Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Strange Journey: CSL

C.S.Lewis troubles many enlightened Christians; his theology seemed so narrow, so much like the pointy headed 'fundies'. How can we abide him?

(Our first child, Paul, had just been born; I was baby-sitting while Ellie went to buy food or something. I was reading a strange book called Pilgrim's Regress--my first exposure to Jack. [He was about my father's age.] A weird little book, a myth describing one's spiritual journey through life.

That was the first of many lessons in Christianity that I learned from Lewis.

Like Plato I thought more and more highly of his mythos and had less and less use for his logos. Jack had a third significant genre; call it spiritual autobiography. I can see many parallels with other journeys, particularly my own and friend Jon's, who has outstripped both of us in many ways.

Jack had a hedonistic childhood and youth, atheistic for the most part. He was a hopeless romantic; two primary commitments informed his (pre-Christian) life:

1) his brother Warner became a hopeless alcoholic, but Jack lived with him and supported him for many years, to the end.

2) He suffered intensely in the trench warfare of WWI. He had made a compact with a buddy that if either were killed, the other would look after the friend's family. His buddy was killed, and Jack carefully nurtured a terribly neurotic old woman for many years.

These two commitments were sort of like Jack's religion, if he had any at that time. He spent most of his life at Oxford, so most of his spiritual growth must of necessity be primarily intellectual in mode.

Through his twenties he matured; he flirted with all sorts of weird romantic genres, but all this time God was dealing with him (as he does with us all!!) One day in a railroad station waiting for a train he picked up a 'pocket book' called Phantastes (I much prefer a companion work entitled Lilith, also a wonderful story.), a highly mythopoeic work by a Scottish writer named George MacDonald (he, too, has a wonderful story to tell!)

Comes now the thirties, ah that critical time! His intellect dragged him, kicking and screaming into a form of faith, the Christian faith. He felt like his creative life was over; he had fallen into a black pit [look at Pilgrim's Regress]. But he soon recovered. and some years later he wrote Surprised by Joy (his 'third genre'); this was a more comlete account of his spiritual adventures.

Jack's good friend, Tolkien, tried his damnedist to make a Catholic out of him, but that was no go; their relationship from then on was strained.

But Tolkien and Lewis traveled very similar paths; both had fairly disreputable (by my lights although Ellie emphatically disagrees with me about that) logos and super beautiful mythos: the ring trilogy was Tolkien's real life, and Jack's was his fantasies.

Jack was a slow learner; a real trap for him occured when he became famous as a radio lecturer on the faith. This was during WWII, when the British mind seemed most likely to tend in that direction. So we get Mere Christianity and a dozen other like minded works (none of which I personally thought much of!)

But God was still dealing with him; in his other works I see him moving inexorably away from the narrow theology of the conventional church:

In The Great Divorce he attempted, among other things, to deal with the matter of Hell, and gave it a creditable account. In The Last Battle, from the Narnia series I recall vividly the final scene where the 'golden children' find themselves on a ridge climbing, climbing continuously toward the goal of us all. They look across the chasm to an adjoining ridge where, lo and behold they see their parents, climbing on another path to the same goal (Hallelujah!).

Another path! Oh wow! double wow! That's what Jon and I, and so many others have discovered, glorifying our lives (although unfortunately many have discarded their former path to become tribalists of another tribe).

The biggest wow came with his last book, which he valued more than all of the others. Till We Have Faces is a Christianizing (many would debate that) of the Greek myth of Psyche and Eros. The first 50 or more pages seemed like dull reading to me, but if you persevere you will have an electrifying denouement. Ah Joy indeed.

Throughout his entire life in all its phases Lewis had
always experienced a certain longing for something he could not put his finger on-- always leading him on, always illusive, never found. Eventually he no doubt came to understand the spiritual meaning of this phenomenon: it was what Origen had referred to as "'the wound of love' to describe the intense longing of the soul bride for Christ the bridegroom" (David C Downing, Into the Region of Awe, page 62). Lewis referred to this as joy.

Lewis reported three special joys in his life [no doubt others as well]:) he met Christ and wrote Surprised by Joy; he met a woman named Joy, an American, and had a few years of bliss before bereavement; finally he met the universal God and wrote Till We Have Faces.

Thus, contrary to the general impression people have had of Lewis, he was a mystic; he described mysticism re Julian of Norwich as "wonderful foretastes of the fruition of God vouchsafed to some in their earthly life" (Downing, p. 74.)

I thank God for Jack Lewis and all he has meant to Ellie and me along our spiritual journey. I pray he may also mean much to you, if that's where you're at.


Dave Carl said...

Its the Really Big Questions that pique my interest. Such as, why are you referring to CS Lewis as "Jack?" Doing a bit of quick Googling, I came up with the answer, which I'll reprint for anyone else who was wondering the same thing:

"He didn't like the name 'Clive' and as a small child had a pet dog called Jacksie, which was run over by one of the first cars in Northern Ireland. Jack decided that from thenceforth he would answer to nothing but 'Jacksie', and this became 'Jack' in due course. The only person who seems ever to have called him Clive was William Kirkpatrick, his boyhood tutor."


Jon said...

Hi, Larry,

I agree with you very much. His last books, A Grief Observed and Till We Have Faces are by far the best, in my opinion.

When I read Mere Christianity now, I feel sad he wrote an apologetic for the religion (and a narrowly-circumscribed view of it at that) instead of the reality; yet even there, you can see his restlessness for truth would lead him onward.

I amused me and some of my friends tremendously how well-respected he was with conservatives who had never read any of his other books (or never read him at all). How they would be shocked by his mystical development!

Twyla said...

Oh, thank you for reminding me about "Till we have faces". I forgot all about it. I really want to read it. Glad to have you back in the saddle! :)

Larry said...

Thank you, Dave, for that contribution; that's an excellent website you shared with us.

And thank you other two dear friends; you are still my chief support (other than Ellie of course!)

I_Wonder said...

Recently, Christian History devoted a full issue to CSL. Your post complemented what I read.

I thoroughly enjoyed his works, especially Till We Have Faces. I haven't read CSL in quite a while and am looking forward to re-reading some works in the future.

Larry said...

Thanks, Paul. I think I found the article Paul mentioned; it's called The Way of Friendship. If I ever rewrite this post, I'll surely put in some of the material there. Thanks againl.

Larry said...

Or it may have been an abstract of Issue 88 of Christian History and Biography to which he was referring, an entire issue of a magizine devoted to CSL.

I_Wonder said...

Yes, it was issue 88. Enjoyable reading.

Anna said...

If my name was Clive Staples I'd probably find any old excuse to go by something different - though I didn't know that's how he got the name Jack until now - thanks for sharing :) I think I agree with you in part, because Lewis' mythos speaks more deeply to me than his logos ever does (Lewis would not be surprised). But I would be hesitant to call him narrow despite his obvious maturation, simply because even when thinking best, we are all still provincial in comparison to what we will be. Not to mention Pilgrim's Regress comes across as stodgy partly because Lewis adhered almost slavishly to the example set forth in Pilgrim's Progress, which I have never cared much for. What do you think? What is your favorite work by MacDonald?

Larry said...

Anna, I readily agree that Jack was no narrower than I am; thanks for pointing that out. He became the darling of some especially narrow religionists because they thought he was upholding their points of view; hence he got the reputation of narrow.

Re MacDonald: My favorite by all odds is Lilith, but I have quite a few others in our library.

MacDonald was hounded out of the Presbyterian Church in Scotland because he believed in universal salvation. Thereafter he had to make his living with his pen. He wrote dozens of 'pot-boilers'. Recently many of them have been republished.

It's very easy to write about evil, but MacDonald could wrote about goodness better than anyone else I know. Happy reading.

anonymous julie said...

Larry, thanks for writing on one of my favorite authors... I caught onto CSL young through Chronicles and The Four Loves and have found much of his other stuff unbearably dry... apologia doesn't hold much for me. But at your mention here I thumbed through the first pages of Surprised by Joy and had to buy it. I'm very glad to be finding the mythos of CSL.

Larry said...


anonymous julie said...

Larry; finally finished Surprised by Joy ... despite savoring it for a month and a half, had to move on to make room for the next book! I wrote from it on my blog; since you've also read Surprised you might enjoy the post.