Many of Cairns’ poems call readers to repent, not out of shame or self-loathing but out of the good news that awaits such surrender to a good God.Read More
The measurement of time is so ingrained in our society that we take it for granted. On a daily basis we have schedules that mark the beginning and ending of assigned or chosen tasks. On a larger scale, we track the progress of each week, month, or year. Our annual celebration of the transition from one calendar year to another invites a summary and evaluation of what has been accomplished or merely taken place in the past year. In a more personal way, we celebrate birthdays as milestones in the progress of our lives. Underlying all of this measurement of time is an awareness that we humans, along with our social and political institutions, have limited lifespans. We are all on the path to death.
It has not always been so. When God created the Earth to be an environment for living things, especially for his ultimate creation, human beings, there was no sense of limited life, and so no need to measure time. But all of that changed when Adam and Eve chose to disobey God, thereby incurring the promised penalty of death. Very quickly after the two of them were banished from the timeless Garden of Eden, the narrative about their offspring began to be marked by the passage of time: how many years between the births of their children and how old each person was when he died. How different the human and divine perspectives on the passage of time had become.
I have imagined in “Adam’s first New Year” how he might have ruminated about his new perception of the passage of time on the anniversary of his and Eve’s expulsion from Paradise. In this monologue, Adam, though keenly aware of the sad new world he and Eve have brought about, realizes that God is still with him, transcending His own edict of judgment, just as He had done earlier when He clothed the just-realized, sin-conscious nakedness of the pair.
Adam's First New Year
Adam paced the field
Made rough by tilling,
Unwilling ground since God
Withdrew His Presence from it.
The sun itself, now cyclic,
Gave only partial beams
To warm the stubborn soil.
"No need in Eden's bounds
To think of ebb and flow,
Of patterned change
Which gives us markers
For the progress of decay;
But now each day reveals
That something more of what we were
And nights accumulate
Until the sun comes back
To mark the point where death began.
"That day, I made a world
Where beginnings add up to ends,
And cycles are incremental.
Can God be heard in such a place?
Can timeless Love be found
Where time feeds hateful death?
I know only that breath,
Though shortened now,
Is still from Him;
And though I sweat for bread,
He feeds me yet."
The next two poems show the same paradoxical way that God goes beyond our
time-limited understanding of the flow of events. He sees without the restrictions of past, present, and future.
Tying Up Loose Ends
Accumulating year-ends is a purely human occupation:
Piling up tinsel monuments
And stacking shards of shattered plans.
Only the illusion
That things which matter have beginning or end
Spurs mortals to wrap up one year
And open another.
But gently urges us not to mistake
Our clocks for absolute.
We will accept, then,
The fragmentation of experience,
And search for the splices of God
By which the worst of the past
And the promise of the future
Are always joined.
Finally, I offer a poem that reflects the perversity of our fallen wills in opting so often for the immediate, but temporal, pleasures of our mortal world, rather than the eternally significant treasures of God’s grace.
Is what we all live on.
We purchase the gauds and trinkets
Of Vanity Fair.
We prefer our own
To the gift of suffering
Which is beyond our means;
Our own indebtedness
To the solvency of Grace.
Lord, have mercy! Christ, have mercy! Grant us the eyes of eternity.
In a literature class this semester, we read Misha Nogha’s “Chippoke Na Gomi,” an intriguing and provocative science fiction story exploring the repercussions of atomic weaponry and the responsibilities we have to each other. It’s a weighty tale whose pathos pulls at the reader’s heart strings and reminds us of the interconnectedness of the human race, that the harm imposed on others will not—cannot—stay contained. For those readers already predisposed toward empathy, the story’s charge to care for the world can feel overwhelming, which was exactly the case for one of my students. What do we do, she asked me, seeing the world in such need of help and knowing ourselves unequal to the task? I’m grateful that she asked the question because it gave me the opportunity to wrestle with it myself. Here are a few of the thoughts I shared with her, posted here with her permission:
What you bring up is so important and crucial to wrestle with. We can’t let go of either conviction—that the injustices of this world must be rectified and that there’s only so much we can do to fix them. But putting those two realities side-by-side seems to create an intractable problem—the world’s ills will not abate, nor will our resources to solve them suddenly increase exponentially. I think sometimes the response, then, is either to become callous to the problems of the world (understandably so, if only for sanity’s sake) or to run oneself ragged, attempting to care for any and all comers (this, too, is understandable because otherwise it feels like we’ve abdicated our humanity and failed to take seriously the demands of justice).
Neither option is desirable or, truth be told, even tenable. What do we do then? Are we stuck always having to choose between our humanity and our sanity? I think what’s important to keep in mind is that while justice—for all, not only for some—must be served and while we as Christians must participate in that process, the full enactment of that justice is not dependent on us. It is God’s to fulfill, his redemption to enact.
If you’re wanting a biblical reminder of this truth, the Sermon on the Mount might be a good passage to revisit, especially Matthew 6:33: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” We long for heaven, for a world redeemed; your empathy, I think, taps into the truth that human beings are infinitely valuable and deserve so much better than this world and other human beings can offer (themselves included). But such empathy must be tempered with an awareness of our creaturely status, as we are as much in need of redemption ourselves as those other creatures we long to see restored and valued rightly.
The good intention of loving others and wanting to help them can easily be twisted into pride and self-reliance. The better way is to surrender yourself to God’s will, your love of others and unique insights about suffering to his service, and your gifts and talents to his purposes. He will use you as he sees fit; it may take a little time to find your specific calling among the many worthy tasks before us (and, especially relevant for your question, among the many, many needs of this world). Some helpful resources along those lines include this Andy Crouch article, Kevin DeYoung’s Just Do Something, and Tim Keller’s Every Good Endeavor.
I do think ultimately, though, it’s absolutely essential to keep in mind that the promise of salvation, for redemption of the world, is God’s to give and to fulfill. I think sometimes, if we’re honest with ourselves, that might be a bitter pill to swallow because doing so absolutely requires us to face our own pride and delusions of grandeur. But it’s good to do—to be honest with ourselves about those impulses—because only then can God expose that hidden hubris, camouflaged though it is in something good, allowing us to confess it and surrender it to him.
It’s a memorable moment, but again, Neville—like Hermione—has been prepared for such a time as this; the courage he displays here has been built through earlier decisions and courageous acts. Even if the stakes were smaller then, they were nonetheless challenges to be overcome. A memorable training ground for Neville’s stand against Voldemort, for example, was his earlier stand against his friends stopping them from leaving the common room in order to prevent punishment to the whole house. For this act, he is rewarded with ten points for Gryffindore, as Dumbledore announces, “There are all kinds of courage. . . . It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to your enemies, but just as much to stand up to your friends.” Crucially, Neville challenges his friends out of a pure heart, not for selfish reasons. Courage is not to be confused with rash and dangerous action; it is instead principled action in the face of fear. For this reason, C. S. Lewis elevates courage above other virtues: “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” Neville stands up to his friends because he loves them. Love being the motivating virtue for all the others and the most important of all the virtues practiced by the characters and taught by the series.
I think, in fact, that what most attracts readers, what accounts for the Harry Potter phenomenon is this simple yet profound truth: that love will, in fact, save the world. But, and here’s the kicker, love costs. Love is no insubstantial, sentimental thing; it is tough as nails and powerful—it requires force and a humble, courageous act of will. For, as Plato has argued, the virtues truly are unified—they support and reinforce one another to enable us to become the people we ought to be. The education Harry Potter offers is to recognize the value of humility, courage, and most importantly love and to steel us to embrace the cost and to impress deeply upon us that that cost is worth the reward. This pattern—of a desperate situation, a dramatic self-sacrifice, and a hope affirmed through that sacrifice—runs throughout the book and appears both in the overarching narrative and the smaller stories that make up the whole. Through these depictions, Rowling is training her readers to see beyond the immediate and to recognize the even deeper reality of a world ruled by justice and redeemed by love. Individual enactments of humility, courage, and love are inseparable from justice and love’s ultimate triumph. In the soil of Rowling’s books the reader’s moral imagination can grow alongside those of the central characters. Not only is love what is being taught to these characters (and readers) as they grow up; it’s the catalyst for their learning.
In this summer’s popular documentary, Fred Rogers reminds us that “love is at the root at everything, all learning, all relationships, love or the lack of it.” The arc of Harry’s story highlights this deep truth. As powerful as the series’ climax is—where Harry surrenders himself to Voldemort to save his beloved friends and professors—it could never have happened if it weren’t for his mother’s sacrificial act to protect him from Voldemort as a child. And I don’t mean this in the obvious way—that Harry would not have lived were it not for his mother’s protection. I mean it in the way the book makes clear—Lily Potter denies herself in favor of her son, finds courage to stand up against an implacable enemy despite the overwhelming odds that he will prevail, and plants deep within her son a knowledge of love’s power that cannot be shaken; Harry loves well because his mother first loved him. As Dumbledore explains to Harry: “Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realise that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign ... to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin.”
Even still, Harry must grow into that love, step by step and choice by choice. He does so with the encouragement of loving mentors and pseudo-parents. Dumbledore, especially. As a precursor to Harry’s self-sacrifice in Deathly Hollows, Dumbledore allows Snape to kill him. That Dumbledore took this step gave force to the encouragement and support he offers Harry at King’s Cross Station. Pottermore elaborates on this important scene in the following commentary that’s helpful for underscoring how Dumbledore’s character is simultaneously formed and revealed through his actions:
[D]espite the faults, despite Dumbledore perhaps not being the perfect wizard Harry thought he was, never before has Dumbledore seemed more heroic. For men and women are not born great. They learn greatness over time – from experience, from mistakes. Dumbledore looked at his deeds, at his flaws, and he had the wisdom to confront and overcome them; he fought the greatest nemesis there was: himself. . . . Who better to teach the next generation of wizards? Who better to face Lord Voldemort? Who better to send Harry on his way from King’s Cross station, with one last piece of wisdom: “Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all, those who live without love.”
The wisdom Dumbledore offers Harry is wedded to his practice; more importantly, it has grown out of that practice. And Harry has learned well, as he goes out to surrender to Voldemort. It’s a beautiful picture of someone who has embraced and embodied the moral education of these many years. It’s one that resonates with readers, as sales and the popularity of the books and its ancillary products shows. But what readers do with that story matters just as much as the story itself. Have we embraced our own moral education inspired by these books? William James reminds us that without putting what we learned through literature into practice, the experience is the opposite of educative; it is utterly self-indulgent:
The weeping of a Russian lady over the fictitious personages in the play, while her coach-man is freezing to death on his seat outside, is the sort of thing that everywhere happens on a less glaring scale. . . . One becomes filled with emotions which habitually pass without prompting to any deed, and so the inertly sentimental condition is kept up. The remedy would be, never to suffer one's self to have an emotion at a concert, without expressing it afterward in some active way. Let the expression be the least thing in the world -speaking genially to one's aunt, or giving up one's seat in a horse-car, if nothing more heroic offers - but let it not fail to take place.
Rightly read, good literature—the enchanted and non-enchanted varieties alike—habituates our hearts and minds outwardly, to practice humility, bolster our courage, and embrace love. We can—and I think should—lament our current state of affairs, how the worst of times are at present being instantiated: the bitter rivalries, the no-holds barred angry rhetoric, and the general sense of despair. We also can—and dare I say must—fasten our present hopes to the eternal verities that will not disappoint. Good stories can show us the way.
Humility is an apt starting point in talking about education of any kind—moral or otherwise. Without humility, a student is unteachable, thinking themselves better than another or self-sufficient. The arc of Hermione’s story exemplifies both the challenges a lack of humility poses to real intellectual and moral growth and the possibilities of further moral development that can stem from embracing this important habit of heart and mind. In that way, humility truly is what Edmund Burke calls it: the “firm foundation of all virtues,” making way for the full flowering of a person’s spirit and soul. It’s important, however, to distinguish between humiliation and humility. Humility is not to think terribly of oneself, but to think rightly. It is to know one’s strengths and weaknesses. As Mother Theresa once explained, “If you are humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are.” Humiliation, on the other hand, is debasement without respect. Hermione first tasted this humiliation in The Chamber of Secrets, standing out as a Muggle-born among the mostly pure-blood wizards that make up the Hogwarts student body. Draco exploits this vulnerability, angrily dismissing her defense of the Gryffindor Quidditch team with, “[n]o one asked your opinion, you filthy little Mudblood.”
Understandably, as the story progresses, Hermione responds poorly to these slights, by flaunting her strengths (her book learning and firm grasp on class material). Errors come in pairs, as C. S. Lewis has noted, and Hermione swings wildly from the degradation she experienced to an outsized pride, manifested at the expense of Ron. As he struggles in class to cast the prescribed spell, Hermione presumes to lecture him: “You're saying it wrong. . . . It's Wing-gar-dium Levi-o-sa, make the ‘gar’ nice and long.” Unsurprisingly, Ron doesn’t take kindly to this condescension and later says, within Hermione’s earshot, that “it's no wonder no one can stand her. . . . She's a nightmare, honestly.” While this is admittedly not the best start for their relationship, the education enabled by Hermione’s overcorrection and Ron’s candid admission plays out well for all involved and eventually forms the beginning bonds of a strong and life-giving friendship.
We know the details—Hermione, hurt, isolates herself in the girl’s bathroom. When a troll gets loose in the castle, Ron and Harry take off to find her and, after many missteps, rescue her from the troll’s rampage. Through this experience, Hermione modulates her view of herself and others. Friedrich Nietzsche may have thought humility a vice, a trait unworthy of the “overman” because it keeps one beholden to others, but the Harry Potter series, through scenes like this one, demonstrates humanity’s interdependence and the importance of recognizing and honoring our interconnections. The value of humility is highlighted by Hermione’s acknowledgment of the debt she owes to Harry and Ron: "I'm not as good as you,” Harry tells her. To which Hermione responds: “Me! . . . Books! And cleverness! There are more important things – friendship and bravery.” Hermione has learned well the essential lessons of humility, which Flannery O’Connor has captured in this insight: “To know oneself is, above all, to know what one lacks. It is to measure oneself against Truth, and not the other way around. The first product of self-knowledge is humility. . . .”
And upon the humility Hermione develops in book 1 is built much good work. Her advocacy for the house elves, who have historically been poorly treated and ill-thought-of, stems from her own self-acceptance and humble service. Rather than rejecting her precarious social position as a mud-blood on the margins, Hermione embraces it and finds solidarity with others who find themselves similarly maligned. Out of that solidarity, S.P.E.W. (the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare) is born, a gesture reminiscent of the kindly acts of Hagrid toward magical creatures, especially those that were unwanted or thought dangerous. Humility, these stories teach us, breeds compassion and empathy, essential components of a strong community.
Two things are important to keep in mind here: First, humility does not come upon a person unbidden; it is a discipline, instilled and strengthened through one’s choices. In the excruciating spot that Hermione found herself in, smarting from Malfoy’s earlier insult and confronted by her own prideful treatment of Ron and the barrier it put between them, she had to test her true self against these extremes—and to recognize that the reality of who she is lay somewhere in between. She is neither the lowly outcast Draco marks her as nor the all-important bigshot she has presented herself as in class. She is intelligent and clever, book-smart and logical, yet she needs others to keep her weaknesses in check and to complement her strengths.
Second, humility, compassion, and empathy—to make a positive difference—must be made manifest in one’s actions and interactions with others. Doing so, especially when the stakes are high and there’s a price to pay, requires courage, a virtue that animates much of the plot of the series. Most of the major characters are afforded an opportunity to demonstrate courage. These opportunities come when something or someone they value is in jeopardy and they must act to protect them. Some characters, like Peter Pettigrew, choose cowardice to preserve themselves rather than defy their fear and risk themselves for something or someone more important. Sirius Black acknowledges that Peter was in a difficult spot—caught between Lord Voldemort and a hard place: betray the Potters or die. But the fear Pettigrew felt was no excuse for his infidelity. To borrow a line from Nelson Mandela, courage is not the absence of fear but the “triumph over it.” Sirius puts the lie to Peter’s sniveling excuses: “What was there to be gained by fighting the most evil wizard who has ever existed? . . . Only innocent lives, Peter!” Peter stubbornly clings to his fear to vindicate himself: “You don’t understand! . . . He would have killed me, Sirius!” Black is having none of it; the right choice in such a situation is as chilling as it is clear: “THEN YOU SHOULD HAVE DIED! . . . DIED RATHER THAN BETRAY YOUR FRIENDS, AS WE WOULD HAVE DONE FOR YOU!”
That sounds incredible for anyone to have done such a thing, to have faced the Dark Lord with the prospect of certain death. But Professor McGonagall does what Pettigrew fails to. She revolts against the Death Eaters who have taken over Hogwarts, with the final straw being Amycus Carrow’s willingness to allow children to take the brunt of Voldemort’s fury in his invasion of the castle. In a phrase reminiscent of Pettigrew, Carrow asks, “Couple of kids more or less, what’s the difference?” McGonagall, like Sirius, realizes what’s at stake: “Only the difference between truth and lies, courage and cowardice, . . . a difference, in short, which you and your sister seem unable to appreciate. But let me make one thing very clear. You are not going to pass off your many ineptitudes on the students of Hogwarts. I shall not permit it.”
At least one Hogwarts student takes to heart the lesson in courage McGonagall and the other faculty teach, Neville Longbottom. Neville, to put it mildly, is an unlikely foe for Voldemort but one who nonetheless dares to oppose him. Rowling vividly captures Neville’s panic as Voldemort uses him as an example—pinning him down with the sorting hat and setting it on fire. Once Harry breaks him free, Neville moves quickly, and in one of the most dramatic scenes of the books, takes out the children’s greatest enemy: “The slash of the silver blade could not be heard over the roar of the oncoming crowd, or the sounds of the clashing giants, or of the stampeding centaurs, and yet it seemed to draw every eye. With a single stroke, Neville sliced off the great snake’s head, which spun high into the air, gleaming in the light flooding from the Entrance Hall, and Voldemort’s mouth was open in a scream of fury that nobody could hear, and the snake’s body thudded to the ground at his feet.”
The opening lines of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities are among the most recognizable passages in literature—it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The description is simultaneously timeless and time-bound: written in Victorian England, depicting the eve of the French Revolution, but somehow no matter how much time passes, it seems that they ring perpetually true. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Isn’t it always?
In short compass, Dickens manages to draw from his historical moment a broader truth about the human condition: “[I]t was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” We humans, it seems, are continually caught between two extremes: our promise, creative potential, and idealistic possibilities on the one side and our hubris, destructive capacities, and cynical bent on the other. If you don’t believe me, a quick glimpse at your social media feed will prove my point.
Okay, yes, admittedly—we’re nowhere near French-Revolution-era craziness. No one’s brought out the guillotines. At least not yet. But I daresay that most of us can recognize something of our current cultural moment in this iconic Dickens quote. We rally behind one another in the wake of national disasters, volunteering our time and money to restore communities; meanwhile other communities are languishing in the thrall of opioid abuse. Our technological and artistic ingenuity is at an all-time high, with brilliant new gadgets and imaginative creations released daily, while fraud and corruption, violence and ill-health run rampant across the country.
How then do we proceed? What might provide some hope in these troubled times? There are a slew of answers on offer, many of them politically focused—protest, lobby, legislate, vote, agitate. While I don’t think those responses are wrong per se, I do think that absent a personal, individual revolution of the wills and characters of those who make up society, these political maneuvers will merely widen the divide between us, and deepen the challenges we face. Dickens, concerned as he was with the state of Victorian culture and its societal tendencies that had ground many of its people down, suggests another avenue for correction. George Orwell—of all writers—found something about this vision compelling, even if he himself preferred the political: “There is no clear sign that [Dickens] wants the existing order to be overthrown,” Orwell reflects, “or that he believes it would make very much difference if it were overthrown. . . . His whole ‘message’ is one that at first glance looks like an enormous platitude: If men would behave decently, the world would be decent.”
J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, I think, follows this same line of thought. She has, in fact, identified Dickens as an important influence on her work. Like Dickens, Rowling is asking about the cause of our woes and what remedies are on offer and, I argue, drawing similar conclusions. In the pages of her seven highly imaginative, fantastical Harry Potter books, we find—surprisingly enough—a realistic world much like ours, filled with characters that mirror the best and worst of us and who experience the very same joy and despair. Like us, Rowling’s wizards and witches long for good to prevail over the evil they see around them and sincerely want to do the right thing. Well, most of them anyway.
But those others are just as instructive in the moral arc of Rowling’s story and especially in the lessons it provides for readers. Because, let’s face it, Rowling—like most great storytellers—is a master teacher. Harry Potter is not simply set at a school; the series itself is a school, training readers to recognize, prefer, and enact what is good and right. The venerable Roman poet Horace famously said that literature should teach and delight, and Rowling executes his charge well, as readers watch her characters navigate situations that challenge their heart and mind, identify and hone their values and beliefs, and ultimately shape their very selves in their moral choices—for good or ill.
At the center of this education, of course, is the enchanted Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Each year, young wizards throughout Britain await their acceptance letters with bated breath (or for muggle-borns like Hermione, are taken by surprise by them). These spirited scholars head off each fall to the fabled Scottish castle, to take up exotic subjects like transfiguration, potions, herbology, and the daunting defense against the dark arts. Here they get initiated into the world their older siblings and parents have already been a part of—learning to fly, caring for magical creatures, and finally trying their hand at apparition. It’s a fanciful world, and I know we’d all welcome our own Hogwarts invite. But as whimsically as it’s described, we can’t forget that the curriculum is not merely fun and games for these students. It’s real, hard work. They train, practice, fail, try again. They sometimes face disagreeable and downright cruel professors yet have to learn the material despite those challenges. Those O.W.L.s and N.E.W.T.s won’t pass themselves.
These magical skills are crucial to living in Harry, Hermione, and Ron’s world, and the three friends have varying degrees of success mastering them. Arguably these wondrous features are what make Harry Potter the phenomenon it is. Readers thrill at the games of Quidditch, imagining the students aloft on their broomsticks. They cheer for Harry as he participates in the Triwizard Tournament, putting his magical training to the test. Without the children’s initiation to magic, they’d have no access to Platform nine and three quarters or Diagon Alley, no Patronus charm to fend off the dreaded Dementors. The spells and charms and magical properties of myriad objects in Harry Potter enlarge the story’s possibilities to be sure. Pictures move and talk, invisibility and shape-shifting are live options, as are mind reading and talking with snakes. But, even though magic is at the crux of the Hogwarts curriculum, these magical techniques do not constitute the real education the books offer—neither to the characters nor to the readers. These, in fact, are mere machinery, available to the good and bad characters alike. In fact, someone as wicked as Voldemort has magical abilities at least as strong as those of the virtuous Dumbledore, if not more so. On a smaller scale, we see this contrast play out between Harry and his friends and Draco Malfoy and his.
In The Sorcerer’s Stone these children arrive at Hogwarts full of promise, and in many ways, both sets of friends follow the same path: taking classes, learning their spells, and growing in magical acumen. But that similarity is of little concern to the story; what matters more—what is in fact crucial—is that their paths diverge, as they learn (or reject) the deeper lessons and inculcate in themselves (or don’t) the virtues of friendship and love. They—and we—learn well what Dumbledore notes in The Chamber of Secrets, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” What the contrasts between Harry’s and Draco’s friends show is that an education caught up in teaching only technique—encouraging children’s hands and minds but not guiding their heart—is not one worthy of its name. I think we all know this, but that often doesn’t translate to the dominant view of education in our own world. We don’t have magic, of course, but technology seems to function similarly for us. Who hasn’t, at least once, been wowed by the newest gadget? Every year we hear about new medical advances, feats of modern engineering, and manufacturing capabilities that would have been unthinkable even twenty years ago. Arthur C. Clark captures the connection well with his proverbial quip, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
As with those in Harry Potter, we can easily confuse (or prefer) technical expertise and training with humane education. In many higher education circles, this shift toward the technical and practical—this emphasis on vocational training over the liberal arts—is just about complete. The number of humanities majors are shrinking, and fewer state dollars are going to support the liberal arts overall, deemed too impractical to add value to communities. On one hand, this shift is understandable. People need jobs. The market is changing, and demand for technical skill is on the rise. However, the danger, as I see it, in getting so fixated on these technological pursuits, we might become mindless technophiles, subordinating all else to what Neil Postman has identified as “the sovereignty of technique and technology.”
In other words, we might mistake the means of education for the end of education. But, as Postman notes, “Any education that is mainly about economic utility is far too limited to be useful, and, in any case, so diminishes the world that it mocks one’s humanity.” The Harry Potter series knows (and shows) that, although the magic it depicts (and the technology of our world that it mimics) may mesmerize us, it is neither the cause of nor the solution to our deepest human problems. Instead, the story directs our attention to other, more fundamental concerns—the virtues that make the real differences in the characters’ lives and well-being, chief among them are humility, courage, and love. These virtues are the bedrock of a good life and our full development as human beings; they nurture and grow our spirit and soul. These are the lessons taught by Rowling, learned by Harry and his friends, and inculcated in the readers’ imaginations.
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.
There’s a lot that viewers will find unsurprising in Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Morgan Neville’s new documentary about longtime children’s show host Fred Rogers. Most Americans who came of age at the end of the twentieth century are familiar with Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, given that the show was on for over thirty years, and the documentary is loaded with iconic images and scenes from the set that are perfect nostalgia fodder. It’s all there: the trolley and memorable music, King Friday the 13th and Daniel the Striped Tiger, Lady Aberlin and Mr. McFeely, Mr. Rogers’ signature cardigans and his regular, recurring visitors. It’s a feel good, emotionally evocative movie if ever there was one, and that good feeling matches the mood of Rogers’ show itself, which intentionally offered children familiar feelings of warmth and reassurance. Over the course of its time on the air, the show remained remarkably consistent; its host, thoughtful and kind, and Neville’s film nicely captures these dynamics so permanently etched into our memories and vividly returns them to us unchanged.
What has changed, however, is the framing of these familiar features, and therein lies the surprise of the film. Behind the simple sets and low production values of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, underneath the quaint songs and the unhurried storylines lay a profound conviction—children are inherently valuable and deserve the love and respect of those charged with their care. It’s a commonplace belief, one that most would readily assent to. And yet, given the contentiousness of our day, we might wonder how genuine such a belief is, how fully committed we are to it. Presented as an homage to Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? poses a stiff challenge to viewers: is the world we are making hospitable to the most vulnerable among us? If not, what are we doing to make it so? It’s a challenge that Mr. Rogers took to heart and fully lived out. If you want to know what moral apologetics for children looks like, watch a rerun of his show. To him love demanded more than lip service; it informed his approach to all he did.
Mr. Rogers was for just this reason deeply countercultural, even radical. Disrupting the system, turning programming for children on its head, was precisely his intention, as he aimed to use the television medium to work against its most destructive tendencies. An ordained Presbyterian minister, Fred Rogers believed children deserved more from TV than the silliness and violence on offer, the pies in the face, the slapstick comedy reliant on gags and props, vacuous frivolity at best, abject dehumanization at worst. In the 1950s, as television was emerging as a cultural force, Rogers saw the potential for it to be used to connect us, to build real community out of the entire country. And he took on that challenge with all the resources at his disposal—his faith, his musical training, his artistic creativity, his education in early childhood development, his listening skills, his talented and dedicated staff, and his obvious love for children—inviting his young viewers into the safety and security of being his neighbor, to become part of a family who would love, guide, and protect them.
But this neighborhood was no Pollyannaish utopia; in fact, conflict was essential to the stories Fred told—conflict that would be honestly presented and dealt with, not papered over, trivialized, or ignored. Despite its Leave It to Beaver feel, the show began in the late 1960s—1968 in fact, perhaps the most heartrending and harrowing year of that most tumultuous of decades. It was a time of unprecedented political and social turmoil, violence, and dissension in the United States, and Mr. Rogers understood it as his job to help children process all of the tragedy and upheaval they were certainly aware of—war, assassinations, racial discrimination—but were often left to their own devices to figure out. Drawing from a concept in music, Rogers explained that he aimed to help children through the difficult modulations of life, some of which are much harder than others to achieve on their own.
His approach was a far cry from seeing these children as consumers merely to be sold a product. As one friend explained, each episode was a sermon, a spiritual message that communicated directly to their hearts. Fred himself said that he saw the space between the TV and the viewer as holy ground, a sentiment verified by the seriousness with which he took his ministry. He crafted every script with care, concerned that the actors follow the lines closely in order to teach the children and help them better understand the world around them. He wrote the songs, voiced the puppets, and produced the shows. And he did so day in and day out, knowing full well that many would miss his point, that he would be mocked with parody, and that he would have to continuously counter the folly of mainstream entertainment.
And that’s perhaps another surprising feature of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? The courage and resolve of Fred Rogers, character traits that enabled his long career but that, regrettably, aren’t often associated with the cultural persona of the man himself. I suspect, though, that this is our failure of imagination—to think that kindness, gentleness, and respect are somehow weak or passive. Or perhaps it’s a reflection of the nihilism creep in our culture. The life of Mr. Rogers shows that to be truly kind, to be gentle, to demonstrate empathy, and to respect others takes great will. Mockery and cynicism is far easier. But mockery takes a toll; it erodes confidence and trust and wears away the social fabric, a lesson Fred himself learned as a bullied child who had a hard time making friends. He hoped to protect his viewers against such destructive behavior—either enacting it or receiving it. To this end he sought instead to make goodness attractive, “to help children become more aware that what is essential in life is invisible to the eye.”
Fred’s Christian faith is not the primary focus of the documentary, but it was implicit in everything he did; an attentive viewer will recognize that without it, there would be no Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Junlei Li, director of the Fred Rogers Center, reminds us that Rogers’ insistence that all people are inherently valuable, all are deserving of love and capable of giving it, is a fundamental tenet of Christianity. Mr. Rogers taught his viewers to see with spiritual eyes, to look at all people they encounter as image-bearers of God. No one is ordinary, and everyone is unique. His relationship with François Clemmons who played Officer Clemmons on the show testifies to the power of acting on that truth. Fred’s simple message, “I love you just the way you are,” was meant not only for the children watching but for Clemmons, too. It was a life-changing moment when he finally realized that, Clemmons tearfully recounts: “No man had ever told me that he loved me like that. I needed to hear it all my life. My dad never told me, my stepfather never told me. So from then on he became my surrogate father.”
While detractors may balk, and cynics sneer, Rogers’ generous acceptance of people is nothing like entitlement; it doesn’t enable narcissism. Rather, it’s centered on a notion of interdependence—we are responsible for others. We can encourage them toward good or evil. In a PSA recorded after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Rogers calls us to be Tikkun Olam, a concept from Judaism that means “repairers of creation.” “Love is at the root of everything—all learning, all parenting, all relationships. Love or the lack of it.” Far from an empty cliché or feckless sentiment, it’s the simple truth that it’s love that changes the world—sharing that love, teaching others to love, promoting love. Fred embodied what love of God and neighbor—the divine commands in some sense constitutive of all the law and prophets—looks like. Rogers did it in his inimitable and singular way, defying odds, bursting categories, shattering expectations, and debunking stereotypes along the way, but as the film reminds us as it closes, this is an ongoing task and persistent charge for us all. As Rogers shared in his last commencement speech, others have smiled us into smiling, talked us into talking, sang us into singing, loved us into loving. Remember them and do likewise. Mr. Rogers ran his race well, and he has handed the baton off to us. We would be wise to honor his memory, celebrate his life, and emulate his faithfulness.
Marybeth's most recent book is The Morals of the Story: Good News about a Good God, coauthored with her husband, David.
In his seminal work on literary theory An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis describes what, in his opinion, constitutes good literature. Lewis argues that literature must be enjoyable: “Every book should be entertaining. A good book will be more; it must not be less. Entertainment, in this sense, is like a qualifying examination. If a fiction can’t provide even that, we may be excused from inquiry into its higher qualities” (An Experiment in Criticism 91-92). Thus, “[i]deally, we should like to define a good book as one which ‘permits, invites, or compels’ good reading” (113). Lewis’s definition of a good book consists primarily in the book’s ability to entertain the reader.
Moreover, Lewis argues that a reader can only pass fair judgment on a book by first reading it with an open mind and positive attitude. He states, “We can find a book bad only by reading it as if it might, after all, be very good. We must empty our minds and lay ourselves open. There is no work in which holes can’t be picked; no work that can succeed without a preliminary act of good will on the part of the reader” (An Experiment in Criticism 116). Therefore, to determine whether a book constitutes good literature, readers must often first set aside their presuppositions and grant the book the benefit of the doubt.
In his study on C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia as well as Lewis’s views of fantasy literature, Gregory Bassham argues that fantasy “broadens our perspective and enlarges our sense of what is possible” (246), and can “re-enchant the ordinary world” (247), “activate our moral imaginations” (248), and “baptize our imaginations” (254). Regarding the latter benefit of fantasy literature, Bassham points out two ways in which Lewis believed this possible: “First, they can stir and trouble us with a longing for we know not what, ‘a dim sense of something’ beyond our reach that, ‘far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth’” (254). Second, “Lewis believed that fantasy literature can baptize our imaginations by making us more likely to accept Christian truth and respond to it fittingly” (Bassham 254). This argument reflects his earlier illustration of the potential benefit for “two-edged” values, which included longing. Fantasy literature can, through the nature of the genre, appeal to the imagination in a way that creates spiritual longing for the reader.
In forming his view on fantasy literature, Lewis drew heavily from Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories.” In Lewis’s essay “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” he states, “I hope everyone has read Tolkien’s essay on Fairy Tales, which is perhaps the most important contribution to the subject that anyone has yet made” (26). One point Lewis makes, crediting Tolkien, is that “in most places and times, the fairy tale has not been specially made for, nor exclusively enjoyed by, children” (26). Further, “[t]he whole association of fairy tale and fantasy with childhood is local and accidental . . . It has gravitated to the nursery when it became unfashionable in literary circles, just as unfashionable furniture gravitated to the nursery in Victorian houses” (“On Three Ways of Writing for Children” 26). Thus, Lewis points out that fantasy literature ought not to be associated merely with children, for it can also impact adult audiences.
One of the arguments most often used against fantasy literature is that it is escapist; in other words, it allows one to escape from reality by entering a world in which one can forget about real problems and instead journey into an unreal world. Thus, “many realist critics charge that fans of fantasy literature are (often) escapists in this pejorative sense” (Bassham 260). However, Lewis responds that the truth of such a claim depends on “whether fantasy fans are escaping ‘into the wrong things’” and “on one’s metaphysical and theological worldview” (Bassham 260). In her analysis of Lewis’s argument on escapism, critic Margaret L. Carter observes Lewis’s reasoning: “Though literature is still mimetic—words, since they carry meaning, inevitably direct our attention to things beyond themselves” (“Sub-Creation and Lewis’s Theory of Literature” 134). Understanding that fantasy literature can capture certain aspects of reality and relate it to the reader in a manner that is both meaningful and comprehensible, Lewis believes that a healthy form of escape is quite beneficial to the reader.
Lewis offers a counter-argument against the claim that fantasy literature is escapist by first acknowledging that fantasy literature does indeed offer escape. However, he proposes the ways in which fantasy may offer a beneficial form of escape: “[It] can help to re-enchant the ordinary world, evoke stabs of ‘joy’ that point us heavenward, restore ‘potency’ to spiritual truths and, as Tolkien suggests, fulfill deep-seated desires to participate in the properly human function of ‘subcreation.’” (Bassham 260). Finally, “for Lewis, there could be no real conflict among imagination, intellect and spirit, any more than among truth, goodness and beauty” (Bassham 260). Thus, by using fantasy, Lewis appeals not only to the intellect but also to the imagination to direct the focus of his readers toward the spiritual realm.
One of the standards Lewis gives to determine what constitutes good literature is whether a book has stood the test of time. He offers advice in his essay “On the Reading of Old Books.” He recommends that, for every new book one reads, one should read an old book: “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between” (201-2). He continually emphasizes the superiority of the classics and great books. Additionally, he advises the average reader that, if the need arises to choose between a new or old book, the reader should choose the old because “he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusively temporary diet” (“On the Reading of Old Books” 201). The danger in new books, he explains, is that the book is still “on trial [and must still] be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light” (“On the Reading of Old Books” 201). Thus, the central reason Lewis offers for reading old as opposed to modern books is that older ones have stood the test of time, whereas modern ones have not had adequate time to be judged and deemed worthy to be read.
Lewis offers further evidence for the value of old books: those that have stood the test of time are valuable because they reveal the mistakes of the era in which they were written. By learning from these past mistakes, readers are better equipped to avoid similar mistakes in their own age. He explains that, since each age contains a particular dominant view of life, a book from that era is particularly good at both “seeing certain truths and . . . liable to [make] certain mistakes (“On the Reading of Old Books” 202). Everyone needs “books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of [their] own period. And that means the old books” (“On the Reading of Old Books” 202). Old books often contain ideas that run counter to contemporary worldviews or issues and are beneficial for the way that they often reveal the possible flaws behind current ideas. Often writers, though seemingly “as completely opposed as two sides could be were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions (“On the Reading of Old Books” 202). Therefore, reading old books is preferable to new ones because not only can they help readers identify mistakes of past ages but also those same books will also enable them to better understand the problems of their own age.
In another essay, “On Stories,” Lewis further addresses what constitutes good literature, focusing more particularly on literature as an art form. He argues that the function of art is “to present what the narrow and desperately practical perspectives of real life exclude” (“On Stories” 10). One aspect of stories that Lewis was most fond of was that, “to construct plausible and moving ‘other worlds,’ [writers and readers] must draw on the only real ‘other world’ [they] know, that of the spirit” (12). He explains further, “Good stories often introduce the marvelous or supernatural, and nothing about Story has been so often misunderstood as this” (13). This aspect of literature reveals Lewis’s earlier argument that literature can be a road both to and from heaven. Although he considers one negative possibility of escapism, the encouragement of “happiness under incompatible conditions” (14), Lewis also takes into account the potential benefit of the escape into literature: “[The] whole story, paradoxically enough, strengthens our relish for real life. This excursion into the preposterous sends us back with renewed pleasure to the actual” (15).
Moreover, Lewis’s essay “On Three Ways of Writing for Children” explores standards for determining the quality of children’s literature. He states, “I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story” (“On Three Ways of Writing for Children” 24). Lewis touches again on the potential problem of escapism by differentiating between two types of longing: “The one is an askesis, a spiritual exercise, and the other is a disease” (30). His argument here is that, if a child “escapes” into literature, it is healthy and even beneficial, if the longing produced by entering into a fictional world is a spiritual longing. However, if the reader wishes to imaginatively live in an alternate world merely to escape the real one, then it can become destructive.
Additionally, Lewis argues that literature should not be overtly didactic. Its primary purpose is to entertain, and a “moral” should not be incorporated at the expense of entertainment. Lewis argues that, rather than asking what moral theme or principle contemporary children need to hear, a writer ought to ask oneself what moral he or she needs to learn. Lewis advocates, “The only moral that is of any value is that which arises inevitably from the whole cast of the author’s mind,” for “what does not concern us deeply will not deeply interest our readers, whatever their age” (“On Three Ways of Writing to Children” 33). Therefore, the moral must not be something superficially placed in front of the child, but something portrayed in a real sense and driven by the true concerns of the writer.
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.
The recent HBO adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 attempts to update the classic story of censorship and entertainment run amok in light of new technology and our ubiquitous social media culture. It’s a laudable effort, and Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon put a memorable twist on Guy Montag and Captain John Beatty. I’ve always been a bit skeptical, however, about the wisdom of adapting this particular book to film, given its overt critiques on the logic and deficiencies of a spectacle-driven society. There’s just something odd about using a screen—big or small—to bemoan the decline of the written word’s cultural primacy of place. Even still, Bradbury himself approved of François Truffaut’s 1966 version, and critics have made a compelling case that the film’s visuals pay homage to the book’s role in shaping an inviting and hospitable world, one much more attractive and life-giving than the mechanical world of the firemen charged with burning them.
My reservations about the film versions notwithstanding, I have to admit that one scene, powerful in the book and brilliantly captured by each adaptation, dramatically and memorably depicts the central conflict of the story. It is a scene that has stuck with me from my first encounter with Bradbury’s story and that readily comes to mind when I think of what it means to take one’s commitments seriously. When one has recognized the value of a thing or person, what obligations does that recognition entail? As Bradbury’s story suggests, the greater the value, the higher the price.
Montag’s crew raid a house on an anonymous tip. There they find it overflowing with books—illegal all. As they enter the house, they find one lone woman sitting at a desk; in the recent version she reads John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, unmoved by her unexpected visitors. The firemen search the house, and room after room is overrun with books. They are stacked floor to ceiling in piles that crowd tables, bookshelves, and chairs. This “regular Tower of Babel”—as Beatty calls it—is so jam-packed that the banned materials leave only a small path for the men to walk through.
These books—any books—are an offense to the futuristic America Bradbury has imagined. They require too much time, provoke too much thought, and unsettle easy answers. True-believer Beatty expounds on the dangers inherent in making these writings freely available: “Do you want to know what’s inside all these books? Insanity. . . . One expert screaming down another expert’s throat. . . . Each one says the opposite, and a man comes away lost, feeling more bestial and lonely than before.” This forbidden fruit—Beatty suggests—dazzles with promises to unlock the secrets of the universe but leaves readers more disoriented and confused than before. Happiness, on this worldview, comes from being spoon-fed the knowledge needed to get along: “If you don’t want a person unhappy, you don’t give them two sides of a question.” In fact, you don’t give them a question at all.
The stronger Beatty makes his case against books, the more intrigued about them Montag becomes; he snags one and tucks it into his coat before the others are doused with kerosene. As the house is readied to burn, Montag tries to get the occupant to leave. But she remains steadfast, defiant in the face of the firemen’s destruction. Montag’s conscience has been pricked: “Are we just going to leave her?” he asks as Beatty says to let her be. Coldly, the captain gives her one last chance to avoid the fate destined for her books: “Look, miss, do what you like, but you know as well as I do that these books are gonna burn.”
And then comes one of the most memorable scenes of the story: the woman stands atop a pile of kerosene-soaked books, opens her jacket to reveal additional books strapped to her waist, pulls out a single match, which she strikes and drops to the floor. She has done the firemen’s job for them, willing to die for the books she cherishes. Bradbury elevates this sacrifice, making it akin to religious devotion, by having her allude to the apocryphal last words of Protestant martyr Hugh Latimer (Oxford, 1563): “Play the man,” she says, a line concluded by Latimer with the hope that his present suffering will one day be rewarded: “We shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.”
What makes this scene so memorable is the deep conviction readers and viewers sense in the woman’s commitment to her books. She values them so highly that, for her, they are worth her very life. Coming after Beatty’s denigration of books as societal troublemakers, responsible for all manner of unrest, the woman’s sacrifice is all the more poignant; clearly she thinks otherwise and hopes her immolation will convince viewers of the raid’s livestream to challenge the status quo, to give books a chance. And of course if someone is willing to give her life for the cause, anything so intuitively significant and sacrificial certainly merits close attention. Even if her strategy doesn’t seal the deal for those watching the fire, it might at least give them pause to reconsider the party line. It does just that for Montag and sets him on a rebellious course.
But as memorable as the scene is, the question of the source of the value of these books remains unanswered—at least in this latest adaptation of Fahrenheit 451. It’s clear that the filmmakers (and characters like this woman) highly prize the written word, but it’s not clear why—what confers on them their worth? Unmoored from any such anchor, the books take on an almost fetishistic role. In a sharp departure from Bradbury’s original story, director and writer Ramin Bahrani introduces an electronic component to the preservation of literature; while the original story relies on an exiled community to memorialize the words behind the written texts, the HBO film entrusts it to technology—a database called OMNIS encoded in a DNA strand and stored inside a bird. Presumably, no matter what human beings do to each other, this literature will live on; the final scene of the film suggests as much, with the bird soaring high above the embattled city. These precious books have left humanity behind and are no longer subjected to their depraved machinations.
In Bradbury’s version, the opposite is true: the written word itself falls away, and is now imprinted in the memories of the “book people” who have each undertaken to memorize whole books in a throwback to the world of oral culture. The books have been more deeply internalized than before, and community is essential to their survival. While Bradbury never explores any locus of value beyond this human community, he seems to recognize what the filmmakers do not: that these texts cannot stand on their own and absorb any significant amount of devotion without something inherently valuable to underwrite them. For Bradbury, books themselves are primarily a vehicle for human creativity and an extension of the mind of the creator him or herself.
To censor or otherwise destroy them means more than physical annihilation of the material text: it’s to dishonor and degrade the people behind the writings. It’s also to stamp out the good these reflections on the human condition and our world can offer readers now. The figure of Faber, who is notably absent in the newest version, beautifully articulates the connection: “It's not books you need, it's some of the things that once were in books. . . . The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us. . . . This book has pores. It has features. This book can go under the microscope. You'd find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion.” Admittedly, Bradbury’s framework needs expanding a bit, undergirding the temporal human community with an eternal source of ultimate value—something that classical theism readily provides I should note, but he at least gestures in that direction.
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).