Archive for the ‘ Book Reviews ’ Category

Screwtape & Humility

In preparation for a class I will be teaching on The Screwtape Letters at a local church from January to April next year, I knew I needed to get a new copy of the book, as mine was falling apart from decades of use. I settled on the annotated edition by Paul McCusker.

I know I must have read sometime the preface Lewis wrote for the 1961 edition of his classic, but if so, it has escaped my memory. Reading it yesterday, I received a fresh reminder (as if I needed another one) of why I love reading Lewis.

His humorous self-deprecation is a hallmark of his overall view of his importance, and this preface highlights it.

While acknowledging that sales of the book have been prodigious, far beyond his expectations, he pokes a hole in sales figures, explaining that they don’t always mean what their authors hope they mean. “If you gauged the amount of Bible reading in England by the number of Bibles sold, you would go far astray,” he warns. And the same can be said for Screwtape, which he believes might “suffer from a similar ambiguity.”

“It is the sort of book,” he muses, “that gets given to godchildren, the sort that gets read aloud at retreats. It is even, as I have noticed with a chastened smile, the sort that gravitates towards spare bedrooms, there to live a life of undisturbed tranquility.”

Lewis then offers this little story:

Sometimes it is bought for even more humiliating reasons. A lady whom I knew discovered that the pretty little probationer [student nurse] who filled her hot-water bottle in the hospital had read Screwtape. She also discovered why.

“You see,” said the girl, “we were warned that at interviews, after the real, technical questions are over, matrons and people sometimes ask about your general interests. The best thing to say is that you’ve read something.

“So they gave us a list of about ten books that usually go down pretty well and said we ought to read at least one of them.”

“And you chose Screwtape?”

“Well, of course; it was the shortest.”

Later in the preface, Lewis contests the compliment often paid to him that the book must have been “the ripe fruit of many years’ study in moral and ascetic theology.” The compliment is undeserved, Lewis responds:

They forgot that there is an equally reliable, though less creditable, way of learning how temptation works. “My heart,”—I need no other’s—“showeth me the wickedness of the ungodly.”

Lewis’s genuine humility, in tandem with his witty, erudite style, fill his works with vitality no matter how often one reads them.

A Tale of Magnificence & Depravity Well Told

When I was on my “Irma Vacation” a couple of weeks ago, I stopped by a Barnes and Noble to browse the history books. Often, when I’m in a bookstore, I feel a little rushed. This time, with nothing but time on my hands, I did some genuine browsing.

I came across Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America. I had been tempted to buy it before; after all, it is advertised as a #1 National Bestseller and was a finalist for the National Book Award when it appeared in 2003. But I always had too much else I needed to read.

This time I took the plunge, knowing that I would have ample time to read over the next few days. It was a plunge well worth taking.

The White City in the title refers to the Columbian Exposition of 1893, when Chicago dazzled the world with a fair that was unequaled, even by the previous fair in Paris.

It was Chicago’s chance to prove to the nation that it was more than a backwater city known primarily for slaughtering animals. The goal was to show off its sophistication and energy in a positive light.

The book is a dual biography. Daniel Burnham was the architect charged with the responsibility for making this fair a reality in the short span of two years. The difficulties he faced and the tragedies he overcame along the way tell a tale of persistence and faith in a dream of excellence.

The Exposition was a marvel to behold at the time. People cashed in their life savings to be there. They were inspired by the magnificence of the buildings and the grounds, the latter the brainchild of Frederick Law Olmsted, who had also created New York City’s Central Park.

One can understand the awe that overcame the fair-goers at a time when architectural magnificence such as this was in its infancy in America.

The most popular structure of all was a brand new architectural marvel called the Ferris Wheel. This first one had cages that could hold crowds of people all at once. No one had ever seen anything like this before.

So why the title of this book? Why is the word “devil” so prominent?

While all this magnificence was taking place, right next to this Exposition, a man was silently murdering women and no one even noticed it was happening.

His name—well, actually the pseudonym he used—was H. H. Holmes, a clever deceiver who slyly constructed a building where he could carry out his depravity, complete with a soundproof room into which deadly gas could be released (shades of Hitler?) and his own furnace in the basement where bodies could be quietly disposed of.

He was America’s first serial killer.

This part of the tale is chilling, of course, and was one reason why I had always been reluctant to buy the book. I wondered if the author was just being a sensationalist, perhaps glorifying this man’s evil.

But that’s not the case.

Larson doesn’t glorify Holmes; neither does he go into gory details. What he does do is show how magnificence and depravity can exist side by side and how we can sometimes be completely unaware of what’s happening.

Holmes got his due. He was executed for his crimes, and Larson clearly shows the heroic nature of the detective, Frank Geyer, who relentlessly pursued the evidence that would convict Holmes.

The book is one of those page-turners: elegantly written, meticulously researched, and truly deserving of the accolades it has received. It’s what history writing ought to be—solidly fact-based, engaging, and respectful of Biblical morality and the consequences of sin.

You might want to get a copy for yourself.

Thank You, Walter Hooper

One of the most rewarding periods in my life as an academic was the sabbatical I received for 2014-2015. What made that sabbatical so rewarding was the almost-daily routine I had of researching letters C. S. Lewis wrote to Americans while simultaneously re-reading every Lewis book I could.

As most of you already know, the result of that sabbatical was my book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis: His Profound Impact. I wrote it because I believed God had shown me a niche in Lewis scholarship that hadn’t been fully investigated. Yet even with that faith, I was wondering how much confirmation of God’s leading I might receive from others after publication.

I’ve mentioned before that Walter Hooper, Lewis’s friend in the summer before his death and the eventual agent for Lewis’s literary estate, was very helpful to me in the research. Last month, I posted a blog highlighting his gracious visit to the Kilns to speak with my student group.

Recently, I received an e-mail from Walter that I would like to share.

Dear Alan, I’ve finished a close reading of America Discovers C.S.Lewis, and at the risk of being considered a mere flatterer, I think it Perfect.

For instance, you handle the chapter on Sheldon Vanauken better than I would have thought possible. I knew him over many years, and the man kept me wondering what  he believed, and how much of it was represented by A Severe Mercy. He changed his mind several times about almost everything, including his loss of interest in C.S.Lewis. At one point he was tremendously enthusiastic about the ordination of women in the Anglican Church, but when he became a Catholic all that changed.

But the important thing is that – by sticking to A Severe Mercy and his letters to and from Lewis, you represented the man as he almost certainly was. It would have ruined your book had you got in all Sheldon’s tergiversations. And I think you’ve told his story as in a better world he would have wanted it told. That was a very fine victory over half-truths and shoddy representation.

My guess is that you’ve dealt as fairly as you can with all the people you mention, and that partly because you are not interested in anything that diminished anyone. As a result I think you’ve achieved an almost perfect history of the story you set out to tell. I’ve always loved Chad’s Apostle to the Skeptics, and now you’ve produced a sequel, and I love it too. Congratulations! Your friend, Walter Hooper.

As I read that e-mail the first time, I was stunned by the praise (initial response), followed by a deep sense of gratitude and humility. I don’t need praise to know I’ve accomplished something God wanted me to do, but it is welcome nevertheless.

I will always treasure Walter’s response. More than that, though, I will treasure any and all testimonies that what I’ve written has helped people see the Lord’s work in Lewis’s life and how He used a man to illuminate Biblical truth.

Thank you, Walter. Thank you, Lord.

The Witness & the President

Would you like a story comparing two conservative icons? How about a narrative that reveals how both of those conservatives based their convictions on Christian faith yet had differing predictions about the future of freedom in America and Western civilization overall?

I have that story for you.

Yes, I’m talking about my book on Whittaker Chambers and Ronald Reagan, The Witness and the President.

Why am I highlighting it today?

I want to be sure you all know that it is now being published via Amazon and has a new Amazon page. You can see it here.

I spent a number of years researching and writing this book while maintaining a fulltime teaching position. Not only have I read anything and everything by and about Chambers, but I read every speech Reagan ever gave as president and went to the Reagan Library for more sources. I enjoyed every minute of that research.

I’m particularly humbled by the endorsements I’ve received: Paul Kengor, Reagan scholar; George Nash, the premier historian of the conservative movement; Richard Reinsch, Chambers scholar; Luke Nichter, editor of the Nixon tapes; and Patrick Swan, editor of a volume that deals with the public’s reaction to Chambers’s autobiography Witness.

This is a scholarly book, but it’s written for a lay audience. I trust you will find it an enjoyable read, while simultaneously learning things you never knew before. If you are on Facebook, you also might want to look at my special page for the book; give it a “like” if you think it’s worthwhile.

So that’s my “pitch” for today. I hope some of you will now decide to check it out, then let me know if I have offered you an accurate picture of what you would find.

Try it. I hope you will be pleased by what you read.

My Books

I thought this might be a good time (while I’m in the midst of grading) to just remind you that I’ve authored five books over the years. If you go to the link below, you can find out about them.

They all cover either history or government (or a combination of the two) and range from basic Biblical principles about government to a key moment in presidential history to biographies.

All are still available; only one is out of print, but Amazon has used copies.

I hope, if you haven’t yet perused any of them, that this will pique your interest. If you have read one or two, perhaps you might want to delve into the others.

Regardless, I am gratified that the Lord has allowed me to spend time reflecting on history and government and what we should learn from both.

If you click on the “My Books” title below, you will go to the site that introduces them briefly and gives you a link to their Amazon pages.

My Books

New Radio Interview: Lewis Book

Last week, I recorded an interview with a Christian radio station in Chicago. The subject was my book, “America Discovers C. S. Lewis: His Profound Impact.” I think it went very well. Here’s the program; lasts just over 40 minutes. Check it out for yourself.

Critiquing Critiques: A Lewis Insight (Part 3)

When C. S. Lewis was completing his degrees at Oxford in the 1920s, he was being bombarded at that time with all the new ideas floating around the intellectual world. One of these was Freudianism. As with most young people, at first he was somewhat taken in by such new thought, but he later dismissed it as a false theory of psychology. All one has to do is read his The Pilgrim’s Regress to get his wonderfully scathing diagnosis of its fallacies.

So when he saw literature critiques begin to follow Freudian concepts, he had to comment. In his essay “On Criticism,” he takes aim at such reviewers:

Another type of critic who speculates about the genesis of your book is the amateur psychologist. He has a Freudian theory of literature and claims to know all about your inhibitions. He knows what unacknowledged wishes you were gratifying.

Why did an author write the book in the way he/she did? Well, that author doesn’t really understand the unconscious wishes that made the book spring forth, the amateur psychologist boldly proclaims. And woe to anyone who tries to set the record straight:

By definition you are unconscious of the things he professes to discover. Therefore the more loudly you disclaim them, the more right he must be: though, oddly enough, if you admitted them, that would prove him right too.

And there is a further difficulty: one is not here so free from bias, for this procedure is almost entirely confined to hostile reviewers.

How can a reviewer know so much about an author’s “unconscious” wishes? Lewis analyzes the shaky ground on which such a reviewer takes his stand:

And it would not be unreasonable to point out that the evidence on which such amateur psychologists base their diagnosis would not be thought sufficient by a professional. They have not had their author on the sofa, nor heard his dreams, and had the whole case-history.

In other words, it’s pure speculation based on pretty much nothing solid.

What these reviewers don’t seem to take into consideration, Lewis notes, are the conscious reasons an author has for writing what he/she does. No, these reviewers say, everything must emanate from the unconscious. Lewis skewers this perspective:

They seem to fancy that a book trickles out of one like a sigh or a tear or automatic writing. It may well be that there is much in every book which comes from the unconscious. But when it is your own book you know the conscious motives as well.

You may be wrong in thinking that these often give the full explanation of this or that. But you can hardly believe accounts of the sea-bottom given by those who are blind to the most obvious objects on the surface. They could be right only by accident.

So beware of fanciful speculation about an author’s intent, Lewis advises. Give the author some credit for knowing his/her reason for writing.

I wonder what an amateur psychologist/reviewer would say about my blog posts? My books? It might be fascinating, but most likely inaccurate.