Thursday, September 22, 2005

What It's Like, This Writing Life

My second book on Narnia, Further Up and Further In: Understanding C. S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, is now out, got my first author's copy yesterday; the bookstores should have it by the end of the week or sooner. The publicity trail is starting up. I got a big package yesterday from Disney filled with posters and doorknockers and various kinds of handouts.

And today I was interviewed by Religion News Service and their Sarah Price Brown, for a story on the film and Lewis's legacy. I was told she had spoken to Doug Gresham this morning and now wanted "an academic side to the story." In some ways, she was asking in many ways and over and over if evangelical folk don't "worship" Lewis a little too much.

It went like something like this (as I remember it):


How do you explain Lewis's legacy?


There are three Lewis audiences, and thus three legacies to talk about. The first is the scholarly legacy, and his work on allegory and medieval tradition is still potent and vibrant, and both starting and settling many debates. The second audience is science-fiction and fantasy readers, who will rediscover the Space Trilogy once the Narnia movie arrives, and re-appreciate what was packed into the landscapes of Narnia. On the other hand, the real legacy of Lewis in this realm may be in the readers (and writers) his work inspired. Flannery O'Connor was once asked if the church didn't discourage writers. She said: "It doesn't discourage enough of them. . ." That's sort of the way I feel about this aspect of Lewis. For every Harry Potter he inspired, there's a really bad Sci-fi novel with Christian imagery ladled over it. But I am glad that someone tries. The key to Lewis's success is that the Christianity is incarnate in the story, not an add-on. The third audience is those who read for the Christian apologetics. This legacy continues to grow, in spite of the fact that Lewis has been dead 42 years and most writers' works don't keep influencing beyond a decade after they pass on. So how do we explain it? Two answers. One is, no one has arisen on either side of the Atlantic to surpass what Lewis accomplished in so many genres. That is not a good sign, of course, since it means even though he gave us the tools and the example, we have not carried on his mission well. The second issue is that it may mean that Lewis's response to his age still carries merit, weight, and volume, and is still effective "as is," though it may need some translation here or there.


But what about his appeal, his extraordinary appeal among evangelical; isn't he, as Doug Gresham told me in his interview today, in "danger of becoming a plastic saint"?


No one would be more surprised by nor more humbled by his celebrity and acclaim. His constant theme was that he was standing on the shoulders of giants-and transmitting a legacy of apostolic tradition that we should already know. His innovation, if he conceded, it was helping us "steal past the watchful dragons" of conventional wisdom and popular sentiment, and see Christianity as it is: the grand miracle of incarnation of the original Author. I deny that evangelicals "own" Lewis-or think of him in a completely credulous way, with no distance or perspective. Evangelicals have as much integrity and ability to discern truth from error as anyone else. Lewis is himself NOT an evangelical; doesn't qualify by most evangelical traditions on Scripture, e.g., and I suspect he would not like much of what passes as worship or sermonizing, but then he did not much like anything in his local parish either. But he is not a snob. He would understand seeker-sensitive outreach, and epitomized in his own era, and with his own predilections.


Yes, but isn't there a lot of hero worship involved?


Yes-there is. But is having someone, like Lewis, as a hero so bad? To find him heroic and worth emulating, reaching for the levels of achievement and skill-but most of all, consistency of faith and integration of mind, soul, and spirit, isn't this just finding a spiritual mentor in whom you can place your trust? I agree that we should not place Lewis on a pedestal as infallible or perfect, but neither should his stature be denied or despised, as I think it sometimes is, in and out of evangelicaldom.


How would he want to be remembered?


For his posture on mere Christianity-the core beliefs, minus denominational idiosyncrasies. He wept over the divisions of the faith--and sought a way to bring Christians together on the most important aspects of it. The work and person of Jesus Christ is paramount in all that he wrote post-conversion. It's every page of Mere Christianity, Narnia, Miracles, Screwtape, Great Divorce. It's to his Lord he would point us, not to him. And to that I say "Amen."

Where will the story run? What will the story look like when she's done? I don't know. Many places-it is a syndicated column, so it is likely to show up in newspapers around the U.S. and abroad. If you read this blog and see it in your local paper or on an electronic version of the paper, please send me an email and the URL. Kind of a "message in a bottle" and fun to see who sees it and where. And how I am quoted in the final version.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Interviews on My New Books

Thought you might be interested in seeing my answers to some questions posed on a Narnia web site regarding my two new books and the Narnia movie. Here goes:

  1. How do you think the movie will impact Lewis's legacy?

    This movie promises to be a very excellent adaptation of Narnia, given the high production values, skilled director, and the integrity of Walden Media and Doug Gresham at the helm. The main thing is, if it will bring more readers not only to Narnia, but to the rest of Lewis's works, which are uniformly thought provoking and excellent, it will be worth "the risk." I am more excited that the movie(s) are being made than learning that "more" Narnian tales are being created by present day authors, who may not possess the Christian imagination that characterized Lewis's life and work. It's the quality of the person more than the re-assembling of Narnian characters that makes the difference.

  2. Will the movie attract new fans to Lewis's other works?

    We can hope so. Movies can be fickle; and are sort of "self-consuming artifacts," as literary scholar, Stanley Fish (who also admires Lewis's work on Milton), used to say of certain books. That is, movie have am elusive "presence" only when one is watching them. . . while the written word seems to have a more enduring and lingering quality even if the book is closed. The Lord of the Rings movies certainly elevated an already high profile Tolkien possessed. . . and, in my view, Lewis has so much more to offer the adventurous reader--not in terms of fantasy, but in all the other genres he mastered (literary criticism, satire, narrative poetry, dream-vision, science-fiction, memoir. . .) There is a feast awaiting any reader who only knows Narnia.

  3. How was Lewis's writing able to become so powerful and memorable yet so simple?

    Deceptively simple I would say--it takes a lot of hard work to make a work "seem" so simple. Quite honestly, I think it is Lewis's lifelong perspicacious reading, which began in childhood (at age 3 no less!), that gave him much to draw on. He had an intrinsic sense of eloquence, but there is also no doubt that those authors who had the greatest impact on him when he was young (E. Nesbit or Beatrix Potter--as well as Chesterton and MacDonald) had a tremendous influence on his own composing. When I teach Lewis I also draw attention to mastery of the arresting metaphor--and his foundational tri-chotomies--the forced choice among three mutually exclusive options (liar, lunatic, lord) which he learned from St. Augustine and, I believe, William Kirkpatrick, his tutor in the last stages of his adolescent learning, whom he called The Great Knock, a little of whom is in Professor Kirke.

  4. How will your new books help readers and moviegoers better understand The Chronicles of Narnia?

    One aim of mine was to prevent the possibility that Lewis's Christian convictions, which inhabit and animate the Narnian landscape, will be "lost in translation" as the stories migrate from text to film.

    I have endeavored in my books to take nothing for granted, making it my goal specifically to orient the willing reader new to The Chronicles (as well as the veteran sojourner there) to what we might call Narnia's spiritual geography, that is, to its ultimately Christian themes, and, most assuredly, to its undeniable center: King Aslan, the Great Lion, Son of the Great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea.

    The goal is to travel on both sides of the wardrobe: to go "further up and further in," to discover and remain in Aslan's presence, following his lead, completing the missions he sets for us, and gaining glorious comrades along the way to share grand adventures in the Spirit. We want to know what it means to be a Narnian, so we can learn better how to be a Son of Adam or a Daughter of Eve.

    My books pay their greatest homage to Aslan. Indeed, "He is not a tame lion," as Mr. Beaver intones near the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. By titling my works, Not a Tame Lion, and Further up and Further In, I am implying, no, stipulating, that without Aslan the Narnian adventures would have little meaning, certainly lesser value, and lack spiritual poignancy or potency.

  5. How does your book illuminate the rich meaning in the text?

    I wanted in writing these works to provide both novice and experienced readers something that will increase their enjoyment every time they come to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (or the movie made of it). Neither work explores every possible detail you may want to know about Narnia because that is not its design, and, there is plenty to be discovered that this small volume could not possibly include. I had no incentive to provide encyclopedic coverage of each jot and tittle because other volumes already do that.

    The truth is, literary encyclopedias provide a specific service and are useful particularly after we have put the book down. They represent an "outside-in" approach-forging facts and compiling connections exterior to the text and using them to interpret and elucidate what you have already read long after you have left the intimate setting of the book itself. They draw you naturally outside the world the tale has created; they occupy you with things and ideas and people the book points to and try to answer nagging questions you may have. And then, at their best, they will send you back to the text for more interaction with Aslan and his creation. But at their worst-and I am afraid this is what most encyclopedias do-they may take you "further out and further away" and, in this case, force you to remain an outsider to the continuing experience of Narnia. (One can become an "expert" on Narnia, so to speak, without ever living there. What a pity!)

  6. And finally, why is an exploration into the spiritual dimensions of Narnia so important?

    A large part of what makes Narnia terrific, engrossing, and life-changing is its ability not only to deliver a world that is strange and compelling but also to make our own world strange and compelling as well. Its genius, if you will, is its ability to make us long for a world like Aslan's and then to help us discover in ours the evidence that Aslan has been here too and motivate us to uncover the implications of that visit. A Narnian sojourn makes us dissatisfied with our world for all the right reasons and then points us to a pathway to our true home and our true identity. Indeed, that is what any reading of The Chronicles ought to evince and maybe even what a book about Narnia should do as well!

    That indeed is my challenge both works. I am attempting what I call an "inside-out" approach, designed to increase your appreciation for the strangeness and oddness of what is going on inside Aslan's story on several levels while we are inside Narnia, not outside of it. I don't want you to spend a minute more outside the text than you have to because our time in Narnia is too precious to waste in search of external sources. The Chronicles tell a simple story on the surface but one that is actually clever and complex and thus one that repays many visits and rereadings. At the same time, because of those very revisits, our experiences threaten to become commonplace and ordinary. My job is to help you keep coming back to Narnia and finding it as exhilarating and as disarmingly fresh as the first time you visited it. A tall order, yes, but one worth the risk. Fortunately, Lewis has written just the sort of work that enables us to enjoy that freshness every time!

    In the final analysis, Narnia is a "cosmos," an orderly, yet created world that has a discernible beginning, middle, and end. Narnia's ordered existence is willed-rather, sung-into being by Aslan. Under Aslan's rule, there is, if you will, both a "natural order," and a "supernatural" or spiritual order. There is, on the one hand, the day-to-day, the deeds, the thoughts, the outcomes wrought by each individual; on the other hand, there is a meaning and an impact beyond these deeds, thoughts, outcomes that point to Something Else, and, what's more, to Someone Else. Here we discover that we are not our own. Our lives rest in Another.

Friday, September 9, 2005

CSL the Scholar Christian

Those who know C S Lewis only as a Christian apologist may underestimate and thus underprivilege his amazing output as a scholar. If we think he excels as a fantasist, what might his literary critic friends think of his scholarship? We don't have to guess. As one of colleagues suggests,

"I went to some of his lectures on the 'matter' of Rome, France, and Britain, and remember how he made the dullest Latin text seem enthralling. . . " (Kathleen Raine, Light on C. S. Lewis, 103)
Oddly enough, given his sterling reputation as an enthusiastic expositor of medieval and renaissance literature, C. S. Lewis disdained the practice of what we casually call "literary criticism," and rejected out of hand the term "literary critic." The term "literary historian" befit him best, since it calls attention to the primary motivation that characterized Lewis as a reader and as a lover of literature:. His own approach, expressed in a letter to Kathleen Raine only two weeks before his death, was to foreground "Plenty of fact, reasoning as brief and clear as English sunshine, and no personal comment at all."

To read, he declared in his last and most visceral work of literary scholarship, An Experiment in Criticism (1961), is not to "aggrandize the self," but rather to transcend it, to look through the eyes of others, and breaking through the provincialism of one's own times. To read and to research with this goal forced the scholar to recognize that,

"in coming to understand anything we are rejecting the facts as they are for us in favor of the facts as they are."
Lewis's most enduring scholarly works--The Allegory of Love, A Preface to Paradise Lost, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama, and The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature-- have this in common: a desire to see with new eyes and to submerse oneself in the thrilling adventure of inhabiting an era external to one's own, and thereby elucidating both. As he explains in his famous 1939 meditation on scholarship, "Learning in War-Time,"
Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.
The "scholarship" that results from such conviction is the genuine, earnestly disinterested report of the intrepid explorer who has experienced what it is to look through others' eyes, to think as they have thought, to behave as they behaved within their cultural period.

If I were to describe Lewis myself in a single phrase, it would be this: Lewis was a man who knew he lived his life always before Pilate. That is to say, I believe Lewis carried out his daily tasks as scholar, 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 it behind indifference or the pretense of being on the search---as the demurring Pilate does in the presence of Our Lord (John 18:37). The antidote to such ennui or cynicism is not to adopt it for one's own, but to transcend it, and to lift the eyes of one's audience beyond the status quo, and onto the pursuit of truth.

(Excerpted from my article forthcoming in Christian History, November, 2005)

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This blog is focused on C. S. Lewis--a mentor, an inspiration, and a sublime challenge to my/our slothfulness. This blog is authored in the hope that what is said here will somehow illuminate the meaningfulness and luxuriousness of Lewis's legacy in seeking Christ, and will motivate and inform its readers.

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