Trethewey writes poems of uncomfortable truth.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).
A central concern for Christians regarding literature is what value, if any, literature holds for the reader. Although this is not a new consideration, it is one C. S. Lewis referred to as a “living question” for its continued importance for discussion. Literature is often accused of being useless, merely entertainment, irrelevant to life, or immoral (Ryken, Windows to the World 18). Does a biblical Christian worldview allow Christians to enjoy literature, and if so, how should Christians decide what books they should read? In answering these difficult questions, one author in particular should be respected and consulted for answers: C. S. Lewis. This prominent Oxford and Cambridge lecturer and imaginative writer provides a thorough response for how Christians should engage the humanities and culture, particularly in the area of literary art.
Lewis had the extraordinary privilege of teaching at the two most prestigious universities in the world for the humanities: Oxford and Cambridge. He first taught at Magdalen College, Oxford, from 1925 to 1954. He then earned the position of Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English at Magdalene College, Cambridge. In Reading the Classics with C. S. Lewis, Leland Ryken accordingly spells out some of the advantages of studying “with” such a learned scholar. First, Ryken notes that with Lewis’s literary criticism, readers are “in the presence of someone who simply assumed that the world of literature is a self-rewarding world of overwhelming importance” (24). Furthermore, he “had a knack for delineating the features of an author’s world” (24), and a way of attracting readers both to “individual works of authors” as well as immersing them into the “entire world of imaginative literature” (26). The key, according to Ryken, is Lewis’s vast array of reading experience; he states, “I know of no twentieth-century critic who refers to so many works and writers” (26). On a more personal level, Ryken observes, “To read literature with C. S. Lewis is to get to know Lewis himself, and this is part of the appeal of his criticism. Criticism as an impersonal scholarly inquiry did not occur as an option for Lewis. His own tastes and personality come through at nearly every turn” (28). Mark Noll considers the influence and importance of Lewis:
Lewis’s writing has constituted the single most important body of Christian thinking for American evangelicals in the twentieth century. His defense of supernatural Christianity, his ability to exploit learned culture, his example as a writer of fiction, his demonstration that the truths of the faith could be expressed in lively prose—all contributed an unusual measure of intellectual stimulation to evangelicals on this side of the water. (218)
As one of the greatest literary scholars and critics in the twentieth century, Lewis’s views on literature are vital for any Christian seeking answers to the questions of why one should read literature, what constitutes a good book, and how one should approach reading.
The most tragic reality students face in the secular university today is the absence of belief in absolute truth. Literature is typically not studied from the perspective of what the author is trying to communicate; instead, students are encouraged to decipher their own meaning and apply it to the text. In a society entrenched in postmodern ideologies, the understanding of what principles govern the reading of good literature is often lost. With postmodernity came the false presupposition that there are no objective standards to which literature must adhere. The result is “art for art’s sake” and the assumption that the reader, not the author, determines the meaning of the text. As postmodernists disregard absolutes, words, which form the foundation of literature, lose their essential meaning. Thus, words such as “Truth,” “Love,” “Wisdom,” “Beauty,” and “Justice” become mere abstractions which people subjectively understand. The loss of a stable language is detrimental to a student’s entire education. When words lose their function of communicating universal truth and meaning, students lose the ability to come to a meaningful understanding of truth and reality.
Lewis, noticing the gravitation toward relativism in the contemporary worldview of his time, set forth concrete principles for interpreting literature. He believed in the importance of understanding the worldview of an author, as well as how readers’ worldviews affect the way that they interpret literature. Yet Lewis argues that readers should not allow their own worldview to frustrate or impede a story; instead, they must “receive” rather than “use” a story (Experiment in Criticism 93). Thus, Lewis strikes a balance between two polarized forms of literary criticism. On one end of the spectrum, readers simplify a literary text to force it into a uniform category to argue that it advocates a particular worldview or universal truth. At the other extreme are those who deny the existence of absolutes and thus force the text to fit whichever meaning they subjectively wish to contend. Lewis’s approach, as a middle ground, encourages readers to interact with a text and to enjoy it for what it is worth, yet not to impose their personal agendas on the text to determine its meaning.
Fiction is a unique vehicle for explaining and illuminating the reality of human life. Although a fictional story does not necessarily tell a true story, it is an instrument through which the reader can discover truth. Humans are, as beings created in the image of God, creators in their own right. Thus, a person who is crafting literature is creating a world. By entering the world of fiction, according to Lewis, the reader can later re-enter the real world with a refreshed perspective on reality. Emphasis on supernatural reality is one of the most common themes in Lewis’s work, particularly in his fiction. In his essay “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” Lewis explains that he uses the genre of fantasy as a vehicle to convey his message because other genres attempting to express a moral or principle may inadvertently cause the reader to feel obligation. According to Lewis, “an obligation to feel can freeze things” (37). In other words, when entering the imaginary world, the reader typically does not feel that he or she is being told what to do. Instead, while watching the story unfold, the reader can experience the abstract or concrete ideas evoked by the author in a natural, rather than forced, environment. Such an environment is most effective, for it allows the reader alone to decide how to act upon the underlying message.
Pride, Devouring Love, And Dying To Self
Let us turn now to a second major theme in TWHF: pride and corrupted love. There are a number of insights concerning this theme that Lewis offers in his prose that are illustrated well in TWHF. Consider first the nature of pride and the fact that it blocks the knowledge of God. Lewis says that pride is the key sin that is central in Christian ethics. People recognize pride in others but often fail to see it in themselves. Lewis says that pride is what often makes it difficult to convince unbelievers of their sin problem. It leads them to overlook their own sins yet feel that they can judge God for allowing the evils in the world; in short, it leads humans to think we are “on the bench and God in the Dock.” Pride is the pathway to all other vices. It is the “complete anti-God state of mind” and is by nature competitive. We are not proud merely because we are smart or attractive but because we are smarter or more attractive than others. Pride seeks power and puts one’s self forward. It always causes conflict with others and with God. Lewis says, “The moment you have a self at all, there is a possibility of putting yourself first—wanting to be the centre—wanting to be God, in fact.” Since God is “immeasurably superior” to all people, Lewis stresses that pride prevents one from knowing God. Pride involves “looking down,” but God can only be known by looking up. Prideful people may say they know God, but they cannot. Those who truly know God will have their focus on God and not themselves. We cannot relate to God properly unless we humbly recognize Him as God.
In TWHF, Orual fails to recognize her pride for most of the novel, and this prevents her from knowing the gods and discovering truth. So long as she was elevating herself and only looking down, she could not realize that the gods were above her. She could not know herself or the gods because she was a prisoner of her pride. As the novel opens, she seeks to put the gods in the judgment seat (i.e., in “the dock”) and is angry that they will not answer her. By the end, however, she discovers that the accusations she had wanted to make against the gods for most of her life were indefensible. She realizes that this is why the gods “do not speak to us openly” about our concerns. It is because we do not know as much as we think we do and our pride blinds us to the truth. The gods cannot “meet us face to face till we have faces.” This also illustrates why Lewis says that prayer would be far too dangerous for us if God answered every prayer. Orual had prayed for the gods to reveal things to her, but they were silent. In the end, she knew it was good that they had remained silent and not answered her prayer.
A second insight within this theme is that pride corrupts love into a jealous hate that devours others. In The Four Loves, Lewis says that prideful self-centeredness and jealousy can creep into “every kind of love.” This may involve not wanting the one we love to “become brighter or more beautiful” or not wanting “the old ways to be changed even for the better.” He gives the example of two siblings who share everything and are extremely close throughout life, but one of them experiences a change—a new interest that the other cannot share. Perhaps, he says, the change is that one “undergoes a religious conversion.” The one who did not change is liable to feel that she is losing the bond with the other. She is likely to mock the new love of the changed sibling and call it “nonsense.” This is exactly what Orual experienced when Psyche found a new love that Orual did not share and did not want intruding into her love for Psyche. Orual admits that her hatred of the gods and her true motivation to separate Psyche from them were rooted in her belief that the gods stole Psyche’s love from her. Orual would rather Psyche be killed than have another come between her and Psyche. “Psyche was mine,” she says.
Lewis also notes in The Four Loves that there is sometimes a need to be needed by the one we love, and this can be twisted into something like hate. Lewis gives the example of one who has the need to care for another person in a motherly way such that the other person is smothered by these efforts and does not desire them. Love should express itself in wanting the other person to be self-sufficient and not require one’s support; when it does not, this twisted sort of love “contains a good deal of hatred” and becomes “a god” in one’s life—an idol that “becomes a demon.” This is reflected in The Great Divorce by the female ghost who, even in the afterlife, is obsessed with controlling her husband and desires to continue to rule over him and “make something of him”—a goal she believes she never fully completed in her earthly life. She goes on and on describing how she met all of his needs and how he would be lost without her even though it was evident that he did not desire (or, in her mind, “appreciate”) her efforts. Her preoccupation with her husband needing her prevented her from knowing God and from seeing the destruction that her “love” produced in her own life and in the earthly life of her husband. In the end, this continual need to be needed sucked up her very existence. This type of twisted love is clearly exemplified in Orual’s desire to control and rule over Psyche. Although Psyche assures Orual that her god husband must now be the one to guide her, Orual insists, “You cannot go your own way. You will let me rule and guide you.” Although Psyche neither needed nor desired Orual to rule her, Orual had a need to be needed. She was so desperate to keep Psyche under her “loving” rule that she coerced her by threats. Mirroring what Lewis says in The Four Loves, Psyche tells Orual, “I am not sure I like your kind [of love] better than hatred.” Orual, in revealing her true thoughts at the end of the novel, says she was not jealous of Psyche until the gods started to elevate Psyche and make her the “next thing to a goddess.” Orual wanted the gods to elevate her instead and show her the truth so that she could in turn teach Psyche. She was bent on Psyche needing her as a ruler and teacher. Although Psyche was happy with the gods, Orual took no comfort in this. Her pride and twisted love led her to insist that she must be the only one to give Psyche happiness. The Fox described this attitude as “one part love in your heart, and five parts anger, and seven parts pride.”
Lewis declares that the worst sort of pride involves looking down on others “so much that you do not care what they think of you.” Although Orual no doubt would have preferred for Psyche to think well of her, there is a real sense in which she exemplifies the sort of pride Lewis is describing. Orual wanted to have Psyche’s companionship and love, and she did not care if Psyche knew she was coercing her so long as it meant keeping Psyche in her life and under her control. She was willing to threaten to kill Psyche and herself to keep Psyche under her rule and did not back down when Psyche accused her of using Psyche’s love for her as a weapon. Orual devoured others with her twisted love and was “a craver” even if they thought less of her for it.
Another insight of Lewis concerning pride and love is that one should never be less drawn to God than one is to another human and should never love God less than another human. Lewis says that we cannot love another human too much. We can only love God too little so that our love for that human person is placed higher than our love for God. Lewis also thinks it is not a sin to be proud of another human—so long as that pride is mere admiration and that admiration is less than what one has for God. It is never acceptable to “love and admire anything more than we love and admire God.” Lewis portrays this concept well in The Great Divorce through the character Pam. Pam wants to see her son Michael, who is in heaven, but she needs to desire God to do so. She says she will love God if that is the only way to see her son, but she is told that one must not love God as a means to being united with what ought to be a lesser love. She is “treating God only as a means to Michael.” Indeed, Lewis wrestled with this temptation himself after his wife died. As he was struggling to maintain his trust in God’s goodness, he considered that he may simply be “sidling back to God” because he knew that doing so is the only possible road to seeing his wife again. But he realized that God “can’t be used as a road.” Lewis says, “If you’re approaching Him not as the goal but as a road, not as the end but as a means, you’re not really approaching Him at all.” So love for God must exceed one’s love for any human; however, throughout nearly all of TWHF, Orual’s relationship with Psyche was clearly far more important to her than Psyche’s relationship with the gods or her own relationship with the gods. Orual was more drawn to Psyche than she was to the gods and desired a love relationship with Psyche that she did not desire to have with the gods. This made Psyche an idol in Orual’s life that led her astray greatly.
Finally, a crucial insight of Lewis related to pride is that one must die to oneself in order to know God and love others properly. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity, “Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it.” He says that if you “look for yourself,” then “you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.” We must submit to the death of our “ambitions and favourite wishes every day” if we are to be remade. This dying to self is powerfully illustrated in TWHF, as Orual is told by the gods to “die before you die.” Orual had to be “unmade” and die to herself and her prideful ambitions in order to become her perfected self. In Mere Christianity, Lewis uses a fleet of ships to illustrate how moral growth needs to occur within a human, between humans, and in the interaction between each human and God. To function properly, each ship in the fleet must be seaworthy, each ship must not collide with or damage other ships, and all the ships must be collectively headed toward the proper destination (i.e., God). In TWHF, Orual must die to herself in order to grow morally as an individual. Doing this allowed her to relate better to others and understand the root of pride that infected her relationship with and knowledge of other humans and the gods.
Lewis illustrates powerfully many insights from his prose in TWHF. Concerning faith, he portrays emotional doubt in the lives of Orual and Psyche and the need to use reason to trump such doubt. He reveals through Orual how moral growth requires personal effort as well as drawing upon God’s help. He also reveals much of what he learned in his own struggle with doubting God’s goodness through Orual’s process of discovery. Concerning pride, he shows through Orual’s self-discovery how pride prevents one from knowing God by blocking one from knowing oneself and one’s flaws. He also illustrates in Orual many of his insights concerning the way pride and jealousy can corrupt love into a devouring hate and how one’s love of self and others can wrongly exceed one’s love of God. Finally, Lewis shows in TWHF how dying to oneself is a true prerequisite to overcoming pride and finding one’s true self so that one can relate properly to God and others. Thus TWHF is a masterpiece in which Lewis—via the medium of retelling a myth—portrays many of his theological and moral insights
37. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 121.
38. C. S. Lewis, “God in the Dock” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 268.
39. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 122.
40. Ibid., 123-4.
41. Ibid., 49.
42. Ibid., 124.
43. Ibid., 127.
44. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 3.
45. Ibid., 294.
46. C. S. Lewis, “Work and Prayer” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 107.
47. C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (San Diego, CA: Harcourt, 1960), 45.
48. C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, 46.
49. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 290-1. This is much like what Lee Strobel experienced prior to his conversion to Christianity. When his wife became a Christian, he at first resented her love for God out of his own “self-interest.” He worried that he was losing her because her belief that she now had a relationship with God was coming between them. See Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), 16.
50. C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, 48-50.
51. Ibid., 50.
52. Ibid., 56.
53. C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, in The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 516.
54. Lewis, The Great Divorce, 513-6.
55. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 159.
56. Ibid., 165.
57. Ibid., 291.
58. Ibid., 292.
59. Ibid., 148.
60. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 126.
61. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 165. Orual also used her position as Queen to keep Bardia with her needlessly and selfishly and did not encourage the Fox to leave her and go home to Greece as she knew he wished to do.
62. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 305.
63. Lewis, The Four Loves, 122-3.
64. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 127.
65. Lewis, The Great Divorce, 518.
66. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 685.
67. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 72-6.
68. Ibid., 226-7.
69. Ibid., 279.
70. Ibid., 307-8.
71. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 71-2.
In Till We Have Faces (henceforth TWHF), C. S. Lewis combines his passion for pagan mythology with his knack for communicating Christian truths via story. Lewis often stresses in his various works his belief that pagan mythology, while not reflecting the complete truth about God, contains various nuggets of the ultimate truth that is found in Christianity. Christianity, he says, is the “true myth” that melds the human need for believing what is true about the world as it actually is with our need for imagination and wonder and delight. It is thus not surprising that, in TWHF, Lewis powerfully illustrates a number of theological and moral positions that are prominent in many of his other writings by retelling the story of the myth of Psyche and Cupid.
This paper will examine two major themes in TWHF that are also emphasized heavily within Lewis’s prose: the theme of faith and doubt and the theme of pride and corrupted love. With regard to the first major theme of faith and doubt, we will examine three key aspects of faith that Lewis stresses throughout his writings that are beautifully illustrated in TWHF. The first aspect of faith involves holding onto what one believes with good reason to be true about God in the face of various emotionally-driven, non-evidential temptations to abandon one’s faith. The second aspect of faith involves humbly drawing upon God’s help as we strive to follow Him and be molded into a person of greater character. The third aspect of faith deals with believing that God is good in the midst of pain and suffering and incomplete information.
The paper will then examine the second major theme of pride and corrupted love. This will begin by examining how Lewis considers pride to be the antithesis of God’s mindset and how it prevents one from knowing God. This truth is at the heart of TWHF. Next, we will consider what Lewis has to say about how pride corrupts love into a sort of jealous hate that devours others and how this is exemplified in the life of Orual in TWHF. We will also see how Lewis’s warning against loving God less than we love others is illustrated in the novel. Finally, we will examine how Lewis’s repeated exhortation to engage in the biblical principle of dying to oneself in order to combat pride and relate properly to God and others is portrayed clearly in TWHF.
Faith and Doubt
Lewis has much to say about faith and doubt in his prose; indeed, two chapters of Mere Christianity are fully devoted to the subject. Let us consider three aspects of faith that Lewis emphasizes in his writings and exemplifies in TWHF, beginning with his recognition that faith requires us to hold onto what reason tells us is true about God and not allow our commitment to God to waver when we are tempted to doubt for various emotionally-driven reasons that are not rooted in evidence or reason. Lewis recognizes that human minds are not “completely ruled by reason.” Despite having good reason to trust one’s surgeon, for example, Lewis himself experienced emotional doubt and anxiety when he had surgery; he allowed his “emotion and imagination” to overrule his reason. A Christian with reasonable faith still experiences times when “his emotions rise up and carry out a sort of blitz on his belief.” Also, in some situations there are moral reasons that it is not “convenient” to think that Christianity is true (e.g., when one is tempted to sin). Faith involves maintaining commitment to what one knows is true about Christianity despite one’s changing moods and circumstances. It is a virtue to “teach your moods where they get off” and control them when they challenge one’s reason. This involves recognizing one’s moods and using reason to remind oneself that one’s faith in Christ is true by engaging in the spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible reading, and church attendance.
This sort of emotional doubt is seen in both Psyche and Orual in TWHF. Psyche rationally believes—on the basis of her longing for the gods, her recognition of their beauty, and her religious experience—that the “god of the Mountain” is the source of all beauty and has been “wooing” her to come to him. Lewis considers the human longing for God and for that which is beyond this world to be a rational reason to believe in God. Yet, despite having good reason to be confident in the gods, Psyche has moments when her emotions—fear in particular—rise up and cause her to doubt. A fear arises in the back of her mind that the god of the Mountain does not exist and that she will slowly die tied to a tree instead of being united with the god. The thought made her cry, but she quickly began reminding herself of the confidence that she has that the Fox’s skepticism about the gods is wrong and that her sense that the gods exist is correct. As Lewis says in A Grief Observed, “You never know how much you really believe in anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you.” At such times, it is easier for emotions to get the better of one’s faith, but Psyche reasoned herself away from this doubt in exactly the way Lewis says one should respond to such emotional blitzes.
Orual also experiences emotionally-driven doubts. Unlike Psyche, Orual has no longing for the gods—especially after they take Psyche away. She has hate for them and admits her repulsion to believing that Psyche is living with a god husband in a palace, exclaiming in an angry outburst, “I don’t want [to believe] it!” Although she clearly realizes that the evidence for Psyche’s account of her god husband is enough to believe it is true, she allows her emotions to overrule her reason. Indeed, immediately after realizing that she believes it is true, emotional doubt occurs—what reason told her is true is wiped out by an emotional blitz of “blinding waves of sorrow”. Because she lacks the longing for the gods that Psyche has, Orual does not invoke reason to try to talk herself out of her emotional rejection of the truth. Instead, she convinces herself that she is justified in accepting what is not true despite the fact that factual doubt (i.e., doubt rooted in a lack of evidence) was never the problem. Unless one is determined to rule one’s moods by reason, Lewis says one will remain merely “a creature dithering to and fro” with one’s beliefs “dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion.” That is exactly what happens with Orual. Because she is so influenced by her moods and emotions rather than grounding herself in reason, her beliefs seem to swing wildly back and forth. She goes from nearly a “full belief” that the unseen palace exists to moments later “fluttering to and fro between two opinions” and finding it “unbelievable” that Psyche’s palace and god “could be anything but madness.” Then, shortly thereafter, she briefly sees the palace and is so sure that Psyche is married to a god that she plans to go and ask Psyche and the god to forgive her of her doubts, but when the palace disappears she immediately tries to tell herself it may not have been a veridical experience. Then, after hearing Bardia’s opinion and reflecting again on the evidence, she considers it “plain” truth that Psyche was given to the god. In the end, it is made clear that Orual did know that the palace was real all along and that her emotions—especially her jealousy—were the culprits in her convincing herself that the evidence is unclear. Her emotions carried out a blitz on her beliefs. Like Orual, Lewis experienced the temptation to think negatively about God out of anger rather than what he knew to be true. He calls it “hitting back” at God. But Lewis stresses that “the mood is no evidence.” He illustrates this well in Orual.
Consider now a second aspect of faith stressed by Lewis: realizing that one falls short of the mark morally and striving to be good while at the same time recognizing that one must seek God’s help to make this improvement. Lewis says that the first step to developing this aspect of faith is to try hard to be good for even “six weeks,” as nobody realizes “how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good.” Doing this convinces us that we lack the resources apart from God to live up to the demands of morality. This is seen in TWHF, as Orual realizes in the end that she is “ugly in soul” and desires to change her “ugly soul into a fair one.” She realizes that she needs the gods’ help to do this, but she sets out to try to be good and take the first step. She finds that she could not be good for even a half hour and was concerned that the gods would not help her. So as soon as she tries hard to be good, she realizes how much divine help is needed. Yet as the novel unfolds, she finds that the gods are helping her to grow morally. They are doing their “surgery” on her by revealing things to her about herself using events in her life (e.g., the process of writing her book) and interactions with other people (e.g., Ansit and Tarin). As Lewis stresses in Mere Christianity, God helps us to grow via many means. He uses nature, books, experiences, and other people—even when we do not realize they are being used.
A third aspect of faith addressed by Lewis involves believing that God is good in the midst of suffering and incomplete information. Lewis knew well the reality of this faith struggle, as he wrestled with doubting God’s goodness after his wife died. Like Orual, who never seriously doubted the existence of the gods but had serious doubts about their goodness, when Lewis lost his wife he reports struggling with thinking “dreadful things” about God. The conclusion he fears most “is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like.’”
As Psyche was preparing to be offered to the god, she talks with Orual about how to interpret the gods’ actions in such a way that they are considered good. Psyche suggests that even if the gods seem to humans to be doing evil, we may simply not know enough to realize that the gods are actually doing what is good; in addition, she suggests that it is possible that the gods are not the cause of the evils we attribute to them. Orual, on the other hand, sees no other way to interpret the gods demanding Psyche as an offering than to declare that it is clearly evil. Like Orual, when Lewis was in the early stages of his grief after his wife died he was tempted to think, “What reason have we, except our own desperate wishes, to believe that God is, by any standard we can conceive, ‘good’?” Yet he quickly realized that it is “too anthropomorphic” to think of God as an evil Being; moreover, there seems to be too much good in the world. An evil Being is not likely to include “love, or laughter, or daffodils, or a frosty sunset” as traps or baits in a ploy to harm us. In response, however, to the question raised by Psyche as to whether we are able to evaluate God’s goodness, Lewis rejects the idea that anything God does must be considered good because we are too limited or fallen to pass judgment on God’s morality. He denies that “we are so depraved that our ideas of goodness count for nothing” and that the goodness of God is beyond our ability to assess. If that were true, Lewis says, we would then lack any reason to obey God or to call God “good,” for that term as it applies to God would be meaningless. Lewis, however, does hold that God’s ways and His knowledge are beyond us so that we do not fully understand God’s reasons for allowing things—a truth borne out in TWHF.
Orual also thinks for most of the novel that the gods are toying with us in “cat-and-mouse play” by giving us something good in our life just to take it away and make things worse. In the same way, Lewis for a time wondered if God was like that when his wife died. His concern was that there is a God who is playing with us like we are “rats in a laboratory.” It seemed to Lewis that “time after time, when [God] seemed most gracious He was really preparing the next torture.” Yet Lewis came to realize that this thought was an emotional “yell rather than a thought” rooted in reason and evidence. Orual, too, comes to see that the gods have not been mistreating her; rather they have been preparing her for moral surgery.
It is also interesting that, when his wife dies, Lewis wonders on what basis he had begun having doubts about God’s goodness. He knew about evil and the fact that spouses die before his own wife died, and it never bothered him before; however, it began to bother him and challenge his confidence in God’s goodness once the suffering happened to him personally. In the same way, Orual says she “never really began to hate” the gods and hold the strong feeling that they are cruel until they affected her personally by taking Psyche away. It is only when suffering impacts our lives personally that this aspect of faith in God’s goodness tends to be doubted.
(Part 2 coming next week)
1. C. S. Lewis, “Myth Became Fact,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 58-60.
2. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity: A Revised and Amplified Edition, with a New Introduction, of the Three Books Broadcast Talks, Christian Behaviour, and Beyond Personality (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), 139.
3. Ibid., 140.
4. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 141.
5. C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold (San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace, 1956), 74-6.
6. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 135-7.
7. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 70-1.
8. C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, in The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 665.
9. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 140-1. See also Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 108-9. Psyche’s doubts began to return as she was left at the tree. She felt that her old longings were gone and she could no longer believe in the god and the palace. Yet in her doubt she prayed to the gods. Emotional doubt returned when faced with stress and the possibility that her faith is misplaced, but she turned to the spiritual disciplines in the midst of it.
10. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 124.
11. Ibid., 120, 123-4.
12. Ibid., 121.
13. Ibid., 290-1.
14. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 141.
15. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 120.
16. Ibid., 126.
17. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 133. See also C. S. Lewis, “Is Theism Important?,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 191. Related to the brief vision of the palace, Lewis says that religious experience often “comes and goes: especially goes.” Faith involves retaining “what is irresistible and obvious during the moments of special grace. By faith we believe always what we hope hereafter to see always and perfectly and have already seen imperfectly and by flashes.”
18. Ibid., 137.
19. Ibid., 290-1.
20. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 673.
21. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 141-9.
22. Ibid., 141-2.
23. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 281-2.
24. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 253-67.
25. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 190.
26. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 658.
27. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 71-2.
28. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 668.
29. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 669.
30. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, in The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 568.
31. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 249.
32. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 668-9.
33. Ibid., 669.
34. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 253-67.
35. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 671-2.
36. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 290.