Archives For Literature

rididule

C.S. Lewis seldom kept a secret his low opinion of poor writers. This wasn’t because he was a literary snob, it’s because he was a literary critic.

Actually, the breadth of Lewis’ literary tastes was extraordinary. He didn’t expect texts to be more than what they purported to be, and could even enjoy the pulp fiction of his day. Still, Lewis had an eye for pretentious and anemic writing, and he sometimes penned cutting commentary

One of his lifelong friendships began with a discussion about poor writers. More about Lewis’ friendship with Oxford Classics scholar Nan Vance Dunbar (1928-2005) in a moment.

There are some contemporary voices that argue Lewis was misogynistic. Many of these complainants are non-Christian, and eager to see Lewis’ influence diminished. The truth is he possessed a strong traditional respect for women. And, while he unapologetically enjoyed the company of men—no surprise for a longtime bachelor—he counted a number of women scholars among his close friends.

My friend Brenton Dickieson has an excellent column on the subject of women in Lewis’ life, in which he persuasively argues that Lewis “was hardly the insular, sexist, Oxford bachelor that some would make him out to be.”

Professor Dunbar was a devout Christian, of the Presbyterian persuasion (no surprise, since she was Scottish). She attended one of Lewis’ lectures in 1955, and respectfully challenged in correspondence, his interpretation of the Roman poet Statius.

Their friendship grew, although they never agreed upon the status of Statius. The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis includes a biography of Dunbar which describes how the subject even brought her some peace when she was grieving Lewis’ death.

Lewis’s final letter to her, on 21 November 1963–possibly the last he wrote–was to arrange for a visit in December. When he died the next day, Nan was beside herself with grief.

She was consoled by the theologian, Henry Chadwick, Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford. Professor Chadwick reminded her that she would some day die. “And when you get to Heaven,” he said, “you will be met by Lewis. He will have got there before you, and he’ll have his arm firmly around a small man in a toga, who is being dragged along to meet you. ‘All right,’ Lewis will be saying to the ancient Roman–“Tell her!! Tell her!!”’

Nan had no doubt that Lewis would be in heaven, and she roared with laughter at the thought of Statius waiting there to rebuke her. Perhaps such thoughts gave her comfort when she confronted her own death.

The two had grown quite close. “Everyone would agree that Nan Dunbar–with her erudition, her common sense, her Christian faith, her lively conversation–would have been the ideal daughter for Lewis. Indeed, years later, in his letter of 18 November 1963, he spoke of her as ‘the liveliest and learnedest of my daughters.’” (Collected Letters).

Their Discussion about Bad Writers

Diplomas are not required for people to criticize books and writers. Wherever readers gather it is possible to find discussions about favorite, and least favorite writers.

Some literary reputations are so notorious they have awards devoted to them. Each year, for example, The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest draws thousands of entrants. Their motto is quite inviting: “Where WWW Means ‘Wretched Writers Welcome’”

The event honors the great author whose opening line in 1830 also enriches every story ever begun by Charles Schulz’ canine novelist Snoopy.

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. (Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford)

It is unknown whether B-L’s name arose in the following conversation, but we do find references to two other “notorious” writers.

Dunbar met Lewis for the first time at a dinner in Girton College, probably on 25 January 1956. On finally meeting his critic, Lewis said: “Ah! Miss Dunbar! I’m glad to find you actually exist–I’d thought perhaps you were only the personification of my conscience!”

Lewis was charmed by this delightful Scottish woman, whose wonderful talk and Glaswegian accent made one think she had stepped out of a novel by Sir Walter Scott.

Dunbar remembered that over dinner she talked to Lewis about the Scottish writer William McGonagall (1825–1902), said to be the world’s worst poet, while Lewis introduced her to the Irish novelist Amanda McKittrick Ros (1860–1939), known as the world’s worst novelist. (Collected Letters).

If you care to read anything written by the writers Lewis and Dunbar mentioned in their dinner conversation, refer to the links below. While on its surface their repartee may appear uncharitable, it was certainly not intended to be.

After all, if our own writing brings some measure of joy and entertainment to others, most writers would welcome that. Similarly, to have one’s name associated in history with truly talented writers (even in such an unflattering manner) is by far preferable to the anonymity which is the swift destiny of all but a few.

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To learn more about McGonagall and Ros, you may wish to download the following free volumes: 

“He was not a poet at all, and that he has become synonymous with bad poetry in Scotland is only a natural consequence of Scottish insensitivity to the qualities alike of good poetry and of bad.” (Scottish Eccentrics)

“Sympathise with me, indeed! Ah, no! Cast your sympathy on the chill waves of troubled waters; fling it on the oases of futurity; dash it against the rock of gossip; or, better still, allow it to remain within the false and faithless bosom of buried scorn. Such were a few remarks of Irene as she paced the beach of limited freedom, alone and unprotected.” (Irene Iddesleigh by Amanda McKittrick Ros)

 

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In this increasingly relativistic cauldron we call “the world,” chaos is fueled by the concept that everyone is entitled to determine their own reality.

It all depends on one’s perspective.

“Perception is reality,” is a common sentiment. More clearly said, “an individual’s perception is their personal reality.” In other words, the way that a person thinks things are, is reality as far as they are concerned.

Changing a person’s perception of reality is no easy thing. Nor should it be (in most cases).

People base their thinking on a variety of approaches. Those who are more analytical are terribly frustrated by others who base their views of reality on their emotions, or what they “want” to be true.

Nowhere do I find this more striking then when people who have nary a religious thought in their daily lives gather together for a funeral. At least 66% of what one hears, for example “he’s looking down on us now,” is based on nothing other than wishful thinking or irrational notions.

C.S. Lewis described how reason is the crucial mechanism for understanding. In his book Miracles, he makes the following argument.

All possible knowledge, then, depends on the validity of reasoning. If the feeling of certainty which we express by words like must be and therefore and since is a real perception of how things outside our own minds really “must” be, well and good.

But if this certainty is merely a feeling in our own minds and not a genuine insight into realities beyond them—if it merely represents the way our minds happen to work—then we can have no knowledge. Unless human reasoning is valid no science can be true.

Mental Illness and Perception

One particularly fascinating aspect of the perception and reality question comes in the case of some mentally ill individuals. Schizophrenia, for instance, frequently involves delusions or hallucinations that are indistinguishable from reality (in the mind of the sufferer).

A well person may find it implausible to accept that a person could genuinely believe impossible things were true. Meanwhile, from the perspective of the deluded, it may make all the sense in the world that they are the only person alive who recognizes how things truly are.

Decades ago I spent several months in a psychiatric ward. (Not as a patient, as a clinical pastoral education student.) I had many conversations with a delightful resident who had been institutionalized because he was utterly convinced that he was one of Jesus’ apostles.

Thanks to the proper medications, he knew that to be illusory, and he was optimistic that he would soon be released to begin his studies to become a mental health worker. One reason for his confidence that he was truly getting better was because his previous hospitalization came when he became certain that he was one of the Old Testament patriarchs.

From his point of view, the increasing chronological proximity between his delusions and reality indicated he was almost well.

Some of these people do become healthy enough to recognize that their perception of reality is askew. These are the few who continue to take their meds so they can function as the majority of us perceive to be “normal.”

Many psychotic individuals, of course, only take their prescriptions under duress and when they are not monitored, cease to take them because they either (1) already feel better, so they obviously don’t need them, or (2) prefer chaos to the side effects such as lethargy.

Truth is Not Based on Perspective

Truth, in the ultimate or alethiological sense, is not relative. It doesn’t shift due to the distortions of individual perception. It remains the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Now, since what we human beings regard as truth does shift (e.g. shape of the Earth), ultimate truth must come from a source other than mortal minds, transient philosophies or momentary scientific theories.

Christians believe they have found that source in God’s self-revelation, the Judeo Christian Scriptures. In fact, Christians believe that their Savior, Jesus the Messiah, was the embodiment of truth. We believe he was speaking the eternal truth when he said “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

C.S. Lewis was quite candid about the truthfulness of the scriptural testimony being the necessary cornerstone for faith. In dialogue with atheists and agnostics, he wisely points out that the conversation must address this essential question.

One of the great difficulties is to keep before the audience’s mind the question of Truth. They always think you are recommending Christianity not because it is true but because it is good. . . .

One must keep on pointing out that Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important. (“Christian Apologetics”)

In a world that wants to relegate Jesus to the status of some great teacher or prophet, it is vital to say that if he was lying when he said “the Father and I are one,” Christianity should be dismissed altogether.

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For those who enjoy challenges:

hand shadows

presence

Have you read The Practice of the Presence of God? Between the world wars, C.S. Lewis pondered this devotional collection written in the 1600s.

Lewis was rather disappointed during his initial reading, but he apparently grew in his respect for the slim volume. He read it in 1930, the year prior to his becoming a communing member of the local Anglican church. His body rests in its cemetery today.

In a letter to his closest friend, Arthur Greeves, Lewis describes his impression of the work. It is impressive to note how he acknowledges that his own “mood” may have influenced his reception.

In reading I have of course little to record, and never shall have much in term time. I read in two evenings a little book that came from Leeborough called The Practice of the Presence of God which I picked up & put in the study when I was there last because it seemed to me a promising title. It is by a seventeenth century monk.

It is full of truth but somehow I didn’t like it: it seemed to me a little unctuous. That sort of stuff, when it is not splendid beyond words, is terribly repulsive, or can be, can’t it?

No doubt it depends very largely on one’s mood. I had just finished the fourth Gospel in Greek (as I think you know) before you came, and after that most other things are a come down. Not that I liked that in all respects either.

It’s fascinating that Lewis acknowledges that his reading of the humble kitchen monk and sandal-maker followed in the wake of his reading of The Gospel according to John, in the Greek. This must rank near the top of Lewis’ greatest understatements: “and after that most other things are a come down.” (Who among us would ever desire for even our finest writing to be compared to John’s inspired Gospel?)

Lewis was not dismissive of the seventeenth century work. As late as 1956, the two friends discussed the volume in their correspondence. That year Lewis wrote “Yes, Bro. Lawrence is of course right” in response to an unpreserved observation made by Greeves.

Christianity Today offers a brief account of the Frenchman’s life here. It describes a pivotal point in the life of the man who would become a soldier, and then a monk.

Born Nicolas Herman in 1614 in a small village in Lorraine, France, he had a soul-altering experience at 18. That winter, while looking at a leafless tree, he marveled that its barrenness would soon turn green again, flower, and bear fruit. This insight made him intimately aware of God’s love from then on.

The Soul of C.S. Lewis describes one example of the similarities shared by the Oxford professor and the French monk whose work he described as “full of truth.”

One of Brother Lawrence’s secrets was in realizing what Lewis would one day also discover: that every activity can be either religious or irreligious. The difference is in our minds and hearts.

Obviously, The Practice of the Presence of God is now in the public domain (since its author died in 1691). There is no excuse to ignore this Christian devotional classic which has long been appreciated by many Protestants, as well as Lawrence’s fellow Roman Catholics. You can download it in several formats here or obtain a (currently) free kindle version from Amazon.

Lewis Quotes Brother Lawrence

Although the following excerpt lacks sufficient context to make a great deal of sense, it is worth noting the following from That Hideous Strength, the final volume in Lewis’ space trilogy. It reveals that the wisdom of the uneducated monk remained with Lewis, even as he wrote his own religious treasures.

In the book, Dr. Dimble is a good-willed academic who Lewis uses to interpose some of his personal thoughts.

Dr. Dimble drove out to St. Anne’s dissatisfied with himself, haunted with the suspicion that if he had been wiser, or more perfectly in charity with this very miserable young man, he might have done something for him. “Did I give way to my temper? Was I self-righteous? Did I tell him as much as I dared?” he thought.

Then came the deeper self-distrust that was habitual with him. “Did you fail to make things clear because you really wanted not to? Just wanted to hurt and humiliate? To enjoy your own self-righteousness . . ?” The sadness that came over him had novelty in it. “And thus,” he quoted from Brother Lawrence, “thus I shall always do, whenever You leave me to myself.”

This intriguing passage suggests that Brother Lawrence’s thoughts continued to inspire Lewis . . . long after his initial exposure to them. Here the fictional professor nearly succumbs to his self-doubt before he reminds himself that this is a common result of introspection that ignores the love and presence of God.

If you have not yet decided to read, or reread, The Practice of the Presence of God, perhaps one of these excerpts will inspire you to do so.

“We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.”

“There is not in the world a kind of life more sweet and delightful, than that of a continual conversation with God; those only can comprehend it who practice and experience it.”

“That we should establish ourselves in a sense of God’s Presence, by continually conversing with Him. That it was a shameful thing to quit His conversation, to think of trifles and fooleries.”

“We must know before we can love. In order to know God, we must often think of Him; and when we come to love Him, we shall then also think of Him often, for our heart will be with our treasure.”

capital key

Today’s lesson will be . . . wait a second, we don’t post “lessons” here at Mere Inkling. We hope many of our columns are thought-provoking, and it would be nice to think a moderate share of them are entertaining.

However, if there’s any learning to be done, it’s incidental.

This post, though, verges on being educational. It addresses a subject readers and writers encounter every day. A subject about which there is frequent disagreement.

The question of which words should be capitalized is a major inspiration for writing Style Guides. (Oh no, I probably shouldn’t have capitalized that genre title.)

I am not alluding here to the style guides that major companies invest big bucks in designing to present their preferred image to the world. You can see some stunning examples of those here.

I’m interested in literary style guides. If you’ve ever written for publication, you’re likely familiar with the type of single sheet guidelines magazines create for prospective writers. The last thing you want, after wetting the manuscript’s pages with sweat and tears, is to have it discarded without review because you violated some editor’s pet peeves.

A standard stylebook that was required knowledge back in my college Journalism* days is the AP Stylebook. AP, of course, stands for “Associated Press.” And, where would the world of Academia be without the Chicago Manual of Style?

An even older stylebook that continues to play an important role is The Elements of Style written by William Strunk, Jr. Modern editions are attributed to “Strunk and White,” since it was revised and enlarged in 1959 by E.B. White. (Yes, that E.B. White, who authored Charlotte’s Web and other children’s classics.)

You can download a free copy of The Elements of Style at the Internet Archives, but it might be a tad risky to rely on the style described in Strunk’s first edition, since it was penned during the First World War.

It should be noted that not everyone is quite as enamored with the book as Mr. and Mrs. William Strunk, Sr. probably were. The author of one particularly haughty essay alleges that “the book’s contempt for its own grammatical dictates seems almost willful, as if the authors were flaunting the fact that the rules don’t apply to them.”

Christians & Capitalization

Religious writers vary in their capitalization of particular words. This variation crosses faith boundaries and is sometimes referred to as “reverential capitalization.”

The most obvious example in English literature is the question of whether or not the divine pronoun should be capitalized. This issue is encountered when a pronoun refers to God. The New American Standard Bible translation, for example, follows the traditional practice.

Seek the Lord and His strength; Seek His face continually. Remember His wonders which He has done, His marvels and the judgments uttered by His mouth . . . (Psalm 105:4-5)

My own practice of not capitalizing divine pronouns has occasionally scandalized members of critique groups to which I have belonged.*** A very few appear incapable of recognizing it’s a grammatical consideration, rather than a spiritual one. (Sadly, this sort of reaction often presages an individual’s departure from the writing support community, even when they are precisely the type of person who could best benefit from joining in.)

It should come as no surprise to learn that C.S. Lewis capitalized divine pronouns. Typical of his writing is this profound excerpt from Weight of Glory.

I read in a periodical the other day that the fundamental thing is how we think of God. By God Himself, it is not! How God thinks of us is not only more important, but infinitely more important.

Indeed, how we think of Him is of no importance except insofar as it is related to how He thinks of us. It is written that we shall “stand before” Him, shall appear, shall be inspected. The promise of glory is the promise, almost incredible and only possible by the work of Christ, that some of us, that any of us who really chooses, shall actually survive that examination, shall find approval, shall please God.

To please God… to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness… to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a son—it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is.

The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style acknowledges that “The capitalization of pronouns referring to persons of the Trinity has been a matter of debate for many decades.” They go so far as to state that doing so can impede our ability to communicate with “modern readers.”

Because capitalizing the deity pronoun, as well as a vast number of other religious terms, was the predominant style in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century publishing, it gives a book, at best, a dated, Victorian feel, and at worst, an aura of complete irrelevance to modern readers.

Capitonyms are a subgroup of homonyms. Their meaning changes on the basis of whether or not they are capitalized. A simple example would be distinguishing between a farmer’s concern for the quality of the earth in his fields and his regard for the planet on which he resides. Speaking of the Earth, we talk about the moons circling Jupiter, but all recognize that the Moon is the satellite that orbits 1.28 light-seconds above the surface of our planet.

In some Christian traditions, certain doctrines and events are capitalized while the very same words are not capitalized in a different sense. For example, many Christians would consider the following sentence correct.

It was the Resurrection of the only begotten Son of God that prepares the way for the resurrection of all those who take up their own cross and follow him.

The obvious difference is that the first use of the word refers to the singular miraculous event that transpired on Easter, while the latter points to its generalized definition.

In my most recent post I referred to the Gospels, as a genre unique to the writings about the life and significance of Jesus of Nazareth. As literary works, individually or collectively, the Gospels are capitalized, even when they do not include their full title [e.g. the Gospel According to Luke]. Most writers do not, however, capitalize gospel when used in a general sense, such as “every modern-day guru claims to possess a gospel of their own.” Just to make matters more interesting, some traditions capitalize Gospel when it refers to God’s love as embodied in the sacrificial death of Christ for the forgiveness of humanity’s sin.

One witty blogger chides the Church*** for over-capitalization.

I may just be cynical, and I’m definitely a literary snob, but it seems sometimes as though American Christians capitalize words related to Christianity just to make them seem holier.

For example, hymns and worship songs never refer to God and his mercy. It’s evidently more holy to capitalize the divine pronoun and refer to God and His mercy.

And if we capitalize mercy, which is a divine attribute, it makes the hymn or worship song even holier. I mean, God and His Mercy is clearly holier than God and his mercy, isn’t it?

So sermons are full of Grace, Goodness, Predestination, Prophecy, Agape, Apostles, Epistles, Pre-Millennialism, Mid-Millennialism, Post-Millennialism and the Millennium Falcon. All right, maybe not that last one.

Additional Insights from Lewis

One online writer offers a curious contrast between Lewis and e.e. cummings.

The writers who taught me the exponential value of capitalization: C.S Lewis and e.e. cummings. You know the rules of capitalization . . . Lewis and Cummings allow the capital letter to go deeper in its responsibility in communicating to the reader. . . .

For Lewis, capitalization often serves as a signpost of spiritual realities. He uses it to name a reality [as in The Screwtape Letters:] “We of course see the connecting link, which is Hatred.”

The most disorienting example of capitalization by Screwtape is his reference to God as the “Enemy.” It is a startling reversal of the true enemy, whose various names are commonly capitalized: Lucifer, Satan, Adversary, the Beast, Father of Lies and Evil One. Not to mention devils, which is sometimes used to refer to evil spirits (also known as demons or fallen angels), in contrast to the Devil himself who is also known by the aforementioned titles.

With so many alternatives when it comes to capitalization, the key is to follow the example of C.S. Lewis. It’s two-fold. First, have a reason why you select the option you do. Then, be consistent. Most readers readily adapt to different usages. What they can’t forgive, is inconsistency and literary chaos.

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* “Journalism” is capitalized here because it refers specifically to an academic college and degree program in many universities.

** The conservative Lutheran denomination to which I belong includes in its Stylebook for Authors and Editors the following guidance.

Gospel   Uppercase when referring to the Gospel message of salvation in Jesus Christ. Also uppercase when referring to one of the four New Testament Gospels.

The second rule indicates that one would use lowercase to refer to pseudepigraphical or heretical gospels. However, if the entire title of the text is used—precisely because it is a text, it would be capitalized (e.g. the Gospel of Thomas).

*** My wife occasionally finds time in her hectic schedule to proofread my posts before publication. (These would be the ones that appear without mistakes.) Well, Delores kindly pointed out just now that she too is scandalized by my irreverent failure to capitalize divine pronouns. After forty years of mostly-blissful marriage you would think she might have overlooked saying that… but, then again, when they’re truly scandalized how could someone be expected to remain silent?

**** I prefer to capitalize “Church” when it refers to the whole Body of Christ, but not when it references a congregation, denomination or a building . . . unless it’s part of a formal name such as the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem.

P52_recto

True or False? The Bible is so simple to understand that studying how to read it is just a waste of time.

Obviously, the answer to that question is a resounding “False.” While some might argue with me, every serious student of the Scriptures knows that probing its depths requires a variety of skills beyond simple faith.

Well, “simple faith” actually is essential for understanding God’s word, but it requires more than simply possessing faith to comprehend its meaning. If that were not true, then everyone being trained in seminaries and colleges to help others explore God’s word are wasting their time.

Exegesis—the focused study of biblical texts—is a core subject for Bible students. It goes deeper than secular “Bible as Literature” courses, and strives to interpret each passage as faithfully as possible. After all, Christians believe these words are inspired.

In 1952 C.S. Lewis wrote a letter in which he noted the value of knowledgeable instructors in understanding the Bible.

It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers, will bring us to Him.

Bible Study Magazine had an exceptionally good issue several months ago. They provide online access to some of their articles, but sadly, not to the essay I wish to cite. It was written by Karen Jobes, a retired professor of “New Testament and Exegesis” from Wheaton College and Graduate School. She writes:

Different cultures’ writings function in particular ways and settings, and a given literary genre is signaled by textual clues—stock phrases or forms recognizable to anyone familiar with the literature of a given culture.

Jobes begins her article with an example. “Imagine you’re sitting down to read . . . The book in your hands begins, ‘Once upon a time.’” Western readers would know immediately what to anticipate in the pages that follow.

Then she raises a curious question. “Now imagine you’re a student taking a physics course. If your textbook began, ‘Once upon a time,’ you’d no doubt be confused by the phrase and wonder how you should understand it in a scientific context.”

Her article discusses the importance of properly recognizing the genre of what we are reading. This is a concept quite familiar to most readers of Mere Inkling. But what is unfamiliar to many, who have not had opportunity to study biblical exegesis, are the genres and guiding principles employed by Old and New Testament writers.

Reading the Gospels

In two brief pages, Dr. Jobes explains a fundamental principle that we spent weeks discussing in my seminary courses. Knowing the genre of the biblical text is the key to understanding it. Let’s look at the Gospels.

Mark . . . identifies his text as evangelion (“good news,” Mark 1:1), picking up the term Jesus himself used to describe his message (Mark 1:15). The early church came to refer to all four accounts of Jesus’ life using the same term, which survives today in English as “gospel,” a literary genre unique to accounts about Jesus.

The author points out a similarity between the Gospels and “an ancient Greek genre called bioi (“lives”). Rather than provide a day-by-day journal, these “biographies” focus on what is truly important in the perception of the writer.* John offers the prime Christian example of this, in devoting nearly forty percent of his Gospel to the final ten days of Jesus’ life.

C.S. Lewis’ Rules for Exegesis

Hundreds of people sought advice from the Oxford professor. Many asked questions about various Bible passages and religious doctrines. Lewis did his best to point them in the right direction, all the while explaining that he was not a trained theologian.

Within his letters, we find examples of his advice about how to understand the meaning of the Scriptures. “I take it as a first principle that we must not interpret any one part of Scripture so that it contradicts other parts, and specially we must not use an apostle’s teaching to contradict that of Our Lord.” He also wrote:

The two things one must not do are (a) to believe on the strength of Scripture or on any other evidence that God is in any way evil (In Him is no darkness at all) (b) to wipe off the slate any passage which seems to show that He is.

Behind the shocking passage be sure there lurks some great truth which you don’t understand. If one ever does come to understand it, one sees that it is good and just and gracious in ways we never dreamed of. Till then it must just be left on one side.

But why are baffling passages left in at all? Oh, because God speaks not only for us little ones but for the great sages and mystics who experience what we can only read about, and to whom all the words have therefore different (richer) contents.

Would not a revelation which contained nothing that you and I did not understand, be for that very reason rather suspect? To a child it would seem a contradiction to say both that his parents made him and God made him, yet we see how both can be true.

We began with a question, so it’s fitting to end with one.

True or False? Understanding the Bible is so challenging that we should postpone reading it until we become experts at exegesis?

The answer to this question is as obvious as the one with which we began. Don’t delay reading the Scriptures. Immerse yourself in God’s word. But, if you long to know them better, invest some time in learning how to best understand their full meaning.

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* In his biographical collection entitled Parallel Lives, the Greek philosopher and historian Plutarch (c. 46 – c. 122) expressly described the bioi genre.

In writing the Lives of Alexander the Great and of Cæsar the conqueror of Pompeius, which are contained in this book, I have before me such an abundance of materials, that I shall make no other preface than to beg the reader, if he finds any of their famous exploits recorded imperfectly, and with large excisions, not to regard this as a fault.

I am writing biography, not history; and often a man’s most brilliant actions prove nothing as to his true character, while some trifling incident, some casual remark or jest, will throw more light upon what manner of man he was than the bloodiest battle, the greatest array of armies, or the most important siege.

Therefore, just as portrait painters pay most attention to those peculiarities of the face and eyes, in which the likeness consists, and care but little for the rest of the figure, so it is my duty to dwell especially upon those actions which reveal the workings of my heroes’ minds, and from these to construct the portraits of their respective lives, leaving their battles and their great deeds to be recorded by others.

The parchment shown above is the earliest copy of the Gospel According to John. Included on the recto (front) are John 18:32-33.

book head

Would C.S. Lewis have embraced digital books if he had lived to see them? Or, would the Oxford and Cambridge scholar have deemed them an abomination?

Posing questions like this—about how prominent historical figures would have regarded technologies invented after they died—relies on conjecture. In most cases, one can only “assume” the likeliest answer.

A recent essay entitled “The Screen and the Book” sounds like something C.S. Lewis could have written about the encroachment of digital media on the domain formerly commanded by print.

The contention of the author is that:

Books are solid. This is at once a physical description and a metaphysical one, and it is on this metaphysical solidity that we ought to ground our loyalty to the book over and against the allure of the ever-changing screen.

When it comes to the notion of Lewis comparing heavily loaded bookshelves to a text laden hard drive, there is absolutely no question which he would prefer.

As Lewis declared in one essay, “an unliterary man may be defined as one who reads books once only.” (“On Stories”)

Lewis would without any doubt have despised the way ebooks have been displacing “real” books.

Lewis’ affection for modern and ancient codices enshrining the written word is legendary. In fact, one cannot possibly navigate the internet without repeatedly crashing into this single quotation: “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”

One could fill volumes with Lewis’ comments about books. And that’s not simply because he was an astute literary critic. The simple truth is that C.S. Lewis loved books. A few less familiar quotations follow.

Some Bookish Thoughts Penned by C.S. Lewis

Lewis expressed his affection for devotional literature in a 1930 letter to Arthur Greeves.

All private reading has ceased, except for 20 minutes before bed (if alone) when I drink a cup of cocoa and try to wash the day off with MacDonald’s Diary of an Old Soul.

I shall soon have finished it and must look round for another book. Luckily the world is full of books of that general type: that is another of the beauties of coming, I won’t say, to religion but to an attempt at religion—one finds oneself on the main road with all humanity, and can compare notes with an endless succession of previous travellers. It is emphatically coming home: as Chaucer says “Returneth home from worldly vanitee.”

Books are vital to the preservation of what is good.

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. (“On the Reading of Old Books”)

Lewis describes classical education’s focus on the ancients, and the natural affection readers had for poetic works they encountered on their own.

The great authors of the past wrote to entertain the leisure of their adult contemporaries, and a man who cared for literature needed no spur and expected no good conduct marks for sitting down to the food provided for him. Boys at school were taught to read Latin and Greek poetry by the birch, and discovered the English poets as accidentally and naturally as they now discover the local cinema.

Most of my own generation, and many, I hope, of yours, tumbled into literature in that fashion. . . . Shall we be thought immodest if we claim that most of the books we loved from the first were good books and our earliest loves are still unrepented? (“High Brows and Low Brows”)

In the following letter from 1953, Lewis praises existing volumes on the subject of prayer and explains his hope for Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer.

I invite your prayers about a work which I now have in hand. I am trying to write a book about private prayers for the use of the laity, especially for those who have been recently converted to the Christian faith and so far are without any sustained and regular habit of prayer.

I tackled the job because I saw many no doubt very beautiful books written on this subject of prayer for the religious but few which instruct tiros and those still babes (so to say) in the Faith. I find many difficulties nor do I definitely know whether God wishes me to complete this task or not.

In his essay “George Orwell,” Lewis relates his strong preference for Animal Farm over 1984. In addition to being prescient, he refers in a creative manner to his appetite for good books.

What puzzles me is the marked preference of the public for 1984 [over Animal Farm]. For it seems to me (apart from its magnificent, and fortunately detachable, Appendix on “Newspeak”) to be merely a flawed, interesting book; but the Farm is a work of genius which may well outlive the particular and (let us hope) temporary conditions that provoked it.

To begin with, it is very much the shorter of the two. This in itself would not, of course, show it to be the better. I am the last person to think so. . . .

My appetite is hearty and when I sit down to read I like a square meal. But in this instance the shorter book seems to do all that the longer one does; and more. The longer book does not justify its greater length. There is dead wood in it.

In 1928 Lewis mentioned a project that would have made fascinating reading if he had pursued it. He describes how an engaging volume can capture our attention in such a way that it leads us on a continuing quest of literary exploration.

My studies in the XVIth century—you will remember my idea of a book about Erasmus—have carried me much further back than I anticipated. Indeed it is the curse and the fascination of literary history that there are no real beginnings.

Take what point you will for the start of some new chapter in the mind and imaginations of man, and you will invariably find that it has always begun a bit earlier; or rather, it branches so imperceptibly out of something else that you are forced to go back to the something else. The only satisfactory opening for any study is the first chapter of Genesis.

Did Lewis Write the Following?

I’ll tell you the answer up front. No, he didn’t. But to my ear it sounds like it could easily have come from his lips.

In actuality, it is the closing statement of the essay referred to above. And, since it so clearly echoes the sentiments of C.S. Lewis, I deemed it fitting to close with it.

If you want to destroy a child’s love for learning, get rid of books. Serve him Plato from a PDF and E.B. White from an e-reader. Banish from his formative years any experience of objects that incarnate immaterial thought.

Remove the impractical, antiquated book in all its stubborn solidity, and encourage the child to dive into the flux wherein everything could be otherwise.

If we do this absolutely, if we ensure that not even the rumor of books reaches our rising generation, we will create a new man for the digital age: a puddle of disconnected thoughts pretending to have a head.

arctic hares

Does it bother you to encounter an unfamiliar word when you are reading? How about in conversation?

I’m one of those people who enjoy using uncommon words. I savor conversations where people naturally incorporate words one rarely hears. I rejoice when I encounter a new word that precisely describes some elusive essence that formerly required a paragraph to explain.

I can illustrate that final comment—welcoming words that define hard to describe nuances—with a couple of examples. Angst and ephemeral were the first two such words that came to my mind just now, and momentarily I will offer passages in which C.S. Lewis uses each of them.

One is “angst.” It’s more than worry. It’s darker than anxiety. It conveys in many cases an air of foreboding. We can thank the Germans for angst (the word, not the dread itself).

Another too seldom used word would be “ephemeral.” In essence it means temporary or transitory. But it often conveys a sense of loss, of the passing of something before its due time. It suggests the dissolution of something we would wish to examine in greater detail. Ephemeral suggests something far more emotionally weighty than its original Greek, which translates into “lasting only a day.”

Narrowly defined or focused words, are like a sort of communication shorthand. They are useful for getting messages across more rapidly, and with greater accuracy. For example, it would be of little value for one Inuit to describe a location to another by saying it was covered with “snow.” If they intend to travel there, it would be beneficial to know in advance what kind of snow to anticipate.

Due to this unforgiving environment, the Inuktitut (the dialect spoken in the eastern part of the Canadian arctic) have a score of different words referring to snow and ice. This fascinating article addresses the subject and illustrates how this word group is supplemented by additional words which, when used in a winter context, mean a particular type of snow.

In Nunavik, for instance, it is possible to call maujaq the snow in which one sinks. This is a general term that refers to any type of soft ground (mud, wetland, quicksand) but which, in winter, can only apply to a soft snow cover where the foot sinks.

In the same way, the word illusaq (“what can become a house”) refers to any construction material (wood, stone, brick, etc.), but when an igloo is built, it applies precisely to snow that is rigid and maneuverable enough for erecting a semi-spherical house made of snow blocks.

While the native peoples of the Arctic possess many words for atmospheric water vapor that has been frozen into ice crystals, there are not quite one hundred, as some have parodied.

On the other end of the geographic spectrum, there are many human beings who will never in their entire lives see snow. Think non-mountainous equatorial settings that escaped even the Ice Age. For them, a single word is probably sufficient for the theoretically existent snow, and only one word required for the precious commodity ice, which is most frequently encountered in the shape of a cube.

I am not a skier, so I claim no philological expertise on snow slang where I live in Washington State. The snow we enjoy near Hood Canal comes and goes in a couple of days, several times each winter. Perfect for sledding or building snowpeople with the grandkids. Yet even here we readily recognize several types of snow. Wet snow makes deadly spheres for snowball wars. Powder is less suitable as a construction material, but it offers a slippery track for racing downhill sledding. Packed snow transforms into ice, and makes driving hazardous. Slush is, well . . . slushy.

Not All Words are Worthy of Inclusion

One simple way to expand our vocabulary is by subscribing to a “Word of the Day” service. More often than not, I already know the day’s offering, but occasionally it’s pleasant to be reminded of such things.

Then there are those words that are so peculiar or restrictive that we can’t consciously conceive of using them. Such was a word I received this week: “appurtenance.” I applaud you if you know it. I commiserate with your friends if you employ it.

One of appurtenance’s synonyms is “paraphernalia.” That was a fine word in and of itself, until it because too strongly associated with illegal narcotics. I guess if I elect not to use “appurtenance,” and regard “paraphernalia” as contaminated, I’ll simply need to retreat to the fallback word of my youth, “stuff.”

Today’s word was even less useful. “Sternutation” is the involuntary expulsion of air through the nose. Might be good for a bunch of junior high school boys, but I don’t think I’ll file it away for my next novel.

C.S. Lewis’ Use of Precise Prose

The best, and most gratifying way to expand our vocabularies is by reading. I never resent reading a great book or stimulating essay that sends me to my dictionary.

As I promised, I am including examples of Lewis’ use of the words I had randomly selected to illustrate my point above. As a bonus, I’m including two examples of ephemeral, reflecting both senses of the word’s meaning.

From C.S. Lewis’ essay “Sir Walter Scott” which appears in Selected Literary Essays:

For the whole of that Gurnal, indeed, we might borrow a title from an author whom Scott himself fully appreciated, and call it ‘Sense and Sensibility’. The sense, I presume, is obvious enough. We see it, first and foremost, in his cool and moderate estimate of his own literary powers; a modesty almost (one would have thought) impossible in one whose reputation had filled Europe and been blown up until he was put above Goethe and almost equalled with Shakespeare. Yet it is not mere self-depreciation.

Though never deceived about his weaknesses, he knows his real strength too; the “hurried frankness of composition which pleases soldiers, sailors, and young people of bold and active disposition.” He recognizes, in his own way, the quality of what a more pretentious writer would call “inspiration:”—“I shall get warm as I work”— the morning, fresh from the labours of subconscious artistry, is musis amica. We see it also in his unchanging, cheerfully unemphatic, contempt for ‘the imaginary consequence of literary triflers’ and the ‘affectations of literature . . .”

But we should do Scott little service with some modern critics by insisting exclusively on his sense; for there is a widespread opinion that genius is never free from neurosis, and unless we can find Angst in an author’s soul he will hardly be taken seriously. Well, if we demand Angst, Scott can supply that, too. He confesses to “idle fears, gloomy thoughts” (1826); to “A thick throbbing at my heart . . . fancies thronging on me . . . a disposition . . . to think on things melancholy and horrible.” (1827).

Ephemeral as brief, in a 1959 letter where Lewis rejects the proposed title for one of his volumes:

Dear Mac, Thanks for your letter of the 18th. I don’t care for Dangers of Belief. I would like The World’s Last Night and other Essays. The and other essays would appear on the title page only—not on spine, back, or jacket. For No. IV I should prefer Good Work and Good Works. As soon as I can get it typed I shall send you a long correction for Lilies that Fester. . . .

It will replace the bit which in the Twentieth Century article begins ‘About Culture as’ (para 3, p 332) and ends ‘to extraneous ends,’ (para 2, l. 3, p. 334). This is necessary because E. M. Forster has said in print that he really meant the alternative ‘b’ which I offered him in a footnote to p 333.113.

Most of the passage I want to alter is therefore now irrelevant. And anyway I think that what I want to substitute for it is better and of less ephemeral interest. O.K.?

In the final volume of his space (cosmic) trilogy, That Hideous Strength, Lewis refers to celestial spiritual forces. Some of them are associated with stars and planets. The Oyéresu (unfallen angelic rulers) who serve God, their Creator. If you are unfamiliar with the book, don’t try to understand the meaning of what follows. Simply allow the power of Lewis’ narrative to paint an imposing scene.

[The freezing temperature evoked a progression of thoughts]: of stiff grass, hen roosts, dark places in the middle of woods, graves. Then of the sun’s dying, the Earth gripped, suffocated, in airless cold, the black sky lit only with stars. And then, not even stars: the heat death of the universe, utter and final blackness of nonentity from which Nature knows no return. . . .

Saturn, whose name in the heavens is Lurga, stood in the Blue Room. His spirit lay upon the house, or even on the whole Earth, with a cold pressure such as might flatten the very orb of Tellus to a wafer. Matched against the lead-like burden of his antiquity the other gods themselves perhaps felt young and ephemeral.

It was a mountain of centuries sloping up from the highest antiquity we can conceive, up and up like a mountain whose summit never comes into sight, not to eternity where the thought can rest, but into more and still more time, into freezing wastes and silence of unnameable numbers.

It was also strong like a mountain; its age was no mere morass of time where imagination can sink in reverie, but a living, self-remembering duration which repelled lighter intelligences from its structure as granite flings back waves, itself unwithered and undecayed but able to wither any who approach it unadvised.

Reading Lewis is an education in many things. Many years after his death he continues to teach receptive minds about writing, creativity, communication, rational thinking, Christian living, and so very much more.

If you are curious about an author who actually contributed to C.S. Lewis’ own vocabulary, check out this column.