Archive for the ‘ Book Reviews ’ Category

Critiquing Critiques: A Lewis Insight (Part 1)

Finding something by C. S. Lewis that I’ve never read previously is always a joy (and I believe I’m talking about “joy” in the true Lewisian sense). One of his essays, “On Criticism,” has a series of pearls that I will share over the next few Saturdays.

Every author needs to receive constructive criticism. Lewis welcomed it to improve his writing, and since he wrote so much, he was subjected to a vast number of critiques. While he appreciated good critiques, he did have a few words to say about those that were not offering an honest appraisal.

Lewis freely admitted that while an author is not necessarily the best judge of his book’s value, “he is at least an expert on its content.” What amazed him was how often a reviewer simply neglected to carry out “a careful reading of what one criticises.”

He continues:

Unless you have been often reviewed you will hardly believe how few reviewers have really done their Prep. And not only hostile reviewers. For them one has some sympathy. To have to read an author who affects one like a bad smell or a toothache is hard work.

Who can wonder if a busy man skimps this disagreeable task in order to get on as soon as possible to the far more agreeable exercise of insult and denigration.

Lewis, of course, in his quest to be scrupulously fair to others, inserted this proviso:

Now of course it is true that a good critic may form a correct estimate of a book without reading every word of it. That perhaps is what Sidney Smith meant when he said “You should never read a book before you review it. It will only prejudice you.”

I am not, however, speaking of evaluations based on an imperfect reading, but of direct falsehoods about what it contains or does not contain.

Lewis then shared a personal anecdote about a certain volume of poetry in his library that previously had belonged to a scholar he admired.

At first I thought I had found a treasure. The first and second pages were richly, and most learnedly annotated in a neat, legible hand. There were fewer on the third; after that, for the rest of the first poem, there was nothing. Each work was in the same state: the first few pages annotated, the rest in mint condition.

Why had that scholar focused on those first few pages and then ignored the rest? Lewis called this the “first lesson” the reviewers taught him: “Let no one try to make a living by becoming a reviewer except as a last resource.” He declined to accuse all reviewers of “laziness or malice.” Rather, he contemplated,

It may be mere defeat by an intolerable burden. To live night and day with that hopeless mountain of new books (mostly uncongenial) piling up on your desk, to be compelled to say something where you have nothing to say, to be always behind-hand—indeed much is to be excused to one so enslaved.

I know Lewis was in that position often as well. In my research into Lewis’s letters to Americans I came across one letter in which he was responding to longtime correspondent Mary Van Deusen about a book she wanted him to read. It was particularly interesting to me because that book was Witness by Whittaker Chambers.

I consider Witness to be one of the best autobiographies of all time. I’ve written a book on Chambers and his influence on Ronald Reagan, primarily because of how Reagan was impacted by Witness.

So when I came across this letter, I eagerly anticipated what Lewis would say about it. Did he get Witness? Is it possible that these two authorial giants that meant so much to me might have crossed literary paths after all? I knew Chambers had mentioned Lewis in one of his famous essays, “The Devil,” so what would Lewis’s response be?

When Van Deusen suggested he get the book, Lewis merely answered, “I’m afraid I can’t find a W. Chambers book. It’s better not to send the book. They all get lost in the pile on my table.”

This could be one of the great lost opportunities of the twentieth century. One would have loved to know Lewis’s response to that book, which, although written as an autobiography, is a wordsmith’s delight. But it was not to be.

Lewis understood the reviewers’ lament, so even while he wrote about the deficiencies of some critiques, he could empathize with the plight of those reviewers.

Focusing on the Eternal

Last year’s political season was probably the most divisive in modern American history. The nature of the presidential race was such that I felt compelled to concentrate on it in this blog. However, I always sought to provide thoughts on other topics as well. After all, this blog is not about politics and government only; it’s about life overall.

I have a daily routine of online sites I check for current events and commentary, but I don’t limit my reading to those. That would be unbalanced. I am a voracious reader. It’s not just my profession as a history professor that mandates it; I thrive on reading.

My foundational reading for life is always going to be Scripture. I just completed reading the Bible through again. Whenever I do that, I use a different version to keep the message fresh.

My newest Bible-reading project will be long-term, as I’ve begun to delve into a study Bible that will keep me occupied for at least a couple of years. I’m not going to rush through it. I’ll take my time while I meditate not only on the verses themselves but the commentary within.

As a corollary to Scripture reading, I also have a daily e-mail from Christian History that not only offers a short devotional but also information about various people and movements in the history of the church.

A lot of my reading does have to do with the courses I teach, as I want to stay current with scholarship in my field. Yet that type of reading is not a duty; rather, it’s a joy.

For instance, I am teaching my C. S. Lewis course this spring. In my reading of a book about Lewis over Christmas break, I realized I hadn’t yet read some of his essays on literature. So I got a collection of those and found some I have now incorporated into the course.

Reading Lewis is one of my favorite things, as most of you probably know, since I published a book about him a few months ago. I find endless fascination in his thoughts and in the way he expresses them. He helps keep me balanced.

I’m reading other books now as well (I usually have three or four going at the same time). For my American Revolution course, which I will probably teach again in the fall, I’m previewing a book with an intriguing title: Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers. The author is a man I know personally, Daniel Dreisbach, who is an excellent scholar. Reading a book like that is a perfect combination of faith and history.

A course I’ve not yet taught, American history from 1877 to 1917, is another one I may teach in the fall, so I’m focusing right now on a key period in that history, trying to find just the right book to fill in the gap.

I’ve found a very readable book on the pivotal 1912 election that may be the one. It’s an interesting character study of the four candidates in that key campaign: Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Eugene Debs. I can say I’ve learned quite a bit; it has deepened my knowledge of the era, which is something I always seek to do with any historical period.

I also read fiction, mostly from evangelical authors who know how to tell a good story. Some of my staples in that area are Ted Dekker, Stephen Lawhead, and Joel Rosenberg, but I broaden my search all the time, wanting to find others who know how to combine fine storytelling with the faith.

I’m also working my way slowly through Paradise Lost, which is going to take a while, to be sure. Catching up on some of the classics that I’ve never read is another goal.

So, you can see I’m not just narrowly focused on politics. My life is so much more than just a matter of who won the last election. In fact, with an election like the one that has just occurred, I am truly grateful that life is bigger than that.

Memes created from one of my favorite movies, The Princess Bride, can sometimes capture how I feel:

I hope we can all keep our sense of humor in times like these. Faith in God and a sense of humor should go together to remind us that current events are just that—current, not eternal.

That reminds me of another of my favorite Scripture passages, found in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18:

Therefore we do not lost heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day.

For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen.

For the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.

May our focus always be on the eternal.

Remember That Lewis Book?

Just a reminder that my book is out there waiting for you. Walter Hooper concluded his endorsement with these words: “I can honestly say I understand Lewis so much better having read this book.”

cover-on-ws-page

Lewis on Visiting America

cover-on-ws-pageWhy write a book on C. S. Lewis’s connections with America when he never set foot on American soil? Well, connections are made in many ways, and this book stresses the impact Lewis made on individual Americans. During his lifetime, he received countless invitations to visit but he always had reasons for why he couldn’t do it.

Although Lewis declined all invitations to visit America due to his personal circumstances, that did not mean he wasn’t attracted to some of what the New World had to offer. Sprinkled throughout his letters to Americans, one finds comments that reveal the longing of his heart to make the journey.

He was developing a new appreciation for the literary tastes of the American public, confessing to longtime correspondent Warfield Firor that he would love to visit the country where his own favorite book at the time—Perelandra—had been more enthusiastically received than in his native land.

Lewis stated more than once that he was not drawn to the cities of America, but instead he hoped for the opportunity to experience what nature had to offer in the New World. In having to reject Firor’s offer of a stay in a cabin in the woods, Lewis lamented his lost opportunity, as he would have loved to have witnessed American wildlife and the mountainous landscape.

Lewis never shied away from acknowledging his preferences for places to see in America. He wrote to a Beverly Hills resident that he didn’t think he would like that kind of climate on a permanent basis. He needed to have snow, he confided to her.

To another who had sent pictures of California, he admitted it looked attractive, but that he would prefer New England. Why? He confessed to another correspondent that in temperament and habit, he was actually more like a Polar Bear.

c-s-lewis-13One letter, in particular, pretty much summarized what he would do if he ever did take the opportunity to travel through the United States, and how he would handle the entire trip: his focus would be on meeting the friends he had made through his American correspondence, seeing the natural wonders—the Rockies and Yellowstone Park—and just taking his time to enjoy the entire getaway. The only way he would ever consider arriving in America, he confessed, was by a slow boat so he could enjoy the maritime voyage.

It’s a shame that Lewis never made it to these shores, but that doesn’t diminish the influence he has wielded on the minds of so many Americans in the last seven decades. And that influence shows no signs of diminishing.

If you would like to read more about Lewis’s relationship with Americans, check out my book. The publisher’s page provides an overview of it and a link for purchasing it.

America Discovers C. S. Lewis

Front CoverI’m pleased to announce that my new book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis: His Profound Impact, is now published. It’s so new that it won’t be on Amazon for a few weeks yet, but it can be purchased directly from the publisher, Wipf & Stock, at this link: http://wipfandstock.com/america-discovers-c-s-lewis.html

I’m delighted to have a number of excellent endorsements for the book. Walter Hooper, Lewis’s friend and secretary near the end of his life, is the subject of one of the chapters and corresponded with me in the preparation of the manuscript. He wrote the following:

Lewis was not an authority on theology, nor a clergyman, and the British were prejudiced against his writings on theology. But Americans knew nothing of this, and liked his books because they explained profound theological truths in language almost everyone could understand. I can honestly say I understand Lewis so much better having read this book.

I’m particularly gratified by Hooper’s last sentence. This is a man who, as adviser to the Lewis estate and editor of Lewis’s collected letters, says this book helped him understand his mentor even better. Actually, that’s a little startling, but I’m humbled that he would say it.

The three other “official” endorsements come from established Lewis scholars representing three different academic fields: English literature, history, and philosophy.

Diana Glyer, author of books on the Inklings—The Company They Keep and Bandersnatch—graciously offered this:

This is an illuminating, thoughtful account of the many strands that connected Lewis to America during his lifetime and continue to do so today. Snyder’s writing is crisp, his research extensive, and his focus strong and clear.

Renowned evangelical historian Mark Noll, to whom I gave the manuscript even though we had had only one brief face-to-face meeting twenty years ago, has given this recommendation:

Snyder has made this a very good season for deeper understanding of the impact of C. S. Lewis. America Discovers C. S. Lewis joins George Marsden’s recently published “biography” of the Mere Christianity writer to explore and explain why Lewis has meant so much to so many American readers. Snyder’s use of Lewis’ correspondence with Americans is a special highlight in this helpful study.

Finally, professor of philosophy Scott Key, one of the inner circle at the C. S. Lewis Foundation and moderator of the Academic Roundtable at the Foundation’s conferences, states this with respect to the book:

Snyder provides his readers with a carefully crafted and historically engaging roadmap to the various ways in which the life and writings of C. S. Lewis influenced American Christianity. Snyder’s account of this dynamic, yet unlikely story of influence, is, itself, reflective of Lewis’s remarkable impact on American Christianity and serves as a significant contribution to the continuing assessment of and appreciation for the contribution of Lewis.

I researched and wrote this book during my academic sabbatical year in 2014-2015. Although I had read Lewis all my life and often thought of writing on him, I never had the time. The sabbatical remedied that and allowed this labor of love to come to fruition.

May this book be more than an academic exercise. May it inspire those who read it not only to appreciate Lewis more, but to give praise to the One who inspired his life and writings. That’s what Lewis would have wanted more than anything.

Modernity & the Church

Impossible PeopleI’m working my way through a new book by Os Guinness called Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization. It diagnoses the problem of the church as it becomes co-opted by modernity.

Guinness says, quite correctly, I believe, that it’s not the frontal attacks of secularism and atheism that do the real damage; rather, it is the seduction and distortion of the faith through modernity that leads us astray and destroys the Christian witness to civilization.

Guinness says that predictions of the disappearance of religion in our culture are off-target. In fact, religion is flourishing, but the nature of the Christian faith has been subtly altered, thereby making it less genuine.

One major change in perception that has changed the faith is the undermining of the whole concept of submission to authority. We have shifted “from a stance under authority to one of preference. . . . All responses are merely a matter of preference.” This is at odds with basic Christianity. “Unique among the gods believed in throughout history, the Lord is transcendent, so what he says is truth, binding truth, because it addresses us as authority. To dilute this authority is to dismiss the Lord himself,” Guinness notes.

The statement “Jesus is Lord” is the essence of Biblical truth. There is no other name through which anyone can be saved.

Our modern world, though, informs us that there is no ultimate authority; we have unlimited choice in life.

From breakfast cereals to restaurants and cuisines to sexual identities and temptations to possible sexual arrangements of all types to self-help techniques and philosophies of life, we are offered an infinite array of choices, and the focus is always on choice as choosing rather than choice as the content of what is chosen. Simply choose. Experiment. Try it out for yourself.

Os GuinnessGuinness goes on: “Our freedom is the freedom to choose, regardless of whether our choice is right or wrong, wise or stupid. . . . Choosing is all that matters. Truth, goodness, and authority are irrelevant.”

In the world at large, this leads to the rejection of any absolute standard. Guinness explains,

Does it matter . . . whether your sister-in-law is straight or lesbian, or your boss is a heterosexual womanizer, a homosexual, or was once a woman? There are different strokes for different folks. We are all different, so who are we to judge? . . . This is my choice. That is yours. We are all free to choose differently, and our choices only amount to different preferences, so who is to say who is right? . . . And what business do any of us have to judge other people’s preferences?

It’s understandable that the world outside the Christian faith would fall for this, but when it shows up in the church, that’s when the faith is compromised and loses its witness of truth to the world.

As Guinness laments, “Christian advocates of homosexual and lesbian revisionism believe in themselves and in the sexual revolution rather than the gospel. They therefore twist the Scriptures to make reality fit their desires rather than making their desires fit the truths of the Scriptures.”

In our seeker-friendly church world, we often exchange the truth for a lie. Guinness quotes from a Christian marketing consultant who said, apparently without any sense of irony, “It is . . . critical that we keep in mind a fundamental principle of Christian communication: the audience, not the message, is sovereign.”

TruthGuinness expresses his shock over such a statement: “The audience is sovereign? No! Let it be repeated a thousand times, no! When reaching out as the church of Jesus, the message of the gospel and Jesus the Lord of the message is alone sovereign—and never, never, never the audience, however needy, however attractive, however prestigious or well-heeled an audience may be.”

While we are to be sensitive to those seeking the truth, we must have truth to offer them. While we are to be all things to all people, the purpose for that admonition is to bring them to the Truth Himself.

Here is the challenge, as Guinness so clearly lays it out:

All Evangelicals should search their hearts. For a generation now the air has been thick with talk of “changing the world,” but who is changing whom?

There is no question that the world would like to change the church. In area after area only the church stands between the world and its success over issues such as sexuality. Unquestionably the world would like to change the church, but does the church still want to change the world, or is its only concern to change the church in the light of the world?

Something is rotten in the state of Evangelicalism, and all too often it is impossible to tell who is changing whom.

I would add that as I survey the current political state of America and the evangelical rush to support, and even promote, a candidate whose worldview and lifestyle is contrary to the Gospel, that I see this rot infecting evangelicalism to its very core.

Who is changing whom?

I applaud Os Guinness’s clarion call that we be the church once more.

Looking for Some Good Reads?

Planets in PerilI have some book reviews for you today.

I’ve been expanding my reading of books about C. S. Lewis. Some of my earliest reading of Lewis was his Space Trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. I’ve been aware of David Downing’s analysis of these novels, Planets in Peril: A Critical Study of C. S. Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy, for quite some time; I finally got around to reading it.

Every Lewis fan has a favorite in this series. Downing does a fine job of interlacing all three of the books, drawing from each of them in every chapter. He uses the thematic approach: Christian vision; elements of classicism and medievalism; portraits of evil; the concept of the spiritual pilgrimage.

While he obviously is deeply appreciative of what Lewis offers in these books, his analysis is exactly that: a critique that doesn’t lend itself to hero worship. He points to what he believes are the positives and negatives of the writing. Needless to say, the positives outweigh the negatives.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read the trilogy over the years. Downing’s book is one of those I will have to re-read as well.

Looking for the KingI also was intrigued by another of Downing’s books, Looking for the King: An Inklings Novel. How, I wondered, was he going to incorporate real people into the novel? He follows the quest by an American doctoral candidate to find whatever evidence he can of the truth behind the King Arthur legend.

The author accomplishes his goal. He keeps the narrative focused on the American scholar while bringing the Inklings in as valuable aids in his quest. I agree with Marjorie Lamp Mead of the Wade Center in her recommendation for the book:

David Downing’s homage to C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams succeeds masterfully. This is a beguiling and enjoyable read—laced throughout with romance, wry humor, and questions of eternal consequence.

Toward the GleamAmazon always attempts to point you to other books similar to the one you are buying. When I purchased Looking for the King, I was intrigued by one of the options, Toward the Gleam by T. M. Doran. I had never heard of this author or his works, but after reading the synopsis, I thought I would try it. I’m glad I did.

Doran does the same thing Downing does, including the Inklings in a novel that centers around a mysterious book that an Oxford professor finds and attempts to translate. It purportedly tells of an ancient civilization that no one knows existed. Is it fact or fiction? Why does having this book put the professor’s life in danger?

We are taken into the Bird and Baby pub for conversations with Lewis and Owen Barfield. Other characters that grace the pages are G. K. Chesterton and Winston Churchill. Doran’s method of introducing them is rather unique, though. He never gives the full name, only a first name. So you have to be someone “in the know” to recognize them.

The biggest twist, however, is the identity of the main character, which is never explicitly expressed, but as you read, you slowly come to the knowledge of who he is. I won’t give it away.

I was so delighted with this novel that I’m going to have to try another Doran book very soon.

One more.

At the recent Lewis conference I attended, I saw another book that I had recently put in my Amazon wish list, so I decided to get it, primarily as what I hoped would be a good read on the plane home. I was not disappointed.

CalledCalled: My Journey to C. S. Lewis’s House and Back Again by Ryan Pemberton is not the travelogue the title might indicate. Rather, it is a very personal story of struggle in finding God’s will in one’s life. It’s the true story of a young American man who studied at Oxford, hoping to find God’s specific calling on his life.

Along the way, Pemberton not only became president of the Oxford C. S. Lewis Society, but actually lived in the Kilns for a year while completing his degree. Although not a novel, it has all the qualities of one as you wonder where the next twist in his life will take him and whether he will ever know for sure to what God is calling him.

Pemberton is a fine writer; he allows you into his life and thinking during his Oxford days—all the doubts, fears, and satisfactions. By the end of the book, you, too, have experienced all those same doubts, fears, and, ultimately, satisfactions.

I recommend Called and now wonder what Pemberton will do if he chooses to write a second book. How will he make it the equal of his first? I wish him well.

So, those are my four recommendations this week. You can be sure when my book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis, comes out in a few weeks, I’ll have another one to recommend.