Five Words We Should Banish from our Vocabulary, Or Preventing Verbicide with C.S. Lewis

As a voracious reader and great lover of language, C.S. Lewis was concerned about “verbicide,” what he called the “murder of words.” As Lewis describes in Studies in Words (7-8), verbicide happens in a number of ways:

  • Inflation of a Word’s Value: “Inflation is one of the commonest; those who taught us to say awfully for ‘very’, tremendous for ‘great’, sadism for ‘cruelty’, and unthinkable for ‘undesirable’ were verbicides.”
  • Fake Superlatives: “Another way is verbiage, by which I here mean the use of a word as a promise to pay which is never going to be kept. The use of significant as if it were an absolute, and with no intention of ever telling us what the thing is significant of, is an example. So is diametrically when it is used merely to put opposite into the superlative.”
  • Politics and Advertising: “Men often commit verbicide because they want to snatch a word as a party banner, to appropriate its ‘selling quality’. Verbicide was committed when we exchanged Whig and Tory for Liberal and Conservative.”
  • Show vs. Tell: “But the greatest cause of verbicide is the fact that most people are obviously far more anxious to express their approval and disapproval of things than to describe them. Hence the tendency of words to become less descriptive and more evaluative; then to become evaluative, while still retaining some hint of the sort of goodness or badness implied; and to end up by being purely evaluative—useless synonyms for good or for bad. We shall see this happening to the word villain in a later chapter. Rotten, paradoxically has become so completely a synonym for ‘bad’ that we now have to say bad when we mean ‘rotten’.”

We can see here that Lewis has some similar concerns as George Orwell in his “Politics and the English Language.” Words can be politicized or bent into the service of those who are peddling products or ideas. 2016 was particularly ripe as it was a deeply divisive political year (Brexit, Trump, ISIS, etc.).

Beyond the capital-P politics of the moment, though, is the social reality of a culture that is running out of effective superlatives. I find myself saying “super duper interesting.” How have I come this far? “Fine” is a loaded term, and “very” doesn’t do what we need it to do. And when we need a word because it is so very relevant–like “Trumpery,” or “truth,” or “evidence,” or “third way”–we find that it has died too, or has been nefariously co-opted.

It is not just a verbicidal age, but we are verbicides: we are word-killing maniacs wandering around the digital library of culture with guns for tongues.

Lewis warns us that we cannot recover these words by simply returning to the past, though there are some authors who have a nice way of helping good readers recover words. Wait for someone to mispronounce an uncommon word, and you will find a good reader who is courageously trying out a word or phrase in real life, never having heard it said out loud before.

Instead, Lewis suggests that we “resolve that we ourselves will never commit verbicide” (Studies in Words, 8). When we see words going bad–he mentioned “adolescent” as synonymous with “bad” and “contemporary” as synonymous with “good”–he suggests that “we should banish them from our vocabulary” (Studies in Words, 8). In so banishing words under societal threat, the best of these words might finally die and find new life (as his two examples, which are now more technical words). I’m suggesting, then, five words that are either on death row or being hunted by the hangman’s dogs.

1. Literally

I don’t know when “seriously” came into my mind with a Sweet Valley High accent, but when I hear the word “literally,” I now add that mindless, Mean Girls SoCal pain-streaked whine. “Literally?” Literally.

I suspect that “seriously” was McKidnapped in hte mid-90s, but we have been killing “literally” for a very long time. In pop culture and politics, this word was decimated long ago, becoming a synonym for “actually” or just a mindless verbal tick. I’m hardly the first to notice this–see SlateThe Guardian, NPR, and Boston.com. They didn’t literally beat me to the punch, but they did so metaphorically.

But this word has been bastardized in a second way. Almost anyone who says these phrases–“I only read the Bible literally” or “We can’t take the Bible literally”–have no idea what they are talking about. Literally. Actually.

Note: the guys in the video stole my idea before I said it out loud. Those sensitive to crude language might want to quit after 60 seconds or so. And here is a guy great at Plinko and very bad at “literally.” Totally.

2. Unique

Some words are simply digital: they have an on/off relationship to language. While we might say, “she’s the chief mind in that organization,” we never say “she is the very chief mind….” Or we shouldn’t, because it is dumb.

Yet, as of late, I hear phrases like:

  • sort of an absolute decision
  • kind of the main thing
  • that speech was utterly meaningless
  • the car is very stationary

I suppose we could defend phrases like “nearly worthless” and “almost unanimous,” if we had to. But do we want to have a phrase like “sorta pregnant?” Pregnancy is digital, on/off, even if it sneaks up on you. Besides, how often do you want to go around asking women how pregnant they are? Bad plan. If you don’t know, you probably shouldn’t ask.

This is the case with “unique.” It is an incomparable adjective, and should be left alone as one. Something is either unique or in some degree of commonplace. Now we hear, “very unique,” “kind of unique,” and, I’m afraid, “literally unique.”

Actually, that last one could work if people knew how to use “literally.” Sort of absolutely I guess.

I don’t know if this garbled toungueship is related to a culture that finds meaning in phrases like, “there is no absolute truth” or “language is a system of signs for which there is no ultimate meaning.” Or maybe we are just lazy. Either way, let’s banish “unique” and try to describe what we mean instead of just telling it. We may get this one back some day, but in a bigly world like ours, it is a poor thing to hope for.

3. Allegory 

Okay, I admit it. I’m soapboxing here a little bit. I get tired of people using the word “allegory” for almost any literature with symbolic layers.

The most tiresome–but most understandable–accusation of allegory comes against The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but critics have said the same of The Lord of the Rings. Sauron’s Ring was suspected of being a secret representation of the nuclear bomb or the armies of Germany or the post-industrial technocracy that descended upon Europe. While Tolkien admitted that myth-making sometimes requires allegorical language (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 145), he disliked allegory and did not use it as a technique in LOTR.

Tolkien did use allegory in Leaf by Niggle, as Lewis used it in Pilgrim’s Regress. They knew how to use allegory, and knew where there were allegorical elements in their work. Lewis even wrote an academic treatise on the topic, and I argued in “Is Narnia an Allegory?” that he knew what he was talking about. We should consider listening to them.

However, people usually mean something a little different when they connect allegory to works like Narnia or LOTR–and more recently to Harry Potter, the works of Madeleine L’Engle and Ursula K. Le Guin, and, believe it or not, Margaret Atwood‘s Handmaid’s Tale, now in a miniseries. Sometimes they just mean that there is “something going on” in the text. Father Time and Aslan are obviously meaning-filled characters in Narnia. Harry Potter is a Christ figure, and Charles Wallace, well–something’s off with that weird little dude. Le Guin is a feminist tale-teller, and Atwood brings all the history of abuse against women into a single post-apocalyptic regime. There’s something going on here.

If people want to call those things allegory, there’s not much we can do. Both Tolkien and Lewis joked that anyone who wants to find allegory in a text is bound to find it. At best it’s a literary face at the bottom of the well; at worst, it’s ignorance.

But sometimes people really mean “that book is bad” when they say “that book is an allegory.” I know that seems like a stretch, but the logic is clear:

  1. I don’t like allegory.
  2. I don’t like Book X (Narnia, LOTR, fantasy, feminist books, books with lots of words).
  3. Therefore, Book X is an allegory.

Seriously, literally, I heard someone say, “Animal Farm can’t be allegory because I loved that book.” Okay folks, let’s commit to only using “allegory” if we have a clue what we are talking about.

And for a chuckle, check this out.

4. Almost Any Prefix or Suffice to “Truth”

Have you encountered a Truther lately? Usually, this refers to someone who passionately believes something despite public opinion or the most obvious evidence. Truthers are different than people who believe against evidence (e.g., that the Toronto Maple Leafs will ever win the Stanley Cup) or those who go against public opinion (e.g., those that believe that it is worth providing rural kids with a great education).

Truthers combine conspiracy with puzzling intellectual oddities. 9/11 Truthers were interesting, coming both as a government conspiracy and an anti-Bush phenomenon. There is something that connects anti-vaxers, birthers, the Obama-as-antichrist crowd, and the Sandy Hook conspiracy theorists. I don’t have any doubt they have a desire for the truth, but this truth isn’t related to the evidence that is in front of us.

These folks are different than those who peddle “truthiness.” The spin doctors of politicians and celebritities have done their work vivisecting the word “truth,” so that it is unclear that it has any meaning left. So we end up now in a world where President Trump on Sunday can rip the comments of the grieving Mayor of London radically out of context, and we can’t expect any accountability for a president willing to speak with such committed ignorance and carelessness. Why should we? We live in a post-truth world. What’s evidence, fact, or even common decency got to do with it when you have the most powerful opinion and 154,231 twitter fans?This moment has not been helped by the Truth o’ Meter folks. And, honestly, the death of truth has been sped along by the media calling every misstatement in the last election a “lie” when they are against a candidate and “untruth” when they are for them.

Since nuance is impossible–and since any culture watcher knows this all leads to some sort of catastrophe–I call for a ban on mistreating the word “truth.” No words like truthiness, truthicity, trutharama, truthopolis, truth-gate, post-truth, quasi-truth, truth o’ meter, truther, trutheses, truthpocalypse, or truthishness.  We’re going to need that word at some point. I suppose, though, I am a loser for expecting the truth.

Data

This one is quite dear to me, and we may not yet be at the point of needing complete banishment. We are certainly at a point where there is a hunger for data and statistics. I have contributed to this myself, posting blogging data (here and here) and my reading data (see 2016 here). In case someone accuses me of being a flip-flopper, I’ll admit that I love a flowchart, graph, or statistical chart as much as the next guy. So this one is a bit of a self-check, in case I too may be in danger of verbicide.

“Big data” has become a real factor in thinking about public policy, investment, higher education, and immigration reform. There are new reports daily about a million different questions, and I do my best to follow the trends as they pop up in government data, surveys, and other types of research. And I’m not alone: “data” was a 2016 buzzword on a number of lists.

Intriguingly, this is a trend that seems to run exactly counter to the post-truth/truthiness/truther deal. People want data to help them read the cultural moment, and to a certain degree data can be helpful. But I think there are three dangers.

  1. Danger the First: Data is Most Useful for Longterm Trends: As people clamour for data to new questions that pop up–such as what happens if DC goes bankrupt, Brazil’s economy globalizes, the UK leaves Europe, or 100,000 international students change their destination from the U.S. to other countries–they don’t always get that some of our questions just don’t have data that goes back very far. Reading data takes patience and the wisdom of time: if you don’t have these, you might as well just make things up. It is, after all, just the assertion of data that can get you put in a position of power.
  2. Danger the Second: Most People Misunderstand Data: This is particularly true of survey data. Why did the media (with exceptions) get the 2016 election and the Brexit vote wrong? Because they don’t understand how the numbers work. People should simply stop looking to data if they haven’t taken the time to understand it.
  3. Danger the Second: People Aren’t Data Points: This is the biggest danger. While data on Millennials tells us interesting things about a generation, strictly speaking no individual is a “Millennial”–the perfect example of the whole age. Trends are too big and people too individual for data to tell us what is happening in the human heart. I suspect that Brexit and the Trump election both come down to this single point: it felt to many that the liberal elite didn’t understand what everyday life is like for normal folk. It is pretty hard to predict what any one person does, even if we can make some guesses in the aggregate. And sometimes it is the individual that matters.

Those are my five words that we should set out to pasture. What words have you had enough of? Or what words do you wish you had back? Let me know in the comments, on Twitter @BrentonDana, or on Facebook.

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A Narnian Close Read: Friday Feature

A resource recently came to me from a homeschool mom. I am honestly not very connected to that kind of network, so I was pleased to bump into the “Close Reads Podcast,” hosted at the Circe Institute. Past books featured on the podcast include Wind in the Willows, Pride & Prejudice, and works by Flannery O’Connor, so I’m bound to be in sympathy.

This week’s podcast is called “Narnia Nostalgia,” featuring C.S. Lewis because The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe had won some sort of poll of Great Books. Another Narnia podcast isn’t that exciting as they are seasoning the internet all over the world. But this one is quite smart.  They are very interested in putting Narnia in its medieval context, and then from that standpoint they consider some of the Christian principle and literary merits.

Even better than the Narnian bit, they spend the first half hour discussing what our posture as Christian readers should be. They discuss this question in light of Lewis’ An Experiment in Criticism, and it makes for a good ad hoc discussion on some of the implications of that unusual and too-quickly-forgotten book.

You can find the podcast here, and have a great weekend!

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Diana Butler Bass on C.S. Lewis and the Inklings

The work of C.S. Lewis is not lost on Church historians. Dr. Diana Butler Bass, a student of George Marsden and prominent columnist, author, and American church historian, turns to Lewis and some of his friends as an answer to the 20th-century crisis of faith. In considering “Christian Spirituality in Europe and North America since 1700”–a vast and diverse topic–Diana Butler Bass and Joseph Stewart-Sicking survey the critical questions of modern and postmodern Euro-American Christianity. Instead of thinking in terms of “secular” and either “religious” or “post-religious”–or, recently, “post-secular”–they think in terms of “de-tradionalization,” arguing that Christian spirituality has adapted through each of the periods of modern history, creating an even grander vision for Christian transformation.

In terms spiritual practice, they divide the modern and postmodern eras into these ideas:

  • Where is God? (1700-1820, Mysticism, Enlightenment, Awakening, Revolution, Deism)
  • God with Us (1820-1915, Romanticism, the Oxford Movement, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Liberalism, Psychology)
  • Is God? (1915-1980, Lewis and the Inklings, Social Transformation of Dorothy Day and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mysticism, Howard Thurman, Thomas Merton, Dissatisfaction with Modernity)
  • God is … Maybe (1980-Present, Postmodernism, Integralist Theology, Global Christianity, Recovery of History, Rethinking Tradition, Rowan Williams, Matthew Fox, Stanley Hauerwas, Focus on Christian Praxis)

For the authors, C.S. Lewis and the Inklings are part of a recovery of Christian spirituality in that generation. This recovery is not merely the intellectual certainty of faith in a diversifying modern world, but is the choice to live in the tension of modern doubt as if God does exist. Though apologists and public intellectuals, people like Bonhoeffer, Day, Thurman, Merton, and Lewis responded to the modern condition not just with Christian words but with Christian practice.

Here is an excerpt on Lewis and the Inklings. While Dorothy Sayers was never an official Inkling, I do include her and Madeleine L’Engle as honourary Inklings–a link we see here in this brief selection.


Perhaps no other writer better captures the essence of late modernity than the Anglican C.S. Lewis (1898–1963) whose essays placed “God in the dock,” thus pitting the Christian faith against all secular ideologies. Lewis, a skeptical and agnostic Oxford don, embraced Christianity after a lengthy philosophical struggle over claims to Jesus’s divinity. His work, especially Mere Christianity, breathed new life into the venerable practice of Christian apologetics. He popularized proofs for God based on evidence, logic, intellectual rigor, and poetics.

Joining Lewis in this academic and artistic defense of Christianity were J.R.R. Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, and Charles Williams,, a group of English writers collectively known as the Inklings. Not mystics, they best exemplify a strain of spirituality of the mind as they tackled the defense of Christian faith against painful questions raised by modern worldviews and, at the height of their careers, the violence of fascism and war. Lewis and his associates drew stark contrasts in essays, plays, poetry, and novels between good and evil, depicting the world in a tragically heroic struggle between God and the Devil. God, Lewis assured, would always win, but victory would only come through faithful courage, lively orthodoxy, and supernatural assistance. However difficult the trials of faith, Lewis insisted that Christianity was a life of joy that offered the seeking soul spiritual assurance through an embrace of truth.

The power of Lewis’s artistic apologetics is evident in its extraordinary continued popularity. Arguably, the Inklings, especially Lewis and Tolkien, have influenced more people across the globe with the Christian message than anyone else in the twentieth century. And their tradition of poetic apologetics was carried on by other writers such as the British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge and the American Madeleine L’Engle.


Diana Butler Bass and Joseph Stewart-Sicking, “Christian Spirituality in Europe and North America since 1700,” pp. 139-155 in The Blackwell Companion to Christian Spirituality (ed. Arthur Holder; Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005).

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William Morris’ Nonsense from Nowhere

One of C.S. Lewis’ great literary conversation partners was William Morris. Lewis wrote literary criticism about him beginning in his first collection of essays (Rehabilitations, 1939, now in Selected Literary Essays). In that early literary essay, delivered first to the Martlet Society in Nov 1937,  his piece on William Morris was the one “into which I had put most of my heart, the one I really cared about and in which I discharged a keen enthusiasm” (“Fern Seeds and Elephants”; see also “On Criticism”).

This critical love of Morris began early. Before the age of 16, Lewis was able to make the grand statement that Malory was the master and Morris the disciple (see a letter to Arthur Greeves, 17 Nov 1914). Lewis saw Morris as one of the great mythopoeic writers of his age. We can see Morris’ influence on Lewis as early as his first attempt at writing an adventure story, his teenage “Quest of Bleheris,” which Lewis sent weekly to his best friend in 1916. Lewis praised “the cool water-colour effects” and “northern bareness” of Morris (“The Literary Impact of the Authorized Version”), and mentions him dozens of times in his letters.

Lewis’ teenage trinity of “M” writers—Malory, Morris, and MacDonald—was made complete when Lewis providentially stumbled upon Phantastes in March of 1916. Together, these three writers—filled in by Milton and some non-M writers like Dante, Swift, and Spenser—provided an imaginative landscape for his own worldview-infused fiction. In the end, as Lewis tumbled toward faith, Morris and MacDonald were the question and answer, respectively, on the question death and spirituality.

Lewis described William Morris this way in his teens: “besides being a poet [Morris] was a wall paper designer, a potter, a hand loom weaver and everything else you can think of” (letter to his father, 25 May 1915). It was the romances that most stuck with Lewis in the end—adventure stories of a high mythical air and significantly influenced by the late middle ages and its courtly love traditions. The Well at the World’s End is a brilliant example of that species, and a book worth picking up.

Because of the influence of Morris on Lewis (and on some of the other Inklings)—and, honestly, because Audible sent me a note saying I’d love this book—I downloaded News from Nowhere, his 1889 utopian fantasy. With a strong reader in Barnaby Edwards and a strong imprint upon C.S. Lewis and so many others, I looked forward to reading one of William Morris’ most famous works.

Honestly? This was a painful book to read. In a couple of weeks I will talk about how I avoid writing bad reviews, but I will break that rule today. This was a very poor book, and bad on a number of levels.

First, the book does not work as a story. I know that it is a philosophical novel, and that it is there not merely for entertainment but to treat a topic. I love philosophical fiction. The first rule of message-stories is that they should be great stories (unless they are satire, like Voltaire’s Candide, which is energized by its humour and wit). Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Mary Shelley, Umberto Eco, C.S. Lewis, Muriel Barbery, G.K. Chesterton, Ursula K. LeGuin, Søren Kierkegaard, Oscar Wilde, Margaret Atwood, and George Orwell all knew how to pique the intellect without losing the plot. While philosophical novels don’t always sit at the top of our fiction lists, notice that their authors often do.

William Morris fails utterly in crafting a narrative that is worth reading on its own. It ranks with Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and Left Behind by Tim LaHaye and Gerry Jenkins for its complete inability to tell a compelling story that is valuable as simply a story (though I did like some of the characters in each of these books). All of these moralistic tales give in to the expository demonNews from Nowhere is a blunt instrument in the hands of an intellectual demagogue. All of its dialogue has the tang of a sermon preached to trapped school children by a pedant who forgot to wind his watch.

This is not a compelling tale, and that is a great sin.

Second, Morris’ utopia is in many ways a nightmare. “Utopia” is a made-up word, coined by Sir Thomas More. Students are typically told that it comes from two Greek words: οὐ (“no”) and τόπος (“place”)—hence the title, News from Nowhere. I’ve never been convinced that this is the whole story, as the “u” in “utopia” might have come from Greek εὖ (“good”): “good place” is how many of us would translate “utopia,” and our pronunciation makes better sense this way. As an ambiguous pun, though, it works well in capturing the future (or other-worldly) land of plenty, hope, equality, and goodness.

Yet, does that place exist? I’m not sure that Thomas More was really blueprinting a great world or new Atlantis, but giving us an other-place to act as a mirror to our own place in the late 19th century. Ideological utopias often have a sour taste to those on the outside. I feel almost as good about Morris’ future socialist England as I do about the Citadel in The Hunger Games or Ayn Rand’s mountain retreat, where the rich sit and watch America burn. Though not as extreme, I got a sour taste from Morris’s future England because that world was made for me: the educated, middle class, nature- and architecture-loving bookish white male who enjoys getting his hands dirty in “real” work when time with texts become too much. I found Morris’ future startling because it sealed this certain image of white-male as king of the world as the ideal future inhabitant of Nowhere England.

Worse than a world where men and women work together in the struggle toward equality, Morris keeps women contentedly in their domestic spaces–sealed in with wax for all future political life.

That William Morris has no understanding at all of economics or sociology may be part of this. Morris constructs an idyllic future where people are scattered over the globe with large yards and grand (old-fashioned) houses, all requiring little maintenance in an ecosystem entirely open to this kind of human living. What he doesn’t mention (because he is clueless) is that his England must have cleaned out tens of millions of people with a reduction of human life greater than the two great wars that followed his book.

On top of this, his medievalesque utopian socialist society has been achieved with little loss of blood–and achieved equally throughout the world. Trusting a deal struck following riots in London would work for everyone in the entire world, people of all races, ideologies, religions, cultures, languages, dreams, and ambitions just voluntarily give up all belongings, weapons, power, social systems, and religion with a nostalgic shrug, then put their hands to the work of future building.

Wow. If this isn’t ignorance, then it is a frightening kind of knowledge in Morris. Lewis called it:

“The ‘kindreds’, ‘houses’, or ‘little lands’ of the romances are the points where Morris’s career as a socialist touches his career as a poet. For Morris–let there be no mistake about it–is in one sense as good a ‘totalitarian’ as ever came out of Moscow or Berlin…” (“William Morris” in Selected Literary Essays, 227).

Just read the passages where male and female roles are set in concrete in the future utopia: women are largely in place for the aesthetic pleasure of men, beautiful and entertaining (though with a striking deal of freedom and cultural equality), they are ultimately angels in the house for all ages. Or consider the way that children are simply a social experiment and what their parents do to them is inconsequential. And Morris was a pretty generous and progressive fellow; imagine if one of his misogynistic fellow socialist wrote this book.

News from Nowhere should remind us of the reality that we reflect the values of our times and places. Our own conservativism or progressivism (or anti- versions of these) is bound to be as shocking to a future generation as Morris’ “dream” for the future was to me.

Third, in reading News from Nowhere, I got the distinct sense that he had never met a live human being. William Morris reduces all bad things—from sin and violence, to the sluggishness of human invention, to unhappiness and even disease—to a single factor: the slavery of the contemporary socio-economic system which leverages power against the weak and reduces everyone (including its oppressors) to being bricks in a liberal democratic prison wall. In the end, crime is “a mere spasmodic disease, which requires no body of criminal law to deal with it.”

You can see the full quotation below that pulls this idea out in chapter 12. Morris even tests the case by speaking of a man who picked up an axe and murdered a sexual competitor in a rage. The community question is not one of discipline or education or whether the man has lost the right to live a healthy life while he has taken the life of another. Instead, their chief concern is how they might make the axe-murderer not feel too down. It is, after all, really depressing to kill a young person with his whole life before him.

A caution. Most of those who are reading this will come from partly socialist countries. Unlike dictatorships, communist countries, or fully socialistic societies, we balance a partially-open market with shared responsibility for particular social institutions. Most of us live in societies that share collectively most of the cost of roads, the military, childhood education, and some social safety net for the destitute or the disabled. The United States is outside of other G8 nations in its struggle to share basic health care, but offsets that with huge investments in military, farming subsidies, prisons, and (in past years) science and innovation. There is a lot of anxiety about how the Trump administration will change that balance of open-market socialism, but historically countries like the U.K., Germany, France, Japan, Canada, and especially the U.S. have created spaces of scientific ingenuity, social creativity, and a tempered space of equality.

It is important for people in societies like ours to read books like Atlas Shrugged and News from Nowhere for two reasons. First, they can inspire a moral disgust that will hopefully generate beautiful actions on our part. Second, the silliness of their philosophies are important cautions as we navigate between full socialism or complete libertarianism.

For I reject both socialist and libertarian views for exactly the same reason: I know my own heart. I asked before whether Morris had ever met a human, but has he ever even looked at his own heart? Does his heart, like mine, not contain a queer combination of ambition and timidity? sloth and an addiction to work? both violence and goodness that stirs my passions? I reject Ayn Rand on the right and William Morris on the left because both of their systems forget the critical truth of human nature—perhaps Christianity’s only scientifically verifiable creed—that people never meet their own standard of morality, let alone the hopes they have for the human community.

Historically, we have called this original sin or the fall or, in Paul’s terms, “the flesh.” But it amounts to the same: despite their significant benefits and important corrections to the fads of one generation or another–and I have sympathy with parts of each–libertarianism sacrifices the whole to the power of the few and socialism decimates the individual for the sake of the whole.

On the side of Morris’ socialism, all we have to do is look at the effect of welfare in our own world. For every success story where welfare has stabilized the desperate poverty of a family and lifted the next generation to amazing things, there is the story of a person who has disappeared into his welfare cheque, losing himself totally to cable TV, smoking cigarettes in a cheap, unventilated apartment until his lungs rot out of his chest and the yellow streaks of nicotine drip from the wall. Socialism can never account for the fact that removing the hungry nature of our work—that we are driven to good work and bad by the tares in our wheat—will always remove human dignity for some.

This is quite apart from the failed socialist experiments of the 20th century, which we have the luxury of knowing about though Morris cannot know. I remember visiting Venezuela in the late 90s and seeing its poverty. 20 years on and things are far worse. It isn’t often that we can use the word “decimate” in its proper sense when referring to an economy. It is a war zone, which is the ultimate reality of any pure socialist state (though doubtless families and communes can run on those terms). A true socialist state is only ever established or maintained by force, and we know of no national-level experiment where the few in comfort did not end up in control of the many back-bent poor.

The 21st century will teach us new things. Sometimes I go back and think about Chesterton’s Christian distributism—which got a nod in Screwtape’s toast. And the populism of the left and right in the Western hemisphere is adding a new dimension to how we engage in politics. But News from Nowhere, even in its own day, suffered from a stunning inability to know the heart of man–let alone the heart of humanity.

Besides its use as a cautionary tale, there were three redeeming features in the book. First, if you can excuse archaism where they don’t belong, he has a good way with words. Second, I thought the ending was quite nicely done. Third, it was mercifully short—just 200 or so pages in a cheap paperback.

Selection from News from Nowhere, chapter 12

“Well,” said I, “that is understood, and I agree with it; but how about crimes of violence? would not their occurrence (and you admit that they occur) make criminal law necessary?”

Said he: “In your sense of the word, we have no criminal law either. Let us look at the matter closer, and see whence crimes of violence spring. By far the greater part of these in past days were the result of the laws of private property, which forbade the satisfaction of their natural desires to all but a privileged few, and of the general visible coercion which came of those laws. All that cause of violent crime is gone. Again, many violent acts came from the artificial perversion of the sexual passions, which caused overweening jealousy and the like miseries. Now, when you look carefully into these, you will find that what lay at the bottom of them was mostly the idea (a law-made idea) of the woman being the property of the man, whether he were husband, father, brother, or what not. That idea has of course vanished with private property, as well as certain follies about the ‘ruin’ of women for following their natural desires in an illegal way, which of course was a convention caused by the laws of private property.

“Another cognate cause of crimes of violence was the family tyranny, which was the subject of so many novels and stories of the past, and which once more was the result of private property. Of course that is all ended, since families are held together by no bond of coercion, legal or social, but by mutual liking and affection, and everybody is free to come or go as he or she pleases. Furthermore, our standards of honour and public estimation are very different from the old ones; success in besting our neighbours is a road to renown now closed, let us hope for ever. Each man is free to exercise his special faculty to the utmost, and every one encourages him in so doing. So that we have got rid of the scowling envy, coupled by the poets with hatred, and surely with good reason; heaps of unhappiness and ill-blood were caused by it, which with irritable and passionate men—i.e., energetic and active men—often led to violence.”

I laughed, and said: “So that you now withdraw your admission, and say that there is no violence amongst you?”

“No,” said he, “I withdraw nothing; as I told you, such things will happen. Hot blood will err sometimes. A man may strike another, and the stricken strike back again, and the result be a homicide, to put it at the worst. But what then? Shall we the neighbours make it worse still? Shall we think so poorly of each other as to suppose that the slain man calls on us to revenge him, when we know that if he had been maimed, he would, when in cold blood and able to weigh all the circumstances, have forgiven his manner? Or will the death of the slayer bring the slain man to life again and cure the unhappiness his loss has caused?”

“Yes,” I said, “but consider, must not the safety of society be safeguarded by some punishment?”

“There, neighbour!” said the old man, with some exultation “You have hit the mark. That punishment of which men used to talk so wisely and act so foolishly, what was it but the expression of their fear? And they had need to fear, since they—i.e., the rulers of society—were dwelling like an armed band in a hostile country. But we who live amongst our friends need neither fear nor punish. Surely if we, in dread of an occasional rare homicide, an occasional rough blow, were solemnly and legally to commit homicide and violence, we could only be a society of ferocious cowards. Don’t you think so, neighbour?”

“Yes, I do, when I come to think of it from that side,” said I.

“Yet you must understand,” said the old man, “that when any violence is committed, we expect the transgressor to make any atonement possible to him, and he himself expects it. But again, think if the destruction or serious injury of a man momentarily overcome by wrath or folly can be any atonement to the commonwealth? Surely it can only be an additional injury to it.”

Said I: “But suppose the man has a habit of violence,—kills a man a year, for instance?”

“Such a thing is unknown,” said he. “In a society where there is no punishment to evade, no law to triumph over, remorse will certainly follow transgression.”

“And lesser outbreaks of violence,” said I, “how do you deal with them? for hitherto we have been talking of great tragedies, I suppose?”

Said Hammond: “If the ill-doer is not sick or mad (in which case he must be restrained till his sickness or madness is cured) it is clear that grief and humiliation must follow the ill-deed; and society in general will make that pretty clear to the ill-doer if he should chance to be dull to it; and again, some kind of atonement will follow,—at the least, an open acknowledgement of the grief and humiliation. Is it so hard to say, I ask your pardon, neighbour?—Well, sometimes it is hard—and let it be.”

“You think that enough?” said I.

“Yes,” said he, “and moreover it is all that we can do. If in addition we torture the man, we turn his grief into anger, and the humiliation he would otherwise feel for his wrong-doing is swallowed up by a hope of revenge for our wrong-doing to him. He has paid the legal penalty, and can ‘go and sin again’ with comfort. Shall we commit such a folly, then? Remember Jesus had got the legal penalty remitted before he said ‘Go and sin no more.’ Let alone that in a society of equals you will not find any one to play the part of torturer or jailer, though many to act as nurse or doctor.”

“So,” said I, “you consider crime a mere spasmodic disease, which requires no body of criminal law to deal with it?”

“Pretty much so,” said he; “and since, as I have told you, we are a healthy people generally, so we are not likely to be much troubled with this disease.”

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Why I Don’t Write Bad Book Reviews

Though I do not review every book that I read, I do like to highlight a few. In particular, I like to draw attention to books that readers of A Pilgrim in Narnia—in particular, students of C.S. Lewis and the Inklings—may not know but are worth their while. I especially like to highlight indie and small-firm books when they overlap with my core conversations (the intersections of faith, culture, and fantasy). My reading of weightier work I might treat with literary criticism—as I have with Jane Austen, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Ursula K. Le Guin, Stephen King, and C.S. Lewis—or I might let it slide. Of the writing of book reviews there is no end, after all.

Now that I’ve brought it up, long-term readers may notice that I haven’t done a review of a book that was not worth reading. I’ve tried to note disagreements or weaknesses in each substantial review—and may have been a bit heavy-handed in earlier work—but I only treated with material that was worth your time and mine.

There are other limitations to my reviews. Thinking back, it is interesting that I haven’t reviewed most of the most important materials in Fantasy or Inklings Studies. Others will do that, and I don’t feel the need retread someone else’s tires. I am also very focussed now in my reading: I have a thesis to write, and a very specific schedule for the next two years. I say “no” to most publishers who contact me for a review. I simply cannot change my schedule, and will not accept a review that I can’t do an excellent job on.

Part of it is pickiness in my own work, and part of this is my own agenda. I want my reviews:

  1. To be so well written that authors would include a snippet on a website or book cover;
  2. To challenge readers to consider adding the book to their queue;
  3. To enhance my reputation as a reliable voice on books (i.e., don’t break the blogger-reader covenant);
  4. To honestly treat the material, including weak points; and
  5. To make the author’s day.

That’s my agenda, and it is clear that poor reviews don’t fit well with some of those points. My reasoning for not reviewing poor books is a little deeper. Here’s why I don’t tend to write bad book reviews.

I Don’t Have Time to Spend Reading Bad Books

Early on in my C.S. Lewis scholarship days, I asked a senior scholar that I trusted what to do with weak books. Honestly, books about C.S. Lewis are quite often weak, and sometimes atrociously redundant and uncreative. There was a flurry of book publishing right around the time that The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe landed on film. If I didn’t respect books so much, I would use some of the cute Lewis-devotional material of the period to stabilize old coffee shop tables downtown.

My academic mentor challenged me quickly on this point. “Why would you bother?” he said. Then, pressing the point, he asked me: “Why bother even reading bad books? Are you short of reading material?” I am not short of things to read, and so I now no longer spend time reading bad books unless I have to.

I Don’t Want to Advertise Poor Work

Not all press is good press, but there is a certain truth to the “legitimation” that happens in negative critiques. I don’t engage with trolls because it feeds them; likewise, I don’t review bad books because it highlights the work. Though it isn’t true that the drudge will settle to the bottom and good taste win out—the 50 Shades, Left Behind, and new atheist phenomena are proof of this—the act of reviewing states to the world that I think this is, at least, a real book. I don’t want to do that and I don’t want to waste readers’ time.

The Making of Enemies is Tiresome

Isn’t it? Maybe not for you, or Sherlock, but when I am involved in a controversy, I get this pit in my stomach and I feel my body worrying. Who wants enemies in a world as isolating as ours?

More than that, the scholarship communities of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and theology and literature are both small and supportive. Lewis Studies is almost too supportive, so that when an idea comes up that needs to be debated—like Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia thesis, the Lindskoog Affair, or the work of outsiders like A.N. Wilson or John Beversluis—the air in the room can get a bit weak. The Lewis Studies community needs critical scholars but does not have much capacity for negativity for the sake of negativity. I will give that scholarly critique, but I need the support of scholars I disagree with in this small academic world. I can’t afford to make enemies, though I am open to some Archenemies. Inquire within.

It is a Negative Age

Besides, are we below quota on negativity? Hardly. American and British culture is drowning itself in divisiveness, drinking in the draughts of extremism like a thug steeling himself for a barfight. I wrote this before someone stole young life in Manchester or the President went out to fix the Middle East. These are the flashpoints of a culture of negativity that begin at my keyboard and yours. Why would I contribute to that?

I am not naturally an optimist and am a very dim dreamer. In the digital spaces I occupy, though, I have chosen the path of intellectual generosity. This is one of the most endearing features of my late-millennial students—that, combined with a curiously unfounded hope. I would like those features to be part of my scholarly work and my writing. I am a realist: things are bad in many ways. But there is brightness and beauty and originality, and I would like to highlight those points when I can and in my own little way.

Authors are Humans (at least, for now)

Until the robot apocalypse becomes fully realized, most of what we read will be written by humans. There are doubtless fraudsters and intellectual floozies, hopping on the trends of the day and churning out books because they will sell. Most writers, though, are not like that. They pour heart and soul into a book, spending months working pennies on the dollar to get their material (or their name) into print.

This is true even of authors whose work is crud and whose ideas are bosh. I remember reading an interview with Stephanie Meyers, the person responsible for Twilight. I actually read this book as I tried to understand what the young women I taught were reading. I was bored, and, honestly, I thought Meyers was too. Yet, she showed great vulnerability in this interview, showing me a dimension of humanity I had not seen. She was doing her best and I don’t have much need to speak into that part of her life.

I have warned readers of a poor product or an unfounded thesis or a very poor audiobook reader. Mostly, though, I keep my critiques to academic publications (which hardly anyone reads!).

I Might Be Wrong

Well, there’s that, isn’t there? I have been wrong, before. Ask my wife. Or my kid. Or my students. Or … you get the idea.

Part of this might be a matter of taste. I read Michael Phillips’ The Garden at the Edge of Beyond. That was a painful read for me, and I only finished it because C.S. Lewis and George MacDonald are main characters, and we owe Phillips a deep debt of gratitude for his work in getting MacDonald into the public’s hands. I did not like this floral American rewriting of The Great Divorce.

But I might be wrong about the book’s essential qualities. My antipathy to allegory and American Christian pop fiction may simply have overwhelmed my critical mind. Given the positive ratings on Goodreads, that might be the case. And I might be wrong about this academic thesis or that historical argument or those theological ideas. I have an academic world to work out those critiques; I don’t need to use blogging as a platform for my own ignorance or narrow-mindedness.

These are the reasons why I don’t do bad book reviews. Now I’d like to hear from you. What do you think of this approach? Am I pulling punches too much? Am I missing critical opportunities? Are reviews of bad books just better to read? Let me know your thoughts here in the comments, on Twitter (@BrentonDana), or on Facebook.

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John Lawlor on C.S. Lewis’ “The Allegory of Love”

The Allegory of Love … is a work which has all the authority of a mind of the highest quality marking out clear paths in a complex and absorbing mass of material. As such it effortlessly joins company with that very small class of books for which a future can be confidently predicted. They are those works which handle a large subject—large not in range, merely, but in significance to the human spirit—with a pioneer’s skill, marking out new country and leaving an indelible impression for all subsequent settlement of the area. They can be wrongheaded in approach or mistaken in detail; but they must not be so much accounts of literature in the past as themselves instances of literature in being.

When Anatole France spoke of literary criticism as recording the adventures of the soul among masterpieces he doubtless had something of the sort in mind. Alas! from the ordinary output of criticism we can only conclude that there are some very dull souls about. Yet there is a rare category of works of criticism that justifies the aphorism. One thinks of Bradley’s Shakespearian Tragedy, Ker’s Epic and Romance, John Livingston Lowe’s Road to Xanadu, to name no others. Each is a book which not only shows great powers of penetration and organizing skill; each succeeds in communicating the activity of a mind of the highest quality entirely intent on the material before it, to which it is giving new and distinctive shape. Let us describe these books in one word: they are in the highest degree readable.

Lewis’s The Allegory of Love surely belongs in any such classification. There is a luminous intelligence of the first order at work—an angel who writes as only Lewis could, humorously, graphically, and with an exalted seriousness. To be sure, there are things to be disputed, in Lewis’s book as in all the others of its distinguished class. Lewis was the first to point them out…. But, as with the other works I have listed, here is a book, obedient to the first rule of writing—that on every page it asks to be read. How many extended works of literary criticism are truly unputdownable? It is the severest test; and The Allegory of Love triumphantly survives it.


From John Lawlor, C.S. Lewis: Memories and Reflections (1998). Prof. Lawlor was an undergraduate student of Lewis’ and a graduate student of J.R.R. Tolkien. This review was written near the end of his life, on the 100th anniversary of C.S. Lewis’ birth. It begins a section that describes the strengths of The Allegory of Love in detail, and puts it in the context of Lewis as a scholar who was writer worth reading. You can see my full review here. The italics in the text are original, but I added the bold highlighting and changed the paragraphing a little.

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Fund King Arthur’s Return!

I’m pleased to be a part of the team that created this innovative book, The Inklings and King Arthur, edited by the intrepid Sørina Higgins. Most people wouldn’t know that academic books are a labour of love. They don’t make any money for the authors, and not a tremendous amount for the publishers (who rely on superstar academics and textbook sales to support the important works that only sell a handful of copies). When we do archival and recent history and literature, there can be additional costs. Here is your chance now to contribute in a small way to this important work on how the Arthurian tales were taken up and reused in J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and their friends.

The Oddest Inkling

Charles_Ernest_Butler_-_King_ArthurDear readers of The Oddest Inkling:

As you know, in 2013, a previously-unpublished work by J.R.R. Tolkien appeared: The Fall of Arthur, his only explicitly Arthurian writing.  The publication of this extraordinary poem revealed subtle connections between “The Matter of Britain” and the rest of JRRT’s legendarium, and thus invited an examination of the theological, literary, historical, and linguistic implications of the Arthurian writings of all the major Inklings: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield. It became immediately obvious that a scholarly study of these works was necessary.

The book I have been editing for four years, The Inklings and King Arthur, fills that gap. It is an edited essay collection that examines the Arthurian works of Tolkien, Lewis, Williams, Barfield, their predecessors, and their contemporaries. It offers exciting, rigorous analytical perspectives on a wide range of the Inklings’ Arthurian and related works, contributing…

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