Archive for the ‘ Christians & Culture ’ Category

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.

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.

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.

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.

If the World Hates You . . .

Christians are to be the leaven in society that permeates the whole. We are to be the salt that preserves the taste for God and His ways. We are to be lights that reflect the greater Light to show others the path to knowing the One who loves them and seeks to bridge the sin gap that separates.

We cannot do that, though, if we become just like the society and fit into the culture. We fail in our mission when we dilute God’s truth in order to be accepted by those who spurn His truth.

There is always the temptation to water down the straight gospel message because we don’t want to suffer. Most of us don’t want to be in the shoes of those who bake cakes and have to go all the way to the Supreme Court to maintain the civic right to hold to our Christian convictions. We don’t want to be that photographer who is being coerced into taking same-sex wedding photos.

Victories can be won in the Supreme Court, but what of the next attack from those with a cultural/political agenda?

Will we stand when we are told we must make a choice? Are we standing now even before that choice becomes so stark that it threatens our livelihood and liberty?

We have to get over the false idea that everyone will love us because we are Christians. In fact, throughout history, it’s been the opposite. Why? We call out the sin, and that’s not appreciated.

We call out the sin not because we don’t love others, but precisely because we do. We want them to know the love of God that comes through forgiveness and the grace of God that provides the strength to live a life free from the bondage of sin.

But it’s not often received in the same spirit in which we offer it.

Jesus told us this would happen, didn’t He?

If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.

Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me. –John 15: 18-21

We are not greater than Jesus, who never did harm to anyone, but instead revealed the heart of God. As He said to Nicodemus when that man came to inquire of Him,

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

We need to understand that people cling to their sins and don’t like having them exposed. They are blinded by the mini-god of this world, a mere fallen angel whose goal is to deceive.

There is a song whose lyrics have always made me think deeply about this. It’s called “There Is a Line,” and it begins with this thought:

It’s hard to tell just when the night becomes the day
That golden moment when the darkness rolls away
But there is a moment none the less

In the regions of the heart there is a place
A sacred charter that should not be erased
It is the marrow; the moral core that I cannot ignore

The second stanza continues the theme:

Ask the ocean where the water meets the land
He will tell you it depends on where you stand
And you’re neither right or wrong

But in the fathoms of the soul that won’t ring true
Cause truth is more than an imposing point of view
It rises above the changing tide
As sure as the morning sky

The chorus then zeroes in on the stance a Christian must take:

Within the scheme of things
Well I know where I stand
My convictions they define who I am
Some move the boundaries at any cost
But there is a line, I will not cross

No riding on the fence – no alibis
No building on the sands of compromise
I won’t be borrowed and I can’t be bought
There is a line, I will not cross

Those words resonate in my soul: my convictions define who I am; I won’t be borrowed and I can’t be bought.

There is a line I will not cross.

Find your moral core in Christ. Don’t be bought. There is a line we never should cross.

Here’s the song for those who would like to hear it and meditate further on the words.

https://youtu.be/KIGbgZbzvGw

The New Paganism & the Christian Response

American Christians have had it pretty easy for the past few centuries. Whether or not the majority of the population was actually Christian at any time (only God knows for sure), the society, as a whole, always recognized the value of Christian belief and held a certain degree of respect for it.

Even during the debate over slavery that led to the Civil War, both sides were claiming to be following Scripture and used the Bible to argue their points.

That appeal to Scriptural authority no longer appears to be operative in the mainstream of American culture. The disdain for and rejection of Christian morality has now come to the forefront. It is most painfully obvious in the militaristic (I use that term advisedly) agenda that attempts to force everyone to embrace homosexuality as normal and legitimate.

I was teaching a Bible study last week where I used a passage from the Old Testament prophet Hosea, chapter 4, as he chastised his people for their faithlessness, and I believe it speaks to what we’re experiencing now:

Hear the word of the Lord, you Israelites, because the Lord has a charge to bring against you who live in the land: “There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land. . . .”

My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge. “Because you have rejected knowledge, I also reject you as my priests; because you have ignored the law of your God, I also will ignore your children.”

That last line is not God being callous; rather, it’s simply pointing out that the faithlessness of the people has led to no real knowledge of Him, with the consequences naturally falling on the next generation.

The sins of the fathers definitely do reverberate through the generations. As I look at America as a historian, I can see the beginnings—the first generations—where knowledge of God was pervasive in the culture. Then I survey what has happened since. Here’s how I explain it:

  • First Generation: The nation began with vision and zeal based on Christian faith, whether we are referring to the early settlers or the Founders who fought for independence and set up the government.
  • Second Generation: The knowledge of God and the true faith continued in the society, but that initial vision and zeal began to abate. America still believed that Christianity was the bedrock of the culture, but the heart was not the same—head knowledge, not as much from the heart. When did this occur? I place it as starting after the Civil War with the introduction of new philosophies like evolution and new movements like progressivism.
  • Third Generation: This is when the true knowledge of the faith began to diminish and society operated primarily on the tradition that had been handed down. We continued to think certain things were moral and others were immoral, but we lost our rationale for why that was so. We stopped explaining morality from a Biblical foundation and just declared that some things were right and others were wrong. We had “Biblical memories” without Biblical knowledge.
  • Fourth Generation: As things progressed (regressed?), we then began to toss aside even the traditions that kept a certain morality in place. We lost our moorings and constructed different foundations with an entirely new concept of right and wrong.

That Fourth Generation is what we are now entering with a vengeance. “Who says that abortion and homosexuality are wrong? Sin? What an outmoded term. Those who continue to harbor those old ideas are narrow, bigoted, and need to be coerced into accepting our new enlightened age that rejects those silly restrictions.”

Yes, we’ve come a long way.

Many Christians are shocked by what they see developing. We have to fight for civic rights that we once thought inviolable. Businesses run by Christians are under attack for not bowing to the New Enlightenment.

Is there a Fifth Generation coming? If so, what will it be? Are we going to get even further from God’s truth in the next generation, or will there perhaps be a backlash as the consequences of accepting immorality as normal become more evident?

Like you, I would prefer a society that respects Christian faith. However, we need to see this time of spiritual stress also as an opportunity. As those who enter into the New Paganism (which is the more correct description) begin to suffer for it, we need to be ready to offer the hand of healing and direction back to Biblical truth.

Are we ready to do that? Rather than spending our time bemoaning the loss of what once was, are we willing to follow our Lord into this new field of harvest for Him?

Great Minds Think Alike: The Mind of the Maker (Part 2)

In my previous C. S. Lewis-centered post, I lauded Dorothy Sayers’s book The Mind of the Maker, which I had intended only to peruse for overarching themes but wound up instead reading every word (even to the point of using it as part of my morning devotions) because I loved the writing so much.

It was a Lewis-centered post due to my emphasis on why Lewis appreciated her writing style and substance. I’d like to continue that analysis today.

Sayers’s third chapter, “Idea, Energy, and Power,” develops her thesis by showing how any completed work in life starts with an idea in the mind. This correlates nicely with what Lewis said to his brother, Warnie, when the idea of a senior devil instructing a junior devil popped into his mind while sitting in church.

He later explained that the genesis of Narnia was “a picture” in his mind “of a faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood.” He also remarked that when he decided to write the tales, “Aslan came bounding into it.” How? “I think I had been having a good many dreams of lions about that time.” Sayers is making the same point in this chapter. As she notes,

The ordinary man is apt to say: “I thought you began by collecting material and working out the plot.” The confusion here is not merely over the words “first” and “begin.” In fact the “Idea”—or rather the writer’s realization of his own idea—does precede any mental or physical work upon the materials or on the course of the story within a time-series.

In chapter four, “The Energy Revealed in Creation,” she stresses that a truly imaginative work demands some diversity within it to properly emphasize the unity. The other side of an argument, so to speak, must be given voice in order to give the work its “vital power.” Literature that is merely “edifying” or “propaganda” will lose that vital power. “The Energy is active only in one part of the whole, and in consequence the wholeness is destroyed and the Power diminished. You cannot, in fact, give God His due without giving the devil his due also.”

This is essentially what Lewis does in Perelandra when he allows the ongoing dialogue/argument between Ransom and Weston (the Un-man). If there were no counterpoint to the truths Ransom is offering the Green Lady of that planet, the drama would be sapped from the narrative. It’s the dynamic of the diversity of views that ultimately reveals the soundness of what Ransom is saying. The story would be lifeless—except for the descriptions of the beauty of the unfallen environment—and there would be little reason to invest time in it because it would only be a work of propaganda.

Lewis also guided his readers into an appreciation for a written work itself, and downplayed the desire to delve more into the author than the work the author has given us. Sayers says virtually the same thing when she asserts, “To put it crudely, we may, and do, know the Iliad without knowing Homer.” She bemoans the many foolish speculations about Shakespeare and admonishes,

The itch for personally knowing authors torments most of us; we feel that if we could somehow get at the man himself, we should obtain more help and satisfaction from him than from his chosen self-revelation. . . .

And it is desirable to bear in mind—when dealing with the human maker at any rate—that his chosen way of revelation is through his works. To persist in asking, as so many of us do, “What did you mean by this book?” is to invite bafflement: the book itself is what the writer means.

All creative work, whether written, painted, sculpted, or whatever, begins with an idea. All creative work must transcend mere propaganda. All creative work stands on its own merits without needing an intimate knowledge of its creator.

In all these ways, Lewis and Sayers are in agreement. The old cliché, “Great minds think alike,” is illustrated in the minds of these two Christian authors/creators.