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C.S. Lewis and His Critics


ISSUE:  Winter 1988

Nearly a quarter century after his death on Nov. 22, 1963, the popularity of C.S. Lewis, who made his living as a literary scholar at Oxford and Cambridge but is better known for his apologetic and imaginative works of Christian literature, refuses to wane. Indeed, the opposite is more nearly true: His books now sell around two million copies each year in Great Britain and the United States, six times the number during his lifetime. Lewis’s most famous books—Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, his science fiction “space trilogy” (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength), and The Chronicles of Narnia, a seven-volume children’s series—have gone through scores of printings, and even so obscure a work as The Abolition of Man is in its 25th. The 1986—87 edition of Books in Print lists an even one hundred entries under Lewis as author. Eighty-nine of them, including numerous anthologies of his talks, essays, lay sermons, fiction, poems, and other works, have copyright dates later than Lewis’s death; 65 have been published in the last decade. Books in Print also lists 34 books about Lewis, 28 of them dated 1977 or after.

In its most extreme form, the continuing popularity of Lewis verges on hagiography. Nothing rivals the account of the late New Testament translator J.B. Phillips, who, in his 1967 book The Ring of Truth, blandly reports that a “rosily radiant” Lewis visited him twice in his home shortly after he died and “spoke a few words which were particularly relevant to the difficult circumstances through which I was passing.” But what of the C.S. Lewis aprons, mugs, sweatshirts, and tote bags, the calendar that promises “to bless whatever room it hangs in with a quiet sense of peace,” the coffee-table book, titled C.S. Lewis: Images of His [!] World, that consists of pictures of the English landscapes that Lewis trod. The Business of Heaven, a recent collection of daily Christian devotional readings, consists entirely of excerpts from the works of Lewis. Just out is a book of days called Around the Year with C.S. Lewis and His Friends. For the date I saw (January 5), the entry read: “Warren and C.S. Lewis attended Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on this day in 1939.” Thus the Lewis devotee (and there are many, judging from the sales figures) could, upon rising, don his C.S. Lewis sweatshirt, ascertain the date from his C.S. Lewis calendar, make coffee wearing his C.S. Lewis apron and drink it from his C.S. Lewis mug, offer devotion to his Maker in the words of C.S. Lewis, and meditate on what C.S. Lewis had done on that date, before setting off to work or school with his C.S. Lewis tote bag filled with C.S. Lewis books.

II

Lewis himself, it is safe to say, would have been appalled by all this. His was a life devoted to simple pleasures: books (“While admirably adapted for excellence and probably distinction in literary matters,” his tutor wrote Lewis’s father, “he is adapted for nothing else”); walking tours of the British countryside with close friends like J.R.R. Tolkien, Owen Barfield, and his brother Warner; and “sitting up till the small hours in someone’s college rooms talking nonsense, poetry, theology, metaphysics over beer, tea, and pipes.” Lewis lived plainly: two-thirds of his book royalties were earmarked for charities. He was a terrible dresser—a dung-colored mackintosh, baggy flannel trousers, and an old cloth hat were his uniform. He never traveled abroad, even when fame brought invitations to lecture from around the world. From age twenty until well into his fifties he boarded with and provided for a demanding woman who was the mother of a classmate who had been killed in the war. (Most of his afternoons were spent running errands and doing chores for her). Grown famous, and asked if he set much store by his reputation, Lewis answered fervently, “One cannot be too careful not to think of it!”

The main lines of Lewis’s early life and academic career are similarly uncomplicated. He was born in 1898 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. His father, a solicitor, was brooding and erratic—”nice wen not in a temper” was the nine-year-old’s telling appraisal. But he filled the house with books, including works of romance and mythology that seized Lewis’s imagination. His mother, a gentle and affectionate woman, died when he was a child. A succession of boarding schools followed. Some were objectively awful (the headmaster of one had slowly become insane), others seemed so to Lewis because his bookishness and unathleticism isolated him from most of the other boys. But at age 16 Lewis found his niche. He was sent to study with W.T. Kirkpatrick, his father’s old headmaster, now a private tutor. “Kirk” was brilliant, exuberant, and enthusiastic about the classics. He also was fiercely and intolerantly logical. “Stop!” he shouted when, at their first meeting at the train station, Lewis casually remarked on the “wildness” of the countryside. “What do you mean by wildness and what grounds had you for not expecting it?” After rejecting several of the boy’s attempts at answers, Kirk concluded, “Do you not see that your remark was meaningless?”

Kirk not only tutored Lewis, he guided him to a scholarship at University College, Oxford. Lewis thrived there. By 1923 (interrupted by wartime service) he had taken firsts in classical moderations, “Greats” (ancient history and philosophy), and in the English school. Two years later he won a fellowship as tutor in English language and literature at Magdalen College, Oxford, a position he held until 1954, when he became professor of medieval and Renaissance literature at Magdalene College, Cambridge. He published critically successful scholarly books throughout his career, notably The Allegory of Love (which won the Hawthornden literary prize), A Preface to Paradise Lost, and, in the Oxford History of English Literature series, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century.

Lewis’s academic history was paralleled by a spiritual history, which will be described shortly. But the two histories overlapped in significant ways. His conversion to Christianity and his writings as a Christian apologist, for example, followed the rigorously logical form and emphatic style that Kirkpatrick (an atheist!) had drummed into his head. Lewis was antimodernist in literature and faith—he railed against the sort of “chronological snobbery” that assumed that what was latest was best. He deplored modern criticism’s emphasis on the artist and on originality—as a Christian (but also as a Platonist), he believed that the work itself was the important thing and that its true test was the extent to which it embodied “some reflection of eternal Beauty and Wisdom.” He realized that myths express reality in religious as well as other matters—”myth is the isthmus which connects the peninsular world of thought with that vast continent we really belong to.” Lewis’s academic and spiritual histories also were sometimes joined against his will, in less pleasing ways. His move to Cambridge was prompted by numerous denials of a chair by his Oxford colleagues, who sneered at Lewis’s unadorned faith and resented his public stature.

III

Curiously, one half of Lewis’s spiritual history-his early abandonment of faith—was very similar to that of many of the Oxford intellectuals who disdained him for returning to Christianity during the second half. As a boy, Lewis records, he “was taught the usual things and made to say prayers and in due time taken to church . . .but cannot remember feeling much interest in it.” In school, he found absurd the assumption of his teachers “that religions were normally a mere farrago of nonsense, though our own, by a fortunate exception, was exactly true.” His own youthful interpretation of Christianity was rather detached: “After the death of a Hebrew prophet Yesua (whose name we have corrupted into Jesus), he became regarded as a god, a cult sprang up, which afterwards connected with the ancient Hebrew Jahweh worship, and so Christianity came into being—one mythology among many.” Lewis’s first book, published at age twenty, was a collection of antireligious poems called Spirits in Bondage.

Yet even as Lewis was becoming a thoroughgoing, even aggressive, atheist, he was experiencing recurring episodes of what he later called “Joy.” One of the first took place when, as a boy, he read these lines from Longfellow: “I heard a voice that cried/ Balder the beautiful/ Is dead, dead.” Instantly, “pure “northernness” engulfed me: a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern summer, remoteness, severity.” Joy—”an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction”—was not unlike adoration, he later realized, in which one abandoned oneself “to an object which securely claimed this right simply by being the object it was.” Experiences of joy, yearned for but always unsummoned, were sprinkled through Lewis’s youth and early adulthood.

Thus Lewis had, he later wrote, a rich “imaginative life; over against it stood the life of my intellect. The two hemispheres of my mind were in the sharpest contrast. On the one side, a many-islanded sea of poetry; on the other, a glib and shallow rationalism.” Torn between the two, he attempted a resolution. Emotions must have an object, Lewis decided after reading Samuel Alexander’s Space, Time and Deity. The yearning that animated joy must be for a real thing. But what was it? Holding fast to his atheism, Lewis tried out for a time the concept of “the Absolute Mind,” then popular among the English Hegelians and quite different, he insisted, from “the God of popular religion.” But he found in trying to teach the concept to students that the distinction between God arid Absolute was so vague as to be meaningless—if there was a “superhuman mind,” it must be a “Person.” And what were his own efforts to understand the eternal truths of the Absolute Mind and bring his life into accord with them if not “what ordinary people call “prayer to God”?”

Gradually—and reluctantly—Lewis gave way to theism. “You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen,” he later recalled, “night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.” To Lewis, belief in God was the only intellectually honest position he could take: “I am an empirical Theist. I have arrived at God by induction.”

Theism was the end of one part of Lewis’s religious quest and the beginning of another. He next had to decide which of the scores of theistic religions was true. Having crossed the great divide from atheism, Lewis could see that on the main point—belief in God—all of them were: “The whole mass of those who had worshipped—all who had danced and sung and sacrificed and trembled and adored—were clearly right.” The real question, then, was: “Where has religion reached its true maturity? Where, if anywhere, have the hints of all Paganism been fulfilled?”

Perhaps Lewis’s vacillating was spurious: it seems almost inevitable, considering the religious climate of Great Britain and his own rearing, that Lewis’s theism would lead him to Christianity. Still, he did dabble with Hinduism for a time, and his path to Christianity was clearly his own. It began with his acceptance of the historicity of the New Testament: “I was by now too experienced in literary criticism to regard the Gospels as myths.” But it did not end there. He could not grasp “how the life of Someone Else (whoever he was) two thousand years ago could help us here and now.” What finally seems to have brought Lewis around was a long conversation with Tolkien and Hugo Dyson that lasted into the wee hours one night in 1931. They convinced him that Christianity was true precisely because, in addition to being historic, it was mythic. One of humankind’s grandest recurring myths—that of the dying God who rises again to save his people—had actually been fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

IV

Accepting God and accepting Christianity were two landmarks in Lewis’s spiritual history, but there came a third: What sort of Christian would he be? This was not a matter of denominations to Lewis. Not having grown up with strong loyalties to a particular creed, he held few prejudices in that regard, and joined the Church of England mainly because he thought it was important to be in some church and it was the local one. This was fortunate. Lewis’s tolerance for the diversity of Christian practice and worship doubtless contributed to his later success as an apologist, both at bridging sectarian bounds and in wooing skeptics and nonbelievers.

What was important to Lewis was that his Christianity be orthodox, not liberal, and supernaturalist, not modern, in contrast to the leading theological thought of the day, which he dubbed “Christianity-and-water.” To rearticulate and defend traditional doctrine in a secular age was his mission: “Ever since I became a Christian I have thought that the best, perhaps the only, service I could do for my unbelieving neighbors was to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.” Liberals, he felt, disserve the faith in at least three important ways. First, they question the veracity of the Gospels, which can only undermine belief. That they do so is not just reckless, but mistaken, Lewis complained: “I distrust them as critics. They seem to me to lack literary judgment, to be imperceptive about the very quality of the texts they are reading. . . . If [someone] tells me that something in a Gospel is legend or romance, I want to know how many legends and romances he has read, not how many years he has spent on that Gospel.” Second, liberals eschew the miraculous. Thus, for example, “any statement put into Our Lord’s mouth by the old texts, which, if He had really made it, would constitute a prediction of the future, is taken to have been put in after the occurrence which it seemed to predict.” But this is an assumption of modernism, imposed on the evidence, not derived from it. On the issue of miracles, however scholarly liberal Bible critics may be, “they speak merely as men; men obviously influenced by, and perhaps insufficiently critical of, the spirit of the age they grew up in.” Finally, again out of faddism, the modernist dilutes the teachings of the faith. He “takes the ideas of our own age and tricks them out in the language of Christianity,” because to do so is easier than “to face up to those elements in original Christianity which he personally finds obscure or repulsive,” but from whose resolution true spiritual growth could come.

For his own part, Lewis seemed to relish the task of rendering unfashionable doctrines “in the particular language of our own age.” Hell, for example: “Can you really desire that [a thoroughly wicked and self-satisfied] man, remaining what he is (and he must be able to do that if he has free will) should be confirmed forever in his present happiness—should continue, for all eternity, to be perfectly convinced that the laugh is on his side?” Devils, for another: “That is to say, I believe in angels, and I believe that some of these, by the abuse of their free will, have become enemies to God and, as a corollary, to us.” And, a bit closer to home, chastity: “There is no getting away from it: the old Christian rule is, “Either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner, or else total abstinence.” The list goes on: the Trinity, miracles, immortality, sin, repentance, atonement, resurrection, and all the rest.

Lewis’s orthodoxy is not to be confused with priggishness or what many mislabel “Puritanism.” His discussion of chastity, for example, begins with a warning not to confuse it with propriety—”A girl in the Pacific islands wearing hardly any clothes and a Victorian lady completely covered in clothes might both be equally “modest,” proper, or decent, according to the standards of their own societies”—and concludes by cautioning the reader to maintain a sense of proportion: “The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronizing and spoiling sport, and backbiting; the pleasures of power, of hatred.” More generally, Lewis dismissed (and, with gusto, violated) some Christians’ objections to alcohol and tobacco as “ignorant as savages of the historical and theological reading needed to make the Bible more than a superstition.”

Nor was Lewis a fundamentalist. He respected and admired all religions and mythologies as gleanings and foreshadowings of the truth that Christianity ultimately fulfilled. In pagan myths about “a god who is killed and broken and then comes to life again,” we see “something gradually coming into focus.” In the Old Testament, “religious ideas get a bit more focused,” but despite the quite accurate court histories and other factual accounts, the dominant strain is mythic: Job, Jonah, Noah’s ark, and so on. “Then in the New Testament the thing really happens,” Lewis concludes. “The dying god really appears.” If fundamentalists are appalled at Lewis’s hermeneutic, imagine what they must think of his view of salvation: “though all salvation is through Jesus, we need not conclude that He cannot save those who have not explicitly accepted Him in this life.”

Orthodox in the substance of his faith, Lewis was variously logical and mythic in his defense of it, a mix not altogether surprising in view of his own experience of conversion. “I am not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his best reasoning tells him that the weight of evidence is against it,” he once wrote. Several of his apologetic books begin by “proving” there is a God: the qualities of reason and conscience that are common to all people demonstrate the existence of a moral law that could have been ordained only by a caring God, he argues. All of these books are self-consciously logical in presentation. Lewis is forever throwing up and knocking down objections to the Christian arguments he advances (sometimes carelessly, as we will see).

But Lewis appreciated the importance of softer, less rigorous expressions of the faith. Looking back on his years of boyhood friendship with Arthur Greeves, a Christian, Lewis understood that as an intellectual atheist, “I could give the concepts, logic, facts, arguments, but he had feelings to offer, feelings which most mysteriously—for he was always very inarticulate—he taught me to share. In our commerce, I dealt in superficies, but he in solids,” For Lewis, unsuccessful as poet, the best vehicle for conveying the mythic aspects of Christianity was fiction—science fiction and fantasy, in particular, because these “could be combined with the supernatural appeal.” Perelandra, for example, contains a one-hundred-page temptation story, set on a different planet with a different Eve. The Chronicles was a reimagining of the Christian story: “What might Christ be like if there really were a world like Narnia and he chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as he actually has done in ours?”

V

Lewis was bold and outspoken in his faith. How could he have been otherwise, in view of his tutoring by (and affinity for) Kirkpatrick? As had Kirk’s “Stop!,” so did Lewis’s “I challenge that!” rise to puncture every offhand conversational assertion. He debated with verve, even founding a club at Oxford so he would have a regular forum in which to do so.

The most obvious manifestation of Lewis’s apologetic fervor, of course, is the number, character, and range of books he wrote. His first Christian work was The Pilgrim’s Regress, a Bunyanesque account of a seeker’s odyssey past false but alluring schools and styles of thought to the ultimate truth of Christianity. Lewis wrote the book less than a year after his conversion—no novitiate for him!—and, characteristically, did so quickly (two weeks), skillfully (he had a wonderful ear for idiom and cadence), and in a single, little-revised draft. Regress enjoyed modest critical success and respectable sales (mostly among Catholics), but it was The Problem of Pain, published in 1940, that first established Lewis’s reputation. The book takes on the difficult question, “If God is good, why does he allow such suffering in the world?,” and treats it in a tour de force, ranging through subjects as diverse and important as the nature of God, the Fall, heaven and hell, free will, even animal pain. Ultimately, Lewis concludes that most suffering has benevolent origins: some is the unfortunate byproduct of God’s gift of free will, and some is “His megaphone to rouse a deaf world” when all else fails.

The Problem of Pain drew the attention of the BBC, which invited Lewis to give a series of radio talks on Christianity in 1941. Lewis’s style of writing was naturally suited for radio: the series was a tremendous popular success and was followed in short order by two others. All three were published individually as books, then, in revised form, as a single volume called Mere Christianity. Taken together, the revised talks are a layman’s systematic theology—a thoroughgoing apology for Christian faith and practice whose originality, ironically, lies in its orthodoxy, fervently reinvigorated by reason, logic, and certainty in an age when those qualities usually are regarded as enemies to religion.

Lewis’s apologetic works were accompanied by imaginative ones during the 1940’s, including the science fiction trilogy and The Great Divorce, a fictional treatment of heaven and hell that took its theme from George MacDonald: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, “Thy will be done.”” Lewis’s popular triumph as an imaginative writer, however, came with The Screwtape Letters. The book consists of memoranda to a young devil from his supervisor in Hell, giving guidance about how to tempt a new Christian away from the fold, mostly through appeals to pride. Lewis himself was not certain why the book was a best seller, except perhaps that in drawing the temptations he described from his own life, he had tapped into a vein of universal experience. Not a few critics complained that he had ignored life’s real evils, like war, disease, and famine, but, to Lewis, Christianity rendered world crises less significant in many ways than individual ones. “Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations,” he argued in The World’s Last Night, a collection of lay sermons and essays: “these are mortal, and their life is to ours, as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” In truth, Lewis was little concerned about politics and international affairs, which explains both how he was able to write so prolifically on eternal themes even as World War II raged about him and how he avoided the usual tendency of writers in wartime to color their subjects with bellicose patriotism.

Lewis’s boldness and outspokeness, which underlay so much of his success as a defender of the faith, spawned defects that were the excess of his virtues. He was prone to caricature and bully those with whom he disagreed. In The Abolition of Man, for example, his text for an attack on modern ethics is a few remarks about subjectivity lifted from a schoolbook for the teaching of English. As for his own positions, Lewis frequently claimed arguments to be sealed that were merely oversimple. Miracles, published in 1947, is a brilliant treatment of its subject, but its out-of-place “proof” of God’s existence is as narrowly conceived as it is pugnaciously defended.

Lewis was, however, capable of growth. When G. E. M. Anscombe, a Catholic philosopher, withered the theistic chapter of Miracles in a public debate, he rewrote the offending passages. (Lewis’s imagery when later discussing the debate with some pupils, one of them recalled, “was all the fog of war, the retreat of infantry thrown back under heavy attack.”) He regretted the “uncharitable tone” of The Pilgrim’s Regress in the preface to a later edition of the work. In 1960, after the death of Joy Davidman, his wife of four years, Lewis experienced such incapacitating grief as to shred his earlier confidence about the benevolent origins of suffering. In all, the 1950’s and early 1960’s were spent less on aggressive apologetics than on literary criticism (he never flagged as a scholar), the seven-volumes of children’s stories about Narnia, and on Christian works that were more contemplative than polemical. These included Surprised by Joy (an autobiographical account of his conversion), Reflections on the Psalms, The Four Loves (affection, friendship, eros, charity), A Grief Observed (notes, published under the name N.W. Clerk, from his period of mourning Joy), and, shortly before his death, the wise and gentle Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. As appealing as Lewis’s earlier books may be to skeptics and casual believers, it is these later works, which take the truth of Christianity as the starting point, that speak most profoundly to the community of faithful.

VI

Lewis’s varied and extensive accomplishments notwithstanding, he has, during his life and since his death, attracted critics equal and opposite to his admirers in their passions. His radio talks in the early 1940’s provoked the drumbeat, which has not fully abated, Alistair Cooke was among the first of Lewis’s public detractors. Writing in the April 24, 1944 issue of The New Republic, with a breathtaking lack of foresight, Cooke dismissed “the alarming vogue of Mr. C.S. Lewis” as a passing effect of war’s tendency to “spawn so many quack religions and Messiahs,” then offered a sneering discussion of Lewis’s defense of chastity, full of references to “his deep distaste (and fear?) of the whole subject” of sex, “Freudian slips,” “Mr. Lewis’s secret fear,” and the like. (Fellow journalist John Leonard, writing 35 years later in The New York Times, mixed a similar blend of distaste and ignorance: “Lewis worried his abstract way back to Christ and lived a life he didn’t bother to examine,” he was “a slob,” “he was afraid of homosexuality,” and so on). Most of Lewis’s critics, however, have been academic theologians. Their vitriol is more easily accounted for. Lewis, after all, is an intruder on their turf, a layman writing about matters that the scholars’ advanced degrees certify to be off limits to the laity, and an extraordinarily popular and influential writer to boot.

That Lewis’s public success is the burr under the academic saddle is attested by the fact that to remark upon it is the starting point for nearly all scholarly dissections of his work. Thus, “E.L. Allen, M.A., Ph.D.” begins his essay in the January 1945 Modern Churchman: “On entering a local bookshop the other day, I found in the theological section, among other authors who were represented at most by two or three volumes, one who had a score or so to his credit. Evidently here was a best-seller.” The editors of this journal, apparently judging repetition the best form of argument in Lewis’s case, ran an article by R.C. Churchill exactly four issues later that began: “The writings of C.S. Lewis have been received with a degree of acclamation almost unique in our time.” In 1958, the eminent academic Christian apologist, W. Norman Pittinger of the University of Chicago, ground the same axe in the opening sentence of an article in The Christian Century. “There can be little doubt,” wrote Professor Pittinger, “that among those who write popular apologetic for the Christian faith, C.S. Lewis is the best known and most admired.” To the uninitiated, introductory remarks like these may seem innocent enough, but to those versed in the culture of academe, the presence of words such as “best seller,” “popular,” and “best known” is a certain augury of the condescension and dismissiveness to come.

For in these and similar essays, Lewis’s popularity is remarked only as the anomaly that is to be explained and exorcised. “What is the secret of Mr. Lewis’s appeal?” asks Allen. That’s easy: “his presentation is unquestionably “clever”“; he “delights in playing to the gallery” with an orthodoxy that “returns to the Middle Ages in its most superstitious phases.” “Is this not just the sort of thing,” Allen concludes, breathing heavily, “to which Freud points as evidence that religion is good enough for the childhood of the race but must be discarded once we have reached maturity?” According to Churchill, Lewis’s “deliberately childish” appeal to “the primitive emotions in early and medieval Christianity” is the source of his fame, and with dreadful consequences: such emotions “have been refined by civilization, and nothing valuable or respectable is gained by making a deliberate return to them. . . . Mr. Lewis’s three series of radio talks have done a great disservice to European civilization.” Pittinger, galled not only by Lewis’s appeal to the masses but also because “I have seen [his books] cited in scholarly tomes as authoritative discussions,” chastises him for frequently invoking the plain sense of Biblical passages rather than “the accepted findings of the careful study of the Scriptures” by academic theologians. “So it is that while I find Mr. Lewis brilliant and clever, I also find that he is a dangerous apologist, and an inept theologian.” Kathleen Nott, in her 1958 academic book, The Emperor’s Clothes: An Attack upon the Dogmatic Orthodoxy of T.S. Eliot, Graham Greene, C.S. Lewis, and Others, doesn’t get around to actually discussing Lewis until page 254, but she cannot seem to resist characterizing him in every reference prior to then: Lewis is “vulgar, like the Salvation Army,” “something between apocalyptic and tub-thumping,” and “game, as Mr. Eliot is not, to go out on all the street corners and among the boots and sideshows, and there if necessary strip to the waist and challenge all comers.”

The condescension and dismissiveness of more recent Lewis critics generally have been more subtle, perhaps in recognition that his reputation is too secure for light dealing. Father Andrew Greeley, for example, notes sympathetically that Lewis’s faith “was the faith he needed and, one suspects, the faith without which he could not have survived” even though it “may seem rather simple and . . . naïve.” Professor W. Fred Graham, in a Christian Century article that praises Lewis’s children’s books and science fiction, nonetheless dismisses the apologetic works in a phrase: “not helpful.” And every now and then, a scholar still shows up, as Professor Samuel Hynes did in the July 8, 1979 issue of The New York Times Book Review, to abuse Lewis with the old-style invective: “a pudgy Knight of the Round Table, always ready to do battle against the enemies of faith, and not too scrupulous about how he won,” a man with “an irresponsible, antisocial streak” who “seemed to dislike both women and children” and “knew nothing about science, except that he hated it.” “J.R.R. Tolkien once called Lewis “Everyman’s Theologian” . . .,” Professor Hynes concluded his essay. “Everyman would have been better off without him.”

VII

Now comes John Beversluis, a professor of philosophy at Butler University and the author of C.S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion, which was published in 1985. To his credit, Beversluis takes Lewis and his arguments seriously. His scorn is reserved not just for the untutored adulation of Lewis’s admirers (“they are on the whole simply not in a position to recognize his distortions, omissions, and oversimplifications”), but also the “chip-on-the-shoulder tone and self-indulgent rhetoric of his critics.”

But Beversluis is severe with Lewis, and some of his broadsides hit home. He takes on to good effect, for example, one of Lewis’s most famous passages, the Lord-or-lunatic dilemma:

I am trying to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would be either a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God; or else a madman or something worse.

Forcefully stated, Beversluis grants, but there is simply no logical reason to agree that if Jesus was merely mortal, then all His teachings were unsound: “Did Lewis think that if Jesus were not God, there would no longer be any reason for thinking that love is preferable to hate, humility to arrogance, charity to vindictiveness, meekness to oppressiveness, fidelity to adultery, or truthfulness to deception?” The conclusion simply does not follow.

Ultimately, however, Beversluis’s book founders. He fundamentally misconstrues Lewis on the most important of issues, namely, whether Christianity is subject to rational proof. As we have seen, Lewis believed that theism could be demonstrated, but not the Christian religion. In this regard, Beversluis slights Lewis’s conviction that myth is vital to Christianity, both as a reason to accept the faith as true and as a vehicle for him, through his imaginative books, to explain it. Beversluis also misses the significance of faith qua faith to Lewis—curiously, he quotes him on “the obstinacy of belief” but does not understand him.

Less forgivable is the treatment Beversluis gives to Lewis’s response to his wife’s death. As noted earlier, Lewis recorded his thoughts and feelings during his painful time of mourning and healing and published them pseudonymously in A Grief Observed. The early part of the book is filled with expressions of anger at God and doubts about His goodness, but, in the end, as the psychological crisis passes, it records the restoration, even deepening, of faith. The only motive for Lewis to publish could have been to let others know that such feelings are not evil or final, but a natural, forgivable part of the process of healing. Beversluis, however, ghoulishly seizes on Lewis’s temporary despair to proclaim: “we now know that, whatever we may think of [his earlier books], Lewis himself came to have grave doubts about the views he had so confidently and even joyously defended in them— doubts out of which he could not find his way. This fact casts an eerie retrospective light over his entire career as an apologist.” Eerie indeed.

VIII

Critics and admirers of C. S. Lewis seem largely in accord on one thing, namely, that his enduring significance lies in his influence on nonbelievers. One frequently reads that thousands (or tens or hundreds of thousands) have discovered truth or been duped, depending on the bias of the writer, after reading Lewis. He is “Apostle to the Skeptics,” according to the subtitle of one of the first books written about him. Time called Lewis “the Pascal of the Space Age.” Newsweek titled a story “Chuck Colson’s Leveler,” referring to the conversion the Watergate figure underwent after reading Mere Christianity in prison. “Chuck Colson is not the only bed-rock cynic who has found God through C.S. Lewis,” the story concluded.

In truth, it is hard to say whether many atheists have been brought to the altar by Lewis. What seems more certain is his value to those who already call themselves Christians. For evangelicals, Lewis is evidence that more than tradition and sentiment underlies their orthodoxy. As Donald T. Williams writes in Christianity Today,

the experience of discovering Lewis has formed an almost archetypal pattern in the lives of countless evangelical students. . . . First in the traditional pattern of appreciating Lewis came a period of gnawing doubt about the whole Christian faith. Could such a doctrinal system be true when its adherents were so defensive about questions and so indifferent about aesthetics? . . . . Into this dark night of the soul swept whatever happened to be the student’s first Lewis book. That inexorably led to the others. And what he or she found there was not so much answers—though they were wonderful beyond all hope—but more, an irrefutable demonstration that at least one Christian mind actually existed.

For evangelicals, too, Lewis offers the understanding that they can be orthodox Christians but appreciate other religions; that they can be Bible-believing without being literalistic; and that they can hold to strict codes of moral conduct and still realize that the greatest offenses to God are born of pride, greed, and other sins of the spirit.

Mainstream Protestants and Catholics do not need these latter lessons, of course. But Lewis speaks to them in other, equally profound ways. Their lives in the modern church typically have been almost schizophrenic. The sermons they hear, the Sunday School materials they study, and the denominational publications they read are mainly prepared by church leaders trained in liberal academic seminaries, where avant garde theology, radical Biblical criticism, and social and political relevancy are the reigning gods. These leaders have little to say about sin, resurrection, atonement, the Trinity, and other traditional doctrines that they no longer regard as essential. But the liturgy of worship and the memories of worshippers are filled with prayers, hymns, Scripture, and creeds that embody orthodoxy and keep it alive, if uncomprehended, in the minds of the laity. What Lewis does, by shedding light on the historic teachings of the church, is to help Christians understand what they already realize is important, even if most of their leaders have forgotten.

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Arie Brand's picture
Arie Brand · 2 years ago

Mr.Lewis had a more prominent war-time critic than Cooke: Orwell. In his column “As I Please” (Tribune 27th Oct. 1944) he wrote:

 

READING, a week or two ago, Mr C. S. Lewis’s recently-published book, Beyond Personality (it is a series of reprinted broadcasts on theology), I learned from the blurb on the dust jacket that a critic who should, and indeed does, know better had likened an earlier book, The Screwtape Letters, to The Pilgrim’s Progress. ‘I do not hesitate to compare Mr Lewis’s achievement with Pilgrim’s Progress’ were his quoted words. Here is a sample, entirely representative, from the later book:

 

Well, even on the human level, you know, there are two kinds of pretending. There’s a bad kind, where the pretence is instead of the real thing, as when a man pretends he’s going to help you instead of really helping you. But there’s also a good kind, where the pretence leads up to the real thing. When you’re not feeling particularly friendly but know you ought to be, the best thing you can do, very often, is to put on a friendly manner and behave as if you were a much nicer chap than you actually are. And in a few minutes, as we’ve all noticed. you will be really feeling friendlier than you were. Very often the only way to get a quality is to start behaving as if you had it already. That’s why children’s games are so important. They’re always pretending to be grown-ups—playing soldiers, playing shop. But all the time they are hardening their muscles and sharpening their wits, so that the pretence of being grown-ups helps them in earnest.

The book is like this all the way through, and I think most of us would hesitate a long time before equating Mr Lewis with Bunyan. One must make some allowance for the fact that these essays are reprinted broadcasts, but even on the air it is not really necessary to insult your hearers with homey little asides like ‘you know’ and ‘mind you’, or Edwardian slang like ‘awfully’, ‘jolly well’, ‘specially’ for ’especially’, ‘awful cheek’ and so forth. The idea, of course, is to persuade the suspicious reader, or listener, that one can be a Christian and a ‘jolly good chap’ at the same time. I don’t imagine that the attempt would have much success, and in any case the cotton wool with which the B.B.C. stuffs its speakers’ mouths makes any real discussion of theological problems impossible, even from an orthodox angle. But Mr Lewis’s vogue at this moment, the time allowed to him on the air and the exaggerated praise he has received, are bad symptoms and worth noticing.

Students of popular religious apologetics will notice early in the book a side-kick at ‘all these people who turn up every few years with some patent simplified religion of their own’, and various hints that unbelief is ‘out of date’, ‘old-fashioned’ and so forth. And they will remember Ronald Knox saying much the same thing fifteen years ago, and R. H. Benson twenty or thirty years before that, and they will know in which pigeon-hole Mr Lewis should be placed.

A kind of book that has been endemic in England for quite sixty years is the silly-clever religious book, which goes on the principle not of threatening the unbeliever with Hell, but of showing him up as an illogical ass, incapable of clear thought and unaware that everything he says has been said and refuted before. This school of literature started, I think, with W. H. Mallock’s New Republic, which must have been written about 1880, and it has had a long line of practitioners—R. H. Benson, Chesterton, Father Knox, ‘Beachcomber’ and others, most of them Catholics, but some, like Dr Cyril Alington and (I suspect) Mr Lewis himself, Anglicans. The line of attack is always the same. Every heresy has been uttered before (with the implication that it has also been refuted before); and theology is only understood by theologians (with the implication that you should leave your thinking to the priests). Along these lines one can, of course, have a lot of clean fun by ‘correcting loose thinking’ and pointing out that so-and-so is only saying what Pelagius said in A.D. 400 (or whenever it was), and has in any case used the word transubstantiation in the wrong sense. The special targets of these people have been T. H. Huxley, H. G. Wells, Bertrand Russell, Professor Joad, and others who are associated in the popular mind with Science and Rationalism. They have never had much difficulty in demolishing them—though I notice that most of the demolished ones are still there, while some of the Christian apologists themselves begin to look rather faded.

 

One reason for the extravagant boosting that these people always get in the press is that their political affiliations are invariably reactionary. Some of them were frank admirers of Fascism as long as it was safe to be so. That is why I draw attention to Mr C. S. Lewis and his chummy little wireless talks, of which no doubt there will be more. They are not really so unpolitical as they are meant to look. Indeed they are an out-flanking movement in the big counter-attack against the Left which Lord Elton. A. P. Herbert. G. M. Young, Alfred Noyes and various others have been conducting for two years past.”

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JR's picture
JR · 2 years ago

Beversluis's point on Lewis's "Trilemma" is lame.  It amounts to taking a quote, ignoring the context, and then making a strawman argument that's hardly worth the ink of writing.  In the Lewis quote, the context of the things Jesus said were strictly the ones that asserted deity.  In that very same book Lewis makes it clear that the moral teachings of Jesus were part of a universal that had always been accepted by normal human beings.  Jesus didn't come to preach a new morality, and he wasn't crucified for doing so. 

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