Archive for the ‘ The Historical Muse ’ Category

The Lewis Book: Finished

I’ve now finished writing my manuscript on C. S. Lewis’s impact on Americans. It has been a labor of love. My agent is working diligently to find the right publisher. I thought today I’d show you how I wrap up the book. Here is my conclusion:

C. S. Lewis 3Lewis has developed a true fan following in America. This book has shown his many interactions with Americans of his day. He became good friends with many of them, whether in person or via mail. His correspondence is overflowing with responses to Americans on the full panoply of issues, and he was quite willing to share the progress of his personal life and faith with them as well. He married an American. He wanted to hire an American as his personal secretary. Thousands of Americans he never communicated with or met, both during his lifetime and after, have testified to their lives being changed by his words.

Societies bearing his name have cropped up all over the United States. One institute has developed a discipleship program inspired by him. An American foundation named after him bought his home in Oxford and uses it as a study center. That same foundation is now working to establish a college named after him. While it is impossible to quantify his impact on America and Americans, the documentary evidence is plentiful that American Christians look to him in a way that is unique among all the Christian writers and teachers, both past and present, available to them as mentors.

In one of Lewis’s essays, “Is Theology Poetry?” we see a shining example of all the features of his writing that appeal, not only to Americans, but to all who thrill at hearing words of truth communicated elegantly. In this essay, he says,

“The Pagan stories are all about somebody dying and rising, either every year, or else nobody knows where and nobody knows when. The Christian story is about a historical personage, whose execution can be dated pretty accurately, under a named Roman magistrate, and with whom the society that He founded is in a continuous relation down to the present day. It is not the difference between falsehood and truth. It is the difference between a real event on the one hand and dim dreams or premonitions of that same event on the other.”

That essay then concludes with the words that can be found on Lewis’s commemorative stone in Westminster Abbey’s Poets Corner: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

Through C. S. Lewis, a multitude of Americans have learned to believe in Christianity because they have seen it come to life in his writings, and by those writings he has shown them how to see everything through the lens of the Christian faith. That is his legacy. That is what a man who never saw America has given to Americans—an illumined Christianity that lights up all of life.

I’m praying for a publisher. I would appreciate it if you did the same. Thanks be to God.

Precedent Based on Eternal Law

Last week I wrote about the Magna Carta as part of the background of English law that the American colonists depended upon. When they took issue with the Mother Country about their rights, they had that document as a basis for their concerns.

English Common LawThere are other aspects of English law that also were part of colonial America. One of these was the English Common Law. When a case came before a judge, and there might not be a precise statute that provided a solution for a case, the English Common Law prevailed. What was it?

First, it was based on the “common” or traditional unwritten beliefs about right and wrong. This means society had a code of conduct that was accepted as a consensus. The judge would then decide a case after taking into account precedent (what has been decided previously in such cases) and those traditional beliefs emanating from the Common Law.

Here’s the key: those traditional beliefs were based on Biblical concepts.

Just like the Magna Carta, the Bible was the cornerstone of this Common Law. Nothing was supposed to be decided in opposition to the Biblical basis for a person’s rights.

Notice that “precedent” was also a part of the decisionmaking. That can sound scary in our modern practice. One of my complaints, along with other constitutionalists, is that our courts today simply look at the latest decisions made in similar courts and base their judgments on what others have done, regardless of the Constitution’s clear limitations on federal government authority or the Biblical basis for law. So what’s the difference?

It’s simply this: the English Common Law was not precedent divorced from eternal law, but precedent based on eternal law.

In other words, our Founders lived in a world in which Biblical right and wrong were always the bottom line for how judgments were to be made. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth nowadays.

When Jamestown was founded, the Common Law was part of the heritage that came with this new settlement. If you go to Jamestown today, in the church that still exists on that original site, there is a plaque on the wall celebrating the Common Law as “the cornerstone of individual liberties”:

Jamestown--Common Law Plaque

Whenever anyone tries to talk about how we have “progressed” as a society, I like to remind them that divorcing ourselves from a Biblical foundation is the opposite of real progress.

Magna Carta: The Biblical Basis

Last week I wrote about the principles at stake in the American War for Self-Government (a.k.a., the American Revolution). What we need to realize is that the American colonists didn’t formulate these principles in a vacuum. There is a long history of British documents related to limited government and the rights of citizens. First on that list is the Magna Carta.

Magna Carta-King JohnWritten in the 13th century (1215, to be precise), the Magna Carta was a response to King John, who had decided that tradition didn’t bind him, and he could rule arbitrarily, even to the point of forcing taxes without any representation from the nobility in the land. They rose up to guard their ancient rights and forced the king to sign this particular document. It didn’t grant anything new; it was merely a statement of what already was.

What we have with the Magna Carta is the first written document identifying the rights of individuals. These rights had been handed down from one generation to the next orally; the Magna Carta signified a transition from orally transmitted rights to those written down for posterity.

Some of the key rights identified in this document were:

  • No tax can be imposed except by common council of the kingdom
  • Fines are to be according to the degree of the offense
  • Personal property cannot be taken without the consent of the owner
  • Witnesses are needed for indictments against individuals
  • No death sentence, imprisonment, dispossession, or banishment without due process of law

Why were these the traditional concepts upon which England operated? Where did they get these ideas?

Back in 1965, a scholar named Helen Silving wrote an article in the Harvard Journal on Legislation that brought to light the basis for the Magna Carta. Here is what she wrote:

An old document such as the Magna Carta is not only that which it “was” at the time of its conception, but also that which it becomes in the course of history. In this sense, undoubtedly, the Magna Carta stands for the idea . . . of subjection of the King not to man but to God and the law, an idea rooted in the Bible which has dominated Anglo-American thought. At this time it may be sufficient to point out the strong possibility that historically controversial old documents of the Western world, as well as some quite modern constitutional ideas, have their origin in the Bible.

The roots of this foundational document are found in the Bible. Yet even in 1965, this was a controversial statement to make, as she notes:

It is remarkable, indeed, and has an interesting bearing on the nature of our reactions to the Bible, that this has passed unnoticed, while efforts have been made to connect our constitutional documents with Greek and Roman ideas.

Whatever influence Greece and Rome had on the development of Western civilization, there was another influence far greater—the Biblical foundation laid for centuries after Greece and Rome had disappeared as empires. It was this foundation, primarily, that guided the thinking of the American colonists as they fought the battle of ideas that led ultimately to a break with the Mother Country.

I’ll provide more of this legal background in my next post in this continuing series that offers a Biblical perspective on American history.

Was the American Revolution Revolutionary?

In my ongoing analysis of American history (which has been interrupted by all the crucial current events that needed commentary), I am up to the point of the American Revolution. I have to use that term so people will know what I’m talking about, but I let my students know I don’t fully agree that it was all that revolutionary. What do I mean?

Declaration of Independence Read in BostonRevolutions, by nature, try to upend the existing establishment. However, in the case of the American Revolution, what we see is colonists who desperately want to maintain the status quo, but who are constantly barraged with bad policies that tend to undermine the stability they had achieved.

After the French and Indian War, and the threat of France removed from the New World, the American colonists were quite happy to be part of the greatest empire on earth. They were pleased with their ability to make their own laws and conduct most of their affairs independently of the Mother Country.

That would soon change, and the altered relationship between Mother Country and colonies began with a changed attitude on the part of Britain’s government.

Colonists saw that some basic principles were being threatened. They were:

  • Self-government: They had their own colonial legislatures that had, in some instances, been passing laws for more than a century. As the Constitutional Debate period (1761-1776) progressed, more and more intrusions were made upon this privilege/right. Eventually, Massachusetts saw its government shut down and a military government established. Virginia’s colonial governor dismissed the legislature and refused to allow it to meet again.
  • Property: Most people recall the “no taxation without representation” cry of this era. For the first time, direct taxes were being levied on the colonies by Parliament. The colonies had absolutely no representation in that Parliament. This meant that, conceivably, Parliament had absolute control of their financial lives, and when a government has that kind of control over the economic realm, it actually controls all of one’s life.
  • Liberty of Conscience: This one is rarely mentioned, but John Adams considered it the key. The Anglican establishment actively considered sending over a bishop to make the colonies conform to the Anglican church. That was anathema to all those who had migrated to the colonies for religious liberty. A contemporary political cartoon shows what it would have been like if the landing of a bishop had been attempted:

Anglican Bishop

The rationale for the changed policies was that the colonies had to pay their fair share for the recently concluded war. It wasn’t that they disagreed with that premise, but they certainly disagreed with the manner in which it was carried out.

If we’re looking for the true revolutionaries, we need to look 3,000 miles to the east, across the Atlantic, back in Britain. All the colonists sought was continuation of what they already had.

Therefore, I don’t prefer to call this the American Revolution. I think a better name would be The American War for Continued Self-Government.

Not as catchy, I know, but it is more accurate.

Lewis on the Welfare State

One of C. S. Lewis’s longtime American correspondents was Vera Gebbert, who had written plays with some success in the 1940s. Their exchange of letters had a personal side throughout the years, as Lewis gave advice on her writing career, a painful divorce, and the raising of a son as a single mother.

C. S. Lewis 4They also commented on the political/governmental issues of the day. Here’s an excerpt from a chapter in my upcoming Lewis book:

In one of his first letters to Gebbert, in 1947, he referred to the Labour government as “Mr. Atlee’s Iron Curtain.”

He also contrasted the blessings she had in America with the current state of England, saying, “Try living in ‘free’ England for a bit, and you would realize what government interference can mean! And not only interference, but interference in a ‘school marm’ form which is maddening.”

He had an example: “For instance, one of our rulers the other day defended rationing, not on the only possible grounds, i.e. the economic, but on the ground that in the old days housewives bought the food which they knew their husbands and families liked: whereas now, thanks to rationing, they are forced to provide their households with ‘a properly balanced diet.’”

Then he added this quip: “There are times when one feels that a minister or two dangling from a lamp post in Whitehall would be an attraction that would draw a hard worked man up to London!”

As you can see, Lewis was not comfortable with the welfare state that England had become in his day. His final line was an exaggeration, of course, but probably accurately conveyed how many Englishmen at the time really felt.

Vera GebbertWhile I was doing research into Lewis’s letters and extracting comments from his letters to Gebbert, I didn’t realize that she was still alive.

Only a few weeks ago, I came across her obituary. Vera Gebbert died in December 2014 at age 98. I don’t know if she would have been able to conduct an interview in her final days, but I now wish I had had the opportunity to connect with her at least one time. I’m sure she could have shared some very fascinating information about her exchanges with Lewis.

Tocqueville’s Prophetic Word

Alexis de TocquevilleAlexis de Tocqueville was a Frenchman who visited America in 1831. He traveled extensively, made many notes of what he experienced, and wrote them down in a massive tome called Democracy in America. It is a classic, and is still being used today in university political science courses. It points out both the strengths and potential weaknesses he saw in this new nation. If you saw Dinesh D’Souza’s movie America, you saw also his depiction of Tocqueville in the film.

It is obvious Tocqueville liked much of what he witnessed in this country, but he also wrote of the dangers that could arise from too much emphasis on equality, when taken to the extreme. He predicted that it could eventually turn America into a totalitarian state if handled wrongly.

There are countless spurious quotes by Tocqueville floating around the Internet, but I can vouch for this one. It’s found in a chapter called “What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear.” The first paragraph, if read carefully, is startling in its predictive nature:

Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications, and to watch over their fate.

That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent, if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the troubles of living?

What Tocqueville warns against is an all-powerful state that becomes all powerful by promising to take care of every need. It will provide anything and everything a people wants. The last line is particularly sobering.

He continues,

Thus, it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range, and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The principle of equality has prepared men for these things; it has predisposed men to endure them, and oftentimes to look on them as benefits.

In other words, we don’t need to choose; the government will do that for us. Don’t bother yourself with making key decisions in life; that’s too hard for you—the government knows best, so trust us.

Tocqueville concludes with this chilling thought:

After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp, and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd.

The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting: such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

We are seeing this prophetic word come to pass in our time. Are we too far gone to reverse course? I’m not sure, but neither am I going to stop trying to undo the damage.

Lewis & the Hams

Warfield FirorI keep writing my C. S. Lewis book. The chapter I’m currently working on highlights some of the regular American correspondents Lewis had for the last decade and half of his life. Warfield M. Firor was one of those. He was fairly famous as a neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins. A Chair in Surgery has been established there in his name.

Firor, after WWII, was not only an admirer of Lewis’s books, but one of his most faithful contributors during the rationing after the war. He sent a steady stream of packages with a variety of foods that the English had trouble obtaining. Firor was particularly notable for sending over hams, one of Lewis’s favorite meats, but scarce for many years. Those hams started appearing in late 1947. After the arrival of the first one, Lewis replied,

I am completely at a loss when it comes to thanking you for your last parcel: because I rather doubt if you know what you have done. A ham such as you sent lifts me up into our millionaire class. Such a thing couldn’t be got on this side unless one was very deep in the Black Market. . . .

And as for the cheese, I found I’d almost forgotten what real cheese tastes like.

I and all my friends are very deeply grateful; you have given an amount of pleasure which you, in your happier country, cannot realize. . . .

P.S. We’re boiling it tomorrow. Meantime I go and have a look at it every now and then for the mere beauty of it—the finest view in England.

A scant three months later, Lewis had to send another thank-you letter, telling Firor, “No one ever see a ham these days over here, and even in a good restaurant it is very rarely that you would get a small slice of ham. I shall probably be known in Oxford for months as ‘the man who got the ham from America’! Believe me, I am heartily thankful to you for your kindness.”

When another one arrived just two months later, Lewis informed Firor, “The arrival of that magnificent ham leaves me just not knowing what to say. If it were known that it was in my house, it would draw every housebreaker in the neighbourhood more surely than would a collection of gold plate! Even in your favoured country its intrinsic value must have been considerable, and over here it is beyond valuing.”

InklingsLewis decided to share this largesse with the Inklings, rather than hoard it all for himself. He described to Firor what transpired at their last meeting:

The fate of the ham was this: we have a small informal literary club which meets in my rooms every Thursday for beer and talk, and—in happier times—for an occasional dinner. And last night, having your ham to dine off, we had a meal which eight members attended. By diligent “scraping the bottom of the barrel” in various colleges we got two bottles of burgundy and two of port: the college kitchen supplied soup, fish and a savoury: and we had a delightful evening. This by English standards is a banquet rarely met with, and all agreed that they hadn’t eaten such a dinner for five years or more.

Attached to the letter was a “Ham Testimonial” signed by all the Inklings who were present that evening to enjoy the feast. So Firor had a testimonial signed not only by Lewis but by J. R. R. Tolkien. Imagine what a price that would fetch today.

My study of Lewis has yielded so many fascinating insights. I’m grateful for this sabbatical year when I can devote myself to this.