Laughing at Demons: Why You Should Read The Screwtape Letters

On second page of The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis provides a framework for reading his work—

“The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.”—Luther

“The devill . . the prowde spirite . . cannot endure to be mocked.”—Thomas More

C.S. Lewis takes a swipe, however, in his classic satire about an uncle demon instructing his young nephew in the ways of the diabolical. Each chapter is structured as a letter in the Screwtape’s own hand. As a senior demon, he has much advice for the younger novitiate.

Reading this novel is like chewing the best kind of cake. The texture and flavors are unexpected, satisfying, and, even better, you find out AFTER you’ve eaten it that it’s one of those really healthy kind of cakes that’s barely a cake at all, but full of fiber and those natural sugars that someone named Dawn told you about.

So you eat another slice.

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Announcement: if you’re opposed to learning, skip this book. I’m learning a lot about my own vices, the enemy’s role in using them, and suddenly I find myself highly on the defensive. Therefore, it’s much too practical for those opposed-to-learning types. Avoid at all costs.

I offer you a brief sample, Letter 10, which hit me, well, like a load of cinder blocks. That is, I identified with it grand ways, and I felt as if I were ogling myself with an awkwardly large magnifying glass. (Do not materialize that image of me in your mind.) (Before or after the cinder blocks, you say.)

In this letter, we are warned of the problems of “pretending;” in this case, the “patient” starts pretending in order to be accepted into a group of intellectual elites. If you, or anyone you know, is a Christian interacting with an intellectual community, you would do well to read this letter. Or, if you are not a part of an intellectual community, but you’ve ever felt tension between Who You Are and Who They Are, and you desperately wish to close that gap, and you find yourself no longer being true to yourself (or your Lord), you, too, ought also to read this letter.

Afterward, I’ve posted a few thoughts, and I welcome your questions.

MY DEAR WORMWOOD,

I was delighted to hear from Triptweeze that your patient has made some very desirable new acquaintances and that you seem to have used this event in a really promising manner. I gather that the middle-aged married couple who called at his office are just the sort of people we want him to know—rich, smart, superficially intellectual, and brightly sceptical about everything in the world. I gather they are even vaguely pacifist, not on moral grounds but from an ingrained habit of belittling anything that concerns the great mass of their fellow men and from a dash of purely fashionable and literary communism. This is excellent. And you seem to have made good use of all his social, sexual, and intellectual vanity. Tell me more. Did he commit himself deeply? I don’t mean in words. There is a subtle play of looks and tones and laughs by which a Mortal can imply that he is of the same party is those to whom he is speaking. That is the kind of betrayal you should specially encourage, because the man does not fully realise it himself; and by the time he does you will have made withdrawal difficult.

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. I don’t think that matters much provided that you can persuade him to postpone any open acknowledgment of the fact, and this, with the aid of shame, pride, modesty and vanity, will be easy to do. As long as the postponement lasts he will be in a false position. 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. This is elementary. The real question is how to prepare for the Enemy’s counter attack.

The first thing is to delay as long as possible the moment at which he realises this new pleasure as a temptation. Since the Enemy’s servants have been preaching about “the World” as one of the great standard temptations for two thousand years, this might seem difficult to do. But fortunately they have said very little about it for the last few decades. In modern Christian writings, though I see much (indeed more than I like) about Mammon, I see few of the old warnings about Worldly Vanities, the Choice of Friends, and the Value of Time. All that, your patient would probably classify as “Puritanism”—and may I remark in passing that the value we have given to that word is one of the really solid triumphs of the last hundred years? By it we rescue annually thousands of humans from temperance, chastity, and sobriety of life.

Sooner or later, however, the real nature of his new friends must become clear to him, and then your tactics must depend on the patient’s intelligence. If he is a big enough fool you can get him to realise the character of the friends only while they are absent; their presence can be made to sweep away all criticism. If this succeeds, he can be induced to live, as I have known many humans live, for quite long periods, two parallel lives; he will not only appear to be, but actually be, a different man in each of the circles he frequents. Failing this, there is a subtler and more entertaining method. He can be made to take a positive pleasure in the perception that the two sides of his life are inconsistent. This is done by exploiting his vanity. He can be taught to enjoy kneeling beside the grocer on Sunday just because he remembers that the grocer could not possibly understand the urbane and mocking world which he inhabited on Saturday evening; and contrariwise, to enjoy the bawdy and blasphemy over the coffee with these admirable friends all the more because he is aware of a “deeper”, “spiritual” world within him which they cannot understand. You see the idea—the worldly friends touch him on one side and the grocer on the other, and he is the complete, balanced, complex man who sees round them all. Thus, while being permanently treacherous to at least two sets of people, he will feel, instead of shame, a continual undercurrent of self-satisfaction. 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”.

Meanwhile you will of course take the obvious precaution of seeing that this new development induces him to spend more than he can afford and to neglect his work and his mother. Her jealousy, and alarm, and his increasing evasiveness or rudeness, will be invaluable for the aggravation of the domestic tension,

Your affectionate uncle
SCREWTAPE

My Meager Thoughts

1. Anyone who has grown up in an insular conservative community and suddenly finds themselves “outside” knows what is that “subtle play of looks and tones and laughs by which a Mortal can imply that he is of the same party is those to whom he is speaking.” We are try-hards.

2. “All mortals tend to turn into the thing they are pretending to be.” This is chilling.

3. The pleasure of belonging can be a temptation—wow, Lewis, you’re really on fire.

4. Embracing the paradox of the two worlds… I’ve done this. You’ve done this. You’re really smart, so contemporary, and you’re very glad that you can so easily dance between both worlds. Strange, isn’t it, that C. S. Lewis just condemns it? Pretending is not an option. He really does poke fun at your little urbane dreamworld.

But C. S. Lewis is talking about a young Christian, maybe or maybe not on a university campus, who is dazzled by the intellectual elites. He is probably not talking about all the identity issues of a leftover female Anabaptist who sometimes feels like a polar bear at a rice convention. (But maybe he is.)

Ah well. Perhaps we all are little devils. Because as C. S. Lewis writes, we soon find that he is sniggering at us. In a helpful uncle-y way.

And as annoying as it is, I’m glad.

READ THIS BOOK

 

 

You Are Rare Art (Before I Met You)

Before I met you, you were already a rare piece of art. Grey background, yellow flourishes, black shadows, peach strokes, all overlaid with strands of gold.

You are rare, a type of art that takes time and talent to appreciate, to understand, to comprehend.

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Jackson Pollock, Number 5, 1948

Sometimes I’m not in the mood for Art, though. I don’t want to spend the time. And that is the worst thing I (we) can do. To never take the time to take a step back and appreciate a good canvas.

When I’m not thinking artistically, I find myself sometimes wanting to add to the picture. Do you ever want to adjust a painting? (Maybe some people come to mind—your brother, a parent, perhaps one of your students.) Do you ever meet a new person and think, “Well if I could fix just this one thing, then they’d be a really nice person.” “I like her, but this Thing really bothers me about her.” “Such a nice guy, but did you know This?”

I learned something this week: Nobody asked you. Nobody asked you to change a painting. Nobody asked you to “fix” a “broken” picture. Nobody asked you to create anyone.

You know, people really are who they are, whether or not you affirm them.

But sometimes we get struck with a savior complex, and we feel like it’s our duty to change people. When I run up against this, it always turns out badly.

My own impulse to “fix” people, and my inability to see, to listen, and to understand, remind me of the impulsive and sensual Dmitri in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamasov, who in his love-stricken state, cannot bear the facts about Grushenka, a disloyal woman.

Dmitri reasons to himself: “‘If she’s sitting at Kuzma’s, she won’t go to Fyodor Pavlovich . . . if only she’s not lying,’ he added at once… His jealously was precisely of such a sort that, separated from the beloved women, he at once invented all kinds of horrors about what was happening with her, and how she had gone and ‘betrayed’ him; but, running back to her, and shaken, crushed, convinced irretrievably that she had managed to betray him, with the first look of her face, at the gay, laughing, tender face of this woman, his spirits would at once revive, he would at once lose all suspicion, and with joyful shame reproach himself for his jealousy.”

But she has betrayed him. And Dmitri cannot see the truth (rather he cannot accept the truth) because of his own selfish jealousy.

And Dostoevsky indulges us at length, with this explanation: “It is hard to imagine what some jealous men can tolerate and be reconciled to, and what they can forgive! Jealous men forgive sooner than anyone else, and all women know it. The jealous man (having first made a terrible scene, of course) can and will very promptly forgive, for example, a nearly proven betrayal, the embraces and kisses he has seen himself, if, for example, at the same time he can somehow be convinced that this was ‘the last time’ and that his rival will disappear from that moment on, that he will go to the end of the earth, or that he himself will take her away somewhere, to some place where this terrible rival will never come. Of course, the reconciliation will only last an hour, because even if the rival has indeed disappeared, tomorrow he will invent another, a new one, and become jealous of this new one. And one may ask what is the good of a love that needs constantly be spied on, and what is the worth of a love that needs to be guarded so intensely? But that is something the truly jealous will never understand, though at the same time there happen, indeed, to be lofty hearts among them. It is also remarkable that these same lofty-hearted men, while standing in some sort of closet, eavesdropping and spying, though they understand clearly ‘in their lofty hearts’ all the shame they have gotten into of their own will, nevertheless, at least for that moment, while standing in that closet, will not feel any pangs of remorse.”

In this case, it is ridiculous to feel shame but no remorse. This, truly is the jealous heart.

We need not limit Dmitri’s blindness toward (and jealousy for) his lover alone. How many of us, due to our own selfishness, or jealousy, refuse to really see a person for who they truly are? How many of us refuse to allow someone to live outside of “our box,” never bother to sit down and really listen to a human, especially if it’s a person who either makes you feel AWKWARD or really just flat out annoys you? (Distant children, difficult students, and new acquaintances come to mind. Or, in Dmitri’s case, a person whom you love very much…)

In every situation, be careful if you feel like the bringer of truth. Please pause and consider carefully: while we influence people, we do not necessarily recreate them.

People are not containers. You can’t “fill them up” with truth.

People aren’t boxes that you put things in.

They are canvases.

In your whole life, you may only get to paint one purple stroke or a green dot.

No need to cover them in voluminous red vomit.

Before you meet them, and after you are gone, they are rare art.

The Entire Presidential Race As Told by Characters in Macbeth

Let’s have a little fun, shall we? What if we cast Trump and Clinton as our favorite Shakespearean power-hungry couple, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth?

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Trump, to the sixteen candidates he beats for Republican nominee:
“Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more.” (Act V, Scene V)

Ben Carson, to Trump, after dropping out:
“Let’s briefly put on manly readiness
And meet i’the’ hall together. (Act II, Scene III)

Trump, when asked about proposed policy:
“Strange things I have in head, that will to hand
Which must be acted ere they may be scanned.” (Act III, Scene IV)

Trump, to no one in particular:
“I dare do all that may become a man;
Who dares do more is none.” (Act I, Scene VII)

The American public, upon discovering the two nominees for President:
“If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well
It were done quickly.” (Act I, Scene 7)

News Reporter: Trump, how do you feel about Russia and North Korea?
Trump: “Approach thou like the rugged Russian bear
The armed rhinoceros, or th’ Hyrcan tiger;
Take any shape but that, and my firm nerves
Shall never tremble.” (Act III, Scene IV)

Trump, to women: “Bring forth men-children only!
For thy undaunted mettle should compose
Nothing but males.” (Act 1, Scene 7)
Trump: “What sound is that?”
Attendant: “It is the cry of women, my good lord.” (Act V, Scene V)

New reporter, speaking to Democrat: Any words on the Republican nominee?
Democrat: “Not in the legions
Of horrid hell can come a devil more damned
In evils to top [Trump].” (Act 4, Scene III)

News reporter, to nearby Republican: How do feel about the Democratic candidate?
Republican: “I grant [her] bloody,
Luxurious, malicious, false, deceitful,
Sudden, malicious, smacking of every sin
That has a name.” (Act 4, Scene III)

News reporter: And your thoughts on the Republican candidate?
Women, Hispanics, Muslims, in unison:
“The devil himself could not pronounce a title
More hateful to mine ear.” (Act V, Scene 7)

Clinton, as depicted by Republicans (on hiding emails):
“Stars, hide your fires;
Let not light see my black and deep desires.
The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.” (Act I, Scene IV)

Obama, late in Clinton’s campaign: “Welcome hither!
I have begun to plant thee, and will labor
To make thee full growing…let me enfold thee
And hold thee to my heart.”

Clinton: “There if I grow
The harvest is your own.” (Act I, Scene IV)

Clinton, to the American public, on emails:
“Things without all remedy
Should be without regard. What’s done is done.” (Act III, Scene II)

Trump: You oughta drop out!
Clinton: “All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.” (Act 5, Scene I)

Democrats, when the FBI announces more investigation days before the election:
“If we should fail?”

Clinton: “We fail!
But screw your courage to the sticking place
And we’ll not fail.” (Act I, Scene 7)

Trump, upon hearing that Clinton has indeed been cleared for the emails:
“Fair is foul, and foul is fair!” (Act I, Scene I)

Republicans: “Let us seek out some desolate shade , and there
Weep our sad bosoms empty.” (Act IV, Scene III)

Democrats: “Each new morn
New widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows
Strike heaven on the face, that it resounds
As if it felt with [America] and yelled out.” (Act IV, Scene III)

Young facebook activists: “What I believe, I’ll wail;
What I know, believe, and what I can redress,
As I shall find the time to friend, I will.” (Act IV, Scene III)

Pious non-voters: “Bleed, bleed, poor country!
Great tyranny, lay thou thy basis sure
For goodness dare not check thee; wear thou thy wrongs.” (Act IV, Scene III)

Disenchanted voters: When I go to vote, “yet my poor country
Shall have more vices than it had before,
More suffer, and more sundry ways than ever,
By him [or her] that shall succeed.” (Act IV, Scene III)

Half of America, day after election day: “I have lost my hopes.” (Act IV, Scene III)

What Christian Apologists Think You Should Read

What if you had the chance to ask the world’s leading Christian apologists for a book recommendation? Assuming you love reading, this could be your most interesting conversation all month!

Last week I had the opportunity to hear some of the most respected Christian apologists answer this question at a conference on the evidence for the Christian faith in Bangor, Maine. Sitting front-row at this all-day event, I heard speakers offering arguments in defense of the Christian faith, as they sought to equip believers and challenge seekers with the credible and convincing evidence for the relevance of Jesus Christ.

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Presenting apologists included Randy David Newman, Dick Keyes, Lee Strobel, Tom Woodward, and Ravi Zacharias.  Besides these speakers, there were numerous workshops and breakout sessions throughout the day and (my main reason for attending the conference) music by the Oasis Chorale (featuring yours truly!). (Not very many Christian events feature music by a capella Mennonite choirs, but props to Daryl Witmer of the AIIA Institute for organizing this anomaly. It was a gift to share in song at this incredible event.)

At an afternoon panel discussion, the speakers were asked to give a book recommendation. “What is one book besides the Bible that everyone ought to read?” Following is an introduction to each speaker and their top reading picks:

1. Randy David Newman recommends The Reason for God by Tim Keller.

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According to the WhyJesus2016 website, Randy David Newman is “a nationally-known Christian disciple, evangelist, apologist, and author. He has served on staff with CRU (formerly Campus Crusade) since 1980. He has taught seminars at locations ranging from college campuses to the Pentagon. Newman often uses humor to make a point and his books offer a proven and practical approach to Christian witnessing.”

Randy David Newman spoke on the topic of evangelism, and he told of his conversion to Christianity from Judaism. Regarding evangelism, his humor was refreshing: “You know those people who say they can’t go to sleep at night unless they’ve had the chance to tell at least one person that day about Jesus? How is it that if I haven’t told someone about Jesus, I can go to sleep at night JUST FINE?! Or those people who pray for a nonbeliever to sit beside them on an airplane so that they can witness to them? I pray for there to be an EMPTY SEAT beside me on the airplane!”

Besides his refreshing honesty, his most salient points were the art of engaging seekers and skeptics in conversation and answering questions with questions in the same manner that Jesus does in the New Testament. His book recommendation is Tim Keller’s Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, a book which addresses common doubts about religion and explains how belief in God is actually rational.

2. Dick Keyes (rhymes with “wise”) recommends The God Who Is There by Francis Schaeffer.

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First, you ought to know about the organization with which Dick Keyes is affiliated: the L’Abri fellowship. The L’Abri fellowship was first started in Switzerland in 1955 by Francis and Edith Shaeffer who decided to open their home as a place for college students and seeking individuals to ask their deepest questions and to find satisfying answers while experiencing Christian community. Labri.org reports that “it was called L’Abri, the French word for “shelter,” because they sought to provide a shelter from the pressures of a relentlessly secular 20th century.” Imagine spending extended time in a safe place, sorting out your spiritual questions, while breathing in the alpine air in a chalet in the mountains! The ministry of L’Abri has grown, and today L’Abri locations exist in 10 different countries. (Read: you can still experience this intellectual homecoming today! Communities exist in England, Holland, Massachusetts, Switzerland, Sweden, Australia, Brazil, and more.)

Regarding Mr. Keyes background, labri.org gives this bio: “Dick Keyes is the Director of L’Abri Fellowship in Southborough, Massachusetts, where he has worked with his wife and family since 1979. He holds a B.A. in History from Harvard University, and an M.Div. from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Dick has worked for L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland and in England, where he served also as a pastor in the International Presbyterian Church in London for eight years. He has been an adjunct professor at Gordon Conwell Seminary and Westminster Theological Seminary. He is the author of Beyond Identity, True Heroism, Chameleon Christianity, Seeing Through Cynicism, and several chapters in anthologies such as No God But God, ed. Os Guinnes, Finding God at Harvard, ed. Kelly Monroe, and New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics from Intervarsity Press. He is currently writing a book on the significance of Jesus’ questions. He has lectured widely in the U.S. and also in Europe and Korea.” Certainly, he was very qualified to speak at this event!

I truly enjoyed Dick Keyes’s academic approach to the question, “If I’m Okay, Why Jesus?” (his talk which responded to the view that sin is obsolete). (Random fact: Dick Keyes commented to our director that he liked Oasis’s consonants. Yay, choral diction!) Naturally, at the panel discussion, Dick Keyes recommended a book by the founder of L’Abri, the community with which he is highly involved. Francis Schaeffer’s The God Who Is There confronts not only the origin but also the future of competing philosophies of the church and the world, and Schaeffer’s book highlights how the God who has always been there is the answer for life’s deepest problems.

3. Lee Strobel recommends Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis and Cold Case Christianity by J. Warner Wallace.

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A household name for many, Lee Strobel is a Christian author, journalist, speaker, and highly respected Christian apologist. You might be familiar with Strobel’s life story of working as a journalist for the Chicago Tribune and, despite originally confessing atheism, converting to Christianity after investigating Biblical claims over a period of two years.

Strobel spoke on making a case for the real historical Christ, drawing heavily on his personal testimony and his own investigations. Strobel recommends reading C.S.Lewis’s Mere Christianity, a book which expounds on beliefs that the Christian faith holds true. Certainly, C.S. Lewis’s writing is a powerful display of Christian apologetics.

Secondly, Strobel recommends J. Warner Wallace’s Cold Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels, a book which, I assume, imitates Strobel’s methods. An L.A. homicide cold-case detective and former atheist uses the skills of criminal investigating to produce evidence for the Christian faith, a topic which could be considered a “cold case”: it makes a claim about the distant past, and there is little forensic evidence to rely on.

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4. Thomas E. Woodward recommends essays by C.S. Lewis in God in the Dock.

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Tom Woodward (a Columbus, Ohio native–woot!) is a research professor and department chair of the theology department at Trinity College of Florida and a prominent Christian apologist. Published works by Woodward include those defending intelligent design and those disputing Darwin’s theory of evolution. (He is not one, though, that should be written off as one of those obnoxious brands of creationists.) Speaking on “Why Jesus? Why Not Science?”, Woodward presented an engaging lecture that touched on neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and space exploration (engaging, because besides his Bachelors in History from Princeton, his Masters of Theology from Dallas Theological Seminary, he also has a Doctorate of Communications from the University of South Florida!). So the whole time, I found myself reservedly thinking: you are so convincing and charismatic. Which rhetorical mode are you wielding expertly now?  

What I was struck with from Woodward’s talk was his comments on the limits of science (something that I’ve recognized myself: science is not actually objective [i.e. we research where there are funds to research, and funds are normally appropriated for “money-making” scientific endeavors]) and also his suggestion that the theory of evolution is currently undergoing a major, bone-crushing paradigm shift, which, as he explains, means basically that Darwinian evolution is a sinking Titanic that is taking on water. This paradigm shift of the questioning of Darwinian evolution is going on at the highest level, and these questions are being asked by the brightest minds and most respected scientific scholars at the most elite academic journals. (You can find this information published by the Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press.) In fact, the UK’s Royal Society is meeting later this year to discuss the evolution paradigm shift and what it means for science and society. (Er, I quickly googled this topic, and this left-wing newsletter explains some of the ins and outs of the conversation of the paradigm shift and what it means among scientists.) Enlightening, at the very least.

A note: when questioned, Woodward wouldn’t allow himself to be cornered into either a young-earth or old-earth perspective; rather, he argues for a case of intelligent design.

Woodward’s recommendation for reading on apologetics is a series of essays published in God in the Dock by C.S. Lewis, including “What Are We to Make of Jesus Christ?”, “Man or Rabbit?”, and “Religion and Science.”

5. Ravi Zacharias recommends The Case for Christ and The Case for Faith by Lee Strobel and Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis

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Ravi Zacharias is a speaker, author, and dynamic defender of historic Christian truth. He is the author of numerous books, the host of radio programs, the founder of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, and has six honorary doctoral degrees. Growing up in a nominal Christian family, Ravi Zacharias was an atheist, and when he was seventeen, he tried to commit suicide. Lying in the hospital due to his failed suicide attempt, he became a Christian after reading in the Gospel of John. Since that moment, Ravi Zacharias remains committed to the pursuit of truth through the person of Jesus Christ. Ravi Zacharias works as a scholar, lectures, writes, and represents evangelical Christianity at the National Day of Prayer in Washington, D.C. and at the Annual Prayer Breakfast at the United Nations.

Speaking on “Why Jesus? Why Should Anyone Follow This First Century Religious Figure?” Ravi Zacharias left us spellbound as he wove together logical reasoning, personal experience, and poetry in a display of evidence for the Christian faith. Books on apologetics which Ravi Zacharias recommends include The Case for Christ and The Case for Faith by Lee Strobel, the books which explain Strobel’s coming to faith due to his investigative reporting.

Another book Ravi Zacharias recommends is C.S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy, a book which describes Lewis’s movement from atheism to theism and from theism to Christianity, all motivated by the discovery of joy.

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This concludes the panel discussion book recommendations. Happy reading everyone! I hope this list points you to some great reading this summer!

At the close here, I’ll offer three bonus books, or honorable mentions, which were not mentioned in the panel discussion but by certain speakers throughout the conference, which I deem interesting enough to read myself.

Bonus Book #1: Andrew Delbanco’s The Death of Satan

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Dick Keyes referenced this book in his talk which responded to the problematic view that sin is obsolete. One of the issues we face today is the idea that “I’m okay / I don’t have a sin problem / Sin isn’t even a thing.” Before we respond to this viewpoint, it may be helpful to understand American culture’s historical shift in its understanding of sin and evil. Delbano’s book seeks to do just that. Amazon.com describes the book this way: “Through the writings of America’s major figures, a professor at Columbia University traces the change in Americans’ view of evil over the nation’s history from a clear, religious understanding to a perplexed helplessness.” I totally just ordered this book from my local bookstore.

Bonus Book #2: Langdon Gilkey’s Shantung Compound

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Dick Keyes additionally mentioned Gilkey’s book in relation to the idea that sin is obsolete. Shantung Compound, published in 1975, is a vivid diary of life in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, and it examines the moral challenges encountered in conditions of confinement and deprivation. Reviewers mention that the book is a powerful depiction of the human condition and that the book is more important now than when it was originally written.

Bonus Book #3: Dikkon Eberhart’s The Time Mom Met Hitler, Frost Came to Dinner, and I Heard the Greatest Story Ever Told

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In his evening address, Ravi Zacharias mentioned that his wife is a voracious reader and that this is his wife’s favorite book. Not only that, but also the author Dikkon Eberhart (who lives in coastal Maine) was sitting in the audience!

Eberhart grew up in a literary household: his father was a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, and their home regularly featured literary greats among their dinner guests: Robert Frost, W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, and others. These famous poets were Eberhart’s family friends, yet Eberhart strove to leave his father’s literary shadow. This memoir is a coming-of-age story which deals with the theme of identity. (No order necessary, the used bookstore had a copy in stock! I’ll be starting this one soon!)

Bones and Breath: On Faulkner and Faith

After World War I, the United States fell into an economic depression. We could say that it fell into another kind of depression as well. A depression, or spiritual funk, stimulated by philosophical polarities of the day. Indeed, forty years had already passed since the German philosopher Nietzsche claimed it was logical to reason that “God is dead.” There were those supposed inconsistencies between religion and science. Perhaps not in mainstream culture, but perhaps in academic atmospheres and in the classrooms of its universities. Clashes between scientists and religious fundamentalists in the 1920s certainly existed.

The human mind reasoned: how could God be alive? He obviously didn’t have control; man’s advancement had pretty much been obliterated at that point. Humanistic philosophy claimed that man could build and maintain society. And then World War I happened. Engineers pointed to crowning achievements of man’s inventions. And then the Titanic sank. The Roaring Twenties turned into the Great Depression of the ‘30s. Upon whose heels came the terrifying and unimaginable World War II. Man’s ability for progress, once accepted as fact, was now in question.

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Humanity was not asking: Will I prosper? Rather, in fear, it was crying out: Will I survive?

William Faulkner in his 1950 Pulitzer Prize speech addresses this fear.

“Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up?”

The thing with which we must come to terms is what a society full of fear produces. Think about the time in which you were most afraid. How did it control your decisions? How did it control your productivity? How did it control your understanding of life?

This fear, I think, has the possibility to produce a hopeless fatalism, which Faulkner must have observed on the earth, seeping from below the ground of modern society. And to that trembling mind, he offers this reminder:

“the basest of all things is to be afraid.”

For, Faulkner reasons, when writers are crippled by fear, they forget “the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.” Faulkner insists that a writer…

“…must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid… Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.”

Here we notice Faulkner’s expression of mid 19th century Romantic sensibilities in his emphasis on the human heart. But there is his concurrent recognition of modernist skepticism, in which he says that humanity is basically saying: “The meaning of life? What meaning? What life? I’m fighting for my life, for control of my glands!”

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And Faulkner laments the effect of this perspective of survival. If a writer writes “of the glands,” Faulkner says,

“he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. …I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”

This message of hope (and concurrent responsibility) certainly retains humanistic undertones. And maybe that is my point.

How utterly human is hope! We always hope even in the most impossible of situations! Why do children in concentration camps write poetry? Why does, as Maya Angelou asks, the caged bird sing?

Have you ignored that basic human emotion of hope? What is your mind’s perspective? What is your voice saying?

Is it fear that guides your voice? Is your voice a raucous squawk, your breath being crushed out of you, your voice simply the rush of oxygen into your lungs, a timid cry, an elemental whimper realizing that today you are, indeed, still alive? Or is your voice that of boredom, like SO MANY voices that we hear today… whether the tintinnabuli of posts, shares, likes, and updates… searching for meaning, trying to create meaning… where there is none?

Perhaps you are like those humans, of which, when contemplating life as if it’s the eternally inspirational sky, say only, “it has been wet… it has been windy… it has been warm.” You do not, as Victorian English art critic John Ruskin puts it, reject apathy against the mundane. Ruskin laments:

“Who, among the whole chattering crowd, can tell me of the forms and the precipices of the chain of tall white mountains that girded the horizon at noon yesterday? Who saw the narrow sunbeam that came out of the south and smote upon their summits until they melted and mouldered away in a dust of blue rain? Who saw the dance of the dead clouds when the sunlight left them last night, and the west wind blew them before it like withered leaves?”

These are the observations only possible through a perspective of hope in the midst of the mundane.

Now imagine this human hope infused with that which is divine, a hope which comes when we release ourselves, allowing our stubborn selves to accept sonship, claiming that we are children of God, and finally accepting the benefits of divine childhood, living in an assurance, and if not assurance, then careful, guarded acknowledgment of the promises of God, those promises which say, “I will never leave you; I will never forsake you.” Or those manifestations of belief: “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.”

Faulkner calls for hopeful artists.

Do you have a hope? Do you have a voice?

I pray you shall.

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Chandeliers, Tolstoy, and Mennonites

Armed with a gift card and a ferocious excitement for my summer classic choice (Tostoy’s War and Peace) I trotted into Barnes and Noble to pick out the classiest-looking version I could find.

Yes, I’m a print girl. No Kindle yet for me.

We print people get to be choosy when buying classics. That is, on those occasions when we’re actually buying new books, rather than sniffing out old, bargain-priced copies at garage sales or Goodwill. Amongst booksellers, Barnes and Noble stocks the largest variety of versions, printings, and editions. Barnes & Noble, then, is a great stop for a picky book buyer. And we print people are especially picky concerning cover art.

I’ve been interested in cover art since I first noticed it in my parent’s little home library. (I get my book buying honestly.) While not exceedingly broad, my parents’ reading preferences (from Christian fiction to forty-year-old Bible college texts to my father’s current affinity for Jewish studies) exhibit the phenomenon that pop-culture inspires cover art. Digging through my parents’ books in the basement, I was never really quite sure what groovy font, bell bottoms, or afros had to do with the subject of prayer, but it certainly made sense to book cover illustrators in the 1970s. Cover art becomes so quickly dated but can, nevertheless, remind book buyers of the period or decade in which they buy a book.

Hoping to make a simple choice between a classic hardcover with gold edge gilding and a 2014 pop art cover, I wasn’t prepared for a heavier decision: choosing translations. I had not done my homework before buying War and Peace, and I wasn’t prepared to choose between various English translations of Tolstoy’s Russian text.

So I was reduced to judging a book by its cover. (And the little reviews on the back.) For example, did I want the most-read English translation? Or did I want a brand-new twenty-first century English translation? (There were two: a 2005 Briggs translation and a 2007 Pevear and Volokhonsky translation with the French sections still intact) Would I rather be familiar with the versions most English speakers my age have read, or would I rather read the newer translations? Would I gain something from reading a classic version of a classic? Or should I cheerfully accept a highly-readable modern translation with modern grammar, vocabulary, and syntax? Or would that be jolting, since War and Peace is classic-y? Would the contemporary language take something away from the historicity of the text?

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I reminded myself, though, that Tolstoy’s original audiences would have read War and Peace in a Russian text that to them would not have sounded antiquated. The same for English audiences soon after the 1904, 1923, and 1957 translations. I fingered the 2005 and 2007 translations. (Which incidentally had two cover choices: a heavy colorful volume with eastern-inspired art, and a bulky, rough-edge gilding little beauty, sporting a bronze chandelier, which I’m sure has nothing to do with War and Peace but has everything to do with fashion design trends of the 2000s.)

The point is, War and Peace is in modern, global English for the first time in 80 years. (The ’57 version used exclusively British English.) English audiences today (and in the next decade or so) get to have an experience with the text that will not happen for another fifty years. We get to read it in our contemporary language. Picture this: it’s 2074 and a professor of English soon realizes that her students, or her grandchildren, struggle through War and Peace. The diction and vocabulary are complicated and outdated. A re-translation will occur. Language changes over time.

Since I did not have a smartphone with me at the bookstore to google which translation I should choose, I went with the Briggs. Later, I learned there is a quite a controversy between the 2005 Briggs translation and 2007 Pevear and Volokhonsky, some of it having to do with class (intellectual snobs arguing that Tolstoy’s book wouldn’t have been easily accessible to all social classes, since he wrote portions in French and not all 1860s Russians were bilingual, so modern English translations should also keep the French portions original to maintain the inaccessibility), some of it having to do with style (Tolstoy’s Russian was choppy, so English translations should be choppy), and some of it having to do with Britishisms (can we really handle Russian soldiers popping out in lower-class British dialects). But you can read all this scholarship for yourself. By googling it.

Or. You could simply sit down and read for yourself for the first time a very accessible classic. I went with the Briggs, which leaves out the original French. It proves to be highly accessible, and I am devouring it more voraciously than even this winter’s A Tale of Two Cities.

Reader, you have raised your hand, I see.

“Why do we read Tolstoy?”

We read Tolstoy because he became convinced of the relevance of the teachings of Jesus Christ for everyday living. Fifteen years after publishing War and Peace, Tolstoy announced himself a pacifist, inspired by Jesus’ Sermon the Mount. (This fact alone drove this twenty-first century Anabaptist to read his earlier work. What could I learn, I asked myself, from his early questioning?) In fact, Tolstoy’s rejection of government involvement due to his pacifist leanings got him kicked out of the Russian Orthodox church. Interestingly, Tolstoy’s writings on nonviolence went on to inspire the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. These reasons, dear reader, are why we read Tolstoy.

Nonetheless, to first-time readers of Tolstoy’s amazing work, choose for yourself between the twenty-first century Briggs and the Pevear and Volokhonsky. But do it sometime in the next decade. The freshness of the dialogue will not occur again for another fifty years.

Reading in the New Year

Great writers are well read. For this reason, one of my goals for the new year is to read. One thing that has helped me to read more is to accept my own strange reading habits. I feel so much better about my reading habits after reading Douglas Wilson’s book Wordsmithy. In his chapter “Read Until Your Brain Creaks,” he encourages writers to read widely, and he announces that it’s totally okay to have, like, twenty books going at a time.

I’m relieved. I actually have a whole shelf devoted to books I’m currently reading. I start reading really great books, but sometimes I don’t have time to finish them right away. And then another book catches my fancy. Or, I’ll be in the middle of a good book, but it’s not the right “book mood” for the certain time of day that I’m reading: for relaxing late at night, for quiet dinner times, or for loud-ish laundromats. So I’ll start yet another book. However, thanks to Wilson, I no longer have to feel guilty about my ADD reading habits.

Right now I’m in the middle of seven (yes, seven) books.

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1. Obligatory Classic: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.
Fact: A Tale of Two Cities is (except for religious texts like the Bible or the Quran) the best-selling book in the world today. So I think to myself: this book I’ve got to read! Plus, it was one of the highest bidders for my tiny facebook survey of “What classic shall Esther read next?” Several people have responded about this book: “It’s kind of hard to get into, but once you get near the end, you’re like, ‘This is about Everything!’”
Reason for Reading: As an English teacher, I’m trying to brush up on the classics that I haven’t read yet. Sadly, my own high school curriculum and even my liberal arts college education gave me a poor treatment of the classics, so accessing these texts will be prove to be a long, arduous journey, but nonetheless personally satisfying. I think these books have more meaning then we can even begin to imagine.
Reading Ease: It’s not been super easy, but it’s been interesting and heart-warming. I truly have to train myself to enjoy deep reading. I do waaayyy too much internet reading, so I truly do have a short attention span.

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2. Christian Life: Crazy Love by Francis Chan
Fact: A lot of my friends read this New York Times bestseller five years ago. Cringe. (Okay, so, I’m a little behind.) The great thing for me, though, is that I get to read the “revised and updated” 2013 version.
Reason for Reading: I wanted to read a book about the Christian life that focuses on the character of God. The version I’m reading is almost devotional as Chan encourages frequent meditation throughout the different sections.
Reading Ease: Very simple. Chan is not writing. He is talking, and he is doing so in an everyday street vernacular. His paragraphs and thoughts don’t always really relate together in logical ways, and a time or two he (carelessly?) dismisses huge theological debates with simple statements of childlike faith. But. I have to consider the point of his book (which is not to answer huge theological questions) and the audience to whom he is writing (the churched, who perhaps he assumes has come to accept, based on faith, certain debated issues.) And, I have to remember that sometimes my “earnest, academic questioning” is not so genuine, but is really only prideful. Or lazy. It is a laziness that comes in the way of getting to know God better. Or that comes in the way of my obedience or of my having to be faithful to certain teachings and beliefs. It’s almost like I’m saying, “Well, I don’t have that figured out yet, so I don’t need to obey my Savior in this area yet.” ?? Ironically, Chan even addresses this tendency (though in regards to another issue) in the book. He talks about the sins of worry and stress, and he writes: “These two behaviors communicate that it’s okay to sin and not trust God because the stuff in my life is somehow exceptional. Both worry and stress reek of arrogance.” My toes are stepped on.

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3. Christian Life, Academic: Finding God at Harvard: Spiritual Journeys of Thinking Christians ed. By Kelly Monroe Kullberg.
Fact: Few of you will forget my raving review of Finding God Beyond Harvard, the second book that Kullberg compiled. That book, for me, was life-changing and inexplicably refreshing.
Reason for Reading: My secular liberal arts education, the media, cynical bloggers, dear searching friends, hipster Christians, and even the Church have told me that Christians can’t, or don’t, think. This book indicates otherwise. So you better believe that I’m going to read it.
Reading Ease: Now, we are talking about academics here. They write gorgeous prose about their super-interesting and diverse (albeit mostly upper-class) backgrounds, which is really fun if you are in a learn-y, academic-y mood. Honestly, it’s exciting. But not what I would call easy reading.

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4. Christian Theology: Miracles by C. S. Lewis
Fact: The New Yorker writes: “If wit and wisdom, style and scholarship are requisites to passage through the pearly gates, Mr. Lewis will be among the angels.” I AGREE! Esther squeals in a sort of teenage-One-Direction-like frenzy.
Reason for Reading: Duh. Lewis is AHmazing. I have greatly enjoyed Mere Christianity, and even Chesterton himself, the one who got Lewis thinking about Christianity in the first place.
Reading Ease: To be honest, I need “world enough and time” for this one. And a little peace and quiet. So many great thoughts, that I fear they may pass over my little mind, but nevertheless, I grasp, reverently, at the few pearls I might amass. Thank you, Mr. Lewis.

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5. Biography/Memoir: Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World by Shirley Hershey Showalter
Fact: I pre-ordered this book before it was even available to the public. Showalter writes about growing up conservative Mennonite to finally becoming a college president! I read an online interview a while back about this book, and Showalter said something to the effect that there’s a lot of books out there about being Amish or growing up Mennonite, but this is a book by someone who actually lived it.
Reason for Reading: I spent a good deal of my English (Pre-Education) undergraduate degree reading a ton of “minority” literature so that (according to the state of Ohio) I would be prepared to teach all kinds of constituencies. Well, guess what? I never found “myself” or “my people,” very remotely, in ANY of the literature we read, so I guess all this talk about diversity is a little misleading, wouldn’t you say?
Reading Ease: Great! If you’ve had a bit of a literary education, you can pick out the literary things she’s doing… like starting her book, quite literally, in a root cellar, and beginning with genealogies. But even if you don’t pick up those things, you will find it to be an interesting read.

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6. Familiar, Comfortable, Baby-Bye-Bunting-Feeling Book: Anne’s House of Dreams by L. M. Montgomery
Fact: Growing up I had many positive role models of strong, educated females both in my literature choices and in my guarded exposure to media. Anne Shirley, Jo March, Christy, and Maria von Trapp? It’s like I didn’t even have a chance. #teacherforlife
Reason for Reading: To induce baby-bye-bunting feelings when one’s family is very, very far away.
Reading Ease: Quite perfect. Just enough plot to keep you moving and just enough contemplative moments to keep you thinking.

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7. Nonfiction: Globish: How the English Language Became the World’s Language by Robert McCrum
Fact: You all probably watched McCrum’s informative, though highly dated, T.V. series “The Story of English” in your introductory undergraduate linguistics coarse.
Reason for Reading: It struck my fancy in the nonfiction section at our local library. I absolutely love studying the history of the English language. That course, “The History of English,” was one of my favorite courses at Ohio State. Thank you, Dr. Modan!
Reading Ease: Good. He’s clearing his throat a lot at the beginning, or it seems like it to me (maybe because I’ve actually studied a bit of these topics before), and he has an amusing view of the United States and its politics (most snobby Europeans do), and his writing is cluttered with a lot of academic jargon, but I think I will be able to pop over these portions with ease to get to the real meat of his work.

Also, we include a picture of McCrum because he is so funny to look at.

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Question 1: Do you believe in “reading moods”?

Question 2: What is the largest amount of books you’ve ever had going at a time?