C. S. Lewis Loses His Joy

On this day, July 13, 1960, C. S. Lewis lost his wife, Joy, to cancer. It was a devastating loss for him; their very short marriage he considered the apex of his life. Here’s how I wrote about it in my book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis: His Profound Impact:

“The blow has fallen,” Lewis informed [his friend Chad] Walsh in October 1959. News that Joy’s cancer had returned was a shock. Prior to receiving this bad news, they had planned a May trip to Greece. Neither had ever been there, but for Joy, in particular, seeing Greece was an unfulfilled passion. Now they had to wonder if those plans should be canceled.

She resisted; they went anyway, even knowing that it could drain the last drops of energy from her. Lewis wrote of it to Walsh shortly after they returned, wherein he remarked that though, at first, he doubted she would be able to make the trip, it turned out wonderfully. They had no regrets for making the trip. Lewis considered Joy “divinely supported” the entire time. She had been granted a lifelong desire and was grateful.

Death—the last enemy the Christian faces before being ushered into the presence of God—came to Joy Lewis a few weeks later on 13 July 1960. Lewis wrote of it to many of his correspondents, but the letter to Walsh probably provides the greatest insight into her last moments.

“It was a wonderful marriage,” Lewis confirmed to Walsh. “Even after all hope was gone, even on the last night before her death, there were ‘patins of bright gold.’ Two of the last things she said were ‘You have made me happy’ and ‘I am at peace with God.’”

Shortly after Joy’s death, Lewis began recording his feelings. Out of those daily jottings came an honest little book full of anguish, pain, and questioning of God’s ways, yet ultimately coming to the conclusion that one must put one’s life in His hands and allow Him to bring the healing, both now and in eternity.

A Grief Observed was published in 1961 initially under a pseudonym, N. W. Clerk, which was a pun on an Old English term for “I know not what scholar.” In those eighty-nine pages (more of a booklet than a book), we find Lewis struggling emotionally. Intellectually, he knew the answers to his questions, but he needed to work through the inner conflict that was making him doubt God’s goodness.

Lewis’s faith held. He lived only three more years, and was in bad health most of that time. By the end, he was fully resigned to death, even anticipating it. His understanding of his own faith, and his grasp of the door that opens into the next world, was enhanced by his relationship with an American, Jewish, former atheist, former communist woman who became the love of his life.

Why Read Old Books? C. S. Lewis Tells Us Why

“Every age has its own outlook,” C. S. Lewis instructed. “It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes.” Amen to that. “We all, therefore,” he continued, “need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”

Was Lewis saying that only old books are worthwhile? Was he so anti-modern that he believed nothing written in the last century could conceivably offer us wisdom? After all, in his inaugural lecture at Cambridge, he famously referred to himself as a “dinosaur,” one of the last specimens of those who live comfortably in their native land of previous epochs.

That’s hardly his intention. What he was doing in this quote was attacking the oh-so-modern fallacy (found in every age, by the way) that we have progressed so far that we understand things much better than previous ages and generations.

I teach historiography. Part of the course delves into different schools of historical interpretation. One common mistake for historians is to believe that progress is inevitable, that each succeeding generation is wiser than the last one.

I ran into this perspective in my doctoral program. One book used in a course on American colonial history was infused with a sneeringly condescending attitude toward those so-called primitive early Americans. They were just so backward, the book implied. Not like the new generation that has come so far.

Of course, in the view of that author, to “come so far” meant that we have set aside all those outmoded ideas about God that seemed to drive many of the early settlers. The hubris in the book was astounding.

All Lewis was saying in this quote is that each era has its truth emphases and each also has its own characteristic mistakes and/or falsehoods that it believes. How do we guard against this arrogance? Return to the thoughts and beliefs of earlier times and keep in mind that whatever faults they had, they also might have contained truths that we, in our pride, have foolishly abandoned.

The “old books” are not error-free, but they do put a check on our runaway love affair with ourselves. They remind us of things we may have forgotten as a society.

There is one old book, though, that is error-free and never leads us astray. If we take it seriously, our pride is leveled and we recognize our true place in the universe.

As I survey the mess our current society has devolved into, I’m reminded of another Lewis quote: “Moral collapse follows upon spiritual collapse.” If we are disturbed by what we see happening morally in our day, we must acknowledge the real reason for this development. We have allowed our Christianity to be compromised to the point that it no longer is the salt and light it was intended to be.

We must return to the one Old Book that puts things right again.

Chambers: Why the Christians Are Right & the Heathen Are Wrong

Here’s the scenario: the culture is in decline due to a loss of Biblical principles; beliefs based on those principles that used to hold the society together are attacked as bigoted, narrow, and intolerant; the government is increasingly dysfunctional and policies, despite the best efforts of honest and caring representatives, move further away from Biblical norms.

What’s someone to do about this, especially when one feels called by God (to some, that’s a rather presumptive and/or arrogant statement right there) to warn of the decline and the loss of a proper perspective on life?

One can choose to rail against this decline. After all, it is Biblical to warn sinners of the error of their ways. Purely on the governmental side, one can continually point out the false ideologies, hypocrisies, and evil deeds of our generation.

Pointing out the problems is something that must be done. However, there is a limit; after a while, if all one does is constantly harp on the negatives, one runs the risk of being a Johnny-one-note that people begin to ignore.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve started to notice the down side of some conservative commentary. While the commentary is most often true, depicting accurately the perfidy, the dishonesty, and the radical agenda of progressivism, one gets tired of hearing nothing but angst.

I’ve also noticed that some of those commentators are far more shallow in their thinking than I at first realized. They have certain talking points they repeat, and that’s all the farther they go. The repetitive nature of that approach makes it easy to tune them out.

As regular readers of my blog know, I’ve gained a lot of understanding through the words of Whittaker Chambers in his wonderful/tragic autobiography Witness.

Once Chambers left the communist underground and got a position writing for Time magazine, he eagerly used his position to try to point out the communist threat he knew from personal experience. He was so committed to warning about it that people got tired of hearing his warnings. He was kept from writing anything on the subject.

That seemed like a defeat. As Chambers relates,

My tacit exclusion from writing Communist news at first exasperated me, for I saw no one around me (except the Communists, of course) who knew anything at all about the subject.

He could have protested this treatment. He could have caused a ruckus and further divided the staff over his actions. But he kept calm and came to a new realization about tactics:

But gradually I welcomed the ban. I began to see that the kind of sniping that I had been doing was shallow and largely profitless; anybody could do that.

That last sentence is all too true. Anyone with an axe to grind or an ability to channel anger can do that. There are multitudes of those kinds of people. Chambers tried a new approach, one that more fully reflected the Christian spirit he was developing at that time in his life:

It seemed to me that I had a more important task to do, one that was peculiarly mine. It was not to attack Communism frontally. It was to clarify on the basis of the news, the religious and moral position that made Communism evil.

I had been trying to make a negative point. Now I had to state the positive position, and it was a much more formidable task than attack.

It’s deceptively easy to mount attacks. What Chambers now understood was that he had to do the harder job: help readers grasp the underlying Christian viewpoint of what constituted “good” and contrast that with the evil in communism.

It meant explaining simply and readably for millions the reasons why the great secular faith of this age is wrong and the religious faith of the ages is right; why, in the words of the Song of Roland, the Christians are right and the heathen are wrong.

This affected Chambers’s character in a positive way as well:

This change in my mood and my work reflected a deepening within myself.

The challenge before those of us who might take on the mantle of cultural warrior is perhaps to learn how to conduct the battle in a different manner. We need to leave the tactic of shallow anger and dull repetition and move on to deeper reflections on the nature of God, man, and His principles, and thereby help others gain a greater understanding of the battlefield.

That has always been my intent in this blog—hence its title, Pondering Principles: Reflections on God . . . Man . . . Life. My commitment to that goal is refreshed today.

On Venomous Discourse: A Lewis Caution

I just finished reading C. S. Lewis’s Studies in Words, which I found fascinating and sometimes confusing simultaneously. The latter was due more to my lack of knowledge of various languages, but the former was good enough to keep me going to the end.

When I got to the last chapter, I was struck by how Lewis’s last few paragraphs dealt with what we are experiencing currently in our nation’s politics. Lewis, of course, was not thinking of politics when he wrote it, but I saw a strong parallel.

What he was doing was pointing out the miserable state of book reviewing in his day. His emphasis was on the ill-tempered nature of some of the reviews/commentary on the literature. What I saw was a valid critique that applies to our political commentary today. We have become so emotional and polarized in American society that we often leave reason behind.

I’m going to quote Lewis quite freely now and intersperse my thoughts. See if you see what I see. (I didn’t know I could use “see” that many times in one sentence; I feel as if I’ve achieved something grand.)

Here’s where Lewis begins his critique of how others are doing critiques:

Reviews so filled with venom have often been condemned socially for their bad manners, or ethically for their spite. I am not prepared to defend them from either charge; but I prefer to stress their inutility.

It would be hard not to notice the rising venom in our political discourse. Yes, it should be condemned as bad manners; yes, it should be called out for the spiteful nature of the discourse. Yet Lewis focuses instead on what he called its “inutility,” meaning its utter failure to accomplish what it sets out to do.

These kinds of reviews/commentaries, can be “enjoyed,” he admits, but only “if we already agree with the critic.” But that points to the “inutility” once more because the audience will be primarily those who already agree with the position.

We are not reading them to inform our judgement. What we enjoy is a resounding blow by our own “side.” How useless they are for any strictly critical function becomes apparent if we approach them with an open mind.

It’s called “preaching to the choir,” and the message is seldom heard and rarely received by those who disagree. Lewis then gives an example of one particular reviewer who continually penned “unusually violent reviews.” After reading a few from that man, he stopped reading him.

In the first hundred words the critic had revealed his passions. What happened to me  after that is, I think, what must happen to anyone in such circumstances. Automatically, without thinking about it, willy-nilly, one’s mind discounts everything he says; as it does when we are listening to a drunk or delirious man. . . .

The spectacle of a man thus writhing in the mixed smart and titillation of a fully indulged resentment is, in its way, too big a thing to leave us free for any literary considerations. We are in the presence of tragi-comedy from real life. . . .

Thus in criticism, as in vocabulary, hatred over-reaches itself. Willingness to wound, too intense and naked, become impotent to do the desired mischief.

There are political commentators I no longer listen to. Why? Their language shows the resentment and/or hatred that resides in their hearts. And even if I agree with their political positions, I want nothing to do with them. The poison they offer will kill any truth they may be providing. They also become a “Johnny-One-Note” with nothing new to say. They become bores.

Lewis is not saying we cannot be critical, but he is counseling that it must come from a truly Christian heart, and that we must be careful with our attitudes and words.

Of course, if we are to be critics, we must condemn as well as praise; we must sometimes condemn totally and severely. But we must obviously be very careful. . . .

I think we must get it firmly fixed in our minds that the very occasions on which we should most like to write a slashing review are precisely those on which we had much better hold our tongues. The very desire is a danger signal.

We need to examine ourselves, as the Scripture tells us:

The strength of our dislike is itself a probable symptom that all is not well within; that some raw place in our psychology has been touched, or else that some personal or partisan motive is secretly at work.

If we were simply exercising judgement we should be calmer; less anxious to speak. And if we do speak, we shall almost certainly make fools of ourselves.

This entire passage in Studies in Words was worth the whole book for me. As a blogger who writes not only about Lewis, but also on historical, cultural, political, and governmental topics, the warning is clear: exercise judgment, even severe judgment at times, but ensure that what I write doesn’t proceed from a wrong heart, one filled with resentment or hatred toward those I perceive as promoting sinful actions in society.

God’s goal is always redemption.

A New Federalist Party?

Throughout my thirty-year teaching career, speaking to students about history, government, and politics, I’ve never had much good to say about third parties in the American political system. More often than not, they have caused a problem, their adherents allowing someone—usually not the right one—to win the presidency.

Third-party platforms are then absorbed into one of the two major parties and that third party ceases to exist.

For any new political party to rise up and be a major factor in the long term in our system, one of the current parties needs to be on its way out. That’s happened only once in American history.

After the demise of the first two-party arrangement, for a while there was only one party. We’re talking about the 1820s. Yet, as a testimony to differences of opinion, that one party was “one” in name only. In 1824, four men vied for the presidency within the supposed one party. John Quincy Adams emerged the victor, but the rancor following his win (decided only after a vote in the House of Representatives) led to Andrew Jackson leading his newly named Democrat party to dominance afterwards.

Those who opposed Jackson finally were able to organize sufficiently to call themselves a party, designated Whigs. The name was symbolic historically—Whigs in Britain opposed monarchs who stepped over the line. American Whigs saw Jackson as a wanna-be monarch, as highlighted in this particular political cartoon of the era:

The Whigs were basically an anti-Jackson party. Any party built primarily on a negative will not survive, and that’s what happened to the Whigs. Jackson passed from the scene eventually, and those who had assembled under its banner found themselves divided on issues, particularly slavery.

By the early 1850s, the Whigs were in rapid decline. It took that type of decline for a new party to arise—the Republicans.

Some are convinced that our present two-party arrangement is in decline as well, particularly conservatives devoted to the rule of law and the Constitution. They see the Republican party as only a shadow of its Reaganesque self; they want a new party to arise and take its place.

There is such a new party in the making. It’s called the Federalist Party of America, drawing its name not so much from the first Federalist party as from the term itself, which means that political power is to be divided properly among national, state, and local governments.

This new party is attempting to build from the grassroots, and aims not merely at getting a certain person elected president, but starting instead at the local level, seeking to gain a reputation by winning those elections.

All too often, third parties aim at the top and don’t take the time to form a solid foundation. Some came into being only to promote a charismatic candidate rejected by a major party—hence the quick rise and equally quick fall of the Progressive Party of Theodore Roosevelt in 1912.

The Federalist Party of America hopes to do things differently. What does it want to achieve? Its goals are clearly laid out:

  • The strength of America lies in its people, not in its government.
  • Government solutions, when necessary, should be pursued at the lowest level of government possible, that closest to the people they affect.
  • America has one overarching set of laws authorized directly by The People: The Constitution of the United States of America. That supreme governing document stands as is unless and until amended.
  • An ever-encroaching federal state threatens the general welfare of current and future generations of Americans. That encroachment can and must be reversed by democratic means.
  • A 28th Amendment to limit the number of terms that members of Congress may serve is necessary and justified to restore restrictions on federal powers as intended by our nation’s founders and delineated in the Constitution.

Except for that last one on term limits—a concept I’ve never before endorsed but am willing to reconsider—I like the goals.

But are we really at the place where a third party such as this can rise up to take over one of the two major spots in our system? Is the Republican party truly in demise?

Frankly, I don’t know. However, if the new Federalist Party has any chance of succeeding, it must follow the strategy of starting at lower levels and showing the electorate that its candidates can be trusted to carry out these goals.

This blog post today is not an outright endorsement, but I thought it important to make you aware of what is bubbling beneath the surface. I, for one, would welcome this challenge to a Republican establishment that has all too often offered only lip service to its stated principles.

So, Federalist Party of America, what will make you different? How will you ensure that your candidates will do more than talk a good talk? I’ll be watching—and hoping—that you are for real.

Three “Supreme” Supreme Court Decisions

First was the Masterpiece Cakeshop Supreme Court decision, reversing Colorado’s order against the baker who wouldn’t make a special cake for a same-sex wedding due to his Christian convictions.

Two days ago, the Court gave Barronnelle Stutzman, the florist in Washington state, a big boost by vacating the order imposed on her by her state, followed by remanding the case back to Washington courts. I’ll have someone explain why that’s a win in a couple of paragraphs from now.

Then yesterday, that same Court (which we often love to hate) told California that it cannot force pro-life organizations to promote abortion services.

Some on the conservative side have commented that the Masterpiece decision was too narrow; their concerns are valid, but so far it isn’t playing out that way.

The organization that took the lead in arguing all three of these cases is Alliance Defending Freedom. Michael Farris, the president, CEO, and lead counsel for ADF has some pertinent comments on these decisions. He notes on the Stutzman case,

“Granted” means that the Court agreed to hear her case. But it heard it summarily and issued an immediate order.

“Vacated” is that order. The prior decision is wiped off the books.

Remanded means that it was sent back to the Washington courts to reconsider in light of the Masterpiece decision.

This is very good news in at least two ways.

First, it protects Barronelle for the time being. And gives her a real chance for a full victory.

Second, it shows that the Masterpiece decision is not narrow as many claimed. It has precedential effect and was not limited to the Colorado facts.

In the other case, known as NIFLA, Farris commented,

The Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that California violated the First Amendment rights of prolife pregnancy centers by requiring them to advertise for abortions and make other unfavorable disclosures.

The case will be remanded but the directions given by the Supreme Court are extremely strong.

Here’s some of what the justices said, first from Clarence Thomas:

When the government polices the content of professional speech, it can fail to “preserve an uninhibited marketplace of ideas in which truth will ultimately prevail.” If States could choose the protection that speech receives simply by requiring a license, they would have a powerful tool to impose “invidious discrimination of disfavored subjects.”

Then Anthony Kennedy, of all people, wrote this:

This law is a paradigmatic example of the serious threat presented when government seeks to impose its own message in the place of individual speech, thought, and expression. For here the State requires primarily pro-life pregnancy centers to promote the State’s own preferred message advertising abortions. This compels individuals to contradict their most deeply held beliefs, beliefs grounded in basic philosophical, ethical, or religious precepts, or all of these.

In response to California’s claim that what it was promoting was “forward thinking,” Kennedy offered this succinct and powerful history lesson:

It is forward thinking to begin by reading the First Amendment as ratified in 1791; to understand the history of authoritarian government as the Founders then knew it; to confirm that history since then shows how relentless authoritarian regimes are in their attempts to stifle free speech; and to carry those lessons onward as we seek to preserve and teach the necessity of freedom of speech for the generations to come.

Powerful and poignant words.

ADF’s website, shortly after the announcement of the NIFLA decision, rejoiced over the decision:

Pro-life pregnancy centers in California will no longer be forced to be a mouthpiece for the abortion industry.

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of free speech, striking down a California law that would force pro-life pregnancy centers to advertise for abortion. . . .

What’s even worse is the fact that this law specifically singles out pro-life pregnancy centers. Drafted, proposed, and supported by abortion advocates, this law is a thinly-veiled attempt to target a viewpoint that the state of California doesn’t like and replace it with the government-approved viewpoint.

This is government-compelled speech at its worst. Thankfully, the Supreme Court ruled that this requirement is unconstitutional.

This ruling makes it clear that no one should be forced by the government to express a message that violates their convictions, especially on deeply divisive subjects such as abortion.

Yet, as ADF acknowledges, the fight goes on:

And while this is a crucial victory, the work is not done. Unfortunately, California is not the only state that is trying to stamp out the pro-life message. ADF is also challenging similar laws in Illinois and Hawaii.

That’s why we must stay vigilant.

I’m thankful for organizations like ADF who maintain that vigilance. But keep in mind these are victories via law only; the culture remains to be redeemed from this ready acceptance of the abortion holocaust and the sexual agenda that is being pushed on everyone. The Christian message must continue to go forth in love and strength of purpose.

In the Fog between Legend & History: The Tale of St. Brendan

Historians must always be careful not to accept too readily what may appear to be fantastical accounts. We are trained to check sources for confirmation of stories that may be more legend than actual history.

Yet sometimes those legends come about because they are based on real events. Such, perhaps, is the legend of St. Brendan. Here’s the story, received today in an e-mail from the Christian History Institute. See what you think about the accuracy of what we consider a legend nowadays.

ONE OF THE MOST POPULAR BOOKS of the Middle Ages recounted the travels of an Irish monk, St. Brendan. Brendan was a missionary who planted monasteries in northwest Europe. Many places are named after him and when he died at ninety-three, he was buried at the town of Clonfert in County Galway. However, we remember him today as possibly the first European to reach America.

Some of the details of the Brendan legend became incredible over the years—crystals floating in water, islanders bombarding the monk and his crew with flaming rocks, a whale mistaken for an island. Brendan is said to have offered communion each Easter while he was at sea on the back of a friendly whale. On a wet rock, he supposedly found a remorseful Judas chained and suffering. Demons carried off one of his sailors. He and his companions observed sheep as big as stags. Fallen angels in the guise of birds appeared to them. All these cheerful inventions caused scholars to dismiss the whole account as fantasy. Nonetheless, Christopher Columbus—who believed that Brendan followed a southern route—invoked the story to inspire his captains and crews.

Twentieth century historian Tim Severin studied nautical maps and became convinced a northern route fit Brendan’s description better. He and a handful of companions built a hide-covered curragh (a small, round boat with a wickerwork frame) such as Brendan would have sailed, christened it Brendan, and set sail in 1976 to learn whether an Irish craft could have made a voyage to the new world.

Proceeding from Brandon Creek, Ireland, the historian and his small team sailed northward to the Hebrides Islands and on to the Faroes (Brendan’s “Island of Sheep”)—from which one can see Brendan’s “Paradise of Birds,” named for the many which nest in the neighborhood. The next stop was Iceland. Along the entire journey, whales sported alongside, even swimming under the curragh as if to vindicate Brendan’s tale.

The curragh weathered frightful storms, leaking very little. Because of bad weather, the Brendan had to winter in Iceland inside an airplane hanger. The volcanic island was quiet at the time, but has been known to fling flaming sulfur and rock into the sky, another indication that parts of the legend had a basis in reality.

is a fascinating look at other prominent Celtic Christians who shaped the world.

In 1977, the five men resumed their voyage. Now they saw icebergs riding like shiny crystals in the sea and eventually entered a fog such as Brendan’s tale described. Soon afterward, they found themselves in pack ice. The curragh proved ideal for creeping through the pack, its hide-covered frame able to flex where the ice would have crushed a wooden or steel hull. About two hundred miles from Newfoundland, ice punctured the skin of the boat. Fortunately the hole was near enough to the surface that the crew could repair it.

On the evening of this day, 26 June 1977 Brendan made landfall in Newfoundland. “And the legend had looked more like the truth with every mile,” as Tim Severin noted. His replication of Brendan’s voyage did not prove it happened, but it did show that fifth-century Irish technology was capable of making the dangerous voyage and reminded us that those Irish monks were men of strength and courage.

I’ve always been fascinated by the Irish monks in the early centuries of Christianity. A book I read many years ago still stays with me: How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe. That story, which is historically accurate, rests on the shoulders of many of those faithful Christians of that early era.

How much of the St. Brendan legend is true? Well, I’ll discount finding Judas on the voyage, but much of the rest does seem to rest on fact, albeit explained in a more fantastical way.