Lewis: Dealing with Death

Reading C. S. Lewis’s letters to Americans while researching my book was a daily joy. I’ve always loved research, but this was especially delightful. One of Lewis’s many American correspondents was Mary Willis Shelburne.

Shelburne wrote more letters to Lewis than any other American correspondent; consequently, he wrote more to her than any other, since he felt duty-bound to respond to each letter he received. It is quite clear by the tone of the correspondence that she was an increasingly needy person, both financially and spiritually. Her anxieties seemed to be legion, and Lewis did his best to address them with tact and empathy.

Did he ever tire of her constant flow of letters seeking help? There are indications that she could sometimes wear him down with her incessant demands for answers. Despite the temptation to be frustrated with her, he nevertheless maintained the ministry to which God had called him.

Shelburne feared death, a topic he dealt with more often as both grew older and Lewis began to feel his own mortality. He did his best to help Shelburne face her own demise with the proper Christian spirit and perspective.

He joked about imminent death in a 1957 letter thusly: “What on earth is the trouble about there being a rumour of my death? There’s nothing discreditable in dying: I’ve known the most respectable people do it!”

Commenting in another letter on horrible visits to the dentist, he told her to keep in mind they both had to recognize that “as we grow older, we become like old cars—more and more repairs and replacements are necessary. We must just look forward to the fine new machines (latest Resurrection model) which are waiting for us, we hope, in the Divine garage!”

And why not have the same attitude as the apostle Paul? “If we really believe what we say we believe—if we really think that home is elsewhere and that this life is a ‘wandering to find home,’ why should we not look forward to the arrival.”

He kept his sense of humor even as he suffered greater physical distress, telling her, with respect to their bodies, “Like old automobiles, aren’t they? Where all sorts of apparently different things keep going wrong, but what they add up to is the plain fact that the machine is wearing out. Well, it was not meant to last forever. Still, I have a kindly feeling for the old rattle-trap.”

In his final year, Lewis’s comments on death appeared more frequently, as he sensed his time was near. A letter in June remarked on her obvious fear of dying; Lewis’s response was the most direct one yet:

Can you not see death as the friend and deliverer? It means stripping off that body which is tormenting you: like taking off a hair-shirt or getting out of a dungeon. What is there to be afraid of? . . . Has this world been so kind to you that you should leave it with regret? There are better things ahead than any we leave behind. . . . Of course, this may not be the end. Then make it a good rehearsal. Yours (and like you a tired traveler near the journey’s end).

Shelburne outlived Lewis, but one hopes his constant reminders about how Christians should view death helped her as she later stood on the brink of eternity.

Lewis: When Progress Is Not Really Progress

I think the words “progress” and “progressive” have been terribly abused in our day. The latter has been captured by the Left of the political spectrum and is now used for anything that gets the government more involved in our lives, as if that should automatically be considered progress.

C. S. Lewis wrote about progress in a much more reflective vein. For instance, in his essay, “Is Progress Possible” (which has as a subtitle “Willing Slaves of the Welfare State”), he defines the term differently than how others might:

I care far more how humanity lives than how long. Progress, for me, means increasing goodness and happiness of individual lives. For the species, as for each man, mere longevity seems to me a contemptible ideal.

Yet isn’t longevity an obsession for most people? Medical science is always trying to make our lives longer, which is nice, but when that becomes our measuring stick for progress, we’re focused on the wrong thing.

Progress can only be measured by looking at our lives from an eternal perspective. We need to realize that there is One who has given us the standard for what is good and what is not. As Lewis notes in another essay, “Evil and God,”

If things can improve, this means that there must be some absolute standard of good above and outside the cosmic process to which that process can approximate.

There is no sense in talking of “becoming better” if better means simply “what we are becoming”—it is like congratulating yourself on reaching your destination and defining destination as “the place you have reached.”

Another irritation, to me at least, is when people say, “You can’t turn back the clock.” As a historian, I reject the concept that history’s path forward is already determined, that there is an inevitable flow that all must accept. I have far too  often heard the silly comment about being “on the right side of history.”

In his classic, Mere Christianity, Lewis deals with that whole turning-back-the-clock cliché and ties it in neatly with an understanding of true progress:

First, as to putting the clock back. Would you think I was joking if I said that you can put a clock back, and that if the clock is wrong it is often a very sensible thing to do? . . .

We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer.

If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man [emphasis mine].

Let’s use words like progress and progressive in their proper sense, based on God’s standards, not man’s.

Lewis: The Spiritual vs. the Ritual

The sacred vs the secular; the substance vs. the external; the spiritual vs. the ritual. We deal with this tension all our lives. I question whether anything is truly secular. After all, the world and everything in it comes from the hand of God. What makes it secular is when we remove Him from his creation.

We focus a lot on externals and rituals, sometimes allowing them to substitute for the truly substantive and spiritual. When we do that, even though we may keep the form of godliness, we deny its essence.

I’ve never been one for promoting outward forms of our most sacred holidays. We taught our children from the start that Santa Claus wasn’t real; we never talked about an Easter bunny or emphasized the Easter basket. While I’m not trying to sound like a curmudgeon, I have always wanted to make sure we focus on the real—cliché warning–reason for the season.

C. S. Lewis, in his Reflections on the Psalms, uses the example of Easter to make the point I believe I’m trying to make.

There is a stage in a child’s life at which it cannot separate the religious from the merely festal character of Christmas or Easter.

I have been told of a very small and very devout boy who was heard murmuring to himself on Easter morning a poem of his own composition which began “Chocolate eggs and Jesus risen.”

This seems to me, for his age, both admirable poetry and admirable piety.

When I was a small and not very devout boy, Easter was all eggs and candy. Jesus, at first, wasn’t even a passing thought. Perhaps that’s why I react so strongly today against all the outward trappings that hide the significance of Resurrection Day.

Yet for the very devout boy in Lewis’s story, his development spiritually is going to be different than mine. Lewis continues,

But of course the time will soon come when such a child can no longer effortlessly and spontaneously enjoy that unity. He will become able to distinguish the spiritual from the ritual and festal aspects of Easter; chocolate eggs will no longer be sacramental.

When that stage of development is reached, it will be decision time:

And once he has distinguished he must put one or the other first. If he puts the spiritual first he can still taste something of Easter in the chocolate eggs; if he puts the eggs first they will soon be no more than any other sweetmeat.

They have taken on an independent, and therefore a soon withering, life.

Whenever we give priority to the secular, the external, and the ritual, we lose the meaning of the event entirely. The same is true of our lives. We waste our lives when we banish the sacred, the substantive, and the spiritual. We become our own little wasteland.

What we need to realize is that even if we retain some of the spiritual, any subordination of the spiritual is just as bad as banishment. For all practical purposes, relegating God to second place is no different than pushing Him away altogether.

In Him we live and move and have our being. Anything less is an independent and soon-withering life.

Lewis: The Mere Christian Message

On this Good Friday/Easter weekend, the Christian message of sacrificial death and resurrection may be brought more to the forefront of minds that normally think little of such things. The message is the same at all times, but this weekend sharpens the focus.

To the natural mind, death is finality. There is no comprehension of how it can be of any good. Yet C. S. Lewis, in his book Miracles, shows us how:

On the one hand Death is the triumph of Satan, the punishment of the Fall, and the last enemy. Christ shed tears at the grave of Lazarus and sweated blood in Gethsemane: the Life of Lives that was in Him detested this penal obscenity not less than we do, but more.

On the other hand, only he who loses his life will save it.

We are baptized into the death of Christ, and it is the remedy for the Fall. Death is, in fact, what some modern people call “ambivalent.” It is Satan’s great weapon and also God’s great weapon: it is holy and unholy; our supreme disgrace and our only hope; the thing Christ came to conquer and the means by which He conquered.

Death has led to life, which runs counter to what people normally believe. Lewis notes in Mere Christianity, “The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start.”

A fresh start. What a glorious concept. I know, personally, how much I needed a fresh start at one point in my life. My sins were forgiven; God treats them as if they never happened. That truth has led me to a constant state of gratitude for His mercy and has pointed the way forward. Lewis again in Mere Christianity:

Now the Christian belief is that if we somehow share the humility and suffering of Christ we shall also share in His conquest of death and find a new life after we have died and in it become perfect, and perfectly happy, creatures. . . .

In Christ a new kind of man appeared: and the new kind of life which began in Him is to be put into us.

Eternal life really begins in this earthly existence if we humbly receive Christ’s sacrifice as our own; death is merely a transfer of that life into a new and heavenly realm.

That is what Good Friday and Easter/Resurrection Day are all about. Let your gratitude for what God has done show in your life today.

Lewis, Literary Culture, & Ecclesiastes

“I read all the right books, so I am cultured.” Those of us who seek to expand our knowledge of what might be considered the best of writing over the centuries need to be careful, says C. S. Lewis.

While someone who is drawn to the common conception of culture is certainly better off than one who simply seeks status as one of the in-the-know literati, there is a difference between those who truly enjoy reading and those who do it merely to improve oneself.

The problem, Lewis reveals, is that someone in the latter category

is more likely to stick too exclusively to the “established authors” of all periods and nations, “the best that has been thought and said in the world.” He makes few experiments and has few favourites. Yet this worthy man may be, in the sense I am concerned with, no true lover of literature at all.

Interestingly, and perhaps surprisingly, Lewis decried the educational development that made English literature a subject in the schools. Why would a professor of English literature have a problem with that?

“One sad result,” he laments, “is that the reading of great authors is, from early years, stamped upon the minds of conscientious and submissive young people as something meritorious.”

Wait a minute. Don’t we want these young people to consider certain literature as meritorious? Lewis goes on to explain what he has seen happen:

When the young person in question is an agnostic whose ancestors were Puritans, you get a very regrettable state of mind. The Puritan conscience works on without the Puritan theology—like millstones grinding nothing; like digestive juices working on an empty stomach and producing ulcers.

The unhappy youth applies to literature all the scruples, the rigorism, the self-examination, the distrust of pleasure, which his forebears applied to the spiritual life; and perhaps soon all the intolerance and self-righteousness.

This creates, according to Lewis, the wrong kind of seriousness in reading. “The true reader reads every work seriously in the sense that he reads it whole-heartedly, makes himself as receptive as he can.” That means he always reads in the spirit of the writer he is reading, which can often be comical.

“This is where the literary Puritans may fail most lamentably. They are too serious as men to be seriously receptive as readers,” Lewis sadly concludes. “Solemn men, but not serious readers; they have not fairly and squarely laid their minds open, without preconception, to the works they read.”

I see the temptation here. My own public education gave me little in the way of the great literature of the past. Now I’m trying to catch up, so to speak. The temptation is to take this route of catching up too seriously: I must dive into all those books that I have neglected over the years; I must know about them so I will be properly cultured.

At least, that’s the pull. So I appreciate Lewis’s warning. I can’t make up for all those other years in the few I may have left. But I can enjoy whatever does come my way and whatever I have the time to read.

The Biblical grounding I’ve received most of my life is more important than what is deemed the “great literature.” Knowledge of the Bible and the relationship with the Lord that has developed in my 66 years provides me with the foundation for evaluating everything else.

So I can relax on the literary front. As the book of Ecclesiastes reminds us,

Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.

Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.

For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.

That should be my primary focus.

Lewis: Humility & the Literary

C. S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism is a surprisingly good read. I say “surprisingly” because I expected a heavy tome that would be hard to understand. It isn’t that at all. I drew from it in my previous Lewis post, showing how he clearly differentiates between the unliterary and the literary. He notes that the majority of people fall into the first category.

A false implication can arise from that division. People may think Lewis is being a snob. That’s not the case, and in the second chapter, he clarifies the distinction. It is wrong, he instructs, to believe that the unliterary belong to some kind of rabble. Critics, he says,

accuse them of illiteracy, barbarism, “crass,” “crude,” and “stock” responses which (it is suggested) must make them clumsy and insensitive in all the relations of life and render them a permanent danger to civilisation.

Lewis disagrees. Rather, those who are included in the many who are not attracted to great literary works “include certain people who are equal or superior to some of the few in psychological health, in moral virtue, practical prudence, good manners, and general adaptability.”

So Lewis doesn’t classify the literary as the best people in society by virtue of their reading habits. There are other factors to consider.

Some of those in the literary category may not be as virtuous and emotionally fit as those they may think of as their inferiors. In fact, if one begins to divide humanity into inferior and superior classes solely by reading tastes, one has created a false division and revealed the sin of pride in oneself.

Lewis warns,

And we all know very well that we, the literary, include no small percentage of the ignorant, the caddish, the stunted, the warped, and the truculent. With the hasty and wholesale apartheid of those who ignore this we must have nothing to do.

Lewis then goes on to catalogue the problems of some in the literary class. While one would expect the literary to have “a profound and permanent appreciation of literature,” they may not at all. Some have become so professionalized that they read only out of duty anymore. He writes in particular of “overworked reviewers, getting through novel after novel as quickly as they can, like a schoolboy doing his ‘prep.'”

He feels for people like that because they may have begun their literary journey in joy but now consider it mere work.

The text before them comes to exist not in its own right but simply as raw material; clay out of which they can complete their tale of bricks. Accordingly we often find that in their leisure hours they read, if at all, as the many read.

Another branch of the literary are simply status seekers. They grew up in families and circles where they were expected to read only the “approved literature, especially the new and astonishing works, and those which have been banned or have become in some other way subjects of controversy.”

So, as one of that literary class, Lewis has no problem seeing the pitfalls that some fall into. He rejects the idea of literary people naturally being the best in society.

This is what I’ve come to expect from Lewis. He never lost touch with the ordinary man or talked down to him. All one has to do is read his letters to that multitude who wanted his advice; his humility shines throughout his responses.

More on this next week.

Lewis: The Few & the Many

A very pleasant task I’ve set for myself is to read C. S. Lewis works that I’ve not yet taken the opportunity to examine. In this journey, I’ve taken on The Discarded Image, The Allegory of Love (tough read for me; not done yet), and now An Experiment in Criticism.

Since I’m a historian and not a literary critic per se, I admit I was hesitant to tackle this one, figuring it might be too dense for my taste, too pedantic perhaps.

That prejudgment was completely wrong.

What an unanticipated joy it has been to follow Lewis’s thinking in this little book. I even discovered, in the first chapter, some quotes I’ve appreciated before when he distinguishes between what he refers to as “the few and the many” when it comes to the types of readers.

“In the first place, the majority never read anything twice,” he opines. “The sure mark of an unliterary man is that he considers ‘I’ve read it already’ to be a conclusive argument against reading a work.” Great works, though, he argues, should be read multiple times over the course of one’s life.

A second difference, Lewis notes, is that “the many” turn to reading only if there’s nothing else that pops up that they would rather do. “It is kept for railway journeys, illnesses, odd moments of enforced solitude, or for the process called ‘reading oneself to sleep.'” Whereas the devoted readers—the few—“feel impoverished” if they are denied “attentive and undisturbed reading even for a few days.”

A third distinction is that the literary are so drawn into what they read that they often have an experience “so momentous that only experiences of love, religion, or bereavement can furnish a standard of comparison. Their whole consciousness is changed. They have become what they were not before.”

His final distinguishing characteristic?

As a natural result of their different behaviour in reading, what they have read is constantly and prominently present to the mind of the few, but not to that of the many. The former mouth over their favourite lines and stanzas in solitude. . . . They talk to one another about books, often and at length. The latter seldom think or talk of their reading.

While Lewis is focusing on novels and poetry in his comments, I’d add that, for me, it isn’t limited to those genres. Really good nonfiction writing also can qualify. For instance, there’s Lewis’s own works such as Mere Christianity or his autobiography, Surprised By Joy. I repeat lines from those in my mind regularly.

I’ve had this experience with other books also. Whittaker Chambers’s Witness is awash with such memorable lines, phrases, and meaningful paragraphs that I have taught it constantly to students for thirty years. I highly recommend it to all who love excellent, striking prose.

Near the end of chapter one in An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis sums up nicely the reaction “the many” have toward “the few.”

It is pretty clear that the majority, if they spoke without passion and were fully articulate, would not accuse us of liking the wrong books, but of making such a fuss about any books at all. We treat as a main ingredient in our well-being something which to them is marginal.

So is Lewis intimating that “the few” are somehow superior humans who should look down on those who don’t have the same perspective on reading? Not at all. Those who are familiar with Lewis’s humility would never accuse him of that. In fact, he addresses that very issue in chapter two.

But that’s for next Saturday’s post.