Last summer my family stayed with an old friend. We spent a five-week vacation driving around the country, all seven of us, on a Family Farewell Tour, our last summer vacation before our oldest child left for college. The first major destination was an A-frame cabin on the coast of Oregon, some 3,000 miles from our home at the time in Tennessee. On the way to Oregon, we thought, why not take in Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone? So north was our decided route, with some dates in mind. That’s when Eric got in touch with me. Facebook and Google have some redeeming attributes, turns out.
Eric and I had spent a lot of time together in the mid-nineties. We were both directors of youth ministry for local church congregations in the same town. Theologically and practically we agreed on enough stuff and were able to overlook what we didn’t easily enough to make our friendship work on professional and personal levels. And we liked sushi. So we combined our youth ministry activities often. This frequent activities-combining meant, professionally, even more frequent planning sessions for the two of us, bi-weekly more or less, often at our favorite sushi bar in the neighboring town of Thousand Oaks. Personally, I’d been married only a couple of years, with one child and soon two; and Eric was single with a romantic interest from Iowa I’d only heard about but never met. He liked observing my family life as a bystander I think; and for my part I amused myself over his free spirit. In time Eric took a job in Oregon and left. Some years later, I learned, he returned to southern California, now married to his romantic interest from Iowa; but unfortunately by this time I was long gone, maybe in Pennsylvania, maybe in the Mojave Desert, maybe in Texas—I don’t know. Point is, we’d lost touch. Until I was making vacation plans prior to last summer.
One day a message appeared randomly on my Facebook page. “Did you used to live in Camarillo?” it asked. I looked at the name and realized who the person was behind this message. “If so,” the message continued, “call me,” followed by his cell number. Fifteen minutes later we’d said our hellos and made plans for me, my wife, and our five kids to visit my old friend, his wife, and their three kids, now living in Iowa, for an overnight stay, on our way to Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone, and the Oregon coast.
The visit was stellar. Can you imagine? Two former youth ministers from the Baptist tradition, sitting around with cold beers in hand, barbequing steak, discussing former war stories, to include no small amount of shared head-scratchings over Baptist peculiarities, and otherwise catching each other up on fifteen years of our respective histories! Eric had actually worked for a time in a sushi restaurant and selling high-end cars. My wife watched eagerly as Eric walked us through the sushi making process, from making rice with the correct stickiness and sweetness factors to producing an excellent filling of tuna and cucumbers and other goodies to wrapping and rolling it all in seaweed to cutting it correctly to concocting a dipping sauce with the most agreeable proportions of soy sauce and wasabi. Mmmm, delish! And my oldest daughter looked at me with google eyes as I test drove Eric’s modified Challenger—perhaps a step down in price from the high-end cars he used to sell, but no step down in power. We hit eighty in something like five seconds! But that restaurant and car experience hadn’t suppressed the event-planner in him. There were seven girls between the two families. A sort of organized mayhem characterized most of the night, filled with sushi and steak and beer and sodas and lemonade and games and shrieks of delight. In many ways Eric and I picked up right where we’d left off. But now, too, after fifteen years, there was so much more.
Incidentally, as a brief aside, my wife Holly took to making a lot of sushi during our stay in the A-frame on the Oregon coast. We found seaweed at a local shop and bought crab fresh off the dock. Again, mmmm, delish!
Anyway, in the past week I’ve been enjoying visits with two other old friends, who have reminded me of Eric. In some ways we’ve picked up right where we left off. In others, however, there has been so much more. The names of these friends are perhaps names you well know, for they are famous: Frederic Chopin and C. S. Lewis.
Chopin is an old friend to me because I have played much of his piano music for years. As a boy I was introduced to Fred, in the form of two preludes, numbers 7 and 20 if I recall correctly. They were bears of pieces to learn then, young as I was, my hands only recently grown to reach an octave. But I worked and worked with them until I could perform them reasonably well from memory. Then I was paraded first before parents in a recital and later before a panel of judges in a competition from which I earned an honorable mention. You see then, our friendship started as a purely professional relationship.
When I was in college I again spent some time with Chopin professionally, this time assigned by my piano teacher to take on a prelude and a nocturne. But these professional visits became cumbersome. My teacher directed me to play in ways that were uncomfortable for me; and though Chopin remained silent during these lessons I suspected he wasn’t always in agreement with her either—my teacher I mean. But Fred and I bumped into each other by chance outside of these professional meetings. We began to discuss life and soon found that we had a great deal in common—how despite some people’s attempts at reducing complicated structures into simplistic analyses, musical people like Heinrich Schenker and my piano teacher, or philosophical people like Sigmund Freud and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Rene Descartes, or political people like Karl Marx and Thomas More, after all attempts at simplicity the stuff worthy of said analyses, like Chopin’s piano works, really remained rather too complex to grasp according to mere scientific facts; and rather had to become known in a relational way that involved the heart, emotion, not just the mind. So his piano pieces might be seen as simply a move from the mediant to the tonic over a hundred and forty measures, as Schenker and my piano teacher maintained; but actually they are so much more, Fred showed me, filled with brilliant dissonances and chromaticisms that resolve so beautifully and resoundingly that they defy rational description. Try to do that, Heinrich!
These social visits soon made a huge impact on me. I began to tackle every Chopin piano piece I could reasonably muddle through, meaning his waltzes, nocturnes, and preludes mostly. His mazurkas and etudes proved too complex, requiring both technique and heart I lacked. And thus in time I came to see these as something like religion and politics. We enjoyed each other’s company very much. The areas in which we disagreed, namely religion (etudes) and politics (mazurkas), we mostly never discussed. I say “mostly,” by the way, because I have attempted to master only one etude in the past. I liken it and by extension all his etudes to religion because I am at least interested in that and therefore in hearing what other people have to say about it. As for politics and mazurkas, I either don’t have the patience or simply can’t get them. In the end, with regard to the etude, I had to admit defeat. It bested me.
My point in all this is that Fred and I have been visiting socially again after some years of not seeing each other. It wasn’t that either of us was angry with the other, or not on speaking terms; just that we had lost touch, so to speak, like Eric and I had. Well, he dropped in for a visit the other day and for the past couple weeks then I have sat for hours with him, playing through all his preludes, waltzes, and nocturnes. In some ways, like with Preludes 7 and 20 first discussed above, played during my childhood, we’ve picked up right where we left off. But in other ways there is now so much more to our friendship, like with Eric. One nocturne in particular I never really cared for too much in the past; yet now I am finding it strikingly beautiful, like having watched a free spirit of young, single man mature into a loving husband and caring father.
The other old friend that has come for a recent visit is C. S. Lewis. To cut to the chase, I am reading The Chronicles of Narnia again, this time to my son, aloud. The last time through these particular works for me was something like five years ago.
I am experiencing the same sensation with Jack (C. S. Lewis’s nickname) as I did with Eric and Fred: in some ways it’s like we’ve picked up on a conversation we shared yesterday; in others it’s like I’m seeing a whole new side of him, something new and fresh to me yet also something I somehow knew was always there: I just happened to be too dense to perceive it before.
So it always bothered me in The Last Battle that there was a Calormene that made it into Aslan’s country in the end. That’s because within me I have a very difficult time with universalism. The god of Christians, I maintain, is unequivocally different from Allah, for instance; or from Hindu gods, or from the gods of the Greeks and Romans of old, or from Norse gods, or even from the god of the Jews. Jesus Christ is fully human and fully divine. And there are Persons within this one god we call the Father and the Holy Spirit. So the Christian god is triune. The Jewish god, by contrast, is only one Person. For Hindus there is a plurality of gods. So, to return to Lewis’s story, how could a worshiper of Tash (analogous of Allah) enter Aslan’s country (analogous of the Christian heaven)?
But this time around, with a seminary education standing between now and the last time I read the Chronicles, while still maintaining a personal aversion toward universalism I am now seeing a new side to Jack’s wisdom, one I always somehow knew but was too dense to perceive before. Namely, Aslan and Tash are unequivocally different beings in The Last Battle. There is no dispute whatever, Jack points out. The story begins with an ape named Shift who doesn’t believe in either Tash or Aslan and deceives many into thinking that he is Aslan’s mouthpiece. In this position of power he begins to communicate that Aslan and Tash are really the same being after all, a certain Tashlan. The ape then calls on both and an epic eschatological battle ensues. It’s the end of Narnia in fact. But a Tash-worshiping Calormene mysteriously ends up in Aslan’s country with the Aslan-worshiping Narnians. When asked how the Calormene ended up in Aslan’s country, Aslan responds that that is the Calormene’s personal story and no one else needs to be concerned with it. It is as if Jesus Christ is saying, “Mind your own business!”
What this amounts to is nothing to do whatever with universalism. Rather it amounts to the mercy of a loving and forgiving God. Surely, that’s nothing to be bothered about.
Thanks for visiting, Jack.