Teaching Students the Essence of C. S. Lewis

For the third time since my 2014-15 sabbatical and the writing of my C. S. Lewis book, I’ll be teaching the course this fall that I developed out of that sabbatical: “C. S. Lewis: History and Influence.”

It was a joy to teach this course the first two times, and I don’t expect it to be otherwise this time.

Since I’m a history professor, not English literature, the course has a strong historical component as we work through a number of Lewis’s key writings. Students learn not only about him and his influence but also the history of his era. Further, I link his writings to the events of his lifetime and also choose some of his essays and letters that show his concerns for government and the direction of society.

What do the students read?

We begin at the beginning—of Lewis, that is, with his autobiography, Surprised by Joy. It’s essential that they first discover who he was, his background, early education, dismissal of Christian faith, then his great rediscovery of Scriptural truth.

Lewis was surprised by joy; I’m continually surprised by how many students, even those who choose to take this course, know virtually nothing about the man. When I ask what brought them to the course, the most common answer is Narnia. Yet the author of Narnia is mostly unknown.

I then turn to Lewis’s Mere Christianity but with a nice historical touch, having them read not only the key chapters from that book but also one that explains where it came from.

Paul McCusker’s C. S. Lewis and Mere Christianity provides an excellent survey of Britain under duress during WWII and the BBC’s decision to put Lewis on the air to speak to the people.

Those broadcast talks, of course, later get reshaped into the classic Mere Christianity.

Although it was Lewis’s The Problem of Pain that brought him to the attention of the BBC, it was his next book that launched him into an icon, both in Britain and in America.

The Screwtape Letters was a phenomenon, so naturally I want my students to delve into that one as well.

I recently taught a class at my church on Screwtape that was held every Wednesday evening from January to April. As a result, I’m more adept at explaining the intricacies of this book than before. I’ve carved out some extra time to discuss it this time around.

Continuing on that fantasy angle, I then have students read The Great Divorce, which I consider a masterpiece. Lewis’s fanciful depiction of a bus trip from hell to heaven and his insights into why people reject God and His truth is superb.

This is one of my favorite Lewis books. My connection with it goes back to my college days. I was a radio/tv/film major back then and, as one of my projects in the tv studio, I staged a key conversation from this book. My hope was that it would be a strong Christian testimony to my fellow students. How could I not include it in this course?

Both Screwtape and Great Divorce are pleasure reading, in my view. Then comes something more hefty that requires students to think more deeply: The Abolition of Man. Lewis takes aim at those who deny basic truths that are implanted by God in the hearts of all people, and skewers as well those social planners who depend upon scientism (as opposed to real science) to “create” the type of people and society they want.

I realize that some of Lewis’s language and thoughts in this book can be challenging for some students, so I also combine our discussion of it with some blog posts I’ve written that explain it more succinctly.

My other remedy for making sure they get the point of Abolition is to pair it with the final installment of Lewis’s Ransom/Space trilogy, That Hideous Strength.

What Lewis expounds in Abolition comes to life, so to speak, in this novel. If students struggle with the former, they then get the opportunity to see what might happen if Lewis’s warnings are not heeded.

That Hideous Strength depicts a proposed takeover of Britain by a diabolical organization whose philosophy rests upon not only false science but the occult also. Although I love all three of Lewis’s trilogy, this one is my favorite probably because one of my greatest interests is government and politics—and the importance of Christian influence on both.

When we get to the Chronicles of Narnia, I give them the final book, The Last Battle.

Nearly everyone has already read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, so I don’t want to repeat that one. Besides, The Last Battle is quite prescient in its depiction of how false theology can arise, which is something I want students to be aware of.

And the wonderful description of entering into the New Narnia, which signals the end of the series, is so marvelous that I want to be sure no student goes away from this course without reading that.

As with The Great Divorce, it’s nice to incorporate a little bit of heaven into the readings. I also accomplish that by having them read Lewis’s masterful sermon, “The Weight of Glory.”

The final Lewis book they read is A Grief Observed, the short volume Lewis wrote anonymously after his wife, Joy, died.

This one can generate discussion very easily as we see Lewis’s struggle dealing with the loss of one so dear, yet who came so late to his life.

Lewis eventually comes to a resolution over God’s goodness. I also use scenes from the BBC production of Shadowlands to help this particular book come alive more for the students.

It’s important for them to reflect on death. After all, most college students think death is a far-off thing when, really, it could come to any of us at any time.

In the final few weeks of the course, I give them my book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis: His Profound Impact, so they can see just how influential he was in America—even more so than in his native Britain.

The book delves into his letters to Americans, his views of America, his relationships with some Americans (his wife, Joy Davidman Gresham, for one), and how his writings have continued to be a source of inspiration and teaching for generations following his death in 1963.

If all this sounds like an awful lot to give students, I plead guilty. But I am not repentant. I know that providing them with this introduction to Lewis and his influence will guide them into even deeper study, not just of Lewis, but of all the insights his writings have passed on to those who take the time to read and understand what he has to say.

Did I mention this is one of my favorite courses to teach? Well, that probably goes without saying.

Two Errors: Privatizing & Collectivizing the Faith

“No Christian and, indeed, no historian could accept the epigram which defines religion as ‘what a man does with his solitude,” began C. S. Lewis in his “Membership” essay. “It was one of the Wesleys, I think, who said that the New Testament knows nothing of solitary religion.”

Why is that? “The Church is the Bride of Christ. We are members of one another.”

Lewis continues by pointing out that modern society tries its best to confine religious beliefs and practices to the private life, and what he said in this essay decades ago is even more true today. He then notes the paradoxical nature of the “exaltation of the individual in the religious field . . . when collectivism is ruthlessly defeating the individual in every other field.”

The society of Lewis’s day, as he describes it, tried to denigrate any time for the individual as it pushed the idea of collectivism.

There is a crowd of busybodies, self-appointed masters of ceremonies, whose life is devoted to destroying solitude wherever solitude exists. . . .

If a really good home . . . existed today, it would be denounced as bourgeois and every engine of destruction would be levelled against it. And even where the planners fail and someone is left physically by himself, the wireless has seen to it that he will be . . . never less alone when alone.

We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence, and privacy, and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship.

One wonders how much more Lewis would emphasize this if he were to witness what takes place in our day with the barrage of entertainment and social media drowning out genuine solitude and friendship. We think we are reclaiming both through social media platforms, but we may be fooling ourselves.

Both in Lewis’s day and in ours, the world “says to us aloud, ‘You may be religious when you are alone,'” yet “it adds under its breath, ‘and I will see to it that you never are alone.'”

Make Christianity a private affair and then banish all privacy is how Lewis explains that approach. Christians then fall into the trap of reacting against this “by simply transporting into our spiritual life that same collectivism which has already conquered our secular life.” He calls that “the enemy’s other stratagem.” Here’s what he means:

Like a good chess player, he is always trying to manoeuvre you into a position where you can save your castle only by losing your bishop.

In order to avoid the trap we must insist that though the private conception of Christianity is an error, it is a profoundly natural one and is clumsily attempting to guard a great truth.

Behind it is the obvious feeling that our modern collectivism is an outrage upon human nature and that from this, as from all other evils, God will be our shield and buckler.

So, we have a tendency to accept an error (collectivism) in our attempt to reject the privatization of our faith.

Collectivism is found primarily in politics. Lewis goes on to make this statement, one that I find quite appropriate to our current societal state:

A sick society must think much about politics, as a sick man must think much about his digestion; to ignore the subject may be fatal cowardice for the one as for the other. But if either comes to regard it as the natural food of the mind—if either forgets that we think of such things only in order to be able to think of something else—then what was undertaken for the sake of health has become itself a new and deadly disease.

We are a society immersed in politics. For many, it is the be-all and end-all of life. Any society in that state remains sick.

Christian faith should be our focus, not politics. Yet this faith cannot be either a private thing or a copy of secular collectivism. We lose if we go in either of those two directions. The true Body of Christ as explained in Scripture is of another nature entirely.

What is that nature? I’ll deal with that as I conclude Lewis’s thoughts in this essay in a future post.

Many False Routes to the Only Well

“It is not so much of our time and so much of our attention that God demands,” wrote C. S. Lewis in the essay, “A Slip of the Tongue.” But he went further: “It is not even all our time and all our attention.” What else could there be? “It is our selves.”

That’s one step deeper.

You see, we can assiduously carry out our spiritual “responsibilities,” but even all of those, carefully observed, might be little more than external duties if not done from a heart of devotion to Him. Lewis continues,

For each of us the Baptist’s words are true: “He must increase and I decrease.” He will be infinitely merciful to our repeated failures; I know no promise that he will accept a deliberate compromise.

Let us make up our minds to it; there will be nothing “of our own” left over to live on; no “ordinary” life.

To those who may be tempted to think God is being rather selfish with this demand, Lewis explains how one should see this through a different, and positive, lens:

He cannot bless us unless He has us. When we try to keep within us an area that is our own, we try to keep an area of death. Therefore, in love, He claims all. There’s no bargaining with Him.

God, the fount of all knowledge and wisdom, knows we will never be what we were created to be without a full commitment of ourselves to Him. What we call life is actually death; His call to die to self is actually life. That’s not the thinking of the world, of course; that’s why we need a renewed mind.

Lewis lays out a dichotomy for life: the Kingdom of God is on one side of the divide; everything else resides on the other side. Those who don’t choose the Kingdom lose real life regardless of what else they choose.

Will it really make no difference whether it was women or patriotism, cocaine or art, whisky or a seat in the Cabinet, money or science? Well, surely no difference that matters. We shall have missed the end for which we are formed and rejected the only thing that satisfies.

Does it matter to a man dying in the desert, by which choice of route he missed the only well?

All other paths are routes to death, even the ones that seem “good,” if they are what we live for.

As Jesus instructed the “good” man Nicodemus, “”I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.”

And that’s the only thing that really matters.

Lewis: Knowing the Past for the Sake of the Present

Politics. Is there anyone else besides me who wishes he/she could turn it off for a while? I’m a professor of American history, though, so it’s important for me to keep up with political developments and provide analysis—for my students, of course, but I also feel a responsibility to help others understand the principles we need to follow.

There is a temptation, though, to be so immersed in politics that one sees it as all-consuming. C. S. Lewis recognized that temptation. In his day, WWII was one of those potentially all-consuming events. Some people, at that time, were saying that all other activities, including Lewis’s own profession as a professor, should be set aside so that all thought and energy would be concentrated on the war.

Lewis said no to that. One of his most enlightening essays, “Learning in War-Time,” addressed the complaint that some had about allowing normal day-to-day activities to continue uninterrupted.

Lewis wanted to be sure he was not misunderstood: the war was a righteous one and every citizen had a duty to support it. “Every duty is a religious duty,” he believed, “and our obligation to perform every duty is therefore absolute.”

Rescuing a drowning man is a duty, he continued, and if we happened to live on a coast, perhaps we should be well prepared as lifesavers. But even such a laudatory effort as lifesaving needs to be seen as only part of one’s overall duties.

If anyone devoted himself to lifesaving in the sense of giving it his total attention—so that he thought and spoke of nothing else and demanded the cessation of all other human activities until everyone had learned to swim—he would be a monomaniac.

The rescue of drowning men is, then, a duty worth dying for, but not worth living for.

Lewis then opined that all political duties were like that. Politics is not the sum total of life. Seeking to put the right people in political office is a worthy endeavor, but it should never consume one’s life.

He who surrenders himself without reservation to the temporal claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering to Caesar that which, of all things, most emphatically belongs to God: himself.

For Lewis personally, God had charted a course for his life that pointed to intellectual activity, something that was not to cease simply because a war was going on. One of his most famous quotes comes from this essay: “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.”

He then offers me, as a historian, this encouraging word:

Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.

A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.

There continues to be a “great cataract of nonsense” in our day. The America of 2018 suffers from a type of myopia, forgetting what has gone before, never learning from the past. History offers us tremendous lessons if we are willing to learn from them.

The reason I am so focused, at times, on the current political situation, is that I am disturbed by our ignorance of the past and our apparent unwillingness to correct what we have done wrong previously. We think we are charting a new course that will lead us to some type of utopia when, in fact, we are simply following some of the same old ruts that have caused misery before.

Lewis concludes his essay with what WWII should teach his generation. His conclusion applies to our generation as well if we think political programs or putting the right person in office will be our savior:

If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon.

We must never forget that we are pilgrims on this earth, and that the pilgrimage goes on regardless of what happens in politics and government.

C. S. Lewis Loses His Joy

On this day, July 13, 1960, C. S. Lewis lost his wife, Joy, to cancer. It was a devastating loss for him; their very short marriage he considered the apex of his life. Here’s how I wrote about it in my book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis: His Profound Impact:

“The blow has fallen,” Lewis informed [his friend Chad] Walsh in October 1959. News that Joy’s cancer had returned was a shock. Prior to receiving this bad news, they had planned a May trip to Greece. Neither had ever been there, but for Joy, in particular, seeing Greece was an unfulfilled passion. Now they had to wonder if those plans should be canceled.

She resisted; they went anyway, even knowing that it could drain the last drops of energy from her. Lewis wrote of it to Walsh shortly after they returned, wherein he remarked that though, at first, he doubted she would be able to make the trip, it turned out wonderfully. They had no regrets for making the trip. Lewis considered Joy “divinely supported” the entire time. She had been granted a lifelong desire and was grateful.

Death—the last enemy the Christian faces before being ushered into the presence of God—came to Joy Lewis a few weeks later on 13 July 1960. Lewis wrote of it to many of his correspondents, but the letter to Walsh probably provides the greatest insight into her last moments.

“It was a wonderful marriage,” Lewis confirmed to Walsh. “Even after all hope was gone, even on the last night before her death, there were ‘patins of bright gold.’ Two of the last things she said were ‘You have made me happy’ and ‘I am at peace with God.’”

Shortly after Joy’s death, Lewis began recording his feelings. Out of those daily jottings came an honest little book full of anguish, pain, and questioning of God’s ways, yet ultimately coming to the conclusion that one must put one’s life in His hands and allow Him to bring the healing, both now and in eternity.

A Grief Observed was published in 1961 initially under a pseudonym, N. W. Clerk, which was a pun on an Old English term for “I know not what scholar.” In those eighty-nine pages (more of a booklet than a book), we find Lewis struggling emotionally. Intellectually, he knew the answers to his questions, but he needed to work through the inner conflict that was making him doubt God’s goodness.

Lewis’s faith held. He lived only three more years, and was in bad health most of that time. By the end, he was fully resigned to death, even anticipating it. His understanding of his own faith, and his grasp of the door that opens into the next world, was enhanced by his relationship with an American, Jewish, former atheist, former communist woman who became the love of his life.

Why Read Old Books? C. S. Lewis Tells Us Why

“Every age has its own outlook,” C. S. Lewis instructed. “It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes.” Amen to that. “We all, therefore,” he continued, “need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”

Was Lewis saying that only old books are worthwhile? Was he so anti-modern that he believed nothing written in the last century could conceivably offer us wisdom? After all, in his inaugural lecture at Cambridge, he famously referred to himself as a “dinosaur,” one of the last specimens of those who live comfortably in their native land of previous epochs.

That’s hardly his intention. What he was doing in this quote was attacking the oh-so-modern fallacy (found in every age, by the way) that we have progressed so far that we understand things much better than previous ages and generations.

I teach historiography. Part of the course delves into different schools of historical interpretation. One common mistake for historians is to believe that progress is inevitable, that each succeeding generation is wiser than the last one.

I ran into this perspective in my doctoral program. One book used in a course on American colonial history was infused with a sneeringly condescending attitude toward those so-called primitive early Americans. They were just so backward, the book implied. Not like the new generation that has come so far.

Of course, in the view of that author, to “come so far” meant that we have set aside all those outmoded ideas about God that seemed to drive many of the early settlers. The hubris in the book was astounding.

All Lewis was saying in this quote is that each era has its truth emphases and each also has its own characteristic mistakes and/or falsehoods that it believes. How do we guard against this arrogance? Return to the thoughts and beliefs of earlier times and keep in mind that whatever faults they had, they also might have contained truths that we, in our pride, have foolishly abandoned.

The “old books” are not error-free, but they do put a check on our runaway love affair with ourselves. They remind us of things we may have forgotten as a society.

There is one old book, though, that is error-free and never leads us astray. If we take it seriously, our pride is leveled and we recognize our true place in the universe.

As I survey the mess our current society has devolved into, I’m reminded of another Lewis quote: “Moral collapse follows upon spiritual collapse.” If we are disturbed by what we see happening morally in our day, we must acknowledge the real reason for this development. We have allowed our Christianity to be compromised to the point that it no longer is the salt and light it was intended to be.

We must return to the one Old Book that puts things right again.

On Venomous Discourse: A Lewis Caution

I just finished reading C. S. Lewis’s Studies in Words, which I found fascinating and sometimes confusing simultaneously. The latter was due more to my lack of knowledge of various languages, but the former was good enough to keep me going to the end.

When I got to the last chapter, I was struck by how Lewis’s last few paragraphs dealt with what we are experiencing currently in our nation’s politics. Lewis, of course, was not thinking of politics when he wrote it, but I saw a strong parallel.

What he was doing was pointing out the miserable state of book reviewing in his day. His emphasis was on the ill-tempered nature of some of the reviews/commentary on the literature. What I saw was a valid critique that applies to our political commentary today. We have become so emotional and polarized in American society that we often leave reason behind.

I’m going to quote Lewis quite freely now and intersperse my thoughts. See if you see what I see. (I didn’t know I could use “see” that many times in one sentence; I feel as if I’ve achieved something grand.)

Here’s where Lewis begins his critique of how others are doing critiques:

Reviews so filled with venom have often been condemned socially for their bad manners, or ethically for their spite. I am not prepared to defend them from either charge; but I prefer to stress their inutility.

It would be hard not to notice the rising venom in our political discourse. Yes, it should be condemned as bad manners; yes, it should be called out for the spiteful nature of the discourse. Yet Lewis focuses instead on what he called its “inutility,” meaning its utter failure to accomplish what it sets out to do.

These kinds of reviews/commentaries, can be “enjoyed,” he admits, but only “if we already agree with the critic.” But that points to the “inutility” once more because the audience will be primarily those who already agree with the position.

We are not reading them to inform our judgement. What we enjoy is a resounding blow by our own “side.” How useless they are for any strictly critical function becomes apparent if we approach them with an open mind.

It’s called “preaching to the choir,” and the message is seldom heard and rarely received by those who disagree. Lewis then gives an example of one particular reviewer who continually penned “unusually violent reviews.” After reading a few from that man, he stopped reading him.

In the first hundred words the critic had revealed his passions. What happened to me  after that is, I think, what must happen to anyone in such circumstances. Automatically, without thinking about it, willy-nilly, one’s mind discounts everything he says; as it does when we are listening to a drunk or delirious man. . . .

The spectacle of a man thus writhing in the mixed smart and titillation of a fully indulged resentment is, in its way, too big a thing to leave us free for any literary considerations. We are in the presence of tragi-comedy from real life. . . .

Thus in criticism, as in vocabulary, hatred over-reaches itself. Willingness to wound, too intense and naked, become impotent to do the desired mischief.

There are political commentators I no longer listen to. Why? Their language shows the resentment and/or hatred that resides in their hearts. And even if I agree with their political positions, I want nothing to do with them. The poison they offer will kill any truth they may be providing. They also become a “Johnny-One-Note” with nothing new to say. They become bores.

Lewis is not saying we cannot be critical, but he is counseling that it must come from a truly Christian heart, and that we must be careful with our attitudes and words.

Of course, if we are to be critics, we must condemn as well as praise; we must sometimes condemn totally and severely. But we must obviously be very careful. . . .

I think we must get it firmly fixed in our minds that the very occasions on which we should most like to write a slashing review are precisely those on which we had much better hold our tongues. The very desire is a danger signal.

We need to examine ourselves, as the Scripture tells us:

The strength of our dislike is itself a probable symptom that all is not well within; that some raw place in our psychology has been touched, or else that some personal or partisan motive is secretly at work.

If we were simply exercising judgement we should be calmer; less anxious to speak. And if we do speak, we shall almost certainly make fools of ourselves.

This entire passage in Studies in Words was worth the whole book for me. As a blogger who writes not only about Lewis, but also on historical, cultural, political, and governmental topics, the warning is clear: exercise judgment, even severe judgment at times, but ensure that what I write doesn’t proceed from a wrong heart, one filled with resentment or hatred toward those I perceive as promoting sinful actions in society.

God’s goal is always redemption.