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.