Archives For Honesty

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.

A Caveat about Caveats

September 4, 2014 — 4 Comments

cave canemA caveat, most readers will know, is a warning. One of my favorite usages comes from ancient Rome, where many villa owners procured guard dogs to protect their property. Cave Canem–beware of the dog–became a common motif for entryway mosaics.

One of the most familiar caveats is caveat emptor—buyer beware. Not only is this warning well known, it is absolutely true. Without an express warranty, you may have little hope recouping your loss when something you purchase fails.

Caveats, however, need not infer that the subjects they refer to are dangerous.

For example, the guard dog may well be an affectionate “member of the family,” who warms up quickly, even to strangers who have been invited into the home. Likewise, the new car I’m contemplating purchasing may be ideal for me. Fairly priced, economical to drive, and not so dated in appearance that it shouts, “yes, I’m a grandpa.”

Caveats don’t mean “stay away.” They merely advise us all to think before we act. (And, as universal rules go, this is a very good one.) Caveats, and good parenting, remind us to read the “fine print” before signing anything.

I want to encourage all readers of Mere Inkling to use their God-given intelligence to evaluate what you read on these pages. In the same way, I hope you will all apply your God-instilled conscience to measure my words.

In light of this sincere desire, I encourage you to read the gentle caveats offered below.

General Caveats for Readers

What should readers of Mere Inkling keep in mind as they peruse these posts? First of all, there are a number of general considerations—applicable to everything each of us reads and hears.

1.  Understand the perspective of the writer. What are the assumptions and worldview of the person who wrote the piece? It can be hazardous to simply assume that a writer shares your own values—or even definitions. Many people would be shocked at the diversity of definitions for a word like “church” that roam the internet.

2.  Ensure we read what we think we did. By this I mean that we should reread sections that we find confusing or offensive. It may be we have misread what the author intended. (This is especially true when a writer seeks to play with the English language, and uses phrasing unfamiliar to our ear.) In cases where we have normally enjoyed the writing, but now find ourselves bothered by something, it is always good to ask the writer to clarify what they meant. More often than not, I’ve found this opportunity to elaborate dispels the problem.

3.  Reject the myth that anything you read is absolutely objective. Objectivity, except for mathematics, is essentially impossible. Our education, values, experiences and mood all affect the words we write. The best we can hope for in what we read—something Mere Inkling strives for—is personal honesty and fairness.

Mere Inkling Caveats

1.  Mere Inkling’s author is a fallen human being. By definition, that means that I am imperfect. Not all-knowing, nor always gracious. Imperfect though I am, I try my best to speak here in a forthright, considerate, modestly entertaining and, most importantly, a truthful way. When I fall short of that, feel free to write to me about it.

2.  I am a Christian. I certainly don’t apologize for this. Nor do I apologize for the wish of all disciples of Jesus that everyone might know the joy, forgiveness and peace that comes from abiding in the Vine (a metaphor for Jesus, as described in John 15).

3.  Your host at Mere Inkling is an evangelical Christian. This is a hazy adjective, often used in mutually contradictory ways. I apply it here to myself in the context of holding fast to the basic Christian truths, including the aforementioned desire of God that all people might come to him through his only begotten Son.

4.  I am a catholic Christian. Not a Roman Catholic (with a capital C), but catholic in the word’s creedal sense—a member of the one universal Church. As a catholic Christian, I subscribe to the ecumenical creeds, agreed upon as the fundamental doctrines of the faith during its earliest years. These include the Triune nature of God, the Incarnation miracle, and the atonement. Like my mentor, C.S. Lewis, here at Mere Inkling we focus on “Mere Christianity,” the common core of the faith. I consistently attempt to qualify my words on subjects where there is not a clear consensus.

Each of us has his individual emphasis: each holds, in addition to the Faith, many opinions which seem to him to be consistent with it and true and important. And so perhaps they are. But as apologists it is not our business to defend them. We are defending Christianity; not “my religion.” When we mention our personal opinions we must always make quite clear the difference between them and the Faith itself. (C.S. Lewis, “Christian Apologetics”).

5.  I am a Lutheran Christian. Again, I do not apologize. Lutherans understand we are only a small part of the “one holy catholic and apostolic faith.” Each denomination (indeed, each individual) possesses a distinctive interpretation of the Christian faith. We are free, of course, to associate with that community we believe follows God’s leading most faithfully. (It is a given that no community is without flaw, since no human being is.) I have written more on this aspect of my identity in the next point, and on the “Mercy” tab you will find at the top of the page.

6.  I am an evangelical Lutheran Christian. This is not a formal category, but means that I subscribe to historic Lutheranism as it has been taught and held since the Reformation, rather than some of the current expressions of “religion” that may be labeled Lutheran. In essence, this can be summarized in the “solas” of Lutheran doctrine.

Sola Scripture – Scripture Alone meaning that the Bible, the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, are the ultimate authority for determining true faith.

Sola Gratia – Grace Alone meaning salvation is an unearned gift of God, given not because we have earned it.

Sola Fides – Faith Alone meaning that God’s grace is apprehended not through wisdom, good works, or any means other than a simple trust in the promise. Ironically, this faith itself is also a gift of God.

7.  I am a pastor. While pastors with seminary educations do study Greek, Hebrew, Theology and assorted other subjects, we are not the same as what most people mean by the word “theologians.” Pastoral Theology is distinct from Systematic Theology. The former focuses on practical ministry to individuals, while the latter is most concerned with abstract matters. While I also possess a second graduate degree, my Master of Theology degree (much different than an M.A. in theology) was earned in the study of Early Church History. My concern remained the work of God among everyday human beings, rather than scholastic philosophy.

8.  While I never intentionally write anything with the goal of offending any reader, I recognize it is impossible to avoid all offense. (Even the least controversial prose is capable of offending.)

Allow me to illustrate how simple truths can elicit dramatically different responses, with two simple declarations.

God loves all people. This is true, and inoffensive. Most people today, and all orthodox (biblical) Christians would agree with the statement.

Not all people will go to heaven. This too is true. However, it provokes great outcries from many quarters, including some religious organizations that arise out of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Jesus himself offered “hard sayings” that elicited grumbling. John’s Gospel records a powerful account of this, occurring immediately after the Feeding of the Five Thousand.

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? . . . The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” . . . “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.

C.S. Lewis referred to the alienating nature of some truths when he wrote the essay, “Cross-Examination.”

I believe that there are many accommodating preachers, and too many practitioners in the church who are not believers. Jesus Christ did not say “Go into all the world and tell the world that it is quite right.” The Gospel is something completely different. In fact, it is directly opposed to the world.

9.  I am an American. Again, no apologies. I applaud much of what this nation has valued and shared during its history. I regret many of the mistakes the United States has made, and continues to make. I recognize how fortunate I have been to live in a nation with access to educational and medical resources not available to all. I genuinely appreciate other cultures and have been privileged to live in Europe, Asia and the Pacific. The right I treasure most—and one I pray will be extended to all people—is freedom of religion.

10.  I welcome offline correspondence. I recognize many people are reluctant to post a comment on a blog, which is visible to the public. I also realize that some readers would appreciate privately offering a comment or posing a question. I welcome this, and encourage you to use the form below to write to me. I will respond from my personal email account and we can discuss sensitive matters in greater depth. I must say in advance, however, that I do not have the leisure time to aid with any research. Similarly, while I am happy to offer general pastoral advice, only a fool or con artist would presume to conduct serious counseling or therapy via email. (You need a local pastor or counselor for that.) That said, I do enjoy spirited and honest discourse, so d feel free to contact me.

_____

The picture at the top of the page comes from the entryway to the “House of the Tragic Poet” in Pompeii.