C.S. Lewis Then and Nowby Wesley A. Kort
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Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963) was a distinguished scholar of medieval and Renaissance literature who taught at both Oxford University and Cambridge University. After his conversion to Christianity, Lewis began writing Christian apologetic works aimed at a popular audience. It is for these works that Lewis is now best remembered; especially in the U.S., where his books have sold in the millions and continue to be popular today. Perhaps because of this popularity, however, Lewis's Christian writings are generally dismissed by theologians as oversimplified and conceptually flawed. With this book, Wesley A. Kort hopes to rehabilitate Lewis and to demonstrate the value and continuing relevance of his work. Kort not only retrieves Lewis from the now-dated context of his writings, but also wrests him from the hands of evangelicals who have turned his word into gospel and mistaken his attacks on modernity for a retreat from the world. Kort addresses and refutes common prejudices about Lewis and shows that, although Lewis was sharply critical of the materialism and narcissism of modern culture, he nevertheless insisted that only through culture can Christian teachings effectively shape moral character. Lewis's desire for a fruitful, interactive relationship between Christianity and culture sharply distinguishes him from neo-orthodox theology and many contemporary Christian rejections of culture.
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The recent centennial of C. S. Lewis's birth marked a time not of decline but of increase in the potential importance of his work for American readers, especially in academic settings. Some of the earlier academic neglect is traceable to the diversity of his oeuvre, its cultural engagements, rhetorical style, and contributions to popular culture, especially science fiction and children's literature. But the academic climate, especially in literary studies, has changed. The formalism and disciplinary orthodoxy characteristic of English departments a few years ago kept them from accommodating the full range of Lewis's work. But now literary studies are interdisciplinary and take into account matters of theory and practice that also engaged Lewis. These include education and curricula, the consequences of bureaucracies for social space, value theory, the continuities between high and popular culture, the relation of power and ideology to beliefs and ideas, and what are taken to be the moral consequences of intellectual and technological imperialism.
The combination of literary with historical, theoretical, cultural, critical, and moral/religious ingredients normalizes Lewis's work in current literary studies. Literary studies increasingly are marked by intersections where literary and cultural interests, questions of belief and value, and awareness of popular culture, rhetoric, and social/economic power meet and interact. C. S. Lewis sounds at times like Stanley Fish, a major mover in recent changes within academic literary studies. At onepoint Lewis writes, "I do not think that Rhetoric and Poetry are distinguished by manipulation of an audience in the one and, in the other, a pure self-expression, regarded as its own end, and indifferent to any audience. Both these acts, in my opinion, definitely aim at doing something to an audience and both do it by using language to control what already exists in our minds." One could stitch that statement into one of Fish's essays on rhetoric in literary-critical work without leaving a seam.
Half a century ago literary environments were inhospitable to such collapsing of distinctions and such diversity of interest and genre. Academic attention to Lewis was primarily established and sustained by people drawn to the specifically religious aspects of his work. Lewis encouraged conservative Protestant literary scholars to relate their intellectual interests to their own Christian identities and beliefs. During the decades immediately following the Second World War, faculty in evangelical colleges and religiously conservative literary scholars in other institutions turned to Lewis as someone who articulated traditional Christian beliefs and values to academic culture. Lewis provided a model for those who wanted to maintain the role of Christian faith in intellectual life or were unwilling to let an increasingly secular academic culture marginalize the religious aspects of English and American literature and declare religious beliefs irrelevant to literary-critical tasks.
At the same time, there were other models for increasing the role of moral and religious interests in academic work. While Lewis appealed primarily to conservative Protestant intellectuals, scholars like Jacques Maritain provided a similar model for their Catholic counterparts. Like Lewis, Maritain received his education in an increasingly non- or even anti-religious academic environment that he also finally found personally unsatisfying and philosophically vulnerable. Maritain searched for alternatives to secular and materialist assumptions, converted to Catholicism, and worked out of a general Thomist philosophical orientation. Coming to the United States at the beginning of the war to teach philosophy first at Columbia and then at Princeton University, Maritain was able, along with others, to promote Thomist philosophy in secular settings. He extended the interests of Christian faith not only into moral philosophy but also into wider areas such as political and aesthetic theory. Lewis, while not so fully Thomist as Maritain, also drew heavily on medieval texts of Christian literature and philosophy, criticized modern culture for its neglect of traditional values, and articulated religious interests in scholarship and an intellectually examined religious account of the world. Both, in their differing ways and for differing audiences, were crucial figures for the changing climate of postwar American academic culture, which increasingly allowed for the articulation of moral and religious beliefs within literary, philosophical, and cultural studies.
During the latter half of the twentieth century, academic culture underwent a gradual reversal of the tendency during the first half to marginalize or exclude religion and religious interests in or from intellectual work. The increasingly confident secularism of the prewar decades was replaced by greater uncertainty and by an appreciation for the religious life of different cultures, particularly Asian. The traumas of war, rapid social change, and the internationalization of American culture have all contributed to an increased incorporation of religion into academic life. This new academic interest in religion joins the increasingly complex character of literary and cultural studies to presage a relevance of Lewis's work to academic, particularly literary, culture today.
Academic interest in Lewis has all along been paralleled by the continuing interest in Lewis among intelligent Christian readers in America outside the academy. It is perhaps more difficult to account for this broader admiration. Lewis, a smoking, alcohol-drinking British academic without strong doctrines of biblical authority or the Holy Spirit, seems exotic in relation to American evangelical culture and theology. His appeal very likely lay in the combination of his readable style with certain characteristics of his theological views. We should note that Lewis, like evangelicals, did not position himself primarily within or in defense of the church but spoke from and to a more personally oriented and construed faith. He was also sharply at odds with the main currents of modernity, as were readers of a conservative Protestant orientation. It was very likely helpful, too, that Lewis could be read as politically and socially conservative. This was possible not only because of his focus on personal faith rather than on a social gospel or political theology but also because he desired not to subvert public institutions but instead to realign them with their traditional sources. Finally, Lewis gave encouragement to intelligent lay readers in the face of disconcerting and popular theological currents of the postwar period such as the aggressively marketed "death of God" movement.
Academics and laity who admired Lewis and used his work as a resource and model for the redeployment of Christian belief in the context of modern culture came together to create centers of Lewis study such as that located at Wheaton College in Illinois. An evangelical institution of high academic standards, Wheaton melded the scholarly interest of some of its faculty in the work of Lewis with the popularity of his books among its intelligent constituency, and that combination has characterized similar institutions throughout the country.
Americans' interest in Lewis was not confined to such circles, however. The Narnia Chronicles found their way into public and school libraries throughout the country. Some of his work also had a recognized academic standing, although not on a level equal to other major English influences on American literary and philosophical studies during the period. Several of his books were standard in bibliographies of medieval and Renaissance literature and on Milton, and some of his writings on theodicy, miracles, and religious experience found their ways into anthologies and college textbooks on philosophy of religion. This broader interest, both popular and academic, was exploited, if that is not too harsh a word, by the Hollywood filming of Shadowlands. More sentimental than the BBC filming of the stage play, it constructed a relation between Lewis and themes dear to Americans, such as the inadequacy of intellectual, particularly theological, formulations in relation to experience, especially suffering, and the healing resources of the natural context of human life. However, it is fair to say that although the work of Lewis has had a wider currency in the culture, its appeal remains concentrated in the homes, offices, and institutions of conservative Protestant Americans, academic and lay.
It would be unfortunate if that limited concentration continued. In my opinion Lewis is increasingly relevant to the culture of American literary studies. At century's end, literary studies resemble hardly at all what was dominant a half century ago, and the change is such that it produces a far more fertile ground for the dissemination of his work. It is possible now to retrieve Lewis's work from the quarters in which during the past decades it has been largely confined, while also fortunately guarded and admired.
The attempt to position Lewis's work more fully within the interests of current literary academia involves a two-part effort. It must first demonstrate that Lewis should not be confined to parochial religious and cultural interests. It must then challenge an academic, literary culture that, due to the loss of certainty, is governed increasingly by the dynamics of distrust and the vagaries of personal, professional, and institutional power.
Mention of some negative strains in current literary culture should not send us in search of more receptive academic terrain in departments of religion or theological faculties. Those settings are presently structured by two contrary movements both inhospitable to Lewis. The first is sponsored by the ongoing attempt to subordinate religion to other ends, either to account for it in social scientific or historical terms or to harness it to political or psychological interests. The second movement is one that, rather than account for religion in other terms or subordinate it to something else, allows religion to be an account of the world and of people's relation to and in it but only in the context of specific religious traditions, communities, and institutions. Lewis can be aligned with neither of these two contrary and mutually aggravating campaigns. He does not subject religion, either in its origin or in its consequences, to other interests or terms, and he wants the account of things that religion can provide to be tested in and related to public culture.
Lewis, as I understand him, thus finds more potential appreciation and use in departments of literature than in departments of religious studies or theological schools. His diverse interests in cultural theory and criticism, rhetoric and power, in institutions, moral theory, popular culture, and even children's literature suit today's literature departments. While it would not do to call Lewis a postmodernist, it is nonetheless true that the interests that drive and shape his work (and that alienated him from mid-century academic culture) conform with those that mark current literary studies. However, Lewis also represents a potential challenge to current literary culture. That challenge asks whether the breakdown of traditional barriers, authorities, and distinctions in literary studies commits departments of literature to anti-religious and amoral ideologies. While Lewis shares much with the present ethos of literary and cultural studies, he does not share their present obsession with and deference to power, especially to power governed by nothing more than a market economy, the boundaries and directives of the profession or institution, and the self-interests of those who count themselves among the academic stars. There are, however, close parallels between the interests and style of Lewis and those of current literature faculties. They share a penchant for autobiography and personal reference, an intense but critical interest in culture, including popular culture, a skepticism toward the prevailing centers of academic and social power, and a strongly polemical style. But Lewis reveals that these interests and styles are not necessarily wedded to skeptical or self-serving motives and results but can also serve positive, public moral and spiritual ends.
It is helpful to notice that Lewis did not advocate religion and morality as something extraneous to literary scholarship and imparted to it from some other source. Religious and moral interests were integral to the material he studied and the critical work in which he engaged. As he points out in his autobiography, he was led to Christianity because it allowed him to take more fully into account what was important to many philosophical and literary texts and also to those intellectual and aesthetic experiences that he found to be significant and engaging. No source or authority, institutional or textual, needed to be invoked other than those already operative in and for his work: literary texts, their cultural contexts and consequences, and the tools of literary and cultural theory and criticism. A moral and religious disposition, he believed, provides a more adequate or appropriate setting or context for critical, interpretive, and constructive literary and cultural work than its modern, skeptical alternatives. Lewis could speak from religious belief and moral concern without alienating himself from or disenfranchising himself within English literary, humanistic academic culture.
The challenge to current literary studies that lies in Lewis's practice should not be missed. He did not have to pursue the moral and spiritual aspects of literary texts by bringing something to them from the outside. But literary studies unable or unwilling to take such matters into account and, a fortiori, those that actively discount them or reduce them to something less or other, must do so by deferring to something extrinsic to the reading of texts.
Finally, it is important to note that Lewis stressed those elements of religious faith and practice commodious and flexible enough to take the moral and religious aspects of literary and cultural studies into account and to provide critiques of them. He was unfettered by ecclesiastical authority, theological dogmatism, or religious controversy. He employed moral inquiry and religious categories within a cultural tradition largely supplied by the texts that, as a philosopher turned literary historian and critic, he studied and taught. These materials needed only to be retrieved, selected, and redeployed. Understanding and appreciating literary and philosophical texts require taking them seriously as accounts of the world and of people's relations to and within it. It is necessary to imagine oneself into the worlds they make available. In analyzing a particular textual account, it is not extraneous or gratuitous to ask what is and is not illuminating or satisfying, particularly when compared to other accounts. This inevitably raises and addresses questions of moral and religious belief.
American literary academic culture has recently seen a thawing of the secular certainties that for decades sustained a repression or occlusion of the moral and religious language of literary texts or of their relation to the moral and spiritual needs and potentials of the culture. We find ourselves today in a situation in which Lewis's project should receive fuller hearing. Indeed, his project contains potential value for efforts now either beginning or called for to explore the relation of religion and ethics to cultural studies and critiques that have changed the nature of literary scholarship in America. The centennial observance of Lewis's birth coincided with the emergence of a literary culture suited to his broadly catholic and intellectually complex religious orientations and convictions. My attempt to retrieve Lewis is largely a response to these new cultural conditions.
It is helpful to recall the historical context in which Lewis prepared for and entered his vocation. It was a context in which cultural retrieval had convincing voices and a ready audience. Lewis engaged English studies at just the time when they became legitimate fields of academic inquiry at Oxford and Cambridge. An academic field newly institutionalized, English rapidly gained visibility and prestige. Perhaps the British literary critic and theorist Terry Eagleton exaggerates when he writes, "In the early 1920s it was desperately unclear why English was worth studying at all. In the early 1930s it had become a question of why it was worth wasting your time on anything else." He contends that in a very short time, one during which, we should keep in mind, Lewis entered the field as a student and as a teacher, English became the central subject, "immeasurably superior to law, science, politics, philosophy or history." But several factors give at least some credence to Eagleton's claims.
English, when Lewis entered it, had very much what we would now call a "cultural studies" shape. One reason for this is that literature was the chief source of England's cultural capital. In addition, the legitimacy and popularity of English studies were assured by the social concerns of young scholars who took it up. English provided the cultural content for an emerging academic population of middle-class sons among whom Lewis can be included. It provided a canon that both was subversive to the cultural authority of aristocrats and countered the emerging radical force of a political and social left.
In addition to such matters of cultural capital and authority and more to the point of our interests here, the rise of English studies also carried strong moral aims. English studies brought scholars in touch with the nineteenth-century affirmation of literature as a unifying and morally rectifying resource. Indeed, identification of literature and criticism with the moral and spiritual prospects of society was a constant in the nineteenth century, reaching its fullest statement in the work of Matthew Arnold. The retrieval or continuation of this agenda was undertaken both despite the consequences of the First World War and because of them. In the period immediately following the war, sharp discontinuities were felt between the post- and prewar societies. Radical changes in behavior and values, accompanied by greater mobility and rapidly increasing urbanization, created moral uncertainty and a diminished sense of shared values and norms. The rise of English as an academic discipline offered a counter-thrust to these radical changes by retrieving the moral content of the literary tradition and critical vocation, redeploying them in postwar culture. English studies created continuity with the literary tradition and warranted the role of the literary scholar as cultural critic and moral theorist.
Powerful philosophical currents also supported the emergence of English literary studies as a dominant intellectual force in Oxford. Idealism, with its stress on human reason, morality, and spirit, was very much a part of the academic climate of Oxford in the years of Lewis's development as a scholar. This encouraged him to bring classical and modern idealist perspectives to his literary work. They helped to shape his understanding of the imagination, to support his interest in the comprehensive range and unifying force of myth, to sustain his attention to essences and universals, to substantiate his confidence in human rationality, and to give relevance to medieval philosophy and literature and to such particular writers as Spenser, Milton, and the Romantics. Indeed, Lewis's philosophical and literary canon can be seen as strung on an idealist line from Plato to William Morris.
Retrieval, then, was a primary scholarly, cultural, and moral project for Lewis. But retrieval was never for him simply a matter of return. It could be argued that Lewis was infected with the kind of nostalgia that marked the Romantics he so much admired. I believe, however, that Lewis was as much a forward-looking person, both as scholar and as believer, as he was a retriever of the past. He looked for yet unheard-of advances in human development, and in this way he participated very much in the spirit of modernity. But he was also convinced that these advances would go awry if not steadied and directed by relations with the past. Respect and appreciation for the past does not mean control by or limitation to its achievements. It is a modern caricature of retrieval that sees it only as reactionary. The past is neither irrelevant to the present nor a repository of answers to the questions raised in and by present time.
Our own retrieval of Lewis also will be neither only a return to him nor an attempt to install his views as fully adequate to the needs of our present cultural location. We will walk a path between advocates of the present literary culture who see Lewis as hopelessly bound to and by his own culture and those opponents of current academic culture who are willing to see Lewis as adequate in the present time for recovering relations between religious/moral interests and literary/cultural studies. This work is aligned with his by its opposition to both these options. Lewis had a strong sense of historical change, and he understood that religion and morality are articulated and practiced in and for specific cultural situations. His own views and methods are both relevant to us now because some aspects of his culture persist today and not relevant to the extent that his situation as a mid-century Englishman differs from ours as Americans beginning a new century. Indeed, Lewis contends that appreciation of the past is necessary if a person is to recognize the present as also a distinct period and as having, therefore, its own limitations and "characteristic illusions." Given both the continuities and the contrasts between our cultural location and his, our retrieval of his work must be as selective, as relevant to the present situation, and as forward-looking as was his own. It is in the spirit of his retrievals, in other words, that this one is undertaken.
English academic culture is only one of the factors that help us to understand the development of Lewis's vocation. His own life experience, drifting away from his Christian upbringing and experimenting with a variety of belief options, also shaped his sense of vocation and academic identity. The post- or anti-Christian views he adopted as a young man were those he would later attack. Indeed, it is fair to say that he saw his own life as an epitome of a larger pattern that English culture could be seen as following. As he in his own life drifted away from Christian moorings into improvised and eclectic spiritualities and popular materialism and narcissism, so English culture neglected its ties to the past and its sense of shared morality and spiritual aspiration. He could address competing ideologies and orientations as one who knew them from within and had found them wanting. As he felt compelled to retrieve a relation to his religious past, so he also believed that the culture required a comparable change of orientation. It would be greatly impoverished if it did not and foreboded a severely limited and morally distorted future for English people. His analysis of the culture of the twenties and early thirties led him to see his own conversion and identity change as needed as well for those around him, especially in academic culture. It led him to attempts to compel them also to retrieve.
Lewis, like many others in the society, had given himself gradually to a popular, uncritical materialism. His conversion or return to Christianity by way of idealism led first to a recognition of the inadequacy of materialism's account of the mind and imagination. Idealism also allowed for an orientation to the Absolute, which Lewis understood as personal and active. Lewis, with his strong interest in moral theory, then recognized the moral identity of God and finally God's intrusion into human life. As he put it, "my own progress had been from 'popular realism' to Philosophical Idealism; from Idealism to Pantheism; from Pantheism to Theism; and from Theism to Christianity."
This sequence of events suggests the distance between his cultural location and our own. We live in a culture in which philosophical idealism does not provide, as it did for Lewis, a culturally available bridge to religious belief. Nor can attention to the moral and spiritual language of literary texts be defended, as it once was, by idealist philosophical beliefs. The decline and eventual disappearance of shared cultural idealism constitutes a major challenge today for any attempt to take the moral and religious significance of literary culture into account.
Excerpted from C. S. LEWIS THEN AND NOW by Wesley A. Kort. Copyright © 2001 by Wesley A. Kort. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
Wesley A. Kort is Professor of Religion at Duke University. His publications include "Take Read": Scripture, Textuality, and Cultural Practice (1996), Bound to Differ: The Dynamics of Theological Discourses (1992), and Story, Text, and Scripture: Literary Interests in Biblical Narrative (1988).
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