The Horror of the Same Old Thing

Every Wednesday evening since early January, I’ve had the joy of teaching a class on C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters. A local Episcopal church invited me to do so, and I accepted the offer with relish. A group of eager learners comprises this class (approximately fifty each week), which has made it one of the highlights of this new year for me.

I’d read Screwtape a number of times over the years. Lewis himself famously commented that a really good book should never be read only once. Yet I’ve never had to dissect Screwtape in this manner before. If I’m going to explain anything to a class, I need to go beyond an outline and provide depth of understanding.

Along with a deeper understanding of a book such as this one comes the conviction of the Holy Spirit, as He shows me areas in my life that need to be solidified in righteousness.

One caution for all Christians occurs in Letter 25, which I will be teaching about in a couple of weeks. It deals with the concepts of “Christianity And . . .” and “The Same Old Thing.”

Screwtape—the senior devil—instructs junior tempter Wormwood to lead his “patient” away from mere Christianity (where he will flourish) into something else:

What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in the state of mind I call “Christianity And.” You know—Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and the New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Faith Healing, Christianity and Psychical Research, Christianity and Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform.

If they must be Christians let them at least be Christians with a difference. Substitute for the faith itself some Fashion with a Christian coloring. Work on their horror of the Same Old Thing.

How often do we take our natural interest in something else, link it with our Christian faith, and then allow that other thing to become more important than the faith itself?

In American history, one example I can use is the very worthy cause, prior to the Civil War, of abolishing slavery. The cause was good. Many prosecuted it in the name of Christian faith, as they should have. Yet I am aware of some abolitionists for which the cause of abolition became primary and the faith merely a vehicle for attaining it.

Anytime we subordinate the faith to the cause it inspired, we miss the mark.

Lewis, through Screwtape, is asserting that we are drawn to this error through our desire to spice up, shall we say, the basic Christian faith, as if it is not enough inherently. Hell loves this attitude, as Screwtape explains:

The horror of the Same Old Thing is one of the most valuable passions we have produced in the human heart—an endless source of heresies in religion, folly in counsel, infidelity in marriage, and inconstancy in friendship.

Man’s quest for novelty, which is not a bad thing, can become a very bad thing indeed when novelty takes on an exalted status: it must be “new” and “fresh” or it will be boring. And boredom must be a sin, right?

Change is not synonymous with progress. It depends what that change actually is.

Screwtape again:

Once they [the humans] knew that some changes were for the better, and others for the worse, and others again indifferent. We have largely removed this knowledge. For the descriptive adjective “unchanged” we have substituted the emotional adjective “stagnant.”

There are some things that never should change—eternal right and wrong, for instance—and Someone who never will. Change is not always good. Yet if those who seek change that isn’t for the better can win the semantic war—“let’s call it stagnant instead”—the perceptions of an entire society can be altered.

I’ll leave it for you to make application to the culture in which we live today.

Where Are the Nathans?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the prophet Nathan. If that name escapes you, it’s understandable. He’s not prominent like Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Ezekiel, who wrote down their prophetic messages. He’s not well known like Elijah, who, although he wrote nothing, did some rather remarkable things through the power of God.

But Nathan is important.

He comes to prominence in 2 Samuel, chapter 12. King David, the anointed one of the Lord, committed adultery and then had the woman’s husband put at the front of a battle to ensure he was killed. He got his wish and the man’s widow.

After all, he was the Lord’s anointed. He could do whatever he wanted.

Nathan comes to speak to David one day and tells him a story about a rich man who takes a poor man’s pet lamb and butchers it for a meal. David is incensed by the story. That evil man, says David, must make compensation four times the lamb’s worth.

Then Nathan points a finger directly at David: “You are the man!”

Immediately, because David normally has a heart for God, he recognizes the enormity of his sin and repents deeply over what he did. Yet there are consequences: the child born of the adulterous relationship dies and one of David’s own sons tries to take the kingdom away from him. Many more die in the process.

Proverbs 14:34 says, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people.”

It was just and right for Nathan to confront David, even though he was God’s anointed. It was more than just and right; it was essential for the spiritual health of the nation.

How should this apply today?

No leader—political, spiritual, or otherwise—should be spared direct confrontation. The goal of such confrontation is to lead to a recognition of sin, a heartfelt repentance, and a restored relationship with God.

That’s always the goal.

It’s not “hate” to point out sins in a leader. Even if that leader is nowhere near being a Christian, there are still standards—God’s standards—to which everyone will have to answer. Christians are tasked with doing whatever they can, with God’s guidance, to bring a nation more in line with what God expects of a people.

In January 2017, when Donald Trump took the oath of office as president, I publicly, in this blog, stated that I would support him in any way I could. Despite  my firm conviction that a man of his character should have been rejected from the start when he entered the primaries, I would try to be fair and balanced toward him.

I believe I have been faithful to that commitment. If you were to check back in my blog posts, you would find a number of times I’ve agreed with his policies. Yet, I didn’t neglect to note when his character undermined not only those very policies but the integrity of the government.

Every time I dared to mention anything negative, a chorus of people arose to tell me I was judgmental.

At the beginning of this present year, I determined to minimize my political commentary because I was drawn more to other matters that I found more edifying.

Again, if you search my blog posts for 2018, I believe you will have to admit that Trump has shown up irregularly, and that I’ve been far more focused on positive messages on C. S. Lewis and moments from history from which we can learn important principles.

But whenever I venture to critique the president’s actions (or those of his supporters), the chorus returns.

It’s difficult to say anything anymore that even hints at criticism of Trump’s rhetoric or actions without an immediate and emotional reaction.

What has disturbed me most is that those who should understand sin, repentance, faith, and holiness better than others have decided to look the other way when it comes to the president.

Where are the Nathans?

Trump has an evangelical advisory group. Maybe they are doing a good job. Only God knows. But what I read and hear from people like Rev. Robert Jeffress is backtracking from Biblical morality in Trump’s case. He’s our man, so we’re not going to say anything negative. He’s God anointed; don’t touch him.

I toyed with the idea last night as I went to bed that I might just shut down my blog, remove myself from Facebook, walk away from Twitter, and generally get myself out of the line of fire. I’m tired of this.

It’s easy to make bad decisions based on emotion. In the light of this morning, I’ve decided that’s not the solution.

What I will do, though, is scale back even more from making political commentary—at least about Trump. No one who is devoted to him is going to listen to what I have to say. Minds are made up. Every excuse imaginable for why he shouldn’t be criticized is dredged up.

So what’s the point anymore?

That doesn’t mean I won’t write about government and the principles I believe God wants us to follow. And it’s not an absolute moratorium on Trump. To pledge that I will never mention him again would be foolish; I would undoubtedly break that pledge.

But I will never back away from the Biblical truth that righteousness exalts a nation and sin is a disgrace to any people.

And I will continue to pray that other Christians will take that seriously, considering the dangerous and increasingly anti-Christian times in which we live.

I will also continue to pray that more Nathans—those who are called by God to point out sin for the purpose of ultimate redemption—will come to the forefront.

A Witness, Not a Testimony

The most fascinating autobiography of the 20th century was Whittaker Chambers’s Witness. I’ve re-read it numerous times, particularly in tandem with the course I teach on him and his writings.

Why did Chambers decide to call his book Witness? His testimony before HUAC was an accounting of what he knew about the underground—but that is all a testimony is. It tells what happened; it provides facts. Chambers saw what he was doing as something more, something deeper. A witness is someone who goes beyond simply providing testimony. He describes it in this way:

A witness, in the sense that I am using the word, is a man whose life and faith are so completely one that when the challenge comes to step out and testify for his faith, he does so, disregarding all risks, accepting all consequences.

With his mouth, a man testifies; with his life, he makes a witness.

The opening section of Witness was slightly unorthodox, but that kind of thing could be expected from Chambers. He chose to begin with his own foreword that he called “A Letter to My Children.” Family was the highest priority for him. That was why he bought Pipe Creek Farm. It was why he sought to shield his children from everything connected to his past for as long as possible. The Hiss Case changed that; now he wanted to leave them a personal witness as a prelude to the rest of the book.

His Time associate Craig Thompson had seen him the day after his first testimony before HUAC. ‘“Boy,’ I said, ‘you’ve sure dropped an A-bomb this time.’ For once he couldn’t even grin. ‘Yes,’ he said heavily, ‘And now I’m going home to see what my children think of me.’” His “Letter” was intended as a guidepost for them:

My children, as long as you live, the shadow of the Hiss Case will brush you. In every pair of eyes that rests on you, you will see pass, like a cloud passing behind a woods in winter, the memory of your father—dissembled in friendly eyes, lurking in unfriendly eyes.

Sometimes you will wonder which is harder to bear: friendly forgiveness or forthright hate. In time, therefore, when the sum of your experience of life gives you authority, you will ask yourselves the question: What was my father?

I will give you an answer: I was a witness.

The foreword is powerful as a concise essay on what to expect in the rest of the book: the two irreconcilable faiths; the commitment of the communists to their cause; the communist vision of man without God; the proper way to break with communism; the need for the West to renew its faith in God or be destroyed.

“There has never been a society or a nation without God,” Chambers instructed. “But history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations that became indifferent to God and died.” The “Letter” ends with a highly personal passage:

My children, when you were little, we used sometimes to go for walks in our pine woods. In the open fields, you would run along by yourselves. But you used instinctively to give me your hands as we entered those woods, where it was darker, lonelier, and in the stillness our voices sounded loud and frightening.

In this book I am again giving you my hands. I am leading you, not through cool pine woods, but up and up a narrow defile between bare and steep rocks from which in shadow things uncoil and slither away. It will be dark. But, in the end, if I have led you aright, you will make out three crosses, from two of which hang thieves. I will have brought you to Golgotha—the place of skulls.

This is the meaning of the journey. Before you understand, I may not be there, my hands may have slipped from yours. It will not matter. For when you understand what you see, you will no longer be children. You will know that life is pain, that each of us hangs always upon the cross of himself. And when you know that this is true of every man, woman and child on earth, you will be wise.

I was deeply moved by the elegance of the writing the first time I read Witness. That emotional connection with the book has never left me. It’s why I want to introduce students to it. I want them to grasp—as a generation seemingly removed from the grip of the Cold War and the threat of communism—the eternal truths Chambers enunciates.

Just because the outward expression of the conflict, the Cold War, has ended, that doesn’t mean the conflict is over. It’s never over, precisely because the conflict is not simply between two political or economic systems; rather, it’s the age-old conflict of faith in God vs. faith in man. That one never ends.

I highly recommend reading Chambers’s Witness. You also can get a significant part of it in my book, The Witness and the President: Whittaker Chambers, Ronald Reagan, and the Future of Freedom, from which this excerpt is taken.

America Discovers C. S. Lewis: A Review

The new edition of Sehnsucht: The C. S. Lewis Journal has some marvelous articles, and tucked into the back of the journal in the book review section is a review of my recent offering, America Discovers C. S. Lewis: His Profound Impact.

The review was undertaken by Lewis scholar Charlie Starr. It’s always nice when a reviewer catches the spirit of the book he is analyzing; Starr accomplishes that admirably when reporting on what I’ve written.

“We might ask,” Starr begins, “what else can be written about Lewis?” He continues, “One answer to that question: we can examine C. S. Lewis’s relationships with Americans and his influence on America. In revealing that answer, K. Alan Snyder does not disappoint.”

Words like that are a balm to an author’s soul.

Starr then asks the following: “If there is a test for ‘yet another’ book on Lewis, it is this question: does it teach the audience something new? Snyder’s book accomplishes that task throughout.”

Commenting on the chapter in which I detail the relationship between Lewis and his first biographer, Chad Walsh, Starr notes,

In this chapter, we also get what is one of the highlights running throughout Snyder’s book: an account of first impressions. Before meeting Lewis, Walsh’s image was of a “sad-eyed,” and “world-weary” man—an impression drawn from pictures of Lewis, and one which made no sense given the vibrancy and life Walsh found in Lewis’s books.

This mystery disappeared once Walsh met Lewis and he realized that the dust-jacket pictures resembled Lewis “as much as a mummy resembles a living man.”

In my book, I offered a number of first impressions people had of Lewis. When one of his American students, William Brown Patterson, first saw Lewis, he didn’t know who he was, and since he was in “baggy trousers” and a “shapeless tweed jacket,” Patterson concluded this must be the gardener.

“The best moments in Snyder’s book,” Starr testifies, “are these storied moments, and the author manages the historian’s art: to tell a story of the past.”

One of my concerns was whether I could add anything new to the Lewis story. Starr believes I did, although he did point to one omission on my part:

In giving us the biographies of people influenced by Lewis, Snyder adds something to the biography of Lewis himself. Clyde Kilby’s story is worth knowing. Sheldon Vanauken’s account is one of the most powerful stories in the book (66-73), carrying much of the potency in this abbreviated telling that is to be found in Vanauken’s own account, A Severe Mercy.

Even more profound is the story of Joy Davidman Gresham, one which Snyder tells with charm and restraint, although the history here suffers from a failure to use the most recent discoveries about Joy and Lewis, particularly the love sonnets she wrote for him.

Mea culpa. May I plead ignorance?

Starr loves my Preface, which he says “grips readers and draws them in,” but feels I sometimes fall into basic (actually, the word he used was “bland”) prose. But he does give me a little bit of an “out” for that, noting that it’s kind of difficult to maintain the prose level of the Preface when all you are doing is providing an overview of the various Lewis societies and organizations.

He was impressed with the “excellent testimonies” from Americans who responded to my survey about how Lewis has impacted them. And he likes the chapter devoted to Lewis’s correspondence with ordinary Americans:

Here Snyder is smart to track down not only new and surprising stories about Lewis’s correspondents, but also the best tidbits from Lewis’s letters. The three-volume set of Lewis’s letters is a daunting read. Snyder kindly offers some fine moments from an epistolary Lewis in a few pages.

Starr’s final paragraph in the review summarizes nicely, so I give it here in full:

There are times when Lewis scholars and fans should ask, “Is this new book about Lewis really needed?” It would be very easy to ask whether or not we need a book about Lewis and America, especially one that moves beyond Lewis and his generation to the generations after. However, K. Alan Snyder’s America Discovers C. S. Lewis illustrates the first foray into something very much worthwhile. Snyder’s book predicts about Lewis what usually takes centuries to recognize in philosophers, theologians, or poets: the need to look back, acknowledge, and analyze the profound influence of a great writer/thinker on our culture. Had Lewis faded in the sixties as he himself predicted, there would be no need for such a study. Yet, despite Lewis’s speculation, Snyder firmly demonstrates a powerful trend: C. S. Lewis has and still is influencing Christianity in America. He did so in his lifetime, and, as Snyder proves, he continues to do so today.

I’m grateful to Charlie Starr for this positive review. Need I say that I hope it may inspire those who read it to make my book part of their collection?

What Has Changed?

In a society like ours, which now tends to view all things through a political lens and thinks there are legislative solutions for all problems, we focus on making external changes—gun control being one of those.

Pass a new law, we’re told, and we will wipe out the problem. Of course, that cry ignores the reality that we already have laws on the books that supposedly will stop shootings—but they don’t.

Whenever we think that tinkering with laws will save us, we are looking past the the real influences that cater to our sinfulness.

Guns have been around throughout all of American history. Only recently have we experienced tragedies like what occurred at the Parkland school. What’s changed? How about what we consider “normal” for entertainment? How about the rejection of the absolute laws of eternal right and wrong?

I’m not saying we shouldn’t take external precautions against man’s sinfulness. That doesn’t necessarily mean arming all teachers, but there can be a deterrence if evil men know they will be met with more-than-equal force if they attempt something.

At my university, we have an arrangement with local law enforcement that allows individuals on the campus to be trained in the use of firearms in a shooter situation. No one knows which individuals have that training; we don’t know where the guns are located, but we have an assurance that if a situation should arise, we don’t have to wait for the police to arrive before taking steps to counter the evil.

I like that assurance. It values human life. It is a proper, Biblical concept of self-defense. And it can make a potential killer think twice before acting.

Gun-free zones are an open invitation to violence, not a preventative.

I also want us to keep some perspective:

While we should be concerned about all incidents of violence that lead to the death of innocents, I have a hard time taking anyone seriously who doesn’t see the greatest violence of all against the innocent.

Many people posturing about gun control and displaying angst over the fate of our children in the schools have nothing at all to say about abortion, the biggest killer of all. Some are even strident supporters of abortion while simultaneously, and sanctimoniously, decrying violence toward others.

We have drifted so far from God’s moral law that it is no wonder we are suffering now. Neither would it be unjust of God to bring judgment for our callousness.

Oscars Past

I do love movies. I just don’t like watching the Oscars program because of its rather consistent descent into the denigration of Biblical morality and its overall liberal-progressive political stance. So I didn’t watch the self-congratulatory extravaganza Sunday evening.

Of course, I wasn’t alone. This year’s Oscars show got its smallest audience in history. Apparently, a lot of people feel the way I do.

I saw only three of the films that were up for any type of award: Dunkirk, Darkest Hour, and The Greatest Showman. I saw other movies, some quite good, that didn’t make the cut. It seems that most of the ones I see now don’t make that cut.

Yet I do love movies, at least those that tell a good story and tell it well visually in tandem with an intelligent script.

My undergraduate degree wasn’t in history; rather, I was a radio, tv, and film production major. My first job after college was at the Christian Broadcasting Network. Only later did I take a different path, end up with a doctorate in history, and become a professor (which I’ve been now for 28 years).

Last fall, I compiled a list of my favorite movies for some of my students. That list added up to more than 150. Many were Best Picture winners from past years. Here are some of my favorites and the reasons for that evaluation.

The King’s Speech, in 2010, was a sympathetic portrait of George VI of Britain, as he struggled with his inability to speak fluently and coherently as the burden of inspiring his people during WWII fell on his shoulders.

One feels for the king, marvelously acted by Colin Firth as George and Geoffrey Rush as his speech therapist.

Naturally, I’m drawn to historical films. This one satisfied.

I’ve read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy twice. The second time was in concert with the appearance of the three movies made from it. I wanted to be as re-familiarized with the plot and the characters before watching director Peter Jackson’s interpretation of Tolkien’s classic.

Jackson did a superb job conveying Tolkien’s world to the screen, so I was pleased when the last of the three, The Return of the King, received the Best Picture nod in 2003.

Some movies combine fiction with historical reality. One that accomplished this in a unique way was 1994’s winner, Forrest Gump. It remains one of my favorites; I’ve seen it so many times I practically have it memorized. So many lines from the dialogue have entered into our everyday speech: “Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re gonna get”; “I’m not a smart man, but I know what love is”; “stupid is as stupid does.”

We even now have the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company.

The interspersing of actual historical footage with Tom Hanks participating is masterful movie-making, in my opinion.

And its bittersweet ending makes us all think about what really matters in life.

Another standout for me was Chariots of Fire, the winner in 1981. The most significant aspect of this film, I think, was the respect it showed for Christian faith in the person of Scottish Olympian Eric Liddell, who refused to run on Sunday; a second highlight was its focus on acceptance of a Jewish man at Oxford.

Another outstanding feature of the film was the mood set by the theme music along with the runners moving in slow motion on the beach. In all of my years of watching movies, I can say that this one is at the top in quality points, in my estimation.

The print in this picture is too small to read, I know, so I’ll tell you what it says:

This is the story of two men who run . . . not to run . . . but to prove something to the world.

They will sacrifice anything to achieve their goals . . . except their honor.

For those in the younger generation who have never seen Chariots of Fire, I hope you will take this recommendation and fill in the gap in your cultural life.

Other favorites over the years include Oliver (1968) with some truly great music; Ben Hur (1959), which has achieved a classic status few films can hope to copy; The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), as Alec Guinness comes to grips with how he has inadvertently helped the enemy and redeems himself through self-sacrifice; All the King’s Men (1949), a dramatic representation of a fictional, yet not so fictional, politician based on the career of demagogue Huey Long; The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), as three men returning from WWII must deal with the trauma they faced during the war and find a way to return to normal lives; Casablanca (1943)–Bogart, Bergman, and the rest is history; and Mrs. Miniver (1942) with the wonderful actress Greer Garson showing us how a strong woman faced the privations and challenges of WWII on the home front.

There are others I liked very much, but these will do. I hope this travelogue was entertaining, informative, and maybe even a little inspirational.

Movies have the potential to move us toward God and His ways just as much as they can push people away from Him. I like to celebrate those that have a solid basis in the Christian worldview.

The Bible as Literature? Lewis Comments

When I was getting my undergraduate degree and only then solidifying my Christian faith, I took one course called “The Bible as Literature.” I was attending Purdue University, a large public institution with no leanings toward Christian faith, so I naturally was pleased to see such a course offered.

I didn’t go into it completely unaware of what a course like that might entail, given the probability that the professor would be someone who would view the Bible differently than I did. But I wanted to give it a chance and perhaps come out with something worthwhile.

I was disappointed with respect to getting anything worthwhile from the course itself, but it was tantamount to a graduate education on how the world outside my evangelical orbit viewed what I believe to be sacred writings.

C. S. Lewis, in a 1950 essay, “The Literary Impact of the Authorised Version,” tackled that whole approach of reading/teaching the Bible as literature, and, as usual, his perspective brings a freshness—even an audacity—to the subject.

In light of certain literary tastes, Lewis asks whether those particular tastes will help people appreciate the Bible more. He comes down on the side of what I experienced in that course taught by a professor who saw nothing sacred about the text:

Stripped (for most readers) of its divine authority, stripped of its allegorical senses, denied a romantic welcome for its historical sense, will it none the less return on the wave of some new fashion to literary pre-eminence and be read? . . .

I offer my guess. I think it very unlikely that the Bible will return as a book unless it returns as a sacred book.

Lewis was writing of the version we know of as the King James, which many might appreciate for its Shakespearean-era language. Yet he doubts that, in itself, will be sufficient to entice more readers.

Unless the religious claims of the Bible are again acknowledged, its literary claims will, I think, be given only “mouth honour” and that decreasingly. For it is, through and through, a sacred book. Most of its component parts were written, and all of them were brought together, for a purely religious purpose.

People may offer a modicum of “honor” to the Bible as literature, but they are merely going through the motions. They don’t really intend to treat it seriously; after all, it has all those outrageous doctrines that exclude all other religions. It claims to bring the only real truth—and they can’t accept that.

Neither Aeschylus nor even Virgil tacitly prefaces his poetry with the formula “Thus say the gods.” But in most parts of the Bible everything is implicitly or explicitly introduced with “Thus saith the Lord.”

It is, if you like to put it that way, not merely a sacred book but a book so remorselessly and continuously sacred that it does not invite, it excludes or repels, the merely aesthetic approach.

No matter which version of the Bible one reads today, Lewis’s point remains:

It demands incessantly to be taken on its own terms: it will not continue to give literary delight very long except to those who go to it for something quite different.

It the Bible is not the Word of God, it has no real value, at least not for eternity. If it is the Word of God, it is of the utmost value, and that is how it should be read and taught.