Throughout C. S. Lewis’s academic career, the question of what value literature held, whether Christian or non-Christian, seemed to interest him. He wrote on the topic early in his academic career through essays such as “Christianity and Literature” (written around 1939) and “Christianity and Culture” (1940). Lewis’s seminal work on the question, An Experiment in Criticism, was published in 1961. Another significant work contributing to Lewis’s literary theory, a collection of essays entitled Of Other Worlds, was published posthumously in 1966. Therefore, to more fully appreciate Lewis’s opinion on the validity of literature, it is necessary to begin with an examination of his two primary essays on the issue in order to establish the foundation of the theory on which he built throughout his academic career as teacher and critic.
In the first essay, “Christianity and Literature,” Lewis develops his view about what constitutes good literature. One of his central arguments regarding the creation of literature is that no literary art is produced in a vacuum; rather, it is contingent upon a prior tradition that intended to reflect eternal truths. He discusses the “theory of genius,” the trend of contemporary literary criticism to place value on being creative, original, and spontaneous (“Christianity and Literature” 5). In response to such theory, Lewis argues:
In the New Testament the art of life itself is an art of imagination: can we, believing this, believe that literature, which must derive from real life, is an aim at being ‘creative’, ‘original’, and ‘spontaneous’[?] ‘Originality’ in the New Testament is quite plainly that prerogative of God alone … The duty and happiness of every other being is placed in being derivative, in reflecting like a mirror. (“Christianity and Literature” 6)
In this passage, Lewis attacks both the contemporary criticism of his time as well as the mindset of authors who were striving for novelty and extemporaneity in their writings. He maintains that the root of all critical theory should be the “maxim that an author should never conceive himself as bringing into existence beauty or wisdom which did not exist before, but simply and solely as trying to embody in terms of his own art some reflection of eternal Beauty and Wisdom” (“Christianity and Literature” 7). Furthermore, Lewis contends that a Christian literary theory and criticism should not only oppose the theory of genius but also the “idea that literature is self-expression” (“Christianity and Literature” 7). Critic Jerry L. Daniel observes Lewis’s integrity in avoiding such self-expression in Lewis’s own imaginative writing: “He wrote to communicate whatever vision was filling his imagination at the moment, not to reveal his inner self” (“A Basis for Literary Criticism” 23). Accordingly, good Christian literature and literary theory are established upon the assumption that all good art reflects the eternal wisdom and beauty of God without attempting to take credit for bringing such similar truths into existence.
In his second essay, “Christianity and Culture,” Lewis explores the question of what value culture has for the Christian, or even for the non-Christian, by focusing particularly upon literature as a product of culture. He captures the significance of the question as he sets it forth early in the essay: “The glory of God, and, as our only means to glorifying Him, the salvation of human souls, is the real business of life. What, then, is the value of culture? It is, of course, no new question; but as a living question it was new to me” (“Christianity and Culture” 14). This essay analyzes a wide variety of literary critics, both Christian and non-Christian, who stake claim on this living question. Lewis investigates the philosophies or literary criticisms of Matthew Arnold, Croce, I. A. Richards, St. Jerome, John Keats, Thomas a Kempis, Pope Gregory, John Milton, John Henry Newman, Jeremy Bentham, and Sir Philip Sidney, among others. Noting some of their important contributions, he also often points out significant shortcomings or contradictions in their work. By confronting and thoroughly evaluating the theories of numerous critics and philosophers, Lewis enhances his credibility as a critic as he advances his own literary philosophy. In addition to these great thinkers, he looks to Scripture to build a constructive case for considering the relevance of culture and literature.
As he constructs a case for culture, which encompasses literature, Lewis examines how it has influenced his own life and how it may influence others. He starts by noting that insofar as there is a demand for teaching culture, and since it is good for a man to have a job, teaching literature is good. He then states, “But is culture even harmless? It certainly can be harmful and often is” (“Christianity and Culture” 20). It is with this acknowledgement that he then asks how culture has influenced himself personally, explaining that “it has given [him] quite an enormous amount of pleasure” (“Christianity and Culture” 21). After confessing his own experience of taking pleasure from cultural artifacts, he makes an important analysis of whether pleasure should be considered a good:
I have no doubt at all that pleasure is in itself a good and pain in itself an evil; if not, then the whole Christian tradition about heaven and hell and the passion of our Lord seems to have no meaning. Pleasure, then, is good; a ‘sinful’ pleasure means a good offered, and accepted, under conditions which involve a breach of the moral law. The pleasures of culture are not intrinsically bound up with such conditions—though of course they can very easily be so enjoyed as to involve them. Often, as Newman saw, they are an excellent diversion from guilty pleasures. (“Christianity and Culture” 21)
In this analysis, Lewis shows that pleasure is a “good” insofar as it does not violate God’s law. In fact, he shows, through the influence of Newman, that the pleasure found in literature can even be useful as a diversion from sinful pleasure. He concludes, “We may, therefore, enjoy [the pleasures of literature] ourselves, and lawfully, even charitably, teach others to enjoy them” (“Christianity and Culture” 21).