Reflections of a Natural Introvert

I’m an introvert. Really, I am. Whenever I inform students of that fact, they have a hard time believing it because I’m animated when I teach and love to interact with humor.

But I am an introvert.

BooksMy natural inclination is to sit in my recliner in my study, surrounded by books, and devote myself to them. Let the world go away. Give me my peace and solitude. That, and a cup of coffee, is a pleasurable way to pass the time.

I’m constantly reading. Here’s what I have going right now on my reading schedule: C. S. Lewis’s The Allegory of Love (slow going for someone who is not well versed in medieval writings); Paradise Lost (taking up a challenge because I’ve never read it and I would like to understand Lewis’s preface to it—another future reading); Jonah Goldberg’s The Tyranny of Clichés (honing my cultural analysis); Os Guinness’s new book, Impossible People (a clarion call for Christians to be thorough Christians in our culture); and another Stephen Lawhead novel (because I just love his writing).

Yes, I’m reading all of those simultaneously. When classes begin again, I’m not going to get quite as much reading done as I am now.

That natural inclination to withdraw and enjoy my own little world comes into conflict with the urge within me, planted by God, I believe, to break out of the cocoon and speak His truth.

That’s why I teach, and that’s why I write this blog. Personally, I would love to avoid all controversies. I would relish leaving politics behind, especially this year when I see no viable option for the presidency.

Yet there is this “calling.” I’ve mentioned the prophet Jeremiah before, the one who cried out to God that he didn’t want to speak anymore because he kept getting bad reactions to his words. I understand.

Take My YokeThis is what God does to (and for) us, though. He pushes us out of that place of comfort. He tells us to take up His cross and be His disciples. He never promised that we would sail through life without burdens to bear.

I know that. Some days I embrace it; other days I utter the Jeremiah complaint.

The Lord allows us to withdraw at times; Jesus did the same in His ministry. But all withdrawals are for one purpose: regaining the strength to continue the calling. Withdrawals, if done properly, are the times we draw on His reservoir of grace so that we will be the most effective witnesses of His truth that we can be.

All of my reading is part of the preparation to be what God wants me to be in that world out there. As long as I keep that perspective, and not make an idol out of those relaxed times of peace, He will be able to use me for His ongoing purposes.

That’s my reflection for today. I thank God for the time to reflect. It steels me for whatever lies ahead.

A Baptized Imagination

Chad WalshThe first book to analyze C. S. Lewis and his popularity was written by an American, Chad Walsh, an English professor at Beloit College in Wisconsin. It came out in 1949 with the title C. S. Lewis: Apostle to the Skeptics.

Walsh had Lewis to thank for his own conversion. “In my case there was no childhood faith,” Walsh wrote in an account of how he eventually found the Christian path. “If I ever believed in God as a small child, no memory of the time remains with me. I regarded myself as an atheist from the moment I learned to read—and, indeed, pamphlet editions of Ingersoll, et cetera, were part of my earliest reading.”

At the University of Virginia, Walsh, as a student, found himself free of the dominant Christianity of his small hometown of Marion, Virginia, and flourished as a convinced atheist—at least until world circumstances forced him to think more seriously.

The rise of Hitler in Germany, and the growing awareness of the actions of that regime, forced him to confront the problem of evil in the world. Walsh’s companions in atheism and/or agnosticism, when challenged by Walsh to come up with a response to what Hitler was doing, would provide excuses, albeit excuses that were actually consistent with their worldview.

Walsh recounts, “They agreed with me that the world was a senseless jungle. Very well, they reasoned, if the world is a jungle, it’s absurd to speak of right and wrong. Everything is relative. Hitler thinks he’s doing right to invade Poland and murder the Jews. Very well, it is right for him. It’s all in the way you look at it.” That response shook him. He knew he had to come to grips with the reality of evil.

Coming to grips with evil also meant coming to grips with the whole idea of right and wrong and where the concepts originated. That led him to finally consider not only the existence of God but what his response to this God might entail. In this transition period of his life, Walsh came across some of Lewis’s writings. One, in particular, changed his life forever.

PerelandraIt was in either 1944 or 1945, he recalls, on a short vacation to Vermont, that a friend enthusiastically lent him a book she had just finished reading; she just knew he would love it. That book was Perelandra, the second in Lewis’s Space Trilogy in which the protagonist, Elwin Ransom, is transported to Venus to save an innocent world from falling into sin.

Walsh was transported as well: “I quickly consumed it from cover to cover. I was struck first of all by the sheer beauty of the book. It transported me into a kind of Elysian Fields—or better yet, an unspoiled Eden, inhabited by the innocent and unfallen.”

A second revelation was that, even though he had always been a science fiction fan, he had never read any science fiction like this, where it could be used as a “vehicle of great philosophic and psychological myth.” The third revelation, though, was the greatest of all:

Finally, and most importantly, in Perelandra I found my imagination being baptized. At the time I was slowly thinking, feeling, and fumbling my way towards the Christian faith and had reached the point where I was more than half convinced that it was true. This conviction, however, was a thing more of the mind than of the imagination and heart.

In Perelandra I got the taste and smell of Christian truth. My senses as well as my soul were baptized. It was as though an intellectual abstraction or speculation had become flesh and dwelt in its solid bodily glory among us.

As Walsh looked back on this event years later, he came to the realization that the way he found Lewis was quite typical. A person reads something by Lewis, becomes so enthused that he/she lends the book to a friend, who in turn catches that enthusiasm and passes it on to others.

For Walsh, “The result was that I began buying everything else by him that was available in America and also passed along word of the discovery to other friends. It was as though I had discovered a new ingredient in my intellectual, emotional, and spiritual diet that I had unconsciously desired but had not previously found. I think many others, coming on Lewis for the first time, felt the same way.”

As you might guess, the above is excerpted from my new book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis, which will be available in a few short weeks.

Lewis’s Attitude Toward America

C. S. Lewis 4My upcoming book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis, deals with that famous author’s interactions with Americans and his attitude toward America as well. Early in his life, judging by comments in his letters, he had some prejudices against America and its citizens, but once he began exchanging views with American academics and receiving an abundance of letters from Americans who loved his books, one can see a decided shift in attitude.

While he did critique some aspects of American society and government, one cannot truly evaluate a person’s views of another nation in a vacuum. Comparisons are necessary. What better way to evaluate Lewis’s views on America than to look also at his views on the Britain of his day?

If he entertained a low opinion of British government and culture, would we say he was anti-British? Or would he merely be pointing out the problems that needed to be corrected? In fact, Lewis’s comments on his native country appear to be far harsher than anything he said about America.

When American university professor Nathan Comfort Starr sought to bring Lewis to America and Lewis had to decline, he did invite Starr to Britain, but not with a sterling recommendation, referring to Britain as “this luckless country.”

In offering the same invitation to Warfield Firor, a famous surgeon at Johns Hopkins, the image of Britain he used in the letter was “this bleak island,” and he wondered why Firor would even want to visit it.

Why the bleak state of affairs? For Lewis, the blame fell on the Labour government and its socialist policies, which not only ruined the nation economically but was siphoning off its liberties and making Britain a less-than-stellar partner for the United States. As he explained to Firor, the government always seemed to be thinking of ways to take more liberties from the people. “Try not to judge us by our rulers,” he pleaded.

C. S. Lewis 5By 1954, rationing in Britain finally came to an end, thanks to the new Conservative government. He informed Vera Gebbert, another regular American correspondent, that he wouldn’t be needing her gifts anymore, but there was a possibility, if she really missed sending him all those items, that she might be able to begin anew, noting that if the Socialists ever regained the majority, she could once again show her kindness “by supplying us, not with little luxuries, but with the necessities of life!”

He continued to sound the warning, such as when Gebbert was thinking of moving permanently to Britain. While they would be glad to welcome her, she needed to know the truth: there would always be the threat of a revival of a government ruled by the Socialists, “which would finish us off completely.”

When Mary Van Deusen wrote to ask him what he thought of the concept of loving one’s own country, his reply indicates a man striving to find the balance between nations and individuals. Love of country, he theorized, was primarily love for those with whom one had a lot in common.

He cautioned, “Mind you, I’m in considerable doubt about the whole thing. My mind tends to move in a world of individuals not of societies.” That tendency in Lewis’s mind to “move in a world of individuals” and “not of societies,” would also lend itself to a tendency not to wed oneself to stereotypes, whether of good traits in a people group or less-admirable ones. Whatever prejudices he may have had at the outset were set aside as he came to know more Americans.

If you find this subject of interest, there is more in my book. I’ll be sure to let you know when it is available.

Lewis, Education, & Not Losing Heart

Abolition of Man Quote #3Another academic year approaches. I will begin my 28th year of teaching full-time at the college level. As I contemplate this new beginning (every new teaching session feels like a new beginning to me), I reflect on how C. S. Lewis understood education. His Abolition of Man is key to his understanding, but one can also get some insight from his letters to Americans. Those are the letters I know best after delving into them for my upcoming book. As I was picking and choosing what to share from those letters in the book, I included some of Lewis’s poignant comments on education.

Warfield Firor

Warfield Firor, an esteemed surgeon at Johns Hopkins, was a long-time correspondent with Lewis. Firor and Lewis met face-to-face in Oxford once and Firor was a guest at an Inklings meeting. When he returned to America, their correspondence deepened into many subjects, one of which was education.

One of Lewis’s letters to Firor was devoted to a critique of education, at least the way it was being carried out at that time. What is most interesting about this particular letter is that it contains sentiments about education that one might not expect from such an esteemed scholar. While Lewis certainly believed in high standards (witness the testimony of those he tutored), he also saw a bad trend in the early years when children needed more time to be children.

He was deeply concerned that education had turned into more of a competition, even of a ruthless nature. While competition itself was not evil, he told Firor that children needed time to be children. Why, he complained, did one’s entire childhood and the college years always have to be a constant exam preparation? Was this really good for the children? What kind of nation would this produce psychologically, morally, and spiritually?

Vera GebbertIn a letter to another regular American correspondent, Vera Gebbert, Lewis remarked on the deplorable state of education in both England and America, opining that both countries offered very little in the way of a solid education. He was fortunate, he told her, that his father had sent him to a private tutor after his own miserable experiences at schools.

In his very next letter, in response to her information about the kind of school her son was attending, he again took aim at the way English schools were being run, devoid of a real understanding of education. The educational authorities seemed to think that spending money on better facilities would guarantee a great education, but Lewis pointedly remarked that genuine education in the hands of a very good teacher could take place in a ramshackle building, while the best facilities in the world could never make up for the tutelage of bad teachers.

I loved reading that last remark from Lewis. I’ve always maintained that real education doesn’t take as much funding as people think. Apart from paying teachers what they are really worth (I won’t get into that right now), fancy buildings, while wonderful, don’t guarantee good education. A devoted, enthusiastic teacher does.

I’ve rarely wavered in my enthusiasm for teaching, even during some of the roughest patches of my life when discouragement threatened to overwhelm. To all teachers out there, especially those who seek to imbue their students with a love of learning that comes directly from the heart of God—don’t lose heart yourselves. I always come back to this Scripture in Galatians:

For whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. . . . Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary.

May weariness never overtake you. May the Lord lift you up and encourage you on this path. You will reap what you have sown.

Looking for Some Good Reads?

Planets in PerilI have some book reviews for you today.

I’ve been expanding my reading of books about C. S. Lewis. Some of my earliest reading of Lewis was his Space Trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. I’ve been aware of David Downing’s analysis of these novels, Planets in Peril: A Critical Study of C. S. Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy, for quite some time; I finally got around to reading it.

Every Lewis fan has a favorite in this series. Downing does a fine job of interlacing all three of the books, drawing from each of them in every chapter. He uses the thematic approach: Christian vision; elements of classicism and medievalism; portraits of evil; the concept of the spiritual pilgrimage.

While he obviously is deeply appreciative of what Lewis offers in these books, his analysis is exactly that: a critique that doesn’t lend itself to hero worship. He points to what he believes are the positives and negatives of the writing. Needless to say, the positives outweigh the negatives.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read the trilogy over the years. Downing’s book is one of those I will have to re-read as well.

Looking for the KingI also was intrigued by another of Downing’s books, Looking for the King: An Inklings Novel. How, I wondered, was he going to incorporate real people into the novel? He follows the quest by an American doctoral candidate to find whatever evidence he can of the truth behind the King Arthur legend.

The author accomplishes his goal. He keeps the narrative focused on the American scholar while bringing the Inklings in as valuable aids in his quest. I agree with Marjorie Lamp Mead of the Wade Center in her recommendation for the book:

David Downing’s homage to C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams succeeds masterfully. This is a beguiling and enjoyable read—laced throughout with romance, wry humor, and questions of eternal consequence.

Toward the GleamAmazon always attempts to point you to other books similar to the one you are buying. When I purchased Looking for the King, I was intrigued by one of the options, Toward the Gleam by T. M. Doran. I had never heard of this author or his works, but after reading the synopsis, I thought I would try it. I’m glad I did.

Doran does the same thing Downing does, including the Inklings in a novel that centers around a mysterious book that an Oxford professor finds and attempts to translate. It purportedly tells of an ancient civilization that no one knows existed. Is it fact or fiction? Why does having this book put the professor’s life in danger?

We are taken into the Bird and Baby pub for conversations with Lewis and Owen Barfield. Other characters that grace the pages are G. K. Chesterton and Winston Churchill. Doran’s method of introducing them is rather unique, though. He never gives the full name, only a first name. So you have to be someone “in the know” to recognize them.

The biggest twist, however, is the identity of the main character, which is never explicitly expressed, but as you read, you slowly come to the knowledge of who he is. I won’t give it away.

I was so delighted with this novel that I’m going to have to try another Doran book very soon.

One more.

At the recent Lewis conference I attended, I saw another book that I had recently put in my Amazon wish list, so I decided to get it, primarily as what I hoped would be a good read on the plane home. I was not disappointed.

CalledCalled: My Journey to C. S. Lewis’s House and Back Again by Ryan Pemberton is not the travelogue the title might indicate. Rather, it is a very personal story of struggle in finding God’s will in one’s life. It’s the true story of a young American man who studied at Oxford, hoping to find God’s specific calling on his life.

Along the way, Pemberton not only became president of the Oxford C. S. Lewis Society, but actually lived in the Kilns for a year while completing his degree. Although not a novel, it has all the qualities of one as you wonder where the next twist in his life will take him and whether he will ever know for sure to what God is calling him.

Pemberton is a fine writer; he allows you into his life and thinking during his Oxford days—all the doubts, fears, and satisfactions. By the end of the book, you, too, have experienced all those same doubts, fears, and, ultimately, satisfactions.

I recommend Called and now wonder what Pemberton will do if he chooses to write a second book. How will he make it the equal of his first? I wish him well.

So, those are my four recommendations this week. You can be sure when my book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis, comes out in a few weeks, I’ll have another one to recommend.

The C. S. Lewis Conference: A Report

I had a wonderful weekend at the C. S. Lewis Foundation’s summer conference held at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Why was it held there? I’ll get to that.

As I did last fall, I presented a paper at the Academic Roundtable, a time for deeper thinking as a group of academics listened and discussed what each had to offer. The most interesting part of such a roundtable is getting perspectives from different disciplines. I was the only historian in the group; others were professors of theology, philosophy, and architecture.

My paper was on the distinction that we must make between liberty of conscience, which is a Biblically based concept, and pluralism, which is the more humanistic viewpoint—a viewpoint that attempts to push the Biblical worldview out of the public square. It seemed to be well received.

Plenary sessions were offered by excellent speakers. One of the most interesting to me was Malcolm Guite, a minister, theologian, professor, and poet at Cambridge University. He was a captivating speaker, is a songwriter and performer (he gave us some samples), and his poetry is the type that I actually love, which is saying something because I’m not naturally attracted to poetry.

Malcolm Guite

With his full beard, long hair, and short stature, he reminds me of a hobbit. That’s a compliment, by the way.

At a special faculty luncheon, Dr. Mary Poplin of the Claremont Graduate School spoke, and her personal testimony was both striking and stirring. She was a strident radical feminist and atheist (toying with Buddhism along the way) before God gave her a dream of standing before Jesus. That, along with other miraculous occurrences, led her to faith at the age of 41. Shortly after, she went to India to work with Mother Teresa.

Mary Poplin 1

Dr. Poplin also spoke at the final plenary session, outlining the four distinct worldviews that are in conflict. I was struck by how her presentation was very similar to what I do in the classroom, even starting with Colossians 2:8, one of my favorite scriptures:

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.

Green Pastures-Outside 2I raised the question earlier as to why this conference was taking place in Massachusetts. The site was only about half an hour from a house that the Foundation has purchased and is planning to use as a study center. So one of the highlights of the conference was an excursion to that home in the town of Northfield.

Currently, a massive renovation of the home is taking place, with the goal of its being a place where students can come and discuss issues of faith and the Christian answer.

The Foundation already owns Lewis’s home, The Kilns, in Oxford, which it uses as a study center; the goal is to make this a place that can be used in the same way.

One of the dreams of the Foundation is to also establish a C. S. Lewis College in the town. It would be focused on the study of the Great Books and intensive discussion/argumentation (that latter word used in the best sense).

Green Pastures 1

A bonus on this trip was that just down the street is the birthplace of famous 19th-century evangelist Dwight L. Moody, which we also were able to tour.

Moody Birthplace-Outside

Included in the home was an excellent museum.

Moody Birthplace-Museum

I took a shuttle to and from the airport. While the shuttle was waiting for another person to pick up at Amherst College, I noticed a statue that I had wanted to see, so I was able to jump out and take a picture of it.

Amherst College started in the early 19th century as an institution to train ministers. One of its key founders was Noah Webster, who, as some of you know, was the subject of my doctoral dissertation (and the book that was published as a result of that). The college acknowledges Webster’s role.

Webster Statue-Amherst College

I have to admit to being disappointed somewhat by the statue. First, it barely resembles Webster; second, it seems to have been neglected. But there is a scripture on it, 2 Timothy 1:12, for anyone who might take the time to read it:

For I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day.

Amherst College no longer exists for its original purpose, but a testimony remains for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.

Many thanks for the hard work and dedication of those who planned and carried out this conference. The Holy Spirit was evident in every aspect of it. A spirit of love and genuine fellowship prevailed.

Lewis & the Public Square (Part 4)

CSL FoundationHere’s the final excerpt from my paper (which I presented yesterday) at the C. S. Lewis Foundation’s summer conference. Lewis argues for standing on absolute truth in our interactions with the society around us. He also notes that we are to be faithful regardless of whether we are ultimately successful in our efforts to keep a society from self-destruction.

Lewis’s prescription for direct political involvement was the practical side of his approach, but it wasn’t pure pragmatism. All attempts to influence the public square had to be based on God’s absolute moral requirements.

In response to the hypothetical question as to whether some kind of permanent moral standard would stand in the way of progress, Lewis replied that without such a standard, no one would be able to measure progress. “If good is a fixed point,” he argued, “it is at least possible that we should get nearer and nearer to it; but if the terminus is as mobile as the train, how can the train progress towards it? Our ideas of the good may change, but they cannot change either for the better or the worse if there is no absolute and immutable good to which they can approximate or from which they can recede.” Absolute moral standards for society are society’s only hope, he concluded.

TruthUnless we return to the crude and nursery-like belief in objective values, we perish. . . . If we believed in the absolute reality of elementary moral platitudes, we should value those who solicit our votes by other standards than have recently been in fashion.

While we believe that good is something to be invented, we demand of our rulers such qualities as “vision,” “dynamism,” “creativity,” and the like. If we returned to the objective view we should demand qualities much rarer, and much more beneficial—virtue, knowledge, diligence, and skill.

“Vision” is for sale, or claims to be for sale, everywhere. But give me a man who will do a day’s work for a day’s pay, who will refuse bribes, who will not make up his facts, and who has learned his job.

Just how optimistic was Lewis that Christians taking up the challenge of the public square would make any real difference? In an address given at his own Magdalen College during World War II, Lewis dealt with the question of the futility of human endeavor. He wanted to make it abundantly clear that we, as Christians, do our duty, regardless of the success or failure of our efforts.

“I am not for one moment trying to suggest that this long-term futility provides any ground for diminishing our efforts to make human life, while it lasts, less painful and less unfair than it has been up to date,” he insisted.

FaithfulnessThen drawing on an illustration, he continued, “The fact that the ship is sinking is no reason for allowing her to be a floating hell while she still floats. Indeed, there is a certain fine irony in the idea of keeping the ship very punctiliously in good order up to the very moment at which she goes down.” If we are living in a world that is sinking, we nevertheless have an obligation to make it less of a hell than it would be without our influence.

He concluded, “If the universe is shameless and idiotic, that is no reason why we should imitate it. Well brought up people have always regarded the tumbril and the scaffold as places for one’s best clothes and best manners.”

As long as a public square exists and Christians are not banned from it, the responsibility to speak out for truth remains. If the Christian worldview and the morality that naturally emanates from it is rejected by the society at large, Christians must remain faithful to God’s command to be His voice, even if the world attempts to drown out that voice.