The Descent of Fire

In his overlooked Letters to Malcolm, C.S. Lewis quotes his friend Charles Williams in a memorable passage that has always fascinated me.  He writes,

It is no good angling for the rich moments. God sometimes seems to speak to us most intimately when he catches us, as it were, off our guard. Doesn’t Charles Williams say somewhere that ‘The altar must often be built in one place in order that the fire from heaven may descend somewhere else?'” [Find this in chapter XXI]

Spiritually, this idea seems incredibly rich with possibilities, but I confess to recalling this quote when my daughter decided to buy this song for our trip to the beach:

I had heard that the Black Key’s Dan Auerbach produced the album this song comes from, apparently from a desire to help more bands reflect the raw, “real” sound the Black Keys love.  Indeed, some songs on this album do reflect Auerbach’s influence.  But “Hypnotic Winter”  is (at least on itunes) the most popular of the tracks, and in my opinion the best.  And yet, it has a pop flavored slickness and happy bounciness that is nowhere near the ethos of the blues-drenched Black Keys.

This doesn’t mean that Auerbach had no influence on “Hypnotic Winter.”  Rather, his best influence on the band may have been an indirect one, when he stopped trying too hard to make converts.

One of my sons has developed a recent interest in Phil Collins and Genesis.  I’ve always thought that pre-1986, Phil Collins demonstrated great prowess as a progressively influence rock drummer.  But I’ve always thought that his best drum work, came in this song with Philip Bailey, a song he produced, helped sing, and horrifyingly, attempts to dance to (2:36 ff.)

The video always bugged me, because Collins’ open-tom sound and off-beat fills give the song just enough edge, a perfect amount of spice, and yet nowhere are drums even seen in the video.  Collins makes his bid for pop-stardom instead.  This certainly boded ill for Collins’ long-term future as a drummer with a distinctive voice.  But perhaps in the immediate short-term his focus on singing and dancing sub-consciously freed him to deliver a fabulous drumming performance.

I would love suggestions on how this principle can apply to teaching and life in general.  Bill Carey’s post on law and gospel in teaching may have something to contribute.

An American named Sherwood Wirt spoke with C.S. Lewis in 1963 in what ended up as Lewis’ last interview before his death.  I include a few excerpts here, as they touch on the subject at hand.

Wirt: A light touch has been characteristic of your writings, even when you are dealing with heavy theological themes. Would you say there is a key to the cultivation of such an attitude?

Lewis: “I believe this is a matter of temperament. However, I was helped in achieving this attitude by my studies of the literary men of the Middle Ages, and by the writings of G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton, for example, was not afraid to combine serious Christian themes with buffoonery. In the same way the miracle plays of the Middle Ages would deal with a sacred subject such as the nativity of Christ, yet would combine it with a farce.”

Wirt: Should Christian writers, then, in your opinion, attempt to be funny?

Lewis: “No. I think that forced jocularities on spiritual subjects are an abomination, and the attempts of some religious writers to be humorous are simply appalling. Some people write heavily, some write lightly. I prefer the light approach because I believe there is a great deal of false reverence about. There is too much solemnity and intensity in dealing with sacred matters; too much speaking in holy tones.”

Wirt: But is not solemnity proper and conducive to a sacred atmosphere?

C. S. LewisLewis: “Yes and no. There is a difference between a private devotional life and a corporate one. Solemnity is proper in church, but things that are proper in church are not necessarily proper outside, and vice versa. For example, I can say a prayer while washing my teeth, but that does not mean I should wash my teeth in church.”

The interview concludes with these words. . .

 “There is a character in one of my children’s stories named Aslan, who says, ‘I never tell anyone any story except his own.’ I cannot speak for the way God deals with others; I only know how he deals with me personally. Of course, we are to pray for spiritual awakening, and in various ways we can do something toward it. But we must remember that neither Paul nor Apollos gives the increase. As Charles Williams once said, ‘The altar must often be built in one place so that the fire may come down in another place.’”