my C. S. Lewis & Inklings Resources Web Site, travel here.
Welcome to My Animadversions About
C. S. Lewis.
Professor of English,
Bowling Green State University (Ohio).
For more info about me and/or
my C. S. Lewis & Inklings Resources Web Site, travel here.
I think of writers as companions, their books as landscapes that we traverse together. With some I care not even to embark; among others I would walk only a little way. And then there are those whose company is so joyful, edifying, and challenging that the journey is not long enough to satisfy me or exhaust the pleasure I derive from being in their presence.
There are in fact not many such writers for me. Outside of the writers of the Bible, I can count on one hand the writers to which I have returned more than once or twice. So many books are self-consuming--once they are read and digested, there is little value in retracing one's steps in recovering what there was of merit in them. But as I look back on my adult life, my seeking of wisdom, my hope of uncovering a literary companion with unique insights into the world I inhabit and the faith I hold, there is one name that stands out--C. S. "Jack" Lewis.
There is, of course, something vaguely odd about having a relationship with someone only through their books. But when you think about it--this is also how we come to know Christ, mediated through Scripture. You hear a voice, you sense their presence, but they are not in the room. Such is the power of the Word, the Eternal Logos, and especially the written word touched by the Holy Spirit.
I was eleven years old when C. S. Lewis died (11-22-63), one week short of his sixty-fifth birthday (born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, 1898). I certainly had not heard of Narnia or Perelandra then, and not until I was a young Christian at the age of nineteen. But I have made up for lost time.
For many, in view of the upcoming movie release, Jack is a recent discovery, and you are just beginning your inquiry into what he may have to share with you. For still others, you may be well acquainted with one aspect of Lewis's work and have come to gain some perceptions of his life and work. Permit me this birthday tribute to Jack as a way of introducing, or deepening, your appreciation for him and his legacy.
Owen Barfield, longtime friend of Lewis, once wrote, in the preface to a volume of essays about Lewis that I had the privilege of editing, that "Somehow what Lewis thought about everything was secretly present in what he said about anything." Lewis's life was, in other words, thoroughly integrated, a man whose presuppositions about life, faith, and reality, were given to God and manifested themselves in all that he attempted.
What Lewis cared about most was what he called "mere Christianity," that is, that faith that has been the center of the gospel and the creeds of the church since the apostles announced it. It was the gospel freed of denominational idiosyncrasies, the debris of history, and focused on the essential truth of the identity and mission of Jesus of Nazareth.
If I were to describe Lewis in a phrase, it would be this: Lewis is a man who lived his life before Pilate. That is to say, I believe Lewis carried out his daily tasks as teacher, citizen, believer as one who knew he was before a skeptical inquistor, one too often who hides from the truth and masks his fear of knowing the truth behind indifference and the pretense of being on the search (John 18:37). Who was Lewis--and why should we pay any attention to him?
C. S. Lewis, distinguished Oxbridge don and literary critic, esteemed writer of science-fiction and fantasy literature, and popular Christian apologist, wrote more than thirty books in his lifetime. Since his death in 1963, more than twenty anthologies and compendia of his scattered essays and talks have been published. Almost as many books about Lewis's works have appeared, and amazingly all of Lewis's own works--criticism, fiction, and apologetics--are still in print and in no danger of disappearing from bookshelves across America and the English speaking world.
The generous, self-effacing, populist Lewis who gave so tirelessly of his time and money to the needy and to the spiritually wayward is sometimes shadowed by his remarkable popularity. By all accounts, Lewis was an indefatigueable correspondent, and a ma n devoted to a fault to his students and even casual friends. (What other books might Lewis have written had he not been committed to personally responding to the literally hundreds of letters from transatlantic truth-seekers, aspiring writers, and sheer adulators he received month by month over the twenty years before his death in 1963?) Whatever else Lewis was, he was a man of faith willing to pay the price for his public confession that Jesus Christ was God in the flesh
Deplored and despised by colleagues jealous of his scholarly prowess and shamed by his open association with popular literature and "mere" Christianity, Lewis was denied a professorship at Oxford at the peak of his literary scholarship. As Christopher Derrick, a former pupil and longtime friend of Lewis, has judiciously observed, Lewis was a man willing to "challenge the entrenched priesthood of the intelligentsia." In short, one finds in Lewis an uncommonly courageous and articulate skeptic of the modern era, one forthrightly opposed to the "chronological snobbery" of our times that assumes truth is a function of the calendar and that the latest word is the truest one.
Those who try to read through the entire Lewis corpus confess that they receive an education in history, philology, sociology, philosophy, and theology so extensive and exhilarating that others seem thin and frivolous in comparison. While Lewis caricatured himself as a dinosaur, the last of the Old Western Men, many today see him as a forerunner of what may still be the triumph of men and women of Biblical faith in an age that derides the pursuit of truth and righteousness.
What Jack has taught me:
To wit, two writers, self-appointed sheriffs, have arisen to save us from ourselves: Adam Gopnik's just posted "Prisoner of Narnia" New Yorker piece on C. S. Lewis; and Charles McGrath's "The Narnia Skirmishes" his Nov. 13 NYT hatchet job on Lewis and the Narnian movies, demonstrate that the gloves are finally coming off in the public square debate over the nature of Planet Narnia--and its would-be citizens.
Gopnik's essay, purportedly a review of Alan Jacob's The Narnian, does justice neither to Alan's book nor to Lewis, parading out the tired, trite and uninformed cliches about Lewis's life and times, while exaggerating the supposedly profound differences between the downright embarrassing "British CSL" and the equally deplorable saintly "American CSL." (Did he even read Jacobs' text?)
Following A. N. Wilson's smarmy lead (whose 1990 biography of Lewis gets few things right, but therein and thereby paradoxically establishes himself as a worthy expert for Gopnik), Gopnik delights particularly in skewering American readers' embrace of Lewis's "childhood imagination," which he excoriates as the imagination that never grew up.
None of this would matter, Gopnik says, if it weren't for Narnia. Meaning: we have to pay attention to this guy and his legions of readers because of the hit movie that will be brainwashing young minds, perhaps--Oh Dear!--forever scarring them with the alleged truth of Christianity.
What little Gopnik understands of Lewis or of Christianity is revealed in this amazingly stupid comment about the dubious validity of using a Lion as a symbol of Christ:
The emotional power of the book, as every sensitive child has known, diminishes as the religious part intensifies. The most explicitly religious part of his myth is the most strenuously, and the least successfully, allegorized. Aslan the lion, the Christ symbol, who has exasperated generations of freethinking parents and delighted generations of worried Anglicans, is, after all, a very weird symbol for that famous carpenter's son-not just an un-Christian but in many ways an anti-Christian figure.Gopnik reveals here that he knows nothing of Biblical---or mythological---imagery or the meaningfulness of linking Christ to lionhood. Gopnik is like many sophomoric writers who must-find-something-to-say even about a topic they loathe, because they know it will dominate everyone's water cooler talk in two weeks---and he can only filter his puny command of subject matter through the anti-religious grids and screeds of his jaded adulthood; but, come on people, relying on Wilson's biography to get Lewis's backstory correct is like asking Wile E. Coyote what he thinks of Road Runner.
Then there is McGrath's essay (which actually is a much more nakedly cynical and mean-spirited piece than Gopnik's, but which, in true Times fashion, masquerades--and was no doubt regarded by his editors--as a "generous" and "balanced" treatment) that boasts the same obligatory reference to Philip Pullman deployed by Gopnik.
(One surmises these days that no article on Narnia or Lewis would be complete-among those emanating from New York, anyway--without a reference to Pullman, the arch-Anti-Narnian, whose writing career seems to be entirely founded on his hatred for Lewis, Narnia, the Church of England, and Christ himself. The man should, simply put, get a life, and, along the way, a topic, one that at least he could write about unapopletically, and, perhaps, even without sneering.)
McGrath's homework lacks the same veracity and tenacity as Gopnik's; for no one who knows anything about Lewis's life could write these two sentences:
In middle age, Lewis became the romantic figure depicted in Shadowlands, the Richard Attenborough movie based on William Nicholson's play. Both are a more or less faithful account of his surprising marriage, at age 58, to one of his many female groupies, Joy Gresham, an American divorcee and convert from Judaism, who died of cancer less than four years later.The movie cited makes so many mistakes, not the least of which is undercutting the very foundation of Christian faith that brought the two disparate people together, it is hard to know what would constitute a poorly written and conceived screenplay. Naturally, McGrath endorses it. But, his real goal, to dismiss Narnia outright, is reached here:
But you sense that among many British critics the real failure of the books is that they're so middle class - so affirming of traditional behaviors and role models, of old-fashioned, Church of England religion and Tory politics.McGrath has no conception of how radical and far-reaching Lewis's Narnian vision is, how distinct and distant it is from anything "middle-class, Anglican, Tory, or traditional." To paraphrase Lewis, in trying to read between the lines, he fails to read the lines themselves.
McGrath and Gopnik are both oblivious to the Chronicles' subtle critique of U.K. imperialism, their droll attack on sexism and "Boy's Own" chauvinism (that is Lucy up there, isn't it, serving as the one true protagonist of LWW?), their championing of supernatural faith against the tide of wan and waning Anglican secularist religion, their celebration of sacrificial love for one's fellow creatures, their evident environmentalism and animal-rights activism, their denunciation of authoritarian and oppressive government. . . the list of nonconformist, unpredictable, heterodox-because-orthodox-when-compared-with-the status-quo themes could be extended indefinitely.
But that is hardly the point. Writers like Gopnik, Wilson, Pullman, and McGrath, as well as periodicals like The New Yorker and Times, exist for one primary reason: to be the official organs of principled opposition to faith in our times, all under the guise of objectivity. They have laid low on Lewis for years, but now the gloves are off. Expect more of the same for quite a while. Rest assured, their message says--Wink, Wink--Western civilization is once again to be saved from the Gospel, for these guys are not going to be duped like the rest of us poor saps. With friends like these, who needs editors?
Other news, interviews recently published, or streamed audio:
- By far, the question I continue to be asked the most often at each stop at one point or another is, "What order should I read the Narnian Chronicles in?" Both of my books deal with this issue to some degree, but the short answer is: the original publication order. There are too many dramatic spoilers in The Magician's Nephew to make it suitable as the starting point for entering Narnia. We need to go through the wardrobe with Lucy first. Meeting the un-tame Lion this way makes the most literary, and, if I may say it, theological sense. Say you want to introduce someone to the person of Jesus Christ; do you give her a copy of the Gospel of John, or Genesis? Think about it.
- There is a new Narnia blog starting here: Infuze Narnia, which will be a rich reservoir for Narnian commentary, movies, books, and impact. Check it out.
- World Magazine has recently reviewed a handful of Narnian books; ahem, one of mine gets some "honorable mention" late in the article. Here are some other review points:
Past Watchful Dragons has been going on the past week here in Nashville, with a number of impressive presentations and reflective discussions. The two outstanding moments were Greg Wright's "Sometimes a Film Says Best What Needs to be Said," a clever allusion to an essay Lewis once wrote on fairy tales, whose thesis focuses not on the necessity of slavish, potential fidelity of the Narnian film to Lewis's original work, but on the aesthetic choices of the director in achieving his cinematic vision. Greg's ideas are countercultural to a majority of those expressed thus far in many of the Narnia-promotion events, and here in Nashville, but worthy of reflection and you will want to visit the website, Hollywood Jesus again and again. I am sure Greg will express and revisit his thoughts on the movie over the next several months.
The other solid presentation was a tour de force by Andrew Lazo of Rice University, who is pursuing the novel/nouveau (and somewhat counterintuitive) thesis in his dissertation at Rice that Tolkien and Lewis were, despite appearances, actual legitimate "Modernists," traversing the same wastelands themes as their better-pigeonholed counterparts like Eliot, Joyce, and Woolf, only through a Christian mythic lens.
Events like these both encourage and depress me, personally, speaking as one of three featured speakers at the event (my presentation was on the provenance of The Problem of Pain and its relationship to the rest of Lewis's work, including Narnia.)
Since the last time I blogged about it, I have been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including print outlets like the Columbus Dispatch, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Toledo Blade, Bowling Green Daily Sentinel-Tribune, Denver Post, Colorado Springs Gazette, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation; radio interviews with the NPR affiliate in Cleveland and a talk radio program in Fresno, CA; and tv studio and site interviews with WTOL, Toledo; WKYC (NBC) and WEWS (ABC), Cleveland; KFSN (ABC) and KMPH (FOX), Fresno; for a sample of my interviews, here is a 1.7mb QuickTime capsule. If you are from one of these regions and see a story emanating from these interviews, please let me know.