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Prayer in the night: For those who work or watch or weep

Warren, Tish Harrison. 2021. Prayer in the night: For those who work or watch or weep. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.

Warren is a priest with the Anglican Church and has a campus ministry with InterVarsity Graduate and Faculty Ministries. She and her husband and three children live in Pittsburg.

The book begins with Warren’s story about the trauma of her miscarriage. During it, she prayed relentlessly and states that “Faith, I’ve come to believe, is more craft than feeling. And prayer is our chief-practice in the craft” (9).

Warren’s emphasis on prayer centers on “finding Compline,” a prayer of “completion,” the last prayer of the day and the service surrounding it is designed for nighttime (12). It is the silent hours of the night when we are more aware of ourselves and of God. She found the Psalms “staving off the threat of darkness” (13). This is because “every twenty-four hours, nighttime gives us a chance to practice embracing our own vulnerability” (15). And further, “When we pray the prayers we’ve been given by the church—the prayers of the psalmist and the saints, the Lord’s Prayer, the Daily Office—we pray beyond what we can know, believe, or drum up in ourselves” (17). In her circumstances, Warren needed a prayer that would give her comfort “that looked unflinchingly at loss and death” (18).

The matter of trust is paramount when thinking about the way God doesn’t keep bad things from happening to us. We have pain and must contemplate what its redemptive meaning might be because “belief in a transcendent God means we are stuck with the problem of pain” (24). We have to examine what we think God is like—looking at the life of Jesus. It was the prayers and practices of the church that were most helpful.

The second part of the book is called “The Way of the Vulnerable” and refers to Warren’s emphasis on “working, watching, and weeping.” We are vulnerable as we come to “see grief as part of the everyday experience of being human in a world that is both good and cruel’ (39). Two things stand out: 1) we are always in the shadow of death and 2) we must learn to weep (41). We have to make space for grief and unless we do “we cannot know the depths of the love of God, the healing God wrings from pain, the way grieving yields wisdom, comfort, even joy” (43).

Warren reminds us that “Our task is to take up practices where we name, with utter honesty, the brokenness of the world and the promise of what’s to come” (46). She encourages us to pray with the Psalms, which “call us back into the dramatic depths of reality” (47). These include psalms of “lament” in which we learn how to weep. In our culture, we often assume that we know better than God but we need to “weep with the One who alone is able to permanently wipe away our tears” (52).

By talking about “Those who Watch” (Chapter 4), Warren is referring to our “attention,” our yearning and our hope. We can see no more than a few steps ahead and, as we watch, it can bring us fear. What we yearn for is not rooted in “wishful thinking” (or pie in the sky). We have to learn to watch because “Just as our pupils dilate to let in more light, prayer adjusts our eyes to see God in the darkness” (61). We watch for what is around us every moment.

This leads to “restoration” for “Those who Work” (Chapter 5) and we need others to help us in the process. We come to realize that “without leaving space for grief or attentiveness to God, oiur work will be compulsive, frenzied and vain” (75).

Part Three of the book is “A Taxonomy of Vulnerability” and begins with the prayer “Give your angels charge over those who sleep” (Chapter 6) because the “historic church imagined a universe jam packed with angels” (83). In other words, “Prayer expands our imagination about the nature of reality” (86).

The next prayer is to “Tend the Sick, Lord Christ” (Chapter 7) because, as we know, our bodies begin to fall apart. Sickness is “death’s handmaid” and “We don’t choose our preferred crosses, or our resurrections” (99). Health is a gift and “our bodies will be made eternal” so, “We learn to pray to the God who tends us” (102).

“Give Rest to the Weary” (Chapter 8) is a prayer that follows and refers to our weariness (Ecclesiastes 12.12). When our health fails “it cuts us to the core, reveals our trusest, most fragile selves” (107). In such situations, sometimes we have to have prayers of silence, which “is an exercise in tolerating mystery” (111). As the author says, “pray for miraculous healing, and get the will ready” (114). “We pray because we believe that God. who makes no promises of our safety and comfort, loves us and takes care of us” (114).

I agree that “The Christian faith never asks us to be okay with death” and that is not the way it is supposed to be (117). Death is an enemy and is the last one to be defeated. “Jaroslav Pelikan said that ‘Christ comes into the world to teach men how to die’’ and that was certainly what Joice believed. She meditated on her mortality—not something that our culture (or many Christians) will ever get used to.

Another prayer of the Compline is to “Soothe the Suffering” (Chapter 10), providing comfort. Suffering, as the author notes “ebbs and flows” and we do not know when healing will come. However, in our prayers we can “join him [Jesus] in the torment of Gethsemane, the torture of the cross, and the darkness of his own grave” (127). It follows that “We have to feel the things we hate to feel—sadness, loss, loneliness” about which there are no shortcuts. (131). Healing always takes longer than we would like or that we think it should but, as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, “trust in the slow work of God” (136).

“Pity the Afflicted” is the title and prayer of Chapter 11. Warren states, “I don’t know why God allows affliction, but I do know this: he is found among the afflicted” (144). She notes that prosperity seems to render more doubt than the affliction found in the afflicted (147). She claims that “The shape of our prayers determines the shape of our life” (149) and in the darkness we await the dawn.

Chapter 12 asks that we “Shield the Joyous” showing both gratitude and indifference as we do so. This is because “In this fallen world, joy is risky” and takes courage (151). It can be maddening to those who suffer but Christians should embrace the good and what is joyful, which will remain if we choose it. “To choose joy is to see all existence as a gift “ (157). We learn through our prayers that “Love and loss are a double helix this side of heaven” (159).

Part four of the book, “Culmination,” reminds us that we are trusting God and that is “All for Your Love’s Sake” (Chapter 13). “The Christian life is more like a poem than an encyclopedia” because our life “Like poetry…has restraints—even rules, like a sonnet” (163).

The final chapter (13) is “And All for Your Love’s Sake” encourages the reader to “honor ambiguity” because there is a lot we cannot know about God (164). However, “We weep because we can lament to one who cares about our sorrow” (165) and this is good news to people like me. I know that “in the end the only way to endure the mystery is to put the whole weight of our [my] life on the love of God” (167). God does not extinguish sorrow and the darkness is not explained, but it is defeated.

The book concludes with discussion questions for each chapter, such as how is waiting and watching a metaphor for the whole life? and do we agree that in our culture “we rush to get over grief?”

I find the exposition and personal notes on the Compline prayer a number of new and helpful thoughts and I have highlighted many of them in this review. Put together the chapters inform me of one variation of the Compline prayer:

Keep watch, Dear Lord over
Those who weep
Those who watch
Those who work
Give your angels charge over those who sleep
Tend the sick, Lord Jesus
Give rest to the weary
Bless the dying
Soothe the suffering
Pity the afflicted
Shield the joyous
And all for your Love’s sake

C S Lewis as Missionary Protagonist?

Karl J. Franklin*


The space trilogy by C.S. Lewis is used here as a basis for thinking about missionary work. In it Lewis, in the surrogate character Ransom, accompanies scientists Weston and Devine in their sinister visits to the planets of Mars and Venus. They encounter alien beings and cultures with attempts at communication that parallel many of the types of exchanges between missionaries and people of non-Western cultures. In the final book of the trilogy, Ransom is the philosopher-educator who best understands what is happening in a college town because of his experiences on Mars and Venus. This too has parallels with missionaries who examine their own cultures in the light of experience and understanding from other cultures. 


My interest in the writings of C.S. Lewis goes back to my college days. After I read Mere Christianity I was sure that it had the kind of arguments that my skeptical dad would consider and that it would challenge him with the claims of Christianity. I don’t remember that it had such an effect on him, but it was a book that prompted many conversations between us and it influenced my own thinking about the Christian faith.

I kept reading books by Lewis and when we arrived in PNG in 1958 the novel Till we have faces had recently been published (1956). I had conversations about it with colleagues and it seems like his books have been part of my life for a long time. I can remember encouraging my daughter (then a sophomore at Baylor) in her English course to specialize in books by Lewis. She read most of his books and later enrolled me as a member of the New York C.S. Lewis Society. Then a couple of years ago I found a course on CS Lewis offered by the Great Courses, so I read that as well (The life and writings of C.S. Lewis by Professor Louis Markos of Houston Baptist University).

Over the years authors have looked at Lewis from various perspectives, for example: 

  • The taste for the other: the social and ethical thought of C.S. Lewis (Gilbert Meilaender, 1978)
  • Reading the classics with C.S. Lewis (Thomas L. Martin, editor, 2000)
  • The riddle of joy: G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis (Michael H. Macdonald and Andrew A. Tadie, eds., 1989)
  • Surprised by laughter: The comic world of C.S. Lewis (Terry Lindvall, 1996)
  • The spiritual legacy of C.S. Lewis (Terry Glaspey, 1996)
  • C.S. Lewis explores vice and virtue (Gerard Reed, 2001)
  • The question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud debate God, love, sex, and the meaning of life (Armand M. Nicholi, Jr., 2002)
  • C.S. Lewis and the Catholic church (Joseph Pearce, 2003)
  • Beyond the shadowlands: C.S. Lewis on heaven & hell (Wayne Martindale, 2005)

There are also bibliographies, summaries, encyclopedias, collections of readings, websites and so on to consult on Lewis. However, as far as I know, no one has ever suggested that C.S. Lewis championed the missionary cause, nor had much interest in it.

In September 2005 my wife and I spent a month in Ecuador visiting our family who were missionaries there and I decided to re-read the space trilogy that Lewis wrote: Out of the silent planet, Perelandra and That hideous strength. As I read the novels and listened to Lewis comment on space travel, meeting with inhabitants of other planets and the general triumph of technology, coupled with the awful consequences of sin and pride, it seemed to me that he was very much a missionary. Then in September 2006 (in Ecuador again) I re-read That hideous strength more carefully. If Lewis had been a missionary, or if I could pretend he was in a vicarious sense in his space encounters, what did he say that had parallels to the missionary work that I was acquainted with? So I started thinking and writing. My wife tells me that some of my connections are a bit far-fetched, but then, what a lot of what missionaries say is far-fetched, so bear with me in this exercise.

Of course, to even consider the question, I have had to speculate about Lewis as an author and about his characters and plots. Nevertheless, what he wrote in the trilogy—his many characters and events—reveal a great deal about cross-cultural communication, something missionaries are supposed to excel in.

Readers know that Lewis’s books speak of fantasy, myth, devils, other worlds and planets, and that his letters reveal his more personal side, but here my context is his space trilogy, although I may occasionally refer to some of his other writings. I do not want to imply that Lewis considered himself a missionary or thought deeply about missionaries. In fact he was frightened that, if humans should contact an unfallen race somewhere on another planet in space, we would soon corrupt them. In an interview with Sherwood Wirt of Decision magazine (September 1963, and probably the last interview Lewis had before he died) he said:

I look forward with horror to contact with other inhabited planets, if there are such. We would only transport to them all of our sin and acquisitiveness and establish a new colonialism. I can’t bear to think of it. But if we on earth were to get right with God, of course, all that would be changed. Once we find ourselves spiritually awakened, we can go to outer space and take the good things with us. That is quite another matter.

Some definitions and background

The word “missionary” has both positive and negative connotations, so let me explain how I am using the term and why I want to see if Lewis fits the bill. Although the work of a missionary is most naturally related to religious tasks, it does not have to be. A businessman, nurse, teacher or terrorist can have a mission to fulfill, so they could fit that aspect of the missionary profile as well. I therefore go further and qualify the definition by saying “Christian missionary,” thus immediately adding certain additional constraints and facts.

Put simply, a Christian missionary represents (serves as an ambassador for) the Christian faith; secondly, he is motivated by God to do the task; thirdly, he is willing to undergo hardship to accomplish the task; and finally, he carries the message for the benefit of a particular audience.[1] A missionary is therefore one with a mission, a purpose to fulfill. In the Christian context the mission is to tell groups, most often those that are culturally different than one’s own, about the good news of Jesus Christ–how he came into the world to die for sinful people, was killed and then rose again. It is a message of hope because it offers forgiveness, redemption and resurrection.

In thinking about how Lewis portrays the missionary cause, I have imagined him leaving his homeland of England, going to a non-English speaking country, learning the language and customs of the country, all with the goal of conveying to the inhabitants a message of hope and reconciliation. 

We recognize that missionaries, to be at home in another culture and communicate with the inhabitants of that culture, generally need to learn to speak another language, one that may be very different from their mother tongue. They also need to understand another culture without judging it simply because it is different than their own. The depth of their linguistic and cultural understanding will influence the range of their participation in the contacted culture, as well as the degree of friendships that they form within the culture. Their ability to see from the inside of the language and culture, like a native speaker, rather from the outside, like an alien, will provide them with a view that is cross-cultural, i.e. it crosses from their own culture to a new culture. It may turn out that their audience is not at first, or even in the end, appreciative of them or their message, so they may be treated cruelly. All of their interactions will require faith, love, and hope, but the neediest of these turns out to be hope. Many missionaries, probably most, go in faith, not knowing exactly what to expect, but are convinced that God is leading them into this new venture. They also must work at charity because their motives and behavior will be tested and often found raw and bitter. But most of all they must have infinite patience, hoping that learning the language and culture, living in an alien land, eating different foods and viewing practices that are foreign and often distasteful to them, will lead to an acceptance and understanding of the message they represent. We would expect this of missionaries, so how does Lewis do this on Mars, Venus, and then back on earth?

A Missionary to Mars?

To begin this exercise let us look at author Lewis, in the persona of his surrogate Ransom, as he visits two planets outside of earth and observe his interactions with the aliens he meets. We will then notice that what he has learned eventually influences his behavior and work back on earth.

When Ransom goes to Mars he is like some missionary spouses, going more by compulsion than desire. Although a spouse may not be put in a space rocket, he or she may go unwillingly. In this vein, when the space ship goes to Mars it is because of the intentions and desires of Weston and Divine, not because Ransom wants to go there.[2] Missionaries often do not end up where they intended: Judson ended up in Burma when he wanted to be in India; Ken Pike wanted to go to China, but ended up in Mexico; some of my colleagues in PNG wanted to be in Irian Jaya (now called Papua), and so on. “Many are the plans in the mind of man but it is the will of God that will be accomplished.”(Proverbs16:9; 19:21)

The story of Ransom, who is a philologist and a fellow of Cambridge College, begins when he is simply trying to get home before dark. As it becomes late and he seems unlikely to get to his destination, he chances to meet a woman and asks her for directions to an inn where he might spend the night. She is distressed and is waiting for her husband, Harry. Harry turns out to be dumb, but works at a place that Ransom will be passing. Ransom agrees to contact her husband and pass on her message of anxiety. Upon reaching the somewhat secluded place, Ransom has to climb a fence in order to get inside. There he is accosted by Devine (a former acquaintance) and his accomplice, Professor Weston. Unbeknownst to Ransom, they are conducting a human experiment, and want to use Harry.

Lewis uses the experiment motif as the underlying reason that Ransom is taken to Mars. God seems to conduct experiments with people, witness Job who was the experimental evidence that God offered to Satan for a righteous man. Ransom seems to be unaware of God’s ultimate purpose and yet eventually learns what God is teaching him. I have often wondered what God is doing, not if He should do it, but where the action or inaction is leading. Why would an administrator ask me to run a sawmill in 1958 when we were waiting assignment to start language work? Or why did the director choose my wife and me to supervise the opening of an airstrip? The space trilogy is an excellent metaphor of missionary work at times: into the unknown, meeting the unknown, difficulty in communication, battles with evil, questions about purpose, and so on.

Weston and Divine overcome Ransom because they decide to use him instead of Harry for the experiment. Ransom finds himself on a spaceship and as the earth recedes he learns that they are on their way to Malacandra (Mars). Overhearing a conversation on the space ship, Ransom realizes that Weston has been in contact with Mars inhabitants, known as sorn, earlier. He cannot imagine what the sorn are like but from what he overhears he believes that they are demanding a human sacrifice from earth.

Already Ransom, like any curious missionary, is observant and making deductions, even as he is puzzled about what is going on or the purpose of it. Missionaries generally know where they are going and, for the most part, are quite observant. I can remember that when we were assigned to PNG (then the Territory of New Guinea) in 1957, I found some books by Colin Simpson called Adam with arrows and Adam with plumes and read them. I wrote to Oceania and got some monographs on the people and also read back issues of National Geographic to find information on the area and learn as much as I could. All of this gave me background information from which to make deductions about the country and its people. Some were wrong: when we landed in Port Moresby and saw the men spitting out red juice we assumed that TB was rampant instead of recognizing that they were chewing betel nut and spitting out the juice. Similarly, Ransom had difficulty figuring out what was happening on his way to Mars.

Ransom’s party eventually lands on Mars. Weston obviously has been there before because he has a key to a hut that contains provisions. Later they are met by six white “spindly and flimsy things, twice or three times the height of a man,” who compel them to cross over water with them. Weston fires his revolver at them and in the confusion of the moment Ransom is able to free himself and flee.

As best he can, Ransom describes the inhabitants of Mars. Enough sign language is communicated for Weston’s party to know what these unfamiliar creatures, the sorn, want. Ransom, like most missionaries, does not own a gun, but Weston does and he fires it to scare off the natives. This has often been a universal response and tactic when invaders and prospectors have entered new territory and believed the people meant them harm. Although missionaries are in another country and their mission is to interact positively with them (and not shoot them), this has not always been historically true, so perhaps we should not be too judgmental of Weston. In the story of the first contact into the highlands of Papua New Guinea by Hides and O’Malley, they frighten the people by shooting a pig to demonstrate the power of their guns.

Ransom encounters many obstacles, creatures and personal difficulties and, as he does, is terribly afraid of the sorn. But a sorngives him liquid to drink and of course he is grateful. The sorn tries to talk to Ransom, identifying himself as hross (later Ransom learns that hrossa is the plural) and their attempt at conversation and discovery begins. Ransom deducts that the name Malacandra turns out to be the whole landscape, with handra meaning ground or earth. As a student of language, he notices a change in sounds (dialects) as well as suffixes and prefixes.

Sometimes the people we may fear the most in another society and culture can turn out to be our best friends. When we lived in the village of Usa in the Southern Highlands of PNG, off and on, from 1958 to 1973, at first I didn’t like Yanda (not his real name). He was too demanding and always around, wanting to help. But it wasn’t long before he wanted me to train him to do some of the things that I was doing, practical things like carpentry. He became a very good friend, one I could count on for help. Our friendship was often over food and just as the sorn helped Ransom in a practical way, Yanda helped me. In respect to linguistic aptitude, Ransom was a good missionary—a quick learner and one who immediately attempted to use the language. His fear of the sorn is basically reduced through what he learns of the language. This is of course, why missionaries learn phonetics, language learning techniques, and study the basic grammatical and cultural features of other languages. Nevertheless, fear of people and learning a new language in a different culture, leads to problems common to missionaries. We find Ransom overcoming many of his fears as he begins to learn the language and customs of the sorn.

Eventually Ransom is compelled to follow the hross in a boat and he does so, although “its animality shocked him.” The hrosswere “six or seven feet high and too thin for its height, like everything in Malacandra.” However, at the same time he had a “longing to learn its language” and to understand it better. As they travel Ransom continues to learn new things: the high ground is called harandra and the low areas are handramit. The hross live in the handramit and the séroni (the plural for sorn) up on the hrandra.

The hross who first found him is named Hyoi and the one teaching him the language is the “grey-muzzled, venerable” Hnobra.I remember how difficult it was to remember the names of the villages, the clans, the rivers, the mountains, the garden areas, which were all unusual to me as a foreigner in the Kewa area in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Nevertheless, it was important for me, as it is with new missionaries anywhere, to learn the names of the areas around us. In this respect Ransom is again an exemplary learner. He continues with observations on the culture and environment, as well as observing the knowledge the Martians have of his world—Thulcandra, or the earth. Of course the Kewa knew nothing of my world but they were interested in my birthplace and where I grew up. In the same way, Ransom wanted to know about the sorn and hross. Ransom begins to learn what is of interest and importance to the sorn and hross, just as a missionary must learn what is important in the worldview of the people he works with.

In response to Ransom’s questions about “the silent world or planet”, known as Thulcandra, the answer is always that “the séroni know.” The Martian inhabitants decide that Ransom should try to meet Oyarsa, who lives in Meldilorn and who “knows everything, rules everyone, and had always existed.”

Ransom is learning about the traditional beliefs of the sorn. Missionaries sometimes are reluctant to put much stock in the traditional tales of the people, doubting the truth of their oral history. However, God does not want anyone to be lost, so there is often some knowledge about Him present in a natural environment, although it may be distorted. Once again Ransom exhibits good missionary skills by learning the names of the experts who know the answers and can represent the culture’s worldview. Worldviews are composite values and beliefs and are not easily verbalized by participants in a particular culture. Our worldview influences the way we interpret not only the Scriptures, but other cultures and languages as well. This is why we study anthropology and linguistics. I remember studying Kewa religion and asking: Who should I ask?, and “Who are the ones who know the most about this topic?” Then I would follow with, “What should I ask them?” I didn’t even know the best questions to ask.

Ransom learns, for example, that Maleldil is not a hnau (human being), that the hross, as well as the séroni and pfifltriggi, are different culture groups. The pfifltriggi like to dig, soften things with fire and make things. They are smaller than humans, “long in the snout, pale, busy.” Ransom begins to realize why Weston is so interested in the area, apparently for what the pfifltriggi can make. He also concludes that the sorns are the intelligentsia.

Here again Ransom could be considered a missionary anthropologist at work: analyzing class and social structure, determining work habits, describing the new culture group as best he can. One of our first tasks was to outline the kinship structure of the Kewa, to see how people fit into the social structure and to note how the clans and sub-clans were named and organized. We then were gradually assigned our own place in the structure and given names to use. This adoption process is essential if missionaries are going to be accepted into a culture group. However, even in the process, we make assumptions that are influenced by our cultural background and worldview. For example, the word “brother” in English can refer to a sibling, a shared parent (half-brother), a common ancestry, a fellow man, a friend, or a member of a religious order. In Kewa a “brother” refers to male siblings, parallel male cousins, the wife’s sister’s husband, the wife’s father’s brother’s daughter’s husband, the wife’s fathers’ sister’s daughters’ husband and several other similar relationships. But in Kewa my sister does not use the name “brother” for me; rather she uses a word that means “sibling of the opposite sex” and I would refer to her the same way.

In the ensuing conversations both Ransom and the hrossa learn that they have hunted the hnakra in their separate worlds and will do so now. But as they engage in the activity a philosophical discussion reveals that the hrossa have no “bent” (sinful) ones of their own species. 

This is a theological point that most missionaries would probably find unacceptable—the whole world and other worlds as well would probably be considered sinful to missionaries. But why is this so? Didn’t Jesus say that he had other worlds that the disciples didn’t know about? Are there really other places in the universe where there are princes and powers that are evil? How do our practical earth-oriented worldviews fit with the Scriptural hints of fallen angels, angel-humans, and fallen angels like Satan? Ransom is learning new things that conflict with his own experiences and worldview. And he is learning about hunting and engaging in similar cultural activities with the people. Ransom follows missionaries in this respect.

During the hunt and as they are about to see the hnakra, Weston appears and kills a hross, thinking it is a beast. Another hrossnamed Whin says this has happened because Ransom was supposed to go to Oyarsa but did not obey the eldil. The hross then explains to him how to take the five day journey to find Oyarsa. Prior to this there is a scene of ethnic and cultural superiority when Weston speaks to Oyarsa about science and human destiny. Ransom is called upon to interpret as Weston compares his civilization with the stone-age life on Mars, how his responsibility from the higher life is over the lower forms, and so on. Ransom falters when he tries to translate Weston’s view of killing the sorn as if it somehow benefited the survival of the human race. A series of conversations shows Weston speaking a kind of pidgin variety of the language in which he assumes his own cultural superiority.

How do we justify or explain war, conflict, and conquest in space in terms of social benefits accruing for others? During the career of a missionary many unusual and unacceptable things happen. How should they to be interpreted: Does the missionary always know God’s will? How should he respond to unacceptable behavior? There is no lack of cause and effect in cultures of PNG. There are no accidents: sickness and death (including old age) happen because of sorcery, magic can enhance a love relationship, and so on. In this instance Ransom has disobeyed what he was told to do and this has resulted in something wrong happening. But we have to be careful: when there is an accident, the missionary disobeyed God in some way? Are there accidents? A building collapses and the good and the evil people die. 

Philosophical questions like these do not seem to trouble Ransom as he continues to try and understand what he has seen and heard. As he journeys on he reflects on the nature of Oyarsa: is he an arch-sorn? Was he a real person? He is looking for Augray’s tower, unsure of what this might be or mean. 

I have already mentioned that missionaries are often confronted with the names of beings that they do not know or understand, living in places that they cannot comprehend. Should they enter new territory, according to some theologies, places likely to be ruled by the devil? How far does one go in the quest for cultural understanding? Ransom, it turns out, goes further than most missionaries would. Similarly, I once attended a garden ceremony where the head man cooked some pig parts over a small reflective pond as he chanted the names of certain spirits. It was an eerie feeling for me and when I reported the incident to some missionaries afterwards they cautioned me to be careful of what ceremonies I took part in. That may have been good advice, although it is difficult to learn about a cultural event without participating in it.

Eventually Ransom meets a sorn, one who decides that Ransom is from Thulcandra (earth), rather than Glundandra(Mercury?) Ransom in turn discovers that the sorn called Augray speaks a dialect different from the hrossa. Ransom describes how Augray looks and there follows a discussion on Oyarsa, who “is the greatest of eldila who ever come to a handra.” Augray and Ransom continue their discussion, although Ransom finds that he has insufficient vocabulary to find out much about the political and economic background of the Malacandrian people, in particular the pfifltriggi

Ransom’s interest in language contributes to his identification of dialect differences, but it also shows him how weak he is in certain cultural domains, such as politics and economics. Ransom seems to assume that the division of vocabulary and culture into economic, religion and so on are natural rather than an artifact of Western culture and analysis. Missionaries are just as likely to assume that their cultural domains are more reliable than those of another culture. In Kewa we found that there was no word for “religion” or “economics” or of course “psychology” because these have arisen out of our Western educational complex. Ransom is tied to his educational background and finds it difficult to communicate along the lines that the sorn do.

Travel is difficult for Ransom so Augray carries him across the landscape, a new handramit that is spectacular in beauty. Later Ransom goes by boat for a distance, then resumes walking. He sees pictures on stones that suggest an earlier evolution of the sornshrossa and pfifltriggi. It is the latter who turn out to be the sculptors, and one does a portrait of Ransom.

The picture of Augray carrying Ransom is symbolic of how in an unfamiliar place and culture, he must rely completely on the “natives”. Despite how observant missionaries and anthropologists may be, they must rely completely upon members of the cultures they study. Ransom is able to appreciate beauty–even when it is unlike that of his own world. He also is able to connect the relationship between groups of people from pictographs that he notices. 

Ever the linguist, Ransom makes another discovery: the sorns, hrossa and pfifltriggi can all speak the same language, despite differences in their speech organs. He is told that once they had their own languages but now everyone has learned the language of the hrossa. Ransom continues to stay and learn more of their culture until finally Oyarsa appears from the long lines of sculptured stones. Oyarsa has an inhuman voice, but unshaken, sweet and remote. From Oyarsa Ransom learns that he has been brought to Mars for a purpose and that he met sorns so that they could teach him the language. Oyarsa had not expected the strangers (Weston and Devine) to bring Ransom, although he knew from the sorns that Thulcandrians were mining on Mars. Oyarsa sent for someone of Ransom’s race so that he could find out as much as he could about Maleldil’s wars with the Bent One. 

Ransom finally discovers the purpose that took him to Mars. It has taken a leader from a culture not his own to make this clear. Similarly, many missionaries do not find out their true purpose for being in another land until they have deep philosophical and religious discussions with inside leaders. We should try to discover what God has in mind for us. Why are we in this culture? What does God have in mind? How can we communicate effectively without knowing both the language and the culture?

As Ransom is explaining what happened with Maleldil on Thulcandra, Weston and Devine arrive in a procession. They deposit three dead hrossa before Oyarsa. Weston then attempts to converse with Oyarsa by using a kind of Pidgin that is a condescending variation of the Malacandrian, which he learned from the sorns. He tries to intimidate them but in the end he is ignored. 

Talking down to people is common, even by missionaries. But when done in an inferior manner by using the language incorrectly, it shows a lack of respect. Weston and Divine are good examples of what missionaries should not be: condescending in both attitude and language, indicating their feelings that the inhabitants are culturally and linguistically inferior, subject to control and intimidation. Lewis obviously recognizes this when he has Weston using a Pidgin variation of the language.

Ransom listens to the songs of memory for the dead sorns. Because of his knowledge of the culture and his love for the creatures he begins, ever so little, to hear the songs with their ears. Oyarsa makes a sign and the pfifltiigg (plural?) touch the three dead sorns and they disappear.

When a missionary begins to understand and respond internally like one of the people there is hope that his message will be listened to and, perhaps, accepted and adapted within the culture. But the motive of missionaries should go beyond simply the salvation of the people. A missionary’s reactions and feelings need to be spontaneous and genuine. Funerals and mourning were not one of my favorite times with the Kewa. I can still occasionally hear the death wails during the night. But listening to the songs and dirges enabled me to understand the depth of feelings of the people. Ransom began to do this. Of course one does not have to be a missionary to have this kind of response, but a cross-cultural view of death can be terrifying.

Oyarsa has Weson’s head dipped in cold water with the hope that it will help him understand the ways of the Malacandrians, but instead Weston lectures them on their primitive ways. He claims that life is greater than “tribal taboos and copy-book maxims” and that she [Life] “has pursued her relentless march from the amoeba to man and from man to civilization.” When Oyarsa extols the benefits of Maleldil, Weston rubbishes the concept and, in his Pidgin version of the language says, “Me no care Maleldil. Like Bent One better: me on his side.” Oyarsa allows Weston’s party to leave, saying that the sorns and pfiftriggi will give them enough food and air for the 90 days it will take to reach Thulcandra.

Despite their most degrading speeches and actions, foreigners, including missionaries, are often given more grace and good will than they deserve. This is certainly the case for Weston and Devine. An inherent cultural view of hospitality in many cultures will often overcome the negative response that outsiders could expect. Of course this is not always true: James Chalmers went to the Gulf of PNG at the turn of the 19th century and was killed by the Goaribari people. The five martyrs in Ecuador were killed despite their good intention. Ransom and Weston could have expected retaliation and revenge but are allowed to return to earth instead. 

The three return to earth and it is at this point that Ransom’s friend takes up the story again, remarking that Ransom has abandoned his idea of a Malacandrian dictionary and telling his story to the world. The author remarks that this record, however, gives much of the story, even if it does not do justice to Ransom’s experiences.

Ransom, or Lewis as Ransom, clearly portrays a number of positive characteristics of a missionary. These include linguistic aptitude and cultural curiosity, coupled with empathy, friendships, and deep discussions about the important matters of sin, life and death. The whole story is not told to the world—no TV or DVDs in those days. Like many missionaries returning home, Ransom also realizes that he will not get some of the linguistic work done that he had planned. Many missionaries have shelves of data that they will probably never analyze.

There are a number of practical things that Ransom learns from his to Mars that are similar to what missionaries learn from their overseas experiences:

  • When we describe our experiences we learn more about ourselves
  • We learn from cultures and people that are quite different from our own
  • When we examine aspects of our culture we may be ashamed
  • We get uncomfortable or even frightened in new cultural situations
  • Traditional beliefs from other cultures may encapsulate truth and knowledge
  • The ultimate encounters we have are in the hands of God
  • Attempting to use the language is a way to make friends
  • Social organization is a universal aspect of cultures
  • Degrees of empathy come from cultural immersion and participation
  • Cultural imperialism is an aspect and sometimes a fact of missionary work

A Missionary to Venus?[3]

The sequel to Out of the Silent Planet begins with the thoughts and journey of a man (who, not incidentally, is named Lewis) who is summoned to go to Ransom’s home. He already knows that Ransom has been to Mars and met creatures called eldilaand their ruler, the Oyarsa of Malacandra. The man knows something of their physical characteristics as well: “They do not eat, breed, breathe, or suffer natural death, and to that extent resemble thinking minerals more than they resemble anything we should recognize as an animal.”

Like a missionary returning on furlough, Ransom has re-told his Mars experiences to Lewis. Lewis also recognizes that Ransom has come back from Mars a changed individual: he has met and communicated with the eldil, who now do not leave him alone. The narrator (Lewis) is even afraid that he might meet one and indeed as he travels to meet Ransom at his home he finds it difficult to think of any thing but the eldila. Lewis exemplifies the missionary-storyteller par excellence. He tells his bizarre stories with great effect. The missionaries who are sought for the banquet circuit and official functions are most often the storytellers, not the academics—unless they too can tell stories.

In addition to the eldila, Lewis knew of the sorns, giants that Ransom had met and described. Ransom had also told Lewis about the pfiftriggi and the hrossa, as well as additional named beings. All of this background information contributed to Lewis’ own cultural perceptions of haunted houses and superstition as he continued on his way to Ransom’s cottage.

Like a missionary, Ransom has made his stories so vivid that Lewis is terribly frightened in the dark on his way to Ransom’s house. These are Ransom’s snake and cannibal stories, themes that audiences always have in mind when they think of “primitive” cultures and the stories that missionaries tell. This kind of story can be either positive or negative, depending on the way the stories are told and the motives for telling them. What was Ransom trying to achieve by telling these tales to his friend? When missionaries tell a story, their motives and goals may not always be clear. Ransom needs someone with whom he can share his stories, and the same is true for missionaries. Ransom is fortunate that he has found someone interested.

Upon arrival at Ransom’s house Lewis finds a note expressing sorrow that Ransom will be late and that Lewis is to make himself at home. In the house he stumbles upon a long, open box and hears a voice calling the name of Ransom. He also sees a pillar of light with unusual colors, that he interprets as an eldil and is filled with terror. Just then Ransom returns and converses with the eldil in “a strange polysyllabic language” that Lewis had never heard before.

Missionaries know what it is like to be invited to a home when the host is absent. We note that when Ransom and the eldilconverse, it is a miracle to Lewis. When missionaries talk their learned languages the reaction is often similar: how did they ever learn to talk like that? Ransom undoubtedly knew the effect this language would have on Lewis when he heard it: awe, admiration, even a humbling effect. Missionaries have observed the audiences feelings of wonder when they talk or recite Scripture in an unknown language.

In the discussion that follows it is clear that Ransom would like to return to Malacandra (Mars) but that he has now been summoned to go to Perelandra (Venus) instead. The leader of the latter, a “bent Oyarsa” who resides somewhere in the Solar System, is going to attack Venus. Ransom has been selected to go to Venus because he learned the language Hressa-Hlab on Mars, which turns out to be Old Solar, Hlab-Eribol-of-Cordi, which is also spoken on Venus. The language was lost on Thulcandra (earth) and no human language is known to have descended from it. Additional facts are spelled out: how Venus has an outer layer of atmosphere that is thick, so the climate will be warm; the man Schiaparelli has studied the time it takes for Venus to revolve around the sun (Arbol). The conclusion is that there will be a perpetual day on one side of the planet and perpetual night on the other.

Here, like a scholarly missionary, Ransom has done his homework: he knows the linguistic history, the geography and the conditions surrounding any transportation needed for living in the new country. And like any missionary, Ransom would like to go back to Mars, where he had learned the language and was accepted by the people. However, the mission superintendent has a different and more important mission in mind for Ransom. “Going back” is a strange oddity and behavior of the missionaries. It reveals the deep feelings that allow them to refer to “our language” and “our people”. Ransom displays more knowledge about the history of the language than the average missionary, but he also shows its relevance to understanding what has  happened on the planet.

Ransom, in fact, will be sent to a place where there is a battle going on between good and evil. He will ride in the coffin by the power of Oyarsa to Perelandra. He has no idea of how this can be done but Lewis has been summoned to help launch the box. At breakneck speed Ransom is deposited in Perelandra, which seems to have an environment that is without land. As he describes it, “There is no moon in that land, no star pierces the golden roof. But the darkness was warm. Sweet new scents came stealing out of it. The world had no size now.” Then darkness, loneliness and sleep overcome Ransom.

Darkness and loneliness are two apt words for the feelings of missionaries who arrive in new countries. And, like Ransom, they believe they are involved in a battle that is going on between what is good and what is bad. The challenge is to decide what the cultural insiders consider as good and bad. (Missionaries may also feel like they have been transported in a box after 24 hours in airplanes and airports!).

After an interlude of rest Ransom awakes and realizes that he is naked and in an unknown planet. Presently he sees what seems to be a dragon-like creature that he unsuccessfully tries to engage in conversation. With considerable difficulty in communication, Ransom encounters what turns out to be a green woman. Eventually he talks to her in the ancient language of Venus telling her that he has come in peace. Her answer is as perplexing as his journey to this point. “What is peace?” she asks.

Missionaries assume that their vocabulary and viewpoint will be understood, indeed that it should be. But as surely as the green woman does not know what “peace” means (as well as many other assumed common concepts), many cultural groups do not understand the most basic points about the Gospel (redemption, forgiveness, repentance, for example). Lewis portrays this difficulty in cross-cultural understanding very well. An analogy is when translators are searching for key terms and attempt some definition from the “original” text, believing that this will explain a meaning. However, the meaning will be interpreted by the context of the message—written or unwritten, regardless of the Biblical history of the word or expression.

Their next conversation reveals that neither party understands the other’s point of view or reference. Ransom believes that when she says she is young she is referring to age. Rather, she is talking about the accumulation of wisdom. She calls Ransom “Piebald Man,” indicating the blotched nature of his skin and thanks him for the wisdom he is bringing. It turns out that she knows “that in your world Maleldil first took Himself this form, the form of your race and mine.” It is Maleldil that has provided all of the wisdom that the woman shares with Ransom.

Here Lewis is treading in deep theological water: people in other cultures are not supposed to know as much as the missionary about the purpose or nature of God. This is an important dialogue because it reveals that Lewis, now as author, appreciates some of the innate religious understanding that is present in another culture. Missionaries have to face the fact or possibility that God has been there before them. Many object to this point of view.

As Ransom’s dialogue continues with the “Green Lady”, it seems that many of his concepts simply do not make sense to her. “What is home… alone… dead?” reveal some of the terms that are unfamiliar. She wonders aloud if Ransom was sent to Venus to teach them about death. As their dialogue continues Piebald is also confused, and the Green Lady observes “little hills and valleys” in his forehead and “a little lift” of his shoulders. “Are these the signs of something in your world?” she asks.

When verbal language can’t be understood, people look closely at “body language.” What does a furrowed brow mean in another culture? People in other cultures may not only wonder what the missionary is talking about, but also why does he or she smile so much? What does it mean? What gives him such power, with goods, medicines and knowledge that is far beyond what our own ancestors had? The dialogue with the Green Lady illustrates some of the confusion and cross-assumptions that occur and shows Lewis’s skill in presenting them.

The next day they meet and talk again, this time of the Fixed Land, where Ransom lives. Ransom attempts to outline some of the laws of that land and of the people who live there, about the beasts on Venus and about what has fallen out of Deep Heaven. Ransom and the Green Lady ride on a fish she summons to the fixed land. Once there Ransom comments that he has seen no eldila, “the great and ancient servants of Maledil,” who neither breed or breathe and have bodies made of light. His questions and comments are based on his own cultural assumptions.

Ransom, like any missionary-in-learning, realizes that the laws of the land are different from his own. In PNG the world revolves around the land and water, not roads and shopping malls. But in order to understand another culture, missionaries must ask questions that make sense, observe actions and events carefully, then attempt to analyze what they find. Ransom is rightly puzzled.

Suddenly they see Weston exiting from a space craft and Ransom, knowing Weston’s evil intentions, tries in vain to keep the Green Lady from meeting him. Out of courtesy she meets him, despite Ransom’s wish for them to depart from Weston quickly. Weston and Ransom end up in a long philosophical argument in which Ransom admits that he is a Christian and Weston promotes his own view on the blind purpose of life. He sees this as an upward spiral toward spirituality, an outcome of his “biological philosophy.” Weston remarks on what he has learned from his new knowledge of the extraterrestrial language. As he continues his hostile arguments, he contorts and passes out.

Missionaries sometimes engage in philosophical arguments that have a philosophical and theological basis from the Bible and revelation. In contrast, secular anthropologists or others, may have assumptions about life and creation that are quite opposite. Some of the debates are therefore not unlike those Ransom had with Weston, so much so that the arguments are indeed often “hostile.”

When Ransom awakens he hears voices that turn out to be Weston discussing Meleldil and the fixed land with the woman. Ransom realizes that Weston sounds different because he is deceiving the woman in terms of what he is attempting to learn. It will all be for Weston’s own purposes.

Recognizing the intentions and motives of an enemy through their voices and writings is essential for missionaries. (Reviews of the writings of Lewis and his comments about the reviews indicate that he had to put up with this struggle throughout his academic career.) It takes wisdom and discernment for a missionary to determine what is deceitful in another culture.

Ransom, still alone, comes across a damaged animal, a trail of mutilated frogs, then Weston, who has been mutilating them. When Weston went to Perelandra his evil accompanied him and it is about this evil that Ransom attempts to warn the Green Lady. However, Weston gets to the lady first and is already in dialogue with her when Ransom arrives. Ransom tries to warn the lady of Weston’s intentions, but she is enthralled with his arguments on death and courage, forbidding and disobedience. The Green Lady seems to understand the implications when she exclaims, “Oh, how well I see it! We cannot walk out of Maleldil’s will: but He has given us a way to walk out of our will.”

Often missionaries have tried to protect their converts from the ways and arguments of the world, believing that they are too young and naïve in the faith to counteract temptations and evil. The motivations of the missionary may be misunderstood and unintended conclusions may result, but these are a part of cross-cultural communication process. This is the case with the Green Lady and Weston—she is enthralled by the arguments and what she is learning.

Weston is clearly the enemy, called the “Un-man”, and is intent on capturing the will of the lady. And the Un-man “showed plenty of subtlety and intelligence when talking to the Lady”,  but Ransom sees clearly that Weston is using his intelligence as a weapon. Weston continues with his arguments, clothes the lady with feathers of dead birds, gives her a mirror so that she can see herself and explains, “We call this thing a mirror”. He wants her to love herself and “to walk alongside oneself as if one were a second person and to delight in one’s own beauty. Mirrors were made to teach this art.”

In order to get someone in another culture to accept a different point of view the persuader may resort to bribery and flattery. Missionaries may not recognize this but they are aware of the greed that possessions and new items promote. Lewis sees the Un-man as a theological personification of the general sinfulness of mankind, something that any missionary would also recognize. 

Ransom realizes it is Maleldil who must has to ultimately capture the Un-Man and the darkness he projects. Ransom does not know what will happen, but he can no longer resist the conviction of what to do.

Although the missionary claims that God is in charge of each situation, especially evil ones, he performs certain actions to confront the evil. Lewis represents the point of view of a missionary—even when things don’t turn out the way they expect, they must believe that God is in charge of the situation.

There follows a long battle between Weston and Ransom, over land and sea, between a true man and an Un-man, one who eventually begs mercy from Ransom, who mortally wounds him. Even in this condition Weston argues with Ransom, about evil, about God, about the meaning of life. He extols the virtues of Spiritualism, how it has taken him beyond pleasant accounts of the dead that are traditional and philosophical.

As the long and vicious battle and adventure continues, Ransom eventually overpowers the Un-man. He then begins a subterranean journey through the mountains and difficult terrain in his attempt to reach Oyarsa. However, the Un-man appears again and Ransom finally crushes him with a stone in “the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost”.

Although allegorical, the battle between Ransom and the Un-man Weston is probably not unlike the battles that take place between good and evil in many cultures. The missionary is called upon to take part in the battle, just as Ransom does.

Finally Ransom reaches a cleared space near a cliff where he writes a sign in Old Solar to witness the remembrance of Weston, whom Ransom calls “A learned Hnau of the world which those who inhabit it call tellus but the eldila Thulcandra.” The notice also records more about the activities of Weston and the approximate time when he was born and died.

Even in the death of Weston, Lewis is kind and extols him as a person. Missionaries should also remember the contributions that non-Christians, including anthropologists and naturalists, explorers and colonial officials, have made to better understand other cultures.

After further difficulty and travel, Ransom comes across what is his own coffin. It is like a chariot waiting to return him to Earth from Venus. Near him are also two eldila who have been waiting. One is Oyarsa, representing Malacandra, the other represents Perelandra. Ransom is referred to as Elwin, the friend of the eldila who is “in the body of Maleldil and his sins are forgiven.” It is also Maleldil who has taught the two eldila to build the Fixed Island and perform other tasks.

The eldila reconstitute themselves so that Ransom can see them—they are taller than the sorns, “perhaps thirty feet high” and “burning white like white-hot iron.” The Oyarsa of Mars and the Oyarsa of Venus too have differences in their faces and bodies. “[D]o I see you as you really are?” asks Ransom. Oyarsa of Mars replies, “Only Maleldil sees any creature as it really is.”

The final scenes show Ransom with a king and a queen who represent and explain the end times of the earth. They are grateful to Ransom for explaining the nature of evil and about the people of the earth, with their desire to corrupt other planets as well. Ransom departs in his coffin and returns to earth.

Lewis shows the reader the accomplishments of Ransom through the testimonies of the people that he has met and lived with. Ransom is seen then as a Christ-figure, representing the will and purpose of God. Missionaries too are ambassadors for Christ in another culture and the testimonies of the people they serve often affirm this. Lewis provides a wonderful farewell for Ransom—missionaries would want the same, so it is easy to draw some parallels.

What can we say about Ransom and his so-called missionary voyage to Venus? How have his efforts been like that of a missionary? Here are some parallels:
  • He has made friends with the inhabitants to the extent that he can carry on deep and meaningful philosophical arguments and conversations, including those that portray symbolism and metaphor
  • He has provided a descriptive account of the people (beings) and their cultures and languages
  • He has acknowledged and encountered evil from people of his own race and culture
  • He has taken a stand against the evil represented by his race and culture
  • He has come to grips for the purpose of his life and what he was meant to do
  • He has told others of his experiences and enlisted their support and aid in returning to Venus. 

Missionary on Earth?[4]

The final story of the trilogy centers around Mark and Jane Studdock, who are having problems in their marriage. Jane reflects that marriage is something like solitary confinement and has “proved to be the door out of a world of work and comradeship and laughter and innumerable things to do….

Jane, somewhat to her consternation, has the qualities of a prophet, a person who sees things in dreams that foretell or forbid the future. But her first vision is more of a nightmare and is confirmed by a notice that she reads in the newspaper.

Mark is not a visionary; he is a position seeker—a climber—at a small university, where he has been a sociologist for five years. Mark wished to be elected to a Fellowship but needs connections to make it happen. Lord Feverstone, now so called, was Devine in the story of the voyage to Mars. He is the man who has helped Mark get his fellowship at Bracton, although Mark does not learn of this until much later.

The college is engaged in the business of selling part of its property which the N.I.C.E., the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments, wishes to purchase for experimental purposes. After some discussion, the board approves the motion to sell the property.

The first part of the story intersperses discussions between Mark and his colleagues at the university as they make plans for NICE to purchase its land while Jane and her friends try to understand what is happening to Mark, the university, and NICE. Although Mark has a fellowship elsewhere, he is being offered an unclear position at the university, but one that will compromise his integrity and eventually his marriage. Jane, on the other hand, is only vaguely aware of what is going on with Mark’s decision or the effects that NICE will have on her own life. Her friend,Mrs. Dimble, offers soothing advice like “Husbands were made to be talked to. It helps them to concentrate on what they’re reading.”

Mark and Jane are not missionaries—but they represent couples that are caught up in the affairs of the world around them to such an extent that they drift apart, incapable of mutual understanding and normal interaction. Missionary couples often live their own separate lives, so Mark and Jane can easily stand for such couples.

Jane continues to have dreams that foretell the happenings of NICE, as well as certain people, but she cannot tell Mark for she seldom sees him. Mark is trapped in the university setting and unable to discern what is happening around him because “his education had had the effect of making things that he read and wrote more real to him than things he saw.”

Many missionary couples have been put in the same situation. Their work becomes so important that it is the only thing that is real in life. They reveal this in their personal.

Mark is put in charge of writing PR articles that explain the position of the university in a positive light in regard to NICE, which the rest of the community sees negatively. This is necessary in part because of a riot that was allowed and supported by the university in order to gain credibility for the NICE program.

Often missionary agencies have their publicity agents, people who are in charge of putting a spin on stories that will entice benefactors. While it may be stretching the point to compare such missionary agencies with NICE, missionary agencies should continuously monitor and examine the information they give to the public, ensuring absolute—not relative—truth on all matters.

Mark comes in contact with Miss Hardcastle, a woman who is wise in the ways of the world and the university. She gives him advice on how to curry favor with those in authority by writing the information they want and in a way that will convince the public to have good will toward NICE. Mark has scruples, but his desire for inclusion at NICE and acceptance into the inner circle there overcome his moments of questioning and any conscience about whether he is doing the right thing or not.

There are always senior missionaries who have been around “forever” and know the ropes. Sometimes their advice should be questioned before it is followed. Missionary agencies have writers whose task it is (naturally) to convince the public of their good work.

In the meantime Jane is contacted when those at NICE learn of her ability to dream and foretell events. They see her as having a gift that will aid them in their future dealings to procure the properties that they need for NICE.

Those who have gifts and talents, including missionaries, are sometimes contacted by government authorities who would like to gain the information they have on cultures and then use if for their own advantage. I recall an instance in Papua New Guinea when I was the Director. An expatriate government person contacted me about having our missionaries use their radios to obtain and covey information for the government. I objected, even if some of the material might have been useful and legitimate.


* First given as a chapel message in early 2007 at the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics.

[1] In the name of political correctness, I declare to the reader that my ‘he’ hereby also includes ‘she’.

[2] The full story is found in C.S. Lewis, Out of the silent planet. London: Bodley Head, 1938; New York: Macmillian, 1943. [My copies are the Pan Books edition, 1952 and a re-issue of the 1938 edition by Scribner, 2003.]

[3] The full story is found in C.S. Lewis, (Perelandra). London: Bodley Head, 1943; Macmillan, 1944 under the title Voyage to Venus. [My copies are the Pan Books edition, 1953 and a re-issue of the 1944 edition by Scribner, 2003.]

[4] The full story is found in C.S Lewis, That hideous strength. London: Bodley Head, 1945, Macmillan, 1945. An abridged version prepared by Lewis was published under the title The Tortured Planet. [My copies are the Pan Books edition, 1952 and a re-issue of the 1945 edition by Scribner, 2003.] The website, compiled by Arend Smilde, contains a full list and explanation of the quotations and allusions in That hideous strength.


A metaphor is a figure of speech or a symbolic reference that refers to something else that is literal. For example, in the Bible L-thunder refers to a literal sound but it may also stand for the M-voice of God and, in that case, it is figurative, a metaphor. Other words in semantics that express figures of speech and are commonly used are metonymy and synecdoche. The latter is when the word for a part of something, such as “wheel” is used to refer to the whole thing, the car. Less commonly, it is when the word for a whole is used to refer to a part. Metonymy is when a word, such as “ride” is associated with the thing itself, the “car.” Metaphors “extend” the meanings of individual words and in that sense are descriptors intended to afford the original literal word a more formidable sense. For the most part, in this study I am going to concentrate mainly on describing something as literal (L) or metaphorical (M). without attempting to analyze the metaphors into subtypes.

A number of years (1980) ago two linguists, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, published a book called Metaphors we Live By, demonstrating that metaphor is a tool, a figure of speech,  that people use commonly in speech as they go about everyday life. It is reflected in how they talk about activities, thoughts, and their feelings. One of the metaphors they discussed lies behind the phrase “time is money,” such that what we do with a literal object like money can be metaphorically represented in time. As with money, we can spend, waste, kill and manage time, although we can’t literally find the object called “time.”

The conceptual framework of Pike in tagmemics has also helped in my thinking: what does the item contrast with, how does it vary, and how wide is its use and distribution?

The Bible is full of metaphors and nowhere are they more represented than in referring to Jesus, as in the Gospel of John. In the very first verse Jesus is called the “Word,” a metaphor that represents God’s presence. It is a synecdoche because the M-Word refers to Jesus, who is a part of the trinity. It is Jesus who was with God, was God, and existed in the beginning of time and created everything. Literally, the Word was Jesus and I therefore refer to it metaphorically as the M-Word.

Jesus is also the M-light and because of that he can give spiritual and true light to anyone in the world. But he is not the sun or the moon or the stars, so he does not provide L-light for us in the world. That is why he created the sun, moon and stars.

From the beginning of Genesis, we see light contrasting with darkness and find variations of natural and miraculous light in the Bible. Variations of natural light are found in words like daybreak, sunrise, sunset, moonlight, and so on. An instance of miraculous light occurs when an angel of the Lord visits Peter in his cell (Acts 12:7) as well as in other instances when angels appear. Artificial light is the result of torches and other lights.

The perception of M-light is part of God’s defining nature and is inherent in his Word and wisdom. The M-light of the L-Trinity is meant to illuminate the M-world, showing God’s glory and transforming people from M-darkness into M-light.

The M-Word, who is Jesus and part of the Godhead, becomes a literal human (1.14) and lives among other humans. John says that we can see his glory, but that must be the M-glory because it refers to a particular splendor of Jesus. The only “glory” we can “see” is represented metaphorically in Jesus, God’s Son, not in some literal halo or cloud. We see God as Jesus and in Jesus because God is a spirit, and we cannot see spirits (except in our imaginations). We need help to see God, and Jesus is that literal help. In the culture of the day, and in our culture as well, people claim to see “ghosts” or ancestral spirits, but Jesus is not one.

The “world” did not recognize Jesus and here the M-world stands for all the people that came in contact with Jesus. Those who believed on him became his M-children and part of his M-family. The “family” has a M-Father and an M-Son, who are, together, “God,” whom no one has ever seen (1.18). Of course, God is “real” even though we cannot see L-him or the L-Trinity. Therefore, talking about God requires metaphors.

The world (L and M) contrasts with heaven and, strangely speaking, we can be “in the world” but not “of the world.” We live L-human lives in the world, but we do not have to follow the temptations and sins of humans in the world. In God’s kingdom, His will be done in earth, as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10). Or as the CEV translates it: “Come and set up your kingdom.” There is an L-Kingdom, but referring to it as a M-Kingdom helps us understand how “the kingdom of God is among you.”

John the Baptist referred to himself as the M-voice of a person shouting in the L-desert and he referred to Jesus as the M-lamb—the one who would take away the sins of the world. It was the M-lamb who would be sacrificed for the sins of the world, our sins.

The L-voice of God was heard by Adam, Moses, the prophets, as well as by the apostles and Christ himself. To some bystanders, the voice sounded like L-thunder (“The God of glory thunders, Psalm 29), and in Revelation 14.2, like mighty ocean waves. In both cases, this is a description of a M-voice. Likewise, the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was a M-voice that sounded like “the roaring of a mighty windstorm” (Acts 2.2).

John saw the Spirit come down “like a dove from heaven and stay on him [Jesus].” He could not see the Spirit; instead, he saw a L-bird representing the L-Holy Spirit. Nor could Nicodemus see the L-Holy Spirit later when the Spirit was exemplified as the M-wind. Although a dove is a real bird, it was not the Holy Spirit. It was a visible representation, a symbol standing for the Holy Spirit. We can say that the dove was a M-Holy Spirit.

Closely related to metaphors are similes, which use descriptive words, such as “like” and “as” to compare one thing with another. “He is as strong as a lion,” or “weak as a chicken” are examples. These are simply alternative ways of saying “He is a lion,” or “He is a chicken.” A simple lyric compares the two: 

Similes and metaphors
Are similar but nothing more
Than a comparison in different ways
Similes use “like” or “as”
And metaphors need none of that
They just say exactly what they wanna say.

A dove has become a a symbol, whereby it is used to refer to some feature that becomes related to it. The word “dove” may have various metaphorical meanings assigned to it, standing for peace or, in the example from John’s gospel, the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 3.16: “After his baptism, as Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and settling on him.” See also: Mark 1.10; Luke 3.22 and John 1.32).

The word dove has therefore become a symbol to represent love, purity, hope, peace, freedom and associated ideas. The symbol is found in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, paganism, as well as in military and pacifist groups. It is a well-known symbol and icon in Orthodox Christianity.

The Holy Spirit, also called the Holy Ghost, is the so-called third member of the Trinity and the study of it in theology is called pneumatology. Other names for the Holy Spirit in the Bible are Spirit of God (Genesis 1.1: And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters), Spirit of Christ (Philippians 1.19: “For I know that as you pray for me and the Spirit of Jesus Christ helps me, this will lead to my deliverance”), and Spirit of Truth (John 16.13: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own but will tell you what he has heard. He will tell you about the future.”)

With a synecdoche, as already mentioned, a word for a part of something refers to something itself. For example, “head” may be used to refer to the main leader or character, as in “She is the head of the company.” it can also refer to counting cattle or people. Another example is the word “trinity,” which refers to God in three persons or manifestations. In this case, the single word refers to the whole godhead.

Returning to the gospel of John, the famous verse of 3.16 says that God so loved the “world,” a name representing the people who live on this planet, which is often contrasted with “heaven,” referring to a place where God and his people and angels live. We cannot see either of these places but can refer to them as locations with inhabitants. Such references are metaphorical.

We read in John 3.19 that the “light” has come to our planet, obviously referring in this context to Jesus and the word contrasts with “darkness,” often used to represents evil and sin. The M-light shows what exists in the M-darkness,” namely the evil actions that are done in the “dark.”

In 3.39, John refers to the “Messiah” as the “bridegroom” and to baptized believers as the “bride.” The words L-bridegroom and L-bride refer to the male and female participants in a marriage ceremony, but in this context, they should be read as M-bridegroom and M-bride.

The term “Messiah” is loaded with meaning and is highly symbolic. He is the savior or liberator for the Jewish people, proclaimed by the prophet Isaiah (9.1) and referred to 24 times in the gospel of Matthew and 22 times in John. as well as in Mark, Luke, and Acts. The descendants of Jesus are referred to as descendants of the Messiah (Matthew 1.1) and Jesus himself is called the Messiah (Matthew 1:18).

Jesus has a discussion with a woman from Samaria at the well of Jacob and she is puzzled when Jesus says that he can give her “life giving water,” where the M-water is stands for L-eternal life. She thinks of L-water and uses the name of her ancestor “Jacob” to stand for all the prophets. Perhaps “ancestor Jacob” should be M-ancestor, semantically operating as a synecdoche. 

In verse 24 of chapter 4, Jesus tells the woman that “God is Spirit, and only by the power of his Spirit can people worship him as he really is.” God can be referred to as a L-Spirit, or as the M-Spirit, who has the power to enable people to worship Him. It is again the Trinity at work.

The disciples find Jesus talking to the Samaritan woman but did not question him about it. Instead, they believe he might be hungry and offer him L-food. Jesus replies that he has M-food that they know nothing about, but the disciples believe he is talking of L-food.

There are other instances of Jesus eating and when he eats with others, he blesses the bread as a reminder that not only is the M-bread from God but so is the L-bread, Jesus himself.

The contrast of eating is fasting, deliberately going without food in order to think about God and pray to Him. There is a L-fast, where a person goes without food, but there is also a M-fast, where a person waits for Jesus or the Holy Spirit in some manner.

Throughout the ministry of Jesus, and later the disciples and Paul, we read of L-miracles, in the form of physical healings, and the casting out of demons. A miracle is something that takes place outside of the normal physical and natural possibilities. Sometimes we refer to something outstanding as a “miracle,” when we mean it would unusual, like the Texas Rangers winning the World Series, or when a truck just misses us on the highway.

A hallucination, dream or vision is not a miracle: such things are often unnatural and surreal, but they do not actually happen. We read of people who “die” and got to “heaven” and come back to tell us about it. However, no one has ever seen a person who makes such claims ascend into heaven like Jesus did, or what Paul wondered about when he went to the “third heaven.”

In John, chapter 5, a man who had been L-sick for 38 years kept trying to get into the pool of Bethzatha, but someone else always beat him to it. We aren’t told if people are actually healed when they get into the pool, but Jesus saw the man and knew he had been sick for a long time. He asked him if he wanted to get well, surely a self-evident question. Jesus didn’t help the man get into the pool, he simply told him to get up and walk. Jesus performed a L-miracle—we don’t know that the pool could accomplish miracles.

Jesus completed this miracle on the Sabbath and the Jewish authorities were not happy about it. The L-Sabbath was symbolic of the whole law—all its prohibitions and promises. Jesus had equated himself with God, who established the Sabbath and informed them that he was doing God’s work. He was equating himself with God the Father and it did not sit well with the Pharisees.

When Jesus said, “I am the bread of life,” this is not a difficult metaphor to understand. He is proclaiming that he is, like bread, providing sustenance for us to live. But when he says that people should eat his flesh and drink his blood (6.53ff) it is a stumbling block to listeners. How can they possibly eat his L-flesh and drink his L-blood? Jesus explains, in a round-about way, that he does not mean it literally. He is talking about his M-flesh and M-blood, his life and death. Only be living with Him and through his power can we obtain real life on this earth and only by believing in his L-death and L-resurrection can we live with him in heaven. The ancestors ate real angel’s food—manna—in the desert, but it did not give them eternal life. Jesus alone is the “real food” because he is the living M-bread that came down from heaven. We M-eat him and live, meaning that we believe on him and L-live forever.

Many of his followers “turned back” when they heard this teaching. They could not understand the meaning of the metaphors. Indeed, “flesh and blood” referred to stand someone alive, not someone who was dead. We will see Jesus in the L-flesh and we believe that we now can live by eating his M-flesh. Strange?, but not if you keep the semantics straight.

John, Chapter 7, speaks of Jesus and his L-brothers, although Roman Catholics get around the literalness by claiming these are half-brothers or M-brothers of Jesus, and that they are not literal sons of Mary and Joseph. Only in this way can Mary remain a “perpetual virgin.”

When asked, Jesus says that his knowledge comes from God, who sent him. Again, a heretical claim as far as the “Jewish authorities” are concerned. Jesus has appealed to the authority of his M-Father and this convinces the religious specialists that he has a L-demon in him. Jesus refers them to L-Moses and notes the fact that circumcision can be done on the Sabbath. Then why not heal someone then as well. “Does that make sense,” he seems to say, and, of course, it doesn’t to the Jews.

Jesus continues to teach, and in the Temple, he again asks the religious leaders if they realize the authority he is using to teach—again a reference to the L-Father. They are incensed and try to seize him, but he slips away again. They send guards after him because he claimed that where he was going (heaven) they could not go (7.34). The Pharisees hear him literally and think he must be going to some Greek area to hide out.

In Chapter 8, verse 12 (and 9.5), Jesus tells the Pharisees that he is the light of the world. Should we interpret that as M-light or L-light? I think it has to be metaphorical because when people of that day looked at Jesus, they did not see a halo or a luminous body, like appeared on the mountain when he was transfigured before the very eyes of his disciples. The glory of God does produce L-light that transcends what one would normally see. But here Jesus is comparing the M-light that he provides with M-darkness of those who do not believe and follow him.

Jesus appeals again (v. 18) and says that he is speaking and testifying on behalf of the “Father” and the Pharisees interpret him literally and want to know where his Father is located. Jesus replies that if they knew him, they would also know the Father and he repeats that he only tells them what he has already been told by the Father. More confusion on the part of the Pharisees especially when Jesus says that he is “from above” (v. 23).

The Pharisees are particularly offended when Jesus says that his teaching will “set them free” (v. 32) because they interpret him literally and think he must be referring to Abraham and claim that they are his descendants, and therefore they are not slaves. 

Jesus turns the tables on them and tells them that their “father” is the L-Devil, who is a liar. This must really provoke them because they had claimed that Jesus has a demon in him and now, if the devil is their Father, they are with the head demon. The Pharisees reply with a further insult: that Jesus is a Samaritan with a L-demon in him and that although Abraham and the prophets died, it is heretical to say that those who believe the words of Jesus will never die.

Jesus also announces that Abraham saw the time of his coming, which is again interpreted literally by the Pharisees. You are not even 50, they say, so how could you see Abraham?

The problem of interpreting the words of Jesus literally instead of metaphorically occurs again and again in John’s writings.

In Chapter 9, Jesus heals a man who is L-blind. The Pharisees investigate the healing and are not willing to believe that the man was L-blind. Later (v. 39) Jesus explains to the man that he came into the world to heal those who are M-blind and do not believe. If they were L-blind they would not be guilty and judged. Instead, they are M-spiritually blind.

The great view of Jesus as the M-shepherd occurs in chapter 10. The M-shepherd calls the M-sheep by name and tends the gate for them. He is in fact the M-gate as well and looks after the M-sheep pen as well. He also has other M-sheep (v. 16) that he will allow into the M-sheep pen. Jesus is again accused by Pharisees of having a L-demon (v. 20) and he is rejected. However, the sheep hear his voice and recognize him.

We read about Lazarus, brother of Martha and Mary, in chapter 11. Lazarus L-dies and Jesus tells his disciples that he is M-asleep, but they take asleep literally and want to go and wake him up! Then when Jesus tells them plainly that Lazarus had died, Thomas wants them to go and L-die with him. Did the disciples expect Jesus to die then as well?

Jesus waits and then after four days leaves for Bethany where Lazarus and his sisters lived. Martha meets Jesus and rebukes him by saying that if he had been there Lazarus would not have L-died—Jesus would have healed him. Jesus reproves her by saying that he is the M-resurrection, and that Lazarus will L-live again even after L-death. He then brings Lazarus back to life, still wrapped in grave clothes.

We read of the anointment of Jesus at Bethany (12.12-19also recorded in Matthew 26 and Mark 14). A dinner had been prepared for Jesus at the home of Lazarus. Note that “dinner” stands for all that would be eaten so it is a metonym whereby the whole (dinner) stands for all the various foods that would be eaten.

Mary took expensive perfume and poured it on the feet of Jesus. Judas Iscariot complained and said the money for the perfume should have been given to the “poor,” a word that represents all the people who were lacking in some way. Again, the word is a metonym.

The triumphant entry into Jerusalem by Jesus upsets the Pharisees to the extent that they claim (v. 19) that the “whole world” (clearly a metonym and hyperbole) is following Jesus.

Some Greeks come looking for Jesus and find Philip, who finds Andrew, and the two of them go to Jesus. What follows from Jesus is a short parable about a L-seed of grain falling into the ground and M-dying before it can produce grain. He compares this with M-hating one’s earthly life in order to have L-eternal life. The picture is of a L-life here on earth that becomes a L-life that is eternal, but the physical death here is metaphorical—it doesn’t refer to a natural death while we are on earth.

Jesus, in speaking about his own death, is replied to by a voice from heaven—a metonym for the literal person of God. He also again refers to himself as the M-light (v. 35) and how those who do not accept and believe in his light walk in M-darkness. The unbelief of the people is highlighted by quoting the prophet Isaiah who said that God had M-blinded their eyes and M-closed their minds so that they could not understand.

In John 13.2, we read that the L-Devil had put into the M-heart of Judas Iscariot the thought of betraying Jesus. Did Judas “think” with his “heart”? No, but that was (and is) a common way of talking about thinking. Thoughts take place in the configuration of the “brain,” and it is metaphorically the “seat” of our thinking. We have idioms like “to beat one’s brains” when we are trying to figure out something that is difficult. A person can be referred to as “all brawn and no brain,” meaning they have lots of muscle but not much thinking power. If we “pick someone’s brain,” we want to find out what they are thinking and if we are trying recall something lost in our own thinking we might “rack our brains.” These are idioms, figures of speech, that show how we believe the brain operates in our body.

When Jesus was about to wash Peter’s feet (13.6), Peter objected, seeing it as only a literal act. Jesus said that “If I do not wash your feet, you will no longer be my disciple” (v. 8). Peter does not grasp the metaphorical significance of what Jesus is doing and wants his body L-washed. Jesus replies that it is unnecessary and that all of the disciples, except Judas, are M-clean.

When Jesus says that “I Am Who I Am” he is speaking both literally—he is the Son of God—and figuratively—he is the one who shares and is the Father. It is another way of saying “I have always been who I now am.”

The disciples press Jesus to know who will betray him and he performs a symbolic act: he takes a piece of bread, dips it in the wine, and gives it to Judas. The L-bread and the L-wine—his M-body and M-blood—are represented in this act.

Thomas questions Jesus, who has said that there are many rooms in his Father’s house. Is Jesus speaking literally about a house and rooms? Various translations seem to treat it literally, with words and expressions like “dwelling place,” “abode,” “places to live,” and even “rooms to spare.” It seems to me that the Father’s “house” is a M-house and it has M-rooms. It is not one that we can easily envision without using our own cultural images.

Jesus also says that he is the “way, the truth, and the life” (v. 6) and most translations leave it literally as stated, although a couple use “road” or “path” for “way” and one adds “only way.” Because Jesus is referring to himself, these words are metaphorical figures of speech even when it is he literally—as a person—who provides these features.

The Holy Spirit is promised in 14:15-31, who is referred to as a L-Helper, L-teacher and one with L- and M-power, all attributes that are demonstrated later, especially in the book of Acts.

Chapter 15 employs several figures of speech: Jesus as M-vine, the Father as M-gardener, and believers as M-branches. The Father M-prunes the M-branches so that they are M-clean and can produce M-fruit. They can then M-remain in the M-vine. Any M-branches that do not produce the M-fruit are thrown into the M-fire and M-burned. However, when Jesus talks of believers having “joy” in him and being his “friend,” he is talking literally.

We have already noticed the metaphorical nature of “world” and it occurs again in vs. 18-24 when Jesus tells the disciples that the M-world (people who are not Christians) will hate them. They will be expelled literally from synagogues (16.2) and they will become objects of scorn.

Chapter 17 is mainly a record of the prayer Jesus had for his disciples: that they would be kept “safe” from the “L-Evil One” (v. 15) by the M-power of the M-name of the Father and that they might have L-joy as they continued to L-live in the M-world. He wanted the truth of God’s word to be the resource for their “dedication” to the Father. Jesus wanted the disciples to somehow see the M-glory that the Father had given him before the L-world was L-made. The result would be that the L-love the L-Father has for his Son would be transferred to the disciples as well.

This is a chapter in which we see the “M-heart” of Jesus, his deep emotional feelings toward the disciples and his desire for them to be “faithful to the end.” He knows the “M-world” will hate them and he wants them to be prepared and to extend the L-message of the Father’s L-love.

The remainder of the Gospel of John tells of the arrest of Jesus, his so-called trial, the denial of Peter, the crucifixion, resurrection, and his appearance to Mary Magdalene and the disciples. These are literal instances of the last period of the life of Jesus. He appears before the Roman governor Pilate, is sentenced to death, and dies a horrible crucifixion.

Even on the cross, we can see some metaphorical scenes: Jesus sees his L-mother and tells her that a particular disciple is her M-son. Then he tells the disciple: she is your M-mother and the disciple takes her to live in his home.

Joseph of Arimathea asks for and receives the body of Jesus and Nicodemus anoints it for burial. Jesus is buried in a special unused tomb- but three days later he is no longer there. When Mary Magdalene does see and recognize him, she wants to hug him, but he tells her that he has not yet returned literally to the Father. What does this mean? Is he referring to his new and glorified body that he will ascent to heaven in?

Later on Sunday he appears to most of the disciples and shows them his L-hands and L-side, making sure they know that he is the person they knew and not someone else. He then L-breathes on them and the receive the L-Holy Spirit. Jesus provides a special and personal revelation of himself to doubting Thomas and Thomas acknowledges him as “My Lord and my God.” (20:28)

Finally, in the Gospel, Jesus appears to seven disciples at Lake Tiberias and while there he meets Peter, and provides him with a special revelation of where and how to fish. The result is a miracle: 153 L-fish and a net that did not tear with all their weight. It was still not clear to the disciples who Jesus was, but when he eats L-bread and L-fish with them, their eyes are opened.

When Jesus has his discussion with Peter, he wants to know how much Peter really loves him. He tells Peter to prove his love by taking care of his M-lambs and M-sheep. He also prophesies to Peter about how he will die—probably L-blind and being led about by others.

John summaries the activities and miracles of Jesus with a grand hyperbole: “If they were all written down the M-whole world could not hold the M-books.” (21,25)


The Nursery Rhyme Genre, with Examples


According to Wikipedia, that venerable and revered source of all Internet and planetary knowledge, a nursery rhyme has its history in English plays that originated in the mid’16th Century. The publisher, John Newbery, issued a book of English collections before 1744 called Tommy Thumb’s Song Book, followed by Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book. Newbery’s stepson, Thomas Carnan, is credited with being the first to use the term “Mother Goose” for nursery rhymes. Nursery rhymes comprise one sub-set of story genres.

Story Genres

A genre is a term used to classify kinds of literature and music. For example, “detective” stories comprise a genre that is different than “cowboy” stories. “Country western” music is different than “gospel” music, and so on. Of course, genres are often loosely defined, with overlap between them: a detective story genre may be mainly about cowboys and gospel music genre may include western themes. Literary genres include, for example, poetry, prose, fiction, non-fiction and drama, each with sub-genres as well. Nursery rhymes are a sub-category of literary fiction.

Within a given cultural tradition, as in language groups of Papua New Guinea, stories can be categorized generically and individually. For example, the Kewa (of Papua New Guinea) use the words iti and remaa to represent folklore on the one hand and history on the other.[1] Oral societies provide their history by means of folk stories and folk history, for example, by means of genealogies and classifications, for example—blood v. marriage kin (consanguine and affine).

Stories are live representations that impress listeners more with their images than with their propositions. For example, “Mary had a little lamb” is a proposition, but “Its fleece was white as snow” provides the hearer with a mental image.

Stories are also idiomatic, i.e. they are told in the vernacular with cultural analogies and background information. They are therefore often imaginative, not just in the sense of say telling my granddaughter a story, but also in her mind as she forms mental images of Mary and the sheep. They also include particular themes, plots, sub-plots—“and everywhere that Mary went the lamb was sure to go.”

Although stories may be historical and built on what the teller views or represents as things that happened, nursery rhymes are purely fictional. Nevertheless, they are dynamic and can be converted into drama or song to represent various aspects of the story. They are often short and pithy, accompanied by animation, drama, and so on. Nursery stories are generally for the very young, but can be adapted according to audience backgrounds, such as for ethnicity or gender, and are often instructive, either directly or indirectly, with particular cultural applications and morals.

Nursery rhymes[2]

Nursery rhymes were composed for children and include poems, lullabies, finger plays and counting. Many rhymes are classic and therefore old, for example: 1) Baa, Baa, Black Sheep, 1731; 2) Goosey, Goosey Gander, 1784; 3) Jack and Jill, 1765; 4) London Bridge is Falling Down, 1744; 5) Mary, Mary, Quite contrary, 1744; and 6) Three Blind Mice, 1805. 

Other nursery rhymes may involve counting or singing include, such as:  7) wheels on the bus; 8) Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe; 9) Little miss Muffet; 10) Row, row, row your boat; 11) Itsy bitsy spider; 12) Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater; 13) Little Bo Peep; 14) Four and twenty blackbirds; 15) Pat a cake; 16) Little boy blue; and 17) Hey diddle diddle.

Because nursery stories are entertaining, they are sometimes told by professional storytellers. Although the intended message of a nursery story is not always apparent and may require interpretation, it will probably spoil a nursery rhyme to provide detailed exegesis—so consider many of them “spoiled” by me. However, even as a linguist, I am mindful that a child is not interested in the story’s semantics, pragmatics or theology, noting such things as actors, agents, settings, background and deixis.

Nursery rhymes can be ad hoc and provocative, whereby one story leads to another—a chain of imagination, such that a story acts as a “trigger” for another.

In summary, nursery rhymes combine various elements:

media, such as voice over, camera angle, and music scores

Such storytelling, by its very nature, gains various outputs:

discussion and consideration
decision and acting
replication or retelling
perhaps honor 
identity with teller or characters

In my versions of the Nursery Rhymes that follow, I have messed with the interpretations, just for fun. Of course, no actual animal or person has been harmed in the transitions. 

A Black Sheep

Abstract: Most sheep are white, but this one was not and he (or she, we can’t be sure) was quite special and clever. I am assuming that it is not racist to refer to a sheep as black and, as the story will show, black sheep were extremely smart and generally in charge of the white sheep. I will refer to the main character of the story as Blackie—again intending nothing sinister or bad. Black is simply the darkest achromatic visual value, although it can have social values as well. For example, if you are “in the black” it is much better than being “in the red”. In addition, the Ovis or Ovis aries clan of sheep have been known to control the wool trade, including dying, shrinking and other complex jobs, for a long time.

Key words: sheep, Ovis, Ovis aries, wool, cotton, bag, baa, sir

Baa, Baa, black sheep
Have you any wool?
Yes sir, yes sir,
Three bags full;
One for the master,
And one for the dame,
And one for the little boy w
Who lives down the lane.

Some background of the story: Wool products were hard to get in the old days, that is, prior to 1733, so selling wool was a very good job to have. There is, however, a lot more to the story and my account will help to fill it out.

There were numerous merchants in those days trying to buy wool—they were known as Wooleys. When one of them would see a black sheep, it would immediately yell “baa, baa” because it thought that the words sounding like sheep language. And it was true that white sheep will stand around all day in the pasture saying just those two words.

In this case Wooley, wanting to get Blackie’s attention, yelled out “baa, baa,” thinking that the black sheep would yell “baa, baa” back and that they could then talk about wool and wool prices in Australia and New Zealand.

But black sheep are different, so Blackie did not say “baa, baa” back to Wooley. Instead it said “Yes sir”, twice, for emphasis, and Wooly loved what he heard because he loved to be called “sir.” In fact, he wanted to be called sir and would often say to the white sheep, “Stop saying baa, baa all the time and call me sir!” But the white sheep could not understand him, for he had never properly learned sheep language. Nor could they bring themselves to teach Wooley the language.

Blackie knew of course that Wooley wanted wool and he guessed that three bags full would be enough. So, he told him he had three bags for him and then he probably went too far—he stipulated who the bags were for. He said, paraphrased, “Wooley, you’re the big shot, the master, so you can have one bag, and your wife—the dame—she can have the other, but don’t forget that poor little boy that lives down the road, actually a small road, just a lane.”

Blackie should not have told Wooley who the wool was for. It upset Wooley because it made him feel selfish taking the first bag. And even though he would give his dame the second bag, he was not going to give that boy down the road any wool. Oh, he might have given him a sack full of cotton, but surely not a full bag of wool.

“Who do you think you are, telling me who to give the wool to?” said Wooley. “I have been buying wool for a long time and I should know who gets the wool and who doesn’t. My wife—OK—she will knit me a sweater, but that boy who lives down the lane throws berries at my horse and I wouldn’t give him a bag of wool. Like I said, maybe a sack of cotton, but not a bag of wool.”

This bothered Blackie, who had started out poor and on the other side of the lane himself. With luck and perseverance, he had become a wool seller. He wanted that little boy down the lane to have the same chance he had in life, so he said once again, “and one for the little boy who lives down the lane.” 

Wooley was mad—sellers are not supposed to tell buyers what to do with their money or products. He decided, according to legend, never to buy wool from Blackie again.

Blackie was not discouraged at all. He got to know the little boy down the lane and together they built a large wool shed and decided to pull the wool over Wooley’s eyes. They took three bags of cotton and waited along the road for Wooley to come looking for wool to buy. Remember that cotton was a lot cheaper than wool and if they could sell it at the same price as wool, they would make a lot of money.

And for the next few years that is what they did. How could they manage? Well, by then Wooley had so much wool over his eyes that he couldn’t tell cotton from wool, especially when it was packaged in wool bags. Without meaning to, he had helped Blackie and the boy down the lane become exporters of wool all over the world.

The moral of the story: Children should never say “baa, baa” to someone who might reply “yes sir.” And they should always examine their wool to make sure that it is not cotton.

[1] See, for example, my analysis of the classification of Kewa stories: “Two Kewa (Papua New Guinea) Story Genres” in Language & Linguistics in Melanesia 35:152-176, 2017.

[2] My main source has been: Best Loved Nursery Rhymes and Sons: including Mother Goose selections, with helpful guide for parents. Home Library Press, A division of Parents’ Magazine Enterprises, Inc. 1974 edition. There are 251 rhymes and songs in the book.


Since the writing of the Bible and, particularly in legendary and mythological works, scholars, prophets, and laypeople have made angels a subject of interest. Why are angels such a fasination to us (me)? In Colossians 2.18 Paul warns the Christians: “Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind.” The “worship” of angels was a problem at the time, and it seems that authors have often gone far beyond what the Bible has to say about them—although it says plenty.

Some religions do worship angels, for example, they are discussed in Zoroastrianism and Judaism, as well as in Christianity and Islam. In Christianity angels and demons are generally conceived as celestial or atmospheric spirits, and it about those that I wish to learn.

We read about angels everywhere in the Bible—they are mentioned 290 times in the NIV, 326 in the NLT, 283 in the KJV, and 520 times in The Message. In the OT, Zechariah refers to angels 20 times—mainly in terms of how they are involved in judgment.

It is, not surprisingly, Revelation in the NT that is replete with angels. I was aware of their activities in the book of Revelation, but other Bible books that mention angels more than 20 times (in various versions) are Genesis, Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah Matthew, Luke, and Acts.

In the OT, Leviticus, Esther, and Ruth have no angels in the stories, nor do most of the “minor” prophets. In the NT, Philippians, 1-Thessalonians, 2 Timothy, Titus and 1-3 John also omit any reference to angels (as translated in the NLT). But I am sure those authors could write about angels if they wished but did not concentrate on them so much as on other matters. Sometimes they may refer to “messengers of God” and not use the word angel, so I may have missed some references.

Although we know that humans were created by God, we have no such record about angels. We don’t know when or how God created them. The first angel occurs in a story that finds Hagar, where it (named angels are male) gives her instructions (Genesis 16.7). Giving directives seems to be one of the main functions of angels because, after all, they are messengers for God. There are millions of them and there is every reason to believe that they are all busy with their duties. And they are all around us.

The next time we read about angels in Genesis there are two and they visit Lot one evening. He thinks they are simply strangers and offers them lodging and—the rest is history—Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed by them, but they save the life of Lot (sadly, not his wife). In this episode, the angels appear like humans, although they are obviously different and beautiful because the men of the town come to Lot and ask for them—for homosexual purposes.

We also meet an angel in Genesis 22.11, when Abraham is about to sacrifice Isaac, and the angel calls to him (from heaven) and tells him not to hurt the boy. That angel shows up in the nick of time, although God gives Abraham the highest praise for honoring his command to be willing to sacrifice his son—his only son. It foreshadows the sacrifice of God’s only son, Jesus. The angel was watching Abraham, so it cannot have been very far away, or it has better sight than humans.

An angel also helps Abraham find a wife for Isaac (Genesis 24.7), the same boy an angel had rescued from death earlier. Then when Abraham leaves his homeland to strike out for a place that God will reveal to him, an angel leads him (Genesis 24.7). I think that many times angels led Joice and me when we were in PNG and, most often, we did not know or acknowledge it.

Abraham’s son Isaac married Rebecca, and she gave birth to Esau and Jacob. They were not nice to each other and Jacob tricked Esau into giving his birthrights to him. There follows a confrontation and Esau does not receive the blessing he anticipates because Jacob has tricked him and now has it. He therefore hates Jacob (Genesis 27.41).

Jacob has a dream while in Bethel and sees “the Lord standing beside him” (28.12). Later, in Genesis 32.22-32 he finds “a man” wresting with him and Jacob declares, “I have seen God face-to-face and I am still alive” (32.30). The “man” (presumably an angel) gets the better of Jacob and hits him in the hip, throwing it out of joint. Jacob’s name is changed to “Israel.” He  has several wives and many sons and there is some detail given about 12 of them. The story of Jacob’s encounter with an angel is repeated in Hosea 12.4.

The next person to meet an angel is Moses and it is as a flame coming out of a burning bush (Exodus 3.2). But it is God with whom Moses converses and God gives Moses miraculous powers. The story of Moses continues, and the Passover is so named because an “Angel of Death” (Exodus 12.23) passes over the firstborn of those who have their doorposts painted with blood.

Later, with the enemy pursuing them, Moses and the Israelites must cross the Red Sea. An “angel of God” moves in front of Moses and the Israelites and, with Moses, leads them safely across the sea.

The angel who has been leading the Israelites, changes position and moves to the rear (Exodus 14.19) and the pillar of cloud, offering cover and protection, moves with it. An angel continues to stay with them and leads them to a place prepared for them (Exodus 23.20). Moses is ordered to leave the place and the people but, again, the Lord promises Moses that an angel will guide him and give him victory over various tribes of enemies (Exodus 33.2).

There are no angels mentioned in Leviticus, but in Numbers 22 , when Balaam is supposed to meet the King of Moab, an angel blocks the road and Balaam’s donkey won’t go any farther. Balaam beats the donkey, which talks to him (Numbers 22.28) and the angel confronts Balaam about beating the donkey. If it had not been for the donkey stopping Balaam, the angel would have killed them both because Balaam was sinful in attempting a journey to see the King.

The only reference to angels in Deuteronomy is in the last verse of the Song of Moses (32.1-43) and other versions refer more generically to “nations” or the “heavens” worshipping the Lord. (In a later version of the NLT “heavens” is used instead of “angels”.)

Angels show up again in Judges, first in 2:1, where an angel goes from Gilgal to Bochim and reminds the Israelites how he took them out of Egypt to the promised land. Then, in the song of Deborah and Barak (5.1-31), an angel puts a curse on Meroz (v. 23). Angels have the power to bless or curse, according to the will of God.

In Judges 6, the people of Israel once again disobey the Lord and are confronted by the Midianites. They cry out to the Lord and an angel appears to Gideon (Judges 6.12) to assure him of the Lord’s presence and protection. Gideon calls him “sir” and asks why all this has happened. He is afraid and needs assurance. An episode takes place whereby the angel burns up Gideon’s offering and disappears. Gideon realizing it was an angel is terrified and says, “Oh. Sovereign Lord, I’m doomed! have seen the angel of the Lord face-to-face” (v. 22).

The 13th chapter of Judges introduces a man named Manoah from the tribe of Dan. His wife, whose name is not given, has not been able to conceive but an angel visits her (v. 3) and assures her that she will have a son. The woman tells her husband that “a man of God” has visited her and that he looked “as frightening as the angel of God.” She didn’t ask him his name or where he came from, but she repeated the stipulations the angel had told her: the child should not drink wine or eat forbidden food and they should never cut his hair.

Manoah prayed that the angel (“the man”) would come back so they could question him. They wanted to know his name and he said “It is a name of wonder” (13.18). Manoah wanted to prepare an offering from him but while the offering was being cooked, he and his wife “saw the Lord’s angel go up toward heaven in the flames (v. 19) and that was the last they saw of him. But Manoah was sure that “we have seen God” (v. 22). His wife reassures him that, if that were the case, God would not have shown them what he did—a bit of a puzzling answer.

The background for the birth and strength of Samson begins with the visit of an angel. There are many stories in the Bible that emphasize the same thing: God gives angels supernatural power and they can pass it on to those to whom He wishes.

1 Samuel mentions an angel only once and that is to compare David’s loyalty to that of an angel (29.9), so it is obvious the writer knew about angels. His wisdom is again compared to an angel of God in 2 Samuel 14.17 and 14.20 (as well as 19.27). The scene in Chapter 22 in “David’s Song of Victory” (also in Psalm 18), refers to God flying “swiftly on his winged creature” (GNB). which is a reference to some angelic being. 

In 2 Samuel 24, we read of an angel of the Lord who “was striking down people” (verse 17), which causes David to confess that it is due to his sins, as shepherd, and not those of the “sheep.” We read elsewhere of “angels of death.”

Sometimes we do not learn the names of prophets who hear from angels: 1 Kings 13.18 is an example. The main character is simply “an old prophet” from Judah who warns King Jeroboam that his sacrifices are not acceptable to the Lord. The King tries to subdue him but finds his arm paralyzed and pleads with the prophet to heal him.

Later in the book of 1 Kings (Chapter 18) Elijah confronts the prophets of Baal and overcomes them. He goes on a journey into the wilderness where, tired and confused, he wishes to die. However, as he sleeps under a tree, an angel wakes him (19.5) and provides him with food. The angel instructs him to meet the messengers of the king of Samaria (2 Kings 1.3) and still later Elijah is taken up to heaven in a whirlwind (2.11).

God also uses angels to kill enemies. King Hezekiah finds out when 185,000 of his Assyrian soldiers are killed (2 Kings 19.35).

First and second Chronicles are mainly a repeat of what we read in Samuel and Kings, so angels are again mentioned and continue their destruction until the Lord stops them (1 Chronicles 21.15-16). David sees what has happened and he is “afraid of the sword of the angel of the LORD” (21.30).

Angels are under the command of the Lord, and in Nehemiah 9.6 we read that “The heavenly powers bow down and worship you,” which certainly must include the angels.

Sometimes angels are called to appear before God, and for Job, the outcome seems disastrous. Satan is with the angels and God tells him to notice Job and the story of Job’s suffering and the questionable advice of his “friends” is one we know well. They tell him that God even “charges his angels with error” (4.18), referring to Satan no doubt.

In the long Job story, one “bystander” of those accusing Job is named Elihu, who is young and believes he has the answers for Job because his words are “sincere, and I am speaking the truth” (33.2). He challenges Job that “Perhaps an angel may come to his aid—one of God’s thousands of angels, who remind men of their duty” and in mercy the angel will say “Remember him, he is not to go down to the world of the dead. Here is the ransom to set him free” (33.23-24). We can question Elihu’s confidence because God has a different perspective and answer.

God answers Job out of a storm (Chapter 38) and he is not nice about it. He accuses Job of “ignorant, empty words” (verse 2) and in a long series of scathing questions shows Job that he is utterly incapable of understanding His mighty works. Even the stars sang with the heavenly beings (the angels) to show their joy in God’s creation.

Job concludes, fittingly, by saying “I talked about things I did not understand, about marvels too great for me to know” (42.3). That is my answer (to some degree) as well when I talk about angels.

In Psalm 8.5 we are reminded that we have been made “a little lower than the angels,” a verse that is repeated in Hebrews 2.7. But we are also crowned “with glory and honor.”

One of my favorite verses is Psalm 34.7: “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them.” A similar promise is given in 91.11: “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them.”

David wants his enemies to be driven away, “like chaff before the wind” (35.5) and would be happy to have them on slippery and dark paths, with “the angel of the Lord pursuing them” (35.6). Obviously, he is not wanting the angel to help his enemies.

Psalm 78 contains a long series of incidents of how God has looked after his people, including having “destroying angels” (in some versions, called “messengers of death”) helping him (v. 49).The angels of the lord “do his bidding” (103.20) and they are commanded to praise God (148.2). People believed that a person had an angel, e.g., those who couldn’t believe that it could be Peter at the door in Acts 12.15. This is often the key episode for the belief in “guardian angels” and a “doctrine” pursued with great ambition by the Catholics.

Angels are not mentioned in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes or the Song of Songs, in fact are not mentioned again until Isaiah 37.36 when an angel puts to death 185,000 Assyrians (also mentioned in 2 Kings 19.35). Isaiah, in reflecting on the Lord’s goodness, points out that it was He who saved them by using “the angel of his presence” (63.9). In other words, it was not simply an angel who saved them from their suffering, but the Lord himself.

Jeremiah, Lamentations and Ezekiel do not mention angels, but the book of Daniel records how an angel saved the three men thrown into the furnace at the command of Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3.28), as well as how an angel shut the mouth of lions when Daniel was thrown to them (6.22). Ezekiel 28.14 does mention that he was “anointed as a guardian cherub” which seems to be a category of angels.

So what is a cherub/cherubim and how do they compare with the seraphim? I read on line that “Cherubim are angels that … first appear as the guards of the garden of Eden. They work on God’s wish. They have four faces, the faces are of different animals, and they use their wings to wrap their body.” On the other hand, Seraphim in the 6th chapter of the book Isaiah are described as serpents. They have spiritual powers, and they are devoted to God. They spend their days and nights in the praises of God. They have six wings, and they have the highest rank among the angels. They sit on the throne and pursuit the will of God.”

What about archangels? Apparently, they are of a higher rank than angels. One claim is that “A person can call angels for any personal help but he or she cannot call archangels for any personal help.” That would need more follow-up, but I leave it for now.

The minor prophets Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai and Malachi do not record anything dealing with angels. However, Zechariah makes up for the lack and mentions angels 20 times (in the NLT), all of them in various exchanges, beginning in 1.9 where asks an angel what the four colored horses mean. Zechariah is shown various visions and angels are involved in all of them (1.11-14; 1.19; 2.3; 3.1; 3.3-6; 4.1; 4.4; 4.11; 5.5; 5.10; 6.4-5). In 3.1-2 the prophet Zechariah sees the High Priest Joshua standing before the Lord and Satan is there as well. As at the beginning of the book of Job, Satan is there to bring accusations to the Lord, but in this case he is rebuked and condemned. 

Finally, summarizing the future deliverance of Jerusalem, we read “On that day the Lord will shield those who live in Jerusalem, so that the feeblest among them will be like David, and the house of David will be like God, like the angel of the Lord going before them” (12.8).

The New Testament begins (Matthew 1:20) with an angel visiting Joseph in a dream to tell him that the Holy Spirit will enable his future wife Mary to have a child and that the child’s name will be Jesus, a name given to Him by angels (Luke 2.21). The angel also tells him to take Mary to Egypt (2.3) and, after Herod dies, notifies him to take her back to Nazareth (2.19).

Angels must be formidable and frightening because here they tell Joseph, then later Zechariah (Luke 1.30) and the shepherds (Luke 2.9-10) not to be afraid. When Zechariah is puzzled and discusses the situation with the angel, he replies that his name is Gabriel (Luke 1.19), probably the same angel that spoke to Daniel (8.16 and 9.21). Mary also converses with Gabriel (Luke 1.

On the other hand, after the resurrection when Mary visits the tomb of Jesus she sees “two angels in white” who talk with her (John 20.11-13) and she is not afraid. Mary had communicated with the angel Gabriel about the birth of Jesus (Luke 1.26-38). Many years later, when Mary Magdalene sees Jesus, she does not immediately recognize him (John 20.15-17).

It is no wonder that the shepherds would have been afraid: “a great company of the heavenly host appear with the angel,” which would have been spectacular and startling. The angels return to heaven (Luke 2.15), but the shepherds know what their appearance signals, and go to Bethlehem to see what is happening.

The story of the temptation of Jesus occurs in three gospels: Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13 and Luke 4:1-13 and in each of them Satan quotes Scripture, demonstrating how it is possible to recite the Word of God for one’s own purposes. Satan tells Jesus to throw himself off the Temple and the angels will protect him (Matthew 4:6; Mark 1:12; and Luke 4:10), which of course is true but not what God wants. Jesus tells Satan that we should not put God to the test.

Angels will be active in the judgment, actually the “harvesting” at the end of the age and will “weed out” everything that causes sin (Matthew 13:39; 41; 49) and will gather “his elect…from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens” (Mark 13.27 and also 8.38 and Matthew 16.27). When will this take place? Not even the angels know (Mark 13.32; Matthew 24.36).

At that final judgment Jesus will bring angels with him (Matthew 25.31). In fact, he could have called for them at any time, as when the disciples wanted to shield him from arrest, he could have asked the Father for “thousands of angels” (Matthew 26.53). We have already seen a “vast host” of angels—the armies of heaven—appear to the shepherds and then return to heaven (Luke 2.9-15), so we know there are plenty around.

Turning now to the book of Revelation: it is a special story and relates the activity of angels and the future order of the world. In this book, angels are referred to 79 times in the NLT, 77 times in the NIV and 72 times in the NKJV. The angels in Revelation are acting out their future roles—this is a vision of John—and it is often impossible to interpret their actions literally. For proof, go to commentaries on the book or listen to TV evangelists interpret it. They give us ideas, but the actions in Revelation are forecast and have not yet happened, so they are imaginary. I don’t know what many of the images stand for.

The book begins (1.1) with Jesus sending an angel to John with a special revelation. However, things get complicated immediately as the number seven begins to appear: seven stars, seven golden lampstands, seven bowls, and seven plagues. There are also seven churches, each with an angel assigned to it. Furthermore, the seven stars are seven angels, and each has a message for each church. The angels convey their messages to the churches in the cities of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea, outlining their good points and their bad points. 

An angel carrying the seal of the living God appears (7.2) and tells the four angels, who “stand at the four corners of the earth” not to harm the earth. A scene follows (7.11) where all the angels are around the throne and they “fell before the throne with their faces to the ground and worshipped God.”

The seven angels are given seven trumpets, which they will use later, but “another angel with a gold incense burner” mixes incense with prayers and pours it on the altar for God (8.3-5). In the meantime, the seven angels have been warming up their trumpets and are ready to blow them. After each blown trumpet a catastrophe or extraordinary event occurs (8.6-10.7; 11.15) and God’s “mysterious plan will be fulfilled…just as he announced it to his servants the prophets” (10.7). T

John is instructed to take the scroll from the angel standing on the sea and land and eat it (10.9). John does so and finds it sweet to taste, but it gives him an upset stomach. Two chapters later war breaks out in heaven between Michael and his angels against the dragon (Satan) and its angels (12.7-9). Satan is defeated and then John sees another angel “flying through the sky” with the Good News of the Gospel now available “to every nation, tribe, language and people (14.6). There are actually three angels, the second shouting that Babylon has fallen and the third shouting warnings about a beast (14.8-9).

The beast puts a mark on the forehead or on the hands of people. They are doomed for the judgment that follows. A series of angels then swing their sickles to carry out God’s verdict (14.15-19).

There are more angels: John sees seven more and they will destroy what is left of the earth and its people with seven plagues (15.1-16.17). After the angels are finished with their destruction, one of them takes John to see “the great prostitute” (17.1). She is a woman “sitting on a scarlet beast that had seven heads and ten horns” (17.3) and which has blasphemies against God written all over it.

The angel explains that the waters where the prostitute is located “represent masses of people of every nation and language (17.15). The scarlet beast and its horns “hate the prostitute,” which represents Babylon and it is destroyed (18.21) by a boulder cast into the ocean. 

Things finally get better and an angel tells John that those who attend the wedding feast of the Lamb will be blessed (19.9). An angel “standing in the sun” shouts to vultures to gather for the banquet (19.17). Vultures usually mean someone has died, so I’m not sure why they are here.

In the final episode John sees an angel coming down from heaven and it has the key to the bottomless pit and a heavy chain (20.1). Satan is thrown into the pit and one of the seven angels takes John to see “the bride, the wife of the Lamb” (21.9). It is the city of the new Jerusalem, and it is big and beautiful. For some reason, the angel decides to the measure the city and the walls are 216 feet thick and it is 1500 miles in every direction (including up).

In the end of his vision John sees the water of life flowing from the throne of God and it is there where his servants will worship—and they will see His face (22.4). An angel assures John that everything he has “heard and seen is trustworthy and true” (22.6).

John is overcome and falls at the feet of the angel to worship him, but is told not to because the angel is “a fellow servant” (22.9).

In 22.16 Jesus speaks and tells John that he has sent “my angel to give you this message for the churches. I am both the source of David and the heir to his throne. I am the bright morning star.”

That is the end of the angels, but it is of course not the end of the story: Jesus has the last word, “Yes indeed! I am coming soon! (22.20). And we echo John’s words; “So be it. Come Lord Jesus!

Because this is a vision, which is much like a dream, the events sometimes seem out of order chronologically and the angels seem extraordinarily busy and even diabolical. They are not nice angels with wings and harps—replicas that I would hang on my Christmas tree.

There is no doubt that it is a book of warnings and calamities, with angels as the primary agents. I find it difficult to understand and most of us are content to skip to Chapters 21 and 22, with the streets of gold, no more tears, and so on. We are promised a “blessing” if we read the book, but probably best not to stay up late in a darkened room to ponder it.

Some things (but not all) about angels (not all references are given):

  • There are millions of them (Psalm 89.5; 103.21; Daniel 7.10; Matthew 26.53; Luke 2.13; Hebrews 12.22; Revelation 5.11)
  • They worship God (Deuteronomy 32.43; Nehemiah 9.6; Hebrews 1.6)
  • They come from heaven (Matthew 28.2)
  • They are special messengers (Job 33.23; Hebrews 1.14), sent by God (Daniel 3.28; Hebrews 1.7)
  • They are witnesses in God’s presence (Luke 12.8; 1 Corinthians 11.10; 1 Peter 1.12)
  • They can appear and disappear suddenly (Acts 12.10)
  • They are visible at times (1 Chronicles 21.16; 2 Samuel 24.17; Luke 24.23; John 1.51; 20.12; Acts 10.3; 12.3)
  • They can appear even as strangers (Hebrews 13.2)
  • They can change their appearance (Judges 13.6)
  • They look after “Little ones” (Matthew 18.10)
  • They may look after adults as well (Acts 12.15)
  • They may look after cities (Revelation 1:20ff)
  • They can blow trumpets (Matthew 24.31; Revelation 8.6)
  • They are not married (Matthew 22.30), which does not imply they are sexless
  • They provide comfort (Mark 16.6; Matthew 28.5; Luke 22.43; Acts 27.23)
  • They are strong (they roll away the stone at the tomb of Jesus—Matthew 28.2)
  • They protect (Exodus 23.20; Psalm 34.7)
  • They do miracles (Judges 6.21; Acts 5.19)
  • They pray (Zechariah 1.12)
  • They never die (Luke 20.36)
  • They speak and understand languages (1 Kings 19.5; Zechariah 1.9; Matthew 28.5; John 12.29; 1 Corinthians 13.1; Acts 10.4)
  • They give instructions (1 Kings 19.7; Acts 8.6; 10.22; Genesis 28.12)
  • They interpret (Zechariah 6.5)
  • They shout with joy (Job 38.7)
  • They are happy when someone repents (Luke 15.10)
  • They can speak to animals (Numbers 22.22-35)
  • They can control wild animals (Daniel 6.22)
  • They have special food (Psalm 78.35)
  • They can supply new clothing (Zechariah 3.4)
  • They escort people to heaven (or perhaps hell) Luke 16.10)
  • They will appear with the coming of Jesus (2 Thessalonians 1.7)
  • They will preserve God’s people (Revelation 7.1)
  • Their face can morph into that of a human (Acts 6.15)
  • Satan can disguise himself as one (2 Corinthians 11.14
  • Some may not be trustworthy (a claim by Eliphaz in Job 4.18)
  • They seem to have a hierarchy (2 Samuel 22.6; Zechariah 6.5; 1 Timothy 5.21)
  • Some have sinned (2 Peter 2.4; Jude 1.6)
  • They can kill (Psalm 78.44; Acts 12.23; Revelation 9.15ff)
  • They can be angels of death (Hebrews 11.28; 1 Corinthians 10.10)
  • Their authority is limited (Jude 1.9)
  • They will not control the future world (Hebrew 2.5)

Therewith ends my study of angels—what an interesting and, in most respects, encouraging record of these awesome messengers of God.

Karl Franklin, January 2022

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