Archives For Christian Writing

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.

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Few writers attain their full potential without the advice and encouragement of others.

C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien recognized that fact.

For many years they gathered regularly with a number of other keen minds, almost all of whom shared their Christian faith. (Notably, Owen Barfield who was an Anthroposophist, was a notable exception.)  Some writers visited the community as guests.

I’ve written in the past about the great benefit provided by Inkling-style literary criticism. It’s all about synergy.

Mount Hermon Christian Writer’s Conference is one of the premier gatherings of its sort. After many years of hoping to attend, my wife and I journeyed to California for its Fiftieth Anniversary this past week. What a blessing!

In addition to hundreds of zealous writers, the conference was attended by twoscore publishers, agents and writing experts who generously shared their vast knowledge. And I use that word “generously” in a literal sense. The faculty made itself accessible to a degree I have never before witnessed (and I am a veteran of innumerable professional conferences). The speakers were sincerely interested in encouraging each and every participant.

Classes were available for writing novices, journeymen and experts. I found the track on screenwriting to be the most helpful for my own current needs. I hope to put these new lessons into practice in the next few years.

I can confidently assure you that Mount Hermon will also offer the sort of advice and encouragement that you need to advance your own skills to the proverbial “next level.” If you are interested in attending Mount Hermon, you can learn more here.

Back on the Home Front

If you have never enjoyed the benefits of gathering locally with other writers, I strongly encourage you to consider it now.

If you’re on a critique-group-hiatus due to past disappointments, why not look for a fresh group with a healthier focus?

I sincerely believe most of us become better writers while growing together, than we do wandering on our own. Mount Hermon reinforced that conviction.

I encourage each of you to reach your own full potential—with a little help from some new friends.

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The diary of Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, includes some revealing insights into the life of a writer . . . words that I suspect may echo your own experience.

While I would never turn to Søren Kierkegaard for theological inspiration (many do), his comments about writing parallel my own.*

Only when I write do I feel well. Then I forget all of life’s vexations, all its sufferings, then I am wrapped in thought and am happy. If I stop for a few days, right away I become ill, overwhelmed and troubled; my head feels heavy and burdened.

So powerful an urge, so ample, so inexhaustible, one which, having subsisted day after day for five or six years, is still flowing as richly as ever, such an urge, one would think, must also be a vocation from God.

If these great riches of thought, still latent in my soul, must be repressed, it will be anguish and torture for me, and I shall become an absolute good-for-nothing. […]

Being an author . . . is not self-chosen; it is concomitant with everything in my individuality and its deepest urge.

May God then give me good fortune and succor and above all a certain spirit, yes, a certain spirit to resist the onslaughts of doubt and temptation that rise within me, for after all it is not too hard to do battle with the world.

This passage fascinates me. Kierkegaard eloquently expresses the struggle of the Christian writer, then ends on such a uniquely positive note, “after all it is not too hard to do battle with the world.” This victory, he indicates, comes from God placing within us a certain spirit to resist the onslaughts of doubt and temptation that rise within” us.

Keeping our eyes on Christ, and yielding to the Holy Spirit who abides within us, does indeed ensure our victory. Though the world assaults us daily, as we grow more mature in our Lord its temporary gains against us grow smaller and fewer.

I encountered Kierkegaard’s words in a recent post by Steve Laube, a prominent agent. (His agency’s blog is well worth subscribing to.) As he says,

These words resonate because it is the universal condition of writers. The call, the urge, to write is part of who you are. However, notice his last sentence where he admits to “the onslaughts of doubt and temptation that rise within me.” This, again, is a universal condition. It is normal. Embrace it and pray that God will grant you the strength today to resist.

Then do it again tomorrow.

Turning to Lewis

Although Kierkegaard’s words were written in 1847, it’s doubtful C.S. Lewis would have been familiar with them. The rather severely** edited diary did not appear until 1960, only a couple of years before Lewis’ passing.

As a scholar, Lewis was familiar with Kierkegaard. While he did not find Kierkegaard’s existentialism helpful, he could acknowledge that some appreciated his writings. In 1961, he responded to a correspondent’s request for some recommendations, he wrote,

For meditative and devotional reading . . . I suggest . . . my selection from MacDonald, George MacDonald: an Anthology. I can’t read Kierkegaard myself, but some people find him helpful.

The primary reason for Lewis’ albeit tepid mention of Kierkegaard here must have been the fact that one of his close friends was keen on the philosopher. An early translator of Kierkegaard’s works praised Inkling Charles Williams who “affectionately fostered the enterprise of publishing S.K.’s works in English.” (“How Kierkegaard Got into English”).

I am curious how Lewis would have responded to Kierkegaard’s notes on the writing life. Would he have identified with these sentiments?

I suspect they would concur in the statement, “If these great riches of thought, still latent in my soul, must be repressed, it will be anguish and torture for me.” After all, as many of Mere Inkling’s readers can personally attest, the Great Dane was not alone in experiencing this explosive pressure.

As an ancient man named Elihu once said to the Prophet Job, “I am full of words, and the spirit within me compels me; inside I am like bottled-up wine, like new wineskins ready to burst.” (Job 32:18-19).

My advice—get your precious words out before they explode.


* Here you will find the “testimony” of a person whose atheism was reinforced by reading Kierkegaard.

** The editor, Peter Rohde, says in his preface: “The luckless reader who sets out on his own to find his way in Kierkegaard’s vast, and vastly demanding works, runs the risk of losing his way and finally of losing his courage.”

It is precisely their fragmentary character that dispenses us from the obligation which the finished works place upon us, viz. to respect their wholeness—for it is nonexistent.

However, from their 8,000 to 10,000 pages it is possible to distill some one hundred and fifty pages that contain the true essence—that is, if the editor has been successful in his selection.

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It is sad that a lie spoken with conviction can often mislead, while truths communicated timidly are frequently overlooked or doubted.

It was 20 July 1940. C.S. Lewis wrote to his brother Warnie about his thoughts after listening to one of Hitler’s many speeches. The German Army had already occupied the Bailiwicks of Jersey and Guernsey in the Channel Islands.

Unbeknownst to the two veterans of World War One, just four days before Lewis wrote this letter, Hitler issued Führer Directive #16, setting into motion Operation Sea Lion—initiating planning for the invasion of Britain itself.

The fact that both men recognized the malignancy* that was Adolf Hitler, makes Lewis’ candid comment which follows, all the more powerful.

Humphrey came up to see me last night (not in his medical capacity) and we listened to Hitler’s speech together. [The BBC offered a running translation.] I don’t know if I’m weaker than other people: but it is a positive revelation to me how while the speech lasts it is impossible not to waver just a little.

I should be useless as a schoolmaster or a policeman. Statements which I know to be untrue all but convince me, at any rate for the moment, if only the man says them unflinchingly.

The same weakness is why I am a slow examiner: if a candidate with a bold, mature handwriting attributed Paradise Lost to Wordsworth, I should feel a tendency to go and look it up for fear he might be right after all.

Lewis recognized as a flaw his particular susceptibility to implicitly trusting boldly made statements.

This human vulnerability lies at the heart of the infamous declaration of another demagogue, Vladimir Lenin, that “a lie told often enough becomes the truth.”

I suspect many of us share this inclination to trust words we hear spoken with conviction. At the same time, we are probably much less vulnerable to their manipulation than Lewis was, if for no other reason than because our modern ears have become dulled to the incessant and strident lies flooding the public forum.

A Note for Christian Writers

Skillfully treading the line between the modern deities of Pluralism and Tolerance becomes more challenging each day.

The temptation is to temper our message, to timidly whisper what we know to be true. Thus, we dilute Jesus’ clear declaration that he is the Truth (John 14:6), by adding qualifiers such as “at least, he’s the truth for me.”

Speaking boldly is not arrogant. It has been a vital quality of apostolic preaching since the beginning. Peter and John were seized for preaching the Gospel.

Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. . . . So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.”

[After their release, they prayed:] “Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness . . .” (Acts 4, ESV).

Just so, we who know Christ “cannot but speak” about how he is at work in the world and in our lives.

Though our boldness is tempered by humility arising from our awareness that we have no righteousness of our own, we must still offer the truth we know, with confidence. “For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline.” (2 Timothy 1:7, NASB).


* There is evidence Adolf Hitler did not appreciate C.S. Lewis’ wartime service.

 

lindvallIf you want a great volume on C.S. Lewis’ humor to your library—for free—get over to Amazon and download the Kindle version of Surprised by laughter: The Comic World of C.S. Lewis right now.

I recently posted a column on Lewis’ humor, and referenced this very volume by Professor Terry Lindvall.

You never know how long these Amazon sales will last, so do hurry to secure your copy.

This volume is sure to answer any question you have about C.S. Lewis’ use of humor.

One caution, however, which the author includes at the close of his Acknowledgements. Provoking laughter within the confines of the faith community may have consequences . . .

If any cleric or monk speaks jocular words, such as provoke laughter, let him be anathema.

ORDINANCE, SECOND COUNCIL OF CONSTANCE, 1418

Get your copy here.

Devastated by Criticism

November 14, 2016 — 14 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Criticism of the Constructive Variety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C.S. Lewis and Metaphors

October 26, 2016 — 9 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Metaphors Versus Similes

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Scriptures as a Treasure Trove

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

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

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

“I am the alpha and the omega.”

“I am the bread of life.”

“I am the light of the world.”

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

“I am the resurrection and the life.”

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

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

“The Lord is my shepherd . . .”

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

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

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

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

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