Reviewer’s Digest //Non-Fiction

A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis


Read October 28th

 (Afterward by Chad Walsh read on the 29th)

4 Stars

I was pleased with myself for finishing the entire book in one sitting–but then again, I couldn’t very well go to bed in the middle anyway. It frightened me to see the questions, the doubts, the despairs of a well-grounded theologian when faced with grief–more frightening still, to see myself in the background of his introspective mirror. But in the end, it encouraged me to see the man of despair climb to be once again the man of hope.

I withhold one star on account of the unorthodox oddities that are ever mingled with C. S. Lewis’ otherwise orthodox theology, this time manifesting in a muse at the end on the state of a person in the afterlife as an emotionless intellect that possibly communes with beloved earth-bounds.

I finished the lengthy afterword by Chad Walsh the following day. It was good and helpful on the whole, filling in the context of “A Grief Observed” and the portrait of Joy and Jack Lewis. But I was bothered by the cheerful note struck by Mr. Walsh when comparing the apparent changes to C. S. Lewis’ theology in his later years. He noted that experience proved to be the necessary corrective to topics such as divorce (C. S. Lewis once admonished against it but then married a divorced woman) and suffering (his theological precision supposedly dulling after experiencing the death of his wife). If C. S. Lewis’ convictions did indeed prove malleable by circumstances (not conviction from the Word of God) this is nothing to celebrate. But did his theology, in fact, change? C. S. Lewis himself calls his former theology a “house of cards” in “A Grief Observed,” but then asks whether the house of cards is his now-revealed unbelief in the truths he confessed or the untruth of his beliefs.

As the diary continues, he sees clearly it is his faith, not the object of his faith, that was shaken, and it was shaken so that it would be made stronger. You can’t really know you believe something, he meditates, until it costs you something. And this, I think, is something C. S. Lewis had said all along, he just came to know it at a deeper level than before.

The Stories We Tell by Mike Cosper


Read November 1st-4th

5 Stars

I have an obsessive compulsion for reading books about stories, their psychological impact, and how they intersect with the Christian Worldview. I’ve read several about the ethics of storytelling, the criteria for a good story, and how to evaluate worldview in stories but “The Stories We Tell” provided a new angle for me. It looks at the stories our culture has already created and asks, “Why are they telling these stories?”

Most of the films and TV shows the author discussed in great detail are not films I had seen or heard of or would consider watching even after reading his analysis of the redemptive themes. Nor is that his point. He says in his introduction that many of the films he mentions he doesn’t recommend and has purposely avoided commendations because watching or not watching particular films is a matter of Christian conscience with a far more complex procedure of evaluation than is compatible with the purposes of his book (though he does lay out excellent, general principles in chapter 2).

His purpose in discussing these stories is to illustrate patterns, to beckon you to put your ear to the door of the human heart and listen, “Shh, do you hear that? That’s an echo of Eden you’re hearing.”

The book unlocked to me the drive and truth behind “frustration” and “horror” stories–genres that have always irritated and baffled me with their massive followings–and satisfied me with a few nuggets on my favorite genre: hero stories.

Which brings me to my next review:

The Heroic Symphony by Anna Harwell Celenza, illustrated by Joann E. Kitchel


Read September 5th
4 Stars

Very well written, informative, and engaging for both children and adults but operates under a secular humanistic worldview.

Ludwig van Beethoven is losing his hearing. What is a musician without his hearing? Cheated out of hope, frustrated, and finally turned away by physicians, Beethoven is nearly driven to despair of life itself. Without his musical career, he sees no reason to live. But he discovers that though he cannot hear music played, he can still hear music in his head. So he turns to composing. Fascinated with the rising hero of France, Napoleon Bonaparte, Beethoven crafts a moving four-part symphony in honor of him. But as he labors, Beethoven’s own struggles with “fate” and despair, and his hopes for victory mingle with his political hopes. “This is no earthly battle,” Beethoven’s friend and fellow musician noted after hearing the first movement. The symphony became about more than just an individual or a military victory, it became about the universal struggle for redemption.

The first movement is a battle scene. “Shield against shield and helmet to helmet, Bonaparte fights the injustice that plagues us all.”
The second movement is a funeral march, filled with longing, anxiety, suffering, and despair.
The third movement celebrates the end of the battle. “Fear and death have been conquered. Hope appears on the horizon, warm and bright–a joyous homecoming!”

The fourth movement ties the other three movements together, revisiting the emotions of sorrow, anger, despair, hope, and victory.
But before the symphony could be published, Napoleon betrayed France by crowning himself emperor. Beethoven is furious and shreds the copy of his symphony in his hands. There is to be no hero of France or mankind. The original copy is saved by the intervention of Ferdinand who suggests that there is more to the piece than just Napoleon. Beethoven at length, agrees, and retitles it “The Heroic Symphony” in honor of “the hero in each and every one of us,” able to overcome all odds, override fate, and rise victorious.

As you can already see from the above summary, the book is secular and humanistic in outlook which is what lost the five-star rating for me.
But what I didn’t know was whether this was a bias of the author or a reflection of Beethoven’s actual thoughts and beliefs. So I did a little research. I read the Heiligenstadt Testament which is a letter by Beethoven written to his brothers after he was told he would never recover his hearing. In it, Beethoven makes a passionate appeal to posterity to look favorably upon him because the cause of his mysterious isolation from society was his hearing loss, not desire for solitude. He vividly describes the hardship of losing his most prized faculty and the loneliness of life without the normal pleasures of hearing and companionship, the fear of discovery overpowering his longing for society.

The children’s picture book by Anna Celenza is not altogether inaccurate but based on Beethoven’s own words, does seem to miss the finer points of Beethoven’s struggle. The biggest loss to Beethoven appears to be his loss of community not the possible loss of his career. He urges his brothers to commend virtue to their children instead of the pursuit of money, for he has learned that it alone gives happiness. Beethoven never overcomes the isolation that grieved him most but he finds consolation in creating more art for others to enjoy. Beethoven references his contemplation of suicide but cites his love of art as the restraining rather than driving power. He persevered in a miserable, lonely life because he believed he had more to give.

It should also be noted that in Beethoven’s letter he never mentions “fate” or a need to overcome his circumstances but he does appeal to “the Divine One” who “lookest into his inmost soul” as witness to the true cause of his withdrawal from society.

My second point of research was Beethoven’s intent with “The Heroic Symphony.” There are some studies out there that attempt to discredit the connection between the symphony and Napoleon but the connection does seem to be thoroughly historically validated. However, the secondary intent of the piece, after Napoleon became a tyrant, is more difficult to determine. From what I could gather from an afternoon’s research, Beethoven didn’t specify how exactly his work was to be interpreted. It’s even possible that Beethoven changed the title of the piece, not because he lost faith in Napoleon, but because he would have been unable to get the symphony published in the current political climate if it bore the name of the French dictator. The evidence is inconclusive and has resulted in endless speculation. The view presented by Anna Harwell Celenza is one theory among many.

What Can We Draw From This?

The story has to be read with the understanding that it is only generally historically accurate. The finer points of the narrative will make for excellent discussion. But this unassuming picture book does do an amazing job of weaving together Beethoven’s personal longings with the movements of the symphony he wrote, capturing what makes his symphony (and others like it) a “classic” and timeless piece of music. For “what is art but the pushing onto canvas the colors of the human soul?” as I’ve written elsewhere. The song resonates with us because the desire for a hero to save humankind is written on the heart of every man. Natural revelation gives us that much but only a special revelation, the Word of God, will give us His true Name.

Human heroes will fail us, we personally will fail, we must look to the Hero, Jesus Christ, who conquered fear and death, rose victorious from the grave as the savior of Mankind, and will return on the clouds to make all things new. This is the ultimate answer to our longings.

Other Non-Fiction Books I read in the second half of 2014: Worldly Saints by Leland Ryken (click for review), On His Blindness by John Milton, The High Calling of Motherhood by Walter Chantry, Women Speaking in the Church by Benjamin B. Warfield, Robert L. Dabney, and Geoffrey Thomas, A Handbook to the New Testament Use of the Old Testament by G. K. Beale

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