Archive for the ‘ Book Reviews ’ Category

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.

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?

Screwtape & Humility

In preparation for a class I will be teaching on The Screwtape Letters at a local church from January to April next year, I knew I needed to get a new copy of the book, as mine was falling apart from decades of use. I settled on the annotated edition by Paul McCusker.

I know I must have read sometime the preface Lewis wrote for the 1961 edition of his classic, but if so, it has escaped my memory. Reading it yesterday, I received a fresh reminder (as if I needed another one) of why I love reading Lewis.

His humorous self-deprecation is a hallmark of his overall view of his importance, and this preface highlights it.

While acknowledging that sales of the book have been prodigious, far beyond his expectations, he pokes a hole in sales figures, explaining that they don’t always mean what their authors hope they mean. “If you gauged the amount of Bible reading in England by the number of Bibles sold, you would go far astray,” he warns. And the same can be said for Screwtape, which he believes might “suffer from a similar ambiguity.”

“It is the sort of book,” he muses, “that gets given to godchildren, the sort that gets read aloud at retreats. It is even, as I have noticed with a chastened smile, the sort that gravitates towards spare bedrooms, there to live a life of undisturbed tranquility.”

Lewis then offers this little story:

Sometimes it is bought for even more humiliating reasons. A lady whom I knew discovered that the pretty little probationer [student nurse] who filled her hot-water bottle in the hospital had read Screwtape. She also discovered why.

“You see,” said the girl, “we were warned that at interviews, after the real, technical questions are over, matrons and people sometimes ask about your general interests. The best thing to say is that you’ve read something.

“So they gave us a list of about ten books that usually go down pretty well and said we ought to read at least one of them.”

“And you chose Screwtape?”

“Well, of course; it was the shortest.”

Later in the preface, Lewis contests the compliment often paid to him that the book must have been “the ripe fruit of many years’ study in moral and ascetic theology.” The compliment is undeserved, Lewis responds:

They forgot that there is an equally reliable, though less creditable, way of learning how temptation works. “My heart,”—I need no other’s—“showeth me the wickedness of the ungodly.”

Lewis’s genuine humility, in tandem with his witty, erudite style, fill his works with vitality no matter how often one reads them.

A Tale of Magnificence & Depravity Well Told

When I was on my “Irma Vacation” a couple of weeks ago, I stopped by a Barnes and Noble to browse the history books. Often, when I’m in a bookstore, I feel a little rushed. This time, with nothing but time on my hands, I did some genuine browsing.

I came across Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America. I had been tempted to buy it before; after all, it is advertised as a #1 National Bestseller and was a finalist for the National Book Award when it appeared in 2003. But I always had too much else I needed to read.

This time I took the plunge, knowing that I would have ample time to read over the next few days. It was a plunge well worth taking.

The White City in the title refers to the Columbian Exposition of 1893, when Chicago dazzled the world with a fair that was unequaled, even by the previous fair in Paris.

It was Chicago’s chance to prove to the nation that it was more than a backwater city known primarily for slaughtering animals. The goal was to show off its sophistication and energy in a positive light.

The book is a dual biography. Daniel Burnham was the architect charged with the responsibility for making this fair a reality in the short span of two years. The difficulties he faced and the tragedies he overcame along the way tell a tale of persistence and faith in a dream of excellence.

The Exposition was a marvel to behold at the time. People cashed in their life savings to be there. They were inspired by the magnificence of the buildings and the grounds, the latter the brainchild of Frederick Law Olmsted, who had also created New York City’s Central Park.

One can understand the awe that overcame the fair-goers at a time when architectural magnificence such as this was in its infancy in America.

The most popular structure of all was a brand new architectural marvel called the Ferris Wheel. This first one had cages that could hold crowds of people all at once. No one had ever seen anything like this before.

So why the title of this book? Why is the word “devil” so prominent?

While all this magnificence was taking place, right next to this Exposition, a man was silently murdering women and no one even noticed it was happening.

His name—well, actually the pseudonym he used—was H. H. Holmes, a clever deceiver who slyly constructed a building where he could carry out his depravity, complete with a soundproof room into which deadly gas could be released (shades of Hitler?) and his own furnace in the basement where bodies could be quietly disposed of.

He was America’s first serial killer.

This part of the tale is chilling, of course, and was one reason why I had always been reluctant to buy the book. I wondered if the author was just being a sensationalist, perhaps glorifying this man’s evil.

But that’s not the case.

Larson doesn’t glorify Holmes; neither does he go into gory details. What he does do is show how magnificence and depravity can exist side by side and how we can sometimes be completely unaware of what’s happening.

Holmes got his due. He was executed for his crimes, and Larson clearly shows the heroic nature of the detective, Frank Geyer, who relentlessly pursued the evidence that would convict Holmes.

The book is one of those page-turners: elegantly written, meticulously researched, and truly deserving of the accolades it has received. It’s what history writing ought to be—solidly fact-based, engaging, and respectful of Biblical morality and the consequences of sin.

You might want to get a copy for yourself.

Thank You, Walter Hooper

One of the most rewarding periods in my life as an academic was the sabbatical I received for 2014-2015. What made that sabbatical so rewarding was the almost-daily routine I had of researching letters C. S. Lewis wrote to Americans while simultaneously re-reading every Lewis book I could.

As most of you already know, the result of that sabbatical was my book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis: His Profound Impact. I wrote it because I believed God had shown me a niche in Lewis scholarship that hadn’t been fully investigated. Yet even with that faith, I was wondering how much confirmation of God’s leading I might receive from others after publication.

I’ve mentioned before that Walter Hooper, Lewis’s friend in the summer before his death and the eventual agent for Lewis’s literary estate, was very helpful to me in the research. Last month, I posted a blog highlighting his gracious visit to the Kilns to speak with my student group.

Recently, I received an e-mail from Walter that I would like to share.

Dear Alan, I’ve finished a close reading of America Discovers C.S.Lewis, and at the risk of being considered a mere flatterer, I think it Perfect.

For instance, you handle the chapter on Sheldon Vanauken better than I would have thought possible. I knew him over many years, and the man kept me wondering what  he believed, and how much of it was represented by A Severe Mercy. He changed his mind several times about almost everything, including his loss of interest in C.S.Lewis. At one point he was tremendously enthusiastic about the ordination of women in the Anglican Church, but when he became a Catholic all that changed.

But the important thing is that – by sticking to A Severe Mercy and his letters to and from Lewis, you represented the man as he almost certainly was. It would have ruined your book had you got in all Sheldon’s tergiversations. And I think you’ve told his story as in a better world he would have wanted it told. That was a very fine victory over half-truths and shoddy representation.

My guess is that you’ve dealt as fairly as you can with all the people you mention, and that partly because you are not interested in anything that diminished anyone. As a result I think you’ve achieved an almost perfect history of the story you set out to tell. I’ve always loved Chad’s Apostle to the Skeptics, and now you’ve produced a sequel, and I love it too. Congratulations! Your friend, Walter Hooper.

As I read that e-mail the first time, I was stunned by the praise (initial response), followed by a deep sense of gratitude and humility. I don’t need praise to know I’ve accomplished something God wanted me to do, but it is welcome nevertheless.

I will always treasure Walter’s response. More than that, though, I will treasure any and all testimonies that what I’ve written has helped people see the Lord’s work in Lewis’s life and how He used a man to illuminate Biblical truth.

Thank you, Walter. Thank you, Lord.

The Witness & the President

Would you like a story comparing two conservative icons? How about a narrative that reveals how both of those conservatives based their convictions on Christian faith yet had differing predictions about the future of freedom in America and Western civilization overall?

I have that story for you.

Yes, I’m talking about my book on Whittaker Chambers and Ronald Reagan, The Witness and the President.

Why am I highlighting it today?

I want to be sure you all know that it is now being published via Amazon and has a new Amazon page. You can see it here.

I spent a number of years researching and writing this book while maintaining a fulltime teaching position. Not only have I read anything and everything by and about Chambers, but I read every speech Reagan ever gave as president and went to the Reagan Library for more sources. I enjoyed every minute of that research.

I’m particularly humbled by the endorsements I’ve received: Paul Kengor, Reagan scholar; George Nash, the premier historian of the conservative movement; Richard Reinsch, Chambers scholar; Luke Nichter, editor of the Nixon tapes; and Patrick Swan, editor of a volume that deals with the public’s reaction to Chambers’s autobiography Witness.

This is a scholarly book, but it’s written for a lay audience. I trust you will find it an enjoyable read, while simultaneously learning things you never knew before. If you are on Facebook, you also might want to look at my special page for the book; give it a “like” if you think it’s worthwhile.

So that’s my “pitch” for today. I hope some of you will now decide to check it out, then let me know if I have offered you an accurate picture of what you would find.

Try it. I hope you will be pleased by what you read.