Meditations with C. S. Lewis: Further up and further in!

This month LHP is highlighting some of our readers’ favorite previous posts from our authors.  We hope you enjoy them!

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C. S. Lewis, best known as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, was also one of the most profound thinkers of twentieth century Christianity.  Along with J. R. R. Tolkien, he has inspired millions of people, include all of the authors at Lantern Hollow Press.  On Sundays we would like to take a moment to offer up a little Lewis for your consideration.

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I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now…Come further up, come further in!
–Jewel the Unicorn, The Last Battle

It is amazing how much of the human experience (and the promise of Christianity) is summed up in these few words.  It encapsulates both the finite, mortal nature of humanity, and it screams out the promise offered to those to whom Christ will one day say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

To nearly everyone who has taken the time to think about it, the experience of life is summed up by constant motion and perpetual change.  As each moment fades imperceptibly into the next, we learn that nothing remains the same for long.  Bound by the law of entropy as surely as the smallest particle of physical reality, our lives can go only one of two directions:  forward or backward.  We either grow and blossom into something new and different or we degenerate into wasted potential.  In it’s ideal form, the Christian life is a perfect picture of this.  There are always new trails to explore, new knowledge to acquire, new experiences to have, and each is unique from the last.

The problem is that everything in the universe tends toward decay.  In fact, we have to pursue constant and intentional forward motion to prevent it.  The older I get, the more apparent this becomes as my body slows down and begins the tiring process of degeneration.  It is also clear in the lives of anyone who, for one reason for another, cannot or does not attempt to better themselves.  To stand still is the surest way to see ourselves slump into sloth, destitution, disease, and want.

Worse, we are born into a reality where this is a losing battle from the very beginning.  From the moment our first cries echo through a harsh, cold world, we are living on borrowed time.  When we are young, we tend not to notice, but as we age the truth becomes inescapable; we say with Frodo (though for very different reasons), “Will I ever look down into that valley again?”  Will I ever hold my loved one in my arms again?  Will this be the last time I cuddle on the couch with my child before she is “too old” for that sort of thing?  How much longer can I perform at this level?  The end, of course, comes eventually.  We die, our bodies broken and wracked with pain, our treasured experiences spent, and the world moves on without us giving hardly a blink.

And that leads us to one of the truly amazing promises upon which Christians stand:  Our story, short as it is, is not over with death.  We will be translated into a new world that has no end.  There will be time to truly understand, to experience, to love, to build, to create…and we will do so basking in the light of the One “by whom all things were made” and the One who loves us enough that He suffered and died to ensure that we have the chance to experience mortal life and what lies beyond it.

Further up and further in, indeed!

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Click here for the entire run of “Meditations with C. S. Lewis” so far.

Time Travel in Your Hands: The need to read and how to do it!

Darth always make time to read, even with the busy schedule of a Dark Lord of the Sith.

Reading, really reading, is becoming a lost art.  That statement is ironic and perhaps may seem a little hypocritical of me, since of course I’m writing this with the expectation that you’ll read it.  But I don’t mean the translation of scribbles on a page into coherent thoughts in our heads (though increasingly that is coming into question too, if what I see when some students try to reverse the process is indicative of anything).  Instead, I’m talking about the art of intentionally and broadly engaging other minds through text.  Most of us–myself included–have lost sight of what it means to read and in doing so we have contributed to our own intellectual and spiritual bankruptcy.  If my two previous posts this month on writing the “little books” and “preaching to the choir” are going to really mean anything to a renaissance of Christian culture, they must be predicated on a renaissance in reading.

There is much more to reading–and to books in particular–than many of us understand, surrounded as we are by an age of constant media-vomit.  When you sit down to read you are transcending the boundaries of time and space.  You are having a conversation with someone separated from you by possibly thousands of miles and maybe hundreds of years.  When your mind engages their narrative, you have the opportunity to meet anyone, from the greatest (and most terrible) that humanity has ever had to offer on down.  You can learn from, or perhaps in spite of, their experiences and ideas.  You can sit at the feet of the world’s greatest story tellers and feel your soul refreshed.  Your eyes are opened to new worlds and new imaginations.  Most importantly, you can bring all of this back home and apply it.  History helps us avoid the same mistakes of the past–personally and nationally.  Science opens our eyes to the world around us and how we can interact with it in ways we never dreamed possible.  Accounts of bravery and compassion may, in their turn, help us to be brave and compassionate as we live our own story.  The possibilities are endless.

Further, a book is not a useless, antiquated object that has been surpassed by technology–though you might make that argument about paper.  No documentary, TV show, movie, website, blog post, or other snippet of media can contain the depth of thought that a book can.  In a book, you can receive the wisdom of an entire lifetime boiled down into an hourglass!  A stack of books that you can finish in several weeks’ time may have taken literally hundreds of years to write between their various authors.  Books are just as important now as they’ve ever been, even if the medium through which we receive them has changed.

And it is all often completely lost in today’s storm-tossed sea of information and visual stimulation.  We are no more stupid than the people who lived before us, but we are overwhelmed.  We have so many “facts” available, so many truth claims clamoring for attention, and, in the West, we are so insulated from reality that while we have the sea before us, many of us never do more than get our feet wet.  We bounce from site to site, show to show, commercial to commercial, demanding instant and total gratification.  If something is even the least bit tiresome or difficult, we switch on to fulfill our whims and, thanks to the internet, we are almost always able to get what we want.  The end result is a lifestyle of perpetual craving; a vague desire for novelty for novelty’s sake that is never fully satisfied.  Our lives may yield snappy soundbites aplenty but rarely much that matters in an eternal sense, leaving us desperate for something real.

Reading an old book makes you feel intelligent–even if the book itself isn’t!

The problem is compounded for those of us who tend to be doers instead of thinkers.  For people like that, it can be hard to sit still long enough to really engage in reading.  I tend to be an odd mixture of both–which can be frustrating as I find I want to do all of it at the same time!  Just as thinkers need to be reminded that the world is a very different place from the drawing board, doers need to be reminded that doing is much more effective when we’ve taken the time to understand how it has been done by other people…and maybe even take a crack at that drawing board too!

If the Church in the West truly hopes to spark a new reformation, it must learn how to read again.  Without that important step, what will we have offer the world around us?  The Truth of God?  That involves reading the Bible.  New insights in science or brilliant imaginative works that might open the discussion?  That level of education entails reading too.  How will we be able to engage and minister to people whom we don’t even understand because we’ve failed to read what they have to say?  I’m afraid that the answer is that all we will be able to give is a cold cut of a faith that we ourselves don’t understand, a scoop of warmed over secularism from five years ago, and perhaps a side of money-grubbing health and wealth.  Would it be any surprise to see our continued decline?

How do we address it?  If you’ve made it this far, then you probably already appreciate reading in general, but here are some specific starting points for how to do it better…which I need to apply myself.  Give them a try, and consider encouraging others to do so as well:

  1. Be intentional:  Set aside time to read, and learn to say “no” in order to defend that time.  Don’t just pick up what comes to hand.  Have a plan and seek out new authors and subjects that will strengthen your weak points.  Importantly, while I agree with C. S. Lewis that you don’t have to read every word of a book, I also agree with one of our commentators from last week–finish what you start!
  2. Let reading be your Tardis:  Many readers make the mistake of either reading only old or only new books.  Don’t fall into that trap!  Look at literature as a stream of ideas and personalities that spreads across time itself and try to sample as much as you can!  Seek out the old (or new) books that take you into a completely different culture and context from the one you know.
  3. Seek out both contrary and supportive points of view:  Don’t let your reading become an exercise in intellectual backscratching–find someone who will challenge you and ask you the hard questions.  Then, seek out the answers; don’t neglect to deepen your own worldview by studying the best that Christianity has to offer.
  4. Don’t limit yourself to one genre:  Specialization is fine, but when you overspecialize, you lose perspective.  If you love fiction, read some non-fiction.  If you love European history, try some American.  Like the humanities?  Read some science.
  5. Most importantly, make it fun!  While there will be times that you’ll need to just knuckle down and read through a boring part, look for ways to make reading as enjoyable as possible.  Start a reading group with your friends to discuss your books.  Set aside a “reading date” with your significant other where you have nice music and a special dinner before relaxing with your books in front of the fire.  Take your book to the top of a mountain.  Blog about your reading and watch what others say.  There are many ways to do it.

And so, with a post about reading that is now so long I doubt most people have made it this far, you and I are standing on the banks of the timestream that is literature, in all its various forms.  Make a plan, find a book, and dive in!  There are literally worlds waiting to be discovered–our own not least among them.

In this slot next week you can expect a break from me–I believe Rachel will be pitching in for March.  I’ll “see” you in April if not before!

The Best of LHP – Freedom’s Burden and Bondage: Avoiding Legalism and License

This post was previously published in March of this year. After several months of writing this post, I am still learning the same lesson I have reflected on below. Even if you are not a Christian, I hope you consider other people’s tastes and convictions when it comes to art and culture as we seek to enjoy this world together. 

Legalism. The sin many Christians desire to avoid any association. No one wants to be remembered as the self-righteous taskmaster who rigidly binds his actions and attitudes—and usually those of others—to a set of absolute values and standards often based on a perverse interpretation of Scripture. Indeed, some of Christ’s main critics were legalists as were many false teachers in the early church. Christ and Paul address their stiff adherence to standards and their motives for these standards. They did not want to adopt a strict lifestyle because they wanted to please God; rather, they only wanted to compare themselves to other people, puffing up their outward spirituality when in reality they were as dead as tombs.

A couple of months ago, I have heard and read many sermons and articles about legalism and the dangers it imposes on the Christian faith. Interestingly, some of these sermons and articles also caution against license, the polar extreme of legalism. Both hinder the Christian walk as the former restricts our freedom in Christ to a set of rules more narrow than the Scriptures while the latter allows for unchecked freedoms to the point of being broader than the Scriptures. Many Christians swing to one side of the other on certain issues out of their response to these issues. Perhaps they grew up in a home dominated by alcohol abuse and gambling, so they refuse to allow liquor and playing cards in their homes and deem such activities as sinful. Others have been told wearing certain articles of clothing (pants on women comes to mind in the circles I grew up in) is sinful, so they dress rather distastefully when they find their new freedom.

Thus, I have been meditating on the subject of legalism, searching for its meaning and implications on the state of the church and even my own personal life. Recently, I have been reading Philip Ryken’s commentary on Galatians, and a clarification on my own personal issues with legalism became clearer. As a person who loves and studies art, my problem is not with legalism–my problem is with license.

I have grown up in conservative Christian circles and have seen legalism leveled at music, film, and literature. During middle school and high school, I heard many a sermon about the evils of rock and all contemporary Christian music, the dangers of movie theaters, and the sinfulness of reading books like the Harry Potter series. They told me avoid these things because they avoided these things. It made them more spiritual not to participate in them, I guess.

Yet, not all of these people have selfish motivations for their strict lifestyles. Many have sought with the same attention to thought and prayer as I have, and my own responsibility to love those who did not necessarily conclude the same things I did about art. For instance, many conservative Christians place personal boundaries on art based on their spiritual convictions to avoid falling into sin.  Our freedom from sin to Christ to participate in cultural products he has redeemed for his sake also includes a new sensitivity to certain areas of culture, which some Christians believe might cause them to stumble. Thus, they place boundaries on cultural products, art included, to prevent the wounding of their conscience. I, then, show love to them by respectfully acknowledging their conclusions and restricting my participation in those activities that they find will hinder their walk.

The trouble occurs, however, when some extend their boundaries on other people. A pastor friend of mine compared this image to fence building, and analogy I will now adapt. For instance, I have built fences around my convictions, personal fences that I know I cannot cross because I know I will not enjoy it or will hinder my walk with Christ. I do not place fences around areas that I know that I am free to enjoy or participate in without compromising my walk with Christ. However, if I tell my neighbor to build his fences where I have built fences, then I have crossed into legalism.

Conversely, if I do not set up fences in certain areas of conviction and encourage my neighbor to abandon caution and do the same, then I have committed license. I mainly struggle with this issue. While I have sought the Lord’s wisdom and conviction in choosing which standards to adopt and have thrown off this rather burdensome yoke of unscriptural standards of life and art and have now embraced a life true Christian freedom, I often swing too far in the opposite direction of the legalistic standards I have been forced to adopt for most of my life, and I ignore the fact that sensitivity to certain cultural products still exist even within those who embrace Christian liberty.

For example, I remember my friend cautioning me after I recommended Pan’s Labyrinth to someone. She told me, “I don’t know, Stephen, I think that movie’s rather violent. I don’t think I could recommend it to a Christian.” At first, I was confused. Of course it was violent; it was a war film. Upon reflection, I realized her wisdom and my error. I had committed license, offering my convictions without thinking about others who do not share my convictions. While many people with conservative convictions only possess them to compare themselves to other men, a good number of them have those convictions because they truly want to please God. Therefore, I must exercise love and restrain the proclamation of my own liberty in conviction to those who do not hold these same standards.

Therefore, license can be just as binding and burdensome as legalism. Both ignore love of God and neighbor and the freedoms we have in Christ to participate or not participate in cultural products that he has redeemed for us to enjoy or avoid for his sake. Christ has called us to a life in which his yoke is easy and his burden is light. Paul also reminds of the wonderful new freedom we have in Christ through his grace and love. No set amount of rules or works can lead us to a closer relationship with him and with our neighbor apart from his matchless grace. Yet, this new freedom can become a new type of burden and bondage if Christians do not hold convictions for God’s or for their neighbor’s sake. Like Michael Horton encourages in his article, we need to ask the Lord for wisdom to demonstrate our Christian liberty in such a way that illustrates the love of our God and our neighbor.


The Best of LHP – On Writing: A Lesson in Vulnerability, Part Two

This post was originally published May 2013, a week after I graduated with my master’s degree in English. 

This post is primarily a follow-up on my post at the beginning of the month. This gives me a chance to respond to readers collectively and to develop some additional thoughts from their comments. 

At the beginning of the month, I discussed a valuable lesson I learned from reading Stephen King’s On Writing: the importance of revision and the necessity of peer-reviewed criticism. These two elements of writing spring from the writer’s willingness to be vulnerable to the reviewer’s critiques and suggestions.

Many readers responded to the post in two ways. First, some alluded to the general hesitation we have has writers to share our work because we fear exposure. Indeed, as we write, we show the world our thoughts and creative abilities, an offering that can often leave us feeling, well, vulnerable. A friend in my fiction writing class this last semester told me she feared giving the teacher her story because it spoke so much about her as a person and an artist. While I’m not a huge fan of psychoanalysis, I do think stories reveal our personalities and our perception of the world and the people around us. Paul in the epistle to the Romans alludes to the Creator’s own divine attributes displayed in creation, and John calls Christ the Word of God, the Maker’s very expression of himself. Like our Creator, we reflect our personality and worldview through our art. Basically, it shows the world us, an aspect we must learn to accept and share if we are ever going to be good writers.

Second, one astute reader mentioned the wisdom we writers need to distinguish between constructive criticism and negative criticism. The former affords us the chance to grow, change, and embrace relationships; the latter tears us down and discourages us from pursing our goals and desires. Further, we also need to distinguish between good constructive criticism and bad constructive criticism. I have watched my students struggle with this distinction, but they soon discovered that learning the difference requires practice and patience. While we must have a certain openness to criticism, as this reader pointed out, we must cultivate a certain level of wisdom needed in revision to separate the helpful from the harmful or the hurtful.

Our willingness to share our stories show we also understand the relational nature between the artist, the work, and the reader: the artist has to be vulnerable to give his work to the world either in editing or in publishing. Withholding our story from our readers does not show our love for writing; it shows we operate in a vacuum, hoarding our creative minds and our perspective on our world from other people. When our Maker created this world, he did so with the intention of sharing it with man out of love and desire for fellowship, and this relational element in creation behooves us as artists to reflect such a purpose. Therefore, we need to be vulnerable enough to share our stories with our readers for them to enjoy the work and rejoice with us in our creative abilities.

Best of LHP – On Writing: A Lesson in Vulnerability

Hello everyone! For the months of December and January, we would like to reintroduce some of our best posts that you may not have seen yet. This week will be Stephen Parish’s reflections on how reading Stephen King’s book On Writing impacted his own process. Without further ado, here’s On Writing: A Lesson in Vulnerability.

 

Stephen King On Writing coverFor my fiction writing class this semester, my professor asked for us to read Stephen King’s book On Writing, the famous author’s personal reflection on writing. Toward the end of his book, he discusses revision and its importance to the art of writing. But King implies something about revision, especially peer editing, that I have seen as a theme in my own writing, both academic and fictional. By giving his story to a peer, King exposes his flaws to the world, but he does so willingly so he can become a better writer and the story can become a better work of art. In a sense, King had to embrace vulnerability and correction to ensure the quality of his craft.

I too have learned to embrace vulnerability as a writer. Like King, I had to allow others to look at my work and comment on it with the understanding that they want to help me make it better. At first, I was angry that some people were so cynical toward my writing, especially the professors on my thesis committee or my peers in my fiction writing class; however, they truly wanted to make it better and help me improve by pointing out the flaws in my thesis and stories. So, I manned up and made the corrections. Now my thesis is a published work, and my stories are significantly improving.

Most people have an aversion to correction, no matter the capacity. Nobody really wants to hear he or she is wrong. But sometimes the best instruction we can receive from others is constructive criticism. Proverbs 12:1 states, “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but whoever hates correction is stupid” (NIV). “Stupid” here means brutish, foolish, irrational—essentially inhuman. I am not saying that anyone that does not take correction easily is foolish. No, taking criticism is hard sometimes, even by the wisest and most humble of people. But by opening up to others and accepting their correction, we show we love others by seeking improvement through a suppression of our own impulsive and prideful desire to grow in a vacuum. Through love, we put “childish things away,” as the Apostle Paul states, for children eschew correction and vulnerability, and transform into men and women ready to serve our Lord through our writing and our lives.