Lewis: The Spiritual vs. the Ritual

The sacred vs the secular; the substance vs. the external; the spiritual vs. the ritual. We deal with this tension all our lives. I question whether anything is truly secular. After all, the world and everything in it comes from the hand of God. What makes it secular is when we remove Him from his creation.

We focus a lot on externals and rituals, sometimes allowing them to substitute for the truly substantive and spiritual. When we do that, even though we may keep the form of godliness, we deny its essence.

I’ve never been one for promoting outward forms of our most sacred holidays. We taught our children from the start that Santa Claus wasn’t real; we never talked about an Easter bunny or emphasized the Easter basket. While I’m not trying to sound like a curmudgeon, I have always wanted to make sure we focus on the real—cliché warning–reason for the season.

C. S. Lewis, in his Reflections on the Psalms, uses the example of Easter to make the point I believe I’m trying to make.

There is a stage in a child’s life at which it cannot separate the religious from the merely festal character of Christmas or Easter.

I have been told of a very small and very devout boy who was heard murmuring to himself on Easter morning a poem of his own composition which began “Chocolate eggs and Jesus risen.”

This seems to me, for his age, both admirable poetry and admirable piety.

When I was a small and not very devout boy, Easter was all eggs and candy. Jesus, at first, wasn’t even a passing thought. Perhaps that’s why I react so strongly today against all the outward trappings that hide the significance of Resurrection Day.

Yet for the very devout boy in Lewis’s story, his development spiritually is going to be different than mine. Lewis continues,

But of course the time will soon come when such a child can no longer effortlessly and spontaneously enjoy that unity. He will become able to distinguish the spiritual from the ritual and festal aspects of Easter; chocolate eggs will no longer be sacramental.

When that stage of development is reached, it will be decision time:

And once he has distinguished he must put one or the other first. If he puts the spiritual first he can still taste something of Easter in the chocolate eggs; if he puts the eggs first they will soon be no more than any other sweetmeat.

They have taken on an independent, and therefore a soon withering, life.

Whenever we give priority to the secular, the external, and the ritual, we lose the meaning of the event entirely. The same is true of our lives. We waste our lives when we banish the sacred, the substantive, and the spiritual. We become our own little wasteland.

What we need to realize is that even if we retain some of the spiritual, any subordination of the spiritual is just as bad as banishment. For all practical purposes, relegating God to second place is no different than pushing Him away altogether.

In Him we live and move and have our being. Anything less is an independent and soon-withering life.

Lewis: The Mere Christian Message

On this Good Friday/Easter weekend, the Christian message of sacrificial death and resurrection may be brought more to the forefront of minds that normally think little of such things. The message is the same at all times, but this weekend sharpens the focus.

To the natural mind, death is finality. There is no comprehension of how it can be of any good. Yet C. S. Lewis, in his book Miracles, shows us how:

On the one hand Death is the triumph of Satan, the punishment of the Fall, and the last enemy. Christ shed tears at the grave of Lazarus and sweated blood in Gethsemane: the Life of Lives that was in Him detested this penal obscenity not less than we do, but more.

On the other hand, only he who loses his life will save it.

We are baptized into the death of Christ, and it is the remedy for the Fall. Death is, in fact, what some modern people call “ambivalent.” It is Satan’s great weapon and also God’s great weapon: it is holy and unholy; our supreme disgrace and our only hope; the thing Christ came to conquer and the means by which He conquered.

Death has led to life, which runs counter to what people normally believe. Lewis notes in Mere Christianity, “The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start.”

A fresh start. What a glorious concept. I know, personally, how much I needed a fresh start at one point in my life. My sins were forgiven; God treats them as if they never happened. That truth has led me to a constant state of gratitude for His mercy and has pointed the way forward. Lewis again in Mere Christianity:

Now the Christian belief is that if we somehow share the humility and suffering of Christ we shall also share in His conquest of death and find a new life after we have died and in it become perfect, and perfectly happy, creatures. . . .

In Christ a new kind of man appeared: and the new kind of life which began in Him is to be put into us.

Eternal life really begins in this earthly existence if we humbly receive Christ’s sacrifice as our own; death is merely a transfer of that life into a new and heavenly realm.

That is what Good Friday and Easter/Resurrection Day are all about. Let your gratitude for what God has done show in your life today.

Lewis, Literary Culture, & Ecclesiastes

“I read all the right books, so I am cultured.” Those of us who seek to expand our knowledge of what might be considered the best of writing over the centuries need to be careful, says C. S. Lewis.

While someone who is drawn to the common conception of culture is certainly better off than one who simply seeks status as one of the in-the-know literati, there is a difference between those who truly enjoy reading and those who do it merely to improve oneself.

The problem, Lewis reveals, is that someone in the latter category

is more likely to stick too exclusively to the “established authors” of all periods and nations, “the best that has been thought and said in the world.” He makes few experiments and has few favourites. Yet this worthy man may be, in the sense I am concerned with, no true lover of literature at all.

Interestingly, and perhaps surprisingly, Lewis decried the educational development that made English literature a subject in the schools. Why would a professor of English literature have a problem with that?

“One sad result,” he laments, “is that the reading of great authors is, from early years, stamped upon the minds of conscientious and submissive young people as something meritorious.”

Wait a minute. Don’t we want these young people to consider certain literature as meritorious? Lewis goes on to explain what he has seen happen:

When the young person in question is an agnostic whose ancestors were Puritans, you get a very regrettable state of mind. The Puritan conscience works on without the Puritan theology—like millstones grinding nothing; like digestive juices working on an empty stomach and producing ulcers.

The unhappy youth applies to literature all the scruples, the rigorism, the self-examination, the distrust of pleasure, which his forebears applied to the spiritual life; and perhaps soon all the intolerance and self-righteousness.

This creates, according to Lewis, the wrong kind of seriousness in reading. “The true reader reads every work seriously in the sense that he reads it whole-heartedly, makes himself as receptive as he can.” That means he always reads in the spirit of the writer he is reading, which can often be comical.

“This is where the literary Puritans may fail most lamentably. They are too serious as men to be seriously receptive as readers,” Lewis sadly concludes. “Solemn men, but not serious readers; they have not fairly and squarely laid their minds open, without preconception, to the works they read.”

I see the temptation here. My own public education gave me little in the way of the great literature of the past. Now I’m trying to catch up, so to speak. The temptation is to take this route of catching up too seriously: I must dive into all those books that I have neglected over the years; I must know about them so I will be properly cultured.

At least, that’s the pull. So I appreciate Lewis’s warning. I can’t make up for all those other years in the few I may have left. But I can enjoy whatever does come my way and whatever I have the time to read.

The Biblical grounding I’ve received most of my life is more important than what is deemed the “great literature.” Knowledge of the Bible and the relationship with the Lord that has developed in my 66 years provides me with the foundation for evaluating everything else.

So I can relax on the literary front. As the book of Ecclesiastes reminds us,

Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.

Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.

For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.

That should be my primary focus.

Lewis: Humility & the Literary

C. S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism is a surprisingly good read. I say “surprisingly” because I expected a heavy tome that would be hard to understand. It isn’t that at all. I drew from it in my previous Lewis post, showing how he clearly differentiates between the unliterary and the literary. He notes that the majority of people fall into the first category.

A false implication can arise from that division. People may think Lewis is being a snob. That’s not the case, and in the second chapter, he clarifies the distinction. It is wrong, he instructs, to believe that the unliterary belong to some kind of rabble. Critics, he says,

accuse them of illiteracy, barbarism, “crass,” “crude,” and “stock” responses which (it is suggested) must make them clumsy and insensitive in all the relations of life and render them a permanent danger to civilisation.

Lewis disagrees. Rather, those who are included in the many who are not attracted to great literary works “include certain people who are equal or superior to some of the few in psychological health, in moral virtue, practical prudence, good manners, and general adaptability.”

So Lewis doesn’t classify the literary as the best people in society by virtue of their reading habits. There are other factors to consider.

Some of those in the literary category may not be as virtuous and emotionally fit as those they may think of as their inferiors. In fact, if one begins to divide humanity into inferior and superior classes solely by reading tastes, one has created a false division and revealed the sin of pride in oneself.

Lewis warns,

And we all know very well that we, the literary, include no small percentage of the ignorant, the caddish, the stunted, the warped, and the truculent. With the hasty and wholesale apartheid of those who ignore this we must have nothing to do.

Lewis then goes on to catalogue the problems of some in the literary class. While one would expect the literary to have “a profound and permanent appreciation of literature,” they may not at all. Some have become so professionalized that they read only out of duty anymore. He writes in particular of “overworked reviewers, getting through novel after novel as quickly as they can, like a schoolboy doing his ‘prep.'”

He feels for people like that because they may have begun their literary journey in joy but now consider it mere work.

The text before them comes to exist not in its own right but simply as raw material; clay out of which they can complete their tale of bricks. Accordingly we often find that in their leisure hours they read, if at all, as the many read.

Another branch of the literary are simply status seekers. They grew up in families and circles where they were expected to read only the “approved literature, especially the new and astonishing works, and those which have been banned or have become in some other way subjects of controversy.”

So, as one of that literary class, Lewis has no problem seeing the pitfalls that some fall into. He rejects the idea of literary people naturally being the best in society.

This is what I’ve come to expect from Lewis. He never lost touch with the ordinary man or talked down to him. All one has to do is read his letters to that multitude who wanted his advice; his humility shines throughout his responses.

More on this next week.

Lewis: The Few & the Many

A very pleasant task I’ve set for myself is to read C. S. Lewis works that I’ve not yet taken the opportunity to examine. In this journey, I’ve taken on The Discarded Image, The Allegory of Love (tough read for me; not done yet), and now An Experiment in Criticism.

Since I’m a historian and not a literary critic per se, I admit I was hesitant to tackle this one, figuring it might be too dense for my taste, too pedantic perhaps.

That prejudgment was completely wrong.

What an unanticipated joy it has been to follow Lewis’s thinking in this little book. I even discovered, in the first chapter, some quotes I’ve appreciated before when he distinguishes between what he refers to as “the few and the many” when it comes to the types of readers.

“In the first place, the majority never read anything twice,” he opines. “The sure mark of an unliterary man is that he considers ‘I’ve read it already’ to be a conclusive argument against reading a work.” Great works, though, he argues, should be read multiple times over the course of one’s life.

A second difference, Lewis notes, is that “the many” turn to reading only if there’s nothing else that pops up that they would rather do. “It is kept for railway journeys, illnesses, odd moments of enforced solitude, or for the process called ‘reading oneself to sleep.'” Whereas the devoted readers—the few—“feel impoverished” if they are denied “attentive and undisturbed reading even for a few days.”

A third distinction is that the literary are so drawn into what they read that they often have an experience “so momentous that only experiences of love, religion, or bereavement can furnish a standard of comparison. Their whole consciousness is changed. They have become what they were not before.”

His final distinguishing characteristic?

As a natural result of their different behaviour in reading, what they have read is constantly and prominently present to the mind of the few, but not to that of the many. The former mouth over their favourite lines and stanzas in solitude. . . . They talk to one another about books, often and at length. The latter seldom think or talk of their reading.

While Lewis is focusing on novels and poetry in his comments, I’d add that, for me, it isn’t limited to those genres. Really good nonfiction writing also can qualify. For instance, there’s Lewis’s own works such as Mere Christianity or his autobiography, Surprised By Joy. I repeat lines from those in my mind regularly.

I’ve had this experience with other books also. Whittaker Chambers’s Witness is awash with such memorable lines, phrases, and meaningful paragraphs that I have taught it constantly to students for thirty years. I highly recommend it to all who love excellent, striking prose.

Near the end of chapter one in An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis sums up nicely the reaction “the many” have toward “the few.”

It is pretty clear that the majority, if they spoke without passion and were fully articulate, would not accuse us of liking the wrong books, but of making such a fuss about any books at all. We treat as a main ingredient in our well-being something which to them is marginal.

So is Lewis intimating that “the few” are somehow superior humans who should look down on those who don’t have the same perspective on reading? Not at all. Those who are familiar with Lewis’s humility would never accuse him of that. In fact, he addresses that very issue in chapter two.

But that’s for next Saturday’s post.

New Radio Interview: Lewis Book

Last week, I recorded an interview with a Christian radio station in Chicago. The subject was my book, “America Discovers C. S. Lewis: His Profound Impact.” I think it went very well. Here’s the program; lasts just over 40 minutes. Check it out for yourself.

Lewis: The Equality-Pride Connection

After C. S. Lewis wrote his enormously popular Screwtape Letters, he often said he never wanted to go back to that style of writing, putting himself into the mindset of hell to explain heavenly things. But in 1959, sixteen years after Screwtape appeared in print in the US, he consented to pen an addendum of sorts to his famous book.

“Screwtape Proposes a Toast” was an article Lewis wrote for an American publication, the Saturday Evening Post. It took the form of an after-dinner speech by Screwtape to the Tempters’ Training College. It was just as witty and biting as the original.

The themes in the article showed up in earlier Lewis essays, particularly “Equality” and “Democratic Education,” but in an obviously different format. In one of the passages on equality, Lewis adds to what he said in the previous essay, illustrating that those who press the most for equality may actually have more pride than those we might suspect of that sin. Here’s how “Screwtape” puts it:

No man who says I’m as good as you believes it. He would not say it if he did.

The St. Bernard never says it to the toy dog, nor the scholar to the dunce, nor the employable to the bum, nor the pretty woman to the plain.

The claim to equality, outside the strictly political field, is made only by those who feel themselves to be in some way inferior. What it expresses is precisely the itching, smarting, writhing awareness of an inferiority which the patient refuses to accept.

And therefore resents. Yes, and therefore resents every kind of superiority in others; denigrates it; wishes its annihilation. Presently he suspects every mere difference of being a claim to superiority.

Do you see what Lewis has done here? Normally, we think those who have everything are the ones most infested with pride. And certainly there is the temptation to lord it over others if you are capable of doing things well—are “superior” in some way.

However, looking deeper, Lewis sees that those at the bottom—whether it be in the social scale, in economic terms, or just in outward appearance—may be the ones with the greater pride problem. They seek to drag others down to their level out of resentment and/or bitterness. “We deserve more,” they seem to be saying, and make their own claims to superiority. They do it, though, in the name of “equality,” thereby making it acceptable, for who doesn’t believe in equality, right?

As always, Lewis offers insights well worth pondering.