Lewis on Politics & Culture

C. S. Lewis’s “Meditation on the Third Commandment” is one of his essays I’ve used in my Lewis class because I include in the class some of his commentary on politics and government. He gives the essay this title because of his concern that Christians not take the name of the Lord in vain when we are involved in politics.

Although Lewis repeatedly said he wasn’t interested in politics, his writings belie that to some degree. He was definitely concerned about good government (his letters to Americans testify to that) and about how Christians should conduct themselves in the public sphere.

He wrote this essay to an Anglican newspaper called The Guardian in response to letters written to the paper by Christians who were advocating for the establishment of a Christian political party.

Lewis’s first point is that Christians disagree on some matters of public policy, so no one party could possibly incorporate all Christians’ views on government policy. It would turn into merely a subset of Christians who presume to speak for all, a group he called “schismatics blasphemously claiming to represent” Christianity.

Instead, Lewis promotes the tactic of Christians using their influence by exerting pressure on the various parties. He suggests setting up an interdenominational Christian Voters’ Society that could agree “on ends and means which every member was expected to exact from any political party as the price of his support.”

Far from taking a hands-off approach, Lewis says,

“So all it comes down to is pestering M.P.’s with letters?” Yes: just that. I think such pestering combines the dove and the serpent. I think it means a world where parties have to take care not to alienate Christians, instead of a world where Christians have to be “loyal” to infidel parties.

I agree. My “loyalty,” as such, is not to a party but to Biblical principles. Those principles lead me to support one party over another, but they also constrain me: I cannot place all confidence in a political party. Neither can I blindly proclaim loyalty when that party does things that blatantly contradict those principles.

Lewis concludes his thoughts with this:

But I had forgotten. There is a third way—by becoming a majority. He who converts his neighbour has performed the most practical Christian-political act of all.

Again, I agree. Our primary calling from God is the Great Commission. Yet I’m concerned that some Christians hide behind this, believing that they therefore don’t have to care much about politics and government. They also might think they have no obligation to change the culture but should concentrate solely on individual salvation.

We need to keep in mind, though, that when enough individuals are touched by God’s grace, the culture is touched also. I think it’s incumbent upon Christians to do whatever we can to challenge anti-Christian trends in the culture.

There’s no valid reason that I can see in Scripture for neglecting the culture as a whole. After all, didn’t Jesus tell us we are salt and light? We can do both: seek the salvation of individuals while simultaneously persuading others of the need for a more Biblical culture.

Indeed, we ought to do both. That, I think, is what Lewis was saying.

Literary England II: The Wordsworth-Lewis Link

Prior to my recent England trip with students, the only time I can recall reading English poet William Wordsworth was in one of our sessions in preparation for the trip.

For today’s blog post, I was simply going to include Wordsworth as one of three authors whose homes we visited.

Then, just yesterday, as I was doing more research on him, I discovered a stronger connection with C. S. Lewis than I had imagined. I decided Wordsworth needed a post of his own, especially as I wanted to put a spotlight on that connection.

For eight of Wordsworth’s most productive years, he lived in Dove Cottage in the picturesque village of Grasmere, located in the Lakes District, an area of England I’d never seen before.

Wordsworth’s poems, especially those from his early years, are quite focused on nature. In fact, for the first thirty-plus years of his life, one could say that nature was his religion. That’s why he’s considered one of the originators of Romantic poetry. The beauty of the Lakes District certainly can help engender such feelings. The back yard of his home is a garden with a hill from which one can see the nearby village and mountains.

I knew Lewis called himself a Romantic and that he had referenced Wordsworth occasionally, but until yesterday’s research, I didn’t know how strong that link was.

I don’t know how I missed it, but Lewis’s autobiography, Surprised by Joy, takes its title from a Wordsworth poem, “Surprised by Joy–Impatient as the Wind.” You can even find that quote on Lewis’s title page. Wordsworth’s poem is about memory and an intense longing for a love who was lost to death. Lewis’s memoir also focuses on that intense longing for joy that Wordsworth enunciated. Lewis even attempted, at first, to write his autobiography as a long poem in the Wordsworth style in his classic, The Prelude.

Romanticism was one of Lewis’s philosophical stops on his journey to Christianity. I also read that when he wrote The Pilgrim’s Regress, the fictional tale of his roundabout path to Christian faith, it not only took that form with John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress as a model, but also with Wordsworth’s The Prelude in mind.

Lewis couldn’t stop at Romanticism; it didn’t fulfill that longing ultimately. He mentions Wordsworth in Surprised by Joy, and in chapter XI, “Check,” he describes how a walk he took (Wordsworth loved walks also) gave him a sense of tasting heaven, and how he longed to find that experience again. He realized, though, that he couldn’t replicate the exact experience, but that it wasn’t the experience itself that was the issue—instead it was the stab of joy that he could still remember.

What Lewis eventually learned was that you cannot recapture that very moment; that would be idolatry. Then he said,

Wordsworth, I believe, made this mistake all his life. I am sure that all that sense of loss of vanished vision which fills The Prelude was itself vision of the same kind, if only he could have believed it.

Lewis says Wordsworth made this mistake all his life, but in my research I saw that he finally came to orthodox Christian faith and was known as a strong Anglican. I would need to research more to see how that influenced his later writings, but at least one source noted that he moderated his nature worship and brought it into submission to Christianity. I sincerely hope that is true.

The Wordsworth-Lewis link is most interesting. I’m glad I could add this to my ever-increasing boatload of knowledge about English literature.

At the Kilns

If I had an official bucket list, what transpired on Thursday, May 11, would have been at the top of that list. That’s the day I arrived at C. S. Lewis’s home, the Kilns.

Lewis lived in this house for the final thirty-three years of his life. It was here where he wrote most of his books and essays, here where he took care of the cantankerous Mrs. Janie Moore for twenty of those years, and here where Joy Gresham eventually resided as Mrs. C. S. Lewis.

Prior to the tour, we had time to walk through the wooded area that Lewis used to be able to see through his study window. Now there’s a house in the way of that view, but that’s fine—the owner of that house has a plaque with Narnia inscribed on it. I’m sure Lewis wouldn’t mind that.

I have read often of the pond and woods around the house but never realized how extensive the area is. And beautiful. Very beautiful.

I think the students would have appreciated more time to explore. I know I would have. Next time, I’ll have to take that into account when we return.

The home and grounds are well maintained. I don’t remember who took this photo of me outside, but it gives the sense of the peaceful atmosphere.

As I took the tour, images of where Lewis would have been sitting and of other events I’ve read about at the home came to mind. Upstairs we were ushered into Lewis’s bedroom.

Lewis sometimes used the room right next to it for his work. Yes, I had to sit there for a few moments.

We did more than the typical tour, though. Walter Hooper, who knew Lewis personally and helped him with correspondence during his final summer when he suffered a coma, and whom Lewis wanted to make his permanent secretary (Lewis died before that could happen), arrived to speak with us.

Mr. Hooper had communicated with me via e-mail as I was writing my book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis, and was a great encouragement to me as I progressed through my research and writing. He graciously accepted my invitation to share with our group at the Kilns.

There were other people in our little tour group, so I invited them to stay and take part in the session with Mr. Hooper. They were delighted. I then had the honor of introducing him.

He spent an hour relating his personal experiences with Lewis and answered questions. Then he conversed with the attendees afterward one-on-one. I can say emphatically that this interaction was the highlight of the day—and for me, the highlight of the entire two weeks in England.

After this experience, there was one more that was obligatory—going to Lewis’s grave to pay my respects.

Someone had recently placed flowers on the grave. It’s hard to see in this photo, but there also was an envelope there with “Jack” written on it (the name Lewis’s friends used for him). Yes, it was tempting to open that envelope and read the contents, but I refrained from doing so.

In the survey I conducted with the Wade Center when I was amassing research information for my book, there was one response that I think fits nicely here. The respondent commented,

I long to go with others on a walking tour in heaven with Jack (as he used to do with Warnie and others) and have a good lengthy chat with this man who for years now has seemed like a good, dear friend.

I can relate to that. I also hope to do the same.

Lewis’s Oxford

Twenty years ago, I had a whirlwind tour of a very small section of Oxford. This time, with my university students, I was able to spend a little more time—not enough, but more directed, more significant, more focused on the sites with which C. S. Lewis was familiar.

Lewis taught at Magdalen College for approximately thirty years. For the first time in my sixty-six years, I was on the same grounds.

Lewis’s rooms were in the New Building (“new” because it wasn’t built until the eighteenth century), top floor, the two windows to the right of the protruding section in the middle.

I neglected to take a picture of the sign that told students to keep off the grass. It would have been humorous.

Next to the New Building was the entrance to Addison’s Walk, a lovely wooded path by the winding river. It was here that Lewis had a long conversation with Tolkien and another Inkling, Hugo Dyson, that convinced him to believe in God.

We also stopped by the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin. It was from this pulpit that Lewis delivered one of the most powerful sermons I’ve ever read: “The Weight of Glory.”

My favorite passage from that sermon is a poignant reminder of how we should view other people:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. . . .

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.

What visit to Lewis’s Oxford would be complete without a stop here?

We had our evening meal at the “Bird and Baby.” I was particularly interested in seeing the section where Lewis and his Inklings friends had their weekly get-together. At first, it was filled with diners, so I waited until after we had finished our meal (the Shepherd’s Pie was very good, by the way) and then I was able to get this photo without bothering too many people.

You can’t read the plaque above my head in this picture, but here’s what it says:

What could be better than this for someone who has studied Lewis as much as I have?

How about time spent at C. S. Lewis’s home with Walter Hooper, the American who became Lewis’s close friend and who then has spent the rest of his life as the agent for his literary estate?

That’s what we did on the next day. That’s also what I’ll be posting about tomorrow.

Cathedrals, Grandeur, & Vitality

Another recurring theme in my recent trip to England with university students was the grandeur of major cathedrals and how they point to the glory of God.

Some personal history: I grew up in the Lutheran church, which has a lot of tradition. The stained-glass windows of the church told stories, and I loved the atmosphere of the stained glass.

Then I left that tradition and became part of the new evangelical and charismatic world that came into prominence in the early 1970s. I was a Jesus Movement guy. I concluded at the time that my church was too tradition-bound and had lost its vitality. To a great extent, I was correct.

Yet I now miss the feelings that go along with the tradition. I remember fondly how the atmosphere made me sense the presence of God. Evangelical churches might want to consider more stained glass.

Three of the cathedrals we visited stand out for me. The first is Canterbury.

This is the headquarters for the Church of England. The edifice and the grounds were far more extensive than I expected, and just walking into the cathedral re-created within me the early years of my Lutheran experience.

These medieval cathedrals had a distinct purpose: to point worshipers to the awesomeness of God and to help them meditate on His holiness.

Salisbury Cathedral, which has the tallest spire in England, also was impressive. It had the most unusual baptismal font I’ve ever seen.

The cathedral also incorporated a significant piece of English history, a piece that directly affected America: an original copy of the Magna Carta, on display in its beautiful Cloister House.

Photos of the aging document itself were not permitted, but it was worthwhile just to be face to face with it.

Sunday in London saw us attending the worship service in Westminster Abbey.

I wasn’t quite sure if a service there would be as Christ-centered as I would have liked. The pleasant surprise was how orthodox and Biblical it was. And to have that solid orthodoxy take place in such a magnificent structure was awe-inspiring. I recall telling the student next to me how much I appreciated the architecture because it drew one’s attention upwards and focused both the mind and heart on God’s presence.

As I went forward for communion, it was pointed out to me by another in our group that at the end of our row of chairs was this particular memorial:

Throughout the entire service, I was sitting practically next to the C. S. Lewis memorial without knowing it. For me, that was a special treat. I’ll have more to say about Lewis when I write about our foray into Oxford and to Lewis’s home, the Kilns.

I realize that architecture and grand buildings are not the essence of the Christian faith. Yet I honestly believe we in the evangelical world, in our quest for informality and spontaneity, might be missing a crucial element in the faith. We focus so much on the personal relationship (“Jesus is my co-pilot”) that we sometimes forget the regal nature of our Lord.

As I sat in the Westminster service, I was refreshed by the solemnity of the service itself and the atmosphere of the place. I came away encouraged in the Lord.

What we need are more fellowships that can combine the grandeur of traditional worship with the freshness and vitality of the personal relationship with Christ. It’s a combination rarely achieved.

Lewis: Dealing with Death

Reading C. S. Lewis’s letters to Americans while researching my book was a daily joy. I’ve always loved research, but this was especially delightful. One of Lewis’s many American correspondents was Mary Willis Shelburne.

Shelburne wrote more letters to Lewis than any other American correspondent; consequently, he wrote more to her than any other, since he felt duty-bound to respond to each letter he received. It is quite clear by the tone of the correspondence that she was an increasingly needy person, both financially and spiritually. Her anxieties seemed to be legion, and Lewis did his best to address them with tact and empathy.

Did he ever tire of her constant flow of letters seeking help? There are indications that she could sometimes wear him down with her incessant demands for answers. Despite the temptation to be frustrated with her, he nevertheless maintained the ministry to which God had called him.

Shelburne feared death, a topic he dealt with more often as both grew older and Lewis began to feel his own mortality. He did his best to help Shelburne face her own demise with the proper Christian spirit and perspective.

He joked about imminent death in a 1957 letter thusly: “What on earth is the trouble about there being a rumour of my death? There’s nothing discreditable in dying: I’ve known the most respectable people do it!”

Commenting in another letter on horrible visits to the dentist, he told her to keep in mind they both had to recognize that “as we grow older, we become like old cars—more and more repairs and replacements are necessary. We must just look forward to the fine new machines (latest Resurrection model) which are waiting for us, we hope, in the Divine garage!”

And why not have the same attitude as the apostle Paul? “If we really believe what we say we believe—if we really think that home is elsewhere and that this life is a ‘wandering to find home,’ why should we not look forward to the arrival.”

He kept his sense of humor even as he suffered greater physical distress, telling her, with respect to their bodies, “Like old automobiles, aren’t they? Where all sorts of apparently different things keep going wrong, but what they add up to is the plain fact that the machine is wearing out. Well, it was not meant to last forever. Still, I have a kindly feeling for the old rattle-trap.”

In his final year, Lewis’s comments on death appeared more frequently, as he sensed his time was near. A letter in June remarked on her obvious fear of dying; Lewis’s response was the most direct one yet:

Can you not see death as the friend and deliverer? It means stripping off that body which is tormenting you: like taking off a hair-shirt or getting out of a dungeon. What is there to be afraid of? . . . Has this world been so kind to you that you should leave it with regret? There are better things ahead than any we leave behind. . . . Of course, this may not be the end. Then make it a good rehearsal. Yours (and like you a tired traveler near the journey’s end).

Shelburne outlived Lewis, but one hopes his constant reminders about how Christians should view death helped her as she later stood on the brink of eternity.

Lewis: When Progress Is Not Really Progress

I think the words “progress” and “progressive” have been terribly abused in our day. The latter has been captured by the Left of the political spectrum and is now used for anything that gets the government more involved in our lives, as if that should automatically be considered progress.

C. S. Lewis wrote about progress in a much more reflective vein. For instance, in his essay, “Is Progress Possible” (which has as a subtitle “Willing Slaves of the Welfare State”), he defines the term differently than how others might:

I care far more how humanity lives than how long. Progress, for me, means increasing goodness and happiness of individual lives. For the species, as for each man, mere longevity seems to me a contemptible ideal.

Yet isn’t longevity an obsession for most people? Medical science is always trying to make our lives longer, which is nice, but when that becomes our measuring stick for progress, we’re focused on the wrong thing.

Progress can only be measured by looking at our lives from an eternal perspective. We need to realize that there is One who has given us the standard for what is good and what is not. As Lewis notes in another essay, “Evil and God,”

If things can improve, this means that there must be some absolute standard of good above and outside the cosmic process to which that process can approximate.

There is no sense in talking of “becoming better” if better means simply “what we are becoming”—it is like congratulating yourself on reaching your destination and defining destination as “the place you have reached.”

Another irritation, to me at least, is when people say, “You can’t turn back the clock.” As a historian, I reject the concept that history’s path forward is already determined, that there is an inevitable flow that all must accept. I have far too  often heard the silly comment about being “on the right side of history.”

In his classic, Mere Christianity, Lewis deals with that whole turning-back-the-clock cliché and ties it in neatly with an understanding of true progress:

First, as to putting the clock back. Would you think I was joking if I said that you can put a clock back, and that if the clock is wrong it is often a very sensible thing to do? . . .

We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer.

If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man [emphasis mine].

Let’s use words like progress and progressive in their proper sense, based on God’s standards, not man’s.