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Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.”  I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”

Ancient men marveled at the regularity of the movements of the heavens, which enabled them to predict the paths of the planets.  It was not until modern times though that we were able fully to appreciate just how mathematical are the laws that govern the operations of the physical universe—all of it, not just the visible parts.  Music is mathematics applied to pitch and time.  It is more than that, but not less.  So poets from Milton to MacDonald to Lewis and Tolkien have, in an appropriate metaphor indeed, portrayed creation as a song or a dance.  It was in Job all along: at creation the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy.

 

COMMENTARY, JOB 38:7

The Novas were the trumpets,

The Black Holes played the bass,

The Comets were the clarinets,

The concert hall was Space.

 

The Stars were violins,

The Angels sang in thirds,

The Planets danced a minuet,

Jehovah wrote the words.

 

And still they sing together,

And with the inner ears

The clear-souled man can listen yet:

The music of the spheres.

Remember: for more poetry like this, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds! Also look for Inklings of Reality and Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest books from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.  And look for Williams’ very latest book, Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis, from Square Halo Books!

Donald T. Williams, PhD

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Need the Perfect CHRISTMAS PRESENT?

Need the perfect Christmas present for your book-loving friends and relatives?  Look no further. Have I got some answers for you!  All are books that I can recommend highly with the greatest confidence, having, er, written them myself.

BethlehemStar2

We lead off with my newest tome, literally hot off the press: Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis (Baltimore: Square Halo Books, 2016).  What is the theology that lies behind the Narnia Books, the Space Trilogy, and the popular apologetics?  What are its strengths and weaknesses as a guide to biblical truth?  Where can we follow Lewis and where do we need to withhold our judgment or even dissent?  Why is he in the final analysis the great theologian of wholeness?  These are the questions this book will answer from the entire body of Lewis’s work.  Order from the publisher or from Amazon.

Book-CSLTheology-Cover

 

The other perfect gift for a fan of C. S. Lewis or J. R. R. Tolkien:  Mere Humanity: G. K. chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien on the Human Condition (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006).  What a piece of work is a man (or woman)?  I set forth the strong biblical answer to that question given by these three Christian writers in their expository works, and then show how they incarnated in in their fiction.  In Lewis’s Space Trilogy you have hrossa, seroni, pfiffltriggi, and the Green Lady of Perelandra–rational and spiritual but non-human species that serve as foils to set off, by both their similarities and their differences to us, the essential characteristics of true human nature.  (Tor and Tinidril on Perelandra are humanoid, but not human, not being descended from Adam and Eve.)  In the Narnia books, Talking Beasts perform the same function.  In Tolkien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, elves, dwarves, and wizards play that role.  In the book as a whole you get both a strong defense of the biblical view of humanity that has traction against various modernist and post-modernist reductionisms, and also interesting explications of the popular fiction from that standpoint.  $14.99.  Order from the publisher or on Amazon.

C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis

Perfect gift for a lover of literature in general, especially high-school kids studying literature in home school or their parents, or those thinking of majoring in English in college and needing a biblical place to stand against the sterile winds of secularist literary theory in our day:  Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd ed. (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012).  Christians are a “people of the Book.”  What does this say about them and the place reading should have in their lives?  What should Christians read?  How?  Why?  Explore such questions as you watch some of the finest Christian minds wrestle with them through history.  Lewis and Tolkien and the other Inklings are not the primary focus of this book, but they play a major role in it–the pun in the title was made with benevolence aforethought.  $15.00.  Order from https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/.

Inklings of Reality Donald Williams cover

Perfect gift for a lover of poetry:  Stars through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2011).   Jim Prothero says, “Williams has returned poetry  to the writing of poetry.  Here you will find new life breathed into the great forms that graced English verse for centuries.  Owen Barfield insisted that poetry must cause the reader to undergo ‘a felt change of consciousness.’  That’s a tall order, but Don Williams achieves it.  Someone said reading C. S. Lewis ’caused one to grow in sanity.’  I find very few other authors of whom that may be said: tolkien, L’Engle, Frost–not many more.  But it can be said of the poetry of Donald Williams.”   $15.00.  Order from https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/.

Stars Through the Clouds

Perfect gift for a person interested in theology, philosophy, and apologetics:  Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012).  From the introduction:  “Francis Schaeffer was right: In the Post-Christian world, lay men and women can no longer afford to remain ignorant of critical issues and questions that used to be the domain only of philosophy majors.  The biblical world view can no longer be taken for granted, even by Christians.  If we do not think in terms of world view, that is, think philosophically, we will be able neither to discern the biblical world view, nor to retain it, nor to disciple others in it, nor to communicate it to non-Christians.  Not only is the unexamined life not worth living, in is not even possible any more for  those who wish to be faithful Christians and faithful witnesses for Christ.”  $15.00.  Order from https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/.

Interested in the case for God? For more on the Christian world view, check out Dr. Williams' book REFLECTIONS FROM PLATO'S CAVE, in the Lantern Hollow E-store.

In all these books I have tried to follow C. S. Lewis’s example and write in such a way that I combine substance and serious wrestling with significant issues with a writing style that is approachable for people who are not necessarily experts in those fields.  If I have succeeded only a little in that, then I can safely paraphrase Emperor Palpatine:  “You want them, don’t you.”  Yes, you do.

Need the Perfect CHRISTMAS PRESENT?

Need the perfect Christmas present for your book-loving friends and relatives?  Look no further.  Have I got some answers for you!  All are books that I can recommend highly with the greatest confidence, having, er, written them myself.

BethlehemStar2
Perfect gift for a fan of C. S. Lewis or J. R. R. Tolkien:  Mere Humanity: G. K. chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien on the Human Condition (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006).  What a piece of work is a man (or woman)?  I set forth the strong biblical answer to that question given by these three Christian writers in their expository works, and then show how they incarnated in in their fiction.  In Lewis’s Space Trilogy you have hrossa, seroni, pfiffltriggi, and the Green Lady of Perelandra–rational and spiritual but non-human species that serve as foils to set off, by both their similarities and their differences to us, the essential characteristics of true human nature.  (Tor and Tinidril on Perelandra are humanoid, but not human, not being descended from Adam and Eve.)  In the Narnia books, Talking Beasts perform the same function.  In Tolkien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, elves, dwarves, and wizards play that role.  In the book as a whole you get both a strong defense of the biblical view of humanity that has traction against various modernist and pos-modernist reductionisms, and also interesting explications of the popular fiction from that standpoint.  $14.99.  Order from the publisher or on Amazon.

C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis

Perfect gift for a lover of literature in general, especially high-school kids studying literature in home school or their parents, or those thinking of majoring in English in college and needing a biblical place to stand against the sterile winds of secularist literary theory in our day:  Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd ed. (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012).  Christians are a “people of the Book.”  What does this say about them and the place reading should have in their lives?  What should Christians read?  How?  Why?  Explore such questions as you watch some of the finest Christian minds wrestle with them through history.  Lewis and Tolkien and the other Inklings are not the primary focus of this book, but they play a major role in it–the pun in the title was made with benevolence aforethought.  $15.00.  Order from https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/.

Inklings of Reality Donald Williams cover

Perfect gift for a lover of poetry:  Stars through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2011).   Jim Prothero says, “Williams has returned poetry  to the writing of poetry.  Here you will find new life breathed into the great forms that graced English verse for centuries.  Owen Barfield insisted that poetry must cause the reader to undergo ‘a felt change of consciousness.’  That’s a tall order, but Don Williams achieves it.  Someone said reading C. S. Lewis ’caused one to grow in sanity.’  I find very few other authors of whom that may be said: tolkien, L’Engle, Frost–not many more.  But it can be said of the poetry of Donald Williams.”   $15.00.  Order from https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/.

Stars Through the Clouds

Perfect gift for a person interested in theology, philosophy, and apologetics:  Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012).  From the introduction:  “Francis Schaeffer was right: In the Post-Christian world, lay men and women can no longer afford to remain ignorant of critical issues and questions that used to be the domain only of philosophy majors.  The biblical world view can no longer be taken for granted, even by Christians.  If we do not think in terms of world view, that is, think philosophically, we will be able neither to discern the biblical world view, nor to retain it, nor to disciple others in it, nor to communicate it to non-Christians.  Not only is the unexamined life not worth living, in is not even possible any more for  those who wish to be faithful Christians and faithful witnesses for Christ.”  $15.00.  Order from https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/.

Interested in the case for God? For more on the Christian world view, check out Dr. Williams' book REFLECTIONS FROM PLATO'S CAVE, in the Lantern Hollow E-store.

In all these books I have tried to follow C. S. Lewis’s example and write in such a way that I combine substance and serious wrestling with significant issues with a writing style that is approachable for people who are not necessarily experts in those fields.  If I have succeeded only a little in that, then I can safely paraphrase Emperor Palpatine:  “You want them, don’t you.”  Yes, you do.

WHY EVANGELICALS CAN’T WRITE, Part 1

WHY EVANGELICALS CAN’T WRITE,
And How Flannery O’Connor Can Help Us Learn Better

Donald T. Williams, PhD

A version of this essay appeared as “Writers Cramped: Three Things Evangelical Authors Can Learn from Flannery O’Connor,” Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity 20:7 (Sept., 2007): 15-18. A fuller version appears in Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd ed., revised & expanded (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012).

C. S. Lewis’s writing desk. (He could write!)

There is a certain irony in the fact that I, an Evangelical, am now offering to you words I wrote down about why Evangelicals can’t write. Whether I am the exception that proves the rule, Posterity will have to judge (if the publishing industry ever offers it the opportunity). At the very least, the ironic presence of this essay on your screen is an opportunity for exegesis. It suggests that my title is not to be taken literally. Evangelicals obviously do write, and publish, reams upon reams of prose. What they have not tended to write is anything recognized as having literary value by the literary world.

 
What makes this failure remarkable is that our Protestant forebears include a numer of people who did: Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, John Donne, George Herbert, John Milton, and John Bunyan, to mention just a few. Equally remarkable is that near-contemporary conservative Christians–sometimes quite evangelical and even evangelistic, though not “Evangelicals”–have often done so. G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Dorothy L. Sayers, T. S. Eliot, Graham Greene, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, Madeline L’Engle, and Annie Dillard are all recognized as important literary figures even by people who do not share their Christian commitment. Where is the American Evangelical who can make such a claim?

G. K. Chesterton

G. K. Chesterton

The people I have mentioned who are both great writers and great Christians are all from liturgical churches: Roman Catholic, Anglican/Episcopal, Orthodox. (Dillard, who started out as a Presbyterian, has recently converted to Catholicism.) The closest thing Evangelicalism has to a name that could rank with these is probably Walter Wangerin, Jr., who is not really a “mainstream” Evangelical but a Lutheran–again, from a liturgical tradition. Try to think of a Baptist (of any stripe), a Free or Wesleyan Methodist or a Nazarene, a conservative Presbyterian (OPC or PCA), a Plymouth Brother, a member of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, a Pentecostal, or a member of an independent Bible church who belongs in that company. While there may be one reading these words right now who is destined to join them, and to whom this rhetorical gambit is being grossly unfair, our experience up to now has been such that the mind is simply unable to suspend its disbelief and imagine any such thing. Instead, we get “Left Behind.” In more ways than one.

J. R. R. Tolkien

J. R. R. Tolkien

Why? Is there anything we can do about it? Is there anything we can do about it without compromising our commitment to our Evangelical distinctives? What are those Evangelical distinctives anyway?

 
These are the questions I will try to wrestle with–I won’t promise to answer–in this two-part essay. I do not want to overstate the case. No doubt someone could point out minor figures who are, or who have the potential to be, exceptions to the generalization which is my premise. I should be glad to hear of them, but as we are talking about general trends, they hardly overturn that premise. The liturgical churches foster a lot of schlock and kitsch of their own; but they are also communities that are capable of fostering and nurturing great writers and great writing. So far, we Evangelicals have not. In fact, one could make a case that we positively discourage “literary” writing as being of questionable spiritual value. I am just crazy enough to want to change that state of affairs.

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Too often people like Thomas Howard or Sheldon Vanauken have migrated Romeward (or, like Franky Schaeffer, at one point, to Byzantium), partly because their commitment to serious art could find no home in Evangelicalism. Some of them would deny that this was the major reason, but we would be naïve to think that it was not a factor. I want to say forthrightly that I do not see such migrations as a viable solution. For myself, I would define an Evangelical as a person committed to Nicene and Chalcedonian orthodoxy, to a high view of the authority of Scripture, to the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone, and to the necessity of personal faith in Christ (and therefore the importance for most people of a personal conversion experience, as long as we do not stereotype it) for salvation. If we must really give up any of that in order to learn to nurture serious artists and writers, then Evangelicals are prepared to let art and literature perish from the earth! But I cannot believe that the God who begot the incarnate Logos and whose Spirit inspired the Gospels desires, much less requires, any such thing. So let us find another way, and ask, “What can we learn from these great Christian writers that we, as Evangelicals, can apply in our own discipling communities?”

Let me attempt a beginning to an answer by examining one useful example: Flannery O’Connor.  What she can teach us will be our topic next week.

______________________________________________________________________________

Donald T. Willliams (BA, Taylor University, M.Div., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, PhD, University of Georgia) is R. A. Forrest Scholar at Toccoa Falls College in the Hills of N.E. Georgia. His books include Mere Humanity: G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien on the Human Condition (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006), Stars through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2011), Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd ed., revised & expanded (Lantern Hollow, 2012), and Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lantern Hollow, 2012).

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Order Stars through the Clouds ($15.00), Inklings of Reality ($15.00) or Reflections from Plato’s Cave ($15.00) at https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/.

Review: Shadowlands

I’ve been getting a lot of questions lately about the upcoming movie about the friendship between C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien.  Universally my correspondents are hoping that it will “do justice” to the real men and their story.  Every indication is that it will be as loosely “based” on the real people as the earlier movie Shadowlands, about the romance between Lewis and Joy Davidman, was–which is to say, very, very loosely.  For example, Tolkien will apparently have trouble finishing LOTR not because of his perfectionism but because of PTSD unresolved from WWI with accompanying “psychotic dreams.”  (The film will be set in 1941.)  Nonsense, balderdash, fishfuzz, and horsefeathers!  To help with realistic expectations, I resurrect my old review of Shadowlands.

The Chronicler of Middle Earth

The Chronicler of Middle Earth

LIGHT ON SHADOWLANDS

 

This review was originally published in The Lamp-Post 29:2 (Sum. 2005, pub. June, 2007): 18-20.

One of the most significant movies of 1993 was “Shadowlands,” the story of the marriage of C. S. Lewis and Joy Davidman. It is a wholesome family movie and a rich experience, with excellent performances by Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger as “Jack” Lewis and Joy. Any new interest it stirs in Lewis and his writings will be all to the good; but viewers should remember that they are watching, not history, but historical drama. They are not the same thing, and in this movie especially it is important to be aware of the difference.

C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis

Historical drama always distorts history in the interest of simplicity and theme. Characters are conflated and time is compressed (“Turning the accomplishment of years / Into an hourglass,” as Shakespeare put it) to make the presentation accessible to the audience. This is unavoidable and is to be expected as part of the genre. In “Shadowlands,” for example, Douglas Gresham’s brother David disappears altogether, and events that took place over eight years are compressed into what appears to be only one or two, as the ten-year-old Douglas who meets Lewis at the beginning appears to be the same age at the time of his mother’s death instead of being a young man in his teens. None of this should bother us. The real problem comes in the simplifications of the story for the sake of the movie’s theme, for they conspire to create a serious distortion of the man that C. S. Lewis actually was.

“Shadowlands” is the story of a stuffy, self-assured, emotionally sheltered ivory-tower British intellectual who is “humanized” by his relationship with the brash young American divorcee who storms into his life. It begins with Lewis lecturing church ladies groups on the meaning of pain, “God’s megaphone” to reach a deaf world, and ends with a chastened man who “no longer has any answers” after experiencing the pain of loss himself. Some reviewers I have read show no knowledge that the movie depicts people who actually lived. So far as that portrait of Lewis goes, they are ironically right.

Lewis lecturing to the RAF in WWII.

Lewis lecturing to the RAF in WWII.

This false impression of Lewis is created, not merely by simplifications, but by blatant historical inaccuracies as well. The ivory tower in which the early Lewis is sheltered is created partly by omission. We never see the avid hiker who enjoyed nature with gusto (a figure prominent in Lewis’s diary) until after the marriage. Joy accuses Lewis of being surrounded by intellectual inferiors so that he “never loses” the debates he relishes. Yet the friends who were his intellectual peers—people like J. R. R. Tolkien, Owen Barfield, Dorothy L. Sayers—are conspicuous by their absence in the film. Lewis did not always see eye to eye with these friends (who were much more important parts of his life than the colleagues portrayed). His long friendship with the anthroposophist Barfield was jokingly referred to by them as “the great war.” But there are plain falsehoods as well as omissions. When the movie-Lewis takes Joy to see the Mayday celebration at the Magdalen Tower, he admits to her that he had never been before; he just never saw the point. But the real Lewis had been—on May 1, 1926, according to his diary—and apparently enjoyed it.

The most serious distortion of history comes at the end of the film, when a chastened Lewis seems to repudiate faith in general and the now seemingly glib pronouncements of The Problem of Pain in particular, saying that he no longer has answers—only life. It is as if the scriptwriters had read only the first half of A Grief Observed, which records Lewis’s real struggles in accepting Joy’s death from cancer, and not finished the book. Some distortion of history is inevitable in the transition from the real world to the stage or screen, but this distortion is inexcusable, for it reverses the real meaning of everything that happened.

Lewis in happy times.

Lewis in happy times.

A Grief Observed ends not with the repudiation of The Problem of Pain but with a reaffirmation of its content that adds to it the depth of a faith that has now been severely tested. Here’s how the book ends: “She said, not to me but to the chaplain, ‘I am at peace with God.’ She smiled, but not at me. Poi si tornio all’ eternal fonatana (‘So she turned to the eternal fountain’).” The last words are a quotation from Dante’s Paradiso, the moment when Beatrice turns from the task of helping Dante to the vision of God back to re-absorption in the contemplation of that vision herself. Such was Lewis’s final conclusion about the meaning of his wife’s death. Joy’s last words were, “I am at peace with God.” The real Lewis died that way too, on the day President Kennedy was shot.

I am glad that I have seen “Shadowlands,” and I recommend that you see it too. It contains some of the truth about the Lewises’ relationship; it wonderfully helps us to visualize the setting and the culture in context of which these things occurred; and the portrait of Lewis’s brother, Warren, is delightfully true to life, judging from Warren’s own published journals. But we must see it, not as reality, but as an often distorted interpretation of reality.

CSLComfortableLife
For the reality, the following are indispensable. Primary sources: C. S. Kilby, ed., Brothers and Friends: The Diaries of Major Warren H. Lewis (Ballantine, 1982); C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (Macmillan, 1940—source of the early lectures in the movie); C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (Seabury, 1961); Warren H. Lewis, ed., The Letters of C. S. Lewis (Harcourt Brace, 1966); Douglas Gresham, Lenten Lands: My Childhood with Joy Davidman and C. S. Lewis (MacMillan, 1988); and Walter Hooper, ed., All My Road Before Me: The Diary of C. S. Lewis, 1922-27 (Harcourt Brace, 1991). Secondary sources: Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper, C. S. Lewis: A Biography (Harcourt Brace, 1974); George Sayer, Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis (Crossway, 1994)—but not A. N. Wilson’s biography, exploded as tendentious fiction by eyewitness Douglas Gresham.
Let us hope that the movie-renting public will be intrigued enough to discover the real Lewis, who, in Aslan’s Country now as he did in life before, probably finds all this attention a source of great amusement.

LWWCover

Donald T. Williams, PhD, is R. A. Forrest Scholar and Professor of English at Toccoa Falls College in the hills of NE Georgia.  For more of his work on Lewis and Tolkien, order his book Mere Humanity: Chesterton, Lewis, and Tolkien on the Human Condition (Nashville: Broadman, 2006) or check out his works at Lantern Hollow Press.
https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/