Archives For Writing

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When C.S. Lewis died, one of his Cambridge colleagues uttered a shocking statement—to his Cambridge students.

“C.S. Lewis is dead,” announced F.R. Leavis to his English literature students at Cambridge University a few days later, while the world mourned for Kennedy (the President was assassinated the same day).

American novelist and essayist D. Keith Mano, then studying at Cambridge, remembers Leavis continuing his brief commentary on Lewis’ passing as follows: “They said in the Times that we will miss him. We will not. We will not.

Who knew the world of literary criticism could be so ill-mannered?

In my readings about C.S. Lewis and his life I’ve noted references to a fellow English professor at Cambridge who waged a lengthy academic argument with Lewis over the heart of English education.

The challenger to Lewis’ history-oriented approach advocated a critical position, which diluted concern for the intentions of the original writers. I’m not a lit major, so I’ll leave the description at that.*

F.R. Leavis, a dynamic influence at Cambridge, dreaded the arrival of Lewis when he moved from Oxford to a distinguished chair tailor-made for him. The two scholars shared several traits which might have disposed them to friendship.

Both were veterans of the Great War.** One difference between the veterans is curious. Leavis declined to join the Officers’ Training Corps while a student, and chose ambulance service when conscription began. Lewis, on the other hand, voluntarily joined the OTC, even though he (as an Irishman) was exempt from the conscription.***

Another similarity between the two was that they inspired many students. Far from the caricature of droning academicians, Lewis and Leavis drew fans and even disciples from the student body. (In a recent post I mentioned the affectionate nickname some of the former’s students had for him: Papa Lewis.)

The Problem

Most writers believe this second “similarity” factored into the strained relationship between the two. Both had strong personalities, and bold convictions. They did not, however, share a common temperament. Lewis was normally respectful of his philosophical adversaries. Leavis, not so much. The following comes from “C.S. Lewis and the Art of Disagreement.”

The fact that Lewis could approve of atheists [and] liberals . . . reinforces Brewer’s point that Lewis would not allow disagreement to become personal. He could always distinguish the man from the man’s opinion, and he knew the difference between an argument and a quarrel. He would not allow himself to be betrayed into aggression, but would, where necessary, draw rein on a dispute with a wry smile and an agreement to disagree.

His public written controversy on literature with E.M.W. Tillyard (later published as The Personal Heresy) was conducted with pugnacity but without personal animus. And though Lewis laid into the arguments of another colleague, F.R. Leavis, with great forcefulness in the pages of An Experiment in Criticism, he never named Leavis within those pages, but covered his opponent in a thoughtfully woven cloak of pseudonymity.

Contrast that to Leavis’ comment with which we began, in which he “celebrates” Lewis’ passing.

Lewis was quite aware of Leavis’ animosity. In a 1961 letter to the publisher of The Screwtape Letters and Screwtape Proposes a Toast, the author strikes the Cambridge Review from the publications scheduled to receive review copies.

I’ve not additions to make, but one subtraction. Delete Cambridge Review. It’s mainly in the hands of Leavisites who will blackguard any book of mine, and I don’t know why we should let them have a free copy for their sport!

Lewis scholar Brenton Dickieson wrote a column about George Watson’s critique of Lewis. Watson met Lewis at Oxford and later joined him on the faculty at Cambridge.

Here are George Watson’s first evaluative words of Lewis: “Like F.R. Leavis, he was an offensive critic.” Awesome. I think it is an evaluation that would have made Lewis chuckle, particularly in his positive comparison with Leavis, the closest thing Lewis ever got to having a Sherlockian arch-nemesis.

However, Watson (note the name) is careful to remind us that Lewis “reveled in diversity as much as Leavis detested it.” That diversity in Lewis is one of the features that (I believe) most draws and repels readers today.

In the aforementioned article, “Lewis and Cambridge,” Barbour candidly describes the disparity between the spirit of the two nemeses.

“[Lewis’] controversies were always impersonal and often ended with the participants finding a good deal of common ground, whereas Leavis’s controversies . . . tended to end in anathematizing and deeply personal wounding.”

Leavis’ reputation for engendering conflict was so pronounced The Guardian actually included the following in his obituary:

Perhaps the most telling counter-assault on him was by C.S. Lewis, who said that the use of subliminal code words like “maturity” and “relevance” smuggled in an entire value system that was never made explicit for scrutiny. Others accused him of being a crypto-Marxist.

Leavis never replied, which was a pity, but then his weapons during his long career of humiliations in the Cambridge English faculty also included silence, internal exile and cunning.

His most murderous and underestimated weapon was ridicule, which he deployed in lectures with the virtuosity of a music-hall star and with an insensitivity verging on paranoia.

The Essence of Their Differences

Exploding English: Criticism, Theory, Culture includes a chapter entitled “Leavis, Lewis, and Other Oppositions.” It’s précis suggests one reason Lewis’ criticisms have possessed a longer lifespan than those of Leavis.

Lewis and Leavis . . . were the dominant figures in literary study in the middle decades of the twentieth century. . . . it is Lewis’s arguments and assumptions that seem to be the more challenging and which have something to contribute to contemporary debates.

This assessment echoes Lewis’ own view that the Leavis tsunami may have crested. Just a month before his death, he wrote to Basil Willey about his retirement. Willey would retire from his own chair two years later.

My dear Basil . . . I have an idea that Cambridge ten years’ hence might suit us both [better] than the Cambridge we have known. . . .

I hope your success will follow you . . . [if not], then our English school, with its neglect of language, becomes purely a school of literary criticism. And criticism, thus isolated, seems to me a positively mischievous instrument of education.

In “C.S. Lewis, Literary Critic: A Reassessment,” which appeared in Mythlore, William Calin describes Lewis’ passionate defense of English authors whose reputations were in jeopardy.

A Preface to Paradise Lost does for Milton what The Allegory of Love did for Spenser, and Lewis does for epic what he had previously done for allegory and fin’ amor [courtly love]. . . . In sum, Lewis defends his authors language from the strictures of Eliot and Leavis; he defends his worldview and its artistic embodiment from the prejudice of 1930s agnostic university faculty in English. . . .

When he tells students “Don’t read criticism” [Lewis] alludes again to Leavis and his disciples, who fetishized the term “critic.” Lewis would have called himself a scholar or an historian.

The following passage from A Preface to Paradise Lost is telling. Leavis is the unnamed standard bearer for the worldview he rejects. It reveals Lewis’ keen discernment in understanding of his unbridgeable difference with Leavis.

It is not that [Leavis] and I see different things when we look at Paradise Lost. He sees and hates the very same that I see and love. Hence the disagreement between us tends to escape from the realm of literary criticism.

We differ not about the nature of Milton’s poetry, but about the nature of man, or even the nature of joy itself.

The Apostle Paul described this difference in his correspondence with the Corinthians.

Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. . . .

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. . . . But we have the mind of Christ.

In an excellent article entitle “Three Great Critics: F.R. Leavis, T.S. Eliot, and C.S. Lewis,” Michael Aeschliman**** closes with a gospel-oriented thought.

It is pleasing to conclude by imagining C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, and F.R. Leavis now conversing together amicably, recollecting emotion in tranquility, in another and better and more luminous realm, toward which all three of them were fervent pilgrims throughout their embattled but noble lives.


* There are ample online sources available to describe the contrast in detail. For example, Brian Barbour’s Modern Philology essay, “Lewis and Cambridge,” provides a superb explanation of the struggle in its broader context.

** Lewis served in the trenches, where he was seriously wounded. Leavis was fortunate enough to avoid frontline combat by serving in the Friends Ambulance Unit. This site provides a helpful account of his service on an Ambulance Train which shuttled the wounded to ports.

*** There is no record of which ambulance train carried Lewis homeward after his injury, but wouldn’t it be ironic he and Leavis had unknowingly encountered one another at that time?

**** Aeschliman is the author of The Restitution of Man: C.S. Lewis and the Case Against Scientism.

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Few writers attain their full potential without the advice and encouragement of others.

C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien recognized that fact.

For many years they gathered regularly with a number of other keen minds, almost all of whom shared their Christian faith. (Notably, Owen Barfield who was an Anthroposophist, was a notable exception.)  Some writers visited the community as guests.

I’ve written in the past about the great benefit provided by Inkling-style literary criticism. It’s all about synergy.

Mount Hermon Christian Writer’s Conference is one of the premier gatherings of its sort. After many years of hoping to attend, my wife and I journeyed to California for its Fiftieth Anniversary this past week. What a blessing!

In addition to hundreds of zealous writers, the conference was attended by twoscore publishers, agents and writing experts who generously shared their vast knowledge. And I use that word “generously” in a literal sense. The faculty made itself accessible to a degree I have never before witnessed (and I am a veteran of innumerable professional conferences). The speakers were sincerely interested in encouraging each and every participant.

Classes were available for writing novices, journeymen and experts. I found the track on screenwriting to be the most helpful for my own current needs. I hope to put these new lessons into practice in the next few years.

I can confidently assure you that Mount Hermon will also offer the sort of advice and encouragement that you need to advance your own skills to the proverbial “next level.” If you are interested in attending Mount Hermon, you can learn more here.

Back on the Home Front

If you have never enjoyed the benefits of gathering locally with other writers, I strongly encourage you to consider it now.

If you’re on a critique-group-hiatus due to past disappointments, why not look for a fresh group with a healthier focus?

I sincerely believe most of us become better writers while growing together, than we do wandering on our own. Mount Hermon reinforced that conviction.

I encourage each of you to reach your own full potential—with a little help from some new friends.

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The most effective way to influence another person is through a fruitful conversation. This is especially true when one is attempting to persuade someone that a given point is true.

One drawback to conversations is that they are, by definition, rather intimate. After all, a person can only carry on a genuine conversation with a small audience. The ebb and flow of the spoken words, exchanged between parties, is utterly different than a speech or sermon. (This is one reason I prefer to teach in a conversational manner—soliciting questions, insights and even challenges during the delivery of whatever material I had prepared in advance.)

I recently read an interview conducted with a friend of mine who is an officer and a gentleman in the literal sense of those two words. Michael Zeigler and I served together at Fairchild AFB, after which he entered the ministry.

What most struck me in the interview, was a part of his response to a question about a book he has written. In it, he mentioned a theologian that I too have had the joy of studying under. That professor offered some invaluable advice for those of us who write. As Michael related:

My teacher [Seminary Professor Emeritus] Robert Kolb told us that, when we write, we should not seek to have the last word, but to contribute to the conversation.

This is contrary to the way most writers approach the keyboard. Having the last word is precisely what so many of us strive to do. And that very attitude undermines the opportunity for truly productive conversations.

Writing is inherently prone to unidirectional communication. Conversation can enter in through comments to authors, and this is one of the things that makes blogging somewhat more emotionally satisfying than traditional publishing.

The radio offers another example of one-way communication.* There are, of course, ways to offer feedback to commentators, but these are rather limited, and always consequent to the original message. But, it does possess a singular advantage over the printed media.

The graphic above pictures Martin Luther at a microphone. Had he lived in the appropriate era, I have no doubt he would have engaged in broadcasting . . . just as he embraced Gutenberg’s press to spread his message.

Lewis’ Broadcasts

My friend Michael has recently embarked on a new journey with a widely respected radio ministry. And, in this, he bears a striking resemblance to the great C.S. Lewis.

(Evan Rosa offers a rare example of Lewis’ broadcasts here.)

The similarity between Zeigler and Lewis is that their broadcasts are conversations, rather than presentations. Their conversational essence extends far beyond their friendly, approachable tone. They are truly engaged with their hearers. You know that they would welcome an actual interchange beyond the limitations of their microphones.

It is a rare talent to be able to touch the individual members of a mass audience so they feel like you are speaking to them alone. With both of the aforementioned individuals, I believe a key element of their effectiveness is their unfeigned humility. In 1941 Lewis wrote to a correspondent about his upcoming BBC radio talks.

I’ve given talks to the RAF [Royal Air Force] at Abingdon already, and so far as I can judge they were a complete failure. . . . Yes, jobs one dare neither refuse nor perform.

One must take comfort in remembering that God used an ass to convert the prophet; perhaps if we do our poor best we shall be allowed a stall near it in the celestial stable.

This is a good reminder not only to broadcasters, but to all who write as well. Picking up our pens in a spirit of humility goes a long way towards receiving a warm welcome for our words. And, if we are truly fortunate, our readers will recognize we are not seeking to have the last word, but merely hoping to contribute to the conversation.

Addendum

The Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler is a long-time friend. We met years ago when he was a young Air Force officer, a first-class product of the Air Force Academy. After completing his active duty commitment, Michael and his wife journeyed to Concordia Seminary where he first earned his M.Div. and continued on to receive a Ph.D. For years they served a wonderfully diverse urban congregation in St. Louis.

Now Michael has received a singular “honor” in being chosen as the speaker for The Lutheran Hour.

The Lutheran Hour is the world’s longest running continuously broadcast Christian radio program. It began in 1930 and currently airs on more than 1,800 stations. Lutheran Hour Ministries currently reaches into more than 50 countries through its various ministries.

You can sign up to listen to podcasts of the program for free on iTunes here.


* I wish I could take some credit for Michael’s pursuit of a pastoral vocation, but I can’t. It was purely a matter of the Holy Spirit calling him to ministry. However, I cling to the notion that at least my example as a chaplain did not discourage him from answering God’s call.

** The exceptions would be when there is a studio audience or a “call in” option. However, one would be hard-pressed to identify radio or television broadcasts as “dialog.”

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When it comes to writing for a popular audience, the elite strata of academia possess no shortage of disdain.

C.S. Lewis was only one of many professors who found writing for the common people diminished them in the eyes of their snobbish peers. In Lewis’ case, his lay theological essays were considered bad enough. His fantasy and science fiction works were regarded as particularly gauche.

I have a personal theory about the way self-important scholars treat their colleagues who reach down to interact with the hoi polloi. It seems to me that they deride people like Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien because of envy. The envy is twofold.

First, they covet the large audience and expanded influence of the scholar who successfully transcends the university. These elements arouse their lust far more than the potential wealth that such success might bring, although I have no doubt some resent being criminally underpaid as educators.

The second aspect of the envy is directed at the genuine talent of the belittled author. The majority of faculty would not possess the skill to write successfully for a popular audience. Thus, the significance of such publication needs to be diminished.

Harlan Ellison (1934-2018) was not an academic, but even he did not appreciate being relegated to the ranks of pulp writers. Despite writing screenplays and more than 100 books, he was best known for his science fiction. Nevertheless, he once threatened: “Call me a science fiction writer and I’ll hit you so hard your ancestors will die.”

Returning to Lewis, one biographer devotes an entire chapter to the condescending attitude of his Oxford peers. He entitles it, “A Prophet without Honour?” This is a reference to Jesus’ saying that “a prophet has no honor in his own hometown” (John 4:44)

Lewis, then, was famous by the time the Second World War ended in the summer of 1945. If the simple philosophy of life propounded by modern celebrity culture has any validity, Lewis at that point should have been a happy and fulfilled person. Yet Lewis’s personal history for the next nine years tells a quite different story. Fame may have raised Lewis’s profile, but in the first place, this just made him a more obvious target for those who disliked his religious beliefs.

And in the second, many of his academic colleagues came to believe that he had sold out to popular culture to secure that fame. He had sold his academic birthright for a populist pottage. (C.S. Lewis—A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet by Alister McGrath)

The disdain of his Oxford colleagues prevented him from receiving a full professorship at the university. This is why Lewis eventually accepted a chair at Cambridge, which was much more receptive to his unashamed sharing of the Gospel. Tolkien was stunned by the “extraordinary animosity” of the English Faculty towards his friend.

An Endnote

The fact that C.S. Lewis wrote some science fiction—and encouraged his friend Tolkien to do so as well—does not mean that he had an exaggerated opinion of the genre’s quality. He was quite aware of the great range between the good and the bad. In fact, in 1955 he ended a lengthy letter to a correspondent with the sentence: “We must talk about Science Fiction some other time (most of it is atrocious).”

I have posted about Lewis’ connection to science fiction in the past. Perhaps one of these topics will interest you.

Learn about the genuine Martian crater named Malacandra in honor of Lewis’ space trilogy.

Explore the place of robots in science fiction and reality.

Ponder the ramifications of post-apocalyptic faith.

Consider Lewis’ compliment to H.G. Wells.

 

 

Teaching Kids to Write

November 20, 2018 — 13 Comments

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My grandkids have stunned me with their enthusiasm for writing. And all it took to inspire them was a very simple activity.

I invited our ten youngest grandchildren (aged 4 to 12) to write their own family newspaper. Although I devised our family publication myself, I’ve since learned that there are abundant resources—albeit of vastly different qualities—available online. You’ll find some links below.

The first challenge was to explain to them what a newspaper is. The irony is not lost on me that none of our four families currently subscribe to daily papers. It was more difficult than I anticipated to explain to all of the novice journalists precisely what newspapers are. I use the present tense, because the medium is not quite obsolete, despite the downward trajectory of most local papers. As an editorial in the Washington Post said this year, “newspapers have been dying in slow motion for two decades now.” And it seems to many the process is accelerating.

Nevertheless, as the proud veteran of high school and college newspaper staffs, and a former contributor to my hometown weekly, I believe such publications are ideal for developing writing skills. The passion overflowing from my writing bullpen has vastly exceeded my expectations, confirming my impression.

While it took a while to gather enough submissions for the first issue, they rushed to fill the second. When each was “published,” all of the kids immediately sat down and read their personal issues from proverbial cover to cover.

My endorsement of family newspapers does not carry over to the commercial press. Sadly, too much of what is presented as “objective reporting,” is patently subjective. I debated my journalism profs about that matter forty years ago, and the evidence has only grown more visible. I also agree with C.S. Lewis’ opinion that the majority of what passes for “news,” is superfluous or sensationalistic.

Even in peacetime I think those are very wrong who say that schoolboys should be encouraged to read the newspapers. Nearly all that a boy reads there in his teens will be seen before he is twenty to have been false in emphasis and interpretation, if not in fact as well, and most of it will have lost all importance.

Most of what he remembers he will therefore have to unlearn; and he will probably have acquired an incurable taste for vulgarity and sensationalism and the fatal habit of fluttering from paragraph to paragraph to learn how an actress has been divorced in California, a train derailed in France, and quadruplets born in New Zealand. (Surprised by Joy)

Perhaps ironically, Lewis did not hesitate to publish his own writings in worthy newspapers. Most notably, The Guardian (an Anglican newspaper printed between 1846 and 1951) published several of his essays. In addition, they presented to the world (in serial form) both The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce.

For an interesting discussion about C.S. Lewis’ opinion that newspapers are inadequate tools for assessing truth, check out this article. The author draws a valid distinction between Lewis’ example and the current state of affairs where “we judge too quickly and offer grace much too slowly.”

Elements of Our Family’s Publishing Experiment

After describing to the kids what newspapers are, I provided them with a list of potential subject matter. In addition to “standard” sorts of news and reviews, I added things like “sermon notes,” fiction, and comics.

I encourage them to illustrate their own articles, and the first two issues have been graced with images of dogs, horses, King Tut, and a Turtle Bear (who served as a weather forecaster). Each child contributes at their own level, and the cousins commend each other on their efforts.

We’re early in the stages of teaching the kids about rewriting and self-editing. Depending on the situation, either their parents or the editorial staff (grandma and grandpa) assist them with learning to revise their own work.

I must confess that one of the most fun aspects of Curious Cousins Courier is my ability, as the editor, to creatively engage in a bit of editorial privilege. The primary example comes in a “Family Heritage” feature that I write for each issue.

In the first, we considered the life of the cousins’ great-great-grandfather who immigrated from Norway in 1912. Julius Olaissen Næsbø unsuccessfully attempted to travel on the RMS Titanic, but the steerage class was full, and he had to settle for a departure several weeks later. The fringe benefit of reading about “Grandpa Nesby” came in learning that other languages include letters in their alphabet that are foreign to us in the States.

In the second issue, I pointed the children to one of their ancestors who helped establish our country itself, during the Revolutionary War. Joseph Johnston was born in Ireland, and was a sergeant in the Fifth Virginia Regiment.

The importance of cementing family bonds—and instilling a healthy awareness of our family’s legacy—is extremely important to me. I suppose that is due in large part to spending the first third of my life as a nomadic military kid. Yet that sense of disconnectedness from my extended family did not prevent me from inflicting the same itinerant military lifestyle on my own children. But that’s a story for another day.

If you help to establish a newspaper or journal for members of your own family, I trust you will find it as rewarding as I do.

A Few Online Resources

Get the Scoop: Create a Family Newspaper,” from Education.com

How to Make a Family Newspaper,” from wikiHow.

The 5 Ws are noted on ImaginationSoup. (In case you’ve forgotten, they’re who, what, where, when and why.)

More developed thoughts, with an eye toward the classroom, are available at The CurriculumCorner.

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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)

Soli Deo Gloria.

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The diary of Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, includes some revealing insights into the life of a writer . . . words that I suspect may echo your own experience.

While I would never turn to Søren Kierkegaard for theological inspiration (many do), his comments about writing parallel my own.*

Only when I write do I feel well. Then I forget all of life’s vexations, all its sufferings, then I am wrapped in thought and am happy. If I stop for a few days, right away I become ill, overwhelmed and troubled; my head feels heavy and burdened.

So powerful an urge, so ample, so inexhaustible, one which, having subsisted day after day for five or six years, is still flowing as richly as ever, such an urge, one would think, must also be a vocation from God.

If these great riches of thought, still latent in my soul, must be repressed, it will be anguish and torture for me, and I shall become an absolute good-for-nothing. […]

Being an author . . . is not self-chosen; it is concomitant with everything in my individuality and its deepest urge.

May God then give me good fortune and succor and above all a certain spirit, yes, a certain spirit to resist the onslaughts of doubt and temptation that rise within me, for after all it is not too hard to do battle with the world.

This passage fascinates me. Kierkegaard eloquently expresses the struggle of the Christian writer, then ends on such a uniquely positive note, “after all it is not too hard to do battle with the world.” This victory, he indicates, comes from God placing within us a certain spirit to resist the onslaughts of doubt and temptation that rise within” us.

Keeping our eyes on Christ, and yielding to the Holy Spirit who abides within us, does indeed ensure our victory. Though the world assaults us daily, as we grow more mature in our Lord its temporary gains against us grow smaller and fewer.

I encountered Kierkegaard’s words in a recent post by Steve Laube, a prominent agent. (His agency’s blog is well worth subscribing to.) As he says,

These words resonate because it is the universal condition of writers. The call, the urge, to write is part of who you are. However, notice his last sentence where he admits to “the onslaughts of doubt and temptation that rise within me.” This, again, is a universal condition. It is normal. Embrace it and pray that God will grant you the strength today to resist.

Then do it again tomorrow.

Turning to Lewis

Although Kierkegaard’s words were written in 1847, it’s doubtful C.S. Lewis would have been familiar with them. The rather severely** edited diary did not appear until 1960, only a couple of years before Lewis’ passing.

As a scholar, Lewis was familiar with Kierkegaard. While he did not find Kierkegaard’s existentialism helpful, he could acknowledge that some appreciated his writings. In 1961, he responded to a correspondent’s request for some recommendations, he wrote,

For meditative and devotional reading . . . I suggest . . . my selection from MacDonald, George MacDonald: an Anthology. I can’t read Kierkegaard myself, but some people find him helpful.

The primary reason for Lewis’ albeit tepid mention of Kierkegaard here must have been the fact that one of his close friends was keen on the philosopher. An early translator of Kierkegaard’s works praised Inkling Charles Williams who “affectionately fostered the enterprise of publishing S.K.’s works in English.” (“How Kierkegaard Got into English”).

I am curious how Lewis would have responded to Kierkegaard’s notes on the writing life. Would he have identified with these sentiments?

I suspect they would concur in the statement, “If these great riches of thought, still latent in my soul, must be repressed, it will be anguish and torture for me.” After all, as many of Mere Inkling’s readers can personally attest, the Great Dane was not alone in experiencing this explosive pressure.

As an ancient man named Elihu once said to the Prophet Job, “I am full of words, and the spirit within me compels me; inside I am like bottled-up wine, like new wineskins ready to burst.” (Job 32:18-19).

My advice—get your precious words out before they explode.


* Here you will find the “testimony” of a person whose atheism was reinforced by reading Kierkegaard.

** The editor, Peter Rohde, says in his preface: “The luckless reader who sets out on his own to find his way in Kierkegaard’s vast, and vastly demanding works, runs the risk of losing his way and finally of losing his courage.”

It is precisely their fragmentary character that dispenses us from the obligation which the finished works place upon us, viz. to respect their wholeness—for it is nonexistent.

However, from their 8,000 to 10,000 pages it is possible to distill some one hundred and fifty pages that contain the true essence—that is, if the editor has been successful in his selection.

ice cream

What is your favorite dessert? I envy you if it’s something like kale or chia seeds. For me it’s a toss-up between chocolate chip cookies and brownies. However, for my wife, nothing else comes close to ice cream.

A recent study revealed some interesting facts about ice cream and those addicted to it. They say “consuming an entire pint of ice cream was once an act cloaked in shame, conducted from the privacy of one’s couch . . . Now some, even the waistline conscious, are unabashedly eating a whole pint in one sitting. From the container.”

Apparently half of all Americans have done just this. Well, they may have used bowls and sat somewhere other than their couch, but they have devoured a savory pint in one sitting. Unsurprisingly, forty percent felt guilty afterward. However, only ten percent felt sick.

Although there is little evidence C.S. Lewis was susceptible to the temptations of ice cream, he did enjoy its cousin. In a 1920 letter to his father, he describes some recent walking trips during which he enjoyed some exquisite clotted cream. Clotted cream was especially popular before refrigeration became an everyday luxury.

As you see, we have not yet moved: indeed the weather has not encouraged us to set out, though it has not prevented us from a great deal of walking. . . . You need not have any fears about our cuisine here. Remember we are almost in Devon and the clotted cream of the country is a host in itself: also–shades of Oldie–the real ‘Deevonshire’ cider in every thatched and sanded pub.

A few miles away is a little fishing town called Watchet, which saw at least one interesting scene in its obscure history: it was here that Coleridge and the Wordsworths slept (or ‘lay’ as they would have said) on the first night of their walking tour.

In All My Road Before Me, his diary from the mid-twenties, he mentions several times enjoying another cream-based delight.

We then motored back to town to a civilian club of which W[arnie] is a member, where he had provided a royal feast of the sort we both liked: no nonsense about soup and pudding, but a sole each, cutlets with green peas, a large portion of strawberries and cream, and a tankard of the local beer which is very good.

So we gorged like Roman Emperors in a room to ourselves and had good talk.

While there are few improvements I think can be made to the Narnian tales, I do have one. The White Witch, as we know, presides over a snow-covered world where Mr. Tumnus sadly says “it is always winter, but never Christmas.”

Thus, it seems quite evident Queen Jadis could just as easily have bewitched Edmund with ice cream, as with Turkish delight. (Perhaps she didn’t wish to offer it to him because frozen dairy delicacies were her own secret delight.)

Modern Creamery Temptations

We have noted that some people feel remorseful after eating a “large” portion of ice cream. Marketers attempt to assuage such guilt by offering an increasing array of “low-cal” options. They may be better for us than the real thing, but I’ll leave that to the experts to justify. It seems to me if they taste just as good and are less bad for us, they’re worth considering.

There must be something to this line of thought. The afore-cited article compares the sales growth of regular ice cream companies (single digit) and Halo Top low calorie ice cream (555% from 2016 to 2017).

Most people have only enjoyed ice cream from domesticated cattle. The more adventurous have eaten ice cream prepared from the milk of sheep, goats, and other lactating creatures. There are also non-dairy alternatives, but in a civilized world these should rightly go by other names. PETA praises them, so they may well be worth a taste test (just don’t pretend they are the genuine article).

People have experimented with buffalo, yak, and even human ice cream (promoted in London).

Still, even the most curious people would have to draw the line at using cockroach milk, which isn’t milk proper, but is touted by some as the next “SuperFood Trend.” Speaking for myself—and with confidence, for C.S. Lewis as well—I say, “No, thanks.”


Postscript

While the following excerpt from “On Three Ways of Writing for Children” does not offer any insight into Lewis’ relationship with ice cream, it does reveal something he found distasteful in alternative approaches to writing for children.

I think there are three ways in which those who write for children may approach their work; two good ways and one that is generally a bad way.

I came to know of the bad way quite recently and from two unconscious witnesses. One was a lady who sent me the MS of a story she had written in which a fairy placed at a child’s disposal a wonderful gadget. I say ‘gadget’ because it was not a magic ring or hat or cloak or any such traditional matter.

It was a machine, a thing of taps and handles and buttons you could press. You could press one and get an ice cream, another and get a live puppy, and so forth.

I had to tell the author honestly that I didn’t much care for that sort of thing. She replied “No more do I, it bores me to distraction. But it is what the modern child wants.”

My other bit of evidence was this. In my own first story I had described at length what I thought a rather fine high tea given by a hospitable faun to the little girl who was my heroine. A man, who has children of his own, said, “Ah, I see how you got to that. If you want to please grown-up readers you give them sex, so you thought to yourself, ‘That won’t do for children, what shall I give them instead? I know! The little blighters like plenty of good eating.’”

In reality, however, I myself like eating and drinking. I put in what I would have liked to read when I was a child and what I still like reading now that I am in my fifties.

The lady in my first example, and the married man in my second, both conceived writing for children as a special department of ‘giving the public what it wants.’

Children are, of course, a special public and you find out what they want and give them that, however little you like it yourself.

autobiography.png

When you get to a certain age, most writers will consider, at least momentarily, penning an autobiography. Often, aware the effort will invite charges of vanity, they will opt to call it a memoir. Whatever the label, the result is the same.

Writers are faced with the question—and they alone can answer it—as to whether or not there is any value in the preservation of notes about their life journey.

I would argue that there is a clear benefit, even when no one else will read it. Self-reflection, in and of itself, enriches one’s life. Even if it is painful, it can be therapeutic. And, since we’re still alive as we examine our past, time remains to rectify some of the mistakes we have made.

This very process of looking at our lives invites us to question our motives for recording these stories. And, if we’re considering merely to praise ourselves, it would be best to abstain.

On the other hand, it seems to me that many “normal” lives can validly serve as an inspiration to others. (I don’t presume my own effort would fit into this category.)

Here is the reason why I’m actually contemplating assembling some notes for a near-the-end-of-my-earthly-sojourn document. It just might be of interest to some of my descendants. I have often wished to have just such a jewel written by my own ancestors.

Putting myself in the place of my great-grandchildren, etc., I suspect some of them and their own grandchildren might be curious about an ancient progenitor. In fact, the more such records, the fuller the picture they stand to gain of their lineage.

The key, I think, to writing a worthwhile memoir is honesty. If we share our challenges and failures, the volume will not only be more interesting, if may offer our descendants encouragement in their own struggles.

As a man vulnerable to the sin of pride, I’m cautious about proceeding. I pulled this disarming contrast from a book review written several years ago by theologian Carl Trueman.

Autobiographies are typically opportunities for the display of ego and the rationalizing of error. They have been so at least since Julius Caesar’s military memoirs. In our day, it is not just politicians and military leaders who indulge in this.

One thinks of the memoirs of Hans Küng: names dropped on every page, always with the purpose of reminding the reader how important—and how correct—Küng has been over the years on every significant issue and how unfairly he has been treated by his mediocre opponents.

Autobiography need not be so, as this volume [A Change of Heart] by Thomas Oden shows. Though Oden seems to have known everyone who was anyone in the theological world of the last sixty years, from Barth and Niebuhr to Dulles, Ratzinger, and Wojtjyla, there is no sense of ego. Names are regularly dropped but no self is ever promoted. Oden is a humble, fascinating, and important man blissfully unaware of the fact.

I’ve had the good fortune to meet several people during my life whose names would be familiar to you. But, God be merciful, I prefer to be an Oden rather than a Küng.

C.S. Lewis was a man like the former, “humble, fascinating and important.” Yet, despite the accolades he received from some quarters, he remained blissfully unaware of the fact that God would continue using his words to inspire others so many decades after he joined his Lord in Paradise.

A Worthy Exemplar

Lewis resisted writing about himself. Not out of a false modesty, but due to a desire to maintain personal privacy and a genuine sense that his life was neither particularly inspirational nor unique. Nevertheless, if it were possible that sharing about his life could help others, he was willing to do so.

His works are sprinkled with autobiographical commentary. His vast correspondence also provides great insight into his life. In 1955, he wrote a traditional autobiography, primarily to explain his conversion.

He entitled it Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. As he begins in the Preface:

This book is written partly in answer to requests that I would tell how I passed from Atheism to Christianity and partly to correct one or two false notions that seem to have got about.

He describes his approach, noting how it differs from what readers might expect.

The book aims at telling the story of my conversion and is not a general autobiography, still less “Confessions” like those of St. Augustine or Rousseau.

This means in practice that it gets less like a general autobiography as it goes on. In the earlier chapters the net has to be spread pretty wide in order that, when the explicitly spiritual crisis arrives, the reader may understand what sort of person my childhood and adolescence had made me.

When the “build-up” is complete, I confine myself strictly to business and omit everything (however important by ordinary biographical standards) which seems, at that stage, irrelevant.

I do not think there is much loss; I never read an autobiography in which the parts devoted to the earlier years were not far the most interesting. The story is, I fear, suffocatingly subjective; the kind of thing I have never written before and shall probably never write again.

I have tried so to write the first chapter that those who can’t bear such a story will see at once what they are in for and close the book with the least waste of time.

A Naked Autobiography

As fascinating as Surprised by Joy is, there exists another volume in which the mature Lewis bared his soul as have few others. When he lost his wife, Lewis experienced a profound sorrow that he described in A Grief Observed. So vulnerable was his writing, that Lewis published it under a pseudonym.

In 1988, Madeleine L’Engle penned a Foreword to the book, which now appears under Lewis’ own name.

In the end, what shines through the last pages of his journal of grief is an affirmation of love, his love for Joy and hers for him, and that love is in the context of God’s love.

No easy or sentimental comforts are offered, but the ultimate purpose of God’s love for all of us human creatures is love.

Reading A Grief Observed is to share not only in C. S. Lewis’s grief but in his understanding of love, and that is richness indeed.

Lewis was an exceptional writer, but I daresay that his life was little more amazing than your own. Certainly, Lewis’ life was no more precious to God than yours is.

I encourage you to consider writing (at the appropriate moment) your own memoir. This is particularly important if you have family who may be interested. But even if you don’t, consider writing.

Just remember to follow Lewis’ example and try “to write the first chapter that those who can’t bear such a story will see at once what they are in for and close the book with the least waste of time.”

csl & newman.png

Those who despise C.S. Lewis seek to eradicate his influence in the Christian Church. They care not that Lewis remains one of the most effective Christian apologists the world has ever seen. Only the Lord knows how many people (literally) have been encouraged in the faith by Lewis’ ministry.

When examining Lewis’ theology, it is necessary to keep in mind several facts. First, he often reminded his readers that he was not a theologian, simply a faithful layman. Second, he formally espoused and practice the orthodox Trinitarian faith as professed by the Anglican communion. Third, Lewis consciously sought to introduce timeless truths to his readers via reason and, more effectively, through fiction and imagination. (The Great Divorce offers a fascinating yet fully fictional exploration of how purgatory might work.)

Thus, Lewis critics will always be able to gather fuel for the foot of his stake. A primary example of this comes in Lewis’ emotive receptivity to the doctrine of purgatory. It is taught only by the Roman Catholic Church, although individuals from other denominations may also be sympathetic to it.

For example, Protestant philosopher Jerry L. Walls includes a chapter in his recent book on purgatory entitled, “C.S. Lewis and the Prospect of Mere Purgatory.”

Although not a Roman Catholic, C.S. Lewis, the most popular Christian writer of the twentieth century, believed in purgatory. This is significant because his influence in Protestant and evangelical circles is perhaps especially strong.

This chapter shows not only that Lewis believed in purgatory, but also that it is integral to his theology of salvation. It explores how he understood the doctrine by examining his comments on Roman Catholic theologians John Fisher, Thomas More, and John Henry Newman. While he was quite critical of Fisher and More, he saw in Newman the recovery of the true substance and spirit of the doctrine.

It is fair for us to acknowledge that Lewis’ understanding of justification was imperfect. Salvation comes through faith (Romans 5:1), not through penitential or purgatorial efforts. But let’s read about his position in his own words. The following comes from Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, which is, itself, a collection of thoughts “shared” with a fictional friend.

I believe in Purgatory.

Mind you, the Reformers had good reasons for throwing doubt on “the Romish doctrine concerning Purgatory” as that Romish doctrine had then become. . . .

The right view returns magnificently in Newman’s Dream.* There, if I remember it rightly, the saved soul, at the very foot of the throne, begs to be taken away and cleansed. It cannot bear for a moment longer “With its darkness to affront that light.” Religion has reclaimed Purgatory.

Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, “It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy”?

Should we not reply, “With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.”

“It may hurt, you know”

“Even so, sir.”

This is where I acknowledge Lewis’ view on justification to be deficient. Of course we would wish to be fully washed and clean before standing in our Creator’s presence. And that is precisely how we enter into his presence. Clothed not in our own filthiness and rags—but in the radiant righteousness of our Savior.

As the Apostle John wrote in his first epistle, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. . . . If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:7, 9)

Lewis’ greatest contribution to the Christian Church is found in his skilled apologetics based on the core essence of our faith. Lewis communicated the divine hope that is within us in his lectures, speeches and broadcasts. But it was through the written word that his inspiring words have touched the greatest number of people.

On the Subject of Writing

It is possible that Lewis was familiar with the following advice from Newman about effective writing. Certainly, he agreed with a number of the cardinal’s literary precepts. The following passage relates specifically to writing sermons, but it possesses far broader application. It comes from The Life of John Henry Cardinal Newman.

Newman’s own feeling as to the most effective way of imparting truth by writing is conveyed in the following notes, dated 1868, on the writing of sermons:

A man should be in earnest, by which I mean he should write not for the sake of writing, but to bring out his thoughts.

He should never aim at being eloquent.

He should keep his idea in view, and should write sentences over and over again till he has expressed his meaning accurately, forcibly, and in few words.

He should aim at being understood by his hearers or readers.

He should use words which are likely to be understood. Ornament and amplification will come spontaneously in due time, but he should never seek them.

He must creep before he can fly, by which I mean that humility which is a great Christian virtue has a place in literary composition.

He who is ambitious will never write well, but he who tries to say simply what he feels, what religion demands, what faith teaches, what the Gospel promises, will be eloquent without intending it, and will write better English than if he made a study of English literature.

Reading this helpful advice from Cardinal Newman reminds us we can learn valuable lessons from people with differing theology. And that truth should be quite encouraging, since none of us possess perfect doctrine.


* The full title of the work to which Lewis refers here is The Dream of Gerontius. (You can read it here.)