Book Review: Dog in the Gap by Doug Jackson and Lisa Colon DeLay

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I just love dog books.  I have read a wide assortment of “dog stories”, from the uber-popular Marley and Me, to Amazing Gracie, A Dog Named Christmas, Finally Home, and A Dog’s Purpose (in progress).  I generously donate to the ASPCA and own three adopted dogs who serve as my “furry children”.  In fact,  I am fiercely protective of them as one would naturally be for his/her children. Several years ago, my husband’s friend spent the weekend with us and foolishly called our adorable terrier mix Eppy a “rat”.  When she chewed up his baseball cap the next day, I manufactured some sympathy then turned the corner, patted Eppy on the head, and whispered, “Good dog”.  Four-pawed progeny are an essential component of the Hurd household.

Dogs may be deemed as “inferior creatures”, but they can teach us important lessons about life. Genesis 1:26 gave us responsibility over animals, a responsibility often abused by the more greedy or power-starved members of our race.  This can sometimes make us question which race really should be exercising “dominion” over the other.  As Mark Twain once stated in his essay “The Lowest Animal”, animals often lack some of the more deplorable characteristics of man:

I was aware that many men who have accumulated more millions of money than they can ever use have shown a rabid hunger for more, and have not scrupled to cheat the ignorant and the helpless out of their poor servings in order to partially appease that appetite. I furnished a hundred different kinds of wild and tame animals the opportunity to accumulate vast stores of food, but none of them would do it. The squirrels and bees and certain birds made accumulations, but stopped when they had gathered a winter s supply, and could not be persuaded to add to it either honestly or by chicane. In order to bolster up a tottering reputa­tion the ant pretended to store up supplies, but I was not de­ceived. I know the ant. These experiments convinced me that there is this difference between man and the higher animals: he is avaricious and miserly; they are not.

Twain makes a great point.  My dogs are satisfied eating the same old kibble every day. No matter how cranky I can be, they exhibit an unexplainable amount of forgiveness and unconditional love. Eppy, the same dog who make a snack out of our friend’s hat, once served as a nurse when my husband came down with a nasty version of the flu and occupied the bed, while I was incapacitated with walking pneumonia on the couch’s fold-out “bed”. She spent several evenings making rounds to each patient, ensuring that neither of us was lonely.  Now how many humans would do that (without being related or financially compensated)??

This is why I anticipated the new book Dog in the Gap by Doug Jackson and Lisa Colon DeLay with such enthusiasm. Jackson and DeLay both approach the responsibility of animal care-taking with an important, even sacred, significance. Jackson affirms C.S. Lewis’s position that Genesis does not grant humans a license for tyranny.  In contrast, we are to perceive our roles as care-takers with the utmost caution and self-awareness, ignoring the often rigid boundaries between humans and animals: “Once radically reductive Darwinism obliterates the line between animals and human beings, both sides lose.  We either treat animals as if they are human (a treatment which they stoutly resist), or we treat humans as if they were animals and animals as if they were nothing more than random products of the universe belching” (Introduction).  The reader is told that DeLay’s vignettes are more “devotional and personal”, while Jackson’s contributions are “more abstract and theological”.  This provides a nice structure (as their viewpoints alternate throughout the text) and gives the overall work a nice balance. Here, there is something for everyone; the left-brained and right-brained dog owner will find these essays both fascinating and nourishing.

I cannot say enough good things about this book.  The vignettes present brief and interesting insights.  Lisa’s essay “Taming” discusses her reluctance to adopt Luna, a five-year-old chocolate lab. Lisa writes, “The term ‘pet ownership’ is a misnomer.  We love objects we own; or we appreciate them and like how they make us feel.  But caring for someone who needs you has nothing to do with possession. So when I say, ‘Pet ownership’ I’m really speaking of something that owns me – not the dog mind you – but the process”.  DeLay then introduces the classic tale The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.  The Little Prince (the protagonist) finds a fox on a small planet and then proceeds to educate him.  However, the education turns out to be reciprocal.  When the Prince admits that he does not recognize the verb tame, the fox “tells him that taming is an ongoing act.  It means to ‘establish ties’. He tells the Little Prince that if the Prince does go on to tame him they will need each other. Friends tame each other” (14-15).  In this story, we find our true responsibility as animal care-takers.  It is not about domination, but a natural recognition and maturation.  We establish relationships with animals and nurture mutual trust.  We grow and realize deeper truths about life when we are entrusted to care for something other than ourselves. DeLay frames this process as a Godly one: “As we risk and make ourselves known and seen, the give-and-take of relationship breaks down our constructs.  It rebuilds our suppositions with new materials.  In the end there is mutual submission, perhaps echoing in whispers the essence of Godhead: Three-In-One. ‘You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed,’ says the fox.’”

When I read that quote, I had to stop and read it again. Once you build relationships, there is a bond that remains.  A bond that, despite disease and death, is never broken. Even the person with the strongest resistance to emotion gets nostalgic (and sometimes even choked up) when fondly remembering a childhood pet. There is no doubt that animals can and do “tame” us.

The care-taking motif continues in Jackson’s piece entitled “Dog Spelled Backwards?”  Jackson is a master of weaving the theological/theoretical wisdom of literary giants like C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, and G.K. Chesterton with practical insights.  Jackson specifically addresses human responsibility of animals as derived from God.  He writes,

Lewis writes in his non-fiction work The Four Loves, ‘Emerson has said, ‘When the half-gods go, the gods arrive.’ That is a very doubtful maxim. Better say, ‘When God arrives (and only then) the half-gods can remain.’ In other words, when we fall under the all-wise (and therefore safe) authority of the One God, we can carry out our God-given responsibilities without becoming tyrants.  And among those responsibilities is the duty to woo the rational and relational in the lower animals.  Humanity’s creation in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26) means, among other things, that we carry an inborn desire to sub-create rational begins and have relationships with them.

What great truth is this.  Have we ever considered that our responsibility to animals is molded after God’s responsibility of His children?  And as His children, do we always carry this responsibility with the same fervent devotion and attention that He offers to us?  It completely redefines the relationship I have with my pets and by extension to the animal kingdom at large. Not only do we forge important relationships with animals and gain substantial perspective (and companionship), but we also please our Father, the author and creator of Love who is the Great Architect of deep and meaningful connections.

What I have just shared is only a taste of what you will get with this book.  You will get personal stories from the authors about their own pets, plus some great insights into leadership, the healing power of animals, and the emotional risk and reward of being unique (with dogs as our instructors).  There is also a fantastic essay by Jackson titled, “Do Dogs Go To Heaven, And Should I Care” in which this pastor/seminary professor muses deeply about the eternal destination of our favorite pets. But I won’t extrapolate on that now – I simply urge you to purchase the book and read it for yourself!

This book truly has something inspirational and instructional for every dog lover. Jackson and DeLay illustrate that behind every happy bark, every bowl of kibble, every squeaky toy we step on when we first wake up in the morning is an animal who demonstrates love from a higher realm.  The “lower animal” can serve as a furry, friendly teacher and guide, showing us aspects about ourselves and the world around us that we often ignore or neglect from our lofty perspectives. Simple joys – a fresh bowl of cool water, wet toys dropped expectantly at bare feet, running freely through freshly-cut grass. These are the moments that make a tail wag uncontrollably.  These are what make the animal (and human) experience a delightful and rapturous one.

To purchase Dog in the Gap: Brief Explorations in Canine Care-Taking and Human Flourishing, click here:

Book Review: Devin Brown’s A Life Observed: A Spiritual Biography of C.S. Lewis

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This year, the fiftieth anniversary of Lewis’s death, has been an exceptional one for Lewis scholarship.  First, Alister McGrath’s biography revealed new information about Lewis’s reported conversion date.  This was confirmed by Lewis scholar Andrew Lazo in the latest volume of VII and on First Things. The “Early Prose Joy” manuscript, compared with correspondence between Lewis and his friends Owen Barfield and Arthur Greeves, provides great insight into Lewis’s actual conversion date.  As Lewis noted many times throughout his life, his conversion was not a tear-stained, emotional climax during a solemn altar call (complete with a musical crescendo) resulting in absolute surrender. In contrast, it was a slow and steady journey, a fleshing-out of perceived intellectual contradictions and spiritual ambiguities. His conversion was one of consistent seeking, of long discussions with valued colleagues, of coming “kicking and screaming” into the presence of God to become a “reluctant convert”.

This is the fascinating angle from which Lewis scholar Dr. Devon Brown chooses to approach Lewis in his newest biography A Life Observed: A Spiritual biography of C.S. Lewis. In the foreword, Lewis’s stepson Douglas Gresham explains how this is a biography of a different, yet essential nature:

I have more or less given up reading the new biographies of Jack, not so much because of the inaccuracies they contain – through there are usually  enough of them – but because they are written by people who knew him far less well than I did, if they knew him at all.  Their words, speaking only of the good biographies, are the products of much reading of Jack’s works and are much research into what others have written about him. They are consequently prone not only to error but also to a more serious malady – they dry out! The pages crackle with facts, faces, places, dates, and history. Some of them are very good books about Jack, but – here’s the rub – Jack is not in them (ix-x).

Mr. Gresham raises an interesting point: most biographies indulge in details. They often tackle the lengthy narrative of facts, from an individual’s great-great-great-great grandfather’s career to his/her style of architecture or favorite dish.  These aspects may demonstrate the author’s prodigious research skills and be deemed necessary by some more critical members of the reading audience, but do they lend us genuine insight into the person examined?  Does this amalgamation of facts give us a true portrait of the person we so deeply admire?  Frankly, it doesn’t.  Gresham’s endorsement of this text proves that it is not “just another biography” of C.S Lewis.  This work makes a close examination of what I believe is one of the most important facets of C.S Lewis’s life– his turning to Christ and acceptance of Christian doctrine.

Brown chronicles Lewis’s long, arduous journey from the shipyards of Belfast, Northern Ireland to the prestigious halls of Oxford. He skillfully weaves various quotes and reflections from Lewis’s works into the narrative, illustrating how Lewis’s works were directly influenced by many of his life experiences. The Screwtape Letters, The Chronicles of Narnia, and the Ransom Trilogy are frequently referenced alongside Mere Christianity, the Collected Letters, and Lewis’s autobiography Surprised by Joy.  Once the biographical excess typically featured in other biographies is stripped away, we see more concisely Lewis’s narrative liberated from a litany of extraneous details, of “facts, faces, places, dates, and history” which tends to delay the natural pace (and often the enjoyment) of the reader.

One of the many strengths of Brown’s biography is its readability.  There is often a tendency for highly educated authors to complicate the narrative with complex terms and excessive (often unnecessary) displays of erudition. But Lewis himself learned to successfully communicate Truths to the common man/layman in plain language.  He possessed a great gift of extrapolating difficult concepts by using colloquial expressions and illustrations. Brown, thankfully, has this same gift.  He presents his subject matter in a clear, thought-provoking way.  This biography would, in no way, confuse or intimidate the average reader.  It is both an enjoyable and instructional read.

I own several of Brown’s works and have found the same clarity and depth in those works as well.  He has been a celebrated Lewis scholar for many years, and therefore, serves as a trustworthy guide for Lewis’s spiritual journey. I urge you to add this book to your Lewis collection. It truly is not just “another Lewis biography” but a crucial exploration into the spiritual aspects of Lewis we perpetually find so fascinating.

Preorder the book now! The release date is August 15th:

Lewis and Women: Portrayals in The Pilgrim’s Regress

Week Eight of the C.S. Lewis and Women Series

Portrayals in The Pilgrim’s Regress

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This week, we will begin a literary exploration of Lewis’s female characters. Lewis’s first fictional prose text was titled The Pilgrim’s Regress, published in 1933.  The story is an allegory of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, in which John, the protagonist, is fascinated by an “island” and endures a philosophical maze, fights a dragon, and stumbles upon a new realization about himself, humanity, and “The Landlord”.

There are four main female figures in the book which I will outline today. PLEASE understand that this is allegory, therefore, the characters are essentially symbols. In this work, Lewis does not patronize women (Lewis would have never been foolish enough to operate on such shallow generalities), rather, he utilizes feminine characters as representative of an overarching concept.  For example, Walter Hooper tells us in C.S. Lewis: A Companion and Guide that Mother Kirk actually symbolizes “Traditional Christianity”.  If Lewis casts a female character in an unflattering light, he is not criticizing her specifically, rather he is criticizing the idea(s) which she represents.  In the beginning of the book, John sees a vision of an island, an image which inspires much delight and curiosity. John then spends his life chasing the island, seeking an avenue to lead him back to his cherished vision.  Throughout this narrative (which Hooper categorizes as “autobiographical”), John strives to reach the island, but is told by various individuals that the island is a mirage and doesn’t exist at all or that it is a misplaced desire for sex. Although John is strongly persuaded at times, eventually he perseveres and finds contentment, but only after he relinquishes the perceived power over his own life. Cumulatively, the women in this story are typically positive characters. Most of the religiously ambivalent characters are, in fact, male characters.

Let’s briefly explore the four female characters (one which is included in a larger group) John encounters on his journey, which intentionally parallels Lewis’s own conversion experience:

Brown Girl(s) & Media Halfways

“It was me you wanted…I am better than your silly Islands”

In Chapter four of Book One, in a section appropriately titled “Leah for Rachel”, John peers out a window in the wall in search of the island. Eventually, John gains the courage to explore the forest, but all the while he is questioning its existence and considering that the island could be “a feeling” instead of a reality.  Then John is stirred from contemplation when he hears a voice.  Lewis writes, “It was quite close at hand and very sweet, and not at all like the old voice of the wood.  When he looked round he saw what he had never expected, yet he was not surprised.  There in the grass beside him sat a laughing brown girl of about his own age, and she had no clothes on.  ‘It was me you wanted,’ said the brown girl. ‘I am better than your silly Islands.’ And John rose and caught her, all in haste, and committed fornication with her in the wood” (16).

John begins a long tryst with the “brown girls” but is surprised to find himself still unsatisfied. After time, John begins to loathe her, as she comes to represent his unfulfilled desire and unrelenting frustration:

The girl was still there and the appearance of her was hateful to John: and he saw that she knew this, and the more she knew it the more she stared at him, smiling. He looked round and saw how small the wood was after all – a beggarly strip of trees between the road and a field that he knew well. Nowhere in sight was there anything that he liked at all.  ‘I shall not come back here,’ said John. ‘What I wanted is not here.  It wasn’t you I wanted, you know.’

John is soon a slave to his own pleasures.  He is haunted by the “brown girl” and the “children” they bore. They appear everywhere, visible only to him.  He is continually tormented by their presence. As he creeps off to bed after a hard day, he finds the brown girl inescapable and has “no spirit to resist her blandishments” (17).  Later, in Book Two, Chapter Three, John meets an intriguing woman who is “young and comely, through a little dark of complexion” (25). She is also “friendly and not frank, but not wanton like the brown girls” (25). Her name is Media Halfways.  In the next chapter, John and Media are walking through the lane, listening to the enchanting bells of the city. John is moved by the music and soon, John and Media become more affectionate:

As they went on they walked closer, and soon they were walking arm and arm. Then they kissed each other: and after that they went on their way kissing and talking in slow voices, of sad and beautiful things. And the shadow of the wood and the sweetness of the girl and the sleepy sound of the bells reminded John a little bit of the Island, and a little bit of the brown girls.  ‘This is what I have been looking for all my life,’ said John. ‘The brown girls were too gross and the Island was too fine. This is the real thing.’  ‘This is Love,’ said Media with a deep sigh. ‘This is the way to the real Island’.

Media’s father, Mr. Halfways, sings and plays the harp for John. In musical rapture, John is swept up in a vision of the island, and begs for Mr. Halfways to repeat the song.  Mr. Halfways, doubtful of the Island’s existence, tells John that he is found the island “in one another’s hearts”.  However, the infatuation is short-lived. Media’s brother, Gus Halfway, interrupts the lovers’ conversation: “Well, Brownie, at your tricks again?”  Media flees the room, telling John, “All is over. Our dream – is shattered. Our mystery – is profaned. I would have taught you all the secrets of love, and now you are lost to me forever. We must part.”  Gus then reveals that his sister is a “brown girl” and that his father has “been in the pay of the Brownies all his life. He doesn’t know it, the old chucklehead. Calls them the Muses, or the Spirit, or some rot.  In actual fact, he is by profession a pimp” (29). Gus then proceeds to persuade John that science is the new “Island”. He states, “Our fathers made images of what they called gods and goddesses; but they were really only brown girls and brown boys whitewashed – as anyone found out by looking at them too long. All self-deception and phallic sentiment. But here you have the real art. Nothing erotic about her, eh?” [points to his bus].

As most can contrive, the brown girls represent LUST. They are poor substitutes for John’s Island (hence the Old Testament reference “Leah for Rachel”).  John ultimately transforms his desire for the (intangible) Island into sexual gratification and longing. However, the fix is only temporary, leaving John confused and irritated that his philosophical itch remains unscratched.  Why do the brown girls leave him so empty?

It is also important to note that Lewis is NOT patronizing dark-skinned women.  This is not Lewis’s reiteration of the “Eve” or “temptress” complex. If this were so, John would be written as more the victim of the vicious brown girls.  John is illustrating a young man’s insatiable lust, which leads him to fornicate. John is not a victim, he is a co-conspirator.  He is morally culpable for his behavior. Metaphorically the brown girls are no more than a perceived facsimile, John’s failed attempt to discover the Island.

By employing the color brown, Lewis is noting the condition of the brown girls’ souls – brown representing a faint hue of darkness. This is reflected in a conversation John has with his friend and travelling companion Vertue:

John: “There was a great deal to be said for Media after all…It is true she had a dark complexion. And yet – is not brown as necessary to the spectrum as any other colour?”

Vertue: “Is not every colour equally a corruption of the white radiance?”

John: “What we call evil – our greatest weaknesses – seen in the true setting is an element in the good.  I am the doubter and the doubt.

Vertue: “What we call our righteousness is filthy rags.” (105)

Contemplation (Daughter of Wisdom)

Although she makes a brief appearance, Contemplation’s key role is to assist John as he travels toward his ultimate destination. In Book Seven, she wakes John up and beckons him to continue his travels. When they reach a crevasse, she inspires him to jump. John “felt no doubt of her” and leapt. Instead of landing, John flies with Contemplation to the top of the mountain. Contemplation travels with him and states that when he “learned to fly further, we can leap fro here right into the Island” (92).  When he awakes the next morning, Contemplation is absent. Later, in Book Nine, Contemplation returns to lead John through the darkness to the castle gates. John claims that she is a different Contemplation, to which she replies that the former Lady was ” one of my shadows whom you have met” (124). Contemplation leads John through heavy rain and across a dark sea. When he struggles to release her grip, John finds that he has been dreaming and wakes up back in the cave.  Contemplation is a guide, but she does not, like so many of the male characters, crowd John with her  philosophy/theology.  On the contrary, she guides him to search deeper for meaning and fulfillment.

Mother Kirk

“‘The art of diving is not to do anything new but simply to cease doing something.  you have only to let yourself go”

As Walter Hooper mentioned, Mother Kirk represents Traditional Christianity.  John and Vertue first meet Mother Kirk as they plan to scale the mountain. Her dress is tattered and John’s first instinct is to consider her insane.  Mother Kirk offers to carry the men up, but as it is late, Mother Kirk invites them to her home. There she tells a modified version of “The Fall”, a dark narrative in which the Landlord is forced to evict a “tenant” due to disobedience. Then the spurned individual enticed others to stray, including the wife of a young couple.  The evil entity persuades the farmer’s wife to eat a nice mountain-apple, and a large canyon formed in the land. It’s name –Peccatum Adae (Sin of Adam).  John, still intrigued by the idea of the Landlord, inquires further about the rules established by the Landlord.  Mother Kirk replies, “For one thing, the taste created such a craving in the man and the woman that they thought they could never eat enough of it; and they were not content with all the wild apple trees, but planted more and more, and grafted mountain-apple on to every other kind of tree so that every fruit should have a dash of that taste in it.  they succeeded so well that they whole vegetable system of the country is now infected…” Later Mother Kirk claims she will carry the men down in the morning, but they must strictly follow her instructions. John replies,

“I am afraid it is no use, mother…I cannot put myself under anyone’s orders. I must be the captain of my soul and the master of my fate” (60).

This represents Lewis’s refusal to surrender to Christian principles. He is told what path is best, but refuses to acknowledge it.  He is told by others that Mother Kirk was respected, but was regrettably out of date. By his own volition, John chooses the long and complicated journey to arrive back with Mother Kirk. This time, she informs him that he must surrender to reach the Island: “It is only necessary…to abandon all efforts at self-preservation” (128). John undergoes a baptismal scene (similar to what Eustace experiences in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader).  He hears the voices of others, discouraging him from diving in. But at last the moment of decision had been reached: “And with that he took a header into the pool and they saw him no more. And how John managed it or what he felt I did not know, but he also rubbed his hands, shut his eyes, despaired, and let himself go. It was not a good dive, but, at least, he reached the water head first” (129).

Here, even in Lewis’s first work, we see that women are playing a variety of roles. They are not demonized, nor are they portrayed as saints (a literary characteristic of which Lewis is often accused). His women are dimensional, beautiful, but most importantly, authentic. From the sin and squalor of the “brown girls” to the reverence inspired by Mother Kirk, John’s journey explores the complicated journey of faith and the characters present in our narratives.

Next week, we will tackle the collection of stories which have, single-handedly, contributed to the perception of Lewis’s “misogyny”.  However, I will illustrate that Lewis crafts several complex and beautiful female characters who inhabit a magical land only entered by a wardrobe.  One neglected scene from The Horse and His Boy will give us great insight into Lewis’s complicated, but unprejudiced perspective of women.

The Chronicles of Narnia will be discussed next week.  Join me!