A central concern for Christians regarding literature is what value, if any, literature holds for the reader. Although this is not a new consideration, it is one C. S. Lewis referred to as a “living question” for its continued importance for discussion. Literature is often accused of being useless, merely entertainment, irrelevant to life, or immoral (Ryken, Windows to the World 18). Does a biblical Christian worldview allow Christians to enjoy literature, and if so, how should Christians decide what books they should read? In answering these difficult questions, one author in particular should be respected and consulted for answers: C. S. Lewis. This prominent Oxford and Cambridge lecturer and imaginative writer provides a thorough response for how Christians should engage the humanities and culture, particularly in the area of literary art.
Lewis had the extraordinary privilege of teaching at the two most prestigious universities in the world for the humanities: Oxford and Cambridge. He first taught at Magdalen College, Oxford, from 1925 to 1954. He then earned the position of Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English at Magdalene College, Cambridge. In Reading the Classics with C. S. Lewis, Leland Ryken accordingly spells out some of the advantages of studying “with” such a learned scholar. First, Ryken notes that with Lewis’s literary criticism, readers are “in the presence of someone who simply assumed that the world of literature is a self-rewarding world of overwhelming importance” (24). Furthermore, he “had a knack for delineating the features of an author’s world” (24), and a way of attracting readers both to “individual works of authors” as well as immersing them into the “entire world of imaginative literature” (26). The key, according to Ryken, is Lewis’s vast array of reading experience; he states, “I know of no twentieth-century critic who refers to so many works and writers” (26). On a more personal level, Ryken observes, “To read literature with C. S. Lewis is to get to know Lewis himself, and this is part of the appeal of his criticism. Criticism as an impersonal scholarly inquiry did not occur as an option for Lewis. His own tastes and personality come through at nearly every turn” (28). Mark Noll considers the influence and importance of Lewis:
Lewis’s writing has constituted the single most important body of Christian thinking for American evangelicals in the twentieth century. His defense of supernatural Christianity, his ability to exploit learned culture, his example as a writer of fiction, his demonstration that the truths of the faith could be expressed in lively prose—all contributed an unusual measure of intellectual stimulation to evangelicals on this side of the water. (218)
As one of the greatest literary scholars and critics in the twentieth century, Lewis’s views on literature are vital for any Christian seeking answers to the questions of why one should read literature, what constitutes a good book, and how one should approach reading.
The most tragic reality students face in the secular university today is the absence of belief in absolute truth. Literature is typically not studied from the perspective of what the author is trying to communicate; instead, students are encouraged to decipher their own meaning and apply it to the text. In a society entrenched in postmodern ideologies, the understanding of what principles govern the reading of good literature is often lost. With postmodernity came the false presupposition that there are no objective standards to which literature must adhere. The result is “art for art’s sake” and the assumption that the reader, not the author, determines the meaning of the text. As postmodernists disregard absolutes, words, which form the foundation of literature, lose their essential meaning. Thus, words such as “Truth,” “Love,” “Wisdom,” “Beauty,” and “Justice” become mere abstractions which people subjectively understand. The loss of a stable language is detrimental to a student’s entire education. When words lose their function of communicating universal truth and meaning, students lose the ability to come to a meaningful understanding of truth and reality.
Lewis, noticing the gravitation toward relativism in the contemporary worldview of his time, set forth concrete principles for interpreting literature. He believed in the importance of understanding the worldview of an author, as well as how readers’ worldviews affect the way that they interpret literature. Yet Lewis argues that readers should not allow their own worldview to frustrate or impede a story; instead, they must “receive” rather than “use” a story (Experiment in Criticism 93). Thus, Lewis strikes a balance between two polarized forms of literary criticism. On one end of the spectrum, readers simplify a literary text to force it into a uniform category to argue that it advocates a particular worldview or universal truth. At the other extreme are those who deny the existence of absolutes and thus force the text to fit whichever meaning they subjectively wish to contend. Lewis’s approach, as a middle ground, encourages readers to interact with a text and to enjoy it for what it is worth, yet not to impose their personal agendas on the text to determine its meaning.
Fiction is a unique vehicle for explaining and illuminating the reality of human life. Although a fictional story does not necessarily tell a true story, it is an instrument through which the reader can discover truth. Humans are, as beings created in the image of God, creators in their own right. Thus, a person who is crafting literature is creating a world. By entering the world of fiction, according to Lewis, the reader can later re-enter the real world with a refreshed perspective on reality. Emphasis on supernatural reality is one of the most common themes in Lewis’s work, particularly in his fiction. In his essay “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” Lewis explains that he uses the genre of fantasy as a vehicle to convey his message because other genres attempting to express a moral or principle may inadvertently cause the reader to feel obligation. According to Lewis, “an obligation to feel can freeze things” (37). In other words, when entering the imaginary world, the reader typically does not feel that he or she is being told what to do. Instead, while watching the story unfold, the reader can experience the abstract or concrete ideas evoked by the author in a natural, rather than forced, environment. Such an environment is most effective, for it allows the reader alone to decide how to act upon the underlying message.