Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Suggestive Weirdness

C.S. Lewis
C.S. Lewis

In the second chapter of what is perhaps his most renowned piece of apologetic narrative, C. S. Lewis writes, “Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed.” How sadly true this rings these days in light of the tragic events in France and Turkey.
        Yet Lewis is not speaking about current events, not really, for he immediately goes on to say, “That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed. If it offered us just the kind of universe we had always expected, I should feel that we were making it up. But, in fact, it is not the sort of thing that anyone would have made up. It has just that queer twist about it that real things have.”
         Lewis continues, in Aristotelian fashion (as he often does in Mere Christianity) to parse out the question of God, dividing opinions about the divine into Epicurean/Nietzschean/Hegelian terms (i.e., non-existent or at least non-interventionist, detached, beyond good or evil) on the one side, to conceptions of God connected with justice, righteousness, etc., on the other. In this latter group he places Islamic, Jewish and Christian thought.
        Bdonkeyefore I left for Europe, as I walked my dog one last time I was thinking of another idea, not so much about God as about strangeness, which dovetails with the “twist” that Lewis mentions in the above citation. In the story of Balaam and Balak from the perhaps not-too-often-read book of Numbers in the Old Testament, more often known as the “story of Balaam and his ass,” Balaam is summoned by Balak, the king of Moab. Though he is warned explicitly by his talking donkey about going to Balak’s court, Balaam nevertheless complies with the regal summons. After Balaam’s arrival in Moab, Balak requests, presses, even tries to trap Balaam into pronouncing a curse on the Israelites (Numbers 22:6-17).
       To grasp fully the implications of Balak’s insistence that Balaam make that curse, one has to recall that in the ancient world curses were really a big deal. Although nowadays I but rarely hear of anyone pronouncing a curse on another person—though it still does happen and is not hard to find on the Internet. In antiquity these were staunchly

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Germanicus

believed to bring ruin and disaster on the accursed. The third heir to the Roman principate, Nero Claudius Drusus, who was known with the agnomen by the adopted name Germanicus Iulius Caesar, or simply Germanicus for short, died under a curse before he could ever take the imperial reins (described vividly by Tacitus in his Annales 2.69). Some Greek inscriptions—a famous one, for example, from the island of Thasos[1]—even offer instructions about how to get out from under a self-pronounced curse. We have thousands of curse tablets, too—i.e., shards of broken pottery with nasty little curses written on them. Socrates was the victim not only of a death sentence pronounced on him unjustly by the Athenian court but was the subject of many such curses written on potsherds and cast into wells in Athens.[potsherds2] Even in the period of the Renaissance/Reformation, Martin Luther (probably impishly, inasmuch as it comes from his Table Talk [671]) put a quite nasty sounding curse on whoever happens to love the work of Erasmus—and he did so in Latin, no less—followed shortly by a further playful quip, “Whenever I pray, I pray for a curse upon Erasmus” (Table Talk, 672).
       But what I am calling “weirdness” and what brings us back from the rare dinner party conversation about ancient curse tablets or the rivalry between Luther and Erasmus to the more likely breakfast-time (and at any rate more edifying) conversation about C.S. Lewis is theastonishing behavior of Balaam. I do not mean the fact that in this story the ass can speak or even what it says, but rather what Balaam himself says, which I shall cite at this blog’s end. When urged, compelled, downright bullied by Balak into cursing, Balaam nevertheless blesses. And that, it occurred to me as I walked my dog, is what is really strange about this story and what is weird about God, for that matter, as I understand him from Holy Writ. Such weirdness, simply put, is that blessing, an unusual thing to do, is a recurrent theme. To wit, St. Paul expands upon this unusual point of view in his epistle to the Romans (12:14-17), “Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not. Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep… . Recompense to no man evil for evil.”
       When I say unusual, I mean it is simply because I do not feel like blessing when I am wronged. I do not feel like blessing when I am bullied. In fact, I rarely feel like blessing anyone at all. And this to me seems to be the “you could not have guessed” factor that C.S. Lewis is speaking about. It has nothing to do with a debate about Jesus’ miracles or political hot-button issues or even the hot-button issue of whom one should vote for in any election, let alone one as confusing as the next American election. Rather, this teaching, which in a sense goes back to a man known better for his ass than his counterintuitive stubbornness, is central to the New Testament narrative. It must have astounded his disciples when he said, “Ye have heard that it hath been said, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor,’ and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45). The same theme is even more riveting when it turns up among the words of Christ on the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
       These are all, it seems to me, very weird teachings, what Lewis calls “that queer twist.” Yet someone might object: “They do not sound that weird to me! After all, the Bible is a religious book. Why should you be surprised to find pietistic teachings in it?” Yet the notion of “religious” alone does not necessarily evoke such profoundly counterintuitive teaching. In fact, the Bible itself is often indicted for its violence, as accounts of rape and incest are recorded there, as are many a war, many a battle—wars often advanced to claim a land for the Jews at the expense of Canaanites or others already inhabiting those regions. Add to this that one of the more memorable verses recorded by Moses is, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” (Exodus 21:23). And other spiritual books outside of the Bible speak of just retribution, using violence to achieve justice and to right human wrongs on behalf of God. Yet Christianity turns this formula on its head: “Pray for your enemies.” “Bless, and do not curse.”
       In closing, I present neither proof of God nor of Christianity. Rather, I offer here merely an observation indebted to C.S. Lewis’ comment; my own is based not on Balaam’s talking animal but on Balaam’s own speech: “God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent; hath he said, and shall he not do it? Or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good? Behold, I have received a commandment to bless: and he hath blessed, and I cannot reverse it” (Numbers 23:19f.). In these turbulent, violent and inhuman times, may Balaam’s ancient but quite excellent summation offer us a path to sanity and healing in a world gone mad.


[1] Russell Meiggs and David Lewis, A Selection of Greek Historical Inscriptions to the End of the Fifth Century B.C. (Oxford Clarendon, 1969), entry no. 83; on the notion of being foresworn, cf. A.J. Graham, “An Ellipse in the Thasian Decree about Delation (ML 83)?” American Journal of Philology 110 (1989): 405–12.

[2] Inscriptiones Graecae 3.3 Appendix, Defixionum Tabellae [=DTA], 7, 10, 97, et al.

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