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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.

Governmental Coersion

February 2, 2016 — 2 Comments

bookThe title of the book is provocative. And it’s message is sure to offend some. But at the same time, its theme will provide encouragement to those who resist the pressure to conform to the spirit of this age.

You Will be Made to Care is due for release this week. It’s subtitle describes its focus: The War on Faith, Family and Your Freedom to Believe. The authors are evangelical Christians who have also been active in the political realm.

I’ve never offered a formal “book review” on this blog, and this will sound decidedly “Christian,” so fair warning for whether or not you wish to read on.

Like the majority of evangelical Christians in the United States, Erick Erickson and Bill Blankschaen advocate what are commonly called “traditional” values. In essence, that means their position reflects the one that was normative in the country until the past couple of decades.

I must acknowledge up front that in light of my review, I will be offered a signed copy of the book itself. I mention that fact because integrity requires me to do so. At the same time, I assure you that my own integrity would not allow me to offer an insincere recommendation, for any inducement. (Besides, having written book reviews for several military and civilian publications in the past, I am aware of the fact that receiving gratis copies of the texts is not uncommon.)

The initial chapter of the book describes the rapid shift in American moral values during the recent past.

After decades of culture wars, failed leadership in both parties, and almost eight years of a progressive president committed to fundamentally transforming America, there’s a sense that we are no longer slouching toward Gomorrah, as Robert Bork famously put it, but rushing headlong toward inevitable decline.

The authors make a persuasive argument that not only are citizens now pressured to tolerate lifestyles with which they disagree (something we understand is a fact of life in a democracy) . . . they are increasingly being pressured to act affirmatively to support and promote those very alternatives. They will be made to care!

My Personal Experience

I served twenty-four years as an Air Force chaplain, with twenty two of that on active duty. The armed forces are considered a bastion of conservative culture. That’s a good thing when it comes to patriotism (something becoming less common in the general culture). It can have some downsides also, but they are outweighed by the stability that is provided for this community that discharges the most important responsibility of any government, protecting the nation (i.e. the people, and in the case here in the United States, of the Constitution itself which enshrines their rights).

Because the president is the commander in chief, and the executive branch controls the military, it is vulnerable to excessive interference. One form of this comes in “social engineering,” where the political powers impose revisions they deem appropriate, with little or no regard for the utility or ethics of that intervention.

In some cases this is a good thing. The Republican dictate that African-Americans should be allowed to serve in the military was one such triumph. Another came more than eighty years later, when President Truman desegregated the armed forces in 1948.

In 1994, President Clinton implemented a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy to allow homosexuals to serve in the military. This simply formalized the existing reality. However, in 2011 President Obama removed the ban to public practice of this previously “alternative” lifestyle. But this has not proven adequate for those who would “make others care.”

Through aggressive indoctrination and ruthless suppression of any competing voices, social engineers press forward their goal of eradicating any “traditional” voice on this subject.

And here is where Erickson’s and Blankschaen’s warning becomes most frighteningly accurate. When they have stilled any contrary voices, they notch the pressure up one more degree and say it is no longer sufficient to tolerate a given activity, now you must actively support or even celebrate it.

The pressure is being ratcheted up on chaplains even as you read this. The goal of some would be to purge all evangelicals from the ranks, and replace them with clergy from religious bodies that affirm the new policies. Either that, or dispense with chaplains altogether. After all, to many inquisitors of the new age the very notion of the world having a Creator is itself archaic and regressive.

Do Not Despair

This book would not be worth the read if it merely diagnosed the disease. But the authors also offer a remedy.

Now is not the time for quitting. Now is the time for engaging culture strategically with an understanding of the times in which we live and a reinvigorated faith in God. Now is the time for building up our own faith and intentionally surrounding ourselves with a community that shares our beliefs. These may well be “times that try men’s souls . . . Such times can produce a new generation of heroes because they offer an opportunity for clarity, authentic community, and courageous leadership.

C.S. Lewis, whose words and thoughts frequent the columns here at Mere Inkling, waged a cultural battle during his life. He paid a price for his defense of the Gospel and of traditional values. He was ridiculed for his “simple” faith that trusted the words of Jesus and the Scriptures.

Lewis knew the truth of the Lord’s warning. “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15:18-20)

Lewis did not bemoan this fact. Rather than be shunned into silence he championed the truth. This book advises we follow the same course (and even includes a couple of pertinent Lewis quotes). The following sounds like something that Lewis would have written if he were alive today (in either Europe or America).

In addition to supporting live-and-let-live legislation and leaders who demonstrate the courage to stand for your freedom of conscience, there is really something much more basic to Christianity that each of us should do as citizens—love your neighbor. I don’t mean love them in some sort of philosophical or esoteric way, but really and truly connect with the people in the community in which you live and do good to and for them.

Right now the publishers are offering a special incentive to preorder the book. By going to this link, You Will Be Made to Care, you will find details about the bonus materials. It’s quite an eclectic list, including a collection of devotions, a sermon entitled “The Believer in the Public Square,” an audio collection, and a PDF cookbook. (Invite me over if you decide to make some of the cappuccino knots; they look delicious.)

A Final Lewis Thought on Government Oppression

I recently read some correspondence between C.S. Lewis and fellow writer Idrisyn Oliver Evans in 1954. Apparently Evans had taken a government job that involved the oversight of some government publications. Lewis’ fictitious titles are entertaining and insightful.

You inflict, as well as suffering, the punishment of Tantalus in your description of your new job. I can’t imagine what sort of books that library contains. Is it titles like Seven Ways of Spoiling a Landscape, The War Against Agriculture, Amenities are Bunk and Liberty: Its Cause and Cure? But I expect you would commit the sin of Tantalus if you told me.

Liberty: Its Cause and Cure. Brilliant!

Lewis was not able to preserve the letter he received, but we do have a copy of this subsequent letter to his friend. I was taken aback by his comment about the civil service. Lewis must certainly have been writing in the context of governmental bureaucracy and the growth of regulations restricting freedom.

The previous criticism, quoted above, is referred to in passing, but Lewis hastens to note it included a “grain of seriousness.”

The words are sobering, especially for those of us who align with civic institutions. And they provide a fitting close for the review of a book warning about the government’s growing predilection to use its coercive power so that we would all be made to care . . .

There was a grain of seriousness in my rally against the Civil Service. I don’t think you have worse taste or worse hearts than other men. But I do think that the State is increasingly tyrannical and you, inevitably, are among the instruments of that tyranny . . .

How Precious You Are

March 23, 2012 — 7 Comments

God loves you.

It doesn’t matter how loveable, or unloveable you are, he loves you.

It doesn’t matter whether you praise his Name or deny his existence, he loves you.

It doesn’t matter whether or not you love him. You can even hate him . . . but he still loves you.

Doesn’t make sense to our fallen human reason, but it’s true. One of the amazing revelations of the Christian Scriptures is that God loves each and every one of the people he has created.

Every human being is unique, and each is precious to God. Whether you feel like it or not . . . whether you feel undeserving or (far more dangerously) you think you are a pretty “good” person . . . you are precious to him.

I find it intriguing how some manmade religions and philosophies consciously downplay the uniqueness of each person. What is clearly evidence of God’s infinite creativity—the glorious diversity of men and women the world over—is seen as something odd. A cosmic fluke to be remedied when all essence returns to the amorphous and undifferentiated “whole.”

The elimination of what makes you and me precisely who we are, seems to be the goal of some of these worldviews. But deep within each of our souls we know that this pursuit is wrong. It’s alien to the core of our existence. Loss of identity is, in a phrase, not that for which we were created. You and I were made for a different purpose. And our distinctive personalities (and even our quirks) in this one-time-in-all-creation combination, are no accident.

In his treatise on why suffering exists, C.S. Lewis offers a powerful glimpse into the singularity of our souls. He argues that Christ’s sacrifice was no generic or blanket wonder. Rather, it was a divinely individualized miracle. Listen to Lewis:

The signature on each soul may be a product of heredity and environment, but that only means that heredity and environment are among the instruments whereby God creates a soul. I am considering not how, but why, He makes each soul unique. If He had no use for all these differences, I do not see why He should have created more souls than one. Be sure that the ins and outs of your individuality are no mystery to Him; and one day they will no longer be a mystery to you. The mould in which a key is made would be a strange thing, if you had never seen a key: and the key itself a strange thing if you had never seen a lock. Your soul has a curious shape because it is a hollow made to fit a particular swelling in the infinite contours of the Divine substance, or a key to unlock one of the doors in the house with many mansions.

For it is not humanity in the abstract that is to be saved, but you—you, the individual reader, John Stubbs or Janet Smith. Blessed and fortunate creature, your eyes shall behold Him and not another’s. All that you are, sins apart, is destined, if you will let God have His good way, to utter satisfaction. The Brocken spectre ‘looked to every man like his first love’, because she was a cheat. But God will look to every soul like its first love because He is its first love. Your place in heaven will seem to be made for you and you alone, because you were made for it—made for it stitch by stitch as a glove is made for a hand. (C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain.)

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. And I think I just may address that distinction in my next post.

Christians may cease reading here.

A personal and sincere note to any unbelievers reading this column. I’m not writing this to offend you, or to push any of the buttons that may be holdovers from your days in restrictive or destructive religious settings.

If you’ve never believed, I encourage you to tune out the voices (on both sides of the issue). Go directly to the primary account(s) of Jesus’ life and read them. (There are four “Gospel” accounts of his ministry, but I encourage you to first read the Gospel according to Saint John.) Any of your Christian friends would be eager to offer you a copy of the Bible for no cost, but it’s also available for free download at various sites. For example, here you can download an entire Bible in English Standard Version (ESV) for free.

If you once believed, but have laid your faith aside, I don’t want to offer guilt. Instead, listen to this promise of grace. Just as the father of the Prodigal Son was always awaiting the return of his child, the same joyous welcome home awaits you. If ever you desire to return home, know with certainty that he’ll welcome you again, not as a servant or second class citizen, but as his son or daughter. And you’ll hear the words from that parable proclaimed over you: “It is fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother [or sister] was dead, and is alive; they were lost, and are found.” (Luke 15:32).