Archives For Education

father christmasWhen did you first learn how to express yourself creatively? Some of us were blessed with parents who recognized the importance of things like music, art and literature. Others, alas, were not.

Most readers of Mere Inkling like to dabble in writing themselves. Many are quite skilled, and disciplined enough to persist with the demanding task of regularly composing interesting pieces for their own online columns. Some, in fact, are quite accomplished and successful in their personal literary efforts.

Becoming a good, truly good, writer requires experience. One may be born with the innate ability to become a Shakespeare or a Hemingway, but the skills need to be sharpened through effort. Study often helps, but it can never replace the necessity of practice in honing our writing.

It seems to me that the sooner we begin the process of unbridling our imaginations, translating our visions into words, and writing it all down in a way that engages the imaginings of others, the better we can become.

Many of you, especially Europeans, will be familiar with a gaming product that arose in the United Kingdom. They are called Top Trumps, and the cards come in a wide variety of themes. One set that I own is Narnia, from which the image at the top of this page comes.

Tolkien fans will be delighted to learn they just reissued a Lord of the Rings set that comes in an amazing Eye of Sauron tin. You can learn more about that unique item here.

It was while thinking about my Narnia cards when I got the idea to see if there was an online mechanism for making one’s own playing cards. I was toying with the idea of fashioning a C.S. Lewis card to illustrate one of my posts.

I was actually searching online for a site where I could “create” such a card. I found several. Only later did I consider the irony of using that particular word.

For theologians, the word create bears profound significance. When it comes to the human activity of bringing together in some novel shape pre-existing images or ideas, it is not truly accurate. Lewis wrote about that in a 1943 letter to Sister Penelope.

‘Creation’ as applied to human authorship . . . seems to me an entirely misleading term. We . . . re-arrange elements He has provided. There is not a vestige of real creativity de novo in us. Try to imagine a new primary colour, a third sex, a fourth dimension, or even a monster which does not consist of bits of existing animals stuck together! Nothing happens.

And that surely is why our works (as you said) never mean to others quite what we intended: because we are re-combining elements made by Him and already containing His meanings. Because of those divine meanings in our materials it is impossible we should ever know the whole meaning of our own works, and the meaning we never intended may be the best and truest one.

Writing a book is much less like creation than it is like planting a garden or begetting a child: in all three cases we are only entering as one cause into a causal stream which works, so to speak, in its own way. I would not wish it to be otherwise.

Still, even though we are not true “creators,” it is enjoyable to rearrange the mundane elements (or words) of this life in fresh ways.

That’s one reason I was pleased to discover a website devoted to offering a “Trading Card Creator” hosted by the International Reading Association. It “gives students an alternative way to demonstrate their literacy knowledge and skill when writing about popular culture texts or real world examples.”
Why didn’t they have cool stuff like this when I was growing up? (If they did, I might be able to express myself better than by having to rely on phrases like “cool stuff.”)

Below you will find their website, along with a second option. I was thinking that my grandchildren might find it interesting to create a set of cards about our family tree. Their own sketches could be used for ancestors for whom we have no photograph. The comprehensive trading card creator maker offers a variety of templates, including for people, places, events and objects.

The template offered by the second site is generic enough that the cards can be produced in similar categories.

Unleash your imagination. And, after you’ve had some fun, consider sharing these links with a child you may know.

ReadWriteThink Trading Cards

Big Huge Labs Trading Cards

C.S. Lewis Card 3C.S. Lewis Card 2C.S. Lewis Card 1C.S. Lewis Card 4

potterSo much for the effectiveness of “state churches.” The European ones appear to have become abject failures. There is ample evidence that the “establishment” of religions has rarely served either church or state very well.

Here’s the latest proof from the United Kingdom. The BBC recently reported a study that shows three in ten teenaged Brits don’t know the Nativity of Jesus came from the Bible. Similar numbers had never heard about the Crucifixion or Adam and Eve.

I imagine they’ll consider the new Noah film just another work of Hollywood fiction. (Actually, half of them didn’t know that very story comes from the Bible.)

What’s more—their parents are nearly as ignorant.

Many of the teens did, however, think that the plotlines from the Harry Potter series were based on Bible stories.

As a person who was genuinely inspired by England’s magnificent cathedrals while I lived there, it is painful to contemplate the terrible loss. The great-great-grandchildren of saints who suffered and sacrificed for the Gospel have disregarded the good news.

And, lest any readers think I’m pointing fingers as a “self-righteous” American, let me assure you I take no pride in my own nation’s slide into apostasy. The words of Micah’s prophecy seem closer to fulfillment each day. “The faithful have been swept from the land; not one upright person remains.”

C.S. Lewis saw this coming. Consider the following from his 1950 essay, “The Literary Impact of the Authorised Version.”

It may be asked whether now, when only a minority of Englishmen regard the Bible as a sacred book, we may anticipate an increase of its literary influence. I think we might if it continued to be widely read. But this is not very likely. Our age has, indeed, coined the expression “the Bible as literature.” It is very generally implied that those who have rejected its theological pretensions nevertheless continue to enjoy it as a treasure house of English prose.

It may be so. There may be people who, not having been forced upon familiarity with it by believing parents, have yet been drawn to it by its literary charms and remained as constant readers. But I never happen to meet them. Perhaps it is because I live in the provinces. But I cannot help suspecting, if I may make an Irish bull, that those who read the Bible as literature do not read the Bible.

Speaking of reading the Bible “as literature,” that’s not a bad thing. It informs so much Western literature, that an ignorance of the Scriptures is tantamount to possessing an inadequate education. An excellent online resource for exploring this truth can be found at the Bible Literacy Project.

The site includes a copy of a comprehensive 2006 study of English professors from America’s top-rated schools, including Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Texas A&M, UC-Berkeley and others. In the study, not a single professor disagreed with the statement that: “Regardless of a person’s faith, an educated person needs to know the Bible.”

If some people could get past their prejudices against the Bible, they would recognize the truth of this statement. Everyone should be reading the Bible, even if only as a significant literary work.

Perhaps, if this widespread study comes to pass, one day people will be able to recognize the difference between the Scriptures and Harry Potter.

Obstreperous Language

September 15, 2013 — 13 Comments

obstreperous

© Stella Belikiewicz and used by permission.

Despite my many shortcomings, I do “pride” myself on possessing a rather considerable vocabulary. My 97th percentile score of the GRE* reinforced my impression that I knew a lot about words.

One technique which has increased my vocabulary is to never let an unknown word pass by without making an effort to learn its meaning. This is simple when I’m working at the computer. If I’m unsure of a definition, I immediately look it up in an online dictionary such as this.

Very rarely do I “guess” at a meaning, based upon its context. This mainly occurs if I’m listening to the radio while I’m driving, and I don’t have recourse to a dictionary. Even then I try to impress the new word on my memory so that I can research it when I return home.

The word in this column’s title motivated me to discuss the importance of accurately understanding word definitions. When I encountered “obstreperous,” it rang vague bells of recollection. And, I was able to discern the word’s general meaning from the context of the article. While some readers of Mere Inkling are already familiar with its meaning—and perhaps use it in daily conversations—allow me to share the context in which I encountered it.

I was reading an article in a military journal about the “battle over ballistic missiles” which was fought inside the Air Force as the manned-bombers-only mindset had to be breached so the United States could advance into the ICBM age. The champions of the two positions were two successive Air Force Chiefs of Staff, Thomas White and Curtis LeMay.

White struggled with how to control the obstreperous LeMay. He knew he didn’t have the political power to force LeMay out, nor could he outwait his [Strategic Air Command] chief. LeMay received his fourth star in 1951 at age 44, which made him the youngest four-star U.S. general since Ulysses S. Grant.**

I’m rarely content with possessing an amorphous definition of a word, so I looked it up. My general impressions of its meaning were confirmed, and I added another word to my personal vocabulary. (The fact that I may never use it beyond its appearance in this post is irrelevant.) Here’s the dictionary entry:

ob·strep·er·ous [uhb-strep-er-uhs]

adjective

1. resisting control or restraint in a difficult manner; unruly.

2. noisy, clamorous, or boisterous: obstreperous children.

Parents give their children a precious gift by encouraging the growth of their own vocabularies. In the pre-computer days, we had a dictionary not far away when we had dinner, and it wasn’t uncommon for it to find its way to the table during our conversations.

Consciously adding new words to our vocabulary is a skill especially vital to writers.

C.S. Lewis wrote about how common usage of familiar words requires no contextual definition. However, he warns of the danger of accepting subjective “definitions” offered outside the context of credible dictionaries.

When we leave the dictionaries we must view all definitions with grave distrust. It is the greatest simplicity in the world to suppose that when, say, Dryden defines wit or Arnold defines poetry, we can use their definition as evidence of what the word really meant when they wrote.

The fact that they define it at all is itself a ground for scepticism. Unless we are writing a dictionary, or a text-book of some technical subject, we define our words only because we are in some measure departing from their real current sense. Otherwise there would be no purpose in doing so. . . .

The word wit will illustrate this. We . . . find old critics giving definitions of it which are contradicted not only by other evidence but out of the critics’ own mouths. Off their guard they can be caught using it in the very sense their definition was contrived to exclude.

A student who should read the critical debate of the seventeenth century on wit under the impression that what the critics say they mean by wit is always, or often, what they really mean by wit would end in total bewilderment.

He must understand that such definitions are purely tactical. They are attempts to appropriate for one side, and to deny to the other, a potent word. You can see the same “war of positions” going on today.

A certain type of writer begins “The essence of poetry is” or “All vulgarity may be defined as,” and then produces a definition which no one ever thought of since the world began, which conforms to no one’s actual usage, and which he himself will probably have forgotten by the end of the month. (Studies in Words)

I find it rather fitting to include this passage from Lewis, with its martial imagery, in a column inspired by a description of a surly advocate of massive nuclear bombing as the best deterrence of World War III.

Writers, particularly those attempting to be persuasive, are wise to ponder Lewis’ wise counsel. We cannot surrender the battlefield to those who would revise the clear and historic meanings of words in an effort “to appropriate for one side, and to deny to the other, a potent word.”

_____

* The Graduate Record Exam is a standardized test used as part of the admission process for many university graduate programs in the United States. We won’t be discussing my mathematics score here . . .

** If the source article interests you, you can read it at Air Force Magazine.

The artwork above is copyrighted by its creator, Stella Belikiewicz, and used with her permission.

Writing Life Scripts

September 13, 2013 — 9 Comments

ben hurI was shaped by the heroic religious films of the 1950s and 60s. The powerful messages of epic movies like Ben Hur, Quo Vadis and The Robe planted within my young Christian heart an awareness of nobility and radical self-sacrifice.

About twenty years ago, I spent a year doing graduate work in education. One of my Educational Psychology classes was taught by a professor who was a devotee of Transactional Analysis. I don’t recall too much about TA, aside from one of its principles that resonated with me.

It’s a concept called Life Scripts. Without going into great detail, it is an often subconscious notion of how we “think” our lives will or should play out. It’s adjusted throughout our lives, but the basic theme is established when we are quite young.*

A recent article says “script is broadly understood as a series of decisions, formed as coping strategies in childhood, which continue to shape the life course outside of awareness.”**

It was only as an adult that I realized just how significant an impression these virtuous stories made on me. I recalled the countless times I lay in bed at night rehearsing the story of The Robe. I was the unbelieving Roman soldier, converted by the gentle witness of the wrongfully persecuted Christians.*** Ultimately, I took my stand with them, defending them and voluntarily laying down my life for Christ.

That same plot line still echoes through my mind and soul.

I consider myself blessed to have been exposed to such positive influences while my self identity was being shaped. And I pray for children today whose parents allow them to be exposed (at terribly vulnerable ages!) to violent, fearful and morally ambiguous influences.

Those precious minds and hearts are scarred by the vulgarity and immorality that are endemic in modern cinema, television and music. May God have mercy on them.

C.S. Lewis lived during the era when the virtuous dramas such as those named above were at the peak of their influence.

In a diary entry from the mid-1920s, he mentions Quo Vadis in passing. He is describing his weekend schedule.

Saturday 22 April: Got up about 6.30 and did the same jobs as yesterday. Was settled to work by 9.5 o’clock and put in an excellent morning . . . Sheila Gonner—jolly child—came to tea. Dorothy is to come back tomorrow: so we shall no longer be servantless. At her request I lent her my crib to Tacitus’ History for her sister Rose— I wonder what makes her imagine that she would like it? Possibly early Christian novels of the Quo Vadis type. Worked again after tea, and from supper till ten o’clock, finishing Herodotus. The last few pages of the IXth Book I now read for the first time, having got tired of it on my first reading . . .

I find this diary passage intriguing, in the way that Lewis posits a reader’s potential interest in classical literature as arising from their exposure to ancient Rome via contemporary novels. That’s precisely where my own lifelong fascination with the Roman empire was born.

If you’ve never seen these three movies, I commend them to you. I would also encourage you to consider reading one or all of the novels. They are available for free download in various digital formats.

Quo Vadis

Ben Hur

The Robe

_____

* I’m a pastor and historian, not a psychologist, so I don’t pretend to understand all of the implications. Because of that, I don’t endorse TA as a fully valid theory. What’s more, in our fallen world it’s obvious that many early “life scripts” can be based on wounds inflicted on neglected or abused children. In such cases, particularly where the scripts are destructive, we are not “destined” to live out a tragedy. By the grace of God, even the saddest of stories can be redeemed and “rewritten” into tales of hope and wonder.

** From “Script or Scripture?” by Jo Stuthridge in Life Scripts edited by Richard Erskine (Karnac Books, 2010).

*** It didn’t hurt that the main Christian disciple in the film was the lovely and chaste Diana, played by the British actress Jean Simmons. But that’s another story, and it’s important to note that these life scripts are pre-pubescent creations, so they are motivated by much deeper impulses than hormones. As the previously footnoted quotation referred to them, they are fundamentally “coping strategies” for survival in the calm (or frequently turbulent) world in which children find themselves.

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!

_____

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.

Settling for Less

April 11, 2013 — 12 Comments

ammunitionMy wife and I are thrifty people. (Well, in all honesty, she wouldn’t exactly use that word to describe me.) Still, we try to save for the future and spend money sensibly.

We always try to purchase generic products unless we find their quality inferior to the “name brands.” Once I learned that most generics were manufactured in the same plants that produce the more expensive products, that made sense.

Nevertheless, as the illustration suggests, there are some places where it just doesn’t pay to settle for potentially inferior goods. Take, for instance, medical care and your children’s educations. We all want the best we can get. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

No, the “wrong” enters in when we begin to envy those who possess something we think we would like to have. It might be a nicer home, a newer car, or a larger television screen.

Envy is a deceptive thing. It lies to us. It beckons to us, saying, “if only you possessed that one thing . . . then you’d truly be happy.” Envy usually whispers, but it makes up for its lack of volume with its persistence. Once we open the door to our heart and mind, envy suggests—over and over—that if we don’t secure the object we desire, that happiness will elude us.

Envy does more than nag us. It distracts us from all of God’s blessings. With eyes focused on our presumed “needs,” we forfeit the joy that would otherwise flow naturally from contentment with our genuine needs. “Give us this day our daily bread” is not, after all, a request for more of this world’s “treasures.”

Another quality of envy is that it promises what it cannot—due to its very nature—deliver. Envy has a relentless appetite; it is incapable of being appeased. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “Envy is insatiable. The more you concede to it the more it will demand.” (“Democratic Education”).

Envy is so ravenous that it is used by Lewis to illustrate part of the torment of Hell. The following comes from his Preface to The Screwtape Letters.

We must picture Hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment.

It’s probably no accident God included repeated prohibitions against coveting in the Ten Commandments.

In light of the demands levied by envy, I choose to reject it whenever I recognize its whisper. I opt instead for giving thanks for the innumerable blessings I’ve received. And, I ponder the responsibility that comes with God’s generosity . . . not least of which is the duty to remain thrifty, so that I have more of those blessings available to share with others.

Vivacious Vocabularies

October 24, 2012 — 19 Comments

One reason I love reading C.S. Lewis arises from his adroit use of the English language. His vocabulary is immense. It is pleasant to run into words one seldom encounters on the drab byways of modern journalism and tangled thoroughfares of contemporary “social media.”

Consider the following example. I was exploring The Allegory of Love when I read this: “There is nothing in literature which does not, in some degree, percolate into life.”

What a delightful verb! It evokes for me recollections of my youth when my parents would refer to our coffee pot as the percolator. Simultaneously, it reminds me of more recent—less happy—usages: “I’m sorry, but inadequate soil percolation means you’ll have to install a far more expensive septic system than normally required.”

It’s discouraging when you consider the sad state of modern vocabularies. I read somewhere that people typically only use about 10% of the words they know. So a common vocabulary of 5,000 spoken words would mean they know (i.e. can recognize written or audible forms of) about 50,000 words. Shakespeare used 29,000 words in his plays and sonnets, suggesting an expansive vocabulary. Likewise, brilliant authors like C.S. Lewis would boast a praiseworthy mental dictionary.

I am sometimes curious about my own vocabulary. I consciously attempt—in conversation as well as writing—to utilize at least 15% of the words I know. After all, the English language is so rich, it’s criminal to limit ourselves to pedestrian words. It’s like having all the ingredients for a delicious feast available to us and settling for slapping together a peanut butter sandwich.

I also love the precision that comes from using the exact word that suits the occasion. For example, in a thriller it matters greatly how the hero’s nemesis inflicts injury. A skilled writer would never say “Professor Moriarty cut Holmes.” Instead, we would learn that he slashed . . . stabbed . . . sliced . . . scarred . . . carved . . . or perhaps he merely nicked the detective. Likewise, we would probably know the type of weapon he was using. It would not be a mere “knife.” It might be a saber . . . a dagger . . . a pocketknife . . . scalpel . . . carving knife . . . or perhaps even a bayonet.

Lewis addressed this richness in vocabulary in an essay on “Transposition” which appears in The Weight of Glory.

If the richer system is to be represented in the poorer at all, this can only be by giving each element in the poorer system more than one meaning. The transposition of the richer into the poorer must, so to speak, be algebraical, not arithmetical. If you are to translate from a language which has a large vocabulary into a language that has a small vocabulary, then you must be allowed to use several words in more than one sense. If you are to write a language with twenty-two vowel sounds in an alphabet with only five vowel characters than you must be allowed to give each of those five characters more than one value. If you are making a piano version of a piece originally scored for an orchestra, then the same piano notes which represent flutes in one passage must also represent violins in another.

It is wonderful to be fortunate enough to speak a language with a diverse vocabulary. English is such a tongue. Now, if we could just simplify its complexities and purge its irregularities, we would enjoy the best of all linguistic worlds.