Archive for June, 2018

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.

Lewis Conference Nuggets

The C. S. Lewis conference I attended last week, sponsored by the C. S. Lewis Institute (CSLI) and held at Wheaton College’s Marion E. Wade Center, was a thoughtful, challenging event. The theme was how to communicate the Gospel with guidance from the writings of Lewis that show how he did it.

I hadn’t been back to the Wade Center since 2014, when I first investigated whether anyone had written extensively on Lewis’s contacts with Americans and why America was more receptive to his works than his native Britain. I did come up with a book about that, as many of you know (I’ll come back to that later in this post).

Since 2014, the Center has added this very nice auditorium, which now allows conferences such as this one to be held at the very place where all of Lewis’s (and the six other British authors highlighted there) papers and books by and about him are housed.

As I noted in a post last week, in the middle of the conference, the main speaker was Dr. Jerry Root of Wheaton College. I offered in my previous post some of the key points he made in his first two sessions. Four sessions followed those.

What I’d like to do is pull out what I consider to be some of the “nuggets” he gave us in those final sessions. I’ll bullet-point them.

  • Christians need to be clear in the words they speak, sound in the reasoning they use, and convincing in the way they communicate the truth.
  • If you’re not awkward in some places in life, you’re probably not growing. God uses those awkward times to move us forward.
  • Neither is there real growth in spiritual understanding without employing the imagination.
  • Using stories is a method of communicating truth that is as old as language itself. Christians should never shy away from using imagination to tell the Gospel story.
  • Reality is always iconoclastic, meaning we need to regularly examine whether we are setting up false idols in our life. If we discover any, they need to be torn down.
  • We need God Himself, not our idea of God. We have to continually check to see if we have replaced the real God with a phony version in our minds.
  • When dealing with people who claim to be atheists, we need to show them that since they can’t know everything, they can’t really be so certain of their atheism.
  • When dealing with people who say they are agnostic, we should help them see that it is inconsistent to say one is dogmatic about one’s agnosticism—you can’t be dogmatic about things you are unsure of.
  • There is a type of agnostic who is of the hopeful variety: “I don’t know, but I would like to know”—we should reach out to them.
  • Evil isn’t the opposite of good; rather, it’s a perversion of good.

My time there was well spent, not only in those excellent sessions, but also with respect to the new friends I made and contacts with others who are serious about their personal spiritual growth. Some of us who are authors were even given a time to autograph our books.

I also was able to take advantage of free time to do more research in the Reading Room. Lately, my interest has been directed to connecting the dots between Lewis and Dorothy Sayers, another writer whose personal papers and books are a Wade feature.

I’m going back in October. I’ve been invited to share about my book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis: His Profound Impact. This time I’ll be the one standing at the lectern in the Bakke Auditorium. The goal is to expound on the rationale for the book, what I found in my research, and how it has been received thus far in what I might call “Lewis World.”

For those who might be interested, the date for that presentation is Thursday, October 18, at 7:00 p.m. I hope to see some of you there, especially those within driving distance of Wheaton.

I thank God for the opportunity to attend last week’s conference, and I’m humbled and gratified that I will get to speak this coming October. His grace is more than abundant. We should never question His love for us and His desire to help us become more like Him.

Back at the Wade Center: Focusing on God’s Love

It’s nice to be back at the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College for a C. S. Lewis conference this week. Because of that, I didn’t intend to write any blogs for the week, but the instruction has been so invigorating that I would like to share a little bit of what we’re receiving here.

It’s been four years since I came here to investigate Lewis’s connection to Americans, an investigation that led to my book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis: His Profound Impact. Since then, the Center has added an auditorium where it can more easily make presentations. Those presentations thus far this week have been both thoughtful and moving.

Dr. Jerry Root, a superb Lewis scholar and engaging teacher, has been the primary speaker. I heard him at a C. S. Lewis Foundation conference a few years ago and was duly impressed then. I’m doubly impressed now.

The focus has been on being an authentic Christian who can speak to the world about Truth. All too often, we come across as inauthentic; that type of person pushes people away from the very truths we are trying to communicate.

The challenge is to continue to examine ourselves before God. Dr. Root commented, “If you don’t examine your life, others will do it for you.”

How very accurate.

We need to cultivate virtue in our lives, a virtue that consists of four characteristics:

  • Courage: endurance; fortitude; staying power
  • Temperance: the ability to resist immediate pleasure for long-term gain
  • Justice: fairness; law-abiding; having a bedrock of honesty in one’s life
  • Wisdom: being careful about the decisions we make

Interestingly, Dr. Root said he disagrees with Lewis’s position in Mere Christianity where he calls pride the worst of all sins. Instead, he offers the following thought: pride emanates from fear (of not being accepted, etc.); fear comes from not loving God perfectly. Therefore, not loving God is the primary sin. As I John 4:18 tells us,

There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.

I grasp what he’s saying about that. I’ll have to consider it more fully.

How do we discover God’s love? By obeying Him. As we do so, His love is revealed. So one doesn’t wait to “feel” God’s love; rather, one does what He says and insight into His love will follow.

Another concept he presented that should help us understand just how much God loves is this: if God made it, He sustains it, so that means He loves it. God made us, He sustains us, therefore we can be assured He loves us.

Coming back to that first point about authenticity, here is the challenge: If we don’t come to the place where God is enough for us (we don’t want or need anything else but Him), we will never communicate with authenticity because we won’t be truly authentic.

I want authenticity to permeate my life. I deeply appreciate what I’m receiving here this week.

While I’m here, I’m doing more research into the connection between Lewis and Dorothy Sayers. It’s nice to be back at my “old station” in the Wade Reading Room.

I just keep thinking, “Thank you, Lord, for this opportunity.”

Lewis & Sayers Wordsmithing: The Mind of the Maker (Part 3)

Dorothy Sayers’s The Mind of the Maker, as I’ve pointed out in two previous posts, has a lot in common with how C. S. Lewis thought. Here are two more examples of why Lewis liked what Sayers had to say.

Sayers focused on the power of words to move men. Lewis was a dedicated wordsmith who knew that the right words used at the right time in just the right way, could spark the imagination and jumpstart the mind. Sayers shares that same mindset and worries that people don’t really grasp the power of words for both good and evil.

She warns, “The habit, very prevalent today, of dismissing words as ‘just words’ takes no account of their power.” Sadly, men are often moved by the wrong kinds of words. Words—mere words—can often lead to unforeseen and devastating actions.

Reflecting on the reality of 1941, in the midst of WWII, Sayers remarks, “At the time when these words are being written, we are witnessing a fearful judgment of blood, resulting from the incarnation in deeds of an Idea to which, when it was content with a verbal revelation, we paid singularly little heed.”

She then offers a critique of modern education—something Lewis undoubtedly affirmed when he read her words—noting that it seems to short-circuit the power of words too often. However, she cautions, “Pentecost will happen, whether from within or without official education. From some quarter of other, the Power will descend, to flame or to smolder until it is ready to issue in a new revelation. We need not suppose that, because the mind of the reader is inert to Plato, it will therefore be inert to Nietzsche or Karl Marx. Failing those, it may respond to Wilhelmina Stitch [a well-known newspaper columnist of the day] or to Hollywood.”

Lewis often touched on what he considered the wrong emphasis on the concept of originality in writing. “Of all literary virtues ‘originality,’ in the vulgar sense, has . . . the shortest life,” he opined. Lewis’s essay, “Membership,” includes this comment:

No man who values originality will ever be original. But try to tell the truth as you see it, try to do any bit of work as well as it can be done for the work’s sake, and what men call originality will come unsought.

In the same spirit, Sayers instructs her readers,

The demand for “originality”—with the implication that the reminiscence of other writers is a sin against originality and a defect in the work—is a recent one and would have seemed quite ludicrous to poets of the Augustan Age, or of Shakespeare’s time. The traditional view is that each new work should be a fresh focus of power through which former streams of beauty, emotion, and reflection are directed.

Although Lewis, in his correspondence, didn’t elaborate on precisely why he liked The Mind of the Maker, it’s not difficult to see the congruence of thought with Sayers on a multitude of subjects.