Over the course of the last year I have been doing a major review of C.S. Lewis’s work. I had been shaped by Narnia as a kid, and began reading his theological works while I was still in high school. In short I did a bunch of binge reading early on, and periodically returned to this work or that one, and occasionally read something I hadn’t read before. But over the last year, largely as the result of getting into audio books that help me redeem my time in my truck, I have been binge listening again. And, as always, Lewis is a delight, even when he is saying something appalling.
A few weeks ago I noticed a couple of things about him that I had always known, but which I hadn’t ever known in juxtaposition. I knew this and I also knew that, but I didn’t know thisnthat. Here it is.
On the one hand, Lewis is a jovial personality. His heart is capacious — he overflows. He is openhanded and jolly. And he doesn’t just come off this way in print — all the reports of his classroom lectures, of his humor, of his warmth toward his friends, indicate the same thing. Lewis is sunny.
At the same time, Lewis is a hardline introspectionist. Nobody slices motivation as thinly as he does, and he does it in a way that makes it plain that he knows how to do this through his own personal experience. He slices it so thin that when you hold the pieces of your motivation up afterward, you see they are translucent. He doesn’t cut himself any slack, ever. This comes up again and again, over and over. It is a constant theme throughout his writing. Not just Screwtape — this is ubiquitous.
So here is the juxtaposition. I don’t know of a writer whose mental landscape is so full of sunny uplands. And I also don’t know of a writer more full of canny insights about how slippery the human heart is. What is going on? This really is remarkable.
We know how to be morbid introspectionists. We can do that easily, and all downhill. This is because mucking around in your heart’s sump pump cavity comes naturally to us. Closely scrutinizing the visible works of the flesh is one of the great invisible works of the flesh. I have counseled many in this position — people who are willing to beat themselves up over any sin . . . except for the sin they are currently committing, which is the sin of trying to usurp the position of the Holy Spirit.
But there is a ditch on the other side of the road. We also know how to be jolly and carefree and outgoing, but only by adopting a “sin, what sin?” approach. Being an extrovert can be done easily if there is never any introversion.
In other words, we are either Joel Osteen on a yacht in the Caribbean, drinking something with a little umbrella in it, or we are William Law on a rainy Saturday afternoon in Pittsburgh.
Lewis totally upends this. The right result from godly introspection should be joy, and if there is no joy, there was no introspection. Not sunny superficiality, and not morbid introspection. Jovial introspection is a rare thing.
Lewis is valuable on many fronts, and for many reasons. But learning how to strike this particular balance — which very few have done — is one of the reasons his work is so important. There is a fusion here that needs to be pursued.
And this might be as good a time as any to mention that the MA program at New St. Andrews involves reading virtually everything Lewis wrote. That’s a start anyhow.
This CS Lewis cat sounds a lot like me!
Excellent insight. Thank you.
Wasn’t Lewis a veteran of WW 1 trench warfare?
I would think surviving that experience, combined with a will to live, could create his ability to love being alive, and to accurately evaluate how to stay alive .
He may have had a deep appreciation of having returned to “the sunlit lands”, from the “shadow lands”.
Puddleglum was a sunny character, in a bluesy sort of way.
You’re altogether too full of bobance and bounce and high spirits. You’ve got to learn that life isn’t all fricasseed frogs and eel pie. You want something to sober you down a bit.
RFB, “a sunny character, in a bluesy sort of way!”
He also didn’t have a terribly happy childhood. I think his mother died when he was young, and he did not have a happy time at boarding school. But I think he possibly had a naturally cheerful disposition–which is a great blessing but not necessarily a virtue. Doesn’t he say somewhere that the purely natural things we are inclined to pride ourselves on–such as cheerfulness, effortless good temper, being likeable–will all pass away at the end? And that the person who has always seemed disagreeable and cantankerous may be revealed as more advanced in virtue than those to whom “niceness”… Read more »
I don’know Jilly, you are nothing if not a demonstration that at least decentness and virtue can come in the same package! Although your “disagreeable and cantanlerous” character sounds like this guy: 3 He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. 4 Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. 5 But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed… Read more »
It has been said that the true test of any action lies in its motive (and that can set you free or drive you crazy).
I am just now coming to appreciate CSL. Not having been raised in a Christian home I missed Narnia. Then quickly finding myself in a Reformed Baptist setting, after coming to Christ in ’75, we did not think much of him. (All positive remarks about Lewis were dutifully followed by “yea, but he…”
I might have lost my Calvinism sooner had I read more of him.
I started reading Lewis in my early teens. The fundamentalist church we attended frowned great frownings on this exercise, believing, as they did, that anyone who smoked and drank was obviously not ‘born again’. But as it was my uncle that provided the books, my mother let me go on reading. How deeply, deeply thankful I am for that. Lewis shaped my thinking more than any other author, and still does. I was about 16 when I first read ‘The Inklings’ and how I used to long to be a fly on the wall at those gatherings! Lewis and Schaeffer… Read more »
I’ve read and appreciate a lot of him, and I still have my Calvinism.
That “yeah, but” stuff is a form of theological virtue signaling. Yes, the guy was errant from a Calvinist perspective. So was Calvin, for that matter.
Lewis is superb. I am not certain I read Narnia that young, though I have done so several times. But I did get through many of his books (more than 30 and more than any other author I have read) when I was younger. I have continued with Lewis intermittently, though I may need to come back to him more: read his less popular stuff and re-read earlier material. Weight of Glory is just that good for any who have not read it. I am not certain of the solution that Lewis found, though I note that some introspection is… Read more »
I think that the traditional Catholic temptation was to go the other way, with the potential for endless morbid self-analysis. The conscience started to resemble a caged hamster on a wheel: “When I accused myself of pride, was that a real accusation or was I inviting everyone to admire my humility? When I refrained from giving an angry retort, was that from true gentleness or from using passive aggression to make a point?” and on and on. I think the problem is that the people who are most prone to this are those who are least likely to benefit from… Read more »
Other than Lewis’ claim that we need to look at Jesus and not ourselves*, there is much to be gained in noting that spiritual formation happens though obedience. We don’t love by conjuring up loving thoughts, we love by acting lovingly and the feelings follow. Lewis would say something along the lines that our acts of love will of course have mixed motives, but we are to do them anyway, not looking at ourselves while we do them but at the other whom we do it for, and at Christ by whose strength we endeavour to do it. *(He also… Read more »
When obedience is hard for me in a spiritual matter, it should ring an alarm bell that the central issue is pride. Back in the day when I was given to practicing lunatic penances of my own fairly inventive devising, priests who had any idea of this would tell me to knock it off, that God didn’t like it, and that I was to do the penance assigned me–no less, but certainly no more. The spirit that made me resist this admonition was certainly not a yearning for holiness, although I didn’t see that at the time. So, yes, I… Read more »
“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
…people who are willing to beat themselves up over any sin . . . except
for the sin they are currently committing, which is the sin of trying to
usurp the position of the Holy Spirit.
That brought a smile to my face. Thanks.
It seems that sort of life is echoing the beautiful both/and tension (probably a better word out there) of the Gospel. You’re brought through the Good-Friday-type depths of despair as the Holy Spirit reveals your depravity and the weight of your sin and simultaneously you realize the Easter-type weightlessness of the resurrection and God’s grace. Never to wallow in condemnation, but always to remember our ill-deserved, and God’s truly amazing, grace. It’s this kindness that leads to repentance…and celebration…and thanksgiving… and a jolly good time.
I love CS Lewis. An odd juxtaposition indeed, but I also love Dean Koontz. They both had tough childhoods, but a powerful faith and an indomitable spirit that reflects genuine joy.
Scripture tells us many times, “rejoice! And again I say, rejoice!” just in case we missed it the first time. Over and over again, rejoice. So many of us get tangled up in our own angst, misery, and woe, we forget the part about rejoicing.
Ah, Pittsburgh. I first discovered Lewis in Pittsburgh. A lovely town with exquisitely beautiful old homes. Perfect for curling up on a couch on a rainy day with some musings from Perelandra or Reflections On The Psalms. It’s not one of those soulless PNW towns of endless post-war, generic boxes waiting patiently to be put out of their misery.
I think Lewis had a case of what Paul might call “sober-mindedness”.
CS Lewis is as witty as he is sharp. Whenever I encounter these qualities in his work, I’m endlessly fascinated at how he brings them together…in some ways, Lewis’ deft ability at blending wit and sharp observation always leaves me saying to myself, “how does he do that?” One of my favorite books that I’ve ever read by Lewis is The Discarded Image. It’s a marvelous example of indirect or subtle wit and keen observation. After reading Lewis’ The Discarded Image several years ago, I no longer view the Medieval Age as barbaric or savage. To be sure, there was… Read more »