Five Reasons Why I Admire C.S. Lewis: A Birthday Post

Let it be granted that I do approach the poet, at least I do it by sharing his consciousness, not by studying it.  I look with his eyes, not at him.  He, for the moment, will be precisely what I do not see, for you can see any eyes rather than the pair you see with, and if you want to examine your own glasses you must take them off your own nose. The poet is not a man who asks me to look at him; he is a man who says, ‘look at that’ and points; the more I follow the pointing of his finger the less I can possibly see of him.   – C.S. Lewis, The Personal Heresy  (11)

Tomorrow is C.S. Lewis’ birthday. He would be 114 years old.  To celebrate, I want to share with my readers the reasons why I admire Lewis so much.  As most of you know, I wrote my dissertation on C.S. Lewis as Transformational Leader.  After months of research and a trip across “the pond” to walk in his footsteps, I found that my fondness for Lewis deepened with time. At first glance, it would appear that a girl from the Appalachian Mountains would have nothing in common with an Oxford don. But on the contrary, Lewis and I share many great qualities – an Irish heritage, a love of literature, and most importantly, a desire to strengthen faith in God.

So before we indulge in the birthday cake, let’s take a look at the five reasons I admire C.S. Lewis:

5. Lewis engaged my imagination. Last year, when I attended the C.S. Lewis tour in Belfast (with Sandy Smith), I had the distinct pleasure of travelling with retired Irish schoolteachers.  During tea time, one of the ladies approached me and asked how I came to know Lewis.  When I mentioned Mere Christianity, she was surprised.  “I figured at your age, you read Narnia first,” she exclaimed.  I didn’t read Narnia until later in life, while I was preping to write the dissertation.  Until then, I had been primarily concerned with Lewis’ apologetic works.  However, The Chronicles of Narnia introduced me to a whole new world and a whole different side of Lewis. Lewis “baptized my imagination” (as MacDonald’s Phantasies did for him).  It’s okay to read “kid stories”, because they contain a seed of wisdom that we often neglect in our adulthood. (For more information on this, read Lewis’ essays “On Three Ways of Writing for Children” and “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s To Be Said” from Of Other Worlds).

4. Lewis shared my love of literature. As a nerdy bookworm, I lived my life experiencing other worlds vicariously through famous literary works. Nestled between two covers, a tale can transport me to places real and imagined. It can bring to my nose fragrances I have not smelled, or display sights I have never seen.  Because of Homer, I have heard the sirens warble to Odysseus.  Because of Dickens, I have heard the groan of the great, towering machines which powered Victorian England.  Because of Tolkien, I have trembled to enter the dark shadows of Mordor.  Because of Lewis, I have felt the calming presence of Aslan when I was afraid.  Authors have unparalleled access into our heads.  They can plant images and ideas there, seeds which can blossom into a great harvest of imagination and intellect.  Lewis is one of those great farmers.  His impact is wide and his harvest is abundant.

3. Lewis illustrated the art of integration. One of the major themes of my research on Lewis was his integration of faith and intellect & intellect and imagination.  Many argue that faith and intellect are natually opposed, and cite the scientific revolution of the Victorian period as proof that the two cannot coexist peacefully. Lewis was well aware of this. However, he argued that ultimately humans prevent a reconciliation between faith and science.  Knowing how an automobile operates does not negate the presence of an engineer. When we arrogant humans began making scientific discoveries, we foolishly dismissed our notion of God as “mystic”. When we should have been in awe of the divine design, we chose pride instead. Since the Garden of Eden, we have continually made that choice.  And yet, we are ensnared in those same traps.  Progress indeed!   Also, Lewis shows us that a world-class scholar can write a successful children’s series.  Lewis was not plagued with the arrogance and condescension of his contemporaries.  Professors are still people.  Lewis wanted to reach all readers, not simply the erudite.

2. Lewis was a true leader.  Our culture often characterizes leaders as politicians, administrators, and managers. However, leadership expert Peter Northouse defines a leader as an individual who influences a group of people to achieve a goal. That goal does not necessarily require sales charts or analytic data.  The goal can bring people closer to Christ or  illuminate some truth in order to assist in understanding.  Leaders do not require a title.  Leadership doesn’t begin when one achieves a job promotion or earns a new position. Titles do NOT qualify leaders. Effective leaders, like Christians, should be measured by their fruit.  As I stated in an earlier blog, the best leaders are servants. Lewis consistently (and privately) put others above himself. He took care of Paddy Moore’s mother after he was killed in action. He gave an estimated half to two-thirds of his income to charity.  He personally responded to each letter he received. He married an American poet to (initially) extend his British citizenship.  Examples of his generosity abound. Most of all, he never boasted of these things. He simply carried on, giving what he could.  Evidence of Lewis’ influence are everywhere. He is the true definition of leadership.

1. Lewis reinforced my faith in God.  I’m not going to lie. Attending courses at a secular university challenged my faith.  I struggled with the great myths.  I questioned the beliefs that were instilled in me. To me, “open mind” meant “ambivalent faith”. Lewis assured me that it was okay to marry my faith and intellect, to essentially integrate. He spoke the truths I could not articulate. He restored to me the wonder of God I secretly wanted to recover. He firmly proclaimed that I don’t have to compromise intellect to embrace spirituality. What a relief!  Below is one of my favorite quotes of Lewis from Mere Christianity.  It has never stopped humbling me, nor has it failed to penetrate the callouses I’ve developed over years of resentment and disappointment:

If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.  If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud.  Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.  If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage.  I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same.

The work of C.S. Lewis was the metaphorical “glasses” I needed to see the Truth clearly. Although he left us nearly 50 years ago, his words still possess much relevance. When we discuss his works, when we mull over his theology, when we read Narnia to our children, we are keeping a small piece of Lewis alive. We are perpetuating his influence.  Most of all, we are sharing those spectacles with others. and looking beyond the poet to the Great Author.

Happy Birthday Jack!





New post for All Nine!

Have you ever felt the weight of a thousand tasks on your back?  In my post for All Nine Muses this week, I discuss the sanctity of everyday jobs.  Come and join us!

My Time in Narnia: The C.S. Lewis Writer’s Retreat at Camp Allen

At the conclusion of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Lucy and Aslan have an important exchange:

“Oh Aslan,” said Lucy. “Will you tell us how to get into your country from our world?”

“I shall be telling you all the time,” said Aslan. “But I will not tell you how long or short the way will be; only that it lies across a river. But do not fear that, for I am the great Bridge Builder. And now come; I will open the door in the sky and send you to your own land.”

“Please, Aslan,” said Lucy. “Before we go, will you tell us when we can come back to Narnia again? Please. And oh, do, do, do make it soon.”

“Dearest,” said Aslan very gently, “you and your brother will never come back to Narnia.”

“Oh, Aslan!!” said Edmund and Lucy both together in despairing voices.

“You are too old, children,” said Aslan, “and you must begin to come close to your own world now.”

“It isn’t Narnia, you know,” sobbed Lucy. “It’s you. We shan’t meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?”

“But you shall meet me, dear one,” said Aslan.

“Are – are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund.

“I am,” said Aslan. “but there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”

I’m not one to contradict Aslan, but I have discovered a portal to Narnia.  You cannot tarry there long, three or four days perhaps. But it is a world away from this one (figuratively speaking) and full of the whimsical individuals who honor Aslan and Lewis, and most importantly, Christ.

That place is Camp Allen, a retreat center in Navasota, Texas, a short distance from Houston.  Every year, the C.S. Lewis Foundation hosts a Writer’s Retreat there, welcoming writers and readers from all over to discuss, reflect, learn, and share. The Retreat runs from Friday evening to Sunday morning (with early sessions on Thursday evening and Friday morning).  I was excited to attend, but I didn’t know the blessing awaiting me there which far exceeded my expectations.

My adventure began on Thursday evening, with a “Sprinklings” meeting during which members shared some of their work. We read together, laughed together, celebrated together, and made deep connections. On Friday, we attended great sessions and concluded the evening with a wonderful time at Bag End, an open mic experience which welcomed artistic expressions from various members of the crowd.  Saturday followed with more great sessions and a performance by the Ad Deum Dance Company, with a return to Bag End for poetry and musical performances.

It is extremely difficult for me to articulate how wonderful the Retreat was. On a practical level, the sessions were incredibly helpful and interesting. I took copious notes about the importance of social media, the writing process, how to rebound after failure, and the importance of writing in community. Diana Glyer, author of The Company They Keep, was a marvelous instructor (among many others), melding faith and art together seamlessly and with great wisdom.

On a social level, I chatted with other aspiring writers about their processes and their obstacles (many of them shared).  I made life-long friends. As a Lewis fan, it is hard to find someone who can chat with you about Lewis and not think you are a raving lunatic. I have Lewis’s name on my car tag, Narnia posters in my classroom, Narnia paraphenalia in my home office, and Lewis references littered throughout my conversations.  I have been called “that Lewis lady” and probably names much worse when I was out of earshot.  I have accepted that I’m an “odd bird” who would rather read a novel than scavenge through Pinterest or watch _____________ (Honestly, I watch so little television that I don’t even know what popular show to reference here). The Retreat gave me an opportunity to connect with other bookworms and Lewis fans.  It was a surreal experience, and one which reminded me that I am not alone on my journey.

On a creative level, I was challenged and enriched. My phone was silent and my mind and hand were occupied, scribbling various ideas and verses of poetry. It was my Walden, my escape from the shackles of modern culture and responsibilities which characterize our adult lives.  For a few days, I can step away from the heaps of laundry and from dishes which call from the sink to be cleaned.  I don’t have to give the dog her thyroid pill. I don’t have to pack the lunches or grade essays for work.

I can strip all of that away and just be Crystal for once. Not the lady who runs at a dizzy pace to complete her tasks, but the one who sits patiently and waits for the Muse to arrive, who finds a deep joy and ecstasy as words fill the page. She is the one who grew up reading and wants to return the favor by writing.  Ideas are reciprocal and therefore writing is necessary.  I anticipate these moments, and relish them when they come at long last with great pleasure.

Finally, on a spiritual level, I was blessed beyond measure. If ever there was a place where God is present in art, it is here. There are a multitude of ways to illustrate your love and adoration for God, and art (using pens, paintbrushes, instruments) is a wonderful avenue of expression. A blank page, an empty canvas, measures awaiting notes – all of these are opportunities to praise our Savior. God is indeed the architect of such good things.

In addition, there was a religious plurality there which defies denominations and dogma. The world would benefit greatly by taking a hint from the Writer’s Retreat.  It is proof that when we see ourselves primarily as sons and daughters of Christ before [insert denomination] -ists or -ans, we can erode the layers of discrimination which have haunted the Church for centuries. There is no pretense, no condescension, only appreciation.  The family of God is so wide and so wonderful.  There is beauty in that diversity which we neglect when we scurry to our own church doors and often away from blended brethren. What good could come in the world if we all came together and united under one banner for Christ? It was a time of fellowship that has surpassed any other which I have experienced in my life.

I urge you to attend one of the Foundation’s events in the coming months and years. I have found it to be spiritually and creatively nourishing.  Even if you don’t “write”, but love authors like Lewis or Tolkien (or even books in general), I highly recommend this conference.

The door to the wardrobe stands ajar.  Now is a good time to look beyond the fur coats which block our entranceway, press forward, and arrive at a greater understanding.


The Yoke and the Cushion: Some Thoughts on Leadership

Election season is quickly approaching. Unless you live in a distant cave with no cable or wifi, you have been bombarded with advertisements. The American presidential election is one that stirs worldwide attention. As we head to the polls shortly, it is important to understand the impact of our decisions and the ancestors who fought for us to have the opportunity to make these decisions. Two hundred years ago, women of this young country lost their husbands, fathers, brothers, sons, nephews, and cousins as we fought for our independence. We have come a long way since then.

The term “leadership” is a ubiquitous and popular phrase in our country.  Colleges run successful leadership degree programs, churches sponsor leadership seminars and courses, and books which chronicle the lives of charismatic leaders rapidly climb the best-seller lists.  Why are we so fascinated with leadership?

Because leadership affects our everyday lives.

As soon as we exit the womb, we are inundated with hierarchies.  First, we have parents/guardians, then teachers/administrators, and then bosses.  We arrive into the surrounding power structures and mature to new ones as we age. Leadership is present in all aspects of our lives.

Historically, leadership was reserved for affluent, powerful, and bold individuals.  In the first part of the twentieth century, it was believed that leadership traits were innate (inborn) and therefore could not be taught or practiced.  The “Great Man Theory” touted that men were who “tall, dark, and handsome” had some God-given charisma which made them natural leaders.  Although physical attractiveness and height do not typically correlate with successful leadership, these were early beliefs of leadership endorsed by culture.  Prolific biographer David McCullough even writes in John Adams that Adams was rather short when compared to his political companions, but surely this did not hinder his influence in establishing our country.  And need I mention Napoleon?

In today’s culture, leadership is now conceptualized as something more tangible.  Anyone who lives a decent life, who gives to others, who shares gifts with the world – these people are genuine leaders.  If you are a parent, you are a leader. If you teach or coach, you are a leader.  People who place themselves last, they are truly leaders (do you detect the paradox here?).  The best leaders are primarily servants.  Leadership expert Peter Northouse defines a leader as an individual who exercises influence over a group (2007).  This group can be as vast as a country or as small as a local soccer team.  Leadership is no longer preserved for corner offices or boardrooms. Leadership takes place all day, all around us.  With this, we should embrace our roles as leaders to those in our orbit.

But some people cannot handle the burden of power. C.S. Lewis states that he could not “rule a henhouse, much less a nation” but claimed that people cannot be trusted with power.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely, thanks to that dang mistake in the garden.  The Fall (or the introduction of sin) promises to perennially create issues for us.  I propose two views of power which are ever-present in our culture: the yoke and the cushion.

“The Yoke” illustrates an understanding that power is a weight.  Power equals responsibility.  A yoke is traditionally worn by the oxen who lead a plow.  Therefore, the oxen contribute to the progress of the territory (agricultural, but for the sake of the metaphor also social, political, and economic).  Another important aspect to note is the fact that the oxen and the farmer they assist are on the same level horizontally.  There is no distinction of status as they work side by side.  Power involves hard work and focused energy.  The “kingdom” here is not a playground for tyranny, but a field in need of planting and harvesting.  The domain needs constant maintenance and thus the yoke is needed to ensure success.

“The Cushion” is for those who view power as a vertical endeavor which will provide some extra perks.  There’s a ladder which needs climbing, and each rung places one closer to a goal.  In and of themselves, goals are not hazardous; the problem is when the goals sought are for selfish means, not common good.  As a graduate of a leadership program, I have heard people say, “Well you have to play the game to accomplish things”.  Perhaps, but do we play the game as a means to a better end or so we can benefit ourselves?  Someone other than ourselves should benefit from our choices.  That is the essence of true leadership.  Cushioners step on and over people indifferently in pursuit of what they want.  When they arrive at their desired position, there will be a nice, comfy cushion for the bottoms they have worked off to get there.  But does leadership ever get easier?  We may develop effective strategies which assist us in helping others, but the issues that plague us never evaporate completely.  Solutions come then new problems emerge.  Those who truly want a better world will never be complacent about the state of human suffering.

Make a mental list of the top five leaders who have influenced you.  Do they wear a yoke or sit atop a cushion?  Are they intoxicated by power or are they humble servants?

On Tuesday, we will go to the poles and determine the next leader for our country.  Pray and make your choice, but remember that you have a sphere of influence within arms’ reach.  People are hungry for inspiration. Choose to lead with integrity and humility.