Pagan Relief

I’ve spent some of the spring and summer reading C.S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image and Michael Ward’s, Planet Narnia. In Planet Narnia, Ward posits the argument (barely refutable) that each of the books of the Narniad are devoted to one of the seven Medieval heavenly spheres: Moon, Sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. As a companion to this, I’ve been reading The Discarded Image, which is Lewis’ own discussion on the Medieval mindset in which he includes a sizable discussion of the Medieval cosmology.

Lewis (via Ward) has helped me to understand how the poets of previous ages were so comfortable using Pagan imagery and characters in their works. Today’s corporate Christian mindset is suffused with what might be called theologicalism (a type of the scientism Lewis combated) in which nothing magical or supernatural is to be countenanced (i.e. no Santa or Harry Potter) by Christians. I’ve never liked this kind of theologicalism and have argued against it for years but more out of a visceral prejudice than a well-reasoned position. This is to say, I’ve been turning this over in my mind for years. Reading Ward and Lewis reminded me of an application of this issue, I’ve been considering for years as well.

In my previous call, where I served as youth pastor, the church met in a 20’s era Art-Deco elementary school building. Our worship service was held in what was a gymnatorium which had been converted to a sanctuary. In the auditorium there was a proscenium stage and in relief above the stage was a plaster representation of the pagan god, Apollos, standing in his sun chariot and flanked by attendants. It was discussed for a while as to whether or not that relief should be removed because of it’s pagan imagery. To my knowledge the relief is still there, but it is hidden by a sound system speaker box, and I doubt many there even know of its existence. Though I might have agreed years ago that it needed to go, I am not so sure now.

In C.S. Lewis’ poem, “The Planets”, here is what he says about the sun:

Of SOL’s chariot, whose sword of light
Hurts and humbles; beheld only
Of eagle’s eye. When his arrow glances
Through mortal mind, mists are parted
And mild as morning the mellow wisdom
Breathes o’er the breast, broadening eastward
Clear and cloudless.

And he describes Sol in this way in The Discarded Image:

“Mythically, Jupiter is King, but Sol produces the noblest metal, gold, and is the eye and mind of the whole universe. He makes men wise and liberal and his sphere is the Heaven of theologians and philosophers.”

For Lewis, the planetary archetypes are important symbols through which we apprehend the eternal. The rehabilitation of these images, almost lost in the 20th Century, were of primary importance to Lewis–not merely on a literary level but also apologetically. He believed our age to be one which had become dis-enchanted or possibly better understood: had fallen into an enchanted sleep worked by the spell of an Evil Enchanter. For Lewis, then, his fictional writings were an attempt to re-enchant or to undo the spell through the “backward mutters of dissevering power” and to awaken us.

Knowing what I know now, I’m not so uneasy about the relief being above a Christian church’s pulpit. For Lewis this was sub specie Apollinis which is to say, that in Lewis’ mind the pagan gods were symbols or types of God–the latent, buried, or even suppressed knowledge of God. But rather than merely knowing about (savior) God, we have come to know (connaitre) God through the Word made flesh. Indeed, the Word of God who is “the mind of the universe”, who makes men wise, Whom to know is the end of philosophy and theology. It is from His mouth that the sword of light comes which “hurts and humbles” and pierces the mists of darkness and to bring the light of new dawn.

All this has deepened my appreciation of Psalm 19 in which David writes in the first six verses:

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun, which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion, like a champion rejoicing to run his course. It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is hidden from its heat.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, Voyage of the Dawn Treader is C.S. Lewis homage to Sol.

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About randamir

I pastor Grace Presbyterian Church in Kernersville, North Carolina which locals fondly refer to as K-vegas -- the town not the church. As D.T. Niles once said, "I am not important except to God."

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