Archive for the ‘ Book Reviews ’ Category

Lewis, Tolkien, WWI, & Hope

Hobbit, Wardrobe, Great WarA Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War. What a great title. And what a great book. Joseph Loconte, professor of history at the King’s College in New York City, has crafted a masterpiece that weaves knowledge of the impact of WWI on a generation, and then offers an insightful analysis of how the war affected the thinking and writing of both C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien.

For me, as a professional historian, the book was a delight on two fronts.

First, WWI has not been a particular focus of my studies. Yes, I know the basics, but I’ve never delved into the kind of detail Loconte provides here. So this book has deepened my bond with the generation that endured that horror.

Second, even though I knew that Lewis and Tolkien had served in the Great War (as it was called at the time), and I am familiar with Lewis’s account in Surprised By Joy, Loconte’s description of what he experienced expands on the barebones treatment Lewis gives. As for Tolkien, this was my first encounter with what he suffered during the war.

Tolkien was a faithful Catholic at the time, and remained so for the rest of his life. Lewis was an atheist, sometimes bordering on agnosticism. They didn’t know each other while the war was going on, but when they met at Oxford for the first time in 1926, their shared experience, not only of literature, but of the war as well, created a deep friendship.

Lewis-TolkienLoconte shows how this Great War dashed the utopian hopes of Progress in the 1920s generation and replaced those hopes with cynicism. Then he concentrates on how Lewis and Tolkien bucked that trend in their writing. Once Lewis converted to the faith (helped along by key conversations with Tolkien), he became the most noted Christian apologist of his time.

Lewis’s works—from the Screwtape Letters to his science fiction novels to The Chronicles of Narnia—recognized evil for what it was, yet always offered the Christian remedy for that evil. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings painted a horrible portrait of evil, and the descriptions he offers of the terrible battles derived directly from his WWI experiences. Lewis drew on that same background for his works.

A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War is eminently readable. I breezed through it in less than three days. As the cliché goes, I couldn’t put it down. My next goal is to figure out how to use it in one of my courses because it is that good.

This is not a book for Lewis and Tolkien admirers only. It is for anyone who seeks to understand the false hopes humanity tends to cling to, the awfulness of human evil, and the way in which Christians can communicate the truths of the Good News to any “lost generation.”

The current generation is just as lost as the one Lewis and Tolkien addressed; the solution to that lostness has not changed. God’s truth is still the message that must be trumpeted to a world that has exchanged the truth for a lie.

Screwtape’s “Advice”

Over Christmas, I re-read C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce, both favorites of mine, although it has been quite some time since I sat down to read them through again. I marvel at how much one can always draw from them, no matter how often they are read.

Screwtape LettersOne of my favorite passages from Screwtape is found in Letter VII, where Screwtape instructs his junior devil, Wormwood, in the ways of deception, especially with respect to hiding the tempters’ existence. Here is his “advice”:

I wonder you should ask me whether it is essential to keep the patient in ignorance of your own existence. That question, at least for the present phase of the struggle, has been answered for us by the High Command. Our policy, for the moment, is to conceal ourselves.

Of course this has not always been so. We are really faced with a cruel dilemma. When the humans disbelieve in our existence we lose all the pleasing results of direct terrorism, and we make no magicians. On the other hand, when they believe in us, we cannot make them materialists and sceptics. At least, not yet.

I have great hopes that we shall learn in due time how to emotionalise and mythologise their science to such an extent that what is, in effect, a belief in us (though not under that name) will creep in while the human mind remains closed to belief in the Enemy.

The “Life Force,” the worship of sex, and some aspects of Psychoanalysis may here prove useful. If once we can produce our perfect work—the Materialist Magician, the man, not using, but veritably worshipping, what he vaguely calls “Forces” while denying the existence of “spirits”–then the end of the war will be in sight.

But in the meantime we must obey our orders. I do not think you will have much difficulty in keeping the patient in the dark. The fact that “devils” are predominantly comic figures in the modern imagination will help you. If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in the mind, suggest to him a picture of something in red tights, and persuade him that since he cannot believe in that (it is an old textbook method of confusing them) he therefore cannot believe in you.

This fits in nicely with what Lewis wrote in the preface to the book, where he said,

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.

Are you looking for some insight into how you need to avoid the traps set for you by satanic forces? Check out The Screwtape Letters; I don’t think you will be disappointed.

Lewis: Screwtape on Liberty

If one book can be said to have introduced C. S. Lewis to the world on a wide scale, it would be The Screwtape Letters. They are witty and full of insight, as a senior devil gives advice to a junior devil on how to tempt his human into disobedience to God—who was termed “the Enemy” in the book.

Lewis, though, says it was the hardest book he ever wrote, and I can understand why. He explained it this way:

Of all my books, there was only one I did not take pleasure in writing. . . . The Screwtape Letters. They were dry and gritty going. At the time, I was thinking of objections to the Christian life, and decided to put them into the form, “That’s what the devil would say.” But making goods “bad” and bads “good” gets to be fatiguing.

Screwtape Letters 2Although he vowed never to repeat that exercise, he did, later, write another little treatise that is now commonly included in newer editions of Screwtape. He imagined Screwtape giving a speech at the “Annual Dinner of the Tempters’ Training College for Young Devils” and called it “Screwtape Proposes a Toast.” In it, it’s obvious he still had the flair that produced the original. Take, for instance, Screwtape’s gloating on how mankind’s real enemy has subverted man’s desire for liberty:

Hidden in the heart of this striving for Liberty there was also a deep hatred of personal freedom. That invaluable man Rousseau first revealed it. In his perfect democracy, you remember, only the state religion is permitted, slavery is restored, and the individual is told that he has really willed (though he didn’t know it) whatever the Government tells him to do. From that starting point, via Hegel (another indispensable propagandist on our side) we easily contrived both the Nazi and the Communist state.

If you’ve never given The Screwtape Letters a try, why not now? Valuable insights await.

Lewis: Replacing Natural Law

Abolition of ManFor the third Saturday in a row, I want to share some poignant excerpts from C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, a small book with rather large insights. Taken from lectures he gave, and published in 1943, it remains astoundingly relevant today as we watch our civilization teeter on the edge of utter rebellion against God-given natural law.

Lewis takes aim at the change in education during his time, and its attempt to replace undeniable truths with man-made ones. As he comes to the end of his argument, he points specifically to those who believe they can control nature and mold and shape mankind into whatever they choose:

Man’s conquest of Nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men. There neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on Man’s side. Each new power won by man is a power over man as well.

The belief that men can cast aside God’s natural moral order and create one of their own is not new, but we can see it even more clearly in our day. Lewis says this is attempted via our education system, yet he also points to why the “planners” have trouble achieving their goals:

For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means . . . the power of some men to make other men what they please. In all ages, no doubt, nurture and instruction have, in some sense, attempted to exercise this power. But the situation to which we must look forward will be novel in two respects.

In the first place, the power will be enormously increased. Hitherto the plans of educationalists have achieved very little of what they attempted and indeed . . . we may well thank the beneficent obstinacy of real mothers, real nurses, and (above all) real children for preserving the human race in such sanity as it still possesses.

But the man-moulders of the new age will be armed with the powers of an omnicompetent state and an irresistible scientific technique: we shall get at last a race of conditioners who really can cut out all posterity in what shape they please.

Even though Lewis usually avoided direct political commentary, he was well aware of the detrimental effects of what he termed the “omnicompetent state.” Once the dreams of the “planners” become the dreams of the politicians, only evil can follow.

C. S. Lewis 5The problem is then compounded by what Lewis sees as the second difference from the past: no longer do these planners feel bound to natural law and the traditional ways of thinking that accompany it. Previous ages always handed on to the next generation what they had received, in the same manner as birds teach their young ones how to fly. No more, says Lewis:

This will be changed. Values are now mere natural phenomena. Judgements of value are to be produced in the pupil as part of the conditioning. Whatever Tao [natural law] there is will be the product, not the motive, of education.

The conditioners have been emancipated from all that. It is one more part of Nature which they have conquered. The ultimate springs of human actions are no longer, for them, something given. . . . It is the function of the Conditioners to control, not to obey them. They know how to produce conscience and decide what kind of conscience they will produce. They themselves are outside, above.

These “conditioners” are the new masters of humanity. They will decide what is right and what is wrong based on their own views, not God’s. Lewis concludes,

The Conditioners, then, are to choose what kind of artificial Tao they will, for their own good reasons, produce in the Human race.

If that sounds scary to you, you have the right reaction. I won’t take time to try to point out the myriad ways this has occurred in our society at present. You can, I’m sure, come up with examples yourself.

Next Saturday, I’ll complete these thoughts from The Abolition of Man.

Lewis: How to Destroy a Society

Abolition of ManLast Saturday, I gave an overview of the first chapter of C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man. Today, I would like to offer some of his clearheaded thinking in chapter two.

In it, he delves more deeply into the idea of natural law—that there are some things that are built into the universe, and into our very being, that can never be erased, no matter how hard some people try to do so. That natural law he calls the Tao, and it comes directly from the hand of God.

Lewis describes a book in his own time that exemplifies the desire to replace natural law with something new. He says the impulse behind this is to scrap traditional views of morality and insert “new” ones into society. A certain “set” of people are actively attempting to undermine all that we naturally know to be true, but he calls them out for their hypocrisy:

Their scepticism about values is on the surface: it is for use on other people’s values; about the values current in their own set they are not nearly sceptical enough. And this phenomenon is very usual. A great many of those who “debunk” traditional or (as they would say) “sentimental” values have in the background values of their own which they believe to be immune from the debunking process.

In other words, they have a predetermined idea that their values are better, they need to be the new values of society, and they have no desire to really examine them—to expose them to the same debunking they have applied to traditional values.

They think they are being original and that they are establishing a whole new order of things. Lewis says they are grossly mistaken:

C. S. Lewis 4The rebellion of new ideologies against the Tao is a rebellion of the branches against the tree: if the rebels could succeed they would find that they had destroyed themselves. The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of imagining a new primary colour, or, indeed, of creating a new sun and a new sky for it to move in.

Ouch. They aren’t as original as they claim to be. In fact, they are setting the stage for their own destruction by throwing out natural law.

I love Lewis’s direct response to those who proclaim they are the ones with “open” minds, and everyone else devoted to “old” ideas of morality are backward:

An open mind, in questions that are not ultimate, is useful. But an open mind about the ultimate foundations either of Theoretical or of Practical Reason is idiocy. If a man’s mind is open on these things, let his mouth at least be shut. He can say nothing to the purpose.

If you persist in that kind of trial you will destroy all values, and so destroy the bases of your own criticism as well as the thing criticized. You must not hold a pistol to the head of the Tao.

Any attempt to throw out the natural law God has instituted will result in the destruction of all things. That’s the bottom line. In our society today, the trend is toward tossing out all traditional morality; we are seeing the effects—the beginnings of total destruction of the society.

Lewis may have written this in the 1940s, but his comments couldn’t be more relevant today.

Lewis: The Education of Man

Abolition of ManThis past week, I reread C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man. Although I have been reminded of quotes from it throughout my life, probably the last time I had read it all the way through was forty years ago. So, I decided, it was time again.

It’s a small book, but packed to the brim with insights on education and worldview. It didn’t start out in book form, but as special talks he gave at a university during WWII; later, it was turned into a book, and we all should be grateful it was.

The first chapter is a witty critique of modern education. What struck me was how the critique continues to hit home after sixty years. One of the most poignant quotes is this:

For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.

I admit I wasn’t sure at first if I agreed with the jungle-desert analogy. Don’t our students have a lot of false ideas that need to be hacked away? Yet those false ideas truly are a desert of the mind and soul. Our students know so little, and what they think they do know is often just propaganda masquerading as education. I think he’s right.

Lewis then aims at the removal of “just sentiments,” or what he would call the things that are really true, pointing out that they are being replaced. We must reject the desert of total subjectivism and come to grips with reality:

It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of things the universe is and the kind of things we are.

In other words, we don’t make this up as we go; there are some bedrock concepts that are demonstrably true, and that have been taught through the ages. Modern education fails when it throws out objective reality. There is truth and there is falsehood, and the distinction between the two should be the basis of education.

I love his summary of what the new educational model is attempting to create:

The difference between the old and the new education will be an important one. Where the old initiated, the new merely “conditions.” The old dealt with its pupils as grown birds deal with young birds when they teach them to fly; the new deals with them more as the poultry-keeper deals with young birds—making them thus or thus for purposes of which the birds know nothing. In a word, the old was a kind of propagation—men transmitting manhood to men; the new is merely propaganda.

Think of all the trendy things in modern education. Our students come to college well versed in environmentalism, radical feminism, and income inequality. They know little or nothing about real history or the proper functioning of government. I know this from experience.

We train students in this way and then wonder why our society is what it is. Lewis sums it up this way:

And all the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more “drive,” or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or “creativity.”

In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the gelding be fruitful.

And that’s only chapter 1. More next Saturday. But for now, this reminder:

Abolition of Man Quote #3


Lewis: Surprised by Joy [Davidman]

Out of My BoneI’ve been reading the letters of Joy Davidman, who, before her untimely death from cancer at the age of 45, was, for the last few years of her life, the wife of C. S. Lewis.

If you’ve ever seen the movie Shadowlands, you’ve seen an attempt by Hollywood to portray the relationship between the two, but it falls far short of reality. There are historical inaccuracies—even for the sake of artistic license, one must not stray too far—and C. S. Lewis himself is hardly recognizable; false perceptions abound, particularly of his presumed Oxford ivory-tower existence and his shaken faith at the end when Joy dies. Joy’s strength of character comes through in the film, but very little of her own vibrant Christianity.

Born into a Jewish household in New York City, with an atheist father and mother, Joy followed in their train, declaring at a young age that she was an atheist also. Her materialism led her into the Communist party, where she served as an editor and book and film critic on the New Masses, the party’s weekly magazine. She was an accomplished writer who had won a prize for a collection of her poems, and had some success also as a novelist. But it was all in service to the Communist party.

She became critical of the party over time. Her mind couldn’t rest in the platitudes, so she finally read Marx and Lenin seriously. She was appalled by the illogical nature of their arguments and the massive misinformation upon which they based them. Even prior to her disillusionment, she had begun reading outside the approved party list of books; C. S. Lewis was one of the authors she chanced upon.

In a letter to Chad Walsh, an English professor who had written the first book about C. S. Lewis, she explained how he impacted her:

We more than share your feeling for Lewis; with us it was not the last step but the first that came from reading his books, for we were raised atheists and took the truth of atheism for granted, and like most Marxists were so busy acting that we never stopped to think. If I hadn’t picked up The Great Divorce one day—brr, I suppose I’d still be running madly around with leaflets, showing as much intelligent purpose as a headless chicken.

Joy Davidman 1Joy began writing letters to Lewis, and he liked them, drawn to her intellect and wit. In another letter to Walsh, she details how they had been arguing certain points in those letters, and how he had answered her. It’s an insight into her mental capacity and willingness to be corrected:

Just got a letter from Lewis in the mail. I think I told you I’d raised an argument or two on some points? Lord, he knocked my props out from under me unerringly; one shot to a pigeon. I haven’t a scrap of my case left. And, what’s more, I’ve seldom enjoyed anything more. Being disposed of so neatly by a master of debate, all fair and square—it seems to be one of the great pleasures of life, though I’d never have suspected it in my arrogant youth. I suppose it’s unfair tricks of argument that leave wounds. But after the sort of thing that Lewis does, what I feel is a craftsman’s joy at the sight of a superior performance.

Her own faith grew exponentially through her contact with Lewis, and she saw increasingly that one had to accept Jesus Christ on His terms, not create Him in one’s own image. As she related to another correspondent,

In many of them [the correspondent’s poems] you are explaining and sympathizing with Jesus, rather than accepting him—you are, indeed, not following Jesus but trying to get him to follow you; using him as an agency of your own special revolutionary theory.

I did this myself in the early days of my conversion; explained away what I didn’t like in the Gospel, valued Jesus not as the gateway to my own salvation, but as a means which I could use to support my own ideas—until it dawned on me that unless Jesus was God he was nothing, just another man with a handful of random ideas, and that all I valued such a man for was the accidental support his ideas gave my own position.

You see, I was still being my own God!

Although I’ve known and read about Joy Davidman Lewis for many years, this is the first time I’ve delved into her thought. Before, she was primarily just C. S. Lewis’s wife for a few short years, and that was why she was interesting to me. Now, I have a different perspective. She is interesting in her own right, and she has much to offer us through her writings. There is a reason why a confirmed bachelor like C. S. Lewis would abandon that lifestyle in his later years; he found a mind and heart that resonated with his.