Writing and Thinking in the School of C. S. Lewis

In a previous post, I wrote about using the essays of C.S. Lewis to help college students learn to write well and think well at the same time. While writing and thinking seem to go hand in hand, they frequently do not. But why should that surprise us? Humans are perfectly capable of speaking without thinking. In fact, considering the human capacity for communication without any real reflection, it should surprise no one that the hardest part of teaching college students to write is getting them to shed their habitual mental blinders, look about themselves, and think a little.

C.S. Lewis is in a class of his own when it comes to reasoning by analogy, which makes his writing extremely attractive to a professor who is desperate to get students to think. In the final paragraphs of “Religion: Reality or Substitute,” Lewis turns his attention the relationship of faith, reason, and doubt. Lewis recognizes that doubt is not the enemy of faith but a part of human experience. He points out that humans are subject to fears, passions, and moods that threaten to overwhelm one’s faith. Clearly, Lewis is not a fideist, someone who sees an adversarial relationship between faith and reason. But almost every college student has been trained by our culture to see just such a conflict between faith and reason, so they are a bit bewildered by Lewis’s claim that “When we exhort people to Faith as a virtue, to the settled intention of continuing to believe certain things, we are not exhorting them to fight against reason.” Even if they agree with Lewis, they are not sure why.

In the past, I have asked students to take note of the analogies Lewis uses to make his case, and then write their own analogical account of faith, reason, and doubt. On this point, Lewis likens faith to the experience of learning to swim. The instructor tells the student that he will be safe in the water and the student listens to the reasons given, agrees with them, and agrees to proceed with the project of learning to swim. But once in the water, he feels a little differently. With nothing underfoot and nothing to hold onto, the new swimmer might seriously doubt his instructor. Regarding this experience, Lewis writes, “You will have no rational ground for disbelieving. It is your senses and your imagination that are going to attack belief. Here, as in the New Testament, the conflict is not between faith and reason but between faith and sight.”

When students are forced to imagine their own every-day analogy of a conflict between faith and sight, they are forced to step away from many of their bad writing habits. Instead of sitting down to write an essay and looking for lots smart-sounding but insubstantial nonsense, students are forced to think: when have I been tempted to doubt something I knew to be true? They begin to examine their own experience. They begin to examine their own reason. They begin to think twice about what they always believed about doubt.

Students might write about flying on airplanes. Reason tells us that they are less risky than driving in cars. But once you are inside a metal tube, going several hundred miles per hour, several thousand feet in the air, well, not only sight begins to rebel against reason, but the other sensations do as well. Or students might write about a relationship. That girlfriend who you know to be kind, thoughtful, beautiful, and self-giving might seem not to be “the one” after all when you are having a wretched day and she neglects to notice and actually says some pretty heartless things about whiners.

When students write an assignment like this, I am not interested in seeing academic-speak. I am interested in organized paragraphs and well-wrought sentences, as always, of course. But more than that, I am interested in guiding them to participate in Lewis’s reasoning, which, this case, is particularly important because he is connecting reason with faith. In many ways, students must be asked to reason because only by doing so will their faith be strengthened. Hopefully when they try to write their own analogy about faith, reason, and doubt, they will begin to understand how human reason, though fallen, is not the adversary of faith. As Lewis notes, faith needs reason and reason needs faith. But faith is a both a virtue and a gift, and our reason must be redeemed. Our culture is not accustomed to seeing faith and reason in such a light; hopefully, after following Lewis’s example of reasoning by analogy students gain not only greater writing skills but greater insight into themselves and their own doubts, not as the assertions of rationality but as the temptation to reject reason.

From the Mundane to the Metaphysical: the Essays of C.S. Lewis

Like every other child raised in a Christian home, my introduction to Lewis came through his Narnia stories, and I still very much enjoy these stories, especially now that my oldest child can enjoy them with me. But as a teacher of college composition and writing classes, I have found his apologetic essays both delightful and instructive. One frequently overlooked dimension of C. S. Lewis’s talent as a writer is the careful attention he pays to form in the crafting of his essays. I have long admired “Religion: Reality or Substitute?” as being a particularly good examples of Lewis’s art. When I began teaching composition as a graduate student in 2003, I turned to this essay as a model of good writing and continue to use it today. Several colleagues, including my wife, have joined me in using this essay as an example of good writing that students willingly engage on many levels.  Why do this essay work so well? There are several reasons, but I think Lewis’s deft use of supporting evidence—or his ability to reinforce his thesis through variation and repetition—stands out as particularly skillful. And worth imitating.

The essay “Religion: Reality or Substitute?” illustrates Lewis’ skillful use of supporting evidence particularly well.  Here, Lewis confronts a frequent objection to faith—that religion is merely a comforting fiction we tell ourselves for protection against the grim reality of life. Lewis confesses that humans are pretty good at inventing such stories and likens the practice to Aesop’s fox, who comforted himself with the imagined sour grapes. In order to refute this persuasive argument rooted in human psychology, Lewis turns to his own experiences. The progression of his examples is a movement from the mundane to the metaphysical.

He demonstrates that experience alone is an unreliable teacher of reality by turning to such diverse yet analogous examples as smoking cigarettes, listening to gramophone records, and eating margarine. In his final example, he turns away from his own experience to a well-known scene in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The movement from the mundane to the metaphysical is also a movement from the more subjective (boys stealing cigars) to the universal (negotiating the movement between self-love and love of another).

In the first example, Lewis recalls how two “bad boys” stole cigarettes from their father. (Considering Lewis’s tobacco habit, it’s easy to infer who these two little boys might have been.) Only when the cigarette supply ran low did the boys resort to their father’s cigar stash to avoid detection. Because they preferred cigarettes, they viewed the cigars as merely a substitute for the better smokes. Lewis concludes that “the boys” were quite right so far as their own experience went, but if their own experience led them to conclude that cigars were an inferior place-holder for cigarettes, then their quite limited experience led them astray.

For the second example, Lewis recounts another experience of a child who is gathering information about the world. As a boy, he first heard orchestral music through a gramophone, which, owing to the technology of the time, collapsed all the individual sounds into “a single undifferentiated sound.” So when he first heard a live concert, and could hear each instrument, it seemed that he was not listening to “the Real Thing.” This he calls an even better example that the cigars/cigarettes misjudgment, for here, he really is confusing the reality with the substitute due to “miseducation.”

All this talk of “substitutes” reminds Lewis of wartime rations, so he recalls his experience of margarine: when he first began to eat it, he did not notice a difference, but as time wears on and there is no butter ever, only margarine, Lewis can hardly think of anything except that margarine is not butter. This, he says, is a different example than the other two. For in the first two examples, his early education and experience taught him to prefer the substitute and even view it as the reality. In the case of butter/margarine, Lewis is first acquainted with the real thing and can only stomach its substitute for so long.

Lewis quickly transitions from his own experience to an example drawn from Milton’s Eve in Paradise Lost. Soon after her creation, Eve happens to view herself in a pool of water. Taken with her own beauty, she falls in love with her reflection. But then God makes her look up to see Adam. She initially resists loving him, for he is nowhere near as beautiful as what she has just seen, but God guides her to see that loving Adam is better than loving herself. Here is reality and substitute completely beyond the realm of cigars/cigarettes, gramophone/concert, and margarine/butter.

Love is so near a religious experience. Though tied to the senses, it goes beyond sensation to the soul. If we are speaking of religious experience to those who are skeptical about religion, then it is an extremely good idea to use love, which transcends subjective reality most forcefully. Only the most hardened materialist cynic would disagree. So this last example prepares the reader for Lewis’s next move. What seemed so easy and natural—little boys stealing cigarettes or wartime rations—led to another fairly easy example (his audience at the time would have been familiar with Milton and this scene in particular). But this final example allows Lewis to move to his most forceful point: at times, “all of those sensations which we should expect to find accompanying the proper satisfaction of a fundamental need will actually accompany the substitute” and if we can all agree that is the case, then “we should hold it quite unflinchingly from this moment to the end of our lives.”

The reader is caught. If he is convinced that Lewis was right about the little boy listening to the gramophone and then going to the concert, and if he is led to agree with Lewis’s assessment of Milton’s Eve, then he has suddenly agreed to believe something until the moment of his death. Experience can no longer be admitted as a completely trustworthy authority.

Thus, in this essay, Lewis captures something about reality and human nature in both the form and content of his argument—we all form judgments based on experience and tend to give too much weight to experience alone. Each reader understands those examples about mistaking reality for the substitute because he has had that experience himself. The human proclivity to trust experience, however, has only increased since Lewis. Nearly all my students have never been taught to examine critically the authority of their own experience. I think it is a good exercise for students of writing to write a paragraph in which they provide their own example of discovering that the reality was the substitute or vice versa. Nearly all students enjoy this exercise. For they are invited to share in a quality of Lewis’s writing that gives it universal appeal: we see ourselves—our reasons and experiences—reflected in clear, forceful prose. We see ourselves reflected and then are made to admit an uncomfortable truth. However, in the end, as in Lewis’s essay, the “uncomfortable” truth may turn out to be quite comforting. For, Lewis reminds readers “Our faith in Christ wavers not so much when real arguments come against it as when it looks improbable.” Because our experience is unreliable, recognizing that reality ultimately helps the reader turn to a better teacher.  

Considering Studying Apologetics? FAQ Part 2: Preparation for Further Graduate Study or Ministry Work?

Last time in our Frequently Asked Questions post, I addressed the question, “What kind of job can I get with an MA in Cultural Apologetics?” 

Next up: “How can the MA in Cultural Apologetics help me with further graduate study or ministry work?”

PhD Preparation

If you’re going for a PhD, the interdisciplinary nature of the MAA makes it possible to tailor your MAA work toward the graduate program you have in mind: philosophy, theology, literature, etc. You can choose your essay topics within the core courses with your academic focus in mind, and you can choose your electives accordingly. Discussion with your academic advisor is essential! Furthermore, if you are going for a PhD, you may be able to take a more advanced course as a substitute for one of your core courses, with the approval of your advisor, if you have already done sufficient work in that area to allow for the substitution.

If you are going for a PhD, you will want to take the Thesis as your final elective. This is a semester-long independent research and writing project, usually around 30,000-50,000 words, that will show your aptitude for doctoral work. The Thesis requires advance approval from your academic advisor; you will also need to find a faculty member who is willing to supervise your thesis. You will need to submit a proposal for your thesis, including a topic and reading list, in the semester before you are registered for the Thesis.

Participation in the academic community is very important for students who are interested in further graduate work. The School of Christian Thought hosts two academic conferences each year, for Philosophy and Theology. Graduate students are encouraged to attend; students are also welcome to submit proposals to present papers at the conference. This is a great way to build your academic skills and prepare for a PhD.

Preparation for Ministry or Creative Work

Most of our students will not be doing a PhD, but a capstone project is valuable for everyone! That’s the experience you will get in Apologetics Communication, which is a course that you should take in your final year.

In Apologetics Communication, taught by Prof. Mary Jo Sharp, you will be drawing on what you’ve learned in your other courses, and choosing to focus on a project or topic that you’ve developed a strong interest in. It is a hands-on class, and the work you do in it will be a stepping stone to further writing, speaking, teaching, or ministry opportunities. Students can also gain experience in ministry through internships and volunteering at conferences.

If you are interested in ministry through creative writing, then another important ministry-preparation course is Creative Writing and Apologetics, with Dr Ordway. This, like Apologetics Communication, is a hands-on, workshop course; students will write imaginative literature and learn about publishing options as well. Combined with Dr Michael Ward’s CS Lewis and Imaginative Apologetics and Literature and Apologetics courses, the Creative Writing course provides a strong grounding in the theory and practice of literary apologetics. The School of Fine Arts holds a Writers’ Conference every year and has many topics and speakers that are of great relevance for imaginative apologetics as well.


In our MA in Cultural Apologetics program, we equip students to transform culture: and that work starts while you’re studying with us!

Questions? Want to discuss whether an MA in Apologetics at HBU would suit your interests, talents, and calling? You can see more at hbu.edu/maa or hbu.edu/maaonline. You can also email me at hordway@hbu.edu.

Considering Studying Apologetics? FAQ Part 1: What Job Can I Get?

Over the past year at HBU, I’ve gotten a lot of great questions about doing an MA in Apologetics. Why should someone study apologetics? What can you do with an apologetics degree? What’s distinctive about HBU’s program? Since, as a teacher, I know that if one person asks a question, a lot of other people in the room are probably thinking the same question, I’ve decided to do a series of posts on Frequently Asked Questions. Here goes with the first one! “What kind of job can I get with an MA in Cultural Apologetics?” Continue reading

An Apology for a Dinosaur (the College Essay)

It’s that time of the semester when term papers are due and students are turning their attention to nearly everything but their writing assignments.  As soon as a student sits down to write that essay, it suddenly becomes imperative to clean the dorm room, return long-overdue library items, and even finish that calculus set.  Why do procrastinating students leave writing until the bitter end?

Perhaps because writing an academic essay is hard work and offers little in the way of instant gratification. I suspect that my students (much like their professors?) stare glassy-eyed at the bewildering number of secondary sources on The Odyssey, asking why the world needs yet another essay about the virtues of a long-dead Greek hero. In my honest moments, I think such students have a pretty solid prima facie case.  You might argue that the academic essay has outlived its usefulness, since ninety-nine percent of students will never again in their lives write in this hallowed form. Perhaps we, the academic community, should abandon the essay in favor of a more up-to-date form like, say, a blog entry?

As persuasive as the case against the essay appears, I cannot imagine a replacement that requires as much synthesis of learning. A well-wrought essay requires a knowledge of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. To master the form, one must write one good sentence after another and organize those sentences into unified and coherent paragraphs, which in turn must be organized in support of a central claim.  As if that were not hard enough, the essay also requires students to think in a dialectical pattern between their own ideas and those found in primary sources.

As long as I am a professor, I will assign essays because the essay proves the student.  Just yesterday, I was speaking with students who were despairing of writing a decent essay.  I turned to a sample student essay in a textbook to show them, point-by-point, the body and form of a college essay.  The sample essay was about how Telemachus grows into manhood in The Odyssey.  My students and I analyzed how the student author went about proving that Telemachus surprises the boorish suitors when he boldly announces that they must leave his father’s house.  We talked about how the student showed how Telemachus signals his transition from childhood into manhood by suddenly speaking with authority.  Then he, too, becomes a hero, like his father.  And as we spoke, it suddenly occurred to me that here was an excellent metaphor for the experience of learning to write a college essay.  The experience of learning to advance an argument and support that argument cogently is an exercise in learning to speak with legitimate authority.  This process of learning to stand up with critics across time and space and assert one’s critical thoughts regarding the world’s greatest literature: it is a crucial step in the maturation of the student.

When my students turn in persuasive essays, written with due regard to the conventions of style and grammar, I am happy to see not that that they have proven their claims, but that they have proven themselves.  I can honestly say to them that there is something a little bit heroic in doing all that it takes to write a good essay.


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