Ten or twelve life-changing books: #3

3. 1976.  G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man

I list this particular work because it was helpful at the time, when I was taking the required general courses in college. Chesterton turns the received deliverances upside down. The idea that the “cave men” might just have been some regular guys that went down to their man-caves every so often to get away from the women for a few hours to swap stories and draw pictures — that was a vivid example of inverting the paradigm that was indeed life-changing, and the medicine, delivered while taking an indoctrination course called Anthropology, was particularly timely. Chesterton restores humanity to the study of man.

Like Lewis, through whom reading I discovered him, Chesterton is an excellent companion for a young Christian man. He explodes the shibboleths, and turns the clichés upside down. He teaches a skepticism of nostrums that serves well if learned properly. He is adept at rejecting the regnant paradigm, remodeling with a different set of presuppositions. If you don’t learn this from Chesterton, you might learn it by studying modern Physics, or Wittgenstein. It must be part of one’s training in the hermeneutic of ordinary language and its buried assumptions.

He is something of a one-trick pony, however. A clever young man soon learns how to imitate the shtick left and right. A master of the English language, Chesterton is too clever in its use by half, punning and alliterating so thickly that it destroys the rhythm and renders reading wearisome after a while. There is also a glib tone that can be mistaken for haughtiness. I don’t think haughtiness is quite it though. It is not even finding excessive pleasure in hearing himself talk. I think it is more precisely the thorough enjoyment of hearing a conversation, especially one in which he happens to be taking part. This leads to some rhetorical excesses.

Chesterton was sucked into the British establishment’s mendacious propaganda machine during the Great War, and this points to a deep flaw that needs to be illuminated. He was as hostile to “Prussianism” as to Puritanism. Indeed, his dislike of the two P’s may be of one root, since Prussianism was itself stamped in its character by a Puritan/Pietist hybrid at the crucial time of Friedrich Wilhelm I and his grandfather the Great Elector. So Chesterton’s “Short History of England” became something like an extended argument against the idea that England’s greatness had anything to do with its German ancestry. Instead, its greatness apparently has more to do with imbibing the teaching of Italians — first pagan, then Christian. I would judge that he stands right at the point that the British Progressives were shifting from racial identity to propositionalism — a move already made in our country by Lincoln fifty years earlier in the Gettysburg Address. Still, there are enough references to the traits of Jews and Negroes that one realizes the ethnological was not completely gone. Indeed, being a real human, he is consequently in fact a tribalist innately; but he can’t face the implications, so bends over backwards to rework history according to the idea that accepting or rejecting certain propositions is the key to each twist and turn. Blood still has a place, but usually only in the sense that an occasional injection of new blood is good. He loves Europe, but dislikes the Northern way of thinking, so for him, Italians, assisted by a few French, must be the masters of England’s personality.  Indeed, who can say but that this motif was not the very thing impelling him to embrace popery in 1922. The conversion completely flummoxed his good friend Bernard Shaw, who “was apparently dreadfully upset by Chesterton’s decision because he had thought he and Chesterton shared basic religious assumptions.” (Alzina S. Dale, The Outline of Sanity: A Biography of G. K. Chesteron [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982], p. 234).

There are too many conceptual confusions in both theology and politics, and too many prejudices. So he is needful medicine in an early stage of life, but one must get past Chesterton as a central influence sooner rather than later.

Ten or twelve life-changing books

This is an excuse to do shorter book reviews in rapid fire. Each of these books was life-changing for me. Not necessarily for the better — the reader will have to judge that for himself!

The list follows chronology: the dates are of my life-change, not the time of publication.

#1. 1971. Francis Schaeffer: He is there and he is not silent/C. S. Lewis: Mere Christianity

The first (earliest) award is a tie; count it as one or two as you please.

I was heavy into both Schaeffer’s and Lewis’ Christian apologetics books in tenth grade, and have a vivid memory of an encounter with a (different) classmate in connection with each one. Yet, by the end of that grade, I had declared as an atheist. What happened?

I’m not sure. I think it is that “evil company corrupts good manners.” All the great arguments in the world cannot prop up an evil, leaky heart; nor by themselves stiffen the unregenerate heart against the vanity of worldly friendship and flattery. Perhaps the important lesson to take home here is that books — neither of the discursive nor imaginative kind — are a guarantor of sanctification. Only the Holy Spirit can do that.

Schaeffer introduced me to the three main problems of philosophy (epistemology, metaphysics, ethics) and these have haunted me ever since. It is odd — I now see Schaeffer as a dilettante if not an outright poseur. See my colleague’s comments as well (and here). The apostasy of his son now seems of a cloth with the old man’s posturing. But in its time, his work was life-changing because of opening up so many vistas and avenues of thought.

Lewis continued as a big factor to bring me back from my atheism another year later. He continued to loom large and larger for many years. But with time, the weaknesses started to become apparent. His winsome style lulls one to sleep. How many conservative Presbyterians have never noticed, for example, that Lewis’ exposition of the atonement is essentially the same as the Auburn Affirmation? Only comparatively recently did I come to “see through” the fraudulent aspects of Lewis. Perhaps more on that subject anon.

#2. 1975. C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength

Despite the forebodings, Lewis is undoubtedly at his very best in his fiction, and indeed appears already a second time in this list in that capacity.

From the standpoint of literary craftsmanship, this may be the most defective of Lewis’ fiction. He often steps forth from the narrative and offers omniscient comment — “in some ways she was very young” — or excerpts an essay — “this new idea of cure instead of punishment, so humane in seeming, had in fact deprived the criminal of all rights and by taking away the name Punishment made the thing infinite.” One could perhaps excuse him by remembering that he was only unwillingly a twentieth-century man; he never really came to terms with the conventions of literature post-Dante.

With that allowance, what remains is a book chocked full of mythic characters that are all around us. He paints from the palette he knew — that of the academe — but the characters recapitulate in the corporation and on the street.

The story is nominally about a conventional young couple, Mark and Jane. Jane has some endearing qualities, and these become more vivid, not less, the closer to God she comes — a big theme in Lewis. Mark is vain and empty, a proud zero. Yet he is the thread around which is woven this electric tale of demons and angels, bums and magicians, a barren woman called Mother, and men and women good, bad, and indifferent. In the end, one has a vocabulary of persons that adapts to all of life.

I think this book inured me to much of the tom-foolery that passes for modern scholarship. It was the lifeboat that got me through college. After that, it inoculated me against the scientism that my own career could easily have plunged me into.

I have probably read the novel twenty, thirty times. Like Scripture itself, I still find undiscovered gems. Most recently, of Hingest’s funeral taking place while surrounded by cursing, clanging workmen tearing the place up. Worthy of a Verdi opera in its dual-thread.

It took more than twenty years to realize that Lewis was an agrarian:

In between the stations things flitted past, so isolated from their context that each seemed to promise some unearthly happiness if one could but have descended from the train at that very moment to seize it: a house backed with a group of haystacks and wide brown fields about it, two aged horses standing head to tail, a little orchard with washing hanging on a line, and a rabbit starting at the train, whose two eyes looked like the dots, and his ears like the uprights, of a double exclamation mark.

Something strikes me as I re-read this. Our a-millennial critics say we are too earthly minded to be of any heavenly good. But the longing briefly stirred in Jane’s breast as she sees these scenes through the train window is a longing for heaven: or at least, is homomorphic with it. We don’t know in exactly what ways heaven will be greater than earth: we do know it can’t be something less. To desire God is also to desire his heart, and nowhere is this more palpably to be found than his land settled by good peasants, surrounded by their haystacks and happy horses. To be indifferent to all this because “heaven is so much greater” strikes me to be nearly the opposite of the deep piety that it noisily professes of itself.

Little apologetic zingers fly by now and then. This one, with a quick brush-stroke, lands a missile against one of the stock arguments of our modern boy-atheists:

“I am afraid I don’t believe in that sort of thing,” said Jane coldly.
“Your upbringing makes it natural that you should not,” replied Miss Ironwood.

Van Til in parallel developed this theme in his tract, “Why I Believe in God.” It’s amazing to me how atheists think the form of that argument works against religionists, but not them.

But I leave the fireworks for the readers’ own discovery. Much more will need to be said about Lewis and his work. His fiction will endure; the rest perhaps not.

To be continued with entry #3…