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The lion still roars

National | Despite the best efforts of postmodern scholars, C.S. Lewis's influence remains strong

Issue: "Every law counts," Dec. 23, 2000

C.S. Lewis was not a tame lion-and 50 years after the first publication of his artful children's fantasy The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, his book sales are still roaring along. Lewis died on Nov. 22, 1963, the same day John F. Kennedy was assassinated, but 37 years later, newly formatted and configured compilations of his essays, poems, and stories are appearing at an astonishing pace. Fellow fantasist J. R. R. Tolkien, instrumental in Lewis's conversion, once joked that his friend was the only man he knew who published more books after his death than when he was alive. That C. S. Lewis-"Jack" to his friends and family-would come to be lionized first and foremost as a Christian apologist in a time of ostentatious secularism or New Age mysticism is one of literary-and Christian-history's greatest ironies. A bitter and confirmed atheist after his mother's death when he was 9, a World War I veteran who while in the trenches of France jotted a poem denouncing the "ancient hope" of a "just God that cares for earthly pain" as merely a "dream," Lewis was one of the least likely converts among the literati of his time. But in his superb spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy (1956), Lewis wrote of his road to conversion, which included books and providential friendships that led him out of unbelief to a principled agnosticism, and from there to a benign but fervent theism and, eventually, to Christianity. Books by George MacDonald and G. K. Chesterton, and friendships with Owen Barfield and J. R. R. Tolkien, were particularly important. Lewis met Barfield at Oxford in 1916 and called him "the best of my unofficial teachers." A keen dialectician himself, Barfield's chief contribution to Lewis's journey of faith was his demolishing of Lewis's "chronological snobbery," the "uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that count discredited." Liberated from the notion that the past was invariably wrong and the present always the barometer of truth, Lewis was able to embrace the possibility that the ancient Christian narrative could have validity, even urgency, in the 20th century. The final blow against Lewis's comfortable agnosticism came in his ardent companionship with J.R.R. Tolkien, for it was he who led Lewis to the conclusion that Christianity contains in the incarnation of Christ "the true myth, myth become fact" and the one story in which Lewis could put his full confidence. In Barfield and Chesterton, Lewis touched the power of reason. In MacDonald and Tolkien, Lewis experienced the power of the imagination. In Christ, Lewis embraced the Author of both. Lewis became a man who lived his life as if he were before Pilate. He carried out his daily tasks as teacher, writer, citizen, and believer as one who knew he was always before a skeptical inquisitor, one who too often hides from the truth and masks his fear of knowing the truth behind studied indifference and the pretense of being on the "search." By any means necessary, Lewis endeavored to reach such persons, whether by keen argumentation or compelling narrative, arresting metaphors or appealing characterization; souls were at stake; ideas had consequences. He could not keep silent. Lewis's unsurpassed influence as a Christian apologist has nevertheless become somewhat of a stumbling block for some contemporary evangelical intellectuals, who question Lewis's supremacy as a thinker for the 21st-century church. For instance, Alan Jacobs, Professor of English at Wheaton College, wrote an article for First Things several years ago decrying "the danger that Lewis will so dominate our picture of what a Christian apologist should be that we will be looking for someone to address the challenges of fifty years ago, not today." While conveying some appreciation for Lewis, Mr. Jacobs found it "an open question whether orthodox Christians' continued fascination with Lewis is a good or a bad thing." By contrast, the October, 2000, Atlantic Monthly cover story, "The Opening of the Evangelical Mind," documented evangelicaldom's inordinate fascination with postmodernism and quoted Mr. Jacobs as recommending radical theorists Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault because they "challenge or shed valuable light on central Christian doctrine." Presumably, someone too fond of Lewis might fail to appreciate postmodernism's promise and would remain a prisoner of the debilitating "rationalism" that Mr. Jacobs, a renowned W. H. Auden scholar, attributed to Lewis's own intellectual milieu: "His apologetic works presuppose, and rarely make any argument for, the criteria for rationality themselves." The Atlantic Monthly piece quoted still another Wheaton English professor, Roger Lundin, as crediting postmodernism with dethroning the Enlightenment and its prideful literary stepchild, Romanticism, whose anthropocentrism produced heroes (and readers) who "... sought to assume the authority once granted to God in historic theism." In his influential 1993 work, The Culture of Interpretation, Mr. Lundin had consigned Lewis to this very "Romantic" prison, shackled to the same essentialist, enabling "individualism" that credentialed the Enlightenment to dominate theological reflection for four centuries. Lewis, Mr. Lundin concluded, was not a reliable guide to readership or to literary criticism in the advent of postmodernism, for he himself succumbed to the disease from which Westerners needed to be quarantined: an exalted view of the solitary, knowing self. So a two-fold opinion seems to be emerging in some academic circles. The first opinion is that evangelical Christians have more to gain from listening to French deconstructionists than the venerable Oxbridge don, and this precisely because Lewis is too much a "Modernist" to help postmoderns cope with the Enlightenment's fall from grace. Second, he is too much a "Romantic" to escape the self-centeredness that postmodernism corrects by rejecting any claims of objective value or "grand narratives." "Guilty," Lewis would have been quite willing to plead. He was both a Rationalist and a Romantic-as his autobiographical Pilgrim's Regress shows. But not exclusively; he reminds us that Reason and Experience must each bow to Revelation, for only therein lies their redemption, and potential utility. This is the point at tension in Lewis's little known but profound short essay, "Meditation in a Toolshed." He would continue on from there to identify two default worldviews to which some 21st-century Christian scholars seem to be captive, neither of which tainted Lewis himself. The first is the hyperrealism born of the Enlightenment that declares all knowledge to be accessible-and thus able to be catalogued incrementally and eventually exhaustively-through the disciplined use of human rationality and scientific induction alone. This position is exemplified in every version of the theory of evolution. It exalts the single observer as the arbiter of truth while simultaneously undermining his qualifications for making such judgments. The second is the social constructionism that posits all reality is inevitably a product of human consciousness, a "willed world." Mankind thus must be resigned to creating but never understanding its own stories, and must despair of finding that one or the other might turn out to be true. This is a predicament that denies individuals, clans, and whole civilizations any compass with which to navigate the world at large; naked consensus, enforced by power, greed, or sheer cleverness, can alone organize and perpetuate society. The uneasy alliance that some evangelical scholars brook with postmodernism is based on the same unsavory alternatives that Lewis unearthed and helped to refute, or, at least, defuse a half-century ago in some of his most eloquent works. This hyperrealism, which Lewis called "scientism" or identified as a breed of "naturalism," is his target in The Abolition of Man, That Hideous Strength, and Miracles; all three of these works prophesy the demise of the Enlightenment and its subsequent dissolution into various relativisms and constructionisms that cheat humanity out of its humanness-that is, the image of God. Lewis documented-and dealt with-postmodernist belief in works such as An Experiment in Criticism, where he called it "egoistic castle-building," and in a preface to Paradise Lost, where he termed it "incessant autobiography." And most profoundly, in his last fictional work, Till We Have Faces, Lewis offered us the story of a female protagonist who must surrender her "self" in order to become whole-a story renouncing Romanticism even while examining its trappings. If we ourselves reject chronological snobbery, we might just find that the way forward is the way back. Lewis's strategy was to be "in, but not of" the period in which he lived, aligning himself with a perspective outside that world-i.e., divine revelation. This enabled him to discern the rules of the "game" while maintaining an equilibrium amid the endless undulations of time and culture: hence his maxim, "All that is not eternal is eternally out of date." This is perhaps the best clue to the mystery of Lewis's continuing impact and influence. Owen Barfield, reflecting many years later on Lewis's career, once wrote that "Somehow what Lewis thought about everything was secretly present in what he said about anything."

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