The halls of academia are a curious place. Dark wooden walls and well-worn stairways hearken back to legions of students and professors who have invested portions of their lives in the academies’ life. Some of us are drawn to the air of knowledge and residue of research that made them what they are.
At the same time, however, many universities have become parodies of what they once were. Some self-important leaders and faculty cry out for satire and parody. As one liberal American journalist, a defender of academic elitism, admitted: “academics can be condescending and arrogant.”
Through the years I’ve known many brilliant men and women who retained their humility. Sadly, I’ve also encountered many whose view of themselves was so exaggerated that one could only respond with disbelief. Do they really believe no one sees through the façade?
Rather than write a longer column here, I want to provide a link to an unusual article I recently wrote related to this subject. If you have a sense of humor, and are not afflicted with academic grandiosity, please check it out. It appeared this past week in the latest issue of CSL: The Bulletin of the New York C.S. Lewis Society.
CSL is a small but mighty (think Reepicheep) publication. It’s worth subscribing to, even for those of us thousands of miles from their regular meetings in the Empire State.
My article is brief, but it includes “the Mere Oxford Inkling Erudition Chart,” which promises countless hours of educational entertainment.
The people my satire seeks to unmask are the type of academics who attempted to make Oxford and Cambridge Universities so inhospitable to C.S. Lewis. Read this interview with one of his former student who critiques the opinions of lesser minds.
The BBC [invited him to broadcast the] talks that ultimately became Mere Christianity. The BBC was astounded by the response to these talks. As you know, Mere Christianity has never been out of print since.
He then became very unpopular with the senior faculty at Magdalen College. Magdalen was a godless college and a very famous college, very atheistical. . . . So [Lewis] got a rough ride there. He never made professor at Oxford.
So much for the civility one would expect in such environs.
I think I know what C.S. Lewis would think of this. Academic titles are often confusing to those unfamiliar with the maze of higher education. And their usage sometimes reveals the vanity of their bearers. For example, some people insist on using titles such as “Doctor,” even when they earned the degree online with requirements that pale when compared to an honest bachelor’s degree.
When young, most of us become acquainted with the title “Doctor” in association with medical treatment. Even as adults, many people immediately think of stethoscopes and syringes when they hear the word.
Because an M.D. (Doctor of Medicine) is a professional degree, similar to an Ed.D. (Doctor of Education) or J.D. (Doctor of Law), some holders of so-called academic degrees such as the Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) disparage them. I recall a conversation with an acquaintance who taught college courses at our overseas military base. Upon my mention of one of our flight surgeons, the professor said with a chuckle, “oh, I thought you were referring to a real doctor.”
Professional degrees are, in fact, real. The current conversation about the First Lady’s desire to be addressed as “doctor” is inappropriate. She earned her Ed.D., and such honorifics are appropriate. While—prior to becoming an “emeritus”—I always preferred the simple title “pastor,” during my years as a chaplain, I was frequently addressed by my military rank. I would gently remind the individual that (per regulation) all chaplains, even flag officers, are to be addressed as “chaplain” or another appropriate religious title.
I have written about titles in the past. They are useful, and many possess deep inherent significance. Think of “rabbi” in the case of Jewish teachers such as Nicodemus. He was the Pharisee who approached Jesus of Nazareth saying, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him” (John 3).
Solid academic credentials, like hard-earned skills or talents, do not guarantee success. Circumstances, and even prejudices, often limit opportunities. It was, after all, the snobbery of the English faculty at Oxford that denied C.S. Lewis a full professorship while he taught there. The more enlightened Cambridge righted that wrong. You can read an account of that sad story here.
Shifting Fashions in Academia
This mention of Oxbridge leads us to the inspiration for today’s reflections. For a number of years, some universities have exchanged long held traditions for a variety of modern fashions. (They remain bastions of many archaic customs, of course, and not all of them noble.)
One such discarded tradition was referring to certain university roles with the title “master.” It was used in the British sense, owing nothing at all to the historical blight of slavery. Rather, as Yale University stated in their announcement:
The term “master,” when used to describe the role in the residential colleges, will be changed to “head of college.” The use of “master” as a title at Yale is a legacy of the college systems at Oxford and Cambridge. The term derives from the Latin magister, meaning “chief, head, director, teacher,” and it appears in the titles of university degrees (master of arts, master of science, and others) and in many aspects of the larger culture (master craftsman, master builder).
The rationale for their decision—which one wonders whether it may eventually be applied even to “master degrees”—is revealed in the inevitable victor in contemporary social debates.
Some members of our community argued that discarding the term “master” would interject into an ancient collegiate tradition a racial narrative that has never been associated with its use in the academy. Others maintained that regardless of its history of use in the academy, the title—especially when applied to an authority figure—carries a painful and unwelcome connotation that can be difficult or impossible for some students and residential college staff to ignore.
What struck me was not the commonplace rejection of traditional verbiage. Words change and although I have a couple sheets of paper declaring me a magister (master), I possess no exceptional attachment to the title.
One thought that flashed upon my mind when I heard the choice of a replacement title. Head strikes me as an altogether loftier appellation than master. The head is the utter sovereign of the body. Consider the following declaration from the fourth chapter of Ephesians.
And he gave the apostles . . . to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ . . . speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
Head is a powerful word in the Scriptures. Doubtless its days are also numbered at Yale, should any of their “Religious Studies” scholars stumble across other biblical passages, such as Ephesians 5:23 or 1 Corinthians 11:3.
A More Ominous Reason to Beware of Academic Heads
Readers of C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy (also referred to as the cosmic trilogy or the Ransom trilogy, after the name of its protagonist) should immediately draw the same connection I did about the potential dangers wrought by academic heads.
The three books are outstanding, individually and as a group. They deal with humanity living in the midst of a supernatural universe, when spiritual forces of holy and unholy purpose vie to influence us. (Just as they do in the real world in which we all reside.) One article echoing my encouragement to read the trilogy acknowledges,
While Narnia is a world apart from our own, this science fiction trilogy is set within our own solar system. While its events happen closer to home, perhaps one reason that it gets relatively little attention is that it lacks a Christ figure on par with Aslan the Lion. Though this of course is silly, as the Christ figure of our world is Christ himself.
Perhaps the biggest reason it is less popular than Narnia is that its lessons are not as easily digested. The Space Trilogy is aimed at adult readers and not at children.
I cannot reveal the significance of the academic leader at work in the final volume, That Hideous Strength. Suffice it to say that the head of the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.) may not live up to the acronym of the academy he oversees. He is rather dictatorial, as one of his faculty inadvertently suggests when attempting to recruit a young PhD candidate for the Institute.
“What exactly are you asking me to do?” she said.
“To come and see our chief, first of all. And then—well, to join. It would involve making certain promises to him. He really is a Head, you see. We have all agreed to take his orders” (That Hideous Strength).
C.S. Lewis’ life revolved around the university. I would love to share a cup of tea with him today and hear what he would think about the modern elimination of the title master. Still, I somehow doubt the Oxford and Cambridge don’s opinion would come as any surprise.
Are you virtuous? If you have high moral standards, there’s a fair chance you are. If you fall short of that mark, moral excellence is a goal which few completely attain in this life.
If you’d like to learn more about virtue, there is a free book I would like to recommend to you. In just a moment.
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis discusses virtue in a straight-forward manner. Virtue is not simply doing the right thing. As Lewis writes, “right actions done for the wrong reasons do not help to build the internal quality or character called a ‘virtue,’ and it is this quality that really matters.”
He’s right. To do something “good” simply to receive a reward or avoid a punishment, is not virtuous. It is good. True. But when a person’s thoughts and actions are motivated without regard to consequences, they reflect their actual character. And, accordingly, genuine virtue is a rare commodity.
Lewis put it this way: “We might think that God wanted simply obedience to a set of rules: whereas He really wants people of a particular sort.”
Christians just celebrated All Saints Day on the first of November. Some ecclesiastical organizations have relegated the title “saint” to those who were exemplary disciples of Jesus Christ. In actuality, these are better referred to as “canonized” saints.
The biblical usage of the word saint includes all Christians. For example, the Apostle Paul describes his days of persecuting the church as persecuting saints.
I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them (Acts 26:10, ESV).
So, are all Christians—all saints—virtuous? Hardly. However, when we examine our own lives and confess our sins, God eagerly forgives them. And we can strive anew to live a life that brings honor to our Lord.
You see, no one is born with a virtuous character. But virtue is built, by drawing close to God. And virtue is not the domain solely of Christians. Anyone, be they theistic, agnostic or Pagan, can become virtuous. As C.S. Lewis noted, nurturing virtue is a noble process. “Virtue—even attempted virtue—brings light; indulgence brings fog.” Good people, we who are proto-virtuous, prefer to live in the light, rather than beneath the clouds.
And What about that Book?
I haven’t forgotten. I want to share with you an offer from an excellent publishing house that offers a monthly newsletter that features a free ebook. They also offer periodic sales that are uber-bargains. You can sign up here via “Stay in Touch” and perhaps receive access to a download of the current offering.
The book is written by a Finnish professor. It is simply titled Virtue, and is intended to be an introductory text.
The list of both virtues and vices is very long. It would be quite easy to list several dozen of them. It is not necessary for us to go through all virtues and vices, or even the most important, here. In this chapter we will look at the four traditional cardinal virtues (temperance, courage, justice, wisdom) and the three theological virtues (faith, hope, love).
Study of these virtues and their corresponding vices shows how they are dependent on each other, how the different virtues support one another, and how lack of one virtue prevents realization of another.
One final warning from C.S. Lewis. In the context of self-examination, Lewis cautioned a future friend not to spend much time dwelling on our spiritual state. It was 1954 and he was responding to a letter from Walter Hooper, who would a decade later assist Lewis as a secretary.
I am glad if I have been the instrument of Our Lord’s help to you: in His hands almost any instrument will do, otherwise none. We should, I believe, distrust states of mind which turn our attention upon ourselves.
Even at our sins we should look no longer than is necessary to know and to repent them: and our virtues or progress (if any) are certainly a dangerous object of contemplation.
As to Lewis’ humble statement about our progress “if any,” allow me to add that he most certainly did recognize growth in our spiritual lives as a natural result of the Spirit’s work in our lives.
Although I never penned a letter to Lewis, like many of you, I share Hooper’s gratitude for God’s use of C.S. Lewis as an instrument to bless and encourage me.
I don’t know whether or not C.S. Lewis wore garters. And, trust me, I have no interest in learning the answer to that trivia question. Nevertheless, a recent advertisement caught my eye in a 1925 issue of the American Legion Weekly.
Never having worn a garter, it struck me as interesting ad placement—in a veteran’s publication. I attributed the male use of hosiery to the lack of reliable elastic substitutes for stockings a century ago.
Even as I was reading the advertisement, I recalled the peculiar name of one of the United Kingdom’s most distinguished societies, the Most Noble Order of the Garter. Established a few years back, in 1348 it is one of Britain’s most revered orders of knighthood. And, like any lover of adventures, I know knights are pretty cool.
C.S. Lewis was once offered a royal title—albeit, not a knighthood in the prestigious Order of the Garter. Lewis declined the honor. He declined because he believed the politics involved would distract attention from his work as a Christian apologist.
Regular readers of Mere Inkling know that I am not wont to cite Wikipedia as a source, but the following description of their motto is enlightening.
Various legends account for the origin of the Order. The most popular involves the “Countess of Salisbury,” whose garter is said to have slipped from her leg while she was dancing at a court ball at Calais. When the surrounding courtiers sniggered, the king picked it up and returned it to her, exclaiming, Honi soit qui mal y pense! (“Shame on him who thinks ill of it!”), the phrase that has become the motto of the Order.
However, the earliest written version of this story dates from the 1460s, and it seems to have been conceived as a retrospective explanation for the adoption of what was then seen as an item of female underclothing as the symbol of a band of knights.
Times they were a-changin’ and garters had apparently become more associated with feminine wearers during the intervening century.
Fordham University has a delicate medieval “fringed garter” on display at this site.
Despite both sexes utilising the garter, the accessory was more associated with men because it was visible on their bodies. Women wore garters in the same location as men, but their long dresses concealed them, thus giving medieval Londoners the perception that it was more widely used by men. Since women’s garters were not visible to the eye, there is limited information in regards to women’s use of garters.
C.S. Lewis had better things to write about than garters. About knights, for example, he had much to say. He composed stories about them even during his childhood.
As an adult, Lewis’ focus rested on the quintessential attribute of true knighthood—chivalry.
Yes, the very word “chivalry” reeks of a bygone era that has been superseded and relegated to history books. But those who consider the concept outdated impoverish their lives and quite possibly contribute to the violent spirit of our age.
There does exist, however, a passing reference in one of C.S. Lewis’ letters to the fabled Order of the Garter. It was in 1952, and Lewis was illustrating the truth that Christianity is a faith based on grace. It cannot be earned. No one deserves divine forgiveness . . . yet it is freely offered through the miracle of the Atonement.
In his letter, Lewis quotes Lord Melbourne who held an irreverent opinion related to the Order. He considered its bestowal of honor to be arbitrary or political, rather than being based on a recipient’s worthiness.
Of course, none of us have “any right” at the altar. You might as well talk of a non-existent person “having a right” to be created. It is not our right but God’s free bounty. An English peer said, “I like the Order of the Garter because it has no dam’ nonsense about merit.” Nor has Grace. And we must keep on remembering that as a cure for Pride.
Apparently, Lord Melbourne did not take seriously the warning Honi soit qui mal y pense!
Sadly, it does not appear the George Frost Company currently sells garters, but you can find a number of their past products here, including the “Velvet Grip Rubber Button Hose Supporter for Boys and Girls.”
And all hope of garter-joy has not vanished. If you are in the market for medieval style garters—for reenacting, perhaps—you can purchase them here.
Whether you choose to emulate the Order of the Garter or not, please do not “think ill of it!”
If you don’t know the meaning of “hamartia,” you’re not alone. But it’s a very important word, for more than one reason, so read on.
Hamartia describes a feature many writers of fiction or drama instill in their most memorable characters. It simply means “tragic flaw.” The deep character defect which cannot be overcome by sincere intention or persistent effort.
Aristotle introduced the term in the Poetics to describe the error of judgment which ultimately brings about the tragic hero’s downfall. As you can imagine, the word is most often found in literary criticism.
However, news writers occasionally employ the word when discussing the unexplainable misfortune or missteps of übercelebrities regarded as immortal gods and goddesses before being felled by their own shortcomings.
Despite being a thespian in high school, I never formally studied drama. So I didn’t encounter the word there.
Likewise, I have written consistently since earning a Journalism degree four decades ago. However, since I have a 37:1 nonfiction to fiction ratio, I did not know this Greek word had found its way into the English lexicon.
I was surprised to discover its English meaning in my usually-familiar word of the day email (from The Free Dictionary).
While I was unfamiliar with its English usage, I already knew the word. I originally met hamartia (ἁμαρτία) while studying the New Testament in Greek. Hamartia literally refers to “missing the mark,” and it is the primary biblical Greek word for sin.
The first usage of the word in the sense of being an inner quality, occurs in Aristotle’s Poetics. Aristotle writing as a pre-Christian philosopher, naturally perceived the literary device in a pagan manner.
The Greek word hamartia translates pretty directly as “error” or “shortcoming” without any necessary overtones of guilt or moral failure. Our modern conception of tragedy and the “tragic flaw” of the hero usually involves the concept of hubris, or overweening pride, that leads to disaster.
Macbeth, for instance, has the arrogance to think he can overstep the laws of God and state, and ultimately pays dearly for this arrogance. Macbeth is a tragic hero with a clear tragic flaw: his downfall results from a moral failing and can be seen as divine retribution proportional to his guilt. But Macbeth also contains heavy Christian overtones that would of course be found nowhere in Greek tragedy.
An understanding of Aristotle’s concept of hamartia—and indeed an understanding of Greek tragedy in general—relies on an understanding of the ethics and cosmology of the ancient Greeks. . . . Greek ethics are based more on the notion of virtue than obligation.
What of the Consequences?
In a 2014 article entitled “C.S. Lewis: The Anti-Platonic Platonist,” Grace Tiffany skillfully explores the Platonic echoes in Lewis’ writings. In discussing his literary examples of human failings, she writes:
There are of course Biblical models justifying Lewis’ “negatively capable” presentations of misguided characters . . . An older philosophical source, if not a Platonic one, also justifies mimetic representations of evil by the argument that these are morally purgative.
Imitations of hamartia, or tragic error, produce “fear and pity” (Aristotle, Poetics 1453b)—compassion for the character elicited by a skilled simulation of his psychology, naturally accompanied by a healthy fear of ourselves making similar mistakes. What ensures the fear is, of course, the dramatization of the horrible end to which hamartia has led . . . (Christianity and Literature 63.3).
In 1953, C.S. Lewis wrote to a correspondent that sin was more than merely making a mistake. In doing so, he alludes to the change in the meaning of the word ἁμαρτία.
No. I don’t think sin is completely accounted for by faulty reasoning nor that it can be completely cured by re-education. That view has, indeed, been put forward: by Socrates and, in the early 19th Century, by Godwin.
But I think it overlooked the (to me) obviously central fact that our will is not necessarily determined by our reason. If it were, then, as you say, what are called ‘sins’ would not be sins at all but only mistakes, and would require not repentances but merely correction.
Returning to the literary or dramatic definition of hamartia as a tragic flaw, it seems to me that this term offers a fitting parallel to the word sin.
Ever since humanity’s fall, we suffer the curse of bearing original sin, a tragic flaw. It is a scar that no medical or psychological treatment can cure and no amount of determination can repair. This tragic flaw will be our doom. Unless, that is, there is One who is capable and desirous of restoring us to our original health and purity. One, perhaps, in whose own image you and I were created . . .
This wonder is something well worth pondering—and perhaps one day, writing about.
Normally, whenever writers approach a publisher (or an agent) with a book suggestion, the authors have to prepare a formal book proposal. A key element of the document—especially for nonfiction—is often called “about the author.”
This element is not “biographical;” it is a description of your particular experience or credentials that qualify you to write this book. This is also where you typically share your “platform,” media outlets, etc. where you can promote your literary endeavor.
Publishers don’t expect us to have credentials like those of C.S. Lewis. After all, not everyone becomes a professor at a prominent university.
But what potential publishers do hope, is that we know what we’re writing about, and that we can help them sell it, assuming they opt to invest in the project.
This is a logical consideration for publishing houses, who have more publishing “failures” than bestsellers. That’s not the problem.
The problem is that we are all conditioned not to brag about our accomplishments. In general, that’s a wonderful thing. (Who loves a braggart?) The difficulty is that this natural modesty becomes a terrible handicap when we are in situations where we are required to promote ourselves.
C.S. Lewis builds on the Christian witness that we must avoid pride at all costs.
According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind. (Mere Christianity)
So, we may feel ourselves between the proverbial rock and a hard place. We genuinely desire to be modest, but certain circumstances (job interviews, anyone?) demand that we “toot our own horn.” There is, of course, one thing worse than bragging . . . pretending false humility.
A Real-Life Dilemma
A fair number of Mere Inkling’s readers also blog. Most blogging software sets up sites with a default page built in to share something about the website and its author(s). On my About page, I’ve remained anonymous. It simply describes the reason for the site’s name. The only “personal” note in the original version came in the final sentence.
Accordingly, many of the posts in Mere Inkling will be about writing and Christianity. History and humor are also keen interests of the writer of this column, so they will most certainly be encountered with regularity as well.
Now, however, I’ve discovered that we who’ve used this less personal tack have undermined the visibility of our posts.
I just learned something important on the blog of a Lutheran theologian I respect. He writes as part of the Patheos web community. They boast eleven faith channels, two of which are Nonreligious and Pagan. My friend, of course, blogs on the Evangelical channel. I want to pass on the opening of yesterday’s column.
Google has some new algorithms, so Patheos told its writers to bolster the E.A.T. factor (“Expertise. Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness”) for our posts. One way to do that is to beef up our biographies on the “About” section of our blogs.
Professor Veith changed his biographical page accordingly. And after reflecting on the matter, I’ve decided to do the same.
Thus, I have added a section on my About page that lists some of my credentials. I am doing this not because of personal vanity, but due to my desire to reach the widest possible audience with a message that not only points to the preeminent Inkling, but also beyond Lewis, to the Lord he served.
You may wish to consider a similar modification, if you have ignored the E.A.T. Factor in the past. And don’t be intimidated by bios such as mine, just as I am not daunted by the summits attained by Lewis. After all, he and I have had long lives during which we experienced these things.
Don’t ignore the fact that a large part of what people accomplish—academic degrees included—is due to opportunity and persistence rather than to innate giftedness. Remember as well we all have unique vocations, and not everyone is called to highly visible positions. I doubt I will be contradicted if I say that in the eyes of God, being a devoted parent is more noble than becoming some nation’s head of state.
Expanding your About page may not be the right course for you, but I believe it is the proper one for me.
One reason I had previously left my page vague is because I intentionally wished to avoid the appearance of bragging. So, as I proceed with this revision for the reason above, I will simply confess to the sin of pride (tempered over the years by God’s grace), and say along with Lewis,
I wish I had got a bit further with humility myself: if I had, I could probably tell you more about the relief, the comfort, of taking the fancy-dress off—getting rid of the false self, with all its ‘Look at me’ and ‘Aren’t I a good boy?’ and all its posing and posturing. To get even near it, even for a moment, is like a drink of cold water to a man in a desert. (Mere Christianity)
Most writers are saturated with humility, especially those who actively submit their work and courageously collect rejections. Accepting this lack of reinforcement as an inevitable aspect of the writing life, they reveal a maturity that is literarily unpretentious.
On the other hand, there are some who publicly tout the most modest of accomplishments as great feats. By their own account, you would think it’s merely a matter of time before they’re polishing their Pulitzer or Nobel Prize in Literature.
The following notes on humility are for the benefit of the latter category of authors.
C.S. Lewis was a scholar abundantly acquainted with literary pride. He was also a Christian saint (in that biblical sense wherein it applies to all who place their faith in Jesus). As a disciple of Christ, Lewis recognized pride is toxic.
He wrote much about the subjects of pride and humility. Among his wisdom on the subject, is the observation that we must not allow our circumstances to shape our character in negative ways. In “Williams and the Arthuriad,” he illustrates this by discussing different sorts of roles in a play. His comment about “false modesty” is particularly astute.
What but to thank God for the “excellent absurdity” which enables us, if it so happen, to play great parts without pride and little ones without dejection, rejecting nothing through that false modesty which is only another form of pride, and never, when we occupy for a moment the centre of the stage, forgetting that the play would have gone off just as well without us . . .
Lewis also offers an antidote to pride. One that well suits the title of this column. “If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realise that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.” (Mere Christianity)
A 500 Year Old Prescription
Nearly a half millennia ago, Martin Luther reluctantly allowed his writings to be gathered together into a collection, for which he wrote a preface. It was that introduction I recently encountered.
He elaborates on the proper way to study theology, based on principles in Psalm 119. After reminding readers that we must possess humility to submit ourselves to God’s word, he tacks on a vivid warning. It is quintessential Luther.
These words apply not only to theologians, or even to those addressing “religious” subjects. They should be of interest to all who consider themselves writers.
If, however, you feel and are inclined to think you have made it, flattering yourself with your own little books, teaching, or writing, because you have done it beautifully and preached excellently; if you are highly pleased when someone praises you in the presence of others; if you perhaps look for praise, and would sulk or quit what you are doing if you did not get it—if you are of that stripe, dear friend, then take yourself by the ears, and if you do this in the right way you will find a beautiful pair of big, long, shaggy donkey ears.
Then do not spare any expense! Decorate them with golden bells, so that people will be able to hear you wherever you go, point their fingers at you, and say, “See, See! There goes that clever beast, who can write such exquisite books and preach so remarkably well.”
That very moment you will be blessed and blessed beyond measure in the kingdom of heaven. Yes, in that heaven where hellfire is ready for the devil and his angels.
To sum up: Let us be proud and seek honor in the places where we can. But in this book the honor is God’s alone, as it is said, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” [I Pet. 5:5]; to whom be glory, world without end, Amen.
Thank you, Doctor Luther, for the warning to periodically check my ears. And thank you as well, Doctor Lewis, for your inspirational modeling of humility.
An Important Exception
While humility remains important, in unbalanced doses it can make individuals vulnerable. The story of Puzzle the donkey in The Last Battle illustrates this fact well.
There were very few Talking Beasts or Men or Dwarfs, or people of any sort, in that part of the wood, but Shift had one friend and neighbor who was a donkey called Puzzle.
At least they both said they were friends, but from the way things went on you might have thought Puzzle was more like Shift’s servant than his friend. He did all the work.
When they went together to the river, Shift filled the big skin bottles with water but it was Puzzle who carried them back. When they wanted anything from the towns further down the river it was Puzzle who went down with empty panniers on his back and came back with the panniers full and heavy.
And all the nicest things that Puzzle brought back were eaten by Shift; for as Shift said, “You see, Puzzle, I can’t eat grass and thistles like you, so it’s only fair I should make it up in other ways.”
And Puzzle always said, “Of course, Shift, of course. I see that.” Puzzle never complained, because he knew that Shift was far cleverer than himself and he thought it was very kind of Shift to be friends with him at all.
And if ever Puzzle did try to argue about anything, Shift would always say, “Now, Puzzle, I understand what needs to be done better than you. You know you’re not clever, Puzzle.”
And Puzzle always said, “No, Shift. It’s quite true. I’m not clever.” Then he would sigh and do whatever Shift had said.
Fortunately, Puzzle’s simple humility is ultimately vindicated. Even while he is the instrument of a terrible hoax, his guileless trust in Aslan preserves his innocence. It is a powerful story, worth reading even if you have never touched the Chronicles of Narnia.
In the same way, God watches over his children who are humble. He becomes our champion and delivers us from those who would do us harm. Blessed indeed, are the meek.
C.S. Lewis’ prolific, genre-crossing success teaches us two things. First, that a very good writer can fruitfully write in a variety of fields. Second, that even the most gifted of authors cannot write with equal talent in all genres.
Students of C.S. Lewis are well acquainted with the fact that one of the great disappointments of his life was failing to succeed as a poet. Although he did write a reasonable amount of poetry, it failed to elicit the response for which he hoped.
Lewis did, of course, receive well-deserved kudos for his literary fiction and children’s stories. His fiction and nonfiction are extraordinary, and over the years I have appreciated the value of his many essays to be among the most precious of his works.
Finally, as a correspondent, Lewis stood in the first ranks. He regarded the responsibility of personally responding to the letters he received as something not to be shirked.
Fortunately, the excellent collections of his letters offer us many insights into Lewis’ life and career. For his Christian fans, they reveal insights into how a disciple of Jesus can gracefully navigate life.
The following letter was written in 1959, to a man who was apparently the editor of a small newspaper. He had requested an article from the exceedingly busy professor. Lewis’ response is quite interesting.
Dear Mr. Aylard,
Yes! my handwriting is awful. It used to be nice but my muscles have stiffened up and the strokes no longer come out as I intend. I give ‘this generation’ all I can in the way of books and articles. Particular articles by request are not usually the good ones: and, you know, I should reach more readers through other organs than your paper. I hope this doesn’t sound stand-offish or conceited, for it is not meant to be. It is really common sense to speak where one can be most widely heard.
I agree that drama is a good medium for our purpose. In this country Dorothy Sayers’ broadcast set of plays on the life and death of Our Lord (The Man Born to be King) did a great deal of good. I don’t attempt this form myself because any talent I may have is narrative, not dramatic. With all good wishes.
I draw several observations from reading this letter.
Lewis took the time to personally pen many of his letters, despite the fact that this presented an uncomfortable challenge to him.
Lewis preferred to address subjects as he felt moved by the Holy Spirit to do so, rather than on demand.
He did not have the time to dress it up in gentle fluff, but candidly expressed the fact that if he had sufficient time and energy to write, it would not be the wisest stewardship to send the piece to a publication with a limited distribution.
Even though he did not intend for that remark to be curt or “conceited,” Lewis still felt compelled to offer his “I hope this doesn’t sound…” apology.
Lewis appreciated drama, and recognized Sayers’ work as quite noteworthy.
He recognized that drama would not be his forte, and wisely preferred to stick with the type of writing wherein he was most accomplished.
Even this final thought is offered with C.S. Lewis’ characteristic—and genuine—humility.
I don’t attempt this form myself because any talent I may have is narrative, not dramatic.
As a writer myself, I find this sentence quite comforting. And not simply because my own extremely modest talents also lie in the narrative realm. Even if I were a poet or a dramatist I would recognize how liberating it is to acknowledge that one cannot be fairly expected to excel at more than one genre.
And “excel” is not really the best word to use here. Perhaps it’s sufficient that writers think of themselves like children of Lake Wobegon, where Garrison Keillor tells us “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”
Ultimately, whether we consider ourselves to be adequate or exceptional writers, it is necessary to understand where our skills reside, and to transgress those boundaries only with the greatest trepidation.
If I were to say “vulgar Christianity is a good thing,” what would you think?
It depends, doesn’t it, on the meaning you ascribe to the word “vulgar.” For, even though it is most often used in a derogatory sense today, vulgar also means common or genuine.
Here, in modified order, are some definitions gleaned from an internet dictionary. The first three represent the most vulgar use of the word.
Vulgar, 1350-1400; Middle English < Latin vulgāris, equivalent to vulg (us) the general public + -āris -ar
characterized by ignorance of or lack of good breeding or taste: vulgar ostentation.
indecent; obscene; lewd: a vulgar work; a vulgar gesture.
crude; coarse; unrefined: a vulgar peasant.
The next two definitions relate to the more historic, rather less crass application of the word.
of, relating to, or constituting the ordinary people in a society: the vulgar masses.
lacking in distinction, aesthetic value, or charm; banal; ordinary: a vulgar painting.
current; popular; common: a vulgar success; vulgar beliefs.
The final definition of vulgar relates to language: “spoken by, or being in the language spoken by, the people generally; vernacular: vulgar tongue.”
The most visible adaptation of the root word likely comes in the title of the Latin translation of the Holy Scriptures completed by the ascetic saint, Jerome (347-420). The Vulgate, came to be called in Latin versio vulgata or vulgata editio, which meant the commonly used or read version.
Vulgarity in C.S. Lewis
Naturally, Lewis did not communicate in a vulgar (objectionable) way. He did, however, strive to reach the common men and women of the day, doing so more effectively than many clergy appear(ed) capable.
There are ample examples of the wide use of the word in Lewis’ works. In “Christianity and Culture,” he distinguishes between objective and subjective assessments of the value of literature.
A bad book is to be deemed a real evil in so far as it can be shown to prompt to sensuality, or pride, or murder, or to conflict with the doctrine of Divine Providence, or the like. The other dyslogistic terms dear to critics (vulgar, derivative, cheap, precious, academic, affected, bourgeois, Victorian, Georgian, “literary,” etc.) had better be kept strictly on the taste side of the account.
In discovering what attitudes are present you can be as subtle as you like. But in your theological and ethical condemnation (as distinct from your dislike of the taste) you had better be very un-subtle. You had better reserve it for plain mortal sins, and plain atheism and heresy.
For our passions are always urging us in the opposite direction, and if we are not careful criticism may become a mere excuse for taking revenge on books whose smell we dislike by erecting our temperamental antipathies into pseudo-moral judgements.
In Studies in Words, we gain an interesting insight into Lewis’ understanding of himself. He discusses how the concept of “bourgeois,” which simply means middle-class or conventional, is twisted by elitists to mean something offensive.
All my life the epithet bourgeois has been, in many contexts, a term of contempt, but not for the same reason. When I was a boy—a bourgeois boy—it was applied to my social class by the class above it; bourgeois meant “not aristocratic, therefore vulgar.”
When I was in my twenties this changed. My class was now vilified by the class below it; bourgeois began to mean “not proletarian, therefore parasitic, reactionary.” Thus it has always been a reproach to assign a man to that class which has provided the world with nearly all its divines, poets, philosophers, scientists, musicians, painters, doctors, architects, and administrators.
I am so happy, and blessed, that C.S. Lewis was a vulgar man . . . just like me.
For those who have read this far, I offer now one of Lewis’ poem with a related theme. Enjoy.
On a Vulgar Error
No. It’s an impudent falsehood. Men did not
Invariably think the newer way
Prosaic mad, inelegant, or what not.
Was the first pointed arch esteemed a blot
Upon the church? Did anybody say
How modern and how ugly? They did not.
Plate-armour, or windows glazed, or verse fire-hot
When C.S. Lewis was contacted for permission to publish a recent sermon in a distinguished collection, he confessed an “impious” hope.
Lewis, of course, was not a pastor. He was instead a highly regarded professor. Nevertheless, due to his mastery of public speaking, and his unapologetic faith, he was invited to preach on a number of occasions.
This particular sermon had been delivered at St Mary the Virgin in Oxford, on 22 October 1939. The Student Christian Movement had already published it in pamphlet format with the title The Christian in Danger.*
Lewis ends a lengthy 1940 letter to his brother Warnie by mentioning the request, almost as an afterthought.
Did I tell you that someone wants to include that St Mary’s sermon of mine in a collection of (save the mark**) Famous Sermons?
Famous English Sermons would be published by Thomas Nelson in London later that year. The anthology was edited by Ashley Sampson, who had asked Lewis to write his volume The Problem of Pain.
Lewis’ modest “impiety” was revealed in the rest of his announcement to his brother. He confesses to that common human fear of being upstaged by the other works in the collection.
I am divided between gratification and a fear that I shall be merely made a fool of by appearing in the same book as Bede, Latimer, Donne, Taylor etc. However, let’s hope that I shall be divided from them by some good 19th century duds!—but I grow impious.
How easy it is to relate to Lewis’ concern. As I moved from assignment to assignment during my military career, I subconsciously hoped I was relieving someone who had left room for me to excel . . . and, simultaneously, that as I left my recent assignment my performance would not be outshined by my successor.
Better, in my mind, to be proceeded and followed by 20th century duds. (Forgive me, Lord.)
I doubt C.S. Lewis and I are the only people to have shared that impious thought.
Still, recognizing the impiety is the beginning of purging it. I tried to make it a practice to pray for those who followed in my ministry wake. That they would be successful, and that the men and women entrusted to our spiritual care would be blessed by their ministries.
I must confess, though, that when my literary work has been placed in direct juxtaposition to that of others, I have not been so eager for theirs to be better received than my own contributions. Not that I wish upon anyone that they would be a dud, but merely that their eloquence not put my own humble efforts to shame.
* The sermon is found in The Weight of Glory with the title “Learning in War-Time.”
** “Save the mark” is an exclamation that connotes a sense something is unbelievable. It can even be dismissive, but that would not be the sense in which Lewis uses it here, since it is obvious he regards the request as a humbling honor.