Socialized Homeschooling

Like my title? I was aiming for an attention-grabber…

But a more accurate title would be, “Socialization Reconsidered.” My husband and I have been wrestling through questions on the subject of healthy socialization for our daughters. We homeschool, but so far we’ve felt like a square peg in the various round holes offered as organized social groups: our local homeschool support chapter, a Classical Conversations pilot group starting up in the area, and a local homeschool co-op.

Here’s what I don’t need:

  • teaching responsibilities beyond what I’m doing with my kids (required in a co-op);
  • business meetings (our local homeschool chapter’s monthly meetings);
  • someone shaping my curriculum for me (Classical Conversations).

Here’s what my daughters don’t need:

  • to be shoved into a clique of homeschooled kids who form a closed circle and told, “Go be socialized!”
  • a setting that heaps on extra or irrelevant academic requirements;
  • a program (vs. a community. There’s a difference.)

So far we’ve had a good experience enrolling my older daughter in basketball, some church activities for kids, horseback riding lessons, and swimming lessons. But what these lack is freedom. Somehow none of them have resulted in friendships that go beyond the bounds of whatever activity is central.

Here’s the thing, though: my daughters are glowing! They’re not pining away for social contacts, though they enjoy being with other kids when it happens. They’re friendly and outgoing. They give no appearance of lacking anything.

So how do I evaluate all this? As a person who enjoys people, but finds it pretty easy to be alone too, I’m thinking that they’re not in bad shape. They’re certainly not dependent personality types. But at the same time, I want to be living a realistic human life; we need other people, we need friends. The Well-Trained Mind does a great job of critiquing public education’s view of “socialization” as a competetive model, vs. the family as a cooperative model. A child taken out of public school isn’t removed from social influence, just placed in a different social setting organized around different values. For all the touting of public school as a way to socialize kids, I don’t see a very impressive level of civility or healthy social functioning anywhere in our society, from our public institutions right on down.

Family is a nourishing, realistic social context, but I want to supplement and ground us in a relational world bigger than just our family. It’s hard to find or create ways to do this that don’t involve paying money and signing up for a program. Church can be a place to move toward something more real than programmed, and I feel like we’ve found a church where this begins to be a real possibility. It can provide a bigger family than our own, one that spreads beyond Sunday morning. This is a family endeavor, though, not a drop-off activity; it’s an outgrowth of family life, not separate from it.

Another idea we’ve been playing with is passion-centric, rather than people-centric or curriculum-centric, social life. In other words, rather than enrolling in a co-op of some kind, we have this horse-passion going in my 7-year-old. It’s lasted a year or more, and there’s a good chance it’s here to stay. Why not seek out as many opportunities as we can that will enable her to run with this — more riding lessons, helping at a stable, etc. — and letting a constellation of relationships form in that environment?

Here’s what I keep coming back to: C.S. Lewis. Denise Levertov. Maurice Sendak. Madeleine L’Engle. These are not only remarkable artists and thinkers, but contented people. What do they all have in common? “Isolated” childhoods. They’re products of solitude, time spent between the covers of books and chasing imaginative pursuits with a pencil. Exceptionally gifted, no doubt. But I wonder how many average-looking people have exceptional gifts that never burst into flame because they never experienced a vacuum in a world increasingly full of chatter. These names we all know did. And they turned out all right, didn’t they?

No Little People

Francis Schaeffer’s No Little People is a book of 16 sermons delivered at L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland. My reading of it follows on the heels of Schaeffer’s True Spirituality, and reinforces my appreciation for the strengths of his thoughtfulness and vision. There are some quotations from the book at this site, as well as a listing of other writings by this author.

As its title suggests, the theme that ties these sermons together is the difference between our view of our significance as limited human beings, and God’s view. The sermons are not a “series” per se; they’re not a planned, systematic progression into this subject. Rather, they represent a variety of approaches, some topical, some expository. Taken altogether, they are unanimous in their unfolding of a biblical view of persons that stands in sharp and freeing contrast to the one suggested to us by our own inner estimations, and those of our present-day world.

There’s a real value to reading more than one book at a time by the same author. I found that reading this right after True Spirituality hammered home some of the distinctives of Schaeffer’s thought, the most significant (to me) being his ability to articulate the biblical worldview against a context of other worldviews, and to identify the ways that our lives and institutions can incorporate strands that are inconsistent with what we profess. In a matter-of-fact way, he keeps a firm context in the history of ideas, fleshes out biblical history around various passages, and draws distinctions between philosophical emphases. It helps to drive home an understanding of the intellectual forces at work in every area of life, and to increase consciousness of them.

Schaeffer is eminently rational, and I appreciate this as well. But it never turns into intellectualism. Always he keeps the beam shining on the importance of a living faith, not a merely intellectual one. But he always keeps in view the fact that our faith, our knowledge of God, begins with propositional truth stated in our space-time world — the divine intersecting with our human experience at specific times and places, and speaking in our language.

I have to acknowledge that my reading didn’t do these sermons full justice. The ideal setting would be in a reading group where they could be studied and savored. That’s not a possibility in my life right now. While reading them one after the other, armed with a pencil for underlining but no one to discuss them with, had the advantage of getting the big picture of themes accumulating and building, I also recognize the disadvantage of not absorbing them and processing them as fully as I’d like. Probably I’ll revisit this book, stored away for now as a treasure chest of valuable, distinctive insights and perspective.

Fit Bodies, Fat Minds

I’ve had Os Guinness’ Fit Bodies Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don’t Think and What to Do About It for about 10 years. I think I’ve put off reading it because it sounds smug — like something that would feed an elitist spirit and fan the flame of a ranting condescension toward American culture. I’m not very nice when I rant. Further, in general I think there’s too much ranting, especially in the blogosphere, from people who purport to be concerned Christians. Recently I’ve read “Christian” rants on everything from other bloggers’ choices about what to write about, to politics, to the need for church reform. It always leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth — though once the tone starts to degenerate, I rarely finish reading whatever it is. I have a hard time reconciling fashionable anger with the mind of Christ.

It turns out that this was the right time for me to read this book, though. It was on the recommended reading list at the end of Total Truth, and following up my recent reading of that tome with this slimmer volume worked well. This is a far cry from ranting or smugness. I was fortunate enough to hear a series of lectures by Os Guinness at my alma mater back in the mid-90’s, and I was mesmerized by his sophistication, his wit, and his articulateness as a cultural critic. This book was a delight to read for the same reasons.

I just glanced through some of the reviews at Amazon as I was importing the link, and have to scratch my head when they charge Guinness with being superficial or dogmatic. This book is indeed a quick read (150 pages), but its purpose is to sketch out a sharply-focused “big picture” confined to anti-intellectualism in popular culture (not academia). To be sharply-focused when the scope is so broad is to opt against burdening the text with exhaustive detail (read Total Truth for that), but the resulting focus would not be possible for such a broad subject without an extremely discerning perspective, and an ability to render the complex forces at work in American history and thought with refreshing directness.

The book is structured in three sections. The first provides an overview of eight influences over the last 200 years that have contributed to the softening of the Christian mind, sweeping through American intellectual life and leaving a “ghost mind” (as in ghost town) in their wake. The second section traces eight strands of present-day culture that contribute to further atrophy. Last, in a single chapter, Guinness suggests eight first steps to responding. (He likes 8, I guess.) “Our task, as followers of Christ, is not easy but it is clear,” writes Guiness at the start of this last section:

The challenge, in St. Paul’s words, is to “not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Thus the currents are swift and the pressures strong, but a focus on the negative is far from negative. It is the first step to the most glorious positive of all, having the mind of Christ.

Guinness admits at various points that a given subject warrants a whole book in itself, but he returns frequently to the more modest purpose of this book, which is introductory. For someone looking for an overview that provides a structure for organizing future thought, this is a great read.

Some of the things I enjoyed about this book: first, after Pearcey’s longer book, I appreciated this chance to review the history of evangelicalism in a more abbreviated way. I felt like I came away with a clearer sense of the big picture. Second, I enjoyed encountering some familiar figures in Guinness’ many allusions. One, sadly, was Frances Asbury, after whom my undergraduate college was named. He was a Methodist circuit rider who, I discovered in these pages, posed “a choice between the importance of study and the importance of soul-saving that would have been unthinkable to the Puritans.” Fancy that: my college was named after someone guilty of anti-intellectualism. (Sigh.) Another was Frances Schaeffer, cited a few times. And still another was Camille Paglia, two of whose books an academic advisor gave me years ago in order to challenge (or madden) me, but which I’ve never read. Maybe it’s time. Third, as these varied names suggest, Guinness is an astute observer of culture, and his discussion ranges widely from Rush Limbaugh to Madonna, from the frontier to cyberspace, from the Puritans to Camille Paglia. Say what you will about Guinness’s rapid treatment of the subject, he could never be accused of being underinformed or unengaging. Last but not least, he actually made an attempt to distinguish postmodernism from modernism from modernity, and succeeded in bringing some clarity to these confusing terms. In a word, wow. I wouldn’t have thought that was possible.

Reading Guinness’ strong, clean prose is pure pleasure, reflecting as it does polish, wit, liveliness, and a keen mind. For a readable, fast-paced, and provocative

True Spirituality

True Spirituality is the fruit of Francis Schaeffer’s reconsideration of Christianity after ten years of serving as a pastor. Schaeffer had reached a point of desperation. “A problem came to me,” he writes in the preface,

the problem of reality. This had two parts: first, it seemed to me that among many of those who held the orthodox position one saw little reality in the things that the Bible so clearly said should be the result of Christianity. Second, it gradually grew on me that my own reality was less than it had been in the early days after I had become a Christian. I realized that in honesty I had to go back and rethink my whole position.

So he did. He backed up to agnosticism, and evaluated whether his beliefs were legitimate, and whether Christianity made any real difference. The results include this book, a long list of other writings, and the founding of what was to become the thriving ministry of L’Abri in the Swiss Alps.

The basic structure of this book is to demonstrate, first, that there are thoroughly sufficient rational reasons for belief in “the infinite-personal God,” and the truth of Christianity. It satisfies the basic questions humanity struggles with. But to me the real reward was the second half of the book, where Schaeffer discusses living it out — not in the way it often looks in its institutional forms, but in our conscience, our thought lives, our psychology, and our relationships with one another.

Schaeffer is thoroughly rational, and once he’s established the intellectual basis for faith, he returns to it again and again as the ground from which we move into the new life. Mind renewal is largely a matter of making a conscious mental effort to remind ourselves of what we’ve assented to as truth. It’s not a mystical experience, or a thing that happens to someone magically after they say the sinner’s prayer. As we make this effort, we can expect divine aid, and life change from the inside out.

But he’s not an “intellectual” in the sense of finding satisfaction in ideas for their own sake. What matters most is the fruit borne by “true spirituality” — love. Our lives, and the church, should run according to biblical principles, but above all they should exhibit the reality of the supernatural by showing human beings loving one another.

My hairdresser asked me once, “What is there at church that someone from outside would want?” Good question, unfortunately. She cuts hair for pastors and “good churchpeople” all the time (including me), and to her it sounds like any unpleasant political institution or dysfunctional family. Schaeffer helps to explain why this is so often the case, and as L’Abri so beautifully demonstrated, he and his wife founded a community that represented a true, countercultural, biblical church in action.

What did I like best? I liked Schaeffer’s frequent reminders that God never relates to us mechanically (or legally, or officially), but always personally — and so we are to relate to each other. It struck a responsive chord in me, because of my accumulated frustration with programmed and systematized and corporatized Christianity. “If there is no demonstration in our attitude toward other men that we really take seriously the person-to-person relationship, we might as well keep quiet,” he writes.

I also liked the humility Schaeffer exemplifies himself, and encourages in his readers. “Each time I see something wrong in others, it is dangerous, for it can exalt self, and when this happens, my open relationship with God falls to the ground,” he writes. “So when I am right, I can be wrong.” Whether we’re relating to our children, or to others who’ve injured us, or to a spouse, or to superiors, we’re on equal footing as creatures, and have no ground to swing into either inferiority or superiority.

Above all, perhaps it was the grace of Schaeffer’s picture that was most satisying. More clearly than I’ve seen it in a long time, I see the distinction between perfection and beauty. Schaeffer frequently describes truth in aesthetic terms, and it helps me to lay aside the perfectionism that tends to destroy joy and discover new eyes. “How beautiful Christianity is,” Schaeffer exults, “– first, because of the sparkling quality of its intellectual answers, but second, because of the beautiful quality of its human and personal answers. And these are to be rich and beautiful. A crabbed Christianity is less than orthodox Christianity.”

Although my natural (self-indulgent) tastes lead me to fiction, I’m grateful to have read this. It rocked the Christian landscape when it was first published in 1971, and reading it is a beneficial earthquake in my inner life in 2008. It’s really not possible to do it justice here, other than to offer a heartfelt recommendation to any Christian whose paradigms need to be excavated and restored.

The Light Princess

The Light Princess is a book of about 110 pages that I unearthed in the library’s juvenile section. There are a few etexts available (listed here), but this is the version I read.

I’ve read a few other MacDonald stories: Phantastes (years ago), Lilith, and The Princess and the Goblin. C.S. Lewis felt his imagination was “baptised” by Phantastes; me, not so much. Nor Lilith.

But I’ve enjoyed both his tales for children immensely. The authorial voice of this one is less grandfatherly than in The Princess and the Goblin, leaving the reader undistracted from the story as it unfolds. I liked this, for this story is like a diamond: it leaves some strong pictures in the mind, multifaceted and mythic, and it’s a treat to be able to retain them vividly, undistorted by an overbearing narrator.

The basic plot involves a princess who, because her aunt (a witch) was inadvertantly forgotten at her christening, is cursed with weightlessness. Gravity — of any kind — has no hold on her. Her body floats; her mind flits; her heart drifts, failing to attach to anyone. She never cries. She’s a mere shell.

Eventually a prince falls in love with her, just about the time her evil aunt begins to drain the lake where the princess loves to swim. She begins to fade away herself. The only way to restore the lake is for someone to willingly give his life for the princess. What will happen? This is the tale MacDonald spins, playing with the symbolic suggestiveness of light(ness), gravitation, and water.

If the princess is the quintessential picture of empty loveliness, her aunt is the picture of hatred. At one point she casts a spell that involves a long walk during which she mutters, coiled lovingly by a huge snake, locking a seemingly endless string of doors. I enjoyed the strength of these characterizations.

I also developed an appreciation for Sendak’s illustrations. I’m as much of a Where the Wild Things Are fan as anyone else, but I wasn’t sure about these drawings till I got a ways into the story. They have an eeriness that seems, I decided, well suited to this fantasy tale, reminding me of Chris Van Allsburg’s Mysteries of Harris Burdick illustrations. (You can see them here.) Sometimes a careful scrutiny of them brings unexpected rewards… In one, a table beside the king holds a copy of Phantastes. This was a well-told story that will probably stay in mind for awhile.

Justin Morgan Had a Horse

We finished Marguerite Henry’s Justin Morgan Had a Horse as a family read-aloud. The book was a satisfying experience for us, and my daughter (7) is at this moment coloring a detailed picture of a Morgan in honor of Little Bub, the story’s equine protagonist.

This tale apparently takes some liberties crafting a book about the life and times of “Figure,” the founding sire of the Morgan breed, depicted in this story as Little Bub. The role of Joel Goss, the boy who gentles Little Bub and spends his whole life yearning to own, and eventually purchasing, the horse, is exaggerated. Many of the legends and facts about the little horse’s life are portrayed faithfully, however, including his role carrying President Monroe in a parade, winning fame at pulling bees and races, and serving dependably as a workhorse in Vermont.

Whatever quibbles one may have with the book’s one-to-one correspondence with historical details, it captures without question the distinctiveness of the original Morgan and the breed he sired. Convincing characterization, dialogue, and contextualization in events help to bring a chapter of American history to life. And though this tale recounts truthfully the kind of neglect, and sometimes abuse, animals often suffer under human care, it also captures the transforming effect quality stewardship can have on both horse and owner, and the powerful affection that can enrich the relationship between them.

This story was rewarding for both my daughter and me. The text was entertaining, and though it challenged a 7-year-old in some spots through its historical references and dialect, these were easily surmounted without getting bogged down in explanation. (The reading level is aimed at middle school, I’d guess.) For anyone looking for either a historical story encompassing the period from 1790 – 1820, or one that builds appreciation for a unique breed, this novel delivers.

Homeschool by the dozen

I must have been about 11 when I read Cheaper by the Dozen. I really don’t remember much about it, though I retain a haze of good feeling. The one thing I remember clearly is that the father of that large family put a record player in the bathroom and insisted that his children listen to foreign language records whenever they were in there. Eventually they all became fluent in a second language.

The book must have influenced me more than I realized, because in my first year as a homeschooler, I find myself using audiobooks quite a bit as a way of making books a main course in our lives. We check them out of the library, give them for birthdays, listen while they’re busy with other activities during free time instead of watching television. My daughters, ages 7 and 4, have responded positively, and though I usually have no problem seeing the downside of things, I really can think of no criticism of the use of audiobooks. Used not as a substitute, but as a supplement, to parental read-alouds, they can be an incredible resource for a homeschooler.

This site contains a rundown of a number of the potential benefits, including increased listening skills, vocabulary, pronunciation, and use of the imagination. My oldest just turned 7, and I’m pleased with her reading skills. But she could never sit down and read through the Narnia books on her own, and for me to read them would take much longer. I’m reading various Marguerite Henry stories to her now (she’s horse crazy), and it takes maybe a week, sometimes two, to get through one of them, reading a little each day. But King of the Wind was available on cassette at the library, and we listened to the whole story in an afternoon. Then of course, she listened several more times before we took it back to the library. Audiobooks allow much more time for literature than my parental availability can, providing some great material for an eager, absorbent mind.

Children will listen to works that are beyond their level when they’re read orally, challenging them in vocabulary and conceptualization. The Little House books have been enriching for my daughter, and we’ve listened through On the Banks of Plum Creek. There’s a great deal of practical knowledge to be gained from the young heroine of these novels, and I’ve often been surprised by the level of insight accessible to a 7-year-old. Similarly, we’re using Susan Wise Bauer’s Story of the World series for ancient history, and because my daughter loves history so much I bought her the audiobook. She’s free to listen as often as she wants to the chapters we’ve already studied together. It amazes me to hear the commentary she offers on life, seen through a historical lens. Yesterday as she listened to the story of Shamshi Adad, she commented that he wasn’t a good ruler because of his brutal tactics. “He should rule through being truthful and fair, like Jesus and Asoka,” she volunteered while building a lego stable. And today at the lunch table, when I overheard her little sister whisper, “I’m on your team!” when she was about to be disciplined, I said, “So, you’re banding together, huh?” My 7-year-old laughed and said, “Just like the Greeks. They fought with each other except when they had to fight Persia.” (I’m Persia in this scenario. Oh goody.)

Sheer repetition is another virtue of audiobooks. Maybe this point is made already. We all know that children love to hear the same stories over and over, and I comply when I’m reading to them. I see the value of this. But I certainly don’t mind when someone else is available to take the rereading reins, particularly if it’s something I don’t really enjoy. (Curious George and Mother Goose, for instance.)

Last but not least, the quality of materials is often superb. Cherry Jones, who reads the Little House stories, has a wonderfully warm and expressive voice, and the fiddle music punctuating her reading is something I couldn’t supply. Similarly, the Dr. Seuss audiobook we own is read by a cast of actors who bring all their dramatic skills to the table in the service of young readers, and the results are enjoyable for “children” of all ages. The Frog and Toad stories are read by Arnold Lobel himself, and his friendly voice makes the concept of the author much more than a name on the cover. Ditto for E.B. White’s readings. Last but not least, the Narnia stories read with a British accent have spoiled me forever.

So this is a rave, nothing less. The only potential downside I see is that audiobooks might foster in children an impatience with the slower and more skill-dependent process of reading for themselves. So far, I don’t see that happening. Nor do I see them losing their desire to hear me read to them, even though I’m not nearly as dramatic a reader as some of the cd’s I’ve cited. I have a vague anxiety at times that I’m “programming” them, but the medium doesn’t really permit that. For encouraging a love of language in all its rhythms and possibilities, for challenging their imaginations and their vocabularies, for insisting on active thinking rather than passive absorption, audiobooks are difficult to unseat. Am I missing something? If so, I hope one of my readers will clue me in.

Total Truth

I started Nancy Pearcey’s Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from its Cultural Captivity in 2007. This site contains some information about the book and its author (though the table of contents only gives the first section), and when I was working through the early pages several months ago, I wrote enough about it here to justify its own blog category. In fact, I was getting bogged down and put it aside for awhile, but this week I finished it using the audiobook.

Pearcey is a distinguished academic, a former agnostic who studied Christian worldview under Francis Schaeffer at L’Abri in Switzerland in the 1970’s. I’m a big fan of L’Abri, and though I may feel twinges of envy, I felt no surprise when I found frequent warm tributes to Frances Schaeffer’s thought and his influence in these pages.

Pearcey takes on a huge subject in this book. As its title suggests, the book’s thesis is that instead of shaping culture, Christianity has been shaped by culture, to its detriment. Many Christians end up doing what our culture does, compartmentalizing their faith in a private sphere but living their lives according to the naturalistic notions that underlie thinking in the public sphere. The solution? Develop a true Christian worldview that reflects the adequacy of the Bible to speak to all of life, not just to private religious feelings.

This book is an excellent introduction to doing so. Pearcey leads us through an extensively supported history of ideas, distinguishing Christianity among all the various intellectual currents, and explaining clearly how various cultural influences have shaped it into the insipid creature it is today. She talks at length about how regaining credibility in the public square of ideas depends on being able to engage at the level of worldview — as well as modeling an authentically Christian way of life.

I needed the audiobook to keep me moving all the way through the book, but now that I have the whole picture I’ll need to either go back through it more carefully, or regard it as a reference. There’s simply too much information to absorb in a first reading. (Sometimes I felt overburdened with evidence.) This would be great to study together in a group, and discuss along the way. I would love to have had that opportunity.

My favorite sections were the ones that dealt with the history of evangelicalism, and the feminization of Christianity. I was fascinated by these passages. There was plenty of good discussion of Darwin’s influence in various ways. And I found the discussion of the modern day church/mega-church to be insightful and personally healing. My husband and I left a mega-church last year after 9 years of considering it “home,” and our departure was largely because we felt like it was morphing into a corporation, and using the manipulative, possibly deceptive, anti-intellectual techniques of the commercial world. Souls as widgets. Industrialized religion. What Total Truth gave me was an understanding of the great momentum of history and culture that fuel such a derailing of Christianity in its institutional forms. I come away from the book feeling something less like brittle resentment, and more like compassion. I’m grateful for that.

Total Truth is a hard book to “review.” Its massive substance exerts a gravitational pull toward writing more… and more… and more about it. But for now I’ll just say that I recommend the book to anyone who’s bugged by institutionalized Christianity’s failures to practice what it preaches, and curious to know from whence these failures come. It leaves me tired, but also strangely hopeful.

Good Friday: a poem, a painting, and a passage

One of Wendell Berry’s Sabbaths poems from 1980:

What hard travail God does in death!
He strives in sleep, in our despair,
And all flesh shudders underneath
The nightmare of His sepulchre.

The rest of the poem is here, presented antiphonally.

Of the artistic renderings I was able to find of Good Friday, I like this one best: Jean-Léon Gérôme, Golgotha Consummatum est, 1867. Its contrasts are suggestive: the sky, half dark and half light; the people, tiny and flylike, in a vast, brooding natural setting; the apparent subject, human activity, rendered insignificant by the looming shadows off to the right.

Last but not least, here’s a passage from C.S. Lewis’ Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer that meditates on the events of Good Friday:

Does not every movement in the Passion write large some common element in the sufferings of our race? First, the prayer of anguish; not granted. Then He turns to His friends. They are asleep — as ours, or we, are so often, or busy, or away, or preoccupied. Then He faces the Church; the very Church that He brought into existence. It condemns Him. This also is characteristic. In every Church, in every institution, there is something which sooner or later works against the very purpose for which it came into existence. But there seems to be another chance. There is the State; in this case, the Roman state. Its pretensions are far lower than those of the Jewish church, but for that very reason it may be free of local fanaticisms. It claims to be just on a rough, worldly level. Yes, but only so far as is consistent with political expediency and raison d’etat. One becomes a counter in a complicated game. But even now all is not lost. There is still an appeal to the People — the poor and simple whom He had blessed, whom He had healed and fed and taught, to whom He Himself belongs. But they have become over-night (it is nothing unusual) a murderous rabble shouting for His blood. There is, then, nothing left but God. And to God, God’s last words are “Why hast thou forsaken me?”

You see how characteristic, how representative, it all is. The human situation writ large. These are among the things it means to be a man. Every rope breaks when you seize it. Every door is slammed shut as you reach it…

As for the last dereliction of all, how can we either understand or endure it? Is it that God Himself cannot be man unless God seems to vanish at His greatest need? And if so, why? I sometimes wonder if we have even begun to understand what is involved in the very concept of creation. If God will create, He will make something to be, and yet to be not Himself. To be created is, in some sense, to be ejected or separated. Can it be that the more perfect the creature is, the further this separation must at some point be pushed? It is saints, not common people, who experience the “dark night.”

Letters to Malcolm

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C.S. Lewis’ Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (1964) is a short book (only 124 pages). When I closed it last night and turned off my light to go to sleep, I felt disappointed. It hadn’t reached out and grabbed me by the throat, as I’ve come to expect Lewis’s books to do. But this morning, I begin to suspect that first response was misleading, because I’m still reflecting on some of its lines of thought. Perhaps this book is a seed, rather than a storm; its effects will be felt over time, rather than sweeping suddenly and dramatically onto the scene of my inner life.

As its title suggests, this is a series of letters, written to a fictitious friend named Malcolm. It’s the last book Lewis wrote before his death, and it was published posthumously. This site provides some interesting information regarding the book’s evolution in Lewis’s mind and pen. Notably, the book was welcomed enthusiastically by its publisher, and regarded as his best effort since The Problem of Pain. (I’ve gathered some excerpts from Letters in this post.)

Lewis defined his audience as recent converts with no regular habit of prayer. He felt that existing books about prayer were written for more mature Christians, and he tries in this volume to address what he sees as the most basic obstacles. A few examples: How do you picture God? How do your mental pictures function in prayer? Why ask for things if God already knows? How do you imagine what’s happening when a finite being talks to an infinite Being? What about emotion? Should I use my own words or someone else’s? And so on.

Lewis does a pretty good job of tailoring his ideas to his audience. I was struck here, as I usually am in reading Lewis, by his humility. For a member of the intelligentsia, and surely one of its more brilliant stars, to want to write for laymen at all is noteworthy, and his overriding desire to communicate rather than show off is always evident. He’s not preachy, though at times he tosses off Latin phrases and references to a breadth and depth of reading that, though commonplace to him, won’t be shared by his audience. And although the book is “practical” in the sense that it keeps its focus on prayer, it delves deeply into theology in the course of addressing practical questions.

In my personal valuation of the book, what I appreciate most is the way it views God and his creation (including people) as connected in an ongoing creative act. This was put forth in The Problem of Pain too. Without belaboring a long and ineffective paraphrase of Lewis’s thought, I’ll just say that he has a way of providing imaginative categories for understanding spiritual realities that has the potential to revolutionize one’s prayer life far more than any single argument on a particular point can do.

I’m glad I read this, and I would recommend it to anyone else who may have run aground in the attempt to maintain a meaningful prayer life. When all is said and done, I don’t close the book with a checklist (”The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Prayers,” or “Things to Do to Make God Do What I Want,” or “Heavenly Incantations”). I do close the book with a few very slight alterations in thinking — alterations at the deep level, where the rudder can change the course of the becalmed vessel in such a way as to pick up a whiff of welcome breeze.