Archives For Integrity

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.

monopoly

It is almost too obvious to require saying: you reinforce the behaviors you reward. Why then, would any society intentionally train its youth to be dishonest?

One justification I’ve heard, more and more frequently in recent years, is that it’s all about winning—coming out on top. The motto of these folks is “do whatever it takes to win.” Yet this is a recipe for a disastrous life. In the words of Jesus: “what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” (Luke 9:25)*

Our recreational choices say a lot about us and our values. Digital options have reduced the influence of board games, so one perennial favorite has devised a strategy to regain its market share.

Monopoly is based on accumulating wealth and, for the merciless, crushing one’s competitors. Some might argue that the capitalism which provides the basis for the game is corrupt in and of itself. Still, Monopoly has always had clear rules that governed actions.

But some players cheated. Capitalizing on this sinister impulse, Monopoly has created a new “Cheaters Edition.” Yes, you read that right.

Christian publications have announced the game’s arrival. The current issue of Citizen notes that even though cheating is actively encouraged in the game, negative consequences are also possible.

Mind you, it’s not that anything goes. Cheat successfully and you get rewarded; get caught and you get punished.

Even the “secular” Bloomberg review of the new game acknowledges the moral confusion of the product, closing its report with:

Clearly this begs some deeper philosophical questions about modern life and the future of morality and humanity, but, wait, did you just land on Boardwalk? Yes, I definitely always had a hotel on there! Trust me.

Nurturing Healthy Behaviors

One does not have to be a parent to recognize this wisdom of this Proverb: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6).

In fact, even pet “owners” know the necessity of training (e.g. housebreaking) our canine and feline family members.

Many games highlight positive choices, consciously or subconsciously reinforcing good. The simplest and most common method for this process comes not in a board game or a digital alternative. It is found in verbal praise.

There is ongoing debate about the value of praise. It’s clear that insincere or mechanistic praise would be of insignificant worth, and potentially dangerous. Some psychologists go so far as to state that “Positive reinforcement can undercut a child’s intrinsic motivation.”

C.S. Lewis understood that we cannot manufacture our own motivations.

I cannot, by direct moral effort, give myself new motives. After the first few steps in the Christian life we realise that everything which really needs to be done in our souls can be done only by God (Mere Christianity).

Despite this truth, it is also argued that our character can be shaped, in a sense, by consciously and repeatedly choosing to do what is right. Gradually then, by God’s grace, obedience may gradually give way to a more honest and natural motivation as the positive paths become our normal, well-traveled path.

This is not simply a “Christian” concern. The philosopher Aristotle noted “Good habits formed during youth make all the difference.” (What do you think Aristotle would think about the Cheater’s Edition of Monopoly?)

C.S. Lewis would doubtless concur with Aristotle. I assume most of Mere Inkling’s readers agree with the ancient wisdom as well.

A final thought. This cheater’s edition of Monopoly probably possesses less power to damage lives than Hasbro’s Ouijà board game. But that’s a subject for another day


* In Matthew 16 we read the more familiar “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?”

cheat card

A Better Wig

April 6, 2016 — 4 Comments

wigHow important is honesty? When is it okay to fudge on the truth? If the main point is valid, how necessary is it to keep all of the details straight?

I just read a bizarre story that got me thinking about this subject. A director of Senior Services in Rhode Island wanted to promote snow removal assistance for the elderly, and couldn’t rustle up a suitable “Cranston Senior Home Resident” to be featured during a news report.

So, she did the next best thing. She manufactured one.

The only apparent flaw in her plan was forgetting that such facilities also have male residents. So, the bus driver she pressed into the role had to don a wig, makeup and earrings. (Perhaps she just thought that an elderly female would elicit greater sympathy.

At any rate, her nefarious plot was revealed when local television viewers did not fall for the questionable disguise. The coup de grâce, or the punch line as you may read it, came in the pronouncement of the salon owner who prepped the man for his debut.

“I probably would have given him a better wig if I had known.”

You see, the problem wasn’t the misrepresentation. The error was in not doing it persuasively.

I suppose this odd story struck me as timely (even though it apparently occurred this past winter) because we in the United States are currently suffering in the midst of a lengthy presidential primary season. (No comments, please, on whether any of the candidates might benefit from wearing “a better wig.”)

C.S. Lewis & the Subject of Deception

C.S. Lewis thought a great deal about the subjects of truth, and deception. For much of his life, well into adulthood, he was deceived by sirens who denied the reality of a loving God.

One of his accurate observations is that deception must be reasonable to be successful.

Nothing can deceive unless it bears a plausible resemblance to reality. (“An Experiment in Criticism”)

Obviously, the incident above did not pass the plausibility standard.

In the same essay, Lewis declared scenarios that represent imaginary realities as being innocent of deception.

No one can deceive you unless he makes you think he is telling the truth. The un-blushingly romantic has far less power to deceive than the apparently realistic. Admitted fantasy is precisely the kind of literature which never deceives at all. Children are not deceived by fairy-tales; they are often and gravely deceived by school-stories. Adults are not deceived by science-fiction; they can be deceived by the stories in the women’s magazines. (“An Experiment in Criticism”).

We would be inclined today to add “men’s magazines” as an equally disingenuous source. I believe Lewis was referring to the kind of story that manipulates one’s emotions and exaggerates reality to provoke the desired response.

Self-Deception as a Danger

As a Christian, Lewis reflected in great depth on how prone you and I are to deceiving ourselves. Some of this self-deception is not intentional. In correspondence with an American acquaintance he discussed Martin Buber’s book, I and Thou.

What I had not yet thought about was your objection, that he ignores the Me. You are probably right. He might even have said that just as the Thou is deeper than the Me, so the I is deeper than the Me. For I believe self consciousness to be full of deception and that the object I call me and think about (both in my moments of pride and in my moments of humility) is very different from the I who think about it.

I agree with Lewis that we are often unaware of aspects of our own personality. And, unfortunately, we are prone to misperceiving what we do observe. This is not a conscious twisting of the truth to our own benefit, as in proclaiming that we are exceptional and never fail.

johariThis raises the question of our self-awareness. The Johari Window is a simple resource that illustrates the four aspects of our identity, based on two axes—what is known/unknown and by whom the traits are recognized.

You can see how it works out in this simple diagram. And you can read a brief description of the tool here.

It seems evident that one key to living with integrity and enjoying greater happiness is to be honest in all of our dealings. Honest with others. And honest with ourselves.

It was good to be reminded once again of that vital truth.

_____

Here’s a piece of Lewisian trivia. The collection of essays available in the United States as God in the Dock was originally published in the United Kingdom with the title Undeceptions. Ironically, the British reference in the American version of the title still creates confusion for those who don’t realize “in the dock” refers to a person who is on trial.

“I believe that the journalism which succeeds best—and best deserves success—fears God and honors Man.” (from “The Journalist’s Creed”)

These words were written more than a century ago by Walter Williams, founder of one of the world’s best-respected schools of journalism. How times have changed! Today the majority of journalists are not only ignorant of matters related to faith . . . they are hostile towards it.

Thirty-five years ago, when I earned a degree in the field, there was more of an apathy towards religion at my secular university. (Sadly, I hear about a similar listless mood on some Christian campuses today.)

Ironically, while Williams might anticipate the danger of a subjective sympathy for Christianity in the West, he would be surprised. Many journalists seem to despise Christianity even more strongly than they question other faiths. And they wear their derision on their proverbial sleeves.

The simple fact is that everyone possesses a worldview. And, strive as a person might, they cannot attain the abstract precipice of utter objectivity. Most, of course, don’t strive at all. They surrender to their disdain for God and all religious institutions. And it is evident in their writing.

If writers today followed this element of the Journalist’s Creed more conscientiously, we would enjoy a far more civil and informed dialog in our society.

Addendum: 

Don’t forget that as disciples of Jesus, we too need to remain civil and respectful. Never forget that God chose to make humanity in his own holy image.