Archives For My Writing Projects

roeShould literary critics look down on authors whose work proves popular with “common” people? Is it appropriate for the literary elite to smirk dismissively whenever the prose of a writer outside their circle resonates with the masses?

These, my friends, are rhetorical questions. The answer to both is “no,” and if you believe otherwise, you probably won’t find yourself too comfortable with the opinions shared here at Mere Inkling.

I believe each piece of literature, regardless of its source, should be judged on its own merits. Not all genres appeal to all people. And not all writers compose their works with equal skill. Nevertheless, it is possible for even a poor miner to strike gold.

Likewise, an accomplished writer is not infallible. Even a master wildcatter can sink a dry well.

I’ve been writing an article about Civil War chaplain who became one of America’s most popular writers during the nineteenth century. In fact, many years his novels outsold the works of Samuel Clemens himself.

And yet, despite his success—or possibly, because average people enjoyed his stories—he received an extraordinary amount of criticism from the literary establishment.

I’m going to share his insights about writing in a moment, but  before doing so, I want to draw a parallel with one of the twentieth century’s most gifts authors. C.S. Lewis was loved by common women and men of Britain and other English-speaking countries. And yet, this very popularity undermined his standing in the world of academia and, I daresay, literary snobbery.

Lewis describes this condescending mindset in a 1939 essay entitled, “High Brows and Low Brows.”

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.

Of each of us some great poet made a rape when we still wore Eton collars. 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? If so, that very fact bears witness to the novelty of the modern situation; to us, the claim that we have always liked Keats is no prouder than the claim that we have always liked bacon and eggs. For there are changes afoot.

I foresee the growth of a new race of readers and critics to whom, from the very outset, good literature will be an accomplishment rather than a delight, and who will always feel, beneath the acquired taste, the backward tug of something else which they feel merit in resisting.

Such people will not be content to say that some books are bad or not very good; they will make a special class of “lowbrow” art which is to be vilified, mocked, quarantined, and sometimes (when they are sick or tired) enjoyed. They will be sure that what is popular must always be bad, thus assuming that human taste is naturally wrong, that it needs not only improvement and development but veritable conversion.

For them a good critic will be, as the theologians say, essentially a “twice-born” critic, one who is regenerate and washed from his Original Taste. They will have no conception, because they have had no experience, of spontaneous delight in excellence.

I confess I’ve sometimes felt slightly embarrassed when in the presence of a group of people singing the praises of authors of fiction popular among the well-educated. Sometimes I don’t even recognize their names, much less have an idea of what they have written.

Part of my “handicap” rises from the fact that I’m by and large a non-fiction sort of guy. As seminary I was less enraptured by abstract “systematic theology” than the time-proven lessons learned during the Church’s two millennia history. Likewise, I found “practical theology” far more beneficial. After all, I was being equipped not to be a theologian per se, but to become a shepherd entrusted with the cura animarum (the cure of souls).

In that spirit, valuing history and lessons I could put into practice as a pastor and writer, I have been researching the legacy of Edward Payson Roe (1838-1888). He was a Presbyterian pastor who served as a chaplain in the Union cavalry, and later as a military hospital chaplain.

After the war, Roe served a congregation, and eventually turned his energies to writing wholesome fiction. He played a key role in helping many suspicious Protestants realize that, like manna, fiction was neither good nor bad. It’s effects depended on the use to which it was put. Roe proved quite popular with readers. Less so with the literary establishment.

The following account comes from an essay about his life solicited by one of the prominent magazines of his day. It is well worth reading, touching as it does on a broad range of subjects, including international copyrights and the vagaries of publishing in the late 1800s. Most precious, though, are the echoes of Roe’s humility and his realistic understanding of the vocation of writing.

“While writing my first story, I rarely thought of the public, the characters and their experiences absorbing me wholly. When my narrative was actually in print, there was wakened a very deep interest as to its reception. I had none of the confidence resulting from the gradual testing of one’s power or from association with literary people, and I also was aware that, when published, a book was far away from the still waters of which one’s friends are the protecting headlands.

“That I knew my work to be exceedingly faulty goes without saying; that it was utterly bad, I was scarcely ready to believe. Dr. Field, noted for his pure English diction and taste, would not publish an irredeemable story, and the constituency of the New York ‘Evangelist’ is well known to be one of the most intelligent in the country.

“Friendly opinions from serial readers were reassuring as far as they went, but of course the great majority of those who followed the story were silent. A writer cannot, like a speaker, look into the eyes of his audience and observe its mental attitude toward his thought. If my memory serves me, Mr. R.R. Bowker was the earliest critic to write some friendly words in the ‘Evening Mail;’ but at first my venture was very generally ignored.

Then some unknown friend marked an influential journal published in the interior of the State and mailed it so timely that it reached me on Christmas eve. I doubt if a book was ever more unsparingly condemned than mine in that review, whose final words were, ‘The story is absolutely nauseating.’ In this instance and in my salad days I took pains to find out who the writer was, for if his view was correct I certainly should not engage in further efforts to make the public ill.

“I discovered the reviewer to be a gentleman for whom I have ever had the highest respect as an editor, legislator, and honest thinker. My story made upon him just the impression he expressed, and it would be very stupid on my part to blink the fact. Meantime, the book was rapidly making for itself friends and passing into frequent new editions. Even the editor who condemned the work would not assert that those who bought it were an aggregation of asses. People cannot be found by thousands who will pay a dollar and seventy-five cents for a dime novel or a religious tract.

“I wished to learn the actual truth more sincerely than any critic to write it, and at last I ventured to take a copy to Mr. George Ripley, of the New York ‘Tribune.’ ‘Here is a man,’ I thought, ‘whose fame and position as a critic are recognized by all. If he deigns to notice the book, he will not only say what he thinks, but I shall have much reason to think as he does.’ Mr. Ripley met the diffident author kindly, asked a few questions, and took the volume. A few weeks later, to my great surprise, he gave over a column to a review of the story. Although not blind to its many faults, he wrote words far more friendly and inspiring than I ever hoped to see; it would seem that the public had sanctioned his verdict

“From that day to this these two instances have been types of my experience with many critics, one condemning, another commending. There is ever a third class who prove their superiority by sneering at or ignoring what is closely related to the people. Much thought over my experience led to a conclusion which the passing years confirm: the only thing for a writer is to be himself and take the consequences. Even those who regard me as a literary offender of the blackest dye have never named imitation among my sins.

“As successive books appeared, I began to recognize more and more clearly another phase of an author’s experience. A writer gradually forms a constituency, certain qualities in his book appealing to certain classes of minds. In my own case, I do not mean classes of people looked at from the social point of view. A writer who takes any hold on popular attention inevitably learns the character of his constituency. He appeals, and minds and temperaments in sympathy respond. Those he cannot touch go on their way indifferently; those he offends may often strike back. This is the natural result of any strong assertion of individuality.

“Certainly, if I had my choice, I would rather write a book interesting to the young and to the common people, whom Lincoln said ‘God must love, since He made so many of them.’ The former are open to influence; the latter can be quickened and prepared for something better. As a matter of fact, I find that there are those in all classes whom my books attract, others who are repelled, as I have said.

“It is perhaps one of the pleasantest experiences of an author’s life to learn from letters and in other ways that he is forming a circle of friends, none the less friendly because personally unknown. Their loyalty is both a safeguard and an inspiration. On one hand, the writer shrinks from abusing such regard by careless work; on the other, he is stimulated and encouraged by the feeling that there is a group in waiting who will appreciate his best endeavor.

“While I clearly recognize my limitations, and have no wish to emulate the frog in the fable, I can truthfully say that I take increasing pains with each story, aiming to verify every point by experience—my own or that of others. Not long since, a critic asserted that changes in one of my characters, resulting from total loss of memory, were preposterously impossible. If the critic had consulted Ribot’s ‘Diseases of Memory,’ or some experienced physician, he might have written more justly.

“I do not feel myself competent to form a valuable opinion as to good art in writing, and I cannot help observing that the art doctors disagree woefully among themselves. Truth to nature and the realities, and not the following of any school or fashion, has ever seemed the safest guide. I sometimes venture to think I know a little about human nature. My active life brought me in close contact with all kinds of people; there was no man in my regiment who hesitated to come to my tent or to talk confidentially by the campfire, while scores of dying men laid bare to me their hearts. I at least know the nature that exists in the human breast.

“It may be inartistic, or my use of it all wrong. That is a question which time will decide, and I shall accept the verdict. Over twelve years ago, certain oracles, with the voice of fate, predicted my speedy eclipse and disappearance. Are they right in their adverse judgment? I can truthfully say that now, as at the first, I wish to know the facts in the case. The moment an author is conceited about his work, he becomes absurd and is passing into a hopeless condition. If worthy to write at all, he knows that he falls far short of his ideals; if honest, he wishes to be estimated at his true worth, and to cast behind him the mean little Satan of vanity. If he walks under a conscious sense of greatness, he is a ridiculous figure, for beholders remember the literary giants of other days and of his own time, and smile at the airs of the comparatively little man. On the other hand, no self-respecting writer should ape the false deprecating ‘’umbleness’ of Uriah Heep. In short, he wishes to pass, like a coin, for just what he is worth.

“Mr. Matthew Arnold was ludicrously unjust to the West when he wrote, ‘The Western States are at this moment being nourished and formed, we hear, on the novels of a native author called Roe.’ Why could not Mr. Arnold have taken a few moments to look into the bookstores of the great cities of the West, in order to observe for himself how the demand of one of the largest and most intelligent reading publics in the world is supplied? He would have found that the works of Scott and Dickens were more liberally purchased and generally read than in his own land of ‘distinction.’ He should have discovered when in this country that American statesmen (?) are so solicitous about the intelligence of their constituents that they give publishers so disposed every opportunity to steal novels describing the nobility and English persons of distinction; that tons of such novels have been sold annually in the West, a thousand to one of the ‘author called Roe.’

“The simple truth in the case is that in spite of this immense and cheap competition, my novels have made their way and are being read among multitudes of others. No one buys or reads a book under compulsion; and if any one thinks that the poorer the book the better the chance of its being read by the American people, let him try the experiment. When a critic condemns my books, I accept that as his judgment; when another critic and scores of men and women, the peers of the first in cultivation and intelligence, commend the books, I do not charge them with gratuitous lying. My one aim has become to do my work conscientiously and leave the final verdict to time and the public. I wish no other estimate than a correct one; and when the public indicate that they have had enough of Roe, I shall neither whine nor write.”

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If you are interested in learning more about E.P. Roe, check out my article in the new issue (4.2) of Curtana: Sword of Mercy which was published online just last week.

Annual Encouragement

January 2, 2014 — 11 Comments

2013Our grandparents never dreamed a single person could touch as many other people as we now take for granted in our digital age. If you had told them that in a single year, you could interact with people from 140 different nations—and all from the comfort of your own home—they would have had you institutionalized.

Yet, that’s precisely what we do today. And what may be even odder, we consider it commonplace.

Readers who are familiar with the “wordpress community” know that the arrival of the new year includes a welcome ritual. We receive a congratulatory note on our blogging accomplishments during the previous year.

In addition to various statistical notes, the report identifies particularly successful posts. For example, a couple of years ago I wrote “Lessons Taught by Onions,” and for some peculiar reason it continues to draw visitors every single month.

At the top of this post I have reproduced what many of us regard as the most intriguing aspect of the report–revealing where your readers reside. As a novice blogger it’s a wonderful feeling when we first see something we’ve written read by people in a foreign land.

Over the years it’s fascinating to see how the list of visitors grows.

Some countries are tough to reach. This year I finally had a visitor or two from the People’s Republic of China and Mongolia . . . a couple of those challenging lands.

I still haven’t been able to penetrate North Korea. But then, that’s no surprise since they only have one computer with international access, and I don’t publish the type of material that would be of interest to the resident of the presidential palace.

As the new year begins, it’s good to be encouraged by others for one’s past performance. Most of us require a bit of encouragement now and then.

Speaking of encouraging, in a 1956 letter, C.S. Lewis expresses appreciation to a writer who enjoyed his book, Till We Have Faces.

It was nice of you to write about Till We Have Faces (I originally called it Bareface, but the publishers vetoed that because they said people would think it was a ‘Western’!), and a most needed encouragement to me, for it has so far had a more hostile reception from the critics than any book I ever wrote. Not that critics really matter very much. The real question is how the book goes 10 or 15 years after publication.

Encouragement is always welcome, and never more so than in the wake of abundant discouragement.

And then, of course, there is the feigned or teasing sort of encouragement that can only be offered by someone we trust. Someone we know regards us with affection. In that light, I couldn’t resist including the following passage from a letter Lewis wrote in 1951.

All well here except myself, who have a bad cold; but I’m off to Ireland I hope on Friday for a fortnight, which may shift it. (Warnie in his usual way of encouragement, reads me paragraphs from the paper at breakfast about liners wind bound in the Mersey and waves 6 ½ feet high off the Irish coast.)

I must confess that with a large and literate family, I receive more than my share of just this sort of “encouragement.” And I welcome it.

In the meantime, however, the annual report of Mere Inkling’s popularity does inspire me to press on with my self-imposed pace of two columns a week. I warmly invite you to continue the journey alongside me.

Hitler Versus C.S. Lewis

December 3, 2013 — 12 Comments

hitler“Meme.” A ubiquitous word among younger generations, but a concept still rather foreign to many who are slightly more “mature.”

The word was introduced by Richard Dawkins in 1976 and means an idea or social behavior that is transmitted by repetition “in a manner analogous to the biological transmission of genes.” Dawkins echoed the sound of “gene,” using the Greek word mimeisthai (to imitate).

Some memes are quite comical. Other quickly grow wearisome (remember the “dancing baby?”).

One I find particularly creative is a scene of Hitler in his bunker during the final days of the Third Reich. The dialog is in German, and the ingenuity is manifest in all of the hilarious subtitles that people create to coincide with the actions of the characters.

I’m sure there are many tasteless examples (to be avoided), but during the last few years I’ve viewed a couple of dozen and found most quite entertaining.

When I discovered a website that allows you to create your own version, I couldn’t resist. And, of course, I could think of no subject better suited to coinciding with Hitler’s demise than the heroic work of C.S. Lewis. In just a moment I’ll share a link to my film “adaptation.”

Lewis, of course, was a patriot who volunteered for the British army and served on the frontlines. He was seriously wounded. (He was not a Christian at the time.)

During the Second World War, Lewis supported the war effort from home. He provided tremendous encouragement to his countrymen via well-received talks broadcast on BBC. And this is the inspiration for my “take” on the Hitler Bunker meme.

His sequel to The Screwtape Letters, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” mentions the madman by name. Portraying the demons at the banquet as feasting on the souls of the damned, Screwtape complains:

. . . it would be vain to deny that the human souls on whose anguish we have been feasting tonight were of pretty poor quality. Not all the most skilful cookery of our tormentors could make them better than insipid.

Oh to get one’s teeth again into a Farinata, a Henry VIII, or even a Hitler! There was real crackling there; something to crunch; a rage, an egotism, a cruelty only just less robust than our own. It put up a delicious resistance to being devoured.

Curiously, in English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Lewis mentioned how Hitler could be viewed in a humorous light.

The mixture of farce and terror would be incredible if we did not remember that boys joked most about flogging under Keate, and men joked most about gallows under the old penal code. It is apparently when terrors are over that they become too terrible to laugh at; while they are regnant they are too terrible to be taken with unrelieved gravity. There is nothing funny about Hitler now.

Lewis’ point, accurate I believe, is that in the terror of the experience itself, humor can provide some relief. Laughing in ridicule at the source of the horror can help to preserve our sanity. Only in the aftermath—once the threat has been dispatched—can we allow the true magnitude of the carnage to be comprehended. And, in that moment, there is nothing at all that is funny.

Of course, years later, when the sights and smells of Dachau are no longer recalled by the living, things shift once again. (Very few of those tragic victims or liberating heroes remain.) When the scarred battlefields have been covered with velvet grass, and it was no longer even “dad’s war,” but now “grandpa’s” or even “great-grandpa’s,” the bitterness has grown stale.

Today, it is natural to scorn and laugh at the tragic dictator who caused so much sorrow. He was a pitiful human being, and without minimizing his crimes, it is fitting that he be ridiculed once again.

History Proves Lewis True

The fact that at a certain point it becomes acceptable to ridicule a monster, is the premise behind the hilarious film “The Producers.” If you’ve never seen it, by all means take a moment to watch the theme song, “Springtime for Hitler.” For a cinematic example of Hitler-ridicule, there may be none finer than that “musical” (overlooking the tasteless burlesque costumes).

Of course, true to Lewis’ maxim, ridicule was also heaped upon the “Bohemian Corporal” during the war itself.

The classic example would be Charlie Chaplin’s celebrated “The Great Dictator.” (In addition to starring in the film, Chaplin wrote, directed and produced the movie. Oh, and he also co-composed the music.) The film was made in 1940, while war already raged, but prior to the entry of the United States.

Chaplin’s movie confirms Lewis’ contention that we should not joke about such matters while the wounds are raw. We learn from Chaplin’s My Autobiography, that in the post-war realization of the depth of Hitler’s evil, he regretted treating him with such levity. “Had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator, I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis.”

[Best if viewed in the order presented, beginning with the external link to my parody.]

A Visit to the Cinema

Hitler Versus C.S. Lewis (by Mere Inkling)

Click this link: http://meemsy.com/v/12897

Springtime for Hitler and Germany” from The Producers

Charlie Chaplin’s Version of the German Dictator

The Three Stooges actually beat Chaplin to the screen with their short, “You Nazty Spy!” The sequel, “I’ll Never Heil Again” was released the following year.

A Scene from Nazty Spy

A Brief Clip from I’ll Never Heil Again

And finally, returning full circle to the original meme in which I participated, I was surprised to discover a version of it in which Hitler views the trailer for the 2012 Three Stooges movie. (Apparently, despite their rather disrespectful treatment of him, according to this meme der fuhrer was a fan!) And with that, today’s Hitler cinema will close.

The Bible’s Songbook

October 10, 2013 — 15 Comments

psalmistI experienced an embarrassing moment many years ago while taking a broadcasting media course at seminary. I had used a passage from the Psalms as the basis for an assigned devotional, and when the professors (from several different seminary faculties) critiqued it, a distinguished professor dismissively pointed out that I had mispronounced the word “psalm” itself!

I had foolishly pronounced the “l” sound in the word (the way I’d always heard it pronounced). I don’t know whether any of the other students were as ignorant as I, but no one denied that the condescending correction was correct.

The first thing I did upon returning home was grab my dictionary to see if the doctor of theology was right. It turned out, of course, that he was right with how to pronounce the word [i.e. sahm] . . . but he was definitely wrong about how to properly correct a student.

On a more positive note, the Psalms are the foundation and epitome of worship music for Jews and Christians alike. One could read a Psalm each day and since there are one hundred and fifty, when you returned to the first psalm five months after beginning, it would be utterly fresh.

C.S. Lewis enjoyed the Psalms. The following passage comes from a letter written in 1940.

My enjoyment of the Psalms has been greatly increased lately. The point has been made before, but let me make it again: what an admirable thing it is in the divine economy that the sacred literature of the world should have been entrusted to a people whose poetry, depending largely on parallelism, should remain poetry in any language you translate it into.

And glorious poetry it is. The beauty of the songs extends far beyond the family “Lord is my shepherd . . .” And yet, it would be impossible to comprehend the number of grieving souls that have been comforted with the words “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

Most Christian traditions greatly value the Psalms, and many include them as a portion of the regular service or liturgy. And individuals who include them in the personal devotions are never disappointed.

C.S. Lewis included them in his prayer and devotion. In fact, he enjoyed the Psalms so much that in 1958 he wrote a book entitled Reflections on the Psalms. There he proclaims, “The most valuable thing the Psalms do for me is to express that same delight in God which made David dance.”

The Church has added an immense repertoire to the Psalms during the past two millennia, but they will never be replaced. In fact, many inspired songs owe a major debt to the Psalms themselves. This includes the Odes of Solomon, the first (post-Psalms) Christian hymnal (composed circa 100 A.D.).

Speaking of the Odes, I wrote a thesis on them many years ago, and have been considering writing a book about these treasures. Perhaps I’ll share more about them in the future.

_____

The lovely window pictured above is from a church in Fringford, England. David was likely a bit younger when most of the psalms he composed were written.

punctuation personalitiesWordsmiths love wordplay.

In fact, they love to toy with everything related to language, including punctuation. The entertaining illustration to the left was created by Carrie Keplinger and inspired me to produce my own supplement to her study.

The idea behind the graphic is to play on the meaning of different punctuation symbols and describe the type of personality they represent.

I took the notion a step further, and based some of my psychological diagnoses on the appearance of the images themselves. I also fudged a bit and included a couple that are common symbols, albeit not punctuation.

In the past I’ve shared here my fascination with fonts. This extends to pictographic languages like Egypt’s hieroglyphs. Consider this example:

horus

One may not know this particular image is associated with the Egyptian god Horus, but it’s immediately apparent it represents a familiar part of human anatomy.*

If you find the subject of hieroglyphics interesting, you may enjoy reading this article I recently discovered. The author briefly compares the thought of C.S. Lewis with that of the ancient philosopher Plotinus. He writes:

The Hieroglyphs are visible mirrors of the invisible, to use Jean-Luc Marion’s language, the recognition of which brings immediate awareness and experience of meaning rather than strict syllogistic definition. For Lewis, “thinking along” cannot be reduced to concepts.

For Plotinus, Nature cannot be reduced to analysis. As Marion says, when faced with the visible mirror of the invisible one must look beyond the physical and experience the infinite gaze. Although the sunbeam is a physical reality I think it is a great example of “looking along” because it stirs us up to contemplate Beauty itself. Indeed God is Beauty for Lewis and for Plotinus (though not the Christian God for the latter).

Returning to the Subject of Punctuation

Punctuation is a fundamental tool of writers. And, like the broader subject of grammar, it is incumbent on us to do our best to use it properly.

“Improper” usage is not necessarily wrong, however. On numerous occasions we may intentionally make an “error” to achieve a specific purpose. Or, we may object to certain conventions and challenge the ever-evolving status quo. For example, I avoided unnecessarily capitalizing “internet” long before it became acceptable. I also dropped the hyphen from email, etc. prior to that becoming fashionable.**

Naturally, when we are seeking publication of our work, we need to conform to whatever stylistic standards the venue follows. However, in our “personal” writing, I long ago learned there is no value in being enslaved to “official” literary conventions. After all, these seemingly rigid rules themselves are fluid, shifting with ever more frequent speed.

I began with the declaration that lovers of words inherently enjoy wordplay. I certainly do. One evidence of that is found below, in my supplemental list to the chart at the top of this column.

Immediately upon reading “punctuation social personalities,” my own mind, unbidden, began to consider additions. A moment later I had pen in hand, and the rest is history.

Belated Warning: You may experience a similar irresistible response. 

punctuation personalities 2

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* A variation of the eye of Horus is actually found on American currency . . . at the peak of the pyramid that adorns the one dollar bill. (It’s officially called the “Eye of Providence,” but its association with the pyramid makes that title rather unconvincing.) It is actually reproduced on America’s money because it is found on the reverse of Great Seal of the United States. Yes, it’s portrayed on the hidden side of the extremely familiar eagle clutching an olive branch and arrows that we see all of the time.

** I’m not suggesting I am a trendsetter . . . merely that I anticipated the eventual elimination of these superfluous elements early on. Well, it’s due to that prediction combined with my own typographical prejudices, such as disliking the over-hyphenation of the English language.

Autistic Considerations

August 22, 2013 — 14 Comments

Bill & Barbara ChristopherMost of us have a friend, loved one, or acquaintance affected by autism. I’m not sure if this would have been accurate a generation ago.

And I’m not merely referring to the lack of proper diagnosis of the problem. There are numerous reports that its frequency is increasing.

Autism is not necessarily debilitating. In minor cases it’s barely noticeable. Like many problems, its severity is manifested across a wide spectrum.

I have autism on my mind now, as the new school year approaches and my wife sets up her special education classroom. She’s excited about the return of her precious kids. It’s wonderful how so many of them make amazing process both in academics and social abilities.

The return of school, however, is not the primary reason for my current thoughts. I’m writing an article I hope to submit to an Autism magazine, inspired by a recent interview I conducted.

I was privileged to speak at length with the father of a severely autistic son who will be known to many readers of Mere Inkling. William Christopher, who played Father Mulcahy on M*A*S*H, has been a prominent spokesman for autism concerns for many years. (A link to the article appears below.)

Along with his wife Barbara, Christopher wrote a book entitled Mixed Blessings. It recounted their early struggles providing Ned with everything he needed to make his life as full as it could possibly be. Due to their diligence and deep love for their son, Ned continues to enjoy his active life today.

They embody the noble type of earnest love C.S. Lewis describes in The Four Loves. There he says that true love is gift-love, not seeking increased dependence on itself, but liberating the beloved to become as independent as they possibly can.

The maternal instinct . . . is a Gift-love, but one that needs to give; therefore needs to be needed. But the proper aim of giving is to put the recipient in a state where he no longer needs our gift. We feed children in order that they may soon be able to feed themselves; we teach them in order that they may soon not need our teaching.

Thus a heavy task is laid upon this Gift-love. It must work towards its own abdication. We must aim at making ourselves superfluous. The hour when we can say “They need me no longer” should be our reward. But the instinct, simply in its own nature, has no power to fulfil this law.

The instinct desires the good of its object, but not simply; only the good it can itself give. A much higher love—a love which desires the good of the object as such, from whatever source that good comes—must step in and help or tame the instinct before it can make the abdication.

This despite the counsel of one early specialist who advised them that since Ned was adopted they should just take him and trade him in for a child who wasn’t defective. Yes, someone really said that to them.

If I end up publishing the article, I’ll mention it again for those who might be interested in reading it. In the meantime, the extensive interview appears in the current issue of a journal I edit for military chaplains, called Curtana: Sword of Mercy.

When we look at a list of autistic traits, it’s normal to recognize some of them in ourselves. That shouldn’t surprise us, since most of these traits are completely “normal” in various degrees.

It is a commonplace practice to perform posthumous diagnoses of well known figures, based upon detailed descriptions of their behaviors. In that vein, I found online lists that included the following personages as possibly autistic: Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein, James Joyce, Stanley Kubrick, Lewis Carroll, and Hans Christian Andersen.

Oh, and there’s another name I discovered in one article. The writer suggested that C.S. Lewis’ social preferences suggest that he too suffered the mild version of autism, typically called “Asperger’s Syndrome.”

I don’t intend to discuss that now, but I wanted to share a fascinating concept I encountered while researching for this column. In Autism, Art and Children: The Stories We Draw, I read the following about imaginary worlds like Narnia and Middle Earth:

It is this element of world building that forms a bridge between the impersonal character of research and clinical observations and the individual young artists with autism in whom our interest especially lies.

Sacks (1995) points out the importance of fantasy worlds to some individuals with autism . . . this predilection for alternate worlds is frequently encountered in many high-functioning people with autism . . . such high-functioning individuals with autism “describe a great fondness for, almost an addiction to, alternative worlds, imaginary worlds such as those of C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, or worlds they imagine themselves.”

Illustrating such world-building activities by an entire family (two parents and their son), all of whom have autism, Sacks remarks, “They have spent years constructing an imaginary world with its own landscapes and geography (endlessly mapped and drawn), its own languages, currency, laws, and customs—a world in which fantasy and rigidity play equal parts.”

This creative activity is of particular interest, for many of the children we have met have individual fantasies in alternative worlds that play major roles in their lives and activities.

I find this analysis captivating. I am utterly fascinated by the construction of imaginary settings. That’s one reason I love the alternate history genre, as it combines the familiar with elements that have transformed them into something inherently different.

I must confess I’ve occupied many an idle hour imaging new worlds. I’ve even invested a fair amount of time in world-building myself—for an alternative history for which I still compile notes and ideas, despite the fact it’s unlikely to ever be written. I don’t attribute this to autism, but it serves as another example of just how much all of us have in common.

The fact is none of us is perfectly healthy—physically, emotionally, psychologically, or spiritually. We are who we are. We can strive to improve many aspects of our lives (and the wellbeing of others), but attaining perfection is impossible in this life.

In the meantime, we can be grateful for wonderful people like Barbara and Bill Christopher, who have courageously shared their own journey to aid us in ours. Their willingness to forsake their rightful shield of privacy and step out into the glare of the public—for our benefit—reveals both their love for their children and their generosity towards strangers.

_____

The wonderful photograph at the top of the column features Bill and Barbara Christopher. Barbara had a guest role as a nurse in “Dear Mildred,” during which the two of them sang a duet.

The interview with Bill Christopher can be downloaded for free in the current issue of Curtana: Sword of Mercy, which is available here.

A Narnian Madlib

July 23, 2013 — 9 Comments

EVO-WWI-064-01060I got to savor one of the joys of being a grandpa today, watching over two of my five lovely granddaughters while their parents traveled to an important business meeting.

Naturally, we had fun playing, drawing, tossing a ball for their German shepherd, building things, cleaning up their room (not quite so “fun”) and—since it’s summer—playing with water balloons (extremely fun, even though I got drenched).

We also did a madlib, one of those “phrasal templates” popularized by Roger Price and Leonard Stern in the 1950s. These simple word games are entertaining and educational. And, even for novice writers, they’re not too challenging to compose. After all, the stories themselves are by nature brief and rather superficial.

Today I even set my granddaughters in front of an episode of The Powerpuff Girls so I could write a short scene from Narnia for them. You’ll find it below.

I had forgotten how much fun we had with madlibs when our own children were young. We made many up on the spur of the moment, and laughed at the silly combinations of word that resulted. The process, as most readers know, involves randomly selecting a series of words for inclusion in the narrative. With a lack of imagination, the readings can fall a bit flat, but typically you end up with some (accidentally) witty wordplay.

One of the benefits of madlibs is how they can be used more than once. While the outline of the story remains the same, of course, the choices made by readers generate amazing diversity.

Most madlibs are admittedly rather juvenile. That’s because they are written for juveniles. They rely on providing specific types of words, such as nouns or adjectives. Theoretically, you could devise a madlib as complex or sophisticated as you desire. For example, an entertaining tale certainly could doubtless be woven by including random selections for the following word choices.

____________ prime number

____________ copular verb

____________ Napoleonic regimental commander

____________ homograph

____________ life stage of a butterfly (other than larva or pupa)

____________ ditransitive verb

____________ type of psychosis

____________ infielder for 1874 Chicago White Stockings

____________ gerund

____________ rare earth mineral

____________ monotransitive verb

____________ early kabbalist (other than Bahye ben Asher ibn Halawa)

____________ type of arachnid with blue coloration

____________ free predictive

____________ reciprocal pronoun

____________ chemical process (other than esterification)

Unfortunately, I don’t have time to write the story accompanying this worthy list, but if you should write it, I’d love to read it.

There are a number of fan sites online that generate madlibs. I won’t recommend any since the ones I’ve glanced at today are merely advertising collections for sale. (I also found the examples I experimented with to be rather feeble . . . even weaker than the story I wrote today in a single hour.)

You will search in vain if you’re seeking a C.S. Lewis reference to madlibs. However, he was a master wordsmith, who recognized well their power, and greatly loved humor. The following passage, from “Prudery and Philology,”
refers to the versatility and weight of language, and includes a valuable caution.

We are sometimes told that everything in the world can come into literature. This is perhaps true in some sense. But it is a dangerous truth unless we balance it with the statement that nothing can go into literature except words, or (if you prefer) that nothing can go in except by becoming words. And words, like every other medium, have their own
proper powers and limitations.

The brief tale below is not pretentious, so you need not fear it exceeding its limitation. It simply is what it is . . . one grandfather’s passing literary adventure with his grandchildren.

It you like “Sharpbeak’s Narnian Adventure,” you’re welcome to download a PDF copy of the story I’ve appended to the end of the column. It’s 100% free, and I’m not trying to sell a collection of madlibs after hooking you. Besides, if I was trying to make a profit off of anything including the word “Narnian,” I have no doubt lawyers would be descending upon me in droves.

The Words You Will Need

____________ adjective

____________ animal

____________ adjective

____________ adjective

____________ something  you drink

____________ color

____________ adverb

____________ adjective

____________ adjective

____________ meal time

____________ adjective

____________ adjective

____________ adjective

____________ adjective

____________ plural noun

____________ plural noun

____________ adjective

____________ adjective

____________ adjective

____________ animal

____________ adjective

____________ food

____________ food

____________ food

____________ place

____________ adverb

____________ adjective

____________ place

____________ number

____________ plural relative

____________ verb

____________ adjective

____________ plural monster

The Story Into Which You Insert Your Words

Once upon a time, when Narnia was still young, a/an ____________, young eagle named Sharpbeak decided to set out for an adventure. A wise ____________ climbed his ____________ tree to talk to him before he left. He crawled into the eagle’s ____________ nest and said, “That was a long climb. I’m thirsty. May I have a cup of ____________?”

As the two friends watched the sun set over the ____________ mountains, the eagle said ____________, “I wonder what’s on the other side of those mountains?”

His ____________ companion warned him, “Beware of the ____________ giants in the north. They like nothing better than to eat us Talking Animals for ____________ or even for a snack. Sharpbeak promised he would avoid the giants.

Then his friend said, “Don’t forget that there are also ____________ dragons living on some of the mountaintops. They don’t appreciate ____________ visitors. If you surprise them, they may blast you with a ____________ burst of their ___________ flames. And definitely don’t disturb their treasure of ____________ and ____________.”

The eagle said, “I’ll be sure to watch out for dragons when I go on my ____________ adventure.”

“Oh,” added Sharpbeak’s friend, “I wouldn’t advise you to fly over the ____________ ocean either. What if you flew as far as you could, and you didn’t find a/an ____________ island where you could land?” The eagle looked worried. His wise friend added, “If you ever find yourself in dangerous circumstances, remember that you can call on Aslan to protect you. I heard that once he once allowed a timid ____________ to walk safely across a stormy lake without sinking.”

“My,” said Sharpbeak, “that would be a terrible thing.” He looked up at the ____________ stars, twinkling in the sky. The two friends had spoken long into the night. “I didn’t realize it was so late,” he said. All I have to offer you to eat is ____________ and ____________.”

“That would be nice,” said his friend. He reached into his pocket and said, “and we could have this ____________ for dessert. But, after we eat I had better scurry home to my ____________, since I can’t imagine sleeping in a tree. I mean, if a storm comes up, you have the wind blowing ____________ and ___________ rain pouring down in torrents. I’m much happier living in a ____________ with my ____________ ____________. While you go on your journey, I will stay home and ____________.”

The two friends gave each other a big hug. The eagle’s feathers tickled his friend, who said, “May Aslan watch over you during your travels.”

The next morning the ____________ eagle soared off to begin his adventure. Sharpbeak would be sure to avoid all of the giants, dragons and ____________ along the way. But that’s a story for another day.

Epilogue

Those of you curious about how my granddaughters’ story turned out, should read on.

Once upon a time, when Narnia was still young, a big, young eagle decided to go off for an adventure. A wise deer climbed his pink tree to talk to him before he left. He crawled into the eagle’s fuzzy nest and said, “That was a long climb. I’m thirsty. May I have a cup of juice?

As the two friends watched the sun set over the blue mountains, the eagle said roughly, “I wonder what’s on the other side of those mountains?”

His wide companion warned him, “Beware of the cold giants in the north. They like nothing better than to eat us Talking Animals for breakfast or even for a snack.” Sharpbeak promised he would avoid the giants.

Then his friend said, “Don’t forget that there are also hairy dragons living on some of the mountaintops. They don’t appreciate old visitors. If you surprise them, they may blast you with a soft burst of their speedy flames. And definitely don’t disturb their treasure of trash cans and flowers.”

The eagle said, “I’ll be sure to watch out for dragons when I go on my fun adventure.”

“Oh,” added his friend, “and I wouldn’t advise you to fly out over the heavy ocean either. What if you flew as far as you could, and you didn’t find a dark island where you could land?” The eagle looked worried. His wise friend added, “If you ever find yourself in dangerous circumstances, remember that you can call on Aslan to protect you. I heard that once he once allowed a timid bunny to walk safely across a stormy lake without sinking.”

“My,” said the eagle, “that would be a terrible thing.” He looked up at the watery stars, twinkling in the sky. The two friends had spoken long into the night. “I didn’t realize it was so late,” he said. “All I have to offer you to eat is noodles and cheese.”

“That would be nice,” said his friend. He reached into his pocket and said, “and we could have this snack bar for dessert. But, after we eat I had better scurry home to my fairgrounds, since I can’t imagine sleeping in a tree. I mean, if a storm comes up, you have the wind blowing bravely and messy rain pouring down in torrents. I’m much happier living in a playground with my ten sisters. While you go on your journey, I will stay home and dance.”

The two friends gave each other a big hug. The eagle’s feathers tickled his friend, who said, “May Aslan watch over you during your travels.”

The next morning the brown eagle soared off to begin his adventure. He would be sure to avoid all of the giants, dragons and dinosaurs along the way. But that’s a story for another day.

Downloadable Version

Here’s the story. On the PDF, it is preceded by a list of the type of words required to fill in the various blanks.

Narnian Madlib

I edit a free online journal for military chaplains. Articles have been contributed by clergy from most of the world’s continents, sharing their experiences and opinions. Much of the material will be of interest to anyone interested in the nature of ministry within the armed forces.

The current issue was “published” at the end of June, and includes one article that may be of particular interest to the readers of Mere Inkling.

On page fifty-seven you’ll find the preface to a series of six letters. They are collected under the same title as this post, “Screwtape Goes to War.” It is available via this link: Curtana: Sword of Mercy.

Those familiar with C.S. Lewis’ masterpiece of diabolical correspondence will require no introduction. Here’s an excerpt from one of the six epistles gathered in this modest collection. Remember, it is from the pen of a senior demon advising a junior Tempter on how to corrupt his “patient” (in this case a chaplain).

While preaching can in theory be used by the Enemy to draw his servants closer to himself, it’s equally possible to use the pulpit to drive a wedge between the Enemy and those ordained to serve him. In fact, there is something uniquely satisfying about using a chaplain’s own preaching to immunize him to the disgusting message of hope and forgiveness.

There are so many tactics to undermining the effectiveness of your chaplain’s sermons . . . where to begin? I have found the following methods to be most useful.

1. Encourage him to subscribe to all sorts of periodicals and keep him as far away from the Enemy’s book as possible. Tell him that by this means he “will remain in touch with the culture” to which he is preaching. We do not want him opening the Scriptures. It’s not too challenging persuading many clergy today that they’ll bore and alienate their audience by citing passages from that archaic text. Let him explore all sorts of publications so he discovers ones he honestly enjoys. That will make the choice easier when he looks on his desk at a tempting contemporary publication lying next to that black book.

Not all journals are created equal, of course. Some actually contribute to the knowledge and comprehension of the Enemy’s book. Avoid these. Secular publications are usually safe, the more so when they celebrate selfishness, man’s favorite religion. The most precious, however, are those published by “religious” presses. You know those to which I refer. The ones penned by our allies who where wear the garb of the Enemy but live with either themselves or some other idol on the throne of their souls. Those who may praise him with their lips but deny him access to their hearts. Mind you, these documents need to be chosen with great care. But if you can find some which appeal to him, it will aid you immeasurably in bringing about his demise. . . .

Curtana discusses both historical matters and contemporary issues. It is interfaith and international in scope. The website includes a “subscription” form for those who wish to be notified whenever a new issue of the journal is published.

Don’t be confused when you see the date on the current issue. Like many minimally-staffed, free publications, we’ve fallen slightly “behind schedule.” Thus, the current issue is dated Fall & Winter 2011. (I promise this is due not merely to procrastination, but also to the editor’s chronic propensity for terribly over-extending himself.) At any rate, Curtana 3.1 is indeed the issue which includes the afore-described article.

Writing Awards

April 21, 2012 — 8 Comments

It’s good to be appreciated. For a lesson I’m teaching later this week I’ll be using a profound song entitled “Legacy,” which was written and recorded by Nichole Nordeman. I’ll place a link for it at the end of the blog. (Wouldn’t want you to get distracted and not return to this page!)

Nordeman’s anointed words remind us to treasure what is truly important, and to consciously ponder the legacy we desire to leave when we’ve breathed our last. She acknowledges that it’s nice to receive praise, but suggests there is so much more to life. What follows is only a portion of her inspiring ballad.

I don’t mind if you’ve got something nice to say about me

And I enjoy an accolade like the rest

You could take my picture and hang it in a gallery

Of all who’s who and so-n-so’s that used to be the best

At such’n’such . . . it wouldn’t matter much

I won’t lie, it feels alright to see your name in lights

We all need an ‘’Atta boy’ or ‘’Atta girl’

But in the end I’d like to hang my hat on more besides

The temporary trappings of this world

I want to leave a legacy

How will they remember me?

Did I choose to love?

Did I point to You enough

To make a mark on things?

I want to leave an offering

A child of mercy and grace

   who
 blessed your name unapologetically

And leave that kind of legacy

It’s in this context that I mention I’ve been nominated for the Versatile Blogger Award. It’s nice that someone wanted to pat me on the back this way, and I like the title of the award, so I decided to accept it. I guess the confirmation of your acceptance (and the actual awarding of the accolade) happens automatically (but presumably not supernaturally) when you post seven points that illustrate your personal versatility. I’ll do that, momentarily.

The gifted C.S. Lewis was noted for his own versatility. Few other people have excelled in such diverse literary fields. Very few. Lewis was a brilliant author of fiction and nonfiction. He was a preeminent literary historian and critic. Much of his poetry was inspiring, although it never attained the measure he desired for it. He is also one of the most highly regarded Christian apologists of the twentieth century. He had few literary equals. Very few.

While Lewis was the recipient of various awards, and accepted them gracefully, he remained quite modest. (One of his most noteworthy honors came in the Carnegie Award, the United Kingdom’s highest honour for children’s literature.) The desire for accolades didn’t sway Lewis from his course.

Likewise, I’ll remain on my course, and not pursue awards or praise. That said, I am pleased to see so many people enjoying this modest blog. (Thank you all!)

Seven quick things about me:

1. I was Thespian of the Year my senior year in high school.

2. While stationed in the Republic of Korea during the 1988 Olympics I watched the United States fall before the Soviet Union in soccer.

3. Although I never played a musical instrument in high school, I joined the University of Washington Husky Marching Band while in college.

4. First car was a 1961 MGA sports car. I’m not quite as old as that sounds; it was already a classic when I got it. (Sure wish I still had it today.)

5. I wrote a Master’s Thesis on the Odes of Solomon, the first Christian hymnal.

6. I once served on a Christian conference committee with Jim Otto, the greatest center ever to play in the NFL.

7. Speaking of awards, in addition to Air Force and Joint medals, during my military career I also received medals from the United States Army and the United States Navy.

P.S. – I promised a link to a Nichole Nordeman’s ballad “Legacy.” Here it is: Legacy by Nichole Nordeman.