Wednesdays with Words – March 26, 2014

A day late so perhaps I should rename it Thursdays with Words this week.

I’ve started reading Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education by Stratford Caldecott with Cindy over at Ordo Amoris.  I could stop right after the introduction and have the foundations for my school year next year.  Here are just a few of the many passages I highlighted:

Ideas have consequences.1 They shape our society, our economy, our very lives. The gravest threat our civilization faces is in fact not ecological but philosophical. It is the widespread belief that there is no objective truth and no ‘true’ way of considering the world and its history, only a plurality of subjective points of view, each point of view being of equal value and deserving equal respect.


Students graduate with some knowledge of, say, the Tudors or the Second World War, Romantic poetry or astrophysics, without any awareness of other historical periods or the classical origins of our civilization. It is as though we were attempting to construct the top floor of a building without bothering with the lower floors or foundations.


The liberal arts are a golden thread that comes from the Greeks, from Pythagoras and his successors both Islamic and Christian, especially St Augustine; a thread that weaves its way through the history of our civilization. These arts were intended for the cultivation of freedom and the raising of our humanity to its highest possible level.


Today, in democratic societies, all men and women participate together in ruling our society, even if only by electing representatives to do so, and the education that used to be reserved to aristocrats is now a necessary qualification for everyone. If we are all to rule, we all need to become wise, and the key to wisdom is to understand the unity or interrelationship of all human knowledge, which is where the liberal arts come in.


The central idea of the present book is very simple. It is that education is not primarily about the acquisition of information. It is not even about the acquisition of ‘skills’ in the conventional sense, to equip us for particular roles in society. It is about how we become more human (and therefore more free, in the truest sense of that word).


Mr. Caldecott ends with a series of triads, including the Trivium and I love the way he renames each of them.  Grammar becomes Remembering; Dialectic becomes Thinking; and Rhetoric becomes Speaking.

Also, I love what Cindy says in her post on the introduction:  “Great men have great imaginations. Remember that as you plan your next school year.”

Read about everyone else’s books at Ordo-Amoris.


Wednesdays with Words – March 19, 2014

I’m continuing on with Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism this week.  I’ve been reading about Realism.  Lewis says that there are two types of realism in books: realism in presentation and realism in content.

This is what I call Realism of Presentation—the art of bringing something close to us, making it palpable and vivid, by sharply observed or sharply imagined detail.

A fiction is realistic in content when it is probable or ‘true to life’.

The two realisms are quite independent. You can get that of presentation without that of content, as in medieval romance: or that of content without that of presentation, as in French (and some Greek) tragedy; or both together, as in War and Peace; or neither, as in the Furioso or Rasselas or Candide.

Lewis gave several examples of each kind, including a lovely word picture by Wordsworth (Presentation):

“…The whispering air

Sends inspiration from the shadowing heights,

And blind recesses of the caverned rocks;

The little rills, and waters numberless,

Inaudible by daylight, blend their notes

With the loud streams:…” – The Sea Shell

Lewis goes on:

The Middle Ages favoured a brilliant and exuberant development of presentational realism, because men were at that time inhibited neither by a sense of period—they dressed every story in the manners of their own day—nor by a sense of decorum.

It will be noticed that most of my examples of presentational realism, though I did not select them for that purpose, occur in the telling of stories which are not themselves at all ‘realistic’ in the sense of being probable or even possible. This should clear up once and for all a very elementary confusion which I have sometimes detected between realism of presentation and what I call realism of content.

Lewis comments that moderns prefer realism by content overall.  He says that there seems to be a bias (at least in his day although I think the pendulum may be swinging back in the direction of at least accepting realism by presentation as well these days) against fantastical stories.

But when we say ‘The sort of thing that happens’, do we mean the sort of thing that usually or often happens, the sort of thing that is typical of the human lot? Or do we mean ‘The sort of thing that might conceivably happen or that, by a thousandth chance, may have happened once’?
We can learn the world-wide and immemorial attitude of man to stories from noticing how stories are introduced in conversation. Men begin ‘The strangest sight I ever saw was—’, or ‘I’ll tell you something queerer even than that’, or ‘Here’s something you’ll hardly believe’. Such was the spirit of nearly all stories before the nineteenth century.
Surely the author is not saying ‘This is the sort of thing that happens’? Or surely, if he is, he lies? But he is not. He is saying, ‘Suppose this happened, how interesting, how moving, the consequences would be! Listen. It would be like this.’
The raison d’être of the story is that we shall weep, or shudder, or wonder, or laugh as we follow it. The effort to force such stories into a radically realistic theory of literature seems to me perverse. They are not, in any sense that matters, representations of life as we know it, and were never valued for being so. The strange events are not clothed with hypothetical probability in order to increase our knowledge of real life by showing how it would react to this improbable test. It is the other way round. The hypothetical probability is brought in to make the strange events more fully imaginable.
The demand that all literature should have realism of content cannot be maintained. Most of the great literature so far produced in the world has not. But there is a quite different demand which we can properly make; not that all books should be realistic in content, but that every book should have as much of this realism as it pretends to have.
Later in the chapter, Lewis deals with the idea of reading for escapism and whether or not fantasy is deceptive:
No one that I know of has indeed laid down in so many words that a fiction cannot be fit for adult and civilised reading unless it represents life as we have all found it to be, or probably shall find it to be, in experience. But some such assumption seems to lurk tacitly in the background of much criticism and literary discussion. We feel it in the widespread neglect or disparagement of the romantic, the idyllic, and the fantastic, and the readiness to stigmatise instances of these as ‘escapism’. We feel it when books are praised for being ‘comments on’, or ‘reflections’ (or more deplorably ‘slices’) of Life.
The unblushingly romantic has far less power to deceive than the apparently realistic. Admitted fantasy is precisely the kind of literature which never deceives at all. Children are not deceived by fairy-tales; they are often and gravely deceived by school-stories. Adults are not deceived by science-fiction; they can be deceived by the stories in the women’s magazines. None of us are deceived by the Odyssey, the Kalevala, Beowulf, or Malory. The real danger lurks in sober-faced novels where all appears to be very probable but all is in fact contrived to put across some social or ethical or religious or anti-religious ‘comment on life’.
Escape, then, is common to many good and bad kinds of reading. By adding -ism to it, we suggest, I suppose, a confirmed habit of escaping too often, or for too long, or into the wrong things, or using escape as a substitute for action where action is appropriate, and thus neglecting real opportunities and evading real obligations. If so, we must judge each case on its merits. Escape is not necessarily joined to escapism.
There was one place where Lewis quoted someone else:  “a grim and distressful tale may offer a complete escape from the reader’s actual distresses.” How many times I have read stories in which horrid things happened while I myself was going through a difficult time.  Somehow, in some way, reading about terrible things outside of my life helped me to deal with the terrible things inside of my life.  Do you find stories and poems and hymns and songs to be helpful when you are traversing a valley of fear or sickness or pain or grief?

Binge Reading

It snowed last night which means everything is closed.  When everything is closed, I can have a slower start to my morning since I don’t have to cram everything in to a short period of time before I go to work and that means extra time for reading.  This morning I read an article with a title I could not resist:  Stop Binge-Watching and Start Binge-Reading.  The author talked about how he spent time binge-reading 300 books by skimming and skipping.   He said that he read things outside his usual genres because he wasn’t afraid to skim and skip around and that by giving himself permission to not finish a book and to not read meticulously, he took chances on books and read so many more and was enriched by his “binge-reading”.

He commented that his library allows up to 30 checkouts and I don’t even have a cap on the number of books I can check out at my library.  Nevermind the number of free or nearly free ebooks at our fingertips these days.

What a great idea!  Instead of binge-watching (something I rarely do; the last time was when I was attempting to watch three seasons of Doctor Who before the new season began), I could dip into numerous books and perhaps get caught up in a new genre or series or subject I may never have approached if I felt obligated to read every last word in each book.

However, the article also got me thinking about Bible reading.  How often do we “binge-read” the Bible?  A brand new Christian will often inhale whole books of the Bible in the matter of weeks whereas those of us who have been Christians for years will feel obligated to read and study through the Bible systematically and if we don’t have 30 or 45 minutes to do that, we skip it altogether.  Or we skim through our Bible reading plan and then feel guilty the rest of the day because we didn’t read each word with the care and respect due to the Word of God.

But wouldn’t it be better sometimes to just read–to skim through an entire book for an overview, to read a chapter quickly and let a single verse catch our eye, to dip in and out of the book of Psalms, to read our favorites stories in the Old Testament and the Gospels?   Wouldn’t it be better to do that sometimes as a way of refreshing ourselves?

Am I saying that we shouldn’t read the Bible carefully and spend time in study?  No, there is a definite place for that and I know that Bible study is an important part of understanding the Word of God.  What I am saying is that there are days and even seasons of our lives when that kind of careful Bible study is hard to do–when we are ill or have many small children who never seem to sleep or are juggling a couple of jobs plus a household or are traveling or many other situations in which we find ourselves.  Better to skim, to re-read favorite verses, to catch just one verse or a portion of a verse to meditate on that day than to skip reading altogether because we don’t have time to do it “right”.

Binge-reading:  what a great idea!

Wednesdays with Words – March 12, 2014

Every day I receive a devotional in my emailbox called Daily Strength for Daily Needs.  I don’t always read it but yesterday I did and there was a quote from Hannah Whitall Smith’s The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life, which I read many years ago while still in college.  This particular quote was so helpful that I found the chapter from Mrs. Smith’s book and read the whole chapter.

[The Higher Christian Life or the “hidden life”] is simply letting the Lord carry our burdens and manage our affairs for us, instead of trying to do it ourselves.

How simple it seems to let the Lord carry our burdens but how difficult it is to do it day by day, minute by minute.

The greatest burden we have to carry in life is self. The most difficult thing we have to manage is self. Our own daily living, our frames and feelings, our especial weaknesses and temptations, and our peculiar temperaments, our inward affairs of every kind, these are the things that perplex and worry us more than anything else, and that bring us oftenest into bondage and darkness. In laying off your burdens, therefore, the first one you must get rid of is yourself. You must hand yourself and all your inward experiences, your temptations, your temperament, your frames and feelings, all over into the care and keeping of your God, and leave them there. He made you, and therefore He understands you and knows how to manage you, and you must trust Him to do it. Say to Him, “Here, Lord, I abandon myself to Thee. I have tried in every way I could think of to manage myself, and to make myself what I know I ought to be, but have always failed. Now I give it up to Thee. Do thou take entire possession of me. Work in me all the good pleasure of Thy will. Mould and fashion me into such a vessel as seemeth good to Thee. I leave myself in Thy hands, and I believe Thou wilt, according to Thy promise, make me into a vessel unto Thine honor,‘sanctified, and meet for the master’s use, and prepared unto every good work.’* ” And here you must rest, trusting yourself thus to Him continually and absolutely.

This was a long quote but there was no way to shorten it without losing some of it’s impact.  It is so much easier to lay down our circumstances, our family, our trials, and the other external things but oh how hard it is to lay down ourselves and our sins, failings, temptations, fears, resentments, sorrows, and pains.  Because they are hidden within us, they are easy to hide from others and so on the outside we seem to be living that hidden life in Christ whereas in reality we cling to ourselves and our petty anger and our pet sins.  Giving up everything to Christ is difficult but the joy and release in those moments when we do let go of everything for Him are inexpressible!

Christians always commit the keeping of their souls for eternity to the Lord, because they know, without a shadow of a doubt, that they cannot keep these themselves. But the things of this present life they take into their own keeping, and try to carry on their own shoulders, with the perhaps unconfessed feeling that it is a great deal to ask of the Lord to carry them, and that they cannot think of asking Him to carry their burdens too.

Most people,” she continued, “take their burdens to Him, but they bring them away with them again, and are just as worried and unhappy as ever. But I take mine, and I leave them with Him, and come away and forget them. And if the worry comes back, I take it to Him again; I do this over and over, until at last I just forget that I have any worries, and am at perfect rest.

Here is a secret to giving these things up to Him–do it again and again and again.  Sometimes we will have to give them up each and every moment of the day as we realize that we have snatched them back again.

The circumstances of her life she could not alter, but she took them to the Lord, and handed them over into His management; and then she believed that He took it, and she left all the responsibility and the worry and anxiety with Him. As often as the anxieties returned she took them back; and the result was that, although the circumstances remained unchanged, her soul was kept in perfect peace in the midst of them. And the secret she found so effectual in her outward affairs, she found to be still more effectual in her inward ones, which were in truth even more utterly unmanageable. She abandoned her whole self to the Lord, with all that she was and all that she had; and, believing that He took that which she had committed to Him, she ceased to fret and worry, and her life became all sunshine in the gladness of belonging to Him.

This was the original excerpt I read yesterday.  Oh, how I want my life to become “all sunshine in the gladness of belonging to Him.”

The Scripture upon which this devotional was based was this:

Cast thy burden upon the Lord, and He shall sustain thee: He shall never suffer the righteous to be moved.–PS. lv. 22.

To that I will add the familiar but comforting verse from 1 Peter:

Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you. 1 Peter 5:6-7

May we humbly cast our cares on the Lord today and every day so that we may live a life of sunshine and gladness because of His great love and care for us.

On the Reading of Old Books

“There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually
said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.”  –C.S. Lewis

Lewis suggests at least one old book for every three newer ones.  Let’s all go read old books!

Wednesdays with Words – March 5, 2014

Last week, Amazon was offering several of C.S. Lewis’s non-fiction literary/criticism kindle books for sale.  As I still had some money on an Amazon gift card and there were several of these that neither my library or I have, I decided to purchase them while I could afford to do so.  One of the books was An Experiment in Criticism.  This was one that I had read many years ago but I had forgotten everything in it so I opted to start with it.  Wow, what riches.  Lewis is so readable!

The sure mark of an unliterary man is that he considers ‘I’ve read it already’ to be a conclusive argument against reading a work.

Those who read great works, on the other hand, will read the same work ten, twenty or thirty times during the course of their life.

the majority, though they are sometimes frequent readers, do not set much store by reading. They turn to it as a last resource. They abandon it with alacrity as soon as any alternative pastime turns up.

literary people are always looking for leisure and silence in which to read and do so with their whole attention. When they are denied such attentive and undisturbed reading even for a few days they feel impoverished.

I was happy to determine from the first chapter that I fall into the Lewis’s category of a literary [woman].  I read and I re-read; reading is usually my first resort, not my last thought; and I purposely carve out time for reading or else I feel not just impoverished, but starved.

Finally, and as a natural result of their different behaviour in reading, what they have read is constantly and prominently present to the mind of the few, but not to that of the many. The former mouth over their favourite lines and stanzas in solitude. Scenes and characters from books provide them with a sort of iconography by which they interpret or sum up their own experience. They talk to one another about books, often and at length.

Do you do this?  Think about the characters and favorite passages and copy down beautiful prose to remember and re-read and talk about books whenever you can find a fellow literary person?  Working in the library has been such a blessing as I am surrounded by people who love reading and books as much as I do and who are always ready and willing to discuss books in general as well as specific titles they have been reading.  Bliss!

Now the true reader reads every work seriously in the sense that he reads it whole-heartedly, makes himself as receptive as he can. But for that very reason he cannot possibly read every work solemnly or gravely. For he will read ‘in the same spirit that the author writ’. What is meant lightly he will take lightly; what is meant gravely, gravely. He will ‘laugh and shake in Rabelais’ easy chair’ while he reads Chaucer’s faibliaux and respond with exquisite frivolity to The Rape of the Lock. He will enjoy a kickshaw as a kickshaw and a tragedy as a tragedy. He will never commit the error of trying to munch whipped cream as if it were venison.

This is true!  I read very differently depending on the genre.  I read some books slowly, savoring every word, copying bits down in a commonplace book, telling everyone I can about how wonderful it is.  Other books, I gobble like cotton candy–it tastes good for the moment but melts away almost immediately.  Then there are the meaty, thoughtful books that take time and effort and attention but are so worthwhile.

I think the two kinds of readers are already foreshadowed in the nursery.

Hmmm.  An interesting thought.  I know that I was always this way but I wonder if it is innate or environmental or a little bit of both.

One last quote:

There are those who read only when there is nothing better to do, gobble up each story to ‘find out what happened’, and seldom go back to it; others who reread and are profoundly moved.

There are books to be gobbled and not revisited but the best books, the worthwhile books, are ones to be read and re-read, pondered and meditated upon, copied and discussed.

What worthwhile book are you reading right now?

Reading the Puritans

What do you think when you hear the word “Puritan?”  Do you think of a dour, joyless, legalistic man (or woman), dressed in black and void of all happiness and pleasure?  Or do you think of a man (or woman) who loves God, his family, his neighbor, and does everything to the glory of God?  So many of us automatically think of the Puritans as being like the first description whereas, in reality, they more often matched the second description.  J.I. Packer’s description gives us a tiny glimpse of the Puritan lifestyle:

“As their Christianity was all-embracing, so their living was all of a piece….There was for them no disjunction between sacred and secular; all creation, so far as they were concerned, was sacred, and all activities, of whatever kind, must be sanctified, that is, done to the glory of God.  So, in their heavenly-minded ardour, the Puritans became men and women of order, matter-of-fact and down-to-earth, prayerful, purposeful, practical.  Seeing life whole, they integrated contemplation with action, worship with work, labour with rest, love of God with love of neighbour and of self,  personal with social identity, and the wide spectrum of relational responsibilities with each other, in a thoroughly conscientious and thought-out way.”

That description doesn’t strike me as miserable or passionless but instead describes a good way of living.

Yesterday I was reading an interesting article by Rosaria Butterfield, entitled You Are What You Read.  In the article, she says,

Worldview matters. And if we don’t reach back before the 19th century, back to the Bible itself, the Westminster divines, and the Puritans, we will limp along, defeated. Yes, the Holy Spirit gives you a heart of flesh and the mind to understand and love the Lord and his Word. But without good reading practices even this redeemed heart grows flabby, weak, shaky, and ill. You cannot lose your salvation, but you can lose everything else.

Enter John Owen. Thomas Watson. Richard Baxter. Thomas Brooks. Jeremiah Burroughs. William Gurnall. The Puritans. They didn’t live in a world more pure than ours, but they helped create one that valued biblical literacy. Owen’s work on indwelling sin is the most liberating balm to someone who feels owned by sexual sin. You are what (and how) you read. J. C. Ryle said it takes the whole Bible to make a whole Christian. Why does sin lurk in the minds of believers as a law, demanding to be obeyed? How do we have victory if sin’s tentacles go so deep, if Satan knows our names and addresses? We stand on the ordinary means of grace: Scripture reading, prayer, worship, and the sacraments. We embrace the covenant of church membership for real accountability and community, knowing that left to our own devices we’ll either be led astray or become a danger to those we love most. We read our Bibles daily and in great chunks. We surround ourselves with a great cloud of witnesses who don’t fall prey to the same worldview snares we and our post-19th century cohorts do.

She then goes on to say that we “honor God with our reading diligence” and asks what do we think would happen if we replaced even part of the time we spend watching TV and surfing the net with reading the Bible and Puritan writings.

I know that in the past, when I have spent time reading Scripture and the older books, written by great men and women of God, my walk with the Lord has improved, my faith has deepened, and my mortification of sin has increased.

Almost twenty years ago, I picked up a book by J.I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness.   Before reading that book, I had not had a high opinion of the Puritans and read very little of their writings.  As I read that book in my pursuit of the Lord and living a life that is pleasing to Him, I discovered an entire group of people who had the same goals as I did: to love God and live for His glory.  After finishing the book, I began to seek out books by John Owen, Elizabeth Prentiss, Jonathan Edwards, and others.  In those pre-internet days, books by the Puritans weren’t always easy to find but those I did find were like precious jewels.  They aren’t always easy to read and oftentimes I had to read a page, walk away and meditate on it for a few days, and then come back for more.

We all grew up hearing, “you are what you eat.”  Just as we need to eat nutritious food for our bodies, we need to take in nutritious thoughts for our minds and souls.  After Scripture itself, there are few books that are more solid and edifying than those written by the great Puritan writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries:  John Owen’s Mortification of Sin, Jonathan Edwards’s Religious Affections, Thomas Brooks’s Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices, Jeremiah Burroughs’s The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, and many more.  

Here’s another article on reasons to read the Puritans from Ligonier Ministries.

As I’ve mentioned in a couple of Wednesdays with Words, I’m slowly reading John Flavel’s The Mystery of Providence.  If you’ve never read a book by a Puritan writer, I encourage you to try one.  If it’s been a while since the last time you picked up a Puritan book, try another one.  If you are a regular reader of the Puritans, keep up the good work. And please do share what you are reading in the comments.  The only thing better than reading a book by a Puritan writer is finding others reading the same books and discussing how the Lord is speaking to them through their reading.