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C.S. Lewis did not write ghost stories, but he lived in a country that celebrated the strange genre. For some bizarre reason, the telling of ghost stories became associated with Christmas Eve. It’s a wonder to me why Lewis didn’t include this impropriety in his brilliant essay on Xmas.

“Christmas Eve was traditionally the time to tell scary stories round the hearth,” opens an article in The Guardian. I had never before associated Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol with this bizarre tradition. Nor had I connected it with Amy Grant’s “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” (Far better the theme of Grant’s Nativity song “Breath of Heaven.”)

I presume I can thank my Scandinavian heritage for the absence of ghost stories in our Christmas season traditions. Mercifully we also avoided the plague of seasonal trolls and gnomes.

One of the most noted of authors of ghost stories had much in common with C.S. Lewis. M.R. James (1862-1936) was a medievalist scholar who taught at Cambridge. In fact, “James came to sharpen his craft – by telling his stories after the Christmas service at King’s College, Cambridge (where he was provost) to an audience of uneasy fellows.” In the same article no less than H.P. Lovecraft himself is cited as describing James as “a literary weird fictionist of the very first rank.”

I suppose it is a sign of his minimal interest in ghost stories that I cannot find any reference to James’ fiction in C.S. Lewis’ writing. Lewis does, however, refer to one of James’ scholarly works, The Apocryphal New Testament: Being the Apocryphal Gospels, Acts, Epistles and Apocalypses.

In a 1955 letter, Lewis describes how experiencing a relationship with Christ is different than simply knowing about him.

Yes, Jesus Himself, of course: the heart. Not only the God in Him but the historical Man. I don’t know that I ever got much from reading things about Him. Perhaps, in a queer way, I got most from reading the Apocryphal Gospels (The whole Apocryphal N.T. is done in one vol. ed. M.R. James). For there you find things attributed to Him that couldn’t be true. You even find wise & beautiful sayings which nevertheless just don’t ring true. And have you noticed–reading the true sayings in the real Gospels–how hardly one of them could have been guessed in advance?*

References to Ghosts

As befits a person writing over a fifty year period, C.S. Lewis’ comments about ghosts vary. This is emphasized by the change in his worldview which accompanied his conversion from atheism to Christianity.

A 1915 letter to Arthur Greeves reveals Lewis’ affinity for the supernatural. He is describing his reading of “Roots of the Mountains” by William Morris (1834-1896).

Tho’ more ordinary than the [“Well at the World’s End” here and here], it is still utterly different from any novel you ever read. Apart from the quaint and beautiful old English, which means so much to me, the supernatural element, tho’ it does not enter into the plot, yet hovers on the margin all the time: we have ‘the wildwood wherein dwell wights that love not men, to whom the groan of the children of men is as the scrape of a fiddle-bow: there too abide the kelpies, and the ghosts of them that rest not . . .’

In Lewis’ essay “The Novels of Charles Williams,” he describes the uniqueness of Williams’ work.

We meet in them, on the one hand, very ordinary modern people who talk the slang of our own day, and live in the suburbs: on the other hand, we also meet the supernatural—ghosts, magicians, and archetypal beasts.

The first thing to grasp is that this is not a mixture of two literary kinds . . . Williams is really writing a third kind of book which belongs to neither class and has a different value from either.

He is writing that sort of book in which we begin by saying, ‘Let us suppose that this everyday world were, at some point, invaded by the marvellous. Let us, in fact, suppose a violation of frontier.’

In 1939 he wrote to his brother about a play by W.B. Yeats featuring a ghost.

The plays were worth seeing: one, by Yeats [“Purgatory” in Last Poems and Two Plays], his last one, was really powerful: conversation between a tramp and his son outside the ruins of a great house and then the ghost of its last mistress at the window, re-enacting her past life-she being the one who had finally let the whole thing down, marrying a horse-dealer . . . all the usual tragedy of the Irish aristocracy.

Not quite true, of course, because probably most of the preceding generations had been pretty good wasters too: but an effective play.

I have previously explored C.S. Lewis’ actual encounter with Yeats. It was quite odd. In 1921, he had written to his father.

I have been taken recently to see the mighty Yeats. It was the weirdest show you ever saw, and I fear he is a Kod [slang, I believe, for a fraud or a hoaxer]. You sit on hard antique chairs by candlelight in an oriental looking room and listen in silence while the great man talks about magic and ghosts and mystics . . .

What fluttering of the dovecote! It is a pity that the real romance of meeting a man who has written great poetry and who has known William Morris and Tagore and Symons should be so overlaid with the sham romance of flame coloured curtains and mumbo-jumbo.

In 1940 Lewis shared with Warnie his notion that if the seances were real — they had been popular during England’s flirtations with spiritualism — it did not suggest the spirits are particularly bright.

Part of Thursday afternoon I spent with unusual pleasure in the dark, pleasantly smelling, warmth of the old library with a slow dampish snow falling outside-flakes the size of matchboxes. I had gone in to look for something quite different, but became intrigued by the works of Dr Dee [(1527-1608) of Trinity College Cambridge], a mysterious magician and astrologer of Queen Elizabeth’s time.

The interesting thing about this was the fact that it was so uninteresting: I mean that the spirit conversations displayed, so far as I could see from turning over a few pages, just exactly the same fatuity which one observes in those recorded by modern spiritualists. What can be the explanation of this?

I suppose that both are hallucinations resulting from the same kind of mental weakness which, at all periods, produces the same rubbish. One can’t help, however, toying with the hypothesis that they are all real spirits in the case, and that we tap either a ghostly college of buffoons or a ghostly home for imbeciles.

In 1946 he complimented Ruth Pitter (1897-1992), a longtime friend and correspondent. Pitter’s First Poems are available here.

I’m not sure I’ve understood The Bridge as a whole: but I love ‘shapes of sorrow and empty vessels,’ etc. Nice things in Seaborn. The Cygnet comes off as well as things like air-raids can come off in poetry. I don’t mean because they’re modern.

But as a rule, the bigger a thing is, physically the less it works in literature. One ghost is always more disquieting than ten: no good fight in a story can have more than a dozen or so combatants: the death of a million men is less tragic than that of one.

By the way, that final comment will prove of great value to any modern writer!

I’ve accumulated several other Lewisian references to ghosts, so what say we continue this discussion in our next post? In the meantime, perhaps you will care to read some of the linked volumes, or to comment on the odd link between ghost stories and Christmas Eve.


* The Apocrypha Anecdota: A Collection of Thirteen Apocryphal Books and Fragments by Montague Rhodes James is available here. He also wrote The Lost Apocrypha of the Old Testament: Their Titles and Fragments.

Several of James’ ghost stories are available in these collections: The Five Jars and A Thin Ghost and Others. Dr. Dewi Evans has compiled The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James and made them available in several formats on his website.

Most aspiring writers are sincere. The question is, does the earnestness of their work translate into excellence? In other words, does honesty correlate to quality?

C.S. Lewis addressed this question in an essay about John Bunyan (1628-1688). Bunyan was the English writer and Puritan preacher best known for The Pilgrim’s Progress. At the outset of the allegory Bunyan attempts to “show the profit of my book,” and encourage its reading.

This book is writ in such a dialect
As may the minds of listless men affect:
It seems a novelty, and yet contains
Nothing but sound and honest gospel strains.

While C.S. Lewis respected this classic work, he argues that its value is not simply a consequence of Bunyan’s honesty.

The other thing we must not say is that Bunyan wrote well because he was a sincere, forthright man who had no literary affectations and simply said what he meant. I do not doubt that is the account of the matter that Bunyan would have given himself. But it will not do. (“The Vision of John Bunyan”)

Lewis is not, of course, challenging Bunyan’s claim to honesty. What Lewis does, in fact, is challenge a common misconception. He dismantles the excuse for any who would dismiss grammar and literary rules as unimportant because they are writing earnestly. Basically, Lewis suggests we cannot justify creating a mediocre product and by burnishing it with the declaration that “it is an outpouring of our deepest passion.”

“If [candid honesty] were the real explanation,” states Lewis, “then every sincere, forthright, unaffected man could write as well.”

And we all know that is not the case. Lewis proceeds to offer an illuminating and curious illustration. It recalls the days of the First World War when one of the responsibilities of the officers was to review the correspondence of the troops before they accidentally divulged classified military information to their family at home.

But most people of my age learned from censoring the letters of the troops, when we were subalterns [lieutenants] in the first war, that unliterary people, however sincere and forthright in their talk, no sooner take a pen in hand than cliché and platitude flow from it. The shocking truth is that, while insincerity may be fatal to good writing, sincerity, of itself, never taught anyone to write well. It is a moral virtue, not a literary talent. We may hope it is rewarded in a better world: it is not rewarded on Parnassus.*

Lewis continues, praising Bunyan’s writing.

We must attribute Bunyan’s style to a perfect natural ear, a great sensibility for the idiom and cadence of popular speech, a long experience in addressing unlettered audiences, and a freedom from bad models. I do not add ‘to an intense imagination,’ for that also can shipwreck if a man does not find the right words.

A Lesson for Modern Writers

C.S. Lewis’ keen analysis of Bunyan’s writing is more than a mere history lesson. It offers a lesson to those of us who take up the pen today. By all means, we should exercise the moral virtue of sincerity in our writing. However, we should not rest on the strength of our integrity to ensure the quality of our writing.

We should hone our skills. Likewise, we should welcome the constructive criticism of our peers, as did the Inklings themselves.

Our work will also benefit when we intently listen. Learning the idiom and cadence of our characters (real or fictional) enables them to rise alive from the page.

Lewis’ essay on Bunyan offers another suggestion I would highlight. This will be true for any writer, but I think it is of particular import to Christian authors. Lewis affirms a forthright, honest, and powerful presentation of the truth as we perceive it. He cautions against pulling our punches because we are timid about how the austere truth may be received.

For some readers the ‘unpleasant side’ of The Pilgrim’s Progress [lies] in the intolerable terror which is never far away. Indeed unpleasant is here a ludicrous understatement. The dark doctrine has never been more horrifyingly stated than in the words that conclude Part I: Then I saw that there was a way to Hell, even from the Gates of Heaven, as well as from the City of Destruction.

In my opinion the book would be immeasurably weakened as a work of art if the flames of Hell were not always flickering on the horizon. I do not mean merely that if they were not it would cease to be true to Bunyan’s own vision and would therefore suffer all the effects which a voluntary distortion or expurgation of experience might be expected to produce. I mean also that the image of this is necessary to us while we read.

The urgency, the harsh woodcut energy, the continual sense of momentousness, depend on it. We might even say that, just as Bunyan’s religious theme demanded for its vehicle this kind of story, so the telling of such a story would have required on merely artistic grounds to be thus loaded with a further significance, a significance which is believed by only some, but can be felt (while they read) by all, to be of immeasurable importance.

Keeping this in mind—that we should be faithful to the truth of what we are professing—will serve us well in the final accounting. After all, it is the compromises of the tepid of which we must beware.


* Parnassus refers to a Greek mountain associated by the ancients with Apollo, the Muses and poetry.

The Pilgrim’s Progress is available in a variety of free versions.

The Pilgrim’s Progress, an Allegory features a “Biographical Sketch of the author, by Lord Macaullay.”

In an 1834 edition, we have Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Metrically Condensed: In Six Cantos.

The version with the most entertaining title has to be: The Pilgrim’s Progress [by John Bunyan] In Words of One Syllable.

The Child’s Pilgrim’s Progress can be downloaded in not one, but two volumes. It was published in 1860, with the preface:

No endeavour has been made in this little book to improve Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. To do so would be simply absurd. To bring prominently into view scenes supposed most attractive to children has been attempted; and, while the Dreamer’s narrative is preserved, others of less striking character have been thrown into the back ground. The quaint, simple language of the incomparable Bunyan is, for the most part, retained.

The Pilgrim’s Progress: for the Young was published in 1850. Its introduction includes commentary that echoes the theme of the post above.

John Bunyan, though a very pious and good man, was not a learned one ; for he was by trade a tinker, and had no opportunity to learn much more than to read, in his youth, and when a boy he was wild and wicked. But he made very good use afterward of what he knew ; and very diligently studied his Bible and other good books.

He was also what is called a genius, which means that he had great natural talent. He wrote many works, and one of his books, called the Pilgrim’s Progress, has been read and admired by more people than any other book except the Bible. Learned and unlearned men have read it again and again, and it has been translated into all modern languages.

We live in what some consider a scary age. Even if you avoid all the dystopian books and films, real life provides more than enough worries. Thank God that C.S. Lewis offers wise counsel to help us cope with our fears without despairing.

The Department of Defense just released its 2019 report from the Electromagnetic Defense Task Force. The 2018 Report, which lays the foundation for the latest electromagnetic pulse (EMP) study, is also available.

These reports make fascinating, though sobering, reading. Their warnings are applicable not only to the United States, but to everyone depending on modern conveniences such as electricity. The EMP threat comes, after all, not only from nuclear attacks, but also from coronal mass ejections which are spawned regularly by the sun. (NASA agrees with the potential dangers.)

As the report says, “The potentially catastrophic effects of these types of natural or man-made EMP events are not science fiction but science fact and have been well studied and documented for nearly six decades.”

Warning people about the dangers—and preparations that can easily be made in advance to survive them—is the mandate of the Task Force. I imagine one of their educational recommendations they suggest might come to resemble the “Duck and Cover” training provided to students in the 1950s and 1960s.

How Bad Could It Be?

Pretty terrible, if the worst circumstances align. The reports support the findings of a previous Congressional study that “an EMP-induced blackout could cause a long-term nationwide grid collapse and the loss of up to 90 percent of the population through starvation, disease, and societal collapse.”

Ninety percent. This would be nothing less than apocalyptic. Yet, even in such a scenario, we would not need to surrender to hopelessness. I’ve discussed this in the past.

Most of the fatalities would result from starvation, since food production would drop dramatically, and there would be no fuel available to move it to markets. The even more ominous threat would come from our fellow citizens. Describing this, one contributor to the report cites three certain factors that are not currently considered in any official plans: human desperation, starvation, and “living without the rule of law” which has its own acronym, WROL.

C.S. Lewis’ Response

The danger of EMPs was little known during Lewis’ life. Nonetheless, he did write about the possibilities for global disaster created by the existence of hydrogen bombs. And Lewis’ response was the Christian one—do not despair, since these threats change almost nothing. Even without them, we humans are mortal. Likewise, barring the creation of a new heaven (which is coming), even the expanding universe we inhabit is destined to fade away.

Our ultimate hope comes not from the material creation, which itself shares the scars of humanity’s fall. We are not simply physical beings. Created in the image of God, you and I possess a spiritual nature. And God will deliver us from this final dissolution.

Lewis describes this dilemma extremely well in his essay “On Living in an Atomic Age.” And this video helps to illustrate Lewis’ words.

As Lewis says,

If we are all going to be destroyed by [an event such as an EMP], let that [event] when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep” dwelling on our vulnerability. Such terrible events “may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.” (On Living in an Atomic Age)

Preparing for Disasters

When we lived in the Midwest, where winter storms could readily strand motorists for a day or more, we carried a “survival kit.” It was a wise precaution, though by the grace of God we never needed to use it.

Off the West Coast of the U.S. and Canada, lies a mounting danger. The Cascadia Subduction Zone generates earthquakes and mega-tsunamis every 500 years or so . . . Today tsunami escape routes have become a normal component of disaster preparedness for those living on the Washington and Oregon coasts.

Each individual and family must determine their own course when it comes to disaster preparation. If my family had settled in Texas where two tornadoes passed near our home while we lived there, I would not have relied on taking shelter in a hallway beneath an antique table. I would have prepared for the potential threat by having a home built with a basement designed to serve as a tornado shelter.

The problem isn’t that people take precautions that often prove unnecessary—at worst they have expended money that purchased only peace of mind. The problem is that some people become consumed by the prospect of a national or global disaster. Their fear can grow to the point where it is all they can think about and the rest of their life often ends up in ruins.

It is to people in this group—those we might call extreme doomsday preppers—that C.S. Lewis speaks most intentionally. He offers sound advice that can help restore balance to the lives of those who have been crippled by fear.

It will be very interesting to see how the recommendations of the Electromagnetic Defense Task Force are implemented. Particularly their challenge to actively educate the public. Hopefully whatever program arises will be reasonable and constructive, and avoid excessive drama. But, living in our increasingly hyperbolic world, I’m not confident that will be true. Prepare to hear more about this subject in the years ahead.


The image above was captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory and the “Sun-flanking STERO-B spacecraft” in 2012.

Good, Bad and Ugly Hymns

August 12, 2019 — 21 Comments

There’s good “church music.” There’s mediocre church music. (And, there’s even terrible church music.) Read on and I’ll provide a link to an article I wrote about one questionable ditty that wormed its way into a military hymnal.

C.S. Lewis was not a fan of most church music. I’ve written about his musical tastes previously.

His assessment is no secret. He deemed most hymns to be “fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music.”

When it comes to hymns, there is general agreement on what’s good. These songs have passed the test of time. They have proven edifying and inspirational for generations. Some contemporary music is also biblically faithful and possesses the potential to join the ranks of the church’s lasting hymnody.

Then there are the others. Uninhibited redundancy, for example, suggests a corresponding shallowness. I forego the idiom about something being broad but shallow, since such songs are actually narrow and shallow. Case in point, the song “Yes, Lord.”

It begins promisingly enough:
I’m trading my sorrow
I’m trading my shame
I’m laying it down for the joy of the Lord

Then the theology gets a wee bit blurrier, especially for believers who still suffer after praying for healing:

I’m trading my sickness
I’m trading my pain
I’m laying it down for the joy of the Lord

But it’s the chorus that undermines the song’s edificatory potential.

And we say
Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord
Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord
Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord Amen

Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord
Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord
Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord Amen

The last two chorus breaks are replaced by the less challenging:

La la la la la la
La la la la la
La la la la la la
La la la la la
La la la la la la la la la
La la la la

La la la laLa la
La la la la la
La la la la la la
La la la la la
La la la la la la la la la
La la la laLa la la la

To those of you who adore this particular song—please accept my apologies for singling it out. Yet I stand by my view of these lyrics. And I can certainly imagine what C.S. Lewis would have thought of it.

The Power of Music

Various Christian leaders have expressed the opinion it’s more important to write the church’s hymns than its theological books. Hopefully that’s hyperbole, but few would deny the words we sing directly influence our thinking.

Arius, one of the early heretics who denied the divinity of Christ, knew this. His movement created tremendous confusion and resulted in much persecution. One of his most successful tools consisted of composing heretical songs. The words were “religious,” and the tunes were catchy, so people were singing them even when they didn’t agree with his doctrine.

C.S. Lewis & Church Music

As mentioned above, C.S. Lewis was very candid about his own disaffection for most church hymnody. In “Answers to Questions on Christianity,” Lewis answers the question of whether it’s necessary to attend worship services. He describes how duty rather than desire brought him to congregational worship.

When I first became a Christian . . . I thought that I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and I wouldn’t go to the churches and Gospel Halls; and then later I found that it was the only way of flying your flag . . .

[However,] I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off.

I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.

In light of Lewis’ attitude toward religious hymnody, it’s ironic that in 1946 he was invited to help evaluate new hymns.

The Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland is opening a file of new hymns to which modern hymn-writers are to be asked to contribute. I have been asked to write to you and ask if you will be a member of the panel to whom new hymns may be submitted in order that their merit may be assessed . . .

Lewis’ response to the invitation is as revealing as it is (unintentionally, I’m sure) curt.

The truth is that I’m not in sufficient sympathy with the project to help you. I know that many of the congregation like singing hymns: but I am not yet convinced that their enjoyment is of a spiritual kind. It may be: I don’t know.

To the minority, of whom I am one, the hymns are mostly the dead wood of the service. Recently in a party of six people I found that all without exception would like fewer hymns. Naturally, one holding this view can’t help you.

Two months later, the men exchanged letters again, and Lewis clarified his thoughts.

I can’t quite remember my own last letter; but I was wrong if I said or implied that . . . hymns, were bad in principle. . . . In modern England, however, we can’t sing—as the Welsh and Germans can. Also (a great pity, but a fact) the art of poetry has developed for two centuries in a private and subjective direction.

That is why I find hymns ‘dead wood.’ But I spoke only for myself and a few others. If an improved hymnody—or even the present hymnody—does edify other people, of course it is an elementary duty of charity and humility for me to submit. I have never spoken in public against the use of hymns . . .

The Gospel Coalition has an informative essay on Lewis’ broader view of worship here.

The Armed Forces Hymnal Scandal

At the outset of this column I promised readers a link to a recently published article. If you would like to read about a bizarre hymn that (temporarily) slithered into the Book of Worship for United States Forces, check it out here. The article begins on page fifteen of the new issue of Curtana: Sword of Mercy.

The hymn in question may be thought-provoking, but it belongs in a discussion group, not in a worship service. The lyrics are placed on the tongue of thief crucified beside Jesus. The criminal who was not invited by Jesus to “be with [him] in paradise” (Luke 23). The first stanza will amply illustrate the spirit of the piece.

It was on a Friday morning that they took me from my cell,
And I saw they had a carpenter to crucify as well
You can blame it on to Pilate, you can blame it on the Jews,
You can blame it on the Devil, It’s God I accuse.
(Refrain)
It’s God they ought to crucify, instead of you and me.
I said to the carpenter a-hanging on the tree.

If you read the article, and consider me unfair to the song’s writer, please leave a comment below. I would love the chance to respond. Likewise, if you think I’ve been too harsh in my evaluation of “Yes, Lord.” Given a choice between mediocre and terrible hymns, there’s no contest.

One wonders how Lewis would have rated “It was on a Friday Morning.” I suspect it would not even rise to the bar of being a “fifth-rate poem.”

csl dragon.png

In 1957, C.S. Lewis wrote an encouraging letter to a young author whose first book had been written at the age of fourteen. Jane Gaskell’s Strange Evil was described by the Times Literary Supplement as “a fantasy of macabre and gorgeous nonsense.” The review even alluded to Lewis himself in its description of the novel.

Judith, who poses nude for a living, is carried off to a C.S. Lewis-ish land where a monster called Baby conducts his reign of terror and where one extravagantly gory battle follows another.

Miss Gaskell is eloquently fascinated by words, the longer and more lush the better, and her book reveals an undoubted talent for fanciful description.

Gaskell went on to become a journalist. She also authored several more novels, and ultimately became a professional astrologer.

But, returning to the young girl and her first publication . . . Lewis considered the young girl worthy of encouragement.

My wife and I have just been reading your book and I want to tell you that I think it a quite amazing achievement–incomparably beyond anything I could have done at that age. The story runs, on the whole, very well and there is some real imagination in it.

The idea of the gigantic spoiled brat (had you a horrid baby brother once?) is really excellent: perhaps even profound. Unlike most modern fantasies your book also has a firm core of civilised ethics. On all these grounds, hearty congratulations.

Lewis does, however, offer a suggestion for how the book may have been improved. “I hope you will not think it impertinent if I mention (this is only one man’s opinion of course) some mistakes you can avoid in future.”

In a fantasy every precaution must be taken never to break the spell, to do nothing which will wake the reader and bring him back with a bump to the common earth. But this is what you sometimes do.

The moving bar on which they travel is a dull invention at best, because we can’t help conceiving it as mechanical. But when you add upholstered seats, lavatories, and restaurants, I can’t go on believing in faerie for a moment. It has all turned into commonplace technological luxury!

This concept is noteworthy for writers—especially writers of fiction, for whom imagination is an indispensable ingredient. We must avoid elements that derail the story, as inappropriate technology can sometimes do.

Beware of the Temptation

I suspect most writers today experience technology as a more concrete threat to their vocation than the inopportune example Lewis was noting. It’s not that we include too many or too few mechanical or scientific references in our work. The problem is that we are so distracted by the wonders of the world in which we live, that we never get around to putting the pen to paper.

Some of us can lose ourselves in the internet or social media. One fascinating read leads to another and we wonder “where the time has gone.” Vast programming “on demand,” is ready at a moment’s notice to occupy (or, sometimes, numb) our minds. And even when we do sit down at the keyboard, emails and messages interrupt our concentration.*

Technology, of course, is not only dangerous to writers. It can distract any of us from what is most important in life. How many hours have we squandered when we could have spent our time with family or friends? Why do we prefer to anesthetize ourselves with digital opiates, rather than helping a neighbor?

Not long ago, Christianity Today conducted an interview with Richard Foster. Foster’s 1978 book, A Celebration of Discipline, has been extremely influential in calling believers to lives of deeper simplicity and prayer. In their article they mentioned a revision in the preface that speaks powerfully to me.

Oh, for the day when all we had to do was turn off the television if we wanted solitude and silence! . . . we are bombarded by the broad distractions of constant noise, constant demands, constant news. Everyone, it seems, wants us to be accessible 24/7 and to respond instantly to any and every request.

Neuroscience studies are now showing us that the neural pathways of our brains are being rewired accordingly, so that our physical capacity for sustained attention is decreasing.

We, of course, complain endlessly about our wired world. But—let’s be honest—we do enjoy our technological gluttony. There is, however, a better way to live.

I’m going to close this post with a personal prayer. Feel free to join me in it, if you desire.

Gracious Father, forgive me my trespasses, and deliver me from the sin of technological gluttony to which I so often surrender. Draw me away from the table of excess, and lead me on that better path . . . the way that leads to life, and to you. Amen.


* Many of these distractions can be significantly decreased by setting your software to provide fewer “notifications” when various things occur. For example, I recently had to reset my iTunes because the program was throwing up a message every time a new song began.

When I am listening to the soundtrack of The Lord of the Rings, I don’t care to be told that “The Foot of Orthanc” is coming up as the strains of “The Road to Isengard” are fading away.

achilles

If you don’t know the meaning of “hamartia,” you’re not alone. But it’s a very important word, for more than one reason, so read on.

Hamartia describes a feature many writers of fiction or drama instill in their most memorable characters. It simply means “tragic flaw.” The deep character defect which cannot be overcome by sincere intention or persistent effort.

Merriam-Webster describes it this way.

Aristotle introduced the term in the Poetics to describe the error of judgment which ultimately brings about the tragic hero’s downfall. As you can imagine, the word is most often found in literary criticism.

However, news writers occasionally employ the word when discussing the unexplainable misfortune or missteps of übercelebrities regarded as immortal gods and goddesses before being felled by their own shortcomings.

Despite being a thespian in high school, I never formally studied drama. So I didn’t encounter the word there.

Likewise, I have written consistently since earning a Journalism degree four decades ago. However, since I have a 37:1 nonfiction to fiction ratio, I did not know this Greek word had found its way into the English lexicon.

I was surprised to discover its English meaning in my usually-familiar word of the day email (from The Free Dictionary).

While I was unfamiliar with its English usage, I already knew the word. I originally met hamartia (ἁμαρτία) while studying the New Testament in Greek. Hamartia literally refers to “missing the mark,” and it is the primary biblical Greek word for sin.

The first usage of the word in the sense of being an inner quality, occurs in Aristotle’s Poetics.  Aristotle writing as a pre-Christian philosopher, naturally perceived the literary device in a pagan manner.

The Greek word hamartia translates pretty directly as “error” or “shortcoming” without any necessary overtones of guilt or moral failure. Our modern conception of tragedy and the “tragic flaw” of the hero usually involves the concept of hubris, or overweening pride, that leads to disaster.

Macbeth, for instance, has the arrogance to think he can overstep the laws of God and state, and ultimately pays dearly for this arrogance. Macbeth is a tragic hero with a clear tragic flaw: his downfall results from a moral failing and can be seen as divine retribution proportional to his guilt. But Macbeth also contains heavy Christian overtones that would of course be found nowhere in Greek tragedy.

An understanding of Aristotle’s concept of hamartia—and indeed an understanding of Greek tragedy in general—relies on an understanding of the ethics and cosmology of the ancient Greeks. . . . Greek ethics are based more on the notion of virtue than obligation.

What of the Consequences?

In a 2014 article entitled “C.S. Lewis: The Anti-Platonic Platonist,” Grace Tiffany skillfully explores the Platonic echoes in Lewis’ writings. In discussing his literary examples of human failings, she writes:

There are of course Biblical models justifying Lewis’ “negatively capable” presentations of misguided characters . . . An older philosophical source, if not a Platonic one, also justifies mimetic representations of evil by the argument that these are morally purgative.

Imitations of hamartia, or tragic error, produce “fear and pity” (Aristotle, Poetics 1453b)—compassion for the character elicited by a skilled simulation of his psychology, naturally accompanied by a healthy fear of ourselves making similar mistakes. What ensures the fear is, of course, the dramatization of the horrible end to which hamartia has led . . . (Christianity and Literature 63.3).

In 1953, C.S. Lewis wrote to a correspondent that sin was more than merely making a mistake. In doing so, he alludes to the change in the meaning of the word ἁμαρτία.

No. I don’t think sin is completely accounted for by faulty reasoning nor that it can be completely cured by re-education. That view has, indeed, been put forward: by Socrates and, in the early 19th Century, by Godwin.

But I think it overlooked the (to me) obviously central fact that our will is not necessarily determined by our reason. If it were, then, as you say, what are called ‘sins’ would not be sins at all but only mistakes, and would require not repentances but merely correction.

Returning to the literary or dramatic definition of hamartia as a tragic flaw, it seems to me that this term offers a fitting parallel to the word sin.

Ever since humanity’s fall, we suffer the curse of bearing original sin, a tragic flaw. It is a scar that no medical or psychological treatment can cure and no amount of determination can repair. This tragic flaw will be our doom. Unless, that is, there is One who is capable and desirous of restoring us to our original health and purity. One, perhaps, in whose own image you and I were created . . .

This wonder is something well worth pondering—and perhaps one day, writing about.

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When C.S. Lewis died, one of his Cambridge colleagues uttered a shocking statement—to his Cambridge students.

“C.S. Lewis is dead,” announced F.R. Leavis to his English literature students at Cambridge University a few days later, while the world mourned for Kennedy (the President was assassinated the same day).

American novelist and essayist D. Keith Mano, then studying at Cambridge, remembers Leavis continuing his brief commentary on Lewis’ passing as follows: “They said in the Times that we will miss him. We will not. We will not.

Who knew the world of literary criticism could be so ill-mannered?

In my readings about C.S. Lewis and his life I’ve noted references to a fellow English professor at Cambridge who waged a lengthy academic argument with Lewis over the heart of English education.

The challenger to Lewis’ history-oriented approach advocated a critical position, which diluted concern for the intentions of the original writers. I’m not a lit major, so I’ll leave the description at that.*

F.R. Leavis, a dynamic influence at Cambridge, dreaded the arrival of Lewis when he moved from Oxford to a distinguished chair tailor-made for him. The two scholars shared several traits which might have disposed them to friendship.

Both were veterans of the Great War.** One difference between the veterans is curious. Leavis declined to join the Officers’ Training Corps while a student, and chose ambulance service when conscription began. Lewis, on the other hand, voluntarily joined the OTC, even though he (as an Irishman) was exempt from the conscription.***

Another similarity between the two was that they inspired many students. Far from the caricature of droning academicians, Lewis and Leavis drew fans and even disciples from the student body. (In a recent post I mentioned the affectionate nickname some of the former’s students had for him: Papa Lewis.)

The Problem

Most writers believe this second “similarity” factored into the strained relationship between the two. Both had strong personalities, and bold convictions. They did not, however, share a common temperament. Lewis was normally respectful of his philosophical adversaries. Leavis, not so much. The following comes from “C.S. Lewis and the Art of Disagreement.”

The fact that Lewis could approve of atheists [and] liberals . . . reinforces Brewer’s point that Lewis would not allow disagreement to become personal. He could always distinguish the man from the man’s opinion, and he knew the difference between an argument and a quarrel. He would not allow himself to be betrayed into aggression, but would, where necessary, draw rein on a dispute with a wry smile and an agreement to disagree.

His public written controversy on literature with E.M.W. Tillyard (later published as The Personal Heresy) was conducted with pugnacity but without personal animus. And though Lewis laid into the arguments of another colleague, F.R. Leavis, with great forcefulness in the pages of An Experiment in Criticism, he never named Leavis within those pages, but covered his opponent in a thoughtfully woven cloak of pseudonymity.

Contrast that to Leavis’ comment with which we began, in which he “celebrates” Lewis’ passing.

Lewis was quite aware of Leavis’ animosity. In a 1961 letter to the publisher of The Screwtape Letters and Screwtape Proposes a Toast, the author strikes the Cambridge Review from the publications scheduled to receive review copies.

I’ve not additions to make, but one subtraction. Delete Cambridge Review. It’s mainly in the hands of Leavisites who will blackguard any book of mine, and I don’t know why we should let them have a free copy for their sport!

Lewis scholar Brenton Dickieson wrote a column about George Watson’s critique of Lewis. Watson met Lewis at Oxford and later joined him on the faculty at Cambridge.

Here are George Watson’s first evaluative words of Lewis: “Like F.R. Leavis, he was an offensive critic.” Awesome. I think it is an evaluation that would have made Lewis chuckle, particularly in his positive comparison with Leavis, the closest thing Lewis ever got to having a Sherlockian arch-nemesis.

However, Watson (note the name) is careful to remind us that Lewis “reveled in diversity as much as Leavis detested it.” That diversity in Lewis is one of the features that (I believe) most draws and repels readers today.

In the aforementioned article, “Lewis and Cambridge,” Barbour candidly describes the disparity between the spirit of the two nemeses.

“[Lewis’] controversies were always impersonal and often ended with the participants finding a good deal of common ground, whereas Leavis’s controversies . . . tended to end in anathematizing and deeply personal wounding.”

Leavis’ reputation for engendering conflict was so pronounced The Guardian actually included the following in his obituary:

Perhaps the most telling counter-assault on him was by C.S. Lewis, who said that the use of subliminal code words like “maturity” and “relevance” smuggled in an entire value system that was never made explicit for scrutiny. Others accused him of being a crypto-Marxist.

Leavis never replied, which was a pity, but then his weapons during his long career of humiliations in the Cambridge English faculty also included silence, internal exile and cunning.

His most murderous and underestimated weapon was ridicule, which he deployed in lectures with the virtuosity of a music-hall star and with an insensitivity verging on paranoia.

The Essence of Their Differences

Exploding English: Criticism, Theory, Culture includes a chapter entitled “Leavis, Lewis, and Other Oppositions.” It’s précis suggests one reason Lewis’ criticisms have possessed a longer lifespan than those of Leavis.

Lewis and Leavis . . . were the dominant figures in literary study in the middle decades of the twentieth century. . . . it is Lewis’s arguments and assumptions that seem to be the more challenging and which have something to contribute to contemporary debates.

This assessment echoes Lewis’ own view that the Leavis tsunami may have crested. Just a month before his death, he wrote to Basil Willey about his retirement. Willey would retire from his own chair two years later.

My dear Basil . . . I have an idea that Cambridge ten years’ hence might suit us both [better] than the Cambridge we have known. . . .

I hope your success will follow you . . . [if not], then our English school, with its neglect of language, becomes purely a school of literary criticism. And criticism, thus isolated, seems to me a positively mischievous instrument of education.

In “C.S. Lewis, Literary Critic: A Reassessment,” which appeared in Mythlore, William Calin describes Lewis’ passionate defense of English authors whose reputations were in jeopardy.

A Preface to Paradise Lost does for Milton what The Allegory of Love did for Spenser, and Lewis does for epic what he had previously done for allegory and fin’ amor [courtly love]. . . . In sum, Lewis defends his authors language from the strictures of Eliot and Leavis; he defends his worldview and its artistic embodiment from the prejudice of 1930s agnostic university faculty in English. . . .

When he tells students “Don’t read criticism” [Lewis] alludes again to Leavis and his disciples, who fetishized the term “critic.” Lewis would have called himself a scholar or an historian.

The following passage from A Preface to Paradise Lost is telling. Leavis is the unnamed standard bearer for the worldview he rejects. It reveals Lewis’ keen discernment in understanding of his unbridgeable difference with Leavis.

It is not that [Leavis] and I see different things when we look at Paradise Lost. He sees and hates the very same that I see and love. Hence the disagreement between us tends to escape from the realm of literary criticism.

We differ not about the nature of Milton’s poetry, but about the nature of man, or even the nature of joy itself.

The Apostle Paul described this difference in his correspondence with the Corinthians.

Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. . . .

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. . . . But we have the mind of Christ.

In an excellent article entitle “Three Great Critics: F.R. Leavis, T.S. Eliot, and C.S. Lewis,” Michael Aeschliman**** closes with a gospel-oriented thought.

It is pleasing to conclude by imagining C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, and F.R. Leavis now conversing together amicably, recollecting emotion in tranquility, in another and better and more luminous realm, toward which all three of them were fervent pilgrims throughout their embattled but noble lives.


* There are ample online sources available to describe the contrast in detail. For example, Brian Barbour’s Modern Philology essay, “Lewis and Cambridge,” provides a superb explanation of the struggle in its broader context.

** Lewis served in the trenches, where he was seriously wounded. Leavis was fortunate enough to avoid frontline combat by serving in the Friends Ambulance Unit. This site provides a helpful account of his service on an Ambulance Train which shuttled the wounded to ports.

*** There is no record of which ambulance train carried Lewis homeward after his injury, but wouldn’t it be ironic he and Leavis had unknowingly encountered one another at that time?

**** Aeschliman is the author of The Restitution of Man: C.S. Lewis and the Case Against Scientism.