Christians seeking to read literature from a biblical Christian worldview can benefit from the valuable insights Lewis offers in Experiment in Criticism for how to read and interpret literature. One of Lewis’s key arguments for the study of literature is that the reader must commit to receiving, rather than merely using, a book. Lewis states, “When we ‘receive’ it we exert our senses and imagination and various other powers according to a pattern invented by the artist. When we ‘use’ it we treat it as assistance for our own activities” (An Experiment in Criticism 88). Furthermore, “‘Using’ is inferior to ‘reception’ because art, if used rather than received, merely facilitates, brightens, relieves or palliates our life, and does not add to it” (88).
Ryken observes the danger of attempting to use rather than to receive literature:
There is a danger that we must be aware of when we look for world views in literature. It is the danger of reducing literature to a set of abstract ideas, as though this is what literature exists for. In the process, the story or poem itself becomes superfluous. Works of literature embody and incarnate a world view. In talking about that world view in the terms I have outlined, we inevitably formulate it in conceptual terms. But this conceptual framework should never become a substitute for the work itself. It should only be a light by which to illuminate the story or poem. Literature imagines forth a world view. It allows us to experience and feel that world view as experientially as possible. In effect, we look at the world through the ‘eyes’ of the writer’s world view.” (Windows to the World 141-42)
Thus, Lewis’s maxim that “[t]he necessary condition of all good reading is ‘to get ourselves out of the way’” when reading a book is highly beneficial to the reader (An Experiment in Criticism 93). This approach of receiving literature allows the text to speak for itself without the reader imposing preconceived ideas upon it.
Such an approach may ostensibly seem contradictory to a biblical Christian worldview; however, Lewis considers this approach an act of love. Ryken demonstrates this idea in his comment on Lewis’s system of receiving, rather than using, a book:
Lewis thereby shows a respect for the literature he discusses that is akin to Christians’ respect for the Word that they regard as authoritative, whether it comes as Scripture or creed. In a day of ideological criticism in which critics use literature chiefly to advance their own political agenda, Lewis instead listens to authors and works. The model he provides in this regard may, indeed, be his greatest legacy as a literary critic. (Reading the Classics with C. S. Lewis 30)
Lewis’s approach to literature is thus based on humility and respect for the text. Whereas some critics attempt to use a literary work to fit it into their personal or political agenda, Lewis’s method allows the text to “speak for itself” rather than to be manipulated and warped by the reader.
To understand more fully Lewis’s insight, his essay “Meditation in a Toolshed” may be helpful for consideration. Lewis observes a beam of light entering a dark shed. His epiphany is that, to fully understand the beam of light, the viewer must look both at and along the beam. To relate this to literature, the Christian must not only read critically with the biblical Christian worldview, or “along,” but also must look “at” the text for what it is, to fully appreciate and understand it. According to Ryken, Lewis discredited the approach to literature that focuses on considering merely the “idea” of a book: “To reduce a piece of literature to its ideas … is an outrage to the thing the poet has made for us” (Lewis, qtd. in Realms of Gold 8-9).
Moreover, Lewis offers another piece of advice for reading literature; he states that exposure to good literature aids one’s ability in detecting what constitutes good literature. He states, “The best safeguard against bad literature is a full experience of good; just as a real and affectionate acquaintance with honest people gives a better protection against rogues than a habitual distrust of everyone” (An Experiment in Criticism 94). Lewis also advises the reader on how to critique a book based on his own reading and the guidance of critics: “He is, in a word, to have the character which MacDonald attributed to God, and Chesterton, following him, to the critic; that of being ‘easy to please, but hard to satisfy’” (120). When Lewis considers those critics who have been most beneficial to him in his study of literature, he states that they are those who helped primarily
by telling [him] what works exist. But still more by putting [the works] in their setting; thus showing [him] what demands they were meant to satisfy, what furniture they presupposed in the minds of their readers. They have headed [him] off from false approaches, taught [him] what to look for, enabled [him] in some degree to put [himself] into the frame of mind of those to whom they were addressed. This had happened because such historians on the whole have taken Arnold’s advice by getting themselves out of the way. They are concerned far more with describing books than with judging them. (An Experiment in Criticism 121-122)
Thus, for Lewis, context is crucial to a fair study and judgment of literature. He esteems critics who faithfully put a work in its historical and cultural setting to more fully understand its meaning. By first understanding a book by its context, readers can then apply it to their own lives, both through a more fuller grasp of human life and as a safeguard against blindspots of the contemporary age.
Furthermore, Lewis offers his counsel on properly balancing books with what their critics claim for them. Lewis states, “The truth is not that we need the critics in order to enjoy the authors, but that we need the authors in order to enjoy the critics” (An Experiment in Criticism 123). Also, “If we have to choose, it is always better to read Chaucer again than to read a new criticism of him” (An Experiment in Criticism 124). In other words, Lewis prefers the original text to the criticism of it, yet, simultaneously, he recognizes the value of criticism insofar as it is placed in its proper position below the text.
Lewis’s expansive knowledge of literature and his positions at the two greatest universities for humanities give him credibility for establishing his own literary theory. He not only explores the merits of literature from a critical standpoint in his essays and books, but also incorporates his principles into his own fiction writing. By advocating that readers must receive, rather than use, a literary text, Lewis offers an approach that encourages readers to enjoy literature rather than to impose one’s personal agendas on it.