Archives For Character

monopoly

It is almost too obvious to require saying: you reinforce the behaviors you reward. Why then, would any society intentionally train its youth to be dishonest?

One justification I’ve heard, more and more frequently in recent years, is that it’s all about winning—coming out on top. The motto of these folks is “do whatever it takes to win.” Yet this is a recipe for a disastrous life. In the words of Jesus: “what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” (Luke 9:25)*

Our recreational choices say a lot about us and our values. Digital options have reduced the influence of board games, so one perennial favorite has devised a strategy to regain its market share.

Monopoly is based on accumulating wealth and, for the merciless, crushing one’s competitors. Some might argue that the capitalism which provides the basis for the game is corrupt in and of itself. Still, Monopoly has always had clear rules that governed actions.

But some players cheated. Capitalizing on this sinister impulse, Monopoly has created a new “Cheaters Edition.” Yes, you read that right.

Christian publications have announced the game’s arrival. The current issue of Citizen notes that even though cheating is actively encouraged in the game, negative consequences are also possible.

Mind you, it’s not that anything goes. Cheat successfully and you get rewarded; get caught and you get punished.

Even the “secular” Bloomberg review of the new game acknowledges the moral confusion of the product, closing its report with:

Clearly this begs some deeper philosophical questions about modern life and the future of morality and humanity, but, wait, did you just land on Boardwalk? Yes, I definitely always had a hotel on there! Trust me.

Nurturing Healthy Behaviors

One does not have to be a parent to recognize this wisdom of this Proverb: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6).

In fact, even pet “owners” know the necessity of training (e.g. housebreaking) our canine and feline family members.

Many games highlight positive choices, consciously or subconsciously reinforcing good. The simplest and most common method for this process comes not in a board game or a digital alternative. It is found in verbal praise.

There is ongoing debate about the value of praise. It’s clear that insincere or mechanistic praise would be of insignificant worth, and potentially dangerous. Some psychologists go so far as to state that “Positive reinforcement can undercut a child’s intrinsic motivation.”

C.S. Lewis understood that we cannot manufacture our own motivations.

I cannot, by direct moral effort, give myself new motives. After the first few steps in the Christian life we realise that everything which really needs to be done in our souls can be done only by God (Mere Christianity).

Despite this truth, it is also argued that our character can be shaped, in a sense, by consciously and repeatedly choosing to do what is right. Gradually then, by God’s grace, obedience may gradually give way to a more honest and natural motivation as the positive paths become our normal, well-traveled path.

This is not simply a “Christian” concern. The philosopher Aristotle noted “Good habits formed during youth make all the difference.” (What do you think Aristotle would think about the Cheater’s Edition of Monopoly?)

C.S. Lewis would doubtless concur with Aristotle. I assume most of Mere Inkling’s readers agree with the ancient wisdom as well.

A final thought. This cheater’s edition of Monopoly probably possesses less power to damage lives than Hasbro’s Ouijà board game. But that’s a subject for another day


* In Matthew 16 we read the more familiar “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?”

cheat card

adjectivesMark Twain was a fount of wit and wisdom.* I recently encountered this astute maxim attributed to him.

A man’s character may be learned from the adjectives which he habitually uses in conversation.

While the statement rings true, it turns out that Mark Twain is not the person who coined it.

That honor belongs to Henry Theodore Tuckerman (1813-71). The confusion is apparently due to the fact that Twain’s future bride, Olivia Langdon, began compiling a commonplace book while a teenager, in which she included this paraphrase of one of Tuckerman’s observations.

The actual quotation comes from an 1850 volume in which he wrote:

It is amusing to detect character in the vocabulary of each person. The adjectives habitually used, like the inscriptions on a thermometer, indicate the temperament. (The Optimist, “Conversation”)**

C.S. Lewis was not a fan of the excessive use of adjectives, as I have written about in the past.

Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful;” make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please, will you do my job for me?”

Despite Lewis’ warning, I have to confess that I love adjectives. When they are creatively chosen, I find them illuminating, provocative and welcome. In fact, the ideal adjective accomplishes Lewis’ goal of conveying an emotion, not simply describing it.

And, as we have been reminded today, adjectives have the additional benefit of giving us glimpses into the personality of the authors themselves. “It is amusing to detect character in the vocabulary of each person. The adjectives habitually used, like the inscriptions on a thermometer, indicate the temperament.”

Meeting a New Author

Researching this subject I encountered an interesting quote from a popular Chilean-American writer, Isabel Allende.

I want to have an epic life. I want to tell my life with big adjectives. I want to forget all the grays in between, and remember the highlights and the dark moments.

While I can understand her desire to live an epic life, and applaud the accompany image of living one’s life with “big adjectives,” I have to say I am a bit disappointed in her choice of adjective itself. “Big” adjectives? “Vast,” “immense,” “deep,” and “complex” are just a handful of the substitutes that might convey different aspects of the concept “big.”

Perhaps she originally penned this in Spanish, and chose just such a “bigger” word? But then again, I assume she would do all of her own translation work. So it could be she was striving for irony? Not having read her work, I cannot say with any confidence.

Still, if I do expose myself to a greater quantity of her “adjectives habitually used” . . . I have no doubt I can gain some insight into her literary temperament.

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* If you are curious as to whether Twain was a “fount” or a “font,” check this out.

** You can find more of his wisdom by downloading a free copy of Selections from the Writings of Henry Theodore Tuckerman.

Inkling Chivalry

February 3, 2015 — 15 Comments

praying knightJ.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis practiced what they preached.

While most people are content to sit back while others battle for just causes. Sadly, cowardice appears to outweigh bravery in our modern age. We have, Lewis says, “having grown up among the ruins of the chivalrous tradition . . .” (“The Necessity of Chivalry”).

Lewis and Tolkien, by contrast, were genuine heroes. Peaceful academics by nature, each of them responded to their nation’s call to defend their homeland against the Huns.

In the world of the modern university—inhospitable to those who would defend the veracity of the Scriptures—each man counted the cost, and willingly bore the ridicule of skeptics and secularists.

Not only were these two Inklings paragons of courage, they engaged in their battles with a code of chivalry. Neither desired the destruction of their foes. Instead, they sought the preservation of truth, justice, peace and mercy.

Chivalry is a concept alien to the modern era. In an age when there is so little mercy and forgiveness, it seems a more and more archaic notion each day.

Yet, chivalry is not dead.

Both of these men not only modeled the virtue, they imbued their works with its spirit. The heroes of Middle Earth and Narnia are chivalrous almost to a fault. And the spiritual heirs of both fictional domains, still yearn to be chivalrous in their own lives.

So, precisely what is it? As Lewis begins his essay on the subject, he writes, “The word chivalry has meant at different times a good many different things—from heavy cavalry to giving a woman a seat in a train.”

Lewis considers the “double demand it makes on human nature” through an exploration of the Middle Ages.

The knight is a man of blood and iron, a man familiar with the sight of smashed faces and the ragged stumps of lopped-off limbs; he is also a demure, almost a maidenlike, guest in hall, a gentle, modest, unobtrusive man. He is not a compromise or happy mean between ferocity and meekness; he is fierce to the nth and meek to the nth.

Gentle toward the innocent and vulnerable. Relentless versus evil.

What, you may ask, is the relevance of this ideal to the modern world? It is terribly relevant. It may or may not be practicable—the Middle Ages notoriously failed to obey it—but it is certainly practical; practical as the fact that men in a desert must find water or die.

We live in a violent world, and the beheading of even children suggest things are growing worse. So, more than ever, Lewis tells us, we need chivalrous people like Lancelot, who combined these conflicting qualities. We need gentle men, like Lewis and Tolkien, who are willing to lay aside their books to face the specter of war on the front lines.

Lewis forcefully describes the three divisions of humanity bereft of chivalry.

If we cannot produce Launcelots, humanity falls into two sections—those who can deal in blood and iron but cannot be “meek in hall”, and those who are “meek in hall” but useless in battle—for the third class, who are both brutal in peace and cowardly in war, need not here be discussed. When this dissociation of the two halves of Launcelot occurs, history becomes a horribly simple affair.

Lewis wrote the essay during the Second World War. He and others among the Inklings had stood in the gap during the “war to end all wars.” Now he was observing a glimmer of hope in the witness of a successive generation doing its part.

Launcelot is not yet irrecoverable. To some of us this war brought a glorious surprise in the discovery that after twenty years of cynicism and cocktails the heroic virtues were still unimpaired in the younger generation and ready for exercise the moment they were called upon.

In the face of the contemporary ferocity of global terrorism, we see many young men and women following their example. Surely, they are a minority among the population, but we are all deeply fortunate they exist.

Our prayers should accompany those of all nationalities who are courageous enough to face the blade of modern barbarians. And our prayer should be that they are not merely brave, but also meek.

Volcano Hurricane

August 7, 2014 — 6 Comments

volcanoVolcano hurricane. An epic disaster film! No sharks, but copious amounts of lava flung by gale force winds across the globe. And all from the mind of a six year old boy.

Imaginations are great. They are one of the most precious gifts of God (which makes it all the more tragic when the human imagination is diverted towards carnal ends).

The minds of young boys, thankfully, have yet to turn to such lamentable matters. Their innocence shields them from the worst of human corruption. They, instead, are consumed with thoughts of spiders and other things that creep out girls . . . and especially their moms.

Our almost-seven-year-old grandson was here for the weekend with his family. We had a wonderful time. We had actually found the ideal book to include as part of his birthday celebration: How to Convince Your Parents You Can Care for a Pet Tarantula. Perfect.

Young male imaginations seem to revolve around things that shock—and also things that gross others out.

Our kids have trained their own children well. For example, they always excuse themselves when they experience flatulence. It’s a natural experience, of course, and as we mature, adults learn to ignore potentially embarrassing moments related to it. That’s part of becoming “civilized.”

Six year olds . . . not so much. Our grandson properly excuses himself, but he typically does so in the midst of enthusiastic laughter. It’s as though he relishes just how uncultured the moment seems.

During this particular visit, he leaped into my lap in a semi-ninja attack. As we wrestled, there was a minor explosion. Not quite volcanic, but close enough. He apologized, amidst great hilarity. “Sorry about my little gas,” he added.

And here’s where I made the mistake. I reinforced his innate boyhood grossness by saying, “little! . . . that sounded like it was a buffalo!”

Not quite the right thing to say, since it simply encouraged the precocious guy. But what I can say . . . time may change a boy into a man, but in most of us . . . somewhere deep in the recesses of our psyches . . . that boyhood irreverence lingers.

Not that I enjoy the crass “body humor” that pervades so much comedy (on tv and film). I steadfastly avoid it. It insults my mind and viewing it constitutes a total waste of time. Still, with my grandson wrapped in my arms, laughing away, it all seemed so genuine and innocently funny.

Of course, I recognize one needed to be there—and probably to also be related by bloodline to the participants—to find any humor in the moment. But it certainly seemed funny to us.

C.S. Lewis and Children

I was thinking about that moment as I sat down to write this post. I intended to focus on the amazing imaginations of children, and my grandson’s current preoccupation with gigantic volcanoes.

But whim or muse redirected the column. In the end, it turns out to be a reflection on the simple pleasure that we adults experience when we interact with kids. Especially when they are children who are precious to us.

I wish that C.S. Lewis had been able to experience that joy. He wasn’t. His awkwardness with children is well known. Most attribute it to the early passing of his mother, and the emotional distance his father maintained from his sons.

In a 1935 letter he wrote to a close friend, “I theoretically hold that one ought to like children, but am shy with them in practice.”

In The Abolition of Man he was even more forthcoming, sharing that, “I myself do not enjoy the society of small children: . . . I recognize this as a defect in myself.”

So, Lewis recognized his discomfort with children as a shortcoming. It was something he wished could be dispelled. Unfortunately, we can’t simply wish (or pray) away our ingrained personality traits. We’re lucky if we can tame them or reshape them.

We work hard to strengthen our positive traits and the wise deny nourishment to their weaker qualities. People often use the analogy of wearing off one’s rough edges, and that’s an apt image.

Lewis’ reticence with children makes his creation of Narnia all the more wondrous. The Chronicles of Narnia have captivated the hearts and imaginations of innumerable children, and adults alike. Certainly Lewis was correct when he wrote the following in “On Stories.”

No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty—except, of course, books of information. The only imaginative works we ought to grow out of are those which it would have been better not to have read at all.

With his marriage, late in life, Lewis became a step-father. He did the very best he could, but was conscious of just how ill-equipped he was to raise Douglas and David. Both became successful men. Doug shares his parents’ love of Christ, and helps direct the course of various Lewisian projects today.

Allow me to close with another evidence of the greatness of C.S. Lewis. He was able to rise far above his innate uneasiness with children. In fact, his fabled correspondence included many children who had written to him seeking his attention. In 1951 he wrote to one of them, saying:

I am glad you all liked The Lion. A number of mothers, and still more, schoolmistresses, have decided that it is likely to frighten children, so it is not selling very well. But the real children like it, and I am astonished how some very young ones seem to understand it. I think it frightens some adults, but v[ery] few children.

Lewis did not disappoint the many children who wrote to him during those terribly busy years. Nor do his writings disappoint us today. Unlike the transience of youthful volcano hurricanes, Lewis’ legacy will forever remain alive in the imaginations of child and adult alike.

Hip-Hop Literary Lessons

April 27, 2013 — 8 Comments

flocabDo you ever have trouble remembering the key elements of a story? Well, you may not now, since you’ve become an accomplished writer. However, there was once a time when you were just learning about such matters. And that learning might have been far easier than it was if some of today’s teaching resources existed then.

This week I stumbled across a very unusual approach to teaching the fundamental building blocks of stories. You might want to bookmark the page, in case you ever experience difficulty remembering those five pesky elements required for your short fiction, or want to teach a young learner. You need look no further than Flocabulary’s innovative lesson “Five Things.”

The song is less than four minutes long, so go ahead and watch it now, before reading on. (Barring a small typo, it’s quite educational, and their website includes testimonials from teachers affirming how well it connects with young people.) Despite the fact that it’s got a hip-hop beat—not my favorite musical genre—it’s actually quite entertaining . . . and it’s easy to see how well it would connect with today’s younger students.

[Warning: If you watch the following video, you may well be singing along with the chorus before it ends.]

Plot, Character, Conflict, Theme,

Setting, yes these are the 5 things

That you’re going to be needing

When you’re reading or writing

A short story that’s mad exciting.

Music is a powerful medium, and when it is harnessed for educational purposes, it can accomplish wonderful things.

Music can be enjoyed for itself . . . its own inherent loveliness.

Music can also be used to communicate holy things. I believe this is the very reason it exists. Divine grace and our response to our Creator’s love are too majestic to be restricted to simple words.

The brilliant African Bishop Augustine of the city of Hippo is cited as saying “he who sings, prays twice.” Many have echoed these words. I have no doubt Augustine believed this, but the more accurate quotation is: “he who sings well prays twice” (bis orat qui bene cantat). Lest those of us with less than professional vocal chords be dismayed, I am confident the “well” here refers here to worshiping God in spirit and truth (John 4:23).

I have no doubt which of these two pleases God more. The most wondrous voice ever created (a gift itself from our Creator) flawlessly navigating three octaves and singing of the cares of this world—or the feeble, cracking, off-key strains of a tone deaf beggar who is praising the Lord for the gift of his daily bread.

C.S. Lewis famously expressed his disaffection for most church hymnody in a 1950 letter where he wrote:

I naturally loathe nearly all hymns; the face and life of the charwoman in the next pew who revels in them, teach me that good taste in poetry or music are not necessary to salvation.

We must forgive Lewis his condescending comment here, which was only meant for a private communication. And, if read in context it can be interpreted almost as a sort of confession. While he disliked the quality of contemporary Anglican hymns, he was acutely aware of how insignificant the matter was in light of the vital importance of  knowing Christ. (His description of the glorification of the modest Sarah Smith in The Great Divorce reveals how well he recognized that the charwoman beside him, despite her musical preferences, could easily dwarf him in holiness and religious courage.)

In a letter written in 1916, Lewis alluded to the wonder of music, and it’s relationship to particular words. “Isn’t it funny the way some combinations of words can give you—almost apart from their meaning—a thrill like music?”

Toward the end of his life, Lewis invested much time in a literary study of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. (It was actually published after his death, based upon his notes, as Spenser’s Images of Life. It includes a sparkling description of the book as a musical masterpiece.

A story of this kind is in a way more like a symphony than a novel. Corresponding to the themes of the musical form, the literary form has images, which may be delicious or threatening or cryptic or grotesque, but which are always richly expressive of mood.

The images are in every possible relation of contrast, mutual support, development, variation, half-echo, and the like, just as the musical themes are. But the ostensible connection between them all—what keeps the meddling intellect quiet—is here provided by the fact that they are all happening to someone.

They are all worked into the experience or the world of the characters “whose” story it is. That, no more and no less, is the raison d’étre of characters in the characterless story.

I have no doubt Lewis would have found the video above jarring. Yet, I suspect he would have approved of the fact that the music was creating a bridge to some for whom traditional learning is incomprehensible. He was a traditionalist. In many ways, a medievalist. But he was, above all, a redeemed child of God. And, because of that, he desired the best for his neighbor, his nation, and our world.

That said, I don’t want to hear that any readers of Mere Inkling got it into their heads to put any of C.S. Lewis’ words into hip-hop melodies. Ever!

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If you are interested in checking out the official website for Flocabulary, you can view their lesson “Wordplay” (on figurative language). I understand, however, that some of their lessons with political dimensions have been considered superficial.