Reading Literature through the Eyes of C. S. Lewis, Part 3

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            Lewis readily recognized that not all values in literature were Christian, but that they often encouraged a sub- or anti-Christian morality. He acknowledges that “[t]he sub-Christian or anti-Christian values implicit in most literature [do] actually infect many readers” (“Christianity and Culture” 16). For example, Lewis lists some of the most common sub-Christian values in literature: honor, sexual love, material prosperity, pantheistic contemplation of nature, yearning for the past, and liberation of impulses (“Christianity and Culture” 21-2). Although he states that he cannot defend for the values of sexual love or the liberation of the impulses, he can make a case for the other four values, which “are all two-edged” in that they “may symbolize what [he] think[s] of them all by the aphorism ‘Any road out of Jerusalem must also be a road into Jerusalem’” (“Christianity and Culture” 22). Thus, Lewis recognizes that some of these values may lead the reader away from God; at the same time, however, he also recognizes that the opposite is also possible and even likely: such values may lead the reader to a recognition of God and salvation.

            To explain further this idea of sub-Christian values and the way they might lead a person to eventual salvation, Lewis offers an example of how the sub-Christian value of pantheistic contemplation of nature can be “two-edged.” Lewis explains, “There is an easy transition from Theism to Pantheism; but there is also a blessed transition in the other direction. For some souls I believe, for my own I remember, Wordsworthian contemplation can be the first and lowest form of recognition that there is something outside ourselves which demands reverence” (“Christianity and Culture” 22). Though it may ostensibly sound like a risk, considering he concedes that this “road to Jerusalem” goes both ways, the point Lewis makes has special significance for him personally. In fact, it was through the literature of George MacDonald, Christian fantasy writer, and Lewis’s love of myth that Lewis was persuaded to embrace theism as a viable alternative to atheism (Veith 139). For him, literature was a step toward theism, and theism a step toward Christianity.

            Lewis thus finds culture, and literature as one of its primary products, beneficial for both the Christian and the non-Christian reader. He states, “Culture, though not in itself meritorious, [is] innocent and pleasant, might be a vocation for some, [is] helpful in bringing certain souls to Christ, and [can] be pursued to the glory of God” (“Christianity and Culture” 28). Furthermore, Lewis states, “I agree with Brother Every that our leisure, even our play, is a matter of serious concern. There is no neutral ground in the universe: every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counter-claimed by Satan” (“Christianity and Culture” 33). Therefore, Lewis both defends the merit of literature and recognizes the importance responsibility of the reader to protecting both mind and heart when reading.

            Moreover, Lewis clarifies the relative importance the reader must place upon secular literature. He argues, “My whole contention is that in literature, in addition to the spiritual good and evil which it carries, there is also a good and evil of the second class, a properly cultural or literary good and evil, which must not be allowed to masquerade as good and evil of the first class” (33). To demonstrate, Lewis uses the following example: “I enjoyed my breakfast this morning, and I think that was a good thing and do not think it was condemned by God. But I do not think myself a good man for enjoying it. The distinction does not seem to me a very fine one” (36). In other words, literature itself, when it contains sub-Christian values, should not be looked to as a primary, or spiritual, good; rather, it should be considered as a secondary good, given as high a value as possible below a spiritual value.

            In reading literary works, readers are stretching their imagination to experience God’s creation in a novel manner. Literature allows readers to better empathize with others, as it often encourages selflessness and love. Literature also teaches mankind about human life and reality in a way that other disciplines cannot. In stories, abstract ideas are fleshed out in concrete, real terms in a way that provides meaningful understanding for the reader. Most importantly, literature can assist readers in comprehending a variety of worldviews and in becoming more capable witnesses for Christ. Lewis advocated on the behalf of all such arguments for literature’s value.

            Ryken endorses Lewis’s viewpoint when he argues in favor of confronting worldviews embedded in literature. He argues that the encounter with worldviews both “gives us a historical perspective on our own civilization and spares us the naïveté of beginning anew with each generation” (Windows to the World 142). Furthermore, according to Ryken, an understanding of the worldviews

helps us understand people who live by them today . . . [and] gives us a knowledge of the alternatives from which to choose our own world view. C.S. Lewis has written that ‘to judge between one ethos and another, it is necessary to have got inside both, and if literary history does not help us to do so it is a great waste of labor.’ (Windows to the World 142-3)

Therefore, through encountering worldviews in literature, the reader gains not only a deeper understanding of various historical perspectives on life but also an authentic understanding of his or her own worldview.

Lewis notes the significance of examining a worldview from the “inside,” which is made possible through reading stories and observing how various worldviews actually apply to the lives of those characters who adhere to them. Veith expands on this idea:

One of the greatest benefits of literature, as C. S. Lewis points out, is that it provides a way for us to enter into other people’s minds for a while, to allow us to understand what it feels like to live in a certain time or to hold to a certain worldview. Reading works by rationalists or naturalists or Marxists or existentialists can help us to understand these perspectives better from the inside and to identify the human needs they address (and fail to address). Such understanding is necessary whether we are attempting to refute these limiting worldviews or simply to communicate more effectively to the modern mind. (73)

Thus, Lewis reveals an important reason for why Christians should read literature: to step inside others’ worldviews to gain understanding of and connection to them.

 

 

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Lauren Platanos

Lauren Platanos graduated summa cum laude from Liberty University with a double major in English and Government. After developing a love for the wide range of works by C.S. Lewis, she furthered her study of his writings at Oxford University. After graduation, Lauren went on to study holistic health and became a certified integrative nutrition health coach. She now lives with her husband and two dogs in Virginia, where she coaches individuals through their healing journey through her online business healpeacefully.com.