Archives For Reading

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.

dog author

Wouldn’t it be amazing to read about the adventures, struggles, triumphs, thoughts, and dreams of real animals? C.S. Lewis thought so.

Admittedly, referring to the thoughts and dreams of a squirrel or a hummingbird is a bit fanciful. But isn’t it feasible to imagine that a pregnant doe is hoping to find a lush meadow, or that a beaver who’s just finished a fine meal is gratefully contented as he snuggles down for the night in his lodge?

In one of his thought-provoking books—which I enthusiastically recommend to everyone who likes to read—Lewis describes exactly how reading is vital to expanding our world. “Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realise the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors” (An Experiment in Criticism).

In this volume, Lewis argues that books are better measured by how they are read,  than by how they are written. In other words, Lewis is making the case that the true value of a book is not determined by the skill the author applied to its creation. Instead, Lewis writes, “so far as I can see . . . the specific value or good of literature [is that] it admits us to experiences other than our own.”

Lewis continues, with a fascinating discussion of his “experiment,” which flips traditional literary criticism on its head. Don’t rush through the following excerpt from the argument. It’s well worth taking your time to ponder his words and see if you agree.

[The experiences of others] are not, any more than our personal experiences, all equally worth having. Some, as we say, ‘interest’ us more than others. The causes of this interest are naturally extremely various and differ from one man to another; it may be the typical (and we say ‘How true!’) or the abnormal (and we say ‘How strange !’); it may be the beautiful, the terrible, the awe-inspiring, the exhilarating, the pathetic , the comic, or the merely piquant. Literature gives the entrée to them all.

Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realise the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realise it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison.

My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough.

At this point we arrive at the utterly Lewisian notion that even animals (e.g. uncivilized “brutes”) would be capable of broadening the horizons of our own thinking.

I regret that the brutes cannot write books. Very gladly would I learn what face things present to a mouse or a bee; more gladly still would I perceive the olfactory world charged with all the information and emotion it carries for a dog.

Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality.

But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do” (An Experiment in Criticism).

On the Subject of Reading & Rereading

If you need any more encouragement to seek out a copy of this wonderful book, allow me to share with you two profound points Lewis makes in support of his distinction between “literary” and “unliterary” people. (Lewis, of course, does not demean the latter. On the contrary, he grieves for the “tiny world” they choose to inhabit.)

The majority [of unliterary people], though they are sometimes frequent readers, do not set much store by reading. They turn to it as a last resource. They abandon it with alacrity as soon as any alternative pastime turns up. It is kept for railway journeys, illnesses, odd moments of enforced solitude, or for the process called ‘reading oneself to sleep.’

They sometimes combine it with desultory conversation; often, with listening to the radio. But literary people are always looking for leisure and silence in which to read and do so with their whole attention (An Experiment in Criticism).

In terms of rereading, Lewis was a fervent advocate of reading good books more than once. Most of us would say lack of time is the greatest deterrent to rereading classics, but most of us do have some favorites that we have returned to more than once.

The majority never read anything twice. The sure mark of an unliterary man is that he considers ‘I’ve read it already’ to be a conclusive argument against reading a work. We have all known women who remembered a novel so dimly that they had to stand for half an hour in the library skimming through it before they were certain they had once read it.

But the moment they became certain, they rejected it immediately. It was for them dead, like a burnt-out match, an old railway ticket, or yesterday’s paper; they had already used it (An Experiment in Criticism).

In contrast, Lewis describes how “those who read great works, on the other hand, will read the same work ten, twenty or thirty times during the course of their life.” Many of us would initially think our rereading frequency falls short of those specific tallies, perhaps we should reconsider. After all, most readers of Mere Inkling reread with great frequency portions of a particular library of sixty-six books,* gathered together in a book called the Bible.


* More books in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox collection of the Scriptures, which include seven Deuterocanonical books. Fewer, of course, for our Jewish friends who follow the teachings of twenty-four books, which are also included in the Christian Bible.

csl forgetica

Do you have trouble remembering what you read? Read on for a solution to your problem.

C.S. Lewis possessed an amazing memory of what he had read. While eidetic memory remains theoretical, many attributed a “photographic memory” to the Oxford don. Owen Barfield, Lewis’ close friend, described this gift.

He had that very pictorial imagination. I know when we used to go on walks, I used to envy him that. . . . He had what I think is called by some people an “eidetic memory,” when your imaginative pictures are almost photographic. (Owen Barfield on C.S. Lewis edited by G.B. Tennyson)

Describing Lewis’ earnest patience with others, however “ignorant or naïve” (Barfield’s opinion) the person, Barfield describes how readily Lewis recalled pertinent facts.

First he would speak as one simple man exchanging experiences with another, and only afterward (if the occasion seemed to call for it and always without the least nuance of didacticism) would he bring to bear, out of his wide reading and phenomenal memory, some pithy utterance—it might be from Aristotle’s Ethics, it might be from an Icelandic saga, it might be from George MacDonald—that contained the very substance of what the two of them had just discovered they had in common.

There appears to be hope on the horizon for those of us who are not blessed with Lewis’ talent for recalling what we read. RMIT University (formerly the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology) has devised a new font that uses a psychological principle called “desirable difficulty” to help readers retain more.

Take a look at Sans Forgetica in its own font. forgetica

 

 

The “difficult” part is evident in the lacunae that force one’s mind to fill in the gaps and make sense of each letter and word. The “desirability” comes with the way that our brains are able to decipher with just enough effort to imprint the material more deeply in our minds.

This principle reminded me of something written by Richard Foster, author of Celebration of Discipline. He describes the importance of concentration on our spiritual growth, as we seriously examine and process whatever is worthy of thinking upon. (Philippians 4:8)

I have mentioned the disciplines of service and worship. There are many others. Inward disciplines, like meditation, prayer, fasting, and study, cultivate our heart and mind toward the way of Christ. Meditation is the ability to hear God’s voice and obey his word.

Prayer is ongoing dialogue with the Father about what God and we are doing together. Fasting is the voluntary denial of an otherwise normal function for the sake of intense spiritual activity.

Study is the process through which we bring the mind to conform to the order of whatever we are concentrating upon. (Becoming Like Christ)

On the Elegance of Fonts

Longtime readers of Mere Inkling are well aware of my personal fascination with fonts. This link will reveal posts I’ve tagged with the subject. It reveals that different fonts exist for more than aesthetic reasons.

While some are simply created for decorative or mood-setting purposes—such as typefaces that mimic monastic scripts or the text created for the first Narnia film—others are devised for more practical purposes. The latter collection includes one created to aid those who suffer from dyslexia (Dyslexie). The intentionally useful category will now include Sans Forgetica.

Sans Forgetica is available for free. As evidence of either its merit or the promotional skills of its creators, they have already created an extension for the Chrome browser. It allows users to convert internet text on their screens to the memorable font.

I would suggest that such an application be used sparingly. Most of what we read on the internet is not worth recalling, much less clogging our brains with trivia and worse. Still, if applied selectively, it could be useful. After all, if it only moves us a centimeter in the direction of retaining information like C.S. Lewis, that’s a move in the right direction!

 

war book.png

Some would say “only a fool would bring a book to a gunfight.” That might be true if the person carried the book in lieu of a firearm, but the fact is many varieties of literature accompany soldiers to war.

When Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote “the pen is mightier than the sword,” he offered a powerful insight into how ultimate victory hinges more on knowledge and ideas than on direct violence. Of course, he didn’t mean that in a personal conflict between two combatants a quill could best a saber.

Even those who’ve never been to war realize warriors need to have their bodies, minds and spirits renewed in order to be at their best when their lives hang in the balance. Bodies are taken care of by providing healthy sustenance, swift medical attention, and opportunities to remain fit.

Minds and spirits overlap somewhat, but for the latter, most of the world’s militaries send chaplains to accompany the men and women “in harm’s way.” Spiritual encouragement often comes even more readily from their fellow military members.

Wartime is, surprising no one, an optimal time for people to consider their spiritual wellbeing and contemplate their eternal destiny. Still, that does not make true the adage “there are no atheists in foxholes.”

That said, war zones are places where the fields are literally “white unto harvest” (Luke 4).

It is no accident copies of the Bible have accompanied Christians to war since the first printed copies were available.

During the American Civil War, personal Bibles and religious tracts were widely distributed. It was not uncommon for a soldier to send a particularly meaningful tract home to his family. In addition to chaplains, numerous ministries today work to ensure no service member who desires a Bible is without one.

Reading for the Mind

It would be wrong to think religious works dominate the literature available to military members dispatched to war. Most locations offer access to numerous publications, and even the internet. The Department of Defense even provides access to the nonpartisan Stars and Stripes, which offers some of its headline articles here.

And then there are books. Books of all genres, though perhaps, tilted towards thrillers and sports subjects. Soldiers pass their books around, and for many lucky enough to serve in a garrison type of setting, there is often a library.

Yes, a real library—except that the books are typically all available for free. This is due in large part to the generosity of publishers. During the Second World War, the Council on Books in Wartime, founded by publishers and others, provided over 120 million paperbacks in their Armed Services Editions. (The classic titles sold for an average of six cents.) The Council’s slogan was, “books are weapons in the war of ideas.”

So, military folks read lots of books overseas. In fact, here is a photo of yours truly reading one of my favorite authors (David Drake) while I was on a flight between Pakistan and Afghanistan back in 2002.

I was delighted recently when rereading C.S. Lewis’ autobiography to see that I was following in his footsteps. Lewis is discussing how actual books, and not merely periodicals, can accompany us on our journeys. He refers briefly to his war experiences.

Soon too we gave up the magazines; we made the discovery (some people never make it) that real books can be taken on a journey and that hours of golden reading can so be added to its other delights.

(It is important to acquire early in life the power of reading sense wherever you happen to be. I first read Tamburlaine while traveling from Larne to Belfast in a thunderstorm, and first read Browning’s Paracelsus by a candle which went out and had to be relit whenever a big battery fired in a pit below me, which I think it did every four minutes all that night.) (Surprised by Joy)

I would not equate our two situations. After all, a comfortable C-130 (even when making “combat” landings and take-offs) can hardly be compared to a muddy WWI trench.

But, like nearly all of Mere Inkling’s audience, I do share C.S. Lewis’ joy at knowing books need never be far from our hand. Whether it be on holiday, in the hospital, or even in prison (God forbid), we can always find some pleasure and peace in reading.


Postscript:

During Desert Storm, I helped ship thousands of donated books to troops on the front lines. Unfortunately, there was a problem with the clothing worn by most of the women on the covers. We learned the Saudis were destroying some of the books, deeming them pornography.

As a result, our book processors began tearing the cover off of every book featuring a woman. As a compromise, I offered to become an informal “Saudi censor.” With a large black marker, I was able to suitably cover up elements of the female anatomy that would have presumably offended our Middle East allies.

Despite my misgivings about “defacing” the covers, I felt it was less destructive than removing the entire cover. I’ll leave it to you to be the judge.

Enriching Your Writing

December 7, 2017 — 6 Comments

lit crit

Writers find literature inspiring. That sounds self-evident—and cliché—when we think of the statement aesthetically. It seems to me, however, that the words are also true in a literal sense. The very act of reading inspires us to fashion our own creations, each of which is consciously or unconsciously indebted to all that we have read and learned during our lives.

This activity is sometimes called bricolage. I wrote about it recently. Skilled writers frequently use devices to enrich their work. Quotations, allusions, pastiche and parody are obvious examples. Some critics would even include plagiarism as an intertextual exercise, and in the strictest sense, it is. While unacknowledged direct quotations are inappropriate, many readers savor reading volumes filled with well-done allusions.

Our minds are a composite of all that to which we have been exposed. When we come up with fresh ideas, they are seldom “new” in a true sense. When they are genuinely novel, at best they offer a unique take on a subject. Still, our expression relies in many aspects on what we ourselves have read in the past. After all, there is nothing new under the sun.*

When we owe a large debt to another source, it is right to offer credit. Not doing so invites people who recognize the source to question our integrity. The exception being when the source is so familiar to the anticipated reader, that it would be redundant. For example, the final sentence in the previous paragraph did not require a citation. If it is not known from its original biblical source, it is recognized as a common proverb . . . or, perhaps, from the Pete Seeger song, “Turn! Turn! Turn!”

One of the striking things about C.S. Lewis is his powerful grasp of the vast breadth of literature he had read. As I wrote in the aforementioned post, “Lewis was generous in thanking thinkers to whom he was indebted, and only failed to do so when he assumed any educated reader would recognize the source of an image or phrase.”

So, what about those times when we have forgotten a source, or don’t even recall that a particular idea came from anywhere other than our own cranium?

Unintentional Bricolage

While teaching at Oxford and Cambridge, Lewis taught many individuals who achieved notoriety in their own right. J.A.W. Bennett, studied under Lewis at Oxford, and eventually replaced him as professor of Medieval and Renaissance literature at Cambridge.

In “The Humane Medievalist: An Inaugural Address,” Bennett describes how Lewis’ vast familiarity with diverse literature meant that his own creative work was permeated by the wisdom of others.

The whole man was in all his judgements and activities . . . and a discriminating zest for life, for “common life,” informs every page he wrote. “Grete Clerke” as he was, he was never wilfully esoteric: Quotations and allusions rose unbidden to the surface of his full and fertile mind, but whether they are to Tristram Shandy or James Thurber they elucidate, not decorate. His works are all of a piece: a book in one genre will correct, illumine or amplify what is latent in another.

As a reader who relishes allusions (especially to the Scriptures), I approach Lewis knowing I’ve been invited to a feast. With C.S. Lewis we find bricolage at its richest and most refined.

In An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis describes two types of readers, literary and unliterary. He says the measure of a book is the extent to which it entices its literary readers to reread it.

In the following excerpt, Lewis mentions how the talented writer weaves together an elegant tapestry (via bricolage). Because literature is so complex and intricate, we benefit from rereading it. He also discusses how literature interacts with our preexisting thoughts and sometimes reshapes them.

Nevertheless, we have already seen that the literary sometimes fall into what I think bad modes of reading, and even that these are sometimes subtler forms of the same errors that the unliterary commit.

They may do so when reading poems. The literary sometimes ‘use’ poetry instead of ‘receiving’ it. They differ from the unliterary because they know very well what they are doing and are prepared to defend it. ‘Why,’ they ask, ‘should I turn from a real and present experience—what the poem means to me, what happens to me when I read it—to inquiries about the poet’s intention or reconstructions, always uncertain, of what it may have meant to his contemporaries?’

There seem to be two answers. One is that the poem in my head which I make from my mistranslations of Chaucer or misunderstandings of Donne may possibly not be so good as the work Chaucer or Donne actually made.

Secondly, why not have both? After enjoying what I made of it, why not go back to the text, this time looking up the hard words, puzzling out the allusions, and discovering that some metrical delights in my first experience were due to my fortunate mispronunciations, and see whether I can enjoy the poet’s poem, not necessarily instead of, but in addition to, my own one?

If I am a man of genius and uninhibited by false modesty I may still think my poem the better of the two. But I could not have discovered this without knowing both. Often, both are well worth retaining.

Do we not all still enjoy certain effects which passages in classical or foreign poets produced in us when we misunderstood them? We know better now.

We enjoy something, we trust, more like what Virgil or Ronsard meant to give us. This does not abolish or stain the old beauty. It is rather like revisiting a beautiful place we knew in childhood. We appraise the landscape with an adult eye; we also revive the pleasures—often very different—which it produced when we were small children.

Admittedly, we can never quite get out of our own skins. Whatever we do, something of our own and of our age’s making will remain in our experience of all literature.

Equally, I can never see anything exactly from the point of view even of those whom I know and love best. But I can make at least some progress towards it. I can eliminate at least the grosser illusions of perspective.

Literature helps me to do it with live people, and live people help me to do it with literature. If I can’t get out of the dungeon I shall at least look out through the bars. It is better than sinking back on the straw in the darkest corner. (An Experiment in Criticism)

An Experiment in Criticism may not be Lewis’ simplest essay to understand, but it is a rich one. In fact, I can almost guarantee that if you should reread the passage quoted above, you will gain new insights that you missed during your first reading.

And that dynamic interplay between our thoughts and the literature we read is exactly what Lewis is explaining, and illustrating.

When it comes to choosing between what we personally receive from a work, and what the author originally intended to say, I love Lewis’ solution: “why not have both?”

_____

* “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new?’ It has been already in the ages before us” (Ecclesiastes 1:9-10).

 

Dogs, Heaven and Ministry

August 22, 2017 — 4 Comments

divine dog

My pastor’s sermon last Sunday was entitled “Do Dogs Go to Heaven?” I was really looking forward to hearing the message, but I received a request to preach at another church on the other side of the Cascade Mountain range, and I couldn’t be there to learn the answer to the question.

I wanted to hear his sermon for several reasons. First, orthodox Lutherans are not given to faddish subject matter for their sermons, so I was eager to see his approach. Second, this is a question that pastors are asked surprisingly often, so I enjoy hearing others respond to the question, especially when they appeal to the Bible in doing so.

A third reason is because I love dogs. All dogs. Even “bad” ones, who are only aggressive or ill-behaved because the humans they’ve had the misfortune of encountering in this world have done poorly by them.

I’ve had many dogs as members of my family through the years, and they were treasures, even though I took them for granted in my youth.

I’m not going to offer my take on the question posed by the sermon title. I’ve already written about that in the past. The thoughts are developed more fully here.

Nor am I going to discuss the important place of dogs in the life of C.S. Lewis, since I have written about that before, as well.

The Upshot of the Sermon

When we were leaving church the previous Sunday, our pastor was discussing his impending pronouncement on the subject of animal redemption. I laughed and offered a comment that proved a little disconcerting to him.

I told him that not long ago I read a passage in Martin Luther’s writings where he said just that. Luther, the preeminent figure in the Reformation, suggested the possibility that animals just might be resurrected by God. It became obvious that wasn’t where he was going with his homily, and in looking at the Gospel text for the message I realized why.

The fifteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel includes this grace-filled story about Jesus’ mercy.

And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matthew 15:22-28).

The Jews of Jesus’ day sometimes referred to Gentiles as “dogs.” In this passage he is not insulting her, but (1) clarifying the priority of his ministry to fulfill the promise to the house of Israel and (2) to invite her to press the issue, just as she does.

The Luther quotations to which I referred were:

“Be thou comforted, little dog. Thou too in Resurrection shall have a little golden tail.”

“The dog is the most faithful of animals and would be much esteemed were it not so common. Our Lord God has made His greatest gifts the commonest.”

I doubt he incorporated either into his sermon.

Dogs in Ministry

Recently I read an excerpt from an interesting new book entitled The Grace of Dogs: A Boy, A Black Lab, and a Father’s Search for the Canine Soul.

It reinforced something that all of us who love dogs already know—they possess a profound ability to sense and minister to our emotional needs.

You can read the excerpt in Christianity Today here, although they have retitled it for the online edition. I prefer the title that appeared in the print edition, “God’s Canine Counselors.” I’ll close here with a brief excerpt from the excerpt.

A child sits down on the floor next to a dog and reads aloud from a book. There is something magical about it. After lying next to Pepper, a slightly overweight border collie, and reading him a book, seven-year-old Jessicah, who has always hated reading, says to the volunteer, “[He] loves when I tell him stories. I think he likes stories about turtles best, and so do I. He’s the coolest dog in the whole world.”

I can vividly imagine what it would be like to be the child in that situation. To read to a dog whose big eyes took me in with simple pleasure, who laid her head on my lap with absolute ease to listen to my voice, would have made for an entirely different experience.

The dog would have exuded patience, unconditional acceptance, and peace. The words I botched terribly [as a child] would have captivated the dog every bit as much as the ones read perfectly. In that one-on-one relationship, the anxiety, self-doubt, and panic I used to feel about not being able to do something would have faded.

Thank you, Lord, for creating dogs.

arctic hares

Does it bother you to encounter an unfamiliar word when you are reading? How about in conversation?

I’m one of those people who enjoy using uncommon words. I savor conversations where people naturally incorporate words one rarely hears. I rejoice when I encounter a new word that precisely describes some elusive essence that formerly required a paragraph to explain.

I can illustrate that final comment—welcoming words that define hard to describe nuances—with a couple of examples. Angst and ephemeral were the first two such words that came to my mind just now, and momentarily I will offer passages in which C.S. Lewis uses each of them.

One is “angst.” It’s more than worry. It’s darker than anxiety. It conveys in many cases an air of foreboding. We can thank the Germans for angst (the word, not the dread itself).

Another too seldom used word would be “ephemeral.” In essence it means temporary or transitory. But it often conveys a sense of loss, of the passing of something before its due time. It suggests the dissolution of something we would wish to examine in greater detail. Ephemeral suggests something far more emotionally weighty than its original Greek, which translates into “lasting only a day.”

Narrowly defined or focused words, are like a sort of communication shorthand. They are useful for getting messages across more rapidly, and with greater accuracy. For example, it would be of little value for one Inuit to describe a location to another by saying it was covered with “snow.” If they intend to travel there, it would be beneficial to know in advance what kind of snow to anticipate.

Due to this unforgiving environment, the Inuktitut (the dialect spoken in the eastern part of the Canadian arctic) have a score of different words referring to snow and ice. This fascinating article addresses the subject and illustrates how this word group is supplemented by additional words which, when used in a winter context, mean a particular type of snow.

In Nunavik, for instance, it is possible to call maujaq the snow in which one sinks. This is a general term that refers to any type of soft ground (mud, wetland, quicksand) but which, in winter, can only apply to a soft snow cover where the foot sinks.

In the same way, the word illusaq (“what can become a house”) refers to any construction material (wood, stone, brick, etc.), but when an igloo is built, it applies precisely to snow that is rigid and maneuverable enough for erecting a semi-spherical house made of snow blocks.

While the native peoples of the Arctic possess many words for atmospheric water vapor that has been frozen into ice crystals, there are not quite one hundred, as some have parodied.

On the other end of the geographic spectrum, there are many human beings who will never in their entire lives see snow. Think non-mountainous equatorial settings that escaped even the Ice Age. For them, a single word is probably sufficient for the theoretically existent snow, and only one word required for the precious commodity ice, which is most frequently encountered in the shape of a cube.

I am not a skier, so I claim no philological expertise on snow slang where I live in Washington State. The snow we enjoy near Hood Canal comes and goes in a couple of days, several times each winter. Perfect for sledding or building snowpeople with the grandkids. Yet even here we readily recognize several types of snow. Wet snow makes deadly spheres for snowball wars. Powder is less suitable as a construction material, but it offers a slippery track for racing downhill sledding. Packed snow transforms into ice, and makes driving hazardous. Slush is, well . . . slushy.

Not All Words are Worthy of Inclusion

One simple way to expand our vocabulary is by subscribing to a “Word of the Day” service. More often than not, I already know the day’s offering, but occasionally it’s pleasant to be reminded of such things.

Then there are those words that are so peculiar or restrictive that we can’t consciously conceive of using them. Such was a word I received this week: “appurtenance.” I applaud you if you know it. I commiserate with your friends if you employ it.

One of appurtenance’s synonyms is “paraphernalia.” That was a fine word in and of itself, until it because too strongly associated with illegal narcotics. I guess if I elect not to use “appurtenance,” and regard “paraphernalia” as contaminated, I’ll simply need to retreat to the fallback word of my youth, “stuff.”

Today’s word was even less useful. “Sternutation” is the involuntary expulsion of air through the nose. Might be good for a bunch of junior high school boys, but I don’t think I’ll file it away for my next novel.

C.S. Lewis’ Use of Precise Prose

The best, and most gratifying way to expand our vocabularies is by reading. I never resent reading a great book or stimulating essay that sends me to my dictionary.

As I promised, I am including examples of Lewis’ use of the words I had randomly selected to illustrate my point above. As a bonus, I’m including two examples of ephemeral, reflecting both senses of the word’s meaning.

From C.S. Lewis’ essay “Sir Walter Scott” which appears in Selected Literary Essays:

For the whole of that Gurnal, indeed, we might borrow a title from an author whom Scott himself fully appreciated, and call it ‘Sense and Sensibility’. The sense, I presume, is obvious enough. We see it, first and foremost, in his cool and moderate estimate of his own literary powers; a modesty almost (one would have thought) impossible in one whose reputation had filled Europe and been blown up until he was put above Goethe and almost equalled with Shakespeare. Yet it is not mere self-depreciation.

Though never deceived about his weaknesses, he knows his real strength too; the “hurried frankness of composition which pleases soldiers, sailors, and young people of bold and active disposition.” He recognizes, in his own way, the quality of what a more pretentious writer would call “inspiration:”—“I shall get warm as I work”— the morning, fresh from the labours of subconscious artistry, is musis amica. We see it also in his unchanging, cheerfully unemphatic, contempt for ‘the imaginary consequence of literary triflers’ and the ‘affectations of literature . . .”

But we should do Scott little service with some modern critics by insisting exclusively on his sense; for there is a widespread opinion that genius is never free from neurosis, and unless we can find Angst in an author’s soul he will hardly be taken seriously. Well, if we demand Angst, Scott can supply that, too. He confesses to “idle fears, gloomy thoughts” (1826); to “A thick throbbing at my heart . . . fancies thronging on me . . . a disposition . . . to think on things melancholy and horrible.” (1827).

Ephemeral as brief, in a 1959 letter where Lewis rejects the proposed title for one of his volumes:

Dear Mac, Thanks for your letter of the 18th. I don’t care for Dangers of Belief. I would like The World’s Last Night and other Essays. The and other essays would appear on the title page only—not on spine, back, or jacket. For No. IV I should prefer Good Work and Good Works. As soon as I can get it typed I shall send you a long correction for Lilies that Fester. . . .

It will replace the bit which in the Twentieth Century article begins ‘About Culture as’ (para 3, p 332) and ends ‘to extraneous ends,’ (para 2, l. 3, p. 334). This is necessary because E. M. Forster has said in print that he really meant the alternative ‘b’ which I offered him in a footnote to p 333.113.

Most of the passage I want to alter is therefore now irrelevant. And anyway I think that what I want to substitute for it is better and of less ephemeral interest. O.K.?

In the final volume of his space (cosmic) trilogy, That Hideous Strength, Lewis refers to celestial spiritual forces. Some of them are associated with stars and planets. The Oyéresu (unfallen angelic rulers) who serve God, their Creator. If you are unfamiliar with the book, don’t try to understand the meaning of what follows. Simply allow the power of Lewis’ narrative to paint an imposing scene.

[The freezing temperature evoked a progression of thoughts]: of stiff grass, hen roosts, dark places in the middle of woods, graves. Then of the sun’s dying, the Earth gripped, suffocated, in airless cold, the black sky lit only with stars. And then, not even stars: the heat death of the universe, utter and final blackness of nonentity from which Nature knows no return. . . .

Saturn, whose name in the heavens is Lurga, stood in the Blue Room. His spirit lay upon the house, or even on the whole Earth, with a cold pressure such as might flatten the very orb of Tellus to a wafer. Matched against the lead-like burden of his antiquity the other gods themselves perhaps felt young and ephemeral.

It was a mountain of centuries sloping up from the highest antiquity we can conceive, up and up like a mountain whose summit never comes into sight, not to eternity where the thought can rest, but into more and still more time, into freezing wastes and silence of unnameable numbers.

It was also strong like a mountain; its age was no mere morass of time where imagination can sink in reverie, but a living, self-remembering duration which repelled lighter intelligences from its structure as granite flings back waves, itself unwithered and undecayed but able to wither any who approach it unadvised.

Reading Lewis is an education in many things. Many years after his death he continues to teach receptive minds about writing, creativity, communication, rational thinking, Christian living, and so very much more.

If you are curious about an author who actually contributed to C.S. Lewis’ own vocabulary, check out this column.