Lewis: Honest Workmanship & God’s Glory

Combing through the letters of C. S. Lewis as research for a book I want to write has uncovered some real gems. Whenever I get one of these, I like to share it. In 1954, Lewis wrote to an American woman named Cynthia Donnelly, who apparently had asked what was necessary to be a good Christian writer. His response clearly points to the concept that everything we do, whether overtly Christian or not, is part of the calling God has given us. There is no strict separation between sacred and secular if we are fulfilling God’s purposes:

C. S. Lewis 8I think you have a mistaken idea of a Christian writer’s duty. We must use the talent we have, not the talents we haven’t. We must not of course write anything that will flatter lust, pride or ambition. But we needn’t write patently moral or theological work. Indeed, work whose Christianity is latent may do quite as much good and may reach some whom the more obvious religious work would scare away.

The first business of a story is to be a GOOD STORY. When Our Lord made a wheel in the carpenter shop, depend upon it it was first and foremost a GOOD WHEEL. Don’t try to “bring in” specifically Christian bits: if God wants you to serve him in that way (He may not: there are different vocations) you will find it coming in of its own accord. If not, well—a good story which will give innocent pleasure is a good thing, just like cooking a good nourishing meal. (You don’t put little texts in your family soup, I’ll be bound.)

By the way, none of my stories began with a Christian message. I always start from a mental picture—the floating islands, a faun with an umbrella in a snowy wood, an “injured” human head. Of course my non-fiction works are different. But they succeed because I’m a professional teacher and explanation happens to be one of the things I’ve learned to do.

But the great thing is to cultivate one’s own garden, to do well the job which one’s own natural capacities point out (after first doing well whatever the “duties of one’s station” impose). Any honest workmanship (whether making stories, shoes, or rabbit hutches) can be done to the glory of God.

His words are not for writers only, but have application for everyone, no matter the profession.

Lewis: Faithful Correspondent

Collected Letter of LewisIt’s been both a revelation and a joy to be able to sit in my study and systematically go through C. S. Lewis’s collected letters, concentrating on the correspondence he had with Americans. He became quite personal with a good number of regular correspondents, sharing tidbits of his life and offering whatever advice he could when they asked questions regarding the Christian life.

One of those letters, from January 1954, may provide a perfect example of how he combined the personal with the wisdom God gave him. He had a correspondent simply known as Mrs. D. Jessup, on whom there is apparently little information. All I can say about her is that she lived in a town called Rye, New York, and in this particular response to her, Lewis was guiding her through a time of suffering. Here’s what he wrote to her:

C. S. Lewis 2I don’t know whether anything an outsider can say is much use; and you know already the things we have been taught—that suffering can (but oh!, with what difficulty) be offered to God as our part in the whole redemptive suffering of the world beginning with Christ’s own suffering: that suffering by itself does not fester or poison, but resentment does; that sufferings which (heaven knows) fell on us without and against our will can be so taken that they are as saving and purifying as the voluntary sufferings of martyrs & ascetics.

And it is all true, and it is so hard to go on believing it. Especially as the dark time in which you are now entering (I’ve tried it; my own life really begins with my Mother’s illness & death from cancer when I was about 9) is split up into so many minor horrors and fears and upsets, some of them trivial & prosaic.

May God support you. Keep a firm hold of the Cross. And try to keep clear of the modern fancy that all this is abnormal & that you have been singled out for something outrageous. For no one escapes. We are all driven into the front line to be sorted sooner or later.

To me, it’s nearly unbelievable that Lewis would take so much time out of each day to write these letters. He sometimes complained of the need for so many responses, yet he felt the urging from God to be faithful; it was a vital part of his ministry. Reading them now, I am grateful that he chose faithfulness. He has given us a model to follow. May we exhibit such faithfulness, so those who follow us will have models as well.

Sabbatical Update: Lewis Edition

Many of my regular readers know I’m on a sabbatical this year, and I’ve been alert to provide periodic updates on the progress of my various endeavors. Recently, I posted photos of my time at the Reagan and Nixon libraries and the Reagan Ranch as I research on the topic of spiritual advisers to presidents. The hope is that will turn into a series of books with my Southeastern colleague, Dr. Robert Crosby.

C. S. Lewis 7I’m also deeply involved with a study of C. S. Lewis’s influence on Americans. I would like to author a book on that particular topic, since no one has ever done it. I have a literary agent who is working with me on the book proposal. A major blessing has been the e-mail communication I’ve had with Rev. Walter Hooper, who served as Lewis’s personal secretary during the author’s final months of life. Rev. Hooper then has gone on to be the primary representative for keeping Lewis’s writings in print for the last five decades. His help in providing personal information on his relationship with Lewis has been invaluable.

20140804_184024I’ve mentioned before how the Wade Center at Wheaton College has come alongside to aid in my research. Wade has the largest collection of Lewis papers and books by and about him in America. The Center featured on its website and Facebook page my appeal for testimonies from Americans on how Lewis has influenced their thinking and their lives. Again, as with Rev. Hooper’s assistance, the Wade Center’s willingness to work with me on my research has greatly encouraged me to continue this project.

I’m also reading through the 3-volume collection of Lewis’s personal correspondence, pulling out all letters he wrote to Americans and making extensive notes on them. One might think such a task would reek of drudgery, but it has been quite the opposite. Lewis’s lively words practically fly off the pages and into my heart and mind.

So I’m optimistic that my Lewis research is progressing well. I would like to thank those of you who participated in my survey on the Wade Center site. It’s not too late to do so if you have been considering it but just haven’t gotten around to it yet. I want as many testimonies as possible.

You can access the survey by going to this link: http://www.wheaton.edu/wadecenter/News-and-Events

Scroll down to the announcement titled “C. S. Lewis’s American Influence Survey” and simply click on “Take the Survey.” Your contribution would be greatly appreciated.

As you can tell, I continue to be excited by the opportunities I have during this sabbatical year. Please pray for them to come to fruition.

Lewis: Screwtape on Liberty

If one book can be said to have introduced C. S. Lewis to the world on a wide scale, it would be The Screwtape Letters. They are witty and full of insight, as a senior devil gives advice to a junior devil on how to tempt his human into disobedience to God—who was termed “the Enemy” in the book.

Lewis, though, says it was the hardest book he ever wrote, and I can understand why. He explained it this way:

Of all my books, there was only one I did not take pleasure in writing. . . . The Screwtape Letters. They were dry and gritty going. At the time, I was thinking of objections to the Christian life, and decided to put them into the form, “That’s what the devil would say.” But making goods “bad” and bads “good” gets to be fatiguing.

Screwtape Letters 2Although he vowed never to repeat that exercise, he did, later, write another little treatise that is now commonly included in newer editions of Screwtape. He imagined Screwtape giving a speech at the “Annual Dinner of the Tempters’ Training College for Young Devils” and called it “Screwtape Proposes a Toast.” In it, it’s obvious he still had the flair that produced the original. Take, for instance, Screwtape’s gloating on how mankind’s real enemy has subverted man’s desire for liberty:

Hidden in the heart of this striving for Liberty there was also a deep hatred of personal freedom. That invaluable man Rousseau first revealed it. In his perfect democracy, you remember, only the state religion is permitted, slavery is restored, and the individual is told that he has really willed (though he didn’t know it) whatever the Government tells him to do. From that starting point, via Hegel (another indispensable propagandist on our side) we easily contrived both the Nazi and the Communist state.

If you’ve never given The Screwtape Letters a try, why not now? Valuable insights await.

Lewis’s Humor: An Example

My sabbatical has given me more time than usual to simply sit and read—all for a purpose, of course. One of my projects is a proposed book on C. S. Lewis’s influence on Americans, so I am enjoying reading through his collected letters, sorting out those addressed to Americans.

A couple days ago I came across one letter that was rather amusing. Lewis is well known as someone who felt more linked, academically and emotionally, to earlier ages than his own. He never drove a car in his adulthood and never learned how to use a typewriter. One can only imagine what he would have thought of a personal computer.

In 1944, even before he started receiving a flood of letters from Americans, he got one from an organization in California that called itself The Society for the Prevention of Progress. This “esteemed” society was inviting Lewis to become a member and was asking him to forward his credentials for consideration. This rather tongue-in-cheek invitation elicited a similar response from Lewis that I found delightful:

C. S. Lewis 3While 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.

I humbly submit that in my Riddell Lectures entitled The Abolition of Man you will find another work not all unworthy of consideration for admission to the canon.

As I said, I’m enjoying my sabbatical.

Lewis: Redefining Good & Bad

Abolition of ManMy fourth and final commentary on C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man concentrates on the “conditioners” in our society who seek to remake man and society in their own image. Lewis saw this happening back in the 1940s. What would he say today about this? He saw the beginnings; we are seeing the fruit of that evil.

Who are these conditioners? Lewis says they are the scientists, philosophers, and educators who have rejected what he calls the Tao, and what has always been called “natural law.” When one rejects natural law, one rejects all objective standards of right and wrong, good and bad.

They are, if you like, men who have sacrificed their own share in traditional humanity in order to devote themselves to the task of deciding what “Humanity” shall henceforth mean. “Good” and “bad,” applied to them, are words without content: for it is from them that the content of these words is henceforth to be derived.

This is man becoming his own god, determining his own ideas of good and bad, and then forcing them on everyone else. Ultimately, where does this lead?

When all that says “it is good” has been debunked, what says “I want” remains.

Our own “natural desires” will then rule. What’s wrong with that? Lewis explains further:

Either we are rational spirit obliged for ever to obey the absolute values of the Tao, or else we are mere nature to be kneaded and cut into new shapes for the pleasures of masters who must, by hypothesis, have no motive but their own “natural” impulses.

Only the Tao provides a common human law of action which can over-arch rulers and ruled alike. A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.

In other words, throwing out the natural law, which is implanted into every human being by God (see Romans 1-2), leads to tryanny and slavery, even when it claims to be setting us free from the eternal law that God has established.

The sad results of this disavowal of God’s created order is what we have seen throughout the 20th century, and now into the 21st, where men try to rule without any standard apart from their own whims:

C. S. Lewis with BookThe process which, if not checked, will abolish Man goes on apace among Communists and Democrats no less than among Fascists. The methods may (at first) differ in brutality. But many a mild-eyed scientist in pince-nez, many a popular dramatist, many an amateur philosopher in our midst, means in the long run just the same as the Nazi rulers of Germany.

Traditional values are to be “debunked” and mankind to be cut out into some fresh shape at the will (which must, by hypothesis, be an arbitrary will) of some few lucky people in one lucky generation which has learned how to do it.

Tyranny, then, comes in many forms. We don’t see it only in a Hitler, Stalin, or Mao. We see it also in any ruler who sets himself up as the sole arbiter of what is right and wrong, good and bad. It can happen in a country where elections take place regularly. It happens whenever a ruler places himself above the law and says he will go it alone.

If that reminds you of anyone on our current political scene, you have understood the warning C. S. Lewis has given us.

Lewis: Replacing Natural Law

Abolition of ManFor the third Saturday in a row, I want to share some poignant excerpts from C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, a small book with rather large insights. Taken from lectures he gave, and published in 1943, it remains astoundingly relevant today as we watch our civilization teeter on the edge of utter rebellion against God-given natural law.

Lewis takes aim at the change in education during his time, and its attempt to replace undeniable truths with man-made ones. As he comes to the end of his argument, he points specifically to those who believe they can control nature and mold and shape mankind into whatever they choose:

Man’s conquest of Nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men. There neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on Man’s side. Each new power won by man is a power over man as well.

The belief that men can cast aside God’s natural moral order and create one of their own is not new, but we can see it even more clearly in our day. Lewis says this is attempted via our education system, yet he also points to why the “planners” have trouble achieving their goals:

For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means . . . the power of some men to make other men what they please. In all ages, no doubt, nurture and instruction have, in some sense, attempted to exercise this power. But the situation to which we must look forward will be novel in two respects.

In the first place, the power will be enormously increased. Hitherto the plans of educationalists have achieved very little of what they attempted and indeed . . . we may well thank the beneficent obstinacy of real mothers, real nurses, and (above all) real children for preserving the human race in such sanity as it still possesses.

But the man-moulders of the new age will be armed with the powers of an omnicompetent state and an irresistible scientific technique: we shall get at last a race of conditioners who really can cut out all posterity in what shape they please.

Even though Lewis usually avoided direct political commentary, he was well aware of the detrimental effects of what he termed the “omnicompetent state.” Once the dreams of the “planners” become the dreams of the politicians, only evil can follow.

C. S. Lewis 5The problem is then compounded by what Lewis sees as the second difference from the past: no longer do these planners feel bound to natural law and the traditional ways of thinking that accompany it. Previous ages always handed on to the next generation what they had received, in the same manner as birds teach their young ones how to fly. No more, says Lewis:

This will be changed. Values are now mere natural phenomena. Judgements of value are to be produced in the pupil as part of the conditioning. Whatever Tao [natural law] there is will be the product, not the motive, of education.

The conditioners have been emancipated from all that. It is one more part of Nature which they have conquered. The ultimate springs of human actions are no longer, for them, something given. . . . It is the function of the Conditioners to control, not to obey them. They know how to produce conscience and decide what kind of conscience they will produce. They themselves are outside, above.

These “conditioners” are the new masters of humanity. They will decide what is right and what is wrong based on their own views, not God’s. Lewis concludes,

The Conditioners, then, are to choose what kind of artificial Tao they will, for their own good reasons, produce in the Human race.

If that sounds scary to you, you have the right reaction. I won’t take time to try to point out the myriad ways this has occurred in our society at present. You can, I’m sure, come up with examples yourself.

Next Saturday, I’ll complete these thoughts from The Abolition of Man.