Archives For Critique

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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.

Jews Following Jesus

March 4, 2014 — 9 Comments

interfaithJewish poetry is breathtaking. The Psalms have nourished people of faith, as well as secularists, for millennia. C.S. Lewis wrote this about the providence of God in using the Jewish people as his conduit for blessing the world.

My enjoyment of the Psalms has been greatly increased lately. The point has been made before, but let me make it again: what an admirable thing it is in the divine economy that the sacred literature of the world should have been entrusted to a people whose poetry, depending largely on parallelism, should remain poetry in any language you translate it into.

He alluded to this in a letter to Sister Penelope, an Anglican nun and writer. In 1941 she sent him a copy of her new book, Windows on Jerusalem: A Study in the Mystery of Redemption. Lewis responded with gratitude. (Contemporary authors will find the detail of Lewis’ informal critique of her book illustrative of what he brought to the meetings of the Inklings.)

Thank you very much for the book. It has given me real help. What I particularly enjoy in all your work, specially this, is the avoidance of that curious drabness which characterises so many ‘little books on religion.’ Partly it is due to your Hebraic background which I envy you: partly, no doubt, to deeper causes.

Things that particularly pleased me were the true meanings of Beloved (p. 8) and Son (p. 9), the whole account of the Transfiguration (pp. 16 et seq), the passage on Sacrifice (p. 32), the passage ‘This was a shock’ (on p. 35), on our inability to understand sin (41 and 47), the very important bit about Hebrew & Roman ideas of ransom (52, 53): the really splendid account of how God can’t help deceiving the devil (56) and the allegorical close. There are, in fact, a good many Gifford Lectures and other such weighty tomes out of which I’ve got less meat (and indeed less efficient cookery!).

Judaism & Christianity

Jews and Christians have a complex relationship. This is even more true for Jewish people who come to accept Jesus as the promised Messiah. For most Jews, this automatically results in their expulsion from the Jewish community. However, for a growing number, there is a more gracious attitude developing.

A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center revealed some interesting statistics. Note the percentage of United States Jews considering the following to be essential:

Remembering the Holocaust – 73%

Leading an Ethical & Moral Life – 69%

Caring about Israel – 43%

Having a Good Sense of Humor – 42%

Observing Jewish Law – 19%

Here is the most surprising part of the survey. Thirty-four percent of American Jews consider believing Jesus is the Messiah, is compatible with being Jewish.

Let me repeat that . . . 34% of Jews in the United States (35% of the ultra-Orthodox Jews) believe that “Messianic Jews” remain Jewish.

I find that amazing. I also find it encouraging, since it’s consistent with the understanding of the Jews in first century Judea who worshipped beside the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem until its fall.

Some years ago I heard a lecture by a prominent Jewish theologian who described how historical Judaism rarely rejected those who considered any particular rabbi to be the Messiah. Apparently this remains true today, as some modern Jews, for example, consider  Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994) to be the Messiah.

Returning to the case of Jesus of Nazareth, the improving attitude is encouraging to see. In part, because most Messianic Jews say accepting Jesus as the Messiah has made them more Jewish. By that, most mean that they now practice the traditions of their Jewish heritage more faithfully than they previously did.

Following his conversion, C.S. Lewis grew in his positive consideration of the Jewish faith and people. In 1933, as Hitler’s hatred for Judaism became more evident, he wrote in a letter:

I might agree that the Allies are partly to blame, but nothing can fully excuse the iniquity of Hitler’s persecution of the Jews, or the absurdity of his theoretical position. Did you see that he said “The Jews have made no contribution to human culture and in crushing them I am doing the will of the Lord.”

Now as the whole idea of the “Will of the Lord” is precisely what the world owes to the Jews, the blaspheming tyrant has just fixed his absurdity for all to see in a single sentence, and shown that he is as contemptible for his stupidity as he is detestable for his cruelty. For the German people as a whole we ought to have charity: but for dictators, “Nordic” tyrants and so on . . .

All of the civilized people of the world share Lewis’ revulsion with Hitler and his agenda. In that we definitely agree with the vast majority of Jews who regard “Remembering the Holocaust” as something essential.

Postscript:

As positive a sign as the 34% support of Messianic Jews remaining Jewish is, the survey includes a more sobering corollary. Exactly twice that number, 68%, agreed that you can remain Jewish even if you don’t believe in the existence of God. Shocking. But that’s a subject for another day.

bandersnatchIf you’re a writer and you’ve never been part of a critique group, you’ve missed out on some beneficial (and occasionally annoying) experiences.

Critiquing is, of course, the process of providing constructive criticism to someone, in the hopes of improving their work. Good criticism is priceless. The problem is that it takes true skill to offer useful advice . . . and it requires the proper degree of self-assurance to receive the criticism itself.

Those who have been burned by scathing criticism are reticent to “invite” more of the same. However, when the criticism begins with affirmation (about positive aspects of the work), that tiny spoonful of sugar certainly helps the more difficult parts of the evaluation easier to swallow.

And yet, for some, even expertly delivered criticism—covered by a chocolate layer of affirmation and accolades—remains nearly impossible to accept.

A fine example of this truth comes in C.S. Lewis’ description of a prominent member of the Inklings writing fellowship. J.R.R. Tolkien was a virtual perfectionist when it came to all things Middle Earth. Because of this “flaw,” Lewis and the other Inklings were frustrated when it came time to review the progress of The Hobbit and elements of Lord of the Rings. As Lewis described it in a 1959 letter:

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.

To learn the nature of a bandersnatch, we must travel Through the Looking Glass into Lewis Carroll’s 1872 novel. Carroll coined the word and introduced it to the world in a poem called “Jabberwocky,” which appears in Alice’s wonderful adventures.

Lewis, of course, was not likening his dear friend to a frumious* bandersnatch in terms of it’s overall personality. Rather, he was describing the severity of Tolkien’s inability to positively process criticism of his work, to the bandersnatch’s incapacity to do the same. It is similar to the sense in which the White King alludes to the creature’s swiftness in describing his wife: “She runs so fearfully quick. You might as well try to catch a Bandersnatch!”

Although few of us are destined to be members of so illustrious a critique community as the Inklings, I highly commend joining one of your local parallels. While you may encounter a bandersnatch or two, on the whole you’ll likely find the process quite beneficial.

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* “Frumious,” like bandersnatch itself, was coined by Lewis Carroll and is a blending of the words “fuming” and “furious.”

The bandersnatch, as envisioned above, is used with the permission of New Zealand illustrator David Elliot.