Lewis: “Up into the Real World, the Real Waking”

I’ve begun teaching a class in a local church on The Screwtape Letters every Wednesday evening. What a delight it has been thus far. I’ll probably write some about that in future weeks, but for today, I will just refer to one comment made by an attendee. I don’t recall exactly what I said to elicit the comment, but her response was something about how I was still so young.

At age 66, it’s encouraging to hear someone say I’m young. I’ll take that and savor it. It reminds me, though, of letters Lewis wrote to an American woman named Mary Willis Shelburne. He wrote more letters to her than to any American primarily because she bombarded him with letters.

One of Shelburne’s concerns was the approach of old age and death. Lewis’s responses to her fears showcase both his humor and his wisdom. In my book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis, I give this account of how he counseled her. I trust using an excerpt today will be both acceptable and enlightening.

He did his best to help Shelburne face her own demise with the proper Christian spirit and perspective. His letters become peppered with reminders that all humans have to face this ultimate test, but that Christians have a glorious eternity awaiting them.

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

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

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

After Joy’s death and the realization that he would no longer be healthy in his final years, he wrote to Shelburne about the hope of the resurrection of the body. He kept his sense of humor even as he suffered greater physical distress, telling her, with respect to their bodies, “Like old automobiles, aren’t they? Where all sorts of apparently different things keep going wrong, but what they add up to is the plain fact that the machine is wearing out. Well, it was not meant to last forever. Still, I have a kindly feeling for the old rattle-trap.”

In his final year, Lewis’s comments on death appeared more frequently, as he sensed his time was near. In March 1963, he conveyed to Shelburne his lack of concern about moving from this world to the next.

A letter in June remarked on her obvious fear of dying; Lewis’s response was the most direct one yet:

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

Lewis’s final word to Shelburne on the subject of death came about two weeks before he fell into a brief coma, followed by his resignation from Cambridge and his death four months after that. This final word showcases once again his facility with phrases that are memorable, as he encouraged her one more time:

“I think the best way to cope with the mental debility and total inertia is to submit to it entirely. . . . Pretend you are a dormouse or even a turnip. . . . Think of yourself just as a seed patiently waiting in the earth: waiting to come up a flower in the Gardener’s good time, up into the real world, the real waking. . . . We are here in the land of dreams. But cock-crow is coming. It is nearer now than when I began this letter.”

I’m not expecting an imminent death; most of us aren’t at that point yet. I’m still looking forward to many years of fruitful and productive activity. Yet not one of us can know that for sure. We need to be ready at all times for the final curtain on our earthly existence. Lewis shows us the proper attitude and reminds us that the real world awaits us still. The land of dreams will pass away and we will enter into an eternity that will far exceed our expectations.

Tax Cuts & the Poor: Reagan & Now

When Ronald Reagan took office back in 1981, he had three goals: a tax cut to stimulate the economy; cutting back on federal spending and regulations; and building up the American military to a state of preparedness after a post-Vietnam demise.

He accomplished all of those except for the cutback on federal spending. Some blamed his military buildup for that, but the bulk of the increased spending was on the domestic side—Democrats who controlled the House wouldn’t allow any sensible reductions.

The tax cuts were supposed to kill people, according to many Democrats. Reagan was excoriated as a tool of the wealthy at the expense of the poor. That was untrue. Look at these figures comparing how households fared in income during Reagan’s terms:

I won’t try to explain the entire chart (examine it at your leisure), but it shows that of those who were the poorest households in 1979, 85.8% of them were in a higher income bracket by 1988. The re-energized economy of the 1980s helped the poor significantly.

Congress recently passed more tax cuts. Dire predictions emanated once more from Democrats—but as in the 1980s, those predictions are proving to be demonstrably false.

History can show us what worked before and what didn’t. So why are some people so immune from learning those lessons? It has to do with their worldview and the false philosophies that they believe as a result.

This has been your history lesson for today. You’re welcome.

That Which Comes Out of Our Mouths

But among you, as is proper among the saints, there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality or impurity or greed. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk, or crude joking, which are out of character, but rather thanksgiving. Eph. 5:3-4

Those are instructions to Christians, the called-out ones, the saints (yes, that word is used in the passage). It’s not a suggestion, but a God-given standard for our lives.

The world around us doesn’t care about that standard, of course. We, though, should take it seriously. The problem of obscene, foolish, and crude talk is nothing new; our society didn’t create it. Paul had to admonish Christians in the first century, as we see in the verses above, but he wasn’t the only one:

The tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? James 3:5-6, 9-11

Christians are supposed to model godly behavior by abstaining from crudeness. Are we succeeding?

Why am I writing about this? No, it’s not only the controversy over President Trump’s language, but that is a symptom of what we see in the culture at large.

Some may say I’m naive—people have talked like this throughout history. Yes, I know that. The human heart is the same in all ages. Yet there are standards in a society, and American society, influenced as it was by the Christian ethos, put a damper on outward displays of coarseness in speech and actions.

Well, it used to. Now that Christian morality is becoming less of an expectation, we see society unleashing all of its inner demons, not only in how we speak publicly, but in how we act.

Today, though, I want to concentrate on the speaking.

Recently, I was browsing a site that listed one thousand songs of the past century. It was kind of fun looking through the list. I easily recognized songs from my parents’ era, dominated by people like Bing Crosby. When the list entered my own lifetime, I saw all the old familiar titles from the 1960s and early 1970s, the height of my fascination with the latest tunes.

Even though there were some edgier songs starting to pop up in the 1960s, there was nothing openly obscene. As the list continued, and my knowledge of the songs lessened considerably, I was nevertheless struck by the downward slide into pure raunchiness in the titles. Nothing like that would have been allowed back in the 1960s, which was hardly an era of moral purity.

Yet what was unacceptable in the 1960s is now practically mainstream.

I think back on my circle of friends when I was in my teens. While most of them were churchgoing kids, they probably were churched because their parents were. I’m not sure how many were sincere Christians. Yet I don’t recall any of our speech descending into the depths of sexual depravity or any other crudeness. We just didn’t talk that way.

I recall, though, a party I attended at which one girl, outwardly pretty and seemingly nice, launched into a verbal tirade with all the possible obscenities available to her at the time. And then she laughed about it. Frankly, I was shocked. The incongruity of someone so outwardly prim, proper, and nice-looking having that spew forth sickened me. It must have made an impression since I remember it so clearly even now.

You see, that kind of language was heard only in the presence of the “hoods” (a quaint term of the day) who hated being in school and who were already on a path toward dissipation in life. It wasn’t supposed to come from that girl.

Neither is it supposed to come from those who say Jesus Christ is their Lord. Beyond that, our response to crude and obscene language in others should never be excused or rationalized. Take that and apply it as you wish.

We are to be witnesses to the Truth, and our lives, both in speech and in action, should point to Him. There are words in one song that always lead to sober reflection within me whenever I hear them. The song is Find Us Faithful and the lyrics are as follows:

We’re pilgrims on the journey
Of the narrow road
And those who’ve gone before us line the way
Cheering on the faithful, encouraging the weary
Their lives a stirring testament to God’s sustaining grace
Surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses
Let us run the race not only for the prize
But as those who’ve gone before us
Let us leave to those behind us
The heritage of faithfulness passed on through godly lives

After all our hopes and dreams have come and gone
And our children sift through all we’ve left behind
May the clues that they discover and the memories they uncover
Become the light that leads them to the road we each must find

Oh may all who come behind us find us faithful
May the fire of our devotion light their way
May the footprints that we leave
Lead them to believe
And the lives we live inspire them to obey
Oh may all who come behind us find us faithful

When I hear these words, I think of my public testimony. Is it the kind that will inspire my grandchildren? My students? Those who read my blog posts?

When my days are over on this earth, I want to leave a legacy that reminds others of their high calling in Christ. I want them to consider seriously the words that come out of their mouths (and the heart that is the fount of those words) and remember that we are to be the mouth, hands, and feet of Christ to others.

Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.

And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. Rom. 12:1-2

Appreciating God’s Pleasures

Are we supposed to enjoy life? Are we supposed to appreciate the pleasures that life can offer? Or are we instead to be ascetics, denying ourselves anything and everything that enhances this experience called “life”?

I do believe God calls us to be disciplined. We don’t run into a hedonistic lifestyle in the way the world does. However, there can be an opposite danger when we never appreciate the pleasures God provides—when we become so obsessed with our Christian “duties” to the exclusion of godly pleasures.

Whenever the Christian life becomes a list of rules and regulations rather than a deep love of God and great joy in our walk with Him, we degrade the faith into a type of legalism that stifles true devotion.

C. S. Lewis, in his Letters to Malcolm volume, expresses this well. “Pleasures,” he remarks, “are shafts of the glory as it strikes our sensibility.” Genuine pleasures emanate from God. He adds,

But aren’t there bad, unlawful pleasures? Certainly there are. But in calling them “bad pleasures” I take it we are using a kind of shorthand. We mean “pleasures snatched by unlawful acts.”

It is the stealing of the apple that is bad, not the sweetness. The sweetness is still a beam from the glory. That does not palliate the stealing. It makes it worse. There is sacrilege in the theft. We have abused a holy thing.

The pleasurable thing itself—the sweetness of the apple, for instance—is a gift from God. It is to be enjoyed, appreciated, recognized as one of His many blessings. The misuse of the blessing—in this case by stealing it from someone else—is what undermines the original pleasure and God’s intent in providing that pleasure.

We should be grateful that God, in spite of the sinfulness that rocks this world, has maintained His provision of pleasures of all kinds. Recognition of His gifts should lead us closer to Him. Lewis continues,

Gratitude exclaims, very properly, “How good of God to give me this.” Adoration says, “What must be the quality of that Being whose far-off and momentary coruscations are like this!”

One’s mind runs back up the sunbeam to the sun.

The gifts/pleasures from the hand of God should make us think of the Giver more than the gift. While many can appreciate the gift itself, how many then “run back up the sunbeam to the sun” itself? Are we more focused on what we receive from God than on the nature of the God who gives it?

We need to be grateful for all that comes from the hand of God, from the least of blessings to the greatest. More than anything, though, we need to learn through those blessings to truly adore the One who offers them.

We—or at least I—shall not be able to adore God on the highest occasions if we have learned no habit of doing so on the lowest. At best, our faith and reason will tell us that He is adorable, but we shall not have found Him so, not have “tasted and seen.”

Any patch of sunlight in a wood will show you something about the sun which you could never get from reading books on astronomy. These pure and spontaneous pleasures are “patches of Godlight” in the woods of our experience.

May you see those “patches of Godlight” in your life today. Accept them, appreciate them, but don’t stop there. Allow them to be the sunbeams that lead you closer than ever to the sun.

Our Own Version of Newspeak

I read George Orwell’s classic novel 1984 way back sometime in my youth. Orwell, a socialist who saw the potential tyranny of socialism (read his Animal Farm for a withering treatment of Soviet-style communism under Stalin), displayed in 1984 just how bad it could get.

One of the words he introduced in the novel was Newspeak. It has now become part of our vocabulary. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the term this way:

Propagandistic language marked by euphemism, circumlocution, and the inversion of customary meaning.

Vagueness and reversal of established terminology, giving new and often perverted meanings to words, has now become an art in our society. Here’s one cartoonist who has noticed how this has come into play lately:

We used to think that global warming meant the temperature is getting warmer. Silly us. Now we know that global warming creates record cold waves.

Tax cuts used to mean that people paid fewer taxes. Wrong again. Somehow, those evil tax cuts are going to make us pay more. Oh, and everyone is going to die very soon because of them.

On university campuses across the nation, free speech is under attack because it’s not really free speech anymore, but speech that oppresses certain classes of people. That cannot be allowed. The First Amendment must be abolished so we can be free indeed.

See how it works? No? Well, join the club.

Pernicious as these developments are in overturning basic logic and even threatening our right to speak our minds in public, there is a moral inversion that is not new. It goes way back, even to the beginning of the human race—and we see it rising in our day as well.

The prophet Isaiah, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, explained it this way:

Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil;
Who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness;
Who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!

Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes
And clever in their own sight

Woe to those who are heroes in drinking wine
And valiant men in mixing strong drink,

Who justify the wicked for a bribe,
And take away the rights of the ones who are in the right!

Abortion is the fulfillment of reproductive rights, not the murder of an innocent child.

Homosexuality/same-sex marriage is love in action, not a perversion of God’s gift of sex.

The end justifies the means: as long as you come out on top in the end, you are to be praised regardless of how you got there. Righteousness in the means one uses is outmoded and unrealistic. All that matters is winning.

Those are the examples that immediately come to mind, but there are more.

Have we reached our own version of 1984, albeit a few decades later? Are we allowing Newspeak to guide our thinking and short-circuit genuine logic?

Don’t follow the herd. Think as God intended you to think. Take a stand for truth even when that stand is a lonely one. God sees. He honors those who stand.

Where There’s Fire, There’s Fury

There sure has been a lot of attention given to this new book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. Cable news and online sites don’t seem to get enough of it.

Author Michael Wolff has created a firestorm of sorts with his account of what those who work in the Trump administration have told him about their boss. Bottom line is that they think he’s somewhat off his rocker.

Or did they say the things he says they said? That’s what has created an equal firestorm as some of those he quoted and/or paraphrased have now branded the quotes as false, inventions of a man who simply wants to embarrass and take down a president.

Where is the truth?

I really don’t know.

As an academic, I want everything sourced/documented in the most detailed way. My goal in any writing I have done is to ensure that readers can trust what I’m quoting. By those standards, Wolff’s book is apparently deficient. Perhaps that’s what publishers want—sensationalism to sell the books, not unimpeachable accuracy.

Even some journalists who are not exactly Trump fans have criticized Wolff. Some have pointed out factual inaccuracies that bring into question the integrity of the work as a whole. Didn’t the publisher have any fact-checkers assigned to this volume?

Wolff does note that he can’t vouch for the accuracy of everything people told him; he claims to be simply reporting what they said and it’s up to the reader to figure out how true those statements might be.

Truth is particularly suspect when one of your major inside sources is Steve Bannon, a man who comes across to me as someone who’s out to puff up Steve Bannon more than anything else. Principled is not an adjective I would use to describe him.

All the attention to the book and to Bannon’s alleged comments in it has led him down an apology path. One wonders how sincere his apologies are when it is obvious he is now in a tentative position with respect to his tenure at the Breitbart news [?] site.

Trump has denounced Bannon, as he always denounces anyone he believes has betrayed him. So it seems a trifle phony for Bannon now to sing praises to his former boss.

My personal opinion about the book is that it is a mixture of fact and fiction and that it’s difficult to know which tidbit is which.

As as result, I have no compelling desire to read it; I have better things to read.

However, as Jonah Goldberg has noted, the reason it can gain some credibility is that it depicts a president that some of us think we already see. It doesn’t surprise us if all of what is said might be true.

How should one respond to a book that depicts one as unfit for the office of the presidency? I can remember the 1980s when journalists attempted to paint a portrait of Ronald Reagan as some kind of a dumb jock that others were leading around by the nose because he had no idea what was going on.

How did Reagan respond to accusations of that type? With jokes about himself, not attacks on the attackers. He defused the charges by self-deprecating humor. Americans saw a man who could laugh at himself, not take himself too seriously, and they readily dismissed the highly partisan, distorted caricature presented by the journalists.

How has Trump responded? On Twitter, of course. Here’s the verbatim tweet, in case you missed it:

Throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart. Crooked Hillary Clinton also played these cards very hard and, as everyone knows, went down in flames. I went from VERY successful businessman, to top T.V. Star to President of the United States (on my first try). I think that would qualify as not smart, but genius….and a very stable genius at that!

First, let me say that if you have to defend yourself, the best way might be through humility. But that seems to be foreign territory for Donald Trump. When you have to assert that you have “mental stability” and that you are “like, really smart,” you have undermined your credibility from the start.

Trump then brags about all his successes (proof that he is “like, really smart”), ending with the modest comment that “smart” is not a strong enough term—no, he’s a genius—no, make that “a very stable genius”—thereby accomplishing the opposite of what he intended.

That tweet only gives credence to the accusations that he is an ego-driven, arrogant yet insecure man-child, who can’t control his reactions. I’ve commented many times that he too often comes across as juvenile; this tweet could be the apex of his juvenile behavior.

The first half of this post will alienate The Resistance, which aims for impeachment. The second half will anger Trump supporters who think he truly is a genius. My goal was not to anger anyone but to be fair and balanced in my assessment.

The book is most likely a travesty that doesn’t deserve much credibility, yet Trump has to stop being his own worst enemy if he doesn’t want the book to gain credibility.

The Old Testament prophet Malachi might have penned this warning to both sides in our current controversy, and the words seem to fit the fire and fury motif:

“Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the LORD Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them.

May we take that warning seriously.

Rule of Law & the Constitutional Convention

In our era, when the rule of law seems to be weakening, it’s instructive to look back at how our cornerstone document, the Constitution, came into being. The 1780s, under the Articles of Confederation, saw a loose-knit assemblage of states that were in danger of splitting apart permanently. Those with concern for the rule of law and who had a vision for a better system urged a meeting of all the states to address the governmental crisis.

Twelve of the thirteen states responded to that call—tiny Rhode Island excepted due to fear of being overwhelmed by any change in the government—and sent delegates to Philadelphia. They met in this building in the summer of 1787, newly called Independence Hall, the place where they also debated and passed the Declaration of Independence eleven years earlier.

Of the thirty-nine individuals who eventually signed off on the new Constitution, over half had some training in the law. Lawyer jokes aside, that’s rather important, and was doubly so at that time, since all of them perceived of law as emanating from God ultimately, and not man.

They held to the conviction that man’s laws had to be in concert with God’s laws; otherwise, they would be invalid.

Half of the delegates had either attended or graduated from college. While that might seem to be a low percentage from the perspective of the twenty-first century, that was a high percentage in that era.

Further, thirty-three had served in the Continental Congress during the Revolution, a mark of stability and experience in governmental affairs. This was not to be an assembly of radicals who wanted to change everything.

Then, by choosing George Washington to preside over the convention, they provided its deliberations a respectability that all Americans would have to take seriously.

One delegate showed up with a plan: James Madison, probably the best researcher in the nation on the issue of good and effective government, offered his Virginia Plan, which became the basis for the debate as the convention went forward.

Madison’s influence was strong throughout that summer. He spoke frequently (second-highest number of speeches) and kept a record of what everyone said. Later, after all the delegates had died, his notes were published, and that book is now considered one of the most valuable of all American historical documents.

Another man, too infirm to be a delegate at this time, nevertheless made his mark on the Constitution because he was Madison’s mentor. Rev. John Witherspoon, president of the College of New Jersey, guided all of Madison’s intellectual pursuits. They had even worked together in the Continental Congress.

Witherspoon is credited, during his time at the college (later to be renamed Princeton) with graduating, along with the expected ministers, many men who later became governmental leaders. Four others at the convention, besides Madison, had studied under Witherspoon. Overall, the graduates during his tenure account for a future president (Madison), a vice president (Aaron Burr, but don’t hold that against Witherspoon), nine cabinet officers, twenty-one senators, thirty-nine congressmen, three US Supreme Court justices, and twelve state governors.

There is ample reason to accept the title many have bestowed on Witherspoon as “The Man Who Shaped the Men Who Shaped America.”

Some of what occurred at the Constitutional Convention will be the subject of a future post. Sufficient for today is the result: a system of government that gave precedence to the rule of law for a fledgling nation and that has helped that nation survive many tumultuous episodes. Regardless of our concerns with how our government may be functioning now, we can still feel some measure of confidence in its stability due to the wisdom of those who constructed it.