Lewis & the Public Square (Part 2)

Last Saturday, I posted a portion of the paper I’m delivering to the Academic Roundtable at the C. S. Lewis Foundation’s summer conference. Today, I’d like to offer another excerpt dealing with how Lewis viewed the Christian’s responsibility to speak to the culture and government in the public square.

C. S. Lewis 8Lewis called on his fellow Christians to engage the culture in every possible way. Education was certainly a key component for furthering the Biblical worldview; he called it “only the most fully conscious of the channels whereby each generation influences the next.”

He expressed concern that the State might “take education more and more firmly under its wing.” By doing so, it could potentially “foster conformity, perhaps even servility, up to a point,” but it still would require people to do the teaching, and “as long as we remain a democracy, it is men who give the State its powers,” he noted optimistically. “And over these men, until all freedom is extinguished, the free winds of opinion blow. Their minds are formed by influences which government cannot control.”

Lewis believed in those “free winds of opinion” that could not be controlled by the government, but he did mention the condition: “as long as we remain a democracy.” While he favored a democratic system, which would allow for the free interchange of ideas in the public square, he also offered cautions that democracy, in itself, provided no absolute guarantee of success.

Screwtape Proposes a ToastThat warning came through the mouth of Screwtape in “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” in which he has the diabolical fiend say,

We, in Hell, would welcome the disappearance of Democracy in the strict sense of that word; the political arrangement so called. Like all forms of government it often works to our advantage; but on the whole less often than other forms.

And what we must realize is that “democracy” in the diabolical sense (I’m as good as you, Being like Folks, Togetherness) is the finest instrument we could possibly have for extirpating political Democracies from the face of the earth.

For “democracy” or the “democratic spirit” (diabolical sense) leads to a nation without great men, a nation mainly of subliterates, full of the cocksureness which flattery breeds on ignorance, and quick to snarl or whimper at the first hint of criticism. And that is what Hell wishes every democratic people to be.

For when such a nation meets in conflict a nation where children have been made to work at school, where talent is placed in high posts, and where the ignorant mass are allowed no say at all in public affairs [emphasis added], only one result is possible.

Democracy, in Lewis’s view, while very important for expressing points of view on policy and the standards by which a society ought to conform, was not a cure-all for society’s ills. Wherever there are people, there are problems.

He believed in democracy, he said, because he believed in the fall of man. “A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that everyone deserved a share in the government.” That was a false grounds for wanting democracy, he asserted.

Instead, he came at it from the opposite side: “Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.”

Part 3 next week.

The Antidote for Despair

We live in a culture spiraling down into depths of depravity that many of us never expected to witness. We have presidential candidates who are so corrupt that neither deserves a vote. We could, if we allowed it to happen, allow ourselves to spiral down into despair.

God, though, doesn’t want that to happen. We need to stay focused.

Message BibleMy daily Scripture reading this morning brought me to 2 Corinthians 5. I’ve been reading through the Scripture in the Message version just to get the flavor of it. Sometimes, it is a little silly in the wording used; other times, it hits just the right note to get one’s attention. Today is one of those days. It begins with this reminder for those of us who may get weary at times:

We know that when these bodies of ours are taken down like tents and folded away, they will be replaced by resurrection bodies in heaven—God-made, not handmade—and we’ll never have to relocate our “tents” again.

The reminder is that our time on this earth is short and a newness awaits that will last for eternity. We long for that day.

Sometimes we can hardly wait to move—and so we cry out in frustration. Compared to what’s coming, living conditions around here seem like a stopover in an unfurnished shack, and we’re tired of it!

We’ve been given a glimpse of the real thing, our true home, our resurrection bodies! The Spirit of God whets our appetite by giving us a taste of what’s ahead. He puts a little of heaven in our hearts so that we’ll never settle for less.

Mere Christianity 2C. S. Lewis put it this way in Mere Christianity: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

The Scripture chapter continues with this encouragement:

That’s why we live with such good cheer. You won’t see us drooping our heads or dragging our feet! Cramped conditions here don’t get us down. They only remind us of the spacious living conditions ahead. It’s what we trust in but don’t yet see that keeps us going.

Do you suppose a few ruts in the road or rocks in the path are going to stop us? When the time comes, we’ll be plenty ready to exchange exile for homecoming.

So no matter how evil the world around us is, we can handle it. In fact, God has given us His courage to do what He has called us to do while we are still here:

But neither exile nor homecoming is the main thing. Cheerfully pleasing God is the main thing, and that’s what we aim to do, regardless of our conditions.

Sooner or later we’ll all have to face God, regardless of our conditions. We will appear before Christ and take what’s coming to us as a result of our actions, either good or bad.

That keeps us vigilant, you can be sure. It’s no light thing to know that we’ll all one day stand in that place of Judgment. That’s why we work urgently with everyone we meet to get them ready to face God.

We are called to be faithful while we remain in this place of travail. Our mission, before we go “home,” is to take as many with us as we can. We are to stand for truth in the midst of an evil and perverted generation.

Let’s not let discouragement overtake us. God has given us His great and wonderful promises. Stand on them, stand for righteousness, and then stand back and see what He will do.

Lewis & the Public Square (Part 1)

CSL FoundationI’ve finished the first draft of my paper for the C. S. Lewis Foundation’s conference next month. The assigned topic for the Academic Roundtable is “Faith, Freedom, and the Public Square.” Participants can come at this topic in any way they choose. I chose to address the distinct difference historically between the terms “liberty of conscience” and “pluralism,” noting the first one rests on the belief that there is absolute truth to be found, while the second offers a basis of relativism.

After the historical section of my paper, I turn to how Lewis viewed the Christian’s responsibility to speak out for truth publicly. What follows is an excerpt.

One might be excused for thinking that C. S. Lewis avoided anything political, since he stated rather consistently that he abhorred politics. A tongue-in-cheek letter he received from an American organization that called itself The Society for the Prevention of Progress brought a tongue-in-cheek response from Lewis, as he told them,

While feeling that I was born a member of your Society, I am nevertheless honoured to receive the outward seal of membership. I shall hope by continued orthodoxy and the unremitting practice of Reaction, Obstruction, and Stagnation to give you no reason for repenting your favour.

Comments like that would tend to paint him as a reluctant combatant in the civil realm.

That would be an inaccurate assessment. While it is true that he despised the petty politics of his nation, he was always a staunch defender of truth in the public sphere, whether dealing with theological issues or more practical matters of governing. Why write the kinds of books he did if not for the purpose of influencing the society of his day? The Abolition of Man and its fiction counterpart, That Hideous Strength, are only two examples of his attempt to warn people of the dangers of scientism applied to education and government.

Oxford Socratic ClubLewis’s tenure as president of the Oxford Socratic Club shows his willingness to openly debate matters with those who were not Christians. He noted the importance, in a university, of Christians breaking out of their shells and interacting with those of different beliefs. Lewis never argued for a kind of pluralistic neutrality in those debates. He was forthright in how they should be conducted: “We never claimed to be impartial. But argument is. It has a life of its own. No man can tell where it will go. We expose ourselves, and the weakest of our party, to your fire no less than you are exposed to ours.”

He also knew that the Christian message had to be communicated in every way possible. One does that, he noted, by attacking “the enemy’s line of communication.” He followed this thought with one of his more famous quotes:

C. S. Lewis 1What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects—with their Christianity latent. . . . It is not the books written in direct defence of Materialism that make the modern man a materialist; it is the materialistic assumptions in all the other books. In the same way, it is not books on Christianity that will really trouble him. But he would be troubled if, whenever he wanted a cheap popular introduction to some science, the best work on the market was always by a Christian.

Then came an appeal to put one’s theology into the vernacular in order to truly communicate the message to an unbelieving audience. “I have come to the conviction,” he concluded, “that if you cannot translate your thoughts into uneducated language, then your thoughts were confused.”

That’s an introduction to the Lewis portion of my paper. I’ll add to it next Saturday.

America Discovers C. S . Lewis

C. S. Lewis 10My year-long sabbatical in 2014-2015 will soon pay off. The manuscript for my book on C. S. Lewis is now in the hands of the publisher and I’ve secured the Lewis Company’s permission to quote from Lewis sources. I’d like to give you an overview of what to expect in this book.

The revised title is America Discovers C. S. Lewis: His Profound Impact.

Chapter one looks at the relationship between Lewis and America. What was his attitude toward Americans and their country? Did it change over time? What did he like about the land he never got around to visiting and what did he critique about it? What conclusions can we reach about his views on Mother England’s former colony?

Chad WalshThe second chapter introduces Chad Walsh, an English professor at Beloit College in Wisconsin, the first American to write a book-length treatment of Lewis’s thought. In fact, Walsh was the first person, American or not, to do so. We discover that he not only met Lewis but became good friends with him.

Walsh not only introduced Americans to Lewis through his Apostle to the Skeptics volume, but he also was instrumental in connecting Lewis to one special person in particular—his future wife.

JoyJoy Davidman Gresham Lewis enters the story in chapter three. An American Jewish woman who rejected religion entirely, she committed herself to the communist vision for the future in her younger days, only to become disillusioned with that false worldview over time. C. S. Lewis filled the vacuum, showing her the way to the true faith. That relationship, which began in letters, blossomed eventually into marriage with Lewis, transforming his bachelor existence in his later years. The joy of that journey together was tested by the pain of cancer and her death, but their marriage is a testament to the essence of a love inspired by God.

Walter Hooper 1963How can one know Lewis personally for only a few months yet feel as if one has known him for many years? Walter Hooper experienced that as a young American who arrived in Oxford to meet with Lewis for only one afternoon but ended up being a close friend and companion who went on to edit Lewis’s works and ensure he would not be forgotten by future generations. His story is the subject of chapter four.

I”m also grateful to Hooper for communicating directly with me about his personal experiences with Lewis. He continues to be a link to the man who has inspired so many.

Clyde KilbyLewis became friends as well with a number of other academics on the other side of the Atlantic. Some he met in person, others only by letter. He helped fashion their Biblical worldviews, and they returned the favor by publicizing his works in America. Chapter five develops those relationships.

Clyde Kilby of Wheaton College is a prime example. It was through Kilby’s extensive efforts that the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton now exists, not only with the largest collection of Lewis primary materials in America but also as the repository for other well-known British authors, either personal friends of Lewis’s or those who influenced him greatly: J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Dorothy Sayers, G. K. Chesterton, Owen Barfield, and George MacDonald.

Severe MercyA young American who studied at Oxford, Sheldon Vanauken, attributed his conversion to Lewis, first through letters, then as a personal friend. His wife, Davy, also became a Christian by reading Lewis. After Vanauken returned to America to take up a professorship, Davy died a few years later. Lewis’s letters to him through that trying time solidified his faith.

Vanauken’s experience later appeared in a book that is treasured by many believers, A Severe Mercy. I’ve always come away from reading this autobiography deeply moved.

There is a second generation that knew not Lewis, but that owes him a great intellectual and spiritual debt. That generation is also examined in chapter five, along with representatives from American evangelicals who have depended a great deal on Lewis for their respective ministries.

Charles ColsonCharles Colson, caught in the Watergate net as a high-ranking member of the Nixon administration, read Mere Christianity and committed his life to the Lord, resulting in the worldwide ministry of Prison Fellowship. I recall reading Colson’s autobiography, Born Again, shortly after it first appeared in the late 1970s. It was an encouragement to my faith at a crucial time in my life. Lewis’s role in Colson’s journey to faith is recounted in this chapter.

Chapter six delves into the letters Lewis wrote to a number of regular American correspondents over the years. Most of these correspondents are not well known, but Lewis’s patient commitment to helping them understand better the essentials for living a victorious Christian life is central to his responses. He met those correspondents wherever they were along the Christian path and sought to lead them further. This sixth chapter also includes some of his most poignant letters to American children, most of whom contacted him after reading The Chronicles of Narnia books.

CSL FoundationChapter seven details three organizations in America that were established as a result of their appreciation for Lewis’s works: the New York C. S. Lewis Society; the C. S. Lewis Institute; and the C. S. Lewis Foundation. Their ongoing ministries testify to the impact that Lewis’s legacy continues to have on Americans. The Foundation even bought Lewis’s Oxford home, the Kilns, and has made it a study center for visiting Americans.

I’ve begun a connection with the Foundation, presenting a paper last fall at a retreat and preparing one for next month’s conference. It’s a connection I hope to strengthen over the years. I’m also slated to speak at a meeting of the New York C. S. Lewis Society in October; I’m looking forward to that.

Surveys of Americans to deduce how Lewis has influenced their lives form the substance of chapter eight. Two of those surveys, conducted in 1986 and 1996, simply asked for testimonies. The final survey, taken in 2014, expands the questions answered by the respondents and provides an even greater insight into how contemporary Americans view their C. S. Lewis experience. I conducted that final survey myself with the help of the Wade Center.

The ninth, and concluding, chapter offers some analyses by Lewis experts on the extent of his impact on America and reasons for his popularity. After reviewing what the experts say, I close with my own personal evaluation of their insights.

That’s the overview. Publication date will be late summer-early autumn. I’m excited about being able to offer this to those who are interested in understanding the immense impact Lewis has had on Americans.

Influencing the Course of Events: A Lewis “Scrap”

God in the DockCombing through C. S. Lewis’s essays to find pertinent quotes for the paper I will be presenting at the C. S. Lewis Foundation’s summer conference, I came upon what might be called a little scribbling that I don’t remember ever reading before. It’s in the collected essays entitled God in the Dock and is called simply “Scraps.”

These seem to be just odds-and-ends comments that Lewis saw fit to put on paper, perhaps just for fun, or for future reference to use in other pieces. I’m not sure if this particular “scrap” found its way into another essay (I’m not yet Lewis-omniscient) but it works beautifully for the theme of my paper, which focuses on the responsibility of Christians to speak out in the public square.

Here is that “scrap”:

“Praying for particular things,” said I, “always seems to me like advising God how to run the world. Wouldn’t it be wiser to assume that He knows best?”

“On the same principle,” said he, “I suppose you never ask a man next to you to pass the salt, because God knows best whether you ought to have salt or not. And I suppose you never take an umbrella, because God knows best whether you ought to be wet or dry.”

“That’s quite different,” I protested.

“I don’t see why,” said he. “The odd thing is that He should let us influence the course of events at all. But since He lets us do it in one way I don’t see why He shouldn’t let us do it in the other.”

All is not settled in public affairs until we make our decisions. We do have an influence on how our society functions and on the path it will take in the future. Christians are to be involved in every aspect of society, whether it be education, entertainment, business, or politics.

I’m thinking of using this Lewis quote as the starting point for my paper. I love searching for nuggets and finding ones such as this.

Screwtape Proposes a Hellish Education

I’ve been scouring C. S. Lewis’s essays for pertinent comments for the Academic Roundtable in which I will be participating at the upcoming summer Lewis Foundation conference. This is work? Not really. More like fun.

Screwtape Proposes a Toast 2In the process of my scouring, I reread his “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” a followup to the fabulously successful book, The Screwtape Letters, that put Lewis on the literary map for Americans.

As a lifelong educator, just now completing my 27th year of teaching at the college level, I was struck anew and afresh by his commentary on how hell would like education to be carried out. Lewis’s critique sounds so very contemporary, despite having been written at the end of the 1950s.

In the words of the devilish Screwtape, Lewis lays out the scheme:

The basic principle of the new education is to be that dunces and idlers must not be made to feel inferior to intelligent and industrious pupils. That would be “undemocratic.” These differences between the pupils—for they are obviously and nakedly individual differences—must be disguised.

He then describes how this can be accomplished at various levels of education, with the first example being the one closest to my experience:

At universities, examinations must be framed so that nearly all the students get good marks. Entrance examinations must be framed so that all, or nearly all, citizens can go to universities, whether they have any power (or wish) to profit by higher education or not.

Aren’t we told continually by our social engineers that everyone deserves a college education? We’re now being pressured to pay for everyone’s college education. But college is not for everyone, a statement I make based on those 27 years of teaching I mentioned above. Some students have no idea why they are there, and many should be directing their lives elsewhere. Isn’t the Biblical concept that of a diversity of talents?

Lewis/Screwtape then takes aim at basic elementary education:

ScrewtapeAt schools, the children who are too stupid or lazy to learn languages and mathematics and elementary science can be set to doing the things that children used to do in their spare time. Let them, for example, make mud-pies and call it modelling. But all the time there must be no faintest hint that they are inferior to the children who are at work.

We wouldn’t want anyone to feel bad about failing; it would damage self-esteem:

Whatever nonsense they are engaged in must have—I believe the English already use the phrase—“parity of esteem.” . . . Children who are fit to proceed to a higher class may be artificially kept back, because the others would get a trauma—Beelzebub, what a useful word!—by being left behind.

The bright pupil thus remains democratically fettered to his own age-group throughout his school career, and a boy who would be capable of tackling Aeschylus or Dante sits listening to his coeval’s attempts to spell out A CAT SAT ON A MAT.

So what is the overall goal, according to Screwtape?

In a word, we may reasonably hope for the virtual abolition of education when I’m as good as you has fully had its way. All incentives to learn and all penalties for not learning will vanish. . . .

We shall no longer have to plan and toil to spread imperturbable conceit and incurable ignorance among men. The little vermin themselves will do it for us.

I also can agree with, and shudder at, his concluding statement: “Of course this would not follow unless all education became state education. But it will.”

A Lewis prophecy coming to pass in our day.

Lewis on the Decline of Christian Faith in Society

I’m of the decided opinion that Christian faith is under attack in our nation. I’m also convinced that the influence of that faith in the public sphere has declined precipitously in the last seven years (I wonder what that coincides with?).

God in the DockYet there is another angle of vision on this outward decline of which C. S. Lewis aptly reminds us. In one of his short essays found in God in the Dock, “The Decline of Religion,” he offers his perspective on that perception.

He wrote this essay just after WWII, but it is just as applicable today. First, he examines the perception of religion’s decline by looking at outward manifestations, such as chapel attendance at Oxford:

The “decline of religion” so often lamented (or welcomed) is held to be shown by empty chapels. Now it is quite true that chapels which were full in 1900 are empty in 1946. But this change was not gradual. It occurred at the precise moment when chapel ceased to be compulsory.

Lewis notes that some students used to attend only because it started later than the roll call before which they would have had to appear if they didn’t go to chapel. As a result, those sixty students never came back; “the five Christians remained.”

Therefore, this was not a genuine decline, but rather an exposure of what lay beneath the surface: “The withdrawal of compulsion did not create a new religious situation, but only revealed the situation which had long existed.”

But wasn’t England a Christian nation? Didn’t it have a moral code based on its solid Christianity? Lewis tackles that as well:

One way of putting the truth would be that the religion which has declined was not Christianity. It was a vague Theism with a strong and virile ethical code, which, far from standing over against the “World,” was absorbed into the whole fabric of English institutions and sentiment and therefore demanded church-going as (at best) a part of loyalty and good manners as (at worst) a proof of respectability.

For the first time, Lewis explains, accurate observations could be made: “When no man goes to church except because he seeks Christ the number of actual believers can at last be discovered.”

While this “decline” of outward religiosity was a problem for how the nation of England might comport itself, it did draw a clear line in the spiritual sand. Lewis continues,

The decline of “religion” is no doubt a bad thing for the “World.” By it all the things that made England a fairly happy country are, I suppose, endangered: the comparative purity of her public life, the comparative humanity of her police, and the possibility of some mutual respect and kindness between political opponents.

But I am not clear that it makes conversions to Christianity rarer or more difficult: rather the reverse. It makes the choice more unescapable. When the Round Table is broken, every man must follow either Galahad or Mordred: middle things are gone.

The upside, then, is that there is a definite demarcation line between God’s righteousness and the way of the world. People will see that choice more clearly. More genuine conversions may result.

Lewis concludes his essay by commenting on how the Oxford Christians, at least in 1946, had not yet had to face a bitter opposition: “The enemy has not yet thought it worth while to fling his whole weight against us. But he soon will.” He says that every strong Christian movement, while welcomed at first, will in the end face hatred from those who are “offended” by its bold stand for truth and morality.

Dislike, terror, and finally hatred succeed: none who will not give it [Christian faith] what it asks (and it asks all) can endure it: all who are not with it are against it. . . . To be on the Christian side would be costing a man (at the least) his career.

What will make that hatred all the more confusing to the mass of people watching it being played out is that the attack will come from those who themselves are claiming to be Christian. As Lewis puts it, “But remember, in England the opposition will quite likely be called Christianity (or Christo-democracy, or British Christianity, or something of that kind).”

PersecutionWhat are we witnessing in America in our day? A growing hostility toward the absolutes rooted in Christian belief. A bitter opposition charging us with being bigots, haters, etc. And many of those hurling the charges are claiming the mantle of the true Christianity—the one that loves everyone and doesn’t judge. We are labeled intolerant and reactionary; they are the new and more understanding advocates for what Jesus really meant.

I wonder how Lewis would view the current state of America where same-sex marriage and abortion are the law of the land. I wonder how he would respond to the demand that public restrooms should be open to all without regard to the particular sex we are born into.

One thing is pretty evident, though, from his analysis: if the line between what is genuinely Christian and what is not was clear in his day, it is so much clearer now. And while the decline of the role of Christianity in our public affairs is a sad testimony to the state of the nation, whenever real Christian faith comes into view, it will draw those who are seeking forgiveness and a new life.

The dark cloud descends upon us, but in the darkness, the Light becomes even brighter.