Culture / Faith

C. S. Lewis: Translator for the Post-Whatever Age

A difficult task has recently become much, much harder. Every Christian knows that Jesus’ ‘Great Commission’ gave marching orders to his church to go into all the world and make disciples. That was simple enough, as far as it goes, back when we could reasonably expect that the person on the other end of the conversation just might have the faintest idea what we’re talking about when we say “Jesus is Lord!” But even that small comfort has gone the way of all flesh.

As Francis Schaeffer put it decades ago in The God Who is There, “One could tell a non-Christian to ‘be a good girl’ and, while she might not have followed your advice, at least she would have understood what you were talking about. To say this to a truly modern girl would be to make a ‘nonsense’ statement. The blank look you might receive would not have meant that your standards had been rejected, but that your message was meaningless.”

Today it has moved beyond even what Schaeffer prophesied a generation ago. Now, instead of getting that blank look, you are almost certain to be on the business end of righteous indignation, once this fictional girl figures out what you’re really saying, that you’re not simply expressing your spiritual side, but you actually mean that Jesus is her Lord, too. In the face of this daunting prospect many Christians have given up in despair. Why bother preaching the word when all you get in return is apathy or anger?

Yet our divine commissioner has not left us without support. In what can only be the mark of his humorous nature, the Lord we are to proclaim gave us as a pattern to follow in reaching our discombobulated age a man, who, on paper, should be the last sort we would expect. As an archetype of a herald to this anti-everything age, a seemingly stuffy expert on Medieval and Renaissance literature is not who springs to mind. In the life and letters of CS Lewis, we find a man uniquely crafted to slip behind the most valiant of defenses. Our bastions of cynicism and self-perceived ironic detachment somehow melt before the simple warmth of this genuine human being, even as this same warmth contains within it an incisive mind, passionately loyalty to what are, today, radical truths.

In our world, which sees all beliefs as mere pretexts for power or shields for insecurity, Lewis’s path belied such comforting illusions. We assure ourselves that the forms of religion matter less than our sincerity as we express our communal search for eternity. At first Lewis’s meandering progress through a series of late 19th and early 20th century religious views fits snugly within our early 21st century perceptions of life as a journey. Though born into a nominally Christian family in a nominally Christian realm, our hero soon came to despise his culture’s religious expression, arguing in his autobiography that “the impression I got was that religion, though utterly false, was a natural growth, a kind of endemic nonsense into which humanity tended to blunder. In the midst of a thousand such religions stood our own, the thousandth and first, labeled True. But on what grounds could I believe in this exception? It was obviously in some general sense the same kind of thing as all the rest. Why was it so differently treated? Need I, at any rate, continue to treat it differently? I was very anxious not to.”

Left there Lewis would be more of an asset to today’s intellectual climes than the subversive force he turned out to be. After a road filled with twists and turns—a little atheism and agnosticism over here, a period of pantheism and spiritualism over there—Lewis found himself stumbling back first into theism and then, to his great horror, classical Christianity. Unlike the spiritual pilgrimages of our time, for which the travelling matters far more than any arrival, Lewis embraced the faith of his fathers in spite of himself. As he said in God in the Dock, “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”

His willingness to abandon his culture’s faith and to forge ahead on his own quest would gain accolades of the highest order from today’s cultural gatekeepers. His determination to follow that path to the end, even if that meant a return to traditional Christianity, is something that the watching world doesn’t really have a category for. One category our culture can sink its teeth into is the one where Christianity is simply an intellectual construct designed to reinforce the materialistic ambitions of those with the cash.

Once again Lewis’ lifestyle swims against this stream. He was a child of relative prosperity and so might be expected to continue with elitist practices once he came in to his own. Yet even when he began to work for one of the premiere educational institutions in the world, he remained in practical poverty. Much of his income that might have allowed a measure of wealth was shared with others. Even when the sales of his books were mounting into the thousands he maintained this generous attitude. He was so generous that his brother had to keep him on a short financial leash to prevent him from spending all his royalties on other people’s needs. Rather than becoming a means to acquire more and more wealth, Christianity became the metaphysical justification for accelerating his already charitable nature.

Yet Lewis’s ability to subvert the reigning paradigm extended beyond his open-handed generosity. As his style of life, and the lives of unheralded believers down through the ages, turned aside the blows of Christianity’s critics by not living up to society’s expectations, so too did Lewis’s style of argument pull the rug from beneath one of postmodernism’s cardinal tenets. Since many in our enlightened age do not place any truth value on any specific ideas, it can be incredibly difficult to convince them that a given principle is true for all people, all the time. Now, they may well believe that something is true for perhaps an individual or a group, but they are unlikely to think that it is in any way true in a general, universal sense. Ethical standards for one society would not be “true” for yet another across the globe.

Lewis undercut this sort of thinking by appealing to a morality lurking behind all cultures. Calling this the Tao, he disarmed a common criticism posited by postmodern thinkers. Many see any claim to “true truth” by a society or individual as the height of arrogance and therefore ample reason to shun them disdainfully. However, by looking to non-European cultures, to shared ideas of right and wrong, virtue and vice, held by people around the world, Lewis turned the inclusive claims of postmodernism on its ever-so tolerant head. Enlightened critics from our time are then put in the delightfully ironic position of saying that these cultures and their ideologies are wrong, while their own very contemporary Western vantage point is right. The hunter becomes the hunted.

However, razor-sharp incisiveness could be of dubious value if the message were to be delivered with the subtlety of a bulldozer. In one sense Lewis’s works were something of an extended reiteration of Paul’s message on Mars Hill. Both these men were highly educated members of their respective races, and were conveying precisely the same message. Most pertinently, both used an engaging manner to grab the attention of prospective hearers, and both used familiar imagery rather than technical or idiosyncratic language. Their pleasant delivery hid a radically unorthodox message.

I was once told by a friend that reading Lewis made him feel smart. He said that when he finished reading one of Lewis’s books he found that ideas that he had previously thought to be beyond his comprehension were suddenly grasped with an attitude of, “Oh, I already knew that.” Lewis had an ability to take what was complicated, even for the believer familiar with Christian concepts, and have them make perfect sense for just about anyone. Now, you could pass this off by saying that this simply flowed from the nature of his profession. After all, who could be better to explain things than a man whose whole life was words?

But that cannot be all that is going on here. There are innumerable of books by the Literati that are completely unfathomable to nearly everyone else, lining dusty bookshelves and rotting into oblivion. Lewis’s brilliance as a writer and effectiveness as an apologist was that he could present deep truths in simple forms. He put it thusly, “When I began, Christianity came before the great mass of my unbelieving fellow countrymen either in the highly emotional form offered by revivalists or in the unintelligible language of highly cultured clergymen. Most men were reached by neither. My task was therefore simply that of a translator—one turning Christian doctrine, or what he believed to be such, into the vernacular, into language that unscholarly people would attend to and could understand.” In another place he said, “The popular English language, then, simply has to be learned by him who would preach to the English: just as a missionary learns Bantu before preaching to the Bantus. . . Our problem is often simply one of translation.”

He used examples that everyone could taste. Beginning his study on universal morality, he started, not with Platonic Forms, but with issues of fairness his readers would encounter every day, sharing a bit of orange or keeping one’s chair. He delineated the reliability of true belief from its flawed believers with an anecdote of a little girl who thought poison consisted of “horrid red things.” He explained the difference between merely studying and actually living Christianity by a memory of an afternoon spent in a tool-shed. You can go for pages on end without encountering even a wisp of a technical phrase or theological jargon, all the while letting the deepest of doctrines seep into your soul.

My favorite example of this subversive simplicity came in his book Miracles. To those thinking it nonsense to suggest a world beyond the material, Lewis turns to what has to be one of the strangest arguments for a higher order ever put forward. “Almost the whole of Christian theology could be perhaps deduced from the two facts (a) That men make coarse jokes, and (b) That they feel the dead to be uncanny. The coarse joke proclaims that we have here an animal which finds its own animality either objectionable or funny. . . I do not perceive that dogs see anything funny about being dogs: I suspect that angels see nothing funny about being angels. Our feeling about the dead is equally odd. . . In reality we hate the division that makes possible the conception of either corpse or ghost.” To understand this point, no one needs to go out and buy a dictionary or be familiar with an academic style of writing. You must only be human.

This easy nature of his writing style lent his works an insidious nature. Much in the same way that tens of millions of people in the past several years have unknowingly absorbed huge amounts of a Christian worldview through The Lord of the Rings films, those who have picked up Lewis’s books are in immortal danger of Christian infection. His light style and engaging manner has kept readers off their guard long enough for his message to get under their skin.

In one sense Lewis has been able to reach so many people for Christianity because he has refused to treat his religion as religious, at least in the modern sense of religious as something set apart from “real life.” Some of this is just his use everyday words, but some of his “non-religious” technique is that he never acted as though Christianity was otherworldly. This was wonderfully manifested was in his Space Trilogy. On its own merits the series stands as an excellent trio of novels. The characters are vivid and, while his speculations about the nature of space travel may seem quaint in retrospect, they are certainly imaginative and show keen insight.

It is intriguing that a reader can get quite far into the story without realizing that there is Christian underpinning to the narrative. All you know is that a man has been whisked away on a great adventure in the stars. Even when the hero meets what is obviously, at least to a Christian, an angel, our author does not present this celestial being in an expected way. Most people, drawing on some combination of It’s a Wonderful Life and Renaissance paintings, will not notice that the “Eldila” and “Oyarsa” are angels. Less still will most people realize that Maledil and the Old One refer to two persons of the Christian Trinity. By approaching his tale in this way, Lewis manages to de-religicize these Biblical beings. These are not the willowy apparitions of popular culture, inducing diabetic fits with their simplistic sweetness, but solid entities with dangerous power that are all the more believable for their menacing possibilities.

In much the same way as he brought the spiritual world into the realm of reality through such ordinary words and images, Lewis also brought the material world into the domain of the sacred through his childlike delight in the beauty of the created order. While this is most often noted in his positive acclaim for mountains and trees, rivers and oceans, birds and beasts, his affection for nature also found voice in his condemnation of those who would desecrate it. Lewis’s villains manifest their villainy not only in their diabolical designs against the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve but also in their malevolence towards the lower orders of life.

Some of the most vibrant examples of this evil come, once again, from the Space Trilogy. The antagonist, Weston, is explaining to his supposed inferiors his motivations for cosmic exploration. “It is her right,” said Weston, “the right, or, if you will, the might of Life herself, that I am prepared without flinching to plant the flag of man on the soil of Malacandra: to march on, step by step, superseding, where necessary, the lower forms of life we find, claiming planet after planet, system after system, till our posterity—whatever strange form and yet unguessed mentality they have assumed—dwell in the universe wherever the universe is habitable.” Happily, he gets his well deserved comeuppance shortly after this deplorable speech.

In the next book, Weston’s warped nature bloodily tears into the idyllic setting of yet another world. The hero, Ransom, finds himself on an un-fallen Venus in its own version of the Garden of Eden. Surrounded by this untainted world, Ransom is shocked when he finds a line of small animals eviscerated for no apparent reason and tossed aside like garbage. Soon he locates the source as Weston, in total depravity, is found ripping the poor creatures asunder simply for the pleasure of inflicting pain on others.

In the final book of the series, one of the many antagonists, a Continental aesthete named Filostrato, offers praise to the moon as his ideal world and the cleansing efforts of its inhabitants, “There is a world for you, no?” said Filostrato. “There is cleanness, purity. Thousands of square miles with not one blade of grass, not one fibre of lichen, not one grain of dust. Not even air . . . They are slowly spreading their hygiene over their whole globe. Disinfecting her . . . encroaching: the organic stain, all the green and blue and mist, growing smaller. Like cleaning tarnished silver.”

This is quite clearly not the sort of world that most people in the postmodern era, with their passion for all things natural, are hoping to live to see. Lewis’s words on nature and the mindless evil of exploitation is a readymade connection to the eco-friendly contemporary world. Yet while those today see the protection of the natural environment as an end in and of itself, Lewis challenges them to see the world around them as the precious creation of God himself. Without a real supernatural order spilling over into the natural, without the natural world intimately tied to the supernatural, without a creation that is the work of a Creator, all the hopes and dreams of our enlightened society fall as nothing more than ephemeral dust dancing about a meaningless cosmos. While those of the world think they are reading the words of an unusual Christian who “gets it,” little by little they find that it is his Christianity that is getting them.

The works of Lewis have been uniquely effective in reaching out to non-Christians. Much of his success has been due to his winsome nature and appeal to common sense, common ethics, and common ground. But, left there, with nothing more than modifying vocabulary to suit this moment and all those that follow, we would be left with a mediocre faith, a faith lacking its own meaning and its own message.

Lewis did not gain his great following by being a better writer or more clever advocate for Christianity. He earned the respect of the watching world by creating works of excellence which spoke in familiar ways and in resonating motifs. Yet, like the biblical writers before him, who used the styles of their day to penetrate the defenses of their world, he did not leave the content of his works to the whims of literary fashions. Rather, he took up the forms of the age only to let the dynamic message of Christianity burst the old wineskins of contemporary belief. Speaking the language of the world, Lewis subversively infused these words with new meaning and thereby turned his readers’ eyes towards a new world.
Copyright © 2014 Timothy Padgett