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.

Graham & His Presidents

Historians have a unique experience when they do research into individuals. Even though I have never met most of the people I’ve researched, I come away with the sensation that I know them anyway.

My master’s thesis was on Yale president (and clergyman) Timothy Dwight and American geographer (and clergyman) Jedidiah Morse, the latter being the father of Samuel F. B. Morse of telegraph fame.

My doctoral dissertation was on Noah Webster, the premier educator of early America and the compiler of America’s first dictionary, which bears his name.

Reading everything I can get my hands on that relates to Whittaker Chambers, Ronald Reagan, and C. S. Lewis has been an ongoing joy.

I can testify the same about Billy Graham, since I’ve not only researched at Wheaton’s Billy Graham Center, but also have looked into his correspondence and relationships with all the post-WWII presidents.

Graham built a reputation as a friend and counselor for many of these presidents, although his first attempt was a little rocky. He received an invitation to speak with Harry Truman in the Oval Office. He prayed with Truman at the end of the meeting. When he and his associates emerged from the White House, reporters wanted him to reenact that prayer. He obliged.

Although Graham was undoubtedly sincere in his action, Truman was incensed that something private would be made into a public spectacle. Graham, young and inexperienced in dealing with the media, learned a valuable lesson that day.

The young evangelist made a connection with a much older man, Dwight Eisenhower, when Truman left office. In one way, it’s rather amazing that Eisenhower, the general who successfully conducted the D-Day invasion, would find a spiritual guide in such a young man. Yet he asked Graham for suggestions of Biblical passages to use in his first inaugural.

As Eisenhower lay in bed at Walter Reed hospital, knowing he was going to die soon, he asked Graham to come see him and tell him one more time how to make sure he was ready to meet the Lord. If not for Graham, Eisenhower might never have made his peace with God.

Graham didn’t know Kennedy that well, but at the latter’s urging, they met after the election and before the inauguration, because Kennedy, as the nation’s first Catholic president, sought to show that the leading evangelical Protestant voice was not opposed to his presidency.

It’s noteworthy that at a time when many Protestants were concerned about having a Catholic for president that Graham accepted the invitation and was willing to stand publicly with Kennedy. He wanted to help heal that division between Christian denominations.

What may not be as well known is that Graham, in November of 1963, had a strong urge to call Kennedy and tell him the Lord had impressed upon him that the upcoming trip to Dallas might be dangerous. He never reached Kennedy; others in the administration put him off. We all know what happened next.

Lyndon Johnson was a profane man with whom one might think Graham would want nothing to do, but that was not the case. The two developed a close friendship, and Graham even got involved to some extent in some of LBJ’s initiatives on racial reconciliation and other policy issues.

Interestingly, LBJ tried to convince Graham to run for president. He demurred, knowing that God had given him a different calling. In my opinion, after reading through quite a bit of material on their relationship, I see LBJ wanting Graham to be close to him because he suffered a deep insecurity about his own spiritual state—an insecurity that he definitely should have had, given his low standard of morality. Perhaps he perceived Graham to be his “security blanket,” spiritually speaking.

In the public mind, Graham is most often associated with Nixon. It’s true that they were very close. It was during Nixon’s presidency that Sunday morning services were arranged at the White House, and Graham spoke at many of them. Although he never officially endorsed any president, there was little doubt that he supported Nixon’s reelection in 1972.

Then came Watergate. When the tapes revealed language from Nixon that Graham had never heard him use in his presence, he was deeply disturbed. On Nixon’s part, because he didn’t want the controversy swirling around him to impugn Graham’s ministry, he conscientiously avoided meeting with Graham once the Watergate investigation went into high gear.

What’s most touching, to me, is that nothing Nixon did pushed Graham away from him. Even in the disgrace of resignation from the presidency, Graham remained his friend and spiritual advisor. He was not seeking power with the high and mighty; he simply wanted to share God’s love with them. He was the friend of presidents even when they were no longer in office and had nothing to offer.

His close brush with a possible taint on his ministry led Graham to rethink his associations with presidents. It’s not that he sought to distance himself spiritually, but he never again wanted to be so public in his relationships with them that the ministry would be discredited.

So when Ford took over from Nixon, while he did speak with the new president on occasions, he deliberately took a step back from a too-public connection.

The same is true of his relationship with Carter. Prior to his presidency, Carter had even shared the stage with Graham in Georgia at one of his crusades.

Yet, the relationship was never very close. Carter considered himself his own spiritual advisor, some would say. He didn’t reach out much to Graham during his tenure in office.

Ronald Reagan and Graham had been friends for a couple of decades before Reagan won the presidency, so the link between them already was firmly established. According to some sources, Reagan was the president Graham was closest to, but, in the wake of Watergate, Graham was intent on keeping their communication as private as possible.

That’s kind of a frustration for a historian like me. Whereas I found a lot of correspondence between Graham and LBJ and Nixon, the Reagan Library yielded far less.

Reagan’s esteem for Graham was shown in his decision to award him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

When I interviewed Reagan’s pastor, Donn Moomaw, back in 2014, he lent me this photo that I downloaded into my own files. I’ll always appreciate his willingness to do that.

George Bush the elder also had a long-standing friendship with Graham, to the point that he invited him to the Bush compound in Maine annually. He wanted his family to hear from Graham on spiritual matters. His initial idea was to ask Graham to speak to them—like a sermon—but Graham instead just opened it up each year to questions, which was a much more personable approach.

It was on one of those occasions that a walk along the beach with George Bush the younger led to his commitment to follow the Lord.

Have I omitted anyone? Oh, yes, there was another one.

This is further evidence that Graham was willing to be a friend to anyone occupying the highest office in the land.

I hope this travelogue through the history of Billy Graham’s relationships and connections with presidents has been worthwhile for those of you who made it through this entire blog.

I thank God for using this man in our nation’s history. May many more rise up and be His spokesmen for truth.

Parkland Solutions–Real & Imagined

For out of the heart come evil thoughts–murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. Matthew 15:19

After watching many news reports and reading many commentaries about the Parkland, Florida, school shooting that resulted in seventeen deaths, nothing I’ve seen or read has changed my mind about the basic issue that leads to such atrocities: the sinfulness of man.

We hear many loud voices calling for new legislation against gun ownership, as if that’s some kind of final solution for the problem of sin. Yet we have had gun ownership in this country since its founding. Many lives have been spared by the proper use of guns as a means of self-defense against sinful men.

Guns are not the problem. People are. And our culture, which drifts steadily away from the fear of God and from His truth, only makes that problem worse.

Then we get a CNN Townhall that allows grieving young people to display their angst and try to set public policy via emotion rather than principle and sound reflection. Some may think they are the source of wisdom, but I don’t, especially if they are merely spouting a distorted worldview they have received through our perverted culture.

The Biblical admonition about how a little child shall lead them is part of a prophecy of Isaiah in reference to when God will set up His kingdom on earth in the last days. It’s when the lion will lie down with the lamb.

We’re not there yet. We shouldn’t let the immature be our policymakers.

Those who think that legislation is the answer are seeking a utopia—a word that basically translates as “no such place.”

Yes, laws can help, if they are the right kind, based on a realistic view of man’s sinfulness. But any law that takes away the means for law-abiding citizens to defend themselves is a law that will lead to even greater atrocities.

We are told by some that if we turn in all the guns, we can be confident that our law enforcement agencies will be able to defend us. Trust them, we are told.

How did that work out in this case?

The FBI received numerous calls about the potential for Nikolas Cruz to go off the deep end. It did nothing. The Broward County police responded to numerous incidents with Cruz over the past years. They did nothing.

The Broward County deputy who was assigned to protect the school hid outside, never even attempting to confront the shooter. The county’s sheriff is making a fool of himself in interviews after the fact. He is arrogant, defending himself, and blaming everyone else.

Let me also say something here about the organization that is getting pilloried over this, as it always does after a shooting. The NRA (for the record, I’m not a member) is a respectable organization devoted to gun safety. The one time I went to an NRA firing range, I was tested first, then instructed carefully on how to use the weapons.

The NRA is not the enemy of the people.

Politicians like to get their names in the headlines after these terrible incidents. The one who stands out to me this time is California Senator Kamala Harris, who responded to Parkland with this:

This cannot be a political issue. We have to have smart gun safety laws – our babies are being slaughtered.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Yet Kamala Harris promotes the slaughter of babies all the time, as she is a vocal supporter of Planned Parenthood and abortion on demand.

She is not a serious voice, and should be ignored, as should all politicians who wrap themselves in the cloak of protecting our children while simultaneously applauding the killing of the most innocent.

So are we a “sick” society? Wrong word. We are a sinful, depraved society. Scripture also informs us that the problem goes much deeper even than human sinfulness.

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Ephesians 6:12

The solution, also found in the larger context of that chapter, is to put on God’s full armor: truth, righteousness, the spreading of the Gospel message to “extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.”

There is an evil one out there, even though our society doesn’t want to believe that. Neither does the society want to believe that there is One who has overcome the evil one, and that we need to place our full confidence in Him:

Cast all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you. Be sober-minded and alert. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in your faith and in the knowledge that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. I Peter 5:7-9

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. James 4:7-8

These Scriptures need to be our guide.

Some Day, God Willing, We Shall Get In

Your eyes will see the King in His beauty; They will behold a far-distant land. Isaiah 33:17

All true beauty resides in God and in the works of His hands. There is a longing in those who have submitted their lives to Him to see the fulfillment of true beauty someday.

C. S. Lewis expressed it in his own unique way in “The Weight of Glory,” one of the greatest of all his essays, originally a sermon delivered during WWII from the pulpit of Oxford’s Church of the Virgin Mary.

He notes that God has already given us glimpses of what one day we will see when we no longer look through the veil of this world.

God has given us the Morning Star already: you can go and enjoy the gift on many fine mornings if you get up early enough. What more, you may ask, do we want?

Ah, but we want so much more—something the books on aesthetics take little notice of. But the poets and the mythologies know all about it.

The external sense of sight is only the beginning for “seeing” the depth of God’s beauty. There is a longing that goes to the essence of what beauty is:

We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.

We attempt to put it into words. The poets try via what Lewis calls “such lovely falsehoods.” What does he mean?

They talk as if the west wind could really sweep into a human soul; but it can’t.

They tell us the “beauty born of murmuring sound” will pass into a human face; but it won’t. Or not yet.

That little sentence—Or not yet—performs the transition in Lewis’s sermon.

For if we take the imagery of Scripture seriously, if we believe that God will one day give us the Morning Star and cause us to put on the splendour of the sun, then we may surmise that both the ancient myths and the modern poetry, so false as history, may be very near the truth as prophecy.

“The Weight of Glory” has so many poignant passages, but the next one Lewis offers can send a splendid thrill up one’s spine if we read it correctly and enter into what he is saying. It should be read slowly, taking into ourselves each word and phrase:

At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see.

But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.

And what a glorious Day that will be.