"What is this babbler trying to say?" Acts 17:18

Monday, October 27, 2008

Informational speech on C.S.Lewis

Below is a speech I will be giving in my public speaking class next Thursday. Let me know what you think about it. I am open to suggestion for improving it. Just remember it is 6-10 min. long so not all the interesting stuff I wanted to put in would fit. Also, the headings I have put in are required in that order. Enjoy

Attention Getter:

200 million. That’s the number of C.S.lewis books sold over the last 70 years, according to publishing numbers. Less than 100 authors have sold over 100 million books; Steven King, Charles Dickens, and the author of Harry Potter are in this list, but who is C.S.Lewis and why are his books so popular?

Credentials and relevancy:

I’ve been a C.S.Lewis fan for years, ever since reading his Chronicles of Narnia fantasy series as a kid. Since then, I’ve read nearly all of his 34 books and numerous biographies. Part of the answer to why he is so popular is that he is fun and easy to read. But what you will learn today is that Lewis wrote a great variety of books that have appealed to a great variety of people. You’ve probably heard of, or even read, the
Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis’s wildly popular children’s fantasies, but if you think you’re too old for that, Lewis wrote some other bestsellers that might be right down your ally.

Purpose statement and preview of the main points:

Today you’ll hear what some of those books are as we look at 3 aspects of C.S.Lewis’s life: C.S.Lewis the Scholar, C.S.Lewis the Christian, and C.S.Lewis the novelist.

1st. main point:

First, Let’s look at what sort of scholar C.S.Lewis was. As a boy growing up in Ireland at the beginning of the 20st. century, Lewis liked nothing better than reading books in the family’s attic. This love of reading led him to become a student at Oxford University, where he studied literature and philosophy. Immediately after graduating, Lewis began teaching and writing on these subjects. Eventually he became the chair of Medieval and Renaissance literature at Cambridge University. He was such an expert in this field that he was asked to write the official Oxford History of 16th. Century Literature.

2nd. main point:

Besides his career as a brilliant literary scholar, Lewis had another interest: Religion. I mentioned that you would hear about C.S.Lewis the Christian but C.S.Lewis wasn’t always a Christian. As a teenager and college student he was an outspoken atheist. This began to change, however, when he met a fellow professor whom I think most of you have probable heard of: J.R.R.Tolkien. Just like Lewis, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books have sold 300 million copies, enough for everyone in the United States to have one.

One evening in 1931 the two friends got to talking about one of there favorite subjects: religion. Lewis the atheist arguing against it, Tolkien, a Christian, explaining why he believed. According to George Sayers, a friend and later biographer, they walked into the Oxford college rose garden and kept talking, and talking, and talking…until 3 in the morning! The end of the story is that Lewis became a Christian. Any Lord of the Rings fan will be interested to know that Lewis’s funny and profound bestseller, The Screwtape Letters, was dedicated to Tolkien. This book is the imaginary correspondence between a high-ranking devil and his young apprentice tempter Screwtape. It’s funny but has some keen observations about humanity as well. You don’t have to be a Christian to enjoy it. In fact, very few of Lewis’s quote “Christian” books were written for Christians Since he was once an atheist, Lewis wrote many books to those people asking the same questions about God and the meaning of life that he once asked. Mere Christianity, a [citation needed] million bestseller is one of these books that answer some tough questions about Christianity. The Problem of Pain asks why—if there is a God—he would allow suffering in the world.

3rd. main point:

So far we have looked at 2 aspects of Lewis’s life and a sampling of some of the books that derived from it. But C.S.Lewis the scholar and Christian have only sold about, oh, 75 million copies, so where do the rest come from? They come from C.S.Lewis the Novelist.

You already know Lewis loved to read, but what kind of stories were his favorite? According to [citation needed], he loved fair tales and fantasies. It didn’t matter if they were written for children; he still loved them. In his own essay entitled: “Sometimes Fairy Stories Say Best What’s To Be Said,” Lewis said that
I fell in love with the [fairy tale] form itself: its brevity, its severe restraints on description, its flexible traditionalism, its inflexible hostility to all analysis, digression, reflections and ‘gas.’ I was now enamored of it. Its very limitations of vocabulary became an attraction; as the hardness of the stone pleases the sculpture or the difficulty of the sonnet delights the sonneteer.
He goes on: “[As an author myself] I wrote fairy tales because the fairy tale seemed the ideal form for the stuff I had to say” (On Stories, 47). And so we have the Chronicles of Narnia today. Not children’s stories only but stories with a simplicity and clearness of writing that even children can understand. The reason why Narnia is so popular for many adults still, may hinge on what Lewis once said, quote, “It certainly is my opinion that a book worth reading only as a child is not worth reading even then” (On Stories, 48).

Science Fiction is not all that different from fantasy. During the1940s and 50s when Lewis was at the peak of his writing career, Science Fiction was just becoming popular. Lewis contributed to the rise of Sci-fi with a space trilogy. In the first book, Ransom is abducted by an evil scientist who plans to take him to Mars as a gift/sacrifice/offering to the Martians. On landing he escapes but is soon recaptured by the strange natives. They don’t sacrifice him on a bloody alter like he thought, instead he must help them send the evil scientist back to earth. That’s a simplification but I don’t want to give everything away before you’ve read it for yourself.

Review of the preview:

The third and final book in this trilogy, That Hideous Strength, is one of my favorite books. Maybe that’s because it reveals all aspects of C.S.Lewis that we just looked at. C.S.Lewis the Novelist is at his height writing about a scientific conspiracy to control all of England. C.S.Lewis the Christian has his hero wrestle with choosing to resist evil or join it for the sake of power and wealth. His heroine also discovers that helping others is better than always thinking of oneself. Finally, C.S.Lewis the Medieval Scholar supplies the background for the reappearance of the legendary wizard Merlin after a 1000-year sleep.

It’s hard not to like an author who has a little something for everyone. Whether you’re a history buff wanting to empress your history or lit teacher on a test, or you’re looking for the easy to understand answers to the hard questions of life, or you just want to curl up with a good story, try C.S.Lewis. 200 million other people have liked him; you might too.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Who Killed Homer?

"Until the fog of classicism has lifted, the greater classics are invisible.”--C.S.Lewis (28).

Occasionally (translate, once in a great while) I will read a book with a more substantive content than my usual fair of “fluff in fiction.” When this does happen I am often surprised both by the inscrutable, unfathomable content and by how much I enjoy it. The latest instance of this is Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath’s inquiry into Who Killed Homer. To be honest, I didn’t actually read it (that would be impressive!); I listened to it, so it may have gone in one ear and out the other.

If you haven’t heard of Victor Davis Hanson yet--you have now. A good way to meet him is through his blog, Works and Days, that right now is devoted to national politics. That he could be one of the best political commentators as well as one of the best Greek historians and educators is strong testimony to his intellect.

Who Killed Homer seeks to do three primary things: (1.) discover why the Iliad and Odyssey and other Greek and Latin classics are so little studied, (2.) Shame classics professors into actually teaching their students instead of seeking tenure and grants to spend on “esoteric” research projects, and (3.) Warn that Western culture will be lost if we forget “the Greek way of thinking.”

A number of factors have contributed to “the demise of classical education” (that happens to be part of the subtitle). A proliferation of degrees in fields such as “gender studies,” psychology, and so on, have sapped students and resources from classics departments. Students are too lazy to devote their time to learning Latin and Greek when easier courses are available (I don’t blame them, I’m unilingual too). These and other factors, Hanson and Heath argue, have made it so that today most colleges do not even have a classics department and those that do…. Well, this calls for a new paragraph on the second point listed above.

Classics professors often do not teach their students the foundations of Greek language, literature, and history. In their place classes that make the student feel good, or that do not require the teacher to prepare, or, just as bad, classes on esoteric topics are substituted. Hanson and Heath seem to take great relish in lampooning the titles of “esoteric” (seemingly one of Hanson’s favorite words) papers and theses written by less than admired colleagues. “Feminism in Greek Culture” takes precedence over actually teaching about Greek culture and “Homosexuality and Gender Issues in Such and Such an Author” trumps teaching what that author actually wrote. Hanson and Heath feel so strongly about poor teaching quality that they advocate abolishing the tenure system, cutting grants for research projects, and increasing teaching loads across the country.

So far I have been summarizing some pretty specialized topics in Who Killed Homer, those not interested in the decline of education standards over the past few decades and who have no power to change it anyway, may ask the not unimportant question: “what’s in it for me?” Hanson and Heath point out that Western culture is directly descended from the Greeks and Romans. All our most important institutions and ideals—Western culture itself—are from that ancient world. Individual freedom, constitutional government, free speech, you name it, were all patronized and defended by the Greeks. Hanson and Heath claim that never has a country been so influenced by the Greeks and yet (increasingly) so ignorant of them. They warn that if “the Greek way of thinking” is lost, Western culture, as we know it, will disappear. So there’s your answer, if you live in America or any country that still claims to be part of the ideological “West.”

The concluding half of Who Killed Homer’s subtitle is: The Recovery of Greek Wisdom. Hanson and Heath argue that “the Greek way of thinking” must be encouraged through teaching people the basics of Classical history and thought. More than just a few musty old professors and irritatingly brilliant students need to know about the principles of Greek culture to be able to recover its wisdom. Every citizen of the Polis should “think like a Greek.”

For a sample chapter modified into an essay by the authors click here.

C.S.Lewis, English Literature in the 16th Century, Oxford Univ. Press, 1954.

Monday, October 6, 2008

The Man Born To Be King

You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born.” –John 18:37

Dorothy L. Sayers has an impressive variety of books under her name. Detective stories, translations of medieval writings, essays and commentaries on literature, and last, but not least, plays. I have had the opportunity to get a brief sampling of each of these with the exception of her dramas. That is, until I recently read her series of plays under the title: The Man Born To Be King. These plays chronicle the life of Christ with sometimes free, but never irreverent or improbable, additions of suppositional history and dialogue.

Call it coincidence if you will, but I just happened to start reading in Matthew the week I began this book and, due to slow reading and many distractions, was still reading it all the way through Mark, Luke, and John. This turned out to be a good thing because, like most things that get stale and boring after much familiarity, the story of Jesus as contained in the four gospels was starting to get old. Perhaps it’s just me, but it seems that sometimes we start reading and immediately disconnect our brain (or, equally fatal, our heart) and merely process empty words. At the end of a chapter we vaguely remember a string of platitudes and parables heard a hundred times before but don’t really care to recall them to mind or ponder who they were spoken to and why. The narrative of Jesus life hardly stirs our interest or emotions anymore. Even that piercing and heartrending cry uttered from the cross of suffering: “my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” can eventually be read with indifferent and sleepy eyes. The Man Born To Be King, however, lets us experience the life of Christ anew. Like Ben Hur and other historical novels that introduce the sights, sound, and “feel” of a scene, so Sayers adds little details that make the bare facts more lifelike.

Knowing the end of a story can also make us less attentive readers. Sayers combats this by developing Judas’s character so that we don’t know if he will really betray Jesus for some time. He starts off as a good guy like all the other disciples but is slowly gnawed by mistrust of Jesus’ pure motives in the corrupt political landscape of Judea that Sayers envisions. Pilate’s role is also realistically done I thought. Why all the vacillating between having Jesus flogged and evading condemning him on the technicality that he was under Herod’s jurisdiction? Or between allowing Jesus to be crucified but immediately washing his hands of the whole affair? Sayers presents it as a sort of political chess game that Pilate was forced to play with the High Priest. Although Pilate was able to put the Jews in check with the admission that, “we have not king but Caesar,” he was checkmated by his own move when the Jews countered by charging: “if you let this man go you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.”

To sum things up, The Man Born to be King retells the gospel story with a little suppositional history and plot development that make the real history more interesting for those that both have or have not heard it before. Originally, the goal of these plays on the life of Christ were to introduce people to Jesus apart from “religion” and the language of the King James Bible. The mid 20th century British language and employment of the hardly popular drama form will probably turn most people today off just like the King James Language often still does, but we can hope it was useful to B.B.C. radio audiences in the 1940’s. And, even now, for a few like me to once again follow in the dusty footsteps of the Carpenter from Nazareth who is the Man born to be King.