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…