Archives For Theological Matters

shakespearean-suicideAre all who commit suicide damned? Some would claim this is true. I, however, agree with Martin Luther and C.S. Lewis that God’s mercy is capable of rescuing even these. Suicide invariably leaves in its wake more sorrow than it heals.

Even the irreligious Mark Twain recognized this. In 1889 he wrote to a friend: “I do see that there is an argument against suicide: the grief of the worshipers left behind, the awful famine in their hearts, these are too costly terms for the release.”

I share with Lewis and Luther the belief that suicide can be forgiven. Our position is based on our personal understanding of the counsel in God’s word, as viewed through the lens of the Incarnate Word himself. As a personal conviction, not based on clear biblical guidance yea or nay, it is not a concept that should be formally taught.

There a second reason why this interpretation should not be actively promoted. It may encourage the premature ending of human life. The fact is that many, perhaps most, people contemplate suicide at some point in their life. But nearly all choose instead to live—some because of their fear of damnation. Prevented from killing themselves due to this fear, the critical moment passes, and they learn suicidal impulses are a transitory curse. Some seek help from others, which is even better.

In other words, when people are especially vulnerable to such thoughts, the last thing they need to hear is that suicide offers a ticket from the trials of this life to the bliss of heaven. On the contrary, if they can be discouraged from choosing the irreversible course during these moments of deep confusion and suffering, they can survive to experience restoration and renewed hope.

Many potential suicides press on and end up living lives filled with joy, contentment and meaning.

Martin Luther put it this way.

I don’t share the opinion that suicides are certainly to be damned. My reason is that they do not wish to kill themselves but are overcome by the power of the devil.

They are like a man who is murdered in the woods by a robber.

However, this ought not be taught to the common people, lest Satan be given an opportunity to cause slaughter, and I recommend that the popular custom be strictly adhered to according to which it [the suicide’s corpse] is not carried over the threshold, etc.

Such persons do not die by free choice or by law, but our Lord God will dispatch them as he executes a person through a robber. Magistrates should treat them quite strictly, although it is not plain that their souls are damned.

However, they are examples by which our Lord God wishes to show that the devil is powerful and also that we should be diligent in prayer. But for these examples, we would not fear God. Hence he must teach us in this way.

C.S. Lewis understood this dilemma as well. In a 1955 letter to Sheldon Vanauken, who had lost his wife and was drowning in grief, Lewis even appealed to the church’s traditional teaching on the subject to quash in advance any contemplation of suicide.

[Jean] was further on [more spiritually mature] than you, and she can help you more where she now is than she could have done on earth. You must go on.

That is one of the many reasons why suicide is out of the question. (Another is the absence of any ground for believing that death by that route would reunite you with her. Why should it? You might be digging an eternally unbridgeable chasm. Disobedience is not the way to get nearer to the obedient.)

There’s no other man, in such affliction as yours, to whom I’d dare write so plainly. And that, if you can believe me, is the strongest proof of my belief in you and love for you. To fools and weaklings one writes soft things.

In our world, which appears to value life less each day, Lewis proclaimed the mere Christian commitment to the value of every life. Historian Richard Weikart addresses this in “C.S. Lewis and the Death of Humanity, or Heeding C.S. Lewis’s Warnings against Dehumanizing Ideologies.”

Many Christians recognize that we are living in a “culture of death,” where—especially in intellectual circles—there is easy acceptance of abortion and increasing support for physician-assisted suicide, infanticide, and euthanasia. While many Christians make cogent arguments against such practices—as they should—we seem to be losing ground.

This is because our society is embracing secular philosophies and ideologies, many of which deny that the cosmos has any purpose, meaning, or significance. Once the cosmos is stripped of value, humanity is not far behind, especially since most secularists have also rejected any objective morality.

When C.S. Lewis cautioned about the dangers of dehumanizing secular ideologies in The Abolition of Man and his science fiction novel That Hideous Strength, many Christians took notice. But, on the whole, the intellectual world paid little heed, careening further down the fateful road against which Lewis warned. Lewis’s critique is still a powerful antidote to the degrading vision of humanity being foisted on us by intellectuals in many institutions of higher learning.

We Christians are not immune to the genuine power of some of these arguments. For example, as a military chaplain I determined many years ago to one day write an article about the complexity of “Euthanasia on the Battlefield.” We do not serve Christ well by ignoring complex subjects or dismissing the reasoning of our “adversaries” without giving their points genuine consideration.

The ultimate barrier comes in the fact that our worldviews ultimately collide. Secularism and other religious philosophies are irreconcilable with the teachings of the One who said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis notes that suicide has been regarded in some philosophies as a virtuous path. Not so, in Christianity.

If pain sometimes shatters the creature’s false self-sufficiency, yet in supreme ‘Trial’ or ‘Sacrifice’ it teaches him the self-sufficiency which really ought to be his—the ‘strength, which, if Heaven gave it, may be called his own:’ for then, in the absence of all merely natural motives and supports, he acts in that strength, and that alone, which God confers upon him through his subjected will.

Human will becomes truly creative and truly our own when it is wholly God’s, and this is one of the many senses in which he that loses his soul shall find it. . . . When we act from ourselves alone—that is, from God in ourselves—we are collaborators in, or live instruments of, creation: and that is why such an act undoes with ‘backward mutters of dissevering power’ the uncreative spell which Adam laid upon his species.

Hence as suicide is the typical expression of the stoic spirit, and battle of the warrior spirit, martyrdom always remains the supreme enacting and perfection of Christianity.

This great action has been initiated for us, done on our behalf, exemplified for our imitation, and inconceivably communicated to all believers, by Christ on Calvary. There the degree of accepted Death reaches the utmost bounds of the imaginable and perhaps goes beyond them; not only all natural supports, but the presence of the very Father to whom the sacrifice is made deserts the victim, and surrender to God does not falter though God ‘forsakes’ it.

Whenever you encounter someone overshadowed by the dark cloud of despair and death, speak to them life. Dispel the lies of suicide. Confront the Enemy, so that Satan would not be “given an opportunity to cause slaughter.” As Luther also said in the context quoted above:

It is very certain that, as to all persons who have hanged themselves, or killed themselves in any other way, ’tis the devil who has put the cord round their necks, or the knife to their throats.

Graphic and true. I choose not to participate in Satan’s murderous purposes by promoting suicide, and I encourage you to join me.

_____

The photo above comes from one of the many renditions of Romeo and Juliet.

Timing the Reformation

February 7, 2017 — 8 Comments

wristwatch

I had an entrepreneurial epiphany on how to get rich during the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and since I’m not an entrepreneur, I’m passing the idea on gratis, to readers of Mere Inkling.

Inspired by the shocking success of the Playmobil Martin Luther—their fastest-selling item ever—I wondered what other commemorative items might result in a windfall for investors.

The insight struck like the lightning bolt that dropped Luther to his knees and sent him off to the monastery.

Since this celebration hearkens back to the beginning of the Reformation . . . back to the day when the 95 Theses were nailed to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg . . . it dawned on me that we so indebted to what happened that moment that we are, in a true sense, living on Wittenberg time.

What better item to remind us of the significance of this than to turn to expert horologists* and design a Wittenberg Watch? Ideally it would be permanently linked to Wittenberg time. The wearer would also benefit from learning more about time zones and mathematics, trying to sort out the local time, especially when traveling.

More about the details in a moment.

C.S. Lewis and the Importance of Time

The nature and passage of time was of great importance to C.S. Lewis. He devoted an entire chapter to the subject in Mere Christianity. In “Time and Beyond Time,” he explores how God acts within history, but is not subject to time’s constraints.

If you picture Time as a straight line along which we have to travel, then you must picture God as the whole page on which the line is drawn. We come to the parts of the line one by one: we have to leave A behind before we get to B, and cannot reach C until we leave B behind. God, from above or outside or all round, contains the whole line, and sees it all.

Lewis then proceeds to explain his understanding by saying this “idea has helped me a good deal. If it does not help you, leave it alone. It is a ‘Christian idea’ in the sense that great and wise Christians have held it and there is nothing in it contrary to Christianity. But it is not in the Bible or any of the creeds. You can be a perfectly good Christian without accepting it, or indeed without thinking of the matter at all.”

Another difficulty we get if we believe God to be in time is this. Everyone who believes in God at all believes that He knows what you and I are going to do tomorrow. But if He knows I am going to do so-and-so, how can I be free to do otherwise?

Well, here once again, the difficulty comes from thinking that God is progressing along the Time-line like us: the only difference being that He can see ahead and we cannot. Well, if that were true, if God foresaw our acts, it would be very hard to understand how we could be free not to do them.

But suppose God is outside and above the Time-line. In that case, what we call “tomorrow” is visible to Him in just the same way as what we call “today.” All the days are “Now” for Him. He does not remember you doing things yesterday; He simply sees you doing them, because, though you have lost yesterday, He has not. He does not “foresee” you doing things tomorrow; He simply sees you doing them: because, though tomorrow is not yet there for you, it is for Him.

You never supposed that your actions at this moment were any less free because God knows what you are doing. Well, He knows your tomorrow’s actions in just the same way—because He is already in tomorrow and can simply watch you.

In a sense, He does not know your action till you have done it: but then the moment at which you have done it is already “Now” for Him.

Since God was/is witness to that day in Wittenberg, just as he knows our tomorrows today, we see his placing of creation within the linear progression of history is intentional. It does not restrict our Lord in any way, but it enables us to comprehend our existence. And thus, we are compelled to mark the passage of time.

What Might the Wittenberg Watch be Like?

Something elegant and tasteful, yet modest and unobtrusive. A watch like the one pictured above. It’s produced by Swisstime and has the added benefit that it is part of their “Rebellion” line, which means that Roman Catholics shouldn’t be excluded from the market. The only minor drawback is the price, $930,000.

It seems to me that a wise businessperson could undercut that by thirty or forty thousand, and only need to sell two or three watches to retire in comfort.

An alternative to this timepiece, for the less prosperous, would be to get a regular Timex or Casio and just set the time to that of Wittenberg! That’s the key anyway—the Wittenberg Watch measures the hour based on the time there in hallowed birthplace of the Reformation. (For those who like details, that would be the Central European Time Zone, UTC/GMT +1.)

An astute investor will recognize that the Wittenberg Watch concept easily translates for an ecumenical audience. One easily imagines other editions for various denominations.

Aldersgate Watch for Methodists (Greenwich Mean, GMT)

Azuza Street Timepiece for Pentecostals (Pacific Standard, UTC/GMT -9)

Canterbury Timepiece for Anglicans (Greenwich Mean, GMT)

Geneva Timepiece for Calvinists (Central European, UTC/GMT +1)

Edinburgh Edition for Presbyterians (Greenwich Mean, GMT)

Hollywood Timepiece for Televangelists** (Pacific Standard, UTC/GMT -9)

London Chronometer for Quakers (Greenwich Mean, GMT)

Münster Timepiece for Anabaptists (Central European, UTC/GMT +1)

Rome Timepiece for Roman Catholics (Central European, UTC/GMT +1)

Anyone who desires can feel free to run with this idea. I relinquish all rights to the concept of religious timepieces.

As for now, I’ve been rethinking the idea altogether. I’ve decided it’s best for me to reset my own watch to Jerusalem time.

_____

* Horology relates to the science of measuring time and making timepieces. (Yes, I had to look it up also, even though I remembered enough Latin to know hora means hour.)

** It’s quite possible that televangelists already own the Rebellion Reb 5 Diamond timepiece pictured above, however, the members of their digital congregations may be in the market for something more modest.

C.S. Lewis and Punditry

January 30, 2017 — 10 Comments

chesterton-sanity

Odds are that you, kind reader of Mere Inkling, are a pundit. While the overpaid professionals who overpopulate the media would like for us to think being a pundit requires possessing special knowledge or expertise, that’s simply not true.

Any of us who make comments or pass judgments in an authoritative manner can rightly be deemed a pundit. If you are simply a commonplace critic, you probably qualify for the title. All the more so if you publish your thoughts.

If the recent elections proved anything, they revealed there may well be more pundits per cubic acre in the modern world, than there are bees.

Recently I came across a peculiar essay, written by a writer with whom I’m totally unfamiliar. David Harsanyi is a senior editor of The Federalist, although this article appeared in National Review. Presumably he is a conservative, but of the atheist variety. (No wonder I haven’t read any of his work.)

At any rate, he’s a journalist who describes his “line of work” as “punditry.” Punditry as we have noted, has become all the rage in our modern era. I’m debating though whether adding it to one’s resume would be beneficial. It appears that receiving the validation of a punditry paycheck is the best gauge for making that determination.

As soon as people had the leisure time to develop their senses of humor, the seeds of punditry were planted, and many a silver tongued cynic has reaped the harvest. The past has known people who offered social criticism with a dash of wit (typically of the sarcastic variety).

An admirable example of such was G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936). Chesterton differed from Harsanyi in that he was also a philosopher and poet, not merely a journalist. Most notably, Chesterton was also a Christian.

C.S. Lewis held Chesterton in very high regard, and included his book The Everlasting Man among the top ten titles which had influenced his professional and philosophical thought. You can download an audio copy of that text here.

There is a great essay here that explores the influence of Chesterton’s essay “Ethics of Elfland” on the Inklings.

Jerk Logic

Returning to the article with which I began, “Jerk Logic” is the title of Bersanyi’s essay. He began with a question that more people should probably ask themselves.

Am I a jerk? You may find this an odd question for a person to ask himself. But when you’re in my line of work—which, broadly speaking, is called punditry—complete strangers on social media have little compunction about pointing out all your disagreeable character traits.

I found his article interesting for several reasons. He’s candid about some of the booby traps that endanger those who dare to write about controversial subjects. He offers a confession about just how soul-scarring the past election has been for some who have followed its permutations closely.

The 2016 election, I’m afraid, has convinced me that the joke is definitely on me. But after taking meticulous inventory of my actions over the past year or so, I am forced to acknowledge that perhaps, on occasion, some of my behavior might be construed as wantonly unpleasant. Long story short, I am a jerk . . . with an explanation.

Another thing I enjoyed in the brief piece is how he turned to a personality inventory (similar to the Myers Briggs Type Indicator) to assess his potential jerk quotient.

As I learned more about my personality type, I began feeling sorry for everyone in my almost certainly beleaguered family. While we pride ourselves on “inventiveness and creativity” and “unique perspective and vigorous intellect,” Logicians can also be “insensitive,” “absent-minded,” and “condescending.”

The essay concludes with a justification for a modest amount of jerkiness when living the life of a journalist, and especially a pundit.

As a writer, it’s incumbent on me to be clinically unpleasant and prickly when focusing on self-aggrandizing do-gooders or abusers of power or those who pollute our culture with garbage. One can make arguments in good faith while still being downright disagreeable. So I make no apologies for being disliked. There’s nothing wrong with being hated by the right people.

There are, in fact, far too many journalists overly concerned about being shunned. As a young critic writing his first reviews for a wire agency, I sometimes wrestled with an existential question: “Who am I to say these horrible things about people who are far more successful and powerful than I am?” Nowadays I ask myself: “How exactly can I say more horrible things about these people who shouldn’t be more successful or powerful than any of us?”

A skeptical and contrarian disposition is not only useful if you want to be a decent pundit, but indispensable if you want to be a good journalist on any beat.

I wonder whether Chesterton would think of this as an indispensable journalistic trait. He did, after all, have an honest view of the overall profession. “Journalism largely consists in saying ‘Lord Jones is dead’ to people who never knew Lord Jones was alive.” (The Wisdom of Father Brown)

I did find a fascinating description of the press provided by Chesterton in “The Boy.” It was published in 1909 in All Things Considered . . . and echoes true a century later.

But the whole modern world, or at any rate the whole modern Press, has a perpetual and consuming terror of plain morals. Men always attempt to avoid condemning a thing upon merely moral grounds.

If I beat my grandmother to death to-morrow in the middle of Battersea Park, you may be perfectly certain that people will say everything about it except the simple and fairly obvious fact that it is wrong.

Some will call it insane; that is, will accuse it of a deficiency of intelligence. This is not necessarily true at all. You could not tell whether the act was unintelligent or not unless you knew my grandmother. Some will call it vulgar, disgusting, and the rest of it; that is, they will accuse it of a lack of manners. Perhaps it does show a lack of manners; but this is scarcely its most serious disadvantage.

Others will talk about the loathsome spectacle and the revolting scene; that is, they will accuse it of a deficiency of art, or æsthetic beauty. This again depends on the circumstances: in order to be quite certain that the appearance of the old lady has definitely deteriorated under the process of being beaten to death, it is necessary for the philosophical critic to be quite certain how ugly she was before.

Another school of thinkers will say that the action is lacking in efficiency: that it is an uneconomic waste of a good grandmother. But that could only depend on the value, which is again an individual matter.

The only real point that is worth mentioning is that the action is wicked, because your grandmother has a right not to be beaten to death. But of this simple moral explanation modern journalism has, as I say, a standing fear. It will call the action anything else—mad, bestial, vulgar, idiotic, rather than call it sinful.

Amen. Evil acts today are nearly always attributed to some shortcoming or flaw such as insanity (e.g. individual acts) or delusional indoctrination (e.g. jihadism). While these are sometimes contributing factors, Chesterton rightly assessed the base cause.

Sadly, by affirming that fact, I expect that I too will be going on some people’s “jerk” list. They may consider me contrarian, but I’m simply striving to be honest.

 

Christmas Interruptions

December 25, 2016 — 8 Comments

qaraqoshA bomb has driven worshipers from their churches and homes on Christmas. Ironically, this did not transpire in lands where war currently rages. Instead, it was a British bomb intended to end German lives.

Perhaps you’ve already seen the story?

The weapon was huge, nearly two tons in weight, and it’s explosion would have been no less lethal today than when it was originally dropped.

The bomb, known as a blockbuster, was the largest of its kind dropped by the RAF during aerial attacks on Germany in the second world war. It weighs 1.8 tonnes and, if exploded, could damage all buildings within a one-mile radius.

As I have worshipped and reflected during this Christmas season, the story of this bomb has continued to intrude on my thoughts.

On that first Christmas night a group of shepherds heard music that has now echoed for millennia.

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

God’s call to peace on earth and his desire for good will among his children—gifts already given to the world in the birth of Jesus—cannot be negated by the weapons of man.

As C.S. Lewis wrote, “Once in our world, a stable had something in it that was bigger than our whole world” (The Last Battle).

Still, in this moment, when this long forgotten and deeply buried blockbuster bomb can disrupt the traditional Christmas schedule, we see a vivid contrast between the good God desires for us and the ill we too often bear for one another?

A Warzone Witness to the Celebration of Christ’s Nativity

The entire world is aware of the genocide of Christians and Yazidis being conducted in the Middle East by Jihadists. This Christmas, however, marked a moment of encouragement.

Two years after being driven from their city by the Islamic State, Christians were able to return to the recently liberated city of Qaraqosh to worship God.

The church structure had been desecrated, but the presence of God among his gathered people, has reconsecrated it.

Christianity in northern Iraq dates back to the first century AD. The number of Christians fell sharply during the violence which followed the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and the Islamic State takeover of Mosul two years ago purged the city of Christians for the first time in two millennia. (Reuters)

Despite the hatred some people hold for others, and the violence they inflict, it is encouraging to recognize that no power in this world can defeat the miracle that transpired on that first Christmas Day.

C.S. Lewis & Alcohol

December 15, 2016 — 11 Comments

chaliceWe children of alcoholics often have a difficult time determining the proper place for alcohol in our lives. Because we’ve seen the damage its abuse can cause, some are tempted to condemn it all together.

At the same time, like the abused child who is likelier to grow up becoming an abuser himself, as a group we are vulnerable to misusing alcohol ourselves.

The church’s attitude towards “drink” does not always help. Many denominations overlook the fact that it is drunkenness that the Scriptures condemn, and extend the prohibition to all drink that contains alcohol.

They are like the exegete who transforms the warning about the “love of money” being the root of sin into a rejection of all mediums of exchange beyond barter itself.* They overlook the attitude towards the object, and make the object itself the objectionable thing. Thus, money becomes the problem.

In the case of alcohol, it is no longer inappropriate or damaging use that is condemned, it is the drinking of anything containing alcohol that is reasoned to be sinful. Moving the bar in this fashion is simple legalism.

But this column isn’t about legalism. I don’t have an axe to grind. And, as the saying goes, some of my best friends (and family members) abstain from all drink. Similarly, I rarely drink myself. My point is not that wariness about alcohol’s dangers may be wise, but pushing God’s cautions to the degree where we call sin that which is not, is wrong in and of itself.

The solution does not come in the form of devising a pasteurization process so we can improve on the first eighteen centuries of Christian worship and now enjoy “Dr. Welch’s Unfermented Wine” for holy communion.

At the other extreme, there are some religious communities that celebrate their freedom in the gospel to degrees that may invoke Romans 14:21. There is something uncomely, perhaps even sinful, in a church celebrating this liberty. (And I write this as a pastor in a denomination that frequently takes note of the arrival of Oktoberfest.)

Neither prohibiting what God has deemed lawful, nor uncritically embracing secular festivities is the right course. The proper solution to the question of how drinking can or should fit into our lives is found by looking at the Scriptures themselves.

The Biblical Christian View on Alcohol

The Scriptures could not be clearer on the use of alcohol. Unless God has directed an individual to a particular course (or vow) in their personal life, the general rule is this: in moderation, treated as a beverage without the goal of intoxication, drinks containing alcohol are okay.

I know that some churches teach otherwise, but from the Bible itself it is clear that merely drinking a glass of wine or beer is not a sin. It is drinking to excess, that is sinful.

C.S. Lewis provides an extremely clear explanation of this distinction in Mere Christianity. He explains how the principle of temperance is applicable to many aspects of our lives.

Temperance is, unfortunately, one of those words that has changed its meaning. It now usually means teetotalism. But in the days when the second Cardinal virtue was christened ‘Temperance,’ it meant nothing of the sort.

Temperance referred not specially to drink, but to all pleasures; and it meant not abstaining, but going the right length and no further.

It is a mistake to think that Christians ought all to be teetotallers; Mohammedanism, not Christianity, is the teetotal religion. Of course it may be the duty of a particular Christian, or of any Christian, at a particular time, to abstain from strong drink, either because he is the sort of man who cannot drink at all without drinking too much, or because he is with people who are inclined to drunkenness and must not encourage them by drinking himself.

But the whole point is that he is abstaining, for a good reason, from something which he does not condemn and which he likes to see other people enjoying.

One of the marks of a certain type of bad man is that he cannot give up a thing himself without wanting every one else to give it up.

That is not the Christian way.

An individual Christian may see fit to give up all sorts of things for special reasons—marriage, or meat, or beer, or the cinema; but the moment he starts saying the things are bad in themselves, or looking down his nose at other people who do use them, he has taken the wrong turning.

One great piece of mischief has been done by the modern restriction of the word Temperance to the question of drink. It helps people to forget that you can be just as intemperate about lots of other things. A man who makes his golf or his motor-bicycle the centre of his life, or a woman who devotes all her thoughts to clothes or bridge or her dog, is being just as ‘intemperate’ as someone who gets drunk every evening.

Of course, it does not show on the outside so easily: bridge-mania or golf-mania do not make you fall down in the middle of the road. But God is not deceived by externals.

If he were alive today, Lewis could easily add sports-mania and social media-mania to his list of excesses that voraciously consume a person.

The fact that C.S. Lewis could enjoy a pint of beer with his friends becomes a stumbling block to some who would otherwise benefit from reading his work. Likewise, some readers of Mere Inkling may consider this post an endorsement of drinking.

That could not be farther from the truth. We children of alcoholics are acutely aware of the pain and chaos caused by its abuse.

On the contrary, these words are written to caution my brothers and sisters in Christ about a potentially more destructive sin, legalism.

Fortunately, the simple solution to both problems is an unfiltered, honest reading of God’s word.

_____

* This is an exaggeration, of course. Few, if any, reject all coin and currency, even if they misquote 1 Timothy 6:10 in alleging “money is the root of many evils.”

** “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble” (Romans 14:21).

Devastated by Criticism

November 14, 2016 — 13 Comments

calvin-criticismHow do you feel when others criticize something you’ve written? Do you just want to tear your work up and start all over again? If you do, you have something in common with J.R.R. Tolkien, creator of Lord of the Rings. And he is not the only great writer with whom you share this hypersensitive trait.

Tolkien’s inability to accept constructive criticism is no secret; it is frequently noted in biographies.

Few people enjoy receiving criticism, and we are often suspicious of the mental health of those who do. Yet many writers actively seek out constructive criticism in order to sharpen their skills and improve their work.

That is a major reason for the existence of writers’ groups which pop up in varying expressions wherever serious writers live. While another benefit of such communities is the simple encouragement that comes from gathering with others who share your passion, it is the critical examination of each other’s manuscripts which provides the clearest concrete benefit. It’s no accident many such literary meetings are actually called critique groups.

Tolkien was a member of one of the most famous such fellowships that ever existed, the Inklings. It was in that setting where he first shared the stories of hobbits and elves who would make such a profound impact on Western literature. He said it was primarily through the encouragement of the Inklings—specifically his good friend, C.S. Lewis—that these amazing stories were ever published.

You see, Tolkien had a terrible and frequently fatal flaw . . . When his writing was criticized, he felt compelled to toss it aside and begin anew. Many other writers have been afflicted with this curse, and not all of them had a C.S. Lewis to rescue their words from the dust bin.

I have shared in the past Lewis’ description of his friend’s handicap.

No one ever influenced Tolkien—you might as well try to influence a bander-snatch. We listened to his work, but could affect it only by encouragement. He has only two reactions to criticism; either he begins the whole work over again from the beginning or else takes no notice at all.

Criticism of the Constructive Variety

As I said a moment ago, no one really craves criticism, and yet most serious writers actively solicit it. As I write this very column, it is with the intention of sharing it tomorrow with my friends in my own writing circles.

When you read it, it will likely have changed, probably in subtle, enriching ways. You can gauge the benefit of mutual critiquing by the amount and the quality of the criticism which is shared. And, should you feel violated, rebuke defensiveness and remind yourself that even the greats, like Tolkien and Lewis, gained from the comments and suggestions of their friends.

I recently learned of another individual who struggled with receiving criticism. It was John Calvin, the father of Reformed theology. Belonging to the Lutheran branch of the church universal, my readings in Reformed history have been limited. However, I’m currently reading two similarly titled books* and I discovered something that may be commonly known to Reformed clergy but was news to me.

He often tended to express his disappointment in extravagant terms. When he encountered an obstacle, his reaction was stark: he would burn his manuscript, never write again, never publish anything again. His decision to write was motivated by external factors: a request by his circle of friends and colleagues, or as the result of his emotional reaction to an event or a work that he read. . . . (John Calvin and the Printed Book)

The good news though is Calvin did not allow these obstacles to have the final say. Instead, he turned to those he trusted and sought their counsel.

Indeed, his extreme sensitivity meant that he needed to have the emotional support of close friends. As a Reformer and specifically as an author, Calvin never worked in isolation even though he was the dominant figure in his setting. While he was confident of the quality of his writings, Calvin still had no hesitation in submitting them to his colleagues before publication. (Ibid.)

Not that Calvin always welcomed suggestions. There was one particular Reformer to whom he sent some of his work whose “commend from Zurich were too numerous and detailed. Hence Calvin stopped sending his manuscripts to Bullinger prior to printing, although he maintained cordial relations with the Zurich Reformer.” I can almost read Calvin’s mind at the time: I asked for your suggestions, not a complete rewrite of the manuscript.

So, it appears those of us who feel discomfort at the sting of criticism—even when we request it—stand in good company. So don’t ever let that temporary pain discourage you from continuing to write.

____

* A 2005 volume is called John Calvin and the Printed Book, while a 2015 collection of essays is called Calvin and the Book.

C.S. Lewis and Metaphors

October 26, 2016 — 9 Comments

hobbit-quoteLearn how to effectively wield metaphors, and you will be powerful indeed. They are one of the most creative and intrinsically rewarding tools used by communicators.

Metaphors are not simply ornamental. Nor are they limited to abstracts subjects. The following description comes from C.S. Lewis’ book, Miracles.

It is a serious mistake to think that metaphor is an optional thing which poets and orators may put into their work as a decoration and plain speakers can do without. The truth is that if we are going to talk at all about things which are not perceived by the senses, we are forced to use language metaphorically.

Books on psychology or economics or politics are as continuously metaphorical as books of poetry or devotion. There is no other way of talking, as every philologist is aware. . . . All speech about supersensibles is, and must be, metaphorical in the highest degree.

To effectively communicate—especially about deep or profound subjects—metaphors need to be part of a readers’ or speakers’ core vocabulary. That’s what Lewis meant by saying “we are forced to use language metaphorically” when speaking about things that transcend our senses.

Former Time editor James Geary has echoed Lewis’ description of the universality of metaphors.

Metaphor is not just confined to art and literature but is at work in all fields of human endeavor, from economics and advertising, to politics and business, to science and psychology. . . .

There is no aspect of our experience not molded in some way by metaphor’s almost imperceptible touch. (I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World)

Without being conscious of it, we all use metaphors more frequently than we realize it. Geary claims “We utter about one metaphor for every ten to twenty-five words, or about six metaphors a minute.” Granted, most of these are routine like the four appearing in this sentence he quotes from an economic report.

“Britain’s recovery from the worst recession in decades is gaining traction but confused economic data and the high risk of a hung parliament could yet snuff out its momentum.”

Metaphors Versus Similes

Envisioning fresh metaphors may seem challenging, but it is a skill which can be practiced. One need not feel embarrassed if they find the subject of metaphors confusing. In their simplest form, they are like especially meaningful similes.

In a simile we compare two distinctly different things and declare that they are similar. For example, someone might say about the sleek new stealth destroyer, “the USS Zumwalt is like a Porsche.” This simile suggests a number of attributes and the statement contains the familiar phrase “is like.”

By contrast, a metaphor is not merely “like” something else. Using a metaphor implies that the two different things share, in a true sense, some common nature or element. So, a person might write, “the current election season is a nightmare.” Certainly, a less confident writer might weaken the power of this sentence, by diluting it into a simile, it’s “like” a nightmare.

But the bold speaker or writer recognizes how much more sharply the metaphor communicates their message. They want to state that the experience is not just nightmarish. It is a nightmare. It is (to many) horrific, frightening, and something from which we wish we could awaken to resume our lives in a world that still makes sense.

Like any rhetorical or literary tool, metaphors can be misused. They can be stretched so far that they don’t make sense, or they only appeal to individuals who share some narrow interpretation of existence.

While metaphors can be used in an ostentatious or overdone way, that simply weakens their effect. The judicious application of metaphors is a skill well worth practicing.

The Scriptures as a Treasure Trove

The subtitle above can itself be viewed as a similar or a metaphor. But that’s beside the point, since it simply introduces our discussion of the fact that the Bible is filled to overflowing with metaphors.

This is unsurprising, since almost the entire text deals with the story of an infinite Creator’s love for his fallen creation.

Put another way, our God, whose nature is utterly incomprehensible to the beings he fashioned from the earth (adamah), longs to communicate his love for we whose lives in this world are so very brief. How could the Lord accomplish this without metaphors? Thus he describes himself in this fashion:

“I am the alpha and the omega.”

“I am the bread of life.”

“I am the light of the world.”

“I am the vine; you are the branches.”

“I am the resurrection and the life.”

Metaphors are not reserved for God in the Scriptures. On the contrary, they abound, like radiant dandelions in the early days of summer.

“The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life . . .”

“The Lord is my shepherd . . .”

“O Lord . . . we are the clay, and you are our potter . . .”

“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.”

All of us, “new creations” in particular, have much to learn from C.S. Lewis about metaphors. A good place to start is the brief essay “C.S. Lewis and the Apt Metaphor.”

After reflection, you may want to try your hand at creating a novel metaphor. After all, a thought-provoking metaphor is a refreshing breath in any conversation.

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I’ve written about metaphors in the past posts, including this one. I also wrote a a column which includes George Orwell’s advice for writers: “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”