The Man Who Showed Us Perelandra–A Short Tribute to C. S. Lewis

Apr 13th, 2011 | By | Category: Blog Posts

As a scholar, a writer, and a theologian, C. S. Lewis was very much a medieval man, for whom reality is full, extravagant, and sweetly ordered (neither starched nor stifling)–much like, for example, the Byzantine liturgy. Lewis came to learn, and then richly to show, that the religion of medieval man, namely, Christianity, far from prescinding from reality thus conceived, takes all of it up into something which is its source and eternal home, a greater and more perfect unity, nonetheless diverse. The Christian gospel is old and for many of us familiar, and Lewis helped us to love it, to feel for the faith what we feel for our favorite stories, the former not subduing the latter as competitors, but implicit within them.

By contrast, some of us can remember a time when Christianity seemed to be primarily a lesson learned by rote, stamped “true,” but experienced as unrelated and even hostile to every other good thing. But when we read Lewis, the faith snapped to life in all of its familiar strangeness and ancient novelty and mysterious light. Dogmatic theology, the stuff we were supposed to confess, became something we wanted to be a part of, to participate in on the level of a living experience because it was inviting and invigorating, though also in some ways intimidating. It was real. 

C. S. Lewis showed us that in Christ every good thing in the world finds its supreme source, significance, and resolution. To become a Christian is to enter into the true inheritance of mankind, and to find all things made new. Once we found that reading Lewis could so enrich our faith, it was natural to take him as an authority in matters divinely revealed, which is the very thing that he repeatedly claimed not to be (and was not). Still, Lewis showed us so much unexpected depth and richness in some of “the basics” of the faith that we became more or less open to what he said about disputed matters and things of which we were ignorant or not so sure. At the very least, someone who so obviously saw reality so brightly could not easily be dismissed, even when we thought he might be mistaken.

For example: for most of my life, I thought that any so-called Christian who believed that “you can lose your salvation” was basically an emissary of Satan. Yet I barely blinked when Lewis essentially said exactly that in The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity. You have got to have skills to get past the guard of a sensitive and contentious young theologue. Lewis had skills, and he bypassed my sectarian defensiveness. Even now, when I see both salvation and C. S. Lewis in a somewhat different light, I take Lewis as an unofficial guide in the realm of faith, primarily because he has done more than almost anyone else to help me see that the Christian faith is true and good and beautiful, the “epitome and apotheosis” of all worthy and joyful things, like kings and ships and pomp and philosophers, the whole bright, shining, dark, furry, wise, merry panoply of creation, called together unto God in the great realm of being, yearning for the freedom and glory of the children of God.

All of this, and Lewis helped us to make some small, inadequate sense out of suffering, especially when he suffered greatly, when his wife lived with terrible physical pain and finally died from cancer. We learned that Lewis was not just a bright philosopher and gifted writer and mythopoeic theologian. He was a prayerful and deeply charitable man, who learned first hand that a Christian person can in his own flesh supply that which is lacking in the sufferings of Christ, in love with one another, en route to God.

Agape, angels, and animals. And then there is man, placed in the world.

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  1. Lewis helped through a dark time when my parents died with his book “A grief Observed”. I think I have read all of his writings but I do like his poetry and Narnia the best.

  2. I read a great deal of CS Lewis, not the least because I found him to be both readable and understandable. I still have some CS Lewis in my library including the Abolition of Man, God on the Dock and some Narnia (which we used in homeschooling our kids).

    Lewis did several things for me personally:
    1. He had a rather high view of human beings and of our ability to begin a discernment of truth, because he was willing to let us think to a conclusion and respected our ability to respond to that truth even if in short steps and a forward three steps / backward two steps kind of a dance;
    2. He led me to GK Chesterton; and
    3. He led me to several of his followers who, following what appears to be the logic of Lewis’ own thought, became Catholic.

    Would he have become Catholic in light of changes in Anglicanism post his death? I don’t know but if his essays in God on the Dock is an indication, he would have departed Anglicanism knowing that it had departed him.

    God bless CS Lewis wherever he is.

    dt

  3. Lewis became my “unofficial guide to faith” when, at age 14, I read his “space trilogy”: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength The books’ adult sensibility was a bit beyond me, but they captured my imagination. From then on, I associated the truth of divine revelation with beauty, wisdom, and power, as opposed what seemed to me the ugliness, stupidity, and futility of my actual religious surroundings. I concluded that it was the adults in my real-life environment, not Christianity itself, that missed the truth of things. Over the next several years, I proceeded to devour as much of Lewis as I could get my hands on. I started college unconvinced of theism, but certain that, whatever the truth was, it was at least as exciting as Lewis thought.

    I was mighty puzzled when I discovered that Lewis sharply curtailed his apologetical activity after losing a debate about naturalism with Elizabeth Anscombe at a Socratic Club meeting in Oxford. Although she did induce him to alter his argument in Miracles, as reflected in its second edition, I didn’t think the problem was as severe as he thought. Apparently, neither did she. When I was her son-in-law, she told me that she was quite surprised when she heard how the debate had affected him. Apparently, they remained on good terms.

  4. Mike! Your next to last sentence is a doozy. Wow. Next we’ll find out that Wittgenstein was your godfather. From what I can tell, as I am trying to recover from the revelation of your former association with the great EA, Lewis never made it around the linguistic turn in philosophy. From his own claims in published letters and the account given by Hooper in C. S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table (“Oxford’s Bonny Fighter”), together with the revised version of Miracles, I gather that EA pushed CSL to give “a more rigorous analytical account” of the difficulty of naturalism re knowledge. According to Hooper’s account, Lewis was dispirited not because of EA’s arguments, but because of her manner in presenting them. But he certainly expressed his disinterest in swimming with the current of modern analytic philosophy. Reminds me of a book title by Henry Babcock Veatch.

    Your first paragraph: Ditto.

  5. Mike! “When I was her son-in-law…” Seriously?! I was reading your comment and just mentally registering along the way, “Yes, I know this; I know Lewis was dejected at his “loss” to Anscombe in a way she herself didn’t understand, etc.” Then “when I was her son in law.” Er…okay. Now I think you’re even super cooler than I already thought you were. Anscombe is like the cat’s pajamas.

  6. Andrew: Nice post man. I owe quite a debt to Lewis as well. Your remarks resonated with me.

    Neal

  7. Andrew,

    I think Lewis for many converts, especially of the evangelical ilk, acts as a kind of protocatholica. He sneaks in purgatory or a high view of the Church when your parents aren’t looking. Your post made me think about, for the first time, how Lewis had tilled the soil of my Protestant heart when I didn’t even know it was happening. Thank you.

    May God bring Lewis and all our departed brothers and sisters into the light of His presence.

  8. Hey Brent,

    Lewis’s medievalism definitely prepared me to love the Catholic Church, mostly not in any overt way, but through imbibing the atmosphere of hierarchy and obedience, pomp and festival. On a conscious and (in my opinion) reactionary level, he claimed to be a middlin’ churchman. On the whole, my impression (based in part on his own testimony about his condition soon after his return to Christian belief) is that Lewis would rather have done without the Church, except he was convinced that he ought to have do with her. His sacramentalism seems to me to have been a primarily personal response to the Eucharist.

    Since I have become familar with the Divine Liturgy, I have tended to think of Lewis’s worlds, especially Narnia and Perelandra, as liturgical space. Lewis himself, despite his “Romish” tendencies (indirect affirmation of the Real Presence, auricular confession, purgatory), did not seem to have appreciated the accoutrements of high church liturgy, incense and vestments and bells and so forth, not because he had some general disdain for such things (quite the opposite), but because in his C of E context they would have necessarily been interpreted as party badges. So he drifted along in the limbo of sacramental sensibility coupled with dogmatic insistence that there were no dogmas pertaining to the sacraments.

  9. Lewis was very much a High Church Anglican at heart who had very little desire for overt ritualism. He is proto-Catholic in the sense that the 1549 BCP is proto Novus Ordo. I am not sure how he would have reacted to the conservative and ecstatic trends in contemporary Anglicanism, although I suspect he would be no friend to contemporary Anglican Evangelicalism with its anti-sacramental agenda.

  10. Andrew,

    I’m not sure what happened in the taxi, but I imagine that it involved some Tolkienesque image that he just couldn’t shake. When I was in Dallas, I had the pleasure of going to the Benedictine Monastery (Cistercian Abbey) for 6am Mass. Watching the priests process in together, con-celebrate, chant, etc., caused me to think that Tolkien’s imagination was just as analogous as Lewis’s. He was merely feeding off the beauty of the Catholic liturgy. It’s beautiful to think that when Lewis wasn’t constrained by political affiliations, as in when writing his fiction, he could express the Catholic ethos that was likely deeply ingrained in his sentiments; of which we all are the beneficiaries.

  11. Thank you to all you gentlemen for your commitment to this website. Although I have never contributed to the discussions, this site has been of tremendous encouragement to me in my journeying towards the Catholic Church, a journey that C.S. Lewis has always been a part of.

    Although baptized as a baby, it took me 21 years to realize the significance of being cleansed from original sin, and I am deeply indebted to Lewis for that conversion in my life. He put me on a path that eventually led to Catholicism, and along the way a number of my friends and family have taken the road to Rome with me, including my mother who returned to the Church after 40 years. Despite the role books like Mere Christianity have had in my life, the only book I find myself returning to at least once a year is the work Lewis himself considered his best, Till We have Faces, and sadly I’m not surprised it has not yet to been mentioned in this thread. Any guesses why alongside the Space Trilogy and the Narnia series, TWHF is sidelined?

    Blessings from Cape Town,
    Jonathan

  12. Hey Jonathan,

    You asked:

    “Any guesses why alongside the Space Trilogy and the Narnia series, TWHF is sidelined?”

    My guess is that Till We Have Faces is less accessible, for Christian readers, than his other works of fiction. Perelandra is quite theological in places (soaring at the end), but the topics and the template are easily recognized–the oldest story ever told. Faces is a beautiful but relentless work of art. The process of self-deception and unmasking is gruelling–its like Aslan undragoning Eustace, except in this case the process is almost story-long. Plus, the “eucatastrophe” is ambiguous. For my part, I love Faces, and have read it several times, but am less likely to write about it, mostly because, well, its so personal, and mortifying (in more than one sense of the word).

    Till We Have Faces is Lewis at his best as moralist and mythopoiec story-teller. In fact, the moral and the myth are inextriable in his retelling of the Psyche story. The Orual–Psyche exchange lifts the theme of self-knowledge into high places. To really become a self is to participate the joys and sufferings of another. This is certainly the sort of thing that can prepare the soul to embrace a Catholic understanding of redemption. One of the cool things about becoming Catholic is that you get to read things again for the first time, if you take my meaning.

    Cape Town! Peace be with you. That makes my evening.

    Andrew

  13. Guys,

    Just gotta say that Lewis constantly moves me to tears. I keep cycling through his works for various reasons. I have to say that Narnia gives me the clearest picture of Jesus outside of the Bible and I can never get through the series without having a deeply moving spiritual experience…..and as a protestant, The Great Divorce framed purgatory in a way that made sense……reading his last book right now, Letters to Malcolm. First time I’ve read it and, of course, its good, but very revealing. I never knew how “High Church” he was. Don’t have a problem with it at all, but always interesting to learn new things about your hero’s. so just my 2 cents of appreciation to a fantastic Irishman.

  14. Andrew –

    In addition to Lewis being one of my heroes, and perhaps the primary plow that cultivated my mind and heart in preparation for meeting the Catholic Church, I’ve done a bit of research on him as well. So I appreciated the post.

    Somehow the debate between Anscombe and Lewis has achieved a sort of mythical status among some C. S. Lewis scholars. Lewis was of course very popular at the Socratic club, and even when he was not presenting or commenting, he was usually expected to lead out in the Q&A with some witty challenge directed toward the atheist participant. In such a context, and as one of the distinguished members (he was the Oxford faculty member with whom the club started–all such clubs had to be affiliated with at least one faculty member), it is understandable that he was somewhat taken aback when challenged by the up and coming sharp as razors Anscombe. But it is not true that this debate curtailed his apologetic activity. He didn’t write any more books on the subject, but he did write a number of essays, among which are “Is Theism Important” (1952), “On Obstinacy of Belief” (1955), and “Rejoinder to Dr. Pittenger” (1958).

    Why didn’t he write any more books? That’s a good question. I think the most plausible explanation is because he didn’t think he had anything more to say–at least, at the time (he died relatively young). He firmly believed that people shouldn’t undertake to publish or speak if they have nothing of worth to say. For example, “Till We Have Faces” began decades earlier than it was published. He had the core idea of how he wanted to modify the Cupid/Psyche myth, but he could find the right literary form. So he set it aside for years, not trying to force it. In another case, he was invited in October of 1944 to do a series of talks in Australia based on his broadcast talks (which became Mere Christianity). He promptly refused to cover the same ground he’d already covered, but said he’d consider giving some talks on a new subject. After several weeks, he responded:

    Dear Mr Lee,
    I hope you won’t think that I’ve simply been wasting time. The idea of a new series for next spring has been before my mind almost daily. After many changes of purpose I have decided not to do it. On previous occasions I have always found, when the proposal came, that I had something suitable for saying in that form, which I wanted to say. This time I don’t. And I think you will agree that all success depends on not pumping something up – it must come of its own accord.
    If and when I feel I’ve got a new head of that particular kind of steam, I’ll write to Fenn.
    I’m sorry you should have been kept waiting.
    yours sincerely,
    C. S. Lewis

    In his later years, he was invited by letter to give some sermons (I don’t remember where). I don’t have the letter at hand, but his response was something to the effect that it is always a great mistake for preachers to keep preaching when they have little of substance to say. He likened them to old squeaky hand pumps that can’t produce much water! He told his correspondent that he felt he had passed his effective preaching days, and did not want merely to drum something up for the occasion. So, perhaps Lewis didn’t write any more apologetic books simply because he felt he didn’t have any ideas that could support a whole book. Who knows what would have come from his pen if he had lived another 20 years.

    I think, Jonathan, that you are rightly perplexed about why “Till We Have Faces” has not received the acclaim as some of his other fiction. It was his last novel, and represents his mature thought on several key themes like love, evil, redemptive suffering, divine hiddenness, and the like. TWHF was Lewis’s favorite of all his fiction, and he was surprised that it was not well liked.

    I think one reason why people don’t like it or understand it is because they read it wrongly: they read it as allegory rather than myth. Lewis was very clear about the difference between the two kinds of literature. (I have a talk on the subject here.) “The Pilgrim’s Regress” is allegory; TWHF is myth. If one tries to understand TWHF by asking “what does the story mean?” (in the sense of asking for a moral of the story) or “what does this this or that character represent?” one is asking the wrong questions. In myth there is no “moral of the story,” and there is no one-to-one correspondence between characters or objects in the story and things in the actual world. Myth is not a puzzle to be solved, but a story to be experienced. In fact, if my understanding of Lewis is correct, the meaning of a myth is partly a function of its form as story. That is why TWHF can’t be condensed into a series of concise propositions expressing the truth it is trying to convey without losing something of its essence.

    – Max

  15. Hey Max,

    Thanks for the comment. I share Lewis’s sentiments about when and why to write. As for Till We Have Faces, when the title line occurs, at the end of the trial scene, it is the most morally revelatory thing in all my experience of literature.

  16. C. S. Lewis, Catholicism, and the Narnian Code: An Interview with Michael Ward

    That is the title of Brandon Vogt’s interview with renowned C. S. Lewis scholar, and recent Catholic convert, Dr. Michael Ward. Among other publications, Ward is the author of Plant Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis (OUP, 2007), which I read several years ago. It is a wonderful book, a magnificent piece of literary sleuth-work, which, by way of revealing the “planetary” resonances of each Narnia book and the relations of the seven books one to another in the “solar system,” gives us greater insight into the scholarly and imaginative medievalism of C. S. Lewis.

    Check out the interview, in which Dr. Ward summarizes his reasons for becoming Catholic and discusses the Chronicles of Narnia. This is one of those blessed Internet moments, rare and unexpected, that sometimes comes to those who read blogs!

  17. When I was Reformed, I used to read Lewis secretly. I felt guilty doing so, as though I were reading pornography. I knew he was Catholic in all but his religious affiliation. But I couldn’t stay away. I felt rather as though I had been in a desert environment; Lewis was water.

    jj

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