Three C S Lewis Books You Should Read But Probably Haven’t

At some point in his or her reading life, the fan of C S Lewis learns that he was, in fact, a literary critic, a scholar of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Oxford and at Cambridge. This fact will probably not influence the selection of most of Lewis’s fans — it will probably deepen an appreciation of certain facets of his writing or help explain some of its oddities. Most of Prof. Lewis’s readership, however, will probably not stray far from the canon of Narnia, The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, the various collections of essays produced in his lifetime and beyond, as well as the less famous but well-worth-the-effort terrain of the Space Trilogy — Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra/Voyage to Venus, and That Hideous Strength — and Till We Have Faces with a glance through Miracles for the bold.

How many Lewis fans have read An Experiment in Criticism? Studies in Words? The Discarded Image? Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature? The Allegory of Love? A Preface to Paradise Lost?

I imagine the fans of Lewis and Milton will certainly have read that last; I have yet to, nor have I read Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature and The Allegory of Love. I intend to.

First, An Experiment in Criticism. This book is Lewis’s response to a sort of unpleasant ‘evaluative’ criticism, criticism that distinguishes between bad books and good books. This sort of reading still rears its ugly head, as Anne Fadiman discusses in her fabulous essay ‘Procrustes and the Culture Wars’ in At Large and at Small, discussing a critic who says that Huckleberry Finn isn’t even worth reading, not worthy of being called literature because of perceived moral failings on Huck’s part. True story.

It also exists all over the place, as all readers of ‘genre’ (sci-fi, fantasy, horror, mystery/crime) fiction know.

Lewis steers the reader away from such a perception of the universe, to a question rather of types of readers as against books. This distinction speaks of an attitude towards literature (or, indeed, any art). Does someone read and reread certain books multiple times? Does this person read for the sheer delight of words, images, stories, poems? Or does someone read a book but once, always seeking new territory? Does this person read for moral improvement, because these books are fashionable, because they are ‘important’?

The great thing is, in Lewis’s distinction between the many and the few regarding any art, we can all join the ranks of the many. We can all learn to reread and rewatch and relisten over and over again, to delight in words and rhythms, in brushstrokes and pirouettes, in appoggiaturas and crescendoes. It is partly a matter of attitude, partly a matter of practice, partly, in some ways, a matter of training.

I, for example, am by and large of the many when it comes to painting. I tire quickly of Attic black figure vases. Unless a painting is startingly breathtaking, I will not spend too much time on it. I believe that, with more exposure and patience, with more books about artistic technique, I could become a better ‘reader’ of paintings. If I wanted to.

So for readers.

This is not all Lewis has to say — there is a wonderful chapter on myth. But the book is worth a look. It is worth reading for making you think about how you read books, not simply which books you read. And that is a worthy endeavour.

Second, Studies in Words. To the non-philologist, this may be the most dreary of the three I have chosen to highlight. Nonetheless, this book gets my stamp of approval because his chapter on ‘Nature’ opened my eyes to some problems inherent in the study of Pope Leo.

Besides dealing with 10 particular words and how they are used and have evolved over time (nature, sad, wit, free, sense, simple, conscience/conscious, world, life, I dare say), this is one of those books that helps teach you how to read and think. You learn attentiveness to syllables, sounds, and meanings with a book of this sort. You start to watch the words you use and read more carefully.

What is wit? (See the film/play of the name!) Is there a difference between the old, 1662 Prayer of Humble Access saying, ‘…thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy’ and the Common Worship version, ‘…you are the same Lord, whose nature is always to have mercy’? What use of nature is that? I dare say that it will help you be a more careful reader, something we could all use.

Third, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature. I love this book. It opens the reader’s eyes to the mediaeval conception of the universe as well as to techniques and styles of literary rhetoric and of medieval tastes. The starkly pagan aspects of medieval philosophy are not shied away from, but the beauty of classical styles of rhetoric is upheld.

Lewis is fond of the Ptolemaic conception of the universe. In his discussion of this framework, he acknowledges the fact that it has been proven wrong. Yet who knows how accurate our current vision is? When a new spirit of thought begins to take hold, and new evidence is then discovered, then we shall no doubt dispense with it as well. In these thoughts, he is similar to Chesterton in an essay which escapes my mind, wherein G K says that it is not the visible and tangible that moves the unseen and philosophical but the other way ’round. A tree does not move the wind; the wind moves the tree.

And so, someday, as our worldview shifts, we will be able to reassess the evidence and may reach a vastly different conclusion about the makeup of the cosmos than current. It will not, Lewis admits, be Ptolemaic. Nonetheless, he is still fond of Dante’s universe, with the Primum Mobile moving everything out of Love of God. He recommends a couple of moonlit walks to help one come to an appreciation of the medieval conception of the universe.

This book also has a wonderful chapter on the longaevi, those numinous beings who inhabit so much of the folklore, myth, and literature of the pre-modern world, be they fairies, nymphs, minor gods, spirits of rivers, what-have-you. Worth a read.

But what does this have to do with Classic Christianity?

First of all, most Anglophone Christians who begin seeking older forms of our faith, especially if they are Protestants, do so either along with or through the influence of C S Lewis. A greater understanding of this highly influential thinker of the 20th century is, then, in order for such as these.

The other reasons are thus: Our access to our forebears of the faith is largely through their written words. To become better readers is to be able to better apprehend these words and thus more faithfully find a way forward in life with their aid. Fully one half of Christian history is medieval. To better understand the medieval world is to better understand our heritage as Christians. Third, much of the riches of ages past is locked away not in ‘straightforward’ theological treatises, but in poetry, in fiction, in not-so-clearly-theological philosophy, and so forth. To understand that aspect of the heritage more fully is to understand the heritage at large more fully.

Thus why you should read these three books.

Easter, Day 4: Thoughts from G K Chesterton

And now we are in the fourth day of Easter. Here is a brief thought from GK Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man. May you live with joy in this new creation:

On the third day the friends of Christ coming at daybreak to the place found the grave empty and the stone rolled away.  In varying ways they realized the new wonder; but even they hardly realized that the world had died in the night.  What they were looking at was the first day of a new creation, with a new heaven and a new earth; and in a semblance of the gardener God walked again in the garden, in the cool not of the evening but of the dawn.

Living and Active

Yesterday, a gentleman from Gideons International gave a presentation at our church. In his presentation he told stories of people who had received Gideon Bibles and, through those Bibles, come to knowledge of God and salvation.

There was the story of the Mexican criminal who received a Gideon Bible through the prison programme the Gideons run. He was converted to Christ and not only reformed his ways but even overcame his addiction to smoking overnight.

I can’t remember the details of most of the stories to do them justice, but I’ve heard others. Someone who had been in long discussions with some of her friends from Inter-Varsity about the probable existence of God went for a walk and encountered a Bible someone had left in a phone booth. She took it, read it, believed it, and believed in God.

Or the high school English teacher who was an atheist and decided he would read the Bible and mark down all the inconsistencies and systematically prove it false. The Bible got a hold of him instead, and he converted. This story I heard from the man himself. He said that it was half-way through his second reading of the Scriptures that he was overcome by the power of God and of his message. He became a Christian.

The Bible is powerfully central to Christianity. It transforms us from the inside out. If we allow it, the Bible challenges our methodologies, worldviews, presuppositions.

Of course, one could easily point to stories like the man who converted by a voice from the air. Or of people who, like the character in Chesterton’s ‘The Sign of the Broken Sword’, misread and misuse the Bible for wicked ends. Or of the fact that God is far bigger and better than Scripture.

Yet he has given us this gift, and it has the power to change lives.

We should never forget this, especially in times when Bible reading feels dry and arid because we’ve read it all before. In these words is life, and we need to suck the juices of that life out of them like when you eat a fresh mango and it runs down your chin.

A friend of mine once remarked about an Orthodox friend who was rediscovering his faith that she was a bit concerned because he was busy reading the lives of the saints and the history of the Church but not reading his Bible. And how many of the pious evangelicals can get caught for the same sin — so busy reading the latest Rick Warren or Max Lucado book, rereading CS Lewis and John Wesley? How many of us who read the Fathers can sometimes forget the Fathers’ primary text and source of inspiration and revelation?

May we never abandon the reading, careful study, and meditation upon the Bible. It is living and active. It will change us.

The path to orthodoxy involves ‘great peril to walk’

The Council of Nicaea, St. Sozomen's Church, Galata, Cyprus

Orthodoxy, that reasoned attempt to maintain in its whole the Apostolic Tradition as found in Scripture and the living life of the Church, is a narrow road, as we read in Leo the Great, Sermon 25:

Not only on works of virtue, not only on observance of the commandments lies that ‘narrow and difficult way leading to life,’ (Mt 7:14) but — along with these — on the path of faith. It involves great peril to walk, without stumbling, down the one path of sound doctrine among the dubious opinions of the unlearned and falsehoods which have the appearance of truth. It involves great labor and great peril to avoid every risk of deception when from all around snares of error set themselves in the way. (Trans. Agnes Josephine Conway and Jane Patricia Freeland for the ‘Fathers of the Church’ series)

To tread a path so perilous, how could it be naught but exciting, naught but thrilling, naught but a romance (in the mediaeval sense of the word). So thought G K Chesterton in his work Orthodoxy:

This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. …

To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect. (In context at The Chesterton Society)

These images of the persistence of Orthodoxy fit well with what I was reading earlier today in D. H. Williams,* who argues — for ‘Free Church’ evangelicals (i.e. Baptist types) — that the Tradition of the faith is not opposed to Scripture as many think, but that Tradition and Scripture co-inhere, for Scripture informs Tradition and was formed in the same period as the Tradition.

Through the decades, centuries, millennia, the Church has responded to crises of belief from within and from without. She responded to the challenges presented her by pagans and Jews, by Gnostics and Marcionites, by Donatists and Meletians, by Arians & Pneumatomachi, Appolinarians & Eutychians, by Manichaeans and Cathars. At each turn in this road fraught with peril, she saw what lay ahead and through prayerful consideration and reasoned examination, she determined which of the paths ahead of her was the narrow road that leads to Christ.

Thus, Tradition is not only not opposed to Scripture, it is not dead. It is the living deposit of faith coming from the Apostles through the historic Church to our hands. We are entrusted with this faith, these truths, and must communicate them to our own age, responding to the dangers along the trail, both within the Church and out.

And as we do so in this reeling, rollicking ride, may we always truth in love (one without the other is neither).

*D. H. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants, 34-39. He draws on concepts of tradition from Alisdair MacIntyre.

G. K. Chesterton and the Modern Protestant

NAMESAKE

Mary of Holyrood may smile indeed,
Knowing what grim historic shade it shocks
To see wit, laughter and the Popish creed,
Cluster and sparkle in the name of Knox.

G. K. Chesterton

That little poem by a large man, c. 1932, is part of the wider bewilderment with which Chesterton beheld the modern(ist?) Protestant, something he brings out fully in his book The Thing: Why I Am Catholic (my favourite quotations here).

In The Thing, Chesterton is not impressed by the Protestants he sees around him, for they seem unable to properly define a Protestant, for one thing. For another, the virtues they find in the writings of famous Protestants such as Milton and Bunyan are not things that are peculiarly Protestant. Rather, they are things that he sees as being peculiarly Catholic.

I would argue with dear Mr. Chesterton, however, that these things are not simply Catholic but more properly catholic. That is to say, the things that modern Protestants love about Milton and Bunyan, Shakespeare and Donne, may not be peculiarly Protestant things, but they are not Catholic in the sense of Roman/Romish/Papist/what-have-you, but catholic in the sense of universal — they are part of the common store of all Christians everywhere at all times, be they Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant.

Nevertheless, GKC has a point here. Chesterton is right in berating modern Protestants for not really liking the things that, historically, define them as Protestants. In the forefront of his mind seems to have been a dislike of some form of Calvinistic Predestination, which is a bit amusing, given that Predestination itself is as much part of the Catholic theology as Protestant, both groups being inescapably Augustinian despite their best efforts in recent times.

There is something troubling about a group that dislikes the things that define it and loves only those things that it has common with everyone else. Why, exactly, should one be part of said group? Why be a Protestant if the only things you like about Protestantism are things Protestants hold in common with Roman Catholicism? Why be a Christian if the only things you like about Christianity are things Christians hold in common with all religions?

While I do not argue we must all adhere strictly to the confessional documents of the 16th and 17th centuries, I do think we should take them into account, we should figure out if these adjectives of old — Protestant, Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, Reformed, Orthodox — actually refer to our particular set of beliefs or if we are merely followers of the heresy of Scholiastism (insert your own name before the -ism).

What makes a Protestant?

One evening, as a friend and I walked to Vespers at the local Orthodox Church, he remarked that he had invited some of our other friends who had responded by looking at him as though he had three heads. Another time, these same friends had chuckled in a, “Yeah, right,” sort of way when he said that he was as much a Protestant as they were.

The question has been raised here as to why I am not Eastern Orthodox, given that I seem to embrace so many Eastern Orthodox beliefs. The question is related to the response of more evangelical, Reformed Protestants who don’t see my Methodist/Episcopalian friend who appreciates Aquinas, incense, and Kallistos Ware as being “as Protestant” as they are.

What makes a Protestant?

GK Chesterton, in The Thing: Why I Am Catholic, takes issue with some of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century responses to this question, when people such as Dean Inge argued that basically being a Protestant was rising in protest whenever things were going wrong. He also has trouble with the fact that those things that make a Milton or a Bunyan delightful to the modern Protestant are things that Milton and Bunyan share with Catholics — not things that make them Protestant.

This question has needed answering for a good while, then.

According to Bruce McCormack at the University of Edinburgh’s Croall Lectures for this year, Protestants — the theologians, at least — should be working from within the framework of their confessional statements to produce a comprehensive worldview. He was not fond of those Protestants who produce either Catholicism light or a Patristic synthesis to theological issues. We should be identifiable through our adherence to the confessional statements of our tradition, according to McCormack. At least, that’s what I think he was saying.

For many contemporary Protestants, this is probably a bit of a problem, especially if we consider the very large number of Anglicans who are Arminians and thus cannot throw themselves wholeheartedly into Article of Religion 17, “On Predestination.” For me, saying that I must pledge my allegiance to a particular confession and produce theological thinking in accord with it is a definite problem, if we recall this post.

Nonetheless, I would still like to say that I am a Protestant. And being Protestant requires more than a rejection of papal claims. There are, I believe, certain doctrinal positions Protestants emphasise as well as certain approaches to doctrine and worship.

First of all, justification by faith. As a Protestant, I believe that nothing we do can make us justified before God. No amount of condign merit will justify me. It is the faith within the heart and life of the believer that justifies. God will justify those who have chosen to follow Him and put their trust in Him. From true faith will flow a life of good works, yes; but the good works are not what justify us but the fruit of the justified.

Second, the primacy (supremacy?) of Scripture for faith, life, and doctrine. A lot of Anglicans like pointing to Hooker’s three-legged stool of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, from which the removal of a single leg means utter disaster, saying that people like Mark Driscoll are troubling because of how much they overemphasise Scripture.

Well, the fact of the matter is, Scripture contains everything necessary for salvation. Other things might be okay, but they aren’t necessary. If it’s not in Scripture, it is not binding. Now, tradition and reason are important for the interpretation of Scripture. We can never escape them. That is the point of this whole website. But Scripture still stands supreme. If tradition, through the years, has come up with something counter to Scripture, the Church — the same Church who handed down the tradition — can jettison it after a long, painful process of prayer and searching the Scriptures together.

Third, I do not believe that a true Protestant will have a Roman understanding of the sacrifice of the Mass. That is to say, the idea that Christ himself is offered upon the altar as an immolation for our sins by the Priest who stands in Christ’s stead each Sunday. Now, the idea that there is a twofold sacrifice of ourselves, our souls and bodies, along with the gifts of bread and wine at the Holy Table — this is acceptable. It is also acceptable to say that the Eucharist recapitulates Christ’s atoning work and brings its benefits to the assembled Body through the Sacramental act (see Robert E. Webber, Worship Old and New).

As regards other aspects of the Sacrament, Protestants are divided. I, myself, follow Luther in The Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, as explained here. I affirm with my Anglican heritage that the Holy Eucharist and Holy Baptism are outward, visible signs of an inward, invisible grace.

If to be Protestant one must sign on to a confessional statement, most Protestants would have to believe in penal substitutionary atonement. And most of us do. And some of us believe in Christus Victor. Some of us, rascals that we are, believe in both. But this issue is more of an East vs. West question than a Protestants vs. the World question.

In fact, most of the major questions of Christology and Triadology (the study of the All-holy Trinity) do not have a particular spin from the Protestants, outside of heretics like Oneness Pentecostals. We tend to follow St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas on these issues. Some, like Reformed theologian T.F. Torrance, turn to Sts. Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria for their Christology. I, myself, follow a sort of Neo-Chalcedonian, Conciliar Christology with something of an Augustinian-Thomist Triadology for good measure. There’s nothing un-Protestant about that!

I’m getting tired. But I think that the issue of justification, the place of the Bible in the Christian life, and the question of the sacrifice of the Mass (tied into how you answer the first two) are among three of the defining points of Protestants.

I am a Protestant, and maybe even an Anglican.

Saint of Last Week: Dorothy L. Sayers

Sorry for not getting this up last week; I got busy with things I’m supposed to be doing …

When most people hear of Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957), they probably more often think of her as one of the twentieth century’s great mystery writers, and not one of the many Wondrous Women of the Faith. She is, however, both.

One of the things, in fact, that makes Sayers one of the Wondrous Women is the fact that she wrote mystery novels. I mean, this alone does not qualify one for a place in that illustrious group, but far too many Christians worthy of renown have led cloistered lives or were clergy. Not Sayers. She was a Christian in the real world writing detective fiction — and detective fiction of high calibre and literary worth, to boot!

Of course, it’s not the detective fiction that really makes Sayers worthy of mention. Nor is it the fact that she was one of the first women to graduate from Oxford with a Master’s degree. Nor is it the fact that she was on friendly terms both with GK Chesterton and the Inklings. It is the fact that, alongside these factors, she was a devout Anglo-Catholic who believed that the Christian creed provided one with a framework for living and thinking that saves one from chaos.

To this end, she wrote her book Creed or Chaos? as well as her series of radio dramas on the life of Christ called The Man Born to Be King. I’ve never read the former, but the latter is magnificent, from the Magi to the Resurrection. The characters of the biblical narrative come to life under her skillful writing. She puts magnificent dialogue into their mouths, dialogue that brings out the fullness of the events and their theological significance in a way that other fictionalised accounts of the life of our Lord and Saviour fail to do.

She also wrote a wonderful piece called Catholic Tales and Christian Songs. This is a collection of  poems on various aspects and angles of Christianity. My favourite is ‘Christ the Companion’:

WHEN I’ve thrown my books aside, being petulant and weary,
And have turned down the gas, and the firelight has sufficed,
When my brain’s too stiff for prayer, and too indolent for theory,
Will You come and play with me, big Brother Christ?

Will You slip behind the book-case? Will you stir the window-curtain,
Peeping from the shadow with Your eyes like flame?
Set me staring at the alcove where the flicker’s so uncertain,
Then suddenly, at my elbow, leap up, catch me, call my name?

Or take the great arm-chair, help me set the chestnuts roasting,
And tell me quiet stories, while the brown skins pop,
Of wayfarers and merchantmen and tramp of Roman hosting,
And how Joseph dwelt with Mary in the carpenter’s shop?

When I drift away in dozing, will You softly light the candles
And touch the piano with Your kind, strong fingers,
Set stern fugues of Bach and stately themes of Handel’s
Stalking through the corners where the last disquiet lingers?

And when we say good-night, and You kiss me on the landing,
Will You promise faithfully and make a solemn tryst:
You’ll be just at hand if wanted, close by here where we are standing,
And be down in time for breakfast, big Brother Christ?

Another aspect of her work is the translation for Penguin Classics of some of the great poetry of the Middle Ages: The Song of Roland and Dante’s Divine Comedy. At the time of her passing, her translation of Dante’s La Vita Nuova was underway, and another had to complete it in her stead. Her notes and introductions for Dante are magnificent and help the reader get into the story and its images, helping the reader see below the surface of Dante’s magnificent creation.

And what lies beneath the surface?

Christ and the great Faith that stretches from the Apostles to ourselves.

This is what Dorothy Sayers presents to us, adorned in beauty. She gives us the Apostolic Faith, the Apostolic Truth, clothed in beauty and splendour. And it is a rich faith, a deep faith, a faith worth believing. The richness of the poetry she composed and translated gives this wondrous faith of ours greater texture and believability than any of the apologetics produced by any of her contemporaries.

One could argue, in fact, that this is exactly what Anglo-Catholicism is for — the clothing of the deep, abiding truths of Christianity in beauty, splendour, and light, drawing us common people into the mystery of the love of Christ, a mystery sometimes shrouded in the smoke of incense, often touched with a great intimacy.

So the next time you check out Lord Peter Wimsey, ask also if they have a copy of The Man Born to Be King available. It is well worth a read.