Category Archives: C.S. Lewis
What follows are 10 sentences from C. S. Lewis’s book The Weight of Glory (HarperCollins, 1949), pages 45–46. These sentences are not written to parents, nor are they concerned specifically with the the fine art of parenting. And of course they have far-reaching implications for all of life. But for me the most frequent situations when these lines bubble up from my subconscious is when I’m thinking about my kids and parenting them well. So that’s where the title comes from. But enough of me.
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously.
C. S. Lewis to an inquirer, as published in The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, 2:644:
I myself always index a good book when I read it for the first time noting (a) Linguistic phenomena. (b) Good & bad passages. (c) Customs: meal times, social classes, what they read etc. (d) Moral ideas. All this reading, though dedicated ad Dei gloriam [to the glory of God] in the long run must not be infected by any immediate theological, ethical, or philosophic reference. Your first job is simply the reception of all this work with your imagination & emotions. Each book is to be read for the purpose the author meant it to be read for: the story as a story, the joke as a joke.
This is a nice concise summary of principles more fully unpacked in Lewis’ book An Experiment in Criticism.
As the father of two spirited boys, aged 10 and 4, I chuckled at these excerpts from the letters of C. S. Lewis, writing as a 55-year-old “crusted old bachelor.” (There’s some fine parenting advice mixed in here, too.)
December 21, 1953 [Letters, 3:389–390]:
We have had an American lady staying in the house with her two sons aged 9 1/2 and 8. I now know what we celibates are shielded from. I will never laugh at parents again. Not that the boys weren’t a delight: but a delight like surf-bathing which leaves one breathless and aching. The energy, the tempo, is what kills.
I have now perceived (what I always suspected from memories of our childhood) that the way to a child’s heart is quite simple: treat them with seriousness and ordinary civility — they ask no more. What they can’t stand (quite rightly) is the common adult assumption that everything they say should be twisted into a kind of jocularity.
December 23, 1953 [Letters, 3:394]:
We have not much news here; the chief event has been that last week we entertained a lady from New York for four days, with her boys, aged nine and seven respectively. Can you imagine two crusted old bachelors in such a situation? It however went swimmingly, though it was very exhausting; the energy of the American small boy is astonishing.
This pair thought nothing of a four-mile hike across broken country as an incident in a day of ceaseless activity, and when we took them up Magdalen tower, they said as soon as they got back to the ground, ‘Let’s do it again!’ Without being in the least priggish, they stuck us as being amazingly adult by our standards and one could talk to them as one would to ‘grown-ups’ — though the next moment they would be wrestling like puppies on the sitting room floor. The highlights of England for them are open coal fires, especially if they can get hold of the billows and blow it up…
December 26, 1953 [Letters, 3:396]:
My brother and I have just had the experience of an American lady to stay with us accompanied by her two sons, aged 9 1/2 and 8. Whew! Lovely creatures — couldn’t meet nicer children — but the pace! I realize have never respected young married people enough and never dreamed of the Sabbath calm which descends on the house when the little cyclones have gone to bed and all the grown-ups fling themselves into chairs and the silence of exhaustion.
Peter Kreeft writes that the following excerpt from C. S. Lewis, “contains the most important and enlightening single statement about our civilization that I have ever read.”
C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, page 77:
There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the “wisdom” of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique.
If the Enlightenment helped the modern world discard notions of original sin and moral absolutes, it also uprooted the foundations of truth and goodness. Unlike the Medieval era, all we have left are vague political and psychological notions of what works efficiently. Technology has replaced religion as our civilization’s summum bonum. Naturalism has replaced supernaturalism. Subjectivism has defined a new age of moral relativity.
Explains Timothy Keller in The Reason For God, page 71:
In ancient times it was understood that there was a transcendent moral order outside the self, built in to the fabric of the universe. If you violated that metaphysical order there were consequences just as severe as if you violated physical reality by placing your hand in a fire. The path of wisdom was to learn to live in conformity with this unyielding reality. That wisdom rested largely in developing qualities of character, such as humility, compassion, courage, discretion, and loyalty.
Modernity reversed this. Ultimate reality was seen not so much as a supernatural order but as the natural world, and that was malleable. Instead of trying to shape our desires to fit reality, we now seek to control and shape reality to fit our desires. The ancients looked at an anxious person and prescribed spiritual character change. Modernity talks instead about stress-management techniques.
Queen Elizabeth II was crowned on 2 June 1953 in London. C. S. Lewis chose not to attend the festivities because the weather was not great, because he did not like crowds, nor did he feel like dressing up. Instead he watched the event on TV (it was the first fully televised coronation). In July, Lewis wrote this in a letter (Letters, 3:343):
You know, over here people did not get that fairy-tale feeling about the coronation. What impressed most who saw it was the fact that the Queen herself appeared to be quite overwhelmed by the sacramental side of it. Hence, in the spectators, a feeling of (one hardly knows how to describe it) – awe – pity – pathos – mystery. The pressing of that huge, heavy crown on that small, young head becomes a sort of symbol of the situation of humanity itself: humanity called by God to be His vice-regent and high priest on earth, yet feeling so inadequate. As if He said, ‘In my inexorable love I shall lay upon the dust that you are glories and dangers and responsibilities beyond your understanding.’ Do you see what I mean? One has missed the whole point unless one feels that we have all been crowned and that coronation is somehow, if splendid, a tragic splendor.
C. S. Lewis, the Christian apologist and novelist, was born this day in 1898. Among modern Christian thinkers and writers he remains one of the most important voices, and you can learn much about him in the biographical address by John Piper (here).
Lewis spoke of the physical limitations that pushed him towards fictional adventure and novel writing in his autobiography, Surprised By Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (1955), page 12:
What drove me to write was the extreme manual clumsiness from which I have always suffered. I attribute it to a physical defect which my brother I both inherited from our father; we have only one joint in the thumb. The upper joint (that furthest from the nail) is visible, but it is a mere sham; we cannot bend it. But whatever the cause, nature laid on me from birth an utter incapacity to make anything. With pencil and pen I was handy enough, and I can still tie as good a bow as ever lay on a man’s collar; but with a tool or a bat or a gun, a sleeve link or corkscrew, I have always been unteachable. It was this that forced me to write. I longed to make things, ships, houses, engines. Many sheets of cardboard and pairs of scissors I spoiled, only to turn from my hopeless failures in tears. As a last resource, I was driven to write stories instead; little dreaming to what a world of happiness I was being admitted. You can do more with a castle in a story than with the best cardboard castle that ever stood on a nursery table.
C.S. Lewis, in a letter (3/22/55; Letters, 3:172):
Dear Miss Mathews,
I was glad to get your letter. I seem to be as ignorant of America as you are of India. I had no idea your parsons preached Hell-fire: indeed I thought the ordinary presentation of Christianity with you was quite as milk-and-watery as with us, if not more so. We could do with a bit more Hell fire over here.
. . .
C.S. Lewis wrote the following in a corrective letter to his friend, the 78-year-old Don Giovanni Calabria [12/26/51; Letters, 3:152]:
. . . This emboldens me to say to you something that a layman ought scarcely to say to a priest nor a junior to a senior. (On the other hand, out of the mouth of babes; indeed, as once to Balaam, out of the mouth of an ass!) It is this: you write much about your own sins. Beware (permit me, my dearest Father, to say beware) lest humility should pass over into anxiety or sadness. It is bidden us to ‘rejoice and always rejoice.’ Jesus has cancelled the handwriting which was against us. Lift up our hearts!
Permit me, I pray you, these stammerings. You are ever in my prayers and ever will be.
If I could invite three guys over for dinner to talk C.S. Lewis it would probably be Douglas Wilson, the author of What I Learned in Narnia, Nate Wilson, the author of The Great Divorce screenplay, and Alan Jacobs, the author of The Narnian, by far my favorite book on Lewis. It just so turns out that a while back these men gathered to chat about Lewis for 80 minutes, a conversation was filmed and is now available for viewing online. If Lewis interests you, and if you can find the time, I highly recommend it:
Tolkien himself may object to a blog post about Narnia on such an otherwise perfect Hobbit Day, but since we’re reading The Voyage of the Dawn Treader as a family the book is on the brain and, hence, on the blog. The reading (or re-reading or re-re-reading, depending on who in the family you are talking about) is in anticipation of the 3D movie release in December. The extra time will allow us to slow our pace and to read and study the book carefully and benefit from secondary sources. Over the past few days I have been digging through a few books for background it was while researching that I stumbled upon an interesting point made by Alan Jacobs. He proposes that TVDT is ultimately an allegory of the Church. Here’s the argument in Jacobs makes in The Narnian (HarperOne, 2005), page 209-210:
… The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader,” … I am tempted to call an allegory of the Church. After all, historically Christians have linked the Church with Noah’s Ark: each boat is, in its time and place, a unique vessel of salvation. As the Church sails toward Heaven, so the Dawn Treader sails toward Aslan’s country at the end of the world.
And on this voyage Eustace’s situation is the most significant one. He finds himself on this ship, knowing no one, comprehending nothing, and staying with the others only because he has no other option, as the slave trader Pug discovered when he “threw him in free with other lots and still no one would take him.” He doesn’t see that the Dawn Treader is his only hope of survival; he doesn’t see that from the other members of that crew he could learn skills and virtues alike. Thanks to his parents and his school, he is a “boy without a chest” and is simply incapable of understanding what motivates the others, the martial Mouse Reepicheep above all.
And the only way for this to be remedied … is for Eustace to undergo a kind of death: to have his very skin stripped away by Aslan, and only by Aslan, and to emerge newly born from the encounter. Moreover, the first part of what he must learn is simply that he is not a very good boy, that he is weak and cowardly—that, to put it bluntly, he is simply inferior to Caspian and Edmund and, yes, Reepicheep. It is noteworthy that after he becomes a boy again he tells Edmund, “You’d think me simply phony if I told you how I felt about my own arms. I know they’ve no muscle and are pretty mouldy compared with Caspian’s, but I was so glad to see them.”
This is the first time that Eustace has considered himself anything but superior to everyone else, and if it seems obvious that Eustace’s musculature would be dwarfed by that of the powerful young king, well, in the matter of self-knowledge everyone has to start somewhere. Only once he has acknowledged the “mouldiness” of his arms and the “beastliness” of his behavior is Eustace ready to begin the process of becoming a real member of the Dawn Treader’s crew.
If Jacobs is right and TVDT is an allegory of the Church, that allegory is ripe with application about what it means to live humbly within the community, to depend upon Christian friends (reminiscent of Bunyan’s allegory), and what it means to welcome and care for ungrateful wretches like Eustace who are yet in need of God’s sovereign and gracious skinning. Needless to say, after reading this excerpt from Jacobs I think I will be reading TVDT with new eyes.
But Narnia will wait until another day because this day is Tolkien’s day. And tomorrow on the blog I hope to have a few pictures of our coney stew feast.
Happy Hobbit Day.