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Transpositions Has Moved

May 19, 2011

As of tomorrow morning, the 19th of May, this site will be history and will be the new Transpositions, so make sure to add this to your bookmarks and stop by for a visit. We invite all of you who have been following Transpositions to switch over to the new site, which means subscribing to our new RSS feed, and getting updates through Facebook and Twitter. If you were subscribed to this blog by email, we will be transferring your email subscription for you, and you may have already received a notice in your inbox.

Thanks to everyone who has participated in our conversations about theology and the arts over the past year, and we look forward to many to come at the new Transpositions!

The Evolution of the Crucifixion in Art

May 19, 2011

Elijah Wade Smith is a musician and visual artist pursuing his PhD at the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts at St Mary’s College, the University of St Andrews, as well as ordination as a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Church of Scotland. He contributes to the blogs Lost in the Cloud and Things and Stuff.

Elijah has recently published a seven part essay titled “The Evolution of the Crucifixion in Art” on his blog Things and Stuff.  The original title for this essay was The Development and Justification of Violent and Extreme Depictions of Suffering in European Crucifixion Scenes of the Late Middle Ages’, but this was a bit cumbersome. He has graceously allowed us to post the introduction of his essay on Transpositions, and you can view the other parts of his essay by using the links below:

  1. Introduction
  2. Theological and ecclesiastical developments in the Western Church
  3. Social and cultural developments in the Western Church
  4. The conflated Man of Sorrows’
  5. The intimate ‘Man of Sorrows’
  6. Grünewalds masterpiece
  7. Conclusion

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The first time a Westerner sees the piece they might be unsure of what to make of it.  The nude figure resembles familiar depictions of the Passion of Christ, bearing a crown of thorns, sitting with his head slumped over and eyes closed.  But there are also two perplexing differences: this Christ is hooked up to an IV and covered with sores.  One reads the title: Man of Sorrows: Christ with AIDS.1

This is American artist Maxwell Lawton’s definitive work, but what is it doing?  With such a striking representation of Christ perhaps Lawton is making a critique of some sort.  Is it a profane image intended to mock American Christianity’s relative apathy toward the global AIDS crisis or more profane yet: to irreverently associate the judgmental American Evangelical view of Christ with the stigma-ridden communities associated with AIDS simply to upset conservative onlookers?  Or was it Lawton’s goal to communicate something far more profound, relevant, personal and theologically significant?

When we look into the long history of Christian art Lawton’s Christ with AIDS bears a striking resemblance to the images of Christ’s Passion that appeared in late medieval Europe from which he is intentionally borrowing.  During this period we find images depicting extreme suffering in the context of a graphically violent—and in some respects, non-historical—crucifixion scene.  It is our argument that these depictions of the ‘Man of Sorrows’ motif (in contrast to the common first-millennium depiction of ‘Christ in Victory’ motif) are justifiable in light of the developing theological, ecclesiastical and societal/cultural context of Europe in the Late Middle Ages.  We will also analyse how these developments were demonstrated in late medieval religious art, paying special attention to Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece.2

Read parts twothreefourfivesix, and seven at Things & Stuff.

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1 Maxwell Lawton, Man of Sorrows: Christ with AIDS, 1994, St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town.  Maxwell Lawton, ‘Maxwell Lawton: Gallery’; Available from; Internet; accessed 28 April 2011.
2 It must be acknowledged that even within the narrow context of the West—the Roman Catholic Church—these changes in devotional practice take place at different rates in different locations.  Still, it is possible—with the evidence at our disposal—to come to definitive conclusions for Europe in general regarding its development.  See Rachel Fulton, From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ & the Virgin Mary, 800-1200 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 63.

The Meaning of a Photograph?

May 18, 2011

It is my intention to present – through the medium of photography – intuitive observations of the natural world which may have meaning to the spectators. – Ansel Adams

Transpositions is Moving!

May 16, 2011

On Friday morning, Transpositions will be moving to a new and improved site, and we wanted to let you know now so that you can be prepared to move with us. We are setting up an automatic redirection service from this current site and will be transferring those who have signed up to receive emails, but if you are following us with a RSS feeds, you will need to subscribe to the new feed once we go live. At this point, we are just giving advance notice, but we will give all the instructions on the new site this Friday.

In the meantime, you can ‘like’ our Facebook page and definitely stay tuned to Twitter where we will be providing updates. Thanks to all of you who have followed Transpositions over the last year, and we look forward to continuing our conversations on theology and the arts at our new location.

Ethics and the Implicit Beholder

May 16, 2011

Lately, I have been thinking about how when we look at a painting we not only complete or finish what the artist began, but we also can become unwitting participants in the fictional world of the painting. In his wonderful essay “The Work of Art and Its Beholder,” Wolfgang Kemp argues: “In the same way that the beholder approaches the work of art, the work of art approaches him, responding to and recognizing the activity of his perception.” Kemp’s essay is essentially an explanation of ‘aesthetic reception,’ a methodological approach to art history, which takes this aspect of works of art very seriously. Aesthetic reception recognizes that works of art are made for an “implicit beholder” and that looking at works of art involves an “asymmetrical” communication between the artist and the real beholder.

 He develops his theory through an interesting analysis of Nicolas Maes’ The Eavesdropper (1655above). Our status as ‘implicit beholders’  is obvious because the painting addresses the viewer through the maid who looks ‘out’ of the painting. The painting is a comment on the moral implications of looking, and it invites consideration of when an onlooker becomes an eavesdropper.  In a sense, The Eavesdropper provides the viewer with a fictional choice. Should we join the maid in her invitation to be an eavesdropper? Should we pull back the curtain? Although the maid invites us into the scene, it is, of course, impossible to see or hear what is happening in the room beyond.  As Kemp says, it is “by the art’s grace [that] we have “only” the painting.”

After reading Kemp’s discussion of The Eavesdropper, I was reminded of the work of contemporary painter Eric Fischl. Many of his paintings, like Maes’, have a domestic setting, but in these familiar and intimate settings (at least for those who live in homes like them) Fischl often confronts us with disturbing scenes.  What is most interesting about Fischl’s work, however, is his ability to make the viewer feel as though he is witnessing and potentially implicated in the scene before him.


His painting The Bed, The Chair, Dancing, Watching (2000, above), masterfully draws the viewer into the action of the scene. A middle aged man sits, nude, upon a white chair covered in a strikingly red floral patter. He looks straight at me, scrutinizes me. I become aware of a shadow on the wall, and I recognize that a woman is undressing before this man, and that I am somehow standing in her place. What relationship do these two people have? What exactly is going on here? Needless to say, I feel uncomfortable and unnerved by looking at this painting. I am thrown into the scene and become a complicit participant as this narrative unfolds. While Maes offers us the grace of a curtain, the only grace offered by Fischl is that we do not see what happens next.  The bed directly behind the man suggests where the story is headed, and his gaze is hardly one of love and care.

Both Maes and Fischl place the viewer into awkward positions.  By simply looking at these paintings we are caught up in a tense moment when some choice, or some action, is demanded of us.  While such a position can be unnerving, it may help us to explore a moral dilemma in a ‘safe place.’  Furthermore, they may also help us to develop sympathy for others faced with difficult decisions.  Because we are participants in these scenes, we cannot simply judge the actions displayed as though we are on the ‘outside.’  In a fictional, and yet powerful, way we stand in the shoes of another.

Image Credit: The Eavesdropper and The Bed, The Chair, Dancing, Watching

C. S. Lewis: Writer and Poet

May 14, 2011

Review of  Part III: Writer (chapters 19-21). Alan Jacobs, “The Chronicles of Narnia,” 265-280; Peter J. Schakel, “Til We Have Faces,” 281-293; Malcolm Guite, “Poet,” 294-310 from Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis, Robert MacSwain and Michael Ward, Editors., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. This review is the final in our week long series!

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The final three chapters by Alan Jacobs, Peter Schakel and Malcolm Guite, like the others of Part III: Writer are occupied with Lewis as a writer of fiction and poetry.

Jacobs’ chapter on “The Chronicles of Narnia” explores why Lewis might have chosen to write fiction for children, despite many scholars finding it an odd choice for an older childless literature Professor. Both Danny Gabelman and Steve Schuler have expressed disappointment in the lack of consideration of links with Lewis’s fiction and his most significant fictional influences in their reviews of the first two sections of the Companion. Jacobs almost single handedly saves this volume from those charges being wholly proved. His discussion of faery is also particularly strong (271-274).

Jacobs also demonstrates the way in which Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia has shifted the Lewisian scholarly universe, though his assertion that Ward’s argument is ‘iron-clad’ seems prone to claims of overstatement, even though I too agree that it is particularly persuasive scholarship (269). Jacobs argues persuasively that Ward’s argument problematizes Lewis’s suggestion that he was ‘imaginative man’ and ‘religious writer’ (269). Jacobs questions the reality of Lewis’ authorial statements. The last section of the chapter is also concerned with assessing the scholarly impact of Planet Narnia (2008) which he connects with his argument about sovereignty (discussed below).

So too does he question Lewis’s views (as reported by Walter Hooper) on the ordering of the series. This is not a new argument, and it seems ill-placed in the midst of this chapter. Moreover, this section contains an odd assertion that Jacobs knows best the ordering, and that Lewis, if he disagreed with Jacobs, is “mistaken”:

If Lewis really and truly thought that the series was begun with The Magicians Nephew, he was simply mistaken. The original order of publication is the best for any reader wishing to enter Narnia. (271)

What is most odd about this assertion is that the previous page was spent explaining a different ordering based on internal consistency.  All in all, this section doesn’t advance the chapter, providing too little information for those who’ve not come across the debate before while casting aspersions without sufficient evidence which fails to satisfy those that are familiar with the debate. It may have been better to leave this section out altogether as it curiously diminishes an otherwise strong chapter.

There is only one section in this chapter where Jacobs offers a substantive critical argument. Titled ‘Disputed Sovereignty,’ the section contends that the ‘story in itself’ of The Chronicles of Narnia is that of sovereignty, the crown’s rightful heir and usurpation of the throne. It’s a generally straightforward critical argument which concludes in a very brief summary which restates the argument that the Narnian Chronicles are an allegorical representation of the Christian gospel.  The bald assertion isn’t so much the problem as the lack of links made throughout the ‘disputed sovereignty discussion’ with Jacobs’ conclusion. It is a difficult argument to follow to its conclusion if one doesn’t already have a background in the scholarship.  Jacobs offers no textual evidence and no real framework by which this interpretation comes about:

In short: there is a King of Kings and Lord of Lords whose Son is the rightful ruler of this world. Indeed, through that Son all things were made, and the world will end when he ‘comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead’, though ‘his kingdom will have no end’, in the words of the Nicene Creed. Meanwhile, in these in-between times, the rulership of Earth is claimed by an Adversary, the Prince of this world. And what is asked of all Lewis’s characters is simple, as the biblical Joshua put it, to ‘choose this day’ whom they will serve. (275-6)

In many ways this chapter is strong, but one wonders what might have been had Jacobs taken his end point as his beginning: “But understood more deeply and fully, the Chronicles, with their elaborate complement of images, contribute to an askesis, a spiritual exercise. They are a kind of training in how to long and who, to long for” (279).

Peter S. Schakel’s chapter considers Lewis’s last published work of fiction: “Til We Have Faces.” Schakel offers a chapter particularly well suited to the purpose and likely audience of the Companion. He offers a overview of the background, form, and themes of Til We Have Faces in a manner that will guide those looking for a first foray into research about the work. He gives a nod to many of the strains of criticism most prevalent and finishes by suggesting that this work is indeed work of high critical praise, though he wonders whether given Lewis’s aim for the work, he may have fallen short of the expectations of his reading audience. Like Jacobs, it is Schakel’s final line that offers insight into his own interpretative approach: “Likewise readers must learn how to see what they are shown by the myth, shown – or enabled to taste – what the essence of Christianity is, and not simply told what it is about” (290).

In the last chapter of the Companion, Malcolm Guite explores Lewis as a “Poet” (294-310). While first acknowledging Lewis’s formidable powers as a poetry critic, Guite sees his task to assess his poetic output anew. Guite is well placed for this task, and as very few are able, he makes reading poetic criticism feel like refreshment. Guite argues persuasively for a more charitable reading of Lewis’s verse suggesting that he is much more concerned with the crises of modernity than has been acknowledged and his “redemptive reintegration” in all areas of his work is equally apparent in his poetry (308). The strength of this chapter is in Guite’s even handed assessment of Lewis’s poetry that offers a reading which highlights the influence of Owen Barfield, W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot. It also shows that Lewis’s poetry is better than the middling to minor poet status he’s been heretofore awarded. Lewis is considered a war poet, a contemporary poet concerned with modernity, and a poet within the Irish tradition of Yeats (which does accord with his birth).  In many aspects this is the most original of the final three chapters, and, I would argue, one of the Companion’s contributions most likely to have enduring impact on Lewis scholarship.


I hope you’ve enjoyed the extended review of the Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis over the past week. As a final point, if you are looking for a useful addition to your Lewis library either as a student or a professor, there is much in this Companion to commend it, not least the bibliography which offers a good selection of secondary sources that go beyond the popular and the most obvious.

C. S. Lewis: Writer (of journeying and heavenly things)

May 13, 2011

Guest Contributor, Travis Buchanan offers this discussion of Part III: Writer (chapters 16-18). The discussion below assumes familiarity with David Jasper, “The Pilgrim’s Regress and Suprised by Joy,” 223-236; T.A. Shippey, “The Ransom Trilogy,” 237-250; Jerry L Walls, “The Great Divorce,” 251-264 from Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis, edited by Robert MacSwain and Michael Ward, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,  2010.

* * *

Conveniently, all six of the works by Lewis surveyed in these three chapters from the Cambridge Companion cohere in that they are concerned at various levels with the motif of a heavenly journey of one kind or another. Taking them in order: in The Pilgrim’s Regress we are exposed to John’s allegorical journey toward Christianity; in Surprised by Joy Lewis recounts for us his own intellectual and spiritual  journey ‘from “popular realism” to Philosophical Idealism; from Idealism to Pantheism; from Pantheism to Theism; and [finally] from theism to Christianity’ (1943/1976, 5), a figurative and actual heavenly destination; in the Ransom trilogy, Ransom first travels to space which he discovers is not the vast lifeless vacuum of popular science but the true and living heavens, teeming with life, as he voyages first to Malacandra (or Mars) in Out of the Silent Planet and then to Perelandra (or Venus) in Perelandra. The final installment (That Hideous Strength) concludes in a reversal of the first two books with rather a descent of the heavenly deities of our solar system to earth to frustrate the demonically-inspired plans of the N.I.C.E.; and finally, The Great Divorce narrates the dream or visionary journey from purgatory-hell to heaven of a particular man. One cannot read these works and fail to conclude with Jasper that ‘the pursuit of joy’ ‘finally defined for [Lewis] in Christianity’ ‘was, indeed, the central quest of his life’ (227–228). It may be that Jasper is more interested in ‘that Romantic longing which drives the journey’ in pursuit of joy than any ‘theological destination’ in which it might culminate (223), but he is mistaken in his claim that Lewis is too. Jasper errs in implying that Lewis (as well as his great influence and heavenly guide in The Great Divorce, George MacDonald) would affirm the Romantic characteristic that ‘it is not the arrival itself but the journeying and the joyful anticipation which are the true homecoming’ (224). Apparently this affects how Jasper reads Lewis’s accounts, for he says of Regress that ‘the journey and the quest of this book continue to haunt the reader, even if the final goal of Lewis’s Christianity itself finally fails to attract or persuade’ (225). In other words, it is the Romantic quest that matters (as far as Jasper is concerned in this chapter), and not the theological destination at its end.

Fittingly, Lewis might answer Jasper from the book reviewed in the third of these chapters here considered, The Great Divorce. In an exchange between a liberally-minded clerical ghost resistant to ‘a final answer’, and insistent on always being given ‘the free play of Mind’ defined by unending inquiry and the contention (not dissimilar to Jasper’s) that ‘to travel hopefully is better than to arrive’, one of the ‘Bright People’ who inhabit heaven countered as follows:

If that were true, and known to be true, how could anyone travel hopefully? There would be nothing to hope for. […]You think that, because hitherto you have experienced truth only with the abstract intellect. I will bring you where you can taste it like honey and be embraced by it as by a bridegroom. Your thirst shall be quenched. […] Listen! Once you were a child. Once you knew what inquiry was for. There was a time when you asked questions because you wanted answers, and were glad when you had found them. Become that child again: even now. […] Thirst was made for water; inquiry for truth. What you now call the free play of inquiry has neither more nor less to do with the ends for which intelligence was given you than masturbation has to do with marriage. (1946/1996, 43–44)

Perhaps one factor contributing to the reason that for some Lewis might paint the earthly journey more interestingly than the heavenly destination (or, similarly, why Milton’s Satan might receive more praise than his characterization of unfallen angels or of God the Father or God the Son for that matter) is that the fallen sphere (wherein the whole life of the Christian is one, as Augustine said, of ‘holy longing’) is more accessible and so describable than the heavenly one, though Lewis does well even there, as the Ransom trilogy and The Great Divorce especially testify. The difficultly of describing the Christian’s eternal home is one not unique to Lewis however. Scripture encounters the same problem, and thus its attempts to picture the eternal state are thrown back upon earthly imagery (thrones and jewels and temples and rivers and trees).

But what else could serve other than metaphor and analogy to make the unpicturable intelligible to its mortal audience? The apostle Paul expresses this difficulty in describing what he witnessed when he was ‘caught up to the third heaven’ by baldly stating that there he ‘heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter’ (2 Cor. 12:2, 4). But how exactly would one relate to humans ‘what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him’ (1 Cor. 2:9)? Or as Jesus questioned Nicodemus regarding being born again, ‘If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?’ (John 3:12). Lewis puts his finger on the problem in his second preface to Screwtape Letters in confessing he bore

a sort of grudge against my book for not being a different book which no one could write. Ideally, Screwtape’s advice to Wormwood should have been balanced by archangelical advice to the patient’s guardian angel. Without this the picture of human life is lopsided. But who could supply the deficiency? Even if a man—and he would have to be a far better man than I—could scale the spiritual heights required, what ‘answerable style’ could he use? For the style would really be part of the content. Mere advice would be no good; every sentence would have to smell of Heaven. (1961, xiv)

The journey toward joy is immensely interesting, especially when depicted by as gifted a writer and as deep a thinker as Lewis. But we must not be so captivated by his focus upon Desire, and he would warn us not to be, that we lose sight of Desire’s end, the object for which it exists, which in this case is a Subject—God himself. The point as Lewis would stress is to get ‘further up and further in’ (as in The Last Battle), to scale the distant mountains (as in The Great Divorce). And so the first words spoken to the ‘good and faithful servant’ by his master are not, ‘My what a journey you’ve had—to travel hopefully is better than to arrive you know . . .’ but rather an invitation to come ‘further up and further in’: ‘Enter into the joy of your master’ (Matt. 25:23).

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Travis Buchanan just completed his M.Litt. at the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts at the University of St Andrews and is beginning research for his PhD.

C.S. Lewis: Violence and Suffering

May 12, 2011

Guest Contributor, Ryan Mullins, offers this review of Part II: Thinker (chapters 14-15). Stanley Hauerwas, “On violence,” 189-202; Michael Ward, “On suffering,” 203-222 from Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis, edited by Robert MacSwain and Michael Ward, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: 2010.

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Chapters fourteen and fifteen focus on violence and suffering. Michael Ward’s chapter on suffering examines Lewis’ views on the problem of pain. Ward’s contention is that Lewis’ views on suffering develop between the end of WWI and Lewis’ conversion in 1931. After Lewis’ conversion he explores his ideas in various writings, but Lewis never changes his position on the nature of suffering. Several aspects of Lewis’ views on suffering are discussed as they appear in The Problem of Pain, Five Sonnets, and A Grief Observed. I’ll mention three. First, pain and suffering can have a positive effect in one’s life. One may recall Lewis’ idea that pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world. Second, despite the potential benefit of suffering, pain is something that we should seek to avoid and relieve. Suffering is not a good in itself. Third, the suffering of Christ is something to be imitated. The cross of Christ, however, can only be understood by the miracle of the resurrection. The vindication of Christ on the 3rd Day allows us to reinterpret Christ’s sufferings. When one looks at the cross, we see the agony of Jesus. He is despised by all, condemned by the authorities, and put on a cross as one forsaken by God. But the miracle of the resurrection demonstrates that Jesus is not forsaken.

In the chapter on violence, Christian pacifist Stanely Hauerwas delves into Lewis’ views on war. Hauerwas examines and rejects Lewis’ arguments against pacifism. For Lewis, war is a fact of life that must be dealt with. As Hauerwas points out, Lewis never explicitly defends just war theory, but Lewis does hold many of its common elements. For instance, war is always a last resort that must be declared by a lawful authority. A just war must be a defensive act and never imperialistic. In order to be just, the war must have limited aims with a substantial chance of success. Also, the combatants must have a willingness to take responsibility for their actions and seek to protect civilians. For Lewis, a just war can only be fought by people who exemplify virtues like justice, goodness, chivalry, and honor.

During WWII Lewis presented a paper called “Why I Am Not a Pacifist” to the Oxford Pacifist Society. Part of Lewis’ argument depends on his version of natural law ethics. For Lewis, moral reason must work from principles. One starts with moral intuitions and self-evident truths. A moral intuition is a basic principle that no rational moral agent would doubt. Then one must arrange these intuitions with a possible moral task in such a way that they yield a proof (a deductive argument) that can be judged as true or false. This process of moral reasoning is always open to correction by argument and authority. As Lewis sees it, certain moral principles are derived from the authority of common sense which reflects the natural law that constitutes our human nature. For instance, the notion that one should act benevolently is obvious to everyone. As one moves from culture to culture she can find differences in customs, etiquette, and laws, but she will not find a difference in basic moral principles. (For Lewis fans, you may recall Lewis’ doctrine of the ‘Tao’ found in The Abolition of Man.)

One of his objections to pacifism is that it rests on a moral intuition that it is always wrong to take a human life. This is connected with another moral belief that persons can do good for someone without harming others. Lewis objects to these principles on the grounds that they are not obvious. In fact, they are obviously false. There seem to be instances where we cannot do good to person X without causing harm to person Y. Say a homicidal maniac is attacking an innocent victim. It may not be possible to save the victim without using force against the maniac.

Hauerwas’ finds Lewis’ objection unpersuasive. He notes that Lewis is arguing against a version of pacifism that was popular in England after WWI. Hauerwas does not think that the objection refutes his version of Christian pacifism. However, Hauerwas concedes that Lewis’ argument could be used to establish a peaceable police force, but denies that it could be used to justify a war. Why could it not justify a war? Hauerwas doesn’t say. I suspect that his reasons derive from a fundamental difference that he has with Lewis. For Hauerwas, ethics is not based primarily on principled reasons. Ethics is based on virtues that appear in narratives. The basis of Christian pacifism is not the moral principle that it is always wrong to kill a human person. Instead, Hauerwas holds that the basis is the entire character of Jesus’ life.

Space does not allow me to examine the arguments over which are more fundamental—principles or virtues. Nor does it allow me to ask if Hauerwas’ ethical theory is a plausible option for Christians to take amongst the available ethical theories. Instead, I will end with some reflections on the agreement between Hauerwas and Lewis.

For both thinkers, our imaginations must be baptized. Out entire way of thinking about reality must be reinterpreted by Christ’s resurrection. Until Christ returns we will have poverty, natural disasters, and war. Instead of trying to eradicate all evil, Christians should be engaged in small specific tasks such as ending the slave trade. One aspect of apocalyptic writing that Lewis and Hauerwas agree upon is that it teaches us that the way the world at present is not the way things have to be. Violence and suffering are facts of life, but they do not have to be. Pain is God’s megaphone that tells us that something is wrong with the world. Suffering can be good for us in some instances, but on the whole it is to be resisted. Christians ought to engage in non-violent activities that demonstrate God’s goal for the world.  “We live as though the world is as it should be, to show it what it can be.”

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Ryan Mullins holds an M.A. in Philosophy of Religion from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and is a current PhD student in Theology at the University of St Andrews working on the philosophy of time and God’s eternality.

C. S. Lewis: On Love, Gender, and Power

May 11, 2011

Guest Contributor, Beth Tracy, offers this review of Part II: Thinker (chapters 11-13). Caroline J. Simon, “On  Love,” 146-159; Ann Loades, “On Gender,” 160-173;  Judith Wolfe, “On Power,” 174-188 from Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis, edited by Robert MacSwain and Michael Ward, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: 2010.

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In chapter eleven, “On Love,” Caroline Simon focuses primarily on Lewis’s slim but appropriately titled volume The Four Loves.  She says “its conversational style and relative brevity” give it a deceptively simple appearance (146).  Lewis is anything but simplistic and Simon does an admirable job of teasing apart his theoretical work making his schematic on love understandable and eminently approachable.

The four types of love are Friendship, Romantic, Christian and Affection.  In addition to these are three analytical categories: Need-love, Gift-love, and Appreciative Love.  Simon’s descriptions of these supplementary elements are especially strong.  She further anchors Lewis’s theories in his specific cultural context.  This allows the reader to see Lewis’s limitations as well as his lasting contributions.  Simon shows Lewis to be well aware that his views of love were culturally influenced.  However, while building on the influences of Augustine, Spencer and Lewis’s own contemporaries, she states, “much of what Lewis says on the subject of love is of lasting value, in no small part because of his ability to give clear and winsome articulation to the best intellectual products of a long tradition” (152).

If there is one drawback to Simon’s essay, it is the all too brief final comparison.  Here she gives literary depictions of love in Lewis’s The Great Divorce and Till We Have Faces, while considering the echoes within them of Dante’s The Divine Comedy.  This topic is a book in itself and Simon’s stab at the topic seems more of an appendix.  It does not, however, undermine her earlier work.  Overall, Simon gives the reader a good introduction to Lewis’s theories on love which will serve them well in any future readings.

In November 2011, I was privileged to attend a University of St. Andrews Theology Research Seminar where Ann Loades gave a lecture on the evolution of C.S. Lewis’s concept of gender.  Based on an article published in the Priscilla Papers entitled “C.S. Lewis on Gender”,[1] she skillfully interwove Lewis’s own history, cultural setting and literary works with the development of his understanding of ‘masculinity.’  She examined impacts made on Lewis’s culturally conceived notions of gender in the strained nature of his upbringing, wartime experiences and marriage to Joy Gresham.  Here in chapter twelve, Loades’s new commentary “On Gender” might be better titled “On the Social Convention of Gender’ as its focus is much narrower than her previous article.

In this new exploration, Loades seems intent on identifying Lewis’s archaic views on gender as constituted by his opposition to the ordination of women.  She spends a great deal of time discussing the acceptance of women into the hallowed halls of Oxford, Cambridge and House of Lords.  She then discusses current strained interdenominational relationships over women officiates as if they were contemporary to Lewis’s time.

Evidence given to support the emerging social scientific understanding of gender in Lewis’s lifetime is minimal and cited works by Lewis referencing the topic are all written within a five year period (1943-1948) with his 1948 essay “Priestesses in the Church” perceived as the most damning evidence of his classically myopic view of women and gender.  While Loades does stress Lewis’s concern for the welfare of all people regardless of gender, she returns again to his opposition of women’s ordination and his argument that, “Men may make very bad priests, but at least they are masculine; as such, they symbolically affirm in their own person something of the divine nature which women in their own person cannot symbolically affirm” (165).

The critic Loades appoints to counter Lewis is one of his “younger contemporaries,” philosopher Donald MacKinnon.  MacKinnon finds Lewis’s claim “that a priest-celebrant must be male both obscure and indeed ‘strangely, even alarmingly, uncatholic’”(165).  Loades states that Lewis “must have been aware of at least some of these points at issue”(166).  MacKinnon, however, is objecting to Lewis’s views in 1992 – a full 44 years after Lewis’s ‘Priestesses’ essay and with over four decades of active gender study advances to his advantage.

Whereas her article “C.S. Lewis on Gender” opened an avenue of understanding for all of his works, this commentary restates his culturally formed bias for a particular time.  I would suggest students of Lewis read the two essays in conjunction with each other to obtain a broad understanding of the man and his views related to gender.

In chapter thirteen, “On Power,” Judith Wolfe discusses Lewis’s perceived ‘rigid hierarchy of power.’  She explains that Lewis came to his understanding of power through his conversion from theism to the Christian theological doctrine of one God in three persons.  For Lewis the concept of ‘power’ was modeled on the relationship between eternal Father and his co-eternal Son, which, to Lewis, is a hierarchically structured relationship of love (176).  Lewis’s hierarchy then becomes God is to Christ, Christ to humanity, man to woman, head to body, etc (180).

There are difficulties and weaknesses intrinsic to the hierarchy Lewis proposes.  Wolfe deftly discusses these.  In regard to humanity’s fallenness she uses examples from Lewis’s body of work to emphasize his belief that humanity in its fallen state tends toward self-centeredness and corruption but that “the correct exercise of power requires a common submission and directedness towards a shared good (and, ultimately, God)” (177).  Wolfe also writes that it is the strength inherent in the human/divine relationship of love, not the human lust for power, which Lewis is interested in portraying.  She states, “Lewis maintains that all relationships which are governed by love, and so transcend the allure of power for its own sake, should embrace [the] hierarchical order”(179).

In the section “Power in Lewis’s Fiction,” Wolfe discusses Lewis’s ideal visions of theoretical hierarchy and kingship, values Lewis viewed as essential to being human.  She asks, and leaves open for the reader to determine, if it is possible to transpose Lewis’s nearly divine ideals of power to the ordinary world.  And if so, to what extent the transposition can be accomplished.  Wolfe admits these questions expose a theological weakness in Lewis’s claim to a viewpoint beyond the epistemological corruption of the fall.  She goes on to suggest that his later works address and transform this weakness.  She explains, “For Lewis, part of the task of becoming human, taking one’s place in the hierarchy of being, is to acknowledge precisely this relationship of dependence [on God]”(185).  And therein lays Lewis’s understanding of power and its hierarchical structure.

[1] Priscilla Papers, Vol 24, No. 1, Winter 2010

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Beth Tracy spent twenty years in the entertainment industry working in film and television production before getting a real job studying religion.  She has a BS in Theatre from Emerson College, Boston, MA; an MA from Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, CA in Religion and is working on her PhD in Hebrew Bible at the University of St. Andrews.

C. S. Lewis: The Thinker

May 10, 2011

Guest Contributor, Danny Gabelman, offers this review of Chapters 6-10. Kevin Vanhoozer, “On Scripture,” 75-88; Paul S. Fiddes, “On theology,” 89-104; Charles Taliferro, “On Naturalism,” 105-118; Gilbert Meilaender, “On moral knowledge,” 119-131; Joseph P. Cassidy, “On discernment,” 132-145  from Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis, ed. Robert MacSwain and Michael Ward, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: 2010.

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The section titled ‘Thinker’ begins with Kevin Vanhoozer’s chapter ‘On Scripture’, which attempts to locate Lewis between fundamentalism and modern biblical criticism. Vanhoozer uses Lewis’ phrase that the Incarnation was ‘myth become fact’ to illustrate Lewis’ belief that both fundamentalism and modern biblical criticism misunderstood scripture. Fundamentalism abandons the mythic nature of scripture in preference for fact, whereas liberal criticism abandons the factual aspect of scripture and focuses on myth. Both display bad literary sensitivity and do not read the Bible with their whole being—heart, soul and mind—and thereby, they each miss vital elements of truth.

Chapter seven, ‘On Theology’ by Paul Fiddes, looks closely at Lewis’ Beyond Personality, the final and most theological part of Mere Christianity. Fiddes notes how Lewis’ theology is primarily conducted through the use of images and metaphors, and, provisional as these are, they nevertheless attempt to hold in tension significant theological truths. Fiddes is most impressed by Lewis’ image of a divine dance within the Trinity (what theologians like to call perichoresis), and he speculates that Lewis might be the first theologian to extend the image of heavenly dance (notably found in Denys) to God himself. Dance symbolizes participation and interaction, and in so doing it highlights the experiential aspect of theology. Other images that Fiddes dwells upon include statues coming to life (to depict how humans are transformed from creatures to sons), immersion and invasion (to describe how Jesus engages with his creation), and infection and injection (to illustrate how individuals enter into the divine life). Of all the images, Fiddes prefers dance, immersion and infection because, he argues, they accentuate the continuity of the natural and the supernatural and show how all reality is interpenetrated with the divine life whereas the other images (statues coming to life, invasion, and injection) open up a gap between nature and grace.

The next chapter, ‘On Naturalism’ by Charles Taliaferro, outlines two of Lewis’ arguments against naturalism—the argument from reason and the argument from morality—and discusses how Lewis relates to contemporary philosophical conversations. If the human mind is just a random arrangement of atoms—so the argument from reason goes—then reason, which told us that the mind is a random arrangement of atoms, is itself not trustworthy, and we have no way of knowing anything. The argument from morality, meanwhile, focuses on how morality seems to contain truth that transcends evolutionary biology. If ‘I ought’ means anything more than ‘I itch,’ then strict naturalism cannot be true (space does not permit an adequate exposition, but see Lewis’ The Abolition of Man). Taliaferro concludes that both of these arguments still have currency in philosophical debates and that Lewis’ general strategy in arguing against naturalism is to expand intellectual frameworks and show how much more complex and interesting reality actually is.

In chapter nine, Gilbert Meilaender writes ‘On Moral Knowledge’ describing Lewis’ understanding of the Tao (natural law or the moral code). According to Lewis, the Tao exists outside of individuals and society and is therefore universal—it is shared by all humanity. Lewis’ moral theory, says Meilaender, is Aristotelian in that morality is never a private matter but requires a process of moral education. This is not indoctrination but initiation for it is not individuals that are binding others to themselves but the Tao binding us to the moral inheritance of all humans. The Tao is a way of wisdom rather than a way of power; it sets limits in order to restrict the overweening desire for power. Meilaender concludes by extending Lewis’ thinking to the contemporary issues of biotechnology, saying that the Tao teaches us that how we live is more important than how long and that the lust to extend life indefinitely might not be morally justified.

The final chapter under review, ‘On Discernment’ by Joseph Cassidy, takes the form of a commentary on The Screwtape Letters and Letters to Malcom in order to show how Lewis compares to an Ignatian concept of spiritual discernment. According to Cassidy, Lewis’ emphasis on order, nature and duty causes him to be more general and universal than Ignatius. Lewis is more interested in portraying how a ‘mere Christian’ engages in prayer and spiritual exercises than in showing a specialist or practical manual of how to deal with higher-level contemplative issues. Lewis’ spirituality in these books remains intentionally amateurish and somewhat mundane—he is ever mindful that there is always irksome work to be done in this life.

The strength of these chapters together is how they identify Lewis as a profound thinker who adapts well to the discourses of different disciplines and historical moments. Lewis’ ideas are still relevant today, and intellectuals from varied backgrounds can fruitfully engage with his work. My only slight criticism, however, is that this approach of extracting particular strands of Lewis’ thought and showing how it relates to contemporary conversations somewhat obscures or elides his contextuality and relationship to previous thinkers. Comparisons are made for example between Lewis and a wide variety of trendy theologians and philosophers (Moltmann, Barth, Pannenberg, Balthasar, Richard Rorty, to name just a few) but notably missing are connections to his immediate influences and forbearers (Austin Farrer, Tolkien, Chesterton, Charles Williams, Rudolf Otto, et al.).

Most conspicuously absent in a section devoted to Lewis as a theological and philosophical thinker is even a passing nod to George MacDonald, his self-professed ‘master.’ Vanhoozer, for instance, says that Lewis sounds ‘neo-orthodox’ when he says ‘it is Christ himself, not the Bible, who is the true word of God’, and Vanhoozer hints that Lewis might have picked this up from Barth. More obviously, though, Lewis is drawing from MacDonald who seventy-five years before Barth says: ‘by the Word of God, I do not understand The Bible. The Bible is a Word of God, the chief of his written words, because it tells us of The Word, the Christ’ (Unspoken Sermons). Similar oversights of Lewis’ relationship to the past occur in most chapters.

Undoubtedly, there are many other academic works that point out these connections, and this book is doing something useful in moving discussion beyond source hunting. Yet there is also a danger in making Lewis look too idiosyncratic, original and able to anticipate so many contemporary concerns. In my opinion, Lewis’ gift was not primarily in being an innovational writer and thinker (though he was) but in being a humble, loving and careful reader who could lucidly amalgamate, simplify and present the ideas of others.

Nonetheless, these chapters are excellent introductions to key aspects of Lewis’ thought. They are clear and well-written, and they helpfully address most of Lewis’ non-fictional works. It is indeed impressive that Lewis can be found to be so enduringly insightful on such a range of intellectual and spiritual issues.

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Danny Gabelman is a PhD candidate in ITIA working on the fairytale levity of George MacDonald.  Originally from Colorado, Danny is marrying a beautiful English girl this summer and has plans to remain in the UK for the foreseeable future.