What C.S. Lewis Means to Me

Clive Staples Lewis died today, November 22, in 1963. I simply cannot imagine what my life would be like if this man were not a towering figure in it. This past summer I tried to capture a little bit of the debt of gratitude I feel toward him when we gave our newborn son the middle name “Lewis.” One of the great pleasures I have right now is looking forward to telling Charlie Lewis about the professor whose name he bears, and what a wondrous world he let me enter.

I read Lewis for the first time in high school. Mere Christianity hit me like a battering ram of clarity and reasonableness; it gave a logical shape to the faith I (thought I had) inherited from my parents, but which seemed so often to not fit into the world around me. What Lewis gave me in Mere Christianity was not a mere step-by-step proof of Christianity, nor an unassailable list of “defeaters” for atheism. He gave me something infinitely more important: A reason to believe that the claims of Jesus Christ and the New Testament were reasonable and beautiful. Of course, one doesn’t need Lewis to see the self-authenticating glory of the gospel. But by mowing down arguments–especially the snobbish mentality of modernity that Screwtape calls “an inarticulate sense of actuality”–Lewis paved the way in my mind for Christ.

As I look at the influence Lewis has had on me, I see four characteristics that have shaped (or, that I hope shape!) my thinking and my feeling in my life.

1) A gentle absoluteness

Lewis’s work is consistently characterized by a calm, winsome, yet irresistible firm absoluteness. Lewis did not see a conflict between empathy with those who disagree and unyielding conviction that they were wrong. His book Miracles is a wonderful example of his ability to sympathize with the atheist-materialist worldview in a way that gives his case against it a moral and emotional credibility. Of course, much of this comes from the fact that Lewis spent much of his adult life as an unbeliever. I constantly come back to this fact whenever I am gripped, as many Christians are nowadays, by a fear of “wasting my life.” No life that finds Christ, however late and however feebly, is wasted.

2) A love of the written word

Lewis, professor of English, was a master at saying. I don’t just mean he was a master of writing, or even a master at thinking. I mean he was a master of saying. There is a crucial difference between the ability to talk, or write, and the ability to say. Putting one’s thoughts or one’s research on paper is an exercise between a person and the material. But saying involves a third party–the reader, the listener, the neighbor. Lewis’ ability to say–to say meaningful things in beautiful but precise ways–was one of his great gifts, and I’ve tried and will keep on trying to make it my own as long as I may.

3) A humble time for others

If you want to know what Lewis thought of others, perhaps the best thing to show you is this massive, wonderful 3-volume collection of his collected letters. Lewis made a point of responding (where health permitted) to anyone who corresponded with him. The day before he died, Lewis penned a reply to a young admirer who loved the Narnia books. The note, perhaps Lewis’ last ever, perfectly sums up so much about Lewis himself:

There are simply not many people who would advise a world-renowned academic, novelist, and philosopher to spend time on his deathbed responding to children’s fan mail. But Lewis did, and even as I write, his example shames me in my self-centeredness. “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” (1 Cor. 13:2)

4) An ability to see

Lewis could see. He could see the way ideas work together. More importantly, he could see the human condition. He understood that modernity was making a case not only against God, but against the individual. He understood that the Christian life isn’t lived in the “big” moments, but it can most certainly be thwarted in the small ones. He understood that materialism was attractive for an educated, postwar Western culture, but that it had a gaping hole at the center.

He also understood that truth was not, contra the linguistic philosophers, a mere power play by subculture against subculture. It’s sometimes said that Lewis would not have fit in with the fundamentalist evangelicals who love to claim him. That’s probably true. But it’s equally true that he would not have sailed quietly among those progressive revisionists, deconstructing the faith for a “new era.” In the Abolition of Man, Lewis exorciated modern teachers who urged their disciples to “see through” the claims of religion:

“You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things forever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that a window should be transparent, because the street or the garden beyond is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.”

That quote has stayed with me since the first time I read it. Is there a better summation anywhere of the folly of learned unbelief?

I sometimes hear it said that the church needs a new C.S. Lewis for today. But that’s not quite right. What the church needs is the old C.S. Lewis of yesterday. And it needs preachers and teachers and moms and dads and children whose souls are shaped by the same transcendent “Joy” that captured Lewis.

I am thankful to C.S. Lewis, and to the Hound of Heaven who chased him–and me– down relentlessly with jealous love.

Rowling In the Deep

I have plans to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them later today. Before I do, though, I want to reiterate a version of something I’ve said several times before in this space: Regardless of how good Fantastic Beasts is, and how much I enjoy it (which, based on reviews from people I trust, may be quite a lot), I think its existence is, for the most part, a mistake, and something that sincere fans of J.K. Rowling’s work will regret in years to come.

Right now, American pop culture is absolutely trapped in a hyper-nostalgia. There are plenty of reasons to be concerned that this isn’t just a fad or a phase. Rather, it looks more like a philosophical shift in how culture makers produce stories, and how we as an audience consume them. As A.O. Scott has written, so much of our film, TV, and literature appeals to childlikeness–not childlike wonder, mind you, but childlike sense of identity. Critical conversations about meaning and narrative are being thrown aside in what Scott has called the “ascendancy of the fan,” the transformation of mainstream pop culture into a mere collection of constantly rebooted brands: Marvel vs DC, Star Wars vs Star Trek, Bourne vs Bond, etc etc, ad infinitum.

I’ve said all this before, and I’m not going to restate my many comments here. But I want to very briefly apply these concerns to Rowling and to the Harry Potter universe. I have two reasons. First, I love the Potter series and have an especial affection and admiration for it. Second, I think what Rowling is doing with her legacy is the most glaring example we have of the danger of the reboot nostalgia culture.

The Harry Potter series (books 1-7) will, I’m convinced, be read widely with delight centuries from now. A few days ago I drew the wrath of Twitter when I declared that the Potter books were, taken as a whole, better than Lewis’s Narnia series. I stand by that. That’s not a dig at Narnia, either; I just believe that the Potter series is that good, and that its genius will only be greater appreciated in the years to come.

Part of that genius is in the story’s ending. I won’t spoil it (if you haven’t read the series, I envy the joy you will take in reading it for the first time), but the best way I can put it is that Rowling ended her tale with a beautiful and poetic symmetry that brought her characters a genuinely satisfying closure. At the last turn of the page in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, there is an eschatological joy in seeing good triumph over evil in a final, authoritative way.

What Rowling has done in the years since Deathly Hallows is more than marketing. She has sought to open up her mythology in a way that keeps the story going eternally. This was the point of Pottermore, a website that put users into the wizarding world through interactive content–content written by Rowling (as the ads for Pottermore made a point of repeating over and over again). Rowling’s involvement in Pottermore was clearly a pitch to fans that the story hadn’t ended, that the world was still being written and that by signing up for the service, they could be part of the new stories.

Rowling’s intentions became even more clearer with the publication of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Officially, the hardback copy that was sold in Barnes and Noble was simply the published script of a stage play, based on the Potter series. *Unofficially* (and again, in marketing), it was quite obviously the 8th book of the series. I never read the book, but my wife excitedly did. She was extremely disappointed, telling me that the characters of Cursed Child spoke and acted like fan fiction creations, not the heroes of books 1-7. Several reviews I saw echoed this sentiment.

The reviews for Fantastic Beasts have been much more positive, and I fully expect to enjoy it. But the pattern that Rowling has established thus far seems clear. The world of Harry Potter has been reopened, and its mythology has broken out of its original fate and is being written, and rewritten, and written again. It is, for all practical purposes, now a piece of fan fiction.

Fan fiction exists to let fans live inside their favorite stories. But one of the defining marks of all great stories is the way they live inside of us. What I fear is happening to Harry Potter is that a wonderful, beautiful piece of literature is becoming a cultural artifact to our inability to let stories teach us about this world and this life. The lessons we can draw from Harry, Ron, and Hermione are in danger of becoming lost in the constant reinvention of their world. By not letting our favorite stories end, we turn them into tools rather than teachers–objects that authenticate our childlike desire to not let go, to not courageously follow Harry outside the safety and comfort of our magical world, and into a dangerous, wild place where we have a job to do.

I want very much for succeeding generations to know the Harry Potter series as a brilliantly told, biblically haunted epic, not as another resource for Dungeons and Dragons devotees. My fear is that even in well-made films and interesting books, Harry’s lessons are lost, and we will be entertained and distracted at the cost of something precious.

Of Mothers and Imaginations

floramabel

In his poem “Elegy in a Country Churchyard,” the English poet Thomas Gray memorably reflected on the legacy of un-famous lives buried in a rural graveyard.

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil //
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile //
The short and simple annals of the poor.

With tender lyrical beauty, Grey conveyed the worth and righteousness of a small, obscure life, one spent in the ordinary hum of love of God, family, and neighbor. It’s a sentiment that cuts across our fame-seeking, platform-building digital age. The idea of living and dying while the world isn’t watching is an idea that fills many of us with horror. But that is the fate of so many of whom Jesus said would be called great in the kingdom.

Here’s something to consider this weekend: Of all these noble unnamed, how many are mothers?

How many women have given their life to their children? How thicker would the books of history be if we could record the daily love and loss of women whose heart was with their home? I doubt it could even be imagined. When it comes to bearing the burdens of our very humanity, surely mothers carry the heaviest and hardest loads. And yet how many of these years—or rather, how many of these lives–of sacrifice ever cue public applause or congratulations?

Meditate with me on two women, two mothers, whose names will probably be strange to you: Mabel Suffield and Flora Hamilton.

Mabel Suffield lived to be only 44 years old, dying of disease. She was widowed less than 10 years into her only marriage, left to raise two children by herself. To make life even harder, she was shunned by both her family and in-laws when she joined the Catholic church during a time of rampant English anti-Catholic sentiment. Living in charitable housing and often relying on the kindness of priests and strangers, Mabel tied her whole self, her entire earthly well-being, into protecting and raising her children.

By earthly standards, her life was a tragic waste. She had married too daringly an adventurer who died in Africa, thousands of miles away. She had chosen religion over relationship and financial support. Nothing about Mabel Suffield’s existence registers on the scale of worldly success. What success she did enjoy, however, was in shaping the imagination and talents of her youngest son. She gave him

…more than a lovely world in which to grow up; she gave him an array of fascinating tools to explore and interpret it. We know little of her own education, but she clearly valued learning and vigorously set about transmitting what she knew…She taught him to draw and to paint, arts in which he would develop his own unmistakeable style.

Mabel was clearly talented, but her talents did not earn her the rewards of ambition or the approbation of her peers. They went, instead, to her son. That was to be, in divine Providence, the outermost borders of her life, her “short and simple annal.”

Flora Hamilton likewise died young, at 46, of cancer. In many ways her life is more obscure than that of Mabel Suffield. You won’t find anything named after Mabel in her native Northern Ireland. Even her love life was cool and temperate; she responds to passionate letters from her husband with, “I wonder do I love you? I am not quite sure. I know that at least I am very fond of you, and that I should never think of loving anyone else.” Imagine if those kinds of words appeared today, anonymously in an advice column. They would be met with pity and calls to radical action.

But nothing about Flora was radical. Her life was small and given to her children. She loved books and taught her boys to love them too. She was imaginative and rational, and educated her boys to think with both logic and fervor. When she passed away, few took note, except for her family. Her youngest son would write years later that Flora’s death had signaled that “all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life.”

Flora and Mabel lived brief, small lives. They invented no great thing and built nothing amazing. The only architecture that bears their names are likely gravestones. What they did do was love, nurture, and teach their children. Their legacies were made in young hearts, not the hearts of adoring fans or thankful shareholders but the hearts of their sons.

What appeared wasted at the time was anything but. Mabel’s youngest boy would put her sacrificial spirit in the characters of his fiction—characters like Gandalf, and Aragorn, and Frodo and Sam. J.R.R. Tolkien’s mother may have been mere biographical trivia to the millions who were moved by The Lord of the Rings, but for Middle-Earth itself, she was a specter whose love and faithfulness and resolve is dazzlingly bright in the pages of her son’s masterpiece.

And Flora? I think we see her too. I think we see the mother of C.S. Lewis in The Magician’s Nephew. She is, I believe, Digory’s deathly ill mother. It’s not outrageous to think that Aslan’s gift of Narnia’s healing fruit is the moment of joy and life that Lewis always wished had come to Flora. She was a beam of happiness in his young life, and it’s not hard to hear lingering sadness in the description of the healing of Digory’s mother:

About a week after this it was quite certain that Digory’s mother was getting better…And a month later that whole house had become a different place. Aunt Letty did everything that Mother liked; windows were opened, frowsy curtains were drawn back to brighten up the rooms, there were new flowers everywhere, and nicer things to eat, and the old piano was tuned and Mother took up her singing again, and has such games with Digory and Polly that Aunt Letty would say “I declare, Mabel, you’re the biggest baby of the three.”

Without the brief, small, hard lives of Mabel and Flora, we may never have known the lives of Frodo and Sam, or Digory and Polly. Without the quiet, unremarkable love of two mothers, how much more impoverished would countless imaginations and faiths be?

How thankful we ought to be for homely joys, and destinies obscure!

__________

Biographical information is taken from The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams

Why We Can’t Explain Scrooge

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol begins like this: “Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.” The opening emphasis on Ebenezer Scrooge’s late business partner and friend Jacob Marley is crucial to understanding Dickens’ tale. A Christmas Carol isn’t about how one solitary, anti-social miser was frightened into a sanguine personality, and it’s not about the loneliness of self-centered living. In fact, when you think about it, Scrooge wasn’t a loner at all. Jacob Marley is proof of that.

But we modern readers seem to miss this. Our perception of Scrooge is that he is unfriendly because he dislikes people. We reckon that the three ghosts of Christmas–Past, Present, and Future–break Scrooge’s will by breaking through his defense mechanisms, perhaps like Robin Williams broke through Matt Damon’s child abuse-fueled mistrust of people. That is why we often use the word “Scrooge” to describe people we think are too dour or too introverted, those who rain on the parade.

But that’s not the Scrooge that Dickens created.

The ghost of Christmas Past helps us see this. The first spirit transports Scrooge back in time to three distinct scenes of his life. In the first, Scrooge sees himself as a boy at boarding school, forced to stay while his friends travel home for Christmas. But this moment quickly gives way to another, in which Scrooge’s sister arrives at the school and tells him that “Father is so much kinder than he used to be,” and has called for his son to come home. This moment in Scrooge’s childhood ends with happiness and reconciliation.

The next scene is likewise joyful. The ghost shows Scrooge his time as an apprentice to a garrulous man named Fezziwig. Fezziwig is kind and merry, and throws a delightful Christmas party for his family and apprentices. The point of this small act isn’t lost on Scrooge, who realizes that Fezziwig’s friends love him because he possessed “the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil…The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.” Under Fezziwig’s wing, Scrooge was a happy, cared for man, who rebounded the love he received into love–at least a temporary love–for others.

What happened to this love? Why did Scrooge lose it? Was it due to abuse, abandonment, or neglect? In our psychoanalytic culture, we would probably assume so. Surely such a change in character must have been precipitated by intense personal trauma? But that’s not what Dickens and the spirit show us. Instead, Dickens’ transformation of Ebenezer into Scrooge is far more subtle and far more perceptive of human nature:

He was not alone, but sat by the side of a fair young girl in a mourning-dress: in whose eyes there were tears, which sparkled in the light that shone out of the Ghost of Christmas Past.

“It matters little,” she said, softly. “To you, very little. Another idol has displaced me; and if it can cheer and comfort you in time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve.”

“What Idol has displaced you?” he rejoined.

“A golden one.”

“This is the even-handed dealing of the world!” he said. “There is nothing on which it is so hard as poverty; and there is nothing it professes to condemn with such severity as the pursuit of wealth!”

“You fear the world too much,” she answered, gently. “All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master-passion, Gain, engrosses you. Have I not?”

“What then?” he retorted. “Even if I have grown so much wiser, what then? I am not changed towards you.”

She shook her head.

“Am I?”

“Our contract is an old one. It was made when we were both poor and content to be so, until, in good season, we could improve our worldly fortune by our patient industry. You are changed. When it was made, you were another man.”

“I was a boy,” he said impatiently.

“Your own feeling tells you that you were not what you are,” she returned. “I am. That which promised happiness when we were one in heart, is fraught with misery now that we are two. How often and how keenly I have thought of this, I will not say. It is enough that I have thought of it, and can release you.”

With that, the two lovers part, and the elderly Scrooge, unable to bear further the sight of this memory, tells the spirit to haunt him no longer.

Dickens is telling us that this moment in Scrooge’s life signals his descent into icy miserliness. Yet there is no psychological pain, no humiliation or unrequited love (from Scrooge, at least). His personal transformation defies Freudian explanation. Scrooge fears the world, yet the world had been kind to him. He fears poverty, yet the poor he had known for so long had shared their joy with him. How is it that this young man, reconciled to his father, rejoiced in by his master, and loved by a woman, becomes the kind of person to wish death on the poor so as to “decrease the surplus population”?

The answer is simple: We don’t know. That is the mystery of human nature, a topic that received Dickens’ masterful treatment many times. Scrooge’s past undermines our modern, convenient explanations of his present. In the end, all we are left with is the fact that somewhere, somehow, Ebenezer Scrooge fell in love with money.

This isn’t a lack of character development on Dickens’ part. On the contrary, this mystery is what gives A Christmas Carol its power. The Ebenezer Scrooge that is a cultural meme is someone to despise, someone on the outside that we may mock and jeer and never have to worry about. On the other hand, Scrooge the protagonist (yes, protagonist!) looks very much like me and you. No spectacular suffering, no singular moment of overwhelming seduction. Just a slow, gradual, sin-ward crawl, day by day, year by year, and decade by decade. His redemption was supernatural, but his moral decay was not.

Screwtape was right:

Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.

 

Why seminary needs fiction

812tYQPrHnLI enthusiastically commend to you Rod Dreher’s new book How Dante Can Save Your Life. It’s a fascinating, joyful, sobering and at times deeply moving testimony of power, not only to the The Divine Comedy in particular but to literature in general. Rod calls himself a “witness” and not a scholar. That’s the idea, but I would nonetheless urge literary scholars to read his book and savor the way a medieval text can speak so pertinently into a 21st century soul.  Continue reading Why seminary needs fiction