Why I Majored in English
Only where love and need are one,
and the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sake.
Robert Frost, “Two Tramps in Mud Time”
I majored in English because C.S. Lewis and Paul Hayes told me to. As a pre-med/English major, Paul extolled to me the virtues of reading, analyzing, and writing about poems and stories as excellent preparation for any career. As my friend and roommate, Paul also pointed out what was obvious to him: I loved to read. Paul said that majoring in English (or “Lit,” as we called the degree at my college) would give me a chance to do something that he knew gave me great pleasure. About this same time (spring of my sophomore year) I was reading C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, and when I got to Letter 13, I put the book down and breathed a prayer of joyful thanksgiving. In Letter 13, Screwtape castigates Wormwood for allowing his human patient “to read a book he really enjoyed.” From the satanic perspective, such innocent pleasure is a spiritual disaster. As Screwtape puts it,
the deepest likings and impulses of any man are the raw material, the starting point, with which the Enemy [God] has furnished him . . . Such things, I grant you, have nothing of virtue in them; but there is a sort of innocence and humility and self-forgetfulness about them which I distrust. The man who truly and disinterestedly enjoys any one thing in the world, for its own sake, and without caring two-pence what other people say about it, is by that very fact forearmed against our subtlest modes of attack.
What I found here in Letter 13 of Lewis’s Screwtape Letters was a Christian rationale for my declaring a major in English Literature: I enjoyed it. And because I also did relatively well in this subject, it began to appear as if God might be leading me, through acquired skills, through the support of my parents, as well as through my inclinations, to major in English Literature. To what end? To advance Christ’s Kingdom, which is what my Wheaton College professors (Leland Ryken, Joseph McClatchey, Beatrice Batson, Sharon Coolidge, Larry Woiwode, and Wayne Martindale) encouraged me to do. Yes, they affirmed my pleasure in reading, but they also encouraged (indeed, often insisted) that I be clear about my purpose. All my academic work—writing papers, explicating poems, reading novels—can and should be for Christ and His Kingdom.