubaker (who was also writing Captain America at the time) introduced the idea of a “Race for the Super-Human,” with Germany and the U. S. turning earlier eugenics findings toward more advanced “meta-human” experimentation (see The Marvels Project, 8 issues, 2009-10).

Following is a brief overview of the most significant interpretations of how Steve Rogers became America’s first Super-Soldier (with events unique to each rendition noted in bold type).  In our next post, we’ll try to piece together a more cohesive narrative.[1]

CAC #1 (March 1941) “Meet Captain America,” Joe Simon and Jack Kirby
Captain America 001_01

Cover shows Cap punching Hitler; splash page text reads, “1941–As the ruthless war-mongers of Europe focus their eyes on a peace-loving America . . . the youth of our country heed the call to arm for defense. But great as the dangers of foreign attack is the threat of invasion from within–the dreaded fifth column.” President Roosevelt meets with two “high-ranking military officials” (he refers to one as, “General”) in the White House. “What would you suggest, gentlemen . . . a character out of the comic books? Perhaps the Human Torch in the Army would solve our problem!” (this is an interesting early reference that indicates Cap not only will inhabit the same “universe” at the Original Human Torch, but that this “universe” also has its own version of “Marvel Comics”!).  FDR then introduces J. Arthur Grover, “head of the FBI, who has a plan.


Tales of Suspense #63 (Mar. 1965; hereafter ToS), “The Origin of Captain America,” by Stan Lee (cover art by Jack Kirby & Syd Shores):


Large 1941 on opening splash w/caption: “Out of the dark, dramatic danger-packed years of World War II . . . out of the still-smoldering ashes of the fateful past . . . the Mighty Marvel Comics Group dares to revive, with glowing passion, and pride!” The artwork is very similar to original 1941 panels; some almost identical. Roosevelt speaks of “Operation Rebirth” (first reference) with the military officials. “Grover” is now “Dr. Anderson,” no longer with FBI. Most significantly, “Reinstein” is now identified as Prof. Erskine.  Rogers is handed a large vial of “chemicals” and drinks the “Super-Soldier Serum.”


Captain America #109 (Jan. 1969; hereafter CA) “The Hero Who Was,” Stan Lee (cover art by Jack Kirby, Frank Giacoia, Don Heck, Dick Ayers)


Cover banner proclaims, “The Origin of Captain America.” Cap recalls his origin story for Nick Fury. It follows the ToS #63 story with some elaborations and different perspectives. Rogers is shown for the first time volunteering for service but being turned away after his physical.  After he is injected with  secret serum. Next you shall see how I speed up its process—and how it will affect his body cells.” To complete the process, Rogers is “bombarded . . . potent, invisible vita-rays” (1st reference).


CA #176 (Aug. 1974) “Captain America Must Die” by Steve Englehart (cover art by John Romita)


Opens with a multi-page review of Cap’s origin story. “Once I was a boy, a skinny, gawky kid, just out of high school—born and raised in Manhattan, so I know all about the world. Went to the movies a lot, and never missed the newsreel. I knew the Nazis were rotten, from the minute I set eyes on them . . . . I knew where my duty lay! Steve Rogers, all of 18 (first age reference) had to become a soldier! I hit Whitehall Street the next morning, but . . . .” From there the now-familiar “Operation Rebirth” story is reviewed.


CA #215 (Nov. 1977) “The Way it Really Was” by Roy Thomas” summarizes the same “rebirth” story from ToS #63 over several panels (cover art by Gil Kane, Joe Sinnott, John Costanza, Gaspar Saladino).



CA #255 (Mar. 1981)— 40th anniversary, “The Living Legend,” by Roger Stern & John Byrne (cover art by Frank Miller, Joe Rubenstein, Rick Parker).


Pres. Roosevelt reviews the file on “Operation Rebirth.” This is the first published story that shows Rogers viewing the newsreel of “the Nazi war machine in its relentless march across a war-torn Europe!” “It’s as if half the world has gone mad,” Steve reflects as he leaves the theater. “If the Nazis aren’t stopped soon, there won’t be a free man left alive anywhere!”
CA Annual #10 (May 1991) opens with a 2-page “The Origin of Captain America” by D.G. Chichester. Basic “Rebirth” elements are shown with single-panel summaries of Cap’s WWII career, death, and “modern” recovery by the Avengers. Earlier confusion about how the super-soldier serum was administered is resolved: “Carefully screened and chosen as an ideal subject for the highly experimental process, Rogers underwent a grueling battery of oral, intravenous, and radiation treatments.”


The Adventures of Captain America, Sentinel of Liberty (4 issues, 1991-92) by Fabian Nicieza (cover art by Kevin Maguire & Joe Rubenstein).

This is the most extensive retelling of Cap’s origin ever, developing a much more elaborate pre-rebirth scenario and recounting early adventures not depicted anywhere else. It also provides more “back story for the young Rogers.”[2]

[1] The Official Index to the Marvel Universe, Avengers, Thor, and Captain America #1 (2010) notes that although many vesions of the “Operation Rebirth” story highlight the 1941 date, “subsequent chronological analysis places its events from Fall 1940 to March 1941.”

[2] While this is an ambitious, creative, and quite entertaining version of the story, the Official Index to the Marvel Universe asserts, “much of its telling is not in continuity.” Yet the 2010 limited series Steve Rogers, Super-Soldier has a direct tie-in with this series, featuring Lt. Cynthia Glass from this series, referring to her as Rogers’ first love. And flashbacks in She-Hulk #10 (Jan. 2015) depict young Steve’s encounter with the German villain Saurespritze, who also appears in Adventures #1-3.

Next up:  Crafting a cohesive origin story . . .

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Glory and Stone

What follows is the text of the Commencement Address given to the class of 2014 at Judah Christian School, Champaign, Illinois.  These graduating Seniors were all in my Worldviews class, and I sincerely thank them for the opportunity to spend this wonderful year learning and growing together.

It is a great honor and a pleasure to spend a few more moments with you, on this special day, in the company of your families, friends, and my fellow faculty of this wonderful school. We are happy to share this moment with you. Believe it or not, we are genuinely sad to see you go.  But go you must.

When we began this year together, we started with a few “Big Questions” about the human condition:   “Who Are We?”   “Why We Here?”                    “What Is Our Purpose?”

By the time we reached the end of our journey, we’d heard a variety of responses to these questions from a wide range of people, from “Great Thinkers” to “Pop Culture Gurus.” Here’s what some had to say:

Who Are We?

  • Socrates told us we were born to wonder and to find meaning in a rightly-lived life
  • Confucius told us that respect, reverence, and reflection distinguish us from the beasts
  • The Cynics told us it’s all up to us; the Stoics said to accept what fate makes of us; the Epicureans encouraged us to have just have a good time
  • Augustine insisted that “our hearts [would be] restless until they found their rest in [God]”
  • Aquinas assured us that through “reason & revelation” we would find ourselves in Christ
  • Descartes claimed that “thinking” (cogito) was the key to our rational “being” (sum)
  • Pascal said our hearts knew more about who we are than reason could ever fully reveal
  • Hume said it was best to remain skeptical about answers to such questions; Rousseau said to be radicals & challenge the status quo; Kant thought that intellectuals would show us the way
  • Kierkegaard called us to look beyond aesthetics or ethics and “leap into the abyss” of faith
  • Marx reduced us to economics; Darwin to mere biology; Freud to our libidos
  • Sartre said there was no “essence” in our “existence” (this moment is all there is)
  • Kuyper declared there was not one square inch of existence Christ does not claim as his
  • Martin Buber said “we are” because God needs us; Will Herberg said we’d figure out who we all are together
  • Chesterton, Tolkien, and Lewis showed us we are part of The Great Story
  • Bonhoeffer, John Paul II, and Solzhenitsyn called us to speak Truth to the Lies about ourselves
  • Hannah Arendt warned us of the banality of evil
  • DuBois, Ellison, and Malcolm X challenged us to understand who we are from the other side
  • Marshall McLuhan said media was making us; Niel Postman warned us we’re amusing ourselves to death
  • Elvis said “we’re all shook up”; Dylan said everything was a’ changing
  • Derrida took everything apart for us; Shaffer helped us put things back together
  • Carl Sagan pointed us to “The Cosmos”; where Walker Percy told us we were already lost
  • Ray Kurzwiel said we’d soon be “transhumans”; Oprah said we were already “divine”
  • And Rich Mullins reminded us that what we believe is what makes us who we are

(Well, there’s the whole school year in 4 minutes!!)

So, what do you believe? Who are you?

Are you merely “an ugly bag of mostly water,” as described the silicon creatures in Star Trek proclaimed?  A divine spirit or perhaps a reincarnated Thetan, desperate to be free of your physical body?

Or are you, as Chesterton said, the great “exception” among all of God’s creation? Will you rise to Lewis’s challenge to be a “Man,” not a “Rabbit”? From these two Great Souls we learned about the paradox of “True Humanity”: we are created from the same material as this world, but as a creature uniquely shaped by God in his very own image and likeness.

 What does it mean to be “Truly Human”?

  • You must recognize the human need to be redeemed from a fallen condition in which this image is tarnished and diminished from its original, intended glory.
  • You must know the difference between God and man and understand the effects of sin not just in your own life, but in all God’s good creation
  • You must see through the illusion of human progress which promises perfection attained through our own achievements, cleverness, and good intentions. Rejoice in common grace, pursue common good through mercy and charity, but do not ever expect that paradise is ours to make.
  • You must cultivate habits of virtue in order to live rightly in this world, looking to God’s truth, goodness, and beauty to help you transcend its limitations and avoid being of it.

I read something recently by our friend Prof. Donald T. Williams, from whom we learned about the “Mere Humanity” of Chesterton, Lewis and Tolkien. He writes,

From the best Christian philosophers . . . one can learn this wisdom: confidence that Truth, Goodness, and Beauty are real things, objectively rooted in the nature of the God of creation, and objectively imprinted by him onto the world he has made. [These Transcendentals] are supremely valuable and are their own justification precisely because Truth is the reflection of God’s mind, Goodness of his character, and Beauty of his glory. (“Hagia Sophia,” in Touchstone, Sept/Oct 2013)

Williams further admonishes: “If Christians do not gain confidence and boldness and indeed joy in their pursuit of these transcendental values from thinking philosophically, then they are . . . profoundly and colossally missing the point” of who they really are.

Part of the reason it seems so difficult to remember who we really are is due to the paradox of being “Truly Human.” We know from Genesis that God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness.” We know from the Psalms that God “crowns us with glory and honor.” And yet, Rich Mullins reminded us, we are also “forged in the flames of human passion; choking of the fumes of selfish rage”; and “we cast our prayers from the gravity and stone of earth.”

It is in the crux of this paradox that the broad philosophical question, “Who Are We?” becomes more pointed and personal: “Who Are You?” In the midst of glory and stone, who will you be?

My son, Wes, showed me something not too ago in the Book of Revelation I’d never noticed before. It’s in Ch. 2, which begins the so-called “letters to the seven churches.” John sees a vision of our Lord, who encourages or chastises (sometimes both) each church for their faithful witness (or lack thereof). Each of these discourses ends with an exhortation: “Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says.”

To those who listen and walk in faithfulness, Jesus promises “eternal life” beyond this world and “fullness of life” in this world. And then there is one more promise to the faithful; a bit more mysterious:  “I will also give him a white stone, and on the stone a new name is inscribed that no one knows except the one who receives it.”

white stone

What, do you suppose, is this name that God has written on a white stone that only you know? As Wes and I pondered this question, we came to this conclusion: the name on the stone is “who you really are.” All the glory, all the likeness, all that God made and intended when He knit you together in your mother’s womb. No one knows this name but you—and God (he wrote it there!).

Think about it. If someone asks “who you are,” your most likely first response would be to say your name. But is that who you really are? How many others have your name? Your parents gave you that name; they probably know you pretty well, but do they really know who you are?

You have lots of friends, and they call you by that name, but do they really know who you are?  In just a little while your name will be read, and you will receive a diploma with that name written on it. But is that who you really are?

No, only you and God know the “essence” of who you really are. If you are like me—like most of us here, I imagine—you would be mortified if everyone here suddenly knew what you know about who you really are. But even that is not really who you are; it is an image of you tarnished and diminished by trials and temptations; by selfishness and apathy.

The name written by God on that white stone is the real you. It is the name of your True Humanity. God is always “Calling out your name,” but it is up to you to listen. He’s been calling since you were born, He’s calling to you now, He will call out to you always. You will always be tempted to settle for being less than who this name says you really are; perhaps you’ll be tempted to forget there even is such a name. I pray not.

Whose voice will you listen to as you search for your true identity through life? The world’s? Your own? If so, then the stone you hold in your hand, which represents who you really are, will never become the “white stone” God intends for you. It will forever be transparent, reflecting whatever identity the world’s designs and your own desires make of you.

But if you listen and respond faithfully to God’s call, through His Grace you will be rewarded with “fullness of life” in this world and “eternal life” beyond it. With each day’s listening and faithfulness, your name will become His Name. Stone will become glory. And one day, He promises, you will know your Name.

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Another Christmas . . .

“But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.  Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.” (Gal. 4:4-7, NIV)

Here we are on what the liturgical calendar calls “The First Sunday after Christmas.”  After weeks–perhaps months—of anticipation, another Christmas has come and gone (my 56th, in fact!).  Having experienced this cycle so often—and through so many different phases of life—I find myself marking the transition more and more every year.  The passing of another Christmas often brings with it a bit of letdown.  There is something very special about the expectancy which leads up to Christmas, especially for children and those child-like adults who never lose their enthusiasm for the season.  The excitement of anticipation makes those days following the holiday all the more bittersweet.

Perhaps you have certain family traditions you observe duirng the annual cycle of Advent through to Christmas Day. For our family, Advent has long been marked by the moving of cute little bear through a pleasant Victorian house printed on a fabric hanging.  He’s moved from room to room each day, suspended on buttons at each location, looking for Christmas until he finally arrives at the beautifully decorated tree.

Another family tradition of ours is watching Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol.”  We’ve seen all the film and TV versions countless times over the years (the “Muppets” being our current family favorite).  Everyone is familiar with this classic story of Ebenezer Scrooge and the visiting spirits who help him find redemption.  There’s a scene that takes place early in the story when Scrooge’s nephew drops by the counting house to wish his uncle a “Merry Christmas,” only to be met with an iconic “Bah!  Humbug!”

What follows is a brief back and forth on the merits of the seasons and Scrooge’s final protest,   “Merry Christmas! Out upon merry Christmas! What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer . . . .  If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.”

“Uncle!” pleads the nephew.

“Nephew!” Scrooge replies. “Keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine.”

“But you don’t keep it.”

“Let me leave it alone, then. Much good may it do you! Much good it has ever done you!”

Scrooge & Nephew

The nephew’s response to this brings us to the point of today’s message.  Listen carefully.

“There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say, Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”  

Scrooge’s nephew makes an important observation here that is omitted from the various TV and film versions of this tale.  It is somewhat awkwardly phrased, so it is easy to forgive the omission from any performance script.  What Dickens points out here, almost in passing, is nonetheless very important for us to remember.  While we are blessed every year by the “spirit” of the season—the goodness, kindness, forgiveness, charity, and fellowship the nephew speaks of—these things are inseparable from the “sacred name and origin” from which this “spirit” flows.  In fact, none of the good things we associate with Christmas can truly ever exist “apart from that”—“that” being the Reality of Christ’s coming into this world, the Incarnation of God the Son, in order to make a way for all people to be redeemed.

In Gal. 4:4 we’re reminded of the importance of the world-transforming event we’ve just celebrated and profound personal implications it has for each of us.  As various translations have it, “In the Fullness of Time”; “At Just the Right Time”; “At the set time” . . . “God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.”

In the opening verses of the previous chapter, Paul has been challenging the Galatians confusion the place of the law in relation to the promise of new life which comes through faith in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:1-4).  Under the law, we are all in bondage to the consequences of our sinful nature.  Obedience to the law (being good people, doing good things) can never justify us before a Righteous God. In an odd sort of way, Scrooge’s refusal to see the point of “doing good” at Christmas is rooted in his own lack of the faith which brings the “good” to all “good deeds.”

So why was the law given if it could not save?  Paul tells us in Gal. 3:19-25 that it came “because of our transgression.”  Because of our sinful natures, we can never know God rightly.  The law “is our guardian,” preserving us from ourselves until the time would come when we could be fully restored to right relationship with our Father.  The law steers us in the right direction, but it never can bring us to our ultimate destination as sons and daughters of God.  Through Christ alone can we know Him rightly.

“In Christ Jesus,” Paul concludes, “we are all children of God through faith.”  This great blessing of “our adoption to sonship” (Ch. 4) is ours only because “At just the right time, god sent his son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law.”

That is the ultimate blessing of Christmas.  Ebenezer Scrooge only learned this by having three spirits visit him (at their appointed times!) and show him the consequences of man’s sinful nature; consequences he could never escape on his own.  They guided him toward an understanding of the True Spirit of Christmas, and that made all the difference in his life.  And Scrooge’s nephew reminds us that all of the good things we associate with this season only exist because Christ came “at the appointed time” to fulfill God’s promise.

As we come back to this special time, year after year, we remember and celebrate the great blessing of our own salvation and of the blessed hope given to a lost and dying world.  If we keep that in mind, no Christmas is ever just “another Christmas, come and gone.”  May we all like Scrooge, honor Christmas in our hearts, and try to keep it all the year.”  And may it be said of us, as him, that we know how to keep Christmas well when it comes around again!

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Lewis’s “Leap in the Dark”

C. S. Lewis was brought up in the Church of England but left any childhood faith behind as soon as his independent circumstances and the demands of compulsory church attendance allowed, and in response to what he felt his intellectual maturity demanded.  As an educated young “modern,” he came to view religion in general, including the Christianity of his youth, as a mere cultural construct that evolved to provide comfort and answers to less “enlightened” men.  He had long turned to poetry to supply the kind of “spiritual” and aesthetic satisfaction that religion provided for others.  In looking to poetry, he unwittingly set himself on the road to redemption.

What Lewis most wanted to be in early life was an accomplished poet.  After Magdalen College made him a fellow in 1925, and his long poem Dymer was published the following year, it looked like he might be on the path toward achieving his desire.  But in his own reading, he found himself continually drawn to religious writers, whose works were “were clearly those on whom I could really feed.”  Walter Hooper notes of Lewis at this time “All these years the greatest pleasure he ever had was from Christian poetry. Things like Spencer, Milton — all of these great poets. And yet he found out that he was reading them, as he later said, with the point left out. The same thing was happening with his friends — the people he thought he should’ve liked were the college atheists. But the ones he really liked were Tolkien, a practicing very devout Catholic, and Owen Barfield, who asked all the right questions” (Question of God, “A Leap in the Dark” segment)

What poetry, story, and myth did for Lewis was to draw him with an indescribable longing, but for what he did not yet know.  Later, the Christian Lewis would call this “Joy,” and it would be one of the central themes of his writing.  How he came to describe it as was not the thing itself desired, not even the satisfaction of a desire, but a desire itself that is more desirable than any satisfaction because it points one toward the source of the desired.  And that led Lewis down a logical path to infer that if, in life, there are “real” satisfactions for our desires in this world, should not the longing that was Joy also have its satisfaction, but perhaps in something beyond this world?

Then Lewis read Chesterton’s Everlasting Man and, “for the first time saw the whole Christian outline of history set out in a form that seemed to me to make sense” (Surprised by Joy). He continues, “The fox had now been dislodged from the wood and was running in the open, bedraggled and weary, the hounds barely a field behind.”   Weary of running, he came to the realization the truth about his resistance:  “I had always wanted, above all things, not to be interfered with. I had wanted — mad wish — to call my soul my own.”  Then comes his famous description of the moment of surrender:  “You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. Total surrender, the absolute leap in the dark, were demanded. I gave in, and admitted that God was God … perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England” (SJ).

Lewis now believed in God, but what remained unresolved were the claims of Jesus to be the Christ.  Walter Hooper describes the well-known night in 1931, when Lewis “had invited Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, two of his closest friends, to Magdalen College. It was a windy night, they went along before dinner, they walked along Addison’s Walk talking about mythology. They stayed up till 4:00 AM and Tolkien did his work well” (Question of God).  Lewis described a critical turning point in a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves:  “What Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this — that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a pagan story I didn’t mind it at all — I was mysteriously moved by it. The reason was that in pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound . . . . Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth.”

Lewis ruminated on this idea until it seeped into his soul.  In the Question of God, he describes his experience of what we American Evangelicals might call “accepting Christ” thus:  “I know very well when but hardly how the final step was taken. I went with my brother to have a picnic at Whipsnade Zoo. We started in fog, but by the end of our journey the sun was shining. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and when we reached the zoo I did. I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion. It was more like when a man, after a long sleep, becomes aware that he is now awake. But what of Joy? To tell you the truth, the subject has lost nearly all interest for me since I became a Christian. It was valuable only as a pointer to something other and outer.”

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Pain & Sorrow: Human Suffering and “The Good God”

In The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis brings all of his philosophical and critical skill to bear in responding to this classic contra Deum claim:  “If God were good, He would wish to make his creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty, he would be able to do what he wished.  But the creatures are not happy.  Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both.”  This assertion, Lewis says, “is the problem of pain in its simplest form.”


His response, while deeply thoughtful and eloquently expressed, is far from simple.  In successive short yet profound chapters, Lewis proceeds not so much to answer the question, but to break it down into key elements; clarify the meaning, logical suppositions, and inferences in each; and engage the reader’s mind with the necessary and consequential implications that emerge from the exercise.  What does it really mean to speak of Divine Omnipotence?  How are we to understand Divine Goodness?  How and when do Human Wickedness and the Fall of Man figure into things?

What lies at the center of the question, Lewis points out, is the way we understand the nature of God’s love for His creation.  “The problem of reconciling human suffering with the existence of a God who loves is only insoluble so long as we attach a trivial meaning to the word, ‘love,’ and look on things as if man were the centre of them.  Man is not the centre.  God does not exist for the sake of man.  Man does not exist for his own sake.”  We approach the problem of pain with a flawed assumption that our personal happiness and satisfaction in life should be the primary concern of our “loving” God.  Like spoiled children, we crave indulgence when we need discipline.  We expect to receive all we want without considering what we really need.  We assert our right to be free from all restrains while forsaking any sense of personal responsibility.  “To ask that God’s love should be content with us as we are,” Lewis asserts, “is to ask that God should cease to be God.”

How can “The Good God” not have our ultimate happiness and absolute well-being as the focus of His love for us?  Perhaps He does, and it is our own conceptions of what it means to be happy and well and fulfilled and satisfied which are skewed.  But if this were true, then we would be required to submit ourselves to a measure outside of ourselves in order to “right” our perspective.  Our resistance (or refusal) to do so is rooted in the same disobedience that produced the Fall of Man:  we wish to be “our own” and to exist for “ourselves.”  “From the moment a creature becomes aware of God as God and of itself as self,” Lewis writes, “the terrible alternative of choosing God or self for the centre is opened to it.”  To choose self as the center is the “basic sin behind all particular sins,” and we are “either committing it, or about to commit it, or repenting it” every day of our lives.

But suppose we rightly choose to submit, rightly place ourselves in relation to Him, and rightly align our sense of goodness and love and happiness as He teaches us?  And what if, even though we do so, our beloved falls ill and dies?  How does one whose mind was able to so insightfully reflect upon (and even make sense of) “the problem of pain” react when the “problem” becomes personal?  Lewis shows us with brutal honesty in A Grief Observed.  After his wife’s death, Lewis observes,

I can believe He [is a Good God] when I think of my own suffering.  It is harder when I think of hers.  What is grief compared with physical pain?  Whatever fools may say, the body can suffer twenty times more than the mind.  The mind has some power of evasion.

In this painfully intimate little book, Lewis offers no answers beyond faithful obedience to what one knows despite what one so viscerally feels.  Near the end, he simply states, “We cannot understand.”  Is our ability to understand God, in such times, “an act of intelligence or of love?  That,” Lewis concludes, “is probably another of the nonsense questions.”

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The Weight of Story: Marvels and “What Really Matters”

In his essay, “On Stories,” C. S. Lewis employs the marvelous word “Redskinnery” to describe “what really mattered to him” when he read stories set in the western American frontier.  “Take away the feathers, the high cheek-bones, the whiskered trousers, substitute a pistol for a tomahawk, and what would be left?” he asks.  For him, what mattered in the story was not just the suspenseful moments or the enjoyable characters.  What mattered was the way these events and characters evoked “that world to which [they] belonged.”

Reading these words brought to mind why have long loved comic book stories set in what’s known as “The Marvel Universe.”  As much as I may be thrilled by the amazing exploits and inspired by the noble character of Captain America, what really matters (Lewis helps me realize) is the comprehensive and cohesive world inhabited by the Living Legend.  World War Two and the quest for the Super-Soldier.  The “Man out of Time” motivated by ideals rooted in a fading cultural moment.   Values he cannot help but embody in a world no longer black and white:  Stars and Stripes; the American Dream; good guys and bad guys; “Avengers Assemble.”  Outside of this important context, there’s just a muscle-bound man wearing a flag.


Lewis further illustrates his point by referencing H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds.  “What really matters in this story is the idea of being attacked by something utterly ‘outside’ [the treat of extra-terrestrials].  This, too, is bread-and-butter in the Marvel Universe.  From menacing “bug-eyed monsters” of the fifties and sixties to the more recent “Skrull Invasion” (and so much more!), Earth is seemingly under constant threat by alien races and cosmic empires.  Of course, the threat is never consummated, yet each time we “fear” for our home world nonetheless.  Lewis notes, “Our fears are never, in one sense, realized:  yet we lay down the story feeling that they, and far more, were justified.”  Here, however, is where things get a bit more difficult for devotees of the Marvel Universe.  As the decades pass, the increasingly-hyped, mega-event “threats” from without bring great temporal devastation but leave seemingly little genuine consequence in their wake.  The nature of the genre means the story must go on (and more comics must be sold) until the next great threat can be imagined and delivered.  The more this happens, the less (I fear) readers will continue to feel justified in our fears.

“Good stories often introduce the marvelous or supernatural,” Lewis writes, and nothing about Story has been so often misunderstood as this.”  This, too, is certainly true in the world of Marvel Comics, beginning with the introduction of a flaming synthetic man (The Human Torch) in Marvel Mystery Comics #1 in 1939.  How is such a thing—let alone all the mutants, super-humans, “gods” of various panetheons, and even “Inhumans”!—to be believed?  “It is not necessary to believe in them,” Lewis asserts.  “Belief is at best irrelevant; it may be a positive disadvantage.  Nor are the marvels in a good Story ever mere arbitrary fictions stuck on to make the narrative more sensational.”  Such “marvels,” as Lewis puts it, are fitting reflections of the “world” they inhabit; in fact, they are the bridge between those worlds and the world of the reader.  Only Steve Rogers could be Captain America because he “fits” with the context of “his world” and resonates as a character with archetypes recognized in ours.  In the same way, only Peter Parker can be Spider-Man (current events notwithstanding!).


In “The Weight of Glory,” Lewis writes, “The books or music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things–the beauty, the memory of our own past–are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers.”  It may sounds silly to claim that mere comic book stories—and the “world” to which they belong—could transmit the kind of beauty, remembered past, and good images that Lewis associates with “Longing.”  At the very least, though, the Stories in Marvel Comics have for decades given me heroes whose notoriety rested in a noble heart; whose luminosity reflected the best of human virtues (these being Lewis’s “two ideas” of glory).  Even more, this glory is generally embodied in someone who could be me—or my neighbor.  “The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory,” Lewis concludes, should be born with humility.  “The backs of the proud will be broken.  It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses.”

As serious, perhaps, as a society of possible heroes and heroines, envisioned in a world of “real” ones.

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The End of Man: Lewis on Humanity Sacrificed

In the Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis examines the problems with “modern” education by taking to task the authors of “a book on English intended for  . . . the upper forms of schools.’”  Lewis’s concerns run far deeper than matters of methodology or curricula.  Modern education, he fears, has fallen into the hands of pseudo-intellectual “Innovators” and “Conditioners” who disdain anything smacking of traditional order.  “I am not supposing them to be bad men,” Lewis writes.  “They are, rather, not men (in the old sense) at all.”  As a result, they “sacrifice their own share in traditional humanity in order to devote themselves to deciding what ‘Humanity’ shall henceforth mean.”  At best, their work produces “men without chests.”  At worst, it facilitates the end of Man altogether.


“The differences between us . . . go all the way down,” Lewis asserts.  In the new scheme, words which “appear to be saying something important” are in reality “only saying something about our own feelings” and/or advancing an agenda.  Language is relegated to articulations of subjective feeling, the mere expression of which makes the thing so.  Lewis will have none of this nominalist heresy:  “Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it.” The objects of our emotional (and verbal and literary) responses “did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt.”

Lewis also sees at the root of this transformation the modern quest to subdue “nature” to serve the needs of humanity.  In the exercise of “Man’s power” over a natural order Lewis sees a harsher reality—“What we call Man’s power is, in reality, a power possessed by some men by which they may, or may not, allow other men to profit by.”  And here lies the real danger:  through the modern emphasis on therapeutics and exercise of techniques—particularly in the areas of “eugenics and scientific education”—Man will not rest until he has “obtained full control over himself.  Human nature,” Lewis asserts, “will be the last part of nature to surrender to man.  The battle will then be won.”

This “battle,” of course, is the central theme of Lewis’s novel, That Hideous Strength.  It is being fought on many levels:  in the marriage of main characters Jane and Mark Studdock; among the “Progressive Element” and traditional “Die-Hards” on the Bracton College faculty; and most importantly (though surreptitiously) between the forces of Belbury and St. Anne’s.  As Lord Feverstone attempts to lure Mark over to work for the N.I.C.E., he speaks directly to the battle at hand:  “You’ll hear people . . . burbling away about the ‘war’ against reaction.  It never enters their heads that it might be a real war with real casualties.”  From Feverstone’s “modern” perspective, the reactionary resistance, though slumbering for centuries, was beginning to rally (as Lewis hoped it might).  “They know now that we have got real powers:  that the question of what humanity is to be is going to be decided in the next sixty years.  They’re going to fight every inch.”

Lewis’s portrayal of this great battle in the novel reaches far beyond mere cultural wars.  The deeper powers and principalities at work are brought to light as well.  The novel extends The Abolition’s criticism of modern education into (as David Mills points out) practically every area of consequence Lewis wished to comment on:  “God and man[;] marriage, sex, and the differences between men and women; academic politics; ideological languages; the nature of modernizers and reformers . . . ; industrial versus pastoral ideals; the importance of beauty of order and tradition; and the nature of the spiritual struggle, particularly the need to subordinate the ego in submission to God.” (“Great Escapes & Lesser Stories” in Touchstone, Jan/Feb 2004)

In The Abolition, Lewis concludes, “There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the ‘wisdom’ of earlier ages.” The latter sought to “conform the soul to reality” through “knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue.”  For both magic and applied science, the goal is “how to subdue reality to the wishes of men” through “technique.”  The essence of humanity is preserved in “wisdom of old.”  The “subdued reality” wrought by magic and applied science results in the End of Man.

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Sons and Daughters: the Children of Narnia

The four Pevensie children at the center of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe are referred to in Narnia as “Sons of Adam” and “Daughters of Eve.”  No doubt C. S. Lewis intends for readers to see in these four children aspects of all people’s responses to the fantastic proposition that there is more to being human than  may appear “in the flesh.”  Lewis seems to make a point in many scenes where the children appear together (both in and outside of Narnia) of highlighting their individually distinctive reactions and attitudes.  Perhaps there is more for us to see here than just four children.


The most dramatic of such scenes is in Ch. 7 when Lewis describes each child’s response to “the name of Aslan.”  In each description we see an essential element of each character, which I think shows itself in other ways throughout the book.  “Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror.  Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous.  Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her.  And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.”  We all respond to the idea of God, and what His existence means for us personally, in ways that are something similar.  If we are self-centered and deceptive (like Edmund) we fear being held to account.  If we fit the mold of responsible elder (like Peter), we respond with courage.  If our sensibilities are nurturing and romantic (like Susan), our hearts take wing.  If we are naturally honest and joyful (like Lucy), we delight in the unanticipated moment of grace.

In their interactions with one another and reactions to situations in the story, the children demonstrate aspects of these basic character types.  Some situations reveal positive traits; but at times more negative responses are manifest as well.  When the four first meet the professor, their reactions to the strange old man are telling.  Edmund “wanted to laugh” at his appearance. Peter sees opportunity to “do anything we want.” Susan thinks him “an old dear.” Lucy is “a little afraid” owing to his odd appearance (an “honest” response, given her age).  Edmund makes fun, Peter makes plans, Susan is sentimental, Lucy is scared.

When Lucy returns from her first visit to Narnia, she’s concerned the others will have worried and is excited to share her amazing experience.  Peter’s response is condescending and dismissive. Edmund (again) pokes fun.  Susan goes the wardrobe but finds all as it should be.  When all four do make their way to Narnia, noble Peter is quick to apologize, and when scheming Edmund is tripped up by his deceit he’s harshly treated by his brother.  Lucy is equally quick to forgive and forge ahead.  Nurturing Susan looks out for everyone’s welfare by suggesting using fur coats to stave off the cold.

The presents each receives from Father Christmas also reflect their characters and equip them for the coming struggle:  Peter’s sword and shield; Susan’s bow and horn, Lucy’s cordial and dagger.  Edmund, not present to receive one, will receive his great “present” directly from Aslan himself after he’s been rescued from the Witch’s deceptions.  When the Witch demands the boy’s life in keeping with “the Deep Magic,” Aslan steps in. As the great Lion engaged the evil Witch, Edmund stood by his side, “looking all the time into his face.”  Susan presses Aslan to “do something about the Deep Magic” that would sacrifice Edmund’s life, urging him to “find something to use against it.”  Peter “stood with his back to the others, looking out at the distant sea.”  Lucy, most wronged by her brother, cries out his name in pity.  Susan would win the day by craft.  Peter has turned away, perhaps wondering if justice should prevail.  Lucy’s cry begs for mercy.  Edmund, finally on the right side of things, is saved by grace.

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