Lewis: Sending Words “Into the Abyss”

When I began my C. S. Lewis journey toward writing my book on his influence on Americans, I determined to re-read everything by him that I’d read before and attempt to delve into the rest of his works that I’d never read.

I’m still not done with that latter part, but I’m making progress. I recently bought a collection of Lewis essays that I had not previously read, although I’d taken notice of some of them through other people’s commentaries. This short collection, put together into a volume called On Stories and Other Essays on Literature, includes some well-known pieces on Lewis’s approach to writing to children and how Narnia came into being.

There are other essays in the collection that display the typical Lewis insight. One, “The Death of Words,” has a passage that I thought was particularly relevant to our age. The essay takes umbrage at how some words have lost their meanings over time, transformed into something else entirely, thereby making the words rather useless.

One of those “lost” words hit home for me as I contemplate what has become of our society. Here’s Lewis:

To save any word from the eulogistic and dyslogistic abyss is a task worth the efforts of all who love the English language. And I can think of one word—the word Christian—which is at this moment on the brink.

To be a Christian in the early church was not a matter of formality but a transformation of life through repentance, forgiveness, and holiness. Lewis sadly notes how that has altered:

When politicians talk of “Christian moral standards” they are not always thinking of anything which distinguishes Christian morality from Confucian or Stoic or Benthamite morality. One often feels it is merely one literary variant among the “adorning epithets” which, in our political style, the expression “moral standards” is felt to require; civilised (another ruined word) or modern or democratic or enlightened would have done just as well.

But it will really be a great nuisance if the word Christian becomes simply a synonym for good. For historians, if no one else, will still sometimes need the word in its proper sense, and what will they do? That is always the trouble about allowing words to slip into the abyss.

One could argue that the official connection between church and state in Europe caused this confusion. To be born in England, for example, meant that you were born into the Church of England and therefore, by the miracle of birth alone, you were automatically a Christian, thereby watering down the meaning completely.

But what of America where there is no official church? I just saw a survey that purports to show that 90% of the members of our newly seated Congress claim to be Christians? Really? What a sad indication of how little that word means today.

Lewis then provides this further insight:

It is important to notice that the danger to the word Christian comes not from its open enemies, but from its friends. It was not egalitarians, it was officious admirers of gentility who killed the word gentleman.

The other day I had occasion to say that certain people were not Christians; a critic asked how I dared say so, being unable (as of course I am) to read their hearts.

I had used the word to mean “persons who profess belief in the specific doctrines of Christianity”; my critic wanted me to use it in what he would (rightly) call “a far deeper sense”—a sense so deep that no human observer can tell to whom it applies.

Turn Christian into a word so vague and pliable that it can apply to almost anyone and the word has lost its meaning. It has gone, as Lewis so artfully put it, into the abyss.

The Coolidge Legacy

Yesterday was the anniversary of Calvin Coolidge’s death in 1933. It passed by most people. In fact, if you were to ask a random one hundred people who Coolidge was, I’m afraid only a very few would be able to give an informed answer.

Calvin Coolidge, president of the United States from 1923-1929, brought character to the forefront of American politics. Vice president under Warren Harding, he had the presidency thrust upon him when Harding died suddenly. Upon first hearing the news, Coolidge and his wife immediately knelt by their bed and prayed. He was then sworn into the office by his own father in his boyhood home in Vermont where he was visiting.

Harding’s administration was in the throes of a number of scandals at the time, with the most infamous being Teapot Dome. Coolidge made sure the various investigations went forward and that the guilty were punished. He restored confidence in the government.

His entire tenure in office was a period of prosperity for the nation. Part of the reason for that was his philosophy of limited government and economic liberty. He acted on principle and did his best to keep the federal government under control.

Coolidge won election in his own right in 1924, and since he only completed a year and a half of Harding’s term, nearly everyone expected him to run again in 1928 and win without any trouble. Yet Coolidge declined to do so. He explained more fully in his post-presidential memoir why he made that decision, and his explanation reveals the heart of the man.

It is difficult for men in high office to avoid the malady of self-delusion. They are always surrounded by worshipers. They are constantly, and for the most part sincerely, assured of their greatness. They live in an artificial atmosphere of adulation and exultation which sooner or later impairs their judgment. They are in grave danger of becoming careless and arrogant.

If only more politicians had that perspective, we would be in better shape as a nation.

Although Coolidge gained the reputation of being a man of few words, whenever he did speak, he was eloquent.

Assessing the Battle of Bunker Hill

Sometimes, a victory is more of a defeat and a loss is more of a victory. That’s the story of the Battle of Bunker Hill during the American Revolution.

To be as historically accurate as possible, most of the fighting actually took place on Breed’s Hill, but that’s not what’s important here. The chief significance of this battle is that an untrained, makeshift militia took on the disciplined British army and came away with greater confidence.

After the skirmish at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, Massachusetts militia surrounded Boston, intent on never allowing the British troops out again to ravage the countryside. British General Howe was just as determined to break the siege. Thus, on 17 June, Howe finally made repeated attempts to dislodge the colonial militia from the aforementioned hills.

Every time the British troops charged up the hill, they were met with a strong volley from those militia; they would retreat and charge again.

One of the weaknesses on the colonial side was a shortage of ammunition. The story handed down (hard to document) is that militia colonel William Prescott gave the following command in order to conserve ammunition: “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!” That command has become legendary, so much so that Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson gave us this classic, one that I like to use in my course on the American Revolution:

I love historical humor.

Due to the lack of ammunition, the British eventually took both hills, but the battle was a significant morale-booster for the inexperienced Americans. They continued to maintain the siege of Boston despite the loss.

Overall, in this battle, the British suffered 200 deaths and another 800 soldiers wounded; the colonists lost only 100, with 300 wounded. It was a Pyrrhic victory for the British, a type named after a Greek general who experienced “disastrous successes.” Gen. Howe lamented that his victory had been “too dearly bought.” Conversely, Nathaniel Greene, who would become one of the American heroes of the war, wished that his side could “sell them another hill at the same price.”

Today, there is a monument on Breed’s Hill that commemorates the battle. I’ve climbed to the top. In front of it is a statue of Joseph Warren, an ardent patriot leader who died in that battle.

It was shortly after the Battle of Bunker Hill that George Washington arrived to take over command of what he hoped would develop into the Continental Army. But that’s a post for another day.

Don’t Do Stupid Stuff

The new Congress is now seated and ready for business. Already the Republicans have moved forward with repealing Obamacare. They put that provision inside a budget bill that doesn’t allow a filibuster. Maybe they are finally learning how to govern.

The Democrats find themselves in an unusual situation after this past election:

Democrat leadership is at a historic low, and prospects for the future are not the greatest:

With electoral devastation all around him, President Obama seems oblivious to the carnage:

He’s giving indications he will not go away quietly. He plans to live in Washington and speak out whenever he thinks the country needs his “wisdom.” It could make for an interesting next four years:

My concerns about a Trump presidency remain. He has made some good choices for his cabinet, seems poised to approve the repeal-and-replace strategy on Obamacare, and I’m grateful for his solidarity with Israel.

The big question for me will always be his character. One never knows what to expect from him. We could be in for a surreal ride:

Yet haven’t the past eight years been a sort of Twilight Zone as well? If Trump follows through and reverses Obama’s unconstitutional executive orders and actually puts a good person on the Supreme Court to fill Antonin Scalia’s seat, some of my concerns will be lessened.

Now, if only he will see that Vladimir Putin is not really a man to be admired . . .

That’s very good advice. Will he take it?

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.

My Biblical Foundation for This Blog

I began this blog in August 2008. I had no idea how long it would go, but I’m still here and haven’t yet been led by the Lord to stop, even though I’ve contemplated it many times.

The goal of Pondering Principles always has been to bring the light of a Biblical worldview to bear on all aspects of life. As we enter into this new year, I thought I would simply lay out once more where I’m coming from and why I write as I do.

A litany of Scripture passages will serve as the basis for this, beginning with Isaiah 59:2:

But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear.

That’s the state of the world overall. Mankind is in rebellion against the righteous rule of the Creator. The rebellion begins in individual hearts and then spreads into the various cultures.

In spite of this, God loves us. Jesus, the only begotten Son of God, was sent into this sin-soaked world for one supreme purpose, as explained in Matthew 1:21 when an angel informed Joseph,

She [Mary] will bear a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.

The Greek word that we translate “from” actually means, more precisely, “away from” or “out of.” The strong message is that through Jesus we no longer have to be a sin-soaked people, but we can be separated from our sins rather than be separated from God.

John 14:6 makes it abundantly clear that there is no other way to be reunited with our God when Jesus says to His disciples,

I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.

That’s why I write from the perspective that the Christian faith is the one and only true, genuine faith in the world. All others are attempts to find a different way back to God, but all fail.

What is God’s goal? It is found in II Peter 3:9:

The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.

Repentance is the key, yet it is so often minimized in the modern Christian message. It’s not enough merely to give a mental assent to some propositions about Jesus; rather, a change of life is essential—and it starts with repentance. Some see that word as harsh, but it isn’t. As the apostle Paul explains in Romans 2:4,

Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?

It’s the greatest kindness of all to be truthful with us about our sinfulness and to point to the way out of it. Once we make that initial turnabout, He then gives us the grace to live the kind of life He knows will bring real joy. One of my favorite verses is Romans 12:2, which says,

And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

The word translated “transformed” is the same word used when Jesus went up on the mountain and was “transfigured” before His three closest disciples. They were allowed to see His true glory for a few minutes. In the same way, He wants our lives to be “transfigured” so we no longer walk as we used to walk.

As we live out this new life, we need to be a discerning people. We need to know the difference between truth and falsehood and how that affects our society all around us. That’s why I also use this Scripture, Colossians 2:8, quite often when I speak:

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.

That’s why I spend so much time and effort trying to apply Biblical principles to what I see taking place in our nation and in the world. That’s why I comment often on politics and government and seek to show how the Christian faith should impact them. Government is not our savior, but it can help stem the tide of evil—and evil seems to be increasing to the point where this plaintive cry from Isaiah 5:20-21 describes the direction of this nation:

Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.

Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight!

Never in the history of America have we elevated evil to such an extent as we are doing now—and call it “good.” We did it in the past with slavery and segregation, but now we are reversing good and evil in unprecedented ways.

This why I write, to do whatever I can, in my limited way, to shine a light on God’s path, in the hope that I can influence a few to look to Him.

The most well-known Scripture is John 3:16. When you couple it with the verse that follows, it offers the rationale for what God seeks to do among us:

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.

The problem, however, has always been man’s response to God’s love. Jesus concludes the above statement with this:

This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.

For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.

My commitment is to partner with the Lord as much as I can in revealing the Light that is Jesus. Along the way, that means calling out the darkness; we have to see the stark contrast between the two.

I will do my best always to include the way out of the darkness, shining the Light of Jesus on it.

Taking a Break

If you’re here looking for a new blog post, you’ll have to wait until 2017. Taking a break.