Lewis Conference Nuggets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How very accurate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the same spirit, Sayers instructs her readers,

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

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

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.

Lewis on Sayers’s “The Mind of the Maker” (Part One)

In a previous post, I wrote about why C. S. Lewis liked the writings of Dorothy Sayers, and I focused on her radio plays The Man Born to Be King, which she turned into a book.

There was another Sayers book that Lewis read prior to that one: The Mind of the Maker. It was published in 1941; Lewis wrote a short review of it in the journal Theology. He introduces the theme immediately: “The purpose of this book is to throw light both on the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity and on the process whereby a work of art (specially of literature) is produced, by drawing an analogy between the two.” Of this he wholly approves.

Then he proceeds to caution the reader about the one feature of the book that gives him concern:

I think that in an age when idolatry of human genius is one of our most insidious dangers Miss Sayers would have been prudent to stress more continuously than she does the fact that the analogy is merely an analogy. I am afraid that some vainglorious writers may be encouraged to forget that they are called “creative” only by a metaphor.

This concern for Lewis was centered on the arrogance that sometimes infuses the mind of the artist. He merely wished Sayers had stressed more the very distinct difference between the actual Creator and humans who sub-create at a lower level.

Yet that is his only negative remark on the substance of the book. “In general,” he continues, “I find Miss Sayers’ development of her analogy full of illumination both on the theological and on the literary side.” He concluded,

This is the first “little book on religion” I have read for a long time in which every sentence is intelligible and every page advances the argument. I recommend it heartily to theologians and critics. To novelists and poets, if they are already inclined in any degree to idolatry of their own vocation, I recommend it with much more caution. They had better read it fasting.

In their early correspondence, Lewis doesn’t really expound further on his views of The Mind of the Maker, but an analysis of some of the concepts within it may offer some clues as to what else he would have admired in the work.

The very first chapter, “The ‘Laws’ of Nature and Opinion,” serves as a complement to the way Lewis later expounded on the subject in Mere Christianity. There is a reality built into the universe, Sayers asserts, that no one in his right mind would ever attempt to deny.

Sayers goes on to say that there is a universal moral law that is behind even the moral code by which a society may function. Christianity, she maintains, has called this the natural law, and “the more closely the moral code agrees with the natural law, the more it makes for freedom in human behavior; the more widely it departs from the natural law, the more it tends to enslave mankind and to produce the catastrophes called ‘judgments of God.’”

A society may have a moral code that wants people to behave like St. Francis, she posits, but what if that society prefers a code more in line with the Emperor Caligula? One must then refer to the natural law upon which the moral code ought to be based. By doing so, one should be able to prove “at the bar of experience, that St. Francis does in fact enjoy a freer truth to essential human nature than Caligula, and that a society of Caligulas is more likely to end in catastrophe than a society of Franciscans.” Her conclusion is very Lewis-like:

Defy the commandments of the natural law, and the race will perish in a few generations; co-operate with them, and the race will flourish for ages to come. That is the fact; whether we like it or not, the universe is made that way.

This commandment is interesting because it specifically puts forward the moral law as the basis of the moral code: because God has made the world like this and will not alter it, therefore you must not worship your own fantasies, but pay allegiance to the truth.

That’s only one point she made that I know Lewis would have liked. There are others, but I’ll save those for future Lewis posts.

On Lewis Reading Sayers

Dorothy Sayers was never present at an Inklings meeting. She was never considered as a member of that weekly sharing of readings and thoughts. Yet she is often seen in conjunction with the Inklings because she graduated from Oxford herself and was friends with two of its leading members: Charles Williams and C. S. Lewis. Lewis, responding during the last year of his life about his connections with Sayers, gave this summary:

Dorothy Sayers, so far as I know, was not even acquainted with any of us except Charles Williams and me. We two had got to know her at different times and in different ways. In my case, the initiative came from her. She was the first person of importance who ever wrote me a fan-letter. I liked her, originally, because she liked me; later, for the extraordinary zest and edge of her conversation—as I like a high wind. She was a friend, not an ally. Needless to say, she never met our own club, and probably never knew of its existence.

Although I have been an avid reader of Lewis my entire life, my only interaction for a long time with anything Sayers wrote was her essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” which I read sometime in the early 1990s as I was delving into the movement among homeschoolers to establish a more classical education model. Her explication of the medieval emphasis on the grammar, logic, and rhetoric connected with all subject matter was enlightening.

But there my reading of Sayers stopped until my interest in Lewis led to writing a book on him and awakened a desire to seek out more writers of his ilk.

When the Wade Center’s blog, Off the Shelf, began a short series on one of Sayers’s novels, The Nine Tailors, I was intrigued enough to order the book in an electronic version (my bookcases are already on the verge of succumbing to the inevitable overflow quite common for an academic) to see why it was considered so significant.

I found the novel, which centered on her favorite aristocratic and amateur detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, to be intelligent, suffused with an understated humor, and somewhat different from what I had always considered to be the classic detective story. At the end of the book, there was a teaser for the next one in the series, Gaudy Night, and the teaser worked—I purchased that one as well. In all, I read five of the Wimsey novels and came away impressed with Sayers’s storytelling with a solid emphasis on character development.

At the same time that Lewis was doing his BBC broadcasts that eventually became Mere Christianity, Sayers had written a series of plays on the life of Jesus that the BBC was also broadcasting. Those plays, The Man Born to Be King, ushered in a major controversy that revolved around her approach to the sacred: she made Jesus, His disciples, and everyone else in the stories speak in the language of the common man in Britain at that time. For some, this was sacrilegious. It was denigrating the person and work of Christ. Sayers, though, held her ground, and the BBC stood with her.

When she turned the plays into a book in 1943, she set out her rationale for what she had done—an apologetic for its appropriateness.

There was a law at that time that had forbidden any representation of the Trinity on the stage (radio plays apparently were thought to be part of “the stage”). That law, she complained, “had helped to foster the notion that all such representations were intrinsically wicked” and led to a “totally heretical Christology which denies the full Humanity of Our Lord.”

She realized she had shattered that tradition “in the face of a good deal of prejudice,” but she had good reasons to do so. “The knowledge which the British public has of the New Testament is extensive,” she admitted, “but in many respects peculiar. The books are, on the whole, far better known as a collection of disjointed texts and moral aphorisms wrenched from their contexts than as a coherent history made up of coherent episodes.” Her plays were an attempt to correct that perception.

Moreover, the words of the books . . . are by great numbers of British Christians held to be sacrosanct in such a sense that they must not be expanded, interpreted, or added to, even in order to set the scene, supply obvious gaps in the narrative, or elucidate the sense. And this sacrosanctity is attributed, not to the Greek of the original and only authentic documents, but to every syllable of a translation made three hundred years ago (and that not always with perfect accuracy) in an idiom so old-fashioned that, even as English, it is often obscure to us or positively misleading.

Sayers sent Lewis an advance copy of The Man Born to Be King in May 1943, to which he responded, “Thanks awfully! I loved the one I heard on the air . . . and look forward to reading the whole series.” Three days later, he gave her an update: “Have started your book (in bed) but am still in the Preface—very vigorous!” Ten days after that, he had this to report: “I’ve finished The Man Born to be King and think it a complete success.”

Although he questioned her interpretation of Judas, he conceded her conception of him was a valid possibility. Overall, though, he was nothing less than enthusiastic, writing, “I shed real tears (hot ones) in places: since Mauriac’s Vie de Jesus nothing has moved me so much. . . . I expect to read it times without number again.”

Lewis was true to that pledge, letting her know in letters in 1947 and again in 1955 that he was in the process of re-reading it, something that became a sacred ritual for him during Lent.

He also informed an American correspondent in 1949, “I think D. Sayers Man Born to be King has edified us in this country more than anything for a long time.” And what of the critics of Sayers’s approach to the retelling of the gospel story? “I seem to get v. little reading done these days,” he confided to Arthur Greeves in June 1943. But he added, “One thing I have read recently is D. Sayers’ The Man Born to be King wh. I thought excellent, indeed most moving. The objections to it seem to me . . . silly.”

As I finished reading The Man Born to Be King earlier this week, I was struck by how Sayers dealt with betrayal as she has the disciples questioning how their flight away from Jesus during his hour of greatest need affects God. In her words:

Peter: Master—when I disowned you—when we disbelieved and doubted you—when we failed and deserted and betrayed you—is that what we do to God?

Jesus: Yes, Peter.

James: Lord, when they mocked and insulted and spat upon you—when they flogged you—when they howled for your blood—when they nailed you to the cross and killed you—is that what we do to God?

Jesus: Yes, James.

John: Beloved, when you patiently suffered all things, and went down to death with all our sins heaped upon you—is that what God does for us?

Jesus: Yes, John. For you, and with you, and in you, when you are freely mine. For you are not slaves, but sons. Free to be false or faithful, free to reject or confess me, free to crucify God or be crucified with Him, sharing the shame and sorrow, and the bitter cross and the glory.

I was deeply impressed with that passage, as Sayers not only put the episode into the everyday language of the British public, but as she also clearly explained what sin does to God and everything He intended in this world. The sin is pointed out clearly, as is the call to discipleship as the remedy for our failings.

In the eulogy Lewis wrote for Sayers in early 1958, he ended with these thoughtful words: “Let us thank the Author who invented her.”