on the importance of not being earnest

This entry was posted by on Friday, 26 March, 2010 at

I’ve been reading a strange and fascinating book called Planet Narnia by a scholar called Michael Ward who claims to have uncovered a hidden theme running through CS Lewis’s Narnia books. I was pretty sceptical of the whole idea of a “hidden theme,” but I was first hooked, then floored, then completely convinced by Ward’s arguments.

The basic idea is that each Narnia book reflects one of the seven planets in medieval astronomy (Jupiter, Mars, Sol, Luna, Mercury, Venus, Saturn). Lewis was endlessly fascinated by the medieval worldview, and always believed that there was wisdom in that era that has been lost in the modern, scientific age. He knew that the medieval view of the solar system was not “literally” accurate, and he didn’t believe that the planets influence life on earth in the way that astrologers (medieval and modern) describe, and he didn’t believe in the pagan deities named after the planets.  But he did believe that the seven medieval planets were useful as literary metaphors, or as “spiritual symbols” of “permanent value.”

Each planet had its own particular character, which Lewis believed reflected some aspect of reality, of life, of God himself. And so Ward argues that each Narnia book was crafted to reflect the particular character or mood or atmosphere of one of the planets, especially in how it depicts the character of Aslan. You’ll have to read Ward’s book to find out how the flip that works.

But the bit that has grabbed my imagination is the way Ward (and Lewis) talk about the relative significance of Saturn and Jupiter. This is the tricky part to write about, since each planet represents a mood or atmosphere, and can’t be reduced to a strict definition. But in very simplistic terms, Saturn is the planet that speaks of sorrow, disaster, melancholy, pestilence and ill luck. He is “the last planet, old and ugly.” Jupiter, on the other hand, is the King of the planets, and speaks of benevolence, festivity, peace and joy – of “winter passed and guilt forgiven.” (For those who are interested, Saturn is the planet corresponding to The Last Battle,  and Jupiter is the ruling planet of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). The influence of these symbols is seen in the adjectives which are still sometimes used to describe these two different moods – “saturnine” (OK that one’s not used very much today) and “jovial.”

Lewis argues that the modern age is dominated by the spirit of Saturn, as reflected in the sombre, bleak, “realistic” literature of highly-admired writers like TS Eliot and John Donne. As a young man, Lewis was drawn to this kind of literature, but he later grew to question the dominance of this serious, melancholy mood.

Of Saturn we know more than enough, but who does not need to be reminded of Jove?

The view Lewis came to (and expressed in his Narnia books) is that Saturn must be given his place – there is pain and sorrow in the world, and it must be faced, and felt, and acknowledged, and lamented. But Saturn is not King, not the centre of the universe. So sorrow and melancholy are not the last word, are not the deepest truth we can bear witness to about reality. At the end of everything, at the heart of everything, Jupiter is King. Joy is at the heart of the universe.

This gets me thinking about a lot of things. A lot of times our Christian subculture  tries to skip past Saturn and get to the joy of Jupiter, and we end up with a cheap, sentimental, chirpy cheerfulness.  This is what I find reflected in a lot of Christian art (music, fiction, etc.) as well as in a lot of sermons and Christian books. It doesn’t face the depth of the brokenness that’s in the world and in our own hearts and lives. As that old saturnine prophet Jeremiah once growled, it “dresses the wounds of the people lightly.” That’s why in spite of the surface chirpiness and optimism, I find this music and writing strangely depressing and dispiriting.

I think it’s for that reason that I ended up being drawn to the art being produced outside the Christian bubble, and developed a great love of depressing novels and music and films. They seemed to describe the world more truthfully, more courageously than a lot of Christian art and teaching. They were deeper, more mature, more grown-up. There was wisdom in Radiohead and Fight Club and Ian McEwan that was missing from the shelves of Wesley Owen.

But I think Lewis is right. Melancholy has its place, but it’s not the last or best word we have to say. Cynicism is not more truthful than hope, and sorrow is not more mature than joy. What we need to bear witness to in our art, our preaching, our lives, is the joy that lies on the other side of sorrow, or even in the midst of sorrow.

Lewis says that capturing this truly “jovial” spirit is much more difficult than the melancholy of Saturn, and there are very few writers who pull it off. I think Lewis is one of those who did, and this jovial spirit, this infectious joy-beyond-sorrow, is the heartbeat of his best writing. It’s also the heartbeat of  the writers who most influenced Lewis, like George MacDonald and GK Chesterton, and of his old friend JRR Tolkien.

But are there any artists in our generation who manage to convey the spirit of joviality? Only a few come to mind for me. Wendell Berry, Marilynne Robsinson, Sufjan Stevens, Gillian Welch…? Among popular Christian writers, Frederick Buechner and Philip Yancey. There must be others. I’d love to hear your suggestions.

I’m also convinced that this is the heart of the challenge for preachers and for the Christian community. How do we acknowledge the heartache and brokenness in the room and in the wider world, the reality of cancer and depression and divorce and abuse and war and debt and anger and lust? Saturn must have his due. The sorrow must be felt and faced. But still, we must bear witness to a reality deeper than sorrow. Jupiter is King (because Jesus is King). We are to be a community of hope and joy and good news. We’ll let Tolkien have the last word:

there is joy beyond the walls of the world, more poignant than grief

9 Responses to “on the importance of not being earnest”

  1. very interesting… will be seeking out the book

  2. BC

    That’s a beautiful parting phrase- I’ve copied-and-pasted it into my ‘Internet Miscellanies’ folder alongside a sacredspace entry. I’d feel guilty somehow, if I didn’t mention that! V touching post btw 🙂

  3. 🙂 rick was trying to talk us into this book the other week. he met with skeptical faces. but everyone who talks about it seems to have a ‘no no, seriously! it sounds mad but… he’s really onto something’ attitude!

  4. lydia

    i loved this post john mark! so interesting!

  5. I couldn’t sleep there and somehow ended up thinking about musicians who convey some sense of deep joy, then ended up on Youtube, then ended staying up far to late…

    Anyway Daniel Smith and The Danielson Famile are joyful(but a bit bonkers), some Sigur Ros tunes are joyful to my ears( like this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aAYY_sU3PfM ) and some of the music from The Transatlantic Sessions(like this one http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cxCejZOGNSo) seems full of joy to me.
    I love watching the musicians in that particular video, they are just enjoying the moment.

  6. oh, sorry that last link doesn’t work


  7. Gillian Welch? Jovial?

    You ‘avin’ a laugh?

  8. jaybercrow

    Thanks for the comments everyone.

    Zoomtard – I can understand the quibble, but for me there’s a quiet joy running through her music in amongst all the bleakness. Maybe it’s the gospel element that gives a jovial note…?

    Canalways – I’ll be checking out your suggestions

  9. enjoyed the post jaybercrow. A wise hylton once told me “you can only know joy to the extent you’ve known your suffering” I think he was right. And i guess we can only face our sorrow honestly when we know that jupiter and not saturn is the king. thanks for this post

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