Archives For Words

Filling the Shoes of Giants

September 22, 2020 — 6 Comments

One thing all humans have in common, is that we are mortal. Immortality is not inherent to our nature, and eternal life can only come as a gift from our Creator. All men and women live and die. In the words of Ecclesiastes:

It is the same for all, since the same event [i.e. death] happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As the good one is, so is the sinner, and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath (Ecclesiastes 9:2).

Naturally, there are many metrics by which to measure a person’s life. For my purpose today, I’m thinking about people who exerted an outsized* influence on culture through their testimony for Christ.

Richard John Neuhaus was such a man. Neuhaus served an integrated Lutheran congregation in Brooklyn during the 1960s, where his reputation as a socially conscious pastor began. Following the Roe versus Wade decision, Neuhaus’ involvement in liberal politics ebbed. However, his commitment to applying Christian ethics to society remained strong. In 1990, he became a Roman Catholic. He also founded the Institute on Religion and Public Life which continues to publish its ecumenical journal First Things.⁑

In his tribute to his uncle, “Can the Shoes of Richard John Neuhaus Be Filled?” Pastor Peter A. Speckhard acknowledges the sad prospects of lesser voices.

Sincerely Christian intellectuals who can articulate a solid orthodox take on any subject, but to whom nobody but their students and blog followers feel any urge to listen, are also a dime a dozen.⁂

Speckhard’s point is that there are many who are brilliant and devout, but few who can fill the shoes of giants. Speckhard offers this stark appraisal, however, without seeking to discourage other Christians from speaking to whomever might listen. (Which is much-needed encouragement to bloggers who are disappointed at how few read their posts.)

C.S. Lewis, an Even Taller Giant

As great as Neuhaus’ contribution to the advance of Christianity has been, it cannot match that of C.S. Lewis. Lewis, after all, was the great Christian apologist of the twentieth century. (An “apologist” is a person who argues in the defense of something that is controversial, in this case, the claim of Jesus himself that he “is the way, the truth, and the life [and] no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

While Neuhaus’ witness has continued to influence many Americans, Lewis’ impact has been felt around the world. Not only has God used his works to convert many readers, Lewis’ writings continue to teach and encourage those seeking the truth today.

I have not yet had an opportunity to read The Fame of C.S. Lewis. From the reviews, it is not so much about Lewis’ writing, but the way in which his reputation has grown. Thus the subtitle: A Controversialist’s Reception in Britain and America. The author addresses one of the myths that has bothered me for years.

You may have heard the contention that Lewis is more popular in American than he is in Britain. It often carries a negative innuendo and comes across (to me, at least) like: “Lewis is more popular in the naïve, religiously unsophisticated colonies, than he is in enlightened, theologically cultured Britain.” In fact, Stephanie Derrick concludes, “the scale of Lewis’ renown was greater in the States than in Britain in large part because the difference in population there amounted to a much larger audience.”

Derrick addresses “larger question: how is renown made and kept?” She argues that “much of Lewis’s popularity is properly attributed to factors besides Lewis’s talents.”

Indeed, much of The Fame of C.S. Lewis is devoted to exploring the external factors that shaped Lewis’s success—the many actors and circumstances that have contributed to his popularity. Institutions, editors, changing social forces, and audiences have all had a hand in moulding Lewis’s image.

She is certainly correct that a wide range of factors, recognized and unknown, influence how we view people. This is particularly true after the individual (e.g. Rev. Richard Neuhaus) has become a part of history, once death has extinguished them, as Ecclesiastes might say.

However, I disagree that Lewis’ fame is an accident, the result of a unique combination of uncontrolled variables. On the contrary, I believe his reputation is based upon (1) his literary talents, (2) his humility and transparency, and—most importantly—because, (3) at the core of his most significant work, we find truth. The foundation of Lewis’ most precious writing is based on an unchanging, even eternally, relevant foundation.

I have no doubt God will continue to raise up other Christian apologists with anointed and far-reaching ministries. Ravi Zacharias, ⁑⁑ who recently died, is such a champion. There will be others to fill the shoes of C.S. Lewis and Zacharias, but their successors will require very remarkable gifts.

Bonus

One final link. This one is to the Moral Apologetics website, which has some very good articles on C.S. Lewis. And, if you decide to subscribe to their free newsletter, they allow you download The Ichabod Letters: Epistles from a Junior Demon. (Author Elton Higgs says his “study in demonic subterfuge [is] modeled on C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters.”)


* That’s the first time I’ve ever used that word. Seems too slangish for my tastes. But apparently it has been around since it dates to the early 1800s. (By the way, I hope you appreciated my facetious use of “slangish,” which is considerably younger and more slangy.)

First Things is an ecumenical publication, but my subjective estimate is that about 70% of the articles relate rather directly to Roman Catholicism. They offer a worthwhile newsletter featuring free access to a number of their articles.

⁂ Peter A. Speckhard, “Can the Shoes of Richard John Neuhaus Be Filled?” Concordia Theological Quarterly 77 (2013), 342-53. The article is available here.

⁑⁑ Zacharias leaves behind a lasting legacy, particularly in the form of the ministry he founded, RZIM. Check it out for some thoughtful resources from Zacharias and other like minded contemporary Christian apologists.

What is Your Epithet?

August 24, 2020 — 5 Comments

Everyone has epithets, even though we’re probably not aware of most of them. Some might be unflattering, but we could be pleasantly surprised by positive descriptive phrases people associate with our names.

First, it’s necessary for us to clear the air. Although the modern usage of the word “epithet” is usually negative, that is not the sole—or even primary—use of epithet. Far from being derogatory, most epithets are affirming. That’s because “epithet” is derived from the Greek verb epitithenai which simply means “to put on.” Basically, an epithet is anything that’s added to a person’s name to distinguish them as a particular individual.

Let me offer a simple quiz. What common epithet is often linked to all of the following historical figures?

Charlemagne, King of the Franks
Catherine, the Empress of Russia
Peter, Tsar of Russia
Alexander, the King of Macedonia
Kamehameha I, King of Hawaii
Constantine I, first Christian Emperor of Rome
Frederick, King of Prussia
Rhodri, King of Gwynedd

We can expand this list with several historical figures recorded in the holy Scriptures:

Herod, King of Judea
Cyrus, Founder of the Persian Empire
Darius, Third Shahanshah of the Persian Empire

Obviously, I provided far more options than necessary for you to discern the common epithet. Each of them is, of course, called “the Great.” (Bonus points to anyone recognizing Rhodri the Great; I assume only Mere Inkling’s Welsh readers will know who he was.)

If you think my list is lengthy, check out the wikipedia list of people referred to as “the Great.” And feel free to supplement it, if you recall someone they missed.

A common Christian epithet is “Apostle.” It’s not really a title, though it’s frequently used that way, especially when applied to the original fourteen.⁑ This Orthodox Christian website provides a list of early missionaries who earned the same epithet, including Patrick the Apostle to Ireland and Ansgar, the Apostle to the North.

Back to the Question

So, given that epithets can be neutral or positive, are you aware of any of yours? Our ten grandchildren are developing wonderful senses of humor. I’ve joked with them all ever since they were tiny. More than once they’ve called me their “Funny Grandpa.” That’s an epithet I can be proud of.

Back in my high school years, because I spoke with (assumed) authority on nearly any subject, a couple people called me the “Voice of Experience.” Which just reminded me—literally, as I was typing this—that back at my first active duty assignment, our wing commander publicly bestowed on me an epithet.

There at Reese Air Force Base we were conducting our very first Military Tattoo ceremony. Quite unexpectedly, after doing the yeoman’s work* in composing the lengthy ceremony, he selected me to be the emcee for the extravagant community event. The event flowed flawlessly. The next day, Colonel (later General) Lillard referred to me as the “Voice of Reese.” My wife was suitably impressed!

Now, I have no doubt I’ve accumulated a number of pejorative epithets during my life as well. The good thing about those though, is that people usually don’t share them to our face.

As for your own epithets, you might think of words that friends repeatedly use to describe you. If you’ve been called humble, trustworthy, brave, patient or witty by more than one person, you might be surprised to learn how many others associate that trait with you as well. Talented and smart are also common appellations from those who admire your your various skills or intellect. Sensitive is a nice epithet to own, although I confess it’s seldom applied to me.

Ruth Pitter, C.S. Lewis’ Friend

Pitter (1897-1992) was a highly regarded British poet. Living in artistic circles, it’s unsurprising that she describes her early life as “bohemian.” Bohemians tend to regard that epithet as admirable, while practical people such as myself consider it a negative term. Bohemian, of course, refers to “socially unconventional” behavior which may cover a multitude of alternative lifestyles.

Pitter, however, was also a friend of C.S. Lewis. And it was through his writings and their conversations that she became a Christian. In 1985, two decades after his death, she wrote,

As to my faith, I owe it to C.S. Lewis. For much of my life I lived more or less as a Bohemian, but when the second war broke out, Lewis broadcast several times, and also published some little books (notably The Screwtape Letters), and I was fairly hooked. I came to know him personally, and he came here several times. Lewis’s stories, so very entertaining but always about the war between good and evil, became a permanent part of my mental and spiritual equipment.

At one point in Lewis’ life he said although he was a confirmed bachelor, if he were to propose marriage, it would be to Ruth.

The two writers often critiqued one another’s works. In 1946, Lewis sent the following letter to Pitter. I reproduce the first half of it here not for its content per se, but because of its literary use of the word “epithet.” Presumably, seventy years ago its deprecatory usage had not gained dominance. (What strikes me as the most amazing thing about this letter, is the way in which the two share such a comprehensive knowledge that Lewis did not even need to cite the sources of the quotations to which he refers!)

Dear Miss Pitter–

Certainly a great many good lines have an epithet in them and depend principally on that epithet. But by no means all. Sometimes the work is done by a special use of a Noun:

multosque per annos sustentata ruet moles et machina mundi. (a)

or

how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes. (b)

sometimes by a verb:

J’ai mendiee la mort chez les peuples sauvages (c)
—where to get the effect one would almost have to translate “I have begged death as bread.” Or

Forever climbing up the climbing wave (d)

Though here something else, the “Figure” of repetition, comes in. Sometimes it turns on a Noun metaphorical:

Oh my America, my Newfoundland! (e)

Again and again it turns on Metaphor:

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame. (f)

That from the nunnery
Of thy chaste breast. (g)

But I beneath a rougher sea
And whelmed in deeper gulfs than he. (h)

But in all these there is something you may regard as equivalent to an epithet. There is another kind of poetry which seems to do it by simple statement:

Thou’ll break my heart, thou bonnie bird,
That sings on yonder bough. (i)

or

Twenty days and twenty nights
They went in red blood to the knee,
And he saw neither sun nor moon
But heard the roaring of the sea. (j)

No one will say that bonnie in the first or red in the second has much to do with the result. One might at a pinch say that the apostrophe to a bird in the first and the whole myth in the second are the same kind of thing as an epithet. But then there are still passages where the statement is of the most factual kind and yet (in its context) it is very poetry:

Ronsard me célébrait du temps que j’étais belle (k)

or

Fulsere quondam candidi tibi soles
Cum uentitabas quo puella ducebat
Amata tantum quantum amabitur nulla. (l)

Oh, and what about the chansons de gestes?

Roland is dead. God has his soul to Heaven (m)
(Roland est mort. Dieux en ad l’anme aux cieulx)

or

Paien unt tort et Chestien unt dreit
(Paynims [non-Christians] are wrong and Christians are right) (n)

The truth is that there are a great many different kinds of poetry and extreme roughness (or smoothness) evocative epithet (or plain statement), the metaphorical (or literal) the colloquial (or rhetorical) may all, in their place, rise to perfection.

And Finally, For Dessert

That was a lengthy quotation—particularly for readers who don’t thrive on poetry or literary criticism. Here, however, is a delightful use of the word epithet from C.S. Lewis’ youth. In a 1915 letter to his closest friend, Arthur Greeves, Lewis gently chides him for his application of an “impertinent epithet.”

It may be true that it is easier to assign music to people we know, than to conjure up people to fit the music, but I deny that anyone’s character is really unlike their appearance. The physical appearance, to my mind, is the expression and result of the other thing—soul, ego, psyche, intellect—call it what you will. And this outward expression cannot really differ from the soul.

If the correspondence between a soul & body is not obvious at first, then your conception either of that soul or that body must be wrong. Thus, I am “chubby”—to use your impertinent epithet, because I have a material side to me: because I like sleeping late, good food & clothes etc. as well as sonnets & thunderstorms.


* Yes, I’m consciously mixing my military metaphors. While I served as a USAF “airman,” the term yeoman is a junior Navy rating or rank (i.e. the people who do most of the work).
⁑ The original fourteen include Matthias, who replaced Judas, and Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles.

Sources for the citations in Lewis’ letter to Pitter:
(a) Lucretius, De Rerum Natura: “The mighty and complex system of the world, upheld through many years, shall crash into ruins.”
(b) Robert Herrick, “Upon Julia’s Clothes” (1648).
(c) “I begged for death among the savages.”
(d) Tennyson, “The Lotus-Eaters” (1833).
(e) John Donne, Elegies, “To His Mistress Going to Bed” (c. 1595).
(f) Shakespeare, Sonnet 129 (1609).
(g) Richard Lovelace, “To Lucasta, Going to the Wars” (1649).
(h) William Cowper, “The Cast-Away.”
(i) Robert Burns, “The Banks o’ Doon” (1791).
(j) Thomas Rymer and Queen of Elfland.
(k) Pierre de Ronsard, Sonnets pour Hélène: “Ronsard would sing my praise at the time when I was beautiful.”
(l) Catullus, Carmen: “Once the sun shone bright for you,/when you would go whither your sweetheart led,/she who was loved by me as none will ever be loved.”
(m) The Song of Roland (12th century).
(n) The Song of Roland.

This is the most amazing post you will ever read about hyperbole. Well, until you write one yourself and use even more exaggerated adjectives.

Hyperbole is a curious rhetorical device, a frequent element of satire. Unfortunately, hyperbole is too often employed in a sloppy way (e.g. “he was the worst politician ever”). Yet, in skillful hands it can be quite effective. For example, in English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, when Lewis discusses poet Michael Drayton,* he writes:

When he speaks simply as any lover he can sometimes outsoar all the sonneteers except Shakespeare. . . . Yet again, and in quite a different vein, that of towering hyperbole, Drayton (this time with no rival at all, neither Shakespeare nor any other) sets up the seamark beyond which poetry in that kind has never gone nor could go:

And Queens hereafter shall be glad to live
Upon the almes of thy superfluous prayse.

If he had never written another verse, these two would secure him that praise which is due to men who have done some one thing to perfection.

I was thinking about hyperbole after coming across a wonderful quote by Erasmus of Rotterdam⁑  about his contemporary, the reformer Martin Luther. Though they shared many concerns, they parted company on how best to reform the Roman Catholic Church. Erasmus objected to Luther’s tendency to take every disagreement to extremes, and he named the Wittenberg professor “Doctor Hyperbolicus.”

It reminded me of one of our sons. As a youngster, he suffered from that common childhood disease, excessive summa hyperbolism. Everything was either the best thing ever, or the worst thing he’d ever encountered. Sometimes I referred to him as the “King of Hyperbole,” which was hyperbole on my own part. He was more like a Duke of Hyperbole.

John Colet⁂ was another English scholar discussed in Lewis’ longest work. Colet was a theologian, and a strong advocate of biblically-grounded morality. As we frequently find, Lewis’ assessment is informative, and entertaining.

Colet is, in fact, a declamatory moralist. By calling him declamatory I do not at all mean that he is insincere, but that his methods are those of the declamation; repetition, hyperbole, and a liberal use of emotional adjectives. The morality he wishes to enforce is harsh and ascetic. . . .

The truth is that Colet is a Platonist at heart and has really little interest in the temporal and mutable world below the moon. . . . A cloistered perfectionist, who happens to be also a rhetorician, often says, not exactly more than he means, but more than he understands. He leaves out the reservations: he has really no idea of the crudely literal applications which will be made. (English Literature in the Sixteenth Century)

Hyperbole in Lewis’ Personal Life

The First World War began in 1914. It was a conflict which would cost ten million military lives. C.S. Lewis himself would be counted among a greater number, who suffered terrible wounds during combat. At the beginning of the conflict, Lewis gently chided his father for embracing a growing British fear.

My dear Papy, You have surpassed yourself. The popular press . . . remarks on the possibility of an invasion: the idea, after being turned over in your mind, appears in your next letter, clothed as “it is absolutely certain that he is going to invade England” Surely . . . this is rather hyperbole?

The one thing that Britain can depend upon is her fleet: and in any case Germany has her hands full enough. You will perhaps say that I am living in a fool’s paradise. “Maybe thon.” But, providing it only be a paradise is that not preferable to a wise and calculating inferno? Let us have wisdom by all means, so long as it makes us happy: but as soon as it runs against our peace of mind, let us throw it away and “carpe diem.” I often wonder how you came to have such a profound and genuine philosopher for your son, don’t you?

In a 1949 letter he explains to a correspondent that the Gospel claims to Christ’s divinity were not hyperbolic appellations.

The Jews may have had their own use of hyperbole but the last direction in wh. they would have used it was to deify a man. The absolute chasm which they put between Jahveh and His creatures was just the thing that cut them off from Pagans.

No other race could have told the stories they told about Moses & Elijah and yet left these persons absolutely, sheerly human. What was Jesus condemned for by the Sanhedrin? Surely His declaration “I am etc.” must have been recorded right?

And, finally, a quotation C.S. Lewis selected for inclusion in his anthology of George MacDonald’s writings.

“But how,” says a man, who is willing to recognize the universal neighborhood, but finds himself unable to fulfill the bare law toward the woman even whom he loves best—“How am I then to rise into that higher region, that empyrean of love?” And, beginning straightaway to try to love his neighbor, he finds that the empyrean of which he spoke is no more to be reached in itself than the law was to be reached in itself. . . .

The man who will love his neighbor can do so by no immediately operative exercise of the will. It is the man fulfilled of God from whom he came and by whom he is, who alone can as himself love his neighbor who came from God too and is by God too. The mystery of individuality and consequent relation is deep as the beginnings of humanity, and the questions thence arising can be solved only by him who has, practically at least, solved the holy necessities resulting from his origin. In God alone can man meet man. . . .

It is possible to love our neighbor as ourselves. Our Lord never spoke hyperbolically. (Unspoken Sermons, First Series, “Love Thy Neighbor”)

I am absolutely convinced C.S. Lewis is one of the most outstanding Christian writers in history. That’s not hyperbole. If anything, it is a vast understatement.


* A selection of the poetry of Michael Drayton (1563-1631) is available at Internet Archive. The introduction to the collection begins, “no poet is more thoroughly English than Michael Drayton.”

⁑ Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus (1466-1536) was a Dutch humanist who shared many concerns about the state of the Roman Catholic Church with Luther. However, he disliked Luther’s roughshod response and chose to attempt to accomplish some amount of reform from within. His early epistles are available in this free volume.

⁂ For more about John Colet (1467-1519), you might download this biography.

Sand is a fascinating, and awe-inspiring, substance. It evokes a variety of reactions, depending on our personal histories and preferences. Some smile as they contemplate lounging on warm, smooth beaches. Others may grimace as they recall desert experiences where they struggled to remain hydrated, and sandy grit seemed to work its way into all those places it didn’t belong.

Some places have lots of sand. For example, 80% of Turkmenistan is covered by sand. And yet, this doesn’t stop them from wanting more! Turkmenistan determined theirs wasn’t appropriate for building a racing track, so they paid $1.3 million for British sand.

Turkmenistan is so stark that one of its main tourist attractions is a fiery crater on a barren landscape that is called the “Door to Hell.” National Geographic participated in an expedition which included a descent into the 100 foot deep inferno.

The idea of a nation of unending sand purchasing even more, brought to my mind a familiar verse from Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” And recalling the relentless flames of their methane pit, inspired me to pen my own variation of that theme.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
(Samuel Coleridge)

Sand, sand, everywhere,
But not a grain to sell;
Sand, sand, everywhere,
A scorched foretaste of hell.
(Robert Stroud)

Lewis and Irish Sand

It is no surprise to readers of Mere Inkling, that we can find a Lewisian connection to even something so inconsequential as rocks* which have been weathered and worn into small fragments.

Like most of us, Lewis encountered sand in a variety of settings. In the 1950s he made a trip to Donegal, where he noted its distinctive beaches.

My correspondence has lately been in much the same state as yours: that is, on coming back from a holiday in Ireland I found about 60 letters to deal with. I had a lovely time over there: the best part in Donegal, all Atlantic breakers & golden sand and peat and heather and donkeys and mountains and (what is most unusual there) a heat wave and cloudless skies. Walks were much interrupted by blackberries: so big and juicy, and sweet that you just couldn’t pass without picking them.

To another friend, he wrote:

I was with a friend in Donegal which is a very fine, wild country with green mountains, rich secretive valleys, and Atlantic breakers on innumerable desolate sands.

But alas!, they get less desolate every year and it will soon be just a holiday resort like so many other places. (One always disapproves of all holiday-makers except oneself!)

Sand as a Metaphor

Everyone knows sand. That is especially true of the people who populated the lands of the Bible. From Ur to Egypt to Jerusalem, they encountered more than their share.

Because of its familiarity, and its unique traits, sand provides fertile soil [sorry] for producing metaphors. A couple, for example, from the Scriptures themselves.

[God speaking to Jacob] “I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore.”
(Genesis 22:17)

[Description of the combined army facing the Hebrews in Canaan] “And they came out with all their troops, a great horde, in number like the sand that is on the seashore, with very many horses and chariots. And all these kings joined their forces . . .”
(Joshua 11:4)

“How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
If I would count them, they are more than the sand.”
(Psalm 139:17-18)

But sand is not simply used to illustrate multitudes or numbers.

“A stone is heavy, and sand is weighty,
    but a fool’s provocation is heavier than both.”
(Proverbs 27:3)

[From a description of the Messianic Age]
“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
    and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a deer,
    and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.
For waters break forth in the wilderness,
    and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
    and the thirsty ground springs of water . . .”
(Isaiah 35:7)

[God declares his power]
“Do you not fear me? declares the Lord.
    Do you not tremble before me?
I placed the sand as the boundary for the sea,
    a perpetual barrier that it cannot pass;
though the waves toss, they cannot prevail;
    though they roar, they cannot pass over it.”
(Jeremiah 5:22)

[Jesus said] “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.” (Matthew 7:26)

C.S. Lewis’ Use of Sand as a Metaphor

In Mere Christianity, Lewis alludes to Jesus’ words when he says even the best human beings will disappoint. Only the trust placed in Christ will never disappoint.

We must go on to recognise the real Giver. It is madness not to. Because, if we do not, we shall be relying on human beings. And that is going to let us down. The best of them will make mistakes; all of them will die. We must be thankful to all the people who have helped us, we must honour them and love them.

But never, never pin your whole faith on any human being: not if he is the best and wisest in the whole world. There are lots of nice things you can do with sand: but do not try building a house on it.

In Surprised by Joy, Lewis explains his concept of Joy and how it relates to longing for heaven and being in the presence of God. In his description of how flashes of wonder grace our lives, he warns we should not confuse them with the ultimate joy for which we yearn.

I saw that all my waitings and watchings for Joy, all my vain hopes to find some mental content on which I could, so to speak, lay my finger and say, “This is it,” had been a futile attempt to contemplate the enjoyed.

All that such watching and waiting ever could find would be [merely] an image . . . I knew now that they were merely the mental track left by the passage of Joy—not the wave but the wave’s imprint on the sand.

A final example comes from Lewis’ under-appreciated Pilgrim’s Regress. One of the archetypal characters, Mr. Savage, attempts to waylay young Christian from following the Landlord (i.e. God).

“But as [belief in the Landlord] is not true, there remains only one way of life fit for a man.” This other way of life was something he called Heroism, or Master-Morality, or Violence. “All the other people in between,” he said, “are ploughing the sand.”

Plowing the sand is an ancient idiom. And its meaning is fairly evident, even to those encountering it for the first time. An online dictionary says “ploughing the sand has been a proverbial image of fruitless activity since the late 16th century.” In truth, wasting one’s energies in this fruitless pursuit possesses far deeper roots.

In The Story of Troy, the author describes the efforts of Ulysses to avoid crossing the Aegean to fight a war for which he had forcibly argued. He feigned insanity to stay home.

[Ulysses] paid no heed, however, to the messages sent to him asking him to join the army at Aulis. Agamemnon resolved, therefore, to go himself to Ithaca to persuade Ulysses to take part in the expedition. He was accompanied by his brother Menelaus, and by a chief named Palamedes, a very wise and learned man as well as a brave warrior.

As soon as Ulysses heard of their arrival in Ithaca, he pretended to be insane, and he tried by a very amusing stratagem to make them believe that he was really mad. Dressing himself in his best clothes, and going down to the seashore, he began to plow the beach with a horse and an ox yoked together, and to scatter salt upon the sand instead of seed.

Fortunately for the great author, Homer, Ulysses’ ruse was exposed. And it was revealed in an act worthy of Solomon that gave dual meaning to the hero’s fruitless plowing of sand.

Palamedes, however, was more than a match in artifice for the Ithacan king. Taking Telemachus from the arms of his nurse, he placed the infant on the sand in front of the plowing team. Ulysses quickly turned the animals aside to avoid injuring his child, thus proving that he was not mad but in full possession of his senses. The king of Ithaca was therefore obliged to join the expedition to Troy.

It is my hope that you have found this post informative and entertaining . . . and that writing it does not constitute my own example of plowing the sand.


* Most sand was originally rock, although some beaches are predominantly composed of other materials. Many beaches are “almost entirely composed of worn down dead animal bits.” White sand beaches often have a different source, parrotfish excrement.

Parrotfish eat the algae that grow on coral. [Their] large, beak-like teeth (which inspire their name) help them break off and eat small pieces of coral. They have another set of teeth, called pharyngeal teeth [that] grind up the coral into small grains of sediment, which parrotfish then excrete in clouds of white powdery sand. (A single large parrotfish can produce hundreds of pounds of sand a year!) The sediment is distributed onto the reef and, eventually, can pile up above the surface of the water, forming islands like the Maldives . . .

Pen Names & Pseudonyms

April 28, 2020 — 15 Comments

Many great writers have used pen names, C.S. Lewis (and yours truly) included. Lewis, in fact, employed two.

There are a variety of reasons for writing under a pen name. While it may occasionally be done in order to deceive, most occurrences are utterly benign. For example, particularly in totalitarian states, the truth is dangerous to one’s health. In less authoritarian nations, reticence to use one’s own name might be motivated by fear of damage to one’s livelihood.

It’s also possible the writer simply has a personal desire to remain anonymous. This is the case with one of Lewis’ most important works. After the death of his wife, Joy Davidman, he composed one of his most moving works, A Grief Observed. For this candid reflection on grieving, Lewis attempted to maintain his privacy by ascribing the work to N.W. Clerk.  

My motivation for adopting a new pen name is different from all of these. More about that in a moment.

Here is a small sampling of writers you may know, who used pseudonyms for some of their work:

President John Adams, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Anne Brontë, Emily Brontë, Pearl S. Buck, Anton Chekhov, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, Michael Crichton, Agatha Christie, Cecil Day-Lewis, D.B. Wyndham Lewis, Theodor Seuss Geisel, Henrik Ibsen, Washington Irving, Søren Kierkegaard, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Joanne Rowling, Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy, just to name a few.

My personal opinion is that the best nom de plumes are not random or simply fanciful. Creating a pen name with an actual connection of some sort to the writer seems—to me—far more skillful. Case in point, Lewis’ use of the pseudonym “N.W. Clerk.” He created this name by combining the Anglo-Saxon “Nat Whilk” (meaning I know not whom) with “Clerk” meaning writer or scholar.

C.S. Lewis’ second pen name was also chosen for its specific meaning. Since boyhood, he had gone by the first name of Jack. With the pseudonym he used his actual name, Clive. For the surname, Lewis used his mother’s maiden name, Hamilton. Thus, Clive Hamilton.

His first two books were attributed in this manner. The first was Spirits in Bondage (1919), a collection of poetry. His second was begun while he was still a teenager. Dymer was a narrative poem with mythic elements. The first title is in the public domain, and available for download at Internet Archive. Both of the volumes were written, of course, while Lewis was an atheist.

My New Nom de Plume

In my own case, I recently devised a pen name for some satirical writing I am exploring. My purpose is not to mislead or confuse. In fact, it is expressly out of a desire to prevent confusion that I’ve assumed a pseudonym for my satire.

Even though I include humor in my writing, most of my work is essentially serious. This makes sense, for subjects such as faith, suffering, life, death, history, and eternity. I do not dissemble. As the Bible counsels, my yes means yes, and my no means no.*

Still, the very nature of satire means you are using language contrary to its face value. You are communicating tongue in cheek. You are frequently turning the language around upon itself so it communicates something quite different from what it literally says. Satire finds its fuel in irony, humor, hyperbole and even ridicule.

Skillful satire isn’t intentionally confusing. On the contrary, its message is almost always clear. Satire may sting the objects of its ridicule, and bring smiles to those who share your scorn for the institutions, policies, and individuals being taunted.

So, where, you may wonder, will this satirical writing be found . . . and under what pen name will you find it? I will be submitting some short pieces to The Salty Cee, a less commercialized alternative to The Babylon Bee. My pseudonym is Robert Charlesson, for reasons you can read about here.

Please check out my first news report: “Liturgical Medical Face Masks Now on Sale.”


* The actual passage I’m referencing, records Jesus criticizing making oaths to assure a person’s veracity. “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (Matthew 5:33-37). I think it is consistent to extend this principle to always speaking honestly, regardless of whether we are making affirmative or negative observations.

A Unique Approach to Poetry

September 25, 2019 — 6 Comments

I’m guessing that only lit majors—and possibly only a minority of them—know the literary definition of “effusions.” This despite the fact, that nearly every writer pens them.

Effusion, of course, is a common enough word. From its typical context, readers can pretty accurately determine its meaning. Its Latin root meant to “pour out,” making the word ideal for technical medical usage. Eventually, it entered the literary canon, where it refers to pouring out one’s thoughts or feelings in an unrestrained manner.

Obviously I have heard people use effusive as an adjective, as in “she received effusive praise for her treatise on the Inklings and their reliance on the Mesoamerican Codex Borbonicus.” But I don’t recall ever encountering “effusion” in the context of writing. I suspect that its relative rarity is simply due to slipping out of modern usage.

Nearly a century ago, in 1921, C.S. Lewis casually used the term in a letter to his brother Warnie. Lewis begins by explaining why he had not written recently. It turns out, Lewis was a bit miffed at his brother due to thinking Warnie had been negligent in writing to him.

My dear W., I was delighted to get your letter this morning; for some reason it had been sent first to a non-existent address in Liverpool. I had deliberately written nothing to you since those two you mention: not that I was tired of the job, but because I did not feel disposed to go on posting into the void until I had some assurance that my effusions would reach you.

That seemed a process too like prayer for my taste: as I once said to Baker—my mystical friend with the crowded poetry—the trouble about God is that he is like a person who never acknowledges one’s letters and so, in time, one comes to the conclusion either that he does not exist or that you have got the address wrong. I admitted that it was of great moment: but what was the use of going on dispatching fervent messages–say to Edinburgh–if they all came back through the dead letter office: nay more, if you couldn’t even find Edinburgh on the map.

His cryptic reply was that it would be almost worth going to Edinburgh to find out. I am glad however that you have ceased to occupy such a divine position, and will do my best to continue: tho’ I hope it won’t be for fifteen months.

These are fascinating insights into prayer, especially coming from the perspective of C.S. Lewis during his atheist period. (Which is why I quoted the letter at length.)

Effusion in a Literary Context

It appears the labeling of writing, or poetry at least, as effusive, has fallen out of style. Take the case of the poem I included in my most recent post. The source of “Easy Rules for Punctuation,” was a collection entitled Ephemeral Effusions.

I spent quite some time tracking down an actual definition for literary effusions. Eventually I found one in Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Bloom’s Modern Critical Views). Harold Bloom writes, “I have come across approximately one hundred late-eighteenth- and nineteenth-century works entitled ‘effusions.’” The following discussion about the subject will be of interest to readers and writers alike.

Between poetry and oratory stands rhetoric. I have attempted to show that Coleridge’s effusions take up residence in a middle ground criss-crossed by other literary practices. While they arguably have an identifiable character, formed in part by a Horatian tradition, Coleridge defines his effusions less by their positive identity than by their self-conscious difference from the other genres and figures (sermo, epistle, address, aversion, conversation) that impinge on and cohabit their poetic space.

As a distinct genre, however, the effusion was relatively short-lived, becoming more common as a “lady’s” genre, suitable for the expression of delicate feelings and sensibilities, though also occasionally lending itself to more “heroic” sentiments by military men. Effusions of the heart, the poets discovered, can be both literal and figurative, erotic and patriotic, tender and polemical. . . . Later, indeed, there would be a few noteworthy instances of the genre, such as Wordsworth’s 1835 “Extempore Effusion upon the Death of James Hogg,” in which Coleridge is remembered by name in a catalogue of dead poets. But no one approaches the theoretical or practical accomplishment of Coleridge in a genre so carefully positioned between poetry and non-poetry.

Coleridge’s term “effusions,” however, appears to have been unfamiliar to contemporary reviewers . . . [a reviewer in 1796] praises Coleridge’s poems: “They consist of sonnets, which, however, Mr. Coleridge chooses to call Effusions. . . .” The reviewers nowhere identify any literary tradition in which an “effusion” might stand defined.

This column marks consecutive posts related to poetry. A stunning first in Mere Inkling’s five year history. Personally, I make no claims to being a poet, although I confess I’ve dabbled in the genre.

For those desiring to download a nineteenth century collection entitled Poetic Effusions, check out this treasure by Mary Peach Collier (1799-1858). We’ll close with one of the shorter effusions in the book.

On the Death of a Little Girl

Farewell, blest Ellen I long thy spotless name
Shall deep imprinted on our memories live;
Long on the records of unsullied fame
Thy lovely innocence a charm shall give.

Farewell, thou little flow’ret of the shade
Just born to blossom, like thy kindred rose;
Early transplanted where no thorns invade,
To flourish fair in regions of repose.

achilles

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

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

Merriam-Webster describes it this way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What of the Consequences?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C.S. Lewis & Scrabble

February 12, 2019 — 11 Comments

scrabble

It’s not uncommon for people who love words to also enjoy the game Scrabble.

The word game, born in 1933, is quite popular. In fact, the Hasbro company claims “today the SCRABBLE game is found in three of every five American homes.”

The game made enough of an impact in New York City, that the neighborhood where it was conceived is adorned with the distinctive Scrabblesque street sign shown above.

C.S. Lewis was also a fan of the game. He and his wife Joy played the game regularly. But they modified the rules, to allow for their particular intellects. Doug Gresham, their son, describes this in The Magic Never Ends: The Life and Works of C.S. Lewis.

They played word games with each other. They had their own rather unique rules for Scrabble. They would take one board and both sets of letters from two Scrabble sets. And then they would proceed to play Scrabble, allowing all known languages, whether factual or fictional, and they would fill the whole board with words.

Jack, Joy & Their Love of Words

The third volume of The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis includes two references to the way Scrabble became a familiar feature of their married life. In the first, written in July of 1957, he describes the situation at the beginning of Joy’s remission.

It is fascinating in several ways. It describes Lewis’ own declining health and the manner in which God had used it to be a blessing in their relationship. The shock, however, comes in Lewis’ confession about who was the Scrabble champion at The Kilns.

Joy is now home, home from hospital, completely bed-ridden. The cancer is ‘arrested,’ which means, I fear, hardly any hope for the long term issue, but for the moment, apparently perfect health, no pain, eating & sleeping like a child, spirits usually excellent, able to beat me always at Scrabble and sometimes in argument.

She runs the whole house from her bed and keeps a pack of men not only loving her but (what’s rarer) one another.

We are crazily in love.

My back turns out to be not slipped disc but osteoporosis–a spongy condition of the bones that is common in men of 75 but almost unknown at my age (58). After full investigation by a great Professor of Pathology the cause remains quite obscure. It has passed the stage of spasms and screams (each was rather like having a tooth out with no anaesthetic and you never knew when they were coming!), but I still ache a good deal and need sleeping draughts.

Can you realise the good side? Poor Joy, after being the sole object of pity & anxiety can now perform the truly wifely function of fussing over me–I’m in pain and sit it out–and of course the psychological effect is extremely good. It banishes all that wearisome sense of being no use. You see, I’m very willing to have osteoporosis at this price.

The fact that Jack and Joy were truly “crazily in love,” made the brevity of their life together all the more poignant and precious. In July of 1960, Lewis wrote to inform a friend of Joy’s passing.

Dear Mrs Gebbert, Alas, you will never send anything ‘for the three of us’ again, for my dear Joy is dead. Until within ten days of the end we hoped, although noticing her increasing weakness, that she was going to hold her own, but it was not to be.

Last week she had been complaining of muscular pains in her shoulders, but by Monday 11th seemed much better, and on Tuesday, though keeping her bed, said she felt a great improvement; on that day she was in good spirits, did her ‘crossword puzzle’ with me, and in the evening played a game of Scrabble.

At quarter past six on Wednesday morning, the 13th, my brother, who slept over her, was wakened by her screaming and ran down to her. I got the doctor, who fortunately was at home, and he arrived before seven and gave her a heavy shot.

At half past one I took her into hospital in an ambulance. She was conscious for the short remainder of her life, and in very little pain, thanks to drugs; and died peacefully in my company about 10.15 the same night.

I could not wish that she had lived, for the cancer had attacked the spine, which might have meant several days of suffering, and that she was mercifully spared.

You will understand that I have no heart to write more, but I hope when next I send a letter it will be a less depressing one.

This letter suggests that Joy’s final evening in this world was a happy one. It was filled with warm and family domesticity. Under the circumstances, who could hope for more. As Lewis writes, it would only be for our own selfishness that we would wish to prolong the suffering of those we love.

I would be curious to learn whether Lewis ever again played Scrabble during those final few years of his own life. I suspect that it would have been too painful. Best to recall the game in light of the affectionate competition the two of them shared.

wedding.pngIf you know the meaning of bricolage and understand its application to C.S. Lewis, I doff my cap to you.

Since I’m not an artist (the field in which the word is most common), “bricolage” was foreign to me before I encountered it during my doctoral studies. I read there that it constitutes a valid “approach to qualitative research.”

The term “bricolage” was taken from the work of the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1968), who used it to distinguish mythological from scientific thought. . . . Levi-Strauss described the bricoleur as someone who uses whatever tools and materials are at hand to complete a project.

The key idea is that rather than developing a logically consistent plan in advance and then systematically using the materials and tools that the plan and the norms of the community prescribe (as science is widely, though I think somewhat incorrectly, believed to do), the bricoleur spontaneously adapts to the situation, creatively employing the available tools and materials to come up with unique solutions to a problem. (Qualitative Research Design: An Interactive Approach)

If you picked up on the “mythological” reference within the definition—and drew a connection to the creator of Narnia—you may have the makings of a fine bricoleur. (But don’t add it to your résumé quite yet.)

Lévi-Strauss contrasted this mythological approach with the technological dominance of modern thinking.

The characteristic feature of mythical thought is that it expresses itself by means of a heterogeneous repertoire which, even if extensive, is nevertheless limited. It has to use this repertoire, however, whatever the task in hand because it has nothing else at its disposal. Mythical thought is therefore a kind of intellectual “bricolage.” (The Savage Mind)

Fordham University has a comparative literature journal entitled Bricolage, inspired by “literary bricoleurs [who] produced stories, ones with historical and cultural significance and unique relevance attached to them, that colored the past with intentional highlights and included questions, ideas, and voices that were never part of the frozen time period they wrote about, but always had the potential to be.”

If that makes sense to you, and even inspires you, they have a list of prompts on the website to guide your own submission to the periodical. (I particularly like open-ended: “Describe the problem.”)

They even solicit suggestions for future prompts, if you would like to game the system by suggesting a subject for which you already possess some bricoleurological notions.

I don’t wish to suggest that this literary journal does not include some genuinely insightful work. Consider the following, from “Imagination: An Internal Reality” by Brittany Gilmartin.

While reality is an external landscape for our bodies and senses, the imagination is an internal landscape for our minds and thoughts. A limitless realm that only we ourselves can control, the imagination is a space for us to think freely about the outside world and create a new reality inside of us.

This mental reality is a place that we can escape to when we are not satisfied with the real world, as in “Leaf by Niggle” by J.R.R. Tolkien, or find the real world too hard to bear, as in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce.

Some may argue that instead of escaping into the fantasy of our imaginations, we should focus on factual knowledge; however, the imagination can teach us about the facts in a new light. Indeed, L. Frank Baum, in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and C. S. Lewis, in The Chronicles of Narnia, use their imaginations to redefine their external realities through allegories, allowing their readers to gain a deeper understanding of these realities than they could have gained through a textbook.

Great writers, such as the Inklings, did not bring newborn imaginations to the task of writing their diverse works. They were nourished and stirred by their lifelong consumption of a rich banquet of literature. And the way in which these themes are intentionally (and accidentally) woven into new texts displays their great talent.

Intertextuality as a Tool for the Bricoleur

Skilled writers frequently use devices to enrich their work. Quotations, allusions, pastiche and parody are obvious examples. Some critics would even include plagiarism as an intertextual exercise, and in the strictest sense, it is. While unacknowledged direct quotations are inappropriate, many readers savor reading volumes filled with well-done allusions.

By their very nature, shaped as they are by each culture’s history and ethos, fairy tales provide fertile soil for bricolage.

C.S. Lewis pointed out that fairy tales don’t have to be great works of fiction, or even especially well written, to be unforgettable. . . . The libretti of ballets such as The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, and many others invent this and borrow that, crystallizing various elements from national folklore (Russian folk tales) and literary classics (Perrault, E.T.A. Hoffmann).

The raw materials are not, however, always readily identifiable, but have been transformed freely by the creators’ imagination: The Firebird and Giselle are original dramatic works in their own right.

Yet they are also essentially fairy tales, composed by bricolage with features that define the genre: supernatural and mysterious beings, a prevailing atmosphere of enchantment and vulnerability to destiny, and opening to another, imaginary world that is only accessible through the work of art. (Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale)

When the Bricoleur Denies External Influences

Many, if not most, examples of intertextual dependence or allusion are intentional. And, since few of us possess perfect memory, there will be cases where we “borrow” from other works unconsciously.

Many writers find their path to success by following well-worn paths and adding some new twist of their own. To be called “derivative” is not flattering, but carrying bags full of cash to the bank can take the sting out of the label.

In any case, it is disingenuous to deny the influence of others on your work—when their voice is recognizable to all.

The Harry Potter books are, without question, the outstanding British literary phenomenon of the last twenty years. Not everybody likes them, though. . . .  surely nobody can deny that, when it comes to her prose, Rowling is not remotely in the same league as, say, T.H. White or J.R.R. Tolkien, let alone Kenneth Grahame or Edith Nesbit.

So, why are her books so successful? The obvious answer is that, as the critic Wendy Doniger puts it, Rowling “is a wizard herself at the magic art of bricolage: new stores crafted out of recycled pieces of old stories.”

Long after she had become a multi-millionaire, Rowling tried to play down her borrowings from earlier authors, insisting that she was “not a huge fan of fantasy,” had never finished The Lord of the Rings and had a “big problem” with C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories, which she had never finished either.

Perhaps her memory was playing her false, though, for in earlier interviews she had talked warmly of her affections for The Lord of the Rings . . . In 1998 she even told an interviewer that she “loved” C.S. Lewis, whom she considered a “genius,” and actively reread his Narnia books.

None of this, though, would surprise an attentive reader of her work. Indeed, I suspect much of the attraction of the Harry Potter stories is the fun of spotting the allusions, as well as the nostalgic reassurance of seeing old devices and even familiar characters in a new context. (The Great British Dream Factory: The Strange History of Our National Imagination)

On the opposite end of the humility spectrum, consider C.S. Lewis. Although his Chronicles of Narnia were in many ways groundbreaking, he readily offered gratitude to his various sources of inspiration.

Lewis was generous in thanking thinkers to whom he was indebted, and only failed to do so when he assumed any educated reader would recognize the source of an image or phrase.

With the contemporary state of literary education, this is an assumption modern writers are unwise to share. Sadly, this ignorance of formerly pervasive ideas and expressions is most visible in the realm of biblical literacy. But that is a subject for another day.

Stay Tuned

Our next post will consider an aspect of “unintentional bricolage” that C.S. Lewis found quite entertaining. I suspect many of us will agree.

capital key

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christians & Capitalization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional Insights from Lewis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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