The Real Thing

“Lew,” I complained recently in an e-mail to him about his latest manuscript, his spiritual memoir, “you’ve got to quit sending in revisions, or we’ll spend the rest of the month collating and never get to the editing.”

Lew cared about his prose. In fact, Lew was what editors call a nuisance! He was also thereby what every writer worth his salt must be and what every editor worth her salt deeply loves. Lew was the real thing as a writer, with all the writer’s proper anxieties. He knew the writer’s dark night of the soul when the only light in the room is the computer screen, glowing desolate and empty. He knew the fear of never finding the right word or the right way into a paragraph–or worse of having blundered onto the wrong path never to get out of the woods again. He knew, too–as we his readers later came to know–the ecstasy of the sentence that somehow, mysteriously and as a gift, did turn out right. If on occasion the Smedesian prose got imagistically and otherwise a little out of hand–I’ll leave to your imagination the glories of the editorial outtakes from Sex for Christians–well, that was the price to be paid to the creative impulse and to the highly associative mind. No soaring flights without the occasional calamitous plunge into the thicket of mixed metaphors.

But of course style is mere artifice and no style at all without substance, and Lew the writer had substance. In fact, this is where the real wrestling went on: Lew struggling hard–so very hard–to be true to his subject and to its intractable difficulties. He came at his task with a splendid mind splendidly schooled by the likes of Berkouwer and Barth and his beloved Henry Stob. He also came at his task from a tradition. The trouble with a lot of people, the writer Flannery O’Connor once said, is that they’re “not frum anywhere.” Lew was. You can read in his memoir about his Frisian grandparents, Wytse and Tjitske Benedictus, one Mennonite and one Reformed. You can read as well about how Jakie Vandenbosch of the Calvin College English department sold the young Lew on the beauties of Calvinism by championing a God who so affirmed his creation that he cared intensely about the well-being of the English sentence. “Jacob Vandenbosch,” says Lew, “introduced me. . .to a God the likes of whom I had never even heard about–a God who liked elegant sentences and was offended by dangling modifiers. . .I found the joy of the Lord, not at a prayer meeting but in English Composition 101.” Not that Lew always liked where he came from, but it gave him much of the raw material of his work and it gave him many of the critical tools with which to do that work.

Of course, whatever the importance of ideas and principles, there was, as Lew himself might have put it, deep in the grip of alliteration, the “stark, stiff stuff” of everyday reality. “The theologian and philosopher,” he wrote in The Reformed Journal in 1971, “can all too easily appear to be wrestling hard with moral issues, all the while ignoring real persons caught up in the moral ambiguities of human existence.” This surely was at the center of Lew’s genius as a writer–and as a teacher, preacher, and pastor. If his address to the issues of real life could never ignore hard and disciplined thinking about principles, neither could it avert its gaze from the hard cases (which, as Lew showed with such meticulous care, so many cases are) and from the human pain in which they are imbedded. Lew’s mind never strayed far from his heart, and his supreme gift was that he did not attend to one and then to the other, but that the two concerns were so seamlessly and authentically woven together and of a piece.

This sanctuary is filled, I know, with those whose mind Lew illumined and whose heart Lew sustained in a time of need. I have my own personal stories to tell. But the picture I have in mind at the moment (with just a bit of Dutch-Calvinist whimsy) is of Lew taking time during trips to Grand Rapids to visit in a nursing home with his old friend Harry Boer, fellow Dutchman, fellow theological traveler, of whose mind near the end, owing to Alzheimer’s, there was precious little left to illumine or be illumined by. If anyone, I suspect, could have held Harry’s hand and still felt the pulse of Harry’s career-long dismay with the Canons of Dort, it would have been Lew!

. . . .

Lew did genially answer my e-mail of several weeks ago. Yes, he said, he would quit sending revisions to the manuscript–and wait to tinker more until the proofs! It was his last note to me. My last note to him was only one word. “Thanks.” How little could I know how much meaning that word would have to bear. Even so, then, Lewis Benedictus Smedes, colleague, mentor . . . nuisance. . . friend. Thanks.

Jon Pott is Vice-President and editor-in-chief of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company in Grand Rapids, Michigan.