Modern Verbicide

Yesterday, I recommended a new book of devotionals based on the writings of C. S. Lewis. Today, I’d like to give you a sample of what you will find inside. One of Lewis’s lesser-known works is Studies in Words, which is primarily academic. However, there are salient points from those pages that apply to everyone. Here’s one entry that deals with the meanings of words, and how we often dilute those meanings. It begins with a quote from Lewis, then commentary, and closes with a verse from the Scripture:

Verbicide, the murder of a word, happens in many ways. Inflation is one of the commonest.

Through language we can be used by God as his means of healing in the world, to bring hope, light, freedom, comfort, encouragement, joy. But we can also dull language’s capacity to be used for God’s purposes by stretching words beyond true meaning. Lewis had cause to critique this misapplication. What strength or truth is there in the description “God is love,” when the same descriptor is lazily parceled out to describe not only relationships but also our affinities for clothes, desserts, and sports? Awesome has long since been worn out from common overuse and underappreciation, so that it no longer approaches an accurate description of God.

In speech and in print, divergent meanings are crowded into one word without thought, resulting not in the communication of ideas or truth but merely in noisy air. Words are “puffed up” until they have no substance and have lost any power to heal or impart grace. With such flabby language, how can we hope to communicate God’s message to the world, a message that is truly awesome and incredible, literally unbelievable apart from his Spirit?

Perhaps this seems an esoteric point, something to be reserved for grammarians and English professors. But God clearly values meaning and precision in language. Think of God’s careful preservation of his Holy Word. Think of Jesus’ pronouncement that not a letter of the law would be eliminated or lost (see Matthew 5:18). Consider also his condemnation of elaborate vows: “Just say a simple, ‘Yes, I will’ or ‘No, I won’t'” (Matthew 5:37).

Above all, think of God’s painstaking sacrifice of living and suffering as the Word made flesh in order to communicate the gospel in a way that his human creation could understand. View your words as a gift and a tool, and ask God to help you sharpen them so that you will be better equipped to speak truth to those around you.

I tell you this, you must give an account on judgment day for every idle word you speak. Matthew 12:36

The Soul of C. S. Lewis

Over the past few months, I’ve been using one particular book as a devotional. I was intrigued by the concept when I first read about it and hoped it would live up to its promise. It has.

If you are looking for a thought-provoking book to help you focus on Christian spirituality, I recommend you try The Soul of C. S. Lewis: A Meditative Journey through Twenty-Six of His Best-Loved Writings.

All of Lewis’s classics are represented here: each book in the Chronicles of Narnia series; his space trilogy; his autobiography, Surprised by Joy; his “devilish” work, The Screwtape Letters; other fanciful offerings such as The Great Divorce, The Pilgrim’s Regress, and Till We Have Faces; one of his best apologetic essays, The Abolition of Man; what I consider to be one of the most insightful sermons of all time, “The Weight of Glory”; and the poignant A Grief Observed, which reveals how Lewis dealt with the the death of his wife.

The editors also include some lesser-known works that normally might have a more restricted, scholarly audience, yet they draw worthy lessons from these as well, applicable to anyone, scholar or not.

Sections are titled “Pilgrimage,” “Temptation and Triumph,” “Going Deeper,” and “Words of Grace.” Within each section are six chapters, each with an introduction and ten separate meditations from a specific book. Each meditation begins with a quote from the work and ends with an applicable scriptural passage.

The next two days I want to take a break from political commentary and provide instead samples from this worthwhile volume. I hope you find the excerpts edifying.

The Weight of Glory

Yesterday, I employed a few choice quotes from C. S. Lewis. Today, I’d like to extend his remarks. This is a longer passage found at the end of a talk he gave entitled “The Weight of Glory.” I think it is sublime as it redirects our thoughts to how God would like us to view the potential He has placed within each person.

I urge you to read this passage all the way through and allow it to renew your mind:

We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, the turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

You and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years. Almost our whole education has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice; almost all our modern philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth.

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. 

God, Reason, & C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis has popped up on this blog a number of times recently. I gave a thumbs-up to the movie Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and I commented on Sarah Palin’s reliance on Lewis for spiritual inspiration. Actually, that was more of a comment on the cluelessness of those who critiqued her for relying on an author of children’s books, thereby displaying for all to see the ignorance of the critics.

I would like those critics to read more of Lewis, so I’m going to use a few of his quotes today so they will understand the depth of his meditations. For instance, I wonder how many of those critics have pondered the issue of objective moral law vs. subjectivism. Here’s Lewis on that topic:

The very idea of freedom presupposes some objective moral law which overarches rulers and ruled alike. Subjectivism about values is eternally incompatible with democracy. We and our rulers are of one kind only so long as we are subject to one law. But if there is no Law of Nature, the ethos of any society is the creation of its rulers, educators and conditioners; and every creator stands above and outside his own creation.

We are seeing the fruit of that subjectivism in our society today.

For those who believe they have an argument with God for some reason, Lewis offers this caution:

There is a difficulty about disagreeing with God. He is the source from which all your reasoning power comes: you could not be right and he wrong any more than a stream can rise higher than its own source. When you are arguing against Him you are arguing against the very power that makes you able to argue at all: it is like cutting off the branch you are sitting on.

And finally, a very succinct observation and a word of instruction:

An open mind, in questions that are not ultimate, is useful. But an open mind about ultimate foundations either of Theoretical or Practical Reason is idiocy. If a man’s mind is open on these things, let his mouth at least be shut.

That one seems tailor-made for the Palin critics.

The Dawn Treader . . . & Beyond

I saw Voyage of the Dawn Treader last night. In preparation for it, I watched The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe and Prince Caspian earlier this week. It’s a great way to fill a week.

Watching these films took me back to the first time I read The Chronicles of Narnia. They were actually some of the last Lewis works I tackled, probably because I wasn’t attracted to the idea of spending my time with children’s books. Yet, once I started, I was drawn into them due to Lewis’s talent for storytelling and his ability to combine a fascinating narrative with striking Biblical truths.

The new movie has many strengths: special effects that, even while they have become a staple in the business, still are amazing; character development [as much as one can in two hours, as opposed to a book]; and an alarming message about the dangers of temptation, delivered in a non-preachy manner.

So I guess I’m offering a semi-review here that concludes with an enthusiastic endorsement. If you haven’t seen it yet, take the opportunity this week.

What would C. S. Lewis think of the transference of his books onto the screen? That’s speculation, but I hope he would approve, particularly now that the technology has advanced to the point where his flights of imagination can be realized visually. There are four more Narnia books, and if this one does well—and it was #1 at the box office its first week—another one will go forward, either The Silver Chair or The Magician’s Nephew. As long as the franchise stays faithful to the Christian message, I pray for its continued success.

Breaking Out of the Ignorance Ghetto

What do Sarah Palin, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Joy Behar have in common? The first two, quite a bit; the last one only by virtue of her ignorance.

Last night, a Barbara Walters interview with Palin aired on ABC. One of the goals for Palin in the interview was to put to rest the notion that she is not a reader. “I read anything and everything that I can get my hands on as I have since I was a little girl,” she explained. When asked about her favorite reading material, one of the authors she highlighted was C. S. Lewis. She reads him, she said, “when I want some divine inspiration.”

That comment spawned another one online, from Joy Behar, who chimed in, “Didn’t he write children’s books?” This was another one of those snarky attempts by a cultural and political liberal to demean Palin’s intellect. Behar, who has made quite a name for herself on the Walters-sponsored program The View, apparently couldn’t resist the opportunity to make fun of the former vice-presidential candidate. Behar is already well-known for her acidic comments about the Christian faith, so this was sort of like a two-fer for her: she could lampoon Palin and chuckle at a Christian writer of children’s books simultaneously.

Well, she’s certainly correct about the fact that C. S. Lewis wrote some children’s books: undoubtedly she’s familiar with the Chronicles of Narnia. The movies based on the series have been quite successful.

The newest one, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, actually opens today. Ms. Behar should go see it.

But anyone who thinks Lewis was only an author of children’s books is badly misinformed. Perhaps Ms. Behar doesn’t realize he was a highly respected scholar of literature. His own writings span from serious literary criticism to science fiction to philosophy. I would recommend to her anything he has written for her edification, but when it comes to worldview, his Abolition of Man is outstanding. It could rock her world if she were to approach it with an open heart.

Behar obviously is ignorant of the real Lewis. That might come from hanging around with other ignorant people too much.

It’s time for her to break out of her ghetto. There’s a whole new world out there to explore. Sarah Palin knows about it.

Advice from Screwtape

In C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, a senior devil—Screwtape—gives advice to a junior devil—Wormwood—under his tutelage. Reading this “advice” provides excellent insight into how God works in our lives.

For instance, on the subject of prayer, what might a devil say? Here’s one possibility:

Whenever they are attending to the Enemy Himself we are defeated, but there are ways of preventing them from doing so. The simplest is to turn their gaze away from Him towards themselves.

Keep them watching their own minds [while praying] and trying to produce feelings there by the action of their own wills. When they meant to ask Him for charity, let them, instead, start trying to manufacture charitable feelings for themselves and not notice that this is what they are doing.

When they meant to pray for courage, let them really be trying to feel brave. When they say they are praying for forgiveness, let them be trying to feel forgiven. Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling; and never let them suspect how much success or failure of that kind depends on whether they are well or ill, fresh or tired, at the moment.

But of course the Enemy will not meantime be idle. Whenever there is prayer, there is danger of His own immediate action. He is cynically indifferent to the dignity of His position, and ours, as pure spirits, and to human animals on their knees He pours out self-knowledge in a quite shameless fashion.

Thank God for that.