lion

All Hallows Eve, October 31, 2005

He is Not a Tame Author

We know what Mr. and Mrs. Beaver thought of Aslan, but what would they have thought of Mr. Lewis?

Some 55 years after the first publication of his artful children's fantasy, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, we may say, collectively expressing our amazement that C. S. Lewis's book sales are still roaring along, "he is not a tame author." With the release of the movie version of the first Narnian Chronicle a month away, we know they are about to skyrocket further. Is there bloggable news in that? Well, let's see. The November 7th issue of Newsweek is about to introduce the rest of America to Lewis. And what will they find? A headline that says, "The creator of Narnia was a scholar, a drinker-and a believer."

Hmmm, a drinker, huh? That's a good trio of items . . . Well, maybe not. Most, but not all, readers of this blog would know certain things, like that Lewis died on Nov. 22, 1963, the same day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. But not everyone would recognize that, 42 years later, not only does Narnia stay in print, but also so do newly formatted and continually re-configured compilations of his essays, poems, and unpublished short stories--even calendars. The sheer fact that an author who died almost a half century ago still has virtually every single thing he ever published still in print as book, essay, or poem, tells you a lot about his legacy and his impact. (Name another?) Whether veteran Lewis reader or novice, please let me set some needed context here and situate the continuing-to-astound Lewis in the present climate.

Fellow fantasist J. R. R. Tolkien, instrumental in Lewis's conversion, once joked that his friend was the only man he knew who published more books after his death than when he was alive. (We can now say: Tolkien should talk.) That this C. S. Lewis--"Jack" to his friends and family--would come to be, forgive me, lionized first and foremost as a Christian apologist in a time of ostentatious secularism or New Age mysticism is one of literary--and Christian--history's greatest ironies. Allow me this succinct recap:

A bitter and confirmed atheist after his mother's death when he was 9, a World War I veteran who while in the trenches of France jotted a poem denouncing the "ancient hope" of a "just God that cares for earthly pain" as merely a "dream," Lewis was one of the least likely converts among the literati of his time. But in his superb spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy (1956), Lewis wrote of his road to conversion, which included books and providential friendships that led him out of unbelief to a principled agnosticism, and from there to a benign but fervent theism and, eventually, to Christianity. Books by George MacDonald and G. K. Chesterton, and friendships with Owen Barfield and J. R. R. Tolkien, were particularly important.

Lewis met Barfield at Oxford in 1916 and called him "the best of my unofficial teachers." A keen dialectician himself, Barfield's chief contribution to Lewis's journey of faith was his demolishing of Lewis's "chronological snobbery," the "uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that count discredited." Liberated from the notion that the past was invariably wrong and the present always the barometer of truth, Lewis was able to embrace the possibility that the ancient Christian narrative could have validity, even urgency, in the 20th century.

The final blow against Lewis's comfortable agnosticism came in his ardent companionship with J.R.R. Tolkien, for it was he who led Lewis to the conclusion that Christianity contains in the incarnation of Christ "the true myth, myth become fact" and the one story in which Lewis could put his full confidence. In Barfield and Chesterton, Lewis touched the power of reason. In MacDonald and Tolkien, Lewis experienced the power of the imagination. In Christ, Lewis embraced the Author of both.

Lewis thus became a man who lived his life as if he were before Pilate. He carried out his daily tasks as teacher, writer, citizen, and believer as one who knew he was always before a skeptical inquisitor, one who too often hides from the truth and masks his fear of knowing the truth behind studied indifference and the pretense of being on the "search." By any means necessary, Lewis endeavored to reach such persons, whether by keen argumentation or compelling narrative, arresting metaphors or appealing characterization; souls were at stake; ideas had consequences. He could not keep silent.

Now, fast forward to the present. Lewis's still unsurpassed influence as a Christian apologist (even into the 21st Century) has become somewhat of a stumbling block for some contemporary Christian intellectuals, who question Lewis's current adequacy as a thinker for the post-post-postmodern church. Maybe he is an embarrassing anachronism? Questions like this are good, but in the end it, of course, depends on the answers.

In the late 1990s some were recommending vogue theorists like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault as antidotes to the steady diet of "rationalism" served up by the likes of Lewis and admirers of Mere Christianity, presumably, because someone too fond of Lewis might fail to appreciate postmodernism's promise and would remain instead a prisoner of a debilitating "enlightenment foundationalism."

Other spokespersons credited postmodernism with helpfully dethroning the Enlightenment and its prideful literary stepchild, Romanticism, whose anthropocentrism produced heroes (and readers) who "assume the authority once granted to God in historic theism." These critics consigned Lewis to this "Romantic" prison, shackled to the same essentialist, enabling "individualism" that credentialed the Enlightenment to dominate theological reflection for four centuries.

Lewis, we learn, was not a reliable guide to readership or to literary criticism in the advent of postmodernism, because he himself succumbed to the disease from which Westerners needed to be quarantined: a too exalted view of the solitary, knowing self. (A charge the late behaviorist psychologist, B. F. Skinner, made of Lewis in particular, and Christians in general, in Beyond Freedom and Dignity.)

So it seemed by the turn of the century, a two-fold judgment had emerged that (1) Christians might have more to gain from listening to French deconstructionists than the venerable Oxbridge don, and this precisely because Lewis is too much a "Modernist" to help postmoderns cope with the Enlightenment's fall from grace; and (2) Lewis is too much a "Romantic" to escape the self-centeredness that postmodernism corrects by rejecting any claims of objective value or "grand narratives." How strange that Lewis could be both too rationalistic and too romantic, simultaneously.

Now, five years later, questions about Lewis's ongoing contribution to our apologetics may begin to be conveniently dismissed in a back-handed sort of way with the attention paid to Narnia; to wit, there may be folks are who are very glad that Narnia has arrived to divert us from Lewis's more intentional philosophical and polemical works: "Ah, good, we are into the softer, more palatable world of fiction and fantasy where Lewis 'belongs.'" (But there, we must not forget, Professor Kirke awaits with his famous trichotomy: liar, lunatic, or Lucy.)

Is this either-or (better fiction than polemics) a fair assessment of Lewis and his effectiveness as an apologist? One must say that Jack would have pled "Guilty" to the charge that he was both a Rationalist and a Romantic--as his autobiographical Pilgrim's Regress shows. But not so exclusively; he reminds us that Reason and Experience must each bow to Revelation, for only therein lies their redemption, and potential utility. This is the point at tension in Lewis's little known but profound short essay, "Meditation in a Toolshed." He would continue on from there to identify two default worldviews to which some 21st-century Christian scholars tend to be captive, neither of which tainted Lewis himself.

  • The first is the hyperrealism born of the Enlightenment that declares all knowledge to be accessible--and thus able to be catalogued incrementally and eventually exhaustively--through the disciplined use of human rationality and scientific induction alone. This position is exemplified in every version of the theory of evolution and the vociferous attack on intelligent design. It exalts the single observer as the arbiter of truth while simultaneously undermining his qualifications for making such judgments.
  • The second is the social constructionism that posits all reality is inevitably a product of human consciousness, a "willed world." Humankind thus must be resigned to creating but never understanding its own stories, and must despair of finding that one or the other might turn out to be true. This is a predicament that denies individuals, clans, and whole civilizations any compass with which to navigate the world at large; naked consensus, enforced by power, greed, or sheer cleverness, can alone organize and perpetuate society.
The uneasy alliance that we may choose to brook with the later postmodernism (and, really, this term has waned in meaningfulness) is really based on the same unsavory alternatives that Lewis unearthed and helped to refute, or, at least, defuse a half-century ago in some of his most eloquent works.

This hyperrealism, which Lewis called "scientism" or identified as a breed of "naturalism," is his target in The Abolition of Man, That Hideous Strength, and Miracles; all three of these works prophesy the demise of the Enlightenment and its subsequent dissolution into various relativisms and constructionisms that cheat humanity out of its humanness: that is, the image of God.

Lewis documented--and dealt with-0postmodernist belief in works such as An Experiment in Criticism, where he called it "egoistic castle-building," and in A Preface to Paradise Lost, where he termed it "incessant autobiography." And most profoundly, in his last fictional work, Till We Have Faces, Lewis offered us the story of a female protagonist who must surrender her "self" in order to become whole-a story renouncing Romanticism even while examining its trappings.

If we ourselves reject, as did Lewis, our own age's "chronological snobbery," we might just find that the way forward is the way back. Lewis's welcome strategy was to be "in, but not of" the period in which he lived, aligning himself with a perspective outside that world--i.e., divine revelation.

This enabled him to discern the rules of the "game" while maintaining an equilibrium amid the endless undulations of time and culture, hence his maxim: "All that is not eternal is eternally out of date."

This is perhaps the best clue to the mystery of Lewis's continuing impact and influence. Owen Barfield, reflecting many years later on Lewis's career, once capsuled well Lewis's secret: "Somehow what Lewis thought about everything was secretly present in what he said about anything."


This is an update of an article of mine that 1st appeared in a near-the-millennium issue of World Magazine.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Lewis in Fresno

I had the remarkable pleasure of spending five days in Fresno, CA as part of both the Narnia on Tour and as a speaker for First Presbyterian Church in downtown Fresno. I spoke four times-once at a special Wed. service, once at a reception for me, which was Q&A about CSL and what was burning in their hearts to discuss, the Narnia on Tour forum at Borders Books, and a final session at the Adult Education ("Christian Outfitters") class on Sunday AM. All four sessions were a success in numbers and engagement-as Lewis always draws a winsome and vibrant "cloud of witnesses." The Borders event, my first in sequence, drew about 125 people, and surprised the Borders staff by its size and enthusiasm. This is the one event focused on "the public square," and intended to elicit the participation and interaction with readers new to Lewis or Narnia. I was pleased to greet there many new friends (and, aha, readers of my books, who bought them or brought them for signature), some of whom came from as far always as LA, San Luis Obispo, and San Diego!

Rev. David Abdo and his staff did a remarkable job of promotion and extension of the invitation to participation, with frequent radio and print ads.

Likewise, my publicist, Jennifer McAndrew, at Broadman and Holman brought my books and presence to the attention of Fresno media---and I ended up doing talk radio the night before I left, and four TV stations sending crews to the Narnia event at Borders for 5PM, 6PM, 10PM, and 11PM broadcast. The film, the life of C. S. Lewis, and, somewhat, the content of my books were thus divulged before the Fresno newsviewers for 1-2 minutes at a time!! This is kind of a cheap thrill---if they get it right, and mostly they did. This publicity thing, it's a dangerous trap, what are we promoting, and what is it that people have come out to see? Still, it was fun to be on what was a first for me---a book signing tour. Only wished it could have been baseballs I was signing (!), but we'll save that for another day.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Narnian Press Coverage--What She Did With the Interview

Several weeks ago I was interviewed by the Religion News Service, and I gave you a basic paraphrased summary in my Sept. 22 entry. Here is what my interviewer chose to use out of my remarks in the final print version from one news source: "Narnia' fuels fascination of C.S. Lewis". We spoke for almost 45 minutes, and I got two quotations out of it. (So nice---I speak facetiously---that Mr. Sunshine, A.K.A., A. N. Wilson, got to surface again with his unkind cuts toward Lewis.) If you see the column syndicated elsewhere, let me know, please.

And to see some kind, thoughtful and provocative remarks about my "Serenity and C S Lewis" essay from the Oct. 2nd entry, check here on Whedonesque.com

Fresno, CA-area readers, I will be at First Presbyterian Church, Wed., Oct. 19-Sun., Oct. 23 with various "Narnia on Tour" lectures throughout the week. Contact info is here.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Is This Narnia? No, Just Chicago: A Narnian Promotion Event

I traveled with my wife Joan and son Michael to Wheaton Bible Church outside of Chicago on Tuesday for a Narnia promotion event sponsored by Walden Media, Disney, MissionAmerica, and Outreach.com. We left at 3:30AM EST from Bowling Green, OH for the 10AM CST event and arrived in time to sip some Starbucks in downtown Wheaton before parking near the church and walking to the Wade Center at Wheaton College, which houses North America's largest collection of Lewis materials and related Inklings resources.

After the event began with prayer, we then were treated to guest promoters that included Doug Gresham, stepson of CS Lewis and author of a new book on his stepfather, and Steven Curtis Chapman, CCM artist, and contributor to the Narnian soundtrack "inspired by the movie." A self-described "LA Guy" who wast here to explain the box of promotional items we would be taken home, did not disappoint, he was quintessentially an "LA Guy." The spokesperson from Disney led us through her PowerPoint presentation of the cast and the highlights of the story (as if we didn't know!), a Walden spokesman assured us of the film's faithfulness to the movie, and an African-American rep from MissionAmerica (run together like that as one word) told us about sharing opportunities we will enjoy because of the movie.

The two hour event's major draw, however, was the chance to see "never before" released minutes from the rough cut of the movie. More about those ten minutes below. Much of these proceedings were rah-rah exhortations (the kind you sit through about real estate when you've really come to get the free condo stay in Phoenix) to get people out to the movie. I have to admit that some of this was very annoying, and much of it was undeniably cloying, awkwardly appealing to the audience on one hand for evangelistic purposes, and then on the other for celebrating the great achievement of the movie in honoring the imagination of Lewis "and its faithfulness to the book."

The confusing but practical claim made by several of the promoters on stage that "we have not made a Christian movie and this is not a Christian book" is a half-truth, of course. Lewis DID write a book that is imbued with his Christian imagination, and no one who reads it and who knows the gospel story, will mis-recognize it. On the other hand, these are marketers, after all, and they did not need to worry about us in the audience; they had us at hello. They are trying to reach the largest possible audience, and their conclusion is that they have to walk the tightrope between not alienating the secular audience while simultaneously appealing to the Christian demographic that would really make the movie a megasuccess. This creates problems, of course, but the best solution is, as Lewis would tell us, to let the book and the movie speak for itself.

Those ten minutes: very impressive and engrossing. I was told I might not like Liam Neeson as Aslan--and Jerry Root, my friend and colleague from Wheaton whispered to me that Doug thought he should do Aslan's voice--- but in the excerpt we saw, I thought it worked ok. The scenes we had not seen before, especially of the bombing of London and the flight to the shelter, were effective and visually appealing. The movie seems on all fronts to be well made, and maybe even lovingly made. But is the key, as a recent TIME Magazine online article says: do a certain four sentences (Aslan's explanation of what his death and resurrection meant in terms of conquering the White Witch and saving Edmund and all of Narnia) still remain in the movie script? We will have to see the last ten minutes, not these ten minutes, to know whether they do; but my hope is that the intent of the original author is not simply run over roughshod, but that Andrew Adamson, the Director, has found his own way to tell this story without losing Aslan's unique identity in the process.

The White Witch: "That human creature is mine. His life is forfeit to me. His blood is my property."

Aslan (later) : "The Witch knew the Deep Magic. But if she could have looked a little further back... she would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor's stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards." —from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis

Oh, and you can read my interview published today with the BGSU campus newspaper here..

Sunday, October 2, 2005

Serenity and C. S. Lewis

It is dangerous to speculate on what kind of movie C. S. Lewis would or would not like. After all, he did not like movies. But he did like narrative and romance (i.e., a technical term for adventure and questing, not a reference to Harlequin novels)--and he loved science-fiction, or "speculative fiction." He chose it as a genre he himself wished to work in. And hardly anyone at mid-century had read S/F more critically or reviewed its canon more appreciatively, or had a better idea of what did or did not work in S/F than Lewis. Quite simply, he read everything, from pulp magazine S/F to the great traditions of S/F (Verne; Wells; Clarke) as well as World S/F like that of the Soviet writer Stanislaw Lem. He disliked stories that championed any form of seemingly benign human colonization in outer space as if to spread the shame and sin of humankind to other planets--or any kind of scheme that placed survival of the human species above all, even to the extent of "conquering" other worlds. He took human fallenness seriously and would not revel in a story whose plot allowed vain and vicious men to achieve in space what they could not do on Earth.

At the same time, he was not fond of depicting aliens as voracious invaders, intent on taking over Planet Earth; after all, he called Terra "the silent planet," quarantined by our rebellion against our Maker. While it is a stretch to call his an "optimistic" view of space creatures and interplanetary travel-it is clear that Lewis thought we were the problem, not other planets or creatures God may have made elsewhere. Other universes? Other beings? To paraphrase Narnia's Prof. Kirke, "Nothing is more probable"--to Lewis.

Now I said all that to say that I think Lewis would find Joss Whedon's speculative universe in the newly released (but previously envisioned in the late Fox series, Firefly) Serenity very satisfying. Serenity is that rare space movie that truly cares more about its characters than its special-effects, more about what human greed and sin do to the soul than whether or not everyone will live happily ever after. There is in Serenity what Lewis prized most about really good fiction of any sort: realism of presentation. There is, he said in An Experiment in Criticism, a modern penchant for prizing realism of content over realism of presentation; that is, fantasy and science-fiction tended to be dismissed out of hand as inferior "popular" genres-since, obviously, they lacked "realism of content." But, Lewis averred, realism of presentation can redeem a narrative focused on the fantastic---if it plays by a consistent set of rules, and stays within the genre to produce its own kind of realism. Even genre fiction, Lewis argued, could bring its own realism to its storytelling as long as it did not pretend to be something else. Lewis's favorite example of this: Middle-Earth.

Well, that's a good description of the 26th-century, post-Terra world that Whedon has created in Serenity. It's a fully realized "neo-Western" landscape, with horses and guns, villains and conspiracies, bad guys and good guys, as well as ragged, intrepid communities of faith and fellowship, holding out for goodness on the good ship Serenity, boasting even an explicitly Christian character---but most importantly, a Ransom-like ship captain who, if he doesn't know exactly what the source of true goodness is, he does know what is right. This character, Mal(colm) (Mal-content?) Reynolds, played by Nathan Fillion, is a brilliantly portrayed tortured man of action, always on the run, and intent on keeping the universe, the part he's in anyway, free of oppression and avarice. Yes, he is an outlaw of sorts---but one who understands like Robin Hood that robbing from the greedy-rich is not the same as stealing from the poor and downtrodden. His character, and the unusual River Tam, a young woman prematurely, precociously wise, and unable to cope with the knowledge she has of high-level nefariousness, provide viewers with two of the most stimulating and stirring characterizations in a S/F setting in many years, far surpassing anything that has come from George Lucas's eye or pen for two decades.

Would Lewis like Serenity? I believe he would love it, love it for its realistic depiction of where utopian schemes lead in crushing the human spirit and ending the search for joy and true serenity that only God ultimately can give. Mal once was a believer, and may be so again. Serenity shows once again that what Lewis called the "conditioners" in The Abolition of Man (and depicted uncompromisingly in his third S/F novel, That Hideous Strength among the N.I.C.E.) leads inevitably to ruin. One cannot change human nature. One can only redeem it. And not from the inside out; the remedy comes from outside, from "far, far away," and in the person of the Rescuer, riding on a White Horse.

Don't take my word for it. Go see it yourself. And decide if the classic line "I aim to misbehave," isn't a rallying call for rebellion against this world's system, to throw over a few merchandising tables in the Temple . . .

For the Serenity trailer, look here: Serenity.



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