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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.

C. S. Lewis: The Professional Scholar

May 9, 2011

Stephen Schuler, offers this review of Part I: Scholar (chapters 2-5). John V. Fleming, “Literary Critic,” 15-28; Stephen Logan, “Literary Theorist,” 29-42;  Dennis Danielson, “Intellectual Historian,” 43-57;  and Mark Edwards, “Classicist,” 58-74 from Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis, ed. Robert MacSwain and Michael Ward, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: 2010.

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C. S. Lewis belongs to that class of writers, like Oscar Wilde and G. K. Chesterton, whose writings are immeasurably more interesting than anything that could ever be written about them.  Thus it is difficult for the contributors to the new Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis to express Lewis’s ideas more clearly and succinctly than Lewis himself did.  Furthermore, they face the challenge of introducing their readers to Lewis’s lesser-known works and of providing fresh insights into the widely-read works.  Overall, the first few chapters of this book succeed in acquainting readers with Lewis’s professional life.

However, the chapter by John V. Fleming on Lewis’s literary criticism is a weak start to the volume.  Fleming duly offers an assessment of each of Lewis’s four scholarly books, The Allegory of Love, A Preface to Paradise Lost, The Discarded Image, and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, but it seems that he is more interested in telling us how important each book is than in telling us what it said, or how it reflects on other aspects of Lewis’s thought.  The chapter makes no connections to Lewis’s other works, even though Lewis’s work on Milton had a great deal to do with his writing of both Perelandra and The Screwtape Letters, neither of which Fleming even mentions in connection with Preface.  Although Fleming states that “all aspects of Lewis’s voluminous writings were influenced by the conditions and associations of the academic world in which he worked” (15), a naive reader is bound to get the opposite impression: that Lewis’s day-job had little bearing on the work for which he is best known.

If the following chapter by Stephen Logan, on Lewis’s literary theory, makes few connections with Lewis’s popular books, he at least offers a fresh assessment of a neglected aspect of Lewis’s work. Logan begins by distinguishing between two senses of the term “literary theory,” the first being “the practice of reflecting philosophically on the nature and function of literature” in the tradition of Aristotle, Sidney, Coleridge, and T. S. Eliot (29), and the second being theory as it is now practiced in all its hermeneutic, political, and cultural permutations.

Lewis undoubtedly contributed to the field of literary theory in the first sense, but not in the second, and that is why his philosophical works on literature, such as An Experiment in Criticism and “Christianity and Literature” have been largely overlooked in surveys of literary theory in the twentieth century.  Logan is doubtful about the validity of Lewis’s argument in Experiment, but nevertheless treats it sympathetically.  Logan proceeds to trace Lewis’s underlying Romantic tendencies, by which he means Lewis’s insistence that “there is more to reality than what our senses can get at,” and that “there is more to the mind than ratiocination” (38).

Best of all, Logan has something to say about the contemporary theoretical landscape: “the significance of the contrast between the traditional and contemporary forms of literary theory is ultimately moral and metaphysical” (30).  Thus, Logan contends that Lewis’s literary theory is important because he “incisively and insistently comments on the moral and metaphysical infrastructure of literary and critical art,” while also “having the most exuberantly appreciative appetite for literary artistry” (40).  Metaphysics is back.

Chapter four, Dennis Danielson’s essay on Lewis as an intellectual historian, is the best of the early chapters.  Danielson begins with Lewis’s little-known but seminal essay “De Descriptione Temporum,” in which he divides history into three epochs, the pre-Christian, the Christian, and the post-Christian.  Lewis thought that there was significant continuity between the pre-Christian and the Christian periods, but that there was a “Great Divide” somewhere in the nineteenth century, which exhibited an emerging belief in progress and upward mobility, and a new premium on novelty.

Danielson then explains how Lewis’s account of these three periods underpins works as such as A Preface to Paradise Lost and The Discarded Image, both of which treat literature from the Christian epoch.  Lewis devotes much space in both works to explaining how the assumptions, values, and thought patterns of the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries are different from our own.  It is disappointing that Danielson does not make more links between these works and Lewis’s fiction, which seems to have much in common with the pre-Christian era as described by Lewis.  To Danielson’s credit, he shows how Lewis’s theology was shaped by his understanding of the history of ideas.

But Danielson doubts that modern readers will be able to take seriously Lewis’s account of intellectual history.  Lewis is plainly critical of modernity, and Danielson suspects that Lewis’s preference for the pre-modern will alienate a modern audience.  On the contrary, the growing popularity of authors such as G. K. Chesterton, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Wendell Berry indicate that Lewis’s own critique of modernity has more currency than Danielson allows.

The last chapter in this section is on Lewis as a classicist, by Mark Edwards.  Ironically, Edwards’s essay implies that Lewis was not really a classicist at all, and that while he knew more classical texts than did many of his colleagues, his understanding of the classical world was incomplete and therefore reductive.  Edwards quibbles with Lewis’s assessment of the Oedipus myth in Experiment, and he corrects Lewis’s simplistic understanding of ancient Greek historiography, but he also emphasizes the extent to which Lewis’s literary imagination was shaped by Greek and Latin works.  He concisely unpacks Till We Have Faces in light of its mythical sources in Apuleius, and remarks knowledgeably on the use of classical material in Pilgrim’s Regress and Narnia.  For example, Edwards notes the Professor’s exclamation at the end of The Last Battle that “It’s all in Plato!”, explaining that Lewis has in mind specifically the Platonic ideas of the translation of souls after death and the intimation of the numinous beyond the sensate world.  It is for these kinds of insights that the student as well as the teacher will turn to a Cambridge Companion on Lewis.

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Stephen Schuler holds a Ph.D. in English from Baylor University and is an assistant professor of English at the University of Mobile in Mobile, Alabama. He is currently working on a book about the theology of W. H. Auden.

Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis Book Review: Introduction

May 8, 2011

This coming week will see Transpositions devote its posts to the review of The Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis, edited by Robert MacSwain and Michael Ward. Part of the Cambridge Companions to Religion series, this companion has twenty-one wide ranging essays grouped together under three aspects of Lewis’ career and his legacy:

  • Part I: Scholar
  • Part II: Thinker
  • Part II: Writer

Editors Robert MacSwain (University of the South, USA) and Michael Ward (University of Oxford, UK), reasonably suggest American Evangelicals have a tendency to adore Lewis uncritically, whereas British literature professors and theologians tend to dismiss his work out of hand, in part because of its popular appeal. As a panacea to this critical morass, MacSwain and Ward gather together an international cast of contributors and seek to take a holistic and critically even handed approach to Lewis and his work.

They set themselves an unenviable but valuable scholarly task, especially given that from the outset this companion is part of the Companions to Religion series as opposed to the Literature series. The editors admirably defend the inclusion of this companion in the Religion series. Either option (religion/literature), inevitably affects the way the volume is shaped. A literature volume would have the literary criticism and fiction at the centre, with theology and apologetics at the periphery, whereas this volume reverses that. Since Lewis is known equally well for his fiction and for his apologetics, there was no perfect fit, short of starting a Cambridge Companion Series of Authors-Who-Don’t-Quite-Fit-the-Current-Cambridge-Companion-Categories.

This is a fine collection of essays, and the sheer weight of scholarly reputation and prowess is enough to give one pause as we consider the list of contributors, including (but not limited to): Mark Edwards, Dennis Danielson, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Ann Loades, Charles Taliaferro, Judith Wolfe, Paul S. Fiddes, Stanley Hauerwas, David Jasper, Michael Ward, Peter Schakel, Alan Jacobs, T.A. Shippey, Jerry Walls, and Malcolm Guite.

The publisher’s description for the volume is as follows:

A distinguished academic, influential Christian apologist, and best-selling author of children’s literature, C. S. Lewis is a controversial and enigmatic figure who continues to fascinate, fifty years after his death. This Companion is the first comprehensive single-volume study written by an international team of scholars to survey Lewis’s career as a literary historian, popular theologian, and creative writer. Twenty-one expert voices from Oxford, Cambridge, Princeton, and Wheaton, among many other places of learning, analyze Lewis’s work from theological, philosophical, and literary perspectives. Some chapters consider his professional contribution to fields such as critical theory and intellectual history, while others assess his views on issues including moral knowledge, gender, prayer, war, love, suffering, and Scripture. The final chapters investigate his work as a writer of fiction and poetry. Original in its approach and unique in its scope, this Companion shows that C. S. Lewis was much more than merely the man behind Narnia.

As you will see over the week, each of the reviewers offer robust criticism in the midst of seeking to read charitably. It has been quite a challenge to give each essay its due and offer points of discussion that we felt would best benefit Transpositions readers. I do not envy any book reviewer tasked with considering and attempting a review of the entirety of the companion in less than 1800 words.

One other brief point that made the reading of this book challenging for the purposes of review was the use of endnotes rather than footnotes. Quite a few of the reviewers remarked that they found it particularly inconvenient that endnotes were used given that many of the chapters cover quite a lot of detail of Lewis’ work and move between other works. While not quite resulting in the weeping and gnashing of teeth, it is worth noting. Nonetheless, it is an irritant most likely outside the control of MacSwain and Ward, given that this is a series-wide matter of style.

Finally, we were honoured to be invited to review the Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis, in no small part because Drs MacSwain and Ward are fellow graduates of the Institute of Theology, Imagination, and the Arts, and because this truly is a Companion of note. It remains to be seen how much the Companion will change the landscape of Lewis scholarship, but it certainly opens avenues of enquiry and draws together threads that enable a much more nuanced reading of Lewis as man, scholar, thinker, and writer. And for that, anyone who enjoys Lewis can be extremely grateful.

Theological Engagement with the Craft, Content, and Context of Art

May 6, 2011

By Jim McCullough

Over the past several months, in a series of articles written for Transpositions, Wes Vander Lugt and I presented three crucial dynamics constituting art, seeking to render these dynamics in a way that advances educational and pastoral agendas within the sphere of theological aesthetics. Communication lies at the heart of these dynamics, which we articulated in our first post as follows:

In our perspective, the arts most fundamentally involve a person seeking through some means to communicate something to someone, somewhere and at sometime. In other words, art involves a particular craft that communicates some content in a particular context.

We then introduced a working diagram, a heuristic model, to illustrate these three dynamics:In this article, I want to outline what to me are some key theological implications of this model.

First, theological engagement with the craft of art addresses the core of human making and the process of reflecting God’s image as creators. Engaging with craft means evaluating learned skills, practiced techniques, and the use and often ingenious manipulation of forms, patterns, and conventions. Theological engagement with craft, therefore, will seek to find theologically relevant ways to evaluate the skills, techniques and styles that constitute a work of art, and discern how this craft corresponds to the content and context.

Second, theological engagement with the content of art means, among other things, asking what story a work of art expresses or symbolizes and how this perhaps illuminates or obscures revealed truths about God and his relationship with the world. For some, this might relate to what is referred to as “worldview” analysis, which I believe are the narrative-shaped perspectives that determine how we understand, experience, and live in the world. As such, art inevitably reflects the assumptions and aspirations of such storied perceptions of life. To engage with art theologically is to ask what story it tells, to what story it belongs, and how this relates to God’s Story.

Third, theological engagement with the context of art is to acknowledge that human activity and understanding are historically conditioned and situationally shaped. It is also, I believe, an approach to art that takes seriously the implications of the Incarnation. God communicates Himself not in a timeless “once upon a time” but in historical and cultural particularity. God takes the risks involved in cross-cultural communication, and by the Spirit tranposes truth into every culture. Similarly, theological engagement with the context of art will seek to appreciate the contextually salient aspects of each work while recognizing the features that resonate across time and place.

I share with Wes the desire to explicate a theology of the arts that enhances practical “traction” in the spiritual lives of Christian laity. In this regard, I’m appreciative of the recent work of William Dyrness, who articulates in his Poetic Theology: God and the Poetics of Everyday Life (Eerdmans 2011) a perspective on the arts in relation to communication and spiritual formation that reflects the heart of our project. Dyrness writes:

Art enables the world to take meaningful form; the world and its structures speak “words” in the arts. This echoes [Johann Georg] Hamann’s (and Augustine’s) suggestion that our sense perception, when it is grounded in faith, allows us to see the world as signs of a deeper reality. The Gospel as the greatest dramatic story helps us see that truth and beauty take shape not by escaping from the world but by acting within it to bring about shalom. (148-49)

Displacedness and Home-making

May 4, 2011

This past weekend, my husband and I moved to a new house in St. Andrews. Seeing our lives boxed up and moved about made me think about my desire to be settled, to be at home, and to just stay somewhere. Feeling displaced from my native Georgia for the past three years has affected me more than I ever could have imagined. So while this current move came as a relief and much-needed change, it also came with the knowledge that it too is impermanent—next year when our time has run out here, we’ll pack up and move again.

The more displaced we become as a culture, the more we come to see the effects that a sense of homelessness, literal or metaphorical, can have on us emotionally and spiritually. My desire for home is not uncommon. In our global society where most people move every few years, the significance of home and the way that we make and identify with places has become an important issue. In such a culture, we should acknowledge the primary importance of home-making, that is the actions we take to “make a place” where we are. Doing this, we can be spiritually rejuvenated through that connection to place.

Being “at home” or “in place” is a primary issue in Christian scripture. The Israelites suffered with this same feeling of displacedness. Being exiled from their land and losing their primary place of worship, the Israelites had to reevaluate their relationship to God and to each other. Their method of being-at-home in the land was not what God had envisioned for them, and so he uprooted them in order that they may learn the actual significance of home and home-making (among other things).

But Jeremiah tells the Israelites while they are in exile: “build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce …multiply there, and do not decrease” (Jer. 29.5,6). What is interesting about this is that even though their exile is impermanent, they are stilled called to make a place there: building gardens and homes, starting families, making all the things necessary to properly dwell somewhere for a period of time.

Part of this place-making involves remembering. Psalm 137 calls the Israelites to sing songs of home while in a foreign land: “How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land? If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill.” But it also involves building new memories: “digging in” and “becoming native” as Wes Jackson describes in his discussion on land and homecoming. [1]

So what are some of the ways that we can engage in this action of home-making, or place-making? Lots of things will obviously fall under this category, but I believe artistic actions—actions of physical making—are often a primary way that people do this.  Whether it is building a house or garden shed, making curtains, or arranging flowers, creative and imaginative engagement with a space can help settle the spirit and fulfill a desire for settledness that may be missing.

When we moved this time, I made a new duvet cover for our bedroom. It’s simple, made from some corduroy fabric in a favorite color. And even though it doesn’t seem like it would change that much, it helps me feel at home in a foreign place. It helps me make the space into our place for a little while.

If we are going to combat our postmodern condition of placelessness, we need to heed the word of the Lord spoken through Jeremiah: we need to build, make, do something that connects us to the land and to the places around us. We need to understand the spiritual significance of our relationship to places and realize that something is missing when we are unsettled.

The arts may be one way of helping in this area. What are some of the ways you participate in home-making or making place?


Photo credit: http://www.facebook.com/Goannatree. Used with permission

[1] Wes Jackson, Becoming Native to This Place (Washington D.C.: Counterpoint, 1996).