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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lewis continues, praising Bunyan’s writing.

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

A Lesson for Modern Writers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeking the Living

March 31, 2013 — 9 Comments

tombOne of the readings at our celebration of the Resurrection, this Easter morning, came from the Gospel according to Saint Luke. It included the powerful words of the angels waiting beside the empty tomb. To Mary Magdalene and the other women who had arrived to complete the ceremonial preparations for Jesus’ burial, they said: “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”

That’s precisely what separates Christianity from every other religious faith; for two millennia, Jesus’ disciples have followed a resurrected and living Lord.

This is what non-Christians are ultimately unable to fathom. Christianity is far more than the adoption of a particular lifestyle. It is infinitely more than a cognitive acquiescence a set of doctrines. It is nothing less than a dynamic, living relationship with our Creator through his only begotten Son.

Many regard Jesus as a great teacher from an ancient epoch—whose words are worthy of preserving. This is a good thing . . . but it’s not Christianity.

Many consider Jesus the model of a noble life—and strive to emulate his compassion and humility. This too is a good thing . . . but it’s not Christianity.

Many regard Jesus as an object of superstition—and they spout religious jargon while living hypocritical lives utterly devoted to their carnal appetites. This is not a good thing . . . and it’s most certainly not Christianity.

C.S. Lewis refers to this inherent inability to “persuade” an unbeliever to see beyond Christianity as a creedal profession or even a simple lifestyle and comprehend it as a relationship.

Our opponents, then, have a perfect right to dispute with us about the grounds of our original assent. But they must not accuse us of sheer insanity if, after the assent has been given, our adherence to it is no longer proportioned to every fluctuation of the apparent evidence. They cannot of course be expected to know on what assurance feeds, and how it revives and is always rising from its ashes.

They cannot be expected to see how the quality of the object which we think we are beginning to know by acquaintance drives us to the view that if this were a delusion then we should have to say that the universe had produced no real thing of comparable value and that all explanations of the delusion seemed somehow less important than the thing explained.

That is knowledge we cannot communicate. But they can see how the assent, of necessity, moves us from the logic of speculative thought into what might perhaps be called the logic of personal relations. What would, up till then, have been variations simply of opinion become variations of conduct by a person to a Person. Credere Deum esse turns into Credere in Deum. And Deum here is this God, the increasingly knowable Lord. (C.S. Lewis, “On Obstinacy in Belief”).

Ultimately, inviting others to share the joy and peace that we disciples of Jesus know—undeserving as all of us are—is not about persuasion. It is about introducing them to Jesus.

It’s about echoing the words of the angels in that Judean cemetery. “Don’t seek Jesus among the dead. He is risen and living, and he offers eternal life to all who call upon his name.”

I haven’t forgotten. Well, I have forgotten far too many things in recent years, but I didn’t forget my recent “promise” to address the challenging subject of the distinction between agnosticism and atheism. Last week I wrote: “I suspect that the intimately personal nature of God’s love for us is one of the things that moves some people from agnosticism to atheism.”

It’s not my desire to offend anyone with the discussion which follows. After all, God loves the “lost” just as much as he loves those who have surrendered their lives to him. In fact, there’s an amazing passage that hints at how the rescue of one of those who has “strayed” is even more exciting to the hosts of heaven than the faithfulness of his dedicated disciples. (Check out verses 12-14 in chapter 18 of the Gospel according to Matthew . . . and remember what I have said in the past about how eager any of your Christian acquaintances will be to provide you with a copy of the Bible if you don’t already have one.)

Every soul is precious to God. And yet, many don’t recognize that fact. Many worship false gods (religious and secular). Among those who deny the existence of supernatural deities, there are essentially two camps. Agnostics who (technically) do not deny God’s existence, but merely profess that it is unknowable. Thus they personally remain unpersuaded. Atheists, on the alternative hand, are more adamant about denying God’s existence. Some, in fact, make a living by stridently refuting God himself and all things holy.

Intuitively, most people assume agnostics are not quite as distant from faith as are atheists. After all, agnostics are generally more polite and respectful toward those of us who naively cling to such superstitions . . . right? Atheists, by contrast, tend to ridicule those who would worship a God who laid down his very life, and died a human death.

Take, for example, what is arguably the earliest surviving illustration of Christ’s crucifixion. The illustration above was carved on an ancient plaster wall near Palatine Hill.

It’s a bit difficult to discern, but historical consensus sees the graffito as a pagan insult directed towards a Greek Christian. The scribbled inscription reads: “Alexamenos worships [his] god.” The crucified figure on the cross clearly bears the head of a donkey. The Church Father Tertullian wrote in the second century of slanders alleging Christians followed just such a deity.

Would something like this be likelier to come from the mind of an agnostic, or an atheist?

Agnostics would rarely summon the energy to rail against God like this. However, atheists sometimes feel so imposed upon by God’s children that they lash out with invectives.

So, as I noted above, the gut feeling of most observers would be to say vocal atheists are farther from God than their kindred disbelievers. However—I am convinced that is not the case!

Ironically, it is the tepid individual who lacks any serious conviction who is in greater danger of perishing without seeing God. This is due to the fact that agnostics have, as a rule, come to grips with the fact that there may or may not be a God . . . but they are content to proceed through life without caring much either way. To them the issue is rather trivial, in a sense, since they rarely lose sleep over it.

This is not true of the atheist, who recognizes that the matter is of the utmost importance; that’s why he is not content to simply ignore it. If God truly exists—they comprehend in the core of their being—nothing could be of greater significance.

Agnostics typically have an unreasoned impression that if there is a God, he is probably benevolent, and most likely more concerned with other elements of the universe he created than their small life. They echo the thinking of liberal “Deists” who imagined God as a distant “watchmaker” who set creation in motion and then left it forgotten on the shelf. This Great Watchmaker is not threatening. He isn’t angry at us, because he doesn’t even deign to notice us. He remains oblivious to humanity, just as we presumably live out our lives anonymous to him.

Atheists don’t want to believe in God, because of their overwhelming doubt. Simultaneously, they recognize that the stakes of the gamble are enormous. Eternal, in fact. And they resent God for placing them in this difficult predicament. Why can’t he just make his existence undeniably evident? Faith is the leap they are unwilling to take. But, by the same rational premise, the wise among them realize that in opting against theism, they are actually placing their faith in an equally unprovable tenet. And this has a tendency to make some of them mildly cranky.

Which brings us back to my suspicion that “the intimately personal nature of God’s love for us is one of the things that moves some people from agnosticism to atheism.” You see, when someone deeply ponders the mystery of whether there is a Creator, they understand he would never have created a sentient being with this yearning to cleave to him, without possessing a compassion for them in return.

Agnostics walk about like spiritual zombies, pursuing their various interests. Atheists, though, are tormented by the nagging “fear” that a loving God just may exist. Certainly, they do whatever they can to exorcize the notion, and they publicly celebrate their liberation from ancient and medieval superstitions, but unlike their unaffected agnostic relations, they have recognized the enormity of their choice. Oh to be a blissfully ignorant agnostic, the more thoughtful might muse.

Sadly (from their present perspective), the lot of the atheist is to be closer to God than the agnostic. Atheists may rail against their Maker, but the agnostic’s spiritual indifference causes them to drift farther and farther from the Truth.

The Scriptures offer a parallel to this distinction in the description of one of the early Christian churches. Apparently the believer in Laodicea had grown lackadaisical about their faith and lived lives that differed little from their pagan and agnostic neighbors. The Lord’s judgment of them begins: “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.”

Strange, it seems to us, that God might prefer a militant atheistic mindset to an aimless agnostic worldview. But the amazing truth is that, in most cases, atheists are closer to the kingdom of God than their disinterested peers.

In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis describes his own pre-Christian disposition. The grandson of an Anglican priest, he had consciously rejected the faith. Yet, as the possibility of its truth grew more real to him as an adult, he reacted against it. He clearly describes his condition as differing from that of the lukewarm agnostics I’ve described above.

Amiable agnostics will talk cheerfully about “man’s search for God.” To me, as I was then, they might as well have talked about the mouse’s search for the cat.

In the same volume he elaborates on the sentiments I’ve been describing.

I was at this time living, like so many Atheists or Antitheists, in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing. I was equally angry with Him for creating a world.

So, if you consider yourself “angry with God for not existing,” you may be closer to meeting him than you ever imagined. If you do follow C.S. Lewis’ example, heaven will host a more resounding celebration for you than it does for the ninety-nine who have always remained part of his flock. And, if you’re a dispassionate agnostic who is weakly amused by this thought . . . my sincere prayer is that you, my friend, would become either hot or cold!