In Common: Surprised By Joy

My 2016 reading plan has gone off the rails, thanks  to  my return to work. Even with working part-time, I am struggling to keep up with my self-imposed pace.

But that’s okay. My reading list should work for me, and not the other way around. I have been reevaluating my list, and have been deciding which titles are must-haves for the year, and which ones can be postponed.

My current Read pile includes a couple of titles I’ve been working on slowly since January, as well as a few new ones that I’ve just added.

During this season of life, I am finding myself drawn to books that focus on educational philosophy, parenting, and Christian faith.

One book that I am wrapping up this week (finally!) is C.S. Lewis Surprised By  Joy.

While I have been exploring the writings of C.S. Lewis, it has been incredible to read about his childhood and early life experiences. So often, we have a one-dimensional view of authors; we only know them through their writings.

C.S. Lewis is of course known for his writings on Christian apologetics, but to read about his transformation into an atheist and eventual discovery of true Christian faith is quite moving.

Lewis shared about his time living with and being tutored by a family friend Mr. Kirkpatrick, or Old Knock as he was sometimes called. He wrote of his time reading and studying Homer in Greek.

In our homeschool, we are just getting started with Latin, which I am quite excited about since I studied Latin all through high school.  We have also learned the Hebrew alphabet and are still in the early stages of learning vocabulary and basic grammar.

This passage, from Lewis’ time with Old Knock, really struck me as we work on learning new languages.

The great gain was that I very soon became able to understand a great deal without (even mentally) translating it; I was beginning to think in Greek. That is the great Rubicon to cross in learning any language. Those in whom the Greek word lives only while they are hunting for it in the lexicon, and who then substitute the English word for it, are not reading the Greek at all; they are only solving a puzzle. The very formula, “Naus means a ship,” is wrong. Naus and ship both mean a thing, they do not mean one another. Behind Naus, as behind navis or naca, we want to have a picture of a dark, slender mass with sail or oars, climbing the ridges, with no officious English word intruding.

As I find myself getting stressed out because I have less time available for personal scholarship right now, I am reminded of another passage, again from Lewis’ time with Old Knock. Reflecting on the ideal day of study and reflection, what he terms “settled, calm, Epicurean life.” This ideal schedule, defined by set study times and minimal interactions and distractions, sound wonderful to someone seeking a scholarly life. But as Lewis points out:

It is no doubt for my own good that I have been so generally prevented from leading it, for it is a life almost entirely selfish. Selfish, not self-centered: for in such a life my mind would be directed toward a thousand things, not one of which is myself.

These words will serve as a comfort as I try to find that perfect balance between family, faith, work and personal scholarship.

The Screwtape Letters Part 3

While I have loved going back through my highlights for The Screwtape Letters, I want to wrap up this series with just a few more thoughts. I will be reading Surprised By Joy in January and February and am anxious to switch mental gears and focus on this book.

I am constantly amazed at how contemporary Lewis’ writing seem. If it were not for the few mentions of the war taking place (World War 2), it would be difficult to “date” this work.

Letter 20 finds Screwtape discussing the patient’s chastity. I had to chuckle when I read this letter, because it sounds like it could have been written recently in response to all the uproar concerning Photoshopping of women’s bodies.

“It is the business of these great masters to produce in every age a general misdirection of what may be called ‘sexual taste.’ This they do by working through the small circle of popular artists, dressmakers, actresses and advertisers who determine the fashionable type. The aim is to guide each sex away from those members of the other with whom spiritually helpful, happy, and fertile marriages are most likely.”

“We have engineered a great increase in the license which society allows to the representation of the apparent nude (not the real nude) in art, and its exhibition on the stage or the bathing beach. It is all a fake, of course; the figures in the popular art are falsely drawn; the real women in bathing suits or tights are actually pinched in and propped up to make them appear firmer and more slender and more boyish than nature allows a full-grown woman to be.”

“As a result we are more and more directing the desires of men to something which does not exist – making the role of the eye in sexuality more and more important and at the same time making its demands more and more impossible. What follows you can easily forecast!”

This letter, in my opinion, could have be written to address the unrealistic image that women have to compete with thanks to Photoshop, and all the damage that is done. Damage done to women and their self-image and their expectations of themselves. Damage done to men who are bombarded with images of what men should be find desirable, but that are not realistic and often serve to lead men away from potential mates that could actually be suitable and complementary.

Letter 21 follows up on the assault on man’s chastity by suggesting fostering attacks on man’s sense of self-ownership. These claims on his life can lead to a sense of injury and result in man feeling ill-tempered.

“They anger him because he regards his time as his own and feels that it is being stolen. You must therefore zealously guard in his mind the curious assumption ‘My time is my own.’ Let him have the feeling that he starts each day as the lawful possessor of twenty-four hours.”

“The humans are always putting up claims to ownership which sound equally funny in Heaven and in Hell and we must keep them doing so. Much of the modern resistance to chastity comes from men’s belief that they ‘own’ their bodies – those vast and perilous estates, pulsating with the energy that made the worlds, in which they find themselves without their consent and from which they are ejected at the pleasure of Another!”

“We teach them not to notice the different senses of the possessive pronoun – the finely graded difference that run from ‘my boots’ through ‘my dog,’ ‘my servant,’ ‘my wife,’ ‘my father,’ ‘my master,’ and ‘my God.’ They can be taught to reduce all these senses to that of ‘my boots,’ the ‘my’ of ownership.”

“And all the time the joke is that the word ‘Mine’ in its fully possessive sense cannot be uttered by a human being about anything. In the long run either Our Father or the Enemy will say ‘Mine’ of each thing that exists, and specially of each man. They will find out in the end, never fear, to whom their time, their souls, and their bodies really belong – certainly not to them, whatever happens. At present the Enemy says ‘Mine’ of everything on the pedantic, legalistic ground that He made it: Our Father hopes in the end to say ‘Mine’ of all things on the more realistic and dynamic ground of conquest.”

This was a powerful letter. This ‘Mine’ mentality is epidemic at this point, in my opinion. We really do take injury to so many things and it sours everything around us. My time, my opinion, my feelings, my body, my right. We take this ‘mine’ thinking so far to want to claim things that cannot be claimed, or not in the sense we think.

I could go through and comment on some much more – The Screwtape Letters are just so rich in content. I do want to wrap up for now and move into Surprised By Joy, but I will reread later this year and comment on some of the other letters I didn’t get to this round. I hope you will continue to follow my progress through several of the works of C.S. Lewis.

The Screwtape Letters Part 2

I am quickly growing my list of “books to be reread regularly” and The Screwtape Letters is firmly in this list. I have gotten so much from my first read, I can only imagine what I will glean from the next time through. Here are some of the highlights of several chapters I have read.

In Letter 14, Screwtape is tackling the topic of Humility.

“Catch him at the moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, ‘By jove! I’m being humble’, and almost immediately pride – pride at his own humility – will appear.”

“You must therefor conceal from the patient the true end of Humility. Let him think of it not as self-forgetfulness but as a certain kind of opinion (namely a low opinion) of his own talent and character.”

“Fix in his mind the idea that humility consists in trying to believe those talents to be less valuable than he believes them to be.

By this method thousands of humans have been brought to think that humility means pretty women trying to believe they are ugly and clever men trying to believe they are fools.”

“The Enemy wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favour that he can rejoice in his talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbour’s talents – or in a sunrise, and elephant, or a waterfall. He wants each man, in the long run, to be able to recognise all creatures (even himself) as glorious and excellent things. He wants to kill their animal self-love as soon as possible; but is His long-term policy, I fear, to restore to them a new kind of self-love – a charity and gratitude for all selves, including their own; when they have really learned to love their neighbours as themselves, they will be allowed to love themselves as their neighbours.”

This was a fascinating letter. I think we really do have a basic misunderstanding of humility, and because of this (along with the expectation that as Christians we are expected to have humility) we struggle with how to live out this part of our faith. We may think we are supposed to downplay our talents and strengths, or to have a lower opinion of ourselves than is necessary. But rather than bringing ourselves down low, we should be raising ourselves up, along with everyone else, as glorious and excellent things. We can celebrate our own talents, along with the talents of others. We should not be biased in our own favor, but neither do we need to devalue ourselves.

Letter 15 deals with time and eternity, and humans’ perception of them.

“The humans live in time but our Enemy destines them to eternity. He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and to that point of time which they call the Present. For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity.”

“He would therefore have them continually concerned either with eternity (which means being concerned with Him) or with the Present – either meditating on their eternal union with, or separation from, Himself, or else obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks for the present pleasure.

“Our business is to get them away from the eternal, and from the Present.”

“It is far better to make them live in the Future. Biological necessity makes all their passions point in that direction already, so that thought about the Future inflames hope and fear. Also, it is unknown to them, so that in making them think about it we make them think of unrealities. In a word, the Future is, of all things, the thing least like eternity. It is the most completely temporal part of time – for the Past is frozen and no longer flows, and the Present is all lit up with eternal rays.”

“Hence, nearly all vices are rooted in the future. Gratitude looks to the past and love to the present; fear, lust and ambition look ahead. Do not think lust an exception. When the present pleasure arrives, the sin (which alone interests us) is already over.”

“The duty of planning tomorrow’s work is today’s duty; though its material is borrowed from the future, the duty, like all duties, is in the Present. This is now straw splitting. He does not want men to give the Future their hearts, to place their treasure in it. We do. His ideal is a man, who having worked all day for the good of posterity (if that is his vocation), washes his mind of the whole subject, commits the issue to Heaven, and returns at once to the patience or gratitude demanded by the moment that is passing over him.”

This is one of my favorite letters, because it really shines a light on a problem that so many of us deal with. God wants us focused on eternity or on the Present. But because we are always moving toward the future, it is easy for Satan to distract us from this by refocusing our attention on the Future. Fear of what may come (or not), Lust for something we don’t have yet (or will at all), ambition for something we want. All these things pull our attention away from our Present.

Fear is probably a big one – we are so afraid of the future – how we will make it financially, how our kids or our marriage will end up in 10 or 15 years. We get so crippled by these fears, that we are unable to really function in the Present. God has a better plan for us.

We should focus on the Present – the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks for the present pleasure – and cast all of our fears about the Future onto the alter; let us rest in knowing that God will handle it.

In Letter 16, Screwtape is concerned that the “patient” is attending the same church regularly and makes suggestions on how to deal with that “problem.”

“Surely you know that if a man can’t be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the neighborhood looking for the church that ‘suits’ him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches.”

“In the first place the parochial organisation should always be attacked, because, being a unity of place and not of likings, it brings people of different classes and psychology together in the kind of unity the Enemy desires.”

“In the second place, the search for a ‘suitable’ church makes the man a critic where the enemy wants him to be a pupil.”

“At the first [church] of these the Vicar is a man who has been so long engaged in watering down the faith to make it easier for a supposedly incredulous and hard-headed congregation that it is now he who shocks his parishioners with his unbelief, not vice versa.  He has undermined many a soul’s Christianity.”

“The real fun is working up hatred between those who say ‘mass’ and those who say ‘holy communion’ when neither party could possibly state the difference between, say, Hooker’s doctrine and Thomas Aquinas’, in any form which would hold water for five minutes. And all the purely indifferent things – candles and clothes and what not – are an admirable ground for our activities. We have quite removed from men’s minds what that pestilent fellow Paul used to teach about food and other unessentials – namely, that the human without scruples should always give in to the human with scruples.”

I love this letter. We have spent the past several years without a church home. I know how it feels to shop for a church. I know plenty of people who have felt they had to keep searching until they found just the “right” church for them. Screwtape reveals how this can be a tool of our Enemy, teaching us to be critical of details when we should be finding a common cause (worship) with a congregation. One problem with churches that he describes is this tendency to water down the scripture to make it easier or more palatable to the masses.

I think this is one of the biggest challenges facing churches today.

In an attempt to feel relevant with a quickly changing society, churches often feel the pressure to lighten up a little on scriptural truths in order to be more appealing and welcoming. We may get to a point where the church doctrine is not recognizable as Christian anymore.

Another point made in this letter is what Screwtape describes as party churches. He states that this tends not to be about doctrine so much as little things, things that really make no difference in church teachings (like candles and clothes). I think the sheer number of denominations is enough to show that parties are very much a thing. While there are doctrinal issues that divide the various denominations, there are also a lot of minor details that people get hung up on.

Read The Screwtape Letters Part 1.

The Screwtape Letters Part 1

This is where I admit to having never read any C.S. Lewis.

(hangs head in shame)

I am participating in an awesome online book club, and we are reading several works of Lewis over the course of the year. This month I am reading The Screwtape Letters

I read one or two letters each morning during my early morning reading time. Each letter is only a couple of pages long, but each is so impactive, that I can’t imagine rushing through more than two in a single sitting. I typically read and underline passages that I want to chew on a bit more.

In Letter 4, Screwtape is discussing the topic of prayer. So many passages worth discussing!

“The best thing, where it is possible, is to keep the patient from the serious intention of praying altogether.”

“… this is best done by encouraging him to remember, or to think he remembers, the parrot-like nature of his prayers in childhood. In reaction against that, he may be persuaded to aim at something entirely spontaneous, inward, informal, and unregularized; and what this will actually mean to a beginner will be an effort to produce in himself a vaguely devotional mood in which real concentration of will and intelligence have no part.”

“This is exactly the sort of prayer we want; and since it bears a superficial resemblance to the prayer of silence as practiced by those who are very far advanced in the Enemy’s service, clever and lazy patients can be taken in by it for quite a long time.”

This is such a great description of something that is probably very common, especially among new or immature believers. While I am not one for scripted prayer all the time, I think at the beginning of our walk with God it can be too easy to fall into this vague feeling of communing with what we perceive is God, but we don’t know how to move beyond that to actually communicating with Him. One thing that can be helpful and inspiring is reading the prayers of men and women in the Bible. See how believing men and women poured out their heart to God in their prayers, and use those examples to help shape our own prayers. Another way to help guide our prayers is to keep a prayer journal. Writing out our prayers in a journal can help focus our thoughts and words, and can be a great way to keep track of who or what we are praying for.

In Letter 10, Screwtape is discussing with Wormwood about how a believer can be subtly led astray by the company he keeps and the behavior he first tolerates and then comes to embrace as his own.

“No doubt he must very soon realise that his own faith is in direct opposition to the assumptions on which all the conversation of his new friends is based.”

“He will be silent when he ought to speak and laugh when he ought to be silent. He will assume, at first only by his manner, but presently by his words, all sorts of cynical and sceptical attitudes which are not really his. But if you play him well, they may become his. All mortals tend to turn into the thing they are pretending to be.” [emphasis mine]

“Finally, if all else fails, you can persuade him, in defiance of conscience, to continue the new acquaintance on the ground that he is, in some unspecified way, doing these people ‘good’ by the mere fact of drinking their cocktails and laughing at their jokes, and that to cease to do so would be ‘priggish,’ ‘intolerant,’ and (of course) ‘Puritanical.'”

This really struck a chord, because intolerant seems to be a buzzword these days. As Christians, we are instructed to be a light in the world, to live in the world, but not be of the world. We can’t hide ourselves away from people who may have different values and ideals, and expect to show the love of Christ. But at the same time, we can’t reflect Jesus Christ to the world if we are indistinguishable from the world.

Okay one more. Letter 12, where Screwtape is talking about how to slowly turn a person from God.

We know that we have introduced a change of direction in his course which is already carrying him out of his orbit around the Enemy; but he must be made to imagine that all the choices which have effected this change of course are trivial and revocable. He must not be allowed to suspect that he is now, however, slowly, heading right away from the sun on a line which will carry him into the cold and dark of utmost space.”

“As long as he retains externally the habits of a Christian he can still be made to think of himself as one who has adopted a few new friends and amusements but whose spiritual state is much the same as it was six weeks ago.”

“But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are, provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”

Sin and our separation from God does not happen in some grand flash or event, with some monumental sin that explodes and destroys our relationship with God. It often starts as some seemingly insignificant but that takes hold and becomes a habit or a distraction. We may feel not quite right as we know we aren’t living the way we should, and rather than tackle the little habit or distraction, we pull away from God, ever so slightly. “Small” sins are enough to set our relationship with God off balance, to where we don’t want to face Him and pull away. We can get to Hell easy enough with a smooth, comfortable ride. This is why it is so important to not shrug off the little things in our life, that we brush off as insignificant. It’s just a little thing, there are far worse sins that we could be doing. But the little things add up! The little things are significant enough to make us feel not quite right, and to pull back from God. That’s all it takes!

The Screwtape Letters is not a long read, but each letter packs quite a punch. I’m taking it slow, and will put together some notes on some of the remaining letters.