On Being a “Word” Guy

I’m a “word” guy, and becoming more so after writing two books in the past two years. I’m always looking for just the right way to say things, and I appreciate writers whose originality with words makes one rethink, or think more deeply, about life.

That’s why I’m attracted to the wordsmithing of people like Whittaker Chambers and C. S. Lewis. It’s not just what they say—which is truth-hitting-you-where-it-helps/hurts-most—but the way they say it.

Most of us have a hard time coming up with anything approaching what Chambers or Lewis have written. That’s fine. They were unique, and each of us needs to find our own way of communicating. I’m not pretending to be the latest incarnation of either, but I gladly try to incorporate anything I can from them to spice up my own style.

Why am I thinking about this today? Well, first, I’m currently teaching classes on both Chambers and Lewis. As I go through their writings with students, I’m renewed in my appreciation for their contributions; I also love it when students get their first taste of that quality of writing. For some, it’s like an awakening.

And that’s the true reward of teaching.

I’m also alert to commentary on how we speak and write. Sometimes, the best commentary can come from unexpected places:

Avoiding clichés is a constant effort. Then there are words that become so ubiquitous that you almost wish they would disappear from our national vocabulary:

My goal: to use only the “best” words. You know, like President Trump. Should he be my new model?

Lord, deliver me from such thoughts.

Podcast of My Lewis Book

It’s here, the podcast I recorded with William O’Flaherty about my book on C. S. Lewis. In it, I provide background on why and how I wrote it, along with some explanation of the various chapters within.

The podcast is only half an hour, well worth your time. I hope you find it both enlightening and entertaining, and that if you haven’t yet purchased the book, perhaps this will pique your interest enough to do so. Let me know what you think of both the podcast and the book. Thanks.

Click here to go directly to the podcast.

Critiquing Critiques: A Lewis Insight (Part 2)

In my last C. S. Lewis post, I drew from one of his lesser-known essays entitled “On Criticism.” I find that it contains a number of great insights into how reviewers of books can fall into errors. The first error Lewis pointed out is that some reviewers simply don’t do the work necessary: they don’t read carefully and miss the mark on the actual facts contained in a book.

A second error, according to Lewis, is when a reviewer attempts to provide a background for the book, yet does so without adequate knowledge. This often results in a fanciful tale with little relation to reality.

A great example, Lewis says, is of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Lewis, of course, knew all about its genesis, as he was probably the prime instigator in getting Tolkien to continue work on it and finally completing it. He knew the date when Tolkien began the project and could comment with authority that the critics had something terribly wrong historically:

Most critics assumed . . . that it must be a political allegory and a good many thought that the master Ring must “be” the atomic bomb. Anyone who knew the real history of the composition knew that this was not only erroneous, but impossible; chronologically impossible.

Others assumed that the mythology of his romance had grown out of his children’s story The Hobbit. This, again, he and his friends knew to be mainly false.

Now of course nobody blames the critics for not knowing these things: how should they? The trouble is that they don’t know they don’t know. A guess leaps into their minds and they write it down without even noticing that it is a guess. Here certainly the warning to us all as critics is very clear and alarming.

Lewis then takes the critics to task for ignoring what they were supposed to be doing: writing a review of the actual book before them, not inventing a tale of how the book came into being and what might be the message behind the message within the book.

Notice that in all these conjectures the reviewer’s error has been quite gratuitous. He has been neglecting the thing he is paid to do, and perhaps could do, in order to do something different. His business was to give information about the book and to pass judgement on it. These guesses about its history are quite beside the mark.

After remarking on the mistaken assumptions about Tolkien’s work, he mentions how the same thing has happened with his own:

And on this point, I feel pretty sure that I write without bias. The imaginary histories written about my books are by no means always offensive. Sometimes they are even complimentary. There is nothing against them except that they’re not true, and would be rather irrelevant if they were.

I find it a little amusing that Lewis says those misunderstandings can sometimes be quite nice, but that the real issue is that they are false regardless.

As always with Lewis, he takes his own criticism to heart, wanting to ensure he doesn’t fall into the same trap:

I must learn not to do the like about the dead: and if I hazard a conjecture, it must be with full knowledge, and with a clear warning to my readers, that it is a long shot, far more likely to be wrong than right.

Bottom line: maintain integrity in all you write. That’s a great lesson for us all.

Critiquing Critiques: A Lewis Insight (Part 1)

Finding something by C. S. Lewis that I’ve never read previously is always a joy (and I believe I’m talking about “joy” in the true Lewisian sense). One of his essays, “On Criticism,” has a series of pearls that I will share over the next few Saturdays.

Every author needs to receive constructive criticism. Lewis welcomed it to improve his writing, and since he wrote so much, he was subjected to a vast number of critiques. While he appreciated good critiques, he did have a few words to say about those that were not offering an honest appraisal.

Lewis freely admitted that while an author is not necessarily the best judge of his book’s value, “he is at least an expert on its content.” What amazed him was how often a reviewer simply neglected to carry out “a careful reading of what one criticises.”

He continues:

Unless you have been often reviewed you will hardly believe how few reviewers have really done their Prep. And not only hostile reviewers. For them one has some sympathy. To have to read an author who affects one like a bad smell or a toothache is hard work.

Who can wonder if a busy man skimps this disagreeable task in order to get on as soon as possible to the far more agreeable exercise of insult and denigration.

Lewis, of course, in his quest to be scrupulously fair to others, inserted this proviso:

Now of course it is true that a good critic may form a correct estimate of a book without reading every word of it. That perhaps is what Sidney Smith meant when he said “You should never read a book before you review it. It will only prejudice you.”

I am not, however, speaking of evaluations based on an imperfect reading, but of direct falsehoods about what it contains or does not contain.

Lewis then shared a personal anecdote about a certain volume of poetry in his library that previously had belonged to a scholar he admired.

At first I thought I had found a treasure. The first and second pages were richly, and most learnedly annotated in a neat, legible hand. There were fewer on the third; after that, for the rest of the first poem, there was nothing. Each work was in the same state: the first few pages annotated, the rest in mint condition.

Why had that scholar focused on those first few pages and then ignored the rest? Lewis called this the “first lesson” the reviewers taught him: “Let no one try to make a living by becoming a reviewer except as a last resource.” He declined to accuse all reviewers of “laziness or malice.” Rather, he contemplated,

It may be mere defeat by an intolerable burden. To live night and day with that hopeless mountain of new books (mostly uncongenial) piling up on your desk, to be compelled to say something where you have nothing to say, to be always behind-hand—indeed much is to be excused to one so enslaved.

I know Lewis was in that position often as well. In my research into Lewis’s letters to Americans I came across one letter in which he was responding to longtime correspondent Mary Van Deusen about a book she wanted him to read. It was particularly interesting to me because that book was Witness by Whittaker Chambers.

I consider Witness to be one of the best autobiographies of all time. I’ve written a book on Chambers and his influence on Ronald Reagan, primarily because of how Reagan was impacted by Witness.

So when I came across this letter, I eagerly anticipated what Lewis would say about it. Did he get Witness? Is it possible that these two authorial giants that meant so much to me might have crossed literary paths after all? I knew Chambers had mentioned Lewis in one of his famous essays, “The Devil,” so what would Lewis’s response be?

When Van Deusen suggested he get the book, Lewis merely answered, “I’m afraid I can’t find a W. Chambers book. It’s better not to send the book. They all get lost in the pile on my table.”

This could be one of the great lost opportunities of the twentieth century. One would have loved to know Lewis’s response to that book, which, although written as an autobiography, is a wordsmith’s delight. But it was not to be.

Lewis understood the reviewers’ lament, so even while he wrote about the deficiencies of some critiques, he could empathize with the plight of those reviewers.

Healthcare & the Constitution

America is counting down the days remaining in the Obama administration. What more damage can he do in the next two weeks? Well, keep in mind he’s been able to accomplish quite a bit during his tenure and he doesn’t show any signs of letting up. Let’s summarize:

The first target for Republicans will be Obamacare. Obama himself continues to act as if it’s doing just fine. The reality is somewhat different:

Democrats in the Congress are trying to rally the troops to defend the centerpiece of Obama’s vision, but their hope may be illusory:

They are going with the old tried-and-true strategy that they have used on every Republican from Ronald Reagan to the present day:

I remember back in the 1980s when Democrats sought to convince the public that Reagan was going to throw old people out on the streets to die. Not that long ago, Paul Ryan was pictured as pushing an old woman in a wheelchair over a cliff. Perhaps this time the public will tire of that overused and thoroughly dishonest tactic.

So Republicans have the knives out to remove Obamacare from the public life, but there is not unanimity in the ranks over how to do it, whether anything is worth keeping, or how to replace it.

My solution for this is not a popular one. How about going back to the Constitution and reading it one more time? If we do so, we will see that there is no authority in that document for the federal government to legislate on healthcare whatsoever. Why not allow the market to work and then let states deal legislatively with anything that needs correction?

I understand the politics, all the accusations that Republicans would have to face if they followed my advice, but that would be the constitutional thing to do. Unfortunately, constitutionalism won’t even be considered.

The nation has become so dependent on federal outlays and policy from on high that it will take a massive re-educational effort to change that outlook.

Democrats can always play on that and promise the world, while those few Republicans who do take the Constitution seriously seem to have the more difficult task explaining why the government should be kept out of this.

Even though this last election is being portrayed as a rejection of government interference, far too many people have become, in the insightful words of C. S. Lewis, “willing slaves of the welfare state.” They want what is “theirs” from the government.

And Democrats are always on the lookout for creating more government dependence:

Have we really learned our lesson as a nation? Will principles ever make a comeback?

Lewis: Sending Words “Into the Abyss”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lewis then provides this further insight:

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

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

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

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

Focusing on the Eternal

Last year’s political season was probably the most divisive in modern American history. The nature of the presidential race was such that I felt compelled to concentrate on it in this blog. However, I always sought to provide thoughts on other topics as well. After all, this blog is not about politics and government only; it’s about life overall.

I have a daily routine of online sites I check for current events and commentary, but I don’t limit my reading to those. That would be unbalanced. I am a voracious reader. It’s not just my profession as a history professor that mandates it; I thrive on reading.

My foundational reading for life is always going to be Scripture. I just completed reading the Bible through again. Whenever I do that, I use a different version to keep the message fresh.

My newest Bible-reading project will be long-term, as I’ve begun to delve into a study Bible that will keep me occupied for at least a couple of years. I’m not going to rush through it. I’ll take my time while I meditate not only on the verses themselves but the commentary within.

As a corollary to Scripture reading, I also have a daily e-mail from Christian History that not only offers a short devotional but also information about various people and movements in the history of the church.

A lot of my reading does have to do with the courses I teach, as I want to stay current with scholarship in my field. Yet that type of reading is not a duty; rather, it’s a joy.

For instance, I am teaching my C. S. Lewis course this spring. In my reading of a book about Lewis over Christmas break, I realized I hadn’t yet read some of his essays on literature. So I got a collection of those and found some I have now incorporated into the course.

Reading Lewis is one of my favorite things, as most of you probably know, since I published a book about him a few months ago. I find endless fascination in his thoughts and in the way he expresses them. He helps keep me balanced.

I’m reading other books now as well (I usually have three or four going at the same time). For my American Revolution course, which I will probably teach again in the fall, I’m previewing a book with an intriguing title: Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers. The author is a man I know personally, Daniel Dreisbach, who is an excellent scholar. Reading a book like that is a perfect combination of faith and history.

A course I’ve not yet taught, American history from 1877 to 1917, is another one I may teach in the fall, so I’m focusing right now on a key period in that history, trying to find just the right book to fill in the gap.

I’ve found a very readable book on the pivotal 1912 election that may be the one. It’s an interesting character study of the four candidates in that key campaign: Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Eugene Debs. I can say I’ve learned quite a bit; it has deepened my knowledge of the era, which is something I always seek to do with any historical period.

I also read fiction, mostly from evangelical authors who know how to tell a good story. Some of my staples in that area are Ted Dekker, Stephen Lawhead, and Joel Rosenberg, but I broaden my search all the time, wanting to find others who know how to combine fine storytelling with the faith.

I’m also working my way slowly through Paradise Lost, which is going to take a while, to be sure. Catching up on some of the classics that I’ve never read is another goal.

So, you can see I’m not just narrowly focused on politics. My life is so much more than just a matter of who won the last election. In fact, with an election like the one that has just occurred, I am truly grateful that life is bigger than that.

Memes created from one of my favorite movies, The Princess Bride, can sometimes capture how I feel:

I hope we can all keep our sense of humor in times like these. Faith in God and a sense of humor should go together to remind us that current events are just that—current, not eternal.

That reminds me of another of my favorite Scripture passages, found in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18:

Therefore we do not lost heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day.

For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen.

For the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.

May our focus always be on the eternal.