Archive for the ‘ Book Reviews ’ Category

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.

The Witness of William P. Clark

Historic moments and turning points aren’t solely the result of those who are well known. Readers of this blog are well aware of my deep appreciation for Ronald Reagan and his reversal of America’s suicide attempt of the 1960s-1970s. Yet Reagan didn’t do this by himself. There were others devoted to the same causes who worked side-by-side with him. One of the most unheralded was William P. Clark, who, after Reagan appointed him to the California Supreme Court, ever after was known as The Judge.

The JudgeThat’s the title of the book that admirably details the life and influence of Clark. Authors Paul Kengor and Patricia Clark Doerner trace the history of the Clark family from the first Clark settler of California to the man who would humbly wield influence behind the scenes at the White House. From the time Reagan was elected governor of California in 1966, Clark served practically as his alter ego. Associates would comment how the two men thought as one and perfectly complemented each other.

When Reagan took over the presidency in 1981, Clark came with him to Washington. He served first in the State Department because Reagan wanted “his man” there to keep things on track. In that post, Clark was able to navigate successfully the rapids often created by Secretary of State Al Haig.

After that tenure, Reagan brought Clark into the White House itself to be head of the National Security Council, arguably his greatest service to the president as he helped map the strategy to bring down the Soviet Union. The authors assert that, along with Reagan and Pope John Paul II, Clark has to be given a lion’s share of the credit for the success of that endeavor.

Once that strategy was well established, Reagan chose Clark to handle another tricky situation. He took over the reins of the Department of the Interior and brought calm and professionalism to an agency that had suffered turmoil in the first few years of the Reagan presidency.

In all these positions, Clark won not only the admiration of those who worked under him, but an enduring love and affection. He was the consummate professional who carried out his duties with love for God and others—and it showed. Clark’s Christian witness and his devotion to being whatever God wanted him to be guided his life.

The authors, in the final chapter, provide the ultimate praise for Clark when they write,

William ClarkWhat would Bill Clark have become if he had never met Ronald Reagan? Clark says he probably would have proceeded happily as a “cow town lawyer” and a rancher, of course, “like the other Clarks.” Providence—the Divine Plan—had something else in store, however, and William Patrick Clark became, quite unintentionally, the most famous Clark of them all, and yet not as famous as he could have been, had he dedicated himself to his own self-promotion.

“You talk about a dark horse in history,” says former NSC aide Roger Robinson, “there may have never been a greater dark horse than Bill Clark. . . . He was the keyplayer, nearly the whole show regarding the Soviet takedown. [Clark] and his President were all about setting some three hundred million people free. And isn’t it poetic, isn’t it fitting, that this quiet rancher, this unassuming guy, gave everyone else the credit? He wanted no credit for himself. And then he just walked away.”

William P. Clark, unsung hero, left this life on August 10, 2013, to spend eternity with the Lord he loved. The Judge is a wonderful witness to a life well lived, with no regrets. It has my highest recommendation.

The Preacher & the Presidents

Preacher & PresidentsIn preparation for my upcoming year of sabbatical when I will be doing some research at presidential libraries, I’ve been reading as much as I can about those who were spiritual advisors to presidents. The obvious first choice for study is Billy Graham. Recently, I finished a book that provided some really excellent and even profound insights into Graham’s relationships with presidents from Truman to George W. Bush. Elegantly written by journalists Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House is a treasure chest of information about how Graham saw his role as pastor to presidents and how presidents utilized him in their administrations.

I learned more about Graham than I expected. Personally, I’ve followed Graham’s evangelistic career since the mid-1960s. I remember vividly the telecasts of some of his crusades while I was still in high school, as well as reading his early autobiography. He played a significant part in my budding faith at that time.

Later, I branched out into other avenues for growing in my spiritual walk, but he was always there in the background. In the 1980s, when Graham went to China for the first time, a couple I knew at the church I was attending was connected with that endeavor. They turned to me to write a paper on the value of a market economy and freedom. That paper then went with Graham to China as part of his mission to the Chinese leaders. I felt quite honored to take part in that, even in a small way.

Graham-ReaganReading the book, I came away with a deeper appreciation for just how influential Graham has been in American society throughout his long ministry. His connections with presidents were often instrumental in forwarding the Gospel, particularly in many communist nations. That occurred primarily during Reagan’s tenure. Reagan was a great supporter of Graham’s ministry; he had known him personally since the early 1950s. One comment in the book intrigued me: Graham described Reagan “as the president he was closest to—and the one he would have liked to have known better. Nancy Reagan said her husband’s relationship with Graham deepened when he became president. ‘Their relationship was beyond political,’ she said in 2006. ‘Billy would keep in touch with Ronnie on all levels.'”

There were pitfalls along the way for Graham as he learned how to handle his fame and influence with presidents. His closeness to Richard Nixon also tied him to Watergate, even though he was in no way involved in that scandal. It taught him to be more cautious in future dealings, yet he never shied away from offering pastoral counseling and comfort to any president—and any other person—who sought him out.

Over this next year, I’ll not only visit presidential libraries, but I’ll travel to Wheaton College to examine Billy Graham’s papers. I also hope to make a trek, along with a colleague on this project, to North Carolina to interview Graham family members and associates. While it would be wonderful to get to see Billy Graham and talk with him, that probably won’t happen. His age and infirmities make that unlikely.

Graham’s ministry has ended now, for all practical purposes. He knows he doesn’t have much more time on this earth, but that doesn’t bother him. He has the assurance of an eternity with the One he has served faithfully all these years. It will be a pleasant experience to spend time this year getting to “know” him better.

Lewis: Hell’s Operating Principles

Screwtape LettersFor many, their first encounter with C. S. Lewis’s marvelous works is The Screwtape Letters. This witty little book, which consists of letters from a superior devil, Screwtape, to a junior devil, Wormwood, continues to be a bestseller. Why? I think it’s because it captures so well the essence of the sinful heart as it displays not only Screwtape’s advice on how to lead a person into hell, but also the manner in which the inhabitants of hell treat one another—the fact that it is a place where all the deviousness and self-centeredness of sin is in full play.

Lewis explains in his introduction the nature of the hellish operation:

[Hell is] an official society held together entirely by fear and greed. On the surface, manners are normally suave. Rudeness to one’s superiors would obviously be suicidal; rudeness to one’s equals might put them on their guard before you were ready to spring your mine. For of course “Dog eat dog” is the principle of the whole organisation.

Everyone wishes everyone else’s discrediting, demotion, and ruin; everyone is an expert in the confidential report, the pretended alliance, the stab in the back. Over all this their good manners, their expressions of grave respect, their “tributes” to one another’s invaluable services form a thin crust. Every now and then it gets punctured, and the scalding lava of their hatred spurts out.

In other words, hell is merely the logical extension of the evil one sees in men every day, except infinitely worse.

If you haven’t yet read The Screwtape Letters, you should. And if you happen to see yourself in any of Lewis’s depictions, you can thank God you’re still on this side of eternity, and that there’s still time walk away from the deceptions of sin and enter into His righteousness.

Coolidge: Humor, Humility, & Faith

CoolidgeA few weeks ago, I gave an endorsement to Amity Shlaes’s biography of Calvin Coolidge, even though I had only read half the book at that time. I’ve now completed it, and my endorsement not only holds but is greater than before. She presents Coolidge from all angles, inspecting both strengths and weaknesses, triumphs and disappointments.

Along the way, she gives many insights into the character of the man himself. He took office as president upon the death of Warren Harding. While waiting to make the White House his home, he was staying at the Willard Hotel in Washington. One incident during that interregnum showcases not only Coolidge’s character, but also how different security was for a president in the 1920s. Shlaes recounts,

Calvin CoolidgeOne early morning in the Willard bedroom, a sound woke Coolidge. A strange young man had broken in and was going through his clothing. In the morning light, Coolidge could see that the burglar had taken a wallet, a chain, and a charm. “I wish you wouldn’t take that,” Coolidge said. “I don’t mean the watch and chain, only the charm. Read what is engraved on the back of it.” The burglar read the back: “Presented to Calvin Coolidge . . . by the Massachusetts General Court.”—and stopped in dead shock. He was robbing the president. It emerged that the burglar was a hotel guest who had found himself short of cash to return home. Coolidge gave the burglar $32, what he called a “loan,” and helped him to navigate around the Secret Service as he departed.

I love that story, hard as it is to believe it could actually have happened. Certainly nowadays it couldn’t. But it reveals a soft side to Coolidge and a willingness to reach out to someone in need, even someone who was in the process of robbing him.

Tragedy hit the Coolidge family about a year after he ascended to the presidency. His son, Calvin Jr., died suddenly from a blister he had gotten from playing tennis. It was a bewildering episode, since no one suspected a blister could lead to death. The Coolidges were devastated. Yet God uses the trials in our lives to get our attention. As Shlaes relates,

Protecting the space that faith enjoyed in American culture, the realm of the spiritual, seemed to him [Coolidge] especially important. In those early days after Calvin’s death he had refused many appointments, but had agreed to talk to a group of Boy Scouts in a telephone hookup. “It is hard to see how a great man can be an atheist,” Coolidge had told the boys. “We need to feel that behind us is intelligence and love.” Now he was preparing a speech for the dedication of a statue of a Methodist bishop, Francis Asbury. In that speech he wanted to make clear his conviction that government’s power, since the days of Jonathan Edwards, had derived from religion, and not the other way around.

Those are just two snippets from the book. It abounds with others. I highly recommend it.

Shlaes’s Coolidge

Amity ShlaesAmity Shlaes is a very good writer. She’s also a top-notch researcher. Her niche is showing how the 1920s and 1930s are not what many people think they were. Tackling academic political correctness is not for the fainthearted, so she apparently has a rather stout heart. I first became acquainted with her writing in the book The Forgotten Man, which lanced effectively the liberal-progressive theme that FDR was the nation’s savior during the Great Depression. Now she has struck again.

CoolidgeHer newest work is simply entitled Coolidge. In it, she resurrects the reputation of the president that most liberals enjoy ridiculing. I’m only about halfway through the book, but already I deeply appreciate her ability to explain people by placing them into the context of their times, rather than imposing a later worldview onto them for the sake of merciless critique.

What I find especially interesting in her portrait of Coolidge is her depiction of his journey from a progressive Republican to what he is better know for today—the staunch conservative that Ronald Reagan used as a model when he took the presidency. Her research indicates that it took some years for Coolidge to fully develop his beliefs, and that they were only coming to fruition around the time he became governor of Massachusetts and then vice president under Warren Harding after the 1920 election.

One of the highlights of the book thus far is her description of how Coolidge handled the Boston police officers’ strike in 1919. By standing firmly for law and order and rejecting the idea that police could strike, thereby harming the public safety, he won the admiration of an entire nation. It was that key event that lifted him into the national political arena.

I normally don’t review books without reading them all the way through first, but thought I’d give a heads-up on this one because I already know it’s worthy of your time.  Perhaps when I finish it, I’ll provide an update on what I gleaned from the last half. In the meantime, I just plan to enjoy the rest.