A Very Short Introduction to C. S. Lewis - A Review

One disconcerting trend among conservative Christian readers of C. S. Lewis is how little they know of his work prior to declaring themselves to be Lewis fans. Many of the most ardent college age fans of Lewis have read little more than his Chronicles of Narnia and perhaps a few essays out of God in the Dock before declaring themselves official devotees of the man. Some more fervent readers may have taken in Surprised by Joy and perhaps some of the Space Trilogy.

Having read the majority of Lewis’s published work (I’m not done yet, though I have aspirations), I generally consider it a good thing that people like Lewis. However, the reasons people like Lewis are often less well developed than he or his work deserves. A superficial appreciation of Lewis also enables a simplistic understanding of the man, his context, and the warranted legacy of his work. Lewis deserves much more than deep appreciation for having a gospel-centric storyline in a series of children’s fantasy novels.

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Along the way of editing the forthcoming volume, The Christian Mind of C. S. Lewis, I’ve had the opportunity to read a great deal of the scholarship on Lewis. Some of it is more fan-fiction than critical interaction, which is discouraging. There are a handful of people that really dislike Lewis or have a clear disdain for him, both personally and professionally. However, there are some people who carefully engage Lewis critically, as aficionados, but not as hagiographers.

James Como is a contributing author to the volume of essays I am editing (for full disclosure), whose work I have previously reviewed. Hi\s relatively early volume in Lewis studies, Branches to Heaven, is an excellent analysis of Lewis from someone who is both a fan and a critic of Lewis. His most recent critical introduction to C. S. Lewis is, in my mind, the best place for individuals beginning their interest in the study of Lewis beyond The Chronicles to gain a foothold.

C. S. Lewis: A Very Short Introduction is a volume in the rapidly growing series of short introductions by Oxford University Press. Every book in the series has several limiting attributes: they are short and they are introductory. For those decades deep into the study of Lewis, Como provides little new data. However, what Como does masterfully well is write a lively text that covers the life and work of Lewis fairly comprehensively. Having read so much in the past year on Lewis, there is no doubt in my mind that this will remain a central volume for those seeking to understand the enduring appeal of Lewis.

Como’s book is a combination biography and critique, so it is organized in a generally chronological fashion. Moving through each of the stages of Lewis’s life and work, the reader gets a good sense of what shaped Lewis, why he was writing on the subjects he did, and how his overall work fits together. Without psychoanalyzing Lewis’s works (which he would have hated), the book makes connections that help the reader understand the context of Lewis. An image of an integrated mind, well-steeped in the historical teaching of Scripture and classical culture emerges. This is, based on my own study, deeply accurate.

In addition to the central content of the book, which is excellent, Como has also provided a topically sorted list of books that influenced Lewis, are significant within Lewis studies, and are helpful to understanding more about the man and his works. With decades of engagement in scholarship related to Lewis and his own understanding of much of the classical literature, that “extra” information alone makes this book worth the price.

Como’s writing is accessible. This is the sort of book that can be read by a teenager studying Lewis to increase their interest, enhance their understanding, and point them deeper into the mind of C. S. Lewis. This is also the perfect book to use in a college-level course on the work of C. S. Lewis. It is reasonably prices, concise, and points the way to Lewis’s work, instead of drawing attention to itself.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Branches to Heaven - A Review

In the process of editing a volume of essays on The Christian Mind of C.S. Lewis, I’ve had the opportunity to read most of Lewis’s published works in the past year or so. I’ve also needed to read the secondary literature about Lewis to better understand his work and how it has influenced contemporary Christianity and even non-Christian literary interpretation.

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Lewis is so popular among Christians that there are literally dozens of books broadly interacting with his work. This started even during his life and has continued unabated for the fifty years since his death. Many of the books are formulaic to a fault. They tell the story of Lewis’s early life, show how he was converted, then relate how his fiction was a form of apologetic, etc. A lot of these books are critically banal and biographical hagiographic. That works for a handful of introductory volumes, but it gets really boring to read when the differences between one book on Lewis and another are a few nuggets that someone identified along the way.

For those looking for an insightful introduction to the life and work of C. S. Lewis, I heartily commend the 1998 volume, Branches to Heaven: The Genuises of C. S. Lewis, by James Como. (I should note that Como is one of the contributors to the volume of essays I’m editing, but I commend the book on its merits, not based on personal connection.) Como has also published, Remembrances of C. S. Lewis, an early collection of first-person accounts from those who knew Lewis well. Como has stood as a bridge for those of us later scholars interested in Lewis who did not know the man and have not had opportunity to engage with those who met with and lived with a figure who has now risen to be a folk hero.

Como’s Branches to Heaven, manages to critically celebrate the life and work of Lewis. There is no question that Como is a fan, after all, the subtitle includes the word “geniuses.” However, Como critically engages with Lewis to show the strengths and weaknesses of his work, and points to some of the ways that Lewis, particularly in his early life, fell short of the Christian ideal. In particular, Como deals carefully with the obscure relationship between Mrs. Moore and Lewis, in a way that is respectful and simultaneously non-hagiographic. There is little question that Lewis was saved from sin and that his sanctification was progressive.

The most unique aspect of Como’s book is that he approaches Lewis’s work as a rhetorician. Como was professor of rhetoric and public communication. He situates the non-fiction, prose fiction, and poetry of Lewis within the context of classical rhetorical disciplines. This is exceedingly helpful because there is obviously a lot more going on in all of Lewis’s work than modern literary analysis tends to uncover, and that something has a great deal to do with Lewis’s own rootedness in the classical tradition. Como helps to explain the enduring draw of the work of C. S. Lewis because he helps to answer the question why Lewis’s work is so compelling, aside from its general agreement with orthodox Christianity. In other words, many other faithful Christians have done political commentary or fiction, but I can think of none that have been as enduringly effective as C. S. Lewis. Como’s analysis shows why that enduring popularity exists and why it is warranted.

For those casually interested in Lewis, Como’s book will be informative and engaging. For serious students of the legacy of C. S. Lewis, Branches to Heaven is essential reading.

The Christian Mind - A Review

I picked up Harry Blamires’ 1963 book, The Christian Mind expecting to find an early entry into some of the worldview dialogues that have unhelpfully afflicted certain corners of conservative Christianity. While I still believe the term worldview can be helpful, it has, in certain circles, been coopted by a technique of applying simplistic categories and teaching people to argue against them as a way of apologetic debate. The result of that reductionistic development has been largely unhelpful in developing Christians and evangelizing the lost. However, thankfully, The Christian Mind is a robust appeal to a thick Christianity that resists the corrosive influences of secularism.

Blamires begins the book by diagnosing the problem: there are too few Christians who think distinctly from the secular world. The church, by and large, has a few bastions of thought and topics but no recognizable network of integrated thinking. Thus, the book opens up with a striking declaration: “There is no longer a Christian Mind.”

He explains that there are Christian influences in the world and that there are differences between elements of the Christian life and the world: “There is still, of course, a Christian ethic, a Christian practice, and a Christian spirituality.” As important as these things are, however, they fall short of the all-encompassing, unifying beauty of the Christian mind. On the whole, Christians have been better catechized to think like the modern world than as biblically saturated Christians.

According to Blamires, there are six marks of the Christian mind: (1) Supernatural Orientation; (2) Awareness of Evil; (3) A Unified and Concrete Conception of Truth; (4) Acceptance of Authority; (5) Concern for the Person; and (6) A Sacramental Outlook.

Each of these categories must be expanded and filled with explicitly Christian meaning, but the outline is helpful. Someone who denies the possibility of miracles and the truth of at least the miracle of the resurrection cannot be meaningfully Christian. A person who denies the reality of sin and evil cannot know repentance for their own sin, and thus cannot be a Christian. One who believes truth is subjectively determined and that there is not objective truth cannot be said to be Christian in any serious way. An individual who cannot abide the authority of Scripture and, to some degree, of the traditional theology of the Church, cannot be counted a member of those who think as a Christian. Those who do not value people as individuals and show concern for their spiritual and physical well-being do not show the marks of a Christian mind. And, finally, those that deny the goodness of creation are not thinking like Christians.

To be clear, one can fail at some of these categories and still be in Christ, though there are categories that are necessary for salvation. Blamires’ point is not to figure out who is and who is not a Christian, but rather to point out the characteristics of a mind that is shaped by authentic Christianity.

It would be a mistake to consider these one at a time, as well, since a broader emphasis of the book is the unity of the Christian vision of the world. But it is a unity that has at least these six attributes.

Blamires’ vision of the Christian mind is worth recovering, because he is calling Christians to think more faithfully and consistently. It would be a beautiful thing for Christians to lead the world in promoting beautiful art, thoughtful fiction, and an illuminating critique of the world around us.

An interesting facet of Blamires’ depiction of the Christian mind is that he does not argue for unanimity on prudential arguments. The Christian mind transgresses thought categories that we typically apply, like “liberal” or “conservative,” and individuals who are embodying the Christian mind fully may arrive at entirely different conclusions based on their reasoning.

In fact, the book is highly critical of those who think politically rather than as Christians first, he writes, “They will think pragmatically, politically, but not Christianly. In almost all cases you will find that views are wholly determined by political allegiance.” But, he also notes that even in 1963 it was difficult to find a conversation about the issues that matter that was truly Christian. Blamires is highly critical of the supposed virtue of loyalty, as a result of this thought pattern:

Loyalty may be said to be evil in the sense that if any action is defended on the grounds of loyalty alone, it is defended on no rational grounds at all. “I do this out of loyalty to my party” is irrational and amoral unless is it consequent upon, “My party is operating wholly and in every particular for the benefit of the human race.” “I do this out of loyalty to my leader” is irrational and amoral unless it is consequent upon, “My leader’s character, or purpose, or policy, is such that it ought to be supported.” Loyalty is in itself not a moral basis for action. Loyalty to a good man, a good government, a good cause, is of course a different matter. But in these cases, where one stands by a man, or a government, or a cause, because it is good, one is standing by the good. The basis of action in these cases is moral in that one is serving the good; and thus the concept of loyalty is redundant. One can therefore say fairly that whenever the virtue of loyalty is quoted as a prime motive or basis for action, one has the strongest reason for suspecting that support is being sought for a bad cause.

The book is filled with this sort of clear reasoning, which makes it helpful and worthwhile, especially in our turbulent times of constant chatter and questionable allegiances. This is the sort of volume that should remain in print and be read widely and deeply by Christians seeking to live faithfully for Christ in our present world.

Encountering God in the Psalms - A Review

Most books get reviewed when they are first out, generally within two years. Sometimes, there are classics that people will “review” years afterward, but this is generally a way of introducing people to an older book, with little intent to provide feedback to the author for his next work. This review falls more into the latter category than the former, since the author is deceased, but I make no claims that this book is a classic, merely that it is a worthy piece of scholarship that could be helpful to more than have likely encountered it. It is a book that is useful in building up the body of Christ.

Michael Travers’ most important book is a 2003 volume, Encountering God in the Psalms, which he published with Kregel shortly after he arrived at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, though the majority of the volume was authored while he was at Mississippi College. The book is about reading the Psalms. More specifically, it is about reading the Psalms both for their literary quality and their devotional power. It is in this dual purpose, well executed, that gives this book its unique quality and enduring value.

The first part of the book teaches the reader how to read the Psalms. The first three chapter of the book are dedicated to teaching readers about the nature of poetry, the structure of Hebrew poetry, the concepts of theme, genre, and musical quality. While the book is focused on a particular subset of poetry, there is a great deal of general wisdom in these chapters that teach the reader how to read poetry better.

Part Two is longer, consisting of ten chapters that walk the reader through reading select Psalms. The section begins by presenting Moses’ encounter with God as a narrative exemplar that shows the setting that is, to some degree, present for all of the various authors of Psalms. The remaining chapters deal with Psalms that are sorted by theme. Travers moves through Psalms grouped under headings that consider God as creator, covenant maker, Messiah, redeemer, way of wisdom, and other themes. Each chapter shows how the method for reading the Psalms laid out in Part One can be applied to Psalms that fit those themes.

This is a useful book because it is a book that points people toward something beyond itself or the author. In this way, Travers is much like C. S. Lewis. When Lewis wrote he was always trying to get people to see where he was pointing. In this case, Travers is pointing people through his own work toward that Psalms that are, in turn, pointing people toward the Triune God. This is, therefore, just the sort of book that will help people become better Christians.

Michael’s early research was on the devotional poets, especially John Milton. His skill with poetry comes through in this book as he brings readers to a deeper appreciation for the power of language through poetry. This is the sort of book that will shape the mind by equipping it for later study. It is not a flashy volume, but its chapters are filled with solid wisdom.

Encountering God in the Psalms is a book that will most benefit those who love Scripture and want to learn more about God through his word. It is the sort of book that requires diligence and careful reading of the text of Scripture alongside its own pages. However, it is also a book that will sharpen the reader, deepen their love for the Psalms, and likely point them to a deeper understanding of the God who inspired the psalmists. It is, in fact, a book that many pastors should pick up and that lay people should aspire to.

Encountering God in the Psalms
By Michael E. Travers

Note: This volume will be discussed in greater detail in an essay in a forthcoming volume, The Christian Mind of C.S. Lewis: Essays in Honor of Michael Travers (Wipf and Stock, 2019).

The Year of Our Lord 1943 - A Review

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The title of Alan Jacobs’ most recent project, The Year of Our Lord 1943, sets the stage for the book but it does not limit the contents. To many readers, the subtitle offers some clue to the contents, but raises additional questions as well. After all, the word “humanism,” even as it is set in context of the full subtitle—Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis––has competing definitions and in some cases is perceived to be inconsistent with “Christian.”

The crisis of 1943, at least, is obvious to anyone even vaguely aware of World History. This was the year that the Allies became confident that the Axis forces would be defeated. The tenor of the war effort changed, from a hope of survival at great cost, to the expectation of the enemies’ unconditional surrender. It was a time when people began to think beyond the war to what life after the war would look like.

Jacobs focuses on one particular school of thought, which he calls “Christian humanism.” The definition of this movement is complex, but can be summed up as effort to use literature to morally form people into good citizens. This approach to moral formation is built on Christian sentiments, in particular, since Christian humanists saw the Christian faith as the only foundation suitable for a just society.

The Year of Our Lord 1943 is an ambitious work. It surveys a wide range of sources, but mainly deals with the work of Jacques Maritain, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, Simone Weil, and W. H. Auden. Dorothy L. Sayers, Hannah Arendt, Jacques Ellul, and others make appearances, but the first five are the main cast. Not only is this an impressive lineup of writers whose work Jacobs digests and presents, but at many points their vision of the good society is different. They had a common core of ideas, to be sure, but their ideas for what good should look like and how it should be obtained were variegated. The work is also impressive because Jacobs weaves the various streams together rather than using a purely chronological or topical approach.

This book is important because it recounts the debate of that day and documents the thinking of the side whose ideas were generally not implemented. Thus, this book helps tie together what are now prophetic themes about how society could have been better ordered.

In 1941, the great choice would have been whether or not to do what it took to survive. Nearly any means is deemed acceptable when a nation is staring down destruction or enslavement. However, as the tide of World War II was turning, the question of whether the technocratic policies and processes that were used to help organize the war effort would become permanent fixtures of society was a more pertinent one.

The question the thinkers discussed in this book were wrestling is still a pivotal one today: What does it look like to be human in a modern world?

This is what many of Jacobs’ projects have been about, especially in recent years. It also marks a perennial question that humanity has traditionally debated, but has lately seemed to get buried beneath a wave of social media, constant entertainment, and unthinking busyness. If nothing else, this book is a call for people to wake up and begin to question whether they are asking the right questions.

The Year of Our Lord 1943 is an excellent book. For those that are intrigued by the ferment of thought that comes from Christians exploring the good society in the early- to mid-twentieth century, this book will prove to be a helpful reference. It combines history, literary analysis, and thoughtful critique in a readable text that both enlightens and invites further study. For those who are simply interested in a well-told intellectual history, this volume will provide an enjoyable experience. Those who are trying to figure out how to relate their Christianity to the idea of a good society will find this book useful, as well, as Jacobs helps expose readers to old books by writing a new book about the authors of some of the most important, but often unconsidered, texts of the modern age.

The Lion in the Waste Land - A Review

In the period after the first World War, the Britain was in an existential crisis. The nation remains, at least in name, a Christian nation. At that point, though, the requirement to attend services had been dropped, which subsequently revealed that much of the population had little interest in Christianity. When the pressure of German hostility and the subsequent Battle of Britain became a pervasive threat to daily life, that nations, with its vaguely Christian memories, began to wonder if the resources for survival might be found in the Old Paths of Christian faith.

That period of British history saw several key voices arise to present a credible vision of Christianity to a population that had forgotten the core tenets of the gospel. The first was G. K. Chesterton, who was a journalist and a novelist, and whose work both influenced and made possible the trio of writers that are the main subject of Janice Brown’s recent book, The Lion in the Waste Land.

From amidst the literal rubble of British cities and the figurative rubble of a culture devastated by the carpet bombing of modernity, C. S. Lewis, Dorothy L. Sayers, and T. S. Eliot stand out as prophetic voices pointing people back to the spiritual and cultural resources of Christianity. The Lion in the Waste Land puts the three contemporaries, who were also friends, into conversation and shows how the powerful truth of the gospel of Christ pervades both the non-fiction and fiction works of all three authors.

Summary

Chapter One reveals the continuity in the message of the three uniquely gifted individuals. It also traces how their friendships formed. In the case of the Lewis-Eliot friendship, Brown’s historical explanation is especially helpful since Lewis was vocally critical of Eliot’s poetry early on; yet, the two became friends and co-laborers in revealing authentic Christianity to the world. In the second Chapter, Brown articulates the methodologies used by the three authors: there were overt apologetic attempts by all three, but their more powerful presentation of the fierce redemption found in the gospel is found in their imaginative works. This chapter helps show why these three laypeople were so particularly effective in showing the credibility of Christianity and why they remain popular to this day.

After the first two chapters, The Lion in the Waste Land shifts from historical overview to literary analysis. What follows are several chapters where Brown explores literary themes that are common in the work of Lewis, Eliot, and Sayers and which relate to the truth of Christianity and the redemptive power of the gospel. In Chapter Three, the reader is treated to a thematic exposition of the figure of Christ in the work of all three authors. Brown traces through images—both overt and subtle—to indicate the pervasiveness of Christ in their literature. The fourth chapter surveys the idea of choice and God’s pursuit of humanity for their salvation. This is a theme that is present in much of the work of Eliot, Sayers, and Lewis, and one that forms a unity with the idea of a fierce redemption by God. Chapter Five interrogates the work of the three subjects for uses of angelic figures. These supernatural beings populate the imaginative worlds of the apologetic trio, offering a start contrast to the anti-supernatural vision of modernity.

Having unpacked some of the central Christian themes in Sayers, Eliot, and Lewis, Brown again shifts her focus to the methods and impact of the three writers in their particular cultural-historical context. Chapter Six outlines how the work of the three authors was shaped by and responded to the particular sufferings of Britain during World War II: their message was received and promoted because it offered a plausible source of meaning for a nation teetering on the brink of despair without adequate resources to stand firm. In the seventh chapter Brown explores the deeper message that was offered by all three authors: redemption begins the journey toward the joy in union with Christ. In this chapter Brown delves into the concept of the Christian life as it is portrayed by Lewis, Eliot, and Sayers. In the final chapter, the book emphasizes how each of the subjects was pushing readers back toward historical Christianity, where the resources for salvation and sanctification could be found, rather than toward a revised, modernistic version of Christianity. This is particularly powerful, since all three were particularly Modern authors, but all three pointed people back to resources from the traditional faith of the Church—a distinctly un-modern thing to do.

Analysis and Conclusion

The Lion in the Waste Land is an excellent scholarly work on three of the most interesting people to live in the last century. Brown combines excellent literary criticism with careful biographical research to present a cogent vision of the impact that Lewis, Sayers, and Eliot had in their particular context and continue to have, particularly in the English-speaking world.

This book should remain a mainstay in Inklings studies for decades in the future. Brown’s work is careful, subtle, and reasonably comprehensive. It is both an example of a critical work done well and work of scholarship that will be intensely interesting to those engaged in the study of modern English literature, particularly in the works of Eliot, Lewis, and Sayers.

The Faun's Book Shelf - A Review

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A quick glance at the work of C. S. Lewis could cause the casual observer to divide his work into several distinct bundles. The first is his apologetic work, which was really his cause for fame, in which category I would include his substantial journalistic engagement. The second category that is easy to recognize is his fiction. And, the third category, which is often ignored by all but his more ardent fans, is his professional work in literary criticism.

All three categories are significant. And, in all three categories, readers get a consistent witness to the author. The ideas of C. S. Lewis are clearly present through three significantly different genres of writing. This sort of consistency is part of what makes Lewis worthwhile to read, even when some of the issues he addresses are no longer major topics of concern.

Though he is consistent throughout his work, C. S. Lewis’ fictional work is the most significant. In his technical work on literature, Lewis shows how culture has shifted regarding epistemology. In his apologetic and journalistic work, Lewis argues why it is better to be a Christian. However, in his fictional work, Lewis illustrates what is wrong with contemporary thought and how realistic, Christian modes of thought can make the world a better place.

By writing fiction, Lewis makes concrete what is somewhat abstract in his non-fiction writing. (Though as writers go, his non-fiction is much more concrete than most.) This is, in part, a result of his understanding of and reliance upon the power of myth.

In his recent book, The Faun’s Bookshelf, Charlie Starr traces the power of myth—or, in contemporary parlance, the power of story—in C. S. Lewis. The main argument is advanced on two levels: (1) Starr shows how Lewis uses pre-existing myth and weaves it into his fiction, (2) Starr also demonstrates how Lewis creates myth to convey his ideas in a convincing way. The exploration of these topics is set in the larger context of considering why myth matters and how it can be used by those of us who are not literary geniuses like C. S. Lewis. Starr, a former English professor, focuses on the work of Lewis, but his broader point applies to the use of myth and stories in all media and genres.

The book is divided into four parts, each with three chapters. In Part One, Starr explores the general definitions of myth, including the idea that myth may not mean fictional. Rather, Starr presents a vision of myth that is consistent with Lewis’: Myth may well be the careful retelling of true stories in an evocative, imaginative manner. Part Two examines how Lewis used pre-existing cultural myths in his fictional work to deepen the myth he is creating. For example, Lewis borrows Silenus from Greek mythology and puts him on the shelf of a Narnian faun with the book title, The Life and Letters of Silenus. Starr explores how that title reflects the Narnian longing for a better time of feasting and celebration.

In Part Three, Starr flips the script to examine the way that Narnian mythology questions the reality of our world, especially with titles like, Men, Monks, and Gamekeepers; A Study in Popular Legend. The reader knowns that men, monks, and gamekeepers exist—or that they existed—but those realities appear to be distant legends in Narnia. So may our myths bear the echoes of truth with a great deal more clarity than we realize. Part Four takes up more general questions necessary to understand Lewis’ approach to myth, by considering Lewis’ broader thinking on myth, the influence of Norse mythology in his life, and taking up a somewhat obscure but important possible contradiction in the writing of Lewis on myth.

The Faun’s Bookshelf is a worthwhile book based on two distinct contributions. First, Starr has done good work in synthesizing Lewis’ thought on myth and providing context for much of his use and reuse of myth. This makes the book a valuable resource for Lewis studies. Second, the book takes up the important question of the power of stories to shape culture. As people grapple with the acquisition of meaning and the power of myth, a study that shows how an expert used fiction to deepen reality is a welcome contribution.

This book will be most interesting for those that enjoy Lewis already. It is well-written in accessible prose, so that it should not be consigned to the stacks of academic libraries. The Faun’s Bookshelf would be an excellent secondary text for a university level course on C. S. Lewis, or even as part of a high school elective. Meanwhile, the book explores important questions that can deepen ongoing discussions on Christian participation in the arts.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.