The Art Of Writing And The Gift Of Writers (book review)

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I am eternally grateful to my high school English teachers who not only taught me the fundamentals of reading literature and writing in different styles, but who immensely sharpened my skills. But can you imagine having C.S. Lewis as a writing mentor? That’s what you are getting when you read The Art Of Writing And The Gift Of Writers. 

This book is compromised of essays and book reviews written by Lewis, interviews that Lewis gave, and even a transcript of an extemporaneous conversation with other authors who had congregated in Lewis’ rooms at Magdalen College. 

Learning how a gifted writer like Lewis crafted his own books was insightful, as well as how he interpreted the writing process of other authors. He even talked about how he choose to handle literary critics. But most energizing of all for me was the freedom he gave me to be myself in the writing process. He made it abundantly clear that other authors shouldn’t try to emulate his literary style—nor any other author’s style either—but to use their unique talents to write their unique works of literature. 

Since Lewis has been one of my favorite authors for most of my life, I found the journey into his mind to be absolutely fascinating. I would recommend this book for any author, aspiring author, or fellow fan of C.S. Lewis’ books and essays. 

Book Reviews From 2020

Poetry Saturday—The Nativity

Among the oxen (like an ox I’m slow)
I see a glory in the stable grow
Which, with the ox’s dullness might at length
   Give me an ox’s strength.

Among the asses (stubborn I as they)
I see my Savior where I looked for hay;
So may my beastlike folly learn at least
   The patience of a beast.

Among the sheep (I like a sheep have strayed)
I watch the manger where my Lord is laid;
Oh that my baa-ing nature would win thence
   Some wooly innocence! —C.S. Lewis

10 Quotes From “The Screwtape Letters”

C.S. Lewis gives us fantastic insight into the temptations the devil tries to use against Christians. You can read my full book review here. Just as a reminder: When Screwtape talks about “the Enemy” he is referring to God and when he says “our Father” he is talking about satan. 

“Prosperity knits a man to the World. He feels that he is ‘finding his place in it,’ while really it is finding its place in him.” 

“Music and silence—how I detest them both! How thankful we should be that ever since our Father entered Hell—though longer ago than humans, reckoning in light years, could express—no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise—Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile—Noise which alone defends us from silly qualms, despairing scruples, and impossible desires. We will make the whole universe a noise in the end.” 

“Let his inner resolve be to bear whatever comes to him, but to bear it ‘for a reasonable period’—and let the reasonable period be shorter than the trial is likely to last. It need not be much shorter…. The fun is to make the man yield just when (had he but known it) relief was almost in sight.”

“Surely you know that if a man can’t be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the neighborhood looking for the church that ‘suits’ him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches.” 

“Our Enemy is a hedonist at heart. All those fasts and vigils and stakes and crosses are only a facade. Or only like foam on the seashore. Out at sea, out in His sea, there is pleasure, and more pleasure. He makes no secret of it; at His right hand are ‘pleasures forevermore.’ Ugh! … He has filled His world full of pleasures. There are things for humans to do all day long without His minding in the least—sleeping, washing, eating, drinking, making love, playing, praying, working. Everything has to be twisted before it’s any use to us.” 

“You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” 

“Your patient has become humble; have you drawn his attention to the fact? All virtues are less formidable to us once the man is aware that he has them, but this is specially true of humility. Catch him at the moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, ‘By Jove! I’m being humble,’ and almost immediately pride—pride at his own humility—will appear. If he awakes to the danger and tries to smother this new form of pride, make him proud of his attempt. … You must therefore conceal from the patient the true end of Humility. Let him think of it not as self-forgetfulness but as a certain kind of opinion (namely, a low opinion) of his own talents and character.” 

“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One it to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.” 

“Even of his sins the Enemy does not want him to think too much: once they are repented, the sooner the man turns his attention outward, the better the Enemy is pleased.” 

“Whenever they are attending to the Enemy Himself we are defeated, but there are ways of preventing them from doing so. The simplest is to turn their gaze away from Him towards themselves. Keep them watching their own minds and trying to produce feelings there by the action of their own wills. When they meant to ask Him for charity, let them, instead, start trying to manufacture charitable feelings for themselves and not notice that this is what they are doing. When they meant to pray for courage, let them really be trying to feel brave. When they say they are praying for forgiveness, let them be trying to feel forgiven. Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling; and never let them suspect how much success or failure of that kind depends on whether they are well or ill, fresh or tired, at the moment.” 

The Screwtape Letters (book review)

Sun Tzu taught, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” With that maxim in mind, if you read The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, you will gain insight into the enemy’s tactics, unlike perhaps any other source. 

Lewis said this book was an easy book for him to write, but it gave him no joy to write it. Exposing the dark strategies of satan and his ugly cohort is indeed a joyless business. But even the apostle Paul tells us that we shouldn’t be unaware of the devil’s schemes. 

If you are a Christian and you read this book, you need to reverse your thinking. This book is a series of letters from Screwtape, a more experienced demon, to his nephew Wormwood who has just been given his first “patient” to seduce into hell. Whereas Christians call God their Father, in this book Screwtape refers to satan as “our Father” and God as “the Enemy.” 

Perhaps the most insightful part to me of this amazing book is the subtlety of the temptations which are employed to trip up Christians and keep seekers away from the truth. In fact, at several points Screwtape warns Wormwood that he is trying too hard to use something huge to bring down his patient when only the smallest of things will do the trick. 

I would encourage newer Christians to wait a while to read this book. In the meantime, read the Bible as much as you can—get to know the Real before you read about the counterfeit. For more mature Christians, however, this is an important book to read. 

(As a brief aside, in reading The Screwtape Letters this time through, I listened to the audiobook narrated by Joss Ackland and he delivered a phenomenal performance!) 

Praising God In The Troughs

Some people mistakenly think that the maturity of a Christian is a steady climb, and anything short of that is not God-honoring. They feel the graph has to always be moving up and to the right. In reality—if we zoom in—we will see lots of peaks and troughs that are in the climb. 

For instance, we read the worship leader of Psalm 42 saying, “By day the Lord directs His love, at night His song is with me—a prayer to the God of my life,” and we think, “Yeah, that’s what I expect from a saintly psalmist!” 

But let’s get the context. In the opening verses, this same worship leader talks about his profound thirst, his tears, and the taunts of his enemies. Twice in this psalm, he laments, “Why are you so downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me?” 

Many people have gone through what has been called “the dark night of the soul.” I doubt anyone has ever given thanks because of those dark times, but they have learned to give thanks during those dark times.

Consider David’s beautiful words in Psalm 23. He points out that the Good Shepherd leads us into green pastures AND into dark valleys, beside quiet waters AND into the presence of enemies. 

But notice this: the Shepherd of our soul provides what we need in both daytime AND nighttime. He pours out blessings in the presence of our enemies, and as my grandfather wrote in the margin of his Bible next to verse 4, “Where there is shadow there must be light.” 

Consider the example of Paul who wrote to the Philippians, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (4:4). He wrote this to the church that was birthed by Paul’s miraculous deliverance from prison, while Paul and Silas were doing just that: Praying and singing hymns to God! 

In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis gives us insight into how the demons view the temptation of Christians. Uncle Screwtape wrote to his nephew, “It may surprise you to learn that in God’s efforts to get permanent possession of a soul, He relies on the troughs even more than on the peaks; some of His special favorites have gone through longer and deeper troughs than anyone else. … It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that the human is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be. Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best.” 

A mark of a maturing saint is one who when he realizes he is in a trough begins to praise God in anticipation of the blessings which are coming! 

Don’t feel like you need to praise God FOR your troughs, but you can and should praise Him BECAUSE of His presence even in your driest, darkest trough. God is doing something in this trough time that He could accomplish in no other way. As David said, our Good Shepherd leads us in both sunlit and dark paths “for His name’s sake”—He will be glorified and you will be rewarded! 

Be sure to follow along on this series Thankful In The Night.

What Christians Believe (book review)

C.S. Lewis remains my all-time favorite author. His ability to explain concepts of theology is unparalleled in both his own time and into modern times. What Christians Believe is a classic case in point. 

During World War II, the BBC was looking for something both inspirational and educational to carry on their airwaves to the British troops abroad and the war-weary British citizens on the home front. They discovered a little-known professor of literature that presented something so fresh and revitalizing that his notoriety immediately skyrocketed throughout England! Part of what he presented as a series of audio essays for the BBC is captured in this book What Christians Believe

One of the things I enjoy about Lewis is his ability to simplify complex topics without feeling like he is “talking down” to you. What theologians had made so complex and out-of-reach to many of the uneducated, Lewis made accessible to a vast audience.

If you have a friend or family member that has asked you about your Christian faith, but doesn’t see to “get it” when you explain it, the short essays in this book may be just the thing to get the conversation started again. Better yet: read the chapters along with them and then get together for a time of discussion. I think you will be pleased with the doors that C.S. Lewis may open for deeper understanding and more productive conversations about your Christian faith. 

A Hideous Strength

“…Come, let us face each other in battle” (2 Kings 14:8). 

Based on Amaziah’s request and Jehoash’s unusual parable-based response, it appears that this is the chronology of what happened:

  • Amaziah requests that Jehoash give him one of his daughters in marriage
  • Jehoash refuses
  • Amaziah attacks and defeats Edom 
  • Amaziah, feeling very proud of himself, then repeats his request to Jehoash, who again refuses
  • Amaziah begins to muster his troops to attack Jehoash and Israel
  • Jehoash defeats in Amaziah battle

Jehoash correctly diagnosed Amaziah: “You have indeed defeated Edom and now you are arrogant. Glory in your victory, but stay at home” (v. 10). 

Pride makes us think we are better than we are. Pride leads us to believe that we are owed something more. Pride comes before a fall. 

Amaziah’s pride had an expensive price tag:

  • he lost the battle
  • the walls around Jerusalem were torn down
  • the temple at Jerusalem was plundered
  • he was assassinated by his own military leaders

Pride is a hideous strength because it is a deceptive and short-lived strength.

C.S. Lewis described pride so well: “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say that people are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better looking than others. If everyone else became equally rich, or clever, or good looking, there would be nothing to be proud about. It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone. That is why I say that Pride is essentially competitive in a way the other vices are not. … Nearly all those evils in the world which people put down to greed or selfishness are really far more the result of Pride. … Pride is ruthless, sleepless, unsmiling concentration on the self.” —C.S. Lewis 

Oh my! We must pray: “Holy Spirit, help me guard my heart against this propensity to pride. Yes, a victory can lead to pride and a false sense of strength, but it is a hideously deceptive strength. Please remind me that: 

  • victory makes me susceptible to pride 
  • pride makes me think I’m better (stronger, more impressive, more spiritual) than I really am 
  • this hideously deceptive vice makes me forget to remain dependent on God 
  • the dependence on myself makes me vulnerable to attack and defeat.” 

Don’t let Pride be your undoing, as it was for Amaziah. 

History Matters

The minor prophets cover a span of about 300 years, from 760-450 BC, and Jonah appears right in the middle of that. Jonah overlaps Amos and Hosea in northern Israel, and he finishes his ministry just before Isaiah’s ministry begins in southern Judah. 

Jonah is the only narrative in the minor prophets. He was a prophet during the reign of Jeroboam II when Israel was temporarily growing in strength. He is the first of Israel’s prophets to be sent to a non-Jewish population. 

Critics have raised questions about this book. Questions like: Did Jonah write this book himself or is it just a story about him? Is this book historical or allegorical? 

The five biggest objections that are raised to Jonah’s historicity are: 

  1. The hyper-nationalistic feel is more like when Ezra and Nehemiah led people back to Jerusalem after their captivity in Babylon, and not during the time of Jeroboam II. 
  2. Parts of Jonah appear copied from the prophet Joel. 
  3. There are no (or incorrect) details about the major city of Nineveh that Jonah visited. 
  4. There are no extra-biblical historical records of a revival in Nineveh. 
  5. Jonah was swallowed by a fish?! 

I think there are very good reasons to believe that Jonah was both autobiographical and historically accurate. 

First, there was a revival of sorts (although not religiously) in Israel during the time of Jeroboam II. This was a time that Israel felt like it could flex its muscles again, so Jonah would not be acting out of character to be so pro-Israel. 

Second, Jonah 3:9 and Joel 2:14 sound similar, but scholars cannot tell which was written first. Couldn’t God amplify a message? Consider how many parts of the Gospel of Mark are used in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. And it’s a regular practice for authors even today to directly quote other sources. 

Third, regarding the lack of details about Nineveh, the biblical writers give very few details of any places outside of Israel or Judah. The only “incorrect” detail skeptics point to is Jonah 3:3 stating that the city was so big that it would take three days to walk around it. Nineveh was a city of about 120,000 inhabitants, so it could easily take three days of walking and preaching in order to get the message to everyone. 

Fourth, the revival in Nineveh was clearly short-lived. Jonah was probably in Nineveh around 760 BC. Assyria was rising politically and militarily during that time and defeated Israel just 40 years after Jonah’s preaching. Assyria itself was then defeated in 605 BC. 

Finally, Jonah was swallowed by a fish?! The root word for fish in Hebrew means something that has grown to such an enormous size that it overshadows everything else. But notice that what caused the sailors to be in awe of God was not the whale/fish swallowing Jonah, but the immediate calming of the ocean when Jonah was thrown overboard (Jonah 1:15-16). Miracles appear throughout this book. And throughout the entire Bible! 

Why should the appearance of miracles surprise us? Some people have a bias against the supernatural, where they wrongly believe that we can know everything through naturalistic means. C.S. Lewis pointed out, “I use the word Miracle to mean an interference with Nature by supernatural power. … Nature as a whole is herself one huge result of the Supernatural: God created her.” 

I don’t think this story is a parable or an allegory because nowhere else in the Bible are such details given in the form of a parable. 

I believe this story is historical because Jesus talked about the historicity of Jonah in the same breath as He talked about other historical people: the Queen of the South and Solomon (Matthew 12:38-42). Jesus clearly viewed Jonah as historically reliable and accurate. To call Jonah into question is to call into question the truthfulness of Jesus Himself! 

History matters because all of History is God’s story! 

Our belief in the message of the Bible is not based upon “once upon a time” or “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” It’s based upon real people in real places, especially the historicity of Jesus (notice all of the historical details Luke lists in the birth account of Jesus). 

Jonah was clearly one of those historical people, in an historic place, and at a precise moment in world history that tells the story of Jesus and our redemption which He purchased! 

If you want to check out all of the messages in our series on the major lessons from the minor prophets, you can find that list by clicking here.

Not Shaken

“Anyone have a nice, neat, organized life that never gets rocked by anything unexpected?” he asked, not expecting anyone to answer. Let’s be honest: There’s a whole lot of shaking going on!  Not just now, but it’s always been this way. Even in 1000 BC when David wrote Psalm 62. 

Let me walk you through this psalm and offer a couple of observations. 

In the first two verses, David’s declaration sounds very religious. It sounds like what he’s supposed to say in difficult times. Yet some doubt is obviously creeping in because David refers to himself as a leaning wall and a tottering fence. It’s here that David has his first Selah pause. 

Selah—pause and calmly consider what’s happening. “If God is really such a strong rock and fortress, could bad guys really slip by Him? Is it likely that they could be trying to knock me over without God knowing about it?” Of course not! God knows exactly what is happening to me, and He’s allowed it to happen for a reason.  

After pausing to consider this, David makes a statement that sounds like he’s repeating the first verse. But notice that this time David is talking to himself: “I don’t believe God is my refuge just because my parents believed it, or just because it sounds religious. I declare it because it is true!” It’s good to preach the Word of God to our shaking souls! 

Verse 6 is a word-for-word repeat of verse 2 with one minor exception. Look at it in the NKJV: “I shall not be greatly moved” (v. 2). This means that in David’s mind there is still a possibility of getting knocked over. But then in verse 6: “I shall not be moved” has no qualifiers. Or as Matthew Henry commented, “I may be shocked, but I shall not be sunk.” 

After making the declarations of verses 1-2 his own in verses 5-6, David can no longer be called a hypocrite when he now encourages others to declare God’s salvation for themselves (vv. 7, 8). Then he invites everyone to Selah again, this time to weigh the Rock of God with the ways of men. He declares that mankind and his plans are only a breath, not even close to the weightiness of God! 

The word alone” dominates the first eight verses of this psalm. David is emphasizing that God alone is our refuge. As Augustine wrote, “God, You arouse us so that praising You may bring us joy, for You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in You.” And C.S. Lewis added, “So few of us will really rest all on Him if He leaves us any other support.” 

Sometimes God allows unrest or disquiet SO THAT we will rediscover our rest and quiet in Him alone. 

During times of shaking, David calls us twice to Selah pause to reach the same conclusion he has reached—

  • Nothing is stronger than our God
  • No one is more loving than our God

You can stand firm on a God that is powerful enough to help, and loving enough to want to help. HE ALONE is our security! Let times of shaking reveal to you the flimsy supports of this world that you may have come to rely on, and then run to THE strongest, most loving place possible: God’s presence! 

If you’ve missed any of the other posts in our Selah series, you can find the complete list of them by clicking here. 

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