Did Lewis Dislike Americans?

I’ve come across people who believe that C. S. Lewis really didn’t like America or Americans. Dealing with that issue was one of the goals of my book, so I made sure I covered it in the very first chapter. It begins with this snippet from Lewis’s early life:

On the very first page of The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis, author Alan Jacobs tells the story of a precocious “Jack” Lewis, probably no more than eight years old at the time, entering his father’s study to make this following pronouncement: “I have a prejudice against the French.”

Naturally, his father, Albert, wanted to know why his younger son would have such a definite opinion. The answer he received is perhaps an indication of the astute reasoning that would continue to be a hallmark throughout C. S. Lewis’s life: “If I knew why,” he calmly asserted, “it would not be a prejudice.” Early on, then, it appears that Lewis had a clear understanding of the unreasonable nature of coming to conclusions about people without evidence.

One perhaps might be excused for thinking Lewis had a dislike for America—and Americans—if all one had to go on were early statements prior to his conversion. Firsthand contact with Americans was minimal in his life until he became famous in America, during World War II. After that, though, as his correspondence with Americans became nearly a flood, one sees instead a man who treats people as individuals, and not as stereotypes. It is instructive to witness this metamorphosis over time and trace not only Lewis’s changing attitude toward America but also his impact on individual Americans.

As one studies Lewis’s voluminous correspondence, one notices the first mention of America appears in a letter just prior to his eighteenth birthday to lifelong friend and Belfast neighbor Arthur Greeves. As might be expected, given his later career as a professor of literature, Lewis indicates to Greeves that he is beginning to read some American authors, singling out Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom he admires. Yet he thought it a shame that someone of Hawthorne’s genius had to be an American.

When Lewis returned to Oxford after the war to resume his studies, he commented on the increasing number of Americans on campus, calling it an invasion. He related a story to his father about a professor who read a paper at a literary meeting and who acknowledged his effort wasn’t all that good; he thought he needed to apologize for even offering it. He had meant to publish it, he told the group, but felt it was so bad that he sent it to an American magazine instead. Lewis found that appropriately amusing.

All of these comments emanate from a pre-Christian Lewis. This doesn’t mean that his conversion necessarily changed all of his thinking about Americans, but slowly, over time, he got to know more Americans on a personal basis, and those views were tempered accordingly.

Although Lewis declined all invitations to visit America due to his personal circumstances, that did not mean he wasn’t attracted to some of what the New World had to offer. Sprinkled throughout his letters to Americans, one finds comments that reveal the longing of his heart to make the journey.

He was developing a new appreciation for the literary tastes of the American public, confessing to American correspondent Warfield Firor that he would love to visit the country where his own favorite book at the time—Perelandra—had been more enthusiastically received than in his native land.

The lean years after WWII saw Lewis on the receiving end of American largesse. Numerous American Christians who loved his writings and who heard of the shortages in his country, opened up their wallets and showered him with gifts—food, stationery, and assorted luxuries. Lewis was overwhelmed by their spirit of giving.

What irritated Lewis considerably was the reluctance of the British government to publicly acknowledge the help flowing from American citizens. In one of his few comments during his lifetime that praised the press, he informed another American correspondent, Edward Allen, that reports from the press were showing the British just how much they had the Americans to thank for their better standard of living.

If Lewis had harbored any lingering prejudices against Americans, this flood tide of giving after World War II gave him the basis for changing his earlier views. And by the way he communicated his gratitude, one may say with a great degree of certitude that his views definitely did change.

Perhaps the most fitting conclusion to this specific question of Lewis’s attitude toward Americans comes from Walter Hooper, who met Lewis in the last year of his life, and for a few months served as his private secretary. In an e-mail exchange I had with Hooper, he offered these thoughts:

Lewis himself drew my attention to another illustration of ignorance that needs unmasking. I forget where it is, but Jonathan Swift, the Irish writer, when asked if he liked or disliked the Irish, the English, the Japanese, etc. etc, pointed out that he didn’t know all the Irish people, so how could he possibly know where he liked or loathed them. Of course, like nearly everyone else, some Irish he liked, some he didn’t.

And so to Lewis, who I think must have liked many, many Americans considering that roughly three-quarters of his letters were to them. One of them to whom he wrote to for years, Mary Willis Shelburne, he provided with a pension, paid for by his American publishers. And as we all know, he married an American, and—hardly of similar importance—he made another his secretary.

My research pretty well laid to rest the issue for me. Lewis, as a young man, had a typical attitude toward the nation that seemed to be supplanting Britain as world leader. His conversion, coupled with increased contacts with Americans, led to a reversal of his earlier—and youthfully arrogant—views.

You can read about this in much more detail in my book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis: His Profound Impact, by going to this Amazon page.

Affirming the Nashville Statement

Last week, more than 150 evangelical leaders met in Nashville to endorse what has been called the Nashville Statement, a concise affirmation of what the Bible teaches about sexual morality—doctrines long established and agreed upon throughout the history of the Christian church.

Therefore, they should not have been controversial. But we live in an America rapidly becoming intolerant of Biblical beliefs, especially in the area of sexual morality.

Sex before marriage has become commonplace, sexual relations outside the marriage covenant are looked upon mostly as regrettable but not necessarily sinful (that word has lost most of its meaning), and homosexuality is not only more accepted, it’s positively applauded by the secular culture-shapers in the media, both news and entertainment.

Sadly, even those who call themselves Christian have begun to succumb to the siren song of “follow the culture to stay relevant” and have shied away from the “sin” label for those involved in homosexuality.

Some have retaliated against the Statement, deeming it hateful, bigoted, and all the other negative terms that have lately been appropriated to describe anyone who takes a stand for Biblical morality.

Yet if one actually reads the Statement, one sees that it comes from a heart of compassion, clearly noting that God’s grace is sufficient to save anyone from a life of sexual impurity.

Anyone wanting to read the Nashville Statement can go to it here.

I do want to share some of the preamble because it lays out the basis for publicly making this Statement.

Evangelical Christians at the dawn of the twenty-first century find themselves living in a period of historic transition. As Western culture has become increasingly post-Christian, it has embarked upon a massive revision of what it means to be a human being.

By and large the spirit of our age no longer discerns or delights in the beauty of God’s design for human life. Many deny that God created human beings for his glory, and that his good purposes for us include our personal and physical design as male and female. It is common to think that human identity as male and female is not part of God’s beautiful plan, but is, rather, an expression of an individual’s autonomous preferences.

The pathway to full and lasting joy through God’s good design for his creatures is thus replaced by the path of shortsighted alternatives that, sooner or later, ruin human life and dishonor God.

The signers then ask these questions:

This secular spirit of our age presents a great challenge to the Christian church. Will the church of the Lord Jesus Christ lose her biblical conviction, clarity, and courage, and blend into the spirit of the age? Or will she hold fast to the word of life, draw courage from Jesus, and unashamedly proclaim his way as the way of life? Will she maintain her clear, counter-cultural witness to a world that seems bent on ruin?

The Statement is saying that we are on the wrong path as a society and that we are in danger of spiritual destruction if we don’t return to the Truth.

C. S. Lewis, in a famous and oft-quoted passage in Mere Christianity, writes of being on a wrong path and what must be done when one realizes it. He also deals with the silly cliché that one cannot turn back the clock, as if whatever is happening now is automatic progress and to turn back to “old” concepts of morality is ludicrous. Lewis dares to differ:

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? But I would rather get away from that whole idea of clocks.

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.

Those in the so-called progressive Christian community have set out on a course that leads to spiritual destruction. They are not progressive at all; rather, they are simply hearkening back to the oldest sin in the world, first breathed in the Garden, when man was told he could decide for himself what is right and wrong and God can’t tell him otherwise.

Lewis concludes,

There is nothing progressive about being pigheaded and refusing to admit a mistake. And I think if you look at the present state of the world, it is pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistake. We are on the wrong road. And if that is so, we must go back. Going back is the quickest way on.

The Nashville Statement is a clarion call to go back—back to the Biblical standards for sexual morality. Our society is making a big mistake; we are on the wrong road. Sin is sin and must be called by its correct name. A return to Biblical fidelity is the only answer to the dilemma in which we find ourselves.

Why Sin Is So Sinful

I’m contemplating the nature of sin this morning. It’s not that sin is suddenly abounding in the world in a way it never has before. Sin is sin; it’s always been the problem ever since the Garden.

But when I think about the nature of sin, the complete and utter selfishness of every sinful thought and action is what comes to the forefront in my contemplation. Self-centeredness—the absurd perspective that places what we want above what God desires for us—is the height of stupidity.

We take all the potential blessings God has given us—our ability to reason, to feel, to choose—and we twist and distort those potential blessings into something horrid and destructive.

C. S. Lewis, in his Letters to Malcolm, follows this line of reasoning as well, except that he puts it in much clearer terms than I can ever hope to do:

The only way in which I can make real to myself what theology teaches about the heinousness of sin is to remember that every sin is a distortion of an energy breathed into us—an energy which, if not thus distorted, would have blossomed into one of those holy acts whereof “God did it” and “I did it” are both true descriptions.

We poison the wine as He decants it into us; murder a melody He would play with us as the instrument. We caricature the self-portrait He would paint. Hence all sin, whatever else it is, is sacrilege.

We take what is meant for our good and turn it into an abomination. Nearly every sin I can think of is the abuse and misuse of of what a loving God has given us.

That’s what makes sin so sinful.

If not for the amazing mercy extended to us through the Cross, we would be without hope. Why should God care so much for us? We don’t deserve His love. It truly is unfathomable.

Yet I accept it with an eternal gratitude, and I now want my life, and all the gifts God has bestowed, to be a testament to His love. May we all have that response.

Lewis on Intellectual Pride

How does one decide which C. S. Lewis essay one likes best? Just when you have read one and concluded nothing could be better, another one invades your mind and spirit, and you’re now convinced this has to be the crowning jewel.

As an academic, I am drawn to the essays in which Lewis takes aim at those of us in academia. He’s particularly pointed in those because he’s also taking aim at himself.

One of the greatest temptations for scholars is to take pride in their scholarship. I use Lewis’s essay, “Learning in War-Time” in the course I teach on him, and hope it can be a warning for the budding scholars in the classroom.

Lewis is clear that there are many paths people may follow as they walk out their Christian commitment, one of which is the world of higher education. Here’s what he has to say to those of us who trod this path:

The intellectual life is not the only road to God, nor the safest, but we find it to be a road, and it may be the appointed road for us. Of course it will be so only so long as we keep the impulse pure and disinterested. That is the great difficulty.

Then comes the specific warning:

As the author of the Theologia Germanica says, we may come to love knowledge—our knowing—more than the thing known: to delight not in the exercise of our talents but in the fact that they are ours, or even in the reputation they bring us.

Every success in the scholar’s life increases this danger. If it becomes irresistible, he must give up his scholarly work. The time for plucking out the right eye has arrived.

A dagger straight into any inflated pride—my inflated pride at times—or at least into the temptation to fall into that sin. This Scripture in I Corinthians 8 comes to mind:

We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up.

Why is intellectual arrogance so quick to rise within us? It makes us feel important. We understand more than others (we think). That makes us better than the ignorant masses (we boast).

Now, we may never say such a thing out loud, but if that attitude becomes more than just a fleeting temptation and it takes root in our heart, it’s time for a deep repentance and a humbling of our spirit.

As we’re reminded in the book of James, chapter 4, “God is opposed to the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

All intellectual boasting is sin. Instead, we should be eternally grateful that God is willing to use us in intellectual endeavors, and that He can only use us in that way if we remain humble and submit that talent to Him.

Niceness vs. Redemption

We have just completed a week filled with anguish. The Charlottesville protests and anger that they have stirred has brought our nation to a low point indeed. In the midst of this anguish, people say things about changing the rhetoric and promoting understanding—all very nice, but never getting to the core of the problem, which is sin.

C. S. Lewis, in his Mere Christianity, delivers the truth about niceness vs. redemption.

We must not suppose that even if we succeeded in making everyone nice we should have saved their souls. A world of nice people, content in their own niceness, looking no further, turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world—and might even be more difficult to save.

The world wants niceness; God wants to redeem us. There’s a real distinction here that the world doesn’t recognize. Lewis continues,

For mere improvement is no redemption, though redemption always improves people even here and now and will, in the end, improve them to a degree we cannot yet imagine. God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man.

God is seeking to make us part of His family, which is a goal the world cannot conceive of, nor does it want to grasp. Man normally wants to improve himself, to a degree, where he is not quite as bad as he was before, whereas God demands a complete overhaul by submission to His Lordship. He wants to give man an entirely different type of existence.

What man, in his natural condition, has not got, is Spiritual life—the higher and different sort of life that exists in God. . . .

And that is precisely what Christianity is about. This world is a great sculptor’s shop. We are the statues and there is a rumour going round the shop that some of us are some day going to come to life.

When the next series of despicable events occurs (possibly even today) and we see the handwringing and the calls for civility, we need to be the voice of God’s truth to this dazed and confused world and point them to His redemption. That’s where the solution must begin because it’s the only answer to sin.

The Spiritual Body & Ultimate Reality

Arthur Greeves was a boyhood friend of Lewis’s, one with whom he corresponded throughout his life. It’s in those letters that we see the transformation of Lewis from an atheist/agnostic to a convinced Christian, and we witness an ongoing theological discussion over the years.

One of those discussions, in 1947, centered on the nature of the spiritual body Christians would receive in eternity. Lewis takes issue (in love, of course) with Greeves’s speculation about it.

I agree that we don’t know what a spiritual body is. But I don’t like contrasting it with (your words) “an actual, physical body.” This suggests that the spiritual body wd. be the opposite of “actual”—i.e., some kind of vision or imagination. And I do think most people imagine it as something that looks like the present body and isn’t really there.

I believe Lewis is correct in that assertion. We have this vague, shadowy concept of the nature of a spiritual body that might more approximate the idea of a ghost than what Scripture really indicates. For evidence, Lewis notes,

Our Lord’s eating the boiled fish seems to put the boots on that idea, don’t you think? I suspect the distinction is the other way round—that it is something compared with which our present bodies are half real and phantasmal.

Those who are familiar with Lewis’s writings will automatically think of his fantasy entitled The Great Divorce. In it, passengers on a bus ride from hell to heaven arrive, only to find that they are like phantoms compared with the reality of heaven. They can see through each other; the grass is so hard the can barely walk on it without pain; any attempt to pick up a piece of heavenly fruit is virtually impossible.

Lewis often used fantasy to make a valid theological point: even though what we experience now is certainly real, it is not the ultimate reality. That which awaits us in the heavenly realm is so much more real that we will look back on our earthly life and perhaps wonder how we could have thought it was all there was.

Like Lewis, I can’t fully explain what the new me will be like in my resurrected state, but also with Lewis, I can affirm that it will be far greater than anything I can now imagine.

Open & Closed Minds

I teach at a Christian university. A concern I’ve expressed before in this blog is that sometimes Christian academics have a tendency to think they are lesser scholars than those in the more prestigious centers of higher education. Then they make the mistake of trying to become respected by secular academia by minimizing their faith publicly.

I’m not saying that’s the norm for Christian academics, but it is a temptation for some. There sometimes is a haughtiness emanating from the confines of Ivy League and other “top” schools that tells us we don’t really match up.

However, God disagrees. We’re told in Proverbs, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” and “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” That last verse goes on to say, “And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.”

When we jettison that first step—reverence for God—we set out on a path that leads to foolishness, not genuine knowledge, understanding, and wisdom.

It’s as C. S. Lewis noted in Mere Christianity:

There is a difficulty about disagreeing with God. He is the source from which all your reasoning power comes: you could not be right and He wrong any more than a stream can rise higher than its own source.

When you are arguing against Him you are arguing against the very power that makes you able to argue at all: it is like cutting off the branch you are sitting on.

All the talk in circles of higher education of having an open mind sounds nice. Sometimes, those of us who teach at a university that has a basic statement of beliefs are considered close-minded. Yet as Lewis reminds us in his The Abolition of Man,

An open mind, in questions that are not ultimate, is useful. But an open mind about ultimate foundations either of Theoretical or Practical Reason is idiocy. If a man’s mind is open on these things, let his mouth at least be shut.

I’m reminded also of an incident related by Whittaker Chambers in his autobiography, Witness. As a child, he once said something to his mother about God creating the world. His mother, decidedly nonreligious, told him that he had to think for himself, to have an open mind. He was not to accept other people’s opinions, she declared. Then she followed that with this statement: “The world was formed by gases cooling in space.”

Chambers continued,

I thought about this many times. But it was not the gaseous theory of creation that impressed me. . . . What impressed me was that it was an opinion, too, since other people believed something else. Then, why had my mother told me what to think? Clearly, if the open mind was open . . . truth was simply a question of which opening you preferred.

In effect, the open mind was always closed at one end.

I have no problem saying I begin my understanding of history (which is what I teach) with the knowledge of God. After all, history came into being by His creation. Why would I ever omit Him from an analysis of history?

My mind is open when it comes to the facts of history and whether I need to change my perspective on particular events. My mind is blessedly closed, though, on matters of ultimate significance. Neither do I suffer from feelings of inferiority for saying that. Staying faithful to God’s truth leads to proper understanding and wisdom.